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.

The Apple Doesn't Fall Far...

This week (Thursday evening and Friday morning) presented yet another first in my regency experience: Parent/Teacher conferences.

Going into the experience, I thought that we would meet with the parents in our classrooms. With this thought it mind, I ran to Target the other night and bought enough wrapping paper to cover my bulletin boards three times over. Between 7:15 am and 8:45 am on Wednesday, my classroom was transformed from a cell in Attica to a hybrid mix of Martha Stewart (the major bulletin board is tastefully done) and Pope Benedict XVI (a lot of Catholic art up on the board).

Let's just pause for a moment to reflect on what the hybrid of Martha Stewart and the Holy Father would look like.

**Shudder** Prada shoes. **Shudder**

Moving forward.

Well, I was wrong about meeting parents in the classroom. Instead, we met in the Commons - a large room adjoining the lunchroom. Tables were set up along the perimeter and parents could line up to meet with teachers.

The only analogue I have for this experience is that it was like the Antiques Road Show. You know, that PBS show where people dig things out of the attic or bring something they have treasured to an expert to have its worth appraised. Sometimes the trinket is really valuable, should be insured, and treasured into the future. Other times, the expert has to inform the owner that the "precious" bobble is actually junk and, while possessing inestimable sentimental value, would fetch nothing at auction.

Good Lord. I think, actually, the Antiques Road Show is modeled on Parent Teacher Conferences!

Thankfully, I did not have to tell any parents that their sons had no worth but, since they possessed sentimental value, they should be kept all the same. In other words, I didn't have to tell any parents that their future included a long-term resident of their basement. In fact, I found that I was able to be really optimistic with parents: even when students were struggling, we were able to isolate the trouble areas and think of ways/strategies to redress any trouble areas. The great benefit of having this meeting so early in the semester is that there hasn't been enough time, at least in my classes, to dig oneself a hole so deep that he cannot climb out of it.

Now, as hard as it would be to reconcile themselves to the reality, many of my students truly are the sons of their parents. By this I mean that in meeting the parents, I gained a tremendous amount of insight into the reason why the sons are the way they are. The adage that "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree" was confirmed over and over again this week.

After 2.5 hours of non-stop talking on Thursday and another 2 hours yesterday, I drove to Cleveland to see my family and some friends. I'm usually happy to get six hours of sleep each night, but last night I managed to slumber for ten hours...further confirmation that 4.5 hours of talking, on top of a week of teaching, is horribly draining.

Next week is "Spirit Week" in preparation for Homecoming, yet another dance I will be chaperoning. I'm already writing my "Deodorant: Never too much, too often" talk to present to the guys before they come to the dance. In light of the last dance, I reckon it'd be a good idea to evangelize the wonders of good hygiene in the hope (vain though it may be) that we avoid a repeat of the olfactory offenses of the last dance.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame