Saturday, April 30, 2011

Was Jesus a Zombie?

Was Jesus a Zombie? In the days following Easter, when we celebrate Jesus Christ's victory over death, it has struck me that  many people seem to think that Jesus is little more than a benign character from an George Romero movie. This has led me to ask: What is the difference between Jesus and a Zombie? (Note: I intentionally include two pretty peculiar pictures taken from the web: I intend them to be provocative, not offensive. For another take on this topic, you can follow this link to the Atheist Experience)

A gross misunderstanding of who Jesus is. 
Zombies, at least as we think of them post-1960's, are the un-dead, women and men who have died and have been reanimated. Life as they knew it has ended. For the zombie, they seem driven solely by an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Whether they stumble and limp (Night of the Living Dead) or run with alarming speed (28 Days Later), zombies are possessed of a single mission: to eat humans.

Why are Zombies so frightening? Well, for starters, they look just like us. Perhaps, even, we see in them a reflection of our own dark natures: creatures capable of unspeakable horrors committed against members of the human family. It is not surprising to me that in the wake of the Shoah we see George Romero's classic film and the genre it spawned: these are, or were, human beings actually feasting on the flesh of others, those who would appear to be human taken by a dark force that leads them to commit atrocities against the innocent. There is something paralyzing about the idea of mindless, unfeeling, ravenous killers marching across hill and valley, breaking in doors and smashing  windows, seeking only our death and destruction.

As a zombie-film aficionado, I often encounter the chillingly touching scene when a young woman  encounters a former beau-turned-zombie. At first, she recognizes her boyfriend as he stumbles toward her. Vain hope, rather than sound reason, compels her to stay put and keep calling out his name until, well, it's too late: the boyfriend's new idea of 'necking' is to bite into her carotid artery and tear out her throat! Her recognition of who he truly is comes too late, leading her toward her own journey of un-death.

The Zombie shows us one side, or one shape, of death. This is the side of hopelessness, of human life succumbing to a darkness that, quite literally, feeds on human life. It is death that truly governs human life and death's heralds arise from the grave to remind us of the meaninglessness of our existence. The monster comes not from another planet, but from our own and that monster is us. Inside each of us, the Zombie seems to say, is a gnawing hunger for more death. Death begets death and, as people fall prey to the zombie, they join ranks...begetting more death. With each new victim, death's grip on humanity grows stronger and stronger. Why fight it? Why bar your windows and seal your doors? For, after all, death is going to triumph. Join in the Feast Of Flesh, either eat or be eaten...

A Parody of the Last Supper. Interesting, isn't it, that Christ is still central for Zombies?
Perhaps it is the notion of the Zombie that makes the reception of the Good News so difficult! For in Jesus, we have the anti-zombie. The Gospels are rather clear that Jesus' friends and disciples did not immediately recognize him: he did not resume his old life, did not put on his old clothes, did not go back to business as usual. He is more fully alive, no longer bound by the constraints of time and space. He is more fully human, rather than less. An encounter with the Risen Christ does not lead us into a chilling way of being dead. Instead, it invites us into a courageous way of being alive.

Look to the Gospels scenes, especially John and Luke. In the Garden, Mary of Magdala does not recognize Jesus at all even though he stands before her; in Luke, on the Road to Emmaus, the disciples walk with the Risen Lord but do not realize who it is. It is only after he reveals himself to them that they are brought to a new understanding, a new life of mission. Whereas an encounter with a horde of zombies drives women and men into seclusion, barring the doors and praying for life, the encounter with Jesus Christ impels them out of hiding into a world where they preach the Good News as they face death. While zombies bring to the forefront of the mind the reality of death, Jesus affirms the preeminence of life.


The inversion of the Zombie Myth: The Risen Christ
The Christian understanding of Jesus is decidedly anti-zombie. Jesus is now more human, now more fully alive, because he has been raised by the Father. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is for life, rather than against it. Think back again to the Resurrection accounts: Jesus does not come to take the flesh of the disciples and apostles. Indeed, he offers his own flesh to Thomas to show him that it really is him, that there is a continuity-in-difference! This is Jesus, raised from the clutches of death, who brings us new life. He does not break down doors but passes through them; he does not bring a message of destruction and devastation but, rather, Shalom or peace.

Jesus and Zombies touch on a central reality of human life: death. Depending on your stance, each is a parody of the other. The zombie genre mocks the idea that there is hope-through-death, is skeptical of the meaning of human life: for will not our own flesh be consumed by those who were once very much like us? The story of Jesus take the opposite tactic: death is a reality we each must face, but it is not what defines us. Life, not death, has the final word in our lives. Jesus' resurrection isn't a cosmic Zombie show. It is, rather, the final ratification of Jesus' life and ministry in and through which God shows us just who Jesus really is: the creative Word made Flesh who is defined by God's life rather than the death inflicted upon him by sinful humanity. Hope and life, and not death and despair, are the ultimate horizons of human life. In our own world that is so often beset with grim news and suffers from an ever-deepening sense of weariness, perhaps the Good News of Jesus, the anti-zombie, is what we need more than ever.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Two Dominicans and a Jesuit Walk Into a Bar...

The title of this post would seem more appropriate for some type of joke but, truth be told, it's a reflection of my evening last night. There is a seminary here at Saint Meinrad and there is an on-campus bar called the Un-Stable. After compline last night, one of the Dominican priests who is here making a retreat invited me to join him and his Dominican brother for a drink. Never one to pass up an opportunity for fellowship, or a beer, I gladly accepted.

I really enjoyed the evening. I even remarked to them that, were I not a Jesuit, I would want to be a member of the English Dominicans. Not that I have anything at all against the American Dominicans, but I have a certain penchant for the thinking of the British members of the Order of Preachers, men such as Fergus Kerr, Timothy Radcliffe, Brian Davies, Gareth Moore, James Alison, and Herbert McCabe. I also think their habits are pretty cool, too, although I'm afraid that my intrinsic clumsiness would render the white habit many other shades due to spills.

One segment of our conversation last night has remained with me: why do the Jesuits lack a distinctive habit? I wear clerical attire every day in the class (well, almost every day: if there is a spirit day, I am glad to wear jeans and a polo shirt) and basically any time I function in a capacity related to the school or the Society. When I go out to dinner with friends, I wear normal clothes. When I go for a run, I wear running gear (now, if Under Armor put out a clerical running shirt, I might reconsider). For all intents and purposes, though, I wear black each day.

As I have prayed this week, I have been struck by the distinctiveness of the dress both of the Benedictines and the Dominicans who are here on retreat. "Why," I have asked myself, "do we Jesuits not have such a 'look' as they do?" Sometimes I find that wearing a clerical shirt is confusing to parents and to students alike, many of whom don't quite grasp the stages of Jesuit formation. Would it not be easier, I have often wondered, if there were something else we could wear? Would it be so bad to back to the cassock, at least in the classroom?

Now, let me be clear: I do not make this suggestion out of some bizzarre nostalgia for a Church I don't even remember. Some people seem to think that if we went back to wearing cassocks and praying in Latin that we'd return to the golden era of American Catholicism. I disagree wholeheartedly: I think clerical culture is pretty well toxic and that we are currently reaping what those years of clerical elitism sowed.

Rather, I am beginning to think that wearing a cassock might be more of an expedient to ministry. When I see a brown robe, I think "Franciscan" and I run to hide my potted fern before it gets hugged. When I see a white robe with a rosary, I think "Dominican" and I conceal the fact that I have Albigensian leanings. When I see French cuffs and perfectly coiffed hair, I think Legionary of Christ. When I see a black habit with a belt, I know better than to have my favorite incense out because the Benedictines seem able to incense anyone and anything. But how can I tell if I'm in a room with a Jesuit? Sadly, it's sometimes pretty hard if we are wearing just a Roman collar...we sort of blend in with our diocesan brothers.

I suspect some people have strong feelings about this, and I'd love to hear from them. I'm particularly committed in any way, but I am growing in an awareness that we Jesuits need to be more visible. There are probably any number of ways this can happen but, perhaps, it would be good to recognize the power of public witness and of standing out in some way...to my mind, the distinctive garb of a Jesuit cassock might be one step in that direction, one way of reminding people who we are so that we can share with them what we are about: the Kingdom of God.

Truthfully, I'd appreciate any comments on this topic, either for or against the donning of cassocks. I post this more as an invitation to help me think through the issue and I'm grateful for any assistance in this endeavor. Father James Martin has a piece on it over at America Magazine's Blog if you want to check it out. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Happy Easter


Let me begin by wishing everyone a Happy Easter. In the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, may we find hope that life is stronger than death, that good is stronger than evil, that God's plan for humanity will not be subverted despite the (apparent) best efforts of sinful humanity.

Having said this, please allow me to extrovert some things.

First off, I think I am in one of the more sacred and special places on the planet. The Archabbey is a beautiful place to make a retreat. The liturgy is gorgeous, the chanting sublime, the hospitality second-to-none, and were I not here during monsoon season, I'm sure I'd be enraptured. Yet, we have been beset by storms since Friday and it's been almost totally impossible to go outside for a walk. As sort of a kinesthetic prayer, I need to be able to move about and, sadly, this has been made difficult. This is not to say that I haven't prayed (Lord knows, I'm praying with the monks all day long) but it does make for a challenge to my own personal style of praying when I'm forced to remain indoors.

Second, if the weather were not an impediment to prayer, I must say that some of the folks who have been here this week have been. There was a Holy Week retreat (concluded yesterday) that drew a real ensemble cast of characters:


  • A woman who insisted on pushing around a wheelchair that had no one in it. It carried her purse, her umbrella, and maybe some other trinkets...but no person. She was perpetually out of breath and had a knack for dropping her song book at least four times during liturgy and prayer. Once, in the middle of prayer, she loudly questioned those around her about some particular aspect of the prayer and, when she was unsatisfied with the whispered answers, she tried to interrupt the presider by calling out, "Father! Hey, Father!" 
  • A couple who took to heart the maxim that "one who sings prays twice" without considering the fine print: If you can't carry a tune, please sing softly. I think, between the two of them, they unleashed a veritable Pandora's Box of horrific notes. I sat next to them during the Easter Vigil (3:00 am - 6:00 am) and felt envious of Jesus: he experienced the Passion on Friday, I had to wait until Sunday to enter into it fully. 
  • An elderly woman who sounded as though she had a defective coffee percolator lodged in her chest. It seemed at every quiet moment that there'd be a wet sputtering, rasping noise as whatever phlegm struggled to be released. I was tempted to give her a swat on the back to help dislodge whatever was there, but thought better of it: I don't want to be misconstrued as one who would assault my elders. 
  • And, to top off the cast of characters, a feisty old religious sister who took me for her personal servant: I fetched her water, carried her tray, and disassembled her scooter and loaded it into her car. (She was my favorite: downright hysterical)
I mention this not to be a crank but because I need to tell someone! Of all people, I've been trying to maintain some semblance of "retreat silence" so I've had no one to talk with. Cooped up in the retreat center, I've poured out my heart in front of the Blessed Sacrament but I felt like I needed to write it down, too. 

All told, this has been a good retreat so far. It's nice to get away from school, to be released from hearing "Mr. Duns! Abba! Abba!" over and over again. I am grateful to have another four days of prayer and rest ahead of me before I return to Detroit to finish out the school year.

So on this Easter Monday, please be assured of my continuing prayers. Pray for me, too, that I continue to have a good retreat and that no other retreat groups arrive until after I leave!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday



I arose early this morning and joined the Benedictine Monks of Saint Meinrad's Archabbey for morning prayer. Accustomed as I am to Jesuit morning prayer lasting, typically, around fifteen minutes I was wholly unprepared for the beautiful hour-long prayer incorporating spoken psalms, singing, and silent meditation.

As I meditated in the wee hours of the day, hours before the sun had risen, my heart was snagged on Pilate's phrase "Behold, the man" or Ecce Homo. When Pilate brings Jesus out to the restless crowd, he proclaims to them, "Behold, the man" and is met with cries to "Crucify him, crucify him!"

Normally, I guess I take for granted that Ecce Homo points to Jesus. But today, for some reason, I had to pause: is Jesus the only one I should behold? Perhaps there are others who need to be looked upon.

Ecce Homo: Pontius Pilate. Here is a mid-level bureaucrat in charge of Jerusalem who, by scriptural accounts, knows that the man before him is innocent of the charges. He knows he is innocent but he lacks the courage, the conviction, or the strength to speak up for the man on trial. He simply acquiesces, too much of a coward to go against popular opinion, and the result is the death of an innocent man.

Ecce Homo: the chief priests and the religious establishment. They are offended that this itinerant preacher would dare to question their authority, dare to shed light on some of their internal inconsistencies, dare to claim that he knew better God's ways...for he was the Son of God. This Jesus posed a threat to their own security and power, so they did what is natural to humans: they gathered together and conspired against him. Their wounded egos and challenged security led them to deliver an all-too-common ultimatum: agree with us, be silent, or perish.

Ecce Homo: the crowd. The crowd who, just days before, welcomed Jesus upon his entrance has now turned against him. How fickle. How capricious. How faddish. How like us! Are we not too easily given over to being front-runners, backing the "hot thing" until it is tarnished, or out of style? We settle for soundbites and soaring rhetoric, allowing our passions to be stirred up and enflamed...often, sadly, without our giving much thought or discernment to this process.

Ecce Homo: Jesus. Jesus, through word and deed, has shown us the shape of the Kingdom. He overturns the previous social order, hammering away at a central concept: The Kingdom is coming, it is here, but it looks nothing like what you think it does. It's not filled with self-righteous beautiful people, with the religiously pure or the perfected. The Kingdom comes and through its gate stream those we want nothing to do with: prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor, the lame, the infirm. Those who have been thrust to the margins of society, the Anawim, are being summoned back and welcomed with great fanfare. Jesus reconstitutes the nation of Israel with his own body, and we kill him for it.

Ecce Homo. Today, we remember (literally, we make present) the story of Jesus. This isn't something that happened 2,000+ that we look back on as a quaint story, a dour-yet-necessary precursor to Easter and its tasty brunch after a quick Mass. This is a story of today, a story we all too frequently enact on a daily basis, a story we should see not as a frozen picture but as a living and breathing indictment of our own lives today. How often are we one the figures who are too cowardly, to insecure, or to gullible to do what is right? Too often, I fear. Too often.

Today we remember in the liturgy just what happens when someone loves us enough to tell us the truth: we react with violence. Little truths beget small violences...the big Truth that Jesus proclaims - the truth that we aren't on board with God and that we've got the whole Kingdom thing wrong - begets his execution. When today we hear the words proclaimed "Behold, the man" perhaps it would behoove us not to thing that this is something said so long ago, something said about someone else but, rather, something that implicates each of us each day. How are we a part of "the man" complicit in the ongoing crucifixions that plague our own world? Do we have the courage, strength, and conviction to respond? For this, let us pray.

If you do not love, you will not live. If you do love, they will kill you.
                                                                   ~ Herbert McCabe, O.P.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Follow-Up Word to the Falling Away

As the night ceded to this morning, I meditated quietly on a passage taken from my favorite theologian: Karl Rahner, SJ. I love Rahner because it always felt to me that he understood the situation of the individual struggling to believe, straining to find God in the day-to-day predicaments of life.

One of my favorite passages comes from his remarkable book entitled The Need and the Blessing of Prayer. For those who feel themselves peeling off from the Church, being pulled away because of disgust or anger and hurt, betrayal and hypocrisy, I offer you Rahner's words. If you feel isolated, excluded, or thrust to the margin...do not take this necessarily as a sign of God's calling your elsewhere. Perhaps this is a moment of dark grace, a purgative moment meant to offer an opportunity to come to know God better so that you might claim a prophetic role in the Church. 

...Become aware that God has been expecting you for quite some time in the deepest dungeon of your rubbled-over heart. Become aware that he has been quietly listening for a long time whether you, after all the busy noise of your life, and all the idle talk that you called your illusion-free philosophy of life, or perhaps even your prayer during which you only talked to yourself, after all the despaired weeping and mute groaning about the need of your life, whether you finally could be silent before him and let him speak the word, the word that seemed only to be like a deadly silence to the earlier person who was you. You should feel that you are not falling at all when you give up the frantically violent interior anxiety about yourself and your life. You do not despair at all when you doubt yourself, your wisdom, your strength, your ability to help yourself to life and the freedom of happiness; rather, you are with him suddenly as a miracle that daily has to happen anew and never can become a routine. Suddenly you will experience that the petrifying visage of hopelessness is only God's rising in your soul, that the darkness of the world is nothing but God's radiance which has no shadow, that the apparent waylessness is only the immensity of God who does not need any ways because he is already there.
This is the dark grace offered to some Christians who must be thrust into the very depths of their souls, the bottom of their beings, and forced to feel an isolation and aloneness and estrangement that threatens to suffocate the life from them. As your lungs ache and struggle for just one more breath, as you fight with everything you have against the structures that seem to work in concert to silence and destroy you, do not fear. Know that there is no height you can climb, nor depth you can plumb, where God is not with you, listening to you, creating you, and loving you.

Know this and find courage. Would that the pain that often breeds this knowledge be avoided...such is not our cup to drink. As your old illusions of the Church and society are fractured and break apart, as the idol you once bowed before disintegrates, do not fear. Relax into the newly-opened space and listen, really listen, for the voice of the One who has never left you, who has been with you this whole time. Feel the blisters and welts and callouses and know feel these scars as they are redeemed and made able to speak of God's saving power. Find joy in these -- no, grace does not erase memory but it does reconcile us to the past with a joyful hope for the future -- and return to the Church, singing and proclaiming God's saving power. These are the marks of the prophet, the one who has experienced dark grace and emerged, scarred yet redeemed, to proclaim the saving power of God to those in need of Good News.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Monday of Holy Week (A message for the Falling Away)


I normally spend time reflecting on the Gospels but I thought that, for this reflection, I might make use of the Psalm. Here it is:


The Lord is my light and my salvation.
The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom should I fear?
The LORD is my life’s refuge;
of whom should I be afraid?
R. The Lord is my light and my salvation.
When evildoers come at me
to devour my flesh,
My foes and my enemies
themselves stumble and fall.
R. The Lord is my light and my salvation.
Though an army encamp against me,
my heart will not fear;
Though war be waged upon me,
even then will I trust. 
R. The Lord is my light and my salvation.
I believe that I shall see the bounty of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD with courage;
be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD.
R. The Lord is my light and my salvation.

I do not entertain any delusion that very many fallen-away Catholics read my blog. Nevertheless, I do know that some Falling Away Catholics do...so I write this for them.

Today's Psalm recognizes that, very often in life, we are beset on all sides by dark forces. The second verse certainly sounds more like something out of an George Romero "Night of the Living Dead" film than it does something lifted from Holy Writ! We see in the papers the absolutely idiotic ramblings of a Belgian Bishop or the continuing reports of mendacious activity on the part of the Church's hierarchy, we know of priest scandals and myopia in regard to theologians with Elizabeth Johnson, and we grow frustrated and disgruntled and say: the Hell with it. 

And I agree with you: The Hell with it all.

When we talk about hell, which I do believe exists, we are stating that we believe humans can choose through theirs lives - deeds and words - to render themselves enemies of God. That is to say nothing more than that God offers us an entire lifetime to sing on key with His creative melody and, if we don't get on board, we don't have to join in with the eternal symphony. We are not annihilated, we are not tortured, we are simply given in Hell what we want: eternal isolation to sing the melody the way we want to sing it. 

For the Falling Away, I encourage you to say "The Hell with the nonsense, the Hell with with corruption." To recall a line from Network, it's time to go to the windows and shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!" But I ask that you do not vote with your feet. That you are hurt, and angry, and disgusted means that you are very much concerned with preserving the 'light and salvation' that your heart yearns for. Sometimes it feels like it'd be better if we ran and kept ourselves pure, or unscathed, rather than risk engaging any longer with an organization that has such a manifestly crummy track record. 

I ask that you stay because we need you. We need people who have walked through the grief and anger of disenchantment but who cling resolutely to the belief that this is Christ's Church and that, damnit, we can see it through. Our enemies may be tearing at our flesh, but we keep walking because we believe we have been baptized to walk as we walk, that we have been fed by the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus who gives us the strength and the hope that we can, and will, make it to the Eternal Banquet.

"The Hell with it all." But not with each other. All of the corruption and silliness and pettiness, the prejudice and discrimination you rightly bristle at: the Hell with it. Because that is where it belongs: Hell. Isolated from God, set apart from the Creator. These are things that we need to fight against as sisters and brothers so that we can, some day, gather around the Lord's Table and feast with one another. If you leave, if you abandon now, who will fight? Who will remain? If not you, then who?

My word for those who feel themselves in a Free Fall from the Church...please, hang on. I'm not concerned with numbers. I'm not concerned with full churches. I am concerned that the love you have for the Church, the love that is being tested severely, not be lost and re-directed when the Church needs all the love she can get right now. I ask you to stay because there is hope, even though it is dark right now, and I believe in the Resurrection and that life will conquer death, that goodness will triumph over evil. What is good and holy will endure and what is not will, eventually, pass away. I encourage you to endure.

My falling friends, I ask that you bring your voices to this Holy Week. Take courage and know that you are not alone. Bring your voices, tired though they may be, and sing out. Bring your hunger for justice and for the Eucharist and approach the Lord's Table. Do not forget your hurt, your pain, or your scars...bring them, for that is what makes you who you are. Yet do not let your hurt define you. Do not become so closed-off due to anger that you fail to see the light of hope and salvation that dances and plays at the horizon. Walk with us this Holy Week, through Christ's Passion and Death, so that we may all together rejoice in the Resurrection when God's promise to each of us is revealed fully in the broken and scarred yet glorified body of Jesus Christ.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Entering Into Holy Week



- Ryan G. Duns, SJ


When I was a little boy, this was always my favorite day to go to church: I loved to play with the palms. At first, they proved a marvelous distraction to the regular grind of the liturgy. I could tickle my brother's face with the frond, whip it about, pretend to have sword fights...at least, until, my mother wrested the palm from my hand and began folding it into a cross. In those days I liked the playfulness of having something in my hands, of feeling that I was a part of the day's action. Not long ago, someone mentioned that Palm Sunday is one of the better-attended liturgies because people actually get something, that they have a prop that helps them to feel as if they really do have a role to play in the liturgy. Perhaps this is something clergy should consider: people want to feel like they belong.

Jesus probably felt like he belonged as he saw the throngs of exuberant welcomers. Little did he know that the triumphant entrance would be matched only by his mission's spectacular failure: sinful humanity could not quite get on board with Jesus' revolution that threatened to overturn our normal way of doing business, replacing it with God's ways. Jesus threatened our stability, our sense of order, our comfort...so we killed him. We have a knack for doing this, it seems.

At Mass today, consider the stark contrast between the psalm and the reading. Imagine the joyous atmosphere of the crowd, the hopes and expectations they seem to thrust onto Jesus, and allow the ominous refrain of the psalm to echo in your heart: "My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?" Within a few days, the cheers will be replaced with jeers, the high-fives with the lash of the whip, arms outstretched in welcome by arms brutally affixed to the timber in a gesture of ruthlessly efficient torture. A week from now, we will rest as a church in the dark cellar of grief and loss as our hopes are, once again, dashed. Dare we await the resurrection? 

My friends, this has not been an easy decade for the Catholic Church. I firmly believe that we are dwelling within the cellar of Holy Saturday. There is light, or hope, but it is hard for me to tell how much there is. My fear is that the light I see is but the first rays of Holy Saturday breaking in upon us and that we will be waiting for quite some time before we get...if we ever get....to the triumph of Easter. My optimistic side holds out hope that the light I glimpse is the setting sun piercing through dark clouds: Holy Saturday is coming to a close and soon, Easter's Son shall rise. 

Over these weeks, I have been grateful to my students who have offered reflections on the readings. My own travel schedule has made it difficult to keep on top of the blog (I write this from Washington, DC). I will be on retreat from Holy Thursday (4/21) through the following Thursday (4/28). Please know that I will be praying for all of you, and the Church universal, during my retreat. I don't know how much I'll be able to update the blog before I depart but, if I don't get the chance, may we all seize this Holy Week as an opportunity to grow both in our friendship with one another as we share our journey and with Jesus Christ who invites us this week to "stay with me, remain here with me" and, with Jesus, to "watch and pray." 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent




- Matthew Kowalski, '11


Today's gospel is a Scriptural response to those who say that the Church conforms individuals to immoral standards, using thousands of individuals to promote an outside agenda. Some think by joining the church, they forfeit their freedom, but Jesus tells the Jews in this reading that one actually gains freedom in the church:
“If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
 The Jews responded to this comment the same way I initially responded, with confusion. Jesus speaks to us as if we are not free, as if others enslave us. And that is because we are enslaved, perhaps not by other people, but by sin. One can easily see how destructive, sinful addictions, such as alcoholism, control the individual, but Jesus expands this notion, saying that “everyone who commits a sin is a slave of sin.” Only God offers true freedom, and only through God, one can gain true fulfillment.
For the rest of the Gospel, though, the Jews argue with Jesus over the syntax of his statements, saying things like “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.” Through this extreme scrutiny, they miss the true meaning of Jesus’ preaching. Instead of recognizing that God is so near to them, they search for truth in other places. Jesus’ word had no room among them because they could not recognize God in their lives.
 This reminds me of one of the first things I heard watching videos of Fr. De Mello SJ while on the Senior Silent Retreat last week. He effectively describes his point in the form of a story:

The Little Fish
 “Excuse me,” said the little fish,
“can you tell me how to find this
thing called the ocean?”
“The ocean,” said the older fish, “is
the thing you are in now.”
“Oh, this? But this is water,” said
the disappointed fish as he swam to
search elsewhere.

We often act like the little fish, searching for God without realizing that God is everywhere. He is present in the air, in the oceans, in the mountains, in the valleys, in our homes, in the churches, in the brothels, in the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, in our friends, in our enemies, in our fun experiences, in our suffering, in the devout, and in the sinners. God lives in every nook and cranny of the universe, filling the food we eat, the books we read, the technology we use, and the clothes we wear. God is so mind-numbingly expansive that as humans, we cannot fully understand his greatness. Yet just like the Jews, we often fail to appreciate the God that lives in our existence.
Although it is very easy for me to find God in the happy moments of my life, the jokes and the friendship, in pristine nature and in success, I find it very difficult to find God in death and suffering, in corruption and failure. But another thing I learned on the Silent Retreat is that while happy moments may be enjoyable, they cannot bring the growth that suffering does. Suffering transforms an individual, bringing them closer to God.
 God is everywhere and everything. So, stop looking for God, all you have to do is look.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent




- Ryan G. Duns, SJ


In today's Gospel, we see Jesus engaged in discussion with the Pharisees. On our side, as believing Christians, there can be a temptation to feel frustrated with the obtuseness of the Pharisees. Why can't they just 'get it', after all? 

I think something that is too often forgotten is that Jesus was by no means a reformer. As Father Herbert McCabe frames it, a reform seeks a mere modification of this world. When we engage in a reform, we allow the structures to remain in place while manipulating them or moving them about. When you re-arrange the furniture in your house, for instance, you are reforming it. When we shuffle poor people around in our health care system and call it progress, we do the same. Reform often masquerades as an improvement on the past; although to my mind, if the system is broken and corrupt, no amount of reform will help it. Didn't someone once remark that you can put lipstick on a pig?

On the other side, and this is where Jesus comes in, we have the revolution. McCabe describes as characteristic of the revolution a demand that we enter "a new world, not merely a modification of this world." He continues:
A revolutionary does not seek improvements within the basic structures of this society, he seeks a radical modification of these structures themselves. For this reason the world he envisages is not wholly intelligible in terms of this world. He is out not just to change society but to change the meaning of the word 'society'. Revolution is not intelligible and certainly not reasonable within the thought forms and language of this current world; revolution requires faith. 
What Jesus brings in today's reading, an identification of himself with the great "I AM" of God, is totally unintelligible. The Pharisees have not come to faith in Jesus, have not had their imaginations broken open to rethink the way society might be newly constituted in and around Jesus. They want to fit Jesus into neatly carved niches in their lives...and Jesus resists. He brings a word of revolution, a word of God that destabilizes and threatens. So sinful humanity did what we do best: we concoct stories of intrigue and conspiracy in order to discredit him and then, when pushed to it, we execute in order to preserve the status quo.

Jesus was not a reformer, he was an anarchist. In today's society, I am horrified by the use of Jesus Christ to condone or promote the status quo. The vision of Jesus sold by the Gospel of Prosperity nonsense or even yesterday's full-page ad in the New York Times taken out by the Catholic League tends to be more anti-christ than anarchist. Jesus, in the words of Flannery O'Connor, 'threw everything off.' Amazing that we've done such a good job of creating a version of Christianity that has domesticated a religious radical!

Today, I encourage each of us to pray the revolution of God's Kingdom. If we take what Jesus says and does seriously, it will slowly begin to move our hearts in new ways, leading us invariably toward action. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if more people glommed onto Jesus' inaugurated revolution. Will you love today in a reformed way or a revolutionary way? Do you have faith enough in Jesus to help live out today his re-visioning of society, even though it will make you look foolish to the powers of this world? Do you have the courage to love recklessly, love boldly, to love anarchically?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Monday of the Fifth Week of Lent



Today's Gospel is one of the most popular and one of the most often quoted passages in the entire Bible. We hear it in television shows and movies, see it in books and newspapers, and hear it from others. It is often quoted by those that feel persecuted and wrongly accused, as teenagers often do. Yet, how often do we follow it? It is all too true that we like to judge...

Teenagers are, in my opinion, all idealists, even if at least for a while. I think that we still carry the vestiges of childhood innocence in our hearts, and yet we have the rational mind of an adult that can interpret the world for what it is. A combination of these two, thus, in my opinion, leads teenagers to desire a world that is a utopia. The values that we are taught as children, whether they be honesty, diligence, piety, etc. are propped up on pedestals, and we expect the world around us, and especially the adults from which these ideals were learned, to live up to them. We expect the world to be a fair and just place, at least in our own little environment. Yet, it is never the case.

Let me elaborate on this. When speaking with my peers on faith and God, the sentiment that I often hear is this: “That if there was a God, why do so many bad things happen?”. There is an answer to this question, in fact, theology and philosophy provide many. However, I think that to the idealist teenager, these are not sufficient. They still want the perfect world of a child.

We look at the world and we expect perfection, but get disappointment.


Saturday, April 09, 2011

Quiet for a few

Although I had the best of intentions to get ahead on postings to cover the next few days of Lent, I have failed at this task. As a consequence, the blog will be quiet until Monday. I am heading off to Denver for the weekend to play a feis (Irish dancing competition) and won't be able to post while there.

Be assured of my prayers as we continue our Lent together!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent


One of the more powerful metaphors used to describe the period of Lent is that of a journey. Preachers and homilists frequently make reference to "our Lenten journey" or "our Lenten pilgrimage." While this is a path each of us who is marked with the water of baptism must take, I would like to call attention to a new series of videos being produced by the Society of Jesus. 


This video is the first of a series chronicling Jesuit Radmar Jao, a recently-ordained deacon from the California Province. I encourage you to watch this video as a way to learn more about Radmar's response to be a Companion of Jesus as an ordained priest. 

If you have any questions about a Jesuit vocation, I encourage you to visit www.jesuit.org to find more information.


Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent



Jesus's message today should be a powerful blow to teenagers, myself included. We teens, whether it is because we are growing into adulthood, or because we have a sense of overconfidence, have the habit of trying to do everything on our own. Whether it be going to court for speeding tickets, relationship problems, or school work, we like to think we can handle everything and anything on our own. Perhaps it is to prove our own self-worth, perhaps it is to prove to those around us, especially adults, that we too, can handle responsibility, that we aren't the small kids they still think we are.

I am by far no exception. Often times, during the day, when asked if I can do something for someone, I turn to that person, say their name, and say, “I got this” while hitting my chest with my hand, almost as in a primeval display of dominance. Too often though, I think, we get in over our heads, often to disastrous consequences. Last year, I decided to take 8 classes, instead of the regular 7, forsaking my lunch period to do so. In September, I was in perfect health, with normal habits and patterns. By May, however, I had lost 10 pounds, weighing in at only 124, developed insomnia, had pains in my chest, and became incredibly moody. The rigorous academic work, the multiple after school activities, and all the stress that came along with those things had a huge impact on my mental and physical health. I could have switched my schedule, let my grades drop a bit, take part in less extracurriculars, and lived a less stressful life. I chose not to. Why? Because I thought I could handle it. I was wrong.

This is often the case in most matters teenagers face. Whether it be depression, parental troubles, addictions, or various other troubles, we choose to face them alone. Perhaps it is because, on the inside, we fear being punished, we fear being outcasts, as being labeled as freaks and weaklings. If we do gather the courage to tell someone, it is usually one of our friends, ones our age, who we hope won't judge us. Yet, while we may speak on the issue, it is usually done in a joking and sarcastic matter, still showing a strong face. Our friends either think that we are joking, or believe us and do nothing about it, perhaps unwilling to become “snitches” and betray us. Either way, nothing is done, and the situation worsens.

This too, applies to matters of faith. Teenagers this day often look at God as some old man in the sky, that we go to when we feel sad. However, all of our accomplishments, our talents, everything positive in our life, is either luck or our own doing:

“I am a good student because I study hard.”
“I am popular because I am just the most talented and charismatic guy here.”
“I am a good athlete because I pump iron every single day.”

However, when we are in trouble, when we cannot look at the positive, we turn to God, looking for a cure-all. God does not give answers so easily, He is not, as Abba Duns calls us, “Control-F” accessible. This is the reason why so many teenagers, I think, have turned away from the Church, and religion in general...we see God as a last resort....he is, after all, as countless cathecism classes for small children teach, “God is love....God is goodness...God helps us when we call out to him...nothing is outside his control”. So when we don't see results, when our faith is still at an infantile state rather than a deepened one, we get angry, we declare that God is dead, that those that believe are fools, and we turn our back on faith. When one looks at all the evil in the world, this break becomes even more distinct, and harder to mend. I think, that the real danger on turning our back to God is this: our last resort is gone...and we feel utterly alone. This is where depression kicks in, where we spiral down in our hopelessness, when we become suicidal and look at death as the only escape.

“I cannot do anything on my own ”. Bitter medicine for the youth culture, but medicine, that if taken, can only do us good. We must realize, at one point, that we are only human, that we can only do so much, that no matter what we have seen and experienced, no matter how intelligent or eloquent we are, we still, in essence, are still kids, and there is no shame in that. I realized that last April, when the adults in my life made me go on the Junior Retreat to rest after a year of constant wear and tear on my health. The only reason that happened, however, was because I had mentioned that I was not feeling well, that I was tired and that I didn't know how to just give everything up. Perhaps, if I had not mentioned that, I would have ended up in a hospital with some kind of breakdown. I can only guess.

This Lenten season, we must realize that we are human, and that is all we can be. If we are young, we must realize that those older then us went through similar problems, and that asking for help is not admitting defeat, it is a showing that we are strong enough to see beyond our own lives. If we cannot see and hear God directly, perhaps we can see Him through the outreached hands of help that those around us offer. There are always plenty of these hands, if one only wants to see them.

If we are adults, we must be aware, I think, of the difficulty, the paradox, the fear, of growing up, and be lenient with those that are going through the process. High school teenagers aren't always the most rational people, and by far we aren't the most conscious of the consequences of our actions. At times, it looks like we are almost animals, acting on instinct and habit, things that just come naturally, rather than thinking what we are doing...and that can cause anger and contempt in adults, especially parents.

I think, that if the rampant depression and suicide rates are to go down, and hopefully mostly disappear, there needs to be cooperation and love from both sides. Teens must realize that reaching out is okay, and adults must realize that teens need a balance of both space to grow and attentiveness. Perhaps, both sides need to learn that neither can solve the problems of the Control-F Generation by themselves. 

- Maciej Rejniak, '11

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent




As a former fat kid, I rather like today's reading. When I was in junior high, I was frequently the last-picked kid for any team. I don't blame the other kids, to be sure: I was pretty lousy! Nevertheless, I know something of what it feels like to be the last one in, the one who never quite "gets it" with everyone else. As a student, I must admit, I was never the smartest or the quickest in the class, either: there was always someone better than me at just about everything!

For a long while, I think allowed myself to be complacent. I settled, figuring that if I couldn't get onto the team, or get the highest grade, that I'd just find myself in the middle somewhere. At no time, though, do I recall ever thinking that there was something that I was missing or losing out on...I just sort of went with the flow, too indolent to even try to imagine a different situation.

As I grew older and started to become more aware of my surroundings, I saw that the men who were happiest and most joyful, vibrant and effervescent, were the Jesuits teaching at my school. I didn't know what I wanted to be in terms of a profession, but I did know that I wanted to be happy. Knowing this, knowing that I wanted abiding joy in my life, I watched them intently for a common thread. Again and again, I saw that what animated them and the college professors I later studied with was a deep and abiding passion for their faith. Their passion enkindled in me a similar passion, one that led me to take up my own mat and to walk with them as a fellow Companion of Jesus.

I am most parents worst nightmare in terms of career counseling for their sons. I do not tell them to be doctors or attorneys or CPA's or MBA's. Instead, I challenge them to find what it is that will bring them great joy, great challenges, and great love. I have the honor of teaching so many wonderful young men that I often find myself praying that some of them will find the spark that drives me beginning to enkindle in them a similar passion to be a Companion of Jesus. I can pray, at least! Yet I take seriously the advice my father gave me many years ago: "Whatever you study, love it enough to teach it." This advice has not brought me earthly riches, but it has graced me with tremendous adventures and such a great joy that I would be remiss if I did not share it with those around me. 

Monday, April 04, 2011

Monday of the Fourth Week of Lent





Sometimes I feel a temptation to allow words to replace my feelings. That is, I try to codify my emotions immediately, translating them into prose or poetic expressions. I find, though, that in doing this I often bruise or cordon off the experience I am going through.

During these days of Lent, I have had ample opportunity to reflect using very many words. Today, perhaps it is a good thing to rest in the words of the Psalmist "I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me." As I look back on my life before the Jesuits, I am not ashamed or sorrowful. Indeed, I am so profoundly grateful for all of the love and the experiences - hard and easy, joyful and painful - that molded and strengthened my heart so that, on August 13th, 2006, I could profess perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I am grateful for the love that is in my life and I am glad to have time to sit today in silent prayer, simply grateful, for the ways that God has entered into my life and helped to create out of the feeble goods I offer as raw material. 

The Fate of Answer Cat

video

I learned, at some point, that having a 'gimmick' in class helped the boys to stay engaged. One of my gimmicks has been "Answer Cat" - a stuffed cat I throw to kids when it is their turn to speak.

Several weeks ago, Answer Cat went missing. Lo and behold, on April 1st, this video was delivered to me, leading me on a series of perilous adventures and clue-solving in order to recover my stuffed friend.

I don't know how the kids did it, but I'm wicked proud of them. When I brag about how clever my students are, this is what I'm talking about: they didn't resort to severing bits of fur or cutting off the tail but, rather, created this video to add great flavor the game.

For the uninitiated, I am "Abba Duns." It is a nickname I was given last year (and tried, fruitlessly, to shake) that has now taken hold of the kids.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Lent



- Nick Bergeman, '13
U of D Jesuit

Something that I spend quite a bit of time pondering is God’s presence in the world. I look around me, and I see the suffering in the world, and I wonder where God is. I wonder how God lets the Holocaust happen, how He lets the Haiti and Japanese Earthquakes happen. In actuality, God does not do these things. These bad things happen, and when we ask God why He is doing nothing to help, but I have only recently realized that God asks me the same question.

In the Gospel passage this week, Jesus is questioned why a man he encounters was born blind. He responds simply, saying “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Jesus makes three things perfectly clear here: his handicap is not because of his sin, God can bring good things out of something “bad,” and that there will come times where God will magically fix our problems, and that it is up to us to resolve them. This is not an instance of God doing something bad to prove a point, but rather a demonstration that God is actively working in and through all situations to bring order out of chaos. Jesus, at the time, is subtly hinting to his followers that there will come a time soon that he will not be there to be the light (an important lesson in this Lenten season), but Jesus, like God does not abandon us, and that is why he dies on the cross. After such, the lesson of the Easter season is that Jesus has left for a greater purpose, and that he has left us an important mission to look for our vocation. To watch for the choice we are meant to make, urged each time we pray the Prayer for Generosity:

Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous;
teach me to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to seek reward,
except that of knowing that I do your will.

The basic truth is thus: God does not do evil things. God only does good. However, atrocities occur daily. That leaves us wondering what we are to do. It has been said that those who have the ability to take action have the responsibility to take action. I think that Jesus would concur on the basis that God gave us the ability to take action. The involvement of the Pharisees scolding the man, and Jesus scolding the Pharisees proves an important lesson that the correct path may not be the easy one. The Pharisees stand on their proverbial mountaintop, holding true to what they know, and think is safe. Really, God calls us to a more dangerous position, and that position is to do what is right. The righteous path may be condemned by others, but Jesus “has your back” and is not going to abandon you. Never.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

When a kid sneezes in your face....

I think it's sort of cool to quote Latin phrases. It makes me feel erudite and scholarly. One of my favorite phrases is used frequently by our old friend Saint Thomas Aquinas: Quidquid recepitur ad modum recipientis recipitur. If you happen not to be up on your Latin, it translates into something like "Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver."

What the heck?

Think about it. Have you ever had the experience of a student or child doing something very playfully and you, being in a good mood, play along with it? Your reception of the student's actions or the child's behavior is inflected and shaped by your mood. If you are in the mood to play, you may countenance a tremendous amount of silliness. Just yesterday, for instance, my students kidnapped my stuffed cat and hid clues all around the building. Being in a good mood (it was Friday, after all, and I had plans to go out with friends after work), I was more than happy to play along. Even when one of the students, violating all notions of personal space, sneezed in my face I wasn't terribly bothered. My good mood shaped the way I received his actions. Indeed, I actually managed to laugh it off as I wiped 1,000,000,000 germs off of my face and resigned myself to the fact that, in the wake of walking pneumonia, I'll probably get a cold thanks to this kid. 

What, though, if I had been cranky? Disaster. The very same gesture that had been interpreted well could have been interpreted poorly: my mood would have shaped my reception of this gesture. Instead of enjoying the game, a bad mood or a headache would have made it a terrible hassle; rather than laughing off the sneeze, I could have berated the student. Not for nothing, had I been in the wrong sort of mood I might well have wiped the floor with the kid! 

A single gesture, two wildly divergent interpretations. Whatever we receive is received according our mode of reception. Our mode is very much influenced by our mood/education/experience/disposition/maturity/etc.  This does not deny that we can know the world outside of us, but it does indicated that we add something to the world as we experience it.

As a teacher, I am becoming more and more aware that my teaching is, very often, effective only to the extent that the kids are willing to receive it. I find more and more frequently that I'm forced to come up with creative ways of engaging students on their level in order to demonstrate (1) why faith and religion are credible and (2) why both are relevant. This is no easy task, to be sure, but I'm committed to finding ways to make sure that what they receive from me somehow sticks, that it meets the receiver with enough force to make an impact. Quidquid recepitur ad modum recipientis recipitur...I'm learning that teaching isn't a performance but, rather, a relationship between student and teacher each of whom stands to gain much by understanding the other.

Saturday of the Third Week of Lent



- Peter Walle, '11



Sometimes, I feel like high school is nothing but competition, fostered by a societal system bent upon intellectual advancement. Social development, credit to the arts, and a true sense of morality can sometimes slip through the cracks of a rigorous schedule.  Students are encouraged to have a solitary goal – success. I find myself falling into this quite often. But when is success ever reached? When is enough, well, enough? Over time, I am realizing that this drive to succeed must be tempered with humility, a difficult quality to strive for in a world bent on its own accomplishments. In today’s Gospel, Jesus addresses a parable to “those who were convinced of their own righteousness”. In short, he preaches to those lauded as 'successful' in each era. 

Concretely, the parable makes an important point: humility is key. However, it is easy to doubt Jesus’ words and point out the fact that we do not live in a clear cut dichotomy of ways. In Roman society, faith was an integral part of all life. In the modern generation’s philosophy of Church/State separation, it would seem that the parable no longer applies. In reality though, it probably means more today than it did in Jesus’ time. In the Control-F generation (Abba’s term for the modern generation of students) there is not only the need for instant concrete gratification (as is received by the man in the temple from people in form of applause), but also instant mental gratification. Often, we tend to seek some kind of positive emotional response out of any situation we perform in, whether it is telling your parents about getting the best grade in the class on the science test (of course, you actually got about the same as everyone else) or telling your friends about your every social activity on Facebook. We are driven by the urge to forfeit our lives to the judgment of others, simply so that the judgment will come back with positive results to boast about. In the end, I often ask myself, “how much simpler will this action be if I just don’t make a big deal about it?”.

Today’s Gospel, more than anything, calls us to simply look and ask ourselves if our actions are for God or for the judgment of others. It can be a complicated question that will have an ambiguous answer. But if we can truly make an effort to not even raise “eyes to heaven”, instead living a life for God, we can hope to slowly shift the societal urge to impress to a more important one – the hope to impress God.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Friday of the Third Week of Lent



- Ryan G. Duns, SJ


A story I have read many times and have come to treasure is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. The book subtly and deftly communicates three profound insights into both the nature of friendship and the demands of spirituality. The fox, in a lovely exchange with the Little Prince, counsels him:
  • It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the naked eye.
  • It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes it so important.
  • You are responsible forever for what you have tamed.
I recall these today because, as I pray with our readings, it strikes me that both our Psalm and our Gospel challenge us to recall that it is part of our daily task to discern just what should stand at the center of our lives. 

Both the scribe in the Gospel and the Psalmist play on a similar theme: listening. Our world is so loud, so filled with ambient noises and distractions, that it is often difficult to focus long enough to hear how God is speaking. Perhaps today we could each take a few moments to open the inner ear of our heart so that we, too, might come to hear how God is inviting us into deeper friendship. 

Lent can, for each of us, be a time for allowing what is essential to each of us to show itself forth. Where we see those glints and instances of God's presence, we should take time to dwell upon those and to savor those moments. Yet know that prayer, real prayer, carries with it a terrible grace: having been addressed by God and after spending time drinking of Living Waters, you are responsible for what you have accepted. You cannot sit idly by but, inflamed by this friendship, must instead go out into the world to share with others the Good News of the Kingdom.