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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Weekend Away!

Sorry about not posting yesterday! I'm in Traverse City, MI celebrating a friend's birthday. Here's what the lake looked like yesterday:

Friday, September 28, 2012

Meditations XXX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Keep thyself therefore, truly simple, good, sincere, grave, free from all ostentation, a lover of that which is just, religious, kind, tender-hearted, strong and vigorous to undergo anything that becomes thee.”

This is a high bar to set for oneself, but no one ever complained of being "too good". It's a goal worth shooting for, even if it is a lifetime in the accomplishing.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Meditations XXIX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“If anybody shall reprove me, and shall make it apparent unto me, that in any either opinion or action of mine I do err, I will most gladly retract. For it is the truth that I seek after, by which I am sure that never any man was hurt; and as sure, that he is hurt that continueth in any error, or ignorance whatsoever.”

Amen! I am a seeker of the Truth, which, as Marcus says, "never any man was hurt". Again, tremendous humility is required to practice this, but how wonderful to live life as a continual seeker of Truth! It occurs to me that one must also have great self-respect and a healthy self-image to be able to take the reproof of others and accept it with humility and not feel that it is an "attack" against oneself.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Meditations XXVIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Do not ever conceive anything impossible to man, which by thee cannot, or not without much difficulty be effected.”

Just because I can't do it doesn't mean no one can do it! :) A humbling truth...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Meditations XXVII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“The best kind of revenge is not to become like unto them.”

I don't know what kind of experience Marcus Aurelius had that caused him to write this down 1800 years ago, but it is so true, and can be the hardest thing to practice!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Meditations XXVI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“For he is a happy man, who in his lifetime dealeth unto himself a happy lot and portion. A happy lot and portion is, good inclinations of the soul, good desires, good actions.”

Good desires and good actions...two worthy goals to keep in mind.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Silence of Passion

Finally, we come to the virtue of "silence of passion", which does NOT mean that we should eradicate all passion or emotion from our lives. Blessed Chaminade recognized the value of passion and emotion in helping us be transformed to be more like Christ. Even a cursory examination of Chaminade's own life will reveal a passionate man: passionate about living for Christ and about helping others grow spiritually. This is a man who wore disguises and risked his own life during the French Revolution to bring sacraments to faithful Catholics. This is a man who spent three years in exile imagining how he could re-Christianize his homeland once he was allowed to return. This was a man who re-animated the faith of thousands of people. It is hard to imagine him doing that without passion. But it was a directed, concentrated passion: a passion for his mission.

At one point in his life, Chaminade had been a science teacher. One of my favorite images (in my mind) is of Father Chaminade teaching a classroom of students about science. We know from letters he wrote, that he frequently used experiments in the classroom. As a teacher, I know how easily my passion for my subject can bubble to the top; I imagine Father Chaminade excitedly discussing some scientific truth with his students revealing his passion for helping students learn.

This virtue challenges us to be mindful of our passions and emotions: to focus and cultivate those passions that help us live better, and to let go of those passions and emotions that are holding us back. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Silence of Imagination

As with the pattern we have been following, the virtue of "silence of the imagination" calls us to cultivate a rich imagination that can be applied to making our lives and the world a better place. As Fr. Lackner writes in Virtues for the Mission, "Only through the exercise of imagination can we reconfigure situations and free ourselves for new possibilities." I would illustrate this with an example:

In the 1960s, India had serious food shortages that threatened to starve millions of people. Many economists said that India would never be able to feed itself. But Norman Borlaug, a scientist, developed a unique strain of wheat, called Dwarf Wheat, that had high yields of grain with a shorter stalk, so it didn't fall over in softer soil. Dwarf Wheat was grown in India and changed the course of a nation, and saved millions of people from dying of starvation. But the key here is that Borlaug could imagine something that no one else had considered possible before him. He used the power of his imagination to create a better world.

Fr. Lackner also points out that one way of exercising this virtue is by reading fiction and "going into" the characters. This kind of close reading, during which we begin to identify with characters: their emotions, thoughts, experiences, etc., is one way of developing empathy, and of de-centering the self. It's a way to remind ourselves that we are not the beginning and the end, and to help us become aware of others.

Imagination, when directed in a wholesome way can be a powerful tool for good in the world. It can expand our vision of what is possible, give us hope for the future, and help us live more fully the life of Christ.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Silence of the Mind

By now, dear readers, I'm sure you've realized the pattern that all the "silences" follow. Silence of the mind is about controlling our thoughts so that we can purge thoughts that aren't good for us and embrace and cultivate thoughts are are good for us. To some degree, thoughts are like words, in that they can come into our minds unbidden, and we don't always have the clarity to separate the good from the bad, or the discipline to embrace the good and let go of the bad. Again, I defer here to Fr. Lackner in Virtues for the Mission, he writes, "...we also become what we think and what we remember." (p. 15) And later, he writes, "...the point of this virtue is to develop a habit of acting in such a way that those memories that assist us to be the kind of person needed for the mission are to be treasured, and those that handicap us are to be silenced and released." (p. 17)

One of the central points to be made here is that much of what goes on in our minds is constructed from our everyday experiences (conversations, radio shows, TV, movies, magazines, books, the internet, etc.). To a large degree, the quality of my thoughts varies depending on the quality of these mind-engaging experiences. If I fill my day with intelligent conversation, beautiful radio, thought-provoking TV shows and articles, then my thoughts are going to tend toward those things; if, on the other hand, I am surrounded every day with hateful/angry speech, music and TV (images) that degrade others, and magazines and internet articles that tell me that I need to meet certain cultural norms to be considered "popular", "beautiful", or "worthy", then I'm likely to be trapped by thoughts that tear me down instead of building me up.

I can't emphasize this enough: the quality of our mental state is largely dependent upon what we put in there, what we expose ourselves to. There is so much crap out there, I have become convinced that an important 21st century skill is learning to curate the segment of culture and reality with which I interact. I intentionally limit my radio mostly to NPR and a classical radio station; I don't watch TV at all; I subscribe to "The Economist" and "WIRED" magazines and the New York Times; and my selection in books should be pretty evident to any regular reading of this blog.

The virtue of "silence of the mind" challenges us to be intentional about filling our minds with things that help us become better people (i.e. more Christ-like), and to let go of those things that hold us back. Fr. Lackner points out, "He [Jesus] is calling them [the disciples] to a new understanding, a new perception, a new way of seeing reality." (p. 15) It occurred to me that this is primarily what we do in the classroom as teachers. We try to help our students see the world from new perspectives and open their minds to new possibilities.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Silence of Signs

The second of the "five silences" is the "Silence of Signs". Like all the silences, this virtue is not about not giving any external signs, but rather of 1) bringing our body language (especially facial expressions) under our conscious control, and 2) using our body language with charity in kindness and truth. As Fr. Joseph Lackner says in his book Virtues for the Mission, "The discipline of this virtue involves being intentional about the way we act and developing a repertoire of behaviors which invite rather than stand in the way." (p. 14)

Most of us have had the experience of receiving a withering look from someone we respected, looked-up to, loved, or whose approval we desired. Most of us have been a single person on the outside of a group bunched together in close conversation, and felt the sting of "being left out". If we are honest with ourselves, we are also sometimes the person giving the withering look or using non-inviting body language to keep someone else away/out. These are the kinds of behaviors that the virtue of "silence of signs" invites us to examine and transform.

Father Chaminade recognized that our facial expressions, eye-contact (or lack thereof), and body language send powerful and clear messages. His challenge to us is to become more aware of this aspect of ourselves. In some ways, I think this is one of the hardest virtues to practice, for two reasons: 1) unless I look in a mirror, I cannot see myself or my facial expressions as I go through my day; and 2) my facial expressions and body language flow from my sub-conscious and are thus even more difficult to control than my speech!

This is the virtue I personally find the most difficult. I know that my face is very expressive, and I know I have a "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard" look; and try as I might, I have yet to purge that instinctive look. I know that it is neither uplifting nor charitable for me to give someone such a contemptuous look, but because it is instinctive, and because I cannot see my own face (although I have a good sense of what this "look" "feels" like), I struggle with this one.

Above, I mentioned a book by Fr. Joseph Lackner entitled Virtues for the Mission, which is published by NACMS in Dayton, Ohio. I highly recommend this text for anyone interested in learning more about Chaminade's "System of Virtues". It is probably the best modern resource available on this topic. I regularly re-read it to encourage self-examination.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Silence of Words

The first of the five silences is the "silence of words". Contrary to popular belief this virtue is not about not speaking; rather, it is about using words and speech prudently and with charity. Father Chaminade defined silence of words as "speaking only when you will it, and willing it only when necessary." All of the virtues of preparation have this two-fold aim: 1) to bring a normally subconscious or instinctual aspect of my life under my willful control; and 2) to use that willful control to sanctify that aspect of my life.

So often, the words that come out of my mouth are an instant reaction or a reflex. I often speak without thinking, and I don't think I'm alone. This is something I see with my students...words just pour of out of their mouths, and often their words have little to no meaning. The first part of this preparation virtue encourages each of us to become more mindful of our words and the ways we use language, to stop and think about what we're about to say. The goal of the first part is "to speak only when you will it." In other words, I should bring my speech under my conscious and deliberate control.

Once I have conscious control of my speech, and I'm no longer reactively/reflexively blurting things out, I then have an obligation to work at using my speech (and my silence) for the benefit of all. There are times when words are needed; and in those moments, it's important that we speak with love, kindness, and consideration (taking Jesus as our model). It is important that we speak Truth, and that we raise our voices against injustice. These are times when speech is necessary.

There are also times when silence is what is needed. Sometimes silence is needed to open space in our minds for thought. Sometimes silence is needed to open space in our souls for God. And in moments filled to the brim with abundant beauty and outrageous mystery silence is needed...moments when no words can do justice to what we see and feel.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The System of Virtues and the Five Silences

Blessed Father Chaminade, a french priest who lived from 1761 to 1850, was a wise man and a master of the spiritual life. One of his great contributions to the development of the interior life is what he called "The System of Virtues". Essentially, Father Chaminade believed that true Christianity involved living a life of Faith, Hope, and Love (Charity) (the three theological virtues), and in growing in that life to the point that it the would replace some of the more undesirable, or less virtuous, traits that we all have.

The System of Virtues was divided into three sections, each one setting the stage for the next:

The Virtues of Preparation - the work of consecrating oneself to the ideal, Jesus Christ; and the work of making normally involuntary actions voluntary, so that we then have power over them (more on this later). This involves a heightened self-awareness and a willingness to enter into self-examination.

The Virtues of Purification - Once the work of "preparation" has been begun (and it is important to note that it really never ends), only then can we really work at the purification virtues, which seek to help the soul have confidence in God, exercise patience, resolve to persevere even after failure, and to develop a resistance to temptation.

The Virtues of Consummation - As their name implies, Blessed Chaminade thought of these as the highest spiritual virtues, and he believed that they could only truly be worked at after reasonable progress had been made in the virtues of preparation and purification. The idea was that the first two kinds of virtues paved the way for a person to struggle with the final set: humility (removes all consideration of ourselves as the end of our existence), modesty (removes from our influence on people all our deficiencies), abnegation of self (removes all personal interest in our relations with the world), and renouncement of the world (takes from us all consideration of the world as the end of our aspirations)

This brief summary is based primarily on the text of a talk by Father William Ferree, SM, given in 1936, which can be found in Dougherty, Benjamin, ed., A Ferree Resource Collection (Dayton, Ohio: NACMS, 2008).

I would like to write more on each set of virtues at a later date, but for the moment, I think this will suffice as an introduction to the System of Virtues. What I would like to talk about more is what Blessed Chaminade called the "Five Silences". I will go on in later posts to enumerate each silence and give more information pertaining to it, but as an introduction here are the five silences:

Silence of Words
Silence of Signs
Silence of Imagination
Silence of the Mind
Silence of Passions

Look for more information on each of these in follow-up posts throughout the week!

Chaminade Week

You've probably all heard of "Shark Week". Well, I'm having "Chaminade Week" on the blog here. For those who are enjoying Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations", never fear, we'll be back with more of that next week. But I want to take a brief break from that to talk a little bit about Father Chaminade's "System of Virtues" and what he called "The Five Silences". So stay tuned. I'll post an introductory post today, and then each day I'll post something about one of the "silences".

Also coming up...based on the comments and feedback from my post about "integrity", I'm putting together a follow-up post on current academic assessment methods in the US, and how we can begin to fix that broken system.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Meditations XXV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Why should imprudent unlearned souls trouble that which is both learned, and prudent?”

I don't mean to be judgmental, but there are many "imprudent unlearned souls" with whom a person often interacts in a day, and recalling this little maxim can do wonders for saving one's personal sanity. Repeat after me...I am learned and prudent...I am learned and prudent...

Friday, September 14, 2012

Meditations XXIV

From Marcus' Aurelius' "Meditations":

“He liveth with the Gods, who at all times affords unto them the spectacle of a soul, both contented and well pleased with whatsoever is afforded, or allotted unto her;”

This reminds me of the old adage: "Don't worry about having what you want, focus instead of wanting what you already have." This is a very classical idea that if I can be content with my current situation, my life will be considerably happier. So much distress and anxiety comes from wishing that I was somewhere else, someone else, or sometime else...

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Meditations XXIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Such as thy thoughts and ordinary cogitations are, such will thy mind be in time. For the soul doth as it were receive its tincture from the fancies, and imaginations. Dye it therefore and thoroughly soak it with the assiduity of these cogitations.”

This is like the intellectual spin on Aristotle's concept of virtue. If you recall, Aristotle said, in his Ethics, that actions lead to habits, which form a character, which defines a destiny. Marcus Aurelius is saying that thoughts lead to habits of the mind, which forms and defines the soul. This is why it is so important to guard carefully what you expose yourself to intellectually. One who regularly "soaks" his mind (what a great image!) in rich, wise, discerning, clear thoughts, will have their character stamped on his soul. This ties in really well with what Father Chaminade called "Silence of the Mind". More on that in an upcoming series...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Meditations XXII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Reason, and rational power, are faculties which content themselves with themselves, and their own proper operations.”

You've heard of ars gratia ratio gratia rationis.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Meditations XXI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Be not querulous, be content with little, be kind, be free; avoid all superfluity, all vain prattling, be magnanimous.”

As with much of Marcus' sound advice, this is so much easier to agree with than to practice!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

American Culture and Integrity: Challenges and Considerations

My 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Bayshore, used to say, "Character is what you do when no one is looking." To this day, if I am walking down a deserted hallway and see a piece of trash, I may start to walk past it; then I hear his voice saying, "Character is what you do when no one is looking." And I turn around, pick-up the trash, and throw it away. Thank you, Mr. Bayshore. I also remember someone else telling me that "Integrity is much easier kept than restored."

I point out these two vivid memories from my own childhood only because, if you have been following the news lately, you must surely have noticed a dramatic rise in the number of serious cases of cheating/plagiarism occurring across the country, even in the most high profile schools (e.g. Harvard, the Air Force Academy, and Stuyvesant High School). A recent NY Times article pointed out that studies are confirming that more students are cheating, and that cheating is become more pervasive by high-performing students as a way to get an advantage over other high-performing students.

While I am an educator, and I do have to deal with plagiarism, copying, and other forms of cheating occasionally, I find this article more disturbing as a citizen of the United States and a patriot. The ubiquity of dishonest behavior that lacks integrity in our country is a symptom, I think, of a much larger cultural issue. I've blogged before about corporate greed and a lack of integrity in financial systems and on the part of those who manage those financial systems, and how thoroughly un-American I believe that kind of behavior to be, but I think we're seeing an entire generation being raised with no moral compass, no sense of integrity. In the wake of all these cheating scandals at high-profile schools, some people will, no doubt, seek to lay blame for these incidents. But I think the blame game is too easy (because we are probably all to blame to some degree), and it distracts us from the real challenge: how to fix the situation.

I see what a group of greedy amoral individuals have done to the US economy (Bernie Madoff, the Enron scandal, sub-prime mortgages, derivative trading, the executive who was caught buying and smuggling into the US highly controlled cooling chemicals, etc.), and my real fear is that the up-and-coming generation of future leaders and workers are sunk in this mindset of "make more money at any cost". And that, as a country, our future looks more bleak than our past when it comes to a record of integrity and wisdom in economic and public affairs.

Howard Gardner has done extensive research on teenage and young-adult Americans, and with respect to this problem, his research offers some interesting insights. First, most teenagers and young-adults do not believe cheating/plagiarizing/copying is wrong; they understand that if they get caught, there may be negative consequences, but because most students who cheat never get caught, they consider the "reward" to be worth the risk. Second, many students believe that "everyone" is cheating, and that for them to keep up with the highest achievers, they must cheat and cheat alike; otherwise, they risk falling behind (this, by the way, is something that came up in a brilliant op-ed piece written by a former cyclist, Jonathan Vaughters, addressing the issue with doping in cycling).

The question is: how do we reframe an entire country's cultural skew so that achieving my personal goals is no longer more important than retaining my integrity? Essentially, this is the juncture we have reached as a country. Most individuals are willing to sacrifice both their personal integrity as well as the well-being of their fellow citizens for personal gain and benefit.

My one idea is that perhaps we should develop a nationwide class or curriculum on virtue/character that addresses what students should be learning and practicing in the realm of virtue/character at each grade-level. The biggest challenge I see to implementing something like this is that the best way to pass on these traits is to learn them from elders who possess them, but as fewer and fewer living people possess them, there will be fewer and fewer people having these traits passed on to them, and it becomes a decreasing cycle.

DISCLAIMER: I am not perfect, I make poor choices sometimes, and I live with the consequences. I have never cheated or plagiarized. In fact, if anything, I am acutely aware of how intellectually indebted I am to the giants who have come before me (one of the sources of inspiration for this blog), and I am often over-zealous in giving credit for ideas to others. I try to live a life of integrity, and know that I sometimes fail.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Meditations XX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Think thyself fit and worthy to speak, or to do anything that is according to nature, and let not the reproach, or report of some that many ensue upon it, ever deter thee. If it be right and honest to be spoken or done, undervalue not thyself so much, as to be discouraged from it.”

If it's right to be said or done, respect yourself enough to say it or do it. On that note, I'm working on a post in response to an article in the NY Times about cheating...stay tuned!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Meditations XIX

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Thou must be like a promontory of the sea, against which though the waves beat continually, yet it both itself stands, and about it are those swelling waves stilled and quieted.”

This quote rang true with me, because I have always tried to be a calming and steadying force in the lives of those around me. I hope I have brought some measure of peace, joy, and tranquility into the lives of those who know me.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Meditations XVIII

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“All is vanity. What is it that we must bestow our care and diligence upon? even upon this only: that our minds and wills be just; that our actions be charitable; that our speech be never deceitful, or that our understanding be not subject to error;” its simplicity and truth it reminds me of Micah 6:8: "Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

Monday, September 3, 2012

Meditations XVII

From: Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations:

“He is a true fugitive, that flies from reason, by which men are sociable. He blind, who cannot see with the eyes of his understanding.”

Of all the things in life we run from, three seem to me the most essential: reason, the self, and God.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Meditations XVI

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Now much time and leisure doth he gain, who is not curious to know what his neighbour hath said, or hath done, or hath attempted...”

Ha! So true! Mind your own business and you'll be the better and happier for it!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Meditations XV

From Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations":

“Not as though thou hadst thousands of years to live. Death hangs over thee: whilst yet thou livest, whilst thou mayest, be good.”

No one knows what tomorrow good while you have the chance!