Wednesday, December 26, 2012

1000+ Posts

I realized this evening that, when I hit the 'publish' button, I will have published 1009 blog posts since September 1st, 2004. Anne Hall created this blog for me so that I wouldn't have to send group emails; ever at the vanguard of technology, she realized that the blog might be well suited as an online journal that would enable me to share my journey with others.

As I scroll through the photos and posts, it's amazing how much has changed in eight years. Guys I entered with have left, men I admired have died, and many others have entered my life. When I entered at the age of 24, I thought I had everything figured out. Today, at 33, I realize how little I know and I am often overwhelmed when I think about how many things I have yet to learn.

Looking toward 2013, my singular hope - in addition to growing in grace and virtue - is to continue to grow in boldness. I am acutely aware of being a public presence, one of many faces of the Church, yet I cannot help but to feel that I've been derelict in my duty when I have remained silent on issues I felt drawn to write about. Often my silence is due to fear: fear of being though poorly of by fellow Catholics, fear of causing a stir among the faithful, fear of doing something that annoys fellow Jesuits or clergy. The common theme, though, is fear and it is my hope and prayer that, in 2013, I grow in in a sense of holy boldness in speaking the truth whenever, and wherever, I encounter it...regardless the cost.

This year, I realized that my favorite metaphor for my vocation is that of a "feis musician." My job as a musician for Irish dancers calls for me to disappear, to fade into the background so that the dancers can do what they are called to do upon the stage. Thus, I am at my best when I am most invisible, when I dissolve into the music that I play and enable the dancers to become what they are called to be. There is, of course, a seduction to make each performance an opportunity to show off and demonstrate to others how good at music I am...but I know, deep down, that I'm at my best when I am in the background.

I thank my readers who have written and commented and I hope that I continue to give you things to think about. Nothing would be more gratifying than to know that my words have helped people to think more clearly, to pray a little more faithfully, to trust more deeply. I'm not writing to win an award but, truly, to help others by sharing things that go on within me. Readers may not agree with everything I say but, I can assure you, I only write what I actually think and feel. Of course, this can change over the course of months or years, but I do my best to be honest.

Be assured of my prayers as we continue to dwell in the Christmas season and celebrate "God with us."  We believe in a God who loved us enough to take a role in our story, becoming flesh to show us how flesh should be. We are, all of us, learning slowly how to take up our own roles in this drama and it is my honor to play a part in this production for those who read what little I have to say. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Advent of Doubt

Yesterday, one of the more talented young men I've had the pleasure of getting to know contacted me with the following:
To put it succinctly, I've been struggling with my faith. There have been times in the past year or so when I've questioned God's existence and the existence of an afterlife. I've entertained the idea that maybe there isn't anything beyond this life. But that's a harsh perspective to hold on to for any length of time. I have given it a good deal of thought over the past few months, but today I think I nailed it down to two main issues: 
1. I don't get much out of going to church anymore. I've stopped attending mass regularly. I used to feel a real spiritual need that was satisfied at mass, but that has gone away. Now, it seems empty, like pure ritual. I have a hard time focusing and I just feel out of place in church. I understand that feelings come and go, but it's hard to get over. 
2. This is my main beef. The Catholic Church as an institution upsets me, especially its teachings on homosexuality. I feel that they are exclusionary and wrong. There's one thing that makes me sick about organized religion, and it's the idea of fostering an "us vs. them" mentality. I believe that's what the teachings on homosexuality do. I read your "I Can't Believe..." blog post from October 24th. I agree that you can't just cut off the Church because of a personal disagreement with some views, and I like your idea that the emphasis should be on believing in community with others. But if everyone just accepts their differences with the Church, how does the Church change for the better and adapt to the times? Are we all required to be cafeteria Catholics, picking what elements of the Church we're OK with and which ones we choose to ignore? 
My point isn't to get into a heated debate with you about the Church, although I'll admit I'm curious about your views. I'm struggling with my faith now, and I don't want to be lazy about it. It's alright to struggle and question, but I don't want to shrug of Catholicism and not put any effort into answering my own questions. Really, I just want some guidance, and you were the first person I thought of. I'm sure you're busy, but if you get a chance, I would really appreciate any advice you have.
To my mind, this is what theology actually aims at reflecting upon: not recondite or abstruse conjectures but, rather, the issues that press upon the human heart. This young man realizes, only too painfully, the challenge posed to belief today. 

Edited slightly, here is the response I gave:

Around the year 1600, Caravaggio depicted the "Calling of Saint Matthew" taken from Mt 9:9. For generations, interpreters have seen the man pointing toward himself as Matthew. I think these interpreters are wrong. Matthew, it seems to me, is the young man who is staring at the money spread before him. This is the "Calling" and not yet the "Call" because Matthew hasn't heard it yet. In this painting, we glimpse the moment before he realizes that he's being addressed from outside the frame, from someone we cannot see, someone who has seen him first and calls him out of the tax booth and into a new relationship. This is, ultimately, the transitus between one life and another. 
I reference this because the Scriptures tell us Matthew got up and followed. No hesitation, no second-guessing. I think this is possible only because he had been wrestling with questions, living and difficult questions, and when he heard the call of Jesus he heard in that voice a personal address that offered him fulfillment, that aroused within him a new hope. Matthew's lifestyle involved many rituals:  'rituals' of counting money, of taking taxes, of opening and closing shop, 'rituals' providing the infrastructure that enabled him to question, that made it possible for him to listen with the inner ear of his heart. It is precisely because they had lost their novelty, because they ceased to bear the meaning they once did, that his mind was free to wander and to listen for new sounds, new voices, and to imagine new opportunities. 
Considered otherwise, it's the known-and-comfortable that gives us the space and foundation to explore. I'd be heartily disappointed if you today found the same spiritual consolation at Mass that you did in high school. You have grown and matured and your questions have deepened; thus, too, must you listen ever more closely and attentively. Don't be lazy and think that it is up to 'ritual' to do the work of answering your doesn't and it cannot. You have to work at it under the guidance of the ritual, letting it guide you: the ritual structures the liturgy in order that you don't have to do any excess work, so that you're free to explore new parts of your heart and mind within the context of the familiar. The rites should become worn and tired, like an old teddy bear, yet the comfort we find in them (1) reminds us of old times and (2) enables us to reflect in new ways, to have new dreams. 
The question of homosexuality is a hot-button issue within the Church these days, one many of us are reluctant to talk about because of a form of Taliban-like Catholicism that construes certain topics forbidden. Yet, let's face facts: many of us know gay and lesbians and our friendship with them have given us an insight that other generations simply do not have. And here we find both frustration and hope: the Church is born again in every generation, every time women and men have heard in Jesus the good news and confess "Credo" together. The Church isn't a monolith; it's a dynamism, incarnating itself in the bodies of each generation. When we complain about the Church, we must not ever confuse "Rome" with the Body of Christ. You, me, our friends...we are this Body called to be leaven in the world, called out of ourselves to heal the sick, clothe the naked, proclaim liberty to captives, to make the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk. We must be the Church we want to see, the Church we know we can be. 
Catholicism is constituted both who we receive and what we do. Look around the church some time and think: who the hell invited these people? Hypocrites, jerks, losers, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, married, single, divorce, struggling, self-assured, humble, proud. Yet, they all come for something, for someone. Maybe this is why I fit in because, truth be told, I' fit into a lot of the latter categories! We aren't the Church because we're good, but because we recognize that we are struggling to be the Eucharist of Jesus Christ in the world. We aren't the Church because we signed up for it but simply because we have been called into it. It's not so much that we must 'tolerate' differences but that we are called, in every age, to confront the various experiences faithful women and men have had of the Lord's calling and try to discern, together, how God is calling us to be the Body of Christ. Even when it seems as though issues would tear us apart from within, we need to recognize who has called us together and that the lives of Christian discipleship are defined by our struggle always to be what we receive: food for the deep hunger of the world, wine for an insatiable thirst for the infinite. 
By the sounds of it you're struggling well. Continue in this. If you should decide to lay Catholicism to the side, I'm confident it'll not be without a fight. If, however, you wish to remain in the Church you will soon realize that there is no "cheap grace" of belief - the gift of faith comes at an awful price: an abiding sense of doubt, the reality of the cross, yet hope that Good will always have the last word over evil. As a wise priest once said, "You can't be a friend of Jesus and an enemy of the Cross." Do not fear the cross of doubt: go toward it and embrace its timbers. You are a man with a great heart and my own heart tells me that the dark grace of questioning which you have been given will, ultimately, be transformed into a renewed sense of what it means to be an active member within the Body of Christ. 
I'm grateful that you thought well enough of me to ask. I'm always glad to help where I can by shedding my paltry light into the darkness of God's mystery. I've no great skill in this but to say that I have experienced the transitus, the ache of doubt, and know something of the pain and disorientation this causes.
I entitled this post "Advent of Doubt" because I think that many of the faithful live against a horizon of encroaching doubt. Our culture no longer takes belief for granted and we are forced to reflect seriously on what it is we believe and why we believe as we do. "Doubt" isn't something that besets us from time to time but remains an ongoing struggle. Just as we are always laboring to incarnate the Church in every generation, we do so always under the shadow of the cross. 
While not quite a Christmas post, I think it's important to say. I wish all of my readers a very merry and very blessed Christmas and many prayers for a happy and joyous new year!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Undergoing the Question

I shared yesterday Les Murray's haunting poem "The Knockdown Question" and, today, I'd like to return to it. 
Why does God not spare the innocent?
The answer to that is not in
the same world as the question
so you would shrink from me
in terror if I could answer it. 
You see, it's the last two lines that fascinate me. Why would one "shrink" away "in terror" from the one who bears the answer to innocent suffering?

On Friday, in addition to the sadness I felt for those gunned down in Newtown, I felt great sorrow for Adam Lanza. I simply cannot fathom how much pain he must have been, how dark his world had become, that that made this act an option he could consider, let alone enact.

What Murray seems to grasp in so few words is that the mystery of human suffering tramples upon our words. It's so disturbing, so awful, that it leaves us silent because it defies language.  Could words have articulated the darkness that wrested control from Adam? Would that those words be spoken, who could bear them?

We know that words both build and destroy. "I do," creates a marriage; "You're fired," a loss of career; "I love you," a new possibility; "It's terminal," an approaching end of life. "I'm sorry," requests a new beginning and "I forgive you," grants it. These are words of our world, words used and abused daily. Even when painful, we can make sense of them. "Love" and "Death" and "Joy" and "Sadness" and "Friendship" may grow and deepen over time, but they're words that make sense within our lives.

Hence the reason the words shared with Newtown's parents - "I'm sorry, your son, your daughter..." - are so terrifying: daily words attempting to say the unspeakable. "I'm sorry, she has passed" can be said of a 95-year old man or a toddler...identical words, very different meanings. When applied to the innocent, to children, to the unsuspecting, these are hurricane words, words upending lives and leaving in their wake chaos and death and debris.

Ultimately, when Murray asks "Why does God not spare the innocent?" he is asking a question whose answer, if it were given, would be terrifying. Why terrifying? Because it would use our own words against us, telling us that there is a reason woven into our lives' stories for why these terrible things have happened. That is to say, if we were given a reason for what has taken place - whether it be a school or mall shooting, a plane crash or pediatric cancer - it would be giving innocent suffering a place in the created order, put there by God.

God's silence in the Book of Job absolves God of guilt. By not answering Job's question directly, by not engaging Job on Job's terms, he's pointing out that there is a cosmic logic Job cannot begin to fathom. We may think this unfair, or unjust, but for the theist the alternative is devastating: one either grants that there is something bamboozling about the world or one grants that God has planned Friday's shooting. One recognizes human finitude, the other portrays God as a moral monster.

As a society, we must consider in the wake of this tragedy what it is that enables a young man to envision, and carry out, such carnage. We are so inter-connected with our phones and devices but I cannot help but to feel that we are growing further apart. Gun control laws may help, sure, but I think the issue is much deeper: we live within a tremendously violent and selfish culture and, until we begin to reflect upon and consider ways of healing our culture, I fear we will see only an escalation of these acts. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Knockdown Question

For many of us - especially after looking at the printed cover of The New York Times which carries the names and ages of Friday's victims - no words begin to express the anguish, anger, and confusion we feel. This is not to say we haven't tried: already, the pundits are questioning whether this will be the event that catalyzes stricter gun-control laws and 'experts' are speculating as to the root causes of this young man's actions.

We turn, apparently instinctively, to any resource we can find in a frantic search for answers. We crave reasons, proofs, formulas,

Sadly, I don't think there is any single answer or proof. Right now, there's a great void of silence punctuated by angry shouts to the heavens and tears. Many tears.

The Australian poet Les Murray wrote a brilliant poem that I'd like to share:
Why does God not spare the innocent?

The answer to that is not in
the same world as the question
so you would shrink from me
in terror if I could answer it. 
I think it is natural to ask "Why?" this happened. Indeed, we are all wondering. Yet, it seems to me, Murray grasps well something of the essential mysteriousness of our humanity: we ask questions that leap beyond the realm of space and time. There is no single answer, no correct bubble we can fill in that will tell us "Why" a young man would take the guns from his mother's home, murder her, and then more than twenty others.

I cannot help but to think of Job 28. The poem begins by lauding the accomplishments of human reason and ingenuity: we can mine precious metals and jewels from the earth's depths, but can we obtain wisdom? Search as we may, wisdom comes only from God and comes as it is something that finds us, not something we search out.

For me, it's difficult to feel the joy of today's Advent readings. Nevertheless, I think there is something important we can take from them: John proclaims that Jesus is coming and that he brings us a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus brings to us the principle of life, his life, and offers it to each of us. He gives us, that is, a share in his life and offers us his Wisdom.

Perhaps our prayer can simply be this:

Come to us, Lord, for we are scared and afraid.
We have seen the terrors of this world and we have 
taken refuge in the basement of our hearts.
On cold concrete we sit, huddled up in the dark,
alone and afraid. 
Break down the door and rescue us from our fear.
Take us by the hand and guide us with your Wisdom,
not giving us answers, 
but the assurance that you are the author of life
and that you will have the last word to our questions. 

Sunday, December 09, 2012

New Tin Whistle Blog

After six years, I'm starting to re-do some of the Tin Whistle videos. To help organize my own thinking, I'm using the following Blog to organize the lessons:

We'll see how this goes. I have a few lessons up already - including sheet music - and two of them are of Christmas carols!

Two Lords?

December 9th, 2012 - 2nd Sunday of Advent (Luke 3:1-6)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,

when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,and his brother Philip tetrarch of the regionof Ituraea and Trachonitis,and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:A voice of one crying out in the desert:"Prepare the way of the Lord,make straight his paths.Every valley shall be filledand every mountain and hill shall be made low.The winding roads shall be made straight,and the rough ways made smooth,and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
I want only to make a single observation about today's reading. The second-half of the passage is familiar to us: John begins to prophesy the advent of the Messiah. That's nice, of course, but why the historical bits up above? Why the reference to Pilate and Tiberius, Herod and Caiaphas?

First, Luke situates Jesus' life and work in history. It's not uncommon to encounter people who deny that Jesus ever existed (despite his being referenced by several pagan authors). Luke, however, understood the importance of Jesus to history: in announcing the Kingdom of God, in making it present through word and deed, Jesus shows us here-and-now what God desires for humanity.

Of course, we kill Jesus for telling us the truth about God and exposing the lies we tell to and about ourselves, but we'll get to that when Lent rolls around.

Second, and more importantly, notice that the first figure above is the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Look, too, at the beginning of John's prophecy: "Prepare the way of the Lord." In the space of a few lines, we encounter two 'lords' - one is the ruler of all the lands, the other is professed as the true lord, the lord of history.

In these days leading up to Christmas, it may serve us all well to reflect on the choice our Gospel presents us with: who is the true Lord in my life? In whose court do I wish to dwell - the court of the current leader whose favor I must curry and ego I must stroke or the one who has come to show us what God wants for us, a life lived not in conflict but in peace centered around and governed by his Lordship?

Friday, December 07, 2012

Irresponsible Journalism

Much to my dismay, I awoke this morning to find an article by Mick McCabe entitled "It's Idiotic for U of D Jesuit to Exit the Catholic League." I would suggest reading it only to the extent that it is a good example of the slash-and-burn, irresponsible reporting that masquerades as journalism today. My response to his piece appears on the site but I include it below for those interested: 
McCabe's piece reminds me of an Irish story of the parson who asks one of the congregation, "So, Joseph, have you stopped beating your wife yet?" It's a humorous chestnut in that, regardless of how Joseph answers, he's implicated in doing something wrong: either he has ceased spousal abuse or it's still continuing. The moral: there's no right answer. 
It appears, by his conclusion, McCabe has a bit of the parson in him. He presumes to have the truth and it matters little what the school might say: it will be a lie. 
As a Jesuit, former teacher at U of D Jesuit, and friend of the president I can say with utter certainty that the school has no desire to leave the Catholic League. It's unfortunate that McCabe never exercised journalistic responsibility: I know for certain he did not contact the president for a comment or clarification.  
Journalistic clarification, Mr. Kocsis is in his second year, not first.  
By the lack of comments on this post, online now for nine hours, I suspect Mr. McCabe's prophecy has been born true: the alums, stirred by his rousing speech and accusations of idiocy, sprang from their beds and drove to 7-Mile and now surround the castle. Or it may be the case that readers realize that this is irresponsible, poorly informed, and falls beneath any canon of meaningful journalism and have done what they learned to do at U of D Jesuit: to read and think critically, to take seriously what is true, and disregard what is patently rubbish.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Dear Abba, Part II

I had to laugh last evening when I opened my email and found another "Dear Abba" letter, this time from a parent. Without posting her original note, let me give you the substance:
My son's grades have dropped a lot this year and he's always really grouchy in the morning. I don't think he's sleeping at night. Do you think this is just a phase he is going through? Do you think he could be depressed? 
I happened to be at my desk when the email popped up, so I shot back a \ short response:
Have there been changes to his routine? 
Her reply:
We bought him his own computer that he keeps in his room. But we told him that he's not allowed to use it past 10:00 pm. 
Well, let me take a crazy guess: I doubt the kid is suffering from depression. If the first two years of high school found him well-rested and getting his homework and studying done and then, with the introduction of the computer into his room, the grades drop and he's nearly narcoleptic at the table, there seems to be an easy explanation.

Just as I would never put a flowing keg in the middle of an alcoholic's house, I would never put a computer (or a smart phone) in a student's bedroom. Why? Well, they're an enormous distraction: texting, facebook, shopping, searching and, let's be blunt, the unending supply of pornography all are but keystrokes away. Three years of teaching high school boys and listening to them talk: the computer is a never-ending source of temptation. 

Let's just take the cell phone. When we send a text, we expect a response. So if your teen shoots off a text to a friend, it stands to reason that there's an expectation for a response. Well, this can go on ad infinitum, resulting in a loss of attention at tasks at hand: how can you focus on writing a sentence when you are expecting the imminent arrival of a new message? Likewise, for instance, Facebook -- when I had a Facebook account for the Student Senate page, it was not uncommon for me to log in to check messages late at night and find many students still posting at 1:00 or 2:00 am.

At the risk of being totally old-fashioned, I'm a firm believer that young students (below Junior year, at least) do not need computers in their rooms. Heck, I'd suggest having students do their homework at the kitchen table in relative quiet and free of distractions - I'll guarantee that bereft of iTunes, iPhone, iPod, radio, Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, Tumblr, Texting, etc., that your student will get his or her homework done both faster and better. In addition, you'll actually see your kids rather than wondering - and wondering rightly - what they're doing in their rooms. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

We'll Get What We Are

This morning I finished reading what may be one of the more important books I've ever read. Co-authored by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers  is a work of sociology intending to understand better, as the title suggests, the spiritual lives of adolescents. Before I continue, let me say simply this: if you are a parent, or someone who works with teenagers, you must buy this book. My only regret about reading this book is that I didn't read it before I started teaching high school.

Let me give a quick layout of the book:
  • Chapter 1 uses the stories of two Baptist teens to establish some of the book's main themes: American teens are religiously complicated; for many teens, religion and spirituality are very important in their lives; few teens are engaged in what many of us believe about them, namely, that they are "spiritual but not religious" or "spiritually seeking"'; American teenagers are typically extraordinarily inarticulate about expressing central tenets of their faith traditions; religion competes for teenagers' time; parents play an enormous role in their spiritual formation; religious involved teens exhibit "more positive outcomes" in life. 
  • Chapter 2 gives the "Big Picture" assessment through the statistical data gleaned from over 2,000 interviews. 
  • Chapter 3 begins to frame the data in chapter 2 by looking at three categories of adolescents: "spiritual seekers", "spiritually disengaged", and "religious devoted."
  • Chapter 4 suggests that American teenagers are influenced by the prevailing religious sentiment of "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." (More Below)
  • Chapter 5 May be the best thing I've ever read on framing the cultural context in which teens are raised. It considers the social forces vying for teenagers' time and explores the enormous pressure exerted upon teens by cultural forces that we, as adults, are responsible for. 
  • Chapter 6 considers three teenage Catholics in an effort to understand why Catholic teens are so inarticulate about their faith.
  • Chapter 7 looks at how religious involvement has salutary effects on adolescents' lives. 
I want to make three point about the book. Again, I strongly urge readers to acquire this book. It's not Moses coming down from the mountain, but it's pretty close. 

Point 1: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

The authors, after an extensive program of interviewing adolescents, found that beneath religious denominations there is what we might consider a "religion within religion" that joins teenage religion: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The traits, as defined by the authors:
  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die. 
It's not as if this were a recited creed; rather, it's sort of a shared religious sentiment that cuts across denominational boundaries. Each of these points could be developed. For instance, point #2 might be expanded to consider what 'nice' and 'good' mean in our culture, which in the USA tends to mean "don't judge other people." This attitude, in turn, leads toward a fairly profound moral relativism and a reluctance on the part of many teenagers to take firm stances on moral issues. 

Point 2: We'll Get What We Are

One of the great canards operative in our culture is that teenagers are essentially mysterious and strange.  Based on their research, the authors suggest that the primary influence in teenage religious growth and development comes from their parents. If parents take their religious life and spiritual development seriously, there is a strong likelihood that their kids will as well. As Chapter 1 points out, adolescents are not per se hostile to religion. But if parents demonstrate a reluctance to practice what they preach, is there any wonder why the kids seem disengaged? 

The Chapter 5 lays out some of the key issues at play in our culture today. It'd be nearly impossible to rehearse the main lines of the chapter in a short space, but the influence of Mass-Consumer Capitalism does deserve quick mention. The culture of mass-consumer capitalism understands humans as "individual, autonomous, rational, self-seeking, cost-benefit-calculating consumers." So understood, the purpose of a person's life becomes satisfying one's own needs and desires, taking care of the self, putting "I" before "we." 

Teenagers are not a foreign species. I have had many wonderful conversations with young people over the years and I've never thought them to be aliens! Parents and other adult influences, however, must feel empowered to engage them in a meaningful way and to socialize them. Too often, I fear, parents cede authority to our consumer-culture and let the market, rather than the mother and father, rear the children. 

I didn't intend for this to be a book review. It's not. There were so many moments, however, that confirmed my own experiences with adolescents and brought to me a greater sense of awareness of their cultural context that I simply had to say something, even if what I've shared is somewhat stuttering. The richness of this book simply must be experienced. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Did the Pope Just Kill Christmas??

Not quite. As is my custom, I glanced at CNN's website this morning and saw the headline "Pope's Book on Jesus Challenges Christmas Traditions" and, of course, had to read it. In a rare move, I even watched the video at the top (I'm generally a read-the-text guy).

Now, before you start packing up the Creche scene that has been out since Halloween or delete the Christmas music from your play list, it bears reminding: the Holy Father is not seeking to destroy Christmas. Indeed, there is nothing in the CNN story that hasn't been known before by anyone who has done any contemporary Bible study. A few things:

  • It is quite unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25th. How unlikely? Well, I'd reckon a 1/365 chance. Scour the Bible as you wish, but there's no fixed date for his birth. Near as I can tell, it's not the date of birth but, rather, the fact that he was born that interested the authors. What is vital is that Jesus was born, not the date of his birth. The Christian claim is nothing less than this: God, in and through the incarnation, has communicated to us through Jesus' humanity what God is really like. An upshot of this: since we don't know the one date on which Jesus was actually born, we should live each day as if it were Christmas...which means Bing Crosby and Burl Ives can either become the soundtrack of our lives or we become the Christmas cheer they sing about. 
  • The creche scene has many uses in family homes: my brother liked to put plastic army guys in there because it was sort of a cool imaginative environment for playing with action figures. The cow became a great barrier for the kneeling rifle holder to peer over as he took out the grenade-lobbing guy positioned behind one of the wise men. Alas, the tradition about the animals creeping into the manger is an accretion of history, not anything in either birth narrative (Matthew and Luke). This is somewhat reassuring inasmuch as I'd not want some mangy critter approaching my newborn child. 
  • Further, we also know that Jesus was not born during the year '0' or '1'. He's right to note that a mistake was made by a Benedictine monk (see, can't blame Jesuits for everything), and the dating of the calendar wasn't fixed until many centuries later. Thus do most scholars put the year of Jesus' birth between "6-4 BC" in order to account for the error. 
I have to admit, reading the comments on the CNN site is pretty trippy. For the life of me, I cannot get my head around the position of people who think that the person of Jesus is a complete historical myth. Scholars pretty much universally agree that Jesus existed. Who he was and what he meant and means, well, that's a totally different story. I say scholars because most of the people who think that "Jesus" is simply a mythic figure, like Zeus or the Tooth Fairy, seem to be crackpots. That said, let me swing in another direction: I think equally blockheaded those people who think the earth is only several thousand, or million, years old. In my mind, people who reject that there was a Jesus or reject the science of evolution are fellow travelers in the fantasy elevator. Both, that is, willfully ignore history and critical thinking in order to rest within the safety and security of their myths. 

Should we cancel Christmas? What do we do with the Creche? To the first: No. In the shadow of the solstice, December 25th falls on the uptick of sunlight in our days: even in the darkest time of year, we know that the light is growing in strength. That it might not be the exact date of Jesus' birth is not a problem, for we are celebrating the event of God's entrance into human history, God telling us through Jesus' life who God is and what God is all about...unfortunately, we kill Jesus because of this proclamation. And the Creche? Well, keep that, too. In the dark night of the savior's birth, there's something beautiful about the idea that all of creation rejoiced, that not only his parents but also foreigners and shepherds, angels and animals, took notice of his birth. The incarnation celebrates God's entrance into humanity, into history, on our planet. The Word of God didn't just create humans; the creative Word called all that is into being...even the animals. While it may not be directly scriptural, there's something touching about considering all of creation celebrating the arrival of the Word made Flesh. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

200 Years Behind?

On August 31st, the Roman Catholic Church mourned the passing of Cardinal Carlo Martini, a Jesuit Biblical scholar and former Archbishop of Milan. Several weeks before his death, he granted an interview with the caveat that its contents not be released until after his death. On September 1st, the interview appeared in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and quickly became seen as something of his "spiritual testament." It is a short piece and the English translation can be found by visiting this link; I high suggest reading it. 

I'm struck by the imagery describing the situation of the Church as "embers hidden under ashes." As Martini looked out at the Church, he saw that "our churches are big" and our "religious houses are empty." The emptiness of our churches does not seem to stave either the growth of the Church's bureaucracy or the "pompous" appearance of its rites and vestments. As depicted in the media, American and European Catholicism seems cranky and fearful, entrenched in vacant cathedrals and nostalgically pining for a return to an earlier era. 

The eminent Catholic thinker George Weigel, in a column published yesterday in the Denver Catholic Register, is critical of Martini's final observation. At the end of his interview, Martini says:
The Church is 200 years behind. Why in the world does it not rouse itself? Are we afraid? Fear instead of courage? 
 Weigel replies:
To which one wants to reply, with all respect, "Two hundred years behind what?" A western culture that has lost its grasp on the deep truths of the human condition? A culture that celebrates the imperial autonomous Self? A culture that detaches sex from love and responsibility? A culture that breeds a politics of immediate gratification and inter-generational irresponsibility, of the sort that has paralyzed public policy in Italy and elsewhere? "Why in the word," to repeat the late cardinal's question, would the Church want to catch up with that?" 
Weigel then cites Blessed John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Jerzy Poieluszko as witnessing to the "flame of love" buried beneath the ashes. Ultimately, he concludes, we should not lament being behind our contemporary culture. Indeed, the Catholic challenge is "to get ahead of that soul-withering ideology, and convert those in thrall to it by example and persuasive argument."

In large measure, I agree with Weigel - Catholic do need to proclaim their faith in both word and deed, by both argument/engagement and example. Indeed, Christianity's critique of culture is nothing new:
And Peter testified with may other arguments and exhorted the crowd, saying, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." so those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand person were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers." (Acts 2:40-42)
The irony of Weigel's column is simply this: his characterization of our secular culture as "embittered, aggressive and narrow-minded" seems a mirror image to today's Catholic Church! Where is our Catholic joy? Where is our excitement in the Eucharist?

I remember the Church of my youth: in the 1980's, my parish was filled. Today, my own siblings won't go to Mass. While I'm disappointed, I can understand their reluctance: the Church seems in turn cold and hostile. They are far more apt to make it to the gym daily at 6:00 am than they are to make a Sunday mass. Why? Because at the gym they feel a sense of community, a sense of common purpose, a sense of life.

When Cardinal Martini spoke of being behind by 200 years, I don't think he meant that we had to accomodate the Church to today's culture. I think he meant that we can't spend our days wistfully gazing into the past and pining for its return. We need to allow the Gospel to take root in our hearts in our lives in this era and let the Word of God speak to this culture.

The Holy Spirit is not dead and it continues to blow upon the embers of the Church, the embers that possess the ability to enkindle the fire of love in our hearts, in our world. We needn't be angry or embittered, but joyful that God still calls out to us, still invites us, still commissions us to make disciples of all nations. Rather than being antagonistic toward culture, what if we were to make our lives signs of contradiction to the culture, allowing our whole selves show the way to and riches of joyful discipleship? Again, look to the Acts of the Apostles:
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)
There is life still within our Church, even if it is sometimes hard to detect. It falls to each one of us to uncover the ember that burns within each of us and allow it to ignite our lives. My little fire might not be much, but I suspect that if I allow it to join with others, soon it will become a beacon inviting others to join us around the fire of faith, finding food and welcome, and a growing sense of what it is to be the Body of Christ. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

An Update and an Oireachtas Prayer

I beg the indulgence of readers for the rather long pause in blogging action. Late in the evening of November 10th, I learned that a former student had taken his own life. The news reached his classmates on Sunday morning and, while I was playing a feis in Chicago, I seized every break I could to respond to the texts sent by his classmates, to answer phone calls, or just to pray quietly for the young man's peace and for consolation for his family.

The week that followed found me on a hastily booked flight back to Detroit (thank the Lord for reward mileage) where I attended the wake and the funeral. It was not exactly the homecoming I would have liked, but I'm glad that I had an opportunity to be present to the family and to lend an ear to students as they grieved. Since my return to Boston on Saturday, I've found myself to be possessed of little energy and I'm particularly grateful for the holiday weekend and hope to use these days for refreshment.

It seems strange to say this but, I believe this may be only the 2nd time in 22 years that I'm not going to be going to Mid-American Oireachtas. The Mid-American Orieachtas is a regional Irish dancing championship competition and I attended as a spectator for the first twelve years and then as a musician for the last ten. All of my teenage and adult memories of Thanksgiving involve hotels and Irish dancing, so it's a bit surreal to think that I'm going to miss the whole event. With all that has happened this month, perhaps it is a good thing that I'm not playing: I really do feel the need to rest.

I would like, however, to offer a prayer for those who are going to be competing this weekend, both in Grand Rapids and in Philadelphia (Mid-Atlantic Oireachtas).

An Oireachtas Prayer

Good and Gracious God,
We place ourselves in your presence and invite
your Spirit as we begin this year's Oireachtas.
We have practiced.
We have rehearsed. 
We have sacrificed for the love of Irish dance.
We have invested time and money and effort. 
Lord, we ask only that you help us to do our best this Day.
May we remember that underneath 
the wigs, the dresses, the sparkles, the make-up, and the sock glue
that we dance with bodies and talents you gave us. 
With every click and every treble, O Lord, 
may we give you glory 
and celebrate the the gift of our teachers 
who have shown us how to dance. 

Lord, in twenty years, it will be hard to recall how we placed. 
Time will have faded our memories of where we stood on the podium
or what medal we took home.
We will remember, though, the good times we have shared
and we will tell with delight the stories we remember. 
Bless this weekend, Bless our dancing,
and bless those who have given us the gift of Irish dance. 

May we all dance today as we hope to dance in eternity:
members of the heavenly ceili
dancing to You, the music of our lives.

We pray this through Christ our Lord, 
our Teacher, our Musician, our Music, and our Metronome. 


Saturday, November 10, 2012

College Application Advice for the Control-F Generation

One of my former students, a member of the Control-F generation, wrote me last week asking advice about applying to college. He's the sort of kid many would regard as being a great "whole package" applicant: smart, good test scores, committed to service, a multiple-sport athlete, high regard by teachers, good sense of humor, and an all-around nice guy. In my limited experience with high school students, he stands out as one of the better I've encountered and I'm sure he'll have no trouble gaining entry to the college that is right for him.

He headed his note "Advice" and began with, "Dear Abba." I don't know if he intended the allusion to the Dear Abby advice columns, but it did make me laugh. Since his question did arise from a genuine concern, especially one that affects many families this year, I thought I'd offer my thoughts on two things: (1) the teacher letter of recommendation and (2) the student's own personal statement.

Teacher's Letter of Recommendation

I wrote over twenty letters of recommendation this Fall for students. It takes me about 30-40 minutes to compose each letter, because each one begins from scratch. That is, I don't have an extant template that I follow and plug in the student name where needed (Believe me, I've seen this done). I do, however, have a formula I follow for each letter. Bear in mind, I do not extend to more than a single page and each paragraph is rather short, running at most to 5 sentences, usually being only 3-4:

  1. Introduction of Applicant - I try to seize upon a personal detail that stands out to my mind. Sometimes, this can be jarring: "X is a loser" and then I talk about how the student lost an election or lost weight;  or, "For the first two months of the semester, whenever Y raised his hand, a cold feeling of dread washed over my body,"  and talk about how the student's incisive mind always kept me on my toes. One letter began with, "Z has the perfect smile," and I went on to discuss how his teeth, which were noticeably off center, perfectly matched his personality. 
  2. Applicant's Strengths - My second paragraph attempts to draw a composite picture of the student's strengths. His ability as a writer, analytical abilities, clarity in expression, enthusiasm for learning, and those qualities he will bring to a college campus. I think of this as laying out the amenities of a car: I'm not giving an evaluation, per se, but trying to show what the kid has going for him.
  3. Applicant's Need for Growth - Listen, contrary to the belief of many parents, not every kid is perfect. My third - and to my mind, most crucial - sets out the areas that I consider necessary for the student's growth. My operative question is this, "How does this student need to be formed over the next few years?" My goal here is to let the reader know (1) that I know both this kid's strengths and weaknesses and (2) that the college has the opportunity to contribute to this formation. Every student has room to grow and I see it as my role as a teacher to indicate those areas, sharing my viewpoint with the admissions committee. 
  4. Synthesis and Conclusion - I now draw points (2) and (3) together and give my holistic recommendation. I've told some schools how much more their campus life will be enriched by a student's presence and how much influence they'll be able to exercise over the continued formation of his character as a force for good in the world. Sometimes I've asked schools to take a chance on the student. I've given enthusiastic support and tepid approval; some I've recommended without reservation and others I give cautious approval. Overall, I attempt to be totally honest with the committee: if I've represented the student accurately, I trust that they'll see my efforts at transparency and will trust that I'm being truthful. 
As I said, this letter is one single page and I do my best to keep my paragraphs relatively short. If the student has a diminutive form of his name "Timmy" or "Danny" I generally resist using it in (1) - (3) but will mention it in (4). Ultimately, I see my role as helping the student's case before the committee and the committee in selecting an incoming class that will be able to make best use of the school's resources. 

The Student's Personal Statement

This will not be surprising, but I see the Student's Personal Statement in a manner similar to the Teacher's Letter: it needs to show some degree of self-awareness. That is to say, my understanding of the personal statement is to demonstrate (1) you know yourself, and (2) that you have a sense of how you're going to benefit from college

A friend recently told me that she has friends who have spent $3000 - $4000 helping their children's college application process, money spent between test preparation, writing coaches, and then spending money so that students can have spectacular experiences to serve as fodder for essays. I never had that sort of money to spend, so let me offer some free words of advice: 
  1. You Are Your Experiences - I'm not convinced that a high schooler needs to have lived in a kibbutz or have cured cancer to be a viable college applicant. Most students don't have these experiences. Each applicant is unique and while some experiences - a summer job, taking care of siblings, losing weight, struggling to make a team - might not seem to be overly sexy, they are still the applicant's experiences and they have contributed to the young man or woman who is applying. To be sure, there are some extraordinary experiences. Yet I should think it more remarkable for a student to show how an 'ordinary' experience, upon reflection, has exercised 'extraordinary' influence on one's life. 
  2. Gain Self-Knowledge - This flows from (1). Students today are often reduced to a what: a test score, a GPA or class ranking, a position in the starting line-up. Each student needs to claim his voice in order to speak in his own voice rather than relying on numbers and rankings to speak on his behalf. Before the student begins to write, a list should be drawn up of all those experiences that have made him the young man he is today (or  her the young woman). In looking at the outline, is there some theme or pattern that emerges? What does this trope indicate? 
  3. The College is Older than You - I saw a statement of a friend's daughter which, no joke, basically said that the university could not possibly survive without her. She was a 4.0+ student, took 8 AP courses, had a 35 on her ACT, played three sports, baked brownies from scratch, and was going to save the world as a piano-playing surgeon. Or something like that. I suspect statements like this are pretty common. One needs to remember that these colleges have been around for a lot longer than you've been alive and, quite probably, will outlast you as well. It's seldom that an 18-year old freshman has changed the course of a university in the first year, so some degree of humility is necessary. I mean, think about it: if you're perfect, why would a college want you? What role do they have in playing in educating someone who is obviously superior to every other candidate?
  4. Write in Light of the Purpose of College - Here's my main point: college is not a box to be checked-off but, rather, an experience of ongoing formation where the skills you have uncovered and developed in high school will be stretched further. College is, ideally, a place where a student's mind and character are given further formation. This doesn't always happen, of course, but I think it's the goal of a good college. Can you show, in your statement, that you're a person who is unafraid of embracing new challenges, that you have enough self-awareness to know both what you're willing to offer a college community and to know how you wish to grow in the future? Consider this as inviting the committee to help you in your life's journey, to give them a chance to contribute to your human formation. 
  5. Three Coordinating Questions - I would suggest three coordinating questions to help a student frame a letter. One needn't answer the questions so much as reflect on them as grist for the writing process: (1) Who am I? (2) How did I become who I am? (3) Who do I want to become in the future? If those are topic headings, they may help to give clarity to the story, or statement, the student will share with the admission committee. 
  6. Be Yourself - Just as the Teacher's Letter aims to give a good composite, so too should the student's letter. You don't need to be perfect, you need to be you. It's okay that you're not always perfect, or that you've struggled, or that you've failed: it makes you human. I know I've learned more from failing than from having lessons come easily. Often, I've failed in life when I've not been true to myself, an often painful reminder that when I am myself, I am the person God is calling me to be. If I college doesn't want the authentic student, then it's not the place for the student. Put your best - meaning your real - self forward and trust that the right school for you will see in you the promise of the type of student they want to cultivate. 
These are simply my thoughts. Of course, not every student needs to worry about this process: this advice is primarily intended for students applying to the more selective schools. In particular, I have in mind the sold all-around student who works hard, is involved in various programs (Boy Scouts, Music, Art, Sports, Service), has good grades, and is possessed of a desire to be an agent of change in the world. 

Ultimately, this is just common-sense advice, offered for free. If it's helpful: great! If not, ignore everything and do whatever is best for you or your student. I have limited experience but, after years of reading about the process and helping many students through it, it's my best effort to give a way of thinking-through two of the more daunting tasks associated with applying to college. 

Friday, November 09, 2012

My New Nemeses

Well, I'm glad to report that I've found my new rivals here in Boston: Wild Turkeys. These accursed creatures seem to stalk me, as I see them almost daily on my way to class. Some days, they're standing on the cars in our parking lot; other days, they are blocking the sidewalk. Last week they stopped traffic as they strutted across the road...I watched the cars slow down and stop as they arrogantly took their time. Just yesterday, one of them was waiting in ambush and, when I opened the door to go out, it attempted to come into the house.

The one in the foreground appears to be the leader. I think he remembers me in particular...I know I'd remember the person who charged at me with a rake! It may sound irrational, but I have a feeling that this will be a great class of the wills. When I was a novice I did battle with peacocks. Now, as a theologian, I take on the turkeys. 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Life Interrupted

I am grateful that there has been a distinct lack of religious rationalization of Hurricane Sandy. That is, I haven't heard of any prominent religious leaders attempting to 'make sense' of the destruction and loss of life by portraying the devastation as "God's will" or "retribution for sin." In the Northeast, it seems, there is just a quiet numbness as people look out to see what the storm has wrought, sort out how it has interrupted their lives, and begin to pick up the pieces...if there are any pieces to pick up.

I use the word interruption deliberately. We have all had the experience of being deep in conversation when something - a phone call, a whining child, a stranger - intrudes upon the moment. When the issue is addressed and the two parties try to pick up where they left off, it is usually with the line, "Now, where were we?" Yet, we know, that in the wake of an interruption the conversation never resumes in quite the same way.

Perhaps no Old Testament figure captures this better than Job. Job - wholly righteous in God's eyes - suffers the calamitous loss of his livelihood, his family, and his health. His life interrupted, he consigns himself to a pile of ashes where he bemoans his life in the company of three friends. Again and again, his friends offer pious platitudes trying to make sense of Job's suffering, interrupting Job's speeches with their theories of God's justice and there efforts to conceal a disturbing reality: we live, all of us, in a world where very bad things can happen to very good people. Finally, God interrupts all of their speeches and addresses the gathered group: God's ways and human ways are not the same and our human minds cannot comprehend the whole of creation. God's interruption doesn't give Job answers but it does accomplish something: Job knows that God has heard his cries. Job - isolated amongst his friends who will not listen to him - knows that he is not alone.

After an interruption, it is impossible for affairs to "return to normal." The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a child born with special needs, a cancer diagnosis, the breakup of a relationship: these are all interruptions which break up the normal flow of our lives and change forever life's course. Our temptation is to try to resume life as it once was, but this is impossible. At best, we can take note of the change and adapt, grow, and move forward.

As the rains subside and the full scope of the damage is surveyed, let us be careful not to imitate Job's friends. We needn't offer sweeping explanations (God's punishing us, It's a wake-up call) nor blame the victims (I told them to move from the shore, She never should have bought that condo). Indeed, we should be aware that when we try to explain away a tragedy, our efforts to impose our sense of order on things does nothing for the victims. As a society and as a Church, let us find the courage to listen to the silence and to respond not with formulas and reasons, but with open hands and receptive hearts. For those who are able to help, let them help. For those who having nothing to give, let them open their hearts in a prayer of solidarity that those whose lives have been interrupted and changed forever may know the grace of Job: they are not alone. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

I Can't Believe...

Several weeks ago, I was out to dinner with a group of friends, many of whom are involved either in Irish music or dancing. A few bottles of wine into the evening, as it so often happens, one of the group announced from across the table brought up the topic of religion. Actually, he didn't so much 'bring up' the topic as he did launch into a monologue about how he used to go to Church but now, because the bishops dared to tell him how to vote, he would never go back into the Church again. "I simply can't believe in the Catholic Church any longer," he said, staring at me.

Now, here's the thing. If "Believing in the Church" is translated into "Believing in the Bishops," then I stand with my friend. I wholly believe in the episcopacy and I acknowledge the importance of apostolic succession. I even think it appropriate to the Bishop qua Shepherd and qua Teacher that the faithful be instructed in all topics pertinent to adequate conscience formation. My problem tends not to be the with office of the bishop so much as it is with individuals who occupy that office.  The Church, much to my constant relief, is far bigger than any one bishop or any particular ordained ministry.

At the risk of being gauche, I challenged him on the above point and then pushed it a bit further. I think there's a real difference between saying, "I'm struggling to integrate this or that teaching of the Church into my life," and, say, proclaiming, "I disagree with the Church so I'm not going any longer." On the one hand, there is an effort to try to remain unified with the wider Church while still recognizing personal limitations, possible areas for mutual growth, and owning one's struggles. On the other hand, we see something more akin to a toddler's foot-stamping and snatching away his toys. In other words, one is the confession of a sincere seeker, the other is the claim made by a person who'd like to see the Church built around him.

Part of being in the Church is the realization that we are, all of us, de-centered from the institution. The Church is a motley crew, to be sure, yet it is our belief that we're all gathered together around the same host: Jesus. Were it up to me, I'd be only too glad to trim the guest list to make it a group more in line with my enlightened views and outlook on life. I reckon we could all say the same thing, that "If I were in charge..." things would be so much better. I cannot help but to think, however, that a Church built around me might be great from my vantage point but a living hell for everyone else.

Part of "believing in" the Church is "believing with" the members of the Church, believing with everyone else who is struggling to make sense of human life. Our act of "believing in" is made possible by believing with, by joining others in prayer and worship. This certainly isn't limited to those who sit next to us in the pew each week: when we gather, we join with Peter and Paul, Theresa and Ignatius, John of the Cross and Therese Lisieux. We gather with countless women and men - saints and scoundrels - who have tried to make sense of life by working out all of life's issues together, fed at the same table, nourished from the same bread and cup.

To my friend, ultimately, all I can say is this: the claim of quitting because one feels unable to "believe in" means either frustrated surrender or an excuse to not bother. I'm entirely sympathetic to people who struggle with the Church in regard to things like, say, the Divinity of Christ or the Trinity. Heck, I can understand people who struggle on topics such as women's ordination, divorce, and gay marriage - regardless of whether I agree with them on any particular topic, I can grasp the difficulty of integrating a challenging teaching into one's life...or, being unable to integrate it, to have to walk away.

What I don't get, and can't condone, is someone who blithely or cavalierly says "I don't agree with" or "I can't believe in the Church's teaching on x" therefore I am simply leaving. No struggle, no effort to remain in communion, nothing. I take 'communion' and togetherness as fundamental to the experience of being a believer and I should think it would take a great deal of struggle over a matter, rather than a mere exercise of fancy, to dislodge me from the place I call my spiritual home.

Friday, October 19, 2012

33rd Birthday and The Feast of the North American Martyrs

I'm very fortunate to celebrate on the same day the United States observes the "Feast of the North American Martyrs." On this day, we celebrate the witness of Saint John De Brebeuf, Saint Isaac Jogues, and their companions. For these men, death did not bring about their martyrdom. It was the consequence of their lives lived as witnesses to the Gospel. 

In 1979, I had four great-grandparents and four grandparents. Today, only my Grandma Hagan is alive. I'm blessed that my godparents - Jack Duns and Kelly King - are still alive, as is my Confirmation Jack Barret. Nevertheless, it's hard not to think back and miss those people who have passed from my life as I celebrate it's start. Likewise is it hard not to think upon the wonderful people who have entered my life, who have played a role in it, who have helped to make me who I am today. 

I am a fortunate man. I have a family I love very much - although my sister Hagan apparently is afraid of me! (and this for the one who taught her to eat sushi) - and I am uncle to the two best kids (Emma and Quinn) in the world. I have taught music to countless women and men thanks to the internet, I have played for Irish dancers across the world, and although I will forever be a Wildcat of Saint Ignatius, I must claim that my happiest experience of high school came from my privilege of serving at the finest Jesuit high school imaginable: The University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy.

 If I were to mention by name each person to whom I owed a debt of gratitude, I'd write for days. My life is blessed. 

I have never made a secret that I am a man sorely tempted by doubt. Yet, with Karl Rahner, I will aver: I believe because I pray. I believe in the goodness and mercy of God because I look at my life and I cannot help but to feel it is more than any one person could ever deserve. I am son, brother, and uncle. To some I am a tin whistle teacher, to others a nameless feis musician. To a good number of high school students I am Abba Duns. To the worldwide Society of Jesus, I am a brother Jesuit, a co-laborer in the Lord's Vineyard.

Overall, I should like to think that I might be known simply as a friend. 

Let me be crude for a moment: sometimes, it really sucks to be a Catholic. It can feel even worse to be clergy. It has been my grace, however, that I've never regretted getting out of bed in the morning and I've never gone to bed with a heavy heart. Life is not always easy, but it is joyful. I don't know how many of my peers can say this...

When I set off for college, I thought I'd be a doctor. "Ryan Duns, MD" looked pretty good to me. To this day, however, I get a thrill of astonishment when I sign the 30th letter of college recommendation "Ryan Duns, SJ". It's not where my earliest daydreams led me, to be sure, but never in my wildest dreams could I have have anticipated such joy in a life.

In 1998, a line from today's Gospel was harder to imagine:
"Even the hairs of your head have all been counted." 
15 years later, the Lord has a much job.

It is true that I am balder now and that it's harder to keep off the pounds. Still, I am happier today than I could ever have imagined and I'm far happier than I should ever deserve.

I wrote this two months ago, but it stands true and rings in the depths of my heart. It has become a daily prayer and on my 33rd birthday, I should only hope to have another 33 years of life lived in the same way:

For all that has been, I say: Thank You.
For all that is yet to come, I say: Yes. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On Politics

For quite some time, I have had mixed feelings about weighing in or writing on the topic of  politics. "Your realm," a friend once told me, "is to be priestly, not political." I reckon I've bought into this, preferring to pray quietly and to remain silent on many of the issues that have arisen during this election season.

It is not as though my silence is without good reason. For were I to say that I intended to vote for Mitt Romney, there would be cries that I hate the poor; to suggest a vote for Obama would raise cries that I hated the unborn. In particular, I have been dismayed and horrified by the caustic and hateful comments directed toward Catholic bloggers who voice, in any way, support for Obama. Civil discourse seems, yet again, to have been thrown out the window. Hell, the two candidates can't even engage in a civil debate! Is it a wonder why a Jesuit scholastic would prefer to remain silent?

But can I, in conscience, stay silent? Am I so wholly removed from the world of politics that I am permitted only to direct silent prayers for the coming of the Kingdom, but I am not to speak of how I envision this coming about? As a Jesuit and a son of Ignatius, it is my life's labor to be a contemplative-in-action, one who brings himself to prayer in order to discern better how it is that God is calling him back into the world. My ears grow attuned to the cry of the oppressed, they strain to listen to the countless silent voices squelched by sinful and oppressive structures. I open my ears and let their words and stories penetrate my heart. I lift these voices up in prayer. And yet am I to remain in silence about the political structures that both abet and promise to alleviate the oppression that is a scourge to so many?

So let me say something about my politics. It seems to me that most of our problems are human-made. Lack of food, the general disregard for the value of human life (from the womb to healthcare to education to care for our elderly and infirm), war, an unconcern for the environment, an economic crisis precipitated by greed and lust for money, and pernicious forms of prejudice and discrimination...all of these can be traced back to human artistry. We need look no further than to one another to see who the real architects of our malaise is: it is us. 

As a Christian, I cannot help but to look at the suffering and strife of so many and ask, "Lord, where are you in this?" Again and again, I am drawn in prayer and reflection to the realization that Christ is now where he always has been: with the poor, the helpless, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. As a Companion of Jesus, these are the men, women, and children that I have pledged my life and heart to serve as their brother and, God willing, their priest. As much as I'd like to say, "Let me give you spiritual counsel, but let's leave politics to the politicians" I would be remiss in doing so. 

You see, my question at the end of the day is, "With my vote, how am I contributing to the furthering of God's Kingdom?" Is there a place for abortion? Is there a place for war? Is there a place for children to be deprived of an education? Of healthcare? When I enter the voting booth, I am certainly going to follow my conscience in asking, "Which of these is building up God's Kingdom better?"

  • I will vote for the candidate whose social policy will contribute to the declining rates of abortion in this country while also addressing the sweeping social policies that are necessary to make abortion an un-exercised option.
  • I will vote for the candidate who manifests a deep sense of the dignity of human life - whether that human life stand at the moment of conception, the cusp of death, wealthy or poor, male or female, documented or undocumented, heterosexual or homosexual, Catholic or Jew or Muslim or Atheist or Questioning
  • I will vote for the candidate who will assess fairly and accurately our military presence in foreign countries and make an informed decision about out the role of the United States in the future of the international community
  • I will vote for the candidate who demonstrates a sense of the scope and depth of the current economic crisis. This candidate will realize the breadth of its impact and will promote ways to address this is a healthy, balanced manner.
I admit that there is no ideal, or perfect candidate. But it is our burden, and our privilege, as citizens to be able to vote for the man who will lead our country for the next four years. In my mind, I am trying to vote in and for the narrative of God's Kingdom, a Kingdom that Jesus Christ embodied in his ministry on earth. I can no sooner be a one-issue voter than I can, in conscience, refrain wholly from voting. So it is with a discerning eye and an open heart that I will approach the booth this year and, in casting my ballot, I will do so with a prayer-filled confidence that the person whom I envision leading our country will embody more fully the values of the Kingdom.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Fitting Tribute

The Boston Irish community remains in mourning at the passing of a local legend, Mr. Larry Reynolds. I did not know Mr. Reynolds personally but I wish I had. By all accounts, he was a true character. Maybe it is only in Boston that a funeral for an Irish fiddle player could make the cover of the paper's Metro section. Nevertheless, I encourage you to read the fitting tribute to his life. If ever one wanted to see my image of heaven, it's the picture of all the musicians gathered in the Church...each one raising his or her instrument to play a song from the heart in joyful praise for another's life well life.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

So What?

If there has been a gift in having been a high school teacher, it is a sensitivity to the “So What?” dimension of every lesson. One can prepare the greatest of lessons but unless he is ready to account for the “So What?” factor, the meaning is lost. For good or for ill, students expect you as a teacher to give a hint as to how the material you are teaching relates to real life.

It is with the “So What?” glasses on that I read the letter Archbishop Nienstedt wrote to a mother in response to question about accepting her gay son. The mother, was responding to the Archbishop’s letter appearing on April 28, 2010, in The Star Tribune. This week, a fellow blogger posted a copy of the Archbishop's response to the mother

Now, let me ask: how this helpful to a mother who has taken the time to write a letter to her bishop asking for guidance? If one reads the letter and asks, “So What?” can it be claimed that any new ground has been covered, that any new insight has been gained? How has this helped a mother to be more loving toward her son? 

In case readers don’t have the entirety of the Catechism committed to memory, here are the three citations from the Catechism:

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
 2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
 2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
Quoting the Catechism in response to a person’s question is like saying “Because I said so” to a child. It does little, if anything, to satisfy the inquirer.  Invoking "eternal salvation" yet failing to give some encouragement, or pastoral counsel, seems to me both a grave pastoral oversight. 

Very few of us today can claim not to have homosexual friends or relatives. Admittedly, the Church sets a high bar and it is a part of Christian journey to strive toward this goal. Nevertheless, each of us should feel comfortable in asking our pastors for help; each has the canonical right "to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments. (canon 213). Citing the Catechism and basically saying, “Well, these are the rules. Like it or lump it.” is hardly helpful. To my mind, this letter is very sad: regardless of its intent, it now serves only to reinforce the belief that the Catholic Church is a homophobic institution more concerned with obedience than human flourishing. 

Latin is important. So is Scripture and Theology. Yet, I can't help but to think that perhaps the Church needs to insist that seminarians, as part of their preparation for ordination, teach high school for a few years. Then they’ll know what it is to justify each statement, reaching for with clarity and credibility, when responding to the “So What?” question that cannot, even for a second, be taken for granted in a classroom. 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame