Above photo taken at Ash Wednesday Mass, St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Newport News, VA, Mar 1, 2017.
Let’s Set the Stage, Shall We?
Lent is a season for second chances—a “New Year’s Resolution 2.0,” if you will. For all who observe the season, Lent involves giving up or sacrificing something that is “bad” in order to create more room for prayer and reflection. It’s a lot like a New Year’s Resolution: What did I do wrong last year and what would I like to do better now? It can be a response to sin and/or an answer to a call from within.
I decided to call 2017 my "Year of Expression" with a resolution to publish more of my writings, videos and music—this blog being a first, major step. In putting more of myself out there, I’m hoping to find my voice. But as I scrambled last week on Fat Tuesday for a “Lenten Resolution” in time for Ash Wednesday, I landed on one word: listen. It was clear in that moment that in order to have more to say, I needed to listen more.
In the months since I’ve started freelancing and preparing for graduate school, I have encountered more silence during my day than ever before. Working from home or working remotely with headphones promotes a surprisingly quiet lifestyle. A desire I started to recognize within myself is to proactively seek out and enter into conversation with others, especially during my last months living in Virginia for awhile. The other desire that grew was to calm the voice in my head that motivates and disciplines my entrepreneurial work ethic, but also leads to stress, worry and overthinking. My Lenten mantra of “listening” inspired two follow-up questions to these desires:
- How can I listen to others more closely?
- How can I listen and tend to myself with more care?
Pondering all of this on Fat Tuesday, I walked over to my bookshelf thinking it would be nice to have a book that could encapsulate all of this. And there on the shelf, sitting in my reading queue since the great Christmas Present Non-Fiction Haul of 2016, was Seven Thousand Ways to Listen by Mark Nepo. Done.
Nepo conveniently divides up Seven Thousand Ways to Listeninto just shy of 40 chapters, with reflection questions along the way specifically delineated for personal meditation, journaling, and sharing at a table with friends or family. The title, you may be wondering, is a play-on words to what the author learned from a linguist: “that there are seven thousand living languages on Earth.” His response was that if there are 7,000 languages, then there are 7,000 ways to listen.
One week later, and I’m determined to take this book with me through the season of Lent, and connecting my findings with the traditional Sunday Lenten readings of the Catholic Church. I’ll provide chapters and page numbers as I go if you’d like to follow along from home. (Hardcore readers, rejoice!) That being said, I’ll give plenty of context so that you don’t have to add this book to your reading list immediately to get a sense of what’s going on. (Casual readers, rejoice!)
Birds, Angels and Appointments
“The Appointment” - A Poem by Mark Nepo
(Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, Page 9)
What if, on the first sunny day,
on your way to work, a colorful bird
sweeps in front of you down a
street you’ve never heard of.
You might pause and smile,
a sweet beginning to your day.
Or you might step into that street
and realize there are many ways to work.
You might sense the bird knows some-
thing you don’t and wander after.
You might hesitate when the bird
turns down an alley. For now
there is a tension: Is what the
bird knows worth being late?
You might go another block or two,
thinking you can have it both ways.
But soon you arrive at the edge
of all your plans.
The bird circles back for you
and you must decide which
appointment you were
born to keep.
In a sentence following this poem in his book, Nepo writes, “At every turn in every day we are presented with angels in a thousand guises, each calling us to follow their song” (10). Hearing the bird in the poem now described as an angel, reminded me of a friend’s advice a few years ago.
Sitting in a diner in Arlington, VA, I had visited my friend Ryan for some work I had in DC. The night I got into town, we drove down the road to a local diner for a bite to eat. When asked how I was doing, I immediately unloaded about work. At the time, I was working at a Catholic parish trying to usher their communications and technology into the 21st century. I was constantly pioneering new ways of doing things and absorbed in countless tasks. With my office in a very visible spot, though, I found myself on the front lines of the office, answering questions from every volunteer and “little old lady.” I confessed a frustration to Ryan and his response was spot on. First, he asked, “Whose work are you trying to do, your's or God’s?” Though I was working at a parish, I had to really think about this. Next he encouraged me by saying, “Those "angelic messengers" might be in your life for a reason, to force you to slow down.”
New to the working world, in my early twenties, Ryan’s words were a counter-narrative to everything I had learned in business school. His encouragement was to surrender my daily to-do list to what God may have in mind for that day. In other words, what if I allowed a volunteer’s problem as he/she walked into my office to be greater than my own? What if there is a greater appointment that I need to keep on this day?
We’re Just Getting Started
The readings this past Sunday for the First Sunday of Lent flow from a story of committing sin to understanding mercy. Follow along on usccb.org
Starting in Genesis, the devil disguised as a serpent, tempts Adam and Eve to eat forbidden fruit, committing what is now known as original sin. The psalm reads, almost as if directly in response to this sin, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” Then, both the reading from Romans and the Gospel of Matthew insert Jesus into this sin equation as a response from God—a response of mercy. In Romans, St. Paul acknowledges the sin of previous men and points to the life of the Son of God as “acquittal,” a term better known in courts today for being deemed not guilty. (For ex: “My defendants got acquitted,” from the song “Non-Stop” in the musical, Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda #GospelofHamilton #LentManuelMiranda). Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus is tempted, just like Adam and Eve. The counter-narrative of Jesus is that he resists the temptation—his existence providing mercy, his resistance providing hope.
We’ve all got something to give up or change. Some call it sin, but maybe it’s just something you’re struggling with, or irritated by. My knack for avoiding interruptions and resisting new appointments is certainly one of those things. You’d think I’d learn, but I still struggle to listen to that bird or that little old lady. What I’m not surprised to hear from others is that oftentimes what we struggle with doesn’t just get addressed and removed forever. It’s with us for a reason, to teach us something and reveal to us something new. When someone walks into my office or wherever I’m working, I’m not just letting them in, but chance—the chance for distraction as much as the chance for growth. What I’m finding is that if I listen closely enough, taking this chance, this appointment, is an invitation from God.
As we begin this Lenten season, I invite you, as well, to listen.
To hear is
All you need is
presence and a hint of
To listen is
So that your
heart opens to the
- Listen to your heart: Is it light or is it heavy? What is it heavy with and when is it heavy?
- Listen to the people around you: Are you judging what they say before they finish saying it? Or are you truly letting their words in?
- Listen to yourself: Are you judging what you’re feeling? Or can you simply let yourself breathe? Perhaps your Lent starts right here.