Not Me!

Watching television today leads me to believe that all I have to do to be happy is to buy the right car, live in the right neighborhood, eat the right food or take a particular pill–the list goes on ad infinitum. I don’t think so, in fact I truly doubt that any of that will make me happy. I believe that grappling with life’s struggles, even when I feel completely helpless and abandoned, rewards me and all of us with life.

That seems to be the theme of  Andrew Solomon’s new movie “Far From the Tree”. With this movie Solomon examines life as lived through the lives of five main characters, none of which claim to have any of the above.  I watched, I laughed, I cried and I left the theatre understanding a little better what it means to truly live and not run away, my first choice of action when confronted with a challenge.

Dan O’Donnell, a layman has covenanted with the Chicago Community. In addition to the standard covenant, Dan promises to work at connecting all partners known and unknown, to a conscious following the the way of Jesus, the way of the cross which Dan believes transforms all failure, democratizing the human journey

The Need for More

Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard claims to be a Marxist, a Groucho Marxist that is. In his TED Global 2014 talk, How to let altruism be your guide, he quotes Groucho as saying: “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?” Of course you’d expect that from Groucho the comedian, but from billionaire, Steve Forbes? Yes, Ricard also heard Mr. Forbes say the same thing on Fox News.

Thankfully, not everyone is like Mr. Forbes and Ricard gives us the science that demonstrates many people truly behave altruistically as well as that many more can be trained to act selflessly. He says his scientific demonstration and 2,000 years of contemplative experience validate that 20 minutes of quiet meditation a day for four weeks will bring about significant positive change in an individual’s brain activity making them more concerned for the well-being of others.

We can do something culturally as well. We can work for sustainable harmony. Ricard explains:

“Sustainable harmony means now we will reduce inequality. In the future, we do more with less, and we continue to grow qualitatively, not quantitatively. We need caring economics.”

Now why would anyone prefer altruism over selfishness? Besides making a better world for everyone on this planet, paradoxically it, more than all the material accumulation one can imagine, fills that need for more that we all experience. Thanks Matthieu.

Dan O’Donnell

Dan O’Donnell, a layman has covenanted with the Chicago Community. In addition to the standard covenant, Dan promises to work at connecting all partners known and unknown, to a conscious following the the way of Jesus, the way of the cross which Dan believes transforms all failure, democratizing the human journey


Garima Bakshi wrote an enlightening article “Ramadan has begun, and here’s what you need to know about it“.  I’ve gleamed the following points that I personally find fascinating, but you might enjoy going to the real article to learn lots more. Thanks Garima!

  • Most importantly, Ramadan is a spiritual cleanse of the body, mind, and soul. It is about compassion, honesty, and kindness.
  • It’s ultimately a joyful celebration of a rich history that goes back several millennia.
  • It is the most sacred month of the year for Muslims and celebrates the very origin of Islam.
  • Non-Muslims or Muslims unable to fast are welcome to partake in the festivities at the Iftar feasts.
  • Muslims are instructed to refrain from any sinful behaviour that might negate the rewards of fasting. These include gossipping, cursing, impure thoughts, altercation, and fighting. While it sounds simple, training your mind to avoid negativity can be harder than training it to not crave water and food.
Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

Dan O’Donnell, a layman has covenanted with the Chicago Community. In addition to the standard covenant, Dan promises to work at connecting all partners known and unknown, to a conscious following the the way of Jesus, the way of the cross which Dan believe transforms all failure, democratizing the human journey

A Wasted Life?

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

Uncle Jack will not likely go down in history as memorable. He never did much to merit acclaim or notoriety.   The oldest of five brothers and sisters of a medium-sized Midwestern city, he was a relatively unknown family member. He likely did not graduate from high school, which coincided with the duration of the First World War.

He was drafted into the army, and served overseas in France during the war.   At war’s end, he returned to the States, and was released from his military service. He more or less broke family ties at that point, not completely, but he limited his presence “at home”. He began to move around, from one part of the country to another. He was unattached to anyone, though he had a friendly personality, and always seemed able to make friends, wherever he might happen to be.

So long as his aging parents were alive, he would show up at his family of origin unpredictably, stay awhile, then move on. He had a brother, another bachelor, who was the stay-at-home type, and three sisters, all of whom eventually married. As mentioned, there was no close network bonding him with any of his kin, probably because he was never at home long enough for this to happen. But he never seemed lonely or morose or dependant, at least in the early days, even though he was rootless. With the passage of time his family members grew accustomed to his nomadic comings and goings, and laconically report that Uncle Jack was back home. Everyone anticipated that this would be for just a time, before he was gone again. There was some periodic remonstrance from his sisters about settling down and starting a family life, but he enjoyed living out of town.

He became a traveling salesman, being the garrulous type with the persons with whom he associated.   These happened to be professional golfers, whose careers entailed their traveling on the golfing tour, from place to place. Uncle Jack wasn’t interested in competing to join their professional ranks, but he did enjoy the life of a salesman for golfing equipment, travelling along with them. That group became his family. Perhaps some of them had been in the military with him, but it was a group whose company he enjoyed, striking up friendships with many of them. They formed a buddy system. He got to know their golfing habits and made sure they had access to the golfing equipment they needed.

The professional golfing tour of the 1920s and 1930s became his way of life. Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones were two of the better known on the men’s golfing tour in those days. These were the best days of his life for Uncle Jack, consorting with the rich and famous. Unfortunately, those kinds of days didn’t last forever, as the Great Depression began with the stock market crash, casting a dark shadow over the ‘30s, creating many impoverished individuals and families. Uncle Jack was one of them. The Prohibition Era coincided with part of this time period, and accounted, paradoxically, for the Al Capone era and other like-minded entrepreneurs who made the availability of liquor a hidden but lucrative enterprise.

Uncle Jack became a victim of that era and its addictive appetite for whiskey. And the good life with the well-to-do and the famous became a thing of the past for salesmanhim (and many others), and his ability to get by in a depressed economic period through selling expensive golfing equipment became a thing of the past. His golfing associates notably diminished in numbers, and were just memories of a fading past, and a way of life he had enjoyed. He had no other skills or contacts on which to fall back. He eked out a living, continuing his periodic return to the home of his youth, but it was an uncomfortable fit both for him and the family. His brother, a bachelor like himself, frequently helped him out, but they were not close friends with one another. Their lifestyles were totally different. His brother became a religious stalwart in his parish church, and a faithful practitioner of the faith, while Uncle Jack could not be called a religious person, by any stretch of the imagination.

A saving feature of his life, however, was his decision not to attempt marriage. When asked why he had never done so, he replied that he couldn’t inflict on any woman the way of life he was now leading, though earlier on he had close friendships with women. This realistic admission of his situation helped balance out the ledger of his life. Throughout the remainder of his life he manifested momentary flairs of the kind of man he had been in former days, recounting his association with pro golfers, and regaling his listeners with the jokes he could tell with the best of them, and with what it was like “in the good ole’ days”.   He died tragically on New Years Eve, 1945, in Jackson, Michigan, late in the evening, beneath the wheels of a car backing out of the driveway, as he walked along the sidewalk. His brother, as usual, handled the affairs of his funeral. They lie buried together in a family plot, closer now than they were in life.

Uncle Jack was never prominent in the life of the family, but the name Jack has continued in the family tree. He certainly did not lead a wicked or evil life. But was it a wasted life? Perhaps. But he was good enough to know he would make any girl an inadequate husband, and he had the humility and adequate true self-knowledge to know what he should not do. Possibly he was like the good thief hanging on the cross near Jesus, and from that cross making one request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And why should he not have heard the reply: “…today you will be with me in Paradise”. (Lk 23.42, 43)?

His Only Vices Were Cigarette Smoking and an Occasional Drink

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

We’ll call him Uncle Jeff. He was a bachelor. He was a devout Catholic the better part of his life. He was a stalwart of his parish church—a daily mass attendant. He always sat in the same pew in church. And, as he aged, he obviously enjoyed dominating the laity’s role in reciting prayers such as the rosary or the litany. And, with his brother-in-law, Harry, faithfully brought Catholic reading material monthly to the city jail, on behalf of the Holy Name and St. Vincent DePaul Societies, to which both belonged.

He was a graduate of one of the two big public high schools in town. His family house was close to his parish, two blocks away. Of his four siblings, he was the only one who never left home. He had a brother, a bachelor, like himself, who, however, lived out-of-town. There was a story to the effect that he dated a girl in his younger years, but that could never be verified. So he lived with his parents in the family home, most of his life. It was a comfortable life. His sisters married and had children, on whom he doted on the occasion of their visits. On warm summer evenings he treated them to ice cream cones. His recreation was limited, mainly golf and bridge. In his younger days he did go away, during the summer, to a small lake resort, taking his mother with him, but just for a few days.

He worked all his life, starting right after high school, with a major railway company, with whom he remained all his life. His job, in the latter years, was to keep track of all the freight cars scattered over the extensive system of rails operated by the company for whom he worked—a formidable task in those days when freight cars were haphazardly dropped off all over the extensive track system, and computers were nonexistent to help account for them. It was mainly a pencil and pad method, which he methodically managed for many of his 50 years of employment there. He was well suited for the job, unexciting though it was.

He could have enjoyed some attractive vacations over the years, given the free travel made available to him in view of his long association with the company– anywhere on its extensive rail system. But he never took advantage of this. And he was a man of simple culinary tastes, always taking his lunch at a nearby cafeteria. It never varied: a bologna sandwich, a bowl of vegetable soup and a slice of blueberry pie. His lunch was always ready for him since the cafeteria personnel working there knew what he wanted.

His other shopping habits were similar—clothing, for instance. There was a Sears/Roebuck store close to the station, and it provided whatever clothing his simple needs called for, so that shopping was never an ordeal for him. Should he need a pair of trousers, he headed immediately to Sear’s men’s division, spotted the display counter featuring trousers, and bought the first pair that caught his eye. It was always a pleasure shopping with him, usually a five to ten minute affair.

His prize possession was his automobile—always a Chevrolet. Of course, he drove in the pre-automatic gear shift years. He purchased a new car every 7/8 years, and the neighbors, familiar with his driving habits, vied with one another to purchase the car when he was ready to sell. For he never drove it anywhere except back and forth to work—never out of town except on Sundays, when he took his mother on a little drive through the countryside. As a result, his mileage gauge featured unbelievably low figures. Another feature of the car was that he never drove more than 30 mph, to the distress of drivers behind him, but to those acquainted with his driving habits, this was an added advantage for the person fortunate enough to purchase it.

His only vices were cigarette smoking and an occasional drink.

So he was the perfect example of the temperate, regulated, (some would say, stodgy) life. He was evidently not given to extremes. The closest exception to this was Christmas Eve, when the family assembled for the sharing of gifts and a few drinks. The women gathered in the kitchen or dining room, the men in the living room. There the traditional arguments between Republicans and Democrats would get underway in this era of FDR and his New Deal, sometimes louder than necessary.

His life-style likely appeals to some, while not to others, who may regard its predictable pace and its lack of variety, experimentation and change as stifling. It is hard to know how to evaluate the well-paced life, such as his. Was it the force of circumstances that shaped his life, or was it the result of deliberate choices on his part? Is it possible to cite such a life as a happy one, or was it one of monotony: colorless and overly predictable? Was it the influence of the Catholic faith on his life, or his family situation with its responsibilities?   Or was it a pattern influenced by his habits and comfort level? Did his life’s work/employment unduly rule his life, or did he deliberately choose to live his life in this manner?

Perhaps it is best to leave it at that, saying: to each his own.

Lent Through the Eyes of Teens

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

Memento mori!” (remember you must die) the priest said as he placed ashes on my forehead this Ash Wednesday. Forty days from now on Easter Sunday, he will proclaim the Risen Lord, and new life. In between these two days is Lent.

Before I knew how to spell Lent, I new a cold, dark time of the year when everyone in the house seemed on edge, ready to snap at the littlest of things. Today, I realize that was Lent. In those days my parents fasted every day, even Sundays and worst of all, my father would give up drinking. I couldn’t wait for Easter when we’d all go back to our dysfunctional normalness.

Looking for some interesting thoughts on Lent, I came across a most remarkable website, New Catholic Generation. It is a group of Catholic teens sharing their faith on YouTube. The above is their take on Lent. I thought it was pretty good. The teen, I don’t think he ever gave his name, states that Lent is a time to look at the person we would like to become, compare that with the person we are now, and choose some actions that will help us get there. Sounds pretty good to me. Thanks New Catholic Generation!

Large vs. Small–Which is More Important?

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

The other day a panel truck travelled down the street. Along its side was inscribed what was apparently its motto and claim to fame or at least recognition: NO JOB IS TOO SMALL.

As it passed by, it may not have struck a very distinctive or “catchy” note at first reading—but then, on the sudden, it may have roused one’s curiosity: “Wait a minute! That’s not the usual “No job is too big” pitch. Rather, it read: “No job is too SMALL.” But, by the time one swung around to see if the truck was still in sight so that one could glean from its panel inscription exactly the kind of enterprise it boasted of pursuing, it was too late, because by then it had disappeared from sight, leaving one to conjure up the possible kinds of jobs in which it might engage, that specialized in smallness where help might be needed in certain situations.

For this might have been a plumbing outfit that would be needed to retrieve small items accidentally lost down a pipe or some tubing, or an organization devoted to providing clothes for small people, such as infants, or a specialty store devoted to providing patches for household linens or items of clothing needing a patch or even a number of patches for a quilt-making operation. On the other hand, it might have been engaged in the jewelry or watch-making trade, specializing in small gems.

When all is said and done, it is likely that there are as many small things in life needing attention as there are large ones. And there is probably as many production enterprises devoted to precision tools and instruments requiring repair or improvement of small items as there are their counterparts engaged in doing the same for much larger mechanisms. For example, the devices devoted to the discovery and study of micro organisms, whether on or under the earth, or in the depths of the seas, are likely as numerous, and complex, as are those developed to explore the vast sweeps of outer space. The murky waters of the oceans likely conceal in their depths as many minute organisms as the vast stretches of space teeming with their gigantic counterparts. God’s craftsmanship is as evident in the small as much as it is in the large, and likely there are as many thriving scientific enterprises here on earth devoting themselves to minutely small ventures as there are their counterparts engaged in much the same work, but at the other end of the size spectrum.

The point of interest, then, is the question whether “the small” can be as important in terms of influence or significance or value as “the large”? Admittedly, what is large and imposing tends to attract our attention sooner than what is small and unobtrusive, whether it is buildings forming the skyline of a city, or airplanes lined up on the runway of an airport, or ships anchored in the harbor, or stores featuring massive displays of their merchandise or animals caged in the zoo. Our attention gravitates toward what is imposing and massive more than it does toward what is tiny and unobtrusive.

But these examples all refer to what attracts our attention. But that can differ considerably from what we regard as meaningful and significant for us. For it is likely that most of us spend more time and energy on items of considerably smaller dimensions than those cited above. This is obvious in view of the considerable time and care we devote to our medications, which we carefully line up on our bathroom shelf: small items, each of them, but calling for precision on our part. And urban dwellers with cars but no garages exhibit the same concern in shopping for small enough cars that are more conducive for parallel parking along the street rather than larger. roomier autos, that prove more of a problem in this matter. And do not prospective husbands (probably more than wives-to-be) prefer a future spouse either his size, or smaller, rather than one who towers over him? And some shoppers deliberately seek out small, “mom & pop” establishments to which they take their business rather than large supermarkets featuring several floors of their many wares.

Admittedly, the large enterprise usually has more to offer in terms of the variety and quantity of their products. And an imposing enterprise is normally easier to locate than a smaller one. But there is lacking the opportunity to develop a relationship in a larger organization than is possible in a smaller one. The Lord Himself seemed to have similar concerns about the comparative value of the small and the large when He remarked, apropos of servants who faithfully fulfilled their duties during the absence of the nobleman for whom they worked: “Well done, good servant! You have been faithful in this very small matter; take charge of ten cities.” (Lk 19.17) This corresponds rather closely to the panel truck traveling along the street, featuring its sales pitch: NO JOB IS TOO SMALL.

So to specialize “in the small” is as likely to be an advantage as it is a disadvantage—perhaps more so. Important things can come in small packages, as every young couple know.

Encountering God

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

What does it mean to encounter the holy? Most of us know that it has to do with God in some form or fashion. At least, God is the primordial instance or example of the holy, and likely the source of whatever other forms of holiness that come across our path.

We know that a genuine encounter with the holy begets a sense of respect in us, and reverence, in a way that we don’t experience in our other encounters. It’s different from the wonder we feel at something new and strange, or the sense of bewilderment before the incomprehensible or exotic. There’s always a personal component to meeting the holy, but the personal factor in the holiness experience is different from that associated with coming upon a highly gifted person in the arts or sciences or the professions. In these latter instances, admiration is the more likely component of what we undergo on such occasions, but, again, that’s different from the peculiar and very special features of happening upon the holy.

Usually an encounter with the holy puts us in a passive mode. We back off from taking a leadership or aggressive stance, and choose rather a quiet, low-key, reverential attitude. We judge quiet to be more conducive to holiness than noise and loudness. We regard aggressiveness (“pushiness”)on our part is out of place, and suspect that an attitude of waiting or expectation is more conducive to a holiness event than one of barging in or trying to take control. The agency in the holiness event comes from elsewhere rather than from us, whose appropriate mode of behavior is one of waiting and watching.

So “the holy” often “breaks in” upon us like the surf washing over the beach. The beach doesn’t go out to meet the water; the water breaks in upon and floods the shoreline. All of these expressions of what the holy encompasses would be comparable to what a novelist such as Flannery O’Connor did in her frequent efforts to depict what “the holy” is, especially in her arena of interest, the personal encounter. She was gifted in highlighting the interpersonal features of a holiness episode. It did not present itself to her as an architectural or artistic event, but as an encounter with “another”, often a bizarre and unusual “other”, quite different from what we would expect a “religious” person to be.

The characters appearing in her stories are “strange” in the extreme, in fact, the last type of candidate in the world we would ever think of calling “holy”. They are bizarre, strange personifications of holiness, the likes of which we would find beyond anything associated with the holy. They look strange, their speech patterns are out of the ordinary, their modes of behavior are off the beaten path, their dress styles are ill-kempt and out of style. The last thing in the world we would think of calling them is “holy”. They are, to say the least, “different”. They move and behave outside the boundaries of what we would expect were we forewarned about meeting a holy and religious person. Her religious person would catch us “off guard”.

So, the prim, proper, orderly, and predictable are inadequate ways for her to describe what “the holy” is. She doesn’t employ a stance of reverence, respect or politeness in presenting her candidates for holiness to us. Rather, she catches us unprepared, surprising us and leading us to exclaim: “Well, I certainly didn’t expect THIS. Whoever would have thought that this character exemplifies holiness!!” He/she looks funny, talks funny, dresses funny, walks funny, behaves unpredictably. That would likely be our reaction, should any of her characters emerge from her stories to engage us. In short, they would be STRANGE.

And that, in the last analysis, is the best way of reminiscing on her presentation of “the holiness event”, should we ever have the occasion of encountering it. It is likely we could not have prepared ourselves to handle her version of a religious experience, for it would have fallen outside the framework we employ in thinking about the holy.

But, in many ways Jesus Christ epitomizes her version of the holiness event, from His birth as a baby in a shelter, to the puzzlement He induced in the temple guardians, to the “street” people He befriended in the course of His short life, and especially to the twelve unlikely candidates He invited to be His apostles, and then onto the final hours of His life, excoriated as a breaker of the law and a criminal, suffering public execution. Some of us might have thought twice about accepting the invitation to buy into the meaning of holiness in His terms. For they were indeed quite STRANGE.


God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

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

Does God only help those who help themselves? Or does God help only those who can’t help themselves? Does God favor those who show some initiative, some “get-up and go”? Or are His favorites the lowly and the poor, the incompetent, those without initiative?

He certainly seems to favor the “go-getters”.   Jesus’ story of God’s reward system in which the king rewards those who have invested His gift of money and, in the process, doubled its amount, contrasts strongly with his response to the one who timidly protected what he/she had received, and, at the final reckoning, hesitantly returned the same amount received initially (Mt 25.14-3). For this person ended up losing what little he or she had, and falls out of favor with the king.

Or what about the final contrast at the Last Judgment when the king rewards those who went out of their way to help the indigent and needy, while those failing to act on behalf of such folk hurt their standing with the king? (Mt 25.31, ff.) But on the other hand, the Lord belittles any attempts at self-improvement we make in our regard, like adding an extra moment to our life span (Mt 6.27). And He reminds us of the futility of our efforts at gaining His attention by adding to our prayers (Mt 6.7). In these cases our attempts to help ourselves seem without much effect, and appear even futile. The bottom line seems to be that our efforts are futile. The message seems to be that what God does on our behalf counts more than our own efforts at improving our standing.

Is there a conundrum here: damned if we do, damned if we don’t? Is the message here that, if we try our very best, our efforts go for naught unless supplemented by what God does for us. But, on the other hand, if we don’t try at all, aren’t we vulnerable to God’s reproach that we will gain His forgiveness only if we forgive one another, as we pray in the Our Father? That is, His response on our behalf depends on our own action to do something, so that, if we don’t help ourselves in this matter, He will offer us no helping hand.

This may seem like we’re caught in a “gotcha” moment, whereby we lose, whatever we do or don’t do. Jesus , however, experienced comparable criticisms against Himself, on one occasion, when His healing acts were criticized because attributed not to His power but to that of the devil (Mt 12.24), and, on a later occasion (on the cross) when He was being savaged because seeming unable to come down from the cross and save Himself, i.e., as if failure to act condemned Him to a miserable condition (Mt 27.42).

But perhaps it’s not a matter of either/or action or inaction on our part but of both/and. That is, there’s time to try our hand at something , and there’s a time to gain His help by stepping aside and letting God take action.   We recall the criticism leveled against John Baptist for neither eating or drinking, and then against Jesus for doing these very things (Mt 11.17). So often condemnation for whatever we do or fail to do implies that there is always something to be improved upon.

So it seems God is flexible in this matter. He acts on behalf of those who work diligently to improve things, and He is at hand when we fail to act. Sometimes what we do is important; at other times, what we fail to do is equally significant for gaining God’s favor. God seems equal to both situations.