Sunday, November 30, 2014


It's Advent. Finally. I often have that sentiment as I trudge through the last weeks of that long Ordinary time which stretches from Pentecost to the 1st Sunday of Advent. Ordinary time is so unchanging and fathomless that it sometimes easy to fall into abstractions and stale routine. This particular last few weeks has been tumultuous, stressful and an excellent arena to show off my many, many character defects. All through this chaos, I kept thinking- just make it to Advent- slow down. I was, in a sense, waiting for Advent; waiting for the time when we wait on the Lord.

I'm aware that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. If it helps any, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me either. Yet, amid the busyness and stress and general loopiness of the last few weeks, not a lot has been making sense to me.

So, we're here- at Advent. The 1st Sunday of Advent, no less. What have I found? Hope. Not that, in the last few weeks or days, I've given up hope or anything. But, I've not been looking as hard for it. And, as I was reminded today, hope is the necessary precondition to faith. It is, one might say, its handmaid. So, I, actually had a look around and found hope sitting right next to me- a little battered, a little neglected, but still there.

Hope is a like a switch which reverses the polarity of my life. I go from trying to maintain an artificial sense of control and self-will which will ultimately collapse to remembering that hope tells me that God has it and I don't have to. Hope points me to a much, better world than I can sometimes conceive and places what I do now in that context. Hope points me me to a future instead of holding me in an awkward stasis.  Hope is where I need to stay as we settle into our long, silent wait over the next few weeks.

Happy Advent!

Sunday, September 28, 2014


"It is fear--in the old sense of awe--that allows us to recognize the holy in our midst, fear that gives us courage to listen, and to let God awaken in us capacities and responsibilities we have been afraid to contemplate" Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace

I re-read this sentence this week at a time when I was feeling quite anxious and quite overwhelmed about the demands of this year. For most of the year, my stress and anxiety levels have been quite high as I'm taking on some new projects which I've never tried before and because of what I've felt to be an awkward start to the year for reasons not really in my control. My sleep has been a disrupted and that doesn't exactly help things either. I was feeling out of control and I didn't like it.

What this quote did for me was to remind me that fear and anxiety are rarely gratuitous; that what I was feeling was an indication that something was out of whack, likely related to trying to control some part of my life which I didn't have control over. It was a remind to stop spinning around in circles and listen to see what it was I was supposed to be paying attention to. What I heard wasn't a booming voice from God or even a little whisper on the wind. What came to me was a reminder that I was being stretched in ways that I wasn't used to and that I needed to remember that growth comes with awkward starts and stumbles. And that was fine as long as I learned (again) that perfection isn't in the cards for me and that a recognition of my imperfections is the necessary component of learning what I am capable of. It is that recognition of imperfection which opens me up to growth as long as I'm willing to drop my ego and listen. I'd sooner do everything perfectly straight off (like anyone else), but that is an egocentric dream of infallibility. Looking around, I know that all this fear and anxiety keeps reminding me of that central truth: fear and anxiety are just markers for the growth I'd, otherwise, wouldn't know I needed. It is a reminder to stop trying to control people and events and simply pay attention to just what is it that God is trying to awaken. If I can trust that God has all this in hand, I can take that stretching and those stumbles more in stride.

Now, if I can just keep remembering that, the busy year ahead will be much more serene.

Monday, August 25, 2014

End of Summer Preparations

This is around the time of year for my annual reading of the Rule of St. Benedict. The summer is ending; the start of a new school year is only a week and a bit away. My preparations for the new year are stepping into high gear and I'm honestly looking forward to seeing my students- both my returning veterans and my newbies. I can feel a mild anticipatory buzz in the air as I start thinking about school, although I have to confess that buzz has taken longer to gain my attention this year than usual. Still, the new year beckons and that means so is St. Benedict.

I acknowledge the oddity of this attachment to St. Benedict. I am not a monk nor am I intending to open a monastery in the middle of the public high school in which I teach. For that matter, while I know a monk or two, I haven't darkened the door of a monastery in my life. I come by my appreciation of St. Benedict through books: Kathleen Norris, above all the rest, but also Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton and many others. That I confess I find incongruous because, if there is one thing that Benedictines are known for, it is community, so it seems odd to me to come by Benedictine values outside a community which espouses those values. Yet, here I am with a copy of the Rule next to me, waiting to be re-read. What is which brings be back to Benedict at this time of year?

What St. Benedict has done for me is to suggest a life where one's Christian faith is central to all that I do and that comes out in the little things that I do from day to day. He incorporates prayer, work and study in such a way as to keep a nurturing balance between them. This isn't a question of praying the seven monastic hours or follow a full, rigid  monastery schedule of so many minutes to sacred reading, so many for work, so many for prayer: that just doesn't work in the everyday, hectic life of a high school teacher. The insight St. Benedict gives is the principle that all three, prayer, work and study, are important and, more significantly, that God is found in all three. Obviously, it is easier to accept that prayer and even study (especially if it is of Scripture) include God, but Benedictine wisdom has found ways to find God in the everyday work that we do.

It comes out in the reverence for the things and people around us, recognizing them as part of God's world and, thus, precious. At the beginning of the year, I look out over each of my classes and wonder just what is God doing in bringing us all together. Where I am going to find Him sitting, sometimes in deep disguise, in the lives of my students? And how am I supposed to respond to that disguise?

For that matter, how do I make good decisions about my teaching? Where is God in the decision to use a certain technology? What is the care I need to use in taking care of the tools entrusted to me? How do I decide what is a success and failure? How do I move past mere numbers and marks, so I can see the child of God before me? The more I teach, the more I know that I don't always listen to God attentively day to day, hour to hour and minute to minute, but St. Benedict's wisdom calls me to try, directing my attention to the daily routine and asking me to find where God is residing right now, in this moment. I know He's there, but it sometimes takes me a long time to notice.

All of those questions demand reflection and rigourous honesty, but they are, because of that, extremely important. They are important because I've seen what can happen when I listen to where God is leading and create that safe, reverent place for others to learn and to grow. I once confused an administrator one year when I answered her question on the value that was most important for me as a teacher. I answered 'hospitality'. What I meant by that is that one of the most important values for my teaching is the creation of that open space which allows my students to be themselves and, thus, to grow. That value is at the centre of the little community which has grown out of the Latin program at my school and it is at the centre of how I try to run my classroom. It is an ideal and I know too well when I fail to pay sufficient heed to it. Yet, at the centre of the hospitality I offer my students for as long as they are with me is that reverence for what is before me that St. Benedict teaches. The real challenge to live out that reverence every day, every class and in all that I do.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Summer Plans

As of Friday, the 2013-2014 school year is over. The marks are in. The clean-up from the last frenzy of assignments, exams and marking marathons is done. The obligatory staff meetings with their celebrations of our successes and reflections on our performance are all done. What is left is two months of summer in which to recharge our batteries and, if you are anything like me, start planning for next year. At this point in the summer, I have a long list of things that I want to do over the holiday. I probably even do some it. Just not as much as I think I will now.

Still, despite those plans, I have to admit that I never entirely know what do with my summers. Part of that, of course, is the challenge of summers with the kids home (at least my oldest, my youngest is still at daycare because we have to hold the spot). Yet, a certain sense of unease that two months of open time gives me predates kids and, indeed, even teaching. As a student, I made it a point to spend the summer reading background material. In fact, one year, I was so uneasy about the long four months break I had from university that I decided to write a twenty page paper on the decline of Byzantine power in the 14th century. All that summer, I worked forty plus hours at my summer job and massively over-researched this paper, despite the fact that there was pretty much no reason for doing it. It wasn't course work. It wasn't a thesis. I was simply doing it 'cause. You can imagine the odd looks I'd get when I explained what I was doing.

Yet, I suspect that the real reason for writing that paper (and, I suspect, for my extensive plans for 'getting ahead on lesson prep for next year) was probably I'm not entirely sure about what to do with myself when not busy. Busyness for me is a way to to fill up the empty spaces in my life in a reasonably socially acceptable way. Busyness allows me to cover over my desire to to retreat from the social realm because it is just easier to be busy than engaged. It provides an ego reinforcement that I'm valuable because I accomplish so much. It provides a way to avoid myself and the reflection that, perhaps, I'm just not as great as I'd like to think I am. Busyness can be compulsive for me which is a tendency which I have to keep aware of.

Of course, I'm aware this compulsive busyness isn't a good thing, really. I do need to rest. I do need to recharge. Certainly, the experiences I had this year with the quiet time I had at the Royal Botanical Gardens and on my Greece trip show how much I need those moments of silence and meditation in order to centre myself for the challenges of my legitimately busy times. In addition, I also know very well that busyness often gets in the way of my other firm belief that, as Henry Nouwen reminds us, the point of one's work is often in the interruptions of one's work and I want to remain open to those interruptions. If I am so busy that I don't have time for people, then I probably have failed in my true vocation as a Christian; that of, seeking to live out God's kingdom here and now. After all, God has an awful lot of things going on at any given point, but He has time for me when I mediate and prayer. How, then, can I not have time for others?

I can't say I won't do any work over the summer break. I have my plans and my projects, like every year. However, I find myself noticing my need to slow down, connect with God and with the people in my life. The long summer stretches out ahead of me and that is, probably, a good thing.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Pride, Anger and Thwarted Lust

Over the last week, I've been reflecting on the Islas Vista shootings, along with, I'm sure, a lot of other people. That is, of course, a natural reaction to this kind of incident because it is disturbing to see open violence breaking out in our seemingly peaceful streets. What makes this all the worse is that the now dead shooter left behind a video and manifesto in which he declares himself perfect and, coldly and calmly, outlines his plans for retribution on his fellow students and the world. Watching normal human compassion and love shrivel in the face of an all-consuming rage is a terrible thing. To reach the pitch that one can declare oneself perfect and akin to a god, who can hunt down his fellow students like animals is something that should repel us. It also should cause us to wonder what is it about our culture which breeds this kind of hate-filled (usually) young men, whose only outlet for their feelings is violence and murder. How does this happen in a society which is supposedly at peace? And, if we are at peace, why are we not peaceful? Why do some young men, albeit a very small number, find the only solution to their everyday frustrations in a blaze of destructive violence?

 I don't know the answers to those questions. Of course, many explanations have been offered  for this and other shootings- mental illness, video game culture, gun culture, a crisis in masculinity or rampant misogyny. Indeed, it is more than likely that there is not any one simple answer. Certainly, all these reasons and more have been seen in the recent #notallmen and #Yesallwomen.  I admit that I haven't really followed this debate closely because I find what I've seen all too familiar. I recall vividly the same debate in the aftermath of the L'Ecole Polytechnique shootings in 1989. I can understand the temptation implicit in the #notallmen position because almost no man wants to be tarred with the same brush as an Elliot Rodger. That attitude reflects a repugnance for both the actions and attitudes of this person which is a good thing as far as it goes. We would be a lot worse position, if men didn't want to disassociate themselves from such an act.

Yet, it is also probably right to say that the #notallmen position sets rather a low bar for male behavior, if this disassociation is all that is needed. I am uncomfortably aware that the same attitudes of entitlement to sex, seeing women as collections of albeit desirable parts or as prizes to be won, have been a part of my own thinking and behavior. Certainly, my penchant for the Unrequited Love Olympics in my twenties and thirties reflected this because I was really more interested in keeping the image of the particular object of my affections on the pedestal I made for her or working out how I could win the prize she represented than in the real, breathing person behind the image. That this focus was an inherently de-humanizing and objectifying one is only something that I came to realize after I got married and lived with a woman in a way that forced me to see both the good and bad in her and loving her for who she really is, not as I want her to be. Even with that lived experience, I still have to monitor my thinking and my relationships with women to make sure that I'm seeing them as the people they are, not as extras in the (self-centred) drama of my life or, worse, as mere objects.

The challenge of Elliot Rodger, I think, is not to explain why he is different, but, rather, to identify those parts of one's own heart which are similar to his. About a week ago, when I watched the video he left behind before his rampage, what came to my head immediately was that the Desert Fathers were so right about the importance of what we think. These monks considered that they would make no spiritual progress, if they didn't confront the 'bad thoughts' which accosted them daily. These thoughts have been translated into the Western moral tradition as vices, but they are better understood not so much as actions as dangerous thinking patterns which leads the soul into a willful decision to pursue the objects of that thinking in the place of God. So, lust takes the desire to connect with another person to the point of wanting to possess that person as an object. Anger takes the desire for justice to the point of imposing one's will on another. Pride takes the recognition of one's preciousness in the sight of God to the point of displacing God and feeling one can be God in one's own life. Despite an alarming tendency of many Desert Fathers, like so many of their contemporaries, to find an infinite variety of demons in one's soup, these early monks seem to have understood something that we have problems seeing. They understood that one's thoughts makes one vulnerable to self-will and, from there, to displacing God from one's own life. That is why they gave so much attention on how to pray and how to deal with these distracting 'bad thoughts'.

I don't know what happened to Elliot Rodger to led him to think and act as he did. There is reason that those factors were amplified by mental illness. And, the way this mental illness manifested itself was, also, shaped by the misogyny of 'rape culture' which pervades much of pop culture and many sub-cultures in our society. What I see is the results of 'bad thoughts' running rampant through ones life. Ultimately, it was anger, pride and thwarted lust which led drove out justice, humanity and love out the heart of this young man. That a tragic thing but a tragedy further compounded by the murders that this young man perpetrated on his fellow university students. I don't know how else to react to this tragedy, but to mourn those who died, identify the lies I hear from society and keep a watch on my thoughts. That's not enough, but it's all I have right now.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Tower of Babel

11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward,they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

I've been thinking about the Tower of Babel this week, which is, I admit, kind of an odd thing to be thinking about. To some extent, I have to blame Jason Byassee, whose excellent book, Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalm with Augustine, has had me thinking about allegory. And that, by means I cannot quite explain, led me back to the Tower of Babel- on the subway, no less.

I should explain that the Tower of Babel story has fascinated me since my early twenties, while I was still very much at a beginning stage of seeking my spiritual way. Something about that story caught my attention to the degree that I, eventually, wrote a short story set in Babel in the aftermath  of the confusion of the tongues. What attracted me, I think, to the story wasn't so much God's action as the alienation which resulted from this hubristic endeavor to reach the heavens. From a unity which seemed to be able to accomplish everything, the people of Babel, after the confusion of tongues, fragmented and scattered all over the world. It seemed an allegory of humanities' profound alienation with itself which fit, almost perfectly, my thinking in my early adult existentialist phase.

Besides, it was an excellent metaphor for the other, ulterior motive for the story. The last two or so pages of the story featured a reflection of the narrator and his lover, who, as luck would have it, found themselves divided by a linguistic chasm and were unable to understanding each other any more. That was a rather pointed allegory for the person I was writing it for- a girl at work, in whom I had been, rather obsessively, interested in and who was off to university in a different town. Back in those days, I was in rigourous training for the Unrequited Love Olympics, so the whole theme of estrangement and loss fit in well with how I was thinking and feeling around that time. I can't say whether the story was a good story (I didn't keep an extra copy) nor can I, honestly, say the story delighted the poor girl. I'm pretty sure that it wouldn't delighted me, if I had been in her place. No one likes two-by-fours being slammed into their heads-allegorical or not.

Yet, the Tower of Babel has stayed in my head over the years. I think that is because my twenty-three year old self seemed to get something right with that story. What I wrote about, I think, was not so much the self-exagerrated loss I was feeling for the loss of a love-interest, but, rather, a greater estrangement with the world and the people around me which was something of a common place in the existentialism I was reading at the time. More important I think, the story of the Tower of Babel story resonated my own growing disconnection with other people at the time as I began to retreat more and more into my head- a disconnection that would continue to grow over the years and one which I've only really started to slowly emerge in the last ten or fifteen years. The estrangement at Babel made such profound sense to me because I felt I was speaking a language no one else knew and, as a result, I really didn't get how the world worked.

Still, I don't think I quite got all of the story. The estrangement and the alienation was, for me, easy to understand, but it has taken this long for me to realize that the Tower itself represents our efforts to control our lives and, if possible, our own salvations. By building a tower to heaven, we don't have to rely on God for redemption. We can climb there ourselves. Given human weakness, that is unspeakably arrogant, but it does seem to be something shared by a lot of people, including myself when it comes down to it. I know that, for me, the temptation to make myself my own God and, then, control my salvation is a real and attractive one. It would be so much easier to decide what is best for myself, rather than wait on God's own timing and the chance he'll redirect me, albeit to something better. I know I want what I want, so why would I bother with waiting on God's answer, when I obviously know better myself?

Yet, what I've learned over the years is that I don't know better myself. Time and again, I've managed to prove that my attempts to control my life have proved pathetic failures which cause more confusion and pain in my life, not less. I want to build my own tower to Heaven, where I will find fulfillment on my own power and my own terms, but I can't. I don't have the ability.

Instead, what I have to come to realize is that this kind of tower building leads to disconnection for me. When I think I have control over my spiritual life, I manage to prove to prove I don't really understand God or other people or, ultimately, myself. That tower represents for me a delusion of my self-sufficiency which is a delusion which, for my own good, needs to be confronted and scattered to the four winds. In sharing one language, the people of Babel were able to keep up their delusion of a power greater than God. When their tongues were confused, they confronted that delusion and, as a result of that confusion, scattered.

Yet, the story doesn't end here. The confusion of the languages is a vivid image of the disconnect with God and other people, but it isn't the last word. With the onrushing of the winds of Pentecost, all the languages of the world ultimately combine back together as they translate our one true language: the language of God's love. When the disciples miraculously praised God in many, many languages, the effects of the Tower of Babel were, for that brief, but important moment, reversed, prefiguring our reconciliation and the adopting of that common language of God's love which really binds us together.

That is, of course, which provides the way forward for me. God's love may prove to be a difficult second spiritual language for me, but its very universality opens the way to share it with those people who are in my life. Learning that language means a reliance on God and a willingness to love my neighbour, which exactly is needed to turn back the effects of my own tendency to build my own tower and control my spiritual life. Translating it into my life means more serenity about my place in the world which can only lead to reconciliation with God and the people He places in my life. I'm still not very good at that translation, but I can see my progress along this road which is all I can hope for. Perhaps that is all we can all hope for.


Sunday, April 06, 2014

Evidence of Failure

This is the time of year when, for me, the prospect of failure becomes the most strong and the hope, carefully nurtured since the beginning of the year, becomes most faint and fleeting. This is the time of year when I become aware that the bold plans of the fall have not entirely been realized and that there are loose ends which I won't get a chance to tie down. This is the time of year when I know I didn't reach that kid, that's right, that kid, who began my course with great enthusiasm, but has become discouraged and listless. This is the time of year when I'm aware of the mistakes I've made and the lessons not quite learned. As the snow melts and the spring gradually begins to warm the air, I realize that there are only two months to go and I'm not, again this year, the perfect teacher.

Of course, that isn't a stunning realization for me. I've been teaching for ten years or so now, so I'm familiar where this reaction comes from. I know that I'm the one who is expecting perfection from myself and that I'm expecting too much when I do. As the saying goes, 'perfect is the enemy of the good', so I know not to worry about my lapses in perfection and that I should start looking at the good I've been doing. That good is, usually, pretty substantial. I have a wonderful job, teaching courses that I love to students who, mostly, appreciate what they're learning and experiencing in the time they have with me. I can look for where I've touched the lives sometimes by providing a safe place to land, or a place to belong or simply a sympathetic ear. I'm happy with those goods because they are what I have and they remind me of a God who, while being perfect, created a world which he did not pronounce perfect, but rather good and very good.

Ultimately, the drive for perfection is a desire to control; a desire which I recognize in myself whenever I set up an impossible standard and, then, berate myself for not achieving it. Ultimately, perfection, as an ideal, means that everything is predictable and controlled, so nothing goes awry, so that all that I demand of the world and the people around me is done. That means that, whether I want to admit it or not, I'm asking for God's power to control and manipulate my own private world. And God helps us all, I, or anyone else, ever manages to achieve that degree of control in their own and other peoples lives.

When that mirage of perfection shimmers before me, the most important thing for me to recall is that, day to day, hour to hour, I deal with people-not the least, myself- who, by definition, are simply not predictable or under my control. They have their own free will (and so do I) and their own minds. And that is all to the good. Who wants automata, when they can rejoice in the much more interesting mystery of those persons who they meet and interact with day to day?  And, given our lack of omniscience, how could we not fail to be perfect, while succeeding at being ourselves, faults and all? So, most days, I try to let go of control and for the perfection which is supposed to be the manifestation of it, so I can embrace the good of the world as I find it.

So, I'm okay with this evidence of failure this time of year because it is a good reminder that, thankfully, I'm not really in control. I remember that, when I teach, I'm dealing with flesh and blood, spirit and mind, so I can only yield to the mystery of who God has thrown my way in the hopes that I can, somehow, do some good with my life and, maybe, just maybe, be an instrument of God's redeeming love and peace for the people I am with. Not perfection nor control, but, if I can manage it, good and, yes, even very good.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Back from Greece

It is probably true that one of the last places that one might look for quiet and solitude is on a March Break international student trip to Greece. International field trips with teenagers are many things. They are both rewarding and challenging in roughly equal measures. The sheer joy and enthusiasm that a group of teenagers can produce when confronted with something new and cool (like ancient ruins!) cannot fail to lift the hearts of those around them. The teenaged interpersonal drama and testing of limits which are inevitable on these kinds of trips are equally challenging. None of this is surprising to those who know and love teenagers, so no one really comes to a trip like this with an actual expectation of peace and quiet. There aren't any dull moments on tour with students. That is a good thing...mostly.

Yet, to my surprise, I found myself, on this trip, reflecting on the importance of silence and solitude in my life. Not just as a 'Gee, I wish I had some', but experiencing little moments breaking into the busyness of a student tour. That solitude, the solitude of the heart that the spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, talks about in his many books, is one which calls my attention to what is real and important. It is a solitude in which we are"no longer pulled apart by the most divergent stimuli of the surrounding world but [are] able to perceive and understand the world from a quiet inner centre." It is a reality check and a reminder of the ties which matter, instead of the trivialities of our busyness, fears and anxieties That kind of silence come just like a river of grace, unexpectedly and joyfully flowing through our hearts.

 It comes as a few moments shared with a colleague sitting atop a Bronze Age citadel with only a few students around, who, oddly, were respecting our space. Gazing over the valley ahead of us and right down to the sea, the beauty of what was set out in front of us became a reminder to me about the goodness of this world and the wonder of being there. That quiet and the landscape before us, I think, became a restorative moment for two busy and conscientious teachers. The silence and solitude allowed us to "strengthen each other by mutual respect, by careful consideration of each other's individuality, by an obedient distance from each other's privacy and by a reverent understanding of the sacredness of the human heart" (Henri Nouwen). It should come as no surprise that our conversation on the way down from the citadel was about that sense of restoration and healing we found in the silence a short time before.

Or it comes as a few minutes on a headland, surrounded on three sides by the sea. In the late morning sun (the first extended period of sun for that trip), the chance for quiet came as the students filed down the hill for gelato in the restaurant down below near the gate. Up there on the cliffs, almost surrounded by the sea, the silence called me to prayer. More specifically, it called for praying Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they display knowledge
There is no speech or language 
    where their voice is not heard. 
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
     their words to the ends of the world
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
which is like a bridegroom 
coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
  and makes its circuit to the other; 
nothing is hidden from its heat. 
At that moment, at that place, the silence called me to worship, to seeing the touch of God on the earth in front of me. The sheer joy of feeling the sun on my face, watching it run its race and looking out over the life-giving sea connected me with the joy behind God's creation. How can one not respond with gratitude and happiness?

Or it can happen in a crowded city square, sitting at rest and watching the life of a strange city go by. As I sat there, I kept remembering that famous quote of Thomas Merton on the streets of Louisville: 

“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness…The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.”

I can't say I reached that level of exaltation, but I felt the wonder of being here and I found myself wondering what the lives of all these people around me were like. What was that mother and child and friend doing there right now at this moment? Do those skateboarders always come here to film themselves doing tricks? Who is that man waiting for? I knew, amid the bustle, that God loved this city and its people as surely as He loves me. As my students trickled back to return to the hotel, I felt a bit less tired and a lot more at peace. The things that divided us weren't as important anymore and I knew that these were the people I was meant to be with at that moment.

I wish I could say that I could sustain this solitude of the heart the entire trip, or even for a substantial time in it. Each of these moments of solitude and peace only lasted minutes; fifteen minutes here, a half an hour there. For so much more time, I remained in the busyness and anxiety which is also a part of these life on student tours.Yet, these moments of peace and solitude of the heart remain precious to me because they represent a life-giving river in my life, connecting me to what is important- my students and the joy of being in the moment. The healing and restorative power of even a little bit of quietness was crucial for my peace of mind and my capacity for enjoyment of the trip itself, allowing me the chance to quiet down, listen and return to the tour with a truer sense of who I was and the wonder of being where I was. It is, as Henri Nouwen, says

                             "The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement 
                               which allows us to perceive interruptions as occasions 
                               for a conversion of heart, which makes our responsibilities
                               a vocation instead of a burden, and which creates the inner 
                               space where a compassionate solidarity with our fellow 
                               human beings becomes possible. The movement from 
                              loneliness to solitude is a movement by which we reach out
                              to our innermost being to find there our great healing 
                              powers, not as a unique property to be defended but as
                              a gift to be shared with all human beings." 

I recognize, as Nouwen himself did when he wrote this, my own incapacity for achieving this solitude of the heart for any extended time. Those glimpses I get, on this trip and other times, are moments of grace from God, but, perhaps, it is their quality as sheer gift which makes them so valued and important for me. My hope and prayer, then, is to stay open to these gifts of silence and solitude and ready to take back into my life what I learn at those quiet times. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Very funny, God.

Sometimes God is funny.

He's funny because He is acts in such unexpected ways which is, of course, the source of an awful lot of humour. Saying or doing something so unexpected that it will confound expectations can be risky, of course, but God does that all the time in ways that are funny, if only we were paying attention.

Okay, so God is funny. We really shouldn't be surprised at that. God is so much more than the limits that we humans can set that we can't help being surprised when he surpasses them. I mean, we work so hard to put Him into a box or keep Him safely in his sanitized compartment and, then, he pops through a wall, telling you to put your finger in his side or something. Now, that is kind of funny, if in a rather unexpected way.

Mind you, this is something I've known about God for quite some time. He does have a habit of throwing odd things in my way, especially when I least expect it. Sometimes these are happy surprises, like an unlooked-for gift. Sometimes they are 'are you kidding me?' surprises. Sometimes they don't look like a gift at all.  The happy surprises are easy enough to take. Who doesn't like a true gift? Who can't be grateful for that? The 'are you kidding me?' surprises are a bit harder to take, but these are usually things that I can appreciate, at least, the irony and settle into, eventually. The things that don't look like a gift are no fun at all, even if I value of the gift only in retrospect. Yet, what all these surprises have in common is that they are further proof that I don't have God all sussed out and that God does know the gifts I need so much better than we do. These kinds of gifts, especially the ones that don't look like it, remind me that I'm not God and that God isn't going to do whatever I expect in the way I expected it. Faith tells me that this God who defies expectations know what I need better than I do. and that He's playing a much longer game than I am.

So, when I found myself laughing out loud in the Bulb Room near the entrance to the Mediterranean Gardens at the Royal Botanical Gardens Centre on Saturday, I knew that God was being funny again. It was funny that I only then realized that the smell of hyacinth and narcissus which was wafting through the room forcibly reminded me of the gardens in the airport at Palm Springs, where, even as I was standing there, my wife and children were flying towards- smells which signal for me rest and recuperation after a long, busy winter. It was funny because I suddenly recalled that there were many of the plants that I knew and loved from those visits- cacti, bougainvillea, citrus trees, aloes- were waiting just beyond those doors. It was funny because I suddenly was reminded that much of California enjoyed a Mediterranean climate and that, this March Break, my trip to Greece with students was trading one Mediterranean climate for another. It was funny because the reason why I was even at the RBG was that I was taking a break to rest, reflect and work on some spiritual exercises from a church group I was involved in and I had kept feeling led to come to the RBG even though it was a forty-five minute drive away and I honestly didn't remember that this garden was even there. It was funny because God snuck up on me and gave me a blessing, completely unlooked for. That would make this one of those nice surprises, but I'm not complaining.

I spent four hours or so, wandering about in that garden. I did my exercises. I walked around it four, five, six times. I sat when I needed to. I prayed the first six verses of Psalm 19 several times. I was happy. I got tired. I sat down. I wandered about again. I realized I was walking the garden like a labyrinth (ha, ha. Very funny, God). I said goodbye on my last lap. I felt I was visiting an island of peace without any real worry about time or what I had to get accomplished in the next few weeks. Given the frantic pace of my life right now, that peace feels like something of a minor miracle, a true sabbatical.

I'm still processing that visit, so I'm not sure what that time I spent in the Mediterranean Garden meant. Perhaps the blessing is enough. Perhaps there is more to it. I really don't know.

But God is kind of funny.    

Sunday, February 09, 2014


The truth is that teaching is messy...and I'm not talking about my desk. Teaching is messy because it deals with human beings with their own needs, desires and flaws. Teaching is messy because a teacher is trying to help their students to learn and one of the most important things that our students have to learn is to stand on their own and learn to be themselves; not the person that the media tells them to be, not the person I want them to be- themselves. That may mean making mistakes. That may mean struggling. That may mean an awful lot of things. It may mean a mess.

Contrary to the commonly held opinion of my students and the shifting papers of my desk, I don't like mess. Very few people do. When my desk piles up with paper and the shifting sands of marking, memoes and handouts cause me to forget what the surface of my desk actually looks like, I can feel my anxiety rising and my frustration growing. I feel out of control, anxious and out-of-sorts until I take the paper bull by the horns and begin to separate and sort. When I'm done, my life comes back into order and calm returns. As I tell my students, the state of desk is an index of my state of my mind. When it is in disorder, so am I. When it is straightened and organized, I'm calmer and more serene.

Mind you, it isn't my literal mess that has led me to this blog entry. The mess that is teaching is not, really, a physical mess (although that doesn't help), but a figurative one. It is, in fact, a relational one. How could it not be? I teach, all told, about a hundred and eighty teenagers in a year- all of them very individual, all of them with their strengths and vulnerabilities, their desires and needs, their hearts and their heads. They are all struggling to make sense of their lives in the here and now as well as the future promise that they represent. Some of them come through this period of growing and learning with grace and aplomb. Others face struggles that would daunt an adult. Some fail. Some succeed. Most get through. All of them have good days and bad days. So do I. The messiness of teaching is that no one can predict how we are going to meet or collide in the classroom. From one day to the next, no one, much less the teacher, can quite predict what will be needed that day. Sometimes it is firm hand. Sometimes it is a listening ear. No one quite knows.

Yet, amid the chaos of a busy high school classroom, I try to remember Henri Nouwen's definition of hospitality as a place where one's guests can be themselves (I'm paraphrasing, but I think I'm right). Yes, there are things to learn. Yes, there is marking to do and report cards to write. Yes, there are legitimate professional expectations upon me in my dealings with students. But, at the heart of it, the best sense I've made of my teaching is that my students are the guests that God has sent me for a limited time. They aren't mine to control. They aren't mine to manipulate. They are their own selves and that is what I need to value. I hope their stay with me will do them some good, but I don't even get to control that. That is probably a good thing, but it can be a hard thing.

Like my students, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail in my teaching. When I fail, I try to pick myself up and learn what I need to learn. The messiness of a high school classroom can be humbling. It can also be a beautiful thing as the place where my students come into their own. Teaching is messy, but, in that mess, I hope and pray my students find a safe place, where we play with language and rejoice in what we learn. If I can manage that, that's all the success I need.


Sunday, February 02, 2014

Nunc Dimittis

Lord, now let your servant depart in peace
according to your word, 
for my eyes have seen your salvation
which you have prepared before the face of all people
to be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of your people, Israel
                                                                                   BCP- Compline (adapted)

Most years, I'm caught a little by surprise when Candlemas (aka The Presentation of the Lord) comes around. By late January/February, the excitement of the Christmas season has worn off and the slog through the mid-winter usually means a slog through marking and report cards. So, today, while I knew it was Candlemas because I was called in to wave smoke about in the service, I was focusing on making sure that I knew where I was going in the dance which is an Anglo-Catholic service. So, when the Gospel came around and I got to heard these familiar words from Symeon as he encountered the baby Jesus on the occasion of his presentation, I smiled. I smiled because this passage has meant so much to me that, when, over the course of years, I cobbled together a mostly memorized evening prayer, I made sure I memorized this bit from the BCP Compline service because I just feel better about life, remembering this salvation which has brought light into my life and the lives of so many others. This prayer is a familiar friend and an image that I return to nightly because it reminds me that, no matter how the day has gone or what failings I might have demonstrated that day, that the coming of Jesus meant that whatever was wrong in me or the world would, eventually, come out right. 

Yet, this promise isn't all sweetness and light. As our preacher pointed out today, the Nunc Dimittis isn't the end of Symeon's prophetic statements. After Symeon blessed them, he continued by saying "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.". Wow, thanks, Symeon. First, you promise that somehow this little infant would be a sign of hope and the coming of God's kingdom, then you promise strife and pain as a result. Really? Talk about mixed messages!

Again, as our preacher pointed out, this juxtaposition isn't as jarring as it looks. When it has been dark for a long time, the appearance of a light is truly something to rejoice over, but, after that first rush of gratitude, sometimes, one looks around and realizes just how grotty our surroundings actually are. And that realization may not be an easy one to make because the light may reveal something that we'd prefer not to or which we have persistently denied as part of our lives. We need the light to see how to move forward, but, sometimes, the moving forward means cleaning up a mess we'd sooner not have to clean up. In a situation like that, we could try to ignore the mess, but that is hard when everything is illuminated. Or we could claim the light is distorting the true picture. Or we could just move away from the light, back to the familiar darkness. Or we could just use the light to clean up the mess and move on. What we do, I suspect, will also dictate our attitude to what the light represents and how we'll react to it. 

I know that I need the hopefulness of Symeon's blessing of Jesus, but I, also, know that that hopefulness doesn't come easily. For Symeon, that hope only emerged after a lifetime of waiting and longing and it is all the more poignant because we know (as he himself knew) that Symeon would never see the fulfillment of that hope in Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Yet, I wonder if it is the fact that this hope is hard-won is what I find is compelling. I can see well enough around me to know that I'm in the need of saving- not in the sense of being teleported to a different reality, but in order that my life is transformed to something useful both to those around me and to God. I need that light to lighten me, so I can see the gloriousness around me, even amid the mundane, workaday world I live in. I may not always like what that light reveals, but I know it is better to see and fix, than to stumbled around aimlessly. 

So, I'll pray the Nunc Dimittis again tonight as I usually do, perhaps with a bit more awareness of the edginess of this prayer. I pray for the serenity to look into those places where the light shines in where I don't necessarily want and the courage to do something about it. 


Sunday, January 19, 2014


I think one of the first things I say after the obligatory "I'm fine" when asked about how I am by someone is "Busy". That doesn't, of course, make me unique. Life is busy and it seems to be getting busier and busier. That isn't anything unique to me or to my profession. Most people are just plain busy, partly because the demands from work are increased and partly because the pace of life has sped up along with the technological innovations which make it possible. Many, many commentators have commented on this increased pace in life and have duly lamented it...often without any serious desire to change it. And, if I'm to be entirely honest with myself, while I recognize the problems of my own over-busyness, I'm not sure my desire to slow down is very strong either.

Busyness, for me, makes me feel like I'm contributing and like what I do matters. In my busyness, I accomplish a fair bit, even if it never quite feels like enough. Despite complaining, in my head mostly, that I don't have time to myself, I have to admit that I like having a project to do, preferably three or four. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I know that many of the things I do as a teacher benefit my students in ways that, perhaps, I don't always know. The work I put into curriculum, marking and extra-curriculars are goods for their own sake. They are contributions to the life of my students and to the life of the school. And that is a good thing.

Yet, this week, I kept going back to a comment by Lauren Winner in Still that busyness is the new sloth. That is, we are conditioned in this society to use our busyness to avoid people and obligations and, in the end, God. It is easier for me to say "I'm okay. Just busy" to someone asking how I am because it permits me to limit my conversation with someone, from really engaging with who they are and how they're doing. It is easier to limit my prayer time with God because x needs to be done and, God knows, that is something that needs to be done- I know that because You told me. It is easier to disregard those interruptions where, as Henri Nouwen has pointed out, are often where God is calling us because I've busy doing something else for the Kingdom, thank you very much. Busyness, for me, can be a way of avoiding engaging with people and the world around me. And God, of course.

Ironically, busyness, also, causes me to lose sight of the value of the work that I'm being busy with. My focus shifts from working well to getting it done so I can make a notch for another achievement. Work, real work is an offering of one's skills and creativity, given by God. It is another way to connect with God as we give the work as an gift to those around us. Busyness makes getting it done, accomplishing something more important than the offering. It disconnects me from the value of work-the offering of myself to God and my fellow human beings. It becomes a task, with little intrinsic value- just something to be done and ticked off on a job list.

None of this isn't really a sudden revelation for me. This old compulsion has been and old friend/enemy for a long time. Nor do I surrender to it without some resistance. I recognize that there are times that I just have to drop what I'm doing and listen up to God. I know those interruptions in my day matter, especially when I get that chance to show up when God is calling. And I know that I need to slow down and pray deeply. Sometimes, I even manage it. When I remember all those things, life makes more sense and less like I'm running on ice. It's hard to slow down and just let go and let God. When I do, though, I'm less anxious and less stressed. I can do the work in front of me better and more peacefully.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Presentations play a fairly major part of my life as a teacher. I present lessons to students. I might present PD to colleagues. I listen to presentations from both students and colleagues. This week, I had some fairly important presentations to give: my presentations to incoming Grade 8 students and to their parents. Those are important because they mark the beginning of my annual efforts to convince teenagers to take Latin with me in sufficient numbers to keep my program healthy and vibrant. More presentations follow, of course, to grade 9s to take advantage of a second change to enter Latin, to my current students to convince them to go on to higher levels-, but these Grade 8 presentations are pretty important because they set the tone. I'm always a bit anxious and it has only been in recent years that I've found that I can let go of that anxiety by remembering that God will give the students He wants me to have, so I really just need to trust that. I can make the presentation, but I don't control the outcomes.

Yet, other things this week got me thinking about presentation. In particular, I got to thinking about my own tendencies to want to give presentations to God; that is, my tendency to want to craft a neat, organized and, if possible, engaging little presentation about what I'm intending to do rather than the messy process of asking for help while I'm still discerning. It would be so much more comfortable to just report my solution to whatever it is that I'm trying to sort out and just get God's little red stamp up in the right corner- preferably with a gold star or two for good work. Of course, that isn't how discernment is supposed to work and my tendency to want to wrap things up merely causes me to anxiously chase my own tail trying to solve the problem myself. I know that, whenever I'm dithering, it is almost certainly because I'm trying to think my way to that presentation and I need to stop and start asking questions about why I'm trying to solve this problem on my own. Then, I need to take it to someone- God, of course, but, since God tends to work through other people, someone else who can help me sort out the tangle that I've created in my own head. The times I do that usually are the times when decisions become more clear. And that is why I'm getting better about remembering to do it eventually. . 

So, what I think I'm learning is that my relationship with God and others doesn't need to be a slickly designed presentation, but an invitation into a much more dynamic, creative and messy process. When I give a presentation at school, no one sees the false starts, mistakes, and just bad ideas through which I had to dismiss and correct to get the final process. Yet, it is in those false starts, mistakes and bad ideas that I learn and in that creative process that I grow. The point of discernment is not to look good, but rather to learn what live out the life that God intends for me. Like my Grade 8 presentations, I still don't control the outcomes, but I have to trust God, either in prayer or through others, will show me what He wants for me and that is going to be a better outcome than anything I'm likely to come up with on my own. 

Sunday, January 05, 2014


It is about the time that life after the Christmas holidays is supposed to get back to normal. The rigours of the Christmas season- the festivities, the gift-giving and gift-receiving, the travel, the visits- are more or less over and the prospect of a return to work and normal life looks almost welcoming. Tonight, it is Epiphany- a brand new season and, if I might say it, a much less culturally resonant one. In fact, compared to the season before it, Epiphany almost fades into the background as we hunker down and look out over the mid-winter snow and begin to hunker down for the long, dark winter. Epiphany, as we often experience, almost seems to represent an ending, rather than a beginning- at least, as it is often experienced in North America.

Now, that experience is funny when you compare it to what the season is actually about. Epiphany is all about the breaking out of the divine into human life; the moments where God bursts into mundane human life and nothing is ever quite the same. So, we see the coming of the Magi to the carpenter's son, Jesus, and the startling pronouncement of Jesus' kingship by the Gentiles. The divine fingerprints are all over this story. The Magi are guided by strange, divinely-produced astral phenomena and are supernaturally warned not to trust Herod. Joseph and Mary are supernaturally warned to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod's fearful wrath and just as supernaturally permitted to return safely years later. It is a strange story and it is one that clearly changes the scene so profoundly that nothing is ever quite the same. God breaks through the humble beginning of Jesus to make sure that Jesus' real, divine status becomes more clear.

All this got me to thinking about those other smaller epiphanies which still break into my life- much less dramatic, but not less disconcerting. Of course, I'm not exactly the kind of person who sees divine manifestations every day over breakfast. No angel has ever jumped out at me and told me to go to a foreign land, even when I first decided to come to Toronto to study. Yet, there are moments in my life where God's fingerprints become visible in unexpected ways and nothing really remains the same after that. Maybe it is as simple as reading Martin Buber's I and Thou for a Philosophy of Religion course and realizing that, for the first time in a long time, I wasn't feeling anxious. Or, perhaps admitting my desire to attend a church service and sense of unworthiness about doing so to a patient friend, who invited me to her church anyway. Or, at the installation of a college president, being commissioned with the other students to live out our vocation in the world and realizing, weeks later, that that was a rather different proposition than I expected.  Or any number of other epiphanies which twisted my life in ways that I really couldn't anticipate. That only goes to show that I'm about the last person to know what is good for me. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing to know about myself.

Yet, I wonder sometimes, because of this, if we don't give Epiphany its due. It seems so much an ending to the Christmas season season that I don't think we appreciate what the Epiphany seasons is supposed to teach us. Epiphany really represents a beginning, a new chance for God to show Himself in his wild and wonderful ways. I wonder if we can't look for those divine fingerprints around us and quietly give thanks for our unpredictable and spontaneous God. May your epiphanies, little and great, shine forth and illuminate the path before you.