Saturday, March 31, 2012

"It is better for you that one man should die..."

I spent a quiet evening at home last night, savoring the opportunity to catch up on some reading and record some new videos for YouTube. Such an evening gave me, too, a chance to pray in a wholly un-rushed and relaxed manner (I tend to pray very early in the morning and, regardless of my best intentions, the concerns of the day often break in upon me).

Today's reading records the great line of Caiaphas, the high priest of the Sanhedrin. Confronted with the threat that, if Jesus were allowed to continue his ministry, it would incur the wrath of the Romans, Caiaphas pronounces:
"You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish." 
In a sense, we can sympathize with Caiaphas: he knows that the Romans do not suffer civil disturbances gladly and that their wrath could be unleashed swiftly and brutally. He acts, in his mind, prudently and as a utilitarian. Is it not the case that one might be offered up as a sacrifice on the altar of oppression and threatened violence than to risk the immolation of an entire people?

Some commentators regard this as the Prophecy of Caiaphas, that he unwittingly and ironically predicts the death of Jesus. Personally, I reject this interpretation. I do so because I think it misses the whole function and vocation of a prophet. To misconstrue the role of the prophet, to my mind, is to misunderstand totally what - in line with so many prophets before him - animated Jesus and his mission. Caiaphas, on my understanding, is nothing less that most of the religious leaders of our own day: anti-prophets more interested in preserving the structure than living radically its call to prophetic action.

My sophomores, almost to a man, can give you the Duns Definition of the Prophet:
The prophet's job is to (1) critique the current order and (2) re-imagine it. 
What does this mean?

"Christ Before Caiaphas" by Mattias Storm
(1) "To critique the current order" means that the prophet surveys the current situation and detects a flaw, a wrinkle, a stain. Animated by a sense of how things could be, the prophet's allows reality to be fully present and engages with it in a critical manner. Far from a youthful activism that is easily and faddishly stimulated, the prophet is deeply and prudently aware of the social situation and realizes that it does not achieve or live up to what it ought.

What makes a prophet's words a 'critique' rather than mere bitching? It is (2): the prophet must  re-imagine the situation, articulating a vision for how things ought to be.

If you read the Gospels, it's hard not to notice that Jesus is veritably drunk on one thing: the Kingdom of God. His words and deeds proclaim the revolutionary Kingdom that he is inaugurating in this world. His words sing forth the culture of this Kingdom, the Culture of God, where the "first shall be last" and where it is the son who strayed furthest from the Father is the one closest to his heart. Jesus' deeds, likewise, show the social re-configuration of the celestial culture, a culture where the deaf hear, the lame walk, those with demons are welcomed home, and the dead are given new life.

Why is Caiaphas an anti-prophet? Because he is more concerned with preserving the status quo than he is in living out radically and authentically the culture of God's Kingdom. Jesus' re-imagining of what the culture might look like destabilized society, threatening the current order, and the powers and principalities at hand would rather quell this rather than allow it to bear fruit. Caiaphas would rather have silenced the critique and stifled the imagination than allow it threaten the current order.

One need not look far to see how easy it is for any leader - religious or secular - to cave to the pressure to preserve the present order. In my own Catholic tradition, I continue to feel deep shame at how our leadership put the preservation of the institution above the needs of its flock for courageous truth and transparency. How many leaders could have offered a critique of (1) a culture that allowed for the quiet transfer of abusers and (2) re-imagined a way of dealing with this in a healthy and honest manner. To have enacted (1) and (2) would have threatened the status quo, would have made people uneasy, so it was left undone.

Through the waters of baptism we are each called to participate in Jesus Christ's role as priest, prophet, and king. As we prepare ourselves of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem tomorrow, may we find the courage to embrace our role as prophets, as fearless forth-tellers of God's in-breaking Kingdom, and live out radically the Culture of God's Kingdom as it challenges and transforms our own hearts and the world in which we live.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Before Abraham Came to Be, I AM

Today's reading from John's Gospel provides an instance of Jesus disclosing to those around him who he is. He shares with them, that is, his identity. For identifying himself with the Father whose mission he was enacting on the human stage, the response is predictable: those gathered 'picked up stones to throw at him' but Jesus manages to escape.

When I was in high school, we read a book entitled Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? One thing I remember - from over fifteen years ago - is how easy it is to wear a mask that conceals our true selves. "The Nerd" or "The Jock" or the "The Cold Customer" or whatever, we don masks to prevent people from getting a glimpse at who we really are. We are, many of us, gripped with the fear that if people knew us, really knew us, that they'd not like us at all. Hence we wear masks to show to others the person we think they will accept, the person we think they'll want to see.

Teaching high school boys, I see masks all day long. Some days, it's as though I'm the emcee of a masquerade ball: the masks are simultaneously fantastic and grotesque. Beneath the masks, though, one glimpses the very real human eyes peering out, darting to and fro worriedly, petrified that someone might catch a glimpse of the face concealed. Sometimes these masks slip off, exposing the once-hidden face to new light...those moments of grace, in my experience, are profound moments of healing.

When we tell people who we are, when we take a stand on the woman or man we've become, we do risk failure and rejection. Jesus knew who he was and, as C. S. Lewis once expressed it, we have only to conclude that in his identification of himself with the Father he is either a "Liar, a Lunatic, or the Son of God."

So why did people take up stones against him for being honest? I guess for the same reason people react violently against radically honest people even today. Such people "make an issue" of something that is or should be private - be it religion, politics, sexuality, etc.. We, sinful humans, have something of an allergy to authenticity and honesty. When someone around us risks sharing who he or she is, removing the mask and staking herself on an issue, that act of honest sheds light onto the shadows of our dishonesty, on the fact that we are rotting underneath our masks.

This Lent, perhaps it is time for each of us to pick at the edges of the mask(s) we wear to see how firmly it is in place. May this be a season of grace, of a fasting that loosens the edges and allows the false front to which we cling and think ourselves beholden to fall away. Let us take courage in Jesus' own honesty - an honesty not without grave risk - and find the grace to show our true faces to the world, to rejoice in who we are, and to stand in testimony to God's saving power which calls each of us from self-enclosed darkness into the light of God's Kingdom.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Annunciation of the Lord

Many of us, whether of Irish descent or not, celebrate the half-way to Saint Patrick's Day in September. Today, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Nine Months Until Christmas, give or take a day, as we pray through our observation of The Annunciation of the Lord.

The figure of Mary is often contested between Christian denominations. I must acknowledge, perhaps under the influence of my arch-Lutheran father, that there can be a certain Catholic excess when it comes to Mary. I once met an earnest and eager young candidate for the Jesuits who, over coffee and pastries, suddenly grasped my hands and began to pray loudly, commending "our conversation to the girdle of the most blessed and immaculate Mary." I don't know what shocked me more: that another guy grabbed my hands over vanilla-glazed treats or that he created, near as I can tell, a devotion to an article of clothing.

What we see in today's Gospels is the theme of 'yes' to God's invitation to friendship. When we talk about Mary as the Immaculate Conception, we really mean that at no point did Mary ever deny God's friend request. Throughout her life, Mary's heart had a single focus: to love her God and respond wholly to whatever it was she was asked to do.

Lest this be considered total fantasy, let's think about the way children are reared. Children reflect their parents; indeed, Parent-Teacher conferences never cease to impress upon me how alike sons are to their parents. Children are influenced by their parents and they by their parents. Often, it's not difficult to distinguish the children of Blue Bloods from those of the Nouveau Riche. Each one bears the mark of a family's history, a family's style.

The snapshot taken from Luke's Gospel points to precisely this sort of family history. I simply do not believe that Mary is the odd one-off in Israel's history of waiting for the Messiah. Quite to the contrary: Mary seems to be the product of a history of women and men who have sought God's will and to respond wholeheartedly to it. Rather than being a magical baby who never sinned, Mary is the fruit of humanity's long struggle to be open to God's grace, to God's ways. Mary said 'yes' to God because she was loved into the freedom of saying Yes. The fear that etches so many of our hearts and spirits is absent in her, not because of magic, but because God's grace had slowly shaped a family whose flowering renders her the one "full of grace."

In our own day, it is sad to think that the 'risks' many of us want to take are totally insane: binge drinking, anonymous sexual hook-ups, shady investments, drugs, etc.. The risks we seem to think will bring us meaning and purpose sem, to me, to be precisely those things that threaten most to destroy us. Compare this to Mary's quiet assent to God's offer, Mary's responding so generously to the innermost desire of her heart. Rather than sending her on the path of self-destruction, it launches a program of re-creation that continues today. Perhaps it will be the grace given to each of us that we find the courage to say 'yes' to what stirs within us and to respond generously to God's friendship.

Fashion Invocation, II

A prayer said before the beginning of the 2012 U of D Jesuit Mothers' Club Fashion Show:

Let us begin, as always, In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The celluloid saint Audrey Hepburn had this to say of beauty: 
The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair. The beauty of a woman is seen in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides. True beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It’s the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows and the beauty of a woman only grows with passing years. 
Lord, as we gather to celebrate beauty of fashion, let us never forget your beauty reflected in all that we see.  May the beauty we see with our eyes enter our souls, making us ever more passionate for you and the world you have created. Let us show this passion in deeds of love as we help to build your Kingdom here on earth. May all that we do reflect your beauty, shine forth with your love, and help us to live our lives for the Greater Honor and Glory of God.

We pray this through Christ our Lord,


Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Grain of Wheat

A line from today's Gospel, taken from John, is familiar to many:
"...unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me." 
There is, throughout our lives, a constant temptation to cling to what we have. We become hoarders - hoarding items and trinkets, money and power, status and reputation - and we cling feverishly to these things. A mantra for many in our age is I am what I own

Many of my students might change this mantra to I am what I scored. It is a constant temptation for our students to cling to their test scores as defining them as they are, to allow their GPA's to dictate their sense of self. When an I is defined by a test score or grade, it is little wonder that so many students feel such pressure and stress.

As I read today's Gospel, I can't help but to think that the 100+ grains of wheat I teach directly each day need to be encouraged to plunge into the soil. Until they are dropped into the furrows of the earth, furrows cut by struggle and sometimes failure, they will never taste any form of success. Those who are willing to risk being covered over by the dirt have the opportunity to break free of their husks, to die to their immature selves, and grow into the young man each one has the potential to be. Rather than being insulated from the muck and mire of daily life, he bursts open and sinks deep roots in search of nutrients and turns his face skyward for energy.

A farmer would never demur at the suggestion that he plant his seeds. Sure, some wheat needs to be ground down and turned into bread. Other seed, however, must be planted again to perpetuate the crop. A seed thrown into the earth, covered over, and given time will oftentimes flourish provided the right environment. Ironic, isn't it, that seeds seem so readily and without cost do what comes natural to them when we spend billions of dollars on special programs to give children what we regard as special advantages. Kids don't need seminars on how to be leaders...they just need to play with other kids and allow leadership to emerge of its own accord.

Perhaps the moral of today's story encourages us to take risks, to get dirty, and to trust that the forces of nature that draw bountiful harvests from single grains of wheat can also act upon us if we allow them to do so. Rather than shielding ourselves from the risks of growth and maturing, rather than clinging to the lives as we lead them now, we must find it within ourselves to surrender, to enter the darkness, and be reborn.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Wisdom of Nicodemus

I mentioned yesterday the "Reason Rally" being held today in Washington. As I said, I hope that the "largest gathering of the secular movement in world history" produces (1) clear sense of the god(s) they reject and (2) a positive account both for why there is no god and for 'why there is something rather than nothing.'

It seems fitting that today's reading from John's Gospel shares with us the wisdom of Nicodemus. Crowds of people had heard and been moved by Jesus' words. Some thought him a prophet, others thought him the Christ. Still others were disturbed by his words and the crowds' reactions, so they fled to the religious authorities. Their concern: "The Christ will not come from Galilee, will he?" How could the Messiah, the liberator of an oppressed people, come from some backwater region of Judea?

The response of the Pharisees is telling:
Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law, is accursed.
I love this line, because it provides a glimpse into the arrogance of a certain triumphalist and dismissive atheism.

Dubbed the "Four Horsemen" of the New Atheism movement, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, these 'high priests' of the contemporary atheist movement can, at times, mirror the sentiment expressed above. Because they, the authorities, have deemed it unworthy to believe it must, as a consequence, be foolish to do so.

Movies such as Bill Maher's Religulous (available, incidentally, on Netflix) or the rants of the Amazing Atheist do less to raise arguments than they do to ridicule and dismiss believers. How much more helpful, on both sides, would it be if they took seriously the claims of one another and instead of the obnoxious rhetoric engaged in the hard work of coming to understand one another?

Hence the wisdom of Nicodemus. Nicodemus, who had visited Jesus once under the cover of darkness, speaks from the margins of the group:
Does our law condemn a man before it first hears him and find out what he is doing?
Nicodemus, his heart having once been moved by this Jesus fellow, is not quick to condemn. He has not left the Sanhedrin, the Jewish assembly, but he is not quick to dismiss Jesus. Rather than going along with the group, dismissing Jesus on the grounds that (1) he comes from Galilee and (2) none of the other Pharisees buy into this, he pushes for an opportunity to go and see what this Jesus is doing.

The response of his colleagues surprises no one. "You are not from Galilee also, are you?" The instant Nicodemus raises a question asking for more information about Jesus, suspicion arises in the hearts of those gathered. It is not so different now: to raise certain questions in our society or in the Church raises the suspicion that you are a closet something-or-other.

 Unfortunately, in an era when information is frequently reduced to 160 characters or short Facebook posts, we are more likely to label-and-dismiss than engage in serious argument and deliberation. As  Christian, I own that faith in Jesus Christ is not a slam dunk, easy and obvious affair. Nor, moreover, do I think that belief in God is without challenges. I do think it reasonable to hold that "God exists" and I think it and argument worth having about why it is reasonable to assert such. Such an endeavor takes time and patience and a willingness to risk true dialogue. Lamentably, the risk of authentic dialogue seems a risk not often taken these days.

We - believers, non-believers, and seekers - have a remarkable opportunity before us to come together and engage in meaningful discussion and argument. Instead of ad hominem attacks or label-and-dismiss tactics, we must find a way to listen to one another and to take one another's questions seriously. Our burning questions, I suspect, will provide the bridge between the camps and while it may not bring consensus, it will foster respect. Failure to understand the salient questions motivating believers and nonbelievers, however, will result only in further parodic aping and mutual misunderstanding.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Reason Rally

I read this morning about the upcoming "Reason Rally" being held tomorrow on the National Mall in Washington.

To be honest, I think this is a great event. I really do - if, as David Silverman reports, atheism is the fastest growing 'religion' in the country, then it should feel comfortable coming together to celebrate common values. It should gather as a body - a secular ecclesiastical body - and profess its reasons for being together.

I should like to make, however, two requests of them:

First, as the theologian Denys Turner reminds us, eadem est scientia oppositorum - one and the same is the knowledge of opposites. That is to say, when we are in an argument we must be sure that we are affirming, and denying, the same point. An example: if I say the weight of the watermelon is "three pounds" and you respond, "no, it weighs green" we have a problem. "Three pounds" and "Green" are not comparable predicates; we are not, that is, talking about the same thing.

As "Reason Rally" assembles, I should like to hear from them just what God it is in whom they do not believe. They may say, "All of them!" but, nevertheless, it'd be nice to have some clarity on just what it is they are denying. Being interested in the relationship between faith and doubt, belief and unbelief, such a gathering might bring about some type of confessional anti-creed, saying just what it is that is not believed.

Why do I ask for this? Because, very often, it's hard to have a discussion with facile atheism (or moronic theism, for that matter). When students/friends dismiss the notion of a god who created the world in six days, I am in agreement with them. When ideas of a god who sends tsunamis and hurricanes to punish humans, I also agree. Yet I believe in God. It just happens that when I say the word "God" and others say the word "God" it seems that we're seldom talking about the same thing.

Summary of Point One: We need to get clear - all of us - on the meaning of the word "God" so that we can have a genuine discussion about what we believe or do not.

Second, and this builds off of the First point, this gathering needs to avoid becoming what Turner would call "an inverted image of a certain kind of narrowed-down theism." The temptation Turner warns against is allowing one's atheism to devolve into an aping of bizzarre theism.

When the likes of Richard Dawkins takes aim at silly notions of theism, I cheer him onward. When Bill Maher points out silliness, I think it a good thing. Yet, it seems, they are merely picking the low-lying fruit and are failing to grapple with more sophisticated believers or to address the questions that they ask. The recent Dawkins/Williams conversation certainly moves in a salutary direction and, it would be my hope, more such conversations will take place.

Summary of Point Two: rather than allowing one's atheism to be parasitic or a mirror-image of an odd sort of theism, atheists need to put forth a positive doctrine that accounts for the question "why is there anything at all."

One last irony: one of the speakers at this rally is Nate Phelps, the atheist son of anti-gay pastor Fred Phelps. The Westboro Baptist Church is infamous for picketing soldiers' funerals, holding hateful signs aloft, shouting out their epithets. I should hope that tomorrow's rally does not ape this sort of behavior, trading ignorant tit for ignorant tat. This could be a watershed moment for the atheist movement and I hope they don't squander it by trying to mirror groups most serious theists do not take seriously.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

I Was Doing So Well!

For a while, I actually thought I'd manage to blog consistently throughout Lent. The events of last weekend, however, scuttled that program. The demands of the musical performance on Friday, commitments on Saturday, and then trying to retrench on Sunday have left me precious little time for my own writing. The beautiful weather and the nagging summons to enjoy it do not help matters, either.

This is yet another super busy week: Student Senate campaign, Talent Show on Friday, Mother's Club Fashion Show on Saturday, a meeting on Sunday never ends! Stay tuned, though, for I'll do my best to continue to update the site as time, and energy levels, permit.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

I will post another video tomorrow - a bit of a surprise, really - but I had some time tonight so I recorded two new videos for YouTube. I'm awful at keeping fresh content on the channel so my guilt forced me to do something I may live to regret: I recorded Danny Boy and the Irish Washerwoman. How cliche!

Go with the Flo...nase

On occasion, I share with readers some of the stupid things I do. Generally speaking, I don't intend to be just happens. Case in point:

Along with two other Jesuits, I agreed to participate in a Theology-On-Tap program hosted by several  families at U of D Jesuit. Brother Boynton spoke the first week on the History of Spirituality. Originally, I was to give my presentation next week, on the 21st. Well, as it turns out, an emergency situation forced a schedule switch and at 5:30 yesterday afternoon, I was told that I'd be giving my talk instead and I had just about thirty minutes to get it ready. 
In my rush, I tried to multi-task. I pulled together some preliminary notes - entitled The Risk of Zacchaeus and the Control-F Generation - while brushing my teeth, changing my clothes, and scrambling to find clean socks. 

It also occurred to me that I'd not taken my vitamins that day. It also hit me that I'd not used my Flonase, either. So I grabbed one B-12, one Multi-Vitamin, and uncapped my Flonaise. I grabbed my water bottle and, in a grand motion, simultaneously threw the pills in my mouth and took an enormous swig of water to down them. I then used the Flonase (two shots per nostril, of course), and went to re-cap the bottle when I realized that the cap had magically transformed into a multi-vitamin. 

Yep: It appears that, in my haste, I swallowed the Flonase cap. 

Turns out that I'm pretty good at popping pills and pill-shaped caps. Another hidden talent brought to light. 

Ah well. The Universe - 1, Duns - 0. 

Near as I can tell, I've suffered no ill effects from this gaffe. Maybe, just maybe, I'll have stumbled upon a secret for hair re-growth. 

One can always hope.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Elephant in the Gym

Two weeks ago, I created a small controversy when I raised the question of racism within the Detroit Catholic League. A number of people commented on my post - some in favor of what I wrote, others vehemently opposed - and a number of those who were critical thought that I had acted inappropriately in "airing dirty laundry." Still others thought my post was simply a result of sour grapes: U of D Jesuit had lost and I was  lashing out.

Today in the Detroit News, an article about another Catholic League team raises the specter of racism.  We tried, several times, to draw attention to the issues of racism that we have observed within the Catholic League's sporting events.Our entreaties, made weeks before the event written about, seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

Terry Foster, of the Detroit News, reports:

King was on its way to a 72-50 blowout in the Class A regionals at Cass Tech when King fans chanted, "Nah! Nah! Nah! Nah! Heyyy! Good byeeee."

The chants went back and forth until the DeLaSalle student section took it to another level — "We've got futures. We've got futures."

Later they chanted: "Flip our burgers. And you are stupid."
 You can read the entire article here.

When I raised the issue, I was told I was crazy and that I was doing "irreparable damage" to the reputation of the Catholic League. There was, in many of the comments, a hint that race was not an issue at all and that I was blowing things out of proportion. Yet, here is a Tweet from one of the students in attendance at the game

Rick: hilarious moment when our student section chirps "flip our burgers" and "we have futures" at Detroit King
The specter of racism is not one easy to exorcise and it will continue to plague our institutions if we do not face it courageously through dialogue and a quest for mutual understanding.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Monday, the 20th Day of Lent

It is easy to love the people far away.
It is not always easy to love those close to us. 

It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve 
the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. 

Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start. 
                                            ~Mother Teresa of Calcutta

I introduced my students to the label of the 'convenient' and 'inconvenient' poor. The convenient poor are those we don't really have to deal with in an immediate way: we see them on television news, we hear about them, we take up on occasional second-collection on their behalf. They are removed from our vision and, in our imaginations, often romanticized. 

The inconvenient poor, on the other hand, are the ones we have to deal with daily. These are the poor people who stand on the corners begging for money, those who frequent warming centers, those who sleep atop steam vents. They are inconvenient because we have to engage them, deal with them: either give them money, avoid eye contact, step around or over them. It is hard to romanticize these women and often do we bear some resentment against them, muttering inwardly, "Go get a job"? 

The recent Kony 2012 video - a YouTube phenomenon with almost 75 million views - may serve as a good example of this. The problem of invisible children isn't new. How troubling that it takes a slick video to call our attention (if simplistically) to Uganda when we are so blind, in our own country, to our own invisible children. Our own 'home' country is so frequently without love, without concern for the least of our citizens, yet the jump-on-the-bandwagon types are clamoring to send money to Uganda as they turn a blind eye to our own nation's problems. 

I'm not saying that we need to ignore Uganda. Indeed, I think we need to turn serious attention to this and engage in serious social analysis to isolate and grapple with some of the intricacies of the problems facing that nation. My concern is that the fervor to send money to the 'convenient' poor is a way of masking, or ignoring, our responsibility for the inconvenient poor who sleep on our doorsteps. This is not an either/or humanitarian situation; it is, rather, a both/and. We must address issues both here and abroad, both the poor we can see/smell/hear and those out of sight. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Prodigal Father?

I woke up this morning and found this interesting comment on yesterday's post:
You probably have got a typo there - I think the gospel is called "The Forgiving Father" (or possibly The Loving Father) - I don`t recall God described as being prodigal in the bible ;-)
 This caused me to pause. Had I erred in the post? Or is this an instance of confronting the limitations of human language about God?

Herbert McCabe draws a distinction between static words and growing words. Static words are basically words like "jam jar" and "stapler" and "chair" - nouns whose meaning remains stable over time. My nephew Quinn can learn (probably by getting his hand stuck in it) the meaning of the word "jam jar" and in twenty years, the meaning of "jam jar" will probably be relatively the same. This is quite probably a good thing: we live out our lives surrounding by common objects, objects with rather stable names attached to them.

Yet there is another category of words he calls "growing words." These are words whose meaning changes over time. For a child of six, the word 'love' means something like 'is nice to me.' For a woman married fifty years, the word has a different meaning, a meaning that has grown over time. 'Forgiveness' for a teenager may mean "I am no longer grounded." For an adult, the same word has grown to mean "Healing of a relationship threatened by my thoughtlessness or callousness."

A 'growing word' indicates that there is a category of language that isn't quite pinned down and neat. Some of our words - love, beauty, grace, forgiveness, friendship, sorrow, etc. - change over the years, gaining new and deeper meanings, subtlety and nuance, with time and maturity.

It is true that the Gospel does not label God as prodigal. The word itself bears the meaning of 'spending extravagantly.' Can we not, however, see the prodigality of God in our experiences of grace? Those times when I have wandered far and feel the deep longing for communion, am I not embraced prodigally by the Father's embrace? When I see the bountiful harvest in places where women and men strive courageously to live out the Gospel, am I not a witness to the prodigality of grace? Calling God prodigal does not indicate that he wastes his means only that he doles out grace recklessly and lovingly.

When we speak of God, we must have a care to realize that our language is always frayed about the edges. Our words, even when applied literally to God, are limited. I know the meaning of 'good' or 'true' and I speak well of God when I use these words. Yet my notion of 'good' and 'true' is still growing, still evolving, and although I speak rightly of God, I do not speak exhaustively. The mystery of God is not evacuated through any of my words. Hence it is that in prayer and contemplation, I find myself falling silent when confronted with this Mystery. Rather than filling the void with my words, I surrender to the quiet stillness and know the One who defies being captured by language and into whose depths I desire to plunge myself ever more deeply.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Prodigal Son: the 18th Day of Lent

Pompeo Batoni's The Return of the Prodigal Son
Few stories in Scripture contain more power or poignancy than the parable found in today's Gospel. The story, variously rendered as 'The Prodigal Son' or 'The Prodigal Father', is yet another of Jesus' parables that mark the Great Reversal expected in God's Kingdom. The older brother, angry and resentful at the party thrown for his sibling, represents the way many of us think about the economy of righteousness. If I do good things, if I follow all of the rules, if I do what is asked of me...then I shall be the favored one.

Pity that God's grace doesn't work quite like that...a pity, of course, if the prodigality of grace is ever to be lamented.

I like to describe Jesus' parables as 'atomic bomb' stories. By this I mean simply to say that the parables do more than blow holes in the way we think about the world or how we think of God. After creating or widening the cracks in our heart that allow bits of God's light to stream into our darkness, the true power of a parable stems from its ability to irradiate and mutate our spiritual lives. The stories, long after they have been heard and buried deep within our hearts, continue to irradiate our imaginations, mutating it for the Kingdom. The DNA of our imagination, when exposed to the radioactive message of the Kingdom, is slowly transformed.

James Tissot's The Return of the Prodigal Son
I love teaching today's parable to sophomores because it makes them angry. They think it unfair, insane, and wholly inappropriate for the younger son to be welcomed back with open arms. The story scandalizes them; quite literally, it functions as a skandalon or stumbling block. The older brother did everything expected of him, yet he gets the shaft!

Archbishop Bruno Forte provides a marvelous insight into this story. "Which of the sons," he asks, "stands closest to the heart of the father?" It is the son who realizes, when in a far-off land, where his true home is. The irony of the story, Forte points out, rests on the older son who, though he has never left the side of the father, stands furthest from the father's heart. The father's way of love and forgiveness are foreign to the older son.

Put another way, the younger son had to alienate himself in order to find his home. The older son, although he has never left home, is the alien to the father's ways.

A great part of Lent involves allowing ourselves to experience a feeling of alienation. How many of us have wandered very far away and now, in the midst of Lent, wonder if we can wander back home. For some of our sisters and brothers, their lives are a protracted Lent, a long period of alienation and struggle, and they wonder if they are even able to come home. Let our prayer today be that this parable embed itself in the marrow of our bones and seep into the DNA of our imaginations. Let it be the case that our imaginations are mutated and transformed, being re-created into imaginations imbued with the style of the Father with hearts transformed by love, forgiveness, and on fire for the ways of the Father who awaits all of us on our return home.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The 16th Day of Lent

Well, the streak had to be broken. I woke up yesterday and realized I had not the energy to write a blog post.

Alas. I haven't that much energy today, either.

Lazarus and Dives from the Codex Aureus of Echternach

Today's Gospel is taken from Luke and tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. As you can see from the above, Lazarus is shut out from the rich man's life. Kept outside the front door, he was probably something of an annoyance, an inconvenience. Lazarus, upon his death, is drawn to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man, however, finds himself in fiery torment: the worldly pleasures he had enjoyed are now stripped from him, and he begs for Lazarus to "dip the tip of his finger and water and cool my tongue." No such succor is provided, though. As the rich man lived in this world - cut off from the poor and deaf to their cries - so shall he live for eternity.

Each Lenten season, we are enjoined to partake in prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. In stripping away the excesses of our lives, we come to know better just what it is that defines us as humans, as Christians. Beneath the technology and designer coffee beverages, below the growing bank account, in the silence of my heart when I come to prayer...when I have purged from myself all of the extras, all of the nonessentials, who am I? Am I one who closes the door to Lazarus or do I invite him to my table?

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Tuesday, the 14th Day of Lent

Lord, let me know you, let me know myself.

Lord, you do your will and not mine. 

I'm just coming, Lord. 

                                                         ~ St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, SJ

These lines or, as the editors of Hearts on Fire call them, aspirations are taken from the the style of prayer cultivated by the Jesuit Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez. Brother Rodriguez spent many years as the porter at the Jesuit college on the island of Majorca and was renowned for his holiness and wisdom. 

There is certainly a seduction to think that prayer, or deepening one's spiritual life, demands many hours each day or frequent trips to a retreat house. Yet, look at these 'aspirations' above: any of these could easily be prayed while driving to work, folding laundry, mowing the lawn, or changing a diaper. Good prayer doesn't mean means that you've shown up.

Two weeks into Lent and I suspect many are tired. It can seem a rather long trudge, one long night without hardly any hope for morning's light. In the moments of ennui, when breath and prayer seem so difficult to muster, or so pointless, perhaps these little gems might sound forth from our depths and recall us to the prayer of the everyday, the unglamorous but necessary consecration of our daily lives to God's Kingdom.

Anecdotally, I remember learning the third line - "I'm just coming, Lord" - in my sophomore year of high school. This is the prayer that propelled me along, far behind my classmates, on the dreaded 1/2-mile run. After running a marathon in 2009, a 1/2-mile seems like nothing. Sixteen years and fifty pounds ago, it ranked with scaling the Himalayas. In between gasps and pants as I pushed and cajoled my body into moving just a few more steps, I distinctly remember muttering this prayer to myself over and over seemed a better choice than muttering, "Son of a b*#*% or I hate this s*#@." This simple prayer, said many times since during times of struggle or feeling left-in-the-dust, has always proved a light and a source of consolation. I'm still 'just coming' and I'm pretty okay with foot in front of the other, day by day, trying to live for God's greater glory. 

Monday, March 05, 2012

The 13th Day of Lent: The Jesuit Post

Several weeks ago, several enterprising young Jesuits launched a new website called "The Jesuit Post." Editor-in-Chief Paddy Gilger, SJ is to be commended for his tremendous labors.

I'm pleased that Paddy thought enough of an edited version of a talk I delivered several weeks back that he included it on the Jesuit Post. The talk, delivered one chilly night on Mackinac Island, is a very basic introduction to prayer. You can read the post - and comment, should you wish - HERE.

I strongly encourage you to poke around the site. The content produced by these Jesuits is absolutely astounding and is sure to provide something to pique your interests. I'm hoping to find more time in the near future to contribute something more substantial but, with the Student Senate Campaign looming, I don't suspect much time is going to be available.

Don't forget: The Jesuit Post!

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Second Sunday of Lent

I teach a senior-level elective on the History of Catholic Philosophy. I guess, in theory, the course is supposed to traverse the history of philosophy with special attention to major Catholic thinkers. In reality, the course is basically an arena where students get a chance to read some of the more important thinkers in the Christian tradition and wrestle with the credibility of belief. In my experience, students are less fixated on the distinction between homoousion and homoiousion than they are on the existence of God and sorting out the question, "what difference does faith make."

The more stubborn of my students want a proof, or iron-clad demonstration, of faith. They see faith as simply a way of putting plywood over the holes of reason, a temporary stop-gap until we sort out the problems we have still no answer for. The existence of God, or the life of faith, is thought of as more a math problem or chemical equation than it is a relationship.

I wonder if Jesus' disciples had similar questions. Sure, they were born into a cultural and faith context radically different from our own. Yet, I can't help but think that they had to struggle with what Jesus said. They saw this Jesus fellow, they followed and listened, and they put him into their pre-existing categories. They could see Jesus as a wonder-worker, a prophet, a great teacher...but Messiah? It was, surely, hard to see him in this capacity. How do you convince your friends of something like this, how do you put into words something they can't hardly imagine? Were this GI Jesus, they'd have gotten this sense of Messiah. Yet a preaching craftsman? A bit more difficult.

Today's Gospel recounts the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus' ascent of Mount Tabor with his disciples where
...he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. 
Jesus didn't offer a clever argument to convince his friends of his identity. He showed them who he was, he let be seen who he was. In the Transfiguration, the disciples get a glimpse into Jesus' identity. Perhaps this is why the betrayal of Good Friday so terrible...Peter knew who Jesus was, yet fled from his side.

Perhaps we could think of the Transfiguration as having a master musician perform his own composition. Having found a copy of the notes, the amateurs strain to play it and make sense of it. They get close, but they are not quite there yet. The composer doesn't argue with them and tell them that they are wrong. He shows them how the performance is supposed to go; he gives them a glimpse of what the composition ought to sound like when performed rightly. The composer then charges the musicians to go forth and to play it right.

Today, perhaps we could consider how the Transfiguration gives us a glimpse of the whole, of the real, and how we might reorient our lives to reflect who Jesus is and what he promises. Like any musician, we are sure to make mistakes. Yet with time and practice and grace, we can have confidence that we will eventually bring our instruments together in one celestial chorus and performance of the Good News.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Eleventh Day of Lent

I must admit that I am seldom good at being politically correct. For some reason, my 'filter' that should keep me from putting my foot in my mouth is broken. That is to say, I very often finding myself saying exactly what I'm thinking. Generally, I don't think I'm being hateful or hurtful but, at times, I curse myself for not being able to reel in my words.

One word I rather like, use too frequently, and realize that it's now inappropriate for use is the word queer. Growing up in an Irish cultural milieu, the word queer did not have the connotation of anything involving sexuality. Rather, it indicated that something was very peculiar. So to hear Tom Byrne, a great flute and whistle player from Cleveland, say, "Ryan, that was a queer tune you played" said nothing of its sexual identity and spoke, usually, to the fact that I had just played something very strange before him. Given the fashion trends of some of my students, I sometimes fail to catch myself before blurting out, at seeing hideous plaid pants, "Those are the queerest pants I've ever seen!"

Today's first reading and Gospel are linked by what I would regard as how queer, or peculiar, Christianity truly is. Given how charged that word is I suspect it better to say how peculiar it is. In the first reading, Moses addresses the gathered people:
This day the LORD, your God,
commands you to observe these statutes and decrees.
Be careful, then,
to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.
Today you are making this agreement with the LORD:
he is to be your God and you are to walk in his ways
and observe his statutes, commandments and decrees,
and to hearken to his voice.
And today the LORD is making this agreement with you:
you are to be a people peculiarly his own, as he promised you
 For Moses, being the LORD's people is not simply paying lip-service to statutes or laws. It is a way of being a people, a style of being an assembly that stands out from other groups. This doesn't mean that God doesn't love other people, or neglects them, or has no regard for them. It means that, of all the world's people, this gathering is called in a peculiar way. It is a way that stands out from the ways and styles of other peoples, a manner that would appear....well, queer.

Turn, then, to the Gospel. Matthew recounts Jesus' words:
Jesus said to his disciples:
"You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies,and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers and sisters only,what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."
What emerges in this passage is that discipleship demands a certain strangeness, or peculiarity. Christian discipleship involves far more than simply parroting back propositions about Jesus or the involves living out what these propositions mean. Discipleship demands that we enact, here and now, the values of God's Kingdom. Unfortunate it is, then, that it is precisely this set of values that succeeded in getting Jesus killed.

Being a committed Christian does involve being peculiar. This shouldn't be a shock - Moses saw that fidelity to the covenant was peculiar and Jesus saw that living out the culture of the Kingdom was unusual. Christianity puts us outside the realm of the normal, of the expected and accepted, and gives a glimpse of another style of living. Rather than being ashamed of our Christian style, we should embrace being out of step with the rest of the world and live out our peculiarity boldly and joyfully. 

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Tenth Day of Lent

God of My Life
~Karl Rahner, SJ

Only in love can I find you, my God.
In love the gates of my soul spring open,
allowing me to breathe a new air of freedom
and forget my own petty self.
In love my whole being streams forth
out of the rigid confines of narrowness and anxious self-assertion,
which makes me a prisoner of my own poverty and emptiness.
In love all the powers of my soul flow out toward you,
wanting never more to return,
but to lose themselves completely in you,
since by your love you are the inmost center of my heart,
closer to me than I am to myself.
But when I love you,
when I manage to break out of the narrow circle of self
and leave behind the restless agony of unanswered questions,
when my blinded eyes no longer look merely from afar
and from the outside upon your unapproachable brightness,
and much more when you yourself, O Incomprehensible One,
have become through love the inmost center of my life,
then I can bury myself entirely in you, O mysterious God,
and with myself all my questions.

Often derided, if not unread, because of his difficult prose, Father Karl Rahner nevertheless proved to be one of the great spiritual masters of the 20th century. This prayer - one I have used many times in my own life - stands as one of the reasons I return both to his spiritual and theological writings. This prayer reminds us of our true center: the God who has called us into being, who sustains us, who gives us life, and who loves us. God isn't a problem to be solved but, rather, a mystery to be embraced.

Thursday, the Ninth Day of Lent

Today's Gospel beings with the line

Ask and it will be given to you; 
seek and you wil find; 
knock and the door will be opened to you.

I don't know about you, but I find these words to be extraordinarily irritating.

It is my custom to try to be a good guest. I don't like putting my host out of his or her way, so I'm not overly picky when offered a drink, a dinner choice, or the selection of a movie. Even when I have strong tastes or desires, I find myself often saying, "I'm totally indifferent - I'll eat/drink/watch anything." Why am I so reluctant? Is it because I'm ashamed of my desires? Is it because I don't want to impose, even though my host clearly is clearly extending hospitality? Is it because I'm failing to trust the graciousness of the one who has invited me? 

I'm irritated by today's Gospel because it challenges me to be more forthright in prayer. How often do I pray for silly things, safe things, rather than telling the Lord what I really want? Is it because I'm afraid that, if I'm really open and transparent with my desires and my prayers aren't answered, that I'll be angry or disappointed? Is it because I don't trust enough in God's grace that I cling to my own little wants and desires and resist offering them up in prayer? 

Perhaps today I can take a few minutes to really pray, to really be up-front with what it is that I want. This is the great risk of prayer: when I offer what I really and truly want, when I honestly present my heart's desires, I risk the possibility of rejection. My sinful side clamors, "Keep it in! Keep it in! Better silent and not disappointed!!" while my heart encourages, "Pray, you idiot, and perhaps what you think you want is far less than what you truly desire." This day, may it be my goal to pray my desire, to knock at the door and to make known what it is that I yearn for. While I may not get exactly what I think I want, I shall be confident that even if I don't get what I want, I can take comfort in knowing that God, the Host of Heaven, is extending to me more than I could ever even imagine: himself and his friendship. 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame