Build up one another during the Advent-Christmas season

by Br Bob Roddy, OFM Conv. – December 2014

Like many people, I breathe a sigh of relief when the Winter Solstice passes. I look forward to the fact that the sun rises a bit earlier each morning and sets a little later in the evening. I am reminded of the opening of John’s gospel, “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The Advent-Christmas Season celebrates the wonder of the Word-made-Flesh. As the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins writes: “Not a doomsday dazzle in his coming, nor dark as he came / Kind, but royally reclaiming his own.” We celebrate that God chose to become one of us not in a family with prestige, power, or social status, but in family who were poor, and who were refugees, for all practical purposes.

In March of this year, I went on a Pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome. En route to Rome, our group stopped in the tiny village of Greccio, located in the heart of the Rieti Valley. We journeyed up the hillside to visit the cave where St. Francis of Assisi, with the permission of the local bishop, staged a re-enactment of the nativity, complete with animals. As I gazed at the tiny cave with its crude fresco of the Nativity, I found myself very moved. Sacred sites have that effect on me. As one of our Pilgrimage leaders recounted, St. Francis wanted to do something special for the people of this little village, a people who loved him and always welcomed him when he would stay there. (Greccio was one of many places where he would stop and rest when walking to and from Rome.) As the villagers processed into that small cave, with the various animals making their particular sounds, the scene would have been similar to their own homes because the animals often lived in the lower parts of the house. They would have realized that the Lord of Glory chose not to be born in a palace or a castle, but in a tiny space much like their own homes. For St. Francis, the Incarnation reminds all of us, that no matter our social status, financial portfolio, or “Likes” on Facebook, are made in the image and likeness of God.

Our world abounds with assaults on that dignity on a daily basis, but all of us can make an effort to build up one another during this Advent-Christmas Season. Taking the time to call someone, or writing a short note; offering a smile to the cashier or to the person who waits in line with us; talking to the bell-ringer outside of the store; all of these small actions help connect us to others and affirm them.

As we approach a new year, with new opportunities and new challenges, may we also open ourselves to the hidden and unassuming ways that the face of God reveals itself to us. May we remember the meaning of Emmanuel, “God is with us.”

Taking scenic route allows for needed contemplation

by Br Bob Roddy, OFM Conv. – October 2014

When I was growing up in Nebraska, our family would pile in the car on Sunday morning and head to Mass at our local parish church. We lived on a farm and the trip into town took us about 20 minutes by car. Before the “new highway” was built, the “old highway” took us over a brick-paved street that had a huge maple tree in the front yard of one of the homes along our route. Every autumn we watched for the first hints of fall color on this majestic tree, and when its leaves began to turn, we would wonder what it would look like the following week. That tree was the harbinger of fall for us, and we marveled at the changes it went through as the weeks passed.

When the “new highway” opened years later, our trip to church was shortened, but we rarely got to see our favorite tree. (We also missed that thumping of the tires on the brick pavement.) Sometimes, my dad would say, “Let’s take the old road home today.” I think that he missed seeing that tree as much as we did.

There are other signals for fall, signals that stir our other senses. Think of the smell of freshly picked apples or the mulling of cider. Recall the rustling sounds of leaves as they fall to the ground or the sounds of small children frolicking in a pile of leaves.

Our senses can trigger memories within us, and these moments of awareness can bring us back to happy or sad times; all of these memories are a part of who we are. Sometimes these memories can shed light upon our current situation; we can gain wisdom or encouragement from the past as we meet the challenges of today.

These moments of awareness are often contemplative moments for me. Paradoxically, these times take me to a moment in my past, with its wealth of feeling and meaning, while at the same time keeping me very conscious of the present sights, smells or sounds around me. Contemplation helps us realize that while we are very much a part of this moment, we are also part of an eternal now where time has no meaning.

These contemplative moments are woven throughout the fabric of our days, yet many of us do not recognize or honor them. In our pursuit of efficiency and speed, we miss the moments that can bring us the respite and relief that we need to make our days worthwhile. Maybe all of us need to take “the old highways” of our journeys, both literally and figuratively, to recover these precious, sacred moments that each of us are given, but few of us take the time to savor.

Observing the Rumblings of Abundant Life

by Br. Bob Roddy, OFM, Conv. May 11, 2014

Besides being the fourth Sunday of Easter, this Sunday is also Mother’s Day; mothers and the Easter Season, a brilliant combination. The Scriptures focus on the resurrection of Jesus and the significance of this mystery in our lives today. In a similar way, this Sunday we celebrate and honor our mothers, living or deceased, who gave us — along with our fathers — the gift of life.

The Gospel for today, John 10:1-10, ends with Jesus saying, “I have come so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

We held a day retreat for mothers, daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters at Franciscan Retreats and Spirituality Center last weekend, and as the day unfolded this phrase came to mind again and again. (We actually used part of this Scripture passage for our Morning Prayer Service.) Mothers, daughters, grandmothers and granddaughters spent a day together in which they prayed with one another, listened to one another, and shared a creative activity together, which helped each of them better understand each other.

“Abundant life,” and I dare say, “abundant joy,” were everywhere. During this time old memories were shared and new memories were created as the day continued.

Sharing old memories and creating new ones is a distinctive part of being human. St. Augustine marveled at the ability, and as I age, the memories that I share with siblings, family members, friends and confreres add a richness and depth to my spirit for which I am so grateful and so blessed. Even though my own mom was called to eternal life in 2010, my memories of her make her as close and as real as anything that my five senses can detect.

Another important thing about our memories is that they reflect our unique point of view. In the case of my late mother, my memory of her around a certain event may differ in tone or even substance from the memory of my sister or one of my brothers. It’s not a question of a “right” or “wrong” memory as much as the fact that our memories reflect our unique relationships with her.

This is the case with all of our memories regarding the people in our lives; they reflect the nature of our relationship (deep or shallow, close or remote, loving or not-so-loving, and all shades between), but the same person may have had a very different relationship with someone else.

We are beginning to see the rumblings of abundant life as spring slowly arrives after a very long and very harsh winter. The glimpse of the first tulip (for me, a tiny, but brilliant red variety), the tiny leaves emerging from the trees, a cardinal flitting from branch to branch, and the smell of the outdoors after a rainstorm, all signal abundant life. So too, the memories of those we love, whether they are with us or have passed on to eternity, remind us of the abundant life we share in Christ Jesus and in one another.

Ice Dams and Hardened hearts

I owe the inspiration for this article to one of our staff members, Kris Joseph, who used the image of an ice dam in her opening conference for our first Lenten Day of Prayer on March 13, 2014. Thanks, Kris!

Any of us who live in the Upper Midwest are familiar with ice dams. These nasty formations of ice on the roof of a house or building can trap pockets of water between the roof and the ceiling and lead to much damage. Many a homeowner does regular battle with these dangerous formations.

During our first Lenten Day of Prayer, Kris Joseph described her own experience of breaking up an ice dam on the roof of her own home. When she was able to chisel a small pathway in the ice, she could see immediate results, the trapped water began to flow unobstructed, and eventually the water flowed off the roof of the house to the ground below.

It struck me that our hearts are often trapped in the ice dams of regret, hurt, and perhaps our one-sided point of view on things. Our negative experiences with others harden our hearts not only to the people who have wronged us, but to anyone else who might enter into our lives. We become rigid and frozen in a mire of unhealthy responses to life and to others.

Yet, like the ice dams, if we allow the Lord to open a path through the barriers surrounding our heart, even if it is the tiniest of paths, if we open ourselves to the mercy of God and the love of others, perhaps that mercy can find its way into our hearts and bring healing and hope.

I have had many times in my life when I felt that I was wronged by someone and because it was his/her fault (at least that was my take on the situation), I was under no obligation to do anything but nurture my hurt and remind myself of my own rightness. Yet, as I would listen to the words of the Psalms that we pray on a daily basis, “Have mercy on me O God, according to your merciful love; according to your great compassion, blot out my transgression.” [Psalm 51] or “The Lord is kind and full of compassion, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.” [Psalm 145], it dawned on me that if God is so generous in his mercy to me, then should not I be willing to extend that same mercy and compassion to others? If I let the mercy of God open a channel in my heart, I may be able to see the person to whom my heart has become hardened in a different light. We may not become the best of friends, but at least I may be able to see him or her as a whole person, a person made in the image and likeness of God, a person worthy of my respect.

Pope Francis continually calls us to turn to the mercy of God, especially during the season of Lent. If we ask for God’s mercy to enter our hardened hearts, we can be assured of the transformation of those hearts.

Time to Try Walking Down a Different Street

by Br. Bob Roddy, OFM, Conv. Feb. 23, 2014

I love to read plays. Here is one of my favorites:

ACT 1: I walk down a street. I fall in a hole. I climb out of the hole and continue my journey. ACT 2: I walk down a street. I fall in a hole. I climb out of the hole and continue my journey. ACT 3: I walk down a street. I fall in a hole. I climb out of the hole and continue my journey. ACT 4: I walk down a street. I see the hole and I walk around it. ACT 5: I walk down a different street.

Okay, my little anecdote will not be nominated for a Tony award, but for many of us, this short “play” is a microcosm of how we approach various life situations. We utilize the same solutions or responses to situations that lead us to the same sinkhole from which we need assistance climbing out.

Years ago, one of the friars I was living with in Washington, D.C. was replacing a dehumidifier but he could not get the dehumidifier aligned properly. He was using the box the dehumidifier came in as a way to raise it up and to line it up with a vent in the closet where it would be housed, but the box was too high. After many unsuccessful attempts, he asked for my help. I noticed that the box was oblong and not square; I flipped the box onto its shorter side and it lined up perfectly with the vent.

We get stuck. We get stuck in how we relate to God and how we relate to one another, especially when the other is someone who does not make our Top 10 List of People We Would Like to Be Stranded With on a Remote Island. We use the same response, the same strategy to relate to a person or situation, and we end up frustrated, angry or hurt.

Maybe we need to change our perspective or shift the focus of our solution (as in the example of the dehumidifier). Maybe we need to change our tone of voice in conversation. Maybe we need to frame our questions or concerns in a less threatening or judgmental tone of voice. Maybe we need to take a few moments, take a breath or two (or three or 20) and whisper a short prayer in which we ask for enlightenment on what to do in a particular situation.

Years ago, I had a minister provincial (he’s akin to the CEO of my Franciscan community) with whom I had a very rocky relationship. One day he asked to see me about something that would require me to consult my calendar. As I walked to my office to collect my calendar, I got myself worked up and agitated about what he might say or what he was about to ask me to do.

Suddenly, a voice inside of me barked, “Stop it!” I took a moment and listened. The voice continued: “You have to find a way to work with this man and relate to him, Bob. You have to believe that he is doing the best he can and you need to respond to him with your best.”

I stopped and stood at my desk for several moments and I prayed for the grace to believe that this man was doing his best. Our meeting was vastly different than the others before it. We didn’t necessarily agree on everything, but at least we could listen to one another without judgement or anger. Our relationship changed for the better that day. There were still a few bumps in the road, but we worked things out, much as St. Francis would want his brothers to work things out.

Don’t be afraid of taking a new approach to a difficult relationship. Don’t be afraid of trying a different form of prayer from time to time. Don’t be afraid of using the creativity and genius that God has infused in all of us.

“Don’t be afraid,” these words are often on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels. He still speaks those same words to all of us today.

Sisyphus Syndrome

Cold and chill, bless the Lord…Frost and chill bless the Lord…Ice and snow, bless the Lord.
Daniel 3: 67;69-70

For those of us in the Upper Midwest, and pretty much anywhere else in the Midwest, these lines from the “Canticle of the  Three Young Men,” in the Book of Daniel, ring true this winter. The Lord is certainly being praised this season!

The other day I was engaged in my new, favorite pastime, shoveling the sidewalk. On this particular day I felt like Sisyphus, the mythical  figure condemned for eternity to roll a large stone up a hill, only to have that stone roll back to the bottom of the hill every time he neared the summit. While there wasn’t much snow falling, the wind was so strong and so intense that the snow was drifting between the two buildings, and I needed to create a path, albeit a very narrow one, for retreatants to get to their rooms. After my fourth trip outdoors, and a quick check to make sure that my nose was still attached to my face, I began to muse on how laughable my feeble attempts at battling Mother Nature were. (If I had been keeping score, it would have read: Bro. Bob 4 – Blizzard 144.)

There are moments in our lives when our circumstances mirror Sisyphus’ plight. We try to master forces over which we have little or no power, and we end up frustrated and angry. Like Sisyphus, we continue to the same patterns of response which leave us back where we started. While I am not a proponent of passivity, I realize that there are times when I have to let go of my illusion of control or power in a situation and look deeply at the situation, and try to glean some wisdom from this moment in my life.

In the case of the blizzard, I came to a profound awareness of how minuscule my problem with an open sidewalk was compared to a homeless person who had no shelter for the evening; or the person who has to be out in the cold weather because s/he needs the income from a second or third job to make ends meet. I was within a few feet of warmth and shelter whereas many could only hope to find some cardboard and a spot between two buildings. I could take this snowstorm as a personal afront to me, or I could step back and appreciate its wonder and its power.

As I stepped inside to warm up and avoid frostbite, I was struck by the ethereal beauty of the way the wind was sculpting the snow. It reminded me of a sticky, sweet icing that my Mom used to make for all of our birthday cakes. (Alas, I never could get the knack of making that icing like my Mom.) With that memory, my tension eased — who doesn’t feel better when they think of cake with sticky icing? — I parked my shovel by the door, and decided to let nature run its course. Sometimes, going with the flow of things is the wisest call of all.


Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, A Spiritual Home and a Living Faith,

by Judith Valente. (2013, Sorin Books)
Reviewed by Bro. Bob Roddy, OFM Conv.

Valente’s book chronicles her experiences of visiting Mt. St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas and her growing relationships with the Sisters there. (In the interest of full disclosure, I know many of the Sisters in Atchison as I was taught and inspired by them during my college years.) The author initially comes to Monastery to serve as a retreat presenter and confronts one of the classic dilemmas of the seeker in the 21st Century: how does one nourish one’s own soul and spirit while engaging in the conflicting demands of career and family life? Her time, and her growing relationships with the Sisters of this monastic community lead her to a deeper understanding of the core values of silence, simplicity and listening. She is introduced to the uniquely Benedictine vow of coversatio, or “conversion of life.” As one of the Sisters tells her, “[Conversatio] is a call to listen carefully, to love deeply and to be willing to change as needed.”

Valente is generous in sharing the challenges in her personal and professional life, and how her experience of Benedictine spirituality alters her approach to those challenges. This book is a great read as it artfully weaves the struggles, the insights and the joy that come from forming a deep and lasting relationship with a community of seemingly ordinary women living their vocation with extraordinary humility.

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