With the end of May come several changes that will impact my life. Two fall in the category of pretty darn major changes.

St. Ignatius Retreat House, my spiritual home for many years, will close its doors for good tomorrow. The place I did my training in retreat house ministry, the place I both attended and gave many retreats and other programs, the place I had so many experiences of God and so many “favorite” spots to sit and pray, will be no more.

At the same time, Chato Hazelbaker, one of my closest friends at the law school and my “go-to” person when I want to talk something out or get feedback on an idea (not to mention his contributions to our spiritual formation programs at the law school) not only will leave the school, but is moving to the Pacific Northwest. I have no lack of security about the ability of our friendship to survive the distance, but his new location is not exactly convenient for morning coffee conversations.

These kind of transitions are not easy for us. We tend to want to get things organized and in place and have them stay that way. I have the people around me I need, the places in my life that help center me, etc. So I ought to be able to just have things go merrily and comfortably along.

But that’s not the way it goes. People move (or die). Places close (or simply change character). We never are really settled.

Buddhists would speak in terms of our need to recognize impermanence – that everything changes moment by moment – and to see that our attachment to the way things (or people) are only creates suffering. That is a truth that transcends Buddhism and is a useful reminder for all of us.

I recognize that truth, but I’m still sad at both of these (although in the latter case, I’m enormously happy for Chato). For me, the way to deal with that sadness is to spend some time giving thanks for the gift of St. Ignatius Retreat House and for Chato. I have been (and continue to be) enormously blessed by them.


“We’ve Never Done that Before”

Often the first reaction to a new initiative is “we’ve never done that before” or “we’ve never done it that way before.” I’ve heard that response in parishes, in schools and in other organizations. We’ve never done that before. Full stop. End of consideration of a proposal.

Change is always difficult, which makes it easy to dismiss new ideas and initiatives. But, as Einstein once observed, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

We’ve never done that before or we’ve never done it that way before, are perfectly fine words, so long as they are followed by a comma, not a period. We’ve never done it before, but let’s give it a shot. We’ve never done it that way before, but it seems like something worth considering.

This is especially true in the church when we are facing many of the questions we face today. For example, how to engage our young people. At a Catholic Campus Ministry Meeting earlier this year, Archbishop Chaput observed that “too often in the Church we expect young adults to simply fill the empty slots fo existing structure and ministries, even when some of the programs are obviously dead shells. Old methods of pastoral outreach predetermine the ways in which we employ new disciples. Then we’re surprised that nothing seems to change.”

The same could be said for other questions.

I’m not suggesting change for the sake of change. But we need to reflect on which of our “old ways” are working and which aren’t. And we need to be more open to consider new ideas and initiatives.

Check it At the Door

When I visit Elena in Appleton, I always end up (usually more than once) at Harmony Cafe, a coffee shop near the Lawrence campus and a good place for conversation.

Posted outside the entrance to the cafe, as well as on an insid wall and on flyers, is Harmony Cafe’s “Check it at the Door Declaration”, which reads:

I believe:
that all people should be valued and appreciated;
that every person is a treasure worthy of dignity & respect;
that diversity in humans is a strength;
that by pre-judging people and by holding biases,
I will miss the beauty within each individual person.

I realize:
that it is natural for people to be uncomfortable with those who are different from themselves,
but I will work to overcome these feelings;
that people have different abilities, appearances, beliefs, ethnicities, experiences and identities,
and I realize that the world is a better place because of these differences.

I pledge:
to be aware of my biases and the ways I pre-judge people;
to try to get to know the person who may look, dress, think or live differently than I do;
to check my biases and my temptations to pre-judge people at the door.

I’m guessing no one thinks that buying a cup of chai or a latte obligates them to the pledge. And it may be that some people don’t ever read it all the way to the end.

But I’m guessing it does make some people stop and read it and that it does make them think, and make them a bit more aware of how they look at others. And it only takes some to heed the words seriously for their behavior to have an effect on others. And if it can have an effect inside of the Cafe, it can have an effect beyond.

Road Kill

Yesterday morning I drove the 300 mile distance between Chanhassen, MN, where we live, and Appleton, Wisconsin, where Elena goes to school. During the four and a half hour drive, I saw approximately 34 dead animals on the road or side of the road. Several raccoons and some smaller animals, but mostly deer. Thirty-four seemed like a high number for a four and a half hour drive, until I read a statistic from the Humane Society of the United States, that over a million animals are killed every day on our roads and highways.

Road kill. Amimals hit by drivers who were not paying sufficient attention to the road to avoid hitting the animals. Perhaps lost in thought. Perhaps talking on the cell phone. Perhaps caught up in the music on the radio. But not aware enough to avoid hitting something and killing or maiming it. (Doubtless, I overstate: Many times drivers try very hard to avoid hitting a deer on the road and are simply unable to do so.)

As I drove along, the thought that emerged as I passed two young deer lying next to each other on the median, was: we all have road kill. People we affirmatively injure in one way or another or fail to help by our inattentiveness.

Perhaps we are too preoccupied with our own thoughts to notice someone in need. Perhaps so concerned with our own plan and way of doing something that we neglect the contributions of others. Perhaps so impatient with ourselves about something that we respond in a hurtful way to another. You get my drift – and can doubtless spin out plenty more “perhaps”s of your own.

Who are our road kill? And do we leave them on the side of the road for someone else to pick up, or do we do something about it?

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. As an American, I join with my country in remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. I am grateful for the sacrifice they made protecting their country.

As a Christian, however, I remember and pray for all those who died while serving in the military, whatever their nationality.

And all those who have died in armed conflicts throughout the world.

And all of those whose lives have been deeply affected by war – whether named wars, military operations, or any of the other names we give to fighting.

And I pray that we will find a way to address our differences that don’t require sending young men and women off to kill and maim each other.

Memorial Day is one holiday I’d prefer we had no need to celebrate.

Three Persons in One God

Today is the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. The Trinity is, at one and the same time, a fundamental doctrine of Christianity and an unappreciated one. Michael Himes suggests that the Trinity “not one doctrine among others,” but “the whole of Christian doctrine,” even as he laments that for many people, the Trinity is not a doctrine that makes a difference in their lives.

There is no question that it is difficult for people to intellectually apprehend exactly what it means to say there are three persons in one God. A number of Christian mystics have tried over the years to share their experience of the Trinity.

Here is Hildegard of Bingen’s description of a vision she had:

Then I saw a bright light, and in this light the figure of a man the color of sapphire, which was all blazing with a gentle glowing fire. And that bright light bathed the whole of the glowing fire, and the glowing fire bathed the bright light; and the bright light and the glowing fire poured over the whole human figure, so that the three were one light in one power of potential.

Having seen this, she heard what she called the Living Light explain to her:

Therefore you see a bright light, which without any flaw of illusion, deficiency, or deception designates the Father, and in this light the figure of a man the color of a sapphire, which without any flaw of obstinacy, envy, or iniquity designates the Son, who was begotten of the Father in Divinity before time began, and then within time was incarnate in the world in Humanity; which is all blazing with a gentle glowing fire, which fire without any flaw of aridity, mortality, or darkness designates the Holy Spirit, by whom the Only-Begotten of God was conceived in the flesh and born of the Virgin.

And with respect to the lights and figure bathing each other, Hildegard was told,

This means that the Father, who is Justice, is not without the Son or the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit, who kindles the hearts of the faithful, is not without the Father or the Son; and the Son, who is the plenitude of fruition, is not without the Father or the Holy Spirit. They are inseparable in Divine Majesty.

Through this vision, Hildegard experienced in a real way God’s existence as Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, “inseparable in Divine Majesty.”

Here is Hildegard’s depiction of the image she saw:

Blessings on this Trinity Sunday.

More on the “New” Evangelization

Evangelization is a “hot topic” in the Catholic Church these days, as it should be: as Pope John Paul II wrote in his Apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici, “The entire mission of the Church, then, is concentrated and manifested in evangelization.” Given the current emphasis on this central topic, I’ve recently read several new books on the subject. I was a bit disappointed by the one I just finished, The Parish Guide to the New Evangelization: An Action Plan for Sharing the Faith, written by Fr. Robert J. Hater and sent to me by The Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program.

For someone who has never read anything on the subject of evangelization, the opening chapter does a competent job in explaining why evangelization is central to Catholicism and that it is a lifelong process. It also raises some of the challenges of evangelization.

But for something labeled a “Parish Guide” and an “Action Plan,” the book is short on any new, real concrete steps that would aid parishes in strengthening their efforts at evangelization. (I say that despite a final chapter labeled “A Practical Process.”) The most that is offered is a suggested process for a parish to begin to think about the issue.

I have several specific criticisms of the book. First I found it very repetitious; certain points are made over and over again. Yes, scripture is essential. Yes, liturgy is important. But such points need not be made with the frequency with which they are made in the book. In some sections consecutive paragraphs say the same thing in different words.

Second, some of the points made are so self-evident as to not be worth mentioning. “Evangelization happens in every day life.” When else would it happen? “The most basic way to ensure good catechesis is to have well-prepared catechists.” I should think so!

Third, some of the distinctions are not clearly drawn. For example, one chapter talks about different sectors of evangelization – cultural, social, communications, economic and civic and political. They are presented as separate but as I read the descriptions, I found it hard to distinguish one from the other in some cases, nor was it clear why the distinctions were necessarily helpful.

The subject of evangelization is an important one. But I think there are more challenging and helpful books out there than this one for parishes that want to take on the challenge of deepening their commitment to evangelization. Among those are Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples (about which I’ve written before) and Michael White and Tom Corcoran’s Rebuilt.

Contemplative Conversation

Yesterday morning I attended a program at Sacred Ground (one of their monthly development programs aimed primarily at spiritual directors) presented by Diane Millis on Contemplative Conversations: Accompanying Adults in the First Half of Life. Given the spiritual formation work I do with law students, the topic is one of great interest to me, and Millis (founder and director of the Journey Conversations Project and author of Conversation: The Sacred Art) has been working with young people for a long time.

Much of what Diane talked about, particularly with respect to how we listen and respond to each other has broad application. In any of the communities of which we are a part, we can learn to listen more compassionately and respond to each other more contemplatively.

Often, when someone shares something with us, particularly if they are in a discerning phase, our approach is to respond with statements – assertions, analysis, advise. We could help the other far more by asking evocative, contemplative questions designed to evoke deeper reflection in the other person.

One of the things Diane talked about (familiar to all with training as a spiritual director or in other listening professions) is the difference between conventional questions and contemplative questions. Conventional questions seek information, while contemplative questions nurture the other’s awareness. The former restricts avenues of exploration, the latter expands the arena of exploration. The former elicits a rehearsed response, the latter evokes reflection. The forme may or may not resonate with a person’a experience, the latter usually does.

Consider the difference between asking a child “What happened in school today?” (which, when my daughter was young, usually elicited “Nothing” as a response) and “What was the best thing about your day today?”

Or between asking a recent graduate, “What are you going to do now?” and “What is your passion?”

Training ourselves to ask contemplative questions of each other, rather than seeking to answer each other’s questions gives us a deeper way to be present to each other.

A Culture of Encounter

I wrote yesterday about the passage in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus’ disciples complain that someone who is no one of them is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Pope Francis spoke even more broadly (well, and also far more eloquently) on this passage in his homily yesterday.

The Pope characterized the disciples’ as “a little intolerant,” convinced as they were that “those who do not have the truth, cannot do good.” He explained “This was wrong . . . Jesus broadens the horizon.”

Everyone has the ability to do good, because that ability is rooted in our creation:

The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can. He must. Not can: must! Because he has this commandment within him. Instead, this ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.

Not only are we all created in God’s image, and thus each given in the depths of our heart the commandment to do good, but all of us are redeemed by Jesus, not only those belonging to a particular club. The Pope continued:

The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.

Doubtless Pope Francis’ words will be a challenge to many people. But a lot of what he has said so far in his papacy has been challenging – for all of us.

Whoever is Not Against Us Is for Us

In today’s short Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus’ disciples complain to him that they tried to prevent someone who was someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name from doing so “because he does not follow us.” Jesus instructed them not to prevent the person from doing so, for “There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.”

It is a simple but important lesson. We have a tendency to make judgments about who is in and who is out. Who is part of the club. And if we decide someone is not part of the in group, we don’t want them appropriate the benefits of the group. We don’t want to share what we have with the outsiders, whether out of pride, jealousy or insecurity.

Jesus has a much simpler approach. Is he against us? Is he speaking ill of me? Or is he going good deeds in my name? If he is doing good deeds on my name and is not speaking against me, that’s good enough for me, says Jesus.

And if it is good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for us.