Examen 2016

On this last day of 2016 I find myself truly wanting to reflect on this past year with an eye toward growing in love in the coming year. I don’t usually make “new year resolutions.” If I find something that needs to be “resolved” in April or September, I certainly am not going to wait until January 1st to take action! But today I’ve encountered the Jesuit practice of “Examen of Consciousness” twice in the last hour. There must be something to this that demands my attention.

Throughout this year the daily meditations from Fr. Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation have focused on a single theme:  Love.  As a sample, here is yesterday’s reflection (I especially like the last 2 paragraphs).  Although it sounds simple enough, this theme of love is the foundation of Christianity and all major religions, and it is hard to put love into practice in a world full of violence, hatred, fear, ego, and injustice.  I must admit to more than one occasion where I purposefully avoided reading Rohr’s reflections because I just couldn’t love anymore.  My own ego and sense of righteousness got in the way of my ability to see God in the faces of others.  I was, in effect, wallowing in a kind of adolescent selfishness.

During the Advent and Christmas seasons I’ve also been getting daily reflections from Loyola Press and Ignatian Spirituality.  Here the author Vinita Hampton Wright shares the 5-step practice of the Examen.  I like Rohr’s simplified version from today’s meditative practice, too:

Practice: Examen of Consciousness

St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), founder of the Society of Jesus or Jesuits, proposed a daily exercise which he called the Examen of Consciousness or the Daily Examen—a simple exercise in discernment. Rather than focusing on what went right or wrong, how you failed or succeeded throughout the day, this exercise encourages you to reflect on moments when you were aware of God—when you were present to Love—and those times when you were forgetful or distracted.

Center yourself in silence and an awareness of God’s presence. Recall the day—or, on this New Year’s Eve, the entire past year—with an open spirit. Notice the emotions, sensations, and thoughts that arise as you review recent events. Let your attention settle on one of these instances and look for God’s presence within it, whether you were aware at the time or not. Pray from this memory and within this present moment.

Release the day (or year) with gratitude and rest in God’s love.

If I am truly honest in my necessary Examen of 2016, I think I may need all of January 2017 to reflect on this past year in order to make a plan for the new year.  Hopefully I’ll learn new habits that will allow me to love others more fully, more readily, and more joyfully.

Happy New Year!

May we all find ways to love ourselves and others as God loves (1 Cor. 13).

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Post Election Depression/Finding the Courage to Seek Common Ground

I did not vote for Trump.  And is there anyone out there who truly knows me and is still somehow surprised that I did not vote for him and his brand of hatred and white privilege?  I won’t say who I voted for, as keeping my vote private is something I do whenever I find the options limited and opinions on all sides highly volatile.  Suffice it to say I did not vote for Trump for many reasons, and all of them have to do with the division, racism, bigotry, and hate-speech he has brought to this campaign, and no-doubt will bring to his presidency.  Sorry.  I will pray for him and his conversion, but I won’t hold my breath.

I work with Apache and Hispanic children.  My own children are part black, part white, and part Cherokee.  I’ve worked with migrant workers in Florida.  I’ve been friends with and have worked with many undocumented workers, some of whom are trying to gain citizenship through legal channels, while others I know are prevented from applying.  I have many friends who identify as LBGT who continue to work for equal rights and simple respect.  I also have family members and friends with disabilities.  All of these “groups” have been verbally and viciously attacked by Trump’s insensitive and hateful rhetoric.

I understand the concerns of white Americans who struggle to find work and struggle to put food on the table for their families, but so do many American people on the margins.  Hunger, poverty, and unemployment affect all Americans, but people of color and people with disabilities are still hit harder than white Americans.  It’s a fact.

Our nation has taken some very courageous steps in the last 60-70 years to create a safe place for all.  I truly see the election of Donald Trump as a huge step backwards.  I also see his election as a serious threat to the very liberties, freedoms, and protections we all claim to hold so dear.  Even as I write this Trump is busy filling administrative positions with ultra conservative white men who are known for their racist, sexist, and homophobic views.

In an effort to sort through my own emotions over the future of our nation, and remain true to my faith and my integrity, I’ve been quietly reading and contemplating on the many wise and thoughtful post-election reflections of some of my favorite teachers.  Teachers I respect for always shedding light on darkened places, always opening hidden doors to a better way of being, and always bringing the issues back to a Christ-centered, love-centered whole:  Fr. Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, James Finley, Sr. Jamie Phelps, Christena Cleveland, and other wise and mystic voices from the past.

Mostly they all say the same thing.  We need to find common ground, and we need to be inclusive, not exclusive.  As Rohr says, “Everything belongs.”  While this is true, when dealing with political realms there is only dualistic thinking at play.  So how do we hold both, yet continue to move forward?

I think those of us who have expressed our fatigue with the “hate-speech,” the “us vs. them” mentality, the negative social media posts, and the news media bias must make a deliberate and conscious effort to eliminate these things from our own speech, attitude, and postings.  I also think we have a responsibility to lovingly point it out when we see the fear, anger and hatred being perpetrated by our friends and family.  This isn’t easy, but then Jesus never said it would be.  He was put to death.  The worst that could happen to me (I think) is that I could be “unfriended” or “unfollowed.”  That’s what tissues and hugs from real friends are for.

My ex-husband is fond of reminding me that we met while I was out with my college Poli-Sci friends, and we were all engaged in a heated conversation about politics.  We always laughed at the irony of my later declaration, “I hate politics!”  It’s true; I do!  But it is really the game playing and the dualistic nature of politics that I hate.  Like it or not, we all have to be engaged in politics if we want to affect change in our world.  Now more than ever we must stay on top of what goes on in Washington, and in our state and local governments.

Our planet, our water, our air, our freedoms, and our very lives are at stake.  We can no longer afford to just relax and let others do the dirty work for us.  We all need to snap out of our “post-election depression” and seek common ground, get involved, stay informed, make our voices heard, hold elected officials accountable, and work hard for justice for all, not just a select few.

Learning Lessons from Political Saints?

With the Election just days away I find myself asking the question, “Why does it seem like everyone expects politicians to be saints?”  I mean, they are not running for Pope or Dalai Lama, so why do people act surprised when scandalous skeletons are exposed in the media (Especially the same old skeletons, just in a different suit, and so close to election day.)?  And do we really think the candidates that we support are perfect? More to the point, are we so saintly that we think we don’t have a few skeletons in our own closets?
At the Conspire 2016 conference I’m told that Christena Cleveland said that “even people we don’t like have something of value to teach us; even Donald Trump.”  I wasn’t there, but I wish I could have heard it in context.  Nonetheless, this idea has stuck in my mind ever since.  Even Donald Trump?  Even Hillary Clinton?  Even that bigot I work with?  Even that racist, hot-head that lives down the street?

Although….  I think there is something deeper to be learned from disagreeable people such as Donald Trump.  In a blog post from March of this year, Christena says:

Social psychologists who study this type of existential terror have found that prejudice serves as a buffer and a way to manage the terror. When humans are feeling vulnerable (particularly about our own invincibility and mortality), we respond with prejudice towards those who are different.  This makes us feel better.***

Enter Donald Trump. His screeching, taunting, immature words reveal the tantrums of a desperate man who is trying to manage the existential terror of white men. 

Trump’s xenophobic and racist political platform provides the “prejudice buffer” that many white men need in order to find relief from the pain of vulnerability. Given the changing racial dynamics in the U.S., it is no surprise that so many white men have gravitated toward Trump. His hateful rhetoric, with which he blames people of color for America’s problems, affirms white male identities and relieves their existential anxiety by assuring that he will restore order to white male supremacy.   

So, maybe the thing to be valued here is not some random redeeming quality like “they love their family,” or “they give to the poor.”  Perhaps the lesson to be learned is simply a lesson that teaches us about our own fears, failings, and prejudices.  Hopefully some of us will consider Christena’s words, and find a way through our pride to the humble shores where everything & everyone belongs, and no one is excluded.  I know I’m struggling to get there.

I’ve thought about Christena’s words and this election a lot and have concluded that for all the distasteful comments, actions, and skeletons, I do admire both candidates for having the courage and conviction to enter this race. It takes courage and a thick skin to throw your hat into the ring of this crazy USA system of elections.  Not only does the political machine grind each candidate and their family into sausage, but the news media, and social media are merciless in their tireless efforts to belittle the opposition while making a case for sainthood for their favorite candidate.

With All Saints Day just this past week, I know we are all called to be saints, but let’s get real.  Neither Hillary or Donald are saints, but then again, neither are we (YET!).  We’re all just trying to do our best with what we have.  That’s a big enough job.

Detachment; Translation, please!

Long ago I learned about AA, NA, Al-Anon & the 12-Step Program.  My younger brother was doing drugs, my mother and I did a family intervention, and soon we all found ourselves thrown in the deep end of an unfamiliar pool called “recovery.”  Scary times for all of us, and stories to last a lifetime.  Most of those stories have been told & shared among the family; some stories have yet to be told I’m sure.  Thankfully my brother survived, is married, and has two beautiful daughters!

I learned a lot from the many Al-Anon meetings I attended (both while trying to understand my part in my brother’s addiction, and later my ex-husband’s alcoholism).  One thing I still struggle with is this term:  Detachment.  What does it really mean?  Every time I think about this word I get a visual of my childhood Barbie and how I could easily detach her limbs.  No blood.  No pain.  And I could just as easily re-attach the limbs if one of my siblings happened to dismember her in an effort to upset me.  I was not usually so easily upset.  I knew how to perform “Barbie Surgery” and save her!  Twelve Step Programs talk about “detachment,” and recently I’ve been thinking about this practice again.  Unfortunately, this kind of detachment can be painful.

I found a very inspiring article called “The Art of Detachment” by Eknath Easwaren where he talks about detachment in a variety of relationships.  His insight into this thing that I have always found to be an annoying paradox, suddenly clicked with me and made sense.  I think my misunderstanding of “detachment” is why I’ve always cringed whenever my mother tells me I have to “detach” from things & people that totally frustrate, anger, and upset me so.  “I’m an emotional artist; I can’t just turn my feelings on & off,” I would say to her.  That’s where I’ve been mistaken all along.  Detachment has less to do with my feelings, and more to do with “withdrawing desire from lesser things, letting them fall away, so as to harness their power to reach the heights of what a human being can attain.”  Easwaren creates a beautiful analogy to the rocket boosters used to launch ships into space.  The space ship uses the energy from the heavy rockets, but then dumps the weight so it can achieve orbit!

One of the things I learned from my week spent in family therapy at the re-hab center my brother finally entered, is that detachment from the disease of addiction was what I needed to do in order to find serenity. Well, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  An excellent prayer for anyone who finds themselves neck-deep in just about anything life throws at us!  Well, I’m up to my eyeballs in life, and yet another period of discernment, and I find myself in need of a little detachment.  Detachment from my job, my possessions, and my self-doubt.  I wonder though, could it be that the act of detaching is also linked to the act of connecting?

My mother often said that change in life is like what the trapeze artist has to do.  He or she has to let go of one bar & be air-born and detached for a brief moment before catching the next bar.  It’s scary, but you can’t get from one side of the Big Top to the other without letting go.  Sooner or later you just have to trust that the other trapeze bar will be there when you let go of the one you’re hanging on to.  HA!  Just when I thought my mother couldn’t possibly teach me anything more, I go and recall this trapeze analogy from my twenties!  Some lessons we keep learning over & over again, I guess.

So here’s what’s been on my mind:

Working for peace and justice has always been a big part of my life, and for the last few years it has become the major driving force of my life.  So, what now?  It’s not in my wiring to learn about social injustices & then just go about my daily life; business as usual.  In his article Easwaren quotes Buckminster Fuller, “We are not nouns,” he says pointedly; “we are verbs.”  Easwaren explains, “Those who keep trying to get closer to others, to understand and appreciate them more all the time, are verbs: active, creative, dynamic, able to change themselves and to make changes in the world they live in.

I need to be more actively, creatively, and dynamically engaged in being (as Gandhi so famously stated) “the change I want to see in the world.”  I’m trying to figure out what form this will take on and in what direction I am being drawn.  As Fr. Richard Rohr explains in so many of his writings and talks, this “second half of life” stuff can be painful.  Not exactly “Barbie surgery.”  Grrrrr!  Fr. Rohr says that people who become transformed and begin the journey of the second half of life tend to lose friends.  Funny, that’s what 12-step programs say, too.  You cannot engage in recovery while still associating with those who are still actively engaged in addictive behavior.  You’ll never leave the launch pad, let alone achieve orbit!

As I work on learning the art of detachment, and withdrawing from lesser things, I will keep my heart open to other possibilities.  There’s another deep and unfamiliar pool up ahead; God, grant me the courage to take the plunge!

Living Fully in the Real World

Tuesday’s meditation from the CAC (Center for Action & Contemplation) struck a chord with me.  [Click the link & then the “subscribe” link to get these free daily meditations.]  Fr. Richard Rohr’s writings are so often just what I need to hear, just what I need to be reminded of, and just what I need to help keep me focused on what matters most & how to just be in the world.  So here’s the part that hit me Tuesday:

“How do we find what is supposedly already there?  How do we awaken our deepest & most profound selves? By praying & meditating?  By more silence, solitude, & sacraments?  Yes to all, but the most important way is to ‘live & fully accept our reality.’  This solution sounds so simple & innocuous that most of us fabricate all kinds of religious trappings to avoid taking up our own inglorious, mundane, & ever-present cross.”

To “live & fully accept our reality” is something I think most of us either try to avoid or simply don’t understand.  As a middle-aged (grrr!  I really just wrote that!) art teacher at a Catholic school in the USA, what is my reality?  What is yours?  If the “American dream” is to live a “better” life style than our parents did then it will always be just that; a dream!  Where’s the reality?  This American Dream that everyone talks about whenever they feel the urge to act like a “real ‘Merican” is (for the vast majority of us) unattainable at best, & unsustainable at worst.  Here’s the reality:  For most of us our lives are mundane, inglorious, & full of crosses to bear.  Reality sucks!  Or does it?

To “live & fully accept our reality”….  What does that look like?  How does that feel, & will that awaken something profound in me?  What will I find there?

These last few weeks have been full of these kinds of questions, and I’ve been finding some answers, AND some more questions!  My reality:  I am a teacher at a mundane school in a mediocre town in an average state in a country riddled with problems.  I deal with the “first world” problems & dramas of children, teachers, & parents everyday.  Personally I have my own “first world” problems, too, but I try not to burden my friends with them!  So!  My reality is pretty mundane.  So is everyone else’s.  Again, reality sucks!  Or does it?

Last week I had a conversation with a little boy who, just like the rest of us, is trying to fit in & feel special.  I used to jokingly say to kids “You’re only special to your mother!”  True enough; we can’t all be so special to warrant more than 15 minutes of fame in any given year, but that’s what we want.  We all want to feel special, like we matter, like what we do is important and meaningful, yet most of us feel unimportant & like nothing matters anymore.  I suspect our technological advancements in the last 50-100 years have added to this sense of worthlessness.  We are bombarded 24/7 with media that keeps us searching outside of ourselves for stuff to make us feel special.  The information we have is no longer limited to the few hundred or few thousand individuals in our corner of the world.  We are inundated with billions of stories, dramas, tragedies, & triumphs from all over the globe!  It’s staggering!!!  But, we can’t all be celebrities, and we can’t all have carefree lifestyles, we can’t all be heroes or saints.  Or can we?

I am inspired by articulate people, because I don’t think that I am.  I am inspired by people who turn their visions into realities, because I don’t think that I can.  I am moved by visionaries, mystics, & poets who write such eloquent thoughts, because I don’t think I have such thoughts.  I am touched by the courage of people who struggle to make change for good, because I think I am too small to be useful.  I sit in awe of the accomplishments of others, because I think that I have done nothing remarkable.

In all honest humility, I have concluded that I am wrong, and in doing so, I have made a conscious decision to live more fully in my mundane reality!  This is very freeing! In these last few weeks I have become a part of a new group of activists (TCFF, Treasure Coast Fair Food...there are some amazing people with a wealth of experience & energy in this group!) working in support of the CIW (Coalition of Immokolee Workers).  I found the courage to propose a plan for a school garden, and it’s been accepted!  I have raised two beautiful children who also lead rather  mundane lives (so proud!)!  And today I made a classroom full of children feel loved and valued, and tomorrow I intend to do the same!

By accepting and fully embracing my very average, mundane reality I can live in it more fully, freely, & joyfully.  I can actively participate in the good it has to offer, & I can actively work to change what is unjust.  It is within this very real, very ordinary and mundane corner of the world where I have found I am most at peace.

Holy Week Reflection: Contemplation to Action

I’ve been in “contemplative-mode” these last few days.  It seems like everywhere I look social media, news media, and politics across the globe are all a-buzz with commentary, actions & petitions, and legal battles on everything from gay marriage, & the environment to sequestration, & gun violence. Some of what I’ve read is very good; some of it, not so much.  As someone who advocates for peace & justice, I cannot approach any of these issues from my initial feelings of anger & frustration, or from a position of self-righteous indignation.  I must take time to reflect or my action degrades into nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction.

In a recent Lenten reflection on the example of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Fr. John Dear, S.J. writes about many examples of Archbishop Romero’s actions and includes stories from the new book Monsenor Romero: Memories in Mosaic by Maria Lopez Vigil (Orbis, 2013).  I have not read the book yet, but I was struck more by one of Fr. Dear’s thoughts:

“It’s important not to love ourselves so much that we’re not willing to take the risks that history demands of us,” Romero said in his last homily, one minute before he was assassinated at the altar. That’s an important lesson for all of us — laypeople, priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes included. History, and the Christ of history, demand we take risks on behalf of suffering humanity and creation itself. Romero shows us we do not have to be afraid. We, too, can go forward, do what we can, speak out as best we can, and try to make a difference.

When I consider what is taking place inside the Supreme Court this week, or in the Oval Office, or the “back rooms” of Congress with the lobbyists from Monsanto, or what is happening in war-torn places like Aleppo, Syria, or in ordinary places like the kitchens & living rooms of activists, I am overwhelmed with humanity and a sense of humility.  I can read one article and feel angry that such things could happen or that such people could act this way or that.  Then I read another article about something else and I am filled with joy, delight, or a feeling of hope in the basic goodness to be found in people here in the US & around the world.  But then I read yet another article, tweet or news report about more acts of violence involving drones or a handgun and I am filled with despair again.  I either have to stop reading all of this, cut myself off from the world, or I have to adopt a healthier way of responding to it; without fear as Archbishop Romero’s example suggests.

Burying my head in the sand is not an option if I am to “move forward, and try to make a difference”, so I must develop a healthy alternative to riding this emotional roller-coaster.  As an activist & advocate for peace & justice there are many amazing examples of men & women who can inspire me; Archbishop Romero, Ghandi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Fr. Thomas Merton, Fr. Richard Rohr, those I marched with during the CIW march last week, Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, and countless others who make headlines only as “protestors”, “occupiers”, or “insurgents”.  I believe it is necessary to feel angry, hopeless, or frustrated at first when faced with injustice, but then I have to reflect, contemplate, and/or pray about how to respond to it in a positive way.  If I don’t reflect and pray first, then I am no better in my reaction than those who perpetuate the injustices that outrage me.

Words are important.  Activists take action against injustices, they do not just react.  There is considerable thought behind their actions so that their efforts do make a difference and affect a positive & just change.  That, I believe, is why non-violence is the key to successful activism.  When we react to injustice without thinking, our words & actions can appear or sound aggressive or violent.

Simplicity is important, too; it is also sometimes the most challenging thing to put into practice.  I like reading Fr. Richard Rohr’s daily reflections (the Center for Action & Contemplation).  His insights are often simple and obvious, but always rooted in love, contemplation, & non-violence.  Fr. Dear’s reflections are also a call to fearless contemplation, non-violence, and action (Pax Christi).

As Christians around the world enter into the Triduum of Holy Week my prayer is that we all reflect on the Passion of Christ, the injustices and pain present in our world today, and how we can respond to God’s call to action on behalf of the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized of our societies.  I hope I don’t ever have to be as fearless as Archbishop Romero or a Syrian freedom fighter, but if I am called to take a great risk, I trust that God will be in it with me.