Saturday, January 30, 2010

Literal or Literalist? Yes, Catholics DO take the Bible Literally!

Over the last few weeks, I've begun to notice a common refrain from my Hebrew Scripture and New Testament students. Very often, they will say things like, "Yeah, Mr. Duns, Catholics don't take the Bible literally." So, then, how do we take it?

You see, the trouble is that the students are not making a very important distinction (If they did this already, I'd be out of a job!). The distinction is between a literal and a literalist reading of Scripture. Allow me to put on my teacher hat and help to bring out the importance of this distinction.

Catholics associate a literalist approach to the Bible with fundamentalists. On this view, if the Bible says that the world was created in six days then it was created in 144 hours. If the Bible says that humans were present at the very beginning of Creation, then the entire fossil record that shows no presence of human life for millions of years must be false. One might summarize the literalist position by saying: "The Bible says it, I believe it, case closed."

It is, I fear, the literalist approach to the Scriptures that provides such rich ground for debates between science and religion, particularly in certain places where Bible-wielding Christians want evolution taught as "only a theory" and demand due attention to Creationist accounts of life on earth. Evolution, which posits a very long, slow process of ever-greater complexity in living organisms, surely did not take place over the course of six days. The literalist is thus forced to choose between science and religion and to advocate that religious faith be taught as science.

So I'm glad to report that the Catholic Church chooses a different path, one that does not have to pit science against religion. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, cites with approval the following passage from the First Vatican Council's Dei Filius:
Even if faith is superior to reason there can never be a true divergence between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith has also placed in the human spirit the light of reason. This God could not deny himself, nor could the truth ever contradict the truth.

Catholic tradition recognizes God as the ultimate source of all that exists. Our scientific investigations begin with wonder and our curiosity impels us to probe deeper into the rich fabric of creation in order to know it better. Whether we explore the intricacies of the cell or the unfathomable expanses of the cosmos, the truth of science does not threaten to contradict the truths of our revealed faith, because the the author of the Book of Nature and the author of Book of Scripture is, ultimately, the same. Hence the wonderful insight: truth does not contradict truth.

What, then, is the Catholic approach to the Scriptures? We take it literally! But literal must be distinguished from literalistic. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

"The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation..."(CCC, 116)
The literal interpretation will try to understand what it is that the author wishes to convey the wide assortment of ways used to communicate its message to its readers.

Typically, we are quite adept at making the distinction between literal and literalistic speech. If I said, "That was a brilliant sunset" you would not think that I had somehow tested the IQ of the sun; you would, rather, know that I thought there was an arresting beauty to a natural phenomena. Or if I say that it's raining cats and dogs, you are not seized with a fear that canines and felines are somehow dropping out of the heavens. We know how to recognize metaphors. We take them literally - for they are metaphors - and not as literalist statements of what is happening.

When we approach the Scriptures, we shouldn't be surprised to see that it contains very many different literary forms: letters, histories, hymns, laws, prophecies, parables, genealogies, prayers, etc..! Each of these is a different way of communicating a message. The Bible, Catholics acknowledge, is comprised of many different books each of which shares the Truth of God in a variety of ways.
It is in this way that Catholics do take the Bible literally! We recognize that the Scriptures teach us the truth of who God is and what God has been and is doing in our history. Just as we read a recipe differently from a love letter, or a prayer different from fiction, so must we learn how to read the Scriptures in a way faithful to the many ways it communicates the truth of our salvation.
The Scriptures, Catholics believe, developed over a period of nearly 2,000 years (~1850 BCE - 100 CE) and are the primordial site of our faith and tradition, an inspired and inspiring site where we are drawn more deeply into the drama of salvation history. To understand the Bible literally frees us to explore the truths of nature because the ultimate author of the Scriptures and the ultimate author of Nature are the same; thus it is that the truth of nature and the truth of faith are not enemies and can, rightly pursued, both give glory to their author and Creator!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Another Missive From the Front

I'm hoping to have some time this weekend to share some thoughts from the beginning of the semester. I've been really busy with classes and sporting events so it's been hard to find the time to write. Here, though, is the latest from Brother Boynton:

Every day we hear the common story of people who want us to hire them for translators, workers, or anything possible. Most of this large city is homeless, without work, and in grief. The tent cities everywhere are improving in some ways, and deteriorating in others. After driving through the city several times today I became aware of just how long the rebuilding process is going to take.

There are now many medical teams in town, and most of the wounds we see have at least been treated one time. Much of what we are now doing in the city is badly needed follow-up work. Wounds once treated are getting infected, and people are now starting to report the problems associated with living in their new conditions.

One of our doctors heard about a wounded girl, and another wounded father, mother, and son. All of them were about an hour and half outside the city and were in need of surgery. We took our truck to go out and transport them to the hospital were our surgeons were working. All this week I have often smiled at doctors who have told me to tell a person to keep a wound elevated and clean, or to take a medication three times a day with food. Of course none of this is possible to a person living on the street with no food. Today after arriving at the hospital I told the people to get out of the car and follow me to the registration area. The little boy did not follow me, and I thought he did not understand. After repeating myself in my clearest Creole, he still sat there looking at me. Of course he could not walk. I realized my mistake, walked over to him and carried him through a gate and down to an empty tent where he will spend the night waiting for surgery. In carrying him I saw every little child in my past who had captured my heart. I saw Darren, Dennis, Dean, Maria, David, Tommy, Mark and Amanda. I saw Lily, Michael, Edward, Thomas and Anna. I saw 14-year-old Jeffry Duck, Billy Q., Martin and Chris. What happened here almost two weeks ago was an Earthquake, not a Haiti shake, and that little boy was not just Wilenson, but every kid I have ever known.

Monday, January 25, 2010

From Haiti

Brother Jim's reflections for 24 Jan 2010

Today started out as any other day this week. We went to our site, found the wounded and set up camp. The usual wounds and the usual infections were there. NPR visited us so maybe you'll be able to hear about it on the radio. Three things stick out in my mind today, the cases of diarrhea, the orphan, and the transportation of patients.

Diarrhea is now starting to take over the camps. Many many mothers came in with their babies, and adults came in as well. We offered them water with sugar and salt. There was little else we could do. My guess is that soon the entire camps will be infected. We also saw a case of conjunctivitis, which as any school teacher can tell you spreads quickly. To this point my previous third world experience has shown me that a child can be playing one day, get diarrhea the next, and be dead the following day. As we were leaving the camp I noticed a number of children playing. What is in store for three days from now?

While we were seeing patients a taxi driver came up to us with a small boy. He told me that the boy's entire family was killed in the quake, and that he had latched onto him for the past week. The driver was nice, but had three children of his own and could no longer afford the small boy. I flagged down a couple from the Dominican Republic and convinced them to take him home for one month. From there I will try to put them in contact with the Jesuits in Santo Domingo to see where we can go from there.

Finally, our Neurosurgeon told us today that there are three of the worst wounded people in town who are at a clinic and needed to get to surgery. We had no way to transport them and did not know what to do. At that moment someone noticed a large flatbed truck with the front window broken out. When I asked who owned the truck I had to laugh... it belongs to Fe y Alegria, the school I work for. In essence, it was my truck! We drove to the clinic, found the patients and transported them. The will never walk again, but they will live.
Brother Jim Boynton, SJ

Saturday, January 23, 2010

More From Brother Boynton

“He descended into Hell”.... I have said these words every time I have prayed the Creed at Sunday mass, or the rosary. I have prayed these words often, but have never understood them until now. The smell of stale death is something that until now I have only experienced in roadkill in Northern Michigan roads. Usually a raccoon or a skunk, but never a person, and never many persons. In the past 6 years I have had the honor to serve on numerous medical brigades to the garbage dumps of Guatemala and Honduras, but nothing I have ever seen or done prepared me for the sights of the last few days. I am new to Haiti, and only arrived on November 1st to work in a school. To be honest I was nervous about that, but a school in Haiti now seems no more daunting than a classroom at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, or St. Ignatius Cleveland, where I taught history for years. What is daunting now is Haiti itself. “Haiti cherie”, or “dear Haiti”, as this country is called by those who love her, is suffering. The news may report that help is being sent from all over the world, but today we are 6 days past the quake, yet at our location we were the first foreign aid to arrive. Most is bottlenecked in the airport. The only other non-Haitians I saw today were reporters from Caritas, Germany. One left his team to help us secure transportation for the wounded and in the end for ourselves.

“He rose from the dead”... is another part of the Creed so often prayed. There is hope, there is a resurrection. Good is stronger than bad. Today the Haitians triaged themselves in an orderly fashion, the most wounded getting to see a doctor first, something that is difficult to attain in any American hospital on any given night. The amount of gratitude on part of the wounded, their families, and strangers is overwhelming. Today 4 times I flagged a car off the street to take vital cases to the nearest operation room. Gas is over $25 a gallon, if available, but each time strangers said yes. Our return transportation failed to arrive. Strangers loaded us into two trucks to drive us to the other side of town, regardless of curfew, and regardless of looters.

“To give and not to count the cost”.... is from the prayer of St. Ignatius, the founder of my religious order. Somehow through a strange course of events, I have found myself with a group of men who are living these words to their fullest. In spite of the difficulties, the struggle for organization, and lack of everything medical, the team I am with is making an incredible difference. After today’s work many will lose limbs, some may not walk, but others had the first chance at life in 6 days.
The motivations for each of us on this team is different. I am here because of my faith in Jesus Christ. If you share my faith, I would ask that you pray for the people of Haiti, and pray for the men I am with. Please make both a prayer of thanksgiving, for the people of Haiti are beautiful, and the team is as well.

Brother Jim Boynton, S.J.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Update from Brother Jim Boynton, S.J.

Reflection One:
The young boy who came into the ER with his father yesterday had
bandaged feet, head, and arm. Our only doctor on duty, at the largest
hospital in Haiti one week after the earthquake, asked me to remove
the bandages to see how he needed to proceed. I worked with a
Milwaukee fireman, and helped remove the bandages. The skin came off
with the bandage, and the smell was enough to make me dizzy. As I
lifted the leg for the fireman to remove more bandage, my fingers went
into the flesh like I was holding canned tuna fish. Other than
teaching about trench warfare during World War I, this was my first
experience with gangrene. I knew immediately that the leg would have
to be amputated, but I also wondered how the child was still alive.
The doctor explained to me that gangrene rots limbs of body, but that
it shuts off from the main torso. Basically, even with the poison,
the main body still survives. A sad part of this story was that had
he been in the USA this would be unheard of. Had he seen a doctor
three days earlier his future would include running. The saddest part
is that simply because he is Haitian his future is now greatly
limited, and not just by walking.

That young boy is a small reflection of Haiti today. Haiti has
Gangrene. Parts of this island are greatly infected, rotting, and
stinking. Parts that were they in North American society would not
exist. Yet, Haitians as a people are the main torso of the body that
wants to live and will live. That deep soul, creative imagination,
and brave approach to survival will keep these people wounded but
alive. Is there anything that I can do to make sure that other boys
will never lose their ability to run out of lack of care? Is there
anything that you can do? If so, lets work together as a world
community and make gangrene, both literally and figuratively, go away

Reflection Two:
If you have read the reflections on this blog throughout this past
week, you know that most places we have gone we were the first foreign
responders. We have been understaffed and constantly wondered why we
had yet to see other American doctors. Today, during the last hour of
our work I noticed a team of about 30 American medical personnel.
When I asked them what they were doing they told me they did not know.
They had been here in Haiti for the past week, but had been held in
the American embassy because of security threats. They had just been
allowed to leave the embassy an hour earlier. Who were these threats
that kept them locked up during perhaps the greatest medical need in
recent history. I doubt they were the numerous Haitians who have
given our team rides in their personal cars, or freely offered to
transport wounded to the hospital. Since that is unlikely, maybe it
was the young boy I mentioned above. I wonder what the administrator
who made the call to withhold American aid would give as an answer?

Brother Jim Boynton, S.J.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Jesuits Have the Most Essential Thing Whose Lack is Hampering All Relief Efforts: Water

Michael Barger, of San Francisco, sent me this link to an excellent story about the relief efforts going on in Haiti.

In his message to me, Michael writes:

I am writing to let you know about an article I have written on Team Rubicon's remarkable collaboration with Bro. Jim Boyton in Haiti. I am a former Jesuit from the California Province, and was deeply impressed by what Jake Wood and Bro. Boyton and the rest of the team are doing. I am working my Jesuit alum veteran contacts to get support for the effort. I quoted your blog in the article, and I hope you and the Detroit Province Jesuits will find it of interest and a support for the effort.

Please follow this link to his article entitled "Team Rubicon: Jesuit - US Marine Veteran Medical Response in Haiti." These are dire hours for so many of our sisters and brothers and I am very proud and deeply moved by the generosity shown by so many in such difficult circumstances. In the midst of such a difficult economic climate, I know that asking for support is difficult. Nevertheless, I ask at the least our hearts be opened to the sorrow that has been left in the aftermath of two earthquakes and that we lift up in prayer those who are enacting the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to the least and most needy of our sisters and brothers.

Friday, January 15, 2010

More from Haiti

Brother Jim Boynton, S.J., a former teacher here at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, sends this update from Haiti:

Things are now starting to be affected here... all of our gas, many groceries, money & banking, etc. come from Port au Prince. Tonight we will have canned corn for dinner. Anyone with money in the bank may not have lost it, but they have no access to it for the foreseeable future. At this point I will have no way to pay the teachers, and our Jesuit community has very little cash on hand, the only real currency now. The other thing is that people are now leaving Port au Prince in droves, and by the accounts, they are headed our way.

Today JRS sent a delegation to Port au Prince to survey the situation, but I almost hated to see them go. They have no place to stay, no plans other than to see what they can do, and their supplies (especially gas) will not last. If there is a second delegation bringing more aid I may go with that.

The good news is that the Jesuit who was unaccounted for has been found. A wall fell on him and he has a wounded head, broken limbs and bodily injuries, but he is alive and will get better. That is really good news for me because he runs the other Foi et Joie School.

If you are interested in supporting the relief effort through a monetary donation, please follow this link to the Detroit Province's website where they have a donation form that you can submit money that will be sent for relief services.

First Semester: Accomplished

I am frequently asked the following question: "So, how's teaching going?"

It's hard to offer a really good answer. Simply put, my response to teaching varies by the day: some days I think I'm actually doing a good job, some days I wonder how it is that I'm still walking, other days I praise God that the wheels remain on the proverbial bus.

I have sought for an image, a symbol, to offer people in the hopes that it might encapsulate the experiences of this first-year high school teacher. There have been many to choose from:

  • a refugee
  • a patient who is now cancer free but who had to have a limb amputated
  • Miguel Pro, who was executed while calling out "Viva Cristo Rey!"
  • For that matter, any martyr willing to die for a cause strongly held
  • A ring master at a circus of the absurd
The list, undoubtedly, could continue on for a long time.

Yet none of them really captures my true feelings. The wonder. The awe. The excitement. The at-times absurdity. The admixture of joy and terror at 1:59 on a Friday, knowing that only 45 minutes with my 8th-period stand between me and the weekend.

So this morning, I offer to you the symbol that stands for how I feel I've been doing as a teacher:

First aired on SNL in 1989, Toonces the Driving Cat was a figure referenced several times by a professor of mine back at Fordham (Kudos, Terry Klein). There's something cute, innocent, and harmless about this image; something totally incongruous with the picture: a cat driving a car! Despite the cuteness of the scene, things don't seem to end well for the passengers in a car driving by Toonces, the Driving Cat.

So here you have my symbol: a driving cat. I did the best I could and I hope that all of the students will walk away from the semester a little wiser, a little more knowledgeable, and not having sustained any long term injuries.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pat Robertson: This is why people become atheists!

As I've told my sophomores, "The best argument in general against God and in particular against Christianity is....Christians."

If I hear Robertson correctly, he is saying that due to apact with the devil sworn two-hundred years ago, God has wholly forsaken the Haitian people and allowed them to sink to the level of being the poorest country in the West. Furthermore, this God has decided to kick the Haitians while they are down: crushed by poverty and beset by political turmoil, God has unleashed an earthquake to help prompt a spiritual awakening. But, Robertson hopes, if they just turn away from this "pact" and have a "great turning to God" then everything, apparently, will be okay.

Here's the rub: this is not the Christian message. As I wrote earlier in the week, the message of Christianity is not that if we follow Jesus Christ that we will not suffer. Indeed, it seems to me that the message is that if we follow Jesus as he lived and love as he loved, we will be thrust upon the timbers of the cross! Christianity is not a talisman that wards off evil; it is, rather, a religion that recognizes the presence of evil but has the faith that evil is not stronger than good, that love will conquer hate, that life will overcome death.

The cross befell Jesus Christ, the one Christians believe who showed us how to be truly human. Jesus was crucified because humans have an allergy to love. Infected with sin, our reaction in the face of pure love is suspicion and satanic violence. Jesus' passion and death were not a punishment; they were, rather, the consequence of loving. The God of Life revealed by the Resurrection stands at a far remove from a punitive deity. The Risen Christ is not the Terminator, returned to slay his enemies. The God revealed by the Resurrection is the boundlessly effervescent and creative God, one who wills life and not death. If I am write in this, then it is not a stretch for me to make this claim: God is not to blame for this tragedy, for death and destruction are not the ways of God. Life is.

Nevertheless, there will be many who question, "Where was God yesterday?" Since I don't believe that God capriciously set off an earthquake with the intention of wide-spread disaster, let me ask me ask this: Where have we been? Where have we been as Haitians, our sisters and brothers, languished in crippling poverty? How is it that we could obsess over our 401k's while other human beings try desperately to survive? What have we done? What are we doing?

As a man of faith, I have no question of God's presence in this chaos. God is present in the relief workers, in the searchers, in those whose prayers have been lifted up in support of the dead and missing and injured and those who survivors who grieve. My question, my anger, and my shame is not at God. It is at myself. It is at myself and all those who have sat by and allowed this poverty to endure, who have empowered the exploitation of a people, who have enabled an infrastructure unable to withstand an earthquake. My rage is that 100,000+ lives had to be lost in order to spur me to think, to feel, to remember that the world does not revolve around me, that it does not center on the United States. My sorrow and rage compels me to ask again: Where were we?

Now that I think about it, Mr. Robertson may actually be right: the root of this tragedy is godlessness. But we are not to place this charge at the feet of the Haitian people. Instead, we ought to look to ourselves, to our nation, to our world and ask how we have enabled a situation to grow so dire and why we have done nothing to heal the situation.

At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, let me say this: if the God we invoke in the Pledge of Allegiance does not demand that our eyes peer beyond our borders, if this God does not ask us to think of others, if this God does not call for us to share our resources with those who have none...then I fear we invoke the aide of an idol. Such an idol serves to ratify our own laziness and indulgence, asking for nothing while permitting us to maintain the status quo. Ours is an idolatrous god if it condones our sitting comfortably and securely while entire nations are ground down underneath the wheels of sinful poverty and oppression.

I love my country and I am proud of our heritage. But I am given to wonder whether we've made our supposed belief in God little more than a divinely underwritten insurance policy rather than a relationship with the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe who calls each one of us to service. As a Christian, I have heard this invitation from the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and I have offered my life to the service of Christ's mission and the promotion of God's Kingdom. From where I sit today, in a city that is no stranger to sinful structures, I am forced to ask: what am I doing? Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.

My prayer today is for the godless. Not the godless of Haiti, because I don't believe that God did this as a punishment. I pray for the godless who have enabled this to happen, for those who have sat by idly when they knew of the terrible conditions that made possible the scope and severity of this disaster. It is for the godless of us who bow before false idols and self-righteously claim that the world's affairs are not our problem.

Ultimately, I cannot believe that God has forsaken his people. I think it more the case that we have forsaken God. Perhaps now must be the time of a-theism: the moment when we cast aside the false god Mr. Robertson preaches - the petty god who wantonly wrecks havoc and destruction on human beings - and we embrace the God of Jesus Christ. For the true God is Creator and Sustainer, the Holy One who wills that all have life and have it abundantly, the one who invites all to dwell as sister and brother in the Kingdom of God underneath the Light of the Lamb.

Friends and Vocations

I heard this morning from a college friend who informed me that a mutual acquaintance of ours had recently died. Well, I should say, the deceased was actually an acquaintance of mine was friends with my friend. I certainly knew him fairly well and was always happy to see him, but I would be hard pressed to call him a "friend" in any meaningful way. For my friend, on the other hand, the deceased was a true friend and confidant.

One thing my friend recounted to me was the number of people who have said, "Nothing will ever be the same." The cynic might hear this and say, "Of course it will. You will all grieve and move on and, pretty soon, everything will go back to normal."

I should like to think that the cynic is desperately wrong.

I do not think it an exaggeration to say that each death alters the very fabric of history. A person who has left his or her mark on many people has died and there is now a vacuum in many hearts and lives. Indeed, and far too often, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to think that a friendship affects solely "me and my friend." Yet this is far from the case! When one life is extinguished, those closest to that person are diminished as well, just as when a light is snuffed out, those objects closest to it are seen less clearly. The loss of a friend, of a loved one, in other words, contributes to the dimming of the entire world for all those who stood near enough to the person's light.

My friend who called me today will smile a bit heavier, will perhaps laugh a little slower. Never again with the knowing glances pass between him and the deceased, a sign of a joke to come, a tip that a prank is being played. Part of my friend has died as well and nothing I can do or say will ever retrieve that part of him. My friend loved and he has lost and what has been lost has left its mark on him forever.

This is the ache of loss, the trace of grief. It is not a passing whim or temporary malaise; it is, rather, an ineradicable feature of our lives. To be so foolish as to love another person, to give oneself to another and to make another welcome in your life, carries both the grace of friendship and the omnipresent threat of grief. To love is to risk loss, it is to cordon off a section of your heart that you cannot ever take back. When the beloved is gone, you may tidy up that room but you can never fill its vacancy. You may build an addition - many additions! - but you will never again fill the emptiness once occupied by another.

It seems to me that the risk of an authentic vocation is the risk taken in every act of friendship. When you have found your vocation, you will have committed your heart to the renovation demanded by the Beloved. A woman with a vocation to be a physician will be etched and shaped by Healing; a lawyer's vocation necessitates that the heart be carved by justice; a teacher's heart will be contoured by Wisdom. When we pledge ourselves to our vocations, we are entering into a relationship that will both challenge and nourish us. A vocation is not something we do, because it is someone we are. I am not one who plays Irish music: I am an Irish musician. One doesn't just do heart surgery; instead, one is a doctor. You get the point.

So what does it mean for me to say that "I am a Jesuit?" It means this: that in my encounter with Jesus Christ, I have offered my heart - sometimes grudgingly, sometimes freely - to be transformed and renovated into a disciple. I have dedicated myself to helping others to find the presence of God in all that they do and, in realizing this discovery, to claim more fully their own vocations. A surgeon need not believe in God in order to be a great physician. But for the physician who has come to see her vocation from God as being a surgeon will be motivated further by this calling. Through her craft of surgery/dance/music/law/teaching/ditch-digging, she will understand her vocation as contributing to the upbuilding of God's Kingdom on earth.

When we come to know and embrace our vocations the world is transformed. Our passion and energy illuminate those around us, helping them to discover just what it is that sets their heart on fire. When that light goes out, the world is a little bit darker on account of it. We mourn this loss and know that it cannot be replaced. But we are grateful for that light's illumination and we give thanks for the various facets of ourselves we discovered on account of its incandescence.

Friendship, like vocation, tells us a great deal about ourselves: where the heart lies and what and who it is that stirs our passion. Neither relationship leaves us unscathed and embracing either entails the risk of loss. Thus we must ask: are we not always better for having loved? Despite the aching pain the loss of a loved one leaves us with, are we not infinitely enriched for having offered our lives to another?

I mourn today the loss of a life that that taught so many others what it meant to love and to be loved. Years of passing will never fill the hole left by this loss, nor should we ever hope for it to be rubbled over. The wound of love is the painfully blessed reminder of our humanity and invisible threads that unite our hearts to one another. It is the wound of vocation, to have heard and responded wholly and generously to the request to have one's heart remodeled to accommodate another. For one with eyes to see, every vocation shines forth an aspect of God's Kingdom: the Wisdom of God, the Healing of God, the Justice of God, etc.. My vocation, as I have come to know it, is to help introduce or re-introduce others to the Word of God so that they might hear more clearly who it is that God wants them to be.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Detroit Entrepreneurs Opt to Look Up

I seldom post links to newspaper stories, but I liked that Detroit was featured in the New York Times. I checked out the website for the Burton Theater and I can tell you what I'm doing this Wednesday night: going to see a 9pm showing of "The House of the Devil." (The next morning, my students will take their final exam in theology which, I hope, they will not regard as "The Test of the Devil." Time, of course, will tell.)

Before I go to the film, perhaps I will go to Good Girls Go to PARIS Crepes. Who knew that you could find 20 different varieties of crepes? And in Detroit of all places!

I now have all but four of the seniors' final papers corrected; I need to go back over them and add some commentary, but I'm glad to be nearly finished with that round of correcting. I'll be glad tomorrow when I can drop off the exam bundles to the registrar: my bedroom floor is in a state of complete chaos, as demonstrated by the attached photo:

I really look forward to having my floor back so that I can FINALLY clean my room properly and organize my's only taken me four months to get around to it.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Religion, Observed

Written in the wake of his wife's death, it begins with the line "No one ever told me grief felt so like fear." Grief, for Lewis, isn't something that affects simply the emotions, nor is it a matter of the 'head and heart.' It is, rather, a whole-body affair, drawing the whole person into renegotiating the life after the loss of a loved one. It contains a raw exploration of the process of grief: one watches as a bereaved husband rages against the cosmos, cries out to the supposedly good good, and then collapses into the arms of his loving creator. It is not a how-to book about grief. Instead, it is the offer of a gift of companionship, made by one of the great Christians of the 20th century, to walk with someone through the process of grief and loss.

One little section that struck me:
Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.
As my first semester of teaching draws to a close, I think that the final sentence quoted above encapsulates the central message I have tried to impart to my students. More than likely, I have not been successful in my endeavor, but I should like to think that if I have accomplished anything, it is that for all the things that Christianity asks of us, being consoled is not one of them.

Flannery O'Connor's character The Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" makes the theologically incisive remark that "Jesus thrown everything off balance." A true encounter with Jesus cannot but leave a person with a new orientation, a new set of values. Jesus turns our world on its head and challenges us to imagine how things could be, how things ought to be. The Christian religion is not meant to feel good about yourself. It means, rather, to confront us with a vision of what God intends for the world, it invites us to embark upon contributing to this vision, but it promises that if we commit ourselves to this project that we will suffer.
Or, as Father Canfield once put it, "You can't be a friend of Jesus and an enemy of the cross."
Christianity is not, and must not, be Marx's 'opium of the people.' If Christianity does not ask you to do something, if it does not ask you to commit to something, if it does not ask you to move beyond yourself...then it's not Christianity. If Christianity does not demand that you take a long, honest look at the world and say, "Is this what God wills for creation?" then you're not taking Christianity seriously.
Christianity is not a consoling religion. It is, I would say, profoundly pessimistic. It confronts us with the fallenness and brokenness of the world. It calls us to enter into this chaos. It tells us that we will suffer and that, quite probably, we will be crushed underneath the weight of sin and oppression. It tells us that if we will probably die without seeing the full flourishing of our labors.
Christianity is eminently realistic: life is hard is, the world is broken, and if you have enough courage to re-imagine the world in accordance with the Kingdom of God as preached and lived by Jesus, you will be crushed.

So why bother?

Because of the Resurrection. Belief in the resurrection proclaims that death is not the final answer, that life will conquer death, and good will triumph over evil. Even if the seeds I sow with my blood and my life do not burst open in my lifetime, I can have confidence that they will bloom in God's time. The resurrection does not deny that pain and suffering and evil are erased or that they do not exist: the Risen Jesus still bears the marks of the nails and spear.

The deeper I enter into companionship with Jesus, the more I commit myself to the Kingdom, the more I am dis-eased. Christianity, far from consoling me, confounds me: am I really being called to enter into a broken and sinful world that will, more than likely, break me as it has broken so many before me? I cannot deny that this is my calling, that this is my burden, that this is my grace. No cheap grace is this. It requires everything one has and then calls for more. Body, mind, heart, soul....and one's life.

If I have communicated something of this, if I have shared that Christianity, that Catholicism, is not simply a system of doctrine but, rather, the living commitment of a human person to defy the wisdom of the world and embrace the dark grace of the cross...then I have been true to my vocation. If my students are more open, or willing, or inspired to step toward the crucifixion that is promised to each committed Christian, then I will rejoice. If I have dispelled from them the false notion that religion is meant to be consoling and that it offers us an infinite challenge, then I will know that I have invited them to partake in the adventure of living faith.

Perhaps, then, it is this that is consoling: having made God the center of one's life and committed oneself to the Kingdom preached by Jesus Christ, no matter what befalls you, you have the confidence and courage to live out your vocation. Consolation isn't a banalized 'feeling good' but, rather, having the confidence that one is supported and sustained by God's Spirit. Consolation is the light of the Resurrection, piercing the darkness of the cross that awaits each of us, inviting us to live our our callings courageously, joyfully, confidently, and faithfully.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Foiled Again!

I woke up this morning with the great and, ultimately, futile hope that we'd have a Snow Day. Now I'll get to face students who will undoubtedly whine that they had to come to school today and how the administration is totally unfair and blah blah blah. How do I tell them that I'm just as disappointed?!?!

Just a very quick anecdote:

Yesterday, my department chair came in to evaluate my teaching. As a tactical move, I alerted several students in my class that would be visited that I was going to be observed. The subtext to this was, "Please, for the love of God, don't do anything to make me look incompetent!"

When I told one student, he looked at me and deadpanned his response. "Don't worry Mr. Duns, I won't do anything to make you look bad." Relieved, I said, "Thank you." Sandwich in hand, he continued, "I mean, if I didn't like you, I'd throw you under the bus."

This response from a student - who'll become either a Jesuit or a very powerful attorney - struck me as absolutely hysterical. I have little doubt that, had he taken the notion, that he could well have "thrown me under the bus." I have been chuckling over his response since yesterday and I thought others might find it amusing, too.

Incidentally, I don't think I'd ever heard this phrase until I encountered it on Top Chef. There was one season - with Marcel, if I recall - that it was used rather frequently. Since then, I've noticed that it gets used fairly frequently. It's a great phrase and one I might like to use more often. But to hear it out of the mouth of a student....hysterical.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Happy New Year!

I just wanted to take a moment to wish everyone a very happy and blessed new year. We're entering the 7th year of blogging and I'm hoping to be more diligent about posting than I was last year. Now that I have a semester of teaching just about tucked under my belt, I'm hoping to have a little bit more time for other pursuits.

One area that I know I will be blogging about more often is the issue of vocation. Not only vocation to the religious life or to the priesthood but also vocation as applied to what each of us is being invited into as disciples. I fear that sometimes the word vocation is used in a very limited sense. I should like to reflect in this "Year of the Priest" more broadly on the theme of vocation and think through how each of us is being called.

Mor of that, though, later.

I have to give a special shot out to my uncle Jack Duns. Uncle Jack, Aunt Nancy, and my cousin Melissa Duns were over to the house on Christmas Eve and complained that I did not mention them frequently, if ever, on the blog. I have only now to wait for them to email me the picture we took last week and I'll include that, so they might be immortalized forever on the pages of this blog.

As our Christmas vacation ends at midnight on Sunday but, for me, it's totally over. I'll spend most of today writing two final exams and preparing study guides. Tomorrow I'll write a third exam and do preparation for the entire week. In addition to teaching this week, I'm going to be directing a retreat at Loyola House, the Jesuit novitiate in Berkley, Michigan, for men who are discerning their vocations.

So as we embark upon a new decade, please be assured of my prayers. I ask for your prayerful support, too. Further still, I ask your special prayers for the novices of the Detroit, Chicago, and Wisconsin provinces who will begin the 30-day Spiritual Exercises next week. Pray, too, that we all might come to know more clearly just what it is that God is inviting us into, that we might know and name our desires and respond to God's invitation freely and joyfully.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame