Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

I 've been up since 5:30 this morning when I gave my turkey one more 'turn' before tossing it into the oven at 9:00. It has since been removed and is a gorgeous golden-brown: Norman Rockwell would be proud!

It is good for us all to pause and reflect on the many ways each of us is blessed. Interestingly, what we in the United States mark out as a once-per-year holiday is, within the Christian tradition, an everyday event: for we are invited to celebrate the Eucharist. Rather than one day set aside for reflection on the ways we've been blessed, each day becomes consecrated to reflecting upon what God is doing in our lives and it affords us an opportunity to respond in praise and worship, in Thanksgiving, for what God has done, is doing, and will do. 

I would like to offer a quote for you to reflect upon:

A new age of Christian culture will doubtless understand a little better than one has up to now (and never will the world have finished understanding this, i.e., rejecting from its bosom the "old leaven of the Pharisees") to what degree it is important to give preference everywhere to the real and the substantial over the apparent and the decorative, to the really and substantially Christian over the apparently and decoratively Christian; it will understand also that it is in vain that one affirms the dignity and vocation of the human person if one does not work to transform conditions which oppress him, and to bring it about that he can eat his bread with dignity.

I'd love to discuss this quote, but it'll have to wait until next week. I'm sure that it will trigger a frisson of rage and the label of "liberation theology" from some quarters. Good. But I will leave it those who would affix such a label to sort out how they situate Jacques Maritain amidst the liberation theologians they love to criticize. Seems to me that it's pretty hard to do - Maritain's dialogue with Russian communism in Integral Humanism (written in the 1960's) certainly points out the shortcomings of the lived-out praxis of Marxism, but it can accept the insights that it offers concerning the mechanisms of oppression and exploitation that it promises to solve. 

In other words, Maritain is able to say that Marxism raises good points and diagnoses real problems. He faults it not because the diagnosis is wrong, but because the proposed treatment is wrong. His response is grounded in the Incarnation and advocates the 'integral humanism' that re-integrates the human person into an agent in relationship with God, rather than in competition with the Holy One. 

Liberation theology has, in certain cases, been like the MTV of theology: it's faddish, catches on quickly, but is pretty quickly criticized and supplanted by the new trend. And then all those who liked it in the beginning look back on it and wonder what they saw in it in the first place. But the impulse behind it - that it names the reality of oppression and the sinful structures that perpetuate violence against humans and creation - are certainly sound and fit in well with anyone who takes seriously the ramifications of the Incarnation. While I am critical of numerous strains of liberation theology, I am grateful that it brings to the fore the social situation of so many, that it calls us to conscience for ways in which we can participate in the systematic oppression of others, and that it takes seriously the corporal works of mercy. 

I would love to develop this thought further, but I have to mash potatoes. I suggest this quote simply because I am aware of the rancor surrounding the issue of liberation theology and I am irritated with how quickly shallow-minded people label something "liberation theology" without having any clue as to what liberation theology actually is or why there have been questions raised about it. For these people, calling something "liberation theology" is akin to calling someone a "racist" -- there's no way, really, to defend oneself and it completely closes off conversation. 

It'd be a great day of Thanksgiving, to my mind, if some of these bloggers (I dare not say thinkers, because they seldom engage in such strenuous activity)  would actually try to understand liberation theology, its contributions and its limitations, before labeling anything/everything that they don't like under the sweeping and ignorant label of liberation theology. 

Anyway, I'm off my soap-box. I lay down my arms and pick up my potato peeler!

Prayers for all this weekend!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Of Many Things

I was on the phone with a friend of mine who was lamenting that she had to prepare dinner for twelve people on Thursday. I have spent today preparing the menu, writing the shopping list, and setting a cooking schedule for a dinner for 44 people. In case you're interested in what a Ciszek Hall Thanksgiving Feast looks like:

  • Sugar Coated Pecans
  • Stuffed Mushrooms
  • Cheese & Fruit Tray
  • Green Bean Casserole (could we actually skip this dish?)
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • Cranberry Sauce
  • Stuffing
  • Marsala Glazed Carrots with Hazelnuts
  • Dinner Rolls
  • Two deep-fried turkeys (each 12-pound) and one 16-pound salted turkey
  • Pumpkin Pie
  • Apple Pie
  • Layered Chocolate Dessert
So there's dinner.

I also have really cool wine to offer our guests. Over the summer, I found and purchased a rather delicious Cranberry Riesling that has acted as the inspiration behind the dishes being served. I'll probably offer cru beaujolais as I've heard only good things of it this year. 

I've been doing this work sequestered in a small television room where I am sitting now, watching "The Lion in Winter" and scouring various food magazines and websites for tips on food preparation. All in all, not a bad Saturday!

I think the holiday season is simultaneously the happiest and saddest time to be a Jesuit or religious. For on the one hand, it's a season of great hospitality and many gatherings of friends. Each weekend from now until January 1st I have some major event to attend. But at the same time, it's hard to go shopping and to realize that I don't have anyone special to shop for (except for my Secret Santa). When I walk through shops, I wonder what it'd be like to have my own kids and, generally, content myself with trying to figure out what to buy for my niece Emma. 

During the Christmas season, I realize most acutely the consequence of loving as a Companion of Jesus: in desiring to love the many, I have closed off ever loving any particular one if that one is any other than Jesus Christ. I do not mean this in a melancholy manner, only to say that the occasional prick of sadness still acts to re-affirm how I have answered my call to love others more deeply and freely as a Jesuit. 

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Special Needs

Just over a week ago, the following question was posed in the comments box:

I am gravely concerned for the my son's soul. He is autistic and non-verbal and mentally impaired. How can he accept Christ? How will I know if he has?
My heart has been touched deeply by this question and I have been praying  for several days and I would like now to offer something of a stammering response.

Over the years, it has been your cross to care for your son. To some extent, this is no different from what most parents must do. Mommies and Daddies have, for centuries, bathed, fed, changed, cuddled, corrected, and loved their children. They do this not, of course, so that the child remains dependent on them forever. Rather, they do this so that they may become independent, free to live and to love as adults. Thus it is that the care necessary for an infant is radically different from that needed by a 3-year old, or a seven-year old, or a teenager. While our fundamental needs never change - we always need nourishment, shelter, and love - we grow over the course of our lives to be able to secure these for ourselves. 

Your son, I suspect, will never claim such independence of you; he will always be radically dependent upon you for everything. In truth, I cannot imagine the heartache this involves...for it must be hard not to compare him with other children his own age. Simple things we take for granted, such as potty-training, sleep-overs, and musical recitals, may be wholly outside the realm of possibility of your son. This may have led you to wonder how, within the life of the Church, you son might be able to have a relationship with Christ.

So let me say this: I have no doubt that your son encountered Christ, that Christ has been very much an loving and saving force in his life. Indeed, I would be willing to call this a mystical encounter the likes of which few of us will ever know or appreciate. 

It is strange, but I believe it to be true.  

And here is the reason: because you have loved him. Your son depends upon you and your love, lives only because he is surrounded by those who love and sustain him. Where other children grow and strike out on their own, your son depends wholly on you for everything. You will, no doubt, recall late nights, tantrums, and sickness. Do you sometimes feel frustrated that he cannot speak like other children? That he'll never date? Produce grandchildren? Live on his own? Do you sometimes feel as though you can't change one more diaper, or you can't spend one more sleepless hour worrying? 

Facing these and so many other challenges, you you continue to love him. In the face of impossible odds, you find the strength to love. This love incarnates itself in all that you are and do: can you ever make a decision without thinking of your son? Even when it is difficult, even when you entrust him to another caregiver so that you can find rest and repose, even when you make painful decisions about schools and special programs, you are doing so only for his best interest. 

Your son has never done anything to merit your love, has never tried to earn your favor. And your capacity to love your son will bewilder many: for how many of us can imagine what it is that you are going through? Perhaps you could not have imagined this before he was born, perhaps years ago you would have thought yourself unable to drink of this cup. And yet here you are, drinking deeply the cup that you have been handed. 

Please remember that the Good News is that God loves us. I think Christianity has a very simple message that we forget too easily: God loves us. We do nothing to deserve this, nor can we barter for God to love us. We sin most grievously when we arrogantly think that we, through our sin, can change God's mind about us. God cannot stop loving us. It is we who kill our love for God. 

So let me say that, in your hands, your son experiences most fully and wholly the love of God, the saving grace of the Lord that accepts his reality into God's own reality. In the day-to-day struggles, you incarnate God's love for your son. You become a symbol to the world of God's redeeming love that reaches out in an act of creative and sustaining love...even when it is difficult. Your hands - calloused, chaffed, sore, and tired - have become Christ's own hands.

Could you imagine not loving your son? Apart from tragic exceptions, could a mother not love an ailing child? When I see parents who, day in and day out, care for a dying relative or child I wonder how their hearts handle it. But then I recall that our hearts have an infinite capacity to love. And this love is given flesh in our own lives, in our own hands, as we reach out towards others. 

The love that empowers you every day, the love that keeps you going even when it is difficult, the love that gives you strength when it seems that everything within you wants to give up...this is an amazing grace. When you cradle your son, know that this love has been made flesh. When you sit by your son through long nights, or experience the frustration of trying to understand his desires, this is love made patience. In you love surges toward your son, enveloping him in care. 

So it is not that your son needs to seek out Christ. Rather, it is you who have brought Christ to him. As you have loved him and continue to love him, you make an ever more powerful witness of love in the world. In drawing your son into your heart, you enact the salvation of God that strains to draw all of us into God's own life. 

In your life it is both your burden and blessing to be, quite literally, Amazing Grace. For in and through you does God reach out to your son. And as you reflect on your love for your son, consider then how you could not decide not to love him; you cannot not love him. Imagine, then, God's own amazing grace as each of us is looked at with God's loving gaze. 

I have often said that if I weren't interested in teaching theology that I'd probably teacher either kindergarten or special education. Seven of the happiest summers of my life were spent working with developmentally delayed children at a summer camp. I learned, over those summers, more about how to love than I ever thought possible; they, to be sure, taught me more than I've ever learned in any academic course. Consequently, I know something of what your day-to-day life might be like.

Please know that I shall keep you and your son in my prayers. The ability of the human heart to love unrestrictedly is an amazing grace. At your hands, your son has experienced the mystical experience of unrestricted and freely given love that most of us completely ignore. In your quiet struggles as a loving parent, you are a symbol of God's love; in your hands, your son rests secure in the love of Christ; in your embrace, you and your son are caught up into God's saving plan that aches only to draw each of us into the divine life of the Trinity. 

Friday, November 14, 2008


Last week I invited people to share what I could do to make my blog better and I was very grateful for both the comments submitted and the emails sent. The irony is that, in light of all of these good questions and ideas, I've been deadly silent!

Fear not. It's been a busy week and things are going to get a bit busier before they calm down. I have two posts almost ready to go up, but I want to make sure I'm saying clearly what i want to articulate. So stay tuned!

Friday, November 07, 2008


Over the last year, I have taken to waking up around 5:00 in the morning, praying, and then spending between 30 and 60 minutes answering questions I receive on YouTube. Naturally the vast majority of questions involve some aspect of playing or learning Irish music: tin whistle techniques, listening suggestions, difficulties learning a particular movement, sometimes the (horrifying) request that I teach with my shirt off (no joke). 

As I wrote the other day, it's not uncommon to receive other types of correspondence. Sometimes it is from a person who is struggling with issues surrounding doubt and belief. These notes run the gamut from downright hostility to my belief in God to people who are straining against darkness to believe again. It amazes me that one of the most popular pages on my own blog is a little bit I wrote on Christian Atheism, a topic I very much wish to return to next Lent. 

With over 1.5 million views on YouTube with viewers coming from all over the globe, I am acutely and humbly aware of the far-reaching nature of my musical ministry. Even my blog, albeit not nearly as popular as my videos, still receives 100-200 unique visitors every day.  So my question is, How can I better use this platform to help people?

I reckon blogs come in a variety of flavors. Some are just completely boring. Some have little purpose but to tear other people down. But if I am to be true to the Formula of the Institute of the Society of Jesus, I have no choice but to ask anew just how it is that I might 

...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.
I guess what I'm asking is for help: I would love to hear from people, either via comment or email, how it is that I can be of service. I want my blog to be a help to people: for young people discerning vocations, for regular Christians trying to live out their lives, for those who are struggling with faith and doubt. 

Basically, I would love to take any questions, comments, issues, ideas from my readers. There are enough people who visit this site that I am convinced I can be of some help in some way. So I throw it open and encourage/implore/beseech people to write in in order to help me make my web-based ministry more effective and helpful.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Hagan Family (of 1994)

So can you tell which one I am? Third row, second from the left. I think I was a freshman at Saint Ignatius High School. You'll note two things: I'm heavy and I have hair. 

It's so funny...this was taken just about 14 years ago. A lot has changed: were we to try to re-create this photo, several faces would not be present due to death (Michael, Grandpa Hagan) and several others from divorce. Many other faces would be added: Maura, Emma, Charity, Ben, Anastasia, Diana, Brian, Evi, Coleman, and others.  

On the day after All Soul's Day, it's good to be reminded of those we have loved and who have preceded us into death. I miss my Grandpa Hagan very much and I often wonder what he would have thought of me being a Jesuit. 

I'm grateful that my cousin Erinn Hagan posted this on her Facebook page. This picture hangs in our family room at home, but seeing it online gave me a chance to pause to remember the family who has loved me, and who I have loved, over the years of my life. As I write the menu for our Thanksgiving Dinner, it reminds of how much I really have to be thankful for. 

On Music

I receive many emails each day from people around the world who have found the "Fordham University's Introduction to the Irish Tin Whistle" videos to be helpful. Very often the emails ask for musical help or for me to record some particular tune.

But it's not an irregular experience for me to receive a request of a more spiritual nature. Today, I had such a request which gave me the opportunity to reflect, again, on how I view the relationship between music and prayer. Emending it to preserve the anonymity of the addressee, I'd like to share with you what I wrote:

Dear _________,

Happy belated birthday!

Yesterday your father wrote to me and told me of your growing interest in the tin whistle. I'm humbled to hear that my lessons have been a help to you, but I'm most grateful to hear that you are falling more deeply in love with the tin whistle and the tradition out of which it comes.

I think that it is very hard to be a young person today. It very often seems that the world around us is addicted to short-cuts: cheating, steroids, lying, theft. Maybe you'll remember the line from Homer Simpson that seems to summarize a lot of the attitude we see today: "If something's hard to do, it's not worth doing."

As you will have no doubt discovered, learning to play the tin whistle is very challenging. It takes a great deal of work and discipline to bring yourself to practice every day. So, first, it's tough just to sit down. And then you actually have to play! Sometimes we just want to play the things we're good at - going back to an easy lesson, playing our favorite tune over and over. This is, of course, good sometimes. But I reckon it's like having to learn Algebra and, instead of "solving for x in terms of y" you sit down and do long-division all evening. Practice, that hidden but oh-so-important part of our lives, demands that we tackle new movements and ideas in order to master them. This can be hard and frustrating and it may demand many hours of work. Nevertheless, you must always trust that even if it doesn't immediately feel as though you are learning, or growing, that there is tremendous growth going on within you. It's sort of like how caves are made: a little trickle of water flows down into the earth and, over many many years, carves out wondrous caverns in the earth. Practicing music is like this: we open ourselves up to the music and, even if we can't feel it making a difference, we know that somehow it is penetrating deep into the core of our beings, making us larger and exposing ever-new depths for our exploration.

I often say that "I pray like I play." This is true. You see, when we play music within a tradition, we surrender ourselves to something much larger than ourselves. We place ourselves before all those who have come before and accept what they have handed on to us. We are responsible, then, for what we have received. How blessed are you to have been born on All Soul's Day, for it is on this day that we remember ALL those who have come before us in the life of faith. Long before you were baptized, generations of your family members and the whole Christian community prepared the way for you. Your parents, grandparents, and siblings have all contributed to the young man that you are and the man you are going to be, and it is your responsibility - your burden and your grace - to treasure this gift and develop it. So, too, must you be a witness of the Tradition to your own siblings and, through your life, to all those you meet. The Catholic faith is not some "thing" like a Christmas tree ornament. It is a living, breathing tradition that calls all of us to love the Lord more deeply and to live out joyfully the message of the Gospel.

_______, my prayer for you is that you come to pray as you play. Always place yourself before the music and before the Lord, trusting that even when it is difficult or dry, that much is happening within you. The day-to-day practice and prayer will transform you, little by little, in ways you cannot imagine.

Let me conclude my note by saying this. Many times, my music students want to "play like I play." Sadly, they will never be able to do this -- because they are not me! My teaching is meant as a opportunity to encounter the tradition, to give the student a chance to come to know the Irish tradition in a new and exciting way. YOUR experiences, talents, skills, and passions will transform the tradition into something old (handed down to you) and something new (something for you to share with others). This live of playing/praying is very strange, because it almost doesn't seem to make sense. Anyone can learn to play music, but not everyone is a musician. Anyone can learn to say a prayer, but not everyone is a prayer. We become musicians and prayers only when we realize that we must be grasped and held by the tradition or the Lord. Once we do this, once we give ourselves over to something so much bigger than we are, do we become free to be ourselves. This is the freedom of surrender, the freedom we achieve through great effort and patient practice.

I hope that what I am sharing with you is helpful and encourages you to keep practicing. Learn to pray as you play, and you will find your music and your spirit transformed in new and fantastic ways. In my own life, it is as I grew as a musician that I grew in my faith which, ultimately, gave me the freedom to say "YES" to the Lord's invitation to be a Companion of Jesus, to be a Jesuit. Our Lord wants nothing more for you to find your voice of faith, just as I encourage you to find your voice in the Irish tradition. It's a scary, but wonderful journey to set out upon and please know that I wish you the very best in your adventures. Know, too, that I will keep you in my prayers.

Best (Belated) Birthday Wishes and Many Prayers,

Ryan Duns, SJ

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Uncle Ryan wants to brag

Since I don't (nor will I ever) have kids of my own, I reckon it's my prerogative to brag about my niece Emma.

In what is a rare turn, my brother Colin is included in this picture. Colin - Emma's daddy - is two years younger than me and lives and works in Cleveland. 

As you'll note, my brother is a fairly solid guy. Tough (or he'd like you to think). Funny thing to be aware of: he's deathly afraid of clowns. TERRIFIED, really. When we were kids and shared a room, Grandma Hagan put a picture of a Hobo/Clown with a little dog at the end of a leash. Colin was, for years, terrified of this picture - the very picture he slept under from kindergarten through third or fourth grade! I don't quite recall what happened to that picture, but I can't help but note the irony that our Emma has taken her turn as Bozo the Clown for a night. 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame