by Gordon Nary
Gordon: The best way of introducing you to our readers is that you who founded three startups in Silicon Valley and was named one of the “Top 25 Entrepreneur Under 25” in 2006 by Business Week. Please provide an overview of these companies and their missions.
Luke: Thanks for that intro, Gordon. I’m always a little embarrassed at the “Top 25” thing because I think, in most cases, these kinds of “Top 10” (or 25) lists are compiled in a much looser way than most people realized. In my case, I simply had a friend who told someone working at the publication, “Hey, I have a friend who is starting this cool new company.” Next thing I know I’m on the list. Nobody from the magazine even talked to me. It’s kind of funny.
With that said, the company was Healthy Vending (now called H.U.M.A.N.). I quit a job on Wall Street to start a company that simply put health foods—pita chips, granola bars, coconut water—into vending machines, and neatly branded them. Our mission was to make healthy food more easily accessible in places where it is traditionally hard to find.
Fit Fuel (.com) was the second company. We were an e-commerce site that sold consumer health products. I moved that company to Las Vegas, and we eventually merged part of our operations with Zappos.com.
I helped launch a couple of other companies that produced and sold consumer products. The most interesting one was a nasal inhaler that I brought back from Thailand with me and turned into a brand. It was similar to Vick’s menthol inhalers you can buy at the drug store, but it was meant to be used for everyday refreshment rather than just when you’re sick. It took off for a while, but ultimately we found that it’s pretty hard to destroy a cultural taboo—most people don’t like drawing attention to their noses!
Gordon: Any thoughts on St. Matthew’s warning “ It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.“
Luke: Jesus spoke in a hyperbolic way on many occasions to make a point. I suppose if he did that today, he’d get “fact-checked” by the media and found guilty. Of course, a camel can’t pass through the literal eye of a needle. So what hope does a rich person have?
Hope is a theological virtue. My favorite one. Jesus isn’t trying to destroy hope.
Some of claimed that there’s an old gate in Jerusalem (or Damascus, depending on who you ask) that was nicknamed the “eye of the needle” because a camel had to be unloaded and pass through it on its knees just to fit. I find this spurious.
It gives the impression that a human being can achieve salvation on his own. It gives a formula for it. Just unload enough possessions to make it through the gate. It’s a work that is entirely human.
Yet salvation is not possible without God, so this can hardly be what Jesus meant. It is impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle. But salvation is a work of grace.
[Optional: To put this into modern term, we could ask ourselves the very challenging question: Do you think it would’ve been possible for Jeffrey Epstein, a rich man, and a sexual predator, to enter into the kingdom of heaven? If our answer is no, then I think we misunderstand Jesus’ saying and, with it, the emphasis on God’s power and God’s grace lifting us poor humans (because we’re all poor before God) out of our misery and granting us entry into his kingdom of love.)
Gordon: Please comment on Oliver Staley’s article How to talk about God in Silicon Valley.
Luke: Almost everyone in Silicon Valley is walking around with what the Communion & Liberation leader, the priest Julian Carron, calls “the Chernobyl effect.” In his words, it’s like people have been penetrated by the radiation of Chernobyl. Structurally, the organism is the same as it was before, but dynamically it’s no longer the same. People are ‘abstracted from their relationship with themselves and can’t attend to reality, like batteries that are supposed to last six hours but instead last six minutes. They are unable to believe in supernatural revelation—they can’t believe that God has revealed himself to us, so thoroughly soaked with this radiation. The only revelation to be believed is the kind we see on the evening news—revelations of scandal, or breakthroughs in technology. What a miserable world that is to live in!
I have great hope, though, that the majority of people caught up in this world are earnestly seeking for answers. They wouldn’t be showing up at the Burning Man Festival in droves if they weren’t. (I just heard that Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, was just there.) There is a doorway in. I don’t believe we can enter it through yelling louder and louder, or simply “finding the right way to communicate” the truths of the faith. It’s going to happen when people in Silicon Valley are forced to grapple with existential questions of life and death.
Gordon: Why did you leave your career in Silicon Valley?
Luke: Precisely that. I was forced to grapple with existential questions of life and death. I had a nasty split with a business partner and a company that went in a different direction than I’d intended, and I found myself completely lifeless and devoid of meaning (basically, the same thing) despite having achieved enormous success by most standards. I was spiritually dead, and by the grace of God, I somehow came to realize it. I knew that I had to step away to take the time to renew my soul. I was not happy that I knew more about certain programming languages than I knew about the bible or the traditions of the Church (I was raised Catholic but fell away when I went to college in New York City). It seemed to me that my hierarchy of values—the things I prioritized in my life—were messed up. How could I know more about trivial things than I knew about the faith that shaped Western civilization? I also knew that I needed, for once in my life, to slow down and let the grace that I was experiencing take hold in my soul. I took a one-year sabbatical, which ended up turning into five. Not only did I reconnect with God, but I gave myself a classical education at the same time—at 27 years old, in the heart of Las Vegas, this guy was devouring Shakespeare, Dickens, and Thomas Aquinas on the couches of coffee shops.
Gordon: Please provide an overview of ActivPrayer and your mission
Luke: ActivPrayer is a community of fitness professionals and enthusiasts who believe that fitness is about more than fitness—it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Our mission is to “magnify the good in fitness and in the lives of the people it serves.” This “magnify” comes from the Magnificat. We believe that most people enter fitness thinking about something wrong—they are overweight, they are out of shape, they are tired and depressed. We first shine on a light on what is good, and we use that as the principle of action. One of our core tools is an idea called “i-Dedicate” – many people who practice ActivPrayer wear an i-Dedicate band and write a personal intention on it, which they wear throughout the day and before they begin a workout or a run. It is an intention to which they can dedicate their action. When you do a workout as an ActivPrayer, it is an “action dedicated to an intention greater than self.” It’s that simple.
Gordon: Please provide an overview of Inscape and your mission?
Luke: Inscape’s mission is to help every person discover, embrace, and live out their unique, personal vocation. Personal vocation is something different than the way that most Catholics use the word vocation. It is not stated in life, it is not “work,” and it is not the universal call to holiness. It is all of those things, and more. It is the thread that runs through all of those different aspects of vocation, the animating principle, the way that a unique person lives out their vocation at the core of their being.
Gordon: The Catholic Church is losing many members, What are three strategies that you would recommend that would reverse this trend?
Luke: I don’t have a strategy other than a radical attentiveness to cultivating the personal vocations of every person so that they can become the people that they were created to be. JPII said that “each person—each unique and unrepeatable person—is the ‘way’ of the Church.” Therefore, I don’t believe there is any program, strategy, or direction other than a deep attentiveness to the lives of every person. I wrote about this extensively in Unrepeatable. I believe that, in a kind of panicked response, many in the Church are looking for a quick life vest. I’ve heard that someone is buying up all of the keyword searches on Google related to “how do I become a priest” and then trying to maximize the chances that a man moves through seminary and is ordained. This is an example of a technical solution to something that is a spiritual problem. Unless there is a return to knowing and loving the unique person—as opposed to trying to herd more people into the priesthood or reaching the masses through better promo video production—I think we’ll continue to struggle as a body.
Gordon: You are a member of the Flannery O’Conner Society. What do enjoy most about being a member?
Luke: Meeting other people who like Flannery!
Gordon: When you earned your S.T.B. in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, what was the most challenging course that you took and why?
Luke: A course on the Septuagint with one of the foremost Old Testament scholars in the world. I went to a university in Rome for my S.T.B., and my classes were all in Italian. So I had to take an oral examination with this old priest – in Italian – and he could ask very specific questions about passages in the Old Testament, firing them off one after another for about 15 minutes. I was sweating bullets.
Gordon; What inspirited you to write Unrepeatable: Cultivating the Unique Calling of Every Person?) According to o Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, OFM, Cap. Archbishop of Philadelphia“
The book was “Beautifully written, compellingly personal, and a treasure to read.”
Luke: It was due to my journey of vocation and my increasing alarm that nobody seemed to be speaking about the rich reality of personal vocation in the Church. Luckily, I met Dr. Joshua Miller, my co-author, who had the same experience. And I’ve now met many others who have, too. I was convicted to write the book after coming to the firm belief that the word “vocation” is one of the least understood and most abused words used in the Church.
Gordon: Your have written for America, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes among many other publications, It is an honor to have you as a member of Profiles in Catholicism.
Luke: Thank you very much for all that you are doing.
Gordon: In closing, who is your favorite saint and why?
Luke: I don’t know if I have a favorite. I chose Joseph as my confirmation name because I couldn’t imagine a more heroic vocation being offered to someone—to be the father of Jesus. Talk about a man having to step up! As I now enter a stage of my life where I’m thinking about being a father soon, I hope I can step up, too.
Gordon: Thank you for an exceptionally beautiful interview