My First Service Retreat

I went on my first service retreat this weekend hosted by UChicago’s Catholic student group. About twenty students made the trek over to Our Lady of Angels mission on the west side (for those that don’t know, the site of the infamous 1959 school fire that killed 95 people). Catholics love their retreats, and I was glad to finally partake in one myself.

It was a short retreat, only an evening and morning, but I needed the space to refresh, recharge and refocus. Recently I’ve been a bit stressed over my thesis so this retreat was just the spiritually affirming experience that I needed. Friday night we had a time for Eucharistic adoration while journaling about our faith journeys, during which I wrote down this reflection:

Why am I Catholic?
-Peace. I found peace in the stillness before mass, the beauty of liturgy, the comforting atmosphere of the Blessed Sacrament.
-The intellectual tradition. I felt my faith and mind reconcile; it made sense, it had answers, though others may disagree.
-The joy. I met joyful Catholics, whose faith and life didn’t seem in conflict. They made me think , “This is what it means for faith to be seamlessly integrated into life.”
-The Eucharist. If it was real, how could I not want it?
-The authority. I needed authority in my life. I needed to know right from wrong.
-The freedom. The freedom of knowing right, a freedom that I don’t know how to explain. The freedom of knowing wrong, and always being able to ask for forgiveness, and receive a response. The freedom of knowing that when I ask for forgiveness something really does change in me.
-The saints. The true universality of our faith, that we are all bound in one body, and we share life in a way deeper than I can possibly understand.
-The accountability. I am challenged in my beliefs. The sense that faith is larger than me.
-The heart. The fact that service is at the front and center of what it means to be the Church.
-St. Augustine. An experience with a painting in an art gallery, that allowed me to see myself more clearly than I ever had before.
-I guess at the end of the day, I heard Jesus’ voice.

Post-adoration we split into small groups to share. In my group, a mixture of cradle Catholics and converts, we all felt led to share with each other about why we are Catholic. Everyone had a story; those I least expected had the most painful, and the most beautiful. The stories of changed lives brought by the light of hope, and of emerging from the other side of pain and suffering with faith moved us all. It amazed me that this collection of people from different walks of life, different backgrounds and different countries could be brought together so unexpectedly to reveal how much God had worked in each of our lives in ways so similar, so familiar. His hand that has comforted and guided me is the same hand that comforted and guided others through situations so far removed from my own experience.

The next morning commenced the service portion of our retreat. Up early for mass and breakfast, then it was time to get moving, preparing for the “mobile pantry.” The mobile pantry is an outdoor pantry the mission hosts each month, feeding about 250 families in the neighborhood. About 150 other volunteers and myself set out massive amounts of food, clothes, toys and housing supplies (we were also supposed to be giving away TVs but the truck broke down on the way there, so that will have to be saved for next time). We helped people bring groceries to their cars and homes, giving us the opportunity to chat for a bit. For the duration of the mobile pantry, volunteers took half hour shifts in prayer and adoration, praying for the community and the city. It was a COLD but beautiful morning. I think I was especially touched by all of the kid volunteers who were outside early on a frigid Saturday morning, uncomplaining and smiling.

Honestly, it was too short. Having a break from business as usual in a different setting really did wonders for my mental and emotional state. But what especially filled me was the community, and the acts of service.

I can’t thank the sisters of the mission enough for opening up their doors and providing such a welcoming space for us, and for being a haven in a city that I care deeply for.

Pre-Inauguration Jitters: A Tense Outlook, A Faithful Outlook

“Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. …it is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously.” (Brueggemann, “Prophetic Imagination”)

One aspect of Christianity that I both love and hate is what I think of as the call to live life in tension.

The same faith that tells us to “mourn with those who mourn” is the same faith that admonishes all to “rejoice in the Lord always.” The same faith that caused Teresa of Avila to proclaim:

“Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices”

is the same faith of who Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The same faith that produced the fearsome non-violence of Martin Luther King Jr. produced the gruesome righteousness of Nat Turner. I’ve heard Christianity derided as too timid, too extreme, too pliable, too puritanical, too forgiving, too angry, too abstaining, too engaging, too strict and too loose.

Of course, man interprets religion himself, for his own ends. But, there’s also something to be said for a faith that places tension at the very center of its narrative: the tension of a God who chooses to be killed by his own creation. For most of us in modern America, we have no sense of how repulsive such an idea must have seemed to those hearing it for the first time. (Blasphemy! How can God be killed?) The site of this greatest injustice is yet the site of the greatest mercy on earth. From death comes life. Divinity made low that man may be lifted high.

Chesterton captures this central paradox of Christianity symbolically through the image of the cross: “The cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its center it can grow without changing.” (Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”).

The substance of why this topic interests me involves how Christians interact with pain. Christianity is a faith that invites us to lament, but not despair. This is problematic for me for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that I struggle to separate these two ideas in my mind. Because I in large part interpret my faith through an intellectual lens, the fact that I cannot adequately understand the distinction tempts me to ignore it altogether.

What I have come to realize, though, is that while I remain intellectually unconvinced of the specific way a Christian should navigate between these two conditions, my heart feels the distinction in my own emotional reactions. I cannot adequately define what it means to lament without despairing, but I can recognize in myself when I have slipped from one condition to the other. This leads me to remind myself of two facts: 1) Faith cannot only be filtered through an intellectual perspective (my brain is not big enough to understand all that faith entails) and 2) I have to be careful when deciphering the reactions of others through my own intellectual lens. If I am not capable of fully understanding my own emotions, nor of understanding how to tread the line between lament and despair, then I am certainly not capable of fully grasping the nuances of someone else’s emotional responses to pain. Crucially, I am also not capable of fully appreciating the calculations that lead to joy directed toward the object of another’s despair.

In the aftermath of the presidential election I read many articles (and had conversations with many people) evaluating others’ emotional responses to the election. I primarily experienced these articles and conversations in Christian circles. On the one hand, I heard a crowd of people berating negative responses to election results, because “God is in control.” On the other hand, I also heard a crowd of people berating the detached response of “churchy” people as “insensitive” and “condescending.” I myself had my own opinion in these debates, and happily criticized the side that I disliked.

However, with some time and reflection I have had to admit that scripture and tradition speak in the affirmative of both responses, the lament and the constancy. The first part of this blog post points to the fact that Christianity contains both strands of thought, and in fact there are too many such examples to mention. Just as I struggle to reconcile a proper understanding of faith, pain and hope with my own emotional conformity to the ideal, so too I have to give space to others who also fall short of the ideal.

This, then, is another tension in Christianity. We do not want to hastily declare that all responses are good or equal; yet, we also do not want to paint the picture of a faith that is inhuman in its inability to cope with the spectrum of human emotions. Detaching oneself from hardship and suffering does not make a person more Christian; it does make one less human. It’s one thing to use Jesus as a pair of glasses to see the world more clearly, and another to use him like a drug to numb oneself to the world. We all, regardless of how we view the election, must reaffirm these tensions if we truly wish to see the world as Christ does, rather than deaden ourselves to those things we don’t wish to see.

This blog post does not really add to the post-election and pre-inauguration conversation, except to say that all who call ourselves Christian could stand to be more cognizant of the Christian call to embrace both lament and hope, and the call to humility when evaluating the reactions of others. How we strike that balance is an open question, but it will never be answered if we dismiss the tension itself.

One Step Forward, Twenty-Four Steps Back

“I’m going to Chicago to study war.”

The pronouncement coming from my mouth startled even me. I hadn’t thought of my impending move to begin a master’s in international relations at the University of Chicago in those terms before, but, I thought, isn’t that what I am doing?

The thought came as an evening of grilled salmon, wine, and friendship in an idyllic Princeton backyard was winding down. The setting was in sharp contrast to the topics of poverty and violence which had dominated our conversation.

Chicago brings a lot of conflicting thoughts and emotions to mind; it always has. It’s where I was born, though not where I was raised. My parents wanted my siblings and I to grow up in New Jersey, for many good reasons.

In truth, I wasn’t really born in Chicago, but a few miles south. Growing up, “going to Chicago” was the phrase my siblings and I used to mean the city itself and the suburbs surrounding the south side, the area upon which spread the bulk of my father’s family.

When I think of Chicago, I think of family. I think of laughing harder than I ever have with any other group of people in my life. I think of music, the likes of which Jersey musicians can’t compare. I think of rap cyphers in parking lots, heated family arguments, and dancing. I think of Fox’s pizza, Giordano’s, Polish sausages, and Harold’s chicken. For some reason, I think of lightning bugs. I think of basketball, and the pride I feel for the amazing things my family has accomplished. I think of how proud my family is of me. I think of the church my uncle pastors, where we attended growing up whenever we visited the family.

I think of my cousin’s best friend, shot and killed in front of that church just moments after my cousin walked away. I think of how alienated I felt from my high school classmates in New Jersey when it happened. I think of my most recent trip to Chicago last fall, listening to a conversation among some family members about times they’ve been shot at or had guns pointed at them. I think of how middle class black families never completely escape the woes of the ghetto. I think of how the violence in Chicago is getting worse, and no one seems to have solutions. I think of the hard work my family does in the community to fight Chicago’s worst tendencies, and how it never seems to be enough.

I’m going to a city where people who look like me get shot every day, while I isolate myself in a protected bubble with people who don’t look like me, puzzling out the intricacies of what brings nations to the point of ordering the deaths of thousands. The enormity of the effect this could have on my soul was beginning to hit me, when my friend remarked, “It’s a good thing you’re a Christian. Be in church as often as possible.”

I might have slipped into dismayed brooding but for that remark. It made me realize that, though the University of Chicago is my dream school, though I’ve known for several years that I want to return to my “roots” and live with my Chicago family, there is a certain amount of emotional preparation I need to do along with my packing, and there is a certain amount of spiritual and emotional upkeep I will have to insist on while I’m there. While I’m studying wars and conflicts in countries far away, I won’t be able to block out what’s going on in the city around me. Whether that becomes a strength or a burden is entirely dependent on my approach.

Always clinging to the rock that is higher than I, I look forward to the challenges of the step to come.

Senseless Sensibilities: On Yale and Safe Spaces

Much has been written about the protests at Yale over the past week. I had no intention of wading into the fray of online arguments, but a persistent voice in my head kept reminding me to be “more than a placeholder for decency.” So, here I am tackling the issue from my personal perspective. I will not address every grievance of student protestors, I won’t attack methods of protest, and I will not discuss the call for removal of certain faculty members. This is not because I agree with every protest tactic or motivation (I neither completely agree nor disagree though I maintain their right to protest), but because I have a very specific focus in this post on an issue that has irked me for some time.

When I view not only the immediate catalyst for the events at Yale, but also the so-called list of “demands” I  notice a few common themes: administrative acknowledgment of student’s feelings, admission of guilt, decentralization of power, increased diversity training and consequences for transgressing boundaries, and especially the idea of a “safe space”. Safe space here is not used as a physical safe space, but an intellectual and moral enclosure in protection of one’s ideas, emotions and experiences.

In fact, it is the concept of a safe space that underlies most every other demand. In the very opening to the student demands for the institution, students claim they “want and need” certain actions of the administration in order to move forward. The underlying assumption of this document, and much of the protest, is that students need protection from those that transgress ideological boundaries: cultural appropriation through Halloween costumes, disagreement with faculty, and less than welcoming fraternities. Rather than engaging with potentially painful and offensive speech, a collective of Yale students seem to want to stamp it out all together, because such speech is so harmful that they cannot function in an environment where it exists. The Yale impulse seems to be in favor of forever wanting to protect certain mindsets, rather than recovering enough from past wounds to engage with the present context. Though the impulse to want to protect someone from exposure to painful and offensive speech is noble it is not ultimately helpful, as any parent watching their child mature can attest.

To be clear: if a fraternity is denying black women entrance to a party, that calls for an administrative response. If black people are being threatened with assault, that should prompt a security investigation. If professors are treating black students unfairly, that deserves administrative action. And if there is a pervasive problem of people running around chanting the n-word, then that deserves a reiteration of the rules and expectations for the community from those in authority. None of these responses, of course, would preclude appropriate consequences for transgressors. The problem with the current crop of Yale protests is that students are not separating actual harmful affronts to the community from their own subjective “hurtful” and offensive experiences. And no, expressing an opinion on an emotionally-charge and controversial topic does not equal racism, and certainly does not warrant censure. There are lines of common sense that Erika Christakis’ letter did not cross, but which opposing students have trampled over.

This concerns me as a black person. But on a deeper level, it concerns me as a human who sees a denial of some basic principles of life in the protestors’ chants and demands. We, all people, need safe spaces as refuges from an at times hostile world, not as replacements for the world. I cannot pound conformity into the world around me, but I can pound resilience into my own mind. My mind is my first safe space; my room is my next. I both compromise and strengthen my safe space when I widen it to include family and select friends. But I have destroyed my safe space if I feel that it must include everyone and everything I come into contact with. Student activists may not realize that that is what their mindset in this case amounts to; but if a space is only safe if everyone who does not agree with me is silent then I will live my life constantly feeling violated.

When I consider the painful history of my people, what sparks such joy in me is our resilience. Black people in America have endured so much, and yet we have done so much despite the burdens of slavery, segregation, racism, lack of economic opportunities, denial of humanity, etc. etc. When I consider the painful moments in the lives of my family members and myself, I become even more joyful at the obstacles that I have personally witnessed overcome. I would never wish a perpetual “safe space” on those I love; I care for their overall emotional wellbeing and their ability to adapt and advance past painful situations too much to lie to them. I’ll say it again: I love my family too much to want to hide from them the reality that they have to deal with pain and a world that does not always agree with them. Their pain is not the responsibility of everyone else who comes into contact with them.

One of my sisters is a gymnast. Several years ago, when she was about 11, she fell headfirst on her Yurchenko vault. Her hands slipped off the vaulting table, her head then back hit the ground with a loud crack and she blacked out. It took her about a year to physically recover from the accident, and even today her occasional back and hip pain can be traced to that instant. But my sister is fortunate: other girls who have fallen on that same vault have suffered paralysis, broken spines, and even death.

Looking back on her recovery, what is interesting to me is that the mental and emotional component was every bit as important as the physical recovery. It took her six months before she was finally able to even walk next to the vault. It took more time for her to touch the vault, and longer before she was willing to start vaulting again. Today she is an excellent vaulter; but this was accomplished by the support and even slight pressure of my mother, her coaches, and fellow gymnasts who did not let her give up, but forced her to conquer her fears. She was “triggered” every time she saw the vaulting table in those first several months. But being triggered was essential to her recovery process. She could not have recovered if in those early days she had not learned to work through the anxiety and panic that seeing the vaulting table gave her. What she did not do was demand that the vaulting table be removed from her presence; neither did she give in to the instinct to ignore the cause of her pain.

I am not advocating a disrespect of people’s experiences. I am also not advocating not speaking up against obvious violations of good conduct at colleges. What I am saying is that I cannot, in good conscience, “help” or “respect” family or friends in such as a way as to leave them more vulnerable to later emotional attacks. No one knows when they will see or hear something that sends thoughts and emotions spiraling backwards to a painful moment in personal history. The answer is not to remove every person or every idea that potentially (or even actually) causes conflict. Within my own family I can recall instances of racism, bullying, assault, and myriad other stressful situations. What is impressive to me is that some of the people who have suffered the most are those most willing to confront their festering wounds. That is the path to healing.

John Donne and Putting Away Childish Things

Funny how we can initially read something with minimal impact on our lives, only to recall the words with great power later. Such was John Donne for me, that Anglican priest whose sensual and spiritual writings mark him chief of the metaphysical poets. During my freshman year of high school we read many of his later religious works. They did not make a huge impression on me at the time; and yet, they were not totally without affect, for something particularly in Holy Sonnet X and Meditation XVII caught my attention enough to burn a few choice phrases in my memory. As a fourteen year old reading his poetry I did not grasp the depth or truth of his words beyond a superficial level, but, out of every great work of classic poetry and literature that we read that year, Donne’s were the only words that I clearly remember now (I know, I know, sad).

What made me think of Donne? I haven’t thought of him since that year of high school English, until recently that is. Something made me recall his words with a potency that was almost breathtaking. Lines from poetry read ten years ago came to mind, and I felt an urge to reread his sonnets. So, I did. And what I found shocked me.

I found truth, a clarity of vision about the Body of Christ, death as merely a stepping stone, and other theological concepts that I had not expected to find. I found so much that I cannot imagine how I missed this gold mine as a teenager: how could I not hear the might of the words and ignore the ominous warning of, “Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee” as a Christian teenager? How could I take as a platitude, “No man is an island, entire of itself?” And how could I not hear the echoes of St. Paul in these words: “Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.” Come to think of it, John Donne’s poetry should have shaken the security out of me, if I had been half as serious or knowledgeable about my faith as I imagined myself to be.

Much of adulthood for me has been discovering and rediscovering wisdom discovered by millions and billions of others before me. History might say to me “Been there, done that, already forgotten lessons you haven’t even learned yet.” And I would have to respond in the affirmative, that yes, I am merely rediscovering what should have been evident to me a long time ago, knowledge that while new to me is old to the world.

Putting away childish things, I seek truth now in the words I read.

Good Friday Reflection

It’s late, and it’s not technically Good Friday anymore here in Taipei; but I just got back from salsa dancing and it’s still Good Friday in the U.S., so I’m writing this reflection now.

I would say that my Good Friday experience this year has been heavily impacted by reading St. Augustine’s “Confessions” this past week or so. I resonate with St. Augustine’s words on so many levels, but what most hit me today was how Augustine searched and searched in vain for truth for years and years, and yet God would not allow himself to be found until Augustine was humbled.

In mass tonight, St. Augustine’s words pierced me anew, as I realized for the first time how true this was in my life. It’s been in my brokenness and weakness that I’ve most sincerely sought truth, and in my humility that I’ve been able to find it. I’m still searching; but I’m beginning to understand that the path to truth is not found in mere knowledge, rather, it is one that only the humble can follow:

“5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
(Phillippians 2:5-10)

“Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and theLord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.

And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
(Isaiah 53)

14 The Lord is my strength and song, and is become my salvation.

15 The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tabernacles of the righteous: the right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.

16 The right hand of the Lord is exalted: the right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.

17 I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.

18 The Lord hath chastened me sore: but he hath not given me over unto death.

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness: I will go into them, and I will praise the Lord:

20 This gate of the Lord, into which the righteous shall enter.

21 I will praise thee: for thou hast heard me, and art become my salvation.

22 The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.

23 This is the Lord‘s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.

24 This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.
(Psalm 118:14-24)

Courage

“Remember Cedric. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.” – Albus Dumbledore (aka J.K. Rowling)

If you haven’t read Harry Potter, perhaps the idea of an adult quoting one of its characters seems juvenile. But in fact, this reminder from the wizard Dumbledore that life’s choices often don’t come down to right or wrong, but right or easy, is both true and important.

I’ve been thinking about the virtue of courage a bit lately. It wasn’t an over stressed virtue in my upbringing, which I now think was unfortunate. I heard the negative “don’t be afraid” much more often than the positive (and significantly more powerful) corollary “be courageous” or “be brave.” Love, faith, patience, honesty, happiness, even confidence were verbally extolled, but courage much less so.

I have often been taught confidence as an antidote to fear. Confidence is not courage, cannot take the place of courage, and is not equal to courage as a moral. Confidence is an assurance that one will perform well; courage is the quality that compels us to perform even when we have no assurance that we will succeed, or even if we are assured that there will be negative consequences. It has nothing to do with our abilities and everything to do with acceptance of what we cannot know, perhaps even of suffering. When confidence is no longer sufficient, courage pushes for action.

It is no secret that our society suffers from virtues gone wild (read G. K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” if you’re skeptical). We pick and choose and under and over emphasize certain virtues to fit our present causes, which is an abuse of both morality and mankind (C. A. Lewis’ “Abolition of Man” has a good discussion on this). Our horrible exercise of separating and dismissing virtues, rather than accepting and harmonizing them, renders even the virtues we retain useless. For what use is tolerance if I’m too afraid of the social consequences to oppose bigotry? What is generosity if I’m too protective of my safety to help the homeless man on the street? Virtues need each other, and courage is needed no less than any other.

If love is the virtue that provides the reason for all others, then courage is the virtue that moves love into action; love compels while courage propels.

Perhaps Maya Angelou said it best when she said “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”