A Humble, Transformative Life Remembered

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This past week I buried my father-in-law. It was a hard week but also beautiful, and it reaffirmed my conviction about what I had written a few days before.

In a Christmas Day post, I recollected how throughout history God has used seemingly insignificant people and events to bring about the most wondrous transformations–liberation from powerful oppressors, smashing social barriers, redeeming a lost humanity. I suggested that this should give us hope and encourage us to work for the transformation of our society, even in a time when a vitriolic political climate and boiling racial tensions make things seem hopeless.

The life and legacy my father-in-law has left behind stands as proof that such hope is not pie-in-sky, that meaningful change is really possible in the modern world. Denis Bouffard was not a major political player. He did not have a fortune to throw at global problems like malaria or water scarcity as might a Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. He did not even have an especially big personality. His demeanor, like his stature, was humble. And yet, to quote the words spoken by his son in his eulogy, “Who knew a size 8½ could leave such a big footprint?”

From almost the moment his wake began, the line was out the door. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 people waited an hour in line–including a time outside in the freezing cold–to pay their last respects. Former students, fellow volunteers, and droves of friends and family all filed through. People drove for hours and flew in from around the country. Messages and prayers poured in from places as distant as Ireland, Ukraine, and Australia. Why all this for a former high school religion teacher and part-time wedding photographer?

The reasons for the large showing became apparent as people approached the family to offer their condolences. Many former students spoke of the love and respect Mr. Bouffard showed them, even when they were not at their best. A family who had struggled to find housing spoke of his (and his wife’s) compassion and hospitality in opening their home to them. His children spoke of his persistence in hope in the face of tragedy, sickness, and death, with which his family was unfortunately well-acquainted. None of these virtues is the stuff of headlines or viral sensations. Yet it was abundantly clear to anyone in (or outside) the funeral home that night that this man had, little by little, transformed a community.

The next day when everyone gathered for the funeral service in St. Gregory the Great Church where Denis had worn the kneelers down over years of faithful prayer, the presider, a friend of more than 40 years, shed light on the secret of this humble man’s surprisingly transformative life. Denis Bouffard, through a lifetime of modest gestures, was able to make an inestimable impact upon countless lives because he always sought first and foremost to serve God. If he was remarkable in any sense, it is that he seemed so utterly unconcerned with promoting himself or tending his own ego. In that respect, he was much like Saint André Bessette, a modern saint to whom Denis had a special devotion. Saint André was a brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross who, because of his lack of education and professional skills, worked as a porter for 40 years. Yet in spite of his humble origins and position, he became known as the “miracle man of Montreal” for the many healings he worked through the invocation of St. Joseph for those who came to him. Shortly after Denis’s death, another Holy Cross priest-friend remarked that Saint André would surely be there to open the door when his devotee approached the pearly gates.

Denis’s death, like most of his life, was not glamorous. (He fell down the stairs while removing the baby gate he had put up to safeguard his grandchildren during their holiday visits.) But there is something fitting about his time on earth ending in this way, for he devoted so much of his life to caring for and opening the door to others. This is true in both a literal and spiritual sense. Through innumerable acts and kindnesses that most would consider hardly worth mentioning, he opened to the door to God for countless people.

Few people would look at the details of Denis’s life and think this is the stuff that heroes are made of. But he is a hero to me, and I would argue that he is exactly the kind of hero this world needs. I work in a profession where I am constantly tempted and even encouraged to promote myself and amass awards and recognition. It seems to me that this is largely true of our culture as a whole, which tends to reward efficient and ostentatious performance over efforts for deep, meaningful change. However, when we look back at the history of God’s dealings with humanity, we see that salvation does not come at the hands of the proud and the strong. God prefers to work not through people who would make themselves great but rather through those who humbly serve God and neighbor. We Christians call these people saints, and Denis Bouffard is surely one of them.


The Significance of Christmas for a Troubled America

“I can’t wait for 2016 to end.” I have heard numerous people utter these words lately, and I know what they mean. 2016 brought the fifth anniversary of an atrocious war in Syria, Brexit, the election of a self-professed murderer to the presidency of the Philippines, not to mention another slew of shootings on US soil and countless terrorist attacks here and around the world. Of course, few of my acquaintances had any of the above in mind when they were wishing aloud for the end of 2016. They were thinking about this year’s vitriolic presidential election and its fallout.

Tensions ran high in this election not only because people felt the options of candidates have never been more unpalatable but also because of the widespread sentiment that the stakes have never been higher. Many people felt and continue to feel that their livelihood is threatened by encroaching foreigners, the imminent possibility of violent attack, and political insiders who have lost touch with the concerns of “real” Americans. Some of those whose candidate won the presidential election may now feel some relief. However, many more people (if the final tabulation of the popular vote is any indication) are even more worried about what 2017 and a Trump presidency may bring.

Besides harboring fears of what the future holds, it seems that many Americans feel hopeless that they or anyone else can do anything to solve the problems facing our country and the world. This widespread sense of disaffection is evident in the fact that this year’s election saw the lowest voter turnout in 20 years. A recent study offers further evidence, finding that among college students, whom we normally expect to be the most hopeful about the future, 48% felt that things were hopeless at some time in the past year (2015). The problems facing today’s world—racial tensions, global warming, a major refugee crisis—seem so big that it is hard for us to imagine how they can be resolved.

Thank God it’s Christmas. Read More


Thank God the Election Is Over…Except It Isn’t

Thank God that’s over. For the better part of two years now we have endured the grating sounds of the presidential candidates’ name-calling and heckling. We have listened to them criticize each other’s worst flaws and those of their supporters. Week after week we have been told that America has lost its greatness, that it is under attack from within and without, that its citizens are in imminent danger of unemployment, rape, and cyber infiltration. We have shed tears (or not) over the fraying of our relationships with friends and family members of differing political views. But at least it’s over now.

Except it is really isn’t.

True enough, this campaign season has reached its end. Voters have cast their ballots, and one candidate has obtained the required 270 electoral votes. The people of the United States have spoken, and Donald J. Trump will be our next president. Nonetheless, the conclusion of this presidential election has no more resolved the political and social tensions that flared over the past two years than Barack Obama’s election ended racism. To be sure, Obama’s election symbolized the major strides African-Americans have made in the march toward equal rights, but social ills like racism are never jettisoned all at once like spoiled food that has reached its expiration date. Prejudices linger in communities and individual hearts even after society as a whole seems to have declared them unacceptable. Indeed, we have seen the ugly persistence of racism in this election as we have surging fears about terrorism, immigration, job security, police brutality, and domestic crime.

It’s true, now that a president-elect has emerged, we won’t see candidates caustically debating these issues in the national spotlight, and the receding of the election-year furor might make it seem that these problems have abated. But that will be an illusion. Although some politicians have stoked Americans’ fears in order to serve their personal advancement, for the most part the presidential candidates merely embodied and amplified the tensions present within our communities and within each of us. We detest the candidates’ quibbling and the ceaseless parade of attack ads because they put our differences and frustrations constantly before our eyes. We should lament that these divisions exist at all. And we should be very conscious of the fact that, after the spotlights and microphones have been rolled away and the echoes of all the campaign speeches have faded, those tensions will continue to fester in the darkened corners of town halls and American homes.

Those who flocked to Trump as America’s savior will soon discover that extreme vetting of immigrants, higher tariffs, and a wall along our southern border won’t fix our nation’s biggest problems. Clinton’s policies would not have been able to fix them either. Although good legislation can bring about significant improvements to society, wounds of the sort afflicting our nation cannot be healed by civil laws and government programs. Likewise, no president, for all his power, can mandate the things that beget real social progress, namely, mutual trust, justice, and compassion.

Rather, these virtues and values and the social transformation they catalyze arise from a converted heart. To offer an example from the not-so-distant past, Martin Luther King and those who stood with him began their crusade for justice by searching their own hearts and purifying their intentions. They did so so that when they encountered opposition—even violent opposition—they would be able to respond to their antagonists with the love and respect they demanded for themselves. The Civil Rights Act made racial equality the law of the land, but long before it was signed into effect equality had become the law in many Americans’ hearts. Such a change of heart does not occur instantaneously, and it certainly doesn’t occur in the midst of a mudslinging contest. As Thomas the Apostle learned, conversion occurs when we recognize the wounds of others and are willing to admit our own woundedness.

The fears and prejudices that marred the 2016 presidential election are still with us, and they will remain with us unless we, the citizens of this country, are willing to recognize the wounds of others and to bare our own wounds in turn. Most likely we will not find each other’s wounds attractive—our suspicions of politicians and police, our prejudices toward people with different skin tones, our anxieties about those who speak a foreign tongue. And yet recognize these wounds we must.

To quote the poet Rumi, “the wound is the place where the light enters you.” If we are to grow stronger and more unified as a nation, we must shed light on our wounds rather than papering them over with scapegoating and political conquests. In order to acknowledge the wounds of others we must be in contact with them. Speaking concretely, that means re-friending the person you unfriended on Facebook when you couldn’t stand their posts anymore. Better yet, it means spending time together because punchy Facebook posts are even less conducive to mutual understanding than are the sensationalized media reports and debates that shape modern elections. If the discord is ever to reach a definitive end and not merely slip back below the surface, we need to spend time in each other’s presence, talk to one another, and break bread with one another. Otherwise the next election will be just as ugly as the last.


An Election Time Parable

In a time when Jesus’ nation was marred by bitter political and religious divisions, when Jews and Samaritans regarded each other with mutual distrust and disdain, he told a famous parable. Were he to tell a similar parable today, it might go something like this:

(If you identify as a Democrat, read the text as written. If Republican, read the parentheticals instead.)

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A Democratic [or Republican] voter was going down from D.C. to his polling site in Bethesda to cast his ballot, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a Democratic [or Republican] senator was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Democratic [or Republican] representative, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Trump supporter [or Clinton supporter] while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having applied Bacitracin to them. Then he put him in the leather passenger seat of his own car, brought him to a hotel, took care of him, and arranged for an absentee ballot. The next day he paid the concierge for an additional two nights’ stay, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor and countryman to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’*

* Based on Luke 10:25-37.


Renewing Gratitude: Work

I am lucky to have a job, and, boy, do I know it.

Being an academic can be a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing insofar as I am able to earn my livelihood doing something I love, namely, studying and teaching theology. It is a curse insofar as I am only able to earn a living this way if someone is willing to hire me to do it, and that is a big “if” these days. Due to the economic downturn and a generation of professors who have forestalled retirement longer than expected, hundreds of PhDs are often competing for a single position. I was fortunate to find a job after only two years on the market. However, many of my peers, including some brilliant people from the country’s best programs, have been looking for jobs for three or four years.

How you react to this last sentence likely depends on your own work history. If you have been blessed with steady employment all your life, you may read these lines and think benignly, “Yes, what a pity.” If you have ever endured a period of unemployment, however, you are likely to have a very different, much more visceral reaction. You may experience a resurgence of anxiety because for you “unemployment” is not just a sterile economic term typically followed by some percentage that doesn’t mean much to you. Rather the word is packed with terrible meaning and memories—long hours working on resumes and applications, the stress of being constantly scrutinized, the frustration of being turned down or ignored, the constant worry of whether you would be able to pay the next month’s bills.

Obviously academics are not the only ones who endure the tribulations of unemployment. Today roughly one in 20 Americans (4.9%) is unemployed. At the peak of the Great Recession in 2009 it was one in ten. And we are the lucky ones. American unemployment rates are typically lower than rates of unemployment worldwide and much lower than many other countries. France has an unemployment rate of 9.9%. Ireland’s unemployment is currently at 11.6%. Spain’s is 24.7%.

Sobering as these statistics are, they give those of us with jobs ample reason to be grateful for steady employment. However, just because jobs are at a premium does not mean that workers should have to compromise their human dignity in order to hold on to a job. Sadly, this is sometimes the case. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, there are service industry professionals like waiters who have to put up with demeaning treatment from customers and managers because standing up for themselves might mean losing their job. On the other end of the spectrum are the thousands of Syrian child refugees in Turkey who are currently being exploited for cheap labor because they do not enjoy the same legal protections as citizens and adults. Although the degree of grievousness varies, both cases represent a violation of the dignity of human labor.

From the beginning, God bestowed upon human beings a vocation to work and deemed their work good (see Gen 2:15). Jesus reiterated the sanctity of work by drawing upon examples of human work—fishing, farming, baking, etc.—to teach people about the reign of God. The Church has continued to affirm the goodness and dignity of human work in modern Catholic Social Teaching. Pope John Paul II, for example, wrote in Laborem Exercens that “the fundamental value of work… is bound up with the dignity of the human person” (no. 23).

It is difficult to fully appreciate the inherent dignity of human work and the dignity that work gives to human beings until one is deprived of that dignity. Anyone who has sat idle while peers go off to work, failed to pay bills, or been treated with disdain while collecting unemployment benefits knows the shame and indignity that comes with being unable to work.

In this way Church teaching affirms what we know from lived experience—human work has great dignity and worth. Of course, our work is easy to take for granted when it is secure. It can easily become one of the most routine aspects of our lives and even a source of frustration when annoying tasks or difficulty coworkers are part of the routine. But when we are deprived of work or compassionately consider the lot of others who are unemployed, we are reminded what a gift it is to be able to work. This gratitude can bear fruit in the form of greater enjoyment in the work that we do, and, if we are true to our Christian faith, it should also bear fruit in appreciation for those who serve our food, kindness to our coworkers, and defense of our society’s most vulnerable workers.

 


Renewing Gratitude: Health

This past week our seven-month old baby had her first experience with the common cold. I suppose it was inevitable she would get sick following two days of sitting in bustling airport terminals and breathing recycled airplane air. And, of course, once little Emily caught the bug, it was only a matter of time before she passed it on to us. Still, whatever suffering we endured personally on account of our sore throats and congested noses was nothing compared with the suffering we endured empathetically every time we heard that coarse little cough erupt from our baby’s tiny frame.

Over the years I have cultivated the habit of giving thanks for my health whenever I get sick. It may seem ironic to give thanks for health in the midst of one’s sickness, but the truth of the matter is that we never appreciate health so much as when it eludes us. On second thought, as a new parent I would say that we never appreciate health so much as when it eludes our loved ones. When my little girl is sick and I am helpless to alleviate her suffering, there is nothing I want more than for her to be healthy again. When she recovers, there is no greater relief.

Now, just to keep things in perspective, I am talking about a cold here. As someone who has generally been blessed with good health for myself and my family, I cannot even imagine the anguish endured by a mother whose child is infected with Zika or by someone living with a chronic illness like Parkinson’s. Nor can I fathom the relief and gratitude of the parent whose child has recovered from a life-threatening illness or accident. Based on my own limited encounters with suffering and illness, I can only imagine that gratitude to be tremendous.

We gain new appreciation for Jesus’ healing miracles when we reflect on them with our own health and illness in mind. Healings (of the blind, the lame, the dead) were one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry, a sign that the reign of God had drawn near. Consider Jesus’ healing of the man at the pool of Beth-zatha (Jn 5:1-9). This man had been ill for 38 years and harbored little hope for regaining the use of his legs. Imagine the surge of gratitude and relief he must have felt when, for the first time in almost four decades, he stood up on his own power. One has to think that his devotion to Jesus was intense after this event. Indeed, this seems always to be the point of Jesus’ healing miracles. The healing is an invitation to deeper relationship with the God who heals. Jesus heals the body, not for its own sake, but for the sake of healing the soul.

As Christians, we strive to imitate Jesus in bringing others closer to God, to share with others the gift of love that we ourselves received. Obviously we are limited insofar as none of us can make the lame walk or raise the dead with a simple touch or word as Jesus did. Still, each of us does possess the power to heal in some way, however small. That power also entails responsibility. It is good that occasional illnesses prompt me to thank God for my health. It would be even better if my gratitude prompted me to work for the healing of others so that they too might share this sense of joy and gratitude to God.

There is no shortage of opportunities for healing in our world: Every 60 seconds a child dies from malaria. 36.9 million people around the world are currently living with HIV/AIDS, half of whom do not know they are infected. 14.8 million of our fellow Americans suffer from depression. The sickness present in the world can seem overwhelming when we quantify it in large numbers like these, but it is important not to underestimate the impact one healing touch can have. Every epidemic is overcome by healing one person at a time.

Although none of us can heal the whole world ourselves, each of us can do something to bring healing to another person: We can bring soup to a sick friend. We can care for an aging parent. We can get trained in CPR so that we are ready to help a fellow human being in a moment of emergency. We can vote for policies and representatives that will make quality health care available to everyone who needs it. We can click here to donate $10 for a net that will protect a family from malaria-carrying mosquitos.

We all know the feeling of gratitude when a sickness finally lifts. Unfortunately, too few of us know the joy of letting God’s healing power work through us. It is good to be one of the grateful healed. It is even better to be a grateful healer.


Renewing Gratitude: Food

One of the weekly chores that my wife and I most dislike is coming up with ideas for meals. How nice it would be for someone to plan the week’s menu for us and spare us this mental exertion. As it happens, my cousin was for a time employed by a wealthy family to do just that. She didn’t even have to cook the meals! Although I recognize that employing someone for this sole purpose is rather extravagant, I wish I could do it nonetheless. Alas, people of modest means that we are, my wife and I are resigned to enduring the drudgery of planning our own meals indefinitely.

I know that others share my sentiment. In his 2006 TED Talk, psychologist Barry Schwartz describes what he call the “paradox of choice”: A basic assumption in Western industrialized nations is that people will be happier the more freedom they have, freedom being equated here with choice. So in the United States we can go to the grocery store and choose from among 175 different salad dressings. However, Schwartz explains, this assumption has proven erroneous. Although people like the idea of having options, the reality is that too many options results in (a) paralysis when it comes time to actually make the decision and (b) dissatisfaction with the choice one ends up making. Because we have so many options, we end up second guessing ourselves and thinking about the other salad dressings we could have had. (As it turns out, people are most satisfied when choosing from among six to ten salad dressings.)

So it would seem that my dislike of menu planning derives from the fact that I have too many options. As an American with a steady source of income, my options for the week’s dining are virtually unlimited. And apparently, rather than experiencing exuberance at my good fortune, I find this frustrating. That’s kind of messed up.

The choice paradox offers yet another illustration of how crucial gratitude is for our happiness. It is never the object itself—in this case food—that determines my satisfaction. Much more important is my attitude toward the food. Although I personally am fortunate to have lived my whole life in a food-secure environment, I have had several experiences that persist in my memory as living proof of how much attitude matters. For the month that I was hiking el Camino de Santiago across Spain, I never knew where my food would come from one day to the next. One day I might end up drinking wine and sampling local delicacies in a big city like Pamplona or Leon. The next I might be begging a piece of bread from a fellow pilgrim. In these circumstances where I never knew what to expect and could take nothing for granted, a piece of bread, an apple, a drink of water never tasted so good.

Yet this was an anomalous experience in my life. I, like many others in the industrialized world, take food for granted most of the time because it is so rare that food is unavailable to me. Yet this is not the case for everyone. 795 million people in the world (that’s one in nine people) do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five worldwide. Right here in the United States 48.1 million people live in food insecure homes, accounting for 14 percent of all American households. It is troubling to think that so many go hungry while a few of us have so much food that it actually causes us frustration. The thought makes us feel ashamed, so we don’t think about it. But we fortunate few would likely appreciate what we have if we gave thought to those without more often.

Of course, we Christians have in the Eucharist another resource for fostering gratitude for food. Food is not only the source of life; it is also potentially a source of fellowship and joy. When we receive food as a gift, as we do in the Eucharist, it elicits these feelings of love, gratitude, and joy. The Eucharist, through its ritualized presentation and consumption of bread and wine, encourages us to pause and think about these gifts that we are receiving. Fasting beforehand also heightens our awareness of the value of the sacred meal in which we will soon participate.

The Eucharist thus suggests a pattern that can be applied to every day in order to cultivate greater gratitude for food: Occasionally fasting from my usual Starbucks or making a point to have one very simple meal a week can heighten my enjoyment of the food I would otherwise take for granted. Pausing to offer a heartfelt grace before meals can have a similar effect. Perhaps most importantly, the Eucharist teaches us not only to give thanks for the heavenly food God provides us but also to go out and be bread for the world. In so doing feed, we not only feed the needs of the world (physical and spiritual); we also amplify our appreciation for what we have.