“Don’t have me waiting here like a fool next week.”
Celebrating ten years of sobriety last week prompted me to ask for a chip when I attended a meeting. As I mentioned, the six-month chip is still sacred to me because it showed me I could imagine a different way of living, a fuller life, it made it real.
Unfortunately, they were all out (which is a great problem) and I waved in a way that said “no worries”, but the meeting organizer told me if I came back in a week, he’d be there with one. I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure I was going to be there, but then he looked at me, smiled, and said the quote above. We laughed, and now I had to show up.
Sure enough, when I walked in tonight there he was, waiting with my chip.
Tonight, as I listened about various journeys and realizations, one threw me for a loop.
When we are making tough decisions on what to cut out of our life or what to change, all the negative or manipulative thoughts we share are in our own voice. There’s no menacing and guttural derision that can be easily recognized, instead it’s familiar and often plays on our weakness. We have to be so careful about how we are speaking to ourselves and if we’re making time to prayerfully listen and allow God to work.
At the end of the meeting, my new friend and I shared another laugh instead this time it was one of those “how good is God?” laughs that comes from a place deep inside – a place that has been humbled and hollowed, with room enough for grace and love to fill.
Walking to my car, running my fingers over the serenity prayer on the back, I felt a divine peace as if God was the one waiting for me, ready to look like a fool if I chose to listen to myself instead.
I recently saw a post that said, “If you made it through the pandemic without buying a dog, you deserve a medal.” The simple recognition that getting through something without some help – in this case, a loyal friend to greet you when you get home or go for a walk – is difficult, and I agree. I’ll admit, when I hurt my knee this past year and couldn’t run for months, my sobriety was tested in a new way. Stress can cause an increase in alcohol consumption, and we saw that during the pandemic – all of us were looking for some help, a respite. I remember walking one sunny day in May thinking all was far too heavy.
Another walk I’ll never forget was in New York City with my father, and when we passed an unhoused person, he gave them some money. I was a kid, but something I heard people talk about was how you should give food instead of money because you never know where they’ll spend it and, when I asked him what he thought about this he said something like “it’s not my job to decide how they use it” and that ultimately, even if it was being used to buy a drink, it might be the little relief they need for the evening.
Making it through life sober isn’t something that deserves a medal, but to someone who struggles with alcohol or just doesn’t want it to be a part of life, it is worthy of celebration. A lot of meetings I used to attend didn’t even hand out chips to recognize milestones so as to make the focus more about the journey and not the recognition, but I have fond memories of receiving my six-month chip. This was the amount of time that when I reflected, it seemed like it could be a lifetime reality. The last ten years have been the best and most challenging years of my life. I’m more solid and self-aware now than at any point in my life. This is a blessing, but also a challenge. In the past year, I’ve been able to name more emotions and movements which need addressing to take steps towards growth – an example being anxiety when things aren’t working out as planned or when there’s a lot happening at once. Typically, my response has been to try and outwork the pressure, but what I’ve learned is this way of proceeding can appear as fear and isolation. It’s difficult to collaborate with someone who has an anxious presence because it doesn’t allow space for intricate problem solving, and it can favor a decision too heavily influenced by opinion or more talk about the problem and less about the possibility. When I learned this about myself, I found I have yet another daily decision to make – working to be a non-anxious presence. I found this prayer in my phone – a picture taken years ago during a service trip in Jamaica, and I’ve started incorporating it into my daily routine.
Many people wake up every day and make decisions to do the tough thing even though they have every reason not to do so, and these are the people I think about whenever I’m feeling unsure of my course. I’ve learned to stay vigilant, even if things are good, and even if I’m not feeling a desire to drink which has thankfully been most of the time over the years. One of the daily decisions I make is something I picked up from a vital text in my journey – The Soul of Sponsorship – The Friendship of Father Ed Dowling, S.J. and Bill Wilson in Letters and this excerpt has stayed with me,
Bill had made a decision, Father Ed reminded him, to turn his life and his will over to the care of God, and having done this, he was not now to sit in judgment on how he or the world was proceeding. He had only to keep the channels open — and be grateful, of course; it was not up to him to decide how fast or how slowly AA developed. He had only to accept. For whether the two of them liked it or not, the world was undoubtedly proceeding as it should, in God’s good time.
We all need something to help get us through this life, for some of us what we turn to ends up taking us or dulling who we are or what we could be. For anyone out there who isn’t sure if alcohol is one of these things, just know that many don’t get to the point of being able to make this decision – this I have learned and so today I sit in acceptance and gratitude, not judgment.
Last night, I gratefully ordered a club soda with lime for what seems to be the 10,000th time.
Twenty minutes later I watched as a Guinness was purposely poured. It cascaded over the spoon to create a swirling work of art. The pint was quickly but carefully brought to a patron waiting patiently at the end of the bar.
Walking around the Milwaukee Art Museum last week, I was in awe of the eclectic collection and refreshing architectural design.
Often I’m drawn to bright colors and vibrant pieces, but linger at simple ones, depressed in tone – they’re the ones that evoke my raw emotions.
At first, this was not one of them.
I walked past it and when I circled back I noticed something – it was in disguise.
I saw a chalkboard, hastily washed, with a small box and a line under it as if it was etched by someone who was in a hurry.
When I got closer, I read the description and examined the canvas. It was an oil painting.
Immediately, my opinion was transformed. From nothing special to wow, just because I knew the ingredients.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, a saving grace of maintaining my sobriety in social situations has been ordering a club soda with a lime.
“What are you doing in a bar anyway?” is a question some might ask as I do consider myself an alcoholic.
I’m grateful that I’ve been able to be in social situations, sober since July 7th 20011, and I haven’t felt an unmanageable desire to drink. Many of my friends, or people I know in recovery, do not share this level of comfort. It’s something I consider a luxury and work very hard at maintaining.
You might be thinking – didn’t he begin by saying he was in awe of a Guinness being poured, I don’t know how comfortable he really is? – I get that, the desire is there, sure, it’s just not unmanageable.
I mean, I went to Ireland, was in Dublin and people in the bar even thought I was Conor McGregor, and wanted to buy me a drink. The desire to indulge was undeniable.
That’s one of the lighter moments where I had to decline, despite wanting to take them up on their offer. There have been some really tough times too.
I’d much rather not have to manage my time at happy hours, depending on how comfortable I’m feeling.
It would be nice to be part of champagne toasts at weddings.
However, if someone told me I could go back, I wouldn’t.
I wouldn’t because before, my life had many moments of chaos, confusion, uneasiness, regret, and despair. Not to belabor a point but, like I’ve said in previous entries, most people would have never known.
Our culture is pretty accepting of alcohol abuse.
But I can’t deny that I knew.
Deep in my soul, I knew I wanted more out of life.
Maybe that explains my taste in art. I appreciate and am drawn to color but I’m in awe of the simple, the honest and the raw. I’m in awe of interior struggle, and I’m committed to maintaining the level of quiet peace that sobriety has given my soul.
My drink isn’t flashy and doesn’t grab attention and ordering it could even be seen as deception, but upon further investigation, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Club soda with a lime – it’s simple, and if I continue to give it a chance, it’s exactly the right ingredients.
Movies and television make relationships out to be full of extremes. Amazing or broken. Beautiful passion or deceitful destruction. I think this is why we are all so fascinated with marriage. Two people making the decision that even with the possibility of potential tragedy they see on display in movies, television or even some of their friends’ lives, the possible amazing is worth the risk. For a long time I thought this assessment was pretty spot on, but boy was I wrong. Love doesn’t live in extremes, it might visit, but it spends most of its time in the middle of the give and take that’s necessary to sustain something truly beautiful. These are the marks of true love – mutual respect, selfless support, boundless belief. I know what you’re thinking. What do I know, right? Not much, but have I paid attention. Believe it or not, I’ve had a front row (and recently a third row) seat.
Years ago I was at a wedding where the bride and groom wrote their own vows. Not only were they heartfelt and personal but they both mentioned the importance of building each other up, never tearing the other person down, and they meant it. She spoke about how much she admired him and with a purposeful smile on his face, he looked right into her eyes and said he would always be there for her. In that moment, I remember thinking, “THEY are in love.” They spoke with calm, but excited, conviction.
The focus on mutual respect and support is something I witness with my own mother and father. No matter what is going on, something that isn’t tolerated is breaking down the other person. There are stressful arguments at times, but it never devolves to personal attacks. Before it gets to that point it is almost as if they look at each other and know. Arguing is one thing, but desecration is another. Devolution to disrespect is off the table. They teach me that we don’t need to worship the person we are with, but we need to cherish them, at all times.
My father works with contractors and knows a lot about the intricacies of how things are built. Once he told me about a building in NYC – 432 Park Ave – that is extremely tall (425.5m) but has a base the size of a postage stamp (comparably to what it could be). The building has a 19:1 ratio of height to width and because of this, there needs to be built in floors that are open in order to let air flow. If architects didn’t include those, then the building would not be able to stay standing if there were strong winds. They also have a humongous suspended weight at the top of the building that in order to maintain balance, moves as the building sways. In order to create something so awe-inspiring, a great deal of effort needed to go into creating an intricate design that would stay standing in a storm, just like my parents’ marriage.
In the grand scheme of this world, they occupy a postage stamp. Neither has interest in notoriety, nor do they feel the need to take more than they need. In raising my sister and me, they give their time, effort, emotion, resources and most importantly, they share their foundation. Their values influence the way they live their lives each day. When my mother was a teacher she emphasized the importance of empathy and respect. Whether the students were four or fourteen, she made sure they knew how important they were to her and that if they focused on the golden rule, their life journey would be filled with meaning. She brings that same attitude home and always makes sure my father feels loved. He does the same. Thoughtful gestures, kind words and relentless support are hallmarks of his love. Together they spend time on making sure there are those built in spaces that allow the both of them to be their own person. They sway and at times it takes the great weight (their faith) to keep them balanced, but because they have dedicated their lives to building one another up, it’s going to take a lot more than some wind to bring them down. This allows them to stand tall, together.
The reflection below was written as an assignment in a training program to be a spiritual director through Loyola University, Maryland. Not the typical post but I wanted to share it. The books referenced are all books on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
In the book, “The Boy at the Back of the Class” by Onjali Q Raúf, there is a line that I will hold with me for the rest of my days. The book is about a class and how they embrace Ahmet, a nine-year-old Syrian refugee, the focus is on the transformational power of something so simple – kindness. It reads,
Grown ups always like coming up with long words for simple things.
Reflecting on how to discuss the topic of decision making in the Spiritual Exercises, I was initially drawn to long words, a more complex explanation highlighting all the important nuances. However, when reading Michael Ivens, SJ, everything clicked for me in two words he used – simple assent. This comes when he is discussing the times for an election,
“But if the definition is vulnerable to interpretations beyond its strict content, and if the content itself leaves unanswered questions, the definition nevertheless makes clear the essential quality of the First Time and its distinctiveness in relation to the other times: it is a situation in which the evidence consists in being shown, decisively and unambiguously, the course to follow, and the response is one of simple assent.” (Ivens, p. 136)
Although each of the three times of decision making is unique, the goal is the same, as describes by David Fleming SJ in the contemporary reading of the Spiritual Exercises, “In making a choice or coming to a decision, only one thing is really important – to seek and to find how God is calling me at this time of my life.” (Fleming, p. 133)
I am not going to spend much time on the Second and Third Times of decision making, but I will share a personal example of the First Time: “When God our Lord so moves and attracts the will that without doubting or being able to doubt, the faithful soul follows which is shown, just as St. Paul and Matthew did when they followed Christ our Lord.” (Ivens, p. 135)
I decided to quit drinking a little over nine and a half years ago. Although I had thought a few times that this might be a good thing for me, I never entertained it in a decision-making process. One day, however, I woke up, dropped to my knees, and simply assented to God’s will for my life. Drinking was impacting relationships, my self-image, and looking through God’s eyes, I now see it was impacting my work, my ministry.
Leading up to this time in my life, I did not have a regular prayer life of my own choosing, it was more by default. I was serving as a middle school teacher, Religion being one of the subjects, and I was also responsible for campus ministry work which included a weekly chapel service. I worked was passionate about my craft, cared deeply about the community, and worked to spread the love of God, but I didn’t feel this personal love of God or myself in my soul. For this reason, the writing of Brian McDermott SJ, was most helpful, “Summing this up: trust in God, and act in freedom. Do the most you can, in terms of homework, act in freedom, but also trust in God who wants to bring you and your decision-making process to the reign of God more than you do.”
God wanted to bring me and my decision-making process to the reign of God more than I did.
My decision to go to an AA meeting that day was similar to the scene described by Howard Gray SJ, about the woman who was a dress designer in London and was walking by a Carmelite church and heard distinctly something, a call, go into this chapel. And she went into it and she said, “I’m going to be a Carmelite.”
I walked into the room over nine and a half years ago and I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since. I am not plagued by the overwhelming desire to drink, and with attention and always knowing sobriety isn’t guaranteed, it has been manageable for all these years.
Since that day I have prioritized God in my life and my preaching, teaching, and actions. My will and Thy will are more closely aligned, and I’ve finally grown to accept God’s love. I have a more positive self-image and can even say, with some confidence, I love myself.
One of the passages we were invited to pray with was from Matthew, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
I have spent a lot of time on lengthy explanations about why I decided to quit drinking but, I now know it’s simple – because God wanted me to and was waiting for me to realize what could be.
God knew why I was made and was calling me to come home before I lost my taste – before I lost my life and not in the physical sense although that could have come sooner based on how I was living, but in the spiritual sense. I was forfeiting the gift I had been given, simply by refusing to do my homework, to study and reflect on why I am on this earth and what I can do with my one chance. Ultimately God is God and can do what God wants, but what I’ve learned from the Exercises and decision making, it’s not until we decide – sometimes in a simple assent and other times after more extensive work, but we have to make a decision and keep making decisions. Life-altering ones and daily mundane ones, always putting God first trusting the words of the prophet Jeremiah,
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
“We’re going to build a home for a family that doesn’t have one.”
I’ve had the privilege of participating in a number of service trips in my career in Jesuit education and each one begins with a question: “What’re you going there do to?” In the past, my response to this question has echoed the one above, but in recent years it has changed, a lot. My answer now is more like, “We have an opportunity to volunteer with a great organization. We’ll be part of a team that collaborates with the local community to provide housing.” Less focus on what I’m providing, less spotlight on me, more focus on the greater mission of which I am a member.
As I grow older and more aware of my place in this world, I have become more comfortable with knowing my place and playing my part – something Jesus showed even as a young boy. Luke describes the scene when his parents lost him only to find him in the temple with the teachers:
When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
As I continue to grow in my curiosity and reverence of Jesus, I am often moved by his lack of ego but an overflowing sense of confidence. It’s humble confidence or better yet, helpful confidence. He knows it’s not about him, but he also knows he has a purpose. What makes this remarkable is that he is the Savior but he still insists on finding ways to give credit to how God is working in his life or the people.
I have also had the privilege of participating in a number of conversations about deeply personal experiences in my various ministry roles and I’ve learned each should begin with a similar internal inquiry: “What’re you here to do?”
When I see someone in the hall and stop for a moment to talk, call someone, or even participate in a breakout group or any of the many interactions on a daily basis:
What’re you here to do?
Am I here to listen? Learn? Preach? and God forbid…am I here to save?
St. Ignatius says that we were “…created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.” Oh how badly I have misread and lived this at times.
Ignatius does NOT say we were created to share how great we are with others, make sure they hear us, and as a byproduct of being in our presence, allow their soul to be saved by us.
This way of proceeding only asserts dominance and as a white male I admit, at times I have communicated hints of this in how I’ve approached entering into spaces of service or collaboration. This is an impediment to building trust and promoting true partnership. If I feel like I have it all figured out and all I’m here to do is showcase this then it’s not a service trip, it’s not a conversation, it’s not a partnership – it’s a performance.
When I overestimate my ability or role, I underestimate God’s power. Living this way takes up so much space that there is little room for anyone else to shine.
So what’s the antidote? Embracing these words:
The role of Savior is already taken.
Now, I know that not all who are reading this ascribe this title to Jesus so if you don’t, then it’s simply the realization that we should all be supportive of someone else having the answer, someone else having it all together or being the leader. Having that realization has transformed how I evaluate a meaningful day or even a meaningful conversation. It has changed how I live my life as a member of a global community.
I am not the end.
I am not the answer.
But I can seek to better understand my role, and walk with you on this journey with God.
We were hitting our groove. Lingering a bit on each introduction and entertaining some small talk seemed taboo considering the packed agenda but we did it anyway. I looked up and saw we had four minutes remaining in our small group and with three people yet to share, the future became predictable.
In the past year, this same scene has played out numerous times. Small groups in virtual meetings can be rare opportunities for memorable fellowship in what can seem at times to be a sterile way of communicating, but there’s a problem. They end.
I’ve watched the time tick away as group members continue sharing, only for our time to come to an abrupt end. Seemingly tossed back into the large group, small group members send private messages of gratitude, expressing, “I wish we had more time!”
I’m struck by how many of us watch the seconds count down and either think it doesn’t apply to us or choose to ignore the reminder as if the meaningful dialogue will earn a pass from the main meeting.
This morning, as the snow was falling with gentle persistence, I stopped and made some imprints like a kid writing their name in wet cement.
The snow continued falling and filled in my footprints until the sidewalk all looked the same.
Many of my relationships the past year have been sustained by brief, honest, and sometimes emotional conversations at the end of which we part ways with hopes of connecting again soon.
Some days it feels like there’s not enough time and some days there’s too much.
At my best, I lay my head down on the pillow and exhale a peaceful breath knowing my seconds were cherished.
At my worst, I can’t even say my time was well spent because it was more accurately discarded with disregard for its value. Tasks were completed but precious seconds were sunk into a screen or spent on a cycle of thinking that could be broken with some awareness and care.
And then there are the days with no name. The days that end with some perceived victories or moments of gratitude and some intentional listening, but with an equal amount of distraction, staggering screen time reports, and uneasy feelings.
The common thread in them all is the constant of time.
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States was January 21st, 2020. Since then, over four hundred thousand people have died here and over 2.2 million worldwide.
The time continues to pass and can no longer be spent on “if only” – make the call, send the message, show the love, be the light for someone who needs it, ask for the help we need.
January 21st is also my birthday, a date that will now serve as a reminder for me that no amount of wishing can keep our time in this life from ending.
When there’s nothing else to say, risking ending with an empty platitude, I said, “One day at a time, right?”
This year I’ve been taking courses learning how to be a spiritual director. The material we read is about higher things and inner movements, and their intersection with our daily life – our life with God. The lessons are not only rooted in this material but are focused on how to use this information to best accompany someone else on their spiritual journey. We have weekly reading and reflection questions as we grow to better understand the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Our reflection questions often ask, “How do you plan to introduce this to someone else?”
As a teacher, I’ve often been told that when a student can teach the concept to the class, then they truly understand it. This question issues that challenge.
I wrestle with the way I’ll invite people to different experiences of prayer while allowing freedom for the time to be theirs, not overly shaped by my guidance.
As I reflect on the time I’ve spent in spaces that have achieved this balance – on retreats, long drives, walks, or meetings – with students, fellow school community members, friends, and loved ones, I keep coming back to the conclusions of these conversations.
Many of the memorable healers, helpers, listeners, directors, and mentors in my life all have something in common – the way they conclude our time together always includes a pearl of wisdom.
Be good to yourself.
Take good care.
I’m with you.
Until next time, my friend.
Go with grace.
Keep fighting the good fight.
Keep doing what you’re doing.
Remember who you are.
What will be the pearl I share?
I want to make sure it’s not cliché. I want it to be a launching pad or a nudge in the right direction.
Like this Bob Ross, quote I want to have something that is simple and helpful.
After speaking with a newly sober friend, they recently closed a conversation with, “One day at a time, right?” This wasn’t something original or flashy, they simply shared what was the most salient message.
It stuck with me because sometimes I spend so much time trying to think of the right thing to say, something unique, when someone else has simply said it better.
There’s nothing wrong with the repetition and the reaffirmation.
Even further, I was left to spend time with their words, a phrase that is so widely known, and reflect on what it means to me. Some days it might be one hour at a time whether this applies to stress, sobriety, or maybe even something we tell ourselves in the morning like, “Today, I’m going to keep an open mind.” When we make a mistake, it’s tempting to act as if all is lost but the reality is, as long as we’re alive, we have another chance – even if the chance isn’t exactly how we had planned. Often these goals are best pursued, one step, one hour, one day at a time.
In the end, it isn’t the advice I give or the memorable statement, it’s up to me to listen, share when helpful, and ultimately, even if I’m not the author, even if it could be considered a platitude by some, pass on what could be a pearl of wisdom.
We see people and things not as they are, but as we are.
Anthony de Mello
A whisper of fear told me I could not post this picture. Seeing the Statue of Liberty upside down, in a Canadian museum, a creation by an artist born in Montreal, it seemed to be too critical. Unpatriotic even.
I took a picture anyway and made sure to also document the description.
The Abyss of Liberty
Anonymous gift, inv. 2017.403
Drawing on the famous Auguste Bartholdi statue unveiled in New York in the nineteenth century, Michel de Broin questions the notion of liberty by placing the iconic figure in a precarious position. He shows it upside down, balancing on its flame. By reducing the figure to a human scale, the artist strips it of its awe-inspiring nature, creating a closeness between the viewer and the object. With its hollow interior made visible, this bronze cast conjures up a kind of abyss in which the idealization of liberty falters.
The power of the image lies in its evocative simplicity – a metaphor for the political climate in the United States following the events of September 11th, 2001. In the wake of a feeling of insecurity and collective panic, The Abyss of Liberty alludes to attacks on freedom and democracy.
After reading this, I took a few moments to take a step back and pay attention to my feelings. I remember going back to this picture trying to understand why it moved me.
Why was I so defensive?
What was it about this criticism that made me feel like I needed to justify myself as an American?
Many of my initial feelings reflected an immature, idealistic, and incomplete view of what it means to be a citizen – something I learned a lot more about last year when I began attending events sponsored by the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project. Their motto:
Following this, on their website, is a quote from Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director, Equal Justice Initiative:
“We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it.”
Addressing injustices with this way of proceeding is a succinct and transformational prescription shared by many historians and activists – tell the truth first.
My faith reminds me of this, as stated in Matthew 7:1-5
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
If I cannot learn and tell myself the truth, pain and destruction will spread because of hypocrisy. The truth calls me to to let go of the false narratives, embrace love, and strive for justice.
The words above are what the Statue of Liberty is supposed to symbolize. So the truth is, turning it upside down is appropriate when we are being hypocritical and embracing nationalism, racism, and white supremacy.
This is both a personal challenge and a collective invitation to a vision unlocked by the truth. Let us steel ourselves and look into the abyss of liberty with clear and critical eyes – we might only see the shadow of what we could have been, but let us see the suffering, cherish the love, and learn from both.
Although we ought not to change our former resolutions in time of desolation, it is very profitable to make vigorous changes in ourselves against the desolation, for example, by insisting on more prayer, meditation, earnest self-examination, and some suitable way of doing penance. – St. Ignatius Loyola, SE 319
Ignatius urges us not to make decisions in times of desolation, however, he also reminds us that these times of desolation are not to be times of complacency.
Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd.
“They didn’t have to die” is something I have heard over the past week and it has brought me great pain and clarity. Often when hearing about someone being killed, there is back and forth about context, circumstances, and legality. I have been a part of these conversations in the past, I remember vividly “waiting to gather all the facts” when hearing about the death of Trayvon Martin. What I often don’t hear in these conversations is the specific, searing, and compounding pain these conversations and this waiting is inflicting on Black lives.
I was reminded this weekend reading the following from Roxane Gay,
Racism is litigated over and over again when another video depicting another atrocity comes to light. Black people share the truth of their lives, and white people treat those truths as intellectual exercises.
When I take time to do what Ignatius described, “earnest self-examination” I realize there’s something much deeper at work, something sinister that needs to be faced – racism.
Why am I waiting in the first place?
What am I waiting to do? Grieve? Pray? Advocate?
Would I wait if the life lost was a member of my family?
“Waiting to gather all the facts” is a hurtful false cover to hide behind, failing to open myself up to the painful truth that the real fact – there is suffering, and the real question – am I willing to do something about it?
Acting is difficult because it requires a great deal of ownership and deprogramming. This can happen by listening – not as an intellectual exercise, but with my heart as well. This can happen by learning – not just figuring out what to say or do or not to say or do, but how to be helpful, not hurtful. This can happen by praying and working – not just for peace, but for reconciliation for there is no peace without reconciliation, no peace without justice.
I need to advocate and fight – showing the love I know God has for me and putting it in action. Changing my way of proceeding from avoiding being racist to being antiracist, as Dr. Ibram X. Kendi calls us to be, standing with those who are being oppressed, victimized, and even killed, is a conversion Pedro Arrupe, S.J. spoke to when he wrote,
To be just, it is not enough to refrain from injustice. One must go further and refuse to play its game, substituting love for self-interest as the driving force of society.
Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd.
“They didn’t have to die.”
The death and hurt caused by racism and police brutality have brought me pain and clarity – there is only one way of proceeding, they are members of my family, and they didn’t have to die for me to be reminded of this.
So, what now?
For me, today, it is taking these words from Fr. Bryan N. Massingale to heart:
Years ago during a run, a good friend of mine showed me a Zen garden here in Baltimore. The caretaker is someone who lives in the neighborhood who has been curating it since 2016. I remember being inspired and impressed that someone would put so much effort into creating what is a beautiful respite nestled away in the woods of Druid Hill Park. After leaving the space, I remember saying to myself that I had to come back with Anita, my girlfriend at the time (now my fiancée) and years later, we finally visited.
The caretaker, seated on a humble bench, greeted us with a calm smile.
He showed us around and pointed out various aspects, including architecture inspired by his time in Japan and so many other places far from Baltimore.
His last comments directed us towards a graveyard of gravestones that had been incorrectly marked. This pile was hidden by other rocks because he said the site of gravestones makes people unsettled.
Anita moved some of these rocks so she could get a better view and this was what she found:
A broken cross with the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus engraved in the center.
This might be unsettling for some, but for me, gazing on this broken, discarded cross brought great peace.
Standing there looking at Anita, who is an inspiration to me like the women at the cross, I reflected on how her moving the stones away revealed this peace, one that requires seeking and surrendering.
A moment after this, my phone buzzed – it was a text message from the same friend, Tym, who told me about the Zen garden in the first place. We had not spoken in a couple weeks and him contacting me – call it coincidence, chance or Providence – was the icing on the cake of this experience.
Praying this morning with Mt. 21 “Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem” led me to reading more about the meaning of Hosanna. In Greek, it means “save, please” and it is yet another name for Jesus that requires seeking and surrendering. The people yelling this were seeking a savior and those who surrendered their ego and comfort were able to find ultimate peace in following Him.
Knowing everyone who reads this might not be Christian, what we can hold in common in this reflection is the need to not only seek and desire peace but to do so in places we might not traditionally go to find it and then to to actively roll away the stone.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
Mispronouncing words when reading aloud has been a stumbling block of mine ever since middle school. In Language Arts class we would read aloud and many times I needed to use my favorite strategy, context clues, to at least figure out what a word meant, even if I butchered the pronunciation. This didn’t save me from the embarrassment, but I could defend myself by saying, “Yeah but I know what it means!”
On the SAT’s I was intimidated when all that mattered in some sections was memorization, no context clues to provide guidance, no opportunity to defend myself.
As an uneasy middle school student, trying to avoid having to read aloud, this was the context in which I first learned, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:39)
My parents often spoke with me about this social imperative and for many years I took it simply as manners, similar to the importance of saying “please” and “thank you” and avoiding cursing.
Over time, like all of us, the concepts I learned early in life took on new meaning based on changing context. Over the past few years I’ve given more time in reflection and prayer to the words in Mt. 22:39, asking myself – Who am I? What is love? Who is my neighbor?
I’ve unpacked a lot of my realizations in previous posts, but I want to focus on the last question some more. One aspect of neighbor I have been wrestling with is that it includes my enemies, or those with whom I do not relate well. It sounds weird to think that I have enemies, I like to think I don’t, but we can all agree that there are people in our lives we treat as enemies, sometimes without us even knowing we’re doing it. My biggest enemy is often myself, and when I name this, I’m better able to engage in reflections like the one in Loving Your Enemies, a sermon by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., where he states,
A third reason why we should love our enemies is that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity.
In re-defining who my neighbor is, including enemies, including myself, I’ve learned to redefine what it is to be myself and what it is to love. The shift happened when I began asking myself the question, What am I missing?
The focus on loving my neighbor as myself isn’t simply so I can be a pleasant and kind person, it’s because if I do this, I’ll be opening myself up to all that life has to offer.
So how does this relate to my middle school understanding of Mt. 22:39 and context clues?
In middle school, if I alienated myself from certain people, didn’t branch out or hid my face to avoid being called on, the ramifications could be feeling isolated and missing out on learning or on a friend. I was my own worst enemy because I was being guided by fear of what others might think. Now I am guided by a new fear, a healthy one: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:39) What am I missing by not living this way?
The relation to context clues is that shortly after Mt. 22:39, in 41-42 Jesus asks the Pharisees, “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” Reflecting on the context, I think Jesus is asking about possibilities. He’s asking if they are, if we are, and ultimately if I am open to this new possibility.
Back then, what I understood as only an exhortation concerning the way to act, I now understand as an invitation to new understanding, to new life.