Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Deacon Thom Winninger of St. Olaf's echoes call to get out of the boat

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“Get Out of the Boat: Discover the Meaning of Your Life!” by Thomas J. Winninger. Liguori Publications, January 2010, 144 pp.

“Why do I exist?”

“What’s the purpose for my life?”

“What gifts do I have that I should act upon?”

These are the questions our hearts beg to be answered. Then life interrupts.

The need to reach other goals steals time from us. The need to be seen as successful traps us into living “on the surface,” as Deacon Thom Winninger puts it in “Get Out of the Boat: Discover the Meaning of Your Life!” which comes out Jan. 15.

Deacon Winninger echoes the call of Jesus to the fishermen who would be his apostles, inviting readers to get out of the boat and find the answers to the core questions and to live deeper. He asks:

“When was the last time you looked into your inner mirror and asked yourself, ‘What should I be doing? What will make me truly satisfied with my life?’ Or, ‘Why aren’t things working for me? Why do I seem to make stupid decisions? Why don’t I ever get ahead? Why don’t my relationships work out the way I want?’”

Stepping out of our routine and taking up a new, more reflective, prayerful approach on a daily basis, one in which we walk with Jesus, is a way we will come to know the real purpose for our lives, Deacon Winninger advises. He gets us started by walking us through the first seven days of that journey.

What this one-time successful businessman has done is taken the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola and re-crafted them to be less intimidating. A permanent deacon serving St. Olaf parish in downtown Minneapolis, Deacon Winninger has simplified Ignatius’ daunting process, creating in its place one he calls “in-the-world-discernment.”

In an earlier career, the deacon was a motivational speaker and a good one, even producing a series of videos on salesmanship. In this 144-page Liguori paperback, he taps that know-how with writing that is conversational, logical and especially persuasive. “Get Out of the Boat” is an easy-to-handle work thanks to simple declarative sentences and the sharing of wisdom from real-life experiences.

He invites us to ask great questions of ourselves: “What really makes me happy? What gives me true joy? What have I done in my life that makes me sad? What gifts do I have that for one reason or another seem to work better than anything else? How does God reveal himself to me in my daily activity?”

To get to answers for those core questions, Deacon Winninger’s revision of Ignatius recommends two exercises, one in the morning and one in the evening. The morning step involves a brief reading of Scripture and reflecting on questions related to it, followed by some time to think about how you see God working in your life and then applying the answers to where you’ve been, where you are at, and where you think you need to go.

The evening “examen” is time to look at how God made himself known to you that day. Deacon Winninger asks: “What part of your day did you feel any inklings or insights into your purpose? What experiences drew you to an understanding you didn’t have before? What did you do in the world? How did you interact with the world?”

Similar to an examination of conscience, the examen can be summed up this way, Deacon Winninger notes: “It asks you where you moved close to Jesus and where you moved away after each day.”

Each step explained

Deacon Winninger takes readers through seven steps to simplify the morning reflection and similar ones for the evening portion. He explains each step, and throughout he keeps those important, tough-love questions coming:

“What has been most important to me today? What did I accomplish today that made me feel good about myself? Where did I feel like God instructed me? Who has shown me God’s love today? Who did I hurt?”

A unique, inviting feature of the book are the several instances in which the deacon takes up the voice of Jesus. In story form, he recalls Gospel events, then speaks to readers as Jesus, as if Jesus is reading our minds and analyzing our lives. Here’s an excerpt:

“You are very similar to my disciples. You have actually spent very little time with me. Yes, you attend Mass and pray once in a while, but your mind is frequently distracted by all the things that you need to get done, removing your focus from me at church and in prayer. Like my disciples, you, too, wonder if your time spent in prayer or at Mass is a waste because you fail to see the difference it makes in your life.”

Along the way on the seven starter days — these seven “en­coun­ters with Christ,” as Deacon Winninger says — he tosses in practical advice, good ideas that are easy to follow. For example, in reflecting he suggests, imagine Jesus sitting next to you, speaking and listening to you. Can’t find time to reflect? Why not take five minutes in the parking lot at work before going in to the job?

Each day there’s a suggested prayer, too. Each day he takes a different tack, coming at the same questions from different perspectives. He makes it personal, and he makes it real.

Follow this pattern of building a relationship with Jesus, Deacon Winninger notes, and “eventually your heart will find peace in answers to life’s big questions, and you will find a deeper meaning to the purpose of your life.” The Catholic Spirit
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