Thursday, June 23, 2011

See You Real Soon (Again)

I'm off this weekend to begin my 8 day silent retreat; I'll be back after the 4th with God knows what to share.

But before I go, I heard a great parish story tonight, which supposedly is true.

A guy's sitting next to another guy at a Mass.  During the homily, the second guy falls asleep -- and the presider sees!

So the presider stops and tells the first guy, hey, wake him up!

And the guy responds -- You put him to sleep. You wake him up.

It's probably apocryphal, but boy, doesn't it just seem right?

Have a great week.

Advice from my spiritual director on retreat. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What the Church Can Learn from Disney

So yesterday I went to Disneyland. Have you been? If you have but it's been a while, well, it's mostly just the way you remember it. Yeah, there are new rides (some amazing ones), but the bedrock is all the things you know -- Space Mountain. The Haunted Mansion. It's a Small World.  

On the surface, most of this seems aimed at kids. (I can't tell you how many times in recent years I have heard some of my nieces clamoring about wanting to go to Disney to meet the Disney princesses! Ugh!)

But I will tell you, it is a remarkable place to come as an adult, too. There's a certain easiness to being there.  Pathways are large enough and varied enough to accommodate the throngs without anyone feeling suffocated.  There are a million people in the park, and yet unlike every other amusement park I have ever been to, food kiosks and restaurants are so numerous as to not be overcrowded. And yes, there are long lines, if you want to wait, but there are also no-charge fast pass options that allow you to check in hours ahead of time for rides and then go on your merry way.

The other thing is, many of those rides kids love remain super enjoyable for adults.  A roller coaster in the dark is fun and scary whether you're 13 or 47. Pop culture rides like Indiana Jones and Star Wars are probably even more entertaining for adults who get the jokes than for kids. And many other, not so heart-pumpy amusements like the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean are so rich in detail and humor that they inspire you to just sit back and relish them.

That's what happens at Disney -- you relax, and you relish.

None of this is unintentional.  Walt Disney often said he wanted his theme parks to be places where people could come and play, without any apprehension or worry. A place you could leave your troubles behind for a time and get in touch with that playful childhood part of yourself again.  And his imagineers, as the people who design every detail of every Disney park, cruise and hotel are called, continue to embrace that vision.

I've been thinking a lot lately about organizations like Disney, Apple, Google, and what lessons they might offer the Church.  When it comes to Disney, I think it's three things:

1) Have a clear sense of what you're trying to accomplish.  If you were to ask 30 pastors or parish councils to state succinctly what they want Catholics to experience when they come to Church on Sunday, I wonder what they would say. I also wonder whether the Disney vision might be a partial way of thinking about what we want the experience of "Church" to be -- a place where we release our hold on certain things, where our brows are invited to grow unfurrowed. A place where are invited to relish.

Either way, what you see at Disney is, having a clear vision is fundamental to your visitors/parishioners having the sorts of experience you want them to have.

2) Make sure that vision is humane -- that is, that it relates to the primal spiritual/physical/emotional needs and desires of human beings, first and foremost.  I think we've probably all been to Masses or parishes that seemed relatively or completely uninterested in the parishioners in attendance.  It could be those parishes have a clear sense of what they think Mass or Church should be. But if that vision is fundamentally disconnected from those who will be in attendance, it's not adequate.  

3) Lastly, bring that vision to bear on every detail.  At Disney, every element is considered in every area, every ride, every restaurant, because it's understood that one's experience comes from the combination of all of those elements, not just from a few. What makes the Golden Horseshoe Saloon a must see attraction is not just the fun stage show, it's that they also have fantastic root beer floats to drink there. And the place is clean.  And the lines aren't long.

So, thinking about our Masses -- it's not just the homily we need to think about, or the architecture of the Church -- it's the sorts of welcome ushers offer as parishioners arrive; the statues and stained glass of the church; the precise formulation of the petitions; the vestments of the liturgical ministers; the design of the pews; the style of the missals and music books.

One example: if we understand the liturgy as an opportunity for people to have an experience of God, and we see that as happening in part through relishment, that is through the engaging of the senses, then the vestments the presider wears are really important. I can't tell you how many dirty or faded albs and chasubles I've worn because that's what the parish has on hand.  And you say to yourself, well, I'm some distance away, they'll never really notice anyway.  And maybe that's true. (Probably it's not.) But even so, it's a missed opportunity. A rich, colorful vestment is one more means of engaging the parishioner, of triggering that primal hunger to savor and also to celebrate.

I admit, it all sounds a bit much.  But when you visit Disney, and you see just how much peace and joy a million tiny details can together accomplish, their wisdom rings loud and clear.  If we want a taste of the truly magic kingdom (and we do), we have to work at it!

How I Spent My Tuesday

Come back tomorrow for some thoughts about Disney, and what the Church might learn from them...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fear Itself

Middle Class Blues
He has everything.
A beautiful young wife.
A comfortable home.
A secure job.
A velvet three-piece suite.
A metallic-silver car.
A mahogany cocktail cabinet.
A rugby trophy.
A remote-controlled music centre.
A set of gold clubs under the hallstand.
A fair-haired daughter learning to walk.

What he is afraid of most
and what keeps him tossing some nights
on the electric underblanket,
listening to the antique clock
clicking with disapproval from the landing,
are the stories that begin:
He had everything.
A beautiful young wife.
A comfortable home.
A secure job. 
Then one day.
Dennis O'Driscoll
I love this poem for its paradox.  We all equate comfort and security with having certain things. And yet, the more we have, the more we have to lose.

What things do I possess that I'm most desperate to hold onto? In which cases is the quest to keep hold of them more work/anxiety than they're worth? 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Two-Fer Wednesday! A poem by Billy Collins

Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House
The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

Billy Collins

And Now For Something Semi-Completely Different

Monday we were talking about the Old Testament.... Do you know, when Noah was loading the Ark, where did he put the bees?

A: In the arc-hives. Where else would you put them?

Speaking of Noah, did you know he was the greatest financier in the entire Bible? It's true. He floated his stock while everyone else was in liquidation.

Do you know who his female counterpart was, the greatest female financier in the Bible? It's Pharaoh's daughter, actually. You'll remember, she went down to the bank of the Nile and picked up a little prophet? [Oh stop groaning, you know you love it.]

Speaking of Pharaoh, have you ever wondered why he didn't let the Israelites go sooner? I mean, 10 plagues, Pharaoh? Really?  But the truth was, he was in de-Nile.

I mentioned Monday about Sarah's laughter... do you know the greatest comedian in the Bible? It wasn't her, it wasn't Jacob (though he did like to tell some tall tales). No, it's Samson. That kid, when he got going, he just brought the house down. [Insert rimshot.]

The apostles' favorite car manufacturer? Honda, clearly After the resurrection, they were all in on accord.

Greatest babysitter in the Bible? David.  I mean, come on, he rocked Goliath to sleep, didn't he?

First tennis match in the Bible? Joseph serving in Pharaoh's court. (He actually lost that set 4-6, but won the match, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1, 5-7, 7-5.)

Most flagrant law breaker? Moses, hands down. Up on Mt. Sinai, he broke all 10 commandments at once. And yo, that ain't easy.

Thanks very much! I'll be here all week! Be sure to tip your waiters!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bible Camp

I was talking to niece The Amazing Molly yesterday -- yes, that's her name, though sometimes she just goes by Amazing; why? She mentioned that she's going to bible camp next week.

About an hour later,  I was able to finally soothe the hives that spontaneously erupted all over my body at the words "bible camp".  Who ever thought putting those concepts together was a good idea? "Hey, you know how kids love to run around and stuff and learn skills? Well, what if we had a week where instead of that we talked about God, but we still called it camp. Wouldn't that be cool!"

Seriously, religious organization youth group people, the whole thing's false advertising. And if anyone should be trying not to be false in their advertising, it's you (and by you I guess I  also mean me).

We never went to "bible camp" growing up, but there was one at a Christian church of some denomination a block over from our house.  I remember passing by that place many times and breathing a sigh of relief that my Church did not require that I be locked in a church basement during the summer for two full weeks of further religious indoctrination. (I wasn't much of a fan of CCD, either. Frankly I was a real treat to bring to church at all.)

Ironically, today if I wasn't doing what I am doing today, I'd probably be teaching Scripture.  And while I can't say that the idea of making kids go to bible camp sounds terribly more attractive -- or any camp for that matter, really; it's all a little too Lord of the Flies, Piggy's got the conch for me -- I do have some strong wishes as to what you might do/not do at such a camp.

My Wish: Introduce kids to stories from the Old Testament as well as the New. 

My memory of religious ed is mostly that we learned Jesus is love. This is not a bad thing to learn, if at some point a little too much corn syrup sweetness for any person, including the son of God. (Seriously, I'm all for a human Jesus (SO for it), but long haired smiling handsome hippy Jesus? A little too far.)

Okay, he's not so bad -- though to me, he's still spending a little too much time on his hair. 

But this?

Just plain creepy. 

But did we ever venture into the Old Testament? Based on adult Catholics' understanding of the Old Testament, I would say most of us almost definitely did not, other than some of the showpieces of Genesis).  It's pretty much standard issue for adult Catholics today that OT=Bad, Angry God; NT=Good, Loving God.

And that's just plain tragic, not only because in my opinion that's a total mischaracterization of the OT God (a whole other column), but because it means so many good characters and stories get lost.

5 Old Testament Characters/Stories/Books I Wish Every Kid Got to Know (Plus One):
1. Abram and Sarai: A few years ago I was putting together a wedding homily, and thought I'd look to some scriptural figures for a model to live by.

How many biblical married couples can you name? Take a minute, I'll go get a latte.

Done?  I'll bet you had no more than three, and that Mary and Joseph and Abram and Sarai make up two of them. (Bonus if your third is "David and whoever he cheated on". Nice.)

It's true: the Bible has very little in the way of stories about married people. And among them, only the story of Abram and Sarai really digs into the relationship at all.

Do you know these stories? They wander around because God asks them; God keeps showing up and saying weird things about "their seed"without actually delivering on his promise of a child; at two different points the couple pretend to be brother and sister out of fear that a king would otherwise kill Abram.  (Of course, the trouble is, because they're brother and sister, the kings have no trouble chasing Sarai, and God has to get them out of it.) When God finally says he's going to give them their son, Sarah laughs at him.  And that's what Isaac means in Hebrew -- she laughs.

There she is, listening in on God and thinking, Oh come on!   

Seriously, this is the Lucy and Ricky of the ancient near east, and their stories are things we can all identify with.  Well worth a look.

2. Jonah: This will seem odd, as every kid is told about Jonah getting swallowed by a whale.  But the story is so much more than that. So much more. Jonah's this wonderfully begrudging prophet sent to a nation to tell them God's going to wipe them out, who actually gets mad when his proclamation succeeds, they repent and God saves them.  Again, such a very human character; and funny, too!

Also, it's short!

3. Bel and the Dragon: First of all, have you ever even heard of this? It's in the Apocrypha, the secondary Old Testament books.

Why give this to kids? Hello, it has a dragon.  Also, lions. And a really fun story about how Daniel proves an idol isn't a god. And again, it's short.

But most of all -- Come on, it has a DRAGON.

4. Proverbs: Totally different kind of book, mostly two line aphorisms. But great little ideas to talk about.

     "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring."

     "A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty, but a fool's provocation is heavier than both."

     "A child who loves wisdom makes a parent glad, but to keep company with prostitutes is to squander one's substance."

Okay, so we'll have to pick and choose and/or "creatively edit". Proverbs isn't exactly a book you read straight through anyway. You get the picture.

5. Job: Yeah, I know, Job's a little intense for 3rd graders. (For a companion film, I suggest Sophie's Choice.)

Also, the book is crazy long -- did you know that? We all know the beginning -- bad things happen, and the end -- Job asks why, and God says I am a mystery. But in between there's about 2 dozen chapters of toing and froing between Job and three "friends" who churn out all sorts of reasons why Job is suffering.  Ah yes, those oh so familiar golden chestnuts like "you must have done something wrong".

But that's exactly why I would love to see kids read some fuller form of the story. Because you don't have to be old to have the experience of having bad things happen. In fact, although some of the struggles kids go through can seem somewhat insignificant in the big picture, I'd say they end up feeling some of these things much more radically than we adults would because they don't really have the defenses yet.  Having the kid you like push you in front of the class really does have a certain dark night of the soul quality when you're 7. And there's really no answer to it, no satisfying explanation as to why it happened.  You just sort of grit your teeth and wait for it to pass.

All that's worth talking about.  And Job's a great way in.

This isn't exactly about getting picked on or other childhood trauma, 
but my many redheaded family members will find it amusing.  

Plus One:  Catholics do not read the Bible.  They just don't. I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe it seems like work? Or it's daunting, what with all the books and strange references? Or was it something I said?

But it's really too bad, because there's so much lovely material in there waiting for us if we're willing to venture forth -- psalms that capture the cries of our own hearts; little tales of family and faith, heroism and self-sacrifice; weird and wonderful moments like the bird who poops on Tobit and makes him go blind, or the amorous chase of the Song of Songs. 

And when we do get scripture, both as kids and as adults, it's these little passages and stories that someone else chooses.  Maybe one way to turn the Bible from chore/encyclopedia -- do we still have encyclopedias? -- into an adventure is to let kids have the opportunity to read around, choose for themselves from among a much wider range of stories or books, and see what they find interesting.  Let them find their own favorites.  

I don't know what will come of the Amazing Molly's week at bible camp.  She actually seems much more into it than I ever would have been. But I'm crossing my fingers at this camp, some of the new friends she might make are to be found in our holy books. 

And also, that she might not be made to look like she's in a work release program.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Travel On

One of the immediate blessings of being done with the school year is that I have a little more leisure to read things that have been piling up. And also to dream about doing a little traveling. 

And in a nice piece of synchronicity, yesterday I had the luck to read a one page piece about travel by Ben Birnbaum. Do you Ben Birnbaum? I bet you don't. He's the editor in chief of Boston College Magazine, and an extremely talented writer in his own right. It's extremely difficult to write both well and briefly at the same time, and each month somehow he does that in his front cover column. More than once I have outlined his articles to try and learn how to be a better columnist. He's really really good.

So this month, intuiting all of our own dreams of summer travels, he wrote his column about the origins of travel in religious pilgrimages. And his piece had so many little "wow, I never thought about that" moments, I wanted to share it with you.

Here's the link.  I've also posted the article below. (Frankly, I think it's a little easier to read on my page than theirs.)

As they say in Australia, travel well.  See you next week.

Pilgrim’s Progress
by Ben Birnbaum

According to some of our oldest stories, meaningful travel—the kind that’s undertaken for more than the merely practical need to track down a deer or an enemy or a valley not threatened by a glacier—was initially fostered by the gods. Shamash, the Bronze Age sun deity of Mesopotamia, seems to have been first off the mark, using dreams to guide Gilgamesh in his search for eternal life, a journey that ultimately concluded with Gilgamesh’s discovery that immortality was just not available to him, though meaningful work was. Shortly thereafter and to the west, a passel of gods alternately aided and tormented Odysseus with their instructions during a long but ultimately successful journey to home. And the Bible is, of course, replete with God-directed journeys, beginning with Adam and Eve scurrying out the gates of Eden, then Noah’s voyage, and passing on to Abram (he was not yet “Abraham”) and Sarai (not yet “Sarah”), who gathered “all their substance” and obeyed God’s unambiguous “Get thee out of thy country . . . unto the land which I shall show thee.” And that doesn’t get us a third of the way through Genesis.

Several thousand years after these excursions were first scored in tablets or inked on parchment, during the Middle Ages, business- and God-ordained travel (pilgrimage, to give the latter its proper Christian name) remained pretty much the only categories of expedition known to human beings. Of course, functions of travel taken for granted by us moderns, such as repose or adventure, could hardly have made sense to men and women with no greater ability to conceive of leisure than of particle colliders, and who could hardly have wished for more “adventure” than that already provided by unpredictable weather, children’s fevers, and errant knife blades. In any case, it would have been impossible to associate pleasure of any kind with treks through territories replete with bandits, plagues, wolves, pestiferous inns, and wandering armies of uncertain loyalty and meager discipline (medieval Europe, in short).

Traders and diplomats (who made up most of the commercial traffic) were typically moneyed and experienced enough to surround themselves with personal security details, frequently and shrewdly hired from the local soldiery or banditry, depending on which happened to be more reliable. For religious pilgrims, many of whom entered into their excursions naked to hardships and dangers that ultimately included martyrdom, the privations were made endurable, or even welcome, by the understanding that they could be exchanged for forgiveness of sins and heaven’s favor. And the martyrologies of the time do indeed present stories of men and women who deliberately placed themselves (and companions and even minor charges) in mortal danger, with the hope—soon enough realized, according to these records—that their deaths would prove uplifting when entered as evidence of hurt endured for the glory of God.

As Europe became a somewhat more settled place in the High Middle Ages, the number of men and women who took to the pilgrim trail increased, and destination churches—thousands of shrines by this time strung out across Europe and West Asia, Canterbury to Bethlehem—responded by entering into competition for the business, disseminating guidebooks, sending out postings about the latest additions to their relic collections, the newest saints associated with their sites, and the cures that could be attributed to the touch of their tombs or a sip of their very own holy water (conveniently available in lead bottles for safe transport home). This business and its associated cash flow became terribly important to participating shrines, including Westminster Abbey, a big player that claimed to hold both Jacob’s pillow and Christ’s footprints, and that in 1244 acquired a vial said to contain the Lord’s blood. This moved a practical English bishop not to piety but to announce that as the “true cross” segment recently acquired by France drew its holiness only from the fact that it had been touched by Jesus’s blood, England “rejoices in a greater treasure.”

And inevitably, dutiful seekers—some of whom sold every stick they owned so as to afford their religious quests—responded to this marketplace of holiness by seeking market value in their pilgrim progressions, carefully and pridefully recording in their journals the miles traveled, the number and quality of relics venerated, discomforts bravely endured, lists of questions to ask oneself on entering a new city, useful foreign phrases and travel habits (always carry a chamber pot when climbing a hill), and of course descriptions of marvels, from funeral processions to circumcisions. “Curiositas” replaced “pietas” as the pilgrim’s central yearning (after business), and it’s been that way since.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

See The World

I want to thank everyone who posted last week for their comments about desolation.  One of the other things that Ignatius talks about is how evil spirits want to keep us from sharing our hardships.  Things that aren't said out loud aren't shared, and as a result they have room to grow completely out of proportion and perspective.  For me, anyway, it's always a blessing to hear the experiences of others.

I've just finished my first year of screenwriting school at UCLA.  Last night (at 2am!) I turned in my final script and collapsed into a heap of sheets and strewn clothes.

Seriously, I was this guy, just with more drool.

It's been such an interesting experience, this first year, especially this last quarter.  Over the next couple weeks I hope you'll humor me as I think out loud about some of it.  (And hopefully give poor old Matthew a little attention, too. Whatever happened to him??)

So much of what I probably have to stay is about trust.  The last five weeks or so, if you asked the guys I live with, what's McDermott up to, they'd probably tell you, has he been away? Because I have pretty much lived in my room. Get up, start typing.  Eventually, move around a bit.  Keep typing.  Eventually, clean up a bit.  Go to school.  Come home. Either type or collapse.

And that's certainly a strategy for being a writer. Sometimes it's all you can do. Because writing is sort of like getting on a freeway without having any idea of the traffic ahead. You can have the clearest map, smartest directions -- but if there's an obstacle three miles up, you just have to wait it out.

The danger is -- at least, I think it's a danger -- you can let the possibility of obstacle mean you give nothing else room.  I don't know how long this is going to take, so I'm going to block out all the time in the world for it.

It sounds responsible -- hugely responsible. And yet, if you're not exercising, if you're not praying, if you're not eating right, having human contact...well, maybe it's not the good spirit after all.  (Ya think?)

Something I learned working at America Magazine in New York was that sometimes if you take a break you can get so much more done than you would have if you just continued plugging away.  But that's completely counterintuitive, and consequently easily dismissed.  Even after having seen it work, it's so easy to ignore it.

But my spiritual director said it to me again not look ago, and I share his thought with you: taking two or three minutes here and there to savor reality, to see the world around you, can completely change your life.

That's my goal for the next few days -- lay around and let the world in. And it seems like God is trying to help me get there. Today I went to a seminar only to find out when I got there that they didn't me have on their lists, and as a result I couldn't get in.  And I knew traffic home was going to be horrendous, so instead I just wandered around a pretty little neighborhood, smelling the honeysuckle (or whatever that amazing southern California floral smell is).

Yesterday I likewise suddenly found myself with a free couple hours that I didn't expect.  And so I went walking, and here's what I saw:

Wherever you are, whatever the demands your life poses, I hope you can afford yourself a little bit of the same.  It might actually be the difference between drudgery and joy.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Waiting for Consolation

The founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius, is perhaps most known for his rules of discernment -- that is, his advice on how to make decisions.

For him, it's all about paying attention to the consolations and the desolations -- the things that bring you life and joy, and the things that bring only dryness, or despair.

The thing is, even when you're living a good life, doing the right thing, etc., you have those dry days.  Those not so fresh moments, to quote a commercial.  And it was Ignatius' intuition that those can be the times that you most doubt the decisions you've made and might want to make some sort of change. You feel uncomfortable, uneasy, whatever. Of course you want to make a change.

But, says wise old Ignatius, desolation is not a good time to make a decision. Because you're not in touch with your best self or probably with God.  Basically, the Holy Spirit is ATT and you've had a dropped call.      So you just have to wait until you get out of the dead zone and the line will click back in.

Someone in my community was preaching about this today, and I had the thought, maybe this isn't just a propos of jobs or career decisions. Maybe it works with relationships, too. Like, there are some days or months when we just get sick of some people in our lives, right? Maybe they were irritating to begin with, or maybe we adored them, but in this moment, we just want them to BEGONE.

I've certainly had that experience at times, and yet in the moment I don't necessarily say to myself, hey, remember three months ago when you really enjoyed your conversations with them?  And that's part of the desolation -- you lose perspective.  All you see is the right now, and it feels like that's going to go on forever.

It's like, have you ever been sick, and it was just a nightmare? And then you get better, and you look back and it seems like no big deal at all?  It's all about perspective. When you're in the horror, it's really hard to imagine it ever changing. And then once it does you can't remember how bad it felt.  

So maybe that happens with relationships, too. We drive into dead zones that are not necessarily justified by he said/she said or an itch or anything else; they just happen.  And we have to just be patient and try to screw up everything by saying or doing something drastic in the middle.

Just something I'm mulling over...