By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 30 August 2013 in The Madera Tribune
As one of my part-time jobs, I serve as a security guard. Knocking against my thigh with each step, my heavy-duty flashlight hangs from my utility belt. No batarangs, smoke bombs, or other superhero gadgets dangle beside it, but sometimes it really shines, so-to-speak.
More than a week ago I returned home after my shift while a large portion of the west side of Madera, California, had no electricity, doubtlessly due to a late summer thunderstorm. My oversized cylindrical companion suddenly held an indispensable and rare power.
Though I saw neighbors relying on cigarettes and cell phones to see by, it appeared no one had a simple flashlight at hand that evening. Yet what a difference it made when trying to unload groceries and navigate inside and out.
Disappointment mixed with relief when the alternating current surged anew, a seldom noticed hum met ears, and blocks of the city lit up as usual in a moment. My flashlight, no longer the brightest luminary, seemed to dim and my nascent Internet withdrawal symptoms disappeared.
There is much we take for granted in the "civilized" Western world, which so easily pampers and entertains us. We tend to forget our fragility and our dependence on others.
My father recently reminded me of what my eldest nephew, Michael, did to amuse himself as a tween about 20 years ago. While staying at my parents' minuscule farm, he took a long tree branch, hay bale twine, and a "single tree" to harness my dad's mule, Jenny, to a red Radio Flyer wagon. With his improvised setup, he then drove his sister Bernadette and cousin Joshua like a charioteer for hours around the property.
My father would be surprised to see similar ingenuity from his youngest grandchildren. Whether young or old, we rely more and more on technology even in our play.
His laments evoke twinges of guilt personally, because I've always been a more abstract than hands-on creative sort. As a child, I would skin my knee and play in the mud, but I loved books more than any of that. When computers and video game consoles arrived belatedly at our home, I rejoiced and explored their potential for play and creativity as deeply as I could.
Geek, nerd, and dork were appropriate labels I embraced long before the first two of the trio ceased to be insulting. I dreamed, among many other things, of being a roboticist or computer programmer.
There's nothing wrong with all that, of course. Yet life is more than a binary system.
Despite my preferences, I knew manual labor. We children would assist our dad with his landscaping, tree trimming, and janitorial service around Madera and occasionally beyond.
I remember waking up a few hours before school to help my dad sweep or mop St. Joachim Church before eating breakfast and attending classes for the day. The human-like statues in shadowy side aisles in the large building spooked me greatly before dawn, and the shiny brass cross on the main aisle doors gouged a few ounces of skin, flesh, and fat from the side of my chin once when I failed to get out of their way fast enough.
Summer days could start early and end late as we pushed lawnmowers across the growing green blades that blanketed the yards of customers. But between tending to local fiefdoms, oh, the joy of an after-lunch nap as well as that of an ice cream sandwich or even water from a hose on a sweat-drenching afternoon.
I never quite appreciated the physical work then as I would in my year as a novice monk at Mount Angel Abbey in St. Benedict, Oregon, not far from Woodburn, Salem, and Portland. We novices would often work under the late Father Dominic, a former college professor whose life had changed mid-stream when the abbot reassigned him from the ivory tower of academics to the fields and orchards.
I felt the satisfaction from spending one's self fully on a tangible task. Though never a vegetable admirer, the tomatoes I helped cultivate and harvest for a season were the best I ever tasted. I also saw the humility and wisdom of the priest who worked along with us, a passionate bespectacled scholar turned leathery farmer with muscles that were legendary.
During my years of temporary monastic vows that followed, Fr. Dominic's health faltered. I recall being by his bedside near the end, and at his funeral after. My heart wept.
May we never forget the beauty of the simpler powers and gifts of life, and the labor that makes possible so much that many take for granted.
Thank you, God, for all of them.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 24 August 2013 in The Madera Tribune
A fictional little boy who was being punished studied his mother with fascination. Finally he asked, "Why are some of your hairs white, mom?"
Irked by the day and the reminder that a few strands of her hair were indeed turning gray, she replied, "Well, every time you do something wrong and make me upset or cry, one of my hairs turns white."
He pondered this a long time and then said softly, "How come all of grandma's hairs are white?"
I suspect many of us can easily forget the words of a Jewish rabbi spoken less than two millennia ago: "as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you." (Matthew 7:2)
One needn't wait until Judgment Day before God to discover the truth of this warning. In a different and far lesser sense, it occurs even now.
A 2010 psychology study by Dustin Wood, Peter Harms, and Simine Vazire concluded "how we perceive others in our social environments reveals much about our personality."
How do our judgments expose us? As an ancient text on Jewish laws and history, the Talmud, said: "We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are."
In the study, university students were asked to rate the good and bad traits of acquaintances. Researchers found that those with more positive characteristics themselves, according to a self-rating and the opinions of others, were much more likely to see others positively.
Yet the sunnier students didn't simply assume others were similar to themselves. Instead they were able to recognize good in others even if they did not share in it.
How positively students saw others also matched their own level of likability and their satisfaction with their own lives. In contrast, those who viewed acquaintances darkly were more likely to have a personality disorder, such as narcissism or depression.
The students were not merely tested once for this study. They were tested across a year, and surprisingly the results were stable. The fickleness of momentary moods didn't seem to have an impact.
Nonetheless, I trust Jesus had something deeper in mind than psychology when he spoke long ago.
Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) of Savannah, Georgia, wrote popular short stories, novels, and more, often in a style known as Southern Gothic. The genre uses macabre twists to highlight the values of the U.S. South. Her tales often featured an ugly and morally flawed character who unpleasantly received God's help to see more clearly.
She explained in a letter, "All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful."
You never saw her dramas illustrated by the late painter Thomas Kinkade or in television movies sponsored by a greeting card company. She confronted and challenged rather than soothed. But she was unapologetic and even defiant when faced with the critics of her day.
"Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter," she said.
"Few have stared at that long enough to accept that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliche or a smoothing down that will soften their real look."
Some, such as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, have said the greatest danger to Christianity is we Christians, who wound self and others as we fall short of its ideals.
According to a vision by the apostle John, Jesus lamented those followers who were neither hot nor cold. He preferred either of those to the lukewarm, which he viewed as vomit worthy (Rev. 3:15-16).
That points to a deeper truth behind the admonition of Jesus to not be judgmental of others. How many of us are truly and completely on fire for God? We should pray no one gets what he or she deserves from God, but rather that they receive God's mercy -- for that is our own best hope as well. We all sin.
As rock band Reliant K sang, "The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair."
So how can we be hot and not lukewarm? With God's daily help, love self and others as God loves you, and love God most of all.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 17 August 2013 in The Madera Tribune
Did you hear about the student whose mother had bought him a really cheap dictionary app for his smartphone? He couldn't find the words to thank her.
It gets worse. While defending her purchase, she declared that a good education was a man's best friend. The family dog bit her.
As for myself, the other night I was in the mood for heavy reading, so I read the telephone book. But I couldn't make sense of the plot. There were too many characters.
So I picked up "Butler's Lives of the Saints" and skimmed some life stories. Disappointingly, all the biographies were the same: the main character always died.
But let us speak of literacy more sublime. There is an ancient practice of prayer known as "lectio divina," a phrase that means "reading God" or "divine reading."
It traditionally involves reading the Bible slowly, with imagination and thought.
We Christians tend to read the Bible like we drive on the freeway, eager for our destination. But lectio divina requires reading like a car trapped in rush hour traffic -- stop and go.
A 12th century Carthusian monk, Guigo, wrote of it: “Reading puts, as it were, whole food into your mouth; meditation chews it and breaks it down; prayer finds its savor; contemplation is the sweetness that so delights and strengthens” ("Scala Paradisi").
How to do it
Begin by seeking out silence, letting go of distractions, and focusing on God. A prayer may help.
Next, read a sentence or phrase, and then reflect upon it. Put yourself in the circumstance mentioned, ponder what it must have meant to those present, or listen to its echoes in your own life. In whatever way you choose, "Go to your bosom: knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know," as William Shakespeare once wrote.
Then speak to God about it or just spend time with God.
After an uncomfortable pause, continue on. Lectio divina will test one's patience at first if done properly. But the temporary breaks are necessary, like in any conversation, to make space for a two-way exchange.
Lectio divina isn't "Bible study." It is meant to be an encounter. The goal isn't to master knowledge. It is to embrace God.
The Cistercian monk Charles Cummings sums it up better than I: "Sacred reading allows the word of God to touch and awaken my heart. 'Indeed,' says the Letter to the Hebrews, 'God's word is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword... It judges the reflections and thoughts of the heart' (Heb. 4:12). When I spend time in sacred reading I invite God's word to penetrate my heart and to evoke from that deepest center of my being a response of surrender, wonder, praise, regret, petition, love. In the words I read, God speaks to me; in my prayerful pauses I respond to God, verbally or wordlessly."
The final step of lectio divina is living out God's Word.
In his 2010 exhortation "Verbum Domini" ("Word of God"), Pope Benedict XVI noted: "We do well also to remember that the process of lectio divina is not concluded until it arrives at action (actio), which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity."
Lectio divina remains a daily prayer for many monks and nuns as it more or less was for their earliest predecessors, the "desert fathers" and "mothers," who fled Roman decadence by seeking the desolation of the deserts of Egypt in the 4th century.
These days other Christians of all kinds likewise find light in "reading God."
By grace, may we be able to sincerely say: "Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a child has rest in its mother's arms, even so my soul" (Tehilim/Psalm 131:2-3).