Humans are surprising creatures.
They have the unique capacity for acts of tremendous, selfless good. Yet they also carry within themselves the capacity for unspeakable acts of horror. Perhaps even more significant, though, is the capacity humans have for change and transformation.
I spent this past weekend helping with a retreat at a men’s prison.
Several times, I was asked by the inmates and the volunteers if it was what I expected. The truth was I didn’t quite know what to expect from the weekend. I was a bit nervous to enter in. Not nervous for the gate to slam behind me or to be locked into the prison. Not nervous that a riot would start. Not nervous that I would be injured or harmed. Rather, I was uneasy about how I would be received. What would we talk about? What would the men be like? Would they make me uncomfortable or would they be kind?
In the reality, humanity inside the prison is very much like humanity outside the prison. Some of the men were very kind and genuine. Others seemed to want an unhealthy amount of attention. Some wanted to share their hearts. Others wanted to stay only on the surface. Some admitted they made mistakes. Others insisted everything was fine or that they weren’t treated fairly. Some respected authority. Others used each opportunity they had to poke at the officers responsible for them. They reminded me an awful lot of my students and the world around me. Which isn’t all that surprising, but it was different to experience it instead of just think about it.
There was a unique point in the retreat when the group reflected on how God uses all for His good. In our small group, my sister mentioned that God uses everything and that even though they were in prison for something wrong they had done, they were still encountering Him on a retreat. Maybe this time in prison was a good, because God can use all for good. And it was beautiful to see at least some of them agree. They talked about how it was likely that they could have been dead if they weren’t in prison. If they continued on their previous course, it was easy for them to see how it would have led to their demise.
Continue reading “Amazing Grace: A Weekend in Prison”
`My grandmother,’ I said in a low tone, `would have said that we were all in exile, and that no earthly house could cure the holy home-sickness that forbids us rest.’ Manalive, G.K. Chesterton
Sometimes, life feels a bit like a long exile. No place, regardless of how grand or beautiful, seems to work as a perfect home.
When I graduated from college (or maybe it was even before that point), I remember realizing that never again would all the people I love be in the same place. Friends scattered across the country in post-graduation searches for jobs. My heart had experienced profound beauty in multiple places around the world. It produced the aching reality that many places could be home and yet no one place or group of people were entirely home.
Walking the Camino a few years ago, I lived physically what I seem to live internally. I was a wandering pilgrim, looking for the end of the road and a consistent place to rest. So much of me aches and longs for Heaven because I desire a resting place, the place where there are no tears or separations or unfulfilled desires. A place of contentment, communion, and constancy–a home that can never pass away or be divided.
In Chesterton’s Manalive, he speaks about a man who leaves his family in order to re-discover the joy of loving them again. He leaves home to discover home. It does seem to be the case that too often the familiar becomes overly ordinary or commonplace. When I was in Switzerland, I wondered who wouldn’t gape with awe at the majestic mountains that formed the backdrop to the hostel I stayed in for a couple days. Probably the Swiss.
Continue reading “Holy Homesickness”
“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?
Continue reading “That Missionary Life”
For this last stretch of Lent, I’ve been trying to grow in patience in a few small key ways.
I started to limit tracking things.
I noticed that I would unnecessarily follow things and that my time and mental energy could be better spent elsewhere. For example, when ordering packages online, I like to daily track their progress so I can see when they ship and when they should arrive at my house. That is entirely unwarranted–seeing where they are doesn’t make them arrive any faster and it isn’t crucial to see how long it took to transfer from one shipping carrier to another.
Or blog stats. When I post a blog, I like to monitor it to see how many views it gets and when they come in. Which countries are viewing my blog? What website leads them to my blog? All of which is unnecessary to follow so diligently. Occasionally looking at it is one thing, but semi-obsessively checking it in the first few hours or day after posting isn’t helpful.
I even noticed that I will habitually check my tire pressure, percentage of oil remaining, and battery life as I drive between work and home. Sometimes I do it so absentmindedly that I have to check it again because the numbers didn’t sink in as I reflexively scrolled through the stats. Over the past few days, I have found my left hand nearly twitching to see the various car facts appear on the display screen.
Continue reading “One small step for patience”
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.”
Continue reading “My Ars”
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?
Continue reading “Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go”
You’ve got to start somewhere.
When I was little, I remember looking at the Minesweeper game on my family’s computer but having no idea how to play it. (Kind of similar to the Risk computer game…except I’ve never taken the time to figure Risk out.) I would click random boxes and then numbers would appear until, eventually, everything would explode. Not knowing the purpose or goal of the game meant success was unlikely to happen.
However, even now that I know the game, I still find it slightly frustrating that there is no perfect way to start it. Usually you don’t end up selecting a mine right away but sometimes you do. And there is no foolproof way to avoid it. You simply need to begin in a random place.
Sometimes I feel that way with life. Transformations that I desire to happen or significant projects I would like to complete often baffle me by providing no clear entry point. Where does one begin? What is the correct way to start?
For years, I’ve wanted to write a book. When I was younger, it was simply the broad idea of desiring to write a book. Now I know the topic, the title, and the general idea, but I still lack the plan I believe I need to be successful in the endeavor. I want some clear outline or step-by-step process that will enable me to have a fail proof starting point. However, the perfect beginning eludes me. Continue reading “To Begin”
Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
A friend once told me that his dad gave him really good advice one time. His dad said, “The worst thing they can say is no.” For my friend, it made sense and it gave him the motivation to just ask for things, realizing that no was as bad as it would get.
You see, for me, hearing no seems pretty bad. I don’t want to hear that my request is denied. So I would prefer to not ask for things because I would rather not know than be turned away empty-handed. It means that the few days I did phone banking in college during election season were nearly torturous. I’ve hated any sales I had to do in elementary and high school because I didn’t want people to tell me they were uninterested in buying something from me. In most situations, I would rather not ask if I think the answer might be no.
Due to circumstances, in the past couple years I’ve been forced to ask for more things. With a slightly new position at work last year, I recognized that unless I asked for things, I wouldn’t get them. The few times I made big petitions for situations I already deemed highly unlikely or impossible were rewarded with a surprising affirmative. Fulfilled requests emboldened me to keep asking, but I still worry that my pleas will be dismissed.
Yet Jesus commands us to ask. He wants us to petition Him for the things we desire. Earlier this week in prayer, I received the passage above, slightly jumbled and incomplete in my brain. The part that stood out was where Jesus compares our heavenly Father to our earthly fathers. Good dads know not to give their children stones or serpents when they are desiring food. Our heavenly Father knows us best and desires the most to fulfill our longings. How much more will He desire to meet our needs when we ask Him, because He is perfect and good. Continue reading “Jesus Said Ask”
Nearly every Tuesday, I have “contemplative time” for my classes. Do they actually reach contemplation? Probably not, but I like to provide intentional time for silence and prayer. It is ten minutes where the only thing that is required of them is to be still. In a world overflowing with noise, arguments, ideas, and busyness, I try to offer them a brief respite from the long list of things they must do.
To help direct their prayer, I display a Scripture passage, a quote from a saint, or an excerpt from a spiritual read for the students to use as a starting point. A few weeks ago, near All Saints’ Day, I had them focus on Hebrews 12:1-2 for their time of prayer.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
I had fifty minutes that day to reflect on these verses. Different portions stood out to me at various points in the day. Yet by the afternoon, one phrase continued to stir my heart. So much so that I wrote it out on a note card and affixed it to my desk organizer so I could continue to ponder it in the days to come.
For the sake of the joy… Continue reading “For the Sake of the Joy”
In the movie Sweet Home Alabama, there is one line that has always stood out to me. The main characters Jake and Melanie are talking about their past and present, the ways life has changed from when they were high school sweethearts to their current situation of estranged spouses. Melanie expresses her confusion about loving her life in New York and yet returning home to find that her hometown fits, too. Jake then says, “You can have roots and wings, Mel.”
So often my own heart is caught in that same clashing of different longings. I want to fly away and yet I want to be home, grounded and steady. One moment I’m desiring to be a missionary in a far-away land and the next I want to stay in my cozy bedroom, reading and considering life. One day, I’m wanting to buy a home and make it my own oasis. The next day, I am wanting to be detached of all earthly possessions, living simply and being prepared to fly off to wherever whenever.
Roots and wings–the desire to be secure and the desire to be free–mark the desires of the human heart. We want to be home, but not confined. We want to be free to wander and yet not be lost. All of it, flying or remaining, hinges on the longing we have for happiness and contentment.
Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.
I am not quite like St. Paul yet, able to find contentment in whatever situation I find myself in. Perhaps my students would even be surprised with the restlessness that is within my heart. I am slow to act, yes, making changes at a glacial speed. And yet…change is what I often long for and deeply desire. What is the solution? Continue reading “Roots and Wings”