Thursday, June 23, 2011

Declining in Berkeley!

An intrepid crew of students - 7 Jesuits, one lay student - has spent the last several days slogging, clawing, and bargaining our way through Wheelock's Latin. As you might expect, each one of us is dealing with the trauma of "Intensive Summer Latin" differently. Indeed, each of us probably falls somewhere within the Five Stages of Grief and Loss

  1. Denial - "Oh my God! I can't believe this man is actually expecting us to learn all of these vocabulary words plus the grammar. This is are we ever going to cover all forty chapters in six weeks?"
  2. Anger - "I hate my formation director who approved this summer course. There is a reason no one speaks Latin any more: it's a stupid language! Why can't I have a delightful summer assignment of chewing aluminum foil or doing crafts?"
  3. Bargaining -  "Listen, professor, none of us wants to be here. Why don't we just pretend to do Latin and we'll watch YouTube videos all day. Or how about we slow down and, if we don't cover the whole book, no one will be the wiser." 
  4. Depression - "It's ten o'clock at night and I've spent the last six hours studying these chapters. I still have to memorize today's vocabulary, take the quiz tomorrow, and for what? Another two chapters tomorrow and more vocabulary! This is never going to end..."
  5. Acceptance - "Wow, it's only nine days in and I've learned a ton already. This isn't so bad - sure, it's a lot of work and I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed at times, but this is really valuable and I'm glad to be doing this course with fun guys and in a beautiful setting." 
I suspect you'll get a sense of where I'm at if you read carefully!

I've come to regard this whole experience as my "Retreat with Latin." Given my retreat experience with the Benedictine Monks two months ago, I reckon I'm inclined toward seeing my life as something of ora et labora or "prayer and work" with a fixed schedule. I arise early, pray, and then shower. I walk down to Peet's Coffee where the barista has taken to referring to me as "White Papers" since I come in each morning with my vocabulary list in my hands. I return to my room, study a bit more, go to class and then lunch, followed by four hours of study, daily Eucharist, social, dinner, and then three more hours of study. It's a pretty nice, regular schedule during the week, one that allows me free time on the weekend to go out and see the Bay Area.

I feel bad that posting is light these days, but it's hard to squeeze out time to write. Tonight we have only one chapter to cover so I feel a little less pressure, but I know there is a lot of studying yet to do. Please be assured of my continued prayers, even within the relative silence of the blog, and know that when I have some free time that I'll surely have more to share. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Is the Control-F Generation Obsessed with Sex?

This morning I sat drinking coffee with a brother Jesuit, watching a Discovery channel special on ice cream. The other Jesuit asked me, during a commercial break, if my experiences teaching adolescents had given me an insight into their thinking, their way of seeing the world. Seeing that I was going to respond, he said, "Let me guess: Sex, Sex, Sex."

Immediately, I had to think: I really do not think that this generation is more obsessed with sex than any other. Surely, young women and men today are bombarded with sexual images. Is this because they are looking for it or simply because we live in a society that lacks any inhibitions? Are we projecting onto those I have dubbed the "Control-F Generation" our own issues?

Here's my take on the issue. I think what we often see and experience as an obsession with sex is actually only a symptom of a much-larger issue. I do not think kids today are constantly lusting after sex; rather, I think students are having sex because they are obsessed with being loved.

Think about the social milieu confronting kids today. They are told to perform well, that they need the best grades, the coolest extracurriculars , the most generous service, the highest test scores, and they need to play some type of sport or instrument in order even to be considered for college. Ironically, this is all done in a context where so often students are not allowed to fail, where "no child is left behind," and everyone makes the team! It's funny that we expect kids to be winners when no one is allowed to lose.

These kids are driven to succeed, driven to matter. Yet, I wonder, do we allow them to do so? Perhaps it is the case that one can only matter where there is a real risk of failure. Do we allow our students and our children to face this risk? Do we let them go "double or nothing" or do we encourage them always to be safe, to be secure, to take no risks, to settle for the happy middle?

Our students, it seems to me, really want to do well. Yet so much of their lives is pre-programmed and scheduled that it seems to them that all they really have to do is fill in bubbles and answer the right questions and do the right things and they will be successful. We've set up a developmental framework where students equate success with love! It is not uncommon to hear sentiments such as "I know I don't like piano lessons, but my parents want me to be well-rounded. I would rather play the drums...they are pushing me because they love me" or "My father won't pay for college if I don't go to X University or major in XYX."

So in an environment where it is hard to take real risks, to take ownership of one's decisions, how does the Control-F generation find a way to matter? One way, I think, is through sexual experimentation. Of course, this is not a new thing: people have been thinking about and having sex forever (that's why we are here). Nevertheless, I think that the If rates of having sex are higher today than they were fifty years ago, perhaps it's not due to greater interest, but to the fact that kids are left alone today far more often than they were fifty years ago (An empty house with a bored teenager may soon find many filled beds). If students cannot find meaning through their actions, then they will find it through their bodies. If they cannot find acceptance and approval through their own hard work and on their own merits, they will find it in and through their bodies.

To my eye, the single trait I see represented most among my students is a desire to know that they are loved unconditionally. They are so used to performing that they fear that if they mess up, if they let someone down, that they will no longer be loved. In some ways, they are coddled so much that they aren't really permitted to fail in any meaningful way and are, consequently, unable to learn that they can be loved even after they have failed. Their hunger for acceptance and meaning drives them, consequently, find meaning wherever they can: in the embrace of another. Even if it is only for a few seconds, they feel that they matter...that they are loved.

Consider this: if you give the middle finger to someone on the road in the USA, it means something. To be "flicked off" produces a physical feeling in many of us. The gesture of the other's body is meaningful. How much more meaningful, then, to put yourself in another's body or to welcome another into yours? Sex is meaningful and in a context where we have disabled the ability of many of our young adults to create or find meaning, they will seek it out in the most intimate and sacred of places: the act of sexual intercourse.

I'm sort of writing this stream-of-conscious as this is something I'm just beginning to think through. As always, I welcome any feedback: if I am on to something, this might be helpful and if I have missed the mark, I'd love to hear other voices.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Still Here!

Lest anyone be concerned, I arrived in Berkeley on Sunday. The weather here has been spectacular and my course in Intensive Latin (for Dummies, I think) is off at a brisk pace. We are entering day four of the course and we have covered Chapters 1-7 of Wheelock's Latin book. Given that this is only a six-week endeavor, the pace is understandable...but no less daunting when, each night, I have to memorize pages of new vocabulary words and conjugations!

Fortunately, there will be no class on the weekend so I'll be able to catch up on some writing. Be well!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Praying as a Rough Draft

It has been oft repeated in my presence that, "The hardest thing about writing is getting started." Having been through graduate school twice, and maintaining this blog for nearly seven years, I do believe this is true. 

What is hard about writing a term paper, in particular, is that it takes time to get onto paper what we have in our minds. That is, it takes us several drafts to distill our thoughts ever more clearly until we have something that, hopefully, conveys as best as we are able what it is that we want to say. Undoubtedly, and after several weeks or months, we may revisit our 'final' draft only to realize that what we though had been said so clearly could have, in fact, been expressed better. Perhaps this is what is humbling about reading our past work: we realize our writing is always working toward greater clarity. 

The same adage used about writers, I suspect, is true of those of us who wish to pray. It's hard to get started. Many times, I feel like I'm just pouring out words without rhyme or reason, that everything is jumbled. My pride gets in the way, leading me to feel discouraged that what I am praying, or how I am feeling, is inadequate or stupid. Just as it is easy to succumb to the temptation to quite while writing a rough draft because the text is not taking shape as easily as one might like, so too is it easy to quit prayer when the prayer doesn't live up to our standards of "excellence."

I mention this because I think that the Ignatian Examen is sort of a writer's prayer. It asks us to look, again and again, at the rough draft of our lives. Each day, we get a chance to edit, to critique, and to rethink the way the story of our lives is taking shape. Although one seldom sees rapid change or sudden shifts, it is not uncommon for me to look back after several months and say, "Geez, there is growth here after all!" Several months later, I can look again and think, "Boy, I'm coming along. I thought I had it back then, but I am getting it better today." If I were aiming at perfection, at absolute clarity and certainty, then I guess I'd be frustrated with this cycle. Since I'm acutely aware of not being perfect and that I have scant chance of ever being absolutely clear, I take heart that I'm always growing.

So what's the point? It's okay for prayer to be a rough-draft. So long as you are putting forth the effort, trying to bring out what is deepest within you, be confident that you are doing exactly what prayer is meant to do. Just as we often struggle and fumble for the right word to express how we feel, just as we struggle to turn out the perfect paragraph, so also is it the case that we have to go through prayer drafts as we claw our way toward expressing what it is that our heart most deeply and truly desires.  I

Sunday, June 05, 2011

In the Wake of Finals

On Friday, June 3rd, the 2010-2011 school year came to a close. I still have to finish grading my final exams and I have a few more late-arriving grades to put into the notebook, but the school portion of the year has concluded. I am also chaperoning a trip for 80+ students (Academy and Freshmen) to Cedar Point tomorrow. I'll then have 2-3 days to rest, pack, and begin my drive to Cincinnati for Ordinations and then back to Cleveland for a 9:00 am flight on Sunday to Oakland where I'll spend six weeks studying Latin for the summer.

In the wake of another school year, I cannot help but feel enormously blessed. I have had a lot of fun, not a few trials, some great success, and an ever-growing sense that I am doing what God has invited me to do.

When you go to graduate school for theology, you make the acquaintance of any number of theories on a wide array of topics. Theologians, it seems, love to speculate on the meaning of apparently simple words like 'grace' or 'salvation' or 'revelation'. Grace is always a particularly interesting topic, because within one word one encounters a variety of types (like saying you want a 'candy bar' and being confronted with rows upon rows of varieties).

Three years ago, I probably could have parsed the meaning of 'grace' with academic ease. Today, I'm a bit rustier...despite my best efforts to keep up. But I cannot help but to feel that I, today, have a better sense of 'grace' and 'love' than I did three years ago because I haven't had to study either topic. I've had to live them.

  • How do you offer yourself through teaching and presence...not knowing whether students will accept it? 
  • How do you forgive a kid who is blatantly lying to your face?
  • How do you not resent colleagues who do not seem to pull their weight in the school? 
  • How do you offer encounters with new material, new ways of thinking, only to feel frustrated that students don't always seem to be interested in these things?
  • How do you help students to realize that their narrowly-constructed worldviews keep out far more than they let in, and how do you pry them open gently to see that there is more to life than the pursuit of riches? 
Teaching high school has been a great opportunity to, as Howard Gray, SJ used to say, "Love someone when he is most unlovable." I'll probably never have a daughter or son of my own who vomits in the middle of the night, needing me to clean her up; I'll probably never have a wife who, approaching death, becomes increasingly reliant upon me. How do you learn to 'give and not to count the cost'? In my life, this grace has come through teaching. 

Over the course of these two years, I cannot claim to have become more jaded or embittered. I think I've become more realistic, more able to understand the hearts and values of a generation of students and their parents. Perhaps I am even more hopeful, because I do think these young women and men are capable of tremendous good and I have seen and experienced their hunger for more, the magis, and that if they can be introduced to the Good News in an idiom that reaches them, I think we will find their energy and excitement commended to the building of God's Kingdom. 

Evangelism today needs women and men who can think outside of narrowly-constructed borders. Much to the dismay of some, I can say simply that I do yoga and pray the rosary; that I watch Glee and Jersey Shore and pray the Liturgy of the Hours; that I run and am training for another marathon and that I spend a lot of hours reading philosophy and theology so that I can give the best answers I'm capable of to my students; that I like to go to the bar and relax with my friends and I make the Eucharist the center of my life; that the spirit of Irish music that has been with me for almost my entire life is the same Spirit who draws me to proclaim the Gospel each day. 

I am not the model, nor am I particularly good or successful. I have a temper, I get irritated with intellectually slothful or intransigent people, I eschew facile black-and-white distinctions where there is an obvious abundance of gray, and I too often speak/write before I think. The filter, as the kids point out, is not always screwed into place. 

What I have learned though, this year, is that my limitations don't make me a bad person. They make me really quite normal. I can't pretend to have all the answers. What I can do is to accompany people as they ask questions, to help them find clarity, and if we can have a laugh while we do so...all to the good. My hope, now that we're at over 800 posts in just under 7 years, is that something of this has been shared with my readers. 

The next week, filled as it is with travel, may result in few postings. Please keep me in your prayers as I brave an amusement park with 80 adolescent boys and pray, too, for our Tri-Province gathering next weekend. If time permits, I'll update before I head off to California but, if not, please be assured of my prayers as we begin summer vacation!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame