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...

Friday, October 07, 2011


When I was in high school, there was a teacher who was notorious for leaving homework papers and tests totally marked up with red ink. I'm not saying corrected, mind you. A returned-paper tended to have jerky lines running down the paper, often curving, sometimes halting, but the lines were always numerous. As only student are able, we came to believe that this teacher had narcolepsy and simply fell asleep hundreds of times while grading papers, those sudden falls into the abyss of sleep not stopping him from dragging marking pen across the paper.

Turns out that it was just his way of making us think he was grading the papers.

Last night, I was reminded of this as I sat in bed grading a batch of Latin quizzes, I like to grade-and-return overnight so the kids know quickly what they are mastering and what they need to continue to study. Like any class, the grades run from those kids who never miss a point to those who struggle enormously.

Working through the batch, I hit the paper of a kid who has just struggled all semester. As I started to grade, I even clicked my arterial-red marking pen ("Bane of Ignorance" as I've taken to calling it) in anticipation of impending activity.

Yet there was none.

Not a single word wrong.

Nothing misspelled.

Perfect: 10/10

Knowing where he sits and as I'm pretty vigilant in administering exams, I jumped out of bed with joy. This kid, I know, has worked so hard and here he is, rocking it on a vocabulary quiz. Such was my joy that I logged into the computer, pulled up the online grading program, and added the quiz/grade so that, should he check late in the evening or early this morning, he'd see his mark.

So I also did what any other semi-seasoned teacher would do. I tore through my drawers (in my desk, not my underwear) looking for a sticker. I finally found, pushed into an obscure corner of a seldom-used drawer, three smiley faced stickers. It was with great pride that I affixed one such sticker next to the 10/10 grade. Not surprisingly, the remaining quizzes - although some of them were good - did not quite bring me the same satisfaction.

This has already been a really long week. We pulled off our second annual "U of D Jesuit: Pledge Detroit" day. We have had spirit week. We have collected money. We have a rally that we have planned for this afternoon. We have a Homecoming dance for which we have sold tickets and t-shirts. My students have read Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, the Gospel of Matthew, and have come to lust after an increased knowledge of the pleasures of the Ablative Case. I have a cold, I barely have a voice, and I'm not sleeping well.

Yet last night's triumph on a quiz - one of well over a dozen such quizzes we've had already - may emerge as the highlight of my week.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Hazards of Communion

I fell asleep fairly early last night and, consequently, woke up earlier than I might normally have on a Sunday morning. Too lazy to pick up my book and not tired enough to go back to sleep, I stared up at the ceiling and indulged in one of my favorite pastimes: thinking. Thinking is something I don't get to do in a high school classroom with great regularity, as most of my effort goes into entertaining, reacting, cajoling, haranguing, and praying (for the bell to ring).

For some reason, my mind went to one of those strange phenomena I've noticed in my beloved Catholic Church. This is the phenomena of the distribution and reception of the Eucharist. As a communicant for nearly 24 years and as an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist (EME) for nearly fourteen, I have come to regard the reception of the Eucharist at the Catholic liturgy both the source and summit of my faith and a study in the oddities of human behavior.

From the Perspective of the Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist

  • The proper response to "The Body of Christ" and "The Blood of Christ" is not thank you. It is a firm Amen. "Thanks" and "Huh?" and "Can I have another" are unacceptable answers.
  • Remember that there is a line behind you. Try to bow before the EME has spoken (I personally tend to bow while the person in front of me is receiving). The bow in question here need only be a 30-degree bow; you needn't touch your toes or try to peer between your knees to see what kind of shoes the person behind you is wearing. The Lord knows you are unworthy and that you are showing a sign of reverence: just do it in a way that doesn't disrupt the traffic flow.
  • Speaking of traffic. As you prepare to exit your pew, be sure to find some geographic marker that will guide you back to your seat. I tend to use my coat (I never wear my coat during Mass) as my cue, but stained-glass windows, pillars, and sedentary old people are equally helpful. You're in luck if you find someone who has decided to forgo Communion that day, as they make great landmarks. If you do bypass your pew, pretend that you're going to use the washroom. 
  • When you come up to receive the Consecrated Host, you have two options. Either elevate your hands, one over the other, to about chest level or open wide your mouth, stick your tongue out far, and try not to bite my fingers. It is bad form to receive in the "Fig Leaf" position (hands at belt level) and a recessed tongue, with a barely opened mouth, is a small target for Host distribution and raises exponentially the probability that the EME's finger is going to come into contact with your saliva or get bitten. This is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ we are talking about: if the hands are to make a throne for the Lord, then let your tongue be the red carpet - stick it out!
  • Breath mints are always a wise course to follow. Even the EME has personal space and all it takes is a robust "Amen" from a person with dragon breath to make distribution a painful affair. It's horrifying that sometimes I have given someone the host and although I hear Amen I think garlic bagel. 
  • This is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, not a saloon. When you take the cup and receive the Precious Blood, do so with two hands. Elevate the cup gently, reflect upon what it is that you are doing and who it is that you are receiving, and take a measured drink. While you may come to Mass with a hangover, this is not the "Hair of the Dog." Nor should you hear "The Blood of Christ" and construe it as a "Bottoms Up." 
  • Ladies, looking good for the Lord is marvelous. Ladies and Gentlemen, surely our savior is sensitive to the challenge of chapped lips. Nevertheless, perhaps it is not prudent to apply lipstick and/or lip balm before, or during, Mass. The residue builds up on the lip of the chalice and it takes dextrous fingers to use the purificator well enough that the communicant following you does not leave with lips the shade of "All Day Cherry." 
From the Perspective of the Communicant

  • I am not a vampire and I will not recoil from the Host when you hold it out and basically shout, "THE BODY OF CHRIST." I am a civil man. I endorse saying that this is "The Body of Christ" with strength and conviction, but you need not do so in a way seems intended to exorcise me. 
  • Again, breath mints are never a bad bet. Those Listerine strips seem to work really well. 
  • Remember that, very often, the EME's are seated together at Mass. Like the altar servers, your behavior is most conspicuous. If you are coughing into your hands, scratching your head, blowing your nose, or wiping your nose with the back of your hand, it stands to reason that I am watching you. Having captured my attention, I am now worrying about how to navigate to another line if you should be the target of my section's "traffic pattern" and I've focusing less on the Word of God. 
  • Please, do make use of that purificator. Unlike the gentlemen's handkerchief that is meant merely for decoration, the purificator is achieving its intended when you use it to purify the chalice. After each communicant comes forward, take the purificator and grasp the lip of the cup. Holding firmly, give the cup a good one-quarter turn so that a good portion of the cup is wiped away clean. Those cloths are going to be washed after Mass and they'll probably use a lot of bleach. Do not dab or tap the outside of the cup, for we are bi-labial and have two lips that wrap the cup. Consequently, get both the inside and outside of the cup after each communicant. 
  • Don't play games with me or try to push your agenda upon me. When I raise my hands, it means that I want to receive in the hand. It is allowed in this country. Do not push it toward my mouth because you think that is the proper way: please respect my decision. 
  • If the person to whom you are distributing does not say Amen, I strongly doubt that he'll give the right answer if you keep repeating yourself. It is also horribly tacky to ask the person, "Are you even Catholic?" I totally get that you don't want to be the one to give someone his first communion, but try to exercise some degree of sensitivity. Unless you really suspect that profanation is about to occur, it may be best to err on the side of charity. 
  • If you find that you have distributed the last of the Precious Blood, it is probably best that you leave your station and return the chalice to the altar or to the person responsible for purifying the vessels. It's a terrible thing for you to stand there, empty vessel in hand, having to say, "Sorry, all out." This isn't Costco and you're not giving out free samples, so there's no need to apologize. 
  • If you are an EME distributing hosts and you happen to run out, there are perhaps better ways of getting more hosts than raising your hand and saying loudly, "Hey, I need a refill." That may work at Denny's, but it's tacky at Mass. If you're in this situation, simply look the communicant-to-be in the eye, ask him or her to wait for a moment, and then go to an EME who has plenty of hosts. It need not be a massive production. 
It strikes me that in classrooms we have Fire Drill procedures and Tornado Drill procedures and that, several times each year, we even have Crisis Drills in the case of an emergency in the school. Perhaps in the sacristy of every parish we should have ECE (Eucharistic Crisis Drills) that go over the various calamities that may befall the normal day-to-day distribution of Communion. 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame