The Plight of the Modern Person

We live in a culture that is permeated by a critical mindset – one that reduces reality to what can be seen and measured and human flourishing to career success and material acquisition. In such a culture, religion is often dismissed and looked down upon. In this video, I discuss the experience of the many people who yearn for something more but feel they can’t believe in the religion of their youth and don’t know where else to find meaning for their life:

Sowing the Seeds of Eternity

It was while reading a bedtime story one night that journalist and TED Talk presenter Carl Honoré realized that he had lost his grip on time. He was skipping pages of the story in order to get back to work more quickly, and his son, who knew every word by heart, was having none of it. What should have been the best moment of his day had devolved into a nightly battle for no reason other than the fact that he felt short on time.

I can’t recall if I ever had this kind of make-or-break moment, but I can name dozens of smaller incidents, each a symptom of an unhealthy attitude toward time: avoiding colleagues in the hallway because I couldn’t afford to get into a conversation, compulsively calculating the fastest route whenever I walked across campus, not being able to remember the last time I ate dinner without simultaneously doing work. The cumulative effect of these many troubling moments was the stark realization that I was losing some kind of battle with time and that something had to change before I blew an artery or lost my mind.

I strongly suspect that Honoré and I are not the only ones who struggle with time. For most of us, there never seems to be enough of it. Now that summer has officially arrived and many are taking time off for vacation, it seems an appropriate moment to reevaluate our relationship with time.

In retrospect, I see that my real problem was not so much that I was losing a battle with time. Rather the problem was that I was (and sometimes still am) mentally boxed in by a certain way of thinking about time. Martin Heidegger famously wrote, “Language is the house of being.” There are few better examples of what he meant than our accustomed language about time. Phrases like “time is money,” “time is running out,” and “working against the clock” roll fluidly off our tongues. At the root of these phrases is the same metaphor – time as a finite resource. Thinking and speaking of time in these terms has a tangible impact on our day-to-day living. Because we think of time as a limited commodity, we obsessively track it, hoard it, and deny it to others. We avoid people in the hallways and skip pages when reading bedtime stories to our children.

Everyone I have ever met feels discontent with this state of affairs, and now, thanks to researchers like Matt Killingsworth, we have scientific evidence verifying our intuitions of just how detrimental this race-against-the-clock mentality is to our happiness. Having analyzed 650,000 real-time reports on the daily lives of 15,000 people, Killingsworth observed that “mind wandering” (thinking about something other than what one is presently doing) makes people less happy than if they were present to the moment, regardless of what they happen to be doing. This is precisely what hyperactive time consciousness does to us. Because we are always calculating how long this meeting will take or how much time that detour will cost us, we are seldom able to enjoy the present moment.

So it would seem that, when it comes to time, the linguistic house we built for ourselves has become a prison. The good news is that we are the ones who built this house. We can tear it down and build anew. Read More

Hope and Wisdom Prevail at Princeton Conference on Forced Migration

Who is the refugee? Who do I recognize myself to be when confronted with the refugee? How does the politicization of refugees hurt and help them? What responsibility do faith communities have to respond to this crisis? What concretely can we do to respond? These are a few of the burning questions tackled earlier this month at an international gathering of scholars, students, and representatives from the US State Department, the United Nations, and various charities, human rights groups, and faith communities convened by the Princeton University Office of Religious Life and the Community of Sant’Egidio.

The gathering’s panels and roundtable discussions ranged from topics including gender and migration, global citizenship in an era of nationalism, the religious experiences of refugees, the media and migration, and many more. In contrast with popular media coverage of immigration issues, which can often be sensationalist and fleeting, these conversations probed deeply into the history, causes, and long-term implications of the present refugee crisis. Some participants, like Jane Bloom of the International Catholic Migration Commission, pointed out that migration was a fraught issue long before Donald Trump issued his bombshell executive order. How will these new arrivals impact US security, economics, and culture? How does accepting refugees affect relations with their nations of origin? These are the questions that every administration has to navigate in the course of fulfilling its duty to protect American interests and sovereignty.

In another sense, however, the current crisis reflects an even older problem—as old as human society itself. Recent efforts to label refugees as a threat to national security or an economic burden are just one manifestation of humans’ psychological impulse to project internal conflict outward onto others and to “otherize” fellow human beings in response to the experience of fear and anxiety. At its roots, the current resistance to refugees is not just about terrorist attacks and tax dollars. More fundamentally it is a test of our ability to respond reasonably and compassionately in the face of our inner fears and anxieties.

While conference participants clearly recognized the staggering challenges and complexity of the refugee crisis, their conversations did not devolve into despairing or unproductive hand wringing. Far from it, this well-informed and highly motivated group of people reported how their institutions have sprung into action to meet the crisis head-on and identified additional steps that need to be taken. One basic measure that numerous presenters emphasized is educating the public about refugees in order to combat the stereotypes, misconceptions, and “alternative facts” that perpetuate fears about this vulnerable and diverse group of people. For example, contrary to many Americans’ belief that accepting refugees exposes the country to greater risks of violence, studies show that immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than the general US population (and probably less so). Read More

We Are All Refugees…Some of Us Just Don’t Know It

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My wife and I are one month away from being homeless…at least we thought we might be until yesterday. We are currently in the process of buying a house, and everything was moving along smoothly until the inspector discovered an abandoned oil tank under the driveway. If it turned out that the tank had leaks, it would require extensive cleanup that could take months, even a year or more. That would be a big problem since our landlord has already rented our apartment to a new tenant starting April 1. Fortunately for us, it turned out that the tank had no leaks, so our family’s brush with temporary homelessness will materialize into nothing more than that.

A momentary scare like this one tends to make one very grateful for the roof over one’s head. Even more significantly, Margaret and I are very much aware that we will soon have the privilege of moving into a home of our own at the very moment that we are witnessing a worldwide migrant crisis. Millions of people have been displaced not only from their homes but also their homelands by violent conflict, religious persecution, and economic hardship. This is a heart-wrenching backdrop to a joyful moment in our lives. How is a socially conscious, soon-to-be-homeowner Catholic to feel about all this?

A big reason that we are excited about finally having a home to call our own is that this means having a home to share with others. Margaret and I love to host. For me a dinner party with good friends is an image and foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, an analogy that Jesus himself drew frequently (see Mt 22:1-14; 25:5-15; Lk 12:31-41). From the time of our engagement, we have talked talked about our hopes that our home would be a place where neighbors would congregate, where our kids’ friends would stick around for dinner, where people would know they always have a place to stay. We have hoped that when we had a house one day, we would be able to open our doors to those in need as our parents have done.

Perhaps it is because all things house-related are consuming my thoughts these days that I was so impacted by a line I recently read in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book How to Love. The Zen Master writes, “As you practice building a home in yourself, you become more and more beautiful.” This idea of building a home, not just around oneself, but within oneself strikes me as profoundly important, especially given the current state of world affairs. My wife and I will soon have a new home that we can open up to others. However, a brick-and-mortar house is not a prerequisite for hospitality. Each of us is a home unto ourselves, or at least we can be if we commit to the necessary interior work. (How much time most of us spend selecting wallpaper and manicuring the lawn and how little time getting our spiritual house in order!) All that we need to feel at home and to make others feel the same—namely, love—is with us wherever we go. Even for those who have been driven from their dwelling places, a kind word or a cup of tea extended in friendship can be all they need to feel a sense of home again.

In this sense hospitality is not the sole prerogative of the well-to-do or even average homeowners; it is a mandate of faith for all Christians. Few commands are repeated more often throughout the pages of the Bible than that of caring for strangers or aliens. (See a sampling here.) Jesus affirms this key tenet of faith by identifying with the homeless and the stranger: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mt 8:15-25). Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus lay out the criteria for entering God’s kingdom more explicitly than in Matthew 25 where he says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:34-35). Scripture leaves no room for excuses on this score. We are all bound to care for the strangers in our midst. Here Jesus does not require something we cannot give. We may not all own houses, but we all have hearts. Therefore, we all have the capacity to welcome others into that inner space that constitutes a home in the deepest sense of the word. Read More

A Humble, Transformative Life Remembered


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.