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.