Retro-Post: Sr. Blanche's Desk

This week I’m re-posting one of my first blog posts. It’s been off my site for several years as I wanted to make a few edits, and then I just never got around to re-posting it. Some of you may have read it in That Mighty Heart.

My first ministry position was as a parish DRE in Clinton, Maryland. I was 23 when I started, and I honestly had no idea what I was doing. This essay is about my office at the parish, which I inherited from the matchless Sister Blanche Twigg, MHSH. The bookcases of Sr. Blanche’s office were lined with Little Rock Scripture Studies and Catechist Magazines, two publications I never dreamed that I would someday write for. What a beginning I had there, with co-workers who mentored me and parishioners who accepted me. What a place that was to be, sitting at Sr. Blanche’s desk!

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Sr. Blanche’s Desk

I will never forget my first “real” job interview. Fresh out of graduate school, I was applying for a parish position as a Director of Religious Education. I was 23 years old. 

The interview was by all accounts fairly average until I asked the pastor why the former D.R.E. left the position. He looked happy and sad, amused and wistful, all at the same time. “Sister Blanche served here for 25 years,” he told me. “She was 82 years old. She has gone to be with the Lord.” Later I would discover that Fr. Tom’s emotion was the result of a long and solid friendship with this formidable religious sister. Twenty years his elder, she called him “Tom” in a mother’s tone and ran the show as she liked. And she liked a tight ship.

In the coming months, I would hear many legends about Sr. Blanche – how every morning she “pointed” her car in the direction of the parish and drove to work; how no one could say no to her; how children obeyed her and parents feared her; how she was a force to be reckoned with; how much they loved her. Sr. Blanche was a gifted educator, a respected Scripture scholar, a master recruiter, a thrifty manager, a green thumb, a tough cookie, a trusted friend, a spiritual guide, a miracle worker.

My first day on the job, I walked into Sr. Blanche’s office. Her plants had been cared for, her books arranged neatly. I sat down at Sr. Blanche’s desk. It felt large and unfamiliar. Unsure what to do next, I opened the top drawer. I looked at all the things Sr. Blanche had left behind – things she had used so many times, things she kept at the ready. Who was I to clean out this desk? With whispered apologies to my predecessor, I began to pick up the items inside, one by one, trash can at the ready. But I couldn’t throw away much more than a few brittle rubber bands. Many of the items were unidentifiable or just really old. In her eyes, they might have a use someday. Who was I to decide they wouldn’t? 

This was my first encounter with Sr. Blanche. And in my own way, I encountered her many more times in the coming years. I was the opposite of this great lady – I was young, I was new, and it became obvious rather quickly that no one feared me. I needed her, I leaned on her in some inexpressible way. Her influence mentored me. Her legend challenged me. And all the while, those strange things in the top drawer comforted me – old things waiting to have some new use. 

I never tried to be Sr. Blanche. It would have been utterly futile. But I took care of her plants, I read some of her old books. I tried to care for her people, and sit earnestly in her chair, and make her proud in my own small ways. And in the years I occupied that desk, I happily left the top drawer just as it was. It contained treasures I did not yet understand. 

As I look back on that time, I like to imagine that together, Sr. Blanche and I were like the scribe training for the kingdom, like householders bringing out of our treasuries what is new and what is old (Matt. 13:52).

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Sr. Blanche Twigg (1917-1999) joined the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart in 1936 and served as the Director of Religious Education at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Clinton, Maryland from 1974-1999.  Among other things, she was known for her thriftiness and her love of Scripture.

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But I Say to You

There’s a line from C.S. Lewis’ brilliant and imaginative book The Great Divorce that comes back to me a few times a year. It convicts me, in a good way.

In The Great Divorce, folks who have died are freely offered entrance into Paradise (which Lewis describes fantastically). There’s just one hitch. They have to give up the thing that’s dragging them down, the thing that holds them back, the thing they’ve clung to all their lives. They don’t have to cure themselves or fix everything. They just have to let go of a burden. Turns out, after a lifetime of habitual living, that’s pretty hard to do.

One plucky soul has a lot to say to his heavenly guide about why he thinks he’s just fine as he is. What need is there to change? Why would someone dare to ask more of him? And so comes the fateful line: “I’ve done my best!” His heavenly guide responds, “Have you? Have you really?”

The question pains me.

No, I haven’t. I really haven’t.

There’s a lot of talk these days about not being too hard on ourselves. And that’s good in the sense that self-loathing and undue pressure are hurtful and counterproductive. But in affirming our humanity and accepting our shortcomings – and letting go of some of the empty expectations the world places on us – we mustn’t excuse ourselves from the very high standards that God has for us. Not expectations that emerge from a task-masterly nature or a cool unkindness. I’m talking about expectations that emerge from love.

The Sermon on the Mount is a case in point. To paraphrase Jesus, “You have heard it said that you should not kill. But I say to you, do not even be angry with your brothers and sisters.” Or, “You have heard it said that you should love your neighbor. But I say to you, love even your enemy.” If we are full of excuses (and full of ourselves), we will simply never achieve these things.

We are loved beyond our own imagining by the God who created us. The Scriptures describe a God who is enamored with his people, who cannot leave or abandon them without betraying his very self. But because of this undying love, he wants us to strive higher, harder, longer and without compromise. Yes, he loves us as we are. And yes, he demands more from us every single day.

Sometimes we can honestly say, “I did my best.” But sometimes we just say that because we don’t want to try harder. What does “trying harder” look like in your life? How will you give him more, this God who loves you so?

P.S. I loaned my copy of The Great Divorce to someone, so I’m paraphrasing here! I highly recommend the book. It’s short, creative, and it makes wonderful Lenten reading.

 A mixed media piece depicting a scene from  The Great Divorce : "Ghosts." © Monica Dyer. Shared with permission. Visit Monica's website to see some of her beautiful artwork:  monicadyer.net .

A mixed media piece depicting a scene from The Great Divorce: "Ghosts." © Monica Dyer. Shared with permission. Visit Monica's website to see some of her beautiful artwork: monicadyer.net.

Out of the Mouths of Sophomores

Last week I kept a longstanding promise to my friend Gina to visit a few of her high school classes and talk with them about the early Church. Presenting to high school students is not necessarily my forte, but I wanted to do my best. Mostly, I wanted to bring them a realistic and relevant message.

In both classes, we read Acts 15 and spent some time talking about how the early Church struggled with major decisions and disagreements: Who was Jesus? How did his death and resurrection save us? Should Gentile Christians follow the Mosaic law? Which gospels and letters belonged in Scripture?

Agreeing on these things was not a nice, neat process, I told them. But the early Christians – despite their disagreements – strove for unity. They didn’t all just go their own way. They wrestled with ideas; they collaborated. I wanted them to know that the Church has always had its controversies. I wanted them to know that the Church is still growing in faith. Yes, we might have a catechism now, but that doesn’t mean we “have it all figured out.”

At one point, I posed the question: “Why do you think God does things this way? Why doesn’t God just give us the answers?” I was expecting responses about the human community working together, listening to each other, growing closer as they worked through complex, controversial decisions. I thought someone might mention the benefit of having to depend on God and each other.

But one young lady on the front row surprised me with an even better answer than the one I had in mind. She said: “I think it’s because when you have to figure something out for yourself, then you know if you really believe it or not. If someone just tells you what to think, that isn’t really believing.”

Ah, the sophomore has spoken. And she’s onto something.

Isn’t this why Jesus taught in parables? Isn’t this why prayer is an essential part of the spiritual life? Isn’t this why knowing about God isn’t the same as being in relationship with God?

It isn’t that we ever really “figure things out” in a vacuum; we rely on the wisdom of others and the Spirit of God. But we have to enter in, take ownership. The creed we speak must be something we have discovered and lived, not just words we recite from a page in a book.

What have you wrestled with and come to believe?

 When have you been glad that God didn’t just give you the answers?

  Resurrection after Grunewald.  John Kohan has broken down into its basic geometric shapes the iconic  Resurrection panel from the Isenheim Altar by Matthias Grunewald . Kohan explains: "The flaming yellow circle and the triangle in glowing red are what the eyes first perceive in the painting,  before  we assign meaning to these forms and recognize the figure of Christ rising from the grave." Click on the image to see more of John Kohan's work.

Resurrection after Grunewald. John Kohan has broken down into its basic geometric shapes the iconic Resurrection panel from the Isenheim Altar by Matthias Grunewald. Kohan explains: "The flaming yellow circle and the triangle in glowing red are what the eyes first perceive in the painting, before we assign meaning to these forms and recognize the figure of Christ rising from the grave." Click on the image to see more of John Kohan's work.

My New Year's Slogan

This year I wasn’t planning to make any New Year’s resolutions. What I really wanted was a New Year’s slogan. I wanted a phrase or a saying to echo like a guiding refrain throughout 2018.

I hoped the fortune cookie following my New Year’s Eve meal of Chinese dumplings might provide the wisdom I was seeking. After all, I’ve had some pretty awesome fortunes in my day. Unfortunately, I didn’t even understand it. (This was not the first time one of my kids had to explain the meaning of a fortune to me.)

“The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”

My daughter Siobhan can explain this to you, if you’re interested. All I knew was that this was not my New Year’s slogan.

A few days later, I was reading through my students’ homework assignments. They were responding to a series of questions about 1 Corinthians 12-14. In 1 Corinthians, Paul was addressing a community of eager but immature Christians. They wanted to follow Christ, but they were still learning. Among other issues, they seemed to be in constant competition with one another. They even bragged about their own spiritual gifts! One Christian might flaunt that she could speak in tongues, another might boast that he had more knowledge, and so on.

How did Paul communicate to the Corinthians that this behavior, this attitude, had to stop? He wrote to them about the value of their spiritual gifts, and how wonderful it was that they were all unique parts of a functioning whole. And then he offered them one guiding criterion for determining how their gifts were to be understood and used. One by one, my students noted Paul’s simple guiding rule, echoing like a refrain: “Does it build up the Church?”

And here was my slogan. Here was a simple question to ask myself in many situations, in many decisions: “If I do this...does it build up the Church? If I think this way...does it build up the Church?” To build up is to provide support, to bolster, to help, to heal. This is why St. Paul brilliantly concluded that love is the greatest spiritual gift – better by far than teaching or leading or speaking in tongues or prophecy. Love never divides as these other gifts sometimes do – when they are used to exclude, to compete, to denigrate or to build up oneself at the expense of the community. But love? Love only serves. It is patient and kind. It is not inflated. It does not brood. Love never fails.

I thought you might be looking for a slogan too, so I’m sharing. Here’s to 2018!

“Everything should be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26).

 Too complicated for me.

Too complicated for me.

Being Right and the End of Wisdom

Happy New Year, all! The reflection below came straight from my heart in 2017, and it found a home in Little Rock Scripture Study's monthly newsletter Little Rock Connections. It is republished here with permission. I hope you will recognize within it your own wisdom, earned by years or given by grace, and that you will enjoy its fruits in 2018!

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Bell bottoms, encyclopedias, cursive, dinosaurs. Things that aren’t around much anymore. 

Will we soon add “wisdom” to this nostalgic list?

Wisdom is the fruitful combination of experience, knowledge and good judgment. It is a dynamic thing; wise people are dynamic. They learn, grow, adapt, change their minds, take forward and backward steps. Wise people are interesting. They have something valuable. It is sometimes a gift but more often hard-earned.

Emerging from experience and learning, wisdom is an inherently slow-growing thing. But have we lost patience for its cultivation? Has our tolerance for the fluidity of wisdom dried up in hopes of something solid and firmly defined? Has it become more admirable to be right than to be wise? Is it better to “come on strong” than to come on…thoughtful?  Is it more admirable to “stick to your guns” than to muddle your way through that cloudy, sticky, murky, stubborn, ever-present but oft-denied gray area? That gray area is life.

We like black and white; we crave clarity; we devour rules. We want to be right, and we like people who are right. Increasingly, we like people who are right quickly. Slow and deliberate seems out of pace. Changing one’s mind is weakness.

But what did the ancients think? Biblical wisdom is not first and foremost about being right. It is an approach to life – how to navigate the intersection of spiritual and secular, how to get along with people, how to make decisions, how to respond to the problems we encounter every day. Wisdom values work, relationships and dialogue. It points one toward the fruitful paths of life. Wisdom includes knowledge, and a wise person is often “right,” but wisdom is much more. 

The wisdom tradition endorses a viewpoint found throughout all of scripture: human beings are not perfect, but they are remarkable. Where they are lacking, they can change and be better. They are not often “one or the other.” They are more often “both and.” Human beings – and their endeavors – are redeemable.

Wisdom, then, is not cut-and-dried, right or wrong. It is not simple and one-note. It seeks a “breadth of understanding” (1 Kgs. 4:29) and acknowledges that human understanding is a process, and often a slow one (even Jesus, we are told, grew in wisdom). A major contribution of the wisdom book of Proverbs is the assertion that wisdom is learned, and learning requires guidance, and guidance requires humility. This natural humility of the learner, the disciple, is a fading virtue in a world that increasingly heaps skepticism on the possibility that “the other” may have something to teach us. When this humility is absent, very little real learning takes place – even less understanding, and certainly no wisdom. Proverbs offered this warning centuries ago: the one who refuses counsel, guidance and instruction will face the consequences of a simple, static, stagnant life.

There is an ebb and flow to wisdom that mirrors the natural flux of life and relationships. Indeed, the ancients believed that we are supposed to learn and grow and change. The only thing we were meant to be entrenched in is the natural human rhythm of transformation fueled by dynamic concepts like searching, repenting, returning, proclaiming, trusting and abiding. 

A lovely passage from the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom declares that wisdom “renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets” (7:27). Friends of God and prophets.  Surely we could use more of these. Then we must choose a slower, more thoughtful, more receptive, more conversant, humbler, subtler, more nuanced way. Yes, this way of wisdom offers a gentle antidote to our excesses of speed, activity, polarization and bluster, in a human community at risk of losing its grip on intimacy, reflection, quiet, intrapersonal intelligence and interpersonal relationships. If wisdom was the architect of creation (Prov. 8:30), might we benefit from utilizing her blueprint? 

Our world does not have a King Solomon, or a King Arthur, or a single person of legendary wisdom. We only have each other, and the biblical promise that those who seek wisdom can find her, and that those who have found her have found a treasure. Being right can be helpful, but being wise is life-giving. It heals and begets in a way that being right never could. An echo of the iconic Tree of Life, whose roots run from front to back of our ancient books, wisdom bears many kinds of fruit, and her leaves are for the healing of the nations (Prov. 3:18; Rev. 22:2).

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