One Down. . .

Here is presumably the last moment of my life not under vows.

Here is presumably the last moment of my life not under vows.

. . . the rest of my life to go! Exactly one year ago, August 2, 2013, I was officially incorporated into the Order of Friars Minor by professing temporary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the way of St. Francis of Assisi. The date marked the end of our novitiate year, the year of formation devoted to intense prayer and discernment, and the beginning of my vowed life as a friar.

Today, less officially, also marks the halfway point in my initial formation process in becoming a Franciscan Friar for life. With three years of formation behind me (Postulancy, Novitiate, and the first year of temporary profession) I now have three years of temporary profession to go before I am able to take my solemn vows, that is, my life-long intention to live as a friar in poverty, chastity and obedience.

I would be absolutely lying through my teeth if I said that it has been nothing but smooth sailing and steps forward, surrounded only by good examples. The fact of the matter is that the past three years have been the most frustrating and challenging of my life: I’ve had my values questioned, my vulnerabilities analyzed, my worldview challenged, my sense of self redefined, my expectations broken down, and my faults exposed. So much of what I have experienced in the last three years has been what most people go their entire lives trying to avoid.

And yet, what a gift it’s been. What a gift it’s been to be around people that care enough about me to want me to be better. What a gift it’s been to be opened up to a wider perspective of myself and the world, even if I didn’t want to see it. What a gift it’s been to go through all of this with great men doing the same.

When I look back three years–heck, when I look back one year–I can see the slow and steady work of God in my life, forming the stubborn clay that I am into his creation. When I look back, I can see what I didn’t see at the time, and I am grateful for the experiences that didn’t seem meaningful when they were happening. As the next three years of my formation unfold into the rest of my life, I thank God for the opportunities I’ve been given and pray for the patience and wisdom to appreciate the new ones ahead.

The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Do you find this picture provocative or offensive? Why?

God is, was, and will be a part of every step of creation.

Given the amount of quality material out there and the fact that this is a somewhat tired and irrelevant topic for most Catholics, I’m a bit apprehensive about devoting a post to “the religion and science debate.” What more can I say that hasn’t been said better by others? On the other hand, the fact that it continues to surface unintelligently in pop culture and even in our churches tells me that it can’t hurt to try a new medium.

So here we go. Science and religion. The great debate of our time. Some say that science is the only real truth, that religion is mere superstition that propagates fairy tales and manipulates people into violence. Others say that the only real truth is religion, that science is unreliable and that it denies the existence of God. Clearly, I would say, both of these opinions lack an understanding of the other and should be dismissed: even if one is the perfect option, neither lacks truth in some sense. So where does that leave us?

In between the two poles you will find many saying that science confirms religion and that religion guides science. Among Christians, I would say that this opinion is the most common. What they are trying to do, it would seem, is to reconcile the differences in the two in order to create one cohesive worldview from two different disciplines. This, as nice as it may sound, is yet another misunderstanding of the nature of religion and science.

The key to understanding the “debate” is that it is not a debate at all: religion and science are concerned with two completely different, mutually exclusive forms of knowledge. In the same way that art and engineering are two completely different, yet important, ways to understand a new bathroom project, science and religion have completely different goals. Science, using only empirical data (data that can be measured objectively with the senses), is concerned with the facts, that is, statements that can be proven without a doubt. Religion on the other hand, using divine revelation and human reason, is concerned with truths about our existence, that is, statements that give our life meaning. Which is better?

Scientists like Richard Dawkins or Neil Degrasse Tyson want to argue that this makes science better (although I would like to note that I do like much of what Degrasse has to say.) They say, and rightly so, that the great thing about science is that if something is a fact, it is so no matter what we believe. One can not simply “believe” that gravity does not exist because one doesn’t want to. Because of this, though, they look down on religion because of its lack of proof: “How can you believe in a God that you can’t prove exists?” they ask. What they want is a scientific answer to a religious question, facts where people are searching for meaning. To me, this is like asking an artist why they paint even though it cannot provide electricity for the house. It’s ridiculous because that is not the concern of art. As far as religion is concerned, there is no proof for what we believe because proof of God would actually collapse our free will. Proof does not allow for choice; it does not allow for faith. Surely this is not what God wants. Instead, the purpose of religion is to use the evidence we have, both from revelation and reason, to find meaning in our life about God to help us assent to him.

Because of this, it is a grave mistake for us as Christians to view science as anything other than an incredible resource. When we look to the world, we want to be as informed as possible as to how it works, don’t we?! It is a tragic reality that many Christians view science with skepticism, or worse yet, that they see it as a threat to their religious beliefs. Quoting Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus, John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences with this remark in 1996: “Truth cannot contradict truth.” In other words, if something is scientifically true then it cannot be against the truth of God.

This statement must be the basis of any interaction between science and religion; it must be the lens through which we understand any new information, no matter the medium. To dismiss new truths from science (or any hermeneutical device for that matter, e.g. art) is to limit our ability to properly interpret the evidence of our existence. To dismiss them on the basis of a particular interpretation of scripture is utterly foolish. As far back as the 4th century, St. Augustine recognized that an ignorant faith only repelled people from the church:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world. . . and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics. . . The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? (citation here)

It doesn’t matter what the topic is. Creation. Evolution. Reproduction. Homosexuality. Genetics. Astronomy. Thermodynamics. Fracking. Stem cells. If we begin from a religious statement that contradicts or disregards truth from other disciplines, namely scientific fact, because we are afraid to incorporate new information into a broader interpretation or as an attempt to pass off a statement of faith as a statement of scientific proof, we will look foolish and unattractive to non-believers. This is what we unfortunately see from Christians wishing to use the Bible as a science textbook, emphatically declaring that the earth is only 6,000 years old. It is a response that exhibits fear and a lack of faith. Why couldn’t God have created the world out of nothing AND continue to create it anew each day through the process of evolution? (For a truly fantastic article that deals with this specifically, I strongly encourage that you read “Creationism is Materialism’s Creation“.)

Using every possible form of knowledge does not make us atheists, it makes us grateful that God gave us the ability to reason!

Using every possible form of knowledge does not make us atheists, it makes us grateful that God gave us the ability to reason!

While his theology may need a little work, I find Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. to be a fascinating example of someone able to incorporate the latest in scientific research into a Christocentric Universe. Essentially (and briefly because this post is already too long and going down a rabbit hole we might get stuck in!) Chardin took Charles Darwin’s principles of evolution that all organisms have a natural, material propensity to grow more complex and to reproduce, and added a theological element to it: all of creation has a “driving force” within it so that evolutionary steps are not random, but rather an organism’s yearning to converge on one point, Christ, the connection between the creator and created. In this way God is in not some distant creator that walked away after putting his creation into motion. He is ever creating as it continues to unfold.

Ultimately, I will close by quoting a man most brilliant in his field, Albert Einstein: “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” As Christians, we want the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, wherever God is willing to reveal it to us. Let us do as the Apostle Paul tells us: “Test everything; keep what is good.”

What Are You Looking For?

This weekend, I’ve been given the opportunity to preach at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Camden, NJ. For the readings of the day, you can go to the USCCB website found here. May God bless you on this 17th Sunday of Ordinary time.

For many, we're searching for something we don't yet know. What is it that you are looking for?

For many, we’re searching for something we don’t yet know. What is it that you are looking for?

Imagine for a second that you were in Solomon’s place. God appears to you in a dream and says “Ask for anything. I’ll give it to you.” Anything. Blank check. Anything you can possibly imagine. What would you ask for? In some ways, it’s kind of a silly hypothetical question, a cheesy get-to-know-you game question like, “If you could be any animal, what would you be?” On the other hand, it may actually be the most important question you ever ask yourself. Why? Because it reveals what is at the deepest depth of your heart. Instead of thinking about it as some wish from a genie, ask yourself: “At the absolute core of who I am, what is it that is most dear and true to my heart, the thing that I desire with all of my being?” It may be something that you already have that you want to keep or something you don’t have that you want to get. It can be physical or mental, social or spiritual; it can be real or imaginary, plausible or impossible. What is it that you desire most, and what does that say about you?

In Solomon’s case, his greatest desire revealed his humility, compassion, and above all, his great love for God. Of all the things that his imagination could possibly conjure up, all that he requested from God was an “understanding heart.” I mean, come on! He could have asked for anything: power, money, fame, immortality. Like so many kings of his time, he could have tried to rule the whole world, put his face on money, or at the very least had a theme park named after him. But he didn’t. He didn’t ask anything for himself at all. What he asked for was the skills to love God’s people better, in essence, to be able to give more of himself. How much more revealing of a virtuous character do you get? At the core of Solomon’s heart was love for God and his people, and nothing more.

So what about you? Does your desire stack up to Solomon’s? What does that say about you? I admit, it’s a really difficult question. It forces us to look deep inside ourselves, to potentially see what we’re not always proud of. It requires us to see our potential faults and shortcomings, our insecurities and vulnerabilities. Our natural impulse will be to deny what we see, to blame it on others, or to just not care. Instead, we prefer to stay on the surface, to talk about the weather or what was on TV last night, to go through life hiding from ourselves, remaining unchallenged. I think, if you’re willing to open to yourself, to see the person that God sees, you’re right, you may not like what you see. But how can we ever be called to conversion if we never know what needs to be converted?

When I’m honest with myself, I see that there are some desires deep inside me that I wish weren’t there. I care very much about what people think about me, and desire to be liked by everyone. Even though I know God loves me and that should be good enough, I still want everyone else’s approval. Can anyone relate to that? If not, I’m sure that there are plenty here that have a deep desire to always have more. So many people waste their entire day worried about making money and their entire night worried about keeping it. What other things do we desire but don’t want to admit? I imagine we could go down each row and find desire after desire that doesn’t match Solomon’s: power, fame, intelligence, leisure, control, security, affection.

But that’s okay. It’s who you are right now, and whether good or bad, I think that knowing what we truly desire, the thing we love above all else, is the most important thing we could ever know about ourselves. Really. Like Solomon, our desires reveal who we are and who we want to be before God. They reveal what motivates us, and ultimately, how we’re going to act. There’s a prayer by the late Jesuit priest Pedro Arrupe, S.J. that captures this perfectly. It goes:

Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

Such words of wisdom, and from a Jesuit no less! Whatever it is that we desire above all will have a hand in everything we do. It guides us and informs our decisions. Sometimes, it even makes us do radical things. When we find that buried treasure in the field or the pearl of great price, that thing that we most desire, we are able to give up absolutely everything we have, our time, our skills, and our money, just to get it.

Look at your own life. Look at what gets you up in the morning; what keeps you up at night; what makes you laugh; what makes you cry. What is the buried treasure that you spend your whole life seeking? Is it money, or is it Jesus? Is it personal glory, or is it the glory of the kingdom? Is it power over others, or is it the desire to be faithful to our God?

In many ways, we know that there will always be competing desires in us. We seek God, but sometimes, we seek other things as well. While I’d like to say that Jesus is my only desire, I know that my actions don’t always say so. When I honestly look inside myself, when I honestly look at how I spend my time, I know that I am in need of further conversion. We all are. The real question is, when push comes to shove, which desire is going to win out: Jesus or the world?

Our Church is witness to so many inspirational people that have made Jesus their ultimate desire. Of particular importance today, we remember all of those who have gone on mission through the Franciscan Missionary Union. Through this organization, men and women have been led to serve the lowest and most forgotten people of society, people who would otherwise never be loved or cared for; they have built schools and universities all around the world, spreading not only knowledge, but wisdom to people who need it most. They have loved without boarders, given of themselves without restraint. Why? Because Jesus is their greatest desire. Our second collection today will be an opportunity to support those who have supported so many in this world.

For me, it is actually my need for conversion, not any perceived holiness or perfection, that has led me to this life as a friar. I know that I am a sinner and that I fall short. Being a friar isn’t about being perfect or having no worldly desires: it’s about recognizing how much we need Jesus in our lives, even if we forget it sometimes. Jesus is my pearl of great price, and even though I get distracted by other things at times, I know that I want to give up everything I have in this world to buy it. Because we take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, some point out that there are a lot of things we cannot do. True, we cannot get married, become rich, or chase prestigious careers. But look at all the things we can do: we are free to move where we’re needed, to love without restraint. We live a life centered in prayer, poverty, and humility, and the best part about it is that we don’t have to do it alone: we always have our brothers. If you ask me, there is no greater treasure in the world than what I’ve found.

And so I ask again, what is your deepest desire, your pearl of great price? Have you found it yet, or are you still searching? My prayer for you today is that you may know with all of your heart what is truly important in this world, that Jesus is the only treasure worth seeking. I pray that when you find him, you may have the courage to give up everything you have to be with him.

Updating Our Image

The other day I was watching television and I saw an incredible commercial promoting vocations. With triumphant music in the background and images of courage and selflessness, the narrator spoke:

There are a few who move toward the sounds of chaos, ready to respond at a moment’s notice. And when the time comes they are the first towards the sounds of tyranny, injustice, and despair. They are forged in the crucible of training.

Which way would you run?

I was amazed at how powerful the commercial’s message was and how it moved me to want to do something important, something radical, something to make the world a better place.

When I thought about it, another commercial came to my mind. Similar to the one before, triumphant music played as a video montage showed people making great sacrifices for others, going where they would never had thought they would go, and doing so in the context of a living fraternity. The narrator spoke:

The call to serve, it has no sound, yet I have heard it. In the whispered retelling of honorable sacrifices made by those who have served before me. The call to serve has no form, yet I have clearly seen it. In the eyes of men and women infinitely more courageous and more driven than most. The call to serve has no weight, yet I have held it in my hands.

I will commit to carry it closely in my heart until my country is safe and the anguish of those less fortunate has been soothed. The call to serve is at once invisible and always present, and for those who choose to answer the call for their fellow man, for themselves, it is the most powerful force on earth.

Given the powerful message of these two commercials, as well as their high production costs, it’s no wonder that the two Orders that produced them have been wildly successful in recent years at recruiting new members; young men sign up in such great number that many are turned way. Clearly, the opportunity to serve others by doing something self-sacrificing and noble, the thrill of doing something radical and counter-cultural, and the sense of belonging in being a part of a life-long fraternity, are things that young men are looking for.

Unfortunately, the two “Orders” that are promoting such a “vocation” are the United States Marine Corps and the United States Navy. In almost all of their commercials, the focus is less on the brutality and violence one would expect and more on the bond of brotherhood, the sense of honor in building something greater than self, the selfless act of protecting those in need, and the ways in which one is challenged to be a better person. These two major branches of the military know how to recruit men to do something dangerous and life-changing, and they’re doing it with OUR message. 

Like all companies, we need to be able to adapt our public image if we are to remain relevant.

Like all companies, we need to be able to adapt our public image if we are to remain relevant.

I have to say that this bothers me a bit. It bothers me, not that the Marines or Navy have creatively tapped into a man’s (or woman’s) inherent desire to be a part of something greater than self, but that we as a church have failed to do so ourselves. Why haven’t we been able to brand ourselves in this way, to market the Church and a vocation within it as an empowering and noble thing to do? Why do does almost every vocation brochure or church pamphlet exclusively show pictures of friars and sisters piously praying the rosary in their habit inside of a quiet church? It’s not a bad image, don’t misinterpret what I’m saying, but it’s only small part of who we (religious and Catholics in general) are, and it leaves so much of what it could mean to be a practicing Catholic, not the least of which is fun.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we hired a professional ad agency to rebrand and re-market the Church for the 21st century?” What would it take to attract the best and brightest, the young professionals and entrepreneurs, the ones with the greatest work ethic and the power to move the Church? This is not naivety I assure you: I know that a simple ad campaign is not the only reason that the armed forces are recruiting men and know that there are serious issues of commitment and secularism in our culture that a new brand image are not going to magically fix. But at the same time, there are good men and women out there with a great sense of belonging, looking for something noble to do, that have been turned off by the Church based on popular depictions alone. When this happens to companies like Walmart, Apple, and McDonald’s, they don’t change their product, they change their image. We have an INCREDIBLE product. Let’s do something about our image.

How cool would it be if we, the Catholic Church, could dedicate the sort of resources that the evangelical churches have into movies and music, but in our case, do it with deeper messages than the “me and Jesus,” overly dramatic and corny conversion story with no artistic value? How about a movie in which the Church, realizing that its charity has enabled dictators to abuse the masses for centuries, goes on strike, shutting down all of its hospitals, soup kitchens, church pantries, and social services? Think of the social/political themes, the moral dilemmas, the conflicts. If we’re feeling a little less ambitious at first, how about just getting some priests, brothers, and sisters in quality secular movies that are more than just caricatures or jokes? A popular character can go a long way to changing public opinion for the better. In terms of music, and I know this sounds crazy, what about a Christian song that uses “we” instead of “me” and focuses on the Jesus suffering in the street not just the Jesus that makes me feel warm inside? Still too ambitious? Heck, I would love to see someone with a Mac and a camera rip off the audio to the Marine commercial and replace the video with pictures or videos from their church. How sweet would that be? (But really, does someone want to help me on a project like that?)

The possibilities are endless and surely better than the ideas I can come up, but the need is real: we as a Church, we as Franciscans, have incredible message to share, and the resources and sense of quality art to package it well. Let’s use them and let’s modernize our message. A pious friar praying the rosary in his habit is a beautiful image, but it cannot be the only image we use if we are to attract people of the 21st century.

The road ahead may be tough, even chaotic:

There are a few who move toward the sounds of chaos, ready to respond at a moment’s notice. And when the time comes they are the first towards the sounds of tyranny, injustice, and despair. They are forged in the crucible of training.

Which way would you run?

God’s Will Be Done

God continues to work through these amazing students

God continues to work through these amazing students

Have you ever heard someone say, “Either get involved with what God’s doing or get out of his way”? After our trip with the Student Leaders to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, I learned that this is sound advice. After weeks of preparation, hoping for the best but planning for the worst, praying that all of the factors outside of our control would go well, the adults of the group messed up almost every aspect of the trip that was within our control. The result? God was not going to let us get in the way of the work he was doing in these students. Everything worked out flawlessly, despite our greatest efforts to seemingly sabotage the trip.

Sabotage is a strong word, you say? I’m being too hard on myself and the other leaders, a bit of hyperbole? You be the judge:

The Student Leaders were going to Washington, D.C. to give a power point presentation at a local church. I forgot the laptop in the house.

Running a little late because some of the adults, not the students, were late to arrive in the morning, we had to rush to get to the Capitol building for our tour. In our haste, the person carrying the keys dropped them on the lawn of the Capitol building, only to find this out hours later when we needed to get in the van.

Now off schedule and without a van, we decide to take a walk, not a ride, down the National Mall. We soon realize that there is a thunderstorm brewing and heading our way.

On our way to dinner and the presentation, yours truly has trouble reading the GPS and D.C. traffic patterns (for which one needs a Ph.D. in stupidity to understand) and gets us lost. Lost and confused, I decide to go straight in a left-turn-only lane and get the other van pulled over.

Lastly, though completely out of our control, the storm hits the area really hard knocking down trees and power lines and forcing miles of traffic to detour through the neighborhood of the church where we are presenting. 

Those of us who knew what was going on throughout the day were frazzled to say the least. Everything within our control seemed to be going wrong. Everything was going to fail. We had let the students down on their big trip. With each thing that went wrong, I prayed to God, “Please, Lord, do not let us get in the way of what you’re doing through these students. You wouldn’t miss this incredible opportunity in their lives and in the lives of those in attendance, would you?”

He would not.

When we arrived at the church, they had an extra computer that worked flawlessly with the projector. The keys were miraculously found thirty minutes later in the grass. After a beautiful walk, the vans picked us up on the Mall literally three seconds before it started to completely downpour and lighting began to strike (and yes, I know what literally means and I’m using it correctly.) The officer, being a nice gentleman, not only let the driver off without a ticket, gave her directions directly to the house and around the traffic. And despite the storm, traffic, and power outages, more than fifty people showed up to the presentation from as far as an hour away.

God’s will be done whether we get in the way or not.

Amazed by the miracles that God had performed all day, the many ways that he had cleared the paths we had blocked, all we could do was hope that the students would take advantage of this incredible opportunity. After all that, would they forget what they came to say?

Don’t bet on it.

These students rocked the place. After they almost flawlessly went through their rehearsed power point presentation, they fielded questions for a half an hour and completely blew people away with their confidence, their poise, and their determination to change their world.

With one of the questions, the smallest of the students assertively grabbed the microphone out of my hand, stood up to the podium and responded off the cuff: “I need to get this off my chest. There’s been something I’ve wanted to say for a long time. Camden gets a bad reputation and I don’t like it. This is my home, and if people would just dig a little deeper they would see a place with great people and a lot of great things happening.” Wow. How many twelve year olds do you know that would be able to say this at all, let alone with such authority and confidence to a room full of strangers?

One person asked for advice for other students looking to do the same thing. Without hesitation, one of the 8th graders spoke up, “You can’t be afraid to talk to people who are older than you. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice or something important to say. You have a voice and you need to make them listen.” This is an eighth grader with more confidence in front of a crowd and more conviction to speak truth to power than most adults I know.

I could go on and on for another three pages with comments like these. At almost no point was there a pause between questions or answer that didn’t immediately inspire the whole room. And from who? Middle schoolers. That’s right, children as young as twelve years old taking an active role in their neighborhood and unafraid to tell others about it; children that were able to captivate adults and youth alike, able to inspire even the many in the audience that head up their own local advocacy and community organizing groups. It was truly remarkable.

What was so humbling about the whole day was that God chose to speak through a bunch of children, not me; that I had such little power in the matter, that, despite my own efforts to (unintentionally) sabotage the whole day, God was still able to speak through the least likely of prophets. My own shortcomings and their incredible successes reminded me that it is God’s will, not my own, that will be done. It is a call for humility and faith, to be able to give up control in my own life and to remember that I was never the one in control in the first place.

As the Gospel Matthews says,

And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. (Mt 3:9)

Let us not be fools to think that our education, social status, age, skill, or wealth mean anything in the long run. God could, and continually does, lift up the lowly to shame to proud. On Tuesday, in more than one way, God reminded me of this fact and that fact that God’s will will be done whether I’m on his side or in the way.