Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Free Agency: Revisited

I wanted to give Tom the perfect gift for his ordination to the priesthood. A card with a check was now out of the question. He already had a fair share of religious art, a lifetime supply of journals and considering his future studies, another book on spirituality was a near insult. After some careful deliberation, I went with a framed picture featuring our mutual friends and a fitting passage from scripture:
In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all…. --Colossians1:3-4
I thought these words said it best, until I saw what his college buddies were oh so proud to present. Tom held high a pewter flask, engraved with the words, Poverty + Obedience + Chastity; reminding Tom of his vows to the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Let's raise one to religious life!

Spend some time with anyone vowed to the priesthood or religious life and they will let you in on a secret. Of the vows they take to their community, most concede the most challenging vow does not involve the one you might think. None are easy, but obedience can be particularly difficult. In fact, one friend refused to consider a call to religious life because she “wanted to be a free agent.” Her desire to serve the Lord was real, but not in such a way that she was willing to allow a religious community to determine how and where she would do that. Bearing that in mind, I found ESPN.com’s report Top A’s Prospect Enters Priesthood, inspiring yet riddled with irony. Grant Desme, a 23-year old outfielder is leaving baseball—a sport defined by free agency, to pursue his vocation to the priesthood.

The play on words is too much; vocation stems from the Latin, “to call.” MVP of the Arizona Fall League, ESPN reports that Desme would have likely “gotten the call every minor leaguer wants this spring,” a call to the “Bigs.” It seems however, he received another call, and he will begin what he says is “about a 10-year process.”

When Desme informed the A’s General Manager, Billy Beane of his aspiration to “higher things” Desme said that although Beane was “understanding and supportive,” the decision “sort of knocked him off his horse.” I wondered if Desme used those words intentionally, for St. Paul’s conversion began when he was knocked off his horse and blinded by the power of grace. Yet the fact that Saul—a man who had persecuted Christians became Paul—an apostle, a saint, a missionary, was shocking news during his day as well.

Grant Desme had an opportunity to play a sport our country reveres at the highest level. At some point during his days off “which gave him time to…read and study the Bible” he must have come across From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. –Luke 12:48
I know my friend Tom knew this passage; he thanked his mother for echoing Luke's Gospel at his ordination. Tom was student body president at Notre Dame, he had walked on the football team and left a successful business career to become a Holy Cross priest and now serves as VP for student affairs. It’s tough to say, but perhaps Grant Desme’s choice will lead others with whom much has been given to consider a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. Good luck with obedience.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Bruce Mahoney Rivalry: Proof that Authentic Spirituality Leads to Community

Recently, a friend who resides in Oakland called me out the fact that I reference San Francisco as “The City.” Considering that I grew up in “The East Bay,” he was surprised that even I use such myopic language.
There are, after all, other cities in the US and the world—even other bay areas. I explained that my childhood is colored with memories of that fateful trek to “The City” to visit my grandparents. Today, I take great pride the fact I live in the place where my mother was born and raised. This is the language my mom and I speak, we know San Francisco as “The City.”

So imagine my chagrin when I recently read a cultural review of “Sex and the City” by James Martin, SJ editor of "America" magazine. He launched this same complaint about New Yorkers. When I read his words “the place that New Yorkers annoyingly call ‘the City, “ I suddenly felt a little defensive, a little territorial. “The City” is San Francisco. New York already has its fair share of unique descriptors—the Big Apple, Gotham City. Compared to Zoo York, we are but a one horse town. Can we at least keep “The City?” With this question looming in my mind, imagine my pleasure when I read that "The New York Times," the unofficial source of wisdom and truth for one too many San Franciscans, gave a nod to the Bruce Mahoney basketball game. New York has a lot over San Francisco, but I would find it hard to believe that it has much over the high school rivalry that beats all in “The City. Truly, it is a spiritual experience.

In his article “I’m Spiritual, Who Needs Religion?” Tim Muldoon writes
People want spirituality (read: they want to feel good about their lives), and so will hop from one form of spiritual practice to the next in search of what they think will help…. The problem with this approach to spirituality is that it doesn't take seriously the very basic wisdom that comes from not only the history of spiritual literature, but also from more contemporary studies in psychology, sociology, political science, and others: namely, that human experience naturally involves suffering, and that living wisely means confronting this reality. Authentic spirituality takes seriously the fact that human beings across the ages have confronted many of the same basic dilemmas about being human: growing up, growing old; falling in love; pain and suffering; hope and joy; fear of death and hope for rebirth. It further recognizes that no individual can make him- or herself grow into wisdom, but that we must seek the counsel of others who have wrestled with these “limit questions” over time.

James’ article “Catholics Gather Courtside to Put Their Faith on Display” alludes to much of what Muldoon claims in terms of how and why “authentic spirituality leads to community.” Participation as either an athlete or a fan in the Bruce Mahoney games (football, basketball and baseball) is a rite of passage for any St. Ignatius or Sacred Heart student.
These games serve as the lens by which the same basic dilemmas about being human are revealed. The rituals and the ambiance leading up to the game—the spirit theme days, the pep rally, the players dress up on game day and the extra attention they get in the hallways capture hope and joy. After losing the Bruce Mahoney trophy last year, this year’s senior class came into this school year with hope for rebirth. The game itself is a battle. The stakes are so high that at one point you can smell the fear of death. Once glance at the student section—a royal fire hazard or the lower seats—filled with a significant number of alums, gives witness to the reality that we grow up and we grow old. A win on Tuesday would have captured the Bruce Mahoney trophy for the year. Instead, our players and students had to confront pain and suffering not only on the court, but perhaps more palpably the next day at school.

It is amazing how one game can serve as the paradigm by which my students wrestle with limit questions and hopefully grow into wisdom. The day after the Bruce, two former students who are basketball players came into my classroom just to talk about the game. After hugs and listening to their thoughts about the game, I myself was struck by what Michael, the team captain told me his coach advised. They were reminded that this game with this many fans, friends and family members was like no other. At some point during the game, their coach said they should take a moment to recognize what they were a part of, to remember to have fun and enjoy. I thought to myself, if a player, a student or an alum could do just that, how could he or she not feel good about their life? It is, after all, a spiritual experience.

Sure, I wish that the common faith of both schools still had the influence it once did. I would love for my students and their families to attend mass regularly and willingly and not have to apologize for doing so. Reality is however, something different. It can be isolating, lonely and downright challenging to bear witness to all that the Catholic faith asks of us. But I find comfort in the words of Archbishop George H. Niederauer; “it isn’t ultimately a question of numbers and percentages. It is, you know, the quality of the faith life and of the spirituality.” Our students led prayer before the game, the players took a moment at their coach’s recommendation during the game to give thanks and their classmates, parents and friends cheered for them and supported them until the end. I couldn’t be more proud of this unconventional way that Catholics put their faith on display this past week. Truly, authentic spirituality was found in this community—a community of faith and a community that is ready for the Bruce Mahoney baseball game that will take place in “The City” on April 16.

Friday, January 1, 2010

My New Year’s Resolution: Rub Some Dirt On It.

A new year, a new decade; this is a welcome thing for Notre Dame Football. Legends, a popular university owned and operated restaurant and ale house is an ND sports fans paradise. Along the perimeter of the pub is a time line that chronicles the success of Notre Dame athletic history with the inception of its football team in 1887. It’s a thrill to take that walk around the restaurant and note Notre Dame’s accomplishments, particularly in football: 11* National Championships, 7 Heisman trophy winners, some legendary coaches and a striking number of All-Americans over 100+ years. When you arrive at the decade we just left however—the ’00s, apart a victory in the 2009 Hawaii Bowl to end the NCAA's record nine-game bowl losing streak, Notre Dame Football is painfully M.I.A.
True, during this time the Irish flourished in other sports such as soccer and hockey and reached new heights in womens' sports, my favorite being the 2001 women’s basketball NCAA Championship, but my recommendation on this New Year’s Day is to look back upon that decade and do as my resolution suggests—rub some dirt on it.

Football has a lexicon of its own—the gridiron, first down, and in the words of every other NFL player “it is what it is.” Perhaps one of its lesser known but more colorful phrases is to "rub some dirt on it." A player would tell a teammate to do this after a failed attempt or a missed hit. It is synonymous with to “shake it off” or to “move on.” I also hope to take this expression and apply it to my own life.


Being a Christian means I am asked to respond to the challenge and call of the Gospel. Jesus’ teachings were counter cultural, even in His day. Living in an increasingly secular place, this is no easy task. I am amazed and how often I am criticized, even attacked for what the Catholic faith may ask of me. More often than not, people offer their charged personal views and ask questions of me about the church’s teachings that they do not want answered. What people may not realize however is that I take their criticisms to heart. If someone has been hurt by a negative experience in the church, I cannot help but take that personally. However, this year, I have decided that when someone launches an unsolicited criticism on what I hold as sacred, and they typically do so at an inappropriate time e.g. in a bar or during a nice dinner, I just need to “rub some dirt on it.”

I am not the sole defender of the faith, nor do I want to be. I try to keep my faith front and center of my life but this is exceedingly difficult. Fortunately, my family members, friends and mentors nurture my faith and are willing to partake in the effort required to build it. Attacks on Christianity or assaults on the Catholic Church aren’t going away (and I’ve had my own!) so this year when they do occur, I hope to remember the wisdom St. Francis who said "Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words." In 2010 and beyond, I hope that the example of my life will serve as an answer to their questions, a counter to their criticism and if it don't, let's all just "rub some dirt on it."

*stands for the 1993 National Championship that was robbed from Notre Dame by Florida State. Despite the fact ND beat FSU during the regular season, the BCS gave Bobby Bowden his title and declared FSU #1.

**I cannot write this posting without recognizing two former students. Thanks to Alex for sharing with me, 4 years ago now, the goodness that is Peyton Manning. Alex, you know where it lives. And to Roy, what you declared about your beliefs (and your family's) during your Faith Stance your senior year took a tremendous amount of courage. I know you bring that same courage to the LAX field at Cornell.