Break Our Hearts of Stone

Break Our Hearts of Stone

It seems keeping the heart one of flesh, instead of being one of stone, is the continual work of a lifetime. Softening, rather than hardening, requires a strength and intentionality that doesn’t come naturally to me. In the wake of my defensiveness and desire for self-preservation, I repeatedly need to engage in the work of letting my heart be real. The simple act of believing in the goodness of others (and living in that truth) is one that requires me to be soft-hearted over and over again.

As I’ve gone into the prison, I have grown in seeing the goodness in people who have made many mistakes. Many of the men I interact with are easy to find goodness in because they are seeking the Lord, too. Their zeal for the Lord or their desire to love Him or find Him invites me to see how God is moving in their hearts. Others are a little more difficult since they make me feel uncomfortable or continually lie to me. But as a whole, I am able to look at men who have raped, murdered, and committed all sorts of crimes and proclaim their inherent goodness.

For whatever reason, we often look up what crimes the men are in for and how long of a sentence they received. At times, it helps to understand their position: are they in for life or a few years or simply back after breaking parole? We decided to look up one man I’ve talked with several times and see his crime. It was surprising because the kindness and gentleness I’ve experienced from him ran contrary to the crime he was sentenced to serve. Yet, despite the surprise, it didn’t really change how I felt toward him. The goodness and kindness I’ve experienced are real and he is far more than the crimes of his past.

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Babies Teach Us How to Love Better

Babies Teach Us How to Love Better

I was recently able to spend a few days with my newest goddaughter who is only a few months old. As I spent time with her and her parents, I was reminded of a realization I had a few years ago. Babies are the easiest to shower in all five “love languages.”

The five love languages are words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service, gifts, and quality time. Simply by nature, normal parents will be quite generous with each of these toward their children, particularly babies.

My friend Maria was continually cooing over her daughter, affirming how good and beautiful she was. It wasn’t something that she had to earn–her parents were quite taken with her as she did everyday things like eat, sleep, and giggle. And, what is more, they told her how pleased they were.

Babies are often fought over, as people will stand in line to take a turn holding the baby. At times, beyond needing a diaper changed or food given, babies will cry simply because they desire to be held close to someone.

Acts of service are a pure necessity with babies because, unlike most other animals, humans are born in a state of vulnerability that lasts quite a long time. They must be carried for several months, feed, bathed, and attended to in many other ways.

While often of a practical nature, babies have gifts showered upon them in the form of clothes, accessories, almost entirely frivolous shoes, and toys.

Finally, by their very being, babies require quality time. In part, because so many things must be done for them, but also because they need to be held, to hear a loving voice, and to be consoled.

Despite the ease of loving babies well, I find it quite difficult for that to transfer to the rest of humanity. With my students and co-workers, it is far harder to shower such generous love in all five ways. But recalling that this overflowing of love is necessary for the little ones made me wonder: what would happen if it was attempted in small ways for the more mature? What might happen if I daily affirmed my students in small ways, just for being them?

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Poured Out

Poured Out

I often find myself living life the same way I ran seventh-grade cross country.

Simply put: not well.

I remember watching the older runners prior to a race. They were stretching and jogging around, warming up for the few miles they would be running around random golf courses. I understood the stretching part, but I never quite got the jogging part. For me, finishing the race meant I should store up as much energy as possible. Sometimes, I was dragging myself across the finish line or walking small sections where there were no cheering fans. Why would I foolishly waste energy just moments before the race?

A few years ago, I was running pretty consistently and I completed a five-mile race. It was as I was finishing the race that I finally understood what those high school students had been doing years ago. Crossing the finish line, I felt really good. In fact, my third and fourth miles felt way better than the first two. My time wasn’t incredible, but I was satisfied with it for myself. I had logged enough miles that I was at the point where I grasped the concept of running so as to warm up. I wasn’t wasting energy–it was instead needed so I could run better. In my conservative, store-up-everything mindset, it was revolutionary to understand that giving some allowed me to give more.

Weekends during the school year and portions of the summer find me falling into that same trap of storing up instead of spending. I’m an introvert and I have yet to find the perfect life balance when my job is one that requires so much extrovertedness. In the evenings, I don’t want to be surrounded by people. On the weekends, I’d rather curl up in my home. During the summer months, I convince myself that relaxing, watching movies, and being a recluse are exactly what I need in order to survive the school year.

But I don’t think that is actually true.

I mean, I want it to be true because that would be an extremely convenient excuse. But it isn’t reality. When I turn in on myself and don’t enter into community, it doesn’t really make me want to be communal later. Instead, I find a dozen more reasons to not go out, to not share myself. Reasons that essentially boil down to being lazy and selfish.

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Lord, show me what You love about them

Lord, show me what You love about them

I apologize if it seems like I can’t get over this whole “belovedness” thing. (In truth, I never really want to get over this renewed revelation.) Perhaps the first step is acknowledging our own role as beloved of the Father, but there is another step that follows. It involves seeing how others are beloved children of God, too.

The end of the school year probably isn’t the best time to start deeply considering how my students are uniquely loved by God. However, their behavior is making it necessary for survival. Sophomores are getting more squirrelly and seniors are D.O.N.E. Mentally, most of them are a long ways into summer break, which makes teaching them an exercise in charity. And patience. And forbearance. And long-suffering love. You get the picture.

Last week, I was barely surviving. Tension was high and I felt stressed about several things. Add to that the attitudes and antics of students and I was waking up with stress headaches that lasted throughout the day, pretty much the whole week. Obviously, the Lord doesn’t desire that sort of life for me. It led me to wonder: Lord, what are you doing here?

Frequently on my mind was that familiar title of John as the one whom Jesus loves. Delving into my own belovedness was a good refresher, but it had to also be drawn into seeing the students’ belovedness.

Certain students cause more stress and so I prayed, “Lord, help to see ______________ as your beloved child.” There wasn’t a magical shift as I prayed this about a few different students, but it did make me start wondering. What does the Lord particularly love about these people? I wonder if I can see it, too.

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Particular Love

Particular Love

During “contemplative time” last week, I had my students reflect on the Resurrection account from John’s Gospel. Fresh from my own ponderings, we discussed the whole “John as the one whom Jesus loved” bit.

“Doesn’t Jesus love everyone?”

Yes, of course.

“Why does John even bring it up?”

I mentioned that perhaps it was because John had encountered the particularity of Christ’s love for him.

And they brought up something that is ingrained in us from our earliest years: the sense of things being equal or the same.

“Doesn’t Jesus love us all the same, though?”

No, He actually doesn’t. They seemed skeptical, perhaps because we automatically begin to assume that Jesus might love me less if He doesn’t love us all the same.

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That Missionary Life

That Missionary Life

“Who is a missionary?” I asked my class, not too long ago.

They came up with a variety of answers: someone who preaches in a foreign country, someone who has very little, someone who doesn’t make money, and the list continued.

It was difficult for them to wrap it all up neatly. Several wanted to insist that you had to leave the country. I think it was because it fit their idea of a missionary better. Flying to a foreign country steeped in poverty seems far more missionary-esque than serving on a college campus.

FOCUS sends people to college campus and calls them missionaries. Are they?”
“Do they get paid?”
“They fundraise their salary.”

Many were on board with that. But for them, there had to be some type of leaving happening–going to a new place, even if they would begrudgingly accept work in the United States.

“What does a missionary do?” I asked.
“Preach the Gospel.”
“So who could be a missionary?”
They discussed for a while. One said, “You?”
“Am I a missionary?”

The whole issue of pay came up again, some saying that would disqualify me from missionary status.

Am I a missionary?

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From One Miserable Sinner to Another

From One Miserable Sinner to Another

Turning the other cheek, bearing wrongs patiently, and choosing to be kind in moments of anger are all well and good when thought of in the abstract. In the particular moment when any of these are called for, a flood of excuses and defenses are more likely to come to mind rather than the goodness of following the Lord.

I try really hard to not let any personal dislike of students color our overall relationship. Some people are just harder to love and students are no different. I am well aware that I am not the easiest person to get along with for all people and all personality types. The same is true with the people seated in my classroom each and every day.

It is hard, however, when I make great attempts to overlook personal slights, strive to forget previous negative encounters in the pursuit of answering present questions, and other like situations, only to discover that they already don’t like me. That instead of seeing how I try to patiently attend to their present concerns despite the fact that they repeatedly laugh at me, they only see that I have not always responded favorably toward them.

A flood of defenses came to my mind. I replay the conversations over in my mind and I wonder if I had said this instead of that, perhaps it would have been received better. Or, if I’m feeling particularly cantankerous, I’ll think of all the sharp barbs I could have thrown or the harsh yet true things I could have said but did not. It isn’t a one time occurrence, but each time it happens, it strikes me anew.

It seems unfair and it seems unjust. And perhaps it is both.

Welcome to the end of Holy Week.

Tonight, we will eat the Last Supper with Our Lord and then follow Him into the garden to wait. Tomorrow, we will walk the road to Calvary and we will, despite our best intentions, cry for Christ to be crucified. On Holy Saturday, we will wait in the awkward tension between the death of Jesus and His subsequent Resurrection. It is in the light of the Triduum, these holiest of days, that I consider the small inconvenience of being misunderstood by students.

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My Ars

My Ars

St. John Vianney tried to leave Ars. Not just one time, either, but multiple times. He wanted to leave Ars for the peace and solitude of a monastic life. And while I lack the great holiness and fervor found in the Cure d’Ars, I definitely identify with his desires to leave the world behind and live quietly removed from the chaos.

My spiritual director reminded me that St. John Vianney tried to leave Ars as we meandered down the sidewalk.

“So this high school is my Ars, huh?”

“Yes,” he replied, “there are a few similarities there it seems.”

“He died there, didn’t he?” I said, in an attempt at wry melodrama.

He paused for a moment as my imagination latched onto the idea of decades spent at this one high school, right up until the moment of my death. (I’m a melancholic–we consider death often.)

“You might not physically die at school, but, yes, I think you will die there.”

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Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go

Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go

Last week, fifteen years ago, my sister entered a Carmelite cloister.

At the beginning of the school day, I sat for a couple minutes, looking at my calendar announcing March 19th and remembering what had transpired other years on the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Fifteen years ago, we embraced, believing it might be the final time here on earth. Five years ago, we embraced as she moved north to establish a new monastery. And every year in between, I have recalled with tenderly fond pain the life we have been called to enter into as the family of religious.

I spoke about my sister’s vocation with my sophomores at great length this year. While I didn’t intend to spend so much time on it, they asked question after question and I found myself desiring to share this story with them. They were particularly struck by the great physical sacrifice that is found in the life of a cloistered nun. While I have been able to embrace my sister since her entrance, each time is a gift and never expected or something I can claim as my due. I explained that it is because my sister loves us that it is a sacrifice for her to not embrace us or be present for some of the big moments of life.

“But you didn’t choose that life. Why do you have to make that sacrifice when God didn’t call you to be a cloistered sister?”

Perhaps without knowing it, they stumbled upon the question that must be answered for each family member of a religious brother or sister. Why must I make this sacrifice when I’m not the one with the call?

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“All collective reform must first be individual reform”

“All collective reform must first be individual reform”

In a month-by-month planner from over a year ago, I found the following quote scrawled in the open boxes at the bottom of a page.

The future will be what we make it; let us reflect on this thought so that it may motivate us to act.  Especially, let us realize that all collective reform must first be individual reform.  Let us work at transforming ourselves and our lives.  Let us influence those around us, not by useless preaching, but by the irresistible power of our spirituality and the example of our lives.

Elisabeth Leseur: Selected Writings, pg. 135

Re-finding this quote was a great gift in that moment. I was looking through stacks of papers, discarding what I didn’t need so that I wouldn’t move unnecessary papers to a new home. The old planner brought back some nostalgia as I saw different meetings I had, random notes I had made, and, most importantly, saint quotes I had added to the large monthly planner to motivate me onward.

Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur spoke of personal reform and how only by growing individually can we hope to influence the world. She knew what she was talking about. Through her gentle, persistent witness (and an inspiring journal), her husband was transformed from an atheist to being ordained a priest after her death. It wasn’t because of her intellectual arguments, but rather her living testimony that brought a change into her husband’s heart.

What I have been led to consider frequently is this question: how would it impact my students if I embraced my faith with the radical zeal of a saint? (Replace “students” with “children” or “husband/wife” or “friends” or “siblings” or “co-workers” or whatever makes sense in your life.) Too often I think I can fake it or that my lack of discipline or fervor will go unnoticed by others. Perhaps it sometimes does. Maybe I do fake it and others are unaware. But the most important changes and transformations might be untraceable to me yet rely on my own personal holiness. Continue reading ““All collective reform must first be individual reform””