lifestyle

Hygge. Of the Heart

I think that we sometimes as Catholics don’t give our trendy culture enough of a fair shake.  I know I have my antennae up when I’m reading a trending article laying out a philosophy for life, and for good reason.  A lot of that stuff is junk, but every once in awhile there is a little pearl that sparkles in the rubbishy pile.  Recently there have been a couple of particularly interesting forces pulling the younger generation- simplicity/minimalism and Hygge.  They both seem to go hand in hand and I think that they (with prudence and moderation in mind) offer 1) a new way to live out the gospel imperative in the modern world, and 2) a new openness to certain elements of the gospel.

Let's start with the concept of Hygge.  Hygge is difficult to translate, but it is a Danish concept that includes comfort, intimacy, and “cozy togetherness.”  The Danish are statistically the happiest people on earth.  They point to this philosophy of life as one of the primary principles in their secret recipe for rampant happiness.  Hygge conjures up images of roaring fireplaces, warm socks, fluffy throw blankets, deep conversations with friends, games of charades, soul food, hot cider, etc. to the Danes.  It dictates what they do on nights and weekends and how they relate to their friends.

While there is a lot to be said about the exterior practice of Hygge, I want to talk about Hygge of the heart- prayer and divine intimacy with the Lord.

I had a vague experiential knowledge of Hygge when I first heard about it, and while Christmas lights, warm cocoa, etc. did come to mind it was my first experience of the interior life that really defined the feeling of contentment Hygge is supposed to be all about.  

In college I had a massive conversion while praying the rosary during commercial breaks on Christmas break.  My guilt caught up to me and I wagered that a few decades might help eke me into purgatory.  When I got back to college and eventually found myself sitting in the Newman center chapel after weeks of contented rosary-praying and guilt-ridden everything else, I felt all at once like I was in over my head and cozily at home.  When I started to pray I felt like I was finally doing what I was meant to do my whole life.  But I had no idea what I was doing, so I started glancing around and seeing what other, holier people do in prayer.  I watched how they postured themselves, I noticed when they closed their eyes and where they looked when they didn't.  I took notes on how to genuflect more holily.  But most of all I tried to take note of what they were reading.  At that time St. Faustina’s diary was making its way through the ranks of devoted Newman-ites, and after a couple of nights of inquiry about her story and who she was, I rush ordered my copy of the diary.  

When I began to pray with St. Faustina I began to experience an interior kind of Hygge.  I imagined myself in her convent, so small yet so immense because of the implications of what she was receiving and how she was praying.  The whole world fit in the walls of her cell, and she had access to the heart of Jesus and a duty to pray for every soul.  The intimate way that she talked with Jesus jumped off the page.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but guessed that a saint was a pretty good model for prayer so I started talking to God informally like she did.  I borrowed a word here and there and wove in my own sentiments.  I felt like I was in a cozy cabin in the woods, hidden away from the world I was trying to reject outside the chapel walls.  It was cozy for lack of a better word.  I felt communion with the person of Christ and weirdly with the other people independently praying in the chapel while I was.  

The transformation was barely noticeable.  I found that when I read the diary that I was reading some of the sentiments resounding in my own soul.  I was wandering the corridors of my own “inner monastery.”  I was actually praying with the Saint and even borrowing some of her zeal as I prayed.  But when I left the chapel the “cozy” feeling started to remain with me.  I found that my room, my workplace, my classrooms, etc. all had that cozy feeling.  I retreated into my heart where God and I were building a meeting place together.  God’s presence was the ultimate Hygge.  Even in the struggles and the dryness and the strife and pain of my rapidly changing life, I kept finding myself drawn to that place and experiencing a mysterious happiness.

I found Hygge of the heart in prayer.  The Danes may have found a great way to achieve a certain level of happiness but the saints have found the real Hygge in prayer.

In the next article I’ll talk more about the external ramifications of this philosophy for Catholics.

Work.

With Labor Day coming up, I thought this would be a good time to meditate on work- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Work in and of itself is good.  Consider these quotes by St. Pope John Paul II on work:

“Through all these surroundings, through my own experience of work, I boldly say that I learned the gospel anew.”

“Work is good for us. Through work we not only transform nature, adapting it to our needs, but we also achieve fulfillment as human beings and indeed in a sense become more human.”

“The Son of God became man and worked with human hands…. So we know, not only by reason alone but through revelation, that through their work people share in the Creator’s work.”

“The church is convinced that work is a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth…. The church considers it her duty to speak out on work…. It is her particular duty to form a spirituality of work which will help all people to come closer, through work, to God…. This Christian spirituality of work should be a heritage shared by all.”

But in the age of rampant workaholism and equally rampant arrested development, our approach to work can be troublesome.  We are living in a divided time.  We bemoan the same fault lines all the time- secularists vs. religious, leftists vs. right-wingers, millennials vs. just about everyone else.  But there might be a more devious debate raging that we don’t often notice:  the place of work in our lives.  Total work vs. the quietists.

A friend of mine recently drove to a small, middle-of-nowhere town in Nebraska to watch the eclipse.  As he waited for the big moment he was floored.  The farmers’ machinery was buzzing along as if it was a normal day.  Cars were bustling on the highway.  People were working everywhere.  Then the total eclipse came and there was silence for a full two minutes.  Then as soon as the sun peaked out a little bit the whir of engines began again.  He couldn’t believe that workers couldn’t pause even a full five minutes to appreciate the phenomenon.  This is a society of total work.

I heard another story about a wealthy man from China who endured weeks of torture for housing a secret Catholic parish in his house.  The authorities interrupted a mass going on in his house and he rushed the congregation and the priest out before they could get caught.  Throughout all that torture he never gave up the name of the priest.  The authorities let him go and he immigrated to America.  He lived the American dream, opened his own restaurant, and started to see it thrive a bit.  He put in long, hard hours. Understandably his daily mass attendance wavered, but incredibly a few years into his business venture he had completely lapsed in his practice of the faith.  The speaker telling this story came to this conclusion:  what torture could not drive out of a man the American culture did.  Torture could not cause this man to become an apostate, but our American work ethic did.  And we applaud stories like his all the time.  This is a society of total work.

But at the same time we all know people who are so offended at not receiving a promotion every couple of years or a raise every month or so.  They aren’t rewarded for just showing up and they take offense.  Instead of keeping their noses down, working harder, and earning their raises and promotions they go off to another job.  They don’t learn and improve, they escape, so they can better validate their own opinions of the injustice done to them.  They won’t confront their laziness. This is the society of quietism.

I remember buying my first iPhone my senior year of college and purchasing a 2 gig data plan.  The salesmen assured me that I would never need 2 full gigs.  That was crazy.  No one used their phone that much.  Three years later I saw a video with the statistic that the average American will spend four full calendar year's worth of time on their phone in a lifetime.  Four wasted years!  We all basically die four years early.  It takes time off of our lives, because that’s not life.  This is the society of quietism.

Total work- meaning calculated by hours work, sweat poured out, goals achieved, productivity goals made.  It is a frantic work from sun up to sundown until utterly exhausted, the workers collapse in a heap.  Their state is constantly activity and equally constant exhaustion.  Even, maybe especially, Christian workers are inundated with this philosophy, but it becomes even more assiduous with the illusion of the cross of Christ adorning it- the heresy of good works.  Activism pushes Christ off the throne of their hearts.  There’s a constant sense of anxiety in the worker's mind.  Am I working hard enough?  Should I be doing something else?  I should, what else should I be doing?  Who is working harder than me?  Who notices?  It goes on and on.

Quietism- a passive withdrawn attitude or policy toward the world or worldly affairs.  The quietists are content to sit on their phones, tune out from outward reality, and in the Christian sense, to think that this is living on a deep level.  They fly by life, expecting to somehow be absorbed into greatness without lifting a finger.  These are tourists, the people who believe if they read a mountaineer's blog that they are somehow mountaineers themselves or if they read up on leadership practices that they are somehow a great leader.  They’re not a people of sweat, but a people marked with deep anxiety that their lives may be wasting away because they haven’t achieved what they want with their lives.  

These two profiles of course aren’t the only ones in our society, but they are two dominating strains.  When they meet it is toxic.  Judgement, complaining, guilt-tripping, backbiting, societal pressures, etc. abound.  

I’m sure, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can all identify with thoughts, opinions, and feelings from both aisles.

Coming to a City Near You: Not Catholic Beer Club

There has been a quite a stir around the nation with “Catholic Beer Club” taking root in many of America’s major cities. Bloggers for the CBC Times, such as Kyle Sellnow and Jacob Machado, believe that Catholic Beer Club has the potential to bring new people together and create foundations for strong friendships. See 4 Steps to Creating Community That Matters, 7 Ways to Start Having Conversations that Matter, Finding Community, or Building Community, and Love: The True Purpose of Community, amongst others. But many honestly believe that what the world really needs is Not Catholic Beer Club, otherwise known as NCBC. They think NCBC comes with more benefits and will more easily accomplish the goals of CBC.

When asked what sets Not Catholic Beer Club apart from CBC, Austin Martin, founder and president of NCBC, said “We feel like our club provides for a broader range of people, allowing for individuals from differing backgrounds to meet one another and build relationships.” He also expressed his desire to simply have a place where no one will ever ask hard questions or encourage anyone to become a better person.

NCBC’s vice secretary of social affairs, Victor Tracy, said that “setting up events takes almost no work due to the club pretty much having no motivations.” When asked about the club seeming to have negative vibes right in the name, Tracy responded, “Whatever negativity people might perceive in the name, they’re simply wrong. At NCBC, people have freedom to live by their own truths and think whatever they’d like about themselves and the world.” Tracy noted the great courage of one “fallen” brother who deeply believed he had wings and could fly off the rooftop patio bar. Reportedly, before he launched himself, the man proclaimed, “No one can tell me what to do with my own body.” The man is still in the hospital and now self-identifies as having a broken femur.

Shelby Womack and Ty Samson, two regulars at NCBC, both expressed how much fun they had at each of the events they’ve been to. Samson, who was believed to still be recovering from a hangover, said, “From what I can remember, it was a pretty good time.” Womack noted that NCBC is great because it provides opportunities for more than just beer. “President Martin believes that limiting people to only beer is not very inclusive,” she said. Martin confirmed this by telling us that “I believe that CBC is alcoholist. Not only are we not exclusive to only Catholics, we are not exclusive to beer.” Martin was emphatic that being alcoholist, the bigoted discrimination of certain kinds of alcohol, is extremely non-inclusive and prejudiced. “I’m definitely coming to this rather than CBC next month,” added newcomer Ryan O'Leary who hugely prefers whisky to beer. After getting in touch with club representatives, it turns out CBC does in fact welcome non-Catholics to their events. Though, as a beer club, they are still partial to beer.

While CBC has made quite a splash around the nation, President Martin thinks that within the next six months NCBC will be found in every major city in America and will most likely double CBC’s numbers. When asked about NCBC, president of Catholic Beer Club, Derek Roush said, “I don’t like it. It just does not seem like a sustainable model for a club. It is a club founded on absolutely nothing.”

Regardless, many people see Not Catholic Beer Club as a new and exciting way to meet a diverse range of people and to build and deepen friendships. So, if you are looking to make some new friends, look for the next Not Catholic Beer Club near you and check it out for yourself! NCBC will be meeting on exactly the same night as your local Catholic Beer Club events. You can find them at the bar directly across the street.

 

4 Steps to Begin a Budget

You work hard, try to save money, but it always seems to disappear. When friends plan things for the weekend you wonder, “Can I actually afford this?” Seems like you need a budget. Aren’t quite convinced? Financial experts add a few more questions to the list: Are you alive? Do you spend money? Would you like both to continue?

Okay, okay, no dire threats, I know. But seriously, budgeting is the first step to financial peace for your entire life, and you don’t have to have a steady salary, retirement plan, or be a stock-market whiz. All you need is addition, subtraction, and a sharp eye for your cost of living.

My guess is it’s not the addition and subtraction that have stopped you; it’s the “sharp eye for cost” bit. For me, at least, it’s the most difficult thing about budgeting. It’s also the most fundamental. Where do you spend money? Is it necessary? How do you know?

1) Track your purchases! During college I worked near campus at a coffee shop. Students never, ever saved receipts. They probably thought (and I’m guilty of this as well!) that they had a “good idea” of their spending, but as someone who has tried to budget, failed, and tried again, I know specific numbers are indispensable. At the most basic level, you can simply save every receipt.

Alternatively, you can create an online account with a reputable company like Mint.com. This service will link to your bank account and credit card, automatically tallying your expenses. Mint.com helps me personally because it saves time and eliminates the hassle of hoarding receipts. The downside is that it’s difficult for me to track my cash purchases.

2) Total your costs. So you have the numbers, now what? You have to tally up costs in some way, so snag a budget template online, or download an expense tracking app. Quality products, like the GoodBudget app, are often free and provide tools like graphs and charts to help you visualize your spending habits. If you use Mint.com, your expenses are tracked in your online account. From there you can assign them to different categories like “Gas & Fuel” or “Restaurants” to sort your purchases.

3) Figure your income. Examine how much money you have and where it comes from. Templates and apps make this step seamless by displaying how much money you have currently alongside your income. In addition, services – like Mint.com – link to your bank accounts and automatically display deposits.

4) Compare your results. Are you chipping away your savings? Are you spending money eating out that you would rather spend on something else, like travel? Comparing #2 and #3 will highlight that. Once you know how you receive and spend money, you’re better equipped to make good choices with it. Financial gurus can tell you how much to funnel into savings, what a reasonable gas budget is, and the like, but the first step is recognizing your current financial state.

Having a working budget has made me more confident and allowed me actually to focus less on money. It’s no longer a mystery. I’m free to work hard, save money, and then know exactly where it goes. It no longer “disappears”. How awesome is that?

This post originally appeared on Newman Connection.

To Be (Resolute) or Not to Be, That is the Question...

We are about to ring in a new year! Will you make resolutions or not?

As a college student, making and keeping resolutions was never a top priority for me. Life at that time was structured – I was taking classes to discover my strengths and grow, and everywhere I turned, someone was there to walk with me along the way.

Life after college is not quite like that.

Structure is often lacking, especially if you’re looking for a job, or trying to figure out if you are in the right career. Safety nets, for the most part, disappear. It is up to you to take care of yourself and to find people to care for. That is why, ever since tossing the cap, I have found it incredibly helpful to make resolutions and stick to them.

If making resolutions is something you’ve resolved to do this year (see what I just did there?), then I would like to share resolutions I’ve made in the past and confess what has worked and what hasn’t.

 

For starters, here are the resolutions you SHOULDN’T make:

  • Vague resolutions like “Be open to new things” or “Communicate more.” Without concrete goals and steps, these resolutions cannot become reality.
  • Any resolution that you are not passionate about. You should be excited to tackle your New Year’s resolutions; they should never be chores.

During my first year out of college, my goals fell into the two categories above, especially the first. While admirable, the goals were so vague, that it wasn’t until more than halfway through the year that I started coming up with ways that I could live my resolutions. Here are some of those ways:

Resolution #1: To be more open, go on a minimum of five dates this year, preferably with five different people.

At the time I made this resolution, my love life was seriously lacking. I put my career and travelling before anything else. I was closed to romance; I thought I had no time for it, and frankly, I was intimidated by it. However, after making this resolution, I decided that I would start going to places that I normally wouldn’t and with people that I didn’t know, or had just recently met. I decided to start being more generous with my time and with those around me. And guess what? My dating life improved dramatically.

This resolution was a great one to make.  It was a concrete goal I could work towards, and a goal that I very much wanted to reach. As a woman who doesn’t typically ask guys out, just making the resolution was no guarantee to a successful outcome. I had to put on a whole new attitude of openness to others, and this attitude has served me well. And yes, I went on some awkward dates, but I also went on some awesome ones. And to add a little frosting to the cake, a couple years into living out this resolution, I met a pretty cool guy.

However, not everyone’s love life is as pathetic as mine coming out of college. If you need an alternative resolution to grow in openness, consider this one:

Go on a road-trip to two new places, one in state and one out of state.

This is something most people have somewhere on their bucket list, but never get around to doing. So, do yourself a favor and upgrade it from bucket list item to firm resolution.

Again, this resolution will teach you to be open. Most people right out of college aren’t rich, so financing road trip can be somewhat difficult. Be open to couch-surfing, staying in hostels, sleeping in your car, and camping. Be open to travelling with people you’ve never travelled with before but with whom you feel a connection. Be open to travelling alone. Explore your state whenever you get the opportunity, and consciously block off some time and save some money to go a bit further, even if it is right across the border.

This resolution is one I’ve made each year since graduating, never knowing where it was going to take me. It has not only taught me to be more open, but has also helped me keep in touch with friends and family around the country. It has also, in some circumstances, forced me to get into better shape, and to start budgeting. Budgeting and exercising are way less of a pain if the goal is for something you’re passionate about.

Resolution #2: To be a better communicator, keep your computer/phone on your desk, not in your bed.  

To be honest, I no longer live out this resolution (thanks, Netflix) but it worked well over the course of a year. Instead of taking my laptop to bed and staring in at the lives of people I hardly knew or watching endless videos, I felt more inclined to limit my time in front of the screen and go out into the world. I highly recommend this for those who have trouble getting motivated. But, only make this resolution if the idea of getting out and about truly excites you. If you’d rather stay huddled up, skip this one, and know that I understand. This was a difficult resolution to keep.

If you have roommates, an alternative resolution would be to leave your bedroom door open when you're not sleeping, praying, or meditating. Again, I followed this resolution for a year, and it was great. I was able to effectively communicate what I needed, and I was available to listen to their concerns. We connecting a lot more and doing a great deal of things together. This resolution, obviously, forced me to be more open and generous with my time, but it was also great for assertive and effective communication. I think this is a resolution I’m going to put into motion again with the coming of 2017.

Resolution #3: Make a commitment to practice growing a skill.

I know that sounds rather vague – I just broke my first rule. But honestly, this resolution will look different for everyone, based on the skills you wish to grow in. I think the key to this type of resolution, or any resolution really, is accountability. Try using your skills to create something for someone else, and they will hold you to it. If you’d like to practice you’re writing, consider contributing regularly to a blog, not just writing your own. If you’d like to practice a visual art, consider designing a poster, sign, or card for a family of friend’s business or website. If you wish to practice bookkeeping, offer to get your elderly aunt’s affairs in order. The possibilities are endless. 

 

The years after college are full of incredible transition, and chances are, you will grow and change more between the ages of 21 and 25 than you did during your whole college career. So, the best resolutions to make during this time are those that will help you roll with and embrace change, as well as discover what truly fits for you. Use the beginning of the New Year to consider what skills and qualities you would truly like to nurture, and think of a fun way (for you!) to nurture them.

 

Have a wonderful New Year!




On Writing Implements and the Soul

If there has been any joy to this winter, it was the death of my laptop. It had been on its last leg for some time. I purchased it when my now-kindergartner was a newborn. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on it. I dropped it in a grocery store parking lot on my way home from my first post-school job. I have received news of loss and gain on it.

But if I might speak like a conspirator in these days of technodoulia (< techne “technology” + doulia “slavery”), the despot long was on its last battery and its reign was cold and cruel. The laptop is dead, may it remain so.

Since I make my living by word, spoken (classroom) and written (scholarship), I had to make an inventory, like Robinson Crusoe, of the resources after my shipwreck. I had two typewriters. A SmithCorona electric that allowed me to rapidly type but made an awful beep every time it came across what its internal computer deemed a spelling error. For someone who writes on literature in a foreign language, this is beyond bearing. Ave atque Vale, SmithCorona.

Some ten years ago I found a 1941 Royal Aristocrat in an antique store in South Jersey. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I was able to order myself a carton of ribbons that have lasted me a decade of intermittent letter writing, amusing notes, and one abandoned dramatization of The Man Who Was Thursday. But, in addition to the necessity of hen-pecking its keys, only a stern finger will produce a clean stroke. In this way, I am as free as Thor with Mjolnir to leave the Aristocrat where I please. For none can get it to type save me, and even then anything more than 1,000 words will leave my fingers sore for two days.

Since I was not ready to renounce my new won freedom from the black mirror, I knew I must move further back in time. If I was willing to adopt the typewriter, where I knew that I must retype my work electronically for publication, I saw no reason why I should not return to the pen and pencil.

So like the American Revolutionary, I have adopted a mixed constitution with three branches: pen and pencil (legislative), typewriter (judicial), and computer (executive). We shall see if I can maintain the balance of powers.

But an even better analogy struck me and I should think it worth reflection. I have compiled here a list of equivalents between modes of composition and beers:

 

Windows Desktop = Budweiser. None can solve the mystery of how we all hate it and yet it is found everywhere.

MacBook Air = Heineken. Who are you trying to fool?

Linux Computers = Cheap local brew. Good or bad, you love it because it is yours.

Electronic Typewriter = Miller Lite. Your grandpa drank it so this makes it legit, but yea, it’s pretty bad.

Manual Typewriter = PBR. I bet you those Buddy Holly glasses don’t even have a prescription in them.

Gel Pen = Stout. Thick and messy. Done well, it works for the right task. But I am suspicious of every day use.

Ball Point Pen = Coors. It’s basically the Windows of the pen world.

Fountain Pen = Abbey Ale. It can be either pretentious and cloying...or a wonder from days past.

Mechanical Pencil = Pale Ale. You are not going out of your way to share it, but it has a work-a-day utility to it.

#2 Pencil = Schmirnoff Ice?! Who even invited you to this party?


There are many dreadful omissions and I look to you, the reader, to flesh out the analogy in the combox. And if we are seeking to amend our habits and lives this Lent, posting something joyful and productive in a combox is a good start.

 

We Are Always In the Middle...Beginning

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things – Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur

We are always “in the middle” of our lives, even at the beginning and ending of our days. See this little baby girl, where is she at? Why, right in the middle of her life! See this old man, now in his waning years? Nowhere else is he but the middle of his life! We are invariably always in the middle of something, beginning, middle, or end. Here we are and ever will be, it seems, in media res.

But precisely because we are always square in the middle of something, it is hard for precisely this reason to ever truly begin to do something, especially if that something is new. Last time I spoke with you, I held forth about finding yourself in the middle of a culture that is dead. What should we do? Start brewing! But how does one start right in the middle, how does one take the sage (but lesser known) advice of Aristotle which he repeats so often in the Nicomachean Ethics, “let us begin again?”

The answer is frighteningly simple, and for this reason immeasurably frustrating: we must begin with the smallest thing. If only every beginning was momentous! If only every start began with the herald of trumpets and the adulation of friends! But the beginnings that stick are never so, which is why true change always sneaks up on mankind. In the middle of the noise and distraction of the tumult of things, here a new something appears, seemingly out of nowhere! But upon inspection, we see how very long and broad the roots grew unknown and long established. People can step over the tributary headwaters of a great river and will never notice. Often something strikes us as “new” only when it is deep enough for us to fall in.

Indeed, many people are absorbed with the bigness of their ideas, wrapped in the grand logic of their plan. I know this feeling all too well—forever afloat in the imagined goal, never one to dirty my feet with the soil of the necessary road needing trod. The end, how lacking it is in the rocks-in-shoes reality of the pilgrim path! The destination, how bereft of chaffed thighs and sunburned back-ear lobes the weary traveler must endure! If life were but great leaps we could all take, striding about mountain peaks as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra advises us to do—how enjoyable the petty (and callous) advice, “life is about the journey,” would actually be. 

But you and I know St. Paul is no fool, and we do, as he says, “the very thing we do not wish to do.” In the middle of my life, I do not find myself walking down the mountain like Zarathustra, but parking my weary legs next to the likes of Dante, lost in a dark wood. I walk among the trees of multiple starts and stops, of failed New Year’s resolutions, lost Lenten plans and inconsistent interventions, and I find that I have seen this tree and that oh so many times. I am lost, right in the middle of my life. How do we once more begin again?

But lest we lose hope, I point you to the beginning of this essay, to the humble poem of Fr. Hopkins. Precisely in the worn-down world that we cannot even feel anymore, there is always a fresh beginning. There is always a seed deep down waiting to bloom. Are we satisfied with doing that one small thing? 

Are we willing to let it grow in its underground tomb, unseen by the world, only to spring forth at some much later date? Will we allow the water to nourish it unannounced, let the worms dig around it, let the storm winds blow over it, growing in its humble womb?

In other words, are we willing to get serious about this change? Seriousness is too often relegated to the unmeasurable and unobservable intent of an agent, a status of the heart that no one save God would have any capacity to see. But I would contend we all know, intuitively at least, who does and does not take something seriously. The serious person attends precisely to the small parts of the matter at hand. 

Though the matter be huge (a game, a movement, a soul), no detail is too small for them. They will run the play in practice for months on end. They will set up chairs for the meeting. They will have a tissue for the lost soul to blow his or her nose. They are serious.

When people point out how lost everything seems to be, when it seems like we are all in the middle of something large and inescapable, they ask: why does this little thing matter? An example from my line of work: if great hordes of Catholics do not love, let alone live, let alone know the simplest aspects of their Faith, why worry about the small things”? Say, something as small as communion on the tongue? Why care about the furniture when the house is on fire? 

My only advice: we must begin again. Right where we are. Right in the middle of wherever it is you stand. If the problem is the loss of God in our lives, what better way to show that we are serious about our Faith, and that it is worthwhile to be serious about our Faith, than to show this one small thing: I am fed grace?  

What the world needs is serious Christians, but you do not show your seriousness by a furrowed eyebrow, or a lack of humor, or the inability to take yourself lightly. Indeed, you do the exact opposite of these, and attend to the smallest of things, and begin right in the middle.

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.