Friday, August 31, 2012

Troubling Comments

A number of years ago, when I was discerning whether to enter the Society of Jesus, I had lunch with a Jesuit mentor. Over our meal, he shared that a mutual friend of ours was also in discernment, although he was considering joining Father Benedict Groeschel's Friars of the Renewal. Never one to miss an opportunity to un-sheath his rapier wit, Father feigned indignation and exclaimed, "Why would you want to join a group founded by a man who can't cross the street? Left, Right, Left Again -- how hard is that? At least it took a cannon ball to bring down our founder!" Later that afternoon, as we celebrated the Eucharist, Father prayed both for Father Groeschel's health and the flourishing of his congregation.

Eight years later, the echoes of his near-fatal car accident may be detected in Groeschel's own words. In an interview now removed from the internet, Father Groeschel makes some disturbing claims concerning the sexual abuse of minors by clergy:

    InterviewerPart of your work here at Trinity has been working with priests involved in abuse, no?

    Father Groeschel: A little bit, yes; but you know, in those cases, they have to leave. And some of them profoundly — profoundly — penitential, horrified. People have this picture in their minds of a person planning to — a psychopath. But that's not the case. Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him. A lot of the cases, the youngster — 14, 16, 18 — is the seducer.

    InterviewerWhy would that be?

    Father Greoschel: Well, it's not so hard to see — a kid looking for a father and didn't have his own — and they won't be planning to get into heavy-duty sex, but almost romantic, embracing, kissing, perhaps sleeping but not having intercourse or anything like that.

The outcry against these comments has been swift and severe. The National Catholic Register, owned by EWTN, has scrubbed the story and put up in its place an apology. I have absolutely no reason to doubt the sincerity of Father Groeschel's apology and I do believe that he misspoke. The New York Times even quotes a co-founder of the Friars of the Renewal who attributes the comments to advancing age and the car accident.

It is sad that a man who has done great good throughout the world would sully his reputation by these comments. Even if they didn't express exactly what he wanted to say, I simply cannot interpret his words in any way that does not lay some of the blame at the feet of the victims. To my mind, there is simply no conceivable situation where a minor can be blamed for the sexual indiscretions of an adult.

It would be my hope that ill-informed words not stifle conversation about the roots of sexual abuse. If you read more of the interview, it is worth noting that Father Groeschel acknowledges that sexual abuse cannot really be reduced to (1) sexual psychopaths or (2) homosexuality. Had he focused more on the screening of candidates, formation of seminarians, and ongoing support of clergy and helping them to live psychosexually integrated lives, his interview would have been profoundly helpful. Unfortunately, by intimating that some victims may share some of the blame, we risk losing out on his great wisdom.

When I lived in New York, I came to know a few of the CFR's and I admire their work tremendously. I think Father Groeschel has led an admirable life and has responded generously to respond to the needs of the poor. It is my sincere hope that the good work - and good humor - of Father Groeschel is not completely blotted out by these remarks and that this prove to be a spark for further and deeper discussion into a subject that is so important to understand. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

...and a curtain is raised

I'm now (relatively) settled into my new room at the Faber Jesuit Community here in Brighton, MA. My room is a bit smaller than my previous room in Detroit, although I do have my own bathroom and shower -- a huge plus! This is, in fact, the first time in my Jesuit life (8 years as of August 21st) that I've had my own bathroom. It's sort of nice being able to leave my shampoo and soap in the shower each day.

It only took me about 10 hours to drive from Cleveland to Boston. I stopped three times for gas and for food and I have very little traffic along the way. All in all, it was an enjoyable drive as my rental car had XFM radio and spent the day catching up on the political news I'd missed while in Austria all summer.

Without question, there is a great part of me that is sad not to be in Detroit. That said, I drove away last Monday with the sense that the time had come for me to continue preparing for ordination. If my regency is any indication of how quickly time can pass by, these next three years are going to fly.

There'll be more updates over the course of the week. I'm taking it easy, getting to know the neighborhood and trying to get TONS of paperwork - immunizations, course registration, insurance, etc. - completed.

Stay tuned!

Friday, August 17, 2012

So the lights go out...

As I type this, I realize that it'll probably be my last post from Detroit. Three years have gone by quickly. How does one encapsulate his sentiment at the end of such an experience? It's impossible to put it into words. My room is packed. Boxes are stacked high. The car that will take me to Boston has been rented. I survey my room and recall with ease the countless experiences I have had these last years...and I am filled with gratitude. A prayer shared by the provincial of the Wisconsin province expresses my feelings as I close the blinds, turn out the lights, and close the door one last time to JR 211 (my room):

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

Could a major life transition be complete without music? Let's round out regency with a song I think appropriate to my experience:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Julia Child

Several years ago, when I was still a student at Fordham University, I purchased Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Several weeks after its arrival, I invited a small group of intrepid diners over for dinner. I can't remember the exact menu from that night, but I do recall finishing with Mousseline Au Chocolat. In the years that have elapsed, I've experienced few feelings as exhilarating as watching that meal take shape - guided by Child's clear prose - and the look of delight on my guests' faces as they were served.

Commemorated in numerous ways, including a fine tribute from Chef Jacques Pépin in yesterday's New York Times, Julia Child would have celebrated her 100th birthday yesterday. Long before I knew how to truss a chicken and years before I could muster the courage to adopt her rallying cry, "If you're afraid of butter, use cream!" I simply enjoyed watching her cook. I appreciated those lazy afternoons when I'd flip on PBS and watch an amazing dish take shape at the master's hands. 

On Tuesday, the digital wizards at PBS produced Julia Child Remixed: Keep on Cooking. Using footage from her eponymous cooking show, the producers cobbled together various lines from Julia Child and set them to music. The result, I think, is a catchy tune:

I love the beginning of the video: "What makes a great chef? Training and technique of course, a love of food, a generous personality, and the ability to invent hot chocolate truffles." 

Yet the wisdom of Julia Child is captured at 1:20 - "You can't define these in a recipe. You can only know them by knowing how the food should taste." Cooking - like so much else in our lives - is not necessarily an exact science. Surely, one needs to follow the general directions and use the structure of a recipe to point you in the right direction. For a good cook, however, there comes a moment of innovation and departure from the recipe, the moment of intuition and innovation that makes a dish come to life. Cooking is not so much about getting the recipe right right as it is about bringing the food to life for others. 

"Cooking, Cooking, Keep on Cooking. This is the way to live." The video intersperses frequent images of Julia cooking with others and then, once the meal is prepared, dining with friends. Cooking in the service of fellowship, of communion with one another, creating an atmosphere of hospitality and conviviality where friends can raise a glass and enjoy one another's company. This, surely, is the way to live.  

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Violence and Contagion: "We were bored"

The Cincinnati Enquirer reports today about a group of six young teenagers who "attacked and robbed" a man simply because they were bored.
The boys, ages 13 and 14, face felony charges of aggravated rioting and felonious assault, North COllege Hill police said today.
The sixth and final suspect was arrested Wednesday.
When police rounded most of the teens up, took them back to the police station and questioned them, they said they attacked the victim, identified as Pat Mahaney, because "they were just bored and were looking for something to do," the report states.
They also admitted he had done nothing to provoke being kicked and punched repeatedly in the face while he was helpless on the ground. 
One could take this as a rare one-off event, a freak moment of peculiar violence. Yet, if you think about it, there's something deeply troubling about this. Being bored can lead to a host of activities: a pick-up game of baseball, riding bikes, some form of video game tournament. What, then, would the thought-process had to have been in order to suggest randomly lynching a man walking home from the store? What did one child say that ignited the passions of his friends to go after this person? What words could have been shared so quickly to lead to such violence?

Teenage boys are, generally, thoughtless creatures. They are impulsive, they do no consider consequences, and they are often surprised that their spur-of-the-moment actions are met with disapproval. For many, their mantra could well be "well, it seemed like a good idea at the time." Yet it is hard to imagine how the idea to jump an innocent, even one born out of the most terrible boredom, could gain enough traction to lead to its actualization.

Over the last few weeks, our media has been saturated with stories of appalling violence and brutality. A cynic might say that things have always been this bad but we're just bathed in it thanks to 24/7 news coverage. I'm not so certain. There seems to be some sort of violent contagion circulating among the human race, one that is growing more virulent over time. This contagion enables unspeakable acts of violence while simultaneously secreting a toxin that dulls bystanders to the effects of this violence.

In short, there seems to be some sort of Violent Pathogen whose contagion (1) breeds violence and (2) anesthetize us from feeling its full effect. The irony of the whole disease should not be missed: it is violence that blinds us and numbs us to violence.

I wish I had an antidote for this, a ready-made inoculation against the violence and indifference, the Darkness, that seems to be be gaining strength in our world. Before we can reach for a cure, however, we have to acknowledge that there is a problem. We need to open our eyes now so that we can turn on the news and not find yet another story of ratings-grabbing, attention-holding violence that captures our attention. While our attention is held captive by the news, the contagion spreads ever further and insinuates itself ever deeper...and it's happening right before our eyes. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Blurring Technology and Teaching

Nearly six years ago, I began offering a free online course teaching interested persons how to play the Irish tin whistle. I conceived of putting the lessons on YouTube while a student at Fordham. Given only an hour a week with a large number of students, I utilized YouTube as a resource. I could record a short video, upload it for, and have my students watch them from home.

Little did I know that the videos would have a much greater reach than my little class. 102 videos and ~4,000,000 views later, I continue to upload tutorials. Over the last five years:

  • 69.2% of my audience is male
  • 20.7% are men between the ages of 45-54
  • 29.6% are men under the age of 34
  • 9.6% are women between the ages of 45-54
  • 14.2% are women under the age of 34
  • 22.5% are between the ages of 55-64
  • 6,721 people have subscribed to the YouTube Channel
  • The top ten countries in order of video popularity: USA, UK, Germany, Ireland, France, Canada, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Australia 
  • On average, I moderate anywhere between 20-60 comments left on the videos each day. Inevitably, I have to delete several of them, respond to a few, and scratch my head over others. 
Several times over the last few years, colleagues in Irish music and dancing will relay to me that they "met" one of my students. Indeed, several times musicians have entered music competitions and said that they were my students...even though I've never set eyes on them before! Many times I have met people at feiseanna or at Irish events and they'll know me - they read the blog, they watch the videos, they take the lessons - and it's a totally surreal experience to have someone inquire after the frequency with which you do laundry (sometimes the laundry basket appears in the background of the videos) or they'll suggest changing brands of mouthwash (which, also, are sometimes able to be spotted in the background). 

As helpful as the videos have been, there is a drawback. When I'm teaching in person, I am adapting to the needs of the student. I may adjust his fingers to cover the holes better, I may encourage her to hold the whistle in a different way, I may correct the timing of the tune or help to break it apart for easier learning. Sometimes I close my eyes and listen to the person play and then, hearing something that particularly delights or intrigues me, I burst out with a "Yes! That's great!! Do that again!" There is nothing comparable to the look of delight that passes over a student's face when he or she gets such positive feedback. 

Teaching music is not about conveying how to play notes. It's about finding expression, it's about teasing out an inner voice that is - sometimes - rather reluctant to emerge. Sometimes the teacher has to coax, cajole, or drag the music out of the student and then rejoice as it flowers. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be taken. It's as much about coaching, of creating a relationship of trust and mutual respect, wherein the student is empowered and challenged to grow in new ways. 

A story in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Professor Pamela Hieronymi addresses the rise in online education. She writes:
Education is not the transmission of information or ideas. Education is the training needed to make use of information and ideas...Just as coaching requires individual attention, education, at its core, requires one mind engaging with another, in real time: listening, understanding, correcting, modeling, suggesting, prodding, denying, affirming, and critiquing thoughts and expression. 
Professor Hieronymi's article confirms something that I have feared for some time: despite my best efforts, the failure of my own video instruction has been that they convey information - how to play - are are not as successful at empowering students to play on their own (as evidenced by the number of tutorial requests I get to teach tunes which they should be able to pick up on their own). Lost on the internet is the personal touch, the coaching, the relationship between Teacher and Student.

At the start of the new school year, it would prove beneficial for students to recall that going to school is not simply about getting information. It's about being formed, it's about learning how to think in new and innovative ways, it's about being coached and challenged into making use of what is learned. Content, surely, is important. Anyone can pick up content. It takes a teacher, though, to help to impart and shape a student's style. It bears repeating that students should find an instructor whom they respect and whose 'style' they wish to emulate.

College is extraordinarily expensive. If a student wants to treat the college experience as daycare with information added, it might be better just to take online courses. If, however, a student really wants to be educated, she will apprentice herself to a master, take the risk of being being coached, and embark upon an educational adventure which will shape her heart and her mind in new and exciting ways.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Retribution and Unforgiveness

Mike Hayes, over on Googling God, has posted the video below. Having been out of the country and only fleetingly aware of the controversy surrounding Chick-Fil-A, it took a few moments to get the full gist of the situation. If you're so inclined, watch the video:

It's hard to expunge two voices from my head: the woman's incessant "Hateful Bigot" chant and the man's voice taunting the priest to "Go Rape and Altar Boy." It is fascinating to watch as the crowd gathers around Father O'Reilly - almost as white blood cells would gather around an invading pathogen - in order to expel him from their midst.

To be sure, one can question Father O'Reilly's prudence. I don't know that it was the wisest, or most pastorally effective, approach to wade into the midst of the protestors. My question to him would have been, "What is your end goal in all of this? Is this course really the best path to follow?"

As I watched, I recall something Miraslov Volf writes in Exclusion and Embrace. He asks what happens when the oppressed becomes the oppressor, what happens when the group that had been marginalized suddenly wields power. Will they not become the mirror-image of their oppressors, taking up the guns laid down by their former persecutors?

The video highlights the danger of mob mentality, how being in a group can lead otherwise very good people to say, and perhaps do, unspeakable things. I sincerely doubt that very many people, at least over coffee or a beer, would dream of saying to someone "hateful bigot" or "go rape an altar boy." Yet when concealed within the fold of a group, our baser instincts kick in an we can find ourselves giving ourselves over to dark impulses. Such a phenomenon should be familiar to any who have watched a schoolyard fight, where generally "good kids" can be transformed into a cheering, malicious gang as they surround on two combatants. Or one may simply recall the gang-mentality evidence in the adolescents who taunted the school bus monitor, so infamously posted to YouTube.

Unfortunately, this situation has furthered neither side in coming to an understanding of the position of the other. All that has happened is that two sides are now further galvanized and mutual stereotypes are confirmed. Neither side has taken a step forward and the chasm between the two has only been widened further.

Many will watch this and say, "See! Look at how intolerant they are!" or "If it were a bunch of Christians surround a gay protestor, it'd be called a hate crime!" Regardless of how one feels about the issue, the Christian response resist reducing either side into some faceless they. We must remember that each person here is a son or daughter, a mother or father, an aunt or uncle, a friend or family member. We must not lose sight of our mutual humanity, that we are on both sides trying to work out how to live together, and that this process is going to take patience and time. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

To Fall Silent

Speaking a lot about something does not in the least guarantee that understanding is thus furthered. On the contrary, talking at great length about something covers things over and brings what is understood into an illusory clarity, that is, the unintelligibility of the trivial....Authentic silence is possible only in genuine discourse. 
~Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, s. 34 

On account of being a total nerd and having 7.5 hours to kill on a trans-Atlantic flight yesterday, I was reading through Joan Stambaugh's revised translation of Martin Heidegger's Being and Time when my eye caught this passage.

There is a tendency to believe that, in order to pray, one must get the words right, as though prayer were some type of magical formula. "If I just get the words right," the thinking seems to go, "then I've really prayed."

Now, I'm not one to disparage formulaic prayer -- I use it, too. Indeed, the walk from the Jesuitenkolleg to class each day was perfect if one wanted to pray the rosary. Nevertheless, if prayer is limited simply to the recitation of formulas, something does seem to be missing.

Formulaic prayer is sort of like a Hallmark greeting card. It's readily available, it's convenient, and can be used as a substitute for those times when we are unable to show up in person. One cannot, however, live at the level of greeting-card spirituality. If we want to pray, if we really want to pray, we need to risk moving from the level of words and risk replacing our endless stream of words with a disposition toward listening. In other words, instead of sending a card, we need to show up.

Before I left for Austria, Brother Denis Weber and I went to Colombiere to visit Father Walter Farrell. Struggling for some time with cancer, I had the sense that this might be the last time I would get to visit with Walt on this side of eternity. There were so many things I wanted to say to him, to ask him. Yet, as I sat there, I could do nothing else but listen to him. It was an honor to listen to him, to hear of his eagerness to meet the Lord he had served for so long. My final words to, at least on this side of eternity...were simply, "Thank you." Having sat in near silence for an hour, these two words summarized everything I felt for Walt's life and ministry. No card, no email, no text message could replace being able to look another in the eye and say, simply, "Thank you."

Real prayer will always lead us to  a place of near-exhaustion, of running out of words and leaving us mute. Today's First Reading touches on this: Elijah, the ornery prophet, finally throws up his hands and cries out Enough is Enough!!

Elijah went a day's journey into the desert,
until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath. 
He prayed for death saying:
"This is enough, O LORD!
Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers."
He lay down and fell asleep under the broom tree.

No elaborate words, no special formula. Simply an expression of the heart's desire. To this prayer, the prayer of the human heart on the verge of failure, the human heart vulnerably expressing its deepest desires, the human heart fallen silent, to this heart can God speak. A heart made ready through authentic discourse, a real heart, a live person present and listening.

Note God's response. God gives Elijah a message, "Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!" God's response meets Elijah exactly where Elijah is; God's answer to Elijah's prayer isn't a blueprint for the future but, rather, simply the strength to continue on in his journey. Elijah is given the "daily bread" and walks further toward the mountain of God.  

Do you have the courage to pray? Do you have the courage to allow yourself to speak out from the innermost depths of your heart just what it is that you desire - even if it is a desire that frightens you! - and to fall silent, to show up in person, and await the response? Do you have the courage to pray from the expanse of the desert where you dwell, from within the cavern of your heart where you feel most alone, from the jungle where you feel lost? Do you dare pray, do you dare send up a signal flare toward the God who has been waiting for you? Do you dare risk real prayer, really showing up, because you're actually most afraid of being found? 

For many of us today, we can be seduced into a Text-Message spirituality: send in the right words and leave it. We must be vigilant that an authentic friendship with anyone requires showing up in person, demands that we spend time with another, that we risk sharing of ourselves and that can be silent while the Other shares himself or herself. Real silence isn't simply not talking. Real silence draws attention to the fact that we are together, that we are joined in a space where words fail, and in this silence we find ourselves drawn into a conversation where words are never enough. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

The End of Catholic Ireland?

Many years ago, prior to my departure for a trip to Ireland, I received a handwritten note from my Great Aunt Sissy telling me to enjoy my time in the "Land of Saints and Scholars." Sadly, a description that may have been apt 20 years ago seems today to be obsolete. The Guardian carried yesterday a story entitled "The End of Catholic Ireland." It is well worth a read.

Mary Kenny, the author, writes:
...what is obvious anecdotally: that a substantial number of Irish people have ditched the religion of their ancestors because they think it no longer applies in an age of scientific rationality; because they rebuff "control" by ecclesiastics; because they are disgusted by the clerical scandals – indeed, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is himself disgusted by what he has had to read in the archives; or because sex, drugs and accumulating electronic gadgets are more "relevant" to modern life than "God and Mary, His Mother", as the traditional greeting in the Irish language puts it.
I don't know if it strikes you this way but, after teaching high school boys for the last three years, I'm struck by the fact that this description of "Catholic Ireland" strangely mirrors the behavior of adolescents.

Now, I'm not saying that the Irish are being petulant or adolescent. In fact, I totally get their rejection of the Catholic faith: for far too long was the maxim "Pay, Pray, Obey." Yet the bulwark of authoritarian Catholicism could not withstand the sustained buffets of past 50 years. What was once taken for granted is now being questioned.

Adolescents, as they begin to carve out their own identities, very often experience great conflicts with their families. They become aware of family dysfunctions and are scandalized by it. They reject the family, its customs, its values. Parents are faced with the choice either (1) to engage in a long and drawn out battle with the teen or (2) to wait patiently, challenging when necessary, and to show why the family and its customs are valuable.

Near as I can tell, there are only two options available to Ireland and, by extension, to the Church in general. We need to allow ourselves to be conduits of the Good News, to live out our faiths authentically and joyfully and invite those who have left to return. We cannot any longer compel by sheer power. We can, however, convince by authentic witness.

A long shadow has been cast over the Catholic Church. We should not be smug and say, "Ah! But it is the shadow of the Cross." It may well be that the shadow that envelopes us is actually one of our own creation, a shadow that is saying, "Morons, move out from behind what is blocking My light!" As a corporate body, we need to find the courage to try to embrace the light, to be proactive in sharing the message of the Good News. For too long has the Church been reactive, forever on the defensive. We need to become Courageous Agents of Light rather than Self-Righteous Denizens of the Shadow.

The Church has a rich intellectual and cultural heritage. Our brightest minds - our scientists, our artists, our musicians - need now, more than ever, to give voice to their experience as women and men of faith and to show how "Faith and Reason" work together. We need to show that the same hand that texts on an iPhone can also finger the beads of the Rosary; the same knees that support us in our workaday world can also bend  in silent prayer and adoration. We, as Catholics, fail if we see faith and reason, the Church and the World, as an "Either/Or."

I'm not tempted toward pessimism. I find this situation exciting, because it is challenging. The message of the Good News, in an increasingly secular and jaded world, can reclaim its edge and its transformative power. In a "pagan" world, we can again preach and live "The Way" of Christ. Let us not succumb to the temptation to despair, to look back upon the past as the "Golden Years" but, rather, have the confidence that God calls us and Christ is leading us into the future. Have we the courage to respond, walking forward into the as-yet-unknown, armed with the trust the the One who calls us will lead us aright?

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Jesus says: "Yeah? Well, Yo Mama is So..."

Today's Gospel reading happens to be one of my favorites: it's the story of Jesus' encounter with the woman from Tyre and Sidon. As a senior at Canisius College, I wrote my final paper on this very passage (well, Mark 7:24-31 // Matthew 15: 21-28). As a teacher, it's a great one to teach to sophomores because, in my humble estimation, it's the only time Jesus ever loses an argument in scripture. 

Let's go at this from an angle effective with sophomore boys. Have you ever seen a "Yo Mamma" fight? Take this as an example:
"Yo mama so ugly she looks like she fell off the ugly tree and hit ever branch on the way down."
"Yeah? Well, Yo mama so ugly that not even goldfish crackers smile back."
"Oh Hell No! Yo mama so ugly when she joined an ugly contest, they said "Sorry, no professionals." 
 So, who wins this little battle of wits? Well, the person who can deploy the most devestating "Yo Mama" such as to render the opponent silent. When locked into the "Yo Mama" battle, contest escalates until one person outwits the other with a clever turn of phrase (often to the whistles an "Awwww's" of the gathered audience.

What has this to do with Sacred Scripture?

Go ahead and read the scripture passage for yourself. Look at how the dialogue between Jesus (a Jew) and the Woman (a non-Jewish woman who is begging on behalf of her daughter -- sociologically, for the Jews of Jesus' day, three strikes!).
(W) "Lord, Help me!"
(J) "It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs."
(W) "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters."
(J) "O woman, great is your faith."
Very often, we read this as Jesus "testing" the woman's faith. I think this misses the bigger point: Jesus got locked into what is called in fancy language "Challenge-Riposte" or, as we might think of it, a form of the "Yo Mama" challenge. He threw out a clever zinger, a one-up on the woman, and she sent back an even more devastating volley.

If you read Mark 7:30, you'll see Jesus' slightly different response: "For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter." I would argue that Matthew softens Jesus' defeat in verbal battle, framing this as a "Test of Faith" rather than having to sort out the embarrassment of having been beaten by a non-Jewish woman.

Am I committing a heresy?

No, I don't think so. Sophomores quickly point out that Jesus comes off as a jerk in this passage, one who is cold and callous. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that Jesus was born into a certain historical period and was shaped and molded by the culture of his day. Jesus worldview was affected by his culture, its symbols, its history, its values. It's not surprising that a Jewish man of his day would have such a reaction.

None of us is exempt from the influence of history and culture. Each of us bears a history that has led us to pre-judge situations (we are, all of us, pre-judgers...we are all prejudiced). Yet, when our pre-judgements are challenged, can we modify our thoughts to reflect that challenge? When we are confronted with the truth - as Jesus was confronted with a Stranger who understood who he was - can we adapt? Can we allow a moment when our prejudices are called into question, a moment when a hole appears in our neat-and-tidy picture of the world, to be a moment of gracious expansion? Or do we retreat and retrench, so committed to our former worldview that we cannot allow it to grow?

Our access to the divinity of Christ comes through his humanity. As our model who draws ever closer to the Father, let us glimpse today in the Gospel an encounter where pre-conceptions are challenged and prejudice surrenders to truth. In this encounter, in a sense, I see a cultural prejudice against the Other being razed and, in its rubble, the realization that the Good News of the Gospel is for any who hunger for it. It's not a sin to be wrong, because it's not a sin to have been shaped by one's history. The sin is not accepting the truth when the truth is encountered.

Jesus, let us walk in your ways and let us know the Truth that you are. 

Monday, August 06, 2012


Today, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration. Perhaps it is fitting that weeks after the murderous spree in Colorado, days after the knife attack leaving nine people dead in China, and hours after the assault at the Sikh Temple in Milwaukee, that we hear the final words of the Second Reading:
You will do well to be attentive to it,
as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
It does seem that, as a human family, we have experienced the dark side of humanity. On a large level we have seen heros fall, corporate greed and dishonesty, the appalling failure of religious and educational institutions to protect the wellbeing of children, and these last few weeks the callous disregard for human life we (easily) take for granted has now been brought into our homes by these terrible assaults. Only a fool, or an intentionally ignorant person, could keep himself from wondering, "What is going on here? Just what is wrong with us?"

Our era of 24-hour news has provided for us something of a negative Transfiguration, a parody of today's Gospel. We are glimpsing the dark revelations of how sinful and broken our world really is. Jesus' apostles had to climb a mountain to learn the truth of his identity...we need only turn on the television to glimpse what we've become, what we're really like, what our actions are revealing about the darkness dwelling within the human condition. We don't need to look very hard, or very far, to come to the realization that we need healing.

The Feast of the Transfiguration provides, for people of faith, a moment of clarity - we celebrate that Jesus reveals himself to his followers that in a special way. Today we must pray to catch a glimpse of Jesus and then return to the world to be lamps in the darkness. We need to find the courage to preach clearly and bravely the Gospel, even when it is unpopular or difficult. Sinful humanity is allergic to the truth and, should we dare to share the truth, we will suffer for it.  Our faith tells us, though, that light is stronger than darkness, life will conquer death, and good will triumph over evil. In the face of horrendous evils, let us pray for the grace to embody our beliefs and to take a stand - regardless the cost - against the darkness that surrounds us.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Deciphering Creation

In a 2007 General Audience, Pope Benedict XVI meditates with John Chrysostom on the Book of Genesis. Of creation, he writes:
..."Es ist ein großes Gut" sagt Chrysostomus, "zu erkennen was das Geschöpf ist under was der Schopfer."...Und so wird Gott zum Gott der Herablassung, der dem gefallenen und fremden Menschen einen Brief schickt, die Heilige Schrift, so dass Schöpfung und Schrift sich ergänzend vervollständigen. Im Lichte der Schrift, des Briefes, den Gott uns gegeben hat, können wir die Schöpfung entschlusseln. 
Or, now that I've shown off that I can read some German,
"It is a great Good," says Chrysostum, "to recognize what is the creature and what is the Creator."  Thus God is the God of Indulgence, who sends to the estranged a letter  - the Holy Scriptures - so that Creation and Scripture may complete one another. In the light of the Scriptures, the letter God has given to us, can we decipher creation. 
If you read today's Gospel, you might be surprised with what we might see as the ongoing process of deciphering the identity of Jesus. Jesus did not hand out business cards stamped with "Jesus, Son of God." He fed those who came to him. He spoke words to them that pierced deep within, penetrating the soil of the heart, tapping into new wellsprings. A patient teacher, he moved those who came to him from what was known - bread that satisfies temporary hunger - to something they could not yet imagine: the Bread of Life.

A proper Catholic imagination understands that Faith and Reason, Religion and Science, are not opposed to one another. Instead, they are complementary. Frequently, people think that faith "adds" another layer to the story of creation, as though to be a believer one must add something. Perhaps it is more helpful to think of it not as an adding but, rather, as a deepening. The believer looks at the world and instead of seing merely brute facts, sees signs and clues calling out to be deciphered; they see a world which "Gottes Spur in tragen" or "bears the traces of God." Like any proper sleuth, the believer is aware that we're wrapped up in a Mystery which continues to unfold around us. Knowing that we're caught up in a Mystery doesn't add some sense of superiority to the humbles the mind to know that we're caught up in a story we are not entirely in control of.

Toucan Sam used to tell kids to "Follow Your Nose" to the Fruit Loops. Today, Jesus is telling us to follow our hunger, to believe that the hunger gnawing within us can find satisfaction. We need only have eyes to see that the one who can feed us has set the table before us and invites us to feast with Him. Auntie Mame may have said it best, "Live! Life's a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!" The Christian believer might echo this, too, saying "Feast! We have set before us the Bread of Life and most poor suckers (other Christians included) can't decipher the invitation to join."

If today we have today the courage to decipher the clues around us and find our way to the source of Infinite Life, let us have also the courage to invite those we see to feast with us. What good is a dinner reservation for one when we can invite the whole world to feast with us? 

Friday, August 03, 2012

Abba's Guide to College

As I prepare to retire my sobriquet of Abba Duns, I did have to send one final email out to some former students to give them my "guide" to beginning college studies. If it interests you, feel free to read below:

Hi Guys,

I hope you're all enjoying what, as I look at the calendar, seem to be the waning days of summer vacation. Most of you will be reporting to college in just about three weeks. Make the most of your time with your family these weeks and do your best to prepare for the adventures of college.

It is hard to let the teacher part of me go, so please indulge me once more as I offer a few words of advice. Do as you will with it, although remember that before I was "Abba" Duns I once found some degree of respectability as a college instructor. What I hand on to you is simply a collection of observations that I hope prove helpful to you.
1. Books: you need them. DO NOT BUY AT THE BOOKSTORE. You will only succeed in being financially plundered. Instead, do this:

a. Get a copy of your class schedule.
b. Get a pen and a piece of paper.
c. Go to website for your college's bookstore.
d. I you can probably pre-order your books.
e. Pretend you are going to pre-order. Write down the Names of the books and their ISBN numbers.
f. Now, check Barnes and Noble, Amazon, etc. to see if you can't find your books for a better price. In my experience, you'll save a bundle.
g. Do this now. You will beat the rush and you can bring your books with you (especially texts like Biology, Chemistry, and Physics where there's little question that you'll use the book immediately). 

2. Books: In my experience, it is dumb to save most books. I saved my theology and philosophy, some history, and a few novels. Generally, though, you don't need to hang on to the texts. If you can rent: great! 

3. Technology in the Classroom: You have, undoubtedly, purchased the requisite new computer. You are excited because you think your laptop will enable you to download, study...anywhere you go. Some thoughts:

a. Unless your professor directs you otherwise, leave your laptop at home. You've done very well taking notes by hand. Continue this. Why?

a1. Because laptops are tempting. You can hide behind them or, when the professor proves less-than-interesting, you will spend time on Facebook or other sites that will distract you.

a2. This goes for your iPad or Tablet. I'm taking a German course this summer and I'll admit it: when our instructor belabors some point I mastered, I turn to Angry Birds. The stakes here in this course are far lower (I'm not really being graded) than they are in college. Discipline yourself to stay focused!

b. I beg you, please, leave your cell phones in your dorm room. There is nothing more rude to a professor than to have a student texting during class. It, too, proves to be a great temptation. Give yourself the edge over the other students: don't PUT obstacles in your way. Unless you're expecting the death of a loved one, I strongly encourage you to leave your phone at home. Go to class unencumbered with baggage. 

c. For the first few weeks of class, don't bring your iPod with you either. Wait until you walk across campus and see the enormous number of socially isolated students who bury themselves behind phone screens and iPods. It's sort of sad - you are going to university to expand your horizons...why put barriers between you and others?

4. Class: This is where we separate the wheat from the chaff. I would encourage you to attend every class. Sit toward the front (not the exact front - I always regarded front-sitters with suspicion). Rows 2-3 are usually good. A few other things:

a. Read and do your homework. Your instructor will be thrilled if you look like you're prepared.

b. Ask smart questions. Avoid being the guy who tries to outsmart the instructor by asking questions such as, “Can God make a burrito so hot he can't eat it?" Handy rule of thumb: If it made you laugh on Twitter or if you saw it on a Facebook, it probably does not belong in a college classroom. Save it for the Quad.

c. They pay actual professionals to work in the writing lab. Most of them are graduate students who eek out a marginal living by reading your papers. Take advantage of them.

d. DO NOT CHEAT. It is better to take an honorable '0' than to plagiarize. The stakes are so high in college and I have personally caught a number of students - and heard of countless others - who have dropped out after being flunked for cheating. Instead, give yourself a few days (if not weeks) to write your papers and to prepare for exams. Work on your studies little-by-little and you'll find that you make great progress. 

e. I'm of the mind that college is not pre-professional training. You'll seldom use anything you learn over the next four years. Thus, don't EVER say, "When am I going to use....". Instead, use each course as an opportunity to develop new sides of yourself, to learn more, to deepen your thoughts, and to become more interesting. Read poetry. Study philosophy. Take a course in music or dancing. Be adventurous, at least once per year, in your courses.

f. Dress professionally. I'm not suggest a tie every day, but please don't roll into class (late) wearing your pajamas or something that looks like pajamas. Dress in a way that shows that you are serious about your pursuits and that you take your role as a student seriously. "How you do anything," an instructor once said, "is how you do everything." Dress professionally and act professionally.

g. Be polite. Be on time to class. Further, do not expect your professor to respond to you immediately...odds are, he or she is not one of Pavlov's dogs who responds to the immediate stimulus of an email. If you need an extension on a paper or are having trouble, I would suggest going to see the professor in person, during office hours. 

5. (Anti) Social Media: You're going to come staggering home at some point and want to Tweet or post something you think is funny. Don't. Don't post pictures of you with a Red Solo Cup (great song, bad photo). Don't Tweet your ignorance. If you're going to have the Twitter, lock your profile

Contemporary social media blurs the lines of public and private. Do not risk your well being by doing something ridiculous AND THEN posting it. On the internet, you cast a permanent "digital shadow" that can follow you forever. When you're applying for an internship and the recruiter Googles your name, what do you want to appear? A kegstand while balancing a bowl of chips on your feet, or wearing a thong and a sombrero, might be fun at the time. It will not be so much fun when you're asked about it during an interview.

Before your post anything:

  • Do you want this to haunt you?
  • Will you be proud of this tomorrow?
  • If it is about someone, are you using that person's name? How would you feel if someone said this about you? 
  • What would others think about you if they saw just this? What if a recruiter/future employer saw this? If you're going into public service, is this going to hinder you in the future?

6. Dorm:

a. DO NOT SHUT YOUR BEDROOM DOOR DURING THE DAY. Especially during the first few weeks, lots of students will be trying to find friends. How can you make friends if you are locked behind a door with your laptop? Keep your door open. Mingle with other students. Invite people to go to the cafeteria with you. Accept invitations to go to the cafeteria.

b. Wash your clothes and bathe daily. I am currently living with some foreign Jesuits who, apparently, never got this message. Horrific. Febreezing your underwear is not a substitute for washing.

c. Brush your teeth.  Use deodorant (Men's deodorant, not Axe). 

d. Be nice to your roommate. If you have a conflict, sort it out immediately so it doesn't fester.

7. Social issues:

a. It is natural to have "Buyer's Remorse" and to contemplate transferring at the end of the semester. Don't. Stick it out (unless you're wholly miserable). Before you do decide to transfer, seek out all other options. I say this as one who transferred and who still regrets it.

b. Be the nice guy. You're going to see a lot of guys who try to take advantage of young women and will do anything they can to hook-up. Feel pity for them and try to be the stand-up guy, the one other students respect. College is a time both for strengthening your mind AND for building your character. Be true "Men for Others."

c. Go to Church. Most campuses have active campus ministry programs (or Newman Centers for Catholics). Get in with the Church crowd - most of them are nice kids.  College Masses tend to be aimed toward your issues, and it's a good discipline to have. If offered, go to the "last chance Mass" on Sunday nights or the 9:00/10:00 Mass: these tend to be pretty fun. Go out for coffee after. Going to Mass gives you a chance to re-connect with your interior life and, when you go home at Thanksgiving, you'll be the darling of the family when you can talk about your take on liturgy on a college campus. 

Finally, do stay in touch. This can be an overwhelming experience. Know that you are not alone and that help will always be given to those who ask for it (echoes of Dumbledore...I'm reading Harry Potter in German). I'm very proud of you guys and I'm excited for your futures. Be men of integrity, of intellectual curiosity, of faith, and let these next few years help to shape you ever more into "Men for Others" who live for God's Greater Glory.

You - and your families - will be in my prayers these next few weeks.

With Great Affection,


***Any other advice for new students should be put down in the comments box***

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

My Ode to the American Tourist

My father likes to remind me that, despite my best efforts to eradicate it, there is a vein of misanthropy running deep within me. Over the years of Jesuit formation, I'm tempted to believe that I have eradicated this: surely, happily teaching in a high school cultivates a sense of loving people even when they are most unlovable. Indeed, there have been times when I feel on the verge of an experience akin to one described by Thomas Merton who famously writes:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnute, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. 
Such longing may be present in quiet moments, in the sweet promise of the new-dawned day or while reflecting at the day's end. I really want to love everyone, to feel a cosmic oneness with my sisters and brothers.

That is, of course, until I come across tourists.

Yes, I get it. You've worked all year long - maybe even for several years - to make this trip a reality. You've done everything to ensure the trip of a lifetime: you've made a detailed itinerary of must-see sites, a list of great restaurants, purchased a traveling hat, and you've accessorized with a snazzy passport-and-wallet necklace which you will insist on wearing outside of your clothes. Before you went to the airport, you exchanged your money for the "funny" looking Euro which you will now mock loudly as you sort through pocketfuls of change, laughingly explaining to those behind you in line, "I just can't figure this crazy money out!" You've razed a small forest in printing out reams of information which you have stored on clipboards and binders.

You are now an American tourist.

You are now the greatest impediment to my loving all of humanity.

Starting at 8:00 am, you're in tourist mode. You pose in front of signs, you find signs or words that have some personal meeting and have your pictures taken with them, you look at the racks of trinkets and baubles available for sale on the already too-narrow streets. So overcome with beauty, you walk, two or three members abreast, slowly down the street. When you are in a restaurant, you have the idea that people who do not speak your language will magically understand your bizarre requests if you repeat them louder in your mother tongue.

Have no fear, I'm not anxiously trying to get home for the mid-day meal when you stop abruptly and turn to talk to the herd of people following, really, I secretly like being stuck in a sudden sea of humanity, forced to smell the hair of the small Japanese woman I'm now pressing against because you've suddenly decided to tell the group that, "This is where Mozart's father bought kuchen" or some other inane detail. Furthermore, in case you are confused, that really is a look of horror on my face when I see you at 10:00 am ambling down the narrow Innsbruck lane, clad in your rhinestoned Kenny Chesney t-shirt, licking a slowly-melting, triple-scooped cone of gelato. In the evening, when I'm in the Jesuitenkirche praying at night, feel free to begin to read loudly from your clipboard. Don't worry, it's just another building and not a house of worship -- you should try to get up to the Tabernacle and pose for pictures. No, seriously, it's not gauche at all.

Really, my tourist friend, how could I mind it if, while I'm enjoying my first Absinthe on the street, you need to stick your butt in my face so that you can get the "perfect shot" of some nondescript building? Why would I roll my eyes when your daughter proclaims that she will not eat "Pizza Funghi" even though, as you keep telling her, she loves mushrooms at home? Why would I put my headphones on in the cafe when you start pontificating how in America we play the sport "football" and that the rest of world simply plays the game of "soccer" and that they should get it straight?

Don't worry, I get my revenge. When you buy the the exorbitantly priced "Mozart" chocolates  (Mozartkugeln)-- like 3 of them for 5 Euro - I'm secretly thrilled that you're contributing to the local economy. I buy mine at the Spar market - where real people shop - and for 5 Euro I get two dozen. That gelato stand that you stand at, counting out your "funny" money and whining that it doesn't taste like the ice cream at home? Note that the line is populated with tourists like yourself -- the natives are going to a place not on the tourist drag. It's less expensive and more delicious there.

Make no mistake: other groups capture my attention as well. It's just that I know you because, deep down, perhaps I am one of you. Perhaps my negative reaction to you is a sort of spiritual acid reflux, a reaction to a frightening realization that although we are "total strangers" we cannot be "alien" to one another. As irritating as you are, as embarrassing as you can be, somehow you are still mine. This realization may be as close to a mystical awareness as I have concerning you...or it may just be the spur to send me back to the street for my second Absinthe.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame