Friday, May 29, 2009

Mass is Boring!

One of the most common complaints I hear from Catholics - whether they be adolescents or the elderly - is that "Mass is boring." Unfortunately, they're usually right: priests are not generally known for their great preaching, Catholics are terrible singers, and so much of what goes on "up there at the altar" seems so removed, so distant, from our lives and our concerns. 

Speaking from my own experience, I find Mass most boring when I am in a rush. When I treat the liturgy merely as an obligation, rather than a celebration, it becomes tedious. I grow listless and irritable, and my mind wanders [note: if things are really dire, try to figure out how to get from your pew to the altar without touching the floor. I often imagine that lava has filled the floor and that I have to flee to safety]. Unfortunately, what is meant to be a prayer becomes a mere performance of actions as my body is present to the community but my heart and mind are very many miles away. 

Having trained for a marathon and grown more disciplined in gym attendance, however, I have come to have a different approach to liturgy. If it is helpful, allow me to suggest a few preparatory points and some things to consider each Sunday:

  • To begin with, just as we don't begin to exercise without warming up, nor should we enter into the liturgy without preparing ourselves. Charging into Mass during the opening hymn, genuflecting madly, and hurling oneself into a pew is not exactly a good preparation for prayer! Make an attempt to arrive at the church a few minutes early, allowing you time to get a parking spot and given you a chance to find a seat (close to altar in case lava fills the church!) and relax.
  • No one goes to an all-you-can-eat buffet on a full stomach. Rather, we build up an appetite and imagine all of the good things that await us. So, too, should we approach Mass. Take some time to consider what you are hungry for: are you weary? Anxious? Brimming with joy? Mourning? We are, all of us, hungry in some way and when we bring that hunger to the Eucharist, we will be satisfied.
  • Remember, Mass isn't about GIVING you grace. Liturgy is not the grace-faucet that gets turned on and off at a whim. Mass is, instead, about you RECEIVING God's grace that is offered to you, to all of us, most especially in the Eucharist. So often, we are blithely unaware of what it is that we need to receive and we just sit there expecting something to happen to us, instead of opening ourselves to what is already taking place within us. 
  • When you come to Mass, don't be afraid to have a "live question" percolating in your heart. The presence of a fear, a hope, a desire, a dream, a joy indicates that we are open and receptive and, into this opening, trust that God will speak. Trust that what you need to hear will be offered to you, but you have to be listening. 
In sum, when we think that Mass is boring it is because we are boring. If this is the Lord's Supper, what are we bringing to the pot luck celebration? We are invited to bring everything that we have: our bodies, our hearts, and our minds...and all that is in them. So bring to the Eucharist all that you have. Bring your struggles and joys, hopes and dreams, fears and despair. Place them on the altar. Our Lord does not want burnt sacrifice; rather, it is you and all that you are that is desired. When we make this full offering of ourselves, when we are in touch with our heart's deepest yearning, we incline our ear toward the Word of Life and Love. When we are honest and open about our hungers, the Bread of Life we are given will sate our longing. 

When Vatican II called for full and active participation, I don't know that they had in mind lots of hand-clapping and liturgical dance. Instead of the priest doing all of the work, instead of the priest turning on the grace, it is ALL of us who must contribute to the sacrifice of the Mass. We do not bring gold, or jewels. Instead, we bring the material of our very lives: struggle, toil, excitement, sadness, grief, and joy. It is our hopes and dreams that we place upon the altar and then, as we kneel, we listen for the Word that speaks all words, the Word that will bury itself deep in the soil of our hearts and bear great fruit. Full and active means less that we need to perform than it indicates that we need to bring ours full selves to the liturgy and actively offer them on the altar of sacrifice. 

So my suggestion is that next Sunday you leave for Mass a few minutes early. Have the kids ready and dressed and ready to go a few minutes early. Walk in, bless yourself, and take your seat. Gather yourself together. Help your children to do this: they make lists for Santa Claus, so why can't they have a list of dreams for Jesus, too? Children know of their heart's desire, although I fear that adults have often forgotten that we are SUPPOSED to have wild dreams and hopes. Name these dreams and hold them. As Mass begins, open your ears and your heart to the whole liturgy: listen for what it is that God may be trying to tell you. Trust that somewhere, whether it be in a reading, the homily, or part of the Eucharistic prayer, that you will hear what you need to hear. On the way home, perhaps you could share what it was that was in your heart with your family and what you heard and felt. Encourage them to do the same. It doesn't need to be any formal affair, but a simple conversation. 

Consider how, if you were to try this for several weeks, how your view of Mass might change.  If you know that each week you bring everything to Mass, perhaps you will begin to see other members of the community as fellow strugglers, burdened in ways similar to you. Your heart will know what it is to struggle, to hope, to dream, and you will be better able to empathize with others. You will appreciate that we are, all of us, sinners who are trying to be disciples, women and men who labor and desire fervently to be friends of Jesus Christ. Without necessarily knowing what weighs heavily on the heart of your sisters and brothers in Christ, you can be confident that each of them carries a burden and hungers to be fed at the Lord's table by the Body and Blood of Eternal Life. This, to my mind, is far from boring. It is, rather, the exciting drama of the Good Shepherd who gathers his sheep to himself, nursing their wounds and satisfying their hunger, as he brings his flock into his Kingdom. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I don't need the Church!

On Sunday evening, I flew to Chicago (great flight from CLE to Midway on Southwest) to play at the Gaelic Park Feis (A Feis, for the uninitiated, is an Irish dancing competition). The committee that hired me to play also made arrangements with a local car service, so I was picked up by a snazzy Lincoln Town Car driven by a nice young woman named Chris.

Chris and I exchanged pleasantries and I eventually learned of her family, of how she came to drive for this particular company, and various other aspects of my life. Over the course of our conversation, she inquired into my life and profession and I told her that I was a seminarian studying to be a Roman Catholic priest (telling someone you're a Jesuit right off the bat is sure to confuse them only further!). 

In a response that I've come to expect, she told me that she was raised Catholic but didn't need the Church to be close to God. She could pray wherever and whenever she wanted and she did not feel, consequently, that she had to go to church in order to find God. 

Now in what was certainly a tactical error on her part, she asked me my opinion. Normally, at least in conversation, I'm pretty loathe to offer my thoughts on such topics. But, since she asked, I thought I tried to offer a few thoughts that seemed to be helpful to her.

First off, and in an ironic sense, she is deadly right: we do not need the Church to be closer to God. If we take seriously the Christian doctrine of creation - that God is continually creating and holding in being all of creation - we would realize that God is intimately bound up with the very existence of the world. As created beings in the world, we are always already related to the Holy Craftsman who is creating and sustaining everything that was, is, and will be. Just think of Psalm 139: there is no place in creation where we can hide from God, for God is always with us.  A thought at once both comforting and disconcerting!

So, in a sense, Chris was right: God is so intimately bound up with our very being that the Church can't bring God any closer to us. 

Now before late-Sunday sleepers and rebellious adolescents rejoice, be warned: we've still to mention something crucial. Although there is nothing that keeps God from us, there are hosts of things that keep us from God. And, over the years, we've come up with a codeword or cipher to capture these. And the word we've used to describe the many ingenious ways we have developed to sever our relationship with our creator is, simply, this: sin.

At its core, sin is our intentional rejection of our relationship with the Holy One who has called us into being. When I sin, I put myself and my desires at the center of the universe and of creation; I make myself God. When I inflict injury on another, when I label someone 'good' or 'bad', when I am uncharitable because charity would be an inconvenience, I have put myself in the place of God. In a sense, when I sin I make myself the arbiter of what is good and what is bad. But if I'm at the center, where is God? Cast aside and ignored like an old rag doll. 

Sometimes people think that sin turns God into a terrible ogre, a mutated beast that seeks punitive reparations against sinful humanity. I think this is arrogant: is there any sin that we could commit that would change God? Is there any sin that so offends the Almighty that he is transformed into an agent of hatred rather than the source of life and love? If there is a mutation brought about by sin, it is in us: when we sin, we become less human. Sin strangles us from the source of life and dims our eyes to God's light. In sin, we retreat deeper into the caves of our darkened hearts and become like Gollum from Lord of the Rings. 

What has this to do with the Church? EVERYTHING! Too often, people have the sense that those "in" the Church have got it right and that everyone outside of it is simply wrong. The brilliance of the Christian tradition, however, is that every one of us has the potential to be a Gollum: the dark mark of original sin designates each of us as a sinner, as those who have this irritating propensity to turn away from the Holy One in order to pursue our own narrow interests. We are simply wrong when we act like those in the Church have got their act totally together. We are, all of us, ticking time bombs of sin!

When we gather together for the Eucharist, we gather as a community of sinners. Some of us are really good at sin, others less so; sin, for me, is the one thing I wish I were less good at. But when I gather with people who are struggling, I know that I am not alone. I know that there are others who walk with me and who are willing and able to support me in my discipleship. The Church doesn't make God come closer to us. Rather, in drawing us closer together - sinners all - we realize how close God really is. So close, in fact, that the very Body and Blood of Christ Jesus is offered to us, the earthly appetizer to the feast that awaits us at the Lamb's Supper in the Kingdom of God.  

So why do we need the Church? First, because it is a reminder that we are not alone. It seems to me that part of the malaise afflicting many people today is that they feel alone. Bombarded as we are by communication - Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Blogs, Cellphones, Email - we are increasingly isolated. When we gather together, we realize that we are not as alone as we thought we were, that we have the support of others who struggle just as we struggle. 

Second, we need the Church to remember. To remember that we are not the center of the universe. To remember that there are others who have needs and who struggle. To remember God's graciousness toward us in the past in order to recognize it in the present and to help train our eyes toward the future. To remember that we are people who have a VERY LONG history of struggling with God as we work out what it means to be a disciple in every age. And when we go up to eat from the plate and drink from the cup, we approach standing shoulder to shoulder with saints and sinners alike: Saint Ignatius and Mother Theresa were nourished and gave themselves over to the same Communion that you and I do. 

It does seem, then, that Chris was both profoundly right and dreadfully wrong. She's right to say that God is not limited by the walls of any institution. Any such belief that God can be found ONLY in one place at one time is idolatry. (Read Ezekiel to see someone struggling with what it means when the Temple is destroyed - where is God if there is no Temple?)  And yet, she's also incorrect in thinking that because God is not blocked from us that we are not very often blocked from God. This is where we need the Church: to support us and challenge us to walk nearer to the Lord. When we fall, there are those who are able to help us. When others struggle, we can support them. In the Church, we realize that we are not alone: we have each other as we celebrate Emmanuel, God with Us. 

Sunday, May 17, 2009


So, it's over!

I completed the marathon in 4:23:10. I knew that I wanted to run it faster than 4:30, so I'm really happy with my time. The run went really well: the weather was perfect, the crowds were very awesome, and my family came out: Torrey, Hagan, Mom, Dad, Grandma Hagan, Cheryl O'Malley, Jeri Hagan, and Pat Hagan. I was hoping to go a little bit faster, but ran (excuse the pun) into two obstacles:

1. Just before I saw my family on mile 17, my foot caught a portion of buckled asphalt and I went down hard, leaving me with a nice little bruise on my side. Two people who were cheering on the side told me that I was the second person to have fallen in the same spot, so I didn't feel TOO bad!

2. At mile 20, I experienced cramps the likes of which I could not before have imagined. I kept having to stretch out my legs and walk for portions. I did manage, however, to run A LOT more than I walked during the last few miles and did run across the finish line.

So my first marathon now completed, I say confidently (today) that I will never do it again. But as most things in my life, this confidence will dissipate quickly and in a week or so I'll probably begin training for another marathon, probably in order to beat my current time.

So here are a few pictures taken along the way. Enjoy!

Me stretching at mile 23. Look at the sign that is posted - classic!

Me finishing the race.

Brenda was with me when I fell, and this is about 3 minutes after my tumble. She is amazing: this was her third marathon in 4 weeks!

Coach Drew Marquard, SJ. I owe Drew special thanks for being my training partner and guide during this entire process of preparing for the marathon.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jesuit Mock Interview X

A Jesuit vocation arises as a man is being chased to a rooftop by a mysterious creature. Witness the true story behind Drew Marquard's decision to enter the Society of Jesus in this mock commercial.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Final Days in NYC

Just a quick update for those interested:

I'm in the waning days of my time in New York City. Exams have been passed and bags are beginning to be packed. I've said many goodbyes over the past few days and I know there are many more to be said. It's going to be hard to leave so many good friends but, I reckon, this is a part of being a Jesuit: the road is my home!

Speaking of road, the 2009 Cleveland Marathon is this upcoming Sunday. The forecast is for partly cloudy weather with a high of 60-degrees. If you're in town, please don't hesitate to come down to support the runners. This is my first time running in such an event and I am, quite frankly, terrified. I've worked really hard to train for it and I know that any support from friends and family will be MOST appreciated. 

So unless something changes, I won't post again until Monday - when I'm sitting in a comfortable chair, recovering from a (please God) successful race. Please keep me in your prayers over the next few days and please be assured of mine!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Time Flies!

Just about a year ago, I posted on some of the amazing things people sent me via YouTube. Well, over the course of the past eleven months, I've accumulated a few more doozies. Here are five more priceless gems. Believe me, I couldn't make these things up:

  1. Dear Father Ryan: I was wondering if your music is effective for exorcisms because you are a priest. Please let me know because I think the devil is inside me and I want him out.
  2. Hey, have you ever thought of becoming a Catholic? You'd make a nice priest if you weren't Jesuit. I couldn't tell if this was (1) because he doesn't know that Jesuits are Catholic or (2) because he denies that Jesuits are Catholic.
  3. U R the pyed piper of Satan who will lead many str8 2 hell with ur music. Repent and come 2 know Jesus Christ ur personal Lord and Savior.
  4. Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master so he can remove an evil force from you that is present in all humanity because a talking snake convinced a rib-woman to eat the fruit from a magical tree. I thought this was pretty funny.
  5. [Edited] Hi Father {please note: I'm not ordained} I have a strange question to ask you. My girlfriend and I really like listening to your music when we go to bed. I was wondering if you could record some really long songs and put them on YouTube. We like having you in our bedroom but most of your recordings are too short for us. Hope this doesn't weird you out. Thanks for helping us out.
In general, I'm flattered by many of the responses I get. Sometimes I'm troubled. Other times simply bemused. I try to acknowledge as many of them as I can, although there is a prioritization that goes on (if someone is asking a spiritual question, I take that more seriously than giving advice on cleaning the whistle). It's a privilege to be invited into people's homes (or, as we saw in #5, bedrooms) and I'm glad there are so many people the world over interested in learning more about Irish music. While the vast majority of the responses are innocuous and rather boring, I thought I'd share a few of the stand-outs.

Online Program for Catechists and Religion Teachers

As part of its commitment to enrich and propagate the intellectual heritage of the Catholic Church, the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies will launch an Online Program for Catechists and Religion Teachers in the Fall of 2009.

Many of us who have had the experience of teaching religion know how difficult it can be. This program offers not only the content (Scripture, Liturgy, and the Catechism) necessary for effective catechesis, but it also addresses various styles of delivery in order to help the teacher maximize classroom time. By giving teachers of religious education a sure and secure footing in the riches of the Catholic tradition, I can't help but think that this program has the potential to revitalize religious education and contribute to the growing vibrancy of the Roman Catholic Church. 

As you can tell, I'm very proud of my affiliation with the Curran Center and Iam really very excited about this program. Enrollment is limited to twenty students for its first trial phase so, if you are interested, be sure to contact the Curran Center immediately.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Mounting Irritation

Regular readers of my blog know that I have a particularly low regard for the felicitously titled blog "Good Jesuit, Bad Jesuit."

I suffer no illusions: the Society of Jesus is a group of men, sinners all, and each is capable of missteps in his attempt to walk as a Companion of Jesus. But I believe it demonstrates a serious and egregious lack of charity to assume that every time a Jesuit does or says or writes something that is not to one's satisfaction that it is, by that fact, an indictment of the entire order.

Joseph Fromm, to my mind, is an instance of an insidious lack of charity that is motivated wholly by an evil spirit of malice and deceit. His mode of operation is to post article he has found on the web (he seldom, if ever, writes his own posts on the site) and then adds his own bits of commentary - either by strange and often inappropriate labels or by frisking the piece with red letters.

I've included three links to show just how deranged these posts can be:

Exhibit A: Jesuit Inspection??

This post indicates that Bishop Dolan is visiting a retreat house for a fundraiser. What is he inspecting? The orthodoxy of the buffet line? The liturgical abuses of the termites? It's a fundraiser, not an apostolic visitation. Wait, that would be the normal, sane interpretation of the article.

Exhibit B: Jesuits Connected to Ira Einhorn?

Ira Einhorn, known also as the Unicorn Killer, purports himself to have been involved in the origins of earth day. So what does this have to do with the Jesuits? Nothing, really, except that the Jesuits ran a piece on earth day. So the logic of the post is: Ira Einhorn is a killer. Ira Einhorn helped to start earth day. America Magazine wrote about earth day. Therefore.....

Exhibit C: Does Joseph Fromm think the Cross was a good time?

Joseph obviously has a copy of the Spiritual Exercises. I do, too. So is he suggesting that victims of torture should be happy or grateful to be tortured like Jesus? Last time I prayed, the Cross was a scandal, not a spa trip to Club Met.

I know I'm a bit testy about this, but it really galls me that Joseph Fromm (if that is his real name) feels able to post stories that intentionally distort the truth about the Jesuits. I simply don't see how this bears the mark of charity or love. To my eyes, it's little more than the fruit of the evil spirt working through someone with far too much time on his hands.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Religious Habit

A few weeks ago, a friend and I went out to dinner. She wore a nice dress, a string of pearls, a pair of sensible shoes (somewhere between 'nun-sensible' and stiletto heels), and a jacket. I opted to wear a pair of khaki pants, a sport jacket, and a tie (yes, I also wore a shirt). 

Over the course of our meal, my friend asked me if I was supposed to wear clerical attire when I went out in public. To her mind, it would make sense to wear "clerics" for several reasons:

  • Black is always slimming.
  • Given the relative dearth of young members of the clergy, it's a good reminder that there are young men entering into ministry.
  • For people like me who struggle with fashion, it's very easy to match black with black with black. There's little room for error.
  • In certain situations, it might score you an upgrade on an airplane or a free meal.
Much of what she said was, of course, in jest. But this is a live issue for many people: should religious wear distinctive garb? If not, why not? If so, why and when?

I'm of a mind that I wear my clerical attire when I am acting in a Jesuit capacity: teaching, giving a public lecture or presentation, representing the Society at a civic or religious function. When I run to the drugstore to refill my allergy medicine, when I go out to get a pizza, and when I go out to socialize with my friends (restaurants, clubs, parties) I choose dress-casual. 

I reckon I'm of the mind that there is a time and a place for both styles of dress. I know young Jesuits who probably have clerical pajamas: they seem never to leave the house without a Roman collar and a suit on. I know others who think that the collar is a sign of clericalism that should be consigned to the dead-fashion heap, next to bell-bottoms and Crocs. 

But I'd be happy to hear from people what they think. I know students have said that they appreciate both styles of dress: they are reminded both of our counter-cultural lives and of the fact that Jesuits do not cease to be human and still can put on 'play clothes.' Next year, I have every intention of wearing clerical attire to work every day, because:

  • It'll make it easier to roll out of bed and get ready for class - I won't have to make daily fashion decisions. It'll be either black or black. Or black. 
  • Poly-blend fibers are always en vogue
  • Who wouldn't want to wear a constrictive collar while trying to herd freshmen or navigate one's way through masses of students in the hallway?
  • With any luck, it will strike fear in the hearts of students. 
Seriously, though, as a teacher next year I think it an integral part of my mission to teach to be a witness to students whenever I'm in their company - whether this be football games, plays, musicals, or other extracurricular activities. Nevertheless, I don't see much difficulty with opting to wear "civvies" or, in Ryan-speak, regular-people clothes when I'm doing informal activities (like going out for ice cream or spending time with friends).

Anyway, this is one of those posts that is far less charged than recent discussions of Notre Dame and President Obama. So please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Final Week

Hey Folks,

In the wake of last week's marathon of posting, thing are relatively quiet around here. On Wednesday, I will sit for my hour-long De Universa exam - it's an oral exam administered by a panel of (in my case) three Jesuit professors. I'm not worried about it at all, but I do think I should put some time into preparation.

In addition, two weeks from today I will run in the Cleveland marathon. Months of training have inclined me toward this point, so I'm trying to be good to my body: eating well, staying hydrated, and keeping up with my running. So if I'm a bit quiet, just know that I'm conserving energy in order to expend it on my 26.2 mile adventure. 

So please keep me and my classmates in your prayers over the next few days. It's hard to believe that on May 15th I'll be taking my leave of New York. I've done so much over the last three years and the next few days I want to spend enjoying everything the city has to offer. So if things are quiet around here, fear not. Once my exams are over and the marathon is run, I'll be back to posting in full force. Lord knows, some new controversy will appear that will call for some reflection. And with my Master of Arts in Philosophical Resources in hand (the degree I'm earning), perhaps I'll be well placed to weigh in on them!

Until then,

Christ's Peace!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame