Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A New Adventure Begins...

It is with great joy, and tremendous relief, that I can share that I've been accepted to Boston College's doctoral program in systematic theology. I interviewed almost two weeks ago and heard yesterday afternoon. Throughout my years of Jesuit formation, it has become increasingly clear to me that I have both a desire and passion for higher studies in theology and I'm so enormously grateful that I will have the opportunity to begin these studies.

I'll spare you the details of exactly what I hope to study: in addition to being boring to most people, it changes within me each day!

I will share, however, why I love studying theology.

I love the study of theology because it was through the guidance of a theologian that I learned to pray. Years ago, when I was in college, I bought a copy of Karl Rahner's The Need and Blessing of Prayer. As I recall, I was a senior in college and my roommate was working overnight shifts at a local FedEx. One evening, after I'd finished studying, I took a notion to make my first foray into Rahner.

Within pages, I found a short passage with an image that has haunted me ever since:
...Become aware that God has been expecting you for quite some time in the deepest dungeon of your rubbled-over heart. Become aware that he has been quietly listening for a long time whether you, after all the busy noise of your life, and all the idle talk that you called your illusion-free philosophy of life, or perhaps even your prayer during which you only talked to yourself, after all the despaired weeping and mute groaning about the need of your life, whether you finally could be silent before him and let him speak the word, the word that seemed only to be like a deadly silence to the earlier person who was you.
The image of the "rubbled-over heart," drawn from Rahner's own memories of women and men being sealed in the cellars of their houses during German bombing raids, described perfectly my own spirit at that time.

I am passionate about theology, a passion I owe greatly to Rahner, because he gave me the courage to confront my "rubbled-over heart" and in that cramped and confined space, helped me to pray. No fireworks. No mystical visions. Simply the total silence of being with the Holy One in the depths of my interiority.

Saint Ignatius believed we could find God in all things. Karl Rahner helped me to find God in the most unexpected of places: my heart. How, then, could I not trust Rahner to lead and guide me through theological reflection? I would never insult the great theologian by claiming to be a "Rahnerian." Instead, I would like to think I have something of Rahner's intrepid spirit to ask, and pursue, questions wherever they lead me...because I am confident that the same God who dwells within my heart animates and directs
the questions of my mind.

I cannot express how excited I am this morning. This is, I believe, my 1152 blog post and I can't begin to imagine how many posts over the last decade have been influenced or inspired by my theological interests. Questions and ideas arising in these pages will continue, no doubt, to inform and shape the way I pursue my studies. Again, all I can say is that I am so grateful to have this opportunity to immerse myself in the studies for which I am passionate and hope that I'll be able to share this passion for discovering the God of the "rubbled-over heart" with others. 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

....but what will the neighbors say?

In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death last week, there has been no shortage of stories addressing the alarming rise in the use of heroin, especially among teenagers. CNN provides a "snapshot" of the epidemic in a story focusing on heroin use among teens in Long Island. 

Tellingly the author writes, "Parents are caught between denial and shame over the
stigma of having a heroin-addicted child."

This makes sense: what community isn't proud when the local kid succeeds by getting to play a professional sport, getting into medical school, or achieving success in some field? It's easier to say to friends, "My son the lawyer" or "My daughter the professor" than it is to say "My son who struggles with addiction."

This may arise from a "But what will the neighbors say?" mentality. I've seen it with families where a child is gay or lesbian; where a child struggles with alcohol or drugs; where kids struggle with depression or anxiety. Such pressure can be placed on parents, on families, to maintain the "perfect image" that it breeds an atmosphere of shame and silence.

This has led me to begin to think of "sin" as a form of un-making. Rather than thinking of it as notches in God's great tally book, it may be far more helpful to consider sin as how one's actions actually un-make us.
  • When I lie to my friends and family, I am un-making bonds of trust that have held us together; through my lies, I systematically unpick the knots that bind us as one. 
  • When I abuse alcohol or drugs, I un-make myself as I place a substance at the center of my life and re-orient my life to this thing that will destroy me if I don't escape its clutches.
  • When I ignore the plight of those around me, I un-make myself as I focus exclusively on my own wants and needs and fail to embrace being a member of the human family. 
  • When I maintain silence about abusive behavior, I un-make myself by allowing a terrible crime to be perpetrated on another. 
The Catholic Church has learned, painfully, the deep pain of maintaining silence, of putting its appearance above its responsibility to care for those in need. The heinous evil of child sexual abuse was only exacerbated by the corporate silence that has led to the un-making of the Catholic Church. Consequently, it will take time, penance, and God's grace for the Church to regain a voice of solid moral authority in the world. 

We would never blame the victim of sexual abuse. Likewise, we should never blame the victims of drug and alcohol abuse. Blaming the victim, judging the family, may make the accuser feel better but it only isolates the victims; to shame another in this way is to contribute to the person's un-making. To shame a victim, to judge the family, to contribute to another's unmaking: this is a terrible sin.

Hardly any one of us is innocent of this. We are, all of us, implicated in this form of silent unmaking. 

In the case of drug and alcohol abuse, especially among teens, I'm not saying they are without responsibility. And yet, once the addiction has set in, it makes no difference how they became addicted (we need to look at many factors that contributed to the initial act of trying it). All that matters is that they are addicted and that, if we do not act, the substance will rule the person's life and eventually destroy it. 

If our culture is one wherein family's must fear judgment and shaming on account of their children, this is a mark of a deep and perhaps unrecognized sinfulness we must address. If we have sisters and brothers struggling with addiction, how does shaming them help? How does stigma help? They do not. 

The thought of anyone suffering in silence for fear of shame or disgrace saddens me. What sort of society or church do we live in where we communicate that it is better to suffer in silence, to be systematically un-made, than it is to seek the help and healing one needs? 

If fear of judgment or shame lead families or addicts to keep silent, then they are but part of a larger problem. If this is the culture to which we contribute, a culture that permits and promotes the silent un-making of our sisters and brothers, then we are ourselves scarred with a terrible sin that is slowly un-making us as we turn a cold heart to those most in need. 

Friday, February 07, 2014

Mass Appeal

I have been, since October, facilitating the RCIA at Saint Cecilia Parish in Boston. Each week we begin our class with ten minutes of silent prayer with Scripture followed by a presentation and discussion. For me, at least, the ninety minutes fly by.

Recently, it occurred to me that there were certain things not contained in traditional lesson plans that really do need to be shared. Thus, I have assembled a few bits of practical wisdom and submit them to the masses for consideration:

Upon Arrival
  1. When you get to church, it is customary to bless yourself using Holy Water.  You see those little "finger bowls" attached to the doorway? Yep, just dip a finger or two in there and make the sign of the cross. The action is meant to remind you of your baptism, not to rinse your fingers free of the sugar from the glazed donut you ate in the parking lot. 
  2. Move to the center of the pew. Unlike airplanes, there's hardly any benefit from sitting on the aisle. Move toward the center so that when the late-comers arrive -- and they will arrive -- you don't have to do the pew shuffle where you haphazardly slide all of your personal belongings down the row or you draw your knees back so that they tardy party might try to get past you. 
T-Minus 3 Minutes

  1. Okay, so you've gotten to your pew. Now, take off your coat. You would not go to a cocktail party while wearing your coat. Why would you bother getting dressed for church if you're just going to conceal yourself underneath your big puffy coat? 
  2. Point #1 applies especially if you're bringing up the gifts. Recently I was with a group of friends who went to Mass together and I ended up sitting on the aisle. Well, I knew when the gifts were coming long before they arrived because I heard the sound of the woman's enormous puffy coat at she came up the aisle. It was one of those white puffy coats that look like the body of the Michelin man and somehow make me crave a marshmallow. 

Singing at Mass
  1. My guess is that if we started to blare Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" or played the chorus to "The Wild Rover" or "Sweet Caroline," the church would erupt in song. As it stands, it tends to look like we're the frozen chosen: people just stand there as the organist has a solo performance and the congregation mumbles along with the song if they have even bothered to open up the hymn book. We sing in bars, we sing in the shower, we sing in the car: it's okay to sing in the church!
  2. That said, I'm totally aware that some places have horrible music. The soprano cantor whose voices dwells in the rafters or the musician who has forgotten the importance of the time signature. 
Readings and Homily and Sign of Peace
  1. I like to follow along with the readings: it keeps my mind and heart occupied. The homily, however, is a potential no-man's land. 
  2. Recall the adage "An idle mind is the devil's playground." Well, a poorly prepared homily gives builds one heck of a jungle-gym in that playground. There's no reason for a homily to be more than 7-8 minutes in length (this 15 minute stream of consciousness nonsense is completely absurd). Thus, if one is being held hostage by a priest who didn't prepare and is now inflicted on-the-fly exegesis upon you, resist looking at your phone. Once you start playing with the phone, it becomes a distraction to those around you. Try your best to pay attention - surely there's something wise to be heard - but if this fails, do what I do: find escape routes from the church (1) in case of a zombie attack or (2) in case lava/acid were to cover the floor. Your mind is occupied, you look engaged, and no one suspects your having fun in your own internal fantasy land. 
  3. The Sign of Peace is a tough one. If you have a cold, maybe use a bit of hand-sanitizer just before? A firm handshake, a hearty "Christ's Peace be with you" or some variant thereof would be great. I'm not hyper-keen on the "Peace Flash" from across the church, but I get it. 
  1. This is always a tricky one. They are called "kneelers" because we put our knees - either natural or artificial - upon them. They are not leather-covered foot rests. They are, however, treacherous. 
  2. I have developed a "foot drop" method of deploying the kneeler. That is, I take the initiative to use my foot to bring it down in such a way that (1) I don't have to bend over and (2) it doesn't slam to the ground. I'm happy if someone else wants to lower it but, to be honest, I'm pretty good at it and I do it quickly. 
  3. If the custom is to kneel before the reception of Communion, this can raise a question of logistics. My practice is to stand up when the pew ahead of mine begins to empty out. I stand, a sign to the Catholic lemmings around me that we're about to move, and I put the kneeler up. Everyone should put the kneeler up so as to minimize the risk of tripping or negotiating the perils of an even more diminished walkway. 
  1. The person who is going to "Dine and Dash" is readily obvious: he or she now is wearing the coat, has the purse on the arm, and charts a straight course to the door after Communion. Judas was the first to leave, too. 
  2. If the Cup is offered, this can cause pew congestion. If you bypass the cup and go back to the pew, let your neighbors in before you return to your seat: you don't want to climb all over them. If you want to kneel, great! But wait until everyone is returned before deploying the kneeler again, otherwise it can make for a treacherous return. 
  1. Unless there's an emergency (like a desperate need to use the restroom), I don't leave until the priest has walked past me during the recessional. Generally I wait for the end of the final hymn. 
  2. "Thanks be to God" and the first notes of the closing hymn do not mean "Hey, talk to your friends!" People are still praying. 

These are just a few random thoughts: I'm sure there are more, but I'd need my second cup of coffee to write them out. These aren't the points of irritation of an old curmudgeon but, rather, observations of a guy who likes to pray and is helping a group of RCIA candidates enter into the wild and wooly world of Catholicism!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame