Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hope as the Form of Life

Hope, it seems, has made its way into Hollywood. Recently at the movie theater, for instance, I saw three distinct images of hope:
  • In the trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past, Professor Charles Xavier implores his younger self, "Please. We need you to hope again." 
  • In the trailer for Noah, hope is implicitly held out as Russell Crowe's Noah builds an ark and must face down what seems to be a horde rather intent on taking the ark for themselves. 
  • In Catching Fire, President Snow chillingly observes, "Fear does not work as long as there is hope." 
Hope is, sadly, a misused word. "I hope I do well on this test" - even though I've not studied. "I hope I lost weight this week" - even though I ate an entire chocolate cake, albeit in thin slices, over the past seven days. 

Hope, in other words, often seems to be a sort of quixotic optimism, a sentiment expressing something like "I know the odds are against me, but...". If we think of hope like this, as though it were just like wishing on a star, we sorely miss the point. 

Hope, within the theological tradition, is always directed toward a future good which, although difficult to obtain, is still possible to be reached. Or, perhaps expressed more simply, hope is less a "pie in the sky" fantasy than it is a project toward which one must strive. 

This, I think, is one of the great themes present within the Hunger Games novels and movies. In the dystopian setting of the novel, hope has not be quashed under the foot of an oppressive regime: it springs up in unlikely places, offering a tantalizing glimmer of what might be. Hope does not cast away the darkness or the shadows. Indeed, it shows forth the darkness all the more severely. Nevertheless, it resists allowing darkness or death having the final response to human life. Hope reaches out toward goodness even as it recognizes that what it most desires appears to be out of reach for the mere mortal. 

And hope is, of course, the virtue of the mere mortal. It is the virtue that gives us to see ourselves as we are: finite and human. But it is only in coming to know ourselves and our limits that we can reach past them. The first act of a diet is to weigh oneself, of a new workout program to do a fit test. We do this, not to wallow in our current state, but rather in order to get a sense of the direction we need to move. 

At the start of a new year, how are we all called to be people of hope? That is, how are we called to a radical honesty that gives us to see, even if only as a glimmer, the distant good for which we may hope? 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'Twas the Mass Before Christmas

Per family custom, we attended the 5:00 pm Mass at our local parish. This is, mind you, the parish I made my First Communion (March, '88) and Confirmation (February, '94). I went there throughout high school, college, and graduate school. Since I don't stay with my parents when I visit Cleveland, it's  now the case that I only go to my home parish on Christmas.

Now, Christmas Eve Mass provides an annual "Choose Your Own Adventure" liturgy. One can choose to attend Mass in the church where there'll be packed pews, usually a well-amplified if not particularly talented group of singers, and lots of familiar faces. The youthful pastor will deliver a great homily and, overall, even liturgical dilettantes can't fault it on much (well, other than the music). Sure, you'll see the well-dressed C&E crowd who take your usual Sunday seats, but that can be forgiven if for no other reason than the comedic value of watching irregular attendees continue to answer "And also with you" when the correct  answer is "and with your spirit."

Or, one can take a risk (of one's immortal soul) by going into the gymnasium. While not quite a gladiatorial death-zone, it's pretty brutal. Last year I won and we went into the church. This year, I compromised and entered into the gym...err, I mean, overflow church.

And, be assured, it was something. I was very much touched by the strumming guitar and what were referred to as "bridges" and "interludes" which, as a musician, I interpreted as mistakes covered over by heavy chording. The most my family found itself engaged was when it saw "The First Nowell" listed in the book and assumed it to be an egregious typo. The homily was so incredibly profound that I'm still, 90 minutes later, attempting to get my mind around it. Yes, the message was that profound. Or, perhaps, it was that it wasn't delivered in coherent English so that any point that may have been embedded within was lost upon the congregation.

Let me tell you: Facebook certainly experienced a log-on surge from a Western suburb of Cleveland, because just about everyone whipped out phones to wish family members "Merry XMas" or "Happy Holidays" or, for the more risque, "Merry Christmas."

Mind you, I'm never a fan of women and men wearing coats during the liturgy. I don't wear a coat when I'm eating dinner (suit or sport coat, yes, but certainly not a winter coat). Tonight, LOTS of people wore coats. I thought it was a fashion trend until Communion when the packed gym...errr, church...lost a third of its population. A sort of liturgical "Dine and Dash" as it were.

Particularly moving was the final rendition of "Joy to the World," at least for the two dozen of us remaining. I exaggerate, of course, because there were probably 100 of us still in there BUT at the conclusion of what seemed to be the final blessing they began to chat with those around them. When we were kids, we weren't allowed to leave until the priest had walked past us.

I decided to walk home from Mass. We live, after all, only a few hundred yards from gym...err, overflow church....to doorstep. I even got to walk past the main church, filled with its well-heeled worshippers. I stress "well heeled" because that's what I could see as I walked by: their heels. For, as it turns out, the overflow mass concluded a few minutes before the main church and the "dine and dash" that sapped 1/3 of our population gutted the main church. There were so many turkeys, bean casseroles with fried onions on top, and hams that were about to be burned that people fled the church as though it were on fire. Or they fled it as though they had just received Communion and ran out.

"All is calm, all is bright" - because right now, I'm drinking a glass of red wine as we prepare to celebrate this Eve of Christmas night.

The Duns Family Cousin

For any readers, know I write in slight jest -- totally truthful, but written with an eye toward humor. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and many prayers for a happy and prayerful New Year!

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Trinity and Karaoke

In an interview given in 1990, Sandra Schneiders observed of the Trinity that, for Christians, "God is more than two men and a bird." While this should hardly come as a surprise, the observation nevertheless flies in the face of many artistic renderings of the Trinity. Indeed, I think it is the case that art attempting to depict the Trinity is at least partially to blame for the general irrelevance of the Trinity in the lives of most Christians. 

Think about it: when was the last time you prayed to the Holy Spirit? 

One way of thinking about the Trinity in a way that may be helpful is to think of the Trinity as the event of Karaoke of God's Kingdom

Karaoke begins with a song. What goes into a song? Well, first you need an author who writes Lyrics and composes Music. Consider:
  • Without the Author, you'd have neither the Lyrics nor the Music. These both flow from the Author.
  • The Lyrics tell us what the song is about. 
  • The Music gives us the rhythm that animates the Lyrics.
Notice, however, that the Lyrics and Music are distinct yet necessary. Lyrics might be nice but, without music, there's no sense of the song's flow. The Music may be beautiful or catchy but, without the Lyrics, there's no way to tell what the Author is trying to communicate. 

But, and here's the genius of Karaoke, the song must be performed. I've been to enough Karaoke bars in my lifetime to know that when someone gets up to sing a song by Aerosmith, or Michael Jackson, or U2, that the person is going to attempt to channel the way the song has been performed by someone else. This is done, to be sure, with radically varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, Karaoke is fun because it rests upon a person performing a song often made famous by one or more classical performances.

When we watch someone attempt Karaoke, we are watching a person perform the song by using his or her own voice to give expression to the Lyrics. The rhythm of the Music animates and guides the song, provides pitch and tempo, as the performer sings. In the one event of Karaoke, the performer attempts to express here-and-now the Author's Song using one's own voice and abilities. For those in the audience, it's impossible not to compare the performance to the "classical" renditions of the song, yet when the artist offers something novel or innovative, it's precisely this "play" on the classical performance that makes this particular event memorable. 

Christian discipleship is, in my imagination at least, very much like Karaoke. God has been made known in Word and Spirit, in Lyric and Music. Christians believe Jesus is the way the Song of the Creator should be performed, that Jesus is the "classic" showing us how to do this. The Holy Spirit, the rhythm of the Trinity, has been offered to all believers as the Music animating our lives and inviting us to make our own the Words of the song. We are, each of us, invited to take up the microphone...or the Cross!...and sing God's Song. 

When Catholics talk about Saints, we're basically talking about holy women and men who have shown us throughout history different ways of performing the "classic." Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Ignatius, and Mother Theresa: each one, in a different era, performed the "Song" in a way recognized as fitting very well to the classic. 

If we think of the Trinity in terms of Karaoke, we may begin to see that each one of us is being invited onto the stage to perform. We've been handed the mic and the Music summons us to perform. At first, we may do this with hesitation: murmuring, stumbling, and fumbling throughout. Fortunately, it's not a one-shot deal: the Music keeps playing and we are invited, over and over, to try again. We are invited to keep an eye on the "classic" and model ourselves after it, making His words our words. 

Perhaps we should, all of us, pray first each day to the Holy Spirit:

Holy Spirit of God, give me the ears to hear your Music 
that I may surrender my inhibitions 
and risk performing the Good News.
Give me the strength to enter into the Song of the Creator,
to take the Word as my model and guide,
and to be enlivened by your Music.
Make my entire life one unending performance of the Gospel, 
a song sung in the Key of the Kingdom, 
so that I might perform in you heavenly chorus now 
as I hope to perform with you in Heaven's Eternity. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Undergoing the Spirit

So, 2013's Person of the Year is none other than Pope Francis. I'm sure he's breathing a sigh of relief that he beat out the the patroness of twerking, Miley Cyrus, and a man who unleashed deadly chemical weapons on his own people, Bashar al-Assad. I reckon Ted Cruz and Kathleen Sebelius canceled one another out. Without question, at least to my mind, of the ten nominees, the Holy Father's great gift has been to welcome a fresh, rejuvenating Spirit into the Catholic Church.

A friend asked me, several hours after yesterday's announcement, if I was "proud" of the Pope. I didn't know quite what to say. It would seem that I should be proud, or happy, but perhaps I was above all relieved because the Holy Father is "Person of the Year" because he points away from himself. I know some of the Pope's critics think he's putting on a show, that he's hamming it up for the cameras, but I think we're witnessing the read deal. This guy loves the Good News of the Gospel and he's giving all of us a glimpse of how it looks in one particular life.

Very often, we hear about an event "grabbed headlines." Celebrities, corporations, users of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube: the temptation is always to thrust oneself into the spotlight, to grab attention for oneself.

The Pope is to be appreciated, not because of his office or some of his more attention-grabbing gestures, but because he affirms again and again that he is who he is because of his faith. In nine months, his public witness has done what countless homilies haven't managed: to call people to at least consider what it might be to open themselves up, to allow themselves to undergo God's Holy and creative Spirit, and to be born anew in faith.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Two Weeks Until Christmas

Jesus said to the crowds:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest. 
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves. 
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
                                  ~Matthew 11:28-30

Two weeks until Christmas. It's a thought that stirs hope in children and teenagers, one liable of piquing anxiety in parents. There is, of course, so much yet to be done! Shopping, end-of-year deadlines, travel arrangements, wrapping, hiding gifts, cleaning the house, buying and preparing family meals, hosting guests...Advent, the season when we are called to prepare for the Lord's coming, seems more often to be the season of our mad rushing and running about. 

What is the status of your heart, your "inner home"? I think many of us would prefer not to say because our hearts are very messy and rather cluttered. And yet it is no small part of the Good News of the Gospel that the Lord, who was born into pretty wretched conditions, not only is willing but actually desires to be born again and again in your heart.

Be warned: this Jesus fellow is a funny sort of house guest. Should you muster up the courage to answer the door, to trip over the debris strewn across your heart's floor as you fumble with the latch, he'll step in and and quickly make himself right at home. He's a bold guest in this way: without hardly a word, he'll begin to do the cleaning, to buy and re-arrange furniture, to upgrade the houses' wiring, and basically renovate his new home. This isn't because he's a snob or snoot but because he is only too happy to take up residence in any available heart, any available space, willing to have him. 

He's not remodeling the house in order to flip it for a profit. He's remaking it because he loves you and this is his gift for you: a new home, a new heart.

It's probably much easier, in our busy lives, to pray for things that will, in all likelihood, resolve themselves: Christmas dinner will be fine, the kids will have a great Christmas, your mother--in-law won't be the demon you fear. 

It's far more difficult to muster up the courage to pray Advent, to pray, "Come, Lord Jesus." For this Jesus shows up with blueprints and ideas for us we may not at first understand, with paint samples and design schemes for our hearts that frighten us. And yet, in the business and rushing of our lives, today's Gospel breaks in upon us: Jesus doesn't issue a new deadline, a new demand, but simply an invitation: be with me, let me take control, and I'll bring to you peace. 

Have we the courage to pray the great prayer of Advent, the prayer that risks more than we can imagine: Come, Lord Jesus! 

Monday, December 09, 2013

On the Immaculate Conception

Today, the Catholic Church observes the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. My father and his brother, Jack, derive waggish delight in querying this celebration: nowhere, of course, is there anything in the Bible about Mary's own conception.

My father and uncle, mind you, were both raised Missouri Synod Lutherans. That makes a wing of my family "arch-Lutherans."

So, here's the thing. The Church isn't celebrating a teaching but, rather, an event. As Herbert McCabe wrote, today we celebrate God's gift to humanity that "Mary was as holy as she could be said to be." It arose because, in and through the prayer and liturgy of early Christians, they realized that the shape and character of Jesus' life had an earthly source, a human model. Just as any parent teaches a child to speak, to eat, to get dressed, so also must parents do things like teach children manners, how to face adversity, and especially how to love. The insanely perfect way Jesus showed love for others - so perfect that we killed him for it - drew attention to Mary: what must have been the case in order for Jesus to love well? His mother must have loved perfectly, too.

Start with our experience. You know the adage, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Parent/Teacher conferences were inevitably illuminating - and sometimes sobering - when in the vast majority of cases I found that if I was teaching a kid who was a big jerk, his parents were also more than a bit jerky. Of course, I was blessed to teach vastly more great kids and it was not seldom that I'd meet the parents are realize why the kid was so great: very often (but certainly not always), great kids come from great parents.

Today's Solemnity is hardly about Mary. It's all about Jesus: what must his family have been like for him to have loved so boldly? The way Jesus loved, like the way he spoke and dressed, came to him from his parents. Jesus' ongoing "Yes" to the Father, to his Abba, was a "Yes" he was raised to say. Indeed, today's Gospel passage marks, for Christians, the "Yes" that changed history: Mary's "Yes" to God.

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato,
"Madonna with the Christ Child"
Gabriel does not impose anything on Mary; instead, the angel proposes. Such is her freedom to say "yes" even though she couldn't possibly know how that single word would change the course of history.

I love the painting on the right because Mary simply beholds her son - as new parents so readily do - and loves him. This is an image of human freedom, of having one's priorities ordered properly. She doesn't have to do anything other than be who she is: a loving mother, teacher and model, to her son.

The way Mary looked at Jesus over the years shaped the way Jesus looked at others. I doubt seriously whether Mary relished having to change diapers, feed at odd hours, or bandage scraped knees and cut elbows. And yet, surely, she must have shown great loving attentiveness because when Jesus is an adult, he too shows such loving kindness for others.

Very often, an image of Mary has been used as a cudgel to encourage women to be docile or subservient. Truly, this is a shame. I would offer Mary as the antidote to a great many of the ills and pressures facing women and men today. For, in our society, we place such a strong priority on achievement, on grasping success, on fitting into the image of success our society holds out for us.

Mary, by contrast, doesn't conform her life to any cultural norm or expectation. She has the courage to answer her vocation from the depths of her heart: her "Yes" does not carry the security of a 401k, a good job prospect, or success. Her "Yes" to God meets God's "Yes" to our human mess, to God's willingness to enter into our history to offer us a share in God's life.

Today's Solemnity looks at Jesus through Mary's lens: how did he learn to love freely and recklessly, to follow the Spirit in his heart? He did so because he was loved into loving. Mary shows all of us, men and women, the character of a redeemed life. The "yes" or "amen" we utter at the Eucharist looks forward to the day we are united, forever, at the Eucharistic feast of heaven. In Mary's "Yes" we see how humanity's perfect response to God brings into a sinful and fallen world God's "Yes" to humanity.

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Enduring Problem of Abusive Priests?

It was with no small amount of disappointment that I read this morning's story, run in the New York Times, reporting on the newly established papal commission on sex abuse. It's not that I'm disappointed that a commission has been created, of course, but rather the story's superficial reporting. 

Up front, I want to say: the sexual abuse of minors is an unconscionable crime and anyone who perpetrate such a heinous act, whether clergy or not, must be held accountable. What interests me this morning is how the story is being told and why it is disingenuous for them to report in such a way. 

Let me pick a few key lines that will help to illustrate this:
  • "...Pope Francis will establish a commission to advise him on protecting children from pedophile priests..."
  • "The announcement was a forthright acknowledgment by the Vatican of the enduring problem of abusive priests..."
  • Citing David Clohessy, from SNAP: "A new church panel is the last thing that kids need." 
  • From Anne Barrett Doyle, from BishopAccountability.org: "But we are concerned that the commission will be toothless and off-target."
  • "An aloof theologian, Benedict resigned in February..."
  • "Even as Cardinal O'Malley announced the commission, parts of the church were bracing for new disclosures. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis told its priests that a new report would illuminate the prevalence of abuse in its parishes."
First issue: what time is this story taking place? The way the story is written, you would think that new reports of clergy abuse of minors come to light each day. Here and now, in 2013, the "enduring problem of abusive priests" continues unabated. And yet, as I wrote about in April, this is not quite true. We do know that, as of 2011, over 80% of reported cases took place before 1985. Since 2002, reports of new acts have become increasingly less common. This does not deny that clergy abuse continues to occur - we are, all of us, aware how endemic sexual abuse throughout the world - but it does question whether the present situation is as dire as it would be made to seem. 

What of the new disclosures in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis? How new were those disclosures? Again, consistent with the John Jay Study, the majority of reported cases took place between 1950 and 1985. If almost a 30-year old story is considered new, then I guess the fall of the Berlin Wall is breaking news.  

Second issue: the rhetoric of abuse. With statistically only 5% of priests with allegations against them exhibited behavior consistent with a diagnosis of pedophilia, it is a misnomer to label this an issue of "pedophile priests." 

David Clohessy is correct in his statement, but not in the way he might expect. This commission is the last things kids need: anyone in religious formation over the last decade, at least in the USA, has been saturated with learning to recognize sexual abuse and with becoming sensitive to the importance of boundaries. Although it may be the last thing "kids need," it may be just what the Church needs: an advisory panel able to give a realistic view of the failure of of many within the Church to grasp the scope of the problem.

There are bishops in place, here in the USA, who have failed in their duties as shepherds. It is scandalous to me that they are still in leadership roles: off the top of my head, I can name three who should resign due to sins of ommission, the sin of not acting decisively even when it was obvious action was demanded. 

One final issue. I think it wholly uncharitable to describe Pope Benedict as "an aloof theologian." Under Benedict's papacy, the Church took enormous steps in the direction of addressing the sexual abuse of minors. The progress made within the Church should be seen as a model for other organizations: Boy Scouts, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, after-school programs, and schools could all benefit from the energy and programming initiated thanks to Benedict. He was certainly not uninformed and hardly aloof. He may seem as such in comparison to the gregarious Francis but in his own way, Benedict was very much engaged with the life of the Church. 

I think it easy to succumb to the sensational - and clergy sex abuse is sensational - within reporting. Sensation sells. Yet this story not only perpetuates fatuous stereotypes, but it misses an opportunity to draw attention to what is a pressing issue for our entire society: the protection of our young. 

Monday, December 02, 2013

Monday, First Week of Advent

Today's Gospel contains a line familiar to any regular communicant: "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed." Well, except that we have taken out "my servant" and replaced it with "my soul."

What may remain unheard, however, is the "leap" the centurion makes. Here is a man, a member of the military elite, with both soldiers and slaves beneath him. He, like many of us, is accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed. Beyond the realm of business, just think of the ways we give others orders: giving directions to a taxi driver, ordering coffee to one's specifications, trying on new shoes/clothes, ordering in a restaurant.

In this scene, however, the one accustomed to giving orders now realizes his own powerlessness. Moved by the plight of his paralyzed servant, he approaches Jesus and appeals to him for help.

Fortunately for the servant, he did not have to log into any website or wait to find out if the centurion's plan included him in its coverage. Instead of questioning the status of his insurance, Jesus provides the centurion assurance: "I will come and cure him."

I think it a great temptation, both to those used to being charge and to those more advanced in spiritual development, to think ourselves wholly independent. It's easy to convince ourselves that we are "self-made" and that all we have, all we have earned, we have gotten through our own labor. The centurion's "leap," if we may call it that, was to recognize his own powerlessness to help another. Instead of puffing himself up and blaming others for the plight of his servant, he swallowed his pride and risked a great deal of honor to come to this Jesus fellow, this itinerant preacher, to ask for help.

In our own lives, where do we need to swallow our pride and ask this Jesus for help? Is there someone in our household, someone in our life, or some place in our heart that is "paralyzed, suffering dreadfully"? It may be an addiction, a sense of shame, a long-lasting affliction...it need not matter. Is there a person, or place within ourselves, we know to be broken and in need of healing? Do we dare to ask? 

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The First Sunday of Advent

If you ever want to note how out of step the Church's readings are from mainstream culture, you need look no further than today's readings

Let's think about our culture. Although some stores seem to have put out Christmas decorations in October, so that witches and cobwebs fought with reindeer and snow globes, we are now not surprised to see and hear the sounds of Christmas. If you listen carefully, though, the decorations and music that entice us into stores, the smells of cinnamon and clove that try to remind us of the warmth of the family kitchen...they carry with them a message. 

23 days until Christmas! 16 days until Christmas! Buy now before it's too late!

The church of consumerism, whose high priests are marketing agents, sure know how to spin a deal, how to hawk their wares, how to make us anxious about potentially not being prepared for Christmas. And so, we buy. We buy early and often. Our journey toward Christmas is not a hopeful journey but, rather often, one fraught with anxiety over whether one has bought the right gives, will receive the right gifts, will have the house cleaned on time. 

It's just that, the image of preparedness they sell and expect us to buy is measured in the end by mounds of wrapping paper and bills that come in January. 

In Paul's letter to the Romans and in Matthew's Gospel, we hear quite a different story. Paul and Jesus both encourage us to be alert, to be ready. They know that we are in a period of Advent, a time of approach. Where our commercial society tells us that we are prepared if we are ready to give gifts, the Bible counters by reminding us that we are ready only when we are prepared to receive grace, when we can open ourselves to and welcome the coming of the Holy One. 

The liturgical season of Advent - just a few short weeks - reminds us explicitly what it means to live a Christian life. We are to be the people who, in each day, are mindful of the present and are able and willing to open our houses, to open our hearts, to King of Kings. We need not buy a red carpet, or purchase expensive glasses to make him feel welcome: the human heart and all that is in it are quite sufficient. 

As we begin this journey of Advent, we might wish to reflect on a question. Which gives me more energy and calls me into action: the constant refrains from stores to buy, buy, buy - or - the promise of Scripture that the Holy One is coming, is coming into our lives, and nothing we can buy can coax him into our lives. We can but open our hearts and lives and say "Welcome." 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Occasions for Pleasure, No Place for Joy

I'm going to make what, to anyone who has watched my Tin Whistle videos on YouTube, may be a startling admission: I regret doing it. I began posting videos seven years ago, just after I moved to Fordham University, because I had the in-built computer technology to do so. When I was later asked to teach a course on the Tin Whistle, I made use of YouTube to make sure each week's lessons were posted.

Several times each week, I receive a note from a viewer who will say something like, "I just wanted to thank you for the free lessons on the Internet. I live in a place without any Irish music teachers and your lessons are the only way I can learn." I'll admit - I do think that's pretty cool and, honestly, I'm glad to have provided a service. 

Nevertheless, I still regret that I ever did it. 

Not because of the good it has shared with others but because, after a lot of reflection, I realize that it has had a corrosive effect on my spirit. 

Each time I post a video - and I posted one last night - I am beset with an enormous temptation to watch the view counts, to count the number of likes, and to read the comments as they are posted. Last night, for instance, I posted a video and then went to dinner with a friend. At some point, I needed to use the bathroom and actually took my phone with me so that, after I'd washed my hands, I could "check" to see how the video was doing. 

It came as a jolt: I was putting a metric, a number, over time with a friend. I had put something out to an anonymous audience and I was worried more about what they thought than I was about my friend. 

Then I got to thinking: this has become a pattern. Twitter, Facebook, the Blog: I actually worry about numbers, about who is reading, about what people are or, worse, are not saying. I regret having to say it, but I'm implicated in a culture of instant gratification where moments of occasional pleasure matter so much. 

Pope Francis, quoting Paul VI, observes that our "technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy." 

I became a Jesuit because I desired to have and to share the joy of the Gospel, not to accrue "likes" and "re-tweets." I'll disable Twitter today and I need to consider how best to approach Facebook and YouTube. I'll keep the blog because it's my online journal, a chronicle of my ongoing formation. 

Please don't interpret this as a dark post! Consider it a pivot, a renewal of spirit. I'm confident that social media can be a great tool for evangelization...it's just that I'm not strong enough to resist some of its temptations to make it "all about me." 

I don't need a legion of followers on Twitter to tell me who I am. Nor do I need blog hits and Facebook likes to affirm me. 

I need, I want, but one thing: to be a follower of the One who is enough for me and, in coming to know such joy, share that joy with others. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Evangelii Gaudium

For those interested in such things, I encourage them to take the time to read the Pope's Evangellii Gaudium, his first apostolic exhortation. I'm in the midst of working on three different projects all at once and I've not quite read the whole letter with the attention it deserves.

One particularly plum section I did manage to read, however, deserves mention and applies particularly to clergy. Under the subtitle No Spiritual Worldliness (93-97), the Holy Father gives a marvelous diagnosis for a problem facing many clergy today. Sad to say, I know not a few priests - Jesuit, other religious orders and congregations, and diocesan - afflicted with a form of spiritual worldliness:
This worldliness can be fueled in two deeply interrelated ways. One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism. It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity. (94)
If ever there were a great turn of phrase, "self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism" has count to count as one. Further, and more importantly, this section on spiritual worldliness forces all of us to consider how we envision the Church: is it a beautiful relic from a long-gone past, a gilded sarcophagus redolent of past glory and incense, or is the Church a doorway to a joyful encounter with the Living One? Should the Church cling to its past or open itself up for the coming future?

There are too many in the Church today - lay and clergy - who have become defeatist, querulous and disillusioned pessimists, "sourpusses." (85). These are the people who hearken back to some (non-existent) "good-old days" and grumble about the present. They forget exactly what the Holy Father continually reminds us of: the life of Christian discipleship is a life lived, always, under the shadow of the Cross. Or, in one of the more memorable lines heard from a homily: You can't be a friend of Jesus and an enemy of the Cross. Christian disciples cannot help but to see the Cross, to see its imposing form in the horizon, to feel its shadow fall over us. Yet, in faith, we realize that the Cross we see appears against the horizon of the Resurrection, the promise that life triumphs over death, that good conquers evil.

The Joy of the Gospel doesn't promise that we will live different lives. Instead, we are called to live our lives differently: not as pickle-pusses or narcissists, but as joyful pilgrims following the Risen One, accepting His Cross, and rejoicing in his triumph over death.

Monday, November 18, 2013

S*#T Under the Fingernails

An old Irish woman once quipped to me, "I don't trust clergy who have never had s*#t under their fingernails." Her point: religious credibility doesn't come from beautiful words but from enacting the love one preaches.

Hardly a day goes by of late without some new story about Pope Francis. This weekend, Chris Lowney wrote a piece for CNN's Belief Blog about how then-Jorge Bergoglio used to take a turn at laundry duty. Depending on the type of community, I reckon, he might have had far more than lint under his nails when his task was completed!

Now, it comes as no surprise to anyone to hear of moms or dads doing laundry, or preparing the daily meals, or changing diapers. It's part of the day-to-day duties of being a family. So, too, within Jesuit communities, the benchmark of a good community member can be measured by whether he'll take the time to unload the dishwasher, do his house job, prepare a thoughtful dinner, or lend a hand bringing in groceries. Fortunately, I don't change diapers any more: first, because none of the guys I live with wear them (yet) and, second, whenever my brother asked me to change my niece or nephew, I'd remind him of the clergy sex abuse scandal and told him that, in good conscience, I had to refuse.

Karl Rahner, discussing the meaning the religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, saw their meaning as confessing "that the Church is not of this world and leads a life which, measured by all the perspectives of this world, is scandal and folly." Indeed, in the years following Vatican II, he feared the Religious Orders had adopted a bourgeois 'cotton-wool' [comfortable] lifestyle, one that downplayed rather than witnessed to the Church's identity.

If the Pope occupies now a fascinating spot on the world's stage, I think it's precisely because he's got s*#t under his fingernails. Both through personal interactions and from reading, it seems average Catholics and Christians resonate well with the Pope's "style" and "substance." They like that this is a guy who has gotten his hands dirty and, because of the state of his fingernails, they at least give him a hearing.

The same cannot be said, however, for the polar ends of the Catholic Church. If the middle tends to be fascinated by the Holy Father, they find him to be something of a scandal, a stumbling block. More conservative Catholics rush to emphasize the "substance" of Francis, emphasize his continuity with his predecessors and their teaching. This wing of the Church prefers to put gloves over the Pope's hands and listen, selectively, to find themes they are comfortable with.

Liberal commentators merely ape the actions of conservatives. They tend to stress the Pope's "style" and relish the chance to critique the local church or bishop over any whiff of ostentation. It is easy for them to gloss over those areas of continuity with Church tradition. They prefer to hold up the hands of the Holy Father for inspection but muffle his mouth whenever it does not fit in with their vision of the Church.

If the Gospel burns within the human heart, it will act as the engine driving us out into the world to spread the Good News. The Pope's vision for Catholicism is all-contact, full-body engagement. Just as I wouldn't trust a football player who emerges from practice, or the game, without any sweat, I simply cannot trust the authority of a leader who hasn't gotten some dirt under the fingernails.

To the wings of the Church, I'd say simply: roll up the French cuffs and get off your soapboxes. We don't change diapers, or prepare meals, or do laundry because (1) it's part of the Tradition or (2) because it advances a social agenda. We do it because we are in love with the Gospel and this love drives us out into the world, inspires us to give and not to count the cost, to risk s*#t under the nails as we offer our whole selves to the upbuilding of God's Kingdom.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Cradle is Not a Future Cashbox

I am not a parent. So, what follows, may be discounted as the ramblings of an idealist, a person who "doesn't get it." Nevertheless, I want to make a single statement and offer a thought.

StatementThe Cradle Is Not a Future Cashbox

An extremely bright college student sought me out recently with a heartrending dilemma: the student wants, more than anything, to become a math teacher. The parents, however, refuse to allow this: they will pay for a business degree and nothing else. If the student should decide to pursue a degree in education, the parents will refuse to continue paying tuition for a degree able to be obtained "anywhere."

It matters little to the parents that the student is totally passionate about educating others, that the student's personality is vibrant and engaging, that the student knows how simultaneously to inspire and challenge those being tutored. What matters is that the parents have decided that a degree in business is the only justification to send a child off to college; a slip of paper proclaiming competency in accounting from a prestigious school is more valuable than, say, the human formation gained over four years.

I'm not a parent. I do have parents (at least they tell me they're my parents...I can't really confirm it) and I know a lot people who are parents. So I don't know, exactly, what it is to put a baby in the cradle for the first time, to linger over a newborn life and to ponder the future you will play a role in shaping. I don't know what it is to soothe a crying baby at 3:00 am and, as the infant calms down, to dream of what may be in store.

Nevertheless, I am going to bet that when parents behold a newborn baby, it never occurs to them that they should one day select the child's college major, that they should dictate using the power of money what the infant will do with his or her life. I simply cannot believe that a new mommy and daddy ever behold the little bundle of futurity and say to one another:
Let's work very hard throughout our lives so that we can send our child to college in order that we exercise our own will over his life and force him to pursue studies we deem worthy of investment. Sure, we'll indulge him as a child. When he's a toddler, we'll play with figures and stuffed animals. As he gets older, we'll let him play sports, join clubs, learn an instrument. We'll go to karate practice and soccer, to concerts and playdates. We'll humor the various fashion fads. We'll cajole him through the rough patches of high school, encouraging him to get involved and develop his interests. BUT THEN, after he (actually, it will be we) selects a college, we'll tell him: Congratulations, son! These are going to be great years for you so long as you fulfill our expectations and study something we approve of. We know we let you develop some interests over the course of your life, yet we can't trust that your interests and passions are ever going to get you a job, going to sustain you as a human, so you need to follow our orders or else we will flex our financial muscle around your neck and drag you home. You've had 18 years of exploration. Now, settle into the ruts we want you to follow.
 And yet, again and again, I meet young women and men who seem to be dwelling in exactly this space. Over the last 18 months, I have had numerous chats with college students (many of my former high school students) who tearfully tell me that their parents refuse to pay for college if they pursue anything other than a degree they approve of. College, for these parents, seems to be nothing other than a 4-year pre-professional training program gearing students toward entering the workforce. The teddy bear mom and dad put into the cradle is taken away and replaced with an empty cashbox: find a way to fill it or else.

I don't know how to help these students. The advice I want to give is, "Do your parents order for you when you go out to dinner? You know what you like. Take a risk - it's your life." Yet I know that many other adults - and I am an adult - would regard my advice as coming from a person out of touch, a bit of an idealist, but a person who has few of the "benchmarks" of worldly success. I don't have a 401k, a second house, a car, and I sleep in an extra-long twin bed. These are not the markers of success in society.

Years back, my dad gave me great advice: "I don't care what you study, so long as you love it enough to teach it." I am eternally grateful for this because this freedom to follow my passions has made all the difference: I have a wonderful life. I don't have an empty cash box in my room and, I suspect, my parents can't really regard me as a supplement to their 401k. No, instead of a cashbox I still have a teddy bear up on my shelf. He is the replacement for the Paddington Bear put into my crib 34 years ago by Grandma Duns, but he sits on my self keeping vigil reminding me of the importance of childhood dreams, of the power of imagination, and feeling the freedom and courage to risk one's life on one's passion.

Again, I'm not a parent. I have been, and desire to be, a teacher and I think I know young people pretty well. That they deserve to have the freedom to make a risk of themselves, that they should be encouraged to be who they feel called to be...I don't need to be a parent to recognize this for, well, to my eye it's simply apparent.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Intimacy in the Age of Facebook

Back in July, I set about working on a chapter for a book of essays compiled by contributors to The Jesuit Post. My title never varied: I knew I wanted to call my piece "Dispatches from the Control-F Generation." Frequent readers will remember that this is a theme I have written about several times over the past few years.

Heracles tears at the Shirt of Nessus
My original submission, however, did not gain much traction with the editors. I used Ovid's Metamorphoses to frame my discussion of technology. In particular, I tried to develop the image of the "Shirt of Nessus," a shirt soaked with poisoned blood given to the hero Heracles as an unwitting gift that led to his death. The gift, given with the best of intentions, turned out to be the exact opposite of a gift. My sense of our increasingly technology soaked culture was, and continues to be, that we are donning for ourselves and passing onto our children a modern-day "Shirt of Nessus" we believe to be a great gift but, in actuality, is far more deleterious than we realize.

Call it confirmation bias, but reading Andrew Reiner's "Looking for Intimacy in the Age of Facebook" only feeds into my suspicion that something is very not right with tech culture. Reiner describes compellingly with a description of growing superficiality and lack of depth among his students. The technology supposed to give students access to the far corners of the intellectual universe doesn't seem to have encouraged any greater depth.

Indeed, it would seem as if it has actually contributed to greater social anxiety: his description of his assignment, having students text a friend to share "your true feelings about something this friend has done or said that upset you but that you never said anything about," elicited a fascinatingly fearful reaction.

Reiner writes:
"...texting incites profound cultural unrest. Literally. Recent studies have found that many participants reacted like addicts when separated from their cellphones, while other studies have found that the "sleeping disorders" some high schoolers experience result from cuddling up with text messages all night."
I can clearly remember blurry-eyed students coming to school in the morning and, when asked, reluctantly admitted that they'd been texting all night. Bright LED displays with buzzing and chirping alerts hardly makes for the comfort of a teddy bear. When you think about it, if you let your kid sleep with his/her phone, he or she is sleeping with a direct conduit to every other person in the contact list; one adolescent's sleepless night can spread like a contagion throughout an entire network...and who, in this hyper-connected milieu, wants to be the one lame enough to try to get a good night of sleep?

His essay is also the first place I've learned of the "Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale." I grant wholly that Facebook may not be the hot locus of social media today - I think texting and twitter are increasing in popularity - but that a scale has been created to rank where one stands on an addiction scale to Facebook is remarkable. He reports that studies show American college students, on average, spend "three hours texting and an hour and 40 minutes on Facebook every day."

I frequently feel like I straddle two worlds. I use social media freely but I have avoided developing some Pavlovian reflex to texts/messages/tweets/etc. That is, I don't put my phone on vibrate, it's almost always on silent, and I don't check it all the time. Perhaps it my own resolve to resist the temptation to be sucked into a state of hyper-connectivity that makes me sensitive to others - even brother Jesuits - who do things like check/read email during Mass or can't seem to be on retreat without having a ton of gadgets ready at hand.

I share this simply because I feel somewhat vindicated in my generally negative view of technological culture. No question: I'm guilty of bringing an iPad to class and playing games on it when I find myself bored with a tedious lecture or inane commentary from classmates. As I prayed this morning, I actually asked for the grace to have the strength *not* to bring my iPad to a particular class I find to be frightfully boring and Candy Crush seducing. We'll see if I'm able to do it.

The final quote of Reiner's essay, from a young woman, says a great deal about the state of affairs we face: "If I don't feel connected with others, I automatically feel alone, unpopular, less confident." For me, this raises the question: how is it that this technology some want to thrust into classrooms in order to make students more engaged learners supposed to militate against this sentiment? Is technology helping to draw students to new heights or is it a false gift, a modern day Shirt of Nessus, increasing feelings of insecurity and anxiety? 

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

"Modern Man" and "The Mission"

Last night, I hosted a group of young men here at the Faber Jesuit Community for an event we called "Reel Jesuits." November 5th is the day the Society of Jesus remembers its Saints and Blessed and, in a special way, prays for vocations to the Jesuits. As part of the effort, I helped to organize "Reel Jesuits" which was a dinner of pizza and salad (it's young men, after all!) followed by a viewing of the 1986 gem The Mission. Discussion followed our viewing, reflecting together about how we today are being called into "the mission" of the Gospel.

One of the attendees pointed me in the direction of the song "Modern Man" by Arcade Fire. There's something riveting about the song. The first verse opens:

So I wait my turn, I'm a modern man
And the people behind me, they can't understand
Makes me feel like
Makes me feel like

Not to get a sacramental, but there is a way this verse, and the whole song, brings about what it represents. For, on my reading. the whole songs conveys a sense of growing tension and frustration with waiting "in line" and for "my turn" and just going through repetitive motions. The image/theme of "modern man" develops over the course of the song: at the beginning, the singer can't quite name what this makes him feel like...as the lyric above indicates, it simply "makes me feel like."

This changes, quickly, over the course of the song. The singer struggles against the structure and stricture of the "modern man" yet, by the end of the song, he seems to have submerged himself in what he was trying to escape from: four times he sings "I'm a modern man."

How much of our life is spent waiting in lines? Just think of how our culture dangles certain monuments to what success or a well-lived life looks like: the types of parties we should aspire to attend, the type of body we should hope to have, the type of job we should work toward, the type of...well, you can fill the rest in for yourself. Any effort to think outside the boundaries of the "modern man" is quickly questioned by others; we have become afraid to dream, to "break the mirror of the modern man" and set our own courses. 

How many of us endure sleepless nights? Dreamless nights? Or endured dream-filled nights dashed by the cold reality of the "modern man" we were told we wanted, needed, and had to have...but, in standing in line to wait with the "modern man," we've lost ourselves? 

The juxtaposition between "Modern Man" and the theme of The Mission could not be more profound. For if "Modern Man" sings of being subsumed, absorbed, or melted into the faceless and nameless and bloodless expectations of society, the oboe player of "Gabriel's Oboe" sings out, similarly solo, yet sings out supported by an entire orchestra. The orchestral community does not try to quash, or diminish, or absorb the sound of the oboe. It brings out its beauty, it supports it as, combined, they make beautiful music. 

Last night, a question we discussed in light of The Mission was where the missionary frontiers of the world were today. It may be that these two pieces might point us in that direction: the Gospel needs to be directed to the hearts of individuals who are threatened by being absorbed into the "modern man," freeing them to find their individual voices. The Gospel does not drown out, or bury, or force people to stand in line. It charges their hearts with an individual mission and sends them out into the world with Good News. It frees their voices, their lives, and
their hearts to sing anew; this song, is supported by and supports those others who sing in its salvific chorus.

If the myth of the "modern man" tells us all to be individuals in an identical way, the mission of the Gospel charges us to be individuals together, allowing the Good News to re-shape our lives and reveal to us the frontier, the horizon, where our mission will lead.

Will we be led simply by the back of the head of the person in front of us, or do we dare to take up for ourselves the mission of the Risen One who leads us, guides us, and in whom we do not lose our individuality but, rather, find it most fully? 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Briefly Checking In

As I watched the sun rise over the Rocky Mountains this morning, it dawned on me that I'd not updated the blog in over a week. Due to the way I scheduled myself to play several feiseanna, I'm in a very intense period of playing all over the place. Fortunately, next Saturday will be my last feis until December and, I can assure you, I'm excited to get back to having free weekends for reading and writing.

Several readers may remember, from two years ago, that I was placed on bed rest for pneumonia. It was arguably the most trying week of my life: I never took days off of work and I'm not much good at laying in bed. Last Sunday, I had a bit of a scare when I developed a cough eerily reminiscent of the cough I had two years ago and began to have trouble speaking without a dry cough erupting.

Fortunately, I managed to see my doctor who confirmed that I had a bit of a respiratory infection. Noting that post-nasal drip may be contributing to this, she wrote me a prescription for Nasonex (I've tried Flonase before and it gave me awful nosebleeds). So I walked to the pharmacy and had them fill the prescription.

For some reason, my insurance doesn't cover Nasonex. Thus, for a little plastic device holding one-month's supply of this nasal spray, I had to fork out $153.00. $153.00. I have good insurance, I think, and I'm appalled at this cost. I was never warned, prior to handing over my credit card, that it had not been covered nor was I offered a less expensive alternative.

I am in the graced position of being able to afford this medicine. Nevertheless, I am forced to ponder what it would mean for a family of slender means to face this burden. I am taking the Nasonex as part of a preventative effort to stave off future lung infections. If I don't take it, and get an infection, it could lead to a longer-term illness. If I couldn't afford the prevention, I risk having to pay a great deal more for the cure.

I simply mention this. I need to do more research to learn about why insurance didn't cover this particular drug and how common this might be in our medical system. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Saint Cecilia's RCIA: Week #4

Last night, the Saint Cecilia's RCIA group met at our usual 6:30 time. Having had three weeks to get to know one another better, we started to move more deeply into discussions of "nuts and bolts" Catholicism. By this I mean, simply, raising and reflecting upon some key questions one must of necessity wrestle with as a believer.

What impresses me most of the group I'm praying with (and for) is their willingness to venture questions. Given their love of questions, I turned to a reliable source - The Teaching of the Catholic Church by Father Herbert McCabe, OP - and raised five questions to the group last night. Thus, after praying from Proverbs 8, we reflected as a group about what it means to call God the creator, what God wants for creatures, and whether evolution/science are hostile to religious belief.

I've attached the schedule from last night in case it is helpful to anyone as a resource.


In addition, I learned that, when I wear the costume wig my parents sent to mock my desire for hair, I bear a resemblance to Radiohead's lead singer Thom Yorke. Given the wonders of technology, I give you side-by-side photos for you to consider. 

Thom Yorke
Ryan Duns, SJ - if his dream of hair did come true!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Birthday Wishes Do Come True!

I came home from playing music at the local pub last night and went to bed, still a little sad: my only wish on my 34th birthday was for hair.

This morning, I woke up with...hair!

Yep: after years of asking/begging/praying, the most unlikely source of grace came through with my heart's sole desire: my mom and dad. I have to say, the color works pretty well: it matches my beard. Sadly, it looks like I've a bit of bed-head. All the same, I particularly like being able to run my hands through it, even it's not *quite* my own natural hair.

Thanks Mom! Thanks Dad! Just keep rubbing in the fact that you gave me life and horrific genes leading to baldness. Nope, no resentment there.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Jesuit's Advice On Classroom Management

Looking back upon my own experiences as a teacher, I can attest without any hesitation that the steepest learning curve to contend with is classroom management. Students I taught as a first-year teacher, now well into college, delight in reminding me of my own trials. Without question, I learned by trial and error.

A new teacher, after reading an essay I wrote called The Jesuit Guide to Teaching, wrote me to ask about advice in managing the classroom. He has been challenged by the administration not to be "too nice" and to "harden his heart" in order to maintain discipline.

I resonated with his initial response to this directive. He writes:
To be honest with you, I have a difficult time discerning when to turn theother cheek and when to flip over the tables and crack the whip in certainsituations. Christ was a man of great kindness, yet he used brutal honestyand even force to make his views known. What should I do? How can I showlove to my students while being firm?
It is, of course, difficult to give truly concrete advice without being present in the classroom to notice the dynamics. That said, let me offer a few limited words of counsel.

  • The classroom is not an inert gathering. Indeed, the idea of an "inert gathering" seems to be something of an oxymoron. Look at each class as a system with many moving parts. As you look at the group, identify the subgroups. If you have a particularly unruly class, some sort of group dynamic is feeding this. You must identify the dynamics of the classroom in order to address the issue head-on. 
  • Once you have identified subgroups - and these take many and various forms - ask yourself, "What is the nature of the disruption?" Farting, in my estimation, tends to be lower on the priority because I had strategically placed air fresheners in the areas I frequented. Thus, when someone let one rip, I didn't feel the need to put energy into the system. My general lack of response didn't feed into their disgusting habits and such practices abated pretty quickly.
  • Here is the key, then: where will you put your energy? My "triggers" tended to be any sort of bullying toward other students and blatant disrespect toward me. Because I strove mightily to show them respect and to treat them like adults, I could expect them to do likewise. When they failed at this, I called them to account for it. 
  • One way of handling this is to be very clear about what is expected in the classroom. Tell them of your expectation and the consequence. One of them will test you, so you must follow through. Failure to do so renders you a doormat: all bark, no bite. 
    • Consider: a parent at the supermarket has a child throwing a tantrum and making a huge scene. The parent issues a threat: "If you don't stop, we're going to leave. You have until the count of three. One...Two...Three. I'm not kidding, you need to be good, okay? I'm not warning you again...". We've all seen a variation on this. Once the child learns that there's no follow-through, no consequence, all bets are off. At some point, you must identify and hold the line 
  • When you do hold a student accountable, do not negotiate with them in the class. This is a waste of time and it threatens to make a spectacle of discipline. Students have an innate sense of Schadenfreude: a curious sense of delight at seeing harm caused to another. You simply cannot put more energy into the system. If they have an issue, curtly inform them that they may see you after school (not after class). 
    • That said, reserve the "See me after class" line for unilateral use. Don't give reasons and don't converse with the student. If there's an issue you feel a need to address, say simply, "X, please see me after class." When you get the "What? What'd I do??" simply say, "As I said, please see me after class and we'll discuss it."
  • As I said in my earlier essay, don't yell. Once you've lost your cool, you have ceded ground you'll never get back. You're a professional. They can't vote, freshmen can't drive, they don't have high school diplomas, they seldom pay taxes, and they can't enlist in the army. Why are you going to give them control over you? 
  • After two months, you may feel as though the battle is over and that you'll have to wait until next year to gain control. You don't. What you do need to do is start implementing rules. Isolate a behavior you must address. When you see it, name it publicly: "So that we are clear, Chris, we do not insult other students in this classroom." If the behavior persists, now that you've named it, follow through with a consequence. "Chris, I warned you already. You have a detention." OR "Sarah, you heard what I said to Chris. You have a detention." The USA doesn't negotiate with terrorists, so don't negotiate with freshmen. Be clear, be fair, and be consistent. 
  • Especially for young teachers, it's okay to make mistakes. No one expects you to have a bag of tricks at the ready. You are expected, however, to have the sense to seek out good mentors. If there's a teacher who has excellent classroom management skills, take the initiative and invite the person to observe you. 
  • A few other things:
    • Don't waste time on taking role. You should know where the students sit by now. If you have a seating chart, do a quick glance up and down the row and make a note of it. 
    • Stand at the front of the class when they enter. You are the boss. When they come in, direct them to their seats and don't let them wander. 
    • Be clear with them, in an ongoing way, of what the immediate expectation is. If they're taking notes, they don't need other books/calculators/etc. on the desk. 
    • Move around. Do you remember, I think Jurassic Park, the idea that T-Rex couldn't see you if you didn't move? Well, it's the opposite: they will only notice you if you move. The more you move, the more on alert they are: they'll focus on you. If you don't move, or get out from behind the podium, they will venture out either by talking or moving about. Your best defense is a mobile offense. Keep them guessing
  • Above all else, show them respect. If you make a bad call, apologize. If you believe what you're doing is the right course of action, stick with it. If necessary, call the parents and get them on your side. They are hearing one, very skewed version of events. You need to be your own PR person. If you have a kid who's being a pain in the rear, call the parents. "Hi Mrs. ______, this is Ryan Duns from _______. I teach ________ in _________ class and I just wanted to share with you some things I've noticed these past few weeks and get a sense of how we could work together to address these issues." If the kid comes in, angry that you called the parents, simply say that your first duty is to their formation as both thinkers and as persons. Personally, I would say something like, "Chris, as your teacher I am here both for your academic and spiritual formation. I would like to have raised this with you man-to-man, but nothing in your behavior has given me any reason to believe that you were mature enough to handle such a conversation. Am I wrong in this? " This way, you've made the kid take ownership of his own actions and you've forced him to give some sort of account. 
Again, I'm no guru and I've made just about every possible mistake. If I was good at anything, I reckon, it was learning from my many mistakes. If you give up on classroom management now, in October, you'll be dead by May/June. It's never to "love them into wholeness" and contribute to their formation. They are forming you into a better teacher and you owe it to them to dedicate all of your personal resources to meeting their needs. As you grow as a competent teacher, so will they grow into more fully formed adults. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Can Atheists Experience Awe?

Chris Stedman, assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard, has a piece over at CNN's Belief Blog entitled "What Oprah gets wrong about atheism." He takes as his point of departure the recent contretemps between Oprah and swimmer Diana Nyad.

In his reflection, Stedman raises this concern:
Winfrey's response may have been well intended, but it erased Nyad's atheist identity and suggested something entirely untrue and, to many atheists like me, offensive: that atheists don't experience awe and wonder. 
Now - and I speak as something of a theist...Jesuits do, in fact, believe in God - I don't get the sense from Oprah that she is erasing Nyad's atheist identity. Instead, what Oprah experiences as a sense of awe, of the mystery of creation, is what she calls an experience of God. In quoting Karl Rahner yesterday, I attempted to shore-up Winfrey's response. Rahner, one of the theological giants of the 20th century, understood the experience of God seldom to come under an explicit label. He was convinced, nevertheless, of everyone having such an experience.

The philosopher William Desmond, whose thought has captivated my imagination for the past year, places at the start of his philosophical system the experience of astonishment. His writing tends to be rather dense and poetic, so let me simplify a beautiful passage from an essay he wrote entitled "Wording the Between."
We do not open ourselves; being opened, we are as an opening. The experience of astonishment awakens the openness of mindfulness to being... 
For Desmond, the experience of "awe at" and "the mystery of" creation, of the cosmos, does not give us some strange idea of a God who is going to intervene in our daily affairs. Nor does it furnish us with proof of Jesus' divinity, the authenticity of the Mandylion of Edessa, the Immaculate Conception, or Transubstantiation. Our experience of being overwhelmed by Awe/Astonishment/Mystery exposes us to our being opened to all of being, the whole of creation.

We are in awe when we marvel when we sense that what is does not have to be. I think Oprah is getting at this impulse: the experience of awe is not merely a feeling, but an address from without. We are overwhelmed by something outside of us, something that penetrates into the depths of our core. The experience of "awe" comes from something "awe-full" washing over us, coming toward us from without, awakening us to our openness toward being.

The theist contends such an experience of awe, of being "rocked back on one's heels" renders us silent, forces us to ask, "Is this just a feeling or am I being addressed, summoned, called from without?" Oprah isn't denying the experience of awe...it's just that, as a believer, this primordial experience points back to the God who sings creation into being.

I'm not trying to offer some proof for God's existence. Instead, I'm simply giving Oprah a more generous interpretation than her critics seem to be doing. Just as Stedman advocates reasonable discourse between theists and atheists, so too may we consider Nyad and Winfrey:
Oprah: "Ahhh, Diana, your experience of awe, to my understanding, points back toward a God who sings creation into being...we are joined in this experience of awe, this experience of God!"
Diana: "Ahhh, Oprah, your experience of awe has never spoken to me and I'm not sure that it can speak...we are joined in this experience of awe, this experience of the beauty of creation!" 
The conversation between theists and atheists may need to turn on this very point: from whence our common experience of wonder? What does it mean to experience awe, to feel ourselves overwhelmed from without? Is this simply an oceanic feeling or is it an address from without?

In short, I don't think there's any denial that atheists can experience awe. It'd be equally ludicrous to say that theists have cornered the "awe market." Instead, within the shared feeling of awe, I think a rich conversation about the meaning of awe is possible.

Aristotle contended, in the Peri Hermeneias, "The knowledge of opposites is one." In Latin, eadem est scientia oppositorum. Meaningful discourse between atheists and theists will begin with a discussion of the God one accepts and the other rejects. It may be far more basic than this: is there a common experience between the two which, for one, rests joyfully in the awe of creation that is just there and, for the other, experiences the awe of creation as pointing to a creator, a god, who sings it into being.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

An Atheist in Awe

Apparently Oprah Winfrey has caused some flap amongst atheists in the wake of her recent interview with famed swimmer Diana Nyad. On Sunday's "Super Soul Sunday," Oprah questioned Diana about her religious beliefs. 

The issue, as far as it is an issue, centers on exchange between the two. Nyad asserts herself an atheism, but that she is a person who is deeply in awe.
Nyad: I can stand at the beach's edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist...go on down the line, and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity...all the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt...
Oprah: Yeah
Nyad: ...and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity. And as we return to...
Oprah: Well, I don't call you an atheist then! I think if you believe in awe...and the wonder...and the mystery...that is what God is
Critics have been quick to take aim at both personalities. Nyad is critiqued for a rather milquetoast and wishy-washy stance on accepting the beliefs of others; Oprah takes heat because, it is assumed, she is so benighted as to be unable to conceive an atheist standing in a state of awe.

In 1979, an interviewer commented to Karl Rahner, "I have never had an experience of God."

Rahner's response is interesting. He writes:
I don't believe you; I just don't accept that. You have had, perhaps, no experience of God under this precise code-word God but you have had or have now an experience of God - and I am convinced that this is true of every person...
This inner experience of God is naturally (and necessarily) very difficult to describe. What love is, what fidelity is, what longing is, what immediate responsibility is - are all things that are difficult to express and to think about. We start stuttering, and what we say sounds odd, provisional, difficult. But that doesn't prove that a person has not had experiences of fidelity, responsibility, joy, truth, love, and so on. And so it is with experience God. (Karl Rahner in Dialogue, 211)
 I have a sympathy for Oprah's position insofar as I believe the experience of awe, astonishment awakening us to the sheer givenness of creation, throws the thinker off balance. A feeling of the infinitude of the cosmos coupled with shock that I stand here, now, to behold it. Awe at the givenness and fragility of all creation: this, for Oprah and for Rahner, raise the question of God.

To be sure, this does not arrive at the Trinity or Jesus or the Shroud of Turin or Infant of Prague. This awe, however, does stir a question: Why something rather than nothing, why anything at all? The awe we experience of creation...as a gift, perhaps?...makes us mindful that it might not just be there after all. The experience of awe draws us out of ourselves and makes us mindful of the whole of creation - so vast and so fragile - and this sense of awe, an awe that brings tears to the eyes or strikes us silence, is the awe that falls over us, forces us to kneel or to bow, and to listen to see if the great silence of the creation may speak to us, may reveal itself to us, not as coldly indifferent to us and our questions but, rather, as a source of love.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Scandal of Poverty in a World of Plenty

In a splendid and deeply challenging article in America Magazine, Bishop Robert McElroy draws upon the Holy Father's call to a mass cultural conversion. Pope Francis, McElroy notes, has exposed "three false cultures that materialism has created in our world:

  1. The Culture of Comfort - we think only of ourselves
  2. The Culture of Waste - we seize the gifts of creation, exhaust what we have seized, and then discard them
  3. The Culture of Indifference - we have become insensitive to the suffering of others. 
The culture of materialism has worked toward the creation of the Anti-Kingdom of God. Rather than being gathered into a New Jerusalem ruled by God, those of us who are able prefer to worship at the altar of capitalism: we are, as a society, an idolatrous people. Gathered around the graven image of wealth and prestige, we become what Pope Benedict XVI lamented in Caritatis in Veritate: a globalized society of neighbors but not sisters and brothers. 

Bishop McElroy prophetically calls for us to rethink and work toward a transformation of the Catholic Church's contribution to political discourse. We need, first, to prioritize the issue of poverty; second, to focus on both intrinsic evil and structural sin; and, third, to recover and more holistically apply the virtue of prudence. 

The article, clear and accessible, raises a number of issues that should give readers pause. Primary among them, at least to my mind, is the claim that in 2002 the richest nations of the world pledged to give 0.7% of their annual GDP toward the alleviation of poverty. The United States has reneged on this promise and gives 0.2%. Our inability to follow through on a pledge has made possible millions of death from malnutrition and disease. 

If your response is, "Well, our country needs to look after our own first!" allow me to say: Welcome to the culture of indifference the Holy Father decries. This is the cry of the Rich Man in Luke 16:19-31 who steps over the dying Lazarus, not giving a damn for his needs, concerning himself only with his need to step over "a neighbor" in order to stock up on cases of fine wine. 

This is one of those must-read articles if only to get a broader sense of issues facing our Church, our nation, and our world. It rightly puts into perspective how our wrangling over medical device taxes pales in comparison to the plight of so many. Each day, the ground of the earth is soaked in the blood of the poor and the oppressed; bodies of water greedily devour the bodies of migrants hopeful for a new life; deserts dry out the bodies of those who seek asylum in other countries. When asked, "Who is responsible for the blood of our brothers and sisters?" will we keep throwing up our hands, crying out "Nobody!"? 

Or will we look down and see how, underneath all of the things we hold, streaks of blood stain our palms? 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame