Faithful Departed: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was never a corporate man. The early personal computer industry was an outgrowth of the radical back-to-the-land ethos and even the name “Apple” was intentionally folksy and home-brewed. For Jobs, the personal computer wasn’t a way to bring work home or improve the productivity and accountability of employees. His goal was always computer as appliance, computer as an empowering tool for regular people. He pointed to Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, which I grew up poring through, as a key inspiration. The story of Apple’s products is a story of getting closer and closer to that vision. The infamous 1984 Superbowl ad set up Apple as the opposite of IBM’s (Microsoft’s) corporate mindset. The only thing that’s changed is that Jobs’ vision has won.

The day after Steve Jobs passed away in October, besides my column on him, Busted Halo bloggers Tom, Annie and Vanessa — a seminarian, a music journalist and a young mother — all posted about the influence he’d had on them. This is one of many testaments to the far-reaching influence Jobs’ empowering technologies have had. As I said then, I crossed paths with Steve Jobs’ companies and creations many times. The first personal computer I ever bought was a hard drive-less Mac 512. A few years later, I wrote a landmark PC Magazine cover article about the Mac’s operating system, and had a column about the Mac for several years after that. In the early 2000s, my burgeoning videography career was made possible largely by Final Cut, Apple’s groundbreakingly easy to use video editing software.

Jobs won

My benchmark of business success has always been Steve Jobs — as anti-corporate bad boy, as gadget guru, and especially as visionary of empowering technology. In his death, and reminded of his Stanford address, I am challenged by his example again. Are there things I want to be doing, ways I want to be living my life, that I’m not taking actions every day to make real? Well, yes. How about you?

I still find it hard to believe Jobs won. In the early 90s, when I was pursuing a semi-back-to-the-land lifestyle myself in rural Maine, raising sheep (and writing about technology), it looked like Jobs and Apple both had had their day. Apple had fired its founder and turned its attention towards the business market, but failed to make any headway. People, including Jobs, were saying, simply, “Microsoft won.” But when Apple hired Jobs back in the mid-90s, two things happened. First of all, he restored Apple’s foundational principles and empowering mindset, which along with his brilliant visionary mind gave us in quick succession, the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone and iPad. (There’s more about Apple’s technology in my earlier article.) Secondly, the internet changed the whole game. The internet is all about openness and interconnectedness, matching Apple’s strengths and undermining Microsoft’s weaknesses. Apple was briefly the largest company in the world just before Jobs died.

Some pooh-pooh Steve Jobs’ role because many of his ideas are borrowed. He didn’t invent the idea of the graphical user interface, where electronically stored data is turned into a visual desktop with file folders and windows, but when he saw it in Xerox’s labs, he knew how important it was. Same with the mouse; same with desktop publishing; same with simple cabling and networks and wifi; same with music players and smartphones; same with tablets. And same with what a little company called Pixar was doing with animation.

As Nino Amarena is quoted saying in Hedy’s Folly, the delightful new book about actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr, “the inventive process follows a cascade of ideas and thoughts interconnected from previous concepts that for the most part lie separate, unconnected and unrelated… to suddenly or serendipitously see the connection between the unrelated concepts and put it all together to create something new.” Jobs did not “invent” the mouse or the graphical interface or the folder and file metaphor, but he saw how they could all fit together into a broader goal.

Empowering technology

For Jobs, technology wasn’t the end; it was just a means. Jobs’ inventions aren’t lowest-common-denominator compromises designed by committee and driven by marketing research. Rather they are powerfully simple, fun designs, exciting because they are empowering — connecting people with their own dormant creativity, with other people, with music, images and video, in new and intimate ways.

For Jobs, technology wasn’t the end; it was just a means. Jobs’ inventions aren’t lowest-common-denominator compromises designed by committee and driven by marketing research. Rather they are powerfully simple, fun designs, exciting because they are empowering — connecting people with their own dormant creativity, with other people, with music, images and video, in new and intimate ways. An early slogan among Apple Mac developers was “easy is hard,” meaning that to make something easy to use requires a lot of work and thought. Most companies, whether for cost savings or marketing advantages, try to cheat this truth. Jobs had the vision, and the drive, to stick to his guns. The fuel for that drive can be found in his Stanford commencement speech (linked in that earlier article), given soon after he almost died from the cancer that would eventually take his life: “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

While many people have looked to Bill Gates for his business brilliance, or Warren Buffet for his investing shrewdness, my benchmark of business success has always been Steve Jobs — as anti-corporate bad boy, as gadget guru, and especially as visionary of empowering technology. In his death, and reminded of his Stanford address, I am challenged by his example again. Are there things I want to be doing, ways I want to be living my life, that I’m not taking actions every day to make real? Well, yes. How about you? Steve Jobs said, essentially, that he tried to live every day as if it might be his last. Hate and fear and sloth have no place in that context. This is also the Christian message. It is impossible to live out perfectly, but it is worth trying.

Faith What Works

What Works: Lessons from Steve Jobs

I probably should have had an obit for Steve Jobs ready to run. We had a dry run when he resigned as head of Apple a few months ago. But I didn’t, and many others have accurately chronicled the facts, so instead, for my regular personal spirituality column, I’m going to look at a few things we can learn from him.

Though I never had the pleasure of meeting the man, Steve Jobs’ work and influence affected my life often. At different times, I came close to working for both Apple and Pixar, the latter before he took it over. The first personal computer I ever bought was a Mac 512, no hard drive, for $2,600 (in 1984 money; that’s the equivalent of $5,400 today). Compared to my current MacBook, it had 1/800th the RAM, 1/600,000 the storage, and maybe 1/1000th the processing speed. The excitement as my wife and I brought home that machine and started exploring its revolutionary features was unlike anything I’ve experienced since with technology. Though iPods, iPhones and iPads are amazing, and the internet may be a more important shift, they are not as groundbreaking as was that moment. That was the arrival in my home of personal computing, of the home computer. All these later breakthroughs have built on that. Several years later, I was honored to write a landmark cover article for PC Magazine, at that time the nation’s tenth largest magazine, explaining the benefits of the Mac’s operating system to DOS and Windows users, and I wrote a column about the Mac for several years after that.

Follow your heart

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. — Steve Jobs

We don’t have to guess at how Steve Jobs set his priorities. He told us. When Jobs gave the commencement address at Stanford a year after he had thought he was going to die of the cancer that eventually took his life six years later, he gave his own account. And there are few questions more challenging and more potentially upsetting than the one he posed that day. This Stanford speech has been quoted a lot in the last few days, but usually people point to the positive formulation of the challenge, something along the lines of, “Do what you love.” Far more powerful was his negative framing:

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Note that though this question reflects a soul so aware of death, Jobs tells us it was his guiding principle throughout his career, long before his first close call. Steve Jobs lived his passion. He had cranky moments, sure. And that passion sometimes came out as passionate pig-headedness. The consensus from personal friends who worked with him is that the experience was sometimes exhilarating but often infuriating. But ask yourself, would you rather be a passionate person who sometimes gets carried away, or a passionless person who never ruffles feathers.

In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell describes the sheer joy of playing on a trampoline — a moment in which he is entirely present and connected to the world around him through love, in which time stops and he feels the divine dimension of life. Jobs, in that commencement speech, observes, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.” Great work also brings that timeless quality. Jobs is saying, why settle for devoting at least half your waking hours to something in which you don’t feel fully alive.

“There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Radical technology

I do want to say something about the fruits of Jobs’ work. Steve Jobs is certainly the most important inventor in our lifetime. But the defining quality in his inventions is that he saw technology as a tool for freedom, for empowerment, rather than for work productivity and increased profits. He often pointed to Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog as the thing from the previous generation that inspired him most. Jobs took 60’s liberation-oriented thinking about technology serving personal empowerment to another level.

Steve Jobs was a radical. He had a subversive streak, and saw personal technology as something that could serve the subversive impulse rather than contain it. It’s important to understand that about him. And about Apple’s products. One of the reasons corporate IT departments refused to accept Macs into the fold until they we’re forced to by demanding users was that Jobs always prioritized freedom and collaboration above corporate control, so Apple products were more open and sometimes, honestly, less secure.

This is also why Jobs always put user experience at the top of the priority list. Technology should not get in the way of the human. As much as possible, the technology should adapt to the way people naturally interact. So: pointing and clicking, dragging and dropping, icons that relate to real-world objects like trash cans and file folders.

This also is at the root of Apple’s defining design characteristic: simplicity. In the design phase, Apple engineers, faced with decisions of whether to include a feature or controller, routinely choose to leave it out to avoid complicating the product and making it less easy and less fun to use. This contrasts sharply with most of the computer and consumer electronics world, where designs are jammed full of features and buttons that most users never understand and that create clumsy, ugly and less stable products. Apple products are elegant, and that elegance is thanks to Steve Jobs.

The time is now

Earlier in the day Jobs died, I was sitting with Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen discussing the fact that Sheen’s character in their new movie The Way takes actions to change his life at age 71 and that it’s never too late to commit to spiritual growth. Then later comes the news that Steve Jobs has lost his battle with cancer at age 56. It’s never too late, and it’s never too early. As Roisen Murphy, former singer of the band Moloko once said, “The time is now. It’s always now.”

There is no reason not to follow your heart.


There Be Dragons

For some, it will not be possible to separate the movie There Be Dragons from their views about Opus Dei, as it tells the story of that organization’s founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá. The majority of viewers, though — whose only awareness of Opus Dei is the absurd fictional albino killer monk in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code — will find an inspiring and moving, if at times melodramatic and muddy, film about forgiveness and the choices people make in tough times.

It will be hard to walk away from There Be Dragons without admiring Josemaria. Much of the credit for this compelling portrayal of the future saint goes to British actor Charlie Cox, known for his starring roles in Stardust and Stone of Destiny — the latter a delightful film and one of my favorites of the last few years. (I interviewed Cox about the movie several weeks ago and you can read that conversation here .) It would have been easy to portray Josemaria as either too pious or too worldly, but Cox and writer/director Roland Joffé strike the right balance, giving the character both human vulnerability and the sense of someone following a divine calling.

But, ultimately, the film isn’t even centered on Josemaria.

Roland Joffé has said repeatedly that he was drawn to the project because it was a good and inspiring story, and that he was uninterested in the controversy. But Joffé has been attracted to controversial subjects before. His critically acclaimed 1986 film The Mission deals with the Church’s role in colonizing South American native populations, while The Killing Fields looks at the Khmer Rouge in 1970s Cambodia. And it seems to be with epic stories and foreign locales like these two and City of God that Joffé shines. He has struggled to find that winning formula for over a decade and with There Be Dragons he is back in form.

One of my first thoughts about There Be Dragons, though, was that it does not feel like a Hollywood movie — not primarily because of the Spanish locations and accents, but rather the slightly heavy-handed melodramatic style, epic scope and use of almost gimmicky devices. In one scene, for example, we see the two young boys, Josemaria and his fictional friend Minolo, who are to have profoundly different perspectives on life, through the two lenses of a pair of reading glasses laying on a desk, reminiscent of the opening scene of Joffé’s City of God, which was shot through a mixture of glass and reflections.

There Be Dragons does not feel like a Hollywood movie — not primarily because of the Spanish locations and accents, but rather the slightly heavy-handed melodramatic style, epic scope and use of almost gimmicky devices. But sit through this schmaltz, because once you get into the story, the film comes alive.

Lovers of the craft of filmmaking may be amused or impressed by some of these flourishes. For me they were sometimes moving, but often distracting. Most notably, there’s an axiom that if a movie begins with voiceover narration, run away. Not only does this film begin with narration; one of the characters introduced by the narrator begins narrating himself, this as the prelude to flashbacks that take us (finally) to the main story. Joffé opened both The Killing Fields and The Mission with narration as well.

I’m sure Joffé worried at a present-day viewer seeing the relevance of an historical drama and believed a modern character’s perspective would make it more accessible and interesting. I’m sure he also felt the need to frame the story for the viewer, explaining the setting of 1930s Spain. But these are things that could and should have been done through storytelling within the main story’s time and place. I found both the (two layers of) voiceover narration and the flashback setup distracting, and, as artistic devices, strained.

But sit through this schmaltz, because once you get into the story, the film comes alive.

Spiritual themes

There are several overarching spiritual themes in There Be Dragons. The first and most obvious is forgiveness: forgiveness by the modern-day son for his father; forgiveness by Minolo for himself; forgiveness by Josemaria and his followers for their persecutors. In one scene, after rebels kill a priest and Fr. Josemaria explains to his angry followers that the rebels “see us as part of a system which causes them pain and despair,” they balk and say the rebels are nothing but murderers. Josemaria asks, “What do you want to do to those swine, truthfully?… And wouldn’t you take pleasure in it? And yet, we’re no swine, are we?… No human being, not one of us, is free from human weakness.”

At around the film’s halfway point, we shift gears from this interesting story about the life of a saint to the Spanish Civil War battlefield. All three plots, Josemaria’s, Minolo’s, and the 1980s father and son wrapper, eventually tie back together, but the effect is of another movie taking over.

A second theme is the choices we make, especially in tough times, and how they affect the trajectories of our lives. Both Josemaria and Minolo face hardship and tragedy, as children and as adults. After Minolo’s father dies, Fr. Josemaria visits his old friend and encourages him to use his suffering to go deeper and find his dependence on God, as he has done. Minolo spits back, “Suffering has no purpose.” Instead, he becomes more and more bitter and jealous.

In our conversation with Charlie Cox , he said he hoped the viewer would see some of themselves in each characters, adding, “You’ll hopefully ask yourself, when faced with adversity, which of these characters do I tend to turn to?” Of his character Minolo, Wes Bentley told us, “He didn’t know who he was at all, and in that confusion was the basis of anger.” This contrasts starkly with strength of character, which Cox says he was told repeatedly was Josemaria’s primary characteristic.

The film also presents us with a foundational theme of Opus Dei. Josemaria describes his idea for the organization to an archbishop, who says, “It all seems rather Protestant — that God is to be found in the mundanities of daily life, outside holy orders — no vows, no habits.” To which Fr. Josemaria responds by throwing open the windows of the archbishop’s stuffy office to the light and sounds of city life, saying, “Well, Jesus spent most of his life working in a shop in Nazareth. God’s world is so full of goodness. If we do them for love, each daily task can give Him glory.”

Shifting gears

At around the film’s halfway point, we shift gears from this interesting story about the life of a saint to the Spanish Civil War battlefield, picking up Minolo’s role in the fighting, as Josemaria’s escape from Spain becomes a minor element. The remainder is basically a war movie with new characters and little relationship to the first half of the film. All three plots, Josemaria’s, Minolo’s, and the 1980s father and son wrapper, eventually tie back together, but the effect is of another movie taking over.

My own taste would have been for a smaller film about Josemaria’s early life, without narration, flashbacks and Spanish Civil War battle action — just two hours about how this future saint built what he built and became who he became. But then that movie would not have been made with a Hollywood budget.

Wes Bentley (American Beauty) delivers a solid performance as Minolo past, though the old-man makeup job for his scenes as 1980s Minolo left me unconvinced. Brazilian leading man Rodrigo Santoro (300, Che) and Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) are appropriately melodramatic and beautiful in their roles as the rebel leader and love interest during the war scenes. And a small bright spot in the modern-day portion is Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani (Body of Lies, About Elly).

My own taste would have been for a smaller film about Josemaria’s early life, without narration, flashbacks and Spanish Civil War battle action — just two hours about how this future saint built what he built and became who he became. But then that movie would not have been made with a Hollywood budget. While flawed, There Be Dragons is an engaging exploration of human weakness and strength, and a glimpse into the early life of a modern saint, packaged in a way that gives it hope to be a hit movie. Some will be drawn more to the life of Josemaria, some to the father and son story, some to the best friends turned sour, while others will enjoy the war story; most will walk away satisfied, though none, perhaps, entirely so.


Gaga and Judas

The video for Lady Gaga’s song “Judas” has premiered, ending weeks of speculation stirred up by several religious spokespeople who denounced it before seeing it. The video is set in a motorcycle gang; Jesus is the leader, Judas a thuggish member and Gaga is torn by her attraction to both. As a quick first reaction, I find it moving, both artistically and spiritually. What has always fascinated and frustrated me is the disconnect between the Gaga haters and what I, and some of my friends, see in her work. Many of my religious young adult friends love Gaga; most of the rest don’t have any serious problem with her. They understand what she’s trying to do, even if it isn’t their taste. This is true across Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals. So, what is it about Gaga that excites one devout person and intimidates another?

Some insist Gaga exploits Christian and especially Catholic symbols for shock value, rather than admitting they could be part of an honest attempt to wrestle with spiritual issues. I think some critics simply have trouble believing someone like Gaga could be sincere. Or perhaps it’s just the easiest way to dismiss her work. Don’t get me wrong. I cringed watching her dressed in a fetishized nun costume in the Alejandro video, which among her hits so far had the least redeeming value. But I do think she was sincerely trying to express something, to externalize her struggles through the imagery.

In the “Judas” video, Gaga (apparently as Mary Magdalene, though some story lines are blurred together in both the lyrics and the video) rides with Jesus in a motorcycle gang, while pining after bad boy Judas, a beer-guzzling thug who’s also in the gang. We see Gaga turning away from Judas in favor of Jesus again and again. At one point, she washes Jesus’ feet just before the most notable lines in the song:

I wanna love you,
But something’s pulling me away from you.
Jesus is my virtue,
Judas is the demon I cling to.

Lady Gaga’s creative director, Laurieann Gibson, described the creative process the team went through in completing the “Judas” video this way: “It was amazing because to have that conversation about salvation, peace and the search for the truth in a room of non-believers and believers, to me, that was saying God is active in a big way.”

This is not the stuff of pop music. It’s a cultural phenomenon. And that perhaps is where we get to the root of the problem some have with Gaga. Unlike any other current pop star at the global level, Gaga writes about, talks about and openly struggles with spiritual issues in almost every song she writes. Most shocking in our current culture, she mentions Jesus by name. In Judas, she says “Jesus is my virtue.” In “You and I,” about an old boyfriend she calls Nebraska, Gaga says, “There’s only three men I served my whole life / It’s my dad and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.”

So while some may like to dismiss her as disingenuous, it is exactly Gaga’s genuineness that is a threat. While an R&B artist singing crudely about sex is clearly defined in their role outside the spiritual conversation, Gaga dares to jump right into the middle of it. And while she’s there, with a bully pulpit speaking to millions, she dares to say things like, “I’m beautiful in my way, cause God makes no mistakes.” This is much more dangerous in some people’s minds than empty pop music. Gaga calls her fans little monsters, her way of saying we are all fallen, all flawed, and that it is the misfits of society who can teach the comfortable a thing or two about God’s love and compassion. And that’s what she’s doing.


The Integrity of Creation

One of the first and key places I encountered the spiritual ideas that eventually led me to my Christian faith was Estes Park, high in the Rockies, amidst Birkenstock-wearing radical environmentalists. It was an interesting time for politics in the late 80s and early 90s and I was looking for new ideas. So were lots of people, and they were talking with each other and reading each other’s books despite divergent backgrounds. Some were grassroots activists, some academics; some were pragmatic, some utopian. There were communitarians and Greens, libertarians and socialists.

I came upon something new (to me) there, something I’d never heard of before with my atheist/Protestant upbringing: natural law. Most didn’t use the term. But the edges of the environmental movement were abuzz with fresh ideas, and two of the freshest were “deep ecology” and “ecofeminism.” (One of deep ecology’s leading lights was Fr. Thomas Berry, CP, whose The Dream of the Earth was required reading.)

It was at that conference in the Rockies that I first heard a woman argue that a pro-abortion stance was anti-woman. And though I didn’t hear the term “seamless garment,” there was a quiet respect for those Catholics and Buddhists who adhered to defense of life across the board, from anti-war and anti-death-penalty to anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia to environmental protection and reducing unnecessary deaths from starvation.

Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation

It was in this same time period and setting that I encountered the phrase and concept, “Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation” or JPIC. (My recollection from those times is that this was a Catholic movement and, at least within the Church, it’s an outgrowth of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, though the phrase is used by others too.) In essence, the idea of JPIC — and the original long-forgotten idea of the Greens in general — was a simple step that had profound implications. By linking environmental issues with social justice and peace issues within the same structures, it created dialogue among bureaucrats and activists from those areas.

By accident or design, this sidelined the pro-industrialism state socialists, whose model is the flipside of the same coin as consumerism and is just as wedded with the material realm — and just as much in conflict with what Pope John Paul II called “the ecological question which accompanies the problem of consumerism and which is closely connected to it”:

“In his desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow, man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way. At the root of the senseless destruction of the natural environment lies an anthropological error, which unfortunately is widespread in our day. Man, who discovers his capacity to transform and in a certain sense create the world through his own work, forgets that this is always based on God’s prior and original gift of the things that are. Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray.” — Centesimus Annus, 37

I wish the movement had been able to link conservation and small-c conservatism through our Scripture-based responsibility as stewards. It’s a cause I tried to advance; unfortunately, that political gulf was too wide to bridge. But if anyone can stand up effectively for Creation against unfettered consumerism and industrialism, then it has to be faith-based groups. And now that some within the evangelical community are embracing the small-c conservative principle of stewardship, it looks like the tide of public sentiment is finally turning.

An effective shift

But political strategies aside I was just struck, back then, with the profound Truth of it: that how we treat each other and how we treat the environment are related; and that conversely the answer to environmental problems is not forcing lots of new regulations on people, but increasing awareness of the preciousness of Creation. That as long as people approach all of life based on material fears — that they won’t get what they want or will lose what they’ve got — then long-term environmental concerns will always take a back seat to immediate “needs.” As Pope Benedict says in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, while policy changes and education are important, “the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society.”

Personally, what I saw as the integrity of the Church’s position was another piece that fell into place in my long journey to conversion. It provided a framework that pulled together seemingly unrelated views under a single coherent law. It made sense to me immediately.

The Church has continued to embrace and expand these principles. Caritas in Veritate managed to infuriate both political sides, a good indication that it has challenging Truth both need to hear. In it, Pope Benedict cautions that “the way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa,” and says “what is needed is an effective shift in mentality.”

So, sure, I reduce, reuse and recycle when I can, but I also know that won’t turn this thing around. My focus is on helping people increase their awareness, through everyday spiritual practices that help them stay more connected. Because when people are more awake, more present to the world around them, then whether they live in the city or the countryside, they will see the beauty, abundance and spectacle of Creation in all its vivid color. And they will mourn, in the way celebrated in the beatitude, when they see that Creation being harmed. This is the way to lasting change.

This piece was originally published on April 22, 2010.

Faith What Works

What Works: The Examen

It’s remarkable (though not really) how easily we can forget the emotionally charged things that happen in a day. The problem is that if we aren’t resolving them we aren’t really forgetting them. Take this example: a few weeks ago, I was having a delightful weekend day in the country. After brunch with a friend and an invigorating hike in the multi-hued autumn woods, followed by a relaxing evening preparing a home-cooked meal and curling up with a fun movie, I prepared to do the examen thinking it would be awfully quick, since it had been such an uneventful and pleasant day. Five minutes later, I found myself immersed in the recollection of a phone call I had gotten but not picked up during brunch, which had set off a torrent of resentment-fueled anxiety-based planning and worrying. Nothing had actually happened — I had taken no actions — but it had been a roller coaster for sure. Hours later, I had completely forgotten the storm that had run through my mind for 15 minutes or so. Thanks to the examen, I was able to see it for what it was and resolve to sort it out. If you’re like I was for most of my life, your reaction to this story will be, “Why not let sleeping dogs lie?” But that old saying contains the answer: That dog may be sleeping, but it’s waiting to wake up and bite you. If the fear had remained buried, it would have percolated under the surface, waiting to flare up again at the next trigger.

I cannot possibly do justice to the great Ignatian spiritual tool, the examen of conscience, in a thousand words; nor can I improve on explanations offered by many before me. But consider this column a pointer, a nudge, to learn more about it.

My main concern is not exactly how you do it, but that you do it. There are various ways to practice the examen, and there are other types of spiritual daily reviews. The best known is associated with twelve-step programs. Find one that seems to fit you.

Realize though that the examen is one tool. The real power comes when you combine it with morning prayer, a regular contemplative practice, and stopping whenever you feel agitated — using HALT, the Welcoming Prayer, or just pausing and praying, “Thy Will be done.”

You will stray from the path, but with these aids you get better at noticing when you do and correcting your course before you lose sight of the way, before any real damage is done. And gradually you change interiorly so the course corrections are needed less often and come almost immediately when they are.

The examen

It’s helpful to set aside the same time each day, or the same point in your day — just before bed; between work and home; dinner and anything else — so that you make the examen a routine which isn’t a struggle to fit in every time. It’s also helpful to establish a sacred space of some sort around it. Ritual helps to establish habits.

First, affirm you are in God’s presence while you pray.

Then, recall those moments in the day where you felt God’s grace, or simply felt good, or where good things happened whether you recognize them as being of God or not: those moments in the day where you felt serene, without fear and anxiety, connected. Don’t just remember such moments but re-feel them and relish those feelings. As Fr. Jim Martin puts it in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, “savoring is the antidote to our increasingly rushed lives.” It’s so easy to forget these precious moments and dwell on the things that give us anxiety. The examen can help us through a “deepening of our gratitude to God, revealing the hidden joys of our days,” says Fr. Jim.

As you continue in the examen, identify those moments in the day when you strayed from God’s grace — diverged in thought, word or deed. We all have an inner guidance system, which gets uncomfortable when we start down a path of selfishness and fear. Sometimes we don’t hear it, sometimes we drown it out with fear-based messages, and sometimes we openly defy it. But in the examen, you pause and reflect back through the day and recognize those moments. This is the heart of the examen, but it’s essential to do the positive part too.

Lately, at the suggestion of a friend, I’ve been using 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 for these “positive and negative” recollection phases, turning each phrase into a question. (See the sidebar.)

Just information, not judgment

When talking about these matters, twelve-step programs use the morally neutral language of a business inventory. Say you own a grocery store and, taking inventory, you see a can of peas on the shelf that’s past its expiration date. You wouldn’t say, “I’m such an idiot!! How could I have let that happen! I don’t deserve to own this store. Why do I even bother?!” (At least I hope you wouldn’t!) No, you would simply throw it out, and perhaps make a note to buy less peas next time. The purpose of an inventory is to get an accurate picture of things in order to make better-informed decisions in the future. If time after time, every inventory shows dramatic losses based on poor planning, you need to look at that. But even that is just useful information.

Be neutral in this way. Did you drift from God and slip into a fear-based state that led to feeling threatened by someone at work and snapping at them? Note that. My example in the opening paragraph was nothing but a thought but it was easily as damaging as an action. Note that too. With the examen, you have the benefit of remembering or realizing these things, and determining how to make them right, or at the very least to be more aware in the future.

Next, run through your day and consider the key events. You might not think of them as moments where God was particularly present or absent, but you might see more in them now. You might also simply realize how much (or how little) you accomplished. Humbly seek God’s forgiveness for falling short of the ideal this day, resolve to make amends or take other actions where needed to resolve any issues that have come up, and ask God’s help to do so. Close with a prayer.

Consider adding the examen to your spiritual routine. Don’t drop it the first time it gets uncomfortable or inconvenient. Give it a shot. Take a look at the resources in the sidebar for some ideas. Do you already use the examen or another daily review practice? Share your experiences with it below.

Culture Faithful Departed

Faithful Departed — Roy E. Disney

Did any among us not grow up with Disney? Children of the 40s marked their years with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. For boomers, it was Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and Jungle Book. By the time I came along, Disney’s animated features had lost their spark. But my family gathered around the family TV set every Sunday night at 7:30 to watch The Wonderful World of Disney — a collection of animation, feature movies, TV dramas and nature documentaries. This brew, rich on American stories like Davey Crockett, helped shape my worldview. For children of the 80s and 90s, Disney animated feature films returned to the forefront and for this we have one person to thank: Disney’s keeper of the faith, Roy E. Disney.

Twice when Disney the corporation drifted away from its basic mission, Roy E. Disney, son of Walt’s brother, Roy O., has stepped in like a prophet to remind them of what matters.

Though his father was CEO and president of Disney until his death, Roy E. was never given control, and held only one percent of the company stock. He did have an executive title and a seat on the board of directors, though, and after Walt’s death in the mid-60s, then through the 70s and early 80s, he watched as Disney Corp. drifted away from its roots. The board’s focus on high-yield activities and careful protection of capital had turned Disney into what Roy E. once called a real estate holding company that happened to make movies.

Fed up, in 1977 Roy resigned his executive position, and then in 1984, he dramatically quit the board, signaling to investors and analysts his lack of confidence in the company’s leadership under Walt Disney’s son-in-law. Roy and other major shareholders brought in Michael Eisner, head of Paramount Pictures, to replace him, and Roy returned as vice-chairman and head of the animation division.

Disney’s animation renaissance

While Eisner knew little about animation and doubted its value, he respected Roy and owed him a favor, so he gave him free reign. What followed was a string of new animation classics that restored the Disney name to the top of the animation, and entertainment, world: The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994).

Around this time, Roy E. noticed an impressive new animation company with breakthrough technology, and began a relationship with Pixar. As the amazing run of traditional animated films started to lose steam, Roy E. was caught up in his pet project, the completion of his uncle Walt’s never-realized sequel to Fantasia. Begun in 1990, Fantasia/2000 was released in 1999 to critical acclaim but lukewarm sales, just like the original.

But Roy’s initial connection to Pixar grew, and in 1995, Disney released Pixar’s Toy Story. Thus began a new era of digital animation at the company. As the decade came to a close, after years of bickering with Eisner, Disney was being sidelined again. Eisner was also threatening to sever the relationship with Pixar, in what many saw as a power struggle and personality clash between Eisner and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs. After Toy Story, Pixar had continued to generate high quality, immensely popular animated features under the Disney brand. Pixar’s first five films for Disney, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo, grossed over $2.5 billion.

Roy E. quit the company a second time in 2003, again making public his views, again complaining that management — this time Eisner — was neglecting animation and had become timid, focused on incremental profits, not great work. Roy E. went so far as to create a campaign with a website,, to rally support for Eisner’s ouster.

While the board refused to remove Eisner, the lack of confidence with him among shareholders and the public, instigated by Disney, led him to resign in 2005. Roy E. returned as Director Emeritus on the board and relations with Pixar were quickly repaired, leading ultimately to Pixar being acquired by Disney in 2006 and Pixar’s creative head and cofounder becoming Disney’s Chief Creative Officer. Pixar and Disney have returned to the top with WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009).

Who will be their prophet?

At its core, its heart, Disney is an animation company. The live action shows like Hannah Montana, the TV stations like the Disney Channel, ABC and the Family Channel, the careers launched through the Mickey Mouse Club — like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Keri Russell, Ryan Gosling and Justin Timberlake — the theme parks and cruise ships: all of it grows from winning the hearts and minds of generation after generation through animated features — films that remain in a special place in people’s hearts throughout their lives.

Both times that Roy E. brought the company back to its animation roots, this led also to an overall revitalization of the company and increased success. Now that Roy E. Disney is gone and no member of the Disney family remains at the company, who will be their prophet to tell them they’ve strayed from the path? Will the next generation of children mark their growth with Disney films?

Faithful Departed Politics

Faithful Departed—William F. Buckley Jr.

I once told Bill Buckley that he’d played a huge role in the formation of my political thinking—as I’d been watching “Firing Line” since it appeared on PBS when I was 9 years old—and he said, “Well, that’s a frightening thought.” Of course, it was a frightening thought. Why was a 9-year-old watching a political debate show led by this devout intellectual with the vocabulary of a… well… the vocabulary typical of no one at any education level? Cause of my dad. My atheist dad. They were alike in many ways, and my father introduced me, through the TV screen, to Buckley.

My father may have been against religion, but his ethical example, his dignity, and his love and respect for nature and his fellow man were spiritual practices if ever I’ve seen them. I know I got part of whatever religious core I have though him. And he and the author of “God & Man at Yale” shared many values.

Bill Buckley is best known for starting the magazine National Review, and, largely through that publication, for leading a revitalization of conservative politics in America. But there has always been a tension within conservatism between what Buckley represented and what at one time called itself the “Know Nothings” — anti-intellectual, often anti-immigrant, populism.

The conservatism William F. Buckley stood for was a heartfelt belief in individual liberty, collective responsibility and a healthy respect for traditions. His was not a politics of fear. It was a thoughtful and a decent politics. One that he was more than happy to defend against reasonable opponents.

Buckley’s “Firing Line” was no relative of the modern split screen scream-fest, with surrogates of Left and Right speaking from memorized talking points, bullying their way to dominate the audio feed. On “Firing Line,” Buckley maintained a level of politeness that approached serenity. You finished watching an episode feeling edified, rather than feeling bolstered in an already-fixed position.

And Buckley’s politeness was not the false platitude of a politician’s “my esteemed colleague”—he didn’t hesitate to let you know if he thought your idea was idiotic, but he never attacked your character. Your idea might be stupid, you might even be stupid in his eyes, but you weren’t evil. And it must be said: he clearly was having fun. One of Buckley’s trademarks was the twinkle in his eye.

If there is one thing it might be fair for the Left to hate about Buckley, it is that twinkle. In his writing, his magazine, his TV show and in his person, Buckley made conservatism palatable by making it polite, and above all, friendly. Bill Buckley was playful.

Buckley, and of course my former debating-team-captain father, shaped this ideal in me, which I’ve carried throughout my life. Whether a person is Left, Right or other, whether I agree or disagree with them, I expect discourse to be civil; and if it is not, I’m just not that interested.

Son of an oil tycoon, Buckley, while no doubt an elitist, held the old-fashioned notion that the elite have responsibilities, that their privileged position requires gratitude (the title of one of his books) and service.

Buckley did not bring his Catholic faith directly into his political discourse often. But he wrote of the link between religious values and politics from the start. In 1951 at the age of 25, when he rocketed onto the American radar with “God & Man at Yale,” Buckley challenged the prevalence of socialism in academia with these words: “The duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world… the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.”

In a more general way, Buckley’s Catholic faith informed his character, and so his politics, from top to bottom. In particular in three things: his respect for individual liberty rooted in the God-given inalienable rights upon which the United States is founded; his focus on service, responsibility and tradition; and his personal conduct, always gracious and always seeking Truth even if it worked against his selfish interests.

Buckley was not a fan of modernizing the liturgy. Though I wonder how much of this was on aesthetic grounds. (Not to say those are illegitimate.) He described the new liturgy this way: “as ugly and as maladroit as if it had been composed by Robert Ingersoll and H.L. Mencken for the purpose of driving people away.”

Like me, Buckley loved Baroque music above all else. (Unlike me, he could also play it. He was an accomplished harpsichord player.) He probably winced, as I do, at many of the 18th to 20th century Protestant hymns. But aesthetics aside, I find a deeper truth in this. Buckley’s love for Bach especially — he once said, “If Bach is not in Heaven, I am not going!” — is based on the purity of the music: neither overly emotional nor overly complex, everything in its place and nothing superfluous. Bach’s transcendent beauty is in its Truth. In music, in politics and in faith, Buckley sought clarity, not complexity.

A diligent shepherd of the Conservative Movement, Buckley strenuously opposed anti-Semitism, anti-intellectualism, Ayn Rand’s selfish objectivism, and, with an unfortunate delay, segregation. He squarely challenged thugs of all stripes, denouncing, among others, the influence on the right of the John Birch Society.

And while his own moral compass was true, this sometimes put him at odds with the movement he created. Unless you understood the mixture of libertarianism and traditionalism that formed his ideology, his positions sometimes seemed odd, especially side by side: drug legalization and mandatory national service, McCarthyism and anti-racism.

My father passed under George H.W. Bush. For better or worse, William F. Buckley lived to see his cherished conservative movement lose its bearings. He wrote before his death that unquestioning support for the Iraq War would be its downfall. Perhaps waiting until after his father’s death, Buckley’s son Christopher, in leaving National Review and the Republican Party, said the anti-intellectual populists had regained control.

As I mourn the passing of one of my few personal heroes, I pray for a restoration in the times ahead of the kind of civility he and my father personified.

William F. Buckley Jr., 82, died, fittingly, writing at his desk.

Culture Faith Faithful Departed

Faithful Departed—Dick Sutcliffe

I had a TV in my room from a very early age, giving me control over the cultural influences that entered my world. Using my command of the dial, the most subversive thing I watched in my atheist home might have been a sweet little show that has been loved now for generations: Davey & Goliath.

Son of a Lutheran minister, Dick Sutcliffe started his career as a journalist, but soon found himself working for the church, as assistant editor for The Lutheran magazine, then with the radio division, then television. Sutcliffe, as director of Lutheran radio and television ministry, was one of the first religious officials to realize the potential of television, starting in the late 1950s. When church leaders told him to put together a new TV show — a typical sermonette type of thing — he had a different idea. How about taking advantage of this new medium to give kids some good entertainment, so the moral and religious messages would go down easily.

Sutcliffe’s next inspiration was to turn to Art Clokey, a former religious education student who had created the wholesome but quirky stop-motion animation phenomenon, Gumby. With Sutcliffe writing the scripts, Davey & Goliath was born.

Davey was a spunky little boy (the opening sequence has him launching a bottle rocket) and Goliath was his talking dog — though only Davey (and we) could hear him speak. While much of the content in each episode of Davey & Goliath was typical children’s show stuff — basic lessons like, honesty is the best policy — there was another message, week after week: that God loves you and you are expected to honor that love by behaving responsibly.

Davey & Goliath was given to stations for free and categorized as public service programming. In those days there were strict rules from the FCC requiring networks to air a lot of public service programming. So they showed Davey & Goliath regularly on TV, to meet their quota.

I can’t say what affect the near-daily dose of Davey & Goliath had on my emerging spiritual thirst. I know I was drawn to the show. That I preferred watching Davey & Goliath to Speed Racer or Scooby Doo. That it nourished my soul. And for that, I am grateful to Dick Sutcliffe, for sending a little of God’s Love through the TV screen into my room, and those of thousands of other children.