Monday, January 30, 2012

No Senior Slump Here!

I am acutely aware, having taught and worked with high school seniors for these three years, that one of the niggling issues students face is the temptation of the "senior slump." Having been accepted to college and feeling the tassel of the graduation cap within his grasp, the student is apt to coast through the semester. Entering my sixth and final semester of regency, I am aware of such a temptation.
Le Cordon Bleu need not fear their applications. 

I am doing everything within my power to fight it.

First, we had a great dinner on Saturday night for the parents who bought the "Dinner with Mr. Duns and the Student Senate Officers." Beginning at 10:00 am and finishing with the dishes at 11:40 pm, it was a long and tiring day. In case you're curious, here's the menu:

  • Appetizers: Prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe; Apricot-Pecan Baked Brie; Bruschetta
  • Main Course: Tomato-Basil Soup with Pancetta; Winter Salad with Belgian Endive and a Walnut-Dijon dressing; Grilled Polenta; Turkey and Artichoke Stuffed Shells in a tangy Arabiata Sauce
  • Dessert: Belgian chocolate cups with a French Mousse and a Homemade Brown Butter Cake with Dark Chocolate Filling and a White Chocolate Buttercream Icing. 
And, in case you are wondering, we did make just about everything from scratch (with the exception of the shells and the bread). 

Now, I'll be totally transparent: I think I'd rather herd up a pack of ferrel cats than cook with five teenagers. I used to think directing Jesuits in a kitchen was difficult until working with them. After about two hours where they cut a lot of basil, sliced tomatoes, and did a marvelous job stirring the tomato sauce, I bought them pizzas and had them eat while I continued to cook. At 4:30, they left for the basketball game, giving me enough time to pull the meal together. Upon their arrival, they took turns "announcing" the courses to our guests and even devised a little clap to summon the other servers into the room. 
David Obia, Pat Vecellio, Anthony Shallal,
Isaac Piepszowski, and Brian Cleary 
I went to bed exhausted, a bit hungry (I forgot to eat), but happy that my guests and the students had a fun evening. 

Today, we made plans for a Dance this Saturday (Cupid Shuffle), a Chili Dog Night for the Freshmen on February 7th (right before the varsity basketball game), and perhaps most special of all, today we kicked off an RCIA program here at school.

It has been an amazing grace to have students ask how they can become Catholic. This year, we have managed to work in conjunction with a local parish to offer a more formal course of catechetical instruction in order to receive the students into the Church at the Vigil Mass. I have taught each of these students and I am so proud of their willingness to take ownership of their faith lives. To be sure, this involves a lot of work (on all of our parts) and a lot of prayer, but if these guys experience even a small iota of the joy I have felt in my own life of faith, it will be worth it. 

It is obvious, then, that things are quite busy around here. I'm still teaching five courses, running the Senate, playing feiseanna, reading books (I'm on a Heidegger kick right now), and I'm trying to figure out how to spend this summer. I am resolved, however, to make the most of these waning days of regency and as I once heard in a homily, I regard it far better to burn out than to rust out. 



Monday, January 23, 2012

Recharging

I apologize for the lag in posting over the last week. The tragedy of two weeks ago is still fresh in my own heart and, each time I have sat down to do some writing, I just can't bring myself to do it. It's not depression, I'm sure, but it is a sense that in the wake of unthinkable evil it is hard to reclaim ones voice. If last week I found my voice in re-articulating Father Kiser's message of hope, the intervening days have found me somewhat quiet and pensive.

This post, I hope, will lead to a thaw and allow the juices to flow once again.

There's not much new happening on my front. Last week occasioned the visit of our provincial and then, on Friday, a trip to the Detroit Automotive Show. This week I have to plan a rally (Friday) and a dinner for parents who purchased a dinner with "Mr. Duns and the Senate Officers" to be hosted here. Fortunately, these are parents I know pretty well and I know that the fastest way to their stomachs...is through a bottle of Chianti. My plan is to give cooking lessons to the Officers as we prepare the meal for the parents, which is either an inspired idea or a recipe for disaster. We shall see.



Friday, January 13, 2012

Where is the light in the midst of Tragedy?

Our first semester ended yesterday, not with great fanfare, but as an eery mirror to the way it began: in prayer. Back in August, we began the 2011-12 academic year with a festive Mass of the Holy Spirit. Yesterday, after the second exam, our students gathered in the Chapel of the North American Martyrs to pray for one of our students whose parents had died two nights earlier in a tragic murder-suicide. 

Father Karl Kiser, the President and CPO (Chief Pastoral Officer - my title for him), led the assembly in a prayer service. We sang, we prayed two psalms, we listened to Scripture. Yet it was when Father Kiser spoke, it was when he addressed the community, that I beheld the true power of prayer and the grace of God. 

Father Kiser began by saying, "There are no answers to this tragedy." He drew a parallel with Job, who demanded that God account for the tragedies that had befallen him and his family, and God responded. Out of the depths of the whirlwind God responds:

Who is this who darkens counsel with words of ignorance?
Gird up your loins - now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers!
Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size? Surely you know?
Who stretched out the measuring line for it? 
Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone,
while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Job 38

It is natural for our belief in God to be challenged in these situations. "If there is a good, and powerful, and loving God," the question pierces the heart, "how was this allowed to happen? Where was God? Where is God? Is there a God?" 

There is no good answer to the mystery of evil. There are no words that remove its sting, no theories that neutralize its poison. My heart breaks for the student's family and I, too, must raise the question, "Where the hell is God?"

Father Kiser continued. Looking out at a body of people ranging in age from 7th graders to the most veteran teachers, he made the very powerful point, "We are to be the answer to prayer." When this family struggles for support, it is our hands that will clasp him. When this student falters, it is we who will bolster him. When this family questions if there is love in the world, we will be the love they feel. 

Of late, prayer has gotten something of a bad rap thanks to Tim Tebow. The way Tebow's prayer has been portrayed, that his prayers are calling forth divine intervention in order to win football games while many millions of people starve to death across the world, is more akin to spells and incantations than to prayer. Father Kiser rightly encouraged the congregation that true prayer is not magic, not empty words, not a disengaged activity. Real prayer forces us to roll up our sleeves, dig in, and to be the prayer we offer. 

So where do we see God in the midst of tragedy, where is the light? The light shines forth from our hearts, hearts that have been cracked open and pried apart by tragedy. The fissures and cracks of the heart, rather than impeding our love, actually gives us space for love to grow, to pour forth, and to flow into the world. Our prayer does not change God's mind, but it certainly changes our hearts. In love, our hearts reflect into the darkness of the world the true source of light that comes from the Sun who illuminates all of creation.

This light fades and is squelched not by tragedy but by cynicism and hopelessness. When we cover over our hearts and retreat into the cellars of our souls, the light is reduced to the faintest of glimmers. It is only when we make vulnerable our hearts, when we allow them to be wounded by the day-to-day travails, that the painful cracks appear and allow the light within us, God's life within us, to pierce the darkness and light the way. In the days and months ahead, please pray for the family embroiled in this tragedy. Pray, too, that your heart may be cracked, even if just a bit, so that the light in you may shine in the darkness left in the wake of unthinkable violence and senseless death. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Lamenting Wall

I'm not really a techie guy - I have an iPhone, a Kindle Fire, and a computer. Sure, I do have some experience with YouTube and with blogging but, in general, I've little knowledge of computers and technology. I'm glad it's there, I'm glad when it is working, but I haven't the foggiest clue as to how it works.

I wish I did.

In addition to www.parishconnect.com, my proposal for a multi-platform site to help women and men interested in finding a 'right fit' parish, I have another idea. Near as I can tell, it will remain only an idea as I haven't the skill to put it into action. Hence my blogging about it: if it is a good idea, viable and helpful to souls, perhaps someone else will pick up on it.

There is a practice, at the "Wailing Wall" of Jerusalem, for pilgrims to place prayer notes into the crevices. I even learned on Wikipedia that one can now email prayers that will be printed and put into the wall. There's something beautiful about the image of many prayers, born out of the hearts of many people, coming together in the fissures of the Wall.

What I would propose is something like a digital Wailing Wall, called www.WhyILeftTheChurch.com. Or www.LamentingWall.com. On this site, users could anonymously write their stories of why they feel no longer able to be in communion with the Catholic Church. These stories would then be digitally 'folded' and put into a virtual wall. Over time, I suspect, we would see many of the joints and cracks and crevices filled with the stories of those who have departed. No comments would be enabled and no registration necessary. Simply stop by, tell your story, and commend it to the Lamenting Wall.

Why this proposal? Because every time we lose a member of the Church, we should feel a sting of lamentation. Every time a sincere seeker throws up her hands and says, "I quit!" we should take a moment to ask, "Why?" We, as a Church, ought to do this because the stories that are posted are the stories of good people who find that they are not being fed at the Lord's table. If, by listening to their stories, we find that there are ways we can help to invite them and those like them back, then we can start to become the change we want to see.

I do not envision this as simply a place where people can moan and complain. I'm also certain that many kooks will show up and write utterly obnoxious things online. If I were in charge of it, I'd enlist the services of some of my Jesuit brothers - those in our nursing facilities, especially - and ask them to take on as a special mission the activity of praying for those who commend their stories to the virtual wall. Perhaps it would be a start to healing wounds to know that, in response to your story, someone is praying for you.

I suspect that one of the great frustrations many people have with the Catholic Church is their experience of not being heard, of feeling as though no one has listened to them. A digital Lamenting Wall certainly would not heal old wounds or change structures, but it might be a beginning. Imagine how an inquisitive bishop, or pastor, or any member of the Church might feel to go online and read the testimonies of people who felt they had to 'vote with their feet.' This might be just the sort of forum where the process of telling one's story might be the start of a spiritual journey home.

As I said the other day, I welcome any and all feedback. I might be totally crazy with these ideas, but I put them out on the blog to see if they gain any traction. If this is of God's spirit, then it will enkindle the hearts of others. If it is simply the product of my own mind, it is doomed to languish in the archives.



Monday, January 09, 2012

To Assist in the Progress of Souls...A Website Idea

As a vowed member of the Society of Jesus, I take seriously the mission of the Jesuits, expressed succinctly in the apostolic letters Regimini Militantis Ecclesiae and Exposcit Debitum:
...He is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of public preaching, lectures, and any other ministration whatsoever of the word of God, and further by means of the Spiritual Exercises, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity, and the spiritual consolation of Christ's faithful through hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments. 
Over the last few years, I have become acutely aware that many Catholics in the United States are not being fed. That is to say, they are coming to the celebration of the Eucharist and leaving hungry. Bad music, inaccessible preaching, unwelcoming communities: each of these is commonly cited as reasons why people stop attending their parishes. Yet, in my experience, young adult Catholics don't really "vote with their feet" and find a new parish to attend. They simply stop attending altogether. 


This leads me to make a small proposal, one I'd love to see the Jesuits take on but one, for political reasons, I don't think we'd dare to do. 

I would like to think about a site called "www.parishconnect.com" which would effectively be a hybrid of three platforms:
  1. RateMyProfessor.com - there would be a way for registered users to offer evaluations of their parishes. They could fill out short surveys, online, asking about quality of music/preaching/liturgy/community/services and then, where needed, give more information (Latin Mass? Guitars? Kinds of music? Socials for older adults? Social outreach? A COURAGE chapter? Vibrant Choir? Etc.). These "RateMyParish" profiles would be open to the public: maybe it would be good for some of our parishes/pastors/bishops to get a sense of what their dioceses look like. 
  2. Match.com - users would fill out a profile indicating what they like in terms of liturgical life and social ministries as well as what their expectations for a parish. We solicit feedback from parishioners about their parish experience - this would provide us with on-the-ground feedback on parish life, give us interesting sociological data, and would help us to match potential parishioners with potential parishes. If users are interested, they might even find vocational support, pre-Cana, Marriage Encounter, Youth Groups, etc. 
  3. Masstimes.org - while it would offer any user the times for a parish mass, registered users would have access to (1) evaluations and (2) could be paired up with - a la match.com - with parishes that might match their interests.
I'm thinking from the perspective of my siblings with children. They want to take their kids to Mass, they want to settle into a parish, but they feel like they have to keep shopping around. If they filled out the survey, indicating that good preaching and a strong Religious Ed program were important, perhaps they could be matched with a parish that offers these. When visiting another state, again, it would make finding a Mass less stressful: while not 100% certain, it might help the odds of finding something rewarding. 

As a Jesuit professor once expressed it, our recent graduates "are more likely to register at a gym than they are to register in a parish." Even students who faithfully attend liturgies on campus are reluctant to join a parish, as their experiences of (hopefully) dynamic liturgy are dashed in the average parish. Young adults will drive to get a good cup of coffee. They will drive to the mall. They will drive to the gym. They will drive, they will travel, they will come if they (1) know what they are getting and (2) are able to find it. 

I have worked out some of the logistical issues - how to register users, how it could be funded, the dual platforms I think would be necessary to make it a viable effort - but those aren't exactly necessary to go into here. 

So here's my modest proposal. I'd love to hear feedback on it, especially if this would help Catholics find a spiritual home where they can grow in love for their faith and be fed at the Lord's table. I simply feel it is my duty, wherever and whenever possible, to offer support in this way and the idea of www.parishconnect.com seems one way of doing this. 

Monday, January 02, 2012

When Prayer is a Blow to the Ego


Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will.
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me. 
To you, Lord, I return it. 

Everything is yours; do with it what you will. 
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me. 
~Saint Ignatius of Loyola

I can speak only for myself, but this prayer scares the hell out of me. In my experience, this is a prayer of radical trust and tremendous risk. It is, ultimately, the prayer that led me to profess vows within the Society of Jesus...it is the prayer I fear I will never fully live into because of my own lack of courage. 

The first time I really prayed this prayer was when I was as a novice making the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises in 2005. Throughout the retreat, my heart had been moved by God's unimaginable grace and I wanted...and continue to want...to offer my whole self to the service of God's Kingdom as a Companion of Jesus. 

Now, this prayer (fortunately or unfortunately) does not mean that you can return your unruly children or send back your spouse whose snoring keeps you up at night. Would only that God have provided us with such a return policy. 

What it means, at least in my experience, is that one needs to surrender his agenda in order to make room for God's agenda. In a sense, it's a totally uneven trade: we give over to the Lord all of those things that we think make us who we and what we think we need and we are given, in exchange, all that we truly need: God's own self, God's own life. In this prayer, I ask nothing less than that God's life become my life. 

Let me be transparent: I am seldom possessed of a pure motivation. I try hard to be of an undivided heart, but I am a great sinner. I am ambitious. I am proud. I can be arrogant. I am self-conscious and tempted to be relevant, to be powerful, and to be looked upon as spectacular. I despise hypocrisy probably because it makes me aware of my own hypocritical tendencies. I like to be the go-to guy for information, for advice, and I like to be given the 'special project' because in being chosen above others, it pads my ego and gives me a greater sense of self. For good or for ill, I have a sense of how things ought to be and I seem to have enough of a knack for organizing that I can conceive of how these things might look were I in charge. 

I type the above paragraph and I want to delete it because my instinctual desire to have people think well of me is stirred. Let it be counted as a moment of grace that these demons be named. 

So when I pray, when I really pray, I feel myself totally displaced from the center of the cosmos that I should like to dwell within. My idea of heaven - where I stand at the center of creation - is shattered and I place, often reluctantly, my whole self in God's hands. When I pray, when I throw myself open to God's creativity and ask that God's life be made my life, I risk being re-created into the man God is trying to form. 

Oh, there is resistance to this painful grace. My dark side demands more than God's love. The sinister part of my heart taunts, "How will others know that you are loved if you have nothing to show for it?" This side prods me to jealousy, to comparison with others, and encourages me to rest on laurels or to put myself above others and to cast a haughty and condescending eye toward them. I want riches, I want honors. I want to be measured and compared and valued over-and-against others. I want to be seen as on top and to know that, in being on top, I stand over others. 

It is this sinful self that I offer to the Lord when I have the courage to pray the Suscipe (the name of the above prayer). I confront my own limitations and my own agenda and hand myself over to the One who wants to break open my limitations and give me a new agenda. This prayer is nothing less than taking the rough draft I have tried to write with my own life and giving it to the master editor who is going to critique it and help to give it a new direction. If my fragile ego can stand to be told that it is not as good, as wonderful, as powerful, as spectacular as it thinks it is...then it stands to be edited into a work that proclaims the glory of its true Author. 

I admit that I don't quite get it right. As I said a moment ago, I have a lot of sinful traits. Nevertheless, I'm joyful that I am learning more about these and I am finding greater courage to make my life into this prayer, to allow it to move from my lips to my heart to my whole self. It is really scary to surrender my way and to accept God's way, because I am not in charge. It is hard to accept God's values because they threaten the values that keep me safe and secure at the center of my self-created universe. 

I doubt that I'll ever make myself into an embodiment of this prayer, but maybe that can be a prayer on its own: let me, O Lord, become a living prayer, this living prayer. Let me become a tool of Your holy will, an instrument of Your boundless love, a vessel of Your amazing grace.