Remind Me Who I Am

One of my friends heard this song on the radio, during a time he had been praying with Jesus’ baptism and his temptation in the desert. The song touched him deeply and he sent me this video of it.

The message is a simple one, but one we need to hear again and again: Whatever I am feeling about myself at any given time, I am the beloved. Always. Jesus needed to hear it and so do we.


I am Called by God

Yesterday was the fifth session of the program I am offering at UST Law School during this academic year on Discerning my Place in the World. In our sessions during the fall semester we addressed several aspects of discerning vocation, including getting in touch with our giftedness, identifying what brings us joy, prioritizing our values and reflecting on our deepest desires.

The subject of today’s session was our individual call by God, the reality that each of us is called by God by name and invited to labor with him.

The first thing I always think about in this context is the beautiful line in Isaiah: I have called you by name and you are mine. God calls each of us by name. We are individually called by God, individually invited by God to labor with him in the co-creation of the world.

We capture this reality of our call in the idea of vocation. “Vocation” comes from the Latin word for call or calling (“vocare”). It implies that there is an action from God who is beyond ourselves that is beckoning and calling to us. Although the term used to be reserved for priests, nuns, rabbis, etc., we now understand the idea of a “call” to refer to more than being drawn to some type of ordination. We now more rightly understand the concept of vocation as applying to everyone. After all, why wouldn’t God call everyone in his or her own way to contribute to the buildup of the Kingdom?

We are all called, although in different ways. We are each individually called to take part in a particular way in God’s plan. One way to express that is to remember that our relationship with God is personal, not private. We deepen our relationship with God so that we can hear God’s call, but the call always involves our living for the life of the world. It is always a call beyond ourselves.

I spent some time in my talk (which, sadly I was unable to record, as I realized only as I was about to speak that the battery in the recorder had died) talking about challenges to hearing God’s call and challenges to responding to that call. After the talk, the participants engaged in a meditation adapted from Elizabeth Liebert’s wonderful book The Way of Discernment, a copy of which is attached here.

During my talk I also described the Call of the King meditation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which I think is a wonderful meditation for connecting with Jesus’ call to us. I distributed a version to the participants, suggesting they pray with it during the week; you can find another version of that meditation here.

The Singing Wilderness

Yesterday was the final session of the Heroes and Heroism undergraduate honors seminar I taught this J-term. The three hours were devoted to presentations by each of the nine students on the final papers they wrote for me.

Their assignment was to write a paper on a public figure other than one of those we discussed in class that met the definition of heroism the student developed based on our class discussion. I also asked their paper to also include discussion of a non-public figure or a fictional character who met their definition.

Reflecting the students’ different majors and interests, we had a presentation on a broad range of heroes that included, among others, two Roosevelts (Teddy and Eleanor), Fr. Damion Molokai, Emma Watson, George Bailey (from It’s a Wonderful Life), and Hazel (from Watership Down).

One of the heroes presented by one student was someone I was not familiar with, Sigurd Olson, who, as it turns out, is a beloved nature writer and was an influential conservationist who played an important role in preserving a number of national parks and wilderness areas, including the Boundary Waters areas in the northern part of Minnesota, where I have enjoyed hiking and kayaking.

Olson was a deeply spiritual person who understood that we need, in the words of his son, places away from the ordinary distractions of everyday life where we can be quiet and listen – to listen not so much to the leaves and the birds but to “the real.”

Here is a short video of Olson that my student showed as part of her presentation. It resonated deeply with me; perhaps it will with you as well.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

On this observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I reproduce here the thoughtful reflection on Mirror of Justice of my MOJ co-blogger Robby George:

Today is the observance of International Holocaust Memorial Day. It falls on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, known as “the death factory.” It is a day to remember, prayerfully, the victims, and to reflect, soberly, on the depth of human depravity. How, we ask ourselves, could human beings have tortured and brutally murdered millions of their fellow human beings? How could such inhumanity, such barbarism, have occurred in the modern world, and in Germany—a nation of unparalleled cultural and intellectual attainments? It is also a day to consider, humbly, that had we been there, few of us would have been among the heroes who, at great risk to themselves, sheltered Jews and other victims or joined the forces opposing Hitler and the Nazis. Very few of us indeed.

But above all, it is a day to say, from our hearts and with conviction: “Never again.”

The Holocaust—the Shoah—did not begin with the mass killing of Jews or other ethnic or religious minorities, or even Hitler’s political opponents. It began with the killing of the handicapped and infirm. They were, according to Nazi ideology, “useless eaters,” “parasites,” lebensunwertes leben (“lives unworthy of life”). It is important to remember that this eugenic doctrine did not originate with the Nazis. It began with polite, urbane, well-educated, sophisticated people who saw “social hygiene” via, among other methods, euthanasia, as representing progress and modernity. They wanted to ditch the old Judaeo-Christian belief in the sanctity of all human life and replace it with what they regarded as a more advanced and rational philosophy.

This was the view articulated by, for example, noted legal scholar Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche in their treatise Permitting the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life, published in 1920. Binding and Hoche were not Nazis, and when they were writing their book the Nazi party didn’t even exist. In a few years, however, Hitler and the Nazis would adopt their ideas about “social hygiene” (mixing in racialist ideology and nostalgia for a mythical golden age of Teutonic paganism) and carry out the euthanasia program with a remorseless, pitiless fervor. Thus, began what became the Shoah—the murder of six million Jews, two to three million Russians, two million ethnic Poles, and nearly countless other so-called “undesirables.”

Yes, let us truly say, from our hearts and with conviction: “Never again.”

Thanks, Robby.

St. Paul’s Conversion

At the 11:00 Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes this morning, we had the Rite of Acceptance of our RCIA candidates and catechumens. The Rite of Acceptance is the first of the “threshold rites” of the RICA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and the first public ritual. The Rite of Acceptance officially welcomes the candidates and catechumens as disciples and marks then with the sign of the cross as belonging to God through Christ.

I thought it was fitting that we celebrated this rite on the (optional) feast of the conversion of St. Paul. In our first reading at Mass, we heard the story so familiar to all Christians. The story of Paul’s conversion in Acts is a great story, a dramatic story. It is the kind of redemption story we love to hear.

The risk of such dramatic stories is that we see conversion as a single dramatic event. It is true that we all have some significant conversion events in our lives, moments we can look back at and say – something significant happened to me here, events after which nothing is really the same.

But looking back at those moments, and at what transpired between them, helps us to see that we are engaged in an ongoing process of conversion that continues and is not complete until we die.

Understanding conversion as process helps us understand how important are each of the steps we take along the path of our conversion journey. We have such a strong tendency to judge harshly what we in hindsight view as missteps along the way. It is so very easy for us to forget that everything we experience and learn from contributes to our growth process, is part of who we have become and how we relate to God and others, and is a potential source of grace. For me – some one who returned to Christianity after spending 20 years of her adult life as Buddhist, this meant coming to understand that my years as a Buddhist, far from being a misstep, were an integral part of my spiritual journey.

So, by all means, enjoy story like Paul’s conversion. But remember it is a process. And perhaps spend some time reflecting on what have been some of your moments of conversion.

Fresh Air for Every Day

Despite the fact that Christianity is a Trinitarian faith, there is a tendency for many Christians to give a lot more attention to (to use the traditional formulation) the Father and the Son than to the Holy Spirit. We know that we receive the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, many of us can even list the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but we don’t always spend a lot of time focusing on that person of the Trinity.

To help remedy that, last summer I led a parish book group through a rich and rewarding three-session discussion of Jack Levison’s Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life. Thus, I was delighted when Jack, who I had met last year when we both presented at the Seattle University Search for Meaning Book Festival, sent me an advance copy of his new book, 40 Days with the Holy Spirit: Fresh Air for Every Day. The book is now available for pre-order and will be out within a month.

40 Days is a daily devotional aimed at deepening our appreciation and apprehension of the Holy Spirit. This new book, scheduled for release on February 28, contains a beautiful selection of scripture passages, personal stories that help unpack those passages, suggested prayers, and most importantly, the invitation to grapple with how we understand the Holy Spirit and how it operates in our lives.

Seven verbs frame the book, verbs that Levison suggests frame our lives: breathing, praying, practicing, learning, leading, building, and blossoming. For the author, there is a “sequence to these verbs. They lead from deep within to the world outside”, thus ending with exploring “how the Holy Spirit helps us to blossom beyond ourselves, beyond the church – and in the world.

There are a lot of things I like about this book. Certainly its combination of scripture, scholarship, personal story and prayer, which makes it accessible to a broad range of readers. The fact that so many of the entries emphasize a particular word or phrase, providing an easily-grasped take-away from each day. The scripture selections themselves. And the accessibility of the writing.

The title promises 40 days with the Holy Spirit; I’m confident the book will prompt many more days of reflection than that. I heartily recommend it as something you might use for your daily prayer.

King Channeling Paul to Speak to American Christians

Yesterday afternoon, I saw the film Selma with my undergraduate honors students. Notwithstanding criticisms of the historical accuracy of certain aspects of the film, it is a powerful portrayal of a slice of the history of this country and of a man who gave his life to the fight to end racial segregation and other forms of racial discrimination, and he did so through nonviolent means.

Today we celebrate the life of that man, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, one of the great leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Among other things, King was a powerful speaker and, on any number of occasions I have quoted from one speech of his or another. Today I re-post an excerpt from one of his speeches that seems particularly fitting for our country today. This is taken from King’s 1965 imaginary letter from St. Paul to American Christians. Here is an excerpt of what King imagines St. Paul might have to say to us today:

…America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.

I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. That is what I had to do. That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. …

But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Philippian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God. …

It is worth spending some time reflecting on whether the indictment in these words are true. If so, some examination and reformation of our behavior is in order. We all need to ask ourselves: what is my particular responsibility as a Christian in the environment in which I find myself? Are there places I am called to take a stand? And what graces do I need from God to be able to fulfill that responsibility?

You can listen to King deliver the letter here.

Bringing the Spiritually Paralyzed to Christ

I arrived today at the Benedictine Center at St. Paul Monastery (where I am co-facilitating our semi-annual vocation retreat weekend for law students and alum) in time for the 5:00 daily Mass.

Today’s Gospel was St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing of a paralyzed man. Jesus is speaking in a crowded room, so crowded it is impossible for the four men carrying their paralyzed friend to get in the door. So determined were they to get their friend to Jesus that they broke through the roof and lowered the mat carrying their friend to Jesus.

It was that act that the priest celebrating Mass focused on in his sermon – the caring determination of the friends of the paralytic.

We can’t heal people directly, but we can participate in their healing by praying for them. But the priest also invited us to think about how else we can help bring those in need to Jesus. How, he asked, might we bring the spiritually paralyzed to Him. He acknowledged that it can be challenging to know what to say to people who are feeling distant from God, and that saying the wrong thing is potentially worse than saying nothing.

Do we have eyes that see those who are paralyzed? And are we open to those opportunities where we might help bring them to Jesus?

Please keep our retreatants in prayer this weekend.

Rights and Exercise of Those Rights

The killings at French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in response to drawings of the Islamic prophet Mohammed are deplorable. Such terrorist attacks are always wrong.

In the wake of the shooting, many celebrities and others have claimed solidarity with the victims of the attack and defended the newspaper’s freedom to publish the cartoons that prompted the attack. While I don’t have great familiarity with the law in France, certainly in the United States our constitutionally protected freedom of speech means one has a protected right to ridicule the religious beliefs of others.

But having the right as a legal matter to do something does not mean one should always exercise that right. And it doesn’t mean others can’t criticize the decision to exercise it. I have no difficulty expressing outrage at the terrorist attack but I also take deep offense at what led to that attack.

I haven’t seen the cartoons in question. One commentator who has describes “a naked Muhammad on all fours…homosexual postures he has been depicted in….vaguely pornographic religious hate speech that rises to the intellectual level of a boys’ high school bathroom.”

Did the newspaper have the legal right to publish such cartoons? Sure. But what is the value in producing them? Who benefits? Why does anyone think public ridicule of the faith and beliefs of others is a good thing? We’re talking here about something much more offensive and egregious than wishing Christians “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” here – which some US commentators view as an attack on Christianity.

In a piece in the National Catholic Reporter yesterday, Phyllis Zagano said this, “Bullets are never the answer, but neither is ridicule. It is one thing to produce satire of a political or religious leader. It is quite another thing to defame or defile the sacred. Charlie Hebdo is not about rights and retaliation. Charlie Hebdo is about seeing the human in every person. That goes for both sides.”

Baptism and Confirmation

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord. To add to the celebration of this feast, two babies were baptized at the Mass I attended. I always find it moving to participate in a liturgy where we welcome new members of the Body of Christ.

Today was also the day we talked about Baptism in our RCIA program at Our Lady of Lourdes. (I’d love to claim I planned it this way, but at the time I put the RCIA schedule together, I had not realized today was the Baptism of Our Lord.)

Introducing our coverage of the sacraments, my talk today introduced the subject of the sacraments and covered two of the three Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism and Confirmation. At the end of my talk, I gave the participants some time to reflect on the presence of the spirit of God in their lives, after which we had some time for discussion.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 33:39.)