Monday, May 18, 2015

The “Cuban” Miracle

It had been a good regatta for my boat, K3.  We sat atop the 25 boat fleet going into the final day, 3 points ahead of the nearest competitor, an out of town boat whose skipper had nicknamed us “the Cubans” (K cubed).  Although the winds had been light and shifty, we had the boat dialed into the conditions and had sailed well.
Racing a sailboat in light winds can be grueling.  When the wind is really, really light, a sailboat tends to be uncomfortable.  The sails flop around, you constantly readjust your weight to squeeze every bit of forward momentum out of the "nothing", and you bob up and down like a fishing bobber, at the mercy of the waves and wakes of passing motor boats.
The final day of this regatta was under way, and the first of the two scheduled races had been cancelled- no wind.  The race committee squeezed off the final race in a light little whiff of breeze that wandered across the race course.  It quickly faded.  Occasionally, a little streak of wind would make itself known by gently wrinkling the surface of the water.  Any boat near that streak benefited.  We seemed to miss every one of those streaks, and eventually found ourselves buried deep in the fleet, a least 1/4 mile behind the race leader and our nearest competitor in the standings.  The 18 boats between us would easily erase our thin 3 point lead.
Rounding the final downwind mark, we turned back upwind for the finish.  The entire fleet had gone left, heading parallel to the distant shore, looking for whatever wind they could (or couldn't) find.  But, it was the favored side of the course, closest to the finish.  The advantage appeared to be all theirs.
We decided to head right, deeeeeeep right, directly toward shore- following the fleet would just cement our place in the cellar.  We went so far to the right that the race leader asked his crew. "Where are the Cubans?"   His crew had trouble finding us at first.  Once he located us he responded to the skipper- "They are gone".
Leaving the fleet and sailing to a far corner of the racecourse is not typically viewed as a smart tactic.  Sailing well requires executing in the “ordinary”.  Staying on the favored tack, keeping close to the competition, proper sail trim and boat balance become second nature.   We were atop the standings because we had done very well in the “ordinary” of the previous day.
Yet, here we were, fully committed to a tactic we didn’t like, doggedly bobbing our way toward the right (actually wrong) corner of the course, farther and farther from the fleet, seemingly headed for dead last finish.  Even the 5 boats behind us at the last mark went the other direction!  At the rate we were going, we’d have trouble getting back to shore before the visiting boats had their boats packed and were on the road home.
Then, directly ahead of us, and only in our little corner of the lake- the surface of the water wrinkled a little- WIND!  Not a lot, but definite ripples on the smooth glassy surface of the water.  We waited for it to reach us, hoping that precious breeze wouldn't lift off the surface and leave us in our current state.  First came a little whiff of fresh air, not enough to even fill a sail, but enough to feel on your face, and just enough to feel the boat move under us.  And then it arrived.  We were on the move!  The ripples on the water in front of us looked darker, a sure sign of increasing wind.  Three knots, then six, and finally a private 8 knot wind, as if out of nowhere, and intended only for us!
Being so far inshore and to the right side, we had to come back to the middle of the course to finish.  The rest of the fleet, deep to the left, saw the breeze and was slogging their way back toward us.  Looking over my shoulder I thought to myself, "They they might be too late..."  We snapped off a crisp tack, all three of us now sitting on the high side of the boat to keep it flat and moving fast in the fresh breeze.  Settling onto the new course, it was clear- they WERE too late, we would win!
It had taken a full day of disciplined sailing to work our way to the top of the leader board the day before.  That morning, it had taken us less than 1.5 hours of that same disciplined sailing to find ourselves at the rear of the fleet and completely out of contention.  And, it took mere minutes in a favorable fresh breeze to retake all the distance that had been lost and win the race (and the regatta)  by a very comfortable margin.
So, what does this have to do with the spiritual life, or life in general?  Well, everything.  Life is a lot like sailboat racing.  You can execute well, do the things you should do, when you should do them, and you still find yourself buried, far behind the rest of the pack.  Sometimes, you need more than the “ordinary”.  Sometimes, life requires a dose of the “extraordinary”.    
That morning, we eschewed doubt, despair and hopelessness (foregone conclusions in the ordinary) in favor of the miraculous!  We abandoned “common” wisdom and struck out boldly and radically, knowing that redemption and salvation would require something completely outside ourselves, something over which we had no control, and something we certainly could not see in the moment.  Had we idolized the “ordinary” that particular morning, we would not have contended for the ”extraordinary” with steadfastness and determination.  We would have accepted our circumstance and refused to leave it or look beyond it, forgetting that miracles are possible.   And my silly little sailing “miracle” a quarter of a century ago, still inspires, encourages and points me to the greater reality within it- God is bigger than my circumstances.  God comes through.  Miracles happen.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Spirituality of Work

Since the fall of Adam and Eve, work has gotten a bad rap.  Work was an essential dimension of God’s plan prior to the fall.  God told Adam that one of his “jobs” was to tend the garden.  And God, of course, tasked Adam to name all the animals of creation.  But, somehow, it’s the post-fall scripture we remember best, “By the sweat of your brow you shall toil”.  The industrial revolution, and more recently a materialistic culture that rather schizophrenically prizes leisure and hard work at the same time, has helped to drive the spiritual dimension of work from our daily lives.

Spirituality, unfortunately, has often become perceived as belonging to those who have quiet minds and bodies, and substantial amounts of time to pray, contemplate God, go on retreat, etc.  Those of us with kids, sports, careers, and active lifestyles seem somehow left out of the opportunity to experience the intimate communion with God experienced by the great saints, contemplatives and mystics.  We are left to chew on the crumbs of 5 minutes of quiet time between when we lay down and when we fall asleep.

Those of us who love and find joy in activity and work, often find a certain dryness and restlessness in quiet and inactivity.  This of course, is good for us, to wrestle and quiet our hearts before God on occasion.  But, it is not the only way to find intimacy and communion with God.  Since work belonged to the order of original creation when Adam “walked with God”, shouldn’t we be able to find intimacy with God in our work?

Not too long ago, I stumbled across the few writings of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (1614-1691).   Brother Lawrence did not practice any particular spirituality, or devotion, except by obedience to his superiors.  He, instead, focused completely on “Practicing the Presence of God” in every circumstance of his life.  As I read his writings, it resonated and explained the joy that I often experience in the hustle and bustle of the workday.  In a series of interviews known as the Conversations, a biographer wrote:
“That the most excellent method he had found of going to GOD, was that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing men, and (as far as we are capable) purely for the love of GOD.
That it was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times.  That we are as strictly obliged to adhere to GOD by actin in time of action, as by prayer in its season.”

“That he had so often experienced the ready succours of Divine Grace upon all occasions… when he had business to do… he found in GOD, as in a clear mirror, all that was fit for him to do.”

“That he was more united to GOD in his outward employments, than when he left them for devotion in retirement.”

In reading Brother Lawrence, it is clear that he found the meaning to St. Paul’s admonition to “pray unceasingly”.  His words have given me a tool to use in my work, where it can be as easy to operate “in” the presence of God as “out”.  I can check my heart with a couple easy questions.  “Am I pleasing God or pleasing Man?”  “Am I united to God in this moment, in this activity?”  “Does this please Him, no matter how trivial or mundane?”

My work has found a deeper meaning, and a certain sense of justification, that God desires to be with me in the midst of my activity, not waiting for me to finish.  I will leave with one sweet final quote from Brother Lawrence, a prayer for spirituality of work…

“O my GOD, since Thou are with me, and I must now, in obedience to Thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech Thee to grant me the grace to continue in Thy Presence; and to this end do Thou prosper me to Thy assistance, receive all my works, and possess all my affections.”

Thursday, January 29, 2015


“I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of tyranny. You have come to fight as free men, and free men you are. What would you do without freedom? Will you fight?...Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you'll live -- at least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!!!”
William Wallace- Braveheart

Almost every great movie carries some echo of the Gospel.  This single scene from the movie Braveheart captures a deep and profound truth, that liberty (freedom) and dignity are inseparable.  Wallace is speaking to men during the wars of Scottish Independence.  The Scots have lost their freedom to the English King, and under his heavy hand, their dignity.  Freedom, properly understood, is essential to human dignity.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says it this way, “The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person."  To say it from the other direction, the dignity of the human person is always compromised without the exercise of freedom in moral and religious matters.  For Catholics, it is (or should be) deeply troubling to see advocacy for “human dignity” in the absence or reduction of “freedom and liberty”, and equally troublesome to hear the rally cry around “freedom and liberty” absent the imperative of “human dignity”.

Under the guise of “human dignity”, the Department of Health and Human Services has attempted to pry these imperatives apart.  HHS has essentially posited that a woman’s fertility is somehow antithetical to her dignity as a person, mandating that most health plans provide contraceptives, including those that are abortifacient (along with abortion counseling services).  The mandate represents a kind of “tyranny” against the religious freedoms of those who see a woman’s fertility as normal, natural, beautiful and God-given.

Pope Francis recently stated, “Religion must not be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society.” The narrowness of the HHS exemption (which applies only to houses of worship) is exactly the action Pope Francis warns against- relegating religion to the inner sanctum of the personal life, and by extension, subjecting all of public life to arbitrary governmental standards of morality.

While this is not new clash, the pitch of the battle has a new urgency and intensity.  The ramifications of the loss of religious liberties, and with them, the loss of personal dignity, are far reaching.  The unintended consequences could be tragic for the faithful, and for the culture at large.  Abraham Lincoln stated in response to a reporters question, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.”  Modern government would do well to heed the wisdom of this great president.