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.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Wake of Classes

Except for a few items of paperwork, my first year of regency came to a close yesterday. It's really hard for me to believe that it's over: I remember the first day of classes, homecoming, and the unquenchable thirst I had for the sweet waters of Christmas break as though they were yesterday.

Looking back on the year, I can say that it has been the most protracted experience of grace I've ever experienced. A wise Jesuit told me that, while my job was to teach high school, my mission in the service of the Society of Jesus and the Church was far more important: to learn how to love students even when they would seem to be unlovable. When he offered me this counsel, I sort of scoffed. "I've always liked working with kids," I thought, "so why would it be hard to love them?"

Boy, did I learn that lesson!

When you think about it, one of the major lacunae in the life of a religious is that we (typically) don't have children. I do not have a baby who is unable to sleep; a son stressed over grades; a daughter burdened with not being the prettiest/smartest/coolest girl in her class. I have my niece and nephew, to be sure, but I don't have my own kids. How, then, as a priest could I be expected to have any insight into the mind or heart of a teenager save only for my own experiences of once having been a teen?

Hence the genius of the Jesuit formation: while I don't have a son or a daughter, I was given (since my youngest sister is still in high school), over 200 little brothers to teach this year. 200 different personalities, each with his own history, issues, fears, hopes, and challenges. 200+ opportunities to come to know and, yes, to love and care about students...even when they were unlovable (like when you're begging a kid to turn in his homework assignments so that you don't have to fail him, or telling a student to stop licking a desk, or to wake up, or to turn around and stop talking....again). I might never have to pick my son up out of a crib or wake up to a 3:00 "Daddy, I'm sick" cry, but I have had my fair share of kids puking in class, student who think they've invented farting and need to demonstrate their flatulent acumen to the world, cheaters, post-phys ed sweaty stinky guys, and everything in between.

Parents deal with infants they can pick up and cuddle. I often deal with toddlers in Titans' bodies whom I must cajole, threaten, humor, and care for each day.

I feel a great sense of excitement as I look toward next year. The Student Senate has tremendous promise and I think we're going to do some spectacular things for the school and for the city of Detroit. As a teacher, I have made an infinite number of mistakes that I'll correct for next year...surely to discover yet another infinite series of mistakes to make. But I am joyful and grateful this day, in the wake of my first year, and filled with hope for the future. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to my students and to the entire school community and I can only wish them a happy and blessed summer.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Catholic Glee

There is a quote - attributed to James Joyce but whose citation I simply cannot find in any text - that "Catholic means 'here comes everybody.'" Whether Joyce said it this clearly or if it is sort of a hybrid phrase (the words "here comes everybody" occur several time in Joyce's Finnegan's Wake) matters little: it is an apt phrase capturing well the plurality of voices that combine to give "Glory to God in the Highest" through the celebration of the Eucharist.

To my mind, one of the better instances of a "Catholic" show is FOX's Glee. Set in Ohio, it is the story of "New Directions," a high school glee club. This may strike some as strange: back in December, TIME magazine writer Nancy Gibbs penned a nice piece entitled "The Gospel of Glee: Is it Anti-Christian". Her article was written in response to a Christian youth minister who thought the show was, indeed, anti-Christian. Gibbs writes:

It is easy to see his point, if you look at the specifics. In his view, Glee portrays Christians as phonies and hypocrites. He observed that the only self-identified Christian is the shiny blond Quinn, cheerleading president of the celibacy club, who is pregnant by one classmate but pretending the father is another. (To make matters more complicated, in a heartbreaking scene, she begs her parents' forgiveness; in righteous fury, they throw her out of the house.) Meanwhile, the glee-club director, Mr. Schuester, is unhappily married to a perky little spider, which makes the adultery subplot involving him look positively charitable. The students lie, they cheat, they steal, they lust, they lace the bake-sale cupcakes with pot in order to give the student body a severe case of the munchies. Nearly all the Ten Commandments get violated at one point or another, while the audience is invited to laugh at people's pain and folly and humiliation.
Gibbs rightly, to my mind, looks beyond the surface of the story and penetrates to the essence of the show: 
The point is not whether there is an embedded moral message to be found beneath all the snark and snideness in this show or any other. The point lies in the surprises that jostle us out of our smug little certainties and invite us to weigh what we value, whatever our faith tradition.
Now, I'm going to make a bold statement, one that will need some nuance: the Catholic Church, like the glee club, is made up of losers. Just consider the makeup of "New Directions." You have the preppy cheerleader, the knocked-up former president of the celibacy club, the gay kid, the stud quarterback, the super-talented yet totally fragile diva,  the emo chick, the preppy cheerleaders, the renegade, the  nerdy kid in the wheelchair, and the effervescently chunky black girl. It is a group unlikely to band together except in...well, a band. While some wear the Scarlet L of the Loser more openly than others, each one knows something of what it is to be an outcast, to be unwanted, but finds a home with others who are touched by the same experience. 

In this, Catholics have much in common with the members "New Directions." To begin with, we - as all Christians - profess that an itinerant Jewish preacher who was crucified for seditious behavior 2,000 years ago was actually the Son of God, the Word made flesh, that the Creator of the Universe was and is his Abba, his daddy. Without the eyes of faith, we appear to be complete losers, backing a horse that barely got out of the gate. Yet, with the eyes of faith, we profess that scandal of Jesus' execution on the cross was not the end but a comma in the narrative of salvation; that, three days later, the Risen Christ appeared with a message of peace and transforms the hearts and minds of his followers, showing us that he spoke truly of God. It is only with "insiders eyes" that we can appreciate the music of salvation, the melody drawing its listeners in and enabling them to sing of their delivery from sin and death. In other words, it is only by knowing that we are big Losers that we can be a part of the performance of Salvation.

Each week in Glee, the cast of characters has to sort out some issue, confront some obstacle, that would ostensibly scuttle their ability to sing together. Each brings her or his baggage to class and, over the course of an hour, that baggage is unpacked and its contents are taken up into the music making the performance highly distinctive and personal. They are not simply performing music but, rather, performing their lives to music. Hence the the sacramental nature of the show: it takes the elements of the characters' daily lives and transforms them into something more, into vibrant and exciting music. One sees the analogy with the Catholic celebration of the Eucharist: the humbles elements of our daily lives are brought to the altar and are transformed into living and vibrant Bread of Life, the heavenly bread that nourishes us and gives us strength for our journey.

The Doctrine of Original Sin - too often forgotten - reminds us that we will always struggle and that we will often fail. We are not perfect and even when we try our hardest, we will have to confront our own sinfulness and our limitations. Being realistic about our sin, about our being LOSERS, isn't cause for depression. It is what makes us able to gather around the table of the Lord and offer our broken stories to the true Director and give him the opportunity to mend our voices and blend them into a chorus singing "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord..." This is our Catholic Glee: that our fragile and limited voices are still called to contribute to the chorus of praise, that our lives and songs can be taken up into the Life and Song of the Blessed Trinity.
In an ecclesial environment that sometimes fixates on sin, perhaps we might focus for a while on our reason to be glee-ful. In knowing Jesus Christ, I know myself to be a total loser who is still invited to be a part of the band, still invited to lend my off-tune voice to the chorus. I find that when I sing with Him, though, that I suddenly find myself in key, performing the way I most desire to perform. When I look away and begin to compare myself to other singers or my mind wanders, my voice falters...and I turn my embarrassed eyes back to the great Director, apologize, and try again. And again. And again. Hence my glee: I've been invited to be a part of the song of creation, I have found a home, and I can give myself over totally to its performance. My history, my life, my struggles are transformed into the song of salvation that is written by the Father, performed by the Son, and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Recorded on the disc of history, I rejoice that this loser has so much to be joyful about.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame