Although I strive to be fully present, most of the time I have a hard time focusing at church. I will get distracted by something and inevitably a couple of minutes will go by and I’ll snap back, sometimes at the exact right moment.
We all bring baggage to our encounters. We don’t need to unpack our baggage in the encounter.
The deacon shared this and right away I felt the sting – the sting that happens when someone says something you know is helpful and meaningful but hits home a bit too closely. This insight spoke to a part of authenticity I’ve been wrestling with – unpacking my baggage.
I’ve identified and worked through a lot of it and some weigh me down, but some set me free. I used to look at baggage as garbage. It isn’t.
Baggage only looks like garbage when it’s being looked at through the lens of shame. This was a key shift for me and now I’m able to focus more on the unpacking part. Unpacking is how baggage shows up in interactions. At times I’ll overthink scenarios and what this looks like in a conversation is me asking those questions that are reasonable, but probably not necessary and stress people out.
What the deacon said cut to the core of my current efforts – figuring out situations when it’s safe or useful to unpack a bit or when it’s better to work through it some more on my own. With attention, this is possible and can look like look like prayer, therapy, and discussions with a loved one. Without it, I find my baggage unpacks itself. It’s the quick or impatient response or assuming the worst with someone’s intentions, you know the times when after a conversation it’s a palm on the forehead. It can also just be the times I didn’t want to share what I shared at that time. Too many interactions without attention can be harmful and even transfer issues to another person.
Our baggage is not all the same and it isn’t all of equal weight, but something I think is relatable for everyone is that unpacking process.
As I strive to pay attention to each moment, each emotion, each interaction, I remind myself – baggage can be carried, it is a part of me and there can be value in it, but it doesn’t need to be unpacked in every encounter. I pray all who read this have outlets and people with which to do this. For me, when I don’t know what to do, I put myself in places like the mass I went to – places where God and others can help me snap back and focus on what’s true.
For a long time I was positive, I mean toxically positive, to the point where I believed positive thinking could get you through anything. One could argue this is helpful in many situations, but when talking to someone who has tried it all and is facing a seemingly impossible situation, “don’t worry, be happy” can seem offensive.
An example of this is when I would say hi to people, and every once in a while they responded with, “I’m OK” I would counter them with a “Just OK!?!” as if their answer was incomplete. Sometimes this would get people to change and say, “actually I’m doing pretty well!” and I’d take this as a victory.
Fast forward a few years and in the same situation, I also noticed myself going the other way. When someone would say, “I’m OK” I would swoop in and with a subdued, concerned tone, respond, “just OK?” Sometimes this would lead to a more intimate conversation where the person shared something difficult that was going on and I’d also take this as a victory.
Now in 2021, humbled, grounded, and with a healthier amount of positivity, I’m noticing more and more in this situation, instead of “good” more people responding, “I’m OK.”
This means that multiple times a week I’m faced with the choice – how do I respond?
I’ve decided on a new way forward, and have been doing something that sometimes I am afraid to do – leaveit at that.
This doesn’t mean I don’t look on the bright side, and it doesn’t mean I don’t care or maybe follow-up with the person later. What it does mean is that we go through difficult times, each of us with a unique experience and challenges, and if we make the decision to be more honest and give voice to the OK, the in-between, then it should be able to stand without manipulation.
Sometimes yes, I do think it’s great to dig deeper, to let people know more is possible or to let them know I’m there to listen, but another important movement is acceptancewith faith that the person will make their way.
See how you attempt to bring about change—both in yourself and in others—through the use of punishment and reward, through discipline and control, through sermonizing and guilt, through greed and pride, ambition and vanity, rather than through loving acceptance and patience, painstaking understanding and vigilant awareness. ― Anthony de Mello, The Way to Love
“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.
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: