Was Jesus a Shrewd Animal?

That was the title of the reflection offered by my friend Dave Bateson at Weekly Manna the other day, which focused on thinking about networking from a Christian perspective.

Dave started by reading an excerpt from David Brook’s’ recent book, The Road to Character. In the portion he read, Brooks talks describes our society as functioning within a merit system the encourages us to treat every occasion and every other person as an opportunity for personal advancement. As a result, Brooks suggests that our meaning of “character” has changed. Instead of using terms like self-sacrifice, integrity, and generosity to describe character, we use terms like self-control, grit, tenacity. In short, a change from characteristics that risk our success in worldly terms to those that make us more likely to succeed – what Dave calls a shrewd animal.

Dave stressed that there is nothing wrong with networking, and recognizes the value to our students in doing so. But, he suggested, there is a problem when our short-term goal (e.g., getting a job) replaces the humanity of the people involved. When we put time only into those people who can give us something and only for so long as they do so. When we make decisions about who we spend time with in stark cost-benefit terms.

And that brought Dave to the question that was the title of his talk. If Jesus had been a shrewd animal, he would have connected with the scribes and Pharisees rather than criticizing them. If Jesus had been a shrewd animal, he would have been the military leader the Jews of his time wanted the Messiah to be. Instead, Jesus chose to connect with people who could do absolutely nothing to advance his earthly interests. Instead, he said and did a lot of things that all but guaranteed his failure in the way the world measures success and failure

If we would be like Jesus rather than behaving as a shrewd animal, Dave suggested, our networking should focus on relationships rather than solely on benefit to ourself (in Catholic terms, we speak of seeing others as ends and not as means) and our goals should be authentic relationships.

Dave had some great suggestions for our students of questions to ask themselves to examine how they are approaching their networking, and made some great comments about how counter-cultural this way of thought is. I am hoping he will write up an full version of his remarks; if he does I will amend the post to include a link to it.


I Will, With the Help of God

Yesterday afternoon I attended the wedding of a former student, a wonderful young woman who was my first research assistant at the the University of St. Thomas School of Law. It was a perfect day for an outdoor wedding ceremony and reception at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

I found the ceremony, conducted by the aunt of the bride, to be moving in very many ways. But what struck me most was the response she called for when she asked the bride and groom, prior to their pronouncement of their formal wedding vows, if they were prepared to give themselves to each other, to love and support each other no matter what. If they were prepared to do so, she asked them to respond: “I will, with the help of God.”

I will, with the help of God.

Marriage is not easy. No human relationship is. And the truth of the matter is that left to our own devices – to our own limited strength – we don’t always manage our marriages or our other relationships as well as we might. We need God’s grace. And I found the explicit acknowledgement of that need both refreshing and quite powerful.

I will, with the help of God.

Faith and Relationship With Christ

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am.” And then he asks them what my friend Fr. Dan Griffith suggested in his homily this morning is the most important question we can ask ourselves: “Who do you say I am.”

Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

Here is what Pope Francis said in his Angeles address today about Peter’s reply and Jesus’ reaction thereto:

This Sunday’s Gospel (Mt. 16, 13-20) is the famous passage, which is central in St. Matthew’s account. Simon, in the name of the Twelve, professes his faith in Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus calls Simon “blessed” for this faith, recognizing in him a special gift from the Father, and he says to him: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

Let us pause for a moment on this point, on the fact that Jesus attributes this new name to Simon: “Peter”, who in Jesus’ language is pronounced “Kefa”, a word that means “rock”. In the Bible, this name, this word “rock” is referred to God. Jesus attributes it to Simon not for his quality or for his human merits, but for his genuine and firm faith, which comes from above.

Jesus feels a great joy in His heart, because He recognizes in Simon the hand of the Father, the action of the Holy Spirit. He recognizes that God the Father has given to Simon a “trustworthy” faith, in which He, Jesus, can build his Church, that is, His community. That is, all of us, all of us. Jesus has in mind to give life to “His” Church, a people no longer founded on ancestry but rather on faith, namely a relationship with Himself, a relationship of love and of trust. Our relationship with Jesus builds the Church. And so to start his Church, Jesus needs to find in the disciples a solid faith, “trustworthy.” It is this that He must verify at this point of His journey. And that is why He asks the question.

The Lord has in mind the image of constructing, the image of the community as an edifice. That is why, when he hears Simon’s sincere profession of faith, he calls him “rock”, the intention of building his Church upon this faith is manifested.

Brothers and sisters, that which has occurred in a unique way to Saint Peter, also takes place in every Christian that develops a sincere faith in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Today’s Gospel challenges each and every one of us. How is your faith? Each one must answer in their heart. How is your faith? What does the Lord find in our hearts? A steadfast heart like a rock or a sand-like heart, that is, doubtful, wary, incredulous? It would do us well today to think about this.

If the Lord finds in our hearts a faith, I do not say perfect, but sincere, genuine, then He also sees in us the living stones with which he can build his community. Of this community, the fundamental rock is Christ, the only cornerstone. On his part, Peter is a rock, as a visible foundation of the unity of the Church; but each baptized person is called to offer to Jesus their own faith, poor but sincere, so that He can continue to build his Church, today, in every part of the world.

Even today, “the people” believe Jesus to be a great prophet, a master of wisdom, a model of justice…And today Jesus asks his disciples, that is us, all of us: “But you, who do you say that I am?” What will we respond? Let us think about this. But above all let us pray to God the Father, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary; let us pray that He may give us the grace to respond, with a sincere heart: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

This is a confession of faith, this is the Creed. Let us all repeat this three times together: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Personal Encounter with the Risen One

During these days following Easter, we listen to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. These are scenes I love praying with. And never listen to me when I say that one or another is my favorite (which I have at times claimed of Emmaus, of the scene of Jesus and the disciple on the beach, and of ….); each one of the accounts touches me deeply, albeit in different ways.

Today’s Gospel gives us St. John’s account of the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Christ. Mary, who obviously has deep love for Jesus, stands weeping outside of his empty tomb, sad and confused. Not only is Jesus dead, but his body is gone – stolen, she fears.

But then she sees a man that she mistakes for a gardener. “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you have ladi him, and I will take him.” And then the man speaks her name. “Mary.” And with that one word, everything changes. Grief turns to joy as Mary recognizes Jesus and runs to him and embraces him.

In the words of one commentator,

The encounter was deeply personal. By speaking her name, Jesus touched her at the center of her heart, the place where all her fears lurked, the place where the struggle between the darkness of sin and the light of God’s love was the fiercest. There, in the depth of her heart, Mary received the love of God, and her sadness was turned into a joy that moved her to tell the other disciples: “I have seen the Lord.”

In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis invites “all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” And that encounter is essential to our growth in discipleship. Quoting Pope Benedict, Francis writes, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

Jesus seeks the same personal encounter with each of us that Mary and his disciples experienced. All we need to do is accept his invitation

Either It Means Everything Or It Means Nothing

I had never phrased it exactly that way before, but that’s the way it came out of my mouth in a recent book talk.

We had been talking about relationship with God and finding time to nurture that. I don’t remember the comment or question that preceded it, but I stopped, looked around at the audience and said, “Either it means everything or it means nothing.”

And I think that is an absolutely correct phrasing, that there is no in between. Either our relationship with God is everything, motivating everything about who we are in the world or doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, I can’t see what meaning it has.

God is not one thing among many, one priority on a par with others. Nothing else matters the way our relationship with God does. And that means that we have to make time to nurture the relationship. We can’t be satisfied with a once a week observance or treat God like a “get out of jail free” card to be pulled out in time of need.

We can nurture the relationship in many ways. Individual prayer. Group prayer and worship. Bible and other spiritual reading. Conversation with spiritual friends. But, however we do so, there can’t be anything as (let alone more) important as that.

Either it means everything, or it means nothing.

The Centrality of God

I just returned from several days in New York, where I presented both an evening program on Thursday, Growing in Love and Wisdom, on the subject of my forthcoming OUP book of that title, and a weekend women’s Lent retreat on the theme of A Lenten Pilgrimage. Both were wonderful experiences.

Since Thursday evening’s program was about adapting meditations drawn from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for Christian prayer, not surprisingly, several questions both during the Q&A portion of the program and afterward were about my conversion back to Catholicism from Buddhism. (That is a subject that will be addressed in much detail in the book manuscript I’m finally about to get back to now that the meditation book is in production.)

One woman, someone who described herself as not having given up Catholicism but who primarily practices Zen Buddhist meditation, came up to me after the program to express surprise at my return to “traditional Catholicism.” She was surprised by my mention at one point about the Sacrament of Reconciliation (the primary source of her “traditional” label, I think, since I don’t tend to be labeled a traditional Catholic all that often) and wanted to know what was missing in Buddhism that I had to come back to Catholicism.

I’ve addressed the subject of Reconciliation in posts before, and I shared with the woman some of what I’ve written here in the past. (See e.g., here.) I also shared with her (to her surprise) that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has a confessional practice for monks and nuns that doesn’t look very different from the Catholic sacrament. I engaged in the practice many times while I was a Buddhist nun.

As to the “what was missing” question, my immediate answer was the centrality of personal relationship with God. My years as a Buddhist were incredibly worthwhile and important to my spiritual growth. But, although I never before framed the question to myself the way the woman did, what was missing in Buddhism for me was the centrality of God. For some people, that may not matter, and their spiritual lives can be complete in ways that don’t require God at the center. But not me. I came (albeit after a lot of years) to realize that without God something was missing. And not just a something that could be replaced by something else. But the something that is irreplaceable and without which nothing else could make sense. The something that defines everything about who I am – that is the ground of my being.

Maybe that does make me traditional. But, if so, that is a definition of traditional that I’m completely comfortable with.

By the way: You can listen to the talk I gave last Thursday evening on Growing in Love and Wisdom at the icon below. You can also download the podcast here. (The podcast runs for 42:33.) In the talk, I explored some of the common values and understandings underlying Christianity and Buddhism and talked about how meditations drawn from the Buddhist tradition can enhance our prayer lives as Christians.

Prayer as Relationship

One of the things I frequently emphasize in talks I give is that prayer is a two-way relationship. It is not a monologue with one person doing all of the talking. Prayer involves not only our speaking with God, but letting God speak to us, letting God speak to our hearts.

In her book Experiencing God’s Tremendous Love, Sr. Maureen Connolly describes four dynamics of relational prayer. They are: looking, sharing, listening, and responding. We want to begin our prayer, she suggests by looking at God and getting a sense of how God is looking at us, experiencing his loving gaze. We then share whatever it is that is on our mind, after which we sit and give God a chance to communicate back to us. (This third step has to be emphasized because we too often fill our prayer with our desires, with our agenda, without given God a chance to speak to us. Our attitude must more and more reflect the words of Samuel: “Speak, God, your servant is listening.”)

Finally, we need to respond. As we enter into relationship with God, as we look at, share with, and listen to God, it is usually the case that some reaction arises in us. We may feel joy, greater love for God, gratitude, or we may feel fear, or anger. The next step is how we will move from those somewhat passive reactions to active personal responses. Our spontaneous reaction becomes a response to God when we choose to do something with the reaction that arises.

Our new pastor presented a slightly different version of Connolly’s steps in his first weekend sermon in our parish and gave a short reprise this past weekend. He termed it “praying like a pirate,” which I think was particularly effective for some of the younger folks in the pews.

Praying like a pirate, “ARRR” for short, involves, he explained, acknowledging, relating, receiving and responding. We acknowledge some area of our life that needs our attention with God, we relate to God what we need to about that situation or area, we receive what it is God wants to communicate with us, and we respond.

The steps can be formulated in different ways. The important thing to remember is that prayer is a two-way conversation and we need to let God get a word and not monopolize the conversation.

This is a reminder we can all use. It is a fitting reminder to myself this morning, as I begin the first full day of my annual 8-day retreat at the beautiful Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where I arrived late yesterday aftenoon. Please keep me in your prayers.

The Rich Man’s Loss

Today’s Gospel from St. Luke is Jesus’ tale to the Pharisees of the rich man and Lazarus. Each day, the rich man “dined sumptuously,” while lying at his door “was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell form the rich man’s table.” The story goes on to tell what happened to each after their death, but what I want to focus on is that opening image.

One can almost imagine the rich man walking into his house day after day, having to practically step over Lazarus in the process. I suspect that over time, the man ceased to even notice that the poor man was lying there, seeing him as part of the surroundings. What he didn’t see was his loss. He wouldn’t have seen it that way – he had everything and Lazarus had nothing. But he missed seeing something that could have changed his life.

Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, spoke eloquently on what the rich man missed out on: not merely a chance to feed someone, but a chance to live in relationship with him. He writes:

You can imagine someone in the street falling down and your going to help the person to get up. Then something happens. As you listen to that person you become friends. Perhaps you discover that he or she is living in squalor and has little money. You are not just being generous, you are entering into a relationship which will change your life. You are no longer in control. You have become vulnerable; you have come to love that person. You have listened to her story. You have been touched by that incredible beautiful person who has lived something incredibly difficult. You are no longer in control, you are no longer just the generous one; you have become vulnerable. You have become a friend.

We think of the rich man “suffering torment” after his death because he didn’t share his food with Lazarus. But his greater reason for torment was failing to take the opportunity to be in relationship with someone in need – to become vulnerable, to love.

Most of us dont’ walk over beggars covered with sores on the way into our dinner table. But I suspect we all have people we don’t see – people in need with whom we could be in relationship.

Summer Vacation

When I was in grade school, the first few days of the new school year always involved the “What I did on my summer vacation” reports. As school children, we loved vacation and we loved talking about what we did (even if, for most of the summer, it was just the local public school vacation day camp with sports in the morning and arts and crafts in the afternoon).

When I practiced law, my experience was that a not insignificant number of lawyers in the law firm did not take their full vacation time. Many lawyers seemed to pride themselves on being constantly available and never taking time away from work. (“I haven’t taken vacation in __” was a non uncommon boast, and one that drew approving nods.)

But rest from labor is important. As my friend John reminds me, vacation is a time of re-creation. And what we do during our rest from labor matters, it says a lot about who we are. There is a beautiful short essay by Father Richard Veras in this month’s Magnificat, called The Importance of Vacation Time. He speaks of vacation (he thinks the better word is holiday) as giving us an opportunity “for an even great awareness of God’s presence, an even deeper gratitude toward him who is always the source of all that is good.”

Of course, we pray always and we have the opportunity to be with God always; we don’t need vacation to be in the aware of God’s presence. But it is important for us to take time away from our usual obligations and distractions to spend some greater “quality time” with God. Maybe that means some long hikes in the mountains hand in hand with Jesus. Maybe it means taking God to the beach and watching the sunrise together. It could mean a lot of different things, but whatever it is, we need that time.

Veras ends his essay with a beautiful prayer:

May our vacation days not merely be empty of labor, but full of true joy. May we take full advantage of the free time given to us to encounter the love, truth and beauty of Christ in the myriad of ways he comes to us. May we look forward to the unexpected ways he will show himself to us in this privileged time, and may we find outselves re-created so that our belonging to Christ may help to renew the face of the earth.

[Written from Grand Marais, Minnesota, where Dave, Elena and I are hiking and kayaking with God.]

What it Means to Have Friends

I was noticing how often my posts make reference to one or another of my friends; how frequently I refer to my friend John, my friend Maria, my friend Tim, my friend Aidan, my friend [fill in the blank]. I thought of how many times I share something one of them said to me, or gave me or introduced me to.

I thought of this in connection to the video currently being featured on the famvin website (maintained by my friend John). The video, a project of The Work of the People, is titled What is Poverty?

The speaker in the video begins by relating a question he asked a group of theologians: What is poverty? Their answers included things like lack of money and lack of housing, i.e., poverty defined in terms of lack of material goods.

He then asked the group this question: If you learned that you lost all of your savings, your house, your job, and everything you own, so that you are now homeless and have nothing, how much time do you think it would take you to find (a) something to eat? (b) a place to sleep? (c) something to do, some kind of job? Their answers were (a) minutes to find something to eat; (b) perhaps a couple of hours to find a place to sleep; (c) within a week to find work. Most of us would give similar answers, and we would do so because we are not poor.

In other words, he said, poverty is not simply about lack of material goods. It is about lack of relationships. Lack of friends. I could lose everything I have and not be poor, not experience what the poor experience. I have enough people I could call, could go to, who would help provide what I need.

And that tells us something important both about ourselves – about how blessed we are – and about how we need to think about addressing poverty. We need to do more than find some way to meet the material needs of others. We need to find ways to bring them into relationship with others, with ourselves.