Friday, May 30, 2014

A Virgin Forever...

I realized that I would be a virgin forever, condemned to suffer rejection and humiliation at the hands of women because they don’t fancy me, because their sexual attractions are flawed. They are attracted to the wrong type of male. I always mused to myself that I would rather die than suffer such an existence, and I knew that if it came to that, I would exact my revenge upon the world in the most catastrophic way possible. At least then, I could die knowing that I fought back against the injustice that has been dealt to me.
These are words taken from the 101st page of Elliot Rodger's 137-page manifesto. Entitled "My Twisted World," it records a deeply troubled young man's effort to narrate his life. In one especially chilling passage, he muses on the abolishment of women and imagines constructing concentration camps where women would be "deliberately starved to death." In an image evocative of the Tower of Babel, he imagines having an "enormous tower built just for myself, where I can oversee the entire concentration camp and gleefully watch them all die." A few women would be spared, however, for the purposes of reproduction.

What is remarkable about this essay is that it's a bit like the filter in a wastewater treatment facility. Within the fibers of the filter, much has been caught and can be examined. One finds, for instance, an obsession with money. "Money would solve everything," he writes, and recounts how he beseeched his mother to marry a wealthy man. Obsessed with winning the lottery, he dreamt of future wealth and "all the amazing sex" he would have with the girlfriend he'd find after he won.

There is, furthermore, an obsession with power. The final paragraph is telling:
All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy. Humanity struck at me first by condemning me to experience so much suffering. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want this. I didn’t start this war… I wasn’t the one who struck first… But I will finish it by striking back. I will punish everyone. And it will be beautiful. Finally, at long last, I can show the world my true worth. 
Having been deprived of affection by women, he recognizes himself as a longer. He resolves to establish his "true worth" not by enacting violent retribution against others. As he says, I believe nine times, "I will destroy." His godlike delusions, far from creative, are vengeful and destructive.

I think it wise to remain mindful that these are the writings of a profoundly mentally ill man. There are many reports of his psychiatric struggles and this information is helpful in giving us context for his ramblings.

Nevertheless, if we see this as a profoundly limited filter through which wastewater flows, I think we can glimpse several culturally salient points. An obsession with money and power as ensuring one's position in the world. A sense that other people exist for one's use and pleasure. A desire for vengeance and violence as a means to assert oneself over-and-against others. A will to power and destruction over a will to peace and creation.

We will err tragically if we reduce Elliot simply to one issue, whether it be his "war on women" or covetous and irrational desire for wealth. There are many voices at play in this text, in this young man's life, and we need to listen to them. In this sad, and quite pathetic figure, we can find filtered-out testimony to many of our cultural ills.  

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Monster Under the Bed

Stephen King, in the forward to 1976's Night Shift, writes the following:
At night, when I go to  bed I still am at pains to be sure that my legs are under the blankets after the lights go out. I'm not a child anymore but...I don't like to sleep with one leg sticking out. Because if a cool hand ever reached out from under the bed and grasped my ankle, I might scream. Yes, I might scream to wake the dead. That sort of thing doesn't happen, of course, and we all know that. In the stories[...]The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn't real. I know that, and I also know that if I'm careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle. 
As an unabashed aficionado of horror and fantasy, I know something of King's concerns: I, too, make sure my feet are covered each night by a blanket. I still hold my breath as I drive past cemeteries. I always make escape routes from buildings in the case of zombie attack. I often daydream of what it would be like to meet extraterrestrials.

A very thin veil separates "reality" from "fantasy," at least in my imagination. Just as the sun's setting threatens to release upon the world a host of vampires and nefarious creatures, so also does morning's light dispel them, chasing them back to their holes where they bide their time until they return again. Even banal train rides become mini-adventures: the kid listening to his iPod is actually a spy, the old woman whose slip is showing is a werewolf.

In short, there's always more to reality than what meets the eye.

This is why, I guess, I like theology so much. It claims that beneath the quantifiable data of our daily lives, there is a quite real and often hidden dimension to reality. One needs to be given "eyes to see" and "ears to hear" what roils beneath the surface. Yet to catch a glimpse of reality's hidden depths - like catching a glimpse of Yeti or find a treasure map - bears the potential of opening one up to making one's entire life an adventure of discovery.

Sometimes, I think people think of theology as adding another layer upon creation. For some, it's a delicious layer of sweet buttercream frosting; for others, its a toxic sludge used to oppress others. For me, however, it's not about adding something so much as it is exposing. Theology, as a discipline, is less about accruing facts than it is about training one's eyes, and one's heart, to see rightly, to know the infinite depth of what can easily seem superficial.

I share this, not in any spirit of mounting an apologia for theological reflection, but as a way of making myself write something this morning. Writing, like exercise, needs disicpline and diligence. As I wrote yesterday, the words haven't come as easily as they once I thought I'd prime the pump a bit by writing on something that's been on my mind lately.

I do keep a rosary in my pocket and a crucifix on my bedside table. I also have Paddington bear on my shelf, an ever vigilant sentinel to keep watch as I sleep. And I, perhaps like Stephen King, insist on making sure the edges of my sheets are firmly tucked into the mattress: if the ghoul under the bed wants to catch me, I might as well make him work to get my foot. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Summer in the City

For the second summer in a row, I'll remain in Boston in order to pursue language study. In preparation for beginning my PhD in theology this Fall, I'm taking a course in French. Meeting twice a week during the day, I look forward to learning a new language. As this is my fourth foreign language to have studied (Latin, Spanish, and German being the others), I'm getting pretty good at learning how to read in other tongues. If only I could speak them as well!

I'll admit that I've been doing a lot of soul-searching about this blog of late. While I've not exactly tired of it, it is one more thing I feel responsible for. I don't much fancy keeping a blog that I don't update regularly, but it's hard to carve out the time to write for it. As I've gotten older, I realize that the site's "tone" has changed and I like to write reflective pieces. Yet this takes time and, sadly, time is not always something I have in abundance. 

At the moment, I've maintained this site for nearly ten years. It has recorded the evolution of one Jesuit's voice as he, in fits and starts, tried to figure out how to live out his particular vocation. As a laboratory where I learned to speak, and to write, I'll always be grateful to have had this opportunity to write for public consumption. 

Yet I am aware that much of what I want to say, to write, is not quite suited for the blogs. I'm not a pop-culture commentator and I've little interest in trying to relate Mad Men or Dancing with the Stars to theology. I'm feeling within myself, that is, a shift toward a more formal style of writing that would be better seen as article-style than as blog-entry. 

I don't quite know where I'm going with this, other than to say my blog is in limbo. I simply don't feel much urge or desire to write for it at the moment. Maybe this is a good thing, as a period of lying fallow may help to yield greater harvests in the future. Then again, maybe the blogging-field has been exhausted for me and it's time to move on to other things. 

We'll see how things go over the next few weeks. I'm excited for my course, the opportunity to get to know Boston better, and the many places I'll be playing Irish music this summer. With any luck, I'll find a renewed spirit of blogging that will appear here. If not, I beg your indulgence and patience. This has been a long and grace-filled journey of writing and I cannot dictate easily the direction it is going to take. I'm just open to the Spirit and willing to be led, or pushed, in whatever direction God might be leading me. 

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Shopping for Nine

It's really only within the context of the Jesuits that it seems perfectly acceptable for two men, each balding and in his 30's, to arrive in a blue mini-van at the local Costco. After the car is parked strategically near a cart-return area, the two men check to make sure they are armed with a pen, the shopping list, and the all-important Executive Membership card. Indeed, they think nothing of arriving at 9:53, minutes before opening, and standing with the retirees and the moms as we wait for them to unlock the front doors.

Creatures of habit, they tend to shop at the same time, on the same day, each week. So it stands to reason that we know to expect Reggie to be greeting at the door, vigilantly scanning each cart as it passes by and, should he see some garbage or cast-away paper, to stop customer and extract the trash. Likewise is there a fairly set course through Costco, developed over many months, that bypasses unnecessary aisles (clothes, beauty products, engine oil) while catching the essentials (industrial size Metamucil, sixty sticks of string cheese, twelve frozen burritos, two three-pound bags of Brussels sprouts).

Of course, we greet the staff members as we see them. Reggie, for instance, celebrated his 20th anniversary last year. Joyce, who assiduously checks our cart, has a similar longevity. Then there's Vladimir, our faithful check-out guy, for whom we will wait in line simply in order to chat with him about his weekend. The staff of the liquor and wine area are courteous and friendly.

Given that it's final exams week, my fellow shopper John and I had to go shopping today. Well, the Thursday crowd is very different from the Monday shoppers. The Monday crew are sort of like weekly mass goers: we have a rhythm which we follow and, so long as no one makes any major shifts, things run smoothly. Not so on Thursday. These are the rookies, probably shopping for an impromptu Margarita night they're hosting on Friday. Pandemonium reigned today as we battled our way past slow-moving shoppers, certainly slowed because dazzled by the deals surrounding them.

Naturally, faithful Vlad was not here today. Or, at least, he wasn't on the register. We had to settle for John, an amiable fellow, who happened to charge us for TWO Gatorades (we were purchasing but one). Thank heavens Joyce caught this on checkout and ensured that we were credited the money back. Go Joyce!

Arriving with a large cartload of food is always a conversation starter. People ogle our purchases, trying to figure out for whom the two middle-aged men might be shopping. Vladimir never asks. He, like us, seems to have adopted the maxim, "What happens at Costco, stays at Costco."

Not so today.

"So," John asked, appraising our cart, "shopping for a small army? This should last you a year!"

"Well," I replied, "more like a week. The kids have to eat, you know?"

"Kids? How many you got?"

"Nine," I said with a straight face.

I mean, what the hell am I supposed to say? "Well, sir, I'm an approved scholastic studying for the Roman Catholic Priesthood and I live in a Jesuit community with nine other men, two fully professed fathers, an ordained scholastic, and three theologians all preparing for Holy Orders. Our rector has asked John to be the House Coordinator and we shop weekly as we take turns cooking for one another." Can you imagine this?

So it's not really a lie, I reckon, when I say, "Nine kids." I mean, we're all children of God and I am shopping for nine hungry mouths.

Marie, who was helping to pack up our cart, seemed incredulous. "They're not all yours, are they?" "Nope, not exactly," was all I could say. Because none of them "is" mine in any strict sense, although I do subscribe to referring to other Jesuits as "OURS." This latter way of talking is usually accompanied by an eye-roll, but that is another story all together. "

Marie, it turns out, has seven children of her own. So we began to commiserate over the vastness of our respective families. Naturally, I added that life at "the home" was made much easier by the presence of alcohol. With this, not surprisingly, she agreed wholeheartedly. Family time, as much as community time, passes much faster when one has a tasty beverage in hand.

Bear in mind, please, that none of these is a question ever raised on Monday. It's because we broke our pattern and shopped on a Thursday that I had to respond creatively and deftly to probing questions. For we shop at Costco not only because we do eat a ton, but also because it's quick and convenient to do a great deal of shopping all at once. Our time is better spent trying to figure out whether to buy the giant box of Chex or Multi-Grain Cheerios than it is trying to explain the apparent absurdity of two dudes rolling up in a mini-van to buy a ton of food each week.

The "home" indeed!

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

There is so much denial...

I had just poured my second glass of Malbec on Friday night, happily relaxing after a long day of travel, when one of my Irish dancing colleague's diverted the course of our conversation toward the issue of clergy sex abuse. He expressed enormous frustration that the Church has hidden "so many" pedophile priests and voice grave doubt over its ability to be trusted. 

To no small degree, I agree with him: I'm equally appalled at the extent of the abuse and I generally don't think institutions are to be trusted. I believe in Jesus whom I have come to know within the Church. I pray to God within the Church. I neither believe in or pray to the Church itself...indeed, I often pray for the Church!

Cardinal Sean O'Malley on Saturday noted that on Saturday that, "Many don't see it [clerical sex abuse] as a problem of the universal church." He continues:
In many people's minds it is an American problem, an Irish problem or a German problem. The church as to face it is everywhere in the world. There is so much denial. The church has to respond to make the church safe for children.
Cardinal Sean's observation raises two critical points.

First, I continue to believe that at least in the American church, we are dealing with a largely historical problem. That is, the vast majority of cases of clerical abuse occurred before 1985. Without question, there have been and, I fear, will continue to be cases of clerical sex abuse. It may take years for abuse that occurred in the 90's and the early 2000's to be reported but, I suspect, we will not see numbers of cases such as we did from the 1980's.

We, at least in the United States, have had no choice but to face this problem. Yet this is hardly a problem only for Americans. I think the American church has taken great steps to ensuring the safety of its children but, I fear, this is not the case across the world. Even if it should prove enormously painful, the Church must turn over every stone within its universal body to root out the shadows of corruption and deceit that have victimized so many innocent lives.

Second, and vital to the conversation I had on Friday, this is a universal problem. It would be to our great shame, and a testimony to corporate ignorance, if we thought that this was a problem limited exclusively to the Catholic Church. Schools, after school programs, athletics, and families: predators can be found anywhere and everywhere. Even within Irish dancing, there has been exercised a sort of Omerta or code of silence.

The Catholic Church in American and Western Europe has, rightly, taken a drubbing for its frequently inept and duplicitous handling of abuse accusations. It would be, however, to our grave detriment to think this a problem exclusive to the Church. We need, all of us, to emerge from a culture of denial, a culture reluctant to face the fact that predators can be found in all walks of life, and begin to exercise greater caution and vigilance over our young. 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame