Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tilting into the New Year

Tomorrow morning, I will head up to Detroit for our tri-province formation gathering. I'll not return until Thursday, so this will be my last post until then.

We had last our night a gathering of Cleveland-area Jesuits and their families last night. Generously hosted by the John Carroll University community, it provided a great opportunity to catch up with other Jesuits and a moment to spend time with many men's "family of origin." I don't know why I like the phrase "family of origin" so well, but I have to say that meeting a Jesuit's "family of origin" puts the man into context: you get a sense of why a guy is the way he is when you've spent some time with those who've raised him.

As I mentioned the other day, I've decided to train for a marathon. In fact, the weather was so beautiful in Cleveland yesterday that it inspired me to try a 7-mile run which I was able to achieve in 1 hour and 3 minutes. That's 9-minute miles, which is not too shabby as far as I can tell. I still have 4 months to increase my distance and quicken my pace. To be truthful, it's still intimidating to me but, I trust, with patience and perseverance I'll make progress toward the 26.2 miles.

A friend asked me why I would want to train for any such thing. "Surely it is easier," he said, "to drive the 26.2 miles than to run it!" And, to be sure, he is right. Nevertheless, there are two main reasons that I have undertaken this challenge.

First, I'm doing it for me. I really have begun to enjoy running. Further, this seems like such a feat of endurance and diligence and I'm willing to embrace this challenge in order to push myself further.

Second, and more importantly, I'm doing it for my future students. No matter where I am teaching next year, I am bound to have students who are intimidated by physical activity and exercise. I was one of these kids who had convinced himself that he was too uncoordinated, too slow, too incompetent when it came to doing anything physical. And I can't help but think that if someone had reached out to me, if someone would have encouraged me in some way, that I would have tried to be more physically active. 

What's really funny, as I think about it here at Bruegger's Bagels, is that I was heavy for a relatively short period in my life: from the 5th grade to the middle of sophomore just about 5.5 years. It is true that my weight fluctuated in college and even in my first months in the novitiate, but in general only about 1/6 of my life was spent heavy. And yet it is one of the most formative experiences of my life. For years now I have struggled with self-image, always wondering if I "looked fat" and avoiding tight-fitting clothes, preferring baggy sweaters and too-large shirts to conceal any fat or flab.

I mention this because I feel that a sensitivity I bring to teaching is an awareness of body image and the way that the way we see ourselves really does shape the way we live out our lives in the world. I have found that the more physically fit I have become, the more I have grown in confidence. Indeed, it is as though the integration of my spiritual, social, and physical life has made me more the type of person that I want to become, has made me more free to be sent on mission as a Companion of Jesus. 

As we enter into the new year, I should like to encourage my readers to assess how they are doing emotionally, spiritually, socially, and physically. I have known many Jesuits who exhort  spiritual health, while ignoring completely the role the importance of our bodies! But doesn't this seem to fly in the face of the Incarnation - the "Word made flesh" - which certainly seems to indicate the human body as a site of God's grace? In brief, I think we are too often tempted to a crypto gnosticism or duality that opposes the body to the spirit...and this, by the looks of our retirement communities, has led to the shortening of men's ministries and has made more difficult their final years. Weight-related issues such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease often plague older Jesuits (and older people in general) and I can't help but think that if they had been more diligent about their own health and wellness that many of these difficulties could have been avoided. 

So that's that. I hope all of you have had a glorious Christmas as that you await eagerly the advent of the New Year. I'll be back to blogging after January 1st, so please stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

O Holy Night

Out of scores of Christmas carols that are played around the clock during this season, none touches me more of late than the song O Holy Night. If the opening words have not yet been etched into your brain:
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
This has been, I know, a very challenging year for many people. For some, it is simply yet another challenging year while, for others, we have seen the meltdown of the economy. Many of us are living through the first cycle without a loved one: a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling, a friend without whom it is hard to imagine this being Christmas.

I suspect that Christmas can make the feelings of loss and sadness even more pronounced. Store ads and radio jingles promote this as the happiest time of year...but we feel none of this store-hawked joy, none of this able-to-be-bought happiness. Our hearts ache for something, a gaping hole within our very beings threatens to swallow us. We are weary, we are tired, and it feels like nothing that we do, nothing we buy, nothing we say can remove the burden of darkness from our hearts.

Perhaps it is, then, fitting, that Christmas falls just after the winter solstice. Our days have grown progressively darker since the warm and sunny days of summer. But now we are left with cold darkness, and we pine for the warmth of spring and summer. Our eyes cast about looking for signs of new life, of hope, but it seems like all we see is snow and slush, terrible weather, and travel delays. 

Just when it seems that the forces of darkness and despair will conquer our wearied hearts, we dare to sing (over and over) of the "Thrill of hope" and a weary world rejoices. Into this darkness and sadness, a thin ray of promise irrupts. The world, long mired in darkness, cannot yet muster the strength to greet its savior, but there is a thrill, a slight tremble, a pin-prick of hope that reminds us that the darkness will not last forever, that the dawn will conquer the darkness, and that we must hold on because in our midst the promise of the savior is being fulfilled. 

I've read that the post-holiday season is the time when people are most susceptible to suicide. This is a tragedy. We gear up for two bloody months after Halloween to celebrate the coming of Christ and then, after the wrapping paper is cleared, we immediately put away our decorations and go back to normal. For all the complaining about wanting to put "Christ back in Christmas" we seem pretty quick to want to resume our regular lives after the holidays are over. We are glad not to have to host parties, go to cocktail events, and suffer family visits. In a word, we want: normal.

To my mind, this is a tragedy. If we've gone to all this trouble to celebrate the coming of Christ ONLY to go back to normal, to return to our normal ways of doing things, then we have, it seems to me, drawn the curtains against the "new and glorious morn" that the birth of the savior announces. We return to the darkness of our daily drudgery, we go back to complaining, and we ignore the fact that something spectacular has happened in our lives: the Christ has come.

I don't need to give a moralizing lesson, but it just strikes me that if we are sincere in our belief that we are on the cusp of celebrating the birth of Christ that we will be unable to "go back to normal." At least, not so quickly. What does it mean that God dwells with us? That God assumed human flesh? Does this mean something in regard to the way I behave toward my sisters and brothers? The environment? To myself? 

My friends, I think we live too often as though the joy inaugurated at Christmas extended for a 24-hour period. The light of the new dawn must rouse us from our slumbers for it calls us to respond to the promise of the new day. If we so quickly return to "business as usual" then we have not taken seriously what has happened; if we draw the curtains and roll over to return to our complacent slumber, we have missed the point. 

The light that pierces the darkness this night, this Holy Night, is the light of the Lamb of God who has come to take away the sins of the world. How happy are we called out of our slumber to stand in this light, to gather together as sisters and brothers called into community, into communion, with the Holy One of God. Let the thrill of hope not be a momentary interruption into our sinful slumber but, rather, let it rouse us from our somnolence and draw us out into the world as we welcome Christ anew!

Merry Christmas!!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Update from the Homefront

Without too many weather-related difficulties, I arrived back in Cleveland on Saturday. Within the last 72 hours, my cousin's house has burned down and I've learned that my brother is expecting his second child. My home visits are usually wholly uneventful but, if the last three days is any indication, this could turn into a very exciting visit. 

As many of you know, I am a former Weight-Watcher. Then again, considering that I weigh less now than I did in the 5th grade, I reckon I still count as one. Perhaps while I'm home this week I'll look around for some other pictures, but in the meantime let me post this oldie in order to give a sense of how big I was at the age of 12 or so:

(I'm in the back row, center) 

I mention this, first, because I think it's funny to look at old pictures. Painful. Embarrassing. But, in the end, funny.

Second, over the years of blogging, I've often shared with readers my journey into physical fitness. From my initial forays into the YMCA as a novice to the more structured Cross-Fit program that Drew and I have been doing this year, I have made frequent mention of this (literally) physical part of my journey. 

One of the amazing features of Cross Fit is that it's incorporation of numerous running exercises - from 200m dashes to 10k runs - has forced me to begin running. Now, as a guy who HATED the idea of running, who refused to run the obligatory 1/2 mile run in high school, the idea of running was initially horrifying. Indeed, back in September I struggled to run even a mile. Just over a week ago, I ran a 10k (about 6 miles) in under an hour. So over the course of four months, I've seen enormous improvement in my cardiovascular health and I've made a new discovery

I really enjoy running. 

I mean, I really enjoy it. I like to listen to my iPod, pray, and just be still within myself as I move. I mapped it out and it's just 3.5 miles from Grandma Hagan's house to my parents' house, and since that's just a bit over a 5k, it'll be a good daily run for me. 

Anyway, last night I had some spare time, so I went to Kohl's and to Target to do some "Running Shopping." Both stores are having really good sales right now, so I suggest going to Kohl's to buy your running jacket and pants and to Target for shirts. I probably should buy a new pair of shoes, but I'll get those when I return to New York in two weeks. 

It is my hope that, if all goes well, I will be able to train over the next few months for the Pittsburgh Marathon on May 3, 2009. I think it would be a fitting capstone, just 15 years later, to the adventure of a high school freshman who refused to run 1/2 mile to now successfully complete 26.2 miles. I can't promise that I'll finish the race, or that I'll even emerge in one piece, but I'm going to give it my best effort. 

Before we enter into the New Year, I'll post something on the importance of physical activity for the spiritual life. But I beg your indulgence over the next few months insofar as I expect that I'll want to post many of my running times on my blog. Not only would such a sharing keep me motivated to maintain my training - especially in the cold months of winter - but also it may help to motivate others to take up a task that seems, from a distance, impossible but, with patience and time, is actually doable. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Recent Homily

Drew Marquard, SJ, delivered a homily last week that I was particularly moved by. Drew has graciously allowed me to edit it to make it more suitable for a broader audience - it was preached to fellow scholastics - but I believe I have preserved the content wholly. I commend it to you for your spiritual reading.

What would our life be without the grace of God? We all have or will experience spiritual loneliness in our lives. It can come in the dryness of prayer, in depression, or in the loss of desire. We’re all here, I would imagine, out of a desire to be in this place at this time. We want to be Jesuits. It’s this God-given desire that gets us through the day-to-day hardships encountered in our lives. Without a firm aspiration to be a Jesuit, these struggles can easily become magnified: community annoyances evolve into distracting issues, the vows become unbearable, school seems pointless. This desire grounds any vocation, whether it be to single life, religious life, or married life. When we ignore our holy desires, our lives can become unbearable; when we lose sight of God’s grace, we become too caught up in ourselves.

As Jesuits, as Christians, we are called to be in the world. Often, we contrast this to being “of the world.” I believe, however, that as disciples of Christ we are all called to be a very serious part of this world. We’re called to engage it and use it to bring others to God as Jesus did. There’s nothing wrong with taking part in the world. The world is how we know love and thus how we know and have come to know God. Sin enters into the equation, not when we are in or of the world, but when we abandon the world, when we turn our back on God’s creation. We leave God’s creation to keep ourselves solitarily hidden in our own world. We become the creators of a world with our own rules. We’re closed off to other community members or friends or jobs or hobbies or love. Sin creeps in and tells us that the world is a bad place for us to be. We can’t live in it perfectly, so we shouldn’t be there at all. It’s better to be cut off from love than to love poorly. We instead set ourselves up as perfect beings in our own universes.

The Gospels are filled with the imagery of a God who reaches out to us in our weakness, our weariness, our sinfulness. God reminds us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. All we have to do is come to him. When I think of following my own calling by living our vows, the last thing I think of is easy. It can be terrifying at times. But I think that it gets the hardest and the heaviest when my connection with God weakens. When I close in on myself by not praying or not being open and loving to those around me. When I cut God out of my life, I lose my desire to be here and the weight becomes unbearable. The Prophet Isaiah reminds us that “young men faint and grow weary, and youths stagger and fall.” I think here that a “youth” could be translated as anyone not yet dead. We all stagger and fall. It’s prayer in a loving relationship with God, and thus with God’s creation, thus being in and of the world, that gives hope and lifts the burden. The Dominican priest Herbert McCabe reminds us in his writings to pray for what we want and need. It doesn’t do any good to feign piousness. It helps us to bring our real concerns to God. In the Gospel, Jesus calls us to come to him. Only through him can our burdens be lightened and can we find rest. I’m shocked at how often I can deeply struggle with a problem only to later realize that I should ask God for help. In asking, the problem doesn’t always disappear, but the weight of it eases as I have shared it with another far more powerful and responsible than I.

We must never forget God’s gratuitous grace – the love that pardons our iniquities, heals our ills, redeems our lives, crowns us with kindness and compassion. God created us and gave us our talents to be shared with the world. He gave us the desire to be in a situation where we have the potential to do that. It’s through bringing these gifts to God that we can ease our struggles. We’re all called to be a serious part of this world through our relationship with God. The world is a hard and broken place. Through the strength and the grace of God, we’re called to soar on eagle’s wings, to run and not grow weary. We’re called to be a part of this world so that we may recognize our place in the next world.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Statement of the Society of Jesus on the Passing of Cardinal Dulles

The Jesuit Conference of the United States mourns the passing of Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ who died early today (December 12, 2008) at Fordham University’s Murray-Weigel Hall in New York. We join with our brothers of the New York Province, the whole Society of Jesus and all who knew and loved him in offering prayers of thanksgiving for his life of service to God and the Church as he has been called home.

“Cardinal Dulles was man of tremendous intellectual rigor whose teaching and writing contributed greatly to the vibrancy of Catholic intellectual life,” commented the President of the Jesuit Conference, Jesuit Father Thomas H. Smolich. “Yet for a man with so many gifts, he never viewed himself as anything more than a poor servant of Christ,” Smolich added. “In this way, he called all of us into a more intimate relationship with the Lord he so dearly loved.”

“Dulles was part of the new generation of theologians following Vatican II who brought a fresh approach to ecclesiology,” said Jesuit theologian Father Kevin Burke, president of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. “In addition, he began to pay particular attention to the amazing burst of theological creativity among Jesuits that appeared around the time of the Council. To my knowledge he is the first to write about and probe the question of whether the distinctive resources of Ignatian spirituality open up unique paths for doing theology in the modern, and now post-modern, world.”

The son of U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, he was raised a Presbyterian but converted to the Catholic faith while a student at Harvard College. After serving in the U.S. Navy, Dulles entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained on June 16, 1956. He held a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome and was a Jesuit for 52 years.

The author of 23 books and more than 800 articles, Dulles was President of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society. He taught theology at Woodstock College and the Catholic University of America, and was the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, New York. He was also a member of the International Theological Commission and the U.S. Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue and a consultor to the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine.

During a 2005 interview with National Jesuit News, Cardinal Dulles commented on the past contributions of Jesuits such as Robert Bellarmine and Edmund Campion to the history of Catholic thought: “Jesuit spirituality instills a passion for the service of Christ’s Kingdom and a readiness to struggle against opposing forces. The Jesuit course of studies, which involves assiduous formation in philosophy and the human sciences as well as in theology, has turned out priests well qualified to defend the faith.” Though far too humble a man to ascribe those comments to himself, they could easily apply to Cardinal Dulles. In 2001, Pope John Paul II elevated him to the College of Cardinals, making Dulles the first American theologian to be named a Cardinal deacon.

Our prayers are with the Dulles family during their time of mourning.

Friday, December 12, 2008

May he rest in peace...

This morning I learned that the eminent Jesuit theologian and churchman Avery Cardinal Dulles has entered into eternal life.

I would ask that you pray that for the Cardinal and for those who have loved him and have been taught by him. With over 30 books, scores of articles, and innumerable students over a long and distinguished career, your prayers are assured of a wide net.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him; may his soul and all souls, through the mercy of our loving God, rest in peace.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Where does the time go?

During the course of any week, I usually entertain the notion of about five different posts that I want to put up on the blog. This usually happens while I'm in the shower - it does seem that most of my ideas come whilst there - but, as is so often the case, by the time I get back to my room and get dressed, I've had something else catch my interest and I end up ignoring the blog. 

I am actually done with all of my work for the term. I have to take a final exam next Monday in Natural Law and I reckon I'll study a bit for that. But all of my other papers are finished, so I'm breathing a long sigh of relief and looking forward to Christmas in Cleveland. 

In lieu of a more substantive post, I wanted to post one of my newer videos. Thanks to Michael Flatley, the tune "The Lord of the Dance" or "Simple Gifts" has attained near-universal recognition. I was bored about a week ago, so I took a moment to do a recording of it.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame