Monday, December 28, 2009

Liturgical Lamentations

I'm heading back to Detroit early tomorrow morning and I was looking forward to spending this evening at a gathering with other Jesuits hosted by John Carroll University. Poor weather, unplowed streets, and a bad feeling that I'm in the early stages of a cold have forced me, sadly, to stay in for the evening.

It has been my good fortune this semester to become more involved in the planning and execution of liturgies. I rather like the whole affair. It's exhilarating to organize the students, make dynamic use of liturgical symbolism, and find ways to encourage a greater sense of reverence for and participation in the celebration of the Eucharist.

One thing I've noticed over the years is that a key to a good liturgy is good music. It's not everything, to be sure, but it certainly helps. Saint Augustine is reputed to have exhorted his listeners, "He who sings prays twice." If speaking is "Prayer x 1" and singing is "Prayer x 2," then this weekend the sung Mass I attended resulted me praying 1/16. In other words: the music was diabolical.

When did it become a good idea for an Alto Soprano accompanied by an organ to belt out tunes that one couldn't reach with a ladder? The Gloria we sung yesterday was pitched so high that there was no way of aligning oneself with it. Were I an extraordinarily gifted castrato I might have been able to go a few rounds with the cantor. But that would also rest on my being able to understand the song which, near as I can tell, blended elements of the Gloria, the Holy, Holy, Holy, and the Lamb of God. It was a disorienting affair. I heard that a chorus line came in and performed a number from Cats during the middle of the song, but I was struggling so hard to follow the lyrics that I think I missed it.

Christmas Eve was an entirely different affair. Our song Leader thought it was a good ol' jamboree before Mass and tried to lead the congregation in song. This is, surely, a good idea. Trying to turn the people into the Tabernacle Choir 20 minutes before Mass is, however, not. I became increasingly ill at ease as the Leader tried to have us sing a 4-part harmony to "Silent Night": replete with two counter-posed verses and two segments of the church singing "oooooohs" and "aaaaaaaahs." The Leader then ignored the priest's gestures to begin the opening hymn, causing Mass to start nearly 10 minutes later than it should have.

Directly in front of me a young mother - who I went to grade school with - had her two children with her. I was amazed to see the accoutrements she deemed necessary to get through a one-hour Mass: four activity books, three different trucks, a bag of Legos, several bags of provisions (2 types of cereal, some juice boxes, and gum), a milk bottle, a juice bottle, a sipper cup, and a handful of crayons. I wonder if she parked the pack mule in front of the church. If the intent was to give the little ones something to do to keep them quiet, it was a spectacular failure: the provisions were exhausted immediately, the milk bottle was disregarded, the sipper cup dumped on the floor, and the activity books failed to keep anyone occupied [although I did manage to complete a connect-the-dots activity while we were listening to the Gospel]. They lasted only through the homily, when she broke camp and took the kids home.

Next, the Sign of Peace left me with terribly hurt feelings. First of all, the young guy standing to my left wanted to give me a "Bro-Hug." I'm not opposed to hugging...if I know you. But just as I wouldn't hug a stranger on the subway, I'm not apt to hug a stranger at Mass. I turned to my right and shook hands with a kind-looking elderly woman who promptly removed a bottle of Purell and generously applied it to her hands, rubbing it in with gusto. Her vigor made me feel like a leper, as though I should wear a bell around my neck to announce my coming. The third person to whom I extended my hand - a little kid - completely ignored me.

Finally, we had the reception of Communion. I'm quite happy to receive Communion in the hand and I execute a reverential bow before reception. The young man who sat to my left - remember, the "Bro-Hug" - apparently felt moved to out-do my bow. So as I stepped forward to receive the Host, he made the profoundest of bows and hit me in the back with his head. I stepped forward slightly, caught off-guard, but maintained my composure and didn't roll my eyes until after I'd returned to my seat. Then I started to chuckle inwardly, a chuckle I had to stifle when at the end of Mass the priest gave his final blessing and proclaimed in halting English, "The Mass has been Over. Go in Peace." Case closed.

Now I don't mean to sound the curmudgeon's horn. I share this both as a way of processing (remember: I'm an extrovert) and because I find it rather funny. Furthermore, I reckon that many of my readers have similar "liturgical lamentations" that they can share and, should they wish, may do so in the comments!

Rounding Out the Year

As 2009 draws to a close, I see that with this post I'll have put 98 items on the web. That's not nearly as voluminous as some bloggers but, as I look back on the events of the year, I think it's about right.

2009 stands as a pivotal year in my Jesuit formation:

  • A former Weight-Watcher, I ran my first marathon in Cleveland this year
  • I graduated from Fordham University with the MAPR (Master of Arts in Philosophical Resources)
  • My family welcomed the birth of my nephew and godson Quinn
  • I had an article accepted for publication in New Blackfriars
  • I was missioned to the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy to undertake the regency stage of formation
I have been enormously graced this year. I cannot imagine being any happier than I am now.

If I might offer a few random thoughts:

1. For those in discernment of any sort, I encourage you simply to give yourself over to God. It seldom happens in our lives that we will get what we want. Nevertheless, when we have opened ourselves wholly to God's will, we will always receive what we most desire. Had I gotten everything I had ever wanted as a Jesuit, I'm sure I'd be content. But the fact that the fulfillment of my desires has always exceeded my wildest dreams leads me to testify that my "Jesuit Joy" finds its source in the God whose grace is unimaginable.

2. I know that I have mentioned with growing frequency my dismay at the negativity of many so-called religious bloggers. My hope is that the dawning of a new decade might be a prompt to reform the way we engage in civil discourse with one another, especially when we are discussing difficult and painful issues.

3. Let me offer something of a mea culpa:

Over the past two months, several readers have contacted me concerning posts that I've written. My posts entitled "Fired!" and "Anonymity" raised concerns among some readers and they wrote to ask me for clarification about them. These posts, coupled with the brief period of moderated comments, do deserve mention.

Two months ago, an "anonymous" coward took exception to something I wrote on another blog. He took my call for Christian charity and due process to be an endorsement of vile practices. This individual apparently has no life and visits my blog, and my YouTube site, rather frequently.

To Anonymous, I have only this to say: How is the weather in Minnesota? Did you have nothing better to do at 10:12 last night than to visit my site? Yes, my friend, I have been tracking you for quite some time (IP Address begins with c-75-73.... and your provider is ComCast) and I have contacted an attorney with this information. As one so concerned with justice and moral rectitude, I'm sure you'll understand. Please make no mistake: I do not suffer fools gladly and you, sir, are a fool of rare variety. I tried civil discourse, but to no avail. Now I'll try civil law.

To my readers, those posts were as much for your entertainment as they were to send a message. I apologize if it caused confusion and please be assured that matters will be resolved favorably.

4. Let us turn an eye to to the future! We're entering the seventh year of the blog and the journey keeps getting more interesting. Sometimes I read things I wrote in 2004 and I say, "What in God's name was I thinking?!?!" Perhaps it is a part of growing up, a growth and maturation that has taken place in a very public space. I thank all of you for your readership and your prayers and I look forward to continuing this adventure with you in 2010.

Christ's Peace for you and yours in the new year!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009


For many of us, the liturgical season of Advent, taken from the Latin adventus or "coming," is far from peaceful. Christmas parties, end-of-the-semester work, family gatherings, the beginning of winter sports...each of these seems to make it difficult for us to give ourselves over to the season, to making the true focus of our time a patient waiting for the birth of the Savior.

Many years ago, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote the following poem entitled "St. Alphonsus Rodriguez". Brother Rodriguez spent 46 years as the porter at the Jesuit College of Montesione on the Spanish island of Majorca. As porter, his basic job was to answer the door. Read, if you will, the following poem:

St. Alphonsus Rodriguez
Laybrother of the Society of Jesus
HONOUR is flashed off exploit, so we say;
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.
On Christ they do and on the martyr may; 5
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.

Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment, 10
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.
It is the job of the porter to await the coming of visitors. He must be ever at the ready, ever watchful of the door. Honor, St. Alphonsus, came neither from epic conquests on the battle field nor from memorizing glory through grand acts. It comes simply from the heart-felt prayer that uttered each of the countless times answered the door to guests: "I'm coming, Lord!"

I mention Saint Alphonsus because I think he captures perfectly the true spirit of Advent. He was a man who lived Advent at all times, for he lived with an awareness that another was coming. His very life was conformed to being hospitable to the ever-arriving guests who knocked at his door. Advent was not, for him, a season. It was, rather, his very way of life.

I hope that this Advent season has enabled you to say more freely, or more sincerely, or more hopefully: I'm coming, Lord! Christ both comes toward us but we must go to him. Many of us have heard the tapping at the inner door of our hearts...but how many cry out with frustration and anger, "I'm coming, I'm coming!" but don't mean it?

It is not too late. The quiet knocking and tapping that prevents us from getting too comfortable is a mark that Someone has come visiting. When you approach the door - whether it be to your office, classroom, home, or heart - summon the strength to cry out inwardly, "I'm coming, Lord!"

If we could find the strength to make this prayer, this simple utterance, our own, I think that the carping about the "secularization of Christmas" would fade away. I think this, simply, because this prayer would christen every day, every moment, with the spirit of Advent, the spirit of anticipation and coming, that we must have for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our Advent would not be limited to a few weeks each year but, rather, would be our very lives that are open and awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. This inner transformation of the human heart would speak more clearly than any manger scene or Christmas pageant, because it would speak throughout the year and point without confusion to the true "reason for the season."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

On Anonymity

I awoke this morning a free man: today is the first full day of Christmas vacation. I don't know who has been more excited about this holiday, me or the kids!

Having graded until late last night (after midnight), I was annoyed with myself that I woke up at 5:30 this morning and couldn't go back to sleep. I decided to put the time to good use, so I logged into YouTube and began answering an enormous backlog of emails I've received over the last few weeks. When I awoke I had nearly 500 messages; I've read nearly all of them and answered those that needed to be answered.

Many of the messages are expressions of gratitude for the tin whistle lessons. Others ask me for tips or advice on purchasing tin whistles, learning tunes, finding teachers, etc.. Not a few express how they've re-connected with their faith thanks to my Intermediate Lessons, where I try to draw a parallel between music and spirituality: we pray as we play. Some simply ask for prayers.

A few emails, however, are downright nasty. A few people have taken it upon themselves to save me from the "Whore of Babylon" (I take it that they mean the Catholic Church). Others imply that the fact that I am a seminarian instantly puts into questions my moral uprightness...apparently the fact that I have dedicated myself to the Gospel carries with it the assumption, for some people, that I am a sexual predator.

To a person, the cruel messages I have received have one thing in common: they are written anonymously. I think this is done for two reasons:

1. The authors are cowards. These are women and men who are content to judge others but do not present themselves for judgment. They linger in the shadows like terrorists and snipe out. They seem to feel themselves secure in their righteousness, but I beg to differ. Their unwillingness to disclose their identity shows a profound lack of integrity and indicates that they are writing out of a profoundly evil, deranged spirit.

I laugh when I read critical-yet-anonymous emails. They really can't be taken seriously. I read them, to be sure, but hit delete and move forward. They do not merit a response: if they can't take the time to sign a name, I haven't the time to engage with them.

2. The authors tend to be very stupid. I know, stupid is a strong word. But I don't know how else to put it. For instance, one message that was left anonymously said, "Mr. Duns, as a Jesuit novitiate you should know better than...". There are a few problems with this:
  1. I am a Jesuit scholastic. This means that I have publicly professed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I'm currently in the Regency stage of formation.
  2. I was once a Jesuit novice. During the first two years of Jesuit formation, one is a novice.
  3. I am not a building. The "novitiate" is the physical building in which the novices live. But one cannot quite be a novitiate any more than one can be an outhouse or convenience store.
Perhaps ignorant is a better adjective. Whatever appellation is applied to such individuals, we need only to understand that the meaning behind it is "not terribly bright."

As I write, I reckon that ignorant may be more appropriate. Not only are such anonymous cowards ignorant of Jesuit formation (which, admittedly, is a challenge to understand. But if you're going to use the nomenclature, you had better use it properly) and matters related to the Catholic Church - issues of ecclesiology, scripture, and moral theory - they are also ignorant of grammar. Many of the notes I receive are just long run-on screeds that lack internal coherence due to ignorance of grammar. I'm no grammar enforcer, but I'm one who appreciates nice writing.

Perhaps the reason people send anonymous letters or leave anonymous messages is that they are cowards who fear being exposed for being ignorant.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Please don't read this as a sign of anger or bitterness on my part. I find it kind of funny, really. I've only once posted something anonymously to a blog and I immediately regretted doing it and apologized for it. I find it much easier to be up-front about my views and stand by them.

I wouldn't be much of a witness to the Gospel if I dwelled in the shadows. I wonder if some of the self-professed Christians and Catholics who thrive on anonymous attacks realize that the anonymity they think preserves their identity really serves more to divulge their true character: ignorant cowards deserving of derision rather than serious engagement.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Semester Drawing to a Close

To be honest, I don't know who is more excited about Christmas break: the teachers or the students! I'm certain that 2-3 more teaching days would be really helpful in giving me a chance to finish the New Testament textbook and I'd love to spend a few more days with the seniors reading Nietzsche, but I'm not complaining that we only have five days left before vacation.

Unfortunately, I don't know how much of a vacation this will be. Our semester exams take place the week of January 11th, so I have to prepare three different exams. So that means that I'll have to write two extensive study guides (for freshmen and sophomores) as well as two exams, plus prepare an exam for my senior philosophy students. So while I'm not assigning any major projects to my students over vacation - my Christmas gift to them - I can't claim the same for myself!

It's hard to believe that in a few weeks, I'll re-start two of my courses with new students and I'll pick up a new course (Hebrew Scriptures) with two classes of students. That'll be a whole new host of students to learn, but also a chance to avoid making many of the same mistakes I made this semester. I'm grateful that our theology courses are semester-long, which gives me a chance to start fresh and to give me an opportunity to get to know more kids.

Posting will probably be pretty light until next Saturday. There are several Christmas parties to attend, plus having to write two exams this weekend to give and grade next week. Please know of my Advent prayers for readers and I look forward to connecting with you again next Saturday when I trade the chaos of teaching for the chaos of Christmas in Cleveland!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Two More Videos Recorded

I had a chance to record two more videos this weekend.

The first video I dedicate to one of my students who has been nagging me to put a new video up. The two tunes, both jigs, were composed by Tom Hastings. I have known Tom for over 23 years: he is a mix of teacher, mentor, and trusted friend. If I have 10% of his love and passion for traditional Irish music, it is only because of his infectious love and joy for his musical heritage that he has so generously shared with me and legions of music students.

Tom moved to Columbus, Ohio, several years ago. It was a HUGE loss to the Irish music scene in Cleveland and I really hope that the Irish musicians in Columbus know what a treasure and resource they have in Tom. I have had many musical influences in my life, but first among all of them is Tom Hastings. It was my pleasure to record "The Bronze Flute" and "Tom's Other Fiddle" in his honor. I only hope that I have done them justice.

I do have to apologize somewhat: up until yesterday, I had never played these tunes on the whistle (I play them as slow Treble Jigs on the accordion). So it's not the usual polished job but, as time is limited, I did the best I could. Furthermore, I ask that you excuse the basket of laundry - I did the washing yesterday. As you'll see from the next video, the laundry is now done.

This second video is the tune "The Foggy Dew." It is one that I had been requested to record so in between grading this afternoon I took a few moments to record it. It is played simply on a Generation Bb whistle.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

My Return to Animal Planet

With short notice (like at 2:47 yesterday afternoon), I agreed to help chaperone last night's Neon Dance. "Neon Dance" does not imply that the students were festooned in neon signs. Rather, it means to indicate that there were black lights in the gym so that the illuminated students appeared as if they'd spent some time at Chernobyl.

Of course, I rather like the whole concept of black-lit events. It reminds me of the times that I've gone "laser bowling" with friends: the florescent paint that has been applied to various surfaces becomes eerily luminescent under the black light, transforming the normal bowling alley into a glowing frenzy of balls, pins, and beer.

What made last night unique, however, is not that there were decorations strewn about the gym that had been pre-treated in order to give off an eery glow. Instead, it was the students who thought to pre-treat themselves:

  • Some arrived having poured the contents of glo-sticks all over their clothes. With shirts spattered with a glowing fluid, they thought they looked cool. To my eyes, they looked like walking crime scene from a CSI episode when they use the ultraviolet lights to look for evidence of spilled bodily fluids.
  • Some took the liberty of using special crayons to draw on their bodies. Fortunately for them, under normal light the markings were barely perceptible. Under the black-light, though, they looked like warrior-ghosts conjured up from Braveheart, with various lines and mysterious markings all over their faces and arms.
  • Some of the students, either flouting or ignorant of the whole concept of the black-light, opted to wear the darkest clothes they owned, so they didn't "glow" at all. These (generally guys) were the ones who roved in packs around the perimeter of the dancing throng.
  • Finally, someone needs to tell Jane Fonda that here wardrobe has been pilfered. Several of the guys, having thrown themselves totally into the theme of the dance, came in neon-colored spandex tights, leg warmers, leotard-like outfits, and wild-colored tank-tops. I felt like I had been transported back to an 80's commercial for the "Jane Fonda Workout" but with a sweat boy rather than a lovely woman wearing the workout apparel.
As is the custom, I took my turns at criss-crossing the dancing horde, breaking up students who were grinding and dancing inappropriately. With each pass, I felt more like the Grim Reaper. Those students who noticed me gave me wide berth, for they did not want me to rest my eyes for too long upon them. Others, so engrossed in their "activity" of grinding, were rudely recalled into the world of decent behavior by several jabs with my pencil and the command to "turn around and look at your date." To be fair, I can't blame the guys in every case for the salacious dancing, either: at various times I saw young women thrust themselves into semi-unaware guys. Watching some of the freshmen amused me: they were caught completely off guard and didn't know what to do. Watching some of the seniors, on the other hand, I became alarmed as I interpreted this as part of some primal mating ritual.

My first post as chaperone (from 7:00 - 8:30) was to monitor a little-used hallway. I loved this: I read an entire issue of Commonweal. At 8:30, I entered the gym for the first time. The air was humid, gamy, and stagnant. The odors of Axe, Juicy, and utter failure lingered in the air, assaulted my nostrils, and clung to my skin. At 10:00 sharp, we ushered the mass of students out to the legions of mini-vans and sedans that were lined up outside to take them home. As they departed, I fled to the residence where I used the Neti-Pot to flush away the scent of the evening from my nostrils and I took a shower to be cleansed of the stank of hundreds of writhing, dancing, unwashed, teenagers.

Today, I will sit quietly in my room and read, grateful that I no longer have to watch Animal Planet to feel connected with the rawness of Mother Nature. To accomplish this, I need only chaperone a dance.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


It was with a grim face that my Jesuit superior informed me and the community that I am being removed from my current ministry. This news caused great consternation and confusion for several community members: what was it that I had done? What could I possibly have done in less than four months to merit such an abrupt removal from my job?

Well, it appears that my persnickety superior does not approve of the way that I make beds and prepared the guest rooms. He kindly offered to schedule some corrective therapy: a four-hour session of watching Martha Stewart demonstrate how to make a bed the right way, along with a 2-hour session of learning how to dust and vacuum properly. I demurred at this suggestion, preferring instead the downgrade to "House Librarian." It is a hard fall, really, to go from the lofty heights of the "Assistant to the Guest Master" and be relegated to merely re-shelving books and maintaining a magazine rack.

So I admit it: my skill set is not in making a bed. I haven't any taste for decoration or style - I'm more of a functional guy [as long as it is neat and doesn't smell, I'm happy with it]. I pleaded my case, arguing that this is a Jesuit Community and not the Hyatt. It was, however, to no avail. So I'm now going to throw myself completely into my new task as "Library Czar" and I hope to prove to my brethren that I do have some usable skills.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Do Catholics Really Pray to Mary?

Over drinks this weekend, an old friend of mine asked me at point-blank a question I hear often but one for which I am seldom able to articulate a short, clear answer:

Why do Catholics pray to Mary?

It may have been the grace of the company I was with, or that it was late in the evening, but I think I managed to offer - for the first time - a fairly succinct answer to her question.

First off, let's start with the prayer.

Hail Mary,
Full of grace,
the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners now,
and at the hour of death.

The first thing I pointed out is that the first section of the prayer is the combination of two greetings directed toward Mary in the first chapter of Luke's Gospel. The first line is taken from Luke's account of the angel Gabriel greeting Mary: "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). The next line of the prayer is also a greeting, this time taken from Elizabeth who cries, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb" (Luke 1:42).

This led to the following observation: the beginning of the prayer, at the very least, is wholly scriptural. As I sipped my martini, I had to chide my friend: since when did a Protestant get miffed over a Catholic trying to quote scripture? It is true, of course, that these two greetings are separated by a few verses. Nevertheless, they both do confess something about Mary: that, in the history of salvation, she stands as one who is "full of grace" and who is somehow exceptionally blessed.

Near as I can tell, so far so good. At this point we're still in the realm of scripture and we're simply repeating what has been enshrined in the Scriptures.

But what about the next line?

Our address to Mary in the second part of the prayer, "Holy Mary, Mother of God" is, ultimately, a test of Christian orthodoxy. We needn't go over the travails of the Council of Ephesus (Ephesus I, 431) where the battle between two bishops over the proper title of Mary was settled: Mary is the Theotokos or Mother of God. This does stand to reason: if Jesus is the Son of God and if Jesus is fully human and fully divine (Council of Chalcedon, 451), then it stands to reason that Mary is the Mother of God.

Note: I have never had a problem calling Mary the "Mother of God." I seem to recall my great-grandmother muttering "Holy Mary Mother of God" under her breath frequently, so it must be ingrained in my mind. That being said, I am fully aware of the debate between Christotokos and Theotokos but I choose not to drag you into those details. If this post occasions it, I can always post deeper theological underpinnings. But for now, I'll spare you.

Moving forward.

If we grant that Mary is the Mother of God - and I am aware that some Christians take exception to this - then we are left with one line of the prayer: "Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death."

I have only ever interpreted this line, and prayed it, as a simple request. I take seriously the line from Hebrews 12 that reads,

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.
I have always appreciated the Catholic saints who serve as exemplars of holiness and sanctity. Each saint shows us the very many ways that we can live our lives with our eyes fixed upon Jesus. As a Catholic, I believe that Mary has a special place within the communion of saints as one who stands in a special relationship with Jesus: as a mother stands to her son. It is this Mary who opened herself wholly to the invitation of God to be the mother of the savior, this Mary who risked much for her faith, this Mary who taught her son how to love and loved him into the man he became, this Mary who stayed with him until his tragic execution at the cross. As an exemplar, is there any better among this "cloud of witnesses" who may show us what a truly Christ-centered life is like?

As Christians, it is certainly not uncommon for us to ask one another for prayers. I ask others to pray for me and for my intentions frequently. I also receive very many prayer requests, which I do take most seriously. Why then, if we are surrounded by a "cloud of witnesses" would we not ask them, too, for them to pray on our behalf? If we pray seriously the opening of the Hail Mary, should our eyes and heart not be directed to Mary but through Mary to the true center of her life and our life: Jesus Christ?

As I have come to know and cherish it, the Hail Mary is a prayer that fuses the acclaim of heaven and earth. The words of an angel and the words of a human proclaim the singular grace that is Mary's vocation in history: to be the bearer of the Christ. By making this our prayer, we join our voices with Gabriel and all those who have looked to Mary as the prime model of a truly Christ-centered life. With her as our guide, we ask her to pray on our behalf, to join her words to ours as we continue to grow in our discipleship.

I am acutely aware of Marian excesses and I deplore them as superstition. On the other hand, I would not be so cavalier as to jettison the practice of saying the rosary...if for no other reason than I do it and derive great benefit from it. In praying the rosary, I find myself focusing more and more on the various aspects of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. The meditation of the rosary actually illuminates the person of Jesus and my relationship with Him.

When Catholics pray to Mary, or to the saints, it can often sound like they are praying to min-gods. This is sad. When I say, "I'll pray to Saint Gerard for your pregnancy" I mean only to say that as I commend the particular person to God's providential care, I will also ask that Saint Gerard do so as well. It might sound hokey, but in inviting a member of the communion of saints to pray with me, I am reminded that, as Christians, we are never alone. We are the Body of Christ - past, present, and future - and the prayers of one should be the prayer of all. Thus do I invoke the saints and Mary, deepening a spiritual friendship with those who are recognized as leading holy, Christ-centered lives and who give me a model for the type of life that I want to lead.

Okay, I kind of lied. The answer I gave my friend was A LOT SHORTER but, as I wrote, I realized that I should fill in some gaps. By no means do I think that this will change the mind of anyone convinced that Catholics pray to Mary, but perhaps it will help to launch further conversation.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Aren't Holidays Supposed to be Relaxing?

For weeks, I looked forward to the Thanksgiving Holiday with great excitement. This would be the first year that I would eat Thanksgiving dinner with my family. This would be the first year that I wouldn't fly to either Chicago or Columbus on a pre-dawn flight on Black Friday in order to begin playing for a three-day long Irish dancing competition. This would be the first year that I would have a six-day vacation from school: in addition to Thursday and Friday, our school also had Wednesday and Monday off.

Visions of sleeping in and having a restful holiday proved, alas, to be delusional. Far from relaxing, I had rather exhilarating week: I visited with Jesuit friends and classmates, watched a bizarrely interesting zombie movie, played for hundreds of Irish dancers, saw old Irish dancing friends and colleagues, became re-acquainted with the "Chocolate Martini" as an after-dinner drink, and drove across most of northern and middle Ohio.

In short, I'm exhausted.

And I still I have to plan for the week.

But above all, I am deeply grateful for such a fun holiday.

So I do apologize for my relative silence: no need for alarm! I've been on the road and I'm ready to plunge into the weeks remaining before the Christmas holiday. My eyes grow heavy as I write this, but be assured that I'll have more posts in the upcoming day!

Happy Advent!!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

It's Not All About You

I have spent the last few weeks reading C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity with my seniors. It's a remarkable little book: clearly written, engaging, with very short chapters. As my post from yesterday should indicate, my indebtedness to Lewis for giving me an imaginative tableau for my Christianity certainly predisposes me toward loving any of his works.

Book III of Mere Christianity takes as its overarching topic the issue of Christian Behavior. He begins by recounting "a story about a schoolboy who was asked what he thought God was like. He replied that, as far as he could make out, God was
"The sort of person who is always snooping round to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it."
Lewis writes that in his own era, just around 1943, this is the image of God that seems to have taken hold of popular imagination. If my experience with high school and college students is any indication, this image of God still holds sway.

If this distorted image of God still reigns, I believe it is because of our distorted notion of Christian morality. Lewis is right in noting that, for many, Christian morality is "something that interferes, something that stops you having a good time." In other words, morality is reduced to a bunch of proscriptions: Do not do this, You may not do that. Morality thus ceases to be about how faith affects and shapes our entire life, preparing us to live forever in the Kingdom of God, and is reduced to an obsessive focus on individual acts.

Lewis writes that Morality appears to be concerned with three things:
  • With fair play and harmony between individuals
  • With tidying up or harmonizing the things inside ourselves
  • With the general purpose of human life as a whole: what humans are for
Too often, he goes on to observe, Morality is reduced to a focus on the first of these and a complete neglect of the latter two. While ensuring right relations between people is certainly important, it is not enough.

At the risk of scandalizing readers, let me try to make this clear.

I have observed that, for many young men, "Christian Morality" is reduced to "What I do with my pelvic region." As long as I don't hurt anyone else, they reason, it's okay. This reasoning, they figure, permits the willy-nilly use of pornography. Applying this reasoning to the entire body, they ask, What difference does it make to anyone if I smoke pot? Drink under age? They want to have a good time, they don't see it as hurting anyone else, and if God doesn't like this....well, then, just get rid of God all together! Better to be a happy atheist or a wholly unbothered agnostic than a prudish theist.

If Christian morality is often reduced to negative proscriptions, modern morality is equally reduced: If it doesn't hurt anyone, then it's okay.

This, Lewis writes, is moonshine. What good is it to have right relations with other people if the individual is completely out of whack? We have to examine the moral standing of the individual - we need to look not only at what she does, but who she is. We need, in other words, to look at the individual's character. Christian morality begins, once we look at the person's character, to focus on the whole person, on who this Christian is as a disciple of Jesus, on how this person lives out this discipleship.

But why even be a disciple? Because, Lewis writes, the general purpose of Christian life is to live together forever in the Kingdom of God. Our human lives are training grounds for eternity in the New Jerusalem. To be sure, this is where Christianity and other traditions will conflict; one should not suspect that the Buddhist is angling for a seat at the Lamb's Table! Nevertheless, as Christians, this is the belief that we hold and we must live our lives in accordance with this belief, trying to make sense of it to others (and to ourselves) as we journey toward the Kingdom together.

Christian morality, understood as how faith in Christ shapes and molds our human lives, is the great and much-needed reminder to our own culture: It's not all about you. Yes, you are important - infinitely important! - but you are not alone in this great journey of discipleship.

The irony is that in order to combat the narcissism and self-obsession of our era, Christians often become equally self-obsessed and act-centered. I really think this is a reason why young people struggle so greatly with Christianity: they think it is nothing more than rules and regulations that keep them from having a good time. There are rules, and there certainly are regulations. But God is not a cosmic tally-keeper who watches to see how many times you do x or y. Better, perhaps, to see God as the great coach who encourages you to keep practicing, who corrects you when needed, who helps you to play well with your team mates, so that you are ready to play in the big game.

If today's pelvis-preoccupied culture reject Christianity, it is more often because we have failed to catechize properly. We need to affirm again and again that we like athletes who are in training. Let me be clear: we must not be permissive and say, "Oh well, it doesn't matter." If a pitcher isn't throwing the ball properly, it's a terrible coach who says, "Oh well, it doesn't matter at all." It matters a great deal! The coach realizes that there is more at stake than just the pitcher: there is the whole team that cannot win the game unless all individuals are playing well.

We do need, however, to remember one good pitch does not a pitcher make, nor one bad pitch necessitate that he be thrown off of the team. We need to focus on more than just individual acts and regain the robust image of the Body of Christ which is, like any team, far greater than the sum of its parts: it supports its players, it encourages them, it challenges them to continue to grown and develop, and it compensates when they falter. A group of of All-Stars won't be very successful if they can't learn to play as a team; a bunch of musicians can't play well together if they don't have a common beat to follow. It is the grace of Christianity that we have that coach and we have that beat: Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

We have now, more than ever, a chance to restate the great drama of Christianity and challenge people to take up again the great adventure of discipleship. In a sense, then, it is about you: only you can decide to accept the invitation to discipleship. But upon entrance, you realize that you don't occupy the central place: there are others who have been called along with you and we're all trying to figure out how to develop ourselves better and integrate ourselves further into this rag tag team with call the Church. We need to reclaim some excitement for being so drafted and go out and draft others into the "Spring Training" of our earthly discipleship so that we may all play as a team forever in the Eternal Summer of God's Kingdom.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Disenchanted by the Gospel

Years ago, before I entered the Jesuits, I went to a local bookstore to purchase a newly released book in the Harry Potter series. While I was standing in line, a well-intentioned customer eyed the book under my arm (which I carried, if memory serves me correctly, with a paperback copy of the Catechism that I wanted to buy) and promptly informed me that the book I was holding contained "the devil." With feigned horror I allowed the book to drop to the floor and stared at her, exclaiming, "Good Lord! So that's where he's been all this time!" I then picked the book back up and made my way to the cashier.

One of the reasons I liked the Harry Potter books so much is that, many years before any students took up residence at Hogwart's, my heart and mind had been captivated by a different magician: C. S. Lewis. As a little boy in the second grade (so we're talking 1987-88), I remember distinctly my mom giving me a copy of his The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to read. Now Mom never never claimed it as a Christian story or told me who the characters were meant to represent. Instead, she entrusted me to the steady hand and capacious heart of Lewis who became, in some sense, my tutor in literary Christianity.

Over the last 23 years, I've read the book perhaps a dozen times. My heart still beats a little faster when I hear the beavers say to the children, "Aslan is on the move." Aslan - the unseen king of Narnia who is coming. Aslan, whose very name causes the White Witch to fly into a towering rage; Aslan, the ruler whose mere presence releases the icy grip of winter on an evilly enchanted world. It is Aslan who who the name "that is above every other name, so that at the name of [Aslan] every knee will bend of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that [Aslan] is Lord, to the glory of the [Emperor over the Sea]. (Philipians 2:10-11). Note: yeah, it's a somewhat tendentious use of Scripture...but you get the point

My sense of exhilaration at the very name of Aslan may account for the tremendous sorrow I still feel when watching Aslan's agonizing submission to the White Witch, when he stands in the stead of the treacherous Edmund. Possessed of a knowledge of the Deeper Magic, Aslan offers himself to the witch to be sacrificed. He gives himself over to her to do with him as she will and what she does is just what we expect of her: she murders him. She makes a great display of immolating the "great cat." My stomach still churns when in my mind's eye I see the grotesque cadre of characters gathered around the noble and gentle Aslan, taunting and torturing him.

After the act of satanic violence has been completed, as the shorn body of the once-great king lies on the table, the reader is left aghast: is this it? The horrific buildup that culminated in the plunging of the knife plummets the reader into a vacuum. But in the matter of a few pages, the violent act is undone: the stone table cracks and the great lord of Narnia returns, in all his glory. He returns not to offer a sermon but, rather, to summon all of creation - even those creatures who had fallen under the witch's spell - to rally against the force of evil. As Aslan leaps and bounds toward the witch's castle where he will restore life to those who'd been turned to stone, I still to this day grow misty eyed thinking of the power and majesty of Aslan and desire greatly to fight on his side for the glory of Narnia.

Is it any wonder that when I prayed, and still continue to pray, through the "Call of the King" [91-100 of the Spiritual Exercises] that my mind goes to Aslan? I cannot describe the joy and excitement I still feel when I contemplate the Eternal King addressing his followers, exhorting, "My will is to conquer the whole world and all my enemies, and thus to enter into the glory of my Father. Therefore whoever wishes to come with me must labor with me, so that through following me in the pain he or she may follow me also in the glory."

When I say that I am disenchanted by the Gospel, I mean it in this way: the Good News has freed me from the icy spell of the White Witch, has shown me that the promises of riches and honor and pride in a cold and dead kingdom are empty and hollow. The logic or magic that runs our day-to-day world, the spell that many of us have succumbed to that says, "You are what you do" and "My value is how much I earn," has lost its grip on me. I prefer to stand under the banner of a different king, a king who does not serve the logic of this world but who knows, and shares with others, the Deeper Magic that the world has forgotten. In and through this King, the Deeper Magic that has lain under the surface of creation has begun to ooze out into the created world. I want to stand with this King and to serve this Deeper Magic as Narnia is the Kingdom of God breaks into the world.

Now I'll go out on a limb: the Deep Magic, the very magic that empowered the Witch's heinous murder of Aslan, is not secularism. Unreflected secularism is a Less-than-Deep Magic, an attitude that looks no deeper than the surface of reality and rejects any effort to penetrate to reality's core. No, the Witch was intoxicated by what seems to be a religious understanding of the Deep Magic - her execution of Aslan was certainly a liturgical ritual. But her failure, as we see, is her refusal to be humble before the true source of her knowledge, it is in not recognizing that the Deep Magic that gave her self-righteous justification to murder was itself powered by an even Deeper Source. The Witch, it turns out, had made an idol of the Deep Magic; it had become a totem, a token, that she was able to manipulate.

What we see is that the Deeper Magic was not some archaic doctrine, some proposition to be quoted in a debate, a thesis used to trump an opponent. The Deeper Magic is encountered in and through the person of intimate were the two, it would seem, that Aslan appears to be the incarnation of the Deeper Magic. It is this Deeper Magic that is "not tame." It is this Deeper Magic that refuses to be domesticated or controlled. It is this Deeper Magic, this King, who calls whom he wills: he goes even into the Witch's castle and frees those who had fallen under her stone-casting spell. This Aslan, this Lord, whose name excites the heart and whose return from death mists the eyes is the one who calls all those who will fight for Good and Right and gathers them into a body in and through whom his Reign shall come.

By way of conclusion, it still seems to me that so many in our country have become self-righteous servants of the "Deep Magic" and have used it to advance their own political agendas. They have made the Bible, or the Catechism, into weapons and idols that they can wield. They have, in effect, "made tame" what is not able to be tamed. They have fallen under the Witch's spell and their hearts have gone cold and angry and embittered.

So recall, then, the wonderful scene in the novel when Father Christmas comes to Narnia. He comes as a herald of the Great King's manifestation, his Epiphany. Father Christmas is not the highlight of the season but, rather, a mere preparatory figure who paves the way for the true star of the show. As we prepare to enter the Advent season, it may serve many of us well to consider who the true focal point of the season is. The gifts Father Christmas bears are not ends to themselves. Instead, they are those things that empower the following of the True King, the real Reason for the Season.

Recall how Aslan's breath turns stone into living flesh and, as a response, the restored individuals join in Aslan's battle against evil. The Breath of the King, the Spirit, vanquishes the grasp of evil's enchantment and frees us to be lovers and followers of the King. We must, then, allow ourselves to be reached by the Spirit so that we, too, may be disenchanted by the Gospels. A heart so disenchanted by the Good News is a humbled, fleshly heart that risks everything to serve the cause of the Good King, who dedicates himself and invites all of creation in to the the friendship and service of the Kingdom that our lives and beings may proclaim the Greater Glory of God.

Friday, November 13, 2009

God is like...

Over the last few weeks, one of the main topics we've discussed in our New Testament/Christology course has been the importance of parables. Coming from the Greek word meaning "comparison," we often experience the parables as powerful teachings shared with his listeners by Jesus to show what the Kingdom of God is like. I taught the students that the parable are "atomic bomb" stories - they should shatter our pre-conceived notions of God and their radiation should penetrate into the very core of our being. Too often, however, we banalize the parables and make them quaint little tales rather than experiencing them as the irruptive and challenging teaching moments Jesus intended them to be.

So this week, instead of a weekly sermon, I invited the students to write their own parables or short-sayings about God and the Kingdom. Some of them were mediocre: not a few typed in "God is like..." into Google, scrolled, down a few, and cut-and-paste the answers into their document (they will, of course, be re-doing the assignment over the weekend). Others, however, were profoundly creative and, I'd like to share a few of the better/funnier parables and short-sayings below:

  • One student wrote a highly amusing Parable of the Yam. The gist of this tale is a rich, but stingy, farmer who loves growing yams above all other vegetables. Eventually, his yam crop begins to fail, causing great distress in the farmer. His prayer leads him to a great insight: his great passion for growing yams is nothing when there are people starving outside his farm's fence. So the farmer throws an enormous feast for the poor and hungry and, lo and behold, he realizes a bumper crop of yams. Moral: I cannot flourish if my sisters and brothers do not have enough to eat.
  • God is like community college, no matter what struggles you may have they will always try to get you back on the right track.
  • God is like football pads, he protects you from the blows dealt to you by others.
  • God is like the kitchen: whenever I want to eat something, there is always something there for me.
  • God is like the weather: something that shows itself in many ways and is always present, even if we don't acknowledge it.
  • God is a carpenter who knows what we want but gives us what we need: where we want fences, God builds walkways.
I think each of these is great and their accompanying stories are really well done. There were others, too, that did a great job - but, given their highly personal nature, I won't post them.

And yet, there has to be a favorite. One student stands, to my mind, in the line of the great spiritual fathers and mothers of the Church. I have one student who ought to go off to a little cave where spiritual seekers might come to him and cry out, "Abba, give me a word of salvation!" I have one student whose insight into the nature of God is so profound, so earth shattering, and so dead-on that I'm still chuckling over it.

Faith in God is like deodorant: if everyone had it,
the world would be a much better place

In its simplicity, its elegance, and its factualness this is dead-on. Since I am forever exhorting my students to frequent and liberal application of deodorant, this one struck a chord with me and my own experience.

Truth be told, this is one of the better assignments I've given my students. It gave them a chance to apply their creativity to their faiths in order to craft an intimate picture of who God is for them, a relationship that they could then express to others.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Poison or Medicine?

Over the last two weeks, I have received three correspondences from an anonymous blogger who has raised questions I think it would be helpful to address.

First, Anonymous is concerned with the "fundamental lack of seriousness about your Jesuit recipes and whistle-playing and inordinate self-abosorption...". I never would have thought that sharing one's passions for food and for Irish music would manifest a lack of seriousness or be considered a measure of frippery [<-- a too seldom used word].

This should go without saying: this is, of course, my blog. When I set out to maintain it, it was with the purpose of sharing the story of one Jesuit's formation. By its nature, it is a blog focused on a central character. If that is considered self-absorption, then I reckon I'm guilty. But it would seem that the whole project does necessitate that in order to tell of "A Jesuit's Journey" there needs to be a Jesuit to narrate it. On this site, I am that Jesuit.

This self-absorption, Anonymous has gone one to note, might be better expressed as a form of narcissism:

Obviously I did not intend my last communication for on-line viewing, nor am I concerned to dialogue. My identity is irrelevant to my comments, the value of which only you can assess. I intend them for the opposite of a "poison pen" letter, a "medicinal pen" letter, if there is such a thing--simply what one of the nameless non-faces in the crowd thinks about your auto-publicised journey. Somewhere in the gospels St John the Baptist says, "I must decrease so that Christ can increase." What I would hope to see in your blogging, and don't, is the figure of Jesus becoming more important and presented in sharper outline as you approach the priesthood, while your own personality fades into the background. Such a transformation would seem truly priestly. I suppose narcissism is least evident to the person most beholden to it, yet I would hope that you conquer it for the sake of your priestly vocation, or, failing this, that you commence a different career path. Your obvious talents, especially in writing, would make the first option better for the Church. We need good priests, because we need Christ. We need men who know how to move the self off-stage.

Now this comment leaves me with something of a paradox.

You see, if I ignore this comment completely, then Anonymous might think that my narcissistic tendencies have blinded me to any criticism. But by engaging it, I might just be reacting hysterically to criticism (a point Anonymous raised in an earlier missive), thus demonstrating the fragility of my ego, thereby confirming Anonymous's diagnosis.

So what's a supposed narcissist to do?

Well, I can begin by acknowledging that regardless of what I say or do, it's not going to sway the mind of my anonymous interlocutor. He or she has already figured out my psyche.

One thing that I can do is to restate briefly the rationale behind my blog.

I have no qualm with Anonymous's desire that Christ be kept at the center. I desire this, too. And I should like to think that a person who reads my blog will get a sense of the joy and excitement I have as a Companion of Jesus.

Here is the rub: I am trying to be a Companion of Jesus. This means that through prayer and discernment I have felt called and confirmed in my desire to live out my Christian discipleship as a Jesuit. I simply reject any idea of Christianity that would say that my personality would have to "fade into the background" because it is in and through my personality that I met and continue to meet Jesus Christ. It is, after all, Christ who makes me who I am: a sinner who feels called, a musician who strains mightily to follow the beat of the band's leader, a sous chef trying to imitate the Master.

As a Jesuit, I have grown unimaginably and been stretched in innumerable ways. Indeed, one of the great confirmations of this growth has from voluminous correspondence I've received from people who've read my blog or seen my YouTube videos who will say how much they resonated with what I've written, played, or taught and how it has helped reconnect them with their faith.

Anonymous, I don't know what more I can say. I am not Christ and although I do feel as though I've been called to serve as a priest at the Eucharistic table, I haven't any such assurance. I try with all magnanimity to be open to the movements of prayer and discernment, although I must say that the support of fellow Jesuits, friends, family, and colleagues both confirms this call and enkindles my desire.

Each one of us is to be bearers of Christ's light to a world that has been darkened by sin. We must become so enflamed with this fire that we become incandescent, casting away the darkness and serving as a beacon where others come to find the truth of who God is and who they are called to become. It is my belief that when Christ comes toward us, we do not cease to be ourselves. No, to the contrary, we become most who God desires for us to be.

I could no more abandon Irish music than I could deny that my greatest desire is to be a Companion of Jesus. I do not see this as a career or one job among many other pursuits. I have felt the stir of longing in my own heart that has called me in this direction and I have had that confirmed multiple times. Many other paths have presented themselves along the way, but none has called me toward itself as this path has. It is a path that has asked me for everything that I could offer and has returned more than I could have hoped for. This blog tries to reflect that abundance: the grace of the God who calls and the joys (and occasional struggles) of one who wishes to accept what has been offered.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

What was lost...

I often joke that, before I entered the Jesuits, I led the life of a rock-star accordion player. In some ways, this is hyperbolic: "rock-star accordion player" is an oxymoron! Nevertheless, in the world of Irish dancing, I had earned a solid reputation as being a good musician for Irish dancers. Consequently, many organizers of feiseanna, or Irish dancing competitions, would invite me to play at their events.

One evening, about seven years ago, I was forced to take an early-ish flight to a city in the Mid-West. I arrived at the hotel early, unpacked, but was too restive to take a nap. So I did what any reasonable extrovert would do: I headed down to the hotel bar to see if any of the other Irish dancing teachers/musicians/adjudicators had arrived. Much to my chagrin, I was the first to have arrived.

Never being one to allow being on his own to deter him, I sidled up to the bar and ordered a drink and asked for a menu. The bar itself was thoroughly unremarkable: small bowls of snack mix dotted the wood bar and an unkempt barkeep paced back and forth, looking for thirsty customers and an expansion of his tip jar. Even though it was early on Friday, I was surprised at how few people there were in the bar: certainly an ominous sign, portending a disastrous dining experience.

I ordered a burger and started to watch a hockey game that was being shown. A few seats away from me, a forlorn looking young man stared glumly into a half-filled beer. I couldn't help but notice him (he sat between me and the television) and, seldom being one to shy away from a conversation, I made a remark about the game on television. With a grudging turn of his head, the young man made eye contact with me and muttered an inaudible response. For a moment, our eyes met and I saw that this was a guy - just about my own age - who was experiencing terrible suffering.

Well, I did what any Irish musician would do: I bought him another drink. He acknowledged the gift and, slowly began to open up. What began as a trickle of information soon gave way to a deluge of information: I learned that he had run away from home ten years earlier due to an abusive environment, that he had turned to drugs and prostitution in order to make a "living" out on the street, and that he had recently been diagnosed with HIV. He was in the hotel hoping to see a family member about getting money for anti-viral medicine.

What struck me most was how he spoke of his erstwhile Christian faith. He told me that he'd been raised a devout Christian but, after he fled his home, he'd all but abandoned his faith. Indeed, he told me, "I've done things that would keep God from loving me." Being young and enthusiastic about the degree in theology I was pursuing, I tried to reason with him. It was for naught: the logic of the human heart runs far deeper than the theological skills I had acquired. And so I fell silent and listened. I listened to him tell of how he would never have a wife or kids. How he had squandered away his life. Of how he had sinned so grievously that God could not forgive him.

What was most jarring is that he shared that he often tried to imagine himself as the younger son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He said that for as many times as he had prayed with that text, he could not imagine himself being so welcomed by the Father. His sin, he felt, put him outside the realm of the Father's love and forgiveness.

As our conversation drew to a close, I had the insane notion to exchange email addresses with him. He obliged - he said that email was the only way he stayed in touch with his younger sister - and promised to write.

He left when a family member came in to see him. At about the same time, several of my colleagues arrived and my attention turned to catching up on the latest gossip in the Irish dancing world. But while my head was occupied with useless drivel, my heart was arrested by the man I had just met.

Several weeks went by and then, one morning, I found an email from him. He caught me up on the vicissitudes of his life and told me that he was staying with a family member.

Attached to the email was the following text. It was a prayer he wrote that has haunted me for years:

Dear Lord, I have wandered very far from you.
I am lost and alone. I am cold and scared.
I want to come home, but I don't know the way
and I don't think you will be there.
But if you are there, and if you will have me,
put a small light in the window.
If it is there, I will hope to find it.
I will come to the door.
I will knock.
Please open.
It's cold out here.

(Disclosure: I formatted the text to look this way. The words, however, are original to him)

This little prayer has stayed with me for many years. Recently, when teaching my sophomores about the parable of the Prodigal Son, memories of this encounter returned to me. I searched mightily for the text of the prayer, finding it saved in a file in my John Carroll University mail (I was a grad student there from 2002-2004 and they still haven't deleted my email account).

As I was retrieving the email message, I had the thought to try corresponding with him once more. It had been years since I'd last heard from him and I reckoned that he'd have changed emails by now.

Well, I cannot express how excited I was to hear back from him several weeks later. Although he had changed his email address, he checked his old one periodically. We exchanged phone numbers and chatted on the phone: his life has made remarkable strides in the intervening years. He now is working on a college degree and his HIV is being managed with medicine. He has fallen in love with a young woman and is giving serious consideration to "popping the question."

Without being asked, he brought up the issue of faith. He remembered sending me the aforementioned prayer and shared with me a piece of marvelous news: after years of praying, after years of seeking, he finally allowed himself to be caught up in the Father's embrace. The years of saying, "No! God cannot love me" served as the true obstacles to God's love, rather than God withholding love from him. In a beautiful image, he said that he was "snagged" by God only when he was too tired to run any further or fight any longer. He fell limp into the Father's arms and has been raised to new life in a renewed relationship with God.

C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity that Christianity begins in dismay: the dismay of knowing that we are sick and desperately need of healing. The dismay of having watched - and abandoned - the person you loved be executed and then huddling together in an upper room. I learned from this man - Chris is his name - much of the dismay that fills the hearts of so many. It is from Chris that I learned that no amount of words would dispel that dismay...only the patient silence of an ear and the abiding presence I could offer in prayer.

An ironic realization, to be sure, when you consider that I've expended many words to say that I had to shut up to hear the true story of God's work in this fellow's life.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

New Protocol

Some of you will notice that if you want to make a comment on the blog, it'll have to be approved by me before it gets published.

As one of the comments (now deleted) noted, I do have a hard time finding time to teach and play Irish music and do all sorts of other things. I simply do not have the time to babysit my blog, deleting silly posts when they appear.


November 8th: If you want your post to be published, or to be taken seriously, include your name on it. I'm not interested in dialoguing with anonymous posters.

Monday, November 02, 2009

All Saints and Blessed of the Society of Jesus

On November 5th, the Church remembers the the Saints and Blessed who have lived their Christian vocations as Companions of Jesus. Please join your prayers with mine as we remember all those Saints and Blessed of the Society of Jesus....those who have come before us and those who live among us now.

A Prayer for Vocations

in the name of Jesus,
through the power of your Spirit,
inspire men and women to labor for your kingdom.

We especially as you
through the intercession
of Mary, our Mother,
St. Ignatius, and all the saints,
to help the Society of Jesus
continue its service of your church.

May your will be done.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

Time Magazine

Several weeks ago, I heard the exciting news that Time magazine would be doing a story about the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy. Time is doing a year-long examination of the city of Detroit and is trying to highlight points of hope within the city.

The link to the online version of the article (printed in this week's edition) is here. The story is entitled "Jesuit Message Drives Detroit's Last Catholic School." Written by Amy Sullivan, the piece does a nice job calling attention to the commitment of the Society of Jesus to the city of Detroit.

It should be mentioned, to be fair, that there are two other Catholic secondary schools in Detroit: Loyola High School and Cristo Rey. These schools, however, were started post-1967 (after the Race Riots that tore the city apart) and, technically speaking, U of D Jesuit is the last school remaining of the schools that once flourished in the city.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Morning Excitment

I awoke this morning (just about two hours ago) to discover that my article "Recovering Rahner's Concept of Being in Spirit in the Word" has been made available to me in its pre-publication format. According to the email I received, it will shortly appear in the early-edition of New Blackfriars Review, although the day that it will hit the streets in paper format is still unknown (when it was accepted for publication, I was told that there was a bit of a backlog and that I should not expect to see it printed until May or July of 2010). That I can see it what it will look like when it does come out, however, is really exciting to me.

I'm especially excited that the publication lists my institution as "University of Detroit Jesuit High School." We have our Open House here at the school this weekend and I think its funny that we can boast having an internationally published theologian on our staff!

What excites me most about the publication is that it confirms for me that my first article wasn't just a fluke. I, like many young scholars, always endure a feeling of self-consciousness about whether we're really "good enough" to contribute to the Academy (and, in my case, to the Church). This publication really does affirm my desire to serve the Church and Society as a scholar.

Again, I cannot help but thank Father Terrance Klein of Fordham University. Terry has been an absolutely fantastic mentor and friend. If I were asked to do a doctorate in theology, I have no doubt that I would ask Terry to take me on as a student: he is brilliant, creative, faithful to the tradition, and he writes really well. He is a great example of someone who can do rocking theology - sophisticated and creative - and also do work that is palatable for a wider audience. Allow me to reiterate my plug for his book Vanity Faith: Searching for Spirituality Among the Stars as a book that uses the tableau of popular culture to teach us about faith.

In other news, things are going very well here at the school. We're over half-way through the semester and I still wake up every morning with excitement. My philosophy class is now reading - slowly and reflectively - through Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis. My sophomores are persevering in learning about Jesus' parables. And my freshmen....well, we're trying! This week we've covered the stages of Jesuit formation, watched a movie about Pedro Arrupe, and today we're going to learn about the origins of Halloween. Next week we'll talk about the Holy Spirit. Someday we'll have another test. In short: the wheels are off the bus and we're just trying to enjoy the ride!

We have no school tomorrow (the teachers are going to a conference). After the conference I'm going to drive to Chicago, have dinner with Adam DeLeon, SJ, and then play the Halloween Feis on Saturday morning. I'll turn around, drive back to Detroit, and get ready for our Open House on Sunday morning. Thank goodness we have Monday off!

Saturday, October 24, 2009


In his extraordinary little book The Courage to Be, the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich describes anxiety as "the existential awareness of nonbeing." Another way of putting it is to describe anxiety as "finitude, experienced as one's own finitude." Anxiety is common to all humans who realize their own limits, their own finitude, their own mortality. Anxiety, furthermore, is to be distinguished from fear. Whereas anxiety is the general threat of non-being, fear as a specific target or "a definite object, which can be faced, analyzed, attacked, endured."

I have experienced two bouts of anxiety and fear this week. The first I would associate with hitting the big "3-0" birthday. One of my seniors kindly - and jestingly, I hope! - graciously offered to organize a birthday gathering for me, and said that he'd be happy to bring "a handle" as a gift. I declined, of course, and it has taken me some time to sort out exactly what "a handle" is: I'm not much of a liquor drinker (I prefer a good beer or a glass of wine). [note: wiki answers indicates that 'a handle' is 1.75 liters while a regular bottle is 0.75 liters. Apparently, my student was being inordinately generous in his offer.]

So I'm older and I discourage any and all forms of under-age drinking. That's a good thing.

My second bout with anxiety came from a horrifying exchange I witnessed on a number of so-called Catholic blogs. I do not wish to go into the specifics of the issue, but I will say that the 'facts' that the various bloggers offered do give reason for pause. By pause I mean that these facts should be investigated and the person with whom they are associated ought to be given the opportunity to bring clarity and light to the situation.

What actually took place was a despicable mob scene. Commentators impugned not only the man, rendering judgments that were both hurtful and libelous, but the organization with which he is involved. Some individuals bragged about "bringing down" this man and making it impossible for him to work or to serve others. I entered into the fray and tried to bring down the temperature of the proceedings, but I was maligned and attacked as well: it's been a long time since I was told I was 'ignorant' or that I needed to 'return to the Gospel.'

The reason behind my anxiety is this: I have no idea who, each day, reads my blog and who may be lying in wait for me to publish something the least bit scandalous or offensive to his or her sensibilities. There are hundreds of things that I would like to write about, but I will admit that I am afraid to do so: I have seen so many people maligned on blogs and websites that I don't know that I want to put myself in the position to have it done to me.

What is most terrifying is that there is no one to fear: internet anonymity does not give us a focal point, or target for our fear. Making matters worse in the militancy with which these anonymous individuals adhere to their own sense of self-righteousness: so convinced are they of their being right, they lose any and all willingness to dialogue. These individuals feel it their duty not only to try but to punish those with whom they take issue. Their absolute certitude, they claim, is a distinctive trait of their orthodoxy. I'd add that their absolute certitude is also a trait common to terrorists.

Thus there is no one to fear; there is only an anxiety wrought by anonymity, an ever-present threat that someone is waiting to malign me and my reputation. And while I'm not quite concerned about losing my life thanks to my blog, I do have to worry that something could be said that would jeopardize my life within the Jesuits. Over the last five years of my blog, I have become far more cautious in what I post...and I try, very hard, to remain "fair and balanced" in my assessments of issues.

I apologize for the semi-dour post. I have a cold and I'm crabby this morning. Ailments notwithstanding, this has been something that has been on my heart for some time and the events of the last week have brought it to the surface. Once I feel better I'm sure I'll have a post with greater levity!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Feast of the North American Martyrs

Antoine Daniel, Charles Garnier, Isaac Jogues, John de Brebeuf, Noel Lalemant, John de la Lande, Noel Chabanel, & Rene Goupil

Pray for us!

Since 1994, my freshman year at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland, I've taken a special pride in today's feast day. On this day, the Church recalls the missionary zeal of these Jesuits who gave their lives in order to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world.

It also happens that October 19th is my birthday. Today I celebrate my 30th year on earth. As I think on it, I can remember distinctly my 10th and 20th birthdays and I suspect that my 30th birthday will be no less memorable: it is, after all, my first year teaching at U of D Jesuit and we have an all-school Mass today. As sappy as it sounds, I can hardly think of a better way to spend my birthday. (Well, a day back in NYC with friends would be nice)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Am I Depressed?

I have been meaning to share this story but I've just not had the time to post it. This took place several weeks ago:

Following Test #2 with my sophomores, I felt it was time to have a "Come to Jesus" talk with my classes. Leading up to the test I had provided not only a study guide (from which I developed the exam) but also three of the four short-answer questions and the long essay question that they would have to answer. Indeed, I had even written on the board the answers to the short-answer question. In short: I gave them all of the information necessary to do very well on the test, all they had to do was to study.

Well, some of the guys did brilliantly. Others....well, not so much. Since it was early in the semester, I wasn't too worried: there was, and still is, plenty of time for student to turn their grades around. But I wanted to have "man-to-men" sort of talk, making sure that they understood my expectations of them.

So I sat down on one of the desks and leveled with them. "Guys," I said, "I don't know what more I can do. I give you the notes, I gave you a thorough study guide, and I even gave you the short-answer and essay questions. The only thing I didn't do was to take the test for you."

I paused. A heavy silence hung in the air and, for a moment, a faint glimmer of hope that I was getting through to them flittered through my mind.

And then one of them spoke.

"Mr. Duns," he asked, "Are you depressed?"

"No, I'm not depressed."

"Are you sure?" he replied.

"Yes, I'm sure. I am not depressed."

From another side of the room another voice chimed in, "You know Mr. Duns, denial is a sign of depression."

"I've told you: I'm not depressed!"

"Mr. Duns needs a hug!" cried the first student as he leapt from his seat.

At this moment, I was grateful that I always carry a walking stick with me (I use it as my pointer) because I could brandish in front of me to keep from being swarmed by well-intentioned guys trying to give me an anti-depression hug (Note: the last thing I need is an anti-depression hug. A good glass of Cabernet, sure, but certainly not a hug by a group of guys who still don't know that deodorant is truly man's best friend.)

Having evaded the hug-of-smelly-death, I retreated to my podium, wholly bemused and now wondering: Oh God, maybe I am depressed and have been denying it!

Fortunately, I can report that I am far from depressed. In fact, I can't think of a time as a Jesuit when I've been as fulfilled and joyful...and tired! We're entering Week IX of teaching and things are still going well.

I should mention, too, that Monday is the Feast of the North American Martyrs. It's also my 30th birthday. I can't believe that I'm going to be 30!

Friday, October 16, 2009

A New Generation of Jesuits

I just learned that a piece written about me by Canisius College magazine has been published on the web. If you follow this link, you can see the .pdf version of the story. It's an old picture, sadly, one taken almost three years ago. Nevertheless, Eileen Herbert (the author) did a great job on the story. I am especially gratified to see quotes by Father Ben Fiore, SJ, who was a great role model for me during my time at Canisius, as well as Father Michael Tunney, another visible Jesuit on campus.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Homecoming 2009

Let me begin with a caveat: I know that I'm a huge nerd. A nerd for Christ, to be sure, but a nerd nevertheless. I do think there was a time when I could have been popular, when I could have been cool. But then I started to play the accordion and, well, the rest is history.

I mention this because the attached picture is yet a further testament to the fact that I am an unabashed nerd.

This year's Homecoming theme was "Greek Week." Earlier in the week, the moderator of the Student Senate sent out an email asking the chaperones to consider wearing togas to the dance. Wanting to show my school spirit and my support of the students, I acquired yesterday an inexpensive toga (the alternative was a centurion's costume that had an opening at the midsection. While I have been working out, I don't think the world is quite ready to behold my abs).
Well, didn't I feel like a fool when I showed up last night only to discover that I was the only chaperone wearing a toga. Not only was I out of place among the faculty, I definitely stood out among the students. To begin with, there were very few of us wearing floor-length gowns last night...most of the females were in short dresses.

Now I must say that my students were very kind. They probably took pity on me. Many of them were proper gentlemen and introduced me to their dates. I fulfilled my role by making sure that our young gentlemen had taken their dates to nice restaurants (most did) and that they had picked up the tab for dinner (they all did).

As you can see from the picture, I definitely do not look much like a Greek patrician. Heck, I look like I should be going down to bathe in the Ganges River.

On the upside, I am going to write the Missionaries of Charity with the suggestion that they update their habits. I think the gold wrap is particularly arresting and would really add to the fashionability of Blessed Mother Teresa's sisters.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Thought Provoking!

I want to call your attention to a finely wrought piece my friend and mentor Father Terrance Klein, associate professor of theology at Fordham University. In his essay entitled "Neverland Awaits," Klein reflects on how the life of Michael Jackson may be interpreted as a parable, a story that exposes the tension between the way we do live our lives and the we we ought to do so. He concludes his reflection with the following paragraph:

Michael Jackson became a great star, but did he do that by being himself or by becoming what others decided he should be on the basis of commercial calculation? If Jackson is our future, if his career says something about our prospects, should we rejoice in a brave new world, where we use modern technologies to create ourselves, or fear for our souls, because they can be bought and sold for profit?
Klein's piece and the question he raises at the end reminds me of a description I once read of the post-modern condition: that we live out our lives in a hall of mirrors. In the Fun House's hall of mirrors, we become bewitched by reflections of reflections, myriad distortions that make it hard to distinguish the person from the reflections. Indeed, is that not part of the fun of looking into the mirrors, that our reflection is distorted and then those distorted reflections are further bent and shaped by other mirrors? The result is a seemingly infinite number of reflections, each grounded in some reality, but distorted almost beyond recognition.

Was this not the fate of the King of Pop? In the sea of flash bulbs and tabloid covers, did the King of Pop become just a reflection on a reflection? Did we lose somewhere along the way the subject? Could it be that at some point the real Michael Jackson entered his hyperbaric chamber so many years ago and is now immortalized as a grotesque Sleeping Beauty?

Further still, do the paradoxes of Jackson's life and death portend our own futures? In an era of designer babies, cosmetic modifications, and Internet anonymity, are we not susceptible to the danger of becoming mere reflections of reflections? Should we not take care to preserve our subjectivity, lest it be effaced by Internet chat icons or Botox injections?

I commend Klein's piece to you for your consideration. I think it is a fascinating piece, one that deserves though and conversation. I can think of no better way that to begin my treatment of "Beauty and Philosophy" next week than with this article.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame