Humble Ambitions

tumblr_m54ipjGvoB1rokkrlo1_500I’m a pretty ambitious guy. Understatement of the blog, right? Ever since I can remember, I have had a clear sense of what it was that I wanted to accomplish, the vision to set both long-term and short-term goals, and the discipline to stick to them.

Ambition is a great American value. For some, it is the only one necessary: if you have the determination you can accomplish anything you want! Behind every great accomplishment, innovation, record or praiseworthy individual, there lies the unbridled passion to make something of oneself, and the skill to make it happen.

I bought into this with everything I had very early in life: I could have been anything I wanted, all I needed to do was work hard. Even after I began to understand that physical, economic, psychological, and social barriers make the “American Dream” little more than a fallacy, i.e. that often times the hardest workers are not the most successful, I could not shake the imbedded ambition to succeed. It’s simply a part of who I had been socialized to be, and who God had called to this life. (There have been enough situations in which my ambition for something selfish ended up leading right to this vocation to know that God knows the best way to use who we are to move us one way or another.)

But how can someone be a follower of Christ in the way of Francis of Assisi, seeking a life of humility, simplicity, and obedience, and at the same time remain an ambitious, success-oriented American? Surely, one would say, God has used this vice of mine to call me to conversion, to shed the old me in order to be born anew. One might also say that ambition is a gift, something that God could and would clearly want to use for good.

And so I searched for answers. The first one I came to was through both Richard Rohr’s writings on the Enneagram and my former campus minister: transform the ambition for self into ambition for God. Rohr says, “[We] are overly concerned with building our own kingdom and seeking our own fame… Keeping the Sabbath reminds [us] that the meaning of life does not consist in action alone” (Discovering the Enneagram, 228). Rather than attempt to change who we are, we need to orient who we are toward God so that our many gifts may point back to the one who fashioned us. It’s a reminder that “success” does not have to be personal or selfish, (e.g. wealth, fame, gratification, and power), but rather communal and altruistic (e.g. full churches, upheld dignity of neighbors, peace, and educated people). In this way, my former campus minister has argued that, not only is it possible to be 100% humble and 100% ambitious at the same time, it’s necessary. The way he put it, being a humble servant means giving all that we have and working for all that we can for the sake of building God’s kingdom.

Unfortunately, the problem I’ve found with this mantra, “Build God’s kingdom, not my own,” is that it more often serves as a justification than it does a conversion. At least, that’s what I my spiritual director and I realized was the case for me. You see, whenever my spiritual director and I spoke about the future, I found myself beginning every sentence with “I would really like to. . .” or “I don’t feel called to. . .” or “I would be good at. . .” I believed that I was seeking to build God’s kingdom because everything was about his church, his people, his ministries; subtly, though, it became apparent that all of these things were being filtered through the self, and that my success, my image, and my reputation were informing me as to what God’s kingdom needed me to do. “I wonder if there’s a way to take the ego out of it,” he would say. Ouch. He had a point though: it was the “I” and the “I” alone that made these questions difficult:

  • Would I feel that I was “building God’s kingdom” if I were assigned to a nursing home or Hospice care, my only responsibility being the comfort of near death individuals?
  • How important is recognition to my ministry?
  • Why do I subconsciously believe that a bigger ministry is better than a smaller one?

So how could I take the “I” out of it, to stop looking at how ministry could make me the most comfortable or fulfilled (in essence, stop seeking my own ambitions) and focus entirely on what God had in store?

I think the key for anyone with high ambitions is to keep a balance between relationships and tasks. Otherwise, even the most well-intentioned goals will end up trampling people and ruining relationships. For me, that meant two new mantras:

  1. All I’m called to be is a brother.
  2. Love God’s people for him.

In both of these, I’m called to focus less on the task, the goal, the potential accomplishments (either God’s or my own), and more on the opportunity for relationships before me. There becomes no need to struggle for power or authority, no reason to worry about the big picture, and no recognition to be had. The goal is a person. The ambition is charity. To fully accept either of these mantras is to realize that spending time to share a meal with even one hungry and lonely person is as important to building God’s kingdom as is leading a crowd of people in prayer; that taking the time to listen to a person in their brokenness is as life giving as a well-attended Bible study; that Hospice care is as important as peace and justice missions. There is a need to remember that building God’s kingdom is not separate from loving those in it. It is not a task to be accomplished, but rather a people to be loved.

Ultimately, what I’ve come to understand and have struggled to implement is this: you don’t need me, you need God. I need to fully accept that my role in ministry is to provide God to everyone I meet, not myself, and whether it be through innovative, big-picture goals, or through loving, careful relationships, building God’s kingdom takes many forms. And so I offer this conclusion for those with a similar ambitious nature: be a vessel that works as hard as it can, with unrestrained creativity, with no limits in sight, not taking no for an answer, and completing things that have never been done before, and do not for even one second forget that God could equally have used a pile of rocks to accomplish the same thing. Humbly recognize that you are simply a rock, an open vessel willing to do God’s work. That’s the humblest ambition I know.

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Finish The Whole Bible In One Year

If your bible looks like this, it might be time to open it up and give it a try!

If your Bible looks like this, it might be time to open it up and give it a try!

Like many Catholics, I have always owned a Bible and believed it to be a very important book, but rarely found myself sitting down to actually read it. That’s not to say that I didn’t know much about the Bible, because I did. By virtue of simply attending mass for 24 years, I was presented with two readings, a psalm, and a Gospel passage every week as a part of the three-year Lectionary cycle.

There is a difference, however, between being familiar with a story and knowing it in its context of the other stories. So much of the historical significance and theological purpose of a passage is lost if it is read within a historical vacuum because the reader has no idea what has led to these events. When reading a text, as with a movie, television show, or the life of another, how can one begin to understand the emotion, the atmosphere, the drama, the relationships, the implications, or the subtleties without first knowing the back-story? In the case of sacred scripture, how can one truly claim to understand the teachings of Jesus without first understanding the Levitical laws that dictated the religious context, the history of the people of Israel that shaped their social constructs, or most of all, what they believed about God?

This is what I set out to learn during my novitiate year. Knowing that I had a lot of time for private prayer and meditation, I committed myself to completing the entire canon of scripture before I was professed. I picked a Bible, (I strongly suggest this one) went to the last page, and divided the number of pages by the number of days I wanted it to take. Five pages a day. That’s it. All it would take for me to read the entire Bible was to read five pages a day. When you consider how many of those pages are maps, charts, and title pages, that didn’t seem like it would be that difficult.

It wasn’t. The more difficult task, actually, was deciding the order in which I would read it. Rather than simply reading each book in the order in which it’s listed, (the historical books, then the wisdom books, then the prophetic books, and so on,) I decided that I was going to do a little research and instead read them based on the best scholarly guess as to when each was written. The reason I say when the text was written as opposed to when the events took place is significant. For instance, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles are written about the same events, the pre-exilic history of Israel. The difference between the two is that the authors of these books are writing in completely different historical contexts and thus, have completely different purposes for writing. To read them back-to-back might be helpful given the similar content (although the discrepancies in details might be a bit confusing), but I found that reading them separately, among books with a similar context, helped to bring out the particular theology and historical backdrop of the author. The same can be said about all of the prophetic books: it’s much easier to understand the message of a prophet when one understands the historical events that provoked their preaching.

Using biblical commentaries, clues within the texts, and pre-made bible guides, I came up with a Bible Reading Guide of my own  Each book is marked based on the significance I felt that it had for the overall understanding of salvation history, denoted by bolded texts to represent the most important books, underlined texts to represent books necessary for a scope of salvation history, italicized to represent books than can be skimmed rather than read in full, and (in parentheses) to suggest that these books be skipped completely, or read after a complete understanding of biblical texts, as they can be the most misunderstood.

I can’t say that I’m any closer to being a biblical scholar at this point, nor can I say that I have retained everything that I read (it’s a big book!), but what I will say is that the process of reading the whole bible was one of the most fruitful aspects of my year in novitiate. Being more familiar with scripture has helped me my prayer, my understanding of God, my attention at Mass, and my overall confidence speaking about my faith to others. I cannot stress enough the importance of reading scripture on a regular basis.

Which brings me to my last point: try it yourself! It can seem like an overwhelming task at first, but trust me when I say that it’s manageable. I think the first step for anyone who wants to know more about the bible is to simply open it up and familiarize yourself with it: flip through the table of contents, get a feel for which books are in which Testament, see which books are longer than others, and read little snippets of books to get a flavor for different genres. Before you begin any sort of reading plan, however, I strongly suggest reading the general introductions found in the Catholic Study Bible, or another introduction to the Historical-Critical Method, as they are excellent resources to reading the texts properly. I cannot stress enough the importance of proper reading techniques. From there, read as you feel comfortable. Read the texts, the notes, and the commentaries. Read with others and read alone. And most of all, read prayerfully!

This Is Not What I Signed Up For!

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Realizing that we bring our own baggage to community life can help prevent resentful comments such as these.

There came a moment during this past year when the luster of novitiate began to fade, and community life became more of a burden than it did a joy. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but I looked around at the inane and constantly occurring conflicts in the friary, the unbearable idiosyncrasies of some of the strangest people you will ever meet, and the dysfunction of leadership that still struggles to understand and live the charism of our founder after 800 years of fighting, and just screamed, “This is not what I signed up for!” I signed up to be a part of a group of men that live, work, and pray together to bring about the kingdom of God; a group of men that are identified with and work for the poor and marginalized of society; a group of men that recognize the wonder of creation, the power of the incarnation, and the joy of experiencing it all. That’s what I signed up for.

That same week, I found a letter written by Fr. Jose Carballo, the former minister general of the Order of Friars Minor and the current secretary for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, to the Poor Clares on their 800th year anniversary. Fr. Carballo writes,

If there is anything that destroys our fraternities it is the pretension of being above others, becoming judges of our brothers and sisters. This is due to our projecting onto them our dreams, and we demand of God and others that they fulfill them. Loving our dream of fraternity more than real fraternity, we turn into destroyers of fraternity. We begin to be accusers of our brothers, and then we accuse God, and finally we become desperate accusers of ourselves. We must remembers that there will never exist the ideal fraternity that can accept our dreams of pretentious pride, and that the fraternity is built on the basis of pardon and reconciliation, since it has so much to do with our own limitations and those of others.

Obviously I knew that there would always be conflicts when it came to differing levels of cleanliness and work distribution, as I’ve written about before, but when I searched further, I found that many of the things that frustrated me the most were not other people; they were the result of things that I brought to community life. Of the most notable was that I brought with me unfair expectations of others, exactly has Br. Carballo writes. Both consciously and subconsciously, I had determined how they should act, what they should believe in, what they should and shouldn’t need. Because I was unable to be flexible with my expectations, they quickly turned into judgments, which turned into condemnations, eventually ending in resentment, something that did not leave me open to new experiences of love.

It was then that I found a book by Jean Vanier that described every feeling, thought, doubt, hope, and situation that I had experienced so far in novitiate. Entitled Community and Growth: Our Pilgrimage, Vanier offers insights and wisdom from his many years of founding communities that are both practical and spiritual. Here’s how he opens the book:

Community is a terrible place. [Good start, right?] It is the place where our limitations and our egoism are revealed to us. When we begin to live full-time with others, we discover our poverty and out weaknesses, our inability to get on with people, our mental and emotional blocks, our affective and sexual disturbances, our seemingly insatiable desires, our frustrations and jealousies, our hatred and our wish to destroy. While we were alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, we realize how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny life to others. And if we become incapable of loving, what is left? There is nothing but blackness, despair and anguish. Love seems an illusion. We seem to be condemned to solitude and death.

So community brings a painful revelation of our limitations, weaknesses and darkness; the unexpected discovery of the monsters within us is hard to accept. The immediate reaction is to try to destroy the monsters or to hide them away again, pretending they don’t exist, or to flee from community life and relationship with others, or to find that the monsters are theirs, not ours. But if we accept that monsters are there, we can let them out and learn to tame them. This is growth towards liberation.

If that’s not powerfully wise first page, I don’t know what is. The best part? It only gets better. Throughout the entirety of the text, he simply has an eloquent way of weaving together his own experiences of success and failure, insights he’s learned along the way, prophetic condemnations of unhealthy communities, spiritual nourishment, and his own hopes for the future, while maintaining a humble tone throughout.

These two texts were tremendously helpful in my formation this year, and I strongly recommend them to anyone entering community life. For me, they made me realize that what I was getting out of community life was in fact exactly what I signed up for. I signed up to be a penitent with men who recognize their limitations and sinfulness; men who bring with them brokenness and imperfection; men who realize that love is messy; men who know that it’s worth getting on each others’ nerves and letting each other down every once in a way if it means going through life together. I did not sign up to be in a group of perfect men without any need for God, nor did I sign up to be in a group of men exactly like me! Sure, there is a burden to community life some days, but in the end, even those burdens can be entirely grace-filled if you let them. Community life can definitely be a struggle, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Seeking Insecurity

CoinPoverty as a virtue is a difficult concept to define, and an even more difficult concept to get a group of friars to agree on. My concept of poverty is different from Br. X’s whose concept of poverty is different from Br. Y’s. Do we imitate the poor, or do we attempt to eradicate poverty? Is the cheapest option the best, or should we seek the longer lasting and human-conscious options that are more expensive? I present these conflicts not to trivialize or relativize the issue (as I plan on giving my own answers to these questions at some point), but to point out that “poverty” as a goal is very vague, is difficult to define, and is easily spiritualized until actions are no longer virtuous at all. In order to remain faithful to Gospel and the spirit of St. Francis, I think that additional language is necessary to focus our efforts.

One of these words that I have written about before is sufficiency. While the post itself focuses primarily on being content with the present moment, This Moment is Sufficient was stirred by a desire to have only what I needed, spiritually and physically, without any excess. Over the past year, this has been a much more helpful word in terms of evaluating my life as a friar than the word poverty. “Do I have more than I need?” is a much easier question to answer than “Is this keeping with ‘poverty?’” Asking myself this on a regular basis has helped me to live more simply, and to remove any and all things from my life that I do not need.

But with my reflections around kenosis throughout this past year, I found that an ethic of sufficiency needs additional direction in order to live a Gospel life. To be sufficient, is by definition, to have enough. To have this as a goal, while it does limit the possibility of living with excess, is to also never experience deprivation of any kind, to never feel worry or doubt about one’s livelihood, and to never relate to those who do not have enough. On it’s own, it can allow us to be too safe. Even if we live within our means and without extravagance, when we have “enough”, especially when “enough” is accompanied by security and predictability, we are allowed to live a life that is comfortable, and worst of all, complacent. When this happens, we begin to fail Gospel poverty and our communities will inevitably fail with it. With high security and predictability, there is no room for trusting God or looking to God to provide because we become the rulers and suppliers of our own wellbeing; there is no need for a sense of urgency in our work or in our communities because the status quo does not bother us; there is no opportunity for solidarity with the poor (or even with middle class) because we can no longer relate to the anxiety of not being able to make ends meet.

Our natural response, however, is to do the complete opposite. Not only do we not seek the fruits of insecurity, we do everything in our power to rid every ounce of danger from our lives, often times going to great lengths to acquire it: we work too much, we attack others as a way to defend ourselves, we store up treasures that cannot save. We believe that our youth, skills, health, possessions, and social bonds, will last forever, that they will keep us happy and safe from all harm. This is a façade. It is the acceptance of the lie that the gift is more important than the One who gives that gift. It is the acceptance of the lie that we are capable of controlling our own fate, that all that we have acquired is somehow our own to possess, and that we received it based on our own merit. It is the acceptance of the lie that we our own saviors. 

So what does “seeking insecurity” look like? First of all, it does not look like being irresponsible, frivolous, or lazy. When we seek insecurity, we’re not making bad decisions to squander away the gifts we’ve been given. One does not strengthen their relationship with the Gifter by misusing his gifts. The real virtue lies in simply accepting that insecurity is all around us. When we accept the poverty that we have absolutely no control over our fate, that all we have is freely-given, unmerited favor from God, we begin to relate to our possessions, to others, and to God in a completely different way. With this realization, all is gift, and God is the only one worth relying on. In times of great favor, we give glory to God; in times of trouble, God is the first we seek for help; at all times, we are unwilling to waste our lives acquiring, maintaining, and protecting possessions that fade at the expense of relationships that last.

Obviously, there are just as many holes in this ethic as there are with an ethic of sufficiency, but I think together they offer greater grounding in Gospel poverty than “poverty” alone. They force us to look at the issue outside of dollars and cents alone, and focus the discussion on the purpose for the virtue in the first place: relationship with God. In the end, I think that we are only truly free when we accept that we are not in control and choose to seek the One who is. That’s true insecurity worth seeking.

Kenosis: What Could I Let Go Of?

At the beginning of the year I was moved by Jesus’ Kenosis, his self-emptying of his divine privilege, to become human:

“Though he was in the form of God,
[Jesus] did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.” (Phil 2: 6-8)

Jesus, the second person of the Triune God, chose to empty himself of his power, his will, his security, his appearance, and his life, in order to take on our humanity. What an act of humility! Rather than being called king and worshipped by angels, he was born into poverty, disrespected by many, and executed an innocent man. What an act of trust! Instead of being able to rely on his own authority or ability, Jesus left himself at the mercy of his Father, and remained obedient to the end. What an act of love! John tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

Jesus’ self-emptying is the perfect act that Francis spent his entire life attempting to imitate. It is the reason that our Order is called the Order of Friars Minor, the “lesser brothers,” and why poverty is so crucial to our charism. Our lives are an act of emptying anything and everything that could leave us feeling self-reliant, in control of our own fate, proud, or above others, in order that we may be totally reliant on God’s love and mercy.

Moved by this, I decided to make an inventory of absolutely everything that I could claim as my own. If I were to follow the example of our Lord with my own act of kenosis, what would I need to give up in order to be completely reliant on God in humility, trust, and love?

At the top of the list were all of my possessions. These were the easiest to think of and included my laptop, camera, music, pictures, and clothes, among other things. I’ve reflected before on the need to keep possessions simple and to make sure that I use them in keeping with Gospel poverty, but now I wonder what it would be like to renounce ownership or use of everything. Luke’s Gospel mentions a number of times that the disciples of Jesus “left everything and followed him.” Could I do this?

As if that question isn’t difficult enough to answer, the rest of the inventory only got harder as I went on. What about all of my legal assets? I have a driver’s license, a decent credit score, US citizenship that includes a right to vote and protections under the law, and as a religious I am tax exempt. The list goes on. I have physical assets such as good health, all of my limbs, working senses, free of any malformations, and fit enough to perform all basic tasks on my own. I have intellectual assets such as normal memory skills, basic brain functioning, and an ability to study at a university. I have social assets that allow me to keep a desirable reputation, friendships, respect from peers and superiors, and the occasional praise. Lastly, I have assets related to the Church: personally, I am in good standing, have a right to teach and preach, and have the backing of an Order, and structurally the Church is alive, it is organized, and there are many opportunities to be active in it in this country.

So I ask myself: What if, like Jesus, I was an alien in a foreign land, was an innocent man treated as a criminal, or was an outcast in society? What if I were to contract a disease that left me physically or mentally dependent on others for basic tasks? What if my reputation was ruined, people no longer liked me, or I was left without any friends? What if the Church was to reject me, the Order was suppressed, or the Church structures were to crumble? Or what if, in a much more likely situation, I was given a direct order to do something without consulting my desires?

In moments of loss, whether it be life-changing or normal day-to-day disappointments, self-inflicted or imposed, there is the possibility for the greatest gain. In recognizing the futility of all of the many things we claim as our own and divesting of ourselves the ownership, feeling of entitlement, and need for any one of them over God’s love, we become free. In these moments, we are being asked to focus less on the gift that has been taken away from us and more on the One who gave it in the first place, the One who wishes to give us even more in return. In times of self-emptying, we realize how futile it is to put our trust in money, good looks, education, or a host of other things that have meaning to us, things that do not last, and how even more ridiculous it is to fight endlessly to maintain control over them.

My goal in all of this is to free myself of any need to control, appropriate, defend with violence, or hoard any gift from God as if that gift were an end in itself. In making this inventory, I seek not to rid myself of all of God’s many gifts, but to recognize the generous bounty of God in my life and to be more dependent on him.

The image I leave with is one that I recently heard in a homily. God’s abundant generosity is like the air all around us. We are gifted freely with more life-giving air to breathe than we could ever consume, and yet, we have a tendency to hold onto this breath, to claim it as our own, and to be afraid to exhale. What good is that gift to us if we hold onto it? We will eventually suffocate, and the air will leave us whether we like it or not. What I’ve learned from Jesus’ experience of kenosis is that it is only in the exhale, the letting go of all that we have, that we are ever able to receive anything else. It is in the letting go of all that we cling to, and the trust that God will provide for us just as he did before, that we are free to love and be loved by God.