The Inward/Outward site, which offers some wonderful daily thoughts, contained a quote the other day from Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk (a wonderful read). Norris writes

What is enough? As always, it seems that the more I can distinguish between my true needs and my wants, the more I am shocked to realize how little is enough. The trees that fan me are the fruit of others’ labor, planted by an earlier generation of Plains dwellers who longed for trees to shelter them. The land resisted, but let them have these few. I am startled by something flashing through the trees. It is the Pleiades, all seven of them plainly visible to the naked eye. This is another’s work, and a mystery. And it is enough.

We have such a tendency to confuse needs and wants, often beginning sentences with “I need…” when we really mean “I want.”

I think the reason Norris’ statement resonated so deeply is my experience walking the Camino de Santiago.  Spend five weeks walking with only what you can carry on your back (and what others are willing to share with you) and you will, indeed, be “shocked to realize how little is enough.”  The warmth of the sun during the day and the shade of a tree when the sun’s rays are too intense.  The lights of the stars at night.  The sound of the laughter of friends.

What do I really need?

Obviously there are real needs to live a fully human life, including enough resources for food, shelter, education, medical care, etc.

But, leaving aside basic necessities, if we are honest, we need a whole lot less than we often think we do. And we would do well to learn to distinguish better between true needs and wants.  Lent seems to offer a good opportunity to work on that.

I participated yesterday in a conference sponsored by the University of St. Thomas on The Church in the Modern World: Teaching and Understanding Gaudium et Spes after 50 Years.  The objectives of the conference, held over a two day and a half day period, were to examine the contemporary context of the Church in the 21st century, reflect on the continuing impact of Gaudium et Spes on the Church, its practices and its theology and  consider the role of Catholic colleges and universities in educating students to be agents of the proper development of human culture for the common good.

Each of the panels I attended yesterday was quite good, and I hope to share some thoughts in coming days about some of the fine presentations I listened to.

I spoke on the panel yesterday morning on Interreligious and Ecumenical Dialogue, presenting a paper titled The Engagement of Catholics with Other Faith Traditions in the Post-Vatican II World.  In my presentation I spoke a bit about the paradigm shift created by the Second Vatican Council with respect to engagement with other faith traditions before then speaking about the value to Catholics and non-Catholics of the inter-faith dialogue and interspirituality that have resulted from the increased freedom granted by Vatican II for Catholicism to engage with other faith traditions.  (I focused particularly on the engagement of Christians with non-Christian.) My comments drew on both my academic interest in inter-faith dialogue and my personal experience, first as someone returning to Catholicism after spending twenty years practicing Buddhism, and second, as a spiritual director and retreat leader working with people whose spiritual practice incorporate elements from multiple faith traditions.

Why should anyone, regardless of his or her faith, think there is any benefit in exploring other religious traditions?

In his 2010 Santa Clara Lecture on Evangelization and Interreligious Dialogue, Professor Peter Phan expressed the goal of interreligious dialogue as

mutual correction and enrichment. In interreligious dialogue both Christian and other believers are invited to examine their religious beliefs and practices, to correct them when necessary (this is always necessary at least for Christians, since the church is “semper reformanda”), to deepen their commitment to their own faiths and to live them more fully.

Those words capture well the experience of those who have engaged seriously with other religions, that is, that by such engagement we learn much about ourselves and our own religions. Referring to his experience with the Dalai Lama, Jewish Orthodox Rabbi Irving Greenberg said:

The Dalai Lama taught us a lot about Buddhism, even more about menschlichkeit [humanness], and most of all about Judaism. As all true dialogue accomplishes, the encounter with the Dalai Lama opened to us the other faith’s integrity. Equally valuable, the encounter reminded us of neglected aspects of ourselves, of elements in Judaism that are overlooked until they are reflected back to us in the mirror of the Other.

Zen Rabbi Alan Lew writes that it was Zen practice that helped him to discover the depth of Jewish spirituality and quotes a friend of his who suggested that his years of Zen meditation enabled him to understand how deep and “utterly gratifying” ordinary Jewish practices could be. Tom Chetwynd made a similar observation about his experience with Zen Buddhism in Zen & The Kingdom of Heaven, writing “I had had the privilege to be born into Christianity, but because I had encountered Zen, I would not die in it—I would live in it.” He describes in that book how his Zen practice allowed him to see new things in his Christian practice he had not seen before and “to take a fresh delight in the Mass.”

Whatever else Vatican II did or did not accomplish, it opened the door a bit wider for Catholics to benefit from the practice of other faith traditions.

Many things have been written in the aftermath of the racist chants by Oklahoma University fraternity members.  One of the most thoughtful pieces I have read was written by Rev. Dr. Maria Dixon Hall, who teaches at Southern Methodist University.  Critical of the way OU handled the situation, she suggests that the University missed an opportunity to use this incident as a teaching tool.  In her piece, she outlines four “teachable moments” that were missed.

While there are many points in her piece that I think worth thinking about in connection with this incident, what struck me most was a comment she made in discussing one of those teachable moments, a comment that makes an important point that has meaning beyond this particular context.

Describing racism as a “congenital heart condition”, she suggests that children learn lessons of bigotry in many ways, far more apparently benign than explicit racial slurs.  Among other things, she writes that “[y]oung white adults suffer myocardial infarctions of bigotry when their churches either ignore race by erasing it or frame people of color as ‘objects of mission’ rather than collaborators in the Great Commission.”

“Objects of mission” rather than “collaborators in the Great Commission.”  That is the description that really jumped out at me.  It is not just about how we frame people of color, but how we frame any marginalized individual or group we are trying to “help.”

Do we see them merely as object of mission?  Or do we see them as collaborators in the Great Commission  to proclaim God to the world?  Are they objects or subjects?

Asking that question invites us to think about how we are “helping” others.  For example, are we empowering them by treating them with respect and dignity and encouraging their growth?   Are we giving them a say in how they are helped or acting as though we know best?

You can think of other questions I am sure, but I the fundamental distinction between object of mission and collaborators is centrally important.

Spring in the Air

I will be the first to admit that this has been one of the mildest winters in the Twin Cities since we moved here in 2007.  Still, the month of February was pretty brutal.

Yet, here we are in the second week of March with temperatures in the 50s-60s. As the UST shuttle I took back from the law school the other day afternoon approached the St. Paul campus stop, I saw a sight I have not seen in a very long time: throngs of students everywhere in the streets, jauntily walking around in long sleeves or light jackets.  I couldn’t help but smile.  Thank you, God.

My smile continued all the way home.  When it is horrendously cold, I travel the 1.25 miles between the shuttle stop and home by bus (or Dave picks me up).  But for the second day in a row, I walked home, jacket open, sun warming my face. Thank you, God.

I know we are likely to get some more cold days over the next month.  And, if past experience in the Twin Cities is any guide, we may even get another fall of snow.  But spring is in the air.  And, along with Gerard Manley Hopkins, I exclaim: Nothing is so beautiful as Spring!

Here is Hopkins’ poem, Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Novena of Grace

The Novena of Grace is a Catholic devotion addressed to St. Francis Xavier, who was a great missionary and evangelizer and who was canonized (along with St. Ignatius Loyola, his fellow Jesuit) in 1622.

This Novena is often celebrated from March 4 to March 12, the anniversary of Francis’s canonization.  The Church of St. Thomas More in St. Paul is currently praying the Novena of Grace in the context of the celebration of the Mass, with a preacher (this year Brother Tho Vu, S.J.) giving the homily each evening (and at the Sunday masses), which draws on the life of St. Francis Xavier.

Although I have missed most of the sessions, I was able to attend last evening. The Mass opened with a lovely Litany and Brother Tho gave a thoughtful homily on forgiveness.

Here is the prayer we prayed at the conclusion of the general intercessions:

Lord God, we honor the memory of the apostle of the Indies and Japan, St. Francis Xavier.

The remembrance of the favors with which you blessed him during life and of his glory after death fills us with joy; and we unite with him in offering to you our sincere tribute of thanksgiving and praise.  We ask you to grant us, through his powerful intercession, the supreme blessing of living and dying in the state of grace.  We also ask you to grans us the favors we seek in this novena.

[pause to bring to mind the spiritual or temporal favor you wish to receive.]

But if what we ask is not for the glory of God and the good of our souls, grant us, we pray, what is more conducive to both.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

St. Francis Xavier, pray for us!

In anticipation of a communal Reconciliation service to be held at Our Lady of Lourdes on Saturday, Fr. Dan Griffith, pastor at Lourdes, asked me to write a piece for this week’s bulletin on the sacrament.  Here is the piece I wrote and that appears in this parish week’s bulletin, titled Why Confession Matters:

I went to Catholic grade school in the 1960s, a time when we were marched over to the church every two weeks to confess our sins. Every two weeks for eight years I confessed the same sins: I disobeyed my parents and I fought with my brothers and sisters. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure what God or I got out of this biweekly exercise, since I knew I’d start committing the same sins over and over again as soon as I received my absolution and did my penance.

What I didn’t understand then is that the sacrament of Reconciliation (what we sometimes call Penance or Confession), is a grace-filled invitation is get in touch with the great love God has for us.

St. Augustine, after writing his Confessions, second-guessed having done so. He wondered: If I’ve come to regret my sinful past and believe God has forgiven me, why not simply put my past behind me. Why put all this bad stuff from my past down on paper? His answer to that question was that it was the recognition of his own sinfulness that had led him to recognize the love of God. It was only when he realized the depth and extent of the presence of sin in his life that he was able to see who God is and how God worked in his life.

The theologian Michael Himes similarly suggests that Reconciliation “is not about how wicked I have been but rather about how good God is.” The sacrament, he suggests, “is not primarily about my action, whether good or bad, but about God’s action.” Himes observes that this makes Reconciliation a source of joy as we acknowledge “that all have sinned and all are forgiven because all are embraced by the love of God….What is being celebrated is not the depth of our sin but the height of God’s love.”

Does this mean I need to recite my sins to a priest? That I need to have a priest say the words of reconciliation. This is what some of my friends who are not Catholic ask me. They say “Yes, I see the value of confession, but I don’t see why you need a priest to do this. Why not talk directly to God.”

My reply is that there is something about the formality of the sacramental rite that is extraordinarily meaningful. There is not only value in the examination of conscience the prepares us to approach the sacrament, but there is something about articulating out sins out loud, about having to find the words to speak to another person those things that weigh heavy on our hearts that is liberating. The reality is that we can’t move forward with God if we are weighed down by remorse over our sins. We can’t share our joy and love with the world if we are mired in our sin. We need to accept that we are forgiven. To accept that, we are restored to right relationship with God. And hearing the words of absolution is like having an enormous weight lifted from our shoulders.

Jesus often told people: Go your sins are forgiven. In hearing the words of absolution during the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are reminded that in our blindness, in our lapses from grace, in our sinfulness – we are fully embraced by God’s love. And it is that love and forgiveness of God and our confidence and knowledge of that love and forgiveness that allow us to be better than ourselves – to go and proclaim the Gospel to the world.


Yesterday I led the third session of the six-session Lent Scripure Study of the Gospel of Mark we are doing at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Minneapolis.  In the first session, I gave a brief introduction to the Gospel of Mark and talked about Jesus’ Early Galilean Ministry. (Mark 1:1-3:6)  Last Sunday, while I was out at Pepperdine, Patrice Stegbauer led the session on what is sometimes termed Jesus’ Later Galilean Ministry. (Mark 3:7-6:6a)

In our third session yesterday, I addressed Jesus’ ministry in and beyond Galilee. (Mark 6:6b-8:30)  In my talk I focused on several episodes: The missioning of the twelve (that opens this segment), the death of John the Baptist, the invitation to rest and feeding of the multitude, Jesus’ walking on water, and healings of the deaf man and of the blind man at Bethsaida.  I ended with Peter’s declaration of who Jesus is.  Many of these are passages I have prayed with many times (and some of which I have written about here in the past).

To comment on one of those: After feeding the multitude, Jesus sends his disciples ahead of him in their boat and he goes up to the mountain to pray. The disciples are out on the boat on the sea and, as they are battling an adverse wind Jesus comes toward them early in the morning walking on the sea.

The disciples are terrified at what they see, thinking it is a ghost, to which Jesus says “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” He then gets into the boat with them and the wind dies down. Mark ends the passage by telling us, “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

There are several things we might take from this passage. First, Jesus always comes to us in the storms of life. I am reminded of the words of God to Isaiah: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.”

Second, we have to ask: why did they not recognize Jesus?  And why were they so utterly astonished that Jesus walked to them on the sea and then calmed the waters?  Mark tells us they did not understand the lesson from the loaves and fishes.  One commentator writes

Had the disciples understood who Jesus truly was there would have been no reason for them to be amazed. They would have understood that the same God who granted them power to go out and preach, and who turned a few loaves into several bakeries worth of bread, was the same God who walked on the water, calmed the seas and then climbed into the boat with them.

The disciple’s hearts were not sensitive to spiritual things.  Their minds hadn’t been honed to process and understand the spiritual realities that were unfolding around them. So the disciples found themselves in a boat to be taught the same lesson all over again. The great storm came up to test and teach them again that Jesus is the Son of God.  The wind and waves rose so that they would understand that God is with them and will provide for all their needs. And then Jesus walked on water.

Do we know who Jesus is?  Hearkening back to my comments yesterday about worry, do we know that God is with us and will provide for all our needs?


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