Valentine’s Day and the Seven Sacraments

February 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

I must be kidding, right? Sacraments and Valentine’s Day?

Nope. Very serious. One of the results of teaching high school over the last few years is that I’ve been forced to come up with original and creative ways to discuss traditional Catholic doctrine. Students in high school do not accept platitudes or obscure theological statements; they inquire relentlessly. The same goes when I talk about something in constitutional law in mock trial: jargon doesn’t work. The root elements, in transparent language, have to be discussed. That, of course, is a very good thing, as it shows an impressive academic spirit among those I teach. It also prevents me from saying outlandish things without proper explanation. I have to know what I am saying.

Below, I share a few thoughts about how to understand the Seven Sacraments, which often baffle both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. I consider the question, “How can we understand the meaning and purpose of the Sacraments?” I answer through the lens of Valentine’s Day to show how signs and symbols and tangible objects are natural ways that humans communicate meaning and sustain relationships — which is what the Sacraments do with God. Essentially, Sacraments are a date with the Sacred. Enjoy!


Grace and Senioritis

February 27, 2013 § 1 Comment

Call the CDC. It has arrived.

Every high school across the country confronts this crisis, the point in the year when seniors check out. It’s apparently a rite of passage. Senioritis, as we call it, signals the shutting down, the letting go, the descent into the sweet landing spot of graduation. It’s accompanied by exasperation with responsibilities once seized excitedly. It’s also a time of unease: Seniors are waiting to hear from colleges, and for the fist time, their future lingers in mystery. Where will I be? For the first time, they are preparing to leave their homes and the entire set of comforting associations — the walk from the garage, the arrangement of the kitchen, the smell of the rooms, the routine of Saturday morning. Thoughts of dorm rooms and parties and frisbees and large quads distract from class. High school just isn’t cool anymore.

I remember this time, and I sympathize with the anxiety of looking forward. However, I worry about a side effect: the loss of intentionality. Many seniors think that these last few months have little to offer, either academically or otherwise. It quickly becomes a “dead period,” a waiting room for the next best thing.

This attitude is very human, and teachers are tempted to do the same. But however human this may be, it says something unsettling about our appreciation of time. Are we not offending existence by declaring a future state more worthy than the now? Can anything beyond the present be guaranteed?

What graces, what insights, might be right below our eyes if only we looked?

Jesuit schools (like all Catholic schools, for that matter) believe that God is active in our lives, that at every moment we are relating, even imperceptibly, with our Creator. The so-called dead time, then, should be different in our schools (or for Catholic students anywhere) because of our belief in a ceaselessly graced and gifted existence. What is labeled “dead time” in fact might be the time that is most alive, the time most charged with possibility. My own experience may bear this out.

When I was a senior in high school, I had stopped playing golf and most of my afternoons were free. I ended up hanging out after school with a good friend of mine, occasionally visiting teachers. These afternoons changed my life. My friend and I had conversations that I had never had, probably because for the first three years I was too busy with school or sports. We talked about God, life, college, and the temptations of high school. One teacher in particular gave me insights into prayer and spirituality. I began to contemplate, to reflect upon who I was becoming and my relationships with others. I had the chance to survey the prior few years and ask, “What is this all for? Where am I going? What is important?” The time of “senioritis,” then, became the most influential months of high school, perhaps when the most learning took place.

I’m not saying I remained intentional all the time. I, too, battled recurrent senioritis. But I offer my experience to show what might happen if we invite seniors to invert their assumptions about these final months, if we encourage them to believe that every class, every walk down the hall, every silent moment might be the occasion where the Holy Spirit comes to say hello. It might be the exact time where students make the breakthrough they’ve been waiting for or receive the insight they most need.

In short, it might be a moment of kairos. And for senioritis, there may be no better cure.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

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Ignatian Spirituality and Images of God

February 25, 2013 § 6 Comments

Dave Gregory, my friend and colleague, today provides the first guest post for The Ignatian Educator. Drawing upon his classes at Xavier Prep in Palm Desert, CA, Gregory discusses a few of the incomplete images of God that his students carry and explains how Ignatian spirituality can fill in the picture.

“Disposition Days”

Posted by David Gregory

As a soldier, St. Ignatius of Loyola had probably killed enemies in battle. Lust, aggression, and vanity marked his early years. But following his conversion, and for reasons we cannot entirely understand, Ignatius felt the need to subject his body to excruciating corporal mortification. He tied a belt around his thigh in order to cut off circulation. He starved himself. He wore the soles of his shoes through in order to bloody and batter his feet. And yet, the Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Montserrat helped Ignatius to free himself of his scruples. Spending ten months in Manresa’s cave brought Ignatius to understand – and more importantly, feel – that God did not desire Ignatius to punish his body in order to compensate for his sinfulness. Ignatius came to believe that although penance could be fruitful, the most beneficial penitential acts did not scar the body permanently. When Ignatius met Peter Faber, who would later become one of the first Jesuits, Ignatius recognized within him this same tendency toward scrupulosity that once held Ignatius captive.

It is remarkable how our images of God affect our attitude toward religion. These images are so subtle, and can be so insidious and so embedded within our unconscious, they often require attentive reflection in order to understand how they affect our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the divine. It is for this reason that Ignatius required his “exercitants” (those who make the Spiritual Exercises) to undergo “days of disposition” prior to going on the retreat. Ignatius believed that time, prayer, and reflection were required so that the exercitant could prepare properly and come to a deeper understanding of who he understands God to be. Faber, for example, waited four years to make the retreat, and Jesuit novices nowadays do not make the retreat immediately upon entering the novitiate. Quite simply, misguided images result in a hindered experience of the Exercises.

My students’ recent reflection papers on their “healthy and unhealthy” images of God have revealed to me that teenagers often hold one of two primary “unhealthy” images of God. In times of need, they pray to the “Aspirin God,” the God who fixes and cures everything that causes pain; when things are not fixed, when their parents’ unstable marriage ends in divorce, when a loved one’s body succumbs to cancer, or when their closest friendships deteriorate in the midst of lies and gossip, the Aspirin God image fades away and our students are left with nothing.

On the other hand, a student might view God as so foreign, as such a complete and utter mystery, that praying to the “Mountain-Top” God does nothing. And so, seeking religion as a source of meaning is abandoned. Or they might view God as little more than really, really nice; after all, a nice God would never interfere with our lives or challenge our sin. These images of a God who only serves to heal or who exists at an unreachable distance posit a deity who remains largely uninvolved with human existence. In contradistinction, one might view God as deeply involved with human affairs, but in a way that does not genuinely harmonize with traditional Judeo-Christian perspectives. Take the late Christopher Hitchens for example. A prominent anti-theist, Hitchens was of the (obviously twisted) opinion that Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in a deity who cruelly exercises control over his followers in some sort of twisted game of schadenfreude.

So-called “false” images, as understood by St. Augustine, are therefore not so much wrong as they are incomplete; they are distortions of some truth. Yes, we should pray to God when engulfed in suffering, but we should also hope that suffering points to the Resurrection. So even though grief may persist, we have reason to avoid despair. Despair will inevitably result if we only seek a relationship with the Aspirin God in our sufferings, because not all sufferings end in a way we find satisfactory. Yes, the Judeo-Christian tradition holds that our God is complete mystery, hidden within an infinite nature. Although God spoke to Moses from a mountain top, He came down from the mountain and revealed Himself to Peter, James and John in the Transfiguration. In these certain illuminating moments of (sometimes blinding) clarity, God reveals God’s self to us. God is both far and near, infinite and immanent. We look to the Gospels for the divine immanence; God’s divinity, after all, is not found around Jesus’ humanity, but straight through it.

A true image of God is one that invites us into relationship with Him. Love transforms and challenges. Similarly, a genuine encounter with God leads to a fundamental transformation of who we are. It does not leave us complacent. One need only look at the lives of the saints – or the lives of students, colleagues, and loved ones whom we consider saintly – to see this principle at work.

So the question remains: how do we re-orient our students’ dis-oriented images of God? The answer lies, I think, in the same way that Ignatius dealt with himself and with Faber: time. We pray with them. We show them that the most often repeated phrase in the Gospels is some iteration of “Be not afraid,” sung by the angels and stated by the risen Christ. Above all, though, we wait with patience. We provide those opportunities in the classroom for genuine questions and explorations. We let them know that God does not want us to fear Him. We witness to the faith as joyful and humorous followers of Jesus in sincere humility. We offer them times of retreat, in which we have one foot on earth and the other foot in the eternal. Most importantly, however, we must remember that we alone do not undertake this task. In the frenzied and monotonous routine of school, we do nothing more than leave God room to work His work.

Perhaps the entirety of high school, for students and teachers alike, can be seen as a period of “disposition days,” years throughout the course of which our hearts and minds ready themselves for the wildness and wilderness we cannot even begin to predict.

Dave GregoryDave Gregory graduated from Manhattan’s Regis High School in 2006 and from Georgetown University in 2010 with a double major in philosophy and theology. Prior to coming to Xavier in August of 2012, Gregory was in the Jesuit novitiate in the Maryland province. Gregory’s interests include Ignatian spirituality and the practical implications of the Spiritual Exercises for secondary education. He can be reached at

The uncertainty of faith — and why that’s ok

February 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today on Oscar Sunday, a first for the Ignatian Educator and me: a video post. Not exactly like writing “Good Will Hunting,” but I do believe it’s worth at least half a golden statute.

I decided to take some of the material from the class I teach — Senior Synthesis — that has been helpful for students and talk about it on Ignatian Educator. Senior synthesis is a semester-long reflection on faith and belief, in which students write a 20-30 page paper on what they believe and why. It’s based on the theory of insight developed by Bernard Lonergan, S.J.

Early in the year, we discuss the idea of faith; specifically, of believing in something, of relying on something, that cannot be verified with 100% certainty. Below, I talk about that idea and unpack some implications.

The Camino Ignaciano

February 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

Over Christmas break I traveled to Spain to visit my brother in Barcelona. As many fans of Jesuit history know, two of the most important towns in the life of St. Ignatius are just an hour or so away from Barcelona: Montserrat and Manresa.

Montserrat is site of the mountain of Montserrat (literally “the serrated mountain,” as my Spanish friend translated; see picture below), home to a Benedictine Abbey that safeguards the most famous shrine in Spain: the Black Madonna of Montserrat. At this shrine, St. Ignatius set down his armor and sword, and conducted an all-night vigil before Our Lady to signal the renunciation of his old soldierly life. Manresa, just a short drive from Montserrat, is home of the cave where St. Ignatius spent a year in isolation and prayer, and where he began sketching the Spiritual Exercises.

Side view of the Black Madonna

Side view of the Black Madonna. Photo by Matt Emerson.

The view of the Mountain of Montserrat from Ignatius's cave in Manresa

The view of the Mountain of Montserrat from Ignatius’s cave in Manresa. Photo by Matt Emerson.

While on the trip, I began to think about the possibilities of pilgrimage. I thought about retracing the steps of St. Ignatius, either alone or with others and wondered if anyone had mapped out the route. I found my answer. In the current issue of America, Chris Lowney introduces readers to the Camino Ignaciano, or the way of Ignatius, a new trail that takes pilgrims from Loyola to Montserrat to Manresa:

With the 500th anniversary of Ignatius’ famous walk exactly one decade away, a small core team committed themselves to developing the Camino Ignaciano as a vibrant pilgrimage route. Over a period of months, three Spanish Jesuits and I independently cycled, walked, drove and Google-mapped Ignatius’ likely route. We were excited to discover that we could stitch together most of an Ignatian Camino using already-existing walking trails from branches of the venerable Camino Santiago.

Lowney references the views from Montserrat, a vantage point from which I took a number of pictures. The Benedictine Abbey is near the top of the mountain and allows an uninterrupted view of the undulating Spanish countryside. There are few buildings in site, and standing at the Abbey, today’s pilgrim is probably looking at a landscape familiar to the eyes of Ignatius.

Into the Spanish countryside

View from Abbey, looking out the Spanish countryside. Photo by Matt Emerson.

For me it was a prayerful and enlightening moment. The relationship between geography and spirituality stayed with me the rest of the trip. What kind of a spirituality emerges when one is surrounded by nature, by mountains, by places that require walking, and how does that differ from the attitude that develops from a landscape of pavement and elevators and cars, or perhaps the streets and alleys and ancient steeples of St. Thomas More’s London?

Another question that emerged: how can Jesuit schools incorporate pilgrimage into curriculum? How can our courses give  students a sense of the physical and spiritual rigors that Ignatius underwent, or that all men and women undergo during an odyssey to find God? And how does pilgrimage relate to formation?

Ah, questions questions questions — and some that I hope to unpack in upcoming posts.


Posted by Matt Emerson.

The question of the gun culture

February 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

It happened again. As southern California tries to recover from the rampage of Christopher Dorner, more lives are gunned into oblivion. Two days ago, 20-year-old Orange County resident Ali Syed killed three people and then himself. His closing act consisted of him pulling over on the freeway, randomly shooting at a few cars, and then terminating his own life. As of now, police have no motive. A sick man did a wicked thing. 

I’m still trying to understand these shootings (and the Newtown massacre) as a citizen, a lawyer, and a person of faith. But I also think about them as a teacher. In this role, I learn on behalf of others, and I search for insights to share. The deaths and carnage of the gun culture form part of our American context and, as we saw most grimly with Newtown, part of our educational context. The Ignatian pedagogical framework calls educators to survey and know this context as we form contemplatives in action.

And these growing contemplatives follow the news. They pose questions — about causes, possible responses, and ways to prevent bloodshed. However, evil stokes extremes, and people often look to these acts to confirm or deny some contested political belief. That can tempt our students — and faculty, for that matter — to do the same thing, to try to contort every event into a worldview for which there is no dusk. All is distilled into day or night.

Without discarding genuine conviction, without ignoring the need for moral witness, I want to help students enter twilight. I want them to consider that their instincts might be wrong. I want to persuade them to detach from the dichotomies of left and right, blue state and red state, and consider the deeper realities that underlie current events. I don’t exempt myself: After the Aurora shooting, I made a somewhat caustic remark about the murderer being a freak. I was thinking not only about the lives he had destroyed, but also about his Joker persona. It all haunted me, and I wanted to reject him as inhuman.

Twenty-seven wooden angels commemorate the victims of the Newtown shooting.

A student quickly rejoined (and I paraphrase): “Mr. Emerson, I disagree. By calling him a freak, we don’t consider the question of mental health. People aren’t born wanting to kill. Labeling him just makes it easy to dismiss the real issue.” She went on to talk about mental health and her interest in the subject, along with her compassion for those who are psychologically vulnerable. She was not, of course, trying to ignore the evil or dilute what he had done. But she had returned me to the human question: she had seen a deeper reality that my gut reaction had powered over.

I find myself searching for similar depth when it comes to the latest news concerning guns. One resource comes from the current issue of America magazine. It is an editorial calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment. Though it takes a strong stance, it is charitable. It also is well grounded in reasons; it is not political whim. It’s an excellent resource for our schools. An excerpt:

The Constitution is mere human law. It is excellent law, but it is not divine law; it is not revelation. We should be wary of amending the Bill of Rights. We should also be wary of idolizing it. The Constitution is the man-made law of a self-governing people; the people, therefore, are entitled to ask basic, critical questions about it. In our time, is a given constitutional provision a good law or a bad law? Does it promote the common good?

These are the questions that Ignatian educators, shapers of contemplatives in action, must ask, even if we arrive at different answers. They intersect with most of our subjects, including government, history, ethics, theology, and psychology. They require us to think about our context, and they center us in the principal theme of Catholic social thought: the inviolable dignity of the human person.

The rest of the article can be found here. I would love to hear feedback. I am also happy to draw attention to any counter-perspectives that readers may find.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

Ignatian Educator on Facebook

February 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

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