UST psychology professor helps others grow in virtue

| September 20, 2016 | 1 Comment
University of St. Thomas psychology professor John Buri has made it his life’s work to help people overcome sin in their lives through growing in virtue. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

University of St. Thomas psychology professor John Buri has made it his life’s work to help people overcome sin in their lives through growing in virtue. Dave Hrbacek/
The Catholic Spirit

Sin stopper

Part twelve in a 14-part series highlighting local Catholics who live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

More than 100 quotes typewritten on yellow sheets of paper are taped to the walls of John Buri’s cramped basement office at the University of St. Thomas.

They contain a wealth of information that has guided him over decades as a psychology professor at the St. Paul school. One of the quotes stands out. It is from the New Testament. It is the only one made into a plaque, done so as a gift from a group of longtime friends who know how ardently and passionately he works to encourage others in their spiritual lives.

The line from Chapter 5 of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans printed on the plaque reads: “Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope. And, hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

He looks at this plaque daily, along with many other quotes, totaling about 150. He has used them to guide his life in the ongoing battle against sin. He also has used them to guide others. In addition to teaching thousands of students over the years, he has helped many face and overcome sin in their lives. Using his classroom, books he has written and personal time spent meeting with individuals and couples, he has made this his life’s work.

Encouragement is a powerful tool in this ministry. It supplants the word admonish used in the spiritual work of mercy called admonishing sinners.

“I don’t like the term admonish,” he said. “With most sins, people need encouragement, not admonishment. They need to see things more clearly, because truth is not seen accurately because of sin.”

But, that doesn’t mean Buri coddles those guilty of moral infractions. Rather, by challenging people — in many cases, husbands — to learn how to pursue the good, true and beautiful outlined by St. Paul, sinners can embark on a new way of living.

And, that way of living begins by dying. Specifically, dying to self.

“The saints talk all the time about: eliminate self interest, eliminate self love, become detached from yourself,” said Buri, who belongs to Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul with his wife Kathy, with whom he has six adult children.

Fatherly advice

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This plaque with a Scripture verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans hangs in Buri’s St. Paul office. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

He once delivered this type of message to one of his sons, who was newly married at the time. Though he was very much in love with his wife, this son found marriage to be difficult just six months into it. So, he went to his father for advice on how to deal with the struggles.

What he got was a mini sermon on death.

“What I said to him was, ‘Well, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain. But, if it will fall to the ground and die, it will bear a rich fruit. Would you like a rich fruit for your wife and someday for your children? Or, do you want a little, puny harvest?’” Buri recalled saying to his son. “That’s at the heart of every good marriage, it’s at the heart of every good person — death.”

Ultimately, it has to do with putting aside one’s own interests and trying to meet the needs of one’s spouse. And, it starts long before any sacrifices are ever made. It begins with establishing the right order between the intellect and the will.

“We have to understand that the nature of virtue is that the intellect, our reason, is meant to apprehend what is good and true and beautiful,” Buri said. “And, the intellect informs the will. So, it’s out of the intellect, out of seeing what is good and true and beautiful that we make decisions for our lives, and for the lives of those we love. And then the will informs our passions. That’s the direction of virtue: The intellect informs the will and the will informs the passions.”

But, when sin enters the picture, this progression from intellect to passions gets reversed, and the passions end up ruling the person and his or her decisions. That’s where Buri comes in to help set a person straight.

He also needs to set himself straight on occasion. He admits to having his own struggles with sin and in his relationship with Kathy. He had anger issues stemming from his childhood, and the anger carried over into his marriage. There once was a rocky, two-year period in which Kathy struggled greatly with his behavior.

“I came from a difficult family of origin,” he said. “I came out of it pretty wounded. And, I went into marriage thinking that my marriage was going to be the source of my healing. It didn’t work so well. . . . That was when my life really began to bottom out because I found myself in a marriage that wasn’t serving my woundedness.”

John has since corrected the angry behavior and reduced the anger. But, the battle isn’t finished. And, it never will be, he said.

Act of penance sparks love

The good news is, his life is filled with small victories that keep him on the path of virtue and in an ever deepening relationship with Kathy.

And, the formula is as simple as cleaning toilets. That little tip came right out of the confessional, when the priest got to discussing penance after John had confessed his sins.

“He said, ‘What I want you to do is think of someone you care about a lot, and do something special for that person.’ Then, he said, ‘Now, you and Jesus can figure out what that is, can’t you?’” Buri recalled. “And, I took one step out of that confessional and knew what it was. Kathy hates cleaning bathrooms . . . . So, I went home and I cleaned all the bathrooms. And, I have been cleaning bathrooms [ever since]; Kathy has not cleaned a bathroom since. It’s the penance that keeps on giving.”

Yet, Buri points out, even better than cleaning the bathroom is desiring to clean the bathroom. This point is expressed in a line from a movie, “The Break-Up,” starring Jennifer Aniston.

“Jennifer Aniston says to her boyfriend, ‘I don’t want you to just do the dishes. I want you to want to do the dishes.’” Buri said. “So, the intellect — ‘I should be serving my wife’ — informs the will, and therefore, we serve. And if we serve enough, the passions get in line.”

Applying this idea to his own life, Buri said, “My job is to get my passions in line so that I’m not just cleaning the toilets, but I’m wanting to clean the toilets. That’s the nature of virtue.”

As easy as it may sound to wash dishes and clean toilets, the life of virtue is made significantly harder in our self-centered, self-focused culture, Buri said. And, being both a Christian and a psychology professor, he is well aware of the messages bombarding everyone through the culture and the media.

“One of the major problems that we’re dealing with among Christians, among Catholics, is that we are more psychologized than we are Christianized,” he said. “So, we think in terms of ‘me.’ Psychology is all about me, it’s all about the self. If you look at life through the lens of psychology, you end up focusing on: What do I need? What do I want? What’s in it for me? Where’s my payoff?’”

Pornography harms virtue

Perhaps nowhere is this focus on self more apparent than in the sin of pornography. Buri once helped do a survey of priests in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis about what sins people confess during the sacrament of reconciliation. Pornography was No. 2 on the list.

“Just this last year there was a major survey taken of use of pornography by men in the United States,” he said. “Would you think there was any difference between the use of pornography by non-Catholic, non-Christian men, and Christian or Catholic men? There is no difference. They’re virtually the same. So, it’s an issue. Think about, if sin darkens the intellect, weakens the will and disorders the passions, think about what pornography does in terms of how we see our beloved, the person God has given us men to treasure, to see their beauty. Imagine what this does to the passions. The passions get so incredibly distorted with lust rather than love.”

Buri deals with this topic in his most recent book, “Intentional Dating.” It’s also a topic in his classroom and in his office when he sees students outside of class.

Then, there’s the No. 1 sin on the list of those confessed to priests of this archdiocese — anger.

“Anger darkens the intellect,” he said. “When we get mad at our spouse, we don’t see this beautiful person that God has put in our lives. We make nasty decisions. We say things that we shouldn’t say.”

It’s a problem that is universal, going across both cultural and gender lines.

“People often think that men have more of a problem with anger than women do,” Buri said.
“They don’t. The research is really clear. Both men and women struggle with anger equally, and it turns out that it’s the No. 1 sin that priests hear, at least in this archdiocese, and I’m going to suspect that this is fairly typical [elsewhere].”

Change is complicated

In addition to talking about sins such as anger, Buri addresses how to change. It’s a complicated process, filled with both victories and defeats, advances and slip-ups. And, he likes to point out that the path of change is not linear, but rather a spiral. Progress is made, then comes a fall, with the person seeming to revert back to old ways. Then, people catch themselves and begin the journey of change anew and continue to spiral upward.

It’s never easy, Buri says, and it’s never over. He once read about an old Jesuit priest who was near the end of his life. He asked another member of his order to pray for him, that he would not give up the struggle against sin and, therefore, fall short before reaching the finish line.

Fortunately, even though the journey is arduous, measurable results will happen if people keep trying, Buri said. In describing how change takes place, he pointed to the growth pattern of the Chinese bamboo tree.

“The Chinese bamboo tree pops through the ground and grows to about 2 feet tall,” he said. “And, it stays there for the next five years. It just sits there. And during that five-year period, you have to till the soil, you have to fertilize it, you have to water it, otherwise it dies. And, in year six, it shoots to 60 feet in the air. And, this is often what I’ve seen as how God works. You just have to persist, persist in doing what’s right and then it [growth] happens.”

This is all part of a message he delivers to anyone who will listen. His admirers are many, but he is not one of them. He expresses no pride in being able to point out sin in others or himself, and in being able to overcome sin in his own life.

Rather, he offers this explanation of why he is able to do what he does, repeating one of his favorite quotes:

“I understand sin because I is one.”

Admonish the sinner

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Category: Featured, Year of Mercy

  • shelly zeto

    Proff Buri…I will always remember being part of your class 20 years ago at UST, what a great class, glad as a parent of a UST student
    I was able to attend.Thank you