Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

My dear friends,

My most sincere prayers that this be for you a very blessed and peaceful Christmas.  I received a letter from a Brother in our New England province a few days ago, riffing off one of my posts on this blog, so since it is better than anything I could have done, I include it below.  (Shawn, I hope you don't mind me borrowing your letter - it was too good to miss!)  Let us pray for each other, that this Christmas we remember the poor, that we see in this quotidian miracle of birth the ever-new birth of the reign of God: justice, forgiveness, crossing of boundaries to welcome the outsider.

Who I am is who I am in God, and nothing more.

--And God came to us that way, too.
As an infant.
As one born into a family that had faith and very little else.
As the bearer of reconciliation, renewal in the Covenant,
As Savior and Brother and Lord – as he was in God.
--And Jesus lived among us that way, too.
As a humble, quiet resident of Nazareth for 30 of his 33 years.
As an itinerant preacher who challenged the status quo.
As one who loved those considered unlovable, unacceptable,
unclean and unknown
(the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant,
the substance abuser, the criminal – all children of God)
As one who challenges us to do the same.

--And now we are called to live that way, too.
As people of faith in the face of skepticism.
As people of hope in a world where sometimes hope seems lost.
As people of love in a society that has often confused its
priorities about what love means.

Who I am is who I am in God and nothing more.
May the Spirit of God, the Spirit that gave Jesus life and gives us life,
guide you to become who are you are in God
this Advent and Christmas
and throughout the New Year to come.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

reflection for 22 December 2009

As usual, it has been way too long since I last posted, but I did just finish my papers for the end of the semester, and I’ve been up to my neck in work.  The readings today are the story of Hannah, mother of Samuel, bringing her baby to the temple to dedicate him to God (1 Sam1:24-28); the Canticle of Hannah, which is a song that follows the dedication of Samuel to God (1 Sam 2:1-8); and then Mary’s Magnificat (LK 1:46-56), which of course is attributed to her after Elizabeth acknowledges her blessedness.  Each of them is a great reading, and together they are a great combination.  I am currently working on a book review of a new book on contextual theology (An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective by Stephen Bevans, SVD) for a Catholic publication, and a great deal of it has been discussing how theology always comes from a particular context, rather than assuming that the theology of upper-middle-class white male celibates (like myself) is the normative theology and everyone from other situations is somehow derivative from that norm.  The only people we hear from in today’s readings are poor Middle Eastern women – not only no degrees in theology, but can’t read or write, have no public voice, but by God, they are doing theology!  Their theology is unbelievably important for a person in my situation, because it is too easy to think that the concerns of my world are everyone’s concerns, that everyone encounters these texts the way I do.  As I mentioned in my last post, “Apocalyptic never makes sense to people who are tenured.”  That is, for people whose life is comfortable, literature written when people are under attack and their world is exploding is a curiosity at best, something to be leisurely pondered.  I can easily spiritualize this Christmas season because a person in my context can afford to do so.  “Christ being born in your heart” is a nice reminder of the call to inner conversion, and it isn’t WRONG, but re-read the Magnificat and see how much of it isn’t about spiritualized concerns, but about the situation of the poor and the marginal, like Mary herself would have been as a woman, a non-elite Palestinian, a person living under foreign occupation, an unwed mother.  The God of Hannah and Mary’s Canticles is not only a God who touches hearts but who demands justice, who crushes unjust forces that would trample the poor.  While we talk about the coming of the reign of God at Christmas, both Canticles make clear that this God is already active, already demanding and bringing justice for those who are chewed up by the powerful – this is who God always is.  One of my papers this semester was on torture in Latin American dictatorships as a ritual that created a particular kind of collective memory: there is only one story in this country, and it is the story of the regime, and any alternative stories get silenced by torture.  What a revolutionary thing to here have a vision of reality that is not only given by poor women, but that offers a completely different vision of reality – a reality in which the poor are saved from the nightmare of oppression, where the narrative of the unchallenged power of the proud is dismantled.  That alternative story is just about always subaltern, below the surface of the dominant narrative, like a termite invisibly chewing away at the foundations of the structure from within, but for people who themselves get chewed up by society’s script of how the world works, an alternative story says: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY.  ANOTHER REALITY IS POSSIBLE.  In a world in which 70% of the world’s poor are still women, in which women still do 80% of the work and still own 1% of the property, the fact that today’s readings give voice to poor nonwhite women is still not to be taken for granted, even though we likely don’t a second’s notice to the speakers, let alone the actual content, subversive as it is. (*As a side note, during the dictatorships I mentioned above, the Magnificat was at times ripped out of Bibles by the regimes because it inspired images of another world, of the powers being overthrown.  Words continue to offer us the means to depiction of reality, and thus to alternative depiction of reality!*)  What a thing it is when, whether in our parishes or on their own, people come together to read the texts of our collective story from our individual backgrounds: some professionally educated in the task, most not, but all taking part in enriching the community by sharing the varied perspectives of their lives in conversation with the Biblical world as it speaks to them: male, female, African, Latin American, Asian, refugees, migrants, even white upper-middle-class celibate doctoral students.  As it so happens, last week a volunteer who lives near us and who works at a clinic at a Franciscan parish called me and asked if I spoke French: A woman from French-speaking Africa had just come into the clinic and the usual interpreter was not available.  I went over, talked to this woman a bit, and helped her through her meeting with the doctor: very simple, a reminder of how much help my French needs, but it worked.  She is a recent immigrant from Niger, her son recently died, so she is staying with the one person she knows, another woman from her hometown who has been here for a while.  Those two women have some stories to tell, let me assure you, and I plan to keep in touch with them, especially to help the first woman learn some English so she can make this place home.  How would they read today's readings?  Certainly not the same way I do, but certainly not wrongly compared to my "scholarly" reading.  What world do those two Palestinian village women from a long time ago inspire for those African women living over a barbershop in the old Italian district in Syracuse?  And what do all four of them say to me as I celebrate the coming of Jesus, who bears the reign of God in his midst?

Monday, November 30, 2009

expert humans wanted

We read some Emerson and Thoreau for one of my classes this week, and I just finished the reflection paper, so I have snippets of both those guys whirling in my head, with a liberal sprinkling of clips from Dead Poets' Society for good measure.  Thoreau's quote, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them" has got me thinking, and not just because it's the end of the semester and I'm up to my eyeballs in reading and papers: how much do any of us avoid the possibility of unknown suffering by clinging to sufferings to which we are accustomed?  Pink Floyd shares Thoreau's sentiment: "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way."  Stiff upper lip, lads.  How much of my life is extraordinary?  That doesn't mean life-as-extreme-sport, (for God's sake, no) but how much do I live to get somewhere else, not pay attention to where I am, muddle through what I am supposed to do?  How often am I genuinely alive, really soaking in the full range of human experience, and not running away from some part of it?  Whatever we are doing, work, school, whatever is about developing or making use of a certain expertise of ability or information, but how many of us are expert human beings?  I have become an expert at keeping the world stable around me, but when that stability is threatened, how easily my little world falls apart.  I don't know how to become an expert human being, but, even if just for this night while writing this paper, Emerson and Thoreau have reminded me that the goal of all of it - work, school, community, ministry, whatever - is the deadly difficult task of becoming who we are, becoming real human beings.

For me in my little universe, that means more than having a much-expanded personal library at the end of this degree program.  A mental rock star like Thoreau can say that he kept the Iliad on his table at Walden Pond but didn’t read much of it; again, he isn't dismissing intellectual work, but seeing the task of intellection directed to knowing himself.  Plenty of people have dismissed his experiment because he was only a mile or so from Concord, but I challenge anyone to spend a week without reading or talking to anyone – that might sound like heaven at the end of the semester, but not reading, not writing, not accomplishing, not producing is a lot more work than it seems. In my head I share Thoreau’s sentiment, “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers,” but in my real life I also see how needy I can get after a few months of continual interaction, communication, productivity, when I have not disciplined myself to be still and let go of "relevance."  My fear in this place is that academe become a barrier between myself and real life, cutting me off from the desperation of real people's real sufferings as well as Thoreau's “quiet desperation” in my own life, not just because I have spent a ridiculous amount of time this semester cooped up reading or writing, but because a university can be a cozy place to hunker down away from the chaos of the world. “Apocalyptic never makes sense to people who are tenured,” one of my OT professors once told our class. Point taken: To the degree that being here opens my world to the rawness of the world of people who live without safety nets, and gives me the tools to bring people to see outside their bubble, I'm in the right place. To the degree that this kind of work insulates me from it, I’m in big trouble.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Time of the End is the Time of No Room - 15 November 2009

The readings today include apocalyptic sections of Daniel and Mark, so given the opening of this new film 2012 (which I have not seen, and don't particularly intend to see), I thought my reflection for today might bring those two together.  Here goes...

Merry Christmas! I see that we already have a Christmas tree out in the lobby, but how many of you have seen Christmas decorations up at stores or heard Christmas music on the radio? I started hearing it before Halloween. According to this new movie 2012 the Mayans apparently say the end is coming in three years, and I think that by then, stores are going to start Christmas sales on the 4th of July. In the past few weeks, how many of you have said something along the lines of, “Oh my God, the semester is almost over!”? Personally, I don’t want it to be that close, because I have a lot of work to do between now and the end. We see something of that sense of anticipation this week in the readings: sun being darkened, stars falling, heavens and earth being shaken. In other words, the world as we know it is falling apart. We still have a few weeks to go before the end of the liturgical year, but we are already hearing readings that seem to be directly pointing at the end of things. The technical term for thinking about “the last things” is eschatology, so we might say that these readings are eschatological. Preachers throughout history have just loved these texts, usually pointing to current events to convince people that the end is almost here. War here, famine there, the end must be close. There have ALWAYS been wars and famines going on, I’m sad to say, so current events is not the best yardstick. Even the earliest generation of Christians seemed to believe pretty soundly that Jesus would return within their lifetimes, and it’s easy to see why from the content of the gospel: “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Both the first reading and the gospel point to a select group who will endure the end: those whose names are written in the book, says the first, and the elect, says the gospel. Of course, people of all times have been at pains to show that they are among the elect, usually showing at the same time who is NOT among the elect. Some group took it upon themselves some years ago to calculate exactly what percentage of people are going to be condemned, and suffice it to say it’s pretty high, 87-point-something percent, if my memory serves. Anybody want to guess whether that group was in the 87 percent or the 13 percent?

What do we do with readings like this when, a couple of millennia after they were written, the end still hasn’t come? Well, there’s eschatology and then there’s eschatology. I did find it interesting that with all this buzz about this movie 2012 coming out this weekend, a professor of archaeology or some such thing pointed out that the Mayans didn’t see this as the end of the world, but the end of the age, the end of a particular arche, a particular power structure. That, I think, is the sense of what we see in this gospel; right around the time Mark’s gospel was written, the Romans sacked Jerusalem and burned down the temple. For the Jews of that time, this was huge, the “end of the world,” rather like that country song after 9/11, “Where were you when the world stopped turning?”, or all those action scenes in the end-of-the-world movies that Hollywood keeps pumping out: the White House blowing up in Independence Day, the frozen Statue of Liberty in The Day After Tomorrow, the fall of the Eiffel Tower in G.I. Joe, and so on. The world looks different after this has happened, because what we thought was stable, sturdy, eternal is shown to be vulnerable. At the same time as these massive catastrophes change the world, that’s also what the life and ministry of Jesus is about, in a completely different way: the outsider, the weak, the unworthy is paradoxically shown to be the place where God is to be found. Thinking back to the “percentages” of who will be saved, who did Jesus spend his time with? The power elite? The well-connected? The really religious folks? Try the unclean, the outsiders, the unworthy, the repentant. So, this age is dying, even if it is a slow and painful death. Unfortunately, instead of this vision of who God is infiltrating our model of power politics, we have allowed it to norm our sense of what God is. The first reading speaks of Michael, and of course we usually get an image of an angel with a sword or a spear, reenacting a power that, while bigger than earthly powers, is the same kind of control: the biggest of the big sticks. In the early Church, Michael was an image for Jesus: Michael means “who is like unto God?” And who is like God, who shows us what God is like? Jesus, who has neither sword nor spear, but only the earth-shaking model of crucified love. God is to be found in the unstable places of history, and while life generally works for all of us who are here, we know well how large a proportion of the world can’t say the same. Despite the death grip of the old age on control and manipulation, the business-as-usual power politics that favors the powerful and the well-placed is giving way to a new era in the ministry of Jesus, who points to the nobodies of his world as signs of the reign of God, a scandal to the reign of power. That’s the already and the not yet; the promise has been made, and we believe that promise is trustworthy, so we can live in a new world and also await its full enactment. The death knell of this arrangement of power and injustice has been sounded in the new reality that is the coming of Jesus, who defies all the power politics of the world, who is born into obscurity and poverty and dies in pain and disgrace.

Since you are all anticipating the end of the semester, and the readings are anticipating the end of the liturgical year, and 2009 is anticipating the year 2012 (why didn’t they wait three years?!), allow me to anticipate a bit and bring the eschatology of this week’s readings into conversation with a reflection on the Nativity, the initiation of the end of the age. Thomas Merton wrote an essay in the early 60’s entitled, “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room,” a reflection on the Nativity, when there was “no room” (in the inn) for the coming of the new vision.

“We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration.

“As the end approaches, there is no room for nature. The cities crowd it off the face of the earth.

As the end approaches, there is no room for quiet. There is no room for solitude. There is no room for thought. There is no room for attention, for the awareness of our state.

“In the time of the ultimate end, there is no room for man.

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it - because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it - his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. For them, there is no escape even in imagination. They cannot identify with the power structure of a crowded humanity which seeks to project itself outward, anywhere, in a centrifugal flight into the void, to get out there where there is no God, no man, no name, no identity, no weight, no self, nothing but the bright, self-directed, perfectly obedient and infinitely expensive machine.

“For eschatology is not finis and punishment, the winding up of accounts and the closing of books: it is the final beginning, the definitive birth into a new creation. It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving as actual.”

Friday, November 13, 2009


I met with my academic advisor today to plan next semester’s courses, and at the end of the meeting she, with great sensitivity and candor, brought to my attention a concern that some of the other students in the department had about me. She included that she thought they had not come to talk to me directly because they saw me as a religious authority and may have felt intimidated. I was brought up short by the concern she raised, as I was not even aware of the effect of my actions, but it made me think about what it means to be seen as a religious authority. While I know that the mere fact of being in religious life connotes a certain kind of authority, I don’t consider myself an authority on anything. I am certainly not an intellectual authority, not when it comes to knowledge of the faith, a topic that I have actually studied, let alone any other topic. I don’t consider myself a moral authority; quite the contrary, my sense of religious community is that we are here together because we are greatly aware of our fallibility, and we need to be here together because we are such great sinners.  One of the great blessings of community is that, at its best, it holds a mirror to our actions like my advisor did this afternoon. In Christianity in particular, it seems to me that religious authority takes on a peculiar cast, an anti-thority if you will. I have said before how often the very people whom Jesus takes to task are religious authorities, and as a so-called religious authority, I know that I am in the hot seat. If service, humility, self-effacement are the hallmarks of true leadership (which I think Jesus makes more or less clear), then the fact that anyone could be intimidated about bringing his/her concern to a religious authority means that we have not done a good job of making clear that Christian authority is an anti-thority. Jesus repeatedly says that the healthy do not need a doctor, but the sick do, so to follow Jesus means to be aware of one's sickness, and the language of "perfection" that the Church uses for religious life is simply about the goal of learning to listen to the doctor's orders, not being free of the sickness.  To be a Christian anti-thority figure means that we should be the most open to criticism, the most able to acknowledge when we have done wrong, because we know how fallible we are, how far from being in a position of superiority. If people expect perfection from us because we have presented that image of ourselves, woe to us. I was certainly embarrassed by what my advisor brought to my attention, but I was just as certainly glad that she did so; Richard Rohr suggests he needs at least one good humiliation per day to keep his head on straight, and I think that’s about right. Of course, to the degree that I take myself seriously, that kind of shaking of the foundations can throw me into a tailspin, which is why regularity of humiliation is important: to never give myself time to take myself too seriously. In one of his books Tony DeMello reflects on the book I'm OK, You're OK and says that he should write a counter-text: I'm an Ass, You're an Ass.  That doesn't excuse the fact that I'm an ass, it just reminds me not to be surprised when I prove it.  I had just gotten an email from an old colleague this morning, telling me how much they miss me at SLU, and I was feeling pretty good about myself (I still do, I’m not neurotic or anything), but this afternoon’s meeting brought me back to attentiveness to myself – not everyone is reading me as wonderfully as this old colleague, and I better pay attention to why they think so, because they just might be seeing something in me that I don’t see in myself. I sometimes wonder if any of the Twelve read the manuscript of Mark’s Gospel before it got into circulation; I hope so, because as much as that gospel portrays the Twelve as a bunch of knuckleheads, for them to say, “Yeah, that’s about it, we’re knuckleheads,” would be an exercise in real Christian anti-thority. I’m certainly not one of the Twelve, but I’m a knucklehead, and to the degree that I try to paint a prettier picture of myself than my actual knuckleheadedness, I turn true anti-thority into authority as the world thinks of it, and the gospel of humility and mercy becomes a gospel of "unsaved unwelcome" and self-righteousness.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Habits of the Heart

Today I started reading Robert Bellah’s classic book Habits of the Heart for my sociology class; I was just a kid when it came out, and I “should” have read it somewhere along the line (see previous post), but for one reason or another I never did. Anyway, it deals with how Americans understand themselves and pursue what they understand to be worthwhile in life, and the first person interviewed, Brian, was a successful businessman who made it to the top at the expense of a relationship with his family, working sixty-five-plus hours per week. The collapse of what he thought his world actually was led him to a new attitude about work; as he puts it, “Now I just kind of flip the bird and walk out. My family life is more important than that, and the work will wait, I have learned.” My tendency has been to follow Brian’s pattern (without making big money, of course): “Perhaps it was success. Perhaps it was fear of failure, but I was extremely success-oriented, to the point where everything would be sacrificed for the job, the career, the company.”  Boy, does that hit close to home.  I always have a bad habit of breaking my neck trying to do work to the umpteenth degree; despite all the wise words I have about how my community is too workaholic, about how we don’t know what our identity is when we aren’t in active ministry, boy, have I felt that one this year. I’ve always been able to justify working like a fool by saying that one reason to be in religious life is to be able to work like crazy without depriving a wife and kids of their husband and father, but the treads have worn pretty thin on that line. One of my formation directors taught us in the novitiate, “The charism of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart is to work your ass off.” Period. In that, I am a true Brother of the Sacred Heart, and I’m tired of it. I want my life back. I don’t blame my work settings: no one has put this kind of expectation on me but me, but I just don't want that for my life anymore. In particular, prayer is an aspect of my life that usually suffers first, and I suspect that is common among members of apostolic orders. I have never considered myself a terribly good pray-er, so it has not taken much psychological energy to push off prayer because I had so much work to do. Grateful though I am for community prayer, it has become a sort of justification: no matter whether I pray at other times or not, I “have to” be in there at those scheduled times, so I can keep on telling myself that’s enough. That's all I've got for today; I won’t quite “flip the bird” to my work or this blog, but I can do so to the attitude that wants to throw a few shreds of real life in at the end of work.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints Day

I can't believe it's been two weeks since I have posted...ugh...Such is the pace of a doctoral program.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we form our sense of self, which should be no surprise to people who ever read this thing.  In particular I have been aware of how easily the university setting can prompt covetousness, and how hard it is to feel "at ease" even in a setting in which people are very friendly and that is not outwardly competitive.  In my program, people are working on dozens of areas of research that are so widespread, it can be quite difficult to figure out what common ground we have.  However, when I listen to other students talking about their areas of interest, discussing scholars and movements that I have never even heard of, much less read about, it is easy for me to get defensive in response to feeling like I'm on the dumb end of the department, or on the other hand to work myself into a frenzy of wanting to read all this stuff.  Now, there's something good about being motivated to read more, I suppose, but there is a certain abysmal character to such a desire.  There is physically no way to read everything I "should" read to be up on the sweep of my chosen fields (let alone all the other fields I "should" be keeping abreast of).  It is a bit like the Buddhist figure of the "hungry ghost," which is conceived of as having a huge stomach, but a tiny neck - it cannot be satisfied, no matter how much it eats, because its hunger is insatiable.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who spends part of the year living in a hermitage, says that when he gets settled into his retreat every year, he comes to the place where he feels like if he never read another book, it would be enough.  This is a very well-read guy, so he does not mean that reading is not important or that he has gotten it all figured out.  He knows the potential of study to liberate, but he wants to make clear that it can also become an insatiable desire.  Even though study is critical to bringing us to new understanding of ourselves and our world, it can also lead to a sense of self based in being able to "compete" with the other: I've read all those people, I am among the literati, I know all the theories out there.  The attempt to fill the chasm of who I am with anything, even anything good - books read or published, good works accomplished, income donated, degrees earned - is itself an indication of just how alienated from myself I have in fact become.  The measure of that for me is when I find myself in the company of different groups of people: around my students I could feel confident in my knowledge base, while among my classmates I feel somehow more ephemeral, like I am less real around people who know more than I.  That may be one way of reading "the Fall" in Genesis 3: the immediacy of my knowledge of my relationship and identity with God gets disrupted with the rise of self-consciousness, of shame and pride, so I feel the need to cover my nakedness with the fig leaves of what I can pat myself on the back for.
That may be one good thing about today: All Saints Day.  If today shows us anything, it is the absolute multiplicity of models that have been acknowledged as legitimate ways of living true humanity.  The call to holiness is not a blueprint or a script; there is no one way to be a saint.  Rather, sainthood is INCARNATED in the very tissue of who I am.  As much as I admire her, I am no Mother Teresa, which is ok - I'm not called to be her, but to be me, genuinely me, which is harder than it sounds.  This mimesis or creation of desires based on other people tells me what I am supposed to desire, what I am supposed to want to be, and it will jerk me around as long as I play the game of trying to produce a mask that is so real that I will forget that it is simply a mask.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Reflection for 18 October

My dear friends,
I have been up to my ears in reading of late, but it has been entirely too long since I posted anything.  Mercifully it came time to do a reflection at the Catholic Center here at SU again today, so I had to produce something that I could post.  Here goes:

The readings bring together two themes that we don’t often think of going together: suffering and authority.  To begin, each of the readings today thematizes suffering. The first reading from Isaiah talks about the suffering of one person healing the people. This reading is the end of a larger unit that Christians usually refer to as the Fourth Servant Oracle: the “Servant Oracles” refer to four texts in the middle of Isaiah which refer to an unnamed Servant of God who is rejected, faces persecution, suffers on behalf of others, so on. Whoever the prophet had in mind, it’s fairly clear why Christians have so often seen a trajectory from these texts to Jesus. In particular the Fourth sounds strikingly like the Passion, in lines like this: “But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.” (IS 53:4-7) Sound familiar? Hebrews talks about Jesus being able to sympathize with us because he knows suffering, and of course the gospel is loaded with foreshadowing of the Passion.

On the other hand, we have the issue of authority. Jesus is a hair’s breadth from Jerusalem, he’s just predicted his passion for the third time, and James and John come looking for jobs: to sit at his right and his left, that is, to become his secretary of state and secretary of war when he beats the Romans and becomes king. Were they not listening? Mark is just pouring on the irony at this point: when Jesus says they will drink from the cup from which he drinks, they’re all excited – “Oh boy! We’re close enough to the Boss that he lets us drink out of the same cup he uses!” Oh, they’ll get it soon enough, but not like they thought. We know who will be at his right and his left in Jerusalem, and it isn’t his chief ministers. Why do the other disciples get mad at the two of them? Is it because they are frustrated that the boys haven’t been listening to Jesus or that they are thinking in too worldly or selfish a way? Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it’s because the other disciples are jealous that James and John beat them to the punch – the ten wish they had thought of it first. So, just like the last time we talked, Jesus has to sit them all down and straighten them out: other people use authority to dominate others and to make sure that their life “works” the way they want it to, but you can’t do it that way.  Jesus says this is how the Gentiles are, and the gospels from the daily liturgy this past week were all about "woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites," but we know this isn't a Gentile thing, and it isn't a Jewish thing, it's a human thing.  All of us are susceptible to the insidious capacity of power to push us to feather our own nests.

Whenever I read texts like this one, or the gospels we have been hearing for the past week, I get really nervous, because he is warning religious authorities about how easy it is to turn authority into domination. People from my generation tend to distrust the very word: we have seen the authority of the church, the government, business, the family, all of it fall short of what it claims to be. We’ve seen how easily authorities can smash people’s lives, whether intentionally or not, and how insidious power can be when people don’t have someone regularly pulling on their leash. As much as I don’t feel like an authority on anything, I’ve been a professional religious and a teacher for a long time, and I know that a certain amount of authority comes with that fact, like it or not. That’s why the Church says of itself, of all of us, that we are semper reformanda, always reforming and always in need of reform. At our best we remember that, but it’s easy to forget just how quickly any of us, even Church officials, can hunker down when we get to a place that’s working for us. One of my teachers used to say that we all get scripted, whether we know explicitly what the script is or not, by the story lines at play in our culture. What might that story be in the world we inhabit? In his phraseology, “technological therapeutic military consumerism.” We breathe it in all the time, and the implicit or explicit story it is telling us is that authority-as-domination can make us safe and it can make us happy – buy enough stuff, kill the right people, build enough toys, get the right degree from the right school, and you can make your life work for you. That story is a big lie. We’re here every Sunday because we think there’s a better story, but we know that we are all mightily co-opted by the big lie, so we have got to keep coming back. We’ve all heard today’s readings a hundred times, but we have a hard time hearing them and an even harder time getting them to stick, when the big lie has so much free air time. Hopefully when we do hear our story we get excited, we’re committed, we’re going to make a fresh start…but that usually works for about three minutes, and then it’s, “Hey, there’s a new IPhone app.” I don’t have an IPhone, but I took a quick look at their web page to see what’s out there – 75,000 applications – there’s one to program your DVR from long distance, another one to help you make espresso drinks at home, and something to “Shave strokes off your golf score.” And we actually expect that to make us happy.

Back to the gospel, which I know is not as flashy and won’t help your golf game. Jesus is clueing us in that authority and suffering are not polar opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. Dorothee Soelle, a German theologian, puts it this way: “Love does not ‘require’ the cross, but de facto it ends upon the cross…it must necessarily seek confrontation, since its most important concern is not the avoidance of suffering but the liberation of people.” That doesn’t sound better than the big lie, but we know what Jesus’ authority looks like when it gets played out: on the far side of the cross, it looks like new life. That’s what Jesus means at the end of the gospel when he says that he has come to give his life as a ransom for many: he isn’t buying us back from the devil, or from an enraged God. We are holding ourselves hostage, and the ransom note is the big lie; it’s what we think we want, what we think will make us happy, but what we get is authority as service, as self-giving love, which is what we as Christians know is what we actually need.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Bro's are on YouTube

A few weeks ago a film crew came to the house to shoot footage for a series of short films on the Brothers' community, apostolate, and prayer, and Br. Chris Sweeney, one of our vocation guys, just sent me the links.  Check them out and tell us what you think!  (No, I wasn't crazy about being videoed, but sometimes you gotta take one for the team.  Good work, Chris.)

(*Warning: shameless plug ahead.  If you see this and think of a young man who you think would be interested in the religious life, feel free to point him in our direction --  OK, shameless plug ended.*)

I'm turning 32 this week (yeesh), so the parents came in town this last weekend to visit.  We did the usual running around - hit the farmer's market, went down to the Finger Lakes, went to church at the Catholic Student Center and walked around the university.  Good to visit, and mercifully my reading schedule was lighter this week, so I could afford to visit without being unendurably swamped with work after they left.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Happy Foundation Day

I wanted to post this about twelve hours ago, but my day was crazy enough that this is my first chance to sit at a computer without having an assignment hanging over my head.  Today the Brothers of the Sacred Heart celebrate(d) our Foundation Day, marking 188 years since the first Brothers professed their vows in Lyons, France.  We're a small order, but to think of all the good that has been done in the past 188 years, and to think of standing in that tradition, following in the work of some truly great men, is both deeply humbling and encouraging.  Those first Brothers came together to respond to the social wreckage of France after the Revolution, in particular taking care of orphaned children who were in jails and on the streets, and the permutations of ministries have exploded from there.  Even though most of our work today is in schools, that original charism has even come full circle in several places where AIDS has created massive numbers of orphans in need of care.

I entered my community as a teenager, and I am grateful to have grown up with the modeling of the men with whom I have lived over the past thirteen years.  I don't think I will ever recognize what a grace all those men have been in helping me be less of an idiot than I would have been without them.  In our community hymn, there is a line which reads, "Qu'il est bon, qu'il est doux, d'habiter un seul lieu," which literally refers to living in one place, but which we have typically rendered as "dwelling in unity"; community has been about more than just living under one roof - at its best, it has been about sharing a vision, wanting to support each other while we hold one another's feet to the fire (gently, of course!).  So, to Brothers, colleagues, former students of the Brothers, and friends who have stumbled upon this blog, Ametur Cor Jesu - loved be the Heart of Jesus.  Happy Foundation Day, Brothers.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

who I am...

I want to say thanks again to Fr. Austin (ConcordPastor) for so graciously "running the ball," pointing people in the direction of last week's post based on my reflection at Mass.  I am amazed at the number of people who have commented either on his page or mine about that line I put in there, "Who you are is who you are in God and nothing more."  In one sense I am pleased that it struck a chord with people, but on the other hand it indicates that a lot of people find themselves being twisted out of shape by the impossible task of trying to forge an identity based on something other than that final ground.  My local community is reading a book entitled Living a Gentle, Passionate Life by Robert J. Wicks, a psychologist in private practice, and in it he includes a line from a colleague of his: "Every patient stared at long enough, listened to hard enough, yields up a child, arrived at from somewhere else, caught up in a confused life, trying to do the right thing, whatever that might be, and doing the wrong thing instead."  Well, I don't know about you, but that about sums it up for me...Walter Brueggemann gave a lecture a few years back to a group of pastors, talking about how we get "scripted" by whatever world we live in, and how the alternative storyline of the Bible offers us a different script.  At one point in the lecture he says, "The reason why I've published so much over the years is that I'm trying to overcome my narrative, and my narrative is, 'I'm a sh*t!'"  Apologies for the colorful metaphor, but it points to something for me: here is a world-renowned scholar, not only one of the most brilliant men I have ever known, not only one of the best teachers I am ever likely to have, but one of the most gracious men I have ever known, but still he can't get away from this gnawing sense of inadequacy.  We know all the right stuff in our heads, but we just can't seem to believe it, or to actually let it stay with us for more than five minutes, so we need to keep coming back to it again and again.  Mercy within mercy within mercy...

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Today happens to be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and people who know me know my love for bad pirate jokes.  I'll forego putting any of my favorites in here, but here is the link to all things pirate in honor of the day:


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Reflection for 20 September 2009

The gospel today is the second of three cycles in which Jesus predicts his passion, only to be misunderstood by the disciples, at which point he has to make clear what it means to be an agent of the reign of God.  This time, they respond to his prediction by trying to out-ego each other: arguing about who is the greatest.  To even begin this argument is already to lose - even if you win the argument, you have lost all the more.  This isn't about acting servantish to pad one's Christian curriculum vitae - as a student once told me about a very religiously upright classmate, "He takes a lot of pride in how humble he is."  I know I fall into some kind of regression of that - either inflating my ego for being in religious life (as if having a title or a special outfit makes me anything other than the sinner that I am), or taking pride in not being caught up in religious showiness (at the expense of people that I assume are superficial in their Christianity).  O wretched that I am - wherever I go, self-absorption seems constantly to be nipping at my heels.  The reading from James underscores the insidiousness of coveting what is around us, seeing other people who make us feel inadequate or defensive: "Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?  Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?  You covet but do not possess.  You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war."  Despite some of the crazy directions that early Calvinist thinkers spun Calvin out on, his concept of chosenness is important: instead of worrying about what you can to do "get saved," (faith/works/both) Calvin pushs past that kind of a focus on me and myself to what is really important: the glory of God.

Zambia trip 2009

Every summer my friend and confrere Br. Chris Sweeney takes a group of grads and faculty members from our schools in the New Orleans Province to St. Francis High School, the Brothers' school in Malole, Zambia, for about 3 weeks of service, immersion, and sharing community.  He sent me the following link to a video he produced from that trip, and I'm sure there is a way to embed the video in the body of this post, but I'm too cumputer-illiterate to figure it out, so for now, please check the link.  As you do so, pray for the families and teachers and Brothers there in Zambia and so many other places in the world who are doing great things with absolutely nothing, and for the students and faculty here who are driven to solidarity, to get to know them and support them in their work.  It was a welcome reminder of the real world for me to watch the video myself - contrary to popular belief among my classmates, there is life outside of a doctoral program!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Reflection for 13 September 2009

The priest at Syracuse U's Catholic Center asked me to do a little reflection for the Masses today, so here is the rough version of what I said:

This question, “Who do you say that I am?” has become the center around which much of Christian identity has orbited virtually from the beginning. The proper theological term for this question is “Christology,” and it is, I think I can safely say, the most written-upon topic in Christian thought. And that makes sense to me, because the question really is about what it looks like when humanity and divinity meet – what happens when humanity is radically embraced by divinity; that question is fundamentally the question of salvation – the making whole of our individual and collective human reality. What we Christians claim to encounter in Jesus is salvation, and that is intimately linked with this question of who we say that he is.
So, let’s look at the gospel. Have any of you ever done a math problem in such a way that you get the right answer but you did it wrong? That’s what we see in the gospel today. When Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter pipes right up, “Ooh! Ooh! I know - You are the messiah,” and the text lets us know that Peter got the right answer. But thirty seconds later Jesus is kicking his butt, and it’s clear that what Peter means by messiah and what Jesus means by it are two radically different things. He got the right answer, but he has absolutely no idea what it means. Jesus refers to Peter as “Satan” in this reading, and the previous time the text talks about Satan is in the desert after Jesus’ baptism, when Satan tries to convince Jesus to understand being the Son of God this way: if God’s the king, you’re the prince, so live like it: make yourself comfortable, popular, in control. Peter is, in effect, doing the same thing – he imagines the Messiah being violent because his image of God is violent, making Jesus’ message fit into his image of who God is instead of listening to who Jesus presents God to be.
Now, it’s not really Peter’s fault – just about anyone using the word messiah in that time would make the same mistake – most Jews thought the messiah would be a warrior/king who would kick the Romans out of their country. Makes sense, right – for a people living under a repressive and humiliating regime like the Roman Empire, freedom from foreign occupation is a pretty understandable thing to want. Plus, that’s how God has saved them in the past – think the Exodus, return from Babylon, the Maccabean Revolt, they figure they know how God operates, and it’s violently. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say, “Of course Jesus wasn’t coming to start a revolt against Rome,” but not because we are so much more clued in to Jesus’ message – it’s simply that most Christians hardly are even aware that such revolutionary fervor was in the air. That’s why we see this pattern repeated two more times in all three Synoptic gospels, and why Jesus doesn’t want the disciples to tell anyone that he is the Messiah – he is a very different kind of messiah than the one they are expecting. Three times, Jesus predicts his passion and death, and three times the disciples don’t get what he’s talking about, so three times Jesus has to come back and explain what real discipleship is about. Listen for it next week – Jesus will predict his death, and then the disciples will start arguing about who is the greatest, still trying to inflate their egos, so he takes a little kid and says to them, “You’ve got to be like this,” which doesn’t mean being childlike or pure or whatever – it means to give up concern for social ranking – children were nobodies in that culture, and that’s what a bunch of guys who are squabbling about hierarchy need to hear.

What does this say to us and about us? Who am I? I suspect we all want to maintain a certain psychic integrity, to think well of ourselves and to present an image to other people that we want them to think about us. It’s easy enough to pooh-pooh the obviously superficial stuff as a way of cobbling together an identity – how expensive your clothes are, how perfect your body is, so on. Jesus goes further, though, to root out any places where our egos try to hide: even ostensibly good stuff like getting an education, being religious, can be one more way of convincing ourselves that we have got it together. In fact, it’s insidious, because although I believe religion can be the best thing in the world, it can also be the worst thing when it gives divine legitimacy to inflating our egos. Everything you need is already here – it’s just hard to live out of that because it doesn’t feel like much, because our egos can’t hang onto anything for themselves. Who you truly are is who you are in God, and nothing more. That sounds hokey, but at least in my own neurotic self, I constantly feel like I have to prove something, earn something, accomplish something, so I can think well of myself, so others will think well of me, so God will think well of me. That’s hard at a place like this and at the age most of you are, because there are so many talented people that it’s easy to covet all the talents and successes you see in other people. But no matter how many books I read, how many degrees I earn, how many good deeds I do or churchy things I attend, none of that can create an identity for me. That’s the bad news: I can’t cobble together an identity like that. The good news is, I don’t have to. Who I am is who I am in God, and nothing more – there is nothing to prove, no need to deny what a mess I am, no good self-image to project for other people, no need to make it look like I’ve got it all together so that God will love me or so that I can love myself. That is a sure-fire path to denial and hypocrisy, when we have to look like someone on the outside that we know doesn’t correspond to who we really are, when we run away from parts of our humanity. “Who do you say that I am?” Christianity speaks of Jesus as fully human and fully divine, and we have done backflips for two thousand years trying to figure out what that means, because not only do we not know what it’s like to be divine, we can’t even figure out what it means to be human. Usually we tend to oppose divinity and humanity, so we are all full human beings, just like Jesus, but he has the added bonus of being fully divine, so he isn’t subject to the same human stuff that we are. We are used to thinking of Jesus as more divine than us, but let me suggest that I understand Jesus to be more human than I: I am NOT fully human, insofar as I tend to run away from those parts of my humanness that scare me, like looking stupid, failing, vulnerability, and dying. Jesus “does” humanity better than I do – he IS fully human. He accepts being misunderstood, failing, suffering, being thought poorly of, even dying – because he is rooted in his absolute identity, which is beloved child of God. Anyone want to take a guess what our deepest identity is? You got it – “beloved child of God”! How often do any of us try to come up with more identity than that?

Perhaps that’s one way of thinking about what “fully human and fully divine” means – when the divine fully meets the human, then there is no need to run away from the scary parts of humanity, no need to try to assemble an identity by drawing boundaries over against other people – I’m smarter, I’m richer, I’m holier, I’m better. How many problems in our human reality are rooted in just that kind of alienation – setting one group over against another, not living out of our genuine identity, trying to maintain the appearance of being in control? All of that needs healing, reconciliation, SALVATION, all of which, I said at the beginning, is what makes Christology so important to us. That is our task as men and women of Christ – to become more divine by being more fully human – no need for deception, for denial, for self-aggrandizement. The trick is, it isn’t just something we know in our heads – all of us have heard a thousand times that we are the daughters and sons of God. It’s something you have to know in your guts when your ego creeps up and feels the need to defend itself or put on a show, and it’s something we have to keep being brought back to – in our personal prayer, to re-center ourselves throughout the day, but also right here, in our prayer in the community. This place then becomes a center of resistance to the insidiousness of a culture that thrives on masks, but we can’t put all the blame out there – that clutching neediness is in our own hearts as well.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

becoming home

I just finished my first week of classes this morning (Thursday), and I must say it feels strange to not have any classes until Tuesday.  Then I remember how much stuff I have to read and write between now and then, and I get it...Going through one round of all the classes has made me relax a lot about coming into this program, and in fact has made me really excited about the work we are doing.  For a while I was concerned that coming from a theology background wouldn't be seen as quite on par as a continental philosophy of religion or anthropology background, but so far it seems to be well received.  Also, the work we are doing is so interdisciplinary, it is already opening doors to ideas and authors who just wouldn't be in the normal path of a theology program.  The prof who taught last night's class (Classics in the Sociology of Religion) is a practicing psychotherapist in addition to being a religion professor and a trained sociologist, and he was able to very quickly point me in some nifty directions for one of the research areas I am interested in (basically, defense mechanisms that shield people from guilt in situations of violence), so I have a hunch he will be a go-to guy through to the dissertation.  At the moment I'm working through a book on memory, place, violence, and religion (for a class, but how perfect a fit is that?!) and it is driving me back to stuff I read a few years back on sacred landscapes: "What they [the desert monks] fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselve: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending." (Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, p 166)  I include that quote to call myself back to not taking my own intellectual pride seriously - this first week I noticed myself coveting my neighbors' goods, meaning their expertise in all these areas about which I am completely clueless.  As much as this department seems to be a very low-competition and low-ego place, I can see how graduate programs like this can become as cutthroat as I have heard some places are: all these egos scrabbling so hard to build a body of work, an area of expertise, but each in its own little bunker, peering out at all the other bunkers and feeling inadequate for not encompassing each of the areas of study that is possible in one's field.  A buddy of mine at SLU put the movement through the university system this way, and I think he's right: do a bachelor's degree, feel like you know a lot of stuff; do a master's degree, feel like you don't know anything; do a doctorate, feel like nobody knows anything.  All for now - just needed to comment on the homing of this place...

Monday, August 31, 2009

Sunday, 30 August 2009

A few years ago I took a class at Notre Dame on liturgical prayer, and as it so happened, I was the only student in the class who was not specializing in liturgical studies. At one point we were talking about particular ritual gestures at particular points in the prayers, and I got exasperated at what seemed like nit-picking and blurted out, “None of this stuff matters!” The professor calmly replied, “It does matter – we are embodied beings.” “OK,” I said, “it matters that we do SOMETHING with our bodies, but I can’t imagine that God cares whether we are sitting or standing or kneeling, using the orans position or whatever else, at any given moment.”  I just couldn't imagine God being a micromanager, but I could understand the importance of sacramentality, that is, the relationship between our sensory world and our spritual lives.

In today’s gospel, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees who make a big deal about the disciples who don’t wash their hands before they eat: “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” (MK 7:6-8) On the other hand, Christians have too often rejected ritual practices as magic that we too easily think that movement doesn’t matter, that space or d├ęcor or music don’t matter, because God doesn’t care about any of that. Stripping away the ritual drama too easily leads to locating the real “action” of grace in our souls only, which reinforces the old dualistic problems of devaluing the physical world and its attendant dimensions of justice - economic, political, sexual, etc. - in favor of an overspiritualized "inner" gospel.

There’s the real conundrum that the gospel brings up for me today: local particularities and customs are what give folk religion (I don’t mean that in a pejorative way – I am simply referring to religious practice on the ground, as opposed to the official sanctions from the top) its power to shape an identity for people to live inside of, but taking any of it as divinely mandated leads to the kind of pharisaic compulsion that Jesus has no time for. How do we respect those things that shape the boundaries of our identities without obsessing over them or dismissing people for whom those practices are not so important?  I mentioned a few months ago about what some people see as “Catholic identity”: frying fish on Fridays in Lent, saying the rosary, so on. None of those peculiarly Catholic things are bad – I think they are very good, and they have shaped a number of distinctively Catholic cultures – but they are hardly the centerpiece of the gospel. Does God really care if we eat meat on Fridays in Lent or not? My vote would be no, but I value the tradition of abstinence on Fridays because it’s important for us to have a chance to remind ourselves of what hunger feels like (see Friday's post), and because for so many Catholics, it's just what we've always done.

In his marvelous essay, “Learning to Live,” Thomas Merton recalls a meeting he had with the Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki, during which they celebrated the Zen tea ceremony: “It was at once as if nothing at all had happened and as if the roof had flown off the building. But in reality nothing had happened. A very very old deaf Zen man with bushy eyebrows had drunk a cup of tea, as though with the complete wakefulness of a child and as though at the same time declaring with utter finality: ‘This is not important!’”  We can bring our total attentiveness and seriousness to our practice at the same time as we acknowledge that God isn’t about being nitpicky. We don't do it grudgingly or out of fear, as if God gets angry if we don't split hairs about it all - we do it because it retells our story, it calls us back to the story of who we are.  It doesn’t matter to God whether we kneel or sit or stand, whether we show up at church in Bermuda shorts or a suit and tie, or a myriad of other particularities, but they matter to us embodied beings - our postures generally DO say something about our state of mind, our bodies DO influence our religious lives.  Too easily, though, the fact that other people don’t do it as well as we think they should leads us to dismiss them, or our attentiveness to those details makes us think we are better Christians than other people because we do them, and that’s where the second half of the gospel comes in: “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” (MK 7: 21-23) Jesus doesn’t seem to be opposed to washing one’s hands, he just can’t abide people using it to inflate their own sense of holiness – self-righteousness and judgmentalism can come out of a person at the exact same time as they are washing their hands, in fact BECAUSE they are washing their hands. To how much other religious stuff could we apply that standard?  We hold in tension the need to sacramentalize (that is, make tangible and bodily) our inner lives while acknowledging the plurality of legitimate ways of doing so.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Happy Hurricane Katrina Day...

Today is the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making lives interesting in Louisiana, and as it so happens, I’ve been reading for a class on how religions institutionalize memory. What particularly interests me is how we make wounds into sacred wounds to memorialize trauma. There is actually a show on MTV called Scarred (or something like that), which is mostly about extreme athletes telling stories of hurting themselves really badly and showing off the resulting scars while videos of their accidents replay over and over. (Seriously, I only watched it for about 3 minutes…really.) I remember seeing the news from Halloween in New Orleans in 2005, and a lot of people made costumes that poked fun at our collective plight – wearing the spray-painted markings that the National Guard put on houses they searched, for example. Some people have deliberately kept those markings on their houses, or kept the waterlines on their outer walls, as a way of remembering what happened here. People who go through initiation rites often receive some kind of permanent marking (scar, tattoo, wound, lost tooth, branding, whatever) as a way of marking them as initiated men or women and reminding them of their own mortality. Mythic traditions often do the same, from the dislocated hip of Jacob in Genesis or the boy prince’s golden finger in the Eisenhans story to Harry Potter’s lightning scar or Luke Skywalker’s lost hand. What I think all of these sacred wounds are pointing to in some way is compassion. Richard Rohr, OFM says that he can only think of two things that have much chance of teaching us wisdom: suffering and contemplative prayer (I suspect they have to go together). This is because, on one hand, they remind us that we can’t take our own projects with final seriousness and that we are much more mortal than we would like to believe, and on the other hand, because we’re not the only ones with sacred wounds. Seeing our own wounds had better open us up to acknowledging the wounds of others, or we will simply turn inwards on our own bitterness or self-absorption and play victims.
As a side note, Hosea 11:8 has God say, “How could I treat you as Admah, or make you like Zeboiim?” Admah and Zeboiim are code words for Sodom and Gomorrah – how can I do this kind of violence to my child? Then, the text says, “My heart is overwhelmed,” and the word used here is the same word used in the Sodom and Gomorrah story for “earthquake” – God is taking the earthquake of anger at injustice and unfaithfulness into God’s own heart and being torn apart by it. Kazoh Kitamori, a Japanese theologian, envisioned God, in the words of German theologian Dorothee Soelle, “as one who suffers because of sin and yet cannot maintain his wrath, who reconciles wrath and love in pain because he loves the object of his wrath, which always entails suffering.” Not our usual God-image, perhaps, but what is the Sacred Heart, my community’s central symbol, but the institutionalization of the suffering of God in and on behalf of the world? So, to wrap up on this day of memorializing the scars that are hanging on in Mississippi and Louisiana four years later, are those memories opening us up to acknowledge the unbelievable plethora of sacred wounds in the world that remain unhealed? I regularly use Merton’s quote from The Sign of Jonas to talk about God, but maybe we can point it at ourselves too…mercy within mercy within mercy.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Considering how few people ever see this blog, I don't expect any Muslim readers to see this, but just in case, Ramadan Kareem. The fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan is intended to increase solidarity with people who don't have a choice about going hungry. We Catholics have pared down the fasting bit pretty far in our liturgical calendar, and while I rarely argue for legislation from on high as the means of invigorating the interior life, I would say that we could learn something from our Muslim sisters and brothers about taking on such a discipline and having more than just our whims to hold our feet to the fire. It's not about "giving something up," but about embodied prayer and solidarity - FEELING hunger in our bodies, and using that sensation as a launching pad to consider what hunger means given the massive scale on which it exists in our world. I know a number of students who voluntarily fast regularly, and who hold each other accountable - not making a fuss, not because they have to, not because they think it makes them holier than anyone else, but because they want to take on a discipline that keeps them attentive to issues of hunger in the world. When was the last time any of us felt truly hungry? How often do we eat when we aren't even hungry? Bethlehem Farm (where I visited last week) has a banner in their dining room that reads, "Lord, to those who hunger, give bread, and to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice." Amen...

Friday, August 14, 2009

one more thing...

I've been fiddling with the settings on this thing, adding blogs I like, and I wanted to mention one that I like a lot: it's called "Religious Life Rocks: The Adventures of One Fun Nun," ( and it's kept by a young School Sister of Saint Francis named Sister Katy. Never met her in person, but from what I have seen, she lives up to her title of "fun nun" (given by one of her students) - she has a quirky sense of humor - she's apparently part of an improv comedy group in her city - and a charming writing style. (On the other hand, my own mother tells me that half the time she can't figure out what I'm saying in my blog posts. Thanks, Coach.)

mysterium tremendum et fascinans

Just got back from Bethlehem Farm a few hours ago – a great trip, despite having a few more aches and pains than I would prefer to admit. Still, any trip that involves hitting stuff with a sledgehammer is a good trip in my book -- the second picture, by the way, is of me with my friend and former co-worker Laura O’Donnell (and the sledgehammer). I promise we didn’t dress alike on purpose… The first picture summarizes my Wednesday – working in the garden, shoveling a lot of…fertilizer.

I had wanted to write about this before, and kept putting it off…a few weeks ago, in New Orleans, we had an interesting table conversation: one of our guys who does mission appeals for our Bro’s in Africa went to a parish in New Orleans, visited six Latin Masses at this place, and they were all full, mainly of younger folks. I’m happy people are going to church, of course, but I’m curious about this, because I have gone to Latin Masses before and found them impressive but personally unfulfilling. (*The Latin Mass feels to me rather akin to going to a Greek Orthodox liturgy, which I enjoy doing every now and then even though my Greek is almost as terrible as my Latin. The ceremony is impressive, the “smells and bells” are potent reminders of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (thank you, Rudolf Otto), but I don’t feel like I am building any community, and liturgy, which literally means “the work of the people,” feels at that moment more like a spectator sport, since I don’t speak the language.*) So, a few ideas we had: have our masses become so “domesticated” that they have lost a sense of mystery that people feel is important to maintain focus on the transcendence of God? Does the majesty and otherness of the Latin Mass make that present in a way that other liturgies don’t? On the other hand, since most folks don’t know Latin, is the “horizontal” aspect of the liturgy (i.e., the building of the body of Christ in the community, the celebration of our daily triumphs and defeats and fears, lost in the otherworldliness of the Latin? Even though the Latin Mass is not my particular preference, I understand the importance of deep, powerful symbols in relationship to God (how many sweatlodges have I done because the symbolism goes all the way down?) and have no need to try to undercut that. Still, if the retrieval of the Latin is a sign that the vernacular Mass is not meeting people’s needs (not trying to oversimplify – I know a lot of parishes and a lot of ministers who are doing tremendous things), then we should be asking questions about that as well. Too, for Christianity the real mystery is that the mysterium tremendum et fascinans is encountered in the ordinary, in our midst – bread, wine, water, one another in all of our messiness. I say that not to try to domesticate God or to invalidate grander models of liturgy, but to ask how to hold the transcendent and immanent, the vertical and horizontal, in tension and not spin back into the liturgical stuff that Jesus fussed about with his contemporaries. The frustrating thing I see in so many Sunday liturgies gone wrong is that all the raw materials are there – good readings, deep symbols, grand ritual – but we end up moving it into our heads or into our feelings instead of into our guts, where it can become the story by which we “live and move and have our being.” As I have argued elsewhere, maybe one problem is not that we are asking too much of people, but that we are asking too little. English or Latin, the liturgical goal of the active participation of the faithful is an elusive one, with passive listening and watching being much more the order of the day. I don’t envy pastors their task: respecting people’s intelligence without turning it into a theology class, getting people involved without resorting to entertaining them (some parishes with a lot of teenagers seem to think that an electric guitar and a drum kit added to humdrum liturgy could make it not humdrum), and reweaving a story that engenders another way of living in the world. As always, ideas or rebuttals are most welcome.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

farming and Flatland

First, a quick word of thanks to Fr. Austin ( for kindly making mention of my blog on his – I admire his consistency in posting so regularly and always having something good to say. Even when I go long stretches without posting I don’t often come back feeling like I have much to say that is worthwhile.

To that end, a few interesting things (interesting to me): I am presently staying at Bethlehem Farm ( in southeast West Virginia, a Catholic farm run by an intentional community of young Catholics. One of the founders of the place, Colleen Fitts, happens to be the sister of a former co-worker of mine from St. Louis University, so they both invited me to come visit. An exciting place: 15 or so groups per year come for weeklong missions, rather like Klagetoh, the Brothers’ place in the Navajo Nation, but they also grow a lot of their own food here, cook almost exclusively vegetarian food, and have a good mix of community living setups – long-term folks, summer volunteers, single and married folks, shared prayer, the works. As much as I am enjoying these few days here for their own sake, I will be keeping an eye out for ideas that could work in Klagetoh, especially involving bringing more people there for longer-term volunteer opportunities (summer, semester, year, whatever) - for college students or recent grads.

I just read a little book by Edward Abbott, entitled Flatland; written over a hundred years ago, it tells a story from the perspective of a being living in a two-dimensional universe. A being from 3-D space tries to explain what his universe is like, to no avail – the 2-D being simply can’t fathom anything so beyond his experience. It has reminiscences of Plato’s “Cave Allegory,” from The Republic, as well as The Matrix, but it poses the question to us of our capacity to imagine realms of reality and experience beyond our own. I could see it working as a reading for an intro theology class or something like that.

Just started in on The Sacred Canopy by Peter Berger, a sociologist. He is doing a sociological analysis of religion, not to reduce religion to sociology, but to remind us that religion has a seriously sociological element to it. In particular so far he has spent a lot of time talking about religion as a legitimizing factor for a particular arrangement of power structures. For example, he has a chapter entitled “Theodicy” (which of course piqued my interest since I taught a course on theodicy, or the question of why bad things happen to good people), in which he argues, “One of the very important social functions of theodicies is, indeed, their explanation of the socially prevailing inequalities of power and privilege. In this function, of course, theodicies directly legitimate the particular institutional order in question.” (59) So, if we say, “Everything happens for a reason,” we give support to the current state of affairs, since by our logic, whatever is happening, no matter how terrible it is, must have a good reason for being so. That means that we don’t have much theological pressure to change the state of affairs (whatever it might be). Of course, most of us at one time or another have likely said, “Everything happens for a reason”; we do at times feel like things have lined up too perfectly to be mere coincidence (and that may well be the case), but if everything is happening according to plan, then God presumably wants our world to be the way it is, undercutting the impetus for social change and neglecting the gospel stance that things are NOT the way God wants them to be. “May thy kingdom come, may thy will be done” (making explicit the usually implicit subjunctive) means that “thy will” isn’t being done, at least not in full. People that challenge that social arrangement, however, usually end up in trouble (can you think of any significant religious leaders who never got themselves in trouble with their religious group and/or their society for critiquing the status quo?), because to shake up the ordered worldview of the religion seems to risk plunging them back into chaos: “When the socially defined reality has come to be identified with the ultimate reality of the universe, then its denial takes on the quality of evil as well as madness.” (Berger 39) In Flatland, after our two-dimensional narrator is given an experience of the 3-D universe, he tries to explain it to the other beings in his universe, he is summarily silenced and imprisoned for threatening the secure worldview that they all inhabit. Thomas Merton and Walter Brueggemann both see poetry as closely akin to prophecy, not in making rhyme schemes, but in articulating an alternative to our “settled” vision of the world – what we presume to be obvious, self-evident, in the very “nature” of the world. Such thinkers and seers use analogy, metaphor, poetic language, something other than flat, “final” prose to call into question both our certitudes and the arrangements we have settled on as a society to avoid seeing those who get chewed up by those arrangements.

Monday, August 10, 2009

bringing speech to pain

Yesterday (Sunday) I accompanied one of the Brothers to a march organized by a local group called Mothers against Gun Violence – we walked through an area of downtown Syracuse to an outdoor gathering where there were about 2 hours of performances – prayers, raps, poems, a mime, and so on. I was glad I went, but the left side of my brain kept saying, “Do they expect this to actually stop people in the heat of the moment from taking violent actions?” Centering prayer, teaching about nonviolence, all that seems more “results-oriented,” and maybe it is, but then today I was listening to a clip of Walter Brueggemann giving a sermon at Duke University, making his way through a lament psalm, and I realized that, in their own way, that’s what those folks yesterday were doing. “Effectiveness” is only one pole of the work they are involved in – most of the people there had lost someone to violence (as evidenced by the number of people wearing t-shirts with iron-ons or airbrushings of deceased friends or family members), and lament is the appropriate response to such a rending of life’s fabric. Part of their intention was undoubtedly to tell young people to stay away from violence, but I imagine that much of it was rather about the need to “bring speech to pain.”
As I was listening to Brueggemann’s sermon, I was caught up with realization that I almost never hear a sermon on a psalm. My experience in Catholicism is that sermons are more often on some piece of Catholic doctrine, or on a moral kernel to be gleaned from the gospel, or perhaps Paul (although it seems that Paul is too close to the Protestant schema for most Catholics to know what to do with him). The psalms, though, particularly the lament psalms, present the grittiness of life lived with God and the boldness of making big complaints and big imperatives of God – something many of us are not comfortable with. Brueggemann concluded another clip I watched this morning with the line, “If people are caught in dogmatism or in moralism, they tend not to see how incredibly artistic it all is.” One of his big motifs is the need for the artistic, the poetic, to bring speech to the stuff we usually deny – the heartache and uncertainty and rage we feel and then feel bad about feeling, because good people aren’t “supposed” to think that way. So, we prefer a safe denial to a risky honesty and thereby truncate God to only having access to the acceptable parts of our lives, and the shadow part of our lives and our personalities runs unchecked and unhealed.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Happy anniversary...

I think I have mentioned before the alleged Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Translation: change is difficult. Still, four days after arriving in Syracuse, so far it has been pretty smooth. It will be a little while before I know my way around town, and until I actually meet people (activities at school don’t start for two more weeks), but I have so far managed to find a few essential places (grocery store, gym, school, etc.) and to keep myself busy. In the past few years I’ve gone to a gym in New Orleans a few times with some of the Bro’s, and it’s the kind of place where they give you towels out of the freezer and there are flowerpots in the locker room. Nice place, but half the times I went I was afraid of getting sweat on the equipment, and the other half the air was up so high I never broke a sweat. Believe me, there are no frozen towels at this place: it’s dark, full to overcrowded with beat-up old weights, the walls are covered with ancient posters of past greats like Larry Scott, Sergio Oliva and Ah-nold, the place smells like rust and half the mirrors are broken. It’s definitely a dungeon, and I love it already. I know that once I register for classes I can use the rec. facility at SU, but part of me wants to stay at this place just for the dungeon factor.

Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of making perpetual vows, and today is the tenth anniversary of first vows. I certainly would not have anticipated on either of those days that my religious life would lead me to Syracuse, New York. I do think I had hoped I would have grown up more, but the more I try to think about my spiritual development over the past decade, the more I find that there isn’t much to speak of. Just like ten years ago, it is still so much easier for me to ask questions about faith than to have it, to read books about prayer than to pray, to think about justice than to work for it. As the saying goes, “O wretched man that I am!” It is just such realizations that spark my faith, however – realization of my need for “mercy within mercy within mercy.”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Institute for Creation Research

Almost at the end of living out of a suitcase! I left New Orleans two days ago, spent last night in northern Alabama at the wedding of a friend from high school, and got up this morning and drove to St. Louis, where I am staying the next two days on my way to Syracuse. Along the way, I happened to catch part of a radio commercial for a group that promotes “creation science.” What was particularly interesting was the clarity with which they laid out the logic of their position; in battling mainstream biology, they take issue with claims that dinosaurs existed for millions of years before human beings, and here’s why: if dinosaurs lived and died for millions of years before humans existed, then that counters Paul’s argument that death entered the world because of the sin of the first humans, so sin is NOT the wages of death, and then, what is the value of the cross of Christ as the sole means of the salvation of humanity? It is stunning to me how clearly they see where the crux of their problem lies: the point was not about challenging pagan science or anything like that, as they put it, but about the centrality of Christ, which, ideologically twisted though their position is, it has a certain internal logic to it which I find interesting. However, the unexamined parts of their argument are even more interesting to me. Early on in Christian history, mainstream Christianity fairly tightly defined the orthodox teachings on Christology, i.e. who Jesus is in his relationship with God and other human beings, but no official teaching was ever given on soteriology, i.e. the means by which Christ saves. There are any number of models and analogies in scripture and the teachings of various theologians, but never has any one been declared to be the definitive model. However, this particular group has taken an analogy (or more likely, taken a few analogies and conflated them) as literal speech. Paul and other early theologians wanted to say that somehow in the midst of the horror of the cross, salvation was understood to be present, but they used so many images and models that it is quite obvious that they did not take any one model with final seriousness. The other problem is that as much as the term “salvation” gets batted around, people often enough don’t have a clear sense of what it actually means. We tend to think of it in extraterrestrial terms, e.g. the forgiveness of sins as means of attaining heaven or some such thing, rather than being involved in people’s real lives, encompassing physical well-being, social reconciliation, and so on. This infomercial ended by urging listeners to go back to the Bible and “get right” with Genesis, that is, don’t allow yourself to be led astray by the disenchanting teachings of evolutionary biology. I have no problem with claiming that I experience salvation in the cross of Christ, but that in no way forces me to believe that death did not exist until humans existed, or that the death of Jesus is only or even primarily about a transaction with God to propitiate God’s anger into forgiving sins. So the effort of defending “creation science” boils down to protecting an analogy, to taking literally that which was meant to be a pointer, and one of many at that – as Nietzsche says, “Truth is an army of metaphors.” Images of Jesus as scapegoat and sacrifice and exemplar and ransom and many others all shake together, not so they can all be taken literally (impossible, as they mutually undercut each other), but so they can together point beyond themselves. Such a reality is too big to be adequately captured by any one image, or even by many working together, and to attempt to do so, despite their best efforts, does not uphold the integrity of the cross, but reduces it to one image. At the same time, on the creation vs. evolution front, I would offer Paul Tillich's "principle of correlation": good science may not necessarily lead to good theology, but bad science inevitably leads to bad theology. If truth is genuinely one, that is, if all truth comes from God, we don't have to be afraid of science - new learnings may well give us new, better questions to ask of the tradition that we could not have asked otherwise.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free...

Happy 4th of July, friends.  I've been blazing through The Book of Mev, written by my friend Dr. Mark Chmiel about his late wife, Mev Puleo, in which Mark mentions that she used rosary beads every night to pray "gratitudes," coming up with one thing per bead that she was grateful for from that day.  Not a bad practice, that, especially on a day such as today, when we all celebrate what we have to be grateful for.  Out here in Klagetoh, there is no shortage of blessings that readily come to mind, but I think today I am most grateful for the ability to work with my hands - both that I have the physical health and energy to do so, but that in a place like this I can get out of the very cerebral world I too easily occupy.  Some friends in Albuquerque showed me an article about a guy who, after finishing his Ph.D., decided to open a motorcycle shop and now couldn't be happier.  How much does our educational system bore the pants off of young people who are naturally inclined to be physically active, engaged, mobile, by keeping them in a desk all day, every day?  Also, how much have we exalted clerical [cubicle?] work over important skills and knowledge bases that are less narrowly cerebral, like knowing how to work on a car, make something grow, repair faulty plumbing, etc?  We have been trained to hire someone else to do that.  I lament how few real-world skills I have apart from being able to read a lot of books, but that has been far and away the bulk of my educational career.  Here, however, there are always things to putter with, projects to work on, ways to get one's hands dirty, and for that I am grateful.  Today I replaced the faucet on a sink - not difficult, but dirty (just ask the half-decayed mouse corpse that was sharing the space under the sink with me!), and started putting in a screen door on the house.  As with everything else out here, the door frame is not the standard size or construction, so we have to fiddle with it to make it work, but even that is part of the fun.

(*top: new sink, installed; bottom: old sink, in pieces.*)

One of those real-world skills which I totally lack is cooking, but Br. John has that ability in spades, so while I am out here I get to learn from the master - never from a recipe, always, as he puts it, "Once in a lifetime, never to be repeated."  Whatever is in the house is fair game - last night it was spaghetti sauce made from artichoke hearts, habanero salsa, and a few other things from the back of the fridge, and Brussels sprouts sauteed with sweet peppers, almonds, and beer.  John's cooking is usually unusual, but somehow it is always amazing, like the old Bob Ross "Joy of Painting" shows: no mistakes, only happy accidents.

In the spirit of the day, a bit more on freedom: I just finished Erich Fromm's classic work Escape from Freedom, the basic premise of which is that while we have spent so much energy on the removal of external constraints in the name of freedom, we have yet to deal with the problem of psychic constraints that prevent real freedom - pressure to conform, fear of ambiguity and uncertainty, the sense of the individual as powerless, as a blip in the face of the overwhelming juggernaut of the world of our times.  With apologies for the pre-inclusive language of the quote, think about this little nugget: "modern man lives under the illusion that he knows what he wants, while he actually wants what he is supposed to want." (251)  So many of my students and even some of my adult colleagues and friends, despite living in a nation that prides itself on freedom, feel "stuck" - go to high school to go to a good college to get a well-paid job to make a lot of money to retire comfortably.  Not bad, per se, but, as I call it, "the sausage grinder," shoving people through a pre-packaged version of what they are supposed to want out of life.  This, coupled with the ease with which people sign on to movements which promise certitudes, absolutes, final answers, because the plurality of voices in our world can be not only scary but overwhelming.  So, as the bumper stickers say, "Freedom isn't free": not in the usual sense of justifying body counts in the name of preserving our freedoms from external constraints, but in the sense that dealing with internal constraints costs us everything we thought we held dear.  Hence the theological commonplace that Jesus on the cross is, paradoxically, the picture of a free man.  Not "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," but freedom as the capacity to not have one's life and choices dictated by convention or by one's own fears or need for control.  So, gratitudes abound here, and may they also for you...

Sunday, June 28, 2009


I’ve been back in the Navajo Nation for a few days now, and lots of fun things as well as some important things have happened along the way.  First, the 20-ish hour drive from New Orleans to Klagetoh was more or less uneventful, except for the travel center sign that read, "Eat here.  Get gas." (I can only presume they knew what they were doing) and that the 35-hour-long audiobook of The Brothers Karamozov that I brought with me has been disappointing so far; I know it’s a classic, but the writing style that spends entire chapters discussing someone’s appearance or some feature of the landscape just doesn’t do it for me.  Maybe that is me being impatient, but 6 CDs into the book, there has not been very much actual plot development; I’m still not quite sure what the plot actually is.

Thursday we (my friend and former co-worker Ben) went to St. Michael’s (the high school I used to teach at) to help the maintenance folks break up an old sidewalk – they had said we would be able to use a jackhammer, which was the main reason I wanted to go, but they had decided to put off getting the jackhammer until later on.  Anyway, they handed us sledgehammers and told us to go to work; not as much fun, but still a good way to spend a day.  We did get help from one of the maintenance guys with a Bobcat, so we broke up and hauled a lot of concrete that day, to the point that we were pretty wrecked that day and still not quite back to 100%.

Today (Saturday) was a trip to Canyon de Chelly, followed by a sweatlodge at the mission.  They asked me to be the fire man for the sweat, which means nothing more than that I got to dig white-hot rocks out of a blazing fire, close enough to scald me all over.  I spent a lot of time in there thinking about what has kept me coming back here all these years – certainly I love the landscape, the ritual life, the pace, and so on, but I think that the mentoring I get from Br. John, who runs the mission here, is something I crave.  John exudes what I would call Grandfather Energy – that unhurried wisdom that comes from a lifetime of living the religious life well, and even while I admit he isn’t perfect (and he wouldn’t be upset by me saying so), he gives young folks like me a space to “apprentice” with him.  That is, I spend my time here going with him to visit families, working with him to prepare meals for groups coming in, making trips into town for supplies, and other seemingly menial things that let me learn his way of doing things by directly watching him do it – something one does not do so easily as a teacher or a person working a desk job.