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?