Friday, March 23, 2018

Sense of Purpose? What Sense of Purpose?

Floating through life can be an exhausting process. Trust me, I have tried and it is not worth the effort (or lack thereof). 

Growing up, it seemed that every couple of years I would wake up to the arrival of a new sibling. I finally gave up on having a younger sister after Brother #5 came along. In reality, I slept through the 60s….I had no idea what all the fuss was about the Beatles, the drug culture, Vietnam War or any of that. Insulated as I made myself, each day was pretty much the same: wake up, do what I was told, wait for the sun to set and do it all again the next day.

The intervening years had me floating through what I have jokingly called “my nine brilliant careers.” It wasn’t that I didn't commit to anything….it was just that many opportunities came my way and I tended to embrace them without any thought in mind as to where it would lead me. I was reasonably content; I was certainly busy, and in the busy-ness of the days with children, home and work, it was easy to mask that I really was not all that content.

Well, this is not a path I would encourage anyone to follow. In my career as a freelance writer and health coach, I have learned something about what it takes to be in this world and be content. It all revolves around doing what we want that makes us feel useful and, here is the important part, fulfilled.

In 2005, National Geographic researcher and writer Dan Buettner published an article that identified five places in the world where there was the highest concentration of centenarians--people who live to be more than 100 years old, and were living healthy and vibrant lives. He went on to publish his work in The Blue Zones, and what he found was that there were nine common traits of people in these areas (the Power9). One trait in particular fascinated me: having a sense of purpose. Those in Okinawa call this “ikigai”; in Costa Rica it is “plan de vida”.

People with a strong sense of purpose — what gets them out of bed in the morning with enthusiasm and joy — on average add seven years to their life expectancy. Studies also show that there is a detrimental effect for those who have no sense of purpose, or who have lost it for one reason or another.

Figuring out that ikigai can be a challenge, especially for those of us who have not made it a lifetime aim to live with a sense of purpose and meaning. To find it, Buettner suggests taking the time to make a list of our values, the things we like to do and then, the things we are good at. The cross section of these is the ikigai (The Performance Excellence Network has a nice explanation and diagram of this). Another way to look at it is to ask the following four questions:
1. What do I love?
2. What am I good at?
3. What can I be paid for now; or something that could transform into a future career?
4. What does the world need?

Perhaps this is why I let life happen to me. First, I couldn’t isolate what exactly I love to do, was good at, that had a value big enough to create meaning, as well as a way to make a living doing it. Beyond that, even if I could find that sweet spot, the risk of failure to achieve it was a huge stumbling block for me. I didn’t seem to be able to get away from the idea that what I could contribute to the world had any value to anyone but me.

Through the years, though, I have seen others successful in life doing work that mattered to them. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Irwin, or any of those people on cable TV whose "rags to riches" stories involved them taking a risk to do something they love, and hitting that sweet spot in the process.

What I understand now is that all of these people had a vision, a goal and a plan. Their desire to do work that bounced them out of bed in the morning was greater than the risk of failing. More than that, their desire to be happy outstripped the thought of living a life doing something they disliked, simply because it paid bills, or was something that made others happy. They were determined to not be defeated.

In reality, we make life more complicated than it should be because our focus is out of line. It is far healthier to hit that sweet spot--the ikigai, and in doing so, everything else falls into place. The challenge for me has been to take that risk. I believe that there are more of us who would rather take the risk of living life rather than merely existing day-to-day and going through the motions. This sense of purpose is the most important trait of the Power9 because without it, all the others (eating right, consistent movement, family/friends, etc...) can be achieved, but in all likelihood will not bring the contentment we all hope to have.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

When Gain is Worth the Loss

But now old friends they’re acting strange/They shake their heads, they say I’ve changedWell something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.

These lines from Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” provoke some reflection about life and relationships, about things lost and things gained as we move through our lives, and how we respond to it all.

There of course is a natural process to life and living. On an organic level we are born into the world, grow (gain), decline (lose) and finally die. Most of us want to spend the intervening years building and creating, seeking and discovering what we can do, in the hopes of making a difference in our life and world. All in all, the changes balance as parts of our life are lost in the attempt to gain something greater. Some might say becoming the best version of yourself.

It is amazing and admirable to see those who embrace their passions. Watching faces light up and hearing the excitement in their voices as they show off their flower garden, perform with a band, share photos and videos of hiking trails they have explored. Heck, even watching someone get excited about demolishing a house is thrilling. Steve Irwin, “The Crocodile Hunter,” was someone who exemplified this spirit to the end of his life. People living every day.

What about those who seem content to sit on the sidelines? Those who, for whatever reasons, avoid doing, creating, discovering the person they were meant to be? In other words, those who hold back (even a little) from truly living every day? Perhaps they don’t want to be where they are, but are unsure that the gain is worth the loss.

Part of it may be fear. Fear of creating something in their life that may change them in some way, and not quite knowing how to handle it when it happens. In the pursuit of a passion, the energy and drive it takes to learn the craft may move them away from people and places of comfort. Oh my gosh, they may even need to expand their world a bit (or a lot) in order to fully embrace that thing that makes them feel happy, content, successful, fulfilled, or just want to get out of bed in the morning. Longtime friends and even family may not understand the changes they see. It can make them fearful of losing those connections.

Part of it may be that the passion they want to follow involves massive action on their part. A gardener does not become a master in a week or a month or even a year. Proficiency with a keyboard or guitar is not acquired overnight. Taking a trek along the Pacific Crest Trail requires more than a good pair of hiking boots and a canteen. Making a choice to pursue something they have only dreamed about involves learning and growing; breaking old habits by replacing them with the mindset and actions which will prepare them for the greater and grander life they want. It requires commitment and change if they hope to be really living every day.

The question comes down to a willingness to risk going all in and accepting the internal challenges that must be faced in order to create a life that matters not only to them, but others as well.  It is a willingness to risk being thought strange when placing their feet on a path different from those who accept them as they are. 

In embracing the changes that will naturally happen in life and making choices to create an exceptional life, people may be lost, but perhaps only briefly. The reality is that those who will remain lost are likely those who were never really deeply connected to us in the first place. It is certain that the old self will be lost; old habits and attitudes will be lost, but the gain is so much sweeter as we truly will be living every day. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Practically Catholic: Making the Most of Lent

In less than a week we will begin Lent -- the period from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday -- which prepares us for the joyful Easter season. Many of us begin the season with the best intentions: giving up everything we enjoy, committing to more prayer and good works, being more mindful of opportunities to imitate Our Lord. It has been said that by fasting and meditation on the sufferings of Christ we can best induce in ourselves a proper contrition for our sins. So how do we make the most of these 40 days without losing our motivation?

Be Specific and Realistic
Too often, many of us approach this long penitential season with ideas of doing more than the proscribed days of fast and abstinence.....doing more than the minimum requirements. A prayerful approach heading into Ash Wednesday, I believe, is a way to calmly reflect on just what we want to achieve in the coming 40 days, and coming up with a specific and realistic plan aids us in achieving a profound Lenten season.

Look at your daily life and your responsibilities -- take these into consideration as you commit to additional fasting and abstinence. It won't do to commit to days of bread and water if your life and work require you to expend a great deal of calories daily. Perhaps, though, you can commit to one day of total fast and abstinence - with the specific intention of offering this in imitation of Christ's fasting in the desert.

Exchanging recreation time for meditation and good works is a wonderful thought as well. Abstaining from worldly amusements has been highly encouraged for many years. Here are some ways to make your Lent full of grace in preparation for Easter:

Set Aside Time for Meditation and Prayer
There are a variety of things we can do to increase our mental awareness of the season. Committing to reciting the Rosary each day and being really mindful of the Mysteries prayed (especially the Sorrowful Mysteries) turns our focus on what Our Lord and His Mother suffered for our redemption. Consider adding a litany to the end of your Rosary or morning or evening prayers. Those that help us meditate especially on Christ's sufferings, like the Litany of the Precious Blood, the Sacred Heart, the Holy Face are excellent choices.

Novenas are another source of prayer and meditation. A nine day commitment of prayer to Our Lady of Perpetual Help or the Souls in Purgatory is an excellent way to keep the spirit of humility and penance. Think about the dedication and what you ask in petition if you embrace this challenge. Too often I have focused on temporal concerns when saying a novena; I am learning to focus on my spiritual deficiencies and ask for greater virtue.

As you exchange television time, computer game time and the like for spiritual time, pick up a book! The Imitation of Christ, Divine Intimacy, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord, or Meditations for Lent from St. Thomas Aquinas are just a few titles worth your time and interest. Many of these are available in audiobook or Kindle for greater ease of access.

I have also found that signing up in my email to receive a daily meditation like this is a nice way to tie in to the Bible and provides much food for thoughtful focus.

Be a Doer
A healthy faith is one that is not only contemplative, but active as well. Using the Lenten season to do acts of charity bring us closer to God by serving souls. 

A fantastic and easy way to accomplish this service is found in the works of mercy. Through the Corporal Works we can do things like give alms to those in need, visit the sick or those who are otherwise confined. Through the Spiritual Works we can give our time in prayers for the living and dead; or take those daily opportunities to forgive or silently suffer wrongdoing to us, and comfort those who are in need. 

Taking advantage of attending Stations of the Cross when publicly prayed, or going to an extra Mass during the week can enrich our Lenten experience as well as bring us greater grace.

As with all Liturgical seasons, we should keep in mind the reason for the season, and take advantage of opportunities to grow closer to Our Creator, Our Savior and His Mother. Do your best to cultivate holiness and strive to overcome your spiritual deficiencies. Remember that even failing is a way to gain humility -- be reasonable in your expectations and stretch yourself a bit. You will be surprised at the growth you can make in your spiritual life. Keep in mind that our fasts and abstinences only please God when we also refrain from sin and do good works.

Happy Lent!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Septuagesima and Shrovetide

January closes and February brings us on to the pre-penitential season that begins with Septuagesima Sunday, the very short next season in the Liturgical Year. Incredible as it sounds, we have already moved through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany!

Although many will carry the Christmas season to February 2, the feast of the Purification, Septuagesima actually falls at the end of January - this year on January 28. This is the first warning of the approaching Lenten season. The Septuagesima season lasts about two and a half weeks. As a frame of reference, it falls nine Sundays before Easter and three Sundays before Ash Wednesday.

The history of Septuagesima is rich with symbolism. Literally meaning "seventy," Septuagesima recalls the 70 years the Israelites were held captive in Babylon, but can also be applied to the broader reality of our spiritual captivity in sin, until the full redemptive act of Our Savior's Passion, Death and Resurrection Easter Sunday. The liturgy itself becomes more somber, focusing on the fall and misery of man as seen in the Propers for the season. The Alleluia verse disappears from the Gradual, replaced by a Tract. The joyful colors of the Christmas season and white vestments are changed to the violet/purple colors we saw in Advent, reminding us of the penitential season. The Gloria once again is omitted until Easter.

In previous centuries, many faithful began a voluntary fast and abstinence on Septuagesima, gradually building to the more restrictive fast in Lent. A brief respite from the voluntary fast occurred at Shrovetide, celebrated the week before Ash Wednesday.

In many European countries, Shrovetide was set aside for confession and recreation. Restrictions in Lent included eggs, butter, milk and cheese, and, because there was no way to preserve these until Easter, it was only sensible to use up any of these foods before Ash Wednesday.

Two customs in England, in fact, support this. Shrove Tuesday Pancakes (eggs, butter and milk) and Collop Monday (sliced meat and eggs fried in butter) were well known customs. The carnival atmosphere included football games played in the streets, dancing and other forms of revelry. In France, it was called Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday).

It was to be expected that this carnival setting could be easily abused, leading to excess and scandal. In an attempt to rein in such abuses, in 1748 Pope Benedict XIV instituted the Forty Hours Devotion in honor of the Sacred Heart.

In our own time, Mardi Gras has become a major event, and the celebrations in New Orleans are well known for its weeks of revelry ending on Shrove Tuesday.

While the secular world prepares for Easter in February with candy displays featuring chocolate bunnies, egg dyeing kits, baskets and fake grass, it is important that we not blitz by the opportunities for true Easter preparation, beginning with the Septuagesima season. Adopting some of these activities is a nice way to get our minds focused for the longer penitential Lenten season.  A greater consideration of the customs and practices associated with Septuagesima can be found here.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Looks Like We Made It! Merry Christmas

Of course we made it. Time presses on whether we like it or not, so Christmas now replaces Advent in the Liturgical Year. The anticipation we felt in the previous four weeks is now replaced by a season of total wonder and love, with many facets for us to explore in our spiritual life.

God Seen by Men
During this Christmas Season, it is the hope that in our hearts this Child, Who is God now seen by men, will draw us to the love of the things that are unseen. As we exchange greetings and gifts among ourselves, we should keep in our hearts and minds that beautiful gift God Himself has given us in His Son, Who is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and our means of redemption.

His Birth Alters the World
Truly, the Birth of Christ changes the world. Many consider the season as a celebration of mothers and motherhood. It is difficult for us in our times to believe how women in ancient times had no rights or destiny except through men. Barely above a slave, women in these times were persecuted and degraded among the pagans. As God, He could have come into the world in any number of ways, yet God Incarnate elevates the dignity of women through His Mother - choosing a woman as His way into the world. We owe her gratitude, veneration and respect.

The season is also one of children. Christ's birth elevated the dignity of children as well simply because He chose to come to us as a helpless baby. Pagan rituals frequently used children as sacrifices, and those who escaped this fate were treated no better than women. The dignity and worth of children therefore increased at the Nativity of Our Lord.

Short Season
With all the events that transpire during this time, it is interesting to note that Christmas is one of the shortest Liturgical Seasons in the year. Indeed, it lasts about 12 days, until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. The Liturgy during these days is filled with images of joyous harmony between heaven and earth. It chronicles the early life of Christ. The Feast of the Holy Innocents falls during this time; the Gospels recount not only the Birth of Our Lord, but also the shepherds' visit to the manger, and the Presentation in the Temple. It is entirely fitting, then, that the month, dedicated to the Holy Infancy, ends with these celebrations.

Both the spiritual and temporal preparations we put in place during Advent carry over to this short Christmas Season, making it one of profound joy. It is with hope, then, that we make the most of graces offered as we close out December and carry this feeling into January.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Closing in on Christmas

Making the most of the Advent Season is a challenge in our fast-paced world. Amid the distractions, much of the richness and spiritual joy can be thrown by the wayside, or sadly, lost completely. All is not futile, though and there is still time to make wonderful preparation for the coming Christmas season.

A Spirit of Joy
Advent Week 3 ushers in a spirit of joy mingled with an attitude of penance. For those who have embraced the Advent Calendar activity, this week the candle lit changes from the purple to rose, signaling the imminent birth of the long awaited Messiah. The Scripture readings for Gaudete Sunday exhort us to "rejoice, always" for "our redemption is at hand."

In this octave before Christmas we can focus on the beautiful way in which Christ fills the prophecies of the Old Testament. The Golden Nights, also called The O Antiphons are readings taken from Isiais and Micah, Messianic prophets of the Old Testament. These Antiphons address very directly the titles by which Jesus is called. Beginning December 17 and continuing to December 23, we learn that Christ is "Wisdom, the Lord of Israel, the Root of Jesse, the Key of David, Radiant Dawn, King of all Nations, and finally Emmanuel - God with us." An easy and clear description and prayers for each of these titles can be found here.

An interesting side note to The O Antiphons is that in Latin, each of these titles, when written and formed into an acrostic, form the Latin phrase Era Cras, or "Tomorrow I come."

Mingled with Penance
As much as we feel the building hope in anticipation of Christ's birth, there is still a call to "make straight His path" to our hearts. Ember Days in winter answer such a call. One of four cycles of Ember Days, those in Advent fall on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after the feast of St. Lucy on December 13 - in the middle of Advent Week 3.

On these days, we are called to fast and abstinence, not so much as penance for our sins, but in spiritual renewal, reflection on our dependence on God and thanksgiving for blessing received - especially those received in His created world and nature. A full explanation on Ember Days, with special attention to Advent, can be found by clicking to this site.

Leading us to the Stable
This year Advent Week 3 serves as our final push toward Christmas as Christmas Eve falls on what would typically be the Fourth Sunday in Advent. Let us be encouraged in these final days to set aside time away from the frenzy of last minute gifts, cards, parties, decorating and the like to prepare our hearts and minds for the True Gift we receive at Christmas.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Thoughts for December Meditations

December begins and the world is in a frenzy with Christmas preparations and celebrations. Anticipation for the coming year - all those resolutions and hope for a better life - grow as the month progresses. It becomes easy to fall into the distractions and become side-tracked in the bustle, which can bring on stress and anxiety.

There is a better, quieter and simpler way to focus on December which can give us much comfort and consolation. I love the fact that within the Church year, each month has a dedication to help us deepen our understanding about the Faith to nourish our spiritual life and infuse our souls with peace and joy. Allowing ourselves to tap into these resources for even a few minutes a day can put us in tune with the real reason for the anticipated celebration of Christmas and the Christmas season.

Who does not love a baby - especially when the Baby is the Infant Jesus? The Church begins Her Liturgical Year in December, which is dedicated to the Divine Infancy. The Advent Season begins and ends in December, and is all about preparation for the coming of the Savior. Just as we need to prepare for the birth of our own children with baby showers and the family excitement of the new arrival grows, so do we need to spiritually prepare for the birth of Christ in this wonderful season.

Those who are blessed to be able to attend Holy Mass on a daily basis are invited to feel the holy hope of the coming Messiah, Who will break the bondage of sin and offer us eternal life. The liturgy is filled with Old Testament verses associated with the coming Redeemer through the Psalms and readings taken from Isaias - the prophet of the Incarnation.

Mingled with the hope and joy, Advent is also a time of penance. Again the liturgy reminds us through St. Paul's epistles and the words of St. John the Baptist  to "make straight the way of the Lord." While not as demanding as the penitential season of Lent, Advent does invite us to reflect on those things that make the Lord's path to our hearts less winding and more straight. The season encourages us remove from our hearts and minds those weaknesses and habits that keep us from feeling God's presence in our daily life.

So what can we do make this spiritual preparation when daily Mass is not available? The Church in Her Wisdom has placed before us in December's dedication to the Divine Infancy many activities to ready us for Christmas which I have discussed in this article. Delving deeper into the month, The Church calls us to honor Our Redeemer's Mother, celebrating her Immaculate Conception on December 8. Any novenas dedicated to Our Lady and her Maternity as well as those dedicated to Our Lord and His Infancy are entirely appropriate for the season as well. A nice connection to three novenas can be found here - The Novena to the Infant of Prague, The St. Andrew Novena and the Novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe (especially as she is the intercessor of the unborn).

For a fuller discussion on the Infancy and Childhood of Jesus as well as links to other small devotions that can be done daily, please click here.

The point is that in order to experience the coming Christmas Season, which begins on December 25, with the most peace and joy in our hearts, we need to make time beforehand to move our hearts and minds from the clutter of daily life. These activities and prayers take very little time during the course of our day. Many can be added to our daily prayers. Through them, our understanding of the miracle that occurred so many centuries ago in a stable in Bethlehem is broadened, our knowledge increased, and our love for the things Unseen intensified.