Sunday, January 25, 2009

Active Discernment

Coming off the heals of the Jesuit Associate weekend that we hosted here at Ciszek, I'd like to call your attention to a helpful website maintained by the Jesuits of the Oregon Province. 

The point of the website is to deepen one's understanding of the process of discernment. As We hear so often, young people today feel like they are presented with an excess of opportunities. I think this website will be a helpful tool in helping them to discover what is really animating them in their hearts, for it is through our deepest longings and desires that we encounter just what it is that God wants for us. 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

National Vocation Awareness Week

The great Rocco Palmo, from WhispersintheLoggia, reminds us that this week is vocation promotion week. I'm attaching a story I wrote three years ago on the topic of my own vocation. The only thing that I would add is this: If you are someone who bemoans that there aren't enough priests and religious out there, then what are you doing about it? If you are married, or do not feel called to the religious life, but you know someone who embodies the traits you would love to see in a priest or religious, then TELL THEM. 

My quick idea: Imagine saying, "Hey, I think you are a talented, faithful person. You really seem like you'd make a great and happy priest/brother/sister/nun." Now the worst thing the person can say is, "Thanks, but no thanks." On the flip side, someone may say, "Geez, I never thought of that before." Or, "You know, I have been wrestling with that" - in which case you are giving that person some confirmation that he/she is asking the right questions. Regardless, you are paying that person a great compliment. 

In short, I don't think that God's invitation to religious life is any less present these days. I suspect, though, that people are hesitant to invite others into this life. When I ride the subways here in NYC, the MTA posts signs addressing suspicious activity that read: "If you see something, say something." This is good advice for vocation promotion, too: if you see something in someone that leads you to believe that he or she has a vocation to religious life, PLEASE SAY SOMETHING!

Now for the story:

When I was a little boy, I can’t say that I ever entertained the notion of being a Jesuit. As far as I was concerned, my career option ranged somewhere between a superhero, a dragon-slayer, and a “helidopter” pilot (family lore recounts how I couldn’t pronounce the word helicopter). When well-intentioned aunts and uncles and grandparents would ask the fateful question, “Well, Ryan, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I soon learned that my Grandma Duns was happy if I told her that I wanted to be a teacher, that my aunts and uncles were supportive of my oh-so precise desire to be rich, and that my Grandma and Grandpa Hagan were most impressed if I coyly told them that I wanted to be a priest.

The idea of being a priest probably came to me in the first grade. I attended the parish school, went to Sunday mass with my family, and had family encouragement to think about it. To be sure, the idea wasn’t nearly as captivating as slaying dragons or rescuing people in my helicopter. But, true to the form of many young Catholic boys and girls, I took my turn at “playing mass” when my cousins and friends would come over. As I recall it now, I don’t think I was as much taken with the solemnity of the ritual as I was with what I saw as the highlight of mass: my homily!

Childhood notions of the priesthood aside, I did begin to answer the “What do you want to be?” question sometime after the fourth grade: I wanted to be a professional Irish musician. A physically awkward and un-coordinated youth, my parents saw fit to sign me up for Irish tin-whistle and accordion lessons. My sisters were heavily involved in Irish dancing and it seemed only fitting that the family troupe should be complemented with its own musician. I loved my Irish music and heritage and soon became very proficient on both instruments, winning awards and performing all over the United States.

In 1994, I entered St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland as a short, fat, red-haired kid who wore glasses and penny-loafers and played the accordion…not quite the cover model of GQ! Initially I struggled in school both socially and academically and found comfort in attending mass and in my music. Though I had only one Jesuit teacher, there was certainly a strong Jesuit presence on the campus and I can still recall being impressed by the Jesuits I met there. I had a deep respect for my parish priest, but there was something different about these Jesuits because, well, they were different. Watching them process in for mass was like watching the red carpet pre-show for the Oscars: there were venerable and legendary teachers, gentle souls and tough cookies, firebrands and peaceful souls.

As the time came for me to pick a college, I knew two things: first, I wanted to go to a Jesuit college and, second, I wanted to be either a British literature teacher or a doctor. I left St. Ignatius for college in 1998 rather different from how I entered: I had grown quite a bit, wore contact lenses, learned how to dress, and I played the accordion really well. Truth told, I did sometimes think about the priesthood but would quickly push the idea out of my head and replace it with ideas of being a teacher or a surgeon.

During my sophomore year I took a pretty heavy schedule of classes including one on the New Testament taught by a Jesuit. I loved it. I loved the material, I loved the class, and I was in awe of the professor: he was in turns obnoxious and sincere, worldly and committed, steely and gentle, sarcastic and witty. In short, he was my hero. A new desire to be a priest, to be a Jesuit, was awakened.

Then, one day, I made a most fateful mistake. I was sitting in chemistry class listening to the professor expound the wonders of phosphoric acid when I decided to practice my signature in the margins of my notebook:

Ryan Duns, MD
Dr. Ryan Duns, MD
Dr. Ryan G. Duns, MD

And then, on a lark, I wrote

Ryan Duns, SJ

I stared transfixed at the paper. I wrote and re-wrote it and, each time, my imagination was set on fire and I became excited about the very thought of being a Jesuit. After class I went to see my New Testament professor, told him that I wanted not only to become a religious studies major but also that I wanted to be a Jesuit.

After graduating in 2002, I decided to do a Master’s Degree in religion. The reasons were many, but largest among them was the fact that the growing popularity of Irish dancing had put my skills as an Irish musician in great demand. In a sense, I had a pretty neat life: I was a teaching assistant during the day, took courses in the evening, and on the weekends I’d travel all over the country playing Irish music. In a sense, I was living out the answer to the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question. But there was something missing, something that money and degrees and music and travel could not fill.

The emptiness inside forced me to examine and pray through my life. I began to ask myself about my desires, about my hopes and dreams for the future. I thought back on all the ways I tried to answer the “What do you want to be” question: a student, a doctor, teacher, a musician, a priest. But none of these captured or spoke to the man I wanted to become. Over the course of several months, I stopped asking the “What” question and asked, instead, the “Who” question: “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” Through spiritual direction and prayer and with the support of family and friends I realized that my heart’s deepest desire is discipleship, to be a Companion of Jesus, to be a Jesuit.

No vocation story can capture wholly one’s sense of call. This is a good thing, for each of us is called in a different way, called in and through our very lives. My sense of call will differ enormously from your sense of call because each of us has his or her own relationship with the Lord. Further, our vocation stories do not begin the day we get married, enter a convent or seminary, or join a religious order; they begin, rather, when and where we start reflecting on how God has been working in our lives, calling us into deeper relationship, inviting us to be co-laborers in the building of God’s Kingdom. So as each of us prays our lives, let us not be afraid to ask at least two questions: Where are you leading me, Lord, and Who do I want to be?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Couple of Musical Shots

This first picture is of me and Danny Gibney, a student at Fordham Prep (Class of 2010). A very talent young piano player!

Into the Breach Once More

Tomorrow begins another semester here at Fordham University. This is a bittersweet realization, as it will be my last semester before heading off to regency, that period of Jesuit formation where we are engaged actively in an apostolate of the Society of Jesus. Next year at this time I will be immersed in teaching high school students. This is something of a bittersweet realization: for while I love studies and will miss terribly the friends I have made here in New York, I am extremely excited to live the "big boy" life of a working Jesuit. Indeed, I recall how formative the young Jesuits were for me when I was in high school and I can't help but get excited about having a similar formational influence on other young people. 

The $1,000,000 question is, of course, "Where are you going to be next year?" There is still no decision on that, but be assured: as soon as I know, the world will know!

I spent some time the other day looking back at old blog posts. It does seem that when I am actively engaged and working with people, I blog more frequently. I think it is a consequence of my extroversion that I need a place to process, and my blog has provided that space. My e-Journal, so to speak. The life of studies forces me to extrovert into papers and presentations, leaving me tired and weary so that I don't update this site as often as I should like. But if my prediction holds true, I'll desperately need a place to sort out my experiences as a regent next year so, in just about seven months, this may be the best-updated blog on the internet! 

That being said, I wanted to mention a bit on my marathon training. I know some would rather me talk about spiritual things but, as I have realized, this is my blog and I'll write about whatever I like! In ice and snow today, I did a 7-mile run forty seconds faster than I did it two weeks ago in 60-degree temperatures. This is after falling twice and sliding into traffic once! It's definitely progress. As I ran up an icy hill, I realized that I had inverted the phrase "hit and run" to be "Run and get hit." If the training doesn't kill me, I fear that some maniac driver will!

I'm going to go and watch the Golden Globes, but if I get the chance I'll put a few pictures up that were taken at a little performance I did on Friday here at Fordham. 


Monday, January 05, 2009

Feis Tales

Readers familiar with my blog know that one of the hats I wear is as a feis musician. A feis, for the un-initiated, is an Irish dancing competition. They range in size from 200 competitors to some that have over 2,000. Regardless of size, each feis must have live musicians to provide the music for the competitors. This is where my life as a rock-star accordion player took root and began to flourish.

As I've written many times, I love Irish dancing and I regard it as an honor and privilege to play for Irish dancers. I look at it as part of my ministry that, with every kid who walks out on the stage, I utter a quick prayer for that dancer that he or she may do his or her best at that moment. With hundreds of competitors and loads of competitions, a typical feis day seems like unremitting prayer. Indeed, I often feel as though it is during a feis that I respond best to Paul's injunction that we "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). I pray and I play, and I love every minute of it.

But a feis weekend involves much more than the feis. Very often one must travel great distances - travel across the country is quite normal - and this weekend I flew from Cleveland to Houston to play at the Houston New Year's Feis (note to those scandalized by the idea of a Jesuit flying to Houston: it is paid for by the feis committee). I'm grateful that I had wholly uneventful flights this weekend. Indeed, on the way home yesterday I sat next to a man who is currently training to be a pilot for Continental and he was very interesting to talk to about turbulence and flight delays.

Anyway, I digress.

When I arrived on Friday, my friend Anne Hall (it is her mom, Maureen McTeggart Hall, whose school is responsible for the feis) told me to take a cab to the hotel. So I stood in the queue and got into the back of the first available cab. 

To begin with, I knew something was wrong by the smell of it. There was a thick, almost nauseating, odor of cheap vanilla-scented air fresheners...owing, perhaps, to the fact that the driver had nearly seven of them hanging about the car. Had I not worn a strong cologne that day, the odor of sandalwood and citrus would have been replaced on my body with the scent of tackiness. 

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I knew I was in for a treat. Swooning from the olfactory assault, I was unprepared for the barrage of words my driver let loose. He began by telling me about how angry he was at the state of the economy because business had been slow of late. This, of course, I understood. But he continued in his tirade against the government, saying that it was the fault of the government that he had no teeth. I looked up and caught a glimpse of the man's mouth and, truth be told, he actually had not teeth. This concerned me and, figuring that he must have trouble with insurance, I asked him to elaborate. 

Well, the gist of the story is this. Having lost his teeth several years ago, he realized that he could have dentures made in Mexico for a fraction of the cost one would pay here in the States. So he had gotten into the habit of going over the border and paying $200-$300 for teeth, as opposed to the $1000+ it costs up here. But then one day he tried to come over the border and his teeth were confiscated. Why they were confiscated he did not elaborate, but since then his passport has expired and he has to wait to get a new passport before he can return to Mexico to buy new teeth. But he can't get a passport until he pays back his debt, which is considerable. Hence his driving the cab. 

Now up until this point, I'm totally sympathetic. I don't carry a lot of money with me, but judging from the meter I reckoned that I'd be able to give him a pretty good tip, if only to help the guy out. I realize that people fall on tough luck very often and I figured that I was in a position to help him out in some way. 

With the hotel in sight, he tells me that I've been a good listener and that he appreciates me listening to him. "Thank you for sharing," I said, "and I hope your luck changes soon." 

"Yeah," he said. "I do too. It's been really tough driving a cab on a suspended license."

"A suspended license?" I inquired. "As in, you're not supposed to be driving right now?"

"Yeah, something like that. It's no big deal - as long as I don't get arrested, it's all good."

At this divulgence, my head began to spin. Was this guy serious? A cabbie with a suspended license? Isn't there some way of policing this within the cab companies? I scanned about the cab to see if I could find his name, and I saw his ID sitting on the front seat. I don't want to make public his name, but in the present context I shall call him LOTHAR even though his real name is far more exotic and interesting. He was just launching into the narrative of the suspended license when he pulled up to the main doors of the hotel. 

With great joy, I alighted from the car and payed my him, nevertheless, a good tip. The sickly-sweet smell of vanilla car freshener wafting behind him, Lothar drove away, leaving me feeling as though I'd just played a role in a Flannery O'Connor story. With the odor dissipating into the warm Houston air, I hoisted my accordion onto my back and walked through the sliding glass doors into the hotel. "While not the strangest thing I've ever experience," I muttered under my breath, "this does rank in the upper echelons of weird." Drifting off to sleep that night, I stirred but one time when I began to laugh in bed, imagining a border official somewhere in Texas walking around wearing Lothar's teeth. Entertained by this thought, I rolled over and closed my eyes, drifting off to the sleep thinking of the countless tunes I would play the next day at yet another feis. 

Friday, January 02, 2009

Happy New Year!

I hope everyone has been off to a graced and peaceful New Year. For my part, we returned from Clarkston Michigan yesterday after the Tri-Province Formation gathering. This year's event drew together the men in formation of the Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago Provinces. Nearly 100 young Jesuits came together to get to know one another, rest, and pray over the course of three days. 

A reader challenged me the other day to talk more about Jesuit spirituality and to refer more to the formation that I am receiving. To a point, I can be sympathetic to this request: of late, I have been talking quite a bit about exercise and running...and, I suspect, for good reason: it's my blog and I tend to reflect on my experiences. 

Seriously, it seems to me that the 'physical' dimension of my life is not, nor can be, separated from the spiritual side. Just last night, I was reading Henri de Lubac's Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man. In the introduction of the text, de Lubac acknowledges how often Christians lead isolated lives, as though salvation applied exclusively to the realm of one's own personal existence. Engaging the early Fathers of the Church, he attempts to demonstrate the social side of Catholicism. Indeed, he writes that "the Word did not merely take a human body." Rather, "he incorporated himself in our humanity, and incorporated it in himself." Jesus, in other words, becomes the flesh of our universal humanity. 

Part of what I have learned in my Jesuit formation is the importance of human flesh in the spiritual life. If you go back to the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius does not assume that a person can simply propel herself into immediate contemplation of the Mystery of God. Instead, he draws us into mediation through Ignatian Contemplation: using the imagination, see what is happening; hear what is being said; feel your surroundings. The senses are engaged. From this engagement of the senses, from the visualizations one engages, the retreatant is gradually led into meditation in God's presence. We cannot stop with the physical sensation, but we have to begin there. In this sense, Ignatian spirituality is profoundly Aristotelian-Thomistic: human knowing begins with physical sensation (q 76 of the Summa emphasizes the importance of touch). 

So if it appears that all I want to do is to talk about exercise because I want to be the next fitness guru, that is not my intent. I take seriously what I see as a trajectory within Christianity that acknowledges the importance of the body, a trajectory that does appear to have been ignored by those who want to emphasize "spirituality" as opposed to "physicality." I cannot imagine a facile separation of these two, which leads me to speak often of my journey as involving both physical and spiritual influences. 

So today I'm off to Houston to play for a feis. It's about 25-degrees in Cleveland and the high in Houston is like 76-degrees. I'm packing a polo shirt and khakis and I'm going to stand in the sun and try to get burned! Seriously, though, it'll be nice to head down to see my friend Anne Hall and spend a few days in the warmth before I return to NYC on Monday. After my return to the Bronx, I'm off to a Triduum retreat so I may not be posting again until January 8th or 9th. I'll try to get something up here before then but, if I don't, please be assured of my prayers for your New Year!


Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame