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Cardinal Ber …. Oooo! a Squirrel!

Distraction is an interior fracture.  it will never lead the person to encounter himself, for it impedes him from looking into the mirror of his heart. Collecting oneself is the beginning.” – Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio (Pope Francis)

Odds are you are reading this on an electronic device. (If you’re not, please let me know who printed my writing without my permission.) Technology has been so great in helping provide society with great advancement. It allows for the immediate distribution of information. It allows one to acquire new knowledge at a much lower base cost. It admits for global communication, which means both communicating from one side of the globe to the other and communicating to a great mass of people. We find ourselves on our phones, tablets, and computers. More than any other time in history do we have a critical mass of distraction. Our phones notify us when our Trivia Crack opponent (people still play Trivia Crack right?) responds to his questions. It informs us of breaking news, an @ mention on Twitter, a like on Facebook, a comment on an Instagram photo, a weather warning, and the group texts between a group of friends who beating an inside joke to death. In fact, Dr. Taylor Marshall has said that each person we follow on Twitter, each friend of Facebook vies for our attention. “Read my post!” “Listen to ME!” “Look at me!” It’s like putting every single person you know in your pocket.

According to their statistics, there are 300 hours of video uploaded to Youtube every minute. Each, or most, vie for our attention when we go to see a grumpy cat video. Then, there are all those little games on our phone to occupy us in line at the grocery store. We score those little points here and there. We surpass this friend here, beat that friend in a game of intellect there. Then, there are the actual video game systems that can distract us for longer amounts of time until the next time we have a responsibility. Amidst all of this noise that is constantly being pushed upon us, our consciousness resembles Tokyo or Las Vegas, where lights are so bright that even the night feels like day.

Cardinal Bergoglio, in a conversation with Rabbi Abraham Skorka*, peers into this seeming perpetual motion with an insight coming from a place of rest. He calls distraction an interior fracture. It slowly disables our interior from functioning properly. Each distraction is its own micro-fracture slowly weakening the structure both of our intellect and our spirit. It prevents us from looking into the mirror of our hearts, he says. We do not even enter the bedroom to peer at the mirror.

Looking back into my own life, I can attest to this. The more I succumbed to distraction from my phone the harder it was for me to reflect, the harder it was to meditate, and the harder it was to contemplate. Part of the effectiveness of retreats, I found, was that I freed myself from distraction in so doing allowing myself to hear both the movements of my own heart and the movement of the Spirit with my heart.

In days gone by, the pace of life and the lack of immediate distractions gave the greater space for reflection and prayer. From this came beautiful poetry, art, literature (imagine Jane Austen writing Pride and Prejudice with an iPhone sitting next to her, nope she’d been all up on Pintrest.), and powerful mysticism. At the risk of assuming to much about you, my reader, we live in the relative economic ease that Jane Austen experienced, but unlike her, we so fill our time with distractions that our great creations are … memes (excuse my cynicism).

Because we no longer have the luxury of limited distraction, unless you are cloistered or a mountain man, we have to make intentional distraction-free time for the building up of our intellects, hearts, souls, and sanity. I recall a conversation I had with some fellow bloggers a few years ago about using the iPad for prayer. It’s so filled with distractional possibilities it can, by its nature, nearly sabotage prayer, especially if you are as unvirtuous as myself.

Although it might be that you started reading this post as a distraction, I invite you, challenge you even to close the browser, app, or tablet and sit for a few moment in silence away from dings and chirps and closer to your your heart and the heart of God.

*On Heaven and Earth

image by Alex Valentine

Tribes by Seth Godin

I remember in my second year of undergrad philosophy studying the writings of the pre-Socratic named Heraclitus. I found him most interesting. Whereas others in his era had though that the main element was one of the four elements, wind, fire, water, or earth, Heraclitus thought outside the box. He said the world was in constant flux; it was like a flowing river, no two moments would be exactly alike. Plato quoted him as saying, “Everything changes and nothing remains still and you cannot step twice into the same stream.” As a twenty-year-old, I could very much identify with this image of flux. Stability, even in the midst of a seminary run by Benedictine monks (one of who’s charisms is stability), I felt a constant movement. Maybe that’s what attracted me to Twitter five year later. Emotions certainly are in constant flux. Relationships had, after 20 years, come and gone, some willingly, some regrettably. Paradoxically, I found an idea on which I could hang my hat.

Until, that is, I read Plato, then Aristotle, and finally Aquinas. I cam to realize that there are certain things that are unchanging, namely God, and things connected to Him like truth, goodness, oneness, and beauty. From those things, called universals, one could set principles from which to hold firm amidst the change that happens in a word still experiencing its creations. Spiritually we can hold fast to a God who is an eternal rock. He will not be moved. Intellectually, we can rest ourselves on these universals that guide, direct, and are the end of our thought.

My problem with Seth Godin’s leadership manual Tribes is that he so embraces the Heraclitian concept of change he discards anything that is immutable and unmovable. Inso-doing, he philosophically weakens his assertions, some of which are great insights into leading post-modern man. The core of the leadership ideal in the book is two-fold. 1) Tribes naturally arise in human communities and they yearn for a leader 2) That leader necessarily must be someone who bucks the status quo (he calls this person a heretic) to be a successful leader of a tribe. Both ideals are centered on the concept of the word in constant change and the leader is the one, who understanding this, effects the change instead of being effected by it.

By basing his whole ideal on the fact that everything changes means that, at some point, even what he sets up will no longer be relevant, which seems strange to set up a system that won’t be helpful when times change (other than to say, embrace the change). It seems odd and futile to make any definitive statements when everything is relative to what is beyond the status quo. When you set yourself contrary to something, you bind yourself to the contrary. Once the heretic becomes the status quo he/she is no longer relevant and has let down his/her tribe.

I’m sure he intentionally chose the word heretic because it is an incendiary word and is divisive and so, therefore, grabs the reader’s attention and is memorable. He elevates heretics into saints. Heretics are the good people, he says, because they embrace that change is what drives the world. Heretics, as a whole, looking through history, specifically within the Church,  have rather mucked things up. Arius was a heretic, but he wasn’t bucking a system because Christology hadn’t been fully fleshed out (no pun intended). His challenge to Christ’s eternal divinity ended up solidifying Christology in the Church. His effect was apophatic and so in bucking something he unintentionally solidified what we believed about Christ. Martin Luther, who Godin mentions multiple times, originally didn’t want to be a heretic. As he moved along in his own thought, based on faulty principles (see above), did he separate himself from orthodoxy. Yes, he bucked the system, but I wouldn’t consider his heresy successful only because it started a chain reaction of great division and great confusion in Christianity. It had the opposite effect of unity, one of the universals I spoke about earlier.

Inside of this faulty system though, Godin has some keen insights in sociology, which, in turn, effect the way one can lead. To settle for current operational standards without reflection is never a good thing. To work mindlessly, following the manager blindly, doesn’t build human excellence and is an offense both to human creativity and free will. Such stati quo are unjust to the worker and need reform, need new insight, inventive ways of solving problems, free of  the complacency that maintains what works just because it does. Leaders should and need to build up and effect change that will help their sphere (tribe) excel.

Godin says leaders don’t need to be in positions of power to lead. In fact, in reflecting on many of the Church’s greatest saints, very few started in positions of power. Francis was a hermit. Catherine worked at home. John of the Cross was imprisoned. Frederick Ozanam was a college student. They all saw that different parts of the Church had entered into complacency and so led by example and word. One started a religious order that change the face of religious life in the Church. Another called out the pope in his complacency. Another reformed a complacent religious order. Another saw the need to take care of the poor in Paris and so he filled that need forming a society (St. Vincent de Paul Society) to do so. None were heretics, although at various times some might have been labelled as such. The beauty of true orthodoxy is that is allows for a wide range of expression without ever becoming heretical.

The concept of building tribes, although not new, is very well articulated by Godin. It’s important for a leader develop a group that is aligned with his/her values vis a vie then goal he/she is trying to achieve. Francis ended up starting an order of religious. It’s wasn’t his original intention, but men began to follow him in the ideal of living simply. It was the same with John of the Cross in the Discalced Carmelites and Ozanam in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They sought fill gaps in what was needed in the church and men and women followed. They didn’t seek to start a tribe, a tribe organically grew around their leadership and so they effected changed, not for the sake of change but rather because change was needed.

I’m glad I picked up this book. I bought it to reflect on a different leadership practices and Godin seem to be a contemporary leadership guru. Although I think his concepts lack necessary philosophic depth, they aim at one thing, if not directly so, human excellence.

photo taken by Marco Derksen

Best Books Read in 2014 No. 10

So it’s been a long time since I’ve been on here. I took an unannounced leave of absence for no particular great reason, but for those of you who are still reading this blog, I am back and hope to be producing more regular content. To that end, it’s that time of year again, for my top ten books of the year. Last year was a weak reading year for me. I didn’t read much at all. In fact, I would say 75% of the books I ‘read’ were audiobooks. Some normal authors that show up on this countdown every year, Mr. Chesterton and Ms. Christie, will be absent in the list this year. I didn’t even have time or take time to read my favorite authors. Hopefully, this year will hold a better time for reading. It is one of my ‘resolutions’ for this year.

I was planning on publishing this series earlier, but I hesitated because I came into reading some great books during the last few days of 2014 (I had time.), which change the shape of the list I had originally devised. So without further ado …

#10 isn’t the genre of book you’d normally find in my top ten, but it was so insightful and thought provoking, I couldn’t leave it out. I picked up The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership: Achieving and Sustaining Excellence through Leadership by Jeffery Likes and Gary Convis because for a little over two years I was in a leadership program for priests, and it seemed like good supplemental reading. I was glad I did pick it up because it provided a good supplement and also gave some good philosophical and theological background towards the importance of leadership with any organization.

The Toyota Way to Lean LeadershipNeither Convis or Likes are theologians, and honestly, I don’t even know their religious affiliation. However, as they began to outline the leadership practices and structure of Toyota, theological lightbulbs started flashing in my head. Toyota is an interesting case study because in their entire history as a company they have run in the red only twice in something like 60 years. Most other years they have turned a substantial profit. Businesses tried to imitate their practice so as to stabilize their own companies and increase their profits. The key to Toyota’s success, though, isn’t in its processes, although they are very good. It isn’t in the hiring, although, that too, is good. It isn’t in how they budget and plan, although, that too is good. It’s success comes from its formation of its employees into leaders. It is, first and foremost, a person-centric company. Yes, many of the processes are automated to construct the cars they make, but Toyota realizes that is is only as strong as its people who design, maintain, and operate that equipment. Toyota takes great pains and many, many years forming its leaders. It sees the importance in forming good individuals who can think critically, think reflexively, and think creatively about problems.

Furthermore, problems also are attribute to Toyota’s success. They look for problems and address them with the best solutions they can devise. Then, they address the next problem and so forth. They recognize that no process, nor person, and no car is perfect. It can always be made better. It is seeking through its leaders to better reform itself to produce what is best. I have no doubt that is why the Camry is such a fantastic seller.

Finally, it follows the principle of subsidiarity. It puts its trust in its leaders. If a lower leader, closer to the source of the problem can address it, then he should address it. Only when a problem gets beyond him does it go above him to the next level, and even then, the next level guides him, but still allows him to come up with the solution. This allows for more knowledgeable problem solving and less micro-management. That kind of philosophy builds up the human resources even more.

Whether you’re a in business or not, whether you are in a leadership position or not, I would suggest this book as a theological reflection on the  practical application of the dignity of the human person and the principle of subsidiarity.

Wonderland Un-Eclipsed (Or, the Best Play I’ve Seen in Years)

“‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’”-GK Chesterton

Last night, I was privileged to enter into fairyland in the heart of New Orleans. Indeed, every New Orleanian knows innately that fairyland’s borders lie right around eachcorner. The scent of a nearby crawfish boil or the strains of jazz carried by the winds of our city keep us ever in proximity to that child-like land of milk and honey. Yet, last night, in the middle of City Park, the sheerness of the veil was illuminated and, like a scrim on stage, revealed the heart of the child that lies in each one of us.

The play was “Alice in Wonderland” and it was staged (if ‘staged’ is even the right word: a whole garden is used as the acting space) by the formidable artists at the nolaproject theatre troupe (http://www.nolaproject.com/). Complete with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the Queen’s Croquet, a disappearing-reappearing Cheshire Cat and the countless other characters, Wonderland was re-created in the NOMA Sculpture garden. It was a “choose your own adventure” style performance, where audience members pick their guide when they purchase their ticket. You could run with the Red Queen, prattle along with Alice or watch the Mad Hatter and Co. re-enact the whole story from the comfort of the Tea Party.

Now that you know the facts, you must be made aware of the more essential information: the nonsense. It is timed to coincide with the sunset, so the play begins in daylight, passes through twilight and ends in almost darkness. The statues in the NOMA garden, including a few token Rodins and Renoirs, are poked fun at and even made into characters. The young adult cast does more cartwheels, somersault, singing and fighting than occurs at your average kindergarten recess. Finally though, and most significantly, the lines of Lewis Carroll are delivered flawlessly in casual, if not flawless, British dialects. All these elements are sown together by the outdoor location, which provides punctuations of bird songs, wind, cloud and crunch as one steps across the grass to reach the different sets. So intoxicating and inviting is the experience that there moments of almost somatic surrender. I have never in my waking life questioned whether I was truly dreaming or just daydreaming until last night’s production. It was like the last chapter of the “Man Who Was Thursday” brought to life. (If you have not read GKC’s masterpiece, you need to drop what you’re reading and read it now).

Now that you have the nonsense, you should be made aware of the substance. This staging of Alice in Wonderland has, at it’s foundation, the same essential message (I won’t call it a “lesson” or “moral” for those words are just not silly enough!) that Chesterton makes at the end of “The Ethics of Elfland.” The message is, to quote the Mad Hatter, “that the world needs less facts and more mystery.” Children are often right, and adults are often dead wrong, when approaching the question “Why?” A child is comfortable waiting for the story to unfold, whereas the impatient adult wants the answer right away. Alice is happy to travel through Elfland for hours. Tedious and terrible adults can barely stand the place for a few minutes. Yet, humanity needs Wonderland, for a land without wonder is hardly worth fighting for, much less living in. God looked into the Abyss and said “Let there be light!,” there by conquering in one Word forever the darkness of a mere dark fact.

The veil of fact was held up to the light last night and what shone through was the Divine spark dwelling in actors and audience alike. We are all children playing in the Garden, even if most of the time we are acting like naughty children who have spoiled the Trees. The message at the end of the tale (for, again, it was neither a lesson nor a moral) is that learning to say sorry in the right way and learning to share your talents with God and others are the ends we must pursue. It is a message that every child of the Father must learn. Sometimes, nonsense is a better teacher of these truths than all the facts in the world. In a society increasingly organized by economy, bureaucracy and efficiency, I am tempted to change that “sometimes” to “most of the time.” Instead, I will leave you with this paraphrase of the play’s penultimate line; “I am sorry for being selfish. I am not sorry for being imperfect, but I will try, in both cases, to be better in the future.” Wonderland can and does bring us this message. Just remember that the border between here and Wonderland is paper thin…

Top Ten Books Read in 2013 – 1

Sorry for the wait. I have no excuse. (sad puppy dog face) Anyway, the best book I read last year is by an author who has On Hopealready been top of my list before and has already appeared on the list this year. Josef Pieper’s On Hope is one of those life changing mind blowing books. I was introduced to Hope as a life changing awesome thing through Pope Benedict XVI’s Spe Salvi, but unfortunately, I found that I had trouble internalizing it (looking at my life, not much changed after I had read it).

Pieper started from our natural perspective as human persons: we are pilgrims. We are not where we are in fulfillment. We live a mortal not-there-yet life. “The state of being on the way .. refers rather to the innermost structure of created nature. It is the inherent ‘not yet’ of the finite being.” Which, as an editorial note, is why ‘getting there,’ the dream job, the dream house, the dream net worth, is an ontological contradiction. It is in our nature to never get there. I that’s why we take solace in stories with ‘happily ever after.’

This state is inherently uncomfortable. “The only answer that corresponds to man’s actual existential situation is hope. The virtue of the status viatoris (state on the way); it is the proper virtue of the ‘not yet.’ In the virtue of hope more than in any other, man understands and affirms that he is creature, that he has been created by God.”

This is hope the book starts, and it only goes deeper and more theologically, philosophically, and spiritually mind lowing. It change the way I understand the virtue of hope and how I practice this virtue. His thoughts of ‘the fear of the Lord’ provide the most cogent explanation of that misunderstand gift of the Holy Spirit.

I have recommended this to spiritual directees, but will tell you, this book, to be understood well, requires some greater than average comprehension skills because of his references to foreign languages and philosophical concepts that don’t appear on a state college curriculum. That being said it’s short (92 pages) and well worth the time to mull through.

Top Ten Books Read in 2013 -2

Lamy 2000

Lamy 2000

My familiarity with Neil Gaiman came from his penning the comic book series Sandman, which admittedly and ashamedly I’ve never read. He instantly became a cool cat for though when I found out that he writes his novels with a Lamy 2000 fountain pen. So when one of his books, co-written with Terry Pratchett came on-sale in Audible I clicked the buy button. It seemed like right up my alley too. It is a novel about the Armageddon as described in the book Revelation. I speak of Good Omen.Good Omens

I though I laughed a lot at Woody Allen. I was wrong. This novels is hilarious. It follows a demon and an angel who over the millennia have established a friendship. The demon is entrusted with taking care that the anti-Christ grows up as evil as possible. Only neither of the tow want the world to end so they conspire to keep the anti-Christ neutral, only they accidentally switch up babies. From then on there is blunder after hilarious blunder, a perfect comedy of errors.

This is a great book, audio or otherwise, for any occasion.

Top Ten Books Read in 2013 – 3

The Fathers Tale Last summer we attempted to run a second Reverenced Reading Summer Reading Extravaganza. The book I ambitiously (I repeat … ambitiously) choose was Michael O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale. Yes, I understood it was as large as my dictionary, but oh, the eyes were bigger than my reading stomach.

My sister (who read the book in two days … did she sleep?) had  raved about this book. She said I had to read it. Well, I did. It took 10 months of stop-and-go reading. It doesn’t flow like a Tom Clancy novel where action and suspense or the promise of one or the other moves the words along. O’Brien was content to sit and reflect on a situation. That style was new to me as a reader and I struggled through it, because the pace was pedestrian.

And I am glad it was, because it forced me to reflect on fatherhood through the eyes of Alex Graham who chases he son across the world to save him. The chase though moves through snow instead of in two supercharged automobiles.

This was my first O’Brien novel and I love his prose. I love his characters. I love the way he constructed his plot, and I look forward to the next I read by him.

This would be a great book for a road trip or a Father’s Day gift for that man in your life who loves to read.

Top Ten Books Read in 2013 – 4

Sorry for the slack in posts the last few days. Saturday took all day and it took Sunday and Monday to recover. Tuesday is no excuse.

This next book is nothing new for the blog (if you happened to following us this long ago). Two years ago, I picked up this book as spiritual reading for Lent. I had a reading schedule and everything. I didn’t hold to it. I picked it up again the next Lent and didn’t finish it. Third time’s a charm, right? I picked it up again this year and finally finished it.Abandonment to Divine Providence

Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean Pierre de Caussade took me three time because it kicks your prideful, selfish little behind. It doesn’t hold  any punches with regard to how to live a saintly life. His principles are very simple but they require a deep and abiding faith. He says simply to be holy is to abandon yourself to the will of God.

This would be a great book if you are looking to go deeper in your spiritual life and willing to put in the work of humility. But check with your spiritual director first.

Top Ten Books Read in 2013 – 5

For the past eight years or so, the popular theological buzz has been around Bl. John Paul II Wednesday audiences collected as his pinnacle work, the Theology of the Body. Everyone seems to talk about how revolutionary his insights into the human person are in this tome. However, for the brave soul who picks it up to read, realizes how possibly foolhardy an undertaking can be because John Paul’s style and depth makes it seem like swimming through seaweed. For the armchair theologian it can find itself collecting dust on the shelf.

Christopher West has been able to communicate its basic ideas in common language, but for all the good he has done as a TOB apologist, there are presuppositions in John Paul’s writings that help form his thought which West doesn’t (in my reading of him at least) communicate.

Men, Women, and the Mystery of LoveEnter Dr. Edward Sri. He is primarily a Scripture scholar, but because of the nature of Catholic intellectual life in the US, scholars branch out due to small, solid faculties at good universities. Curriculums call them to broaden themselves. Sir takes Karol Wojtyla’s presuppositions in Love and Responsibility and communicates them to someone without philosophical and/or theological training, in his book Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love. He writes clearly and directly. He gives life examples but doesn’t water down Wojtyla’s depth. It is a great book and I would suggest it as the introduction to TOB before West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners.

I found the book also good for marriage preparation.

Top Ten Books Read in 2013 – 6

G.K Chesterton has become a regular on this annual countdown (and on the blog in general), partly because of his vast amount of writings and partly due to their wonderful commonsensical quality, always because he has a mustache. But as has been the case this year, we have another first, a book of poetry.

Wine, Water, and Song is a whimsical look at food and drink. Chesterton has great personal experience with both. Many of theWine, Water, and Song songs are taken from his novel, The Flying Inn, (which sounds like a book for next year). One of my favorite poems of the group in “The Logical Vegetarian.”

You will find me drinking rum,
Like a sailor in a slum,
You will find me drinking beer like a Bavarian.
You will find drinking gin
In the lowest kind of inn,
Because I am a rigid vegetarian.

One of the other great gems is “The Song of the Strange Ascetic”

If I had been a heathen,
I’d have praised the purple vine,
My slaves should dig the vineyard,
And I would drink the wine,
But Higgins is a heathen,
And his slaves grow lean and grey,
That he may drink some tepid milk
Exactly twice a day …
Now who can run can read it,
That riddle that I write,
Of why this poor old sinner,
Should sin without delight–?
But I, I cannot read it
(Although I run and run)
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun.

Pick up a beer or high-ball of scotch and enjoy some good levity and even better insights.