Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Happy Feast of Saint Ignatius: Words from Nadal

Every now and again, I hear that, "The Society of Jesus has lost its way." They mock our focus on a "Faith that does Justice" and they offer embittered wishes that the Society would go back to its old ways, the ways of the good old days...whatever those were.

Perhaps it is true that in the 1940's and 1950's, the nostalgic "Golden Era" of American Catholicism, that there was little emphasis on justice.  (Then again, if you read the work of Father Mark Massa, SJ you'll realize that things weren't so Golden after all). The lack of emphasis on the human body, however, should be seen as an anomaly and not the normal: the original impulse of the Society of Jesus addressed the needs both of the soul and the body (Ignatius did, after all, found a house for prostitutes and begged money for to feed the hungry).

Two years ago, Father Walter Farrell, SJ delivered a profound homily on the originating impulse behind the founding of the Society. As he recounted the story, after Saint Ignatius composed the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus he entrusted the task of promulgating and explicating them to the various Jesuit communities to Jeronimo Nadal.

During one of these sessions, an attendee queried Nadal and asked, "How did the Society come into existence, and how does it differ from other religious institutes?"

Nadal's succinct response is telling:
This is how it happened. God our Lord, through his infinite goodness, impelled Father Ignatius, arousing in him his own special grace. His Divine Majesty providing for his Church and the whole world, helping on two major issues: (1) joining learning to spirituality and (2) directing both to the good of the neighbor. Some people have brains but no heart and others are all heart with no brains; some have both, but very few serve the Lord by directing both to the help of the neighbor.
All of the learning and all of our prayer, as Jesuits, flowers out in the loving service of our neighbor. Our desire to help souls doesn't aim to help simply some ghostly spirit that will one day reach heaven! Rather, we aim to help souls, like in the Southern sense of the word when they say, "Ah, he's a good soul." By "soul" they mean the whole human being, the entire person, a living and breathing entity. We put our learning and our spirituality to serving these people, enkindling in them a fire for the Gospel and a deep love of Jesus Christ and helping to instill in them the Christian hope that we all might live together, forever, in Eternal City illumined by the light of the Lamb.

For a Jesuit, the head and the heart are integrated in the act of service. Speaking for myself, I know that my professional competence (or incompetence) is judged not on my academic credentials or on my prayer life, but how my ministry draws my prayer and my study together. My service, my ministry, is Love in Action - my love of God and Study are incarnated in my Love of Neighbor. This integration of study and spirituality, this service, enables me to consecrate every moment of my day to being a living prayer offered to the glory of God.

The next time you are tempted to, or hear someone, remark that the Society has lost its way with all this "social justice nonsense," it may be good to recall Nadal's words. If we want to be authentic heirs to Ignatius' vision, we should listen closely to those closest to him. Ignatius had a vision of the human person - body and soul - that was far more integrated and healthy than then dualistic nonsense many so-called Christians want to peddle as orthodox today. The act of loving service to our neighbor, drawing together our minds and our hearts, seems to me to be a first and crucial step toward realizing the message of God's Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus Christ.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Feeding of the 5,000

As many of my readers know, I really enjoying cooking. Over the course of my studies at Fordham, it became one of my great joys to host dinner gatherings for some of the younger faculty. For me, these were two-day affairs: on Friday, I would trek into Manhattan to go shopping and, on Saturday, I'd spend the day preparing the meal. Almost without fail, hours before the meal, the guest list would begin to expand rapidly: what had started as a dinner for eight would become dinner for twelve, or fourteen, or sixteen. The first few times this happened, I'd begin to panic: surely, I hadn't prepared enough food to feed that many. Yet, it never seemed that anyone ever went away hungry. There was always just enough.

On one level, tomorrow's Mass Readings play on the theme of making more out of less. I suspect anyone who has lived with teenagers knows something of the dilemma facing the man from Baal-shalishah and the Apostles: how can we make a little go a long way? How do we stretch the meal prepared for four into a meal for eight? How do we turn twenty loaves into food enough for 100, or a few loaves and fishes into food for 5,000. How is it possible that from so little that not only is everyone filled but, also, that there are leftovers?

As I think on the state of the world today, it strikes me that each one of us stands in the position of the "boy...who has five barley loaves and two fish." How many of us go through our lives with provisions enough for ourselves, provisions we guard jealously lest they be squandered? How many of us have resisted the invitation to surrender our meager goods - justifying our reluctance by saying, "What difference can my gifts make?" - to the hands of another? How many of us expend more energy "holding back" than we do by "giving over"?

Three years ago at this time, I remember being totally terrified at the prospect of teaching high school. I didn't like high school - I was fat, had acne, and played the accordion - and I couldn't imagine that I'd like going back into the milieu I had once dreamt daily of escaping from. On my retreat in 2009, I remember going out for a long run and saying suddenly in a prayer, "Lord, I'll do my best...I'll give whatever it is I've got. It ain't much, but I'll give it over to you. Do something with it!"

Three years later, I am daily grateful for the experiences I've had at U of D Jesuit. If I were a parent, without question is it the school I would entrust with the education of my son. I say this because as it was with me, it has been with so many of my students: if one has the courage to surrender his gifts and talents, they will be appreciated and transformed into something greater. The Holy Spirit is unquestionably present where what little we can offer is transformed into something beyond what we could have imagined.

Each one of us feels, at various points in our lives, a stirring to give. Sunday's readings should give us the courage to follow the impulse toward generosity, toward "giving without counting the cost," and offering up what we have that it might be transformed into something greater. A boy's gesture of surrender, of offering what he had been given, is transformed into food enough for all those gathered. What gesture of "giving over" might each of us make today that might be transformed into food for a hungry world? 

Friday, July 27, 2012

How to Be an Atheist: Part V

The final installment of my now month-long series on how to be an atheist. Please read and comment if you are so moved!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fallen Idol

I read with great interest a short piece appearing on a new blog created by one of my former students, Dylan Demkowicz. His site, straightforwardly named Dylan's Den, is in its very early stages of growth. Entering into his senior year of high school, I am glad to see Dylan trying to put himself out there and to "claim his own voice" in conversations surrounding sports.

What struck me about Dylan's post is his sensitivity to the symbolism of a stature erected in Paterno's honor. There are many who have voiced outrage at the statue's removal, claiming that this singular act - an act that stretched over the course of many years - does not annihilate his success at Penn State. This is, to a degree, true. Yet it is also true that a statue had been erected to a man who did not act, who sinned by omission, who failed by doing nothing. It is precisely this doing nothing that is so disturbing...and so much of an indictment of each of us. How often have we walked by a situation, or turned a blind eye, assuring ourself that "someone else will deal with it" or that "it's not my business."

It is sad that yet another idol has fallen, disintegrating under the weight of public scrutiny, disintegrating because of the years-long erosion stemming from a failure to act. Removing a statue does not change the past, nor does it erase the scars, but it does remove one further stumbling block - quite literally, a skandalon - from the road to healing many have before them.

If you have a moment, stop by Dylan's blog. I'm hopeful that with the Olympics about to begin that we'll hear much from him. Who knows...in a few years, when he makes it big, many of us can say, "I read him when..."!

Monday, July 23, 2012

How to Be an Atheist: Part IV

Part IV of my five-part series entitled "How to Be an Atheist" can be read over on The Jesuit Post. I'd love it if people left some comments on the site as, very often, the best philosophy/theology is done as a response to someone's living question.

If you have a few moments, you can think with me (and Thomas Aquinas) about just what kind of demonstration the (in)famous Five Ways actually is. I tried to make the piece as accessible as possible for popular consumption and hope readers enjoy it.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Woe to the Shepherds!

There is a great word - one of those words people trot out on occasion to show how clever they are - that captures well the relationship between the first reading and the Gospel: chiaroscuro. An Italian word meaning "light-dark," chiaroscuro describes the interplay between light and shadow in art. An interesting example of chiaroscuro can be glimpsed in Artemisia's "Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes" (c. 1625). 

After severing the head of Holofernes, the Judith and Abra prepare to depart the slain leader's tent. Notice the shadow cast by the left hand, how it seems to add a sense of urgency to the scene. Holofernes's murder completed, they must now steal away under the cover of darkness and return to their besieged town. Morning's light will reveal to Holofernes's troops a ghastly sight: the head of their former leader on display from the walls of the town.

Today's Mass readings have a similar play of light-and-darkness. The first reading, indeed, should stir anyone engaged in pastoral ministry:
Woe to the shepherds
who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture,
says the LORD.
Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel,
against the shepherds who shepherd my people:
You have scattered my sheep and driven them away.
You have not cared for them,
but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock
from all the lands to which I have driven them
and bring them back to their meadow;
there they shall increase and multiply.
I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them
so that they need no longer fear and tremble;
and none shall be missing, says the LORD.
Without question, many of us know something of this dilemma: disgusted with hypocrisy or enraged at an apparent lack of accountability, we feel as though we've been scattered. Our eyes meet only a bleak horizon, we experience a vacuum of leadership, and we strain to find a reason to hope.

Fast forward to the Gospel. Jesus' disciples return to him and wish to share their experiences of mission. He invites them to go to a deserted place where they can find rest and, perhaps, share their stories. Yet, peace and quiet are not quite in the cards for them: people hear of Jesus' presence and clamor to see him. Indeed, as he takes a boat across the water, the people gather and actually beat him to his destination!

Rather that growing annoyed that they had interrupted his day-off, note Jesus' reaction:
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them,
for they were like sheep without a shepherd;
and he began to teach them many things. 
A new shepherd has been sent to them, placed in their midst. This shepherd requires not a statement of orthodoxy or testimony to one's righteousness before he agrees to minister. This shepherd sees the flock and responds to their needs.

Mark Edmunson, in a piece entitled "The Trouble With Online Education," rightly sees that a failure of online education is that it's a one-size-fits-all endeavor. I know this from experience - it is really difficult to teach the tin whistle to people without being able to hear them or see them or correct their finger placement personally. A good teacher must respond to the needs presented and realizes that there is no pre-fabricated mold able to be imposed upon any and every group. Students, like Church congregations, are living organisms and must be treated as such: delicately, patiently, lovingly, and personally.

Today's readings should give us pause to discern where we stand: are we given more to the shadow or to the light? Are we agents who scatter or do we possess a density that draws people together? Do we help the flock to multiply, do we feed it as needed, or do we leave it to languish? As we experience the darkness of the world, are we able to respond to its needs not with empty platitudes but, rather, with discerning hearts which listen for, and respond to, the needs of others? Can our own hearts be moved by the hunger of the world and do we have the courage to give of ourselves - our time and our talents - to feed it? 

Friday, July 20, 2012


In addition to reading Harry Potter in German, I also acquired a copy of Pope Benedict XVI's Licht der Welt: Der Papst, die Kirche, und die Zeichen der Zeit. (Light of the World: The Pope, The Church, and the Signs of the Times)

The Holy Father is a remarkably gifted communicator and his German is very clear. Thus, it wasn't a burden to spend the better part of today reading his responses to interviewer Peter Seewald's questions. Over and over again, I was struck by the depth of the Pope's spiritual life, his love of the Church and humanity, and his commitment to sharing Christian joy with an increasingly cynical world. Following up on what I wrote the other day about remaining in the Catholic Church, I would like to share the following quote:
Der heilige Augustinus hat schon zu seiner Zeit gesagt: Es sind viele draußen, die drinnen zu sein scheinen; und es sind viele drinnen, die draußen zu sein scheinen. 
Saint Augustine said in his day: There are many outside, who appear to be inside; and there are many inside, who appear to be outside. 
There are very many of us who feel like outsiders in the Church. Yet we stay, not because it is easy, not because it's always fun, but because we know that we need the Church, we need her in all of her graces and shortcomings, because we need Jesus Christ. We need the one who made the deaf hear, the lame walk, the blind see, who restored life to the dead, the one who Himself conquered Death. We need the one who feeds us with his own life and gives us the command to go out and share his life with the world. In these dark times, we need the light of the world.

If Jesus is the light, then the Church is the lantern that lets the light shine forth. By its nature, the lantern conceals some of the light and needs, always, to be cleaned and fixed in order that it do its job well. By itself, without the light, the lantern is basically useless. Yet what greater sign is there for the weary traveler than the welcoming light that greets his eyes, the light that guides him to refuge, the light that signals that here there is life, that here there is welcome, that here there is refuge.

Each of us must live up to our baptismal call to promote the light. Do we, ourselves, act as good vessels for the light? Do we have the courage to 'cleanse' ourselves and by our example to challenge others to do the same? Can we, as a Church, recall that we are servants of Christ's light and live up ever more fully to this vocation? Can we come together and cast this light into the darkness, drawing from far and wide those pilgrims who are in need of rest and refreshment? Do we have the courage to claim our space within the Church, to find sustenance at the Table, and to be the Church we want to see?

Do we have the courage to be worthy of being called Christians? 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Finding the Right Words

Acting upon my instructor's suggestion, I purchased a copy of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen. Yes, that's right, I'm reading it in German. It's proved a helpful, if frustrating, exercise: I must read slowly, looking at each word, trying to sound it out and uncover its meaning. On some pages, it seems as though I need to look up every other word. This makes my progress tremendously slow and can, at times, be extremely annoying. 

Three hours and fifteen pages later (of a book I could easily polish off, in English, in a few hours), I rushed down to celebrate the Eucharist with members of the Jesuit community. In the Gospel, Jesus praises God:

"I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned,
you have revealed them to the children."

This summer, I am barely a child in a new language. There's much that I want to say, things I try to understand, but it seems as if the "Big Person" world is out of my reach. I feel inadequate much of the time, because I feel like I should know things already, I feel like I should be better at this or that I should learn faster. It is easy to forget the excitement of childhood, of being open to learning new things, of experiencing the world with an innocence and openness that is easily erased when we grow up.

One great benefit to this experience is that it has forced me to confront a lot of feelings in my own prayer. I can easily be the "wise and learned" in prayer and tell God a great deal of things. These last three weeks, I've become painfully aware of how little my words can presently accomplish so I spend a great deal of time listening. I'm learning how to listen better this summer, externally to foreign voices and internally to the voice of the God I, too easily, block out with my own ramblings. 

I'll admit it: I do get excited as I "get" certain words and figure out long sentences, sometimes even finding two or three whole sentences pretty clear. It reminds me of being a kid and reading late into the night, flat on my stomach, trying to get in "one more chapter" before I had to go to bed. I miss being so enthusiastic about reading! I count it, likewise, as a great grace that the excitement I have to read Harry Potter is mirrored by my excitement to pray each day. In listening with childlike wonder, I feel as if I'm on the cusp of great growth, learning anew the vocabulary of prayer, a vocabulary list that begins with one word: Listen. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

My Trip to Bergisel & Some Innsbruck Photos

Tin Whistle Tutorial - My Darling Asleep

Believing in the Church?

This morning, I received an email from a great young guy with whom I have had several conversations about joining the Jesuits. He is faithful, smart, funny, and seems to be motivated wholly by a desire to serve Christ and His Church.

So why isn't he a Jesuit? He writes:
In fact my love for the Society and my passion to serve Christ still burns deeply. Still, there are issues within the Church which make it hard to wholly commit to the vocation...Sometimes I feel as if I'm starting from scratch, constantly needing to reaffirm my faith in the Church and all its possibilities (and challenges).
His sentiments, I suspect, are not foreign to many people. How many of us want to believe in the Church, want to be faithful, but feel beaten down and discouraged? How many of us continue to bristle at the lack of accountability assumed by bishops for sex abuse, for a lack of financial transparency, for an apparent inability to see that the politics of the Catholic Church need not align with a party but, rather, transcend partisan lines? How many of us are not necessarily ashamed to be Catholics but feel deep sorrow and shame because our Church seems lately to have a knack for failing to live up to its prophetic call?  

I often wonder why people stay in the Church. I wonder why people are received annually into it. I wonder why good women and men want to be married in it. I wonder why sincere, good-hearted people wish to pledge their lives in service to it as vowed religious and in priesthood. I wonder how people believe in the Church. 

The failure and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church - only too gladly brought out in the front pages of newspapers - should force each of us to consider seriously the question: Can I believe in the Church today? 

The first thing to realize is that we believe within the Church. Herbert McCabe observed that "The Church is quite plainly corrupt." Our first leader, Peter, did a bang-up job on the night Jesus was betrayed: he denied Christ three times. In the two thousand years since then, such betrayals have been multiplied countlessly. Yet, we believe that our human frailty does not and, indeed, cannot nullify God's invitation to friendship and Christ's call to discipleship. As often as we screw up, we can receive the strength to get up and move forward...and this we do together.

To this young man, and to many, I simply wish to say that there will never be a time when you do not have to reaffirm you faith in the Church, within the Church. When you go to Mass on a Sunday, look around you - each person there has chosen to be there. Each person brings his or her own life to Mass, hoping to hear a word of salvation, to feel a glimmer of hope in the Good News, to satisfy the deep hunger at the Lord's Table. Each one of us has fallen, has failed, has made a mess of things...yet we keep coming back, we keep getting up, we keep trying.

A baseball player with a 0.300 average makes contact with the ball 3 out of 10 times. It means that even our best baseball players fail more often than they succeed. Yet they continue to play, they continue to work at the game, they continue to show up. I have no way of calculating the Church's average, but I'd be willing to say that it tends to get things right more than it gets it wrong...even if it seems that when we get it wrong, we're dropping easy balls in the ninth inning of the World Series!

My own crisis of confidence took place a number of years ago. Galled by the hypocrisy and mendacity, I had to question how I could even consider being a member of it, let alone giving my life in service of it. A wise figure - recently gone home to God - asked simply: Well, you're a hypocrite, too, aren't you? At you're in good company. So it is that I cast my lot with the hypocrites, the liars, the failures. I stand with them and I try, each day, to accept the grace to be worthy of the word disciple. I believe (with)in the Church because in my sisters and brothers gathered at the Lord's Table, I see companions in our earthly pilgrimage.

We believe (with)in the Church because we know that we can't do it all on our own. Just as one player cannot carry a team, one pilgram alone cannot the journey make. It is a daily choice, a daily response, a daily re-commitment of oneself to the Way we have been called to live. The road is often steep, poorly illuminated, and filled with various and sundry characters (usually other pilgrims!). Yet we walk along this road because we have been invited to do so, together.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

The Gospel reading for July 12th contains what I take to be the fundamental 'style' of anyone willing to live up to one's Christian baptism:

As you go, make this proclamation: 
"The Kingdom of heaven is at hand." 
Cure the sick, raise the dead,
cleanse the lepers, drive out demons.
Without cost you have received;
without cost you are to give.

I call this the 'style' at the risk of being misunderstood: I'm not saying that Christianity is reducible to a bunch of do-gooders. Were this all it took, one could simply join the Fraternal Order of the Elks or one's local Rotary Club!

By 'style' I simply mean that there is a way in which one is a Christian in this world. Each of us has been marked by the waters of baptism, waters that ran over our heads many years ago, waters that - hopefully - have worked slowly and silently over the years to carve deep caverns within our hearts, caverns yearning to be filled with acts of love. We don't 'cure' and 'raise' and 'cleanse' and 'drive out' because it makes us look good. We do it because it is good, because it is part of our baptismal call, because our freedom is a gift and we wish to give that gift to others. 

Jesus was no fool - he recognized the steep cost of embracing this way of life, the life of the disciple. Some will welcome our words and deeds, others will slam the door in our faces. 

Note: Jesus does not encourage people to Tweet dissatisfaction, Blog about the sleight, or put up a witty Facebook status eviscerating those who deny us. He tells us to move on, to keep going, for there is much work to be done. Rather than giving ourselves the last word, Jesus reminds us that (1) we will face rejection and (2) we need to keep at it, that the Good News is too good to waste time complaining about those who will not receive it. 

Monday, July 09, 2012

A Chilling Prophesy

The ascent of der Nockspitzer on Saturday gave me a lot of time to think - climbing along relatively narrow paths does not make for easy conversation.

On Friday, the first reading concluded with a chilling line from the Prophet Amos. The fate of those who trample upon the poor and ignore the plight of the needy:
Yes, days are coming, says the Lord GOD,
when I will send famine upon the land:
Not a famine of bread, or thirst for water,
but for hearing the word of the LORD.
Then shall they wander from sea to sea
and rove from the north to the east
In search of the word of the LORD,
but they shall not find it.
I cannot help but to wonder if today we, as a society, are dwelling amidst this ancient prophesy.

Prophets are frequently misunderstood because we think they tell the future. In the Scriptures, the prophet has a two-fold function: Critiquing the current order for having fallen away from being God's people and Re-Imagining the current order and prompting women and men to get back into line with the covenant.

How many of us go through our daily lives feeling an ache, a deep yearning, and long for it to be filled? How many hours do we fill with idle distractions, wandering the internet for a 'quick fix' or something to occupy our wandering minds. How many of us are looking for a word from God, an assurance that our lives have meaning, a sense of encouragement as we make our way on our human pilgrimage? Our ears strain, our eyes search...yet so frequently we find nothing. For so many of us, we are etched with a sense of ennui or world-weariness.

What struck me about the reading is that our human priorities so often are the opposite of God's. If you want to find God, you needn't roam the world over to find a font of deep wisdom or a text to change your life. Open your eyes and see the living encouragement, the living wisdom, right in front of you: the poor, the oppressed, the needy. See them as God has seen you, a sister and brother who deserves recognition and love.

So many of us are caught up in the self-help culture, as though a book is going to solve all of our problems. Perhaps we could create a counter-culture, a Help-to-be-a-Self culture, where our generosity toward those who need us most is what defines each of us as a Self.

Friday, July 06, 2012

How to be an Atheist, III

The Jesuit Post has just released the third in my five-letter series entitled "How to be an Atheist."

A montage of pictures from my first week in Innsbruck. 

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

An Update from Austria

I am now immersed in the first week of a six-week course in intensive German here in Innsbruck, Austria. I've taken courses in reading German but have never tried to speak it. Much of my vocabulary is rusty - which I anticipated - but I will admit that trying to eat dinner with a bunch of German-speaking Jesuits is frustrating. An extrovert, I find myself totally unable to enter into dinner conversation.

I guess learning a language is like weaving an ever-growing web that 'catches' more and more of what is said around you. It's humbling to go from being a native English speaker with a rather wide 'web' to being a student of German where my operative vocabulary is easily less than that held by toddler.

Not being readily able to say anything makes me really self-conscious when people ask me simple questions. Invariably I bungle the words, or don't answer right, and I get angry at myself for not having a command of the language. Mary, the cook at the U of D Jesuit Residence, often says, "It's better to be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." I'm hewing close to this adage these days, trying my best to listen to those around me, nod when appropriate, and hope that the words are sinking into my head somehow!

On a consoling note, I did get to visit the crypt of my hero Father Karl Rahner, SJ. As I prayed in the chapel after dinner (in English!), I prayed for his intercession. Not, to be sure, that he put German verbs into my head. Instead, I asked him to pray with me for the grace of patience, of knowing the limitations of my vocabulary and allowing the words to come to me as they will, not as I'd have them. So often we force our words about God, trying to make them beautiful, rather than allowing them to well up from our hearts and speak of the God we're coming to know and love. I get this with God...I guess...now I need to get it with German!!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame