Monday, April 30, 2012

Grape #9: Artificial Sweetness

Sometimes before I write something, I really don't know what to write about, so I pray to God for inspiration, and then ask myself what problems or trends I have spotted lately, what matters are really worth discussing.  What do people need to hear from me this week?  And that's when this one came to me: People need to stop being so fake!  If you're not happy and joyful, don't act happy and joyful.  If you're not really friends with someone, stop acting like you're really friends with someone.  God is allergic to artificial sweetness, and it makes no sense at all to be someone you aren't.

Ernest Hemingway once said, "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.  This is the writer's radar, and all great writers have had it."  I don't pretend to call myself a great writer, but I am grateful to have this particular gift for detecting bullshit.  It's served me well many, many times, and often keeps me from serving up my own dish of artificial sweetness to others.

So why do we do this as human beings?  Why do we pretend we're delighted to be with someone if we're not?  If a person just rubs us the wrong way, makes us feel uncomfortable, justifiably so or not, we shouldn't just act like the person is still our best buddy, or worse that we're still their best buddy.  It doesn't serve either party well to add fakeness to the equation.  That's the devil's game, and it's a twisted, backwards artificiality I want no part of.

The problem seems to be that people who choose to dish out this brand of artificial sweetener in their bowl of daily discourse feel they have to, that this is just how you're supposed to live your life and keep things friendly.  I'm sorry, but that is just pure bullshit.  You cannot bullshit me with your bullshitty bullshit about your preference for a bullshit-filled life.  I won't listen to it.  Most importantly, 99% of bullshitters, the compulsive liars out there, have no idea how transparent their lies are, how easily we can all see right through them.  It's as if they have built up an artificial wall, a Saran Wrap-like edifice that they stand behind as they make faces at passersby.  I'm sorry, do you think I can't see the real you?  Your choice to be fake does not serve you or help you, and everyone can see right through it.

Artificial sweetness is everywhere, and if I didn't see it from a lot of people, I wouldn't even be talking about it.  People who live with this syndrome literally believe they are right, that it is funny or wise of them, and it's just not.  I don't care if a person is your archenemy or just someone you're not friendly with.  Don't reduce your soul to this kind of meaningless artificiality. 

Now I'm not saying you should be rough and angry with them.  Civility, kindness, respect, and cordiality all have their place.  But don't act like someone is your best friend if they're not.  You deserve better, and hell, they deserve better!  Be friendly, be kind, but don't be fake.  Bullshit is a see-through, paper-thin device that breaks as soon as it's built up.  Stop using it, stop being a bullshitter, and just be you.  That's who you were made to be.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Grape #8: A Monk's Life

Someone recently asked me what my schedule was like when I lived as a vowed religious.  It feels like common knowledge to me, but I'm sure this will be news to most of you.  So here's a brief look into what things were like on a day to day basis inside the monastic life.  This reflection may stand out in style from my other grapes, but as always, every little bit of who we are is part of our relationship to divine/the vine.

Every monastery/order is different, so what I did while I was there will invariably be different from many other places.  My community was a teaching community, so we lived in a building attached to the high school that the Brothers owned and ran.  As I was just 18 when I joined in June of 1993, I still had college ahead of me.  The Brothers paid for our college completely, and I even went to the school I wanted to go to anyway (Manhattan College).  Manhattan College is in Riverdale, NY (The Bronx) and their community is on Long Island, so we commuted each day to school.

So on a normal weekday:

We'd wake up at 5:30 AM, have morning prayer and mass from 6:00 to 7:00, breakfast after until 7:30, and dishes briefly after that as a community (all of this was all 34 of us).

The older teaching brothers would head off to classes and offices in the school, while the young brothers (4-5 of us) would get on the road around 8 AM.  First class was 9:05 AM.

We'd drive back home after school, usually get in around 5 PM, do some school work (or occasionally nap!), have meditation in the chapel from 6:20 to 6:40, and evening prayer from 6:40 to 7:00.

Dinner would follow until about 7:45 (cooked by 3 of the Brothers and we'd all rotate in these jobs).  Dishes and cleanup afterward as a community.

Four nights a week from 8:30 to 9:20 PM or so, the young brothers would have a "house class" (with one of our superiors) about different courses relevant to life as a religious.

At 9:30 PM we'd join the rest of the community until 9:50 for night prayer (Compline). 10 PM was the beginning of "The Great Silence" when you couldn't speak too loudly in the halls and a lot of people went to bed. 

As a college student, I somehow had to squeeze in my studies too, and as I got my Bachelor of Arts in both English Literature and Theology through lots of classes to satisfy the double major, I must have gone to bed closer to midnight most nights.  Not nearly enough schoolwork time, but I found a way to make it work and fill in some studying throughout the school day too. 

As you can imagine, it was a full day every day!  Getting to bed by midnight and then up at 5:30 AM to shave and shower?  For an 18-22yo?  Not easy! 

Weekends were a little different:

Full bar on Friday and Saturday nights with dinner in a relaxed living room setting.

Mass Saturday was at 8 AM, and Sunday it was 9:30 AM (enough time for an hour and a half of tennis with another brother on warm days).

Saturdays were laundry day for the 4-5 young brothers, as the laundry of 34 men takes all day once a week!  Sometimes the older brothers would do this and we'd be assigned to other tasks around the house or the school.  In my 4 years there, I learned to paint, cook, and was an electrician's apprentice.  The brothers all had various talents, and we took care of 99% of everything needed to keep the community as self-sufficient as possible.

Once every 6 weeks or so, I was allowed to visit my family for about 6-7 hours on a Sunday.  I wouldn't go home for Christmas or my birthday or any holidays, as the brothers "were my family now".

And that's the short version!  

Life itself, its ups and downs, the interpersonal relationships for good and bad, the retreats and time off from school all changed the schedule slightly here and there, but for the most part, the above is a "brief" insight into what I faced for my four years as Brother Sean.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Grape #7: Holy Week Reflections

This Sunday is Easter, which means that this coming Saturday is Holy Saturday, this Friday is Good Friday, and this Thursday is Holy Thursday. Together, they make up the holiest days of the Christian calendar, and when we include this past Sunday (Palm Sunday), they are called "Holy Week".

Okay, so what does that mean to you? Well if you're not Christian, you're probably not even reading this. Assuming you are though, or at least curious enough to some level about why I'm writing this, Holy Week is really worth some heavy duty focus.

I've spent a lot of time reflecting on my faith and spirituality in the last few years, and I'm still not sure I believe that Jesus was God. I know, not exactly a kosher belief for a professed Christian. Here's how I look at it though: Jesus and God want me to be a good soul, a caring man, and a love-filled child of God more than they care what I believe. If getting into Heaven was like being hired at a new job, believing that Jesus is God incarnate is akin to putting your name above the first line instead of below it. It's an inconsequential edit, and whether we're right or wrong about what we believe, it's meaningless if we're the right person for the job.

So regardless of what you believe on that topic, I hope you and I can agree that Jesus was a pretty awesome dude. He preached love of God and neighbor as the supreme commandment, wined and dined with the so-called dredges of society, stood up to an angry mob and encouraged the one with the least amount of sins to throw that first stone, all while having people hate him and call him a bad person. Now that's awesome in my book. He didn't just show faith in the principles he taught. He lived them too.

On Thursday that week, Jesus celebrated the Passover dinner with his disciples one last time. He washed his disciples' feet to show them how important it was to always stay humble. Note there was no ring kissing or expensive palaces involved. He basically told everyone there that Judas was about to betray him. And he was right, of course. Judas went out, and for a few gold coins, turned Jesus in to the authorities. Peter tried to stop them, even brandishing a sword and chopping off a soldier's ear. Jesus healed the ear and chastised Peter not to live by the sword. Funny when you think of how simple Jesus made his teachings and how we just don't learn. Don't live by the sword, give to Caesar what is Caesar's, don't judge others if you aren't pure yourself. Simple stuff really.

In the garden that night, Jesus is said to have prayed that he be spared of this fate (his pending death the next day). He was human after all. And yet not even Jesus' prayers were answered. C. S. Lewis put it best: "In Gethsemane, the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed."

The trial was pretty short. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus if he really was the king of the Jews, as people called him. "You said it, not me," was his response. He wasn't trying to be a smart-ass; he was literally just telling the guy that he never said that, other people were just saying it about him. Pilate washed his hands of the situation, in a signal that he didn't want to be blamed for killing an innocent man. He had the power to stop it, but he let it happen. History and scripture tell us Jesus spent about three hours on the cross before he died.

And why do we call this day "Good"? Because Jesus gave up his life on purpose, to show us all he had that much confidence in the Heaven that awaited him. Like a parent jumping in the pool to prove to their child that the water is safe, or eating a vegetable to show them it tasted good, Jesus gave up his life on purpose to show his disciples that he knew Paradise awaited him. John the Baptist had exclaimed upon seeing Jesus, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" The Gospel authors and other New Testament writers speak of Jesus as dying for our sins, sacrificing himself, God sacrificing his only son for our sins. I'm not sure why it should matter how such an expulsion of sin would take place. What matters is that Jesus preached that we "go and sin no more", but he also said to the thief on the cross next to him that he would be with him that day in paradise. How this particular theology works or how you believe it is less important than how you live it. Know what Jesus did: that sin can be erased if we believe it can be, and paradise is a real place we can really go to when we die.

It makes sense that we have this in-between day. In Jesus' time as in ours, Saturday was the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week when God rested after creating all. As Jesus was meant to die on Friday and rise from the dead on Sunday, what was he doing on Saturday? Catching his breath? Catching up with dear old dad in Heaven before spending 40 last days on Earth? Maybe just "resting" in peace to honor the Sabbath? It's a mystery. More importantly, it doesn't matter. What matters is it gives us a day to reflect on the mysterious before and after, to be surrounded by the power of the divine. We "keep holy" this Sabbath before Easter when we use it to reflect on the unknowable, the amazing secrets we're not meant to know in this human life.


And finally the sun rises, as does the son. Christians wake up on Easter Sunday and celebrate the greatest miracle imaginable to any human being ever in the history of our planet: the conquering of death itself. Lent is over and Lenten resolutions for things given up can go back to normal. "Alleluia" can be sung once more at church. Pastel Easter colors are everywhere. And all because Jesus showed us that death is not really the end, just a new beginning.

It's the culmination of Holy Week, but of course more than that it's the culmination of Jesus' ministry on Earth, which lasted maybe three years in all. What better of an ending can this story have than to have Jesus kick back that boulder and exclaim, "I'm baaack!" Of course that's not what he did at all. Instead of showing up at Pilate's door and amazing everyone with his return, Jesus just appeared to his disciples. It would be up to them to tell others what happened in and after his life on Earth. Some will believe and some will not. People will just have to have a little faith.