Notre Dame, Notre Coeur, Notre Ame

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556629-istock-852755038_primaryThe sight of the venerable Parisian cathedral Notre Dame on fire filled onlookers around the world with horror and sorrow. Unlike most of the disasters that make news worldwide, this one thankfully involved no loss of life. And yet the dismay so many of us felt on Monday as centuries-old treasures of art, architecture, and religion threatened to go up in flames was only too real.

Across the Seine, the crowd broke into spontaneous prayer and hymns as they watched smoke billow up from the spire of the medieval cathedral. To imagine a Paris without the iconic edifice complete with gargoyles and flying buttresses was, well, unthinkable. Notre Dame is one of the most visited landmarks in the world. Hundreds of people have been posting photos and memories of their own visits to Notre Dame since its very existence became imperiled Monday. The wealth of art and the breathtaking feat of engineering that has held up the 12th Century structure for so long are irresistible for art lovers, historians, and even casual tourists.

But Notre Dame is first and foremost a monument to the Catholic faith and the devotion of its followers who risked life and limb to build such a beautiful and imposing structure.  Catholics hold a special place in our hearts for Mary, “Our Lady.” No doubt many Catholics fervently begged Our Lady to intercede with Christ to save her namesake church.

I have nothing but admiration for the tireless efforts of firefighters to contain the blaze and limit the damage to Notre Dame. Much in the same way as the builders of Notre Dame in the Middle Ages, these courageous Parisians risked their lives to save a building. Luckily only one firefighter was injured while working to put out the flames. Still, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of divine intervention in saving the venerable cathedral.

The fire at Notre Dame has brought public awareness to three other fires that occurred in the past two weeks at historically black churches in Louisiana. The fires were no accidents, however. They were incidents of arson, and a white man has been charged with hate crimes in connection with the destruction of the three historic places of worship. A Go Fund Me campaign has since raised $1 million for reconstruction.

All of this has occurred in the midst of the Lenten season and Holy Week, the preparatory 6 days before Easter, the Christian celebration of resurrection and new life. In the past few weeks the flames of hatred and destruction have raged. On Saturday night, the flame of the Easter Candle will be lit at churches all around the world to symbolize the return of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ.

The response to the fires in Louisiana and Paris, whether religious or secular, has shown that the human spirit will always rise up to champion goodness, beauty, and hope. A fitting message for the Easter season and the arrival (finally!) of spring.

 

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Thoughts and Prayers (Part 2)

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54432764_10218769922861934_369198906342375424_n“What if we’ve been thinking and praying about mass shootings for decades and Jesus sent us an army of determined Moms in red shirts”
– @BobbyHoward63 on Twitter

The quote above refers to an activist group of intrepid women who form the organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. In recent years, the Moms in their bright red t-shirts have been seen all across the country in statehouses trying to get common sense gun legislation passed.

The mission of Moms is simple: Restrict gun ownership to law-abiding citizens by strengthening background checks and eliminating loopholes in gun laws. Demand the safe use and storage of guns so that children and other innocent people aren’t victims of accidental shootings. Create laws that get illegal guns off the the streets.

As part of a larger advocacy group called Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action was a response to the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that scarred the nation perhaps more than any other mass shooting in the past few decades. The thought that first graders can’t even be safe in the confines of their school got these moms on the march.

Over the past five years, this stalwart group of women has had many successes in the realm of gun safety. Everything from getting background check legislation passed to getting candidates favoring gun safety elected has been part of a slowly winning agenda. While there is still much work to be done, there is hope that America can gain control over the terrible scourge of gun violence in our country.

The Twitter quote above reminds me of a story about faith and action. A man’s home was being flooded, so he climbed to the roof and prayed for God to rescue him. After some time, a boat came by and offered to ferry the man out of danger. “No, God will save me,” he assured the would-be rescuer. A while later, a police helicopter hovered overhead and dropped a lifeline down for the man. “No, God will save me,” he said as he declined the rope. Eventually the floodwaters covered and drowned the man. When he got to Heaven, he demanded of God, “I prayed for you to rescue me. Why didn’t you?” God’s reply? “I sent you a boat and a helicopter! What more did you want?”

Sometimes we fall back on thoughts and prayers because we feel helpless and scared. We think meaningful change is out of our hands. The women of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America beg to disagree.

Don’t mess with the Moms!

Self-Centered

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file-20171123-6020-aa3n9nThis week I have had dozens (if not hundreds) of negative and mean-spirited thoughts. I have had to stop myself from posting nasty comments on Facebook and sending scathing emails that might make myself feel better but also might hurt someone else. The only thing standing between me and this vitriol is a little book of reflections I’ve been reading each day of Lent.

Today’s reflection by Mary DeTurris Poust, a Catholic writer and employee in the Diocese of Albany, New York, was about “looking out for #1.” I think what’s at the heart of most negativity is an elevation of the self over others. We may not be technically selfish. That is, we may give generously to charity, take care of our families, and help friends in need. But at the heart of our lives, most human beings are self-centered. We simply have a hard time seeing things beyond how they relate to ourselves.

It’s not without good reason that a common sarcastic remark people make is, “It’s all about you.” It’s an effective chastisement to remind us that the world does not revolve around us. And it’s necessary because our human nature leans toward the self-involved. I guess part of this is an instinct for self-preservation. We find fault with things and people we feel might harm us or, at the very least, not do us good. We grasp at material things for ourselves for fear that we will be left without. Even our good deeds are sometimes an effort to bring honor or renown to ourselves.

Poust reflects, “What would it take to flip that, to soften our hearts and open our minds to the stunning fact that everyone – from our most beloved family member to our most despised enemy – is grappling with some deep-seated insecurities, issues, heartaches, and suffering?”

We can start where we are: in our own families and communities. Instead of lambasting our child for being irresponsible, we can find out what he/she needs to be better organized and prepared. Instead of diatribes on Facebook or Twitter, we can refrain from our need to have the last word. We can try to be happy instead of envious of friends whose fortunes seem to be greater than our own. We can treat cranky neighbors or even strangers with compassion, realizing that they might be in some physical or psychic pain.

I’m not going to lie. It’s not easy stepping outside of oneself and thinking of others first. We need guides and inspiration. For me, prayer and reflections by spiritual mentors are great reminders of how I should be living my daily life. And in the public domain (even on Facebook!), there are heartwarming stories of ordinary people making a difference in someone else’s life.

The greatest calling we have is to die to ourselves and spend our lives in service to others. That is the path toward true happiness in this life. That is the way to center ourselves rather than being self-centered.

 

 

 

Phat Tuesday

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koJYM-1.So.79The crowd inside my favorite neighborhood bakery this morning could only mean one thing: suburbanites stocking up on paczki – those over-the-top Polish doughnuts filled with all kinds of sweet things – and king cakes, the traditional rings of pastry favored by New Orleans residents to celebrate Mardi Gras. I, of course, had to pick up my share of these delicacies for one last hurrah before giving up sweets for Lent.

Tomorrow begins a six-week season of fasting and abstinence for Catholics. While our meatless Fridays and traditions of giving up something we enjoy for Lent feel painful, other Christians, particularly Orthodox and Eastern Rite faiths, have much more stringent rules for fasting during Lent. Many eschew all dairy products and meat for the duration of Lent. Some fast every morning until noon. Compared to these dedicated believers, I’m a piker.

I also must confess to the somewhat selfish motivations behind my abstinence from sweets. I’m hoping it will make me slimmer, healthier, and less addicted to sugar come Easter Sunday. Still, I find it important to mark the season with some sort of sacrifice.

So “Fat Tuesday” has become a fun day of indulgence for me and my family. Around the world revelers will be celebrating in grand style. There is, of course, the legendary decadence of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where the streets are littered with beads and partiers drink too many hurricanes. And the granddaddy of all festivities is Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, where millions of people parade through the streets in outlandish costumes and the party lasts 5 days.

Compared to those festivities, my plan of pigging out on king cake and staying up late to read the latest John Grisham thriller seems a little tame. Still, I plan to indulge myself, enjoy myself, and laissez les bons temps rouler!

 

Make America Good Again

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The Covington Catholic boys didn’t have a chance. Once videos of their confrontation with a Native American leader on the Washington D.C. Mall made it onto TV and social media, their images and actions were pounced upon by an American public that has become too swift to judge and condemn.

Initial videos appeared to show the boys taunting Nathan Phillips as he performed a traditional Native American song. With their MAGA hats, their whiteness, and the “smirk” on the face of Nicholas Sandmann, the Covington boys were quickly painted as white supremacists in training. The subsequent release of further footage, however, showed that the boys themselves were being verbally attacked by a group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites and that Nathan Phillips approached them, not the other way around.

I’m not defending the boys from Covington Catholic. They may very well be entitled brats  who like to stir up trouble. On the other hand, they may have been in an uncomfortable position and were acting out to make themselves feel less powerless. I just don’t think I can judge them based upon a video, not having actually seen the incident. And I don’t think others really can either. What is remarkable is how quick the Right and Left are to leave their corners and spar over every incident, large and small, that comes into the American consciousness.

There is a reality to the concept of too much of a good thing, which is the case in our digital information age. We have so much knowledge at our fingertips but very little understanding. There is no filter for people. They jump before considering all the facts and nuances of a situation.

As for the MAGA hats, I personally don’t understand how any thoughtful person can support the agenda of Donald Trump. That doesn’t make wearing one akin to donning the white hood of the Ku Klux Klan, Alyssa Milano. Making statements like that undercuts legitimate criticism of many things Donald Trump has said and done since entering the race for president in 2015.

But that is the state of discourse in America. We are shouting into the ether and hoping someone latches onto our pronouncements and validates our thoughts. Truth, compassion, and understanding be damned.

Overshadowing the hysteria about the incident between the Covington boys and the Indigenous Peoples Marchers is the total lack of judgment on the part of the boys’ adult chaperones. In a situation that could have escalated and potentially become violent, these adults stood by instead of acting to remove the boys from the confrontation. The march was over, and they were merely waiting for transportation to leave the Mall. Why not shepherd them away from the madness and diffuse the situation? Covington is a Catholic high school. Why not step away and initiate prayer? If I were a Covington parent, I would have been incensed at the adults’ poor judgment that day.

As Mike Pesci writes in Slate, “The bothersome teens of Covington Catholic aren’t heroes or horrors.” (“Covington Boys: the Difference Between Jerks and Monsters,” Slate, Jna. 24, 2019) They just have the misfortune of growing up in an age where everything they say and do can potentially find its way into the public eye. I hope the incident has served as a learning experience for them and that leaders at their school, as well as their parents, use the opportunity to teach the boys about tolerance and compassion. They were, after all, in Washington to espouse their Christian love for the unborn.

We need to find a way back to rational discourse in America. Beyond the problem of fake news, we need to consider the multi-faceted nature of most issues and strive to look at all sides before jumping in to praise or condemn. Let’s summon our better angels and try to resurrect the values that truly make our country great.

 

 

31 Days of Kindness

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47192929_2197798976919662_2821843979337728000_oShortly before December, my niece posted a Kindness Calendar on Facebook. Being a big fan of Advent calendars and the whole countdown to Christmas, I decided to give it a try. With traditional Advent calendars, you get something (a chocolate or small toy) each day of December. The Kindness Calendar asks a person to give something every day until Christmas. I printed out the calendar and taped it to my fridge. So began a transformational month that has given so much more meaning to the Christmas season for me.

Each day I have done my best to fulfill the task set for me by the calendar. It might be something simple like purchasing an extra bag of groceries for the local food pantry. It might be nonmaterial: a kind word, a positive note, a mental or emotional adjustment. Some of the activities had disappointing results. When given the task to smile at as many people as possible one day, I was forced to notice that not only do most people not smile back, most people don’t even make eye contact with one another during the course of the day.

Yet as the month has gone by, I have found my heart to be so much more open and expansive. Giving things away, whether physical or emotional, has made me treasure this season of goodwill so much more deeply and personally. After performing my “good deed” for the day, I felt so much happier and less stressed about the many things on my To Do list. The more I recognized others’ needs, the more abundantly blessed I felt.

Christmas is almost here. I’ve got most of the gifts wrapped and the cards sent. Soon all four of my kids will be in the house causing happy mayhem. And this year, I have a peaceful, contented heart with which to receive them.

It’s not surprising to me that the Kindness Calendar was created by an organization called Action for Happiness. Trite as it may sound, using the calendar has reminded me that it really is better to give than to receive. Giving of ourselves comes back to us in double measure.

May all of us experience Christmas joy by performing little acts of kindness on our way to the manger this year.

Be Prepared

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Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas. These words from Jesus in the Gospel struck me in a particular way: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” (Luke 21:34)

There’s not much chance I’ll succumb to carousing or drunkenness, but I have to admit that the anxieties of daily life often keep me up at night. Especially in the weeks before Christmas, I find myself lying awake ticking off my to-do lists in my head instead of getting much needed sleep. And all the busy-ness keeps me from focusing on what is truly important at Christmastime.

In the Church, Advent points not only to the arrival of a tiny baby in Bethlehem who will become the Savior of the world. It also points us to the end of our lives when we will be held to account for how we lived. How much did we love? How much did we give of ourselves to others? How much did we emulate the great sacrifice of Christ, who gave his very self for our salvation?

Even if you are not a religious person, it’s worthwhile to think about your impact on this planet and the people in it. Are you selfishly concerned only with your own gain to the exclusion or detriment of others? Are you so busy consuming that you fail to see the needs of your fellow human beings? Do you show kindness to others even when it’s difficult and inconvenient? How are you making the world a better place?

Advent invites us to consider our answers to these questions. As we prepare for the fun of the holidays – the family gatherings, parties, gift and cookie exchanges – can we take a little time each day to be reflective and consider how we might reach out to the poor, the lonely, the oppressed?

Are we content to let time just slip by as we engage in thoughtless pursuits? Or can we strive to live more meaningful and intentional lives? One of these paths leads to the greatest fulfillment both in this life and the next. Today I commit myself to taking that path and approaching Christmas by being prepared – prepared to open my heart to others, prepared to give more than I receive, prepared to make a positive mark on the world God has so graciously granted to us.