Social psychologist Paul Tiff in this TED Talk demonstrates the science of why it is important to choose poverty over riches. St. Paul of the Cross knew why intuitively, as did St. Francis of Assisi and as does Pope Francis today. St. Paul of the Cross spoke of wanting to call his Congregation (Community in common parlance) “The Poor of Jesus” Enjoy this twenty-minute video and see for yourself what you probably know, but if you are like me, need to be reminded of periodically. May you have a poor and compassionate 2014.
There was a recent reflection printed in the N.Y. Times about happiness. The gist of this article was that there are three components of happiness: genes, events and work. That is, the genetic component of some people accounts for their being happy people (they were born happy). The second factor was “luck”, being at the right place at the right time. The third was work, doing what I enjoy doing. Religion didn’t feature very prominently in this lineup, likely a major omission.
But overlooking this, we might want to ask about another element in happiness, the success factor, i.e., achieving what I set out to do with my life. Does being contented with myself even though others wonder why, or always winding up in the line or the lane that moves along quickly, or enjoying my job even though it is a dead end, exhaust what it takes to be happy? What about success?
Some may think that success is not all that important, perhaps because there are different ways of computing success. In baseball lore, there were three players in the 1940s who were considered stars and successes because of their hitting prowess: Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees, Ted Williams of the Red Sox and Stan Musial of the Cardinals. Their success was calculated in terms of the hits they made at the plate that helped their teams to win games. But there was a fourth player who was a contemporary of these three, Luke Appling of the White Sox. He never achieved success in the way that DiMaggio, Williams or Musial did. But he did succeed at the plate in another way: by hitting foul balls, an endless series of foul balls. He seldom drove teammates around the bases by his hitting ability. But he did wear down opposing pitchers by his uncanny ability at the plate to hit one foul ball after another, to the point where even the star pitchers facing eventually him had to be taken out of the game and replaced. And that was a success—wearing down a pitcher whom his teammates could not hit, to be replaced by another pitcher whom they could hit.
So Luke had his own way of winning games. He exhausted opposing pitchers, and exasperated their fans. He was a success, with a plug of chewing tobacco in his mouth for interminable periods of time at bat, dirtying the plate in a disgusting way, all calculated to win the game. He seemed to be happy in this less than admirable way, enjoying little esteem on the process. If the comparison is not out of order, his formula for success was comparable to that of a skunk, which enjoys no esteem comparable to that of the noble lion, tiger or elephant, but nonetheless gets its way.
So being happy consists not only of genes, events or work. It can also occur through success, achieving what one sets to do: winning a game, or driving away threatening animals. Being good at what one does elicits admiration from others, even if there is no envy at one’s genetic endowments, or jealous at the success one achieves or desirous of work comparable to it. Being successful at what one does is another formula for happiness as efficacious as genes, events or work, even if scorned for being like another foul ball.
How does each one of us find value to our lives? Is it as simple as how much pleasure we manage to enjoy? Is it a matter of how long we live? Is it a question of how much good we have accomplished or what status in business we have risen to? All these things are the way many people recognize success and fulfillment. But is that all there is?
“You can’t take it with you” is a popular slogan and it is true enough. Material possessions can become a burden that robs us of time better spent on more important things, we might realize in retrospect. Henry David Thoreau once wrote about how to live as simply as possible when he authored his classic book, “On Walden Pond”. He must have seemed impractical and anti-social even when he experienced his withdrawal in 1845-1847. He took two years to think, write, do without and decided what was important in life. A transcendentalist, he believed in the inherent goodness of people and nature. At the end of his long retreat he became an activist as an abolitionist and environmentalist. He converted thinking, believing and verbalizing into actions. When we take away all the distractions that divide our attention and focus just on what is most important, clarity may come with wisdom. What do we take with us into the great beyond if anything, or better yet, what do we leave behind?
Humans have an inclination to believe in an afterlife. They certainly have a sense of legacy as a primary motive. Both of these add meaning and purpose to life as things that will persist after death. It is natural to think of ourselves as spiritual with souls that supersede our bodies but what becomes of them? People would ask Jesus questions like that a lot. “What must I do to gain eternal life?” he was asked one day. “What do God’s laws say?” he replied. “You must love God with your entire mind and heart and your neighbor as yourself”, the man said. Then the man asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told a story about a robbery of a socially inferior man whom no one would help until another man, out of compassion, stopped and cared for him. Compassion overruled prejudice and love was given, as to oneself. The letter of the law, which some strictly adhere to confines, while the spirit of God frees us to all manner of kindness.
Life’s significance comes not with egotism but with altruism. Consider the spiritual realm for a moment as the only eternal reality. The idea is not so far fetched if one believes in heaven or miracles or intangibles of almost any nature. There remains only positive and negative force when all we perceive as material is removed. God loves and cannot be contained, for love has to be shared. Conversely, lack of love sucks energy inward, like a black hole with no escape. Legacy for eternity or oblivion is worth considering. If this is the case, you can take it with you but you have to give it away first.
In this Ted Talk, Boyd Varty takes us on a wild African experience and relates it to Nelson Mandela, you and me. He tells us about Solly Mhlongo, a guide and most remarkable individual. Kind of reminds me of some Passionists I’ve known. Edward Agaba wrote the following comment:
Thank you Boyd. This is an amazing talk. Am really touched by your story. This is Africa‘s time. The world needs to turn to Africa, not to solve problems but to get solutions to some of the challenges facing humanity! Africa’s philosophy of life is clearly defined in Ubuntu which embodies respect, love, sharing and peaceful co-existence. Imagine a world where everyone lives by the Ubuntu philosophy! (Edward Agaba a TEDX Organizer)
Catholics, and Orthodox, lay special claim to being sacramental churches. Both these communities honor the celebration of seven rituals that are efficacious in linking us to God. They commence early in the development of a church member, and accompany a person throughout his/her life.
Catholics especially have gotten into the practice of tracing the origins of the sacraments, which takes us back to our beginnings, usually in the life and ministry of Jesus, or at least in the practices introduced by the early church. So we become historically oriented, and try our best to reconstruct just how it was back then. This is especially evident at this time of the year, which we call Advent, and which melds into Christmas time. The original historical Christmas event is not a sacrament, except in its Eucharistic component, embedded in and amid all the church trimmings of Christmas. These latter elements provide the familiar signs of a Christmas awash with strong historical overtones centering on the manger set up in a prominent place in church, where it resembles a ramshackle structure with straw on the ground, a small crib with an infant lying in it, a man woman kneeling on either side of a baby, and often some bedraggled looking shepherds, and, eventually, some regal looking figures. There will be a few animals rummaging around, and maybe an angel or two hovering in the rafters. That’s the way we make Christmas as present an event as possible.
And such a scene is usually pretty accurate, historically. But Christmas is more than reconstructing, as best we can, the way it “was”. Christmas is the way it “is”, and so functions somewhat like a sacrament. And this means bringing about the re-birth of Jesus into our lives here and now. This entails capturing the original meaning of Jesus’ birth (more than just the original historical setting) as a here-and-now happening. What does this mean? It’s somewhat like talking on the phone with someone. His/her voice is present to me right now. It’s not just me imagining a conversation. It’s a real event happening right now. But even if my phone is equipped to capture and provide me an image of my conversation partner as speaking to me here and now, it’s still a different way of that person being present t me than if she/he stood next to me, just five feet way. So the person is truly present to me– sort of.
Or, to take an example even closer to home: myself. Here I am, in 2013, a rather corpulent self at 175 pounds (or more), standing 5’8” tall, with graying hair, celebrating Christmas. Should I wish, I can surround myself with photos of myself in earlier Christmases, when I was 3 months old, 5 years old, 12 years old, 18, 25 and 33.
But, can I faithfully re-present myself, at this very moment, so as to be a total replica of my infant self, my childhood self, my teen self, my young adult self, etc.? Of course not. That part of my life is gone forever. I can’t reproduce it. So, I’m different person? No, of course not. I’m the same person but “in a different way”. It’s the same with Christmas (and every sacrament operates this way, too). The same event (the birth of Christ) is present right now, but in a different way. This is worth pondering. It’s not a matter of trying to wearing diapers again, or knickers, or a short skirt, We can’t repeat the past this way. But being open to a new birth of Christ taking place within me here and now is quite plausible. That’s how sacraments work—and our Christmas celebration too.
In the above video, Shimi Cohen reflects on “The Innovation of Loneliness”. He says things like: “I share, therefore, I am…We’re faking experiences…If we are not able to be alone, we will always be lonely.”
These are not new thoughts for members of the Community of Passionist Partners. I suspect they are not new thoughts for any true member of every live (as opposed to virtual) community. In live community we experience each other as we truly are, not the edited refined versions we present on social media. This experience can range anywhere from pleasant to disaster and so communities come up with rituals and accepted ways (manners) of being with each other. With this blog, I hope we Partners will share the successful as well as the not so successful ways we experience each other. Yes, it will be an edited view here, but we’ll all know that the pictures and words we post are merely meant to help us be all that we can be and to grow together.
As Partners we come together because we believe in the power of following Jesus in taking up our own individual as well as collective crosses daily and following Him. We realize that we are much more effective in accomplishing this when we do it together—in community.
Many people keep to-do lists. These lists organize and prioritize our projects and they help us achieve our goals on time as well as reward us with a sense of accomplishment as we check off each task completed. We are overloaded with demands for attention even if all we do is watch television and we are told there is much we must do, see or have to be fulfilled and happy. Perhaps this is one reason “to-do” lists are so popular. Occasionally, a counter reaction surfaces to all the clamor telling us what we must do. “All you have to do is die and pay taxes” has been a popular retort in the past when someone is overwhelmed or frustrated. The financially clever even avoid the second requirement in many cases. How can a real list be made of what we must do in life? If it is to apply to everyone, it will be short and essential to existence.
To-do lists are a set of laws in a sense that they also imply what not to do. Therefore, the expert in these matters would naturally be a lawyer. Lawyers seem to always know an answer before they ask the question. Jesus ran into one and, of course, the legal expert asked Him a question about a must do list.
“There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test Him and said, “Teacher, What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your strength and all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.” He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” (Luke 10: 25-28)
This concise statement by the lawyer was remarkable because the Son of God said it was exactly the right answer. The first part of the answer is about our relationship with God. However, this absolute bond and the way we treat our neighbor are totally dependant on two words that we must do. Love yourself.
Do you love yourself? Some would ask, “Why should I?” Lives include pain, regrets, disappointments, injustices and disabilities that can overwhelm even the strongest personalities. A popular notion is that we will be satisfied and fulfilled if financial or professional success is achieved. These measurements of self worth can be misleading and even turn into negative experiences if not honestly and fairly attained. The must do list is short and basic. We are commanded by God to first and foremost love ourselves. This love is best described as being kind, tender, dedicated and having intense respect, even affection.
It all starts by acknowledging the gift of life. Starting each day with the thought and attitude of thanks to God that I have this day, the present, to live and share my life in some good way. The way this spirit harkens back to the conversation between Jesus and the lawyer makes a command seem like just a natural way to be. Our attitude means everything. Be nice to yourself and accept yourself for who you are. Expect good things from yourself and forgive yourself as God forgives you.
The greatest reason to love yourself is expressed by Jesus coming into the world to live a life like ours. He was born in a lowly place, taught, healed physically and spiritually and experienced much pain and anguish. His agony and death on the cross proclaims a love for all of us as strong as His love of Himself, putting you in a place beneath that scene at Calvary. Go there spiritually and be safe and cleansed by His blood. The Glory of the Most High Son of God is given up for a moment in time because of love…of you.
“Love God, love yourself and your neighbor and you will inherit eternal life”Jesus Christ
It might sound scandalous to say that saints are IN or OUT of style, given that the world “style” has taken on rather secular and even rakish meaning. It seems to suggest that movements or people have become popular by saying the right things, wearing the appropriate clothing, associating with the movers and shakers of society.
Whereas a saint is someone who is other-worldly, disinterested in transient affairs, and focused on “things of God”, which are largely elsewhere than here and now. And so, if such a one is a woman, she wears a long, sweeping dress, some kind of veil for a head-covering, and plain, unadorned faces and hair styles. And men too are pictured in black robes (no levis), with a full head of hair (no baldness or crew cuts) and usually good eyesight (very few wearing glasses). In such ways saints are set aside, apart from the crowd, and presumably from its viewpoints and value systems.
In this way saints transcend time and place. They can’t be identified or localized, lest too much similarity be found with the rest of us, jeopardizing their status as saints. Two things are wrong with this picture: it is too critical about ourselves, and too unrealistic about the saints. Saints come and go, not only in terms of life-spans, but also in terms of pertinence and relevance for us in the church of today. For men and women are raised to “the honors of the altar” by reason of the example they provide for other members of the church. Their lives are honored for being “useful” to the rest of us. So, in this day and age, the church doesn’t propose a hermit or an anchorite who lived on bread and water in the solitude of the desert, as a model of holiness for us and as a way God would have us live. For it would be out of kilter with what we need to live as Christians in the contemporary world.
Admittedly, there is a largely unused liturgical book called The Martyrology containing hundreds, even thousands, of saints’ names, the vast majority of whom we have never heard. And Butler’s Lives of theSaints has much the same impact on us. For saints are creations of the church at a given time and place to help the rest of us, showing a pathway along which to move on our way to God. So she looks over a variety of candidates, possibly contemporaries, who have caught her attention, and she picks and chooses certain ones meeting her interest in inspiring and motivating the rest of us.
There are exceptions to this. Francis of Assisi seems to be a perennial. He is a saint for all seasons. The Little Flower holds out promise of being an enduring model for years to come. But our own Passionist St. Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, canonized by Pope Benedict XV just a few years ago (1920) and declared Patron of Youth, while extremely popular among young people at the time, is now a largely forgotten saints (except for his shrine in Italy). Other young men and women have, since then, caught the church’s attention, and she now holds them up before our eyes as models.
So saints, for the most part, come and go. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is encouraging to realize that the church has such a treasury of outstanding men and women that she can constantly call to our attention as examples for our lives.