People Last Forever

My friend Fr. Ivan Tou, CSP, is a very interesting person. One interesting thing he does is that he does not age. No one really knows how old Ivan is because he looks the same as he did twenty years ago.

Another interesting thing Ivan does is write wonderful, chatty Christmas letters that are part litany-of-people-and-places-he’s-visited-in-the-past-year (this is where you find out that he has about 28 godchildren), part analysis-of-movies-he’s-seen (which I skim over when he gets too sci-fi), and part wisdom-gained-in-the-past-year.

Several years ago, Ivan shared some Christmas letter wisdom that has stayed with me. He described how, in his parish work, he is keenly aware that so much of what he does is bound to be undone as soon as he leaves a parish. A statue he purchased may be removed. A garden he planted may be made into a parking lot. A new ministry he initiated may fizzle out. And so on.

This could become quite discouraging over time, to feel that one’s work doesn’t last. But Ivan said there is one thing that doesn’t change, one thing that can’t be taken away, one legacy far superior to improvements to property or even ministries—and that is people. Love between people—relationships, friendships. Ivan said that over the years, this is what he holds onto—the people he has met and loved, and those who have loved him.

Of course, people and friendships can change too. But what does not change is the impact they’ve had on us, the memories we make, the wisdom we’ve shared, the meals around a table that enriched us, the time and the effort and the goodness of people.

This is what the Church is made of, after all. People, relationships, love. This is what matters. This is what lasts.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

After I wrote this, I found Fr. Ivan’s Christmas letter from 2016. Here is the paragraph I remember!

One thing I’m constantly relearning is nothing lasts. All the great software I wrote for HP has been erased and the back-up drives probably live in some landfill. The great ideas I started at my previous parish are no doubt forgotten as the replacement pastor and new parish staff invent their own ideas. And the things I’m doing at Berkeley will probably fade away when I move on, though Fr. George, a pastor here in the 80’s, reminds me that the current red carpet and patio gates are his doing. What seems to matter is the journey and the relationships we make along the way. People last forever, everything else has their time and then fades away. So a meaningful life seems to be connected to touching people and touching them deeply, or as Jesus taught us, love God and love neighbor with your everything.

Thank you, Fr. Ivan Tou. Come see us in Connecticut!

 Okay, maybe we’ve all changed just a little bit. Ivan, Amy, Ono. CUA 1999. People last forever.

Okay, maybe we’ve all changed just a little bit. Ivan, Amy, Ono. CUA 1999. People last forever.

Retro-Post: Sr. Blanche's Desk

This week I’m re-posting one of my first and favorite 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!

* * * * * * * * * *

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).

* * * * * * * * * *

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.

desk.gif

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.