The Power of the Pivot

July 31, 2020 – Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola

It’s been a whole year, friends!  One year ago today, I locked the door of Gwynedd Mercy University’s campus ministry center, walked through the empty parking lot, and drove away into my new life.

I knew it would take me at least a year to get my bearings, and that I had to resist the impulse to fill my calendar with everything that raised its hand first.  For years, I had proclaimed that I wanted to be a “freelance me,” and now I was actually doing it.  But what did “it” look like, exactly?  The joy and terror of a freelance existence are intertwined: it’s the fine line between getting to decide and having to decide what to do with your day / week / year / one wild and precious life.  (Thank you, Mary Oliver.)

Se hace camino al andar, wrote the Spanish poet Antonio Machado.  The path is made by walking.  As I have walked this unfolding path, a delightful companion on the journey has been my godson, Jeff Civillico. 

We are the bookends of our family—the oldest and youngest of seven cousins, both holding degrees in theology from Jesuit universities.  (Fun fact:  I’m often described as “profound—and surprisingly funny,” while Jeff is precisely the opposite.)  Jeff’s career has always been a freelance adventure, so he has been both an inspiration and guide for me this year.  With gratitude, I’m delighted to share his story with you.

Glad to be in one another’s company at any age!

The Entertainer

As I mentioned, Jeff and I both have undergraduate degrees in theology—Saint Joe’s for me, Georgetown for him—but there our stories diverge. I became a campus minister, spiritual writer, and retreat facilitator; Jeff became a professional juggler, Vegas headliner, and keynote speaker. (Bonus: the next time someone asks, “What can you do with a degree in theology?” you have a whole new answer!)

Jeff’s passion for entertainment predated his interest in theology, but since there was no major for what he wanted to do, he figured he might as well study something that interested him.  Arriving at Georgetown just days before 9/11, he was drawn to learn more about world religions, which led to a concentration in Religion and Culture.  (See, I told you he was surprisingly profound!) 

Jeff’s career path had already taken him from juggling in his parents’ living room to performing at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Williamsburg’s Busch Gardens; a couple summers of cruise ship gigs during college led to a couple years of Disney World gigs after graduation.  Then the bright lights of the Vegas strip beckoned, and Jeff got his own show: Comedy in Action.  For many performers, that would be the “BOOM – Made It!” moment.  For Jeff, however, it was simply a new beginning, as he constantly strives to expand and integrate his life’s work.  “A goal achieved,” he likes to say, “is just your next starting point.”

Jeff had a ten-year run doing family-friendly comedy in various Caesars Entertainment venues, at one point performing as many as ten shows a week.  By 2019, however, he was down to just one—Wednesday evenings at the Paris—by his own choice.  Though wanting to keep a foothold on the strip, he needed to free up time for new creative ventures: from guest-hosting the local ABC affiliate’s “Morning Blend” and serving as spokesperson for the Las Vegas Natural History Museum to giving keynote speeches and emceeing large corporate gatherings in cities across the country and around the world.

The Philanthropist

Meanwhile, there was an ambitious charitable endeavor taking shape in Jeff’s imagination.  Recognizing that Vegas is home to a community of generous performers, in 2011 he founded Win-Win Entertainment, a non-profit that enables entertainers, athletes, and other celebrities to share their time with children in need.  Thanks to Jeff’s professional network, in 2017 Win-Win began to expand, starting with Minneapolis then Salt Lake City, Orlando, San Francisco, and more. They are in a dozen cities nationwide now—and still growing.

Being founder and CEO of a non-profit may not be what gets Jeff the most attention, but it is, by far, his most satisfying work. (It’s also another intriguing thing one can do with a degree in theology!)

The Pivot

So, what takes a person from juggling for spare change at the Inner Harbor to running a national non-profit and performing around the world?  That feels like such an amazing leap, one that can’t be accounted for by the simple passage of time.  Here’s the secret: it wasn’t a leap at all.  Instead, Jeff credits what he calls The Power of the Pivot.

In a keynote address by the same title, he explains it this way: “A pivot is a small change, made with one foot on the ground, that forces you to focus on your next step.”  This is a perfect description of what Jeff has done in his career.  He has made a series of pivots:

  • Living room to Inner Harbor to Busch Gardens to Disney World to Vegas
  • Juggling to clean comedy to keynote speeches to emcee work
  • Volunteering personally to match-making local volunteers to establishing a national volunteer network

A pivot is a small change, made with one foot on the ground, that forces you to focus on your next step.

Through each change, Jeff has kept one foot on the ground and intentionally pivoted in the direction he wanted to go.

The Crisis

The coronavirus crisis hit the entertainment industry hard.  Everything Jeff did—as a performer and a philanthropist—was based on personal presence and audience interaction.  In a heartbeat, venues were closed, events were cancelled, and the last thing anyone wanted in a children’s hospital was a non-essential stranger walking from room to room just for fun!

Fortunately, Jeff already knew all about the pivot.  To help corporations hold successful meetings in the dreaded Zoom format, he branded himself as “your virtual host,” using his nimble wit and contagious energy to emcee more than 60 corporate, charitable, and educational gatherings since March.

For Win-Win, Jeff had begun to work on the idea of “virtual visits” even before the coronavirus era.  When the shutdown hit, again he pivoted quickly; Win-Win is now able to bring smiles to kids who really need them in 23 programs nationwide, through customized performances on in-house television channels. 

To onlookers, it might seem as though Jeff made this leap to virtual venues effortlessly.  But the secret, again, is that it wasn’t a leap at all.  Jeff kept one foot on the ground of his mission—the WHY behind the WHAT of all his endeavors—and pivoted to a new HOW.  (Thank you, Simon Sinek.) 

And here, our disparate paths begin to converge.  I still remember how my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing on the evening of March 12, as parishes and groups called to cancel their Lenten retreats and my event calendar collapsed like a blown tire.  At that point, I’m not sure I’d even heard of Zoom; now I’m giving Zoom retreats for St. Placid Priory, all the way across the country in Lacey, Washington.  Although I miss being in person, I am moved to be able to touch people’s hearts at a distance; during my first Zoom retreat, participants “came” from as far away as San Diego and Scotland.  Maybe you can join me for the next one: Does Everything Happen for a Reason? Tuesday, August 25 at 12:30 p.m. Eastern.

As we chatted about that commonality, Jeff observed that we offer two things people are craving in these very strange times: entertainment and spiritual sustenance . . . the funny and the profound; each of us has pivoted to continue meeting those needs.

The Mindset

Pivoting is not just about changing external tactics, Jeff suggests.  It’s also about the shifts in attitude and mindset that we need in order to move forward in changing times.  This is similar to one of the key points in a retreat I first developed in January, called Take Nothing for the Journey?  Packing for the Unknown.  I suggested that, as we “pack” for an unknown future (which is to say, every day we get out of bed in the morning), we need to let go of assumptions about the way things have to be, and hold onto qualities like flexibility, curiosity, patience, and a good sense of humor.  This is true more than ever in the coronavirus era.

One of the things Jeff and I have marveled at is that he was talking about the power of the pivot and I was talking about packing for the unknown before the pandemic broke over our collective heads.  While it’s tempting to pride ourselves on having been prescient, the fortunate timing simply affirms our shared message:  everything we need to get through this long season of uncertainty is already inside us. 

Whatever challenge you are facing, I pray that you are able to keep one foot on the ground, fortify yourself with a useful mindset, let go of what is not essential, and focus on your next step.  Together, we can pivot our way to what’s next.

May your ordinary (and far-from ordinary) days be extraordinarily blessed!


Jeff Civillico recently celebrated a 10-year run on the Las Vegas Strip as a Headliner with Caesars Entertainment at the iconic hotel properties The LINQ, The Flamingo, and The Paris.  His clean, family-friendly “Comedy in Action” show remains highly acclaimed: voted “Best of Las Vegas” three years in a row by the Las Vegas Review Journal, named “Entertainer of the Year” by Vegas Inc, and honored by his fans with a 5-star rating on Yelp, Ticketmaster, and Google.  Jeff now takes his renowned clean comedy show to performing arts centers and major corporate events and conferences nationwide.  He also serves as a Host and Keynote Speaker.  When Jeff is not Hosting, Entertaining, or Speaking on-stage or on-camera, he is focused on the continued expansion and development of his national 501c3 nonprofit Win-Win Entertainment.  Win-Win Entertainment brings smiles to children who really need them in hospitals and foster homes through in-person and virtual visits from performers, athletes, and celebrities.  

http://www.jeffcivillico.com | @jeffcivillico 

http://winwinentertainment.org | @winwincharity

Unleashed

The dog I love most in the world just turned seven.  Lazarus is an aptly-named rescue: seventy-seven pounds of energy and affection, dignified except when he’s being silly.  He is my brother’s housemate. (Or at least that’s how I assume he regards himself, not feeling owned by anyone.)  I see him often, but not often enough, and cherish every day I get to spend in his extravagant company.

We don’t know the exact date of Laz’s birth; he was rescued as a three-month-old, born “sometime in July.” But it’s nice to be able to celebrate such things, so Stephen chose a date of significance: July 6. That’s the day in 2007 that our mom was diagnosed with the cancer that killed her swiftly; it’s also the day in 2012 that we lost our dear cousin Susan to the cancer she’d fought for years. It also happens to be the day before my own birthday. Stephen picked this terrible date to help redeem it, just as I picked the eleventh anniversary of our mom’s death—September 17—for my book’s publication in 2018. (That date had been a bit pre-redeemed already; Mom died on the day my goddaughter turned six. When Bizzy’s mom worried her daughter would someday feel bad about that, I said “You just tell her that God wanted it never to be a completely sad day for me, so made it her birthday first.”)

This year, we spent our birthday week in Maine, where Laz provided a “finding God” experience that I am continuing to unpack.

Being seven makes Laz now a firmly middle-aged dog, as I have been for some time a firmly middle-aged woman.  We’re both showing our gray, feeling a little creaky in the joints, and excessively fond of couch naps. We also both like long walks, so last Saturday we took Laz to Porter Preserve, part of the Boothbay Region Land Trust.

Setting off down a trail into the woods, I brought up the rear, picking my way cautiously, using a hiking pole for balance.  Laz, on the other hand, strained at his leash, whistling like a teakettle with frenzied impatience.  So much to see!  So much to smell!  Hurry up, people!  

The preserve had only a few cars in the parking lot, and no one in sight or earshot.  The posted rules said that dogs must be “leashed or under voice control.”  Laz is a good boy.  Stephen unclipped the leash.

He bounded away from us, all muscle and joy.  At the sound of his name, Laz whirled and returned, surefooted and exalting.  He continued foraging ahead and doubling back until we followed a sign marked “Vista” to some big rocks above the Sheepscot River.   Perhaps not understanding the meaning of the word “vista,” Laz leaped without hesitation and disappeared under the water.  Momentarily surprised by its depth, he popped up and swam strongly to shore, pausing only to shake off dramatically before rushing back in after a thrown stick.  Glorious!

Over the last few days, I have found myself savoring those memories of Laz’s adventure, and it has stirred something in me.  He was so free, so glad in his body, as I so often am not.  As an introvert of uptight (some would say proper) Irish descent, I know I am stiff in more than my joints.  Like Martha in Luke’s Gospel (sister of Lazarus—how about that), I work the perimeter of a party rather than plant myself in the center of the fun.  When worship turns exuberant at my church, I can practically feel the rigor mortis setting in, as I resist yet envy those who can give over their whole body to praise.

Thinking of Laz at Porter Preserve reminds me of one of the tenets of Ignatian spirituality:  that we draw close to God by recognizing the deepest desires of our hearts.  The yearning I feel when I replay the mental images of Laz cavorting through the woods reveals such a desire.  Something in me wants to move more freely, less self-consciously in this world.  I am drawn to the energy I experienced in Laz unleashed, and I believe this reveals something of God’s desire for me as well.  I need to sit with that desire, to notice when I’m following it—and when I’m not.  

In her lovely book Dog Songs, Mary Oliver imagines a conversation with a pup who claims to know nothing of prayer.  She assures him, “Every time you wake up and love your life and the world, you’re praying, my dear boy.” 

Waking up, loving my life, loving the world. At 55, I can’t think of a better way to start each day.

Thanks, Laz.

A photo of Laz, a dignified black lab/pit bull mix.
Laz at his most dignified

In the Upper Room of our Quarantine

            My heart goes out to the people in that upper room in the first chapter of Acts. Once upon a time, they had been capable fishermen, efficient tax collectors, competent homemakers, and women of means.  After meeting Jesus and being swept into his company, they’d had a crash course in discipleship, but they were still a ragtag bunch.  There were the brothers who had quarreled over who was greater, the woman from whom seven demons had gone out, the gaggle who always needed the parables explained, and that blustery fellow who spent an awful lot of time with his sandal in his mouth.  Then tragedy struck, followed by mystery.  And now they were expected to be . . . what?  His “witnesses to the ends of the earth?”  What did that even mean? 

            Yet on Pentecost day, Scripture says, devout Jews from every nation under heaven heard them speaking in their own tongues of the mighty acts of God.  The disciples had spent most of their lives knowing how to do one thing, and then they learned to do something else entirely, and then the Holy Spirit came upon them, and then they changed the world. 

            If their transformation seems dizzying, it might help to peek back into the upper room.  Our mental image of that place may be DaVinci’s table-for-thirteen, but Luke tells us there were actually some one hundred and twenty persons gathered there.  What did they do in those ten days between Ascension and Pentecost?  Two things we know:  they devoted themselves to prayer, and they discerned who had the right gifts for the work ahead, adding Matthias to the Eleven in place of Judas.  Although they had no idea what would happen next, they stayed together, they prayed, and they did what they could until the Holy Spirit enabled them to do far more.

That’s a reasonable mandate for us during this Coronavirus crisis.  Stay together (at least in mind and heart).  Pray.  Discern what you can do.  Wait for the Holy Spirit.

What has impressed me most about this time of shutdown is how people are learning to do things they never did before: pastors live-streaming Mass in near-empty churches; classroom teachers giving Zoom lessons from their kitchens; reporters broadcasting from their tidied-up dens.  Much of this is made possible by technology, of course, enabling the self-quarantined to work from home, video chat with grandchildren, even play board games online with friends.  A colleague of mine recently observed that, if this had happened just a decade ago, the entire school year would have been a wash.  No graduations, no promotions to the next grade: just one giant do-over. 

However, what is intriguing right now not just about the technology.  I am so touched by the way people are rummaging around in their hearts and their skill sets, bringing forth whatever is useful for the need at hand.  Makers of quilts are churning out masks.  Performers are finding new ways of getting their art into the world.  Distributors who used to move food from farms to fancy restaurants are packing boxes for hungry families instead.  Of course, these pivots could be short-term strategies—designed to maintain an income stream or a sense of purpose—yet I believe that some of these new endeavors actually hold the seeds of future promise.

And it’s not just about what people are doing, of course; it’s also—and more importantly—about the transformation happening within.  This season has been profoundly jarring, ripping away so much that we used to take for granted.  Perhaps you are on the front lines of the crisis, sacrificing safety at work, peace at home, or financial security.  Perhaps you are grieving the loss of someone dear.  Or perhaps you are among the lucky ones: riding it out quietly, but still having to let go of plans, assumptions, and certainties.  Here you are; here we all are, learning to abide in the unknown.

We are not unlike those early disciples: staying connected; praying in new ways; discerning next steps and waiting for the Holy Spirit to let us out of the room. 

In his book The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser describes the tasks required for each stage of the paschal cycle (not only in the Bible, but in the countless dyings and risings of our own lives).  According to Rolheiser, the work from Ascension to Pentecost is this:  let the past ascend and bless you; receive the spirit for the life you are already living. 

We have begun to live into something new, here in the upper room of our quarantine.  It is not clear how much the Coronavirus crisis will yet ask of us, but this has gone on far too long to be just a blip on the radar screen, a ridiculous inconvenience we’ll tell stories about someday.  Now is the time to settle in, to pay attention, to notice the changes within and without. 

How might the Holy Spirit be transforming you?


I was honored to write this reflection as part of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps’ Ascension to Pentecost series, featuring contributions by Fr. Jim Martin, Dan Schutte, and more. If you are not familiar with IVC, check them out: Experience Making a Difference!

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Celebrating Easter at Home

Friends, this week I had the privilege of being interviewed by Lynn Rosen, co-owner of The Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park. Lynn and I chatted about my book for a few minutes, but quickly moved on to talking about the challenge of celebrating Easter from home, when Holy Week is usually marked by such beautiful church services. If you have eleven minutes, check out our conversation on YouTube!

The Open Book is one of those indie gems, a true hub of literature, fun, and friendship in our neighborhood. Like many local businesses, they are finding lots of creative ways to stay afloat and generate digital content during the coronavirus shutdown. (They are also willing to do local delivery of in-stock items, so if you’re nearby and could use a new physical, audio, or e-book, consider supporting them!) You can also watch Lynn’s other author interviews and book recommendations at her new YouTube channel: Lynn Reads a Book!

Finally, I am enjoying doing my own daily audio recordings of Finding God in Ordinary Time along with new, fresh content. If you’d like to jump on in time for Holy Week, visit here.

As always, may your ordinary (and far from ordinary) days be extraordinarily blessed.

Spiritual Sustenance for the Self-Quarantined

Thank you to everyone who subscribed to this; stay tuned for whatever’s next!

No doubt you have experienced a cascade of cancellations this week, as schools, theaters, and other public venues have shut down to try to contain the Coronavirus.  It has all happened so quickly:  yesterday morning, I was speculating about whether to go forward with next week’s Lenten retreat; by last night, our Archbishop had announced the cancellation of all parish activities.

As a new member of the “gig economy,” my first thought was about all the work I would be missing.  Pretty quickly, however, my mind turned to the countless people who hunger for spiritual sustenance during the season of Lent. So many of you have signed up for retreats, programs, or days of prayer which are now not happening, or rely on the company and inspiration of groups which are now not meeting.  Ironically, such sustenance is needed more than ever in these days of unprecedented uncertainty.

So I’m going to try something new.  Starting next Saturday, March 21, I will release the audio file of one chapter of Finding God in Ordinary Time each day, accompanied by a second file in which I muse a bit on that day’s content.  (Fresh bread!)  Counting the Introduction, that’s 29 days of content, which will take us all the way through the Octave of Easter on Sunday, April 19.  For this, I’m asking just $30. (Those subscribing in Week Two will receive 23 days of content for $20.)

People have been inquiring about an audiobook for some time now, and while the quality won’t be quite as good (no fancy intro music or special effects, though sometimes you might get a free train whistle), I hope that you will enjoy hearing the stories in my own voice.  

And now if you could please say a prayer to the patron saint of technology for me . . .

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Walking Out of the Desert

This reflection may look familiar to my long-time readers, but—since we are back to the “A Cycle” readings—it seemed worth re-posting. It may not be “fresh bread,” but hopefully it still nourishes!

Jesus returned from the Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.  -Luke 4:1

We only hear about the 40th day.

What happened during the other 39?

Jesus was propelled out into the desert after his baptism, after he heard those life-changing words: You are my beloved son.  Did it take him that long, perhaps, to figure out what it meant to be God’s son, and what on earth he should do next?

And this “devil” – more appropriately translated “opponent” or “obstructor” – what exactly was he trying to oppose and obstruct?  And how?

I believe that, during those 40 days, Jesus wrestled with his understanding of his mission – not just the “why” and the “what” but especially the “how” of his public ministry.  Opposed and obstructed at every step.

And since the good is often the enemy of the best, I suspect that the great obstructor suggested all sorts of tangential issues to care about, alternate strategies to pursue.  Maybe Jesus needed those 40 days (the Biblical number for “a really long time”) to clear his head of all that rubbish, to be calm and focused and purposeful, to learn exactly how to direct his energy.

Here’s how I picture that final day:

It’s over.

Plans and possibilities have been considered and rejected.  Powers, perhaps, have been explored, and reliance on them restricted.  Hungry, weary, yet resolute, Jesus begins to trudge back towards civilization, leaning on his staff.

He is really hungry.

The stones at his feet shimmer in the heat; squint your eyes and they look like bread.

Then that damn voice again.  “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”  If?  If?  Always if!  The Spirit had said so; hadn’t he heard it?  Hadn’t everyone?  He’d just spent 40 days growing into that identity.  Why was the “if” back?  If you are the Son of God … and not some delusional freak!

Turning the stone to bread; would that silence the “if” for good?  The walk back was so long, and he was so hungry.  This was so hard.  What harm would it do?  Who would know?  What was the use of being God’s son, if you couldn’t feed yourself when you were hungry?

As he leans on his staff, he realizes that hunger and weariness are feeding him insecurity and taking him to the brink of unraveling all the resolutions he made when he was feeling stronger.  Mental note – fatigue and hunger are dangerous.  The strongest resolutions can start to slip away under their siege. He must steel himself against such lapses in logic; he cannot use his “magic powers” for his own comfort or convenience.  (And though he does not know it yet, If he can’t resist making bread when he is hungry, how will he resist the jeers of the crowd telling him to come down off that cross … baiting him with that word “if” again?)

More importantly, he can’t cave to the urge to prove himself for the sake of his pride.  That can’t end well.

Once the first temptation is resisted, the subsequent ones get easier. (Probably a good lesson for the rest of us.)  Though they do have their own specific appeal.

Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.   The devil said to him … all this shall be yours, if you worship me.  (Luke 4:5-7)

Now that is tempting.  All the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.  Just think of all the places he will never visit in his lifetime.  All the places it will take his followers years … decades … even centuries to reach, and how much his message could be warped in transmission!

And yet the devil here has overreached, showed his hand.  He doesn’t have the power.  The kingdoms are not his to give.  Easy to resist.

So the obstructor takes a step back.  Returns to what almost worked the first time.  If you are the Son of God … throw yourself down (from the parapet of the temple).   For he will command his angels to guard you … (Luke 4:9-10).

Again, there is a certain draw.  It would get people’s attention, that’s for sure. He wouldn’t have to struggle against their disbelief in the “carpenter’s son.” Wouldn’t have to take the hard road.  (Might not even wind up on the cross.)

But no.

The devil’s lures are getting tiresome.

This is not the way, and he knows it.  He walks on, feeling stronger, resolute. And so the devil retreats, waiting for Jesus’ defenses to go down again.

To do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reason. That’s the challenge that was laid before Jesus, and that lies before each of us every day.

Forget Your Perfect Offering

I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do for Lent this year.  Despite my annual insistence that the best thing is simply to respond to God’s daily invitations to be prayerful, sacrificial, and generous, I still can’t shake the feeling that I should make a Plan.  (You know, just in case someone asks me what I’m doing for Lent.)

There have been years when I was experiencing so much grief and transition during Lent that I couldn’t even fathom giving anything else up.  (Rend your hearts, Joel, really?  Mine is cracked wide open already, thank you.)  The best I could do was to sit quietly in the dark and pray for one other person each day.  It was enough. 

This year, however (and I hesitate even to put this in writing, because of how quickly things can change), I am doing pretty well.  I am loving my new freelance existence (though I still haven’t figured out how to carve out time to start that new book).  Several people close to me have had astonishingly good changes of fortune (though others are still plowing through rough times).  My health is reasonable, and there are exciting things on the horizon (though my ability to walk 300 miles across Spain on the Ignatian Camino this fall remains a question).  In other words, as the mixed-bag existence of any human being not living on a TV show goes, life is good right now.

Professionally, I spend a lot of time talking about how to draw closer to God in times of vulnerability, diminishment, failure, and loss.  Now I find myself asking an unaccustomed question:  how do I draw closer to God when things are going well?  In those hard times, it was obvious that I needed God in order draw breath, never mind get out of bed.  Now, the biggest temptation is to imagine I’m doing it on my own.

The biggest temptation is to imagine I’m doing it on my own.

One Lenten idea I’m having (notice I’m not calling it a Plan) is to spend more time fertilizing my own soil this season.  I tend to be very task-focused.  When I had a full-time job in addition to my freelance ministry and volunteer commitments, I used to say, “My life is like a game of Tetris.”  (Remember those rapidly falling blocks that you had to line up perfectly, with no gaps?  That’s how I felt about my schedule.)  Now, my days are more spacious.  (As my work successor put it, I have more of a “choose your own adventure” life these days.)  Nevertheless I still default to things that can be written down, finished up, and checked off.  I’m not sure that’s a very good way to let God in.  Correction:  I’m sure that’s not a very good way to let God in.

What I mean by fertilizing my own soil, then, is taking time for nourishing over accomplishing.  Call it input over output.  The first thing I want to do is commit to some good spiritual reading.  Not just page-a-day or quote-a-day Lenten stuff (though of course I have those too); I want to find the kind of books that make me pour a second cup of coffee and go back to the rocking chair, pencil in hand.  I’m going to start with a Christmas present, Kate Braestrup’s Beginner’s Grace.  I welcome additional suggestions, and will let you know what else I select.

To do this, however, I have to guard my morning time from myself.  Too often, my days start like this:  from the pre-dawn peace of my prayer chair, I remember something I was supposed to ask/tell someone.  I pull out my phone to take care of just that one thing, but can’t help glancing through the waiting emails.  Something catches my eye.  I read.  I respond.  The next one takes me to a survey; I click.  (So compliant!)  The New York Times daily briefing leads me down a rabbit-hole of articles . . . and now the sun is up.  Does any of this sound familiar?  (Please tell me it does!)  The way to prevent it, however, is simply to put a notepad and pen by my chair, so that when that first distracting reminder pops into my head, I can simply write it down, and refocus.  Ta-da!

So, there you have it: my big not-a-Plan. I don’t know exactly how these ideas will draw me closer to God, but, as the season unfolds, I trust that two things will happen.  1) My fertilized soil will bear fruit in unexpected ways, and 2) life will present countless invitations to respond prayerfully, sacrificially, and generously.

It reminds me of that fabulous refrain from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

I can’t think of better advice for Lent than “forget your perfect offering.”  The season ahead isn’t about creating a perfect Plan, pulling ourselves up by the spiritual bootstraps, or nailing our resolutions.  (A+ in humility, anyone?)  It’s about letting God in through the cracks, and maybe—just maybe—widening them a bit.

May your ordinary (Lenten) days be extraordinarily blessed!

Take Nothing for the Journey?

Warning:  this is a LONG rumination!  Read it when you are in the mood for something to chew on.

When I traveled with Maryknoll missionaries to campus ministry sites in Peru and Bolivia in 2001, I felt prepared for anything.  In my suitcase—one of the largest in our group—I had clothes for every climate, remedies for every malady, and even “hostess” gifts for every community:  four one-pound Whitman Sampler boxes!  With difficulty, I dragged that giant bag up and down the stairs of each new residence; with embarrassment, I watched our guides strain to get it to the top of the bus each time we changed cities.  

At the other end of the packing spectrum was Fr. Claude, an older Canadian priest, who carried only a duffel bag.  A smallish duffel bag at that—and it was not full.  He wore the same sweater every day, and washed his socks and underwear in the bathroom sink each night.  My chocolate weighed more than his luggage!  Watching him hop up and down steps and on and off buses with that thing, I experienced a wee bit of judgment (no one was turning to him for Band-Aids or Pepto-Bismol) and a hefty dose of jealousy.  Fr. Claude might not have brought any presents, but he was so unencumbered that he was free to share the gift of his presence everywhere we went.

Fr. Claude might not have brought any presents, but he was so unencumbered that he was free to share the gift of his presence everywhere we went.

That experience, almost twenty years ago, stirred my lasting interest in packing—both logistically and as a metaphor—as it shows up in life, in literature, and even in Scripture.  Cleaning out deceased loved ones’ houses, downsizing, and giving up my office (AKA overflow storage) added a new intensity to my wrestling match with “stuff.”  And now, as I plan for the Ignatian Camino this fall, I realize I will finally be taking a page from Fr. Claude’s book: in Spain, I will be washing my (limited) unmentionables in the sink each night! 

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Follow the Thread

“Try to think of it as a long thread,” Jim said.  “Il filo, in Italian.” 

This past Monday night, my church choir was practicing for Christmas, working on a new song that was not yet pretty enough for prime time (AKA Midnight Mass at St. Vincent’s).  Our accompanist, Jim Primosh, was trying to help us sing more smoothly by getting us to think beyond individual words or notes to the “through line” carried on our breath, unbroken and continuous.  He encouraged us to picture il filo—the long thread running through the music.  This image helped our singing a great deal, but what really caught my attention was that it was the second time I’d encountered “following the thread” as an analogy in less than a week. 

The first time was at a mentoring breakfast last Friday.  I was talking with a wonderful young man who had just changed majors, following his passion away from a clear career path.  We were discussing my recent shift from campus ministry to freelance work—also a leap into the less clear.  Andrew observed, “All the things you really loved, you’re still doing—just in a different context.”  The image of the continuous thread came to me (though I hadn’t heard the lovely Italian yet), and I described the things that matter most to me as a thread running through everything I’ve done.  “Find your own thread,” I encouraged Andrew.  “If you can see where it’s been, you can follow it forward.” 

We talked about personal mission, and the concept of a “six word mission statement” from a leadership training session at Gwynedd Mercy University. For a long time, I’ve been using the six-word tag line: Connecting Scripture, Spirituality, and Everyday Life.  Challenged to come up with a more personal motto, however, I found myself drawing on the words of the Baltimore Catechism (which, NO, I am not old enough to remember, but that didn’t stop my mom from teaching it to me).  Why am I here?  Six words:  Help others know / love / serve God.  That’s a clear thread.  The context doesn’t matter nearly as much as making sure whatever I’m doing serves that goal.

Through subsequent conversation with Jim Primosch (who happens to be an acclaimed composer and brilliant pianist as well as a parishioner of St. Vincent’s and an incredibly patient music teacher), I learned that an even more elegant term for il filo is the French la grande ligne, the main or “pure, true line” running through great music.  Jim pointed me to an article that brings together theology and music around this concept of la grande ligne:

“The more that music, however complicated it is internally, gives off a pure, true line, the more intelligible it is—and that’s why nine out of ten developments, which are not integral parts of the form, but some sort of filler for the blank spaces between the essential points, are false and wearisome.” 

(Letter from composer and music teacher Nadia Boulanger, cited in Jeanice Brooks The Musical Work of Nadia Boulanger: Performing Past and Future Between the Wars.)

In this season of Advent—a time in which we are called to create space for God—I am intrigued by that image of “false and wearisome” things that are just “filler for the blank spaces between essential points.”  It’s like St. Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:10:  May you learn to value the things that really matter, up to the very day of Christ.  (That’s the 1970 NAB, no longer in use liturgically, but gosh, I do love some of the phrasing.)  This is a season for noticing the false and wearisome filler that keeps us from spotting and following the divine thread in our lives.  Instead of filling up the blank spaces with chatter, frittering, or mindless acquisition, can we grow more willing to rest in them?  Can we pause in the darkness long enough to let the essential points of our life come clear? 

This image of il filo or la grande ligne also can help us make sense of our disjointed personal history.  If we’ve been through significant changes, our life narrative can begin to seem more like a collection of short stories than one great mystery novel.  We change schools, jobs, and homes; we find and lose life partners; we are healthy, then we’re not.  In the midst of such flux, it is helpful to remember what is unchanging in our lives.  This includes our deepest passions and convictions, loves that continue beyond the grave, and—at the heart of it all—our relationship with God, described by the Hindu poet Tagore as “the one companion of my endless life, who links my heart with bonds of joy to the unfamiliar.”

That’s the thread. 

In this Advent season, at Christmastime, and always, may you follow it with confidence into the unknown future.