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.

God’s Dreams

Do you want your dreams for your life
or
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 www.godinallthings.com , 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.

–Dad

Foodie Priests

Photo Credit: Creative Commons courtesy of Alpha by way of Wikimedia CommonsThe Paulist.org website has a nice article about the “Paulist Plunge” retreat for this year.  The article does a gives a peek into the experience, but it doesn’t mention the amazing dinner that Fr. Larry cooked for the men participating in the retreat.

Evan reported that it was an amazing meal featuring grilled salmon and some sort of risotto and (to be honest) I sort of lost track after that as I was very hungry at the time and Evan’s description of the entrée briefly sidelined my ability to process new information.

Fr. Steven Bell, who also participated in the retreat, is a cohost on the Busted Halo podcast and a foodie as well.  At various times on the podcast he’s reported on meals he cooked and I had the same mouth-watering-brain-derailing reaction.  He has also been heard to say that Jesus was a foodie.

The whole idea of foodie priests might seem strange.  A lot of people think of priests as severe ascetics who go out of their way to avoid worldly joys.  These same people tend perceive Catholics as dour, pinch-faced individuals.  I think they’re confusing us with Puritans.

One of the fundamental teachings of Catholicism (and, as a convert it took me a long time to understand this) is that the world is good.  Fallen and corrupt, but good in its very creation.  If God — who is all good and loving — created the world, how could it be otherwise?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts this truth in the very beginning.

339 Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection. For each one of the works of the “six days” it is said: “And God saw that it was good.” “By the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth and excellence, its own order and laws.” Each of the various creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular goodness of every creature, to avoid any disordered use of things which would be in contempt of the Creator and would bring disastrous consequences for human beings and their environment.

341 The beauty of the universe: The order and harmony of the created world results from the diversity of beings and from the relationships which exist among them. Man discovers them progressively as the laws of nature. They call forth the admiration of scholars. The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man’s intellect and will.

In a similar vein, the Bishops of Mississippi and Alabama wrote a pastoral letter to their congregations in 1989 asserting:

For Catholics, Biblical teaching has always maintained that our world is good and has been entrusted to our care by God. We do not see it as something evil to escape, rather we embrace our world without embracing the sin within it.

In practical terms, this means that the we are not only free to enjoy the world — we are actively encouraged to engage with God’s creation.  The world is ours to enjoy.  Beauty, good food, and and all the delights of the senses reveal parts of God’s love for his creation to us.  Our God is an awesome God and it’s okay to acknowledge that and embrace his creation.

And that includes good food.

The link between food and faith is particularly strong.  Jesus practiced what is known as “open table fellowship” and is often shown dining with people from a variety of social classes.  The Last Supper is one of the pivotal moments in the New Testament — so important that we reenact it at every Mass and given it special prominence during Holy Week at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

The folks at CatholicFoodie.com know this.  Their website and podcast explore the relationship of food and faith.  Plus they have some great recipes.

So, strange as it might seem to some, the idea of a “foodie priest” makes perfect sense.  Enjoying good food (but not to excess) is an act of embracing the gifts that God has given us.

Over the years, Evan has shown himself to be an outstanding cook.  This past summer he and his roommate make a massive batch of incredible pork tamales.  As an undergraduate, he regularly hosted dinners for his friends — calling home to ask advice on food pairings and preparation.

He comes by his talent naturally.  His mother is an awesome cook who learned the craft by working in the kitchen at her parent’s restaurant.  And I think he might get a bit of his talent from my side of the family too.  And, given what I know about the Paulist community and its relationship to food, I think Evan is going to fit right in.

–Dad

Retreat!

Ignatius_LoyolaEvan is at Lake George, New York this week, participating in the second Paulist Plunge.  The Plunge is a week-long discernment retreat for “men 18-35 who are interested in exploring the possibility of a religious vocation, and who want to get to know the Paulists better.”  He will be attending with another of this year’s novices and other men who are exploring whether or not they are called to a religious life.

Given that tomorrow (July 31) is the Feast of St. Ignatius, it’s fitting to take a moment and talk about retreats and to point you to a couple that you can take right where you’re sitting.

Several websites define a retreat as “A retreat is a withdrawal from ordinary activities for a period of time to commune with God in prayer and reflection.”  That’s a good place to start.  It is worth noting that there are many different kinds of retreats which serve many different purposes.  Cathy and I participated in a Engaged Encounter retreat as part of our marriage preparation.  Prayer and contemplation were an important part of the experience, but so were periods of reflection (both individually and as a couple) regarding our future.  We cannot recommend the Engaged Encounter enough and have even encouraged many non-Catholic friends to send their children when they were contemplating marriage.

Years later we attended a Marriage Encounter weekend, which was another kind of retreat.  Again, there was prayer and scripture and reflection.

The idea of a retreat, a time away for prayer and reflection is ancient.  We can point to Jesus’ sojourn in the desert as a New Testament example of a retreat. The early religious who withdrew to the desert or to monasteries are examples of individuals called to permanent retreats.

It took St. Ignatius of Loyola (that handsome fellow at the top right of this post) to formalize the idea of retreats in the 1500s.  As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

The Society of Jesus was the first active religious order in which the practice of the retreat became obligatory by rule.

It goes on to point out:

The Society of Jesus did not reserve these exercises for its own exclusive use, but gave them to communities and individuals. Blessed Peter Faber in his “Memoriale” testifies to having given them to the grandees of Spain, Italy, and Germany, and used them in restoring hundreds of convents to their first fervour. A letter of St. Ignatius (3 Feb., 1554) recommends giving the exercises publicly in the churches. In addition, the houses of the Society often contained rooms for priests or laymen desirous of performing the exercises privately. Ignatius, having sanctioned this custom during his lifetime, one of his successors, Aquaviva, exhorted the provincials to its maintenance in 1599. In studying the spread of this practice we must not neglect the influence of St. Charles Borromeo. The cardinal and the Jesuits co-operated in order to promote this sort of apostolate. A fervent admirer and disciple of the “Spiritual Exercises”, St. Charles introduced them as a regular practice among the secular clergy by retreats for seminarians and candidates for ordination. He built at Milan an asceterium, or house solely destined to receive those making retreats, whose direction he confided to the Oblates. The zeal of St. Charles was effectual in encouraging the sons of St. Ignatius to adopt definitively the annual retreat, and to organize outside collective retreats of priests and laymen.

All of which brings us back to the Paulist Retreat House in Lake George, New York.  As part of their mission, the Paulists operate a number of retreats on their Lake George property.  Some are related to the arts (the Singer/Songwriter Residency Program and the Artists’ Residency Program), some are more contemplative (Restful Waters/Couples’ Retreat and Praying Your Life) and some are very focused like the Paulist Plunge.  This will be Evan’s second year at the plunge.  He attended the retreat last year and came back energized and renewed.

It’s pretty amazing what a few days of prayer and contemplation can accomplish.

If the idea of a retreat appeals to you, but you can’t possibly get away due to various life commitments, there are plenty of opportunities to take retreats — small and large — just where you are.

At the beginning of July, The Busted Halo published a Virtual Outdoor Retreat.  This handy, printable guide gives you a chance to get back to nature in prayer and contemplation.  The perfect thing for a summer Sunday afternoon.

If you don’t live anywhere near nature (you poor person!) and want a more technological retreat, you can take advantage of Fr. James Martin’s e-book Together on Retreat: Meeting Jesus in Prayer.

If you’re really pressed for time, but want a few moments of peace each day, consider the 3 Minute Retreats from Loyola Press.  You can access them via the web, in your e-mail or through an inexpensive app.  A few minutes of prayer can set a great tone for your whole day and each of these brief reflections will give you something to contemplate.

Whatever you choose, a retreat is a great way to reconnect with God and to strengthen your spiritual life.

–Dad