Wednesday, December 29, 2010

End of the Year

It was with great hope and some enthusiasm that I sat down last Saturday (the 18th) and conceived of offering a blow-by-blow account of my family's Christmas. In years past, both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day have been occasions of much frivolity and tended to instance at least several noteworthy events.

This year, however, I fell sick with the flu last Wednesday morning and it took longer than I'd have expected to recover. Hence Christmas this year was a more...sober affair than usual.

A few fun happenings over my break:

  • Getting sick at Panera (last Wednesday) and then apologizing to the manager for the state I left the bathroom. The look of relief on her face was astonishing: "Well, as long as you're not blaming the food, that's okay."
  • Netflix is the greatest invention. Ever. I watched all of the available Charlie Chan movies while sick in bed. I then went on to watch a bunch of documentaries and even managed to get in a screening of The Bells of Saint Mary. All of this right from my laptop!
  • My niece (Emma) and nephew (Quinn) are endlessly entertaining. Quinn does fascinating tricks like putting socks and pens into the toilet and Emma talks nonstop (without subtitles).
  • My least favorite thing to do is getting the oil changed on the car I drive. I get so nervous when I have to drive it into the changing bay at the Valvoline: what would happen if I didn't turn the wheel the right way? The workers yell out commands to one another so quickly and they try to get me to buy things I neither want nor (think) I need. 
As you can see, a pretty uneventful break. 

I go to the Colombiere Center today in Clarkston, Michigan with almost 100 Jesuits in Formation for our annual Formation Gathering (AKA: Kiddie Conference). I'll be back on January 1st with a novice who will be living in our community and teaching at the school this semester.

As we close out the 2010 year, I cannot help but be grateful. It has been a remarkable year capped, in my own mind, by the tremendous success of our first U of D Jesuit Pledge Detroit! initiative. Right now, I feel as though I am exactly where I need to be doing precisely what I am called to do. This is a great grace, one for which I am heartily grateful. 

Please be assured of my prayers as we enter into the new year. Let's hope that a slightly less demanding second semester might occasion more opportunities to write and to share with the world further stories from this Jesuit's Journey!

God Bless and Happy New Year!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

I had such hopes of writing several posts this week. These hopes were dashed against the hard rocks of the flu that has kept me in bed since Wednesday. I ventured out last night and saw my family but it might have been premature and I paid for it through the night last night. So I'm going to take it easy today: I have one thing yet to pick up for a Christmas gift and then I'll join my family for Mass later in the evening.

Please be assured of my prayers - I've not much else to do as I sit here in bed - on this Eve of the Savior's birth!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Church is a Process

The great Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe writes in The New Creation that the
...process by which the world grows to maturity in Christ is the Church. The Church, as we shall see, is not a thing, it is a process in time. (18)
His insight has been percolating in my heart and mind these last few days of vacation and, this morning, I'd like to offer a few comments upon it.

I frequently lament the lack of charity on the part of Catholic bloggers. Dr. Jeff Mirus, just this week, mused over at that he is tempted to end each of his writings with "this very particular truism: The Jesuits must be reformed." In his writings, Dr. Mirus bandies about the label of Modernism - a slippery, unwieldy word that he doesn't take the time to pin down the precise way in which he uses it - and decries the failings of the Society of Jesus. Reading his piece, one would get the sense that there is but a small remnant of faithful Jesuits out there and that the rest (of us? Or am I part of the remnant??) are a bunch of heterodox barbarians who delight in scandalizing the faithful.

Sometimes I am left to wonder, then, if persons like Dr. Mirus, Joseph Fromm, R.R. Reno, and Diogenes fall into the category Father McCabe describes when he writes

A man whose heart is full of hatred but who does not deny the Creed can be genuinely baptized and receive the Faith, though in such a case the Faith he receives is what we have called "dead faith", a faith which is not enlivened by charity. (44)
I'm not saying that these are bad men: indeed, I think they very often do very good work. But as I impress upon my sophomores, you cannot extract a generality out of a particular: the fact that some Jesuits do things that raise eyebrows does not mean that the entire body of the Society of Jesus is in need of reform. I would simply say that the entire body of the Society of Jesus needs to be reformed simply because it is a part of the Church, the Body of Christ, and we are called to part of the "new creation" wrought by Faith. We need to be reformed not because we have gone astray, or are wicked, or are heterodox; rather, we need to be in a constant state of reform because we are part of the living Body of Christ, the Church.

Monday, December 20, 2010

When are the Jesuits going to be Catholic?

I met some friends - guys I've not seen in very many years - this morning for coffee. We ordered our beverages (you can tell we're all growing up by our common order: regular coffee, black) and set about the business of catching up. We chatted of families, weddings, deaths, births of children, and the passing of loved ones. New jobs, career changes, and fears for the future peppered the discussion, too, and it was great to hear the stories and see how the lives of my friends had unfolded since we graduated in 1998.

At a certain point, the conversation turned to my decision to enter the Society of Jesus. "When," one of my friends asked, not without a barbed edge, "are the Jesuits going to be Catholic?"

Now I don't think he meant this to be offensive but, all the same, it cut a bit. Normally, I let these little jabs go but, being fueled by caffeine, I thought to pursue the issue. With no small amount of irritation lacing my voice, I asked him, "What, if you don't mind me asking, do you mean by this?"

He went on to talk about how ALL the Jesuits have become liberal and NONE of them love the Church any more. ALL Jesuits are disobedient and are involved in advancing some RADICAL AGENDA of liberalism. Jesuits seldom wear clerical attire in public, he added, and they breed confusion and dissent rather than clarity of thought and acceptance of the Church.

Having said his piece, my friend sat back. I sipped my coffee and met eyes with the other two guys who were with us, each of whom looked bemused and embarrassed.

The conversation that ensued for the next half-hour ranged over many topics. Later, I'll take up the question of the Catholicity of the Jesuits. Right now, I would like to make two points that touch on the experience of clergy (potentially) in general:

First, to the point of Jesuits being liberals, let me take one instance. When I am asked about whether I am Pro-Life or Pro-Choice (or Pro-Abortion) I have no reservation in averring that I am 100% pro-life. This meets with nods from many who seem to think that there are Jesuits out there who are actively working to kill unborn babies. Yet I always go on to say that not only am I vehemently against abortion, I am against euthanasia, I am against guns, I totally oppose the death penalty, and I'm not a fan of war. I'm also so Pro-Life that I think that we as a nation, and as a world, need to address the economic structures that contribute to crippling poverty. I am so Pro-Life that I think we as a nation need to take steps to address our flailing educational and medical systems. I am so Pro-Life that, when people hear how broadly I construe Pro-Life, I go from being a "Good Conservative" to being a "Filthy Liberal."

Does this make sense? If I agree with a person on abortion, I'm a Good Catholic. If I extend my valuation of life to other issues, I become a Socialist and I'm told that I'm out-of-touch with reality and that I live in an ivory tower (such towers, I guess, abound in Detroit). How is it that the more Pro-Life I am, the more that I endorse and affirm the dignity of EVERY HUMAN LIFE from womb to tomb, that I am transformed from a "Good Catholic" into a "Dissenting Jesuit"? Boggles my mind.

As for clerical attire, I wear the Roman collar every day to work (unless we have a spirit day, when I seize the opportunity to wear jeans and a spirit shirt). I also wear it to sporting events (when we play other Catholic league teams), when I chaperone dances, when I go out to meet benefactors, when I attend social events that are directly linked to the school or to the Society of Jesus. Yet the fact that I spend most of my waking hours wearing black isn't enough for some: when I go to the movies, the doctor's, or to hang out with my friend I should be clad in clerical attire. So should clergy be "on" all of the time?

I think people forget the demands that are placed on priests and religious today. We are expected to be good preachers - not too long-winded, of course, and sufficiently entertaining - and good with balancing the books. A high premium is placed on orthodoxy, so long as it doesn't make waves or make people feel uncomfortable. We need to be available at a moment's notice to bring Communion, celebrate weddings, do wakes and funerals, offer counseling, rush to hospitals, and teach courses. And, I might add, try to find time for personal prayer and relaxation.

In other words, I often wonder if people realize the enormous burden that is placed on clergy today. Speaking personally, some days it really stinks to be a Jesuit. Jokes about pedophile priests, about clergy abuse, about financial improprieties, about discrimination and hypocrisy, about a host of things...I get these a lot. People write comments on YouTube and on the blog and send me emails that are little more than scurrilous attacks on me, the Jesuits, and the Church at large. If my experience is at all similar to that of others, is it any wonder that guys would want to go to the movies, or out to dinner, or to the bar without having to be identified as clergy? Some might see sporting clerical attire as a public witness...others experience it as a target. There is a time and a place for all things and, as I've experienced it, there's no hard-and-fast rule for wearing a collar. I think my solution - wear it when it involves my working or being a Jesuit presence - has worked well...for I just can't imagine that my wearing it to see "A Nightmare on Elm Street" or "Black Swan" has much of a witness value!

It's sometimes disheartening to poke about on the internet to see the great animosity had (1) toward the Catholic Church, (2) toward priests, and within the Church (3) those who hate the Jesuits. These are humbling days, in my experience, for there is precious little luster or glory associated with being a part of the Church. Perhaps I'd have it no other way: the Christ child was born in a manger and, perhaps, it's my job to sit vigil amidst the manure!

My friend did apologize for his comment, saying he didn't realize things were so complicated. This, I think, is symptomatic of idiot-blogging and the news bites we get on television. We want short, pre-digested bits of information so that we don't have to take the time to wade through the information and make informed judgments on our own. Perhaps here, then, is the challenge each of us can accept this final week of Advent: to embrace the story of Christ's coming not as a mere fact, a bit of information, but rather as an invitation to learn more, to explore more deeply what the coming of the Son of Man means and how it might encourage us to grow as women and men for others who have committed themselves to the greater glory of God.

Cleaning Out the YouTube Bin

As the views of my videos posted to YouTube approach 3,000,000 it has become harder and harder to keep up with the deluge of email I receive daily. Granted, there are some single videos that have many millions of views; my videos, many instructional in nature, don't simply occasion comments but also elicit numerous emailed questions and comments from viewers.

Arising early this morning, I set about going through nearly a thousand emails that have come in over the last two months. In the craziness of school and my other obligations, I have had to sacrifice the attention these people deserve. I feel somewhat guilty over it but it can't be helped: there is only one of me and I need to put my (live) students first!

So as I went through the emails that had been addressed to me personally, I plucked out a few of the gems to share with my readers:

  • Dear soon-to-be Father Ryan, 
                Can you do exorcisms? My son is possessed and I need someone 
                to get the demon out of him.
  • Are you really studying to be a priest or is this just a marketing strategy?
  • Do the Jesuits really control OPEC?
  • What is it like to be part of the Illuminati?  [Note: why would you ask a person in an ostensibly secret society what it is like to be a member of said society? If I did belong to such an organization, don't you think I'd deny it?]
There were others, but none that was particularly amusing. Sometimes I go through and find a host of hysterical nuggets but, today it seemed, I hit a dull spot. About two dozen of the nearly one-thousand notes involved invitations to play in various places and another fifty were meaningful questions related to people's vocations and spiritual life. Several hundred were requests and then the rest were rants and harangues. 

It does occur to me that I should seek out some endorsement deals from manufacturers of tin whistles. Many people wrote asking about what kind of whistle to buy and, to be honest, I'm useless on this: I have played the same whistles for over fifteen years. I don't keep up-to-date on instruments so I'm a terrible person to solicit for advice. The company that makes Generation should pay me a commission as I do mention them by name as being a good beginner model. Perhaps, if I decide to remake the series, I should go find corporate sponsorship...I'd be the Michael Jordan of the whistle industry. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Do you hear what I hear?

If you strain hard enough, you might still hear the weeping and gnashing of my students' teeth. I'll admit it: I'm the Grinch teacher who assigns homework over Christmas break. My seniors have to read about sixteen pages of Fear and Trembling and my sophomores have to write a five-paragraph reflection...that has to be turned in online by Friday, December 24th.

You heard it right: I made something due on Christmas Eve. Next to decapitating Santa Claus or turning Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer into road kill, there seems to be no graver offense possible for a teacher. In my defense, I justify my actions accordingly:

  1. Their assignment is to write on one of the Gospel readings that they will hear at Christmas Mass. It sort of defeats the purpose to have them write a reflection that they would give on Christmas AFTER the fact. I want them to read and think about the readings BEFORE they hear them. 
  2. If I make it due on January 4th, most will wait until January 3rd to write it. In this case, I'll get receive 69 papers all at once and I'll have to read and correct them that week ahead of finals. Further, the essays will be hastily written because the students will have waited to do all of their homework until the last day. If nothing else, making it due the 24th gets one assignment out of the way.
  3. Because the evil within me is foul...and I love it. (Attributed to Saint Augustine)
Anyway, there we stand. One essay has been submitted - 1/69 - and I await with baited breath the rest of them. I hope they trickle in so that I can grade them piecewise and do a few each day. 

Twas the Week Before Christmas...

So I have left Detroit and rest now in the living room of the Duns family's ancestral home...well, it'll be our descendants' ancestral home, at least.

At the moment, I'm watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hill with my sister. I feel sorry for these women: they seem to live such vapid, uninteresting lives. This particular episode showcased a dinner party held by Kelsey Grammer's (now ex) wife. The mother and aunt of Paris Hilton attended as did a Medium. By Medium I mean one who purports to communicate with the dead; I haven't any idea what size she wears.

I mention this because I suspect the producers of the show must work hard to make these women's lives appear mildly interesting. They should come and videotape my family in Cleveland: we're every bit as dysfunctional and almost certainly more entertaining. If I can manage it, I'll try to keep folks updated as the week unfolds: since I'll be here all week, I should have plenty of time to post my observations.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Snow Day

There are so few words or phrases in the English language as capable of sending a frisson of joy and excitement through the student body as the phrase, "Snow Day." Last night, a little after 9:00 pm, the decision was made to cancel school today due to icy driving conditions and single-digit temperatures.

It is nice to sleep in two hours later than usual, to eat a leisurely breakfast, and to ponder the ways in which this gift of a day might be spent. Shall I read my book? Go to the gym? Watch television? Plot the downfall of my enemies? Who knows, who cares! The day is ripe with possibilities, with untold chances for enjoyment and rest.

I recall Advent of last year being so much more chaotic. A first-year teacher with three different courses, I spent as much of my time trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing as I did actually doing anything. I'm grateful that I'm a pretty quick study so that this year I have a good senes of my role as a teacher and Senate moderator. The busier I am and greater responsibility I have in the school, I find, the more joyful I am because the more I get to interact with the students.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

High schoolers’ service benefit community

Here's an article from the Michigan Catholic about this year's "U of D Jesuit Pledge Detroit!" initiative. As of this morning, this effort has raised over $153,000 for our students!

High schoolers’ service benefit community

Monday, December 06, 2010

Already into Advent!

It's hard to believe that the whirlwind travels of the Thanksgiving Holiday - Chicago and Tampa - are now behind me and that, two weeks from now, I'll be back in Cleveland for Christmas Vacation. This semester has flown by so quickly...come January, I realized last night, I'll reach the half-way point of my regency. 1.5 years down, 1.5 to go. Sobering to think about!

This week, we begin sales of the Winter Spirit Shirt. I'll post a picture of them later, after each one has been folded and neatly stacked for sale (I sometimes wonder, with the amount of things I sell for the Senate, whether I'm a moderator or a wholesaler).

I'm very much looking forward to Christmas vacation this year. Our last day of school is the 17th, so I get nearly a full week of pre-Christmas preparation time this year. I'll have a lot of papers to grade - 35 philosophy papers come due on the 17th - but I'll also have time to do things I enjoy: run, yoga, read, and make cookies.

I wish I had about four more hours in each day, for then I could do things like update the blog! Without such luxuries, however, I must be content with wishing readers well as we continue our Advent journey and to assure them of my prayers as our hearts cry out Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tuesday is a Friday

Thanks to the hard work of our students in raising over $150,000 in our Pledge Detroit! campaign, we do not have school either tomorrow or next Monday. I have to work tomorrow to supervise nearly 100 students who failed to bring in their pledge quota, but I don't really have to do any work. I just have to put them to work or waste five hours of what would have been their day off. Alas.

I'll head off to Chicago tomorrow evening and then, on Friday, I'll play for the Mid-American Oireachtas. This is sort of like a mega-feis, for those into Irish dancing, and for those who aren't: it's like an enormous pet show, but for children who do Irish dancing.

I return Sunday evening with, I hope, enough time to do some laundry. On Monday I'm flying to Tampa to participate in the "Thought Partner Gathering" hosted by the Society of Jesus where we'll discuss communications.

It's really hard to believe that Advent is nearly upon us. This year, I've decided to pray through Advent with the a text entitled Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings by Alfred Delp, SJ. Delp was a Jesuit executed at the hands of the Nazis in 1945. If you get a chance, his writing bristles with prophetic energy that extends beyond the walls of his prison cell and touches hearts nearly seventy years removed from his own setting.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Odor of Sanctity

Last Friday evening, I went to the movies with another Jesuit. We bought our tickets early, went to a diner for dinner, and then walked back over to the theater with enough time before the start of the film to ensure that we'd get good seats. Having secured seats, I turned off my phone and slid into my seat so that my feat rested on the unoccupied seat in front of me.

Moments before the movie began, two men sat directly behind us. I would have taken no notice of them, really, save for the fact that one of them seemed to be an aggressive nose-breather. At least, that's what I thought at first. Over time, I began to wonder if it wasn't simply the case that he had forgotten a tissue and had a case of the drippies. Still, I ignored the snuffing and snorting as I became more and more engrossed in the movie.

After a time, though, I became acutely aware that the sound of the sniffing was growing perilously louder. Not louder as though he were wrestling with a particularly stubborn train of mucous, mind you. Louder as in, "I think this guy is right next to my ear." Just as that though flashed through my mind, I felt something brush against my head: the man, it appeared, was sniffing my (scant) hair!

Now I admit, I do use a particularly delicious-smelling shampoo (it's some tea tree mint concoction that was on sale the last time my shampoo ran out. It was both plentiful and cheap and, as I'm balding, a little goes a long way). In fact, when I lather my balding pate the smell of the shampoo usually makes me hunger for cake frosting. Anyway, I had taken a shower just prior to leaving for the theater so, I suspect, the smell of the shampoo still lingered. At least, I'm assuming this: I can't say I noticed the smell but, it appears, the fellow behind me sure did.

So there I am, frozen in place as the man behind me in a dark theater is sniffing my head, and I am rendered mute. Rare event indeed. Listing from one side of the seat to another, I moved my head to the other side of the headrest in hope of evading the shadow sniffer. It does seem to have worked, although I remained frozen in place for the next two hours fearing the thing that goes *sniff* in the night.

In other news,

Hockey season begins today. I'll be heading off to the rink for the 5:30 game. This will be the midpoint of a day that involves: picking up the remaining prizes at Best Buy (the prizes to be awarded to the high earners for Pledge Detroit!),  writing a test for the sophomores, finishing my treatment of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil for my senior philosophy class, composing a college recommendation letter, cleaning my room, meeting my formation director, and meeting a friend for cocktails this evening. A busy day, indeed!

I'll be at the Mid-American Oireachtas, the regional championships for Irish dancers, next weekend. This year the event is being held in Chicago where I'll get to see family and friends for the whole weekend. I return to Detroit on Sunday night only to depart on Monday for a three-day conference on communications being held in Tampa, Florida. Then on the third, we have a dance - the "Santa Bash" - that the Student Senate is running and that I will be chaperoning. So I probably should sign the contract for the two artificial snow machines I want to rent and the strobe lights that will help to supply some of the special effects....

In the wake of Pledge Detroit - the long run-up to the event and the weeks of collecting and counting now over $151,000 - I am glad to return to the normalcy of teaching. I cannot but be grateful to God for such a spectacular event and I am equally grateful to the support of my Jesuit brothers and my colleagues who worked so hard on this initiative. This year we raised, so far, $32,000 more than last year. I think this is the mark of a good spirit of resurgence in our city and I hope that U of D Jesuit is the leader among other institutions in committing ourselves to this city.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Full of Grace

It occurred to me the other day, as I stood in line at a convenience store that had already put out its Christmas decorations on November 1st, that we spend upwards of 17% of our retail year in the Christmas Season. I mention this simply as a random fact although, in mentioning it, it does remind me of a book I would like to recommend to my readers.

I recently acquired a copy of Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art, and Life written by Judith Dupré. The consists of fifty-nine meditations on Mary, different perspectives drawn from the author's own life and experience, that help to introduce the reader to the one confessed to be "blessed among women."

What we have in this text is an accessible book of art and theology, woven with narrative, that sheds light on a figure who plays such an important role in the devotional lives of countless Christians. Especially arresting is the variety of beautiful photographs contained in the work: classic works of art, modern interpretations of Mary, and various pictures of architecture abound.

There are sections of the book that touch me rather deeply. One meditation, "A New Understanding," meditates on the chilling prophecy of Simeon who proclaims at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple that "a sword will pierce your own soul." Dupré uses this experience, and the unfolding awarness on Mary's part that Jesus must walk a singular path, to meditate on the experience of children with special needs. While all parents know something of endurance, the parents of autistic children know acutely what it means to wait patiently, to endure patiently, through long periods of struggle and anxiety. The dream a parent has for a child at birth must be released, let go, as the child's reality dawns. This entails a period of mourning as the what-was-hoped-for is set aside and what-is-now is embraced and, sometimes, endured.

The experiences of parenting an autistic child, Dupré suggests, mirrors the experiences of the Blessed Mother who was "called to trust the way of the child who was hers but not hers. She had to grapple with her own lack of comprehension and, later, that of the crowds who did not grasp what her son was trying to say." The silent witness of a parent who must endure side-long glances and muttered comments by strangers is subsumed into Mary's own experience. The silent endurance of a parent, Dupré encourages, is not undergone alone...for we have Mary at our side.

This book would make a terrific gift this holiday season. While its beauty will entice people to buy it for the coffee table, I should think it is better read than looked at. The art and narrative intertwine to draw the reader more deeply into an understanding of who Mary is for us today and how she can accompany us on our spiritual pilgrimage.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

I recognize that it's unflattering

Here are two videos taken of last week's epic "U of D Jesuit Pledge Detroit!" day of service. Watching this forces me to consider putting on more weight, particularly when you see the clip below.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Patience with God

Several weeks ago, I came upon a review of a book over at Faith and Theology. The book, Patience with God, is written by Tomáš Halík, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian from Czechoslovakia.

Halík begins with an experience common to so many, especially in the wake of the bloody 20th century and, more recently, September 11th and the so-called "War on Terror." This is the experience of the absence of God, so chillingly posed by Elie Wiesel in Night when, as the gathered assembly watched a young boy hang from the gallows, someone asked, "Where is God now?" prompting the wrenching response: "Where is He? Here is here - he is hanging here on this gallows." This question confronts both the believer and unbeliever, forcing each to face the scars and traces of destruction and devastation, demanding that we reflect upon Wiesel's question: "Where is God now?"

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Belated Birthday

In the run-up to "U of D Jesuit Pledge Detroit!" I have been completely mired in organizational details. It's quite an undertaking to organize and find meaningful work for 2.5 hours for 850+ students, plus faculty, plus parent volunteers. Working with sites, assigning buses, procuring tools, praying for good weather, trying to get the kids excited: all of this makes for long, exhausting days. Parent phone-calls and emails, faculty concerns, kids failing to turn in permission slips: these exacerbate the headaches.

In the midst of this, I did turn 31 on Tuesday, the Feast of the North American Martyrs. I remember being somewhat jealous of other kids who had cool saints like St. John of the Cross or St. Patrick or St. Thomas Aquinas who celebrated feast days on their birthdays. My youthful Catholic imagination saw some special relationship between the saint after whom you were named as well as the saint on whose feast day you were born. Much to my dismay was it, then, that I had a nondescript group of saints! Over the years, though, I have come to value the contribution of these men and I'm proud to share my birthday with them.

Over the next few days, please keep me and the students in your prayers. I'm very excited, but also very nervous, about executing this event. I want it to go well because I want the students to have a positive experience of their home town. Detroit gets pilloried in the papers - I think I get bonus points in conversation when I mention that I live in Detroit, as though I were living in a war zone - and it's about time we show our students, and the rest of the world, that we will not cave to broad generalizations. Our kids are going to leave a lasting mark on their city, a corporate fingerprint, that will attest to their willingness to put their hands on and heart into the city we have called home for 133 years. Pray for them that they be moved by generosity and a spirit of charity as we labor together to Pledge Detroit!

Saturday, October 09, 2010


I frequently describe blogging as therapeutic: as an extrovert, I tend to process externally, thinking out loud. Since I can't expect someone to be with me at all hours of the day, I tend to use my blog as a way of thinking out loud in a disciplined way that brings clarity to me and is, perhaps, helpful to others.

This last week has been so incredibly busy that fatigue has forced me to process inwardly as I'm too tired to sit down at my computer. We just had our Spirit Week (Pajama Day, Field Games, Jersey Day, College Shirt Day, and an all-school pep rally) which I was in charge of planning and executing. I spent most of today setting up for today's Homecoming Dance (Theme: Superheroes in the D) and I'm hoping to get something to eat before the dance starts at 8:00. Tomorrow I have to help clean up after the dance and then begin the final preparations for "U of D Jesuit Pledge Detroit!" This is such a busy time and I'm so grateful that I've been faithful to daily prayer, the Eucharist, and finding time with friends and brother Jesuits...otherwise, the stimulation would force me to explode in an extroverted frenzy!

If I'm quiet for the next two weeks, fear not: I'll be back. It's just that with all of the planning and work that must still be done for Pledge Detroit! and my own teaching schedule, I have precious little time. The thing I'm most excited about right now is that I have Wednesday off due to the PSAT being administered and I'm planning on catching up on my sleep because, folks, your scribe is pretty tired. As a very holy Jesuit Brother once said, "Even the good things we do can make us tired." I echo his feelings and look to that day when I can rest fully...the end of the month, at this rate!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Strange Days!

A number of my seniors are away on Kairos this week, so my mornings are (relatively) free until they return tomorrow evening. So it was with great excitement that I agreed yesterday to attend a press conference here in Detroit where special mention was being made of "U of D Jesuit Pledge Detroit!" Speaking on behalf of U of D Jesuit was Mr. Kyle Chandler ('99) who is the Assistant Principal for Student Affairs. Kyle spoke to the assembly of our commitment to the city of Detroit and its citizens and then, afterward, we posed for this picture with Mayor David Bing.

The Kick-Off for "U of D Jesuit Pledge Detroit!" is on October 12th, 2010 and the actual day of service takes place on October 26th. This event demands a tremendous amount of planning and work but I cannot prevent myself from believing that this project is the result of careful prayer and discernment and that we are being the "Men for Others" we are being invited to become: a school community who has opened its heart and ears to a city's people and who has offered its hands and hearts in service of our neighbors.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

U of D Jesuit Pledge Detroit!

It is fitting, as I embark on my 701st post, that it be with a very exciting announcement. As many of you know, I am doing my regency at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy (a mouthful, to be sure). Now in my second year, I was asked to moderate the Student Senate this year.

There will be more to come in the near future, but I thought I might share with my readers this exciting initiative. I am extraordinarily excited that I get to be part of a program that brings fundraising into alignment with the mission of an institution: raising money by giving our students an opportunity to be of service to their neighbors in metropolitan Detroit.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Still Here!

I've not gone anywhere! These have been really busy weeks at school with our first dance, my first board meeting at Walsh Jesuit High School, and preparations for Spirit Week, Homecoming, and our new fall fundraiser called Pledge Detroit!

This latter project, Pledge Detroit!, is absorbing a lot of my free time. I'll be excited to share with my readers the nature of the program later in the week when I find a few minutes to sit down at my computer to do some pleasure writing.

Until then, cheers!

Saturday, September 04, 2010

New Publication

For anyone who is interested, my article in New Blackfriars has made it to print. Entitled "Recovering Rahner's Concept of Being in Spirit in the  World," it is an essay heavily influenced by my great teacher and friend Father Terrance Klein. My dear friend Jane Dryden also lurks in the background, not so much in an explicit way but, rather, as the muse who inspired me to dig deeper into philosophical reflection.

Writing, whether as a blogger or as a teacher or as a hopeful scholar, is a profoundly intimate process. It tries to put into words what seems to be almost impossible to express. Re-reading my own writing recently, I kept saying to myself "Duns! You could have said this better, you could have been more clear, you could have done this....". Alas, it is the fragility of language and something I will have to struggle with forever. Writing, in this sense, is trying to make explicit what roils implicitly in my heart and mind, an effort to make exterior something that is at the innermost center of my heart.

I say with all honesty that I am neither a great mind nor a great scholar. I think I work hard, that I have an open and capable mind, and a willing heart. I love to share with others the riches of the Catholic faith and one way of doing that is through sustained reflection on the very foundations of that faith. This act of sharing is a form of communion, of bringing different voices together and trying to discern the common refrain they sing. So conceived, it is my most fervent hope that anything I write or teach finds its end in making faith reasonable, in making faith credible, and in showing how faith shapes and transforms the human life.

I include a screen-shot of the essay that is published as a preview on the New Blackfriars webpage. I hope I'm not violating any copyright laws. If I am, I'll take it down immediately.

At the Start of a New Year

We had "Mini-Class Night" for parents on Thursday, an opportunity for parents to walk through their sons' schedules in imitation of their days. Mom and Dad move from class to class, listening to short 10-minute presentations by the teachers. More than a few parents approached me and said, "Oh! So you're the Mr. Duns we've heard so much about." Some smiled. Others....well, others seemed more puzzled than amused.

I will admit that while my theology is pretty orthodox (considering I do Yoga as an exercise form, that might surprise some!), my teachings methods aren't always so. To demonstrate transitive verbs to my seniors in philosophy, I brought my teddy bear Paddington to class. Paddington did a marvelous job showing the students that the verb "to carry" can be used transitively to show that Paddington receives the action of carrying (I am carrying Paddington, so at this moment he is carried). It was my hope that my beloved prop would help illuminate aspects of Plato's Euthyphro dialogue. Instead, it led to several of them entering the student senate office, kidnapping my bear, and leaving a ransom note. It took four days for me to recover my old friend.

As I mentioned before, I believe I had something of a paranormal experience at the beginning of the year. Then again, I think it is a paranormal experience when a classroom full of boys leaves my room and the room doesn't smell like a brothel in Calcutta. Nevertheless, I am convinced that when students start to doze off in the middle of class, it is because they have been overcome by a soporific demon who is actively working against the student to thwart his learning. To do battle with such a malevolent force, I have no recourse but to douse the student in blessed water (which I drink all day long): either short range by putting a few drops of water from my Nalgene bottle on his head -or- from a distance with a small, concealable squirt-gun I keep under my desk at all times. The blessed water seems to do an admirable job in dispelling the demon and restoring the student to the land of the living.

Finally, I'm growing accustomed to having multiple names. For some reason, it seems en vogue to give Mr. Ryan G. Duns, SJ as many nicknames as possible. So far the list includes such highlights as:

  • Mr. Duns
  • Mr. D
  • Abba Duns
  • Abba
  • Big Daddy Duns
  • Poppa Duns
  • SJ
The latter, "SJ", has become a favorite. While there's something terribly reductionistic about being addressed by two initials, I think it's sort of cool. 

Freshmen, I must say, are rather gullible. The wide-eyed innocence may seem to tender and so delicate to some teachers. To me, it simply presents an opportunity to launch into some totally outlandish tale that I can be assured of their believing. Just this week, I had to address half of the freshmen at the "Co-Curricular Fair." In an effort to buy time, I started to tell the students how one of the Jesuits here at school ran BOTH the "Alligator Wrestling Club" and the "Squirrel Club," informing them that this Jesuit had once wrestled an alligator in an effort to save his students and that on a nightly basis he met on our back patio for ongoing negotiations with Antioches Epiphanus IV, the Grand General of the Squirrel Army.

Four students approached me later that day, disappointed that they couldn't find the Alligator Wrestling Club table amidst the other clubs.

I loved it.

Finally, it's amazing how eager students are to accept compliments. Just last night, while standing with a group of colleagues at the football game, one of the students I taught last year kept coming up to talk to me. He poked me with a stick. He poked me with an empty water bottle. He teased me for being bald. As you can imagine, I like this kid a lot. Finally, I turned around and said, "Kiddo, I owe you a great debt of thanks." His face lit up as he waited for me to say something profound, something moving. I continued, "Kiddo, you have single-handedly confirmed my vow of chastity and my own resolution never to have children of my own." When he reached out to touch my shoulder, I feigned horror and proclaimed, "Hey, don't defile the holy goods." He laughed and went off to buy two sodas and probably a dozen hot dogs (and he won't put on a pound because of it).

I've said it before, but I love teaching. I go to bed exhausted each night, but I always offer up a prayer of thanks for this chance to shape the hearts and minds of so many great young men. I really hope that I am teaching kids and interacting with kids in keeping with the core spirit of Catholic moral theology: showing how we are meant to live together, forever, in the Eternal Kingdom illuminated by the light of the Lamb. With a sense of joy and enthusiasm about my life and vocation, I hope to instill a deeper passion for life and love and faith in my students and in the world around me.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


One of the great graces of my life in the Society of Jesus has been all of the ways I've been stretched to grow in unimaginable ways. Were it not for the Society, I would probably never have learned how to cook. Were it not for the Jesuits, I probably would never have had the opportunity to maintain a blog such as this or to offer Irish music courses online. Heck, were it not for the brotherhood of the Society, I would never have gone to the gym or decided to train for and run a marathon.

So when new opportunities arise, I am pretty open to embracing them since every new opportunity just *might* uncover a latent gift or talent or passion. On Friday night, I was with several colleagues at a great bar in the city of Detroit - the Temple Bar - where we had a couple of drinks and toasted the beginning of the school year. As the night wore on, I grew excited when I saw how few people were in the bar AND that there would be Karaoke that night. For a few moments, a glimmer of hope past through my body: perhaps I would discover a great talent for singing, a new way of expressing my love for music.

So when the time came, I wasn't overly resistant to taking up microphone. We had some technical difficulties on the first song and the machine kept cutting out. We requested a second song - "Oh Happy Day" - which five of us launched into with swarthy abandon.

Well, I realized pretty bloody quickly that I have no talent - hidden or otherwise - for singing. I was lethal. It was not a "Happy Day" at fact, I was brutally miserable. I knew it was bad when two (apparently) homeless men who were sitting at the bar stared at us, pointed, and began laughing.

Adding insult to injury, these same two men took the microphones and began to sing after us. The only thing that made our performance technically better is that we could read the teleprompter...they, it appeared, were illiterate. Even without being able to read, I must admit, they were pretty good and definitely showed us up.

While I was at Mass today, I was really reluctant to sing at all. Knowing how bad my voice really is, I take to heart Saint Augustine's dictum that "He who sings well prays twice." I sing poorly, so my voice raised in song is more akin to a sung curse than it is to a prayer of thanksgiving!

We're all given different gifts. I'm only grateful that it was a small group of colleagues and two homeless men who had to experience my lack of talent in this one particular area. God willing, when my turn comes to join the heavenly chorus for all eternity, Saint Peter will hand me an accordion.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

We Believe in Things Seen and Unseen

When it comes to the topic of ghosts and paranormal activity, I've always been of an open mind. Each week for nearly thirty years (I reckon I didn't recite the Nicene Creed until I was about seven) I have heard or recited the line:

We believe in God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is seen and unseen.

Until recently, I've had no reason to believe either in the existence or non-existence of ghosts: as none had ever made contact with me, I had no reason to render a judgment.
No reason, that is, until this last week.

The other night, while on the first floor of our building, I was chatting with the superior in his office. I reclined on the couch and was looking out the small window cut into his door when I saw a figure walk past. Under the assumption that we were alone in the hallway, I went over the door, opened, and looked into the corridor: on either end, the hallway was empty. I know that I saw something move past the window and that it wasn't a reflection of something else, but there was nothing on the other side of the door. 

On Friday, I was giving a lecture on Plato in my senior-level philosophy class. I had made the slides a few days prior, saved them to my memory stick, and brought them up onto the Smart Board in my class. My students can attest to my confusion when, on advancing to a slide in the middle of the presentation, we saw the header read:

Plato Versus [John Doe]

The thing is, though, is that it didn't say [John Doe]. It read, rather, a last name. A last name that I know I didn't put into the lecture. A name who presence in my presentation I cannot account for and I swear that I didn't type.  I figured it was a computer error but, to be sure it wasn't mine, I went back to my handwritten notes: no trace of this particular last name could be found in the notes I had written and then transcribed into Power Point.
I chalked this up to a computer glitch until this morning. After celebrating the Eucharist, three of us Jesuits were chatting when the celebrant asked the other priest, a veteran teacher, if he had ever heard of a Father _________ (I'm not putting in the name because I don't want to the family members to think that I'm accusing their loved one of being a ghost). A chill went down my spine: the name that was being inquired about was the same name that had appeared mysteriously in my Power Point presentation. 

As it turns out, the priest in question had lived here at the school but had left the Jesuits back in the sixties. A search on Google turned up his obituary: he died within the last year. 

Now, I'm not making any claims to be dwelling in a haunted house. Nevertheless, it does push me just a little bit toward thinking that the veil that separates the living and dead may be a bit thinner than I had ever though. As I learned more about this individual and his past, it strikes me that he could well be the sort to take to haunting IF such a thing were possible/were to happen. 

If nothing else, I'm armed with yet another fun regency story!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Bit of Context

I posted the other night two videos shot in the kitchen at m parents' house. Several years ago, my brother-in-law and I took a notion to record a tin whistle video entitled "Boys in the Hoodies."

So it seemed only fitting that, three years later, we do an encore presentation at my niece Emma's third birthday party. It was fun recording them on the fly - we hadn't rehearsed - and I do hope you enjoy them.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Kids are All Right

In an effort to escape the heat and humidity last night, another Jesuit and I decided to go to the movies. We decided to drive over to Royal Oak and see the 8:00 showing of the newly-released The Kids are All Right. Starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo, it is a well-crafted story about a lesbian couple - Nic and Jules, played by Bening and Moore - each of whom used sperm from the same donor in order to have children.

The daughter, Joni, has just turned 18 at the start of the movie. Her brother, Laser, importunes her to "make the call" to the sperm bank their moms had use; he, we realize, is the one initially most keen on meeting his biological father. Joni eventually acquiesces and contact is made with Paul, played by Ruffalo, who owns a co-op farm and a restaurant.

Understandably, Nic and Jules are not entirely enthusiastic about their kids making contact with "the sperm donor." Nevertheless, they agree to meet him and invite him over for dinner. What follows this initial ingress is a finely wrought narrative about appearance and truth, the marathon of committed love, betrayal and forgiveness. It is not an easy story, nor does it pander to popular opinion: Nic and Jules are middle-aged lesbians, not the buxom nymphomaniac beauties that so enthrall the stereotypical male imagination. The family's life, like all family life, is multi-layered: there is tension, misunderstanding, anxiety, and great pain beneath what might, outwardly, appear to be a "perfect family." It is the introduction of Paul who changes the family tremendously, bringing into the light many of the issues that had long receded into the darkness. The question the viewer wrestles with toward the end of the movie is: will the lives of each character be etched permanently with resentment or will they find the strength and grace for love and reconciliation?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Reason and Faith, II

I would briefly like to use the Gospel of John to meditate a bit further on the relationship between reason and faith. Actually, I would like to use two small snippets - two questions, really - that I see as serving as bookends to this Gospel. While they certainly were not intended to do so, I think they speak eloquently and powerfully to the situation so many believers and nonbelievers find themselves in today.

John's Gospel opens with the beautiful Prologue that is so familiar to our ears: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." We are then introduced to John the Baptist, the figure who is sent by God to testify to the Light who has been sent to pierce the darkness of the world.  As Jesus passes John and two of his disciples, he tells them that this Jesus is the Lamb of God. This must have caused enough of a commotion that it prompted Jesus to open his mouth for the first time in the Gospel, leading him to ask, "What are you looking for?" His first words are not an exhortation, they are not a commandment, they are simply a question. The two men whom Jesus addresses respond with their own question, "Where are you staying?" To this, Jesus offers a simple invitation, "Come and see."

Monday, August 02, 2010

Reason and Faith

The New York Times has recently begun a forum called The Stone to feature the writings of contemporary philosophers. As one who is preparing to teach a senior-level course in philosophy, I've been keeping an eye on these columns in the hope that they'll furnish a few "read and comment" opportunities for my students. In general, these are well-written, smart, and interesting pieces that try to make complex philosophical thought intelligible to a larger, non-specialized, audience.

This week's contribution comes from Professor Gary Gutting who teaches philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. It's an interesting piece, and I suggest that you read it in full. His piece, and the numerous comments it has given rise to, has encouraged me to reflect for a few moments on the relationship between philosophy and faith.

I, with Professor Gutting, reject immediately any recourse to the line "it's a matter of faith." This is a cowardly response, generally a cipher for "I'm too lazy to think critically and rigorously." I look at philosophy as a way of thinking, a method (from the Greek methodus or "pathway"). I rather enjoy dissecting arguments to see if and how they hang together. I  find it exhilarating to read about new ideas that challenge my thinking and force me to re-examine my own beliefs. New thoughts do not threaten my faith; rather, they challenge and, through struggle and refinement, embolden it.

Note from Nadal

Every now and again, I hear from people that the "Society of Jesus has lost its way." They decry the focus on a "Faith that does Justice" and they offer embittered wishes that the Society would go back to its old ways, the ways of the good old days...whatever those were.

Perhaps it is true that in the 1940's and 1950's, the nostalgic "Golden Era" of American Catholicism that there was a marked lack of focus on justice (although, if you read the incisive work of Father Mark Massa, SJ you'll realize that things weren't so Golden after all). It has long been be my contention that this was anomalous in the history of the Society of Jesus and that the original impulse of the Society of Jesus addressed the needs both of the soul and the body (Ignatius did, after all, found a house for prostitutes and begged money for to feed the hungry).

Last night, Father Walter Farrell of the Detroit Province delivered a profound homily on the originating impulse behind the founding of the Society. As he recounted the story, after Saint Ignatius composed the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus he entrusted the task of promulgating and explicating them to the various Jesuit communities to Jeronimo Nadal.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Fill In the Blank

Yesterday, I encouraged a renewed sense of charity by citing Saint Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises. I'd like to take my own advice and "help a brother out" this morning.

My brother in the Lord over at Good Jesuit, Bad Jesuit - Joseph Fromm - sometimes forgets to include the entirety of a quote he puts up on his blog. Quoting from another, Fromm quotes an exchange between the original author of the story and the venerable Father Hardon, SJ:

When my high school friend (not I) expressed an interest in the priesthood, Father Hardon offered advice: "I wish that I could recommend you apply to the Society of Jesus," he said in his careful way. "I love the order, and wish it could be saved. But I cannot in good conscience send any young man into its seminaries."

This quote has elicited several comments to the effect that many Jesuits cannot/will not encourage vocations because it will endanger the faith of young men (while these Jesuits, who so fear for the souls of others, remain at their own grave peril in an apparently toxic spiritual environment?).

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola

It's amazing that, in a few weeks, I'll celebrate my sixth anniversary (8/13/04) of entering the Society of Jesus. I remember thinking, six years ago, that the eleven-year formation process was terribly long. Priesthood, then, seemed a far off and distant goal. Now that I'm over the half-way point in my formation, this goal is coming into clearer focus.

I think these are hard days to be a Catholic or to be a part of the clergy. Moral is low, anxiety is high, and there is a pervasive air of suspicion that taints the way Catholics see other Catholics, Catholics view others from varying traditions, and the way others perceive Catholics.

Karl Rahner once wrote on the Ignatian Mysticism of Joy in the World. As I remember it, the key insight is that Ignatius understood Creation to be an ongoing story of becoming, of God's activity in the world as Creator. When Hopkins writes that "The world is charged with the grandeur of God," he means exactly this: the world sings forth God's creative activity, a divine light shines forth from the goodness of the created order and guides into the very heart of God's reality. The "God in all things" is not an idle, boring deity. Rather, God is working, straining (Recall Romans 8!), and groaning in creation and we are, each of us, invited to participate in it. Hence the reason for joy: each of us has been and is invited to throw ourselves headlong and recklessly into the event of creation.

To be sure, people do this in varying ways and to greater and lesser degrees of success. Thus, it might pay us dividends to recall the counsel of Saint Ignatius, on this his feast day, to those preparing to give the Spiritual Exercises: should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor's statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved. [22]
I write this and feel the pang of conscience: I fail at this a lot. There are some people I find it enormously difficult, if not almost impossible, to give a charitable ear. This being said, I don't think Ignatius wanted milquetoast thinkers: if a person is dead wrong, it is an act of charity to offer correction. Still, the style by which such correction is offered can embody greater and lesser degrees of the charity that Ignatius hearkens us to recall.

I wish everyone a blessed Saint Ignatius Day. Be assured of my prayers and I ask for prayers for the mission and men of the Society of Jesus.

+ + + +


Friday, July 30, 2010

Can I Practice Yoga if I am a Catholic?

I stop by my old friend Joseph Fromm's blog - Good Jesuit, Bad Jesuit - from time to time to see what new nugget he has mined from the Internet. On my latest foray into the thicket, I came upon this little gem:

Father John Hardon, S.J. On the Incompatibility of Yoga and Hinduism with Catholicism

Joseph has taken this post from the website of Patrick Madrid. I have no idea who Patrick Madrid is, but he does seem to have a nice blog and I appreciate his focus on the topic of atheism and its proponents.

That Mr. Fromm finds this an important nugget is not surprising. In an exchange with Joseph several years ago, he decried my practice of Yoga. Now, citing the backing of Father Hardon - a Jesuit of my own Detroit Province - he surely sees this as a ratification of his own position concerning the incompatibility of Yoga practice with the Catholic Faith.

Scripture Study

Students frequently ask me why it is that we have to study the Scriptures. They seem to think that the Bible is very clear in its meaning and that if they just put in the time reading it (the first hurdle for most students!), they'd arrive at a very clear understanding of the text.

This sort of naive approach, while dismaying, is not uncommon. The Bible is seldom clear and reading and interpreting it requires a certain sophistication, a certain set of tools, to give one a fighting chance of staving off deranged interpretations. One such tool, of which I wrote earlier this year, is the distinction I make between "literal" and "literalist" interpretations of Scripture. On this account, I hold that Catholics do take the Bible literally. By literal I mean exactly what the Catechism of the Catholic Church means: "The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation..."(CCC, 116). 

Thursday, July 29, 2010


While enjoying my coffee this morning, I came upon this fascinating story at America Magazine's Blog. It appears that Geoffrey Berg, a British fellow with a Master's degree in philosophy, has challenged Pope Benedict XVI to a debate on the existence of God during the Holy Father's visit to Great Britain. His challenge comes in the form of an open letter that he has published on his website and, if nothing else, does provide for some humorous reading.

I have a passing familiarity with Berg's little book The Six Ways of Atheism. Last Fall, I spent several days discussing the topic of religious belief with my senior philosophy students. Berg is kind enough to post adumbrated forms of his arguments for the non-existence of God on his website, so I printed them off and presented them to my students as an opportunity for them to 'think through' the question of God's existence.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't have to do very much prodding for my students to pierce Berg's sophistry.

Take, for instance, the first of six arguments he articulates:

Argument 1: The Aggregate of Qualities Argument

1. If God exists, God must necessarily possess all of several remarkable qualities (including supreme goodness, omnipotence, immortality, omniscience, ultimate creator, purpose giver).
2. Every one of these qualities may not exist in any one entity and if any such quality does exist it exists in few entities or in some cases (e.g. omnipotence, ultimate creator) in at most one entity.
3. Therefore it is highly unlikely any entity would possess even one of these qualities.
4. There is an infinitesimal chance that any one entity (given the almost infinite number of entities in the Universe) might possess the combination of even some two of these qualities, let alone all of them.
5. In statistical analysis a merely hypothetical infinitesimal chance can in effect be treated as the no chance to which it approximates so very closely.
6. Therefore as there is statistically such an infinitesimal chance of any entity possessing, as God would have to do, all God’s essential qualities in combination it can be said for all practical and statistical purposes that God just does not exist.
 Point #1 isn't really problematic. But the argument sputters out at Point #2. Look at what I put in bold typeface: "Every one of these qualities may not exist in any one entity." If you look at my post from Monday, you'll see why this is a problem. Berg, it appears, assumes that God is some very large thing, some being or entity in the universe that has these attributes. Now if we believed that God lived in a condo on a sacred mountain, I could see Berg's point. But God's not a thing. God's not a being. God is the reason that there are things, or beings, at all.

If creation is an ongoing drama, God's not one more actor on the stage. Rather, God is the reason that there is a stage at all.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Devil's Desire (The Genealogy of Desire)

On the flight home from Amsterdam, I was able to enjoy several in-flight movies. The first movie I selected was the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada. I’d seen parts of the movie before but hadn’t watched it in its entirety, so I figured this was as good a time as any to watch it.

The plot of the movie is simple: An idealistic woman comes to New York hoping to find a job as a journalist. She gets a job at Runway, a prestigious fashion magazine, working as the assistant to Miranda Priestly. Andrea, played by Anne Hathaway, is slowly seduced by the riches and honors of the world she once detested: the former “free spirit” becomes, literally and figuratively, a slave to fashion.

One scene that struck me, in light of my recent immersion in the thought of René Girard, occurs during a run-through of clothing that is to be featured in an upcoming issue. One of the designers holds up two seemingly identical belts – both of an identical bluish hue with slightly different buckles – and proclaims that choosing between the two is difficult because they are “so different.” When Andrea snorts in unbelief at this dilemma, Miranda (brilliantly played by Meryl Streep) launches into arguably the best summary of the thought of René Girard I have ever heard:

This...stuff? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

It is the profound insight of René Girard that “we desire according to the desire of another.” Think about this by way of an example: if you set out an array of toys before two children and allow one child to choose, what are the odds that of all those toys that the first will choose the very toy that the second child wanted? Even if the stuffed animals, for instance, were identical, there is a strong probability that “THAT’S the one I wanted.” This insight is one well understood by marketing executives who peddle goods using celebrities. If Sarah Jessica Parker wants it, so do I.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

You Run Into the Strangest People

It's amazing who you'll run into when in Amsterdam!
If they hand't given me a sissy bike with a basket, I probably would have won.

I think I was just ordained a bishop...
Sarah Gorman and I served as the Irish-American delegation.

What God Does

It's hard to believe that my time in the Netherlands has come to a close. I count the last two weeks as a profoundly grace-filled time of learning and questioning with some of the great expositors of the thought of Rene Girard. At some point in the future, I'll try to say something more of the "mimetic insight" Girard so powerfully - and controversially - articulates. Let it be said that, while I might not mention it explicitly, you can be assured that many of the concepts we thought-through these last two weeks will be percolating in my mind and will, no doubt, surface in these posts.

Commenting on an earlier post, someone wrote:

God, as the author of all that exists, is how I myself understand God. But where I have difficulty, a fact that became apparent during a conversation with an atheist, is simply, if God is not concerned with the "how', what then does God do in the real world? If God does not meddle with physical constants, the continuity of cause and effect, putting it rather bluntly, why would we even pray? I pray for grace, for myself and others. But beyond that, in terms of God's involvement with the concrete, I could not say what God does with any conviction, and so had no clear answer for my acquaintance. Any comments would be very welcome.
This, I think, is an integral question in the debate between atheists and theists: What is God's Job? What is it that God is supposed to do?

The poster quoted above has, to my mind, the right intuition: God is the author of all that exists. Think about this for just a moment. As you stare out into the heavens, probe the deepest recesses of the sea, the belief of the theist is that God makes this entire universe to exist, makes it to be at all. As I am fond of saying to my students, I cannot make a glass of vodka to be (so I'm out of the running for the job of God). God, on the other hand, is responsible for making the whole bloody thing to exist. That's a tall order to fill, in my mind.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Away for Two Weeks

I'm leaving tomorrow for the Netherlands. I don't know if I'll have much time to blog while I am away, but please be assured of my prayers while I'm gone!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A Brief Pause in the Action

After arguably the best retreat I've had since I made the Spiritual Exercises (January '05), I am now back in Detroit. These are, to be sure, very busy days: I have a lot of odds-and-ends to take care of before I leave for the Netherlands next Saturday.

I have been meaning to share with my readers a little suggestion on some summer reading. Over the past few months, I have been very much taken with the writings of Josef Pieper, especially three lovely texts: Guide to Thomas Aquinas, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, and The Silence of St. Thomas. Just a few little nuggets I thought worthwhile to share:

But of course [this] listening is not concerned solely with grasping the substance. It is also directed fully at the interlocutor as a person; it draws its vitality from respect for the other's dignity, and even gratitude toward him - gratitude for the increase in knowledge which is derived even from error. "We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it."
  The plain text conveys the voice of Pieper. He writes clearly and elegantly using prose that is readily digestible and often arresting in its beauty. The boldfaced type is a quote drawn from Saint Thomas Aquinas (in his Commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics). How timely to hear this again when some of our nation's best-selling books bear titles such as Arguing with Idiots, If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans, and Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. I could go on, but you get the picture. I think it's funny that Pieper's command of Thomas Aquinas enables him to grasp a single, incisive observation from the Angelic Doctor and deploy it in a way that helps us to realize that the ceaseless march of progress in technology may be masquerading a corruption of charity. Maybe it's high time we recover a bit of the charity of Saint Thomas!

Perhaps you might consider this quote: "One does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one's work." Taken from Max Weber, most of us recoil at the suggestion that we live only for our work. Yet, is that not the case these days? Traditional liberal arts colleges are hacking away at core courses so that students can focus more and more on pre-professional courses; high schools have begun to consider if they mightn't offer more 'practical' courses of study. In short, it appears that the expectation is that our education must do something, rather than contribute to our humanity. The message sent to students is clear: you are what you do, you are worth only what you earn. I can't help but note the irony that I observe on Independence Day that a growing consensus in education is that you are truly free only to the extent that you make yourself a cog in a corporate wheel.

Pieper observes that we have become ensnared by the artes serviles - that we accomplish something through our action, through our hard work. This is not to say that we do not need action or that we do not need to accomplish things. Surely, we do! Yet when our accomplishments are the sole measure of our humanity, when we have been reduced to being functionaries of a larger corporate apparatus, we lose something of our humanity. Hence Pieper's call for a reclamation of the artes liberales, the liberal arts, as offering humans an opportunity to take a wider look at the world. The "liberal arts" enable humans to contemplate and reflect, to stand in wonder at creation, and gives them the space to be still.

Having just returned from retreat, after a very busy year teaching, this insight echoes in my heart. It was so refreshing to have eight days to rest, pray, read, walk, and just be one with God. I could look back upon the entirety of the year and make a personal assessment of it; I didn't have to measure it against metrics or in terms of job performance. I could ask, "was this year satisfying, nourishing, exciting?" In other words, the leisure of my retreat - truly a vacation with God - gave me the chance to ask what the year had meant rather than what the year had produced.

I should think that this is not "ivory tower" nonsense. Each one of us can, with some effort, shut off the computer and silence the cell phone and take a little bit of time for reflection. Perhaps a nice walk without the Bluetooth attached. Maybe coffee with a friend where you just chat. An evening spent with a loved where you watch a movie or see a performance and then discuss what it meant. Even a family activity can turn into an opportunity for leisure, for the rest that makes us truly human, if we explore the meaning of an activity together.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Strangers and Sons

While I was away with the students on retreat this week, I had some time to pray with the parable of of the Prodigal Son. I have always loved this parable, a love that grew only deeper after reading the brilliant work by Henri Nouwen entitled The Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. Nouwen's meditation takes as its focal point the arresting portrait rendered by Rembrandt of this poignant scriptural scene: the son throwing himself at the father's feet, the loving embrace of the father, the cold abyss that separates the older brother from the scene.

As I prayed this week, I thought back upon this portrait and the parable and saw a new theme emerging for me: Strangers and Sons. If you think upon it, both sons are strangers to the father: the younger son demands his inheritance, effectively telling the father that he wishes he were dead, and then leaves for "a distant country." What the son does there is not important, I reckon, either to us or to the father. The young man has made every effort to "un-son" himself and has, for all intents and purposes, made himself a stranger to the father.

A severe famine provokes a moment of great soul-searching. The young man looks upon his life and realizes that the swine he tends are eating better than he is. A stir in his heart reminds him of the love and graciousness of his father, a love he knows he has spurned and rejected, a love he cannot imagine reclaiming. Nevertheless, the estranged son resolves to return to the father and offer his services as a servant. No longer a son, no longer kin, the young man decides to approach his father not as a son, but as a supplicant for a job.

You know how the story goes from here: the father's eyes, perhaps weary from scanning the horizon each day for his lost son, alight upon a figure moving toward the family's estate. The eyes of love recognize the son and, with a hear seized with new joy, the father runs to the son and embraces him. Enveloped by the arms of loving hospitality, the young man cannot get a word in edgewise: the sins of the past, the terrible effrontery, the wasted money...these count for nothing when compared to the restoration of the son. The son "who was dead has begun to live" and this calls for a great feast, for a tremendous celebration.

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I often feel for the older brother. He's done everything right, he's done everything that has ever been asked of him, and he's never been given even a young goat, let alone the fatted calf, to share with his friends. His years of loyal service seem chronically ignored. He feels entitled to his indignation, because on the face of it he is the good son, the one who does what good sons are supposed to do!

The irony of the story is that the true stranger in the parable is the older son. Despite having lived his entire life in the father's house, he is the one most distant from the father, for he has never allowed his heart to be touched and transformed by the father's boundless love. Physical proximity to the father betrays an infinite gulf between their hearts. The older son operates on an economy of merit, whereby you "get what you deserve." The father operates on an economy of love, a system organized not by merit but by grace.

An economy of grace is set not by external indicators such as supply/demand but, rather, by the generosity of the father. The father's choice to love is what is key to the story. Try as he might to make himself a stranger, to un-son himself, the father's love makes this an impossibility: the father's love has left an indelible mark on the son's heart and imagination, one that aches in a distant land and prompts him to make the long journey home. The central and main agent in the story is the father, whose love extends to both of his sons. Yet both are strangers to this love. One recalls it longingly in a distant land, the other continues to be estranged from it and ignores it despite his proximity to it.

Father's Day is a good time to think back upon the anchoring love of the Father in this parable. Too often, I fear, we "good" Christians can forget that even if we dwell close to the Father, we must not let our physical closeness get in the way of keeping our hearts and imaginations close to the Father. This parable reminds us that the key signature of the melody of God's Kingdom is unremitting, wholly undeserved, freely given love. We must always remain attuned to this key and work very hard to stay in tune, lest we mistake our "being in the band" for actually performing in concert with the rest of the symphony.

I share this because it is something I continue to struggle with: a sense of superiority or being better than others for doing "what is right" or living a better life. I have to keep reminding myself that God's love is not something I earn but that I have to accept - as all of us do - in order to really call myself a Son. God makes me, as God makes all of his, children. We cannot, even with our best and most sinful efforts, change that. We can only relax into it, accepting it, and rejoice in being brought into the Father's house. Bearing this in mind and on our hearts, we can always be ready to welcome our sisters and brothers home with the joy known only for those who were "dead but are now alive."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Over the next two weeks, I'll be spending a significant amount of my time away in retreat. This morning I'll be heading up to Canada with students on the Summer Kairos retreat. I will return on Friday, do laundry, get an oil change for my car, and then start to make my way to Faulkner, Maryland, for my own annual retreat.

After a crazy and grace-filled first year as a teacher, it'll be nice to be able to relax with the Lord...and give thanks.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame