I’ve just returned from a week of silent retreat at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in beautiful Wernersville, PA. For all the years I worked in higher ed, my retreats had to be in the summer, so this was my first opportunity to soak in the fall foliage of the rolling hills around God’s country house. It felt fitting, pondering the autumn of my life (early autumn, one hopes) during the autumn of the year, as the fruits of both are similar.
First is the most obvious: the stunning and particular beauty of this season. On retreat, I spent hours outside, gazing at the gratuitous blaze of colors all around me, the leaves spiraling down like fiery snowflakes, the kind angle of sunlight turning the afternoons golden. From the west cloister in the hour before dinner, I could bask in surprising warmth at the end of a clear, brisk day.
It makes me conscious of the beauty of later life, for those who can embrace it gracefully. I call to mind the white-haired women I know, the lines in their faces etched by a lifetime of smiles. I think of the older Jesuits at Wernersville—men I’ve known for decades—joints stiff, shoulders a bit stooped, but their whole being still aflame with a well-tended fire that the Jesuit novices on retreat could only envy.
Next are the literal fruits (and vegetables) of autumn. Gone are the tender peaches and snap peas, the bumper crop of fast-growing zucchini; farm stands are full of apples, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes now. This is the time for hearty produce: the kind that has taken all season to ripen, that packs in the nutrients, and that can withstand the coming cold.
This is the wisdom of the autumn of life. There are lessons that only come through time, reflection, and loss. Certain spiritual insights are visible only from this vantage point, as we look back on our own personal salvation history. The wisdom of autumn knows there is frost in the forecast, but has the power to nourish us through the dark days ahead.
And finally, there is the gleaning. During my long walks on retreat, I saw the ground littered with corn cobs, acorns, and fallen apples. The harvest is over, but there is so much still available to feed the sweet chipmunks, frisky squirrels, and roaming deer. It reminds me of the Biblical mandate to leave the corners of one’s field unharvested, and not go back to pick any overlooked produce, so that those who are in need may find some sustenance.
Gleaning is all about availability. We may not have a field to leave unplowed, but the autumn of life may give us a unique opportunity to make ourselves available. With calendars no longer scheduled to the very edges, we are more free to respond to those in need, whether in our families, neighborhoods, or faith communities. “Where do you need me today?” we can ask God, and listen for the answer.
And speaking of availability . . . If you can spare two hours on Tuesday, I’m offering a Zoom retreat through St. Placid Priory on the topic “Finding God in Ordinary (and Far-from-Ordinary) Time.” We’ll explore nature as a way of connecting with God in any season, and consider the wisdom of St. Ignatius Loyola’s First Principle and Foundation. The retreat will feature mostly presentation, with time for reflection and two brief breakouts. That’s this Tuesday, October 27, from 12:30 – 2:30 p.m. EASTERN. Click here to register ($25).
Though we live in fraught times (understatement!), I hope this autumn finds you able to appreciate the beauty, wisdom, and availability that the season evokes in these waning weeks of Ordinary Time.
May your ordinary (and far-from-ordinary) days be extraordinarily blessed!
P.S. I am offering several Advent retreats in both live and Zoom formats; stay tuned for a newsletter with details in early November, or visit my Speaker page.
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.
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.
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!)
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 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.
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.
The trail map of Monhegan Island (population 65) clearly identified three walks recommended for day-trippers, so we had chosen the pleasant, 25-minute stroll to Lobster Cove. We sat on a sunny rock and ate our peanut-butter-on-raisin-bread sandwiches (standard picnic fare), watching the sparkling ocean and enjoying a lone seagull who seemed pretty content on a rock of its own. The view was pretty, but we had grown accustomed to longer hikes during these last two weeks in Maine. We decided to walk out along the Cliff Trail a ways, just to see what the vista was like from a bit higher, then return the way we came.
We would have preferred to stay on the Cliff Trail all the way around the east side of the island, then cut back down the middle to the ferry dock, but again, the map was clear: two sections of the trail ahead were marked in red, identified as “particularly challenging.” The map was also clear about what happened to tourists who overestimated their abilities and got into trouble. No medical service on the island. No guarantee that there would be enough cell signal to call 911. No way for a vehicle or even a boat to reach some of the places a middle-aged woman in sneakers might injure herself. For added drama, the remains of a tugboat wreck dotted the landscape around of us like a rusting cautionary tale.
Which is why we were going to double back. Except . . .
It was so beautiful! Scary, but beautiful. We scrambled up and down rocks, avoided tree roots and swampy bits, and took at least one false turn, but over and over we looked up and discovered a stunning new view of the sea. It had already been hard, so the thought of turning back and retracing our steps was, frankly, a bummer. We didn’t know if the trail ahead was dramatically harder, of if we’d already done the worst of it. And so we pressed on. (I fought rising panic by singing the jaunty rendition of Psalm 23 that was jogging through my head.)
Porter took the lead—having under his belt both longer legs and more years of scouting. He figured out the safest steps, and gave me a hand when I needed it. This gave me frequent opportunities to soak in the beauty around us, as well as the chance to begin musing about the “harder paths” offered to us in everyday life.
I found myself remembering the two months my father was in home hospice care, when I took FMLA leave and moved in, along with my brother, Stephen, to care for him. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Every few days, Dad’s abilities dropped off, and the tasks required of us grew more demanding. As on the Cliff Trail, we wondered how much worse it would get, and whether we would hit a point where we couldn’t do it anymore. Yet there was so much beauty.
Even five years later, I have such warm memories of that time-out-of-time: our cousin Mike keeping me company on Wednesday nights when Stephen was back in Baltimore; our cousin Tish sitting with my dad one afternoon so I could take a shower; our uncle Len dragging a vast quantity of recycling to the curb each week as we cleared out the decades of tests, notebooks, and newspaper clippings which the home of two teachers had accumulated. I still savor the way I sat around the fireplace visiting with relatives and friends on weekends, took Stephen’s dog for walks around the old neighborhood in the mornings, and had long, consoling phone calls with distant loved ones at night. And I remember my favorite visit: my friend Liz walking in the door with homemade pizza, an assortment of craft beer, and flowers without a vase—because she figured (rightly) that we already had enough of them.
Those eight weeks were intensely challenging, but I still miss the camaraderie of that special kairos-time.
There is no dramatic ending to my Monhegan story. No one was injured. We didn’t even have any hair-raising near-misses. Eventually, the Cliff Trail intersected with the Burnt Head Trail: a gentle path that led us down an easy slope back into the village, where we shared a blueberry soda (because, Maine) and got back on the Balmy Days II for a ride around the island and return to the mainland.
A few days out, my lingering feeling is great satisfaction with having successfully taken the harder path, mingled with lingering curiosity about life’s harder paths. I keep wondering: when is doing it the hard way worth the beauty and the reward? When is it just too much? When does challenge shade into folly? And how do we know if it’s time to turn around?
I don’t know. But I do know that I want to keep exploring the questions—on foot as well as in prayer. And I know is that getting myself out into nature here in Maine—moving my body in unaccustomed ways and seeing unfamiliar sights—has opened my spirit to fresh metaphors for the spiritual life, and given me a renewed awareness of God’s presence in it all.
The sort of practicing that I did on Monhegan—taking something in the natural world and working the metaphor—will be part of a lovely half-day retreat I’m offering at the Cranaleith Spiritual Center next month. Together, we’ll take a wide-eyed look at the small things in life, and notice the presence of God, hidden in plain sight. The retreat is Sunday, October 6, from 1-4. If you are able to join me, you can register here.
But for now, I invite you to reflect on the harder paths in your own life. What have you tackled that you weren’t sure you could do? Where did you find beauty, or reward? What choice of path lies ahead of you now? How are you being led? Who has your hand? I’d love to hear your stories.
Along whatever path you walk, may your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed!
Finding God in Ordinary Time has been out for almost three weeks now. It truly is a dream come true. When I sat down in the cafeteria of St. Monica in Berwyn to sign books after my first event, I opened the cover, picked up my blue ballpoint pen, and thought, “This is my life now!” I have wanted to have a book in the world since before I could spell, and now it’s out there.
Where will it go? I’ve been delighted to see the Facebook posts of friends and former students around the country receiving their books in the mail. And my (modest) book tour will soon be bringing me to Arlington, VA, Wernersville PA, and even Morgantown WV, where I will have the pleasure of placing signed copies in the hands of people I meet out there.
But it’s “out there” in another way as well. Thanks in large part to the creative hustle of Ben Tanzer, (whom I’ve been calling my Marketing Guy but who might be more accurately be called my Champion), news of the book has reached niches I didn’t even know existed–places that are not part of the “Catholic world.”
It has always been my hope that Finding God would connect with people who didn’t already speak the language of faith. And that’s what I’m hearing from people like my friend George Allen, who had this to say:
Marketed astutely at least in part towards those “skeptical or weary of religion”–which is to say, right at devout agnostics just like yours truly!–the book is a brief-but-powerful series of essays about how the presence of the “divine” (including however those of us often compelled to put that word in quotes might define it) can be located and appreciated in everyday moments and challenges.
I am so grateful for George’s affirmation. But this latest round of publicity is reaching the eyeballs (and eardrums) of people who do not already know and love me. How will they respond? I may never know–though presumably book sales will tell.
Here are some of the intriguing places that word of my book has gone:
The Rumpus. This online magazine describes itself as ” a place where people come to be themselves through their writing, to tell their stories or speak their minds in the most artful and authentic way they know how.” They invited me to contribute an article to their weekly “What to Read When” feature, and on 10/5 published my “What to Read When You’ve Lost Your Spiritual Flashlight,” a curated list of books they call “a go-to list for refreshing, down-to-earth, spot-on spiritual reading.” This was so much fun to write, and it may give you some ideas for what to read next!
Hypertext Magazine. This “social justice teaching and publishing non-profit” invited me to contribute to their “One Question” feature, whereby an author gets to answer one question of his or her own choosing. Check out my answer to this question: Your stories are all from real life; which one are you most anxious about having “out there?”
This Podcast Will Change Your Life. Recorded live via Skype, my one-hour, unedited conversation with Ben Tanzer ranges all over the place, from how I organized my chapters to the current state of immigration in our country, all under the umbrella of “The Power of Stories.”
Spiritual Directors International. This vibrant association of more than six thousand individuals on six continents representing more than fifty spiritual traditions graciously accepted one of my chapters as a guest blog post. It’s the chapter where I get most explicit about the Ignatian grounding of my book: Finding God on the Oncology Floor.
Lancaster County Woman. Freelance writer Susan Beam interviewed me for a feature in the Health and Wellness section of this magazine, in anticipation of the weekend retreat that I am giving later this month, called Healing Encounters: A Retreat for Everyone in the Company of Contemporary and Biblical Women.
Speaking of which, it is not too late to sign up for that retreat, held October 19-21 at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in beautiful Wernersville, PA. We’ll be praying with all sorts of stories and leaning in to our own healing encounters. You can find out more and register here!
Thank you to everyone who has helped spread the word, within communities of faith and well beyond them. I appreciate all forwards, comments, and shares–anything that gets the algorithms of search engine optimization whirring!
Oh wait, speaking of computer algorithms, this cracks me up . . . in mid-September, Amazon named Finding God in Ordinary Time its “#1 New Release in Religious Humor.” I’m sorry; what?!? While I do describe the writing as “surprisingly funny,” this is no book of Jesus knock-knock jokes, people. Let’s hope it’s true what they say: there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
May your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed . . . and touched with a bit of divine humor!
“Calm down,” I told myself yesterday. “How many times have we been over this? You know it’s going to be there when you need it. You blogged about it, for Pete’s sake. Just keep singing!”
I was cantoring at St. Vincent’s, and the “it” was the Gospel acclamation (i.e. solo verse) to an alleluia that I’ve sung at least a hundred times. But here was the problem: earlier in the week I’d cantored three Masses on retreat with the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, doing an alleluia that I’ve sung at least a thousand times, with a very similar acclamation. As I sang the opening refrain (once myself, twice with the choir), I realized that I couldn’t anticipate the verse. I had no idea what I was supposed to sing next.
I tried to hang onto the wisdom I shared last September in a blog post called Holding it Lightly:
It reminds me of lesson I’ve learned from cantoring at St. Vincent’s over the last nine years. I can’t tell you how often I used to get a wash of anxiety during a ridiculously familiar song—seriously, like the Our Father or the Gloria or the Holy Holy—when I realized that I couldn’t think how the next section began. But of course the reason I couldn’t hear that bit in my head is because I was busy singing the current bit. By the time I got to the worrisome part, the piano would be playing it and my brain would have caught up to the music. Sometimes it was touch-and-go; I’d take a deep breath and open my mouth still not certain what was supposed to come out next, but sure enough, out it came, right on time.
Eventually I accepted that if I could stay focused on what I was singing in the moment, the next one would be given to me. As in Luke 12:12: “For the holy Spirit will teach you in that moment what you should say.” Or, come to think of it, as in the Our Father itself, with its request for daily bread (not Costco-sized multi-loaf packages).
And then came the moment of truth. The refrain ended. Valerie, our choir director / piano player, nodded at me. And the verse was nowhere to be found. Blank slate. Crickets. (Or–worse–crickets chirping the Celtic Alleluia instead of the Mass of Hope.)
So much for my wisdom, right?
But then a wonderful thing happened. I gave Val the “I don’t know the verse” face (and yes, that’s a face: panic-stricken eyes open wide; slight shake of the head) and she started to sing. At which point, of course, the whole verse came flooding back into my brain and I was fine.
And so my wisdom from last September gets an addendum. Sometimes God gives us what we need by having someone else hand it to us.
I experienced that reality in my book-life yesterday as well. As my publication date is just shy of three months away, there is so much work I should be doing: contacting bookstores, book bloggers, libraries and parishes; developing marketing materials, and strategizing creative ways to get the word out. The unappealing task of self-promotion could be a full-time job. Since I have a full-time job, however, I’m just doing what I can in the bits of time around the edges of my days.
But yesterday, out of the blue, I received a surprising email. One of the lovely women I met on the IVC retreat (where I was also the speaker) went home to Northern Virginia and told a friend about me. That woman pre-ordered Finding God in Ordinary Time on the strength of her friend’s recommendation, then invited me to exhibit at the Arlington Diocese’s “Future with Hope” Women’s Conference in October. Suddenly, I have a chance to bring my book to a part of the country I hadn’t even dreamed of reaching.
Indeed, sometimes God gives us what we need by having someone else hand it to us.
And so I will continue to practice holding things lightly, stay open to the messengers of grace God sends my way, and pray that I can share that message with someone who needs it today.
How about you? What do you need right now? And who might need something you could easily give?
Last Thursday I had the privilege of facilitating a retreat for members of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps / Baltimore region. IVC volunteers are people age “50 or better” (love it!) who serve 1-2 days a week with a partner agency, using their considerable talents to care for individuals who have slipped through society’s safety net. Their slogan is “Experience Making a Difference,” and I certainly experienced that difference myself in the course of our day together. What a delightful, engaged and engaging group of people, seasoned enough to offer wisdom, yet beautifully open to new questions.
We spent the afternoon working with Part Two of my book Finding God in Ordinary Time. Called Messengers of Grace, Part Two presents surprising encounters with strangers as one of the terrains in which we can spot the presence of God, hidden in plain sight. As you may know, I’ve decided to give faithful blog readers a peek into my book each Sunday in winter Ordinary Time. So with gratitude to the IVC volunteers whom I no longer call strangers, this week I want to share my introduction to Part Two.
Part Two Messengers of Grace
People are beautiful, courageous, and inspiring, but we are also messy, complicated, and fallible.
And yet we are dear to God’s heart. In Genesis—the first book of both the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible—we learn that all humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. The Qur’an teaches us that God (Allah) is “nearer to man than his jugular vein.” In Catholic Social Teaching, the dignity of each person is the first principle. Quakers affirm that there is “that of God in everyone.”
Ever wonder why so many religious traditions feel the need to point this out?
I love how my friend John puts it: every person we meet contains a revelation of God.
In Matthew 25, Jesus says that whatever we do for “the least of these,” we do for him. Who are these “least”? If we look at Jesus’ list (people who are hungry, thirsty, naked, or ill, those who are strangers or imprisoned), we will see that he clearly identified with those who are most vulnerable.
Sometimes vulnerability is attractive, and sometimes it is repellant, but it is always a place where, if we cock our heads at a certain angle, we can catch the message God wants us to hear.
Who has been a messenger of grace for you? Tell us your story in the “Leave a Reply” section below!
May each of your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed.