Thursday, February 3, 2011

Under the Eucalyptus Tree: Explorations and Insights with College Students

Under the Eucalyptus Tree: Exploring the Dynamics of Contemplative Pause, Theological Reflection and Discernment with College Students

Ongoing practices of contemplative pause and theological reflection inform the process of discernment as young adults search for answers to questions large and small within their college careers while deepening their understanding of Christian discipleship. As they intersect with one another, I suggest that the permutation of all three disciplines within the practice of campus ministry reaps the richest outcomes with young adults who long to respond to the call of Christian vocation.

Practicing Contemplative Pause with College Students
The practice of contemplative pause with college students requires the process of assisting them to find ways to remove themselves from everyday distractions to pay attention to their inner life. Life within noisy residence halls mirrors a post-modern society, in which the contemplative moment “is under siege in contemporary society, where life is shaped by the unexamined demands of an economy running on digital and brittle time.”1 Gathering young adults into a hiatus of spiritual imagination and insight into their lives prompted my action toward a more profound experience in the practice of spirituality, one that would open another avenue for God’s initiative to actualize among these young adults, energizing their faith within a context of gift and revelation. The outcome resulted in a program called Under the Eucalyptus TreeTM, issued in five movements,2 offering students who elected to attend the program the opportunity to integrate their own experiences, images and insights within their everyday lives, deepening their own spirituality and give them a time to pause, reflect, imagine and create their own practice of pause within a demanding and often toxic society. The five movements include silence, (guided) meditation and/or the practice of Focusing,3 extracting an image and reconstructing the image, working from of an interior divergence or questioning which surfaces in the movement of guided  meditation,4 and sharing the experience with one another, creating a conversation of what Parks defines as James Loder’s model of a ‘context of rapport’5 within a trusted community and sustained within the circle of friends who gather together in the quest for God’s activity in their lives. At times, students will remain to continue their inquiry into the experience, to deepen it with more reflection and prayer.

Practicing Theological Reflection with College Students
Theological reflection is the discipline of exploring individual and corporate experience with the wisdom of a religious heritage. The conversation is a genuine dialogue that seeks to hear from our own beliefs, actions, and perspectives, as well as those of the tradition. It respects the integrity of both.6 Young adults yearn to explore, identify, and clarify their Christian vocational call as they serve the college community now and what they feel called to in their professional lives after they graduate. As these students help to shape and create a community of Christian faith and service among their peers, an important aspect of their longing locates itself in a visceral longing to seek and find God’s path within meaningful lives of service. Identifying and responding to the call of Christian vocation prods these young sojourners, who search for ways to articulate and make meaning of new insights and wisdom gained on the journey. The question What am I passionate about? often foreshadows the desire for service in some students. For others, the service itself may create the paradigm shift within their process. In either case, metanoia occurs, and a vocational call erupts from the well of desire that lies deep within their souls. Theological reflection creates a framework that “draws upon the lived experience of those doing the reflection, correlates this experience with the sources of the Christian tradition and draws out practical implications for Christian living.”7 This movement toward insight8 affords young adults an opportunity to articulate the interior acumen that may otherwise remain undisclosed when life presents new challenges and students confront their places of certitude and self-assurance. Indeed, the challenges often act as the impetus for theological reflection. Prefaced by the practice of contemplative pause, young adults enter a stage of profound inquiry that initiates a thirst for truth and for new language about their own experiences that precipitates a change of praxis in how they live their own reality. Movement toward insight informs young adults that exclusive standpoints of certitude and self-assurance, so common in this age group, “do not empower reflective, committed, compassionate lives,”9 leaving young adults blind and deaf to the power of the Christian story and to content of the experience. As their reflection regarding their own experiences deepens and becomes more authentic, the desire to search for fresh sources of wisdom within their own faith tradition holds potential answers to the questions that this exploratory period presents. Learning to pay attention to what the heart speaks is the first step for young adults as they explore new terrain within theological reflection, hopefully leading them to a change of understanding of the world and their place in it as their desire to answer questions about the meaning, purpose and value of their lives, holding great promise for their present as well as their future.

Practicing Discernment with College Students
Discernment is the intentional practice by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally takes part in the activity of God in concrete situations.10 College students who practice contemplative pause and theological reflection cultivate an inner reflective disposition, which prepares them for the inevitable single question amalgamated from all the others as a result of their praxis: Now what?11 When young adults arrive at the axis of their interior and exterior experiences, they want to sift through the collective rubble of conflicting postmodern ‘essentials,’ which endorse market values that oppose the movement of the Spirit of God which pull them away from their centeredness. The English word “discernment” finds its origin in the Latin word discernere, “to separate” or “to distinguish” or “to sift through.” This process of going deeper to draws upon one’s whole person and requires attention to one’s reflective disposition. Margaret Benefiel tells us: It includes and transcends intellectual analysis. It includes and transcends emotional intelligence. It is the bringing together of all of one’s faculties within the larger context of the transcendent. In spiritual discernment, one learns to distinguish the real from the illusory, the wheat from the chaff. Through being deeply spiritually grounded, the discerner cuts through the usual distractions and attachments that obscure accurate perception, and seeks to see reality clearly.12 I believe that a serious challenge, which young adults encounter in what I call the “Now What?” process of decision-making, may be found in the philosophy of critical thinking. Academic communities pride themselves on their mission to shape students into critical thinkers. This analytical process facilitates a solid conclusion, reconciling proof and common sense. The goal of critical thinking is to gain knowledge. To gain knowledge, one must think. One learns poorly if one thinks poorly. To learn well, one must think well. Within the concept of critical thinking, all content must be intellectually constructed if one intends to learn. Critical thinking leaves little or no room for the practice of discernment, which, by its nature, draws upon the activity of God within the movements of the Spirit working within the whole person. The tension between the process of discernment and the process of critical thinking actualizes a dilemma experienced by college students, one which creates a deep and divisive dichotomy of theory and practice for young adults who become heavily immersed in the culture of collegiate life and abstract reasoning, particularly if their pursuit of a baccalaureate degree preludes other steps in their academic careers. David White suggests that postmodern commercial culture “generally shapes youth as consumers, alienating them from their hearts, minds, souls, and bodies,”13 and postmodern commercial and political cultures “have alienated young people from the wisdom of their communities and from their intrinsic gifts for God’s reign.”14 I propose that academia contributes to this impasse through its prostelization of critical thinking, which can become as isolating and objectifying as any market place medium. White tells us that in modern times, “truth became identified with isolated, objective, or dead “facts,” an association that treated the world as an object to be dissected and manipulated knowledge as sheer curiosity and control and distanced us from one another and creation,”15 and “requires integration within the individual, or between one’s heart, mind, soul and body.”16 Searching for God’s voice within the mix of daily listening, reflecting, remembering and acting17 requires participation in struggle, joy, need, despair and hope of the world. Students who live only in their heads may find that they ‘don’t have time’ to become involved in service work, participate in a retreat, sing in a choir, or take an alternative service trip during semester breaks. Yet, something within calls to them, that which cannot be denied, despite what a conflicting post-modern culture may deem necessary. “Sadness may point to educational systems and the limitations they represent for young people who yearn to engage their gifts in the healing of the world.”18 In my experience, the best outcomes of discernment within the “Now What?” stage of young adults transpire with those students who dared to engage with the world outside of the classroom, inviting “the mind into relationship with the heart, soul and body,”19 garnering truth which cannot be learned from a book or a lecture, but through events which find young adults interacting with the world not as “an objectified system of empirical objects in logical connection with each other, but an organic body of personal relations and responses, a living and evolving community of creativity and compassion.”20 In short, young adults come to know themselves through the manifestation of the living God who loves, heals and saves through their relationships and experiences. “Truth becomes deeply ingrained in our bones, not remaining an abstract idea. It instead develops into a dynamic relationship between our hearts, minds, souls, bodies, and the world around us as we move ever beyond ourselves toward greater relatedness and truth.”21 In addition, those students who practice the art of contemplative pause, along with the learned language of theological reflection and its movements into praxis, discover that as they begin the process of discernment to discover the “Now What?” of their lives, they stand on the brink to perceive something concealed. The specifics of the will of God very often hide at first. Although God will not be second guessed, we depend on God’s promise to “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened to you.”22 A student recently shared, “ I feel as though I’m standing on one side of the door without a doorknob and God is on the other side. If can just learn how to open that door, I know I’ll find out what I’m supposed to do with my life.” Such astute perception on the part of a twenty-one year old leaves me humbled and delighted.

1. Parks, Sharon Daloz. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000, 115.
2. Ibid, 109. These five movements find their interpretation in Parks’ development of the work of James Loder, exploring five movements within the act of imagination.
3. For a brief but enlightening read on Focusing, see Saunders, Nancy. “Focusing on the Light: A Modest Proposal.” Friends Journal: Quaker Thought and Life Today, (January
4. Parks’ analysis of conscious conflict addresses this fourth movement as an essential piece within the practice of contemplative pause and the development of young adult faith. Conflicts and questions which surface during contemplative pause “must be allowed, felt, and made fully conscious,” clarified and “tolerated with openness to a
solution – no matter how remote it seems,” and “held with a sense of hope.” Parks, 109-110.
5. Parks, 111-112.
6. Killen, Patricia O’Connell and de Beer, John. The Art of Theological Reflection. New York: Crossroad, 1999. Introduction, viii.
7. Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York:  HarperCollins, 1993
8. The Art of Theological Reflection
9. Ibid.14.
10 Rogers, Frank Jr., “Discernment.” Practicing Our Faith. Ed. Bass, Dorothy C. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 1997,107. Although the Whiteheads and Killen and de Beer indicate practical outcomes of theological reflection more as a prompting to action if participants are willing, Thomas Groome insists that the whole intent of theological reflection shapes praxis, though he broadly defines praxis as cognitive, affective or behavioral action.
11. Benefiel, Margaret, Soul at Work. New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 2005, 54.
12. White, David. Practicing Discernment With Youth. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005, 80.
13. Ibid., 80. Admittedly, there exists a community of scholars who, while encouraging critical thinking with their students, reside within a practicum of deep reflection and compassion within their own pedagogy. They are truly invested in the wellness and wholeness of their students. My issue does not lie with these scholars who teach with the heart as well as the mind, but of those who objectify their students as thinkers only, and eliminating any peripheral experience, which may contribute to the language of scholarship within a college classroom setting.
14. Ibid., 83.
15. Ibid., 83.
16. David White’s four movements of discernment intersect with Killen and de Beer’s four-step movements of theological reflection: Listening: Loving God with your heart = Focus on a aspect of your experience; Understanding: Loving God with your mind = Feelings lead to an image; Remembering/ Dreaming: Loving God with your soul = Wisdom within a religious tradition; Acting: Loving God with your strength = Now What? Allowing the insight to inform praxis. In my experience with shared theological reflection and practice of discernment, I find that although similarities exist between each, beginners in the practice of spirituality will appropriate the language of theological reflection with greater ease than that of the language of discernment, which presumes a religious setting for participants. Although theological reflection is a learned language, the paradigm provided by Killen and de Beer allows for other settings other than religious, and affords greater facility with participants.
17. Ibid., 83.
18. Ibid., 83.
19. Palmer, Parker. To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993, 14.
20. White, 83.
21. Matthew 7:7
22. Matthew 7:7

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Day that I Preached at the Wedding of Two Friends

In January 2004, Stonehill College Chapel Choir embarked on its first European singing tour to Rome, Italy. Throughout the tour, we experienced the ubiquitous displays of this ancient metropolis that arouses all of the senses and stirs the imagination. During a visit to Nicola Salvi’s wondrous creation the Trevi Fountain, I stood near a senior on the tour and remarked on the historical romance of this extraordinary combination of art and aqueduct. We both became aware of several young couples star gaze into each other’s eyes as they sat on the wall in front of this most theatrical masterpiece. The senior, contemplating what the future held in store for her, as all seniors do, mused as we stood and gazed at the various Tritons, “This is where I want my future husband to propose to me.” (I will give you three guesses on the identity of that senior, who I will call, for the sake of this reflection, Tiara.)
Deemed a complete success, the Chapel Choir once again embarked on a second singing tour of Italy in January 2008. By this time, Tiara, now in love with one of those salt-of-the-earth guys who any woman would be privileged and fortunate to claim as ‘the one’, traveled once again with the singing tour as a chapel choir alum, and accompanied by salt-of-the-earth guy, who turned out, as it happens, to be quite a decent tenor. In a conversation prior to the tour, Tiara pondered the possibility of a marriage proposal. “I wonder if it will happen in Italy.” Remembering her remark at the Trevi Fountain several years earlier, I wondered the same thing and became caught up in the great theater that this possibility would create on our tour. (I am, after all, a woman and not made of stone.) After being reassured in a very hush-hush conversation at Christmas time with Salt-of-the-Earth Guy, I knew that the blessed moment would indeed take place on our singing tour in January.
Salt-of-the-Earth-Guy, however, did not reveal the day, time or place that the proposal would occur. Despite this small detail, I shared the exciting news with some members of the tour, and so from the beginning of our excursion, we lived, to coin a phrase, on pins and needles, waiting with bated breath for what seemed to be more eternal than the eternal city.
We contemplated marriage as we toured the Vatican museums and Michaelangelo’s magnanimous art in the Sistine Chapel. We contemplated marriage while studying the incredible beauty of the Pieta and looking intently at Pope John’s immortal remains in St. Peter’s Basilica. We contemplated marriage in the Piazza Navona eating gelato, Tiara’s favorite food, and we continued to contemplate marriage at the wall of the Trevi Fountain (I actually prayed at the feet of Neptune for this), and we contemplated marriage while gazing up at the oculus in the Pantheon. Surely it would here! What opulent drama – a proposal of marriage surrounded by the tomb of the artist Raphael and several kings! And just like Yukon Cornelius in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as he continued his quest for gold in the frozen North, we got nothin’. We wondered if everything was alright with Tiara and Salt-of-the-Earth Guy, but I managed to reassure everyone that Salt-of-the-Earth Guy knew what he was about and to expect the unexpected at any time. Stay alert, be watchful, pay attention, I told them. Good generals plan strategies and secret them away until the moment of attack. Clever bridegrooms are no different. I promptly forgot my words in Assisi, the home of several saints that include St. Francis and St. Clare.
Assisi looks very much like a tiny medieval town that time forgot. The narrow lanes, massive gates, Etruscan stone buildings, churches and olive groves set high on a hill capture the imagination, like something out of an Umbrian story land village in a Tommy DePaolo children’s book. Assisi claims Italy’s patron saint, Francis, as its own. Called the Little Poor One because he lived and preached a life of simplicity and poverty, the spirit of Francis permeates Assisi, in the lifestyle of the people who live there, and in the shops of the village and the homes that line the town’s winding roads and lanes. Along with Francis, the town also lays claim to Clare, the founder of the Poor Clares, who followed Frances and began an order of women who espoused the life that Francis led.
After a tour of the Basilica of St. Francis, the choir sang for Mass in one of the small chapels and then went on to visit the Basilica Santa Chiara, which houses St. Clare’s artifacts and the famed Cross of San Damiano. The Basilica of Santa Chiara is fronted by a terrace-like piazza with views over which overlooks a stunning vista of village and valley. The beauty of both the interior and exterior of this Gothic church can literally take your breath away. I suggested to my husband that we visit a small gift shop across the piazza and purchase a Christmas ornament so that we could remember this timeless place of gentle spirituality and peace. A marriage proposal was the last thing on my mind. We could not have been in that little shop for more than five minutes and just paying for our little purchase when a student came to find us and said, “Quick! Come out now! It’s happening now, right now!” We rushed out of the shop to see Salt-of-the-Earth Guy on one knee, proposing marriage to his Tiara at the edge of the terrace, while the rest of the choir gathered to witness the blessed event. That settles it; when you’re looking left, the oncoming train is approaching from the right. Keep your eyes on the road; you never know what's coming down the pike. (Salt of the Earth Guy told me later that he really did look for me before deciding to pop the question, but when I was nowhere to be found, he decided to move forward - thanks be to God.)
And here we are.
When Jess and Paul asked me to offer this reflection, my musings produced several truisms and I offer them today as food for thought for the next 50 years, because this wedding comes with a lifetime guarantee.
Relationships,like recipes, contain principle ingredients that everything else builds upon.
Essential to life and good health, salt is critical to metabolism. It may also be used to cleanse wounds, banish a sore throat in a pinch (remember those famous salt water gargles your mother used when you were la sick little kid? Take that, H1N1.), and keeps us afloat when we swim in the ocean. Salt seasons food and has the potential to make ordinary fruit and vegetables (like tomatoes and popcorn) into gastronomical fare. In a word, salt changes things.
Today, Jesus tells us, his disciples, that we are the salt of the earth. What does that mean for us here today, celebrating a wedding? Just this: that marriage, when lived within a cooperative spirit with the grace of God, changes us. Jess and Paul, with your consent to love, honor and commit to life with each other throughout good times, bad times, sickness and health, you open yourselves to be changed by something bigger than yourselves – to see things in a different way, to live your lives within grace as it constantly unfolds within your daily living. This change goes to the heart of how you'll see yourselves, not only today, but throughout the years, until one day, you'll realize that you've become the other, while retaining those wonderful characteristics that made you fall in love with each other in the first place. As you become salt for each other, your relationship becomes stronger, more seasoned, healthy, vibrant and becomes a vital sign of grace for all of us, and for everyone who will encounter you over the years. Like salt, you have the power to effect all who will come to know you because you have allowed yourselves to be transformed by grace. That's what Jesus meant when he described his followers as the salt of the earth. Sacraments, like salt, change us. Jess and Paul, this life-giving grace that you celebrate today through the gracious love of God will cleanse and heal you when you hurt, keep you afloat when you feel that you may be sinking with the ship, carry you in the joys and sorrows ahead of you, and act as the primary building block of your relationship for you and for your children and your children's children.
The verb 'to be' pretty much sums up Christian marriage.
In the opening song of this liturgy, we sang about the key ingredients necessary for any successful relationship, particularly between a man and woman who fall in love and dare to risk their hearts in this all- encompassing lifetime work of marriage. In his beloved and well -known prayer, St. Francis of Assisi doesn't ask God for peace, or faith, or pardon or understanding. Francis prays to be a channel of peace, a conduit of the grace of God. Francis asks God to grant him the simple faith necessary to be the hope in the midst of someone's despair, like when the bills seems to add up faster than the paychecks and the boiler lets go unexpectedly. Francis doesn't ask to be understood; rather, he knows that we require the grace of God to be consolation during the times when an aging parent seems to be getting far more attention than your wife, or that vacation that you were planning needs to take a back seat because your husband came down with the flu just when you were about to pick up your bags and head out the door. Francis doesn't ask God for love. Instead, Francis prays to be the ardor in the face of someone's rejection, like the job promotion that you were counting on to help pay for the new addition on the house that went instead to the boss's niece. Grant that I may be, Lord, the joy in the midst of someone's sorrow, like when you gain twenty five pounds instead of losing them. Francis petitions God to allow him to be the light for someone living in the darkness of grief when a loved one dies, or when kids break your heart over one thing or another. Francis knew that the greatest dramas are rarely found on stage or screen but discovered in the ordinary events of everyday life. Francis knew that we need the grace of God to become the compassion and love that sustains and nurtures us through the living and the dying and the rising again, Faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is indeed love. To be the love you've promised today, Jess and Paul, is to be that joy and compassion for each other, a light that shines before others, as Jesus indicates today in Matthew's gospel, so that we, the people in this church today who love you, can always see your light, so that it can shine for us, too, in our all of our relationships, as we strive to live holy lives, the call of all Christians. And what better way than to partner with that person who makes you laugh, holds you when you weep, gives you hope when you feel there's no hope left in the world, and understands you better than you know yourself. Francis said, “Preach the gospel; when necessary, use words.” He got it right. And Paul, you got it right, proposing in Assisi. And Jess got it right when she gave up her tiara and her dream of a marriage proposal at the foot of a glorious fountain and told Salt of the Earth guy that she embraced his decision to ask for her hand on the Piazza Chiara, not the Piazza Tiara. Wise people know that the unexpected turns in the road often lead to the most beautiful views. I think that you, my dear bride and groom, will be salt and light for us all for many years to come. God bless you both.


Recently, my daughter came home on a break from college. After a Saturday morning breakfast chat about her friends, her work, her search for apartments for next year and her most recent romantic interests, she stood to go upstairs to shower. Before she left the room, she kissed me on the cheek, pulled the latest copy of Vogue out of her overnight bag and plopped it on the kitchen table. “By the way, I bought this for you. Fun stuff. “
After I poured myself a third cup of coffee, I mustered the courage to look at the star-studded cover of sleek, label-gad women walking toward the wind-machined lens. My daughter and I used to pour through the pages and muse over the lifestyle of the people who seem to very casually wear the unwearable and took great pleasure in perusing Vogue together. When she went to college, I lost my Saturday morning fashion rag buddy. The pages of the magazine taunted me as I mused about my sudden discomfort with the images that stared up at me from their glossy frames. I felt as though I had stepped into a minefield and suddenly wondered why in the world I used to think that this was fun.What was going on here?
The word 'pragmatic' rarely enters fashion vocab. If you love it and you feel good in it, you buy and wear it, regardless of pain or practicality. I admit that despite budget restrictions, I own a good number of stiletos and suits and would never think of going to the grocery store without earrings and lipstick, at the very least. Every day presents a change of purse to match a particular outfit, and sometimes the outfit may be selected because of the choice of a favorite bag or shoes (I confess that I still change my purse if I think that the color clashes with my outfit). I even admit that I once refused to come out of the house to say hello to an old friend who stopped by to introduce me to his new wife because I didn't have my 'face' on. (He recently admitted to me through Facebook that he thought that I was mad at him these many years because of that incident. Pow, that hurt.) Okay, I admit it: I have allowed the stylediva within me to become the power magnate. Fashion rules. A thousand lashes and thirty days without matching bags and shoes for me. However, my recent practice of SAAC (Style At Any Cost)leans more toward supportive walking shoes and a giant satchel that holds my laptop, my brown bag lunch and a tote umbrella, just in case in rains. The brick walk that leads from the parking lot to my office kills nearly every stileto I own; I have befriended the cobbler and take credit for putting his daughter through her first year of college. Vogue smogue. These days, my outfits tend to revolve around a growing collection of Danskos. So sue me. I don't like wet and pinchy feet and can no longer go a full day inside open-toed four-inchers that threaten to land me on my yasch. I used to buy clutches based on their level of color, style and cuteness. Now I look for bags that hold my two-inch heels when I change them for a couple of hours at a meeting. My book-sized purses have been replaced by John Wayne-sized satchels that accommodate the daily bread of blackberry,notebook and arugula with date bagels. Take that, baguette queens.
I nudged the suspect copy of Vogue with the base of my thumb so that the cover was now hidden behind my laptop. I suddenly wondered if I had evolved past brand names and fashion interests. Where did the love go? As I pondered the possibility that age might be a contributing factor, I considered the fifty-something women who still purchased high heels and carry the letter C on on more bags and wallets than New York cabs. These power queens still pull off The Look, an air of confidence and comfort as they stride down corridors in their high heels, balance home and career, labels and love, breezing between board meetings, brooms and Barney's. However, as I perused the pages (yes, of course I gave in) filled with Gucci and Channel, Givenchy and Dior, adorned by anorexic nymphs and sunglassed men clad in underwear or nothing at all, I found myself searching for anyone over the age of twenty-something. The flawless, youthful faces with no wrinkles advertised the miracle of regenerating cell magic with the newest brand of cream for aging skin with air brush wonder. Are you kidding me? Every page taunted me with nymphettes who existed on subsequent meals of lettuce leaves and flavored water, baring limbs longer than Gumbi and evoked the possibility of adventure, sexuality and arrogant carelessness. I couldn't seem to find anyone who aged within these hallowed pages (of course I read it from cover to cover). My daughter intended her gift as a source of enjoyment. Instead, the episode propelled me into a Vogue-funk and sent me running to my closet-and-a-half to consider when My Look had decided to take a trip south for the winter.
Hope arrives through the most unexpected encounters. I decided to dress comfortably that Sunday morning, anticipating my usual 14-hour Sunday and donned a soft gray skirt, red Dansko's and a red and pink argyle layered sweater with white collar and cuffs. As a compromise for my scaled-down non-look, I threw on a pearl necklage and earrings with my giant Swalarki pink-jeweled ring that I picked up at a 75% off sale in a Denver hotel on a lay-over several years ago. As I passed a mirror for a quick check, I told myself to face it: my cosmo girl days were long gone. My non-look was a far cry from outfits past, when my students would watch for my feet under the piano to see what cute stiletto I would wear and visitors drooled over my lastest scarf or newest jacket. I had decamped the world of sheek and settled for comfort. Where is Tim Gunn with a shot of fashion conscience when you need him.
Upon arriving to work, I encountered a staff member who would preside aand preach at worship that morning. He introduced me to his friend, who I immediately dubbed Friendly Guy, probably in his mid-fifties. You just liked him at first blush.
“Wow, you've really got it going on!” he exclaimed, checking me out from head to toe. “You must watch What Not To Wear! You're so coordinated. I love what you're wearing!”
For a moment I considered telling Friendly Guy that I felt like the last rose of summer when it dawned on my that Vogue wasn't the problem. I had become my own worst version of The Enemy. In that moment, I knew that I had allowed a contemporary marketing icon to dictate how I felt about myself based on what I wore on my back and on my feet. I decided right then and there that Friendly Guy had offered me an opportunity to reboot from my Voguefunk and return to the land of the resurrected, so I volleyed back, “Well, thanks, and yes, I do watch What Not To Wear. I love that show! I actually have a reputation on this campus as the Coordination Queen. My students tell me all the time.”
“I knew it,” Friendly Guy said, perceiving my interest in the fashion world. “Can you believe the women on that show and what they wear? What in the world are they thinking? They don't even wear the right bras or underwear with their clothes. It always fascinates me to think that they walk on the streets either oblivious to how they look or just uncaring about their appearance.”
Our family motto is Toutedroit (Straightforward). I suddenly became intensely interested in Friendly Guy's identity, so I asked straightfowardly asked him, “Who are you? Do you work in fashion?” “ Oh no,” he laughed. “I'm a priest.”
Shucks, folks. I'm speechless.
Was Friendly Guy an anomaly or is there really a little Tim Gunn in even men of the cloth? Are people secretly reading Vogue under the covers at night and watching Project Runway instead of Meet the Press? Did my Friendly Guy just pull back the curtain on the newest show in town?
And what all this say about those of us who might still want to always look our best but willing to compromise the height of our heels or the length of our skirts for a more accomodating style with a little comfort? And in what rule book does it state that voguish style equates to what the fashionistas dictate? It seems to me that whatever I wear, my clothes should suggest who I am – a woman who may have gained a little wisdom (and weight) over some well-heeled walkway. My mileage tells me that some styles should never be worn by people over forty and body parts serve us best if they serve in the style that God fashioned them. I may be preaching to the choir but I'll say this loudly and proudly, by gum. Vogue smogue. Beauty comes in many sizes, shapes and styles. It's up to us to find our style and work it. Or, in Gunn-tongue, make it work.
I still read Vogue on Saturday mornings. I still love fashion and I still want to own a pair of Christian Loubatin open-toed pumps someday. But now I just look in the mirror and love myself back. I am, after all, me.

Market Place Musings

After reading Juliet Schor and Tom Beaudoin on religion and consumption, I began to reflect on Beaudoin’s position regarding the “unique dynamic” of “branding” as a verb, capable of shaping “a consistent and coherent identity” within a specific community, namely, that of young adults within a college setting. When considering this particular pericope, I decided to take several intentional walks at two private Catholic colleges, where I respectively work and study, to specifically pay attention to what students wear, how they carry themselves, and how they interface with one another in coffee shops, libraries, classroom areas, and gyms. The practice of Christian presence as hospitality and availability always plays out in a very deliberate way within my own practice of ministry, and that includes walking intentionally on both college campuses. However, this exercise became a more focused activity, one I attempted to perform without moral certitude or agenda, keeping an open eye and mind to the physicality and interaction of students on both campuses, with an ear to Schor and Beaudoin as I walked and observed. I offer several equations as a result of this exercise:

Abercrombie and Fitch + Coach + Nike = Status, Power
Jimmy Choo + Calvin Klein + Victoria Secret = Envy, Desire
Status + Power + Envy + Desire = Acceptance and Confidence
Status + Power +Envy +Desire+Acceptance +Confidence = The Look

In these two private college settings, I found that The Look contains not only a distinguishable physical appearance in students who espouse brand economy practices, but also carries with it an aura of poise which manifests itself as an air of superciliousness, a “brand” of arrogance worn as surely as any logo apparel. The Look communicates how one wishes to be seen by peers, issuing physical appearance as one's own personal traits (cool, strong, intelligent, etc.) These young power magnates appear to set the bar for other college students who may not possess the monetary resources or the physical norms that The Look requires, creating an abyss between those who can and those who cannot. In my opinion, “branding”, when lived out as a verb, not only marks those who adopt marketplace ideologies, and adapt their identities so that they can really experience the pleasure that their own imaginations conjure, but also “brands” those it leaves in the wake of its effects. The old adage, ‘marked for life’ comes to mind when recalling those students who sit with me because they’ve been made to feel different and struggle with their own self-image. Even good ministry sometimes falls short in its attempt to call to mind that every individual is created in the image and likeness of God when a human being feels crushed by the impact of marketplace ‘branding’. The haunts who embody those everyday elements that college students encounter play themselves out through episodes of bulimia, cutting, excess drinking, drugs abuse, gossip, co-dependant relationships, and other forms of depression. I would add to Schor’s claim that materialism creates neurosis and risky behavior those who feel that they cannot measure up to America’s marketplace dictatorship, driving them into a state of despair. “Branding” is alive and well and is often before me as students live their own Calvary, attempting to reclaim their own truths from the bill of goods that marketplace icons try to sell them.
After my two intentional walks, I mused that The Look dominates my two colleges. What does this say about us as institutions? Who are the targets of our market? Who do we invite and accept into our institutions? Schor claims that young people become ‘branded’ at a tender age, through a composite of influences created by the culture of our time. The two aforesaid institutions gean much their student constituency from a professional clientele of parents and moguls who provide a kind of modeling of what power, influence and prestige appear to look like. Marketplace contouring plays out in the professional world through brand suites and ties with clout, Blahnik power, and other eponymous attire which has the potential to inform, form and transform accountants into power-broker look-alikes, lawyers into economist wanna-be’s, business owners to entrepreneur-hopefuls. Do our students model what they witness in their parents? Or, do they adopt The Look, if they’re able, when they arrive on campus, and if so, at what point are they ‘branded’?
While guilty of parental transgressions from time to time, (I love really great showes and so does my daughter!), I will not purchase brand names for their own sake, but will find companies like Kenneth Coe, which advocates awareness through AWEARNESS1. I’ve worn my own sons out with my sermons on profit-at-any-cost companies (a perfect example of Beaudoin’s warning about moralizing!), but happily report that my lectures must have taken at least partial effect. All three of my kids will think twice before purchasing a piece of clothing from companies whose market practices are in question. I continue to watch for ' branding' signs among the young adults with whom I'm privileged to share a relationship and continue to consider the question, “To whom do we belong: to God, or to the market gods?” Indeed, to whom do any of us belong and how will we live that conviction out in the future?