Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sign Me Up!

“Youths or young men who feel a strong desire to toil for the souls of heathen people and who are willing to go afar with no hope of earthly recompense and with no guarantee of a return to their native land are encouraged to write, making their letter personal, to the Editor of Field Afar.”

This 'call to vocations' was printed in 1911 by James A. Walsh, M.M., editor of the Field Afar. It was a call to join the Maryknoll congregation for foreign missions. The complete story can be found at America here.

Two things struck me when reading this.

The first was that joining the Army has always seemed to have parallels to entering religious life: it is a life of work and discipline, of hierarchy, of living by a code of conduct, in community, sacrificing for a common (and higher) purpose, etc.

The second thing that I thought about was how much the 'marketing' has changed for the Army since the World Wars. I run into a lot of Armed Forces recruiters at college fairs, and it seems there has been a shift from serving (and dying for) your country because its patriotic, to, "you can earn money for college!" They are catering to a self-serving generation less familiar with the idealism of serving for a common, collective purpose. (One of my favorite papers in graduate school was by William Cavanaugh, titled "Dying for the Telephone Company." kind of relates here.)

Just reading the above quote about "toiling for heathen souls...with no earthly recompense and no guarantee of return," I couldn't help thinking, "who in this generation would take up that offer?" It's no wonder why people living in a "what's in it for me?" age are not joining religious communities.

This applies to marriage as well. If marriage and the family truly is the building block of society, that suggests there is an irrefutable 'social' component of marriage--that is, a healthy society is built on healthy families. The majority of our families in the West are not healthy, and as a result, our society suffers. That means marriage is not just about 'you and me,' but about the good of society, as well.

Now, few people get married 'for the sake of society.' They get married for themselves or for their families--sometimes out of love, sometimes out of obligation (as in arranged marriages). But the residual effect of this marriage bleeds out into the social fabric inadvertently. Marriages that break up are not just rifts between two people, but they tear at the fabric of society as a whole.

Think of a National Forest that has signs posted everywhere "DO NOT LIGHT FIRES." For the collective good of all, somebody (the U.S. Forest Service) takes precautions so the forest doesn't burn down because of the carelessness of one person. Does this mean that starting a campfire for one's own pleasure is going to burn down the whole forest? Not necessarily. One might be responsible, watching it carefully, building a fire ring, dousing it with water to make sure its out. But the more people who disobey the rules--ie, if the signs are taken down, or generally ignored-- the greater the chance of the destruction of the forest as a whole.

I honestly don't get a good feeling about the direction our post-modern society is headed as it gets more individualistic and relativistic. Less people willing to join "God's Army," and live by an established set of moral guidelines spells disaster for future generations. "Sometimes a way seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Rosary Reflections as an Expecting Parent

While praying the rosary this afternoon and meditating on the Joyful mysteries, each one held a special meaning for me now as an expecting parent. I thought I would share some of the things that came to me in prayer:

The First Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation

Mary said yes--"let it be done to me according to your word." What if she would have aborted? Always an option. Yet Mother Teresa said, "it is a poverty that a child must die so that you may live as you wish." Mary did not ask to be the Mother of God. She was chosen. She forfeited her idea of her life for a greater purpose. Lord, help me to do the same.

The Second Joyful Mystery: The Visitation

I don't know how many months pregnant Mary was when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, but the journey was at least eighty miles and would have taken multiple days. How easy would it have been for Mary, bearing such 'precious cargo' in her womb, to say, "I shouldn't go anywhere...what if something bad happens along the way? Best to just stay put." Mary was not fearful. She "hurried" to see Elizabeth, as much to be among one who believed in God's plan for her, as to pay visitation. Lord, don't let me live in fear, and help us to be surrounded by spiritual mentors who are strong in faith and courage, who will help us raise a child in the right ways.

The Third Joyful Mystery: The Nativity

Jesus was born without a nursery, a proper crib, or disposable diapers. And yet he grew up healthy and strong. When we get lambasted by the baby marketing, Lord, help me keep your lowly birth in mind.

The Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation in the Temple

In accordance with the Law, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple to be consecrated to the Lord. This 'offering up' in obedience to the Law reminds me how I must offer up my idea of using artificial contraception in our marriage, based on the teaching of the Church. I am still divided, yet the more I pray, the more I feel my desire to trust God, and not my own will, growing. It's like trusting a parent--sometimes you don't know why they tell you to do the things they do, but you trust that it is in your best interest. I am still nervous about it, but Lord, help me to consecrate my will to You.

The Fifth Joyful Mystery: The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple

I still remember when we thought my brother was lost, when he was little. Turns out he was asleep in the top bunk, while our family scoured the neighborhood in a panic. When I came back to the house and found him, the relief was profound. Since then I have had a fear of 'losing' my own child, and do not like crowded places for this reason (that scene in Crazy Heart when Jeff Bridges loses the little boy in the mall was hard for me to watch). Jesus, twelve years old, wandered off in Jerusalem away from his parents. I feel the panic, the feeling of loss of control, Mary and Joseph must have had. And yet, in the end, they found him. Lord, watch over our child when he wanders from us, and from you.

Friday, April 29, 2011

There Is No In-Between

"You cannot be a half a saint. You must be a whole saint, or no saint at all." -St. Therese of Lisieux

When Jesus was crucified, the soldiers divided his garments, each taking a piece. But his coat was seamless, and rather than divide it, they cast lots to see who would get it. Kind of like having a dollar bill to split among two people. If you rip it in half to divide ("you get half, and you get half--it's the only fair way!"), it becomes worthless. It needs to go to either one or the other.

Ever since watching Francis Chan's sermon on being "Lukewarm and Loving It," I have been thinking about God's all-or-nothing attitude towards how we live. Chan's sermon focuses on what is written in Revelation 3:16: "So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth." When it comes to what God wants from us, it seems, it is all or nothing.

But how often we live in the in-between! The more God reveals himself to me, the more I see this is not a place to live. It seems our attitude is "I'll give God a little, and I'll get a little God. That should suffice." Anything else is seen as extremism.

Jesus, however, makes constant reference to this all-or-nothing attitude, and in a way that says "This is how I want you to live":

Matthew 5:13: "You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men."

Luke 9:62: "But Jesus said to him, "No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."

Matthew 13:46: "...and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it."

You're either salty, or you're not.
You're either plowing, or you're not.
You're either buying, or you're not.

You're either a disciple, or you're not.

This last one is the hardest for me, because I want to be a 'sometimes' disciple. I want to follow Jesus, but I also want to go where I want also. I don't want to be anyone's slave, doing what I don't want to be doing. I want to follow Jesus, but I don't necessarily want to die doing it.

One wouldn't call themselves a Marine unless they had been through everything to earn that title. But people call themselves "Christian" all the time without having gone through the dying to self that Christ calls us to--myself included. "Why do you call me Lord and do not do what I say?" Therefore it seems there is a difference between being a Christian and being a disciple. Christians profess Christ. Disciples follow Christ. There is no in between.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Reflection

A man was carrying his cross. He said to the Lord, "Lord, this cross is too big for me to carry. Please make it shorter." So the Lord obliged him, and sawed twelve inches off the bottom of the man's cross. When the man got to a great chasm, the others around him, who were also carrying their cross, laid them across the chasm and walked over it as if they were crossing on a bridge. But when the man laid his cross down to do the same, his came up a foot short. He could not cross.

Friday, April 8, 2011

My New Mistress

In Matthew 26:40 we see Jesus resisting temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the disciples falling headfirst into it. Jesus asked his friends to "keep watch" with him, and yet they were unable to do so. In this case, sleep was the siren temptress that got the better of them and kept them from doing what the Lord asked them to do.

Most people would not think of sleep as detrimental to one's spiritual life. It is a natural function. But in asking myself the question, "What is keeping me from communing with Jesus in prayer?" and the greater question, "What do I prefer to God?" during this time of Lent, I have found that sleep has become the biggest enemy to my spiritual life.

I love sleeping. I usually fall asleep on the couch after dinner, take naps on the weekend, and go to bed early and wake up late, sometimes logging ten or more hours a night. I am a glutton for sleep.

Don't be fooled; Satan uses whatever devices he can to keep us from prayer, to keep us lukewarm and apathetic towards our Creator, to keep us from having a loving relationship with Jesus. If it is something as innocent as sleep, so be it.

Now I am not talking about keeping all night vigils like St. Anthony, or anything so extreme. In my case, it is simply getting up an hour early to pray. We are fortunate enough to have a chapel of perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament close by, and as a Lenten commitment to deepening my relationship with Jesus, I have been trying to spend an hour in Adoration before work, at least a few days a week. It is such a nice thought.

But when it comes time to get up at 6:30am to make it happen, it astounds me how resistant my flesh is to the prospect. In the same way I used to struggle with sexual temptation when I was younger, I am literally wrestling with my lazy flesh to get up and go pray.

Because I am half asleep, my will is weakened, and my natural inclination is to lie back down when the alarm goes off. And I have done so on many occasions during the past month. Rather than face discomfort and simply get up when the alarm goes off, ripping the flesh out by the root in one fell swoop, I give Mrs. Sandman permission to perform a strip-tease, tantalizing me with "10 more minutes" or "just rest your eyes for a minute" and "God will understand." 6:30 becomes 6:45, 6:45 becomes 7:15, and before I know it, I've lost my window of opportunity to be with Jesus for the morning. It seemed so innocent. But really, I let my guard down spiritually, and played right into the Devil's hand.

This battle with the flesh is not about sleep, or sex, or food, or this or that particular thing. It is, more generally, about comfort. Jonathan Robinson, in Spiritual Combat Revisited, puts it well:

"The analogy with physical training for a game is still an apt one. If we never exercise, our muscles go slack, our heart goes fatty, our breathing becomes erratic, and our reactions slow down.The desire of physical comfort leads us to underestimate the exercise that is really needed to play the particular game we want to play. The desire for comfort is the great obstacle to physical well-being, and the desire for comfort is one of the most dangerous enemies of spiritual health."

Sleeping in an hour may not seem like a big deal on the surface. But if it keeps me from spending time with God in prayer, then it actually becomes, spiritually, a very big deal. Lent is the perfect time to train spiritually, to work on what keeps us from being in right relationship with God. Jesus made deliberate time to get away and pray, even though he was communing with the Father 24/7. In our busy lives it can be difficult to find time to get away. But we will find a way to make time for what we love. We always do. The question is, what do you love?

Thursday, April 7, 2011


When I was on retreat at Suan Mokkh, Tan Medhi, one of the monks, pointed out in the tapestry of Dependent Origination a picture of a man and woman in a boat, representing the mind and the body afloat in the sea of samsara. Tan Medhi noted, "they are like man and woman, husband and wife, yes? Must work together. Sea is...very very hard. If no...crash! You know this one?"

The image of man and woman, husband and wife, together in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean trying to get to shore, has stuck with me over the years. Marriage, it seems to me, is less about happiness and more about survival. That is not to say I am not happy with my wife (I am), but only that happiness is not the end goal or purpose of our marriage. It is a pleasant byproduct.

People in every culture throughout history have 'teamed up' in order to better weather the storms of life. For God said, "it is not good for man to be alone." I think it is such a great description in Genesis 2:24, where it is written, "A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife." The word itself denotes that spirit of urgent cling to a life preserver when you are at risk of drowning if you didn't have it.

When two people are in a lifeboat together, they need to learn to work together--whether they love each other or hate each other, whether they disagree about this or that, whether they are happy together or not--to get to shore. Yes, sitting in a lifeboat with someone for ten, twenty, fifty years may get boring, you're going to run out of stuff to say to each other, the flame of love may die down to a flicker. But what are you going to do...jump out of the boat and into the ocean and swim to shore because you can't stand the person anymore? That seems crazy...but people do it all the time.

I find myself clinging to my wife not out of any neediness or panic, but because I love her and want to be with her; I want to rely on her and for her to rely on me. But even if I didn't, I would still cling to her because, let's face it, life is hard. To go it alone is even harder.

Don't be fooled...marriage--and staying married--is much more pragmatic than we might think.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Give Me a Word

From 2005 to 2009, I had a spiritual adviser by the name of Fr. Vince, a priest at St. Joe's University. I would typically see him once a month for an hour or so, at which time we would talk about my spiritual life (or more specifically, my struggles to lead a spiritual life). Prior to this, I relied on a Trappist monk by the name of Fr. James Orthmann for guidance and discernment in spiritual matters (and during my monastic discernment), mostly through handwritten letters, though I would visit him at the Abbey once or twice during our acquaintanceship where he served as Vocation Director for Holy Cross in Berryville, VA. It sounds kind of hokey, such meetings, but having a "spiritual father" has always been important to me.

Spiritual seekers in the early centuries of the church sought out fathers and mothers in the desert. They would often travel for days through harsh terrain to find such a wise man or woman, and when they found them, would usually beg for a crumb of spiritual wisdom. "Abba, give me a word," they would say.

In the Christian tradition, we believe the Word saves, that God comes to us through the words of scripture, and Jesus is often referred to as the Divine Logos, or Divine Word. For the early Christian seekers, a word (or a few words) from a spiritual elder used in the quest for salvation was life-giving. Oral tradition was invaluable as a "pedagogy of spiritual direction" (as Douglas Burton-Christie relates it in his book, The Word in the Desert), as was the lineage of the elder, that is, where (or, more specifically, who) the elder received his "word" from.

My friend Tim and I were talking on the phone the other night, and we were both lamenting the fact that at the time, we are both "teacher-less." We have no one to confide in, really, and no one to guide us spiritually. I feel like an athlete without a trainer...flabby, and directionless. We are spiritual orphans.

But I am wary of anyone who posits themselves as a teacher seeking disciples. I often think the best, most authentic teachers are the ones reluctant to enter into such a relationship, and who certainly do not seek out the opportunity to be a teacher. There are many false prophets today, and the importance of avoiding them can not be overstated. A good teacher is hard to find.

It can also be tempting to find someone who simply reinforces our own erroneous beliefs about ourselves, rather than someone who challenges us to work out our salvation in a way we might find unattractive. If I go to someone seeking a word, and he says, "Pray," and I don't want to pray or am seeking something other than prayer, like someone to baby me or to help rationalize my sinful behavior, I can be assured that the problem is with me, and not the speaker of the word.

Trying to find a teacher is like trying to find a good car mechanic. You want someone you trust, because what they work on is valuable to you. You rely on word of mouth, because you trust people you know. You seek someone in particular out because you hear they are honest and fair, and do good work and are competent. You want to know yourself, first-hand, because you are trusting them with your car.

Who, then, can I trust with my soul?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

So I Was Afraid...

When I read the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30, I know which of the three servants I am; I am the one who buries his talent out of fear.

This is the servant that the master calls wicked, lazy, and worthless. Pretty harsh language. But what did the servant really do wrong? In the parallel Parable of the Minas in Luke 19:11-27, the king explicitly charges his servants to "put his money to work."

But in Matthew's account, the master simply "entrusts" his property to them. He may expect that they return it to him with interest, but he doesn't verbalize this. So the "lazy" servant puts the one talent he has been entrusted with in a safe place; he buries it. Seems like a perfectly natural, responsible thing to do.

If my father entrusted me with $100,000 in this economic climate, I honestly would probably put it in an ING account at (a pitiful) 1% interest, rather than investing it in the stock market. I would be afraid to lose it, to come back with less than I started with. I imagine he would be more pissed if I lost money.

But with the Master, that is not the case. He doesn't respond to the two that gained a 100% return, "You fools! Why would you gamble with my money? What if you lost what I had entrusted you with?" No. Instead he praises them for their ballsy wager and entrusts them with even more.

There is one defining difference between the one servant and the other two, though: the servant entrusted with one talent acted out of fear. "Master," he says, "I knew that you are a hard I was afraid, and hid your talent in the ground."

The words "Be not afraid" appear some 366 times in the bible. Despite this admonition, I still live in fear. I'm afraid of driving in the snow. I'm afraid of parking garages. I'm afraid of screwing up at work. I'm afraid of becoming a widower. I'm fearful of all kinds of shit. I feel like lately I am basically living most of my life in fear, with an aversion to risk, and little trust in God's providence. The older I get, the safer I want to be.

How did I get this way? Does God see this, and as a result, entrusts me with less? I feel like God asks a lot of us, and I'm not giving him a return on his investment in me. I feel like I should be working in a soup kitchen (for lack of anything more creative) or something, volunteering my time at the very least, but my laziness and my unpredictable hours at work prevent me from committing. What am I being charged with? How is God asking me to "put myself out there?" How am I building up the Kingdom on earth?

I can't shake this feeling that I am just not doing what God wants me to be doing, either because I don't know what that is, or because I'm afraid to risk anything for the sake of the Gospel. God spews the lukewarm from his mouth, and I am about as lukewarm as they come right now.

Lord, send your Holy Spirit. Set me on fire.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Silly Virgins

I was reading Matthew 25:1-13 (the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins) this morning and couldn't help thinking about retirement, again:

"Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. Those who were foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, "Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him!" Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out." But the wise answered, saying, "What if there isn't enough for us and you? You go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves." While they went away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins also came, saying, "Lord, Lord, open to us." But he answered, "Most certainly I tell you, I don't know you." Watch therefore, for you don't know the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming."

Now I know this parable is more eschatological than financial, but I can't help drawing similarities between the virgins and our economic climate here in the States.

For example, a recent survey released by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 54 percent of American workers have saved less than $25,000 for retirement, with half of those people saying they had less than $1,000 saved for retirement. Yet, nearly a third of those who say they have virtually nothing set aside say they are “very” or “somewhat” confident that they will have enough money for a comfortable retirement.

I'm sure the foolish virgins thought they had enough oil. But the fact of the matter is, they didn't. That was the reality of the situation. I'm sure they were thinking in the back of their minds, 'those other virgins will hook us up if we run out,' or 'we'll be fine.' They weren't thinking about the future. The most shocking thing to me, though, is that the wise virgins weren't exactly charitable with their extra oil. They claimed there wasn't enough for the both of them--in the face of dire need, they didn't give.

Now, anything can happen. The wise virgins could have tripped on the way and spilled all their oil reserves. The would still be wise, but also unlucky--the door would have shut on both sets of virgins. Same thing with people's finances. Some people encounter illness, natural disaster, bad stocks, unexpected unemployment, what have you, and lose it all. They may have been saving all their lives and have nothing to show for it through no fault of their own. These people aren't foolish, just unlucky. I'm not talking about these people.

Also, if you're a life-long minimum wage worker, chances are you're not going to be banking six figures for the future. You're barely making ends meet as it is. There are rare exceptions (Oseola McCarty, the Missisissippi washer-woman who donated the $150,000 she had saved washing dirty underpants for 60+ years to the University of Southern Mississippi). But I'm not really talking about these people either.

I'm talking about the truly foolish, the grasshoppers of the world (as in, Aesop's Ant and the Grasshopper) who don't plan for the future but are only concerned about today. The ones who cash out their 401k to buy a boat, wanted a huge house they couldn't afford long-term, or whatever.

Now, the wise virgins brought some extra oil, but its not like they brought barrels full of it. They probably brought enough that they could carry. What if the bridegroom took even longer than both groups anticipated and even their extra oil ran out? Would they be foolish too? Or, again, just unlucky? Retirement is kind of don't know how long you are going to live, so you do your best to balance your present-day needs with your anticipated future needs.

I really don't know where I'm going with all this, and don't want to come across as self-righteous. But if people are going to continue to not save adequately for their future in this country, there's going to be a lot of need in the days to come--a financial famine, so to speak. I think we're all going to feel the consequences of this lack of planning, some more than others. And those who have been diligent and financially wise are going to be faced with a choice--do you give (assuming people ask for help, that is), or do you let the grasshoppers be shut out? Does that make you an uncharitable person, or, like the virgins, simply holding people responsible for their actions, ie, their lack of planning?

As always, I don't know the answer, just asking the questions...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How Much Is Enough?

[The man said,] ‘This is what I will do. I will pull down my barns, and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. I will tell my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry."‘ "But God said to him, ‘You foolish one, tonight your soul is required of you. The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?’ Lk 12:18-20

I have to admit this parable is disconcerting. Isn't the man's attitude the very attitude we are encouraged to have with regards to retirement in the 21st century? We are told that the wise person plans for retirement by deferring immediate gratification and investing (instead of spending) in order to store up wealth for himself in his "golden years." He 'earns' his retirement and is entitled to enjoy it. As far as the 'whose will they be?' part in the parable, the answer seems obvious: what the man has earned in his lifetime will go to his children as their inheritance.

My dad was smart with his money. He planned early, saved all his life, was frugal, made good investments, stayed at the same job (he was a teacher) for thirty years (maxing out the pay grade and securing a good pension) and retired when he was in his early fifties. He made sacrifices and is now enjoying the payoff and making sure my brothers and I have an inheritance. But is he a fool in God's eyes? Will he lose his soul at the expense of his wealth? I pray not; only God knows.

In grad school I tried to give a presentation on "A Theology of Wealth." I think I was trying to prove that it was a sin to have more than you need. But that is so hard to quantify. Do we really 'need' a house? A car? Shoes? There's no line to draw, and its all subjective. In short, I couldn't answer the question I posed in the presentation, mainly: How Much is Too Much?

I have a dollar. I can give this dollar to the poor or put it in my retirement account. The first option makes me generous; the second option makes me fiscally responsible. Is there a way to be both? The answer my wife and I have come up with is a compromise: tithing.

We give 10% of our net earnings to the poor (5%) and to the church (5%). That's it. No more, no less. If someone comes up to me asking for money on the street and I give them $20, that is simply $20 that is coming out of the 'tithing pot.' The tithing pot is a piece of paper I keep on the fridge totaling up the 10% of our earnings each week. I add, subtract, cross out. It looks like a mess, but it keeps us accountable.

Some days I am tempted to 'adjust' our tithe--maybe take it down a notch or so to 7%, or 5%. I don't think this is necessarily wrong, and we may in fact have to adjust in the future. But again, there you have that difficult business of trying to draw a line in the sand. I could say to my wife, 'We need to put more money away for retirement.' And it seems, these days, that that is a perfectly reasonable and responsible suggestion. But it takes money away from people who might need it more desperately than we do.

I think, in the end, God is more concerned about the state of our souls rather than the state of our finances. Our finances are something we worry about, and in this economic climate, it seems rightfully so that we would worry (then again, Jesus tells us not to worry about those things. Hm...) I think the important thing is to have a generous spirit that is concerned with the welfare of others, not just ourselves.

But in the end, we have to watch out for ourselves and our family too. My dad was good about taking care of the family, but he never really taught us much about giving to others. The way he figured, he paid his taxes, and that went to federally-funded programs that help the poor. I also got the picture from him that poor people were poor through their own fault, not being smart, making bad choices, etc., and that giving to them was like throwing money into a black hole, and that they got enough benefits from the government anyway.

But I want to teach my children to be generous (as well as fiscally responsible). I think God wants us to share what we have with those in need, as best we can. The more we do this, the more I think it becomes natural to give, and this affects our spiritual disposition. Tithing has been our way of striking this compromise between our own welfare and the welfare of others in need. And so far it seems to be working.