Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Art of the Selfie

I went for a run a few days back - just before our latest cold snap - and happened to leave just before sundown. Gravel crunched underneath my blue running shoes as I ran around the Reservoir near Boston College's campus, the air was cool and crisp and I felt grateful to get an hour away from my desk.

At a certain bend in the road, a pristine spot where there's enough of a gap between the tress to allow an unobstructed view of the sky, I saw a teenage girl. She was just standing there, one arm held out in front of her face. She was, I am assuming, snapping "selfie" pictures: those pictures one takes of oneself in various locations.

This was a gorgeous location. Perhaps the earth was tilted just right, but a molten red sun was just kissing the earth's horizon directly behind her. Seen from where I was standing (I sort of slowed to a bit of a walk) it looked as if she had donned an oversized halo. In a word, the sunset was gorgeous. The girl knew it, too, but didn't turn to see it. Instead, she seemed to need to superimpose herself upon it.

It's not this particular instance of "taking selfies" that fascinates me. Rather, I'm curious about the phenomenon in general. Is the Selfie 'art' or is it simply self-inflation? Is it authentic creativity or narcissism?

I ask this because whether it be on trains or in major cities, beautiful vistas or college campuses, I see a lot of people taking their own photos. These aren't group shots, no one encourages them to "say cheese." It's simply self-directed, self-shot images. Remember, the myth of Narcissus was of a young man so smitten with his own beauty that he spent his days staring at his reflection. Is the selfie simply an updating of this myth, giving Narcissus the permanence of his reflection while offering him as well the mobility of a cell-phone mirror?

William Desmond, the Irish-born philosopher whose books have not been far from my hand this last year, muses about the "truncated, narcissistic selfhood that is infatuated with its own fatuous reflection." For Desmond, true works of art have the capacity for arresting over-inflated senses of self: the beauty of art draws thew viewer from his or her own reflection toward a radiant work of beauty.

As budgets for the arts continue to be slashed and as we put increasing pressure on students to strive for quantitative success (GPA, test score, logged service hours, etc.), perhaps we should ponder on what seems to be a fundamental need by humans for beauty, for art. We must cultivate an aesthetic sensibility among our students, exposing them to great works of art (musical, visual, natural) not in order for them to put themselves in the picture, but in order that the horizon of their world be broadened to include a form of beauty that does arise from them. We must allow for the beauty of otherness, a beauty not of their own making or under their control, to throw them off step and to call them away from excessive self-gazing...whether it be in a pool of water, a mirror, or the screen of a cell phone. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Tasting Crew

This wine-tasting crew. I apologize for not being as effusive/elaborate as I was in June, but our group has grown (several others are missing) and it's hard to keep up!

By the end of the evening, the ten of us who participated sample three white wines and seven reds. We had a lot of fun, to be sure, but the size of the group really made it difficult to do any exhaustive analysis: we'll have to re-adjust the size next time. 

2007 Arocho

Right off the bat, we noted this wine needed air. This is very fruit-forward, very bright.

John Nugent: This reminds me of a spring day on the banks of the Brazos River. I would linger there, watching clouds, daydreaming of the future when I would be a thirty-something Jesuit who drank delicious wines in Brighton, MA. Alas, like the clouds that danced across the sky, this wine does not have much finish and vanishes quickly.

Sean enjoyed the color. That was enough for us. 

Meghan: Prompted to give an emotion, she shared an experience of a student who once said, "it made me feel empty inside." It's tangy, a bit tangy.

Deacon Paul: He loves his dainty glass. His forelock falling across his face, he muses, "It'd be very attractive for a desperate housewife. Then again, I'm a few Martini's in, so I can't be trusted." So it has been said, so it must be. 

2011 Primus

Joe Garcia drew my attention to this wine last summer. Thank goodness he did! Although some of us were familiar with it, I thought it a good pick for tonight's tasting.

Father Clifford: BALANCE. Anyone who can blend five wines so well must be very smart. Depth of flavor. Marvels, over and again, at the skill of the blending. 

Liz, draining the glass, admitted it was rather good. 

Randy: Very very enjoyable. Nicely balanced and deep; good fruit; lovely bouquet. Tastes berry and a hint of smoke. 

Sean: wants to know why "Red" wine doesn't taste like fruit punch. 

Spiritual Bouquet: 4 Chalices. 

2011 Robert Mondavi Chardonnay

Liz notes this as being "sharp, tangy, and saucy."

Father Clifford referred to it as "big and fruity, it bowls you over." This, of course, elicited great laughter from the group because it's so true. He rightly noted the pear aroma.

Randy, the great "Dessert Father," thought on this for some time. He enjoyed this wine, but doesn't know what to say: it's a good all-around wine, but he's not sure that he'd buy it again. Abba Clifford agreed with this, as the wine is not particularly interesting. Randy concluded, "Would that every glass of Chardonnay I had tasted this good."

Sean bemoaned that he couldn't tell this difference between this wine and the first. We had to remind him that he hadn't yet changed wines and was still on the Fume. Clearly, this is going to be a long night.

Spiritual Bouquet: 3.5 Chalices. 

Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc

Our first bottle is the 2012 Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc. Father Clifford remarked after its viscosity; Meghan and Liz were taken with its comely "mouthfeel."

Randy enjoyed it, noting pensively that it is both rich and heavy. He agrees with Bobby that one can readily detect pineapple, citrus, and it's a bit grassy. Randy noted it was a bit rococo: very rich, oaky, nothing at all austere. A tad over the top. 

Sean thought he detected hints of saddle leather and must. We were puzzled, of course, until we saw that he was licking his shoe. We can't speculate on how this came up, of course, but we quickly replaced the shoe for a glass. 

Group: 4 chalices!

Wine Team, Assemble!

Just over six months ago, several severely under-worked divinity school students gathered together in order to "discern spirits" by which, we of course meant, sampling a variety of wines one could purchase at the Costco. On this mild winter night in Brighton, I have once again put the conch shell to my lips and let the call go out across the land: Wine Team, Assemble!

The call has gone out and it has been heard. From across the Boston area, men and women of good will are gathering together to drink inexpensive wine, to pretend to have an idea of what we're talking about, and to spend some time with one another. 

Now, we're not total rubes. We have standards. Accordingly, we have developed a ranking system for our wines surely in keeping with the spirit of Vatican II:
1 Chalice: Jesus went to the Cross so that you could make this? Was this the "wine mixed with gall" he refused (Matthew 27:37, Mark 15:23). Definitely a mortal sin.
 2 Chalices: This is probably a venial sin of the vine but, if you want to make an integral and perfect wine confession, you should mention it. 
3 Chalices: Enjoyable without guilt. Conventional.  
4 Chalices: A wine worthy of a saint. Goes above and beyond what is expected. Heroic effort and true virtue.  
 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. 

Depending on who is still standing after each tasting, we will gather our evaluations into a "spiritual bouquet" and share with readers our thoughts.

Again, this is all meant in a spirit of fun and frivolity. We may be able to tell you the importance of "consubstantial" but we're hardly wine experts. We're just graduate students looking for any excuse to hang out and have fun.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Healing, Teaching, and Holiness

Every so often, we see in the news stories of parents or bosses who use cameras hidden in teddy bears or coffee pots to capture abusive nannies or lazy employees. Of course, we should make every effort to protect our children and bosses are responsible for the future of their companies. What is interesting, however, is that the 30-second clip of abuse that goes viral on YouTube or that makes the news is usually only a small bit, a fragment, of a lot of tape. Hours and hours and hours may have gone by before anything out-of-the-ordinary was captured.

I suspect if we installed video cameras throughout our homes and workplaces, cameras that recorded each and every move, we'd learn a great deal. We'd learn which of our children doesn't unload the dishwasher, doesn't wash hands after using the toilet, does drink milk straight from the jug. If we watched the replay of several weeks, we might come to realize that we have a pattern for dressing, a distinct way of playing with one's hair or walking, that we spend an awful lot of time "working" on Facebook.

If we had several weeks, or even months, of video to review, I think we'd be struck most of all with how typical our routines are. With some exceptions, the skeletal structures of our days tend to be pretty much the same day in, day out.

As we enter liturgical Ordinary Time, the Evangelist Mark gives us early in his Gospel an image of Jesus' routine. The readings for today and tomorrow, covering Mark 1:21-39, could be called "A Day in the Life of Jesus." If we had a camera set up to record this day, what would it pick up?

Two actions seem to dominate Jesus' day: Healing and Teaching. When we read both passages, we take note immediately of the healing miracles: Jesus begins his day in the synagogue where he cures a man with a demon, goes to his friend's house where he heals an ailing woman, and then at sundown people begin to carry their sick loved ones to him.

Yet what brings Jesus to the synagogue is not a desire to be a fancy miracle worker but, rather, to be a teacher. His teaching astonished listeners and his words alone were enough to compel demons to leave the possessed. Indeed, Jesus' role as teacher keeps him from getting pinned down: he knows his calling to be that of proclaiming the message throughout neighboring villages.

It is easy to focus on one or other aspect of the story, but if we look at the whole "video," I think we see that Jesus' whole day was given over to the service of the Kingdom. He did what he preached, and what he preached was God's Reign coming into the world to make all things new. He wasn't trying to pitch a new plank in a political agenda. Instead, he was throwing out all the old agendas and replacing it with one directly from the Creator. From dawn to dusk, Jesus worked tirelessly for one aim: to proclaim, by word and deed, the Kingdom of God.

If we were to watch a video of our lives, whether from one day or many, would we detect a similar coherence? Would we be able to say, "Ah, Yes! See how everything rotates around one common conviction!" or, if you're like me, would you lament, "Ah, No! I seem to be busy about many things, confused and scattered!" Would the video of our lives, watched in playback, be something we are proud of or something we would regret for lacking any internal coherence, any structure or story?

Jesus' invitation to discipleship always asks us to "follow along." He will give the notes for us to play and help us to play them, he will give us the pattern and help us to follow it. Jesus never tells someone to go out and live a different life. He loves people and because of this love they live their lives differently. He shares with them the story of his own life, a video clip we glimpse in these readings, and encourages us to take his story for our own and to anchor our lives in God's Kingdom.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Vocations at the Beach

Today's Gospel, taken from Mark 1:14-20, recounts Jesus' calling Simon (Peter) and Andrew. It's a quickly unfolding story: Jesus walks by the shore, takes note of the two brothers lowering their nets into the water, and Jesus calls. They get up, apparently immediately, and follow. Just for good measure, Jesus calls a second pair of brothers - James and John - while they were mending their nets. 

Not a bad morning's work, I reckon: a stroll along the beach with a 'net' result of four followers. 

Note: if you can find a job in vocation promotion that requires only a morning stroll down the beach with the hope of getting four people to follow as disciples, then sign me up!

It seems to me that, very often, people stress the suddenness of the fishermen's response to Jesus' summons: he calls, they follow. This has never struck me as either credible or helpful. I mean, who is crazy enough to leave behind everything based simply on a call from a guy on the shore? On my more cynical days, any such interpretation is like one of those spam emails one receives from Africa saying that "Mrs Cynthia Nelson" has died and left you her entire $5,000,000 estate. All you need to do is give your bank account number so that the money can be transferred...

You get the gist: the offer of $5,000,000 from a person unknown should give one pause before acting. It'd be a different story if someone called and said your grandmother, or the neighbor whose driveway you've shoveled for years, had left you a hearty inheritance. In the latter cases, it's at least believable because of a pre-existing relationship with the other person. 

Which is why, I believe, today's Gospel doesn't mark the start of Jesus' ministry so much as the end of its quiet phase. In my imagination, at least, I think it plausible that Jesus had met Peter and Andrew, James and John, before. Perhaps many times before: on journeys to Jerusalem, while gathering water or wood, while the mothers prepared the evening meal. Perhaps a small group of young men shared with one another their hopes and dreams and fears for the future.

Caravaggio (c. 1602) "The Calling of Sts Peter and Andrew"
It is not, of course, that either this geographic region or its population were so vast that it'd be unlikely for their paths to have crossed. Even if they had never before met in person, it would seem likely that people would have heard of Jesus: the Gospels give us the first recorded instance of Jesus proclaiming the Kingdom; they do not claim that it was the first time he ever mentioned it. Indeed, perhaps it was within the company of his young friends that the young Jesus daydreamed of just what this Kingdom might be, of how it might look.

Sometimes, I think, it's tempting to believe that we will know what we are called to do, or who were are called to be, in a momentary flash of insight. I wish this were the case! I wish it were such that one a single day everything were made clear and the path laid out with defined markers. Alas, this is seldom, if it is ever, the case.

I think it more in keeping with experience that our sense of calling builds up over time. It may start with a rogue idea, a fanciful daydream, but one that lingers longer than usual. One's sense of calling may come from one's loved one's or friends who notice within a person something special, something as-yet unseen, but something in need of being coaxed out and nurtured. One's call never comes in a single booming voice. Instead, it is mediated through the voices of those around us who summon us to be the person we are called to be.

This is my long-winded way of saying that I wish I knew Peter's backstory. Was he friends with the youthful Jesus? Was his heart stirred by Jesus' words and dreams? Were Jesus' other friends similarly moved and drawn to share in his vision for what the world might become? On that morning on a beach in Galilee, was Jesus' call a bolt from the blue or was it, as I suggested earlier, a decisive moment when Jesus' friends committed themselves fully to dreams and plans hatched during idyl evening conversations?

I often muse on the fact that I am a Jesuit, not because on a single day it came to me to be such, but because for many years I had been coming to know this Jesus fellow - introduced through the Church and the diocesan priests, Jesuits, and religious sisters I knew - and slowly realized that in him I could find happiness. The years of relationship building, years of coming to know and to trust, were finally galvanized one day when I did hear a call deep within my heart. My "yes" on that day, and my daily "yes" I often struggle to utter, was less a crazy "leap" than it was an entering into a new phase of relationship. Prayer and discernment never forced me to live a new life. Instead, prayer and discernment have afforded me a way of living life differently and the way of Companionship with Jesus has made all the difference.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

My Return to the Walking Dead

If the new year found me back on the road as a runner, it has also found me returned to the television to watch AMC's The Walking Dead. It's a show I began watching several years ago, while I was still a high school teacher, but one I've not kept up with as much as I'd have liked. I mean, the gods of television place before the viewer a seemingly un-winnable situation: one must, apparently, choose between zombies and Downton Abbey.

A few months back, I managed to catch up on Season 3. Last night, I started season 4. It does seem a somewhat macabre start to the new year: flesh-eating zombies laying siege to humans seeking refuge in an abandoned prison. After vampires, I think zombies are my favorite type of "monster." I think, however, that I like vampires because they're fantastic creatures. I like zombies, not because they're fantastic, but because they're just like us.

I believe I have observed this before, but the very nature of the zombie changed during the middle of the 20th century. Prior to World War II, zombification was an induced state rendering the victim a mindless drone. After World War II, after the atrocities of the Holocaust, the nature of the zombie changed. George Romero created a monster terrifying, not simply because of what it did, but because of how similar it was to us.

The zombie is, after all, a creature of ravenous hunger. It makes no discrimination as to who it devours: its appetite must be sated and its course and pathway is established solely by that hunger. And yet, those possessed of this hunger look just like us: they are us, our neighbors and friends. They can eat, and eat, and eat but they never find fulfillment. They are hunger made flesh...hunger for flesh made flesh.

I do not think it merely coincidental that world and national politics have been consumed with discussions of the economy. The economic meltdown, climaxing in 2008 but with roots extending much further back in history, pulled back the veil on a hunger that pit human against human. True, we're not eating the literal flesh of one another but we do see economic systems clearly stacked in the favor of those who have an unbridled hunger for capital.

If Downton Abbey transports us to another time and place, perhaps The Walking Dead draws us more deeply into our own time, our own place. The popularity of these shows may betray how many of us live somewhere between the Abbey and the Prison: desirous of being freed into a gilded era while feeling very much under threat from an enemy intent on devouring us in our entirety.

Friday, January 10, 2014

For the Good of the Church

It was with great excitement that I read of a new beer being brewed by the Trappist monks of Saint Joseph's Abbey here in Spencer, Massachusetts. Definitely check out the Boston Globe's article "Monks in Spencer launch brewery."

There is even is snazzy website where you can learn about Spencer Trappist Ale, order a nifty beer chalice, and read about the establishment of the brewery.

Although I've spent the last few years attempting to cultivate a greater appreciation for wine, I suspect my first love will always be good beer. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio I was spoiled by having immediate access to The Great Lakes Brewing Company and, more recently, Fat Head's Brewery. That this beer goes on sale here in Massachusetts this upcoming Wednesday has made the start of the new semester just a little bit brighter.

St. Joseph's Abbey is justly famous for its preserves and its liturgical vestments. I applaud this new venture undertaken by the monks...or, perhaps better put, I (will) raise a glass to them. I mean, if drinking a beer helps to support the monks, who am I to withhold from aiding the Church? 

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Running Again

After a rather long hiatus, I recently began running again. Well, I would call it running because my feet move faster than usual. The casual observer, however, might describe it more as a particularly fast walk or, perhaps, loping.

@ 26.2 miles 
It's not that I ever really decided to stop running in the first place. In May 2009, I ran the Cleveland Marathon and continued to run throughout the summer. As I began teaching that fall, I found I had to get up very early if I wanted to get an appreciable run in each day. With the onset of winter, I found it increasingly difficult to navigate seldom-shoveled sidewalks and poorly plowed streets. In addition, I had found other ways of exercising (yoga, the Insanity workout program) in my room.

I don't know that I suffered physically from this abandonment: my cardio health is strong, I maintain a healthy weight, and overall am in good health. That said, I do know that the years of exercising in my room has not been ideal. When I think of it, I'm quite certain it has been spiritually draining. For, when I began to think about it, I realized I have been living an increasingly monastic existence: within my room, I pray, sleep, read, write, relax, practice music, and exercise. Part of this is a consequence of being in graduate school, to be sure. And yet, I long for the days when I'd go for long-runs with friends: we didn't have to talk to one another as we ran, but it was great simply being together.

I think this was me staring covetously at that car...probably
 around mile 23
On December 28th, I took a notion to run the 4.8 miles from my sister's house to my parents'. In terms of endurance, it wasn't a huge problem - as I said, I'm in pretty good shape. In terms of my legs, well, let's just say that Saturday and Sunday saw me limping quite a bit. Yesterday I made it up to six miles on a treadmill and today I'm feeling pretty good. Indeed, I'm hoping to go for a five-mile run with a friend later today.

What I loved, and have missed about the discipline of running, has been exactly what I love about the life of prayer: I seldom want to do it before I begin, but once I start, I'm glad I did. It's hard to put on the shoes, or take those first steps out into the cold. It's hard to carve out the time to pray, or to quiet oneself when there are "so many important things" in need of doing. And yet, once my feet hit the pavement, or my heart quiets down, I know that there's little else I'd rather be doing at that moment.

I'm blogging about this as much to give an update in my life as to break the blogging drought: when I'm on vacation, I try to unplug as much as possible from the world and spend time reading and thinking. As we gear up to return to classes, I'm sure I'll be more disciplined in my writing.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame