Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Even Jesus Needs A Day Off

Scandalous, I know, but funny, right?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Albuquerque, Part 3: In which the Pilgrim Finally Learns what God had been Trying to Teach Him, 20 years later

Previous on Gone Walkabout: Pilgrimage in Albuquerque.  Wandering along a highway.  Slugs under bridges. Run away! 

Last week, I had the chance to go back to Albuquerque for the first time since my pilgrimage. In many ways it was a surreal experience -- I drove along that highway that I had walked along some 20 years ago, saw with new eyes both what had drawn me and what I had completely ignored.

I felt a lot of sympathy, too, for that kid, just a year out of college and pretty naive still, with these high hopes for a very special and personal religious experience. It turns out, he probably did get what he wanted, but it wasn't at all what he expected it to look like, and it was in many ways a painful lesson.

At the end the day, I went back to the Jesuit parish that I had stayed at. I had just hoped to sit in the church for a little bit, see if that stirred any further memories.  But as it turned out they had a 5:30 mass there, which with a moment's consideration seemed so much more appropriate.

And as I sat there in the pews, the presider began his homily in this way: "What are you doing here?" It was a quote from the reading, but he addressed it to all of us.  What are you doing here?  We're all on a journey, he told us, and what we need to know is this -- we are where we are by divine appointment.  That is to say, we are here because it is what God wants for us. God has called us to this moment, to this place.

Imagine that, to come back to a place you had been on pilgrimage 20 years ago and be told by some random presider who doesn't know you from Adam, you have been on a journey, and it's the journey that God wants for you. It's a little like Moses on the mountain, you're awed at the presence and glory of God, and at the same time you have to close your eyes, because He's just way too close.

Perhaps this week, hear these words addressed to you, and see where they take you:

What are you doing here?

You're on a journey.

And maybe most of all: God has called you here.

Amazing to think about, isn't it?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Albuquerque, Part 2: In Which the Pilgrim Learns How Not To Make a Pilgrimage

When taking a 60 mile walk along a highway, here's a couple questions to consider:

1) Are there plenty of rest stops? On my trip, I had a bunch of sandwiches and a water bottle. This was May; it was hot and dry, and not the biggest water bottle, but it seemed like the sort of thing that would last me long enough to get from gas station to gas stations.

Thing was, once you're out of Albuquerque proper, there really are no gas stations.  There would be these exits for different Indian reservations, mostly, and as I approached I'd look in the direction of the exit, and there'd be nothing there but more road ribboning off miles into the empty distance (which is classic Indian reservation, actually).  

2) What's the terrain like?  I'm from Chicago. We assume everything is flat. And, in the case of highway 25 between Albu. and Santa Fe, we are wrong. There are some mighty flat pieces, but Santa Fe is actually 1700 feet higher than Albuquerque.  Which means you're going to encounter some hills, in fact some big windy hills that will make your feet a little bit angry and your energy wane. 

3) Is this really going to deepen your relationship to God? I had this grand notion that in leaving my friends and walking along a major highway, sucking in fuel exhaust for 60 miles, I would grow closer to God. I know why I thought that -- nature has always been a great doorway into the spiritual for me, and on highway 25 the long, dramatic Sandia Mountains lay along the roadside.

But walking along a highway, it turns out, is not the same as sitting still in a quiet place and gazing upon something amazing and blessed. In fact, the whole highway context really seems to depreciate one's quotient of wonder.  So does the reality of walking.)

Suffice it to say, after about 5 hours and 14 miles, my sandwiches were eaten, my water bottle was empty and I was starting to feel a little lightheaded (whether from the heat or the tailpipe flatulence was anyone's guess).  It was time to cut my losses.

So I threw away my silly walking stick, stuck my thumb out and hitched a ride the remaining 40 miles to Santa Fe as the sun was setting.  I endeavored to spend the night under a bridge near a little creek that runs through Santa Fe, and was quite pleased with myself for "roughing it" until I heard a slithering sound and saw that I had large banana slugs for company. Then I made my way quickly out of there and got shelter with the Franciscans at Santa Fe's St. Francis cathedral.

A few days later I was back in Albuquerque, having been picked up in Santa Fe by the pastor from down there. He drove me home with the sort of quiet concern that a dad has after watching his son blow the big game.  It's not that he's disappointed, it's that he feels badly for you, and worries about what you must be thinking.

When we were invited to do this pilgrimage, we were told it was about putting ourselves in God's hands. What we were not told is that the end result might be not only a new level of trust, but a whole lot more humility.

It was not the nicest of surprises.

On Monday: Albuquerque Pilgrimage, Part 3, in which the pilgrim, still embarrassed 20 years later,  leaps ahead to the present and we learn why the heck he's remembering this story now.  

Albuquerque, Part 1, in which the Pilgrim Mistakes His Pilgrimage for a Day Spa

About 20 years ago, I was sent on a pilgrimage to the Southwest of the United States.  I was given $30 and a one way bus ticket, and told to make my way for 5 weeks and trust that God and the people of God would take care of me and help me find my way home.  

I know, it sounds crazy.  When we entered in late August, the pilgrimage was the one piece of our formation that all the parents wanted to talk to the novice directors about.  And it was also the one piece the 11 of us were all pretty excited about (at least out loud).  It was like a rite of passage, throwing yourself into the hands of God and seeing what happens.  Like gambling with your life. What's not to like? 

When he began his pilgrimage one of my classmates yelled "Let's Get this Steel Dog Rolling!" Yes, I know: classy, that one. 

As part of my pilgrimage, I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Although this was the only part of my 5 weeks on the road that I had actually planned for ahead of time, there was really no good reason for the destination. There was no holy spot I was going to visit, no amazing human being I wanted to meet. 

No, this choice of destination came from a sort of goofy fantasy that I and some of my college friends had come up with the year before. I can't tell you how it started, but somewhere between the end of college and the next year two of my buddies and I started to use the term "Albequerque" as a metaphor for a Zen-like, later-Van- Morrison-looking-back-on-his-life-with-a-certain-peace-about-it-all-and-singing state of being. We misspelled the name of the city to make it clear, we weren't talking about New Mexico, we were talking about some sort of inner utopia.  

Van Morrison contemplates Enlightenment (or English Rugby -- same difference). 

Planning this pilgrimage about a year later, near the end of my first year as a Jesuit, knowing that both I and a couple of my classmates were traveling initially to different destinations in the Southwest, it seemed only natural to consider spending some time in the "real" Albuquerque and seeing whether it didn't live up to our hype. Actually the idea had the three of us sort of grade school giddy, giggling about whether we would be in Albequerque in Albuquerque. (See what we did there?) 

The week we spent there together? Well, it was nice. We stayed at Immaculate Conception parish with some really great Jesuits who were very hospitable and also extremely tolerant of our general laxity. As I said, we were on pilgrimage, but as I look back it seems like we spent most of that week just taking it easy, praying and reading and hanging out together. (Forgive me, my novice master, forgive me!) 

I'm sure if I went back to my journal I'd see there was more going on there; and to be clear, by the time I got to Albuquerque I had already spent a somewhat scary week living in a homeless shelter in Vegas and another week dealing with the humiliation of not being able to speak the language (Spanish) in Juarez and El Paso. I know in Albuquerque I helped out at some sort of soup kitchen; but something tells me that happened after I got back.  

Got back from where? Well, that's the heart of the story. At the end of our week-long "Spirit Spa" (and probably after a few polite prods from our hosts), my companions decided that they were going to take a bus to Santa Fe (60 miles north of Albu.), and then do a pilgrimage walk 18 miles from Santa Fe to Chimayo. I had never heard of Chimayo; it sort of sounded like a spicy soft drink. (Coca-Cola, now with Chimayo!) But according to my fellow novices it had this storied history of miracles coming from the site in Chimayo where a crucifix had been dug up. There seemed to be some sort of custom of gathering some dirt from that site, and that's what my pals intended to do.  

The Church at Chimayo.

Now, I'm not sure whether it was the fact that I was feeling guilty for having spent the whole week basically "hangin' with my homies", or a classic desire to one-up someone else (ding ding ding ding!), but instead of joining them I decided that I would stay in Albuquerque and walk the 60 miles to Santa Fe (and, I thought secretly, the additional 18 miles to Chimayo -- take that!).  

My friends just sort of stared at me when I told them this. A few stumbling words. The Jesuits of the community, as I remember, bit their lips and looked away.  But no matter; my mind was set, and that's what I did.  On the day my friends were going to Greyhound to Santa Fe, they first drove me up the highway a few miles and dropped me and my Gandalf/crazy person-sized walking stick along the roadside.  

Then they got back in the community's car and drove away.   

Tomorrow: Albuquerque, Part 2, in which the Pilgrim Learns That He's Made Some Really Poor Choices.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Brainstorming for Biblical Literacy

A few weeks ago America Magazine, where I used to work, published an article about biblical literacy in the Catholic Church. The general thrust of the article is something I think most of us have heard many times: Catholics don't know the Bible.  Maybe they read it (maybe they don't), but even if they do, they don't really understand what it is that they're reading -- what it is, how different books were intended, their context and subtext.

Reading the piece, I wondered what can we do to improve this situation. The article itself turns to the obvious scapegoats/solutions -- overwhelmed/uninformed priests who need to preach better, and weak catechists who need a fuller handle on their material. 

The thing is, we've heard these solutions a thousand times and don't seem to be changing the situation terribly, whether because no one's actually doing the hard yards to change their preaching/catechizing or because it's not the right diagnosis. 

And personally, as much as I agree wholeheartedly that our Church needs to work on its preaching, and in fact would love to go from parish to parish helping priests evaluate their own preaching, I'm not sure the preaching issue is necessarily about a lack of scriptural explanation, as much as it is about whether or not the presider is actually using his homily to help invite people into new insight and an experience of God. These are not mutually exclusive, by any means, but they're not always connected, either. I've heard great, important homilies borne out of just a word or phrase from scripture. And I've heard (okay, I've given) some dreadful ones that were filled with biblical hey-didja-know's. 

All of which is to say, maybe we overestimate the place of an 10 minute homily in solving the issue of biblical literacy. Maybe we have to think much more broadly. What if we tried to figure out ways to put the Bible at the center of everything we do in a parish? When we have meetings, let's begin not only with prayer but with a brief breaking open of scripture, or some sort of relevant contextualized insight. With members of our parish council and its committees, with parish ministers of all kinds, let's have days devoted to biblical education - the parish equivalent of lawyers going to conferences to continue their certification.

Currently, many places are beginning to have bible study, book clubs and other forms of adult education. But let's also have its leaders come and give little reflections after communion to interest congregations, and have its groups put together some sort of presentation, day of reflection or show for the parish after they've finished a given book from scripture. Let's take advantage of our high holy days and sacramental celebrations like baptisms or weddings, where we get a lot of people that don't come to Church that often, to slide in some interesting and inviting scriptural insights. And yes, let's have some regular homilies that are grounded in proper understanding of scripture, and others where the presider leads the congregation in a discussion of an important biblical theme or idea.

Those are just my ideas.  If we really want a thousand flowers to bloom, why don't we have a committee of the parish dedicated to this issue of bringing scripture into every element of the parish's life, and see what it comes up with? Many brains means many ideas, and that's what we need. 

I'd love to hear your ideas. And if this little brainstorm of mine resonates for you, please, pass it along to your friends or parishioners. Maybe it can help trigger something useful for us all. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Helplessness of the Poor

I was reading through some emails the other day and came across an article by Fr. Phil Crotty, SJ, an Australian Jesuit running their foundation for foreign mission, and a long time missionary in India himself.

In his article, he writes about his own witness of the unique "helplessness of the poor":
Just after I was appointed parish priest of Mahuadanr, a village in a remote corner of India, a group of parishioners came to me at night and asked me to bury two small children who had been killed by an artillery shell they found lying near their village. They picked it up and it exploded. I was appalled at the sight of the mangled bodies that the parents had carried down from their village near which the army had been practising artillery fire. 'Have you informed the police?' I asked. The families looked frightened and explained that they didn't want to get into trouble with either the army or the police. All they wanted to do was bury their children in peace. It was my first lesson in the helplessness of the poor.
It's a really striking article. The rest can be found here.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Prayer for the Week

Ah Holy spirit, I plant my feet
                   into the soil of the living God.
I turn my ear toward the voice of the calling Christ.
         I lean my life into the wind of holy change
                        Be fierce, be gentle
                         toss me, turn me,
                    shape me, dishevel me,
                                Ah Holy Spirit,
                             In gratitude I wait.
Pamela C Hawkins; The Awkward Season: Prayers for Lent

Friday, September 9, 2011

9/11, 10 Years Later

We remember the 10th anniversary of 9/11 this Sunday.  I wrote a little article about where we are 10 years on for the Australian Jesuit magazine, Eureka Street -- here's the link.

And I also found this little video today; it's not about 9/11 per se, but I don't know, something of the spirit of it is what I hope for 10 years later.  I hope you like it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

What Happened to My Money?

Our recently renewed concerns about the state of the economy put me in mind of this piece the New Yorker ran about 10 years ago...


by God has taken your money to live with Him in Heaven. Heaven is a special, wonderful place, where wars and diseases and stock markets do not exist, only happiness. You have probably seen some wonderful places in your life—perhaps during a vacation, or on television, or in a movie—but Heaven is a million billion times more wonderful than even Disney World. Jesus and Mary and the angels live in Heaven, and so do your grandparents and your old pets and Abraham Lincoln. Your money will be safe and happy in Heaven forever and ever, and God will always take care of it.

Your money is still your money—it will always be your money—but it cannot come back to you, not ever. That may seem unfair to you. One day you were buying puts and shorting straddles, and the next day you woke up to find that your account had been closed forever. Perhaps you got a sick or empty feeling in your stomach when that happened; perhaps you have that sick or empty feeling still. You loved your money very, very much, and you did not want God to take it away.
Your feelings are natural and normal—they are a part of the way God made you—but God took your money in accordance with His wonderful plan, which is not for us to know or understand. You must trust God and have faith that He loves your money just as He loves you and every other part of His creation. Someday—probably a very, very long time from now, after you have lived a long and happy life in compliance with the nation’s securities laws—God will take you to live with Him in Heaven, too. Then you will understand.
Even though your money is gone forever, it can still be a part of your life. As long as love and kindness and happiness dwell in your heart, your money can dwell there, too. At night, before you go to sleep, you can talk to your money in a prayer. You can think about the B.M.W. that you and your money were going to buy, and you can remember the house on the beach that you and your money were going to build, and you can laugh about your funny old plan to send your children to private colleges. Someday, when you no longer feel as sad as you do today, you may even find that thinking about your money can give you some of the same happy feelings that spending your money used to give you.
Those feelings belong to you and they always will; no one can take them away from you. Even when you are very, very old, you will still be able to think about your money and remember how much you loved it. But you will still not be able to spend your money, or even borrow against it. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Groaning Into Existence

I have a confession to make: over the last two years, I've taken to groaning when I wake up.  I say "taken to", as though I've made some sort of decision in the matter to growl like an animal as the sun rises, but the truth is at some point I just started doing it.  And to be clear, I'm talking about a strong yawn  here; this is full on, loud, extended groaning -- somewhere between "I have a terrible stomachache" and "I'm having a baby."

Maybe it's a response to years of sleeping alone, a sort of reflex to let myself know I'm here. Or maybe it was my own personal welling up of Paul's "creation groaning in the pains of childbirth" (Romans 8:22).  More likely, though, it's just my body trying to push itself out of the tightened cocoon of shrunken muscles and sinews.

For many years I practiced yoga. And one of the great revelations of that practice was always how much taller I felt at the end of a session. Teachers often talk about the practice in terms of "creating space" between bones and within the body, and in fact so much of yoga involves stretching up, out, over or across, you really do improve your posture and create a sense of space within yourself.

My morning moans tell me I should probably return to my practice (and also drink a lot more water -- hydrated muscles are looser muscles). But there is something oddly physically satisfying about that act of groaning itself. It's like I'm pulling myself up out sleep or throwing off the reality of my dreams like you would a thick, heavy comforter and pushing myself back into life.

Of course, the poor men who have to live beside me and below me probably have a different perspective entirely.  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labored Day

It seems strange to be celebrating Labor Day this year, doesn't it? Employment in the U.S. is in a terrible state, by some measures the worst since shortly before World War II, and with little sign of improving.  President Obama is going to speak on Thursday about job creation, and for all the good things he's done legislatively in other areas, by most accounts on this issue he's at least a year, maybe two years too late to the dance. The situation in Europe likewise makes the future of not only its economy but our own seem only more shaky.

Bottom line, if you're looking for wet blankets, look no further; if you're looking for a silver lining, might I interest you instead in a handsome wet blanket?

When Obama ran for president in 2008, he ran on a platform of change and also hope, audacious hope that things do not have to stay as they've always been, that it is possible for old sides and disagreements to fall away, and fundamentally that new life could spring up amidst acrimony and financial ruin.

As Christians we believe that this is possible. We believe that life emerges from death, that God not only can make a way where there is no way, but seems to tend to favor that way of proceeding.  (Would that he didn't.) And as citizens of the world this year we've watched new life or something like it begin to happen in places like Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya.

But hope can be naive, too. Plato imagined human beings as driven by two horses, one noble, one "quite the opposite", and we certainly see both impulses borne out in the current political cage matches of our country. And as we see in the Middle East, new life does has costs, it involves effort and suffering. Some religious people describe such pain as all part of "God's plan," but when they do I can't help but wonder, who is this God you are living with and why do you tolerate him?

It all makes me think that today alongside hope we should embrace humility, an awareness of our place in God's kingdom -- our smallness, our limited perspective and our neediness. St. Ignatius is supposed to have said "Act as though everything depends on you, pray knowing that all depends on God." In hard times like this premature Advent darkness we seem to be stuck in, it's so important we don't forget that latter part.  Cry out to the Lord, not only so that he might hear our prayers and answer them but first because fundamentally that is what we have to say.  That is our prayer.

I'm back from the summer, and I'll be trying to post 2 or 3 times a week.  Hope you've all had a great summer.