Thanksgiving is for the Thankless

I often call Thanksgiving “amateur hour.” I’m often surprised that the angriest of atheists who often seem so preoccupied with secularizing Christmas, keeping prayer out of schools and accusing often thoughtful religious people of being hopelessly saccharine, often let Thanksgiving, slip past their crosshairs.

It would well do the irreligious to set their sights on a day when all are called to prayer. Bonhoffer once said, “If the only prayer we ever uttered was ‘thank you,’ it would be enough.” While the Thanksgiving of my youth often recalled pilgrims and Native Americans, we forget that the legend of those days was that the indigenous taught the new inhabitants to be grateful, even for a likely simple meal, that those gathered had likely also worked hard to procure. In today’s modern America, many are less likely to feel gratitude during a meal, but rather be more likely to complain that the turkey is too dry or the potatoes too lumpy. At lunch the other day, I complained that the Boston Creme Pie I grabbed from the cafeteria at work was simply, “inferior.”

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, understood this mentality. Easily, did he too, gravitate towards the negative. With the seminal moment of his conversion, that is, when I cannonball shattered his leg, ending his career in Knighthood, Ignatius focused nearly solely on the negative. He would no longer be the brave knight of battles who could spin tales of his bravery in order to gain the affections of beautiful women. He had the doctors re-break his leg a few times in the hopes that he would not walk with a limp. Frankly, you would think that he would simply be glad to be alive, but that leg! He was reported to have bemoaned, “Who could love a gimpy-legged man?”

David Fleming, S.J., a translator of Ignatius’ spiritual exercises conveys Ignatius’ converted gratitude perfectly,

“How can I respond to a God so good to me and surrounding me with the goodness of holy men and women and all the wonderful gifts of creation? All I can do is give thanks, wondering at God’s forgiving love, which continues to give me life at this moment.”

It is here, in gratitude, that Ignatius centers everything. Twice a day, he implores the Jesuits to look at their last 12 hours and to search immediately for gratitude. In doing so, we push away the desolate and draining moments of our day, so that they might not become the center of our lives, but rather, we might find grace lurking in our minds, but clearly present in front of our faces, prodding us to consider gratitude as central. In this is much to ponder. Moreover, in this is also practical theology, that grounds us in finding God in the more mundane rhythms of our already distracted and over-programmed lives. Might I find gratitude in the co-worker who needs 10 more minutes of my patience because I see myself as that gifted listener and in them the trustful colleague? Or is this person just a pain in the neck? Might I turn to my wife more frequently when she tries to comfort me, reveling in this offered love, instead of thinking that I don’t need support? Are past relationships just hurtful broken-heartedness, or were they opportunities to understand ourselves better, to move into new relationships with more knowledge of our own compatibility with others and more easily move into the next phase of life?

We can all-too-easily place the “issues” we have in life at the center. This leads to thanklessness, even for the more pragmatic amongst us who want to quickly problem-solve matters and move on. Gratitude implies that we need to first acknowledge any part of our lives that indeed echoes this.

Thanksgiving is simply our opportunity to focus intentionally on what brings us gratitude and to center ourselves on God’s grace, the free gift of the God-self to us around a table of thanksgiving known to Christians as Eucharist–a word that primarily means thanksgiving.

Truly it is easy to forget our gratitude, especially on lousy days when the world seems to be conspiring against us and when we indeed don’t feel like our best selves. These moments need not be the center of our lives, rather, the human spirit longs for gratitude, that lifts us out of the doldrums of despair and instead brings us into space that helps us see that God’s grace is all around.

Seeing the Signs of the Holy Spirit

This is a reflection on 3 pieces of scripture: Jonah: 3:1-10fire (Jonah’s repentance), Acts 2:1-11 (Pentecost), John 20:19-23 (Receive the Holy Spirit)

BIG…SIGNS

We are always looking for signs?
When we’re driving…
Walking…
Finding a new classroom…
A sale…
We look for a sign..maybe a smile that shows someone’s interested in us.

And a great sign…$.25 wings night.

But BIG signs are really important…big signs show us where God is inviting us to change our hearts and become even better than we thought we could be.

That’s what our readings are about and it’s also what I think Jesuit Education is about.

Our readings talk about 3 big signs…signs that change everything for those involved.

First Jonah…
You all know the story of Jonah, right?
God asks him to go to preach to people at Ninevah but he doesn’t want to go.  So he gets on a ship bound for the other direction.  The ship hits a storm.  He tells people that he disobeyed God’s orders so they think the storm is God’s curse on Jonah and they throw him overboard and a big fish swallows him.

Talk about a big sign…

But then the story gets better.  The fish pukes him up on the shore and guess where he is?  Ninevah– where God told him to go in the first place.

So Jonah preached to the people and they change their hearts and repent from their evil ways.  Another big sign that Jonah shouldn’t have been afraid…that Jonah possessed great gifts all along.

The disciples were also afraid…so afraid that they locked themselves in the upper room after Jesus had left them.  And they needed a sign!

Boy, did they get one.  A strong driving wind breaks down the locked doors and fills them with the Holy Spirit.  That sign the spirit gave them, allowed them to find the courage and the strength to no longer be afraid.  And so, they went out to preach the good news and an even bigger sign happens…everyone heard them and understood them in their own language…and those languages were many.

A final sign…Jesus himself.  Jesus breathes the very spirit of God on the disciples and the sign of both his resurrection and his giving of the Holy Spirit changes everything.  It is the sign that we too celebrate each week here from this altar…that God is alive and lives and breathes in our very selves and that death no longer has power over us.

And that has always been true…but humanity needed a physical sign to believe it.  Jesus is that sign.  The Holy Spirit continues to be that sign for us today.

So those are three big signs.  But what big signs do we see today?  What signs do you see in your life?   What signs in the world today inspire you?  What people or things are signs of God’s love for you?

For me, that sign is each one of you.  Canisius indeed is a sign.   It is a sign that reminds me that the Holy Spirit is very much alive in our world today.  I see it each time a student not only goes to serve a meal to some of the poorest people in the city at St Luke’s Mission of Mercy, but also sits and shares conversation with someone that most people ignore, restoring that person’s dignity.

I see the sign of the spirit, on each retreat we attend when someone tells a story of overcoming adversity with God’s help…or when students come together in conversation and talk about weighty matters and commit to getting through them together.

I see it each time a professor takes just a few extra moments to explain a difficult concept, to guide a student with their presentation for Ignatian Scholarship day, to take education beyond the classroom into service-learning and to prepare our students well for a world that will not always be kind to them, a world that we pray they can and will change for the better.

Students…you are especially a sign when you take care of one another, when someone is unable to care for themselves and someone else tries to take advantage of them–you are that sign of God’s care when you get them out of harm’s way.  The signs are there when you study hard in hopes of not just getting an A or even just getting your degree, but that your study here might allow you to go out from this place and set this world on fire!

So this new academic year…may we all be called to look for those signs.  Signs of God’s presence in all things–a great Ignatian concept.  May we see them in one another, in friends, in family.  Perhaps especially in those deep and lasting experiences on immersion trips with those who live in poverty both here and abroad.  The people you meet there just might need a sign.

And when you are in need of a sign…come here, around this altar each week.  It is here we see that sign of God’s love, especially in the transformation of bread and wine into Jesus himself, but we also see that sign in each person who comes through the doors of the chapel.  We come to see our friends and to pray with them on our day off.  So that we might all have renewed strength for the rest of the week but also, so that we might have the insight to see the signs of God in all things throughout the week by intentionally taking time to see those signs at least once a week.

That’s what Ignatian spirituality and education is all about.  We hope that we can create an opportunity for you to be a sign…for that is a sign that God is indeed alive and breathing and living within each one of you.

And that is the sign that is more than enough to show that Canisius is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.

And that is a sign that can indeed change the world.

How I Met the Jesuits

Godinall thingsToday is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order and without whom my life would be quite different.

You see, when I met the Jesuits, I was likely on my way out of the Catholic Church.

I’ve been a lifelong Catholic.  I was an altar server through High School.  Deacons in my church took care of me in youth and recreation groups.  The pastor of my childhood parish was a wonderful and holy man.  After he retired, it all went down the toilet, but it was one event in particular that pushed me towards the exit.

I was a Senior in High School and I helped out as an altar server at a wedding.  As I swept the rice off the church steps after all the festivities were over, a disheveled older man approached me.

“Do you think Father could give me a sandwich?”

I went inside to retrieve the new associate pastor.  He came out and chased him away and when he came back he said to me, “I’m not racist, I just don’t like blacks.”

I was done at that moment.  I wanted nothing to do with the parish. Fortunately, I had a good relationship with both God and my parents who reminded me that “one priest does not a church make.”

I was off to college in the coming weeks.  I was headed to Fordham and I didn’t know what a Jesuit was.  The aforementioned parish I attended was afraid of those liberal Jesuits and encouraged me to transfer before it was too late.

But I now had my own ideas.  Fordham gave me a nice aid package, it was close to my Yonkers home, but far enough away that I could live on campus for the real college experience.  I lived right next door to the University Church in Queen’s Court and Fr. John Piderit, S.J. was a resident of our hall, often inviting us to join him for a squash game, dinner, or a spirited conversation.  As “Master of the House”, Fr. Piderit encouraged us to look deeply at issues and to get involved in serving the needs of the local Bronx community.   Fr. Paul Brandt, S.J. was director of Campus Ministry and invited me to be an altar server.  Fr. Jim Miracky, S.J. trained me to be a lector (and taught me to pronounce all my consonant sounds!).  Fr. Bert Rushmore, S.J. taught me theology (and a bit of mercy when I bombed the mid-term!).  And working at POTS soup kitchen was an occasional Saturday activity.

As time went on, the Jesuits became father-figures for me.  Fr. John Mullin, S.J. showed up soon and began the Emmaus retreat program at Fordham, which really captured my imagination and gave me a leadership role.  He was a true mentor and honed in on my vocation, never letting me forget that I had the skills and the desire to be a retreat director and a lay minister.  Fr. Norris Clarke, S.J. and Fr. Gerry McCool, S.J. were two of my all time favorite teachers who taught more classical Philosophy, Thomas Aquinas and Plato and Aristotle.  Fr. Clarke may have been the most peaceful person I ever encountered.  I still have the mini-autobiography that I wrote for him as a final project in his class.

Fr. Joseph O’Hare, S.J. led us as President and I’d find him at the 10PM mass in the sacristy preparing to say mass.  As a sophomore, the Jesuits in El Salvador were murdered and Fr. O’Hare was part of the delegation that went down to investigate.  He came back changed by the experience in my eyes.

“We know who did this!” he told me when he returned.  “And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it!”

When I asked him, if the Jesuits were going to leave El Salvador, he remarked.  “Mike, we’ve got guys lined up around the block ready to take the place of the martyrs!”

I learned a lot about the Jesuits that day.  I learned a lot about why those men were killed along with their housekeeper and her daughter (two people the Jesuits quickly point out whenever people forget).  This past year I went down there to that site with Fr. Frank LaRocca, S.J. and some of our students and was greatly moved by the experience.

Today, I serve with many Jesuits.  Fr. Michael Tunney, S.J. serves as our Director of Mission and we do many projects throughout the year.  He’s a big reason I’m here.  Fr. Joe Burke, SJ is our rector these days and he’s an amazing person, who I have come to call a friend.  Bro. Chris Derby, SJ. has the gargantuan task of being my spiritual director, hearing my desolations and more often, pointing me towards the consolations that I’m too hard-headed to see.

Fr. Tom Colgan, S.J. and Fr. James Dugan serve with me in Campus Ministry and I’m humbled to be their director.  There’s something I never thought would happen.  I’m supervising two Jesuits!  Most often, the hearts of these men for our students, direct me to grasp a sure glimpse of God within the outpouring of their love for the campus.

The truth is that I meet the Jesuits every day, for they are always surprising me and showing me something new.  The truth is that the Jesuits meet us in the world.  Our Pope, Francis, a Jesuit, himself, shows the world what God’s love and mercy is all about each day of his papacy.

One Jesuit friend once told me words that I will take to my final resting place:  “Mike, you’ve made me a better Jesuit.”  But the truth is, that I have been made a better person by the Society of Jesus and for that, I will be forever grateful.

Happy Feast Day, fellas!   Long live the great Society of Jesus!

 

Making Mistakes

UnknownToday I made a mistake.  It wasn’t my first, won’t be my last.  But it was a stupid, careless mistake that I made because I rushed into what I was doing, misled by the good intentions of another who was hoping to help me get some quick information to others.  I simply said August when I meant July in an public announcement.  Not exactly, neuro-surgery, but still an error I don’t often make.

But nonetheless, it was my hand that did the carelessness and I assume responsibility, especially since I’m the boss and all.  So I deal with the embarrassment of error on my part.  I’m particularly hard on myself in times like this.  I don’t often make errors like this and have taken a lot of pains to not be careless in my work, or overlook too many details.

But I hold onto mistakes very tightly, nonetheless.

In my brief afternoon examen, I studied the reasons for making the mistake…a rushed judgement, a careless, uncritical eye, doing too many things at once, not trusting my initial thought on this matter or perhaps not trusting my co-worker.  It was also tempting to cast blame on a host of others, but I made the mistake and I should tend to its correction.

My friend, John, comes to mind, a peer and a mentor over the years for me, during times like this.  He is an honest man, who is confident enough to say “I don’t know” when he doesn’t and “My fault” when he errs. He’s learned much from his loving wife, Kelly, a doctor.  Namely, I can recall a day when I made a huge error at the radio station.  I played the wrong commercial and boy did I hear it from the sales department!  John, who I reported to, in his wisdom, took me aside and said:

“Mike, I make my share of mistakes.  I get tired from long hours of work and I just fumble something.  But I’m glad I chose the career I did, because if I make a mistake, it usually surrounds something like this…missing a commercial, or not identifying the station or the show.  That mistake costs the station hundreds of dollars sometimes, maybe even thousands.”

“But my doctor-wife has to be up for hours on end, pulling double shifts at the hospital.  And when she gets tired she can’t make that mistake.  I make a mistake and we lose a bit of money.  Kelly makes a mistake and it’s “Oops, you’re dead! So let’s forget about the $400 we just lost and keep the focus on where it needs to be today, O.K.?”

Wisdom indeed.  I fixed the error and apologized and a colleague helped me graciously in doing so.  In examen today, I found that call from a colleague to be heartening.  She didn’t belittle me for my mistake, but rather helped me find ways to correct it.

It’s in moments like these that we make the biggest mistake of all.  We get led by the evil spirit, who all-too-easily convinces us that we’re horseshit.  That we’re no good and we never will be and that it’s all going to hell in a hand-basket and that we’re completely at fault for all of it.

In short, nobody died.  Life goes on.  I look a little foolish today (some may say, what do you mean, TODAY?!), but I don’t think that anyone is going to judge the entirety of my career on today’s error.

In my talk with Jesus today, Jesus came over to me and washed my hands clean.  He said to me, “Now go try again! And stop worrying about this.  There’s nothing you can do about it now anyway other than fix it.  And you’ve done that. It happens. There are greater tragedies in life!” Then He showed me his wounds and said, “Do you think these wounds were fun?  Wounds hurt! So stop wounding yourself and move on to something life-giving.”

As the cool Buffalo breezes invigorate my summer months, I hope I too can remind myself to stay cool and not be too hard on myself.  And rejoice not in mistakes, but in life-giving mercy.

Caring for All Creation

imagesBack a few weeks ago, we decided to pray outside for our weekday mass honoring the words of Pope Francis’ new encyclical Ladatio Si.  It was lovely but I also noticed one thing:

It was hot.

In the last five years or so, I have found it difficult to be outside because the heat is often too much for me.  Now hear me carefully, I love to be outside.  But I’m finding it more and more difficult because the temperature is much higher and the humidity much more unbearable.

If this is global warming, I’m not playing this game.   And anyone who denies that we play a part in this each and every day, is simply kidding themselves.

I’m honored that the Pope has written such an amazing call to action for the global community.  Hear that! The Pope is challenging all people, not just Catholic people, to care more diligently for the earth.

Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification. We see this in the crisis of family and social ties and the difficulties of recognizing the other. Parents can be prone to impulsive and wasteful consumption, which then affects their children who find it increasingly difficult to acquire a home of their own and build a family. Furthermore, our inability to think seriously about future generations is linked to our inability to broaden the scope of our present interests and to give consideration to those who remain excluded from development. Let us not only keep the poor of the future in mind, but also today’s poor, whose life on this earth is brief and who cannot keep on waiting. Hence, “in addition to a fairer sense of intergenerational solidarity there is also an urgent moral need for a renewed sense of intragenerational solidarity”

So what is that to all of us mean?  It means that we have a responsibility for the earth. And in celebrating stewardship we are called to love the earth as St Francis did and as Pope Francis does. Smartly, Pope Francis links this global crisis additionally to a care for the poor.  How many live in poor environmental conditions because of our unwillingness to reduce our dependence on the comforts of our developed world?  How many places have no drinking water or minimally no clean drinking water?

Today I will call myself to consider the environment more intentionally and make changes in my own life that will be good for both me and the world.  I’m trying to eat less meat, recycle as much as possible and reduce my driving as much as I can.  I’m sure they’ll be more to do–but for now this is a good start.

So let us pray for all those who are living in less than adequate conditions and face the world each day a little poorer because of our consumption. Let us pray for more sustainable solutions so that all might live a bit more freely in peace and security.

Does Spiritual Direction Need to Happen Face to Face?

I have directed a spiritual directee or two over Skype.  We’ve even talked about setting up a prayer group for our young alumni through the use of Google Hangout.  In many ways technology can be a great help in keeping people connected to God.

But might this be a “disordered attachment” in some ways too?

That’s the big question that I am exploring with those who will take my workshop today at the Ignatian Spirituality Conference.  Essentially this boils down to a few easy and perhaps obvious points:

  • Spiritual Direction often works best when done face to face.
  • However, when the director and the directee already have a relationship, spiritual direction can and often is best served by doing something via FaceTime, Google Hangout or Skype.
  • The use of technology often saves time and money for both director and directee.
  • Sometimes people need to move on from a direction relationship so extra care needs to be taken to see if the person is in need of seeing a new director and it is not the director who is clinging to the directee (that they may very well enjoy meeting with).

Am looking forward to see what comes up for people in these relationships and how they’ve had successes and failures with this.  Has this also been able to help people cultivate silence in their lives?

All is well here and am excited to present today.

I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Unknown-5Today’s Gospel from Matthew hits many of us right between the eyes when we hear the following words:

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

How often do I withhold mercy in my own life and how do I feel when it is withheld from me.  I’m not much of a grudge-holder actually, but there are a few that I carry around in my sack from time to time and too often that sack weighs me down and prevents me from doing all that I can do.  How much more can I accomplish, if I lay down my resentment and move into the thing that God is calling me to more intentionally?

I’m in St. Louis these days at the Ignatian Spirituality Conference where we are contemplating the idea of silence and integrating that more into our prayer lives and encouraging it with those whom we serve.  They say ‘Silence is Golden’ but in the silence we often find our own darkness and cannot avoid it. Resentments may very well be at the heart of the times we sit in our silence to pray. This is a good sign that God is asking us to look at this more deeply.

Silence often asks us to slow down as well.  In my own time of prayer yesterday, in my imaginative contemplation with Jesus, I imagined us running together.  I sprinted ahead of Jesus and at some point he yelled to me to slow down.  “This isn’t a race! I refuse to race with you!  Look at my feet!” he replied.  And there I saw the bloodied and broken feet of the Jesus of the cross.  “I have been hurt and cannot run as I would like now.  The blood pours out of these holes in my feet and I am in too much pain to go forward.  I need to heal first and your wounds are these wounds too.  What do you need to heal from during these days of reflection? Let’s do that work first and then we can move ahead and maybe even run a bit after that.”

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

Floodgates opened and I found several resentments that we left unresolved.  Late in the evening I remarked to a colleague, “You know, even with all the lousy experiences I’ve had in my life, I really love what my life has become and I’m open now to  what lies ahead.  I don’t want to be doing anything else and I need to remind myself of the things that renew me, especially the “extra side projects” that keep my mind and energy renewed for the work I do regularly and help my marriage and my friendships benefit from my own happiness.”

It is good to be with friends this week.  But it is also renewing to be here in silence, where we meet Jesus and where all is revealed so that we might not run through our day so carelessly, but treat the wounds so that we might run more swiftly, intentionally, joyfully and with much mercy

Life After the Spiritual Exercises

Godinall thingsAndy Otto over at Godinallthings.com has a great piece today on the “Fifth Week” of the Spiritual Exercises, that is, the rest of our lives after we have completed a version of the exercises.  Retreat people sometimes call this the 4th Day (every day beyond their weekend retreat).

The graces we gain on a retreat experience are ours forever and what we need to do is to recall them.  Just as there are patterns that trip us up again and again, there are also amendments that we have made that have helped us to break those patterns.

I often say that noticing the evil one lurking behind me is a key grace I have gained from the exercises.  Being able to recognize the voice that tells me “you’re not good enough, you’re not strong enough, or smart enough.”  Many of those who sit before me in direction say the same.  As my friend John often says, “The devil knows me real well” and therefore will know just how to keep us in the pattern of desolation, especially during difficult times.

Mark Thibodeaux often talks about the difficulty at time identifying desolation and consolation.  “Sometimes it looks like consolation, but it is desolation…which we call “false consolation.”  And sometimes it looks like desolation but it is really consolation, which we call “difficult consolation.”

Time often gives us the opportunity to better discern which it is.  The relationship where we are having a great time with someone else can just be a “disordered attachment,” that doesn’t lead to deep commitment or even loving response.  The career where we feel some resonance can fail to live up to the ideas of magis, where is does not push us to do more for God.

The Fifth Week is much like JVC’s motto “ruined for life.”  After an experience like JVC, many report that they can no longer go back to their old ways of seeing the world.  Simple living, care for the impoverished, being more socially active…are now new patterns of being.  The same can be said about the exercises.  Once unhealthy and healthy patterns are uncovered, we can not go back to seeing the world as we once did.  With new eyes we move forward into the fifth week…the rest of our lives, where we are now awakened by God’s presence more obviously and with intention on our part.

So let us pray today for our fifth week experience.  May it always harken us back to the lessons of the exercises and bring us into a more perfect relationship with God and others.