The Lenten Journey: Living Up To Our Expectations

In preparation for a Lenten retreat for heads of schools given by the Diocese of Wilmington in March, I am reading the book, “Blessings for Leaders” by Dan R. Ebener. He uses the construct of the Beatitudes to discuss effective characteristics and qualities that leaders should possess, suggesting that all of the Beatitudes taken together provide the essence of Christ’s message through his words and actions. He suggests that the Beatitudes in the New Testament challenge us to emulate the life of Christ and in so doing, “raise the bar”, so to speak, from the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, which provide the foundational requirements of being faithful to God.

Living up to a standard is something that we all have experienced, whether it was a goal or expectation set by our parents, our social group, or ourselves. I would guess that most of us have had experiences of falling short of our expectations. In those instances for me, I can recall a mixture of feelings from embarrassment and disappointment to anger and frustration, particularly if I felt that I had tried my very best, but it just was not good enough. Usually after some time had passed, I was able to revisit the experience and see more objectively how things unfolded that caused me to feel inadequate – my underestimating or not understanding the task; someone else’s different expectations from my own; subtle, small things that could have changed the final result; or sometimes, just “missing the boat” completely as they say. Whatever the cause, I believe that it has been helpful for me to revisit those times of failure, of feeling inadequate, especially those times when I was critical of my own performance and no one else seemed to notice. For me, a common theme that I have discovered in those moments is an unwillingness to see the bigger picture, to reframe a situation, because I might lose control. “Letting go” without being irresponsible at times is how I need to let God into the situation, and allow him to work through me.

The Beatitudes are a checklist for living – in most cases, paradoxes – as Christ so often uses in his parables and teachings: the poor in spirit inherit the kingdom, the mourners are comforted, and the meek inherit the earth. Taking one or more of the Beatitudes and applying them to a failed attempt at something in my life has been helpful for me to move beyond the failure and learn from it.

This is a time in the school year when the first semester is over, mid-term exams are administered and graded, and final semester grades are distributed to students and parents on the report card. Needless to say, for many students, it is a time of high anxiety and a time of celebration or disappointment. Given the “high stakes testing” environment and the heightened competition in highly selective colleges and universities, meeting standards – self-imposed, family created, or systemically supported by the college acceptance process – is a difficult task for most students. Even the very best academicians probably miss self-imposed goals at times, but I am guessing those who are consistently most successful continue to set aspirational goals for themselves, missing them at times, but supported by those around them to learn from the failures and move on.

Isn’t that the message of the Beatitudes? Christ is laying out for his followers a blueprint for living that is based on introspection, contradiction, and compassion. Never to suffer is not the answer. Embracing our sufferings and disappointments, our losses and mourning, offers us the strength and empowerment we need to live the lives we were meant to live.

Two weeks ago the Archmere community came together in a special way at Daylesford Abbey for the funeral of Father Michael Collins, O.Praem. ’68. Evening prayer was followed by the viewing and the funeral Mass the next morning. I believe we experienced what Ebener describes, “When we mourn together as a family or community, we can grow in empathy and love for each other. These relationships strengthen our endurance during times of mourning. We can grow in wisdom born of suffering.” (pg.13)

In less than two weeks, the season of Lent begins in the Catholic Church. It is a time of penance, fasting, and prayer. I plan to use the Beatitudes as a way to reflect and pray, specifically thinking about the questions relating to setting standards for myself – how do I suppose they are set? By whom? For what purpose? And what happens if I don’t live up to them? Nobody’s perfect, but then again if we don’t strive for “perfection” – to be like Christ – how will we ever get closer each day? As with most things, the answers lie in the journey – one of balance and authenticity, supported by a loving community. May your Lenten journey be a fruitful one.

 

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The Expectations of “Doing Your Best”

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Pope Francis

Over the summer I read Pope Francis’ “Top 10 Ways To Increase Happiness In One’s Life.

They are:

10. Work for peace.

9. Don’t proselytize: respect others’ beliefs.

8. Stop being negative.

7. Respect and care for nature.

6. Create dignified jobs for young people.

5. Sundays should be holidays.

4. A healthy sense of leisure.

3. Proceed calmly in life.

2. Be giving of yourself to others.

1. Live and let live.

I thought about the Pope’s top 10 list as we move deeper into the semester and quarter grades are formulated. Suddenly, the anxiety level of students may start to increase, and they may be delighted or disappointed at some of their academic outcomes.

I believe that we need to be supportive of our young people in high school and college by helping them put into perspective all of the daily responsibilities they are asked to manage. From the notion of “high stakes testing” to competitive college admissions, our young people have to manage stress and pressure, and often need time for reflection and relaxation. I find that, for the most part, I have to tell my own children, now in college and graduate school, that “doing your best” is all that we as parents can expect. Sometimes the tasks at hand seem insurmountable and “doing your best” doesn’t get the result that students expect. Then what do you say?

Maybe that is the time to reframe the situation and study just what exactly is “failure,” and what is it that the student has “failed.” Even the most “critical” or “high stakes” assessments have their place in the total context of one’s life. We could recite hundreds of clichés to our children – when God closes a door, God opens a window, and so on. We can also talk sensibly about what we have learned from the experience and how positive next steps can be developed from it. I do not believe there is just one answer for parents who try to respond to their children facing challenges and failures. But I do believe it takes honest conversation, with results that may often not be the “quick fix” solution, but rather a slow evolutionary process.

That is why Pope Francis’ comments on ways to live a happy life are a wonderful blueprint to living our lives each day. Within the context of the day, we certainly deal with many relationships and situations, and to do so while keeping in mind this 10-item checklist is helpful in managing through particularly difficult days. So as we move through the first semester of the school year, may we as parents of students have the wisdom and grace to work through the difficulties and celebrate the successes with our children.

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The Tradition of Educating

Pope FrancisIt is exciting to begin a new school year. The energy among students, staff, and parents is palpable on campus. Good education today is a challenge that requires the collaborative efforts of students, staff, and parents. Fortunately, at Archmere, we have a tradition of community that fosters conversation and dialog with an extreme focus on our educational and formative mission.

As we begin this school year, I share with you the words of Pope Francis included in the final pages of “Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools: Living in Harmony for a Civilization of Love.” (2013):

“Do not be disheartened in the face of the difficulties that the educational challenge presents! Educating is not a profession by an attitude, a way of being; in order to educate it is necessary to step out of ourselves and be among young people, to accompany them in the stages of their growth, and to set ourselves beside them. Give them goodness of creation and of man who always retains the Creator’s hallmark. But above all, with your life to be witnesses of what you communicate. Educators . . . pass on knowledge and values with their words; but their words will have an incisive effect on children and young people if they are accompanied by their witness, their consistent way of life. Without consistency it is impossible to educate! You are all educators, there are no delegates in this field. Thus collaboration in a spirit of unity and community among the various educators is essential and must be fostered and encouraged. School can and must be a catalyst, it must be a place of encounter and convergence of the entire educating community, with the sole objective of training and helping to develop mature young people who are simple, competent and honest, who know how to love with fidelity, who can live life as a response to God’s call, and their future profession as a service to society.” (Pope Francis, Speech to the Students of the Jesuit Schools of Italy and Albania)

Let us take these wonderful words of Pope Francis and reflect on them as we begin this new school year together!