Something humbling happened at Trader Joe’s yesterday.
When I got in the checkout line, there was no one in front of me—just the customer being rung up. Only when it was my turn did I realize that I was standing on the wrong side of the checkout stand; instead of taking my place behind the customer, I was standing next to the cashier.
I shook my head and relocated myself, puzzled that I would make such a weird mistake. Then I realized something. The cashier was white. The customer was Black. Is that why I mindlessly got in line behind the white lady—because I assumed she was the one being waited on?
Here’s the thing: I don’t know.
My good friends will tell you that I am a dramatically unobservant person. (Odd for someone with an eagle eye for typos, yet true; I joke that my attention is focused on deeper realities.) In this case, however, I ignored a stunning array of visual data, starting with the fact that I was basically standing behind the cash register instead of in front of it. The cashier was wearing a TJ’s vest and nametag, for pity’s sake. And the customer’s grown daughter joined her, called her mom, and struck up a conversation, leading me to muse only that it was unusual for someone to visit her mother at work in this job. (Years ago, at a rest stop on a road trip, I walked into the men’s room and mused only that it was unusual for the ladies’ room to have urinals. I’m telling you—I can be dense!)
I say all this neither to excuse nor condemn myself. It is possible that I was just distracted and clueless. But it is also possible that my implicit bias was showing—that, glancing at two women in a suburban grocery store, I assumed that the white one was being served and the Black one doing the serving. If that’s what was happening in my brain, it saddens me. Profoundly.
We are in the home stretch of the Lenten season, when I always encourage people to be on the lookout for God’s daily invitations to prayer, sacrifice, and generosity. I think I need to add one more invitation to the list: repentance. (This is where the Ignatian daily Examen can be helpful.)
Noticing the negative movements in our hearts is humbling (from the Latin root humus, meaning “earth”). Being humbled recalls us to our earthy origins, our limitations, and our need for one another and for God. In this season of repentance, I pray that God will continue to open my eyes and—like a good gardener—help me uproot implicit bias from my being, one weed at a time.
I just checked the date of my last entry and realized I’ve gone a quarter of a year without blogging, and even longer without posting anything on social media. What’s up with that? Have I been hibernating?
Actually, I’ve been writing, which feels just as delightfully restorative. When I returned from the Ignatian Camino in November, I took some time to ease back into “regular” life. Knowing that my speaking schedule would pick up in February with the beginning of Lent, after the holidays I made a decision: devote January to working on my next book, Finding God Along the Way: Wisdom from the Ignatian Camino for Life at Home.
What a luxury! I spent much of the last month slipping out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to write, giving myself permission to ignore all other tasks until the last of my creative energy was spent. This was particularly satisfying during the five days I dog-sat at my brother’s house; there’s nothing like snuggling up with an eighty-pound basset hound to keep you in one place. (Pictured here: Hank overseeing my progress from the back of the sofa.)
Originally, the subtitle of this new book was going to be “Lessons from the Ignatian Camino for Life at Home.” While I like the pairing of “lessons” and “life” (adoring alliteration as I do), the more I wrote, the less appropriate the subtitle felt. The effects of the Camino are dynamic, continuing to unfold. The word Lessons feels too pat—like I should be tying an instructive bow at the end of every chapter. So I’ve shifted to Wisdom, which feels more open-ended. Here’s how I describe it in the introduction:
The wisdom of the Ignatian Camino is not just for those with the resources to fly to Spain, lace up their boots, and hit the road. It is everyday wisdom, useful whether or not your life is marked by good health, financial freedom, or job flexibility. Like all wisdom, it needs to be savored, so I would encourage you not to race through this book to find out “what happened.”
I’m trying not to race through the book, either. After drafting a few chapters that belong somewhere in the middle (starting there because they were fun to write), I’ve gone back to the beginning, paging through my notes, photos, and reflections to stir my memories. Sometimes I get lost down an internet rabbit hole, looking at maps of the terrain we crossed, or trying to figure out the name of that church / park / village we visited. And yet, this is not a travelogue; despite veering away from the word “lessons,” with every chapter I ask myself what I learned, and how that wisdom is bearing fruit back at home. If it’s not, it’s not worth sharing.
My January hibernation got me almost to the midpoint of Finding God Along the Way, making me optimistic about my (self-imposed) June deadline for a finished first draft. Now that February is here, I still take most mornings to write, but after that I turn my attention to the Lenten programs on my horizon. Allow me to highlight the newest here:
On the weekend of March 10-12, at the Loyola House of Retreats in Morristown NJ, I’ll be co-leading a retreat called “Brother and Sister and Mother to Me: God’s Holy Family is Wider Than We Know.” The idea for this retreat came when Loyola invited presenters to design retreats for the 2023 season around the theme of “family.” My mind immediately went to how many people feel omitted or excluded—for a variety of reasons—when the Church starts using that word, and I knew I wanted to do something for them. For us.
Here’s how my friend and co-presenter Linda Baratte and I are describing the retreat:
A treasured insight in our Catholic tradition is the idea of family as the domestic Church—an honored place where, like the Holy Family, we first learn to love. But what if our family bears little resemblance to that sacred threesome? We can often feel on the fringe of Church and parish life. Whatever our family configuration, what would it mean to embrace the radical, wider vision of family that Jesus is inviting us to—with faith, not blood nor history, as our DNA? In our retreat weekend together, we will explore and celebrate the richness of all the ways God has called us to be family to one another.
Now, that feels worth coming out of hibernation for! If it piques your interest–for yourself or someone you love–check out Loyola’s website for details. And be sure to visit my Speaker page for other Lenten offerings; Ash Wednesday is two weeks from today!
Now, back to Spain (if only in my brain) I go . . .
This question is both utterly welcome and so hard to answer. Where do I begin? It’s easy to talk about miles and blisters; it’s delightful to describe gorgeous vistas and wonderful companions. However, as I predicted, the essential things all happened on the inside, in the space created by my walking, prayer, and ultimately surrender to the experience.
I was determined to keep track of the outer and inner journey, so after waking up early every morning to get hydrated and caffeinated for the walk ahead, I pulled out my bluetooth keyboard and captured everything I could recall from the previous day. This left me with lots of raw material for my next book (tentatively titled Finding God Along the Way: Lessons from the Ignatian Camino for Life at Home), but it doesn’t help me answer the “how was it” question. It’s too much, just as my photos are too much; I need to cull the impressions down to a shareable size.
I did manage to write five short essays for the Ignatian Volunteer Corps to email to those following our journey. Here are my Reflections from the Road, which capture some of the experience as it was unfolding.
The point of pilgrimage, however, is transformation, and transformation takes time. The true measure of the Camino will be taken after my feet have healed and I am fully integrated back into my “normal” life, not thinking of Spain almost every waking minute. What changes will persist after the drama of the physical journey has subsided? That’s what I’m eager to know, yet only time will tell. For the moment, let me share just two words that I hope will continue to mark this experience: solidarity and indifference.
During one of our group reflections, I shared that I was trying to let the challenges of the Camino connect my heart to people who do hard things every day. Walking across a desert on blistered feet, for example, I tried to hold in prayer all those refugees who make arduous desert crossings without LL Bean hiking poles in hand or a pilgrims’ shelter on the horizon. “So many people’s lives are impossibly hard every day,” I said. “This is just a month, and we volunteered for it.” At that, Fr. Jose cracked up. “Volunteered?” he laughed. “You PAID for this!”
Indeed we did. This exercise in solidarity was imaginative at best, and is valuable only if it is also transformative, keeping me mindful of and compassionate towards those who suffer hardships that my month-long sojourn only hinted at.
How much longer will we be walking uphill? Is it going to rain today? When do we stop for lunch? Will we sleep in private rooms or a bunk room tonight? Is there a washing machine at the next hostel? These and countless other questions popped into our heads and flew out of our mouths all day long, but Fr. Jose kept encouraging us to stay focused on the now. This path. These companions. This moment. This prayer. These smells and sounds and sights and feelings. He was teaching us to unhook our minds from a preoccupation with what might be, so as to be fully present to what was right in front of us, and to welcome with open hearts whatever came our way.
Of course, this was rendered easier by the fact that we had so few choices available to us (other than, in the words of Victor Frankl, the freedom to choose our attitude). Now that we are home and get to decide every blessed thing for ourselves again, it is easy for those superficial wants to clamor for attention. My hope is that I can allow my passing preferences to matter less, so as to be more present to what is, and allow that to call forth, as Ignatius would say, a deeper response to my life in God.
How was the Camino? It was the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done. Yet ultimately, we will know this experience by its fruit, and it’s not even close to harvest time.
In 2014, when my father was near the beginning of what turned out to be his final illness, my brother and I asked each other that question continually. Would Dad be able to keep living alone? Was there any chance we could persuade him to move somewhere without six bedrooms and three flights of stairs? Could we possibly shift our lives and responsibilities to care for him ourselves? What’s going to happen? Over and over we repeated this unanswerable mantra, until life unfolded and we lived our way into the answers. (Which turned out to be, for the specific questions above: no, heck no, and absolutely.)
As I prepare to depart for the Ignatian Camino–the pandemic-deferred pilgrimage I’ve been dreaming about for more than three years now–I find myself echoing the same question. What’s going to happen? My logistics are as ready as they’re ever going to be. My socks are double-layered. My shoes are broken in. My satchel and suitcase are organized. There’s a decent chance I’ve overpacked, but my bag remains dramatically under the weight limit. And, unlike the trip to Peru I joke about in my “Take Nothing for the Journey” retreat, I’m not bringing a single Whitman’s Sampler.
I’ve been focusing on the externals because they are all-consuming, yet I know that, once I set foot out of Loyola Castle, they will be far from all-important. Everything essential will be happening on the inside, in the space that my prayer and my walking create for God. Although I have mental images of what it will be like to stand in the room where Ignatius recovered from his cannonball injury, or to pray in the Cave of Manresa where he developed the Spiritual Exercises, or to walk step after step through the same mountains and vineyards and deserts and villages he saw, the only thing I know for sure is that I will be surprised.
Therefore, as my spiritual director wisely advised, all I can do is strive to be open to the grace that will be meeting me there. And I do know, from that hospice experience, the power of being met by grace.
I’ll return to this blog space after the pilgrimage; in the meanwhile, I hope you’ll follow our journey on the Ignatian Volunteer Corps website, which will be posting whatever photos and ruminations I manage to send from along the way.
It’s podcast season! I’ve been interviewed for several, and will post them as they drop. Each one is different; click the image below to listen to Leah Jones’ “Finding Favorites” podcast, in which we learn why fire sirens are among my favorite things.
You’ll also get to hear two women of faith–one Catholic, one Jewish–discuss worship in pandemic, the importance of blessing the heck out of everything, and learning to speak Ignatian.
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.