Saturday, July 26, 2014

German Class: An Environment for Good Theology

            The end of another week has come here in Leuven.  For me, it is also the end of an intense yet enlightening experience.  For the past two weeks I have been in German class for 8 hours a day, and probably studying it for 4 hours each day on top of that.  Dropping oneself into a foreign language course in a foreign land is not something I would really recommend.  In fact, I don’t know if I could do it again.  I am satisfied with the amount of German I learned; but it certainly was not easy.  However, I believe that God had a little more in mind for me from this class than just learning German.  This is usually the way He seems to operate with me.
            The real gift of the class for me was the other students.  It was the first time in a long time that I found myself around such a variety of people, with different ages, backgrounds, areas of study and well, personalities.  There was one young woman studying Classical Greek and Latin, who even wanted to be able to speak Latin herself (which is fascinating because for all intents and purposes it is a dead language---of course she would disagree!).  There was another young man majoring in physics, who could wax eloquently about the most abstruse and esoteric problems like he was speaking poetry (it brought me back to my days of mathematics).  There was also a pilot, who midweek left the class because his airline needed someone to fly to southern Africa somewhere.  And there were two philosophers: one just finishing up her degree and another just beginning.  There was also an architect who loved to talk about acoustics, a soon-to-be doctor, a research biologist and a young historian who practiced Medieval Marshal Arts (that means real big swords and stuff like knights used to use!).  Then you had the ole priest, me. 
            When we had pauses during the class we would talk about cultural differences, we would engage each other’s subject matter, we would philosophize, and with the guidance of a few Belgian hops (mostly after class), we would even try to solve some of the world’s problems.  What struck me the most in the midst of these exchanges was that this is perhaps how the best theology can be done.  In the midst of God’s people: some believing, others never having heard of God, and even others professing belief in no God at all.  And in the midst of varying levels and areas of expertise, where science and language and history and faith could all intersect, agree, disagree, stimulate and even bore, but each could have its own place and yet each could be intimately connected to the other.

            I am not one who believes that knowledge should ever be judged solely on its usefulness and practicality.  Certainly people have to work and an education is helpful in securing a job.  But I believe that education and knowledge, and for me especially theology, touches the soul, changes a person, and is as much a journey to the depths of the heart as are relationships and faith.  And it seems to me that the best way to allow knowledge to affect one’s soul is not simply to have each faculty and subject isolated and restricted to its own place. But rather, to have them intersect, communicate, dialogue, challenge and enhance each other.  I suppose it is much like the people of my German class did for me. So I say thanks to my German class members as yet another week passes here in Leuven.  Thanks for touching my heart.  Thanks for a good first two weeks. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Day in my Life at Leuven: Has it Really been a Week!!

Has it really been a week?  I just can’t believe that one week to the day I arrived, jet-lagged, disoriented and excited, in Leuven.  I figured one day I would want to remember this first week, and so here is a little reflection of a day in my life at Leuven.

I wake up around 6 am each day. The city is quiet.  The sun is out—this is an improvement since it rained the first 5 days I was here!!!  A good friend gave me his coffee maker.  It makes dark, black coffee.  Yes!  I throw open my windows without any screens and sip my coffee while praying, sitting in my bed, and munching on granola bars and bananas.  The bed is absolutely awful.  The pillows are misshaped.  Yet I actually sleep well in it.  Go figure.  I don’t normally shower in the morning.  In fact, I’m not showering regularly (yep, I wrote that).  When you have to walk down one flight of stairs and share a small, impossible to turn around in shower including a malfunctioning head you probably wouldn’t shower much either.

I dress, brush, and sanitize, then I am out my door.  I walk quietly in the house because my one roommate is still sleeping—in fact he will be sleeping at least until noon.  He is from the Netherlands, though with a Chinese mother.  Speaks a little English.  Studying Chinese.  We don’t interact much because of our schedules.  Out the door I go praying I don’t forget my keys.  I don’t know what I would do if I got locked out.

Then it’s walking the streets.  I’ve never walked so much in my life.  I bought new Nike’s for running and now wear them everyday to save my feet.  The cobblestone streets can do a number them.  Dodging cars and praying I don’t get hit by a bike (yes, it will be a bike that does me in here) I take in this ancient city with its Medieval layout as I make my way to the German school about a mile away.  I enter class and am always the first one there.  The teacher smiles and doesn’t even attempt to talk to me in German except with Guten Morgan.  We have a mutual understanding!

The class is one of the most humbling things I have ever done.  I knew no German (null, nicht) before coming here.  All the other students except one man are just out of high school and I’m thinking I could have had them in a youth group in another life.  And they know some German.  Or at least they know Dutch, which is so close that they all understand the teacher who doesn’t speak any English at the beginning. I don’t know what the heck is going on.  I can’t even follow a basic dialogue.  Drowning, I begin to master the art of observing everyone else.  I begin to float and even swim. Little by little I make progress.  I will get through this.  I actually love it.  But boy it takes patience. 

We are in class for 8 hours a day.  8 hours!!!  I have lunch period where I run errands: groceries, bank (I am still trying to get money lined up), and the post-office.  I cook myself some food and then run back to class.

We end class and I walk quickly home to change.  I throw on my clerics and I’m off to Mass.

The church I found here is glorious.  It is truly like a Mother.  It gives me a sense of community and stability.  It’s made up of people from all around the world.  It provides a home for so many looking for spiritual nourishment in this once Catholic stronghold. I can hardly pray, though, and hope I say a valid Mass since my mind is mush from the German.

After Mass I walk some more to get home.  I then either pass out on my bed for 10 minutes or proceed to cook supper.   I love having to cook, even if it takes time.  I have just enough cookware to get by (thanks again, Thomas!).  Eating out here is expensive, though sometimes necessary.  But the grocers have good variety and I am finally learning what I am buying (it is in Dutch, of course).

After supper (and Evening Prayer) I go to my room.  Now it’s study time.  Using a great Internet program and also my notes I try to make sense of what I learned this day.  I can tell my brain is tired, though, but ironically I have good physical energy.

Usually I’m up until midnight or later as I continue studying, sometimes Facetiming with my family (I am in contact with them more now in some ways since I have been here, despite the seven hour difference).   My sister just had her first child.  I am an Uncle!  Wow!!

Sleep pretty much just about overtakes me and I discern whether or not I am going to shower. Sometimes yes, and it is flip-flops on down the stairs into the closet bathroom (I think Harry Potter had it better).  Sometimes, its no.

Back in my room my fan comes on, Night Prayer commences, and then I lay in bed trying to shut out the German phrases.  Morning will come soon.  I just about fall asleep and I hear footsteps.  My housemate is going to the bar.  Yikes. 

It’s a crazy experience.  But I am so thankful to be here. Has it really been a week?!?

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Rise of the Introvert!! Praise for Susan Cain's: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking is a breath of fresh air.  For all people who have felt trapped in a world of noise, who have desired to sit at home at night reading rather than going out with friends, who prefer silence and solitude to meaningless chatter, and yet feel guilty and out of place for desiring these things, this book is a God-send.

Through comprehensive and intriguing study and research Cain reveals how an “Extrovert Ideal” dominates our American culture.   From the Harvard School of Business, to Congress, to even Evangelical Christianity, extrovert qualities are emphasized as being the best, if not the only mode of operation. Yet, this obsession with extroversion has not always produced the best results for society.  Cain unravels this dilemma and goes on to show how some of the most creative people, the most significant breakthroughs in history, and some of the most powerful leaders have been introverts.  And it is the qualities of these leaders, paired with the strengths of extroverts, that can help our society advance responsibly into the future.

I highly recommend this book for the following reasons:

·      Affirmation for Introverts, Understanding from Extroverts:  Those with introverted tendencies will read this and feel at peace.  Where they perhaps once felt insecure or inadequate because of their personalities, they will now find renewed confidence and an ability to utilize more effectively their personality, but also develop other more extroverted tendencies to thrive.  Extroverts will find in this book a better understanding of nearly half of the population; that is, if they are willing to stop and read this book the entire way through (hehe).

·      Insight into Religious Life and Family:  Both families and religious communities have to deal with the tension that arises from both introverts and extroverts attempting to exist together.  For true harmony and for the best outcomes, both of these groups would do well to better understand the different personality types, their roots, and the ways in which they both can work together.

·      Mission:  Contemplation vs. Action—There is often a tension in living the Christian life between how much time one should spend acting on their faith, and how much time one should spend reflecting, praying and learning about one’s faith.  Often in our American culture, we seem to highlight action over contemplation.  I believe that Cain’s work offers caution to that bias, and becomes an argument for providing more space for the introvert’s way of being.

Personally I cannot be thankful enough that I stumbled on this book.  On a Myers-Brigg’s Personality Inventory I always tended to be right in the middle between an introvert and an extrovert.  However, in these latter years of life, especially since beginning my life as a priest, I have found a greater tension existing inside of me where I seem to manifest a few more introvert qualities.  This book gave me the freedom to explore those longings, to learn more about where they arise, and to see how they too can contribute well to society, but ultimately to the Kingdom of God. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Love, Faithfulness, and Motherhood: A Review of the Language of Flowers, a novel by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

How do we learn to love if love has never been communicated to us before?  This to me is the essential question posed by the novel The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. 

In the novel, Victoria is a child in the foster system in San Francisco.  She moves from one children’s home to the next, and from one foster family to the next, never really finding a place that she can call home, nor people she can call family. Because of her experiences as a child, she is never given the chance to even begin to understand what love is and how it can be communicated or shared in life.  Instead, it only reinforces in Victoria distrust, bitterness and grief.  For Victoria, the only solace she finds in life is her interest in flowers and the significance, or language, that each flower communicates.  

As the novel progresses and Victoria turns 18, it is this interest in flowers that gives her a chance to regain her life.   She secures a job with a local florist, and then meets Grant, with whom she falls in love.  Through this relationship and their shared interest in flowers, she begins to find her own language of love, where she is able to deal with some of the darkness and sadness of her past in an attempt to take ahold of her future. 

I would highly recommend this novel because of the way it highlights the following themes:

·      Learning how to love.  Vulnerability and trust are scary and painful even for those with semi-normal upbringings.  For most of the world that has experienced pain and suffering, loving becomes even more difficult. 

The beauty of The Language of Flowers is that it shows love is possible for everyone.  But we simply have to find a way to learn how to love.  Sometimes doing something as simple as learning the language of flowers can help teach us the language of love. 

·      Faithfulness in adversity:  So often in life we find it easier to flee from our relationships when they get tough. Or, we find ourselves alone after someone has left us because staying together is simply too difficult.  Yet, we all need people in our lives that will stay even when it is painful.  And we, too, need to learn how to remain faithful even when leaving seems to be the easiest choice.

This faithfulness in adversity is emphasized in Victoria’s relationship with both Grant, and also one of her foster-mothers, Elizabeth.  Both provide Victoria with a glimpse that faithfulness in adversity is possible, and that she too can discover this virtue in her own heart.

·      Anyone can have kids; not everyone can be a parent.  And we need parents!!  This novel exposes the pain of the foster care system, and how difficult it is for kids in that system.  It shows the negative effects from children being abandoned.  But it is honest about the downright sacrifice it takes to be a parent.  And it shows how life is utterly sucked from someone who tries to be a parent.  But kids need their parents, whether they are biological or foster parents.  Parents will always make mistakes, but it is faithfulness to their kids that matters the most, not perfection.  And it is this faithfulness that in the end gives parents life.

In closing, I would simply say that personally, this novel gave me a greater sensitivity to how difficult it is for all people, myself included, to learn how to love especially after we have been hurt.  It also made me appreciative of motherhood in general, and the intimate and special connection mothers must have with their children. It gave me an even deeper appreciation for what my own mother must have went through.  It also made me think about how faithful I have been with my relationships in the midst of adversity.  Finally, it reminded that even for those who have been ran through the gutter of family life and relationships, learning to love can always be possible—it just takes one flower at a time.