Friday, September 30, 2011

When Your Voice Gives Out

It has been a crazy week around these parts! I went to Boston last Saturday for a feis on Sunday, came home, and resumed teaching on Monday. I had to write, to give, and obviously to grade 2 different tests this week, prepare for a rally, Homecoming Dance, and a little thing called Pledge Detroit. So it just seems fitting that, this morning, I woke up with no voice.

You know you teach really good kids when you can't really raise your voice and they absolutely still so that you can still teach!

My life has not been quite my own this week. I'll be back to more regular postings after Tuesday's big day. Please keep those involved in U of D Jesuit: Pledge Detroit in your prayers.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Your Teacher Told You to Get What???

I can remember distinctly that, when I was a high school student at Saint Ignatius in Cleveland, the happiest teachers on the faculty seemed to be the Jesuits. Etched into my memory is a particular instance when I saw then-Mister and now-Father Raymond Guiao, SJ walking across the campus and being struck by the man's obvious joy. Of all the things I ever wanted in life, I knew that I wanted to be happy, to be joyful, and the joy of the Jesuits I came to know over the next several years helped to focus my desire to serve God as a Companion of Jesus.

In between classes yesterday, I heard some of the sophomores talking about how they were learning about sexually transmitted diseases in their Health class. Never wanting to miss an opportunity to say something outlandish and seizing an opportunity to point out the use of the Latin genitive case, I encouraged first my Freshmen Latin students and then, later in the day, my sophomores to go home that night and to announce with conviction at the dinner table that, "Mom, Dad: when I get older, I want to get an STD. Mr. Duns may get an STD too and it seems like a lot of fun."

Now, for the un-initiated, the Roman Catholic Church has its own version of the doctorate: the Sacrae Theologiae Doctor. It is, quite possibly, the most woefully named academic distinction in human history. At a cocktail party, people may well look at you in awe after learning you have a PhD. When you confess to them over delicious bruschetta or canapes that you have an STD, you're more likely than not to have your interlocutor beat the retreat and go off in search of hand sanitizer.

Some may ask, "Duns, why would you say such a thing?" My simple answer: first, because I think it is funny. Second, if the guys see that I can have fun with school then, I suspect, it may encourage them to have fun (within reason). Sometimes schools can be such heavy places, filled with a vast array of stressors and dilemmas, and I suspect that some of the joy and humor of a class can become an oasis for students. Besides, it's such a beautifully named degree that, in an all-boys school, I'd be remiss not to capitalize on it!

This is not to say that all parents found my humor equally amusing. One mother contacted me, quite obviously not surprised at what her son came home with, and said, "You must have been in rare form today." (I should hasten to add: I also showed the guys the design of the tattoo I'd get if I ever were to get a tattoo)  Another mother wrote and asked for clarification about the type of STD we were talking: her son, it turned out, was not paying full attention to what I was saying and knew that he was to announce to his parents the desire for the STD but forgot exactly what it stood for.

Ahhh, sophomores: the wise fools life up to the name yet again.

At least, to my knowledge, no one went home and said, "Mom, Dad, when I get older I want to get syphilis."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

U of D Jesuit: Pledge Detroit! 2011

Yesterday, our school community kicked of the Second Annual U of D Jesuit: Pledge Detroit! As you may remember from last year, this is a school-wide initiative that serves as the largest student-driven fundraiser of the year. Rather than selling raffle tickets, our students collect pledges that support them when, on October 4th, our entire school gives itself over to a day of service in the city of Detroit. This year, we are pleased to be returning to Belle Isle, Historic Fort Wayne, and adding Palmer Park. 

It is easy, I suspect, for schools to use handy quotes like "AMDG" or "Men for Others" when talking about what they do as a school. What I am most proud about Pledge Detroit is that it allows our students to do more than say that they are "Men for Others." Pledge Detroit gives them an opportunity to be "Men for Others" together as they put their hands where their mouths usually are! That we are able to involve our alumni and the parents of our students makes this day all the more special: sons working with parents, teachers with students, alumni coming together again, all out of a sense of responsibility for the city our school has called home for 134 years. 
If you get a moment, fell free to visit the site, linked below. Please keep our students in your prayers as we approach October 4th and our second effort at giving back to a city that has given us so much. Pray, too, for good weather: I may have 900 ponchos in my closet in case of rain, but I'd rather not have to use them!!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Got Jesus?

Earlier this week, a high school football game garnered wide media attention simply for the cheers offered by the student body. Cincinnati's Saint Xavier, a football powerhouse, went head-to-head with a major rival, Cincinnati Colerain. The then-No. 26 Saint Xavier narrowly triumphed over then-No. 8 Colerain with a score of 17-14.

Apparently, moments after the victory, the Student Section at Saint Xavier began to chant "We've Got Jesus." Upon hearing this cheer, Colerain's coach Tom Bolden apparently went ballistic and he began shouting at the students. Asked after the game, a simmering Bolden is quoted, "They ought to be embarrassed."

In response, one of the Saint Xavier students had this to say:
"The sad reality of this situation is that our entire faculty has absolutely handcuffed us in terms of what we are and aren't allowed to chant because they are so worried about our public relations, and the chants that our student section chant are nothing compared to what the teams we play are able to stay us. How about you report on the constant anti-gay chants we have to deal with week in and week out?" 
You can read for yourself accounts of the story here, here, and here

As the moderator of U of D Jesuit's Student Senate, it's one of my jobs to be in the rotation to moderate our student body's cheering section. It is absolutely true that co-ed schools will chant "We've Got Girls" and "You are Gay." Heck, I've heard other local (purportedly) Catholic schools chant "You are Gay" at sporting events. Now while I have no trouble coming up with eviscerating comeback cheers in response, I am not allowed to give them to the students. Alas.

I am, consequently, sympathetic to the views expressed by the Saint X student. We do expect a degree of cleverness and decorum from our students and we are concerned with the way they present themselves to the wider public. I have, on numerous occasions, quashed cheers that they students think are "awesome" because they were unclever or offensive. Thus, I totally get the kids' frustration at feeling as though their hands are tied when it comes to cheering.

Now, on a theological level, the cheer is absolute balderdash if we believe in Jesus (He came so that all, or in the forthcoming translation of the Mass, so that many) might be saved. I tend to err on the side of God's graciousness, so I'm pretty comfortable with saying that Jesus is no one's possession. Then again, it's a Catholic school playing against a public school. On a certain level, Saint X does have Jesus: they can post a picture of the Sacred Heart and not be fired for it, whereas to do that in a public school might well lead to a suspension if not a firing!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

This Made Me Laugh

One of my favorite subjects to address with my students is the compatibility of religion and science. There are any number of ways to enter into the discussion, although one of my preferred ways is to make the distinction between the fundamental types of questions theology and science ask. The philosopher Wittgenstein wrote in his Tractatus "It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists." Or, as I frame it for the guys, Science asks "how" things are in the world; Theology asks the very different sort of question: why is there anything at all?

Father Kiser's sister forwarded him this Doonesbury comic earlier this week. It really made me laugh, as recently there seemed to be some confusion about what the Church's teaching on religion and science actually is. As one who understands the nonsensicalness of both "Creationism" and "Intelligent Design," I fully appreciated the wit of this cartoon.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Prayer as the Exercise of Desire

Over the past few days, I have been spending several minutes each morning with Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Spe Salvi. I find this a helpful practice as the Holy Father is a beautiful writer and his meditation on the virtue of hope displays his power both as a theologian and a man deeply committed to prayer.

One metaphor he employs is that of Prayer as the School for Hope (32-34). He quotes Augustine's belief that prayer is an exercise of desire, that the slow process of praying gradually stretches the human soul, making it ever more receptive and attentive to God's creative activity:
By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him]. 
Employing a further metaphor, the Pontiff quotes Saint Augustine yet again:
Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God's tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined. 
I spent the class period yesterday talking about prayer with my sophomores. I find it difficult, sometimes, to break them free of the idolatrous notions of God that they cling to: they grasp onto the idea that God is basically a genie granting wishes, rather than the loving creator and sustainer of all that is. Prayer, to many of them, is simply the act of telling God what God should do. It never occurs to them to listen carefully to their own words and that, if they gave themselves over to it, their prayer would awaken them to what God is currently doing and how they are being invited to be a part of it.

One stock image I use is that of exercise. Each of us wants to be more fit, more toned, more muscular. With the turn of each new year, how many of us rush to get gym memberships...only to grow frustrated when we don't see results as quickly as we would like. The home gym becomes a very expensive rack to hang clothes upon and the gym membership is allowed to expire.

Yet if we are sensitive to our daily workouts, we realize that while we may not see immediate results, we know that if we keep at it, some change will take place. It is the patient practice, the day in and day out commitment, the long hours and seemingly fruitless workouts, that lead us to ever more sculpted bodies and chiseled features. Not many of us can run a marathon without training: it takes months of hard work, dieting, and cross-training even to make the attempt. Prayer is not so disimilar, for it takes a very long time and a great deal of patience before we see the new shape our hearts are taking.

I find comfort in looking at pictures of caves. Sometimes, it is true, the sheer power of a raging river cut through stone and carved out enormous caverns. Yet other times, it is simply the slow trickle of water that seeps into the earth and slowly dissolves the stone. Year after year, eon after eon, the slow trickle carves out enormous spaces. The rock's natural resistance to change is overcome by the steadiness and softness of a drip of water.

Perhaps more of us should make our own to have hearts of stone. Hearts that may be hard and tough, but that are passive enough to be affected by the slow trickle of grace. Stones cannot put up defenses: they are exposed to the elements and comply to the forces of nature. The human heart, infinitely more delicate than any stone, is remarkable in the defenses it can put up to protect itself from the outside.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ode to a Feis Mother

Somewhere around fifteen years ago, when my siblings were wholly enmeshed in the world of Irish dancing, I put my pen to paper and wrote a little piece called "Ode to the Feis Mother." A copy of the poem has hung in the hallway of my parents' house for years and it is only today that it occurred to me that it might be nice to publish it online.

A word of warning to any current feis parents: this poem is dated. Back in the "old" days, Irish dancers didn't wear wigs...they actually curled their hair in rollers! In those days, groups of parents would get together the night before a feis and have "curling parties" where they would drink beer and roll hair for hours. When I was a young musician just starting out playing the accordion at feiseanna, I was always entertained by the quizzical looks passers-by would give to the legions of little girls, their heads tightly bound with multi-colored curlers. While I think the move to wigs is one innovation in Irish dancing that was certainly convenient and more reliable, I do sort of miss the social world interaction that surrounded the curling parties and the socialization they encouraged. 

So, without further ado, here it is!

Ode to the Feis Mother

Watching as the Dancer dances and skips,
She stands in the crowd, hands on her hips.
Pen in one hand, book in the other
there she stands: the Irish feis mother.

The dancer bows and walks off the stage
Feis mother looks for that girl's name on the page.
The dancer's school is found next to the name
and so begins the Feis Mother's game.
She watches every dancer with a perfect contempt,
from her scorn only her daughter is kept. 

If her daughter does not win, the only reason could be
that among the judges there exists some CONSPIRACY!
There is to Feis Mother never a chance,
the problem is that her dancer can't dance.

If not the judges, then It's the MUSIC!
(If she could do better, we'd love to see her do it)
If it's not the music, then it's the Stage!
That is the only logical vent to her rage.
For it was the stage that bounced and shook,
Why, whoever built it should be tried as a crook.

Yet when it's all over, and the dancer lay sleeping,
it is not Feis Mother you will find weeping. 
After spending her evening wrapping
curlers in black mesh,
she pauses and asks herself "Why Stop Now??"
Tomorrow there's another feis!

As I said, it's a bit dated and certainly reflects the mind of a feis sibling, a not uncommon breed of human being who knows what it is to be awakened at ungodly hours, cram into a car, drive to the feis, unload the car, and camp out while one's siblings dance on the stages. Long before I became a feis musician, I was a feis roadie. 

I sometimes worry that the Irish dancing world has changed so much that it has lost some of the fun elements that I remember. Perhaps it is simply nostalgia but I cannot help but think that sometimes the world of Irish dancing gets reduced simply to the competition and neglects that it is an art form that celebrates together the richness of a people's culture. I am so grateful for the many good friends and memories I have from my years of involvement in Irish dancing and I should like to think that future generations will be able to experience something of this for themselves. 

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Prayer, Interrupted

In the conclusion to his thought-provoking text God Interrupts History, theologian Lieven Boeve quotes Johan Baptist Metz who writes, "The shortest definition of religion is interruption." Christianity, for Metz, was never meant to become a cultural assumption, something into which one was born and went through the motions. Quite to the contrary, Christianity is a dangerous memory of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This "dangerous memory" is itself subversive of the current order, giving courage to those folly, or brave, enough to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and inspiring them to live courageously in a world so ravaged by sin.

This being my first exposure to Boeve's thought, I am inspired to continue reading. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout my reading, impressed with the clarity of his writing and the power of his thought. Indeed, Boeve sees it as essential that Christianity be re-contextualized in each era. This is not to say that we jettison the past but, rather, that we allow the experience of Christianity to come alive, to be incarnated, in each new context. As he writes, in a beautiful turn of phrase,

"It is not as human beings that we are Christians but as Christians that we are human beings..."
Christianity is not meant to be something added-on to a human. It is meant to be the way that we are human. The wisdom of the Cross, derided so often today, will not always compel assent from those who do not believe, but it may light the spark that impels others to live as Christians live, provided that we live out our faiths courageously and boldly.

I entitled this post "Prayer, Interrupted" because I often think of prayer as a conversation with God. It is a temptation, though, to let the conversation become a monologue: me talking and not listening! It is helpful, then, to consider that the God of Israel and Jesus Christ is one not above interrupting the human story in order to let the story of the Kingdom be known. We see examples of interruption in the prophets and figures of the Hebrew Scriptures (surely, Isaac is grateful for the interruption that spared him from Abram's knife!). We see interruption in John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles and disciples of Jesus. We see interruption in the way Jesus is claimed to have disturbed and righted the human narrative. We see interruption in a history of the saints whose lives became foolish to many, yet attest to the glory of God.

If prayer does not interrupt our lives, if the liturgy is not a bit of a surd that chafes us just a bit, if God does not interrupt our so-called illusion free philosophy of life...then it's probably not prayer. Authentic prayer is marked with a profound vulnerability, a fragility, that exposes each of our hearts and lives to the interruptive presence of the Creator and Sustainer of all. The next time you set about praying, listen for that odd, niggling, feeling in your heart: perhaps the irritating knocking in some neglected region of your heart is the doorway inviting you into a new place of relationship with God.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Like Grandfather, Like Grandson

After several visits to see my physician and quite a few x-rays, blood tests, and questions like, "Does this hurt? Can you bend this back any further? How long has it been doing this" I learned that I have arthritis. This sort of make sense, really: for the last eight months or so, I've noticed a stiffness and soreness in my hands, ankles, knees, elbows, and neck. On my desk I now have three bottles of delightful medication - Flexeril, Ultram (that was the initial prescription and has been replaced by) Nabumetone.

Now, I haven't any idea what this means for me in the longterm except that I can expect the soreness and stiffness to linger, if not worsen. My first concern was that I might eventually lose the ability to play music. While this is a possibility, I suspect, I can still play two days of feis music on the accordion and I wasn't too much worse for the wear afterward. I also realized that I've never been guaranteed another day of playing - I could, after all, get run over by a bus or lose a finger in a freak stapling accident - so I will embrace, albeit a bit stiffly, what I have now and treasure it for as long as possible.

I take great comfort in the words of Jesus to Mary of Magdala: Noli me tangere (in the Vulgate) or "Do not hold on to me." Mary, having suffered the traumatic loss of her Lord, naturally reached out to grasp the Risen One that Easter morning. Her arms, too, ached. Her heart knew the grief that so much feels like fear. Her instinct to horde her Lord is wholly understandable. Yet Jesus is not something to be grasped at or owned. Quite to the contrary! It is the encounter with the Conqueror of Death that etches are heart with an indelible mark, a scar, which feeds our lives and ministries. To be free to live out her discipleship, Mary had to risk letting go of what she loved the most in order to love the most.

I'm not quite ready to let go of music. Though there is a sense that the 'fast fingers' I've always enjoyed will eventually slow down, I know enough to treasure the gift I have now but that, in time, I will be forced to let it go. Were I never to play a note again, God forbid, I would never cease to be a musician, for my heart has long been shaped and contoured by the music I have played and loved for nearly twenty-five years.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame