Friday, October 31, 2008

More discernment! (Updated)

I had another monastery-related thought today and it exploded into a massive entangled web in my mind. Let's see if we can't sort this out.

One dimension of monastic life that has always been attractive to me is the element of "smallness" that is included with it. I recall seeing in the St. Meinrad bookstore a volume by the title, "A Boring Life," which I cannot seem to find on Amazon or on the Web for some reason (we joked at the time that Br. Thomas must have authored it). But the key is that, while I always wanted to share that divine encounter of my young experiences with more people, that did not translate vocationally into me becoming a public figure.

Even as a teacher, I falter at governing a classroom of 26 students; and I am the Incarnation of Awkward at the much vaunted "Teacher's Talent Show" (at which I have signed on to attempt to sing Sinatra). I never cared to see my name, face, or person reach the consciousness of more than my circle of friends. Whatever I have to share with the world, it isn't my persona; like Paul, I guess, I am a little man behind big words. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I would hate to be a church's "pastor". What a horrendously "famous" person!

I do enjoy two things. I enjoy working with people on a small-scale level. And I enjoy sharing thoughts in writing with large anonymous audiences. I enjoy feedback, but not accolades; I love seeing the fruits of my work; not necessarily awards or recognition. I like compliments and validation; I hate public praise.

There was a time not so long ago when I was told that all of this was a symptom of a low self-esteem. Now I can stand as an adult and say: that's ridiculous. It is true that I needed to learn to be liked. Over the last couple of years I have been proven wrong in my hypothesis that no person would would actively seek my company. No, people do. But it is also not the case that, therefore, I am cut out to be a public figure.

This is an area in which I have fooled myself since high school. Since the 11th grade I built up a persona of being a very public, charismatic person--someone made for speaking before large crowds, persuading audiences, giving impassioned speeches and so forth. I staked no small part of my identity on this notion, that I had a preacher in me, and that God was calling me to be a "light to the nations," just so.

The problem is twofold. First, while yes, I do feel energized by an audience and it gives me a new excitement about the material, it is still a draining experience. To be a teacher--to guide students through an experience that they will ponder and integrate--requires not short bursts of excitement, but a meticulous program of activities and assessments. This is not the place to profess a string of insights that excite me. This is a demanding, one-man educational machine; a self-contained, self-sufficient society; incorporating discipline, management, governance, recording, facilities maintenance; and after all is said and done, a meticulous program of activities and assessments. I am not as responsible as this. I am no king, governor, or lord. I disclaim all pretenses to being a pastor, to having this kind of authority. Take it away, I beg you! I hope never to be in this situation again, even while I understand how it is sometimes unavoidable. I would much rather be the beneficiary, or low-level servant of this network than its master.

Let me say: When I left the seminary, I was relieved to be back in the pews and no longer in the sanctuary. Now as a teacher I find myself in a "sanctuary" of another sort--and all I want now is to get out from this position of height and authority. I am no pastor of souls! I am no magister!

The second problem is that I do not have your "garden variety" bad work habits. For as long as I can remember I have had a murderous perfectionism that, far from enabling me to live perfectly, instead fills me with dread at the thought of doing the simplest, easiest things. "Now, it can't be as bad as all that. Everybody procrastinates; it's normal. All you need is a day off." You Do Not Understand. I am not able to function normally without help. I am an escapist. There is no such thing as "just one drink" for an alcoholic, and there is no such thing as a "little escape" for me. The more momentous the task, or the more inner voices saying "you should, you should, you should," the more sensitive the trigger.

I realize that this is an issue that I cannot ignore. In the short term--as long as I cannot take the heat--the solution is to get out of the kitchen. I function best when I am put to work at low-level and routine responsibilities. I take pride in doing quality work in areas that are necessary but not high-profile. I long to disappear behind the scenes and work for the good of many, without the pressure to fundamentally change any person's life (at least in a direct way).

Wherever I am called, I believed I am called to smallness. I do not believe that would change, even if I were pressed to take on leadership--such as in a family, or in a classroom. It would not change even if I conquered the anxieties that burden my efforts. I hope it would not change, even if I had a name on a published book--though I can understand one reason authors choose pen names.

I do not want to be told that my desire to disappear into anonymity is disordered; I do not want to be told that, no, I am wrong, I am destined for "great things".

A couple of commenters have told me that they are reminded of St. Therese of Lisieux. I am not sure that I can be fairly compared to her. For one thing, St. Therese's smallness was based on a life of prayer that was fervent even before she entered the community. My prayer flags like an old flashlight. I don't know that humility is the root of my desire for smallness, so much as a desire for relief from the pains of public life, or a kind of fatalistic despair at the efforts of the average work day. World-weariness is not humility.

But perhaps I am weary because I am truly not where I belong. I do not "jibe" here; there is friction; there are blisters that have developed from jamming someone of my disposition into a niche he was not built for. There might come a time when I am ready for heavy and difficult responsibility, but perhaps my preparation for such a time is now being stunted by noise and confusion. Perhaps I need to incubate--to rest, but not to be lazy; to find peace, but not sedation; to find quiet, but not sleep.

Where is God in all of this? Unmoving, unchanging, forever calling, knowing me more than I know myself, patiently waiting my arrival to the life he has prepared. That I have only mentioned him now is both a testament to the dearth of prayer in my life, and also to my confidence that he is always there and always works regardless of whether he is explicitly invoked. But if Jesus Christ called me by name, and led me to a path whose sufferings and consolations were the instruments to save my soul, what would that path look like?

The path is not a separate thing than the search for it; it does not begin for me at the age of 27 or 29, but I have been on it already for some time. Perhaps the trajectory of my path so far is a part of the message--just as Christ took fishermen and made them fishers of men. So what am I now, that will be continuous with Christ's call?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Continuing discernment

My thanks to Brother Thomas for his prayerful and insightful comment on my last discernment entry. At the end, he wrote,

Don't we all know what we really want, and that this deep desire is God's Spirit groaning within us?
I believe that I do. However, caution ever remains at my side. Ten years ago, in tears, I wrote that I wanted to be a priest. On retreats to the seminary, before I signed up for the program, I experienced intense emotion as I wrote spiritual journals. Yes, my Lord and my God--I wrote--I will be your servant. I place myself entirely in your hands. Do with me whatever you wish. This is where I belong--I wrote, referring to the seminary--this is a path to happiness that you have laid out for me.

Was I naive? There was some immaturity there perhaps. Emotions are a powerful thing to a sheltered teenager. But I do believe that there was something authentic in that wide-eyed surrender that I felt. I was not aware of the realities of the Catholic parish as I wrote those words. That is the missing piece. My vocation was not born out of a connection to any parish church as a community. I disliked youth groups. I was not part of any volunteer programs apart from teaching Catechism. I was attending daily Mass for a time, but I never felt the slightest urge to serve at the altar.

I have sometimes said that my main attraction to the priesthood was intellectual--I believed that I could study the mysteries of God to my heart's content. Yet this, too, is inaccurate. What I loved about "church" and "Catholicism"--what drove me to tears--was not just the depth of the tradition. The studies gave me assurance that my feelings were grounded in a firm bedrock. But it was something else, it was the sense of the church as a refuge. I loved the church--and here I speak of the building--as I loved my mother. I loved the empty church as a place where I could be alone with my God who intimately knew me and who I could trust with my life.

[I should have seen the signs when more than one priest in the diocese poured scorn on this sort of religious experience, calling it "protestant".]

I loved the warmth of the morning daily Mass in the small chapel with its perfunctory homilies and room full of people two generations my senior. I loved going to Confession and hearing a deep, old, tender voice in a small, dark room, assuring me that God is the author of history and that untold beauty awaits us all whether we can see it now or not.

In these experiences, threaded together, I discovered a God that wanted nothing more than to embrace his beloved children, each individually and all together, and relieve them from spiritual suffering even while they endured the pain of living in a broken world.

I found a sort of personal salvation, and so I believed that the priesthood was the logical conclusion. What better position was there to share this intimate joy in God with as many people as possible?

The greatest mistake the Diocese made in taking me on--a mistake that I encouraged--was in not recognizing how out of touch I was with the true meaning and function of the parish, at least as it is today. I have zero interest in the parish as a public, ordered society. Parish councils, education programs, plant management, social functions, clubs, fundraisers--public, public, public. I have an allergy to the public.

And so I am, prima facie, disqualified to be a parish priest. The parish priest is not only, or primarily, the custodian of the God's intimate embrace of the discouraged soul. The priest is a community organizer. The priest must drift from function to function, through all sacharine falsehoods of public decorum, without any relief and without any human being with whom he can be himself.

The liturgy is a different thing altogether. The sacramental presence of Jesus Christ makes all the difference. The liturgy is both public and private, both intimate and ultimate. My vision of liturgy is determined by my vision of a God that reaches out to embrace each of us individually and together at once; a God that meets us in the inner room of the soul even while he calls us together to love one-another.

The Church does not exist prior to the initiative of God; and when it does exist it does not thereby obliterate the individual in favor of a "parish" with a "culture"; but rather it fulfills and brightens the individuality of the members, makes them glow with a pre-ordained, but delightfully different beauty given by God. Thus the liturgy is precisely the only public function which is neither sentimentally individualistic nor politely, superficially public.

But I am as unfit for diocesan priesthood as an amputee for tennis. It does not matter if he can run fast, he has no arms (maybe he is better suited to another sport). My experience of faith has always been lopsidedly personal and intimate, having no respect for the gatherings of near-strangers for purposes of mutual distraction or collective esteem-building. I am not, like Barack Obama, a community organizer. Community be damned. Who are you, what is your story, where do you hurt?

It feels funny writing that my experience of faith is "personal". I am usually the one saying I lack a personal relationship with God. But what I mean by a "personal" experience of faith is not that I feel like God is my invisible buddy, with whom I often chat about the frustrations of Tetris. Rather, my faith is personal because it thrives on persons, flesh and blood, each one a sacrament of God. Profound encounters with the human soul--something that never happens during "social functions"--are my impetus to pray. Some people need chant. Some people need statues. Some people need colorful windows. I need talk. Hold the weather and sports, please.

Thus, it is no surprise that I was happy in the seminary. There were problems, problems that I struggle with even now as a lay Catholic, and which will follow me wherever I am called. But living and studying within a community of men, men with a singular purpose, men who were each individually themselves as well as soldiers of Christ, I found the fulfillment of what I hoped for as a teenager. The seminary is, in a certain way, deceptive. It is a community of intimate friendships that prepares men for a life without any. This is hyperbole, yes, but there is truth in it.

To return again to the question,

Don't we all know what we really want, and that this deep desire is God's Spirit groaning within us?
Perhaps I do know.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

More on the monastery

As we slide quickly past October into November, I see ahead of me another visit to St. Meinrad Archabbey--another year, another week with the monks and with other discerners, and another look at where I have been, and where I am going.

In December of 2006, I made my first "Monastic Observance" retreat at St. Meinrad. I was a clinically depressed diocesan seminarian in the middle of a dreary internship, engulfed by the triple-isolation of "Made in China" sentimentality of the American Catholic parish, of being a conservative celibate Christian freak in a secular individualized society, and of layers upon layers of insecurity, inversion, bitterness and escapism--not to mention intellectual pride and emotional immaturity.

St. Meinrad glowed like heaven itself. I can scarcely say more, except that I was at least mature enough to know that it would be foolish to make that reckless switch.

In December of 2007, I returned to St. Meinrad surrounded by a different world. In the span of a year, I had quit the seminary; had a three-month relationship with a single mother; been hired as a high school theology teacher; moved to the city; acquired my first ever apartment, credit card, and cat; and even though I was working unhealthy hours and felt more alone than ever, I had an indomitable optimism.

St. Meinrad then seemed more distant. Though still, as always, a place of welcome and peace, the sacrifices demanded by the monastic call seemed steeper than before. I had only just begun to live life. Even on a teacher's wage, the basic secular comforts loomed large in my mind, not least of which because they were the only comforts I had.

Now I stand in a new position. I am teaching again this year and I have pushed hard to make myself a valuable member of this community. The process that began last year continues to unfold, and I am mostly accomodated to the identity of a college-educated lay Catholic professional rather than a liminal clergyman. As my footholds become steadier, I am slowly reaching out and building an identity around my faith--which, incidentally, is not easy in a large, secularized city. I owe the lion's share of my maturing to Katlin, who I met in April and who has been my strongest link to reality ever since. As I once again learn to be comfortable in my own skin in a new world (as happened in Illinois, and as happened in Belgium, and as happened in California, and as happened in high school), I am able to start looking at where I am relative to where I ultimately want to be, without as much fear that I am being strung along by fears.

I never ultimately wanted to be a high school teacher, and frankly I still do not. In this work I get wrapped up in caring about my students--all of them. I love them. I want them to be successful and happy. But I've known the happiness that only faith can offer, and so I struggle to drag these students beyond the "spirit of the age", which is powerfully dragging them into a cynical, amoral adulthood where everything is gray. There is a stark difference between the peers I knew as a high schooler and the students in my care. The passion for renewing society and creating a just social order--what I was formed in--is now so cold and damp, replaced by a tepid individualism. The rebellion itself is so passive that it doesn't even provide the fuel for sustained striving that often leads to a profound conversion. The Holy Spirit shows through the glowing embers, but the landscape seems already burnt out at the age of 17. The spectre of discouragement hovers.

But I am not discouraged, and the long view tells me that there are good things happening here, and that good things are happening in my own life. I will be 27 in two months, no longer at the very beginning of life, and perhaps on the cusp of finally answering God's call, once I can discover what it is.

The problem is that I remain deadlocked between marriage and monastery. I have already eliminated two possible vocations definitively--the diocesan priesthood and lay single life. It is not good for me to be alone. This means that I choose to relinquish the vast license I now have to spend my time as I wish. So be it--I am not a good steward of time. But who do I give my time to?

Whenever I mention the monastery to Katlin, she tells me to be careful--yes, I know that I would probably be happy in the monastery, but it is a known happiness. I do not yet know the happiness that married love may bring. It is unknown. And I should not choose one happiness over the other, simply because it is familiar. That would be to shrink from the challenge of maturing that I have pursued since leaving seminary. I have been a serial dater since then as well, the fruit of which has been disappointment. Even if I fell in love, how well-suited am I to be a leader, a caretaker of a family?

The answer is prayer, that bugbear of mine. I have always trusted that God will not lead me astray, and so far he has not. But though I feel a divine hand protecting me in a long period of discernment, that hand does not beckon with clarity. The things I love and need most, and the gifts that I offer, seem equally present down either path--loving companionship, permanence and stability, growth in God, a chance to transform the world (beginning at home).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Two brief notes:

1.Could there be growth in heaven?

I believe so.

Growth does not necessarily imply that anything is (grievously) lacking in the saved soul. That is to say, if a soul enjoys the beatific vision, it lacks nothing of what it ought to have; but this does not mean that it cannot grow even holier, even closer to God. Some might say that this logically implies that some souls are "worse off" than others, and this would imply that there is evil in heaven. But in the equation of the Union between the Infinite and the finite, the finite are by definition infinitely "lacking"--yet it is a "lacking" which is itself glorified, for Christ himself glorifies finitude. The difference between the infinite God and the finite saints glorifies God, so also does the continual--infinite!--progress of the Heavenly Liturgy toward God glorify God. Thus I believe that Heaven is not a static, but is rather a "progressive" place.

2. On drawing lines.

The intellect cannot but help to draw lines, to distinguish, and this is no less true in the domain of human action. The moral line is neither wholly straight nor is it fuzzy or indeterminate. Beginning with the law of God and progressing through considerations of virtues, circumstances, and codifications, we find that the justice or injustice of "lines" has nothing to do with whether a line is "man-made" (for such "lines," as are found in canon and civil law, are prudentially necessary, even if they are sometimes artificially strict) or whether a line withholds reaction to an imperfect behavior (for human beings are often unready for, and would be harmed by, immediately imposed perfection). The justice of a "rule" lies solely and simply in whether it can be demonstrated, within its prudential context, to serve human dignity in its immediate state and ultimate goal.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On gay marriage

The conservative position on gay marriage is difficult is because it would deny to homosexual couples a public recognition of the equal stature of their union to an analogous union between mixed sexes, thus making them unhappy. Specifically, they would understandably feel marginalized, segregated, invisible, and rejected. Also, there is the implied denial of intangible (and sometimes tangible) goods connected with the status of marriage: legitimation, a sense of permanence and officiality, stability, community support, and a foundation upon which to build a legacy via [in this case adopted] children.

These are genuine goods, and the public order I would vote for would deny them to gay couples. I do not want that. I do not want gay couples to be unhappy and marginalized. To me it is a biproduct of the situation we find ourselves in--a situation in which losses will be suffered no matter what the outcome.

Conservatives suffer a disadvantage having to articulate what is, admittedly, an abstract grievance in a culture dominated by the demand for self-determination.

I will try to do so, and I may fail to persuade, but I hope this is illuminating nevertheless.

The social contract owes its existence not exclusively or even primarily to the combined wills of atomistic individuals. The social contract's allegiance is, above all, to inalienable human dignity (the source of human rights)--a dignity not given, defined, or created by the government. This dignity is recognized as already present and inherent in humans as humans, as long as humans have existed, and so it is revered--yet it is also vulnerable, and thus needs guarding. It is key to our historic understanding of government that neither kings nor majority rule are the last word; all government is subservient to human dignity, rooted in human nature, and denying nothing to anyone what belongs to each in accord with his or her humanness. They key is, what is "humanness"?

Today we conceive of "human dignity" and "human rights" in strictly individualistic terms; but if our notion of humanity is so atomistic, it is simply flat wrong. There is no humanness--there are no humans--apart from the defining structures out of which our childhoods arose. And it is not a stretch to say that the only such structure that enjoys a perennial default status (for no reason of our own machination) is the biological family. It is one thing to say that someone's dignity maintains even when, in particular cases, one arises from alternative situations ('families' in an analogous sense). It is another to deny the brute ever-presence, across time and the globe, of a reality which is so powerfully constitutive of collective human existence. To delete from public recognition, not only the brute "biology" of our individual origins, but also the consequent bonds which ideally become a child's welcome committee to the world, is to publicly, officially declare a new, different conception of human nature.

"Family" is now a household of voluntarily cohabiting individuals. Blood has no role, privilege, or status. The complete severing of the law from reality in this case represents, to me, a troubling precedent.

The pre-existing reality of families (biologically begotten) is prior to the state both in chronology and in inviolability. The state exists because of that entity, not the other way around; the state did not "invent" or "define" the fact that human beings cluster into mutually fostering bonds of spouse and spawn. It was created by them for their sake. The state does not serve citizens as atomistic individuals in every aspect of life; it serves families--both the biological and the analogous kind. But the point is that even those "analogous families" are analogous to something, which is not itself an analogy, but the real thing: blood family. It is the mold and the model for all such households. Watch me repeat myself here: it was not given, defined, or created by the government. It is recognized as already present and inherent in humans as humans, as long as humans have existed, and so it is revered--yet it is also vulnerable, and thus guarded. But in this case, it has only become vulnerable in the last thirty years.

For social conservatives there is a close connection between the public privilege granted to heterosexual marriage (the biological linchpin of family) and to the same human dignity that is the source of inalienable rights. Both are rooted in the official, state-enshrined understanding of what "humanness" is. If you can change what that word means, you can make radical alterations to the way government understand, and treats, people. It's like changing the multiplier on a computer's processor: tiny little modification, big consequences (and like an overclocked computer, the negative consequences may not be evident for some time).

The conservative position, when not blatantly bigoted or blindly religious, ultimately demands that government remember its subordination to realities that pre-existed it and have not, in their essence, changed--nor will they. This is not a debate about whether Bob and Fred can live happily ever after (they can). This is a debate about the foundation and rights of government. Democrats wish to place government over family as its creator and author (so that it can "re-author" this reality). Republicans demand that government know its place--that it not attempt to use its powers to alter that which it was built to serve.

One final, final point. There is something lost in the translation when conservatives wield signs saying "Protect marriage." People imagine that they are saying, "Protect marriage from gay people" (Hence Ron Zimmerman's great song about those who are trying to "protect marriage from people who want to get married." No. The "Protect marriage" slogan isn't about protecting marriage from gay people. It's about protecting marriage from the government--and as is most often the case, the judiciary branch.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Debating with atheists.

It's so much fun!

EDIT: Darnit. Login required. Will fix somehow.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Adaption of "Batter my Heart"

The director of my parish's RCIA program asked me to provide us with today's opening prayer. I wanted to share the "Holy Sonnet XVI" of John Donne, aka "Batter my Heart". However, I discovered that the language of the poem is a little difficult, so I took some creative liberties and adapted it. First, the original:

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit You, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue,

Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to You, imprison me, for I

Except You enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

Now, my version:

Do break me down, my triune God; for You
are too polite; too gently offer help;
So I may stand and walk, destroy my self,
With force do crack, blow, burn, and make me new.

My soul is occupied long past her due,
She longs for you, her guest, but to no end,
Your soldier, reason, her protection lends,
But reason, weak and captive, proves untrue.

Yet dearly do I love you, not in vain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy;
Divorce, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to You, imprison me, for I

Unless enslaved by You, shall ne’er be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

On Surrender

The focal point my lesson on Baptism is that it is the new Christian's total surrender; and thus that Christianity is fundamentally a faith of surrender. In RCIA Monday evening, I encountered some examples of just that. But some of the things people said modified my understanding.

It's a cheap aphorism to tell someone to "Let go, and let God," as if it was acceptable to let one's obligations slide. The surrender demanded by Jesus was never a "giving up" with respect to our daily responsibilities. The "rest" offered by Jesus was never an invitation to sloth. I confess to feeling a little disappointed by this realization. Is Jesus' promise of rest not then empty? We are exhausted. To offer us rest and then to comission us to take up the cross seems a terrible bait-and-switch.

Faith informs me that Jesus' promise of rest is not empty; in fact, it is a promise that satisfies more completely and permanently than a summer vacation of sleep and leisure. All we have to do is look again at the Gospels. What Jesus demanded, and the only thing he ever asked, was for people to trust in him. It was that trust, that opening up to the Incarnate Word, that sparked incredible works among the people. Thus the Lord gives food to those he loves while they sleep.

To trust in Jesus Christ--a free response equally available to saint and sinner--means that one acknowledges God's power as real. Thus the rest he offers is real; it is more real than the rest of leisure. To understand this, we need to distinguish between two kinds of human effort: the effort of exertion, and the effort of will. Without grace, overexertion attacks the will. If we permit the will to become subject to nature, and entropy drags us down. With grace, the will is lifted up on supernatural columns, and it is held high without any effort on our part. No amount of exertion, nor suffering, nor "death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

And so, the "rest" that Jesus offers, the "easy yoke", is not a worldly kind of leisure or relaxation. In fact it is the opposite. By lifting the will up above the exhaust of nature, the grace of God leaves one feeling rested and new even through the extremes of human action and suffering.