Love the Squirrel

So this summer the four spiritual interns here at Canisius asked me if I could approach my colleague, Fr. Tom Colgan, SJ about delivering his “squirrel homily.” Turns out that he gave this homily on their freshman retreat about a squirrel that fell out of a tree and nearly landed in his head, it startled him, but he received much grace from this incident, because indeed life often throws us unexpected things–things that can startle us.

“But…” he said, “You have to love the squirrel that is in front of you.”

A great insight! And a memorable homily for our students. And it draws from St Ignatius’ first principle and foundation. It matters not, what we will face in life–what matters is that God will face those matters with us and never leave us alone. And that with God’s grace in our lives that gives us the opportunity to love others and to overcome the obstacles that are put in front of us. A bit like this critter:

So, to our dear spiritual interns, Kaitlin, Ben, Darby and Alison…and to Fr Tom Colgan…Keep loving the squirrel that is in front of you. For you all have received the grace from God to overcome anything with God’s help.

Lord, May I Be Patient When I am Old

I went to my gym the other day and came out feeling refreshed after an amazing workout with my trainer Scott. I’m losing inches on my waist and feeling stronger and more alive after each workout. “You’re putting years back on your life.”


As I left the gym a number of elderly gym-goers were heading out the door. They had just gone through their daily regimen of exercise and were now slowly walking towards the door. Step by step they made their way out to the parking lot ever so slowly.

I was in my usual rush and I ambled past them and it occurred to me that I was fortunate to be able to still be able to walk at such a fast pace. I imagined it must be frustrating to have to walk slowly and that it takes longer to get places and to have more time for people that you love and for activities that you wish to engage. I found myself praying for those who are old and awakening myself to their needs. This is especially important because my parents are now old, no longer are they “getting old”, but now well into their 80s (86 to be exact), I think we can seriously state that they ARE old.

And that, as you can imagine is frightening to their son and daughters and daughter-in-law, especially when health and caregiving are no longer matters to be taken for granted.

It is difficult to be so far away and to stay in the conversation regarding doctors and health care and living situations. I remain unaware of so much because work and ministry keeps me busy and the calls are less frequent than I would like.

So today I am particularly praying for those who are old. My 86 year old father will soon need surgery, which is always risky for a man his age. My mom is also not in great health and so it causes great concern on many levels as my dad has continued to be dedicated to her care even in his advanced age along with my sister.

So today we pray for Dad and his doctors who seem baffled at the moment. May they care for him well and may he be patient with all of them. May God continue to watch over him and all those who are sick and need care.

And if you’ve got a prayer or two…toss one this way.


Rooting Beyond Hope

I think I’m beginning to understand what Red Sox fans felt before they won the World Series for the first time in nearly a century.

You see, I really like the underdog. I grew up rooting for the Mets when they were awful and was so excited when they won it all in 1986. That team should have won 5 more Championships, but alas, the drug problems of their 80s stars caught up with them and down the tubes everything went. I ended up covering the team for two radio stations in the 90s and the Mets organization treated me so horribly that I swore that I wouldn’t root again until Fred Wilpon sold the team.

Still waiting…and holding my grudge. I’m sure Wilpon is very hurt by this by the way. Rubbing salt in the wounds, the Yankees treated me very well when I was covering baseball and I root for the classy Derek Jeter and Joe Girardi from time to time.

I’ve also been a lifelong fan of the New York Jets. Wesley Walker and Freeman McNeil and the New York Sack Exchange, especially Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau were all big heroes. Check these cool cats out.

Even with all of their skill, they could never quite get over the hump to win the big game or even get to the Super Bowl. I root nonetheless, knowing that it builds a bit of character with each loss and with coming back again and again.

And now that I live in Buffalo, the Bills and the Sabres have become a nice distraction as well. Games are fun, but we know we’re not going to win most of the time. Fans are impatient for a championship, as is the owner of now both Buffalo squads, Terry Pegula.

But you always wonder if the stars are aligned against these teams. The Bills started out strong at 2-0 before crumbling to the Chargers this year.

Grantland gets this:

Even last year, they nearly upset the Patriots in Week 1, and went 2-2 through September with wins over the Panthers and Ravens. Manuel had been a horrible reach in the first round, but he actually looked pretty decent. Things were looking up. Then they lost eight of their last 12, and … yep, 6-10 for the fourth time in five years.

People know about the four consecutive Super Bowl losses, and even if you don’t know the exact date the Bills last won a title (1965, in the AFL) you know it’s been a really long time. The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999. It’s the suffering that’s made Buffalo football famous. But now we have this new twist, with September hope making the eventual heartbreak even crueler.

The Sabres, for the record have never won the Stanley Cup in their history (since 1970).

Rooting for any of these teams is often a Charlie Brown like experience, especially when they start to win. It seems like this may be the year that Lucy doesn’t pull the football away and then slam! Into the ground we fall! These teams have a great habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

And yet, we come back for more. Old time Red Sox fans know what I’m saying. Beloved Cubs fans really know what I’m saying. Teams often disappoint and it feels like loss will continue. But it is living with that hope that provides much faith. Commitment to a team is much like marriage–good times AND in bad, sickness AND health, playoffs or rebuilding season…staying the course is a lot tougher than walking away. I regret walking away from the Mets years ago and have seriously considered coming back to the fold (although friends will never let me forget it). In times of reflection rooting for a team that knows loss well allows deeper pain to be a bit easier to handle.

When the New York Rangers hockey team began to turn things around in the early 90s I remember covering a game and a small child was crying over their elimination from the playoffs. It was a year or so before they finally won in the 1993-1994 season. Previous to this, the Rangers had not won the cup since 1940. My friend, a longtime Rangers fan saw this little kid crying and said: “Kid, stop crying! You haven’t suffered enough yet!” Then he bent down to him and said, “Hey it’s OK! It’s hard to lose, but you know what? The Rangers love you for being so upset. But we’re going to lose a bunch more and each time you won’t cry as much. When we win the cup one day, it’s going to be so much cooler and mean so much more!”

The kid stopped crying and cheered up. My friend was right. And I hope that many of the long time losers will soon have at least one taste of victory. 1986 is a distant memory for me now and it’s the last time one of “my” teams won anything.

So today, let us pray that our losses are not too much to bear and that our victories not be too sweet that we forget the feeling of loss. May God make us tough enough to continue to handle loss with grace and graceful enough to live in the hope that victory will make us appreciate all that we are and the excellence for which we all strive. Amen.

Working with Joan Rivers at WOR

They say all comedy comes from pain. My late college roommate was a stand up comic and his illness was a major piece of his comedy. During the late 90s I worked with Joan Rivers at WOR Radio and I believe this was certainly true for her as well.

Joan lived through the suicide of her husband after they were both fired from FOX, bouts of bulimia, financial issues and a rift with Johnny Carson over taking a show on FOX that competed against his own after mentoring her. The two never spoke again and it caused Joan much anxiety and several times she reached out to reconcile with him to no avail.

I’m sure all of that gave her a lot to cry about, but Joan turned all of that anger into comedy. At times I thought her bitterness was way too angry, but I could also tell that she had only a few outlets for her own personal pain. Her manager and her two writers accompanied her everywhere and often protected her from anyone who tried to talk with her. You didn’t talk to Joan, you talked to her manager.

I worked with her on an evening radio show she did at WOR. One of my jobs was to record commercials that clients paid to have her read. What we didn’t know was the Joan was dyslexic and reading copy was quite difficult for her. In the early days of her show she had 15 or 20 commercials to record over the course of a week. She simply couldn’t do it and often I was the object of her angry tirade over the disability.

I felt bad for her, of course, and knew she wasn’t lashing out at me, but she wasn’t a lot of fun to work alongside. We never hit it off and she had a hard time taking direction from anyone much less, me. The show was often horrible, unlistenable, despite my efforts. My best friend took a crack at working with her and had some moderate success and probably was a bit more willing to take her abuse. I went as far to put in writing:

“I will not work with Joan Rivers.”

Off the air Joan was actually pleasant most of the time. She simply wasn’t an easy person to work with and I can imagine that she was drawing paychecks from a bunch of small jobs after her FOX show failed and comedy work in Vegas and elsewhere had long dried up.

In short, it could not have been easy being Joan Rivers. I’ve come to understand her plight a lot more in these last few days and for that I am thankful. It’s made it easier for me to forgive and that indeed is God’s work at opening my heart a bit further and I hope that Joan was able to let go of some of vileness that she always seemed to carry around in her humor.

My biggest grudge with Joan, which I now laugh about came when she was asked to fill-in on our afternoon drive show. At the time, I was the producer of that show and so I simply switched roles with her producer and ended up on the evening shift, the slot she would usually be in. Joy Behar was hired as a fill-in host and one of the things she wanted to do was to have Janeane Garofalo on the show because she had been feuding with Joan Rivers over remarks that Rivers made about her outfit at the Oscars. (Essentially Garofolo’s trademark is that she doesn’t dress up and Rivers had a field day with that on the red carpet). Full disclosure I had a huge fan-crush on Garofolo and was really looking forward to meeting her.

When Rivers found out Behar’s plan to have Garofolo on the show she nixed it and Behar promptly quit. I had been busy booking other guests for the program and now several hours before the show I find out that all that work was for nothing AND I wouldn’t get to meet Garofolo or Behar. In short, I was really annoyed with Rivers and her anger that really didn’t make sense to me.

But those days are gone. My crush on Garofolo isn’t the stuff of grudge-holding and Joan Rivers probably had a lot of pent-up anger for many good reasons. Nobody deserved the horrible death that she had at the end–too sudden, too tragic. I pray that today she finds some peace.

All comedy comes from pain. Perhaps that is true. And while Rivers faced more than her share of pain, she often chose to laugh through the anger and perhaps that is a good legacy for Joan to leave with us.

So long, Joan. May your anger now also pass away so that you can rest in peace in the arms of God. And may God bring comfort to her family and peace to all who found the brusque end of a Joan Rivers tirade.

Intentional Giving

I’ve been surprised to hear a bunch of hullaballoo about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which, by the way I did. I’ll get to the windstorm in a second but, I’d like to say in hindsight that my friend and colleague Kathryn Heetdirks has a father with ALS and so I’m glad I could honor him with my dunk yesterday. Here’s the video in case you missed it.

Over at Patheos there’s been a lot of talk about how the ALS foundation uses embryonic stem cells in some of their research which is immoral in the eyes of church teaching, and I’ll add in my own. There’s only one study that uses these by the way.

But here’s the thing: You don’t have to support such research with your donation and can direct your funds to other studies.

I mean, who doesn’t know this?

Am I alone in the fact that when I make a donation I do a lot of research and ask a lot of questions about how my funds will be used? I always do this. I do it with my Alma Mater (directing funds to Campus Ministry and the Graduate School of Religion at Fordham). I do it at Canisius (directing funds to the President’s fund who has supported our office tremendously during his tenure here). I do it with other charities/ministries that I fund as well. I ask always “So how would you use my donation?” People like to fund specific things and projects. One of the rules of fund raising is to try to give people some reason to give you money. I suppose some folks just throw their money into a slush fund and let it be directed however the foundation chooses, but I don’t do that.

So I decided that I would direct my funds away from the one fund that uses embryonic stem cells and also give some money to another organization that supports people who have ALS instead of going to research, because that gets ignored. It’s called Compassionate Care and you can find them here.

So here’s a quick lesson in giving. Direct to where you want and don’t let the naysayers drive you away from doing something good. Instead be careful with every donation and ask a bunch of questions, but in all things…be generous and giving.

Desolation, Robin Williams and St. Ignatius

Desolation is the feeling that nothing matters, nothing can ever be set right again. God has no redemptive power and the world is meaningless. Desolation is the great abyss and Ignatius knew that we will all face it.

Sometimes desolation is so severe that it takes over our minds to the point that we cannot push it away. We need others during these times to remind us of the light, to remind us of our consolations. Ignatius reminds us that during our consoling moments we should really relish them, to prepare ourselves for desolation.

As one Jesuit, quipped, “He must have been a joy to live in community with!”

But Ignatius wasn’t being a killjoy. He’s on the mark when he claims that consolation is the only thing that helps us avoid desolation. God points and pushes us towards our consolations, those times we were really feeling alive and charged with the power of God’s creative energy in our lives.

Robin Williams somehow lost sight of that consolation–be it because of biological chemical imbalances, addictions or simply hopelessness that springs from any variety of factors, consolation eluded him and led him into the darkness of despair.

We know that when it comes to suicide, that people aren’t in control of their actions. The finality of suicide is not realized by the one in too much pain to see clearly. God now redeems the suffering that they could not face, could not get past. Cradling the hurt one in His arms God entrusts mercy and redemption to those most in need.

I think it’s a bit like this:

I wish that Robin Williams, who often made me laugh, cry and resonate with his characters deeply could have been embraced by another in the same way he did here in this movie.

The older I get, the more I realize that evil does exist in the world and it longs to keep consolation at bay. To make the problems we face irredeemable and everything ultimately “our fault.” Ignatius knew that evil’s power was enough to drive any one of us to suicide, if we but allow that call to embed in our consciousness too deeply.

It’s tough for individuals who suffer from mental illness to sometimes rely solely on self-care. Especially, when medication is something they need and they cannot bring themselves to find chemical therapy palatable. Some enjoy mania so much that they refuse meds. Others wallow in depression so deeply, that they don’t believe meds can help, because in their mind nothing can cure them. This is evil’s big hand and the deck is stacked and it becomes up to communities to care immensely for those most in harm’s way. We, as community, need to take on suicide like a prize fighter behind on the cards with only a round or two left. We need to come out swinging.

And we need to point people towards consolation. As a spiritual director, it is all too easy for people to throw all their consolations away when they head towards desolation. And that’s just “headed” towards desolation. When one is actually in desolation, those consolations are not just thrown away, they become illusions, just a ruse, not even consoling anymore. My job is awaken people to their own truth of being in union with God in the precious times of their life and to remind them that a loving God is not far off and if we but look for God, even in the rough times, desolation is sure to subside and consolation will allow us to lift the sun back up into the air for a final day of summer–or perhaps the truth is that even in the rain, one can find something beautiful.

We need to help others discover consolation and desolation and the circuitous path we find on the way towards these extremes. Most of the time, I don’t lean one way or the other, rather I find myself not in complete consolation, but also not close to desolation even though I hear it’s call. Like when I do something great at work I can feel good about my achievement, but then I can hear the negative “Well, it wasn’t all that good.” Get behind me, Satan! I will not let you talk me out of owning my achievement. I will look self-critically, smoothing rough edges at times, and I know mistakes will be made, but that doesn’t mean that my mistakes and flaws own me and capture me in desolation’s grip. For those with chemical imbalances that work hard to find a good balance of meds along with talk therapy, you will simply need help in finding this balance. A good therapist, group therapy or support groups are essential, not optional. Those fighting addictions need 12 step programs, detox and rehab. One day at a time is still another day sober and we cannot rush into years of sobriety–it takes work. For those of us who drift into milder depressions from time to time, a good therapist or even a spiritual director can help us find our way back to the border line.

The truth is that we probably all need a little help (a lot?). And we need to take it. For some, all the help in the world is not enough. Evil has used desolation to keep them hopeless. Our prayers tonight are for people who have given up trying to find help, that they may find it and be healthy again, embraced by God’s love.


If you are someone who a feeling depressed or anxious, please know there is help. If you’re on campus the counseling center, campus ministry and a host of others are there to help or call Suicide Prevention at 1-800-273-8255.

Do You Have the Time?

Time..don’t run out on me.

It’s a phrase that I’ve mentioned often in ministry as being an element that is essential to the development of faith. I challenge spiritual directees to prioritize their relationship with God by dedicating at least 20 minutes a day to prayer with the hopeful development that 20 minutes will turn into 40 and 40 will turn to 60 or more. What I find is that most people fall between two extremes: they don’t pray at all, or they find that they crave more prayer and end up exceeding my minimal requirement.

Prayer for me, is also a time-consuming matter. I need to brush out distractions and simply be–but also learn how to mix prayer into the rhythms of my day. For example, after lunch each day, I find myself energized by my colleagues in the student affairs division, who I often eat with close to daily. It’s the one time a day that our paths cross and it gives me insight from other seasoned directors and insight into the tone of the college. As I rise from the table each day, I say to myself, “Thank you, God for these people who fill me with joy.”

To become our prayers, to immerse ourselves in relationship with God, we need conversion–we need to be changed and to be constantly asking for change in our lives. But then also to have some constants that we remain dedicated to in order that they might call us to be critical of who we are becoming. For example, when I write I find myself more awakened to the joys in my life: the students I serve, the colleagues I enjoy, the wife I love, the dog warm on my lap, the sunshine on the water or a good hearty laugh. Writing for me is often a form of prayer and when I dedicate time to it, I find myself centered and relaxed and better able to get through the day–or better put, excel at work and be more open to relationships with others.

One of our graduate students, Matt Gorczyca on his blog, Gorc Meets World (which you should be reading if you are not) had a similar experience regarding writing that sums up my own feelings of getting back into the swing of blogging.

For the first time in a while I was fully immersed in my writing. I was filling pages with ink and typing blocks of text into blog posts. I felt like a machine – but not the kind that I have been the past few months. No, instead of being programmed by the day, with circumstances of an alarm clock, a boss and a pillow dictating how I spent my time, this time I was in control. It was as if I was a transformer. I’ve never seen the movie, but from what I’ve heard it’s basically when machines take over the world. Well I was my own writing machine taking back my world.

I felt revitalized and back to my old energized, creative self. It all came back to giving myself time. All I needed was a few hours in a coffee shop and I was back in my mode of writing. I didn’t have the distractions of a TV, a workload, chores or even people. I was retreating to a world that I could feel like myself again. And boy do I feel more alive than I have in a while.

Amen, brother! Thanks for waking me up as well. It is often difficult to dedicate some real time to all the things we want to do. But it is not impossible to dedicate regular time to the things that give you life. This is the Ignatian Examen at its finest–where we move towards consolation, all that brings us life and away from all that lands us in the dumper.

So some New School Year Resolutions are forming for me:
1) Write–just write. Often, if not daily.
2) Connect with someone new each day.
3) Invite people into opportunities with Campus Ministry often.
4) Exercise daily, even if I just stretch and then vigorously at least three times a week.
5) Rejoice in our retreats, spiritual direction and the things I get to do that bring me more life, bring to me the MAGIS.
5) Identify consolation intentionally twice a day, if not more often and write about it as much as possible.
6) Enjoy a good laugh, good times with friends and love and appreciate my wife better than I already do.
7) I’ll get killed for this but, write about the dog more. The Hazehayes blog may return!

And thanks Matt, for reminding me who I should be more often and what I am called to do.

An Inspiring Ignatian Year

On this feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I’m blessed to have spent a year officially in the Ignatian family. Although, I have spent a majority of my adult life around Jesuits, 2013-14 was the first school year where I drew a paycheck from an Ignatian institution as a professional campus minister. This past year at Canisius has been one filled with inspiration. Each day I look back there is much more to be excited about than negative about. It hasn’t been a perfect year, but Ignatius would remind us that life is never perfect and that we need not look at how we might prefer things to be, but that we should rather consider what has been and find where God has been for us in these experiences for better or worse.

A week or so ago I ran out to the airport to welcome home a Canisius contingent fresh back from Nicaragua. The group contained a few students I knew as well as some parents. Our President, John Hurley, also led the crew who did a lot of manual labor and learned much about land reform and redistribution in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Over the years I’ve gotten to know quite a few Presidents of Jesuit Universities. Also, one of my closest college mentors is now a College President of a school in New Hampshire. I’ve admired a great deal of them, especially the two Presidents I’ve known from my alma mater, Fordham, Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J. and Joseph McShane, SJ. Their keen prowess in leading the Jesuit University of New York has been nothing short of amazing.

As I was driving to the airport, I began to think about how centered our President is on mission, especially as a layman. It’s not every President of a University that would travel to places like Nicaragua or El Salvador as he’s done. He has a tough job and one that requires a lot of politicking and financial savvy and in this economic climate, it is a gargantuan feat to simply stay above water. It’s easy for us to complain about all the things that go wrong at a college, but I’m glad I got to see something very right about Jesuit education as I watched President Hurley and his family come through the airport with students and parents, including one parent recovering from cancer, who provided added inspiration for the journey. We’re indeed pretty lucky.

I too, travelled to Central America this year. I left for El Salvador just a few days after graduation with 9 amazing students and one of my favorite Jesuits, who never ceases to impress and inspire me. Frank LaRocca, SJ has been teaching business ethics and law for a long time and he’s also been a co-leader on many of our trips. He’s a fluent spanish speaker and has been to El Salvador many times, which gave me great comfort. But there were two moments during the trip that really brought me to tears.

The first was when we went to the Universidad Centro America, where in 1989, during my Sophomore year of college, 6 Jesuits and their cook and her daughter were killed in cold blood, by the Salvadoran government’s death squad, ARENA. The campus itself is fairly typical. We entered the chapel and saw where the Jesuits were entombed. These men were killed for standing up for the needs of the poor and criticizing the government as well as the rebel forces who both continued to fall short in caring for destitute people and in avoiding war and violence. I can remember when Fr. O’Hare came back in 1989 from his visit to El Salvador to investigate what went on with all the other Jesuit presidents in solidarity together. He came back profoundly changed and pretty angry. His anger resolved through dedication to the poor and continuing to call us into a greater concern for those in harm’s way. Now I was standing in that chapel wondering how different it must have felt to be there so soon after the murders. As we turned to leave the chapel, I watched Frank stop for a brief moment and pause by the tomb of his brother Jesuits. We both prayed silently, priest and layman, for men who were not much different from us–higher education professionals, sharing ideas, pushing people to think a bit more critically. And for that, these men lost their lives. I imagined how I would have felt if this has happened at Canisius. People shot in the quad and their murderers walking scot-free out on to the main road. It seemed unconscionable, and yet, this is what happened. Frank touched the side of the mausoleum wall and we exited together. It was a touching moment that I shall not soon forget.

The second moment was during one of our reflections. Frank has admired this blog for some time and has let me know that often enough. We had great conversations in El Salvador on some late nights. When we reflected with the students Frank was asked to affirm me in some way. My expectation was that he would have said something about my writing or our friendship. He very well may have focused on that, as well as some of my pastoral skills, but I can only remember one line from his treatise that night.

“Mike, you’ve made me a better Jesuit.”

And that is the best compliment I have ever received because the Jesuits have meant so much to me. They have made me much of who I am. Inspiring me from my college days to the present.

What most Jesuits and even most people don’t know, is that when I started Fordham in (good Lord!) 1988, I was having a real crisis of faith. I still believed in God and even still was going to mass, but I was having a tough time believing in the church and their priests. I was always active in the church and spent many weekends doing something around my parent’s parish. But one Saturday, it all changed. While I was sweeping the church steps of the rice from the afternoon wedding, an older black man approached me.

“Hey kid, I’m hungry! Do you think the Father might be able to give me a sandwich? I’ll help you sweep if you want.”

I told him to wait there and I’d go check with the Associate Pastor. I had seen our old pastor do this several times and even go far beyond a sandwich. Guys left with coffee thermoses and winter coats and a blessing. Now retired, there were new sheriffs in town.

“Father,” I said. “There’s a man out here looking for a sandwich and said he can sweep with me if you want.”

The associate pastor took off, nearly running to the church steps and then let out a yell:


Downtrodden the man left and I felt awful. I wanted to chase after him and bring him to the pizza parlor or something but I was young and afraid. It was then that the priest looked at me and said, “I’m not a racist, but I just don’t like those blacks!”

I thought I heard a record skip in my head. Did I hear that right?

If this was a man who dedicated himself to the gospel, I wanted no part of that scene. I had already settled on going to Fordham (which he was highly against me attending because of those liberal Jesuits) but there was no way I was planning on being as involved in the life of the church as much as I had been.

And then, I met the Jesuits.

And there I saw what true discipleship means. There I found men who ate and slept with the poor. Men who operated soup kitchens. Men who passed along ideals to help create men and women for others. Men who inspired me and invited me into the experience of loving those who had nobody to love them. I spooned out soup and cleaned pantries once in a while and became a lector, eucharistic minister and altar server. I went on my first retreat on my 20th birthday, because my resident director challenged me:

“You can go out to Clarke’s and drink any night of the week. Why don’t you come away and think about what the next 20 years will be like?”

Well, those next 20 years have been pretty good. I hope Ignatius and Peter Canisius can continue to allow me to be inspired by students, by faculty, by Presidents and of course, by my Jesuit brothers, including a Jesuit Pope who seems to inspire everyone he touches. I pray it lasts for another 20 years and beyond.

But for today, we celebrate!

Happy Feast Day!

Who is Harder to Mourn: Dogs or Humans?

Jayme Stayer, SJ over at The Jesuit Post, recently lost his beloved Basset Hound, Tristan Xavier. The pain, I assume was twice as bad as when he had to choose between his dog and joining the Jesuits. I can remember a friend described a conversation he had with the members of his religious community when they discussed the possibility of getting a dog.

Priest 1: “Hey, we should get a dog!”
Priest 2: “Not just ‘No” but “Hell, no!'”
Priest 1: “What? Why not?”
Priest 2: “Because we all say that we’ll take care of the dog and nobody will and then one day we’ll look in the corner and say ‘OMG! The dog died!’ That’s why!”

True enough and Jayme ponders whether religious communities could have pets considering their mobility every few years. But as you know, I have a deep fondness for my own Chihuahua, Haze Hayes, and recently went through a tough time where he very nearly did need to be “put down” because of two major infections that antibiotics didn’t seem to be able to kick. In the end, Haze bounced back mightily with the help of the fine folks at the Blue Cross Animal Shelter, who I will be nominating for sainthood one day. It came at great personal expense to my wife and me to have the dog go through surgery. But we indeed are glad we did so, even if it means we are broke and that we’ve discovered the evils of our Pet Insurance Company who did not deliver on their promises.

I too, was very grateful for my work colleagues. They covered things for me in my absence and I’m sure that the urgency of a dog’s care, for some, is less a priority than saying financially solvent. My dog is still a young Chihuahua, so we made the effort. One of our vets said that many people would not have made the effort that we did. That many consider a dog more utilitarian, fine to own, but not the equivalent of a relationship. Simply put, it would be cheaper (much) to get another dog than to have a surgical procedure performed on a pet. One vet noted:

“That’s indeed true. But the new dog won’t be THAT dog. The one you have a relationship with and that you have raised all these years.”

And indeed that was the deciding factor for me. Difficult though it was, my dog lives and I pray he will live for a long time post-surgery. Call me crazy, but I love the dog and when the dog finally died, I know it will be a hard time for Marion and me. Jayme points out the difficulties in mourning a beloved pet.

The beloved, if ill-defined, place of a dog in our affections makes the problem of mourning for a dog complicated. It is easier to expect sympathy from others when we are grieving a friend or relative. But most people avoid the melodrama of announcing to acquaintances that their dog has died. John Homan, in his book What’s a Dog For?, notes: “Caring for a dog at the end of its life and grieving after it’s gone is in some ways more complicated than grieving for a person, because the question of what a dog is is far from settled.” I would press Homan’s point further. It’s not just a problem of essence (what a dog is) or function (what a dog is for). It’s a question of relationality: what our relationship with a dog means. The problem of mourning for a dog is bound up with the problem of believing that we love a dog. And love can mean lots of different things. The emotionally traumatized may find that it is a dog’s love that brings them back to life; the relationship that epileptics or the blind have with their dogs enables them not merely to survive but to flourish. Nevertheless, while dogs might offer us practical skills as well as something resembling unconditional love (they will play with us even if we’re ugly, insensitive, or sarcastic), dogs never challenge us when we’re being stubborn or petty.

There is no risk in loving a dog. And so what it means to love a dog is necessarily limited. There is something pathetic about Leona Helmsley—wealthy, tyrannical—clutching her dog and grinning at the camera. What does her love for a dog mean when she was so monstrous to the humans around her? It’s generally clear what we mean when we say that we love our parents or friends, because that love participates in, and derives from, divine love. It’s also clear what we mean when we say that we love nature, a movie, a book, or a sport, because that love is reverence for divine creation or the human genius that is its reflection. But when we say we love a dog, we’re not referring to a point that exists on a continuum somewhere between human-love and object-love. We seem to be referring to some other category altogether.

True enough, with one glaring exception in my opinion. There is risk in loving a dog, (or anyone else for that matter) and the risk is this. That the receiver of your love may in fact, one day no longer be with you. We all die, eventually. We don’t like much to focus on that, but we do. Death is indeed, is sad for us, but it is also a part of life. The love shared by those in life is never killed by death, but rather it is transformed into what is everlasting. I believe that is true for the love we share with creatures who are not human as well, of course, as those we share with our family, friends and colleagues from whom we risk, not receiving the response of love we get unconditionally from our pets and ultimately from God.

In tribute to “Tristan Xavier Stayer—the dumpiest, doofiest, dim-wittedest, and dearest basset hound that there ever was” I will share his dulcet tones, now silenced.

And I pray that when Jayme and his family meet the end of this life’s journey, they will find themselves led into God’s Kingdom by a bounding, jowl dripping, dear basset hound, who will be one of the many reasons that evidences that their reward in heaven awaits.

Coffee With Meg


So for most of my life I have not been a coffee drinker. I can remember drinking one large cup of coffee when I was an undergrad pulling an all-nighter (By the way, it didn’t help).

In general, I just haven’t acquired the taste. Mostly I don’t like the taste, or I should say I haven’t liked it.

On my recent trip to El Salvador, I decided to look into what Salvadoran food we would be eating. Pupusas are the most famous. These are essentially stuffed tortillas (some with cheese, or beans, or pork). They are amazing.

But a big export in El Salvador is coffee. I decided that I would at least try some coffee while in El Salvador.

So on our first day, we immediately were taken to an inner city daycare center. And lo and behold, we were welcomed with sweetbreads (again, delicious!) and coffee.

Meg with a Bunny at Casa de Solidaridad, a study abroad program through Santa Clara.
Meg with a Bunny at Casa de Solidaridad, a study abroad program through Santa Clara.
One of the students who travelled with me was named Meg. I didn’t know her well, but she’s pretty active on campus in student government and so I knew her mostly by her reputation as a hard worker and her commitment to women’s issues. She’s also a lover of good coffee. She looked at me as I started to pour my initial cup of Salvadoran coffee and said:

“Your life is about to get so much better!”

Turns out she was correct. It was indeed delicious. Two spoonfuls of sugars was all it needed. Later in the week I added some cream and realized that what I don’t like is cream in my coffee. Black is fine with just a bit of sugar.

But coffee for Meg is more than just coffee. It makes one feel warm and comforted and allows conversations to linger over a second cup. The caffeine makes one a bit more alert during times of dreariness. I really enjoyed hanging out with Meg and listening to how important women’s issues are to her. As a man, I need to understand what women are facing and feeling and perhaps how I’ve even been a part of misogyny and the oppression of women. Meg helps me see more clearly what I cannot often see for myself. We heard some stories of devastation from the Salvadoran people, who lived through the long civil war. Meg was often quick to point out how women were targeted in several cases and how a “macho culture” played a role in the continued oppression of women in this still-poor country.

Meg, much more than coffee, opened my eyes further, to see a bit more clearly what was really present. She allowed me to be more present to the women that I companioned and because of her, I was able to be more present for these students throughout the week.

And within those coffee moments with Meg, i found grace waiting for me as well.

Upon my return to the United States, I decided to try some coffee from the various coffee chains. I’ve discovered a few things:

1) Coffee in the United States clearly has more caffeine in it. Or at least it has a greater effect on me. If I have two cups of “American” coffee I’m up later than I’d like to be.

2) Salvadoran coffee is AWESOME. So far the closest to it is Tim Horton’s.

3) My coffee rankings so far are:
a) Tim Horton’s
b) Spot Coffee
c) Family Tree (a local diner)
d) Dunkin Donuts

I have yet to try Starbucks. There’s just not one near my house.

3) My single serve coffee maker makes a damn good cup of the Salvadoran stuff.

4) On our trip the first Finca (the plant where they grow coffee) that I sampled was by far the best. That day care center should open a coffee bar with coffee from that place. Angel, who I stayed with in El Sitio made a nice cup of coffee. And Sr. Peggy, who we stayed with in Suchitoto had coffee that was also pretty good. But that first Finca was awesome and I bought their coffee to take home with me.

My last discovery is that a cup of coffee shared is much better than a cup of coffee solo. So thanks Meg, for teaching me how coffee serves a larger purpose at times and helps us get to understand each other a bit more.