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. 

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!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Apathy a Virtue?

Here's a little story from John the Theban, known also to fellow Christians living in the desert as John the Short:
One day Abba Isaac went to a monastery. He saw a brother committing a sin and he condemned him. When he returned to the desert, an angel of the Lord came and stood in front of the door of his cell, and said, "I will not let you enter." But Abba Isaac persisted saying, "What is the matter?" and the angel replied, "God has sent me to ask you where you want to throw the guilty brother whom you have condemned." Immediately he repented and said, "I have sinned, forgive me." Then the angel said, "Get up, God has forgiven you. But from now on, be careful not to judge someone before God has done so." 
If we recognize ourselves in this story, to feel a little pluck at our own consciences, it's because this is hardly an uncommon occurrence. How frequently do we find ourselves in situations where we see something pass before our eyes and immediately pass judgment upon it? Often I find it much easier to see another - a brother Jesuit, a fellow citizen - acting in a way that is contrary to custom and I immediately thrust that person against a rule, or a law, and judge them to be wanting.

Mind you, I'm not advocating some anemic interpretation of the Holy Father's oft-quoted, "Who am I to judge?" line. Too often this has been taken as a warrant to persevere in some "I'm okay, you're okay" mentality, a feel-good response to Rodney King's immortal plea, "Can't we all just get along?"  This story certainly doesn't permit such relativism: in the second line, the narrator acknowledges that this brother was "committing a sin." The story does not deny the reality, or commission of sin. Instead, it forces us to look upon how we respond to sin in the world.

Embedded within this story, I think one can detect an inkling of apathy as a Christian virtue. To be sure, apathy gets a bad rap: the dictionary definition notes it as a "lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern" and offers as synonyms such as lethargy, ennui, and dispassion. Stoic philosophers lauded this as a state of indifference and, truth be told, I think some practitioners of Ignatian Spirituality read indiferencia as though it were a wholly dispassionate stance toward reality. For does not Ignatius counsel in the Spiritual Exercises
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it? (§26)
Is the ideal, then, a sort passivity or aloofness to what passes before us?

Perhaps another way of looking at apathy, at least one more resonant with Christian life, would be to see it not as a "lack of feeling" but as a being so overwhelmed by love that it is hard to be jarred out of it. It's not that one doesn't feel anything but, rather, that one feels God's love so deeply that it's hard to be budged from this position.

In Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son, I think, we see just this type of Christian apathy. The Father has two sons who believe their relationship to be governed by economic terms. Especially in our money-conscious culture, the younger son is particularly reprehensible: he wastes money, frittering it away rather than saving it. The older son, by contrast, is adjudged at the least to be sensible: he works hard, puts his time in, and makes a long-term investment in the Father's project.

Yet this parable gives us a glimpse that Jesus' understanding of the Father is quite different from our own. The Father never succumbs to these economically construed relationships. Instead, he loves freely, gratuitously, and prodigally. The Father is so possessed by, so caught up in, a love that is beyond human judgment that (1) he rejoices when his wasteful son returns and (2) goes out to his self-righteous son refuses to come to the party. The Father doesn't play by their rules - he is enflamed by the love of God, by God's generous love, that he is apathetic and unable to be torn away from the love that animates him.

The Father, as a the paragon of apathy, is not bereft of feeling. Quite to the contrary, he is so full of love that he cannot not be swayed from his exuberant demonstration of God's joy and life. Christian apathy has nothing to do with "not caring" and everything to do with loving as God loves and not backing away from it.

Abba Isaac, above, was not summoned to look dispassionately upon a fellow sinner. Nor was he to turn a blind eye. He was, rather, to be an agent of virtuous apathy whose heart and mind were so infused with God's love that loving mercy, rather than judgment, animated his response. Instead of condemning and judging, he was called to charity and service toward his fellow sinner. Likewise Ignatian indifference is not about standing without passion. On the contrary, it is allowing that passion to be channeled by God for God's own greater glory.

Thus Christian loves's challenge to the world: a humanly un-reachable goal of being authentically a-pathetic, "without undergoing change," because one is so caught up in grace that one cannot not love prodigally and act mercifully. I say humanly unreachable because I'm not foreigner to sin and temptation, to failing to live up to this - or any - ideal. Our goal in life is not to be perfect so that God might love us but to love ever more perfectly as God loves us. We are to be in the world what we have received from above, to offer to others what we have accepted, and to grow in Christian apathy enlivened and sustained by God's triune grace. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Pick it Up and Bead

In the throes of his conversion, as his soul twisted and wrenched toward leaving his old life behind and embracing a new path, Saint Augustine experienced a profound breakthrough. This came, not from dazzling lights or fireworks, but through a single, unseen, voice:
...and weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from the nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl (I do not know which), saying and repeating over and over again 'Pick up and read, pick up and read." At once my countenance changed, and I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children's game in which such a chant is used. But I could not remember having heard of one. I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command to me to open the book and read the first chapter I might find. (VIII, Confessions)
The book, as you may well have guess, was the Bible. Augustine picked up up. He read. And in reading the words of Saint Paul to the Romans, "all the shadows of doubt were dispelled."

Fra Angelico's "Conversion of St. Augustine"
A recent story carried in the Washington Post (and other papers) reminded me of Augustine's "conversion" story. According to a recent study published in Science, a statistical majority of test subjects found it difficult to be alone with their thoughts for 6-15 minutes. Indeed, the majority of male test subjects preferred to be given low electrical shocks rather than sitting alone with their thoughts.

The results of this study are hardly shocking, especially if you've ever tried to help people learn how to pray. Over and again I hear, "I can't pray! I can't meditate! I'd go crazy if I had to sit quietly for ____ minutes!" The idea of of just sitting frightens many of us and, in our hyper-connected age with sound-alerts and vibrating phones, it's no wonder.

Yet I wonder if we might not adapt the child's voice Augustine heard. Instead of "Pick it up and read" perhaps we might say, "Pick it up and bead." And, by bead, I mean make use of the Rosary.

You know, the Rosary: that thing that hangs from the rearview mirror of countless cars? That thing that snakes around the bottom of your purse or that's shoved to the back of your underwear drawer? That "necklace" people seem to be wearing as though it were a fashion accessory rather than a centuries-old prayer device?

The nice thing about the Rosary, as a prayer aide, is that it gives you something to do: you keep count, there's a definite beginning and ending, it doesn't take terribly long, it's not always easy to do but it is relatively simple.

Almost 100 years ago, the great Jesuit philosopher Joseph Marechal wrote, in The Psychology of the Mystics:
If simple folk be told to make a quarter of an hour's mental prayer, the majority will not succeed; but if they be made to recite the rosary or litanies, or other...devotional exercises, with recollection, there will arise of themselves gently, unconsciously almost, on the concrete basis of the outward prayer, confused but captivating thoughts and affections, much more independent of the formulas recited than one would think. (158)
In other words, Marechal detects the same difficult the authors of the Science article have picked up, but he's offering a different pathway through it. If we need stimulation, it's better to let a person use the Rosary and walk down the well-trod paths of long-memorized prayers. In his estimation, repetition of rote prayers does not hamper or retard spiritual growth but, in fact, actually mark a helpful first step in developing further an interior life.

Prayer, like exercise, develops over time. Just as running a marathon is never easy, neither is sustained prayer ever simple. It takes discipline and effort: we need to discipline ourselves to relax into God's presence and friendship. The Rosary is one tried-and-true way of entering into the spiritual life, a venerable way of calming oneself and allowing the Mysteries of God's salvation to enter our hearts and lives.

"Pick it up and bead, Pick it up and bead." It may be as much the next ad campaign for Hobby Lobby as it is the opportunity for each of us to defy the statistics and enter more deeply into our interior lives.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

On Religious Conflict

I was happy to read a comment left recently by a fellow blogger named Roger who maintains a site entitled Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. He raises a great, if baffling, question: from whence does the vehemence with which fellow Christians attack one another arise? When two people are bound by a common confession, "I believe in Jesus Christ, the only son of God," what is it that leads to often violent and vicious attacks against one another?

This is not a phenomenon limited to Christians and Roger's concluding question which extends to address religion in general is incisive: Is religious faith always fraught with these kinds of difficulties?

Sadly, as another commenter noted, I certainly don't think this is an issue exclusive to the religious domain. People gathered around a shared center - a business, a team, a political party - frequently profess identical viewpoints and adhere to a common core of beliefs, but these are hardly immune from tremendous conflict. Not even blood-ties are impervious to these feuds, as we find no shortage of stories detailing rifts and rivalries in wealthy families.

Perhaps one way of looking at this issue is to recall that, for an adherent, belief is not simply mental lip-service. That is, it's not simply something one says or nods his head at. Instead, it's a claim about the very nature of reality. If Jesus is the son of the living God, if his life showed us how we are called to live as God desires for us to live, if his crucifixion is symptomatic of our sinful human reaction to destroy and reject what threatens to rouse us from our slumber, and if his Resurrection and sending of the Spirit create in history a new people to live out this revelation...then religious belief isn't about something on paper, it's the very core of one's life. Little wonder the first Christians were called followers of "the Way," for Chrsitian faith is not just about thinking as it, of necessity, is about being and doing.

But it is precisely because it has to be embodied and lived out, enacted on history's stage, that conflict erupts. Each finite being, in striving to live out the core tenets of faith, accents some things more than others. Some are more disposed to contemplation and others to action; some want to stress corporal works of mercy, others spiritual. And, I think, there's space enough in the Church to accommodate all of these. The problem, however, is when one group or faction thinks that its way is the only way. If "I" am unimpeachably right, then anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong and misguided.

To summon an example from a field other than religion, consider the recent case of philosopher Thomas Nagel. Nagel, an eminent philosophy professor at NYU, elicited a furious reaction with the publication of his Mind and Cosmos. Nagel's book questions the sufficiency of certain versions of the evolutionary narrative. By no means does he reject evolution, but he does point out certain lacunae and inconsistencies in certain renderings of the theory. Nagel's suggestion is to expand the framework in which we understand evolution; other academics heaped scorn upon him, one even Tweeting that Nagel's book recorded "the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker."

You'd not need to go far to see instances of hostile rivalries erupting between people more united than divided: figure skating, economics, politics, medicine. Rivalry, hardly peculiar to religious traditions, seems to be endemic to the human condition.

Taken from
Jews and Christians hearken back to a shared myth, a story that attempts to explain the structure of reality, in Genesis. There believers detect the core of sin that marks just about all human relations: an inability to be who we are and a strong preference to forge for ourselves our own identities; a drive to grasp for ourselves than to be given from without. This self-assertive grasping creates an economy of rivalry in the world, for if "I am what I have grasped" and another person has two apples and I have but one, am I now less of a person?

It would be interesting to hear from Roger, who is by profession a professor of biologist, if this sort of acquisitive drive is present in animal species? Do they, as we, hoard excessive goods? Animals, it seems, are inclined to live in a homeostatic environment but humans are far less capable: it appears that we are driven to own and control rather than share and live together.

I resonate with Roger's question because I think it scandalous that Christians, those summoned by the Crucified Christ, continue to crucify one another. Followers of Christ who snipe incessantly at one another give witness, not to the Gospel, but to the dark side of sinful humanity. How can we we purport to proclaim God's Kingdom and invite others to join us if we, through our actions, seem more bent on tearing the Kingdom down through malice than in building it up with mercy?

Monday, July 07, 2014

An Unavoidable Temptation

...both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt. ~Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity
When I taught high school, it was not uncommon for students to give voice to their skepticism about religious faith. For many, the question of God's existence remained unsettled. The shadow of doubt cast a deathly pall over their hearts and they suspected that even a shred of doubt, any hint of uncertainty, undermined the whole of religious faith.

Many times, then, did I have recourse to the words above written by a very young Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. Doubt, for this redoubtable theologian, acts to bind women and men together. Thus it is not a question of whether one doubts - for we all do - but rather how one lives with doubt. The human heart cannot but fail to confront the Unknown and Unknowable in one's life. Either she stands before the Mystery of existence and commends herself to it because she hears, in its silence, an invitation or he stands before it, detecting only silence.

The believer responds to a summons that comes from outside of herself yet seems to well up from her innermost core. She confronts doubt, the possibility of meaninglessness and absurdity, and allows herself to be drawn into the Mysterious abyss. The skeptic, too, faces this doubt yet does not blink. His ultimate commitment of himself is itself the stance of doubt because unable to detect in the darkness any call or invitation.

It is doubt, I'd counsel my sophomores, that prevents the faithful from flying airplanes into buildings. A hyperbolic example, yes, but not untrue. It is the presence of doubt in our lives that forces us to confront our own created nature, our fragility and dependence upon God. When we have eradicated doubt, dispelled the darkness and asserted our mastery over creation, we become Lucifers - light bearers - who illumine creation. Skeptics may cite the Crusades and the Inquisition as an instance of Christianity's depravity. Fair play. Walk, however, the history of the 20th century and behold a trail drenched in blood as we see what happens when humans act solely according to their own lights.

In our lives, we are all of us beset with the unavoidable temptation to purge doubt from our hearts. The result of this becomes a ferocious self-righteousness and a tendency toward violence. It dismays me that fellow Catholics are so quick to unleash torrents of vile, hateful invective against those with whom they share a common baptism. Being so convinced of their rectitude, they see it as part of their holy crusade to belittle and demean others who disagree with them.

This is not the post where I offer a plea for civility. Instead, it is a recognition that we have within the Body of Christ those would bully and belittle fellow disciples while seemingly cloaked in anonymity. I believe it true that "before God there will never be an anonymous hero" (Ante Dios nunca serás héroe anónimo). It's a bitter irony when those who would deem themselves "heroes" do so clandestinely and with invective. Yet, as Jesus reminds us, "nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light" (Luke 8:17). As those of you who read recent comments made on this blog, you'll know that a shadow recently fell upon these pages. You can be assured, though, that through several channels the truth has come to light and the has given a name.

Isn't that right, C. W. K.?

As I said in my comment to him, and I say publicly, it is not my desire to shame or menace this man. As a brother in the Lord, I want to offer mercy and forgiveness. Make no mistake: my desire for mercy does not mean that I will cowtow to the whims of a bully. I want to handle this in an adult, Christian manner. But if I must make public the scurrilous and libelous commentary made, so be it. I should hope it not come to that, but I will not be intimidated.

The world hungers for the Good News of the Gospel, to hear and feel God's Word made alive. We can work together to bring this about, to introduce the world's darkness to Jesus' light, even if we do so in different ways. We can practice what we have received in the Sacraments of the Church: God's free and forgiving love, drawing us together, as a pilgrim people journeying toward the Kingdom.