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.