Friday, August 30, 2013

You Are Not Alone

It may come as a surprise to some readers, but one of my preferred spiritual devotions is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I think it's because a total-sense engaging experience: dimmed lights, flickering candles, a focal point, an atmosphere of silence flooded with the smell of incense.

On occasion I'll go to Adoration and pray the rosary. Those are rare occasions, however. In general, my preference is simply to sit in silence and let my prayer be one for all those in need of prayers at that moment. In the darkness of the church or chapel, I simply try to join myself in prayer to all those who, at that very moment, need to know they are not alone:

  • The woman attempting to summon the courage to leave an abusive husband
  • The young man contemplating suicide
  • The woman trapped in a sex-trafficking ring 
  • The victim of rape or sex abuse attempting to find the courage to report what has happened
  • The teenager petrified to come out of the closet to his or her parents
  • The person struggling with drug addiction, wrestling with whether to "get high" or to seek treatment
  • The broken-hearted parents of children senselessly killed in wars they neither began nor could begin to comprehend
  • In short: I pray for all those who might be forgotten by a world rushing on to the next big thing, rushing to the next appointment, concerned with getting ahead. You may call me foolish but, in those moments, I imagine that in the darkness of prayer I can offer prayerful presence to those in the world who need, at that moment, to hear: You Are Not Alone
My heart was warmed, yet again, by a story of the cold-calling Pope Francis and his call to an Argentinian rape victim.  After reading her letter about being raped, the Holy Father called and spoke to her for over half an hour, telling her, "You are not alone." 

Speaking to reporters after the call, she said, "Now I know that I am not alone and I will pick myself up again." 

It is tempting to treat our personal prayer as a spiritual self-improvement program, sort of like a metaphysical Weight-Watchers. The example we see from the Holy Father reminds us, however, that the fruit of our prayer is not solely for our consumption. When our hearts have been moved by an encounter with the Risen One, our movement must be to join ourselves with those to whom He wishes us to go. Prayer, opening our hearts to the One who calls us into being and desires to give us a mission in the world, is both the beginning and end of our lives of discipleship. 

For it is only in prayer that we will hear, in the silence of our stilled hearts, the whisper of the Holy One who assures us You Are Not Alone and empowers us to go and do likewise, to be incarnate reminders that our God is a God with us. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ahhh, so THAT'S a Teddy?

Credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage
Call me benighted, but I always thought a "teddy" was something worn by amorous newlyweds and J Edgar Hoover. Miley's outfit...well, I reckon this wholly redefines the genre.

I'm forced to wonder if this is a case of art imitating life or life imitating art.

In either case, both are pretty nasty.

As someone who considers himself to have a slightly better-than-average sense of the aesthetic, I'll be candid in saying that the entire display made no sense to me. I just didn't get the dancing bears. Perhaps I taught special needs children and have the "Teddy Bear Picnic" song too engrained in my musical marrow.

If nothing else, last night's dancing display does provide something of a public service announcement to parents. When I would prefect high school dances, we did enforce a "No Twerk" policy. Students were given a warning and then, if they were approached again, they'd lose their student ID's. Inappropriate dancing by our students earned them a detention (JUG); the girls' ID's were returned to their school's administration with a letter explaining why the ID had been taken.

From: The Sun UK
On many occasions, parents would be irate that we had and enforced a dancing policy. I honestly don't think they had any idea what "twerking" or "throwing twerk" looked like. So thank you, Miley, because parents all over now have a sense of what their daughters look like the moment before we take your student ID.

This photo is no exaggeration of how many girls look at dances. The "twerk" position calls for the girl to grasp either her knees or the floor. It seems to be an autonomic reaction for the tongue to come lolling out of the mouth, as seen to the left. The only difference is that Robin Thicke is focused upon his microphone. Very often, the boys receiving the "thrown twerk" have an equally lolled out tongue.

Granted, our also-bemoaned dress code prevented students from coming in this state of undress. Nevertheless, this is the type of dancing we took exception with. Call us prude, or puritanical, but as a guy with younger sisters I think this type of dancing may be better suited to clubs where you pay-by-dance with singles rather than a high school gymnasium.

Some may question whether this is a topic appropriate for blogging about. I don't much care for the salacious pictures, but I figure if a public figure puts herself out there is such a garish fashion it demands discussion.

Call the Catholic Church a fusty remnant, but when we advocate for the dignity of the human person and the human body, at least you know that our system of values precludes Robin Thicke from using Miley as a cat-scratch post at an awards show. And though it should be mentioned, I simply can't dissect the whole usage of the foam finger.

So, there you have my Monday Moaning (pun wholly intended). If any good comes from this - scant good to match the scant clothes - it may be to give an immortalized picture of what this sort of dancing is not so that we become more repressive as a culture but to help us realize how silly it looks.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Jesuit's Guide to Sensitive Classroom Discussions

Every teacher, particularly if the field involves having to discuss moral and social issues, will eventually be confronted with having to discuss a particularly sensitive issue. The range is seemingly infinite: homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, divorce, welfare, war, immigration. The high school classroom, in particular, is inordinately susceptible to becoming a place of rancorous debate rather than reasoned reflection.

Over three years of teaching, I developed the following Four-Fold Strategy for Sensitive Discussions. My friend Bobby, for whom I composed the Advice to a New Teacher, reminded me last night of this strategy and it spurred me to compose this. As always, if it is helpful: use it. If it doesn't suit your needs: ignore it.

Step One: Set the Stage

Explain to the students that you're all about to engage in a thought exercise. You want to take them through a procedure, a way of thinking, to give them the tools to talk about sensitive issues. Note: your responsibility is threefold. First, you need to be the presider over this exercise and must prevent any hijacking. Two, you have to "take the temperature" of the class regularly and make sure that you have a general consensus from the body. Third, you need to make sure that the students see recorded on the board what they've said. When necessary, for teachers in a particular tradition, you'll have to make "friendly amendments" to reflect, say, the Catholic Church's teaching on the issue.

Step One: Name the POSITIONS Involved in the Issue

Begin by acknowledging that controversial topics are seldom easily resolved. Take any major issue: let us, for instance, take abortion. What are the key positions people take toward abortion? By position, I mean nothing other than the basic label describing one's stance toward the issue. In my experience, students will come up with four basic positions. Each of these positions gets its own space on the board. However many positions on an issue the students can take, you need a column for each in order to represent the diversity of classroom views. Thus, the first step might look something like this (forgive my lack of ability with computer graphics):

Check to make sure that the students agree that this reflects the POSITIONS, the handy labels describing where one stands on an issue. If they agree, move to step two. If they feel something needs to be added, do so. Remember: you're not yet looking for reasons, just positions.

Step Two: Name the VALUES Held by Each Position

Systematically go through each of the positions and solicit from the students what each position VALUES. By keeping them directed toward a common goal of understanding what each position values, you'll prevent them from attacking one another. By encouraging them to think through each position, you'll help them to see the complexity of various issues.

For the sake of space, I'm only including a few values under each point. The key to this stage is getting the students to think along with each position to uncover what each one values. Thus, the board at some stage may look a bit like this:

This is by no means exhaustive. Indeed, your students will probably be able to give lots of values. Keep this in mind: what vivifies each position? What is important to each position? In the Catholic Schools, you may have to make the "friendly amendment" to give the Church's rational behind its position, what the Church values. 
In my experience, when we get under the surface of the positions, students are rather accepting of other people's values. Consider this a benign symptom of their being (in general) relativists: their attitude can, frequently, be "if it's true for you, great." I don't agree with this, of course, but I would certainly use it to my advantage. If done properly, this stage of the discussion should still be relatively "cool" because they are thinking together, not against one another. 

Again, make sure the students feel the various values are adequately represented. That they see their values reflected gives them a sense that their voice is being heard and it gives it an objective space on the board so that, in the next stage, they don't feel as if they are being personally critiqued. 

Stage Three: CRITIQUE  of Positions/Values

Starting at a point, draw the students into the process of offering a critique of each position from the standpoint of another. Thus, if you start with Pro-Life, critique the "Moderately Pro-Life," the "Moderately Pro-Choice," and the "Pro-Choice." Keep the critique to what is one the board: remember, they have agreed that this is an adequate representation of their thoughts in stage one and two.

As you engage in the critique, it will take your teacher's finesse to help uncover certain commonalities or family resemblances between values. Even the student who may be most virulently pro-choice will accede some merit to the virulently pro-life student's values. Further, for young adults who already are grappling with authority issues, you're not imposing the Church's views but, rather, proposing the reason why the Church holds the position it does. If they can see the rationale behind its position, it goes a long way in working its way through their heads and into the hearts.

Stage Four: Imaginative Resolution of Conflict

Recall for them that we have four (or however many) different positions. On the level of position, they can be thought to be irreconcilable. If I think women should have unrestricted access to abortion (my position), it's hardly able to gel with your position that it should be illegal.  Yet, when we peer together at the values each position enshrines, we may see a way for an imaginative resolution. Imaginative resolutions looks at how the various positions can come together. Often raised are the issues of societal well-being, access to resources, the possibility of adoption, support for young mothers, etc..

The students may say that abortion should not be a viable choice but, given the current social conditions, it is an unwanted consequence of societal injustice. No, this is not at all the Church's position (which you will have to defend). Nevertheless, you've gotten a toe-hold: rather than being ardently pro-choice, some ground has been ceded and a sense of the bigger picture has been gained. Instead of thinking of their various positions on abortion/immigration/healthcare as solitary units, you can start to help them see the interconnections between each each and help them to appreciate the whole-cloth values of the Church.

In my experience, I found that engaging in this sort of exercise on several different topics begins to weave a very large cloth for the students. That is, they start to see the coherence of the Church's views on various issues (the values of the Church, reflected in its social teaching, are consistent) and helping the students to name them and engage with them is a great step in helping in appropriation. The goal of this exercise is not to change their minds in the first go-round. Instead, you start exposing them to the values of a tradition in order that they might see the rationale and coherence of the values and take those values for themselves.


What I have offered is one way of engaging in sensitive classroom discussions. I found that it short-circuited the desire of students who wanted only to debate because it actually forced them to think along with positions they disagreed with. I take as my operative assumption that I'm not going to change anyone's position. I can, however, share my values and help to see why my values are coherent and reasonable and trust that these values will speak to the heart of my interlocutor.

As much as this is helpful for guiding a classroom of sophomores or seniors, imagine trying to carry this out in the workplace. I suspect this would be a salutary exercise for intra-office conflict management. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Neither Meaningless or Neutral

To live the faith is not to decorate life with a little religion, like a cake is decorated with a little frosting. No! It's not that. Faith entails choosing God as the fundamental criterion of life, and God is neither meaningless nor neutral. God is love!

Remember this: follow Jesus: no one else. To follow Jesus means to be involved, because faith is not something decorative. It is the strength of the soul!

~ Pope Francis
13 August 2013

Just about two weeks ago, I concluded my annual 8-day retreat. If I have still few words to describe how powerful this particular retreat was for me. Graced with a wonderful retreat director and the tranquility of a retreat house, I found it very easy to embrace the 8-days of prayer and reflection. 

The two quotes from Pope Francis resonate strongly with me, particularly in light of my retreat experience. Throughout the week, my director encouraged a simple mantra for prayer: Jesus, you are enough for me. Six little words, to be sure, but they say so much:
  • I don't have a 401k. Yet, Jesus, you are enough for me. 
  • I go to bed alone every night. Yet, Jesus, you are enough for me.
  • I'm 33 and still don't have a career. Yet, Jesus, you are enough for me.
  • The challenges facing our Church and our world seem so overwhelming. Is it realistic to think that there's anything I can do? Yet, Jesus, you are enough for me.
  • I am a sinner. How can I preach the Good News when I'm frequently a dirtbag? Yet, Jesus, you are enough for me. 
I could easily keep the list going. Indeed, it'd be very easy to spend hours self-flagellating and throwing a pity party. Yet, again and again, in prayer I felt the singular confirmation, "Yes, Jesus, you are enough for me."

This past Sunday, I was overjoyed to spend a wonderful evening with a number of friends and former students from my time at U of D Jesuit High School. I loved catching up with everyone and hearing about how the past year has gone. The next morning, I drove one student back to Cleveland and enjoyed hearing about the various summer adventures he'd embarked upon and the concerts he'd attended. I dropped him off at 8:30 am in Cleveland (we left his house in Michigan at 5:15 am), grabbed a cup of coffee, and drove to my parents' house on the opposite side of town. 

My heart was filled with a sense of total peace and joy. Ranging from ongoing gratitude for my retreat to the enjoyment of being with family and friends for two weeks, I spent the whole ride home aware that, while in many ways I am a poor man, within my heart I have been graced with infinite wealth. As I pray in the early mornings in our chapel, I cannot help but to allow a smile creep across my face: faith isn't a veneer or sugary coating but loving substance of my life. 

One exercise I'd suggest to anyone looking for help with prayer: turn the car radio off on your way to work and be quiet. Allow your heart to be touched by a spirit of gratitude, to be swayed by how your life has been graced by God. In the quiet of your car, what could become your monastic cell on wheels, you may come to see that faith isn't a nicety or an add-on but stands as the very substance of your existence. If the adage "You are what you eat" is true, then such mindfulness may draw us deeper into becoming the thanksgiving, the Eucharist, we receive each week. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Why Would a Millennial Become a Priest or a Nun?

This morning The Atlantic published an article featuring quotes from several Jesuits about why young people would desire to dedicate their lives as priests and nuns. If you have a few moments, it's definitely worth reading. It's nice that I know the two Jesuit priests interviewed and I'm friends with both the young man (Matt Ipple) about to enter the Society of Jesus and just met yesterday Danny Gustafson, SJ.

Go Derek!

So proud to say that I taught the young man featured in this commercial!! 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Jesuit's Guide to College

As students prepare to go off to college, either as first-year students or returners, I'd like to share again something I wrote for my students last year. As most instances of advice, take what is helpful to you and ignore the rest.

I wrote this as a letter to the students of the class of 2012, the last class of seniors I taught at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy. The content of the letter has remained basically the same, although I may have tweaked a point here or there.

Hi Guys,

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

It is hard to let the teacher part of me go, so please indulge me once more as I offer a few words of advice. Do as you will with.

1. Books: you need them. DO NOT BUY AT THE BOOKSTORE. You will only succeed in being financially plundered. Instead, do this:

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

2. Books: In my experience, it is dumb to save most books. I saved my theology and philosophy, some history, and a few novels. Generally, though, you don't need to hang on to the texts. If you can rent: great! E-Books are something to consider as well. The benefit is that you have an easily searchable text. The downside? Well, I'm old and like books. 

3. Technology in the Classroom: You have, undoubtedly, purchased a new computer and convinced your parents that you simply must have an iPad in order to make you a competitive student. You are excited because you think your laptop will enable you to stream YouTube videos and music...errr, I mean, study...anywhere you go. Some thoughts:

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

a1. Because laptops are tempting. You can hide behind them or, when the professor proves less-than-interesting, you will spend time on Facebook or other sites that will distract you. Even boring professors have something to contribute. As Saint Matthew writes, "The spirit is willing, the flesh is weak." Don't put yourself in the position to be tempted to iChat and hours of candy crush.

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

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

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

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

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

b. Ask smart questions. Avoid being the guy who tries to outsmart the instructor by asking questions such as, “Can God make a burrito so hot he can't eat it?" Handy litmus test: If it made you laugh on Twitter or if you saw it on a Facebook, it probably does not belong in a college classroom. Save it for use as a lame pick-up line when you're trying to impress a girl while holding an empty red solo cup because you can't figure out how to use the keg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. Brush your teeth.  Use deodorant (Men's deodorant, not Axe). I used to tell my freshmen, "Men, this is Axe. Never too much, too often." 

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

7. Social issues:

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

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

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

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

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

With Great Affection,

Ryan "Abba" Duns

Friday, August 09, 2013

No Other Choice

So, I'm staying at my sister Torrey's house and watching her dog, Lola, until they come home tomorrow night. Lola is a small dog of some variety and, it appears, she has an anxiety disorder. I've gone from a lifetime of sleeping alone to having this dog climb into bed with me each night; if she's not in the bed, she just barks...and barks...and barks.

The internet is down at their house, so I've come over to my parents' to spend the day. My original intent was to watch a movie on Netflix but I can't figure out how to turn on their television. It took me almost an entire year to figure out how to use the television in Boston and, as I'm here for only a few days, I simply can't imagine investing the time in trying to figure it out.

Thus, I'm studying for the GRE. The verbal section is fine, really, but the math?  I haven't done geometry in...well, 18 years. The study book I'm using emphasized that neither Trig nor Calculus are on the exam. What? When I actually became good in math, it was when I was in later high school and college and then decided to try. So now I'm relearning formulas for areas and perimeters of triangles and circles all in order to apply for a PhD in Theology.

So, I've no choice but to study. I think I'll walk up to my favorite Chinese restaurant for lunch but, other than that, I'm sitting at the kitchen table doing math problems. I feel like I'm in high school again!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame