Friday, February 29, 2008

My ideal job as a Jesuit

As many regular readers know, I have something of a penchant for the theology of Karl Rahner. To be sure, there is a host of theologians I love to read: James Alison, Jim Keenan, Robert Barron, Thomas Aquinas, N.T. Wright. But if I had to point to a thinker who not only taught me how to pray but who also engage in the craft of theology, hands-down it's Rahner.

With this said, it may come as a shock to many that being a theologian is not exactly my dream job. Don't get me wrong: I'd love to write books that help people learn how to pray better, books that introduce people in the Mystery of God's love for humanity. So I offer to you my three dream jobs:

1. Jesuit Chef. I'd love to prepare meals for those who come calling on various communities, incarnating the charity and hospitality of God's Kingdom as I have come to know it through prayer and a commitment of my life as a disciple of Christ

2. Special Ed teacher. For seven summers I worked in a summer camp that addressed the needs of mentally retarded (yes, in the state of Ohio this is the designation) and developmentally delayed children. I loved these children and their ability to give and receive love has made a lasting impression on my life. In them I learned to love a face of God that had, by the logic of this world, nothing to offer me. By the logic of God's Kingdom, however, they offered to all who would receive it the most precious gift of all: themselves.

3. Kindergarten teacher. The world doesn't need more good theologians. It needs more great kindergarten teachers. Women and men who are able to shape and contour burgeoning lives in a positive way. Spending six weeks teaching Kindergarten reminded me of how precious these young lives are and what a privilege it is to have a role in shaping a child's life. On this I am envious of my brother: he will shape my niece Emma's life in a way that is far more profound than any homily, any essay, or any book that I'll ever write. Because he will incarnate love for her, raising her in love to love. If I were a Kindergarten teacher I suspect that this would be both the burden and blessing of the vocation: to teach children how to love with love.

In short, my ideal job would involve actually incarnating God's love for others in a way that sought to establish the Kingdom Christ Jesus preached.

A career as a theologian might not help the Church as much as I might like to hope. But a career as a Kindergarten teacher? To help open the heart of a single child to the love of God and to one's neighbor...that seems far more valuable than any bit of erudite theology.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Catholic Blog Awards

 If you're hankering for something to do, consider visiting:

in order to nominate my blog. 

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Road to Cana

If there is any silver lining to the delays I encountered this weekend on my way to New Mexico, it is that the long hours spent waiting to stand-by on flights provided me an opportunity to read Anne Rice's new work Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. Better known as the author of the Vampire Chronicles, this is Anne's follow up to her 2006 work Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt

Rice (or her publishers) places at the beginning of the novel an invocation to the Trinity and then a quote from Karl Rahner, SJ: "The truth of the faith can be perceived only by doing a theology of Jesus Christ, and by redoing it over and over again." This is indeed a daunting task, one demanding a constant return to Jesus' own question to Peter "Who do people say that I am" (Mark 8:27). In this short (242 pages) and readable text, Rice sets out to answer that question anew.

Her tactic, however, is narrative rather than dogmatic. Instead of citing conciliar decrees or Church formulations, Rice assumes the role of Jesus and recounts aspects of his life. The Road to Cana begins approximately in Jesus' 30th year, beginning shortly before his baptism by John in the Jordan and ending shortly after his encounter with Mary Magdalene and the wedding at Cana. Creative liberties are obviously taken: as the scriptures are silent concerning Jesus' life between his visit to the Temple as an adolescent and his baptism, Rice is forced to imaginatively construct the social world in which Jesus may have found himself. To her credit, Rice demonstrates an a conscientious engagement with up-to-date scholarship and weaves this seamlessly into her narrative. (I mention this more to situate the work as a novel re-imagining of the "Hidden Life of Jesus" in order to stave off "DaVinci Code"-esque beliefs that what she writes about is HISTORY rather than fiction based on historical research and the experience of faith.)

So on a scholarly level, let me make one critique: much of what is spun here is fictional. We really don't know who lived with Jesus, what the various occupations of family members were (we can assume carpenter for some), or what tensions may have beset them. Again, I say this only to point out that this is not scholarship! With that in mind, let me share with you my impressions of the book.

In my experience as both a student and a teacher, I find very often people make very strange assumptions about Jesus. We think he was the most perfect human specimen (6-pack abs, flowing hair, killer smile, etc.) who came out of the womb possessed of cosmic awareness and a clear and full sense of self-identity. This is, sadly, an immature understanding of Jesus and downplays the role of his humanity. Jesus emerged from the womb and had to have his diaper changed. In short, there was a time in his life when he got sick, got stinky, and probably at times had to have boogers wiped from his nose. 

More importantly, however, Jesus had to learn how to love. Those years the Scriptures passed over in silence are the formative years when Jesus grew and matured into the man baptized by John. In those years he confronted the plight of his people, saw outcasts and widows and orphans, and had to learn how to respond to the needs of others. His family - Mary, Joseph, and all those who contributed to his life - played, accordingly, a crucial role in how Jesus learned to look with the eyes of love that we have come to take for granted in the Gospel portrayals. Just as Jesus had to learn to tie his sandals and use a lathe, he had also to learn how to love others.

What Anne Rice has done is to give us an imaginative portrayal of how this evolution may have taken place. In taking on the character of Jesus, she tells the story of of what it might have been like to have been Jesus prior to and just after his baptism. Did he have doubts? Fears? What may have made him angry? How did various events of the times affect him and incite him to action? 

In short, what might the internal landscape of Jesus have looked like?

Rice thus constructs her work as a story in light of a story. Jesus has heard the tales of his miraculous birth and the fantastic events surrounding it. These are stories that have shaped him as he has grown up and that have shaped and molded him into the man that he is. Others have heard these stories as well, leading many to look with suspicion on Jesus -- is he not to be the Savior? If so, what is he doing the backwater town of Nazareth!?! 

In light of this back story, Jesus confronts oppressive systems of power ranging from the imposition of the Roman ensigns in the Holy City of Jerusalem to the horrific stoning of two young boys. Stories, too, of Jesus' cousin John have begun to circulate and the news of the baptism he is offering at the Jordan capture the interest of those who hear it. In this novel, then, stories begin to align: the overarching tale of who Jesus is prophesied to become, Jesus' lived story and his evolving self-knowledge, and the story of the prophet who sees Jesus' story expanding to include a ministry to all of creation. 

What I love about this book is the rich descriptions Rice provides through her powerful prose. If you've every prayed using Ignatian Contemplation (or meditation) you will know how powerful the application of the senses is for this style of prayer. Rice seems able to capture the aridity and grittiness of life in Nazareth, the feelings of angst and anxiety that Jesus faced, and she conveys them to the reader without manufacturing feeling. Her writing, in a sense, facilitates an imaginative encounter with the fictive world of Jesus that helps to make Jesus' story the reader's story. 

The scene of Jesus' Temptation is particularly powerful. The dialogue between Jesus and his Tempter is brilliant and will inform my prayer this Lenten season. What can often be read as a tw0-dimensional story finds flesh and bone at her hands, resulting in an arresting unfolding of what Jesus may have experienced. 

Practical points: this book is a very quick read. I managed to finish it in under four hours but, then again, I didn't have much else to do. It is very accessible, although it takes some time to get used to the wide array of characters and their names. 

I think that this would make a fabulous book for anyone contemplating making either an 8-day or 30-day retreat, as it offers an imaginative framework in which one might begin to situate Jesus. Rice's imagery and skill give many images that would enhance prayer experiences and deepen such prayer encounters. 

Although the book will not be out until next month, I commend it to my readers whole-heartedly. Do not read it as though it were scholarship on Jesus - it is not. Read it, then, with a heart open as you ask the question, "How did Jesus learn how to love?" This, I feel, is the great contribution of Ms. Rice: she recalls that Jesus also struggled with love and its implications. With reverence and sensitivity she penetrates into the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The fruit of this is the chance to re-think one's image of Jesus and to drink imaginatively with Christ the cup of his life as he walks along The Road to Cana.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Long Weekend

I had meant to post several times this past weekend, but it seemed that there was no time to write. I'm traveling to New Mexico this weekend to play at a Feis (and to see my dear friend Anne Hall) so I've been trying to get a lot of work done ahead of time in order to leave NYC free and unburdened.

It was, nevertheless, a fun weekend. I went to a lecture on Friday afternoon and then invited several graduate students back to Ciszek Hall (my residence) in order to discuss the lecture. On Saturday Dr. Patrick Hornbeck and I took a group of students to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And finally, on Sunday we had a large vocation event here at Fordham were nearly twenty students come to meet with Jesuits from the Fordham community. It was great to see these students (representing various stages of discernment) and heartening to know that really good guys are attracted to the Society.

Oh, lest I forget, I did take the "Faces of Catholicism" group to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel (here in the Bronx) in order to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass. I am not looking for a debate in saying this, and I am aware that it will dismay some readers, but I doubt that I'll be attending this celebration least not in the near future. I found it very difficult to pray and I found myself more intrigued by the liturgy than enveloped into transcendent mystery. That being said, several students and other Jesuits had a more positive impression of it. Having now attended it, I can see why there is such a clamor for it. I would not make it the only liturgy celebrated, but if it facilitates the prayer of a significant number of the faithful then I see no reason not to offer it as an option. 

Saturday, February 16, 2008

On-Line Pilgrimage

Paul Elie, in his beautifully crafted book The Life You Save Might Be Your Own describes the pilgrimage as "A journey taken in light of a story." Having heard of some great happening through the stories of others, the pilgrim embarks to experience this story. Whereas a tourist goes to the site in order to take a photo, the pilgrim sets out on the journey in order to be transformed. The fruits of the pilgrimage are carried neither by photograph nor videotape, but rather are born on the bodies and live on in the story of the pilgrim.

Many of us will not get a chance to make the sort of pilgrimage made famous by the Canterbury Tales. But during the Lenten season - a season of pilgrimage with Christ - I would like to draw your attention to a new venture at America Magazine.  

Jesuit Father James Martin narrates the story of Chimayo, known as the Lourdes of America. Father Martin offers the story behind Chimayo and recounts how it has become an important site for pilgrimage. In this Lenten season, perhaps we can be attentive to the pilgrimage we are each invited into - some of us through prayer, some on foot, some in the daily grind of living out the Christian life. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Inside Fordham: Passing on the Tradition

Please excuse its length, but I can't find a link to the latest Inside Fordham which is carrying a column I wrote. Several weeks ago I was invited to contribute to the Sapientia et Doctrina section and I put this piece together.

Passing on the Tradition

When I was a little boy, I learned early that the best answer to the question, “Ryan, what do you want to be when you grow up?” was the enthusiastic reply, “A PRIEST!” Such a response earned me a pat on the head, a beaming glance and a couple of quarters from my grandfather. Secretly, however, I harbored another desire: I wanted to be a professional Irish musician.

Fast-forward about 20 years. I am now a Jesuit studying for the priesthood at Fordham. I continue to travel the world playing accordion for Irish dancing competitions known as feiseanna. I even teach a course titled “Introduction to the Irish Tin Whistle” in Fordham’s Irish Studies program. It seems that the innocent response of an eager-to-please little boy turned out to be a prophecy that is being fulfilled.

I often joke that I had to forsake the life of a rock-star accordion player to become a Jesuit. Actually, the opposite is nearer to the truth. Only by becoming a Jesuit did I fully grow into the Irish musician I was capable of being. My tin whistle students may guffaw at this claim. Didn’t they hear me complain each week that I didn’t have enough time to practice, to learn new tunes?

Allow me to explain. As a young musician, I was always after the next musical conquest—the next competition; the next difficult tune learned; the next movement mastered. My self-assessment as a musician rested upon what I could do with the instrument. My expectation was that people would look at my skill and judge me favorably because of it.

After I entered the Society of Jesus in 2004, I made the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola. This 30-day retreat is an intense period of prayer-guided encounters through which retreatants come to know, love and commit themselves to the service of God’s kingdom as disciples of Jesus Christ. Through the Exercises they see themselves as individuals in the midst of an unfolding story of God’s love and humanity’s rejection of it. They realize more fully their role in the history of God’s narrative of creation and salvation.

What, then, of Irish music? As I reflected upon my call to discipleship, I saw a parallel in my own musical heritage. The tunes that I played—the reels and jigs I learned and used to show off my skills—were written and performed by generations of musicians before me. My great-grandfather and great-aunt played these tunes; my immigrant teachers played these tunes; and now my students play these tunes. I recognized that my place in the Irish musical tradition is not as its greatest exponent, but rather as a steward who passes along what he has received from that tradition. With that realization, I ceased merely to play an Irish instrument and became the Irish musician I had always wanted to be.

The job of educators at a Jesuit university is not so different. Ours is a tremendous inheritance of wisdom that has been passed down through the Church for two millennia. Just as traditional music finds new expressions when it encounters new musical contexts, so we have the duty and privilege to help the next generation find its place within the Church’s tradition.

When I teach my tin whistle students, I begin with the basics—how to hold the whistle, how to cover its holes and how to blow it so it doesn’t make shrill noises. Then I build up a foundation of basic tunes—marches, polkas and carols—and begin to introduce various ornaments. As the students progress in difficulty, I encourage them to imitate me. The goal is not that they “play like me,” but rather that they learn the basics. This prepares them to expand the boundaries of the tradition through their own creative engagement with the music.

This is a challenge for any student. On one hand, there is a temptation to adhere to a rigid musical dogmatism that proclaims, “This is the only way it has ever been done! We can’t change it!” On the other hand, there are students who feel it is their right to impose deranged interpretations with the rejoinder, “I’m just being creative.”

A middle way, I suggest, is preferred. Students must learn the tradition and how a tune has been expressed in the past. Only then are they in a position to engage creatively and fruitfully with the music in a way that adds to the living tradition.

Whether we teach history, theology, biology or tin whistle, the burden and blessing is the same: We must hand on faithfully what we have received and equip our students to express what they have been given in new contexts. Can we work together to give students the critical tools they need to discern various truth claims and make informed decisions? As I tell my students, my hope is that each one will find a way to claim his or her voice in the Irish tradition. My job is not to give them that voice. My job is to help them find it within themselves.

The aim of a Jesuit education is nothing less: We help women and men claim their places within a larger tradition so that they can meet the demands of the world with fidelity to their roots and enthusiastic engagement with the future.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Faces of Catholicism

I just wanted to post a few pictures taken today. We went to the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola and after we went out for Brunch. 

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


I had a very nice weekend away in Seabright, New Jersey. The kitchen at the villa house is magnificent and I had a chance to cook dinner on Saturday evening for five other Jesuits. I marinated some steaks and prepared a bleu cheese butter to accompany them, I prepared a fried polenta (think french fries made of cornmeal), mushrooms stuffed with spinach, garlic, and parmesan cheese, and brownies and ice cream for dessert.

The more I cook, especially for larger groups, the more I realize how much the act of cooking is a crucial dimension of my spirituality. As I prepare the food, I consider those for whom I am cooking: what will they like to eat? Knowing what I do of each of them, are there things I can do/make that will enhance their dining experience? I craft the meal to meet their needs and desires wanting for them to have the best possible experience of our table fellowship.

But the meal itself begins long before we sit at the table. As people wander in through the kitchen, I'm the first to ask a person to "taste this" or "tell me what you think." If I'm mixing a batter, I reserve the bowl and batter; when baking, I hold broken cookies for "free samples."

I guess it's just that from the moment of invitation to the moment of washing the dishes, my focus isn't just on "me" and my wants but, rather, on the desires of others. I feel most alive spiritually when I am doing something for others, using my (admittedly limited) skills in the kitchen to delight someone else.

It's not easy for me to say "I love you" or "I care." But I can demonstrate it. Informing this demonstration is the hospitality of God I have come to know through prayer, a welcome offered by Christ that I can translate into a welcome offered to my neighbor. I don't do this perfectly, but I try.

I don't know why I want to post this...except as an encouragement for others to make really present their encounters with God. I reckon it's pretty selfish if we just save up all of our intimate experiences with God as though they were meant for us alone. As we have been given, so are we empowered to give. So as I imagine God's Kingdom to be an endless banquet of feasting and drinking, a banquet to which I and countless others have been invited into by Christ, so can I help others participate in my image of God's desire for the us through my own hospitality.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Villa Weekend

After last weekend's marathon of cooking, I've decided to retreat to Seabright, a villa house own by Saint Peter's College. From this afternoon until Sunday evening, I'm going away with my laptop, a stack of books, and a thick German dictionary and I'm going to spend the time in quiet study and relaxation.

As I've realized this week: even the good things we do can make us tired! 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame