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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Saint Ignatius: What Have I Done For Christ?

“Imagining Christ our Lord present and placed on the Cross, let me make a Colloquy, how from Creator He is come to making Himself man, and from life eternal is come to temporal death, and so to die for my sins.

Likewise, looking at myself, [ask]:

What I have done for Christ? What I am doing for Christ? What I ought to do for Christ?

And so, seeing Him such, and so nailed on the Cross, to go over that which will present itself.

The Colloquy is made, properly speaking, as one friend speaks to another, or as a servant to his master; now asking some grace, now blaming oneself for some misdeed, now communicating one’s affairs, and asking advice in them.”

How do I use imagination in prayer?  What’s a colloquy?

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.)

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.

“Find Christian Singles”

With targeted advertising, I often see such ads as the one above which promises to find other Christian singles for me to match up with.  I also get promises of many other things in my spam folder, which I’d rather not mention.  But the question of what it means to be a Christian single, and whether one can be content being so is an important question.  It’s also an interesting question for me because I’m a Christian who is permanently single.  So, last year, when my friend Beth Knobbe was soliciting articles for a collection of essays on living the single life as a Christian, I wondered: Do I count?

It’s an interesting question because for so many people being “single” means also to be “looking.”  Looking for that person that you might want to spend the rest of your life with, or just looking for someone whose company you enjoy who might make life a little less lonely.  But it could also mean that you are looking for God.  Which is often the case for me despite the fact that we are already “in a relationship.” But often “it’s complicated.”

For me as a priest being single means occasional loneliness, and even a bit of grief now and then over the fact that I don’t and won’t have that kind of relationship that two people who commit their life to each other in marriage hopefully do.  It also means now and then wondering, “what if . . . ?”  Yet, most of the time, my life is fulfilling enough that I’m not preoccupied with these questions.

Thankfully, Beth said that I did count, and so I did take a little time to write a brief essay, as did many others, about the experience of being a Christian single.  Those essays have been edited and collected into a book by Beth called Party of One: Living Single With Faith, Purpose & Passion, which will be published this summer.  So, if like me you have some questions about what it means to be single, and if you count, I’d encourage you to grab a copy when it becomes available, and even pre-order one now if you’d like.  Click here to access the Amazon page for the book.

You just might find that you are not so alone in the many joys and challenges you’ve discovered in being a Christian single yourself.  And for those of you that aren’t single, it might be a reminder of what it was like, or what some of your single friends might be experiencing (or not).  I know I’m looking forward to reading the other essays in the book!

With Friends Like These . . . or the Tango Maureen

One of the interesting things about being a Jesuit is that we get dragged into a lot of fights, whether we are involved or not, whether it is merited or not.  People are especially eager to believe things about the Jesuits, especially if it seems to confirm their prejudices about us, both good and bad.  Someone years ago tried to speak to me about support for abortion among Jesuits, for example.  The assumption was that since Jesuits are “liberal” (another questionable prejudice), that there must be widespread support for abortion among Jesuits.  I told her—and it’s true—that I don’t know a single Jesuit whom I would consider anything but pro-life on the abortion issue.  Still such mistaken perceptions endure.  My most commented-on blog post ever was when I called out the author of a Catholic magazine article for a spurious claim that the Jesuits were at the “vanguard” of the opposition to a Vatican document when, in truth, the vast majority of Jesuits had expressed no opinion about the document one way or another.  If that logic held, then, there were any number of organizations that could have joined us in the “vanguard.”  But it’s much more sexy to blame the Jesuits.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the fact though that it’s not just our critics who love to drag us into their fights.  It’s our friends too.  People, often with little thought, are sometimes quick to presume that we are on their side in a given matter.  Or, short of saying that we are on their side, they somehow implicate us in what they are saying.  Again, this is either because it’s more sexy to include the Jesuits, or because they are using “Jesuits” to refer to an amorphous constituency within the Church that includes some Jesuits, as well as many people who are not Jesuits.  It’s more akin to a pop culture phenomenon than an assertion of the truth about the Society of Jesus.

What prompted me to think about this in particular this week was Maureen Dowd’s column in last weekend’s New York Times entitled, “Hold the Halo,” about the beatification of John Paul II.  In it, she cites John Paul II’s support of Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, as evidence against his beatification and eventual canonization.  And, she makes a valid criticism, as few would deny that for all his virtues, John Paul II had something of a blind spot when it came to Maciel.  He refused to believe that Maciel might be guilty of the things that we now know he was indeed guilty of.  Now perhaps I’m naïve, but I’ve always believed, contrary to the assertions of Dowd and others, that this was not a case of deliberate concealment of Maciel’s crimes, but a certain naivete on the part of an aging Pope.  But here I’m not really entering into the debate about whether John Paul should be canonized or not, because what bothered me more was where she goes next.

“The ultra-orthodox Legion of Christ and Opus Dei,” she continues, “were the shock troops in John Paul’s war on Jesuits and other progressive theologians.”  Now I presume from this statement that Dowd would consider herself as, at the very least, positively inclined toward the Jesuits (whether she is our ‘friend’ or not, I don’t want to presume to say), but there are so many problems with this statement that I hardly know where to begin.  First among them is, of course, the fact that she equates Jesuits with “progressive theologians,” as if every Jesuit can be presumed to be a progressive theologian.  Only a small percentage of Jesuits, of course, are theologians, and not all of them could be said to be progressive.  Nor can this be said of all Jesuits, as people often presume.  The joke among Jesuits is that if you poll four Jesuits about some matter, you’ll get five different opinions.  It’s funny, because it’s not far from the truth.  And the Jesuits were never at war with John Paul II!  The pope did intervene in Jesuit governance at the beginning of his papacy, because he was led to believe that he had reason to be concerned about the Jesuits.  If there was going to be a war, it was then.  But what surprised many—including the pope—was that the Jesuits did not rebel, but obediently accepted the situation (even if they weren’t so happy about it).  There never was a war.  Among Jesuits you’ll find as many men many who are ardent supporters of John Paul II and his papacy as you’ll find detractors.  And you’ll find many, frankly, who don’t find it necessary to have an opinion or stance toward any pope, because the main focus of their lives is their ministry to the people of God.  Indeed, belief in the importance and primacy of their ministry is the thing that you’ll find most Jesuits in agreement on.

There is much more I could say about the implications of the above statement and the ways in which it distorts the truth.  But, again, my main goal is to point to it as an example of how “friends” of the Jesuits sometimes misrepresent us as much as our critics, and anyone who might believe themselves to be “at war” with us, might.  So, thanks Maureen for liking us, but if you want to speak of a war on “progressive theologians,” leave it at that, and keep us out of the equation.  Sure, there are some Jesuits who share your concerns about John Paul’s beatification, but there are also plenty of Jesuits, even some “progressive theologians” among them, who will also be celebrating the beatification this weekend of a flawed but holy man and pope, even if he wasn’t always our biggest fan.

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’!

Friends and Contacts

Many a false move in history has been blamed on a person’s inability to know who his or her friends really were.  Most of us can point to times in our personal history when a person whom we thought to be a friend stabbed us in the back, and a person whom we may have thought only an acquaintance or whom we hesitated to let get to close to us for some reason, really came through for us in the way a friend should (and maybe in a way other “friends” failed to).  Knowing who is and who isn’t really your friend has always been tricky business.  Especially because we often deceive ourselves in this regard.  Some people might be quite surprised that you consider them a friend!

These days, with the advent of social networking, knowing who your friends are hasn’t gotten any easier.  Indeed, thanks to Facebook, the whole meaning of “friend” has been called into question.  Honestly, how many of your Facebook friends are really your friends in the more proper, intimate sense of the word?  Because of the public nature of the work that I do, for example, many of those who ask to be my Facebook friends are people whom I do not know, but are rather people who are interested in knowing more about me because of the work that I do in ministry, or because they have read my writing.  So many of my Facebook “friends” are not so much friends as “contacts.”

Yet, “contacts” is the designation of those whom I have especially identified on my cell phone as people whom I frequently call or text, or people who frequently call or text me.  And, ironically, I realize that those who make up my much smaller “contact” list are actually more likely to be intimate friends than most of the people who inhabit my “friends” list on Facebook.  Technology has managed to blur the line between those who are our friends, and those who are merely “contacts.”  Then, of course, there are those who are our Twitter “followers.”  But I’ll hold off on my reflection about that for another time.

This has got me thinking that, as strange as it might sound, that a good way to reflect on the presence of friends in our lives and, by extension, the presence of God in our lives, is by mining our cell phone “contact” list.  There’s a story, indeed a history, of interaction with those people on your contact list that is not necessarily found with people on your friends list.  So, if we want to take some time to reflect on the gift of friendship (and family, of course) in our lives, we might well do so by scrolling through our phone’s contact list, and asking questions such as: Why is that person on my contact list?  What is the story of my interaction with this person?  In my case, those on my list are family, close friends, work colleagues and fellow Jesuits, among others.  They are people who I’ve had more extended and meaningful contact with than simply accepting their friend request (another act the profundity of which has become distorted, unfortunately).  They are people I spend time with, they are people with whom I’ve worked in ministry to others, they are people I’ve known for much of my life, or are people whom I’ve known only a short time but whom I feel like I’ve known all my life because of the depth of what we have shared with each other during that time.  My history with them, for the most part, is more intimate than the description “contacts” suggests.

If I delve deeper into my phone I find an even smaller list, which tells a more detailed story.  It is the list of those in my text message history.  I don’t text just anyone.  Indeed, being a relative late-comer to the texting game, the effort it takes for me to text (I don’t have the agility of my younger counterparts) someone isn’t expended on just anybody.  It’s reserved for friends, family and colleagues with whom I have a close relationship.  These are the people with whom I’m more likely to share the unexpected joys and tragedies of my life, and with whom I’m more likely to trade requests for prayers with.  In my text-messaging companions, I find another level of intimacy.  I can get a lot of consolation, and be reminded of my need to pray for the needs of my family and friends by reviewing my history of text messages with the people who inhabit this more exclusive portion of my cell phone, and my life.

The phone of course, is only a place to start.  It is a spark to memory of what that person means to you, the experiences you have shared together, and what you hope lies in your future with them.  It is also an invitation to move beyond the technological and virtual world, to call them and make plans to be together, to continue your life with them in person as more than just contacts, but as friends.  Our computers and phones might serve to help us to discover who our intimates are, but deep friendships are built in the moments we spend in each others’ presence, even if sometimes spent more in silliness than seriousness.  Friendships are built on both.  Indeed, our willingness to be silly and even stupid with someone else is a sign of intimacy, it means that I’m comfortable being myself with that person, because our history together, both “virtual” and personal, has shown me my friend.

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.