Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Prayer That Changes Everything

As part of my (seldom successful) efforts to clear up a backlog of tasks, I'd like to share with you some thoughts on a books I've read recently. This little gem was sent to me by its publisher at Loyola Press who invited me to share my thoughts. The book is entitled

 (Note: the title is in lowercase letters on the book's cover, hence the strange way it appears in type here)

Written by Jim Manney, it's a short (~80 page) treatment of the prayer Saint Ignatius enjoined on his Jesuits and those who would receive the Spiritual Exercises. Manney, either consciously or not, crafts his treatment of the topic in the form of an inclusio. That is, he begins and ends his treatment of the Examen with the five basic points of how to pray using this powerful method

  1. Ask God for light.
  2. Give thanks
  3. Review the Day
  4. Face your shortcomings
  5. Look toward the day to come
This skeletal structure - so deceptively simple - is enfleshed in his text as each of the subsequent chapters unpacks and elaborates on each of the main points listed above. By the time you reach the end of the text and he gives these five points again, you realize how much your understanding of the points has been changed and transformed and the depths and possible graces of the Examen are made more luminous. 

In the 20th century, the philosophical movement of phenomenology challenged philosophers to "look at what they normally look through." How easy is it to overlook, each day, all of those moments where God's grace has been pressing in upon us, or how opportunities to become a friend of the Lord has been squandered. It's rather easy to gloss over these moments, to be sure, but the Examen challenges us to bracket a few moments of our day to peer into our experiences and ask, "How have I, today, responded to God's invitation to friendship?" The simplicity of the prayer should not make one think it is easy (omelets look easy to make, too, but are horrifically difficult to master). 

Many spiritual how-to books purport to give you answers or to solve your issues. Neither Jim Manney, nor certainly Saint Ignatius, would dare even to imagine such an ridiculous claim. If asked to describe our spiritual and social environment, I'd say that we're living in the "Control-F Era." By "Control-F" I mean people who are accustomed to holding down two keys on the keyboard and typing in EXACTLY what it is that they seek. So focused are they on the answers - whether they be spiritual or academic - they often miss the cracks and fissures through which God's creative light is shining through. In other words, sometimes we get so caught up looking for "the answer" that we lose out on experiencing the whole story. Saint Ignatius's Examen thwarts this as he counsels you into praying through your everyday experiences to find out what God is doing in your life.

In every era, Christians must ask anew the question posed by Jesus' own disciples, "Lord, teach us to pray." I truly believe that as we walk further into the 21st century, the Examen will prove to be a needed antidote to the feelings of ennui and and meaninglessness that seem to be more and more common. By gazing inward, by looking at one's own experiences of God's grace, one's eyes are gradually made able to see God's gracious love suffusing all of the earth. The ennui of hopeless is transformed into the elan of Christian hope that calls us out into the world to be a part of God's on-going creation. It is this elan that, I hope, marks my own Jesuit life as I labor for Christ, under the banner of the cross, to bring about God's Kingdom.

Manney is to be commended for this small text. I think it is an accessible volume able to be embraced by neophytes and masters alike. Rather than give answers to our spiritual dilemas, this text uses the Examen as a way of framing the question - "What is God doing" - using our own lives and experiences. If you feel that you need help in praying, or are trying to find new depths in prayer, I can think of no better place to begin. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A New Cast of Characters

The theology courses I teach are all semester-length, meaning that with the start of the second semester I found myself standing in front of four entirely new sets of students (3 frosh courses, 1 sophomore). I feel like my grandmother as I struggle to learn their names quickly: I end up pointing at kids, fumbling madly to get to name. "Chris, Mark, Martin....MAX!" has been a frequent chorus this week.

With each student comes an entirely new story. I have the guy who basically refuses to speak, so he flashes me the thumbs-up sign when I'm taking attendance. Another student has transcended the level of 'bookbag' and carries a suitcase with him. I sort of like this guy because, as a freshman, he walked into school holding  a take-out cup from Tim Horton's filled with black coffee, which he drank while leaning against a pillar, observing his surroundings.

With the freshmen in particular, we began the "Magical Mystery" tour of religion. I have been tinkering with a presentation that gets a bit better (and clearer) each semester. I distribute notecards and tell them that I've grown tired of God. God, if our culture is to be believed, is failing at His job and should probably be replaced. So I ask them to write a "want-ad" for a new God: they have to tell me what characteristics the job carries.  The answers, as you can imagine, are fascinating.

Why do we need to know God's job? Well, for all of those who think that IF there is a God, He is doing a pretty rotten job or for those who deny that there could even BE a God, we need to find clarity on (1) what God they question or (2) what God they deny. If we can figure out what God is supposed to do, then perhaps we can better make an assessment of his performance.

What? Think about it this way. If I am at Best Buy and some man approaches a clerk and says, "Sir, I should like to return my washing machine because it is doing a terrible job making my grilled cheese sandwich," we would have cause to be puzzled: a good washing machine, unless extraordinarily modified, is not the sort of thing that makes grilled cheese sandwiches! A good washing machine washes clothes well, without shredding them, and a bad washing machine is one that loses socks or tears clothes apart. In other words, I know what a good washing machine is because I know what a washing machine is supposed to do. Because I know what it is supposed to do, I know the range of critiques I can make of it, too. Hence my puzzlement when there is a complaint that it doesn't make grilled cheese: that's not the job of a washing machine!

Anyway, after they puzzle this out for a time and write things like, "God's job is to be nice/keep me safe/grant wishes/etc." I suggest a very simple definition: God's job is to make things TO BE. That's it. Very simple description:

Wanted: God
Job: Make Things to Be

Now, I can't make a glass of vodka to be (if I could, I'd be running a very profitable liquor company), so I'm out of running for the God job. Making things to be is pretty tough - it means that God makes the whole thing -- like everything -- to be and sustains it in being. Calling up a historical chestnut, God is the reason there is "something rather than nothing." 

So that's the fun activity for a 15-year old boy on the first day of Mr. Duns's religion class. We do other things, too, but we need to figure out what God is supposed to do (even if we don't quite know what God is since God is not some thing). I can get my mind around a washing machine (thing) but since I can't comprehend EVERYTHING, I can' well get my mind around the reason that there is ANYTHING at all. 

I think I'm going off to practice the accordion: I have a feis in Cleveland on February 5th and one in Georgia at the end of February and I should probably get back into playing shape. I also need to plan for the upcoming week: while my sophomore course is a repeat of last semester's, the frosh course is totally new and needs a great deal of attention. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It Begins Again (and a ghost update)

After the frenzy of finals week and a nice long weekend, the second semester of the 2010-11 school year begins in a little more than two hours.

I woke up early this morning - around 4:00 - and was unable to go back to sleep. I contemplated going out for a run, but my left knee has been bothering me for a few weeks and I do not wish to aggravate it any more than it already is. So I remained in bed feeling a mix of nervousness and excitement for the semester ahead.

In other and, perhaps for many, more interesting news: just last week, yet another event occurred that confirmed for me that if our Jesuit community is being haunted that I know the identity of the one haunting it.

How so?

Last Monday, the final day of classes before exams, the Student Senate office was PACKED with kids after school. From the midst of the crowd I heard an, "SJ! SJ!" and then saw one of my students emerge from a crowd with a photograph in his hand. Thrusting the photo into my face, he asked me if I knew  this particular Jesuit. Taking it from him, I looked at the picture - apparently a former math teacher - which appeared to have been taken sometime in the 1970's I didn't know who it was and asked him where he got it. "I was in the library and went to look up a word in the dictionary and it fell out of the book." Unthinkingly, I turned the picture over with the hope that I'd find a more precise date and saw, much to my horror, that on the back of the photo there was a name: ____________, the very person I believe to have had experiences of in the past.

Now I'm a pretty big skeptic in such matters. It is entirely possible that one of my community members is playing a joke on me, finding in the archives an old photograph of Father ________ (who left the Society of Jesus in the 1970's and died one year ago this month) and then giving it to the student to pass along to me. Indeed, it's even probable that this is the case. Nevertheless, I think I know my brother Jesuits pretty well and I haven't detected any bit of mockery or joking about this...a strange sign, as we joke about nearly everything. Either they are pulling one heck of a prank or, as I might fear, they aren't involved.

It'd also be possible that one of the students is behind this. Again, more than probable and this is, indeed, my strongest suspicion. Yet the student who brought me the photo is a guy I have never taught...which makes it unlikely that I'd have shared with him the story (I usually tell stories in class as a reward for cooperative behavior).

Anyway, I'm not letting this factor too greatly into my life. I'm pretty skeptical about the whole affair although, I will admit, the surfacing of this picture does give me momentary pause. As the anniversary of the man's death approaches, perhaps there'll be more haunted happenings!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Truth Behind My Vocation

My students frequently ask me if I dated before I entered the Jesuits. I suspect they find it inconceivable that I could do anything but live in the school and focus my entire life on them and their well-being. Nevertheless, they are often interested in learning that I did date off-and-on during college.

What they don't always get is the story of why I (basically) abandoned dating. This is a story only a few of my close friends know but one I thought might be helpful to share in the interest of vocation promotion.

Many years ago, in 2001, I was an eager college senior. My roommate Jeff and I lived in a suburb of Buffalo called Tonawanda. We shared a two-bedroom apartment on Paradise Lane in the Raintree Island development. To meet the (relatively) low rent, both Jeff and I had jobs: Jeff worked overnights at FedEX and I taught grammar school Spanish in a local Catholic school and I played at Irish dancing events.

One day, Jeff told me of a young woman he had met after Mass at the parish we both attended (I had been traveling that weekend so went elsewhere). She seemed bright, vivacious, a little bit snarky (always a plus), and she had just recently been admitted to the New York State bar after her completion of law school. They had gotten to talking and the young woman actually inquired after me: she had noticed us several times as we came in for Mass, apparently, and thought me attractive. Seizing the opportunity, Jeff said that he would set up a date between us. She thought this a good idea and offered to have me over to her place for dinner.

Jeff proposed all of this to me upon my arrival and presented me with her number. I was mortified and Jeff took such glee in this that he called her and told her I'd be over for dinner that Friday evening. All week, I dreaded and fretted over this sort-of blind date. I was in discernment at the time (this is just before the 2002 sex-abuse implosion) and didn't know how dating factored into this process. I consulted with my spiritual director, who thought it a good idea to accept the dinner invitation, and so I resigned myself to going.

On the day of the dinner, I went to Canisius for classes in the morning and then went to teach my three Spanish classes. I arrived back to the apartment at 4:00 pm and decided to shower and shave before my date. I also decided to do one more thing...a fateful decision....that would, I fear, turn out to alter the course not only of the evening, but perhaps of my life.

As a senior, I realized that my hair was falling out. Being more vain in those days, I started to use Rogaine and, actually, so pretty good results from it. After six months of usage, the hair loss had pretty much stopped and Jeff commented a few times that he thought there was even some regrowth. Anyone who has used Rogaine knows that the best time to apply it (a messy procedure, to be sure) is immediately after taking a shower when the pores are most receptive. So I applied my Rogaine to the crown of my head, rubbed it in, and then prepared myself for dinner.

I arrived on-time to a lovely little house not more than three miles from our apartment. I was struck by the young woman who greeted me: she was lovely! She greeted me warmly and I gave her the bottle of wine I'd picked up at the store. I was escorted into the house - she had lived there four months, since passing the bar - and given a quick tour. As we moved through the beautifully appointed house, she even introduced me to her cat.

Dinner, she told me, was not quite finished. I was invited to sit down on her large leather couch and watch TV as she prepared the starter (a cheese tray with crackers and nuts, as I recall). We toasted with glasses of wine, chatted for a time, and began to get to know one another. As our glasses emptied, she told me to pour another glass as she put the finishing touches on our meal.

I did as I was told. Glass in hand, I sat back against the couch. The cat, apparently comfortable with my presence, began to walk along the back of the couch, pacing back and forth, brushing against my head with each pass. I continued to chat with my hostess, making small talk as she plated the food, when I became aware that the cat had stopped moving. All of a sudden, I felt it lick the back of my head - right where I had applied the Rogaine - and then all hell broke loose.

The damned cat, getting a tongue full of Rogaine. hissed madly and went careering over the back of the couch. Hissing and spitting, it rolled around on the floor, gesticulating wildly with its paws. From a third-person perspective, the scene surely was comical: me, kneeling on the couch peering over at a crazed feline with a snootful of hair medicine while an attractive attorney holding a spatula stands in the doorway, an admixture of rage and confusion.

I was terrified.

Her eyes moved from the cat to me and back to the cat. Jeff had warned me of snark (so often a veneer concealing deep rage) but I was not prepared for what was to come. Irate, she picked up the tormented tabby and bellowed at me:

"What the hell did you do to my cat?"

I could have explained. I could have reasoned with her. I could have thrown myself on the mercy of the court. Yet, how do you tell someone that you're going bald and you are willing to apply strange chemicals to your head to preserve your hair? How do you say, "Listen, ducky, curiosity plus Rogaine may well kill the cat?" I couldn't do it. Embarrassed, ashamed, and confused I did what any sensible man would have done: I grabbed my keys from the table and ran out of the house.

I was, and probably still am, a fool.

My heart racing, I ran to my Ford Escort, jumped in, and sped home. Jeff was there on the couch, eating Chinese take-out, completely amazed that I was home so early. I explained to him the saga of my hour that seemed to last a lifetime. I expected sympathy, maybe a word of encouragement or consolation. All I got was peals of laughter and him repeatedly telling me that I was a moron. At least he shared with me some of his Chinese food and then, after a couple of beers, I pitched my remaining bottles of Rogaine into the garbage. I never saw her again and Jeff never tried to make contact with her...and, to ensure this was the case, we even started attending Mass at a parish on the other side of Buffalo just to be sure that we'd never have an awkward encounter.

A decade later, I'm now 6.5 years into my life as a Jesuit. All of the hopes, the dreams, the future possibilities that were bundled up into that date have been cast into the wastebasket of history...all because of a cat. It took a cannonball to begin Saint Ignatius's spiritual transformation; the impoverished of Calcutta transformed Mother Teresa's heart. For me, it was the curiosity of a feline that forever altered the course of my life.

So there is the untold story of my vocation. Truth be told, I guess I'd not have it any other way that my dating life be etched with a completely absurd episode. Some of us are sensitive souls whom God can mold and craft with minimal effort...I am no such soul and require, as I see time and again, sledgehammers and pick-axes to make a dent. Then again, perhaps I exaggerate...for in this case, all it took was the inquisitive tongue of a cat to help me in my discernment of what my heart truly desired!

Friday, January 14, 2011

What Did You Do to the Roof?

Watching my niece this Christmas vacation, I was struck with how powerful the imagination is. One night, her voice invested with all the urgency a 3-year old can muster, she told my sister Torrey that they were on an adventure in the haunted forrest. In her mind, the family kitchen was transformed from the place we ate into a spooky wooded path. Emma knew that there was something in these woods, something none of us could see, and she held her finger to her lips while tip-toeing out into the dining room, leading us all to safety.

There is, then, something wonderfully childlike about Ignatian prayer. My Emma can become Dora in an instant; I, likewise, can become a friend of Jesus, a casual bystander, even a hostile party. This morning, as I prayed on today's Gospel, I found myself not as Dora, nor as a particularly close friend of Jesus (rough night of sleep), but, rather, as an interested spectator who comes to see the commotion surrounding this Jesus fellow.

Today's Gospel opens with the following scene:

When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days,

it became known that he was at home.
Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them,
not even around the door,
and he preached the word to them.
They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.

Now, I guess that people are often caught up by how much faith these people had in Jesus that they would actually enact a sort of home-invasion in order to get their friend to him. I can see this. Yet my first reaction, in prayer, is "What the hell do you think you are doing??? You are on this man's roof! You are digging a hole in the roof!! You are destroying this man's property!"

Some people call this faith. I call it criminal trespassing.

This is probably why I'm not the Messiah...and why I'll never be a saint.

My imagination takes me to a place where this Jesus guy has lived with his mother until he was around the age of 30 (is he Irish?) and then starts something of a full-time small business as a prophet who has a burning desire to get his message out there (Yep, almost certainly Irish). He goes home after one of his junkets and, to the surprise of the neighbors who had grown accustomed to his eccentricities, a ton of people arrive at his door. 

So great is the crowd and so desperate they are to be near him, to be touched by him, that people will resort to drastic lengths. So they create an opening in the roof of Jesus' house. Having seen the crowd, they conspired together to do this: you climb up and start digging the hole, you get some ropes, the two of us will get him up there. Surely Jesus realized that there were people digging through his roof, that there were people hacking and digging through the ceiling. 

These men are strangers, uninvited guests, who force their way into the home of the one who might help them, the one who gives them hope. They bring their friend - at great risk to themselves - so that he may have life and have it abundantly. They risk their own freedom and well-being that another may have life, that another may have a chance at a life without scorn or ridicule or prejudice on account of  his condition. 

Jesus' response isn't rage, or anger, or irritation. He doesn't present them with a bill or call the police. Rather, he takes note of their faith and forgives the paralytic of his sins. The men went to great lengths - illegal lengths? - for their friend. They risked much on account of the hope they had in Jesus. Jesus' response? Not anger, not irritation, not exasperation...but an act of inclusion that makes the man, and those who loved him, whole. 

I mention this simply because I know how easily I get caught up on procedures and protocols (I'm a high school teacher...procedure and protocol is all that gives me stability each day). If I had been standing there with Jesus, I would have been aghast at what these guys were doing to the roof, losing sight of what is really most important: the desire these men had for their friend, their hope and faith that this man Jesus could make him whole. Amidst the dust and debris of his broken roof, Jesus recognized what is truly important in life: the love we show to other people. Things, future costs, the risk of inconveniences...these, it would seem, cannot and must not get in the way.

So, yeah, I'd probably be sympathetic to the scribes and least at first. Perhaps, though, my heart would be moved as I saw this long-suffering paralytic stand and be embraced by his friends. Perhaps my hardened sense of rectitude would be softened as they walked through a cloud of dust mixed with sunlight out into the world where, for the first time in many years, the paralytic could be seen as a human being, a brother. Perhaps then I'd see that even in his own home, Jesus is the great relativist who puts all things into perspective by "giving and not counting the cost" and enduring the destruction of his own property in service of the least of his human family...all in the service of God's Kingdom. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Creeping Feeling of Dread

Have you ever experienced that sick, twisted feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize that you had forgotten something: someone's birthday, a crucial meeting, an important file, perhaps a vital task. There's  brief moment of denial, a quickening of the pulse, and a cold resignation that, basically, you've blown it.

I hate feeling this way. It's as though the bottom of my stomach drops out and icy water surges through my veins. Sometimes, when things are really bad, I feel as though I can hear the blood vessels expanding and contracting as they push newly-frozen blood throughout my body.

For years, I associated these feelings with tasks I had failed to complete. These last two years, however, I have begun to associate them on a near-daily basis with things I say while teaching. As an extrovert, I process my thoughts about three feet away from my head. That is to say, I usually say whatever comes to mind. The more enthusiastic or engaged I am, the greater the likelihood that I'll say something completely outlandish.

With the young students, I fight mightily to keep the filter firmly in place. Generally, I can screen what I say enough to catch anything completely offensive or stupid. Hence my teaching style for the underclassmen: pre-prepared notes that they have to write down and a minimum of free discussion. Of course, I'm happy to engage any questions that they have but I treat these individually, rather than trying to get the whole class in on a discussion (20+ sophomores discussing a single issue??? IMPOSSIBLE)

My seniors, however, get a faster, freer, looser Duns. In a class with 35 students that starts at 8:40 in the morning, I have to do my best not only to keep them engaged and interested, I also have to work hard to keep them awake.

I mention this because last night I experienced the cold dread I experience daily when I signed into Facebook to find that I had been invited to be a member of the "Abba Duns Quotes" page. My heart rate skyrocketed as I read nearly 200 quotes culled from my senior philosophy class this year. I think I had a sense that stuff was being written down but, to be honest, I never thought much about it.

Here are a few highlights:

  • (pours water on sleeping student) I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…Evil Demon be gone!
  • 1517, ahh, the good ol’ days…we could just burn people who disagreed
  • If I feel the hand of my beloved on my cheek in bed I think, “that’s great”. If I feel a hand on my cheek on a bus in New York, I think, “Oh my God! I’m going to be a statistic”
  • Descartes wanted to get you a ripped Philosophical body
  • Just because he (Heidegger) was a Nazi doesn’t mean he was a bad philosopher…he was just a bad person
  • Did you know that babies with cystic fibrosis taste salty?
  • I think that Jesus had more on his mind than me when he was crucified like, “Oh my God this hurts like hell”.
  • I think I made a kid an atheist by accident the other day…he’ll take my class in the future though and it’ll be fine
  • This may surprise some of you, but I am going to die one day…sometimes I wish it be sooner
  • You are close enough to a ginger that I feel like kicking you
  • If philosophy were easy no one would major in Communications
  • Interesting enough, Tom Cruise studied to be a priest as a child…see what happens when you abandon your childhood religion, you become a nut job…you have a hot wife but you are damn crazy
  • So under the influence of Sudafed and two goblets of Jesus’ precious blood, I had the most delusional prayer experience ever…This is how I think I ended up on an Indian reservation for 9 weeks
  • Type In “Jesuit” into YouTube and you will either get tin flute lessons or how we control OPEC
  • You have the depth of a pie tin…
  • I knew a girl who was kicked in the head by a donkey and was cross-eyed for her entire life. It was always unnerving to look at her

I include these simply as representative sampling of the struggle I face as an extrovert. If nothing else, my students will leave my course with an appreciation of the art of the quick comeback and the outlandish claim!

As you can imagine, I live with the sinking feeling of dread that I described above. Every night when I pray, I promise myself that "Tomorrow, I resolve not so say _________ again." With God's grace, I think I follow through on this prayerful's just that something else finds a way to replace each yesterday's slip!! I don't mean to say things that are crazy, but they just escape from my mouth before I have time to catch it. Fortunately, my students tend to find these things amusing if not a bit dis-edifying...proving that Jesuits are real people, too.

As of 9:15 this morning, my final exams are administered and I'll go down and run them through the Scantron machine later this afternoon. It's hard to believe that, with this exam, my regency hits its half-way point. Although I look forward to further adventures in my Jesuit formation and my eventual ordination to the priesthood, I really love my regency and I can't think of anything I'd rather do than teach...despite what my aforementioned quotes may indicate! [Disclaimer: all of these quotes need to put into context. Most of them are far more vanilla than they seem at first blush]

Sunday, January 09, 2011

On Bended Knee

This morning, I went with Brother Boynton and Father Kiser to celebrate the Eucharist at a local parish. The liturgy was very nice and I noticed quite a few of my students in the congregation, so I tried to be on my best behavior. The sprinkling rite was sufficiently wet (Father Kiser, the celebrant, has deadly accuracy with his aim) and the music and homily were spot-on. The only trouble, though, was with the kneelers.

I grew up in a parish without kneelers. For this reason, perhaps, I am extraordinarily conscientious about kneeling protocol. For instance, if I am sitting next to a person who is slower to kneel than I am, I linger in a half-seated, half-standing pose until such time the person has sits down, pulls the kneeler down, and assumes position. I call this the two-stage approach: stage one (sit) followed by stage two (release kneeler and slide into place). I let these people take the lead, usually out of deference to their age.

A second type of protocol is called for when dealing with persons with children. The small child playing on the floor poses a unique challenge to the lowering of the kneeler, as you can't be expected to shove a toddler with your foot to make room for the cushioned kneeler (although I am often tempted to shove toddlers during the liturgy). Just recently, in fact, I had the awkward experience of putting a kneeler down on a child's blankie, eliciting cries of protest and forcing me from my angelic contemplation to do a half-seated rise (almost a Yoga pose) so the blanket could be released.

Then there is the peremptory dropper. These are the folks who make a big show of lowering the kneeler WAY before it's time to do so and does so to make sure that everyone else knows that we're going to be doing it soon. They release the kneeler and seem to savor the loud noise it makes when it hits the floor.  These are the people who LOVE to kneel and seem to treat kneeling as an endurance contest. More on this later.

A fourth sort is a bit ambiguous, sort of like the duck-billed platypus of the liturgy. These are the people who will lower the kneeler and then rest on the edge of the pew, their knees hovering above the cushion. I suspect that this is more comfortable than kneeling, although I can't imagine resting on my tailbone to be very inviting.

Finally, there is my sort of kneeler. At the appropriate time, my eyes do a lateral sweep to make sure there are no children/blankets/purses/etc. underfoot. I then use the toe of my shoe to hook under the kneeler, lower it to the top of my foot, and then gently bring it to the floor without any noise. When it is time to kneel, I lower myself down carefully and try to sit erect (no halving it for me: I think there is something lost by leaning your butt against the pew while your arms rest on the pew in front of you). When it is time for the Our Father, I stand and put the kneeler up...and then lower it again for Communion.

The kneelers add, to my mind, a whole dimension to the liturgy I missed as a kid. I feel a certain sense of stewardship for my fellow seat mates as I have no inhibitions and sort of assume the position of "Kneeler Captain" at Mass. I think I observe good space (thigh-to-thigh is too close) and I find kneeling to help in putting me into a more prayerful space. The kneelers, though, bring out my darker side. Sometimes I find myself getting into kneel-offs with the peremptory droppers, those who think they can outdo others with a grand show of endurance. I take some delight in the fact that I have strong quads and good posture and can kneel for a very long time without fidgeting. I score a venial victory each time I find that I can outlast one of them.

Today, though, I found a new development. When we were queuing up to receive Communion, several segments of my pew had the kneelers down, meaning that one had to walk delicately around them (very narrow space) or put it down for the forgetful person. I feel bad doing this, as though I'm trespassing on someone's property. This is especially true if, as I found today, someone had put her purse on the kneeler before getting into the Communion line, meaning that I risked dumping a purse (bad), tripping over the kneeler (not good), or touching someone else's property (a misdemeanor). What's someone to do? The purse-on-kneeler, though, is not nearly as troublesome as the person who does not go up to Communion but insists on kneeling while others do. In itself, not a problem. Yet, it's hard to navigate around such a person on the return. Twice in the last six months I've had to tap a person who, so enraptured in prayer that he forgot that he had become a traffic violation, was blocking the return-to-pew flow.

It's things like this that make me love being Catholic: Mass, for the vigilant soul, is seldom dull!

After Mass, though, a crazed mother virtually accosted me over the fact that I had assigned a paper that was due on Christmas Eve. Now it didn't matter that I had given the students well over a week to do the assignment, or that I wanted them to reflect on the readings for the Christmas Mass BEFORE Christmas, or that her son isn't even in my class; indeed, I thought that Jesus' crucifixion would be a kinder alternative to what she seemed to have in store for me.

Fortunately, I was not executed. She showed mercy and invited my Jesuit companions to join her and her family for breakfast. It was a delightful treat and I enjoyed spending time them...even though I kept an eye on her the entire time, lest she make an attempt on my life as we ate.

Thanks MB!! (I warned you that I'd write something)

In other news, we're now in Finals week. I have to read the Senior Philosophy finals tonight/tomorrow and then on Tuesday I will administer "The Final Exam...of Doom" to the sophomores. This exam was forged and crafted over the course of six hours, four atrocious 80's horror movies, and a pot of coffee yesterday afternoon. This translates into: it's a pretty funny exam, not too taxing, and should leave most of them smiling.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Learning to Read

I just thought I'd include two pictures of my niece (Emma) and nephew (Quinn) teaching me how to read.

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

The Catholic Church today celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, the day on which we remember Jesus' being revealed as the light of all nations.

In keeping with the theme of the "Year of the Stranger," consider these verses from today's Gospel written by the evangelist Matthew:

...magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled, 
and all Jerusalem with him.
Strangers come to the city bearing a message that is disconcerting to those who hear it: the king of the Jews is newly born and they have traveled a great distance to pay him homage. The light of this start has caught the attention of these foreigners, these non-Jews, and they have embarked upon a journey to see with their own eyes the one to whom this sign attests.

Hell, I can't say I blame Herod. If I were something of the puppet king installed by the occupying Roman authorities and knew that my position of power was guaranteed only by my keeping these same occupiers happy, I'd not want anyone proclaiming the birth of the new king. So I totally sympathize with Herod. I can totally get why he's unnerved because if the new king is born then the old king, by extension, probably doesn't have a long reign ahead of him.

It is, though, the next lines I find most fascinating:

Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, 
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, 
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.
Then Herod called the magi secretly 
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
Herod assembles a group of religious leaders - a theological cabinet - and presses them for information. The prophecy they recount only galvanizes his fear: a new ruler has been born and, in Herod's world, there is room enough for but one ruler. Interesting, isn't it, that there is no account of the religious authorities offering a different picture of what this ruler might be, what this new-born shepherd might be like? These men - let us assume that they were all men - demonstrate a spiritual and imaginative blindness that only reinforces Herod's suspicions and fears. These religious authorities, these men of God, do what we see too often happening today: they hitch their wagons to party in power and refuse to challenge the leader, choosing instead to reaffirm him rather than question him.

So without a challenge from his religious counselors, Herod approaches and deputizes the Magi, the three strangers visiting his land, to signal to Herod where the child is so that he might pay him homage. It is the strangers, the interlopers, the non-Jews who know better where to find the Christ than those who, supposedly, have been waiting for their Messiah for so long.

You, of course, know the rest of the story. Yet today's Gospel ends one verse too early for my liking, because after the Magi are warned in a dream to depart by another route, Joseph is warned of impending doom as well. Matthew writes:

When they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him."
Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.
In the still of the night, the child is bundled up as Joseph and Mary set out for Egypt. The Holy Family leaves the land of their fathers and goes into a foreign land - a land that once enslaved their people - to secure their son's safety. It is a dream that instructs Joseph later to bring the child not to Jerusalem - the center of the Jewish world - but to Galilee, to Nazareth, a backwater town that accounted for little in the world.

Today's Solemnity plays on a double theme of the Stranger in our midst. First, it is the Strangers who know better than those who ought - the religious authorities - how to read the 'signs of the times' and follow those signs to encounter the Messiah. How often is it that we upright Christians misinterpret the sign of Christ's arrival in our own lives? How easy is it to think that we meet Christ in the Eucharist each week and then forget that Christ comes also under the guise of the widow, the orphan, and the alien?

Isn't it ironic that so-called good Catholics can with the same mouth assent "Amen" that what they consume is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and later call mightily for greater border patrols to keep out the "illegals," the aliens in our midst? Isn't it strange to think that so-called good Catholics will pray fervently for an end to abortion (a prayer I join) while decrying any social-welfare program that would intend to help the unwed mothers and their children, thereby condemning them to a system of structural inequality and oppression? Isn't it funny to think that people will pray the Rosary outside of abortion clinics yet become enraged that people protest the School of the Americas? Isn't it a bit inconsistent that we want laws that would prohibit the murder of innocent babies and laws against euthanasia in a country that, not so long ago, made it a part of its military practice to spray Napalm on citizens, effectively searing the flesh off of innocent men, women, children, and babies during a time of warfare?

It's easy to misinterpret the signs, to miss the arrival of Christ. Yet look at the cost of this misinterpretation: an inconsistent approach to the value of human life. It is this myopia, this blindness, that would enable Herod's religious counselors to remain silent in interpreting the prophecy of the savior's birth, the same counselors who remained silent during the Slaughter of the Innocents.

The theme of the Stranger appears a second time in the verse not read at Mass today. Here we hear of Jesus being called into Egypt, into the unwelcoming land of his forefathers' captivity and enslavement. From here is he returned to his people, leaving his ancestral captors and joining his soon-to-be killers. Jesus was, throughout his life, and is today the consummate Stranger: one whose likeness to us in his humanity yields how unlike we are to him in his divinity: the Word was made Flesh and pitched his tent among us....and we killed him because he made us really uncomfortable.

Jesus was a strange duck. He made no sense to religious authorities, political authorities, family, and friends. It was hard to peg him, to situate him on some coordinate plane that made clear all of his actions. His ways were not....indeed, are still not....our ways. Perhaps this is what we need to take most from today's Solemnity: the very strangeness of Jesus. The next time I feel the temptation to become Christ-complacent, so certain of my own rectitude and uprightness, it will do me well to remember how "Jesus thrown everything off balance" (Flannery O'Connor) and that I must not ever lose sight that for as much as I love Him, he will always be to me: Strange.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Security Breach?

During Mass this morning, it struck me that as a kid I grew up in a home that never locked its doors. That is, to my knowledge, my parents never insisted on locking the house when we went out for the evening and we certainly didn't lock the doors when we were in the house. Living in a pretty urban area now where we do our due diligence to ensure security protocols are followed, my family's custom (still practiced, I believe) seems so out of place, so naive, so....dangerous.

Over the last few years, I've noticed a significant uptick in the number of commercials advertising security measures for your home and vehicle. You know those commercials: the young woman enters the home, or the mother puts the kids to bed upstairs, when there is the tinkling sound of broken glass as an intruder attempts to enter. Lights go on and the security company is alerted to this incursion and, within minutes, the police arrive. The security system, they would have us believe, will afford us peace-of-mind and a sense of stability in a dangerous world.

The burgeoning security industry points to a sad reality: we do not feel safe. We must protect our "in here" against those "out there." Who exactly are we afraid of? Well, the commercials won't trade on stereotypes but I think I can guess. In a white suburb, like the one I grew up in, I guess people are afraid of black men who are out to steal your goods to buy crack, meth-addicted hillbillies looking to get enough money to assure themselves of another fix, Mexicans, Arabs...basically, anyone who doesn't look quite like us.

Trust no one, suspect everyone. Arm yourself: carry pepper spray and a taser. Lo-jack your car. Beware of strangers because they are out to do you harm. Don't pick up hitchhikers, don't accept candy from strangers, that creepy old man is probably a pedophile, and on and on and on. The world is a hostile place and anyone who tells you otherwise is a naive idiot.

Perhaps I am a naive idiot.

Would Gabriel, the Angel of Annunciation, have tripped Mary's security system? I have to wonder about this. A poor, defenseless young woman interrupted in her day-to-day life by a stranger who brings to her a wondrous yet terrifying message of hope for all of humanity. This stranger breaks into her life and tells her that she is being called to stand out against all of history as the Mother of the Messiah. None will readily understand, her 'yes' places her beyond the comprehension of the world around her. Her 'yes' to this odd messenger whose greeting "Hail, favored one!" left her troubled...her 'yes' defies and transgresses all protocols we have for dealing with strangers: don't talk to them, don't follow them, don't believe them because they only want to do you harm.

Yet Mary did trust this messenger, believing that the words he spoke - words that were surely too good to be true to her ears - were, indeed, true. The overcame any preoccupation with security and her safety and ventured out into the realm of faith and carried within the Word of God. Her 'yes' becomes for us today the breach of security we are all to avoid while being the only way to let God fully into our lives.

I am left to wonder about our own security systems, those that we use to protect our houses and those we think we are using to protect our hearts. How many times do we look at the stirring in our hearts - a stir of longing, a stir of curiosity, a stir of desire - and expel that intrusive spirit as a disruptive interloper, an unwelcome stranger, rather than a potential guest bearing glad tidings? How easy is it to summon security than to pause for a moment to see who this figure entering out lives really is.

New Year's Day is often a time for making resolutions. I know that, for myself, one of this year's resolutions is to be more welcoming to the Strangers who appear at the threshold far too often and, with chillingly equal regularity, I turn away. My work with vocation promotion gives me courage in this, as I meet many great young men who feel a stirring, a strange longing in their hearts, but turn that stranger away as too threatening, too disturbing. In my own work to help them make space for the Stranger who knocks, I know I need to do this in my own life.

As we enter into this new year, let us christen it the Year of the Stranger. When we feel the knock at the door of our heart, may we resist the urge to pull the alarm, preferring instead to put the kettle on and offer a welcome handshake.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame