Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Some unfinished business...

Well, it has been about 9 months since I last posted on this blog and I find myself grateful for all that the blog set into motion in my life.  Although I haven't been consistent with posting on the blog, I have found myself living with greater intention and focusing on many of my goals (lots of healthy baking, putting laundry away-sometimes, buying local, taking risks, touring wineries, reading the Sunday Times and many more....) and have still left some room for growth (moderation in Facebooking... getting involved in a book club, etc).  I've continued to blog with my students for class, posting on different blogs that they follow where I post links to articles with my personal reflections and/or questions for their reflection.  But I'd like to get back into blogging with no real goal in mind other than creating a space to reflect, process and learn.
I just read a beautiful reflection by Margaret Silf in America Magazine about unfinished business.  She told the story of a young woman who ran the London Marathon earlier this year at age 30, raising money for the Samaritans.  For those not familiar, the Samaritans are the people whose signs you see as you approach a bridge, offering a phone number that will support people feeling hopeless and suicidal.  This young woman tragically died just short of the finish line and as her story spread, heartstrings were tugged around the world.  She had raised $500 for the Samaritans, but within days, over $1,000,000 had been donated to the Samaritans in her name.  Silf makes the connection between this beautiful memorial for a woman who didn't finish her race and all the things unfinished in our lives:
"Perhaps such a memorial could stand for each of us, in our own way. We run the race, we do our best, we try, but so often we fall short of completion. We don’t quite get there. We fall at the last fence. We want to bring a masterpiece to God, but all we manage is a child’s drawing, a rough sketch, an unfinished dream. If we think of our shortcomings as a failure, then thinking of the “last things” may well fill us with dread. But what if we could think of them not as something we didn’t finish, but rather as a seed whose blossom and fruit we cannot yet see or begin to imagine?"
There are often days when I feel like a child's drawing instead of a Picasso... I walk into class with a great plan and somehow, it just doesn't happen.  It doesn't go the way I imagined, I can't seem to steer us in the direction I want to go or the questions I thought would provoke a mind-blowing conversation lead to minutes of awkward silences.  One of my goals when I began this blog was to focus on the positive... to see the glass half full and imagine the possibility instead of focusing on what has yet to be realized.  I think that's exactly what Silf is challenging us to do.  As we approach Advent, I'd like to think of it as a time to be intentional, to turn things I might regret or wish I'd done into reality, or as Silf says, turn them into conscious acts of love.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Exploring possibilities

As a new semester began at school just two weeks ago, I found myself full of energy and anticipation, excited to explore the possibilities that a new semester held. One of my major new projects is blogging. Though It has been a few weeks since I have blogged on this site, I have developed and am currently maintaining a new blog for my classes. Each student is thus blogging as part of their coursework... So far the topics have included identity, sexuality in the media and currently we are looking at love, the idea of 'soul mates' and the diverse descriptions of love in music. I love how some of the students get so excited about blogging, and also how this allows the students to regularly read each others' insights and reflections. It is also a way to connect them with some other spiritual and religious resources on the web, that perhaps they might utilize in their future as they continue their faith formation in college and beyond. I was definitely energized coming back to work after a week off that included a trip to Saint John USVI with my family. There is something therapeutic about warm weather, crystal clear water and sunshine. I am so grateful! This year, well the last six weeks, have been a time of loss as I've been exploring the possibility of weight loss! So far I just hit my ten pound goal (the first of many goals). I am using weight watchers online and have found their program to coincide with the original concept behind my blog... To live with intention. Eating with intention means thinking about what I am eating, why I am eating it, and keeping track of what I am consuming... To avoid excess, to find balance between indulgence and healthy maintenance. Common sense really, but in our culture of excess, I have to constantly remind myself to have boundaries (and to stick to them!) so WW provides a user-friendly format to do just that. Here's to continued exploration... The possibilities are endless!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Religion and Jesus

Last week, a youtube video went viral on Facebook about Jesus and religion.  The video, aptly entitled "Why I hate religion, but love Jesus", is one man's poetic 'witness' of his negative experience with organized religion.  Though there were certainly many lines that I would adamantly disagree with, there were many I'd have to admit were thoughtful and significant critiques of the way organized religion has perhaps lost its focus in many contexts.  Check it out for yourself here! 
I think one of his most poignant critiques questions priorities: why do Churches spend money building fancy churches when they fail to feed the poor?  He asks a similar question in different forms, getting to the heart of faith and religion: do we practice what Jesus preached?  Not do we practice what WE preach, but are we authentically faithful to the Gospel?  The answer must always be no, because we are not perfect.  However, are we moving in that direction?  Do our choices and actions reflect right intention?  In the recent announcement of plans to close and consolidate schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I found great consolation and respect for our new Archbishop when he simultaneously announced the sale of the extravagant Bishop's residence in the city (complete with a three-hole putting green, in-ground pool, etc.)  This shows our priorities and intention are consistent with what we preach. 
The young man in this youtube video certainly had a difficult experience with one brand of religion, as he describes being a 'good church-going boy' on Sunday but partying, having sex and being addicted to pornography the rest of the week.  Ultimately, his experience of religion was just something for show, a veneer that didn't cut to the core of its believers.  This is inauthentic religion, certainly, but I do not think one can jump to the assumption that all religion has this affect on people.  I look at people who have been martyrs for their faith, including some religious sisters who have died trying to bring justice to people such as Sister Dorothy Stang, SND.  They were compelled to seek this justice based in their religion and authentic personal relationship with Jesus.  Can religion help us to encounter Jesus on a personal level, lead us to truly live our beliefs instead of merely 'showing up' or saying what we think people want to hear?  In my experience, the answer is a resounding yes.  But it depends on many things, including your willingness to go 'deeper' and finding a faith community that both nurtures you and challenges you...  and both of those are not easy things to do or find!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Anger, hurt... and then some.

The big announcement came, after much anticipation and speculation, and 49 schools in the Archidocese of Philadelphia will close or combine at the end of this school year.  It was a day of angst for many who waited to hear if their schools were on 'the list' and the afternoon brought sadness for all, even if their own school wasn't one that would be closed.  Sadness because Catholic education as we know it is forever changed, and for many it will not be an option in the future.   This is not just a local phenomenon either, as Catholic schools throughout the country are facing similar questions of closing and/or consolidation. 
It is particularly troubling from the angle of justice.  Many of the young children, particularly in the inner city, who depend on Catholic education as an alternative to their neighborhood public schools will be forced to attend the school district of Philadelphia, with a high school graduation rate of 56% over four years.  Now, when the Catholic schools close or consolidate, there are alternative sites where the students can attend (the schools that weren't on the list).  But for many, the distance to travel is too far or poses difficulty for parents who may need to accompany their children to school.  Additionally, many of the economically disadvantaged students have received scholarships or decreased tuition, which is becoming (or has become) a rarity in the current economic climate in the Catholic Church.  So, these kids are left to fend for themselves, in schools where violence is a given on a daily basis.  They'll pass through metal detectors on their way to homeroom.  They'll sit in over-sized classrooms without sufficient learning materials and try to be among the 56% who graduate.  This doesn't seem fair, or at least, it doesn't seem to be true to the message of Jesus.
I was educated in public school up until high school.  But, I am fairly certain had I attended the public school in my hometown, I'd be just as successful (if not more) than I am, having attended a Catholic high school.  I grew up in an area (at the time at least-- they've been affected by budget problems, too) where the public schools provided an excellent education in an environment that was caring, loving, and an extension of our community.  I am still friends with some of my (public) grade school teachers on facebook and our families regularly exchange Christmas cards.  So I didn't have to face the dire circumstances in Philadelphia public schools as a child.  But I've seen them firsthand when I was a social worker.  It's not pretty.  It's depressing in many of the schools.  And Catholic education provided an alternative, a safer option, providing not just physical safety but also a sense of stability and empowerment for kids who might not get that at home.
Do we give up hope, then?
Well, just because you asked... there is a wonderful new model of Catholic education about to make its debut in Philadelphia that provides that element of hope for the kids I am describing.  The Cristo Rey Network will open the doors of its first Philadelphia-area high school in September of 2012 to 125 freshmen.  Cristo Rey is a coeducational high school, the product of collaboration between various religious orders in the US to provide affordable Catholic education and expose them to career opportunities to populations of students who may not otherwise be able to attend (often due to economic circumstances).  Cristo Rey has a different model of school, as students typically attend classes four days a week and then work one day per week.  Their placements provide job training, spark curiosity for future career options, and help to defray the cost of tuition for the students.  The school day is extended and the school year is extended, providing a community setting for students and their families to be involved and benefit from this unique opportunity.  Oh, and their graduation and college acceptance rate?  Um, 99%!  (check out their website) Yes.  So there is hope, in the creative vision of people who are seeking, living and advocating for the voiceless.  Thank God.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


As a Catholic school teacher at a private, independent all-girls school in the Philadelphia area, I have hard a constant stream of commentary, angst and fear over the coming pronouncement tomorrow that upwards of 40 (or more) diocesan schools will close or consolidate at the end of this academic year.  This will represent the single largest consolidation/closure of its kind in the Church's history in the US, and it will be announced the day after Cardinal John Newman's feast day.  Newman is the founding of the Catholic school system here in Philadelphia, a model that spread throughout the nation.  It focused on parish-based schools, which in turn fostered a strong sense of identity based on neighborhood.  I remember when I first moved to Philadelphia and came to know people who grew up in the area.  When you asked where someone was from, the answer was almost always _____ parish.  Not their town, not their street, not their geographic location in the sense that I understood 'home'.  Your parish is your home.  That has changed significantly over the years in Philadelphia as some parishes and schools have already consolidated, but tomorrow will create a whole new era of Catholic identity, parish life and education in Philadelphia, and in the United States.  One of my co-workers and dear friends who is born and raised in Philadelphia, put it so poignantly: "People from Philadelphia identify with their parish and where they went to high school. Our families have supported the Archdiocese Of Philadelphia for generations and we are proud and grateful to have experienced what many of us call the best four years of our lives. Some may call it a sign of the times but I have other words for it. I will be praying for hundreds of teachers and students who will be displaced."
There is anger and hurt, questions about why the numbers attending schools are so low, where the money given to parish collections on Sunday is actually going, and an overall distrust and frustration on the behalf of many.  And yet we must move forward and carry on, realizing that though the form and structure might be different, we still need to do the work of forming 'home' and relationship for people and with God.  Maybe it is unfair for me to speak so optimistically on this topic.  After all, my school/home/place of employment is not under threat of closing down.  My heart breaks, and my heart beat gets faster when I think about what that would mean to me if I were that personally affected.  And some of my friends and companions will be.  What can we do?  Choose to stay, to claim our Catholic identity and re-build this broken Church to reflect the image of home and family that Saint John Newman and Jesus Christ envisioned (and that many of us have been blessed to experience at times).
And so we pray with, and for, those who will be displaced, those in leadership positions, and those whose sense of 'home' will forever be changed.  We stand in solidarity, refusing to give up and pledging support and ultimately we look to God for what's next.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Perhaps I already have enough to do all my work?

In the face of new year's resolutions, the cultural process of making plans to lose weight, exercise more, etc., I have decided to not set any new goals or resolutions.  For one, this blog and year of living intentionally is certainly a work in progress... and the progress has been waining of late (though I am happy to report I successfully put away all new Christmas clothes, organized my closets and even weeded out some clothes to donate- returning to goal # 19!!)  I am grateful for the sense of new beginning that comes with a 'new year', as an opportunity to re-focus my efforts and consider who I am becoming in the coming year.  In addition to already having some goals set, I think a different way of approaching the new year is to focus on embracing trust in myself and God, that I can achieve, become, learn and grow.  Instead of focusing on the end results or goals, I'd like to focus on the process, the journey and a way of being.
A New York Times writer just finished a great piece on the Jesuit retreat center in Wernersville, PA.  This retreat center provided me with two very significant retreat experiences in my college life, times when I was particularly struggling and felt a bit lost.  The retreat space, both physical and spiritual, provided time to listen, to stop filling the silence with music, conversation, tv, reading and all the other 'stuff' of my life, and really hear God's voice speaking to me in my thoughts, prayers, dreams and sometimes just in the comfortable silence.  One of the lines from the NYTimes article seemed to encapsulate it all, as her spiritual director suggested, what if you already have enough to do all of your work?  To really believe and to know... to have the confidence and trust that with God, you have all that you need to face whatever life brings you.  To thrive, to attain fulfillment, and to live our life in trust.  Worrying less and having confidence in one's self and God.... Yes, please.  I'd like that.
Father Jim Martin, SJ, a great spiritual writer of late, posted a list of 12 "Really stupid things I'd like to never do again".  His style of writing is accessible to me, as I can relate to what he describes and instead of feeling shame, he helps me to laugh at myself and my many human weaknesses.  The first item on his list is about comparing...  Something that facebook continues to invoke in me, so that after I spend thirty minutes reading my newsfeed and looking at peoples' pictures, I often log off feeling a little less jovial than I did when I logged on.  It doesn't happen every time I log off, but often enough that I realize I need to compare myself less... and maybe get back to that goal of spending less time on facebook.  Here's what Fr. Jim had to say about it: Compare. Ever heard the saying "Compare and despair"? Comparing yourself to someone else usually means that you imagine the other person is better off, more satisfied -- in a word, happier. But here's the problem: We end up comparing what we know about our life, which is a mixed bag of good and bad, with a fantasy of someone else's supposedly "perfect" life. Why do we do this? Because we know all about our own problems, but other people's problems are harder to see. As a result, our real life always loses out. That leads to despair. Besides, there's probably someone comparing his or her life to your supposedly perfect one -- which shows you how ridiculous it all is.
The rest of his article is here if you're willing to look in the mirror and reflect on some perhaps 'stupid' stuff you do, too.  Bring your sense of humor!

My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate.
Thornton Wilder

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Witness to passion and hope

In the days leading up to Christmas break from school, a former student came to visit and speak with my classes about her experiences studying and doing service in El Salvador.  Claire is a junior at Boston College, and participated in an alternative study-abroad program run through Santa Clara University in CA.  Santa Clara sponsors a program based in San Salvador, which enables students from Jesuit (and some non-Jesuit) schools throughout the US study at the University of Central America in addition to serving at various praxis sights throughout the country.  It is based upon the principles of liberation theology and solidarity, enabling students from North America to walk with the people of El Salvador and learn from them. 
Listening to Claire's stories and watching the passion and fire in her heart as she described who she met and all that she learned, I found myself deeply moved.  There is something about working alongside the poorest of the poor that puts things in perspective a bit, pointing out what really matters: relationship, love, compassion and laughter... and points out the insanity that we often get caught up in, particularly in the Christmas season: money, competition, power and status.  It is easy to lose sight of what 'really matters' living in a culture that often emphasizes 'stuff' over 'people'.  But there are moments of grace, insights into the beauty of love and relationship, that ground me back in the realization of what brings true, deep and long-lasting fulfillment. 
I was wasting some time yesterday on Facebook and saw a picture of another former student who goes to Saint Joe's, and she was participating in 'Unity Week', what used to be called 'Rainbow Week'... a week of events that emphasize understanding and acceptance of all people, focused primarily on sexual orientation.  It made me smile, excited to imagine what this young woman and so many others will do to help bring change and compassion to our world.  It just so happened that I spent the afternoon yesterday having coffee with Claire, and this other young woman happened to be at the same coffee house meeting with another former teacher from our high school...  Truly, what are the chances?  God's hand, providing inspiration and hope! 
It's easy to get disillusioned with the 'Church' or the world in general, to focus on what isn't or what should/could be.  But it is truly inspiring and gives me great hope to see these two young women, in a sea of thousands (or millions!) of passionate, inspired and motivated young people, ready to set the world on fire!
I received this poem from a friend this Christmas, and find its message to be truly profound and challenging.  Enjoy and Merry Christmas :)

"When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal those broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry,
to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music with the heart…
And to radiate the Light of Christ,
every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say.
Then the work of Christmas begins.  -- Howard Thurman