Saturday, January 29, 2011

what is a child? part 1

In the last few weeks I have opened again and again to one of the three synoptic passages where Jesus speaks about children. This passage in particular struck me: "Calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, 'Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven'" (Matt. 18:2-4).

Jesus seems to imply that becoming like a child is a bit of a difficult prospect, involving conscious effort ("unless you turn and become like little children"). This is strange. We've all been children, right? How hard can it be? Ultimately, of course, becoming like a child will make things easier for us; indeed, St. Therese's Little Way is ease and simplicity itself (make yourself as little as you can, admit your dependence on God, and He will do all the work that needs to be done in your soul). But the process of becoming like a child, making ourselves little can be difficult in practice.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, in the last few weeks I have also started a new job, as an assistant in a Montessori classroom for six to nine-year-olds. I've spent a lot of time around my kids throughout my life (being the oldest of five myself), but it has been a while since I have had the opportunity for daily interaction with this age group. This definitely seems like the perfect time in my life to engage more fully the question: what are children like and how can I become more like a child? I thought I would focus on one attribute per post for the next few weeks. (As a side note, this question is one which Maria Montessori grappled with and her insights on the nature of children inform the philosophy behind her system of education. I am eager to learn more of what she has to say on the topic, but for now, I'm simply going on my own observations).

The first thing that strikes me is their boundless energy which is in evidence from the moment they enter the classroom at 8:30 in the morning. This energy level is particularly in evidence to me because it is my job to keep it at least partially in check. The children are taught to keep their bodies quiet and modulate their voices, to care for the materials that they use, to keep their conversation related to the work at hand. When they feel that they can't concentrate or can't keep their body still, they can ask permission to water the classroom plants, run an errand to the office, visit the school "sensory room", or even walk or kick a ball in the hallway. That's the goal, anyway. They forget or ignore the rules a lot, so it is my job to remind them. Though their energy level can sometimes get out of hand, it is a joy to see the enthusiasm that they put into their word.

At recess, the energy that is somewhat channeled and focused in the classroom is unbridled for all the world to see. The children are enthusiastic just to be able to move. None of the children stays in the same place for more than a few minutes. Even children who complain about having to go outside soon leave their moping and start chasing or being chased or simply spinning in circles for the sheer joy of moving.

I do not often have energy like that. I do not often want to get out of bed in the morning when my alarm goes off (especially this time of year). Perhaps if I had a consistent bed time like these children do, it would be a little easier. Montessori education works to make sure the children are offered work that corresponds to their level of development and can engage their whole attention. Perhaps if I set aside more time in my life to pursue things that engage my interests, I would be more like these children, energetic and full of life.

"I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (Jn. 10:10).

Monday, January 24, 2011


I've always been partial to the word Alleluia. I love spelling it, I love saying it, and most of all, I love singing it and hearing it sung. (For the record, though, I'm not a fan of using it in conversation in place of "awesome" or "cool".) It is a real penance for me to go without saying it during the six weeks of Lent. I have observed that if a song contains the word alleluia, it is an almost sure bet that I will love it. From my childhood love of the Handel's Hallelujah Chorus and the nuns' Alleluia chorus in The Sound of Music, to Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" (my favorite piece in college), to a more recent discovery called "Glory Bound" by the Wailin Jennys, many of my favorite pieces of music contain the "A" word.

Yesterday, I was at a benefit concert for my school, and I heard a piece of music performed that takes the cake. It is one of the most moving and beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard, yet it consists of only a single word: Alleluia. Yet the composer makes this one word do so much. It conveys sorrow, hope in the midst of suffering, peace, acceptance, gratitude.

"Alleluia" was written by American composer Randall Thompson (1899-1984) in 1940. The group I heard perform it mentioned that I was written during World War II and that the composer wanted to convey the reality of the suffering throughout the world at that time. I found an except from an article in Harvard Magazine which gives a little more background on the piece: "The anthem’s tempo mark of lento was very important to the composer. France had just fallen to the Nazis, and Thompson later explained, "The music in my particular Alleluia cannot be made to sound joyous…here it is comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’"

It is a subdued piece of music, not the kind of thing you'd expect to hear on Easter Sunday, for example. Yet I would argue that it conveys the fullness of the Paschal Mystery. Towards the end, joy and excitement enter in, the pace picks up, only to slow again in a beautiful, hushed close. The triumph of Christ's Resurrection doesn't mean that we forget the depths of suffering which He underwent for our salvation. We should no more forget what hundreds of thousands suffered during World War II and other great tragedies, our own suffering or that of our loved ones, than we should forget what Christ suffered for our sake. But I think this piece of music is a great reminder that with Christ, we never have to suffer alone. He will bring us through all the suffering this life entails to a place of peace if we only allow Him to lead us there.

Perhaps part of the reason I so love the word Alleluia is that it is at least partially untranslatable. I don't totally know what I am saying when I say alleluia. Often when I experience deep joy or deep sorrow, I am at a loss for words. Alleluia is a great word when there are no words. As Christians, we are called to sorrow and to joy in suffering. As Christians, we are called to say alleluia.

Here is a link to the best recording I could find on youtube. It is sung by the South Dakota State University Concert Choir. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

hard sayings

I am sometimes one of those disciples who finds Jesus' sayings (and doings) hard to deal with (cf. Jn. 6:60). Tonight I was reading the passage in Mark (Mk. 5:1-13) about Jesus casting the legion of unclean spirits out of the possessed man. The question that vexed me was why Jesus agreed with the request of the unclean spirits not to send them out of the country, and then gave them leave to enter the herd of swine. I certainly would have been a little angry if I were one of the swineherds who lost two thousand animals at a single blow. I am sure that there is some great biblical commentary that would shed some light on this passage, but you have to admit, it seems a little strange. You hardly blame the surrounding villagers for asking Jesus please to leave their neighborhood.

The footnote to the story is a little hard to take, too. As Jesus is taking his leave of their neighborhood, the cleansed demoniac begs Jesus that he might get into the boat and accompany him. The burning desire of his heart is simply to be the one who has freed him from his enslavement. Surely that is a noble desire, one that Jesus' heart would long to grant? But, no. "He refused and said to him, 'Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you" (Mk. 5:19). Granted, I'm sure the change of seeing this man "clothed and in his right mind", instead of foaming at the mouth and being thrown around by demons, was a great witness to the man's friends and family. And I'm sure that he ultimately found great joy in proclaiming the Lord and his mercies in his own neighborhood. But in that moment, I'm sure it was very hard for him to understand why he was being refused.

I often wish feel that my way is unclear and wish that Jesus would speak to me, enlighten me, guide me, more directly. Interesting, then, to note that during the time He walked this earth, Jesus' words were not always clear, His guidance not always easy to take. Indeed, earlier in Mark's gospel, Our Lord explains that he teaches in parables to the people "so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven" (Mk. 4:12). Hard words, indeed.

I do not have an explanation for all of these hard words tonight, but simply thought it worth noting that they are there. The Lord's ways are mysterious and He is sometimes confusing. His will for us may be different than we would have it, but there it is. He has always been a sign of contradiction, perhaps especially when He walked and talked on this earth. The disciples didn't like it when he predicted His passion and death, anymore than we like it when we are reminded to offering our sufferings up in union with His. Yet in this sign is our salvation. By his holy cross, He has redeemed the world.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

walking in the dark

There is a big emphasis in the post-Christmas readings from 1 John on walking in the light. "If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 Jn. 1:7). And again: "He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes" (1 Jn. 2:10-11). This is a beautiful meditation but for me can be a little disheartening. I don't hate my brother, but I often feel that my way is dark and I don't know which path I should take. What am I doing wrong that I don't see this light which is surrounding me?

I'm sure that my sins create some of the darkness in my life, but some of it is simply a cloud of unknowing. After all, we who are still journeying don't yet see God face to face, so it makes sense that we wouldn't see the way to Him perfectly clearly at all times. "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (1 Cor. 13:12). It's scary for me at times to act without a clear idea of what I'm doing. However, I know that I'm in good company.

I just discovered a little postlude to the story of the multiplication of the loaves in John's Gospel. In order to prevent people from taking him away by force and making him king, Jesus had withdrawn to the hills by himself. The disciples must have been confused what to do, where to spend the night. There may have been some heated discussion. Should they sleep out in the open? Look for lodging? Go looking for Jesus? Take the twelve baskets of leftover bread and find hungry people to give it to? It definitely doesn't sound like Jesus had left them with any instructions. The passage reads: "When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark and Jesus had not yet come to them" (Jn. 6: 16).

Let's recap: 1) It was dark, 2) Jesus could not to be found to tell them what to do. Exactly the situation I find myself in so often. In the end, His disciples decide to Jesus behind on the far side of the lake, seemingly stranded. Yet I think this was actually a beautiful act of trust on their part. They chose to believe that Jesus could arrange things perfectly, whatever they did. And Jesus' response is not to rebuke them for leaving him behind, but rather to reward their act of trust. To continue the passage: "The sea rose because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat. They were frightened, but he said to them, "It is I; do not be afraid." Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going" (Jn. 6:18-21).

So perhaps we can also learn to believe that Jesus can accomplish His will in spite of, yet perhaps somehow because of, our ignorant actions. After all, we are seldom in a situation where the right course of action is simply to do nothing. We, like the disciples, have to sleep somewhere. Jesus will always reward us for taking steps toward Him in the dark. His timing is mysterious, but we must not lose hope. "The men signed with the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark" (Chesterton, The Balled of the White Horse). We must use His gift of reason, make a prayerful decision, and act to the best of our ability. And He will enter in and meet us where our own feet have taken us.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

duc in altum

Every year, I also have an extensive list of possible New Year's resolutions. Ditto with Lenten resolutions, Advent resolutions, etc. It is sometimes discouraging to make these lists. I look at my life and feel that I want to reform everything all at once. Then this list of everything I need to do to change about my life seems too hard and I get overwhelmed. It's impossible, I think, so I might as well just stick with status quo. I waffle between these two extremes. Or I remember advice I've received in the past that I should just make one resolution and keep it well. But how to choose? So many of the things I want to be faithful to are interconnected and I can't decide which is the most important. The whole thing can be a miserable, vicious cycle.

And I was depressed until I came across this beautiful passage in a book of homilies by Fr. McLean Cummings called Making God the Joy of Our Soul. He focuses on the phrase duc in altum, Christ's words to the Apostles who had been fishing all night without catching anything. Fr. Cummings speaks of people who come to him discouraged with their failures and ready to give up. They say to him: "I keep confessing the same sins, I get distracted when I pray. I'm always tempted. So I've packed in the nets, after laboring all night in vain. No! There's Jesus who says: Don't pack it in! Put out into the deep! Go farther than you've ever gone before. With no rational hope of succeeding, but only trusting in Me, you will make progress. You will."

He continues: "Altum means not only deep but also high. So, 'duc in altum' might also be translated "set out for the heights". In a spiritual reading of Christ's words, then, his message might well be for Peter and for us to set our sights high, to be ambitious for the best in life. . . . We must not fear failure, or effort, or sacrifice, or great odds, or past sins, or all these things we are more than conquerors in Him who loves us."

John Paul II says in Novo Millennio Ineunte: "Duc in altum! These words ring out for us today, and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."

A beautiful thought for the beginning of a new year. It is encouraging for me to think that Christ wants me to set my sights high. He wants me to make resolutions and look to Him for the strength to keep them. Will I fail? Of course I will. But I can conquer even through my failure if I offer it to Him and get back on my feet with His help.

One of my resolutions is to post at least weekly on here. It seems a tall order when my last post was over six months ago. But I know sharing my thoughts like this is something I want to do and it will make me happy. So I'm putting out into the deep.