Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sowing Seeds

It's been nearly five years since I packed up a mini-van and left New York City for Detroit for my first high school teaching assignment. Over the next few days, many of the seniors I taught that first year will graduate from college and embark upon new adventures.

People will often ask what I find hardest about being a Jesuit. Generally, they expect me to say, "Going to bed alone at night" or "Not having a massive bank account." While these are realities, they are not what I find most difficult. The hardest part of being a Jesuit is, to my mind, is living always at the threshold of having to say goodbye to those we have come to know and love.

For instance, I very much miss the friends I made in Detroit. Teaching high school is often a daunting and difficult endeavor, but the support of fellow Jesuits and friends made it a joyful task. I count it as a singular grace that I went to bed tired every night for three years...and woke up, each morning, excited for what was to come that day. Consequently, it was hard to leave when my three-year assignment concluded. I had made friends and established relationships and, I thought, sown some good seeds. I wanted to stay awhile to see what might grow, what might be harvested.

This was not to be. Assigned to Boston College to study theology, I left Detroit in 2012 and moved East. Over the next few weeks, friends I have made here will graduate and move off to various parts of the country; again, I stand at a threshold of having to say goodbye but, this time, I'll be staying put as I begin doctoral studies.

Feelings of nostalgia were stirred again last night as I finished reading the Holy Father's Evangelii Gaudium. The lessons I learned teaching high school boys find expression in §274 where he writes:
If we are to share our lives with others and generously give of ourselves, we also have to realize that every person is worthy of our giving. Not for their physical appearance, their abilities, their language, their way of thinking, or for any satisfaction that we might receive, but rather because they are God's handiwork, his creation. God created that person in his image, and he or she reflects something of God's glory. Every human being is the object of God's infinite tenderness, and he himself is present in their lives. Jesus offered his precious blood on the cross for that person. Appearances notwithstanding, every person is immensely holy and deserves our love. Consequently, if I can help at least one person to have a better life, that already justifies the offering of my life. It is a wonderful thing to be God's faithful people. We achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names.
A wise Jesuit once shared that the grace of teaching is that, "You learn to love when the other is most unlovable." It's one thing to love the kid who gets good grades, or is funny, or charming. It's another thing to learn to love the one with acne, the awkward one, the enormous pain in the neck who seems committed to undermining you at every turn! If you want an argument for the existence of God, you need look no further than a teacher who finds it within herself or himself to look upon the stinking swell of freshmen who come to class after gym class, sans deodorant, and manages all the same to teach them with joy.

It was not my calling to remain in Detroit, to see how any seeds I might have planted over three years would grow into any sort of harvest. Of course, I hear from many former students and remain in contact with them. This fruitfulness, as Pope Francis writes, "is often invisible, elusive and unquantifiable" (§279).

The Holy Spirit, the Pope observes, "works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills; we entrust ourselves without pretending to see striking results" (§279). This is the grace and burden of Christian discipleship: we sow as we are called and yet are never assured that we will see even the earliest signs of life from what we've planted. "No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted." Our labors on behalf of God's Kingdom are measured, not by calendar dates or quantifiable measurements, but by the openness of our hearts and generosity of spirit with which we set about our task.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Missing Note

According to a Tweet, Mozart's kids would taunt their father by playing incomplete scales on the piano, forcing him to rush downstairs and complete them. Mozart, if this be true, could not tolerate the irresolution of an incomplete musical scale.

Christians across the world know something of this irresolution, something of this incompleteness. For yesterday we dwelled together in the silence left by the death of Jesus on Good Friday. The one on whom so many had pinned their hopes and dreams, we observed with great solemnity on Friday, had failed. As the sun set on Friday evening, those who loved Jesus were plunged into deep silence:
  • The screaming crowds had gone home.
  • The jeering soldiers had packed up their hammers and nails, they had collected their dice and returned to camp.
  • And Jerusalem had witnessed another execution, another crucifixion, yet another spectacle of an anguished death. 
And, as far as the world was concerned, death had silenced Jesus forever. 

On Good Friday, the Church felt the weight of the world's silence. Indeed, the silence of Jesus' tomb...
  • ...is the sorrowful silence of those whose lives have been ravaged by acts of violence and terror. 
  • ...it is the desperate silence of those awaiting news of children trapped in a capsized ferry or loved ones on a lost airplane. 
  • ...it is the silence of a world that easily and often turns a blind eye to the plight of the needy and a deaf ear to the cries of the poor. 
Long before we were connected by text messages and the internet, we were connected by the common and primordial response to human tragedy: silence. 

Sometimes, I wonder how those close to Jesus responded during the first hours after the crucifixion. 

Did Mary sneak into the room where Jesus last slept? Did she quietly caress the pillow and smell the bedsheets, hoping to catch the scent of her son? 

Did Peter and James and John wander the streets, in shock and unable to take everything in?

Did Mary Magdalene's heart ache? Did she know, thousands of years before C.S. Lewis, that "...grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness...a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me."

Jesus' disciples and friends could neither have known nor expected what we hold by faith: that the deafening silence of Holy Saturday was but a prelude to the great symphony of the Resurrection. For when Easter's light pierced death's darkness, we hold that the Risen One completes the great work he began, that he gives us a new melody by which which to live. This is because the Risen Jesus is no longer one note among others. Instead, he is now the very melody into which our lives are being drawn as we are woven together and arranged into one great symphony of praise to the God of Life. 

We, as a Church, have faced together the terror of the Cross. We have not shrunk back. We have not fled. Instead, we have approached with fear and trembling this ancient instrument of torture because we know that, at the Cross, we tune our lives to the key of Jesus. 

This morning, all of creation sings a new song. The song of life, the song of the Resurrection, pours forth from the Empty Tomb. The unresolved silence has been broken. And we are invited into the heavenly chorus where we celebrate Jesus' conquest of death and rejoice that, each and every one of us, is being called to take our place in the song of victory. 

Each one of us, in a sense, is a musical note. Some of us are sharp, some of us are flat, and some of us don't yet know where we fit on the musical scale. Yet all of us hear, in the depths of our hearts, an invitation to allow ourselves to be written into the symphony Jesus writes with those who give them their hearts and allow their lives to sing of God's grace. 

This day, we do hear merely Jesus' completion of a temporary scale, a simple series of notes. Instead, we find salvation, life without end in God's Kingdom, where the terrible silence of Good Friday has been replaced by Easter's joy, where Friday's tears are turned into Easter's dancing. 

For this is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad! The symphony of the Resurrection has again be renewed and we are, all of us, invited to play with joy with Jesus forever. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Eucharist and Betrayal

For countless Christians throughout the world, today records the first day of the Paschal Triduum. This evening, the Church celebrates the Mass of the Lord's Supper. It is at this Mass Jesus, in fellowship with the 12, celebrated a Passover meal. That is, they celebrated a meal that looked back to God's saving actions in the Exodus when the Hebrew people were led out of Egypt. It is at this meal, furthermore, that Jesus' actions transformed the meaning of this meal forever: he united the 12 around his own body in blood in what we continue to celebrate in the Eucharist.

For Christians, the Eucharist is meant to be the Sacrament of unity. Now, bear in mind that it's not as though a group of well-intentioned people, led by a priest, get together and somehow conjure the Risen Christ down into what looks like common bread and cheap wine. The Church doesn't make the Eucharist as Hostess makes Twinkies. Instead, it is the Eucharist that makes the Church: the Risen Jesus continues to gather a people around himself, continues to nourish them, and continues to send them on a mission into the world. We are as a Church because Jesus calls us together. 

Hence there is a certain irony that in today's celebration of the sacrament of unity we also realize that, since its very beginning, the Church has had to confront ongoing betrayal. Even as Jesus washed feet and celebrated with the 12, Judas' heart was set: he would betray Jesus. Peter, who enthusiastically swears utter fidelity and solidarity with Jesus, will also fail. Those who tonight eat and drink with Jesus will, in just a few short hours, scatter from him as he faces execution.  

To a critical eye, it would seem as though the fellowship of the Eucharist was doomed to failure from its inception. Two thousand years later, those who continue to be gathered by the Eucharist continue this pattern of betrayal established so many years ago: the very sacrament that promises to unite us as a people often becomes most divisive. In an especially public manner these last ten years, the Church has looked like an awful failure. Failures of leadership, of transparency, of courage...these are failures that have betrayed the unity offered by Jesus.

Make no mistake: the failure goes all the way down. Just as I am dismayed by the sometimes ostentatious behavior of Church leadership, I'm equally saddened by the finger-pointing of those who chastise bishops while not admitting of their own hypocrisies. It's easy to decry lavish spending and say, "Look at the Pope! You need to live more simply!!" It's another thing to look at oneself and say, "I, too, am called to live simply so that others may simply live." Self-important clerics and self-righteous Catholics are equally tiresome. We are, all of us, sinners.

Since its inception, the gift of Church unity has been threatened by human frailty and sinfulness. Yet the Church remains...in spite of the best efforts of some of its faithful! As we celebrate tonight the institution of the Eucharist, we might do well to consider how each one of us is "an invited betrayer." As sinners all, none of us is exempt from inflicting wounds on the unity of Christ's Body. Yet our invitation to communion is an ongoing summons to conversion and healing, to trying again, to allowing ourselves to be caught up in the life of discipleship promised by Jesus.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Un-Mastering Prayer

Last Friday, I received a copy of Sarah Coakley's God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity'. I have a brief review - my first, in fact - on Amazon. 

In one particularly beautiful passage, Coakley writes:
For the very act of contemplation - repeated, lived, embodied, suffered - is an act that, by grace, and over time, inculcates mental patterns of 'un-mastery', welcomes the dark realm of the unconscious, opens up a radical attention to the 'other', and instigates an acute awareness of the messy entanglement of sexual desires and desire for God. The vertiginous free-fall of contemplation, then, is not only the means by which a disciplined form of unknowing makes way for a new and deeper knowledge-beyond-knowledge; it is also...the necessary accompanying practice of a theology committed to ascetic transformation. 
There are times when the life of prayer begins seem rote, can appear to be something we "clock" as though God were keeping a ledger book of how much time we've logged. This is not to deny that the spiritual life requires discipline - it certainly does! - but it is to note that there's a way we can be tempted to domesticate prayer. We can, that is, begin to believe that we pray on our own terms and we begin to set the parameters of when, and how, the Spirit may enter our life.

Hence I am rather captivated by her description of un-mastery. I know my own heart and soul well enough to say: I'm no spiritual master. Very often I limp into prayer, bruised and battered and tired, only to find how often my ego has attempted to assert itself over-and-against God. Try as I might, it's hard to stutter out the words, "Thy will be done" when "My will be done" seem more ready on my lips.

On Sunday, after playing a feis, I went to a local parish where the Life Teen group performed a Passion Play. With Coakley's words still fresh in my mind, I prayed for the grace of un-mastery, for God to help me relax from trying to assert myself and to accept the slow and quiet work of grace that is always trying to reform my heart from the inside out. In my impatience, I typically want God to work in my life like a construction worker with a sledgehammer. When I open myself authentically, I find God works like an art-restorer with cotton-tips and dental picks.

There is no better time than Holy Week to dare to ask for the grace of un-mastery. We see, in the events leading to Jesus' crucifixion, the embodiment of this grace. Jesus, his heart set solely on God, loved himself headlong into the timbers of the cross: by refusing to assert himself, to cling to worldly power, he put himself at odds with our sinful human system. In his human un-mastery, in living a life led only by the Spirit according to the Father's desires, he showed us how to be fully human. For this revelation of what it means to be fully human, we killed him.

It is a fearful thing, this contemplative prayer. For once you begin, once you enter into the dark stillness of your heart, you begin slowly to see things anew. The shadows of life loom larger, the dark crevices seem all the more engulfing, sin seems all-consuming and threatening. And yet it is only by falling into this darkness, only by allowing oneself to be led by the Spirit through the terrors of the night, that one can hope to see the glimmer of dawn rising in the distance. We cannot conquer our sinful selves through self-help books but only by surrendering to God's grace, a dark grace leading us inwards in order to lead us upwards. We need to submit to a patient un-making in prayer and discipline in order that God may give us new hearts, hearts made for love alone.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Writer's Block

I must admit, this has got to be about the twelfth time in the last three weeks that I've sat down at my desk to blog. I've managed to hit the Publish button only one time - on Saint Patrick's Day - and since then I've struggled to write anything. In the meantime, my "writing fingers" have hardly been silent: I've been working on course papers and assignments throughout. But writing something for public consumption has been a much more difficult task.

Perhaps, as I get older, I realize that I don't much feel like sharing all of the little details of my life. These have not been uninteresting weeks, to be sure:

  • On our weekly journey to the Costco, our car died which necessitated coasting down a hill into a parking lot, crossing an interstate on foot, and having to call for a Jesuit Search-and-Rescue team to extricate us from the aisles of deals in which we were trapped. 
  • The Jesuit Post book has launched. The book has essays contributed from a number of Jesuits and carries two essays from yours truly. 
  • I attended Accepted Student day at Boston College's Theology Department in preparation for starting doctoral studies next Fall.
  • I finished watching The Borgias and House of Cards on Netflix.
  • I've been doing quite a bit of college counseling for former students: heartache over college rejections, helping to choose between good offers. 
  • Our RCIA group continues to move along with vigor and we're expectantly and excitedly awaiting the Easter Vigil
Lots of good, or at the very least amusing, things have been happening in my life. More importantly, there have been movements locally and globally that are most worthy of attention, or mention. Yet I've felt neither the competence nor the capacity for offer commentary on these: there are so many voices offering opinions that I often prefer to remain silent. 

Silence, too, marks my own spiritual life. Not a negative silence, mind you, but the silence of Lenten prayer and reflection. Liturgically and spiritually, this is a rather spare season or, at least, I've found it to be such within my heart. I've been in religious life long enough to know that this isn't a crisis of faith but a time in the desert, a spiritual sojourn through which thirst is cultivated and deepened. 

These Spring days, at least, give me hope that winter's grip is loosening. I found this winter particularly biting - very cold, very snowy, and most unrelenting - and I'm yearning for warmer, sunnier days. This morning's sun fills me with great hope that we've turned the meteorological corner and are heading, finally, toward better weather.

I'm chipping away at the writer's block. In a few seconds, I'll Publish and cross my fingers that this will unstop the ice flow so that I can get back to the regular discipline of writing and reflection. 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame