Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Crawling Out of the Cave

When I arrive at my professor's house this evening for our end-of-term dinner, my first semester of doctoral studies will be over. I'll cross the threshold with a 31-page paper, a nice bottle of Chardonnay, and a great sense of gratitude for the opportunities I've had this semester to grow as a thinker.

Now, I'll admit: when I look at the shelf that holds all of this last semester's books and articles, I'm astonished at how much I've had to read. An enormous stack of substantive articles - around 40 of them - were the basis for one course. Another course required ten texts, another one required eight, and the third necessitated another ten. Lots of reading, lots of thoughts, and a lot of stuff I've forgotten along the way!

I had hoped that I'd have the energy to blog regularly, but this has clearly not been the case. I spend so much of my time reading, or writing, that the idea of sitting down to write more is downright daunting. Doctoral studies, I've discovered, necessitate a certain type of ascetic practice, almost a monasticism. Many of my waking hours are spent in the library where my body sits quietly as my mind climbs mountains of words and swims vast oceans of ideas. Then, for about four weeks at the end of the semester, I'm invited to write something of a travelogue of those journeys - these are often ominously called "final papers" - to share with the instructor some of the fruits of my labors. These travelogues this semester exceeded 100-pages of writing, which does not count the many weekly writing assignments that were turned in all semester.

So, right now, I'm just crawling out of the scholar's cave. It's been an amazing semester and it's hard to believe it's over. I'm filled with relief, confidence, a desire for a massage to get rid writing tension, and a sense of tremendous gratitude.

If you've been checking these pages, I thank you for your patience. I hate leaving the blog dormant for long stretches, although I suspect readers understand if this gets less attention than before. I'll do my best to post over the next few weeks, not so much to make up for lost time, but to get back in the habit so that I don't fall away too drastically next semester. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Audacity of Prayer

The 17th century artist Peter Paul Rubens captures, as well as I've ever scene, the chaotic scene surrounding Jesus' crucifixion. If you reflect on Luke's Passion narrative and gaze upon the the painting, Jesus' interaction with the thieves is especially poignant. 

The exchange is familiar: 

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us." The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal. Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus replied to him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." 

Karl Rahner, meditating on Jesus' Passion, prays, "You are now in the agony of death, Your heart is filled to the brim with anguish, and yet You still have a place in that heart for the sufferings of another." Even as death closes in, as the ravages of human sin threaten to steal his last breath, Jesus' mercy and charity are not extinguished. How easy and often, when we suffer, for us to turn inward and set up barriers to the world. How remarkable, then, are Jesus' actions who is so unlike us: as his head begins to sink beneath the chaotic waters of death, he continues to offer the lifeline of hope to those justly convicted. 

We should be scandalized by the audacity of this thief: he has squandered his life, he has made his choices, and now on the cross he is paying his due to society. In our understanding of justice, we'd say, "He's getting his due," or stated otherwise, "He's made his bed, so let him sleep in it." 

Moments before his death, an punishment meted out by his society for crimes he has committed, the thief risks the most audacious of prayers: he turns to the one dying next to him and asks nothing more than to be remembered. His impossible request is met by an even more impossible response: I will not only remember you in paradise, but I will bring you home with me. 

Catholics believe that, through the words of consecration, ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Some of my friends struggle with this belief. Yet is this not itself a Eucharistic scene, as a condemned criminal offers the substance of his life - his ignominious past, a history of failing - to Jesus and has it transformed into glory. The thief asks for the impossible and is granted nothing less than Paradise in return. 

For myself, I seldom have the strength or courage to pray like the criminal. I pray in a calculative manner, I pray for things that are likely to come to pass, things I can imagine as fitting into my (admittedly narrow) view of the world. How much then I have to learn from the thief dangling at Jesus' side: powerless to bring about any change other than to turn my heart to the One who saves and ask the impossible. I can pray only that my life, like the bread and wine offered at the Mass, be an unsuitable and unworthy offering...and that Christ's words of mercy will carry my life, as the bread and wine are transformed, into the life of the Kingdom.  

Saturday, November 15, 2014

25 Years On

On Sunday, we will observe a tragic anniversary: it's now 25 years since a group of Salvadoran soldiers entered the University of Central America and murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Dragged from their beds, they were forced to lie down in their community's garden and, one by one, a bullet was put into the back of their heads.

Death is the consequence of authentically bearing witness to the Gospel in a sinful world. I am wary, then, of trying to use beautiful language to speak of my brother Jesuits and their friends who died, lest I run the risk of enveloping them in rhetoric and allowing their message to slip away. Their witness speaks, not through my words, but through the silence that their assassination calls out in us.

The Jesuits of El Salvador were executed for attempting to give a voice to the voiceless, for trying to empower the poor to speak against dehumanizing oppression. There is a tragic fittingness that their deaths bear mute witness to the ongoing struggle of so many in our world.

As Christians, if we are disturbed by the horrific silencing of these voices, it is incumbent to ask one further question: why are we not equally disturbed by the silence of myriad voice, voices never heard? The scandal of the martyrs is not that their voices were cut short but that the those for whom they spoke, and tried to empower speech within, continue to remain unheard.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Diaconate Ordination

I wanted to post a few photos from this weekend's diaconate ordination. On Sunday, I was given the great privilege of preaching at the 11:15 Mass at Saint Cecilia. Drawing on the banquet imagery found in the Gospel, I concluded with the following:

My friends, again I welcome you to the Eucharistic banquet. My name is Ryan and I will be your servant, your deacon. To many eyes, what we have on the menu is unimpressive: simple bread and wine. But to those who bring to the altar a hunger for Living Bread and a thirst for Salvation, it is all the food needed. If you enjoy your meal today, we don’t need a Yelp review. Be what you have received, the Body of Christ, and go out into a hungry world to invite anyone with hunger to join us because, at this table, there’s always room for one more and always more than enough to eat.
My understanding of what it means to be a minister in the Church comes directly from the Jesus I have come to know in prayer and whose credibility has been affirmed in and through the lives of many others. This is the Lord who comes to serve, not to be served. I'm not worthy to this task and I've done nothing to merit the privilege of this service. Nevertheless, I believe it is through God's grace and mercy that I have been invited and have the strength to accept this task. 

Monday, October 06, 2014

Practice what you teach

what you read

what you believe

what you teach

Very often, when friends ask me when I'm going to be ordained, a comment about the great length of Jesuit formation is made. "Almost eleven years? Why does it take so long?" 

Although the formal "training" process to prepare a man for ordination to the priesthood takes a Jesuit nearly ten years, the truth is that it is a process with roots in my childhood. From an early age, I knew very little other than I wanted to be happy in my life. I have been graced with many great opportunities and am quite assured that, were I not a Jesuit, financial concerns would be the least of my worries. I could have been a doctor or a lawyer, although as much as these would appeal to my ambitious side, I could well imagine that I might have become a special education teacher. Yet my draw toward happiness found models in the Jesuits I knew at Saint Ignatius High School, Canisius College, and John Carroll University. These were the kind of men I wanted to be like, the sort of men who seemed to be happy. 

When I entered the Society of Jesus in 2004, ordination seemed a very long way away. Novitiate, First Studies, Regency, then Theology....so many stages, so many years. Instead of focusing solely on the end result, as some "light at the end of the tunnel," I have tried to stay focused on each stage of formation, trying each day to come to know Jesus better and to serve him in God's people. 

I mention this because, this Saturday, I'll be ordained to the transitional diaconate. Priestly ordination will take place next June 13th in Chicago. Truth be told, between starting my PhD and recently losing my grandmother, this ordination has been too much to think about, so I've put it into the Lord's hands each day. "Jesus, I know this is coming up, but I've got a lot going on these days. You do your work on your end, and I'll keep up on my end, and let's hope it'll all be okay." 

I'd ask your prayers for all of the ordinands this weekend and next. My prayer is that we are being formed to be the priests the Church deserves and needs. 

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Safe Home

Last Wednesday, my Grandma Hagan's 86-year sojourn on earth came to an end. Surrounded by her children and loved ones, she died in her own home. Indeed, in keeping with her wishes, she left her house "feet first" and as she was wheeled down the driveway, her family applauded her for a Job Well Done.

Needless to say, the days following were chaotic. As my family made plans, I scrambled to get a plane ticket. Compounding the frenzy was my own "good planning." Earlier this semester, I signed up to give two class presentations, one on a Thursday and the second on the following Tuesday. Well, funeral arrangements and a great deal of travel certainly put an enormous amount of pressure on me to write quickly and, hopefully, clearly!

Thankfully, all that needed to be done was accomplished. The funeral was a beautiful tribute to a woman who taught all who met her how to love. Grandma had something like 28 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, and a smattering of great-great-grandchildren. Yet as one watched the line at the funeral home, or at the church, or at the graveside one thing could not be avoided: a lot of people had one Grandma Hagan.

Please pray for my family as they continue to experience an enormous void in their lives. It would be an understatement to say that a void has not be left in all of our lives and hearts. Big things, like Christmas, will bear her absence most notably. But so will the small family events - school recitals, sporting events, etc. - where Grandma would be sure to be in attendance, always an avid supporter of whatever her family was doing.

Some people die and leave vast estates behind. There was no vast estate but, perhaps, something far greater: a landscape of people, countless over the years, touched by a very special woman who knew how to extend a gracious welcome and offer authentic friendship to all she met. Our lives are far richer for having known, and been loved, by Mary Kay than any six-figure inheritance or trust could ensure.

We'll miss you, Grandma. Our shared faith consoles us that this week's Goodbye is not eternal but is, rather, a "we'll see you again." See you soon, Grandma. Please pray for those you've left behind for now, that our lives may give witness to the women and men you loved us into being.

First Vows, 2006
Praying with those gathered at the graveside.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Student Depression

Last weekend, a former student contacted me to share his experience of a recent loss. A close friend of his, after having struggled for years with crippling depression, took her own life. This young man, in the wake of her suicide, has been left not only with the pain that attends her loss but, also, with a burning question: what, if anything, can be done to help others who experience such crippling darkness that death seems the only way to stop the pain? 

Drawing on his own harrowing experiences of depression, Jesuit William Lynch described the feeling of hopelessness as containing, in varying degrees, elements of the following: 
  • Sense of the impossible - no matter what one must do, it seems too daunting. Whether it be to get out of bed, or go to school or work, or look through the day toward the evening, it seems too much. 
  • Sense of too-muchness - the whole of life seems too much, too big, too burdensome. The smallest task is overwhelming, things others might take for granted become herculean endeavors.
  • Sense of futility - in the heart's depths, where once there burned a flame that provided a steely resolve, there is nothing. One experiences a lack of feeling, a total numbness.
For the person for whom hope has been extinguished, it would seem that all of one's interior resources have been vanquished. Where once a still, small voice encouraged, "Come on! You can do it!" there is no silence, a deafening absence of sound, which is experienced as a constant reminder "There is no use."

"Hopeless" by dobytek
I would observe that, if these observations ring true, they would be experienced particularly acutely by young people today. We frequently read about the pressure students are put under: be involved, be studious, be extraordinary. These days, there's a competition to get into kindergarten! High school students are under constant pressure to get good grades and high test scores. College students feel pressure to declare majors early and have a life-plan by the end of their first year. 
Our expectation is that young people "Dream Big" and "Aim High." A person for whom hope has been extinguished can hardly "make a wish" on a birthday candle or on a distant star. 

Adding to Lynch's metaphor: if on a journey through the desert we come upon a collapsed traveler, his immediate desire will not be to construct a water park or aqueduct. Instead, if we ask what he wants, he will simply say: water. It is not the big dream or career blueprint that is the sign of life. The sign of life, and the sign of hope's endurance, is the ability to make even the smallest wish.  

I mention this because I think all of us need to be increasingly mindful of the pressures and expectations we place upon ourselves and others. If we see a fellow traveler stooped under her burden, our assumption should not be that she's lazy or unwilling to walk further. If our students, or young friends, seem somewhat ground down by daily life, we should not ignore it or attribute it to "a phase." Hopelessness is not a phase. It is an affliction, a soul-tearing ordeal. We cannot dispel the darkness for another, but we can help to fan the dimming flame of the heart. 

As I think back on my own former students, I wonder what would have happened had I been more attentive to certain things. The student who packs a bag slowly, with labored breath, and sort of shuffles out the door. The student who stares off into the distance, his skin pallid, somehow there but not there. The forced-smile that tries to distract from the ocean of tears behind the eyes; the assurance that "everything's great" when you can tell, somehow, that it's not. If I could do it over, I'd not ask them big questions, questions I know now to be overwhelming. Perhaps I'd ask, instead, "what do you want to have for lunch?" or "if you could make a wish today, what would it be for?" If it sparked conversation: great. If the student couldn't articulate even the simplest wish, then it might be a good sign that intervention was called for. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

You Can't Go It Alone

It was hard not to notice this summer, as I spent many, many, many hours in various airport, just how many "self-help" books populate the shelves of various retailers. Some celebrate the power of positive thinking, others promise a program of seven-day personal transformation, others assure personal and professional success if you just follow the ____ number of steps contained in the book.

As a genre, these books tap into a common core: you can rely on yourself, and draw upon your own resources, to bring about the change in your life that you need.

So long as you buy the book!

It's often hard to admit that we need assistance in our lives. There is such pressure to maintain a certain image, to keep up a certain appearance, that we fear having people discover we're not as good, or smart, or competent as we think they think we are. Thus we try to fix ourselves on our own, try to pull ourselves out of the quicksand traps we've fallen into. We say things like, "I'm going to take up running after I lose another ten pounds" and "I'm going to go take some cooking classes after I watch the Food Network for a few more weeks to learn what I'm supposed to do." (I heard that last one at the airport)

Our spiritual lives aren't immune to this. One friend of mine shared that he'd been having a hard time praying this summer but he was looking forward to next year's Lenten season to get back to it.

Last night, before I fell asleep, I was praying with Psalm 49. Here's the passage on which I lingered:
No man can ransom even a brother, (this is a maxim, not a statement of fact)                     or pay to God his own ransom.
When a prisoner is taken hostage and ransom demanded, the prisoner depends on outside assistance for help. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18 plays on the powerlessness of captives: if you're in prison, there's no way to work to earn the money to cover your debt. When one is ransomed, captured, or ensnared it no longer within that person's power to enact a self-rescue. We, all of us, need an outside rescue.

I cannot help but wonder how big a hit the Self-Help industry would suffer if those who bought the books hawked to them dared to risk an inward glance to name the places in their lives where they were being held prisoner. Rather than looking to a book to give them the advice so that they might free themselves - as if we had the talent and skill of a spiritual MacGyver! - perhaps it would save them money, and help to save themselves, by asking another for help. 

To open ourselves in vulnerability to another, to admit our shortcomings and our inabilities, to allow someone else to see us for who we truly and really are...not only is this the first step on the road to healing but it is also the first step on the road to authentic friendship. So, too, is it the first movement of prayer and of faith's journey. For in professing our faith, we admit that we cannot go this path alone, that we cannot pay our own ransom, but that in the Holy One of God we have found the merciful one who will enter our chaos, who will pay our debts and save us, and who will walk with us as our brother and friend.  

Monday, September 01, 2014

And another summer passes away...

Sitting down to pray this morning, I found myself particularly struck by the day's first reading from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters,
proclaiming the mystery of God,
I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,
and my message and my proclamation
were not with persuasive words of wisdom,
but with a demonstration of spirit and power,
so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom
but on the power of God.
Tomorrow, I begin what I suspect are my last two years formal classes: I begin my PhD in theology here at Boston College. In a slight sense, I'm breaking sequence in beginning my degree an academic year before priestly ordination. Thus I will complete my first year of studies, I'll be ordained in June, and then continue my studies next Fall.

In light of this new adventure, today's reading is especially pertinent for, at the end of the day, even a fancy degree in Catholic theology has at its core but one element: Jesus Christ, and him crucified. In a world where the young and hip are deemed beautiful and the new and shiny seen as desirable, the person at the heart of Christianity cannot help but to give pause, for we preach a crucified man, one who was despised by those around him, as the axis of history.

Academic theologians, I reckon, succumb fairly quickly to conforming to the expectations of the Academy and use big words and complicated phrases to talk about Jesus. We use phrases like "ontological matrix" or "retroductive warrant" or "postulatory finitism" as we stumble and stutter to say something about this Jesus fellow, about who he was and still is for those who've met him in faith. One gets the sense that many theologians experience something analogous to locker room envy when they're in the company of other scholars, so they puff themselves with big words to feel less insecure.

What I found most convincing in my own life, though, were the lived testimonies of other believers. Family and friends, teachers and mentors, from many of these models I saw the shape and credibility of Christian discipleship. Father Stephen Moran and Monsignor Corrigan never attempted "sublimity of words" yet, in their witness, they helped to draw me deeper into my own faith. No one ever argued another person into belief. The best a believer can do is extend God's hospitality to another wayfarer and invite her or him to "taste and see" for themselves the goodness of faith.

I share this brief thought as much to think out loud as to share with readers where I'm at. As this summer draws to a close and I return to the books, I sincerely hope that Paul's words will remain in my heart. Likewise, as I prepare for ordination, I hope always to be mindful that it will not be by words alone, but by lived example, that others will encounter and either be intrigued by, or repelled from, the Gospel. 

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.