Ash Wednesday a Time for Contemplation

Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days of the liturgical year. It is the beginning of Lent when I can reflect on the year and make a sincere effort to examine my conscience and practice the acts that help me to grow as a spiritual being. The ashes remind of the impermanence of existence and the need to join mind and body each day in meditation. It is a time to notice what is around me – sight, sounds, and my environment and all sentient beings that occupy that environment. It is often too easy not to notice the person that is homeless, the veteran that suffered injuries, or to take for granted clean air and water.

IMG_0124I hope to begin Lent by choosing a church home for the next year. I’ve visited all the churches listed in the table and some for extended periods of time. I am always hoping to find a parish that is as peaceful and mindful as the Zen Center and is as concerned about not just humanity, but all life and the environment that makes life possible.

As I visited parishes I considered my first impressions and wondered why I felt so much more comfortable and welcomed at the Missouri Zen Center. I think it is the same reason I found Sts. Claire and Francis, which is an Ecumenical Catholic Church, welcoming. In both places everyone introduced themselves at each gathering and there is no judgment and no doubt that we take refuge in the community and in our shared practice. Yet, my heart calls me to a Roman Catholic Church where all are welcome. How would you decide?

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 2.56.17 PM

*The women that cook meals at Immacolata are welcoming and kind, but it didn’t make up for the man that insisted I move to another seat.

Key to smiley faces:

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 4.47.01 PM


Tomorrow I Will See What Is Beautiful

This morning the sky was a beautiful rippled pink. I smiled. When I sat in my office, the squirrels were playing outside, and I wondered why I don’t stop and just enjoy watching them for a few minutes. Nature provides us so many things to make us slow down and smile and yet too often I don’t slow down and sometimes barely even notice.

The beauty quickly passed into daily frustrations. Most of what is ugly in the world is related to uncontrolled desires. We let those desires drive us to take what we want rather than what we need. We ask others to sacrifice while we claim our privilege and too often are silent. Letting frustration in closes the door on what is holy, to inspiration, and to sound guidance. Soon the pink sky was gone, and the squirrels disappeared. The day had gone from inspired to a task and not one I was facing by giving it my undivided attention.

Version 2Happy voices in the hall stirred me and in the conference room were three beautiful rosaries. I didn’t expect to find rosaries in a public university. A physician had given them to the Dean and asked that we get them to patients who may want them and along with the rosaries left a donation.

Frustration is far from being mindful. It blocks faith and trust and yet it can’t keep God out. A Muslim physician brought three rosaries to a public university and in so doing quietly reminded us to strive for what is just and to do good for those that suffer.

Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus

IMG_0027Brothers and sisters: As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many. You are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it. – LK 4:18

As I entered Mary Queen of Peace parish carved into the marble above the altar was Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus. The signs flanking the altar were reminders to come to God and come together as a community. Is it through the community with God that we are Holy or is it a community that provides the refuge we need to approach holiness?

I seek community, as a place to cultivate a joyful mind open to experience the way the world should be. If only for an hour, a week, or short period each day it reminds me to practice mindfulness, holiness, and tolerance of the way each person approaches the holy.

As I left I wondered how those who heard and saw the same things as I interpreted them. We are all different and yet we are all part of the same search.

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, Blue to Blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, heft them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound – Emily Dickinson





I love snow. Shoveling snow relaxes me. The lines are straight. There is a beginning and an end. The finished effort is clean, white, and with outlined paths that allow me to see where I want to walk.

Unlike so much of my life I can see what is accomplished and getting there silences my thoughts. Focusing only on the task and keeping the lines straight is like a walking meditation. The physical effort results in naturally deep breaths filling my lungs with the clean smell of snow.

For a time the world is clean and beautiful. I am the snow and the snow is all.

I Vow Not To Kill

I seek peace from my faith and my meditation. I am always hoping that one day there will be a moment when all is clear to me, and I listen to my inner voice. Too often I worry about what troubles the world. Today, as with many days, I see our trouble as caused by fear and mistrust of our neighbors. In our efforts to relieve our fears, we forget that we have a responsibility to save all beings.

In my practice in Zen Buddhism, saving all beings extends broadly. I have a responsibility to the unborn and the elderly, but also to the animals of the earth, the fish of the sea, and the birds in the air. I am a holistic protector of like. In Catholicism, there is also a responsibility to protect life, but the loudest voices tend to focus on the unborn and certainly there isn’t the same holistic focus. What I take from both is the responsibility to seek peace and avoid violence. I, therefore, decline the right to bear arms. When Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) he did not say anything about killing another to save a life. I prefer to strive for compassion that is free of judgment and without limit.

all the beautiful things (1)

I ask people to consider declining the right to bear arms. It is a right granted to us by the Constitution, but not one that must be exercised. Instead, seek freedom from fear and model the peace we seek in prayer and meditation. Let’s make violence rare and compassion the norm.

I Love Being Catholic and Practice Zen Buddhism

I love being Catholic, from the ritual of the Mass and the beauty of the churches to the focus on social justice. Each word has meaning, and each gesture brings mind, body, and spirit together. The Priest enters in procession, sometimes with incense and other times not. There are candles, songs, bells, recitations, readings, a homily, standing, kneeling, bowing, and a recession. Always at the center of the Mass is the Eucharist and that moment when I let go of myself and am fully open to being one with the body of Christ. We are in one moment a community with the entire Church and with all creation.

I love Sōtō Zen Buddhism for many of the same reasons. What is significantly different is the absence of music and the extended periods of zazen (silent meditation). Silencing my mind isn’t always easy, but it brings peace.Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 7.22.34 PMAs I sat Saturday night and tried to quit my mind of all the external distractions I recalled the meditative qualities of the rosary. Many people don’t like rote prayer, but I find them a way to calm my mind when I enter into prayer and meditation. I have frequently used it to shut down all the thoughts and words running through my mind. One might ask how a rote prayer shuts out words. Imagine having an annoying song stuck in your hear and the only way to get rid of it is to play music to change one’s focus. That is what the rosary does for me. It shuts down thoughts and words, worries and desires, and allows me to sit in silence. It is the silence that that I am at one time the most free and the most connected.

Why I Am a Catholic that Takes Refuge in the Sanga

“All you have to do is take care of your posture and breathing with a kind, considerate, and thoughtful spirit.”
Dainin Katagiri, Each Moment Is the Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time

Religion and spirituality are both old and new to me every day. I recently posted a picture of my Sōtō Zen Buddhism lay ordination but provided little information about the reason or the journey to incorporated the practices into my life as a Catholic. The lay ordination would be similar to confirmation without the requirement to believe in any specific teaching or a deity, as Buddhism has no deity. As a Catholic, there is nothing in the practice that conflicts with my faith. The vows one takes are simple.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 9.51.41 PMI have been interested in Zen Buddhism since my first courses in religious studies too many years ago. It wasn’t until I fully embraced Catholicism that I again remembered why I found Zen Buddhism intriguing. Zen means meditation. When I sit and meditate, I clear the clutter from my mind. Zazen isn’t about learning new ideas or beliefs, but about becoming free. It is in those moments of freedom from desires that I am most open and can hear clearly.

I hope to sit twice a day this year and say more about the journey. Along the way, I hope to find Catholics and others that practice and take refuge in the community.


Love-Hate Relationship: Congress, USCCB, and the Affordable Care Act

I have a love-hate relationship with both the Congress and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).  I sometimes think I grew up in the government and that I love it like a parent and yet hate it like a teenager.  As a U.S. Public Health Service officer working in a federal prison I experienced bad policy.  I saw a practice that disturbed me on both moral and health outcomes levels.  Later, as a senior officer I worked on a project with Catholic Charities, USA and realized that Catholic Social Teaching was the foundation of many of the best policies I had encountered.  It is therefore no surprise that I do not look at policy implications in isolation.  I weight them against the moral implications.  As much as one may try to take an analytical approach sometimes emotions overwhelm reason.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), the real name of what is inappropriately called Obamacare, has been a great concern for many Catholics and those of other faith traditions because of the perception that it funds abortion, abortion causing drugs, and contraception.  These issues are opposed for both theological and philosophical reasons.  In essence, it is because of the nature of our relationship as human beings to God.  Explaining the Church teaching is beyond the scope of what I want to say, but would recommend Contraception and Chastity, by G.E.M. Anscombe as an excellent explanation.

 In contrast, those that do not share this faith or reject the specific teaching on contraception will point to the woman’s right to control her own body.  It is easy to find information on unplanned pregnancy and the long-term impacts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or to explore the Supreme Court rulings and arguments in favor of contraception at the Center for Reproductive Rights.   A simple Google search will reveal that the vast majority of Catholics and the nation support the contraceptive mandate of the ACA and do not agree with the Catholic prohibition on contraception.

The Controversy

On Septermber 26, 2013 two Bishops sent a letter to Congress.  It expressed there concerns about the ACA and requested:

We have already urged you to enact the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940/S. 1204). As Congress  considers a Continuing Resolution and debt ceiling bill in the days to come, we reaffirm the vital importance of incorporating the policy of this bill into such  “must pass” legislation.

The result was that the House included this in the continuing resolution with absolutely no hope of it passing.  Many Catholics posted the letter from the bishops on Facebook and other social media saying the USCCB supported the shutdown of government.  This caused a minor public outcry against the bishops.  The majority of women, and indeed Americans, are opposed to the contraceptive mandate being removed.  It is highly unlikely that the Democrats would be willing to alienate women and there is no doubt that this would alienate many women.  And so, the bishops found themselves in the middle of the shutdown debate and being partially blamed by their flock.

The USCCB responded that they did not support the shutdown of the government.  Clearly, no large organization can control what every member, bishop or otherwise, may say, but it was not their intent.  Sr. Walsh then made a blog post clearly stating the USCCB concern about conscience, but that they do not support a shutdown which harms the poor.

 Some have falsely interpreted this as a call for the government shutdown or a default on our nation’s debts. The bishops have done nothing of the kind. The bishops have been urging Congress to enact legislation like the Health Care Conscience Rights Act for two and a half years. Since July 2012, the bishops have been asking that this protection be included in “must-pass” bills such as the appropriations bills funding the government, which have long been vehicles for a number of important federal policies on conscience rights.

The bishops clearly stated that the work must continue and the needs of the poor and the rest of the nation needs to be meet.  Unfortunately, intent, interpretations, and outcomes are not always the same.  What is said and what is intended can sometimes be a distinction without a difference. That is why it is vitally important to be precise when interacting at a national policy level.

What Went Wrong

Here is what went wrong with the USCCB messaging.  If one attaches a contentious issues to a piece of “must pass legislation” then that attached issue can cause the “must pass legislation” to fail.  The result can be disastrous as it was in this case.   The bishops failed to say how far they wanted to push the issue.  Nor did they address the underlying moral issue of a government closure and the impact on the poor in their original letter.

Good people tried to do what they perceived as the morally right thing.  It was taken up by people who are not as good and not as interested in the moral as they are the purely political issues. Congress took the bishops letter as supporting the delay of the ACA mandate and the shutdown.  The not so good people do not share the view of the bishops about the poor.  Consequently, it didn’t bother them that the poor are adversely impacted.

In my experience the moral and the policy outcome must be considered in unison.  When the moral is pushed without considering the reality of the world in which we live  and its appropriateness and an unrelated piece of legislation it can have unintended consequences on the overall policy outcome.

What happens when a contentious moral issue and the political collide in a “must pass” piece of legislation is predictably – stalemate.  It is also predictable that those with the least power – the poor – are the most adversely impacted.  It is good that bishops work to protect the faith, but they need to realize that their actions may have adverse impacts on those that are vulnerable.  If they are going to use the power of their position, which they should, then they absolutely must work to better understand that not all people mean well and they will use any vagueness without hesitation to advance a purely political agenda.  They will not for a moment care that their actions harm the poor or anyone else.

Policy is a precise business where words matter.  What isn’t said in a letter and a policy statement can be every bit as important as what is said.  In the end our good intentions matter very little because it intentions don’t feed the poor, pay the workers, or provide healthcare.

 Screen Shot 2013-10-11 at 11.36.40 AM

Access to Cost-Effective Care is Limited by Turf Battles

Have you ever wondered why healthcare is so much more expensive in the United States than other similar countries?  Let me propose that it is partially the fault of Congress, physicians, and other health care providers that are more interested in protecting turf than caring for patients.  In the 1960’s Dr. Loretta Ford and Dr. Henry Silver developed the first Nurse Practitioner (NP) program at the University of Colorado, now referred to as Advanced Practice Registered Nurses.  The purpose was to expand healthcare to those in under served areas and fill gaps.  Nurse Practitioners do this by combining some practice aspects of medicine and some of nursing.  This holistic approach to patient care has been adopted in other countries and has greatly expanded access to care.

What has been shown in repeated studies is that Nurse Practitioners provide high quality and cost-effective care.   There are over 100,000 nurse practitioners in the U.S. and the number is growing.  The problem is that some states significantly limit their practice and require collaborative agreements with physicians.  The impact of this is that it increases cost and decreases the number of nurse practitioners.

There is currently a petition on the White House We the People website that request the barriers to advanced practice registered nurses be removed.   There are only a few days left to sign the petition.  If you care about access to affordable health care then this is important to sign the petition.

We petition the Obama administration to:

Remove barriers that prevent advanced practice registered nurses from practicing to their full scope.

Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) have provided safe and effective care in the United States for over four decades. When the Affordable Care ACT (ACA) is fully implemented in 2014 over 30 million Americans will gain coverage under the law. APRNs currently have barriers to practice which include requirements for being supervised by or having a collaborative agreement with a physician, inability to admit patients into hospice or home health and restrictions on prescription of controlled drugs.There is currently a shortage of primary care physicians and the restriction to APRN practice limits patients access to care. Advanced practice registered nurses should be allowed to practice to their full scope of education and training.

Beware of Subject Matter Experts

The “subject matter experts” come out to play after any disaster or terrorist event.  Many are well known figures and true experts and others are not.  It is important to approach what they say with a lot of caution and some skepticism.  As I tell my students, just because someone wrote it in a book and said it on the news doesn’t make it true.

In the days following 9/11 I was asked to work in the Secretary’s Command Center and later asked to be the director.  It was probably six months after 9/11 before the daily routine began to normalize.  We were still working around the clock and consultants who touted themselves as “subject matter experts” (SMEs) were coming out of the woodwork.  Not all of them were qualified and some were what my husband refers to as “lookie lous”.  They are the people that chase disasters, cause the traffic backups at car accidents, and like to see tragedy because it gives them some perverse pleasure.  One  such person managed to get himself hired by a government contractor that was associated with the Command Center.  He called the Command Center every night, and believe it or not at that time the phones were all transferred to me at night.  That meant every night he woke me up with what I can only describe as drunken craziness.  Fortunately, the Acting Assistant Secretary stepped in when he found out who the “SME” was because he recognized the name.  The calls ended.  The contractor was embarrassed and very apologetic, but it forever made me approach SMEs with some degree of caution.

In 2007 I voiced my concern about supposed SMEs in an article titled, Said Another Way: Subject Matter Experts: Facts or Fiction?  I do believe that SMEs can be valuable resources, but there remain no clear standards for what constitutes an SME or for the selection criteria.  Having worn a uniform or looking sharp in one is not one of the criteria.  Many people market themselves as SMEs and lack any actual experience.  In the article I and my coauthors guide the reader through finding, selecting, and validating an SME.  The media have an obligation to ensure their SMEs are actual experts and not just a pretty face that once wore a uniform or a former political appointee that was never an actual expert.

As a consumer of the news each of us needs to all be cautious about the information that is provided as factual.  In the era of blogs, like this one, and other forms of social media remember that all opinions are not well founded or factual.  Do a little research.  Be a little skeptical.  If something sounds unbelievable it probably is. It is a good idea to do a little fact checking of your own.