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.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

FULL EPISODE: The Jesuit Rec Room w/ Caroline Myss

For those interested, this is the full video of the video of our recent interview with Caroline Myss:


Grade 25

Last Monday I began what, I believe, is my 25th academic year. Unless I am somehow called by a sick twist of fate, this will also be my final year as a class-taking student: next May I will begin to study for my comprehensive exams, so won't be doing any coursework in the 2016-2017 year. And, since I'm mentioning educational streaks, I think today is going to be my 22nd consecutive Mass of the Holy Spirit. Since my freshman year at Saint Ignatius High School, this has been the customary way of marking the beginning of the academic year. Even in those (admittedly few) years I was not enrolled in school, I still found my way to the celebration of this Mass at one of our institutions.

As of this morning, I'd say I'm now 75% settled into my new community. It's been a bit of a transition to move from full-time pastoral ministry this summer to full-time studies while having to unpack. Small things - like the complicated mail system - has made the shift more onerous. For instance, I ordered a pair of shoes that were delivered in a timely manner but, since the company didn't indicate on the mailing address that I'm in the Jesuit community (which I indicated on the order), the package languished in the mailroom for almost two weeks before we went back to find it. Not a major problem, to be sure, but an inconvenience nonetheless.

This semester finds me taking 2 independent reading courses and one seminar. I love having the chance to spend my time with an author and it's a treat to read through Rahner, Charles Taylor, and Bernard Lonergan without feeling rushed. Consequently, my days are spent going over texts and thinking a great deal about how these thinkers speak to the situation of theology today. It may sound boring to sane people, but I've never put in a claim on sanity.

Otherwise, there's nothing much to report. I've been happily engaged at the parish and will begin to assist with some student masses here on campus. We'll see how the Spirit moves me to write as the semester progresses, but I don't feel pressure to write. If the blog rests fallow for a few weeks, don't think of it as an abandonment but, rather, a period of incubation as I continue to get my thoughts in order.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Jesuit Rec Room: Featuring Caroline Myss

I don't think it'd be an exaggeration to say that this was the most transformative summer of my life. I'm glad now to be settled in back at Boston College and I feel ready to tackle my last year of formal studies.

If you have a moment, take a look at the attached video. For those who notice such things, it was Caroline Myss who insisted I re-name the blog to "The Tin Whistle Priest." You'll get a sense from watching the video just how persuasive she can be!

On episode two, Radmar Jao, S.J. and Ryan Duns, S.J. (blogger from The Tin Whistle Priest) invite Sr. Nancy Sylvester, IHM (former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious) and NYT bestselling author Caroline Myss into the rec room to talk about the power of prayer. The group discusses why and how they pray, the signs of prayers being heard and answered, and how to move beyond petition prayer to a place of true personal transformation. Also covered is the “crisis of self-isolation”, Nancy’s work with the LCWR, and the question of therapy replacing needs formerly met at church.
Episode two airs on Catholic TV on Monday August 31st at 10:30PM EST, and Thursday September 3 at 5PM EST and anytime starting August 31st at
For more information on Caroline Myss and her online reflections course on spiritual direction, visit

Monday, August 03, 2015

When Shame is a Sign of Grace

Exhorting a crowd gathered in Rome, the Holy Father made the following remark:
It’s true that when we go to the confessional, we feel a bit of embarrassment, and that happens to everyone, to all of us, but we have to recall that this shame is also a grace that prepares us for the embrace of the Father, who always forgives and always forgives everything.
Almost two months into priesthood, I can say there is hardly a more profound experience than to help another person come to know God's boundless and merciful love through the sacrament of confession. More than once have I watched as a person seems to become physically lighter -- slumped shoulders cease curving -- as they unburden themselves from the weights they carry.

Oh, and people carry the weight of sin around with them. I know, I said it: the dreaded s-word: sin. Though it's not a popular or trendy word, it remains nevertheless true that each and every one of us is freighted with the baggage of sin. We try to walk the path of discipleship as a follower of Jesus Christ but we fall off the path, wander into the thicket, and emerge covered in the muck and mire of life. But when we are aware of this residue, this spiritual baggage we've picked up along the way, it makes following the Lord increasingly difficult. Shame becomes an obstacle to the path of joy.

There's a trend in society and certainly in some theological circles to diminish, if not erase, the sense of shame. We decry "body shaming" or "fat shaming" and, to be sure, this is a good thing: we should not hold up for mockery any other person. That said, the experience of shame for what one has done is not a bad thing. In fact, it's a very good thing: it means one's conscience is at work and that one can recognize that one needs healing.

If you had a gaping wound on your forehead, you'd probably not think twice about having it seen by a physician. The story of how the wound came to be might be embarrassing (you fell down while drunk), but the pressing issue remains to treat the wound and restore health. Some of my friends who are emergency physicians have shared that while they, at first, were shocked by what brought people into the ER, they are seldom fazed any longer. Some wounds need little explanation, others call for the patient to share the story to get to the bottom of the problem.

Confession, like going to the ER, are alike in this. I'll admit: I'm often a jerk, sharp-tongued, judgmental, and my insecurities lead me to act in a host of destructive ways. I wake up each morning and resolve to stay close to Jesus and I've good days and bad days. Some days I hew close to the path, some nights I'm covered in spiritual burrs and I'm limping from wounds. I'm grateful the Church is seen as a field hospital: I can bring myself in for healing so I can return to the front line.

It's precisely the shame that arises within, the sense that I'm not whole, that is a mark of grace: I know I want to be restored to fighting form. And, amazingly, it is shame that often tells me both that I'm wounded and holds me back from seeking healing: "If you go to confession, what will he think of you? Better to suffer in silence than to risk being judged." That's when I pray for strength and resolve: nothing kept in the darkness can be good for the soul.

I've heard a lot of confessions these past few weeks and, the amazing thing, is that I can't ever remember afterward what someone said. I'll remember faces, but not sins. In fact, I remember the faces of those who come and change through the Sacrament, who seem physically lighter and more free, and this brings great joy to my heart. It is a joy to watch a person be freed from sin and freed for the mission of discipleship.

I mention this because I know - only too well! - that shame can be both the spur to confession and its biggest obstacle. When we allow authentic shame, a sense of sorrow arising from our recognition that we have not lived up to our baptism, to guide us toward healing, this cannot but be a sign of God's mercy and grace. Push through the embarrassment and with confidence approach the Sacrament of God's unlimited grace where we find mercy and help in time of need.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Adventure Continues

I'm the first to admit that I have a rather plum setting in which to learn the art of being a priest. Our daily Eucharist takes place at 11:00 am, which leaves me ample time to read and pray prior to Mass. The ribbons of the sacramentary no longer seem as daunting as they once did and I'm increasingly confident in my ability to recite portions of the Eucharistic prayers from memory.

Naturally, though, there's a catch.

I've never been a hyper-coordinated person. This is probably why I like the accordion: it doesn't require an enormous amount of coordinated exertion. One simply establishes oneself in a chair, or a bar stool, or stands just behind a microphone and plays tunes. Not a whole lot of movement.

Acknowledging my limitations, I set out last week to practice using the thurible or censer. Knowing that I'll eventually need to use incense, I seized an opportunity to practice a few days ago. I placed the charcoal in the bottom of the thurible, sampled a variety of incense I found in the sacristy, I practiced various maneuvers. I got the hang of the basic "swing" from side to side. I practiced incensing objects - the Book of the Gospels, other people - and found that to be easy enough. Eventually I got it so that I could "clink" the chain against the thurible, producing a rather nice sound effect to accompany the billows of smoke.

Naturally, I tried to effect a synthesis of my skills: could I incense the altar and the gifts? Three times I practiced it and did it pretty well each time. Slow procession around the alter, the thurible swinging in a stable arc. Bow before the altar and incense it. Resume the slow journey around the altar.

I couldn't leave it at three.

On my fourth attempt, I must have given too much slack to the chain and, when I went to incense the altar, you guessed it: the thurible clipped the edge of the altar on the upswing and red-hot charcoal and incense spilled out on to the altar. Fortunately for our historic church, I did not burn the building down. I did, however, do quite a number on the altar cloth.

This is not the best depiction of the damage I wrought, but it gives you a sense of what hot coals cast upon linen can do.

So, I'll probably have to serve as an indentured servant around here in order to pay off the cost of a new altar cloth.

Just Married!
Otherwise, things are going well. I continue to be really busy with weddings and a host of Masses. This upcoming weekend I have two wedding rehearsals, two weddings, four vow renewals, and three if not four weekend Masses.

One of the nice parts of being a priest serving on a prime vacation spot is that you run into loads of people you know. Indeed, we've had a pretty steady stream of visitors and there's only been a few nights that just two of us are in the house. This weekend, though, I'll be here alone...although the liturgical and social duties of the weekend will certainly keep me busy.

One final thing: one of really brilliant elements of serving on Mackinac Island is that you get to interact with a wide array of people. Of course, there is no shortage of people shambling through the streets in search of their next fix of Mackinac Island Fudge. Nor is there a shortage of people who think nothing of walking through pools of standing water...when it hasn't rained here in days and horses do relieve themselves in the streets. But in addition to meeting tourists and seeing old friends who happen to be passing through, it's amazing to serve the workers who labor behind the scenes. Drawn from Eastern Europe, Jamaica, the Philippines, and Mexico, it's a privilege to get to know many of the workers who go unseen each day. Indeed, just the other night it was a joy to celebrate mass with the Filipino community and to join them for an amazing mean after.

It's one thing to go to a church each Sunday where everybody looks the same. That happens here, too, at the regular Sunday Masses: these workers are often working during the hours worship services are available. Thus we have to schedule creatively in order to accommodate their schedules, sometimes even pushing Mass back until after nine o'clock in the evening. The good spirit of the people and their joy at having their spiritual and physical hunger sated, however, make the long days worth it (at least from my end).

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Faith Worthy of Belief

Alexander Ivanov, 1835
Around 36 years ago, in 1979, the telephone company AT&T rolled out what became one of the more successful advertising campaigns in history. To pitch its long-distance service, the slogan was "Reach Out and Touch Someone." In an era when we take unlimited minutes and free long distance for granted, it's hard to imagine how powerful it was for loved ones, separated by great distances, to hear the sound of a beloved's voice. Even if a telephone wire could not physically bring two people together, they could nonetheless "reach out" metaphorically to touch another by picking up the phone.

While the slogan may have been both innovative and profitable, the impulse behind our desire to "reach out and touch someone" is hardly new. Indeed, today the Church remembers Saint Mary Magdalene who, in today's Gospel, is the first to discover the Empty Tomb and to encounter the Risen Christ. In the midst of her grief, Jesus' address to her unleashes a whole new era of history: He is the one who has cast off the shackles of death and returns not as one seeking vengeance but as offering peace.

Quite naturally, Mary reaches out to seize the one for whom she has been grieving. This is, of course, a most wonderfully human response: it's hard not to pick up and cuddle babies, to hug loved ones after a long absence, to embrace another as a sign of giving and needing support. She seeks to take hold of, to grasp, Jesus. He who was seemingly lost, crushed by the machinery of state violence and torture, has been found.

It always strikes me that Jesus rebuffs this gesture. "Stop holding on to me," he says, "for I have not yet ascended to the Father." Thus a space emerges between them, a gap between Mary's grasp and the one she loves. She has encountered the Risen Christ and come to know him as entering into the midst of her sorrow and grief. Yet she cannot gather him to herself, for though he is now known he cannot be owned by human embrace.

I would like to suggest that today we pause to consider Mary Magdalene as one of our foremothers in Christian faith. For Mary's recognition of her Beloved in the garden is itself the gift of faith, a response to One who reveals himself to those who desire to see. As a model, Mary's faith is not something she possesses but, rather, someone by whom she is suddenly possessed: Jesus irrupts into her grief and invites her along into a new era of history.

Because faith is a gift and not a human achievement, a gap always remains between the One who is revealed and those to whom God is revealed. No word, phrase, or formula can ever sufficiently bridge this abyss between the Holy One and ourselves. To be sure, some statements of belief are better and more adequate than others, but none can ever exhaust the Mystery of the Risen Jesus. Like a person utterly shocked at a surprise birthday party, we stutter and splutter words of gratitude, but none of these words will ever express sufficiently the joy in our hearts.

A faith worthy of belief is one capable of recognizing that, for as much as we desire to reach out and touch Jesus, we cannot ever constrain or control him. We cannot pin him down or imprison him in our human systems. He is always on the way to the Father and he sends us out to gather others to follow along. Hence our fundamental need for the Church: each time we say "Yes" to grace and embark upon the journey of faith, we take our place within a great host of women and men who have struggled and strained to walk with the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

If at times our beliefs appear no more than rickety boards barely suspended over a yawning chasm, they are the boards that those before us have used to come closer to the Lord. The Church is not a surrogate for faith, a taxi-cab delivering us rapidly to our destination. Instead, the Church is both context and conveyer of faith: we come to know Jesus Christ within the Church and, in the company of other pilgrims, dare to take our place among a history of believers who have set out on the journey of faith. A faith worthy of belief is not one that has all the answers but, rather, one that leads us into the joyful exploration of a Mystery that reaches out and grasps us, ignites our hearts, and brings us as a pilgrim people who grow deeper and more faithful as the Body of Christ.