Busted Halo
Features : Religion & Spirituality
December 23rd, 2011
A closer look at how several women break the pattern of male ancestors in the Gospel's account of Jesus' genealogy

A defining Gospel passage during Advent is the genealogy text from Matthew’s Gospel (1:1-17). At first glance, these verses simply appear to be a collection of names, and therefore incapable of producing any meaning other than the obvious — this is Jesus’ family tree. After a closer look at this passage, it became apparent to me that these verses, like Mary, are pregnant with hidden treasure.
The list of names produces a pattern: one man fathers another; one generation follows another; and every 14 generations an event important to the history of the chosen people takes place. Not only does the pattern create an expectation, it also becomes predictable. This pattern, however, is randomly…

December 20th, 2011
For families divided by politics or religion, gathering on the holidays provides both challenges and opportunities

My relatives are an eclectic bunch, pretty evenly split — to use crude and somewhat useless political labels — between Left and Right; our religious diversity includes Catholics, Mormons, evangelicals, United Church of Christ members and a few who are unaffiliated. Throw in my surrogate family (that’s a story for another time) and you add Presbyterians, Jews and Buddhists. As we gather around our family table and share letters and cards this holiday season, I will be looking for opportunities to be a healing force.

My family is like millions of others in the United States who come together this time of year for the holidays and struggle to put their passionate differences aside for a few hours. Of course, these divides always existed, but recent years have been different for two reasons. First, major shifts — generationally and ideologically — have left many feeling left out of the party, so to speak. Second, politics is the ugliest it’s been in modern history. There are plenty of hurt feelings all around. A lot of fear gets stirred up.

In couples counseling, it’s an axiom that the most toxic thing to a relationship is not when the partners disagree, or even fight, but when they stop respecting each other. For several generations now, there has been little trust and respect in the political sphere. Both sides have demonized the other, have assumed ill motives on their opponents’ parts.

But of all relationships, the deepest and oldest, next to our relationship with God, is family. So, how sad when distrust and lack of respect attacks relationships with literal brothers and sisters.

December 14th, 2011

In the back pew of the adoration chapel, I folded my arms and slouched before the God who wouldn’t talk to me. It was Advent, and I was wrenching in the throes of undergraduate existentialist angst. Prayer had once suffused my days with joy and meaning; the time I spent in the chapel had gone by quickly and pleasantly, and when I left I felt full to bursting with quiet elation. Now prayer was a process I dreaded: grueling, tedious, utterly devoid of consolation. I was in agony. I resented God’s silence and inactivity, and I told Him so. Repeatedly.
I glanced back at the clock on the wall. I’d been sitting in that chapel for three unproductive, spiritually arid quarters of an hour. I shifted in my seat,…

December 8th, 2011

Many “alternative” gift articles suggest non-gifts — things like giving to charity in the person’s name, or giving service rather than a thing — but choosing a present specifically for another person, wrapping it playfully and offering it to them can tap into love, charity, selflessness and hospitality. I refuse to let consumerism win by equating gift giving with money and greed. I want you to buy gifts, real physical gifts. So how do we choose gifts in a mass consumer culture?

There isn’t just one approach. You might choose items made locally; or by individuals; or from small manufacturers that treat their employees well. If you’re not buying directly from the supplier, you will be considering the retailer too. Let’s call it “conscious” gift shopping. The spiritual principle here is to consider the whole gift: what it will mean to the recipient; what it’s made of; how it was made; who made it; how it got to your hands. I think everyone can embrace supporting individual craftspeople and small businesses over multinational corporations. At least for Christmas.

December 7th, 2011
Grieving infertility and miscarriage in the season of Advent

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
– Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, O, Holy Night
Wanting to be a parent is perhaps the greatest human desire. The desire to love another soul unconditionally — to teach, guide and nurture — is profoundly exciting. Being willing to impact the life of another in such an intimate way is overwhelmingly selfless. The yearning to share one’s own DNA, body, family traditions, home and life with a new creation is a dream many experience years prior…

November 22nd, 2011
A helpful tool to encourage a more grateful attitude towards life

This is the last column to run before Thanksgiving, so I want to talk to you about gratitude. I could write a dozen columns about gratitude in various forms; for this column, I’m going to focus on one simple tool: the gratitude list.

When you find yourself feeling particularly ungrateful about your life — or your spiritual director or friend points out to you that you are — you can stop and remind yourself of all the things for which you can be grateful.

There are some obvious things. You often hear people say, “at least I’ve got my health.” That might sound trite, but if you have ever experienced a serious loss of your own good health and then gotten it back, or if you or to someone close to you is deprived permanently of good health, you will know that good health is a great blessing. Another common item is family — partners, parents, children: whoever loves you unconditionally and gives you sustenance and support.

Not half full or half empty — just half full

Gratitude list items can also be seemingly trivial things — or at least things that might seem so to someone else. And many things can be seen as blessings or negatives. For example, I do not live with anyone else. I could focus on and feed feelings of loneliness. But I can also be grateful for the control I have over my environment and how easy it is to meditate and have silence when I want it. (Ask anyone with a big family about how precious that is!)

It’s important, even though this is a list, to not fall into thinking of it as a two-sided ledger. It’s not “I’m alone but at least I have peace and quiet.”  It’s, “I can have peace and quiet whenever I want in my home.”

It’s not about seeing our world’s cup as half full rather than half empty. Because the truth is everyone, and I mean everyone, has things they can be grateful for and things they can be ungrateful for. It’s about paying attention to the part that’s full. Who cares about what you don’t have? Seriously. Think about that for a moment.

Focusing on what we don’t have, on expectations of things that have not materialized for us, only leads to anxiety and self-pity. I’m not saying there is no place for wanting to create a more abundant life, but that’s not the way. Paradoxically — as are most great spiritual principles — it is by being content with what we have that we are open to seeing clearly what is around us, and seeing new opportunities.

November 18th, 2011

I’m a proud alumnus of a Jesuit school — Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. One thing the Jesuits are very good at doing is talking about themselves, especially when it comes to their founder, Ignatius of Loyola. Because of this, I think I’ve forgotten more about Ignatian spirituality in the past four years than many people will learn in their entire life. The Jesuits would be so proud.
There were a few things I latched on to, though. One of those was the Jesuits’ vow of poverty, which, from what I saw in my interactions with them, must have some awesome loopholes. Another, more important one was the deep value the Ignatian spiritual tradition places on gratitude.
While I was in college,…

November 16th, 2011
The new translation of the Mass is coming to a parish near you. Here are the changes you need to know about.

If you’re headed to Mass during the upcoming Advent and Christmas seasons, you’re going to notice some changes. Starting November 27 the Roman Catholic Church will be using a new set of instructions for celebrating Mass — all part of the newly revised Roman Missal (the 3rd Edition, in fact!). This new translation contains revised prayers for both the priest and the assembly. Don’t worry, not all the prayers are changing, but there are some significant changes you should know about.
#1: “And with your Spirit!”
At the beginning of Mass, the priest makes the Sign of the Cross and greets the people by saying, “The Lord be with you.” In the new translation, the assembly…

November 15th, 2011
How the practice of writing in a gratitude journal has become a 10-year spiritual practice

I’ve only kept one New Year’s resolution.
Well, maybe I’ve kept more, but the fact that I can’t remember any others I’ve made makes me think that they weren’t kept.
When I was 16 years old, on our first day back after winter break, my English teacher asked us what our New Year’s resolutions were. I remember one classmate saying that she had decided to keep a gratitude journal, an idea she heard about on the Oprah Winfrey show.
Being an Oprah fanatic, my interest was piqued.
It seems odd to admit that I love writing but hate journaling. It’s the type of feeling I get from hand writing a letter, too. My handwriting and thoughts start out all nice and beautiful, and by the end, I am scribbling indiscernibly…

November 10th, 2011

We are told it is natural to thirst for fulfillment in aligning our life with God’s plan for us and to thirst for the kingdom of heaven on earth to be made manifest around us. So how is this compatible with the idea of accepting everything exactly as it is? This tension is expressed in the Serenity Prayer, which I’ve written about here before. In one line we ask for the courage to change what we can; in another the serenity to accept what we can’t. The prayer’s author then adds a request for the wisdom to know the difference. Well, that’s easier said than done, isn’t it?
Usually in this column, I at least take a stab at giving some advice. But here all I can do is acknowledge the tension.…

November 9th, 2011
Churches aren't one-size-fits-all and it can take time to find the right one

I’ve been church shopping for more than three years now. I’m not much of a shopper so it’s getting tiring, but I’m not about to give up. I’m choosey: I want good music, a diverse and accepting community, a priest who consistently gives relevant and challenging homilies, and a church culture that embraces social justice. I’ve found churches that have some of the things on my list, but finding all of them in one place has proven to be a challenge.
My church shopping began in August of 2008 when I moved from Maine to North Carolina to transfer to Salem College. At first I rode with friends to a Mass on another college campus. I liked the priest, but student Masses have always seemed…

November 4th, 2011
Dealing with the shortening days and the end of daylight-saving time

Every year, at the beginning of warm weather, I encourage everyone to get out in the sun and experience nature, but it’s important to respect the rhythms of nature and our body in cold weather too. This weekend, in the wee hours of Sunday November 6, daylight-saving time (DST) ends for the year. Though winter doesn’t technically begin for another month and a half, this always feels to me like the point where things change.
So I want to talk to you about two things: SAD and DST.
First, let’s clear up one thing about “seasonal affective disorder,” or SAD. Everyone is affected by the seasons…. That’s not a disorder. That’s being human.
Unless you live near the equator, the

November 3rd, 2011

Growing up, I always knew Dad’s side of the family was Polish. I knew we had a special affinity for sausages and cabbage, that we called my grandma Busha and that we had thrown a party bigger than any Arrowhead Road had ever seen when I made my First Communion.
But I never knew much more than that until we lost her.
Memories from the day of Busha’s funeral resound so powerfully in my memory. Images of my towering dad and four uncles, some of the toughest men I know, sitting in wooden pews with clasped hands, bent heads, and red-rimmed eyes flash through my mind. A Polish priest crossing the air above her body, sounds of a Polish prayer that none of us but Busha could understand.
I felt something in our family change that day.…

October 28th, 2011
Learning to love, not fear, the people in the stained glass windows

Lately, I’ve been considering teaching my son Matthew about the saints. At the big-boy age of 5, he’s surely old enough to become captivated by their stories. But then I realized that when you talk about the lives of the saints, you also have to talk about their deaths.

Therein lies the problem.

Not every saint had a gruesome death, of course, but quite a few of them did. And for a kid whose imaginative diet consists of nothing more sinister than the dragon that Harold draws with his magic purple crayon, I can hardly fathom telling him about St. Agnes, whose head was cut off, or St. Lawrence, who was literally grilled alive. My child already has an innate fear of the dark; I don’t need to tell him stories that will encourage it.

October 19th, 2011
Getting over the stress of praying the right way and simply talking with God

Last week, I paused to look out the front window of my apartment just long enough to see a middle-aged woman briskly get in her car, make the Sign of the Cross, and turn over the engine.
I felt somewhat comforted knowing someone else prays before driving. I never used to pray in the car, until I came to Chicago. Something about driving here reminds me daily of my mortality. I sometimes wonder how I arrive back home without an insurance claim. This all occurs in a car that is adorned by religious medals that my very-Catholic mother sneaks into it in the same manner she tries to hide $20 in my purse.
As much as I could talk at length about Chicago drivers, what stayed with me about that morning is that someone else prayed the same…

October 12th, 2011

Somehow — don’t ask me how — the conversation turned to Catholic iconography. Seven or eight of us denizens of graduate school were gathered around a long wooden table in the seminar room. I sat in tense silence next to the window while the others commented on what they considered grisly religious emblems: the Sacred Heart wound with thorns and dripping blood, the body of Jesus hanging limp and emaciated upon the crucifix. One person started to laugh.
“My mother wouldn’t let me in a Catholic church when I was little,” she said, “because she thought it was so primitive….”
I said nothing; I could think of nothing to say to this little crowd of non- or ex-Catholics. But small knots of discomfort

October 7th, 2011

I probably should have had an obit for Steve Jobs ready to run. We had a dry run when he resigned as head of Apple a few months ago. But I didn’t, and many others have accurately chronicled the facts, so instead, for my regular personal spirituality column, I’m going to look at a few things we can learn from him.
Though I never had the pleasure of meeting the man, Steve Jobs’ work and influence affected my life often. At different times, I came close to working for both Apple and Pixar, the latter before he took it over. The first personal computer I ever bought was a Mac 512, no hard drive, for $2,600 (in 1984 money; that’s the equivalent of $5,400 today). Compared to my current MacBook, it had 1/800th…

October 6th, 2011

Do you have trouble forgiving? Well, I hope I don’t shatter anyone’s image of nuns, but I do, too.
Some of the sayings connected with forgiveness don’t help. You know, sayings like Alexander Pope’s “To err is human, to forgive is divine” and Jesus’ command that we forgive 77 times (or 70 times seven times) sends the subliminal message that forgiveness is impossible. Then we have the phrase “forgive and forget” — where in the world did that come from? So many people let these words glide glibly from their tongues. It makes it seem that forgiveness is easy and adds a guilt trip besides.
Well, I was in the category of believing that forgiving was next to impossible. I sat in prayer I don’t know…

September 29th, 2011

I often hear people talking about living in the present moment as if it is a struggle, some cosmic game of attempting to grasp something that is fleeting, illusory. They say things like, “the moment I have it, it’s gone.” While this is true and can be frustrating, the last thing present moment awareness is about is grabbing serenity. I have always liked the metaphor of the river (borrowed from my Christian contemplative practice of centering prayer) in talking of the flow of thoughts. Imagine the stream of consciousness as a river, with boats and debris representing thoughts. You’re sitting on the bank of the river watching it. Normal awareness has you looking at each individual boat-thought, following it down the river with your eyes — and to strain the metaphor, getting on it and opening hatches — then suddenly shifting your awareness to another boat and so on. If your mind is particularly cluttered, you can feel overwhelmed by all the boats you have to look at and it can feel like that classic I Love Lucy skit with the conveyor belt at the chocolate factory, like you’re falling behind and they start slipping by. There can be a sense of panic that a thought that’s getting past you without attention is important and you’re missing it.

Present moment awareness is simply sitting on the bank and watching the river, not the boats. Boats cross your field of vision and you do see them, but you don’t follow them with your eyes or get on them. They’re not out of focus, but you don’t focus on them.

September 28th, 2011
Reconciling prayers of petition with the idea of God's Will

When we speak to God are we affecting His plans? Are we influencing the future? And if not, why do we persist in asking God to listen to our wishes? The most thoughtful people I know can’t help wondering.
Jesus taught his disciples to ask in prayer for specific blessings: for our daily bread; to forgive our transgressions; to help us in some way against temptation; and to deliver us from evil. But it feels less appropriate to turn our prayers into a wish list of our own desires, or a memo to God on improving his management style. Asking God to bring about something specific for me — a new job, acceptance to a school, approval for a mortgage – seems downright cheesy.
Even asking for good things to happen for other…

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