What to Leave Behind

Seven days from today is the beginning of my Camino venture. I will fly to Paris next Tuesday, from where I will travel to St. Jean Pied de Port, the beginning of the Camino Francais.

One of the essential rules for a 500-mile walk is to keep your pack light. So there is a premium on making good decisions about what to take and what to leave behind.

Right now, with 1.5 liters of water, my pack weights about 21 pounds, which is about 4 pound heavier than I’d like it to be. What to take out? Therein lies the rub. Every time I think of what I can take out, I think of two more things I “should” probably take with me. Somehow, so many things seem essential.

Then I remind myself of Jesus’ admonition to the apostles before he sent them out: “Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic.” Trust, says Jesus, that I will provide you with all that you really need.

So I’ll take a deep breath and go through the pack again, recognizing that there are probably several things here that are less essential than the things Jesus instructed the apostles to leave behind. Things I will probably do just fine without.



There was once a common expression, “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” I understand the genesis of the expression and recognize that there are numerous Biblical passages that warn against idleness. (E.g. Proverbs 19:15; 1 Timothy 5:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:14)

But, in our times, I think is it might be more accurate to say that busy hands are the devil’s (or, to use Ignatius’s terms, the enemy spirit’s) playthings.

I’ve had conversations with two people over the last several weeks that were very similar. Both are people seeking to determine where they are being called by God in the next phase of their lives; they are both people to whom God and God’s plan matters. As I asked the questions one might ask oneself in discerning vocation, for example, what brings you joy, the response in one case was, “I’m so busy I don’t even have time to think about that question,” and in the other, “It has been so long since I’ve even thought about what I want or what makes me happy. I just have too much on my plate.”

I can imagine the “enemy spirit” cackling with delight at such statements.

When we let our days get too busy, we crowd out the space we need to remember who we are with God. We cease to make intentional choices about how we can best use our time and just let ourselves get carried along in the waves of our busyness.

It is possible to be too busy. And I think very many people are these days. We could use a little more idleness.

Loving The Best and the Worst

My friend Rachel Maizes wrote a beautiful piece in the New York Times this past week about her relationship with her dog. I’m clearly not the only one who was moved by Rachel’s sharing; her piece was among the most e-mailed articles in the past week and generated over 500 comments on the NYT site.

The paragraph that most moved me was this one:

It’s easy to love a well-behaved dog. It’s harder to love Chance, with his bristly personality and tendency toward violence. Yet in the end, I measure the success of my relationship with Chance by its challenges, because if I can’t love him at his most imperfect what use is love?

Take out “Chance” and insert “people” and Rachel makes a point that is true beyond her relationship with her dog.

It is, of course, easy to love those who are good to us, who don’t make trouble for us. It is a lot harder to love those with “bristly” personalities or who otherwise create difficulties for us or rub us the wrong way.

We would do well to ask ourselves the same question Rachel asks: If we can’t love others at their most imperfect (which is, after all, the way God loves us), what use is love?

Lift High the Cross

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

It is a day that serves as an important reminder that there is no Life without the Cross. From the time of Peter, there has been temptation to avoid the cross. When Jesus predicts his passion, Peter rebukes him. “God forbid.” You can almost imagine Peter putting his arm around Jesus’ shoulder, turning him around and saying soothingly: “Let’s go back and heal some more people, turn some water into wine. Let’s not have any more of this nonsense about getting killed.” And Jesus replies, “Get thee behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

The prediction of Jesus’ passion was hard enough for his followers. But Jesus was always clear that the cross was a fundamental part of discipleship: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

The call to discipleship occurs here in connection with Jesus’ announcement of suffering. Jesus Christ must suffer and be rejected. It is the “must” of God’s own promise, so that scripture might be fulfilled. Suffering and rejection are not the same thing. Jesus could, after all, yet be the celebrated Christ in suffering. The entire sympathy and admiration of the world could, after all, yet be directed toward that suffering. Suffering, as tragic suffering, could yet bear within itself its own value, its own honor, its own dignity. Jesus, however is the Christ who is rejected in suffering. Rejection robs suffering of any dignity or honor. It is to be a suffering devoid of honor. … Death on the cross means to suffer and to die as someone rejected and expelled.

Jesus must suffer and be rejected by virtue of divine necessity. Any attempt at thwarting the necessity is satanic, even or precisely where such attempts come from the circle of disciples, for it is intent upon not letting Christ be Christ. That it is Peter, the rock of the church, who incurs guilt here immediately after his own confession to Jesus Christ and his appointment by Jesus, means that from its very inception the church itself has taken offense at the suffering Christ. It neither wants such a Lord nor does it, as the Church of Christ, want its Lord to force upon it the law of suffering. Peter’s objection is his unwillingness to accept such suffering. With that, Satan has crept into the church. He wants to tear it away from the cross of its Lord.

Peter here stands for the Church – from its very beginning – and for us. A desire to have Jesus without the suffering and rejection. But, as Bonhoeffer’s language makes clear, “just as Christ is Christ only in suffering and rejection, so also they are his disciples only in suffering and rejection, in being crucified along with Christ. Discipleship as commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross.”

So we can enjoy being with Jesus at wedding feasts and dinners at the home of friends. We can share his joy in healing and in feeding those without food. We can wander merrily through grain fields, and take boat rides with Jesus. (And I have no doubt Jesus enjoyed time with his friends – and that they had times when they joked and laughed and maybe even had a little too much wine.) BUT if we would call ourselves disciples, we must also stay wedded to him in his suffering and rejection, that is, be “disciples under the cross.”

Today is a reminder of that.

Saint John Chrysostom

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. John Chrysostom, an eloquent preacher of the fourth century. (Despite the quality of his sermons, I’m guessing the length would annoy many today – they sometimes lasted two hours!)

St. John Chrysostom invites us to examine not just what we do, but the attitude with which we do it. Regarding helping others, he said:

Helping a person in need is good in itself. But the degree of goodness is hugely affected by the attitude with which it is done. If you show resentment because you are helping the person out of a reluctant sense of duty, then the person may recieve your help but may feel awkward and embarrassed. This is because he will feel beholden to you. If,on the other hand, you help the person in a spirit of joy, then the help will be received joyfully. The person will feel neither demeaned nor humiliated by your help, but rather will feel glad to have caused you pleasure by receiving your help. And joy is the appropriate attitude with which to help others because acts of generosity are a source of blessing to the giver as well as the receiver.

Not a whole lot to add to that one; res ipsa loquitur as the lawyers among us would say.

Chrysostom also challenges us to think about how we deal with those who have done harm to us and others, saying

When your enemy falls into your hands, do not consider how you can pay him back and let him feel the sharp edge of your tongue before sending him packing; consider rather how you can heal him and restore him to a better frame of mind.

What an enormous difference that would make on a social and individual level! To have an aim of restoration and healing rather than punishment and shame. I’m sure we can all think of situations where we’ve had the less noble aim in mind. And I’m guessing we could imagine ways in which acting in accordance with John Chrysostom’s advice might have made a difference.

Talking about Thomas (Merton, that is)

Yesterday was the second gathering of the Fall Reflection Series on Praying the Mystics we are offering at UST Law School this fall.

Last week, our “mystic of the week” was Teresa of Avila, and during the first part of our session, participants shared in small groups the fruit of their prayer with Teresa this past week. We then had some general discussion about the week, which included addressing the challenges (for busy law students, faculty and staff and lawyers) of finding regular prayer time and of focus during prayer. We also talked about what Teresa referred to as detachment; what in Ignatian spirituality we would refer to as “active indifference.”

Following the general discussion, we turned to our mystic for this week. I offered a reflection on Thomas Merton (like Teresa, a favorite of mine), talking a little about his life, the stages of his spiritual journey, and the foundational mystical experiences that shaped that journey. In the course of my reflection I read two Merton’s description of two of those experiences. (The participants will pray with a third this week.)

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 22:00. You can find the handout I distributed (which I refer to briefly near the end of the podcast – we were running short of time) here.

Blessed are They Who Mourn

Today’s Gospel reading is St. Luke’s account of the Beatitudes. The line from that passage that is most fitting for today is “Blessed are you who are weeping, for you will laugh” or, as St. Matthew phrases it, “Blessed are they who mourn for they will be comforted.”

As I already wrote this morning, today is a day of deep pain for me, as I remember my uncle and all those who died this day 12 years ago. It is a day on which I mourn

I offered a brief reflection at our Weekly Manna gathering today about what it means to say “Blessed are they who mourn” in the context of my experience of 9/11.

You can access a recording of my reflection here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 12:10.

The Memorial I Can’t Visit

I believe that there are are some wounds that do not heal. Some scars that fade over the years, but never quite go away.

Today, September 11, is like that for me.

For some people twelve years is enough time to no longer feel the pain. Enough time for the memory of what one saw that day to fade away. Enough time so one can go and visit the memorial that stands on the site where the Twin Towers stood.

For others, the pain is still there, but the memorial is a source of comfort to them. Being at a place designed to commemorate those who died makes them feel close to their loved ones who lost their lives when the towers were bombed.

I don’t begrudge that some people can do that. In fact, I’m happy for them.

But me, I still can’t go to the memorial at the WTC site. When I close my eyes, I still see more than I want to see of that day and its aftermath – the smoke in the sky…the ash everywhere…the pictures of the missing…the service with an empty casket we held for my uncle.

And nothing in any memorial will erase those images from my mind. Perhaps my fear is that being there will make the pain of those images even worse. I don’t know. But I know I can’t be there.

I will be talking about 9/11 at Weekly Manna today at noon. I’ll post a podcast of my talk afterward.

“Repost if You Love God”

Almost every day my Facebook newsfeed contains a “repost if…” post from one of my Facebook friends. Repost if you have a child you think is the cat’s meow. Repost if you have someone you love has died. Repost if you think your cousins are the best friends anyone could ever have. Share if you have the best brother in the world. Etc. Etc. And so forth. (By the way, for those of you who are my FB friends, I never repost any of these memes.)

The ones I find the most offensive are the religious ones, which take varied forms:”Repost if you love Jesus.” “Send to all your friends if you love God.” “Only true Christians will repost this.” And perhaps the one that disturbs me most: “If you love God, repost and you will receive a great favor.”

The last is the worst because it conveys a small image of God. A God who engages in quid pro quos with us. A God whose love for and goodness toward us depends on how we deal with a chain letter. God just doesn’t work like that.

But all of them, whether or not they promise a quid pro quo, bother me. Because if you read between the lines what they all really sound like they are saying is “I am such a good Christian and I know most of you aren’t, and my belief that I am a better Christian than you are will be proven because most of you won’t repost this.” In my understanding of Christianity, saying “I’m a good Christian” on Facebook is not what makes a good Christian.

So instead of “repost if you love God” or “only true Christians will repost this” how about if our meme for the day is: “If you love God, perform a random act of kindness for someone today.” Or “Call a loved one you haven’t spoken to in a while if you love Jesus.” Or simply, “If you are a true Christian, Be Love in the world.”

Remembering Frederic Ozanam

Today the Vincentian Family celebrates the feast of Blessed Frederis Ozanam and the bicentennial of his birth. Ozanam modeled himself after one of my great heroes, St. Vincent de Paul, and founded the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic lay organization dedicated to assisting those in need.

Ozanam understood the dual virtues of justice and charity, once observing that “[c]harity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveler who has been attacked. It is justice’s role to prevent the attack.” That understanding is reflected in his work. He put tremendous energy in to directly and personally serving the needs of the poor. And he was also a passionate supporter of workers and his ideas ultimately helped shape the first labor encyclical on the rights of workers, Rerum Novarum.

On the Vincentian charism is seeing Christ in the face of the poor, Ozanam wrote:

It we do not know how to love God as the saints did, it is because we see God with the eyes of faith alone, and faith is so weak. But the poor we see with the eyes of flesh. They are present. We can put our fingers and our hands into their wounds, the marks of the crown of thorns are plainly visible on their heads. There is no place for unbelief here … You poor are the visible image of the God whom we do not see, but whom we love in loving you.

Blessings to all of my friends in the worldwide Vincentian family on this feast day.

P.S. You can find a treasure trove of information about Ozanam on the famvin website here.