Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Very Special Day Indeed!

Today, September 27th, marks the 469th birthday of the Society of Jesus. Just 469 years ago, Pope Paul III gave formal approval to the Society of Jesus in the papal bull Regimini militantis Ecclesiae. Across a span of nearly five centuries, these opening words of the Formula of the Institute still serve to captivate the hearts and imaginations of men who desire to spend their lives as Companions of Jesus:

Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the cross in our Society, which we desire to be designated by the name of Jesus, and to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman pontiff, the vicar of Christ on earth, after a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty, and obedience, to keep what follows in mind. He is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of public preaching, lectures, and any other ministration whatsoever of the word of God, and further by means of the Spiritual Exercises, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity, and the spiritual consolation of Christ's faithful through hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments. (From Exposcit debitum, July 21, 1550).
So how am I celebrating this joyous occasion?

First, by publishing this post, I have now written 600 blog posts since I first began blogging in 2004. It's a small number compared to some bloggers, but 600 posts is still something!

Second, I'm writing an exam and preparing to teach for the week. We have parent/teacher conferences on Thursday and Friday, so I'm trying to make sure all my grades are up-to-date and that I have something helpful to share with parents.

I ask for prayers for all Jesuits this day as we celebrate our birthday. May God grace us with the strength to follow ever more nearly to the path of the Son and my our hearts be enkindled with the Spirit of their love that each of us may "set the world on fire" with the Good News.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Promoted to Vocation Promoter

Now that it has been made public, I can share with my readers that Father Timothy Kesicki, Provincial of the Detroit and Chicago Provinces of the Society of Jesus, has missioned me to be one of two Area Promoters for vocations to the Jesuits.

In the letter, Father Kesicki writes:
...I know how deeply you love the Society, and we have been impressed by the personal priority you hold for the promotion of vocations to the Society. We are quite confident that you would make an excellent Area Promoter.
The position of Area Promoter is newly created, part of a re-structuring of vocation promotion within our two provinces. I can only say that I am humbled to have been considered for this position and I have accepted this mission with a heart overflowing with joy.

Over the course of this week, I had the occasion to share with the freshmen, sophomore, and senior classes that I count myself blessed to say unabashedly that, "I love my life." I wake up each morning and I thank God for having invited me into Jesuits, and I thank God for the grace that gave me the strength to accept the invitation. In some ways, I have never worked harder, prayed harder, or laughed harder than I have this last month of teaching. Every night, I go to bed with a sense of excitement for what will happen the next day.

Yesterday, for instance, I examined two of Geoffrey Berg's Arguments for the Non-Existence of God with my seniors. I was so excited to see how engaged and animated they were. For a moment, a brief but shining moment, I thought we had broken into a new realm of philosophical reflection. "Ah!" I thought to myself, "This is it! They're getting it!!" And then I turned my head to the left and saw that one of the students had taken advantage of being double-jointed in his his fingers and contorted his hands into a horribly bizarre shape. My raised eyebrows served as an invitation to the other students to demonstrate their own aptitudes: some guys can pick their noses with their tongues (big noses, long tongues), roll their tongues into a U-shape, fold their tongue into the shape of a crown, bend their thumbs in odd directions, and how far back their hands can bend. And then we began with the various animal noises they could make...

It went, in the space of 1-minute, from an Agora of shared ideas to a Theater of the Absurd.

And I loved every moment of it.

If I were to have a Coat of Arms made as a vocation promoter, the motto would be taken from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority:

"If you see something, say something."
If you see in a young man the traits you would consider essential for a good Jesuit, please tell him! (Perhaps my old friend Joseph Fromm will finally give us his criteria for such a judgment...after all, we're all waiting to see what it takes!!)

My theory is this. If you say to a young guy, "Hey, you'd make a great Jesuit," you will probably prompt one of three responses:
  1. Thanks, but no thanks!
  2. Really? I'd never have thought of that. I wonder...
  3. Really? You know, I have been thinking about that...
One question, three common responses. In each case you've paid a compliment. In the first, it's just a compliment. In the second, you've piqued the imagination to consider what it might be like to be a Jesuit. In the third, you've acted to confirm something that has been stirring in the man's heart. In no case have you done anything deleterious and, in all cases, you've said something rather kind!

Vocation promotion isn't the job of any one person or group. It is the duty of every one of us, as members of the Body of Christ, to help one another discover what each is being called to do for God's Kingdom. Not all of us are called to religious life. Thank goodness! But we owe it to one another to encourage and support our vocations, whether they be to single life, married life, or religious life.

I have, perhaps, a naive trust that our Lord has planted many seeds of vocation to all forms of life. It is our duty, as the People of God, to nurture those seeds in every possible way. Promoting vocations is not promoting jobs. Rather, it is promoting a way of discerning what truly is going to bring life and joy into our lives.

Please, join me in this. I am so excited to have received this mission. And yet, neither I nor the committee can do this alone. We need each of you to help sow and nurture the seeds of our callings. Let us trust in the Lord of the Harvest who has called, and continues to call, many into service. So please be attentive to those around you and have the courage and care to say to a person, "Have you ever considered...". Or, as my motto reads:

If you see something, say something!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

This Just In!!

A friend of mine just informed me of some VERY EXCITING NEWS.

It appears that Jesuit Father Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them, is going to be the latest pick for Oprah's Book Club.

Yet another first...

Last Friday, I experienced yet another rite of passage for a high school teacher: I chaperoned my first dance.

For some reason, I had entertained bewilderingly romantic notions of what it would be like to be a chaperone. Perhaps I've watched too many movies, but I had images of students dancing awkwardly with their dates with a few getting a bit too close for comfort, necessitating one of the chaperone's to encourage "leaving room for the Holy Spirit."

In short, I think I was imagining the 1950's.

In reality, I experienced the full depths and depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah, complete with the sights and smells.

To begin with, the line "Leave Room for the Holy Spirit" was wholly inapplicable. "Leave room for oxygen" would have been apt, considering that nearly 1,000 students managed to cram themselves into a relatively small area. We chaperone's were encouraged to criss-cross through the crowds which meant pushing, cajoling, and barreling through a sea of pubescent humanity.

I, of course, had little familiarity with much of the music played. Then again, I spend more time listening to Bach than to Black Eyed Peas, Liszt than to Lady Gaga. Some of the tunes were pretty catchy, though, and almost all of it had a good beat.

Without being too graphic, I was astonished at the style of dance that has evolved. I remember being thinking that having my arms around a girl threatened a mortal sin. Pressed face-to-face, such slow dancing seemed almost risque. Not once, as I recall, was the Unchained Melody or even some non-sweat inducing, non-endorphine producing piece of music played. And if front-to-front dancing was risque for me 15 years ago, let me say only this: the dancing I witnessed last Friday seemed as though it belonged on an Animal Planet special on mammalian reproduction.

After three hours, I was wrecked. The entirety of my person had become a convergence of sense experience: I was covered in sweat (my own and that of others) and glitter, and I reeked of Axe and a hybrid mixture of perfumes. I was so grateful at 10:00 when I could go to the residence, wash my face, change my clothes, and head out to BW 3's to meet the other chaperones for a tasty beverage and some food.

On Monday, two of my 8th-period sophomores approached my podium with impish grins. "What kind of sauce did you have on your wings, Mr. Duns?" they asked. I stared at them for a moment, until they started to giggle, telling me that they had been sitting at BW 3's when the chaperones arrived. My students noted in particular that I had two large beers --- although, for full disclosure, I hardly consider Bud Light beer --- and wanted to know if I had a designated driver. Is this my fate for the next three years, that I can't even have a cheap, watery, low-calorie beer without having to look over my shoulder?!?!?!

All told, I did have a really fun evening. The only lingering effect is that every time I catch whiff of Axe body spray, I begin to worry that a sea of glitter-covered, sweaty, gyrating flesh is going to envelop me as bodies dance out of time to incoherent lyrics set to music with a tribal beat.

Come to think of it, perhaps I am suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.....

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Lesson from 7th Period

One of the three courses that I am teaching this year is a senior-level "Introduction to Philosophy." We began the semester by reading a short essay by philosopher/theologian/mystic Simone Weil entitled "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God." This was followed by several days discussing the concept of Justice, using Book I of Plato's Republic (the dialogue between Thrasymachus and Socrates) as our point of departure. This last week, we spent four days reading and discussing Plato's Euthyphro in class.

Reading the Euthyphro has spurred me to read several other Platonic dialogues. The one I'm currently reading, the Phaedo, provides a fascinating treatment on the nature of the soul and the afterlife.

In a week marked with rancorous debate concerning President Obama's address to students and the furor surrounding his speech on healthcare, two points raised in the Phaedo seem worthy of mention.

In the heat of the debate surrounding the nature of the soul, a serious blow is believed to have been dealt to Socrates' position. Those who witnessed the exchange where Cebes appears to demolish Socrates' argument are left with "an unpleasant feeling at hearing" what was said. Socrates, however, did not take to the streets (he was, at this point, in prison) nor did he launch a smear campaign against his opponent. Listen, then, to how own observer describes Socrates' response: I have admired Socrates, I never admired him more than at that moment. That he should be able to answer was nothing, but what astonished me was, first, the gentle and pleasant and approving manner in which he regarded the words of the young men, and then his quick sense of the wound which had been inflicted by the argument, and his ready application of the healing art. He might be compared to a general rallying his defeated and broken army, urging them to follow him and return to the field of argument.
Socrates does not lambast his questioners, nor does he shrilly decry them for questioning his argument. He regards them with patient kindness and, fully aware of the seriousness of their counter-argument, he re-enters the discussion.

Compare this with the manner in which discussions are being held today. It seems rather commonplace to employ label-and-dismiss tactics against opponents. Senator Kennedy has been labeled an "abortionist" who should have been denied a Catholic funeral; President Bush has been called a "traitor" and should face war crimes. No effort, it seems, is made to re-engage in civil discourse, no attempt is made to "return to the field of argument" as disagreeing parties seek together the truth of the matter.

Second, I was captivated by the following lines of the dialogue:

Let us take care that we avoid a danger...The danger of becoming misologists...which is one of the very worst things that can happen to us. For as there are misanthropists or haters of men, there are also misologists or haters of ideas, and both spring from the same cause, which is ignorance of the world.

And a little later on:

For the partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question, but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his assertion.
I can only imagine that Socrates would have nodded his head knowingly, then, in response to this week's outburst by Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) who shouted out "You Lie!" in the midst of the President's speech.

I'm not interested in debating healthcare reform or its subtleties and nuances. Indeed, it matters little to me whether Wilson is a Republican or Democrat. What I am interested in is that this elected official appears to have neither the courtesy nor restraint that should be expected of those who are engaged in crafting and forming policies that will affect an entire country. In our classrooms we try to teach our students to listen carefully and disagree respectfully after analyzing and thinking-through an opponent's position. If we were to follow Mr. Wilson, however, there'd be little need for any such painstaking work: students could simply write "Shakespeare's Wrong!" or "Pope Leo XIII Lies!" or "Lincoln is Dumb!" on their papers and expect to have an audience.

Not enough people read this blog for me to worry that my insinuating that Representative Wilson is a misologist will cause a stink. To be fair, I think both sides of partisan politics are misologists who are interested only in scoring points with their constituencies rather than trying to work together to help people.

Plato wanted to kick the poets out of the Republic, for he feared that their verses would provide poor models for the people to imitate. What then would Plato do today, when it is our leadership who is setting such poor examples for the people to follow?

Monday, September 07, 2009

Well, at lest ONE has gotten the point!

On Saturday night, I went to Holy Name Church with Father Karl Kaiser, SJ, the president of U of D Jesuit. I wasn't surprised that attendance seemed sparse: it is, after all, Labor Day weekend and I suspect that many people had taken advantage of the beautiful weather and holiday to do some traveling. Besides, there were several college football games that afternoon, so I suspect that the usual crowd ended up finding a different Mass to attend.

It was, however, kind of exciting to see two of my own students amid the congregation. It was even nicer that each one approached me with his family after Mass to say hello. One of my students, in my sophomore New Testament class, asked me with a wry smile whether I realized that the passage of scripture I had assigned as the basis of the weekend's writing assignment was the same passage that had been proclaimed that day.

The assignment is what I've called "Sermon from Your Seat." The students are asked to write a 1-page, typed, double-spaced reflection on a passage from Scripture...which, it turns out, is the Sunday Gospel reading from the liturgical cycle! Their prompt is to write a mini-homily, or sermon, addressing an audience of their peers: what, in essence, does another sophomore need to hear from this piece of scripture?

The point is twofold. In a course on the New Testament, I'd be remiss if I didn't encourage them to read the Bible (prayer each day, I might add, is taken from the Gospel of Mark which we are slowly working our way through). Second, I know that kids are easily bored at Mass. I figure, therefore, that if they've already prayed over and thought through the Gospel reading that listening to the homily will be more engaging. Think about it: students will come to Mass already having an idea about what the Word of God means and, as they listen to the homily, will (hopefully) be engaged listeners trying to see how closely their reflection matches the one given that day.

By helping students to raise even the simplest question, "Will Father/the Reverend preach on the same thing that I did," I hope to facilitate a more engaged listening to the Gospel each Sunday. Ideally, the student will wrestle with the homily as he hears it, trying to see how his insights and the priests resonate with one another. Better still would it be for the student to engage his parents afterwards, saying how close he and the priest were that day or, perhaps, why the preacher was dead wrong in his interpretation....a potentially sophomoric sentiment appropriate for sophomores!

Anyway, I was thrilled that at least ONE student out of nearly SIXTY seems to have gotten the point of the assignment. Heck, I'll be happy if 30 of them realize that the passage they were assigned is the one that was read at Mass. But I figure that if I can help to encourage an encounter with the Word of God, prompting the students to think deeply on how the Word enters into and affects their lives, I will be making my own contribution to the formation of Men for Others.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Week 2: In the Bag!

I can't believe it's already Friday. To be honest, I can't really complain about a strenuous week: we have today off as well as Monday, making for a nice 4-day weekend. I did, however, have to be in school last night for the Mini-Classes where we met the parents of freshmen.

I've now gotten the names of 85% of my students into my brain and, I suspect, the last 15% will lock into place this week. I've also managed to find a nice rhythm for grading and planning, so I've not felt too stressed. This week I'll cover the life of Saint Ignatius with the Freshmen, do a day on Saint Francis, and then prepare them to take a little test on the first three weeks of school. These Freshmen, I must admit, are particularly clever: they managed to convince me that on a 4-question quiz I needed to give 5 bonus points. One student has a 175% in my class. Seriously? I used to think that I'd be a rigorous and demanding teacher. Turns out that I'm a push-over!

As I look at it, I really do believe that most of what I teach will be forgotten. What I hope is not forgotten is the fact that they had a positive experience of a young Jesuit and, perhaps, come to have an excitement for theology. I remember being particularly affected during my freshman year by my teachers who instilled in me a love for theology, a love that was stirred and fanned by teachers such as Michael Pennock, to whom I owe a debt far greater than I can put into words.

I've taken to praying with my seating charts each morning, commending each student by name to God. I've found myself praying in a special way to Mike Pennock, asking that something of his brilliance and passion be with me as I try to form the hearts and minds of my students.

My mind turns, too, to teachers who have had such a profound influence on my life. Mrs Werner, in grammar school, etched into my heart a deep love and appreciation for words. Mike Pennock made me a faithful searcher. Father Fiore taught me how to engage in rigorous scholarship with a sense of humor. Father Gray helped me to be attentive to the movement of the Spirit both in written texts and in the narratives of the human heart. Father Farrell taught me the skills of prayerful listening. My dear friend professor Jane Dryden has taught me more philosophy over coffee and bagels than I've learned in any textbook. Father Klein helped to show me how to bring together disparate theological and philosophical voices in a way that is faithful and boundary-pushing. My life, it seems, has been indelibly marked by teachers who have dedicated their lives to sharing their passion with students.

I have a post that I'm working on, a reflection on a question posed to me by a student. I have quite a bit of lesson planning to do this weekend but, if I get a few moments, I would like to share my thoughts with all of you in the hopes of eliciting thoughts from readers.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame