Thursday, April 17, 2014

Eucharist and Betrayal

For countless Christians throughout the world, today records the first day of the Paschal Triduum. This evening, the Church celebrates the Mass of the Lord's Supper. It is at this Mass Jesus, in fellowship with the 12, celebrated a Passover meal. That is, they celebrated a meal that looked back to God's saving actions in the Exodus when the Hebrew people were led out of Egypt. It is at this meal, furthermore, that Jesus' actions transformed the meaning of this meal forever: he united the 12 around his own body in blood in what we continue to celebrate in the Eucharist.

For Christians, the Eucharist is meant to be the Sacrament of unity. Now, bear in mind that it's not as though a group of well-intentioned people, led by a priest, get together and somehow conjure the Risen Christ down into what looks like common bread and cheap wine. The Church doesn't make the Eucharist as Hostess makes Twinkies. Instead, it is the Eucharist that makes the Church: the Risen Jesus continues to gather a people around himself, continues to nourish them, and continues to send them on a mission into the world. We are as a Church because Jesus calls us together. 

Hence there is a certain irony that in today's celebration of the sacrament of unity we also realize that, since its very beginning, the Church has had to confront ongoing betrayal. Even as Jesus washed feet and celebrated with the 12, Judas' heart was set: he would betray Jesus. Peter, who enthusiastically swears utter fidelity and solidarity with Jesus, will also fail. Those who tonight eat and drink with Jesus will, in just a few short hours, scatter from him as he faces execution.  

To a critical eye, it would seem as though the fellowship of the Eucharist was doomed to failure from its inception. Two thousand years later, those who continue to be gathered by the Eucharist continue this pattern of betrayal established so many years ago: the very sacrament that promises to unite us as a people often becomes most divisive. In an especially public manner these last ten years, the Church has looked like an awful failure. Failures of leadership, of transparency, of courage...these are failures that have betrayed the unity offered by Jesus.

Make no mistake: the failure goes all the way down. Just as I am dismayed by the sometimes ostentatious behavior of Church leadership, I'm equally saddened by the finger-pointing of those who chastise bishops while not admitting of their own hypocrisies. It's easy to decry lavish spending and say, "Look at the Pope! You need to live more simply!!" It's another thing to look at oneself and say, "I, too, am called to live simply so that others may simply live." Self-important clerics and self-righteous Catholics are equally tiresome. We are, all of us, sinners.

Since its inception, the gift of Church unity has been threatened by human frailty and sinfulness. Yet the Church remains...in spite of the best efforts of some of its faithful! As we celebrate tonight the institution of the Eucharist, we might do well to consider how each one of us is "an invited betrayer." As sinners all, none of us is exempt from inflicting wounds on the unity of Christ's Body. Yet our invitation to communion is an ongoing summons to conversion and healing, to trying again, to allowing ourselves to be caught up in the life of discipleship promised by Jesus.








Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Un-Mastering Prayer

Last Friday, I received a copy of Sarah Coakley's God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity'. I have a brief review - my first, in fact - on Amazon. 

In one particularly beautiful passage, Coakley writes:
For the very act of contemplation - repeated, lived, embodied, suffered - is an act that, by grace, and over time, inculcates mental patterns of 'un-mastery', welcomes the dark realm of the unconscious, opens up a radical attention to the 'other', and instigates an acute awareness of the messy entanglement of sexual desires and desire for God. The vertiginous free-fall of contemplation, then, is not only the means by which a disciplined form of unknowing makes way for a new and deeper knowledge-beyond-knowledge; it is also...the necessary accompanying practice of a theology committed to ascetic transformation. 
There are times when the life of prayer begins seem rote, can appear to be something we "clock" as though God were keeping a ledger book of how much time we've logged. This is not to deny that the spiritual life requires discipline - it certainly does! - but it is to note that there's a way we can be tempted to domesticate prayer. We can, that is, begin to believe that we pray on our own terms and we begin to set the parameters of when, and how, the Spirit may enter our life.

Hence I am rather captivated by her description of un-mastery. I know my own heart and soul well enough to say: I'm no spiritual master. Very often I limp into prayer, bruised and battered and tired, only to find how often my ego has attempted to assert itself over-and-against God. Try as I might, it's hard to stutter out the words, "Thy will be done" when "My will be done" seem more ready on my lips.

On Sunday, after playing a feis, I went to a local parish where the Life Teen group performed a Passion Play. With Coakley's words still fresh in my mind, I prayed for the grace of un-mastery, for God to help me relax from trying to assert myself and to accept the slow and quiet work of grace that is always trying to reform my heart from the inside out. In my impatience, I typically want God to work in my life like a construction worker with a sledgehammer. When I open myself authentically, I find God works like an art-restorer with cotton-tips and dental picks.

There is no better time than Holy Week to dare to ask for the grace of un-mastery. We see, in the events leading to Jesus' crucifixion, the embodiment of this grace. Jesus, his heart set solely on God, loved himself headlong into the timbers of the cross: by refusing to assert himself, to cling to worldly power, he put himself at odds with our sinful human system. In his human un-mastery, in living a life led only by the Spirit according to the Father's desires, he showed us how to be fully human. For this revelation of what it means to be fully human, we killed him.

It is a fearful thing, this contemplative prayer. For once you begin, once you enter into the dark stillness of your heart, you begin slowly to see things anew. The shadows of life loom larger, the dark crevices seem all the more engulfing, sin seems all-consuming and threatening. And yet it is only by falling into this darkness, only by allowing oneself to be led by the Spirit through the terrors of the night, that one can hope to see the glimmer of dawn rising in the distance. We cannot conquer our sinful selves through self-help books but only by surrendering to God's grace, a dark grace leading us inwards in order to lead us upwards. We need to submit to a patient un-making in prayer and discipline in order that God may give us new hearts, hearts made for love alone.





Thursday, April 03, 2014

Writer's Block

I must admit, this has got to be about the twelfth time in the last three weeks that I've sat down at my desk to blog. I've managed to hit the Publish button only one time - on Saint Patrick's Day - and since then I've struggled to write anything. In the meantime, my "writing fingers" have hardly been silent: I've been working on course papers and assignments throughout. But writing something for public consumption has been a much more difficult task.

Perhaps, as I get older, I realize that I don't much feel like sharing all of the little details of my life. These have not been uninteresting weeks, to be sure:

  • On our weekly journey to the Costco, our car died which necessitated coasting down a hill into a parking lot, crossing an interstate on foot, and having to call for a Jesuit Search-and-Rescue team to extricate us from the aisles of deals in which we were trapped. 
  • The Jesuit Post book has launched. The book has essays contributed from a number of Jesuits and carries two essays from yours truly. 
  • I attended Accepted Student day at Boston College's Theology Department in preparation for starting doctoral studies next Fall.
  • I finished watching The Borgias and House of Cards on Netflix.
  • I've been doing quite a bit of college counseling for former students: heartache over college rejections, helping to choose between good offers. 
  • Our RCIA group continues to move along with vigor and we're expectantly and excitedly awaiting the Easter Vigil
Lots of good, or at the very least amusing, things have been happening in my life. More importantly, there have been movements locally and globally that are most worthy of attention, or mention. Yet I've felt neither the competence nor the capacity for offer commentary on these: there are so many voices offering opinions that I often prefer to remain silent. 

Silence, too, marks my own spiritual life. Not a negative silence, mind you, but the silence of Lenten prayer and reflection. Liturgically and spiritually, this is a rather spare season or, at least, I've found it to be such within my heart. I've been in religious life long enough to know that this isn't a crisis of faith but a time in the desert, a spiritual sojourn through which thirst is cultivated and deepened. 

These Spring days, at least, give me hope that winter's grip is loosening. I found this winter particularly biting - very cold, very snowy, and most unrelenting - and I'm yearning for warmer, sunnier days. This morning's sun fills me with great hope that we've turned the meteorological corner and are heading, finally, toward better weather.

I'm chipping away at the writer's block. In a few seconds, I'll Publish and cross my fingers that this will unstop the ice flow so that I can get back to the regular discipline of writing and reflection. 


Monday, March 17, 2014

Saint Patrick's Day

As one who derives a great deal of his identity from his Irish heritage, it may sound like apostasy but: I hate Saint Patrick's Day. Well, hate is a strong word. Strongly dislike? Really struggle with? I don't know where to place it, really, but it seems to me that it falls someplace between getting a filling without anesthesia and watching Miley Cyrus twerk on national television.

I didn't always feel this way. When we were kids, the whole month of March was filled with excitement. We were hauled all over Cleveland to perform at senior centers, parish dinners, and grade schools. On Saint Patrick's Day itself, the fife & drum corp would march into Saint Coleman's Church and then, afterward, we'd march in the parade. Once in high school, I started playing at "paying" gigs and would make a few hundred dollars for a day's worth of music.

I haven't performed on Saint Patrick's Day since...2003, I think. It's not necessarily because I didn't want to play. One year I was on a Native American reservation and, when I lived in New York, I wasn't playing with a regular group. My custom over the past eleven years, oddly enough, has been to go to a Mexican restaurant rather than a pub: they are far less crowded, as you can imagine, on 3/17.

My distaste for the public celebrations is certainly not novel: I think it's so weird to see people clad in outlandish green outfits, complete with shamrock antennae and glasses, walking on the street. And while I'm certainly not opposed to have a couple of pints, I'm shocked with this being a total excuse for people to binge drink as though it were a badge of cultural heritage.

That said, I'm actually playing in a pub for the first time in over a decade. A few musicians from my regular Monday night seisiún asked me to join them from 12-4 at the Green Dragon. It's early enough in the day that it shouldn't be too insane and, perhaps, it'll ease back into this type of performance.

***

I know the blog has been quiet of late. I've been really busy and, to be frank, uninspired to write. There's nothing at all wrong: it's just my focus has been more on metaphysics than on updating! Between school, playing at feiseanna, teaching RCIA, and reading a lot it's hard for me to sit down and write. At least, it's often difficult to "just do it." Sometimes an idea bursts forth, other times it has to be dragged out. It's most certainly a temporary phase!

Sunday, March 09, 2014

How to Really Measure the 'Francis effect'

For those interested, journalist Daniel Burke recently interviewed several of us at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry for an article entitled "How to Really Measure the 'Francis Effect'". I happen to be quoted along with several of my Jesuit brothers. I'm posting the picture from the website -- it's pretty snazzy!

Photo: Webb Chappell for CNN

Thursday, March 06, 2014

A Deeper Response

Without fail, every time I read the "First Principle and Foundation" of the Spiritual Exercises, I feel a jolt of excitement. I have a distinct memory of reading it in some vocation literature back when I was a senior in high school. 
In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, to be considered somebody important or a nobody, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to the deepening of God's life in me. 
When things are going well in my life, I have no difficulty in saying, "Yes, everything does draw me closer to God!" When things are going less well, when I'm feeling tired or stressed, it's much harder to say this. Indeed, the things of daily life can become oppressive burdens, huge weights, that seem to keep me from set apart from God.

As many people know, 18 years ago I enrolled in Weight Watchers. One of the great lessons I learned: you can only ever begin a diet from where you are right now

We all know people who say, "I'm going to start going to the gym once I lose ten pounds," or, "I'll quit smoking as soon as tax season, this semester, this season is over." Students do this a lot, "Yeah, I bombed the midterm, but next semester I'm going to do better." These people know, deep down, they are being called to have a more full and abundant life, but they won't allow themselves to start where they are at. So they delay, and delay, and delay.

How many of us delay in our spiritual lives, too? It's easy to put off praying, or going to church, when we put a million excuses between us and what we know we are called to do. Sometimes, I think, we're so afraid of failing or faltering after a few steps that we don't even embark on the spiritual pilgrimage.

This is why Lent is a great season for all of us. Yesterday, marked with ashes, we all expressed outwardly what we know inwardly: we are sinners, and sin makes us look foolish. We're all sinners, and we all look foolish. Sharing this common starting point, we set out together to grow closer with Jesus, on the way of the cross that is foolish to many, yet the way we know will bring us life.

In the great locker room of Lent, none of us looks good without his or her clothes. Oh, we do yeoman's work to cover up our jelly rolls and jiggly, flabby folds. We think that if we start out on this journey, on Lent's program of spiritual exercises, that others will see how out of shape we are. So we must choose: do we hide in the corner and try to conceal ourselves, or do we give in and join in with everyone else? Do we open ourselves to being helped by others, do we offer assistance when called upon?

You can only begin where you are. Even a small choice today, perhaps to pray, "Lord, give me the desire to pray!" may be the first step toward a renewed relationship with the God. Wherever you are, whatever the state of your life, you can begin...now. Always now, forever "now," because God invites us in all things, in our everyday lives.

Lent's gym seems imposing at first but know that you're always welcome to enter into its program of exercise and discipline. You won't see results immediately - this isn't a fad diet! - but over time you'll find yourself stronger, more centered, and more deeply engaged in responding with your whole life to the God who loves you.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Now is a Very Acceptable Time

Throughout the world, the Christian faithful celebrate today the beginning of Lent. Marked with ashes, they embark upon a forty-day journey of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and conversion as they move toward the horror of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter.

For me, this is an especially meaningful Lenten season. Since October I have been working with an outstanding group of women and men at Saint Cecilia Parish to prepare them for full reception into the Catholic Church. It is a true testimony to the power of the Spirit, and the tenacity human perseverance, that they have come so far in growing in their friendship with Jesus.

It's easy, I reckon, for many of us to start out Lent much as we begin the New Year: with a list of resolutions, of things we're going to give up, of hopes to help re-create ourself. We start with a sizable list and if we "do" one of those things, we cross it from the list and try to preserve our other "resolutions" until, after ten days or so, we find ourselves back to where we started.

Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Corinthians, encourages: Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. This "day of salvation" isn't a once-a-year event, like a sale at Neiman Marcus. This "day" is every single day for those willing to open their ears and hearts and ask, "Well, Lord, where would you like to lead me?"

For those interested in and looking for prayer resources, please allow me to suggest a resource put out by the Society of Jesus. Called Moved to Greater Love, this is a first-ever experience of communal prayer for Jesuits. Across the country, we have all been asked to pray together as one body, as brothers in the Lord. You, too, are invited to join us in prayer.

You can even sign up to receive the daily reflections in your email. I find this helpful as it allows me to pull the daily reflection up on my phone in the morning so that I can pray from the comfort of my bed!

Yes, now is a very acceptable time, not necessarily to try to lose ten pounds or quit smoking, but to come to know the Lord. Rather than fret over the number of times you swore, or how many candy bars you've eaten, such energy could be better dedicated to coming to know the Lord better, to listen more carefully to how God is speaking to your heart, and to enter more deeply into friendship with Jesus.

Monday, March 03, 2014

No Irrelevant Jesus

I apologize for the long absence from writing: it was a hectic February, in all sorts of ways, but I'm glad now to have a few days of Spring Break to re-organize.

For those looking for spiritual reading this Lent, please allow me to suggest Gerhard Lohfink's new No Irrelevant Jesus: On Jesus and the Church Today. I began the book this morning with a commitment to reading one chapter each day. Normally, I devour books such as this but, in attempt to have a more reflective attitude toward the text, I'm going to take it slowly.

The first chapter, provocatively entitled "On Not Taming Jesus," rejects the tendency to reduce Christianity to a message of self-acceptance. In a riff on Matthew 22:39, Lohfink writes
You shall love God,
you shall love your neighbor
and you shall love yourself -
in fact, you shall first of all love yourself,
because otherwise you can love neither God
nor your neighbor. 
The problem with this, Lohfink writes, is that it assumes Jesus addressed his teaching to individuals, to each disciple one-by-one. Instead, he continues, we must remember that Jesus addressed himself to his disciples as a group. The way of life inaugurated by Jesus was a new way of living as community, a new way of being a group of women and men committed to God's Reign on earth. Jesus' way had precious little to do with accommodating to society (something many would-be church reformers seem to have forgotten) but with rethinking what it meant to be a society, a church, gathered in expectation of God's action in history.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the children learn of Aslan that he is "not a tame lion." Aslan doesn't like to be tied down or restricted: his mission, as king of Narnia, demands his freedom to go to and fro. Lohfink, concluding chapter one, similarly decries attempts to "tame" Jesus by making him in our image and likeness in a way that affirms, rather than challenges, ourselves.

If this book unfolds as I expect, this is going to be a rich source for spiritual reading this Lent. I'll do my best to share more  as I read, both to encourage people to take up this text and to process it for myself.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A New Adventure Begins...

It is with great joy, and tremendous relief, that I can share that I've been accepted to Boston College's doctoral program in systematic theology. I interviewed almost two weeks ago and heard yesterday afternoon. Throughout my years of Jesuit formation, it has become increasingly clear to me that I have both a desire and passion for higher studies in theology and I'm so enormously grateful that I will have the opportunity to begin these studies.

I'll spare you the details of exactly what I hope to study: in addition to being boring to most people, it changes within me each day!

I will share, however, why I love studying theology.

I love the study of theology because it was through the guidance of a theologian that I learned to pray. Years ago, when I was in college, I bought a copy of Karl Rahner's The Need and Blessing of Prayer. As I recall, I was a senior in college and my roommate was working overnight shifts at a local FedEx. One evening, after I'd finished studying, I took a notion to make my first foray into Rahner.

Within pages, I found a short passage with an image that has haunted me ever since:
...Become aware that God has been expecting you for quite some time in the deepest dungeon of your rubbled-over heart. Become aware that he has been quietly listening for a long time whether you, after all the busy noise of your life, and all the idle talk that you called your illusion-free philosophy of life, or perhaps even your prayer during which you only talked to yourself, after all the despaired weeping and mute groaning about the need of your life, whether you finally could be silent before him and let him speak the word, the word that seemed only to be like a deadly silence to the earlier person who was you.
The image of the "rubbled-over heart," drawn from Rahner's own memories of women and men being sealed in the cellars of their houses during German bombing raids, described perfectly my own spirit at that time.

I am passionate about theology, a passion I owe greatly to Rahner, because he gave me the courage to confront my "rubbled-over heart" and in that cramped and confined space, helped me to pray. No fireworks. No mystical visions. Simply the total silence of being with the Holy One in the depths of my interiority.

Saint Ignatius believed we could find God in all things. Karl Rahner helped me to find God in the most unexpected of places: my heart. How, then, could I not trust Rahner to lead and guide me through theological reflection? I would never insult the great theologian by claiming to be a "Rahnerian." Instead, I would like to think I have something of Rahner's intrepid spirit to ask, and pursue, questions wherever they lead me...because I am confident that the same God who dwells within my heart animates and directs
the questions of my mind.

I cannot express how excited I am this morning. This is, I believe, my 1152 blog post and I can't begin to imagine how many posts over the last decade have been influenced or inspired by my theological interests. Questions and ideas arising in these pages will continue, no doubt, to inform and shape the way I pursue my studies. Again, all I can say is that I am so grateful to have this opportunity to immerse myself in the studies for which I am passionate and hope that I'll be able to share this passion for discovering the God of the "rubbled-over heart" with others. 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

....but what will the neighbors say?

In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death last week, there has been no shortage of stories addressing the alarming rise in the use of heroin, especially among teenagers. CNN provides a "snapshot" of the epidemic in a story focusing on heroin use among teens in Long Island. 

Tellingly the author writes, "Parents are caught between denial and shame over the
stigma of having a heroin-addicted child."

This makes sense: what community isn't proud when the local kid succeeds by getting to play a professional sport, getting into medical school, or achieving success in some field? It's easier to say to friends, "My son the lawyer" or "My daughter the professor" than it is to say "My son who struggles with addiction."

This may arise from a "But what will the neighbors say?" mentality. I've seen it with families where a child is gay or lesbian; where a child struggles with alcohol or drugs; where kids struggle with depression or anxiety. Such pressure can be placed on parents, on families, to maintain the "perfect image" that it breeds an atmosphere of shame and silence.

This has led me to begin to think of "sin" as a form of un-making. Rather than thinking of it as notches in God's great tally book, it may be far more helpful to consider sin as how one's actions actually un-make us.
  • When I lie to my friends and family, I am un-making bonds of trust that have held us together; through my lies, I systematically unpick the knots that bind us as one. 
  • When I abuse alcohol or drugs, I un-make myself as I place a substance at the center of my life and re-orient my life to this thing that will destroy me if I don't escape its clutches.
  • When I ignore the plight of those around me, I un-make myself as I focus exclusively on my own wants and needs and fail to embrace being a member of the human family. 
  • When I maintain silence about abusive behavior, I un-make myself by allowing a terrible crime to be perpetrated on another. 
The Catholic Church has learned, painfully, the deep pain of maintaining silence, of putting its appearance above its responsibility to care for those in need. The heinous evil of child sexual abuse was only exacerbated by the corporate silence that has led to the un-making of the Catholic Church. Consequently, it will take time, penance, and God's grace for the Church to regain a voice of solid moral authority in the world. 

We would never blame the victim of sexual abuse. Likewise, we should never blame the victims of drug and alcohol abuse. Blaming the victim, judging the family, may make the accuser feel better but it only isolates the victims; to shame another in this way is to contribute to the person's un-making. To shame a victim, to judge the family, to contribute to another's unmaking: this is a terrible sin.

Hardly any one of us is innocent of this. We are, all of us, implicated in this form of silent unmaking. 

In the case of drug and alcohol abuse, especially among teens, I'm not saying they are without responsibility. And yet, once the addiction has set in, it makes no difference how they became addicted (we need to look at many factors that contributed to the initial act of trying it). All that matters is that they are addicted and that, if we do not act, the substance will rule the person's life and eventually destroy it. 

If our culture is one wherein family's must fear judgment and shaming on account of their children, this is a mark of a deep and perhaps unrecognized sinfulness we must address. If we have sisters and brothers struggling with addiction, how does shaming them help? How does stigma help? They do not. 

The thought of anyone suffering in silence for fear of shame or disgrace saddens me. What sort of society or church do we live in where we communicate that it is better to suffer in silence, to be systematically un-made, than it is to seek the help and healing one needs? 

If fear of judgment or shame lead families or addicts to keep silent, then they are but part of a larger problem. If this is the culture to which we contribute, a culture that permits and promotes the silent un-making of our sisters and brothers, then we are ourselves scarred with a terrible sin that is slowly un-making us as we turn a cold heart to those most in need.