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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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.

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.