Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Gates: 30 years, 30 Days, 30 Stories. Day 25 out of 30

Lambert Airport, desolate in the early morning. 

It was early in the morning, and the runways of Lambert Field were still dark and a song about going home was blaring on my iPod headphones. I was sitting there by the gate, wearing my Red Sox jersey. I had a cup of Starbucks in my hand as the coffee caused the acid in my stomach to swell up into my esophagus. My heart was in my throat. I was exhausted, broken hearted, and just wanted to get to Boston, and the Red Sox game on the other side of this flight.

It was early in the morning, the sun was rising over Boston Harbor. I sat by the gates wearing the collared shirt that they had given me as a tennis coach at BC High. I was exhausted from a long night of grading, but I was excited. Louis Armstrong was blaring in my IPod headphones singing the St. Louis blues, the school year had just ended, and I was going to St. Louis for the wedding of two good friends. The Dunkin' Donuts coffee in my hand was waking me up, and the Boston cream donut was giving me a sugar high. I couldn't wait to get to the golf course in forest park.

Fenway Park, my destination that day. 
I landed in Boston, after having been kicked repeatedly by the child in the seat behind me I was even more tired from lack of sleep. There, on the way up the jetway, I could smell the salt air coming off the water. As I cross the gate I saw the sign that said "Welcome to Boston," and I was back where I began. I made my way down to baggage claim, and my father and brother were waiting there. We grabbed my overstuffed suitcase, loaded it into my Dad's car, and took off for Fenway Park.
Dan and Matt on the Triple A course.

The plane landed in St. Louis, and not a moment too soon. I had slept the whole way, but began looking nervously at my watch. I had a half an hour to make it to the golf course for the round of golf the morning before my friends Dan and Sarah's wedding. I called Dan, grabbed a cab to Forest Park's "Triple A" course, and urged the cabby on to take shortcuts. The cabby understood that I knew where I was going, and rather than taking me for a ride he took me right there, I got out of the cab a few minutes before tee time and was excited to go.

Dan and Sarah get married. 
It was Monday afternoon. The wedding was amazing. After the wedding a trolley took the entire wedding party and ushers, and the acolyte (me) around the city. We went to the ballpark, Ted Drews, Tower Grove park, and Dan and Sarah's house. I saw alot of good friends, and I was ready, at last, to go home.  As I crossed through the gates and onto the plane, I was careful not to hake the dust from my feet. One last time I had walked on holy ground with friends, and I was finally ready to move on.
Boston from the Charlestown side. 

The plane landed in Boston, my brother picked me up at the airport, and finally, a year after moving back, I was home.

One of the greatest struggles in Jesuit life, particularly early on, can be the need to move on. Just at about the point that you feel like setting down roots somewhere, every three years or so, it is time to move on. It can be heartbreaking leaving people and places behind to move on into the future, even if you know that it is a future full of promise and hope. It is hard letting go and saying goodbye, and can be even harder learning how to land too. Sometimes the places that we go don't really become home, even when they really are home, for some time after.
Back home, teaching, and finally happy

What I found that weekend, a year after I moved back to Boston, was gratitude. There were some loose ends when I left the St. Louis. There were people and places that I just hadn't really said goodbye to yet, or that I hoped would still be a part of my life in the same way that they had been when that part of my life came to an end. When my life in St. Louis was stripped away, I spent a great deal of time focused on all of the things that I had lost rather than all of the things that I had returned to in Boston. Going back to St. Louis was saying goodbye. I had been back once in the interim, but I think that I still had hope that the somehow I could live both in my past in St. Louis and in my present in Boston. Rather than being grateful for the past and hopeful for the future, I was envious of what was behind and fearful of what was ahead. The fear was so great, in fact, that it threw a lot of things in doubt and question in my life and made me just want to be done with all of the moving around, and to settle down.

BC High. 
That weekend in St. Louis changed a lot of things though, the truth is that when I went back I realized that even in the past year so much had moved on and changed without me, and that moreover, I had changed. St. Louis was a place where I had been richly blessed, but that time had come and gone, and the present that I was living in in Boston and was finally full of just the sort of joy that God desires for each of us.

Some of the friends that made those three years
so blessed.
In each of our lives there are times that we pass through those gates, those things that mark the end of one time and the beginning of another. Like the people of Israel in the desert we may even want to return to Egypt. Familiar is comfortable, even if it is ultimately untenable. The future, devoid of trust in God, can be nothing short of terrifying to the point of paralysis. In other words, we can settle for the present and be afraid to have hope of something more. The good news is that God is better to us than to give up on us. If we can see the joy in our lives, if we can see God in the present, then that is reason enough to be grateful for the past and hopeful for the future. That is precisely what my friends in Boston, my life of prayer, and my joy in my new work gave me. I could return to St. Louis grateful for what it had meant, and hopeful finally for my future.

"For I know what I have planned for you,' says the LORD. 'I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope." In the book of Jeremiah (29:11) God tells this to the people of Israel, even as they go off into exile. If even in that moment God wants to give them hope, then in each joyful moment we can have hope too. Now, just hours from 30, I know that I need to remember that. God knows the plans he has for us.. go ahead, go through that gate. 

The Flight: 30 years, 30 Days, 30 Stories. Day 24 out of 30

 (Disclaimer: I am not accusing anyone in any of the pictures below of what I say of myself in this post, those are good people and great friends, I am clearly only speaking for me.) 

When I lived in St. Louis I inevitably found myself back and forth between Boston and the midwest on a regular basis. At the end of one summer in particular, after some time at the Jesuit vaction house in Cohassett, MA, I boarded a plane to take off and begin the academic year in St. Louis.
            I was in Logan Airport when I looked down at my boarding pass… middle seat. I hate middle seats. I am not a small person, so middle seats are extra uncomfortable. I looked around me, it seemed like almost everyone at the gate was wearing camouflage. I was getting on a plane with members of the Army heading out to training in Missouri. Well, I thought, this should be interesting.
A collage of a protest at Ft. Benning, GA
            Just the summer before I had been in El Salvador and had seen what US military involvement in the world (and we were involved there) can do. I spent the better part of the next year protesting war, hanging out with like minded people, protesting at the gates of military installations, and feeling pretty good about myself in the process. At least, I thought, I was now on the right side of history.
            This all, of course, bred a certain arrogance in me, a certain self righteousness. I became, in many ways, the angry young man that Billy Joel imagined in the eponymous song. I was now on a plane with members of a military I had protested all year and that I was sure to protest when I got back to Missouri, particularly when I was among my like minded friends. On one side of me on the plane, a soldier from New Hampshire, on another side, a private who grew up in Roxbury, one of the poorer neighborhoods in Boston. I offered to switch seats with either of them so that they could sit next to each other and they declined. I put on my head phones and sunk, as best I could, into the seat.
            As take off neared I noticed something. That soldier from Roxbury, who was sitting next to the window, looked just as excited about take off as one of the little kids in the row ahead of us. I asked him “Is this your first flight?” “Yeah,” he replied “we don’t fly many places in my neighborhood.” We got to talking about his life, where he had gone to high school in Boston, what he wanted to do after he got out of the army. All of the sudden my judgments started to fall down, and I ended up really enjoying talking to this Army Private witting next to me. When he became a person, and not just a concept of militarism that I despised, things changed.
            Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and sometimes peace activist, once wrote: "So, instead of loving what you think is peace, love others and love God above all. And, instead of hating the people You think are warmongers, hate the appetite and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed ~ But hate these things in yourself, not in another." How blind was I when I professed faith in a Jesus who said that those who live by the sword die by the sword, forgetting that at the same time he forgave even the soldiers who crucified him? The truth was, in my own way, I was making war on those who make war, just in a different way. I wasn’t making peace, I was substituting hate for hate, and that never really solves anything.
A group of SLU Students protesting the Death Penalty.
            In our world today there are so many voices, each seemingly louder than the next. Whether you scream on behalf of the Tea Party, or yell on behalf of Move On, whether your major insult is to call someone a facist, like they do here in Italy, or to call someone a Communist, like back home in the US, it doesn't matter. The truth is that Christ’s only enemy was that which keeps us away from God. Its even clear that he doesn’t even really view the Roman official who orders his death as a real enemy because Jesus seems clear that Pilate isn’t even close to his equal.
Me, with some students, at the Gates of the School of the
I know now that I had the same appetite for disorder in my own soul that produces war, and that my pride was a twisting of the good desire to help participate with God’s grace in building the kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven, as we pray in the Our Father. The truth is that that Soldier from Boston wasn't the enemy. He was just an 18 year old kid, right out of high school, caught up in a lot of the structures of sin and poverty that I wanted to fight against. As someone who was privileged enough to have the advantages of an education and the means to survive without joining the Army, who was I to judge him? I quickly found out that I was no one. 

At a protest in Georgia. 
I still hate war, militarism, poverty, and oppression. I still want to build a culture of life in the fullest sense of the word, but that needs to start in knowing that I don’t know and approaching others in humility more and more. I still want peace, but first it has to start in my own heart. I can't be the angry young man. Lord make me an instrument of your peace.


Monday, March 21, 2011

The Shoes: 30 Years, 30 Days, 30 Stories. Day 23 out of 30

The Shoes.

Matt in the Village of Arcatao, just on the way to Los Posos
Somewhere on the road from San Salvador past Chilatenango, San Jose Flores, and the Rio Sumpul, right up against the edge of the border of Honduras, just off the road to Arcatao, is the village of Los Posos. There in El Salvador, in a place that you can’t find on google maps, is a small village. In the village in the midst of the conjunction of three small streams is a rock. This seems to be an ordinary rock, but it is revered by the people of the village because it was there that Padre Pinderas, a missionary from the village, preached. Every year on the anniversary of his death the 50 or so people in the village celebrate. There is a play the night before re-enacting his life and a mass using the rock as an altar. They tie brightly colored tissue papers in the lush green trees surrounding the village, there is music and dancing, tamales filled with a little chicken to eat, and at the moment of the consecration of the Eucharist they light off fireworks to alert everyone around. There amidst the simple adobe houses, a people who have so little celebrate so much.
Carlos, another Jesuit, driving down to his home village
of Los Posos. 
            In the summer of 2005 I went to live in El Salvador to learn Spanish, and to begin to maybe do some research for my graduate thesis. It was early one Wednesday morning when the Rector of the house where I was living told me at breakfast that I would be going out to the campo for the weekend. I was told not to take extra clothes, just a small book bag maybe with an extra t-shirt and underwear, and be ready to leave on Friday afternoon. I talked with one of the other Jesuits, Carlos, who invited me along to his family’s house for the feast and so I went. When we arrived I discovered that I would be staying in the town’s small health clinic, really it was a first aid shack, and I found that people were bringing things there to wrap as prizes for the fiesta. 
        One young woman, not much older than me, had taken the rickety, old, beat up school bus to the market down what could barely be called a road to Chilatenango. There she bought the nicest pair of shoes that she could afford and carried them back with her. As the man organizing the shoes wrapped them up for the feast he said: “Shoes for the migrants…” and handed them to a small boy who put them with the rest of the door prizes to be taken down to the chapel.
            That night, after the play, names were drawn, and sure enough her fiancée won the shoes. These were the shoes meant for the migrants. A look of fear and sadness swelled on her face, as her eyes puffed and spilled tears even as her strength and will held them back. The shoes for the migrants… was the man she loved now going to become one? This one gift brought so much freedom and joy to him, but at the same time anxiety and uncertainly for all around. Would they lose him? These shoes were too nice to work in the fields around Los Posos. They would not serve to pick pineapple, they would not work to tending to animals, and they would only crush beans. Would he use the shoes for what they were intended for?
Me, somewhere in El Salvador. 
            The shoes for the migrants are a gift that so many of us get in our lives, things that are so wonderful and attractive and freeing, but at the same time confusing, and even terrifying. A world full of possibility can just as easily be a world full of doubt. All doors being open means that one could just as easily choose the wrong path. During that time in my vocation, I was beginning to come into my own as a Jesuit. I began to really feel like I could be a good Jesuit, and that was terrifying. My vocation was like those shoes, it offered me more freedom than I had ever imagined, and unto itself it gave me the challenge to do something with it. In Deuteronomy the people of Israel, freed from slavery in Egypt, felt the same thing and God was clear with them: “Here, then, I have today set before you life and prosperity, death and doom…I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.”
            The question becomes one of what we do with the awful possibility of our own freedom. How do we live with new-found freedom and in the darkness of the future? The truth is that we don’t. No one lives in the future, and Deuteronomy tells us how to get through, simply by holding fast to the Lord in the present. In the times since that date, when I have held fast to God and lived in the present, when I have been able to trust in God the freedom of that moment has given me hope. When I have been fearful is when my freedom didn’t represent a choice for God, but for my own willfulness and cunning (of which I have little that is useful) to get me through. Our shoes can take us many places, the question is who directs our steps. We have no need for directions if we can let the one who loves us direct us. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The thing I find hard to believe about God: 30 Years, 30 Days, 30 Stories. Day 22 out of 30

Today two good friends arrived in Rome. I have to say that when I moved to Rome one of the things that gave me pause was the thought of celebrating my 30th birthday away from everyone that I love. Given that Lisa and Matt are here, that will prove not to be true. Instead, Lisa and Matt, one whom I have known since that bus trip, the other since even before, will be here to celebrate. Not just that though, the new friends that I am blessed with, Christian, Jay, Laurie, Janelle, Steven, Al, and Ted, among others, will be there too...

Sometimes the only thing that I find hard to believe about God is how good he is.

Today I spent the day walking through Rome with Lisa and Matt. They brought a batch of my Mom's amazing cookies from home, and I savored a couple and saved a bunch. After an amazing cup of coffee at San Eucsatchio here in the streets of Rome we ran into the Father General of the Jesuits, who recognized me after our dinner together last night, and he was incredibly gracious to my friends.  We ate a wonderful dinner at a place where a bunch of other Jesuits randomly showed up. I finished the day having a pint of Guinness with my friend Laurie and being able to convince my friend Steven's boss that he should have the night off on Wednesday to be able to come to celebrate with us. After that a couple of friends of mine in the Swiss guard wanted to make sure that I was all set with tickets for the Papal Audience that I am going to on Wednesday morning to receive the apostolic blessing to begin this new decade.

I know that there is suffering in Japan, I know that there is great poverty, and I know that people are dying of horrid diseases. I also know that I don't deserve the life that I lead, but somehow, joyfully, I just can't wrap my head around how good God is to me. My only hope is that knowing that makes me more attentive to those who genuinely suffer,  and that in gratitude to God for God's love that such a knowledge helps me find a way to genuinely serve them in love,so that through God working in me they might also find it hard to believe just that one thing.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Night off.

So... after writing about 1000 words for 21 days straight, I am taking the night off to take in Italian Flag Day (which is a bigger deal than American Flag day, I assure you.)

So happy Flag day... and just in case I decide to take tomorrow off too... Happy St. Patricks!

The Series: 30 Years, 30 Days, 30 Stories. Day 21 out of 30

       In October of 2004, the baseball playoffs felt like déjà vu. The Sox had lost to the Yankees the year before. Now the Boston Red Sox were once again playing their rivals, and the New York Yankees were about to once again claim the American league title. The Sox were down 3-0, and I told myself that I couldn't watch game 4, I couldn't deal with the heart break.  At the very end of game 4, though, I went to watch some baseball, to see the very bitter end of the season. 
Of course all Red Sox fans remember the end of that game. Kevin Millar walks, Dave Roberts steals and scores, David Ortiz hits a walk off in extra innings, and the Sox win, and they went on to win the AL in 7 games, completing the greatest comeback in the history of baseball and one of the best, if not the best, comeback in the history of sports. The Red Sox showed up in St. Louis a week later, bound and determined to brush off the St. Louis Cardinals and win the World Series for the first time in 86 years.  Anyone who follows baseball knows the outcome of that World Series, the Sox swept and were world champs for the first time in my life, my dad's life, and even my grandfather's life. In the last moments before they won, I muttered under my breath: "They'll screw it up, they are going to find a way to screw it up," because they always had. Then it happened, Keith Foulke throws,Edgar Renteria hits a dribbler back to the mound, Foulke fields it, underhand tosses it gently to Doug Mientkiewicz at first. The Sox WIN. I remember watching the last out of the series jumping around madly, and then calling my Dad. On the other end of the phone I heard: "WOOOOO HOOOOO!!!!!!" I yelled into the phone, "DAD I don't know what to do!!!!"  That night at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, as I stood there just beyond the dugout with my friend Ben, I basked in the glow of a moment that the entire region of New England (maybe not southwest Connecticut) had waited for for 86 years. The Patriots had won recently, and the Celtics are still the most storied team in Basketball history, but the Red Sox, that was truly the stuff of passion.  We stood there until they kicked us out of the Stadium though, the good people of St. Louis being who they are, they gave us a good long time to celebrate before that happened. When I left the stadium a St. Louis fan, seeing me in my Red Sox hat, shooted off an expletive at me, but then quickly turned around and said "But Congratulations, you guys deserve it." 
             We went around to where the players were getting on their bus to go back to the airport, we saw Manny leave (Carrying a Louis Vutton Purse of his own no less) and get into his own ride. We also saw the rest of the team walk out of the stadium, and Mike Meyers, a little known reliever, carrying out the trophy. Terry Francona was signing autographs, Johnny Damon was a little drunk, Curt Schilling walked out on crutches, and as the bus pulled away I knew that I had seen something that only about 40 other people (the others who found the exit) could ever claim to have seen.  The Sox went on to win again in 2007, and the ballpark was full all of the time. The truth is, it just wasn't the same, until this year. The truth is that this year the team started to lose, and I think that we were all a little better for it. The pink hats and the people who couldn't tell you the name of our shortstop disappeared, and we were better for it. The truth is that we became more than a little arrogant, and we always expected success.  The other problem, of course, is that when we did succeed we didn't really feel the joy in it. I was there with my brother for game seven of the ALCS championship in 2007, and it was a great night, and I loved being with my brother, but was it as special? They asked the owner of the Red Sox that question and he gave some trite answer like "They are all special in their own right..." The truth is what any Red Sox fan who was there the night they won it in 2004 will tell you... No it wasn't.  Truth be told because I had lived my whole life as a fan in the shadow of the curse of the bambino, 2004 was incomparably special, and when things are good all the time, we lose our sense of what that being good really is. St. John of the Cross described the realty behind this well in The Dark Night of the Soul. The truth is that sometimes our lives we need to go through dry spells to understand what how good something, be it a baseball team, a relationship, even our prayer life, actually is. Sometimes we need the dry spells, and we can't run from them because in them we can find a truer meaning of what those more fecund times mean.  I would, sometime just after that, go into a pretty long dry spell in my prayer life. Although I was faithful to my practice of prayer, I would have only occasional showers to wet the soil of my soul and remind me who God was, and who I was in relationship to God. Fortunately, the spring rains came in just enough time in my prayer life.
        That Series, that wonderful experience of joy, was amazing on so many levels. The truth is, however, that I know that I understood it better because of the many years in my life prior where we didn't even dare to dream that it would be the year.. we just hoped. Last year, a minor dry spell gave us reason to hope again at Fenway park, just as the dry spell that was coming in my life made me realize how good God had been to me, and also gave me new eyes to look for the rain when it came again. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Dump: 30 Years, 30 Days, 30 Stories. Day 20 out of 30

The Gateway Arch

It was July of 2004, when sitting in the living room at the Novitiate another novice turned to me and said “Good God, they are sending us to hell!” We were watching baseball with the novicemaster, and the team that we were watching was the St. Louis Cardinals. Now, this was to say nothing of the Cardinals, old Busch Stadium, or St. Louis in general. All that my fellow novice was commenting on was the reported temperature in St. Louis, 101 degrees (40 for you Celsius people out there) with 90% humidity. This is where he and I were being sent to study for the next three years, and initially, it didn’t have much to recommend itself. The day after vows we loaded up a minivan with all of our stuff and the two of us drove to St. Louis from Syracuse, NY.
            It would be hard not to remember the first time I saw the famous Gateway Arch, it was rising over a landfill on the eastern side of the river. When we came over the bridge into St. Louis, we exited and took a wrong turn into a warehouse district near the train tracks… Was I really going to live here for three years? We had taken the fourteen hour drive with a stop to sleep in the middle at the Jesuit parish in Columbus, Ohio and arrived the next day in St. Louis, and what an arrival it was. It was also in the mid 90’s and the humidity was high at the end of August. In fact, I remember it being so hot that it was actually painful to be outside. I got up to my room and looked out of my third floor window, over the back fence of our back yard to the vacant lot and the abandoned houses beyond and, although our house was very nice, I thought to myself. “What a dump!”
            The next day I walked over to the philosophy department to have a sit down with the dean for Jesuits in studies. As I walked into what had been an old office building that IBM had moved out of years before because the neighborhood was too dangerous, I though very little of the architectural choices that were made when someone decided that a honeycomb pattern in concrete on the outside of the building was an attractive choice. All of this was not to mention, of course, the lack of windows in the building in anything that wasn’t an office. Being used to the Victorian elegance of Holy Cross, SLU was falling short of my aesthetic expectations of a university, then I took a walk up the middle of campus and saw strange statuary everywhere I looked. What the heck was I doing here?
            The next night, one of the guys in the house took some of us out to a bar that he liked for a few beers to celebrate his birthday. He told us it was a good place for pizza and beer. I walked in, and there were dollar bills stuck to the ceiling with God knows what, writing all over the walls, and an incomparable sense of complete and utter dive bar. I was used to fake upscale Irish pubs and drinks at sunset at the Top of the Hub in Boston. Was I really to be reduced to this in philosophy studies??
            Where the heck was I? Only two words adequately describe this reality. St. Louis.
            There was a reason that the blues thrived as a musical form in this city. There was a reason why, during my third and final year there, it was the violent crime capital of the country. There was a reason why a Jesuit who had just arrived from LA said “Compton has nothing on the northside.” There was also a reason why the day that I left to return home to New England three years later that I didn’t want to leave.
            My first few days in St. Louis were rough, not because St. Louis was a bad place, I came to love it, but because the truth was that I spent those first few days and weeks comparing it to everything back home. Ted Drew’s Frozen Custard was ok, but it wasn’t St. Clair’s Annex Ice Cream. The Cardinals were fun to watch, but they weren’t the Red Sox. SLU was an OK school, but it wasn’t Holy Cross. The Blues were fine to listen to, but it wasn’t the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Oh, and the Mississippi River was definitely NOT the Atlantic Ocean.
Dan and I on a scavenger hunt one night.. not even sure
what we were supposed to be getting a picture of. 
            What changed me? The people around me were the ones that did it. I made friends among the Jesuits, like Chris and Brian, who were from St. Louis and could fill me in on the peculiarities of the Jesuits from St. Louis, but also who were able to share with me why they loved being a Jesuit in that city, even if it wasn’t always easy. They introduced me to some of their friends, who in turn became good friends of mine. One in particular, Dan, loves St. Louis so much that it is to him an objective truth that all things holy and good come, in some way, from the city. That enthusiasm helped me to generally get excited about things that were going on. I made friends among the Jesuit Volunteer and Catholic Worker Communities there, who didn’t take those vacant lots and high crime and poverty rates as things which were signs of crushing hopelessness in North St. Louis, but rather as the potential for urban farms and the formation of new communities and a new civilization, literally in the shells of the old one that had failed so many in those neighborhoods years before.
Harry and Chris protesting the Death Penalty
I made friends among the staff at the University, my friend Harry, in particular. Harry was also a Holy Cross alum at SLU, and got it when I spoke wistfully of Mt. St. James. I made friends among the grad students at the University, who kindled in me a desire to walk into that ugly humanities building, because the conversations that I might have in there made it worth it. I made friends among the undergrads, who in their passion rekindled in me a desire to help build up the best, most just, world possible. I even had a professor who, because of his insistence that the third single on Muddy Waters’ chess album was the closest thing to a perfect instantiation of the platonic form of the beautiful, got me listening to the blues.
A group of us in the dive bar in question. 
I even went back to that dive bar, the one that I thought was a complete dump. I got talking one night with one of the bar tenders named Antonio, and it turned out that he was from Boston, and Sox fan. As anyone who knew me during that time is aware that dive bar, the Blackthorn Pub, became the hang out for my friends and I for the next three years.
Sarah Holtz Stout and I in front of the mighty Mississip. 
            The truth is that, as my novicemaster once told me, comparisons are odious. All that they really do, in situations like the one I described above, is inspire ingratitude for the opportunities we are afforded. Even here, in a place as marvelous as Rome, one can easily make comparisons about why home is so much better.  When we let a place, or a thing, or even a person speak to us on its own terms, then we can grow in gratitude for those things in ways that we might not even be able to understand.
Laura, Murph, and I tailgating before a Cardinal's game. 
My earlier assertions were all correct. St. Louis was not Boston, Ted Drew’s was not St. Clair’s, the Cardinals weren’t the Sox, and SLU wasn’t Holy Cross, and thank God for that. Those nights in Busch Stadium with my friend Dan and his wife Sarah are things that I wouldn’t trade for anything. The mid snow-storm trip to Ted Drewe’s with my friend Laura is something I will never forget. The Grad program at SLU and the great faculty there helped me go deeper wit my love of philosophy. Thank God St. Louis wasn’t Boston.  I grew because St. Louis wasn’t familiar or comfortable, God can work in our vulnerability. I discovered things about myself that I couldn’t at home, because I was just unsettled enough to pay attention to the spirit moving around me. I found some of the people who make up some of the most important stories of my life, some of which I take to be too sacred to ever post here, because removed by distance from my friends back home, whom I love dearly, I found a group of people who encountered me not in the past, or the future, but in the only moment that we shared, the present. I found life, and joy, and love, even amidst some hard days and tough lessons, and there is nothing that one can feel for that but gratitude.
            The truth is that St. Louis obviously wasn’t hell. I came to grow to love it, not because it became home, which it did, not because it was better then my hometown, no need to judge that, but because of what it was on its own terms, and the people I was blessed to share it with. So much for that first view of the arch beyond the dump. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The High Road: 30 Years, 30 Days, 30 Stories. Day 19 out of 30

Mt. Evans rising above Echo Lake, (photo by E.J. Pieker, www.ejphoto.com)

           We’ve all heard the expression, that sometimes we just need to take the High Road, well in the summer of 2003 I took it, literally. The highest paved road in North America climbs Mt. Evans in the Rockies just outside of Denver, Colorado. With the summit reaching 14,240 ft, you can drive from the entrance of the road in Idaho Springs, Colorado all the way to the top.  The drive to the summit climbs through forests, up above the tree-line to an alpine pasture, and then to the rocky mountain peak beyond. As you ascend, the car travels past ancient trees, some dating to times before Christ, mountain goats, and meadows filled with brilliantly bright yellow small flowers. Somewhere near the top, in full view of the peak, there is a small mountain lake made by the melting snow each year. Its silver surface echoes the sky and peak above, its water is always cool and crystalline.
            When you reach the small parking lot just below the peak you still have a little bit of climbing to do reach the summit, but it is well worth it. There, above the surrounding peaks, you can see for miles in every direction and the horizon disappears beyond the foothills in the east and the mountain range to the west. Sitting there one day in the summer of 2003 with a few other novices atop the mountain, it became apparent that sometimes taking the high road, while lots of work and sometimes even dangerous, was definitely the way to go.
One of those Ancient Trees,
(photo by the talented Ej Peiker, www.ejphoto.com) 
            The truth is that in order for the car to make the climb we had to stop a couple of times to let it cool down to stop it from overheating. The car was a fine, normal car, but the amount of work and the change in pressure of the atmosphere meant that we sometimes just needed to stop to let things cool down so that it wouldn't blow up. It was a good thing that we did, too, because at one of the places we stopped we saw trees that had been twisted and turned by the wind over the course of several thousand years. At another place, we sat down by that small mountain lake and ate the lunch that we had brought with us. Stopping to cool off gave us time to witness things that we might not have otherwise, and that was a real blessing.
In front of the No Summer Moutain Range,
Somewhere in The Rockies. 
            It is also a little dangerous to take the high road, and sometimes it can be a real balancing act. On the way up the mountain that day I remember driving the car and looking out the window to my left to see a sheer drop of several thousand feet almost immediately outside my window. Other times being on that road, which is narrow in parts, meant swerving a little to avoid oncoming traffic all the while trying to avoid falling off the mountain. In other words, driving up this peak required a lot of attention to actually staying on the road and sometimes avoiding oncoming traffic just to stay safe.
            In the end, though the high road is rewarding. From the top you can see everything for miles around, and there is a real sense both of accomplishment and gratitude in that. That month that we were in Denver in 2003 it was for a course on the history of the Society, and after a few weeks of studying together and living together all 90 or so novices in the USA were starting to get on each other's nerves a little.  That is normal, human, and understandable, the question became one of which road to take.
            In these sorts of situations in our lives it is all too easy to take the low road, the road of gossip, pettiness, name calling. I know that I have all too often taken that road in my own life. Sure it seems to be safe, controllable, and somewhat easy. Sure, on that road there is the possibility of danger, but the road is wide, and there are nice guard rails, and we don't have to exert much effort to use it so we take it. The truth is really that it can be just as dangerous, just in different ways, and can just as easily lead to a wreck.
A Group of intrepid Jesuit Novices straddle the great
continental divide. 
            The flip side can be taking the high road, the straight and narrow, which on the surface seems much more tricky and dangerous, but which we know from the outset can be much more rewarding. It is hard to do your best to love people sometimes, or even to be charitable with them. Sure there will be times when you might overheat and want to blow up it is then that we just need to stop, calm down, and take sometime to see what is around us, and try to find the beauty in the situations and people we are dealing with.  Sure there might be times when avoiding a head-on collision with someone that we find difficult it tough, but on the high road sometimes a quick swerve to avoid a difficult situation is all that you can do. Yes, the kind of intentionality in the context of our relationships that it takes to drive that road can be exhausting too. In the end, though, if we can keep taking that high road, even in rough circumstances, we come to the peak where everything can come into focus and our journey there makes more sense.
On the road toward the mountains. (You can kind of make
them out in the distance)  
            That day on Mount Evans I think we learned something important, sometimes the high road can be long and arduous, but if you don't try you never get to the place where things can be in the purest perspective. If you don't take that high road, you never reach the peak. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Cowboy: 30 Years, 30 Days, 30 Stories. Day 18 out of 30

 The prairie in the spring, the way the grass moves in the wind is beautiful, and pictures alone don't capture it: 

    In the spring of 2003, just after I finished the Spiritual Exercises, I was missioned to work on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in south central South Dakota. From February until May, I lived at the St. Francis Mission, taught Catechism, helped prepare families and children for baptism, and did what I could to help out at the mission’s museum. The truth of the museum work was really just that Ray, a Jesuit anthropologist, and Mike, the curator of the museum, were gracious enough to give me something to do when I wasn’t teaching the kids.
Spring on the Prairie. 
When spring hits the reservation the undulating sea of white made by the snow capped hills of the prairie turns into a heaving ocean of green and grass. The Prairie comes back to life for a few months, and all around from the high points all that you can see is a vivid green filling the horizon if you look close enough, though, you can see small spots of white, brown, and black filling the horizon alongside slightly larger spots of the same colors. When the green returns to the grass, life returns to the prairie, new calves are born, and it is time for branding season.
One day, while eating lunch with Buzz, a fellow novice, we were asked by one of the mission’s employees if we would help at the branding on her father’s ranch. We asked what it would entail, and when we were told that we would get to ride horses we were in. We were also told, though, that we would be helping to round up and brand the new cattle. Now before any assumptions are made about the cruelty of the process of branding, in South Dakota, west of the Missouri River, it is the law that every newborn calf has to be branded. This is actually to protect the Ranchers, many of whom have very little to begin with, from those who would steal those cattle that they rely upon for survival. It is also the moment in which these new calves are immunized and, for those male calves that aren’t going to be used for breeding, neutered. It’s a full service veterinary operation, and in fact when people can afford it there is often a vet present. 
Like most boys growing up in America, the cowboy is an archetypal dream. When you are young you might play cowboys and bank robbers. I know that I had a small cowboy hat, a plastic holster with a plastic gun and a sheriff’s badge that my dad had brought back from a trip to Arizona for me. I also had a pair of spurs that I never figured out how to attach to my shoes, and rope that I wanted to be lasso. All of this, and my mother’s old 1970’s (ironically suede) hippie flower child vest to boot, which somehow made the whole thing feel authentic. We had a small stream that was ran by my house and the area around it was often enough perfect to pretend to be a cowboy along with my next door neighbor, who was only about a year older. The truth is that I had had the dream of being a cowboy from a young age, from the day that my Dad took me to see Roy Rogers and Dale Evans make an appearance at a local Roy Rogers fried chicken restaurant. I was about to find out, however, just how different my childhood dream was from reality.
Me on "Buck" a trusty steed. 
                 We arrived at the ranch early in the morning ready for work, wearing older clothes that we weren’t afraid to see get beaten up a bit. Almost immediately, Buzz and I were shown the horse we’d be using during the day, its name was Buck. Now here is the question, why on God’s green earth would someone give a horse named “Buck,” which is the last thing that you’d want to see a horse do when you were just learning to ride, to someone new to riding? Anyhow, as we headed out to the corral to get a couple of minutes of practice in before riding out to the pasture to drive the cattle in I realized that the ground wasn’t so much ground as it was deep mud mixed with animal excrement, my first unpleasant surprise of the day. I mounted the horse, though, and rode out for the roundup.
Riding out to round them up. 
Cows are incredibly dumb animals. Why they would move just because someone like me, who is much smaller than a cow, would come riding towards them on a horse, which is slightly larger but not so much larger when one considers that there are in a typical drive more than 20 head of steer to one cowboy, is beyond me. Yet all one really has to do to get steer to move is ride hard at them on a horse and cut around them a little bit to force them in the direction that you want them to go. That’s what we did. We drove the cows in from a pasture, which was about a mile out, and separated the calves from their mothers. We rounded the calves up into a barn, and then one by one pulled them out, wrestled them to the ground, and then one of us sat on their upper body while another sat on their lower body and held them while one more person branded and immunized them.
The calves await their branding.
At first, wrestling a calf to the ground was not an easy prospect, these things are already pretty big, and they can kick too. I got a lot of scrapes and bruises that day. Then, when you hold them down while someone else is branding, you can feel the moment of shock run through them when the branding iron hits, and smell the hair and flesh as it is burning under the iron. In the meantime, the mother cows, which had been separated from their babies, are mooing bloody murder from the other side of the corral’s fence. None of this is to forget that the ground on which you are sitting to hold them down is that unpleasant mix of mud and the other stuff that I mentioned above.
Still want to be a cowboy?
Buzz, with the bandana on, helping to take a calf down. 
By the end of the day I was bruised from the kick of cattle hooves, and even though I had learned how to sneak up behind the calves and flip them over easily, it was still a risky business. I also realized that riding a horse is no joke, saddle sores are real, and your back can kill you by the end of a day of jostling up and down. All of this is not to mention that, unlike a car or a motorcycle, the horse has a mind of its own and sometimes goes in directions and does things that I, particularly as a novice rider, didn’t want it to do.
Did I still want to be a cowboy? Heck. No.
The truth is that very few of us who want to be cowboys, or astronauts, or ballerinas (to be gender inclusive) hold onto those dreams after a young age. There are obviously many admirable qualities among those occupations, or the million and one other things that we dream of being as kids, but as we grow into who we are we most of us come to realize that we were made for something different. It was years before that I had given up the dream of being a cowboy, as is obvious since I was there as a Jesuit. The interesting thing was to see just how much the dream didn’t match the reality, being a cowboy isn’t about independence, it is about needing people around you to do the things that need to get done, like branding. Being a cowboy isn’t glamorous, it’s hard, dirty, work.
The truth about my short-lived life as a cowboy is that looking back on it, it helps me to remember something. Even as kids, our deepest desire isn’t really to be a cowboy, astronaut, or ballerina (to be gender inclusive) it is ultimately about dreaming about something that will make us happy. That is, of course, what God wants for each of us, happiness. The truth is that we are often surprised by the things that bring us real joy in our lives when we finally do grow up, and I think that this is precisely the kind of thing that should continue to feed our hope, particularly in times of disappointment. It may be that I don’t get the job I want, or end up doing the same sorts of things that I always dreamed that I would, but heck I didn’t end up being a cowboy either, and that’s worked out just fine. What we really want, deep down, is not any given job, but what that job will ultimately bring, which is hopefully fulfillment and happiness. I know that now, sitting at my desk over looking the Capitoline Hill here in Rome, just weeks from the beginning of branding season in South Dakota I am pretty happy not to be a Cowboy. That gives me some small measure of hope that even if the other dreams that I have for myself in life, even now staring down 30, don’t end up happening then everything will still be ok. So put my spurs away, I think I will stay right here. 
Sunset on the Prairie. (also one of my better pictures ever.) 

The Armpit: 30 Years, 30 Days, 30 Stories. Day 17 out of 30

During my first month after the Spiritual Exercises I went to go live and work in South Dakota. One day the rector of the Jesuit mission asked if I wanted to go see Mt. Rushmore, and of course I responded “YES!”
Rusmore... underwhelming. 
       I remember being disappointed by Mt. Rushmore. As a kid you hear about these monumental faces carved into the side of a mountain, and you can only imagine how grand that might be. The reality is that it is not very big and it is carved into the side of one of the Black hills which the Lakota, among other Native American peoples, hold to be the sacred place where life began.
What Crazy Horse will look like when its done.
       Just down the road from Rushmore another, albeit less famous, sculpture is being hewn out of a mountain. Rather than just being in the side of a mountain, however, they are using the whole thing as if it were one gigantic chunk of marble. This statue will eventually be Crazy Horse, riding his horse and pointing forward across the hills. When it is finished, and they have been working on it for over 50 years already, it will be much larger than Rushmore.
         When I returned to the Rosebud Reservation later that early March afternoon one of the Lakota men who worked for the St. Francis Mission pointed out something very interesting to me. “You know,” he said, “Rushmore would fit in Crazy Horse’s armpit.” I laughed and went home and thought about it some more that night. Not only was it an interesting fact, but also it spoke of a people who were reclaiming, at least a little, a measure of pride through this sculpture. This was sacred land that had been promised to them by treaty and taken away. For us Christians, it would be hard to imagine if someone forcibly took the Garden of Eden from us and then planted the symbol of their own civil leaders right in the middle of it, and yet that is what Rushmore actually is. That quick little statement equating Rushmore with the armpit of the Crazy Horse sculpture makes sense.
The progress so far... it is so huge that it will take a while. 
        Sometimes in our lives we can be all to quick to trample of things that are sacred to others, and I don’t just mean the Garden of Eden of another religion, it can be something so simple and so unseen. Sometimes, as it was with General Custer and his gold hunting expeditions taking the Black Hills, it is out of greed. Other times it is just because we fail to be intentional or mindful enough to respect the mystery of God present in another. When we take time to listen to the stories, though, we can see the beauty in what others find sacred, from the things that pertain to religious faith, to friends, family, home, or parts of their culture, and find in it that deep longing for deeper meaning that each of us experience.
       At the same time, when people trample on the things that we hold sacred it is always good to help someone else try to understand the dignity that they have offended so that there can be genuine reconciliation. Jesus’s turning the other cheek wasn’t meant to allow people to beat us down, it was meant to cause the person who had just slapped you to have look you in the eye and to have to recognize you as a human with dignity. Sometimes to help people come to a clearer understanding we too need to turn the other cheek, or really want to make our point, you can put those moments in a place that shows how truly odiferous they are, like in the armpit.