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Mark
Mark is the Retreat and Conference Center Director.
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Purchasing Disney+ as a Christmas present for our five-year-old daughter, and two-year-old son provided to be a wise decision. With sheltering-in-place (what week are we on?) there has been an uptick in screen time for my kids. To be fair, there’s been an uptick in screen time for my wife and me too. 

 My kids have similar tastes in movies. When they argue amongst each other it’s not too frequently about what to watch but rather who gets to sit in the “best” corner of the couch. Recently, they have been watching the Toy Story series -- the adventures of two toys, Woody (a cowboy) and Buzz Lightyear (a space ranger). First released in 1995, twenty-four years later, Toy Story Four was released just last year. I am roughly the same age as Andy, the boy to whom the toys belong and I’ve very much grown up with this series, enjoy it, and thus am most pleased my children request to watch these films.

Circumstances change; newness arrives and oldness commences; adversity cycles through. The values of loyalty and commitment conspire with self-identity to sculpt the edifice of love. The name of this type of love is friendship. Through thick-and-thin, joys and sorrows, strenuous disagreements and the like, these movies are about creating and maintaining friendship. How prescient for my kids to select films, animated allegories, about friendship in the time of adversity. Friendship is a wonderful, beautiful thing. And thanks to Toy Story, that ear-worm of Randy Newman’s, “You’ve Got a Friend In Me,” is on repeat in my house. That’s a good thing. If my kids can cultivate friendships they will do well and go far. So far, they could repeat the words of Buzz Lightyear with gusto and shout, “to infinity, and beyond!” 

 

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Mark  »

“The rain to the wind said,
You push and I'll pelt.'
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged--though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.”
-- Robert Frost


April showers bring May flowers. And as we are in May the poem above seems both apt and timely; for flowers and for each of us. We have bent low or laid lodged, but we have also two reasons for hope.

First, knowing that every storm we’ve experienced eventually ends and because this rain has fallen so hard and for so long, we have reason to believe that we are progressing, in time, towards a break in the storm or even this rain’s end.

Second, we have the capacity, like flower stems, for flexibility, for bending without breaking. We also have trust that with God’s grace our roots that can keep us in place even as the previously solid ground around us morphs into messy mud.

Now knowing how the flowers felt, we need not feel stuck in sorrow, but planted in empathy and solidarity. We know we can pray just as hard as the wind can push or the rain pelt.

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The Blooming
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Mark  »

It snowed. Before it snowed the stems of the daffodils had already broken the ground, growing, rising upwards. The next day, the snow melted. The stems of the daffodils are growing and rising even more. In the midst of that hallmark of Winter – snow – Spring had not stopped; in fact, she appears to have used that snow to quench the voracious thirst of the growing new life.

 Like Winter to Spring or any other seasonal transition, life had changed, not ended. This is not to say that all is normal, fine, or going well. Some seasons are impacted by flood or draught. The earth can be fickle. I too can be fickle, so I won’t belabor that point.

It may seem like snow has covered us all, that there is struggle in surviving the unexpected cold. I do not prophesy, but I do hope and though at times difficult I do trust too. A snow has fallen. I hope that the warming, elongated Light of Spring will melt that snow, turn it to good use, and I trust that with God’s help we will continue to grow and rise upwards. I look forward to the blooming daffodils, and in due time, for the blossoming of human life in a Spring-time garden. Let us hope and trust. Let us tend our gardens as we find them, as we are able.

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The True Cost
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Be careful what you sacrifice. Be mindful of how your sacrifice affects both you and those around you. Do discernment.

 

Two be’s and one action help buttress how we engage in sacrifice, because by itself, I believe sacrifice is neither good nor bad, it simply is. I believe this because some sacrifice is brought on due to external factors, such as a change in health, income, or relationships. These changes prompt us to perhaps make sacrifices to our routines to ensure health, make sacrifices to ensure ends-meet, and make sacrifices to improve relationships. Some sacrifices are brought about by internal means: spiritual discipline, psychological well-being, a new goal that requires you sacrifice the amount of time you’d spend elsewhere.


If we “have” to sacrifice, or if we “choose” to sacrifice, we must employ discernment to know the true cost of the sacrifice and to take into consideration how our sacrifice might affect others. Discernment is key. If I choose to give up caffeine, to sacrifice caffeine either for the sake of a spiritual discipline (like Lent) or simply to assist in better health, I need to ensure that my going into caffeine withdrawal should not make those around me miserable.  If I sacrifice my time to help the team at work, I need to be mindful that the time I’m giving up outside of work is perhaps time I might spend unwinding, not time I’d spend with my kids, if at all possible. We are interconnected, what we choose to sacrifice can very well affect us and those around us and so it’s very important to be careful, be observant of our sacrifice, and discern if the sacrifice is achieving the positive end and/or how the sacrifice is affecting other aspects of life.

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Life In Focus
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What’s in focus is what we see in front of us. Equally as important to our sight is our peripheral vision, which is not in focus but rather blurry and off to the side. Pope Francis speaks often on focusing on the peripheries. To do this we must turn our heads, our attention, to bring the periphery into focus. When we make this movement to look at, observe, or otherwise pay attention – which is focusing – that which was previously out of focus and off to the side is transformed into our center of interest and clarity. As such, we first have to choose what we want to focus on, and then we must move in the direction of that object to make it clear, make it our focus.

As an example, if we want to focus on a person or focus on the conversation we are having with a person we must make sure we move our sight unto that person and away from things such as the cell phone in our hand. To focus is to provide definition through attention, and people – not things – should be our focus.

What helps you focus? For me, I prefer quiet and order. Noise, even music I like tends to distract me more than it enables me to focus on a person or a task.

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As Jean Vanier wrote in Living Gently in a Violent World:

The Word became flesh to bring people together, to break down the walls of fear and hatred that separate people. That's the vision of the incarnation — to bring people together. ...

Maybe the most important thing is to learn how to build communities of celebration. Maybe the world will be transformed when we learn to have fun together. I don't mean to suggest that we don't talk about serious things. But maybe what our world needs more than anything is communities where we celebrate life together and become a sign of hope for our world. Maybe we need signs that it is possible to love each other.

 

Some years ago I read that excerpt of the late great Jean Vanier on a retreat. It resonates with me, especially as we progress from holiday gatherings to the newness of time in this New Year. We’ve gathered. We’ve celebrated. But, alas, have we built communities of celebration?

 Sometimes Christmas parties may seem like “forced fun” insofar as we’re obligated to spend time with folks we may not want to. Sometimes we think the only way we can have a celebration is by having a potent beverage in our hand. But striped of liquid courage or of family obligations, immersed in total freedom how would we choose to love one another? How would we build communities of celebration? In the bleakness of winter how are we going to be a sign that life, and love, and our relational nature is both possible and hope-filled? I, for one, plan on asking a specific question: What do you need? For I believe we can only build community when we know what we’re building with.

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What is Peace?
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December, draped in Advent, invites us to define the word, “peace.”

And so, what is peace to you?

But wait, before you answer that, or to best answer that, perhaps meditate on a few other questions that might lead you to a good definition of peace.

Who are the peaceful people in your life? Is peace accompanied by silence or can it be found among sounds, be they cacophonous or melodic?  When you recall instances you yearned for peace, what were you looking for -- perhaps understanding, calm, love, or togetherness? Lastly, is peace only external; is peace only a gift received or generated outside of yourself or might you be able to find peace inside, receive peace from yourself?

Advent covers most of the month of December and Advent is a time of anticipation leading up to the joy of Christmas, leading up to ‘peace on earth’?  What is peace to you and how do you plan to birth it this season?  

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Share A Cup of Hospitality
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Mark  »

Being hospitable can be a most challenging trait. At the Cenacle we borrow the line from the Benedictines: when a guest comes, Christ comes. The idea being that we must be welcoming and hospitable to all. It is easy to have a very narrow gate, to allow just a few worthy souls to enter and receive your hospitality, at the appointed hour; it is quite another, to have an expansive sense of hospitality, which includes the unscheduled and unexpected.

“Do not neglect hospitality,” Sacred Scripture reminds us, “for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2). Again, it can be easy to prepare for the times we expect to be hospitable, when holidays approach or planned gatherings happen. This we know and thus prepare to be hospitable perhaps by cleaning up, making arrangements, by preparing gifts or food especially things our planned guests may like. It’s the unexpected, the welcoming, the hospitality at the many unexpected guests and instances where we didn’t plan to have a comfortable cup of tea ready, or our time expended in listening to another. Try as we might, being hospitable is not dependent on being proactive (though it helps to be prepared). Being hospitable is a mindset, and a choice: a choice to welcome, a choice to share, a choice to lay previous plans aside to honor, help, and welcome another whether or not they are expected. Having a hard time with hospitality? I’ve found that gratefulness is a regular companion with hospitality. Perhaps there are other ways to engender a spirit of hospitality, to encourage us to say yes, and to understand that, whether angels, persons, or Christ himself, when someone approaches us we can choose to be hospitable.

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Mark  »
A change is not a transition. For instance on September 23, we had the Autumnal Equinox and seasons changed from summer to fall. The change may have happened formally, officially, seemingly at a specific minute or day, but the transition from summer to fall began well before September 23 and continues even today. The earth’s axis has been in transition and continues to transition itself and our seasons. In the North, our daily duration of sunlight has been transitioning from its peak in June through diminishment that leads up to the winter solstice. Trees do not wait for the equinox and all at once shed their leaves; trees transition like all flowers from growth, to bloom, to fade.

It is a shame, or so I believe, to equate transitions with changes. Transitions lead to changes; transitions are the little pieces that crescendo to the change, be it a season, or any other event. What helps me honor the difference between transitions and changes is being observant. Being observant helps me see the transitions around me – and in me. Being observant and seeing transitions helps me prepare for the completed transition, the change, when it arrives. The diminishing sun, the tinges of orange on otherwise green leaves helped me understand the transitioning into fall and the change of season when the time came. 

How are you observing the transitions in your life and in the world around you?

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