Sunday, March 23, 2014

Laboring and Heavy Laden

Suddenly a horrifying thought occurred to him.  "What if spring doesn't come?"
The calendar read late March, but it was 17 degrees and snowing.

* * *

Human hopes are based upon the assumption that things eventually get better.  After the long drought comes the rainfall.  After a hurricane comes a rainbow.  After the long winter comes the warmth of spring.  Through pain comes healing.  After the heartbreak, the real, true love is found.

But, although these outcomes are likely, is there any unconditional guarantee that they will be realized?

Our Lord didn't exactly promise us happiness in this life, except to call happy those who mourn, hunger and thirst, and are persecuted.  Instead, he told us to take up our cross. I see no promise that our mistakes magically work out for the best or that eventually we will find an earthly standard of happiness.  All Christ promises us on earth is the means to seek and find him.

* * *

'However, as it is written: "What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived" the things God has prepared for those who love him.' (1 Cor 2:9)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Place Where Reasons Fail

I have come to realize that the most important questions we can ask ourselves, such as where we are going, what gives us joy, and how best can we give our lives to others cannot be answered by our minds alone.  There are so many good ways to live a life, so much good that can be done by so many different things.  Is it better for me to spend my time helping the sick or helping the homeless?  Should I be a monk or be a university administrator?  Should I marry Susie or should I marry Jenny?

If reason alone could tell us what to do, then everyone would probably end up doing the same thing.  At least, that is, if everyone was acting rationally.  But I know of no way to weigh in a scale one good against another.  How can you weigh the good of being a doctor against that of being an engineer?  How can you weigh creating a new life against saving one? 

The beauty is that each person is different, and is each called to bring forth a different kind of good into the world.

Reason is nice.  It can help us figure out a lot of things.  It works pretty well for telling right from wrong and a good idea from a stupid idea.  But I don't think it can answer those deep questions about the primary way in which we are to live our lives.  I think that's because in the Christian life, all the reasons come down to one reason.  The one reason to do anything is because one loves God above anything else.  But this one reason leads to many different responses.  Indeed, it leads to infinitely many.  No two saints are the same.  So to answer the question of the particulars to which this love is leading us, we have to go to that place where reasons fail.  We have to find the deep stirrings of God in our hearts, to find that place where our deepest desires come alive.

This is a scary thing, because it requires trust.  We can have control over reason.  To reason about something enables us to explain it.  Then we can understand the 'why?'  But to trust what we hear in the silence, to trust that to which we are drawn in a deep and inexplicable way requires relinquishing all control.  Desire is unexplainable.  Can you explain to me why you are drawn to particular people?  Really?  Can you explain a beautiful face?  Impossible.  In a way, we cannot possibly understand ourselves.  We just have to listen and follow.  We have to be open, and to follow trustingly.  We have to relinquish all control in answering these fundamental questions about what good we are called to create in the world.  We have to let go.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saved by Another

Les Mis is about the redeption and salvation of a soul, namely that of Jean Valjean.  And after seeing the film version, it struck me how fitting it was that Fantine should lead Jean Valjean into heaven.  And I realized that this is because we are saved by other people.  Yes, it was love that saved Jean Valjean. It was his love for Cosette, whom he raised.  It was his love for Marius, whom he saved from the barricade.  It was his love for Fantine and his mercy even to Javert.  It was the practical charity into which Jean Valjean grew that saved him, that allowed him to escape his past deeds.  And we should not forget that all this was made possible by the love which was shown him by the bishop and others along the way.  In a word, it was made possible by grace.

I think this is an interesting reflection for us.  When we make the final transitus, the final journey home, who will lead us?  You can't get to heaven on your own.  So who will be the people who will take your hand and guide you there?

Take my hand, and lead me to salvation
Take my love, for love is everlasting
And remember the truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the face of God.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Too many people, too little time.

I've been blessed to live in places where there have been an abundance of people to whom I can easily relate and get along with.  Actually, I have a theory that you could be friends with almost anyone, because people are generally awesome once you get them talking.  But regardless of that, I still think I've been put in places where I have an extraordinary amount in common with an extraordinary amount of people.  Which leads to a problem: we are finite creatures which means that we only have a finite amount of time to spend with other people.  There are lots of people, lots of personalities to which I am drawn.  There are many people about whom I've thought, "we could be really good friends."  But there are only so many people that you can know in any meaningful way, and even fewer that you can become really close with.  (Sociologists would agree.)  So how is one to choose? How is one supposed to figure out who, out of all the smart, funny, relatable people that one could know, are the smartest, funniest, and most relatable?  Is it even possible to find the "perfect" friend?

What I've come to realize, is that the people you end up knowing and knowing well are random.  You happen to do the same activities as a certain person, live near a person, belong to the same organizations as a person, have a number of the same classes as a person.  Chance circumstances have a lot to do with who you know.  I think this used to bother me.  Its especially troubling, I would imagine, when it comes to things like deciding whom to marry.  How can anyone be "the one," the perfect match when who you get to know seems random anyway.  I remember once making a list (I was like thirteen at the time) of all the pretty girls I knew and ranking them according to categories like 'looks,' 'personality,' 'intelligence,' etc. all so that I could come to some sort of rational basis for choosing to set my affections on one of them.  But what thirteen year old me didn't realize is that love has its own dynamic, its own internal 'logic,' which cannot be captured by mere rationality.

I thank Antoine de Saint-Exupéry for giving me the language to express what I have come to realize over time.  "Taming" is the secret to how one rose, that at first looks just like any other rose on the bush, can become the most beautiful flower in the world.  It is the secret to how one person, not much different from any other person, can become a special friend. In The Little Prince, this is expressed perfectly in the dialogue between the little prince and the fox.  The fox explains to the little prince that if he wants to have friends, he needs to 'tame' someone, which is 'to establish ties.'  He says:
To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys.  And I have no need of you.  And you, on your part, have no need of me.  To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes.  But if you tame me, then we shall need each other.  To me, you will be unique in all the world.  To you, I shall be unique in all the world.
This is what it means to be in relationship with someone.  It means to put yourself in a position of vulnerability, a position of needing someone.  It's this process of coming to know someone that makes them stand out, that makes them important to you.  And I think this is what makes the question of whether the people we know are the 'best' people we could know a silly one.  To tame someone is to know them, to let them enter your heart, to care about them and let them care about you.  They may not be the best or the brightest, but that's okay because they are the ones you know.  There is a freedom here to not question why you are friends with someone (and not someone else) but to accept the fact that they have become unique to you and to accept the 'logic' of love.

"'Go and look again at the roses,' [said the fox,] "You will understand now that yours [the one the little prince left on his home planet] is unique in all the world."
. . .
"The little prince went away, to look again at the roses."
. . . 
"[To the roses he said], 'You are beautiful, but you are empty...One could not die for you.  To be sure, and ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you--the rose that belongs to me.  But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing.  Because she is my rose.'"
. . .
"And he went back to meet the fox"
. . .
"' Goodbye,' said the fox. 'And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."
. . .
"'It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.'"
. . .
"'Men have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget it.  You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.  You are responsible for your rose...'"

This, I think, is what it is to truly live.  It is to tame others, and to let ourselves be tamed.  It is to waste time with people, because that is kind of what other people are there for.  And when we do this, it enables us to see others in a way that no one else sees them.  And we when we do this, we allow others to have a claim on us...forever.

To everyone whom I have had the great pleasure of getting to know in little ways or in big ways: thank you.  Even if that fact that we are both finite means I haven't yet gotten to know you as well as I would like, you should know that you really have made a difference in my life.  All of you.  So thank you.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Monks' Hearts

One of the things of which I have been reminded time and again in the recent past, (and of which I am in need of constant reminding) is the simple fact that we are called to have hearts for God alone.  There is a hunger and a loneliness inside each of us that only God can fill.  Growth in the Christian life is one of stripping away all temporal things to which we are attached, so that we can be filled with God alone.  And while this may be easiest to do in the context of the religious vows, and most particularly in the context of a monastery, it is something that everyone is called to do.  Whether priest, religious brother, religious sister, single, married, we are all called fundamentally to have monks' hearts.  Just like the men who go through these gates at the Abby of Gesthemani.

Photo by Bryan Sherwood, used under Creative Commons license.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this gem about distractions in prayer and what they tell us:
To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified.  Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve.  -CCC #2729
It is through the stillness and silence of prayer that we can learn what is disquieting our hearts, what is weighing them down, and there learn to free ourselves from all worldly attachments and to love God above all else.

Edit: I should note that the phrase "monks' hearts" isn't mine originally, but came most immediately from a priest I know.  I don't know if he got it from anywhere.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

Different paths led us here.  We each came here on our own journey.  And soon we will follow different paths away from here.  For our journeys are different.  But what matters is that now, in the present, they overlap.  We cover the same ground. We take in the same scenery, pass by the same waypoints, and even share the company of the same fellow travellers.

Sometimes I think the sadness that sometimes falls between us is not so much because the part of the journey we have together is so short, but because each of us can't understand the path the other must take in the end.  I can only really know what it is like to travel the journey I was given, and you yours.  In the end, my path is not to be your path, and your path is not to be my path.  This keeps us apart even now.  For how can I understand you, if your path and mine are not the same?

But come, let us walk together for as long as we can.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Transforming Desire

Travelling about the lake (this time running) has been a good source of thoughts lately.  On my run today it struck me how living a good life and living a Christian life are as much about transforming our desires as they are about transforming our behavior.  In paraphrasing William Law, Peter Kreeft once said "If you will look into your own heart in utter honesty, you must admit that there is one and only one reason why you are not even now a saint. You do not wholly want to be."  This, then, is the task.  We must want to be saints.  The most successful people really want to be successful.  This holds true in the spiritual life, as much as in the world of business or the world of athletics.

But how do we begin to transform our desires?  I suppose it starts by living as if we had them.