Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Forget It Not

On Friday of last week, I had the honor and privilege of attending the 150th Jubilee Celebration of the founding of the Nashville Order of Dominican Sisters. As a classmate of five of their ranks in the ACE Leadership Program, I travelled to Nashville for the day's Celebration of the Eucharist and Jubilee dinner. Theirs is a beautiful charism which is clearly evident in their ministries across the US (and recently Australia), and their vibrant and youthful and well populated convent.

In a time when religious vocations in the States dwindle, the Nashville Dominicans thrive:

-they presently have over 250 sisters in their Congregation (their largest population over the past 150 years)
-the Congregation has grown by 46% over the past 14 years
-the median age of the sisters is 36
-61% of the Congregation is under the age of 40
-over the past 12 years the average size of their postulant class (the term for those young ladies in their 1st year of vocational discernment) has been 12.

With such an energetic and enthusiastic group, it was truly a blessing to have been a part of this day.

As would be expected during an anniversary celebration, the day's focus was the past. But, this was not merely a trip down memory lane. From the homily to the many other addresses and speeches during the Mass and dinner reception , the message was clear: embrace and honor the past as a healthy approach to the future.

One point recurred and stood out in my mind. A"5th Century monk named Mark" was cited both times the point was made and despite this cryptic reference the message was poignant. One of the greatest hindrances to spiritual development, Brother Mark claimed, was the reality of forgetfulness. Following along this line of thinking, if forgetfulness is a hindrance, remembrance must be an aid.

What, then, are we to remember? No history is perfect, no family tree without blemish, no resume without inadequacies. Dredging through the closets of our past will undoubtedly uncover some skeletons. How can this exercise be anything but scary?

First, we must acknowledge the many gifts bestowed upon us by God. Mother Ann Marie Karlovic, O.P., the head of the Nashville order, said it this way, "Don't stumble over the graces God is giving you, be sure to get them-- all of them!" In order not to stumble, we must be more aware of the graces already bestowed.

It is this awareness that can lead to a thankful spirit. To be thankful we must first be aware of/think about that for which we are grateful. In fact, think and thank come from the same Latin root-- tongere, meaning to know. It makes sense, therefore, that these two actions are so closely linked. More awareness can lead to more thankfulness. It can help us to receive God's graces instead of stumble over them.

One way to grow in awareness is to remember those graces already bestowed. A thoughtful reflection on my past can reveal that 6 extra hours in the Atlanta airport was a great opportunity to reconnect with friends from my past over the phone. It can reveal the strength gained from enduring and persevering through the many difficult moments in my life. A heartfelt reflection can demonstrate that every step of the way God has been with us, not to make our lives/histories perfect but to comfort us in times of sadness, encourage us in times of fear, accompany us in times of loneliness and clarify instances of doubt.

A true and honest celebration of our pasts can lead to a joyous engagement with our present and a hopeful anticipation of our futures. While no past is perfect it is filled, over-abundantly, with God's goodness. Celebrating who we have been can help us to embrace who we are as well as envision who we want to become. This, as the Nashville Dominicans taught me this past week (or actually re-taught, for I have stumbled over this grace at least once before), is a pathway not only to spiritual growth but success for any group, organization, or even individual.

It's a lesson that I hope I never forget.

Monday, June 21, 2010

All Things Work for Good for Those Who Love God

WARNING: Reading this blog may waste approximately 2 minutes, 55 seconds of your life.

In fact, if you just read that sentence (and this one) you will have potentially wasted about 10 - 15 seconds.

If you're still reading, thanks. I hope that either you have an extra 3 minutes to spend in any way you choose, or that you don't find reading this blog to be a waste of your time. If it's the latter, I know that your approach to what I write will have a much greater impact on the quality of time spent in reading than any eloquence in my words or profundity in my message. It's our attitude that will determine the worth of things.

Think about it this way: if you are optimistically reading this to get a message or an idea or an insight, chances are good that you will glean something that satisfies your appetite or at least satiates your hunger. On the other hand, skeptically reading this with the attitude that I will either dazzle you with poetic diction or bore you with verbose nonsense will most likely result in you wanting for more. Beauty is everywhere if you have the eyes to see it; unfortunately, so is ugliness.

Recently, I finished reading J.D. Salinger's famous story of teenage angst, "The Catcher in the Rye". As my wife Emily can attest, I was less than impressed. On more than one occasion she advised me to either stop reading it or to stop complaining about how much I disliked it. Much to her pleasure, I chose to read the final 100 pages without updating her on Holden's exploits, or lack thereof.

Would I read the book again? No. Am I glad that I read it? Of course. Not only am I glad that I read what is considered one of the greatest American novels (and despite my displeasure I can see why it is held in such high acclaim), I am glad that I finished something that I started.

No matter our situation in life, we can choose our attitudes. More often than not, our chosen attitude will bear fruit. I would bet that if you set out tomorrow to have the worst possible day, you would succeed. You could get in the wrong lane in traffic (or worse yet, the grocery store). You could get frustrated with others at work because they are not behaving as you want them to behave. You could be upset about your weight, or your clothes, or your job, or your house, or your life. Even in writing this I can feel my blood pressure rise. In reading, I bet yours is higher, too.

Or, we can choose to have a positive attitude. We can focus on those few extra minutes in the car to gather our thoughts (or pray!) prior to getting to work. We can recognize that our relationships with others are ways to grow closer to God and accept the challenges of being more patient, forgiving, understanding and loving. We can resolve to eat a little better/exercise a bit more. We can pare down our wardrobes to only those items we actually wear. We can recognize that having gainful employment and a roof over our heads are blessings. We can live each day as if it truly were a gift from God. (Feel any calmer?)

The choice is ours.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the main difference between optimists and pessimists is how they explain setbacks to themselves. Optimists see the setbacks as temporary, limited in effect, and have a clear understanding of their responsibility for or control over those setbacks. Pessimists, on the other hand, consider the setback to be permanent, far reaching, and entirely their own fault. The setback for the pessimist is debilitating; for the optimist it is merely a bump in the road.

Furthermore, Dr. Seligman concludes that optimistic people are more successful than pessimists. This, in turn, leads to either greater optimism (and success) or pessimism (and failure).

Whichever path we choose, optimism or pessimism, will ultimately become our reality. Therefore, we must choose wisely. We must choose to act instead of react. We must choose to become problem-solvers instead of problem-spotters. We must choose to become up-standers instead of by-standers. We must choose to achieve excellence instead of just accepting mediocrity.

As Christians we must choose to follow Christ up that hill, carrying our own cross, believing with the same fervor of St. Paul that "all things work for good for those who love God" (Romans 8: 28).

The choice is ours.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Sports & Spirituality: Updated and "Perfected"

A few weeks ago I wrote about my work on a presentation for the Diocese of St. Petersburg's Living Eucharist initiative in which I dealt with the connection between sports and spirituality.

For anyone interested, or in need of a good remedy for sleeplessness, you can listen to the audio of the presentation here: http://vimeo.com/12432593. You'll be able to hear my presentation from April 30, 2010 as the slides progress along with the audio. Luckily, the presentation isn't just me lecturing; there are clips from three different movies that help to illustrate the message and to keep you engaged (*just as a disclaimer, there are two "bad" words in the clips, so be mindful of little ears).

If you're still interested but would rather not spend over an hour listening to me ramble on, you can access the slides here: click for a link to PowerPoint slides.

Or, if you just want the abridged version, check out this story of Detroit Tigers' pitcher Armando Galarraga: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=5265148. An umpire's blown call on what should have been the final out of a game last week against the Indians cost Armando a perfect game and a chance to become the 21st player in MLB history to retire all 27 batters he faced. To put the magnitude of this near-feat into perspective, more people have orbited the moon than have pitched a perfect game in Major League Baseball.

And while Armando won't be remembered in the annals of Major League Baseball as the 21st player to be "perfect", Mr. Galarraga will be remembered instead for something even more impressive and unfortunately even rarer: being a perfect gentleman.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

5 Loaves and 2 Fish Are All We Have...

As I listened today to the proclamation of the Gospel according to Luke (Lk 9:11b-17 ) in which Jesus takes 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and feeds a crowd of 5,000, I couldn't help but think about just how incredible our God truly is. Even in preparing for today's Mass by reading the Gospel ahead of time, I was struck by the same thought-- our God is truly an awesome God. Jesus teaches us through this miracle that we can bring Him the equivalent of our "5 loaves and 2 fish" and He will turn it into something greater than we ever could have even imagined. If we commit the work of our hands, however feeble, to Jesus, He will take it and turn it into something life-giving, something miraculous, something that helps Him to establish His Kingdom here on earth.

This same multiplication of "food" happens every time Mass is celebrated. For as we offer up our gifts of bread and wine, we also offer up, in the words of Teilhard, our "labors" and our "pains" and place them on the altar along with the food, so that we, too, may be transformed into Christ's Body and Blood. Then nourished by his Body and Blood, and having become what we have received, we are sent forth to be Christ to others. But, we are not sent alone...God is with us.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, in his Prayer Before Serving Others, puts it this way:

This is what we are about: We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may not be complete, but it is a beginning, a step along with the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

As we prepare for the 2010 - 2011 school year, let us dedicate all of our efforts to God. From our teachers in preparing dynamic lessons, to our students working diligently in and out of the classroom, to our parents in their support of Incarnation Catholic School, let us pray that even though "5 loaves and 2 fish" are all we have, when we turn it over to the "master builder", it will prove to be more than enough.