Hope Lies in Acknowledging Our Mistakes

In 1952 Sister Marie Angeline, SP taught my fellow second grade classmates and me how to solve the problems in our lives. Yes, seven-year olds have problems. She taught us to take a look at our lives, see where we were doing wrong and then do something about it. She called it examining our consciences, confessing our sins and making a firm desire of amendment. Thirty-one years later at the ripe old age of thirty-eight, I realized that I had unlearned sister’s great teaching and instead I was blaming everybody else for all the problems in my life and the world. That’s called the blame game. That didn’t work then, and I doubt if it does today.

If you want a contemporary example of how Sister Marie Angeline’s wisdom works you might enjoy watching Manwar Ali’s TEDx April 2016 talk “Inside the mind of a former radical jihadist” where he shares not the story of some scary person we read about everyday in the news, but his own. He tells us how he was misguided as a youth and how he has taken steps to change his life. Thanks Manwar for your powerful example of how each of us can change the world for the better, and we don’t even have to run for a coveted elected position in our government.

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 believes transforms all failure, democratizing the human journey

Think I’ll Join the Monastery

More and more often these days, I think I should just go join a monastery someplace. Of course there’s no guarantee that they’d take me, especially in the state of mind that makes me think I should go.

The BBC did a series, the first one being ten minutes long The Monastery 2005 where the monastery took five out of hundreds of men who volunteered, and sought to see if these men from all different backgrounds could live in a Benedictine Monastery for six weeks. The one thing the experiment demonstrated more than anything else in my opinion is that you can’t escape from yourself in a monastery.

The experiment also shows the many great take-a-ways one can gain from such an experience. One fact that I hadn’t thought of before is that you cannot be spiritual by yourself, you must do that in community. The Abbot in the series points this out saying that St. Benedict taught this 1,500 years ago. Another interesting thing I learned is that the gateway to the mystical is mystique. Wow!

Now, I thought I was spiritual and somewhat mystical. Guess I have a lot to learn. Thank you BBC, Abbot, Fr. Christopher and the monks of Worth Abbey, West Sussex, England for a very enlightening series.

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 believes transforms all failure, democratizing the human journey

Etha Mae

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

Years ago—decades ago—there was a poor farm family eking out a living on a government-regulated tobacco farm in the Appalachian foothills of Kentucky. The amount of tobacco raised on any given farm was government controlled, and there were frequent flights by small government aircraft over these farms, taking photos of the land being tilled, to certify that the regulations regarding land under tillage were being honored.

There was one such farm, barely eking out a living, with the husband badly crippled, and the wife forced to do much of the heavy work, including the tilling of the land, to make ends meet. There was, at the time, a child in this family, out of wedlock from an earlier liaison. Her name was Etha Mae.

There was an extended family involved in this scenario—a large one—and among this group were two boys, cousins of one another, and of Etha Mae. Both of them were from “the city”, up north, but would spend some time each summer “down in the country”, to maintain contact with the relatives down there, and to get a taste of how the other half lived.

The boys were the same age, though themselves from different parts of the Midwest. They weren’t enthralled by the relatively primitive way of life lived in this part of Kentucky—no electricity, no running water—but there was Etha Mae. Etha Mae was 6 years or so older than they, but a fascinating figure for these boys, on the verge of adolescence. She was a pretty girl, with long blond hair, and would move about on the rugged terrain, roads and pathways running barefoot through the abundant woods bordering the small farms. She ran like a deer, her hair blowing in the wind, over rocky terrain, with facility and ease. And she fascinated her two cousins. She made an indelible impression, so different from the city girls they knew, with no pretense at all about her.

She lived just long enough to leave an indelible memory with them. Unfortunately, she became pregnant out of wedlock, and totally unaware in those days of what abortion was all about, died in childbirth (the child lived into adulthood). She and her family attended a small Methodist church, with a cemetery attached, and her grave is there, looking out over the woods so familiar to her, some seventy years later, but periodically visited, each in their own separate ways, by her two admiring cousins, who wonder: whatever happened to Etha Mae?

The question that arises is: did she live and die in vain? A virtual unknown, with little or no viable future ahead of her, has her short life any meaning whatsoever? Well, it certainly does for her two male city-bred cousins who periodically, and separately, each in his own way, after all these years, stands at the foot of her headstone some seventy years later, remembering her as a symbol of simplicity, primitive beauty, and unselfish giving of her life for a child whom she would never live to see.

Etha Mae, in her own unsophisticated way, is a replica of the One Whose saving act of unselfish generosity we recall this Holy Week. For Jesus too died at a young age, in a way designed to save us all. He had a choice in doing this. He didn’t have to die; He did it for others, not Himself. He underwent suffering that we might learn how to live. And He did this a long time ago, in a remote and insignificant part of the word: tiny Israel. Yet people such as ourselves remember Him. We haven’t forgotten this act of His, so far away and so long ago. And He did it for us, whom He didn’t know. He did this for us, that we might live.

To the extent that we can interpret what happened to Etha Mae as something beautiful and life-affirming, we do so on the eve of a memory that blends with the memory of Christ Crucified that refuses to regard His premature ending as a waste or a tragedy, but as the prelude to another phase or level of life that someone like Etha Mae now likely enjoys, and which we celebrate as Easter.

 

I Doubt That!

Dan O'Donnell
Dan O’Donnell

This past Saturday we buried my dearest friend of the past 47 years, Penny Jaworski. We shared a lot of life together. I don’t remember however Penny ever expressing any deep realization of the effect she had on others. In fact, just the opposite. She often voiced doubt that she made a difference. Ah, she often said how others affected her, but I don’t think she believed she had much of an effect on them. I guess that’s a good thing for knowledge of how we affect one another might limit our activity. Hearing from Penny’s many friends at her memorial however, erased any such doubt in my mind forever. Penny you were loved by many and will be remembered by them for the rest of their lives.

Back to the living. Mr. Casey Gerald doubts, in fact he talks eloquently about the gospel of doubt. He shares the many times in his life when he placed all his hope in his church, then the educational world and finally in the economic systems, only to be left doubting and upset each time. People in 12 step programs like to tell us that when we are upset, the problem is with us. In other words, it’s not other people or a particular set of circumstances that get us upset, it is our response to these that get us upset. Casey Gerald illustrates this truth in his February 2016 TED Talk, the Gospel of Doubt above. In less than 20 minutes, Gerald shares his search for God, and what he finds.

Mr. Gerald is not the only one who doubts. In December of last year, Pope Francis announced that he will name Mother Theresa of Calcutta a saint.  The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, editor-at-large of the Catholic news site America, wrote in a Boston Globe December 18, 2015 article how despite having heard the voice of God prompting her to serve the “poorest of the poor” Mother Teresa of Calcutta spent the last twenty years of her life doubting God. Wow!.

Then of course, there’s the Gospel story of the apostle Thomas as told by John. He, like many of us, needed proof. He was lucky. He found it. (JN 20: 24 – 28)

When you you find yourself in doubt and there is no immediate proof, try:

  • Seeking input from mentors and trusted friends,
  • Spending quiet time just being before jumping to a decision,
  • After doing the above, trust your gut and act.

My Life in Flow

Dave O'Donnell
Dave O’Donnell

As a young person, being ambitious I wanted to achieve much. Discipline and control were basic to whatever the job was at hand. Now as I look back over my life as a 70 year old man, my living seems to reveal a story that was predestined to happen.

When I meditate on the experiences I notice that I was most effective in life when in a state of flow, when I didn’t know who was in control and discipline wasn’t an issue, experience was the issue and the joy in the experience. I think the Buddha’s call this mindfulness.

“nuts!” Saves the Day

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

David Farragut is credited with the remark: “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead”, uttered by this Union Admiral during the Civil War naval encounter in Mobile Bay. At first hearing, it sounds like a foolish piece of advice, leading to unfortunate incidents that could have been avoided by following a different tactic.

A different tactic, of course, would have been something akin to caution. “Better safe than sorry” is a time-honored axiom that has proven wise and accurate over time. In fact, most of us have likely been consistent followers of the cautionary principle in the multiple undertakings we pursue on a daily basis. Driving the car is likely such an activity, and we have likely found it a reliable way of acting, day in and day out—at least those of us over 20 years of age.

Caution is often regarded as a primary instance of the prudence operative in our lives. Prudence has come down over the course of centuries as a highly commendable mode of conduct, even a virtuous way. Prudence is the historically established rule for pursuing a course of action that, more than any other arrangement, comes closest to guaranteeing that something we value or cherish will not be lost or damaged as a result of what we are about to do. This might be the investment of a large amount of money in a business enterprise, or consultation on an important personal health issue with a specialist, or the placement of a child in a day-care facility. In each of these endeavors, we want to make sure, as best we can, that the decision we make holds out greatest promise of success.   We don’t want to gamble our hard-earned money, or our precarious health situation, or the well-being of our child, on an unknown provider whose credentials have yet to be established.

That is, we don’t want to gamble away something valuable to us. Gambling and caution are not comfortable with one another, and this recommends caution to many of us. It seems the best way of providing us some security that we are not endangering something we treasure. So we proceed cautiously and carefully, and this often takes time. We likely want to consult others more knowledgeable than ourselves about the course of action we are pondering, and we judge any hasty decision-making in these matters to be precarious for us and our best interests.

Furthermore, we have often heard that “haste makes waste”. Haste is often regarded as foolish, unless it is the only option. To be “too quick on the draw” seems to be an immature and unwise process to avoid. Speed, in other words, is an adversary that seldom seriously commends itself to our course of action in the kind of actions presented above. The slowness involved in the cautionary approach is preferable to the hastiness associated with sudden decision-making, when, of course, it is possible to make this choice.

However, all of these remarks suggesting a preference for deliberate and careful calculating when important choices have to be made tend not to consider the liabilities that can afflict such caution. For instance, while we notice, on expressways, posted warnings about excessive speed, we may overlook the signs forbidding minimum speeds. Cautious, slow-driving drivers must keep their speeds above a certain minimum level to avoid fines. For violating these minimum limit is excessive caution and can also lead to serious accidents. In the same line of thought, drivers, especially those who tend to move slowly on an expressway, yet who, on a multilane road, prefer to use lanes on the left, which faster drivers normally use, may feel comfortable providing for their own safety and the control of their vehicle in doing so, but may aggravate faster drivers behind them in the same lane, leading them to “take chances” in the attempt to overtake and bypass them. In so doing, they can endanger themselves. Here is a case where one person’s caution can trigger another’s decision to take a risk in an effort to bypass the slower moving vehicle.

Nor is excessive caution confined to highway speeds. Medical advice given to a patient recently diagnosed with a serious and fast-moving infection, to the effect that he or she should take immediate action against an imminent health hazard afflicting the patient should usually be followed up on as soon as possible, because dalliance might prove seriously harmful.

Indeed, deadlines of any type promising some benefit to participants in a competitive exercise, if they be ignored or postponed on the score of more time needed to think over this contest more carefully, may come and go, to the potential loss of those who tend to be procrastinators.

This seemed to have been the mindset of General McAuliffe during the World War II Battle of the Bulge, when his airborne division, surrounded by the Germans, received a German surrender ultimatum, to which McAuliffe responded with the quickest and shortest response in military history: “nuts!” Sometimes quick decisions can save the day.

Are You a Long or Short Term Investor?

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

We sometimes hear veterans of life’s battles saying something comparable to the remark: You win some, you lose some. In a way this sounds admirable.   It presents someone who has seen his or her share of life’s challenges, and has reached some kind of accommodation to the way things turn out. And apparently the formula reflects a workable arrangement for that person comparable to a dietary program striking a balance between too much and too little at the dinner table. And so it resembles a sensible, realistic balance, even if not too exciting.

Of course, for optimists among us, it strikes a sour tone. A genuine optimist doesn’t want to settle for defeats in his or her life, or even to countenance their possibility, even if they rarely occur. To settle for a life formula that stares reality in the face and is willing to compromise for some losses and defeats seems to be a de-energizing stance that almost guarantees losses. Why build the possibility of losing into the life struggle to succeed and gain one’s goals? Is it not a de-energizing and deflating attitude that guarantees that wins will be few and far between?

On the other hand, the realists among us want to dismiss the likelihood of “wins” from our repertoire of likely outcomes of our efforts. Why set oneself up for being knocked down time and time again? This can prove to be self-fulfilling, to initiate an enterprise that in all likelihood is doomed from the very beginning. It soon proves to be deflating and promises to issue in defeat from the get-go.   It proves to be a waste of time and energy, which could be much better utilized by lowering our standards and goals, and thereby avoiding the calamitous disappointments of failure and defeats. To settle for what is “good enough” issues in greater peace and contentment than striving for the very best.

In the calculation process, counting wins and losses, the relative importance of the wins and losses, of course, counts for something. That is, a major win is not checked or balanced by a minor setback, just as an important failure is not compensated for by a relatively unimportant success. If American Pharaoh wins the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, that more than balances out a subsequent loss in a less prestigious race. So calculating wins and losses has to take the merits of these contests into account.

Realistically, no one can count on a streak of endless wins, though, on the other hand, one can realistically fear that a streak of endless defeats can become self-fulfilling. A mindset that has lost self-confidence puts itself in a perilous situation where defeat becomes a likelihood. So it is a bit of an art to maintain one’s balance by counting on winning some and losing some, and being willing to settle for that situation over a long period of time.

It is usually comforting to work with someone on a project, who maintains a balance of comfort with winning some and losing some. To collaborate with someone who never calculates possible defeat into his or her projects is somewhat disconcerting, while to partner with another who foresees nothing but the likelihood of failure and defeat is to become a collaborator in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There is a Christian angle to this conundrum, thankfully. For a Christian works in the context of the long-range view of things. Unlike those who constantly transfer their investments from one enterprise to another, in usually short-term arrangements, a Christian is a long-range investor who places his/her assets in a far-reaching strategy that, while willing to settle for the “win some/lose some” formula, in what can be called a short term arrangement, actually stretches out far beyond to a guaranteed formula of ultimately winning, that is, winning the big one. It’s against this forecast that losses can be sustained in the short term, even with a certain amount of confidence and self-assurance, where one’s broker can promise that “…whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day”. (Jn. 6.54)

Success, Baseball and God

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

Success can be accounted for in different ways: talent, opportunity, effort, connections, luck. Sometimes it’s a mixture of several of these, and this holds true for various areas and/or phases of life: school (as teacher or student) , business, athletics, the world of art, communications and theater, the military, personal relationships (especially marriage), and even religion (or, by extension, the spiritual life).

One area that is fairly easy to address in this matter is that of athletics, or sports, as we say, if for no other reason than the success of athletes, whether professional or amateur, is constantly being scrutinized, measured and compared with other athletes. And it is widely broadcast and disseminated in the various forms of the media, employing various ways of measuring success.

Now that we are in the baseball season, especially professional baseball at the “major league” level, we have ample opportunity to reflect on success in terms of the various baseball teams, and of the individual players filling out their rosters. Various types of tabulated statistics are available to the serious student of professional baseball, to facilitate comparisons between different teams, and a variety of players, in their various field positions or batting statistics.

For example, we can look at the Cincinnati Reds, and two of their players, both of whom were fairly good. Their careers are now over, their playing time just missing one another, with Bell departing from the team in 196l, just as Rose was coming aboard the team. They both enjoyed success during their years with the Cincinnati team , a success that is easier to compare in terms of the kinds of persons they showed themselves to be on the field (though Rose played infield while Bell was in the outfield) or in the dugout than in their batting averages (since they faced different pitchers).

Both were judged to be successful ball players (overlooking here the scandal with which Rose was eventually charged). I knew Bell personally, but not Rose. They brought different styles to the game: Bell was laid back, Rose was intensely involved. Bell took what came his way; Rose competed for every inch accruing to him.

The success they enjoyed was traceable to these starkly different styles, both of competing, and, in general, of living one’s life. Bell made the best of a situation that may not always have corresponded to what he might have wanted for himself; Rose would reshape a disagreeable situation into one more to his taste and liking. Bell was casual; Rose was combative. But both were successful.

Bell conformed to the situation in which he found himself. Rose changed the situation to conform to his liking. Can we learn anything about success in comparing these two ballplayers? Is there any one thing they had in common to account for the success they enjoyed?

As mentioned earlier, there are a number of factors forming the recipe for success: talent, opportunity, effort, connections, luck. Both of these ballplayers had native talent for baseball, and both recognized opportunity to display their talent, when the occasion offered. Both had the get-up and go, and made the effort needed to grasp the opportunity when it offered.   And “opportunity” goes hand-in-hand with effort, to supplement its importance. And then there is the element of “connections”, that is, persons in a position both to note talent, and to bring it to the attention of those that matter in the baseball enterprise. And, finally, there is the oft-cited element of luck.

Luck can be reduced to the level of a charm one carries, like a rabbit’s foot. But it can also be elevated to a higher level of significance, such as the providence of God. In fact, God, in His providential care for us, can appropriately be linked to most of the elements listed in the formula or recipe for success: not only “luck”, but talent, opportunity, effort and connections.

In terms of these two individuals, all of these converge on the relatively small area of life called the baseball game. They also account for the more significant segments of our lives. But, whatever area on which we focus, to ascertain success in our efforts, it is perhaps well expressed in the familiar saying: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” When Gus Bell and Peter Rose walked onto the playing field, it was what happened when they used their bat and fielders’ glove. And this may have happened from something inside them different from any combination of talent, opportunity, effort, connections or luck. It may have come, as they say, from “heart”.   And God operates there too.

Looking for Beauty

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

Beauty, though desirable, is really unnecessary. It’s more like fluff on a solid substance: nice to behold, but not required. Beauty can be dismissed without any damage resulting, or any sense of loss or incompleteness. Life can be lived without an experience of the beautiful. There may be a sense of loss but no irreparable loss.

Beauty is more frequently thought of as a feminine asset than a masculine one. Strength is usually considered a masculine attribute rather than a feminine one. While the feminine form found frequent expression in ancient Greek sculpture, it was to exemplify beauty, while the masculine gained artistic expression for its display of strength. While beauty is appreciated, strength is irreplaceable.

What might be the downside of a loss of beauty? Can life go on without it?

Drabness might well express an experience lacking any beauty. Or might ugliness be the better way to express this? In either case, what would living a life described as ugly or drab be like? In either case, what would life be like if it provided nothing but the ugly and the drab? Could life go on in such circumstances?

Thinkers in the ancient world were not slow in recognizing it and assigning merit and significance to the beautiful. In fact, they frequently aligned it with such attributes as goodness and truthfulness and unity or oneness: the perfect is a combination of what is true, good, one or wholeness, and beauty. Despite this, beauty seldom gains the acclaim and the recognition that the others receive. Why is this?

The terms “ugly” and “drab” were used above to draw attention to the absence of beauty in life. To give body to these descriptions, we might think of them in terms of a prison cell. We readily acknowledge a jail cell as lacking any vestige of the beautiful. Is this because ugliness is the most suitable way of enhancing the punishment that we associate with imprisonment? Prison seems to be synonymous with the drab and the ugly.

The mass housing ventures erected in our urban centers, not too many decades ago, for the poor and impoverished often gave off strong indications of much the same thing: the ugly and the drab. That is why city governments in recent times have leveled them to the ground, replacing them with more livable arrangements.

There is an interplay between the lack of beauty and the absence of goodness (or the presence of evil).

Evil, once recognized for what it is, clearly emerges as something ugly and distorted. Perhaps that is why our prisons were designed to be ugly, because they housed those who were criminals, that is, those who engaged in evil. And that is undoubtedly why civic minded persons also agitated to level mass housing for the poor, because it gave off the message that poverty and evil were aligned.

And so we come to God. God is the epitome of both strength and beauty. We don’t differentiate between a God of Beauty and a God of Strength. They are aligned within the God we have come to know, love and worship. In fact, He is the summation of all that is true, good, beautiful and One (or unified), even while, in our Christian tradition, we profess Him as a Trinitarian God. We can say that of no one else, or nothing else.

But this recognition sends us on a search to discover what, other than God, might best encapsulate or house what we acknowledge as the epitome of beauty. Would it be something in mother nature: the sea, a mountain, a valley, a flower or garden? Would it be the heavens: a sunrise or sunset, a waning moon, a multitude of stars? Would it be a form of bird life, or a creature of the sea, or a land animal?

Or might it be a product of our human genius: something that we see, or something that we hear: a painting, a sculpture, a building? A symphony, a motet, a ballet? A play, a poem, a novel?

Whatever we call beautiful is something that enjoys symmetry, proportion, color, balance, shape. It borders on what emerged from the hand of God on the sixth day of creation: the garden of Eden, which we were able to enjoy for so short a period of time. Our hope is to enjoy it again—in the future.