Category Archives: Priorities

Making the Cut

We’ve been purging a bit around our house lately, clearing out some stuff from our shelves that we no longer need. It’s a fairly common practice for us. We like to keep things down to manageable levels. The less we have, the less there is to clean, store, and move.

It’s a practice that needs to catch on. A new self-storage facility opened recently just down the street from us. According to statistics, we have enough self-storage space in the US for the entire population of the country to comfortably fit inside. (And this while the average size of an American home has tripled in the last 50 years.)¹

But how to decide what to keep and what to get rid of? That is always the question. For my wife and I, sentimentality does not play a very big role in our decisions. While we were in the midst of our latest round, I came across this prayer by the patron saint of Switzerland:

My Lord and my God, take from me everything that distances me from you.
My Lord and my God, give me everything that brings me closer to you.
My Lord and my God, detach me from myself to give my all to you.

St. Nicholas of Fluë

That’s a pretty concise prayer, and one that gives us insight into how to decide what stays and what goes, whether we’re discussing our possessions or our pastimes. It’s very similar to the prayer of an earlier saint:

Let me neither rejoice nor grieve at anything, save what either leads to Thee or leads away from Thee.  Let me not desire to please anyone nor fear to displease anyone save only Thee.

Let all things transitory seem vile in my eyes, and all things eternal be dear to me. Let me tire of that joy which is without Thee and to desire nothing that is outside Thee. Let me find joy in the labor that is for Thee; and let all repose that is without Thee be tiresome to me.

St. Thomas Aquinas

These lines from what is reported to be Aquinas’ daily prayer echo the same sentiment. If it draws me to God, keep it. If it does not, get rid of it. This is useful, though it helps more for categories of stuff than individual items. It’s hard to know where a particular T-shirt falls in relation to these questions, but it’s easier to decide if a particular hobby or interest does. So, my hangers are all backwards in my closet again.²

Trying to cut stuff from our lives isn’t just about organization; it is ultimately about focus. The less we have to deal with, the more we can focus on what matters — loving God and loving others.


¹ Statistics from http://www.becomingminimalist.com/clutter-stats/

² The closet trick is to turn all of your hangers around backwards. When you wear an item, turn the hanger back around. After a few months, the hangers that are still backwards give you a pretty good indication of what you could get rid of.

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Filed under Priorities, Simplicity

Obvious Advice for the New Year

We are a few days into 2017 and gym ads arrived right on cue in my mailbox this afternoon. Time to put some teeth to those resolutions (or at least extract some money from those who made them!) Another new year is as good a time as any to start afresh, to seek to right the wrongs, to improve ourselves and accomplish our dreams.

Of the various schools of ancient Greek philosophy, I have always had an affinity for the Stoics — ascetic, logical types, in sharp contrast to the hedonistic Epicureans. Stoics weren’t afraid to make the obvious explicit. Like this gem from Epictetus:

Whatever you would make habitual, practice it;
and if you would not make a thing habitual, do not practice it,
but habituate yourself to something else.

Isn’t this the core of most “self help/ self improvement” writing? Do what you need to do in order to be who you want to be. It’s so obvious as to be laughable. You can find thousands of people on the internet telling you that’s what you need to do to get where you want to be.

So why do we have such a hard time pulling it off?

Take this blog for example. I’ve had it for years, but for most of those years I just wrote on it when I felt like it. Posts were sporadic and widely spaced. 1 January 2016 I decided I wanted to write more, so I set myself a goal to write 500 words a day. The first 6 months, it went pretty well. Then we moved and it has been an uphill climb ever since.

Maybe Europe is just a more inspirational place to write than the Pacific Northwest. My schedule has played a bit of a role, but I have been able to adapt so as to have the time. Even so, I still find it increasingly difficult to get to 500. Part of it is the struggle for material. Finding things to write about seemed to come easier during the first half of the year.

Proficiency comes from sticking with something after the initial thrill wears off until mastery is attained. It is hard. It takes a lot of self discipline. It requires intense effort for seemingly small gains. This holds true whether you are training for a marathon, learning an instrument, or in just about any other pursuit. There is a desert between novelty and mastery that we must cross. It is long, arduous, and often lonely. It can feel barren and dry. But on the other side is the real goal — the attainment of the skill or ability that caught our imagination in the first place.

This applies also to our journey of faith. In an age where people binge-watch television programming like it was their job, it seems we should be able to put that same effort into our own salvation. If we truly want to become holy, we must cultivate holy habits. This takes a lot of work, but what else is worth our greatest effort, if not knowing God?

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Filed under Discipline, Priorities, Sanctification, Writing

Targeting

After some analysis, I have identified about two dozen species of birds I have never seen before that I have a reasonable chance of seeing where we now live. I am starting to collect information about their habitats and when they are normally present near the Puget Sound. This is an interesting exercise in itself as it allows me to learn more about these birds. It also should increase my chances of actually observing them in the wild.

Different birds prefer different habitats. They are not likely to come to me, so in order to see them, I will have to venture into their habitats. I could stare out my front window for the rest of my life and probably never see any waterfowl, but within a few miles I have both salt and freshwater bays and lakes. As I collect my information, I should have an idea of when I need to visit each habitat over the next year.

I have been doing some other goal-setting of late as well. I have slipped into the habit of drifting off to sleep when I sit down to read. It seems I can only endure about twenty to thirty minutes before the sleep monster envelopes me in its clutches and drags me off to its lair. There are times, like rainy Sunday afternoons, where a nap with a book is a fine and pleasant thing, but to succumb to slumber every time I try to get through a chapter of a book is becoming frustrating.

So I set a goal: I want to read for an hour straight each day. So far I have found the first 30 minutes fairly easy, but the second half to be more of a struggle, resulting in me having to move, sit on the floor, and otherwise exert effort to stay awake. Being able to focus my attention while reading is a skill I cherish, so it is worth fighting to retain.

Both of these actions result from asking the question, “What do I want?” which is just a variation on, “Where do I want to go?” that we discussed earlier. I used these questions to identify some targets: birds I want to see and an ability to regain for myself.

Obviously, setting goals is important and the internet has no shortage of articles extolling the necessity and utility of this practice. But setting goals that will lead us to where we want to be is more important. There is no shortage of “good things” to strive toward. It would be fun to be a renaissance man, conversant in multiple languages, able to play multiple instruments, and well-read on dozens of topics. We have our limits, however. Time, talent, and interest all narrow what goals we are likely to attain.

Focus is also important. I have found one or two goals at a time is all I can really focus on while trying to maintain other areas of discipline in my life. So for now it is birds (which can be set aside, because it is just a hobby) and rebuilding my reading capacity.

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Filed under Birding, Discipline, Growth, Priorities, Reading, Success

Locker Rooms

Locker rooms are quite the topic of conversation lately thanks to some comments caught on tape by Donald Trump in one several years ago. I am not addressing what passes for politics in our country, though. I am addressing the church. A couple of times in the last two weeks, I have heard the church, particularly the weekly Eucharistic celebration, referred to with a locker room analogy. I understand the basic idea of this metaphor — to prompt us to action outside the church — but it is a harmful metaphor.

First, it expresses a very low-church or non-sacramental view of what is occurring on Sunday. It reduces Sunday service to a sanctified pep-talk, which, honestly, is pretty much all it is at many churches. Too many services are nothing more than a pep rally for vaguely Christian living.

Our worship is to be more than that. Emotions are not the central focus. The liturgy can be intensely emotional, but it is not designed to “create a mood.” Our worship focuses on the proclamation of the Gospel and the celebration of the Eucharist. These are acts with inherent value, not just preparation for something else.

Second, the locker room image is not appealing. I’ve been in many locker rooms in my life and none are places I would choose to hang out in on a free day. They serve a purpose, but they are not inviting. They are not inspiring. A locker room is just an expanded communal bathroom. In our travels, my family has spent a fair amount of time in cathedrals and churches, but we haven’t visited one locker room. A well-designed church is a pleasure in its own right, which is why many are tourist attractions in Europe. There is beauty and majesty and a sense of transcendence present in the sacred space.

As we approach a sanctuary in worship, we are reminded of God’s presence. Our worship space is patterned after the temple, which, according to God, is patterned after his throne room. We are rehearsing for our eternal worship of God. Our worship, and the place it occurs, should inspire us to consider heaven.

Third, nothing central to a game happens in a locker room. Yes, players get dressed and may hear some words of inspiration or chastisement there. Some strategy is discussed. They clean up afterward to go home. But the game — the point of the whole thing — takes place on the field or the court. Our Eucharistic celebration is a central part of our faith. Yes, we also have responsibilities to the poor, those in prison, widows, and orphans, but if we only focused on worshiping God, we would be honoring him. Someone who only hangs out in a locker room is creepy.

If we must use athletic imagery for the church, the sacristy or vesting room would be the locker room and the sanctuary, the playing area, but that image makes worship passive for too many of those present. We gather to worship, not to observe it. Social action is important, but it is not the primary duty of the church or the believer. Worship is. Prayer is. We do other things as they flow from these. Some are called to do nothing but worship and pray. That is a high calling and while we may not all share it, we can all learn from it.

To call a church a locker room is to be out of balance. It is to elevate the second commandment above the first. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves, but unless that love is inspired by, given by, and spoken through loving the Lord our God with all of our heart, mind, and strength, we are just making noise.

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Filed under Balance, Eucharist, Priorities, Sacraments, Worship

Reflection

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You have to be still to reflect. The stiller you are, the better reflection you give. My wife reminded me of these words on a recent walk along the Puget Sound. The particular inlet we were walking next to was particularly still and we could see reflections of the opposite shore.

The proper thing for me to do at this point would be to quit writing and let you reflect. You are certainly under no obligation to continue. In fact, to do so may be counter-productive.

The purpose of a book of meditations is to teach you how to think and not to do your thinking for you. Consequently if you pick up such a book and simply read it through, you are wasting your time. As soon as any thought stimulates your mind or your heart you can put the book down because meditation has begun. To think that you are somehow obliged to follow the author of the book to his own particular conclusion would be a great mistake.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 215

Authors have different goals than readers. My goal this year is to produce 500 words per day on this blog. I have no idea what your goal of reading it may be. Even if your goal hasn’t been reflection, I hope that something here has sparked that within you. Few things are more necessary, or more endangered, than quiet reflection. This TED Talk on how to find your calling underscores the necessity of quiet reflection.

As colleges and universities are busy indoctrinating their incoming freshman into whatever it is they think is important through the increasingly popular freshman seminars, I wonder what would happen if instead of team building games and diversity presentations, they merely took away all electronics and made the campus quiet for a week. My hunch is that there would either be open revolt or a step toward some meaningful transformation within the lives of the students.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a weighty task: to raise the Son of God. Why this particular girl? How did she manage it? God’s grace overshadows the whole enterprise of the incarnation, but perhaps one small contributing factor is revealed in Luke 2:19. Mary is only one of two people who are revealed in the New Testament to have pondered. (Peter in Acts 10 is the other.) I’m sure other pondering occurred in Bible times, but Luke was inspired to make sure we knew that Mary pondered the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. She was still and she reflected the grace of God.

We are not grace, light, truth, or love by ourselves. We only reflect these from their source. To reflect well, we must be still, quiet, at peace. Everything around us wars against that end. To the extent the challenges to our quiet reflection are successful, our capacity to reflect grace, light, truth, and love is diminished. May God make us sensitive and protect us so that we may reflect upon him and reflect him.

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Filed under Discipline, Growth, Mary, Priorities, Silence, Simplicity, Solitude

Subversive

I may have genuinely scared someone. It came up in conversation the other day that I do not have a television and the look of shock on his face could not have been more if I told him I was a cannibal. It’s not something I broadcast much, but neither is it something I hide.

It started years ago, in varying degrees, and has been consistent for at least the last 12 years or so. Our early motivation was time. Television took away time that we could spend on other things, like playing with or reading to our kids. Watching television took away our kids’ time to do other things as well.

With distance comes perspective. Over the years, we realized that with no longer watching television, we were no longer being programed by it. Our ideas and attitudes were no longer being shaped by those who wished to exploit us for their own financial (and ideological) gain.

This same impulse now leads us to question our online world. We have reduced our social media consumption and we don’t use television alternatives such as Hulu or Netflix. The internet is better, and worse, than television. The wisdom of the ages and unfiltered depravity are both but a few keystrokes away.

I could not have put the words to it all those years ago, but it is a monastic impulse. A desire to restrict input in order to focus more on God. We only have so much time and attention to give. Just like the livestock of a farmer, our time is a limited commodity, and as the Scriptures teach us, the best of our flocks and fields should be dedicated to the Lord.

Those who look at monasticism as an escape from reality understand neither reality or monasticism. Those who pursue it as a retreat from the world are soon disappointed. Having to deal with the reality of your own sin without distractions is not for those seeking an easier experience.

I learned this lesson involuntarily the summer between high school and college. I had sin to deal with and decisions to make and I was working in a factory. Much of the time there was the din of the top-40 radio station to keep me from my thoughts, but often enough I was running one particular machine that was noisy enough to drown it out. It was boring to operate. Stack the pieces and wait while the machine welded them together.

Working on that machine was my first experience of sustained self-reflection. Alone and surrounded by the white noise of the machine, I had nothing but my thoughts. It was not easy. I had made many poor choices in high school and I knew the extent of my sin. My life was on the brink of significant change, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to take the leap.

In retrospect, it was a healing time for me. Not as much as it could have been if I had had some guidance on prayer for such times, but in his grace, God used it. By the end of the summer, I was ready for a new start. I had taken the time to consider where I had been and what I had done.

Such reflection does not occur in front of a screen. Even the pages of a book can be a hinderance. There is nothing magical about the printed page; there is as much garbage available there as on television. The one advantage of paper is that if your mind wanders off, the page waits and doesn’t try to pull you back in. There is no flicker, flash, and noise.

To live this way—switched off—in our culture is subversive. It goes against the prevailing modes of existence and challenges the assumptions of the mass. Seeking to follow God has always cut across the grain of society and power. May we embrace the call to be set apart.

You shall have no other gods before me.

Exodus 20:3 (ESV)

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Filed under Asceticism, Priorities, Sanctification, Silence, Social Media, Solitude

Smoke and Prayer

A profound statement I once saw on the internet came to mind again recently. Some searching revealed that it is an old idea with no clear place to attribute it. As I remember it (there are variations), it was stated thus:

Can you smoke while praying? Of course not.
May you pray while smoking? Of course.

It addresses questions of intent and attention quite well. It applies not to smoking alone, but could be used to address many activities.

We normally say evening prayer together as a family. Even with teenagers, distraction can loom large at times. “Can I ____ (color, draw, crochet, etc…) while we do evening prayer?” More and more my answer is “no.” When our intent is to pray, we should seek to direct all of our attention to God.

But we must also allow for the Holy Spirit to woo us. We must be open to our Father at all times, and that may cause us to pray, even in the midst of other activities. It is a tradition as old as religion itself that monks pray while performing manual labor. They also have set times of prayer. The two are not exclusive of each other, but compliment each other.

If you are married, consider talking with your spouse. There are times when you talk while doing something—taking a walk, driving, eating dinner. There are some times when you just need to talk, with no distractions.

Another way to think of it is as a parent with a child. If you take your child to a place where they are enjoying themselves—the zoo, for example—they will talk to you, but they will also be focusing on the wonders around them. This can be an enjoyable experience as a parent, to share in the wonder of your child. There are also times when you and the child will talk with nothing else happening, sitting side by side on the couch, or before bed. Both are important forms of communication. One occurs in the midst of another activity, while the other is completely focused.

I think of times I’ve gone hiking or birding. Sometimes prayer happens. Mostly it is on the level of thanking God for the beauty around me, the peace and quiet of the woods or lakeshore. On occasion, it has turned to deeper conversation. These are important moments in my walk—literally and figuratively.

However, it would be foolish of me to go for a hike as my only means of prayer. I am too easily distracted. I don’t go into the woods solely for God. I go to see the birds and the environment in which they live. I think it is not just for modesty’s sake that Jesus instructed his disciples:

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:6 (ESV)

God deserves our focused attention. But he is also too big to fit only in our times of set prayer. Thus, when we pray, we should pray. When we do anything else, we may also pray.

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Filed under Prayer, Priorities