Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Adventure Continues

I'm the first to admit that I have a rather plum setting in which to learn the art of being a priest. Our daily Eucharist takes place at 11:00 am, which leaves me ample time to read and pray prior to Mass. The ribbons of the sacramentary no longer seem as daunting as they once did and I'm increasingly confident in my ability to recite portions of the Eucharistic prayers from memory.

Naturally, though, there's a catch.

I've never been a hyper-coordinated person. This is probably why I like the accordion: it doesn't require an enormous amount of coordinated exertion. One simply establishes oneself in a chair, or a bar stool, or stands just behind a microphone and plays tunes. Not a whole lot of movement.

Acknowledging my limitations, I set out last week to practice using the thurible or censer. Knowing that I'll eventually need to use incense, I seized an opportunity to practice a few days ago. I placed the charcoal in the bottom of the thurible, sampled a variety of incense I found in the sacristy, I practiced various maneuvers. I got the hang of the basic "swing" from side to side. I practiced incensing objects - the Book of the Gospels, other people - and found that to be easy enough. Eventually I got it so that I could "clink" the chain against the thurible, producing a rather nice sound effect to accompany the billows of smoke.

Naturally, I tried to effect a synthesis of my skills: could I incense the altar and the gifts? Three times I practiced it and did it pretty well each time. Slow procession around the alter, the thurible swinging in a stable arc. Bow before the altar and incense it. Resume the slow journey around the altar.

I couldn't leave it at three.

On my fourth attempt, I must have given too much slack to the chain and, when I went to incense the altar, you guessed it: the thurible clipped the edge of the altar on the upswing and red-hot charcoal and incense spilled out on to the altar. Fortunately for our historic church, I did not burn the building down. I did, however, do quite a number on the altar cloth.

This is not the best depiction of the damage I wrought, but it gives you a sense of what hot coals cast upon linen can do.

So, I'll probably have to serve as an indentured servant around here in order to pay off the cost of a new altar cloth.

Just Married!
Otherwise, things are going well. I continue to be really busy with weddings and a host of Masses. This upcoming weekend I have two wedding rehearsals, two weddings, four vow renewals, and three if not four weekend Masses.

One of the nice parts of being a priest serving on a prime vacation spot is that you run into loads of people you know. Indeed, we've had a pretty steady stream of visitors and there's only been a few nights that just two of us are in the house. This weekend, though, I'll be here alone...although the liturgical and social duties of the weekend will certainly keep me busy.

One final thing: one of really brilliant elements of serving on Mackinac Island is that you get to interact with a wide array of people. Of course, there is no shortage of people shambling through the streets in search of their next fix of Mackinac Island Fudge. Nor is there a shortage of people who think nothing of walking through pools of standing water...when it hasn't rained here in days and horses do relieve themselves in the streets. But in addition to meeting tourists and seeing old friends who happen to be passing through, it's amazing to serve the workers who labor behind the scenes. Drawn from Eastern Europe, Jamaica, the Philippines, and Mexico, it's a privilege to get to know many of the workers who go unseen each day. Indeed, just the other night it was a joy to celebrate mass with the Filipino community and to join them for an amazing mean after.

It's one thing to go to a church each Sunday where everybody looks the same. That happens here, too, at the regular Sunday Masses: these workers are often working during the hours worship services are available. Thus we have to schedule creatively in order to accommodate their schedules, sometimes even pushing Mass back until after nine o'clock in the evening. The good spirit of the people and their joy at having their spiritual and physical hunger sated, however, make the long days worth it (at least from my end).

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Faith Worthy of Belief

Alexander Ivanov, 1835
Around 36 years ago, in 1979, the telephone company AT&T rolled out what became one of the more successful advertising campaigns in history. To pitch its long-distance service, the slogan was "Reach Out and Touch Someone." In an era when we take unlimited minutes and free long distance for granted, it's hard to imagine how powerful it was for loved ones, separated by great distances, to hear the sound of a beloved's voice. Even if a telephone wire could not physically bring two people together, they could nonetheless "reach out" metaphorically to touch another by picking up the phone.

While the slogan may have been both innovative and profitable, the impulse behind our desire to "reach out and touch someone" is hardly new. Indeed, today the Church remembers Saint Mary Magdalene who, in today's Gospel, is the first to discover the Empty Tomb and to encounter the Risen Christ. In the midst of her grief, Jesus' address to her unleashes a whole new era of history: He is the one who has cast off the shackles of death and returns not as one seeking vengeance but as offering peace.

Quite naturally, Mary reaches out to seize the one for whom she has been grieving. This is, of course, a most wonderfully human response: it's hard not to pick up and cuddle babies, to hug loved ones after a long absence, to embrace another as a sign of giving and needing support. She seeks to take hold of, to grasp, Jesus. He who was seemingly lost, crushed by the machinery of state violence and torture, has been found.

It always strikes me that Jesus rebuffs this gesture. "Stop holding on to me," he says, "for I have not yet ascended to the Father." Thus a space emerges between them, a gap between Mary's grasp and the one she loves. She has encountered the Risen Christ and come to know him as entering into the midst of her sorrow and grief. Yet she cannot gather him to herself, for though he is now known he cannot be owned by human embrace.

I would like to suggest that today we pause to consider Mary Magdalene as one of our foremothers in Christian faith. For Mary's recognition of her Beloved in the garden is itself the gift of faith, a response to One who reveals himself to those who desire to see. As a model, Mary's faith is not something she possesses but, rather, someone by whom she is suddenly possessed: Jesus irrupts into her grief and invites her along into a new era of history.

Because faith is a gift and not a human achievement, a gap always remains between the One who is revealed and those to whom God is revealed. No word, phrase, or formula can ever sufficiently bridge this abyss between the Holy One and ourselves. To be sure, some statements of belief are better and more adequate than others, but none can ever exhaust the Mystery of the Risen Jesus. Like a person utterly shocked at a surprise birthday party, we stutter and splutter words of gratitude, but none of these words will ever express sufficiently the joy in our hearts.

A faith worthy of belief is one capable of recognizing that, for as much as we desire to reach out and touch Jesus, we cannot ever constrain or control him. We cannot pin him down or imprison him in our human systems. He is always on the way to the Father and he sends us out to gather others to follow along. Hence our fundamental need for the Church: each time we say "Yes" to grace and embark upon the journey of faith, we take our place within a great host of women and men who have struggled and strained to walk with the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

If at times our beliefs appear no more than rickety boards barely suspended over a yawning chasm, they are the boards that those before us have used to come closer to the Lord. The Church is not a surrogate for faith, a taxi-cab delivering us rapidly to our destination. Instead, the Church is both context and conveyer of faith: we come to know Jesus Christ within the Church and, in the company of other pilgrims, dare to take our place among a history of believers who have set out on the journey of faith. A faith worthy of belief is not one that has all the answers but, rather, one that leads us into the joyful exploration of a Mystery that reaches out and grasps us, ignites our hearts, and brings us as a pilgrim people who grow deeper and more faithful as the Body of Christ. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Today, Moses Would Have Missed It

Sad to say, I suspect that if Moses were a young man today, he'd probably miss the burning bush. Not, of course, because of any lack of effort on God's part. But with so many distractions today, it's awfully difficult to be attentive to our surroundings. People walk about the streets with eyes fixed upon hand-held screens and tune out ambient noises as they tune in personalized music. Indeed, it'd be my wager that college campuses - at least during the day - have become quieter over the years: students are so plugged into their own private worlds that there is an ever-decreasing need to engage in random interactions. Why stop to chat when you can just send a text?

I can imagine Moses walking the streets today, so enraptured by the latest Tweet or Facebook message that he'd completely miss what was going on around him. Modern technology would allow him to have his world...even if this convenience comes at the expense of increasingly divorcing him from the world he shared with others. A burning bush might occasion a raised eyebrow or quizzical look, but the latest piece of celebrity gossip would quickly draw his attention away. If he did stop to puzzle over the sight, would he really allow himself to feel astonished or would he take a selfie with it or try to find its likeness on Wikipedia?

Now, make no mistake: I don't have any nostalgia for a "simpler time" before modern technology. It'd be hypocritical for me to do so, as I'm writing in a coffee shop on Mackinac Island using WiFi and a laptop! But I cannot help but wonder if a consequence of the proliferation of technology isn't that we are buffered apart not only from one another but from our world at large.

We don't need to jettison our devices, but we do need to discern more effective strategies for their use. Do we use them to explore and discover or to insulate and evade? As Moses daydreamed and pondered the flock he tended, he took the time to gaze upon a burning bush -- certainly not an uncommon sight in the desert -- and had to marvel that it was not reduced to ash. His wonder at this observed fact impelled him to gaze further, to watch, and to experience with amazement an unexpected call that opened for him and his people an entirely new history.

Perhaps today the Angel's call would not be "take off your shoes." Instead, it would be "take off your headphones for you are surrounded by holy sound." For those looking for a challenge, perhaps we could try leaving our devices at home today or keeping silent our radios. Listen instead to the music of the world around us and allow it to speak to us, within us, and perhaps we can begin to discern a long-muted call of the Holy One who continues to appear to those attentive to it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The One Who Walks...

For a few weeks there, I had established a pretty good writing rhythm. Then, last Tuesday, I caught two flights to Northern Michigan and now I'm well established in the rectory at St. Ann's Church. Indeed, I'm so well established that I even started a Twitter account for the parish: SteAnneMackinac

It's hard to describe being dropped into the life of a parish. As it turns out, the associate pastor I was meant to assist has been indisposed for the last week, so I've done the daily masses, weekend masses, and weddings. This week I have two weddings, a visit from the bishop, two square-dances, two weddings (one the ritual, one with a mass), and we are hosting a soccer coach from Wales, and three students from U of D Jesuit doing service work on the island. I spend time with the latter group but they have their own chaperone to mind them!

Now today, July 14th, is the feast of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Her parents succumbed to smallpox when she was only four years old and the disease did not leave her unscathed: her face bore pockmarks and dimmed her eyesight so that it made it difficult to walk in the sunlight.  Indeed, her very name - Tekakwitha - is apparently Mohawk for "the one who walks groping her way."

Although it has been an exhilarating experience, I very much feels as I am one walking and groping my way along. I give one homily and must prepare for the next day's; I finished one wedding and had to begin to prepare for two more. I try to set up for Mass and people drop by and ask me to hear their confessions and it seems as though, with each boat, there arrives another person I know. Don't let, then, the idyllic setting of Mackinac Island fool you: underneath its placid exterior, a tumult of activity seethes beneath it!

Yet, for as much as I feel like I'm groping, I'm still possessed of a trust that so long as I offer my whole heart to the task ahead, God will make use of it. In today's readings for mass, we catch a glimpse of a frustrated Jesus: he's annoyed that people aren't getting the message of repentance he is preaching and enacting. They have faith enough to allow the miraculous to take place, but they don't seem willing to turn their whole selves toward Jesus. They want the Kingdom, but they want it on their terms, almost as though it came in an installment plan!

While there is probably some wisdom in easing oneself into pastoral work, I'm grateful to have been thrust into a bubbling cauldron. It's both exciting and exhausting and, even if I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing, I trust it'll be okay. I'm groping my way through but I entrust myself to God's grace and the people's mercy: they are teaching me how to be a priest!

Not for nothing, I do have a pretty beautiful place to learn the art of priesthood. This is a sunset view taken from our back porch just last night. As the weeks unfold, I'm sure I'll settle into a more reliable writing rhythm but, until that point, please know that I've landed well and am running at full-tilt. It's been a great first week and I'm excited for what remains in store!

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Prophetic Virtue

What makes a prophet distinct? For those nurtured on a steady diet of Harry Potter books, the work prophet probably evokes an image of Sybill Trelawney who prophesied the downfall of Voldemort. Those of another generation may think of Nostradamus whose gnomic writings continue to be puzzled over. Regardless, the common notion of a prophet is one who somehow foretells what is to come in the future. 

While not uninterested in the future, this is not quite the nature of the Biblical prophet. For prophets like Ezekiel, or John the Baptist, or Jesus, there are two distinctive traits:

  1. The prophet cannot not speak of God. 
  2. The prophet must (a) offer a critique of the present order and (b) reimagine it.
The vocation of the prophet is hardly, then, one involved with picking the next hot stock or winning combinations of lottery tickets. It is a demanding, austere, and difficult calling that offers no assurance of success. 

In this Sunday's readings, Ezekiel learns this first hand: he is sent to Israel without any gaurantee that his words will be heeded. As we hear, "they are a rebellious house." When Jesus came to his "native place," people were unnerved by his words and deeds. What he preached of the Kingdom disrupted the status quo and they quickly offered a reason to discount what he was saying and doing: "Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?" Their lack of faith prevented them from getting caught up God's reign...they preferred things "as they are" to allowing themselves to be roused into taking the risk of the Kingdom preached by Jesus. 

It is the vocation of the prophet to manifest single-minded devotion to a cause. The cause becomes the central focus of their life and all other causes and concerns recede into the distance. Somehow they are impelled to preach and to share, but never are they given a recipe for success. They can only preach, they can only share, and trust that those to whom they are sent will open their hearts to the message. Where hearts are opened, great transformation can take place. Where they remain closed and hardened, as Jesus learns, little growth is possible. 

If there is a virtue to be associated with the prophet, it would have to be that of resilience. I'm frequently amazed at how easily people become discouraged: any roadblock encountered becomes a warrant for abandoning one's quest. I've met more than a few students who dreamed of being doctors and, after getting a 'B' or 'C' in a class, totally abandoned their dreams because it "it's just too hard." Rather that finding in their difficulties a reason to work harder, a challenge to take up, they surrender. 

"A prophet," Jesus observes, "is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house." Those we have known for years, who have known us, know that when we preach that we are, quite often, hypocrites! Yet when we have been moved and sent by the Spirit, we cannot but offer to those we love what it is we have been given. Woe to us if we surrender too quickly because the road was difficult. 

For those summoned to be a prophet, be resilient of heart: no one said it was easy! For those summoned by the prophet's call, for those of us unnerved when a word breaks in upon us and threatens to disorient us or call us to see things anew, be warned. We may think ourselves preserving a solid notion of tradition when, in fact, we are working against the work of the Spirit. For us, too, there is no easy litmus test to detect the Spirit's presence. We have only to listen attentively and respond faithfully whenever, wherever, and however we are being called. 

Thursday, July 02, 2015

At the Cusp of the Summer Adventure

I returned to Boston on Monday with just about a week to move into a new Jesuit community. For the past three years, I have lived at the Saint Peter Faber Jesuit Community but, now that I'm ordained and will continue to study at Boston College, it seemed fitting for me to move up toward the main campus. So, for the past few days, I've been moving books and clothes to my new community where I will live with four other Jesuits in a quiet residential neighborhood.

In addition to moving, I am also excited to have the opportunity to preside at a liturgy for this year's North American Irish Dancing Championships being held in Providence, RI. Readers will know of my many years of involvement with Irish music and dancing and I'm pretty pumped to have a chance to pray with my Irish dancing family who has accompanied and supported me for so many years. 

To be sure, if there is anything I've become acutely aware of these weeks, it's how unbelievably well-supported I have been these many years. There are some who would think the vocation to the priesthood to be a heroic and solitary affair, the process of a man singularly discerning how God is calling him to serve. Such a man must, of course, find the solitude in which to consider prayerfully his call. Yet one cannot discount and must not neglect the role of the family and community in mediating how God is calling us to serve.

As I prepare to move up to Mackinac Island for my pastoral summer, I cannot but give thanks for the my family. The gifts of love and laughter flow abundantly both in my nuclear family as well in its extended iterations, and I am inexpressibly grateful to how much they have done for me, especially these last few weeks.

At Christmas or maybe at my cousin's wedding this November I'll be able to get a full-family photograph. Until that time, these will have to do!

Being Vested by Father Karl Kiser, SJ

 I include this picture because I owe a great deal to Karl Kiser as a model of the type of priest I want to be. Kind, generous, hard-working, and profoundly holy, Karl has been a great friend and mentor over the years.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame