Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas Vigil Homily

One of the best parts – well, at least one of the important parts – of being a priest is being with families in times of crisis. Often enough, this means I attend a lot of wakes. Especially if I have to do the funeral the next day, the wake is a privileged opportunity to learn about the deceased and the family who mourns them. Seeing how others grieve gives you an appreciation for the deceased…and, as it turns out, it helps you to realize how your own family isn’t as crazy as you previously thought.
Sometimes as I lead the family in the Rosary, or as I eavesdrop on the conversations, I hear the things people say: “Her make-up is awful.” “Oh my, she’d be appalled to meet Saint Peter wearing that dress.” “Ah, he looks better dead. It suits him.”
But sometimes, when you’re at an especially tragic wake or funeral – a teenager’s suicide, an overdose, a young parent dying of cancer – you’ll hear people say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” I get the meaning of the phrase: at heart, it’s an expression of gratitude, thanking God for sparing one from the calamity one sees. We say it because we sense how fragile and precious life and how we should not take for granted the blessings in our lives.
That said, I think it is the power of Christmas to turn this phrase on its head. This is not because the message is wrong, or bad, but because it doesn’t go far enough.
            When Mary was found to be with child, Joseph knew what neighbors would say:He knew they’d judge her, that they’d cluck their tongues and comment about “young people these days.” He knew sympathetic people would say, “Ah, there but for the grace of God, go I.” Their hearts would be moved, they’d say things like, “poor dear” and “bless her heart;” he knew they might do something nice for her, but they’d be glad it was happening to someone else and not in their family.
Joseph’s dream of marriage, his plan for the future, seems to be thrown into chaos. And then he has a dream. The Lord comes to Joseph as his world collapses and with a simple message: Do not be afraid. “Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit this child has been conceived in her.”

·      Do not be afraid –Mary carries the one who will save his people from sin.
·      Do not be afraid – though there may be times of uncertainty and struggle, times of fear and doubt, know that I am with you.
·      Do not be afraid – my grace does not keep you out of the muck and mire of the world, but sends you headlong into it. You are to embark upon the adventure of faith because of my grace, because my Son, is with you.
·      Do not be afraid – these words Joseph heard so long ago continue to speak to us, reminding us how anywhere we have been, any chaos we confront, God is with us because He has gone before us. At Christmas, we celebrate how God doesn’t just watch our struggles; God is not apart from us and our history but is a part of it, as our companion.

I say this because Christmas cards and Hallmark moves offer us tempting images of what the “ideal” Christmas season looks like.  Perfectly groomed and behaved children, a delicious dinner, laughter and merriment as gifts are exchanged. Everyone is happy, no one wants for anything, and all hearts are free and easy. But, as we know all too well, the real is usually quite far from the ideal. How many of us face

·      Family squabbles and rivalries
·      Hearts heavy with grief as we miss those we have lost
·      Anxiety about gifts, fear about whether one has done enough for one’s family, uncertainty about what the future holds

This is the messiness of Christmas. This is our messiness and confusion, and it is this messiness God claims as his own. This is the reality, our reality, Jesus is born into.
Sad to say, Faith Hill’s song about Christmas totally misses the point: Christmas is not a feeling, it’s not a sentiment, or an emotion. It is an event and a challenge to people of faith. It is an opportunity to open up and look at our lives as they really are, to see where we are in need of a savior, and to take the risk of allowing Christ to be born in the midst of our lives.
Thus, instead of saying Instead of saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I” our motto and mantra ought to be: There because of God’s grace, go I.

·      When you find the strength to forgive old hurts and try to build a new relationship – there is God’s grace guiding you.
·      When you seek help for an addiction, or step in to help a loved one who is struggling with addiction – there is God’s grace guiding you.
·      When you play with your children and grandchildren, when you laugh with your family, when you propose marriage, or shed a tear for the spouse, or parent, or child you miss– there God’s grace is guiding you.  
·      When you speak up for the oppressed, when you refuse to sit idly by when others are mocked, or denigrated, or told they don’t matter – there God’s grace is guiding you.
·      Wherever you open your heart and your life to the Lord, whenever you open your heart in silent prayer – God is with you, loving you and guiding you, because our God is Emmanuel, “God with Us.”

God’s grace does not, and will not ever, keep us from getting dirty. This is the exact opposite of the prosperity gospel which is a terrible lie told to people. Following Jesus in our lives will not bring us profit, but peril; one cannot be a friend of Jesus and an enemy of the Cross. God’s grace plunges us into the confusion of history and gives us the strength to be ministers of the Gospel.
            Consider how we come forward to receive the Eucharist. How do we saw Amen? Do we meekly raise our hands up and mumble an Amen? Do we meander back to our seats and go back to the same old, same old? Do we saw Amen out of habit without thinking of who it is we are allowing to enter our innermost selves?
            Or will your Amen be said with courage and conviction? Maybe you will lift your shaking hands and think, “I am afraid to say Yes to you, Lord, but I feel you moving within me. I feel your call to me and, though it scares me, I say Amen to it. I invite you into my chaos and I will allow you lead me, step by step, out into the world to proclaim and help build the Body of Christ. I will risk myself in my own word Amen as I welcome your Word and let this Word guide me in a new direction.”

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Allow me to extend to all of you my wishes for a happy, holy, and courageous Christmas. We do not need God to visit us in our dreams because we receive Jesus Christ into our hearts and our lives every time we celebrate the Eucharist together. In times of darkness and doubt, in grief and anxiety, may the light who comes into the world on this Holy Night be your guide. In times of joy and laughter, may you be a light of hope and consolation to others. Where you hear your name called into places of discomfort and uncertainty, where you feel your heart moved to respond with your whole self, I pray you open yourselves and find the courage to say yes to the truth of Christmas: There because of God’s grace, go I.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Final Chapter?

At 3:34 this afternoon, I saved a completed draft of the fifth and final chapter of my dissertation. I semi-knew yesterday that I was nearing the end: the argument I was making just felt right and it all seemed to hang together. So, I woke up early this morning and edited pages 1-50 between 6:00 am and noon. I do this pretty regularly, usually after each section, so I can re-tool the beginning to reflect what I've done on the way. After six hours of work, I ate lunch and returned to my computer at 12:30. In a flurry of writing, I managed to tie up a number of loose ends and managed to knock out a pretty decent transition to the Conclusion (to be written in January).

I moved to Cleveland on May 24th, began writing on July 15th, and today is December 12th. In less than seven months I produced around 325 pages to be read by my advisor and probably another 60 pages in the "deleted from chapter X" files. Not every day has been a triumph, but I have never gone to bed with a sense of foreboding or unhappiness. I have enjoyed this process and feel confirmed in my calling to the academic life.

My hope now: to start translating some of the heavy-lifting I've been doing in metaphysics to material helpful to a general audience. Not everyone will want to read of metaxology (Gasp!) but I suspect people would welcome works exploring how one can pray in a secular age, how one can undertake spiritual practices aimed at re-awakening questions of transcendence, and how theology and philosophy can be mutually informative. Well, the last one would not be to all tastes!

Just thought I'd share this bit of news. There's a lot more work to do: revisions, Intro/Conclusion, Defense, etc. But I feel as though I've argued a point and made a good case for my project, so tonight I shall sleep easy.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

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 shocked to read how much progress I had made on my own project since July. He asked if I would offer him some tips which I'm glad to do. Of course, these are not the musings of an expert: I'm still in the throes of writing, although I am glad to see I have far more pages behind me than before me. So instead of this being advice about what worked let me frame it as some thoughts about what is working.


  1. Treat writing like your job. Theology students in Boston College's doctoral program have their whole fourth year to write without any teaching obligations. Accordingly, I have treated the task of writing as my full-time job. Monday-Friday, usually 6:50 in the morning until 5:00 in the afternoon. Lunch breaks, workout time, and a nap are built into this schedule. 
  2. Think, and write, in sections. So I apportion in my mind how long a section should be, make a preliminary sketch of the argumentative moves I need to make, and I execute the section. Each night before I go to bed, I look over my outline and cast my eyes over the relevant texts in order to refresh my memory. 
  3. Don't be frivolous. I often see Twitter posts or Facebook updates from students writing their dissertations and I am shocked at how much time and energy they waste "curating" some type of public image. Every minute you spend thinking about a clever Tweet, or making a meme, is one less minute for you to focus on your project. Frankly, I'm aghast at how many inane tweets I come upon when, after dinner each night, I scroll through social media to see what I've missed throughout the course of the day. 
  4. Learn to say no. Sure, it'd be fun to accept an invitation to review a book that tangentially touches upon your research, but is it going to make a significant contribution? Of course you have a brilliant article idea when you're eye-deep in your central argument, but this does not mean you should undertake writing it. I would apply this to blogging or online contributions: if it is not peer-reviewed and if it is not going to get you a job, the benefit simply doesn't seem to outweigh the cost in time and energy. 
  5. Edit daily and Don't Be Afraid to Kill Your Darlings. This is my practice: each night I re-read the day's writing. On Friday afternoon or, if I'm traveling, I re-read the week's work and edit the hell out of it. Even your most beautifully crafted sentences, not germane to your thesis, should be summarily executed on the charge of treason to thought. 
  6. Know Your Advisor. I have, perhaps, the greatest advisor imaginable: he's kind, brilliant, has a great sense of humor, and knows how to temper criticism with copious encouragement. He is a mentor and a friend, a cheerleader and coach. I'm lucky. But having an open channel of communication has been so helpful. 
  7. Find Balance.  I have found it helpful to balance priestly ministry (on weekends) and musical performance (on weekends) with my writing. Between July and mid-November, I have traveled on about 75% of the weekends and I celebrated Mass 100% of the weekends. This means I work really hard during the week (no drinking, not much television) in order to allow me the time to do things I love on the weekend. 
  8. Buy a Whiteboard. I have a big whiteboard next to my desk with a bunch of dry-erase markers. Sometimes when I'm in the shower, or exercising, something "clicks" in my mind and I need to write it down: whiteboard! Each morning, I put up key words or concepts I need to keep in mind that day: whiteboard! I can then cross these out at the day's end. Not for nothing, there is no feeling more satisfying than being able to erase it at the end of a day, or a chapter, and start all over again. It's downright cathartic. 
  9. You Can't Read Everything. I think I have read just about every word my figure - William Desmond - has written. The secondary literature is also pretty manageable, although it continues to grow. Yet my secondary figures - Pierre Hadot, Charles Taylor, Richard Kearney, John Caputo, Merold Westphal - are vast on their own. So how did I engage? I read and engaged them in a very focused manner. I guess one lesson I've learned is how to discern the value of a given text and assess whether, and how, it might advance my own work. 
  10. Own Feeling Like a Fraud.  Throughout this process, I have swung between feelings of mastery and competence and feelings of being an utter fraud on the verge of being discovered. It's chastening and humbling. Then again, as a theologian, I'm trying to speak of a Mystery beyond human concept. Cool comfort, to be sure, but comfort nonetheless. So I own being a fraud and rest content that I'm not alone in feeling this way. 
So, yeah, there's ten little ideas. As I've said, they are things that are working for me. I think, as of this morning, I've written ~270 pages and I've got, maybe, 50 left to go. Well, I need to do an intro (8-pages) and a conclusion (12-page). In the end, I'm aiming at a 350-page project. Longer than I'd imagined at first but needfully so. At my current pace, from start to finish writing will have taken six months. Prior to this, I read intensively for about six months and I've read, and re-read, many of those works during this time.

Truth be told, I've enjoyed writing. It can be tedious, daunting, and it's a true marathon. But it has been a true privilege to think along with great minds and to try, feebly as I might, to make a contribution to a field.  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Glimpse of Light

Every now and again, I feel a pang of guilt for not updating the blog. Just a year ago, I took my PhD comprehensive exams and began preparing to write my dissertation. I then moved to Cleveland - I now live at John Carroll University  - and began writing in July. As of today, I have submitted three chapters to my committee and I'll finish the fourth this week. I'm hoping to have a solid draft of the fifth chapter finished around Christmas and I should get the Intro and Conclusion written in January. With a bit of luck, I'll defend in the Spring and receive my diploma in May.

I say this in order to share one reason for my relative absence from blogging. I treat writing as I would treat a job. Blogging will neither get me my degree nor will it ever get me tenure, so it's not as high on my priority list.

Then again, I'm sort of glad to be out of the blogging loop. I've become dismayed not only by the political rhetoric within the United State but, more acutely, with the way fellow Christians speak to, and about, one another. Years ago, I had the stomach for wading into online debates. I no longer do. In fact, I don't see much point in commenting on blogs/sites and I seldom read the comments boxes on sites because I find them disheartening.

Anyway, the next few weeks are rife with travel. I'm off to Boston tomorrow, then on to Hartford for the New England Oireachtas. I'll spend a week reading and writing in Boston followed by a wedding and then I return to Cleveland for three days. I'll then be off to Orlando for the Southern Region Oireachtas (for Mass). Things should quiet down come December, so I'll be locked away in my room trying to finish my project.

At some point I'm sure I'll share more about my dissertation. The title, for those interested, is "Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age: William Desmond's Theological Achievement." It's an essay exploring how the metaxological metaphysics of William Desmond can be read as a series of spiritual exercises (Pierre Hadot in the background here) capable of reawakening the question of the Transcendent.

Heady stuff with lots of pretentious foreign words. I dig it, but it's certainly an acquired taste.

For anyone who still looks at this blog: thanks for hanging in there! I'll try to make it back someday.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Scientific Inquiry and the Catholic School

In September of 2016, a Catholic school in inner city Detroit opened a $15 million STEM building. In a city known more for its economic woes and racial unrest, it is remarkable that a Catholic school would raise such an enormous fund from private donors for a building dedicated to the study of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Has the Society of Jesus, which sponsors the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, finally recognised what so many of the new atheists would have us believe, that we should abandon the study of theology and dedicate ourselves exclusively to the pursuit of science and technology? More waggishly posed: Why build a chapel when you could build a chemistry lab?

During my years as a secondary school teacher, students were often gob-smacked when I emphasised, over and again, that religion and science, faith and reason, were not at odds with one another. ‘Yes, lads, you can be a thinking believer!’ Indeed, I insisted that both the chapel and the chemistry lab must be seen as integral to Catholic education. Each provides a venue for the rigorous and disciplined exploration of reality in all of its beauty and perplexity. In both settings, the student learns never to settle for facile answers to questions, pressing onward in a quest not merely to acquire information but, more importantly, to understand more deeply the intricacy of creation. At the heart of authentic theological and scientific inquiry, there abides a courageous spirit that does not recoil in fear from asking pointed and incisive questions. Thus, in a sense, we might regard both the liturgy and the laboratory as apprenticeship programmes wherein one is trained to see what to superficial eyes remains otherwise undetected.
                 
The ritual of inquiry
Science teachers know the frustration of trying to guide students through dimensional analysis and Punnett’s squares, of memorising the Krebs Cycle and of deriving physics equations. To instruct them, we lead them through a process: identify the known, isolate the unknown, and employ a strategy to find an answer to our question. We insist students ‘show their work’ and demonstrate that they have gone through all the steps necessary to reliably arrive at the correct answer. Even if they do not recognise it, teachers are indoctrinating students into the ritual of inquiry. By rote practice, memorisation, and some cajoling, we encourage students to adopt as habitual the rituals of disciplined inquiry. But, as we know, repetition is seldom a mark of intellectual excellence: we expect our students to probe deeply and engage creatively with the material. We encourage them to confront what is known with questions that push the boundaries of knowledge, turn up new insights, and make richer the realm of science. Rituals of guided inquiry make possible the work, the liturgy, of science.

Frustration, irritation, some sweat, fruitless and failed searches: these are not limited to the laboratory! Anyone who has spent time in real prayer, anyone who has allowed the ritual of the liturgy to draw his or her spirit more deeply into the depths of prayer, knows that there is no assured formula for success. Neither public liturgy nor private prayer furnishes practitioners with never-fail incantations. Instead, we have as part of our heritage of spiritual inquiry rituals that have reliably guided generations of seekers into a deeper relationship with the Creator. Every now and again, we are given the grace of a Eureka moment of radical insight as the hours of time spent in arid prayer reveal an expanded horizon that gives the individual a renewed appreciation for the power and majesty of the Holy One.

Catholic educators should encourage the study of science for the same reason we hope for frequent participation in the Eucharist: by pushing, prodding our students to peer beneath the surface, by wading into the dark waters of the unknown, we enable them to risk being struck by insight and shaken by revelation. Training our students in the rituals of inquiry – theological and scientific – we empower them to enter into the greater liturgy of creation where they may be ‘caught up’ in the beauty of nature and find inexhaustible delight in their realisation that, no matter how many questions one answers, a new question will arise that will elicit one to explore further.

Both chapel and laboratory
Patient and deliberate inquiry, attentive to ritual and appreciative of the vast liturgy into which we are called: these are traits shared by theologians and scientists. Both the chapel and the laboratory are necessary because both are arenas wherein we can risk an encounter with our Creator. We train our students in the chapel and the laboratory because they complement each other marvelously. Patience, wasted time, and steadfast perseverance are as necessary for obtaining, analysing, and processing data as they are every time we dare to pray. We, as teachers, invite our students to become what we know ourselves to be: apprentices to those who have come before us and who continue to inspire us as we press on in our inquiry. A student need not become another Marie Curie or Richard Dawkins, a Mother Teresa or St Francis for them to be successful. Our students, and our Church, succeed when they see that we are enriched by their investigations and that we, their teachers and fellow seekers, support their unwillingness to accept facile answers to their most pressing questions. Both science and theology encourage students to enter more deeply into the liturgy of creation and to celebrate the richness found therein.

Imagine what might happen if we taught theology, or encouraged students to experience the Eucharist, with the same brio with which we teach biology, chemistry, and physics. We could approach the Eucharist as the moment in the liturgy in which the matter we study actually addresses us and beckons us to approach, to question, and to celebrate the Mystery at the heart of reason itself?  Contrary to the worries of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who fear that religious education clouds human reason, we just may find ourselves graced with our own Athanasius Kirchner and Gregor Mendel: models of faithful reason who consecrated scientific exploration to the greater honour and glory of God.

We Are Marquette Podcast

For those who still frequent the site, a recent post from my new position at Marquette University: