How Agnostics Pray

Candle FlameRight, so this isn’t really all that directly linked to my brother’s current work but it seemed the right place to post it.

You’ve heard the saying “There are no atheists in foxholes” right? Well I can’t speak to that specifically but I admit I’ve been doing a bit of praying myself lately. And no that doesn’t mean I have any more faith than the last time I wrote, or that I’ve returned to the fold or joined a new church. I still don’t believe in much of anything, and if something does exist I have no reason to believe inherently that it is the Abrahamic God. So, I don’t know if anyone is there to listen, if someone can listen I don’t know if they are, and if they are I don’t know if they care, and if they care I don’t know if they can do anything. Seems a losing proposition doesn’t it? Yeah it kind of is.

Rationalists would say I’m either trying to shift my problems onto a force beyond my power so I can blame them if things go pear shaped or I am attempting to control the universe in ways that are flatly impossible. And maybe they are right. But right now, right now I’ll take anything I can get.

So how do agnostics pray? In my case with desperation and hope. Without giving out details I find myself in a situation that could end badly and there is nothing I can do to influence the outcome right now. So I have others pray for me, I’m never one to turn my nose up at someone offering aid. And as stress increases I start to pray myself. I don’t know if anyone can hear me and I don’t believe anyone does but I cling to the hope that I’m wrong. That some benevolent figure can pick up what I’m sending out and help out somehow. But I suppose that’s more of a why than a how. The how is more mundane. Lots of pleading silently and hoping against my own mind as I detail my troubles. And in my case lighting candles as a vigil. I’ve always been in favor of enduring actions as an article of ritual, so as I type this there are candles burning in my window, a light to guide someone if they want to find their way back. And on occasion I incorporate saints. They serve as handy symbols of precise desire, like the deities of pre-christian pantheons.

–Evan’s Brother


What’s Your Catholic Habit?

Over the past couple of years, Evan has become a savvy traveller.  He skips packing a suitcase and manages with a carry-on and “personal item” as defined by the airlines.  This suits him well — of course — except when he needs something special like a suit.

Which he wanted for the 11:00 p.m. Mass on Christmas Eve.  Fortunately he and I are about the same size.  Well, to be honest, he’s a bit taller and thinner, but I have a couple of suits which fit him not-too-terribly.  It’s a “make do” sort of situation.

He’d chosen a blue wool suit of mine and was muttering a bit about what shirt and tie to wear.  Cathy drew me aside and said, “We’ve given him shirts and ties for Christmas.  Should we have him open them early?”

We discussed it and decided against the idea, I had shirts and ties enough and surely he could find something among them.

Around 9:15 he disappeared into the guest room to get dressed.

And emerged wearing his habit.

What’s a habit, you ask?  Let me show you a picture.

That sharp-dressed fellow on the left of that picture over there is Fr. Thomas Ryan.  He is the Director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the Paulists and he’s dressed in the high-collared, five button habit that has marked the order since the 1800s.

When Evan completed his First Promises this past summer, he earned the right to put CSP (Congregation of St. Paul) behind his name and the privilege of wearing the habit.

I can tell you this.  When you go to Mass with a guy in a habit, you get all the looks.  That suggests to me that people — even practicing Catholics — may not be overly familiar with the history or function of the habit.

So…a short summary with an interesting side note from St. Pope John Paul II.

The Wikipedia article lays it pretty well when it notes that “A religious habit is a distinctive set of garments worn by members of a religious order.”  Most folks, if they think about habits at all, identify the with religious sisters.  Aside from the sisters, you’ll often see Franciscan priests in their distinctive hooded robes with their triple-knotted rope belts.  (Bonus internet points for anyone who knows the meaning of the three knots…or just keep reading.) Or you might be a fan of Thomas Merton and remember pictures of him in his Trappist habit.

That’s as good a place as any to start with the question of why anyone would want to wear something so unusual.

Msrg. Charles Pope from the Archdiocese of DC puts it beautifully when he says:

Religious life is not hidden, neither is it occasional. To enter the priesthood or religious life is to publicly accept the consecration of one’s whole self to the service of God and neighbor. That is why the most traditional religious garb covers the whole body. It is more than a tee-shirt, a hat or an emblem of some sort. It is a covering of the whole body to indicate the entirety of the consecration.

Further, each habit is distinctive since each religious community has a particular charism or gift by which they collectively serve the Church. Religious and priests do not merely consecrate themselves for their own agenda. Rather they join others with a similar and proven charisms in communities recognized by the Church.

The word “habit” also suggests that religious life and priesthood are not an occasional activity, or even a 9 to 5 job. The are the habitual identity and life of the one who receives the call. That is also why the habit is usually worn at all times.

As Catholics we embrace the idea of visible signs of things which cannot otherwise be seen.  Habits make vocations visible to the world.  They remind the world that there are people who are dedicating themselves to the faith.

And the reminder the wearer of their own vocation.

Remember the question about the three knots of the Franciscans’ rope belt?  The obvious answer is that they stand for the Trinity — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  That was my guess, anyway.  And I was wrong.  They stand for the three vows of the Franciscans — Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.  A constant reminder of the promises they have made to God.

In a 1996 Post-Apostolic Exhortation called Vita consecrata, St. Pope John Paul II encouraged the wearing of habits by saying:

§25 … Since the habit is a sign of consecration, poverty and membership in a particular Religious family, I join the Fathers of the Synod in strongly recommending to men and women religious that they wear their proper habit, suitably adapted to the conditions of time and place. Where valid reasons of their apostolate call for it, Religious, in conformity with the norms of their Institute, may also dress in a simple and modest manner, with an appropriate symbol, in such a way that their consecration is recognizable.

As I said, when you’re with a man in a habit, you get all of the looks.

Which got me thinking.  Although not all of us are consecrated, we all have a vocation — a call to live as God wills and to carry out our Baptismal mission.  What habits — or at least outward signs — do we show to let the world know that we are living out the identity of our faith?

— Dad

Journey to Bethlehem; A Christmas Prayer

There is no room at the inn.Since 2006 the good Christian folk of Mountain View Baptist Church have been kind in allowing Cathy and I to participate in their interactive drama Journey to Bethlehem.  The play runs four nights each December and typically draws between four and five thousand guests.

The guests are gathered into groups of approximately 40 people and introduced to the character of Gadielle; a working-class resident of first century Nazareth, devoted family man, and occasional target for Roman harassment.  Following a run-in with a local centurion, Gadielle tells the assembled guests that they will be safe if they become part of his family for the evening.  He takes them from the streets of Nazareth to his home where they meet his wife Naomi and their only child, hear a brief speech from the local Rabbi, and once again come face-to-face with the Romans.  On Caesar’s  orders, the “family” must travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be numbered in the census and to pay the Roman tax.

Having no alternative, Gadielle and Naomi lead the family south to Bethlehem.  Along the way they encounter more Romans, meet the magi, experience an angelic visitation with the shepherds, receive interpretation of prophecy from another rabbi, encounter more Romans, shop in the busy Bethlehem marketplace, fail to find room at the inn, and — finally — catch up with Mary and Joseph who are caring for their newborn in the stable.  The journey covers nearly a mile of the church grounds and ends with a brief gospel message at a simple wooden cross followed by a visit to the “cocoa tent”.

The logistics of the drama are complex, requiring close coordination among the 150+ cast and crew.  In addition to the cast members at each of the “stations” along the journey, there are eight or more Gadielle/Naomi couples.  At any given moment there are between four and six “families” somewhere along the journey with new groups starting out every ten minutes.

Cathy and I got involved through my parents who are long time members of Mountain View.  Mom got stepped up first and later Dad joined her.  They recruited us to be a Gadielle/Naomi couple in 2006 and we’ve been in every production since.  Up until Dad’s death in 2011, my parents tended the inn.  Mom continues to be involved as a greeter who hands out Jewish passports to the guests as they register for the journey.

During our participation with the production, Cathy and I have seen some remarkable things.  When the angel appears to proclaim the birth of the newborn king, we kneel in awe and reverence.  More than once, we’ve had our entire family spontaneously kneel with us.  At the manger we’ve seen small children creep forward for a closer look at the doll representing the infant Jesus.  Memorably, this year, Cathy had a brief interaction with a tattooed-and-multiply-pierced young lady who hung to the back of the family during the entire journey.  “Thank you for letting me come along,” she said as the journey ended, apparently grateful to have been included.

At the end of each year’s production, the cast and crew are utterly spent.  The long nights of performance in cold and wet weather have taxed people’s reserve and the final farewells are delivered in raw, hoarse voices.  The guests themselves are no less hardy.  People of all faiths and none travel from all parts of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming.  They wait in line for hours for the opportunity to spend an hour walking through the darkness experiencing the journey.

I’ve thought a lot about what drives us — cast, crew and guests alike — to go to such extremes.

I think it’s simply the experience.  Journey to Bethlehem is incredibly visceral.  From the first moment of the journey to the last, the family is on the move.  The trail is full of sights, sounds and smells.  The light from a campfire reflects off the polished Roman armor.  The smoke drifts past as the angel proclaims his message of peace.  The merchants of Bethlehem call out to the guests, offering goods for sale and begging for news of the promise messiah. The dark and the cold contract close, convincing everyone that we are indeed travelling through the ancient world.

Human beings, I think, crave an experience of faith.  The journey gives that to them.

One of the problems with religion in America (and perhaps the western world in general) is that we have over-intellectualized it.  We treat belief as a subject for academic study; something that can be gained or given through mental exercise.  In so doing, we have traded away the best part of faith.  It is little wonder people are wary of religion; we talk to them about God, but never show Him to them.  We are like professors trying to frame a scientific explanation for love and completely missing the point.  Faith isn’t subject to rational evaluation.  It is a suprarational act.

Perhaps it is time we remember that and invite the world to share in the experience of faith rather than endlessly debating it.

Which brings me to my Christmas prayer for all of you.

God, creator of all things,
grant us the grace to encounter Your infinite love
through our experiences with Your bountiful creation.
In the name of the Father,
And of the Son,
And of the Holy Spirit.

— Dad

God In All Things

Taken from Wikipedia, provided by Piotr Bodzek, MDIt’s been a rough couple of weeks at our house.  Cathy already hit the highlights of when things started to go south.  There’s more to the story, though, and I think it’s worth sharing.

The trip to the ER followed a week of belly pain and the onset of a fever.  In short order they recorded my vitals, poked and prodded my abdomen, gave me an IV and ran me through a CT scanner.  Everyone was caring and efficient and shortly after the scan one of my nurses said, “It’s appendicitis.  If there’s a surgeon available we’ll operate tonight.  If not, we’ll admit you and operate in the morning.”

Oh.  Okay.

Mystery solved, I guessed.  The health team was clearly feeling some urgency, but nobody seemed to be panicking.  I took that as a good sign.

Sometime around midnight a doctor came into the room, introduced himself, and started talking about the procedure.

“I take it you’re the surgeon?” I asked.

“Yes,” he laughed.  “I forgot to mention that.”

He ran through what was going to happen and said he’d see me in the OR.  On the way out, he said, “They found a tumor in your bladder.  You’ll need to see a urologist about that in the next week or two.”

Oh?  Not okay.

My father died in 2011 of a type of bladder cancer.  Hearing that I had a tumor was somewhat alarming.  (Although I have to admit that my feeling of alarm may have been attenuated a bit by the morphine they’d pushed through my IV.)

When they let me go mid-morning on Monday, the discharge instructions included a reminder to contact a urologist as quickly as possible.  The night before the surgeon had provided some referrals on the back of his business card.  Both of us were exhausted having only gotten a couple of hours’ sleep the night before, so we didn’t even think about the card again until Tuesday.

We researched the providers, selected one, and made an on-line request for an appointment.  By Wednesday we’d had no reply, so I called the Urology Clinic and they said they could get me in late on Thursday — the day before the holiday weekend.

The urologist we chose is an enthusiastic young doctor who had already reviewed the CT images by the time we got to the clinic.  He outlined the various scenarios from worst (metastasized cancer that would require extensive, aggressive treatment) to the best (low-grade non-invasive cancer).  Then he had us go to his procedure room so he could check the tumor visually.

“That’s a classic smoking-gun cancer,” he said when it showed up on the screen.  He snapped a couple of reference images and told me he had an opening on his surgical schedule for Monday morning.

Another Monday, another surgery.  (Cathy has asked me to try to break myself of the habit of having surgery on Monday mornings.)

I was in the OR less than an hour and when I emerged from the anesthetic, the urologist told me that it was a low-grade cancer with a very small footprint and that it hadn’t invaded the bladder wall.  Under the circumstances, it was the best of all possible outcomes.

The pathology report (my healthcare provider has a web portal through which I can access my own medical records) officially declares the tumor as “low-grade non-invasive” and notes that it is “negative for involvement of muscularis propria”.  Confirmation that it was the best of all possible outcomes.

In less than two weeks I went from thinking I was healthy to having had two surgeries and an official cancer diagnosis.

Increasingly, I find myself drawn to Ignatian Spirituality with its finely balanced integration of the practical and the spiritual.  In particular, I appreciate how the Ignatian approach encourages us to find God in all things.

I find myself looking back over the past two weeks to see threads of Grace woven through the experience.  Certainly the brightest of the threads is the tumor diagnosis itself.  Had it not been for the appendicitis (unusual in a man my age) there would have been no reason for me to have an abdominal CT.  I was completely asymptomatic for the cancer, so it might have been years before we found it.

Another moment of Grace was receiving the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick between the Masses last Sunday.  Our pastor is on vacation and the recently-ordained Fr. Christopher Gray is filling in.  Fr. Gray performed the long form of the sacrament and it was a beautiful and moving interlude in the midst of all of everything else that was going on.  The reading for the rite was Matthew 11:25 – 30, the same as the Gospel for the Masses last weekend.

Fr. Gray noted that we should take that a sign of providence and I smiled.  I think, perhaps, he thought I wasn’t taking him seriously, but it was quite the opposite.  I did see that as a sign; yet another in the long line of signs of Grace.  (Fr. Gray also noted that I had now received six of the seven sacraments and only lacked Holy Orders to make it a full house.)

The Grace came me through the event itself and its marvelous timing; through my wife’s care and resiliency in getting me to and from the hospital and appointments and standing beside me the whole time; through our friend Amy who urged us to go to the ER; through the care provided by the many different professionals I’ve interacted with in the last couple of weeks; and through the support and prayers of my friends, family and community.

God truly is in all things and these past two weeks I’ve had the privilege of getting a glimpse of some of the unexpected places that reveal God’s presence.

Private Prayer in Public Places

Your mileage may vary but for our family, prayer tends to be a more private experience. We pray with the community in Mass or at Church events of course, but for the rest of the time we pray in our heads or quietly as a couple at home. When we were a younger family Kevin and I would insist on have a thanksgiving prayer before a meal, even at restaurants (we still do). This action, complete with the sign of the cross, caused more than one stare from other tables and some feeling of discomfort for us. The majority population of Utah does not use the sign of the cross in prayer so it marks us as outsiders the moment we make that motion. But we are Catholic and we were not going to hide it. Occasionally it brings a smile from a fellow Catholic, mostly just questioning eyebrows, but we do it anyway.

If the sign of the cross marked you as different, you can understand that a rosary was positively scary to the local population.

Sunday evening Kevin complained about an upset stomach, he had been mentioning it since Monday so we thought he had “a bug”. What was different now was a fever that was rising rapidly. My suggestion of going to the hospital was countered with offering to call a good friend who is a registered nurse. A telephone consultation with a few abdominal probes brought the response “Go to the ER, NOW!” Never one to ignore a girlfriend (his, not mine, long story, totally innocent) we were in the car and on our way.

A couple hours later it is one in the morning and I am alone in the waiting room outside surgery.  You guessed it, appendicitis. A very well renowned gastroenterologist was on call and putting  Kevin out for the count. The waiting room is actually a hall way in the hospital I use to work in. At one a.m. it is very quiet but also very public. The TV has a picture but no sound. A quick search reveals no remote. The buttons on the TV give no results. I find the only none chair (a small two-seater couch with metal arms) I pull out my rosary and curl up. Out in the quite public hallway.

There is a chapel on the same floor but on the other end of the hospital. It’s pretty but non-denominational and filled with literature for the local culture and not much else so I opted not to go pray there. I also didn’t want to be far from the OR when anyone came looking for me. It was probably my most private prayer in a most public place.

Thankfully surgery went well and  Kevin was discharged by mid-morning and recuperating at home. Since it all occurred late at night we didn’t notify anyone till the next morning. Even without having family or friends it was okay. I could handle being by myself because I never am really alone. The Lord is always at my side.

– Mom

A Book Report

CBC_thumbnailEvan has gone back to DC and will shortly be headed out on a retreat.  Before he left we had a conversation about the contents of this blog.  One of his brother novices pointed out that — from the parent’s perspective — there’s stuff to write about at the beginning of seminary and stuff to write about at the end.  In between are classes and seminars and apostolates and service.  Maybe not the most riveting content.

There’s some truth to that, but I expect we’ll have a few interesting tidbits to pass along in the coming year.  And, this blog is as much about us s it is about the seminary experience.  We, too, are living through our faith journey which is a continual conversion experience.

The nice thing about conversion is that it’s an experience we all get to share with one another.  And that brings me to the topic of this post; a brief report on a great book about a personal conversion.

Catholic by Choice: Why I embraced the faith, joined the Church and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime is Richard Cole’s memoir the journey that brought him into the Catholic church.  Cole brings his poet’s sensibility to a personal saga which he describes as “…a love story about conversion and the honeymoon of faith.”

Evan met Richard while on his apostolate in Austin and gifted me with an autographed copy of the book for my fiftieth birthday.  As a convert myself, the subject matter drew me in and the beautiful, vivid language held me to the end.

Cole opens the book with a trip he took to a monastery for the purpose of rest and relaxation.  What he found, though, was a spiritual director.  She tells him, “You are being created, very deliberately, at God’s own pace. It’s like being pregnant or cooking.  If the soup takes three hours to make, you can’t rush it.  Just wait.  And while you’re waiting, you have to trust.  You can’t presume to know what God is doing.  That’s not faith; it’s a false security.  You simply have to have faith.”  Like a kid in an adventure story who discovers a fragment of a pirate’s treasure map, Cole began his search.  Along the way, he flashes back to his younger years, his struggle with alcoholism, and his desire to be significant.  Nothing he turned to seemed to satisfy his hunger, until he began to discover Christ.

His wife had been raised Catholic and had parted company with the church, so they sought compromise solutions by joining other communities.  Even as they attended an Episcopalian parish, Richard also went to daily Mass.  He read the Bible daily, hoping to find some answer and he prayed and encountered Jesus.

It really is a story of an inch-by-inch conversion.  Cole tried to be good enough for God.  A recurring theme in the book is his need to have the “right” answers and to be seen as the smart one — an impulse I’m entirely too familiar with in myself.  In the end, though, he has to let go and enter fully into relationship with God.

Near the end of the book returns to the monastery for another retreat and is frustrated that he can’t seem to figure out why he’s there and what God wants from him.  His spiritual director gives him some good advice.  “Don’t’ analyze.  Think about what’s happened to you this weekend, but don’t analyze it.  You don’t evaluate a loving relationship.  You’re simple there with the beloved.”

Cole’s honesty throughout the book is engaging and there’s nothing I can write here that will truly do it justice.  So, I won’t try.  I’ll end with one more quick quote and a relevant video.

Cole has joined the RCIA program at his parish and tells of a classmate who approaches the task of conversion like a doctoral candidates on the fast track.  She attacks the problem of faith with books and a copy of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.  She asks the RCIA director for the best way to pray as if there is a universal answer that will fit all people in all situations.

The director answers; “Dance with God.  Don’t read or study.  Just try dancing, literally dancing with the Lord.”

I think that might be what the producers of the BBC series Rev had in mind when they wrote this into the series:

— Dad

Still the Father


Last Sunday I was sitting at the computer when my phone rang.

It was Evan.  Unusual for him to call on a Sunday.

“Hi,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“I need an exit.”


“I’m lost in DC and need help getting back to the college.”

“Ah…where are you?”

“Ummm…Ord and…hang on…there’s a cross street coming up…4th.”

“Okay…stand by…”  I called up Google maps and felt a little like an air traffic controller in one of those disaster movies.  Here I was, thousands of miles away, guiding Evan in with my voice.  “Got you.  Tell me the next cross street.”

“Okay.  Here is comes…45the Place.”

“Bingo.  You’re headed west.”  I asked Google for directions to St. Paul’s college and it obligingly tossed up a cheerful blue line tracing a path across the city.”

“Okay.  I can guide you in from here.”

So I stayed on the line, giving directions, tweaking the route when real-world road conditions didn’t match my tidy-bird’s eye view, and easing Evan back home.  While he drove, he filled me in on just how he’d come to be in an unfamiliar part of the city.

As part of his training, he is encouraged to attend other churches.  In his novice year he’s attended services in churches where English is never spoken, he’s taken some of his classmates to a Mormon ward meeting, and he’s developed a particular fondness for the spirituality of the Eastern Rite churches.  This past Sunday he went to a Ruthenian church.  Like many of the Easter Rite churches, it is considered to be in full communion with Rome.  The rites are different, though, from those you’d find in the average Roman Catholic church in the U.S.

Evan enjoyed his visit, but got turned around on the way out and needed a little help finding his way.

Which reminded me that — even a continent away — I’m still the Dad.

Both of my sons still seek my advice on matters small and large.  (They don’t always take my advice — that’s the beauty of asking for advice.  Just because somebody gives it to you, you don’t have to accept it.)  While he was an undergraduate, Evan frequently asked me to review his papers and make suggestions as I saw fit.  Ian has sought my advice on school projects, his novels and various job situations.  And, at various times, I’ve served as their personal OnStar.

(Aside: I don’t blame Evan for getting lost.  Out here where Evan grew up, the cities are laid out in nice, square grids.  Addresses tend to be things like 550 East 300 South.  If you know the city and the E/W and N/S coordinates, it’s almost impossible to get lost.  Especially if you know that the Wasatch Mountain range lies to the east.  If your destination is to the east, drive toward the mountains.  South?  Keep the mountains on your left side.  By contrast, the roads of Washington DC appear to have been laid out after a night of heavy drinking by contractors who were unclear on the concept of “the shortest distance between two points.”  Of course, that could just be my western bias.)

All of which got me thinking about my relationship with God.  You know, God the Father?

(To be clear — and to avoid giving offense — I’m not suggesting that I’m God or even particularly God-like.  The situation just gave me pause to think.)

When we call out to God for help, it’s usually because we’re lost somewhere.  We’ve gotten stuck or confused or overwhelmed and need to find a way back home.  And God is still the Father.  Still there.  Waiting to give us guidance and advice.

Even though I don’t follow that advice as often (or as closely) as I should, I still find the fact of God’s presence comforting.

— Dad


For a more elegant exploration of this idea, I suggest you click over to the Ignatian Spirituality blog.

Coffee, Catechism and a Black Apron


Our oldest son, Ian, works as a Starbucks barista and trained as a Coffee Master.

“Coffee Master?” you ask. “What’s that?”

Coffee Masters are the Starbucks equivalent of the geniuses in the Apple Stores.  They’re the ones who know exactly what makes a blonde roast different from a dark roast and why sun dried Sumatra tastes so much better than it’s more mundane cousins.  They’re distinguished from other Starbucks partners with a black apron.  The Starbucks Melody blog explains it this way:

If you are a customer, and you have a question about coffee, look for the Starbucks baristas in black aprons:  They can talk to you about the four fundamentals of great coffee (water, proportion, grind, freshness), or if you want a low acidity coffee, a black apron Starbucks barista might steer you in the direction of Italian Roast, or if you want to try something fun and new as an espresso shot, again the barista can help answer those questions.  (The new Yirgacheffe works beautifully as a shot of espresso!).

Earning the apron was no easy task and, along the way, Ian taught me a lot about coffee.  I learned (for example) that coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity.  (Oil takes the top spot.)  I also learned to identify the various component flavors of individual blends and to articulate what I like and dislike about each.

P2020471As part of the training, Ian hosted a series of coffee tastings in his store.  These involved selecting and pairing different coffees with different foods to explore the ways in which flavors interact and strengthen one another.  In one surprising match, Ian paired a blonde roast (which I find a bit bitter) with some smoked gouda.  To my delighted, the cheese smoothed out the coffee and improved the flavor of both.

I’ve also learned to sound a bit snobbish when I say (in all sincerity) that the new Ethiopia blend has a smooth flavor that lingers on the back of the the tongue and has a chocolaty aftertaste.

I bring all of this up for three reasons;

1) I’m proud of Ian and how hard he worked to earn this distinction

2) It reminds me that the created world is good and God meant for us to enjoy it

3) There’s a link between this and the importance of catechesis


I’ve been a fan of coffee for since I took up the habit in college more than a quarter century ago.  And, for most of that time, I drank whatever was available.  I’d occasionally say something like, “That was a good cup of coffee.”  Except, I only said that because it tasted good to me.

I had no real understanding of coffee.  No appreciation for what it took to go from raw coffee cherries (they’re not really beans, I learned) to the dark liquid in my cup.  The language to describe the coffee in any meaningful way — to be able to communicate with others what I was experiencing — was beyond me.

Once I started to learn, though, a whole new universe of appreciation opened up for me.  The coffee hadn’t changed, I had.

I think the same is true for catechesis.  Cathy and I have been taking a catechist preparation course this year based on the Echoes of Faith series.  At the start, I assumed that teaching religious education was more-or-less like teaching any other subject.  It was about getting the students to understand the content.  They needed to be able to answer the questions appropriately and demonstrate some knowledge of the material.

As the class goes on, I’m rethinking that.  Certainly the knowledge is important.  Understanding is the basis of appreciation.  More importantly, though, my students need to have the experience that comes of out that knowledge.  If Ian had simply described different roast profiles to me, I’d still be stuck at the “Gee, that’s good coffee” stage of development.  By coupling the knowledge with the experience of tasting and giving me the opportunity to articulate what I was experiencing, Ian helped me to expand my appreciation of coffee.

That’s not to say that the knowledge is unimportant, but it’s too shallow a way to share the Faith.  The Catholic church isn’t a series of rules or historical anecdotes.  It is a living faith which should be experienced and integrated into daily life.  It is a way of being which fundamentally alters the believer.  Perhaps we’ve overlooked that in the past.

My “coffee formation” (if I can use that phrase respectfully) has brought me to a place of deeper understanding of and appreciation for coffee.  Bad coffee (which is sadly abundant in Utah) has become nearly intolerable and I’m willing to expend time, energy and money to get good coffee.  Imagine what would happen if our catechism programs made people turn away from lukewarm faith and made them willing to work hard at what they believe.

— Dad

Priesthood as Exemplary Masculinity

Word on Fire posted an article this week that really needs no commentary from me.  So, other than noting that the passage below caught my eye, I’ll leave it to you to read the whole thing.

In the priest’s role we find what manhood is actually all about, that being service to the Bride. In his collar of strength he gives his life day in and day out to the needs of his fellow man and the desires of his Bride, the Church. If only more men would look to this place of encouragement and follow in the footsteps of the great men who came before them, not fearing their testosterone but embracing it and letting its great fire burn within the heart of the hero we men are called to be!

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Are You Listening?

HomerListenSo, Pope Francis talked about the internet this week in the context of World Communications Day.  Much of the coverage focused on the Pope’s assertion that the internet is a ‘Gift from God‘.  I’m not going to argue that point; I have a hard time imagining a life without an always-on connection.

What really caught my attention, though, was this little nugget near the end of the Message for World Communications Day 2014.

Effective Christian witness is not about bombarding people with religious messages, but about our willingness to be available to others “by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence” (BENEDICT XVI, Message for the 47th World Communications Day, 2013). We need but recall the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus. We have to be able to dialogue with the men and women of today, to understand their expectations, doubts and hopes, and to bring them the Gospel, Jesus Christ himself, God incarnate, who died and rose to free us from sin and death. We are challenged to be people of depth, attentive to what is happening around us and spiritually alert. To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.

DiplomaThis caught me because I’ve trained as a mediator and have a Master’s degree in Negotiation and Conflict Management.  True story.  Also, fun fact: I earned the degree from Cal State Dominguez Hills which means it was signed by the President of the Board of Trustees who is also the Governor of California.  Thus, my degree in Negotiation and Conflict Management was signed by the Terminator.

One of the lessons that they pound into you over and over and over in conflict work is that the key to resolving conflict lies in getting people to listen to one another.  I mean, really listen.  Most of us think that we are good listeners and we’re all pretty much wrong on that point.  Let me give you a little listening test.  Check out these two quotes from Pope Francis.  What do you think he meant?

The ability to compromise is not a diplomatic politeness toward a partner but rather taking into account and respecting your partner’s legitimate interests.

No references to the need to fight terror can be an argument for restricting human rights.

Boy that Pope Francis is pretty direct, isn’t he?  And always consistently on message.  You have to respect that.

Except I lied to you.

Those quotes weren’t from the Pope.  They came from former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. Go ahead and read the quotes again.  I’ll wait.

The ability to compromise is not a diplomatic politeness toward a partner but rather taking into account and respecting your partner’s legitimate interests.

No references to the need to fight terror can be an argument for restricting human rights.

Kinda puts a different spin on them, doesn’t it?  It also raises questions about your skills as a listener.  When you thought the quotes came from Pope Francis, you probably felt warm and fuzzy.  When you learned they came from Putin, you probably wondered what he really meant.

I use this exercise when I lecture on conflict resolution.  It helps to illustrate the truth that most of us are poor listeners.  We aren’t really listening, we’re filtering what someone else says through our preconceptions and expectations.  We’re picking apart what they say with the intent of proving our point by disproving theirs.  Listening means sitting back, being open, and really hearing what the other party is saying.

In western culture we tend to confuse the phrase “I hear what you are saying” with “I’m in complete agreement with you.”  Hearing and understanding a point of view does not mean that you are persuaded by it.  It does mean that you can begin the search for meaningful common ground for dialogue.  Until dialogue beings, we are just shouting at one another over the chasm of misunderstanding.

Pope Francis summed it up better than I can when he said:

To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective.

Now, what does all of this have to with the Paulists?  (After all, this blog should occasionally connect back to the Paulist mission, right?)  One of the key Paulist charisms is the development of interfaith dialogue.  On the Paulist Ecumenism page it’s expressed this way:

The goal of interfaith dialogue is not unity in faith and worship, but mutual understanding and respect, and mutual enrichment enabling us all to respond more fully to God’s call. It includes collaboration wherever possible in response to the societal problems we commonly face. For this reason, the purpose of theological dialogue will not be to prove that one side is right and the other is wrong, but rather to explore respective positions in order to understand them better. When this is done, many prejudices, built on half-truths, will fall by the wayside.

Like all of the faithful, I long for the day when we are not divided.  More to the point, I’m responsible to help bring that about.  From my studies in conflict, the best way forward is to begin by listening to find the places where we can meet and begin our journey together.

Minor Orders

320px-StMarysWestMelbAltarThe holidays are over and it’s time to get back to ordinary time — which, for me, includes blogging.

While Evan was home (we had him for the better part of a month) we spent some time talking about the seminary and what’s he’s been learning and doing.  Among other things, this past fall he was working at drop-in shelter/soup kitchen.  When they found out that he could bake, they set him to work making cookies and pies and such — anything that didn’t need to rise to be cooked.  We also spent a little time talking about how religious formation has changed over time.

This might sound a bit esoteric, but it actually gives an interesting peek inside the history of the church in the post Vatican II era.

Prior to 1973, candidates for the priesthood went through several well-defined steps during their training.  It started with the tonsure — a ceremonial haircut to mark the candidate’s entry into religious life.  Think of the bowl cut you associate with Friar Tuck or Brother Cadfael.  It was considered a sign that the candidate no longer cared about worldly fashion.  By the middle of the last century, though, the bowl cut had given way to a ceremonial clipping of five tiny tufts of hair as the points of a cross on top of the candidate’s head.

During formation, the candidate would go through the four minor ordersporter, lector, exorcist and acolyte.  The progression through the minor orders was a bit like gaining rank in the military, each of them brought the candidate new responsibilities.  None of them were Divine or Apostolic in origin and they were added to the church at different times.

Formal ordination began with the order of the subdeacon.  As the name implies, the subdeacon shares in some of the responsibilities, but not the full authority of an ordained deacon.

Candidates then — and now — go through ordination to the deaconate before making their final vows as priests.

In 1973 Pope Paul VI issued the Ministeria Quaedam which changed the minor orders into ministries.  In doing so, he said:

Nevertheless, since the minor orders have not always been the same and many functions connected with them, as at present, have also been exercised by the laity, it seems fitting to reexamine this practice and to adapt it to contemporary needs. What is obsolete in these offices will thus be removed and what is useful retained; also anything new that is needed will be introduced and at the same time the requirements for candidates for holy orders will be established.

Two of the minor orders — Lector and Acolyte — have been retained as ministries in formation programs to mark the candidate’s progress.

Many of the tasks which had been reserved for those in training have been taken over by the laity.  This reflects the goal of Vatican II to encourage “full, conscious and active participation” by “all of the faithful”.

What’s interesting to me is that there are groups seeking a return to the use of minor orders.  They feel that we have somehow lost something important.  I wouldn’t want to interfere with anyone’s personal piety, but I think they may be missing the larger picture.  Minor orders were never dogma nor did they reflect core theology.  They were simply a process which reflected the needs of the church at the time.  I would even suggest that the minor orders made it possible for the laity to sit back in the pews and treat the church as something to be observed rather than experienced; an inactive religion that kept faith at a distance from life.

For myself, getting involved has helped grow my faith.  When you dedicate time to an activity — a job, a hobby, a cause or a religion — you naturally engage more fully in it.  You learn, you question and you grow.  Which, I guess, is my ultimate point.

The formation for Holy Orders is vital to the future of the church.  We need the religious to fulfill their particular roles.  But we’re fooling ourselves if we think that we shouldn’t be in constant formation as well.

— Dad

God’s Dreams

Do you want your dreams for your life
God’s dreams for your life?

proverbs_quoteWell.  Really.  That’s not the sort of question you expect to be asked in the confessional.  The deal is that you go in, confess, get a penance to help point you in the right direction, pray the Act of Contrition, hear the prayer of Absolution, and head back out.

Unless the confessor thinks you might benefit from a bit of counsel.

Which left me sitting with a kindly priest faced with a pretty blunt question.  And, in truth, after nearly a half century on the planet I’m slowly moving to the place of wanting God’s dreams for my life.  (The obvious “right” answer is that I want God’s dreams.  The more honest answer is that I often put my dreams ahead of God’s.)

If you’re like me, answering that question correctly only raises others.  Most specifically, how do you discover God’s dreams for your life?

The Bible is full of stories of angelic visitations and divinely inspired visions.  While that might seem to simplify the question, I doubt that most of us are actually prepared for that level of openness and directness in our relationship with God.  So, we must find other ways to discern what God dreams for us.

Ironically, I think the key lies exactly in seeking a relationship of openness and honesty with God.  It involves being vulnerable and willing to listen and take in what God is trying to communicate to us.  Blogger Will Duquette puts it this way:

For me, listening to God means sitting and pondering about things: my problems, a scripture reading, a book I’m studying, the weather, or what have you. And as I ponder, I need to pay attention to the ideas that occur to me, and follow the threads to see where they go. It’s about testing the conclusions I come to, to see if they are consistent with what I know about God’s word, and God’s character, and that involves more pondering. And the essential thing is that when I sit down to ponder, I invite God to come along and I make Him welcome.

This sounds like solid advice, but as before, it still raises that next question; even if you’re determined to invite God to communicate, how do you do that?  Fortunately, there are some good folks who have already walked this path and sent back field reports to point us in the right direction.

St. Ignatius of Loyola starts with the idea of a personal relationship with God.  A structure for achieving this is laid out step-by-step in the Spiritual Exercises.  One of the key elements of the exercises is prayer.  Makes sense.  After all, if you’re going to enter into a relationship with someone, you have to talk to them.  This also helps with what St. Ignatius calls the orientation of your life.  Are you trying to stay on the right path?  Are you trying to live a decent Christian life?

With that as a starting point, you can begin to listen to “the movements of your heart.”  What do you feel when you pray?  What are the thoughts that come to mind then and throughout the day?  Test them to see if they are consistent with what you know of God.

One of the interesting things that St. Ignatius pointed out is that these movement (he called them “spirits”) change depending on where you are in your spiritual journey.  William A. Barry, SJ, puts it like this:

Now let’s take up the orientation of most of us, who are trying to live honestly and uprightly to the best of our ability. In this case, Ignatius says, the good and bad spirits act in ways opposite to how they act with those turned away from God’s path. The bad spirit raises doubts and questions that cause inner turmoil and self-­absorption, while the good spirit tries to encourage us and to increase our peace, joy, faith, hope, and love.

If you are trying to live as a good Christian, you might have thoughts like these: “Who do you think you are—some kind of saint?” “Everyone else cuts corners in this office. What’s the matter with you? Are you ­holier-than-thou?” “God doesn’t have time for the likes of you.” “Most people, even if they believe in God, don’t try to live the way you do.” Such questions and thoughts have only one aim, to trouble your spirit and keep you troubled and questioning. Moreover, you will notice that all the questions and doubts focus on you, not on God or God’s people.

The good spirit, on the other hand, might inspire thoughts like these: “I’m genuinely happy with my decision to make amends with my estranged sister.” “I wish that I had stopped drinking a long time ago. I’m much happier and healthier now, and easier to live with.” “God seems so much closer to me since I began to take some time every day for prayer, and I feel less anxious and insecure.” I hope you can see in your own experience how these two spirits have led you.

Sometimes, that spirit that wants to distract you from God’s will comes dressed in pious clothes.  It’s easy to get distracted by that voice and decide that God doesn’t have any big dreams for you.  It’s safer and easier just to sit quietly.  Along the way, Ignatius tells us that we will likely experience Spiritual Consolation and Spiritual Desolation.  These, too, are part of that journey of understanding God’s dreams for us.

As a practical matter, you can take St. Ignatius’ road map and put it into practice with a low tech tool; a notebook.  Over at , Andy Otto outlines a simple practice which involves jotting down your thoughts and feelings during the day and reviewing them regularly to see where God might be speaking to you.

Like they used to say, “Knowing is half the battle”.  Once you know (or have a good idea) you can begin to seek out ways to cooperate with God in bringing about his dreams for your life.  You might be surprised by what you discover.  The theologian Parker Palmer understood that when he said:

Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice out there calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice in here calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.


With Great Power Comes Great Humility?

180px-ScholasticNarniaA little over a week ago, my friend Mette posted a link on her Facebook page to an article entitled “Finding a Feminist Theology in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia.”  I was sufficiently intrigued — since C.S. Lewis didn’t seem to be an especially feminist writer — to click through.

The article starts out recounting Lewis’s many critics who call him out for fearing and disliking women, disliking sexuality, and equating “ultimate good” with “ultimate masculinity”.  Then it moves on to talk about a new view of Lewis’s work which is presented in Monika Hilder’s book The Feminine Ethos is C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.  So far this all sounds like an academic cat fight, right?  A clutch of post-modern professors and lit crit snobs mixing up it for the sake of entertainment.

Except that (echoing Hilder’s text) the authors suggest that the modern idea of feminism misses the point.

In an age that worships the cult of personality and aggrandizes the “virtues” of the energetic, the magnetic, the stunning, and the forceful – because these traits lead to more materialistic wealth and power – what room left is there for the fruit of the Spirit? Qualities such as self-control, meekness, patience, and peace sound quite out of vogue; “Let’s see how far the meek, patient, and peace-loving female can succeed,” I can hear the cynic ask. Hilder, though, suggests that our struggle for independence, power, and autonomy echo Satan’s thirst for domination more than Christ’s model of humble servanthood.

Take a moment to consider that last line.  When was the last time you heard someone — anyone — praised for being a good and humble servant?  That’s crazy talk, right?

If we are uncomfortable with some of the female characterizations throughout Lewis’s series, perhaps we should reconsider where this discomfort stems from. While we as women are right to strive for gender equality, we are wrong to measure it according to mere chauvinistic ideas of accomplishment. As Hilder states, “to the extent we have not examined our own chauvinism, we demean the ‘feminine’ qualities and extol the ‘masculine’—not noticing that Lewis does the opposite.” And indeed, it is in doing exactly that opposite that Hilder suggests Lewis’s radical theological feminism can be found.

More importantly, Lewis seems to be saying that the servant-minded approach cuts both ways.  Men, as well as women, should strive to live up to that lofty standard.

Lewis’s idea of true spiritual strength— for both men and women— rests in openness to our Father, community, submission, compassion, truth, grace, and humility. So, when Lewis has Lucy run towards Eustace-the-dragon and bestow upon him grace only expressible in a child’s unrestrained kisses, or Lucy and Susan weep with Aslan while he is on the stone table, or, even Mrs. Beaver demonstrate foresight and responsibility for those in her care (or one could even dare say, community mindedness) in bringing along her domestically stigmatized sewing machine, Lewis wasn’t belittling these characters. I can learn that true spiritual strength, or spiritual heroism as Hilder terms it, “establishes the kingdom of heaven through humility,” not independence.

The article goes on to talk about how much of what we perceive to be sexism reflects our own biases more than the objective truth.  That wasn’t what stayed with me after reading the article, though.  I kept coming back to the idea of servanthood being the mark of a successful adult.

I encountered that idea again a few days later when we attended a Mass for the Admission to the Candidacy for the new Deaconate class in Utah.  (A friend from our parish is one of the candidates.)  The second reading was from Matthew.

But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.  Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Oh.  Right.  Jesus mentioned this idea a couple of millennia back.  At the time it was clearly a challenging idea; unusual and non-intuitive enough that he felt a need to address it with his disciples.  You would think that in the past 2,000 years this idea would have caught on.  I’ve read a goodly number of books about leadership and management and I’ve attended lectures and seminars and institutes, but all of them focused on ways to consolidate exploit power.  Sure, there’s been talk of “servant leadership“, but it’s always in the context of “getting the job done”.  The implication is that there is some goal to be achieved or target to be hit and it’s the leader’s responsibility to make sure that happens.  If servant leadership can get you there, great.  If not, find some other tool and keep pressing forward.

In other words, the modern ideal of leadership is the accumulation and application of power.  Whether you’re a man or a woman, your goal should be to reach the top.

Except there’s this one guy who keeps telling a different story.  In case you’ve missed the theme of humility in the homilies, interviews, and public talks Pope Francis has given in the past several months, he kindly included it in Evangelii Gaudium — his first Apostolic Exhortation.

I’m a long way from having read all 244 pages, but I’ve skimmed a bit of it and read some reliable commentaries from trusted sources, and the thing which sticks out is how deeply counter-cultural it is.  In a world which judges us largely on how well we “succeed”, Pope Francis is calling for us to step out of the game.  He’s not telling us to lose the game.  He’s telling us to get out and spend our energy on something better.  He even goes so far as to point out that we are guilty of this kind of thinking within the bounds of our religious practices.

(93) Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, consists in seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being. It is what the Lord reprimanded the Pharisees for: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44).

(94) …those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying.

(271)  It is true that in our dealings with the world, we are told to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns. We are told quite clearly: “do so with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15) and “if possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18). We are also told to overcome “evil with good” (Rom 12:21) and to “work for the good of all” (Gal 6:10). Far from trying to appear better than others, we should “in humility count others better” than ourselves (Phil 2:3). The Lord’s apostles themselves enjoyed “favour with all the people” (Acts 2:47; 4:21, 33; 5:13). Clearly Jesus does not want us to be grandees who look down upon others, but men and women of the people. This is not an idea of the Pope, or one pastoral option among others; they are injunctions contained in the word of God which are so clear, direct and convincing that they need no interpretations which might diminish their power to challenge us. Let us live them sine glossa, without commentaries. By so doing we will know the missionary joy of sharing life with God’s faithful people as we strive to light a fire in the heart of the world.

When he was first elected, we knew there was something different about Pope Francis.  His humility was refreshing and his simplicity endearing.  Now he is asking the same as us; he is inviting us to follow him in humility.  For those of us who grew up in western nations where “success” as a human being is defined by power and wealth, this is tremendously challenging idea.  I wonder how many of us will be willing to follow through?

— Dad

Reflection: Vocation and Discernment

Novice Prayer Service Wednesday October 23rd, 2013

On Discernment

God, come to our assistance. Glory to the Father. As it was in the beginning. Alleluia.

Psalm 25

Antiphon: Lord, allow your guiding spirit to enter our hearts.

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.

Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!

Good and upright is the LORD;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

Reading from Hecker’s diary, June 6, 1844

What would the spirit have me to do? To say? It seems to give me no rest, would it have me to be still, quiet and peaceful?

What is the work that the spirit is doing now within me?

The spirit draws me ever inward and will not permit me to read, think, or do anything else but attend to it. It is like a young bride; it would have me ever in its presence speaking of its charms.


Incline my heart according to your will, O God.

Incline my heart according to your will, O God.

Speed my steps along your path,

according to your will, O God.

Glory to the Father…

Incline my heart according to your will, O God.


We pray for all of us present, that we might discern where the Holy Spirit is guiding us.

Lord hear our prayer.

We pray for all earnest seekers to find where God leads them in life.

Lord hear our prayer.

We pray for the young men joining us this weekend who are discerning a life with the Paulists.

Lord hear our prayer.

We pray that all leaders, civil and religious, listen to the people and to God

Lord hear our prayer.

For what else shall we pray?

Our Father…

O God, who enlightens the minds and inflames the hearts of the faithful by the Holy Spirit, grant that through the same Spirit we hear in our hearts where you are guiding us. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to everlasting life.
Let us bless the Lord.
And give God thanks.

— Novice