About Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

Pilgrim, writer, speaker, retreat director, social media minister, church secretary - it's hard to believe I was once a corporate executive, but I was. Married to an incredible man, have a spectacular stepdaughter, dog and cat.

United States of Survivor

get hereOn May 31, 2000 something remarkable happened on television, all due to a replacement series that debuted that night. This television program turned the tide of “reality television” and has had a profound influence upon this country. In fact, perhaps more profound than we realize! The show is “Survivor on CBS.

Before I get too far allow me to say that I have never watched an entire episode this program. It never ever appealed to me, and when I learned more about it from obsessed friends, I felt nothing but revulsion. The idea that people would go against one another and vote people “off” the island, “outwitting” others so that one person wins a million dollars is – sorry people – abhorrent to me. Rome before the fall is what I thought then, Rome before the fall is what I feel now. Yeah, yeah, yeah – I sound like a snob, an elitist, a snowflake, go ahead. That’s fine by me. You may say that “It’s just a show, just a game” Watch the promo materials – it is called the “greatest social experiment” for a reason.
“Outwit, outplay, outlast” is the motto. Have fun all alone with your cool million you outwitter, outplayer, you outlaster you!

survivor-300x184Tonight I did begin to watch an episode of the show because I have been wanting to write about it. I’m not going to lie, I’m about 5 minutes into season 30, episode 1 and I can barely stomach it. Sorry Survivor fans. This has been my impression all along, now that I am seeing it – I hate that it is proving me right. I’ll try to keep going, but the motif is clear enough, and I can work with that. Let me share this example, a description of this season that I found here:

The cast is composed of 18 new players, initially split into three tribes containing six members each: Escameca (“Blue Collar”), Masaya (“White Collar”), and Nagarote (“No Collar”).

Perhaps you can begin to see what is so timely about all of this.

So what led me to all of this? Well – two things got the ball rolling. One was this podcast from Fresh Air, in which host Terry Gross interviews Maggie Haberman of the New York Times. Haberman has covered Donald Trump for the NYT for some time, and previously for multiple publications. The second thing that caught my attention was the printed text of this AP interview with the President that was recently published.

The final element was something that happened as I sat in a doctor’s waiting room. A man was talking to his wife about his pain, but then he began to speak of gratitude for how things could be so much worse. He was loud and it was a small waiting room, so I could not help but hear him over the din of CNN on the TV. His passion about gratitude had me near tears, I would not have expected that kind of talk from a man like this – older, larger, roughhewn. Then it happened, he glanced up at the TV, where Sean Spicer was going on about something, and the man went on a major rant about the liars, liberals, and losers that make up the media, and how they were hellbent on destroying President Trump.

Humans are complex, I thought, no – maybe complicated. Maybe both. Anyway, I could not muster anger for him. Yet I knew that he and I saw the world through a shared lens of gratitude, but a cracked lens of politics. As I sat in the exam room moments later, waiting for the doctor, somehow Survivor – for reasons I cannot explain – popped into my head.

Anyway, this is not a takedown of the president, I promise you it is not. It is an analysis of the current situation in the context of faith, culture, and politics. Who are we as a people? How did we get here?

This is too much information to go into very deeply so I will say this, and then urge you to find what it takes to watch at least one episode of Survivor if you have never seen it before. I picked the one that I did because it pitted white collar people versus blue collar people versus “no collar” people. (More free spirited.) SPOILER: A blue collar wins. NOT SPOILER: ust know that you will learn a lot about our country and our culture, just by watching the people introduce themselves.

Briefly, the Maggie Haberman interview on Fresh Air struck me because of the haunted description of Donald Trump.  A man who prefers to sleep in his own bed. Nothing wrong with that, but an oddity if you are the leader of the free world. And his isolation, gathering a cadre of people around him who are… well, they are who they are. Haberman’s take on Bannon staying or going was fascinating. You’ll need to listen to find out. It is just so much intrigue.

Make no mistake, all power centers are rife with intrigue! However, a leader of Trump’s personality and style bring us to levels of intrigue not seen before. Somehow that ol’ Bush White House with Cheney and Rove seems fairly benign to me. Anyway, it is a fascinating podcast full of things I knew, and many that I had not thought of.

hubrisThe AP interview struck me as primarily sad. Then it terrified me. I’m sad because our president simply cannot get through too many sentences without reminding everyone how great and successful he is. So much hubris, but what also appears to be so much insecurity. Whether President Trump is successful or not… I mean, if he is, then we do not need to be reminded on a constant basis. It is unseemly at best.  In the interview, of course he had to emphasize, even if it were true, that Obama got “zippo, zero” and yet Trump got the worker released from Egypt posthaste. I am glad that she is released, but gosh – does it all have to be about Trump? And then there is so much that is either awkward or unclear. Like when he is speaking, I find myself saying out loud to no one, “What is he on about now?”

Anyway, read it for yourself.

Finally – at it’s heart, Survivor is a completely set up “reality” program. As I watched the open for the episode, I saw how slick it was. I’m not surprised – after all, they have had 17 years to perfect it. And I am sad to say that our president, who is used to adulation via his businesses and via his own “reality” show is remarkably similar. I will say this, Survivor is better produced, more slick.

But isn’t it a kind of populist Trumpian dream that we “vote” off the losers so that we can end up with our own prosperous million? That we can have what we want, not sharing it at all? Let’s get all those “fill-in-the-blank” others out of here, and THEN we will be great. What if, what if. What about now? What about human dignity? What about life? What about a strong sense of the common good? I for one am sick to death of hearing about trickle down, as I have since the Reagan era… It is a reminder that others outwit, outplay, and outlast, so the fault with those on the bottom rungs must be their own.

As a Catholic I am also considering the theological implications of living the Eucharist and the kind of mindset that brings us Survivor and the current political situation. Sadly, many of us were catechized to believe that we somehow “earned” the right to the banquet of the Eucharistic table, and that we must “work” for it, and that we “take” communion, or “receive” communion. None of which is true. You cannot outwit, outlast, or outplay your community. Why would you want to? In its greatest sense, the best Eucharistic theology makes it clear that everyone needs to be at table. The Eucharist heals, binds, and propels – it is not the million dollar reward for driving everyone away.

This piece grows long, and I grow tired. At this point, I have merely skittered across the surface of some ideas. I will close this way – remember that a country hooked on “outplay, outwit, and outlast” gets the leadership it deserves. THAT is not a Trump problem, that is our problem and it seems the current president might fit nicely into the model.

What have we done to create this? What can we do to move forward? Me, I’m still wishing I could have had a conversation with the man in the waiting room who was one part graciously and humbly grateful and one part ranting and raving. Mostly I would have asked him questions starting with why. It could have been interesting, what I learned from him, and what he learned from me. If anything. We will never know.

At this point, I am not happy about life in the United States of Survivor, but it seems that is exactly where we are.

What do you think?

Wait – what?

photoHot, huffing, and puffing, I was four days into my camino. Strangely enough, my knees were not bothering me nearly as much as I imagined they would, nor were my legs too sore, but I was dogged by blisters. And by the overstimulated exhaustion that can come about in the pursuit of a dream. Four days in, I was still a Camino Santiago neophyte without a clue.

Making it to the top of Alto del Perdon was no joke. It was not as steep as it was to get from St. Jean Pied de Port to Orisson, nor was as long and hard as it was to keep going uphill from there on the way to Roncesvalles. It was however hot! And again, those blisters. Ouchie. Anyway, making it to the top of Alto del Perdon was also a glorious moment – what a famous spot for those who know the Way of St. James! It is the place where the “the path of the wind meets the path of the stars.” In a word – magical.

Alto Sue Fran DeeanneLike most matters of faith, the high is often followed by a challenge. So consumed was I with getting up Alto del Perdon, I gave little thought to getting down. An essential camino lesson for me was this – going down is often far worse than going up. As we began our descent, my weariness gave way to an overwhelming anxiety with each footfall on the steep and rocky path. In fact, I felt certain that I might not be able to get down. I simply believed that I could not do it. And you know where that kind of thinking gets you.

nicodemus nightIn today’s Gospel from John, Nicodemus pays a visit to Jesus. At night. I love this imagery, poor old Nicodemus sneaking into see Jesus under the cover of darkness. It is a real struggle for Nicodemus to understand what it means to be “born again” and to be “born of the Spirit.” Here he is wrestling, like anyone who is inclined to being too literal, wondering how a “man once grown old” gets back into the womb to be born again. As usual, Jesus is trying to tell him. Jesus speaks to us in ways that leave us no place to go but deep into our hearts. Our literal and practical heads won’t allow us to understand, although our literal, practical – you know, our “realistic” heads – the ones that we value in the material world. Overvalue, it would seem.  Nicodemus is basically saying, “Wait – what?” Continue reading

Yes or no? The Good Friday edition.

EDITmoab (1).jpgMy friend Kevin Ahern, who is a theologian and ethicist said this on Twitter on Holy Thursday. I found the photo and added the text to it as a reminder of what forms crucifixion comes in. Systematic violence is inherently challenging because it is systematic. We “need” to do this, what are the “alternatives” if we do not do this, we will “get” the bad guys, and so forth.

As Jesus Christ hung on a cross he was flanked by a cross on each side. Crucified next to him were two thieves, and to one, the one who asked for help, Christ promised heaven.

There is no reconciling or rationalizing violence and death. Even when it is done to us, did we not receive the greatest lesson in not retaliating? I get the desire to retaliate, but what about the consequences? What will we choose this Triduum? To follow the Prince of Peace, the great reconciler and restorer of order and good? Or will we follow the path of crucifixion and death? The choice is ours, even if we wait until the last minute. Yes or no? To crucify or to be crucified? Yes or no? What will we choose?

Yes or no? The Holy Thursday edition.

siegerkoder-washing-of-feetOn this Holy Thursday, let us remember that where there is charity and love, God is there. God is always present, but in charity and love, the presence of God is made real. To love others, to serve others, to walk courageously with Christ, no matter what we face… this is our way of life.

However, we all fall asleep, get distracted, we can’t face the hardest truths, we do not always love as we have been loved. Yet, all it takes is one moment in which our avoidance, our fear, our absence all turns towards the One. A single yes uttered in a sea littered with the refuse of a lifetime of no no no can change everything. It does not have to happen in church, it might be a hello to a stranger, coffee for a homeless person, opening the door for that annoying neighbor and inviting them in instead of pretending not to be home. The charity and love of the word yes, typically a yes uttered in the face of resistance is the inbreaking of the divine.

The simple repeated chant of this Ubi caritas from Taize is a prayer for all of us. Where will charity and love be present today? The answer lies with each of us. Love one another, serve one another. May the blessings of Holy Thursday and the Triduum be with you all, may the eternal love of Christ guide us today and always.

Ubi caritas et amor,
ubi caritas,
Deus ibi est.
(Where there is charity and love,
God is there.)

Donkeys, dreams, destiny

EDITPalms copyToday I bring you this reworking of a post from 5 years ago… The Donkey is a poem by G.K. Chesterton. It is a reminder of the place in our lives of faith that are occupied by donkeys and dreams. What donkeys, you might ask? What dreams? Just think – donkey! Yes, a donkey – not the most noble of creatures in the kingdom, is it. Ah, the humility of the lowly animal that carried the Lord Jesus on its back, as the people flung and waved their palm branches, shouting, “Hosanna! Hosanna!”

Also our dreams, our individual dreams and our collective ones. What collective dreams, you wonder out loud. The ones we share as people of faith following Christ, the dreams we dream whether or not we are cognizant of them or not. We should try to remember the need to be mindful of, and listen to our dreams, no matter where they may lead us.

6a00d8341bffb053ef01a5117a9ed8970c-450wiRemember Continue reading

Endless mercy

EDIT CalzadillaThe day we walked to #calzadilladeloshermanillos was one of the toughest in #spain🇪🇸 The #challenge of walking the #meseta got me, more mentally than physically. The #caminodesantiago was no game. God have mercy, I cried! How #bleak things seemed. Today’s 1st reading from #daniel expresses my #prayer that day, & my prayer today. The #gospel from #matthew reminds us however that the #mercy of #god is present. There is a price… we are to offer our mercy to others, full stop. There’s the toughest #camino challenge- how to do this. The road may seem barren, bleak, endless, but is not. Refreshment is ours when we open ourselves to receive the #love of #christ and then lavish it upon others. Especially to those who are the hardest to #forgive . Do that however and the #fountains of mercy that #jesus offers flow perpetually. #lessons of #lent

(This is a copy of today’s version of my daily Instagram posts of Lent.  I’m enjoying doing this, and I’m grateful for the good feedback that I have received. Today please be merciful to someone you would prefer not to show mercy to. This is what is asked from us, and it is so challenging to respond to God in this way.)

Personal desert

EDIT Somewhere between Logrono and Najera Sep 2016I’m enjoying being off of Facebook for Lent, and spending my time on Instagram with one post per day; a photo and a mini-reflection. You will have to head over to my Instagram feed, or to my Facebook page (where my Instagram auto posts) to read my reflection for today. Essentially, I am thinking about Jesus instructing us to love our enemies.

Hardest. Thing. Ever.

I’ll gladly take a long walk with a heavy cross on my back than to do this. Yet, I try to constantly push myself to do so. I suck at it, by the way. Big time.

It occurs to me that part of the problem is my own lack of willingness to look at the enemy within. Of course I am well aware of that enemy, but my inner looking often results in things like my own defensiveness about myself, my shame, and my superhuman strength at avoiding and denial. I’m great at that stuff. Big time.

All of this is an invitation to me, a good deal of which is more clear this Lent because I am spending less time “talking” via Facebook. Painful is my awareness this Lent that the driest and most arid desert is often found deep within my own heart. Thus, the gifts of death and new life are made clear, but only if I am willing to keep going.

What does your inner search Please be assured of my prayers as we ply our way through deserts of our own making. God offers us so much more, but even for those of us who say we will follow, do we really?