How We Define Love Matters

There are a few books I will pick up again and again. I will read a passage that moved me, that I highlighted, or that I need for a paper or an article I am writing. Sometimes I read the whole book again. Like an old friend that you keep coming back to for advice, books can be like that.

This weekend, I found my copy of This is How by Augusten Burroughs. It’s an easy read and quite powerful. What drew me to this particular book was a section where he speaks about love. Here, he is a modern day St. Paul and we are the Corinthians, needing a reminder.

We “identify love by knowing what it’s not: love doesn’t use a fist. Love never calls you fat or lazy or ugly. Love doesn’t laugh at you in front of friends. It is not in Love’s interest for your self-esteem to be low. Love is a helium-based emotion; Love always takes the high road. Love does not make you beg. Love does not make you deposit your paycheck into its bank account. Love certainly never, never, never brings the children into it. Love does not ask or even want you to change. But if you change, Love is as excited about this change as you are, if not more so. And if you go back to the way you were before you changed, Love will go back with you. Love does not maintain a list of your flaws and weaknesses. Love believes you.” ― Augusten Burroughs, This Is How

I was drawn back to this passage as I read about explosives in the mail, the shooting in the synagogue and, how, instead of coming together, everyone just blamed everyone else. The president blames the media and takes no responsibility for inciting the violence. The media blames the president and takes no responsibility for the way they cover these events. It’s not a sensational story. It’s a tragedy. And, Mr. President, everything bad that happens isn’t the Democrats’ fault. If only people would think before they speak, virtually and vocally.

All of us would be wise to remember the words of St. Paul. His passage in Corinthians is often used for weddings but Paul was obviously addressing a different conceptualization of love, that of Christian caritas which should be the defining force in our lives. “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians, 13:4-7)

Pretty sound advice.

Tired of St. Paul? This one is easy – “Love your neighbor.” We read that eight times in the Bible. Loving your neighbor is the opposite of selfishness. Acting in divine love demonstrates that unselfishness is possible for a human — showing a reality that cannot be ignored or denied. Whether your neighbor loves you back is irrelevant. Whether they appreciate you doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is that Jesus’ command to love one another is still valid.

It is possible to love one another, to be charitable, kind, compassionate, and patient.

Perhaps it starts with a little self-control.

-pjd

The Long Journey

Can you imagine life becoming so unbearable on the East Coast, so dangerous, so poverty-ridden, and so unsafe for you and your children, that you pack what little you can carry, take your children by the hand, and start walking?

Now imagine that this trek takes you from the East Coast to the West Coast – some three thousand miles. Even if you walked 15-20 miles a day, it would take you 280 days to make the journey. Too far? Just walk to Denver. From my house, that’s still 1,812 miles. Could you do that with your kids in hand, your belongings strapped to your back, depending on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter?

I couldn’t.

And yet, history is filled with journeys.

We read about the Jews taking flight through the desert of all places, through the sea, up the mountains, and taking so long to make the passage that an entirely new generation arrives at the destination. We call it an Exodus and we celebrate their patience and the laws they received on their way.

We read about Mary and Joseph taking a trek on the back of a donkey and we pause to remember the sacrifice.

We remember the journeys of St. Paul and read nearly every Sunday about the communities of Corinth, Ephesus, Caesarea, and Thessalonica to whom he wrote and gave instructions we still ask our children to follow.

We read about two men, on their way to Emmaus, joined by the Risen Lord and reminded that, in the breaking of the bread, salvation is found.

And yet today, we read about thousands of people who are marching to a better life and we argue about how fast we can close the border.

These people are hungry and yet manipulated by immigration groups and the media. They are scared and yet willing to take on hard jobs most of us don’t want to do. They are worried about their safety but are willingly walking in the open air because they dream of a better tomorrow.

They are you and they are me. With skin of a different color and language we may not understand, they are us. They are our ancestors who journeyed on boats from foreign lands like Ireland and Italy and Hungary and Spain. Boats, I might add, onto which you and I would never step foot.

They are human and worthy of the same dignity we demand our children show one another.

To say otherwise flies in the face of all the other journeys we celebrate and remember.

This week, let us put down the newspaper, turn off the wifi, close the browser, and pick up a Bible.

The answers are there, I promise.

-pjd

Tending the Garden

Antonio Machado was a Spanish poet who lived from 1875 to 1939. I discovered his work when a friend of mine – a retired bishop who taught me at Notre Dame – read one of his poems in class. It was 1996 and the instructor encouraged us all to memorize a poem that spoke to us. I had chosen David Wagoner’s Lost, which is a powerful metaphor for all that was going on in my life at the time. I can still recite the work by heart and I think about it every now and then, especially the first few lines: Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here…

The poet still speaks to me through those words.

But recently, I have rediscovered Machado’s work – especially, his powerful poetic challenge, The Wind One Brilliant Day. The poem, quite simply, is a clarion call to each of us in these troubled times.

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.
‘In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I’d like all the odor of your roses.’
‘I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.’
‘Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.’
The wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
‘What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?’

We are given so much and often we do not take the care we should – with the environment, the people we meet, the trust that is placed upon us, our children, our friends, the reputation of our coworkers, our faith. The fragility of so many things can be overwhelming and we can fee strangled by the violence of busyness. We forget that everything is gift. It is all unmerited grace. Indeed, what are we doing with the gifts entrusted to us? What am I doing to make sure the garden grows to fullness and life and beauty?

What will our answer be when the wind asks for that which we cannot give? Will we have anything to offer at all?

Or will we weep in sadness having tended the garden so carelessly?

-pjd

First Teachers

Anyone who has heard me give a presentation to parents knows that I love to quote the prayer over the parents that happens at the end of a baptism in the Catholic Church. It’s the part where the priest or deacon tells mom and dad that, in addition to having to buy diapers and formula, books and blankets, tuition and car seats, they are the “first teachers in the ways of faith.” Okay, to be fair, the rest of that isn’t actually in the prayer, but I swear it is implied.

First teachers. That’s heady stuff. There is an implication there that mom and dad have a clue as to what they are doing in their own faith lives. “You cannot give what you do not have,” the wise man says. So if mom and dad haven’t read the catechism or learned their prayers, they may want to spend that first year reading up on the Good Book so they are prepared.

I thought about that first teacher stuff the other night when I took the children to the track behind their school for movie night. The littlest really wanted to go and once she promised the eldest she would not sing along to every song in “The Greatest Showman” (which was the movie of choice), we had a deal. We picked up some chicken and some drinks, packed the folding chairs in the van, and set off. Mom was flying back from a trip and Friday night is movie night anyway, so this might prove to be fun.

It was a circus.

Actually, it was a circus happening around a movie about a guy that starts a circus. There was as much chaos in front of the screen as there was on the screen. Some kids chose to play basketball instead of watching the movie. Others chose to run around and scream on the playground. One little group of girls – all with light-up sneakers – decided to chase each other in and around those who were actually watching the movie. When one of them hit the inflatable screen for the third time, I thought my second youngest would lose it.

“What is wrong with these people?” he asked.

“Their parents,” came the response from the eldest child.

No one was in charge. No one had control of the situation. As my children sat there watching the film, I began to wonder why they were so irritated. It wasn’t because they wanted to run around, it was because this was billed as a movie night for families and since we’ve had movie nights for years, they knew how this should go: start the movie, pause it for snacks and bathroom breaks, and otherwise sit quietly and laugh, cry, or fall asleep. But running around, tripping on the tie downs for the screen, and generally shrieking about was never on the agenda for my kids.

It turns out the movie was a backdrop. An excuse to get families together. We went expecting one thing and what happened was something else. That’s not a bad thing, but the realization didn’t help ease my irritation.

At one point, I remembered, as I was trying to pass out Oreos to those kids sitting around us behaving themselves, what Ron Rolheiser says about those times when screaming and yelling of children irritates us. He calls the unabashed outpouring of noise and merriment “joy” and says that it can irritate us because this joy gets in the way of our own misery.

“Was that true?” I wondered as I sat there in the cool fall night? “Was I miserable in some way? Was this joy around me irritating me because there was something inside me that needed to change.”

“No,” I finally concluded.

These parents should be watching their kids.

Being a first teacher is hard.

-pjd

Different Paths. Same Journey.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, there is a battle that plays out in every family. Who is the greatest? Who is the least? As my mother’s favorite, I can relate.

Then Jesus takes a child and makes some comments about having the faith of a child and about receiving the Word like one receives a child. But that is not my favorite part of the passage. Here are my favorite lines:

Then John said in reply,
“Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name
and we tried to prevent him
because he does not follow in our company.”
Jesus said to him,
“Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you.”

You have to love a guy who wants to stop other people from doing that which is good and holy because that person doesn’t “follow in our company.” It’s like the party on the left yelling at the party on the right for doing what is right but going about it the wrong way. Or the people at work who accomplish a great task but get criticized because they didn’t go about it the way we would have. What kind of world would it be if we all kept our eyes on the Light and not on the path we took to get there?

I think this is what Pope Francis is talking about when he says, “The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them. We are all called to be witnesses, but there are many actual ways of bearing witness.” (Gaudete et exsultate, 11)

This week let us be witnesses. Let us refrain from imitating others and be faithful to the gifts God has given us. Let us not fight about who is greatest or who is the least.

Most of all, let us recognize the good works going on around us and acknowledge that, even though we might have done the work differently, God is present.

~pjd

 

 

Lighting Our Lamps

This morning’s Gospel gives us Luke’s version of one of my favorite passages in Matthew.

Jesus said to the crowd:
“No one who lights a lamp conceals it with a vessel
or sets it under a bed;
rather, he places it on a lampstand
so that those who enter may see the light.
For there is nothing hidden that will not become visible,
and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light.
Take care, then, how you hear.
To anyone who has, more will be given,
and from the one who has not,
even what he seems to have will be taken away.”

 In this parable of the lamp, we are given very clear instructions: those who have heard the Word of God are to show it to others – in word and in action.

Even when we are surrounded by darkness (perhaps especially when we are surrounded by darkness), we are to be a light for others.

This week, it might be worth asking: when people look at our lives, can they see light? Does that light direct them towards God or towards ourselves? Do we let the darkness overwhelm us? Consume us? Paralyze us?

This week, I will work on being a light. I will work on reflecting the love of God to others so that they may see the good things I do and thank God for my presence in their lives.

Will you?

 

Tell Them That They Are Good

I had lunch with a priest friend of mine the other day. I needed to get out of the office and talk about work and life and the intersection of what the press says is happening in the Catholic Church and what is really happening in the central offices. Plus, I wanted to make sure my friend was okay.

Priests are being painted with a very broad brush these days and it would be easy to forget that there are many, many good priests and bishops who are true to their vows and holy examples to us all. Yes, the leadership of the church, by and large, has zero credibility. And yes, the pope needs to speak soon so people know he cares. But it is also true that there are factions of the church that long for the pope’s downfall and no amount of action will alleviate that. Those same people forget how the church rushed to canonize a pope who never met with victims and largely ignored what was going on all over the world. There is a lesson in there for all of us and my guess is that historians will judge that we are better off when we let decades go by before chanting, “sainthood now.”

But back to lunch. My friend and I were talking about good preaching and I was lamenting about how much I miss my pastor, Fr. John, the consummate preacher and teacher. Our parish is still living in the in-between as we await the naming of a new pastor, six months after losing Fr. John.

My friend was telling me that his homiletics professor told his class to “always remember to tell the people that they are good.” I liked that.

We circled back to his teacher’s comments towards the end of lunch and my friend remarked how important such a message is in trying times. Then he told the story of a lady coming up to him after Mass a few weeks ago and asked, “Father, when are you going to stop telling us that we are good?”

The question surprised him, and he wondered why people think they are bad or what in our world has people convinced that such good news is unbelievable.

“What did you say to her?” I asked.

Without hesitation, he told me his answer. “I will stop telling you that you are good when you believe me.”

Wise words from a good friend.

This week I will remember that I am good. I am loved. I am saved.

So are you.

See. There is good news in the world.

~pjd

Seventeen Years

This week we commemorate the 17thanniversary of that Tuesday morning when church doors were opened, and people wept openly in the streets. Loved ones were lost and true heroism became the top story on the evening news. Initials like “FDNY” took on new meaning and, for a moment, the world stood still and mourned.

No one who is in grade school or high school can tell you about their experiences of that day. In fact, some of the people teaching those very students were likely in grade school and high school themselves that fateful day. Those old enough to remember can tell you the stories of where they were, what they were doing, and how their lives were interrupted for a few days. They can tell you how quiet the skies were and how filled the churches became. They can tell you about the return of major league sports, prime-time television, and how a president inspired a nation with a bullhorn as he stood atop the rubble.

But as a country, we have forgotten the lessons of that day. We have forgotten how important it is to talk to each other and hold hands once in a while. Patriotism has been replaced by partisanism and no one really has a conversation anymore. Instead, we define people by right or left and we stand on the side we think defines us and we yell at each other. People who dare to cross the proverbial aisle to work with another person are condemned as traitors and are called names by colleagues and friends. Ideologies define us and all that we are sure of is that the other side is wrong.

We are an impatient people, made more impatient but the glut of news and the lack of filters. Where you get your news creates a line of demarcation about where you sit and who you believe and how great you think our country is – or could be.

Seventeen years ago, we stopped fighting for a little while. Politicians stood on the steps of the Capitol and sang, “God Bless America.” Color and race and creed and orientation did not matter – especially if you needed saving or rescuing or defending. We recognized how fragile life had always been when we saw photos of strangers hanging on a fence and commuter lots filled with cars whose owners were not coming back.

This week, maybe we could pause to remember those who died needlessly that day, stolen from their families by a madman. Perhaps we could remember those who ran into the buildings. They ran into the buildings. Perhaps we can remember the thousands who have died since then – and are still dying – combatting the power of evil in the world.

Most of all, we should remember the civility, the calm, and the longing for peace that was so palpable in the days and weeks that followed that awful day. These are the lessons we must teach today’s young people. They did not experience any of those things and if we are not very careful, they never will.

Let there be peace on earth, in our homes, in our classrooms, in our families, in our workplaces, in our country, in our hearts.

And let it begin with me.

~pjd

Hope

I have St. Paul on the brain these days. Especially the fifth line of the fifth chapter of Romans.

“Hope does not disappoint.”

I do not know why I started thinking of Paul or the Romans, but it came to me in prayer, frustration, hurt, anger, and finally, surrender over these past few days. As another crisis hit the church, my own crisis of confidence hit home.

People disappoint. Life disappoints. Circumstances disappoint. Children disappoint parents. Parents disappoint children. We disappoint each other. Sometimes even those we trust the most are disappointing – those we depend on for clarity lack it for a moment we discover the clay feet beneath our heroes.

But hope does not disappoint.

When I was in graduate school at Notre Dame a professor told my class that “hope” in the Christian sense is an action word. It has to be. It is a clarion call to do something. “Hope,” he said, “is an unsatisfactory view of the present, a satisfactory view of the future, and a commitment to change.”

Absent the commitment, it’s not hope. It’s whining.

Last year, while preparing a paper for my studies at LaSalle, I read the line, “If faith is a verb, it is an action verb, and hope is its future tense.”

Think about that for a minute.

in our present situation, what are we called to do today? Where will hope take us? What will hope challenge us to become?

Write a note. Make a call. Ask God to bless our leaders – political and spiritual – with the gift of right judgment. But above all, stop complaining about things we cannot fix or do not understand. Do something. Stop whining and hope.

Because hope does not disappoint.

-pjd

A Prayer for the First Week of School

Master and Teacher,

Bless the students who will have trouble settling down this week, whose minds are still at the beach or at grandma’s swimming pool, or the amusement park or soccer camp.

Bless those who sit nervously in class: those who are new in school and those who never read anything over the summer and know a test is coming anyway.

Bless those who will struggle, those who will succeed, and those who get lost in the crowd.

Bless the new friendships that will begin on day one and bless those cherished friendships that will be renewed.

Bless them all with compassion, that they may root for the underdog, celebrate those who accomplish much, and pray fervently for each other.

Bless them with an environment free from bullying, needless competition, and petty jealousy.

Help them, Lord, to fall in love with learning.

Bless the parents of these students, their first teachers in the ways of faith. Give them patience when the homework takes too long, give them the courage to understand that their children are not perfect and give them the courage to discipline with love. May they abdicate less and partner more.

And we beg you, Lord, to bring these children safely home at the end of the day, the week, or the semester. Keep them free from violence – at home and at school – on the bus and on the streets – and guide them home to the waiting arms of those who loved them first.

Finally, Lord, we pray in the thanksgiving for the men and women who have already been hard at work straightening desks, taping names to cubbies, painting lockers, planning classes cleaning rooms, decorating bulletin boards, hanging posters, and studying test scores. Bless these servants with peace, patience, persistence, and your Spirit, that they may be Your presence to our young people, Your hands, and Your voice.

We make this prayer through Christ our Lord: teacher, servant, and source of all hope.

Amen.