Thursday, September 21, 2006

Shaken out of complacency

The Rose Garden at UCA
Originally uploaded by mikerogerssj.
In short order Jon Sobrino, S.J. arrives in St. Louis. This is a theologian I idolize, I once almost said to him “Jon how do I be you when I grow up?” (and I still may) For those of you who don’t know, Jon is a Jesuit of the Central American Province, a theologian, and the director of the Romero Center at the UCA. Jon was also in the same community as the 6 Jesuits who were killed on the night of November 16, 1989 by members of one of the Salvadoran Army’s elite battalions. That night Jon was away at a conference in Thailand, and heard about the whole thing from another Jesuit who was there with him who had heard over the news.
Jon’s impending presence here is also kicking my butt, figuratively of course, because I find myself reminded of those men he lived with, and his testimony to their tireless work on behalf of the kingdom. These were men who were unafraid of a little work (or a lot of work) and always embraced doing that work as a part of the concrete manifestation of their love for Christ.
In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius says that love manifests itself more in deeds than in words. I find myself forced to ask the question of myself: What deeds have I done lately to manifest that love for Christ? Am I talking the talk more than I am walking the walk? In the exercises, in a meditation on sin, Ignatius also has us ask while contemplating the crucified Christ: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ?” Ignacio EllacurĂ­a, one of of the men killed that night, shared Romero’s intuition that Christ is made manifest in the poor, as Matthew 25 is so clear about. This forced him to ask the question “What have I done for this crucified people? What am I doing for this crucified people? What will I do for this crucified people?” These are words which call us to account for ourselves.
So often we can be overcome by the malaise of day to day life, and forget to be intentional about what we are doing. So often we (I) can become lazy, and perhaps pay far too much attention to our (my) own personal tiredness, or the mundane tensions of day to day life, and simply fall back into a banal existence. The cure, as each Jesuit knows, is what Ignatius called the Magis, the more, always asking not just what is for God’s great glory, but for God’s greater glory. This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t attend to what one needs to do for personal health, but it does mean that sometimes we need to buck up and work through the tiredness, sometimes we need to work through the annoyances and sorrows of everyday life. We do this to make of our lives a complete oblation to God, living and dying for his greater glory, living so that others may be able to realize their own dignity. We do this because we were loved first, because we are called to love, and because love manifests itself more in deeds than in words.

P.S. Jon Sobrino’s Lecture is in the Anheuser Busch Auditorium in the Cook school of Business at SLU on Monday night, September 25th at 7pm. It is free and open to the public.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

September 11, 2001

..........I remember the morning like it was this morning. I awoke late that day. I was an RA at Holy Cross, it was my senior year, and I had been up late with some students who were friends of another student who had committed suicide the day before. I woke up, turned to my computer to check my email, and on a campus wide bulletin board site I read simply “TURN ON YOUR TV!!!” So I did, and there I saw it. I admit that at first I thought I was watching a movie, so many disaster movies had come out, like Armageddon, Independence Day, and others, that the reality of what was going on was initially a little skewed. Then I realized, no this is CNN, and no the caption on the bottom of the screen that said that one of the towers had just fallen was real….. Then immediately I realized that my Dad was supposed to be at a meeting in New York that morning, immediately I thought of the 2 or 3 friends I had who worked in those towers. I called my mom, and mass pandemonium ensued. We didn’t know where my father was; his cell phone, like every other cell phone in the city, wasn’t working. I remember hanging up the phone in a panic and running to the office of the Jesuit who was my spiritual director. At that point it was 11am. I then went down to the Chapel to pray. It was 11:30 and noon mass was starting in an hour, and prayer was my only recourse at that moment, I prayed for my Father, for my friends, I prayed for everyone in the buildings, I just prayed. My friend Rachel was the only other person in the Chapel at that point. She was from Queens, and she too had people she knew in those towers. By the time mass began St. Joseph’s Chapel was packed. And we sat there together, praying. I left mass turned on my cell phone and had one new message. It was my father. He was fine, he had gotten on the first metro north train out of Grand Central Station. There were people who were wounded on that train with him, but they made it out. He said in the message that he could see the smoke rising from Downtown Manhattan and he was on his way to New Haven to his car, and to home. There were many other cars which never returned to their homes that day. They sat in commuter lots for weeks after, waiting for drivers who would never return. My dad was lucky, one of my friends wasn’t. A friend from grade school worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, and died after the plane hit below where he was working.
So here is the thing. I didn’t post this yesterday, mainly because a lot of things I saw and heard made me angry yesterday. The way we view this anniversary now seems largely exploitive to me. While those of us who had friends or family die that day remember it solemnly, and hopefully prayerfully, it has become a polemic and political device in our society, and rather than learning from it, we have seemingly used the event to push us along at a more fevered pace down a path which we were already taking. So much glorification of the military industrial complex has occurred as a result of that day, and yesterday was no exception. We feed the military machine while the poor suffer and starve, and nothing makes barbaric extremists and terrorists like starvation and death. We call ourselves the city on the hill when we have forgotten the orphan and widow, the poor and immigrant at our gates, and nothing breeds hate like complete disregard. We call ourselves the bastion of civilization, when we sow the seeds of war and civil strife. The prophets in the bible spoke out strongly against it. We haven’t really learned. We could change the world, build the kingdom of peace, if only we built grain mills in stead of guns, baked bread instead of building bombs, treated disease rather than administering attacks on all of those who seem to be a threat.
I am not advocating not bringing those responsible to justice, but let’s not work other motives into that. I am not advocating a hatred of American and western cultures, in fact I love it so much I call it to task, call it into question. I am advocating Love in the face of hate, food in the face of starvation, medicine in the face of disease, education in the face of ignorance, and peace in the face of war. I am advocating participation with God’s grace in building the kingdom of God. I am advocating the most fitting memorial to those who died, that we live truly not in fear, but in the greatest of hopes, hope that this world can be saved, hope that a country which is largely Christian can live up to its hype, hope that no one will feel compelled to hate, hope that there will never be another September 11, 2001.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Jesuit Friendship Is Dangerous... A Reflection on the Feast of St. Peter Claver

Some of my most important friends on the back patio
Originally uploaded by mikerogerssj.
A Reflection for September 9th, 2006. The Memorial of St. Peter Claver, S.J.

References to readings from the Jesuit Proper.
Isaiah 58:6-10
Psalm 147, 1-6
Luke 4:16-22

Jesuit friendship is a very dangerous thing….. It can plant the seed of support, shine forth light into the darkness that we ourselves are afraid of, or be the beginning of a long journey that begins with simply stepping out of one’s front door. Jesuit friendship as companionship with Christ can be a very dangerous thing because it challenges the status quo, forces us to proclaim light into darkness, justice into inequity, and love into a world all too often is filled with hate, objectification, and segregation. Jesuit friendship, as a result of the love of Christ for each man in this room and dare I say for each of the people that we encounter in the world, is a manifestation of the one thing that has ever really made a lasting impact on the world, love itself. Jesuits in friendship have throughout the years founded our Order, taken important roles in Church councils, and have supported each other in the far more mundane realities of day to day life.

Friendship…. In Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI writes of friendship that Christ’s friend is our friend, that is to say that we love each other in friendship in God and with God and that our friendship itself is a manifestation of God’s presence working within each of us, impelling us to mission and making of us the corporate body which the original companions referred to simply as “friends in the lord.”

Such is the case with the man we celebrate today. Peter Claver, in no small part because of his friendship with Alphonsus Rodriguez became a saint. This young man, from a poor but distinguished family, went to Majorca to study philosophy, and it was the friendship that developed with the door keeper there, a brother who was years his elder, that would lead to the exhortations from Alphonsus that Claver should go to the Americas, and subsequently it was this friendship which lead to Claver going to Cartegena to spend the rest of his life ministering among the African Slaves brought into the Columbian port town. In many ways, it is out of the friendship that Claver had with Alphonsus that the reality that Christ, being in the midst of these two men gathered in his name, sent Claver, as apostle, to share in the proclamation of today’s Gospel. To boldly proclaim that: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 9 because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” The fulfillment which Jesus speaks of takes place because of the depths of a friendship, which as friendship in the Lord, allowed for the indwelling of the Spirit in the mutual love between friends.

Jesuit Friendship is a dangerous thing because when we are truly friends in the Lord, when we are open to the kinds of spiritual conversation that these two friends shared, God can and will move and act, exhort and inspire. These men in their friendship provide an example for us, especially now in studies of just what this time can be. Their friendship developed at a philosophate, and it was their spiritual conversations that lead to the mission Claver undertook to Columbia. Our mission here is studies, but in that mission we live in the already but not yet of the kingdom of God. We must be careful and tend the seeds of preparation we receive here well, for what flowers from those seeds may be an important part of the realization of God’s will being done on earth, as it is in heaven, Just as it was for Claver.

In Deus Caritas Est, Benedict also points out that the love from which each friendship is born has a character which orients us ultimately out of ourselves, towards the other. It orients us beyond our close personal relationships, destroys any chains of selfishness, and carries us forward to something more, towards the magis. It is this outward turn which is precisely what Isaiah talks about in our first reading which is the natural result of friendship. Friendship with Alphonsus not only helped Claver to discern the call that was his to boldly minister to African slaves brought to the new world to work in the mines but gave Claver the proper outward orientation to be able to begin to even conceive of “releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thong of the yoke, sharing his bread with the hungry, and sheltering the oppresses and homeless.” Peter’s life was a life animated by friendship. It is recorded in some of his papers that Peter knew what so many of us have come to recognize in the exercises, that love should manifest itself more in deeds than words. Peter’s mission of evangelizing and baptizing slaves was then not simply about giving instruction, but also about making manifest that love of friendship to them by caring for their temporal needs and defending their human dignity when their slave masters wanted to resist even their being baptized on the grounds that they were less than human. Peter cared for so much more than the simple tasks which are seen often to be the proper provenance of a priest, he could have simply baptized immediately, he could have simply fed the slaves, but he ate with each, had conversations as best he could with each, and defended them before the authorities of the time. Love turned out from oneself is love that participates in God bringing his kingdom to bear on earth just as it is in heaven.

Jesuit friendship is a dangerous thing… because it can challenge the status quo, shake us from complacency, and impel us forward. Jesuit friendship is a dangerous thing because it can give us the support to do things we once thought ourselves incapable of. Jesuit friendship is a dangerous thing because it is participation in the awesome work of God in shaping and molding a world of justice, love, and peace. These men serve as example, we can learn today about just how it is that we get the strength, joy, and peace to share in God’s kingdom. Pedro and Alfonso, just two men having spiritual conversation. Pedro and Alfonso, just two Jesuit brothers praying for each other. Pedro and Alfonso, the great saints, friends, and companions even on the day they were canonized together. Pedro and Alfonso, pray for us.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Surrounded by so great a cloud of Witnesses……

So I am back in St. Louis. I have returned for my third and final year as a Philosophy Grad Student to write my thesis, spend one more year in formation here in the Midwest, and to have one more year with the many great friends which I have been blessed to make out here, the people which truly make this place a home for me.
I have also moved into our new house at 3900 Westminster Blvd. This is a beautiful old house, well over a hundred years old, and having much of the Victorian charm about it that one would expect from a turn of the century house in a city which was entranced by the World Fair’s arrival in 1904. The house itself served as a radio station for over 60 years, producing the old Sacred Heart radio program broadcasts which were used as public service announcements for many radio stations. Changes in broadcasting regulations, however, made their little radio snippets less and less popular, and the station closed in November of last year. Now we live here.
Almost immediately after the demise of the station, the house underwent renovations, some things were removed, (like massive steam heaters) others were restored, (like the mural of angels on the parlor ceiling) and then others were added. (like the slew of antique furniture which came out of storage from the old novitiate in Florissant, Mo) Now we live in a massive, beautiful house a block from the University filled with beautiful 150 year old antique furniture which you couldn’t buy if you wanted to. One recent alum from the university has taken to calling this place the “Bellarmansion.” (a clever play on the fact that this house is a part of the Bellarmine House community) While it could be cited as a testimony against our vow of poverty, I think it actually testifies to it, and that some of the stuff holds a deep and rich history which can humble the people that live here and remind us that we stand on the shoulders of giants.
My room, which is arguably the largest in the house, has a big beautiful old secretary’s desk in it which is over one hundred and fifty years old as well as a smaller curio cabinet of probably about the same age. I don’t think I realized the significance of these two pieces of furniture, however, until I looked in the desk across in the room across the hall from me though. That desk bears a card which gives a little history of the desk it says:

“For about 100 years this secretary-bookcase stood in the room of the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church. It was identified as such by brother Vowels in 1944. When the limestone rectory was about to be torn down in late 1965, Father Louis Hanlon, S.J., the pastor, gave me this case because he knew it would be too high for the ceilings of the new (cream brick) rectory” ---Claude Heithaus, S.J.

Now the history of this desk is important. It stood in the room of the man who performed the famed St. Louis exorcism (which would later become a book and movie known in popular culture as The Exorcist.) Aside from that infamous chapter in its history, however, and the thing which pops out most to anyone who knows a little bit of Jesuit history in the Missouri Province is that this desk also belonged to the man who wrote this card, Claude Heithaus, who, in a time when many Jesuits and many at the university were timid at best about speaking out about segregation in the City, spoke publicly one Sunday from the College Church pulpit, denouncing racism, segregation, and all of the horrible effects it had, and still has in many ways to this day, on the city of St. Louis. Fr. Heithaus was a prophetic voice who was misunderstood in his time, but today is idolized among all of the Jesuits who know his story.
It’s a cool thing that that desk is here. It’s amazing to be able to live in this house, but this isn’t a newly acquired property, and it was given to us as a bequest many years ago. The upkeep of this house, like the furniture that now sits in it, is a testament to the gratitude of the men who have faithfully maintained it down to this day. It is a testament to men who have lived out their vows of poverty in gratitude to God and their benefactors, and displaying that gratitude by not being wasteful of those gifts. In this house, this “bellarmansion,” the eight of us who live here stand on the shoulders of giants. We are caught up in a living monument to the history of this place and the Jesuits who have lived here, worked here, or used (or in many cases made) the things which fill it. In the letter to the Hebrews (12:1-2) the writer says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” The example of these men is what leads us and spurs us on. So as I sit here at my desk, in these days of reading Aristotle and Plato, preparing for comprehensive exams, I think back to those men who came before me in the society, and who are now hopefully with God. And I ask their intercession. All Saints of the Society, pray for us.