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Loss & Mystery (And Why We Care About MH370)

“There’s a plane missing in the Indian Ocean,” says the guy in front of me in class. He then pulls up a website with all the data, information and stats, a website exclusively devoted to the search for Flight MH370. It was 12 days ago and I had my mind on so many other things. I have watched countless documentaries on the history channel about plane crashes and objects lost mysteriously at sea. I was late for class, overwhelmed with homework and not particularly keen on hearing yet another “unsolved mystery.” I blew off his obvious enthusiasm and moved on with my day.

A week later, I had become intrigued. Apparently, this was no ordinary plane crash story. Vague clues and details were coming in by the hour. The transponder had been deliberately turned off. The plane had taken a radical turn to the west. It had flown well above it’s ceiling, then dropped to only a few thousand feet when flying over land. It had disappeared off of radar with hours of fuel onboard…yet still had not appeared on any other radar. The last satellite “ping” placed it either in the middle of Asia’s most formidable desert or in the southern Indian ocean, far away from Antarctica and Australia alike. Finally, and most perplexingly, not a single one of the over 200 people on board had made any attempt to text or call loved ones while the plane remained in flight. How on earth could all these details fit together given the motives of the human heart? Why change course? Why no ground contact? Why fly a plane into the middle of nowhere?

It was the personal motives that intrigued me. The only thing that all authorities seemed to agree on was that someone who knew what they were doing (the pilot? the co-pilot? a member of the crew or hijacker?) had deliberately turned off the transponder, tuned out of the radio communications and drastically diverted the plane’s course. Why? No one seemed to know, yet no one seemed reluctant to guess. CNN set up 24 hour coverage which was quickly criticized. The governments of the over-25 countries involved held a string of press conferences, sometimes verifying and sometimes contradicting the official facts. Family members cried hysterically for definitive answers in the midst of so much blind speculation. The mystery of MH370 had gone from a strange news piece scrolling at the bottom of the screen to a full-fledged mystery. What pushed it beyond the boundaries of normal news was when it went from being a missing plane to being about missing people.

A missing plane is problematic. Missing people are a mystery.
Mystery involves the seen and unseen. It involves motives, clues and signs that point to things greater than themselves. A plane that crashes in the sea might make the evening news. A plane that vanishes can cause much speculation. But a human being who deliberately steers a plane off its course for unknown motives and reasons is a mystery proper. It is the personal aspect of the problem that allows it to transcend the worries of aviation experts and close family members, touching the hearts of all humans who hear about MH370’s plight. Where mere mechanics are at stake, people can understand the tragedy but not the complexity of the situation. However, when human motives are the essential factor, the story becomes much more complex than a jet engine and far more universal.

Mystery must be personal, or else it is merely problematic. That, at least, is an amateur theologian’s takeaway from the story of MH370.

The Apology

I have had to make this type of post to often and it bothers me, because I hate not doing something I love and something that I feel is important. Over these last few months, life has been a little bumpy not because of exterior happiness, interiorly. I lost my daily rhythm and suffice it to say my priorities have gotten out of whack. BUT NOW IT’S LENT! I hope to take this time and use it wisely to reassert my priorities, which after the roller coaster ride of my own handling of life will be difficult.

Some of you, my friends, will wonder, “what is he talking about?”Don’t worry about it. I just let life take control and went along for the ride and didn’t allow the Lord to order my life. I let life order my life. In other words, I need to pray more, listen more, love more. When I don’t do that, well, my interior life suffers, which then effects every other area.

So I apologize, that I haven’t posted anything in a month and a half. Lent is here and it is the time to reorder life. Put first things first and less important things on the back burner.  (Although I have given a social media for Lent, you can remind me to post through the contact button at the top right hand side of the page.)

These are my hopes for Lent. I’d love to here yours.

“Our Finest Hour” (Or, American Christianity Today)

When I get on the blog-o-sphere these days, I get the unsettling vibe that many of my brothers & sisters in Christ are none too pleased to be a Christian in American these days. Admittedly, this is not the Christian faith’s most popular hour. When a Christian misrepresents a concept, they are lambasted as naive. If they mispronounce a word, they are called ignorant. Any attempt to represent their moral views opens them up to being attacked as judgmental, backwards or even hateful.

Yet, for all this, I can’t help but feel that this is precisely the hour that we are called to silently raise our heads high. It is for this hour that we have been kept on earth. The world writhes in pain even now. We bring the remedy. They may chide & criticize, but we know that Christ’s message of contrition & committed love is the only real answer to life’s deepest longings.

Where the world offers “free sex” and when the unborn are reduced to “unplanned” side-effects, it is our opportunity to remind the world of the dignity of human life.

When the world claims to know the meaning of love, but then is quick to accuse it’s enemies of “hate crimes,” it is Christians who must be peaceful enough to accept the accusation in stride.

When the powers-that-be use healthcare politics to pick on nuns serving the poor, we should have no doubt who David & Goliath are in that situation. And, of course, we stand with David.

Near the end of the movie Apollo 13, the administrators at Mission Control are speculating that, should the astronauts not survive re-entry, it could be “the greatest disaster in the history of manned spaceflight.” Overhearing their comments, the Flight Director Gene Kranz turns to the suits and blurts out “With all due respect, I believe that this will be our finest hour.” I cannot help but share his sentiment. The Church was made for moments like this. Christ has given us the Holy Spirit, promised not to leave us orphans and has assured as that the Enemy will not prevail against us. Why are we so slow to believe Him and so quick to listen to the world?

So, as things get worse before they get better, as it becomes more and more difficult to stand up for what (and Who) we believe in, we must remember that it was for hours like this that Christ has left us on earth. Let us not get our feathers ruffled. Lets not lose heart, our patience or our courage. Should His love be our guide, no matter how many voices rise against us, this indeed will be our finest hour.

Family’s Value (Or, Why We’re Home For Christmas)

“Hey, son, when do you get off of work?”

“Closing time on Friday.”

“Oh. So how long will you spend at your house before coming home? A couple of days?”

“Oh no! A couple of hours, if that. I want to be with y’all by Friday night. I’m gonna lock my place up, hit the road and not look back ’till New Years.”

“Ok. Glad to hear it.”

This conversation played out between my father and I recently. I know he was testing the waters, trying to see what my schedule was like for the break. Yet, his assumption that I might spend the days leading up to Christmas alone at my small house in the city seemed odd to me. Did he not know how much I longed to be home this time of year? Can he have forgotten what it’s like to sit in an empty house, knowing that your family is only an hour’s drive away? What would Advent & Christmastime be without family?

Twenty years ago, the kid who was me experienced Christmas as two holidays wrapped in one. The first was the jovial gift-giving holiday promoted by commercials but truly fueled by that playful child-like spirit of games, toys and fun. The other was an equally compelling but strictly religious celebration at church when the adults, with a totally serious (and occasionally stern) face, reminded us kids to be quiet because the God-baby was asleep in his manger. And, deep down inside, I sensed that somehow these two holidays were linked through the living reality of family. Yet, with all the happy serendipity of a child, I merely accepted the mystery at face value.

Having put aside childish things, I now know that those two holidays were, of course, the same one. Chesterton once compared falling down the chimney to what happens when a mother gives birth: a gift is dropped down a shoot into a room full of strangers. Christmas is merely the celebration of the greatest present to fall down the chimney: Christ, and his great act of giving us back to each other. Likewise, a wise priest a know has called Christmas the greatest joke ever. Humor, he argues, is the coming together of opposite ideas. What could be more opposite than the heavenly court literally engulfing the countryside at the birth of a human family on the plains of Bethlehem.

The human family was the key to all this. A man, a woman and a child, illuminated by a star, surrounded by angels, shepherds and sages: this is the strange icon the Christmas has etched in our hearts. It is as if all the powers of heaven and earth are bent in humility around this most fundamental institution: the family. The Psalmist tells us the God has made heaven his throne and earth his footstool: but we get the sense at Christmas that the family is His royal entourage! For laying at the center of the picture, to weak to even speak, is the Word of God. Perhaps that is why they call it silent night: not simply because angels, humans and animals are all adoring the Christ-child, but because God Himself was silent in the presence of the mystery of ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy.’

So, yes, I am going home for Christmas. I cannot wait to arrive, though I cannot say why. Like the rest of us, I can only look at those two parents bent over the manger and wonder what in heaven and on earth God was thinking when he gave us to each other.

 

The Life of a Salesman (or the Beauty of the Sacraments of Service)

All kinds of things occur in the life of a priest, however, 90% of people only see the priest in a sacramental role: celebrating mass, hearing confessions, baptizing babies, witnessing marriages. Priesthood finds its center in the sacraments, but it is indeed much more than that.

I remember sitting in a corner office in the chancery building of the Archdiocese of New Orleans as an eighteen year old boy looking across to the diminutive but influential man of Archbishop Alfred Hughes. I was nervous, because this was my final interview in the process of entering into seminary. The Archbishop was certainly the most important person I had ever sat across from. We spoke about many things, but one conversation in particular has struck with me, ten and a half years later. He asked me what my father did, and I responded by explaining my father’s job as a salesman of sorts in the hotel business. In his grandfatherly way, the Archbishop perked up slightly and responded, “My father too was a salesman. I see myself as, in some way, following in his footsteps, except we are salesmen for Christ.”

At the time I thought that a fascinating idea for the life of a priest. A man who travels around selling for his and his family’s livelihood by totally believing in a product. A priest gives himself totally to the life into which he was ordained, proclaiming what to him is something, or rather someone, everyone needs, Jesus Christ. A traveling salesman was totally dedicated to his product and so is the priest. Sales, as such, is a field primarily, despite the advent of international social media, about relationships. It is in relationship that the priest, and really any missionary, finds his greatest success, his greatest fecundity.

About a month and a half-ago, I saw in such beautiful lines the fecundity of the priest, his building up life by his focus on relationships. I concelebrated a nuptial mass of a girl whom I had grown up with as she married the man of her dreams. The main celebrant and the priest who received their vows was assigned to our parish as a newly ordained priest, when she and I were around ten years old. After about three years in our parish, he was moved to gain a varied experience, but he continued to enter in and out of our lives.

When I entered my theological training, after spending four years in philosophy, I chose this priest to be my spiritual director. He walked with me for five years during some of the toughest times in my life. He was a guide and a great support to me.

About two and a half years ago, the bride in the story lost her mother in a long battle with cancer.  Although he was now pastor of a parish across town, this priest was there during some of the worse times before her death, and he celebrated her mother’s funeral mass.

It seemed only right for her to ask him to prepare her and her fiancé to receive the sacrament of marriage. He was there leading her and her groom in the recitation of their vows before God and the Church, while I, now a priest, was standing nearby. I saw, in that moment, from the fecundity of his priesthood the beginnings of hers and my vocations, wherein our own fecundity will occur. I saw how powerful the life and ministry of a good priest fosters the fulfillment of the vocations of those to whom he “makes sales” and creates relationships with. In the priest, there is certainly no death of a salesman, but rather new life in Christ.

On the Severe Lack of Time (And Why I Haven’t Written in Awhile)

“You, the eternal Creator of all times, art before all times, and that no times are co-eternal with You.”-St. Augustine

God has no time, and how would envy Him were it not for the fact that He loves me. Those creatures like myself, existing in time and space, feel our limitations most profoundly this time of year. The holidays are upon us and, in addition to our regularly stuffed schedules, we must find time to relax with family. In order to find this time, we must cook, clean, shop, spend, hunt and help in more ways than ever before, all amidst turbulent weather and even more turbulent emotions.

God, however, has no time and therefore never must worry about a lack of it. So maybe the greatest of all sacrifices that he experienced in those first months on earth was the shock of time. Think of that baby Jesus, containing within His heart all the secrets of human love, having to wait years until he’d even be able to speak a single word. In Christ, the Word became speechless, the Eternal Logos was at a loss for words. And the only remedy: to wait in time.

As we all try to fit more things into an already-cramped 24 hours, perhaps the greatest imitation of Christ we can offer is to stop. Just stop. Like right now.

Pray.

Listen.

Let the King of the Universe reign sovereign in your schedule. Then he will have time enough to reign in your heart. Teresa of Avila reminds her fellow Christians that Christ has no hands but ours, no feet but ours, no body but the Body of Christ on earth. I would take it one step further: Christ has no time but ours. God, being timeless, needs us to surrender our time to Him.

A Contribution to the Spirituality of Dealing with Trolls

Nearly a month ago I traveled to Boston for the Catholic New Media Conference. I have my initial reflections here, but a few things in particular required some further thought. No matter the session or group I was in, over the course of the day, one thing continued to pop up, trolls.

In the roundtable discussion I gave my initial, analogical reflection. We need to be like Bilbo Baggins (I’m not in any way partial to hobbit wisdom). In dealing with the three, rather hungry and slow witted trolls on the way from The Shire. Bilbo, figuring out that they turned to stone at day’s break, continued to engage them in conversation until the sun rose. I made the comparison that when speaking to trolls engage them until the Son rises. It was more comical than terribly helpful especially when five very vocal trolls take over your combox and each has differing views attacking you or each other. Your combox turns into the halls of Moria during the invasion of the goblins, loud, intense and no way out. Engaging them as such per comment would consume your time, your patience, and your charity.

Well, when I arrived back into my hotel room that afternoon, I was catching up on the Liturgy of the Hours before going out for good company that evening. It just so happened that that Saturday was the memorial of the French Jesuits who were martyred in Southern Canada. The Office of Readings was a letter from St. Jean de Brebeuf. He’s writing to his fellow Jesuits on the European continent about the relative nearness of his own martyrdom. Towards the end of the letter he said this,

“My God, it grieves me greatly that you are not known, that in this savage wilderness all have not been converted to you, that sin has not been driven from it. My God, even if all the brutal tortures which prisoners in this region must endure should fall on me, I offer myself most willingly to them and I alone shall suffer them all.”

Now my mind immediately went to trolls who are above all influenced by some sinful inclination, of different varieties and with different circumstances but all with lack of charity. They are an opportunity for those of us in new media to participate in Christ’s cross, to receive with him the buffets and slanders and misunderstandings. The combox can be a walk up Calvary. A means for us to grow in holiness. Then, trolls are a gift, a means to sanctify us, and when one person is truly sanctified, others around him/her are invited to deeper sanctity (I call this the equation of sanctity. Think of Monica and Augustine, Andrew and Peter, Albert and Aquinas, Ignatius and Francis Xavier.)

Then, in the next ‘hour’ one of the psalms was Psalm 141 which held the title, “A Prayer When in Danger.” I found the first nine verses pertinent. It can be a prayer on our lips when dealing with trolls.

I call upon thee, O LORD; make haste to me!
Give ear to my voice, when I call to thee!
Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!

Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD,
keep watch over the door of my lips!
Incline not my heart to any evil,
to busy myself with wicked deeds
in company with men who work iniquity;
and let me not eat of their dainties!

Let a good man strike or rebuke me in kindness,
but let the oil of the wicked never anoint my head;
for my prayer is continually against their wicked deeds.
When they are given over to those who shall condemn them,
then they shall learn that the word of the LORD is true.
As a rock which one cleaves and shatters on the land,
so shall their bones be strewn at the mouth of Sheol.

But my eyes are toward thee, O LORD God;
in thee I seek refuge; leave me not defenseless!
Keep me from the trap which they have laid for me,
and from the snares of evildoers! 

“Keep a guard over my mouth, O Lord” what a great prayer in speaking with a talking to trolls! And I couldn’t have made a better connection to the Biblo analogy if I tried! The psalm does two things: 1) it brings the Lord into the equation and 2) it allows for us to separate ourselves ever so briefly from the frustration of a troll.
I hope these paltry insights are helpful to you. And continue on in your proclamation of the gospel.

Zombies, Being Like Angels, and the Resurrection of the Dead

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Sea of Red (or Lift the Veil and See)

The life of a priest is rarely uneventful. Something will arise in the course of a day that will be different than the last, and Sundays are a bit busier for us than most.

Sunday October 26 the Archdiocese celebrated World Youth Day, which is a diocesan wide youth event put on by the diocesan youth ministry office. Two thousand teens from the greater New Orleans area converged on the Ernest Morial Convention Center (the same place where the New Orleans ComiCon is held).

Like such events there was a keynote, which I missed because I had the morning masses in the parish. In the early afternoon, there were over twenty break-out sessions varying from theological to spiritual to quirky (How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse, which of course was given by a Daughter of St. Paul).

The day ended with mass celebrated by the Archbishop. Here is where my story lies. While I was concelebrating I couldn’t help but look up to a two thousand strong congregation of teenagers dressed in the red t-shirt they received as part of the day. I looked out to see a sea of read, and I was struck by the power of that image. 

My thoughts were immediately draw to the martyrs in the book of Revelation. “After this I looked, ad behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb … These are they who come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Before me was the church militant imaging, in a scene of hope, the church triumphant (earth revealing heaven). I was immediately overwhelmed by the presence of the saints in the room with us worshipping the Lamb slain on the altar before me. We were all oriented toward the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

The veil between this world and the next is surprisingly thin in the sacrifice of the mass because the sacrifice is itself heavenly worship. We often veil our own eyes due to a weak faith, but let the Lord pull back the shades and let the light of eternal glory shine through. Who knows what we will see!

My Take on the Catholic New Media Conference

The Catholic New Media Conference has been around for seven years now. It has been on my radar for the past two or three. The Lord said last year, “I don’t want you to go right now” by allowing Hurricane Isaac to move through my area. This year I finally was able to attend.

What was interesting to me, at first glance, was that the biggest voices for Catholic New Media (at least in my mind, this is certainly not a definitive or representative list) other than Fr. Roderick Vonhögen, were not present. Names that come to mind are Elizabeth Scalia, Brandon Vogt, Lisa Hendey, Greg Willits, and Matthew Warner. These six have, over the past few years, become the voices for the Church to establish itself in New Media. They are big name missionaries on the Digital Continent. Ms. Scalia was slated to be there but illness prevented her presence. The other four were out in the world, called in different directions proclaiming the good news. They, in a sense, show that the community of digital missionaries is growing and the import of evangelizing in this territory is gaining traction.

After these initial impressions, three threads seemed to run through everything.

1) The Movement of the Holy Spirit

CNMC Holy Spirit

Notice the soon mentioned dove above my head.

Obviously, or maybe not so obviously, the Holy Spirit brought each one of us to Boston. That became apparent to me at the opening mass, in the chapel of the Pastoral Center of the Archdiocese of Boston. Above the altar, hanging from the fanned ceiling was an image of the Holy Spirt, gilt in metal, hanging like a censer. I saw that and knew the Spirit had something in mind. Furthermore, Fr. Roderick’s homily called us to trust in the Holy Spirt who will give us what we are to say.
I found there to be a great joy, which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, amongst the community. Even when the dreaded topic of trolling came up multiple time ist didn’t stall conversation, like a troll tends to do, but rather the conversation called us to be compassionate, merciful, and fortitudinous (more on that in another post, I promise).
Finally, throughout the day it felt organic, it didn’t seem forced or prideful but rather felt like a communal docility to the movement of the Spirit.

2) Building Community

Whether it was stated as such or not, the conference was intended to provide formation for missionaries on the digital continent. To that end, it is essential for missionaries to know they are connected to a community. It gave St. Francis Xavier strength that he had Jesuit brothers working toward the same end in a different vineyard, and it built him up when he spent time in community with them. An isolated missionary will not succeed, he/she needs to be connected to a community. The conference provided that avenue to enter into and grow in community with fellow missionaries.
My buddy, Billy Newton, over at the Blog of Courtier reflected on this aspect in greater detail.

3) We can’t just preach to the choir

I found, at various times and from various mouths, that (like this very post in fact) I or another is producing media directly to the Catholic niche, to the exclusion of those lost sheep. (Don’t get me wrong this ministry is important and vital. However, due to the nature of the digital continent all niches become global in reach. Hence, it is necessary to reach out to those outside the niche.) Multiple times it became apparent that we have become comfortable with the ninety-nine and not actively seeking the one lost sheep. This is indeed a challenge to myself moving forward.

To conclude, I loved my time in Boston. I got to spend time with old friends and make many new ones. I take away with me the desire to blog here more and fulfill what I myself have said much during this year of faith, “Go, and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”

All the photo credits go to: George Martell – Pilot New Media Office, © Archdiocese of Boston 2013