Monday, January 09, 2017

Homily on the Epiphany

Every great adventure, every groundbreaking discovery, begins with a question. “Will you marry me?” marks the beginning of the journey of married life. “What if I mix this chemical with that chemical?” or “Hmmm, that’s funny, I wonder why…” kick off scientific explanation. “I wonder if this dish would taste better with bacon?” Well, that question never need be asked: the answer, invariably, is yes.  
         Now, compare the excitement of an inquisitive person with someone who is totally closed off to new things. Such people see no need to ask questions because they are comfortable with the way things are. They have made up their mind, they rest assured in their convictions, and they stand convinced that they see things as they really are. They are fine with the status quo and grow frustrated when people around them ask too many questions or make suggestions that would require them to change their lives in any way. My mind goes, immediately, to a figure like Archie Bunker.
         Matthew’s account of the Magi’s journey should give us pause, because it forces us to question with whom we identify ourselves: the Magi or Herod? As Pope Francis observes, citing St John Chrysostom, “the Magi did not set out because they had seen the star, but they saw the star because they had already set out.” Night after night, the Magi gazed upon the stars and charted their movements. Their hearts and minds were so attentive to the movements of the heavens that, when they detected something different off in the distance, their curiosity was piqued and they set out. It’s not just that they saw something different that night, they saw differently: with eyes open to the new and unimagined. The eye of the human heart, trained through years of waiting and watching, saw what the rest of the world took for granted.
This is prayer, isn’t it? A patient waiting and watching that trains us to be mindful of God’s presence wherever, and whenever, it is to be encountered. The Magi saw the star and, moved by inquisitiveness, followed the star-lit path toward the One through whom all of history would be renewed. They left the security of home confident that the light they followed would direct them and, in their quest, they discovered a truth that continues to confound believers today: the true king of the universe dwells not in a palace but in a humble manger. The Magi discovered what we are called to celebrate in every era: God is encountered in the most unlikely of places.
         Then again, perhaps we are more like Herod. The joyful question of the Magi pierces Herod’s heart. He does not want to change his way of doing things and hears the Good News of Christ’s birth as a threat to his power and prestige. Herod and Jerusalem were “greatly troubled” because if the true king has been born, it means they have to change their lives. If Christ is king, Herod takes second place. All of his building projects, all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding his person…all of this is for nothing if Christ is king. Thus he must be destroyed.
Likewise do the people of Jerusalem fret. If the king resides in a manger in Bethlehem and not a palace, perhaps Jerusalem is not the center of the world its residents think it is. The very city and palace walls meant to give security prove, with Christ’s Advent, stifling. Better to silence the claim, to ignore the Magi’s tidings of joy, than to risk having to change our self-understanding.
         We are, each one of us, called on the Feast of the Epiphany to cast our lot with the Magi. We are called to open the gates of our hearts to the Good News and allow Christ to throw us off balance as we recognize his centrality in history. In this new year, how can our desire to know God, our longing to grow closer to Jesus, break us free from our dull routines and stir us onto a new adventure? Do we have the courage to open the eye of our hearts and allow our desire for God to lead us on a new road or to guide us to a destination we cannot yet see clearly?
Let us, then, be renewed this year by the Good news. Today, let us journey with the Magi and discover with them God’s presence in the most unlikely of places. For then as now, Christ our King is not to be found in glittering towers or gilded palaces. If we truly long to find Jesus, we must strike out to the frontiers and the margins and kneel alongside the Magi before the delicate beauty of a poor and vulnerable child, a perceived threat to the status quo, born amongst cow and sheep, destined to be Israel’s Shepherd.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Liturgy is Useless, Not Pointless

I had the occasion recently to chat with a former student whose family I've come to know rather well over the years. Our conversation ranged over a number of topics and eventually I asked him about the campus ministry program at his university. His vague and somewhat stuttering response prompted me to ask, "Well, do you ever go to Mass on campus?" His response was disappointing but not surprising, "No, not really. I just don't get anything out of going any more."

I've written before that I think it one of the salutary features of the Mass to be boring. From morning to night, I am bombarded by a constant stream of texts, Tweets, Facebook messages, phone calls, and emails. I turn to edit an article and find myself moving the cursor to my web browser and reading an article; I decide I want to pray for fifteen minutes and discover that I waste the time looking for a perfect piece of music to accompany my meditation. I go for an evening stroll, deciding to leave my phone at home, only to feel some anxiety (1) that someone might call me and I'm not there to take the call and (2) I won't have any way of knowing if this walk took me past the 10,000 steps I hear I'm supposed to walk each day.

In this last year of priesthood, I will admit that I've come to love the Eucharist even more because I have learned that the liturgy is fundamentally useless. That is to say, the hour that we spend praying together does not advance us one quantitative step in this life. The hour or so that could have been spent answering emails, making phone calls, exercising, or reading is turned over completely and, at the end of it, I have nothing to show for it. By the measure of this world, the liturgy can well be reckoned totally pointless: an un-billable, non-serviceable hour of the week in which one accomplishes nothing. Indeed, I imagine that three minutes on the treadmill would burn more calories than what is metabolized by kneeling, genuflecting, and shuffling up to receive Communion.

Paradoxically, it is the brilliant uselessness of the liturgy that is its point. The Mass is a sign of contradiction in a workaday world, carving out space in our managed-and-measured schedules wherein we are allowed to center ourselves. Iris Murdoch, the British novelist and philosopher, expresses this beautifully when she notes that contemplation is attention which is not just the planning of particular good actions but an attempt to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue. 
The point of the liturgy is not to "get" something but to allow oneself to begin, again and again, to become someone: a person who finds her or his center in what Christ has done, is doing, and desires to do in our lives. To admit that Mass is useless, that it doesn't add a single gobbet of accomplishment to our quantifiable life, is to credit it mightily. For, by de-centering my attention from the self to the Eucharist, I can think less of "who I am right now" and begin to contemplate "who I am being called to be."

From the moment Mass begins "In the name of the Father..." until we are bidden to "Go in peace," a space is created wherein we can encounter the One who desires to be the center of our lives. The entire liturgy can be thought of as a way for us to "look right away from self" toward the Holy One. But this is maddeningly difficult to do and, often, provokes something of an allergic reaction among Catholics.

Just consider how many of us do, or have done, the following:

  • When the opening hymn stretches to a fourth or fifth verse, we close the books (if we even opened them!) and mutter under our breaths about "getting this over with." 
  • When the presider waits longer-than-usual to begin prayers, forcing us to sit in a silence that seems so foreign to us.
  • While the lector is reading, we are checking to see if anyone has emailed us in the last ten minutes.
  • During the homily, when we don't feel represented or addressed directly, we try to make reservations for brunch or read the bulletin.
  • Feel a sense of indignation when the priest chooses Eucharistic prayers that are a little bit longer than we should like, making us kneel for an extra two minutes (some of the alternative prayers are absolutely beautiful). As we hear "Take this, all of you, and eat" we are more concerned with the length of the line at the donut shop. 
  • We shamble up to Communion and shoot right out the door, counting now our Sunday obligation accomplished. 
What is the common denominator to all of these? The self remains at the center. It's no wonder people find Mass boring: when my greatest concern is me and my desires, anything that does not flow directly toward me or stroke my (admittedly fragile) ego is discounted. 

But when I enter into the liturgy in the right spirit, it is a tremendous event of being rocked back on my heels, of being sometimes nudged, sometimes thrown, off-center. I turn my gaze away from myself and open my ears and heart. In the Psalm I hear soothing counsel for my sad soul; in the Gospel I hear the Word who gives me strength; in the opening hymn my heart is untethered and allowed to soar upward with the music to touch, for but a moment, the Holy One we praise. During the Eucharistic prayer, I turn my eyes from myself toward the altar and contemplate that God, the Creator of the Universe, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the God whose Spirit gathers us into the Body of Christ, this God is working the greatest of miracles in making present here-and-now the point of my life: Jesus Christ. Inspired by Word and strengthened in Sacrament, I am given a chance to rise again with the Risen One and sent forward to be the Good News I have heard. 

By de-centering me, by not being focused upon my petty whims and wishes, the liturgy focuses me anew on Who most matters in my life. For love of the Christ who loves me, who gives himself to me, I continue as a sinful disciple. Over time and with great grace, the practice of the liturgy tutors us to see things as they are in themselves, not as they are for us. For me, all that is given is useless to my whims, and this is the point: what is, is gift, given freely to be shared and celebrated as we turn our eyes toward the Point of our lives and approach with joy and thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Creeping from Great Silence

Since the end of April, I have been a full-time reader in preparation for my PhD comprehensive exams. Many times have I wanted to return to the blog but, with each stir of desire, a more disciplined voice called back: Ryan, keep reading! So I obeyed.

Apart from one posted homily and a few videos, I've been diligent in my studies. The hard work, I hope, will pay off in 27 days when I sit for my exams. I've read an awful lot these months and I hope to show to my examiners that my time has been well spent.

For those who read this, I did rejoin Twitter: @WhistlePriest is my handle, or name, or whatever it is called. Feel free to follow me there. I can't say that I spend much time on social media or that I'll Tweet much, but if you follow the Tin Whistle videos this may be a help to you.

God willing, in a month, I'll be without the stress of comps upon me and will be able to resume writing again!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Grateful for Boredom

I am very well acquainted with the ceilings of many churches. This is not, mind you, because I'm especially devout and cast my eyes heavenward in prayer. No, it's because I have developed a habit of rolling my eyes when I find things tedious or disagreeable. And, truth be told, I have often attended liturgies where my eye muscles get quite the workout as peculiar musical selections, long-winded homilies, and bizarre innovations set the eye-roll in perpetual motion.

We've all been there when the homilist, now on the sixth of his "three points I want to make," teases with a finally or in conclusion...only to go on for another ten minutes. The central point of the homily gets swallowed up in a sea of words and even if one is impressed by the homilist's abilities as a speaker, one is left struggling to remember what the point of the homily actually was. And so my eyes roll and I hear in the back of my mind the echo of my father's warning, "Ryan, whatever else you do, don't hold the people of God hostage!"

Or think on those presiders who take great liberties with liturgical prayers. While I am in some sense sympathetic to wanting to make language inclusive, I have to own the reality that the prayers of the liturgy do not belong to me. It is not my place to tweak or modify prayers. I've spent enough time in the academy to be sensitized to gender-inclusive and I do find it grating on my ear when the Church's prayers unnecessarily use exclusively masculine pronouns when other words would work just as well. 

Regardless my personal preferences, it is not my place to change the wording of the prayers. In fact, I take it as an insidious expression of clericalism to change prayers in an effort "to make them relevant" to the congregation. Clericalism? Indeed: the presider claims a form of privilege to change things that do not belong to him, deciding as he wills what will and will not be said. Imagine how chaotic it would be were the entire congregation to begin to innovate during the Creed or the Lord's Prayer, swapping out words or lines willy-nilly. It'd be a fractious cacophony professing not a common faith but only a collection of personal manifestos. Yet a certain sort of presider thinks it his prerogative to "add" or "subtract" at will.

I was in another city a few weeks back for an Irish music event and I attended an evening Mass at a local parish. After three days with good friends, I was grateful to have time to pray and was excited for the Eucharist. Yet from the moment the liturgy began, I was totally ill-at-ease because I didn't know what was next to come. The presider informed any "visitors or newcomers" that "we do things differently here." So there was no Gloria because they, as a community, had decided (1) they didn't like the new version and (2) it took too long to recite or pray. The readings and Gospel went off without too many difficulties, but when the homily came...the wheels came off.

The presider gave an entire homily about "these new priests" who were more interested in "lace and liturgy" than in "being" Church. As a new - if not, at 36, especially young - priest, I was appalled. It was a homily born of this guy's own insecurities and its conceit was to galvanize the congregation by creating opposing camps: we enlightened Catholics, those benighted souls. Sown that day were seeds of distrust and antagonism between generations...all in the name of the Gospel which, but for an oblique reference, was not drawn upon at all. 

That homily lasted almost 20 minutes. The Gloria was subtracted because it took too the space was filled with a homily written as it was given. It didn't speak to the heart, it attempted to establish camps and erect barriers. As I've often said, I'm not an ecclesial cheerleader and I am scandalized by the Church's decadence, corruption, and silliness. But homilies that only drive wedges, rather than build bridges, serve not the mission of the Church but offer opportunities for narcissism and preening. 

When we finally arrived at the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I knew I had to buckle my seatbelt. It became clear to me that this was the presider's show. For the sake of expedience, I suspect, Eucharistic Prayer II was chosen. I know it basically by heart so I attempted to pray along with him. It should begin:

You are indeed Holy, O Lord, 
The Fount of all holiness.

What we got, however, was something like:

You are indeed Holy, O Lord,
Because you make us Holy. You make us a holy people
your people
a people gathered at your table as sisters and brothers,
and you are the fount of all holiness.

Well, you can see that (1) innovation does not breed expedience because it is a lot longer and (2) the theology undergirding it is absolutely atrocious. God's not holy because he makes us holy, as if our growth in grace were directly proportional to an increase in God's holiness. 

It only got worse. Throughout, my eyes were doing full revolutions as I found myself totally distracted. Maybe it bespeaks my own intolerance for liturgical adaption, but I actually felt violated because the prayer of the Church had been substituted with a presbyteral performance. 

As the congregation joined hands and prayed, "Our Father, Our Mother, who art in heaven..." I had the dawning realization that this was not a liberal or conservative issue. Lord knows, I've seen priests so fixated on rubrics that no sense of Eucharistic joy or delight was conveyed. But in this moment, I realized that the regularity I had come to expect from the ritual had been cast aside and it was hard for me to find my footing. I found myself longing for liturgical boredom, for the predictability of the liturgical rhythms that enable me to lose myself in the Church's prayer.

I hate to sound like a crank, but I'm expressing what I take to be a fiduciary responsibility as a presider: DO NO HARM. If I go to McDonald's and ask for a hamburger, not only should I expect a hamburger but I should be incensed if I'm given a grilled chicken sandwich because the employee deemed it "right and just." I think it is only fair that someone should approach the liturgy with the expectation that the "menu" will not change, that we will find an environment where we may recharge and reconnect with the Lord. Any McDonald's that consistently served its customers according to the employees' will would eventually lose its franchise license. Analogously, I fail to see how Catholic churches, where deliberate innovation and abuse takes place, differ from congregationalist churches where local custom trumps universal practice.  

To be honest, I'm grateful for liturgical boredom because, as I grow inwardly restive, I feel my heart moving toward the One for whom I long, the One who desires to give Himself to me. Often in my life I can get so busy that I ignore this deep hunger that I need to "get bored" in order to know how much I need the Eucharist. I don't go to Mass to be entertained. I go because I need gradually to open my heart to hear God's Word and to receive the Eucharist, to ask for pardon, for strength, for healing, and to express my gratitude for all the graces in my life. I'm grateful for the boredom that results from predictability because, it in the settled pattern of prayer, I experience the unsettling desire to receive the Lord and to find strength to continue the adventure of discipleship. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Third Scrutiny of the Elect)

Many of you may be familiar with, or might be regular watchers, of the A&E show Hoarders. The show is a documentary series about people who suffer from compulsive hoarding disorder. Each episode allows us to peer into the chaos of a life taken over by the need to acquire more stuff and a refusal to part with any of it. Very often these are men and women like us, who live in nice apartments and houses. But when the cameras bring us inside, when we see the mountains of garbage and filth filling the hallways, animal droppings and vermin running through the house, we feel both disgust and agitation. It’s difficult to understand how anyone could live under these conditions and we are forced to wonder why it is only now with the cameras rolling that this person is receiving help.
Family members are often interviewed as part of the show. They share memories of how their mother or father once made this house into a home, and they share how hoarding has taken over the loved one’s life. Often, it’s hard to miss their anger, resentment, and deep sorrow. Sometimes they blame themselves, or one another; sometimes when they blame each other we hear in their voices an echo of Mary’s frustration with Jesus: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” For the family and friends of the hoarders, too, mourn the loss of their mom or dad, sister or brother, who has become quite literally buried alive. What was once a home filled with life and laughter has, tragically, become a tomb. 
         Yet hope is not extinguished. In each episode, a rescue mission is mounted, first, to assist the hoarder in recognizing the toll their actions have taken on themselves and others. Second, even though it is often scary and painful, the hoarder is empowered to let go of the clutter and allow what was once a tomb to be turned back into a home. As mountains of garbage and debris are taken from the house, as hallways are cleared and bedrooms made livable again, the person is gradually restored to a new life.
         Now, our own houses and apartments may not be filled with garbage and clutter. Our hearts, however, frequently tell quite a different story. Piles of resentment, mounds of anger, and the droppings left by jealousy and lust can clog up and take over our spiritual lives. We can hoard so many things in our heart – dead things, rotten things – that it can seem, sometimes, that our very hearts are suffocating. Saint Paul’s words sting us: have I hoarded so much over the years that I have crowded out the Spirit? If I long for new life, if I can see that my heart buckles beneath the enormous weight of grief and hurt and bitterness, how can I let go of these things that bring death in order to make room for the Spirit of Life?
          Our hope, as it was for Ezekiel, is in the power of God who can raise even dry bones to life. Our hope is in Jesus Christ for whom the death of a dear friend can be transformed into a moment of glory for God. Our hope is in the one who proclaims to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” the one who weeps before his friend’s tomb before calling Lazarus from the clutches of death, before restoring him to life. Our hope is that not even death can withstand the presence of Jesus, the one who gives each of us here and now a taste of eternal life.
         There is, I believe, a little bit of Lazarus in all of us. And today, Jesus calls each one of us out of our tombs and restores us to life in God’s Spirit. Whenever and wherever any one of us is liberated from the clutches of death and restored to life, we have an opportunity to testify to God’s transforming love. For some of us, grace will release us from the tomb built of bricks of resentment, bitterness, and anger. For others, grace loosens the chains of addiction or the grip of grief or the grasp of shame. Jesus’ command to come out of the tomb, whenever and wherever it is heard, restores us to life.
         Be warned: this gift comes with a cost. As we emerge from our tombs, as we rejoice in God’s mercy, we are called into action. Like those gathered at the tomb, we must untie those who come after us. We have to help them shed the burial bands, the signs of death, so that they can walk freely. Where the death caused by ageism, sexism, or racism holds people in the tomb: we must unbind them. Wherever hunger or injustice prevents others from living the fullness of life: we must unbind them. Wherever sorrow or alienation, prejudice or hatred, alienates and marginalizes another: we must unbind them because we desire for them to know the joy of being a part of the Body of Christ.

          Today, we celebrate the Third Scrutiny of the Elect, a time of prayer and reflection with and for our sisters and brothers who are preparing to for full incorporation into the Body of Christ. Together we pray for the strength to peer into the tombs of our hearts and to uncover whatever is weak, defective, or sinful. We pray for the courage to recognize how we are in need of God’s love and mercy and we invite that mercy to restore us to life. We pray, finally, that God’s grace strengthen all that is upright and good within us and sustain each one of us in our lives as disciples. As companions of Jesus, our friend who calls us from the tomb, let us continue our Lenten pilgrimage toward the Cross where Jesus conquers death and transforms a sign of torture into a beacon of hope guiding our pilgrim journey and encouraging us to unbind others to walk freely and joyfully with the Lord.

Friday, January 15, 2016

A Sojourn

It often happens that I'll be taking a walk, or getting ready for bed, when suddenly I'm struck with the realization that I've not updated my blog in quite some time. Indeed, it's been over two months. After so many years, and such a very long spiritual journey, it seems a shame to cease blogging but it's equally difficult to find the time to do so. It's hard to expend time and energy on the blog when I need to spend time and energy working on other projects: reading and research, homilies, or grading student papers. 

That said, I'm not quite willing to give up blogging. So this morning, as a truly wonderful Christmas vacation comes to an end, let me bring you up to speed on my journeys. 

On December 16th, I took five days vacation with two friends. We made sort of a pact prior to embarking on our holiday that we would not "flaunt" our journey and we have no photographic evidence to give testimony to our adventures. We have but our memories and some really great stories to tell. 

Photo from Don Doll, SJ - taken this summer
I returned on December 21st and charged headlong into Christmas. There were, of course, the requisite parties and gatherings, visiting with friends and family, and frantic attempts to attend to last-minute shopping. This year I had the added delight of celebrating two Masses on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas Day. Indeed, the time required of me to prepare to preach truly fed my prayer life and enriched my experience of the season. 

The days following Christmas were chaotic for a host of reasons. If I have time later I'll recount my tale of an aborted attempt to fly to Chicago. It's a good story, somewhat funny, but one that would take too long to narrate now. Though, now that I think of it, I might share another, albeit brief, story.

On New Year's Eve, I received a request to do an anointing of a dying woman. I set out into the cold and drove out to her house. The horror began before I entered the house when I noticed that the porch was "blocked" with a large plywood barricade behind which roamed a legion of cats. Feces covered the porch floor and after I made my way into the house, I was led to the woman in need of anointing. Cats abounded even within the house and the upholstery was covered in what seemed like a good inch of cat fur. Now, as I learned recently, I'm crazy allergic to cats. I also had forgotten to pack my allergy medicine, so I reckon I was particularly susceptible. So there I am, surrounded by a phalanx of cats, and my allergies kick into high gear. My eyes began to water, my throat started to close, and my nose turned into a snot geyser. 

Well, any other family would have realized that I was having a pretty awful allergic reaction. This family took it, however, as a sign of empathy and were touched by my emotional response to this woman's plight. In the history of anointing, I can assure you, this had to have been the fastest and I said a prayer after I departed that if I had forgotten anything at all, the Almighty One would fill in the gaps because staying there any longer would have killed me. 

For the last twelve days, I've been working in my home parish (St Brendan's). Again, wholly uneventful except for the 11:30 Mass when a woman basically keeled over in the middle of my homily. I continued preaching, so as not to draw too much attention to the situation (figuring she had fainted on account of my beautiful words) BUT when they brought the AED machine out to her, I knew I had to cease preaching. Thanks to the heroic efforts of those around her, she made it to the hospital and is currently on the mend.

Lesson: don't ever tell a homilist to "knock 'em dead."

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to preach a Mass for the Year of Mercy at my alma mater, Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland. Drawing on the Gospel of the Man with the Withered Hand, I suggested that mercy begins when we acknowledge that something, or someone, is missing. Mercy is not something one has so much as it is a way of seeing, a way of recognizing who is missing and working to restore those who are absent to place they belong. That, at least, was the gist of it in my mind...what 1500 boys got from it is, well, another story!

So this morning I'm just preparing for a flight to Boston and then, a few hours later, a flight to Milwaukee where I'm playing a feis. Hard to believe that I left Boston on December 16th and now my month-long journey is coming to a close. That said, it's been a brilliant and grace-filled time and I'm very excited to return to my final semester of coursework and to prepare for where the Spirit will lead!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Consecrated Words

So, after almost 5 months of being a priest, I hit my low. It was bound to happen but, now that I've canvassed a few other Jesuits, it seems that my experience was pretty unique. Thus I share it with you, the readers, inasmuch as it gives me an opportunity to set it out in writing and provides me some distance from the events.

This morning I was the celebrant at a Veteran's Day mass at a downtown Boston parish. It was a really wonderful gathering of people and there were quite a few members of our Armed Services in attendance. Indeed, the deacon of the Word and our homilist was himself a veteran. In my mind, it was a great honor to be able to preside at a liturgy in honor of so many - including Grandpa Duns - who had given so much for our country.

During our celebration, one member of the congregation began to speak directly to me from the congregation. His words were hard to hear and I'm reluctant to duplicate them. Suffice it to say that they were not words one would normally expect to hear during the Eucharist.

His words began as a quiet litany of curses and threats as kept saying, "I'm going to kill you, priest." When I came down to receive the gifts at the offertory, I could still hear him swearing and threatening and I did my best to put it from my mind.

During the Eucharistic prayer, as I held out the chalice, I made eye contact with him. As I recited the words:

Take this, all of you, and drink from it,
for this is the chalice of my blood,
the blood of the new and eternal covenant,
which will be poured out for you and for many 
for the forgiveness of sins

and, as I spoke, he amplified his mantra, "F*#@ You! You F#*!! I'm going to Kill You!" He said other things, too, but I reckon you can fill in the words using your imagination. 

I will admit that I was frightened. I will admit, too, that I was extraordinarily sad...because I don't know what pain this man experiences. I can chalk it up to mental illness but, at the end of the day, I really don't know why he said what he did, but only that he did. 

This is not the sort of thing they prepare you for in your liturgy courses! As I was reminded tonight by other Jesuits, he could have had a knife, or a gun. My reading, at least at the time, was that he was harmless...but I didn't know that for sure. I did what came naturally as a high school teacher: I added no energy to the system. Nevertheless, while outwardly calm, inwardly I was a wreck and could but one thing:  I redoubled my prayer. I asked the Lord to allay my fears and to accept these words...terrible part of the community's offering. Whatever pain he feels, I hope, can be taken up and transformed by the power of the Spirit. 

At the end of Mass, before the final blessing, he left in a rage and shouted out further terrible words as he walked down the aisle. In some ways, I was embarrassed by what he said. And when he finally left the church and walked outside, I didn't feel relieved. I felt...and continue to feel...sad.

And I've been sad all day. I'm troubled and I keep second-guessing whether I acted and responded appropriately. Should the police have been called as a precaution? Should I have stopped the liturgy to speak with him? Could I have done anything? 

On one level, this man's words had no place in least, we would like to think. We often come to church with the "right speech" and would never dream of swearing. On another level, though, I wonder if this man's prayers - as disturbing and hurtful as they were - were not just what were needed to be brought to the altar. He didn't come with pious platitudes but with rage and anger. That is what he could offer and as a priest it is the gift I had no choice but to accept. A bitter draught to swallow and coarse bread to chew, but it is what he brought forward.

Was this what we would want to call "hate speech"? Maybe. It is speech coming from a fellow traveller who suffers in some way? Yes. That said, even if it were the ravings of a deeply disturbed person, it's what he brought to the Eucharist today. This was his - admittedly hard to hear - offering at Mass.

Quite audibly, at least to those of us on the altar, his words mingled with mine at the consecration; his pain intertwined with the church's prayer. I offered the "fruit of the earth and work of human hands" and he added the pain of a human heart. If the offering of bread and wine can become the Body and Blood of Christ, then I trust his words can be taken up and transformed from a litany of hurt into a song of healing and praise. 


Mind you: I don't take it personally. Whether it were me or any other priest, I bet he'd have acted the same. But it's hard to think that someone could be in so much pain that this is how it would have to be expressed. 

Ah well, it's not yet 9:00 and I'm tired. I'm also aware that it's a long time since I've posted. I apologize for my silence but know that it has been time well spent as I continue to read and study for my PhD and work as a priest here in Boston. I pray regularly for those who continue to accompany me on this journey and I hope, in time, to resume writing with more regularity. 

Monday, October 05, 2015

A Jesuit's Guide to Writing College Recommendation Letters

I remember quite clearly how exhilarating it was to be asked by a first-semester high school senior, “Hey, Abba, I was wondering if you would write a college recommendation letter.” I took it as a sign that I’d arrived as a teacher: this student trusted that I would be able to present him well to college admissions committees.

The novelty began to wear off after I received six more requests that day. Some students were very formal in requesting a letter, others much more casual. Having agreed to write six letters and with the prospect of more coming, I knew I needed to find a way to work efficiently and practically. What I offer, then, is the fruits of a great deal of trial-and-error.

Before You Begin to Write

Being asked to write on a student’s behalf is an honor. If you do not feel capable of writing a letter that will portray the student in the best possible light, you owe it to the student to be forthright and decline the invitation. Sometimes I simply didn’t’ know the student well enough to write about him; in one case I don’t think I’d have found a single nice thing to say about a kid. Rather than string him along, I simply said that I didn’t feel capable of writing a letter that would portray him in his best light and tried to help him find a teacher who could do a better job.

Once you have agreed, you should tell the student that you will not write until you have been given all relevant information. I always asked for a copy of the student’s CV, his application essay(s), and a list of the schools he wanted to attend.


Having read the information, I posed three questions to myself:
1.     How have I come to know this student in a unique way? What is it that stands out?
2.     What does this student offer to a prospective college or university?
3.     Where does this student still need to be formed?

Let me take each of these in turn.

How have I come to know this student in a unique way? What is it that stands out?

To the best of my ability, I try recall something defining about the student. Writing on behalf of a kid who had lost a student senate election, I started out, “_____ is a loser.” I then said that he had, in fact, lost an election but showed such grace and character in his defeat that I came to see him as a young man of tremendous integrity. In another situation I wrote, “Every time ________ raised his hand, a knot developed in my stomach because I could never anticipate where his question might lead the discussion.” This gave me an entry into talking about the student’s sharp intellect and incisive ability to raise questions.

Of course, not every student elicits this sort of narrative. But through your own experiences and with the personal statement you have been given, you should be able to assemble some sort of snapshot that gives the reader the impression that you offer credible testimony. One extraordinarily introverted student wrote beautiful poetry, so I began by saying something like, “____ is a volcanic introvert, silently throwing forth obsidian poetry born of extreme internal temperatures.” Some kids have a great smile, a fun personality, or a generous heart: the writer can give an impression, a snapshot, of the student to help humanize the reams of data the admissions committee must pore over.

What does this student offer to a prospective college or university?

In light of everything you know of the student, what does he or she offer to a university? Why would a school want this kid? Is she a passionate researcher? A devoted writer? Can you see in him the prospect of a great doctor, a fabulous teacher, or an artist? If the student wants to be an English or History major, and you’ve taught that subject, can you say something how the student thinks and how this might contribute to the field? If the student is a bundle of energy and a total gadfly, perhaps you can suggest that this is the sort of kid who is the embodiment of hospitality and who has a gift for making those around him or her to feel comfortable.

This is why, to my mind, it is so important to be judicious in agreeing to write on behalf of a student. You should be able to know the student in a way that permits you to anticipate how the student will bring her gifts and talents to an institution. Ask yourself, Why would the school want this student? What’s the selling point?

Where does this student still need to be formed?

As a Jesuit priest, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Sometimes letters are so full of encomiums and plaudits that it’s almost like the student is running for Savior of the Universe rather than gaining admission to a university!

Every one of us is a work in progress and we are always in the process of formation. As you look at this student, use your imagination: where does this kid need still to be formed? I often introduced this paragraph by saying, “_______ can be challenged to grow in the following ______ areas.” I would then describe those places where he still needed to grow. “Gifted with a tremendous intellect, he can often be impatient when other students do not pick up material as quickly as he does. He will thrive in small classroom discussions where he will rub elbows with students possessed of equal passion and skill.” See how that works? I can still “sell” the student while showing that he’s yet a work-in-progress. Ideally, an admissions committee will want to hear how the student is going to benefit from attending their school.

The admissions process often encourages students to own their triumphs and their gifts. A good letter of recommendation is capable of giving a more well-rounded and holistic portrait of the student, permitting readers to see depth and potential the student himself or herself might not see. As with all things in life, one must use judgment and discretion. Especially in addressing a student’s weakness, try to show how this area is not a liability but is actually a place where a school can fit a need and do the work of forming a young life.

Ancillary Thoughts

 It is my firm belief that no letter should go beyond one-page. As I sketched the questions, there are three distinct thoughts that I try to articulate. One thought, one relatively short paragraph. After the final paragraph, I give something a final commendation. “_____ is a kind, talented, and wonderful young man. I commend him to your university with great joy and no reservation.” “Although ____ has had many struggles, the upward trend of his performance and his growth in maturity leave me little doubt: he will continue to grow and flourish and I encourage you to offer him admission to your school.”

Whatever you do, do not use a form letter. I think it is better to tell a student a firm “No” and help him to find another writer than to use a form letter where you cut-and-paste names. I have seen it and I feel sorry for those students.

At the risk of sounding sentimental, I consider writing these letters as a spiritual practice. When I sit down a student’s file and have a chance to think about how I’ve come to know him and have seen him grow, it’s hard not to marvel at how much impact we can have as teachers. These letters are spiritual testimonials, ways of celebrating where a kid has been and where the student is going. Because I see this as an often under-appreciated dimension of cura personalis, I took great delight in writing for these young men. Indeed, very often I found myself consoled and really rooting for the kid when I had finished the letter.