Lust as Selfish Desire

Prompted by several friends who had read and recommended it, I finally read David Brooks’ The Road to Character.  There is much in it to reflect on.

There is also a I could write about the book, but here let me just share something Brooks discussed in his chapter on Augustine: lust.  We all know that Augustine had something of a sordid youth before turning to God and so doubtless your first thought on reading “lust” was the young Augustine’s sexual behavior.

Brooks makes the important observation that, although we tend to use the word “lust” to refer to sexual desire, a “broader, better meaning is selfish desire.”  Here is description of lust in action:

If you organize your life around your own wants, other people become objects for the satisfaction of your own desires.  Everything is coldly instrumental.  Just as a prostitute is rendered into an object for the satisfaction of orgasm, so a professional colleague is rendered into an object for the purpose of career networking, a stranger is rendered into an object for the sake of making a sale, a spouse is turned into an object for the purpose of providing you with love….

We use the word “lust” to refer to sexual desire, but a broader, better meaning is selfish desire.  A true lover delights to serve his beloved.  But lust is all incoming.  The person in lust has a void he needs filled by others.  Because he is unwilling to actually serve others and build a full reciprocal relationship, he never fills the emotional emptiness inside.  Lust beings with a void and ends with a void.

Love and lust are very different things.  I think understanding lust in this broader sense highlights that difference.  And it helps us to be alert to when our expressions of love, in fact, shade into lust.

Update: Shortly after hitting “publish” on this post, I checked a couple of blogs written by friends. It turns out that my friend Richard’s post today also references Brooks’ The Road to Character. You can find Richard’s post, which talks about Brooks’ chapter on Dorothy Day here.


Place These Words Upon Your Heart

My friend Rabbi Norman Cohen gave the sermon this year at the annual interfaith Thanksgiving service in Minnetonka.  Although I was out of town and unable to attend (we had a wonderful Thanksgiving in Appleton with my daughter, her boyfriend and his family), he was kind enough to send me a copy, which he also posted on Facebook.

There are many wonderful thoughts in Rabbi Cohen’s sermon about gratitude, welcoming the stranger and interfaith dialogue.  He concluded his sermon with a Hasidic tale I had not heard before:

A disciple asks the rebbe: ‘Why does Torah tell us to “place these words upon your hearts”? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?’ The rebbe answers: ‘It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.’

Makes you pause a bit – at least it made me pause.  And it presents the best prayer I could wish for us given the state of our world today: May our hearts break open so the Word of God may fall in.

Happy Thanksgiving


This prayer of Thanksgiving was in my e-mail inbox this morning.  It was described as “the traditional prayer by Dear Abby.”

Oh, Heavenly Father,
We thank Thee for the food
And remember the hungry.
We thank Thee for health
And remember the sick.
We thank Thee for friends
And remember the friendless.
We thank you for freedom
And remember the enslaved.
May these remember?
Stir us to service,
That Thy gifts to us may
Be used for others…

Happy Thanksgiving!


I know we have two more days until Thanksgiving Day, but our student organizations organized a Thanksgiving breakfast this morning.  There was no formal program, just a prayer over the food, breaking bread and enjoying fellowship.

The students did have on each table a card with some questions for sharing.  I thought I’d share them here:

How can I be thankful for the challenges I have faced?  What good was brought from them?

When was a time I realized I was taking something for granted, and how did it change my perspective when I became grateful?

Where, to whom, and how can I say thank you more?

We had some good sharing at my table prompted by these questions.  I hope they make for good reflection for you.

Not Afraid to Die

Today is the seventh anniversary of the death of my cousin Bobby, who was a firefighter.  He lost his life fighting a house fire. It wasn’t the kind of fire that usually takes lives, but this one did. A ceiling collapsed on my cousin, knocking off his mask and air supply as he battled the fire from the second floor of the house.

On an earlier anniversary of his death, I shared a journal entry Bobby wrote when he was in eighth grade titled  Life and Death!  As we move from the end of one liturgical year to the next, having been listening to the “end time” readings the last few weeks, I thought it worth sharing again.

The post began “I’ll tell you right now, I don’t plan on dying for another seventy years.”

Isn’t that how most of us live our lives? At one level,  we know we can die any time, but we live our lives with an expectation that we can plan for things that will happen next year….when we retire…when our children have children, etc. We don’t plan on dying – and we certainly do not plan on dying young.

Bobby went on to say talk about how he hoped to live to be 80 or 85 because “life is the most precious gift God ever made, and it should not be taken advantage of.”  He also (breaking my heart) expressed his hope that he would “die in [his] sleep, because it is painless and peaceful.”   I’d like to think Bobby’s death was painless, but it is hard for to me to imagine that possibility given the circumstances. In any event, it certainly wasn’t peaceful.

But even then, Bobby realized that his hope was only just that – a hope.  He went on to acknowledge “I can’t control when or how I die.”  An important realization, but one we have trouble acknowledging.

How did that lack of control make Bobby  feel? The final line – the last thing he felt he needed to add to his journal entry – gives all the answer that is needed:

There is one other thing too, I am not afraid to die.

The words of an 8th grader. How deep was his theological understanding of resurrection of the dead when he wrote those lines? I don’t know. But I hope as he grew he continued to know that the God who gifted him with life would also be there holding him when he died.

“I am not afraid to die.” May we all have the security of God’s boundless and eternal love, the security that allows us to face death without fear.

RIP cuz.

Are You the King of the Jews?

“Are you the King of the Jews?”, Pilate asks Jesus in today’s Gospel on this Solemnity of Christ the King.

The answer depends on what you mean by “king.”

Pilate and Herod, and a whole lot of other people, were nervous about all this talk about Jesus as King of the Jews, because they understood kingship in terms of worldly, political power.

But Jesus’ answer to Pilate has nothing to do with worldly power.  “My kingdom does not belong to this world,” Jesus explains.  When Pilate prods him, “Then you are a king,” Jesus responds: “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

It is a response that reminds us that the kingship we celebrate today is not a political one. As Pope Benedict once explained, Jesus is a new kind of king. “This king does not break the people with an iron rod (cf. Ps 2:9) – he rules form the Cross, and does so in an entirely new way. Universality is achieved through the humility of communion in faith; this king rules by faith and love, and in no other way.”  Thus, today’s feast, he suggested, “is not a feast of those who are subjugated, but a feast of those who know that they are in the hands of the one who writes straight on crooked lines.”

Today’s solemnity marks  the end of a liturgical year.  It is a good time engage in an examination of our allegiance to this king.  Do I faithfully testify to the truth?  To I follow the example of faith and love?

Rejecting Stereotypes, Forging New Relationships

It was my privilege and delight last evening to participate in a program sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning. (The Jay Phillips Center is a joint project of University of St. Thomas and St. John’s University in Collegeville.) The program featured a lecture given by my friend Rabbi Norman Cohen and a response by me.

The title of Rabbi Cohen’s lecture was Jews and Christians: Rejecting Stereotypes, Forging New Relationships. In his lecture, he talked about the history of Christian-Jewish relationships, the improvement in dialogue between the two and the need to make further progress in that dialogue. He believes that much dialogue has “consisted only of cautious attempts to find common ground, to determine and emphasize the things we share,” risking an unintended syncretism and a failure on the part of both Christians and Jews to develop greater understanding of the “distinctive flavors” of the other’s faith. He talked about some of the misconceptions and stereotypes that plague the efforts of both Christians and Jews to grow in their relationship with each other.

Ultimately, Rabbi Cohen believes that “only the concept of a God who is so great that covenant can be created with more than one people and in different ways, is the road to better interfaith understanding.”

I began my response to his lecture by talking about why I believe greater understanding between Jews and Christians is important. I then shared some observations about some of the points he raised in his talk, starting with observations about Christian perceptions of Judaism and, more briefly, raising a couple of thoughts about Jewish perceptions of Christianity. I ended with some observations regarding both Christians and Jews that affect how we view each other, including my strong agreement that we cannot (using his words) “be so bold as to think that our God is so limited that God chooses only the Jews or has replaced the Jews with the Christians.”

Because Rabbi Cohen’s lecture is a part of a larger writing project in which he is currently engaged, I can not post a text of his lecture. However, I have posted on my website the text that formed the basis of my response. You can find that text here.

Following our talks, there was a lively questions and answer period. One of thing on which we all agreed is that these sorts of conversations are important and that we need to find ways to bring them to larger audiences.

Mid-Day Reflection: Gratitude

I offered a lunchtime program today at UST Law School on the subject of gratitude.  I selected that subject for our session both because we are little more than a week away from Thanksgiving Day and because is such an important spiritual practice, regardless of one’s faith tradition.

I gave a brief reflection discussing the difference it makes whether one’s stance is one of gratitude or entitlement and talking about the fact that studies have documented a variety of social, physical and psychological benefits of gratitude. I then suggested a number of practices for cultivating gratitude.  After my talk, we had an open discussion, during which the participants shared some of their own practices for cultivating gratitude.

Following our discussion we took some time for a silent exercise.  I invited the participants to take some time to reflect on some of the people who have had a significant positive impact on their lives and then to pick one of those persons and write a thank-you letter to them.  (“Write” as in take out a pen and put words on paper, not compose on a computer.)  After that, we paired up to share with each other something about the person to whom we wrote the note.  At the end we talked about some of the benefits of this particular practice, which was a very positive experience for all of us.

You can access a recording of my reflection here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 18:06.)

Offense or the Defense?

Yesterday was the final session of the four-week Adult Faith Formation program we ran at Our  Lady of Lourdes, titled Jesus Speaks.  In the first session of the series, I talked about Jesus response to the question which commandment of the law is the greatest; in the second session, Fr. Dan Griffith spoke on Jesus’ instruction in the feeding of the multitude, “You yourselves give them something to each; in the third session, our teaching seminarian Grant Theis spoke about Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man, to whom he instructs, “Sell all you have and give to the poor.”  In our final session yesterday, Deacon Thom Winninger closed out the series speaking about the command to “go and Proclaim the Gospel to all nations.”

The command to proclaim the Gospel is a universal one, which means that we all must reflect on what it is we are called to proclaim and what it is that inhibits us from wholeheartedly following the command.  Thom made the point that if we can’t define what it is we are called to proclaim, we can’t very well do an effective job.

In talking about what it means to proclaim the Gospel, Thom suggested that many Catholics today are defensive about their faith, whereas Jesus was never defensive; he always affirmatively preached the Kingdom.  A defensive response, Thom argued, is not a proclamation of the Gospel.

He made a related point in talking about prayer.  Don’t pray not to sin; that is defensive.  Instead, he suggested pray to grow in virtue, an affirmative prayer; if we grow in virtue, that will lead us away from sin.

While I need to think some more about his offense/defense distinction and how far it takes us, it seemed to me worth sharing, especially since I think he is correct that many Christians today are defensive about their faith.

Note: Each of the sessions of the series was video-recorded and will soon be available on the parish website.

Hermitage Time

As important as my annual 8-day retreat is to me, I also find it helpful to find other opportunities to heed Jesus’ invitation to “Come away and rest awhile.”  The hermitages at Wellsprings Farm offer a wonderful opportunity to do just that.

I spent Friday late morning to yesterday late afternoon away from computer, work and conversation.  Prayer, reading, walks on the wooded “Sacred Path,” and labyrinth walks.  Quiet time with God.  It was wonderful.

In the foreground is the hermitage I stayed in – the Dome.  (In the background is what has been referred to as Hermitage #2, although I think it has been named House of Francis.)

There is little I love more than walking in the woods.  As much as I enjoy summer walks when the trees are full, I have always found a special beauty in trees this time of year.  

The labyrinth is unlike any I’ve ever seen.  The path is cut through a large grassy area, so that in some parts you see only the grass around you as you walk it.

A selfie in the early morning on Saturday, when it was still a bit chilly.  As I left the house on Friday, the first hat I saw was one Elena’s then babysitter knit for her when she was eight.  If I looked silly wearing it, there was no one there to tell me so.

I love the “CSR” model the owners of Wellsprings Farm have developed: “Similar to community supported agriculture (CSA), where individuals or organizations purchase a share of produce for a season, annual Community Supported Retreat (CSR) members receive a “share” of overnight stays at Wellsprings Farm.  Like the CSA, the CSR is a creative, local economic model rooted in reciprocity and connection.  In its best form, the Community Supported Retreat (CSR) model allows for more direct and meaningful relationship to the land and to one another.”

I am very grateful to my friend Richard, who told me about Wellsprings in time for me to purchase the last open membership for the year.  And I am looking forward to my next visit!

Wellsprings may be the only CRS model of hermitages, but there are other hermitages out there.  Even for those who can’t get away for a longer retreat, an occasional day of silence, contemplation and just being with God is a wonderful gift to give yourself.