Friday, March 23, 2018

Bullying

Do not give way to anger.
Do not cultivate a desire for revenge.
Do not return evil for evil (cf 1 Thes 5:15; 1 Pt 3:9).
Do not no injury, yea, even patiently to bear the injury done us.
Love your enemies (cf Mt 5:44; Lk 6:27).
Do not curse those who curse us, but rather bless them.
Bear persecution for the sake of justice (cf Mt 5:10)
 

       --The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict,  Chapter 4: The Instruments of Good Works


            A few weeks ago, I was out of town giving a day of recollection to a group of confirmation students.  Some nuns had invited me. It’s part of their apostolate to host retreats and that sort of thing.  I didn’t know the kids, and they didn’t know me, but something felt a little off. I mean, the kids were super nice—very quiet and patient, and respectful—but there was something about them that I couldn’t quite figure out.  And it wasn’t until pretty recently that I realized what was the matter.  It was this: the kids were exhausted. They were 12, 13, 14 years old, and they were worn out, drained, war-weary.  And so were the nuns.  Every one of them had that strung-out, strained, up-all-night look about them.  It made me uneasy.
            And that uneasiness followed me all the way back home.  And then it was like one of those new tunes you hear that suddenly, wherever you go, seems to be playing in the background.  I began to notice it all around. The folks in the airport looked exhausted, the folks on the airplane looked exhausted, and when I got home, I noticed that my brother monks looked exhausted. In fact, looking out now at you guys…you look exhausted. No offense. I mean, you look great, but you also look like you could use a nap. Go ahead, if you feel like you need it.  I won’t have my feelings hurt.
            So this has me wondering: what is it that is wearing us out?  I’ve been mulling this over all week, and I can only come up with one answer: we’ve had a difficult year.  And by we, I mean all of us––well, everyone in America.  And by difficult, I don’t mean starvation and pestilence difficult. I imagine there are some Sudanese child soldiers who would be pretty amused to learn that I had a difficult year—that any of us had a difficult year. Our lives are not in danger. We sleep in comfortable beds. But still, we have had a difficult year. And difficult (ironically) because we ourselves made it difficult.
            We spent the year wringing our hands and shaking our fists about…well…about everything: the pope, the president, the Church, the Press, our neighbors, their neighbors, people who wanted to be our neighbors and other people who didn’t want them to be our neighbors.  We railed against racism and sexism and liberalism and feminism and conservatism and relativism and chauvanism and fascism and pretty much anything we could tack an -ism onto.
            And to be sure, this has been a year worthy of much fist-shaking and hand-wringing—maybe even worthy of fist-throwing.  As my students say, “When you ask ‘what would Jesus do,’ remember that kicking over tables and beating people up is not out of the question.”  But I read an article on Thursday that put some of this in perspective.  The article quoted the great 20th-century theologian, Matt Damon as having said, “We live in a culture of outrage.”[1] And I thought, “that’s exactly it.  Matt Damon, peace be upon him, hit the nail on the head.  We are all exhausted from being so darn full of rage.”  A few years ago, when the whole Ferguson thing went down, I gave a sermon about learning to listen to one another.  Now I’m beginning to wonder if I missed a step.  Sure, we need to listen to one another. But first, everyone needs to pipe down.  I mean, for crying out loud, there are plenty of excellent reasons to be outraged, scandalized, appalled, and disgusted at one another.  But haven’t there always been?  Doesn’t anyone feel like we could use a break from it?
            I keep hearing this expression “zero tolerance”.  “We should have zero tolerance for (this or that) sort of behavior.”  But isn’t that the very definition of intolerance?  And what happened to compassion?  What happened to loving our enemies?  We can blame our cell phones and our leaders for all this stress, but I think we’ve manufactured most of it ourselves.  Saint Benedict forbids his monks to grumble because it tears down the community and tears down its leaders, but most of all because it tears down the soul of the grumbler himself. 
            I don’t know what Pope Francis is up to out there in Rome, but I’m pretty sure there are some Cardinals who will keep him from slipping up in a really serious way. And I can’t begin to predict what our president is going to say or do next, but I’m pretty sure there are enough politicians in DC to keep him from doing any real damage. And even if there aren’t, I’m pretty sure my relentless, droning, litany of despair would have very little effect one way or the other.  So maybe it’s time to set aside the outrage, and lighten up a little.  Because what did we expect when we signed up for this? Did someone tell us being a Christian was going to be easy?
            My dad gave me a book several years ago that has been sitting unread on my shelf until last night. It’s a book about the Chosin reservoir campaign. In late November, 1950, a contingent of 15,000 marines, who thought they were wrapping up the Korean War, suddenly found themselves surrounded by 120,000 Chinese infantry.  Long story short, the men fought through 78 miles of icey mountains to the coast, and saved the lives of 98,000 civilian refugees. But on the way, there were some dark moments.  Some soldiers were so cold and exhausted and discouraged, they actually sat down in the snow and died. But those who fought on are known this day as the Chosin Few.[2]  By all accounts, it was an ugly situation; and by all accounts it was a defining moment—the greatest moment—in the history of the Marines.
            I bring this up because for some of us, this may feel like our Chosin Reservoir Campaign.  There are bullies at this school.  Mean kids who say mean, stupid things.  (Don’t get me wrong…there are mean kids everywhere.  Kids get picked on in high school.  I got picked on.  Robby Frei got picked on.  His peers called him a “try-hard”.  Well, the BBC is here today filming Robbie for a series called “Bright Sparks” so I guess that’s where “try-hard” gets you.)
            We’re going to have to stand up to those mean kids.  And it may feel sometimes as though we are losing the fight—surrounded on all sides, beaten and bloody, low on numbers and morale—nonetheless, this is what we signed up for. And if we thought that being Christians was going to be a picnic of candy canes and cotton candy, then we were sorely mistaken. We signed up for a war, and war is what we’re getting.  It hurts.  We’re taking casualties.  Some men are going to give up and die.  Others will cut and run. And of course, there is nothing soldiers like more than to complain.  Because failure is a real possibility, and that’s scary. But it has to be, or it wouldn’t be a real war, would it?  There would be no real opportunity for heroism or sacrifice.
            I was talking with a friend this morning right before this assembly, and he said, “Stand up to a bully?  Are you kidding?  If I stand up, I’ll be the next kid that gets picked on!”  He’s right.  Stand up to a bully, and you will get bullied.  But you won’t be bullied alone, because Jesus will be standing beside you.  And maybe I’ll be there too.  And maybe there’s a kid in this very church right now who will see the two of us standing there—and maybe he’ll stand with us.  If you’re that kid, then make the decision now.  Stand up.




[1] I don’t know the context of this quote, and I’m glad I don’t because I prefer not to be in the position of having to defend Matt Damon’s star’s behavior. 
[2]  “We’re surrounded?” Colonel Lewis ‘Chesty’ Puller supposedly said, “Good.  That simplifies the problem.”  And when asked if they were retreating, replied, “Retreat, hell. We’re attacking in a different direction.” 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Homily to EWTN on the Feast of Saint Juan Diego

     Isaiah tells us that the day will come when our Teacher will No longer hide Himself, but with our own eyes we shall see Him, while from behind, a voice shall sound in our ears: "This is the way; walk in it," when we might otherwise turn to the right or to the left.
     We all have our plans. But Our Lady—Our Lady of the Snows—she has her own plans, and when our plans and her plans don’t match up, she has a way getting what she wants.  I thought I was coming to Irondale, Alabama to give a retreat.  Turns out, her plan was for me to have a snowball fight with five Franciscans.  I can’t say I saw that coming.   Literally.  The snowball hit me in the back of the head.  And I learned an important life lesson: Never turn your back on a Franciscan.
     But I can take some consolation in knowing that sometimes even the Saints have their plans derailed. As the story goes…in order to avoid being delayed by the Virgin, Juan Diego chose another route around the hill where she had first appeared to him…but “the Virgin intercepted him and asked where he thought he was going…”
     That’s my favorite part of the story.   The roses blooming amid the snow, the miraculous cure, the vision of Mary—these things don’t happened to me.  But an irritating detour, an awkward conversation with my mother and a stain on my shirt…now that story sounds familiar.   Because even after 21 years in a monastery, I still insist on doing things my way.  And I’ve learned through trial and error that when I insist on doing things my way, what usually happens is that I repeat someone else’s mistakes.
     Frank Sinatra had it totally wrong. If you really want a full life, don’t do it your way, follow the Way see. This requires a healthy sense of your limitations. You have to be humble enough to admit that there is someone in the world smarter than yourself.
    The first time I decided to leave the monastery, I knocked on the door of my novicemaster’s cell and delivered the sad news.
    “Okay,” he said, “are you leaving today?”
    “Well, no.”
    “In that case, just for today, you should be the very best monk you can. Then tomorrow you leave.”
     To everyone’s surprise, I followed his advice, and I’ve been leaving tomorrow for 21 years.  And I can tell you with absolute sincerity, I am a happy monk.
    So let us resolve, just for today, to wrap ourselves in the warm mantle of Our Lady and to be the best Christians we possibly can.   Then tomorrow, I’ll sneak up behind Father Leonard and even the score.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Spinach Between My Teeth: Sermon to the Priory School on December 1

Consider the fig tree and all the other trees. When their buds burst open, you see for yourselves and know that summer is now near; in the same way, when you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near.
        --Lk 21:29-33

    Last Wednesday, an extraordinary thing happened to me.   Someone approached me in the lunch line and told me that she did not like my sermon.  Well, that in itself is not extraordinary.  Lots of people dislike my sermons.  I’ve received angry emails, angry phone calls, folks have written letters to the abbot and to the pastor…last month, someone actually wrote a letter to the bishop about a sermon I gave.  So that’s not anything extraordinary.  What was extraordinary was that my friend wasn’t angry at me—and more extraordinary still, neither was I.  I literally sat in my cell afterwards wondering why I felt so good about being criticized.  And then it occurred to me:  this person was my friend…and she wasn’t criticizing me, she was trying to help me.  She wasn’t making assumptions about my motives.  She wasn’t judging my character.  In fact, she brought up her objection precisely because she respects my character and found my words inconsistent with the man she knew me to be.
     For the record, there are some things I’ll probably change if I ever give that sermon again.  But that’s beside the point.  What’s really important is that my friend and I could disagree without getting angry.  It shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did surprise me; and I think that’s because we are living in such an angry age.  Folks don’t seem to be able to disagree without insulting one another; we can’t seem to challenge an opinion without sneering at it.
     You guys hear people talk all the time about the “Priory School Family.”  And in many ways, we are family. In some crucial ways, we are not.   You can’t flunk out of a family.  But when we feel comfortable enough in one another’s presence to bring up sensitive issues with charity and patience—when we feel comfortable correcting one another and being corrected without turning to insults and outrage—then I think we are beginning to build something bigger than a mere school.
     I have a friend who is a nun with the Missionaries of Charity. She told me she used to work in the Amazon and that she had to share a small shack with another nun who insisted on closing the windows every night before bed.  She found this really annoying because it was hot in that little shack, and hotter still when the windows were closed.   Finally, another shack was built for the other nun to sleep in; and for the very first time, she was able to sleep with the windows open. The next morning she woke up in a bed full of snakes.  You see, her sister nun  was really looking out for  both of them.
     St. Thomas Aquinas defined love as “willing good for the other.”  If you live with that kind of love long enough, it gives you a certain sense of peace and security.   You know that the people around you want what is best for you.  So no matter what they do, you can safely assume they do it out of love.
     Now I want to make a radical proposition: I think we should love everyone–even our enemies. But that means trusting that even the people we disagree with have our best interest at heart.  Let’s take a cue from my friend who had the courage to correct me on Wednesday, and start living this out at Priory.   Then gradually, it may seep out into the world around us.
     In practical terms, this means that when someone cuts in line in front of you, you assume it’s because they didn’t know you were there—or they were in a terrible rush, or they had some extremely good excuse for doing it. When someone tells you you’re a jerk, begin by assuming that you may actually be a jerk, and that this person wants to help you improve. When someone says something you find offensive or stupid, assume – at least at first –that they don’t know any better, and that they will be grateful for being told of their mistake.  I admit that this is a dangerous way to live, and I can’t say I have ever really done it, but I saw it done on Wednesday, and it was thrilling.
     My grandmother used to say that family is for pointing out the spinach in your teeth. When we are able to criticize and be criticized without anger, then we will know that Priory is beginning to become a family.  When you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Sermon to the Priory School Faculty on the First Day of the Academic Year


           
When I read this passage from the old testament, I can’t help reading it as a prophecy of the upcoming school year:

He allowed them to fall into the power of their enemies round about
whom they were no longer able to withstand.
Whatever they undertook, the LORD turned into disaster for them,
as in his warning he had sworn he would do,
till they were in great distress.

            We live in a community, a culture, a country that seems to be in a state of crisis.  We live in a tumultuous age. An age of great distress. And our students will bring this burden with them when they arrive.  Like the young man in today’s gospel, they come to us asking, “What good must I do?  What do I still lack?”
            The answer is easy enough: Obey the commandments. Sell what you have.  Give to the poor.  Follow Christ.  “But when the young man heard this statement, he went away sad,
for he had many possessions.”
            It’s going to take more than just teaching to save these kids.  They need more than answers.  It will have to be our job to make this place a sanctuary for them.  A refuge.  A place of joy.  A place of peace.
            But we can’t give what we don’t have.
            Or maybe we can.
            Isn’t that, after all, what the priest does at every mass, in every confession—gives what he himself does not have?
I remember asking my father once when I was very young whether it was really necessary to love one’s sister (even loving one’s enemy seemed more reasonable at the time).  My father, of course, insisted that it was.  And I recall explaining to him at length that this would be very dificult—even impossible—given the current circumstances, and that perhaps we should consider giving her up for adoption.  My father said to me, “Jason, you may find this hard to believe, but some day, you will discover that you do love your sister.  And when that day comes, you will actually want to be nice to her.  In the meantime, however…fake it.”
            At the time, this sounded like awfully cold advice, but if we are to put into action what Christ demands of us in the gospels—if we really are to love our neighbor as we love our own selves—then there are going to be times when we don’t feel very predisposed to that emotion.  Because let’s face it, some people are very very difficult to love, and even God can seem awfully distant at times.  But if you think about it, those times when we must force ourselves to “fake” this love for our neighbor are often the most sincere instances of love, because those are the times when we can give love without hope of recompense.  And if the wise ones are right, then the curious result of all this feigned affection is that an unfeigned affection begins to grow out of it.
            So here’s what we need if we are going to be what our students need: unhesitating apologies and preemptive forgiveness…and if all that doesn’t work, FAKE IT.
            AND IF I AM RIGHT…LET THE LORD BLOT OUT THE SUN THIS VERY DAY!!!!*








*August 21 was the day of the eclipse.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

YOUR INVISIBLE FRIEND


Every year, when my English class begins the section on poetry, I read them this poem by Billy Collins:

Introduction to Poetry


I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.


I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means. 

    I think sometimes we treat our faith the way Billy Collins’ students treat poetry. We tie our faith to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of it.  We shine a light in its eyes and shout unanswerable questions at it: “Why is the Church so corrupt?  Why is the Church so intolerant?  Why is the Church so irrational?”  We ask all these questions at once and without waiting for an answer so that our poor faith, which we've been keeping in the basement for years, malnourished and isolated (and now beaten senseless), blurts out incoherent answers to our impossible questions. Then we throw up our hands and declare that we can't possibly take faith seriously when that’s all it has to say for itself.
    That, or we beat our faith into submission until, weary and confused, it begins to say pretty much whatever we want it to.  Then we lead our poor faith back down to the basement, lock the door, and march out into the world, coerced testimony in hand, smugly doing whatever we darn well please.  (Years later, in a moment of weakness or loneliness, we might wonder whatever happened to our faith and why it died.  But by then, we don't miss it much.  We've learned to live without it.)
    The truth is, if you objectify your faith, it will become an object.  But if you treat faith like a person—if you make dates with your faith and keep them, if you sit down and converse with your faith, listen to your faith, question and challenge your faith—if you smile at your faith first thing in the morning, and kiss it good night before you go to bed…then your faith will begin to respond in kind: it will amuse you, challenge you, teach you, infuriate you…charm you.  To know your faith, therefor, you must treat your faith as a living person.
    But this relationship takes work.  Once the initial infatuation passes, the long labor of love begins.  Which brings us to today’s readings.  We are nearing the end of Easter.  The honeymoon is over, as they say, and to make matters worse, Jesus tells us in the Gospel that he is leaving.  “In a little while the world will no longer see me…”
    “…but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.”  Do we see the Holy Spirit?  Do we know him?  He is, after all, the soul of our faith.  Our duty for the next two weeks is to prepare for the coming at Pentecost of this unseen friend.
    What will happen then?  That’s up to you.  But try to remember that the Holy Spirit is a person—a friend, who perhaps you haven’t seen in a while.  By then it will be Summer.  Waterskiing is not out of the question.



Sunday, March 26, 2017

LAETARE


Lætare Jerusalem!  Laetare et conventum facite omnes: gaudete cum lætitia.

      “Rejoice! Rejoice with joy! Exult!”  We are exactly half-way through Lent and the Church orders us at the very start of Mass to rejoice.  This is not a request.  You are commanded to rejoice.  If you don’t feel it, then fake it.  Because few things give more scandal than a churlish, ill-tempered Christian.  We have twenty more days of Lent, and maybe in the midst of all the fasting and abstinence and penance we find ourselves inclined to indulge in a bit of melancholy—even sorrow.  That’s good.  But the end-goal is joy, and today we are ordered to put all that aside for a moment and celebrate.  This is why I am wearing rose vestments (not pink, by the way—rose).
     Truly, at any given moment any one of us can find at least a thousand excellent reasons to be miserable.  Our lives never turn out exactly the way we’d hoped.  But if we stick to the facts—if we resist the temptation to lust after fantasies, if we resist the temptation to eye with longing some world, some work, some wife other than the one we actually live with—we will see that happiness is an act of the will.  It’s a choice.  In the monastery, we have an expression: we say, “He has been looking over the wall.”   An unhappy monk will always be casting furtive glances out of the cloister and into other men’s lives, imagining that they dwell in halos of unremitting bliss.
     Abbot Luke liked to tell a story about a sermon he gave on the glories of the married life.  He was interrupted halfway through by an elderly woman in the front row who said to her neighbor in a stage whisper: “I wish I knew as little about marriage as he does.”  I have my own similar story: shortly after my ordination, I was approached in a gas station parking lot by an elderly man who stepped out of a black BMW and handed me $100. I was in my habit.  He said to me, “You know, I thought about being a priest, but decided that I couldn’t handle the celibacy. Then I got married and found out I could.” No matter where we find ourselves, it seems that we have this tendency to glamorize someone else's life. 
     But hidden in today’s gospel is the antidote to that temptation.  Our reading from Saint John focuses on one of the bible’s more unlikely heroes: a man born blind—unlikely not because he was blind but because in the course of the story, he shows himself to be lazy, obstinate, disobedient, disrespectful, and irreverent. Interrogated by the authorities concerning his miraculous cure, he answers, “You’re not listening to me, or is it that you people want to be his disciples?”  He’s a real smart Alec, and I am convinced that he is a teenager.  (After twenty years in the classroom, I consider myself an authority on laziness, obstinacy, disobedience, disrespect, and irreverence. Plus…why else would they go to his parents?  And why else would they need to point out that he was old enough to speak for himself)
     At any rate, Jesus appears to be the only person in the story who isn’t annoyed by him. But this kid has one redeeming quality—redeeming in the theological sense of the word. He may be disrespectful and obstinate, but he sticks to the facts.
     “How did you get your site back?” they ask him.
     “I dunno.  He stuck in mud in my eyes and now I see.”
     “But that man is a sinner.”
     “Maybe so.  I dunno. I was blind and now I can see.”
     “But we have no idea where this guy is from.”
     “Who cares? I was blind and now I can see!  How many times do I have to tell you?”
      Notice that he makes no profession of faith.  And only after relentless interrogation does he finally acknowledge that this man Jesus (whoever he is) must be from God.  He doesn’t even thank Jesus afterward.  Jesus has to find him.
     "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" says Jesus.
     "Who’s that?”
Jesus says, "You’re talking to him."
      Now I can imagine an alternative ending to this story where the teenager says, “Oh. Right. Thanks a lot for everything.  But you know, maybe it wasn’t you who actually healed me.    Maybe that was just a coincidence.   Maybe my blindness was all psychological to begin with.    Maybe there was something in that mud.   Maybe I’d better go think about this for a while before I make any rash decisions.”
     But remember: this kid is a pragmatist.  For better or for worse, he sticks to the facts.
     Saint John tells us that all he said was, "I do believe, Lord," and he worshiped him.
     I once asked Abbot Patrick Barry if there was any way for me to know if God was really calling me to be a monk.
     “Well,” he said, “you’re not somewhere else.”
     We’re all here and we’re not somewhere else.  This is cause enough for rejoicing.
    
     Lætare!  Laetare et conventum facite omnes: gaudete cum lætitia.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

CHAPTER 72: The Good Zeal of the Monk

(A SHORT SERMON TO THE PRIORY SCHOOL STUDENT BODY)

There is a good zeal which separates from vice and leads to God and everlasting life. The monks, therefore, should practice this good zeal with the most fervent love; each should ignore what is best for himself, and instead do what he thinks will most help the others.   In fact, the monks should compete with one another in showing respect.

Yesterday afternoon, I was approached by one of the maintenance staff.  She told me that one of you came up to her yesterday while she was working in the senior lounge.  And you bought her a soda.  And you thanked her for making the place look so nice.  That is what Saint Benedict means by good zeal.  That is what it looks like when one of you ignores what is best for himself and instead, does what he thinks will most help someone else.

I can’t remember ever being more proud of this community.