Saint Ignatius: “Sticks and Stones . . .”?

“For at the moment you decide, will, and strive with all your strength for the glory, honor, and service of God our Lord, at that moment you join battle and raise your standard against the world, and prepare yourself to cast away lofty and embrace lowly things, resolving to treat equally the high or the low, honor or dishonor, wealth or poverty, love or hatred, welcome or rejection—in short, the world’s glory or all its abuse.  We cannot pay much attention to insults in this life when they are no more than words; all of them together cannot hurt a hair of our heads.  Deceitful, vile, and insulting words cannot cause us pain or contentment except as we desire them; and if our desire is to live absolutely in honor, and our neighbor’s esteem, we can never be solidly rooted in god our Lord, nor can we remain unscathed when faced with affronts.”

Letter to Isabel Roser

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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.

Popular Demand

It’s been nearly eight months since I started up this new blog on WordPress.  During that time, I’ve written about sixty posts.  It’s hard to know what will catch people’s attention, and because I get very few comments, I’m not always sure what speaks to people and what doesn’t.  But one of the most interesting things that has happened is with regard to a post I wrote rather early on, last September, called “Which Team Are You On?” (click to have a look).  It was a post put up rather hastily, based on a homily that I’d preached that day, in which I used talk of “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” as a means of illustrating a point about that day’s readings.  To date, it’s the most read post on my blog, with visits to that page nearly every day!  I don’t know if the people that end up there leave disappointed, but it’s got me thinking about something I already think a lot about–how to get the message of Jesus out to people who wouldn’t normally hear it, or be receptive to it.  I’m willing to get on the Team Edward or Team Jacob bandwagon, if that’s what it takes!

This has got me thinking that somehow engaging “trending” topics on Christian blogs might be a more effective means of evangelization than a lot of the myopic infighting which takes place via many blogs.  Sure, many of those blogs get lots of hits, but mainly those are from people who want to get into the fight!  And perhaps we should be thankful that those who don’t normally hear the message of Jesus don’t end up there, because they might get a poor representation of what the message of Jesus is really about.  But I digress . . .

I’m starting to think about how such a discovery might lead to a more effective strategy for reaching, for want of a better word, the “unchurched.”  What other topics might garner such traffic from a more “non-religious” crowd?  Stay tuned, as soon I might try out some different strategies, to see how they pan out (sifting for gold!).  And I know I said I don’t get many comments, but I would welcome comments, e-mails or feedback from anyone who knows of such strategies that are working, or may have some ideas about what might work.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the future of the Church lies in evangelization, which will require us to go in new and creative directions (and perhaps some arm-twisting for us often reticent Catholics), so that we can be sure we’re not just preaching to the choir, but also to those who belong to other “teams.”

L.A. Week: Countdown to Congress

After a pretty busy February spent giving talks and retreats in various places, I’ve finally reached my Spring Break vacation, of sorts.  I’m about halfway through my week in L.A. which has been a great time to reconnect with family and friends and prepare myself for what promises to be the somewhat overwhelming experience of my first Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, which some refer to as “Catholic Disneyland.”

My brother lives and works here as the Art Director for the show Parks & Recreation (my mother was somewhat taken aback a couple of years ago when he said his new job was with Parks & Recreation!  She hadn’t heard of the show.)  I spent the first part of my trip with he, his wife, and their three children.  They have twins–a boy and a girl–who are, as my nephew repeated more than once, “6 and three quarters” years old, and another four year old daughter.  The weekend was a reminder of the pros and cons of family life, as we moved from one sporting event to another.  There was T-ball with my nephew, where I was drafted as a third base coach, and practice for the two girls’ soccer teams that my brother coaches.  One of the Moms asked me, “Has he always been so wonderful with kids.”  And while this was the first time I’d seen him coach, I had to admit that he’s pretty darn good!  I’m also proud to see what a great father my little brother has turned out to be!  Saturday was soccer practice, and Sunday was the soccer games, and I had the joy of seeing my youngest niece score a goal!

She scores!

It was a bit of a surprise, because just minutes before she didn’t seem so into the game!  This was true of most of the girls on the team, whose interest seemed to wax and wane throughout the game.  Sustained competitive intensity is probably not so a common a trait for most four year old girls.

While all this was going on, I also provided entertainment–some voluntary, some not–for the niece and nephew who was not playing at the time, at one point simultaneously pitching balls to my nephew and kicking the soccer ball with my niece.  It was wonderful to spend time with them, as I don’t see them as often as I’d like, but also exhausting!  A reminder that I really need to get into shape!

I also had a wonderful dinner last night with my friend TerriAnn, who asked if she could bring her boyfriend, Ronnie Kovic, along.  I wrote back to her that I would be delighted if he could come and, isn’t his name the same as the guy from Born on the Fourth of July?  Not only was it the same name, but also the same guy!  It was wonderful to see TerriAnn, who I always visit when I’m in L.A., and to meet Ron, who is a lovely man, and who doesn’t look anything like Tom Cruise! 🙂  It was a privilege to meet a man who has really struggled with great hardship in his life, but has now achieved such great peace.  And he an TerriAnn are such a lovely match.

TerriAnn & Ron

We talked for hours, about all sorts of things.  Ron quizzed me on what I’ve been doing, I of course asked him about his experiences (and since I’m a movie nut, it was also exciting to be sitting with a Golden Globe winner!), and I got caught up with TerriAnn, who I hadn’t seen since my last visit to L.A.  How wonderful it was to see my friend, who lost her husband some years ago, to be so happy with someone new!  What a blessing.

All this is a prelude to the L.A. Congress which I hope will be an enriching experience, and also an opportunity to spread the news about my book, and to see a lot of friends and colleagues from around the country who I don’t get to see as often as I’d like!  I’ve also volunteered to be available for Confessions, which is always such a great privilege.

If you’re coming to the L.A. Congress, look for me at the booths of the Jesuits, Charis ministries or Saint Anthony Messenger Press (where you can also buy my book!).  I’ll report more on the Catholic Disneyland experience in a future post!

In Conversation about My Vocation & Writing

Fordham University has produced a series of video interviews with Jesuits at Fordham entitled “Jesuits in Conversation.”  You can now watch my approximately thirty-minute interview, in which I discuss my vocation, my ministry and my writing, in particular the then forthcoming book, Already There.  You can access the video, as well as interviews with various other Jesuits, by clicking here.

 

Rough Hands

This past weekend I joined the nearby parish where I help out for their patronal feast.  It was a wonderful celebration.  The church was packed.  One of the bishops came and presided at mass (doing so both in English and Spanish—I was impressed).  Everyone was well-dressed.  At the offertory, representatives of various different countries came forward dressed in ethnic costume to present some native foods.  Then came the offering of the bread and the wine.  Dinner and dancing followed in the newly renovated parish hall downstairs.

There were many things to remember that evening.  I enjoyed the company of the parishioners, and the fellow priests who came.  I got to know the bishop a little bit, a Bronx boy himself.  But there was one thing that stuck with me above all else, and it’s not what I would have expected.  Usually that means God is trying to tell me something, so it’s been the subject of my prayer this week.

It was just after mass, as we stood outside the church.  As usual, we waited to greet the people as they exited.  One of the things I love about this community is that people are very eager to shake your hand, sometimes hug you, and say hello.  For some reason I noticed in a striking way something I certainly was not unaware of.  I noticed how so many of the hands I was shaking were rough, work-worn hands.  These are people who work hard, many of them in demanding manual labor jobs.  And their hands speak that.

You may have heard a priest or seminarian say, “these hands were made for chalices, not calluses.”  Even said as a joke, I despise that sentiment.  There is no reason that a priest shouldn’t have callused hands that lift chalices.  Priests shouldn’t be afraid of or avoid hard work, even manual labor.  Yet, even while thinking this, I find that I cannot ignore the fact that compared with such rough hands, my hands are embarrassingly smooth.  I take no pride in that fact.  I wish they were more callused, even though admittedly I have never been incredibly enthusiastic about manual labor.  It’s interesting that now that I’m a priest I’m in fact less averse to such work, though I find I now have fewer opportunities to do it.  But this week I’ve been trying to work out what God is trying to say to me with both these sets of hands.

Certainly it challenges me to be more aware of the lives which those I minister to are leading.  How hard they work, and how little pay they probably receive for that work.  I was also reminded that my father’s hands are similarly rough.  As a diesel mechanic, he has spent his life fixing trucks and equipment, and his hands certainly witness to that.  As I child I remember it being something of an object of fascination that his hands were so rough in comparison to mine.

At the same time, I’ve been taking a class on Eucharist and social justice, where we discuss the meaning and implications of our Eucharistic celebrations, like the mass we had this night.  At every mass I speak the words “the work of human hands,” often not really thinking about what that means.  This class is pushing me to be attentive to such things.  What we are saying at that point in the mass, in fact, is that our Eucharist is possible because the work of so many brings the bread and wine to us so that we can offer it as a gift to each other.  And it occurred to me for the first time that my father’s hands are part of that process.  In the course of his lifetime he has fixed probably thousands of trucks that have delivered all sorts of things, and certainly among those things food, bread and wine.  So, when we hear “the work of human hands” we are reminded that our Eucharistic food depends on the work of my father, and many of those rough-handed people who come to church each Sunday.

Recent discussions about immigration have focused around the fact that so many are unwilling to do the kind of work that brings food to our tables.  What does that say about us and our prayer?  Shouldn’t we be willing to get our hands “roughed up” a bit for the good of others? And if we are not willing or able, don’t we have a responsibility to care for those who will?  There is no Eucharist without bread.  There is no Eucharist without rough hands.