Monday, April 22, 2013

Abscess of Fixation: On the Unity of the United States

Friday's city-wide lockdown of Boston occasioned, for me, a glimpse of a concept introduced to my thinking by René Girard: the abscess of fixation. In its original use, "abscess of fixation" apparently described a medical procedure to help purge purge the body of impurities. I guess we'd call it lancing today, puncturing the wound in order to drain it.

Girard, however, uses the phrase in a metaphorical sense. For him, the "abscess of fixation" functions to galvanize a mob, a community, a nation around an enemy. The corporate body becomes fixated upon a central site, a disruptive locus. The whole becomes enchanted by and fixated upon a part: all other concerns are placed in abeyance as the abscess is focused upon.

If that's too abstract, think of it like this. For a teenager, there's hardly a better "abscess of fixation" than the pimple appearing on the chin, nose, or forehead the day of the class picture. One little spot on the body becomes the center of the teen's attention.

Within my own Jesuit community, I must admit, Friday's television coverage of the event provided  just such an abscess. Everything seemed to stop and the television became the center of the day's gravity. There was a hunger for news, any little nugget giving insight into the characters involved. In a rare departure for house custom, dessert was taken in front of the television as guys watched police heroically capture the suspect from the boat where he'd sought refuge.

I went to my room: I had resisted all day the lure of the television. I kept an ear open to NPR, to be sure, but for the most part I worked on several projects. While Dzhokhar weighed options, I did yoga and prayed. I knew he had been apprehended when shouts of joy erupted from the television room and the streets in my neighborhood redounded with jubilant cries.

The abscess had been lanced. The body, restored.

It's a false restoration.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ, the Risen One who conquered death and reveals God as the life-giving author of creation, is the true reconciler of history. Jesus reconciles us to the Father not through violence but through forgiveness, by giving us a share in the same Spirit that makes us into brothers and sisters. The same Spirit that reconciles us with the Risen Lord is the Spirit that makes us one as a people. Christian unity, initiated by God, comes about through his offer of peace.

American unity, it seems these days, parodies this. Our reconciliation comes not from the God of Jesus Christ, but through 19-year old Dzhokhar. Our reconciliation came on November 20th thanks to Adam Lanza. Our reconciliation came on July 20th thanks to James Holmes. Our reconciliation came on 9/11.

Is unity in America possible only as a response to violence?

I'm afraid that we, as a people, find our temporary reconciliation only when we unite against a common enemy, gathered around the bodies of innocent victims. No greater parody could be enacted by a so-called Christian nation of true reconciliation wrought by the innocent victim to reconciles us to one another, not by naming a victim, but by forgiving.

 If I sound pessimistic, it is because I am. I am deeply mistrustful of false peace and what seems to be an increasing tendency, particularly by media outlets, to "captivate" audiences. We simply must wake up to the fact that, far too frequently we are the United States only when unified against an enemy, only in the wake of violence. The abscesses of fixation - terrorists, shooters, corporate greed - simply point to a much deeper pathology we are refusing to address: we are a people of great violence and any unity achieved through violence is inherently unstable and passing.

Martin Richard, enshrined in the hearts of millions on the steps of his parish church after his First Holy Communion, diagnoses and treats what infects our corporate body. This picture, viral on the internet, summarizes in crayon what his spilled blood cries out: "No More Hurting People. Peace."

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them
(Isaiah 11:6)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Love That Tears Down Fences

Job, crying out to God for an account of the tragedies that had befallen him and his family, hears a response from the depths of the whirlwind:

Who is this who darkens counsel with words of ignorance?
Gird up your loins - now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers!
Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size? Surely you know?
Who stretched out the measuring line for it? 
Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid its cornerstone,
while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Job 38

It is natural for our belief in God to be challenged in times such as these. "If there is a good, and powerful, and loving God," the question begins, "how was this allowed to happen? Where was God? Where is God? Is there a God?" This question cannot but shake even the most fervent believer’s heart.

There is no good answer to the mystery of evil. There are no words that remove its sting, no theories that neutralize its poison.

We live in an age where we expect quick answers – “Hey, Google it!” – and quick results. We want a pill, a plan, a speedy fix. When a parent takes the life of a child, when an act of violence shakes our community, when a society grapples with senseless violence, we are so often are left scratching our heads; we are forced to ask, “Why?” with the realization of how infrequent it is that we ever get any answer.

All over Facebook we see “Pray for Boston” memes and pictures. It’s right to pray, of course, but why are we always praying s a response to tragedy rather than praying, discerning, and working to heal our culture seemingly so prone to violence? True prayer is not magic, not empty words, not a disengaged activity. Real prayer forces us to roll up our sleeves, dig in, and to be the prayer we offer. 

So where do we see God in the midst of tragedy, where is the light? The light shines forth from our hearts, hearts that have been cracked open and pried apart by tragedy. A fractured and cracked heart, rather than impeding love, actually makes space for love to grow, to pour forth, and to flow into the world.

This is the love that tears down fences, rather than flees the scene, to get to victims.

This is the love that staunches the blood-flow from severed limbs, picks up the fallen, comforts and extends hospitality to the injured.

This is the love that spends eternal moments frantically seeking after loved ones, forgetting old-ills and resentments upon the news that a loved one is safe and secure.

This is the love that aches this morning over the murder of innocent bystanders, guilty only of wishing to support friends and family in their race. 

In love, our hearts reflect into the darkness of the world the true source of light that comes from the Son who illuminates all of creation. Our prayer never changes God’s mind about us but, in opening up our feeble hearts to God’s love and the power of the Risen One, prayer cannot help but to change our minds about God.

The light of love can never be squelched by tragedy or cynicism or hopelessness. As yet another shadow falls across our country, a shadow of senseless violence only too familiar in other parts of the world, we must not retreat into our hearts’ cellars, dim our lights, and hope the danger passes. As the nation’s heart cracks again, may this be a time for us to cease finding our unity only in tragedy, only in the shadow of death, and may it be a time for us to consider the root causes of our culture of death and violence and work, together, to be the prayer of healing and peace we are so quick to post on Facebook or Twitter. Let our bodies and lives, rather than social media, be the bearer of the hope our faith stirs within us.

Monday, April 15, 2013

I "was just..."

For several hours, I have received texts, tweets, and Facebook messages inquiring into my safety. I was not, thankfully, either a spectator or participant in the Boston Marathon.

In the aftermath of yet another senseless tragedy, I'm struck by what I'd call the "was just" reaction. Personally, I "was just" down by the Atlantic Fish Company the other day. I "was just" in that neighborhood to see Irish dancers a week ago.

Some family member "was just" there moments before the explosion and left before the detonation.

Some family member or friend "was just" arriving when it went off.

An 8-year old boy "was just" there watching the marathon when his life was cut short.

Each of us will remember, again, what we were doing when we learned of the bombing: I "was just..." when it happened.

I "was just" getting out of the shower when I heard of the 9/11 attacks.

I "was just" leaving the residence to go to class in 2007 when I heard of the Virginia Tech shootings.

I "was just" on a mid-class break when I learned of the Newtown shooting.

I "was just" taking a nap when Anne texted me about today's bombing.

PJ Shelton, SJ, shared this evening that he feels as though we're living in a half-mast society: our lives, these last years, seem more to be marked and defined by national tragedies than they do national celebrations. I have no doubt that good is stronger than evil, that light will vanquish the darkness, yet it seems as though we, as a nation, spend more time in mourning, more time responding to tragedy than we do working constructively against it.

Our unity, as a people, seems possible only in grief rather than in a common goal; only in tragedy and sorrow than in achievement and celebration.

Many of us, across the world, will tuck another "was just" into our memories as a way of recording today. April 15, 2013, will be remembered as the day one "was just..." when she or he learned of what happened. This day, as so many other days in our nation's recent history, will be defined by violence and sorrow. Runners, spectators, security officials, volunteers, and family members: so many passed by those sites today, so many can say "I was just...". The survivors, the victims, the ones left behind: each "was just" doing something, standing somewhere, when their worlds were transformed by this appalling and senseless act of violence.

We are, all of us, sharers in this story. My fear is that this day, this event, will be memorialized and enshrined as a pristine memory rather than being a touchstone for what we need as a people: a deep, sustained reflection on the violence of our culture and real ways we can address what is clearly a growing problem of terrible violence in our country and in our world. Unless we summon the courage to put aside our political ideologies and work together, our nation's history will record not the triumphs of women and men working together for a shared goal or common good but, rather, a series of "was justs" recounting the moments unspeakable horror changed the lives of the innocent and cast the shadow of the flag lowered to half-mast across our nation.

An Interior Desert

So, let me start with a disclosure. Over the past several months, I have been struggling with anxiety. I'm not talking about feeling nervous but a deep, abiding sense deep within I've been unable to allay. I'd like to think of myself as a hyper-organized person, able to manage many projects at once, but recently it's become impossible for me to find any sense of peace. Some nights I would wake up suddenly, unable to get back to sleep; last week, while playing music, I felt nearly paralyzed while playing. There have been times when, in class or at Mass, that my heart begins to race and I start to perspire...outwardly I try to remain calm but, inwardly, I want to run away. 

I'll admit that there was a huge level of shame in feeling this way. I like to be thought well of, to be regarded as having "everything together." Yet, if everything seemed fine on the outside, on the inside I felt like I had wandered into a desert where I could find neither shade nor water. For weeks, I've thought, "I really should say something to someone," but stopped myself because I was afraid people would think me crazy. So I stayed quiet, outwardly remaining diligent in my labors, inwardly feeling like things were fraying. 

Last week, realizing I was growing irritable and fatigued and, feeling increasingly out of control, I did what I find hardest to do: I asked for help. 

Now, I'm receiving the help I need.

The interior desert, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, arises "whenever the human being, wishing to be the sole architect of his nature and destiny, finds himself deprived of that which is the very foundation of all things." My desert, if I may so call it, was less a loss of foundation than a sandstorm: a sometimes blinding maelstrom stinging the eyes and causing disorientation. Since last week, with the support of my doctor and friends, the winds appear to be lessening and I'm feeling a renewed sense of peace. 

It took swallowing my pride, an admission of finitude and limitation, but this morning I feel an increasing sense of hope and excitement, a growth in interior freedom. The months of my internal Lent seem to be ending as the light of an internal resurrection soothes the storm. My experience of Christian faith, of a growing friendship with the Lord, has been one of increasing freedom for the Gospel. In a spirit of renewed peace, I look forward to what the future holds, a future anticipated with joy and peace rather than anxiety. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

White Crucifixion

Painted in 1938, Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion reportedly is one of Pope Francis's favorite paintings. It's one of mine, too.

I remember reading about Marc Chagall in a "Reading" textbook back when I was in the 2nd grade...about 25 years ago. The cover of the book depicted, as I recall, a sort of subterranean vehicle in a magma-filled chamber. I seem to recall the story of Pecos Bill being in the book but the section on Marc Chagall - how he used to draw on any surface available to him - particularly captivated my mind. An artist, he could not not express himself at every opportunity.

My appreciation for Chagall arises, I believe, from his willingness to think non-linearly. He tickles the imagination, forcing the viewer to do some work to look at the various figures depicted, to think on why they are where they are and how the various parts - each part telling a bit of a story - works together to tell the whole story. Chagall is not a 30-second news spot. Rather, he seems more akin to James Joyce who, in the Dubliners, portrayed various short-stories gathered around a common experience of epiphany. Chagall cannot simply be looked at...he needs to be entered into.

Images swirl around Jesus, the crucified Jew. No one stands upon the ladder to remove him, no angels trapse to-and-fro upon it from heaven to earth (Genesis 28; the tradition's 'ladder' is more accurately rendered 'stairway'). Jesus in an observant jew, his waist wrapped in a prayer shawl. All around him, atrocities agains the chosen people are committed. The cry of Jesus on the Cross - "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" - gathers together all of the voices around him, preserving each one individually. The nimbus of light surrounding the candles is insufficient to dispel the darkness of human violence.

Meditatively, the candle sticks capture my attention most. Note the one on the far right is extinguished. Would the lighting of the sixth candle be enough to vanquish darkness from the pictures or would its light only create more shadows? Does Chagall invite, or challenge, the witness to enter into the scene and ignite the candle, to enter into the chaos of human violence and stand with God's Chosen People?

Welcome to my "Scripture" for today: praying with Marc Chagall. A rich text written, not with words, but with brush strokes; a painted text telling a story reaching from the time of Jesus to our present day. Will we remain outside the frame, supposedly "neutral" bystanders, or will we find the courage to enter the fray, to stand with the world's crucified people, and to light the sixth candle standing at the foot of the Chagall's cross? 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Heroes and Villains

As I mentioned the other day, a great deal of my research this semester has been done on the topic of the sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic clergy. It's been a painful subject -- were I to do it over again, I'd not do it during Lent...too much penance! -- but one that has been, ultimately, quite valuable.

The aim of my paper was twofold. First, I wanted to look at two "axes" for considering abuse: the temporal axis and the causal axis. In non-pretentious terms, I simply wanted to know "when" the scandal took place, or if it is continuing to take place, and "what" contributed to it. Was it a problem of homosexuality? Celibacy? Authority? Second, I wanted to consider how the stories of sex abuse were reported. If you look at various news reports across the country, it is surprising how much of a family resemblance there is between the way articles appear. This could be because all cases of abuse are alike or, as it is my assumption, it may be because there is a reigning "narrative template" that enables quick and easy reporting using readily accepted and recognizable phrases.

Although I read a number of studies, articles, and books I settled on three as giving three different portrayals of the crisis: Jason Berry's Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea's Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, and the John Jay College Research Team's Causes and Context report. Any number of books could be substituted for each of these selections; my choice was based fairly randomly but did take into consideration the varying stances, or on-looks, of each author: a journalist, a psychologist, and a research team.

As I examined the three authors with an eye toward "when" it occurred and "what" enabled widespread abuse to take place, I was struck with what seemed to be a fundamental divide between the authors. Berry's reporting, as with a great deal of news reporting, tended to portray stories of abuse in mythic proportions: good versus evil, heroes and villains. Frawley-O'Dea and the John Jay Report, however, resisted such a construction. Without diminishing the atrocity of any act of abuse, they did nuance their presentations to bring out the complexity of the social and psychological issues at play.

When the vast majority of our information comes from popular news sources, news sources dependent for their livelihood on our consuming their product, it is in their best interest to present the flashiest, most sensational product. Stories typically pander to our baser instincts - TMZ, for instance - and reduce very complex issues to seemingly simplistic typologies of good/bad, right/wrong, right/left, heroes/villains. Most of us know on any given day reality rarely, if ever, is so easily divided into such categories. Yet these categories make for an easy telling of a story, an easy rendering of events.

Discussing the issue of sexual abuse of minors - whether by clergy or any adult, whether it be in a school, church, or youth organization - is going to be painful. It is going to force us to consider the ways we as a culture have turned a blind eye to instances of exploitation. I've written about the abuses of power before: this is not a Catholic issue, it's a social issue we all must face. My stomach churns equally when I read stories of a female teacher seducing male students as when a priest is reported to have molested a child. Culturally, however, our reaction is different: we still think that boys can't fall victim to women, we make light of such abuse, we turn a blind eye toward it.

As a society, we need to work harder to move beyond simplistic dichotomies and grapple with the complexities we are facing. These are neither easy, nor pleasant, exercises. Nevertheless, for the sake of future generations, we need to confront many of these issues forthrightly if we are to avoid a repetition in the future. Stories of Heroes and Villains are fine for cartoons and adolescent novels. Our adult lives seldom fall into such neat categories and the sooner we learn to look beneath simplistic typologies, the sooner we will find the strength to address these issues head-on. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Notes on a Scandal

I've mentioned a few times this semester that one of my research projects, now submitted for examination, has been into the way the issue of clergy sex abuse has been framed by the media. That is, I'm curious about how stories are reported because, very often, the how is every bit as important as the what.

Think, for a moment, about a story concerning fire. There's an enormous difference, say, between telling a classroom of students about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and shouting at the students that the room is currently on fire. One is a history lesson, the other a plea for them to seek safety.

In May, 2011, the John Jay College Research Team released its The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010 report. This report uses data submitted by almost all of the dioceses and religious orders and congregations in the United States. The report makes use of data submitted; while one may hope that all data were included, all files shared, it stands to reason that institutional inertia may make the report's findings less-than-perfectly transparent.

Nevertheless, the study does contribute to a reframing of the way I've begun to thought about abuse. A few key points:

  • It is a misnomer to call this a crisis of "pedophile priests." The report finds less than 5% of priests with allegations "exhibited behavior consistent with a diagnosis of pedophilia." 
  • While cases continue to be reported, the instances of new acts of abuse is rare. Since 2002, we have been flooded with stories of accusations against priests. The flood of accusations, however, seem to arise from the years 1950-1985. Accusations of abuse arising post-1985 exist, of course, yet drop off precipitously. 
  • There is no single cause of abuse; one can blame neither homosexuality nor celibacy. In the case of the latter, the report observes, "the commitment to celibacy is demanding, and that priests have struggled to sustain it, does not, in principle, obviate the value of the practice to the Catholic Church...[similarly] the difficulties that couples have in sustaining the practice of monogamy does not undermine the importance of commitment." 
  • Sexual abuse of minors is hardly a Catholic Church problem; the study recognizes abuse taking place in schools is "woefully understudied" and present in any organization catering to the needs of youth. Sex abuse is a social problem plaguing all of society. 
  • As a social problem, we have - all of us - a role to play. Sexual abuse of minors takes a community: a Perpetrator, a Victim, and a Community who keeps its eyes shut. As one author wrote, "If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a community to abuse a child."
  • By 1985, bishops knew there was a problem, yet did not grasp the scope of it. "Though more than 80 percent of cases now known had already occurred by 1985, only 6 percent of those cases had been reported to dioceses by that time." 
  • Without question, bishops and religious superiors did not respond wholly or in a timely manner to advice given that would have prevented numerous cases of abuse. 
As someone who spends a lot of time reading theology and philosophy, it's refreshing to at least deal with data and statistics. I would strongly urge people to peruse the document, reading at least the "Executive Summary" from pages 2-5. 

For the first time in years, I feel cautiously optimistic about the Church's ability to address the issues associated with the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. I think the Church has gotten much better - not perfect - but much better. Since I read the report, my antennae have been very sensitive to looking at the time the alleged abuse occurs: over and over again, the year is 1985. This does not deny that abuse has occurred, and almost certainly continues to occur, but it does give credibility to the belief that lessons have been learned, that the Church is getting it, that we are becoming an increasingly safer place for children. 

The way news stories about abuse are reported intend to elicit a strong reaction. Just the other day, "Breaking News" reported a new accusation of an almost 30-year old case. I'm not denying the accusation or the trauma of abuse; I'm only pointing out how the reporting, "Breaking News," does give the sense that its a new instance of abuse rather than an old accusation. 

As you encounter stories, I'd encourage you to be sensitive to the time the abuse allegedly took place. The Church has often failed miserably, yet as I said, I am cautiously optimistic that we are getting better today at making sure our ministry to youth is one that promotes the Gospel rather than facilitates abuse. 

Monday, April 08, 2013

Frustration Anxiety

I was invited yesterday to share my vocation story with a group of undergraduates currently discerning vocations to religious life. It's an honor and great treat to meet obviously talented young people who are willing to make their hearts vulnerable to discernment; when we risk being open to the Spirit, when we dare to consider what it might be to make our lives a more radical response of 'yes' to God's invitation to friendship, we are threatened with the insight from the Letter to the Hebrews, "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of a living God" (Heb 10:31).

As I looked out at such talented young people, each with so many options and possible paths in life,
I felt compared to share with them something I took from Karl Rahner, an insight into what Rahner called "frustration anxiety." Of Frustration Anxiety, he writes of people who
...think they might miss something, that something might escape them before they have to go; and at the same time they know that very soon they must go and there is not much time left in which anything can bring happiness. 
To put it otherwise, Frustration Anxiety is being anxious about being frustrated, an anxiety arising with the realization that one is finite and unable to avail oneself of all of life's options. One wishes so much to keep options open, to have the freedom to take any of a number of paths in life, that one never chooses anything.

We're "pro-options" yet "anti-commitment."

Yet, as Rahner points out, "this fear of not having consumed everything spread out on the table of life means that nothing is enjoyed: everything is merely 'crammed' in, the digestion is spoilt." Nothing is experienced, savored, or relished on account of one's desperation to experience everything.

I suspect there are very many of us with friends and family members afflicted with Frustration Anxiety. Rather than closing off some avenues of life and committing oneself to a life's project, a vocation, they remain in the stable, too afraid to set out lest they miss something. Fear of missing something means they never gain anything.

Frustration Anxiety terminates in only one of two ways. Either, after a life driven by anxiety, a life of ulcers and fretting over options one wishes to hold open, a life animated by not ever really committing oneself to anything, death will overtake the person who will find rest finally in eternal sleep. Or a life that commits oneself to the deep longing of the heart, an acceptance that in choosing one path many others have been closed off, but a life marked by a journey.

Our lives are either the pristine white page upon which we fear to write anything or the dingy paper on which we have inscribed the story of our life, replete with erasure marks, cross-outs,  yet an entire narrative telling forth the adventures our lives have recorded. To put the pen to the paper, to begin to write, necessitates a certain sacrifice, a closing of options, an experience of accepting the cross of living a life of commitment that forecloses some choices, that opens up as-yet-unseen options in the future.

One is having a life that is not lived. The other is living a life not had by anyone else, a life written by those we have loved, the mistakes we have made, the adventures we have risked taking.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame