Monday, June 30, 2008

Ah, Appleton!

Last week my sister and her family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin. Personally, I knew nothing of Appleton other than that my friend Ken Anselment and his family live there.

Here Ken is, right, waiting to welcome Jen and Chad and the kids to Appleton. (Ken works at Lawrence University as the director of admissions. This photo, and other fabulous shots of Ken in action, can be found here.)

Anyway, in anticipation of their move, I did some research about Appleton online, and came up with some very interesting facts and stories for this week.

The town of Appleton, located on the Fox River at the north end of Lake Winnebago and not too far from Lake Michigan, began its history as a Yankee town as a little community called Grand Chute, so called because of the rapid falls of the Fox. The Fox was itself first explored by Europeans in the early 1670s. The length of the river was actually canoed, as part of the trip that led to the European "discovery" of the Mississippi, by Louis Nicolet and a Jesuit, believe it or not, Father Jacques Marquette, S.J. You know what they say, join the Jesuits, see the world.

"So I take a right at the big tree, then on through the maize...and how do I make my way out?"

Anyway, Grand Chute: The main business of the town was ladder-making; ladders from all over the country, in fact, were made in Grand Chute, and a number of presidents had their pictures taken standing on a Grand Chute ladder.

The ladder-making business also led to the local creation of a board game that would seize the imagination of the young people of both America and Bolivia, known as Chutes and Ladders. As we know, that game remains popular among children in the United States; but it's nothing like the popularity it has in Bolivia. The country has local, regional and national matches, and a championship series (going back now over a hundred years) whose media attention is on a par with Americans' attention to the Super Bowl. Matches are televised, strategies are discussed around dinner tables and barrooms, and excessive amounts of money are bet on the events. The state flag, in fact, includes a ladder, as a representation of the country's national pastime.

Can You Name this Famous Appletonian?

Nine Years Old

My godson Jimmy and his dad sport their cool glasses (and identical facial expressions).

Yesterday, June 29th, my nephew Jimmy celebrated his 9th birthday. Good on ya, Jim! When we spoke this morning, I said to him, Happy 15th Birthday! And he replied, I wish.

Can you remember a time when you wished -- wished -- you would turn 15? What in the name of God was the attraction? 21, 25, 35 -- yeah. Heck yeah. But 15?

Jimmy has a passion for Spiderman, it's a passion we share actually (Spiderman 2 -- masterpiece), but at age 9 he's already way more connected than I am. Since he was very little, in fact, Jimmy has had a direct line to the webhead's personal cellphone. I know, I know, I must be joking. FOR REAL. I've actually been there when he's called, and heard Spiderman's message. I don't know how his mom and dad got it for him, but I'm telling you, the kid's got friends in high places.

Look out, here comes the Spiderman.

When he was very little he used to tell my mom, I know everything. When she got tired of it, she would try to stump him, she'd say, Did you know that ice is water that has solidified? And he'd say, No, I didn't. But I thought you knew everything, she'd ask. Without missing a beat, his response: I do now. (Think Calvin & Hobbes. I can't wait for the snow sculptures!)

Jimmy loves science and spies and investigating new things. In fact, not too long ago my brother and sister-in-law went to the school class open house. And a father comes up to them and says something like "If you notice my son has a chunk of hair missing, it is because your son has it, so they could test the DNA."

Later my mom calls to ask him about it, how he's going to test it. And he tells her, "Gramma, it's all taken care of; he has a piece of my hair and I have his. I just yanked it out of my head."

Send in the Clones, indeed.

Happy Birthday, Jimmy! I love you! Eat lots of cake for me!

Friday, June 27, 2008

TGIF: Jokes about Jesuits

A Franciscan, and Dominican, and a Jesuit were out playing golf one day. They were moving along the course quite well, until they got stuck behind a group of golfers who were taking quite a long time and weren't letting anyone else play through. Feeling a little frustrated, the three went up to the head of the group and asked what was going on. He told the three priests that they were part of a special program that allowed the blind to play golf.

After a few moments, the Franciscan praised this display of generosity. He apologized for being so pushy, and announced that he was so impressed by this example of service that he would incorporate it into his own prayer and service to the poor. The Dominican, too, was touched by their example, and declared that he would use this display of service in his preaching.

The Jesuit, finally, took the fellow aside and asked, "Can't they play at night?"


A Franciscan, a Dominican and a Jesuit are driving along on the way to a mass when suddenly they are blindsided by a truck and killed instantly. At the gates of Heaven, they are met by Peter, who welcomes them each one at at time. Upon meeting the Franciscan he shakes his hand, gives him a key to his room, and sends him in through an old, worn gate off to the side of the Pearly Gates themselves. Likewise, upon meeting the Dominican he gives him a pat on the back, hands him his key, and sends him off through the old, side gate.

When he meets the Jesuit, however, he blows a whistle and suddenly hordes of cheering people pour through the main, pearly gates. They literally throw the Jesuit up on to their shoulders and whisk him away through the main gates to his new home, which Peter informs him is a palatial mansion near the heavenly choir.

Having witnessed this, the Dominican and Franciscan return to Peter and ask for some explanation. "What's the meaning of this?" they asked. "When we came in you gave us a key like we were headed to some fleabag motel and sent us in through what looks to be the back door, but then this Jesuit shows up and you treat him like royalty!"

Peter's face fell. "Oh my, I'm sorry, you completely misunderstand. We're thrilled to have you here, absolutely thrilled. But Franciscans and Dominicans arrive here often. We almost never see Jesuits!"


Frank Jones goes to a Franciscan brother and asks him to pray a novena that he can get a Lexus. "What's a Lexus?", the Franciscan asks. "It's a luxury car." "Oh," says the Franciscan, "I'm sorry, I can't pray a novena for such a worldly intention."

So Frank goes to a Dominican brother and asks him to pray a novena that he can get a Lexus. The Dominican asks, "What's a Lexus?" But when Frank explains, "It's a luxury car," the Dominican also declines to pray the novena for such a worldly intention.

So Frank goes to a Jesuit priest and asks him to pray a novena that he can get a Lexus. And the Jesuit asks "what's a novena?"


Mrs. Potter asks her Jesuit pastor to explain how obedience works. "Well," says Fr. Rendezzi, SJ, "The Jesuit tells our superiors what he wants, and then they let him do it."

Mrs. Potter gave this a little think. "What happens if the man doesn't know what he wants?"

"Oh," said Fr. Rendezzi, "In that case they make him the superior."


And finally, a wicked, wicked piece of Australian satire floating around the internet about the upcoming Sydney World Youth Day:

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Images of Melbourne

Downtown Melbourne at night.

The Melbourne Arts Centre.

A little bit of Paris.

Downtown Melbourne at night, along the Yarra River.

Along the Yarra the other way.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The History of the People of God in 658 Words

Sorry I haven't been online at all this week. It's been a full one! I'll write more about it soon.Over the next couple days I'm going to post a couple fun things.

Earlier this year I posted a link to a very funny, clever video for the new season of "Lost". It was called "Here's Everything You Need to Know about Lost in 8 Minutes, 15 Seconds."

Later this year, someone did something similar for the Democratic Party. Again, very funny.

I've been kicking around trying to do something like this regarding the Bible. For your entertainment, here's an early text version.

Here's Everything You Need to know about the history of the People of God in 658 Words.

God creates the universe. Also people. He tells them to be fruitful and multiply. And don’t sin.

The people sin. Later, they multiply. Then they sin some more. God has a flood and wipes them out.

God saves Noah and his family. He makes a covenant and promises not to flood the world again. Phew.

The people multiply a lot. They all live in a big city with a tall tower. God doesn’t like that. He creates foreign languages and subtitles. People leave.

God asks Abram and Sarai to leave their family and go where He will send them. He promises them land and a lot of descendants. And he changes their names.

Eventually, they have a son. Sarah dies. Abraham buys a little piece of land to bury her. Abraham dies.

Abraham’s grandson Jacob steals the blessing owed to his older brother Esau. God renews the covenant with him anyway. He's like that.

He changes Jacob’s name to Israel. Esau is not happy. He hates his name.

During a drought, Jacob’s descendants move to Egypt. At first, they live like kings. Later, they are the kings’ slaves. Bummer.

God rescues the people from Egypt, and makes a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. If they will be faithful to him, he will be their God. Plus, they’ll get a land of their own, and commandments on tablets. They think this deal is sweet.

The people say yes. Then they’re unfaithful. Moses has a fit. God decides they’ll have to wait until everyone in that generation has died before they can enter the Promised Land of Canaan. 40 years of eating manna in the desert. This deal is not sweet.

40 years later, at the entrance of Canaan, Moses reminds the people of everything God has done for them. He tells them they better remember all this, or they will become unfaithful and things will go badly. Then he dies.

The people invade Canaan, conquer its tribes and make it their own. Then they forget everything God has done for them, become unfaithful and things go badly.

Later they remember and ask forgiveness. Things get better. Later, they forget again.

Eventually, the people ask for a king, because all the other kingdoms have one. Samuel tells them to trust God, having a king will just cause trouble. They say he is like totally out of touch and doesn’t understand them.

God names Saul king. Saul causes trouble.

God replaces Saul with David. David loves God, defeats the Philistines and expands the empire. Later, he commits adultery and has his lover's husband assassinated. Whoa.

Otherwise he is Israel’s greatest king. He rules 40 years.

David’s son Solomon reigns 40 years. He builds the Temple and a palace. Later, he worships foreign gods. God is not happy. When Solomon dies, God splits Israel into the Northern Kingdom (Samaria) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah).

The kings of the Northern Kingdom worship foreign gods. God takes off. The north is overrun by Assyria, its land annexed and its people exiled. The prophets call the invaders God’s instruments.

The Southern kings are more faithful. Their kingdom lasts longer. Later, they are unfaithful. Babylonia overruns them. Many of the people are exiled. The Temple is destroyed.

The Jews are confused. Their faith was based on having one land, one people, one temple. They decide one out of three is pretty bad. The prophets say it’s their own fault. They repent.

Persia conquers Babylon. Its king Cyrus allows the Israelites to go home and rebuild the Temple. The Israelites like him.

Later, the Romans take over. The Israelites revolt. They win. Then they lose.

Jesus is born. He heals people, has dinner with sinners and says the Kingdom of God has begun. Jewish authorities disagree. They have him killed.

Three days later, he rises from the dead. His followers start a new sect of Judaism based on his teaching. Eventually, it’s called Christianity.

More Thoughts on Obedience

While obedience is often understood as blind submission, my current vow guru, Howard Gray, argues that just doing whatever you're told, with no input or comment, is not Jesuit obedience. “If obedience is simply me waiting to be told what to do, then that creates a whole subcharacter of passivity, inertia, irresponsibility. In the Society every obedience involves consultation, representation, prayer, a slowing down of the process so that we can feel that God is in it."

The reality is, oftentimes missionings happen out of sudden events, and slowing the process down can be tough. But that instinct really speaks to the underlying Jesuit understanding, that what we're doing here in obedience is primarily to "suss out", as the Aussies say, the will of God, by trying to read the signs and heed what the Spirit seems to be saying.

Gray has another very provocative comment on the vow: "What obedience is in terms of its potential as an apostolic dynamism is saying that I’ve enlarged the options and therefore the apostolic imagination of my performance so that it is never limited only by my experience but open to the wider, richer experience of the Church, of my superiors, and of the people we are trying to serve.”

That's a mouthful, but the point is twofold: 1) this vow, like all the others, is for mission. 2) Obedience relates to everyone involved in the conversation. It's not just the missioned man who wants to be obedient, but the superior, to God's beckonings. That idea that the process is one of "enlarging the options" and our imaginations as to what is possible (rather than pinning them down) is quite innovative...great, challenging stuff.

It also strikes me, this way of framing the vow brings us all into the same boat. It's not just Jesuits who are trying to be obedient in this sense of seeking out and following the will of God, but all of us, yes?

Now if it were only easy!

Speaking of obedience, today I want to also honor my first encounter with obedience:

My Mom, last November, in New York. I call it "After the Third Martini".

Rusty McDermott -- she's having a birthday tomorrow. 47 (again). Happy Birthday, Mom! I love you!

And for her birthday, this very funny video about some of the more problematic positions of the Republican party. I'm sure Democrats can and will be equally mocked in the coming months (yes, they will!), but for a life-long Democrat like my mom, this will bring great laughs. (I personally love the lady in the supermarket, and the boy who wants to go to Iran.)

Again, Happy Birthday, Mom!


While chastity always generates a lot of conversation and questions, obedience does much the same. Being told what to do, the threat of being pulled from something you want to do to do something you don't -- these aren't concepts many people immediately appreciate. They're not exactly how things usually work, either, but they are what often comes to mind first.

I wouldn't want to claim to be an expert on obedience by any means. Far from it, God knows. But as we were talking about the topic a few weeks ago, it hit me that I've had some limited experience of what might be the big three of obedience -- being sent somewhere you didn't want to go; being sent somewhere you did want to go; and having an assignment change based on your comments. And in each case, things worked out for the best.

After my first two years in the Jesuits, I was sent to Loyola Chicago for philosophy. And, much to my chagrin today, I had no interest in living in Chicago. We never went into the city much as kids, and although my parents were both from there, my impressions were that it was a pretty dingy, dirty place. Plus, I had the whole country in front of me, and they wanted to send me into my own backyard.

But thank God they did. The program at Loyola was excellent, just excellent. The Jesuit communities I lived in were rich and loving. Some of my best Jesuit friends and heroes today are people I met there.

Ron Gonzales, SJ and I: We lived across the hall from each other at Lewis-Bremner Jesuit Community in Chicago. Yeah. 

For regency, my teaching experience after Loyola, I was to go either to Red Cloud or Creighton Prep in Omaha. I had worked at Red Cloud once already, wanted to go back, and was eventually sent back. There, too, I had an amazing experience, met some awesome, awesome friends.

Sr. Connie Schmidt, SSND, wondering when this picture will be over.

Red Cloud seniors Heather Sierra, Danielle Deon, Alicia Mousseau, Francine Parmenter and Christy Bear Robe, about a week before their graduation, looking happy and tuff.

But even so, through the process of decision making my formation director used as were deciding on that assignment, by the time I was told, I really was open to going to either place.

For theology I asked to go back to Cambridge, and the province sent me there. That, too, proved to be a marvelous gift, some of the best years of my life in school and Jesuit community.

My diaconate ordination class. I love this group of guys. Getting ordained together that day was a special moment.

The June 17th, 2006 wedding of Weston graduates Emily Rauer and Andrew Davis. (Happy Anniversary, guys!) Emily and I were classmates at Weston, and many of the people in the photo were our classmates, too. We have a GREAT class.

In other situations, I've been heard in the decision making process and the decisions have changed as a result. And there again, all I can say is, thank goodness.

Has it all been easy? No. Definitely not, either for me or others. Especially in the year of ordination, many guys I know have gone through very difficult times with their superiors, missionings that involved little or no consultation, bizarre or impersonal conversations (like the guy whose provincial decided to have an important missioning conversation while they were standing around in the presence of others), or that were done via email.

But so what. Superiors make mistakes. So do we. It's not fun when it happens. Hopefully, you speak your mind as honestly as you can and get through it. Because for us, that's not "talking back". Jesuit obedience and mission ideally involve "manifestation", that is, both the superior and the man being missioned articulating their desires and spiritual movements. It's not just a letter on a bulletin board that tells you your new assignment, which is how things used to go.

Sometimes you still end up doing something you don't want to. And sometimes that works out anyway.

A few scattered thoughts...

Let Me Sing For You

When I was working at Red Cloud, one of the volunteers was a tall, lanky Virginian with a quick wit and an incredible dedication to his students and the Lakota people. Tim McLaughlin taught English in the middle school; he was also a great basketball coach and a writer.

After three years volunteering, Tim went out to New Mexico and began to teach at a Native American school there. He also got a Master's degree. And in there somewhere, he began to work with students on poetry slams -- long form original poetry presented in public competitions.

He and his students have been doing this for some time now, and just recently they were written up in the New York Times. Along with the article, the Times provides recordings of three of the students' performances. I want to recommend them to you, in part because I'm just so proud of Tim and all he's done. Like his peers from the volunteer program at Red Cloud, Tim reminds me of what generosity and openness can really look like, and what can be accomplished at their service. Pilamayo, Tim! Pilamayo!

I also have to give a shout out to my brother Scott in this regard. Scott has spent the last fifteen years coaching state championship quality speech teams at Glenbrook South High School in the suburbs of Chicago. He's actually at the national tournament with one of his students right now.

People bemoan the quality of education today, and of course there are reasons for concern. But you meet teachers like Tim or Scott or my aunt Eileen and cousin Mike, my friend Tim Moran, and you see that in the midst of all the clouds there's a lot of hope and possibility, too.

I'll be traveling to Melbourne to begin my second experiment tomorrow. I'll be working with young people at a drop in center. We'll have to see how often I can post. But I'm going to try and post some tomorrow before I go.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day

My dad become a father almost 40 years ago now, just one month after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. And it just so happens, one of my dad's favorite bands has just put out a music video about the moon walk. Hope you enjoy it, Dad! Happy Father's Day! You are wunderbar!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Chastity, Open and Shut

So, just in time for the weekend, here's one more take on chastity.

The vow of chastity is often talked about in terms of something you keep or protect. Something precious that you have to guard.

That's not unreasonable -- we human beings, we have plenty of passion roiling around inside, after all. We can be tempted to do some really stupid, messed up things. We need to have self-control and good boundaries.

But if my sense of chastity is fundamentally self-protection, well then, my focus is primarily on me and it, and not on the world that Jesus ventured out into and loved. In this view the world poses at least a potential threat.

I try to think of things instead sort of inside out. I'm called into the world to live and love as radically as Jesus did. And he didn't back off or run away because there were also temptations or risks. There's no story where Jesus says, "I'm sorry, I can't minister to her, because I find her attractive" or "I'd like to be friends with him, but he seems pretty damaged...this relationship might be painful for me later so I think I'll just go chill with the disciples." He spent time with the people he came in contact with, and so be it if it wasn't easy or was even dangerous.

Chastity, seen from this perspective, is not primarily about self-protection but vulnerability. Chastity means being vulnerable enough to love (in) a broken and lovely and unpredictable world, to be open to the possibility (indeed the reality) of being scared or hurt at times (or regularly), to be in ongoing contact with both the grandeur, absurdity and messiness of life (one's own and others).

The first question for me to ask as a chaste person isn't whether I'm insulated enough -- in fact, insulation, life lived at arm's length from others, is more likely the opposite of what chastity is about.

No, the first question is rather, how vulnerable am I allowing myself to be to the loves and struggles of human life?

That's not to say I live this very well. Or that everyone would agree with it. Just a couple thoughts that have been rambling around inside my head.

Have a good weekend.

PS The monkey: that's for my parents. They just got back from a cruise to Gibraltar. Apparently the place is crawling with these monkeys. So much so, in fact, that my mom said they were warned to be careful about their keys, their purses, even wearing bright jewelry. The monkeys will come right up and take them. (Good times.)

Anyway, I just thought she and my dad might be missing them, so a little something for them. An early Father's Day/Mom's birthday gift.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Musical Interlude

No time for much blogging today, but here's a fun link.

The play Xanadu -- which yes, is that movie with Olivia Newton-John from the 1980s, but redone as a campy musical comedy, and yes, is the play to which my mother and nine of her high school friends not only went, but got seats literally in the middle of the stage (and yes, is that play, out of all the plays we could have seen, which I dragged my friend Emily to when she came from out of town to see a Broadway show, because it was the one I hadn't seen, at the beginning of which, when we saw the cast dressed up like Greek gods and zipping around on roller skates, we were both so horrified at the dough we had shelled out for what looked like a Greek roller derby that we sat there totally still, trying not to convey how completely disappointed we were (though it turned out to be pretty darn good) -- is trying to win the Best Musical Tony this year.

As part of the effort, they're putting out these crazy videos about a ten year old boy named Cubby Bernstein who is responsible for all the great Tony successes of the last 40 years. If you like the video above, there are a whole bunch of others there (at Youtube), too. Apparently, the whole thing has been immensely popular online. Enjoy.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


In Part VI of the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius writes a long chapter on the vow of poverty. He writes a shorter chapter on obedience.

Chastity gets one sentence.
What pertains to the vow of chastity requires no interpretation, since it is evident how perfectly it should be preserved, by endeavoring to imitate therein the purity of the angels in cleanness of body and mind.
That's it. Many have commented on Ignatius's reticence here; probably it was a combination of discretion and confidence that the matter of this vow, unlike the others, was quite clear.

However, I have to say, I like to think it also shows a bit of that oh-my-God-this-is-so-not-a-subject-for-conversation, don't-you-talk-about-this-stuff-with-your-friends, squirmy, beads-of-sweat-on-the-forehead discomfort that dads feel today when it's time to give their sons "the talk". Except that Ignatius could not say, "Could you please go ask your mother?"

One of the most interesting interpretations I've heard of the vow in recent years comes again from Howard Gray, SJ, who takes what little Ignatius says about the chastity of the angels and runs with it. Says Gray:
Angels are messengers; they give a message that is unambiguous, that is good news for the hearer, or a challenge to the hearer. It is God’s intervention. Our chastity is really a liberation to be the kind of messenger in which people can see God working.
All the vows are meant to make us more able to serve others. So, he goes on, "Chastity is the empowerment to give people a love they can trust." In a world where trust is often compromised by the needs and desires of others, he says, “what an apostolic gift it is” to be someone who “just wants the good of the other person." For the one who takes the vow of chastity, “Everyone has a claim, whether I find them attractive or not.”

So, a messenger of good news; a love that people can trust; and a love without motive of gain -- aren't they some wonderfully high bars?

I'll be back with some ideas of my own tomorrow, but I encourage any of you reading to make comments or ask questions of your own. Chastity is the least understood of the three vows, and often people's thinking either idealizes us as not subject to the same human feelings everyone else has or considers a chaste life unhealthy, if not dangerous.

What do you think? As the prophet Dr. Ruth Westheimer used to say, "Let's talk!" (And don't worry, you won't offend.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Twinkle Itsy Star

June 8th was the third birthday of my niece Meggan Kathleen Pontow (below). I understand that everything was pink and that she received many clothes. When I called she sang me Happy Birthday, and also a sort of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star/Itsy Bitsy Spider medley (also below). Sounds like she had a great day. Happy Birthday, Meggan! I miss you!

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
The Meggan Pontow Remix

Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder where you are
Up above the world so high
Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder where you are.
Like a diamond in the sky
Itsy bitsy spider went up the water
Down came the rain and washed the spider out
Up came the sun and dried the rain
And the itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout.
Down came the rain and washed the spider out
Up came the sun and the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout.

I had quite a conversation with Meggan's brother Jack, too.
What are you doing? he asked.
I'm just getting up.
(In the background, his mother tells him, Uncle Jim's far away. The time is different there.)
Where are you? he asked.
I'm in Australia.
I'm studying here.
He paused.
Are you a grown up?
Um...Not really, but, Ok, I can play along.
Uh, sure, yes, I'm a grown up.
Then why do still go to school?
You're supposed to go to work!

So that's what I've got to say about chastity.

Just kidding. Chastity tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Meggan!!!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Snickers Satisfies You. (No, Really, It Does. Just Eat a Lot of It.)

Our conversation this week about poverty has me thinking about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If you haven't read it as an adult, go get it right now! In fact, treat yourself and buy the whole set of seven Chronicles of Narnia (author C.S. Lewis) -- you won't be disappointed.

The premise in Wardrobe, as you may remember, is that these four British kids venture into a wardrobe and find themselves somehow transported to a magical realm of talking animals and other beasties suffering an eternal winter at the hands of a White Witch and awaiting the coming of a great lion called Aslan.

But the kids don't all make it into the land together right away. First, the littlest girl, Lucy finds her way in and encounters a wonderfully friendly fawn who takes her home, feeds her and then sends her away at great risk to himself. When she goes home, however, no one believes her.

Later, her brother Edmund also makes it in. But Edmund doesn't meet the fawn Mr. Tumnus (which I think would be a great name for this cat):

Instead, Edmund encounters the witch. And she gives him Turkish Delight, a very sweet British candy which he just can't get enough. In fact, he gets so wrapped up in that candy that he's willing to do whatever the witch wants, including betraying his siblings, to get more of it.

Now from a modern perspective, we might look at Edmund's struggle as a sort of parable of addiction. But for Lewis it's about the more fundamental struggle human beings have with consumption. We're not easily satisfied. In fact, sometimes give yourself a little treat, like one little piece of chocolate, and you end up devouring, HAVING TO HAVE the whole bar, and then some. Even though -- isn't this true? -- that second helping never tastes as good.

Turkish Delight : that innate demand for MORE -- more food, more stuff, more whatever -- and the harm which that insistence, unchecked, can cause -- a great image for considering our own sins regarding simplicity life...

It reminds of this growing up story: One October when I went shopping for my dad's birthday, I came back with a Star Wars paperback novel.

Now, my dad had never expressed any interest in Star Wars novels. In fact, the only person really into Star Wars was...well, wouldn't you know, it was me!

So, I give him the gift, and he plays it cool -- "Oh, thanks Jim. Nice." But later my mom, who had seen me do this before (and then always so conveniently borrow the gift soon after), had it out with me. A birthday gift is meant to be something HE wants, not something you want, she told me. What's your dad gonna do with a Star Wars book?

And looking back, the funny thing was, I didn't even consciously know I was doing that, until she said it. All I knew was, I wanted more!

Final note: After the film version of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came out last year, Turkish Delight sales actually went up. There, in a nutshell, our human condition.

Are you sure you wouldn't like just one piece?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Living Simply -- Simple?

Bondi Beach, Dusk.

I don't know if everybody has had a chance to check out the comments from yesterday's post, but two of my friends from Red Cloud had some really interesting things to say about trying to live a simple life. A couple snippets:

I feel like I'm always struggling with the challenge of simple living.... It's the sheer volume of things entering our lives, especially baby clothes (attic has 15 boxes and counting -- she's not even 2 yet) and toys.

Incidentally...I've been spending a LOT of time recently getting rid of things, finding that throwing things out and giving them away takes up way more time than I thought. This is why I get anxious when an unwanted or unnecessary thing finds it's way in the door. It's a time-suck to get rid of it....

Everything seems to cost either time or money: which do I spend in each situation in order to allow me to focus on people above all else in my life?

I am further challenged by our recent relocation to CA where the attitude, in general, towards “things” seems a bit different from my midwestern roots. Or perhaps the attitude is the same and the things just have more bling! But I can’t get over all the expensive homes and fancy cars and I don’t understand how people afford them---much less what is wrong with owning a Chevy vs. a Mercedes. I am always wondering how the cashier at the grocery store makes ends meet. But never the less, you can feel yourself getting caught up in the madness.

Perhaps it is not really about possessing the things, maybe the things are just a symptom of the problem. Poverty of spirit. I am a worrier and so it occurred to me today that perhaps my time spent worrying about finances is really a result of desolation... Not making the time to focus on God and let those worries go, even if just for a while.

...I guess what I really meant to say about poverty of spirit is that I think that I am only going half-way with simplicity. I try to minimize the material stuff but I am not sure that I am elevating my fellow human or God for that matter. Make sense?

I had to laugh when I read Jill's comments. Recently here one of the tertians was noticing they've been in Australia four months with hardly any possessions, and they haven't really missed anything. "It just goes to show how little of my stuff I actually need," he said.

I felt exactly the same way. And it made me think about all the stuff I should get rid of when I return to New York. I've begun having these wonderfully cathartic fantasies emerged of me piling clothes and books into garbage bags and sending them away.

But I've done this many times before, usually before or after a move, and boy oh boy does it end up taking TIME. Because after that initial head of steam, every item (really, EVERY one) ends up getting "considered" -- will I ever use this? Am I sure I want to get rid of it? And at that point, I might as well quit because I can take hours on it and end up with a pile of about seven books I'm going to get rid of. (Four of which I will later claim from the common room again.) Really, I've begun to think the only thing that might work for me is to just race into the room like it's on fire and somewhat indiscriminately drag out as much as I can before the "fumes" knock me out.

Or maybe we just gotta accept having really full attics and closets. Because, I'm with Jill, if you're going to be in the world with people and everything else, at some point the time you invest on getting rid of stuff comes at too high a cost.

I love Katie's point, too, about stepping back from our worries and self-expectations and trying to connect with God. I personally think some of our harshest expectations come not from God but from beliefs we have of what God wants. It's helpful to stop at some point and ask God, Ok, this is what I think. But what do you think?

Or even just to stop the theorizing altogether and tell God, Take me to a coffee shop! I need a mochaccino, stat!

Former Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe, at Prayer.

Thanks to Jill and Katie for breaking open the conversation so well. Great to be reflecting on these things together.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Poor You?

While poverty may be the vow of a religious priest or nun, underlying virtues like simplicity of life or the attempt to release attachments to material things are values offered to all in the Gospels. But how do they apply to those with other responsibilities, like having a family? Do they really?

After posting yesterday about poverty, one of my friends wrote me about this very issue. It's easy for me to say, live simply. But as a married person with children, she has to be able to put food on the table and clothes on the kids' backs.

I wonder how others, religious or otherwise, think about the invitation to simplicity (or the vow of poverty) in their own lives. Inspired by my friend's email, I figured out how to make the comment feature on the blog work again, so I invite you, if you're interested, to post your own musings about these things.

To post a comment: at the bottom of this entry, you'll see a line indicating how many comments have been made. Click on that and you will be able to read others and leave one of your own.

I'll be back tomorrow with a little more on this. (We can save chastity until next week...)


Sydney at night from St. Ignatius College, Riverview

Poor Me?

When people ask me what we do in tertianship, I often say we take classes in Jesuit history or documents. And people nod, say "Ok, great," but I can see them asking themselves, uh, didn't he already study that? And of course, the answer is usually, yes we did.

Or the whole idea of taking classes means absolutely nothing to them, at this point, their eyes simply glaze over and they give me a "uh-huh, yeah, right, hmm, nice."

Lest you think, given all my photos of exotic places, that that answer was a cop out, this week I thought I'd share some of the insights we've been batting around about our Jesuit vows.

Today: Poverty

The most common Jesuit story about poverty involves some real-life variation of the old saw, a Jesuit invites a colleague into the community for dinner. The guest has a great meal of steak, potato, veggie for dinner, with a smooth glass of Scotch beforehand and an even smoother slice of lemon meringue pie after.

And as they're leaving the Jesuit asks them, well, what did you think?

And the colleague responds, "Hey, if this is poverty, bring on chastity!"

In the States, anyway, we're often asked about our poverty. And as Jesuits those questions are a gift, as they keep us from getting too comfortable.

But the question remains -- what is it to be poor in the Society of Jesus today?

Howard Gray, a Jesuit of the Detroit Province who has done a lot of work on the vows, says that our poverty rests on this basic insight: people are more important than things.

To put it another way, what we have to give, more than anything else, is our time. Being poor means allowing our time to be committed beyond our own desires to the random and the unexpected, without the condition that it fit into my schedule. It may not be what I had planned, but so be it. Didn't someone say life is what happens while you're doing something else?

Our vows are apostolic. They're meant to help us be better servants of Christ's people.

For those who are saying, yeah, but what about owning the newest fancy iPod, here's one other insight from another tertian: the problem with us having nice stuff is, we begin to worry about those things. We make commitments to them that become distractions -- I'm more worried about caring for my iPod than the bloke in front of me.

His solution, and I think it's a good one, is to avoid having nice stuff. But you could also say, poverty doesn't necessarily mean not having a nice shirt or a good pair of shoes. But it certainly means letting go of the worry about it.

And if that seems too vague, how about this: do you have any clothes that you love so much that you're uncomfortable wearing them very much, because you might stain them? Or things you wouldn't lend to others because they might be broken?

Being poor means ignoring those anxieties and loaning those things out, or just wearing them, for God's sake. Don't make them more important than those around you, or than life.

And still, maybe I'm avoiding an important sort of poverty. In the Society, we have so many opportunities for good things. But maybe it's possible that if I consider any particular of the good things that I receive, I might find that I have more than I really need?

Monday, June 2, 2008

America the Beautiful

Found out today that America Magazine just whole a bunch of awards from the Catholic Press Association, including a first place for General (i.e. all-around) Excellence and another first place for its website. If you haven't been to see it yet, take a look. My favorite parts of the website: the amazing slide shows, and the blogs they do for Scripture (The Good Word) and current events (In All Things). Some great stuff!

Here's a poem to combat manic Mondays:
Deep autumn:
My neighbor, how does he live?
I wonder

(Translated by Robert Hass)