A Thought For the New Year

Death and Life are in the Power of the Tongue
I’m sorry…I didn’t mean it
I take it back
Strike it from the record

What is as irreversible as murder, violates its victims more than theft, is as deadly as an epidemic? And is a lot closer to you than you want to think?

Gossip, slander, and thoughtless speech. Gossip is a million-dollar industry in our country today. We tend to think of it as a sport, harmless and fun. After all, it’s only words. We even have shows devoted to it.

As Christians, we are called to see it differently. Which is worse, we must ask, to steal from someone or to speak ill of someone? To defraud a person or to humiliate him? Answer: Property can be restored, but the damage done to another can never be undone. In fact, our Jewish ancestors compared slander and humiliation with murder: the destruction is irreparable and enduring.

You can’t take it back. What we say about each other is terribly powerful: words have a long, long half-life, and they can destroy in unseen, unhealable ways.

Our words are a footprint we leave for the world. What will they reveal about the way we treat our children, our parents, our friends, students, co-workers, employees? How we treat ourselves?

It’s a new year. Perhaps none of us will find a cure for cancer, or feed the world’s hungry, or bring about world peace. But nearly every day we find ourselves with someone’s reputation or sense of worth in our hands.

We can improve our world in a powerful, pervasive way; we can act as though our words had the power of life and death.

They do.


About this reflection

When I was a child, there was an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal with the headline and text above, though I have edited some of the text. The ad was in celebration of the Jewish New Year, I believe. My mother, wise as she was, cut it out and posted it on the refrigerator. If you said or did something that warranted further reflection, you got to stand in front of the full page of newsprint. In time, I had it memorized. When her children moved out of the house, my mother made sure we each got a copy. Mine hangs on the refrigerator and I can still say it by heart. We learn slowly as children…and sometimes more slowly as adults.

Happy New Year Mom. Happy New Year One and All.

What Rules You?

Last Sunday (not yesterday), we celebrated Christ the King. It is one of those great feasts that gets lost on the calendar. As much as we would like to pay attention to it, the world around us has moved from Thanksgiving to Christmas and wants desperately for us to do the same. Let’s face it, shortly after the Labor Day sales are over, people are talking about Black Friday and in one store, I actually saw lit Christmas trees before I saw Halloween candy. But I digress…

The feast of Christ the King always reminds me of a homily I heard years ago. “What rules you?” the priest asked. My mind wondered then, as it does every year on that feast day, and I begin to think back over recent days. There is so much going on at work. At home, too. This week will see us juggling the science fair, the biennial adult ministry conference that Maureen coordinates with her team and at which the bishop and I will present, a new babysitter, projects, homework, and getting dinner on the table.

The day before Christ the King, we cleaned the house. From top to bottom, basement to bathrooms, wood floors to the grass outside, we cleaned. For the most part, the children were willing participants. Sure, the promise of pizza for dinner and getting to stay up late to cheer the Irish to victory helped, but so did the “divide and conquer” methodology we employed to get small children to accomplish small tasks and then move on to another job.

As I thought back over the day, it occurred to me that what ruled us was a checklist: the list of chores was created by us, but we were controlled by it. Like so many days and nights, we fly from lists at home to tasks at work and from commitments with family to promises made to friends. We let the work around us consume us, change us, and push us into an amnesic state where the “why” we do what we do gets lost.

We clean because it is important to take care of the place where we live. We straighten and dust and vacuum to be healthy in mind and soul so, later on when the pizza is consumed, and the Irish are up by six, we can sit on the sofa and hold our children as they fall asleep. We go to work, I hope, because we love what we do and, yes, because it pays tuition and the mortgage and the food bill. We keep track of what we do, perhaps, for a sense of accomplishment and to know when our work is complete.

Still, it is nice to be reminded once in a while and just to pause and ask ourselves that tough, embarrassing question: What rules you? From where is your motivation derived? Why do you serve in the way you do at the place you do and with the people you do?

Maybe, just maybe, answering the questions now will make for a more clear-headed Advent and enjoyable Christmas season, surrounded by family and friends.

Of course, by then, the house will be a mess…

~pjd

Reality Check

Last week I mentioned the admonition to “love your neighbor.” This Sunday, we heard the same from Mark’s account of the Good News. It was ironic that my family heard the Gospel proclaimed in our old parish in Delaware, especially with one of our old neighbors sitting behind us.

We love those neighbors. Our children grew up together and it was nice to see them again and reconnect. But my thoughts during the Gospel were not on the people behind us.

When we first moved into our home back in 2005, we met our next door neighbors. On one side was a state trooper, his wife the teacher, and their two children. Before we moved, we had been to their parties, watched their children grow up, and stood on the sidewalk in front of our houses talking for hours.

Then there was the other side.

A few months after moving in, we arrived home one day to find that those neighbors had installed sod in their yard. How nice.

Then I noticed the hose they were using to water their new lawn. It looked a lot like ours. Upon further study, I realized it was our hose…and it was still connected to our house.

We never really talked much to those neighbors after that. They had a dog that never shut up, hosted parties until all hours, parked anywhere they wished, and let their yard grow and grow and grow. And did I mention the dog?

It was to those neighbors that my mind wandered as I was sitting at Mass yesterday.

When I think of that reading – or the command in general – I also hear the voice of a priest friend, who, when reflecting on that reading at Mass years ago, said what I was thinking: “Like many of you…when I hear that instruction, I think, ‘Nice advice, God, but have you met my neighbors?’”

Loving our neighbors is tough. People are annoying. They don’t listen to our great advice. They overlook our gifts. They ignore us.

Still, I swear there are days that I think I can actually hear God telling me, “You know that ‘love your neighbor’ thing?”

“I meant that.”

So this week, I will remember that things are different. It’s a new day, a new beginning. It’s a day like no other in a week like no other in a place like no other. Sure, it all looks and sounds familiar, but this hasn’t happened before. This time. This place.

This week, I will love my neighbor. I will not take things so personally. I will remember that not everything is about me. I will forgive more easily. People will still be annoying, but I will remember that I am people too. So this week, I will remind myself that if God loves everyone, everyone is lovable.

As the great Dorothy Day said, “We only love God as much as the person we love the least.”

So, this week, love like God…and get yourself out of the way.

~pjd

Losing Our Way

Like many people, I use Waze to help me get from point A to point B. I call the disembodied voice Gladys and, most of the time, she is very helpful.

Last week, I was headed to a parish I had not visited before. I could see it. I knew in my gut it was a left turn ahead and not a right turn. But Gladys kept telling me to turn right, so I did. My instincts, it turned out, were correct. Gladys was wrong.

As I pulled into a driveway and turned around, it made me wonder why I listen to the voice coming from my phone more than I listen to the voice inside my own head. I thought about all this again on Thursday as the young people from my class at Sacred Heart University circled the neighborhood looking for our house. I had invited them over to watch A Man for All Seasons as we ended the semester but I finally had to send two of the children outside to flag some of them down.

You see, when the neighborhood was built, the new homes were mostly for executives from General Electric and everyone got to choose their own house numbers. I am not kidding. We live at 301 but 305 is across the street. 87 is roughly seven houses away and is next door to 228. There are not “evens on this side and odds on that side.” Nope, it’s a big hot mess. I will admit, however, that it is fun to watch the substitute UPS driver try to figure it out. Apparently, the personal assistants the students were using could not figure it out either and so the children were sent to flag them down.

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6) And yet, we often give more authority to our smartphones (which are making us dumber, some would argue), or the television (real news vs. fake news), or the people around us (even if ill-informed). We live in a world where it will soon be possible to animate a real person and have that person appear to say things the person never actually said. Think about that. You could be watching television and think you are watching the Pope or the President or the leader of another country giving a speech when, in reality, the words are made up to incite others, not inform them. To echo Mark Twain, that false account will likely get around the world much faster than the truth.

Jesus is the way to God, the way to peace, the way to life eternal. No hacker or virus or false media report can make that less true. It is the Truth to which we must be converted so absolutely that it dominates our every thought, word, and deed.

This week, I will silence the voices around me – in my car, on my phone, and in my head – and listen to the Truth I learned long ago. Might I challenge you to do the same?

May your week be blessed.

-pjd

Let There Be Light

It is easy to forget how nice electricity is until you are in the middle of a snowstorm and the lights go out.

For days.

At first, you sit around in the darkness and you hope it is just a temporary condition. Then you start to gather candles, you search for the flashlight you swear you just saw the other day, and you put the kids to bed like normal.

At some point, you realize this might take a while, as you hear the hum of the generators the neighbors have pulled from their garage and filled with gas. You remember that you always wanted to get one and you wonder how much they cost. You look with envy at your neighbors house, lit and warm, as the chill settles over the house.

The first day was fine. We hit McDonalds for breakfast after shoveling the driveway. When you pay as much as we do in property taxes, the snow barely has time to settle on the streets before the trucks plow it off to the sides. When we return home, the children realized that no electricity equals boredom and, though their father suggests playing a game (Mom was out of town all week), the children ask if there is power at dad’s office. If there is power, there is a chance to charge the electronics.

We camp in the living room, around a fire that burns all night, and we hang some quilts on the doorways to keep the heat in the room. By this point, Mom has navigated the power lines that have fallen across the streets and joined in the fun. The conversation turns to all the food in the freezers and refrigerator. We probably could have stored the milk in one of the bedrooms or out in the snow, but no one thought of that.

By day three, we leave town. Dad had a retreat to lead in Delaware, so we pack up and visit friends and Aunt Barbara in a whirlwind trip down the turnpike.

Much to our relief, our neighbors send a picture via text while we are away. It shows the lights on in the house. Whew.

Now, the work of salvaging food, cleaning up the campsite, and resetting all the wireless devices begins.

Tomorrow the forecast calls for six to eight inches of snow and high winds. I take comfort in knowing that trees that fall cannot fall again.

At least I hope that is the case.

May your week be filled with light and warmth.

~pjd

Morning Routine

There are some mornings when the children rise, speak pleasantly to each other, arrive to the kitchen with teeth brushed and uniforms on, eat their breakfast, and are waiting at the door when the bus arrives.

Today was not one of those mornings.

It was probably my fault because I prayed last night for the sleet and snow to delay the arrival of the day by a few hours. Mentally, I was prepared for that. Like most predictors of the future, the weather people were wrong and the wintry mix will not arrive until the morning commute. So the children rose and the yelling commenced. Child number four was making a noise that irritated child number three. Child number one was taking her time and child number two lives in her own time zone.

There were a few minutes when the cinnamon raisin toast was distributed and the stillness of the snow outside took over, but to be honest, that lasted about a minute and a half. Coincidentally, that is the time it takes for three children to chew two pieces of toast apiece.

The bus arrives five minutes early, as it does on days like today, and so the toast for child number one goes with her to the bus. Child number two has decided that now would be a good time to brush her teeth and I scream for the bus to wait as the mailman pulls up to deliver packages from the Santa that lives at Amazon. Neither sleet nor snow nor waiting buses will deter the mailman as he inches closer to the driveway blocked by the honking bus. Down the stairs bounds child number two, irritated at nothing and everything all at once.

Then, suddenly, the mayhem is over. As quick as the morning stillness was broken, there is peace in the house once again. We have passed the chaos off to the bus driver who will, in turn, pass it off to the teachers.

It is quiet. It is still. There is peace.

I sit in the living room, listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock, preparing for the day. Like every morning, I pray for the safety of the children and the sanity of the teachers.

And there, in the stillness of the morning, when all is calm, I find myself longing for the chaos.

It is an odd feeling to be irritated by something while you are in its midst and yet missing it once it has passed. In the stillness, I realize something I hadn’t before.

In the chaos, I find my joy.

May your week be filled will joyful chaos.

~pjd

Anticipation

The children are planning for Christmas. They are making lists and comparing them with each other, making sure that they do not overwhelm Santa or Mom and Dad. I think they also want to make sure they do not repeat on one list what is asked on another.

When we moved to Connecticut, we started a new tradition. The children’s list can include only four items:

One thing you want.
One thing you need.
One thing you wear.
One thing you read.

For the sake of tradition, we also allowed one thing from Santa. The practice requires thought, planning, and maybe a little scheming. In the end, however, it has been a great move. Gone are the days of the endless list of toys that will litter the basement – we already have plenty of Legos for that. Gone, too, are the days of trying to count to make sure every child receives the same amount. The lists are simple and direct. Needs are identified and answered. There are still “family gifts” like the Nintendo Wii that appeared a few years ago and still haunt us, or the Lego Millennium Falcon, which did not actually get put together until just a few months ago, so it is not as if anyone is cheated by the new tradition.

The youngest has been asking for a few days when we can start decorating, but until the leaves are out of the yard, it just seems too soon. The liturgical calendar requires we “do” Advent first, but I think the tree may appear this weekend. After a whirlwind few weeks of attending the National Catholic Youth Conference and celebrating Thanksgiving on the road, visiting family and friends, and going to the movies (you really should see Coco), the school bus arrived on time this morning and the family is settling back into our routine.

I am taking a few days off this week, making use of the vacation days I will lose if they go unused. There are plenty of chores to do around the house, but my guess is that I will work from home while I pretend to get some reading and writing finished for school.

As we head towards the season of waiting, may your week be filled with the hope and anticipation that can always be found this time of year in a house filled with children.

~pjd

Losing Gratitude

I do not like to wait. If I buy a gift for someone, I usually deliver it long before it’s time. We tend to shop for Christmas all year long, looking for sales and trying to help Santa finish early. At some point, we forget where we hide things or forget what we have purchased, all of which makes for a fascinating Christmas Eve.

And each year, I swear I will “do” Advent better. Then it sneaks up on me and pretty soon we are halfway through the season and I still haven’t gotten the candles out.

Apparently, the rest of the world is afraid they will miss this important time of preparation too. Everyone seems to be in a rush to get to the manger. Christmas lights and decorations were up at Home Depot long before all the pumpkins were sold. Black Friday, which was annoyingly creeping into Thanksgiving day, has suddenly, and for no apparent reason (save the obvious greed), developed into a season all its own. You can now shop Black Friday sales pretty much all through November. Small Business Saturday gives way to Cyber Monday and soon we are two weeks into Advent and I can’t find the wreath.

And in the midst of this mess, we have lost sight of my favorite national holiday.

Prayers of Thanksgiving have long been a part of our religious heritage and prayers of thanksgiving at harvest time have been around for centuries. Rooted in this country in the practices of Puritans and stories of Pilgrims, Thanksgiving was first celebrated by all the states in the Union in 1863 as Abraham Lincoln sought to hold a country together. Later proclaimed a national holiday by a joint resolution in Congress and signed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, Thanksgiving has been a part of our nation’s fabric for generations.

Though the timing was changed along the way, in part for economic reasons, the simple message remained the same: take one day of the year to give thanks for all that we have.

So before we decorate. Before we light candles and open little paper doors. Before making our list and check it twice. Before all the waiting begins, let us just stop for one day. No shopping. No surfing. No texting. No posting.

Just be with the people you love and say “thank you” for the blessings they are in your life. Thank them for the way they challenge you, move you, and improve you.

It’s one day. My favorite day. Family day. Lazy day. Baking day. Cooking day. Going to Mass because we want to day. Pie day. Turkey day. Thanksgiving Day.

Thanks be to God for the blessing we have, the blessings we are, and the blessings we are called to share

~pjd

 

This post originally appeared in 2013 but the Donovan clan returned home late last night from the National Catholic Youth Conference and are exhausted, so please forgive the repost.

Increase Our Faith

In this morning’s Gospel reading, we hear:

And the Apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

The consummate teachers, Jesus never really answers the question. Then again, the Apostles never really ask. No, they complain about not being able to do all the really cool things Jesus can do. (I imagine that water into wine thing turned some heads). They want faith and they do not ask, “Lord, how can we become more faithful.” They just command, “Increase our faith.”

It is not unlike what I hear at home sometimes. “When will we have dinner?” instead of “Is there anything I can do to help?” or “Why don’t I have any clean clothes?” instead of “Do you need me to switch washer and dryer?”

We have all been there. Demanding children or coworkers, chores that will not complete themselves, emails that just keep coming.

“Lord,” we cry. “Give me more time in the day. Take all these distractions from me.”

But, like Jesus, the distractions, the commands, the complaining, the whining – they are the work. Jesus answers the Apostle’s command to increase their faith by telling them that faith is not something that can be given, like a fish or a piece of bread. We do not give other’s faith. We show them our own. We teach by example. We accompany others so that they might understand that the joy we have comes from a relationship with a God who never lets go.

“Increase our faith.” Indeed.

“Watch what I do,” Jesus says. “Love like I do. Forgive like I do. Heal like I do. Speak of love and compassion and mercy and justice like I do.”

Then the trees and the bushes and the mountains and yes, even the people, will come to understand the power of your faith because that faith is not rooted in self, but in God.

~pjd

Children Will Watch

Ace Number One came home with an infraction the other day. It’s essentially a piece of paper that outlines what she did wrong and one of her parents have to sign it. By the time I got home, the infraction was signed and the letter of apology to the teacher to whom the disrespect was aimed was written and ready for delivery.

What did she do? Well, she repeated bad behavior. Walking her charges down the hall, the first-grade teacher told her students, “Be careful, children, the seventh graders have no respect for first graders.” Child number one took issue with this and, upon turning the corner, muttered to a friend, “It sounds like she doesn’t have a lot of respect for seventh graders.”

She would have gotten away with the remark had the first-grade teacher not been standing right behind her.

The infraction was well-deserved and the child was well rebuked. She knows better than to talk about another person like that. But, still, the whole event got me thinking. It reminded me of a conversation with my dad when I joked that no one listened to me at home. “Children don’t listen,” he said. “They watch.”

My children yell because I yell. They eat ice cream and chocolate and read books and love electronics because their mother and I enjoy all these things. They are short with each other and mean to each other and leave their clothes on the floor because, well, you get the idea.

But they also sing and share and pray because we do. They know I love the Rosary and have an affinity for Our Lady and they know that Maureen and I bless them each night not out of habit, but out of a commitment to love them and do our best to be their “first teachers in the ways of faith.” They know that the religious symbols in our home are not for show. They are silent homilies that give witness to all that our lives are rooted upon.

The teacher in the hall was inappropriate. So was the child in front of her. Children listen. Children watch.

Lord, give my children good witnesses. And let the witnessing begin with me.

~pjd