Here’s to a Happy 2016

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

I have a friend who likes to say when referring to a particular political party: “The only trouble with spending other peoples’ money is that you eventually run out of it.” (Anonymous) I have another friend who fondly reminisces about when he and his single mother would get together at the end of the month and decide which charities they would give to that month. Both, I suppose are right in some way, but one suggests to me a much happier, and I believe much more realistic understanding of just what money is and what it can do for us.

In today’s TED selection, Michael Norton tells how to buy happiness. He starts out by saying we often read in religion books “money can’t buy happiness”. He categorically says that’s wrong and if you think that way, you’re probably spending it wrongly. He goes on to give the results of some simple unscientific studies he’s made that demonstrate the right way to spend money so that you will be happy.

The book, Your Money or Your Life originally written by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin in the early 90’s and updated by Vicki Robin in 2008 presents a good analysis of the stages most of us go through in dealing with money. The authors eventually give the reader some down to earth financial goals along with the means to achieving them. The secret according to Dominguez and Robin is the simple recognition of what is enough.

If money sometimes gets in the way to your happiness, try one or more of these simple suggestions for a happy 2016: 

  • Define “enough”—Know what is enough; enough house, enough food, enough entertainment… 
  • Try sharing—Giving to others as Michael Norton above tells us works to make us happy. 
  • Keep it simple—Establish simple goals and immediately begin to work for them.

E.T. Meets Planet Earth

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Is Christmas a memory? Is Christmas more than a memory? Is Christmas only a memory? Is that what the greeting Happy Holidays implies?

Pearl Harbor: Remember Pearl Harbor! Is Pearl Harbor only a memory? Is it something more than a memory?

Usually, a memory rests on some event of the past. Especially if it’s a long-lasting memory. Perhaps a shorter term memory is liable to be explained away by offering an alternate explanation for its endurance. But when it extends back over a long time, and is fostered within a large group of people, it’s difficult to explain it away. This is certainly the case with Christmas. It is hard to maintain that the many traditions and stories associated with the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem of Judea 2000 years ago lack any foundation in history. Especially when this memory is found embedded in the memories of so many people scattered across the face of the earth.

The influence of this memory has made its way into so much of the music that resounds at this time of the year, coinciding with the shortest day of the year, just come and gone, and when the introduction of a new season, the winter-time, is freshly underway. The lyrics of so many current musical pieces are replete with Christmas themes centering around mother and Child, angels and shepherds, wise men from the east and animals. And costuming, featuring the colors of red and white, dominates the dress and apparel of people across the board.

All of this richness of color and sound and verse and practices and traditions add up to the impact of an historic event entering into the fabric of human life, which is comparable to the scientific forays into the history of our earth suggesting the lasting effect upon this home of ours of some huge visitor from outer space, long ago, crashing upon the crust of our earth-home, leaving its indelible marks, embedding itself into the fabric of our planet emphatically, to the point of shaping our earth-home, with its mountains and canyons, its oceans, lakes and rivers, possibly its elliptical orbit around the sun and its cycle of night and day that has affected the way we calculate the passage of time.

The history of these two events, the birth of the Son of God among us which has refashioned our sense of before and after, so as to constitute a kind of rebirth and renewal among us, and the readjustment of the equilibrium of planet earth following the impact of this encounter with a foreign body from outer space, constitute a combination of shock and awe from which we have never recovered. One occurred within the parameters of human memory; the other antedated it. But, in either case, basic adjustments took place to accommodate the powerful repercussions each have had on us, from which we will never recover.

One took place within the parameters of human history; the other antedated it. So we have a memory of the one, but not of the other. But there is no reason on our part to shed or diminish the eventfulness of either. We can well imagine the dimensions of the sound that emanated from the clash of two gigantic bodies of astral or planetary materials, and the sound-waves that must have inundated this universe over the ages. But, at the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ, there was also a heavenly sound emanating from the choir of angels singing their hymn of Glory to God. And, whereas that first sound has long since ceased to resound throughout the universe, the angelic hymns have never faded away, but continue to interweave our indelible memories that constitute as much of the Christmas event as their visual counterparts so familiar to us and that together constitute the memory of this significant day. And a celestial body has also assumed prominence in our memory of the first Christmas, assuming the guise of that bright star serving to guide wise men from the east, to the place where the infant was to be found. This star was not bent on an ominous intrusion into the pathway of mother earth, but provided a helpful outreach from outer space along the pathway of the visitors from the east leading them into a friendly encounter with the family at the center of the Bethlehem event, and to the One through Whom all things were made including the lowly space that was His first home.

Christmas is a memory of an event involving the encounter of an extra-terrestrial body with our planet earth, contributing a happy dimension to what we celebrate at Christmas time. It’s a memory we cannot forget.   While there are other encounters among heavenly bodies, including mother earth, of which we may have no memory despite their shaping our history, in a very remote way, it is the conjunction of heaven and earth on Christmas Day that persists as a powerful memory shaping our history, whose details we can recall and remember. For that reason the greeting MERRY CHRISTMAS bears much more significance to it than our current HAPPY HOLIDAYS.

Let’s Do Something About Being “Left Out”

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

The other day I bought a cake for a friend celebrating her birthday. After helping pass out a piece to all present, I sat down to have mine only to find that I had mistakenly not left one at my place. While everyone enjoyed his or her cake, I felt left out. It’s not good to feel left out, especially during the holidays.

In the December 21, 2015 issue of Education Week’s In Many States, Prospects Are Grim for Incarcerated Youths. The author, Denise R. Superville, documents cases against states that have not lived up to the federal law, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and left them out. They have left them out of services they so badly need, like GED preparation, transitional plans back into the mainstream, and educational services that we would never allow our children to miss out on. And surprise, surprise, young people of color, African-Americans and Latino students make up a disproportionate percentage of these youth.

feeling left out

Some people work very hard at making sure others are not left out. Nineteen-year-old Andrew Brennen is one such person. Andrew serves as the National Field Director for Student Voice, an advocacy group of college age students striving to get students’ voices heard when it comes to educational decisions. This group has nine director students working in various capacities including technology and digital strategy, students’ rights and school partnerships. They are working not only for college students but also for elementary students, making sure their voices are heard in deciding educational programs and policy.

This holiday season join me in wiping out being “left out”. Here are just a few ideas.

  • Visit a friend in the hospital, nursing home or prison – This is probably the easiest and yet for some of us the hardest act and yet or so appreciated by someone “left out”.

  • Look for the “left out” – While with family and friends this holiday season make a special effort to ask a friend who you suspect may be by themselves to join you. If this isn’t a family tradition, maybe suggest that it become one in the future.

  • Get involved – Maybe you feel left out. Make an effort to do something for someone else and get rid of the “left out” feeling.

If you feel so inclined share your experience by writing a comment below. Thanks for being part of the Passionist Partners.

Win, Place, Show

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

It is unseemly to entitle a reflection piece, written around Christmas time, with a title such as appears above. For it calls to mind the racing establishment, and the often unsavory atmosphere that permeates this past-time. For many a career has been sent crashing to the ground because of those consumed by the racetrack fever.

Gambling, of course, is nothing new. It is one of the past-times that has captured the fancy of earlier generations, so much so that it seems endemic to the human situation. It is a game of chance and supposedly skill or ability has little to do with it. For that reason, it is lightly regarded, and does not rate encomiums of praise and admiration usually reserved for activities that call forth the best in human capacity. The Chinese engaged in it in 2300 BC. In the western world the Kings of Sweden and Norway relied on card gambling, to determine which of them should control the district of Hising, though this game of chance occurred at a much later date in history, around 100 AD.

Nonetheless, certain gambling practices can be subjected to intense, almost scientific, analysis, which outmaneuvers the happenstance of many gambling past-times, and relies on human skills to determine the outcome of some gambling procedures. To make this point is to diminish the seeming foolishness of gambling, and to note a role for human skill and ingenuity in the gambling past-time. This removes the notion of foolishness and absurdity (and thereby the indefensibility) from gambling, and elevates it to a past-time that enjoys a bit of quality and even dignity. Once this is recognized, the absurdity of reflecting on gambling at this particular time of the year is avoided, and the groundwork is laid for considering whether God has taken a chance in dealing with us over the ages, a chance that is indefensible, given the proven track-record of our unreliability in dealing with Him.

So we ask: was God taking a chance in sending His Son among us at Christmas time, given the sordid history of this relationship as it developed throughout history? And, of course, we know on what side lies the source of this fiasco: the human side.

St. Bernard comes to our aid in answering this question. He does so by noting that God reduces the irrationality or the chance-taking of His dealings with us by increasing the number of times in which He reaches out to us. For He does so, not just one time, but three times, thereby increasing His chances of success in dealing with us. God is not acting foolishly by making an irrational move in dealing with us. Rather, He diminishes the irrational factor in reaching out to us in several ways, thereby increasing the possibility of success in doing so.

St. Bernard identifies three instances of God’s outreach to us. The first was what we have come to identify as the Incarnation, the memorial of which is close at hand: Christmas. That commemorates His historical birth among us, His nativity, in which He became a human being like ourselves and lived among us for over thirty years. And even though many may count it as a failure on God’s part, since some of us rejected His outreach by nailing His Son to the Cross, killing Him. But many among us count it as a success for God, since it brought about the redemption of the world, which otherwise would have continued its downward trend toward failure.

Equally well known is the third and last instance of God’s rendevouz with us: the last judgment, when God confronts each of us and asks for an accounting of how we have lived our lives. This acknowledges that God keeps close tabs on us, and is extremely interested in how we have run the race of life. Having endowed each of with talents and assets, in varying degrees, He has placed us in various situations, each full of opportunities to give Him glory and honor. In doing this He has wagered on and invested in us, counting on us to win the race of life, and witness to His own investment in us, who are the products of His creating hand. And many of us will glorify Him by doing well, justifying the chance He has taken with us.

St. Bernard then notes a third occasion God has taken in our regard, that further witnesses to how carefully He has calculated the wager He has taken with us, showing the reasonableness rather than the foolishness, of His counting on us to do well, to succeed and not to fail. And this is a way we often overlook, given our focus on His Incarnation, and on the Last Judgment, as better known examples of His taking a chance on us. St. Bernard describes this way as “a hidden one”, because He operates by “coming (to us) in spirit and power”. He considers this way as a connecting link or a road between the Incarnation and the Last Judgment. It is apparent in Jesus’remark: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we WILL COME TO HIM.”

So God deals with us at three levels, in three different ways. Thereby He hedges His bets on us to diminish His failure risk and to enhance the likelihood of His success. God does bet, but knows how to cut His losses, and enhance His prospects of winning. He is hardly unreasonable. Rather, He is a seasoned veteran in this regard.

Three Actions You Can Do for Mother Earth

If you are like me, you’ve been reading and hearing about the Paris COP21 (November 30 to December 11, 2015) or the United Nations Conference on Climate Change seeking agreement among it’s member nations on actions needed to reverse human-induced climate change. Passionist, Thomas Berry first introduced me to the issues being addressed here in 1988 with the publishing of his book, “The Dream of the Earth”.

On November 30, 2015 The White House Office of the Press Secretary released a briefing reporting that 73 U.S. companies have pledged to reduce their emissions, increase low-carbon investments and other actions in support of the Paris Climate change agreements. Each company has stated specific goals aiming at such actions as 100 percent renewable energy, zero net deforestation in supply chains and reducing water usage. If these pledges are honored and not mere statements to elicit customer support, the earth truly will be a different place by target date of 2030.

Dream World by Spraycam2
Dream World by Spraycam2

While it’s inspiring to read about what big companies like Amazon, American Honda Motors, and Berkshire Hathaway, just to mention a few, are doing to show compassion for mother earth, most of us are lucky if we can convince our spouse or sibling to do something in our own home. The Bhuddist Deer Park Monastery however in their November 14, “Call to Action: People’s Climate Prayer” lists five definite actions we can take. We can do these things individually or we can do them in our small Sanghas (communities). We can do a simple thing like wear a green ribbon to build awareness amongst those we meet each day.

Here are three actions taken from that list that you might want to try:

  • Wear green ribbon – Wearing a green ribbon will open up a chance to talk about your commitment to the earth when noticed by your friends.
  • Eat Vegetarian – Meat based diets use much more of earth’s resources than vegetable diets.
  • Take public transportation – Reduces carbon emissions and makes our cities more people friendly.

Start today and just like the mammoth companies mentioned above, do your part to reverse climate change by choosing doable action steps.


Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

Dan is a retired teacher for the Chicago Public Schools and a long time friend of the Passionists.  Dan has been a member of the Community of Passionist Partners since it’s inception in Chicago and presently serves at editor of their blog, Dan is currently pursuing a Social Marketing Specialization with Northwestern University in Evanston through their online Coursera offering.

You can follow Dan on Facebook Linkedin or Twitter.


There is a Time

Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Advent introduces a new year into our lives, as the church’s version of the civil new year that occurs every January 1st. It’s a helpful reminder that time marches on, and brings us along with it. Some of us are largely neglectful of time, and its meaning for and impact on our lives. Others of us are quite concerned about time, and the influence it exerts on us. A few of us may be obsessed with time, to the point where it dominates us and makes us its captive.

When we’re young, past time is usually not a major preoccupation for us. In the first place, there’s not that much of it in our lives to this point, and, secondly, what there is of it, has been largely a preconscious period that has not engaged us very consciously, except perhaps for some memorable event of such intensity that it has left an indelible impact on our young self: perhaps a melody that was frequently played or hummed in the house, or a particularly violent thunder storm that rocked the house in which we were staying, or a frightening argument among the adults of the household. In any case, it is our memory that serves as the medium containing echoes of such occasions lingering in our past. It classifies us as the victim of circumstances engulfing us. It epitomizes us as still on the edge of a future yet to emerge, in which our agency will be more prominent.

When we’ve grown into adulthood, we’re ordinarily busily engaged with life as it unrolls before us, and carries us along with itself like flotsam floating on the surface of a river in flood stage, which seems to control us along more than we guide and influence it. Much of our adult energy is expended in just keeping up with things, trying to keep our heads above water and not allowing ourselves to be swept under the flow and disappear beneath it. Time glides by at an alarming rate, seldom allowing us the opportunity and leisure to disengage ourselves so as to take adequate stock of what is happening to us.   This is the stage where we were engaged in shaping our selves, producing the person we finally managed to become.   Here our own freedom was busily engaged in producing the person that was emerging, though not without turmoil and effort.

And then, as we slip into old age, if we have survived to this point, we have amassed a presumably rich time period on which to look back, and enough time and capacity (hopefully) to reflect on it. Here, unlike the early first stage, we have a memory chock full of persons, events and impressions some of which have perhaps indelibly inscribed themselves on us, having shaped us into the kind of person that we have become. At this final juncture we may be may be surprised, as we take a step backward to look at ourselves, asking: is this who I planned to be years ago? Did I follow a line of continuous and harmonious development all along the way, or were there abrupt course changes resulting from unforeseen intrusions in my life and changing the course of action I was pursuing throughout my life? Did I remain master of my own destiny, or did I become the product of unplanned events in my life owing to other persons or events?

In recent years we have become adept at citing conditions prevailing at the times when we grew up, which influenced and formed us for our life ahead, and loom largely responsible for whom we have “turned out” to be, for good or for bad. And, then, we coped with the life unfolding before us and struggled to survive and succeed at what life found us doing, during which we frequently kept our eye on a future time when things will be made right for us, promising that “all, at long last, will be well with us”. Maybe yes, or maybe no. But at times this retirement hope for a better future can take our eye off the present. But living too much in the future can cause us to take “our eye off the ball presently coming at us”, lessening our chance to get on base. But Jesus had a word of advice for such occasions. We are to live in the present more than in the past or the future. As He says: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” (Mt 6.34)

Here is presented a three-fold division of our life cycle: the past, the present and the future. This simplifies what the ancients suggested, such as Ovid, with his four ages facing the human person, and Hesiod, describing five ages confronting us, while Shakespeare famously referred to the seven ages through which we live. But none of these matched the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes in its remarks on “the flow of time”:

“There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them; a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces. A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away. A time to rend and a time to sew; a time to be silent and a time to speak. A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war and a time of peace.” (3.1-8)

Even the Dogs are Fed

 Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Dave O'Donnell
Dave O’Donnell

I really like the story of the Syrophoenician woman in the Luke. She begs Jesus to drive out the demon possessing her daughter. Jesus tells her He has come for the Jews. She responds: “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Admiring her faith, Jesus grants her wish. (MK 7 24-30)

Why did Jesus challenge her? When I hear this parable, I identify with the supplicating woman believing I am asking for something I haven’t earned and probably don’t deserve.

Similar to asking of God, who I’m not sure I believe in for a favor, I really don’t deserve, but ask anyway. “Even the dogs are fed” This is a re-telling of a familiar imperative in parable form to support a wobbly faith.

Seek and you find, knock and the door will be opened, ask and it will be given. (MT 7:7) You don’t have to know God just accept that there is a higher power.

Let’s Take a Look Around and Within


Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

A much recited phrase from the document of Pope St. John XXIII, convoking the Second Vatican Council, was: “the signs of the times”. (Humanae Salutis) He used this phrase to encourage us to look around us, and within ourselves, to note what was going on, and to investigate whether what we saw would be helpful to us in discerning the presence of God in our lives. Jesus Himself previously used this admonition, with His suggestion that we look about us to ascertain the opportunities at hand, and to develop the skills to interpret them. (Mt. 16.3)

Of course, signs can be merely indicative or suggestive, hinting at areas of possible interest to us, while other signs can be more pressing upon us, urging us strongly to pay attention and heed, because something of great importance is at hand, to which we must attend if we want to benefit by it.

Toward the end of the fall season, in U.S. cities gathered around The Great Lakes, there is such a sign common to them all. They are called “the rust-belt cities”, at times in a sympathetic manner. They include places like Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee. They are known for their cold winters and lake-effect snowfalls. But for the resolute denizens of these inhospitable places, they are full of promise for the future, as well as the present. For they are situated near the greatest supply of fresh water in the world, an item coming more and more to be valued and even treasured. For fresh water is coming to be in short supply, and its value is greatly appreciated. For no place survives without a ready supply of fresh water.

Another thing they have in common is their proximity to deep-water ports that can accommodate the large freighters that ply their way back and forth on behalf of the industries that keep these cities going. These massive ships, the length of two football fields put end-to-end, travel their plodding ways up and down the length of an extensive waterway, extending from Duluth in the far north to Buffalo on the eastern edge of this water route. All these cities have been industrial sites for over a century, less so nowadays than earlier on, but still engaged enough to contribute to the vigor and productivity, not only of this region, but of the entire landmass of the North American continent. Loaded with iron ore from the region around Duluth, they work their way through the water system comprised of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and Lake Huron, carrying the raw material that will wend its way through the steel factories and mills, issuing forth in the metals that will be transported to other industries, such as the automobile plants, where they will emerge as new products for display, purchase and use.

This impressive caravan follows a working schedule, roughly from April to November. For that is when the waterways are open, not frozen up in the cold that dominates the months from December to March.   Just as the blade of grass peeking out of the ground toward the end of March, or the robin darting across the sky with sprays of straw in its beak, so the first freighter bearing its iron ore, to be sighted along the waterway of one of these lakes, is one of those signs of the times, that winter has passed and spring is at hand, much like the dove appearing on the prow of Noah’s ark with a sprig of green in its beak alerted Noah to the receding waters of the great flood (Gn 8.11). These were signs of the times, that change is imminent. And by dint of the same token, come the end of November, one begins to wonder whether the freighter spotted far out on the lake’s waterway will be the last one sighted for the season, before the waterways are impassable, frozen shut by impenetrable ice.

Alertness to these signs helps us keep pace with God’s tempo in our lives. Whether we should hunker down for the hibernating season, or whether we should venture out for a brisk walk along our favorite pathway, is indicated by these signs of the times. We can keep pace with Mother Nature in our responsiveness to the changes around us, whether they be in the form of sprouts, robins or freighters, just as Noah was aboard his ark.

In fact, the iron-ore freighter, a massive, hulking mechanism churning its way along an ice-free channel, while an ugly looking menace to some, is an impressive sight to others, comparable to a robin sweeping by close at hand. It can be as much a sign of God at work in our midst as a blade of grass. It reminds us of Jesus’ observation that His heavenly father provides for the sparrow (Mt 10.29). He might have said the same of the freighter. It’s one of those signs of the time that God is at work nearby, for those alert to their surroundings. There is no environment in which He cannot work, but it takes a trained eye to notice this. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so we’re told.   While an iron-ore carrier may strike one as a monstrous menace churning up the placid surface of the waters, there will always be another who sees it as a sign that “God is in His heaven and all is right with the world”. (Robert Browning)

One Day in the Life of a Man’s Monastery

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

I grew up in a quiet almost Beaver Cleaver like community across the street from the Passionist’s monastery in Chicago. During the summer I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear men’s voices chanting. As I grew older I got to know these men. Some were priests who ministered at our local Catholic parish and some were brothers who tended the apple orchard, cooked the meals, plowed the snow in the winter and manned the front and back doors. There were also college students we called Confraters who I’d see walking in silence as I passed the monastery on my way to school in the morning and again at lunchtime when I’d be going home for lunch—we did that in those days. I eventually joined them at their high school seminary for some of the happiest days of my life.

These were not famous ballplayers although Fr. Fred could hit a ball further and run the bases faster than anyone I personally knew. They were not famous actors, yet they were able to hold a church full of people spellbound for 30 to 40 minutes at a time. They were no Carusos but Fr. Kent sang “Danny Boy” like no one I’ve ever heard before or since. They were not community organizers, yet everyone, Catholic or non-Catholic alike knew Fr. Bennet who on his way home in the morning from visiting the sick in the neighborhood would stop wherever he smelled a fresh cup of coffee brewing and complementing the lady of the house invite himself in for a cup and some chatting. This was before Starbucks.

They were a group of ordinary everyday men, living their lives in peace with one another and the world about them, sharing their lives through their jobs (ministries, they called them) with the world and giving thanks and praise to God through their common life of prayer and study.

So last week I wrote that I’d post about what I believe each and every one of us, regardless of our Faith can do to confront religious violence. We can do just what the men I described above did and still do. We can educate ourselves. We can pray. We can work for peace. We can each create a space in our day for study and prayer (reflection on that study). We don’t need a monastery in which to do these things either. Community however, is the sine qua non of making this work. The history of monasticism shows us this. The first monastics started out as hermits, but eventually joined together to walk with each other on their journey through life. So you see why many of the posts here deal with creating and sustaining community. We actually call ourselves the Community of Passionist Partners.

Chelsea Shields TED Talk and Sister Christine Schenk’s work (her column with the NCR, is just a hint of a lifetime of doing) are also great models. We can make the world more peaceful by being that peace in our little corner of it. Oh, we may not get the notoriety of Chelsea or Christine, none the less we will be doers, like Fr. Bennet, Fr. Fred, living our lives one day at a time giving it all we have.

Taking the time to watch the above You Tube video “Documentary about daily life of a Men’s Monastery in Abkhazia” is a great illustration of just what community looks like in real life.