I found this poem through a podcast that has a “poem of the day” that they read and analyze a bit. While I often forget, reading and learning more poetry follows a desire I have to immerse my life in more beauty.
“If Hitler repented before he died, after all he had done, would he be able to go to Heaven?”
You know, just some light, casual conversations on a Friday afternoon.
“Yes, if he repented….You don’t like that answer, do you?” “No, I think he should be in Hell.”
“Let me ask you a question,” I said, knowing that sometimes asking questions is the only way to escort them to the doorstep of truth. “Where do you draw the line? How many people can someone kill or order killed and get to Heaven?”
“Ummm….none.” “So nobody who has ever killed anyone could have a conversion and go to Heaven?” “No.” “Are there any other sins that you think God should be unable to forgive?” “No.” “But do you see the problem with choosing what is too much for God to forgive?” And he did, but he still wasn’t convinced that God should forgive Hitler if he repented.
This interaction prompted a much longer conversation than I expected. Our starting point was the Gospel for this upcoming Sunday and it bothered some that the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the wandering son were all received with joy and the ones that remained weren’t so celebrated. The father in Luke’s Gospel extending abundant mercy to the younger son was troublesome and annoying to them. Why does the one who wanders get a party and the one who stays gets nothing?
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.
Lord, what are you saying to me in this situation?
I was in the chapel with a class of students as we prayed the Stations of the Cross. Only a few were actually praying the words out loud. Others were loudly flipping their papers every time they needed to turn a page. Some acted like genuflecting was a gargantuan task when I know they will go work out at the gym after school. Others were barely alert, kneeling and standing only because the people around them were doing it.
Frustrated and a bit angry, I wondered what I should do about it. It wouldn’t go well to stop them all to tell them to pray louder or ask for more of them to pray. Telling them to not act like kneeling was difficult would only draw attention to it if they continued to carry on in that manner. So I tried to forget about their indifference and enter into the Stations myself.
Interestingly, the words of my spiritual director kept coming to mind. He mentioned that teaching and following the Lord might look like the Stations of the Cross. My life might have to resemble that suffering if I was to do the Lord’s will. And here I was: actually praying the Stations and feeling so done with the antics of teenagers.
Lord, what can I see in this?
As I watched them mechanically perform the proper actions, I thought about how they don’t care. Ah, Lord, sometimes I don’t care, too. I imagined myself on the couch watching a movie and the Lord inviting me to pray yet not caring enough to do so. I pondered the Lord asking me to love my neighbor yet realizing that I do not do that very well at all. The very thing I was lamenting in my students was rooted deeply within my soul, too.
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.”
This past week, one of my classes watched a movie about the life of Mother Teresa. At one point, right after Mother Teresa had left the Loreto convent, she was shown clearing out her room at a host family’s house. The owner told her they had a lot of spare furniture she was welcomed to use during her time with them. She responded by saying that she needed simplicity so that nothing would distract her from her work with the poor.
I don’t know if that scene happened exactly like that in real life, but her words struck me. Even if she didn’t say that, her life showed that she lived that reality. Perhaps even more impressive, though, was the idea that simplicity gives freedom. It wasn’t a new concept to me, but it was a new concept when I considered it in light of the saint of the slums. Mother Teresa needed poverty in order to be committed to caring for the poor. That may not seem profound to you, but hearing those words evoked a question within me: what makes me think I have more discipline than Mother Teresa?
Her God-given mission was to help the poor. Knowing her own humanity, she knew she had to give up creature comforts in order to remain focused on her mission. Her life of poverty provided the freedom to be generous and sacrificial with her life and time. Material items distract. Compelled by the love and thirst of God, Mother Teresa knew she could not afford to be distracted by lesser things. She created space in her life that could be filled by the presence of God. Fewer possessions crowding her heart yielded greater room to the concerns of the Lord.
Three things I’m thankful for today:
-The song “Kings and Queens” by Mat Kearney–especially the line “Richer than Solomon with you by my side” as he expertly blends Scripture into his songs
-Weekend food leftovers to power me through the start of another week
-Books: owning them, reading them, and anticipating their arrival
There is something about gratitude that shifts the perspective. A few years ago, I was in the practice of writing down things for which I was thankful. They were often small, inconsequential things. Yet, even now, when I look back at those pages in my notebook, I smile at the glimpse into my heart and life during that time.
A random sampling from my gratitude journal: 3. Principal observation on a movie day
5. Peace after expressing frustration
29. Gusts of wind that make crunchy leaves trip down the road
37. The post-run feeling of health (following the post-run feeling of death)
59. Stretching out in bed at night
69. Eyes crinkled in laughter
80. Heavy hearts sharing the burden through conversation
133. Answered novenas in unhoped for ways
172. Solo supper with Grandma
176. My students telling me which gifts of the Holy Spirit they think I live out
241. Laughter with students instead of going insane
Some of the events I remember. For others, I’m not quite certain to what I was referring, but there is a beauty in seeing what moved my heart to express gratitude. Thankfulness is one of those things that doesn’t quite make sense if there is no God. Who else can I thank for the peace I feel after settling an argument? Or for the wind that causes leaves to swirl around on the ground? These would be mere observations or fleeting thoughts unless they could be expressed to someone responsible for them.Continue reading “Gratitude on a January Day”→
I love when I am able to find secular examples that point to spiritual realities. When shown explicitly religious media, my students often give what they think are the correct answers based on their years of Catholic education. Yet when it is something that seems a bit unrelated to the class, they tend to have a greater openness and willingness to interact with the material.
On the second class day of the new spring semester, I showed them a TEDx talk called “500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair.” (Feel free to take a minute…or 19…to go and watch this video.) The image of strangers taking the time and effort to carry a man in a wheelchair up a mountain seemed to obviously gesture toward the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven.
“Through the power of community, I climbed mountains.”
At one point near the end, Justin says. “Through the power of community, I climbed mountains” and it resonated so much that I had to write it down. So many conversations lately have pivoted around the need and desire for community and authentic friendship. While some say community cannot be built, I disagree. I believe community must be built. While we cannot choose to magically connect with people, we must be intentional in how we use our time in order for community to be successful.
This community that Justin and Patrick found was possible because others were willing to be intentional with their time and energy. The pilgrim duo they met in the cathedral in Burgos were willing to wait for them before climbing the mountain leading into O’Cebreiro. Then other people heard the story and decided to wait, too, without ever meeting Justin or Patrick. Community requires intentionality and it reminds us that in this pilgrimage of life we cannot walk alone.
A priest friend of mine often said, “You can be damned alone or saved with others.” I think he was quoting someone but I was never certain of the source. The idea is that Hell is isolation, but Heaven is necessarily communion. Communion with God and with others. The reality of this can be revealed in the many “saint pairs” that have arisen over history. St. Francis and St. Clare. St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. St. Louis and St. Zelie. St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius of Loyola. The list could go on and on. St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II? Saints live a foretaste of the heavenly communion through their authentic friendships with one another. They “carry” each other up the mountain, using friendship to encourage the other to enter into deeper relationship with the Lord. Continue reading “I Climbed Mountains”→
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were good friends.
In a world where rational discussion and respectful dissent is viewed as semi-impossible, these two Supreme Court justices demonstrated how it could work. They didn’t simply clash over minute details: one could say they had almost fundamentally different views of the law and that translated into different worldviews.
My friendship with Judge, later Justice, Scalia was sometimes regarded as puzzling, because we followed distinctly different approaches to the interpretation of legal texts. But in our years together on the D.C. Circuit, there was nothing strange about our fondness for each other.
Despite differences in opinion, they were able to have a genuine appreciation for each other. In several sources, Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks of Antonin Scalia’s wit, grand presence, and shopping skills. I don’t believe she is merely coming up with things to speak about for the sake of maintaining some public reputation of a friendship. It has all the hallmarks of genuine sincerity–as evidenced by Ginsburg speaking at a memorial for Scalia following his death.
The friendship they share is significant to me because I, too, share a similarly surprising friendship. Of my friends from elementary and high school, there are only a few with whom I keep up. (Keep up is used rather loosely because I’m not really known for excellent communication where distance is concerned.) Melissa was a close friend in high school and yet, in the years since, I think the friendship has deepened, though we speak infrequently. Our friendship was born of mutual interests of theater, classes, and a desire to learn. As the two ladies in calculus, we forged a deeper bond from confusion and frustration with the class. Many of my memories from high school involve Melissa, whether it be laughter we shared, scenes she caused, or stories we told. Continue reading “Unlikely Friendships”→
During two summers in college, I was on a Totus Tuus team that traveled around my home diocese and ran catechesis for elementary through high school students. When I started, I knew I wanted to share the message of Jesus Christ with the youth of the diocese and I had encountered a zeal in teams from previous years that I desired for myself. By the end of the summer, I knew I had been thoroughly tricked. I wanted to share the Gospel and yet I found a deeper need within myself to encounter the Gospel personally. Returning to college, I told people that Totus Tuus is really about my own personal formation, not primarily about the youth I interacted with at the different parishes. It was a surprise, but it wouldn’t be the first time the Lord would change me despite my desire to be the one provoking change. Continue reading “When the Gift is More for Me Than Others”→