Saturday, November 30, 2013

Occasions for Pleasure, No Place for Joy

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

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

Nevertheless, I still regret that I ever did it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Evangelii Gaudium

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

S*#T Under the Fingernails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Cradle is Not a Future Cashbox

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

StatementThe Cradle Is Not a Future Cashbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Intimacy in the Age of Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

"Modern Man" and "The Mission"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Briefly Checking In

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame