Saturday, May 30, 2015

First Mass

For anyone in the Chicago area on June 14th, I'll be celebrating the Eucharist for the first time at Old St. Patrick's Church at the 11:15 Mass. The parish's music director recently sent me the music selection for the day and it looks really nice. They are also going to try to bring in some Irish musicians which to add a Celtic touch to the liturgy.

These final weeks of preparation have been far busier than I could have imagined: so many little details. It would be totally overwhelming were it not for an abiding sense of trust in God's grace and providence. It is a hard-fought trust, one that's grown and deepened over these years of Jesuit formation. But it is a trust that says, "Well, Lord, I don't know what the day will bring but, if you are with me, I say Yes to whatever comes."

If you're in Cleveland on the 27th, I'll also be celebrating Mass at my home parish - Saint Brendan's in North Olmsted - at the 5:00 Mass.


Friday, May 22, 2015

A Name Change

I blog this morning from a Peet's Coffee shop in Chicago. I arrived two days ago to be a part of a project launched by Loyola Productions entitled "The Jesuit Rec Room." The gist of the series is simple: to recreate the sorts of conversations that often take place when Jesuits and friends gather in social settings.

My suggestion was to call the series "...and another thing!" because Jesuits are often loath to give the last word to anyone. My suggestion did not gain traction. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed being a part of the project.

Our panel yesterday consisted of four members: Father Radmar Jao, SJ, Sister Nancy Sylvester, IHM, author and speaker Caroline Myss, and me. As our microphones were adjusted and we sat chatting, I shared with the group a funny incident that took place a few years ago. Standing in the Denver airport with my accordion on my back, a man grabbed me from behind and inquired excitedly, "Are you the Tin Whistle priest?" Although not ordained, I understood his question and affirmed my identity. He seized his mortified girlfriend and said to me, "Oh my God! We listen to you in our bedroom."

I went from tin whistle teacher to the bedroom soundtrack. A high point in my life.

The name, "Tin Whistle Priest," struck Caroline in particular as an appropriate name for my blog. And, I must say, I quite agree with her. Last night, after I prayed, I toyed with the name "The Whistling Priest" or the "The Whistling Jesuit" or even "The Musical Priest." But, at the end of the day, I feel as though "The Tin Whistle Priest" is a pretty good name for who I am.

In Saint Paul's Letter to the Corinthians, he proclaims: "If I preach the Gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it." If I preach the Gospel, it is because I have received it as a gratuitous gift that impels me to share it with others any way I can. If Irish music can help to introduce people to the Good News of Jesus, then woe to me if I do not use any and every means at my disposal to do so.

So, although it's 22-days premature, I'm changing the name of my blog. Within the scope of nearly eleven years of blogging, three weeks doesn't seem too much of a stretch.

As I shared with a person for whom I pray daily, I try hard to be a faithful disciple. I'm not very good at it, but I try. I daily experience the impact of the Jesuit vow formula which acknowledge "how unworthy I am in your divine sight. Yet I am strengthened by your infinite compassion and mercy, and I am moved by the desire to serve you." Over the years, this desire to serve has only grown. It's not always been a smooth path, or without obstacles, but I continue to feel called and, somehow, I have been given the strength to respond.

While "The Tin Whistle Priest" is not a name I'd have chosen, it is the name I have been given by others. Maybe this, too, describes how much of my own priestly formation has been: I did not form myself for priesthood but was formed by the communities I've had the privilege to serve. From hospital patients as a CPE student to high school students in Detroit, they have so shaped me that it will forever be our priesthood. Ordination is not something of which I can boast but is the obligation to recognize what others have seen and affirmed in me.

Anyway, it's a beautiful Friday morning and I have a city to see. If you should like to remember me in your prayers, I ask that you pray that God grant me the gift of courage. Since I read it on a retreat before joining the Society, one prayer I recite daily comes from my theological hero Karl Rahner who wrote movingly:

Oh God, give me the courage and the strength to be worthy of being 
called a Christian. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I'm Not Surprised

Oh, religion certainly was one of the hot topics yesterday. The Pew Research Center released results of its latest study, showing a significant decline in those who consider themselves Christians. For Catholics, one particularly sober statistic is that for every one adult received into the Church at Easter, another six leave.

I'm not surprised by these statistics. In fact, I'm actually shocked they're not worse.

A few summers back, I used to walk past a yoga studio at 6:00 am each morning. Looking in the window, I saw a packed room filled with young adults. Mat-to-mat, they would bend and grunt and sweat next to each other for more than an hour. One morning, as the return leg of my journey at around 6:45, I actually saw them balancing one sweaty leg on the sweaty back of another person. My first thought was, "Oh my God, that's gross." My second thought was, "Wow, I know Catholics who go crazy when they have to extend the sign of peace and touch another person's hand, let alone a sweaty leg."

Why is a yoga studio packed at 6:00 am on a Wednesday, or a Sunday, and our churches continue to empty?

I can think of two reasons: dynamic community and common purpose.

If you've tried to lose weight, or get fit, or grow in the spiritual life you know that it is difficult, if not impossible, to do it alone. We need the support of others who seek similar goals. Thus we join up with dynamic communities. By 'dynamic' I mean, simply, communities that are in some way vibrant and engaging. It means something to join the group. Thus we have rituals: ways of entering into the group and marking our growth within it. Weight-loss programs record benchmark losses, karate has its belts, and the Catholic Church has Sacraments. The community draws its members into its life and provides its members ways to record progress.

A dynamic community makes demands upon its members. But it can make demands only because it has a purpose. One invests personal capital - time, energy, money, life - only to the extent that there is a purpose in doing so. If the purpose of a yoga studio is to (1) increase physical fitness, (2) cultivate renewed mindfulness, and (3) build a community, then to the extent it is able to actualize its mission will it be able to require its members to sweat together.

People seek to join communities not because they want to be coddled or pandered to, but because they glimpse in a dynamic community a mission they desire to claim as their own. This, then, raises for me the question: What is the mission of the Church?

I raise this question only to flag its importance and our too-frequent neglect of it. The churches will continue to lose membership so long as they fail to discern and enact their mission. It's not that people don't want community. It's that they don't want our Church community. If we have tasted salvation and forgiveness in the Church, we need to re-think how we live out this forgiveness and salvation in our world. How are we to be dynamic and purposeful agents of grace and mercy?

I'm not surprised we're losing numbers. And, not to be overly pessimistic, no strategic plan, or new evangelization, or marketing campaign will reverse this. The Church is not attractive because it is relevant but because it is real: in the Church, we catch sight of who we might be through friendship with Jesus Christ. We need, as in every era, to re-discover the mission of the Church and only by embodying this mission in a joyful way can we even hope that the hearts of others will be stirred to wonder how their life might be changed, and enriched, by entering a community based on a shared friendship with Christ.


Friday, May 08, 2015

Ending Zombie Justice

Two years after the Boston Marathon bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted and now faces sentencing. Many voices have weighed in on how Tsarnaev should be punished: some have called for him to be sentenced to life imprisonment while others call for his execution.

I respect the effort to articulate "The Traditional Case for Capital Punishment." By citing the textual authority of Augustine, Aquinas, Charles Borromeo, Saint Paul, and Pius XII, it is true a case can be marshaled in favor of allowing the state to execute criminals. I do not believe, however, this argument to be compelling. For while it is true that Aquinas wrote that it is "praiseworthy and advantageous that [a criminal] be killed in order to safeguard the common good," this was in recognition that certain persons could prove "dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin." (ST, IIa-IIae 64.2) The question redounds to contagion: can a criminal be sufficiently contained so as to preserve the health of the community?

The answer, at least in the United States, is yes. We do have sufficient means to sequester criminals. We can, that is, quarantine Tsarnaev from society in a prison where he will remain out of sight for the rest of his natural life. If one wishes to retain the death penalty as a means to minimize a threat to the common good, such a threat is seemingly made null by our ability to contain prisoners in a supermax prison. (Called by some a "clean version of hell," debate about the nature and purpose of our prison system should also be raised.)

My argument for the abolition of the death penalty takes a different tack.

What is most frightening about zombies is that their insatiable hunger. They feed upon living flesh for no other reason than to feed. Zombies do not, as we do, eat in order to live. Indeed, there is no why at all. Instead they shamble across the land, devouring the living and creating, by their bite, another agent of death's army. Zombies are Death-Dealers: death begetting death begetting death.

Unlike other figures in horror - Freddy Kruger, Jason, even Dracula - there is no sense to why they kill. Freddy and Jason seek revenge, Dracula needs to drink the blood of the living. Zombies have no such purpose.

On one level, then, to execute a criminal is simply to add another body to the graveyard of history. Killing Tsarnaev will not restore any victim to life, nor will it lead to the regrowth of any severed limb. It will bury a tragically flawed young man next to those whose lives he helped to destroy. Depriving someone of life isn't a punishment, really, because there is no one left to punish: once a person is dead, it's over (at least in this lifetime). Victims are still victims and while it is true that "ultimate justice" has been exacted, I find it incomprehensible that his death is going to make putting on a prosthetic leg any easier.

In this above article, Father McCloskey writes, "St. Thomas finds frivolous the argument that murderers should be allowed to live in hopes of their repentance, questioning how many innocent people should have to suffer death while waiting for the guilty to repent." Now, it would be helpful if he would have given a citation for this - it's always interesting to find places where the otherwise dispassionate Aquinas deems things things "frivolous." Elsewhere, Aquinas (IIa-IIa 108 a. 3, ad.2) does say "But penalties in this present life have more of a healing character. Consequently, the death penalty is only given as regards those transgressions which present enormous perniciousness to others."

Again, this raises the issue of containment: to the extent that the state can sufficiently contain the contagion of a criminal, there is no reason to execute said criminal. The medicinal nature of punishment should be born in mind: it is medicinal and aimed at correcting what is wrong.

As a Catholic, I find the death penalty offensive because it only perpetuates a cycle of violence, because it is unnecessary as we have the means to prevent a spread of criminal contagion, and because executing a person is an abandonment of hope.

For Aquinas, hope is the virtue looks toward a "future good, difficult but possible to obtain" either through one's own efforts (I hope to run a marathon by training) or through God's grace (I hope to be the priest God's people deserve but know I can't do it without grace). In this latter case, of a hope empowered by God's grace, we can consider the possibility of a future repentance by Tsarnaev.

As a man of faith, I believe that the Eternal Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, that Christ conquered death, that simple and tasteless bread and wine can become the Body and Blood of Christ, and that sins can be forgiven. Even the hardest of hearts, given time and sufficient grace, can be softened and turned by the One who called all of Creation into existence. If Tsarnaev can be contained safely, then it is a crime against Hope itself and a failure of trust in God's power to call for his death.

Such hope is not at all frivolous. It is faith.

A world organized according to the logic of Zombie Justice is a world where death rules supreme. Death perpetuates death as the wheel of violence, or justice, turns again and again. Inasmuch as we are able to contain a criminal, we must stay the executioner's hand: we can prevent further violence. For those who profess faith in the Christ who conquers death, we are given a glimpse of a pathway beyond retributive violence. This, I believe, the youngest of Tsarnaev's victims understood. Little Martin Richard. We do not need to hurt people, to inflict further damage. We can break the cycle of violence not with more violence but with what the Risen One offers: Peace.





Wednesday, April 29, 2015

When the Monstrance is an Abyss

There's a very interesting essay in today's New York Times entitled "When the Cyberbully is You." The essay considers the phenomenon of the online mob and "shaming" a person via social media. Most of us are familiar with seeing stories go "viral" and re-posted or re-tweeted. Outrage and indignation spread from one person to another, their contagion seemingly infecting all it touches.

I am reluctant to consider myself a "victim" of cyberbullying but, I will admit, I've had more than my fair share of trolls who have visited this page. Most of them, sadly, are fellow Catholics who feel themselves commissioned by God to point out flaws or anonymously post hurtful comments. It's hard to develop a thick skin when someone is taking shots at you...but I've grown increasingly indifferent to cowardly criticisms.

The author of the Times piece quotes Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. Some years ago, I taught this to my seniors. Quoted is, however, but the first of the two-sentence apothegm. IN §146, Nietzsche writes, "He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster." By this we should understand that we can be be transformed into what we most loath. We may rightly feel outrage at an injustice but, in our attempt to bring about order, we can stray easily into the realm of injustice.

Such, it seems, is the error of many in cyber-shaming. We are indignant at another's comment, or joke, so we attempt to "right" the scale by "calling him out." Stupid comments made on Twitter, things that should be reproved with an eye-roll or a, "Did you really write that?" become, through mob-shaming, the cause for a person to lose a job. Maybe that's justified, maybe it's justice...but I'm not so sure that a mindless mob is ever the best arbiter of what is just. It certainly wasn't the case for Jesus.

The second line of §146 is equally interesting. Nietzsche continues, "And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you."

For me, this is the irony of the vicious so-called Catholic bloggers. They would be the first to extoll hours spent in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament but then, when they turn to the internet, they manifest the presence of an abyss where neither mercy nor charity can be found. Rather than being themselves monstrances embodying the sacramental presence of Christ in the world, they are the monstrous inversions of a sacrament.

I wish some Catholic bloggers would ponder whether there is too-great a gulf between the time they spend on their knees in prayer and the time they spend at the keyboard. Has Christ's presence reached deep into their hearts to transform it? Or has self-righteousness and smug self-satisfaction succeeded in blocking the rays of Christ's merciful light? My (blessedly few) encounters with rage-a-holic bloggers forces me to wonder: are they themselves not guilty of the profanation of the Eucharist when their cowardly deeds and words serve only to destroy and break-down the Body of Christ they believe they serve?

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Such Great Voyages

During one of our many snowstorms this winter, I had a chance to re-watch Tony Kushner's Angels in America. The HBO-adapted miniseries was drawn from Kushner's play which debuted in 2003. The story centers around the AIDS crisis of the mid-1980's and traces how the lives of quite disparate individuals become intertwined in New York City. 

The opening scene takes place during the funeral of an elderly woman. The wizened rabbi stands before a plane pine coffin:

This woman. I did not know this woman. I cannot accurately describe her attributes, nor do justice to her dimensions. She was...Well, in the Bronx Home of Aged Hebrews there are many like this, the old, and to many I speak but not to be frank with this one. She preferred silence. So I do not know her and yet I know her. She was...
 (touching the coffin)
...not a person, but a whole kind of person, the ones that cross the ocean that brought with us to America, the villages of Russia and Lithuania. And how we struggled, and how we fought, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children, and their children with the goyische names. You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some litvak shtetl, and your air is the air of the steppes - because she carried that Old World on her back across the ocean in a boat and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient culture and home.
You can never make that crossing she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand? In you that journey is.  
As raindrops splash against my window this Holy Saturday, I cannot help but to think the rabbi to be chillingly prophetic. We think nothing of trans-Atlantic travel these days, but we would hardly consider this a voyage. Are such Great Voyages a thing of the past? 

As Christians, we are heirs to the story of a great story originating with Abraham and traced through Jesus and passed down by saints and sinners. The Great Voyage of faith, recorded not only by miles logged but also by hearts made whole, is one in which we are always invited to embark upon. Such Great Voyages as undertaken in the past...these may no longer be possible. What we need today are Great Voyages of the future that will lead us in new directions. 

The conclusion of Lent is, at least for me, almost always bittersweet. The good intentions I began with many days ago are usually smudged and tattered and I know, in my heart, that I did not live out the Lent I desired. It's a terrible irony: I cannot even live my sinfulness well! All the same, after the shadow of Good Friday, I am looking to Easter's light to point the way for another year's journey. 

As the Church waits in hope for Easter's victory, I think it good to remain mindful that the journey of faith isn't a pre-planned itinerary, but something lived by each of us. Where we walk each day, where we set out in new directions, can all be avenues for bringing the Gospel to margins and frontiers. Sometimes these frontiers are places are very close to us - our homes, our friends - and sometimes they are very far away. Regardless, our faith in does not give us a journey. It makes us, in our flesh and bones, a Great Voyage that we undertake guided by Jesus. 

I hope those who read this have come through Lent a bit dirtier, a bit more ragged, than when they set out in February. I hope you thirst, having past through the Lenten desert. And I hope you are prepared for the great celebration when we feel the warm light of Easter's Victory and are refreshed in order to be the Great Voyage God calls us to be for another year. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Why We Need Cardinal Burke

I logged into Facebook the other day and saw that a number of friends had linked to an interview given by Cardinal Raymond Burke. Cardinal Burke has been painted - whether fittingly or not - as the opposition to Pope Francis, especially in matters related to the Synod on the Family. 

If you do a quick Google search for "Cardinal Burke," you'll see what has rankled not a few readers. The teaser line for the interview is certainly provocative. Cardinal Raymond Burke: Gays, remarried Catholics, murderers are all the same

Well, if that isn't going to get you to click on the story, I don't know what will.

It is within the context of a somewhat lengthy interview that this exchange occurred:

LSN: Among the viewpoints of Cardinal Kasper and, more recently, Bishop Bonny of Antwerp, and others, was the consideration that “faithful” homosexuals, “remarried” divorcees and non-married couples show qualities of self-sacrifice, generosity and dedication that cannot be ignored. But through their choice of lifestyle, they are in what must be seen by outsiders as an objective state of mortal sin: a chosen and prolonged state of mortal sin. Could you remind us of the Church’s teaching on the value and merit of prayer and good actions in this state?
CB: If you are living publicly in a state of mortal sin there isn't any good act that you can perform that justifies that situation: the person remains in grave sin. We believe that God created everyone good, and that God wants the salvation of all men, but that can only come about by conversion of life. And so we have to call people who are living in these gravely sinful situations to conversion. And to give the impression that somehow there's something good about living in a state of grave sin is simply contrary to what the Church has always and everywhere taught.
LSN: So when the man in the street says, yes, it's true these people are kind, they are dedicated, they are generous, that is not enough?
CB: Of course it's not. It's like the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people…
Theologically, I think one could ask the Cardinal for some clarification. For men and women living in a state of mortal sin, Church teaching is that they are cut off from charity. That is, they are severed from sanctifying grace. Yet, this does not corrupt human nature and some good remains still within them. This leads Thomas to say, "it is evident that unbelievers cannot do those good works which proceed from grace, viz. meritorious works; yet they can, to a certain extent, do those good works for which the good of nature suffices." (IIa-IIae Q. 10, A4).

Thomas does not deny that unbelief (infidelis) is sinful, but I don't know that he'd quite agree with the Cardinal that "there isn't any good act that you can perform that justifies the situation." If the situation refers to "meriting God's grace" then he's right. But he would have to include this to all of us who, at any moment, are in a state of mortal sin...and given a strict application of Church's understanding of sin, that'd be a lot of people. On the other hand, it would seem something of an overstatement to say that they can't do any good act if this is referred to other matters. Again, as Thomas said,
Hence it does not follow that they sin in everything they do; but whenever they do anything out of their unbelief (ex infidelitate), then they sin. For even as one who has the faith, can commit an actual sin, venial or even mortal, which he does not refer to the end of faith, so too, an unbeliever can do a good deed in a matter which he does not refer to the end of his unbelief.
To my mind, likening gays and remarried Catholics to "the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people" is hyperbole. A murderer is guilty of murder, but this doesn't make every single act of his null and void of goodness. His acts may not be paving his way to heaven - because he's not in a state of grace - but he can still do things that are good for the community, for friends, etc.. So it may be true that, qua mortal sin, nothing can justify a person (nor could any act done out of presumption, as it is a sin against hope). But this is not the same thing as justifying a person's work toward the common good, for instance, and I think we need to be clear on this.

This quibble aside, my strong claim is this: The Church Needs Cardinal Burke. 

The Church needs the Cardinal because we need disciples - women and men - to speak out and dissent when they feel as though something vital appears to be missing from the discourse. Pope Francis explicitly encouraged disagreement at the Synod of Bishops last year. We may not agree, or like, what a dissenting voice has to say but we must listen to them. Otherwise we risk becoming a dictatorship, a totalitarian state and not a living Body.

I find it completely dismaying how quickly people have piled upon the Cardinal for speaking out in a heartfelt defense of the Church. He has given his life to the Church as a disciple of Jesus and he clearly and sincerely believes that current approaches are less-than-faithful to the Tradition. Shame on us, then, if we right him off in the name of political expedience or because his words do not mesh cleanly with our agendas.

If we do not want the Church to devolve into some totalitarian state that reflects the whim of any current age, we need courageous persons to speak out and challenge us to re-examine our presuppositions and premises. It may not be easy, or painless, but it's vitally necessary. I may not agree with the Cardinal's simile, or I may have questions about his use of "good," but I certainly take his call seriously.

We need the Cardinal if we want to continue in the project that is the Church. We sin gravely if we are so presumptuous as to believe that today we hold an illusion-free view of reality to which the entire Church needs to conform itself. I am grateful that the Church does not accede to every whim or notion of the Academy. Not, mind you, because I am opposed to the Academy but because I regard friction and disagreement as a sign of vitality. The fact that people dissent, and disagree, should read as a bunch of cranky geriatrics who've fallen out of touch (as I read in a Facebook post). We should read it as a sign that people are still committed to the pilgrimage of the Church and love it, and the people, enough to challenge us to remain faithful to our mission as disciples. The way we live this mission cannot be dictated by trendy fashion but must, in every era, be discerned so as to stay in communion with one another and in companionship with the Lord.

The Church was born in a plurality of tongues, a host of voices inspired by the one Spirit at Pentecost. Many languages and tongues proclaimed the wonders of God's work that morning, and while some were amazed, others sneered and attributed the event to "new wine" (Acts 2:5-13). We need the Cardinal to help us remain honest, to chasten drive toward "progress," especially if this drive is unreflected and poorly discerned. We betray our calling to be the Church if we glibly dismiss any of our sisters or brothers are irrelevant, or atavistic, or stodgy. We are at our worst when we can no longer enter into any sort of dialogue, any appreciation of another's position, and resort to label-and-dismiss tactics that bring us neither to mutual understand and reconciliation. We owe it to ourselves to listen carefully, disagree when necessary, and do what we can to detect the strains of the Spirit that binds us together as on Body in Christ. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Easter Proclamation - Exsultet - New Translation of the Roman Missal - P...

A Lenten Apprenticeship

Barring the realization that my voice is judged awful and offensive, I will be singing the the Exultet at this year's Easter Vigil. The text of this ancient hymn runs to nearly six pages and, depending on the singer's pacing, runs between ten and eleven minutes. It's my custom to preach no longer than eight minutes and, generally, I err on the side of four or five. Having to sing twice as long as I'm accustomed to speaking...this will be something!

Some people give up chocolate, or alcohol, or meat for Lent. Others commit themselves to more time spent in prayer. My Lenten journey will be recorded in and through the text of an intimidating song. I thought, then, that it might be fitting to break the text up into small sections and offer a few words of reflection upon it.


Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King's triumph!

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.

Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.

Note how the distance between heaven and earth, the celestial and the terrestrial, is traversed in three verses. The people, bearing candles lit with the Easter flame, are the source of the low light filling the Church. The Body itself is the source of light. In a world bathed in florescent overhead lighting, we too easily take for granted the symbolism of candlelight. Instead of radiating down upon us, Easter's light arises from the congregation and radiates. Each small candle contributes to the warm light heralding the King's triumph over death. 

This symbolism, I fear, is too easily lost by many Christians. Very often do Catholics, especially, get so focused on the Church as an institution rather than as an event or process unfolding over time. We get so caught up on hierarchies that we neglect that the Church is made up of those who are called to bear to the world the light of the Good News. 

If we took to heart the symbolism of the whole assembly, bearing lit candles, each offering a ray of light to celebrate the Risen One...how would this affect our understanding of the Church and of what it means to be the Body of Christ? If we really were mindful that each one of us is responsible for carrying the light of Christ to the world, would we so judgmental of others when we know how hard it is for us to keep our own flame's burning? 

No single candle - certainly not my - candle, can illumine an entire Church. It takes all of us, gathered together, to dispel the darkness. When one candle goes out, others are there to re-ignite it. We err grievously when we mistake our feeble flickering for unassailable incandescence. We are all of us stewards of the light, tenders of a flame not of our origin but whose light and warmth gathers us into one Body, one Church, and unites our voices in praise. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Delayed Gratification

Last night I began reading a remarkable book entitled Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.  Written by sociologist Michael Kimmel, the book attempts to offer a map of the terrain young men face today in order to help them "steer a course with greater integrity and honesty, so they can be true not to some artificial code, but to themselves."

Kimmel quotes a young graduate student in psychology:
I feel like my whole life has been one long exercise in delayed gratification...I mean, in high school, I had to get good grades, study hard, and do a bunch of extracurricular things so I could get into a good college. Okay, I did that. Went to Brown. Then, in college, I had to work really hard and get good grades so I could get into a good graduate school. Okay, I did that. I'm here at Wisconsin. Now, though, I have to work really hard, publish my research, so I can get a good tenure track job somewhere. And then I'lll have to work really hard for six years just to get tenure. I mean, by the time I can exhale and have a little fun, I'll be in my mid-30s -- and that's to old to have fun anymore!
As a graduate student, I can commiserate with this young man's sentiment. It is so easy to live our life according to future benchmarks. We find our goal, work really hard to achieve it, only to find another goal on our horizon. Our rush toward future goals keeps us on a treadmill we dare not jump off.

The same is true, I reckon, for any goal in our lives. "If I just lost ten pounds" or "If I could just be a size-X" or "If I just got that promotion." We want to assure ourselves that if we go just a bit further, we will find happiness. And so we either put off enjoying ourselves until we reach that goal - if we can ever reach it - or we become so intimidated by the journey that we don't even begin.

Lent, I suspect, is quite a bit like this. We set our gaze toward Easter and make tons of promises to ourselves about how, by the end of Lent, we will have become better at prayer or more spiritually deep. Yet we become so fixated on the end, the goal, that we lose sight of the daily joys we can discover as we try to grow in our relationship with Jesus.

Growth in holiness, like growth in fitness, is not an all-or-nothing affair. It's a slow process, moving us incrementally from one point toward another. That is to say, it's not like one morning a person wakes up and says, "Oh! I'm holy!!" Quite to the contrary: holiness is not a destination but a process in time, the ongoing growth in openness toward friendship with the Lord. Because it is a process, because it is a commitment of ourselves over time, there both is and is not a sense of delayed gratification.

It is true that, at times, we have to put off small pleasures in order to attain a larger or more valuable one. If I want to grow in my spiritual life, I know that I might need to get up five minutes earlier to have a little extra time for prayer before the chaos of my day erupts. But because I am committed to this growth, because it is on my radar to be a friend of the Lord, many moments in the day present themselves as opportunities to grow. My entire day becomes an opportunity to grow in holiness.

If you want to grow in holiness, or grow in prayer, you do not need to "delay gratification." Instead, be gratified by the delay of prayer. Find gratitude in taking a few moments of quiet each day to rest with the Lord, to bring before the Holy One the contents of your heart. To open yourself a little bit more each day, to make your heart more vulnerable to God, is to make yourself susceptible to finding joy in your journey of holiness.

The young man quote above is all too typical. If you focus on a future destination, you'll only ever know frustration: no matter where you get to, there'll always be something more in the distance. Learn to enjoy the process, to embrace the daily struggles and rejoice in the daily conquests, and you will find that the slow burn of discipleship will transform your life in remarkable ways. Or, to quote Saint Peter Claver:

Seek God in all things and we shall find God by our side.