They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life, and Faith

A couple weeks ago David Brooks wrote an astonishingly un-self-aware column in which he dismissed those who wrote college essays entitled “I Went to Panama to Teach the Natives About Math but They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life.”  At the risk of drawing Mr. Brooks’ contempt, this is one such blog post.

My story begins two years ago, during a winter that was sadly short on snow but heavy on politics.  I was a new volunteer with Youth Enrichment Services, an organization that, among other things, takes low-income kids out of Boston and teaches them to ski in the  mountains around New England.  The season begins each year with a weekend in which professionals teach volunteers how to become a ski instructors.

As it happened, my training weekend coincided with the final days of the New Hampshire primary, and the Ron Paul campaign was staying at our hotel.  When I went down for breakfast Saturday morning, I noticed his son Rand Paul sitting all by himself.  I have never been accused of being shy, so I approached the Kentucky senator and asked if I could join him.  I’m certain he wanted to tell me to get lost, but his father’s name was on the ballot just a few days later, and so he graciously agreed.

I’ve told that story a few times since, and most recently last weekend while on the bus with another group of kids from Cristo Rey Boston High School.  Sitting next to me was the fulltime AmeriCorps volunteer at the school who organized the trip.  While getting suited up in the lodge, it occurred to me that the state from which she originally hailed had some very prominent citizens with the same last name.  I listed a couple of them, and asked if she was related.

Low and behold, the girl I was regaling with my story about breakfast with a United States Senator was the daughter of one.  She had eaten at the White House with the president of the United States, so my sharing some stale French toast sticks with a junior senator in the lobby of a Hampton Inn didn’t impress her much.  I felt a bit sheepish, but had I not made the connection on my own I’m sure she never would have told me.

Her co-worker in the seat behind us was apparently laughing at me while I told the story, but he didn’t know that her father serves in the Senate until recently either.  Having lived in Washington D.C. for four years I know the propensity of many there to drop names, so not only did I get a healthy serving of humble pie, I saw her model the virtue of humility beautifully.

When we got back at the end of the day, this same co-worker (also a volunteer, but with the Urban Catholic Teacher Corps) announced to the kids that he was going to Mass at a parish up the street, and invited them all to join him.  Not only did he give the time and address, however, he really talked up the Mass.  I was planning on going to my home parish and hoping to get there in time to catch the Gospel, but after listening to him I was sold.  As I was soon to find out, he wasn’t lying when he said how good it would be.

The priest was phenomenal, if long-winded. The music was great, and the pews were full of college students and young adults who were reading—and even singing!—along.  It was a great experience, and I think I may have found what I recently said I was looking for in a faith community.   My big takeaway from the affair, however, was the witness of this teacher on the bus and the way he evangelized his students.  I was the only one who took him up on the offer, but every one of those kids saw a young, attractive, fun guy who was letting his candle shine brightly and spreading the joy of the Gospel.

I got up that morning expecting to teach a group of city kids how to ski.  To use Brooks’ cliché title, I ended up learning far more.  I joked with the students that I was the greatest ski instructor they ever had.  As I am the only ski instructor they’ve ever had, it was technically true.  By the end of the day, however, it was clear to me that whatever I may have done for these kids pales in comparison to what these teachers do for them every day, even on Sundays when they are not in school.

The Audacity of a Child of God

The little boy who “stole the show” from Pope Francis during his address to families in Vatican Square a little over a week ago has become a worldwide sensation. The child somehow managed to get on stage and wandered right up to the Holy Father during the ceremonies. Despite multiple efforts by aides to shoo him away, the boy stuck close to the pope’s side as he began his address, and even made himself at home in the papal chair.

The child was clearly drawn to Pope Francis (then again, who isn’t?), and his determination to stick by him no matter what led to some pretty hilarious moments, duly captured by news cameras and immortalized in a very sweet Buzzfeed column. Yet there is something in this whole scenario that goes deeper than mere “cuteness.” The boy wasn’t just adorable, he was bold. He had absolute, unshakeable confidence that he had every right to be on that stage next to the pope, despite anything the aides might do to coax him away.

A spiritual director of mine once told me that the mature Christian has to have audacity – “the audacity of a child of God.” Watching video footage of that child clinging to the pope’s knees, I understood for the first time what those words really mean.

It was clear not just in the little boy’s actions, but even more so in the Holy Father’s loving response. He patted the child’s head and smiled, and he let him stay close to him throughout his address and greetings, even though it was probably a bit of a nuisance. In other words, he accepted him. The boy was able to be audacious precisely because he knew he would not be rejected.

And it struck me as I watched the footage: this is the way the Christian is supposed to approach God.

Audacity is not mere courage or recklessness; it is certainly not pride. On the contrary, it takes deep humility to be truly audacious. We grown-ups can fall into thinking of the Christian life in terms of fear, obedience, and rigid perfectionism. We just want to rid ourselves of our woundedness and imperfections, and we think we have to shed them before we can get anywhere near God. So we keep our distance. Maybe we think we’re being respectful; in reality, we are terrified of rejection, or of disappointing or even annoying God – as if that were possible.

We forget that, like St. Paul, we ought to “boast in our weakness.” This does not mean that we shrug our shoulders at our sins, but that we recognize our utter need for God’s grace in order to overcome them, in all circumstances. Christ loves us as we are, and he wants us to come to him now, with all of our weaknesses. After all, how can he help us overcome them if we are too proud to go near him? Yet we ignore the crux of Christ’s message, or perhaps we think we’ve outgrown it. We forget that the God-man who cries, “Let the little children come unto me,” also insists, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus has no interest in our posturing, our self-deprecation, our insistence that we’ve got everything under control and we don’t want to be a bother. This God of ours wants us to accept our own neediness, and to love him boldly, even shamelessly, in spite of it. He wants us to leave aside all of our concerns about what people might think, to grab him by the knees and hold on even when all the wiser, more respectable people around us try to convince us to let go and leave him alone.

He wants to gather us together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” It takes the audacity of a child to believe in that kind of love, and to believe in it so deeply that you’ll march right up and take it. The little boy in St. Peter’s Square has no idea, but he’s provided the world with a beautiful model of the Christian life. At the end of the day, we’re just supposed to strive to become like that little child, and so inherit the kingdom of God.

Mary Beth Baker is a writer in the Washington, D.C. area. She blogs at Life in the Gap.

Hopeful Sinners

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Why did Pope Francis, who is known for his vivacity and joy, identify himself first and foremost as a sinner when asked to describe himself? And why did he return to this theme earlier today on twitter, where he reminded us that “we are all sinners”?

There is always a temptation, perhaps stronger in those of us who have a personality type prone to perfectionism, to hope for some way to wipe away our past mistakes and sins, to somehow rewrite history, so that we might have moral purity, moral perfection. We might try to justify past sins by placing them within a certain context. We might hide them from others. We might try to overturn the harm we have done to others by acts of repentance or restitution. We might pray to God to erase sins from our memory so that they will no longer blight our self-image and derail our quest for flawlessness.

In all of this is the desire to shed sins, a worthy goal. But if it is not centered in the desire for communion with God and others, it can trespass into the realm of idol worship, treating oneself as an object to be carved into the image of perfection we imagine. And we see ourselves as the artists, chiseling away, shaping our own perfection.

But when we accept reality, it becomes clear that we are sinners. Seeing ourselves as sinners means recognizing our total dependence on God and that redemption is only possible because of the radical love of Christ. We can resist sin, but we inevitably stumble. We might adhere to every law, but we inevitably fail to incessantly choose love. As we grow older, it becomes more and more clear that we cannot erase the consequences of our past errors through our individual actions alone.

We can only turn to God for forgiveness, for mercy. I have heard many people explain how they will certainly go to heaven (“if it exists”), thanks to the fact that they’re not a “bad” person. They felt satisfied with, and justified by, their moral mediocrity.

Yet the saints I have learned about seem to emphasize the opposite: their unworthiness to live in the presence of God. Those who seem morally perfect to the outside world recognize and regret the times they have turned away from God and love. They strive for righteousness, but accept the brokenness of their condition.

They recognize that only God can remedy the injustice, disharmony, and division caused by freely-chosen sin. They come to fully understand the centrality of grace. And it helps them to escape the traps of legalism and moral arrogance.

These saints live in reality. They see who they really are. And Pope Francis seems to do the same. Meghan Clark argues that Francis displays what appears to be a “radical self-awareness.”

To recognize oneself as a sinner is not to proclaim the depravity of man, but the human person’s fundamental need for God and God’s mercy. This recognition is essential for the self-reflection that must accompany authentic efforts to follow the Way of Christ and help build the Kingdom of God.

A spiritual humanism that inspires our pursuit of the common good and our own full development as persons, which is open to the transcendent and recognizes our capacity for good while also accepting the reality of sin, is capable of avoiding both the dangerous hubris that is fostered by a naive belief in the perfectibility of man and the perilous cynicism or nihilism that logically follows from the belief that we live in a strictly material universe. In living this humanism, this personalism, we see others as they are—as persons. As Bishop James Conley recently explained, “When we acknowledge our common sinfulness and our common call to holiness, it becomes easier to see one another, not as objects, but as brothers and sisters in need of support, and encouragement, and solidarity with one another.”

We are sinners. We cannot achieve salvation alone. Only by living in reality and accepting God’s grace and love as sinners can we inch closer toward communion and realize our full potential as persons. And ultimately, while our faith drives us to eradicate all injustice, these good works must be joined by grace in order for us to have eternal life.

We are sinners, but we are hopeful. We hope that our acts of mercy and love, our pursuit of justice and the common good will not be undone by our sins or disappear over time, but will reach their full fruition when we are united through God’s transformative love. We are hopeful because Christ did not come to collect the perfect who are in no need of redemption, but to show sinners the path to God and to carry us when we can walk no more.

Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Put Social Justice Back in the Social Contract by Tiziana Dearing: “We desperately need problem-solving rooted in the principles of human dignity and ‘right relationships’ today. And we need to teach people that using social justice in our policies should not be something special. It should be baseline.”

Your Annual Reminder to Ignore the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings John Tierney: “Dupes fork over their hard-earned money for the rankings to see how their kid (and, thus, they themselves!) stack up against the kid down the street. Ha! Sweetie, did you see that Bowdoin is ranked 20 spots higher than Oberlin?! Ah, the smug satisfaction and inner glow that come from having bested the Joneses. No matter how ludicrous that ‘besting’ is.”

Liberation theology finds new welcome in Pope Francis’ Vatican by RNS: “Francis, who has called for ‘a poor church for the poor,’ will meet in the next few days with the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian and scholar who is considered the founder of liberation theology.”

Congolese bishop says he hopes international pressure helps his country by Francis Njuguna, Catholic News Service: “A bishop from eastern Congo said people in the area continue to suffer from an ongoing government-rebel conflict, and he hoped pressure from the international community would help relieve the situation.”

Mindlessly Gutting Food Stamps by NY Times: “Instead of providing aid for the hungry, House Republicans want to reduce the food stamp program — the most basic part of the social safety net — with $40 billion in cuts across the next decade.”

The Paradoxical Commandments by Paul Brian Campbell, SJ: “A version of the commandments below became famous because they were on the wall of one of Mother Teresa’s homes in Calcutta, but the original — part of a booklet for student leaders — was composed by Kent M. Keith in 1968. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway…”

Pursuing the Dream by John Carr: “Pope Francis’ new leadership and example offer a way forward. He calls us to get out of ourselves and our ecclesial corners and into ‘the streets.’ Pope Francis also has a dream, ‘a church which is poor and for the poor.’ If we truly pursue Francis’ dream, it will help realize Dr. King’s dream as well.”

No Child Should Die Of Things We Can Prevent by Caryl Stern: “More than two decades ago, UNICEF had a crazy idea: Focus on simple solutions, and you’ll save millions of children. Immunize them, so they don’t get diseases we know how to prevent. Encourage their mothers to breastfeed. Monitor their growth, so we know if they’re malnourished. Get them insecticide-treated mosquito nets, so they don’t get malaria. If they get diarrhea, give them an inexpensive solution of salts and sugars that will prevent them from dying of dehydration. It worked. Since 1990, 90 million children have survived because they had access to such simple, life-saving solutions, according to a new report released today by UNICEF…Those are heartening numbers, but they’re clearly not enough.”

Hannah Arendt, Augustinian by Fr. Robert Barron: “The great moral lesson — articulated by both Augustine and Hannah Arendt — is that we must refuse to be beguiled by the glittering banality of wickedness and we must consistently choose the substance over the shadow.”

Mikhail Gorbachev admits he is a Christian by Malcolm Moore: “Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Communist leader of the Soviet Union, has acknowledged his Christian faith for the first time, paying a surprise visit to pray at the tomb of St Francis of Assisi.”

Meanwhile, in the Refugee Crisis by Gershom Gorenberg: “Whether or not the United States uses arms in Syria, it needs to use money and visas to relieve suffering.”

Forgetting Ourselves Completely by Matthew Warner, The Radical Life: “So humility is not really thinking less of yourself as much as it’s thinking of yourself less. We live in a culture that celebrates, encourages and applauds shameless selfishness, self-absorption and individualism. The antidote is genuine humility.”

Happy Feast of the Assumption: Close-Reading the Magnificat

Today is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which you can read all about here. To celebrate our awesome mother, I’m going to take a close look at today’s Gospel reading, which includes the Magnificat – my favorite Scripture passage.

Some context: In Luke’s gospel, after Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her she is going to be the Mother of God, Mary travels to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. Turns out Elizabeth is also expecting (John the Baptist — impressive family), despite her old age. Elizabeth comforts her cousin, and confirms that Mary’s encounter with the angel was not a crazy dream. Relieved and emboldened, Mary offers a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.

Let’s jump in:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;

Some English versions translate this line as “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (The prayer gets its name from its first word in Latin: Magnificat.) I love this idea. I picture Mary holding up a huge magnifying glass. When we approach her, we get a closer look at what God is like. Also, the glass shoots divine light off in every direction, illuminating the Earth with God’s love. We all know those people who seem to magnify the Lord by their lives — by their kindness, gentleness, humor, energy, or depth of their commitment to the Gospel. When the journey of faith is particularly challenging for me, I seek out time to chat with those people. Not because they can give me every answer to every difficult faith question, but because their example inspires me to keep going. If he or she wants to be about this stuff, so do I — even when it’d be easier to give up.

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his Name.

True humility is not playing small or deflecting praise whenever it comes. Instead, humility is awareness of both the gifts and shortcomings you have; it’s a realization that you are a blessed, unique child of God who didn’t do anything to earn the gifts you’ve been given. In these lines of the Magnificat, Mary acknowledges that God has chosen her for an extremely important task. But she also says that she will have to depend on God to guide her through her big-time vocation. Her humility is a great example for us.

He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.

I’ve been reflecting on God’s mercy recently in light of Pope Francis’ special emphasis on the concept. He is plugged in to Mary’s idea that God’s mercy is available in any age to those who seek God with open hearts.

From his press conference on the plane back to Italy from World Youth Day, in response to a question about divorced and remarried Catholics, Pope Francis talked about our own time as an age in particular need of God’s mercy:

Mercy is a larger theme than the question you raise [divorced and remarried Catholics]. I believe this is the time of mercy. This change of epoch, also because of many problems of the church — such as the example of some priests who aren’t good, also the problems of corruption in the church — and also the problem of clericalism, for example, has left many wounds, many wounds. The church is a mother: It must reach out to heal the wounds, yes? With mercy. If the Lord never tires of forgiving, we don’t have any other path than this one: before anything else, curing the wounds, yes? It’s a mother, the church, and it must go down this path of mercy. It must find mercy for everyone, no? I think about how when the Prodigal Son returned home, his father didn’t say: ‘But you, listen, sit down. What did you do with the money?’ No, he held a party. Then, maybe, when the son wanted to talk, he talked. The church must do the same. When there’s someone … but, it’s not enough to wait for them: We must go and seek them. This is mercy.

He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.

Mary has an intimate relationship with God that predates Gabriel’s announcement. The Magnificat itself echoes the Song of Hannah from the Books of Samuel — Scripture Mary knew deeply and used to frame her own song to God. So when Mary starts describing what God is like here, it’d be smart to pay close attention. This section starts by describing God’s strength, and what he does with that strength.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

Mary uses stark contrasts to describe what God’s mercy and power look like. Mighty: Down. Lowly: Up. Hungry: Filled. Rich: Empty. God is a threat to those who proudly lord it over others. So subversive is this line that public recitation of the Magnificat was banned by the authoritarian Guatemalan government in the 1980s. At the same time, God has a special care for the weak and vulnerable. His action in the world is simultaneously disbanding and uplifting.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.

The biggest word here is promise, which is repeated in consecutive lines. Mary is recalling the covenant relationship God established and renewed with Israel throughout Hebrew Scriptures, and places herself in that tradition. God promises Mary (and us) he is present, and empowers her (and us) to use our gifts to change the world.

On this Feast of the Assumption, may Mary’s prayer inspire us to pray with conviction, to practice humility, and to work for a more just world.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.