One of My Favorite Easter Moments

PeterJohnTombI preached and presided at all the Triduum masses this weekend for the Visitation Sisters and their neighbors in Brooklyn.  Since their house was a place of limited technological sophistication, my homilies were given with mostly just some notes scratched down on paper, the old-fashioned way.  I’ll try to post some of my reflections later, but in the meantime, here’s part of my Easter message from today.

I’ve told this story before,but it’s always good for me to remember that one of my favorite Easter moments came during what was probably my most difficult year as a Jesuit.

Each year when Easter rolls around, I remember Mayo Kikel.

Mayo was one of the first teachers I met when I visited Jesuit High in Tampa the Spring prior to starting work there in 2002. She impressed me with her conviction that God wanted her there. She could easily have worked at a school closer to where she lived, but instead she made the extra long trek to our school each day. I have only met a few teachers like her, so convinced that they were fulfilling a mission. When I began work at the school the next Fall, she quickly became one of my favorite colleagues.

This made it all the more difficult when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were already to chip in and fill in for her wherever needed. But, amazingly, even after she started the cancer treatments, she never missed a single day of work. It was what she lived for. And though it left her with little energy to do much else, she came back day after day. None of us would have faulted her for taking a day off, much less complaining, but she rarely did.

As Easter approached, she came to ask me a favor. I was the Director of Campus Ministry and was in charge of the program for our once-a-week morning convocations, when the whole school gathered in the chapel to begin the day. She told me how good the boys at the school had been to her, and she wanted to use the convocation just before the Easter break to thank them. What she wanted to do, she explained, was to sing a song, an Easter song. Now this was not without its risks. Such an endeavor at a school of some 650 boys was just as likely to invite ridicule, as it was reverence. We talked about this, but she was determined. So we made plans.

When the day came, I stood up at the podium and said, “Mrs. Kikel has told me how wonderful you all have been to her during her illness, and she asked if she could do something to thank you.” The music began.

The song she sang was told from the perspective of Peter, beginning with a Peter all too aware of how he had failed Jesus. And, now that Jesus was dead, there would be no opportunity to make amends. Then it took up where our Easter Gospel reading began, with Mary come to announce that Jesus had been taken from the tomb. Peter runs to the tomb, John running up ahead. They find the burial cloths set aside, and Jesus missing, and they begin to realize what has happened. In the song Peter exclaims, “He’s alive!” “He’s alive!” “He’s alive and I’m forgiven. Heaven’s gates are open wide!” “He’s alive!” “He’s alive!” The song built until Mayo sang out the final, “He’s aaaalive!” And then something happened which even now when I think about it inspires tears. Immediately and without hesitation, every boy in that chapel stood up and applauded.

We speak a lot in our Jesuit boys’ schools about being “men for others,” and I have yet to see a better example of that than I did on that day. When we speak about Easter, we speak about everything being made new because of what Jesus did for us, and because God raised him from the dead. Things were made new for me that day. No matter what they did after that day, I could never quite see those boys in the same way again. They had stepped up when it was most important. And I can never think of Easter without thinking of Mayo Kikel who because of her humility, faith and courage was able to inspire such a moment.

Mayo beat the cancer, but was stricken just a couple years later with a rare disease which took her from us. But I will never forget her. Few people in my life have exemplified as well as her what Easter is all about.

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Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and My Friend, the Atheist

So, while I wasn’t looking, a friend of mine has become a somewhat notable neo-atheist (I’m not sure if it’s fair to call him that, but that’s how he’s being perceived, at least).  He’s a philosopher, and we both met while teaching philosophy, and sharing an office.  We live on opposite coasts now, so I don’t see him very much.  I don’t think he was exactly a believer when we were in the same city (New Orleans), but his ideas have certainly gotten more radical—and more public—since then.  He’s always been a provocative teacher, and that’s one of the things that I like about him.  I like that he challenges students to make reasonable arguments.  After all, in many ways that’s what philosophy is all about.  And I know from my own teaching how hard it can be to get students to risk making any argument sometimes!

From what he’s been saying lately, it seems he’s coming down quite hard on students who make arguments based on faith (though precisely what he means by faith, I can’t be sure).  I don’t object to that.  I have done the same myself, not in a dismissive way, but in a way that I hope helps them make more coherent arguments.  After all, Christianity has long held that faith and reason are by no means incompatible.  I suspect my friend would agree (or at least he would have in the past).  What I fear, though, is that those who listen to him will get the impression that this is not the case.  And that is a disservice to them.  The Letter to the Hebrews says that faith is “the substance of things hoped for.”  Do we really want to rob people of hope, in the name of truth?  And, can I really rid my life of what might be called “reason informed by faith”?  It would certainly make life more difficult.

I would have to stop introducing my parents as my mother and father, since I have never seen a DNA test proving that I’m even related to them.  Barring that, I can only offer faith-based arguments that they are, indeed, my biological parents.  Indeed, I might need to go so far as the philosopher David Hume to contend that I really have no way of knowing, despite the fact that it has always been my experience, that if I drop something heavy it will fall down instead of up.  For isn’t there a “faith” involved in assuming things simply because we have never experienced things otherwise?  Yes, we might find ourselves escaping Plato’s cave one day and finding that things are far different than we ever thought.  But does that mean that I should live my life in constant anxiety that my experience of it may not be what it seems to be?

But one might object.  That after all is “trust,” not faith.  A rose by any other name?  And, besides, what is objectionable is not that kind of faith (if you want to call it that), but religious faith.  How is it different, as my friend put it in a recent talk, than believing in the Easter Bunny?  Well, for one thing, I know now that the things the Easter Bunny was once credited with doing were actually being done by the people I call my parents.  But were they?  Why should I believe that what they have told me is true, and that they are not just trying to protect me from the reality that there is indeed an Easter Bunny?  But I have never seen the Easter Bunny, and I have seen and learned to trust those who claim to be my parents, so the truth of their assertion is at least more probable.

But here’s where they’ve got me!  Since I have never seen God, isn’t he just as ridiculous a notion as the Easter Bunny.  Well, it depends again whether you are willing to trust what people have told you.  I come from a tradition that descends from the historical encounter of a people called Israel with a real God.  I come from a tradition that believes that God also entered history in another way in the person of Jesus Christ, a human person who lived, whom other people experienced, who died, and who, according to their accounts, visited some of those very same people after his death and rising from the dead.  I have to take their word for it.  I also have to take the word of the millions of people who have also experienced God in a variety of ways over the centuries.  Sure, some of them were probably crazy.  But even crazy people can argue from experience.  I may be one of them.

But I don’t just have to take their word for it.  I have experienced God for myself.  Anyone can say that I’m just making it all up, that I’m delusional.  Certainly, if there is no God, I have made a joke of my life.  I can say that.  But, interestingly, I’m pretty sure that’s something my friend would never say to me, or even believe of me.  He has experienced the concrete effect that my belief in God has on who I am, what I do and why I do it.  He knows that much of my life is based on reason, informed by faith, and that some of my life rests on faith alone.  He objects to what a lot of “faithful” people do—and so do I.  But that doesn’t make faith objectionable to me, it just means that people can mistaken conclusions based on faith, as they can commensurately so based on reason.  And life is a mixture of mistakes and successes based on both.

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It’s Holy Week.  And this week that is the story we remember.  A story of mistakes and successes, of friendship and betrayal, and a love that expresses itself in a way that is both reasonable and which transcends reason.  It’s a story that we know really happened—people experienced it, history records it.  Yet it is also a story that for those of us who believe, who have faith in Jesus Christ, happened once and for all time.  It is no less real today than it was on the historical date that it happened.  And it demands something of us that is not reasonable.  It demands that we give our lives to over to the mission and the person of Jesus Christ—completely.  In doing this, we do not ignore the fact that people have and continue to do hateful things in the name of Jesus Christ (which is one of the atheists’ favorite bludgeons), or that peopledo amazing, loving and heroic things also in the name of Jesus Christ.  Or that people do both, without believing in Jesus or God.  They can be as heroic or fallible as those of us who do have faith.

I’m not offended by the offense they take at my faith.  I am, however, concerned that in championing the truth, they might, even if unwittingly, take people’s hope away.  Especially because I suspect that, ultimately, they are looking for “the substance of things hoped for” too.  Their substance is just different than mine.  Mine is Jesus Christ, who I have experienced, and who calls me, guides me, lives in me and loves through me.  Theirs is, well, I’m not sure.  Hope in Jesus may be as ridiculous to some as the Easter Bunny, but it is everything to me, and the community of faith to which I belong.  It’s just how we roll . . . (if we can say for sure that anything, in fact, rolls.)

Thanks for “Buddies”

My friend Mike Hayes has written a nice response to my “Friends and Contacts” post, and in doing so named me a recipient of one of his Lenten “50-Day Giveaway” gifts.  THANKS, MIKE!!!

The gift will certainly find pride of place on my desk, and is rather appropriate to the course I’m teaching this semester on Catholicism and Popular Culture in America.  The gift is a “buddy Christ,” which you might remember from the movie Dogma.  This week in class we’ll be discussing the movie The Exorcist, but we will finish out the semester discussing Dogma.  So, I’ll definitely bring my gift along with me to class that day!

Mike is a good friend, and a great disciple to young adults across the nation!  He’s way up there in Buffalo these days, so I don’t see enough of him.  Still, I thank God for the gift of his friendship.  And, yes, he is among the privileged few who appear in my text-messaging inbox!

He blogs at “Googling God,” which you’ll find a link to in my Blogroll, and a feed from down below that.

THIS ALSO SERVES AS A CHANCE FOR ME TO WISH A BLESSED EASTER TO ALL MY ‘BUDDIES’!

Approaching Easter

As we get closer to Easter, I’m reminded of a post I wrote about two years ago, on my previous blog.  I thought I’d share it with you as we look forward to this Easter.

When I think of Easter, I remember Mayo Kikel.
Mayo was one of the first teachers I met when I visited Jesuit High in Tampa the Spring prior to starting work there in 2002.  She impressed me with her conviction that God wanted her there.  She could easily have worked at a school closer to where she lived, but instead she made the extra long trek to our school each day.  I have only met a few teachers like her, so convinced that they were fulfilling a mission.  When I began work at the school the next Fall, she quickly became one of my favorite colleagues.
This made it all the more difficult when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  We were already to chip in and fill in for her wherever needed.  But, amazingly, even after she started the cancer treatments, she never missed a single day of work.  It was what she lived for.  And though it left her with little energy to do much else, she came back day after day.  None of us would have faulted her for taking a day off, much less complaining, but she rarely did.
As Easter approached, she came to ask me a favor.  I was the Director of Campus Ministry and was in charge of the program for our once-a-week morning convocations, when the whole school gathered in the chapel to begin the day.  She told me how good the boys at the school had been to her, and she wanted to use the convocation just before the Easter break to thank them.  What she wanted to do, she explained, was to sing a song, an Easter song.  Now this was not without its risks.  Such an endeavor at a school of some 650 boys was just as likely to invite ridicule, as it was reverence.  We talked about this, but she was determined.  So we made plans.
When the day came, I stood up at the podium and said, “Mrs. Kikel has told me how wonderful you all have been to her during her illness, and she asked if she could do something to thank you.”  The music began.
The song she sang was told from the perspective of Peter, beginning with a Peter all too aware of how he had failed Jesus.  And, now that Jesus was dead, there would be no opportunity to make amends.  Then it took up where our Easter Gospel reading began, with Mary come to announce that Jesus had been taken from the tomb.  Peter runs to the tomb, John running up ahead.  They find the burial cloths set aside, and Jesus missing, and they begin to realize what has happened.  In the song Peter exclaims, “He’s alive!”  “He’s alive!”  “He’s alive and I’m forgiven.  Heaven’s gates are open wide!”  “He’s alive!”  “He’s alive!”  The song built until Mayo sang out the final, “He’s aaaalive!”  And then something happened which even now when I think about it inspires tears.  Immediately and without hesitation, every boy in that chapel stood up and applauded.
We speak a lot in our Jesuit boys’ schools about being “men for others,” and I have yet to see a better example of that than I did on that day.  When we speak about Easter, we speak about everything being made new because of what Jesus did for us, and because God raised him from the dead.  Things were made new for me that day.  No matter what they did after that day, I could never quite see those boys in the same way again.  They had stepped up when it was most important.  And I can never think of Easter without thinking of Mayo Kikel who because of her humility, faith and courage was able to inspire such a moment.
Mayo beat the cancer, but was stricken just a couple years later with a rare disease which took her from us.  But I will never forget her.  Few people in my life have exemplified as well as her what Easter is all about.