Tag Archives: lent

Lent 2012: Day 30

There is always one bright thought in our minds, when all the rest are dark. There is one thought out of which a moderately cheerful man can always make some satisfactory sunshine, if not a sufficiency of it.

Sometimes, I wonder. Some of the students I work with on a daily basis seem to have few bright images in their minds. Life is a constant crisis for them: everything from someone bumping them in the hallway to a perceived injustice from a teacher sets them off. They wear a scowl on their faces most of the time, and life seems to be one big trial for them.

Faber, in the quote above, is speaking of the belief in a joyous afterlife, but sometimes I wonder about the usefulness of that hope for someone who’s already lost all hope for a happy life here and now, and all by the age of fourteen.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 29

No one was ever corrected by a sarcasm; crushed perhaps, if the sarcasm was clever enough, but drawn nearer to God, never.

Fr. Frederick Faber

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Lent 2012: Day 28

Conversation often turns into an excuse to discuss oneself, and talking with someone who seems to have a knack for turning the conversation back to himself is exhausting.

The unselfishness of speedily and gracefully distracting ourselves from self is also singularly difficult to practice.

Yet it’s somehow a natural conversational occurrence. Whether it’s a sincere desire to help someone by sharing a similar experience or an unconscious competitive streak, we hear a story and we want to add something from our own lives into the mix. Resisting this urge is critical for what Faber calls “kind listening. But like many other kindnesses, it involves a degree of self-sacrifice.

I think of the Girl dating at some point in the future — within the next, say, 25-30 years — and one of my most deeply held requirements (as if I’d have any say) for any young man interested in her would be that he show the ability to listen. It’s a rare gift these days, and I fear it will be rarer still when the time comes.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 24

[Sharing kind words] involves very little self-sacrifice, and for the most part none at all. It can be exercised generally without much effort, with no more effort than the water makes in flowing from the spring. Moreover the occasions for it do not lie scattered over life at great distances from each other. They occur continually. They come daily. They are frequent in the day. All these are commonplaces. 

Just ask my students. And my wife. And my daughter.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 23

Looking back — oops.

Does it count if I post it a day later? Wouldn’t be the first time…

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Lent 2012: Day 22

Kind words will set right things which have got most intricately wrong. In reality an unforgiving heart is a rare monster. Most men get tired of the justest quarrels.

If I could teach my students one extra-curricular lesson, it would be this. I have calmed furious students (sometimes furious at me, most often furious about something some peer has done) with a few kind words so often that it has become almost instinctive: “Get the kid away from the situation and say something kind.” A smile helps as well.

Yet they re-enter the same quarrel, sometimes only hours later (occasionally, even more quickly), and I can see a certain Sisyphean fatigue in them as they fuss. “A calm answer…” I mutter to myself, wondering if I can teach that by example alone.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 21

Criticism — being mean, in a sense — can be fun. We seem to show off a bit of our mental acumen. “Good one!” people cheer on when someone makes a particularly wittily barbed comment. It’s what “the dozens” is all about. So giving up that potential scoring comment is a form of self-denial — a big idea in Catholicism.

Faber explains it better:

The practice of kind thoughts also tells most decisively on our spiritual life. It leads to great self-denial about our talents and influence. Criticism is an element in our reputation and an item in our influence. We partly attract persons to us by it. We partly push principles by means of it. The practice of kind thoughts commits us to the surrender of all this. It makes us, again and again in life, sacrifice successes at the moment they are within reach. Our conduct becomes a perpetual voluntary forfeiture of little triumphs, the necessary result of which is a very hidden life.

That seems to be a good definition of magnanimity.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 20

[W]hat does all this doctrine of kind interpretations amount to? To nothing less, in the case of most of us, than living a new life in a new world.

In a sense, that is what Lent is all about: taking steps to create a new life from our old life. We give something up; we take up something new. Old habits die — at least for a while — and new ones take their place. And in the midst of our ordinary lives, we find an extraordinary renewal.

At least in theory.

living a new life in a new world

Habits, once the settle in and unpack, tend to stick around, but that has the obvious bad side as well: in trying to break a habit, we’re trying to break out of a prison we’ve built and fortified and re-fortified all by ourselves, without much conscious thought. So I wish I could say I’ve been trying to employ new, kind interpretations to acts I previously would have chalked up to idiocy or malice. In the end, I’ve found myself consciously thinking, “Well, I should try to have a kind interpretation of this driver’s actions, but such idiocy as he’s exhibiting doesn’t really call for kindness!” As if. It’s like the cigarette smoker shaking out another stick, knowing full well she will regret it as soon as she touches fire to the tip.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 18

We must rise to something truer. Yes! Have we not always found in our past experience that on the whole our kind interpretations were truer than our harsh ones? What mistakes have we not made in judging others! But have they not almost always been on the side of harshness? Every day some phenomenon of this kind occurs. We have seen a thing as clear as day. It could have but one meaning. We have already taken measures. We have roused our righteous indignation. All at once the whole matter is differently explained, and that in some most simple way, so simple that we are lost in astonishment that we should never have thought of it ourselves. Always distrust very plain cases, says a legal writer.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 17

A kind interpretation of actions is such a far-removed idea for me at times, but perhaps the most challenging times are when I’m in a heated situation with a student and when I’m driving in Greenville.

We must come to esteem very lightly our sharp eye for evil, on which perhaps we once prided ourselves as cleverness.

The latter is the most consistent challenge. While I don’t necessarily see other drivers’ motivation as being a result of evil, I constantly pride myself on the cleverness of my own driving as compared that of my fellow pilgrims on the road. This idiot doesn’t know how to turn left at a traffic light. That dolt waits until the car in front of him is twenty car lengths ahead before pulling starting from a green stop light. This moron pulls so far into the intersection that it’s difficult to make a left turn around her. That dork is so busy texting that he misses at least five seconds of the light. This one is a matter of merely reminding myself that I’ve no idea what these people drive the way they drive and that perhaps they have very good reasons. Perhaps the person hesitant to make a left turn recently had a terrible accident doing so. Maybe the person who is waiting for the care in front of him to be a seemingly ridiculous distance from him before starting is having car problems and the car doesn’t respond as well as he wishes. Possibly person pulling too far in to the intersection is on the way to a critical meeting — perhaps a family member is ill in the hospital — and made a last-minute decision not to push the yellow light. And perhaps the person texting is texting about the death of a loved one.

Calmness while driving — offering what Faber calls “kind interpretations” — is fairly simple: there’s very little at stake. A few moments lost here or there is hardly something to get enraged about, and whether or not the kind interpretations are justified, it all seems a relatively moot point when we consider who brief and insignificant the interaction.

The former example of heated situations with students is of much greater import. These are not brief, insignificant interactions. Like it or not, the student and I will meet again tomorrow — and the day after and the day after that — and will have to work together productively. So when a student begins the day with a smart comment to me, simply wants to come in and sleep, simmers with anger at a mild request from me, or any number of things that I would normally be tempted to take personally as an assault on my classroom authority and my personal dignity, I really have two choices in how I deal with the situation, and the decision I make depends on whether or not I create for myself a kind interpretation of the individual’s motives. Students come to class with any number of significant and insignificant emotional weight pulling them down, and the simple truth is I have no idea when someone has placed more mass on her shoulders. Perhaps this young man comes from an abusive home and he just faced down a violently angry parent to deflect injury from a younger sibling. Maybe this young lady is responsible for a eight-week-old sibling during the night because their mother works the night shift. This young man might not have eaten breakfast this morning and had very little dinner the night before. Any one of these situations would be enough to set a day off on a crooked trail. And while I know more about these kids than the average stranger, most of them are still virtual strangers to me when it comes to the clockworks of their lives.

A kind interpretation of their anger, apathy, exhaustion, and frustration results in a kind answer, and we all know what that does.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 16

[There] is one class of kind thoughts which must be dwelt upon apart. I allude to kind interpretations. The habit of not judging others is one which it is very difficult to acquire, and which is generally not acquired till very late on in the spiritual life. If men have ever indulged in judging others, the very sight of an action almost indeliberately suggests an internal commentary upon it.

An action occurs and what do I do? Being the cynic and pessimist I am, I assume the worse. The cause of the delay is nothing short of contempt for others. The motivation for behavior is nothing short of disrespect of authority. Up-turned corners of the mouth become a smirk. I — and Faber, probably rightly, suggests the majority of others — take personal insult where none is intended, disrespect where none is offered, and cowardice where none is evidenced.

Now all this is simple ruin to our souls. At any risk, at the cost of life, there must be an end of this, or it will end in everlasting banishment from God. The decree of the last judgment is absolute. It is this the measure which we have meted to others.

Perhaps this is what was really meant by “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 15

…squared…

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Lent 2012: Day 13

Yesterday’s reading at Mass was one of the most famous in Scripture: the commanded sacrifice of Isaac. Here’s a thought experiment I wrote over fifteen years ago, when I was still in college.


Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

So begins one of the most extraordinary stories in literature. The story of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is undoubtedly one of the best known Biblical stories. Soren Kierkegaard says, “The story of Abraham is remarkable in that it is always glorious no matter how poorly it is understood.” Indeed, it is an amazing story of faith and an incredible testament of ultimate trust in God.

One wonders, though, how the story might have changed had Abraham said, “No” to God’s command. The possibilities are endless, for there are so many variables. God might simply have accept the answer and go off in search of someone else to become the Father of the Faithful. He could roar, “How dare you defy me!” and strike down Abraham in fiery wrath. God might take a more human approach and beg: “Ah, come on. Trust me; I know what I’m doing!”

However, before pondering God’s response, one would have to take into account Abraham’s reason for refusing to follow God’s command. Perhaps it would be for selfish reasons. After all, Isaac is Abraham’s only offspring, a miracle child born when Sarah was well beyond child-bearing years. It is only natural for Abraham to cling stubbornly to his only child; certainly old age would prevent Abraham and Sarah from having another. Possibly it would spring from incredible love for Isaac: “I’ll not do that to my son!”

Or it could be because Abraham feels homicide is wrong. He could shake a fist at God, declaring, “No! I will not kill, for any reason. I will not violate my conscience for any reason, not even divine command.”

This produces an entirely new possibility in the historical story of Abraham: God’s test of Abraham is open ended. When God commands, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and . . . Sacrifice him . . . as a burnt offering” God might be willing to accept either answer, “Yes” or “No.”

Once Abraham submits to God’s injunction, then there is no change from the actual account found in Genesis. Abraham is still regarded as the Father of the Faithful and the Bible remains in its present form.

If, however, Abraham refused on the grounds that the commanded act — murder — violates his conscience, God could respond, “I swear by myself that because you have done this and have not compromised your conscience for any reason, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” Abraham would then become the Father of the Morally Steadfast. The entire Bible might be radically and totally different. Wholly different lessons would be learned from the story of Abraham. James 4.17 might read, “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins. For Abraham did what he knew to be right in his heart, even when God commanded otherwise.”

A series of questions then arises: If it was an open-ended test, what was God hoping it would reveal about Abraham’s character? If either obedience or disobedience was acceptable in this particular instance, what was God looking for in Abraham’s response? The only answer is passion. God was simply looking for someone who would act vigorously, someone who was zealous and complete in his actions. Whether or not Abraham was obeyed would not have mattered, for obedience could be learned more easily than zeal.

God has a way of changing people’s minds, but usually they are already zealous in their activities, such as the apostle Paul or Jonah. Both men lived lives violently opposed to what God ultimately desired of them but both were dynamic and spirited in what they did. Jonah ran from God and his destiny and Nineveh with all the strength he could muster, and Paul persecuted the early Christians mercilessly, with every ounce of his strength. In both cases, God turned the men around and put them to his work, which they accomplished with even greater vigor, for they were now working toward a goal instead of running away from one.

This kind of passion could be exactly what God was looking for in Abraham. What God sought was a man who would be decisive and would back up the choices made with all his energy, ready and willing to accept the consequences of each action. God didn’t want someone apathetic, someone lukewarm.

Of course Abraham did not say, “No.” He obeyed God even when it made no sense to him, even though God was asking him to do something from which there seemed to be nothing good that could arise, something ridiculously absurd. Some would label it blind devotion. Others call it faith. It is a kind of faith that to most of us in the twentieth century find alien, for there would be few — if any — people today willing to commit himself so fully to God’s will. Many people are not able — or willing — to understand why Abraham did what he did. Antagonists of Christianity point to this story as evidence of the absurd cruelty represented in the Bible, in an attempt to discredit the Bible as barbarous and antiquated. Yet the story records Abraham’s faith to the disbelief and astonishment of readers throughout the centuries.

The fact that Abraham did not disobey God makes the story even greater, adding immeasurably to its authority and puissance. It is a story of strength, of a strong man passing a test offered by an infinitely mighty God. Even the most fervent Christian must sometimes feel a little apprehensive about serving a God who would ask so much of one person, and this apprehension leads to a great respect of Abraham and his faith. Underlying all of this is the question, “How could God ask such a thing, and how could Abraham obey such a ludicrously evil command?” It is the same question that antagonists of the Bible ask in an attempt to discredit the Bible. There must be an answer that glorifies the Bible and God. Yet it is sometimes difficult to get beyond the command itself and to understand the motivation of it’s charge and the power of Abraham’s obedience.

While talking to a friend about the magnificence of the story of Abraham and Isaac I was presented with a startlingly beautiful answer to this delimit. The test was not supposed to prove anything to God — the test was simply for Abraham to realize the power of his own faith. As God is spirit and outside of time, he would have been able to know exactly what Abraham’s response would be. Not only that, but God’s omnipotence would allow him to see inside Abraham’s heart to behold the energy of faithful obedience pulsing deep within Abraham’s being, out of even Abraham’s knowledge. It took such a powerful test as God gave to bring into fruition such a powerful force as Abraham’s faithful obedience.

Both Biblical precedence and common since underscore the logic of this position. God commands obedience and the Bible is the story of those who obeyed and those who disobeyed. Always God rewards those who submit to his will and do what he commands. He didn’t reward Jonah for running. He didn’t reward Paul for persecuting. Yet he did reward Abraham for his obedience.

From a common sense position, to say that the test was for God’s sake is ridiculous, for God knows everything. He is outside of time, therefore knows the future, present and past all simultaneously. God is omnipotent, all knowing — there was nothing that he could learn from Abraham’s response that he didn’t already know from the beginning of time.

On the other hand, to say that the test was for the sake of Abraham works either way — God wanted to prove to Abraham his own moral fortitude of his own powerful faith. God, being outside of time, knew Abraham’s reaction long before Abraham was even born. God therefore knew the quality his test was to exemplify for as equally long. Accordingly, God knowing Abraham’s reaction does not disqualify the submission that the test was open-ended.

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Lent 2012: Day 11

Religious people are an unkindly lot. Poor human nature cannot do everything; and kindness is too often left uncultivated, because men do not sufficiently understand its value. Men may be charitable, yet not kind; merciful, yet not kind; self-denying, yet not kind. […] Kindness, as a grace, is certainly not sufficiently cultivated, while the self-gravitating, self-contemplating, self-inspecting parts of the spiritual life are cultivated too exclusively.

One immediately assumes that charity is a sort of kindness, as is mercy. Faber suggests that it isn’t. Perhaps I don’t understand what Faber means by “kindness” after all.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 10

[Kindness] watches the thoughts, controls the words, and helps us to unlearn [youth’s] inveterate habit of criticism.

Criticism is easy, fun even. We can easily discern others’ faults, and it takes little imagination to capitalize on these faults, aggrandizing ourselves while belittling others. As the fictional critic Anton Ego says in Ratatouille,

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.  But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.

Yet when we’re practicing active kindness, it puts a filter over our lips.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 9

A proud man is seldom a kind man. Perhaps nothing more needs to be said — especially considering how tired I am…

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 8

Thus does kindness propagate itself on all sides. Perhaps an act of kindness never dies, but extends the invisible undulations of its influence over the breadth of centuries.

“We can only plant the seeds. We never know how they will grow” It’s a common refrain in teaching, and I always kind of thought it was a cop-out. At times I feel like, quite frankly, such a failure as a teacher. Kids spend 180 days with me, and some of them seem none the better for it. It’s perhaps a useful guilt: it might spur teachers to become better at their job, to seek training and experiences that will increase their effectiveness.

Perhaps an act of kindness never dies

But saying, “We can only plant the seeds” seems somehow to alleviate that guilt. We plant the seeds; it’s up to the kids to tend the resulting crop.

Faber suggests otherwise: it’s not a cop-out. We can sow kindness and know, with some certainty, that it will grow into more kindness. We can know that we’ve had a positive impact on someone’s life. Perhaps it’s a good sign that we’re more willing to admit the opposite, or maybe it’s just another sign of our condition.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 7

I think, with the thought of the Precious Blood, I can better face my sins at the last judgment, than my unkindness, with all its miserable fertility of evil consequences.

Unkindness is easier than kindness, and sometimes more rewarding in a perverse sense, much like heroin is more “rewarding” than a draft of water. But once the high wears off, we look back at that cutting remark or that sneering body language and think ourselves most wretched. We don’t often lie in bed, unable to drift to sleep for the thought of some kindness we shared or even at the thought of some bit of apathy that helped us slide through the day. But unkindness has left me turning in bed and occasionally haunted me into the early morning.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 5

the immense power of kindness in bringing out the good points of the characters of others

When I can lift myself above my wounded ego — “What?! How dare you be cruel or disrespectful to me, who is only trying to help you get an education!” — and respond thoughtfully and kindly, a change sometimes occurs, a softening, a reflective moment of calm.

A kind word or tone can transform conflicts into positive experiences. A simple kindness of offering to help a kid by holding books while he rummages through his locker can bring a smile where once there was anger.

Even if all is well in the student’s life at the moment, an act of kindness can echo into the future. Relationships are like bank accounts: we can make deposits through kindness that will give us a buffer against emotionally stressful withdrawals.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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Lent 2012: Day 4

Probably the majority of repentances have begun in the reception of acts of kindness, which, if not unexpected, touched men by the sense of their being so undeserved.

Reading Faber, I keep returning to thoughts of school and interactions with students. And I can’t deny that there are times, based on behavior of various students, that I find myself thinking that this or that student doesn’t deserve kindness. When someone is disrupting others, making it difficult to focus on the task at hand, focusing all her energies on getting everyone’s attention, she is attempting to take opportunities away from others. It’s a myth to think that students today aren’t interested in learning — the vast majority are, keenly so. But it only takes two or three in a classroom to derail the whole process, and an incorrigible student soon draws the ire of other students and the teacher.

It is precisely at those moments that I most decidedly don’t feel like being kind. It is in those situations that the temptation to cruelty is most acute. Responses come to mind that are so ineffably and cruelly inappropriate but at the same time seem so perfect. Yet a kind word can sometimes calm the whole situation, while cruelty will only debase everyone in the room. It’s the easy way out, which is why kindness can be so difficult.

The quoted excerpt is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.

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