Wednesday, December 28, 2011

God's Invitation

Several months ago, Mr. Thomas Flowers, SJ, sent me a copy of his latest book entitled God's Invitation: Meditations on a Covenant Relationship. As we prepare to embark on the 2012 year, and as we prepare to make our annual resolutions to pray more, or to pray at all, allow me to suggest this text to you.

The text is structured around five of the "great covenants" God made with Israel throughout the Old Testament. Each of the five chapters is broken up into a mixture of poetry, scripture, and meditations wrought from personal experience and the scriptures. They are accessible, short, and provide an easy entry point into to praying with the Old Testament with the companionship of a fellow traveler.

Truth to tell, many of the experiences fall within the ambit of a Jesuit in formation. If you're reading my blog, this should not be a foreign experience: I am a Jesuit (is 32 young?) in formation and I share my experiences here, although without the poetic artistry demonstrated by Flowers. So know, going in, that the experiences definitely do find their well-spring in a particular nexus of experiences. Nevertheless, I find it refreshing to read, and pray with, a person whose experiences are similar to my own, whose spiritual journey has asked much of him, and whose weaving of scripture and poetry and prayer result in a rich tableau.

This is the sort of book one could commit to as the "in the top desk drawer" book that is used each day at lunchtime. You could read it on the train, in an off period, or sometime before bed. Flowers writes in lucid prose and his poetry is often touching. I commend this book to those interested in jump-starting their prayer lives this new year and hope others will come to know the God of covenantal love and fidelity.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Strangeness of the Christ

It is 2:45 am on Christmas morning and I find myself wide awake. Had I not gone to Confession yesterday, I might attribute this inability to sleep to a guilty conscience. I fell asleep around 10:45 and awoke around 2:00 am with something of a startled sensation. I awoke struck by the strangeness of Christ.

Think of some words we use to express our everyday sense of the strange: odd, weird, abnormal, queer, goofy, bizarre, aberrant, atypical, exceptional, peculiar, offbeat. These are not words normally used to describe Christ. Of course, there are things about Jesus that strike us as odd: it is not every day that we read of persons turning water into wine, raising the dead, consorting with prostitutes and tax collectors, or claiming to be the Son of the Author of Creation. Yet, for many of us Christians, we take all of this for granted and fail to let the absolute oddness of Christ seep into our bones. We domesticate Jesus, we subdue his holy wildness, and we make him tame.

What do I mean by making him tame? It means that we make Jesus our insurance policy, our "Get out of jail" card. We speak of Jesus' love for us, but we confine it to the ways in which this love makes us feel good about ourselves. Jesus' love makes us feel secure, sort of like how a small child peaks over and over again on Christmas night until she knows the presents have been placed under the tree: until the security of knowing the gifts are there, it is very difficult to rest. Security of the gifts, in this sense, makes possible a good night's sleep.

My belief about Jesus, put into its simplest form, is that he is God's Love made flesh, Love that is vulnerable, the Love whose effervescent presence emboldens women and men to risk being the persons they are called to be. I believe that Jesus Christ is the act of God's creation made present in human history. I believe that Jesus is the fruit of Mary's "Yes" to God's friendship, that Jesus is the result of humanity's "Yes" to God's "Yes" to humanity. I believe Jesus is simultaneously the Word and Deed of God written into human history. I believe that the sin of humanity reacted - and continues to react - violently to the presence of this Love in our midst and that we killed him. I believe, finally, that the Resurrection shows us the depths of God's love for us, shows us that God's way is one of restoration and life rather than vengeance and death. I believe that we are, as Christians, called to follow the path of the Risen Christ.

The way of the Crucified and Risen one is indeed bizarre. If Hollywood were to written the Gospel, I suspect that it would involve Jesus kicking down a door and slaying his enemies, rather than appearing amidst them bearing the message "Peace." The way of the Crucified One is so strange in a culture where the message is so often interpreted as Kill or Be Killed, Success at any Price, There's no Room for Second. The Way of the Crucified One is the way of the Loser who shows us that, in the economy of the Kingdom, it is not what one gains for himself but what one pours out for others that is a mark of true wealth.

I do not want to be a tame Christian, a domesticated disciple. I want the strangeness of Christ to continue to wrest me from my slumber, to make me feel convicted for failing to have done enough to help build the Kingdom on this earth. This night, my eyes turn East and I await the dawn of Christmas morning, the dawn of the Son's coming into this world. Lord, give me the grace to bear witness to this dawn each day, with each knock on the door, with each encounter in my life, and let me welcome you in each person I meet. Grant that I see those who approach me as a potential sister or brother rather than a suspicious "other." Give me eyes strong enough to see you in the face of stranger so that, at the end of my life, my own face will be one that is not strange to you.  Let me never lose the wonder that is born of your strangeness, your downright oddness, and please let me be counted as one of your Company.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Scar of Hope

As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.  
(Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, #48)
I went this morning to Cleveland's Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist to participate in the Sacrament of Confession. I went with Adam, another Jesuit, after we had eaten breakfast, stopped at the West Side Market for coffee, and then taken a walk. The cathedral, although dimly lit, was quite active with final preparations being made for the liturgies that will be held this evening and tomorrow.

As I waited in a surprisingly long line to take my turn in the confessional, I meditated on the power of the Incarnation, the Christian belief that the Word - the Word through whom all things came into being - assumed human flesh. The Incarnation is the belief that the Almighty Creator of all that is, was, and ever shall be actually cares enough about humans that He would cast His lot amongst us.

This is, indeed, hard to believe. Crushing cynicism and apathy seem wage against such a belief, against such hope. Yet this is Christian hope: that God loves us and is willing to enter our lives, to enter our human story, in order to show us how to allow God's story of creation to become our story. This is a story I believe and it is where I have placed my faith. This is the story I wish to share with a world where so many doubt whether anyone truly likes them, let alone loves them in a deep and abiding way.

In a special way, we are called upon to remember that God's love for humanity always flows outward, always expands toward others. God's love isn't something I deserve or merit and it is surely not something that I can horde. Quite to the contrary. As I come to dwell in the story of God's love for me, I have no choice but to share it with others. Having been touched and scarred by God's love, I can do nothing else but share that with others.

When we are etched with God's love, it leaves a trace on us that defines us as who we are. God's love leaves a wound, a sign of our vulnerability. In talking about the traces left on our bodies, I cannot help but think of the following scene from the movie Jaws:

Note how the scars lead deeper and deeper into the story that is most defining of Sam Quint. He doesn't just share his story outright; no, he moves toward it, obliquely, following the contours of his flesh. We move from outside toward the inside, from the surface to the depths, and in so doing we learn this man's story.

Where has hope left a scar in our hearts and on our bodies? Can we take a few moments and ask where we find the mark where we have experienced God's grace, a grace that leaves its mark upon us? Do we dare to share these marks with the world, showing and telling about our encounters with the Holy One whose Risen Body bears the scars of his earthly life?

Please know that you will be in my prayers this Christmas season. It is hard to believe that this is my last Christmas as a regent and that, God willing, I'll soon move on to theology studies. It has been an honor and a joy to share another year of this Jesuit's Journey with you and I look forward to sharing future exploits in the years to come.

May the Hope of Christmas leave an abiding mark on your heart!

Friday, December 23, 2011

May We Ever Forget?

There are certain lessons in life that I hope never to forget. Stove tops are very hot. The word "safety razor" does not mean that you can't slice open your finger if you run it across the blades to test how safe it is. The words "Tear Free" on the bottle of baby shampoo does not mean that you can apply a drop of the liquid directly to your eye without some pain.

Human society has lessons we must never forget. We must not forget the terrible toll hatred and intolerance can take upon our sisters and brothers. We must not forget how easy it is to turn a people into a number and then systematically slaughter them. We must not forget that human dignity extends to all people - regardless of race, sex, color, creed, orientation, and economic status - and that all persons must be treated with respect.

Yet, are there things that we ought to forget or, at the least, be allowed to forget?

  • That time you had too much to drink and told those gathered what you felt about so-and-so.
  • That time you made a fool of yourself at Karaoke.
  • That time you sent a text that you failed to read carefully...realizing, only too late, that sometimes Auto-correct does the strangest things...
  • That time you had a spectacular wipe-out as you attempted to slide into home plate.
  • That time you professed your eternal and undying love to someone, only to be totally rejected.
  • That time you ___________________(insert here)
Last night, I heard someone in a restaurant say, "Be careful! That might end up on Facebook." This got me to thinking: there really is no such thing as social amnesia any longer. Anything we do can be frozen and put on Facebook; anything we perform can be videotaped and put on YouTube. The mundane moments of our lives can easily be enshrined forever on servers and networks, downloaded by whoever, whenever, and for whatever reason. 

As Facebook rolls out the new Timeline feature, it strikes me that there is no longer any "social forgetting," no chance for the past to be the past, for bygones to be bygones, for things to stay buried. We now have a collective, computerized conscience who stores all, recalls all, and remembers all...even when, or especially when, we'd like for it to be forgotten. 

New technology will continue to call for greater reflection and discernment. In a world where people can use a phone to dial grandma or take a video, we need to begin a frank discussion on how these technologies are to be incorporated in a healthy way into our lives. I am all for the use of technology, but I'm afraid that if we continue to embrace new technological advances without due discernment, we risk walking into our future carrying not only the lessons we have learned from experience, but also the servers on which those lessons are stored. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Refinement of Taste

"What happens to the guest who visits the house of a great musician," asks Hafiz of Shiraz, a fourteenth-century poet who wrote in Persia. "Of course, his tastes become refined."

I stumbled upon the above quote in Richard Kearney's excellent work Anatheism. The author's intent is to assess the situation we find ourselves in as a community of believers, believers who cannot help but to take notice of the wreckage and debris left in the wake of violence and atrocities done in the name of 'god'. The once-glittering idols that condoned cultures of silence (sex abuse) or cultures of violence (crusades, Inquisition) have been shattered - both by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens but also by an acute sense of history. 

Kearney's project is to probe the wreckage to see whether the space made in the destruction of idols, in the rubble left by the 'death of god', is actually the space through which we may encounter the "God after god." Once the appearance of the Holy Other is dictated not on our own terms but on the terms of the Divine, once our self-confidence and self-assuredness are lanced by the irruption of the Holy One into our lives, once we have marked ourselves as hospitable to the one who approaches us as a Stranger, then, perhaps, will we come to know the God who arises arises from the graveyard of the gods. 

In these waning days of Advent, I am struck with the temptation to sign up for a course in wine-tasting. I enjoy drinking wine very much and I think that I would enjoy learning more about the varying varieties and vintages. It'd be nice, on my accounting, to find a way to apprentice myself to someone who could show me the ropes, who would show me how to refine my tastes and discern better what makes a wine good and what makes it great. 

Isn't this the point of Advent? Not that we, of course, learn to distinguish wines but, rather, that we learn how to discern? So many of us feel the desire for more, feel that even after the hours spent shopping and wrapping and cleaning and baking...there is still something left. We can decorate trees, cook the ham, and put out our finest crystal goblets, but if the guest we wish most to honor is not present, there is something incomplete. If people very often report something of a let-down on Christmas, I reckon it's because they failed to recognize the one they had truly been waiting for, the One who is, to be a bit cliche, the "reason for the season." 

It is my prayer, at least this year, that each of us has an experience of the Christ who comes after Christmas. In the sea of torn wrapping paper and half-eaten cookies and spilled red wine, I hope there is a moment when the heart's door feels a quiet knocking, an unexpected yet not unwanted interruption. The One you have been waiting for, the One who is so easily forgotten in the rush to Buy-Buy-Buy is there, and has been there, for a long time. Advent is not a season where He gets ready to visit you, as though He had to pack up the car and set out on a journey. Advent is for you, a time to prepare yourself, a time to exhaust yourself on the ten-thousand details that we are so good at obsessing over, while missing the one detail that is worth focusing on with our whole selves. 

Christmas is not about getting it right. It's about getting it open. It's about risking to open our hearts and our lives to the knocking that rouses us from our sleep, to the cry that summons us to get out of our bed and investigate its source. Christmas is about taking a risk to be called away from our security and to enter into the adventure of discipleship. Christmas is about being apprenticed, year after year, in the school of hope...a school where the lesson bears us inevitably to the terror and glory of the Cross. May this season be the one where we invite the Stranger into our midst, where we welcome the Alien into our families. The gift this strangest of Strangers bears is not a good bottle of tequila or new hand towels. He brings us hope, a gift and a grace so desperately needed these days. Let us have the courage to accept this gift and all that comes with it: Know Hope, Know Risk. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hope in the Face of Death?

Earlier, I coined the word Ennuim to describe the spiritual dimension of the Control-F Generation. Basically, it has been my observation that there is a pervasive weariness and cynicism within this generation of students that I find surprising. There seems to be a general lack of wonder and awe, accompanied by an apathy toward the future. So conditioned is this generation that they seek the security of the 'right' answer rather than risk failure with a novel or innovative approach to a question. They are, as a general rule, extraordinarily risk-averse: if they are not assured of success, then it is better not even to bother lest one fail.

Perhaps this might be illustrated cinematically. Below is a short clip from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I apologize for the commercial at the beginning, but please suffer through it to get to the clip.

Let me offer some brief commentary to set the stage for the unfamiliar. Theoden, King of Rohan, has sought refuge in the mountain fortress of the Hornburg at Helm's Deep. 10,000 of the evil wizard Saruman's forces lay siege to the fortress and quickly the defenses fail. As you will see in the clip, the human forces have retreated into the heart of the fortress and the foe is, quite literally, battering down the door.

The humans face odds stacked infinitely against them. Allow me to propose that the two main figures here - the King of Rohan and Aragorn - are separated not by skill with a weapon or even courage but, simply, by the presence of Hope. It is the hope Aragorn has in the promise made by Gandalf that inflames his courage; it is Hope that pierces the veil of darkness and serves to enkindle the hearts of those around him. It is his knowledge of Hope that enables him to take the risk you will see momentarily, the risk to face the enemy despite the near-certainty of annihilation.

It is undoubted that teaching in an all-boy environment influences my choice in film clips, but I hope you can see something of the distinction between the Ennuim and the Anawim.

The Ennuim, captured so well by the King of Rohan, proclaims that "it is over." Despite the efforts of those around him, he is without hope. Death and devastation, coupled with reckless hate, clouds his vision. Hope would seem a fool's fancy rather than the spark that could shift the tide of a battle. The King of Rohan is world-weary, overwhelmed by numbers and odds, statistics and human calculation. Why not simply accept fate rather than fighting against the "inevitable"?

The Anawim finds personification in Aragorn. "Ride out with me...ride out and meet them." With the rising of the sun, with the dark night's ceding to morning's light, Hope has not yet been vanquished in his heart. An old wizard's promise still echoes in his heart, yet the shape this promise will take is as yet unseen. Success seems impossible, defeat appears inevitable. Nevertheless, Hope penetrates and prompts action. Instead of accepting death, Aragorn is roused to rally those around him and meet the enemy head-on. He has no appreciable army, no power in numbers, no magic sword. He has only Hope and the courage to Risk.

My friends, the Ennuim are not a lost cause. Far from it! They need to be roused from the darkness, taken out from behind computer screens and drawn into action. Parents and teachers need to encourage them to take risks, to have courage, and to experience the thrill that is Hope.

Now, more than ever, is the Christian message salient. It is the belief of the Christian that our lives are meaningful, that it is not a meaning we have put onto this but, rather, a meaning that has been placed their by the Author of Creation. The Hope that is aroused by the Good News does not force us into self-constructed fortresses. Quite to the contrary, it sounds in the deep and gives us the strength to throw ourselves into the fray.

The Ennuim: No Hope, No Risk

Over the last several months, I have offered occasional reflections on what I coined as the "Control-F Generation." Today, I should like to reflect on what I see as the spirituality of the Control-F Generation.

Let me begin with the positive contrast. In the Hebrew Scriptures, we encounter the Anawim. The Anawim are the poor, the destitute; they are those who have neither land nor power nor riches by which to establish their place in the world. The paradox of the Anawim is that, throughout the Scriptures, God uses them to demonstrate His saving power.  Time and time again, God chooses the unlikeliest women and men and uses them to show forth the power and wonder of the Creator. Rather than give them magical powers to overcome their obstacles, He does something even more profound: he gives them Hope. The Anawim are willing to risk their lives and their futures on the promise of hope, on the trust that they put in the living God who has summoned them to be His people.

You could say that the slogan for the Biblical Anawim is, simply, "Know Hope, Know Risk." The gift of Hope pierces the darkness and spurs people on toward itself. Hope shakes at its foundations the self-enclosures we erect for ourselves, rattling us to move forward on our human pilgrimages. As Pope Benedict XVI writes in Spe Salvi
Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. (2)
The Anawim may not have the structural securities that so many of us take for granted - riches, honors, positions, etc. - but they have something much more powerful, the "great hope: 'I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me - I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good." (4) Because of this confidence in the power of Love, the Hope of the Anawim enables them to take great risks. They know risk because they know hope.

Compare this to the traits we see amidst the Control-F Generation. I should like, consequently, to dub the spiritual state of the Control-F Generation as the Ennuim. Taken from the word ennui "world weary," I believe the defining mark of the Ennuim to be encapsulated in the slogan "No Hope, No Risk."

What strikes me about many of the students I teach is that they have no hope. They look out at the world and see it as a bleak landscape. They experience themselves as being reduced to mere numbers - their GPA, their SAT/ACT scores, their class rank, the number of AP and Honors courses they take - and they feel constant pressure to test well, to score well, to look order to what? They feel pressure to go to a good college so they can get a good job so they can have nice stuff and send their kids to a good school so they can go to a good college and.....and what? Well, repeat the cycle.

If my description of the Control-F Generation is remotely apt, consider how they live their lives. They are totally wired to the internet, in constant communication with the world around them, and they expect to get answers immediately. Everything they could want to know is just a few clicks away. No longer must they work patiently at a problem or search diligently for an answer: they just have to Google it. No longer must they reflect on the meaning of a poem: countless web sites will give the 'correct' interpretation of the text's meaning. No longer must they risk hazarding a novel interpretation or innovative approach, lest they be marked 'wrong' or lose points. They can live within the safety and security of convention.

I shall shortly post another gloss on this topic (probably within the next hour) but I wanted to float this out onto the web to see if it gains any traction. It's a first stab, a beating about in the thicket, to see if we can't come to a better understanding of those to whom we minister and those in whom we must place our hope for the future. I don't know that I've added anything of substance to the conversation but, if Ennuim helps to acknowledge the spiritual dimension of this generation, then perhaps another small step has been made toward gaining greater understanding.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Walls Within the Web?

Several months ago, I coined a phrase to describe the generation of students I have been working with these past few years. I dubbed them the "Control-F Generation." The traits I associate with this generation could be described in several bullet points:

  • These are students who are highly literate in technology. While we are deciphering acronyms (App = application), they are coding new programs and editing elaborate videos that will be posted to YouTube.
  • These are students who have come through an educational system where a premium is placed on test scores. "Test Scores" refers not only to in-class performance, but also to grades earned on standardized tests. From my own observation, it is stunning to consider how much a student's sense of worth is tied into his or her ACT or SAT score. A motto might be, "I am what I scored." 
  • These are students who spend an inordinate amount of time behind a computer screen. Whether it is texting or being on Facebook or playing games or surfing the web, they spend a tremendous amount of time behind the computer. 
  • This is a generation fixated on getting the 'right' answer and fears terribly being wrong. They are generally risk-averse because they associate getting something 'wrong' with failing, rather than as a necessary part of the learning process.
  • They are text-averse in that they are not keen on sitting down with a text. This is a generation that can buy bootleg copies of the latest movies, stream video and music content into their room without having to go to a store to buy it, and they can find resources to make reading a book an unnecessary task: why read it when you can download an outline? 
There are other traits, too, but these give a sense of one person's observation of these students. I use "Control-F Generation" as using the "Ctrl-F" function on a computer keyboard is the way one searches for a particular word or phrase. Rather than read the document, one need only "Ctrl-F + _______" to go exactly to the answer one is looking for. 

This is a generation which contents itself in having right answers rather than struggling with good questions. 

The Dean of Students forwarded on to me a talk by Eli Pariser at the 2011 TED Conference. I attach the video below, because I think it is fascinating:

What follows won't make any sense if you don't skim through the video.

Within the educational atmosphere, there seems to be a rush to saturate our students with technology (iPads and laptops) because "it's the way the world is." As a Jesuit, I cannot help but think this zealousness is misguided: folly are we if we throw our students into the digital morass without first teaching them how to discern. Google and Facebook are engaged in constant "discernment" for us, picking and choosing what it is that we will see. Shame on us if we do not resist this. 

It would be nice to consider the World Wide Web to be an open source of free-range ideas. We are learning, though, that even the forum for our searches is influencing what we see. Rather than confronting challenging points counter to our own, we are more likely to be directed to places where we are affirmed. 

The vastness of the World Wide Web is being called into question and, on the unblemished horizons, there appear more walls than one might have expected. Perhaps it is the case that the Control-F Generation, so tethered to instant access to information, is not so disimilar to each of us who dare to make frequent use of the internet: we all risk being enclosed in a Digital Citadel of another's design, one based on our own preferences, but one that isolates us from the totality of possible viewpoints. 

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Advent of the Heart

Advent is a time of being deeply shaken, so that man will wake up to himself. The prerequisite for a fulfilled Advent is a renunciation of the arrogant gestures and tempting dreams with which, and in which, man is always deceiving himself. Thus he compels reality to use violence to bring him around, violence and much distress and suffering.                     
These words of Father Alfred Delp, SJ, were written from behind the walls of Tegel Prison in Berlin in the waning days of Father Delp's life. Delp, accused of conspiring against the Nazi government, would be executed only a few weeks after these words were written.

Advent, for me, has become something akin to the weekly weigh-in I had to go through when I was in Weight-Watchers. There is no fooling the scale: you either were disciplined during the week or you were not, and the scale didn't care one bit about any good intentions or bad days. The scale loomed large in my life throughout that year and it helped me to admit (1) that I needed to re-learn how to eat in a healthy way and (2) that I needed help to get down to a healthy weight.

Each Advent, I am reminded (1) I always need to re-learn how to be disciplined in prayer and (2) that I need the support of others in becoming the disciple I most want to become. Just as I used to plan my daily meals in the shadow of the scale, should I not feel an even greater pressure to chart my life according to the impending birth of the Christ Child? Just as I once oriented my life to the demand of the weigh-in scale, how much more ought I to turn my eyes to the Cross as that which guides me?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wants into Needs

Some weeks ago, I had a conversation with an old friend with whom I went to school. After catching up on the years intervening between our last encounter, he asked me if he could ask a theological question. Happy to oblige, he continued, "I get the whole God thing. But seriously: do you really think that God can turn a piece of flat bread into Jesus?"

My response was intentionally curt: "We live in a society where the want for comfort has been transformed into the need for a Snuggie."

When you think about it, his question finds its mirror-image in the state of marketing today. Is not the whole goal of a proper marketing campaign to convince you that some of your wants - certain foods, reliable transportation, a style of dress - are actually needs that can only be met by purchasing a product?

Isn't it funny how quickly so many of us think nothing of shelling out $5.00 for a Venti No-Whip Soy Latte with a Double Shot or paying exorbitant amounts of money for a pair of jeans, but inveigh against "the Church" for taking up a weekly collection? I know many schools that subsidize the cost of Catholic education...I don't know that Abercrombie & Fitch have quite the same goal in mind when you are handing over your credit card to by a new pair of distressed jeans.

The irony of the Eucharist is that it transforms our needs into our wants. Saint Augustine said it so well when he wrote, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." The only thing that will satisfy our restless longings is God; what we need, above all else is God. The event of Eucharist transforms this fundamental need into a want, a desire to join with others in Communion, gathered at the altar, where we join together as a desiring community.

I think the liturgy, viewed from one angle, is nothing more than a tutorial lesson in coming to know exactly how it is that our greatest need ought also to be our greatest want. The rituals build up to a climax where God Himself offers Living Bread to those gathered in memory of His Son. What we receive in the hand or on the tongue is, quite literally, a foretaste of the great banquet each of us has been invited to join.

Simple bread and bread. The basic staples of human life transformed to meet the fundamental desire of human longing. The difference between the Snuggie or the jeans and the Eucharist? Let's see if the Snuggie has 2,000 years of staying power of meeting the basic need and desire of the human condition.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The First Sunday of Advent

You, LORD, are our father,
our redeemer you are named forever.
Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not. 
The first reading from yesterday, taken from Isaiah, is quoted above. Entering into the great season of Advent, many of us were encouraged yesterday to examine our lives and to look for those places we were in need of our savior, for those places where we are weak and struggling - those places where we can sense how remote we have become from God - and to call out to the Lord that we might be reunited. 

Advent's theme is to wait and to watch and to come to want the coming of the Messiah. The Church's prayer can be summoned up in a single word, Maranatha, or "Come, Lord Jesus." How many of us can look back on this past year and cry out:

  • Come, Lord Jesus, in the muck and mire of my life. I am lost and have no idea of where I am to turn. I sense that you are calling out to me, but I cannot raise my head from the earth in order to see you...please, give your hand to me.
  • Come, Lord Jesus, I am a part of a Church too-frequently given over to acts of galling hypocrisy. Restore the hearts and minds of its members and reinvigorate its body that it might live out boldly the Gospel in a world that thirsts for the Good News.
  • Come, Lord Jesus, and soften the hearts hardened by cynicism and indifference. Rather than viewing creation as a cold and meaningless void, inspire us with a sense of wonder and awe that you are the innermost reality of all. 
  • Come, Lord, Jesus, for in the wake of suffering and loss, I wonder if I even believe any longer. I realize now that the 'god' of my illusion-free life has failed and I stand now, alone, amidst the debris of the temple that I constructed in its my likeness. Raise these stones and create a new Temple according to your plan...for then I shall have a home worthy of worshipping within.
Each of our hearts cries out each day and it is  part of the discipline of prayer to come to know just what it is that moves within our hearts. In a special way, however, the Church across the world unites its voice during Advent to cry out, "Come, Lord Jesus!" as we invite Jesus into our reality.

The challenge of this should not be underestimated. Do we have the courage to pray this with our whole heart, for what would happen if our prayer were answered? Would we be willing to respond generously, wholly, and freely to the call of discipleship? Our prayer is "Come, Lord Jesus," and not, "Come on my terms and according to my plans, Lord Jesus." 

Perhaps each of us might take a few moments in the next few days to think back on our lives. Where, upon reflection, do you need the Mercy of God to enter into your chaos? Where do you need the Savior to break into the confines of your life and offer you liberation? Where do you feel a darkness in need of light? Where, in the deepest depths of your being, does the prayer, "Come, Lord Jesus" well up and strain to be cried out to the heavens...if only you will give voice to it? 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

And With Your Spirit

This evening, Father Kiser will celebrate the Eucharist with those interested here at the Mid-American Oireachtas (big Irish dancing competition). After a day of dancing and music, we will gather as an Irish dancing community to celebrate our faith. I'm particularly interested to see how Mass will play out this evening as today marks the full implementation of the Third English Translation of the Roman Missal.

Briefly, I think that those with the loudest voices - those who think this new translation is going to fix problems and those who think that it will cause problems - are going to be disappointed. It seems to me that what has been forgotten is that our language, human language, always falls short of fully expressing its target. When I say, "I love my niece and nephew," it is maddeningly difficult to get across to you the nuance of the word love. How much more difficult, Saint Thomas Aquinas realized (as others before and after), is it to use words of God. No translation of the liturgy is going to be perfect, nor is anything we say ever going to be adequate of its subject.

Ultimately, I hope all Catholics enter into this with a spirit of generosity. Perhaps the new translation, even where it is difficult, will grab our attention in new ways and give us something to think about: rather than rambling off prayers in a rote manner, this just might give us pause to re-acquaint ourselves with the prayers that have united the Catholic faith for centuries.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


It was nice to wake up later than usual this morning - 8:30 rather than 5:30 - thanks to our day off of school. There is nothing, to my mind, like a lazy day off of school. I enjoyed two leisurely cups of coffee, made a delicious omelet for breakfast, and I'm catching up on reading several periodicals that have been piling up on my desk.

Last night, without the pressure to grade or prepare anything for class, I managed to catch a bit last night's GOP Debate. Like many, I was surprised by Newt Gingrich's comments on immigration:
"I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here a quarter of a century, separate them from their families and expel them,” Gingrich said last night. “I do believe that if you’ve been here recently and have no ties to the US, we should deport you."
Much is often made of Gingrich's conversion to Catholicism. Perhaps it is just serendipitous, but what some regard as devastating "political TNT" resonates so clearly with last Sunday's Gospel.

...For I was hungry and you gave me food,I was thirsty and you gave me drink,a stranger and you welcomed me,naked and you clothed me,ill and you cared for me,in prison and you visited me.'Then the righteous will answer him and say,'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'And the king will say to them in reply,'Amen, I say to you, whatever you didfor one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.'Then he will say to those on his left,'Depart from me, you accursed,into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.For I was hungry and you gave me no food,I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,a stranger and you gave me no welcome,naked and you gave me no clothing,ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.'
To be transparent, I am a registered Republican (read into that what you will). I think Newt is dead-on in pointing out the contradiction of claiming to be "the party of the family" while pursuing a course of action that would tear families apart.

It astonishes me that so many hear in Newt's words the death knell to his candidacy. In advocating a more human, more realistic, more Christian response...has he really severed his ties with his party? Has our country become so polarized that reason and humanity will be jettisoned for fringe-group extremism?

Perhaps it is I who have caved to extremism. Yet recall what Archbishop Allen Vigneron wrote several months ago:
There must be a concerted effort to find a pathway toward citizenship for undocumented persons who have contributed to the common good. The positive impact migrant communities have made in our country, and especially in our state, should be recognized rather than overshadowed by the small number of those who engage in illicit and unacceptable activities.
Today, I must give credit to Mr. Gingrich for, on this point, standing within the orbit of Catholic Social Teaching. It's funny that "Cafeteria Conservatives" love to dip into the Church's teachings when it comes to abortion or to "pro-family" legislation regarding gay marriage, but it leaves the teachings on Immigration untouched. If Newt's candidacy is sunk by this stance, I will have to agree with Michael Shawn Winters that, "we will have learned all we need to know about the shallowness of the claims of the GOP to be the "pro-family" party." 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

El Salvador: 20 Years On

Yesterday, Jesuits around the world remembered the 1989 deaths of six of their brothers and two companions at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in El Salvador. You can find a series of beautiful reflections on the event and its aftermath by following this link to Creighton University. A short video, created last year, gives the broadest of overviews of the events of that day:

Ever the provocateur, I posed this question: "In our country, we demand that justice reach to the heavens when people fail to report sexual abuse (Catholic Church, Penn State), and we assign life sentences to those who would defraud us of money (Bernie Madoff)...yet why is it that those in charge can order the murder of six priests, a housekeeper, and her daughter and remain unpunished?" This question, framed on a day when we recall in a special way the Jesuits executed for responding to the Gospel, is easily broadened to ask why we do not cry out and demand justice for all those innocent lives lost during this conflict.

Yesterday, I taught my sophomores about Jesus' "mission statement" in Luke's Gospel:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim a year of the Lord." (Luke 4: 18-19)
True today as it was 2,000 years ago, if you proclaim this message you must face the consequences of speaking the Truth: death.

Death is not the cause of martyrdom. It is the consequence. These Jesuits and countless others lived out their love of Jesus Christ by bringing His Good News to an oppressed and languishing people, bringing sight to the blind, and proclaiming the inbreaking of God's liberating reign. For this, they were rewarded with bullets in their brains.

O God, give me the courage and strength
to be worthy of being called a Christian.
~ Karl Rahner, SJ

Martyrs of El Salvador - known and unknown - Pray for Us.


Friday, November 11, 2011

An Examen for the Close of the 2011 Liturgical Year

  we prepare to close the 2011 Liturgical Year and embark on the journey of Advent (11/27), it may help us to engage in something of an Examination of Conscience (or Consciousness). The Examen, enjoined upon his companions by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, is the single most important prayer of a Jesuit's life. In the still of the evening (or mid-day), the Jesuit places himself before God and looks attentively and reverently at his life in order to see (1) where God is working, (2) where one has failed to respond to God, (3) where one has cooperated with God's creative activity, and (4) to ask for the grace to enter more generously into God's creative action.
The Examen reminds us that things in our past are closer
to us than we might think.

Just as we embark upon every new year with a host of resolutions, perhaps we should begin the new liturgical year with our own sense of where God is leading us. We need not search tea leaves or the entrails of slaughtered animals; we need only pause and look inward to put ourself in God's presence. God's will is not some free-floating thing outside of me. Instead, it is the deepest core of my being, the deepest and most animating aspect of my personhood. To cooperate with God's will, I need not become a different person. I need only to be my true self, the self that God is inviting me to become, and I can do this by finding where God is calling out to me from the depths of my self.

We are entering a period where many generous men and women throughout the Church are discerning vocations for entrance into Seminaries and Religious Life for the 2012-2013 year. We are also embarking on the adventure of implementing the New Translation of the Mass. Perhaps an examination of consciousness will help to dispose our hearts and minds toward the generosity God asks of us that we all may become greater instruments of the Divine Will.

An Examen of 2011 with an Eye to 2012

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Of Papists and Penn State

I have followed with some interest the unfolding scandal that has engulfed the Penn State University. As is well known, the legendary Joe Paterno has been fired for his involvement (or lack thereof) in the sexual abuse of minors at the hands of Paterno's assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. This morning, the sun rises on a new terrain at Penn State: both Joe Pa and the school's president Graham Spanier have been fired.

What has drawn Paterno into the eye of the storm is that he knew of an allegation of rape made against Sandusky by a graduate student. The student reported to have seen a naked Sandusky in the shower with a ten year-old boy. This was reported to Paterno who passed it along to his superiors; as we know now, the cops were never called.

Maureen Dowd draws a parallel between the situation at Penn State and the crises in which the Catholic Church is embroiled:

Like the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State is an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique. And sports, as my former fellow sports columnist at The Washington Star, David Israel, says, is “an insular world that protects its own, and operates outside of societal norms as long as victories and cash continue to flow bountifully.” Penn State rakes in $70 million a year from its football program. ~Maureen Dowd
I have to disagree, but only slightly. Doubtless Dowd is right saying that the Church is "an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique." What I disagree with, however, is David Israel's observation. I think the Penn State, just as the Catholic Church, plays perilously by the rules of society. That, I'm afraid, is the problem.

Look around. On high school and college campuses, teachers have to be hyper-vigilant to stave off increasing instances of plagiarism and academic dishonesty. "If everybody else is cheating, why shouldn't I?" seems to be the reigning wisdom. Last night's Republican debate - a debacle on so many levels - did at least bring out some of the ire we feel when we hear of exorbitant bonuses being paid to executives at Fannie and Freddie when they are asking for billions in aide. Baseball and cycling seem forever involved in doping scandals; the Boy Scouts have been accused of concealing over 5,000 child molesters, politicians are involved in affairs and scandals that are hurriedly covered up.

To my mind, it's not that the Church and Penn State are playing by their own rules, apart from society's. It's that both of them claim to be governed by a different type of wisdom, a different set of rules, and they have failed miserably.

The Catholic Church would claim to live and work together in a new economy, one illuminated by the Lamb of God. Penn State claimed to have found its luminosity in Joe Paterno. What happened, tragically, is that the good values we expected to see were blighted out by the mendacity and corruption that seems to be so much a part of our society. It's funny that, if I'm right, it's not that we can't tolerate corruption and's hypocrisy we cannot abide. It's fine if you accept being submerged in the muck-and-mire of daily life but, if you try to hold yourself above it, have a care: the moment you fail or capitulate to our norms, we're going to drag you back down.

Speaking on the Church for a moment, the sex abuse scandal can prove to be a moment of profound and transformative grace. It should show where and how often the Church - on its way to establishing the New Jerusalem - has failed in its mission and surrendered to the forces of darkness. While it is painful to undergo this purging, I pray that this the Church will emerge armed with greater courage and honesty and transparency. So, too, is this my prayer for Penn State. I do not think that Joe Paterno is a bad or evil man. Quite to the contrary, I think he is a very good man who allowed the logic of the world to override his good sense in this tragic instance. It is my hope that, as for the Church, this can be a time of grace, of healing, and a call to greater honesty within a venerable and storied institution.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Bedrest, Day II

I am, arguably, the worst of patients. My doctor ordered me to bedrest for the entire week, which I have been interpreting as "so long as you can see your bed, you're okay." I did manage to sleep for another nine hours last night - up from my usual 5-6 hours - and in my mailbox this morning I found "Care Package I" from one of my students. Inside CPI I were three tea bags, a letter, and three small envelopes filled with jokes to brighten my mood. I might not have a son or a daughter to make me breakfast in bed, but this certainly falls into the realm of gracious kindness I would associate with kids.

It's acts like this, to be sure, that keep me from eating freshmen alive in Latin class - sometimes, they are really funny!

Monday, November 07, 2011

Pneumonia Week: A Public Service Announcement for Students and Subs

Since I've been ordered to bed for the week (on my doctor's orders) I've recorded the following video for my sophomore New Testament students. To the Substitute teachers covering my class:

  1. Do not allow them to do any other work during these periods. The Mass is important and they need to read about it!
  2. They are to work on their own. 
  3. They are to work silently (yes, SILENTLY). 
  4. They need to bring their book to class each day
  5. Show the video below. If you showed the video before reading #1-4, please do that now. 

Loving the Church

I have the habit of reading two books simultaneously: one book in the morning (generally something spiritual) and, for bedtime reading, something a bit heftier. Right now my bedtime reading is Peter Geach's God & The Soul  and my morning reading is The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis.

This last week, one of my students raised the critique that he didn't want to be a member of the Catholic Church because it was hypocritical. I was sort of shocked by this, given that I thought it wholly obvious that the Church is so often hypocritical that it seems as though its hypocrisy should simply be taken for granted.

The last few days have shown up a great deal of institutional hypocrisy. We've watched as the drama of the Texas Judge who beat his daughter unfolded; Penn State University is reeling after the revelations of sex abuse and attempts to cover it up have come to light. Even the Boy Scouts have had to face the accusation, if not the revelation, that it has concealed the abuse of a minor within its charge. From one standpoint, it's tempting to say, "See! There are other hypocritical and corrupt organizations out there...why don't we pick on them? Leave off on the Catholics for a bit, there's plenty of corruption out there to sensationalize!"

Even if this were true, it does not change the fact that the Church has messed up in the past and it has squandered the trust placed in it by many. Modifying slightly Lewis's own works from The Four Loves, one might even say that the Catholic Church must write
...the full confession by the [Catholic Church] of the [Catholic Church's] specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery. Large areas of "the World" will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past. Why should they? We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch. (Moloch being associated with child sacrifice)
With courage and honesty, the Church needs to take ownership of its past. We have done great and mighty things in proclaiming God's Kingdom but, as any human organization, we've made some huge errors. Our credibility rests on our being able to take ownership of the past and show how we have learned from our mistakes so that we may go forward.

When the student asked why it is that someone could love the Church, I could say only, "I love the Church not because she's perfect, but because she's mine." I learned to pray in the Church, I learned how to surrender myself to the Mystery of Creation, how to find strength in times of turmoil, how to find comfort in sorrow, how to give thanks in times of joy, how to be a human being. In the ten years since the clergy sex abuse cases came to national attention in Boston, I have seen the Church at her worst...and as a member of the Society of Jesus, I have seen her also at her best. Even when I wanted to pull out my remaining hair in frustration, I have always been able to return to my steadfast belief that this is Christ's Church and the reason I get frustrated is because I do love it. If I have learned nothing else these years, it is how to have patience with what it is that one loves.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Watching Jesus Pray?

I spent this week teaching the sophomores about how the author of Mark's Gospel portrayed Jesus. Working through the textbook and looking at the Gospel itself, we have been working to understand what  'Mark' accented and highlighted and then questioning why these emphases were important to the author. 

One thing I have found is that many of my students seem to think that the crucifixion was simply a minor inconvenience, a necessary-yet-regrettable occurrence for Jesus. In an effort to help them another way of viewing Jesus, I had them watch a YouTube clip of Jesus Christ Superstar. The clip I chose, "Gethsemane", is but one interpretation of the events following the Last Supper. We listened to the song twice, once by watching the clip, the second time while reading the lyrics. We tried to be attentive to both music and lyrics. If you're interested in viewing it for yourself: 

Two things I noticed: 

  1. The kids very quickly understood that this was Jesus' prayer. The prayer starts with Jesus' stated want, his expressed desire: to let the cup of poison pass from his lips. The whole song is the working out of this desire until, as lush strings carry his prayers into the horizon of the rising sun, he accedes to God's will. The God whom he knew as his Abba holds "all the cards" and has been behind this the whole time, thus by the end of the song Jesus accepts the consequences of his mission. He does not "see the future" so much as he reads the signs of the times; he accepts the fate of all prophets who dare to defy the powers and principalities in a sinful and broken world.
  2. One way of mapping this sung prayer is by considering it in light of the Kübler-Ross 5-Stage Model of Grief. Recall that Kübler-Ross saw five nodal points that seemed to be common as people negotiated the experience of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. While the merits of this typography can be contested, it is interesting to consider the song "Gethsemane" in light of this model. At the very least, it gave the students a lens to focus on the material and helped to frame our discussion in a way that seemed, to me at least, meaningful.
For many of my students, the study of Jesus is difficult because they don't have either the cultural or liturgical context to place him. Without an imagination that has been formed by the liturgy or a given Christian sensibility, approaching the study of Jesus Christ from the standpoint of art, music, and literature provides one way to gain traction in presenting the Messiah. If nothing else, it served yesterday as a good point of departure for some interesting discussions and, I get the sense, some of my more hardened skeptics walked away with the sense that there might be more to this "Jesus fellow" than they might have first thought. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Prophets, Metaphor, Literal, Sacramental

In my sophomore-level New Testament course, we have been examining the Gospel of Mark. In Mark's Gospel, the earliest of the four written, Jesus is portrayed as the "Suffering Servant." I have shared, many times, that the line of Herbert McCabe has been powerfully influential upon me in framing this course, "If you do not love, you will not live. If you do love, they will kill you." The Mark's portrayal of Jesus as the Suffering Servant certainly makes clear that the cross awaits any willing to accept the Lord's invitation to friendship.

I made the students read Isaiah 53 in class:

He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot from the parched earth; There was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him.

He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, One of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, While we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; But the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all.
Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth.
Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away, and who would have thought any more of his destiny? When he was cut off from the land of the living, and smitten for the sin of his people,
A grave was assigned him among the wicked and a burial place with evildoers, Though he had done no wrong nor spoken any falsehood.
(But the LORD was pleased to crush him in infirmity.) If he gives his life as an offering for sin, he shall see his descendants in a long life, and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him.
Because of his affliction he shall see the light in fullness of days; Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.

So I ask, "Of whom is Isaiah speaking." Most students responded quickly: Jesus! To them, raised in a Christian milieu, it was clear that the Prophet Isaiah was foretelling the coming of Christ.

This, however, is problematic.

The role of the Prophet is not to foretell the future. There is no crystal ball. There is no reading of tea leaves. Instead, the Prophet forth-tells: he or she reads the signs of the times and prayerfully discerns what it is that God is doing. This person then exercises the two-fold function of the prophet: A. Critique the Current Order and B. Re-Imagine the situation in light of God's creative power.

Think on it: consider anyone said to be an authentic prophet. Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Oscar Romero, Alfred Delp, Bonhoeffer: each of these women and men felt deep within their hearts the stirring of God who impelled them (1) to Critique the sinful order and (2) to Re-Imagine a world more in line with God's Kingdom. Because they challenged the "powers and principalities" of a sinful world, we humans either tried to destroy or succeeded in killing them. "If you do love, they will kill you..."

Our discussion of Prophets, as those who forth-tell of God's Reign, reminded me of something Herbert McCabe wrote of in his little text The New Creation. There, he writes, "things that are said metaphorically of Israel and literally of Christ are said sacramentally of the Church." (25) Allow me to elaborate briefly.

1. Metaphorically

Isaiah did not peer into the future to see the birth of the Messiah. Surely, the Suffering Servant is decidedly not anyone's idea of the perfect Messiah. An oppressed people longs for GI Jesus, not an itinerant preacher. In Isaiah 53, the "Suffering Servant" is synecdoche for all of Israel (synecdoche = part standing for the whole, like saying, "all hands on deck" where hands mean the whole person, not severed limbs). It is a metaphor for how Isaiah (one of the 'Isaiahs' at least) saw the people of the covenant. Having expressed fidelity to the one LORD, they suffer in a sinful and broken world. The people of Israel, the suffering servant, is called to bear these sufferings so as to be a light for all nations, a beacon showing forth their fidelity to their God and his creative power, that all nations may know and serve Him.

2. Literally

As the author of Mark's Gospel reflected on the meaning of this Jesus, it occurred to him and to those for whom he wrote that Jesus was literally the Suffering Servant. In the person of Jesus, Isaiah's metaphor for Israel had taken flesh. Jesus incarnates the people of the Old Covenant and, in and through his flesh, makes flesh the New Covenant. What was metaphorically true of Israel is now literally true of Jesus: he the Suffering Servant, the unexpected Messiah who suffered the evils of humanity; the Messiah who shows us the consequences of humanity's loving fidelity to God's covenant in a sinful world, and the fidelity of God to his people in the resurrection. "If you do love, they will kill you..."

3. Sacramentally

Were I to stop at points 1 and 2, I would join - I am afraid - most Christians who simply take it for granted that Jesus is the Messiah and that he died for our sins. Yet Father McCabe saw one further dimension to being a Christian, which demands that we reflect on what the Word of God is continuing to do. The Word that was said of Israel and the Word that is Jesus Christ...where is it now? For McCabe, the Word is now calling us to be Church, to be a People of the Covenant, and we do so through the Sacraments.

For sophomore boys, they sort of like this. Rather than learning about this Jesus fellow, they finally see some sort of aperture through which they can find themselves called into action (in general, they all want to do something). When you consider it, it is Sacramentally true that we are the Suffering Servant: if we are faithful to the friendship with Jesus into which we are baptized, if we are strengthened by the Body and Blood of the Eucharist, if we are sustained by the Holy Spirit, and if we dedicate ourselves to finding God either through the Sacrament of Holy Orders or marriage or through the single life, we will suffer for it. Those courageous, or folly, enough to follow the Lord and to be a part of the Sacraments of the Church, the consequence is rejection and suffering. The Sacraments of the Church do not efface the sin of the world: they give us the strength to face the sins, to endure the taunts and torments, and to persevere in our friendship with God. We are sacramentally the Suffering Servant because we receive, through the Sacraments, the One who is literally the Suffering Servant, who is himself the Metaphor-Made-Flesh of Israel.

McCabe describes a sacrament as, "a symbol which reveals the achievement of God's plan for human destiny." (26) In no small way, when we enter into the sacramental life, we are remembering our future: we are enacting not some esoteric ritual but, rather, participating in those rituals through which the one who is the hoped-for future of Christians is made present.  The Sacraments do not turn God into something; rather, they turn us toward God by making present in our history the One who has shown us, literally, what it means to be the Word of God. Through the Sacraments of the Church, we become a part of that story, a part of that Body, in history.

I own that today's thoughts are a tad heavier than usual. I'm celebrating a very successful U of D Jesuit: Pledge Detroit initiative, having raised almost $166,000 as of this morning. I'm so proud of the students and the whole U of D Jesuit community and this pride gives me the energy to put my "theologian cap" on this morning as we rest after two days of parent-teacher conferences.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

32 Years

Today, on the Feast of the North American Martyrs, I celebrate my birthday. I remember some of the big ones: 10 (turning double-digits), 16, 18, and 21. I remember turning 25 because it was my first birthday as a novice in the Society of Jesus and I still remember the dive bar we went to that night, pooling our meager personalia and laughing our heads off drinking cheap beer.

Sometimes, when I visit my family's home, I'll find myself looking at old photo books. Some of my favorite pictures are of me at early birthday parties - I seemed always to have been dressed in overalls and a polo shirt - being held by someone. In these pictures, I see my Grandma and Grandpa Duns, Grandma and Grandpa Hagan, and even my Great-Grandparents. The faces of so many friends and family, many now grown, many now dead, often are frozen forever in the pictures; their young(er) faces frozen as a single candle, or two candles, or three candles commemorate a single person's birth.

Since I do not have children of my own, I wonder what it's like to imagine the possibilities that inhere in having a child. I suspect I'd be scared that I'd screw my child up, that I would do something totally stupid to wreck or devastate his future (the fact that I'd name my kid "Rahner Duns" and teach him to speak Latin probably indicates that my kid would be nuts). I would want my son to know that all I wanted for him was to be happy to, as my father once counseled me, "love whatever you study enough to teach it."

As a high school student in Cleveland, I could never have imagined how my life would unfold. Never, in all my wildest dreams, would I have expected to be so happy in my life. With each passing year, I feel more invigorated and excited for life; with each year, I feel as though I'm actually getting younger. Teaching young men certainly has a way of keeping a person young, for their energy is infectious. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a deep grace in the life of faith that offers those who are willing to give themselves over to it a taste of the boundless love and energy of the Creator.

I cannot claim to have accumulated a store of wisdom. I wake up each morning and, like Sister Victoria used to admonish us, I say, "Well, good morning Lord. How are you today? Lord, these are the things that stand before me today. Please help me...". Each night, as I have since the 4th grade, my prayers are similar: "Well, Lord, thanks for the day. I tried hard a few times, messed up a lot, but I really am giving it a good effort. For instance...". When I learned of the Ignatian Examen, it didn't seem so foreign: Sister had taught us many years before!

Now at the age of 32, I must seem very old to my students. When a student asked recently, "Abba, what do you want in this life?" I had to think about it. My answer, as best as I can recall, was something like this:

When I was a younger man, I wanted the things that most people want: money, power, prestige. Yet any time I tasted these or felt them, something didn't seem right. Their promises to satisfy all of my wants and desires were empty: the more I had of them, the more I wanted for them. I had to look deep into my heart to realize that what I really wanted wasn't some thing but, rather, some one. Over these last years, I have tried very hard to come to know the Lord. I'm not good at it, but I'm trying. While I may not have earthly treasures or power, I do have something that cannot be bought or brokered: a more tender, peaceful heart that burns to share a message of God's Love to all the world. When I pray now, it's usually, "Lord, help me to get out of the me to know you better...give me the grace to let others know you, so that they may know the deep joy of your love."
My hope, especially as a teacher of sophomores, is to help them to be like Zacchaeus from Luke's Gospel. Zacchaeus had heard about this Jesus fellow and desired to see him for himself. Being a man of short stature, he clambered up a tree to get a good vantage point. Being in a tree affords the position so many in our society - particularly Christians - seem to assume: they are close enough to see the action, but far enough that they don't necessarily have to get drawn into it.

For my students, I teach the course in a way that encourages them to climb the tree. Some do so readily, others do so with hesitation, some, I think, are trying to uproot the tree. Regardless, my goal is to help them find the best place to catch a glimpse of the Lord as He walks by. I tell them about his context, about what he means, about how he speaks to us today. I must leave it to Jesus to address each young man's own heart, to look up into the tree and invite him to follow...I must empower each of my students to be able to say, "Yes, Lord, I shall follow you" or "No, kind sir, I shall not at this time". I can set out the chairs and tune the instruments, but only God can strike up the orchestra.

It is late and I am tired. Know this night that I shall pray for all of you who read this, as well as for those women and men - family and friends most especially - who have loved me into the man I am today. We are, each of, taught how to love. I am so grateful to my parents and my family for teaching me to love well and I rejoice so much that I have been given the grace to offer this love to the whole world.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Three Senate Videos

U of D Jesuit students are hurriedly trying to get their pledges in before the deadline on Thursday, October 20th. The entire school community needs to bring in a total of $130,000 in order for us to earn two free days: the Wednesday before and the Monday after Thanksgiving break. I have adamantly insisted that there will be no extensions: we either bring in the money and earn the days off or we schlep it to school. No mercy!

Two weeks after the event, I wanted to share with you two videos our students made. The first of these plays on the theme of the event: Father Peppard has kidnapped the Cub (our mascot) and is holding him ransom.

The second video was shown on the day of Pledge Detroit. It is meant as a pump-up video, expressing to our students something of what we are about as a school and giving them a sense of why it is that we are doing the projects to which we have committed ourselves.

Finally, and perhaps my favorite for its cleverness, is the video for this year's Icebreaker dance. This may be the funniest thing I have seen in a long time. Some readers may be offended for it being in bad taste but, consider our cultural context, and then ask if it's not at least a tiny bit funny. I roared with laughter when I saw it.

I want to give special props to Stephen Huber ('13) for his outstanding work on preparing videos for the students this year. It's often a thankless task but one that I, as Senate Moderator, appreciate tremendously.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Episode 32: A New Hope

A long time ago in a city far, far away....

...a child was born. He sought to seek out and do good and to avoid evil. 
He gave himself over to the Jesuit ways, 
apprenticing himself to a novice master. 
After two years of apprenticeship, he studied again
at the feet of masters, learning the mysterious ways 
of philosophy and theology.
Seen by his superiors to be fitting, he was made a "Master" 
and sent to teach the ways of theology
to young students in Detroit. 

He thought himself an agent of the Good:
...the scourge of heresy,
...the bane of blasphemy,
...the slayer of heretics. 

Until the week before his 32nd birthday when his parents revealed the truth about his identity. 

With his parents' revelation, a new identity emerged:

Darth Vow-der.

So, yeah, a week before my birthday (October 19th, the Feast of North American Martyrs) I notice a box in the mail room. As I've not ordered anything of late, I didn't suspect it was for me; it's only because I had to move it (it was in my way) that I happened to notice that it was from North Olmsted, Ohio and that it was addressed to me. 

What delight did I express to discover inside such wonders as these. It's funny, because a few weeks ago I was playing with one of these lightsabers at Costco! What's even funnier, I suspect, is that many of my students suspect that I'm a Dark Jesuit Lord and that I actually wear things like this when I'm correcting papers. If only I could get that "strangle a student with the power of the Force thing" down...

Anyway, thanks Mom and Dad. Some guys probably get new roofs or a fancy dinner for their 32nd birthday. I get toys. I think I get the better end of the deal! 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Men for Others?

Yesterday was our Faculty Spirituality day. We went to the beautiful and peaceful Manresa Jesuit Retreat House for a morning of reflection and prayer. For about an hour, we were broken up into small groups, charged to discuss the meaning of "Men for Others" and the characteristics of the Grad-at-Grad that are so easily identified with, but perhaps too often understood within, Jesuit education.

We are, understandably, given over to using ciphers and catchphrases. "Men for Others" or, I've heard, "MFO's" is no exception. Yet, I think it helpful to consider the full context from which "Men for Others" is wrought. In a speech by Father General Pedro Arrupe:

Today our prime educational objective must be to form men-and-women-for-others; men and women who will live not for themselves but for God and his Christ - for the God-man who lived and died for all the world; men and women who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbors; men and women completely convinced that love of God which does not issue in justice for others is a farce. 
Arrupe continues:

First, let me ask this question:  Have we Jesuits educated you for justice?  You and I know what many of your Jesuit teachers will answer to that question.  They will answer, in all sincerity and humility:  No, we have not.  If the terms "justice" and "education for justice" carry all the depth of meaning which the Church gives them today, we have not educated you for justice.
What is more, I think you will agree with this self-evaluation, and with the same sincerity and humility acknowledge that you have not been trained for the kind of action for justice and witness to justice which the Church now demands of us.  What does this mean?  It means that we have work ahead of us.  We must help each other to repair this lack in us, and above all make sure that in future the education imparted in Jesuit schools will be equal to the demands of justice in the world. 

 In prideful moments, I have fancied of myself that I have taught my students the radicality of the Gospel. I have referenced Flannery O'Connor's "The Misfit" who saw that Jesus "thrown everything off balance." We have discussed the nature of sin in the world, the consequences of love, and I have spent much time playing with Herbert McCabe's apothegm, "If you do not love, you will not live. If you do love, they will kill you." Yet for all of my bluster, I can't help but wonder if it is all smoke and mirrors, a bourgeois attempt at being a "Christian revolutionary" from the comfortable confines of a classroom in the United States.

Certainly, a good bit of this is brought about by my experiences with Homecoming this weekend and the feedback I've been receiving. How much of the hypocrite do I feel that I try to make students aware of the sinful structures of buying coffee, or fruit, or sneakers and I feed right into that by helping to put on a dance, for adolescents, that was pretty over-the-top. In the shower I was struck by the chilling thought: were there students who could not go, not because of the ticket prices ($20.00 is pretty reasonable) but because all of the excesses associated with Homecoming made it cost prohibitive? Have I "talked counter-culture" but capitulated to the excesses I so often rail against?

By no means is this to be read as an expression of self-loathing or thinking that I did a bad job. Quite to the contrary: I'm rather confident that I did, and that I generally do, do a good job. It's just that I'm wondering if the "Good Job" I'm doing is one evaluated from a position that is inimical to the radical message Father Arrupe preached.

This is something for me to consider. I will meet with the Student Senate Officers in 15 minutes and I think I'll bring this up as something to consider. Perhaps, together, we can work to re-imagine what it might be to embody the Christian justice that, it seems to me, I've been failing to live up to this whole time. Perhaps we might reflect, together, on whether we are living up to the scandalousness of being an authentic "Man for Others" in a world where the pressure is to give lip-service to justice but live only for oneself.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Homecoming Excess (OR "Why I would just as soon cancel the whole event")

Last night, I helped to cap off the 2011 Fall Spirit Week with the Homecoming Dance. We had a DJ, decorations, various casino games (run by brother Jesuits), and a photo booth. Our students purchased arrived in suit jackets and ties, accompanied by elegantly dressed young women who wore fresh corsages, nicely done hair, and obviously new dresses. We opened our doors at 8:00 and by 8:15, party bus after party bus arrived, dropping their passengers at our door. The music was wonderful, the lights were dim, the stage was set for what, to my mind, should have been a great evening.

And then I noticed party bus after party bus returning to the door and students boarding it once again. In some cases, students were at the dance for less than thirty minutes before boarding the party bus to take them around the city.

As someone who put a lot of thought into this dance, who put out a tremendous amount of money to help ensure that students had a really enjoyable evening, this really bothered me. So I did what I normally do when I get angry: I brood. As I brooded last night, here are some things that hit me.

My Expenses to run the 2011 Homecoming:

Homecoming Shirts: $3875
DJ: $600
Photo Booth: $825
Casino Games: $450
Decorations: $250
Chaperones: $750
Dinner for Chaperones: $230

Total: $6980. (So, for the sake of even numbers, let's just say $7000)

Now, I totally own that I probably could have skimped on some things. Yet, it seemed to me wise to try to offer things for students to do to encourage them to stay at the dance, to be with their friends and enjoy an evening together.

I charged each student $20.00 for admission. The cost of admission included one t-shirt, two tickets, free photos from the photo booth, casino games, decorations, and dancing.

So I went into the dance knowing that this was a pretty expensive affair to run. Certainly it is nothing like Senior Prom, but $7,000 is still no small amount of money.

Add to this the amount of money spent by the students on things like corsages, boutonnieres, hair, dresses, and then the party bus.

I think the most stomach-churning part of last night was watching students roll up in these enormous "party buses." Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors would spill out of these rolling shrines to material excess. I heard from one student that, in his group, it cost each student $80.00 to pay for transportation. That seems like an enormous, and excessive, amount of money to shell out on something as insignificant as a Homecoming dance.

Even Chaperones can have fun!
So here's the thing: these kids (ahem, parents) pay all this money for a Party Bus and the kids feel that they should make the most of it. So rather than enjoy the dance, they go in and then leave pretty quickly so they can drive around the city in the belly of a gas guzzling bus. All to feel glamorous. All because these kids really need this.

To the parents who rented these things, I really want to say, "Are you out of your damned minds?" Your kid doesn't need a party bus to get to Homecoming. Your little freshmen or sophomore should be glad to be allowed out of the house after 10:00 pm, so either pull up in the minivan or give him the keys to the family Ford. There is no reason, however, to rent a party bus or a limo to take a kid to a dance (we have no paparazzi outside). We're in the middle of an economic downturn and the profligacy of last night's event was just stunning.

If I were to run another homecoming, I think I'd hire my DJ, assemble my chaperones, and then let the Student Body know that we would have no t-shirts and that the dance would not be a formal. I would then write a $5,000 check and give it to a school that needed the money for tuition assistance and run just a really fun regular dance for the kids. Not a formal, mind you, but a regular old dance where kids wear what they want and act like fools. I'd rather strip away all the pretense and let them be kids than to watch the displays of excess I saw roll in, and out, of our parking lot last night.

This is, truth to tell, a bit of venting. I'm still sick with a nagging cold and I suspect I'm being a crank. But I'd love to hear people's thoughts on the "party bus" mentality and the excesses of these formal dances, especially from parents' perspectives. I can see some merit in the idea of the party bus but I wonder if parents sometimes aren't entrusting to a company a job they should be doing for themselves...

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame