Archive for February, 2009

Ashes to Ashes…

***In addition to my Ash Wednesday reflection below, here’s some beautiful thoughts written by my wonderful husband***

This essay started out as my own reflection on Lenten observance, but now that I’ve read my wife’s excellent post, I have reshaped some of the things I originally wrote.  Most of my best ideas spring from the conversations that we share, so it only seems natural to develop this post as an extended open conversation between us.
My wife and I have been trying to become more Sabbath-centered.  That is, we have been attempting to set aside a day for the Lord, to rest, to reconnect, to deepen our awareness of God’s presence in our lives, and to put ourselves in rhythm with God’s time.  As an extension of that Sabbath focus, we have also been thinking about Lent as a time to create a space for God. 
There is an elegance to the structure of Lent.  We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, when we bear the mark of the dust from which we were formed.  We end Lent at the cusp of Easter Sunday, dwelling in the mystery and awe of Christ’s Passion.  In between ,we set aside 40 days out of the year, and in so doing, we tithe our very lives.  The point of any tithe is a Biblical recognition of the sovereignty of God–a physical reminder that we do not possess what we hold and a tangible confession that God is the source of all things.  By tithing 40 days each year of our lives, we proclaim to God that our lives are not our own, that we belong solely to God and that we depend entirely on God.
How we choose to tithe our time is very important.  The two principles that should guide us are displacement and connection.  In Lent, we are invited to break the routine of our lives, to change our habits, to continually remind ourselves that this time is different.  But what we are really being asked to do is to take ourselves out of our comfort zones.  By displacing ourselves, we create opportunities to encounter God.  Just as Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, so too are we pulled by the Holy Spirit to a place that strips away all of the things we use to convince ourselves that we are safe and self-reliant.  
But how can we encounter God in that emptiness and displacement?  That is where the principle of connection should guide us.  So often, people focus on self-sacrifice during Lent, specifically physical denial: fasting, abstaining from certain foods, etc.  These things can only lead us to a true encounter with God if they take us outside of ourselves and connect us with others.  We should let our hunger from fasting put us in solidarity with the hungry of the world; our suffering should serve to open our eyes to the tremendous suffering of people everywhere; our self-denial should make us aware of the fact that we have the luxury of choosing to deny ourselves while so many others are denied the basic necessities of life.
Guided by these two principles, we should each pray and discern the best way to take ourselves out of our comfort zones and to reconnect with our brothers and sisters and with our God.  And remember that sacrifice is not the same as suffering.  Find something that makes you uncomfortable, while at the same time puts you in communion with others.  Use your imagination.  It can be taking on a new responsibilty or commitment that requires more of yourself than you would normally give.  If you have an extremely busy schedule, setting aside time for quiet prayer and contemplation may be the most difficult thing you can do; but it can be a unique opportunity for you to step into discomfort while making spiritual connections.  You can even deny yourself food or drink or cigarettes, but try to seek ways to connect–take on the added discomfort of calculating how much money you saved and donate it to a worthy cause; turn every hunger pang into a call to prayer and mindfulness; use your temporary discomfort to gain greater awareness of your blessings and your obligation towards those who are not similarly blessed.
The best thing that we can do in our Lenten observance is to use it to shape the rest of our lives.  In tithing one’s money or possessions, God is very clear that we are still expected to behave righteously and justly with the rest of it.  In the same way, we do not set aside the season of Lent only to do what we want with the rest of our year.  Rather, we must take the invitation of Lenten sacrifice and the reminder of God’s sovereignty as a guiding principle to the rest of our lives, and thank God for the blessing of an annual renewal.

Ash Wednesday

Sorry I have been MIA lately. It’s that point in the quarter again when things start getting hectic.

Just a few short thoughts about Ash Wednesday and Lent. You hear a lot around this time in the liturgical season about things you can “give up” for Lent–chocolate, coffee, alcohol, etc.  This is a practice that, for many of us, started when we were kids. And, as a child with a child’s spirituality, it was perfectly appropriate for me to give up candy for Lent. After all, it was a sacrifice, it was a daily reminder of the fact that it was Lent, and it helped me to be all the happier when Easter finally arrived and I could go face down into that hollow chocolate bunny.

But there’s something missing from this when it is viewed from a more mature spiritual standpoint. Namely, it’s all about me! Can I actually give up coffee this year for Lent? Won’t this be a great time to break my sugar addiction? Me, me, me. It contracts an adult’s spirituality, because even the best-intended sacrifices have a tendency to redirect the focus on oneself.

Pope John Paul II started encouraging people to do one nice thing a day for someone else during Lent, and I think that’s a good start for someone who is used to the “giving up” pattern of our childhood Lenten seasons. Why? Because contrary to the contraction described above, such a commitment can cause each of us to expand outward instead of contract inward.

Lenten practices don’t have to be painful or cause you to suffer. At their best, they can be practices that bring you closer to the potential with which God created you. For example, a fine Lenten practice for someone with a busy life and neglected marriage might be to commit to one date night a week. It’s something that requires an amount of discipline, but it brings your relationship closer to the blessed covenant that God created it to be in the first place. Or, for somebody that struggles with body image, it might be committing to saying once every day in the mirror, “Darn, you are sooooooo beautiful!” Get the idea?

Many people want their Lenten practices to remind them of Christ’s suffering. Okay, I get that. But why did Christ suffer for us? How can we better show our gratitude to such a salvific act than to align the faltering elements of our lives closer to God’s image? It’s our way of saying, “I realize what you did, Jesus–and I promise, it wasn’t for nothing.” It think that is a better attitude than to dwell on how much strife we can experience in 40 days.

School Update

I realize I haven’t written much about school lately, so I’ll give a quick update.

I just got through two midterms on Wednesday–killer! I had tests for Medieval/Reformation History and Pentateuch back-to-back, which equaled about 4 hours straight of writing essays. I don’t think I have had hand cramps like that in a loooooong time! Now, for the most part I am very pleased with my compressed school schedule, but I hadn’t thought of the testing part. I am really not looking forward to finals…not because of the studying, but because of the hand cramps!

My Greek midterm is on Monday, and I haven’t studied enough yet. Greek is getting really hard. It is a very complicated language! I am really beginning to understand and appreciate why there are so many translations of the Bible out there. The nuances and multiple meanings of words can really be confusing and often much is left up to the interpreter. On the other hand, it is SO cool to understand the passages in a new light; certain things that never made sense before are suddenly much clearer. Lately I’ve been trying to remember to take my Greek bible to Mass with me so I can try to follow along with the Gospel. I can usually identify about 60% of the words, which is pretty awesome, since I’m only 1/2 way through the 3 quarter class.

I’m considering lightening my course load down to 2 classes next quarter and beginning to write my first book. There are so many ideas and possibilities swimming around in my head, it’s hard to narrow it all down, but I think this first one will probably be covering a topic that I am pretty knowledgeable in–embodiment theology. But there are so many things I have learned since writing my masters’ thesis, that I probably won’t even pick it up unless it is to find books or quotes to reference. I think I need to start from scratch here. But we’ll see how it evolves.

Balancing school and home life is never easy, but I’m finding it easier this quarter than last. For the first time in my life, I am not obsessed with my grade in the class. I know I am intelligent, that I try hard, and that I do the work required. Why, then, do I need an “A” to prove to myself that I am worthy of the knowledge it imparts? I am starting to relax on that and really enjoy the material. In doing so, I’m finding that I am able to enjoy other things a lot more, like sewing, baking, and working out. Hopefully in the next few months I’ll start volunteering again, too.

Well, there’s the update. I’ll try to write more later in the week.

True Worth

It’s easy these days to get caught up in the doomsday lamenting about wall street and recession. It’s even easier to get overly anxious about where our money will come from, where it will go, and how we will keep that flow continuing. Yet I want to allow for a brief break from those fears and anxieties for a moment, and I want to consider some things that are of the most beautiful, true, and implicit value.

God made us to be in relationship and in community with one another. As such, we have a responsibility to nurture those within our community and to encourage them to fiulfill the potential with which God created them. I’m not necessarily talking about community in the context of one’s neighborhood or business relationships, although those may be included in an individual’s context. Rather, I’m talking about the people that are close to us, with whom we have developed a foundation of trust and appreciation. I’m talking about the ones with whom, when we agreed to the friendship, we made an unspoken commitment to help that person be the best person they can be. These can be people from relationships both past and present; in either case, the energy is still present in our personal history.

I was thinking the other day about some of the relationships that I have had that are no longer immediately active in my life, like my Jesuit friend who helped to preside at my wedding. The energy of that friendship lives on, and I lift him up in my prayers and keep him close to my heart, remembering the lessons I learned and swimming in the bittersweet nostalgia of days that will never come again.

Another friend comes to mind, one with whome I have years of friendship and whom I see very infrequently. Yet the love is still active and intense, and every time we see each other we are anxious to hear about what adventures the other has been experiencing.

And yet another part of this circle is present in my thoughts–the members of my family, both by blood and by marriage, that continually pour out their love for me in many spoken and unspoken ways. The energy from these relationships nourishes my soul and gives me wealth that could not lose value in any market or be bought out by any new company. These are the things that, without them, I would be a poor woman indeed.

I would encourage everyone, in the moments of anxious financial panic, to take a moment to breath and to consider the things of true value in one’s life. To think about which relationships truly give back….with interest, with perks, with value that is everlasting. To all of you who contribute to my enormous inner wealth, I give thanks for you this day…and hope that I will always be able to return on your investment.

The Value of Work

One of the themes we’re discussing in our social justice prayer group at the moment is the dignity of work and workers’ rights.  Yet this has also been a theme in my own mind lately–albeit with a slightly different perspective. I’ll explain more about my perspective in a second.

One of the things I have thought about as I read about the rights of the worker–much of which is part of the USCCB’s Economic Justice for All–I realized that I agreed with the message but not necessarily the method. Meaning, I think a big problem in theology today is the pushing of a specific theological agenda; the ethicists promote ethics, systematicians promote systematics, biblical scholars promote hermeneutics and critical method, and historians promote the historical perspective. Now, this all seems very practical and logical, until you get into the reality of our beautiful, dynamic, divinely inspired world. We can’t compartmentalize in this way, because everything is connected. Everything. You can’t study bible without studying history. You can’t understand history without understanding the systems that caused the events. Those systematically understood perspectives are of no practical use without some sort of ethical code guiding their application. Everything is connected.

How is this connected to workers’ rights? In my experience, too often the ethical and social justice perspective is emphasized without understanding the whole picture. If we don’t understand the larger, indirect systems that affect these issues, as well as our personal accountability in contributing to those systems, then the message of social justice is simply and exercise in ideological rhetoric. For example: Catholic social justice emphasizes the value of workers’ rights, because of both the dignity of the human being and the dignity of work. But how can American society conceptualize what the “dignity of work” truly means?  We live mostly off of conveniently produced and packaged goods, machines that do work for us so that we can “have more time,” and currently much of our youth is addicted to internet browsing and text messaging.  Many people don’t know the pride of using something made from the work of their own hands because some unknown person in a far-away factory has done it for them. I’m not saying that one type of work is better than another (i.e., accounting v. farming), but I do feel like many of the modern “conveniences” have contributed to a lack of knowledge or experience in learning many valuable skills and having important, fulfilling experiences with those skills. How many people have spent a few hours making their own clothing or baking their own bread? I’m not saying that everyone needs to make all of their own clothing, bake their own bread, or grow their own vegetables. That’s also not practical. But I am saying that having the experience of it, going through the time-consuming and labor-intensive process, gives a person a greater appreciation for that same good when someone else does the work for them.

Thus, if more people took the time to have these experiences (even once or twice), they would have a greater appreciation for the worker as well as understand the value of the work. This gives the larger population a deeper empathy for the circumstances of those workers, and also a larger emotional and spiritual investment in their well-being and just treatment.  I recognize there are and will always be people that won’t have this sense of compassion and connection, but I hold out hope that the majority of people would.

We can’t look at issues like justice from solely an ethical or political perspective. It has to be a holistic approach, one that gives the everyday person an opportunity for personal investment, experience, and connection.