Monday, December 31, 2012

Last Post from Kona

Believe it or not, I started writing a post for this blog four distinct times since October, but in all four cases, I ended up deciding to not post—either because the post ended up being incoherent, hopelessly abstract and out of context musings, or because I realized I had no real reason or desire to share it with the world.  Tonight, though, is my last night in Kona, and I feel it’s appropriate to post something.

On a surface level, my life since July has been remarkably uneventful. At the age of 24 and with two college degrees, I found myself in a holding pattern while living with my parents. I worked part time as a “pool monitor” enforcing rules, cleaning, and closing down the pool area at a couple pools in a townhome complex, picked up a couple security guard and tutoring jobs, and volunteer taught one middle school world history class for the YWAM school that my little sister goes to.

In short, I kept myself occupied, but still had time for an occasional afternoon of reading at the beach. Grass will always seem greener on the other side, and even with free time for my own reading pursuits, I frequently found myself desiring work that was either more intellectually stimulating or emotionally satisfying. I even found myself frequently wishing for more work opportunities of any kind. Life comes in seasons, though, and I have doubt that there will be a time and a place where I look back and envy my current self.

When I went off to Brown in 2006 my sister was just a year and a half old. The last months have been my first chance since then to live with her as an ever-present sibling for an extended period of time. It has been entirely worth it. When I consider the prospect of living in Papua New Guinea for two years, separation from her unambiguously emerges as the greatest con. 

I feel ready to go back to PNG. For the past year, my intention to go and teach there has been my ready response to any questions of “what I’m doing next”.  Eleven years ago, I sat in Colorado on the verge of going to PNG for the first time. At that point, too, we had been through a long, slow work-up preparing to actually make the move. Regardless of the many uncertainties involved, I felt incredibly ready to finally make the plunge. This go-around, I’m tempted to view a return to Madang province as less of a “plunge”, but uncertainties still exist. PNG is the “land of the unexpected”, so I had best go in with an attitude of openness, patience, and trust.

Looking forward, I expect to struggle with learning how to teach well. I also see any period of transition as a challenge to create good habits. In terms of my routines and lifestyle, I think I can be relatively flexible, yet also become more set in my ways the longer I remain in a single place. The first weeks and months in a new place carry great importance, then, because I begin to set the patterns and routines that will form the background for much of the rest of my life in that place.

Those of you who pray can pray that I allow God to help me form good habits and routines. You can also pray for safety and sanity as I take my sweet time travelling to Madang (I plan to overnight in Honolulu, spend several days visiting a friend in Australia, and explore Port Moresby for a couple days along the way).

I intend to continue to update this blog. It may turn out that sporadic and infrequent internet access will paradoxically result in more frequent postings. We'll see. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

St. Francis

Today is the memorial of St. Francis of Assisi.

At some point in my sophomore year of college I started reading a biography by GK Chesterton on St. Francis of Assisi. I heard that Chesterton was somehow similar to CS Lewis and I wanted to learn more about St. Francis. He was the first person I can remember calling a “saint”, and I had a notion that he was somehow a good Christian.
photo credit: Ben Johnson

It turns out that the Chesterton biography was an awful place to start learning more about St. Francis. It presumes a basic knowledge of the traditional stories about St. Francis, which I was mostly unfamiliar with. I don’t remember gleaning all too much from the book, which is why I’m re-reading it now.

But both the day and the book prompted me to reflect on the various times where Francis has been present in my spiritual journey.

In elementary school, my mom had convinced me to recite a poem about St. Francis and the birds while holding one of our parakeets on my hand for the school talent show. (Talented or not, it was "cute" and popular with the other moms in attendance) It may just be an indication of how odd of a child I was, but I remember being influenced by that poem. Later, when my parents weren’t watching I remember lining up our pet birds on the arm of one of the sofas in our living room and gave them my best shot at a sermon.  

photo credit: Ben Johnson
We didn't realize we could also take a bus up to the top!
As noted, I specifically set out to find more about the saint in my sophomore year of college. I mostly failed, but something must have continued my interest. The summer of 2008 when my brother and I travelled through Europe, I tried to make a daytrip to Assisi a priority. I had just read Pope John Paul II’s “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” in my last few days in Papua New Guinea that summer, and I was interested in reading up on Catholicism at the time. As my brother and I set off for Rome, our first stop in a couple week tour of Europe, I had high expectations for my trip to the home of the Apostolic See.

I was disappointed. In the midst of my questions and spiritual seeking, something about the Catholic Church had started to call to me, but as I entered into its home world, I realized how foreign that Church still was to me. I have no memory of considering actually becoming Catholic at that point, but I still wanted and expected to find more of a spiritual affinity in Rome than I did. Instead, I found that I still didn’t understand the papacy, marian devotion, sacramentals, or the communion of saints. The many statues and monuments didn’t resonate with my evangelical spirituality at all, and the names of Popes, the sight of relics, and the glitter of gold all prompted more questions at a time when I was more interested in answers.

Our one day trip to Assisi was different. The Italian countryside could not have been more beautiful. A walk up to the basilica from the train station made us feel like pilgrims. The story of St. Francis and even the aesthetics of the basilica appealed to me. A couple moments stand out. One was seeing Francis’ robe, now in a glass case and partially disintegrated, but still there.
photo credit: Ben Johnson

Another was when my brother and I somehow lost each other in the basilica. I looked for him for a bit, but then decided to wait near a side chapel to see if he came by. I heard American English being spoken and found myself sitting in a back pew while an American pilgrimage group celebrated Mass.

I remember three things from that Mass: 1) I heard Scripture being read. 2) I left at some point while the Mass was happening. I think my leaving may have been prompted by feeling suddenly uncomfortable or out of place. Perhaps the liturgy of the Eucharist had just begun; perhaps we had arrived at consecration. I’m not sure. I was totally unfamiliar with the liturgy at the time. 3) I prayed while I sat there, and it was a real prayer and a moment of surrender to God. I had no idea what specifically I was surrendering, but I was very aware that summer of how my plans and ideas about my future could suddenly change. In Ignatian terms, it was a moment of spiritual consolation. I arrived late and left quite early, but that was the first Mass I ever attended.

I also remember following the flow of other pilgrims and tourists down to the crypt where St. Francis is buried. It was dark, and people were praying. People walked around the spot where he was buried and would place their hands on the stones there. I don’t remember seeing this as problematic. Instead, I tried it. I placed my hand there and said a prayer. I forget what I said. I’ve thought back to that moment, wondering why I wasn’t weirded out by the earthiness or sacramentality of the moment. Somehow it made sense to me. It seemed ok and even good that people came from all over to be close to where he was buried, and to pray there. Sometimes I had felt repulsed by Catholic spirituality, but at a time when I logically should have felt that same reaction, I instead felt peace.

Now knowing that I’ll spend two years with Franciscans, I can let myself be challenged by the poverello again. I find Francis impractical, impulsive and over the top sometimes, but I know that the Gospel sometimes (always?) demands all three. I once heard a priest speaking about Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel as “prompt, generous, and total.”  I want that. I want to be “all in” in regards to following Jesus, but I know that I’m not. My natural inclination is to question again and again what it means to follow Jesus, while continuing to withhold parts of myself from Him. Francis’ simple, at times even literalistic attention to and imitation of the Jesus of the Gospels should prompt me to look more at my own heart than at my petty questions, and more at the cross of Christ than either my heart or my petty questions. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Current Location

I noted at the end of my last post that I am currently living in Hawaii with my parents. I did not elucidate or explain what the next “phase of my life” is or how long I expect it to last. So here’s a look at what I’m planning on doing and the reflections that went into it:
I plan on staying here until early January, when I plan to go to Papua New Guinea in order to volunteer/teach/mission for two years through a program called CapCorps that is run by the Capuchin Franciscans. I will teach at a school starting in February (note: southern hemisphere = different academic calendar than us North Americans and others are used to).

The coast in Madang province, close to where I'll be living
This has actually been in the works for quite a while, and if you read this blog and know me in real life too then the chances are you already know about it. There have been so many little steps and hurdles to overcome that I’ve become accustomed to speaking about it in the subjunctive. I guess that’s my way of protecting myself from presuming or being too let down if suddenly one last thing didn’t come through. Right now, though, I’m very close to receiving my work visa that will allow me to stay and teach in the country for multiple years. You can pray that it would come quickly!

I was quickly captivated by the idea of going back to live in PNG. My love for the country and people of Papua New Guinea has of course influenced my desire to go back and live in the country. Since graduating from UISSC in 2006, I’ve visited twice, and I think both of these trips helped me to see PNG with somewhat different eyes. During the (North American) summer of 2008, I travelled around near the area I had lived in order to help show some AIDS awareness videos. The villages were all within a couple hours’ drive of where I had lived, but I hadn’t visited any of them before that summer. I wasn’t completely cloistered in Ukarumpa while I lived there, but that summer I began to realize how little I experienced of an extraordinarily diverse and beautiful country in the few small years that I was there. When I was back in 2010, despite all the other thoughts going around in my head, the thought of coming back to live in PNG kept occurring to me.

But more than a desire to return to PNG, I am embarking on this two-year trip as an expression of a desire that has been smoldering within me for the past several years. While at Brown, especially in my junior and senior years, I spent a fair amount of time reflecting on Christian community. This clearly dovetailed nicely with all the reflection I’ve had to do on the Church over the last couple years. Well before I started consciously thinking through that, though, I knew I felt drawn to intentional Christian communities centered around prayer and service.

For this reason, I’m quite excited about going to PNG. I’ll be in a context where I can pray morning and evening prayer, and attend Mass on a regular, daily basis with other Christians. I know in my heart that my soul benefits greatly both from clearly demarcated time for prayer every day and from a sense of “spiritual solidarity” with those around me.

Kealakekua Bay
Now, though, I’m living in Hawaii with my parents. In some ways this long gap between graduation and the start of the school year in PNG is providential. I had felt conflicted about the idea of living far away from my younger sister for so long. By coming back to the nest for these months, I get to spend more time with her, which is all the more valuable to me because she was only a year old when I moved out of the house to go to college.

I’ve struggled internally questioning how I should understand these months that I’ve been given. Is this a time of preparation, reflection, or recovery? Should my main priority be to work as many hours as possible in order to save some and pay off some student debt? Two months after arriving in Hawaii I still feel I haven’t yet found my ideal balance, but certainly all of the above have played a role. My time with my sister and parents is priceless. It has been good for me to slow down some, and I’ve enjoyed getting to work on my “Books I Need to Read” list.

Above all else, though, I constantly need to remind myself to live in the present, and to pursue holiness and communion with Christ in the here and now. These months are not an empty obstacle to be traversed or overcome. Here in Hawaii I am a pilgrim.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

After Conversion

I ran across this article by David Paul Deavel from the Coming Home Network and thought it was excellent. It wanders a bit, but in wandering it hits upon several different points that I think are important. He addresses the need for continuing conversion within the Church, and for an attitude of humility towards non-Catholics. I felt like these points resonated with what I wrote in a post a couple months ago. Here's a quote from Deavel's article:

"When you come into the Church from somewhere else, particularly if friends and family from somewhere else have given you trouble about it, it is easy to become harsh and impatient about others’ not seeing what you see. It is altogether too easy to become wrapped up in what non-Catholics haven’t got and not be thankful for what they do have. This doesn’t mean squishy ecumenism, but a generosity of the sort Newman demonstrated in a letter to an Evangelical Anglican:
I believe what you do—but I believe more. I rejoice to think that you with all your heart and soul believe our Lord Jesus Christ to be the Saviour of the world, and of every soul who comes to him for salvation; and the sole Saviour. I wish you believed the whole counsel of God. But in this bad time, when there are so many unbelievers, I rejoice to think that you are not one of them."

He also had some good insights into the potential for "converts" to have a condescending attitude towards cradle Catholics. 

"Converts are often garrulously fluent about their faith in a way that impresses cradle Catholics. And yet what I’ve come to see is how often I’ve misjudged Catholics because they don’t talk about their faith in the same way I do. I don’t mean to suggest that many Catholics couldn’t benefit from a more thorough intellectual grounding in their faith. They could. But what I’ve discovered so often to my shame is a quiet consistency of life, worship, and behavior that makes my own seem paltry. Newman preached late in his life, “Perfection does not lie in heroic deeds, or in great fervor, or in anything extraordinary—many, even good men, are unequal—but in consistency. This is what old Catholics have when good, in opposition to converts.” 

And good commentary also about the "trial of alienation" from friends and family who don't choose to also become Catholic.

Anyways, I thought it was an article worth passing on and reflecting on.

Update: I graduated from Notre Dame in May. I then proceeded to attend two weddings and travel around a fair bit. I am now in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, planning on living here with my parents through the fall for the next season of my life.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Senioritis, Nostalgia, and the Saeculum

Despite being a second year master’s student rather than a senior, I’ve definitely felt my fair share of “senioritis” in the last couple weeks. While reading and reviewing a book for class called Saeculum: Historyand Society in the Theology of St Augustine, I’ve been led to reflect on my senioritis in light of the histories and narratives I form about myself.  (not really what the book is about, but it  provoked some thoughts that led to other thoughts that…)

I do many things in life, both small and great, because I see how they can connect to my past and future. I may journal because I have done so regularly in the past and it provides me with a sense of continuity. I may work hard on a certain paper because I think I’ll need a recommendation from that professor, or because I know I’ll use the information I’m researching to understand something else.

I don’t think this is a bad thing, but I think I also need to step back sometimes and realize how important each moment is because of the presence of God in it, rather than because of its placement in the self-narrative I have in my head. My narrative can often be wrong.

As graduation approaches, I find I want to spend more and more time thinking about “how I got here and where I want to go” as I put on the tagline for this blog. It is perhaps fitting to spend time doing that regularly, and all the more so at transition points in my life. I often don't just reflect, though. I move through ideas and emotions because it feels good--perhaps because it makes me feel safe, and also because of narcissism. 

Basilica of the Sacred Heart
from across St. Mary's Lake
I love to daydream about future possibilities and nostalgically meditate on the past, but my life becomes more real when I set at least some basic limits on those activities and focus on seeing the good in front of me, on entering into the eternal as it exists in the temporal. I know that being in a new place and doing new things can be exciting and good, but the meat of life is found in prayer and human relationships. How often have I neglected those because I was emotionally living in memories of the past or dreams for the future? 

May God help me to live in Christ. As I ponder and discern God's calling on my life, may I do so in a way that orients me towards the love of God and neighbor rather than in a way that shortsightedly centers on self-love and deceptive escapism. 

Friday, March 30, 2012


Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Over Spring break I was blessed to make a visit to Israel as part of a Jewish-Christian dialogue program. The discussions were good and have given me a lot of food for continued thought. I’ve had to dive right back into classes, but thought I’d offer some simple meditations on the “pilgrimage” side of the trip.

As one would expect, visiting places associated with Jesus’ life forces me to re-focus on the fullness of His humanity. As with so many other things, a doctrine that I’ve pondered and thought about can suddenly seem foreign and radical.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre: above the Rock of Calvary
Two experiences in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre drove this home for me. We first went in as part of our larger tour of the Christian quarter of the old city. We were moving from place to place quickly so I didn’t quite know what was coming. I knew the Church was associated with where Jesus was buried, but once we went inside and climbed some stairs I remembered that the Church is also identified as where He was crucified (although now inside the “old” city, the Church would have been outside the city at the time of Jesus). And it felt odd to all of a sudden realize that I might* be in a place that I’ve tried to imagine in my head so many times, the place where the central event of history took place. It was, of course, crowded with tourists and cameras. The moment is that false start, that balk, where I realize that everything about my emotional and physical posture doesn’t seem appropriate if this is really that place. *And I said “might” because believers can also be somewhat skeptical, or at least I can be. The false start was exacerbated by my sudden flurry of thoughts about what the chances were that this was the spot, and to what extent it mattered.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre: to the right of the Rock of Calvary

Later during free time I returned to the Church. This time I stood in line to be able to kneel and reach through a hole to touch the ground at that spot—the “Rock of Calvary”. And the amazing thing is that the dirt there felt remarkably like pretty much all the other dirt that I’ve touched in my life. And perhaps that’s another thing that made me uncomfortable, but that is also absolutely essential to my faith. In the midst of our very physical world, we have to not only recognize the good of this world in the midst of its evils and problems, but also to recognize God’s presence in it.

To become human was, in some sense, for God to hide Himself. The scandal of the “messianic secret” and of Jesus being taunted to take Himself down from the cross accord with this scandal I think. When I look at these rocks, whether it be the rock at the Church of All Nations (Gethsemane) or the stone of unction or the Rock of Calvary, I may not just feel skeptical because I want to see the historical and archeological analysis of the site, but because….it just looks like a rock. If God was going to touch a rock, wouldn’t there be something sensibly changed about it? Our faith clearly says that Christ lived a fully human life. Visiting Capernaum, I realized that if I had showed up when Jesus was there, I might have had trouble identifying Jesus. He would have been “hidden” in the scenes of ordinary human village life.
Synagogue at Capernaum

The beauty of this is twofold:

1) When I see dirt and rocks now I can remember that a man who was God, who lived, prayed, and died in the midst of the very same world that I live in, turned around the very course of the world.

2) More than anything else, the tangible difference that one can see at these locations is not that the rocks look any different, but that there are pilgrims around them. At Gethsemane I was struck by the sight of pilgrims kneeling and praying there. While I’m quite aware that one could easily write off such things as “superstitious old Italian ladies”, I think those who pray and weep at such places are actually discovering the art, the gift of seeing the true significance of our world, which is now infused with the presence of God. They come and sit at that rock, after all, because of all the people who have touched it in history, one of them was a man who looked like and was completely human and like us in every way but sin—but who was also God. Our ability to pray at and touch that rock and feel our connection to God grow is a testament to our faith in the Incarnation.

May God give me the grace to discern His continuing presence in the world in the same way those pilgrims discern the sacramentality of the holy places. Where others see liabilities, sickness, bread, unwanted children, unwanted pregnancies, “drains on the system”, undesirables, demographic time-bombs, or enemies, may God give me eyes to see His very Self breaking into our world.

On Jerusalem, Peace!