Saturday, June 29, 2013

Justice for the Pour: Wine Under $15.00

Our final bottle this evening is a Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon (2010). This red, aromatic, and relatively youthful wine lacks the smokiness of the previous wine and bears a higher degree of fruitiness. At $11.69 a bottle, this one may be a sweepstakes winner for many of our groups.

As we drink, we are made mindful of the 1993 song "Linger" by the Cranberries. There's a lovely finish to this bottle, rich in cherry and raspberry with a lightly smokey aftertaste.

Stephen: I'm just getting into it. It's very smooth. I like to wear soccer jerseys.

Liz: I like the AIDS wine better. This one smells great but leaves me unsatisfied. I have high expectations...I want more. I want it to be less "tart" and more "rich."

Bobby: It's like drinking John the Baptist. (What the Hell does this mean??). If the last wine was AIDS, this is the cure. Not flashy, but a steady friend to keep you warm at night. Easily taken at a wine-and-cheese party.

John: "Liz, you have to let it linger." More of a wine-and-cheese wine. This is a Friday night, 7:00 pm, "It's been a long week and I want to be left to my own devices" type of wine.

Ryan: This is a lovely wine. It's delightful - easy to drink and accessible to a variety of tastes. There's a certain vibrancy to this. This is the sort of wine that needs to be had with some type of food - it's a bit bold for just drinking on its own. It has a really nice flavor, with a delightful after-taste. For it's price, you can't do much better: there's enough here to satisfy the average palate.

The patron for this bottle of wine would be Saint Peter: in some ways disappointing (he did, after all, deny Jesus), yet he turned out to be a lingering, and somewhat reliable, figure within the Christian tradition.

Our Spiritual Bouquet (Ranking Explanation)
Back: John, Stephen, Bobby
Fron: Liz, Ryan

John: 4.25 Chalices
Bobby: 4.25 Chalices
Stephen: 3.25 Chalices
Ryan: 3.75 Chalices
Liz: 2.75 Chalices

Consensus: this is a really good wine. Indeed, it'd be good enough for the saints for three of us. We'd agree that you could drink this solo but, overall, you'd want to enjoy this with food. 

Justice for the Pour: Wine Under $15.00

Our final wine under review this evening is the 2010 Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet. At $7.59 per bottle, this wine has the distinction of contributing $1.00 to the prevention of AIDS.

Stephen: It's like a Camel, smooth and smokey. Like Smokey the Bear. It's like I licked the Quaker Oat Man's hat - it's delicious.

Bobby: If this is what it takes to eradicate AIDS, I will drink it noon and night. A bit tart, doesn't live up to its smell. Like so many times in our lives, the smell is far more interesting than the taste. The finish bores me. Everything dies but the tartness. Not smooth, not rich. Boring.

Liz: Very rich with unspeakable riches. Impressive, bold, and would were this an eligible (ie., healthy, normal, psycho-sexually integrated man), I'd go on a date. Not terribly surprised by the body, but I really liked it.

John: Dark berries, chocolate, and just a wee bit of spice. There's a toasty finish, sort of like cozying up by the fireside and reading Hemingway. The berry may have been black, but I can't say for certain: I don't see color.

Ryan: This would not get me out of bed in the middle of the night, but I'm enjoying it. For $7.59, I'd say it's great for a table wine. If I were given a choice to rescue my nephew from a burning house and this wine, I'd probably opt for the nephew. That said, I'd not be disappointed if all I could manage was the wine. I like Quinn and all, but he does talk a lot...

Our Catholic tradition leads us to place this wine under the patronage of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. The patron saint of AIDS patients, he was a young Jesuit who died of the plague at the age of 23.

Our Spiritual Bouquet: (Ranking explanation can be found here)

Stephen: 2.5 Chalices
Bobby: 2 Chalices
John: 3.25 Chalices
Liz: 3.5 Chalices
Ryan: 3.0 Chalices

The range was not nearly as wide on this bottle. In general, we were rather pleased by it. It certainly lacks the full-bodied robustness that one might hope for in a more developed wine but, that said, it doesn't disappoint (unless you're Bobby). It's price point inclines us toward the consensus that it's to be considered strongly, at the least, as a palatable-yet-inexpensive go-to wine. It's trying to cure AIDS, for goodness sake. Give it a try!

Justice for the Pour: A Rosé for under $15.00

Our second wine of the evening is the Chateua de Lancyre Rosé (2012). Don't let the pink color fool you: this is a big wine.

A wine of a pale salmon color, in is a clear wine with a moderate aroma of berries. It's a big-bodied bodied wine, not the kind that would have to buy two seats on an airline but big enough to make its presence known upon arrival.

Rosé is a hard wine for many drinkers. It elicits a wide variety of opinons,  as you'll see from the comments below. Yet, for $13.79, it was worth the least, I thought so!

Bobby: I don't dislike this. It hits me where the grapefruit hits me. I love Hugh Johnson's big guide to wines.

No, Bobby, an oenophile is not going to jail. It means wine lover.

I like the color. Nondescript. Enjoying Rosé is like my 73-year old aunt who dumps cube after cube of ice into wine.

Liz: Not impressed. It's too...sour, not enough taste. If I could rim it...with sugar...I think I'd really like it. I would have liked more flavor.

Stephen: Not the worst wine I've had. Not much after taste.

John: There are a lot of tanins. I expect the Rosé to be a bit more sweet.

Ryan: I really enjoy this wine. I was a bit hesitant at first, but it may have been too chilled. As it warmed up, the wine seemed to become alive and vibrant. I think it's a nice bottle chilled just a bit - if it's too cold, it loses a lot of its flavor. That stands as my fault, I suspect, so if it's only slightly chilled it's really enjoyable.

Our rankings:

1 Chalice: Jesus is not coming back for this. A mortal sin. 
 2 Chalices: While not lethal I might have to go to confession for drinking this; a venial sin. 
3 Chalices: A good wine for day-to-day drinking. Enjoyable without guilt. Conventional, does just what it ought to do.  
4 Chalices: A wine worthy of a saint. Goes above and beyond what is expected. Heroic effort. 
5 Chalices: Heaven on earth. Worthy of the Blood of Christ. When he comes back, he's going to pour himself a glass of this. 
Our Spiritual Bouquet:

Bobby: 1.5 Chalices
Stephen: 1.75 Chalices
Liz: 2 Chalices
John: 1.75 Chalices
Ryan: 3.25 Chalices

Overall, not a winner in our group. Coupled with Rosemary and Olive Oil Triscuit crackers, I find it to be particularly nice. Again, I would say it's nice on the back porch during a warm summer evening. 

Justice for the Pour: Costco Wines Under $15.00

Several of us have gathered together tonight to embark upon a new adventure: amateur wine tasting. By amateur, I mean, we have no skill, no expertise, and no real credibility apart from being able to say what we like and give some type of reason for why we like it.

Graduate students in theology, we are accustomed to the "discernment of spirits" and avail ourselves frequently of liquid consolation.

Today, we selected several bottles of wine under the $15.00 price range from Costco. Our first wine, being evaluated as I type this, is a 2011 Mongris Collio Pinot Grigio produced by Marco Felluga.

Liz: This wine is sweet, with enough maturity and sass not to give you a stomach ache. Smooth, really good, the kind of wine you're glad you've been offered another glass. Mildly tart.

Ryan: A mineral quality to the flavor evoking a large, lush field. It's a full bodied wine but by no means flabby. Fruity but not overly so. Perfect for a summer evening on the patio (like tonight).

Father Clifford: An Italian varietal, well-made and has the basic structure, yet not very memorable.

Good Catholics, we sought long and hard to find a patron saint for this bottle of wine. Thus we commend it to the corkage of Saint Agnes, the 3rd century virgin and martyr who sassily rebuffed all attempts to get her to sacrifice to pagan gods, preferring death instead of sacrilege.

According to our newly-crafted criteria, which will almost certainly change as we continue drinking tonight, we have developed the following rating system.
1 Chalice: Jesus is not coming back for this. A mortal sin. 
 2 Chalices: While not lethal I might have to go to confession for drinking this; a venial sin. 
3 Chalices: A good wine for day-to-day drinking. Enjoyable without guilt. Conventional, does just what it ought to do.  
4 Chalices: A wine worthy of a saint. Goes above and beyond what is expected. Heroic effort. 
 5 Chalices: Heaven on earth. Worthy of the Blood of Christ. When he comes back, he's going to pour himself a glass of this. 
We gather our rankings into a Spiritual Bouquet:

Liz: 3 Chalices
Ryan: 2.75 Chalices
Father Clifford: 2.75 Chalices

Like so many first-dates, this wine is interesting yet not memorable. If the house were on fire, I'd not run back into the pantry to retrieve it but I wouldn't refuse it at a garden party. Purchased for a scant $13.79 at Costco today, it gave us an enjoyable experience of drinking, a few laughs, and provided the occasion to kick off a new blogging adventure.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Lord, if you wish...

In today's short Gospel reading taken from St. Matthew, we witness a scene able to capture the dynamic of many of our hearts. A man, a leper, approaches Jesus and says, "Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean." Jesus touches the man and proclaims, "I will do it. Be made clean." The leper was healed immediately.

Cosimo Rosselli, 1481-82
For me, there are two key elements in the reading. First, Jesus is not alone: he is surrounded by a crowd. The leper had to break into a crowd of others, many of whom would shun him normally, in order to approach Jesus. Before the crowd, this man had to acknowledge his need for help. He did what so many of us struggle normally to do: he allowed himself to be vulnerable.

Second, the man gives us an instance of what prayer is at its best: he tells the Lord exactly what his heart desires. He doesn't pray for world peace. He doesn't pray for an end to world hunger. Instead, he opens his heart and asks for what he desires most: to be healed, to be made whole, to be re-incorporated into the human family that shunned him because of a disease. In front of the group gathered around Jesus, the man exposes his heart's deepest desire in an act of authentic prayer: he stands before the Lord and asks to be made whole.

During my three years of teaching high school, there were many times in the classroom or, more customarily, in my office, when a student would make his heart vulnerable. Each young man's heart's cry was different: abuse at home, sex and pregnancy, struggles with drugs/alcohol/porn, doubts about faith, suicide, uncertainty about the future, fears of failure.

I remember one instance in particular when a simply spectacular kid, whom I had come to know well, came into my office and told me that he had something he wanted to talk to me about "later on." To my eye, it was clear that "later on" was a code for: "Duns, I need to talk right now." So I told him to take a seat on the couch, assumed my usual position in my glider-rocker, and gave him the fairly open-ended,  "So, what's up?" (note: I have his permission to share this story)

"Abba Duns, I have something to tell you. But I'm afraid that if I do you won't like me any more." Tears started flowing and the requisite flood of snot began to pour from his nose. I handed him some tissues - a box was never more than a few inches out of reach from my usual seats! - and assured him that I loved him and that there was nothing he could tell me that could make him unlovable.
Footnote: I know it's uncouth these days for a teacher to tell a student that he or she is lovable. Nevertheless, it quickly became apparent that it is possible to say "you're lovable" or "I love you" in a way that is not creepy or sexually suggestive. In a youth culture frequently driven by "likes" on Facebook, hearing someone they trust say "I love you"goes a long way in giving the freedom to be who they are. 
"Okay. Umm, well, Abba...I'm gay." When he saw that I didn't flinch, he proceeded to tell me that he had told his parents the night before and that it had not gone over well. In fact, it went terribly. Dad refused to talk to him. Mom wouldn't stop crying. He hadn't slept all night, so gripped was he that his parents would kick him out of the house and that he'd never see his siblings again.

Now, today's Gospel reminds me of this because this young man, feeling alone and isolated, risked a great deal when he made himself vulnerable. Initially shunned by his parents, his last-ditch attempt was to open himself to a teacher. He risked judgment, ridicule, and further rejection. Yet he felt courage enough to expose this part of himself that had caused him such anxiety and pain. He opened his heart in trust, in spite of a fear that in sharing the truth of himself he would lose another's love and esteem.

To make a long story short, I let him rest in my office while I went back to the Jesuit Residence and contacted his mother, whom I knew pretty well. She, like her son, had spent a sleepless night filled with worry and concern. Her tears, she promised, were more out of fear of the unknown than out of disappointment or despair. Nor was her husband's silence one of hatred or rejection: he just didn't know what to say. We had a very good conversation and I was able to return to the student who had composed himself with glad tidings: his parents loved him, they were not kicking him out of the house, and they wanted him to call. I let him use my office office phone to call home and, as he talked to his mom, I went and wrote notes to the teachers whose classes he had missed and found the assistant principal to let him know about situation.

The Holy Father reminds us that we need to be living stones in God's Temple. Are we stones helping to build up the Body of Christ or are we lifeless, dead stones? Do we welcome people into our lives or do we tell them to "take a number" because we're busy putting things in front of people? When another stone enters our life, do we judge it and reject it if it does not fit our ideal type? Or do we honor the stone where as it is and rejoice that it, too, can make a valuable contribution to building the Temple of the Lord?

This young man now flourishes in his college. He has involved himself in the life of campus ministry and attends Mass weekly...I know because he frequently sends me messages telling me of how great his pastor is. He is a holy young man for no other reason than he has allowed himself to become whole. For so many of us, this is the most authentic prayer: not for us to be someone different but, rather, for us to be given the grace to be fully and wholly ourselves.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Wake of DOMA

The quality of a civilization may be measured both by the complexity of its ingredients and by the harmony of their order. The more diverse elements it succeeds in integrating within a harmonious and unified balance, the greater its potential and, usually, its achievements are.
                                                          ~ Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity, 29
Yesterday's decision by the Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has yielded simultaneously great rejoicing from some, much hand-wringing from others. From Twitter to Facebook, blogs to news sites, the Court's actions were debated and discussed, celebrated and denounced. Mike Huckabee tweeted that "Jesus Wept" and the USCCB called it a "tragic day for marriage and our nation." The New Ways Ministry website likens the experience to "justice rolling down like a river," washing away what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg referred to in March as "skim-milk marriage."

I find the above quote from Louis Dupré particularly helpful this morning as I reflect on yesterday's events. For, to my mind, a new question begins to emerge and demand response: if gay marriages are considered equal and of the same standing as heterosexual marriages, will this contribute to or detract from the harmony of society? Can this so-called marriage equality contribute to unification or will it result in further fracturing?

In their press release, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rightly stresses "the common good of all, especially our children, depends upon a society that strives to uphold the truth of marriage. These decisions are part of a public debate of great consequence. The future of marriage and the well-being of our society hang in the balance."

Yesterday's SCOTUS decision is hardly the final word on the issue of marriage. As the USCCB asserts, it is "part of a public debate of great consequence." Indeed, it may be better to see these decisions less as offering the definitive word on marriage than on opening up a space for new words to spoken. The words to be spoken can come only through the lived witness of same-sex couples living lives of love and commitment that contribute to, rather than detract from, the common good of our nation.

Pope Francis has managed in three months to capture the attention of a skeptical world and an increasingly jaded flock. The credibility of his words arises from his actions and it's hard to deny that the Holy Father is active. His is a faith that works, his works are born of faith.

In the months and years ahead, a great burden will continue to be shouldered by those same-sex couples in the United States willing to commit themselves to one another. Great attention will be focused upon them and many Christian communities will remain skeptical of their relationships' ability to witness to the values of God's Kingdom. Gay and Lesbian Christians must now accept the shadow of the Cross falling long upon them. Many will deny that God's Spirit can be active in their commitments. It is only through the testimony of their lives, the witness of fidelity and love, that they have any chance in changing the hearts and minds of others.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the Pharisee Gamaliel offered the following counsel concerning the nascent movement growing around the claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead:
" the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them - in that case you may even be found fighting against God." (Acts 5:38-39). 
I accept that, whether we like it or not as a faith community, a new path has been opened up to citizens of our nation. My prayer is that marriage will continue to be the glue that holds the fundamental unit of our society together: the family. Whether same-sex couples can contribute to the common good in and through their witness of socially sanction and legally protected fidelity, we must wait and see. We must, all of us, keep our hearts and eyes and ears open so that if we begin to see the movement of God's Spirit, we can respond with joy and gratitude. Should the trace of God's life not be found, should only greater disharmony and rancor reign, we will find confirmation of our received Tradition's wisdom.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Francis Effect?

Yesterday afternoon, an interesting editorial appeared on CNN's Belief Blog. The author, John Gehring, asks the admittedly hyperbolic question: Can Pope Francis save the Catholic Church? At the end of the piece, he draws attention to what I think is the most telling contribution of these first 100 days of Francis's papacy: a change in style. "A smiling, good-humored pope stands in stark contrast to those dour-faced religious leaders who act as gloomy scolds and spy threats around every corner."

On Tuesday afternoon, after I'd run some errands, I got caught in a deluge of rain. Seeking shelter, I ducked into the doorway of a bar I visit sometimes. I recognized the bartender and, since the rain showed no sign of letting up, I ordered a beer and a chicken sandwich. Being only 4:00 in the afternoon, the place was pretty quiet. Feeling extroverted, I made small-talk with the two other guys at the bar and the bartender.

Unsolicited, the bartender started talking about his childhood and how he'd been an altar boy at his parish. I needn't recount the whole story but, suffice it to say, he's not darkened the doorway of a Church but for the odd Easter and Christmas. That said, he did share that he'd begun to feel like he wanted to go back to Church because he's been so taken with Pope Francis. The line he used, which struck a chord within me, was, "The guy just seems happy."

When I was considering a religious vocation, the fundamental reason was that I wanted to be happy like my Jesuit teachers had been happy. They weren't perfect men, to be sure, but they were joyful. To be sure, I had then and have every now and again great career ambitions and aspirations but, above all else, I know in my heart that I want to be happy, to be joyful. I was attracted to the Society of Jesus because I found joy there. If there's a Francis effect, it will arise because he radiates a joy and serenity that comes from feeling the Good News in the heart.

On Tuesday, Pope Francis called Catholics to be revolutionaries. We have been touched by love, the "greatest force for transforming reality because it breaks down the walls of selfishness and fills the chasms that keep people far from one another." Do we have the courage to rekindle the love in our hearts and allow it to be the engine of our lives? Do we have the energy and excitement to be shepherds, to go out to call others?

In what may now be my favorite Francis line: It is tempting to stay home with that one little sheep, combing it, caressing it. However, the Lord wants us to be shepherds, not hairdressers to sheep!


One final point. Bill Maher, one of the more popular critics of religion, made headlines recently when he likened Sarah Palin's return to FOX News as being "similar to her day job: talking to a baby with Down's syndrome." From the enlightened one, this is extraordinarily sad and disappointing: Maher criticizes Christianity for being hateful and intolerant and yet his comments show no lack of intolerance and insensitivity. By comparison, one might think of Pope Francis who just the other day gave a teenager a spin in the seat of his car.

As someone with a special love for children with special needs, these pictures speak more to the credibility of Francis's humanity and humility than any homily ever could. That's a sincere smile, a smile born of love for his fellow human being. No, that young man will probably never have his own talk show, or stand-up routine, or pen a brilliant essay. His genetic condition, or the condition of others like him, does not make him any less human, nor does it make him fodder for the "enlightened" Bill Maher to mock or use to belittle those with whom he disagrees.

The credibility of the Gospel will be demonstrated in deeds first, then in words. Within my own prayer, I am grateful to say that I feel a renewed desire to "go and do likewise" in a way that brings peace, joy, and witnesses with a smile to the Good News. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Importance of Character(s)

Just about twenty years ago, when I was 13, an old Irish musician took me aside to give me some advice about playing in an upcoming music competition. Eager to learn from the wisdom of one of the masters, I focused my attention on his words.

Ryan, Tom said, looking directly into my eyes, when you get up to play at the competition, it's just you up there playing. When you get up there, you won't be playing with Jackie. When you get up there, you won't be playing with Timmy. When you get up there, you just have to play with yourself. 

Another memory: I remember coming home excitedly one night from a music lesson with my main music teacher, Tom Hastings. Dad! Tom gave me a compliment tonight: He told me that I was piece of work.

Then there's the story, now enshrined in family lore, of my grandmother's response when the driver of the car called attention to a group of homeless men gathered outside of a local shelter. With great indignation, she shot back: How do you know they're homosexuals? When it was clarified that the observation was about the homeless, and not the word "homos," she admonished the driver to speak more clearly because she wouldn't stand for anyone to be made fun of in the car.

My mind reaches back to my first year of regency when a second-semester senior walked into my classroom under the pretense of giving me a note. Interrupting myself mid-sentence, I turned to receive the note from him...but there was no note. Instead, he reached up and grabbed the white collar tab from my shirt and ran out into the hall. I did, of course, what any mature adult would do: I ran after him and tackled him through a set of double doors and wrestled my white tab back from him. A few days later, he tried this again (boys are dumb, of course). I was quite prepared for him. One of the freshmen held the door shut as I drenched him with a super-soaker squirt gun I had concealed from student view.

Once, when I was running the book buy-back, I became acutely aware that all of my student helpers had gone missing. Totally perplexed, I went off in search of them. They weren't hard to find: about twenty of them had gathered in my office, with the lights off, and were watching The Princess Bride on my computer using a Netflix account. The office smelled like twenty young men who were crammed into an office, too. Since it's a movie I like, too, I did wait a few moments before flipping the switch and sending them back to work.

Even as a high school student, there was something transfixing about watching the members of the Jesuit community process in for the all-school celebration of the Eucharist. Each one was, among the student body, wholly (in)famous. One loved to lift weights and had the best one-line retorts to sophomores; another was reputed to speak two dozen languages; a third was rumored to have been filmed as an extra in The Exorcist. These were three-dimensional men, men of passion and humor, wit and wisdom.

Last night, as I was walking to my weekly seisiun to play Irish music last night, I stared up at the cloud-flecked sky and remembered so many of the characters who have been a part of my life. Each of these persons - characters in the best sense of the word - contributed to my own character: my life has been shaped and formed by their lives. My character, in some faint way, bears the traces of their character, of these characters.

I think it important, and wholly worthwhile, to reflect sometimes upon the various characters who have come into our lives and left us changed in some way. Rather than taking for granted the past, we can use the story of our lives as a sort of contemplative text. We may "re-read" our lives and be grateful for those who have come into our lives, be grateful for what they have contributed to us, be grateful for how we have grown because of them. Even when time and death and separated us from one another, their voices linger on in our voices, their lives continue on in our lives.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Gay Lobby

Not the gay lobby. 
The Holy Father's unscripted comments about "a current of corruption" and the existence of a "gay lobby" in the Curia of the Catholic Church have elicited no small amount of commentary these past few days. The New York Times, Rocco Palmo, John Allen, the Daily Beast, and a host of other sources contain sometimes lengthy pieces about what would otherwise seem to be a tiny quip.

Without question, there's been a rush to sensationalize the Pope's comments. When I think of "gay lobby," I tend to think of overly decorated sitting spaces, not curial officials wielding tremendous power. I don't think it surprises anyone - or, at least, it shouldn't - to learn that there are gay priests, bishops, and cardinals. And, while we should never fail to be disappointed when anyone - gay or straight, married or vowed - fails to adhere to one's vows, we know that many have stumbled during their lives. The stumbling, I suspect, most of us can understand and forgive. What many of us have a hard time accepting, however, is the hypocrisy of hearing a religious official make some sort of condemnation and then engage surreptitiously in the very behavior just condemned. This issue envelopes Catholics, such as Cardinal O'Brien, as well as other Christian leaders, such as Ted Haggard and David Loveless, all of whom have felt the sting of preaching one message and living another.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul writes, "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light" (5:11-13). In a organization where appearances matter so much - the bella figura - it takes courage for Pope Francis to call out what will appear to many to be an enormously hypocritical group in the Church: men who condemning that for which they are themselves guilty.

For my money, I think Alberto Melloni has best assessed the issue, opining of Pope Francis:

"He’s right to talk about it, it breaks the mechanism in which omertà favors the use of blackmail. If no one talks about it, it’s a powerful weapon.”
“This is a question of blackmail and blackmailability, not homosexuality,” he added.
Apparently this isn't what Pope Francis meant, either.
To my mind, the takeaway from the Pope's comments is this: he's naming a reality that has had a crippling effect on the Church. A wise spiritual director once challenged the man coming to him for counsel, "I want you to think of the one thing you will never tell me." He gave a few moments for the man to mull it over and then followed up, "I will never ask what that one thing is. But now I want you to ask yourself, 'WHY will I not share this?' It is here that you must grow in freedom!"

Or, as I'd tell students frequently, "You're only as free as the darkest secrets you keep."

If the Church is going to move forward into the future as a healthy body able to share the Good News with a world desperate for it, it needs to name and claim its reality. Even where it is embarrassing or potentially scandalous, it must continue to shine the Gospel's light, the light of truth, into its darkest recesses that we grow in wholeness and holiness. Wherever darkness and hypocrisy, shadows and deceit flourish, there the light must be shown not in order to humiliate but, rather, to draw all into the light of truth and Gospel joy.

Gay or straight, married or with promises/vows of celibacy, we must have the courage to name the shadows in our lives and to allow ourselves to be defined by light rather than darkness. Whether he is calling us away from the false idol of money and the graven images we put at the center of our lives, or calling us out of the shadows where we dwell in deceit, I think the Holy Father has been courageous in naming the realities as he sees them, rather than glossing over them in the hope of preventing scandal. The scandal, to me, is not that there are priests who have failed to live up to their vows. The scandal arises when a culture of blackmail and fear arises that leads well-intentioned men and women to dwell in suffocating darkness rather than allowing them to live in freedom, truth, and love. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Jazz Pope

An edited version of my blog post about the Holy Father is now posted to The Jesuit Post. The TJP guys have posted as well a link to the video clip of Pope Francis speaking to the students. If you get a chance, pop over and give it a watch!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Going Off-Script: Pope Francis and Jazz

There were times when, as a teacher, I'd abandon my prepared lesson plan and go "class rogue." On these days, we'd have an impromptu discussion of matters pertinent to the students. Because it was off-script and a breach of our usual operating procedure, I found the students to take these conversations with the utmost seriousness. These were the classes we'd talk about traditionally sensitive issues - poverty, racism, inequality, sex and sexuality, relationships - in a way where we could be honest and genuine. If these lessons mattered more to my students than the pre-planned lessons I prepared for them, it is because the structure and stability of the regular class day made the rare venture off-script meaningful to them.

This, perhaps, is a lesson learned best by high school teachers who have come to appreciate the importance of flexibility-in-structure.

As we know, when he was a young Jesuit, Pope Francis taught chemistry to high school students. His recent audience with students impresses upon me that he is my new model of flexibility-in-structure. Facing a crowd of 7,000 he realized that his 1,250 word talk might be "a little boring." Rather than being a slave to his text, he gave a summary of its high points and then took questions arising spontaneously from the crowd.

He was prepared. His lesson was set. Yet he read his audience and responded to their need, not to his agenda. The Pope met the people where they were at, where they were most vulnerable: in the questions stirring within their hearts.

The simplicity of the Pope's words strike me profoundly:

  • Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope! … And who robs you of hope? The spirit of the world, riches, the spirit of vanity, arrogance, pride. All of these things rob you of hope. Where do I find hope? In the poor Jesus, Jesus who became poor for us.
  • Do not be afraid of falling. In the art of walking, what is important is not avoiding the fall but not remaining fallen. Get up quickly, continue on, and go...but it is also terrible to walk alone, terrible and boring. Walking in community with friends, with those who love us, this helps us … get to the end.
  • We must participate in politics because politics is one of the highest forms of charity because it seeks the common good. And Christian lay people must work in politics.

In an institution where going rogue, or departing from the script, is a relatively new phenomenon, the Pope's impromptu responses must be maddening. Yet they reveal the heart of a teacher who understands that his preparation and planning do not dictate the course an event must follow but, rather, equips him with the tools necessary to speak to the heart of those he meets.

If I were to put it musically, I think Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI strike me as more symphonic thinkers: they were able to spin out huge works, massive thoughts, that they performed brilliantly. Pope Francis strikes me, however, more like a Jazz musician who is able to lock into the deep rhythm of the music surrounding him and play with it, accommodate it, and transform it. His words do not colonize or squelch the music around him but kicks it into a new key - the key of Christ - and reminds all of us that Christ is the true key of our lives.

Should the image of a Jazz musician hold for Francis, it reveals simply that our spiritual lives do not create the music but deepen it. God, the author of creation, sings existence in to being and our lives are meant to respond to this. Pope Francis demonstrates one way of engaging the music of creation by playing along with the Poor Christ. The Pope, in riffing on and adapting to the music, shows us often neglected spiritual depths and untapped spiritual resources. He is not giving us new music but helping us to hear the music anew.

Organizational psychologist Frank Barrett, in his Yes to the Mess, offers seven principles for leadership based on his experiences as a jazz musician. Jazz musicians “deliberately disrupt routines as a way of ‘unlearning’ so as to be more alive, alert, and open to new possibilities. The Pope’s ongoing call for a more extroverted, outgoing Catholicism recalls Barrett’s “Jamming and Hanging Out: Learning by Doing and Talking.” It is in the performing of the music, in impromptu sessions with others, that musicians learn to think and hear like a jazz musician. By playing with others, by encountering the “choice points” on which one focuses one’s performance, the musician grows in musical freedom.

Barrett concludes the preface to the book as follows:

Jazz musicians seek to live lives of radical receptivity. Human beings are at their best when they do the same – when they are open to the world, able to notice expansive horizons of possibility, fully engaged in skillful activity, and living in contexts that summons responses that lead to new discoveries.

In his willingness to go off-script, to go a bit rogue, the Pope isn’t cavalierly or unthinkingly defying custom. Instead, he is leading us like a jazz musician who wants to give us the freedom to encounter Jesus as the choice point in the music of our lives, giving us the courage to play anew in the Christic key. We can, all of us, take a lesson from the jazz musicians and their “radical receptivity.” In saying yes to the mess of human life, the mess of Christian discipleship, we lock into the melody that brings joy to our hearts and gives us to play here and now the tune we hope to play, forever, in the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

A Poor Church for the Poor

I have to admit, I was moved today when I read that Pope Francis had announced that he'd be spending his summer in Rome rather than at the papal villa, Castel Gandolfo. This is certainly not because I have anything against taking a holiday or making use of a villa. But, in a country where 1 out of 2 Italians are unable to take a vacation this year, I believe his actions are significant.

I'm the first to admit that as a part of the clergy, it is easy to succumb to a "I deserve" mentality. "I deserve" to have a nice glass of wine sometimes because of everything that I've given up as a part of my vocation. "I deserve" to have a summer holiday at a nice villa because I work hard during the year. What is problematic with the line "I deserve" is that it's centered on the wrong person. When "I" am at the center of anything rather than the God revealed in and through Jesus Christ, things tend to totally off-balance. In many ways, I believe the Holy Father is reminding us of the importance of being mindful of the one who is our true center, friendship with whom is the only sure bearer of peace and joy.

Over the last few months, I have prayed for an increasing spirit of simplicity in my own life. It's not always easy. I write this at 10:30 pm in the evening, knowing full well that in a few hours I have to catch a flight to Austin, Texas, to play another feis (Irish dancing competition). I'll be treated very well at the event - far better than I deserve, to be sure - but I hope at the least to maintain a sense of great gratitude for being able to use my talents for the benefit of others.

The image of a "poor Church for the poor" excites me because, in our world, it is the poor who are most easily reviled and rejected. A "poor" Church recognizes its limitations, it humbly accepts its sinfulness and shortcomings. It knows that no amount of gold or gilding, incense or chanting, can cover up the fundamental truth of our existence: we are, all of us, in need of a savior. The poor Church for the  poor is the Church of the poor, those who realize that regardless of what they own, or do not own, we can lay no claim on God's grace. The freedom and joy we find in friendship with Jesus Christ is wealth enough, a treasure we feel a desire to share with those around us.

In his simplicity, in his public willingness to break with "custom," I think Pope Francis gives all of us a model of Christian courage. We are, all of us, called to be defined by who we are for rather than what we own or what we have done. The Holy Father, in moving toward an increasing simplicity in his witness, can give us the courage to reassess our own lives: what, or who, defines us? Can we find joy in simplicity, in our poverty of spirit?

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Thoughts on the Sacred Heart

Leave it to the Catholic Church to dedicate a feast day to an internal organ. A cynic might chortle and, with a roll of the eyes, mutter, "What next? The Blessed Toe? The Immaculate Hangnail? The Miraculous Gall Bladder?" Such utterances notwithstanding, June 7th marks the Church's celebration of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. Although understandably neglected by most of us - no children, after all, get a Sacred Heart vacation - it may be worthwhile to spend a few moments considering what it means to celebrate the "Sacred Heart."

The symbolism of the heart is hardly foreign to any of us. Top-40 songs croon melancholically about the "broken heart." Students feel devastated when the college they had "set their heart on" sends them a rejection letter. As loved ones struggle with an issue, one feels "heart sick." In the Scriptures, "hardness of heart" prevents Pharaoh from allowing the Hebrew people to leave Egypt and keeps the crowds gathered around Jesus from accepting his message. The symbolism of the heart encapsulates so much of what is essential to being human: love, fear, hope, sorrow, and joy.

Corporations and young lovers keenly grasp this. In the weeks leading up to Valentine's Day, Sweetest Day, and Mother's Day one finds an endless array of heart-shaped boxes filled with various delights. We are encouraged to buy bags of heart-shaped candies stamped with "Call Me" and "Be True" and "Kiss Me." A young man, in love perhaps for the first time, carves his initials along with his beloved's into the bark of a tree; a little boy, wanting to do something nice for his mommy, uses safety scissors to cute a heart from construction paper and writes "I Love You" in a barely legible scrawl no mother can fail to understand.

Furthermore, the heart occupies more than a sentimental place in human life. Physicians tell us to maintain cardiovascular health. Heart disease, the slow hardening of the arteries with plaque, is a leading cause of death in our country. We regularly hear of difficult transplants and emergency bypasses. Lastly, a common metaphor for gauging the vitality of something comes quite literally from our human mortality: we "take the pulse"of a situation in a manner analogous to measuring the strength of the heartbeat. To "call the code" on a person popularly means to recognize the cessation of the heart's function.

What has this to do with the Sacred Heart? Everything. This feast reminds us that Jesus' heart was nothing less than fully human, open and susceptible to the world around him. Jesus' heart could be scourged with grief - he wept over Lazarus's death - and gripped, in the Garden, with fear. His heart moved with love for the Rich Young Man. His heart led him to preach and to teach, to act and live in a way that gave those around him hope in God's Kingdom. A heartbeat measured his lifespan, a rhythm animated by a heart knitted together in Mary's womb, a heart that heart finally failed and was pierced on the cross. A heart able to say "Peace be with you" when greeting his disciples who deserted him.

Jesus' heart is sacred not because it is magical but because it focused exclusively on one end: the love of God. Jesus' heart is sacred because Jesus focused his entire self upon bringing into a world grown dark with sin the light of the Good News. Jesus, enlivened by a heart live to the Good News of what God is doing in history, never said, "Change so that God can love you. Change and then God will love you and  heal you." Jesus flips such a sentiment on its head: "God loves you, so you are free to become the person you are called to be!" Jesus does not ask us to be different persons. Instead, Jesus gives us a way  to be be people differently.

We are all offered, daily, an opportunity to make our own the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A heart committed to love rather than hate, forgiveness over vengeance, peace instead of war. We might see our lives as the circuit-training of Christian discipleship, a workout program sustained by God's Word and Flesh, aimed not at beach-worthy bodies but Kingdom-living hearts. Christian faith hopes that on our last day Jesus will ask us not about our waist size but about the size of our heart. Did you give me food to eat and water to drink? Did you clothe me when I was naked? Did you visit me in prison? In the hustle and bustle of your daily life, did you allow your heart to be moved in love and compassion? Did you bother to love?

In the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Christians believe, we encounter the fulfillment of humanity's hope for God and God's hope for humanity. We are each offered a share in this heart, a chance to make our hearts beat in time with Jesus' own heart. And, unlike the clothing at Abercrombie & Fitch, the Sacred Heart is available to all regardless of size or shape. A heart on fire with a desire to share the Good News with a world desperately in need of it. A heart vulnerable to the cares others. A heart open to being touched, pierced, and moved. A heart pouring itself out in joyful love, giving without ever counting the cost, courageously allowing each heartbeat the record a life lived for God's greater honor and glory.

Oh, Sacred Heart of Jesus, give us strength to allow our hearts to beat in time with yours that our entire lives - our words and deeds - may become one single prayer lifted up to you.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Domestic Traveler

It's hard to believe that it's already June 3rd. The month of May screamed past me: my first year of theology studies came to a close, my German course started, and I began playing for Irish dancers just about every weekend. Over the past few weeks, I've flown to Cincinnati, Lexington, Chicago, and Detroit. This weekend I'm heading to Austin, followed by Chicago, and then Dayton. A week later I'll be in Iowa and then, ten days after that, Denver for three weeks.

In short, I'm wracking up the Frequent Flier Miles. 

As an Irish musician traveling with an accordion, airports can be a bit dicey. I once had to carry my accordion and an Irish dancing costume my mother had made for some child. Imagine the sight of a balding man, about the age of 30, carrying a pretty pink dress and an accordion. I'm surprised I didn't end up on Dateline or some TSA watch list. 

The woman who sent her son through
security with a dress and an accordion.
This is not to say that all travel involves personal embarrassment. On Saturday, en route from Detroit to Philadelphia, I managed to sit directly in front of  a toddler with some sort of spastic leg problem. He kept kicking the back of my chair. His mother had her own challenges, I reckon it must be peripheral blindness and deafness because she appeared to see NOTHING of what her child was doing. I comforted myself with  a promise that, when I disembarked from the plane, I would toast the little demon with a glass of wine at the Vino Volo in the area connecting Concourse A and B. Cheers, Jenny, you made my layover much more enjoyable!

Then again, sometimes my travels leave me more than a bit bemused and, well, confused. For instance, on Saturday as I tried to get through the security line at Detroit's Airport, I had a most remarkable encounter.

It begins pretty standardly: we are all of us waiting to go through the security line. Two lines of people stripping off shoes, belts, coats, removing laptops, etc., converging on one line to go through the little tube where you put your hands up and it takes a supposedly non-invasive picture of your body. By the time I got into the scanning line, it was about seven people deep. For the TSA agent, this seemed to be too much.

A larger woman with a booming voice, she muttered something like, "this is taking too long." So she raised her eyes, locked onto mine, and asked a most perplexing question:

Her: You got a hip?
Me (Completely caught off guard): ??????
Her: I said, do you got a hip?
Me: I have two of them, to be precise.
Her: Sir, I am in no mood to play around with you. Do you got a false hip? Can you go through the metal detector?
Me: I'm cool - my hips are natural. 

Since when, and in what code, does "You got a hip?" correlate to "Do you have a prosthesis that would disqualify you from walking quickly through the metal detector?" 

As I sat with Jenny at Vino Volo, I toasted the TSA agent with the second glass of wine. 

Years ago, before I joined the Jesuits, I was seated next to a passenger I could tell wanted to be very chatty. I was buckling my belt when she started asking questions of me: Where do you live? Why are you going to Atlanta? I didn't respond until she touched my leg with her right hand. Young and immature, I did the only thing I could think of to avoid talking to her: I looked at her, waved my hands around quickly, and said, "I'm sorry, I'm deb." I intentionally said "deb" over "deaf" for emphasis. Undeterred, the woman simply repeated her questions, only louder this time. Once again, I furthered my ruse and reiterated my claim to being deaf. 

I thought my charade was up, however, when the attendant came around taking drink orders and I asked for a seltzer water in my typical voice. Fortunately, my seat mate was dozing and didn't notice that my hearing had been miraculously restored. 

I'm not proud of it, although I do continue to find it funny these many years later. 

I enjoy travel to the extent that it provides an opportunity to collect stories. I always travel with a book but never with headphones: I need to keep my ear open to the environment around me, listening to people as they share their lives in the cramped quarters of an airplane. So often one can catch snippets of the various pilgrimages people are on, the journeys their lives are taking, travels we share in common for a few hours as we cross the continent and time zones en route to our destinations. Outside of our final destination we share little more than time and a willingness to share a story...or with some of the more comedic and inane travelers, provide fodder for future stories!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame