Saturday, August 23, 2014


On this lazy Saturday morning, my last free weekend of summer, I happened upon a CNN story about how airlines - such as United - have begun to phase out the seat-back television screens on their planes. As I've taken over fifty flights so far this year, it's something I, too, have noticed. One can no longer count on ready-made "in flight entertainment" and must now BYOD: Bring Your Own Device.

Based only on my observation, this already seems to be the habit of most travelers. On one recent flight, a woman had two iPads going simultaneously: it appears that she was on two different levels of Candy Crush and was trying to advance her level-standing on both devices. Another flight from Chicago to Cleveland gave me a view of a man's home-videos that he was editing on his laptop. And, on a severely delayed flight from DC to Boston, one of the attendants had to speak to a man who thought it might be acceptable, in the dark cabin, to watch pornography on his iPhone.

It takes all types.

Now, I'll be honest: I'd much rather people bring their devices than a lot of other things. Some years ago, before I entered the Jesuits, a woman dug out of her bag a raw onion, an enormous slab of summer sausage, and a piece of stinky cheese mid-flight. It was with an admixture of horror and fascination that I watched her devour everything before her. I have not, incidentally, ever again eaten a piece of summer sausage.

On another flight, the passenger next to me thought it a good time to apply cocoa butter to her legs. Truth be told, I liked the smell of the lotion so didn't mind at first. I did mind, however, when she fell asleep and her legs splayed out wide and her right leg leaned heavily - for over an hour - against my left. So liberally had she applied her lotion that my khaki pants absorbed the residue not absorbed by her skin.

And, as one who uses the time in an airplane for pleasure reading and quiet meditation, I love that devices keep otherwise chatty people occupied.

Some years ago, the summer of 2004, I was on a flight from Denver to Cleveland. I boarded the flight and knew immediately when my seat-mate plopped down next to me that she'd be a talker. She just had that look, a strange combination of neediness and wild extroversion that spells a flight of doom for the hapless person to engage her in conversation. I steeled myself and vowed not to become so trapped.

Having caught the scent of her chattiness, I reacted instinctively when she started. Gesturing toward my book and speaking in a loud voice, she asked me what I was reading. Without thinking much of it, I turned to her and began to wave my hands about quickly and said, "I"m sorry, I'm deaf" (it came out more like I-sorry-I-am-deb). Figuring, wrongly, that a deaf person might need to be screamed at, she raised her voice even louder and repeated her question. Now, shocked at my own charade, I simply repeated my initial "I am deb," smiled at her, and went back to reading.

She left me alone for the rest of the flight. Instead, she talked to the man across the aisle for the next hour - he barely got a word in - about something she had just read in her magazine.

My cover, however, was almost blown when drink service came by and I ordered, using only my normal voice and with no attendant hand waving, a seltzer water. Fortunately, my seat mate had fallen dead asleep and was sort of drooling into her copy of People. I sipped my seltzer and felt a twinge of guilt about my deceit, but felt also slightly glad that I'd evaded being trapped.

One final semi-humorous tale.

The first time I was upgraded to first-class on Continental I was flying to play music in Houston. I was a graduate student at John Carroll and reading for a course Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality. I settled in to my window seat and was reading when the man next to me - a big, big fella with a bolo tie - waddled in and took the seat next to me. As I recall, he was a mouth breather.

Anyway, I could feel him looking at the cover of the book. Suddenly, he blurted out, "Are you some sort of faggot?" Totally taken aback by the abruptness and sheer rudeness of the question, I blurted, "Sir, are you coming on to me?" My retort threw him for a loop. He harumphed and twisted about in his seat and I kept reading, albeit with a wry smile on my face.

At the end of the flight, the passenger behind me grabbed me on the concourse and told me that he had overheard the exchange and thought my response was "hysterical." Turns out that this passenger was a psychiatrist and knew quite a bit about Foucault's book and, in the space of three minutes, gave me the single best summary of the book imaginable. This summary let me chuck the book back into my carry-on luggage and go back to reading a book by then-Cardinal Ratzinger!


Now, not all devices are bad. I've sat next to people who read their Bibles for the entire flight. I've been seated next to Orthodox Jews, Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a Nashville Dominican sister, diocesan priests, and devout lay people. Once, on a particularly turbulent flight, the man next to me noticed that I had my rosary in hand. Without saying a word, he withdrew his from his pocket and we prayed together, in silence, as the plane lurched and dipped through the air.

I don't travel with an iPad and I don't do work on my computer mid-flight. I read, meditate, pray, or sleep. Sometimes I do the crossword puzzle in the airline magazine. In general, however, I watch those around me. Even if I'm willing to pretend to be deaf to avoid deranged conversation, I don't need an airline to provide in-flight entertainment.

My fellow fliers almost always provide me with plenty. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"The Problem" with the Sisters

Anyone familiar with the recent investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) will know that it has become somewhat boilerplate material to try to isolate "the problem" with the sisters. Some pundits claim that they have been infected with liberalizing strains that made them lose sight of their original charism. Others decry their getting out of their religious habit, as though uncomfortable garb were the essential to the proclamation of the Gospel. 

Make no mistake: I often take exception to how the LCWR accents certain issues above others. There have, without question, been missteps (and let the one of us without sin cast the first stone!). Indeed, I'm ashamed to admit that I've sometimes succumbed to making jokes at their expense. 

My retreat this week, however, has driven deep into my heart just how foolish, and ignorant, I have been. I look back on some of the jokes I've made in the past, and repent of them: for I realize that often my attempt at humor was merely an attempt to conceal my insecurity about the costs and consequences of how many religious women have felt called to live out their discipleship.

This year, I'm making my annual retreat at The River's Edge, a ministry of the Congregation of Saint Joseph. I have a special place in my heart for the CSJ's as one of my great-great aunts, Sister Miriam Therese (aka Aunt Barb), was a CSJ and I loved her very much. Many of the sisters here were friends of Aunt Barb and this morning, after Mass, two of the sisters came up and told me that they'd "adopted" me to be their Jesuit nephew. They promised to pray for me and I assured them of my prayers for them and their intentions. 

In Latin, the word mercy is misericordia: to place one's heart (cor) with the poor and despised (miseri). This morning, as I ate a silent breakfast, I eavesdropped on a table of sisters discussing a recent Congregation-led project to provide housing for low-income families. One of the sisters, presently, shared her own experiences of living amidst those in subsidized housing and I marveled as they thought together about how they could be present to the poor. 

No, they weren't just thinking about the poor as so many of us are apt to do; as I've said before, for many of us our bourgeois sentiment can be best expressed with blessed are the theory. These women weren't speculating about how to get the poor to understand the word consubstantial; they were concerned with trying to find them a place to live. 

Walter Kasper, in his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, writes that "Mercy is ultimately grace for conversion." Mercy demands that we get down, we get dirty, and immerse ourselves in the muck and mire of life's hardships. Rather than a lace napkin, real mercy is a sturdy trowel that enables us to get into the dirt of life. 

One may joke about sister's "sensible shoes" and nondescript pin, but if you look at her fingernails, there's probably a lot more dirt their than you'll find in most priests. 

So what's the problem with the sisters? Is it their lack of orthodoxy? Their refusal to be obedient? Perhaps the problem is less with them than it is with those of us who make japes at their expense. Mayhap it be with us who'd content themselves to "pray" for peace but to settle into the comforts and rhythms of a life built on the exploited. Maybe it's with those who fervently want and pray for the Kingdom of long as it comes on our terms in a neat package rather than through the hard work it demands. 

In Psalm 85 we read:
Mercy and faithfulness have met;
justice and peace have embraced.
Faithfulness shall spring from the earth
and justice look down from heaven.

The Lord will make us prosper
and our earth shall yield its fruit.
Justice shall march before him
and peace shall follow his steps. 

When we are tempted to heap scorn on another Christian, or group of fellow believers, we should be mindful of these words. Jesus' first word to his gathered disciples was not "orthodoxy" or "dogma" but peace. The anger and cynicism that attends so much of the discourse about the "problem with the sisters" betrays a fundamental lack of faith in the power of the Resurrection and an unwillingness to accept the peace and joy that comes with knowing, and following, Jesus. 

It is peace and joy I have found here at the River's Edge, a grace given both through my own prayer and reflection and in the witness of so many courageous women. In many cases, these elderly sisters once taught classrooms of children how to pray. This lesson continues today, as their willingness to endure scorn as they follow Jesus do not teach us merely the words of prayer but show us what it is give flesh to the words we've said and to become living prayers offered in peace and joy to God. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Decade of Blogging

It is plainly obvious that I've not been very diligent when it comes to posting. Part of this is due to the fact that I've been busy: in addition to an intensive French course I took this summer, I also continued to play Irish music most weekends and nearly every Monday night. What time is spent on those pursuits, however, eat away at the time that'd be available for writing. Hence the dearth of postings. 

A second, and perhaps more pressing issue, has kept me quiet as well. Over the past year, I have come to question the value of blogging. This blog began ten years ago when I entered the Society of Jesus and I found that it was a helpful means of letting friends and family know what was happening in my life. Over time, I've made forays into spiritual writing, addressing various topics of interest, and humor. If one were to read through the blog's archives, it'd be hard not to detect a great shift in style and tone. 

This blog has traced, in a sense, my "growing up" in the Jesuits. From those early posts complaining about the novitiate coffee to more recent posts about the sexual abuse crisis, the arc of my vocation has been digitally preserved. 

I admit that it's hard to find a zest for posting. As much as I'd like to court controversy, I've always been intentional about at least making an attempt to take a centrist position on most issues. I'm not an angry blogger who decries perceived slights - whether real or imaginary - and my tendency is to share what's on my mind or in my heart. Yet these risks are not easy to take: one needn't poke too far around on the internet to find how malicious people can be when responding to posts. I have a pretty thick skin and I'm more than willing to go toe-to-toe with another person, but my stomach turns when it comes to anonymous bullying. 

I haven't any idea what will happen come September. As I prepare for ordination to the diaconate and the priesthood, and begin a PhD program, I'd like to think I'd find time for writing. Then again, I may be so swept up by the semester's demands that the blog falls further and further from my mind. Simply put: I have no idea if there'll be another decade of blogging, or even another month. I'm waiting to see. 

That said, I should get back to my retreat. I feel a bit guilty using the internet to post but I did want to update the blog before it went too cold. I'm grateful to have these days for prayer and recollection - please keep me in your prayers and be assured that I'll keep those who have walked on this Jesuit's Journey in mine!

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame