My Anti-Bully Pulpit

I have been saying throughout this election that no matter what happens on November 8, on November 9, we’ve got work to do.  Here’s one of my mandates:

I was bullied as a child.  Teachers turned a blind eye.  School administrators wouldn’t do anything about it.  The prevailing attitude was “that’s just what kids do.”  It got so bad that I had to withdraw from my public school halfway through junior high, and move to a Catholic school in a neighboring town.  For years, I watched painfully as other children suffered in a similar way.  Still, people failed to speak out about it.  Even as teenage suicide rates rose.

Then, things started to change.  It was too late for me, but I took heart when parents, school teachers and administrators, and community leaders started not only to speak out against bullying, but also take action to stop it.  We had finally moved forward to protect vulnerable children and young people!  I have promoted and encouraged such efforts, and challenged such behavior among students at our Jesuit schools.  I shared my experience of being bullied with the student body at one of our Jesuit high schools some years ago, while urging them not to be bullies, but men for others.  A few years later, I was disappointed to see one of our graduates recalling that talk on Facebook, with derision.  Yet, I was also heartened by the fact that he remembered parts of it verbatim, even as he mocked it.  Clearly, it had made an impression.

Today, I feel that bullying as “business as usual” has just been reaffirmed on a grand scale.  I hope that I’m wrong.  But I fear for our children, and for all those who are considered “different” or “other.”  Today, I am more determined than ever to double down on my own efforts to combat bullying in whatever ways that I can.  I will continue in my commitment to engage in civil discourse, even when others’ meanness tempts me to respond in kind.  I hope that some of you, with me, will choose to do the same.  Jesus was not a bully, and over and over he stood up to them.  I have been marked for life by the pain I experienced in my youth, but I also have been marked by the saving power of Jesus, and choose to follow his example.

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The Book on Ignatius

Ignatius New CoverRecently, a Jesuit friend expressed to me how helpful my book on Saint Ignatius’ writings had been to him, and what a shame it was that it hadn’t sold more copies.  You may be surprised to know that it’s not often that I hear such things, especially from Jesuits about Jesuit things.  There seems to be a fear among some Jesuits that if they compliment your writing, you’ll get a big head or something.  That’s one theory, anyway.  So, when a fellow Jesuit goes out of his way to not only read your book, but to tell you about it, you take note!

His words reminded me that often I don’t do enough to promote my work.  I’m trying to be better about that.  After all, as my friend’s words suggest, the whole point of writing a book is in hopes that it might help people.  So, what good is accomplished by staying quiet about it?!

There are various reasons why I haven’t done enough to promote it in the few years that it has been out.  But, now, I no longer have an excuse.  And, I have the recent reminder that the sales up until now don’t reflect the quality of the book, or lack thereof.

So, here’s my pitch.  Please take a first, or second look at the book, and consider if it might be helpful to you, or someone you know.  Recommend it to the bookstore at your favorite retreat center.  Bring it to the attention of your local Christian bookstore.  If a Jesuit can understand and learn new things about Saint Ignatius because of it, maybe you can too!  And, then, please write and let me know what helped you (lettinggodfindyou@gmail.com).  That could give me some clue as to what to explore in my next book!

The book, Saint Ignatius Loyola: The Spiritual Writings, provides excerpts from the Spiritual Exercises, the Autobiography of Saint Ignatius and, unlike other books of its kind, also includes excerpts from his letters.  Did you know that Saint Ignatius wrote more letter than any of his contemporaries?  Worth a look for that reason alone.

It also, of course, provides an opportunity to get to know Jesus better.  For example, as we approach Holy Week, and contemplate the Scripture readings that bring us to Easter, we might consider Ignatius’ advice: ” . . . to consider that which Christ our Lord is suffering in his humanity, or wants to suffer, according to the passage which is being contemplated, and here to commence with much vehemence and to force myself to grieve, be sad and weep . . . ” (this can be found on page 45).

As always, I am most grateful for your consideration, support, readership and friendship.  Many blessings as we near Easter!

Coming To Christmas At Your House

Christmas Door

Twenty years ago, my friends, the McCurdys, offered me a blanket invitation: “Any time that you want to come over for dinner, just give us a call.” It’s an invitation that I’ve never forgotten. I wish I could describe the many wonderful dinners that I shared with them. But I can’t.

I can’t because the truth is that I never took them up on that invitation. This wasn’t because I didn’t want to have dinner with them. Indeed, I remember fondly a few dinners that I did share with them at their house. Good fun, great conversation, a warm home. I could have used more of those.

The reason that I wasn’t a regular at their family dinners had nothing to do with them. Rather, it was because in my youth I had internalized a rule that it wasn’t polite to invite yourself. And, even though they had made the invitation, simply calling up one day and saying, “I’d like to come have dinner with you tonight,” went against my programming. I couldn’t have done it without feeling rude, even if they had brought it upon themselves. This, though I knew that I might have unblinkingly offered someone the same hospitality, even if it might seem an imposition. Indeed, I remember about that same time, at a moment’s notice, driving a friend hours away to another state so that she could be with her family. I’ve always been grateful that she took the risk of asking, especially because at the time she was angry with me, and I might have been the last person she wanted to ask!

This was the year that I gave up that rule. It took being sent to a place where I didn’t really know anybody, to focus on a solitary task (my dissertation), in a rather isolating living situation (a community of 10 people living in four separate houses) to convince me. It took waiting for invitations to connect with new friends that came sparingly, if at all. It took being so disconnected with the things and the people around me that I could not thrive, for me to finally ask for help ridding myself of this rule, and many others that I’ve lived by, rules that have gotten in the way of being all that I want to be. I wasn’t just missing out on dinners. I wasn’t taking full advantage of the gift of my friends, even those I was closest to.

I’m now happy to say that I’ve moved to a more amenable location, and have put a lot more effort into “imposing” myself on my friends, and that has made a huge difference in all areas of my life. I’m a better friend, I’m a better person, and a better priest because of the ways in which they have responded. I spend more time on the phone than I’d like, because now I know I have to. I have to be careful not to get so caught up in my work that I fail to reach out to people. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I might not be the extrovert I thought I was, but maybe, as someone recently suggested, “an introvert, who compensates.” I’m still a work in progress.

Recently, I was preaching on the Gospel story of Zaccheus, the tax collector. And, it occurred to me that Jesus had broken the rule. Now, Jesus broke a lot of rules, but the one that I took notice of that day was in Jesus’ words to Zaccheus: “Come down, Zaccheus, tonight I’m going to dine at your house.” How rude of Jesus to invite himself to dinner! In my new frame of mind, I was compelled to see this story differently. What if Jesus had not invited himself? Zaccheus would have had a story to tell at dinner, sure, “I climbed a tree and caught a glimpse of Jesus today,” but—as the story tells us it does—salvation would not have come to his house! If Jesus had been “polite” in the way I had learned to be, such a great gift would not have been received! It has to make you wonder: What might people be missing out on, if we don’t invite ourselves into their lives?

This wasn’t the only instance in which Jesus invited himself to someone else’s house. It certainly is only one of many instances in which Jesus invited himself into another person’s life. He was certainly known to thrust himself upon others, even when they seemed unwilling! It was up to them to say “yes” or “no.” They still had the choice whether or not to allow it. Some happily allowed him into their lives. Some rejected him. And some went away sad, because other things in their lives—maybe some useless old rules—got in the way.

It seems to me that Christmas is a time, a wonderful time, when Jesus once again invites himself into our lives. It’s a time when we can reflect upon what those obstacles are—like those things in the Gospel that seemed to conspire against Jesus being born—to us more fully accepting the gifts of Jesus in our lives. Maybe they are material possessions. Maybe it is anger we are holding on to. Maybe it’s something that we finally need to admit that we need help with. Maybe it is just an old rule that doesn’t serve us anymore, or one that we might realize was never helpful, or true.

Is it time to allow Jesus to invite himself into our lives? Is it time to invite ourselves into someone else’s life, so that we might bring a little Christmas, the gift of Jesus into their lives?

I know that for me this year, as difficult as it began, is one that ends with a whole new appreciation of the gift of Christmas. I forced myself to be an imposition on my friends, and they did not disappoint in sharing their time, themselves, and their Jesus with me. Pray that I might continue to invite myself to be so blessed. Jesus doesn’t just invite himself into our lives at Christmas. He comes to us, and we to him in all kinds of invitations, whether we are on the giving or receiving end, or if we just invite ourselves. And while sometimes others may say “No, thanks,” Christmas holds the promise that Jesus always says, “Come!”

 

I hope you’ll invite yourself to experience Christmas in a whole new way, and may it be a blessed one. I am grateful for those of you who have allowed me to invite myself into your lives, or who have done the same for me. And for those I’ve yet to know, I look forward to dining at your house!

My “Inner Iggy”: Barefoot, Hungry, but Unafraid

There is a lesser known passage in Saint Ignatius’ Autobiography that has always struck me. If you know the whole story, you know that Ignatius does a lot of crazy and over-the-top things on his pilgrim journey. This one is definitely over-the-top, but in a good way (I think):

“The Spaniard whom he had as one of his first companions, who had squandered his money without recompensing him, left for Spain by way of Rouen. While awaiting passage at Rouen, he fell sick. From a letter, the pilgrim heard of his falling sick, and conceived the desire of going to visit and help him, thinking also that in this union of souls, he might induce him to leave the world and give himself entirely to the service of God.

In order to obtain this he wanted to make the twenty-eight leagues between Paris and Rouen barefoot and fasting from food and drink. While he was recommending this adventure in prayer, he was seized with a great fear, until he went to the Church of St. Dominic and there determined to go as was said, when all the fear of tempting God passed away.

But on the next day, the morning of his departure, as he was getting up early, he was seized with so great a fear that he could hardly get his clothes on. In this conflict of emotion he left the house and indeed the city before daybreak. It continued with him as far as Argenteuil, which is a walled town a few miles from Paris on the way to Rouen, where the vesture of our Lord is said to be preserved. He passed by this town in the grip of that spiritual struggle, and as he began to climb a hill the dread began to slip from him and in its place came so great a joy and spiritual consolation, that he began to cry out through the fields and talk with God. That night he spent with a poor beggar in a hospital, after having covered fourteen leagues. The next night he spent in a straw hut, and the third day he reached Rouen. All this time he had taken nothing in the way of food or drink and had walked barefoot, as he had planned. At Rouen he comforted the sick man, helped him board a ship bound for Spain, and gave him letters of introduction to his companions at Salamanca, viz., Calixto, Caceres and Arteaga.”

InnerIggy

Three days! For three days, Ignatius walked barefoot, with little to eat or drink, to visit a former friend who had done him wrong, who had basically stolen his money. I’m almost certain I would never go to that much trouble to console an ex-friend who had betrayed and abandoned me like that. And, I’m not even sure that I think that was really a good idea for Ignatius.

But, when it comes to getting in touch with my “Inner Iggy,” what I notice is this—Ignatius doesn’t let his fear get in the way. It’s not that he doesn’t experience it, because it’s pretty strong, but he gets past it. I can imagine all the kinds of fears that he could have had, because they are the ones that I have. Will his anger at this man get the best of him, despite his good intentions? Will his gesture make his former companion guilty and ashamed? Maybe, after three days of strenuous and grueling travel, he might not even receive him! Or, just maybe—and sometimes this can be the most fearsome thing—his friend might ask forgiveness, and they might achieve reconciliation. Often enough it’s easier, and far less risky, to simply hold on to our resentments. Still, for me, I know that my journey toward a possible reconciliation, while hard, is likely to be far less burdensome than Ignatius’ three days.

So, the inner Iggy that I’m looking for this week of our society’s founder’s feast is the one that doesn’t spend time obsessing about how the other person is going to react, or what the other person might be thinking. It’s the one who lets the dread slip away, finding “so great a joy and spiritual consolation” that, like Ignatius, I begin “to cry out through the fields and talk to God.” I want to be the “Iggy” who puts those fears aside so as to be the person I truly am with that other person, hoping that in doing so the union of souls which results will be one that gives glory to God, even if the specific outcome may be neither what I feared nor what I hoped. Like Ignatius, I can only be who I am, trust in God’s grace, and leave it to the other person to react however he or she will react. My fears and imagined outcomes cannot change that.

Gender Justice Monday?

SusannaI have written about this before.  But it bears repeating.

On Monday of the fifth week of Lent we have a rather striking pair of readings which, it seems to me, demand some mention of gender justice.  Yet I wonder how many people attending mass today actually hear anything of the sort.  Did the homily say anything about the fact that both readings today focus on a woman who has been wronged and treated differently just because she is a woman?  Were prayers offered for victims of domestic violence, or sex trafficking?  Or did the prayers and the homily treat this day with these readings just like any other day?

I faced these questions myself when these readings came up during my first year of priesthood (see “Angry Mass”).  My homily that day did discuss how Susanna had been wronged, sexually accosted by men who, when she rebuffed them, accused her of adultery.  The men, of course, were given the benefit of the doubt, and would have succeeded in having her shamed and executed for refusing them, if not for the intervention of the prophet Daniel.  God took her side against the evil men who, confident that they had all the power, treated her as if she had no dignity to be concerned with.  Today of all days then, shouldn’t we encourage our fellow Christians to, like Daniel, to take up the cause of women who are still treated unequally and as if they have no dignity?  I said something to that effect that first Lenten Monday, and was immediately struck after the homily that the prayers of the faithful prepared for that day said nothing of the sort!  As if we hadn’t heard the readings that we had just heard!

Perhaps some hesitate though because while Susanna is innocent, and courageous in her resistance, there is no question that the woman in the Gospel reading for today is guilty of the adultery of which she is accused.  Still, it’s hard to ignore that the man who was complicit in her adultery is not being threatened with the same punishment that she is, or any punishment whatsoever.  Doesn’t Jesus’ intervention on her behalf in essence tip the scales aright, such that the male accusers are forced to abandon any notion that they are above reproach? (And, some have wondered whether her partner in adultery might have been among the men ready to stone her to death)  Sure, it might be enough to focus on the Gospel as a statement about God’s mercy even for the guilty, and leave it at that.  But I can’t help but imagine that many in the congregation, especially the women, would see that as ignoring “the elephant in the room.”  Sadly, I worry that many a priest would fear that taking up this topic even for one day might risk him being labeled a “feminist”or, given Cardinal Burke’s recent comments, as somehow contributing to the “feminization” of the Church.

Perhaps a modest proposal could be offered that would make a focus on gender justice (which is indeed a concern of the Church, even if sometimes it doesn’t appear that way) more likely in our prayers and homilies on this day.  Why not designate  Monday of the fifth week of Lent “Gender Justice Monday,” or something to that effect?  Make it a day during Lent that we can reflect on the inequities that still exist in the treatment of men and women both in our society and around the world, and a day that we can speak out against rampant crimes such as domestic violence and sex-trafficking.  Maybe feeling obliged to do it for at least one day might give us the courage to talk about it more, and bring an end to the sins which have their root  in the kind of attitudes that, it seems to me, God challenges in both the stories of Susanna and the woman caught in adultery.

Ashtag, Smashtag

The Ash Wednesday selfie debate is on again.  Here’s a take on it from my homily today:

It has become popular in recent years for people to post their Ash Wednesday “selfies” on social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This year even the U.S. Bishops have gotten into the act, encouraging people to post their photos with hashtag “ashtag.” 50 lucky winners among them will also receive a book of Lenten reflections by the Church fathers as a reward. If you think this is all rather silly, you’re not the only one.

Indeed, the very idea of the Ash Wednesday selfies has sparked some debate among Catholics. Some arguing that it violates the spirit of Ash Wednesday and penance itself, which we are not meant to be boastful about. Others argue the opposite, saying that this is a great way for people to witness to their faith, showing their friends and followers that it is something important to them. Others say “lighten up” it’s just harmless fun. But some bristle at this since, of course, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, which is not supposed to be fun.

Fortunately, we can look to today’s readings for guidance in this matter. In the Gospel, Jesus says not to perform righteous deeds so that other people can see them. Don’t look gloomy, pray in secret, and when you give alms, “don’t blow a trumpet before you.” The first reading from the book of Joel warns earlier that a day of darkness and doom is coming. It urges the people of God to return to God with fasting, weeping, and mourning, rending our hearts, not our garments. “Blow the trumpet in Zion!”, it continues. “Proclaim a fast, call an assembly, gather the people.” Let’s make sure that others can’t say of us, “Where is their God?” But, hold on, wait a minute. Maybe the readings aren’t as helpful as we imagined they might be. Jesus says “don’t blow a trumpet.” Joel says “blow the trumpet.” So, today, are we meant to blow our own horns, or not? Well, let’s not deny the obvious. Today, we’re going to spend the day walking around with ashes on our forehead, drawing attention to ourselves. That would seem to many like blowing a trumpet. Especially here in the largely non-Catholic South, where more than one person might kindly point out that we have some sort of smudge on our head. I must admit that when I lived in South Carolina, I found Ash Wednesday to be quite fun, for this very reason. It might cause the other person a bit of embarrassment, but it also gave me an opportunity to tell them what it was all about.

And, for me, the second reading tells us what it’s all about. Think about what Saint Paul is saying about us, reminding us: “We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” “Working together, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” This is both the call we are meant to answer, but also who we are meant to be for others: God appeals to others through us. God uses us to bring his mercy to others. And, working together, we can show others the grace of God offered to them. To do so, we certainly shouldn’t boast about the things asked of us specially during this season of Lent: Our prayer, fasting and giving to those in need. We should seek God’s mercy and be Christians always, and not just when others are looking. That is the extreme that Jesus warns us against. But we also must take care not to be so secretive or self-effacing in doing these things that people fail to see that at the root of all that we do is our faith and commitment to God. People should see us and say “there is their God,” not “where is their God?”, that’s the extreme the prophet Joel is warning against.

Let our ashes today, then, and those special sacrifices and commitments we make this Lent show us to be sinners, who need the love and mercy of God; servants, who are confident that God will give us his love and mercy not in return for what we do, but freely; and ambassadors who, having experienced God’s love and mercy can offer the same to those who are most in need of it. There are plenty of people out there who will tell you what Lent should or shouldn’t be, and who will give you advice about what you should or shouldn’t do. But, consider as you pray, fast and give: how is God calling me to receive and give his mercy this Lenten season? How will your Easter “selfie” compare to your Ash Wednesday “ashtag”?

Joseph the Introvert?

On the feast of St. Joseph, my reflection on Joseph from the Sunday before Christmas.  Well-received buy Josephs and introverts especially!

Image

 

Have you ever taken the time to imagine what Joseph might have been like?  I have to admit that I haven’t though about it very much, but when I do bring Joseph to mind what I come up with is a rather flat character.  One might even say dull.  After all, when it comes to the nativity story, we all know that the stars of the show are Jesus and Mary.
Joseph’s is merely a supporting role.  He stands next to Mary.  He’s the protector.  He doesn’t say much.  In fact, in the Scriptures he says nothing at all!  Yet, still, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that in today’s Gospel we see that, like Mary, Joseph has his own experience of the annunciation.  But whereas Mary has her Magnificat, and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, his song of praise—both of which are recalled daily in the Church’s office of prayer—Joseph’s response to the miraculous events surrounding him is just silent obedience.

Still, I have to wonder if Joseph gets short shrift.  Maybe he’s a bit more interesting than we’ve given him credit for.  After all, look how God speaks to him.  The angel doesn’t appear to Joseph physically, but instead in a dream.  And this dream, perhaps, is meant to have us recall the previous Joseph, son of Jacob.  He of the famous “technicolor dreamcoat,” he the “master dreamer.”  Was the young Joseph, like the earlier one, someone who dreamed great dreams, someone who was destined to be great?  Perhaps he too like Mary had been specially prepared to accept the role of father of the savior, and was not simply the guy who happened to be betrothed to Mary when she was asked to conceive and bear the holy child who would save his people from their sins.  Maybe Joseph deserves a second look.

But I want to take a second look at Joseph not in order to show how he can be as exciting as that other Joseph, or as Jesus and Mary, but because I think that the reason we tend to undervalue him should challenge us.  There is currently a book on the best-seller list called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” by Susan Cain.  And, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there has been a lot more talk about introverts these days.  Estimates are that about 1/3 to ½ of the general population are introverts, and that the number may be growing.  We don’t see it as much in the U.S. because our culture is dominated by extroverts, and an extrovert-biased mindset.  But what Cain argues is that we must learn to value and make room for introverts today because we might just need them like never before.  Indeed, our society has become so frenetic—and unfortunately the Christmas season has come to epitomize this—that most of us could stand to learn what it might be like to be a little more introverted or, for the introverts here today, learn that it’s OK to seek quiet and solitude away from the pressure of holiday parties and non-stop shopping.  Indeed, she goes on to say that the most creative—or at least alternative—thinkers among us are the introverts, and if we don’t give them, or ourselves, whatever the case may be, the permission and space to find the creative solitude they need, we all suffer.  As much as they might like to, it’s not a good thing if only the extroverts rule the world, or the company, or the Church.  This is perhaps why we need to pay more attention to figures like Joseph.  He might just be-especially during Christmas—the patron saint of introverts.

Consider his annunciation.  Why is it different than Mary’s?  It may be because both God’s message and Joseph’s response take place in the best context in which Joseph can faithfully and reflectively respond—in the interiority of a dream, in the slowness and silence of waking and in the determined act of quiet obedience, taking Mary as his wife and choosing to be father to Jesus.  Indeed, when describing introverts like Ghandi, for example, who became great and inspiring leaders, Cain could well have been describing Joseph.  “People could feel,” she says, “that they were at the helm not because they enjoyed directing others, not out of the pleasure of being looked at, but they were there because they had no choice, they were driven to do what was right.”  Joseph’s actions suggest that he knew he had no choice because he was able to let God speak to him.

And that is really my point.  I’m not saying that everyone should be an introvert.  Indeed, I learned from Susan Cain that I’m probably an “ambivert,” that is, someone who sits right at the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum.  And, like all “verts,” I need to own that.  Rather, I think what we can take from Joseph’s example is that we each need to invite God into a space where God can speak to us in a way that we can trust.  What strikes me about Joseph is that he never seems to have any doubt that it is God speaking to him.  And before the story is over, the angel comes to him in a dream three more times, and Joseph acts accordingly.  Perhaps with the exception of Herod, Joseph is the busiest guy in the first two chapters of Matthew.  So, maybe his isn’t just a supporting role after all.  The pantheon of heroes is not without its strong, silent types.  But not all of us need to be silent to hear God’s voice, and act on it.

In these waning days of Advent, then, with Christmas fast approaching, perhaps we can turn our attention away from the in-your-face, extroverted, commercial Christmas enterprise, and instead embrace the real Christmas surprise—God with us in the more ordinary moments of giving and receiving, of celebrating together and enjoying time in solitude and rest, and finding that place in the midst of all of where God best speaks to the person that I am—in a crowd, all alone, or in a dream.  And as we witness the birth of Jesus into our world 2000 years ago, we might also ask God to show each of us—whatever “vert” we are—how we are called, like Mary and Joseph, to introduce Christ to the world, acting quietly, audaciously, or even sometimes uncharacteristically, according to calling, the gifts—and the temperament—that God has given each one of us.  There are just 3 more stopping days until Christmas, take a step back, enjoy them, and have a blessed Christmas!

Welcome!

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–Fr. Mark