Wednesday, December 26, 2012

1000+ Posts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 24, 2012

Advent of Doubt

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

Edited slightly, here is the response I gave:

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

Monday, December 17, 2012

Undergoing the Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Knockdown Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps our prayer can simply be this:

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

Sunday, December 09, 2012

New Tin Whistle Blog

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

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

Two Lords?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 07, 2012

Irresponsible Journalism

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

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame