Sunday, December 26, 2010

Through the scanner

This was just an ordinary x-ray machine (not the kind at the airports that are drawing a commotion). If I had brought a backpack to my meeting this week, I would have had to put it through that machine. But instead, I only had to empty my pockets of metal belongings. As I walked through a metal detector, those things passed through the x-ray machine.

Out of habit, I hadn't taken the time to sort through my pockets to only submit the belongings that might contain metal (e.g., watch, coins, keys). To make it easier, I had simply placed everything that I'd had in my pockets in the little plastic dish that would go through the x-ray machine. That day, like almost every day, I'd had my wooden Rosary in my pocket, and it went through the x-ray machine as well.

What had the security guards thought when they saw my Rosary? Do they examine so many objects every day that any meaning associated with an object goes unnoticed to them?

What did my colleague think if he saw my Rosary? He has been to my office many times and if he has ever noticed the small prayer cards on my wall, this small sacramental probably wouldn't have been a great surprise to him. But the next time that he comes to my office and sees those small prayer cards, will he also remember the Rosary that had been in my pocket? Will he think, "Hmm, here is a man that bears small signs of faith not only on his office wall, but also on his hip?"

What did our host think if he saw my Rosary? Did I become not just a mathematician from the research lab, but "a mathematician from the research lab that carries a Rosary in his pocket"? If he too carries a Rosary in his pocket, did seeing mine bring him encouragement? If he has not seen very many Rosaries, was he fascinated by the cross? Did seeing the Rosary ever affect his perception of me during our meeting?

When I awoke that morning and prepared for work and put the Rosary, I didn't think about who would see it. But could it have made a difference?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Holy Spirit, please help this car to start"

An episode the other day made me think that it's important not to "force" missionary moments, nor to think too much about them while they're taking place.

It was about 6:00 PM, dark, and cold, and I was heading out from the department "holiday reception." A colleague asked if I had driven and could give her a ride back to our building. "No problem," I replied.

When we got to the car, a Nissan Cube which is not my car but one that I was borrowing from the dealership which was examining my car, I had trouble getting the car to start. The Cube has a unusual ignition system that merely requires pushing a button while the "key" is in the vicinity. I had successfully followed this procedure earlier in the day. But with "Emily" in the passenger seat nothing seemed to work. I'd push the button once and lights would turn on. I'd push the button again and the radio and heat would turn on. But the car would not start. Again and again, it was the same pattern. I tried buckling my seatbelt. I tried pushing the button harder or faster. I tried getting out of the car, closing the door, and starting all over. Still, there was no progress.

"OK," I thought, "This is a missionary moment." I can say a prayer, then the Lord will intervene with a starting car, and my colleague will start to think more about prayer. It will be a 'victory' for faith."

But what prayer should I pray? Of which saint should I ask intercession? Maybe I should ask my guardian angel for help. Maybe I should ask the Blessed Mother for help. Maybe I should ask St. Rita or St. Jude or St. Joseph for help. Maybe I should ask the Holy Spirit for help. Should I ask Emily to pray with me? Should I pray loud enough to make sure that she hears me?

It was probably a good idea to pray at a time like this. But with my accompanying thinking, there may have been a problem. I was thinking, "OK, praying now is the missionary thing to do." Rather than spontaneously praying with simple faith, I leaned towards, "I must pray now. Even if I wouldn't normally pray out loud, I must pray out loud now. I must take advantage of chances to be vocal with my faith."

Again, sharing the prayer was probably a good idea. But I just was letting these good ideas slide a little out of order. I think that I just needed to pray and not think so much about praying. I need to be faithful but not artificial, to be courageous but not concocted.

Maybe my prayer at that moment wasn't artificial or concocted. But maybe it still wasn't quite what it should have been. In situations like these, how can I best find the right balance?

Epilgoue: As Emily eventually suggested, to start a Cube, you need to have your foot on the brake, while you push the ignition button. We reached this solution after about five minutes of attempts.

Praying at meetings

I don't go to meetings every day at work. But I almost always have at least a few meetings each week.

Therefore, the start of a meeting is a familiar scene. It takes a few minutes for everyone to gather. Those who are already present engage in relatively superficial conversation. Finally, the leader of the meeting decides that it is time to begin and everyone hones in their focus. That's where I get thrown off.

Many times, it's at this time that I expect everyone at the meeting to bow their head and start to pray, "In the name of the Father and of the ..." But it never happens.

In college, I was involved in Catholic campus ministry, as well as the pro-life group. In those groups, we'd always start our meetings with a prayer. Similarly, if I go to a meeting now at my parish, the first formal thing that we'll do is say a prayer. Even at my home, usually the only time that I am around a table with others is at a meal and we'd always start that gathering with a prayer too.

What would happen if someone did try to start an ordinary business meeting with a prayer? Would others be "offended"? Would he who was praying be ignored? Would he be mocked? Would he be fired? Even if all who were present liked the idea of praying, would there be outcries of "unprofessionalism"?

Perhaps considering "meeting prayers" and how they might be done prudently requires more thought. In the meantime, how can I as an individual surround my meeting experience with prayer? Perhaps I can say my own prayer to myself when the meeting begins. "Lord, may this meeting bring You glory."

Perhaps I can pray for others at the meeting. In many meetings, I have sufficient idle time to think of such intentions.

But at other meetings, I need to be fully engaged. Perhaps at these, I can offer my own participation in the meeting as a prayer.

At any meetings, perhaps I might pray that my interaction with others at the meeting, whether receiving their perspective or standing up for my own, might be done with love. May my time at meeting, like all of my time at work, be blessed, and may it help me to grow in holiness.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A tie for Our Lady

"I wear a tie to Mass on Sundays," I thought, "because it is a festive day. Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It too is a festive day. I should wear a tie today too."

In addition to complementing personal devotion, wearing a tie is also almost certain to evoke curiosity at work. This is true because ties are not very common among my immediate colleagues. For most, wearing blue jeans is much more likely than wearing a tie. As a result, ties signal big events like presentations to the director of the lab or proposals for multi-million dollar funding. So, sure enough, at the sight of my tie, multiple calls went out. "Hey Phil, whoa, what's with the tie? What's the occasion?"

I had anticipated such conversation openers and tried to think of how to capitalize. What is the right amount of detail with which to respond? To the first two folks, I said, "It was a special feast day for our Church today. So I wore a tie when I went to church this morning." By wearing a tie, I managed to talk to these people about going to church in the morning.

The third person who asked is a woman that I know is Catholic. So to her inquiry, I answered, "It's the Immaculate Conception." Oh yes, she smiled. In fact, her elementary school son had just reminded her yesterday that today they would need to go to Mass. Maybe someday he will wear a tie on Immaculate Conception day too.

May Mary pray for all the folks who asked about the tie that I wore on her feast day.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Special forces assignment

This week, I am taking a software training course at an office complex in Virginia. It is the first time that I have been to this place. After these three days, it is unlikely that I will return again.

I seek to be attentive to opportunities here to subtly share the Gospel. It is almost certain that there is no chaplain here, no formal prayer network, no evangelization teams. Perhaps there are no other "missionaries on-site." This week, I may be the one to make a difference. There may be a specific difference for me to make.

In this place, my mission is unique. I am not a priest, bearing sacraments. I am not a preacher, explicitly proclaiming Christ's words. I am not a social justice activist, correcting inequality. I am an ordinary software trainee, part of "missionary special forces," on particular assignment.

In this place, my mission is not straightforward. If I were a priest, it might be requested, "Baptize this child. Hear this confession. Offer this blessing." But instead, I must look for the hidden possibilities to act upon grace. In this short time, among ordinary exchanges, how can I share Christ's love?

Monday, November 29, 2010

In the fullness of time

This evening's vespers, prayed at nearby St. James parish, included the following lines from Ephesians 1:

God has given us the widsom
To understand fully the mystery
The plan he was pleased
To decree in Christ

A plan to be carried out
In Christ, in the fullness of time,
To bring all things into one in him,
In the heavens and on earth.
Sometimes, it seems as though my efforts to share Christ in the workplace are a complete mystery. I may think, "How do they all fit together? When will they bear fruit? Are they really doing any good at all?"

But I am encouraged to think that these efforts will reach their completeness in Christ. Even the efforts that seem to be incomplete now will be carried out by Him "in the fullness of time."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"You're wearing red too!"

Last Friday, the Washington DC archdiocesan young adult office suggested that folks should wear red in salute to Donald Wuerl's appointment as cardinal. So I wore my reddest plaid button-down shirt, which still is not very red, but I think fit within the spirit of the suggestion.

That afternoon, I ran saw a man at the bathroom sink wearing a very bright red shirt. His shirt was at least as red as Cardinal Wuerl's new hat. Was he part of the archdiocesan salute as well? Was he excited about having a local bishop appointed to be cardinal? Or was the bright red shirt the last clean one that he'd had in his closet at the end of the week?

I considered exclaiming, "Hey, you're wearing red too! Is your shirt for Cardinal Wuerl?" Ecclesial appointments are not part of the usual office bathroom chit-chat and he might have been completely clueless. But connecting with colleagues about Church news might help bring to the front the Gospel that the Church wishes to share.

I'd never spoken with this red-shirt man before nor even seen him. If I had known him or even known that he was a fellow Catholic, could or should that have affected what I might have said to him? Are there good ways to bring up Church news with colleagues? What other "in the news" events might allow such topics to be prudently introduced? (For the record, I kept all of these questions to myself and didn't say anything at all. Did I miss an opportunity?)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Quietly evoking curiosity

This Norman Rockwell painting caught my attention because it is printed on the top of a picnic basket owned by my parents. But I think that it may also brilliantly capture the spirit of office missionary work.

The two men on the left exhibit obvious curiosity. What has evoked it? The woman and boy are not speaking to the men. They are not doing anything with fast movements or energetic outbursts. But by their actions, they have put forth something unexpected in the restaurant. They have made their faith attractive. They have not thrust it upon anyone. But by their example, they have offered it for others to see and consider.

This painting reminds me of St. Francis' familiar emphasis on the power of one's example. "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words." But it also reminds me of one of my favorite's exhortations of Pope John Paul II. "We must never impose, but always propose Christ."

By praying for their food, by quietly but distinctly allowing their faith to be seen, have this boy and woman not proposed Christ to whom they are praying?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Saints of the desk

Today is the feast day of St. Martin de Porres, a 16th-century Dominican friar from Peru. St. Martin is primarily renowned for his humility and selflessness. But he was also a diligent worker.
One biography tells the story of how at a young age, he became a servant in the Dominican priory and worked so diligently that he became known as the "Saint of the broom."

For those of us who work in an office, may we follow St. Martin's example and work with such great diligence and selflessness that perhaps we will one day be known as "Saints of the desk."

(I obtained St. Martin's picture from this site.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Humility from the front

The man had just finished one of the best colloquium talks of the year. He stood at the bottom of dozens of rows of amphitheater seating with a 40-foot projection screen behind him. His presentation had finished as impressively as the rest of it had been. He had done his job really well! And he was humble.

As much as I enjoyed his presentation, I was struck most by what he said when he was finished. "I would be happy to take questions, if I am allowed." A few speakers in the same situation may not have even been open for questions. Almost every other speaker would have assumed that questions were "allowed" and in fact something to which they were entitled. But this speaker did not take that chance for granted.

In a research office, expressions of humility are not necessarily common. Every once in a while, a colleague may light-heartedly defer credit on a project or insist with a laugh that someone else is "doing the real work." But on the whole, the standard is to assert one's capabilities and accomplishments, even in comparison with another.

The nature itself of the work makes bearing humility all the more difficult. In fact, there may even be practical impediments. In order to be effective as a researcher, one must to an extent exercise a competitive spirit, seeking to find solutions that are better than the solutions that have been uncovered before. But it does not seem that this paradigm excuses an absence of humility.

This speaker, therefore, was all the more inspiring, as he displayed genuine humility. I was challenged to consider: In my office and in my work, how can I too exhibit subtle but genuine humility?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bright and well-placed

More than a year ago, the question arose, "What does it take to be a missionary in a place like an office?"

"I know, I know," I thought, "You have to be the same as everyone else and different from everyone else," and I was please with how profound I sounded.

I meant that there has to be something about you that catches others' attention (hopefully, it is favorable) that makes them quietly wonder, "What makes him different?" Then, when they inquire, you can tell them about the importance of Christ in your life.

But at the same time, you have to be sufficiently similar to others, lest they think, "He is holy and on a pedestal and what he does is nice, but I could never do it myself." They have to be able to see how they are like you and therein how the things about you to which they quietly are attracted (the ways in which you reflect Christ) are things that they could do too.

Then, I thought of a better way to say this. "You have to be both bright and well-placed." Perhaps I was thinking of the line from the Gospel of Matthew, "You are the light of the world.... Let your light shine for the whole world to see." A light that is not both bright and well-placed will not be seen.

In many ways, it is not easy for your light to be bright in an office. By this, I mean that talking about Christ often must be done with great delicacy. Otherwise, others may think, "This is an office. We're not supposed to be doing this Jesus thing here." But your light must nevertheless be shone.

And at the same time, what is lost in brightness may be more than counterbalanced by the great opportunity to be well-placed. A priest cannot be well-placed in an office. A religious sister cannot be well-placed in an office. A theology professor cannot be well-placed in an office. But an undercovery missionary can be right there in the thick, such that even a less bright light can be clearly seen.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On my way to work

Another important step for me to having a good day at work is going to Mass on my way to work. For instance, this morning, as I walked from the church to my car, I thought, "I have gone to pray. Now I am going to work." This gave me great satisfaction.

I had prepared myself materially - getting cleaned up, putting on my button-down shirt, packing my lunch. Now, I had also presented myself to be prepared spiritually. "The Lord has given me a job to do. I must do it well."

Then, twenty-five minutes later, as I walked from my car to my office, I still had the taste from Mass in my mouth. "I've got His Blood in my veins and His Flesh on my bones," I thought. By going to Mass and receiving Christ in the Eucharist on my way to work, I had renewed my resolve to be His representative at work.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Bless us, O Lord ... "

It is crucial for me to start my work day with the right mindset. If I begin in a slump, I might not get out until I leave in the evening (or until lunch).

As the clocks hits 8:30 AM (or so) and I march up six flights of stairs to my office, what am I thinking? Do I dread, "How in the world am I going to make it through the next eight hours?" Or can I see broader, "I have been given a job to do. I will be strong. What opportunities await?"

Eating a meal does not usually evoke a similar dilemma. But in the same way that we pray for blessing upon our food, might I not pray for blessing upon my work before I begin?
"Bless me, O Lord, through this, my work, which I am about to undertake, which You have placed before me. May I do well, and bring You glory, and cooperate with the work of the Cross, undertaken by Christ, our Lord. Amen."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The black zippered case

I saw it on the conference table a few feet away from me. The woman in the next chair seemed to not be concerened with it as the PowerPoint presentation moved forward on the screen. It was a black case, about six inches long and two inches high, secured with a zipper. Instinctively, I recognized it as a a Bible. But it took me a few seconds to recognize the significance: Was there really a Bible at a software design project meeting?

It wasn't actually a Bible. After a few more seconds, I remembered seeing this case at a previous meeting. It was just the woman's schedule planner in a fancy case.

But what if I had a similar case and instead of a planner, I had a Bible. Or, I could have both a schedule planner and a Bible in the same case if both were thin enough. Ordinarily, I wouldn't use a planner. But if it was a way to have a Bible with me during meetings, would it be worth it?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Cooperating with Christ at work, II

St. Jose Maria Escriva also offers encouragement on the great spiritual opportunites included within our work. Even at the office, I can envision my efforts - writing computer code, performing calculations, describing analysis - as "a participation in the creative work of God." (Albeit, this often is not easy!) He continues,

When he created man and blessed him, he said: "Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and conquer it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living animals on the earth." And, moreover, since Christ took it into his hands, work has become for us a redeemed and redemptive reality. Not only is it the background of man's life, it is a means and path of holiness. It is something to be sanctified and something which sanctifies. (Christ is Passing By. "In Joseph's Workshop." Number 47.)
When my work seems mundane, how can I sanctify it? How can I allow it to sanctify others? Through my work, how can I point others to sanctification?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cooperating with Christ at work

Can my time at work consist of something more meaningful than just "something to pass the time" or "something to pass the time"? Twenty-nine years ago, Pope John Paul II wrote,

“All work, whether manual or intellectual, is inevitably linked to TOIL…. Sweat and toil, which work necessarily involves the present condition of the human race, present the Christian and everyone who is called to follow Christ with the possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do…. The Christian finds in human work a small part of the Cross of Christ … In work, thanks to the light that penetrates us from the Resurrection of Christ, we always find a glimmer of new life …” ("On Human Work" 27).

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Gift of "Networking"

Earlier today, I attended an event which specifically mentioned "networking" in its agenda. The implication was clear: Suspense thickend. Mystery ensued. Electric sparks and smoke shot from the either side of the word. This was more than a simple, "OK, this is a time when you can talk to other people." For fifteen minutes, I would be able to make "connections" with other people, analyze their resources, and store away ideas of how I might later be able to tap into their knowledge in order to help my own projects.

This would be useful. This would be a practical way to become familiar with others' work. This would be a normal thing to do at work. But I think that there was also a temptation for the process to become self-centered. "How can you help me?" "How might I use this time to get ahead?" "What can I get from others?" This sentiment wasn't an all-encompassing and overpowering. But its potential was present.

How, instead, could I participate in networking with the love of Christ? As I conducted professional conversations, how could I think of others before I think of myself? Rather than emphasizing what I might obtain, how could I concentrate on what I might offer to others (while still fulfilling the responsibilities of my job)? How could the time that I would spend in these exchanges be a gift to the person with whom I was speaking?

Friday, October 1, 2010

"Stop and Smell the Roses"

Happy feast day of St. Therese, young woman who had a missionary spirit but mostly remained within the walls of her Carmelite convent.

Nevertheless, at the bottom of the picture of her that I keep on the wall of my office, it says, "St. Therese of Lisieux, Patroness of the Missions." I assert that she not only prayed for missionaries, but she showed the way to be a missionary among ordinary tasks.

Indeed, her renowned "little way" of seeking to do ordinary tasks with great love gives rise to an appreciation of the simple blessings that allow the Lord's presence to be recognized in unlikely places.

St. Therese is known as the "Little Flower" perhaps because of her desire to "send roses from heaven" once she died. But perhaps this connection with roses also provides a motto which is consistent with her ways. I hand-wrote my own caption for the top of her picture: "Be sure to stop and smell the roses."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"The Catching Force"

There is a house of Missionaries of Charity sisters a few miles from where I live. Every morning after Mass, they pray the "Radiating Christ" prayer. It ends
"Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine, so to shine as to be a light to others; the light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine: it will be You shining on others through me. Let me thus praise You in the way You love best: by shining on those around me. Let me preach You without preaching, not by words, but by my example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You."
Office evangelization often includes this "preaching without preaching, but by example." In such circumstances, how can "the catching force" be animated? How can office work be done with "evident fullness" of love?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Here's the story ...

In August 2006, I finished a summer as a Catholic missionary on a journey from Maine to Washington DC. But when the journey finished, how could I channel the "missionary knack"?

I continued my graduate studies, working as a calculus teacher, researching bus schedule optimizing, and helping with my parish's high school youth group. In contrast to the summer when I had focused on many brief opportunities to be a witness for Christ (sometimes as simple as a few seconds to hand on a Rosary), I now had the challenge to be a witness within relationships that might stretch months or longer.

The following spring, I received my masters degree and began work as a mathematician for a large university research center a few months later. It was within this time that my desire to be an "office apostle" and an "undercover missionary" was cultivated. Throughout the Church's history, missionaries have undertaken adventures to many distant lands. What would my adventure be like in the "distant land" of a research laboratory hallway? Could I embrace comparatively mundane moments as opportunities to grow closer to Him? Could I share His Light without losing my job?