Praying For and Supporting the Victims of the Earthquake in Nepal

My heart has been heavy as I’ve been following the news of the earthquake in Nepal and its aftermath. Over 5000 people have been killed and millions of Nepalis have been affected, including over a million who need immediate food assistance.  In Kathmandu, half a million tents are urgently needed for people there who have been forced from their homes.

I lived in Buddhist communities in Nepal and India for two years during the years I spent practicing Buddhism.  The monastery in which I lived during parts of that time – Kopan Monastery – is outside of the center of Kathmandu.  Thankfully, no one there was injured, although there has been significant structural damage and people there are sleeping outside (as are many others in Nepal), fearful of the effect of aftershocks.  I understand that half of the houses in Thame, the birthplace of Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, my root teacher during those years, have been completely destroyed.

I read the news reports and I picture the landmarks that are still clear in my mind and the faces of the people I lived with.  And I am filled with sadness and the need to respond in some way.

The people there need prayers and also financial support.  University of St. Thomas will be holding an interfaith prayer service on the St. Paul campus tomorrow evening at 6:00p.m.  Join us if you are in the area.  And  here and here are suggested ways to contribute to the relief efforts.


The Force of Nonviolence

Some words from Gandhi to reflect on today as we read the news reports of incidents of violence both here and abroad:

Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of humanity. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of humanity. Nonviolence is not passivity in any shape or form. It is the most active force in the world. Nonviolence is the supreme law. Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for nonviolence. One person who can express nonviolence in life exercises a force superior to all the forces of brutality. We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence, but I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence. My optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibility of the individual to develop nonviolence. The more you develop it in your own being, the more infectious it becomes till it overwhelms your surroundings and by might over sweep the world. We have to make truth and nonviolence not matters for mere individual practice, but for practice by groups and communities and nations. That, at any rate, is my dream. When the practice of nonviolence becomes universal, God will reign on earth as God reigns in heaven.

“Quintessential Catholic Novel”?

Our Scarpa conference at Villanova Friday ended with a delightful dinner, during which the conversation ranged over many topics.  My friend and colleague Lisa Schiltz’s Mirror of Justice post of last night reminds me of one of those topics.  As she described it in her post:

The most dramatic event was the dinner afterwards, when Patrick and John Breen almost came to fisticuffs over whether Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted, or Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, is the quintessential Catholic novel.  (Susan Stabile tried to broker a compromise with Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov, but she didn’t make much headway.)

As Lisa went on to describe, we resolved that we would read (or re-read) one or more of those books this summer and then blog about them on Mirror of Justice.

The conversation, of course, raises the question (which we did not discuss over dinner) of what it means to call a novel a “Catholic novel.”  So I thought I’d post the topic here with the invitation for you to consider both (a) what it means to describe a work as a “quintessential Catholic novel” and (b) what your candidate for that novel might be.

Humility and Impressiveness

Yesterday, as the end of the Scarpa Conference at Villanova, I led a short spiritual exercise for the conference speakers.  I picked humility as the theme of the reflection I offered, inspired by what I knew would be the first reading for today’s Mass a passage from 1 Peter, which began, “Beloved, clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble.”  I talked about what it means to be humble and shared several reasons I thought humility was a particularly important virtue in today’s world.  After my talk, I invited the participants into a period of silent reflection, giving them several short passages and some questions to guide them.

During our sharing after the silent reflection period, one of the participants observed that it could be challenging to be humble given our particular profession, which often requires us to appear “impressive.”  (For example, a law school dean is often out meeting donors and must impress them.)

I thought about that comment again this morning as I was praying with the two Mass readings. Interestingly, the first reading from 1 Peter, which directly addresses humility, is paired with Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples before his ascension to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”

Surely proclaiming the Gospel effectively required the disciples to be impressive. But the disciples were also called by Jesus to be humble, which suggests that it is possible to be impressive while still being humble.  And, in fact, far from being opposed to each other, humility and effective proclamation of the Gospel go hand in hand.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines humility as

the virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good. Humility avoids inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer. Voluntary humility can be described as “poverty of spirit.”

All that is required to remain humble while impressing others is remembering the source of all we are able to accomplish.  If we can remember that all we are and all we have is gift from God, then we can do and say things that impress people without losing humility.  And, in the case of proclaiming the Gospel, if anything, humility – keeping the focus on God as the “author of all good” – allows us to be a more effective evangelizers.

Never Again?

Yesterday I attended a lunch sponsored by the Jay Philips Center for Interfaith Learning, a joint center of the University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University, which I’ve mentioned before.  The lunch featured Dr. Victoria Barnett, Director of Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, speaking on The Implications of the Holocaust for Multireligious Conversations.

Dr. Barnett used the activities of the National Conference of Christians and Jews during the time of World War II as a vehicle for talking about both some of the difficulties involved in inter-faith conversations and the different levels at which such conversations take place.  Particularly thought-provoking was her discussion of the tension between the particulars of an event (such as the Holocaust) and the more universal questions raised by the event (such as the human capacity for evil, complicity in evil, etc.).  While the most effective conversations connect the particular and the universal, it is easy for one to become subordinate to the other.  When the particular is too quickly brushed aside in favor of a rush to the universal, we risk turning the victims into symbols and minimizing their suffering.

There is much from her talk I will continue to process, but I was most troubled by something that took place following Dr. Barnett’s main talk.  During the question and answer period, one of the attendees referenced a recent Atlantic magazine article titled Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?  In the course of the colloquy over the question asked by the article, a Jewish woman shared something that made me physically as well as mentally shiver.  She relayed that she had been studying in a graduate program in Europe last year.  She described how, on separate occasions, both she and her partner had been physically attacked because they were Jewish, to a degree that, in both cases required hospitalization.  She also relayed that, with another Jewish person, she had been traveling by train to meet some colleagues in another city and “made the mistake” of speaking Hebrew on the train.  A short time later, an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “Next stop, Auschwitz.  All Jews get off the train.”  That was enough to make her come back to the United States.

I think it is impossible to deny the increase in anti-Semitism, both in the United States and abroad.  A recent report released by researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel found a sharp rise in anti-Semitic attacks around the world.

The number of violent anti-Semitic attacks around the world surged nearly 40 percent last year, according to a report released Wednesday by researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel (described here).  “The attacks were ‘perpetrated with or without weapons and by arson, vandalism or direct threats against Jewish persons or institutions such as synagogues, community centers, schools, cemeteries and monuments as well as private property,’ the authors of the report, based at the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University, said.”

Are we concerned?  If not, we should be.  And are we who call ourselves Christians (and, let’s face it, much anti-Semitism is a product of how the Christians historically read the role of the Jews in the death of Christ) speaking up to denounce such acts?

Happy Earth Day!

Earth Day has been celebrated on April 22 for 45 years.  Here is a short account of the history of the day:

The idea came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Senator Nelson announced the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment” to the national media; persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair; and recruited Denis Hayes as national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land.

As a result, on the 22nd of April, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.

As we await Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Earth Day offers us an opportunity to examine our relationship to the gift of creation.  To consider the extent to which our own actions (and inactions) contribute to the preservation or deterioration of the environment.

It is true that lots of the problems that brought people to the streets in 1990 are bigger than any one individual – corporate pollution and oil spills.  But both through our power as consumers (from whom are you buying your products?) and in our homes and workplaces (are you recycling as much as you can? reducing waste in the first place? saving water and electricity?) we can make a difference.

And, as stewards over God’s creation, we are morally obliged to do so.

You can find a good ecological examen here.

On the Road to Emmaus

Yesterday, Fr. Dan Griffith and I co-led a session on the Post-Resurrection Appearances at Our Lady of Lourdes.  I discussed John 21 and Fr. Dan discussed Emmaus.  Since I have in the past shared my reflection on Jesus’ appearance to his disciples on the beach you can find a podcast of one of my talks on that passage here, I thought I’d share some of the questions Fr. Dan left the parishioners with after talking about Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Do our hearts burn when we read the scripture?  (Do we take the time for Bible study and reading?)

Where to we recognize Christ in the world?

Do we understand Jesus is always with us?  Do we know he has something to say to us?

Do we witness to Christ from a place of faith?

As I’ve said before, I thing there is great value to spending time during the Easter season praying with the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples.  In adddition to Fr. Dan’s questions, here is the two handout we gave parishioners today so further their prayer with the two appearances we talked about.

Death and Life

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.  One hundred sixty-eight people lost their lives that day, in what was, until 9/11, the deadliest terrorist act in the United States.

One one of my visits to the home of my friends Michael and Maria Scaperlanda, they took me  to visit the memorial of the bombing.  Here is the statue that stands across the street from the memorial entrance (which you can see in the background).

Part of the memorial is the Field of Empty Chairs, on which is placed one chair for each person killed, in the approximate position of where the person would have been in the building at the time of the bombing.  Large chairs for the adults and smaller ones for the children.

As we pray for the victims of terrorist acts….and for those who commit them, there is one other thing we should keep in mind, and that is what we celebrate during this Easter season: that death is not the end.  Although I didn’t take a pictures of it, there is something else on that memorial site I have never forgotten: an American Elm called the Survivor Tree. The tree withstood the full force of the attack that day and there is no earthly reason it is not completely dead and gone. Yet it continues to stand and to grow. I felt its life and its power when I stood touching it during my visit to the site. You can literally feel the life pulsing through it.

Dom Helder Camara writes, “in those most critical, most agonizing of moments, we Christians have no right to forget that we are not born to die; we are born to live. We must hold on to hope, to inner peace, since we have the deep certainty of having been born for Easter, the everlasting Easter Day.”

Here is the reflection my friend Maria Scaperlanda wrote for the fifteenth anniversary of the bombing.  It is worth reading again today.

Getting My Hands Dirty

I grew up in an apartment in Brooklyn, so gardening was not a pasttime of my youth.  Even now, Dave does most of the gardening.  Our prior arrangement, when we first moved into a house with a yard, was that Dave’s domain was the flowers and mine, the vegetables.  But after putting up with my overplanting as long as he could stand it, Dave took over the planting of both.  My quip re the vegetables has become, “Dave sows, I reap.”

But there is something special about working outside.  I spent a good bit of time earlier today raking out the leaves which served to protect various plants during the winter months.  It was hard work and required care to not disturb some of the early growth, but it felt so good.  I’m not sure if it is the consciousness of the change of seasons, the feel of the sun as I labor, seeing the green emerge from beneath the leaves, or just getting my hands dirty – likely it is some combination of all – but I came in from my work with a feeling of well-being and peace.

Even those of us who have academic jobs like the one I have are not meant to sit at our computers all day. And while I’m happy there is a Snap Fitness around the corner I can go to early mornings to work out, there is no substitute for getting outside.

So go get your hands dirty.  If you don’t have your own yard, join a community clean-up, or help a friend in their garden.  Get outside.  And enjoy.