Monday, March 30, 2009

Wednesday, 30 March

A few nice things happened today: I started the day by giving a presentation to the faculty at Chaminade College Prep, a boys' high school in West County, run by the Marianists. A friend from my days in New Orleans is now a campus minister there, so he invited me to talk with them for a couple of hours. When I got back to SLU this afternoon, I had an email waiting for me, offering me a place in the doctoral program in Syracuse University's Religion Department, with an offer of four years of funding. Very exciting, and a huge relief from wondering what kind of jobs I might be able to find in Syracuse if I had not gotten into the program. Wheeee!

Here's a snippet from the talk I gave this morning, which was basically about "the two halves of life" -- what kind of manhood we are forming students into in a school like Chaminade, and what kind of adulthood are those of us further down the road aspiring to? I may include a few samples for the next few entries...

We love the packaging of religion, often, much more than we love the contents, because again, packaging gives us boundaries. We have for too long thought of “Catholic identity” as “what the Catholics do that the Protestants don’t do,” making relatively peripheral aspects of the tradition into the highlights: eating fish on Fridays in Lent, saying the rosary, doing “Mary stuff." In Matthew’s gospel, that’s what Jesus would call “straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel” – and if you think I just said those things don’t matter, remember that Jesus uses that saying to mean to focus on the big stuff without neglecting the rest. I don’t mean that Mary doesn’t matter, rosaries don’t matter, fish on Fridays don’t matter – those are the practices, the rituals, the symbols, that are the stuff of our culture as Catholics – but that they had better fit in to the larger scheme of the coming of the reign of God rather than replacing it. What is the real heart of Catholic identity is, in large part, the same as the heart of Protestant identity (I hope) – the overwhelming grace of God manifest in Jesus Christ, which calls us to forgiveness of enemies, hospitality toward the outsider, nonviolence, respect for the dignity of human life - not just innocent human life, which is fairly easy, but GUILTY human life too (if you don't like that so much, read today's gospel - the woman caught in adultery). Does anyone seriously doubt that any of that is right at the heart of the gospel? If we know anything about Jesus, it’s that he was nonviolent, but how many of our parishes lead training sessions or offer speakers on nonviolence? How many of those same parishes fry fish on Fridays in Lent? (*Note: as I was going to the high school this morning, I missed my turn and had to go through the parking lot of the church next door. Guess what the big sign out front was -- FISH FRY Fridays 4-7pm! Arg.*)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

DN 3:25, 34-43
PS 25:4-5ab, 6, 7bc, 8-9
MT 18:21-35

I just got back from a campus ministry trip to the Navajo Nation, where I used to live for several years, and it always hurts to see the number of pawn shops and cash advance stores right on the edge of the reservation, as on the edge of every poor community I know. I have seen too many locals come to the Brothers' mission over the years looking for help paying the electric bill, feeding their children, fixing their truck, but I know that if the churches, including the Bro's, were not there to help, they would end up pawning off their heirlooms or getting squeezed on their next paycheck to stay afloat.

Just as it is now, debt was a big deal in the Ancient Near East – the prophets spend a lot of time railing about people who unjustly manipulate the poor into being in debt, and in the First Jewish-Roman War, which began in 66 AD, debt records were among the first things destroyed by the rebelling Jewish forces, because those records kept people in the grip of poverty and exploitation. Jesus talked about debt because just about everyone in his audience knew what it felt like to be in debt. In the parable in today’s gospel, the “huge amount” that the first servant owed to the master was ten thousand talents, literally more than one hundred fifty thousand years’ wages, such an unbelievable sum that, despite the servant’s words that he would repay in full, he would never even come close to repaying it. The second servant’s “much smaller amount,” literally one hundred denarii (one hundred days’ wages), was pitifully small by comparison. Even if the first servant were harassing the second servant so he could try to repay the master, those one hundred denarii would not even begin to make a dent.

We’ve heard all of that before, no doubt, and we know the usual reading of the story: God has forgiven us far more than the little stuff we must forgive each other for imposing on us. All certainly true, but I think the story is also pointing to something much more earthy than that. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has said somewhere in his many writings that there are only two things that he knows of that really have much chance of teaching us wisdom: suffering and contemplative prayer. I think those two have to go together, because suffering can just as easily turn us in on ourselves, make us self-absorbed, paranoid, and small. That is exactly what happens to the first servant – it is no surprise that the words he uses to ask pardon of the master, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full,” are virtually identical to the words that the second servant uses to ask him for mercy: “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” The first servant IS the second servant – fearful, disoriented, in need. He had the chance to identify with another person, to let his suffering teach him something about empathy with the rest of the world, and he threw it away, instead letting his suffering turn him in on his own concerns.

I heard a story on NPR the other day about people having to go on welfare for the first time: professionals, people with graduate degrees, and so on, who have been brought so low, to such desperation, by the current global financial mess that they feel no recourse but to go on the dole. Some are applying over the Internet because they cannot bear the shame of being seen in public applying for welfare. This has something to say to us who are at a university – how many of us are here at SLU or any other university pursuing an education or a professional career at least in part to avoid the sort of financial uncertainty that these folks are now facing, presuming that earning that degree or having a job in a place like this will guarantee us perpetual economic stability? Certainly, I don’t wish unemployment or debt or being on the dole on anyone, but perhaps education does us a disservice to the degree that it takes us out of contact with the chaos and precariousness that is the daily bread of a large proportion of the people of the world. I make no claim to understanding the economy or this crisis, but it seems that Jesus’ warning today is coming true: that same system we have created is coming back to haunt us – not the wrath of God, per se, but the consequences of a system built on exploitation and greed. Unless we replace that system with one built on forgiveness, including forgiveness of debts (which is what the Our Father actually says) and solidarity with people whose lives are precarious, we will continue to erect systems that favor profits over people, and they will double back onto us, and we will destroy ourselves.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thursday, 12 March-on the rez

I want to begin by saying thanks to everyone who has offered their commiserations regarding my last entry.  I'm fine, really - I basically just needed to blow off some steam and process a bit, so apologies to anyone who were worried I was going off the deep end (there are only about five people who ever read this blog, so to get the number of replies that I did makes me think that I overdid it).

I've been back in Klagetoh, in the Navajo Nation, for almost a week now, on a spring break trip with a group of SLU students, and it has been wonderful.  Not only have the students been great, not only has the schedule for the week worked flawlessly, but being in this place has been just what I needed to realign my perspective about not getting into Boston College or Harvard.  All of the game playing of academe, which I typically invest myself in far too heavily, just doesn't matter out here - I'm not going to say there is no game playing, but it is a very different kind of game...I remember reading something from Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, who spends a good portion of his year in a hermitage: he says something about how when he is in there he feels like if he never read another book or gave another talk, it would be ok.  Not because he is ignoring the world or navel-gazing, mind you, but because he sees the sufficiency of life being present to itself, not having to prove anything or think that reading any number of books will deal with the real problem to be solved in the human heart.  No one out here cares about how many books I have or have not read, how many degrees I do or do not have, what schools I did or did not get into.  Life here is lived on a much different scale: an adult child going to prison, an elderly person needing firewood chopped for her wood stove, a parent who comes by the mission because she has run out of food for her children or can't pay her electric bill.  The utter gratuity of my life comes back to me out here, as well as amazement at my own capacity for self-pity.  Today was an absolutely marvelous sweat lodge (challengingly hot, but not crushingly so) run by a guy from Ganado - Rex Begay - who spoke completely honestly about his own time in prison, his return while in prison to both Navajo rituals and Catholicism, and the healing and acknowledgement of one's own brokenness that can happen in the lodge.  This man, who I presume has never taken a theology class in his life, hit the nail more squarely on the head, with more honesty and matter-of-factness, than I do after umpteen years of taking and teaching theology classes.  So, last time I asked what was wrong with me that those schools didn't want me for their doctoral program, and here I am a week later asking myself what I would hope to find in such a setting were I to attend this or that school.  I certainly want to continue my education, but would it have the end result of distancing me from people like Rex Begay or Yolanda Curley or Ailema Benally, or would it give me the space to enter more fully into the formation process that, after thirteen years in community, may be almost ready to begin?

Monday, March 2, 2009

now what?

Over the past week I have gotten letters from Boston College and Harvard, politely telling me that they are very sorry, but they are not able to admit me to their doctoral programs for the fall. On one level that's fine, because the plan from the province is that I go to Syracuse in the fall and pursue doctoral work there, so not being admitted to places that I wasn't going to attend anyway is not a big deal. I can keep telling myself that, but admittedly it's both bruising to the ego and a little fear-inducing to get those letters. Good thing is that it has provided the occasion to observe my own screwy reactions, which I will try to record, but in a stream-of-consciousness pattern that doesn't really correspond to the actual stream of my consciousness. To set the record straight in advance, I'm really not as broken up as the following may suggest; this stuff has simply been in my mind at one point or another in the past week, and it's making me think outside of the nice ordered system I have just assumed would fall into place. So here goes: Getting rid of the letters fairly quickly so no one will see that I just got rejected. Thinking about people I know who have gotten into those places, feeling inferior or jealous or something, then wondering if there were just too many good applicants to admit, or if there was something genuinely deficient in my application. Maybe it's my writing sample, I think - all my papers were written in summer, or while I had a full-time job, so they are not as long or as polished as a full-time student could write. My GPA was good, test scores, competence in languages, teaching experience, cross-cultural work, so what else could the problem be? What does it say about me if I don't get in anywhere, regardless of whether I would choose go there or not?

What do I do, then, if I don't get in anywhere? Would I be able to get a job in this market? Would I be able to pull my own weight for the province? If I don't get in anywhere, maybe using this as an excuse to ask for an assignment to the missions - I've said for ten years that I would go back to Africa in a heartbeat. But then would that spell the end of my academic career if I were to get out of the system now? Is that just me looking for a consolation prize so I could say, "Well, I didn't get this honor, so let me go for this other honorable thing," so I could exit stage left and still look like I've done something noteworthy?

I just finished Joan Chittister's book Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, which deals with a refusal from her community to pursue a graduate degree when she was young, and she works a lot of this stuff to death, but my community isn't the problem - then I could just get mad at them - but they've been great with all this stuff. My angstier reaction is that there is something wrong with me, not just that these places don't have room for me but that I'm not cut out for higher studies, despite reasons I could list to the contrary to massage my ego a bit. I thought her book was a bit melodramatic when I read it, but as I look back over this post, maybe it wasn't so melodramatic after all, or maybe I'm just even more melodramatic than she was...

Reflection for 1 March 2009

Another faculty member was supposed to do today's reflection for SLU's Lenten website (, but he forgot, so I threw something together on the quick. It's not particularly reflective, but maybe there's something salvageable in there...

The students in my Theological Foundations class just finished reading Into the Wild, and as part of their reflection on the book, I had them take about half an hour or so of “unplugging” from all the people and devices that are part of their normal lives – cell phones, IPods, Facebook, and so on. Most of them in their papers commented on how difficult it was to not have all those distractions around, and a number of them said that too much solitude simply cannot be a good thing, that the weeks and months that Chris McCandless, the protagonist of Into the Wild, spent alone in Alaska must have done harm to his personality. They concluded almost to a person that they could not imagine spending weeks or months away from human contact, and in truth, I have rarely gone more than a week without speaking to anyone, even on silent retreats. Next week I will be taking a group of students on a spring break trip to the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, where I used to live and work, and we plan to take a “desert day” as part of cultivating the spiritual life of the place. Still, even that one day is pretty tame compared to the lives of many of the greats of the Biblical tradition who spent forty days (i.e., a long time) in the wilderness, away from other people: Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus. The paradox of the desert in the Bible is that while it is the place where demons live, it is also the place of encounter with God: it is in the desert that Israel learns how to be God’s people, where Jesus grows into his experience of being called beloved Son. Similarly, the monastic tradition in Christianity began with people escaping to the desert, the eremos in Greek, from which we get the word “hermit,” and the literature of those desert fathers and mothers abounds with the struggle with demons, whether presented psychologically or metaphysically, which led to wisdom and humility.
Today’s reading from 1 Peter uses the unusual image of the eight people in the ark being “saved through water.” We would tend to think of the flood as a cataclysm, a massive destruction of life rather than the occasion of the salvation of those eight survivors, but imagining those weeks and months on the ark, living in chaos (literally: tehom in Hebrew means both “sea” and “chaos”), I can believe that surviving such a harsh environment would be both an encounter with the demonic and with God. SLU’s own Dr. Belden Lane, a professor in the Theological Studies department, writes in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes about the capacity of barren and harsh environments to strip away the falsehoods of our lives, and psychologist Jordan Peterson says that “The place where you least want to go is the place where you find everything you need” – it is precisely in facing our demons, those things which most frighten us, that we find the living God. While none of us may well spend forty days in the desert this Lent, we are called back to asceticism in the best sense of the word – not self-punishment, but discipline, like athletes in training, consciously refraining from the “comfort foods” that feed our egos. As Abby Braun pointed out in her beautiful and compelling reflection on Friday, the goal is right relationship: not to get away from people, not a sense of superiority, but precisely the attempt to nakedly encounter God, free from the demands of a society that favors conformity over prophecy, to break through the prison of the false self and emerge into compassion for the world.