Thursday, March 6, 2014
I was sitting outside as the priest opened the church doors this morning, and I walked in with him as he went about turning on the lights. He commented on some of our prior discussions, and thanked me for the recent book I had given him. A very busy priest, he had just read the words I had underlined in the text, and got what I considered the important stuff.
He asked me “What’s new” in my life, and I described my idea for supporting parish family life. “That sounds like a very good idea,” he said. “Keep me informed how that progresses,” and he walked away, continuing his mass setup chores.
But the conversation went on in my mind, as I argued all the reasons for my great idea, and all the wonderful things it might bring about --- No; make that LIKELY would bring about. This was an IMPORTANT idea.
But he didn’t hear my unsaid words. And I couldn’t quiet my mind as it raced along on the topic. He had walked away, but in my mind I thought: “Why won’t he listen to me? He acknowledged this was a good idea, didn’t he?”
But then, sitting there in the quiet of the church, God opened my old mind to another time and another good idea I once had, and the man who HAD listened to me, and thanked me for my idea, and then rushed to implement it. And I recalled how proud that made me --- for a very short while.
I paid for my college education by clerking 8 hours a day on the railroad. My starting job involved walking through the yard and writing down boxcar numbers, and noting their destinations. The rail yard acted as a boxcar sorting point. Trains entered the yard with boxcars destined for cities A through Z, blocked in groups of A through E, F through L, etc. In our yard we put together all the A-to-E cars from various inbound trains into one new outbound train headed toward cities A to E, or other groups of cities. And we added a few on-hand cars destined for A-to-E that we might have picked up from local companies. We did pretty much the same thing for the other cities, and during my shift the newly blocked trains left the yard. It all seemed pretty simple and organized to my bright, teen-aged mind.
And my mind WAS bright --- as everyone (and my school grades) told me. There was a young black man I knew, Art, who worked for the railroad at that time. Smart, he was a crew leader in the yard, driving one of the engines that sorted the rail cars. I liked Art, and he invited me to dinner with his young family a couple of times. I didn’t think it unusual, but it was in those days of Dr. Martin Luther King marches. And so it was a surprise when Art was promoted to be the first black Yardmaster, supervisor of all engine crews on my afternoon work shift. Art and his family were so proud, and I was very happy for him.
I remember Art’s first day on his new job. As he was directing the train destined for cities A-to-E to be formed, I noticed a few local cars for A-to-E and walked into Art’s office. “Hey, here’s a few more,” I said. “Thanks,” Art replied. “I’ll send an engine to get them.” And then I discovered a few more on another track, and then the local industry pickup train came in, and I pointed out a few more. And Art thanked me again, and directed adding those cars also to the growing outbound A-to-E train.
As the afternoon passed, I thought: “We sure are a great team, Art and I,” and I felt so proud of my contribution. But it was near the end of my shift when the regional manager, Art’s boss, came into Art’s office. “What the *X$$#* is the A-to-E train still doing in the yard?” he screamed. And after Art explained our great efforts, the boss further exclaimed: “You idiot!! Your delays have meant that the A-to-E cars will miss the cutoff at the next sorting yard, where they now will sit for an extra day --- and cost the railroad money!”
“You’re fired!!!” he screamed. And as I stood there in the office doorway, he stormed out past me.
I was stunned, and couldn’t speak for a few minutes, as I looked at the equally stunned Art. What would he tell his family? Art had listened to me and my great ideas …. “I’m so sorry, Art,” was all I could say. “That’s all right,” he responded. “It’s my fault; I should have known better.” And he picked up his coat and lunch pail and left the office.
I never saw Art or his family again. I’m not sure I ever even thought about him again; I think at the time it was too painful. I guess my shocked mind wouldn’t let me go there. And as wise as I thought myself to be, I can now look back and see how stupid I was; what a stupid thing I had done, in my pride.
It’s been a lot of years since I “helped” my friend, Art, get fired. And in those intervening years how many times have I thought the words I did this morning about a boss or a friend: “I’ve got a great idea! Why won’t he listen to me?”
How much pride I have had!
How often have you, too, had a great idea, but your wife or your kids or your priest or your boss or your Church or your company or your government wouldn’t listen? We all have so many great ideas, don’t we? We all have such great pride. “Why won’t they listen to me?”
It was only a short parable, but I think it an important one, which ended with the words: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” I think perhaps at that time Jesus’ followers didn’t understand this message; it is a hard one to accept. Caesar was ruler for the Empire, and responsible for it. Jesus’ followers might have looked at Him and thought: “But you know so much more than Caesar; You could find better uses for that money; You could be fairer than Caesar’s taxes.” And looking at all Jesus wanted to accomplish, certainly they were right. He could better accomplish what he wished to accomplish. But that was not what Caesar wished to accomplish, because that was not what Caesar was OBLIGATED to accomplish. Caesar was obligated to rule the Empire as best as he could; Jesus was obligated to save souls as best He could. So Jesus said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” so that he can do what he should --- and if he then fails in his obligations, he shall answer for it. But Caesar is obligated to do many things, even beyond the immediate focus of Jesus. In His words to His followers, Jesus was telling them that they were not obligated, indeed they should not interfere, with tasks which were not theirs. And they should trust others, even if perhaps they thought they could do better than they. Unless they had the obligations of those others, they should only help others to the degree appropriate (even to paying taxes, or voting, or submitting suggestions to leaders). But to demand or expect that others should follow them is prideful and perhaps even dangerous --- everyone can’t lead at the same time; that is anarchy. And in the chaos, someone might lose their job --- or worse.
Jesus knew there was an order to things; how many of us (myself at the head of the list) want to lead in almost anything we take a mind to? Whether we justify our pride by “I know my rights,” or “I have a great idea,” or “You’re biased against me,” or just a whiney “Why won’t you listen to me,” one of the last things we do is look in the mirror and really see ourselves. As a teenager who knew so much, how I now wish I could have looked in the mirror then and saw my true self; perhaps Art would still have had a job, and his family might have lived much better lives. Except for my pride.
I’d would liked to have had the priest stop what he was doing this morning and say to me: “Wow! That is a great idea!! Get with me after mass and we’re figure out how we’ll do this thing for this great big parish.” It would have been a déjà vu moment: Art listening to the teenager again. And what great disaster might await if this priest with so many souls in his care leapt to grab the ideas of one prideful soul --- even if those ideas might indeed be pretty good. Do you grasp what I am saying here? It was not for no reason that some wise man once said: “It’s hard to be humble.” It is. But it also is hard to accept and focus on OUR obligations, FIRST. The priest IS respectful of me and is surely interested in my ideas, but he has other obligations, bigger obligations, FIRST. Just as I was not aware of the schedules Art was responsible to keep, I certainly am not aware of the many obligations of my local parish priest. And as for the obligations of even higher ranking officials, well I am even less likely to know or understand them ---- even if in my pride I think I do.
We were all made with talents and for a purpose. We are all in a certain place in our lives, with certain obligations. If we are married, with children, they are our most immediate obligations. If we are employed for a job, accomplishing that is our immediate obligation, when we are at work. The further remote are our associations beyond the immediate ones, the more remote our obligations. In those entities, churches, companies, dioceses, cities, states, countries, there will be some who will have as their immediate obligation the care of those entities; it will be THEIR work obligation. We are to support them as appropriate, rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s; we are not to seek to dictate to them or demand their allegiance to us, or our ideas. Our ideas to them are suggestions, no matter how good they are, and they get many suggestions. It is only in pride that we believe they must listen to us.
This is a hard thing to accept. I know. But then again, I was privileged to see up close and first hand, the destruction my pride can accomplish. Just because I read so much, I know so much, I think so much, does not mean I’ve read everything, I know everything, or I can think of everything. Only pride would make me believe that to be true.
But what, you may ask, about the “idiot boss,” or the “stupid rule,” or the “just plain evil ruler.” Surely we are not to just sit back and do nothing, are we? Well, perhaps you are. You know the saying “Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something.” Sometimes that statement is true, in particular when you do something with incomplete facts --- like my recommendations to Art. From all I knew I gave him great advice, but I did not know enough, and “I did not know what I did not know.” But I thought I did. And I was wrong.
For every “idiot boss,” or “stupid rule,” or “evil ruler” who you run across, you can and should use the talents you were blessed with, in the manner in which you are obligated to. You offer your boss ideas and advice; you back it with facts and data; you enlist others to help support your thoughts (and provide additional thoughts you might not have considered), and then you listen to your boss’s response. If he responds without understanding your ideas and advice, go back and develop additional clarifications to help him understand, and if he then sees your conclusions and disagrees … shut up. If something harmful or dangerous might result, perhaps you might go over his head, but in general I would advise you to shut up and get on with your other responsibilities. On this task, you have done your responsibility; don’t let other obligations suffer because of your pride on this one.
And if, like Art, your boss accepts your great ideas and they fail, don’t explain that they failed because of information you didn’t have. If you’ve done your job as you should and considered information available to you, stop worrying. We all fail sometimes; sometimes it is our fault, and sometimes it is not. But in either case we should accept it and move on --- having learned some lesson which, hopefully we will not forget in the future.
As I forgot Art.I said a prayer for him this morning, and for me.
Monday, March 3, 2014
I shuffled my deck of past Lenten resolutions, penances I have offered to God in years gone by. There were things I gave up --- things I liked: coffee, beef, alcohol, reading novels (that was tough last year), or food in general. And then there were the things I resolved to do some years --- things good for me, of which I didn’t do enough: attending daily mass, taking weekly Communion to the senior home, giving to the PB&J food collection, or serving at the soup kitchen. All those were good things I’ve done, and I’ll probably pick from them again this year. All those things will be good for me to do, penances I need and should offer to God.
But I’ve thought of another different, better thing --- a more difficult thing, but first a bit of background:
The friend I breakfast with each Saturday morning told me his business building is finally sold. He has a month to sell or scrap all the machines he’s worked on for so many years. They’re kind of like old friends to him, he said. He sighed as he considered all the work he has to do this month, but then he asked: “But what will I do then?”
He is off to a good start in his retirement: recently he began attending daily mass, and on some days he stops at McDonald’s for coffee with some of the mass guys. Staying in contact with old friends, and making new friends, is important for retired adults. But so is doing something meaningful with your life, knowing you are still making a difference. We talked some about the things I was doing (or at least trying to do), and some things he might do with his newly freed time. He looked unconvinced, and was perhaps unsure how to start --- how to start doing “something.” But really, it shouldn’t just be “something” he does, but it should be something with a purpose.
Lent, I believe, is a good time for each of us to seek some new purpose for our life.
I’m reading a book titled “Rich in Years,” by Johann Christoph Arnold. Its subtitle is: “Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life.” The book seems to be focused on answering my friend’s questions. It answers the question: “In my old age, I can’t do as much as I used to --- indeed I can’t do some of the things I used to do at all --- so what smaller things can I do with my smaller capabilities?” The book addresses my friend’s questions about purpose, but as the subtitle describes, it also talks about finding peace in your life.
This is a book aimed at old people, but don’t we all desire purpose and peace? And don’t we sometimes feel that on some days, weeks, or heck, even some years, we are not at all at peace, that life is hard, and that others don’t understand us and our needs? Perhaps don’t we sometimes feel misunderstood, even by those we love the most?
I was late for the men’s Bible study group again last Friday. (I’m always late because I go to mass first.) I never did find out what Scripture passage the guys were considering, but as I walked in they were engaged in a vehement conversation about married life. For each of them there was some time or some topic for which either their spouse or their kids “just didn’t get it.” The guys were very supportive of one another: “I know just what you mean; here’s what my spouse said along those lines,” or: “Well, you won’t believe what my kid did last week …” Their discussions may have wandered a bit off topic (whatever it was), but they were acting as a faith community, supporting one another, and that was a good thing. Then, after one particularly exasperating example, one of the men commented: “It’s times like that in which there is nothing we can say or do to make things better. And so the best thing we can do is just shut up and have faith in God. Even out of this situation, we need to trust He will make good.”
And there were nods all around.
But then another thought came to me: “Having faith in God, particularly in bad times, is a good thing, but in the examples you guys were discussing, I think it is a copout!” The conversation, which had been very lively, came to a sudden halt. And they all looked at me.
“Look,” I said. “In conversations with your spouse it is certainly good to remember that God is part of your marriage. You made a marriage vow to your spouse, and to Him, also.” Then I brought up the Bishop Sheen book, Three to Get Married (I’ve reviewed it here before). Everyone married or planning marriage should read this book. It explains like no other book I’ve ever read just what that marriage vow really means. It is a vow among three people, including God. And implicit in that vow is that they --- all three of them --- would love, honor, and TRUST one another.
“So,” I said to the men, “telling God that you trust in Him when your spouse is unreasonable or is unjustly angry at you (in your opinion) IS a good thing. But what about that vow you made to trust in your wife? At the time when she seems unreasonable, at the time she’s angry (for no good reason), or at the time you just want to scream “You just don’t get it, do you?” --- at those times most of all, it is important to remember that vow you made to trust. It’s important right then to say to yourself: “Even if I don’t understand her thoughts, her anger, or her silence, I will trust in her.” The commandment to love God and love your neighbor is doubly important when the neighbor you are talking about is your wife! And what greater evidence of love is there than to trust --- to trust that despite actions you may not understand, that she loves you also. To trust that despite words and actions to the contrary, that she loves you --- and even trusts you, right now. “That,” I said to the guys, “is the real trust we need to have in marriage --- and we so often forget about: trust of our spouse and our kids --- AND of God.”
There was a thoughtful silence among the men, each thinking, I believe, about the particular bad argument with their spouse or their kids they had in mind during this morning’s discussion. Each had initially thought that he was the wronged one, and had to put up with his family, but upon reflection, they all came around to thinking that perhaps they were the ones who had wronged another. It gave them something to think upon, and as one said: “I think that may give me something to work on this Lent.”
And that is the different, difficult Lenten Resolution I propose to you. Don’t resolve this Lent to do something which is good for you, but rather resolve to do something that is good for another, even if it is most difficult for you, even if you don’t like it. Now you can describe what I am proposing as simply a “Love Your Neighbor” suggestion, but it is more than that. I am proposing that you love your neighbor more than yourself; deliberately putting yourself second --- or even last. So, for your spouse and kids, you might resolve to agree more, to compromise more --- even if you KNOW you are right. You might smile more, especially when you’ve had a terrible day at work. You might visit that soup kitchen or that senior citizen home with the avowed goal of making at least three people smile, to make their day better. And perhaps even to God, you might spend some time in chapel asking for His help, and then taking even more time to tell Him how thankful you are for all the help He’s already given you, and spending some time recalling with Him just how blessed He has made you. Don’t make your Lenten prayers all about you.
Is this Lenten resolution I propose really a penance? I’m not sure, but it has the same purpose as a penance: to help improve our lives. But it has something more; it has a purpose of improving the life of someone else. While we go through our Lenten walk, we often ponder the Passion Walk of Jesus, and we think of our own personal passion. Sometimes we may think: “Lord, I will walk with You.” This is a good thing. But we must not forget WHY Jesus took that walk, and why we must also. It wasn’t just for Himself, it was for others. That should be the reason we are willing to take our passion walk also.
But it is a resolution, a difficult resolution, we must make.
As for me, I’ll try to remember these things, and I will give up meat and alcohol, and I think I’ll buy a copy of Rich in Years for my senior friends, including my newly retired breakfast friend. It may give each some measure of peace, or so I shall pray.
Friday, February 28, 2014
I initially was irritated by the elitist attitude expressed in the article (in First Things magazine) “Against Hetersexuality” -- another young man with knowledge, who thought he had wisdom. Then I smiled; I was once young too, and thought that only I knew the truth of matters.
The author acknowledges that Scripture calls sodomy a sin, but then seems to explain why those who proudly proclaim themselves “homosexual” and celebrate their sodomy acts should not be thought of as sinners. I can see that no argument will convince him otherwise; HE KNOWS.
In my many years I was sometimes given a small measure of wisdom. The gift usually came via some words written by saints or apologists, or was whispered to my heart in the quiet of an adoration chapel. I won’t debate Mr. Hannon and his “wisdom,” which he challenges us to accept (“Mark my words …”), but I might suggest to him that rather than immediately joining the Norbertines to spread his wisdom, he might (like Paul) go into the desert for 3 years or so. And since he seems to “know” the Bible so well, perhaps he might take along a copy of The Theology of the Body, and The Litany For Humility, and then just sit and think about himself.
To quote a real wise man: “To know oneself is the beginning of Wisdom” – Socrates.
- - - - - - - - - -
I wanted to document and remember the (above) letter I sent to the editor of First Things magazine this morning. The article I read there roused me to anger for 12 hours or so. I wanted to call the author names: elitist, arrogant, supporter of evil --- and he plans to join a religious order! But during the mass and through the day’s readings my anger calmed, and I saw not an arrogant ass, but a confused (albeit intelligent) young man, lost but loudly proclaiming in confidence: I know the way! How many among our youth are like him. They are the fruit of the decline in our culture, the Tower of Babel we build and live in, and in which we think we are reaching the skies.
I don’t expect my letter to be published by the magazine, but I believe they forward all comments to the authors. Perhaps he might read it. Perhaps grace may be given to him. Perhaps he might see that celebrating diversity, avoiding name calling, and not judging those who would celebrate sin will not, as he is convinced, cause the issues now being forced upon Christians by a militant homosexual community to just drift away. Sitting back and stopping the use of the terms Homosexual or Heterosexual will not cause the whole issue of “choosing my sex and what to do with it” to go away.
Exactly “what” may be debated, but we certainly must do something.
I will not be anxious, it only leads to sin.
Seek then the highest wisdom, not by arguments in
words but by the perfection of your life, not by speech
but by the faith that comes from simplicity of heart,
not from the learned speculations.
--- St. Columban, abbot
words but by the perfection of your life, not by speech
but by the faith that comes from simplicity of heart,
not from the learned speculations.
--- St. Columban, abbot
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Lent will soon be upon us, and my local Catholic bookstore has a variety of books on display, some old and some new. Among the old are my own “old recommendations” from last year, and among the new are these two books:
You can see the cover of Matthew Kelly’s book, Rediscover Lent, here. Quite frankly, it is a bit of a turn off to me when I see a book cover where the author’s name is bigger than the book title. It says to me: “I’m important, so buy this.,” when --- at least for spiritual readings, I think --- it should be the topic which is important. But having expressed my prejudices, now I’ll tell you (honestly) that the reason I bought this book was largely because Matthew Kelly was the author. Go figure.
My experience with Kelly isn’t expansive; I’ve only heard a talk or two of his, and read maybe a book or two, but I recall that what I’ve heard or read impacted me, and I remembered his simple, Irish name. (Do you think they made the cover all green because he’s Irish?) Whatever the reason, I bought this book and read just a few pages of it to get a feel for its value as Lenten reading (and not to spoil my further Lenten reading of it).
I found the few pages I read of Kelly’s book very enjoyable.
Kelly notes that he has often spoken lectures on the “seven pillars of Catholic spirituality” (which is news to me), and this book consists of daily short reflections on those seven pillars, which are: confession, daily prayer, the mass, the Bible, fasting, spiritual reading, and the rosary. Some excerpts of his reflections:
· Ignatius, Francis, Benedict, Dominic, Joan of Arc, and Theresa all asked the question: God, what do you think I should do? Henry David Thoreau said: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” If you don’t ask the big question, you won’t discover your mission, and sooner or later you will be numbered among Thoreau’s masses.
· My experience has been that more than 90 percent of Catholics can’t tell you what last Sunday’s Gospel was about. If we don’t know what last Sunday’s Gospel reading was, only a few days later, then I have to believe that it didn’t significantly impact our lives.
· “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Since September 11, 2001, have you heard a single prayer in any of our churches for Osama bin Laden or for al Qaeda or for terrorists? The teachings of Jesus are as radical today as they were when they were first announced.
· The truth is, you cannot be healthy and happy without discipline. In fact, if you want to measure the level of happiness in your life, just measure the level of discipline in your life. You will never have more happiness than you have discipline. The two are directly related to one another.
· My proposal is that we encourage Catholic adults to read good spiritual books. Fifteen minutes a day is as good as any place to start … this habit alone could be a game changer for the Church in our times. … If every Catholic spent fifteen minutes a day, every day, learning about his or her faith, how different would our Church be in a year? Five years? Ten years? Rome wasn’t built in a day. Most great things are achieved little by little.
These are just random samples from this book. See anything that made you stop and think? Me, too. Put this one on your Lenten reading list.
This next book, Meditations For Lent, is a compilation of the words of Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, who was a famous orator in France in the seventeenth century. He has been favorably compared with St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom, and some saints kept his writings as bedside reading. The writings in this book are comments on and arranged according to the Gospel readings each day of the Lenten season.
The Bossuet book approaches meditations from a different angle than Kelly’s book. Kelly’s book focused on specific topics, his seven pillars, and challenged you to make them part of your Lenten focus --- to change your spiritual life by doing something different. Bossuet’s book is more of a self-contained “read this and learn” book. You don’t have to go out and get anything else, and you don’t have to do anything else, just read and learn.
Honestly, most books I read are written in more of Bossuet’s style than Kelly’s. Most inform me: by giving me new data, by explaining something I thought I knew in a new light, or by providing me a new opinion to think about and compare with my own. Kelly’s book challenged me to “go out and change in this way,” while Bossuet’s book said “Here’s the truth of things” and then implied: “So what are you going to do about that?”
In the sample selections I read from Bossuet’s book, I found no “new news” for me. He did provide good, clear explanations of Church teachings on various topics and/or Scripture passages. If you were unclear on these teachings, or had never much reflected upon them, these Lenten meditations might be “Aha!” moments for you, but at first glance, they didn’t strike me that way. Perhaps reading them in the adoration chapel, slowly, on the day and in the order they were meant to be read, perhaps they will provide me with deeper thoughts and spiritual insights.
I don’t mean to slight Bossuet’s writings. He provides good, clear, concise meditations. I am sure that for many people he will be providing “new news” to think upon during Lent, or old news which we too easily forget or ignore. It is a good book, and I do plan to read it and Kelly’s book each day this Lent.
At least, that is my plan for Lenten spiritual growth.
You should make one, too.