Meditation 17

I’m in one of my “clean up the office” modes, and when that happens, you never know what I’m going to come across.

The other day it was the text of John Donne’s Meditation 17.

Everyone is familiar with the beginning of the last portion of that meditation: “No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” It is one of those short passages many of us memorized decades ago.

I’m not sure I ever read the meditation in its entirety, although a copy of it found its way, seemingly randomly, into a folder in the bottom drawer of my file cabinet. In case I’m the only one for whom that is true, I encourage you to read the meditation in its entirety. (You can find a copy here.)

In the early part of his meditation, Donne links our interconnectedness with our brother and sisters with our relationship to God. He writes

The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me, for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me. All mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man die, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language, and every chapter must be so translated. …God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

Our union with each other is not by virtue of some random force. Rather it proceeds from our being part of, in Christian terms, one Body in Christ. One body held together in the hands of our God.


Objects vs. Collaborators

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.

People-First Language

A letter to the editor in a recent issue of America Magazine caught my eye. In response to an editorial in a prior issue titled Dignity of the Disabled, the author of the letter wrote

I would like to emphasize the importance of avoiding the term “disabled” wherever possible and to use people-first language (“people with disabilities”), which can help center us on what is most important: the human person, rather than the exclusionary category.

A simple point, but a very important one. Whatever the source of the disability or impediment, when we speak of a disabled person, a blind person, a diabetic, a deaf person, etc, we risk reducing the persons of whom we speak “to one characteristic, making them one dimensional and ignoring all of the other strengths and talents they possess.”

Language matters. It affects how we see, how we think of others.

Pope Francis spoke just the other day about the importance of remedying exclusion of people with disabling conditions, of a solidarity that welcomes all. It helps us to do that to actually see the whole person in front of us, and not merely a single characteristic – one that seemingly makes them different from us.

Sharing the Pain as Well as the Gain

Yesterday I picked up my first CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) share box of the summer season with great excitement. We’ve been with the same farm for several years now and I love pick-up day.

We eat a lot of vegetables, so despite the fact that Elena is gone for much of the CSA season, we still get a “Grande” box. It is hard to really characterize yesterday’s box as “Grande.” Even taking account of the fact that it is early in the season (and boxes get fuller every year as we move into the summer), it was more limited than I had hoped.

As anyone in the Twin Cities and surrounding areas knows, however, it has been a very challenging spring. We went from cold (including a snowstorm on April 28) to rain. Lots of rain. Days and days of rain, and very little real sunshine. That makes it awfully difficult to get real growth in the garden.

Purchasing a CSA share means investing in a local farm. We pay a prices for our share upfront without knowing exactly what or how much we’ll get over the season. I have no doubt that each season thus far we’ve made out quite well. But the point is that we go into the season knowing that forces external to our farmers (who work incredibly hard) will affect what we get. If it is a great growing season, we wil get more; if it isn’t, we will get less.

And there is something about that set-up I really like. The idea of not shopping to get the best deal – the most product for the lowest cost. But, rather, partnering with a farm such that we share with them the pain as well as the gain, while nourishing ourselves with healthy organic produce.

And if I didn’t already have enough reason to love my farm, this year they started an Affordable Share Program, in which members and the farm contribute so that lower-income families can purchase shares at a reduced cost.

Have you checked out the CSA farms in your area? To learn more about CSA, see here.

Even a Small Star

Much of the music at the Spiritual Directors International conference this past weekend was provided by Joyce Johnson Rouse, aka Earth Mama.

One of the songs she led us in was titled A Small Star. The message of the song is a simple one: “Even a small star shines in the darkness for someone somewhere to see. It lights the way for those in the distance.”

As the lyrics of the song convey, we don’t always feel brave or strong or inspiring. But we don’t need to “feel brave to be brave….feel strong to be strong…or feel inspiring to inspire.” We need to remember that our star, however small, can light the way for others.

I was reminded when listening to the song, of a passage in my friend Randy Buck’s play Trances, which I wrote about once before. In his play one character explains his bond to another by saying:

We remain apart. Yet even the most solitary soul seeks comfort. Companionship The hand stretches across the void, longing to find – something to cling to….[T]hough we each make the journey alone, there’s comfort in seeing the glow of another pilgrim candle valiantly pierce the night. Such a tiny light, so fragile, so easily extinguished, must be cherished, nurtured, or else we stumble alone through a dark no ray can brighten.

However small it might feel to you, however small you may feel, know that your light shines for another, helping to light their way.

On Whose Behalf Are You Here?

I suspect I’ll be spending several days this week processing the various workshops, talks, meditations and other rituals that were part of the Spiritual Directors International annual conference on the theme of Cultivating Compassion.

When we gathered yesterday morning, the person leading the opening asked us to consider a simple question: On whose behalf are you here this morning?

The question struck me powerfully. As I reflected on the answer, it came to me that this was a good question to ask ourselves every day. Indeed, perhaps several times a day:

As I start my day it is worth taking a few moments to ask myself: on whose behalf do I get up this morning? As I undertake each new task of the day, to ask myself: on whose behalf do I do this?

I believe my life belongs to God, which means that I want everything I do to be in furtherance of God’s plan of salvation, in furtherance of my particular calling to co-labor in the illumination of God’s kingdom. But, the reality is that we get distracted from time to time and we don’t always live up to our calling.

To put to myself the question asked this morning seems to me an aid in keeping myself on task, so to speak. Keeping myself focused on my part in building kingdom.

You may find the question useful as well. On whose behalf are you here this morning?

The “Virtue of Mortification”

I’ve referred any number of times to my deep commitment to the Vincentian charism and my ties to members of the Vincentian family. So it was with enthusiasm that I read last night the Lenten letter written by the Vincentian Superior General, Gregory Gay, C.M.

In a time of economic crisis that has affected the world, Fr. Gay asks if we should consider whether we tend to “act too quickly to protect ourselves and our own interests” and with insufficient concerns for the needs of others. He invites us to practice this Lent what he terms the “virtue of mortification.” After reminding us that the root of the word “mortification” is to sacrifice, putting others before oneself, he writes that the virtue of mortification

is an opportunity for us, as we say, to tighten our belts, to live more simply in order that those who are usually on the lower side of the scale will feel less the effects of the crisis than usual. We are asked to reverse the scenario, so that it be us and not them who feel the suffering. Saint Vincent practiced this continually when he referred to the poor as our lords and masters. He did not speak of a relationship of equals, but he went to the other extreme in order to help create a more balanced relationship….Rather than drawing in on ourselves in these times of crisis, enveloped in our own selfish attitudes, let this time of Lent be a time of solidarity.

Although written to the Vincentian family, the suggestions in Fr. Gay’s letter are ones worthy of being followed by all of us. All of us, as he suggests, “are part of the whole and are invited to live in harmony one with another…. [Lent] is a time of abandonment, a time of mortification, a time of reconciliation, a time of collaboration and solidarity. Lent is a time of harmony and peace. It is a time of new life. It is a time of movement from death to life, a time of moving out of oneself and moving towards the other, and the Other.”

You can read Fr. Gay’s Lenten message in its entirety on the famvin website here.

Restoring Those Who Dwelt Apart

In the first Mass reading for today, from Leviticus, the instruction is given that those with leprosy shall be declared unclean and “shall dwell apart, making [their] abode outside the camp.” Then, in the Gospel, Jesus heals a leper, declaring him clean.

When Jesus heals the leper, he does more than simply heal his physical illness. More important than the physical healing is the healing brought by the restoration to the community of one who had been forced to “dwell apart.”

Solidarity, a basic principle of Catholic Social Thought, recognizes that a basic element of human existence is interdependence and relationship; living as human means living in community. In Christian terms, human life is fulfilled in communion with others and with God. In speaking to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II once explained that “God is not solitude but perfect communion. … From God, who is communion, derives the vocation of the whole of humanity to form one great family.”

The setting apart of the leper deprives him of that which he needs to live a fully human life. Jesus’ healing gives him back more than his physical health. It brings him back to communion, back to the community.


We’ve been reading from the Letter to the Hebrews as the first reading at Mass. In today’s passage, we are told that “[W]e must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another.”

It is good to remind ourselves that we are part of a community. That our faith as Catholics is never just about me and God, but that we live our lives in communion with the living Body of Christ. And that implies that we have obligations beyond ourselves, indeed beyond those within our closest circles of families and friends.

Part of that obligation is the obligation to rouse and encourage one another. This is not an invitation to be on the lookout for every failing of those we come in contact with so that we can point out their imperfections to them. (In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus points out that we tend to be a lot better at seeing the mote in our neighbor’s eye than the beam in our own.) Rather, it is an invitation to help bring out the best in each other, to help build up the Body of Christ. So we should be on the lookout for opportunities to “rouse one another to love and good works.”

From Those Who Have Been Given Much, Much Will Be Expected

Yesterday was a crazy day for me, so I didn’t read the newspaper until I got home from work, and thus, not until then did I focus on the fact that yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.  As I read the New York Times op-ed page (yes, we still read the NYT, even though we’ve now been in Minneapolis for almost 11 months), which contained memories of Kennedy written by his children, I recalled the sadness and loss so many of us felt when we learned RFK had been killed.

The piece in the NYT that most struck me was that written by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who recalled her father’s outrage at injustice.  What he most wanted his children to understand is that we who are privileged have an obligation.  In describing the aftermath of her father’s visit to the Mississippi delta, Townsend says, “He reiterated his message of personal responsibility, which was familiar to the whole family.  My father had often quoted St. Luke, that from those who have been given much, much will be expected….[O]n that evening, his outrage was especially obvious, his sense of injustice palpable.  And he wanted his children to feel the desperation of those children the way he had – and to see the need to do something positive about it.”

From those who have been given much, much will be expected.  Kennedy understood that “much” requires not just that we look and feel bad at the suffering we see, but that we “do something positive about it.”  Kennedy’s message to his children is a message central to our faith.  In his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II described the principle of solidarity.  As expressed by him, solidarity “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far.  On the contrary, it is a firm and perservering determinatiion to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” 

We are each individually responsible for all.  We have been given much.  How do we use it?