32 Years

Today, on the Feast of the North American Martyrs, I celebrate my birthday. I remember some of the big ones: 10 (turning double-digits), 16, 18, and 21. I remember turning 25 because it was my first birthday as a novice in the Society of Jesus and I still remember the dive bar we went to that night, pooling our meager personalia and laughing our heads off drinking cheap beer.

Sometimes, when I visit my family's home, I'll find myself looking at old photo books. Some of my favorite pictures are of me at early birthday parties - I seemed always to have been dressed in overalls and a polo shirt - being held by someone. In these pictures, I see my Grandma and Grandpa Duns, Grandma and Grandpa Hagan, and even my Great-Grandparents. The faces of so many friends and family, many now grown, many now dead, often are frozen forever in the pictures; their young(er) faces frozen as a single candle, or two candles, or three candles commemorate a single person's birth.

Since I do not have children of my own, I wonder what it's like to imagine the possibilities that inhere in having a child. I suspect I'd be scared that I'd screw my child up, that I would do something totally stupid to wreck or devastate his future (the fact that I'd name my kid "Rahner Duns" and teach him to speak Latin probably indicates that my kid would be nuts). I would want my son to know that all I wanted for him was to be happy to, as my father once counseled me, "love whatever you study enough to teach it."

As a high school student in Cleveland, I could never have imagined how my life would unfold. Never, in all my wildest dreams, would I have expected to be so happy in my life. With each passing year, I feel more invigorated and excited for life; with each year, I feel as though I'm actually getting younger. Teaching young men certainly has a way of keeping a person young, for their energy is infectious. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a deep grace in the life of faith that offers those who are willing to give themselves over to it a taste of the boundless love and energy of the Creator.

I cannot claim to have accumulated a store of wisdom. I wake up each morning and, like Sister Victoria used to admonish us, I say, "Well, good morning Lord. How are you today? Lord, these are the things that stand before me today. Please help me...". Each night, as I have since the 4th grade, my prayers are similar: "Well, Lord, thanks for the day. I tried hard a few times, messed up a lot, but I really am giving it a good effort. For instance...". When I learned of the Ignatian Examen, it didn't seem so foreign: Sister had taught us many years before!

Now at the age of 32, I must seem very old to my students. When a student asked recently, "Abba, what do you want in this life?" I had to think about it. My answer, as best as I can recall, was something like this:

When I was a younger man, I wanted the things that most people want: money, power, prestige. Yet any time I tasted these or felt them, something didn't seem right. Their promises to satisfy all of my wants and desires were empty: the more I had of them, the more I wanted for them. I had to look deep into my heart to realize that what I really wanted wasn't some thing but, rather, some one. Over these last years, I have tried very hard to come to know the Lord. I'm not good at it, but I'm trying. While I may not have earthly treasures or power, I do have something that cannot be bought or brokered: a more tender, peaceful heart that burns to share a message of God's Love to all the world. When I pray now, it's usually, "Lord, help me to get out of the way...help me to know you better...give me the grace to let others know you, so that they may know the deep joy of your love."
My hope, especially as a teacher of sophomores, is to help them to be like Zacchaeus from Luke's Gospel. Zacchaeus had heard about this Jesus fellow and desired to see him for himself. Being a man of short stature, he clambered up a tree to get a good vantage point. Being in a tree affords the position so many in our society - particularly Christians - seem to assume: they are close enough to see the action, but far enough that they don't necessarily have to get drawn into it.

For my students, I teach the course in a way that encourages them to climb the tree. Some do so readily, others do so with hesitation, some, I think, are trying to uproot the tree. Regardless, my goal is to help them find the best place to catch a glimpse of the Lord as He walks by. I tell them about his context, about what he means, about how he speaks to us today. I must leave it to Jesus to address each young man's own heart, to look up into the tree and invite him to follow...I must empower each of my students to be able to say, "Yes, Lord, I shall follow you" or "No, kind sir, I shall not at this time". I can set out the chairs and tune the instruments, but only God can strike up the orchestra.

It is late and I am tired. Know this night that I shall pray for all of you who read this, as well as for those women and men - family and friends most especially - who have loved me into the man I am today. We are, each of, taught how to love. I am so grateful to my parents and my family for teaching me to love well and I rejoice so much that I have been given the grace to offer this love to the whole world.
 


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