The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Lesson in Love

I wrote the following for my final class in the MA in Theology program at Ohio Dominican University. The assignment was to reflect back upon my goals and aspirations in my admissions essay and also to discuss growth in the following areas while attending the program: personal and spiritual maturity, vocational identity, pastoral praxis, theological formation and professional development.

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In my graduate admissions essay for the MA in Theology program, I discussed the importance of picking a single goal to pursue, even if I was not sure if it was the right one or not. For many years, I had postponed plans to do many things (including going to graduate school), because I felt I had not properly discerned whether it was entirely the right time, place or circumstance to do it. I would wait until I was more certain.

In this, there was a fear of making a decision. I had a profound awakening when it occurred to me that waiting to make a decision actually is a decision itself—it is a decision to do nothing and let life happen by default. I realized that being on the journey may be the best mode to properly figure something out. I can do a better job of discerning while I am actively trying something out. Sitting on the sidelines does not give a person the best perspective to know whether something is right for them or not. This is the spirit that prompted me to begin the Masters in Theology program at Ohio Dominican University.

I am surprised I did not learn this lesson years ago. One summer, I got a notion to start fishing as a hobby. My mother knew a local boy who was an avid fisher. Our mothers were friends and there was the chance that I would begin to spend time together with this kid, so I figured it made sense to start fishing. I spent a summer looking through fishing catalogues, comparing prices on poles and looking for just the right tackle box. This boy and I were going to be the best of friends, I just knew it. Months later, I actually met him and tried out fishing for the first time. After about 5 minutes, I caught a bluegill. It tugged on my line, and then got away. It was exciting but also disappointing, as it was hard to enjoy a hobby that injured another animal, especially when I was not planning on eating the fish. It also turns out that I did not get along very well with this boy once we actually met. After 5 minutes of actually trying it out, I knew that fishing was not right for me, despite spending a full summer pursuing it from the sidelines and being so sure it was what I wanted.

I have made significant progress on most of my vocational goals during the past few years. In my admissions essay, I listed the following possible career goals: University professor, retreat coordinator, director of an outreach agency, published author of scholarly work or spiritual reflection and composer of liturgical music. Through my Masters program, I have taken strides toward a teaching job. I will consider possible PhD work or an adjunct position in the future. My work at the Catholic Worker has strengthened my skills in conducting retreats, as we have hosted many. I have maintained the Catholic Worker’s online blog, and look to expand its reach by sending submissions to local publications. Last year, I participated in (and was a substitute leader) in the music ensemble of Mass on campus at ODU. I helped the ensemble of piano and voice turn into a stronger group with drums, banjo, guitar and trumpet. I did this by incorporating my own skills as well as encouraging fellow students to stretch out and showcase their own hidden talents.

I did not make significant progress composing liturgical music during this time, but in the future I may still work on that (it does not help that the leading publishers have had an indefinite moratorium on new submissions for Mass parts as the new translation of the Mass is being reviewed).

The Columbus Catholic Worker community formed about three and a half years ago. I joined because I had previously been involved in other communities in Akron, OH, and Worcester, MA. The Catholic Worker movement has always impressed me as a beautiful and deeply insightful approach to Christian service in the way it blends direct outreach to the needy with involvement in global issues of justice. Being involved in direct service has a grounding effect, as people know others who are suffering on a personal level. In a likewise manner, being involved in social justice work gives a vision to the direct service, so that it is not just random acts of kindness but rather has an underlying vision and direction. In addition to that, the Catholic Worker movement is about turning one’s very lifestyle into an act of service--my normal rent contributions and housekeeping responsibilities turn into acts of service in this environment. This is done by using one’s own home as a place to conduct this service. Some claim that intentional communities like the Catholic Worker are part of a new movement in community living, often dubbed the “New Monasticism.”

I got involved in the community in Columbus and dug right in. I eventually moved with two other people into the former Dominican convent at St. James the Less Catholic Church. The foundation of our community is a group of people who live together in a faith-based way. We pray together and through our living in community try to be a light for the neighborhood, the city and the world.

We facilitate numerous ministries, based on the expressed needs of the world around us. There is a large and well-organized St. Vincent de Paul food pantry that shares the building with us. We run a free clothing store (which is an ideal partner to the food pantry). We have a thriving community garden which is not only a wonderful community builder, but it also produces bushels of produce for the food pantry. Knowing English is worth more than gold to the immigrant, and so based on the recommendations of the local Latino Apostolate, we offer ESL classes. On top of that, there is much work for peace & justice efforts. Most notably, that has taken the form of opposition to the death penalty, militarism and support for immigration reform. We helped form a new local chapter of Pax Christi, the international Catholic peace movement. We also open our space for retreats and workshops and host numerous other ministries: Spanish language legal clinic, nutrition classes, canning & food preservation classes, H1N1 inoculation clinic, Bible study and Taizé prayer.

In the spirit of Benedictine hospitality, sometimes the best way to help a movement is to provide the support, encouragement and structure for it. For example, not only do I vigil and write against the death penalty, but we have opened our Catholic Worker house to be a warm and inviting (and free) meeting space for groups working against the death penalty. A Catholic Worker house is often a gathering place for activists to learn from each other and support each other.

Taken together, the Catholic Worker tries to help out the world in big and little ways. There are direct Works of Mercy, such as feeding the hungry and clothing those who are cold—if someone needs a fish, we give them a fish. We also take it to another level and educate people how to build community and grow their own organic food through the garden and also provide education through ESL classes—by teaching someone to fish, we can feed them for a lifetime. We then look at the underlying social justice issues—we ask why they need fish in the first place. We try to be good neighbors and partners with other organizations—we trade fishing supplies with other fishers.

At a point early in the first year, I had a realization. I remember the moment: I realized that I truly love the Catholic Worker movement, and, more specifically, that I love the Columbus Catholic Worker community. For one of the first times in my life, I loved something enough to put it first. I was not as concerned about making a name for myself, getting credit or winning ego battles—I am truly willing to do whatever it takes for the community to succeed. This is not to say that I have been totally immune from those human frailties and temptations, though. What it does mean is that once I was grounded in love, then everything else took second place.

I am also learning a lot about the entrepreneurial spirit through this process. In reflection, I realized that my parents and grandparents were very entrepreneurial. It has taken me many years to see that, since at first glace it may seem like they worked ordinary blue collar jobs. However, behind all that, they were always making and selling things, such growing vegetables and going to flea markets and other sales. They were opportunistic in the way they used the resources and environment around them. They knew how to network.

As an entrepreneur, it is important to take an active role in the job market. There are many folks who graduate with BA and MA degrees in Theology (or some related degree) from Catholic and other Christian institutions in the Columbus area. However, the sad reality is that there are only a handful of job openings within the diocese. While many of those graduates already have jobs or are not looking for employment within the Church, there is no escaping the grim mathematical scenario of the job market.

I decided that the best way to get a job is to create one. Yet, I did not set out to do that at first with the Columbus Catholic Worker. Like I mentioned before, I was spurred on by love, and the rest fell into place. While we began as a community, I soon discovered that my sense of commitment was different that many others, and little by little some people stepped aside or moved on for one reason or another, and I was forced to take on more. It was not simply a question of taking on more work, but rather taking on the responsibility. Someone had to make sure things got done, even if that meant staying until 2:00 am to finish something if others did not show up. In all this, I felt I was being shaped and formed in this work. Thankfully, there is now with me a dedicated team that also shares a strong commitment to the mission, but there was a time when I felt alone. I have cared for the Columbus Catholic Worker like a parent to a child. I am rooted in a sense of commitment. Perhaps this is the conversion of the heart that Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day talked about.

Despite the additional responsibility, I was also overjoyed at the opportunity: One of my primary talents is strategic planning. I like to take a bird’s eye view of an operation and put the pieces together from this vantage point. I created partnerships with other groups that met certain objectives. I put different ministries together in the hopes of generating synergy. Unlike other jobs and activities in the past, there were few people standing in the way. In any group of people, there are the ‘nay sayers’ and folks who create roadblocks for one reason or another, but in this case they were not as invested as someone who is in love.

Despite the fact that there was tremendous work involved, I also saw how feasible it was. I was part of a small group of community volunteers who put a structure together—I shepherded our group to incorporate as a non-profit organization. We are currently applying for 501C3 tax exempt status. I am the primary person forming partnerships with other organizations and negotiating with the host parish and diocese, maintenance and utilities companies. We have developed numerous ministries and outreach efforts. I realized that forming a completely new organization out of scratch is not an inaccessible, lofty goal, but rather something to be seized and tried. There are other options in life besides passively apply for jobs that are posted—we also have the option to go out and create our own. This has been a profound awakening.

The irony is that there is no shortage of job openings in the Church—if one is willing to wear a collar or habit. A priest is specifically ordained and stands in persona Christi. At the same time, we are all called to be co-workers in the vineyard, and we all share a common priesthood. The question is where the Catholic Church is willing to lean in this distinction. There is quite a bit of theology that the Church has to work through in order to shift the balance to include the laity more in matters once reserved for the ordained. The shift is not just administrative, because it requires a theological shift, as well. However, I believe that the groundwork for this shift has already been laid, most specifically at Vatican II.

Other religious orders have in some cases centuries of infrastructure and financial support for their work. The problem is that there are fewer people today taking lifetime vows of poverty, chastity and obedience than in previous generations. The result is that much of this infrastructure is left to sit idle—convents are closing down as orders consolidate.

New movements like the Catholic Worker show a different way for people to live in faith-based communities that resonate in the current culture. The three traditional, lifetime vows are not a requirement. Many communities are ecumenical. They allow men, women and families. They also allow for transition. People can either work outside jobs or not. It is a great experiment to see whether modern intentional communities will have the longevity of the Benedictines, Mendicants and others, but there is every reason to believe that these new movements are part of something substantial within the Church.

Traditional orders could benefit by trying to adapt to the modern culture. The ancient “order of widows” is coming back in fashion, as older people who are widowed or divorced with grown children are seeking out religious orders at that phase of their lives. There are also more third orders and “internship” type programs in place, but there could be more.

The Columbus Catholic Worker has a Catholic identity, but it is also ecumenical. Both are true. From the beginning, the thing that most impressed me by the founders of the Columbus community was the desire to work in concert with the institutional Catholic Church right from the beginning. We are a part of the Church, even though we do not report to the hierarchy. Many Catholic Worker communities have an adversarial relationship with their local parish or diocese. It is our desire to stay in relationship, even when we disagree, as that is the best context for true peacemaking.

My studies in theology have been extremely helpful in my leadership of the Catholic Worker. It is good to know what the hot button issues are in the theological world, so that we are careful about what we say publicly. It is important to represent what we want to say and not cause any unexpected responses—taking a controversial stand only when we want to and not by accident. I use readings from class in our group prayer and reflection time.

As Director of the organization, I am the “go to” person when difficult matters arise. People come to me to air out grievances about other people or the organization. I am the one called into difficult meetings when expectations have not been met or problems arise. My value is to be open and honest with people and carry myself in a measured way. I feel like I am in the public view 24/7, and I watch what I say and how I say it. At the same time, I have had to be mindful of my health. Finding appropriate people to confide in and vent to is critical, and I have learned that by experience: I developed a stomach ulcer last year, because I was walking this high wire act without creating enough space for my health.

Prayer is also critical. As a faith-based organization, we live on prayer and see the ministries as truly the fruit of the Holy Spirit and not directly our own efforts in isolation. Studying the Augustine vs. Pelagius debates in the Masters program have helped me to better understand the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives this way. I have a fuller appreciation for the orthodox view than I did before, as I used to lean a lot more to the Pelagian side before beginning the program.

I learned a great deal about Catholic Christian theology in the Masters program. It is valuable to have faculty who between themselves have different opinions and approaches to scholarship. I have truly come to understand the notion of God as Trinity in a way I never expected. I see the relationship between nature and grace, and our ability to explain it, as forming the dividing lines between many denominations. I see the foundations of Catholic Social Teaching in what Richard Sokoloswki calls “The Christian distinction”—that gratitude is the only appropriate response to creation, as creation is a pure gift from a God who does not need us but wants us. While I have never focused on sacramental theology, it becomes evident quickly that in systematic theology all of the fields are intricately related. I got to a point in my education where I had taken courses in eschatology and theological anthropology, and I touched up upon Trinity and Christology as part of other courses, and I knew that I had to study sacramental theology or else I would risk missing a vital link.

I am ultimately fascinated by ecumenism, and in my spare time I read up on ecclesiology. I read Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church the way some people read fiction for spiritual enlightenment. To me, systematic theology and spirituality are the same things. Notions of the Catholic, analogical imagination, as described by Andrew Greeley, have also had a strong impact on me. I have often struggled with people who hold that being a Catholic or Christian means affirming a set of beliefs—one is either in or out based on answers to certain questions. Both Dulles and Greeley describe ways to be Catholic that do not reduce the faith to meeting a short list of criteria. I struggle with many dogmas, magisterial pronouncements and the role of the pope. Yet, I know I am Catholic. Other denominations have never been a real possibility for me, even if I have had a hard time explaining why. My theology, the way I see grace in the world, is wholly Catholic through and through. This lumbering caravan of saints and sinners described by Dulles, the description of the Church as a great, big Renaissance Fair that never ends, described by fellow Catholic Worker Miki Tracy, are all part of the Catholic story.

I was deeply moved by the theologian Gerald W. Schlabach who envisions his own Mennonite Church more as a charism of the larger Church, rather than a separate denomination. The future of ecumenism may lie in a shift of definitions like that, as we are coming to see divisions in softer terms.

Inspired by Hans Küng, I long for a Catholic Church that is more conciliar in the way it makes decisions. Instead of emphasizing a strict monarchy of the pope, we should instead move back to an early Church approach that leans more on councils of bishops and grassroots decision making. An Orthodox friend has told me I should consider her Church, as they do not recognize papal authority in the way that Catholics do. I would simply say that I am rather a conciliar Catholic, and there is enough support for that approach to Church in our tradition to keep it as a vital possibility. In addition, inroads by Liberation Theologians, particularly at the Medellín Conference in 1968, give promise to a more bottoms-up approach to authority. The sensus fidelium--the sense of the faithful--has a role to play in magisterial authority, as the combined insights of all the faithful is theologically significant and is a force in the life of the Church. A rigid, papal-based system of authority is not the only tradition we have, even though it often gets the most attention.

I loved the Scripture courses as much as I thought I would. I began taking Hebrew language courses at the Methodist Theological Seminary, but with an outside job and other class responsibilities I was only able to complete a single semester. I am most impressed with some of the papers I wrote in those scripture courses. My technical mind came into play doing a word study on the book of Qohelet, and my final paper included a number of charts and diagrams of word usage and frequency. I loved taking the psalms apart and looking at them from various angles. My paper exploring literary devices in the Gospel of John stands as one of my proudest accomplishments.

The future is still up for grabs. I would love it if my work at the Columbus Catholic Worker could turn into full-time, paid employment. That would involve a development of more funding sources and administrative infrastructure. It would also challenge the charism of the organization, as Catholic Worker communities usually do not have paid staff and instead operate in Franciscan poverty. However, as the mission evolves, there is a possibility that we might move in that direction. I would like to continue my writing on community, theology and justice, and look for a larger audience. My passion for teaching is strong, and I have skills to share in both theology as well as writing/editing. I do not have other plans at the moment, but there is a limit to how long I will be able to continue without some kind of outside employment.

For the moment, my plan is to stay in Ohio, near my parents, friends and girlfriend. I realize that decision severely limits professional options, as ministry jobs are often available if one is willing to move. For the time being, I cannot imagine doing anything other than continuing with the Columbus Catholic Worker, and I want to see it through.