Rise/n

It has been just over a year since our world started to unravel. Everything that was familiar became strange and the strange became familiar: types of masks, remote work/learning, and daily lessons on immunology and hygienic practices. While we reminisce about what our world used to be like, we also ponder what will be. The period of Holy Week echoes this sentiment as it begins and concludes with joyful events. First, the entry into Jerusalem with palms, a sign of victory; then the empty tomb, a symbol of new life. The anguish, pain, and turmoil experienced in between represent more than a historical rendering of the passion of Christ. It is a revelation of a world yet to come.

And we rise.

We celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus by proclaiming “he has risen,” which marks the event itself; this is the Easter message. But we can also think of it as a command, a habit of sorts, to act in spite of insurmountable challenges: “to rise.” By recognizing that the human condition is imbued with hope, it is perhaps the most theologically significant event in the Catholic faith. Until that time, we find ourselves in a state of “holy waiting,” unaware of the miracle that awaits us. We recall the steps to Calvary, the suffering and humiliation inflicted upon Jesus, and look toward our own lives and those around us who continue to be persecuted.

And we rise.

Today, we continue to witness persecutions of our brothers and sisters because of their beliefs, ethnicity, and class. But we cannot simply bear witness to the plight of others no more than we can merely recall the events of Jesus’ death and Resurrection; there must be a conscious effort to model what is asked of us. We all struggle at times to rise from everyday challenges of life as the daily toll of worries and fears can be debilitating for many. Yet how often does our focus remain inward, limited in its scope?

And we rise.

During the Paschal Triduum, we do more than simply recall the events that frame the Christian message of redemptive suffering and eternal hope. We remember that Christ has truly risen only when we have ensured that those around us are able to rise, when we act as one community of faith and one people of God. Those who are privileged to rise first must extend their hand to those around them. Only then will we begin to walk the path Christ began so long ago.

Happy Easter to you and yours! It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Who’s Coming?

James Joyce wrote in Finnegan’s Wake that “Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody.’ ” For Joyce, defining Catholicism meant recognizing the universality in the experience of Church. It represents the coming together of everybody: Every path, experience, and individual. But it also speaks to the need for action and outreach. Catholic is a verb!

This week, Catholic schools across the country celebrate “Catholic Schools Week,” a commemoration of every group that supports the work of a value-based education rooted in Gospel values and a call to service. While there are the playful days of dressing down or up and maybe a special treat or two, the reason for the week should not be lost on those who sacrifice and commit themselves to a community that strives to live its mission in every aspect of its work. Members of our community including parents, alumni, grandparents, friends, and parishioners contributed over $60,000 in support of our school to invest in educational needs ranging from technology to facilities. Our students wrote thank you cards for numerous individuals who are part of our community: crossing guards, benefactors, lunch monitors, teachers, and custodial staff, among many others. They also brought in food, snacks, and drinks to make over 300 bagged lunches and helped personalize over a 100 scarves and blankets. And they’ve also helped to bring in over 8,000 pairs of socks for a local ministry that serves numerous at-risk communities in the greater Wilmington, DE area. People who they know, people who they kind of know, and people they’ll never know have been touched by these children.

All of this during a global pandemic. A challenge to our way of life perhaps but not to understanding who we are and what we seek to embody every day. Service to our neighbors need not limit itself to a season of the year. Physical needs like shelter and clothing do not subside simply because the holidays have passed; bills do not skip a month because you have to focus on feeding your family; and relationships do not flourish if they are not nurtured and cared for. We must live with intentionality for others. We must teach that justice begins with charity but cannot end there. We must model the teachings of Sunday on Monday. Building reminders about our collective religious identity like Catholic Schools Week and what it calls us to be serves an important function by answering the question, “Who’s coming?” Answer: Everybody.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

On Gifts

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, a celebration of religious and cultural significance for Christians around the world. Commemorating the visit of the three kings to the newborn baby Jesus, the traditional gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are symbols of regality worthy of the new king. Historically, we may not know much about these three individuals but we do know the value of making an offering, a gift in recognition of something (or someone) great.

The revelation of something new marks the start of every new year; it signifies a commitment to new behaviors, new motivations, and new realizations. While this tends to take the form of resolutions that are quickly forgotten about by February at best honorable, the true epiphany reminds us about the action of gift giving beyond the material. Consider new ways to give the gift of advice. Forgiveness. Comfort. The spiritual works of mercy are powerful examples of behaviors that are great for any budget: they don’t require currency or sacrifice and can be provided without end!

This year, let’s make a commitment to give the gift of being authentic and present to our friends and families, but also to the stranger, the neighbor we don’t know, and the co-worker we don’t agree with. Thinking of “gift” just as a noun does an injustice to the response it demands of us to seek out truth and love wherever it may be. Like the three kings seeking a newborn hidden away in the manger, the journey to live out our values begins with us.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Pieces of Peace

These days it feels as if there’s so much to say, but words continue to fail us. The emotional toll of this year seems to drive everything, or so it feels. We cautiously approach the end of 2020 hoping that by the stroke of midnight on December 31 all will come to a close (or at least we’ll wake up from this nightmare). But we should always be vigilant not to let anxiety overwhelm us for God’s peace goes beyond our everyday experiences. St. Paul reminds us in Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

The fourth Sunday of Advent is symbolized by peace, having celebrated hope, love, and joy. Peace itself is often misunderstood as an idyllic tranquility that comes over humanity like a cool breeze; after all, it’s the refrain of pacifists and war critics. But that ignores the personal, more inward thrust of what true peace holds for us as individuals. We talk about coming to peace with a loved one or watching a friend pass away peacefully, as if to remind ourselves that it is found in smaller moments of grace in our lives. Peace does not present itself as an overwhelming wave but rather as a droplet in the ocean. The Prayer of St. Francis so many of us are familiar with echoes this sentiment:

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy.”

When we encounter shadows in our life, we are called to bring light. And this can only happen when we act to better the lives of those around us. Peace reminds us that “and then…” always follows each experience of pain or suffering. Imagine the despair of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in a hopeless situation, only to bring the Christ child into the world (“and then…”); recall the passion and death of Jesus, only to be outdone by the glory of his resurrection (“and then…”); remember when you yourself suffered and felt there would be no redemption, only to…. (“and then…”). The fragmented nature of our lives means that even peace presents itself in pieces. Fragments still unite to make things whole and complete while allowing the true light of our lives to shine through. Fragmented memories still allow us to reflect on the blessings and grace that continue to envelope us. And as the culminating virtue in life uniting hope, love, and joy in the Advent season, peace is a reminder that it–not injury, doubt, despair, darkness, or sadness–has the final word in our lives.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Triskaidekaphobic Thoughts

It’s a clumsy title, I know. But triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number thirteen) is a bona fide reality for some individuals and communities. Building floors jump from eleven to twelve; city streets avoid a 13th avenue; and even Judas Iscariot, betrayer of Jesus, was believed to be the 13th apostle. But my intention with this post wasn’t to discuss fears but to consider how numbers in general can overwhelm, but also empower, our lives.

I’ve tried to resist writing about the pandemic, but at the same time felt overwhelmed by how it has saturated every aspect of our lives with virtual meetings, socials, and even playgroups. As a somber footnote, today marks eight months since the COVID-19 epidemic impacted our school and the U.S. as a whole (coincidentally enough also on Friday the 13th). It was a time of panic and concern about the unknown with so many asking “what’s next?”; in many painfully obvious ways, not much has changed. The number of cases continue to rise as do hospitalizations and deaths from a virus that is indifferent to the destructive path it carves out. At one point 20,000 daily cases felt overwhelming, yet as I write this this we have eclipsed 140,000 daily cases in the U.S. While we know a majority of those who contract the illness will recover there is the lingering mental and economic impact that will likely last for sometime. Simply put, numbers weigh on our shoulders like wet cement, slowly wearing us down while collapsing the very social structures we rely upon.

There is a point where we cognitively disassociate with reality because of this exponential increase; we have no choice. By way of an example, global poverty is expected to rise for the first time in twenty years because of the compounding issues surrounding the pandemic. Still, it is easier to think about the fact that 1 out of 10 people live in extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $2/day) rather than trying to fathom 700 million people. How do you begin to help, or even think about that kind of number? (Spoiler: you can’t). We are not wired to process suffering of that magnitude. At its best, we express concern; at its worst, we become numb.

But there is a number that should represent an antidote to these worries: one. One community. One family. One hope. We rightfully recall specific dates like birthdays and anniversaries and recall them with joy and excitement. In the aftermath of a presidential election, we can call to mind the traditional motto, E Pluribus Unum, “one out of many.” That even among our struggles, differences, and sometimes competing interests, we are unified in some way. We can help one family member overcome struggle. We can save one person from having a bad day. We can model the Corporal Works of Mercy each day in a way that does not overwhelm us or others. One is a number that we can process, that we can make work. Solidarity embodies the number one. That notion of unifying ourselves together can only improve our outlook on life. It won’t magically make pain and suffering dissipate, but it will allow us the mental room to stop and be mindful about the next step in our journey.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

Heaven, not Harvard

Students this time of year often begin working on saint reports, studying the likes of Sts. Theresa, Rita, and Michael, among many others. The recent beatification of Bl. Carlo Acutis reminds us that individuals of this title. In the Catholic realm of heroes and heroines, saints are often misunderstood as an untouchable league of perfection of uncompromising virtue and valor; they’re not. They serve as imperfect models of perfect grace which should serve as a teaching moment to build habits of excellence. In turn, our goal as educators and parents is to prepare our youth for their ultimate reward: heaven.

At the same time some are working on these saint reports, others are drafting their response to the perennial academic dilemma and proverbial gateway to higher education: the college essay. You are subtly asked to be creative but not verbose; erudite but not simplistic; proud but not boastful; and all the while, be sure to tell the truth. Our societal push for students to get great grades to attend great schools so that they can have a great career feels like it starts earlier and earlier in life. Sure, values and morals are important to teach but high test scores are the real benchmark of one’s worthiness, right? Competitiveness may be its own virtue in American society, but the real struggle is within ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against being a high achiever; after all, I am one. And striving for moral and academic excellence are certainly not mutually exclusive goals. But the artificial pressure put on children to be scholars before saints can risk putting the emphasis on the wrong syll-A-ble. Higher rates of anxiety, depression, and social alienation speak to this changing landscape. We need more people to strive for moral excellence but not confuse it with some ethereal plane of perfection.

Encourage children to major in relationships with a minor in friendship; build community with their peers; and be able to model better choices in a world that lacks models of virtue. In doing so, we will witness greater authenticity as a natural outgrowth of taking ownership for one’s actions. Getting into Harvard is easy compared to all that.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

(Re)imagining Reality

I recently participated in a virtual EdCamp for school leaders where we were asked to think of a “re” word that described our experience at the start of the school year: reboot, reexamine, rework, renew, etc. And it became abundantly clear to me that we have all been forced to participate in this same exercise of doing things “again” but by thinking and acting differently. I find myself in the act of revisiting everything from health and hygiene, to supporting faculty, to fostering community for students, to creating normalcy in abnormal circumstances. In short, I feel like we are experiencing reality in a uniquely different way. Reimagining.

Two examples, one historical and another personal, illustrate this thinking of mine. In 1515, the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci traveled from Italy to China in what would be a watershed moment on a number of levels. As the first westerner welcomed into the Emperor’s imperial court, Ricci had to adapt his European customs to meet what was expected of him as a foreigner. He had to meet the East where they were and suspend his way of seeing the world through the eyes of the West. In doing so, he not only helped author numerous Chinese maps and math curricula, he helped bridge what were once considered different cultural worlds. Revisiting.

A few years ago, Santa brought my son Gabriel a Lego Star Wars ship that was over 1,500 pieces with strict instructions not to break it apart (cf., the ending of The LEGO Movie). Of course, ignoring Santa’s letter he proceeded to slowly dismantle the ship and it became a joke between us that he’d never get one like it. Fast forward to a few months ago when Gabriel told me he was going to try to reassemble the ship from his collection of (no lie) thousands of Lego pieces rebuilding from scratch. Reconstructing.

We should never accept the notion that redoing something is a sign of defeat or failure. Rather it represents the very fabric of who we are as moral beings. Skills, habits, and customs are not innate operations that we are born with; they are learned through trial and errors. Embrace the opportunity to reimagine your own reality: careers, relationships, feelings. It doesn’t have to necessarily lead to changing anything or jettisoning your beliefs or commitments. But it should give you solace to know that we are always able to renew ourselves and it doesn’t cost us anything!

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

The Irreconcilable Paradox

Around this time of year I relish the gradual change of seasons to a cool and crisp autumn. It’s my favorite season but there’s nothing special in saying that; it’s entirely subjective. We call weather “bad” when it’s rainy or too windy and remark how “nice” it is when the sun finally makes an appearance after a long stretch of storms. We usually desire the opposite of what we’re experiencing, e.g., during a harsh winter we like to imagine being in a tropical setting.

Emotional states are not entirely different in that we often yearn for the weekend come or try to convince ourselves that we’ll feel better once we get past a difficult patch in our lives. The phrase “once [insert event] is over” is how all too many thoughts begin. And yet it makes sense given the fact our minds have evolved to redirect our feelings to a natural equilibrium of calm and familiarity. Psychologists would see this as our natural bias to rationalize or believe certain things while being unwilling to change or adjust our mindset out of a sense of self-preservation. The current pandemic provides a cultural crucible to meld conflicting beliefs about what we were used to and what we struggle with and how so much suffering comes from this desire to “return to normal.”

One aspect of this normalcy is that we are drawn to people like us and ideas like ours; in short, similarity breeds familiarity. But in our minds, hearts, and neighborhoods, we struggle with the conflict that is an irreconcilable paradox, a tension that reflects a more authentic appreciation for differences and one could say life itself. In the Western world we tend to eschew conflicting or clashing beliefs or desires, ignoring dualities of good/bad, light/dark, joy/pain. A common symbol in Asian philosophy, the yin-yang, represents harmony coming from seeing these binaries as one: not avoiding pain in the search for pleasure or desiring warmth in the cold, for example.

So while this wording of irreconcilable paradox may be mouthy or too philosophical or just straight up confusing, it is a call to remember that life does not present us with clear objective realities. This is another reminder to be mindful of joy when we experience joy and pain when we experience pain. Fight against the tendency to avoid one for the other or to hold onto another emotion as if that’s possible. Embrace the paradox of life and find the real bliss of life!

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

New Spirit Animal

At some point you may have been asked, “What’s your spirit animal?” Many of us have engaged in this game of totemism whereby you associate your personality with the likeness of an animal. An eagle may symbolize wisdom while a penguin could be associated with loyalty, for example. For some time, I’ve identified with sloths as my animal spirit with their seemingly permanent smile, kind disposition, and blasé demeanor; but I digress. Another “animal” has recently risen to the top for me and in many ways reflects the human characteristics needed to endure struggles, overcome hardship, and evolve continuously: tardigrades.

Also known as “water bears,” tardigrades are microscopic and, admittedly, not very cuddly. They belong to a group of organisms known as extremophiles, known for their ability to survive in extreme conditions and have attracted quite a pop cultural following. While this post isn’t meant to be a bad microbiology lesson, there are definitive values to be drawn from this fascinating species:

  1. Resilience: As a species, we are uniquely gifted with the ability to anticipate the future and plan accordingly. Yet we often struggle with the emotional toll of negative media, caustic relationships, and mental duress. Being resilient doesn’t mean avoiding pain or pressure but calls on us to recognize the strength in our vulnerability and the need to embrace a growth mindset that is open to change. With more workplace gurus citing the need to search for resilience, it’s important to make this value a priority in our lives.
  2. Adaptability: While we may have cornered the market on social adaptations in terms of neighborhoods and cities, we still force the square peg into the proverbial round hold by making our environment conform to our needs, as opposed to the reverse (e.g., the advent of heating and air conditioning). The (over?) use of the term “pivot” lately speaks to the need for adaptability and how we must be positioned to react rather than plan. This can be unsettling for some but it helps rewire our brains to embrace change, rather than actively resist it, and actually allows us to be calmer and more focused by realizing change is the universal constant.
  3. Perspective: This requires a bit of cosmic humility. The theologian John Haught has written extensively on Catholic theology and evolution and uses the analogy of book chapters to frame the age of our universe (and our infinitesimal place!): if 13.8 billion years of the universe was a set of 30 volumes of 450 pages each, humanity wouldn’t appear until the last page or so of the final chapter! Factor in our tendency to equate size/ magnitude with strength/longevity and you see that we are blind to so many examples in the natural world that do not conform to our expectations. (After all, how could a .01 inch organism survive multiple catastrophic disasters over the course of millions of years?!) This sobering fact should give us all pause about the arc of life in the universe but also serve as another reminder of our interdependency upon one another and how we have been privileged to live at this time and in this place.

These three values are nothing new to us. But our ability to find examples of them sometimes needs to be refreshed. The human species may never be able to go for three decades without food or water, live in a volcano, or withstand the vacuum of space on our own like our friends the tardigrades, but we can still take away invaluable life lessons from this unlikely new spirit animal.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!

The Good Ol’ Days

We all romanticize the past. The way things were and the people we knew were second to none. Children today “don’t know what it was like” to live when we were younger. Undoubtedly, older days were simply better days. And yet when we see children today against the backdrop of global turmoil and an epidemic that has led to nothing short of an existential crisis for many adults, we forget to remind ourselves that for them the good ol’ days are now. Today. Not eventually or at some point. Now.

The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote a collection of reflections in his work Pensées (French for “thoughts” or “reflections”). Written as a form of Christian apologetics, he explores humanist and theological concepts including our perception of time itself. In one of his more poignant lines he writes:

“We never keep to the present. We recall the past. We anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does…”

I often think of my own parents and childhood at the start of every school year, my own “wander about in times.” My father worked for the airline industry and my mother was a homemaker and worked in the food industry when me and my three brothers were all in school. They put the four of us through a combined 52 years of Catholic education. I often joke with parents that they believed in two things growing up: braces and Catholic education. As if a good smile and the sacraments were all you needed; in many respects, they were right.

But during my childhood, I never lacked necessities. We certainly weren’t what you would consider upper class or affluent but you’d never know it from our childhood and our “good ol’ days.” One of the graces of childhood is being immune to the worries and struggles your parents endure: making ends meet, mounting bills, and general parental anxieties. Only now as I raise my own boys can I experience this reality, that my worries and concerns are not theirs nor should they be. Their “good ol’ days” are now.

These days, it’s all too easy (and yet completely understandable) to recall a better past time when faced with so much uncertainty, confusion, and pain. But in working (dare I say fighting) to be more mindful of the present we retrain our mind to be calmer, focused, and quite frankly, happier. Mental pain stems more from our inability to be mindful than it does from the present itself. The way we allow ourselves to be comforted by a familiar past or in the perception of a joyful unknown future is the source of our anguish. By recognizing the glimmer that shines in even the murkiest of waters we remind ourselves of the overflowing grace that surrounds us at all times.

It’s a Great Day to be a Bulldog!