Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas! God Bless Everyone!

Since I do not blog on Sundays, I will post a Christmas message tonight, Christmas eve. Plans? With all the kids having flown from the nest a decade ago, Donnie and I will be having our Christmas eve dinner at a local Chinese restaurant, run by Korean, prior to midnight Mass, which is at 10:30 this evening. (It finishes at midnight, so the name is not entirely misleading.)

As he does every year, Finnegan, our priest's cat, has wandered from the cold into the warmth of the manger. Both he, and Sula, are parish cat, take turns sleeping in the manger. Sometimes they share it.

Sharing warm Christmas wishes with all! May God bless each one of you tomorrow and all days of this happy season!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Two Anti-Hunger Websites for the Holidays

As the holidays -- and all the yummy treats that most of us will be eating -- approach, I wanted to share with readers of my blogs two wonderful sites that help those who may not be feeling full during the holidays, or any time during the year for that matter.

The first site, No Kid Hungry, is fledgling group with a good objective: www.nokidhungry.org. The leaders of the movement are asking visitors to their site to take a pledge to reach this goal by 2015.

The other site has been around for years (at least ten years) and does wonderful work: www.thehungersite.com, and I posted about it on H2Helper a while back. This site can be visited every day, and just by spending 2-3 minutes at the site, without any investment other than time, you can help feed hungry children worldwide, contribute to saving the rain forests, help autism research, promote literacy, support veterans, and help abandoned animals -- it is an amazing site.

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Prayer, Unexpressed

“Ask, and ye shall receive,” we are told. But so many times, I do not ask, yet receive. And many other times, I ask for a little (e.g., strength to bear pain from a medical problem) and receive a lot (e..g., medical problem removed). I wonder sometimes if God does not find joy in giving us more than we expect, anticipate, or deserve.

Recently, I had become concerned about my daughter Noelle’s apartment situation. She had clearly been being used by a so-called friend (we could not find any behavior that one would expect from a real friend) who decided to move in with her and refused to move out. The friend was not on the lease and did not pay any of the rent. She lived there for several months before the apartment manager noticed and told Noelle that the friend had to move out because Noelle was in violation of her lease.

Noelle seemed completely under the spell of this person and was about to get evicted from her handicapped-accessible, low-rent apartment. In the current economic climate, she would neither be able to find something similar nor would she be able to afford something different. Yet, she did not want to talk to Donnie and me about. She said she was independent and would do as she chose. We were further stymied because even the sheriff could not remove her friend without a lengthy process. Once the friend had lived there for a few weeks, she was considered a resident even though the apartment manager had told Noelle repeatedly that her friend had to leave. Truly a mess it was.

Then, the logjam broke. It could have been my telling Noelle that Donnie and I would not help her if she ended up on the street because the situation would have been of her own making. It could also have been the fear of ending up on the street although that had not come up earlier. In reality, I think it was my e-note to Noelle that if she ended up on the street, she might lose her kitty. I think protecting her kitty gave her the strength to stand up to her friend and tell her to leave.

But the friend refused to leave. Noelle contacted me. Donnie and I drove to Salts to be witnesses when Noelle gave her friend a written eviction notice. Explaining the contents, Noelle handed the note to her friend, who refused to look at it, knocking it to the floor, stating that she had no intention of reading the note and that we (Donnie and I) could just put ourselves outside the door; we were not wanted there. Noelle was nonplussed; being in a wheelchair, she could hardly physically eject her friend.

“You don’t have to read the letter,” I stepped up. “There are three witnesses here who are telling you the content, which says that you are required to leave immediately.”

She repeated that she had no intention of leaving, that she could not find another apartment to her liking, and she would be staying as long as she needed to. She raised her voice. Her chutzpah would astonish even the most brazen soul.

Noting to her that she had been given formal notice, we left, planning to call the apartment manager in the morning even though I was flying to the East Coast that day. We were concerned that the manager was getting ready to present an eviction notice to Noelle, and sometimes eviction notices cannot be repealed.

Noelle is an unconserved adult, so we had not been involved in her lease or any other aspect of her life except where requested. And we could not be involved with the apartment manager without her permission. Now we had her permission, and now we saw the whole picture.

As we exited the building, a man, identifying himself as Wentworth, approached us and asked if we were Noelle’s relatives. I have no idea how he put two and two together. We admitted the relationship. Then he told us that he was the assistant manager and lived in that same building. We told Noelle’s side of the story since, under the influence of her friend, Noelle had been incommunicado with anyone in management of the apartment complex. The manager was indeed preparing an eviction notice.

Now that the assistant manager knew the situation, he said the management would help get the friend out, including filing formal eviction papers on her behalf against the squatter. He made a copy of the note Noelle had given her friend, and then he called the police, who showed up right away. While the police could not remove the friend, they scared her.

Later that evening, Wentworth, who had taken our phone numbers, called me and told me that the friend had just left on her own volition. He said that all was back in order with Noelle’s lease, and that the management would keep an eye on Noelle for a while to make sure the friend did not sneak back in and try to browbeat her into letting her stay there. He commented before hanging up how “providential” it was that he had seen us and everything had worked out so easily. He also commented on how surprising God can be and how clearly God watches over Noelle.

That evening at Mass, a visiting priest told us in his homily that we all should ask for God’s help more often and not try to depend upon ourselves. Certainly, I would have prayed about the situation when I got home had I not received the phone call from Wentworth. However, I had not yet had a chance to ask when the actors and actions needed for resolution suddenly appeared on the scene. When you practice the Presence of God in the way of Br. Lawrence, sometimes God, always being with you, answers even before you ask!

(also posted on Clan of Mahlou)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Trust II

Recently in our prayer group, one of our members talked about some difficult times she and her family were facing, and she called it a "test" from God. We moved from there to similar kinds of issues in other members' families and then on to a discussion about my children, especially the three (two of my own and one who came and lived with us) who must deal with one or more birth defects (Noelle, Doah, Shura), along with my grandchildren who have also been affected by these family "gifts" (Nathaniel having been born with hydronephrosis and Nikolina with that, too, as well as OEIS Complex). It surprised me to learn that these people of God looked at my children and my family situation so differently from the way I look at it.

First, my children are not burdens. They are blessings.

Second, life with these children is not difficult although it is challenging. It is a constant opportunity to learn and to grow, including learning how to lean on God and others God sends, which, I believe, is something that God wants us to do.

Most important, in no way do I think that God is testing me or my family. Rather, I feel favored that God would trust me (of all people) with something so special. Likewise, I don't believe that my friends are experience a test from God. I believe that they are experiencing God's trusting them not only to cope with the difficult situations that they face but also to learn from them and to grow in faith (and yes, trust).

May God continue to bless all of us in this extraordinary way, and may we learn and grow and live up to His trust in us!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

I have no intention of spending Thanksgiving Day at a computer. In fact, I have all kinds of other plans, but I did want to wish all readers a happy -- and tasty -- day. As for me, I have a guest (friend) from Washington, DC, who has been here all week with me. Doah and I intend to attend the Thanksgiving Mass in the morning, then our whole family will go over to the community dinner that is sponsored by our parish. I think it is a bit unique. Every year the entire community (our town has only a little over 1000 people, including children) is invited to a free Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant-like building that our parish owns. Those who have cooking talent provide the food. Others serve or clean up. Since I have absolutely no cooking talent, my family and I serve on the clean-up crew. Every year hundreds eat for free -- rich and poor alike (and together). It is a great way to spend Thanksgiving!

However you spend your Thanksgiving, I hope it will be a day to remember and a day for which you find yourself grateful!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

If God Loves Me, Why Can't I Cook?

The following excerpt from my latest book, Believer in Waiting, seems quite appropriate on the day before Thanksgiving (when I will not be cooking but helping to clean up after a community dinner where my family and I will receive the benefits of those who can cook -- this is an event that takes place every year and is sponsored by our parish; it is for everyone, whether rich or poor, alone or endowed with many local family members and friends; it is a community event that all look forward to and to which each contributes in his or her own way by cooking, serving, or cleaning up).

Everyone knows that I cannot cook a decent meal. As for the rest of my homemaking skills, let us just say that my passing grade in Home Economics as a child was a gift from a teacher who liked me but not necessarily a reflection of my homemaking ability. I think she just did not want to ruin my straight-A average. Maybe she gave me the grade for effort rather than result.

When my kids were growing up, if I wanted to get them to do something, I would just have to threaten to cook dinner myself rather than their dad. Even as youngsters, they knew how to cook well. (Their spouses love that.) As an adult, Doah wrote a book with my help, an exercise in understanding and developing literacy. The topic of all the tales in the book is my sad lack of homemaking skills and the horrendous outcome of my attempts to use them. The stories are as true as they are hilarious. Why I got missed in the distribution of talents that most women have, I may never know.

Every once in a while, though, I try to remedy the situation—to no avail. On Donnie’s birthday recently, I decided to make him dinner, freeing him from that daily task. He protested, but then realized that this was going to be my gift to him so he let me try. I had purchased some fresh squid; they are easy to cook. A salad and some vegetables, rolls, desserts—voila! a great dinner! Except it was, following historic patterns, not edible. Donnie made himself a toasted cheese sandwich, and, as happens in such cases, I ate the inedible meal just to prove something. (Just what I am trying to prove in these cases, I am not sure.)
So, I ask, if God loves me, why can’t I cook? This question parallels the kinds of questions that my catechism kids ask: if God loves me, why can’t I do something I want to do, why don’t I get an A grade on my project or test, why can’t I have a specific gift or opportunity, i.e. why is life so tough sometimes? I love the book by Lorraine Peterson that attempts to answer this question: If God Loves Me, Why Can’t I Get My Locker Open? I recommend it to all parents, catechists, and teenagers.

In thinking about this question, a possible answer begins forming in my mind. I cannot do things perfectly because I am human, ordinary. Not everything I want will go my way because it should not go my way because I am human, ordinary, and need to grow and learn. I need to walk in the path of the cross because it is that path that brings a different kind of life, one that leads to resurrection, one that is pleasing to God.

And then the life of Jesus comes to mind. He did not choose to live an extraordinary life but an ordinary one although the way he lived it was extraordinary. If he had not lived an ordinary life, we would not have the wonderful example of how we, as ordinary, human beings, can and should live. He gave us the example of how to live the way God would have us live, how to be servants to those around us, how to improve life for others, and how to bear our cross, whatever that may be, with grace and trust. He gave us the answer to the question that my catechism kids ask.

Oh, yes, now I know the answer. Why can’t I get the locker open, cook a meal for my husband, receive only accolades, have no financial worries, birth only healthy children, etc.? I cannot do those things precisely because God does love me! Just like God loved Job. Just like God loved Jesus!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Poverty

At a retreat I attended last summer on St. Francis and Franciscanism, the question came up of the vow of poverty as taken by St. Francis and his followers. This is one of three vows that today's followers of St. Francis are asked to take, the others being a vow of charity and a vow of obedience. The Bible verse that came up was the following rather well known and often cited verse from Matthew (19:21), in which Jesus responds as follows to a wealthy young man who asks what he must do to be deserving of eternal life:
"Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
There were a number of wealthy people at the retreat. In fact, probably only those individuals with some money could have afforded to attend the retreat. This particular verse created some consternation with them until the priest who led the retreat interpreted the verse in a way that they found comfortable to accept, and one in which I have seen it interpreted on a number of occasions, a non-literal interpretation. To support the priest, here are a couple of other sources that use the same interpretation.
From the Corporation Sole: A person who has been initiated into a Religious Order may take a vow of poverty at any time during their membership in the Order. The vow of poverty is not to be interpreted as being for ever poor, but rather to sharing everything in common. Those who embrace a vow of poverty do not claim private ownership of any possessions: everything they have is used for the common good of the Religious Order.

From a Secular Franciscan website: Poverty was another thing that worried me when I was first discerning a call to the Franciscans. The example of Francis was one of total financial poverty... I later learned ... that one could live in spiritual poverty while being financially wealthy.
I did not say anything because my reaction was diametrically opposed to the interpretation of the others. After all, Matthew tells us that the young man went away sad "because he was wealthy." It seems, then, that perhaps a literal interpretation would not be inaccurate, and certainly St. Francis interpreted the passage literally. Yet, our retreat priest supported the view of the secular Franciscan above although it would have been interesting to see how he might have reacted to my experience for, you see, I have done this literally.

At the retreat, I said nothing, following my father's guidance that it is better to be silent and let people think you are a fool than open your mouth and prove it. So, I simply listened to the scads of people, most of the 60 there, who did have something to say, all of it along the lines that while St. Francis may have interpreted it literally, (1) we really cannot do so today and (2) the passage was never meant to be interpreted literally.

How sad, I thought, as I recalled my experiences with the literal interpretation and the intense pleasure and sheer joy that came from it.

A little over ten years ago my husband, Donnie, and I sold or gave away everything we owned. All our fledglings had grown up and in one fell swoop had flown from our nest to new nesting places of their own. Our 13-room house, with its suite of empty bedrooms, required dusting and cleaning for no occupants and with no extra hands to help. Further, I enjoyed little time at home because of an international consulting job that came me up in the air most of the time. If I were to have any income at all, I had to spend many days each month on a plane.

So, we decided to buy a fifth-wheeler RV and park it on a river in a wilderness area -- which brought us lots of excitement whenever the river flooded -- and planned to travel the country in between consulting jobs as soon as we could afford to buy a hauler for it. We never were able to buy that hauler, however; the kids always needed something, and we had old debts to pay. Three years later, when I was offered a job in Jordan, we gave the RV to a neighbor and moved to the Middle East.

In 2000, to return to my original story, we had 13 rooms of goods to unload. Nearly nothing would be needed for the RV -- just a few personal items, such as a minimum amount of clothes for work and play, and some work items, such as our two computers. That was it. There was room for nothing more.

So, we told our children that they could take whatever they wanted from the family heirlooms and any other treasure trove they saw lying around our large house, and they did. Surprisingly, there were no disagreements among them as to what each took.

Then I had to do something with my 5000 books (yes, I have typed the correct number of zeroes there). Being an academic at the time, I looked upon my books as my personal treasure. Letting go of them was particularly difficult. However, I ultimately found a very enjoyable way to do so. I contacted friends all over the world who ran libraries or training programs in need of books, offering the books for free if postage were reimbursed. My books went to programs as diverse as Harvard University and an English Teachers' Association in Uzbekistan. The rare books I had collected from Siberia I sent to the Slavic Library at the University of Illinois; books there do not circulate, and so I knew I would be able to visit my books again were I ever to need to use them (I have not had that need in the last ten years). With Lizzie being a graduate student there and my having led summer workshops there, finding my way onto campus and into the library would not be difficult.

We held a yard sale for the remaining items. Some sold; many did not. Then, we opened our house to a neighbor who collected items for the impoverished communities in the Philippines. He rented a large u-haul, and off went everything else!

It was quite a liberating experience, and we have not felt the need for "things" since. We took nothing except four suitcases to the Middle East -- mostly clothes and work equipment (especially Donnie's electronics). We brought nothing back from the Middle East when we returned to the USA in 2006 except for those same clothes and electronics. (Oh, and, of course, the cats that we rescued there.)

There is something magical about letting go of everything. Letting go and giving away worldly possessions creates a different and more important kind of wealth. That is what I think Jesus was telling the young man who, like many modern wealthy folks, just did not want to hear it. So, irregardless what the retreat priest told us, irregardless how some, perhaps most (?), secular Franciscans interpret the "vow of poverty," and irregardless of how anyone might prefer to treat Jesus's words metaphorically, like St. Francis, I plan to continue taking them literally.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Hugging God

A few nights ago, I was walking and talking with God when an overwhelming desire to hug God passed through me. Well, you know, we humans are physical beings, so why would we not want to have some kind of physical contact with the supernatural if we are programmed for physical contact with the natural? So, I expressed that desire: "I would really like to hug You!"

That Voice that I hear upon occasion responded in a surprising way: "Hug My people!"

Well, maybe, on second thought, that is not so surprising at all. After all, God is within each of us.

I think I will right away start doing a lot of hugging of God!

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God

Finally, A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God (available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online bookstores) is out. I held the first copy in my hand on September 30. Like Blest Atheist, it seemed to take twice as long to write as I thought it would, but it has been seriously redacted from manuscript days, and so I think the extra time was worthwhile.

Here is the publisher's description: A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God allows readers an entree into the world of what might be called a modern-day mystic, a world where spirituality, contemplation, hierophany, and miracles unite. Good, evil, suffering, darkness, unknowing, and the unconditional love of God are the leitmotifs that bind the author's experiences from the physical world to the spiritual realm.

Here is a part of the introduction that perhaps adds a little more information to the publisher's description: It is with some reluctance that I pen this book for I am certain there are readers who will consider my tales tall and my experiences outlandish. They sometimes seem that way to me, too. Yet, I must assume that if these kinds of things happen to me, then they probably also happen to other people, who may be even more reluctant than I to share them. I understand their reluctance. After all, William James called the great Catholic mystics psychopaths. What equally unpleasant labels might be applied to us lesser souls who today experience supernatural phenomena? Equally disturbing is the tendency of some fundamentalists to attribute all mysticism to evil spirits, which baffles me: if they consider demons capable of communicating with us directly, why would God not be able to do the same? Do they really consider God less powerful than Satan? "It is a terrible evil," says St. Teresa of Avila, "to doubt that God has the power to work in a way far beyond our understanding." Although often unbelievable to those who yearn for something that fits human reasoning, our relationship with God is a simple matter if we let God direct it.

As I did with Blest Atheist, I will post a few pertinent passages on my blogs from time to time. (A few, in draft form, have already appeared: see these posts.) I hope that you will enjoy them.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Obedience

I have written a number of posts here about taskings I have been given, and which I have followed through on. Usually, they require me to act like I am nuts (to those who don't believe in God or don't believe that God interacts with people today as God did in the past -- I don't believe that God has stopped talking to us but rather that we have stopped listening) or require me to do things that I find embarrassing, humiliating, and otherwise a tad troublesome. Of course, they are always the right thing to do, and they always focus on helping someone, righting a wrong, and the like. It is just that sometimes I wish God would choose someone else, partly because I am not obedient by nature and partly because, well, why would anyone want to go around making himself/herself sound like a modern-day Jeremiah (if only on a small scale)?

Interestingly, these taskings, to date, have always been things I am supposed to do. Until recently, that is. I have for a few weeks been trying to write a post for this blog about the Voice. Yes, of course, I have written many posts about the Voice. However, I have never sat down and described the Voice in detail the way St. Teresa did -- and maybe she described all that is needed to be described, but I really thought I had something to add to that description. However, each time I wrote a very nice (my opinion) post on the topic, I would hear God telling me: "Don't post it." I have tried 4-5 times, each time with the same message: dont, which is not a word I typically get, except in the case of not leaving my job for a better one. I don't know why I am not supposed to post it. After all, God let St. Teresa of Avila (big disappointment this week -- was in Madrid, Toledo, Alcala but could not get to Avila) write about the Voice in very specific ways. (Of course, there was St. John of the Cross hanging around, telling her not to pay much attention to her locutions, whose advice she did not heed in this case.)

It is all very confusing to me, yet very clear. I will not post or share my description because I am not supposed to. Perhaps because it will do some harm. Perhaps because I don't understand it as well as I think I do. (That happens a lot in life with a lot of things.) All I know is that when God says do something, I do try to do it (perhaps with less posh than someone else would do it, but it gets done). Now God is saying not to do it -- so I will not do it.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Contemplation VIII

An odd thing happened on a recent Saturday morning at a retreat I was attending. Following breakfast, I set off on a short multi-tasking walk, during which I caught up on incoming email and voice mail, there being no connectivity at the retreat center. (I like to think of this as less an addiction and more a life-sensitive triage -- after all, I answered only one urgent email and returned two phone calls -- but an honest self-examination might reveal a different reality.)

Then I returned to my room for a period of lectio divina and silent prayer. Opening the Bible haphazardly, I began to read the psalm I had opened to when I felt the Bible being gently pulled from my hands. I laid it on the floor beside me and immediately found myself enveloped within and without by the Presence in an all-consuming embrace that I believe is what the old mystics called union.

It was a brief encounter but, as always, powerful. It left me out of breath. I have overcome the urge to push away God's advance, and so I relaxed into it that morning, noticing only some difficulty in breathing, not an atypical reaction for me in cases of contemplative prayer and union, where I experience a re-awaking of the sense of a divine invasion that accompanied the hierophany that caused my conversion. I suppose it is still a bit of a fear reaction although of what there is to be afraid I have not the slightest idea.

From the pushaway to passive panicky breathing lies a significant distance trod in a relationship with God. Fortunately, God is also persistent in love. In sha allah, as the Arabs say, with time and more distance traveled together, I will develop the instinct to return the embrace. That is, after all, what I yearn to do.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Contemplation VII

Dark night or self-imposed dry spell? Sometimes it has been difficult to tell. I know there are times I throw up barriers because I sense a pending tasking that I do not want to do, am impatient for a fix that I think I can bring about rather than waiting upon God, worrying about something rather than letting go, or arrogantly thinking I may be important for some reason other than as a creation by God for God.

There has been one definite dark night that I passed through. Fortunately, I was able to recognize it for God prepared me for it by allowing me to support a friend through his dark night. I did not like my dark night on iota, but it was definitely a metanoic experience in which I learned the value of volition and belief.

Most recently, when I began again to experience a dry spell, I was once again emplacing barriers or experiencing the descent of another dark night. Either way, having arrived in Washington, DC after a short 5-hour red-eye trip and spending all day at the Pentagon in difficult meetings that ended in triumph for all present, followed by dinner with a colleague I had first met in Afghanistan, I was exhausted -- too exhausted for contemplative prayer (at least, for the lectio and meditation part). So, I flopped into bed with a cry into the desert, into which my prayers seemed to have been going as of late, asking God not to leave me in the desert but just to be with me for the night even if, perverse me, I felt too tired to communicate in any coherent -- or even nonverbal -- fashion. Suddenly, I felt encased in a warm, loving cocoon that I recognized as the Presence of God, snuggled in for the night, and opened my eyes, fully rested as the new morning light washed over me the next day.

The gift of that cocoon left me with gratitude enough to cover weeks (or more) of metaphysically sleeping on the desert if that is how it must be. Just as the setting sun is still in the heavens during the night, I know that God is with me in those (thankfully, few) moments when I do not feel His presence.

Perhaps I should not say "thankfully few" because those are the moments when God is trying to get me -- yes, perverse me -- to grow in faith. One day, perhaps, I will have gratitude even for the Absence, but I fear that is going to require considerably more maturation.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Branch and the Birds

My prayer group recently watched a movie that really inspired contemplation. In English (the movie is subtitled), the title is Of Gods and Men. (If you are interested, you can watch the trailer.) In French, the original language, which I read and understand, the title is "Des hommes et des dieux" (Of Men and Gods). For some reason, I like the original title better. It is one of those rare movies that when it is over, no one has anything to say. You simply sit, reflect, and then depart, left to your own contemplation. I met one member of our prayer group the following day at noon Mass (happened to have a day off for some reason I don't recall now), and she told me that she was still in contemplation as a result of the effect of the movie on her.

Here is the description of the movie from the Amazon website:
Loosely based on the life of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, from 1993 until their kidnapping in 1996, Of Gods and Men tells a story of eight French Christian monks who live in harmony with their Muslim brothers. When a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear sweeps through the region. The army offers them protection, but the monks refuse. Should they leave? Despite the growing menace in their midst, they slowly realize that they have no choice but to stay... come what may.
And here is a review that pretty much says all that I would say.

The monks at the Trappist monastery in Algeria seem almost to exist outside of time, so it may be a while before we recognize the 1990s as the setting for Of Gods and Men. And old traditions cannot escape new warfare in this stirring movie, based on a true story that happened at a remote enclave of peaceful, studious priests. These Christian monks minister to the largely Muslim (and very poor) villagers in their vicinity, a balance that is threatened by Algeria's Civil War. When nearby radical-Islamist insurgents begin killing foreigners, the monks must face a choice. Will they flee to safety--a perfectly rational and understandable decision that will leave the villagers without their only source of health care--or will they stay on, secure in their spiritual calling despite the possibility of abduction or murder? Director Xavier Beauvois makes an absorbing film from this question, and it's not at all difficult to understand why it became an unexpected box-office smash in France (and ended up winning the Cesar award for best film of 2010). The film is beautifully cast, and sometimes Beauvois simply trains his camera on the lined, weathered faces of his priests, as though allowing those lines to tell the story. Heading the cast is Lambert Wilson (of Matrix fame), who leads his men with an almost regal bearing, and veteran actor Michael Lonsdale, who quietly inhabits the role of the physician in the group. The film takes time out for quiet contemplation, as though understanding that the priests' suspenseful situation is only half the story. The wordless climax, which allows the men to be animated by the earthly pleasures of wine and Tchaikovsky, is something of a spiritual journey of acceptance all on its own. It's a moment you'll find very difficult to forget. --Robert Horton
The title of this post is in my opinion the core of the film's message. If you watch the movie or have watched it, you will see (or already know) the source of that phrase. I won't spoil it for anyone through explanation.

Enjoy!

Comments welcomed from those who have seen it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Tasked V, Moving on with Goliath

I have related through several posts the continuing saga of Goliath (see previous posts on Modern Mysticism or the story as a whole, including the paragraphs below, on 100th Lamb -- note that I may have changed some names between the posts on this blog and the chapter in the book, from which I took the story for 100th Lamb) and the spiritual warfare around him, including my being pulled into -- or, rather, pushed into by God. If the purpose of the task was to change Goliath’s behavior, apparently, it succeeded, no matter how poorly carried out, at least momentarily. Eduardo, who continued to attend team meetings, told me that the meetings improved and that Goliath is not the same person. Praise be to God if that is true!

In hearing Eduardo’s words, I felt a rush of love for Goliath and a great gratitude to God. I can lean on God, and I can learn to love those for whom I feel no natural affinity. And even if I fumble a task, God will use my efforts somehow to bring it to the desired closure.

One underestimates the tenacity of Satan, however, at one’s own risk. Our organization recently had a change in management, and, apparently feeling emboldened, Goliath reverted to his old ways. Satan seems to have gifted Goliath with the charism of deception so that those who do not know him well gravitate toward his dissemblance of meekness, allowing Satan’s purposes to be accomplished. Finally, I understand, at least in greater part, what is happening in our organization and why God pitted me (and, thankfully, a few other volunteers) against Goliath. There is a serious spiritual battle going on, not only among our local employees but also at higher levels of management. Satan is using Goliath as his local champion. Why? Because he can. Just as God can use me and others like me to combat Goliath.

I also understand now why God wants me to love Goliath. Goliath is not the evil one. Rather, he allows himself, likely unknowingly and, I would guess, not by desire, to be used by the Evil One. Clearly, loving Goliath and praying for him is critical to helping him loose himself from the bonds of Satan and to returning our organization to spiritual health.

I imagine our organization is not unique. Otherwise, I would have spent fewer pages relating the story of Goliath.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Bear Witness to the Light

One of the blogs on my blogroll has disappeared. Well, disappeared may be the wrong word. The blog is still there, but no posts have been posted in nearly two months. Fr. John Sullivan, Springfield, Massachusetts, posted regularly on his blog, Bear Witness to the Light. He was a kindly priest as I found out in his responses to my occasional comments. After a full month of seeing nothing posted, I became concerned. It did not seem that someone who had posted regularly for seven years would close down a blog without a word. One would expect to at least a final, good-bye post, but Fr. John's last blog was simply a routine post in keeping with his other posts. Something seemed wrong. No matter how I added two and two, I was not getting close to four.

So, I did a little research. After all, in a former life (uh, career), I was a pretty good academic. Therefore, I know how to research. So, off I went in search of one missing priest. And I found him, well, sort of. It turns out that Fr. John was injured by the tornado that flattened Springfield in June. He suffered a separated shoulder and broken leg and required surgery. He will be in a rehabilitation facility for a while.

In addition, St. Michael's Retired Priest Residence, where Fr. John was living, was damaged by the tornado. In fact, a good part of it was reduced to rubble. So, even when Fr. John is released to another residence, there is a likelihood that he will not have a computer for a while. (Of course, this is quite secondary to his health.)

I also tracked down an address where cards can be sent:

Fr. John Sullivan
St Michaels Cathedral Rectory
86 Wendover Rd
Springfield, MA 01118

So, if you happen to also be a reader of Fr. John's blog, you might want to send a card to him! I am going to try to send this information to all his followers -- if I can track down there email addresses. I ask you to pass along the information to any of his blog followers you might know.

Whether or not you know Fr. John, have interacted with him in the blogosphere or not, I would ask you to pray for him. I am sure he can use our prayers!

posted on all Mahlou blogs

Monday, July 4, 2011

Daily Life and Prayer Life: A Form of Schizophrenia?

How do others do it? Combine a life of prayer and a life of activity? They seem to be diametrically opposite ways of being. My day usually starts and ends with prayer, but often the start gets a bit squeezed, depending upon how late I am in getting up. Or, sometimes work gets a little squeezed when I arrive a little late because of becoming "stuck" in contemplative prayer before leaving the house. (Hey, it's a lot better than getting stuck in early morning traffic, which does not happen when I leave late because rush hour, such as we have it, is over.)

I suppose one can define prayer somewhat more broadly, along the lines of Br. Lawrence's definition, in which he did everything in his life as if doing it for God (as described in The Practice of the Presence of God). If only I could remember that when I am in the throes of some kind of intense discussion with employees insurrecting against one of my junior managers or when the new senior assistant to my boss's boss is pontificating in a (usually unsuccessful) attempt to demean me, something that does not work well with a farm girl who grew up on the boy's side of the playground, took on seven boys on the bus in the seventh grade and would have won had we not all been kicked off the bus as the fisticuffs were reaching their zenith, and served in the Army while it still belonged mainly to men. Fortunately, there are whole days when I do remember to do everything as if I were doing it for God. Those are usually good days.

When I remember to send a quick request for help and guidance in the midst of the chaos and trauma, things go much better. When I forget, I usually end up afterward saying, "Oops, God, sorry! Could you fix the mess I made?" I usually get that help, but it would be more efficacious were I to remember to ask in advance and not in retrospect!

Wednesdays and Fridays are better days. There is a daily Mass at the chapel near my office at noon. My secretary knows not to schedule anything at those times. Once I overheard her say to someone begging for an appointment at that time, all other times for the week already being filled, "No, she will not give up her time with God for time with anyone here -- and, trust me, you want it that way!" Hm, I guess there is some residual peace and "connection" when I return that people notice. Now, if only I had that option every day!

I have a little sticker on my computer. It says "PG." Many people think I love Pacific Grove, a small beach town near here, or think I live there. Actually, PG is a reminder to myself to "pray to God" before pushing the send button on any email. Often, I do remember. Other times I rush past even that sign and the little moment it takes to ask God for a second opinion about what I have written -- and then, sigh, I sometimes have to go in and push the "recall" button because I did need that second opinion.

What I yearn for, though, is that which I generally get only in the evening when, as the sun begins to set and the air cools off, I can work down our hill and stroll about our sleepy neighborhood (or around the mission grounds) in prayer or in contemplation. (I know: the recommendation for contemplation is to sit upright quietly, but sitting quietly is not something I know how to do, and I can certainly "be still" while walking, and I can certainly "listen" while walking. It's just my nature, and it does not matter if I am not following man's "rules" since I am doing what God put into me to do naturally.) I love the "being still" part in the breeze, in our little town's sleepiness, in the occasional call of a bird or hawk or dove or owl, in the fading light that is still there enough to guide my steps. I love the being with God part that has no real time limit because even if the light goes away, the Light is still there!

Then comes the next day, and I once again become a schizophrenic. The Russians have an interesting verb, the translation for which I do not know: slit'sya. It means something along the lines of two or more things flowing together, coalescing, become one new, combined thing. I am looking for the moment when there will be a "sliyanie" of my daily life and my prayer life, and I will no longer feel schizophrenic.

Suggestions always welcomed!

P.S. Happy Fourth! (No work today -- sliyanie!)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Weeping Icon

I have on one blog or another written about Shura, the talented but dying child artist from Siberia whom we took in 15 years in order to save his life. In both Blest Atheist and my forthcoming book, A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God, I relate the detailed story of Shura and a crazy number of miracles associated with the saving of his life. (You can read the details here: From Siberia to the California Coast Flew Wunderkind Shura.)

Shura's story took many twists and turns. However, we did erroneously think that the story was over when he survived all his surgeries and especially when a couple of years ago he returned to Russia. One of the key players in this story had been Max, the INS supervisor who helped us tremendously when it came to visa problems. We met Max when he coincidentally stopped by St. John's Orthodox Church in Washington DC when the priest included a moleibin (prayer service before surgery) for Shura during a feast day observation on a Tuesday evening when Max felt the need to attend Mass after work, the only time he had been at St. John's in a year because he had moved to Baltimore a year earlier and attended Mass there (and, as it turned out, he never returned after that evening, choosing to continue at his own church in Baltimore). Shura's story was not over because we did not know Max's story until barely a year ago. And so I add here -- and in my second book -- the fuller story of Max.

-----

Just when we thought we had completed the puzzle, the picture expanded. A few months after Shura returned to Russia, Nadezhda Long called me from Washington. She had been reading a newly published book and wanted to share a story from it with me.

“Beth, you are simply not going to believe this,” she bubbled over the phone. I wondered what could be so exciting that it caused her words to tumble out at a speed requiring concentrated listening. I was about to find out.

“Remember Max?” she asked.

Remember Max? Without Max, Shura would have long ago been shipped back to Russia, before his health had stabilized. Without Max, Shura might even be dead now. And, of course, who could not forget the oddity that Shura’s unannounced moleibin was the only Mass at St. John’s that Max had visited in the year since he had moved to Baltimore and, in fact, was the last Mass he ever attended at St. John’s. I mentioned all this to Nadezhda, commenting that his appearance that evening seemed nothing short of miraculous.

She cut me off. “Oh, we did not know but a small part of the significance of Max being there that night!” she exclaimed. Now she had my attention!

“Max is a convert to Orthodoxy from atheism, and his story is included in this book about a special icon.” Instantly, I liked Max even more. His story paralleled mine—but it did not. What Nadezhda then related to me left me without words.

“Years ago,” she said, “an icon that wept oil with healing powers was brought from Europe to the United States, where it was presented at a number of Orthodox congregations. Among these congregations was our church, St. John’s, and among the congregation was a blind boy, who had lost his eyesight to disease. When doctors could not help, his parents brought him to the icon in an attempt to try anything to help their child. When the icon passed by the boy, it began to weep oil. The priest placed the oil from the icon on the boy’s eyes, and the boy saw. From that day on, he was no longer blind. And from that day on, his parents, Max and his wife, having converted from atheism to Orthodoxy on the spot, have been devout worshippers.”

If there had been no icon miracle ten years before Shura was born, there could have been no miraculous appearance of Max on the night of Shura’s moleibin. When Nadezhda relayed the story to me, I had no words with which to respond. I still have none.

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excerpted from my forthcoming book, A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God

also posted on Clan of Mahlou

Monday, June 20, 2011

Danielle's Prayer

The “8-pack,” a moniker given to my seven younger siblings and me by my brother Rollie, suffered immense abuse during our childhood. My sister Katrina, in fact, never planned on growing up, certain that she would be killed by Ma before achieving adulthood. However amazing, we all did survive the extensive physical abuse (e.g., being stabbed, thrown into walls, kicked into unconsciousness, pulled down flights of stairs by the hair, and much more), emotional abuse (e.g., being negatively compared with each other, denigrated at every opportunity, and, in one instance, forced to sit on the stairs for hours, expecting to be deliberately set on fire at any moment), and sexual abuse (various male relatives had their way with both the boys and the girls). We had each other for support: the 8-pack was very important to all of us in an age when neighbors and teachers looked the other way. Remarkably, contrary to what most of today's psychologists would expect, we reached adulthood without any lasting evidence of physical abuse or any significant emotional scars.

After coming to faith, I commented to God, “If only You had been with me during those earlier, difficult days, how much easier it would have been.” To that, a quiet, impressive Voice that still startles me when I hear it, responded “I was with you.” Had I only known!

That interchange reminds me of the experience of St. Anthony, the third-century desert father. As described in The Life of Anthony of Egypt by St. Athanasius, St. Anthony once hid in a cave to escape demons. The demons reached him anyway and seemed to have beaten him to death. His servant brought him out from the cave, and the other hermits prepared to mourn his passing when he unexpectedly revived and demanded that his servant return him to the cave. There he called out to the demons, who returned to attack him. This time, they were stopped by a bright light which Anthony knew to be the presence of God.

“Where were You before,” asked St. Anthony, “when the demons were beating me so badly?”

“I was here,” God replied. “I wanted to wait and see how well you fought for yourself.”

Telling this to my sister Danielle as we walked about the moon-flooded Maine woods one night while visiting my brother Keith, I remarked that I found it unfathomable as to why we would be so protected by God. One can find any number of stories about children who did not survive abuse. Why should we receive special treatment? She looked at me curiously and said, "I thought you knew."

"Knew what?" I asked.

"What all the rest of the 8-pack knew."

"What??"

"The very first thing I remember in my entire life—I think I was only two or three years old—was realizing what a predicament we were in, and I said a prayer: ‘Dear God, Dad is gone all the time, and Ma is a child. So, would You please raise us?’"

It took more than fifty years for me to learn about that prayer. Upon reflection, I believe that neither my siblings nor I were ever far from God’s sight, protection, intentions for our lives, or even the tendency to use us to help others. That could only have been the case if God had answered the prayer of a precocious toddler.

Why would I think that God answered that prayer? Because I am alive today, having survived a dangerously abusive childhood. Because my children are alive today in spite of two having been born with multiple birth defects so severe that doctors gave them little hope for survival, let alone the cheerful lives that they now lead. Because I have been chronically happy all my life when a person not protected by God might have attempted suicide. Because I am incurably optimistic even though I endured years of poverty and seven clinical deaths of my children. Because I can see where my siblings and I have been used for improving human conditions and helping people in ways that we could not have accomplished alone. And maybe mostly because I don’t know where the parachute has always come from when I have been in the process of falling off a cliff if it has not been being held out to me by God. I have always taken the parachute. I never used to say thank you because I did not think that there was Anyone to thank. At the same time, I never questioned that there would be a parachute if I needed it. It would appear that I had a tacit relationship with God on a subconscious level while totally oblivious to any sense of God in the conscious world.

___________

excerpted from my forthcoming book, A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Compassion

In April 2010, the most unlikely of God's people taught me yet another lesson. At that time, the Eyjafjallajokull volvano in Iceland erupted, making travel to and through Europe difficult: long lines, canceled flights, re-routed planes. It was a good time to curtail one's travel, but I could not do that. Neither could many other people, and so at airports one found impatience and irritation rampant.

I quickly ran into these emotions myself. Well, honestly speaking, I fell captive to them when the first leg of a series of flights I was scheduled on was re-routed after we had already boarded. Everyone had to be rescheduled. Most of us were making connections that we would miss, so the line was long and slow, a couple of hours slow.

A Vietnamese couple in line several people behind me kept pushing, trying to get ahead of those in front of them. How not American, I thought, determined to make them take their turn in accordance with my American sense of proper behavior.
There were three of them, actually: the elderly couple and a young woman, whom I assumed to be their granddaughter. They chatted away in an Asian language that I did not recognize but later learned was Vietnamese.

As they pushed forward, the elderly man actually elbowed me aside, trying to slide around me as the line began to inch around the twists and turns leading to the ticket counter. I had watched him use this maneuver to leapfrog successfully in front of about a dozen people, one at a time. Now I separated him from his wife and the young woman, and, having stood in line for close to 90 minutes already, knowing that each passing minute lowered the chances of finding a flight that would allow me to reconnect to my other legs, I was decidedly impatient with the process and irritated with someone who felt he deserved to go first. (Of course, I did realize that this was simply his culture; he probably had no idea how Americans, who are raised to take turns, are annoyed by what would be a normal jockeying for position in his own land.) Still, having spent time in countries where one must jockey for position or never make it to the counter, I was determined to hold my own place and did, continuing to separate him from the two who were with him.

Feeling uncomfortable about the whole situation, I did what extroverts always do. I struck up a conversation. The elderly couple did not speak English. However, Twi, the young woman, who, it turns out was not their granddaughter but just another line-stander, did speak English, albeit almost unintelligibly. She spoke to the couple in Vietnamese and to me in bad English, and slowly a picture of each other emerged.

The elderly couple stopped pushing. The four of us were now a group and could proceed through the line together until we were separated into two groups at the ticket counter. The elderly couple took the first open ticket agent. Twi, who had asked me to interpret for her, and I took the second. It is not the first time that someone whose language I do not speak has asked me to interpret. You see, if you work with foreigners frequently, you learn how to speak broken English in a way that they can understand when they cannot understand grammatically correct and well enunciated English. You also learn how to understand what they are trying to say when they know only 1-2 words out of the dozen that they need. So, I interpreted for Twi and successfully arranged her new flight for late afternoon. Since she would have a 6-hour wait, she called her husband to meet for lunch. He would meet her at the baggage claim, where all our bags had been sent.

As for me, I had to go pick up my bag, as well, because my new flight was leaving from another terminal. San Jose Airport is easy to navigate, but Twi was new both to the airport and to the English language, so I offered to walk her over to the baggage claim area and get her on the right curb to meet her husband. After that, I could catch the bus to the other terminal.

As we left the ticket counter, I saw the elderly couple standing by, looking confused. They had just received their new tickets but clearly had not understood anything about what their next step should be. I looked at their tickets; they were on my flight. Twi explained to them that they would have to get their luggage and take a bus to the other terminal. They panicked until they understood that I was on their flight and would accompany them the whole way.

Having crossed the overpass, obtained our luggage, and dropped Twi at the right curb, the couple and I were ready to clamber on the shuttle bus. I stepped up first and threw my bag onto the shelving. Then, I noticed the elderly, stereotypically small, Asian man struggling to lift two large bags. Equally small but a farm-raised girl with eight years of military duty under her belt, today I can lift and swing heavy suitcases much the same way as I used to lift and swing bales of hay. I hopped back out, grabbed the two suitcases and swung them onto the rack.

We stayed together, minimally communicating, given the lack of a common language, until flight time. They got off first in Phoenix, my first layover and an airport I know well. They were muddling through an interpretation of the airport signs when I disembarked, being rewarded with a second chance to help them.

I understand the lesson God wanted me to learn that day: be kind, be helpful, avoid irritation and impatience as unrewarding traits. In the process, I was given a chance to become acquainted with two people who otherwise would have been only faces in a crowd. How interesting that once we know someone, our attitude dramatically changes for the better. As for them, they were very grateful. “Thank you” was the one American expression they did know, and they used it over and over. In spite of the aggravation of disrupted travel, I arrived cheerful, thanks to two people I did not know and whose language I did not speak.

Now, when faced with long lines at the airport, as happens more frequently than not, I try to remember this lesson. I have often been the recipient of the kindness of strangers when I travel. I like it when the shoe is on the other foot, when I can be the stranger who shows kindness. At the end of the day, we are all God's children; we should work together and play together in ways that demonstrate that we know this.

(Excerpted from my forthcoming book, Believer in Waiting.)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Coincidence

The question of coincidence versus divine intervention is one I find intriguing. Once, in discussing some of the serendipitous events in my life as likely divine interventions, a priest asked me, “Don’t you believe in coincidence?”

“Of course, I believe in coincidence,” I responded, “But when coincidence piles up upon coincidence and all the coincidences have a uniform objective and impeccable timing, I have to ask whether perhaps something other than coincidence is involved.”
Jung, in his book, Synchronicity, describes life as flowing in streams. These streams often bring together events that are not cause-and-effect yet co-occur in meaningful ways even though the likelihood of the co-occurrence is low to nil. Jung defined synchronicity, which he placed on the far end of a cauasality-synchronicty axis, as “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events.” He attributes such acausal connectivity to a larger framework of human ideas that he labels the collective unconscious.

I do not deny simple coincidence or serendipity. Neither do I deny the more elaborate kind of coincidence subsumed in the concept of synchronicity. However, there are serendipities, coincidences, and synchronicities that seem more readily explained by divine plan or divine intervention because of the need for all the players to be in the right places at the right times either for a one-time event or over a long history. While it may never be possible to win the argument of coincidence versus divine intervention or even to know for certain to which to attribute a specific event, when the timing is absolutely impeccable, I am drawn toward seeing God’s involvement. After all, there is that saying that coincidences are simply those times when God chooses to remain anonymous. As for that “collective unconscious,” it just might have another label: God.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Confession III

This week, I have stumbled over a post on Fr. Charles's blog, A Minor Friar, that just begs to be shared. The post is on confession of priests, and is wondrously written. The title of the post is simply "Priests at Confession." So that I do not spoil the reading of it for you, I suggest that you just click on the link I have provided and read it in the original for yourself. I am certain that you will enjoy it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Contemplation VI

I marvel at how contemplation, practiced faithfully, can become routine. It used to be that each morning I would try to remain is a state of quiet prayer for 20-30 minutes before going to work. The hardest part was leaving that perfect moment to go busily about preparing to depart for work.

Not that God wasn't with me in the preparation. Of course, God was, and I felt God’s presence. It was just somehow different and somewhat less satisfying than spending lazy minutes together with God. Being lazy with God is my favorite activity, yet one that I found myself doing less often than I would like.
So, every morning for a while I would try to allow enough time between waking and leaving to begin my day being lazy with God, and every evening before returning I would do the same. Day after day, even when traveling, although I have to admit that, especially when in travel status, there were days I would miss. ("Miss" I mean in all senses of that word.)

Then something extraordinary happened. I don't know when the change came. I just noticed that it had. I no longer had to plan this time or to remind myself to take the time. It just happened. It had become habit. At least, that's what my detail-oblivious mind first thought. Then I paid closer attention to what was happening.
The contemplative periods had moved away from my control. They were more than habitualized, autonomous responses to the ticking of a clock or the perception of a biorhythm. They were—and are—out of my control and under the control of God. I began waking up a half-hour or more before the alarm in a contemplative state, in the presence of God, and I had no real idea how long we had been being lazy together as morning took over what might have been an all-night joint adventure for I do not remember my dreams.

I know the common wisdom is to practice contemplation sitting in a chair so as not to fall asleep, but since I can fall asleep in any position, even standing, if tired, that advice helps me little. So, I go to bed while not tired so that I can spend time in contemplation and then fall asleep in the arms of God. I like to think those arms hold me all night and gently rock me awake in the morning to the joy of being in the presence of God. What remarkable patience, what incredible love!
Whatever the explanation—I don't need to know why things happen anymore—such a marvelous beginning to the day brings light and happiness to the rest of my day. That continues until some highly stressful, distressing event over which I have no control sends me to the nearest prayer place, i.e. any place I can be alone again with God.

This condition I find myself in, this walking with God, relaxing with God, and desperately looking for God when I stray, became clear to me during a recent retreat. We were given specific instructions and time for contemplation, early morning and late evening not being among them, but God maintained the routine, greeting me in the morning and tucking me into bed at night. How much more blessed can anyone be, I wonder with gratitude so deep I don't know how to express it. The thing that makes the gratitude even sweeter and deeper is that I don't have to know how to express it. I don't have to be able to find all the right words and actions. God knows fully that which I can express only in part. Ah, yes, that is how much more one can be blessed. God's blessings are depthless, boundless, and, oh, so fortunately, endless. And they do not even have to be deserved.

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Excerpted from my forthcoming book, A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Tasked IV

It has been while since I have posted anything about Goliath. In fact, gulp!, it has been a considerable amount of time since I have posted anything at all. First, I had to wait three months for my computer to be restored to me (well, a new one provided) and then, for Lent, I reduced my Internet time, which was further restricted by quite a bit of travel to places I do not even remember without concentration (Hawaii, Qatar, Korea, North Carolina, maybe others that have slipped my mind). In any event, I am glad to be Internet-operational again, and I am happy to follow up on my posts about Goliath.

After making Goliath aware of God's message: "Let Goliath know he cannot treat My people this way," I stopped attending formation meetings by agreement with the SFO Council. So did E, who had also felt the spiritual negativity that I and others had. Then, as his term ran out, Goliath decided not to run again for formation director although I learned from those who had stayed in formation that Goliath had indeed taken God's words to heart and had changed his ways.

"So, now what?" I asked God, expecting to be told something about whether I should return to formation with a new formation director. But nothing of the sort is what I heard. (I suppose I am on my own to make the decision about returning to formation -- and I do plan to return because it makes sense to do so, now that the director is experienced and a good example of conversion and spirituality.)

Instead of getting direction about formation, what I got was a new task: "Love Goliath!"

Huh? Love someone I just spent several months "fighting" in order to bring God's message to him? Love someone who had spiritually abused those in his charge? Love someone who had stopped speaking to me and had, unsuccessfully, led a charge against me with the help of regional officials, whose help he enlisted through manipulation of information and outright lies?

Well, if told to love Goliath, then love Goliath is what I need to do. At the last several meetings, I have made a conscious effort to speak to Goliath about anything positive I could find to mention, to address him warmly, and give him hello and good-bye hugs. Funny thing about trying to love someone -- it works! (Of course, it helps that he has indeed changed his attitude after being given God's message; I suppose being told "God says that you are not to treat His people this way" would cause anyone to think twice.)

Now I have begun to have very warm feelings toward Goliath. Just in time, too. Goliath has thought about leaving the organization. From what the Council can tell, he feels embarrassed about what happened and how everything turned out and wants to avoid those he believes think poorly about him. A couple of the officers actually made the comment, "good riddance, if he leaves; he has brought this organization little more than trouble and anxiety."

I found myself in the rather odd position of arguing that he is as much a valued member as anyone else, that he needs our support now, that we must let him know that he is loved and accepted (ironically, the two things he could not do for the fiscally poorer members of his formation group). I convinced the Council to work on getting him to stay and providing positive feedback to him.

Oh, how strange are the ways of God! How unpredictable! As the scripture says, how far above our thinking is God's thinking! And how breathtaking it is to be touched even by a small part of it all!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Humility VIII

I have wanted to share the result of my brush with blackmail at the end of last week. I thank readers who commented on the situation; the comments helped to clarify my thinking. In the end, though, it was not my thinking that mattered. The ending was extraordinary, another example of God spoiling me.


Realizing my mistake (thinking that I did not need God's help for such a little task as informing an employee that he would be transferred), over the weekend I asked God to guide me in the decision whether or not to prosecute the employee for blackmail. I felt no guidance all weekend. On Sunday, I missed the morning Mass. Doah had wanted to go with me but did not call until too late. By the time he called, it was too late even for the noon Spanish Mass. However, there was an evening Mass in a church in the town where he lives. So, we made arrangements to go there.

When I entered the church with Doah, I was hoping that God would use something in the readings, music, or homily to provide guidance because I certainly would have to make a decision on Monday. It was more a matter of expectant waiting and not stress. I long ago learned that once I give a problem to God, I don't have to worry about it anymore.

Nothing in the readings or music provided any help with my difficult decision. So, I settled in to listen carefully to the homily. It was short, but good -- and had nothing to do with my situation. The homily was short because the priest could barely speak. He had spent a year at home in Colombia. (No, this is not Padre Julio, for those of you who recognize that name; Padre Julio has been assigned to a parish in San Diego.) While there he caught bronchial pneumonia, was hospitalized, then put on long-term bed rest at home. As a result, he had returned two months late to the parish in Doah's town. Although regularly taking antibiotics, he still suffered from bronchitis.

How fortunate that I was there, I thought. I suffered for decades from bronchitis, including four bouts of bronchial pneumonia with hospitalizations. No American doctor could cure me, and in 1993, when I was lecturing in Siberia, I spent as much time coughing as talking.

"Why are you coughing so much?" asked the regional minister of education who had invited me there to lecture to university administrators.

"Oh, I have bronchitis," I answered.

"Why do you still have bronchitis?" she asked. "You have been here four days already." Now that was a strange question and comment.

"I have had bronchitis for 18 months," I explained, puzzling over her question. "I have no cilia in my bronchi tubes because of many bouts of bronchial pneumonia, so colds turn immediately into bronchitis. I have it every year for many weeks."

"No, no, no," she remonstrated. "Bronchitis should not last more than three days. No one in Siberia has bronchitis for more than three days. So, American doctors don't know how to cure bronchitis? Our doctors do. You will go see our doctor when you finish your lecture."

True to her word, she led me, protesting in vain, to the doctor after the lecture ended. The doctor checked me out and confirmed the diagnosis from the States: bronchitis.

"You must come to the clinic every day for three days," he told me. "After that, your bronchitis will be gone. Please don't skip a day; it is important that we clear up this condition."

Three days? Entirely skeptical and not one bit hopeful for any amelioration of my condition, I dutifully followed the doctor into the respiratory therapy room. There he turned me over to a nurse, who gave me a hand-held device that emitted a cold, thick vapor. Ingalatsiya efkalitom (eucalyptus inhalation therapy) had been ordered for me. For 15 minutes, I slowly breathed in and out the cold vapor and noticed that during the therapy session I did not feel any need to cough.

My cough, in a milder form, did return in a few hours. Nonetheless, I returned the next day hopeful and no longer entirely skeptical. The nurse recognized me. Ingalatsiya efkaliptom, she said, handing me the inhaler that I now knew how to use.

After 15 minutes, I returned the device to her, thanked her, and left -- feeling no need to cough. It was not until the next day that I felt a need to cough once or twice. Amazing! I seemed to have licked the coughing. With one day of therapy left, after the morning lecture, which I got through without coughing once -- something I had not been able to do in 18 months -- I headed off to see my respiratory therapy nurse with alacrity. I took the device and, convinced now of its merits, deeply breathed in the vapor for 15 minutes. Done, I handed the device back to the nurse and left the clinic for the last time. That was in November 1993. I have never had bronchitis since. Certainly, I suffer from time to time from colds that would like to slide down past my cilia and develop into bronchitis, but, having learned the Siberians' secret, I pull out a bottle of eucalyptus oil and sniff it the minute I feel a cough coming on. Generally, it takes only 2-3 uses over a morning or an afternoon, and the bronchitis germs scamper off. I have given away my bottle of eucalyptus oil on many occasions. Each time, the recipient has related a story similar to mine: bronchitis gone in less than a day.

Once, I observed one of our secretaries taking antiobiotics upon her return from a two-week illness. "What are the antiobiotics for?" I asked her.

"Bronchitis," she said. "I have been fighting it for more than two weeks."

"No, no, no," I remonstrated, just like the Siberian minister of education 17 years earlier. "Bronchitis should not last more than three days." I handed her a bottle of eucalpytus oil, instructing her to sniff it whenever she felt a cough coming on. (Lacking the Siberian inhalation devices, sniffing is the closest I can come to emulating the Siberian natural cure. It works.)

Near the end of the day, I checked on the secretary. "How are you doing" I asked.

"I have not coughed all afternoon," she said. "It's like this stuff cured me instantly. Amazing!"

So, after Mass on Sunday, I stood at the very end of the line so that I could share the Siberian remedy for bronchitis with the priest. "I don't come to your church," I told him. "I attend Mass in San Ignatio, but today I missed Mass there so decided to come here with my son." Doah shook the priest's hand. "I think I was supposed to be here today," I explained, telling him my history and suggesting that he try eucalyptus oil.

He thanked me and assured me that he would do so. I am certain that he will, and I cannot imagine any result other than his bronchitis disappearing quickly. I suppose if that happens (or, I should say, when that happens), he may think that I was some kind of angel sent his way -- just once -- to help with a just-once need for a cure to a troubling and uncomfortable medical problem.

AsI left the church, I thought of the irony: I came for an answer, and instead, I gave an answer to a priest in need. Then it hit me. Wham! That was my answer. Sometimes God's answers are too brilliant, too out-of-the-box, too perfect for my imperfect mind to recognize them immediately. I was looking for an answer to the question, do I prosecute or not? God re-framed the question for me. It was not a question of whether or not to prosecute. It was not a question about what I should do. In fact, I had been looking at the problem upside-down all along. The problem was not about me. The problem was about the employee. I made the connection when I realized that my attendance at Mass was not for my good; it was for the good of the priest. There was my answer: stop looking at me as the central player, at what I should do, at how I was affected, and what I was feeling. Look, instead, at the employee, what motivated him, how he was affected, and what he was feeling. How much above our thinking is God's, as the psalm says! When I realized that, I knew what the next step had to be, and I knew I would, with God's help, be able to share God's grace and love with the employee when I next met with him.

As soon as I arrived at work, I called the human resources officer. No answer. So I sent an enote. Subject line: Occurrence of a felony in Division C. In the body of the message, I wrote: "If I have successfully gotten your attention, please call me." I had. She called me within minutes. I explained what had happened and what I wanted to do about it. She liked the approach.

After lunch, the human resources officer came to my office, read the contents, and confirmed that they contained nothing that could get me into any kind of trouble. I had the employee's supervisor send him to me. I welcomed him, as if nothing had happened, talked to him about a few routine matters, then asked him to sit down. At that point, I pulled out the envelope with the condemning file.

"Is this the envelope you gave to my secretary on Friday?" I asked. He confirmed that it was.

"Is this the negative 'documentation' that you told me you had on me when your supervisors and I met with you on Friday?" I asked. Again, he confirmed that it was.

"Did you hope by means of this document to get me to change my position on your transfer?" I asked. He was quiet, unsure of how to answer, clearly worried about what lay behind this line of questioning. His eyes looked for a place to hide, but there was none. I was looking directly at him, and so was the human resource officer.

"Let me share with you my perception of this," I said and went on to talk about the seriousness of blackmail, informing him that, since I hold a high-level security clearance, I cannot allow myself to be blackmailed, no matter what the nature of the documentation, without potentially losing the clearance.

"You have put me in a very difficult position," I added. Then I showed him the legal definition of blackmail, which he could see for himself pretty much described what he had done. I also gave him a printout of the legal codes (US and California penal code) that listed blackmail as a felony and the punishment as imprisonment and heavy fine. From his expression, I realized that he had not known that he was committing a felony.

"I would like to know why you did this," I said in a questioning tone, one that I hoped would come across as interested and caring, not accusatory, because I was, indeed, interested in knowing his motivation, especially if my perception was not the actual motivation.

He melted and asked if he could talk to me privately. The human resource person would not allow that, interjecting, "It is too late for that. The minute I leave this office, this becomes an official investigation, and she may not discuss this with you again. If you have something to say, you need to say it now."

He hesitated, then broke down. He had felt singled out by the transfer. Something I had said during the meeting had made him feel that I did not respect him. Most important, the document he had given me, in his opinion, showed that I had favored one particular employee, and he felt that was unfair. With the human resource officer concurring with my sharing the information and confirming what I said, I told him that the employee he considered favored had received one of the lowest ratings in the department and had received more disciplinary actions than anyone else, which is the reason he had left the department -- four years earlier.

There was one more question in my mind. "You accidentally found this file four years ago," I said to the employee. "Clearly, you have kept it for four years. Why? Do you really mistrust me so much that you felt the need to save something that might some day help you defend yourself?"

"No," the employee responded quietly, and then astonished me with his answer. "I was not looking to defend myself. I was not looking to make you do anything at all. Or to stop you from doing something. My feelings were hurt. You did not care enough about me to let me stay here in this department that I love, where my heart is, and, from what I could read in this file, I really did believe that you liked this other employee much more than me. I gave you the document to get you to think about whether you were really being fair."

The human resource officer stepped in at that point and iterated that every employee in the division who could not travel had been reassigned. Everyone was being treated the same. It was surely something that the employee needed to hear. What he wanted to hear, I was certain, was something else.

"I know your heart is here," I affirmed. "Unfortunately, your body has to be somewhere else. Both you and I know that your health will not permit you to travel. If I put you on a plane, I could be killing you." He admitted that I was right on both counts.

At the end, we agreed that he would accept the transfer. We also agreed that he would erase the file from his computer. We shook hands on it. He told me as well that he had made only the one printout that he had given me. I told him that I believed him, and that since we had shaken hands, I accepted his word as complete evidence that the problem was resolved and the file would be erased, that I had no intention of double-checking or of investigating further. At the point, the human resource officer returned the envelope to me, and both she and the employee left, in different directions.

I am confident that the matter is resolved. The employee is a Middle Easterner, and Middle Easterners prize being known as honoring their word.

I am thankful that this situation had a happy ending. I am grateful to God for once again spoiling me and taking care of my problem so easily. I am also grateful for the lesson learned: arrogance got me into the mess, humility got me out of it. If I can just remember to stick with humility only, I just might avoid most such messes in the future.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Humility VII

Just when I begin to take God at work for granted and, even worse, begin to think that I myself am contributing to the harmonious work climate, God shows me who really is in charge of my office -- and it is not me. Those reminders always vividly, even dramatically, take me aback.

On Thursday, I had to transfer an employee to another directorate. Since most employees do not want to transfer out of my division (this is a good thing), I usually am the one to deliver them the bad news. Most express concern. Some express resistance, but, of course, must accept the transfer because the good of the organization is the factor that weighs the strongest. Health is the most frequent reason for transferring individuals out of my division since all my employees must be able to travel internationally.

So, given a situation where an employee had developed some serious health problems, the program manager had made the decision to transfer him to a division doing similar work but not requiring travel. This looked to be an open-and-shut case. The employee did not want to travel and would not sign the annual paperwork, agreeing to travel. No need to pray about this one! Piece of cake! When I met together with the employee and program manager, however, the employee became hostile, demanded that we grant him an exception to policy (which is never done because it would open a Pandora’s box of many people wanting exceptions and we would not have enough travelers to accomplish our work), and implied that he had documents that he had retained on both of us that would make us do whatever he wanted us to do.

Later in the day, he brought a sealed envelope to my secretary. In it was a copy of some personnel correspondence I had had with another employee that, on the surface and out of context, could definitely be misconstrued. He had gotten the file when the other employee’s computer had been broken and the two employees had shared one computer. The correspondence, which was innocent enough but out of context could look embarrassing since it discussed religious issues in personal ways, had been left accidentally on the shared computer. The employee in question, seemingly a docile individual, had retained that correspondence for nearly five years, apparently holding it for a time that he could use it to compel me to do something that he wanted to have done, and the time had come. Blackmail!

The employee had miscalculated. As a rugged individualist from New England, to use Emerson’s archetypal image, I do not accept blackmail. In fact, had I been wavering about perhaps granting an exception, the attempted blackmail sealed the fate of the individual in question: he will be transferred without delay.

Since blackmail is a felony both under US law and under California law, punishable in both cases by heavy fines and imprisonment, I am now confronted with a difficult decision: to prosecute or not prosecute. Employees who blackmail employers under California law generally lose their jobs. The same might happen if I share the situation with our human resources people, which I may have to do for more than one reason, e.g., any potential long-term, post-transfer ramifications, including the possibility that once transferred the employee will release the document to colleagues and my supervisory chain. If I do not share the information with our personnel and legal team, I may end up having lost the opportunity for defense later, but the employee, who is elderly, in poor health, and responsible for a family with serious medical problems, will not lose a job he desperately needs and the salary for which he cannot replicate. Do I take the risk of ultimate professional damage or does the employee get hurt deeply and immediately? Obviously, now God has a more difficult problem to solve for me!

This all happened because I, too, had miscalculated. Even in seemingly small things and things that seem to be life as usual with no difficulties anticipated, I do need God’s help and presence. Not praying about all of it is arrogance. Thinking I can handle any part of it is perfect evidence of that lack of humility and my continuing need to develop more, i.e. a continuing need for continuing conversion.

(Oh, by the way, prayers are welcomed!)

Also posted on 100th Lamb: "Today's Mess."