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.

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. 

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

I wish I could say that I'll be handing out candy to trick-or-treaters tonight, but I think instead I'll be staying in doors, recovering from a cold. It came upon me suddenly yesterday and today I've been beset with a sore throat and a runny nose. 


I feel like a blogging deadbeat. But there's really nothing interesting to report from my end: we're heading into the home stretch of the semester and I'm feeling very confident. I'm sort of excited to begin preparations for this years Thanksgiving Feast -- I have chosen the wine already and I've begun to sketch out the exact nature of the menu. 

Say a prayer for Drew Marquard, SJ who will be running the New York City Marathon on Sunday. Afflicted with a cold or not, I and a number of other guys from the house will be going down to cheer him on. Truth be told, I like my part of the marathon best: I get to stand with a tasty beverage (Starbucks, I should think) in hand, waiting for Drew to run by so that I can scream his name for 2.3 seconds. 

Say a prayer and have a great weekend - and, if I can do so, I'll put up some post-marathon pictures come Sunday.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lighting Strikes Twice

Just about six months ago, I made my debut pitching for the Blaqrobes - the Jesuit Scholastic softball team. On my first night, I was hit in the left ankle by a wild throw, forcing me to learn to use crutches.

During batting practice last night, I pitched around a dozen balls to Drew Marquard, SJ. One whizzed by 3" from my head. One left a mark on my left calf. 

And the third has rendered my left foot completely black-and-blue. 

There's brotherhood, for you.

There's a 25% target-accuracy, to boot.

Let it be said that even in excruciating pain, I still pitched the game. And we tied - so we're now 1-3-1 (we are undefeated in the co-ed league). 

I meant to post this earlier, but as some of you know last Sunday (October 19th) was my 29th birthday. We had cake on Saturday night. We had drinks on Sunday night. We had ice cream cake last night. And we're having a celebration in the city tonight. 4 of 5 nights of's like Hanukkah without the candles (and the presents - my parents still haven't sent me a gift. "It's in the mail." Yeah, I've heard that before).

Apart from my birthday and my injury, nothing exceptional to report. The undergrads are in the midst of mid-terms here at Fordham, although the mid-term phenomenon doesn't much affect grad students. I'm just laboring away at the weekly papers I have to do, while trying to make time to do the outside reading that I so enjoy. 

Monday, October 20, 2008

Thank God for the Devil Rays

On this night, the mighty Devil Rays have vanquished the Boston Red Sox. This is great and glorious news for many of us, especially those who love to root for those who have never had a chance to represent their league in the World Series. 

I might not tell you who I'm rooting for in this election, but I've not trouble telling you who I'd love to win the World Series. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Mission

For today's session of "The Catholic Imagination" Drew Marquard, SJ is going to screen The Mission for the students. Next week he'll lead the discussion, picking up the elements of Redemption that are at play throughout the film.

The Mission is one of my favorite movies, not least because it features gorgeous music by composer Ennio Morricone. In easily the most famous, and beautiful piece of music from the film, I commend to you Gabriel's Oboe:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

In Honor of Cleveland's Victory

I have been waiting....and waiting....and waiting....for a good time to post these pictures of my niece Emma. I wanted to find the perfect occasion to celebrate the Cleveland Browns doing something terrific, and last night's 35-14 victory over the Giants seems to be appropriate.

With the way they've been playing, I thought she'd be driving before I got to post these.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Priests and Politics

For quite some time, I have had mixed feelings about weighing in or writing on the topic of  politics. "Your realm," a friend once told me, "is to be priestly, not political." I reckon I've bought into this, preferring to pray quietly and to remain silent on many of the issues that have arisen during this election season.

It is not as though my silence is without good reason. For were I to say that I intended to vote for John McCain, there would be cries that I hate the poor; to suggest a vote for Obama would raise cries that I hated the unborn. In particular, I have been dismayed and horrified by the caustic and hateful comments directed toward Catholic bloggers who voice, in any way, support for Obama. Civil discourse seems, yet again, to have been thrown out the window. Is it a wonder why a Jesuit scholastic would prefer to remain silent?

But can I, in conscience, stay silent? Am I so wholly removed from the world of politics that I am permitted only to direct silent prayers for the coming of the Kingdom, but I am not to speak of how I envision this coming about? As a Jesuit and a son of Ignatius, it is my life's labor to be a contemplative-in-action, one who brings himself to prayer in order to discern better how it is that God is calling him back into the world. My ears grow attuned to the cry of the oppressed, they strain to listen to the countless silent voices squelched by sinful and oppressive structures. I open my ears and let their words and stories penetrate my heart. I lift these voices up in prayer. And yet am I to remain in silence about the political structures that both abet and promise to alleviate the oppression that is a scourge to so many?

So let me say something about my politics. It seems to me that most of our problems are man-made. Lack of food, the general disregard for the value of human life (from the womb to healthcare to education to care for our elderly and infirm), war, an unconcern for the environment, an economic crisis precipitated by greed and lust for money, and pernicious forms of prejudice and discrimination...all of these can be traced back to human artistry. We need look no further than to one another to see who the real architects of our malaise is: it is us. 

As a Christian, I cannot help but to look at the suffering and strife of so many and ask, "Lord, where are you in this?" Again and again, I am drawn in prayer and reflection to the realization that Christ is now where he always has been: with the poor, the helpless, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. As a Companion of Jesus, these are the men, women, and children that I have pledged my life and heart to serve as their brother and, God willing, their priest. As much as I'd like to say, "Let me give you spiritual counsel, but let's leave politics to the politicians" I would be remiss in doing so. 

You see, my question at the end of the day is, "With my vote, how am I contributing to the furthering of God's Kingdom?" Is there a place for abortion? Is there a place for war? Is there a place for children to be deprived of an education? Of healthcare? When I enter the voting booth, I am certainly going to follow my conscience in asking, "Which of these is building up God's Kingdom better?"

  • I will vote for the candidate whose social policy will contribute to the declining rates of abortion in this country while also addressing the sweeping social policies that are necessary to make abortion an un-exercised option.
  • I will vote for the candidate who manifests a deep sense of the dignity of human life, 
  • I will vote for the candidate who will assess fairly and accurately our military presence in foreign countries and make an informed decision about out the role of the United States in the future of the international community
  • I will vote for the candidate who demonstrates a sense of the scope and depth of the current economic crisis. This candidate will realize the breadth of its impact and will promote ways to address this is a healthy, balanced manner.
I admit that there is no ideal, or perfect candidate. But it is our burden, and our privilege, as citizens to be able to vote for the man who will lead our country for the next four years. In my mind, I am trying to vote in and for the narrative of God's Kingdom, a Kingdom that Jesus Christ embodied in his ministry on earth. I can no sooner be a one-issue voter than I can, in conscience, refrain wholly from voting. So it is with a discerning eye and an open heart that I will approach the booth this year and, in casting my ballot, I will do so with a prayer-filled confidence that the person whom I envision leading our country will embody more fully the values of the Kingdom. 

Thursday, October 02, 2008


I apologize for being quiet this last week. I've been really busy between musical engagements and trying to get ahead on some of my coursework. 

I have a bunch of pictures that I need to post, so after my 5k tomorrow morning perhaps I'll have a chance to upload them. 

This should be a busy, but fun, weekend: I'm going to a movie tomorrow night, a show on Saturday, and I've to cook on Sunday. I also have a good bit of reading to do and a paper to work on, so there'll not be a ton of free time...which is a good thing, I guess.

And a quick Happy Birthday to my sister Reilley -- she turned 22 today.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Catholic Imagination (AKA: Sensuous Catholicism)

I posted some time ago a description of the program I'm running this semester. Over the last few weeks, I decided to change the name from "The Catholic Touch" to "The Catholic Imagination." I thought for awhile about calling it "Sensuous Catholicism" but, like the "The Catholic Touch," there was a fear of evoking hints of the sex-abuse scandal. So we're being more benign.

So here's another articulation at the rationale:

Thomas Aquinas believed that human knowledge originated in the senses. This should sound pretty sensible: we "know" the football play because we practiced it, we "know" how to cook because we've chopped and broiled, mothers know the scent of their babies clothes, and even Thomas in John's gospel "knew" it was Jesus when he put his hand into the open wound. Entire industries have been built around our senses: vibrating game controllers, perfumes and colognes, richer and more luxurious textiles, stranger and more fantastic foods. Ours is a world of sense!

So it seems to me that we have lost something of this sensuous quality in the Catholic tradition. For so long, the Catholic Imagination was sculpted and shaped by the sensations that accompanied the day-to-day life of faith: rosaries, adoration, kneeling, incense, stained glass windows, statues, holy water. Our catechism classes or CCD have often neglected this aspect of our faith and focused, instead, on handing over propositions and ideas that are divorced from reality.

In a word, for a long time you have been in possession of the script to a great stage production. Yet often we've had to be content with only the text, perhaps a good preview, of the show. My proposal is that this year we act out our Catholic faith here at Fordham University, using the diverse resources only New York City can offer us.

I'm not saying that you haven't lived out your faith. I'm saying that my suspicion is that many of us are unaware of how deep and rich our tradition is. So this year what I would like to do is offer the Catholic Imagination as a program that intends both the cover some of the basics of the faith (catechesis) as well as incorporate some tactile experiences that will help incarnate what it is that we believe. So if the catechism is the stage directions that guide the performance, then the more experiential approaches are going to be our way of enacting our faith with our whole selves.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Now that things have settled down...

Well, it seems like Joseph isn't talking to me any more. Alas. I guess I'll have to find something else to blog about....

...such as what life as a young Jesuit is like.

This morning I woke up fairly early (5:30 am) and had time to do Yoga. In the still of the morning, I love nothing more than to take my time giving thanks to God for the start of a new day. As I assume various poses, I imagine the stretching of my body mirroring the opening of my inner life to be responsive to God's movement in my day. 

What I've noticed is that the practice of Yoga has brought me a sense of inner peace as my exterior and interior are aligned through stretching and breathing. The tension of the previous day is relaxed away, my muscles and joints are awakened for a new beginning. Having achieved some sense of balance and physical awakening, I settle into my chair for some more formal prayer time - usually beginning with Pray-As-You-Go and then moving into a meditation on the day's reading. Since I've been in a relatively peaceful state (although you might not have guessed it from this weekend's tussle), my prayer each morning has just been a resting in the peace of the Lord. No fireworks, no great insights, just the peace of God's holy presence. 

Following my morning prayer, I met Drew Marquard, SJ for a 7:30 session in our home gym. We've been doing CrossFit this semester. Amazing. Simply amazing. I'm so sore right now but I've never felt physically more healthy. Then we had breakfast, watched the season premier of Smallville, and once I finish this post I'll take a shower and settle into reading a good bit of Husserl. I have class from 2:00-4:00 and then I'll go to Mass at 5:10 at Loyola Hall, eat dinner, and then get ready for the Blaqrobes' (the Jesuit team in Fordham's intramural league) softball game at 8:00 (I'm pitching again). At 9:15 I'm meeting with some students and then, hopefully, by 10:30 I'll be back home in time to do my Examen (my prayerful review of the day) and catch up on some pleasure reading.

I mention this because, very often, I get asked just what it is that I do all day. And, to be truthful, it varies from day to day. My days are full and, I feel, quite balanced between the many areas of interest that give me great life and energy.

And, on that note, I go. 30 pages of Husserl might not sound like a lot, but it's a rough go. I'm glad I have John Drummond as a teacher - he is exceptionally clear and has been great at explaining the text so far, so I'm confident that what I don't get on my own effort I'll get with his aide.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Good Ignatian, Bad Ignatian Part II

At the risk of appearing obsessive, I want to call attention to a message Joseph Fromm left in his comment box. Before I do so, a few things to note:

  1. Following my initial post, Joseph deleted the post I referenced. The post and the comments have both vanished. Why?
  2. When I responded to his response on his site, the post was deleted. I guess I should not be surprised: why should he allow another person's views to be presented in full when it is his longstanding tactic to cut-and-paste only those bits of peoples' writings that he (mis)understands.
  3. I don't mean to sound obsessive, but I'm not letting Joseph off too easily. He doesn't like having attention called to himself or his posts, nor is he willing to engage in some measured debate. He prefers guerrilla blogging tactics where he takes shots from afar and retreats into the shadows.

So without further ado, this is his latest response over on his blog:

I deleted both posts, not because my positions were untenable, but because they caused you disorder. As a Jesuit you know that it is improper for one to discuss the spiritual gifts that we receive form our Savior. So, I will not provide you a lengthy discourse on the subject, you can read a light treatment on the subject in my blogger bio. Your blog is much different than mine; I think this reflects more of our individual states in life. I could not possibly blog about the tin whistle or my experience with yoga. I did not address you in any of the posts that you cite, so I did not “bully” you. If you choose to take issue with me over someone who is a public advocate of abortion and has assisted in the suicide of a friend that is your business. As for the post on Terrence Klein, I referenced another blog, did you write a comment in their combox? I juxtaposed in my post title, Klein’s argument that conservatives are fundamentalists and reversed his premise. Klein wrote a publicly published piece, is his work above criticism? The last time I debated you, you burned the bridge, so forgive me if I did not rush right in. I deleted your combox comment because you crossed a line of civil Christian conduct. I have Jesuits and Ignaciophiles from all over the world that read and support my blog. I will continue my work knowing that not everyone will agree with me. It would be a rather boring world if everyone agreed exactly with everyone else on every subject, would it not? I pray that both of our lives are reflected in the light of Christ, and that we will be able to reconcile fully in person in the future with a firm handshake, knowing that Christ is our Master.

Let's begin by making some distinctions (this is my new favorite word, especially in treating issues within philosophy).

First, I am fully aware that I was not referenced in either of the posts I mentioned. I don't reckon that I need to be the one bullied in order to call out a bully. It would not have been difficult in the least to scroll through the archives and pick numerous other instances of Joseph's labeling of others. He never offers a sustained, reasoned argument for his criticisms.

Second, I'm taking issue with your tactics, not with your content - if you even can be said to have content. Your blog aggregates various news stories - I suspect you use Google reader to pick up any mention of Jesuits - and then you post them with your labels affixed. Sometimes we get a little paragraph explaining why you take exception to whatever that moment's issue is for you, but in general you just give a bunch of links.

Third, people are free to criticize any piece of published work. But, Joseph, you snipe at people, you don't offer an argument. In a spirit of charity, I'm encouraging you to re-evaluate your style and to offer arguments for your positions, rather than quickly affixed labels.

Fourth, I think you have much to learn about "civil Christian conduct." I don't know how it fits into your schema of Christian life that it is ever appropriate to situate people within a plane of "Good Jesuits and Bad Jesuits" as though you were the arbiter of goodness. As I said originally, you may well be fully qualified to do so, but you've not offered us any sense of just what it is that gives you the credentials to adjudicate the rectitude of one's understanding and appropriation of the Ignatian tradition.

Fifth, I know you have quite a bit of site traffic, but I sincerely doubt if it's from adoring fans. I reckon many people like myself log on once a day to see what bizarre thing has been posted. I've no doubt some Jesuits love to see Tom Reese referred to as 'lunatic fringe' but I'm not one of them.

Sixth, we never really debated and, even if we had, you deleted all of your comments back in early June. You were incensed the I had the audacity three months ago for you to give an account of your ability to judge. As I've said repeatedly, I'm not saying that you don't have this right, but it would be enormously helpful if you would offer your credentials. In the "debate" in question, I gave a litmus test for making my distinctions: the work of God's Holy Spirit encourages peace, reconciliation, and inspires love; the work of the evil spirit is divisive, breeds suspicion, and instills fear and distrust. I believe I made myself fairly clear in how I saw that distinction playing out in regard to your blog, but that seemed too much for you to take. It didn't burn the bridge, I merely set forth the terms of engagement which you spurned.

Seventh, and finally, I am not looking for agreement. I want transparency. On my blog, I talk about nearly everything: someone once compared my blog to confession. So from yoga to cooking, tin whistle to prayer, softball to vocation promotion, I have no problem covering any issue. But they are my issues and my words and, when I write something, I offer a reason for it. A very close Jesuit friend and I disagree on just about every social issue imaginable but I understand his reasons for his positions and he understands mine. This gives us an endless supply of fodder for conversation and makes for lively and engaging debate. Our fraternal love for one another only deepens as we can explore our differences. But this mutual love can grow only because we are honest with each other and we can offer a rationale for the positions we take. That's all I want: give us reasoned argument rather than pot-shots.

I love being a Jesuit. I have never in my life been happier and I count myself blessed from morning to night to have been called to be a Companion of Jesus. Every day I walk out into a world that can, so often, seem devoid of hope and joy. In preaching and trying to live fully the Gospel of Jesus Christ it is my burden and blessing to be a bearer of this saving Word to a world sorely in need of healing. If I have learned anything in my studies, it is the importance of reasoned argument and respectful engagement. So again, Joseph, I'm offering this in a spirit of charity: provide reasons, arguments, and give an account of how it is that you come to judge out of your "Ignatian Experience." If you are speaking the truth and being a vessel of that truth, then you should feel empowered by this and confident that your reasonable readers will glom onto what you've said. Do not sell us short: I, for one, know that I am ever in pursuit of a more complete understanding of the truth and, if you can help me to see it, I will be overjoyed to see more clearly. But I do not respond well to bullying tactics or guerilla blogging that takes shots at people --- there is nothing charitable or, in my schema of Christian living, of God's Spirit in that.

So I extend a hand and an invitation: a hand in peace and an invitation to deeper engagement.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Good Ignatian, Bad Ignatian?

This morning, I'd like to lay my cards on the table. This may or may not surprise folks, but I hate bullies. As one who was occasionally bullied as a kid, I have a particular disdain for those who like to intimidate or inflict injuries on others. In getting older and gaining perspective, I realized that the bullies who picked on me were typically empty, sad, and terribly lonely people who needed someone weaker than they to make themselves feel strong, fulfilled, and purposeful. 

What interests me is that, as I look back on it, bullies tended to feel themselves as upholding some standard or norm. I remember once a guy in high school getting pushed around because he was judged a "fag" and "his kind" didn't belong in our school. In this case, the bully was defending some notion of hetero-normative behavior and exacted a toll on the guy who didn't comport to his standard. I think bullies do this very often: they set the standard by which they judge and then assault those who do not fit their image. 

It's obvious that bullying never goes away. I see it pretty regularly on the internet, especially in blogs. There's some irony in this: the bullies who picked on me, and who seem to get portrayed in the media, often appear to be pretty stupid and really not capable of having a blog. So the blog-bullies are at least literate enough to express themselves verbally rather than with their fists. Perhaps the blog-bully has replaced the playground-bully; words have taken over for fists, nasty comments have replaced wedgies. 

I've noticed quite a bit of bullyish behavior coming from Joseph Fromm of  Good Jesuit, Bad Jesuit. Over the past few weeks, he has posted what are, in my eyes, fairly objectionable posts about certain people such as Terry Klein of Fordham University (a friend of mine and one of the best priests/teachers I've ever encountered) where he labels Terry a "Leftist Fundamentalist."  This label is not only ludicrous (and it sounds like an oxymoron), it's wholly inaccurate. Joseph's post, however, affixes only the "leftist fundamentalist" tag on Father Klein and then links to another blog; Joseph doesn't offer his own reasons for his objection, but allows another to do all the talking. But, then again, why would a bully need to offer a reasoned justification for his labeling of another? The bully, of course, is self-assuredly correct in his assessment of any situation.

Or just this week, Joseph posted a little thing on Ann Lamont. I'm not defending Ms. Lamont, but in the comments section Joseph offered something that really startled me. In responding to Father Mark Mossa, Joseph writes, 

So this got me to thinking: Joseph, what exactly is your Ignatian experience? I mean, you reference that you've had a Jesuit spiritual director, but what else qualifies you to make judgments that, in your mind, work out of a paradigm provided by the Spiritual Exercises or the Ignatian tradition? 

Have you made the 30-day retreat? Several 8-day retreats? Do you have a living sense of the Ignatian tradition - a prayer life informed by the Exercises? Have you studied the Spiritual Exercises with a credible authority? Have you been guided and mentored by a tradition-immersed figure (perhaps someone who actually publishes on the topic in scholarly journals) or received training in spiritual direction? Have you read the Constitutions as an organic framework out of which the life of the Jesuit flows? 

You see, Joseph, without some sense of your qualifications to judge people good or bad, you come off as a bully. Now in a spirit of charity, I'd love to be able to say that you are wholly qualified to make these calls. But it seems to me that you are slipping into some bizarro Ignatian Relativism (you'd not like that latter word, I reckon) where your experience lets you make judgments that are unassailable by others because they are your Ignatian experiences. This suggests that you don't quite get the spirit of discernment that rests at the heart of the Exercises: how is God touching your life and calling you into deeper service as a disciple of Jesus. The "Ignatian Experience" you are purporting to work out of seems to be an act of Ignatian syncretism (another of your favorite words) that has adapted to the relativistic, subjectivistic culture of our day. In other words, you're giving the impression that your selective interpretation and appropriation of elements of the Ignatian tradition make you something of an adjudicator. But without a sense of your standing within the tradition, it gives the appearance of cafeteria Ignatian-ism.  

But let me give you an opportunity to respond. Show us that you're not a bully. Show all of us how your blog somehow contributes to the upbuilding of God's Kingdom; show us how it incites a greater ardor and passion to be disciples. A properly critical blog possessed of a discerning spirit most certainly is able to point out the flaws and shortcomings of our Church, but your blog's smug and self-righteous tone lacks any semblance of charity. 

So help me, Joseph. I want a criterion to judge a good Ignatian from a bad Ignatian. 

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Untutored Eye

I've been really busy this week, but since I have to preach tonight I thought I'd post the homily.

Lk 6:39-42

Jesus told his disciples a parable:
“Can a blind person guide a blind person?
Will not both fall into a pit?
No disciple is superior to the teacher;
but when fully trained,
every disciple will be like his teacher.
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?
How can you say to your brother,
‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’
when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye?
You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first;
then you will see clearly
to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.”

The Untutored Eye

To help us dwell on this evening’s gospel, I would like to draw upon two competing schools of exegesis: the Cowellian school founded by Simon Cowell and the Abullian school begun by Paula Abdul. While you probably thought their talents were limited to being judges on American Idol, allow me to suggest that each one represents a different style of interpreting the gospel.

The Abdullian school interprets tonight’s famous refrain to “Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye” as a call to self-improvement. I think many of us hear the gospel in this way: before you go judging anyone else, you’d better get yourself sorted out. Put your affairs in order before you try to correct anyone else.

We could summarize this with the phrase: “Who are you to judge?”

The proper response, according to this interpretation, is for one to go home and spend a lot of time on self-improvement. Buy some self-help books, tune into Dr. Phil, and with a lot of hard work you’ll make yourself into a good performer of the gospel.

This interpretation goes by another name: Pelagianism, and it was condemned as a heresy at various councils in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The second school, the Cowellian, takes a different approach. Instead of patting you on the head and sending you off to work things out for yourself, this school realizes that you are probably incapable of learning to see rightly if left only to your own devices. So this school takes seriously an oft-overlooked line: “No disciple is superior to the teacher; but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher.”

On this interpretation, we are called to realize that all of us have untutored eyes. All of us need to submit ourselves to the tutelage of the master, the true light of the world. It is this light we encounter in the First Week of the Exercises and which GC 35 recounts as helping us to discover and to recognize our weaknesses and inconsistencies but also the depth of our desire to serve. This light guides us into the Second Week where we gaze upon Christ our Lord and know ourselves to be sinners, yet called to be companions of Jesus as Ignatius was.

On a more pedestrian level, let me close with an instance of why the second interpretation makes eminent practical sense.

Anyone who attends a Blaqrobes softball game will hear teammates encouraging the batter with calls of, “Good eye! Good eye!” Now every now and again – and our record attests to this – players will fall into a slump. It’d be an awful dereliction of duty for the manager to say, “Ok, you’re not hitting well. Go off and sort it out for yourself and, when you’ve got it, come back and be a star.”

Quite the opposite is the case. The manager, or another experienced player, steps out and takes a good long look at the batter.

“Choke up.” “Step away from the plate.” “Swing earlier.”

This is advice that comes from outside, from the manager, from the teacher. And if this sort of relationship with another player who, at best, bats a .500 average, imagine how much better one would play under the tutelage of one who bats 1.000.

Our invitation tonight it to place our untutored eyes, our untutored selves, at the feet of the master who wants nothing more than to teach us his ways. With eyes made new, we will judge rightly because our familiarity with the things of God gives us discerning hearts. It is these hearts – enkindled with zealous love and the desire to serve – that make us available to be sent into the Lord’s vineyard, for the greater service of the Church and the greater glory of God.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Dinner at 7

After I return from the gym this morning, I'll spend the rest of my day in the kitchen preparing a dinner for (about) twenty people. It has become something of a custom for me to host semi-regular dinners here at Ciszek for some of the younger members of the theology and philosophy departments, Jesuits, and other graduate students.

My menu tonight:

Prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe
Sauteed green beans with tomatoes and basil
marinated summer squash
tortellini bolognese (my own sauce)
Nectarine and blueberry crisp

In recent years, Fordham University has made fabulous young hires in both theology and philosophy and it has been one of my great delights to have gotten to know many of these faculty members. Extending hospitality toward members of the Fordham community - both faculty and fellow graduate students - helps for them to get to know us, to understand what the whole "Jesuit project" is, and gives them a sense of having a role in our formation process that extends far beyond just teaching us in class.

If I can remember to do so, I'll have to make sure that I bring my camera tonight and take some pictures.

In other news, things remain fairly quiet. I've been really blessed these last few weeks with excellent prayer (which makes, as you can imagine, the discipline of prayer much easier) and I'm feeling energized and excited by the beginning of the term. I'm also glad that I've kept up my daily yoga practice as I find it to be a sort of embodied prayer. And, with all the twisting and turning, it's great for the digestive system...a good thing, given the menu I have planned for tonight!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Into the Breach Once More

If you're a regular follower of my blog, you'll know that this is my third year at Fordham University. A full year of courses awaits, to be sure: Integration Seminar, Natural Law, Husserl, Fundamental Theology (all this semester) to be followed by Integration II, Transcendental Thomism, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty (next semester). I think it's safe to say that there's a fair bit of work between now and the beginning of May!

Now the added bit of excitement to the third year of philosophy is the fabled Regency Assignment. Regency is the period of Jesuit formation that follows First Studies and often, although certainly not always, involves a man teaching in one of our high schools.

Although it's less dramatic than lining up for the Sorting Hat at Hogwart's, it's still an exciting time. Many of us daydream about where we'll do our regencies; indeed, many of us were directly influenced by young regents when we were in high school. So now the time approaches when we'll have the excitement of discerning just where it is that we will spend the next 2-3 years of our Jesuit lives.

My semester began today with Integration seminar. We read JP II's 'Fides et Ratio' and, for next week, we're to read a significant chunk of Aristotle's 'Physics.' Yep...ooodles of fun. While others are enjoying the balmy heat of the Bronx (it's 90-degrees outside now), I'll be curled up on my bed reading Aristotle and daydreaming about teaching legions high school students next year!

Monday, September 01, 2008

My Protégé

Music teachers, probably like coaches, can wait for a lifetime for their protégé to appear. How fortunate for me that my niece, Emma, has a natural inclination toward the tin whistle and will soon be following her uncle's footsteps. Well, not all of them: the Jesuits don't admit women.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Living Tradition

Please pardon my absence: I'm just now settling back into life in the Bronx.

I wanted, however, to call your attention to a very fine article written by Jim Lang of Assumption College. A professor of English, Jim contributes a regular column to The Chronicle of Higher Education and his latest column is devoted to a discussion of the tin whistle course I teach here at Fordham. I'm glad that he acknowledges Drew Marquard's help, without whom I would be wholly unable either to record or post my videos (I have a technological handicap). Indeed, follow this link here to see some of Drew's videos.

I hope Jim doesn't mind that I've copied the article here, so if you'd rather read it on-site then follow this link to The Living Tradition.

The Living Tradition

Think about teaching as a set of strategies or techniques that we inherit and pass on to the next generation

by James M. Lang

I've long been a devotee of traditional Irish music, despite my measly dollop of ethnic Irish heritage, and despite my inability to sing, or play any instrument you can carry into a pub. When I was in Ireland in March, though, chaperoning a group of students on a spring-break tour, I stopped into a music store in Galway and bought a half-dozen books of Irish music and a tin whistle.

I play the piano, which has 88 keys; the tin whistle had only six holes. How complicated could it be?, I thought to myself. So when I got home I opened the books and sat down to learn my favorites, expecting to master them easily with a little bit of practice.

Imagine your favorite cat sitting comfortably on the floor of the kitchen, dozing away. Now imagine you walk up and step on his tail. That sound that comes out of your cat? That's the same sound that emerged from my whistle.

So I looked to the Internet for help, and almost immediately found a series of YouTube videos called "Introduction to the Irish Tin Whistle," produced by two Jesuit seminarians from Fordham University, Ryan Duns and Drew Marquard. The videos accompany a course of the same title that Duns teaches at Fordham; he uses the videos ( and a blog ( to supplement his courses, and he has made them available to the public as well through YouTube and Blogspot.

Whistle in hand and mouth, I watched the first video and was impressed by the clear and easy nature of Duns's presentation. He covered scales and fingering techniques, and had me playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in two different keys by the end of the six-minute session.

But what really caught my attention were his closing words: "It is only through gradual, step-by-step learning, taking our time with it, struggling with the music, that you will begin to cultivate a sense of your place in the Irish tradition."

The idea that, as a 38-year-old amateur musician, I could ever hope to find a place in the Irish musical tradition never occurred to me when I picked up the tin whistle. But I found it to be such an encouraging and inspirational sentiment that it made me want to practice and keep going.

I continued taking Duns's YouTube "course," and each week found myself impressed by his patient and careful lessons, by his sense of humor, and by his evident passion for Irish music. So I wrote to ask if I could interview him about how to teach with blogs and videos, assuming he would have useful tips I could pass along. His insights into both music and teaching helped renew my own faith and interest in teaching, and reset my compass just in time for the start of the new semester.

I began our e-mail exchange by asking Duns why he bothered to put his courses online. What was the point of adding the videos and blog to an already existing course?

"The logistics of the tin-whistle course," he explained, "made some creative thinking necessary. I knew that I'd have limited face time with the students as a group and, unless I figured out a way to do private or one-on-one lessons with each of them, I'd have even less chance of working with them individually. Further, I know that it's hard for kids to practice — I've taught for enough years to know that, no matter how hard the teacher works, it makes no difference if the kid isn't picking up the instrument at home.

"It occurred to me that YouTube, where I had been posting some solo tin-whistle videos just for fun, would make a great venue for hosting my videos. The students were all familiar with the way it worked and it was accessible from their desks (where, I hoped, they'd keep their whistles), and it seemed logical that the ease of YouTube would help facilitate them in practicing along with my video. Rather than trying to remember what I said to them in class, all they'd have to do is pull up YouTube and find that week's lesson and allow the 'Balding Bard' to show them, again, what to do.

"Nevertheless, YouTube is also limited to posting only video, and I wanted to give my students the notes to the tunes. Hence the blog."

It turns out, Duns explains, that the videos and blog helped him deal with the challenge of working with students who were coming from a range of musical abilities.

"Sometimes I'll have a student who just doesn't get it," he writes. "She might be on the cusp of grasping a movement and I can see it … but I can't ask 34 other kids to wait for her. With the videos, I can pull her aside and say, 'Go home tonight and nail Week No. 6's video. You're so close! Just keep at it!'"

The videos also enabled him to divide the students into two groups: "those who could play already and those who, well, needed padded helmets when it came to music." He could put one group in a classroom with one of his videos while he worked directly with the other group.

Duns still hadn't explained why he wanted to make the videos and the blog available to the public. Why not put DVD's in the library, or restrict them just to students in the course?

"I firmly believe that my 'musical ministry' is to pass along what I have received," he says. "To date, I have received e-mails expressing tremendous gratitude for my videos from Vietnam, Brazil, Sweden, Germany, Korea, Canada, Ireland, Spain, Peru, and many others.

"Irish music is a living tradition, something to be lived out of, and it makes my heart swell with joy to know that there are people from around the world who are not only learning to love to listen to Irish music, but also who are learning to speak through the tradition." As our e-mail conversation came to a close, Duns made even more explicit the links between his musical passions, his vocation as a Jesuit, and his vocation as a teacher.

"I have a great passion for Irish music, and I want to share it," Duns says. "It has done such wonderful things in my life, and I want people to participate in that. I reckon my mission is to evangelize the gospel and the whistle! My spirituality is best likened to music: I pray as I play — with joy and awe at being invited to have a place in a much larger symphony of musicians, but a symphony where my voice is both wanted and has something to add to the richness."

As I was reading his reflections, I realized that we can think about teaching in much the same way: as a living tradition, a set of strategies or techniques — like melodies — that we inherit from our teachers, and pass along to those teachers yet to come.

Most of us share our melodies freely and happily with one another (unlike our scholarship, which we may guard jealousy and stamp with copyrights). When we find a teaching melody that works, we want to share it with others, and even to hear how our fellow teachers might help us make it better — give it a different rhythm, add grace notes, try out a new fingering technique.

And just as musicians have to work to find their own voice within a living musical tradition, we each have to struggle to find our voice as teachers, learning from those who have gone before us in the classroom and passing along our wisdom to those who will follow.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame