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...