What the Devil?!

Does this picture capture your spirituality?

Does this picture capture your spirituality?

Satan. Lucifer. Beelzebub. The Anti-Christ. The Accuser. The Tempter. The Prince of Darkness. The Son of Morning. The Evil One. The Serpent.

The Devil.

These names, along with many more, have been the focus of many sermons throughout the years and the spiritual focus of many Christians. Stories have been told about the power of evil and the temptation of its crafter. Many have been moved to act, even change their entire lives, because of fear instilled in them by such teachings. For some, the image of this being is the keystone of their faith, dictating every aspect of their spirituality.

Some will tell you emphatically that the Devil does not exist, that it is simply a mythological character or a manifestation of the bad things we do to one another. Fine. Others will tell you that Jesus talked about the Devil and demons, that “the greatest lie the Devil ever told was convincing the world that he did not exist.” Great. Still more will tell you that “Foosball is the Devil.” Good for them (and good for you if you caught the reference!) For me, it makes no difference in the world: the existence of the Devil bears absolutely no weight on my spirituality and I refuse to ever devote time to thinking about it or coming to any conclusions on what attributes it/he/she/they may have. For me, the Devil has only one name: the Irrelevant One.

Let me explain.

If God is the creator of the whole universe and everything in it, is all powerful, omniscient, and ever present, is the source and focus of our eternal salvation, and existed before all else, then goodness must predate evil. If the Devil were to exist, its/his/her/their presence would only matter in relationship to God. Because I can have God without the Devil but I can never have the Devil without God, the Devil is irrelevant to me.

“But,” some may say, “even though the Devil is not as powerful as God, it/he/she/they still has power over the world and should be feared.” To this, I look to St. Paul:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

All that could ever matter is to love God, to be in perfect relationship with the one that created us. So what if there is another creature created by God that wants to prevent us from such a relationship? Do we honestly believe for a second that this creature could have power over God? Do we honestly believe that this creature could make us do something against our will? If even God does not have the power to limit our free will, it seems a bit silly to me for us to worry about some lesser creature that only has the power to tempt us. For this reason as well that the Devil is irrelevant to me.

“But but but,” some might continue to cry. “The Devil does terrible things through others. We must engage in spiritual warfare against it/him/her/them to rid the world of evil.” To this, I am reminded of a quote from the movie Doubt (2008). Suspicious of the actions of the parish priest, Sister Aloysius Beavier (Meryl Streep) advises Sister James (Amy Adams) to do what is against her conscience, spying on the priest, to catch him doing something wrong:

Sister James: “It is unsettling to look at people with suspicion. I feel less close to God.”

Sister Aloysius Beauvier: “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service.”

Sister Aloysius Beauvier speaks a powerful truth even if she doesn’t understand its importance: to take a step toward evil, even to fight it for the sake of God, is to take a step away from God. I ask, why would we ever want to do anything that would take us away from God? There is nothing more important, nothing that could ever make us want to be separated from him. But that is what fear of the Devil, or in my opinion, any attention at all to the Devil, does to people. When we take time to think about, fight against, contemplate, or hate the Devil, trying to define it/him/her/them or know more about it/him/her/them, we spend time with something that by it’s very nature cannot bring us closer to God. This, I would say, is the very essence of wasting time and something I don’t have time for.

So what the Devil are we doing spending so much time on a useless topic? I don’t know. There is an obvious irony in spending 853 words talking about how the Devil is not worth talking about, but I hope that the more important message is what you will remember: there is nothing worth your time more than God. Turn to God and God alone.

 

If You Want Peace… Community Organize

Of all the many accomplishments of organizations like this, the biggest is that these students develop confidence in themselves and in each other.

Of all the many accomplishments of organizations like this, the biggest is that these students develop confidence in themselves and in each other.

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled “If You Want Peace, Work For Justice” that made this distinction between social charity and social justice: charity identifies a need and fulfills it while justice asks why there was a need in the first place and then attempts to change the system that caused it.

While both charity and justice are integral aspects of Catholic Social Teaching, and understanding that neither can fully work without the other, I find myself stressing justice over charity. Don’t get me wrong. Charity is desperately needed and I wouldn’t want to downplay the life work of someone like Mother Theresa. There are times, though, when charity is nothing more than a bandaid on a fatal wound: it prolongs life but it never allows those in need the freedom of authentic human development. As the adage goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” Justice looks to the future, treating the problem not just the symptoms. In practical terms, it means being a voice for the voiceless by demanding quality education, safe environments, and equal treatment under the law so that all people may be able to feed themselves instead of relying on others to feed them.

In my time so far in Camden, however, I have learned that there is actually another layer to this distinction. While justice (as I have defined it) gives a voice to the voiceless, community organizing helps those without a voice find their own. While traditional means of justice may eliminate a systemic problem in order to make life better for many people, (something I obviously DO NOT want to downplay), there is still a sense that it is a form of charity because it is done for someone without enabling them to do it themselves. Not only that, there’s no denying the fact that movements are more vibrant and longer lasting if they come from the people and for the people directly affected by injustice. Thus, in the case of feeding a man from above, community organizers might say, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; show a man that he can fix his hunger by hiring a fishing teacher and he will know how to find solutions for a lifetime.” Through effective community organizing, people gain the confidence and skills to take control of their lives without relying on wealthy donors or educated activists to do everything for them.

A great example of this is the Student Leaders’ Von Nieda Park Task Force at St. Anthony’s school. Comprised of 6th-8th grade students, this group meets each week to identify problems in their neighborhood, research who has the power to make changes, and elicit the skills needed to professionally approach those in power. These students chair a monthly meeting at the park, attend city council meetings, organize cleanups, and travel to Washington, D.C. each year to give a presentation. In the past two years, they have transformed what was once called “the nation’s most depressing park,” into a comfortable neighborhood park for the whole family. How? They saw a need in their area, worked together, and convinced local officials to help make it happen. In two years, the city has installed new basketball nets, trashcans, fences, and now, brand new lights, a project that cost the city and county $365,000. I’d like to remind you that these are 6th-8th graders… When people come together around an issue, great things can happen.

That’s not to say that it’s easy to do or that it’s without setbacks. Community organizing requires tremendous patience and perseverance, thick skin and a short memory. The friar responsible for the Student Leaders here reminds us often of the women who once told him, “Father, ain’t nothing ever going to change in Camden.” This is a common response, and it’s understandable. If you had been rejected and lied to by powerful people your entire life, wouldn’t you be a little hesitant to get excited too? The key is building confidence with small victories, showing people that hope is not useless; change can happen.

More importantly, and much more difficultly, community organizers must not let impatience or frustration move them to act on behalf of the community. Sure, the community organizer may be able to do something successfully on her/his own, but how has this helped the community find its own voice? The sign of a great basketball player is not the amount of points s/he scores, it’s how much better the others players play around her/him. It’s about building the team, not just the tasks. It requires relying on others and giving people the chance to succeed. This might mean being a little less efficient, dealing with a few more frustrations, and even accepting more frequent setbacks than doing something on one’s own. It’s a type-A personality’s nightmare. But what good is it to go about it alone? More importantly, what good is it if we always treat those around us like children, never showing them how to lead themselves?

As brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s not about winning the race, it’s about making sure everyone is able to make it to the end. Community organizing does just that. By focusing on local issues with local people, it involves those closest to the issue and gives them ownership over their lives. While it may not effect the sort of large-scale systemic changes that other forms of justice can, what it does is build community and build confidence. It does not hand people a better life, it helps them work for it themselves. If you want peace in your neighborhood, community organize.

Do This in Memory of Me

What Jesus shared with us was a meal and his life.

What Jesus shared with us was a meal and his life.

In each of the four eucharistic prayers in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the words “Do this in memory of me” are spoken by the priest in what is called the Institution Narrative. Although some of the words change for each prayer, these are repeated in each one: “Do this in memory of me.” They are significant words that help guide us in our understanding of this celebration.

In one sense, it is a clear reminder that the reason we meet each week in the Church is because Jesus gave his body and blood to the disciples through the celebration of the Last Supper just prior to his Passion. His words invoke the memory of this religious celebration, the great institution of the sacrament that gives us life and offers us salvation.

But our memory cannot stop there. In another, maybe more significant sense, the memory we must have when we celebrate the Eucharist is of Jesus himself. When we take his body and drink his blood, we are not only remembering the final meal he shared with his disciples before his Passion, we are remembering all that he was/is and all that he did. In one complex moment, we call to mind his triumphant Incarnation and his glorious Passion; the miracles he performed and the words he preached; the love and forgiveness he brought to the lost and the least, and the truth and justice he brought to the corrupt and powerful. Our memory of Jesus is not simply one of a religious feast or liturgical action, it is one of love, forgiveness, humility, simplicity, openness, mercy, unity in diversity, sacrifice, friendship, and most of all, justice.

Because of this, taking part in the mystery of the Eucharist does bring to the present a moment in history, the Last Supper, and allows us to share in the once-for-all sacrifice of our God; but it does much more than that. Taking part in the Eucharist brings to the present the whole life and teaching of Jesus. How can we possibly celebrate the feast without remembering the person celebrating it?

When we remember the person of Jesus, we radically open ourselves up to a new experience of and response to the Eucharist. If what we are remembering when we take the precious body and blood is how Jesus “emptied himself” to become human, we are forced to ask ourselves how well we act with humility and grace. If we remember how Jesus showed mercy and forgiveness to sinners, we are forced to ask ourselves how well we forgive those who wrong us. If we remember how Jesus loved the poor and cared for the outcasts of society, making them his primary focus because no one else would, we are forced to ask ourselves how well we love the poor and outcasts of society and whether or not we are missing an opportunity to love someone unloved by anyone else. In every way, if we remember the person of Jesus, we will be forced to compare our lives with the life he lived, challenging us to grow closer to the one who wants nothing more than to be in perfect union with us.

Jesus says, “Do this in memory of me.” My prayer is that, the next time you receive the Eucharist, you will be flooded with the powerful memory of Jesus’ life and teachings, that it may be such a powerful experience of remembering the person of Jesus that all you can do is let him pour out of you for the whole world. That is the memory Jesus wants us to have, and that is the true thanksgiving meal we share with one another. Only when Eucharist transforms us in this way can be it called the “source and summit” of our life.

 

Did You Hear?

Gossip does not build communities, even when it's true.

Gossip does not build communities, even when it’s true.

“Well let me tell you about that one. I heard that…” How many conversations have you had that started in this way? I’d say that I’ve  had too many to count, both before and after joining the friars. These are conversations about someone that, we’ll say, do not present the most favorable information. Sometimes it’s maliciously done, spoken as a way to hurt the other person or to turn one person against another. Most times it’s not. I’d say that many people slip into gossip without even realizing it: information is heard, and without checking its validity or usefulness, it is passed on to the next person with less accuracy and more embellishment.

For anyone who has ever been the subject (which is all of us) or the perpetrator (also all of us) of these conversations, you know that it is difficult to overcome harsh gossip, even if it is clearly untrue. The best example I’ve heard comes from the movie DoubtThe subject of implied accusations of child abuse, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman stands in the pulpit and gives a less-than-subtle message to his accuser: gossip is like a pillow that has been torn open in the wind. Once the feathers have been let out, no matter how bad we feel about it or how hard we try, we can never know where each feather ended up or how to collect them all. What is said can never be unsaid, making gossip a horrid sin against our brothers and sisters.

This, I would say, requires that we think more carefully about what we say and who we say it to. It requires us to ask three questions before sharing about someone else:

Is it true?

The first is the biggest and most obvious. When we hear someone say, “Did you hear about…?” and we have had no firsthand knowledge of the matter, we have nothing to assess its validity other than the speaker’s word. That’s not to say that it may not be true or that the person speaking is lying. It is merely to wonder how this information got to him/her in the first place and whether or not it could have been embellished along the way. For me, if I can’t stand by the truthfulness of a statement, I probably shouldn’t be sharing it with others.

Is it helpful?

Let’s say, though, that something is in fact true and we can prove it. Maybe you heard or witnessed it directly from the individual in question. This posses another question: does this warrant free dissemination to anyone who will listen? “But it’s true! I’m not making it up!” That may be the case, but just because something is true doesn’t mean it is helpful to building relationships. Are we sharing things to break someone down, to get a good laugh at their expense, or to promote ourselves? Or are we sharing information that will help others better relate to this person, more easily understand a situation, or be more compassionate? Sharing that a friend doesn’t read so that others will be more patient is different than doing so to make fun of them. The former builds up relationships while the latter breaks them down.

Is it necessary?

The last question may be the most important. Just because something is true and you have the best intentions in sharing it does not mean that it is altogether appropriate. Bob may be cheating on his taxes, but I doubt that the other parents on the soccer team need to know this. Jane may have an eating disorder, but I doubt that this is appropriate dinner conversation with the neighbors. Maybe this is information Bob’s spouse should know, and maybe someone should seek the proper professional help for Jane, but the general friend or colleague has no need for this information. Even if it is not the intent in sharing, such information will inevitably change one person’s perception of another without any real benefit. People often feel a need to tell us friars (or friars feel a need to tell other friars) every ounce of backstory about a person so that, as pastors, we can best relate to them. More times than not I just have to ask, “Why did you tell me that?” If it’s not necessary, all that excess information can do is complicate a relationship.

I guess, ultimately what I want to say is that, we only get one first impression of people. We only get one chance to form our own opinions of people, develop a relationship, and share ourselves when we’re ready. To be told information about someone from a third party robs us of that opportunity. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have heard stories about someone before I even had a chance to meet them. If and when I do finally meet someone, I will do my best to be open to them, but my perception has unavoidably been tainted. This is a great tragedy. I hope that we as Christians, starting with myself, will be more charitable with our words and be able to ask ourselves with constraint: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it necessary?

A Welcomed Downsize

Even simple outing likes getting ice cream are near impossible for a large house.

Even simple outings likes getting ice cream are nearly impossible for larger houses.

In my first three years in formation with the friars, I have not experienced what many would consider “normal” friar life. Let me qualify: while there are many different types of friar communities and by no means a suggested or preferred arrangement for living together, in the 21st century, communities of 3-5 are much more common than ones with more than five guys. (Of the 31 main friaries in our province, only 12 have more than five friars, including two formation houses, two retirement homes, and a nursing home.)

In three years, I have lived in communities of 10, 21, and 27. By nature of its size, houses like these are not simply larger versions of small houses: they have a completely different culture. With 27 guys, it only makes sense to have a cook, to buy everything in colossal Costco-sized quantities, to develop a house schedule and stick to it rigidly, to rely on the guardian to make many executive decisions rather than have a discussion (more on this in a second), and to live in a place that looks more like an office building than a house.

With a lot more guys, it is necessary, and even cheaper, to have a lot more at one’s disposal. For instance, our house in Silver Spring, MD, is complete with more than 13 bathrooms, an exercise room, three TV areas, a conference room, a library, and a courtyard; we have at any given time five different types of snack food, ten different drink options, and enough food to fill up a dump truck (which, of course, lasts us only about a week.) While this is a great attempt to make everyone marginally happy, the problem with this for me is that I completely lose touch with the things that I consume, where they come from, how much they cost, and what it means to want something. There’s just so much of everything!

Needless to say, this summer is a much-welcomed downsize. When I discerned becoming a Franciscan, I always imagined living in a small community of guys like this in an old, normal-sized house, simply and flexibly. This summer, I love the fact that we take turns cooking and going to the grocery store (buying only what we know we’ll eat that week), have only one common living space to share with one another, and that we don’t have an industrial-sized oven, dishwasher, walk-in refrigerator, or bathroom. Everything is “normal” size. The best part, though, is how flexible the dynamic of the house can be: with so few people, prayer and meals can be adjusted to fit the day’s needs, each friar intentionally commits himself to the community knowing that his absence hinders the community (not the same for a house of 27 in which people can come and go as they please) and most of all, decisions can be collectively and informally made in a matter of minutes. This is a big one.

There’s one story I like to tell people about what I don’t like about large houses. During our novitiate, I went to the guardian with a modest request: “Do you mind if we get a different type of cereal? We get the same six cereals every week.” His response: “Sure! Not a problem. How about you bring that up at our house chapter this Friday and we can all discuss and vote for new cereals.” Aaaaaand pass on that idea. Can you imagine 21 people all “sharing their feelings” about the cereal situation in the house? Now, obviously, this is a ridiculous example, and items like this need not be addressed by every member of the community, but what about changing the prayer schedule? Deciding what to do as a house for Lent? How to celebrate Christmas? These were all things that we discussed as a house, and these were all things that took a very, very long time to decide.

Ultimately, there is no “right” way to live in a friar house. By the looks of how many friars transferred to our large houses in New York, Boston, and Siena College this year, it shows that many actually prefer this style of living. Larger houses offer more opportunities for personal relationships, allow for more profound liturgical and social experiences, and afford a greater flexibility for those preferring a more independent lifestyle. These are all good things! Even though I prefer the intimacy of the small house and the intentionality of a small community, I will look forward to these positive aspects of friar life when I go back to Silver Spring in the fall.

All in all, the fact that I feel more genuine to the vocation I discerned and more responsible to the brothers with which I live when I can count my housemates on one hand, while others feel the same when in houses of 30, is the true beauty of our life. Our Franciscan charism is wide and diverse, open to each brother to follow the way Jesus has called him to Himself. There’s no “right” way to live as a friar. What’s important is not how many friars live together, it’s that they live together, doing so as faithfully and simply as they are able. A downsize in housemates is something that I welcome with open arms, but I recognize that there are as many ways to encounter Jesus as there are ways to live. That is, if we’re open to that encounter!