Risking Growth

Yesterday evening Dave and I attended the wedding of the daughter of friends of ours. It was lovely ceremony and celebration.

The officiant was a Presbyterian minister, whose address to the couple spoke beautifully of some of the gifts these two young people bring to their marriage, and the challenges they would face. But the line she spoke that kept coming back to me was a very simple one: She spoke of marriage as requiring a willingness to risk who you are for the sake of who you could become.

Isn’t that the risk we face in all change, in all opportunities for growth? Invitations to change, opportunities to grow, by definition, always require us to risk who we are for the sake of who we might become.

And that makes change and growth a bit frightening. Who we are is comfortable. Even when we are not fully satisfied with our situation, our environment, ourselves – we become accustomed to the situation we are in. Changing that seems unsettling. Even more so when things seem to be going well. Why upset the apple cart? Why fix something that doesn’t seem to be broken?

But to fail to grow is to fail to thrive. It is to accept being less than our true selves. (To quote St. Irenaeus, “the glory of God is a human person fully alive.”)

To thrive, become fully alive, we need to step out of our comfort zone. We need to risk who we are for the sake of who we might become. Time and time again.


What Jesus Learned from the Canaanite Woman

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman who asks him to heal her daughter, who is being tormented by a demon. Jesus replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman persists, “Lord, help me.” He refuses again, saying “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Still she persists, arguing that “even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Finally, Jesus is persuaded to do as she wishes.

This encounter reminds us that even Jesus needed to grow into an understanding of his mission. Many people seem to think Jesus came out of the womb with a full understanding of his destiny. This ignores that fact that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine and that he grew in knowledge and understanding.

When Jesus first sent out his disciples, he tells them (in Matthew 10), “Do not make your way to gentile territory, and do not enter any Samaritan town; go instead to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” It is clear that in the early part of his public ministry, Jesus viewed himself to be the savior of the Israelites – and thus his disciples were charged with gathering the lost sheep of the House of Israel. However, by the end, he is saying something very different. In each of the three synoptic Gospels, Jesus commissions the disciples before his ascension. In Matthew, Jesus says, “go and make disciples of all nations.” In Mark, he tells them to go into the “whole world.” And in Luke he tells them it is written in the law of Moses that “repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations.”

When we are so sure that we have it right, it is good to remember that even Jesus didn’t have it right from the beginning. Even Jesus had to continue to discern and to pray and to grow in his understanding of his mission.

Recognizing Our Addictions

When we hear the word addiction, we tend to think of substance abuse. Addicts are people who are hooked on drugs or alcohol. And for most of us, that means someone other than us.

Richard Rohr invites us to think about addiction differently. In Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, he writes:

We are all addicts. Human beings are addictive by nature. Addiction is a modern name and description for what the biblical tradition calls “sin” and the medieval Christians called “passions” or “attachments.”…

Substance additions are merely the most visible form of addiction, but actually we are all addicted to our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defenses, and most especially our patterned way of thinking, or how we process our reality. By definition you can never see or handle what you are addicted to. It is always “hidden” and disguised as something else. As Jesus did with the demon at Gerasa, someone must say, “What is your name?” (Luke 8:30). You cannot heal what you do not first acknowledge.

Rohr is right, I think, as to both the importance of overcoming our addictions and the difficulty in recognizing them in ourselves. And that means we often need the help of others in dealing with this.

I mean that in two fashions. First, as someone commented during our retreat this past weekend, it is always instructive to see what behaviors or traits in others we react strongly negatively to. Often, we find that what we are reacting to in them is something in us (although the trait or characteristic many not manifest in us exactly as it manifests in the other).

Second, just as addicts often benefit form an “intervention” by their friends and families, those closest to us can be helpful in pointing out to us our defenses and habitual ways. May we be grateful for the help of those who are willing to help us see those things we need to change in ourselves…and may we (with love) do the same for them.

Rules and Spiritual Growth

The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have recently reinstated the practice that the obligation of Friday penance is to be met by fully abstaining from meat on Fridays. Some time ago, I saw the fact that this was being considered reported on someone’s blog, where it prompted several people to express the hope in comments to the blog post that the American bishops do the same. More than one person wrote that the practice of abstaining from meat was a good one and that therefore it was good for people to be told they had to do it.

The other day, my friend Marc wrote a post on Mirror of Justice, a group blog of which he and I are both contributing authors, about the reinstatement in England and Wales, prompting my friend Rick (also a contributing author on the blog) to comment that he thought it would be great if this were instituted in the U.S. as well.

Recalling the prior comments I had read on this issue, Rick’s comment prompted me to inquire about the necessity of the Bishops imposing a mandate on this. If one thinks it is a good spiritual practice to do so, why not just refrain from eating meat once a week, I asked. If it is beneficial, why does one need to be forced to do it? Several people responded with good points about the value of a common ethic and way of life and the value of a leading voice calling people to reinstitute the practice. Some suggested that rules were an important starting point – that compelling a practice was a good thing and that perhaps the time would then come when the mandate was no longer necessary. (You can read the post and all of the comments here.)

My concern is that while rules may be a good starting point, they too easily become the end point. Far too often, the effect of rules is to stifle rather than encourage spiritual development. Rules lead many people to think all they need to do is follow the rules that are established by some authority (here, the Bishops) and they’ve fulfilled their Christian duty. Others very carefully follow the letter of the law, forgetting about the spirit. (With respect to this particular practice, when I was growing up there was nothing penitential about no meat on Fridays – every kid in my neighborhood thought it was a treat because we got to eat pizza or macaroni and cheese for dinner. And I know many Catholics who go out for nice sushi dinners on Fridays during Lent.)

I am not suggesting there is no value in rules. But I do think a mature spirituality has to move beyond rules – to move to our doing things out of our relationship with God. Doing them not because we “have to” but because our will and God’s have become one. (What came to mind when I was posting on Mirror of Justice was Augustine’s “Love God and do as you please.”) And I fear that many people look for clear rules precisely because they are easy – they take all the responsibility off of the individual to do anything other than simply what they are told to do.

Rules have a place, especially with children. But we need to be careful to be sure that rules are aiding spiritual growth, not impeding it.

Empty Nest

For months before we took Elena off last week to begin her college studies at Lawrence University, I listened to other mothers telling me stories of their experience of taking their children to college. I sobbed all the way home, one said. I cried for weeks after we dropped him off, said another. Others frequently reminded me that I’d now have an “empty nest,” telling me how difficult that would be. All of this had me quite anxious in advance of our trip to Lawrence.

On Labor Day we drove to Appleton, Wisconsin, and moved Elena into her dorm the next morning. We helped her deal with some practical issues (e.g., opening a bank account) and attended some parent orientation events before saying good-bye and driving back. During the hour or so before we departed, I kept wondering when I was going to start crying, when I would start feeling awful about the good-bye. But the tears never came, and neither did the sadness.

The truth is that I was so excited for the adventure Elena is beginning that I had no room for sadness. Now, I have truly the most wonderful daughter in the world and I love having her around and I do and will miss her. But I could see how ready she was for this experience and, as I wandered around the Lawrence campus with her, my joy and excitement was almost a match for her own. I loved being an undergraduate and knowing what these years will be for her – the growth, the adventure – filled me with delight. True, I was also jealous that I couldn’t go back to college again, but mostly I was just happy for her.

Once I got over my initial reaction to my lack of tears – the “oh no, I must be a bad mother if I’m not crying” – I felt a sense of satisfaction. Dave and I aimed to raise our daughter with “roots and wings” and I think we gave her both. As happy as I am about the strength of her roots, I’m even more proud of her wings. And so, without sadness, without tears, I rejoice in her new life.

And of course, there is Facebook chat, which allows frequent quick hellos. And I also suspect that, in addition to the periodic “regular” phone calls, there will be more calls like the 40 second one we had yesterday afternoon. “Hi Mom. I’m in the laundry room. I forgot what I do for colored clothes.” I don’t doubt there will be moments when I feel her absence strongly. And I’ll probably be asking God more frequently to watch over her than when she was here where I could look out for her. But it is all OK.

More than OK.


Particularly when we are young, we make the mistake of thinking that growth or reformation requires completely abandoning that which came before. We think embracing a new truth means deciding that a prior truth was all false. We think the good of something new means the old was completely bad.

As we mature, however, I think we need to realize that it is not always either/or, but quite often, both/and. Richard Rohr, whose writings often speak to me, expressed this well in a piece adapted from Loving the Two Halves of Life. He writes:

All-or-nothing reformations and all-or-nothing revolutions are not true reformations or revolutions. Most history, however, has not known this until now. When a new insight is reached, we must not dismiss the previous era or previous century or previous church as totally wrong. It is never true! We cannot try to reform things in that way anymore. This is also true in terms of the psyche. We grow and we pass over into the second half of life; we do not need to throw out the traditions, laws, and earlier stages. That is mere rebellion and is why so many revolutions backfire and keep people in the first half of life. It is false reform, failed revolution, and no-transformation.

So do not waste time hating mom and dad, hating the church, hating America, hating what has disappointed you. In fact, don’t hate anything. You become so upset with the dark side of things that you never discover how to put the dark and the light together, which is the heart of wisdom, all love, and the trademark of a second-half-of-life person.

It is true that not everything can be synthesized, and we may find that there truly are things along the way that need to be abandoned. But true growth means finding ways to “put the dark and the light together.”

“Tacking” Toward the Truth

I’m not a sailor, but when I lived in Hong Kong some years ago, I did go sailing often enough with friends who had a boat to learn what tacking is. Tacking refers to a series of zig zag movements that allow forward progress of the boat along the water where one would not be able to sail directly into the wind.

I hadn’t thought of the sailing manuever for a long time until I saw the title of an article in a recent issue of Commonweal about John Henry Newman: Tacking toward the Truth. Leaving aside Newman and the article, I decided I loved the phase “tacking toward the truth.” It seems to me that at some level, that is exactly what we do as we grow in our faith.

Our faith journeys can rarely be descibed as straight forward motion. (Certainly mine hasn’t been; I joke sometimes that I’m the poster child for the saying that God writes staight with crooken lines.) Instead, pushed back by our own limitations, by distractions and by any number of other things, we zig and zag on our way, with the help of our friends (it is a lot easier to tack a sailboat with a crew) and our God.

Sometimes it is hard for us to even see the progress we have made. On a sailboat, one can tell one has made some forward motion by seeing where the boat is in relation to some fixed point on the shore. I am reminded that a former spirtiual director once likened a prayer journal to precisely that – a fixed point on the shore. When I look back at my journals from two or three years ago I can see that, despite the zigs and the zags- or, more accurately, because of them, there has been some forward motion, some growing into the truth. It is the process of our lifetime and we will continue to zig and zag toward the Truth until our death.

The Power of Illusions (and the Pain of Giving Them Up)

We live under all sorts of illusions. There are some pretty major illusions that we are all prone to as human beings. But there are also more personal illusions that are unique to our situation, relationships and experience. We may have an illusion that we are better at a particular skill or task than we really are. Or we may have an illusion that a situation will turn out a certain way. Or we may have an illusion that someone is our friend where he or she doesn’t see it that way.

The thing about illusions is that they seem so real to us. It may be very clear to a third party observer that what we think is reality is an illusion, but to us the illusion is the reality. That makes it hard to give up our illusions, to let them go. Even when the evidence starts to come in that suggests that what we thought real was not, we find ways to explain the evidence away. We hang on, convinced of the reality that we created (or that was created for us; often other people contribute to our illusions, intentionally or unwittingly).

But at some point, the evidence becomes too strong to deny. There comes a time when we are forced to admit that our perceptions were faulty, that what we thought was a reality (and quite often a very pleasant reality) was in fact a fiction. And, that admission can be – and generally is – incredibly painful.

Unfortunately, the fact that what we thought was real was an illusion doesn’t diminish the pain of loss. It doesn’t do a whole lot of good to rationally explain to yourself in that situation, “Well, you’re just giving up something you never really had in the first place.” The feeling of loss for what we thought we had is still very real.

Nonetheless, we have to face up to the reality, to abandon the illusion, to suffer the loss. In those situations, we shed our tears and we pray for the grace to let go. To learn from the experience, hopefully to see with clearer eyes as we continue our life journey.

The Need to Look Away From the Ball

Yesterday, my friend John and I spent the morning at Chautauqua Institute, where we attended a program in which Roger Rosenblatt interviewed Jim Lehrer. Although I occasionally watch the MacNeil Lehrer Newshour, I had not realized that Lehrer also writes novels and there was much in his comments about both writing fiction and reporting on the news that I found interesting.

One of the comments made by Rosenblatt in response to a question about reporting on episodic catastrophes vs. important systemic problems had to do with the need to “look away from the ball.” His analogy was to basketball. When we watch a basketball game, the tendency is to keep our eyes always on the ball; that is what is exciting to us to look at. The reality, however, is that most of the action of the game takes place away from the ball – the positioning of players, the defense, etc. Thus, if we want to see a fuller picture, a truer picture, we need to look away from the ball, something that is very hard to do.

I was intrigued by the analogy, which strikes me as a useful one for us to keep in mind. We might ask ourselves: How often do we try to solve a problem by looking at the big manifestation of it, rather than the surrounding circumstances that contribute to it? How much do we focus on one piece of an issue, neglecting the bigger picture?

We tend to think it is always good to keep our eye on the ball. But it is good to be reminded of the value of broadening our vision and making sure our focus on the ball is not keeping us away from where the real action of the game is.

Ups and Downs

One of the books I’m reading is Andy Andrew’s, The Noticer, which was recommended to me by my friend John. It was sitting on a pile of new arrivals from Amazon and it was the right size to grab on the way out the door the other day when I knew I’d have some waiting time during which I could read. The book tells the story of a drifter named Jones, who has a gift for seeing things differently from most people, and the impact he has on the people with whom he comes in contact. Jones offers each a little “perspective,” he would say, on their situation.

Early in the book, Jones meets the narrator, who at the time is homeless and living under a pier. In trying to give the narrator some perspective, Jones tells him,

Think with me here…everybody wants to be on the mountaintop, but if you’ll remember, mountaintops are rocky and cold. There is no growth on the top of a mountain. Sure, the view is great, but what’s a view for? A view just gives us a glimpse of our next destination – our next target. But to hit that target, we must come off the mountain, go through the valley, and begin to climb the next slope. It is in the valley that we slog through the lush grass and rich soil, learning and becoming what enable us to summit life’s next peak. So, my contention is that you are right where you are supposed to be.

It is not always easy slogging through the valleys. That path is sometimes painful and often difficult. But the difficulties offer us room and opportunity to grow and the occasional views of our “next target” give us the encouragement and impetus to continue along the way, “learning and becoming” what we need to be able to reach that target.