Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wednesday, the Eighth Day of Lent: Clothed in Justice

Our Gospel today recalls Jesus challenging a crowd who had gathered around him:

This generation is an evil generation;
 it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, 
so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 

What is this "sign of Jonah"? Well, in the first reading, we are told: Jonah is given a message by the Lord. Upon his arrival to the great city of Nineveh, he delivers the message given to him, "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed." 

Imagine how daunting this must have seemed. Jonah is summoned to deliver a message to a bustling metropolis. The text does not say so, but I suspect something like this crossed his mind, "What the Hell am I supposed to do? I am one guy and this place is damn big. How am I going to get any traction here? Where do I start? Why would anyone listen to me???" 

Nevertheless, listen the Ninevites did. They repented of their wickedness and no less than the king declared a fast that all dwelling in Nineveh would observe: 
Neither man or beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand. Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish. 
Jonah is a sign of contradiction: much to what must have been his own doubts, the power of God's word is able to transform the hearts of those who hear it. Their conversion of heart and their repenting of their wicked ways, saves them from God's judgment.

It is easy to be cynical about this generation of young adults, too. Yet I look within the halls of U of D Jesuit and I see a true sign of contradiction: our Just Peace student organization. This brave group of students have worked assiduously this year to make our institution Sweat-Free. Algimantis Janusis ('12) approached me last semester and convinced me that the Student Senate needed to make a switch to using Sweat-Free t-shirts. These students have taken a prophetic stance within U of D Jesuit, challenging our school community to be Men for Others by clothing ourselves, quite literally, in justice.

The students have recently begun a blog discussing their initiative. Each of these students should be commended for their excellent work. From Theo's beautifully trenchant commentary to Nick's discussion of "Clothing with a Conscience," Kiernan's discussion of Charles Kernaghan to Mitch's digest of Catholic Social Teaching, it is refreshing to hear the voice of those willing to raise a protest against injustice.

I strongly urge my readers to visit the students' No Sweat Gazette and support them in their endeavor. Rather than succumbing to the status quo and throwing their hands up at the enormity of the situation - something that must have tempted Jonah, too - these young men are working hard to change hearts and minds, recalling for all of us the dignity of the human person and the duty we have to all of our sisters and brothers to work for justice.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tuesday, the Seventh Day of Lent

I love paging through how-to books. Even if I have no inclination toward motorcycle repair, or turning my own rotors, or knitting a scarf, I do enjoy paging through books or watching television shows that explore how things get made or done. Of course, I'm something of a foodie and I love to watch FoodTV as apparently complicated dishes are broken down into manageable steps. 

Today's Gospel provides the ultimate how-to with regard to prayer. There are very many books written on praying, books that teach us how to breathe, to center ourselves, to purge our thoughts, to imagine Jesus, to find our interior castle, etc.. These are all, to be sure, very good things. Yet, in today's Gospel, Jesus gives us a totally different kind of how-to:

This is how you are to pray:
Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
they Kingdom come,
they will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses, 
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

Perhaps I misspoke a moment ago. I said that Jesus gave us a different sort of 'how-to.' I guess what I mean to say is that, rather than telling us how to pray, Jesus is giving us a totally new way of being human. Rather than a how-to, the Lord's Prayer is a how-to-be. 

Think about it for a moment. Jesus lives within a culture where the name of God - YHWH - was not to be uttered. The YHWH who spoke to Moses, who led the Hebrew people out of Egypt, who remained faithful during exiles...with this God does Jesus presume tremendous familiarity. This Jesus-fellow has the audacity to refer to the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, the architect and sustainer of all that was, is, and shall be, not in hushed tones or in reverential silence but, rather, as his Abba or daddy. Nor does he stop there for, in this prayer, he invites us to do likewise. 

The Our Father, so easily rattled off, is a child's prayer. Not a childish prayer, mind you, but a child's prayer: a prayer offered by those who have been awakened to who we really are, who we have been created and called to be: children of God. We are encouraged to approach the Holy One not as if we had to put forth effort to change His mind about us. Instead, we approach Our Father in Heaven as one who loves us, who is creating us, and who calls us to deeper friendship. We find courage not in our rectitude or our own goodness but in God's love for us. 

Lent can easily turn into a time for navel-gazing and reflecting on how bad we are or all of the silly things we have gotten ourselves involved with. I think this can be an important, indeed necessary, moment of self-critical reflection. Yet it must never obscure the fundamental realization of Lent: that God loves you as you are, that you are a child of God, and that there is nothing you can do to make yourself unlovable to the One who has made you. It is easy for us to despise ourselves, to think ourselves outside the realm of God's grace, and it is a moment of liberating joy to experience that even when we are at our worst, God still loves us and calls out to us. 

Almost one week into our Lenten journey, let's remember that what Jesus provides for us in this prayer is not a simple supplication. He gives us a new way of living, as children of God, and in this we ought to find great courage and joy. To live as children of God, as sisters and brothers, walking together and helping to build the New Jerusalem...Amazing Grace, indeed. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Monday, the Sixth Day of Lent

Love consists in sharing
what one has
and what one is 
with those one loves.

Love ought to show itself in deeds
more than in words.
                                                      ~St. Ignatius of Loyola

Today's Gospel is Jesus' famous discourse on the Sheep and the Goats. The scene is familiar: at the final judgement, the King will come and separate the gathered assembly based, not on one's sense of righteousness or religious profession but, rather, on the deeds that shows forth the fruits of faith. 

The sheep, finding themselves heirs to the Kingdom, will ask the king, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?" The response is simple, picked up and lived out by countless saints: "...whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did it to me."

There is a television show I have caught glimpses of called Undercover Boss. The show follows an executive or owner of a company as she conceals her identity and assumes some sort of entry-level position. The clandestine boss, having inserted herself into the midst of the corporate culture, apparently learns a great deal of what it is like to work in her corporation, what the employee culture is like, and how employees treat one another. 

Surely, we are all on our best behavior when the boss is around. But, one might ask, how do we act toward our custodial staff? Facilities workers? Those 'least' jobs that ensure smooth running of the operation? Does it often cross our mind that these jobs - positions we often take for granted as being somehow beneath us - are essential for any organization? Yet, how easy it is to take these people for granted and to mistreat them. 

Today's Gospel reminds us to be aware of the Anonymous Christ who comes to us in countless forms. With each encounter each day, we are facing a person who is a bearer of God's presence in the world. We need not feel some pressure to find some one or other sacred place where we must encounter Christ...we need only to open our eyes to see Christ's presence always already before us. Given eyes of faith to see the face of Christ, may we always hear the call to reach out and help those in need, feel the invitation to be a loving presence to those counted least in our human family, and take joy in knowing that when we minister to the least do so for God's greater glory. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The First Sunday of Lent

It is the case that, in literature and pop culture, many of our heroes must go off "into the desert" before embracing their destiny as the hero. In the latest re-boot of the Batman franchise, Bruce Wayne wanders the earth, unsure of who he is, before he discovers within him the Batman. Even when he has embraced his identity, his retreat, or inner sanctum, is a cave underneath his stately manor. Superman has his own "Fortress of Solitude" where is communes with his father, Jor-El.  In Disney's "The Lion King" does not Simba go off into the desert for many years following the death of Mufasa?

The role of the hero is never simple and linear. The heroic path is seldom clear, for many are the inner depths in need of plumbing. The hustle-and-bustle of daily life so easily distract, tear at, and get in the way of this exploration that it is almost inevitable that the hero, to claim the mantle of hero, must seek solitude. Every hero must, at some point, go into the desert.

Today's Gospel, taken from Mark, recounts Jesus' trip into the desert. This is a sparse portrayal, fitting given that Mark's Gospel is the earliest written, and lacks the literary finesse of Matthew and Luke's account. The Gospel unfolds in two moments:

  1. Jesus is driven by the spirit out into the desert where he was tempted by Satan.
  2. After forty days, he returns to Galilee and proclaims the Good News: "This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel."
The forty days in the desert were not an endurance contest to see how long Jesus could hold out, nor were they a way of demonstrating in a public way his sanctity. Jesus journeyed into the desert and there found what was central and essential in his life: God. Stripped away of all comforts and amenities, alone with the God whose love he felt stirring within his heart, Jesus went out into the desert in order to find what was most necessary. 

The great modern temptation of Lent is to make it into some form of religious endurance contest. By no means am I against challenging oneself or one's habits, but I think that the focus can easily become on what I am giving up rather than on what I am removing in order to come to know Jesus better. As I mentioned yesterday, I think we do an awfully good job at hoarding in our lives and our annual sojourn in the Lenten desert demands that we refocus our lives one the One who is most central: Jesus Christ, who models for us what it means to make the Kingdom of God one's center...and shows, in a sinful and broken world, the calamitous consequences of taking the Gospel to heart. 


Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Fourth Day of Lent

Our first reading continues from yesterday, taking the following words from Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord:
If you remove from your midst oppression,
false accusation and malicious speech;
if you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
and the gloom shall become for you like midday;
Then the LORD will guide you always
and give you plenty even on the parched land. 

As I hinted at yesterday, I do think that Lent is a time for purging, or un-cluttering, our lives to make space for God's grace. The inbox of our heart is so easily cluttered with the SPAM of the world - offers, ads, enticements - none of which holds the key to the lasting happiness we so desperately long for. We need to sort out just which offers bear God's authentic self-offer and focus on those -- leave SPAM for the junkmail folder. 

In today's reading, we see this two-fold movement of accepting God's invitation to friendship. There is a movement to clear away those things that are anti-God, counter-Kingdom, and then a movement to act as God acts: feeding the hungry and soothing the afflicted. I think these are the necessary movements of Lent: one is a removing of obstacles, of discerning what we really need to be the disciples we so desire to become, and responding to God's friendship by being God's grace in the world. 

I can't help but to think that so many of us are spiritual hoarders. We accumulate so much from our daily lives, so many things that we refuse to be free of. Resentment, anger, wounds, the past: we fill up our hearts and lives with so much stuff that we become paralyzed. Slowly the rooms of our heart are filled, it becomes harder to navigate the hallways, and we become entombed in a crypt of our own devising. All of the stuff we thought so important, so valuable, so much of who-we-are...the stuff that once promised life and happiness now becomes a dust-gathering sarcophagus. 

Lent is the time when we, even if painfully, begin to let go of this unnecessary stuff in order to see what we truly need to live. Over the long journey of Lent, we work to shake ourselves of the things that keep us from being the women and men we most want to be and we work to live as God is calling us to live. In freeing ourselves from stuff, we are freed for love. As the mountains of stuff, hoarded over the years, diminish, the light of day will break in and show us the way. 


Friday, February 24, 2012

The Third Day of Lent

The relationship between Church and State has, to be sure, thrust into the forefront of national discourse these recent weeks. As I mentioned earlier, I am sympathetic to the bishops' stance. Yet, on another level, these conversations leave me irritated and angry. Why? Because, as a nation, it seems we want more to talk about Christianity rather than actually living it out. 


Much talk this week has surrounded what we will "give up" for Lent, what it is that we will fast from. Today's reading from Isaiah, particularly for those of us who believe Lent to be a religiously-sanctioned opportunity to lose weight and calling the 'diet' a fast, should give us pause.

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke; 
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke; 
Sharing your bread
with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.

Our GOP candidates can rail against the Obama administration on its so-called war against religion, but what are they doing that picks up on Isaiah's call? The text says nothing about refraining from sweets, nothing about giving up Facebook, nothing about about giving up alcohol. It tells us, rather, of what we should embrace: a way that is in keeping with the Culture of God's Kingdom, a culture wherein the dignity of every human being is recognized. The fast we are called into is not one that makes us look better in the mirror; it is, rather, a fast that takes us mirror the values of God and His Christ. 

On this third day of Lent, let us bear in mind that we are a pilgrim people. We are on "The Way" of the Christ, walking toward God's Kingdom and helping to build its foundation here and now. Rather than 'giving up' this Lent, let us consider what we might 'take on' in the name of God's Culture, what we might embrace and work toward as sisters and brothers, fellow pilgrims, and members of Christ's Body.  

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Second Day of Lent

Have you ever stopped to think how crazy the Christian faith is? I own an iPhone, a computer, I have ready use of a car, I can travel with relative ease...and I believe that a convicted felon, publicly and brutally executed by the Romans 2,000 years ago, is the Christ of God. It sounds insane, at least to my ears, and almost too-good-to-be-true.

Many in our culture would rather something more akin to G.I Jesus than to the Messiah we do have. We want Jesus to sweep in, demolish the Romans (then) or to come in and lay waste to our foes today. What we have as a vision of the Christ is the Crucified-yet-Risen One who brings not an AKA-47 but, rather, a message of Peace. Jesus' ways are not our ways; the God revealed by the Christ is very much unlike us as well.

On this, the second day of Lent, our Gospel reminds us of how counter-cultural Jesus really is. "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." Seriously? I spend a great deal of time fleeing my cross, running from it, and this guy wants me to embrace it and follow along?

It bears saying that all of us come to Lent as we are. There is a temptation to find the journey overwhelming and to give up. This is sort of like those people who resolve to get fit, buy P90X and discover how difficult it is. Rather than struggling through, putting in the time and practice needed, they shelve it and say, "I'll come back to this when I'm more fit." Isn't that funny? The very thing that will help them get fit is precisely what they shelve in order to, what, go back to their old ways?

Perhaps today's spiritual exercise is to look at our lives, briefly, and discover the crosses that leer down at us. All of us have them. Yet many of us flee from their shadows. Can we find the courage to claim our cross as our own and to follow this Jesus fellow as he carries his own cross, his message of God's Kingdom, in a sinful and broken world? Will we walk the way of the convict, the way of one totally possessed by the values of His Father's Kingdom that our own satanic dominion sought to destroy him?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Blogging Through Lent: Ash Wednesday

I haven't decided if I'm going to invite some of my students, as I did last year, to contribute reflections to my blog. As much as I enjoyed doing it, and loved hearing from them, it is a lot of work to collect and edit their submissions. If I can find a way to manage it, though, I'll invite them to participate.

Ash Wednesday is, perhaps, my least favorite liturgy. I have something of a texture aversion - popsicle sticks and tongue depressors make me gag - and the consistency of the ashes sort of reminds me of dry wood. Naturally, I'm going to help with the distribution of ashes so I'll get to dip my thumb into the ashes many times and I mark the sign of the cross on my students' foreheads as I remind them to, "Repent and believe in the Gospel."

Sixteen years ago this month, I started in a Weight-Watchers program. I remember being sixteen and really nervous that first night: I'm a naturally self-conscious person and I was afraid that people would look at me with scorn or judgmentally. I was, after all, a fat teenager!

I was so nervous as I stood in line, waiting to get on the scale. Women and men of all ages and sizes were in line ahead of me. Rather than being competitive, or mean, they were fun and friendly. They traded recipe ideas, workout tips, and encouragement. Each of us took a turn at the scale, the number was recorded, and we went out and waited for our group leader to speak to us.

I realized that night how important community is to our endeavors. We were all there for the same reason: none of us knew how to control his or her eating habits and each of us wanted to re-learn how to eat. Having recognized our problem, we had all taken the same step to correct our issues and we all had to face the same scale each week. Some weeks were better for some than others but, through it all, we were all in the group together, marked by our little binders where we kept track of our points and a common commitment to lose weight.

Ash Wednesday is to my mind sort of like Weight-Watchers. We come to the liturgy, each of us reckoning that her or his sinfulness is too shameful, or too embarrassing, to put into words. We make jokes about what we'll give up this Lent, perhaps because we wonder deep down if we have the strength to address those things that keep us from being the Christians we feel called to be.

Maybe this is the power of tomorrow's liturgy. After the ashes are distributed, we can look out to see that we are - all of us - sisters and brothers working together to be better disciples of Christ. Every one of us is smudged and marked with ashes None of us does it perfectly all of the time, but through these weeks, we need to remember that we can help each other through explicit support and quiet prayer. Marked by common ashes and fed by the same Eucharist, may we find the strength to journey into Lent, following Christ and supporting one another, as we pray our way toward being the women and men God is inviting us to be.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Winter Break!

I must say that one of the perks of being a teacher is the planned winter-break. I'll be heading up to Mackinac Island today with a group of friends/colleagues and we will be giving a retreat to the residents of the Island.

It was on this retreat, just a year ago, I began to write about the Control-F Generation. I find times like this to be great for gathering my thoughts and having some time to do some writing. With any luck, I'll manage to post while I am up there and finish a longer piece I have been working on for publication elsewhere. 


Monday, February 13, 2012

Missing the Point?

Generally, I am pretty quiet about politics given that (1) it is incendiary and (2) the issues are generally too intricate and complicated for me to do justice in a blog post someone will read.

Today, however, an editorial in Time Magazine written by Tim Padgett caught my eye. Entitled "Birth Control Debate: Why Catholic Bishops Have Lost Their Grip on U.S. Politics - and Their Flock," Padgett's piece seems, to my mind, to miss the entire point of the Bishops' stand against the HHSC mandate that religiously-affiliated institutions had to provide contraception to its employees. The Obama Administration has granted concessions that have been accepted by Catholic Charities and the Catholic Healthcare Association. These concessions, however, have not appeased the bishops.

So let me say this very quickly (I have to teach in 8 minutes). I think we get this whole affair wrong and view it in a distorted manner if it is viewed as a debate about contraception. Journalists love to trot out the statistic that 97-98% of Catholic women use birth control. That's not the issue at all. The issue is whether the government can dictate to a religious institution how it proceeds. In a sense, the question at hand is whether the government can insert itself into the very identity and, possibly, mission of a religious institution.

Here is where I think the bishops are failing. In their - to my mind, correct - efforts to preserve religious liberty, they have allowed the conversation to be framed around contraception and abortion. They must, if they are going to carry this, re-establish that the conversation we are having is about religious liberty, about religiously affiliated institutions being able to operate according to their mission statements and in accordance with their founding principles. The issue is not about prophylactics but, rather, procedure.

I think one thing that should be recalled is that, if you take a job at a Catholic hospital or school, you are agreeing to work within a corporate culture. You may not like it, you may not agree with it, but then again, no one forced you to work there. If you don't like the mission of the institution, or disagree wholly with its ethos, then perhaps it would be better for you not to work there. No one forces anyone to take a job in a Catholic hospital. Hence it is puzzling to me that individuals, who say that they want to exercise their freedom of conscience to use birth control, are trying to impose their wills on institutions.

Padgett's piece is a good reminder that the complexities of the issue are easily obscured by the hot-button nature of contraception. As I said, I simply do not think this is an issue born out of condoms or pills. It is, rather, establishing a bulwark against what is perceived as the expansion and interference of the government. If the bishops are wise, they will continue to bring out this point and start to explain how this is an effort to preserve religious freedom and why they see the stakes being so high.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Love Dissolves Hierarchy

Yesterday afternoon, the small group of students who are preparing for full incorporation into the Roman Catholic Church met again in my classroom for our weekly meeting. This week our topic was "The Teachings of Jesus" and we turned, once again, to Father Robert Barron's fantastic Catholicism video series. For anyone interested either in learning about the Catholic faith, or deepening one's own experience of the faith, I suggest this series strongly.

There is a scene when Father Barron is discussing the dynamism behind Mother Theresa of Calcutta's work. Asked once by a Dominican priest what animated her ministry, she asked him to spread out his hand and she touched a finger as she uttered each of five words: "You Did It To Me." These words echoed deep within my heart as I watched the video and have been haunting me since then.

Father Herbert McCabe writes that "Christian love implies equality." It is different from simply being nice, or being kind, or being philanthropic. Christian love is re-creative, because it recognizes the inherent equality between human beings. Think about it:
A master sometimes can be kindly and considerate to his slave, the slave can be loyal and affectionate towards his master: all this within the terms of his slavery. The master's kindness does not make him any less a master, the slave's affection does not make him any less a slave. ("God," 4)
 Regardless of the intention of the master, come nightfall he will retire to his turned-down bed and the slave will return to his quarters. The hierarchical relationship remains - each is etched by the imbalance of power that marks one as 'master' and the other as 'slave.'

Authentic love, however, dissolves the imbalance of power. Love "is slowly corrosive of hierarchy, and vice versa." Love is the great leveler of the playing field, enabling humans to look past cosmetic differences and enabling them to see one another as created. It is love that does not pander, nor does it condescend, but rather is creative of the space in which the beloved is freed to be who he or she is.

I think of this in terms of teaching. I can say, in a non-creepy way (I hope), that I love my students. I want the best for them. This being said, I never lose sight of the fact that I am the adult in the room and that they are, for the most part, children. Love does not mean that I have to do any particular thing at any given time. Instead, the love I can show them is by not doing anything save for allowing them to be themselves. Love creates space, it enlarges the area we occupy together, and empowers exploration.

In time, these students grow older. It is funny, and sort of cool, to meet students who graduated two years ago as they tremulously say, "Hey, Ryan" as opposed to "Hey, Mr. Duns." Emboldened by an invitation and feeling that the shared-space may permit it, they risk embracing the equality authentic love demands.

By no means do I intend to sound anti-hierarchy. I think there is an important function and structure provided by hierarchy (I'm a Catholic, a Jesuit, after all). I think, though, that hierarchical structures are means-to-and-end rather than ends in and of themselves. That is to say, I view the hierarchical structure of a classroom, of my relationship with my religious superiors, as a training ground in love and equality. As I give my students space to learn and explore, and as my superiors give me the space to develop my talents, in both cases is there an enlarging and is there growth. Good parents provide structure for their children, not as an end but as a means of child-rearing. As the child grows and the strictures are relaxed, it is because the child has been formed and is being granted greater freedom. Is is the unloving parent who never relaxes, who never grants freedom to the child.

The danger of viewing the hierarchy as an end, rather than a means to an end, is clear to my mind in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. The efforts of not a few of its members to preserve the hierarchy from scandal - often by duplicitous and un-loving means - has led to a tremendous crisis in confidence. The very structures that were, and are, intended to help people learn to love as Jesus loved and called us to begin to live now as we will live forever in God's Kingdom, have become roadblocks and scandalous to many.

Christian love is a radical love, one that has the courage to transgress boundaries because when we enact love, we do so in the confidence that our actions will be remembered on Judgment Day when we hear, "When you did these things, You Did It To Me." I fear the contrary is true, that when we neglect to love, or when we act counter to love, we will feel the sting of knowing that our contributions to others' affliction will be remembered likewise, "You Did It To Me."

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Has Irish Dancing Lost its Luster?

Nearly a decade ago, when I was a grad student at John Carroll University, I supplemented my meager graduate stipend by playing the accordion at Irish dancing competitions all over the country. Indeed, I made a rather comfortable living off of Irish music - I was able to travel the nation, eat in great restaurants, hang out with people who shared a common interest, play the music I loved, and support the music and culture that was so dear to my heart.

One morning, a person from a feis called my parents' home, looking for me. I had left the house and my mother gave the caller my work number. The administrative assistant answered the call and took the message, promising that I would return the call when I arrived at the office.

Not long after the message was taken, I stepped in and began to check my mail. Out of the blue, I heard, "You know, Ryan, you've got a lot of nerve." Puzzled, I looked up from the mail and said, "Pardon me?" She continued, "I know you do some strange things, but someone from your fetish just called looking for you." It was amidst great laughter that I had to correct her, stressing that it was someone from the feis, or Irish dancing competition, and not some clandestine fetish.

Over the last decade, I have played at countless numbers of feiseanna. As a teacher, it is often difficult to give away an entire weekend for playing, so I have played far fewer than I might have liked. I miss being "on the circuit" and spending time with people I care about doing something I still enjoy. At least, something I think I enjoy.

In recent years, the atmosphere of Irish dancing has changed a lot. When I was a kid - and I know nostalgia plays a role in this interpretation - Irish dancing seemed to be a lot more fun. People from different dance schools got together and had fun with one another. Kids competed, to be sure, but they also enjoyed each other. As a young musician, I was always struck with how much fun the judges and musicians were - they seemed really to love what they were doing.

In the post-Riverdance years, Irish dancing became more and more professionalized. This, certainly increased the caliber of dancing. Yet it also has changed the culture of dancing. Teachers, many who depend on their dancing schools as the main source of income, work very hard to ensure good results for their dancers. Parents, who expect a lot for their investments, are only too willing to transfer dancers multiple times from school-to-school in search of the teacher who will make the child a star. The kids, for their part, get so caught up in doing their three dances for a competition that they totally fail to see the cultural and historical background of what they are doing.

Yesterday, I watched two young teachers spend the day glowering at people associated with other schools. People from other schools then proceeded to speak ill of those teachers. On public message boards, dancers who had transferred are poked fun at.

This animosity sets up an impossible situation. If the kids do well, then the reason has to be politics, or back-room dealings, or the fact that these kids were good beforehand. If the kids do poorly, other adults actually are glad that they didn't do well. The culture of Irish dancing, which once encouraged the best of people, seems more apt to bring out the worst in an increasing number of people.

My good friend Anne Hall, a wonderful judge and dancing teacher, always says, "Dancers come and go. Your colleagues are forever." Long after prizes are awarded, long after the trophy has tarnished and the first-place sash has been put into storage, years after a school's best dancer has retired, the teachers are still there. I simply don't understand why it is that so much energy goes into being jerks over kids when, in all honesty, they will eventually quit and the teachers will still be there, except now they have hurt feelings and bad blood. No dancer, in my estimation, is worth the cost of a friendship.

I look back on my past with Irish dancing and I cannot recount the number of wonderful ways it has impacted my life. This being said, I have serious reservations about seeing my niece and nephew as Irish dancers. I don't know that either of them will gain a more profound understanding of their cultural heritage or gain a sense of what role they will play in the preservation and propagation of their tradition. With the games and politics that seem to be increasing, I don't want them to think - at least not at a young age - that their success or failure in Irish dancing rests not on talent and determination but, rather, on political connections and intrigue. I want them to love Irish dancing and music because it is fun and because it brings out the best of them. I do not want them affiliated if it is only to be pawns in the small-minded games of immature adults.

To my colleagues in Irish dancing: please remember that, after your champion's shoes are put away and the dress sold, after you teach your last lead-around and treble, after you have closed up class for the last time, that you certainly will be remembered by a small number for the world medalists and national champions you trained. Yet, you will be remembered by countless more - the novice dancers who struggled to get third, the leggers who never made it into Preliminary Championships but came to your class because they loved to dance, the kids who gladly danced teams but never did much in the solos - whose lives you have touched by your passion for your craft. You will be remembered for who you loved.  Choose to put medals over people, trophies over hearts, honors over honesty...you will be remembered for what you loved. In the short-term, it may make great business sense. In the long term, I simply don't think it either sustainable or wise.

Please don't read this as an indictment or a judgment. I'm simply a musician - certainly not the best or most talented of them - and I do my best to sit back and play the music. My livelihood does not rest on playing feiseanna, so I feel at greater liberty to speak freely. My words, though, do come from a place of deep concern and love and while they might not reach many, I hope that those they do reach take but a moment to consider their approach to this culture we love so dearly and ask how their actions help, or hinder, its flourishing.


On Dissertating

An old acquaintance, seeing my blog post from yesterday, emailed me this morning. He, too, is enrolled in a doctoral program and he was sho...