Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Not A Hollywood Ending: Robin Williams, RIP

As a star heads towards its demise, it begins to spew out elements that are themselves the building blocks of stars and life. Quite literally, its death brings with it the beginnings of new life. 

In my experience, people are not that different. They, too, often have a way of mellowing in their latter years and nourishing those around them, even just in the quiet ways they continue to live their lives.

It’s yet another part of what makes the recent death of actor and comedian Robin Williams just so sad. If you were learning about Williams for the first time the last few days, you’d think he died on top of his game, one of the few real giants in the media industry. 

But in point of fact Williams had been in a slump for over a decade, his roles generally cartoonish and rarely finding resonance. Last year he returned to television to headline The Crazy Ones, David E. Kelley’s CBS comedy about an ad agency. It had the highest debut audience of any show this fall, some 19 million people. Eight months later, it was down to 5.3 million, and the show was cancelled. 

As with so many of his recent roles, Williams couldn’t quite seem to relax into the character. He was always with the mania and the hammy and the silly voices. You almost had to avert your eyes in order to watch.

But maybe what seemed like the hack-y reuse of decades-old schtick was actually Williams fighting to re-find his footing and his voice. Just in the last eight years he had fallen off the wagon, gone to rehab, lost his older brother, divorced from his wife, had heart surgery, gotten remarried, and most recently went briefly back to a treatment center. If his performances seemed largely unmoored of late, well, so was his life. 

But that’s the case for so many people as they begin to make their way out of middle age. We rarely talk about it, but that shift is seismic, tectonic.

Who knows when or how Williams would have found his way past it if he hadn’t died, or what he would have been like in his latter years. Perhaps we would have witnessed once again that childlike wonder that so marked his performance on Mork and Mindy, or been awed by the bleak depths he uncovered in films like Insomnia or One Hour Photo. 

Perhaps he would have just become a retired elder statesman of the industry, the comedian Steven Spielberg called to come and help him laugh while he was filming Schindler’s List, the movie star who co-hosted so many Comic Relief benefits to raise money for the homeless; not performing so much any more but still reminding us of the important things: “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”

We’ll never know now. All we can say is, even if he couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, he clearly never stopped fighting to find a way to get there. 

May he rest in peace. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Ladies, You Are So Beautiful

John Legend put out a new music video this week about a wide range of women considering themselves in the mirror. It's a really lovely piece of work.  Enjoy.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Be a Pilgrim, Not a Tourist

The Jesuits of the Australian Province put out a fortnightly update on all their comings and goings.  One of the recent editions had a wonderful little article on transitions and travel that seemed all too appropriate for the journeys we begin or complete in summer.

The link to the article can be found here. I've also pasted it below. It's by Father Chris Gleeson, SJ.

In transition
In early December last year, when returning from Auckland, I stopped at the Tullamarine airport’s duty-free shop to purchase some spiritual sustenance for my Xavier Jesuit community. After discerning what spirit was most appropriate for my abstemious brethren, I went to the counter to pay for it. The young lady in attendance there greeted me with the question: Are you in transition, sir?’ ‘Yes', was my reply. ‘Aren’t we all?’ 

The young woman seemed stunned. So full of surprise was her countenance that I was reminded of the story of the American tourist in the late 19th century who went to visit the famous Polish rabbi, Hofetz Chaim. He was astonished to see that the Rabbi’s dwelling was just a simple room with a desk and a chair. ‘Rabbi’, asked the tourist, ‘where is your furniture?’ ‘Where is yours?’ replied the rabbi. ‘Mine?’ asked the puzzled American. ‘But I am only a visitor here. I’m only passing through.’ To which the rabbi responded, ‘Aren’t we all?’

In March last year we were given a new pope in Francis, a leader who has captured the hearts of the world. ‘Person of the Year’, as voted by Time magazine, Francis in his leadership has modelled for us the importance of simplicity, of doing away with the superfluities and excesses of life, of engaging with people’s hearts before trying to win defensive battles over dogma and doctrine. He is simply a breath of fresh air, as Pope John XXIII was, blowing through our church and our world.

Transition comes with both gain and loss. In gaining the courageous leadership of Francis, we lost the inspiration of Nelson Mandela late last year. Our world is much poorer for this loss. Some fifteen years ago I devised a course on leadership for aspiring Year 11 student leaders, comparing the influence of two quite different men who had spent some time in prison— Pedro Arrupe and Nelson Mandela.

Prior to his becoming the General of the Jesuits in 1965, the charismatic Pedro Arrupe spent many years as a missionary in Japan, a month of which in 1942 he experienced as a prisoner in Yamaguchi for suspected espionage. He reflected later on this period in captivity: ‘Many were the things I learned during this time: the science of silence, of solitude, of severe and austere poverty, of inner dialogue with the "guest of my soul". I believe this was the most instructive month of my entire life.’

On his release, he comforted the prison governor with the words: ‘I am not resentful to you. You are someone who has done me good … You have taught me to suffer.’

It is well documented that Nelson Mandela spent 27 years or 10,000 days in the most brutal of prisons on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town. While the prison bars might have constrained him physically, nothing could impinge on Mandela’s spiritual freedom. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he wrote:

As a leader one must sometimes take actions that are unpopular, or whose results will not be known for years to come. There are victories whose glory lies only in the fact that they are known to those who win them. This is particularly true of prison, where you must find consolation in being true to your ideals, even if no one else knows of it.

That Nelson Mandela could walk out of gaol 27 years later, without a tinge of resentment or bitterness in his heart, is testament to his freedom of soul and the legacy of spiritual leadership he has bequeathed to the whole world.

I have often quoted from an article written by a parent at a French Jesuit school in 1975. The importance of his words remains with me today. In seeking to elucidate his expectations of a Jesuit school, he wrote:

One arrives at a fresh stage of life only by freeing oneself from the last; by a renunciation. The process of growth is a series of renunciations: renunciation of womb-life, of breast-feeding, of exclusive love of the mother; renunciation of the cushioned atmosphere of home in favour of the brisker one of school; renunciation of the self-satisfied comfort of intellectual sufficiency in favour of the adventurous one of the spirit. There can be no checks, no resting-places. Stop at any stage of the journey and you will find that you settle down, you make yourself a refuge.

Our personal transitions might not have the media focus of a Nelson Mandela or even a Pedro Arrupe, but they are significant times for us. Each time we come to the Eucharist at the Penitential Rite we declare our need for change and growth, for the Lord’s mercy and healing. If we don’t commit to this transition in ourselves, we will stultify and die.

The metaphor of the pilgrim, so much loved by St Ignatius Loyola himself, is a very helpful one for us journeymen and women in life. Somewhere in his prodigious writings, Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, distinguishes between the pilgrim and the tourist. Pilgrims are those people who want to engage with the world and not be mere spectators, people whose goal is less to reach a particular destination than to be transformed in the journey itself. A tourist goes somewhere to see something new, while a pilgrim goes somewhere to become someone new. Indeed, tourism protects tourists from becoming someone new by insulating them from the unfamiliar or the uncomfortable.

For one of the pithiest comments on the need for personal transition in our lives, we can return to the 19th century and the memorable words of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman: ‘To grow is to change, and to become perfect is to have changed many times.’ May 2014 be a year of constructive transition for all of us!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Fumbling in the Dark

My province's vocation director recently asked me to write a piece about how I came to be doing what I'm doing. If you're at all interested in how a guy with an SJ after his name ends up sitting at a desk writing all day (best job in the world!) -- you might find this entertaining.

(Also -- that shot is courtesy of Tatyana Borodina, who is an amazing photographer and a great person. Find her work here.)

Friday, May 16, 2014

Friday Think-er: The Great White Whale of Catholic Higher Ed

Moby Dick is not a Comedy
Recently I was at a meeting to offer some input to a university about mission and identity. The question arose, What does it means to be a Jesuit, Catholic school?

I suspect for anyone working in Catholic education this is a familiar topic.  I know the universities I've been associated with have spent endless hours having speakers and panels, small and large group conversations, even whole conferences on the topic.

Behind that interest often lies anxiety about "Mission Drift", the possibility that our schools might be falling away from their Catholic character.

And that's an important question. Unfortunately, much of that conversation gets hijacked by outside groups trying to stir the pot.  If you've never heard of the Cardinal Newman Society, consider yourself lucky. They are like the screech who comes to your party and will only talk about their cause, and without any willingness to have a honest and interesting conversation.

Any time any Catholic school invites a speaker who does not fit this group's definition of Catholic, whether it's a social worker in the developing world or the President of the United States, out the Newman minions fly decrying the university.  They consider themselves the defenders of the faith, and there is goodness in that intention. But unable to conceive of others also trying to work for the faith, they engage in mean-spirited tactics of embarrassment that are anything but Christian.

The head of the Cardinal Newman Society wants you to know he's going to tell on you.

Here endeth the rant. (Other than to say, someone really needs to do an investigative piece and get to the bottom of this group.)

Groundhog Days and Rabbit Holes
So as I sat at this meeting, I found myself wondering why am I still hearing the same conversation that I heard 20 years ago? Where is the progress?

And I'm sure there has been some. As wearying as many of these conversations are, I'm sure it's not a coincidence that the last 20 years have seen so many people who are not priests and brothers and sisters stepping up as leaders in our schools.

But I also wonder at this point whether our starting point might need adjustment.  St. Ignatius always said about the spiritual life, when you find yourself in a bad or confusing place, it's good to go back and ask, what are the choices that preceded this and led me here?

It's also very clear, the starting point of any argument -- its assumptions, if you will -- has a great influence on where the argument is able to go.  So for instance starting a conversation about whether to invade Iraq with the presumption that they are building weapons of mass destruction cannot help but influence where that conversation goes.

And that's not just about conclusions but the possible paths of thought we might go down.

Putting this in terms of Catholic identity: I wonder if right now we enter into these conversations thinking of ourselves as in a sense scientists with a microscope. We're delving into the foundations of things, looking for our own version of the God particle, the essential parts of a Catholic school.

One part Respect for All Life, One Part Pursuit of Truth, One Part Faith that Does Justice...
And a Whole Lot of Jesus

It's a very soothing metaphor, in that it promises the possibility of a set of clear, distinct and identifiable elements that can be distilled down and then used to judge one's "Catholicity."

And yet even as such a process results in mission statements, lists of Catholic traits, etc., it's striking that neither the process nor the end result ends up very satisfying to people. On any given day you may hear just about anything, but it's a rare day indeed when someone says they really loved a mission statement. And that's when most or everyone is really trying!

Another option: Pray-er
Maybe this is similar to the difference in experience between reciting the Creed and the Our Father. I don't want to speak for everyone -- Go Creeders! -- but I think many of us find the Creed a bit dull. (And in the new translation, also confusing. Thank you, translators who don't know from English.) It's our statement of faith, but it doesn't connect with us so much in a personal way. It's like a speech that we're asked to deliver together.

Whereas the Our Father, while having a set of pretty specific beats that can be elaborated into a set of principles, is first and foremost a personal, petitional prayer. It's us speaking to God. Often alongside other people who are also important in our lives -- our fellow community members, our parents and siblings, our friends.

What if we started somewhere closer to there -- not as scientists with a microscope, but as pray-ers. People who have each had experiences of life and need and the Church and God. Experiences to share.

If we started from that presupposition, what sort of a conversion might ensue? What would be the questions we might ask? The kind of content we distill? Or even the form that content or talk takes? For instance, if we start from a sense of ourselves as pray-ers or spiritual searchers, might our conversation take the form of a ritual?

What would it be like if we start from our experience of ourselves as pray-ers?

Second Option: Snap! Crackle! Pop! AHHHHHHH. 
Or -- on a much more secular note -- what if we thought of ourselves as organizational chiropractors? I know, it's a crazy term. But an institution is an organism, just like the human body. And issues that flare up in one area are often signals for a real problem somewhere completely different.

Maybe when we're having these flare ups that lead to conversations about Catholic identity, maybe the real issue is not whether we're Catholic or how to be Catholic. Maybe it's wages. Or people not feeling heard (either by the school or by the Church). Or an old wound that's just been activated.

The fact that some women at a Catholic university, for instance, might be furious that the school denies abortion coverage is not necessarily indicative of whether the school has properly expressed and shared its Catholic mission. Or about whether its hiring practices are really on target with mission. It could just be a sign that many women don't feel like they have a voice in the Church.

Identifying that is not to say the school should become pro-choice, either.  That, too, is in a sense missing the bigger point, the experience of being dismissed or not consulted or considered a fundamental part of the life of the Church.

Being the chiropractor who diagnoses where the real pressure is and tries to release it will never result in a mission statement or a set of principles of "who we are".  But it might help us become a better-lived version of the Kingdom.

He just worked out her pension problem.

I'm not suggesting either of these starting points as best or necessary next steps. They're just examples that show we have options. The conversation doesn't have to look like the one we keep having.

In AA they define insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I don't want to say our Catholic institutions have gone off the deep end. But sometimes these conversations certainly do drive us crazy.

And rather than judging that discomfort as resistance or just a necessary hardship of a bigger goal, maybe from time to time we should pay attention to that dis-ease. And ask ourselves, is this really the only way to proceed?

Maybe it isn't.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Hide in the Tomb, or Walk in the Sun?

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Newness often makes us fearful, including the newness which God brings us, the newness which God asks of us. We are like the Apostles in the Gospel: often we would prefer to hold on to our own security, to stand in front of a tomb, to think about someone who has died, someone who ultimately lives on only as a memory, like the great historical figures from the past. We are afraid of God's surprises. Dear brothers and sisters, we are afraid of God's surprises! He always surprises us! The Lord is like that.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us not be closed to the newness that God wants to bring into our lives! Are we often weary, disheartened and sad? Do we feel weighed down by our sins? Do we think that we won't be able to cope? Let us not close our hearts, let us not lose confidence, let us never give up: there are no situations which God cannot change, there is no sin which he cannot forgive if only we open ourselves to him.

Jesus no longer belongs to the past, but lives in the present and is projected towards the future; Jesus is the everlasting "today" of God. This is how the newness of God appears to the women, the disciples and all of us: as victory over sin, evil and death, over everything that crushes life and makes it seem less human. And this is a message meant for me and for you dear sister, for you dear brother. How often does Love have to tell us: Why do you look for the living among the dead? Our daily problems and worries can wrap us up in ourselves, in sadness and bitterness ... and that is where death is. That is not the place to look for the One who is alive!
-- From Pope Francis' homily at the 2013 Easter Vigil

Friday, April 18, 2014

Why Good Friday is Too Often Like a Bad Indiana Jones Movie

The Problem: The Math of It All
I don't know why this is, but the older I get, the less I find myself able to accept the way that the Church generally talks about the death of Jesus.  More specifically, this sense that "Jesus died for our sins".

It's not that I'm squeamish. It's the math of it all.  Jesus dies = We are saved.

By the calculus of the ancient world, that makes sense. Gods are appeased through violence. The stability of society is reinforced. Jesus takes the place in Jewish tradition of the lamb.

But in our world, that makes no sense at all. Murder does not save. Indeed, as the great philosopher Rene Girard has written about, the cross reveals the lie of that idea, because it shows the brutality at the heart of such a philosophy. It displays the victim.

As far as I can tell, the way that Christianity has avoided dealing with this is by saying we're talking God here -- God sacrificing his son, God being willing to be sacrificed for us. Human logic does not apply.

But what kind of a God is okay with human sacrifice? I suspect, not one would we would hope to meet when we die.

And the other thing is, this equation is EXACTLY human logic. As we just said, it's humans that for millennia have killed animals, adults, even children out of a sense that it would save them.

This should make us very suspicious.

And frankly I think many of us live aware that this is a problem, aware that this idea that Jesus died to save us from our sins or that God was cool with Christ being whacked doesn't really make sense. Not really. And yet it's not a deal breaker -- we never really believed in that Old Testament figure of wrath and violence anyway -- and we're not theologians, so we just let it sit there.

But it should be a deal breaker for us. We should not accept a concept of God like this, or let our children be taught to think that God is like this. Because we deserve better. Indeed, the story of our salvation in both Old and New Testaments is a story of God rescuing humanity from precisely such notions and societies. And even when necessary rescuing them from himself!

The Solution: A Faithful (not Wrathful) God 
So on a day like today, who do I see up there on the cross? Not the solution to a math equation. But a man, God become flesh, who came among us because he saw how much we were in need, how hungry and confused and sad we were, and wanted to be the light that would shine in our darkness, illuminate the Lord who loves us, and help us on our way.

And of course, OF COURSE, that was threatening to people. People in power, but also just the rank and file. It was as true then as it is now: If you really want to scare somebody, tell them that you love them. 

And so of course, eventually, some of them wanted him dead. And he could have run from that. Or just stopped being so damn challenging.

But that meant stepping away from the people, both the ones who knew they were hungry for hope and kindness and looked to him for help, and the ones who were just as hungry or even more and didn't know it, whose pain was pushed back behind their rage and condemnation.

And that's not who Jesus was. That's not who God is. So he kept on going, even though it looked like it would not end well.

And it did not end well. In fact, it ended in pretty much the most horrific way possible, not just killed, but publicly humiliated and left to die as mocking bystanders watched. It ended so badly Jesus even doubted whether he had been right about what he believed about God and himself all along.

The Nutshell
What saves us is not that Jesus died for us. It's that God is faithful to us. So faithful that he came down to earth to be with us; that he refused to run away from us when threatened (by some of us); and that when he died as a man, God raised him up.

It's a package deal, the crucifixion and resurrection. Together they express the same truth -- that God  does not give up on us. That he is faithful to us.

And we shouldn't let anyone tell us different.