Coffee, Catechism and a Black Apron

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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

Really.

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

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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

Question: What is a Vocation?

imageWhen I set out to write this particular post, I thought it would be easy.  You hear about “vocations” all the time.  Except, when I started researching, it seemed to be more subtle and complex than I expected.

I’m going to take my best shot and hope that if I stray, someone will be kind enough to correct me.

I’ll start with a quote from St. John Paul II.

What is a vocation? It is an interior call of grace, which falls into the soul like a seed, to mature within it. (Angelus message, December 14, 1980)

The Lumen Gentium, (one of the principle documents to come out of the Second Vatican Council) explains that there is a sort of universal vocation:

Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history. (40)

My first thought was, “Oh.  Is that all?”  The “perfection of charity” and “holiness” seems like something of a tall order.  But it’s right there in black-and-white and (just in case you missed it) there’s a reference to this in paragraph 2013 of the Catechism.

Both those quotes contain within them the notion of a “call” from God; an invitation to live a life of holiness.  What’s interesting is that the Lumen Gentium acknowledges that there are many different ways that this life of holiness can be lived.  Section 41 speaks eloquently about bishops and priests, other consecrated clerics, lay ministers, married couples, widows, single people, “those who engage in labor”, the poor, the infirm, and the sick.  It concludes by sweeping them all up into a final paragraph:

Finally all Christ’s faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives—and indeed through all these, will daily increase in holiness, if they receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and if they cooperate with the divine will. In this temporal service, they will manifest to all men the love with which God loved the world. (41)

This is often referred to as the “universal vocation” and I’m taken with this notion that we are all encouraged to pursue holiness as our primary vocation, by acting out our calling.  It’s the word “calling” that most Catholics think of when they hear the word “vocation”.

Traditionally, Catholic thought turns to three different vocations as “primary” vocations or callings; holy orders, consecrated life, or marriage.  Holy orders refers to those who are ordained as deacons, priests and bishops.  Consecrated life refers to those who have taken vows to live “the evangelical councils of poverty, chastity and obedience“; the most common of which are those who live in religious communities such as monks or nuns.  Marriage is also a vocation, although one that is often held in too little regard in the common culture.

All of these primary vocations — these paths to holiness — are a response to God’s call and all of them involve a total gift of self.  For married couples, we are called to give ourselves wholly and unreservedly to our spouse.  For those taking vows, they are giving themselves totally to God.

I found a wonderful article on OSV.COM that explains it very eloquently:

In the case of each primary vocation, that gift of self is not a transitory or temporary thing. It’s not given one day and taken back the next. Rather, the central relationship of each is spousal. It’s exclusive, total and enduring. When the gift of self is made to God, enduring is a “for all eternity” kind of enduring. When the gift of self is made to another person, it’s just an “until death to us part” kind of enduring. Nevertheless, the idea is the same: You fully and freely give yourself to another, and through that giving you pursue your universal vocation, holiness.

One of the keys — if not the key — to working toward holiness is surrender.  It’s that wonderful paradox that comes up again and again in Christ’s teachings — the idea that to attain the most that God has for us, we have to give up our self.

Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily* and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)

Which doesn’t mean that we turn our backs on life.  Most of us have bills to pay and families to raise and (yes!) parishes to support and that means taking up some form of worldly labor.  You’ll sometimes see this referred to as a “secondary vocation”. Having a job (or even a career) facilitates our survival and it can also be part of our journey toward holiness  The Lumen Gentium recognizes this when it says:

Finally, those who engage in labor—and frequently it is of a heavy nature—should better themselves by their human labors. They should be of aid to their fellow citizens. They should raise all of society, and even creation itself, to a better mode of existence. Indeed, they should imitate by their lively charity, in their joyous hope and by their voluntary sharing of each others’ burdens, the very Christ who plied His hands with carpenter’s tools and Who in union with His Father, is continually working for the salvation of all men. In this, then, their daily work they should climb to the heights of holiness and apostolic activity. (41)

There is — as I discovered in writing this — a lot more territory to cover when it comes to vocations including the question of discerning God’s will for our lives.  I’ll end this now, though, with an encouraging quote from Thomas Merton.

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.

Thomas Merton

–Dad

Last Things

eschatologyToday’s vocabulary word is eschatology.  That’s the theological study of “last things” like death, the afterlife, eternity and the end of time.  Hang on to that tidbit, you’ll need it in a minute.

A little over a year ago, Evan’s Vocations Director, Fr. Dave, came out to visit Evan and to meet with us.  We fell to talking about the coursework Evan would have to complete in order to graduate in the spring of ’13.  By dint of hard work (including a summer semester after he changed majors and an insanely challenging semester with 18 credits) he was very, very close.  There was still a chance that he might not graduate.  In order to earn his degree, he choose one of two mandatory classes — and it wasn’t clear that either of them was going to be offered during the year.

“That’s metaphysics and eschatology, right?” I asked.

“No dad,” he said.  “It’s metaphysics and epistemology.”

“Oh.  Right.  EpistemologyEschatology will be one of the last things you’ll study.”

Theology puns.  Does it get any better than that?  (Yeah, probably, but thank you for indulging me by reading that.  The rest of this will be more serious, I promise.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately.  Evan is leaving.  As Cathy noted, she’s left her career in medicine and moved on to new challenges.  A good friend just lost her adult son to cancer.  It seems to be a season of endings for us.

We’ve been preparing with lots of “lasts” and last minute preparations.  (Which is, in part, why we’ve been so scarce in this space the last couple of weeks.)

When it opened, the boys and I went to see Elysium.  (Capsule review; don’t bother.)  Since the boys have moved out, the three of us have met from time-to-time for dinner and a movie.  I’ve always enjoyed those as I’ve learned how to relate to my sons as adults.  I suspect I’ve not always done a good job of working out this new relationship, but it’s been good getting to know them in a new and different context.

I’m going to miss having those “guys nights”.

A week ago Tuesday, we had Fr. Clarence over for a last dinner with Evan.  Ian, our oldest, was able to join us as well so we had the whole family together for a meal with our parish priest.  He told us about his vocational discernment, his years with the Peace Corps in Lesotho, the importance of myth and storytelling and his advice on entering the seminary.  (Make sure you have a good spiritual director.)

On Wednesday last week we attended the vigil for the Feast of the Assumption and Evan went with us.  That’s the last Mass we’ll share with him for a while.  When the Mass was done he spent a few minutes visiting with people in the parish whom he has known for years and who have been encouraging during this phase of his discernment.

Tuesday evening we had a family dinner together with both boys and my mother.

And, of course, on Wednesday morning (at an abysmally early hour) we said good-bye and sent him off on the plane to D.C.

We’re hardly the first family bid a child farewell.  Every day families send their sons and daughters off to college, to the military, to various kinds of service and education and employment in distant places.  Yet, this is a first for us.  Even though they moved out, both boys have been relatively close to home.  And, as Fr. Clarence pointed out, Evan’s community will become his family now in a profound and important way.

It’s surprisingly tough to see him go.  I’ve passed the last couple of weeks in a sort of anticipatory melancholy which balances my hopes for his on-going discernment process against the reality of his departure.  As they say on the internet, I’m feeling all the feels.

I’m proud of him, of course, and wouldn’t want him not to go.  At the same time I’ll miss having him close by.  I take comfort in the fact that this ending is also a new beginning.  It is not so much a season of endings, but rather a season of change in our lives.  And I look forward to seeing what other changes God has in store for us.

— Dad

So Many Questions

In the two-and-a-half years since my wife and I became aware of our son’s vocation call, it’s been interesting telling people about it.

I remember telling some good Catholic friends about it the December after he told us. Their first response was surprise, followed closely by something that looked almost like sympathy.

We’ve seen that look over-and-over among our Catholic friends. They are all pleased, but they also understand the level of commitment that comes with the vocation.

“Is he old enough?”

That’s an interesting question. When I was his age, I was newly married. I’d made a lifelong commitment of fidelity and obedience and no one seemed to mind overmuch. It would be wonderful to believe that everyone knew how mature I was for my age and that I’d make a wonderful husband. It would be wonderful…and inaccurate. Nobody really knew what lay ahead for me — for us — but I guess we trusted in God’s grace.

As an aside, it is interesting that many people perceive priestly vows as more binding and difficult than those of marriage. Perhaps this is because a priest is taking a vow of service to God. Or, perhaps it is because people don’t fully understand the rewards of the priesthood.

Whatever the case, God has blessed Cathy and I with a long and satisfying marriage.

We approach our son’s vocation with the same faith. (We try to, at least.) His period of discernment has already lasted longer than our engagement and he has quite a bit of time yet to go. If he continues on this path to the point of ordination, he’ll be blessed with the ontological change which occurs in all priests.

Is he young? Yes. But so were we when we got married. So were thousands of priests. All any of us can do is put our trust in God and move ahead.

P.S.
Of course, this isn’t the only question we’ve been asked. There have been lots of others. We’ll be addressing them in future posts. If you’d like to ask us a question, feel free to post in the comments or e-mail us at SeminarianParents@gmail.com

–Dad