Wednesday, December 28, 2011

God's Invitation

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Strangeness of the Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Scar of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 23, 2011

May We Ever Forget?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Refinement of Taste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hope in the Face of Death?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ennuim: No Hope, No Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 09, 2011

Walls Within the Web?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Advent of the Heart

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

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

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

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame