St. Damien, Mr. Stevenson, & Rev. Hyde

Damien StatuePreparing to preach yesterday on the Feast of St. Damien of Molokai, I found one of those historical incidences that appealed so much to my various sensibilities that I just had to share it.

 

It seems that not long after Father Damien’s death, a certain Protestant clergyman in Hawaii, named (interestingly, as you’ll see) Hyde, set out to describe Damien to a colleague, and his comments were made public.  He wrote:

 

“In answer to your inquiries about Father Damien, I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island (less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came often to

Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the works of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.”

 

This letter received a rather strong and lengthy response by the author Robert Louis Stevenson (of Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde fame) in the form of an open letter.  It’s an often harsh, but also quite inspiring response in defense of the saint, calling the clergymen out for his jealousy (worth reading the whole of):

 

“But, sir, when we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succours the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honour – the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost forever.

One thing remained to you in your defeat – some rags of common honour; and these you have made haste to cast away. Common honour; not the honour of having done anything right, but the honour of not having done aught conspicuously foul; the honour of the inert: that was what remained to you. We are not all expected to be Damiens; a man may conceive his duty more narrowly, he may love his comforts better; and none will cast a stone at him for that. But will a gentleman of your reverend profession allow me an example from the fields of gallantry? When two gentlemen compete for the favour of a lady, and the one succeeds and the other is rejected, and (as will sometimes happen) matter damaging to the successful rival’s credit reaches the ear of the defeated, it is held by plain men of no pretensions that his mouth is, in the circumstance, almost necessarily closed.

Your Church and Damien’s were in Hawaii upon a rivalry to do well: to help, to edify, to set divine examples. You having (in one huge instance) failed, and Damien succeeded, I marvel it should not have occurred to you that you were doomed to silence . . .”

 

Stevenson basically says what can be said of many—if not most—saints: He may not have been perfect, but he served more faithfully and lived more heroically than most of us.  Reason for silence indeed.

(Above photo is of the statue of Damien which stands in the U.S. National Statuary Hall)

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Jesuits: Why Do They Hate Us? Why Do They Love Us?

Jesuits LincolnPreaching to fellow Jesuits can always be a challenge, especially when the Gospel reading begins, “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first . . . ‘”  I did just that today, and received some good feedback.  And though the intended audience was primarily Jesuits, other friends were also interested in what I came up with.  There are insights here that I think both Jesuits and non-jesuits can appreciate it.  So, here it is:

Shortly after the election of Pope Francis, columnist George Weigel wrote in The National Review:

The first Jesuit pope? [in bold, with a question mark] Well, yes, in a manner of speaking.  Bergoglio is an old-school Jesuit, formed by classic Ignatian spirituality and deeply committed to an intelligent, sophisticated appropriation and proclamation of the full symphony of Catholic truth—qualities not notable for their prevalence among members of the Society of Jesus in the early 21st century.”

Not a wholly unexpected observation from Weigel who is not known for being shy in expressing his lack of affection for the Society of Jesus.  He and others are well-known for making broad, sweeping statements about the perceived failings of most Jesuits today.  We might ask: Why do they hate us?  I once elicited a response from Richard John Neuhaus on this very question when I accused him of mischaracterizing the Society in a similar way.  His response was almost literally: “I don’t hate Jesuits.  Some of my best friends are Jesuits.”

We often don’t ask, “Why do they hate us?”  Instead, we wear it is a badge of honor.  Insisting, in the spirit of today’s Gospel, that it must be an indication that we are doing something right.  And, rather than lament the fact that some are so easily inclined to criticize us so, we point to such persecution as an example of getting what we prayed for in the Spiritual Exercises.  Though we might find some justification for this, perhaps we might hesitate to be too self-congratulatory.

I have made something of a hobby analyzing the various forms of “hate” leveled at the Society.  In the case of most of those who are generous and far too quick with their criticism, I think relatively few of them can truly be characterized as “hating” us, even perhaps George Weigel.  Strangely enough, many of them even claim a great love for the Society, but they love an idealized, romanticized version of the Society that likely never existed.  And since they rightly recognize that we are not that Society, they will be perpetually unsatisfied.  Yet, still I think we do well to listen to what they have to say.  Indeed, hasn’t George Weigel described the new Pope in precisely the way we would hope to describe ourselves, as men “formed by classic Ignatian spirituality and deeply committed to an intelligent, sophisticated appropriation and proclamation of the full symphony of Catholic truth.”  It seems to me that this is far more prevalent than he recognizes, but also indeed an ideal that we sometimes fail to live up to.  We might wonder instead: Why is it that he and others fail to see this?  I have many theories, but I won’t ply you with them now.

But the strange truth, I have found, is that those who heap praise upon us are just as likely not to see who we really are.  They, too, often imagine us to be something we are not.  So, we might, with equal vigor and introspection ask the question: “Why do they love us?”  And we may be equally displeased with the answer.

As we mull all these things over, Jesus invites us in the Gospel to consider a further question: If people do in fact hate us, do they hate us for the right reasons?  Do they hate us for the same reason that people hated Jesus?  Do they hate us because we are like Jesus?  This is the deeper reality to which any response to our critics—whether they love or hate us—must penetrate.  After all, the Spiritual Exercises invite us to pray for persecution not so that we can engage in lively debate or because we are masochistic, but because we want to be like Christ, “to desire and choose poverty with Christ poor rather than wealth; contempt with Christ laden with it rather than honors, and to be regarded as a useless fool for Christ, who before me was regarded as such, rather than a wise and prudent person in this world.”  If we can discover that this is, at least in part, why people hate us, then we can rejoice that we are not greater than our master.

Liturgical Doggerel?: Pope Francis’ Mass Appeal

“In Latin America,” so the joke goes, “a mass is not valid if a dog is not present.”

Pope-Francis-raises-the-host

Traditionalist websites are abuzz with doomsday scenarios because it seems the new Pope’s liturgical style is, well, too simple, too minimalist.  There is outrage and concern being expressed, and not without a bit of arrogance.  A Washington Post article quotes a canon law professor at Catholic University, who points out that “even small changes to the visible, symbolic parts of Catholic worship are noticeable to traditional Catholics, who treasure them.”  Point well taken, but he continues by saying of himself and other of said “traditional Catholics” (in charity, I hope that he was misquoted): “This is the group that is the most faithful.”

I have no problem with people having misgivings about the new Pope’s liturgies.  I, too, prefer a more elaborate liturgy, but, let’s face it, that’s not what most people get.  And I would never presume that my preferences with regard to liturgy somehow count me among “the most faithful.”

Indeed, some of the most faithful people I know have never experienced a high liturgy, and some perhaps never a mass in which a dog was not present!  The poor of Latin America, at least in my experience there, take what they can get as far as liturgy is concerned.  They don’t have the luxury of driving to the nearby parish where the liturgy is celebrated just the way they like it.  And, indeed, they probably would never think to do it, because for them the mass is as much about the people there to celebrate it as it is about the visible symbols, and whether they are precisely right.  In fact, in Latin America I rarely experienced what I would consider great liturgy, and I can count on one hand the number of masses I’ve attended there that I would consider “high mass.”  Masses there generally are more simple, especially where the poor live, and this, it seems to me, is what is reflected in Pope Francis’ liturgical style.  Maybe he’ll have to step it up a bit, now that he’s on the world stage.  But might we consider that the more simple kind of mass we’re seeing from Pope Francis is the more common experience for the majority of Catholics in the world?  And let me be the first to admit that a lot—if not most—of them are far more faithful than I, despite my liturgical taste.

In fact, I may hate the liturgical experience, but I’ll take a mass with God’s faithful poor—and even a dog thrown in—over a high mass with smells and bells and great music celebrated with people who think that because their liturgy is more beautiful, more symbolic, in a word, better, that means that they are more faithful.

Like I said, I hope that person was misquoted.  But perhaps our misgivings about Pope Francis’ brand of liturgy is an invitation to ask whether we do indeed think that our higher liturgical preferences somehow make us more Catholic than those who prefer it more simple, or simply don’t have the luxury of the choice.

The New Pope’s a Jesuit: How Do You Feel?

Since the election of Pope Francis I the first yesterday, I can already predict what the number one topic of my conversations will be in the coming days, weeks, months perhaps.  It will begin something like this: “How do you feel about having a Jesuit Pope?”  Though at this point we are only a day into this new reality, I find that my reactions fall into at least four categories.  First, I was—and still am—surprised.  Second, I feel delight, and a sense of pride.  Third, I find myself conflicted.  Finally, I am apprehensive.  I can’t speak for all Jesuits, but my sense is that many of my Jesuit brothers are experiencing similar reactions, to varying degrees.

Why am I surprised?

“They would never elect a Jesuit Pope!”  We Jesuits have always taken it as something of a maxim that a Jesuit would never be elected Pope.  I said as much to several people who asked me recently whether I thought the new Pope might be a Jesuit (they have been quick to point out that I was wrong).  There were many reasons for this presumption.  Most obviously: In the more than 400 years that it had been possible, a Jesuit had never been elected Pope.  It was also thought that since the Jesuits are and have long been the largest single religious order of men in the Church (though the different Franciscan families, if added together, would be larger in number), that having a Jesuit Pope would skew a presumed balance of power between the “white Pope” and the “black pope,” as the Jesuit superior general is sometimes called.  Such a vision, however, seems to be the product of a bygone age when the papacy was understood differently.  Nevertheless, we know that in the Church former ways of thinking sometimes die hard, and many of us presumed that this way of thinking was still alive and kicking.  So, give the current college of Cardinals—and the Holy Spirit—credit for overcoming a long-standing prejudice!

Why delighted and proud?

The new Pope is a Jesuit!  Members of a religious community, no matter how different they may be individually (and individual Jesuits can be very different), share a unique kinship founded in their order’s charism (that is, unique characteristics), traditions, mission and spirituality.  We speak the same language.  We understand each other.  Also, our shared identity as a community of men devoted to a common mission in service of Christ and the Church results in a collective sense of pride in our accomplishments, and sorrow over our failures.  What one Jesuit does, for good or ill, somehow reflects upon all of us.  So, just as I feel proud when I see I Jesuit I live with act heroically in support of someone in need, I also find myself feeling proud to be a Jesuit when one of my brother Jesuits becomes Pope.

Why conflicted?

A Jesuit is not supposed to be Pope!  Here, I’m not repeating myself, but saying something about Jesuit legislation, tradition, and self-understanding, as well as the intentions of our founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola.  Dismayed by the distasteful actions by many Catholic clerics of his day in pursuit of advancement, power and prestige, Ignatius was determined that such ambition not infect the Society of Jesus.  Therefore, it was clearly specified in the founding documents of the Jesuits that Jesuits were not to become bishops.  Indeed, it is even forbidden for Jesuits to aspire to most positions of authority within the Society of Jesus itself.  Should a Jesuit mount a campaign to be a Provincial or the General Superior of the Jesuits or even express a desire to hold such a position, that very act would disqualify him!  Being a bishop also makes it essentially impossible for one to be fully a Jesuit, in a sense.  Integral to Jesuit identity is apostolic availability, meaning that a Jesuit should always be prepared to go at a moment’s notice to answer the greatest apostolic need, anywhere in the world, especially if the Pope asks!  Being a bishop doesn’t allow for that kind of availability.  So, I suspect that Saint Ignatius would be strongly opposed—if not horrified—at the election of a Jesuit as Pope!  However, this all also points to a question within the Society of Jesus as to how Jesuits are to understand availability, and their vow of obedience to the Pope.  Shouldn’t a Jesuit’s availability also include being available to serve the Church as a Bishop?  And, a matter of some dispute among Jesuits, given that we have a specific vow of obedience to the Pope, does this include a Pope’s request that one become a bishop?  This question came up during Ignatius’ lifetime when some in the Church wanted to make the Jesuit Francis Borgia a cardinal.  Ignatius made known his strong opposition to the proposal (especially because in this case it was about giving honor to a member of a prominent family), but he also acknowledged that should the Church insist, and Borgia accept, he would have to respect the Church’s decision.  Borgia was never made a cardinal, and instead became the third general superior of the Jesuits.

Why apprehensive?

A Jesuit Pope surely spells disaster for the Church!  Or so many might say.  While many in the Church have no idea what a Jesuit is, or that there are priests of a different sort than the ones that they know, those more in the know have strong opinions about religious orders like the Jesuits.  There are those that love the Jesuits with great passion, and those who hate the Jesuits with equal passion.  Both these camps are likely to harbor unreasonable expectations for a Jesuit Pope, both positive and negative.  Pope Francis will most certainly disappoint both, not being as progressive as some would expect of a Jesuit, and not being as disastrous as others might expect.  One of the main problems is that the most commonly held view on both sides is that the Jesuits are liberal.  The fact that this isn’t an accurate representation of the diversity of the 19,000 Jesuits around the world, doesn’t stop our lovers or haters from seeing us that way.  So, those who hate the Jesuits, but love the Church will make peace with themselves by saying things like, “but he’s a good Jesuit,” or “the right kind of Jesuit,” to distinguish him from the vast majority of Jesuits who are “bad Jesuits.”  I can’t tell you how maddening, and I must say ignorant, such comments are.  When he’s not progressive enough, Jesuit lovers will accuse him of not being Jesuit enough, or of betraying the Jesuits, or the Jesuit spirit.  And though we certainly prefer the criticisms of those who love us, such comments will also be rooted in a similar ignorance of the expansive richness, diversity and fidelity to the Church that the Society of Jesus represents.  When the Pope fails, as he certainly will from time to time, you might hear expressions of contempt such as “what do you expect from a Jesuit.”  But I pray that both Jesuit lovers and haters can see beyond their expectations and find the wisdom of the Church and the will of the Holy Spirit in this surprising choice.Image

Meet the Author

Recently, I appeared on Radio Maria’s “Meet the Author” program.  

The host, Ken Huck, and I spoke about living a spiritual life in contemporary times, my book Already There, and briefly about my new book, Saint Ignatius Loyola–The Spiritual Writings.

You can listen to the interview here.

Saint Ignatius: On Dealing With Distractions In Prayer

“Even very devout servants of God complain about wanderings and instability of the mind, and we read that St. John occasionally relaxed his contemplations by lowering his attention to a bird he held in his hand, saying to a follower of his who was disedified that, just as the bow cannot remain always bent, so neither could the understanding, etc.  It is true that sometimes, even many times, numerous servants of God have a great and vivid awareness, quite certain and stable, of his eternal truths; but for them to remain permanently in this state is impossible to believe.”

Letter to Francis Borgia

Looking for more advice from Saint Ignatius?  Image

Order Saint Ignatius Loyola–The Spiritual Writings: Annotated & Explained Today!

Find Answers to the questions: Who was Francis Borgia?  And, was he related to that awful family on TV?

Can’t We All Just Coexist?

So, there it was again, in front of me, slipped in between “My Other Car is a TARDIS,” and the “Vulcan Science Academy Alumni” stickers.  Now, I’m not averse to either of those.  I, too wish I had a TARDIS (for the uninitiated, this is a blue police box, bigger inside than out, which travels in time and space and is piloted by a Time Lord, who calls himself “The Doctor”) and, back in the days when I had a car of my own, I seem to recall a Starfleet Academy sticker somewhere.  So, I’m not opposed to bumper stickers in general, but there is one that particularly sticks in my craw.  You’ve probably seen it.  It’s the one that says, “COEXIST,” but in the place of the letters are symbols of various world religions.  They can vary a bit, but one is likely to see a star and crescent, a star of David, a peace symbol, a ying-yang symbol, a cross, etc.  You get the idea.  At this point, many might wonder: Unless you are a religious militant or bigot, why would you object to that?

Well, I don’t consider myself either of those things.  You could call me a Christian evangelist, and I wouldn’t object to the term.  I am even ready to admit that I would love to have you become a Christian or a Catholic if you are not already one (and some, I suppose, even if you are!).  However, I admire anyone who is faithful and devoted to his or her religious tradition (or lack thereof), so long as they are not out to harm me, or worse kill me, because of mine, or because I don’t share theirs.  They can even try to convince me to convert if they’d like, though I doubt they’d be successful (chalk it up to an opportunity to learn more about them and what they value).  Given all that, sounds like I should be slapping one of those babies on my car too, right?  WRONG.

While I’ve no doubt that most people who sport such stickers have good intentions, I’m not sure they fully realize that they too are participating in their own form of bigotry.  As a Christian, when I read this “peaceful” reminder of my duty to live peacefully with my fellow human beings, I read condescension.  I read the presumption that my faith and the faith of others are naturally prone to violence and are, as some believe, at the root of all wars and conflict.  The implication is not simply that people of different faiths should coexist (because, in truth, we already do), but that if we really want to bring peace to the world we should all abandon our faiths and become secular humanists.  Yet, as Star Trek has shown us, even a federation founded upon a form of secular humanism, still has to fight battles with Klingons, Romulans, and various other peoples, races and factions that are different from them.  We cannot, nor should we, erase difference.

And truly, that is what is at the root of conflict and war.  Not religion, but difference.  Granted, some wars have been fought over religious differences, but many have not.  Thus, the “COEXIST” bumper sticker could just as easily feature the flags of various different countries.  It could include an elephant, a donkey, a teacup(?), and the symbols of various other political movements or parties.  It could include, as some do, the symbols for men, women, and the various LGBT communities.  Or, a combination of all of these things.  There is even one that suggests that aficionados of various sci-fi shows—Whovians, Trekkies, and the like—might also need to find ways to COEXIST.

To bring this way of thinking to its most absurd conclusion, then what we really need to do away with is coexistence.  If all religious peoples, video gamers, or sci-fi fans are by nature violent and intolerant of each other, then what we really have to do is give everybody in each community or category there own little peace of the earth.  That’ll solve things, right?  I’m still not convinced.  Jesus once said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”  He could just as easily have said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name—or anyone else’s, for that matter—there is difference.”  Thus, all of us, whether we adhere to a religious faith or not, whether we like it or not, are forced to coexist.  But, that’s obvious.  We don’t need anyone to tell us that.

SyFy Sacramentals: Warehouse 13

At first it seemed like a weird premise and, I thought, this show’s going nowhere.  How are they going to maintain interest in a show in which covert Secret Service agents wander the country in search for powerful artifacts wreaking havoc in the real world, instead of being safely locked up in a warehouse in the middle of South Dakota?  You know the place.  It’s kind of like that warehouse in which the supposed ark of the covenant is shelved at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the infamous “Area 51” where the government hides all evidence of alien visitations and technology on earth.

But what do I know?  The show in question—Warehouse 13—has not only been successful, but now carries the distinction of being the Syfy channel’s most popular show ever.  I would argue that there have been better shows on Syfy—the recent reboot of Battlestar Galactica, for example—but for some reason Warehouse 13 seems to have a broader appeal.

Sitting waiting for penitents to come for confession recently (no, I do not have holy and pious thoughts every moment, even then), it occurred to meet that as a Catholic I should have realized sooner the appeal of the show.  The idea behind the show is not unlike the Catholic belief in “sacramentals.”  Sacramentals are material objects which, because of their special connection to someone or something sacred or holy, thus possess special qualities or are able to mediate God’s power or blessings in some way.  Thus, we invest religious medals, sacred art or relics connected with a particular saint with greater power or significance than just any other ordinary object.  They possess this power or significance not in and of themselves, but because of their connection to a significant or powerful person or moment in time.  Some see Catholics’ devotion and enthusiasm for such objects as strange and even superstitious.

But we Catholics, though we might appreciate it more, don’t have the corner on the sacramental market.  Just attend the latest Comic-con, or go to the Apple store, and you’ll see that the tendency to endow certain material things with special qualities because of their connection to something extraordinary—in this case, superheroes, a favorite TV show or the church of Apple—reveals itself as not something particularly Catholic, but peculiarly human.  One of the main differences is that “secular sacramentals,” the autograph of a famous person, for example, are often sold at a high price.  People profit monetarily from them.  Catholic sacramentals, on the other hand, are not meant to be sold for profit (though, still, they sometimes are).  People are meant to profit spiritually from them.  Sacramentals are meant to be used for good, not evil.

This is the mission of the Warehouse 13 agents.  They are on the front lines, trying to ensure that the errant “artifacts,” material objects often associated with a famous historical person or event (Lizzie Borden’s axe, for example) are not misused for the power they possess.  And, because the temptation to do so is so great, better that they be kept at the warehouse rather than become an occasion of sin.  Sometimes this means that the agents have to police each other.  Some in the past have gone rogue.  And, in the most recent episode, one agent draws his weapon on one the warehouse superiors, because she is using an artifact as a means of torture.  It will be interesting to see how the consequences of that decision are treated in future episodes.  The woman in charge of the warehouse now stands guilty of the very type of crime that the warehouse agents are out to stop.

The show is successful I think because most of us believe (or want to believe) that many material objects, like our own bodies, are more than just ordinary matter, floating in the soup of life.  Whether it be symbolically or even more substantially, certain special items hold a power which many people recognize.  There are a number of ways in which we memorialize significant historical persons, places or things.  And some hold power that only a given community or family might acknowledge.  In any case, we imagine that they all should be treated with respect, and that their power should not be used to harm others.  They are meant to fascinate and inspire, not to oppress or injure.  The good guys and gals at Warehouse 13 try to maintain that balance while taking care of each other, and having some fun in the process.  That’s why we like them so much, because they take seriously their duty to safeguard those things that we hold dear, without getting too uptight.

Seeking What’s Next

For the last three years, including last weekend, August 3-5, I’ve had the privilege of helping lead a young adult Charis retreat weekend called “What’s Next?: Finding Answers With Faith” at the Jesuits’ Ignatius House Retreat Center in Atlanta, GA.  This year, I put my admittedly amateur video skills to work in order to make a “highlight reel” of the weekend.  If you want to get a sense of what some young adults are looking for, and what our retreat was like, have a look at our video!:

Happy Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola!

Today Jesuits worldwide and our many friends and collaborators celebrate the feast day of the saint who inspires how we live, and much of what we do for the people of God.  On this day, we pray especially for Saint Ignatius’ intercession for blessings on our work and for the gifts of grace we need in our lives.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from his letters, one which I find especially relevant today:

“To sum up my meaning in a few words: If you thought carefully about how deeply you are bound to defend the honor of Jesus Christ and the salvation of your neighbor, you would see how much you are obliged to dispose yourselves for every toil and labor to make yourself apt instruments of God’s grace for this purpose, particularly nowadays, when there are so few real laborers, so few persons who seek ‘not the things that are their own but the things that are Jesus Christ’s’ [Phil. 2:21]; you need to strive all the harder to make up for what others fail to do, since God is giving you such a special grace in this vocation and resolve.”

Happy Feast!