Christianity

Did Mercy Happen This Lent?

I’m not much interested in evaluating how well I did with my Lenten commitments. Some years I’ve done well, and others I didn’t even make a commitment to break. Life went on and Lent ended only with gladness that the sacrifices would let up, or that the guilt of ongoing failure would relent. But there’s a new question for me this Holy Week: “What happened to me despite what I did or didn’t do?” This question has the capacity to change me; its answer will help me “do well.”

This question began growing in me after Fr. Kieran, an 89-year old monk of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Kansas, passed away two weeks ago.  I began remembering my time with him while I was part of that community. He was blind and I, along with the other junior monks, had the privilege of helping him with some basic needs throughout the day.

Fr. Kieran spent his life serving God in the poor in both Kansas and Brazil. He knew that Christ was in the flesh of those he encountered. I remembered how it was assisting him with his needs, such as finding the right chapter in his audio books: I was startled, again and again. The man gave his life to Christ and his people, and I was asked to give to him. I knew who I was and, frankly, I wasn’t impressed. But no matter what I’d done or not done, no matter how much I neglected charity or doubted my vocation, I was asked to be by his side toward the end of his remarkable life.

This was a mercy. Nothing I could have done, no failing, prevented the invitation to be with Fr. Kieran. I was asked to do it, despite myself. I grew in love and friendship, despite myself. I was given a gift, despite myself. Despite myself, mercy happened. I’d look at the photo on his wall of him in front of a church while on mission in Brazil and think, “How the hell am I here with him?”

When this mercy came, it was neither grand, nor extravagant. It was a quiet conversation about a book he was listening to, or planning what time he’d have me get him for Mass. It was subtle. You might have called it mundane: A young guy helping an old guy, often because it was his job. It was easy to miss. But the grace to see the whole reality with Fr. Kieran, that I was a sinner receiving a gift, alerted me to mercy.

That memory got me paying a more attention to where mercy happened to me this Lent, rather than where my successes and failures rested. Despite everything I am or do, what has happened? This Lent I was given opportunities to love. I was forgiven again and again. I was surrounded by friends. Challenges confronted me. Through this I’ve desired to pray, to give, to sacrifice, even to “do well.” I’m being given life. I don’t know how much my Lenten sacrifices contributed to these happenings, or how much those sacrifices have helped me to see them. But I did see mercy happening.

Mercy happened to me this Lent. Nothing awesome, just mercy in the flesh. Nothing loud or grandiose, but the “silent whisper” Elijah heard, which could have been drowned out by preoccupation with Lenten success and failure. It is a mercy, too, that I can end this Lent with a judgment that he who is mercy touched me. It’s much better than being glad only that life (viz., my diet) will return to normal… but I’m glad about that, too. 

The Lenten Primary

     The majority of Lent—the spiritual season of penance, reflection, and humility—this year has occurred in the months of February and March. This is all very appropriate, for the bulk of the circus that is the 2016 presidential primaries—the political season of punishment, resentment, and embarrassment—has also taken place in this time period. And I find this all rather depressingly funny.

    During Lent, the Christian world is called to repent and sin no more. This sinning no more encompasses the task of penance and necessitates a certain self-denial. The most commonly associated concept is a Lenten sacrifice. It is done so we might be reminded that all things, good as they may be, are second and perhaps obstacles to our relationship with God. Self-denial, though, is not always characterized by such explicit offerings. Self-denial to its root is a spiritual rejection of an isolated life. Myself necessitates me. Me alone is not qualified to order my life justly and piously. Instead, my life must be mastered by that which masters best, which is of course the divine law, love. Beautiful.

    During these primaries, the American electorate is called to endorse and vote. Voting, however,, requires nothing more than checking off a name on the ballot. It demands no criteria of evaluation, no critical-thinking, and certainly no basis in truth. Instead of sacrificing our misconceptions and hatred, we are actually inundated with messages of mostly fear and violence. We are reminded that everyone around us is second and even an obstacle to ourselves. It’s not always so blunt though. We get whispers of, “Only you matter. Don’t let anyone tell you right and wrong. Listen to me, I’ll take care of you. I’ll protect you.” It doesn’t matter which candidate is speaking, for it all boils down to that core message. It’s an anti-love campaign. It is a punishment of those who threaten us. My life must be mastered by no one, except those who order us to be mastered by no one. Contradictory.

    I am aware of my actions and conscience at no other time more than Lent. It is a period of intense reflection of my character, and my standing as a human person. The consequences of eternal life and death stare at me most starkly, in which I can see my soul either in chains or caring arms. I am in constant doubt, contemplating what in my life must be amended. Ironically, though, it is also when I am most frustrated with God, bordering on rebellion. My burden should light, the yoke easy! And it’s not, dammit.. The frustration is the result of a paradox. When we desire and expect an easy burden, we are actually seeking to avoid it, making the burden, in turn, much more difficult. Every Lent I become aware of the paradox, and I find that if the task is invited, it isn’t so difficult. Because just as lifting weights makes us stronger, carrying the cross gives us spiritual strength. Lent is a real period of supernatural regeneration. Isn’t that refreshing?

    I am aware of my opinions and political affiliation at no other time more than primaries. It is a time of intense debate with my fellow citizens, where we fight over the future standing of the nation. The consequences of reward and destruction are seemingly before us in such dramatic and apocalyptic fashion. And yet, it is also a time in which I seriously question my sanity in politics. With all the nonsense and noise, I can’t hear myself think. I wonder what am I doing in politics, what value does this have? My purpose should be clear, my intent decisive! And it’s not, dammit. The truth must be chosen, the good triumphant.The frustration is the result of a moral deadlock. When we fight so savagely over concepts of good and bad, we end up blurring the lines between the two, turning everyone into monsters. Every primary I become aware of this deadlock, and I find myself never knowing which way is right. I find it easiest to not think about it, and simply go about my business as needed for the win. But just as lifting weights poorly can gradually weaken your body, performing my duties agnostically weakens my resolve to stay in politics. Primaries is a real period of resentment for yourself. Isn’t that depressing?

    For me pride is a real danger. It is the battle I fight constantly, in which my inner thoughts tempt me with superiority and elitism. From the fruitful branch of self-confidences arises a mimicking weed of arrogance. It is a stubborn plant, which this world has armored with thorns to thwart those who would challenge it; deep roots to dishearten those who would reason with it; and a sprawling system to mock those who would ignore it. These armors put up their greatest fight in Lent, challenging its call to holiness by my very surety of self-righteousness. In the end, though, through the superabundance of grace, love, and a stern confession, my pride is lessened. With my fear of the Lord increased, I regain a piety that secures my place in God’s plan without the consequence of smugness. This is my great help.

    In politics, losing is a real danger. The battle between candidates is constant, in which I am threatened by possibility of an unwelcome majority. From the benefit of freedom to associate and speak comes the vicious right to ridicule and discard. This is not so much a stubborn weed as it is a poisonous berry we gluttonously consume. We do not care to differentiate between that which is healthy and ill for us. We pick more berries off our bushes than our opponents so that we can beat them at the death-pie contest. And the primaries are a big contest, calling upon the bakers to do their worst. In the end, we are left with nothing but ourselves killed by our own inhumanity, our own insecurity. The superabundance of disgust and animosity gives us an exacerbated need to lash out. With fear of others increased, we are left with nothing but intolerance. This is our great suicide.

    At the end of 40 days in the desert comes the greatest suffering, the crucifixion. My spirit is whipped by my sins and my soul crushed by my guilt. I am hung upon the cross of my temptation, and I surrender myself over to something more. Just as Christ rose to release us from our death, we will rise, awoken to a new life of Godliness.

    I pray at the end of these nightmarish months on the campaign trail comes a great suffering. One which reveals to us our pettiness, and chokes us by the very ballot we vote with. May we hang by the choices we make, and live in the intolerable reality we fashion for ourselves My only hope is that when it is all finished we will have learned our lesson for the next season. My worry is that God will not bother to raise us up from the grave we freely chose to dig.  Thankfully, God is merciful, even if we don’t deserve it.

Happy Easter, happy voting.

Christianity and Environmentalism

With the recent release of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, the connection between Christian thought and Environmentalism is being thrown into the spotlight. The two, while compatible, haven’t always had the most symbiotic relationship. Environmentalism is often criticized as idolization of the planet, which is a valid fear when forgetting to recycle that cardboard cereal box is considered by some to be grounds for moral judgment. At the same time, discussion about faithful stewardship of creation can help us as Christians to view natural resources as a gift from God, and help us to be grateful in the small acts of daily life. There is a balance to be struck here. To really dig into what this balance might look like, and why it is so important, I highly recommend reading the encyclical.

Here, however, I want to take a minute to look at what Christian Environmentalism can teach us about living in cooperation, not only with God, but with our fellow human beings, especially those who do not have faith.

When it comes to living an environmentally friendly lifestyle, there are different ways of reducing your impact. Purchasing sustainable, biodegradable, and organic products is one. This option, while it often costs more, allows a consumer to reduce his negative effect on the environment, without having to sacrifice convenience. Choosing these products, if you can afford to, is good. I have no doubts that unprocessed lifestyles are healthier for many, if not all parties involved.  

Before Sprouts and Whole Foods became the backbone of green living, however, being environmentally friendly was a matter of applying a few simple principles to your daily life: reduce, reuse, and recycle. The idea was not to make the waste we produce safe for wildlife to ingest, but to actually reduce the amount of waste we produce.

This idea fits remarkably well with Christian teaching. When we use what we consume the planet doesn’t have to provide as much space for our waste, there is more to go around to those who need it, and we are not storing up treasures in this world that will be of no use to us in the next.


And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he though to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?

            —Luke 12:15-20


When we consume intentionally we take the time to consider whether something is necessary or superfluous. We apply this question not only to products directly connected with environmentalism, such as gas, but to the amount of clothing we purchase (and the amount that spends years in the back of our closet). We think about the amount of food we buy (and the amount we scrape off our plates at the end of a meal). We think about how often we will really use the latest tech gadgets, or if we really need more décor to sit on our shelves. Let it be clear, the point here is not to live a drab life with white walls and 3 outfits for the sake of less waste, but to put thought into our intake of ‘stuff’ and to realize when we have enough.

This lifestyle in which enough is enough, not only helps us to reduce the amount of waste we contribute to the environment, but also puts us on common ground with those who are extraordinarily concerned about our planet. This lifestyle opens doors for companionship and recognition of a shared mission as we all try to live peacefully with one another. This lifestyle recognizes we all share a common home, and speaks to others, acknowledging your willingness to live simply with a reasonable share of resources. This lifestyle, lived with joy, shouts to the world the emptiness of things. As Thomas Dubay says in his book Happy Are You Poor, “We need people who in their way of life challenge the prevailing false ideologies bearing upon the production, distribution, and use of material goods” (85).

Even with the new encyclical (which, again, I highly recommend) Christianity and Environmentalism are likely to continue butting heads. And while there are still many conversations to be had, finding common ground to stand on will make the process a lot easier. I invite you to take a look at your life, and start taking the time to think before you buy, before you put more food on your plate, before you grab the paper plates, and make intentional choices. I invite you to live simply, and to be joyful. And I invite you to invite others, especially those who are working to protect the environment into that life. Perhaps, just as everything in nature is interconnected, we can start something small that just might help save the world.







Cultivating an Unbroken Mind

Thanks to Laura Hildebrand’s Unbroken, the story of Olympic runner and WWII veteran Louie Zamperini has become famous in the modern world. Since the book has been made into a movie, a wide range of audiences have had the pleasure of watching Louie go through many trials of war and have found themselves hoping for his return to the track. Currently, I am somewhere in the middle of the book, and I haven’t seen the movie. So no spoiler alert here, I don’t have enough information yet.

While the sheer quantity and intensity of the trials Louie endures throughout the story are shocking, the thing that floored me, that caused me to close the book and just sit, was the idea that Louie and Phil (his fellow cast-away) survived not only because they managed to find food and water, but because they didn’t let their minds atrophy.

Louie knew that more than just physically rotting in the elements, he and his men were in danger of losing control of their minds, of going insane from hours spent doing nothing but floating. His solution, was to quiz Phil. And Phil quizzed him. They shared memories with each other in excruciating detail, down to the ingredients in the recipes involved. It was by exercising their brains that Louie and Phil were able to keep themselves lucid.

Even more interesting was the idea that as they continued floating, quizzing, and thinking, Louie realized how loud civilized life can be. After days of only conversation, and presumably the lapping of water against his raft, Louie recognized he was able to move deeper into his mind than he ever had been before. He intentionally tried to recall his earliest memory, and found himself able to dredge up a memory of a dog he hadn’t previously been able to recollect. 

Our minds have been given to us so that we might come to know ourselves, and the world around us, which makes up a crucial part of coming to know God. Much of modern culture, however, perhaps more than it encourages physical laziness, often encourages mental laziness. The entertainment industry is largely about providing ways to pass the time with minimal mental exertion. Intellectual pursuits are often considered either boring or haughty. Of course, these are generalizations, but they are not without their basis. In order to properly serve it’s function, I think our minds need two things, exercise and contemplative rest.


Exercise: This one seems pretty self-explanatory. When you don’t use your brain, it atrophies. I’m not a psychologist or neurosurgeon, but I would venture to say that when you don’t use different parts of your brain, those parts atrophy. If you don’t read, you are going to find it more difficult to pick up important plot points and symbols in a novel (which means you might miss not only the enjoyment of a well written book, but also the point). If you don’t think about the physics of the world, you lose a sense of how the world works, and you miss the beauty that is written into the very structure of everything around you. If you don’t think about God, it becomes impossible to know Him. Now, I am not calling for a strict quizzing regiment to be implemented in your daily routine, but rather, calling you to learn about new things. There are plenty of books on economics written for those who aren’t fans of numbers, as well as biographies on people from various times and places (here’s another plug for Unbroken if you haven’t read it already). There is a wealth of classical literature that touches on politics, philosophy, and history. There are books on physics that don’t require a knack for mathematics. Reading isn’t the only way to expand your mind and give it the exercise it needs. Learning a new language, crosswords and other puzzles, writing, or coming up with science experiments to do with the kids down the street all provide your brain with the activity it needs to keep growing.

Contemplative Rest: There is very little to dispute the fact that our brains need rest…that’s why we sleep. We also, however, need to take the time to absorb everything we are putting into our minds. Supposedly, when we sleep, our brains organize and store information taken in throughout the day. We, in order to re-access that information, need the learn how to navigate our brains storage system. This means we need time to think, not about new things, but about things we have already learned. In doing so, we become better masters of our own minds, and are better able to find information when we need it. This is also how we can evaluate the information we have absorbed, allowing the truth to inform our daily living, and the false to be consciously rejected. I know this is probably a given, but it deserves mentioning that this does not happen in front of a screen. When we are in front of a screen we are not giving our brains a break, rather, we are putting our brain on auto-pilot, leaving it to process and store information without our being aware of where it goes or what it is worth. We aren’t resting our brains; we are distracting them. Contemplative rest happens in quiet, when we aren’t trying to take in new information, and we can focus on exploring the facts and ideas already taken in and creating connections between them. You don’t need to sit cross-legged in an empty room, but taking some time each day to sit somewhere peaceful without your phone, or your computer, or even a book in your hands gives you the chance to explore what you have learned. Here, is where you can begin to see the depth of beauty in things around you, and each one’s unique ability to point you to God.

Your mind is a beautiful thing. Your mind can bring new depth to your understanding of God. Your mind can also deteriorate, and these tasks can become more and more difficult. It is incredibly easy to rest in a place where your mind gets you through your daily tasks and then finds respite in distractions. This, however, is not living, but existing, and I would beg you, my friends, not to let your minds fall into this state.

This is Real Life

 

Currently, I am living what some might call a dream. For the last four months, I have spent every weekend exploring a new corner of Europe, I live in a 13th century monastery and I am studying incredible, life changing material. I am surrounded by some of the most incredible people I have ever met, all of whom have challenged me to be a better version of myself in their own unique ways. There is no doubt; this is a change of pace from the average daily routine, especially for most Americans.

 

Even though my current life is far from what most people would consider normal, I have been constantly struck by the notion that this is my life. This is not a break from reality, or a filler until I move onto something more permanent. These precious moments are exactly that, precious. These are moments that are making me into the person God wants me to be.

 

And you know what? So is whatever you are doing right now.

 

Are you a young newlywed settling into your first apartment? This is your life.

 

Are you a missionary in an exotic location? This is your life.

 

Are you a grad student buried in a library? This is your life.

 

Are you a recent grad trying to decide where you want to go from here? A young professional in a new city? A new parent? A retail associate? A struggling artist? An entrepreneur? A teacher? A traveler? This is your life.

 

Our lives pass in phases. Some phases are immersed in culture, some in isolation, some in study, some in work, some in travel, some in family, some in friends, some in chaos, some in quiet, and some in learning to juggle some combination of the above. This doesn’t mean that any of them are “filler” phases.

 

Because Christ came that we may have life and have it in abundance, I do no think this is just a matter of perspective. I do think, however, it takes perspective to see this as true in our own lives. We need to ask ourselves how we view our current reality, and recognize that it is valuable.

 

This reality is twofold, however. As much as your current state is precious, so is the next one. As much as we are called to appreciate our current position without being too worried about the future, we are also called to move into and appreciate the next moment without getting stuck in the past.

 

One of the most beautiful things about being Christian is you don’t have to have the future figured out, you can trust that there is beauty in the current moment, even if you don’t see it from within. You can trust that you are being guided on a mission.

 

For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. –Jeremiah 29:11

 

This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no responsibility on your part. I remember throughout leadership camps in high school, we did lots of trust building exercises. One of the most common involved a partner steering you through an obstacle course while you were blindfolded. You had no choice but to put your trust in them, and let them be your guide to get to the end. But they, as your guide, couldn’t take each step for you. Sometimes their direction was a gentle word; sometimes it was a jarring shove to one side or the other. You were still the one who had to put one foot in front of the other, and put in the work to get where you needed to go.

 

Because God speaks differently to all of us, his guidance will look different. Part of the Christian life is learning to recognize when he is asking you to step, learning from the bruises we get when we step under our own direction, and learning to trust in the steps he asks us to take.

 

This moment of your life is precious. And… wait 60 seconds… so is this one.

 

Moment by moment, we are given a gift. And moment by moment, we ask for the grace to trust that our next step will take us where we need to go, we ask that what ought to be carried with us will step in the same direction, and that we will be given the courage to let go of those people and things taking a step in a different direction. And we keep stepping, soaking up and giving back everything along the way.

 

Do you see your current position as precious? Or are you trying to step too quickly? Are you ready to step when you need to? Or are you too attached to your current position? Whatever the case, we must always keep in mind, whatever the case; you are passing through precious moments. Are you allowing them to be what they ought? Allowing them to penetrate your heart, without taking you over?

 

Remember, this is real life.