March 31, 2013 § Leave a comment
In recent posts, I talked about the need for Jesuit education to continue to adapt to our wired, e-based world. Drawing upon documents from the Jesuit Secondary Education Association (JSEA), I wrote of the JSEA’s desire for Jesuit schools to effect a shift. It is a shift in how we perceive school. The JSEA called for its schools to become less about transmitting a static body of knowledge than about being places where students “learn how to learn.”
Today in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman’s column accesses some of these themes through the work of Tony Wagner, an “education specialist” (not sure what that means) from Harvard. Friedman quotes a few lines from Wagner’s new book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. Friedman’s argument (borrowing from Wagner) is that schools today must teach kids not only how to get a job, but how to invent one, how to become marketable in “a time when there is increasingly no such thing as a high-wage, middle-skilled job — the thing that sustained the middle class in the last generation.” Friedman continues: the “goal of education today, argues Wagner, should not be to make every child ‘college ready’ but ‘innovation ready’ — ready to add value to whatever they do.”
I hesitate to criticize Wagner without reading his book, but a few thoughts and questions here.
“College ready” v. “innovation ready”: That is vague, demanding elaboration and specification. What is the place of college preparation? Is college old news? Will preparing kids to be innovators include the side benefit of preparing them for college? Who is the “model” student — Muck Zuckerberg or Socrates? If college preparation is done right, if college preparation adapts to the times, can it include the kind of education that Wagner wants? (One assumes so, given his affiliation with Harvard.)
What about deeper, less “market-based” purposes of education? I speak of the classic questions of humanities classes, and increasingly, the questions that only faith-based schools pursue. Who or what is the human being? What does it mean to live in society? How should I relate with others? What is good and evil? What is the good life? What is life? Who is God? What is faith? Once I learn how to innovate, what do I do with my innovation? Whom should I work for? Whom should I serve? Should I serve anyone? Is the goal of life to make money? Should I pursue happiness? What is happiness? Who determines it? What is the role of sacrifice or calling? What is love, and who deserves it? What is commitment? How do I make sense of temptation and brokenness?
These are questions which have no immediate correlation with a job and a salary, but for Catholic education, at least, these questions must involve themselves in lesson plans if one is to be educated and truly successful. This does not mean that Catholic schools ignore the more “practical” questions or skills (arguably the above questions are the most practical thing we could ask). The choice is not for one emphasis over the other, but for both. Catholic schools have to teach Greek tragedy and computer programming, scripture and algebra, Shakespeare and anatomy. Catholic schools have to teach how to read, how to listen, how to ask, how to contemplate, and how to pray. This is why Catholic schools carry a greater burden than public schools and, historically, have been such edifying places. Catholic education seeks the entire human geography — it assigns itself the entire soul terrain.
Another issue, too, is how to overthrow the reign of standardized testing. Colleges still place disproportionate weight on SAT and ACT scores, as well as on GPAs and AP exams. To the extent that college continues to do that, so will high schools. Perhaps Wagner is calling for us to rethink college altogether — to create a secondary education model that is sort of a hybrid between the traditional high school and traditional college?
I guess I’ll just have to buy his book.
Posted by Matt Emerson.
March 28, 2013 § 2 Comments
Today, Holy Thursday, my friend and colleague Stephanie DePrez shares a bit about her journey from the University of Notre Dame to Xavier College Preparatory and talks about her role ministering to students in the wake of tragedy.
Love and Loss for an Easter People
March 28, 2013
By Stephanie DePrez
“Are you Catholic?”
“Would you be willing to teach religion?”
Two months after that impromptu interview, I found myself packing a U-Haul and driving from Denver to Palm Desert, my brand-new degree from the University of Notre Dame in hand.
I never planned on teaching high school. My own experience as a member of the first freshman class of Regis Jesuit High School’s Girls Division in Aurora, Colorado was fantastic, and I loved my four years spent “building” our new school. My two summers in college doing catechetical work with high school students with the Notre Dame Vision program rocked me and my faith. But my passion was performance, and my majors were Music and Film, Television & Theatre. What could I bring to a religion classroom? Especially one that is Jesuit?
Nearing the end of my second year at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, I’m beginning to understand what I am truly called to be and do as an Ignatian educator.
When I walked into my classroom, a 22-year-old directing a choir and teaching sophomore Scripture, I was frantic. Text and materials, homework assignments, lectures, and disciplinary procedures swirled in my head as I attempted to keep my no-idea-what-I’m-in-for grin to a minimum and command respect from the terrifying monsters darling children now in my care. The grace of God, assisted by my pure foolishness, led me to abandon plans to move to Los Angeles to write for television or to audition for a Young Artists’ Program with an opera company. Instead, I found myself teaching high school.
Thus began my quest to discover what I am called to do with a millennial teenager. There are competing opinions. I recently heard teenagers referred to as piñatas of hormones and emotion, and if that’s the case, there’s really not more for a teacher in secondary education to do other than babysit the fiesta and hope it doesn’t get out of control. Especially if my subject matter is so radical (God, truth) that the run-of-the-mill relativist takes sharp offense at virtually every idea I propose. Get them in, get them out, keep them safe, and make sure they know who Moses is.
This is, of course, a wildly simplified and incomplete view. Teaching teenagers, especially at a Jesuit school, means wresting with love every day. Who am I? Someone who is loved. Whose am I? The God of love’s. Who am I called to be? Love. Which means, when three students lose a parent, and when a senior is unconscious in the ICU, when it looks like hope is gone and the piñatas turn into exhausted zombies with red-rimmed eyes fearfully stuffed into polo’s, the order of love gets bigger. And that’s where I, the Ignatian educator, come in.
I remarked off-handedly earlier this year that the only thing I really need to do every day is look my students in the eye and say, “You’re okay.” This simple task is indicative of the larger act of reminding my students that they’re safe, they’re important, and they’re not screwing up. Even if your parents are getting divorced, even if you failed a math exam, even if you didn’t make Varsity … you’re okay. It’s going to be okay. You’re a good person, and you will do good things. This is the best thing I do for my students – I give them permission to breathe, to meet themselves in the middle of the mess that is high school and be comfortable with the person they see in the mirror.
So what happens when the questions get harder? This week, as we grieved the death of a Xavier senior, a student sitting in front of me crumpled into my arms, sobbing, and said, “I just don’t get it, Miss DePrez. We’re such good people, and we’re all so sad.” I got an email from a student who wrote, “I have no experience with loss. But since you teach religion and such, I thought maybe you’d be able to point me towards God in this situation. Where is he? What the hell is he thinking?”
In my year and a half at a Jesuit school I’ve felt lost, humbled, confused, grossly wrong, upset, disappointed, frustrated, and like a bad teacher, but I have never felt paralyzed. That’s what I felt this week. I didn’t have answers, and I couldn’t pull out my favorite line, “Let’s look it up in the Catechism!” I had to sit there, holding hearts bleeding out pain with purity only teenagers possess, and the only thing I could do is … love. I gave the student a bear hug, and I emailed a response with a song I’d been listening to and a confession that I have no idea where He is, either. I have lost count of the hugs I’ve initiated, giving my darlings permission to weep, to moan, to be present to their emotions. The world they know is destroyed; they are not invincible. The only response I have, and the only one I am called to have, is to love.
This means showing up every day. It means being real with them about my own grief. It means continuing to do our work. It means goofing off and having a good laugh and letting them convince me to soap-box — at least for a little while — about reality television instead of the origins of the Liturgy. It means saying a rosary next to a hospital bed while the patient’s dad stands watch. It means holding a colleague’s hand in the faculty lounge as she breaks down at 8:30 AM. It means weekend meals with other teachers, facing each other, looking for the face of Christ.
Because, no matter what happens, we are going to be okay. We are rooted in Christ, fed by the Eucharist, and at the mercy of our own faithful desires to seek the magis. We are an Easter people.
Stephanie DePrez is a member of the first four-year class from Regis Jesuit High School Girls Division in Aurora, Colorado (class of 2007). She received a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame in Music (Vocal Performance) and Film, Television & Theatre in 2011. She is currently the Choir Director and member of the Theology Department at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Palm Desert, CA. She can be reached at email@example.com.
March 27, 2013 § Leave a comment
Greg, a senior at Xavier who took a ferocious fall from his skateboard, died on Palm Sunday. For the last few days, and prior to his death, while he lay in a coma, students and parents have been asking questions. How could this have happened? Why did it happen? Where was God?
I, too, have been asking questions, and as I have done so, I have returned to some thoughts I put down a couple years ago, in response to a horrific crime in Connecticut. In a July 2011 piece for Patheos.com titled “Sorrow Neither Sweet nor Fitting,” I considered questions of God and faith, and good and evil, in light of a raping, pillaging, and burning visited upon the Petit family (the New York Times has compiled its articles about the crime here). An excerpt from what I wrote:
The lowest evil is like the highest love: it is mystery. We try in vain to solve it, and it is not our place. Our mission is something much different precisely because faith is not like mathematics. We are called, of course, to pray for the sufferer. But more fundamentally we are called, even in our poverty of experience and empathy, to be with the sufferer, in the words of Pope Benedict, to “take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also.”
For most of us, the only avenue to this solidarity is prayer. Most will never reach the depths of anguish felt by Dr. Petit and his family or countless other human beings who have faced, and will continue to face, the worst that life can bring. But in our prayer, we can say, “Lord, let me be with them. In the way and to the degree you wish, make their suffering my own.”
The rest is here. I hope it provides some worthwhile reading for those readers struggling with similar questions today. Obviously Greg’s death resulted from much different circumstances, but it still leaves us turning upward and inward, searching for God and our response.
March 22, 2013 § Leave a comment
As we huddled around his bed, he lay almost motionless, the only movement coming in the gentle rising and falling of his chest. His mother massaged his right arm, his brother, his left. For a few moments we stood silently, watching him breathe, and my eyes scanned the various machines that joined us in standing vigil. Tubes and wires ran from his head and arms to screens bearing numbers. In another area of the room were more machines, revealing not numbers but something more like graphs, little shaded wavelengths, like the zigzagging lines that represent the stock market.
It was the intensive care unit, and I was visiting my former student, who is still in extremely critical condition from his weekend accident. There, in the ICU, all major functions of his body are under watch, billions of chemical reactions and biological processes translated into math. Collectively, the devices acted as one great Richter scale of health. It got me thinking.
We live in a quantifying, numerical age. We understand ourselves and our world increasingly in and by numbers, in and by statistics, percentages, indexes, and yields. We attempt to gauge and capture and predict. We analyze interest rates and speak of balances and loan amounts. If we save x amount of money for y amount of time, we will yield z amount of dollars at t age, assuming the market doesn’t drop below, say, 10,000.
We count calories and cholesterol and the cost of a gallon, for both milk and gas. Our favorite radio station might be 101.5 or 89.3, but our body temperature better remain at 98.6. But even if our body temperature is at 98.6, we might still be in trouble if our credit score is below 700—which could be significantly impacted if our SAT is below 2000 or our GPA is not above 3.0. Unless of course someone has an IQ of around 130, in which case he might be able to skip the SAT, become a lawyer and annually bill about 2000 hours. Need to reach him? No problem, I’ll give you his . . . number.
By themselves, these kind of quantifications are not bad. Our ability to decipher nature in objective terms, to determine cause and effect, to detect and reveal order in almost every aspect of existence: this is nothing short of awesome. I do not fault the geniuses who enabled these achievements; I celebrate them. Their intelligence glorifies God and improves the human condition. I am daily grateful for the health and cohesion this precision affords.
But I think about our Age of Quantification as someone who also desires faith. Man cannot live by math alone. To quantify and calculate, to measure and predict: this can lead one to covet and to cower. More important, living one’s life based solely on what can be calculated destroys the possibility of faith. Faith is a marriage to mystery, an entrusting of oneself to a reality inexpressible in number. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes it clear. Faith is an invitation into the non-quantifiable, the unmeasurable, the dimension beyond statistics and percentages. “Come, follow me,” Jesus says. And that’s the sum total of all he says. There are no target hours of discipleship like there are billable hours for lawyers.
There are times we long to look at a monitor that tells us we are in the range of the normal, to see a graph convincing us of, perhaps, the “long-term yield” of our spiritual commitments. But we receive no such signs. When my grandmother, in her mid-90s, began to deteriorate in a nursing facility, I began to visit her once or twice a week. Eventually, though, I grew reluctant to see her. She started to repeat stories, she couldn’t hear well, and the facility often smelled of urine. Sometimes she was rude. She often forgot conversations from my prior visit. I began to ask, “Should I go? What is she getting out of this? Who is helped?” I wanted verification, I wanted a look or word of acknowledgment that my actions were — I hate to say it — paying off.
But now I know I was foolish. I had started to judge my visits on the criteria of the market, on a strange calculus of input and output. Instead, my only role was to clasp her hand, tell her how much I loved her, tell her how thankful I was for the way she cared for my brother and me; for changing our diapers, for braving our urine, for teaching us our prayers, for driving us to practice, for the ice cream from Dairy Queen and the thousands of times she hugged us, babysat us, and made us feel, with pizza and Mountain Dew, like a million bucks. I had only to whisper that she was not alone and let my own embrace mirror the cradling I once received from her.
It’s simple. I had only to arrive in faith and leave in faith and embody the love that knows no number, that requires no threshold score. The love that, as St. Paul told us, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” The love that, unlike the stock market, never — ever — fails.
[*Update: Greg, my student, died on March 24, in the early morning hours of Palm Sunday.]
Posted by Matt Emerson.
March 21, 2013 § Leave a comment
As our Xavier community continues to hope for an early Easter, here is a poem from Mary Oliver, which, for me, doubles as prayer.
We humans think in terms of seasons, of there being cycles and time periods. There is winter and there is spring, and there is not winter during spring or spring during winter.
With God there are no seasons. What God wants, God gets. With nothing, He gives everything.
Gregory: rise, pick up your mat, and walk.
Hurricane (by Mary Oliver)
It didn’t behave
like anything you had
ever imagined. The wind
tore at the trees, the rain
fell for days slant and hard.
The back of the hand
to everything. I watched
the trees bow and their leaves fall
and crawl back into the earth.
As though, that was that.
This was one hurricane
I lived through, the other one
was of a different sort, and
lasted longer. Then
I felt my own leaves giving up and
falling. The back of the hand to
everything. But listen now to what happened
to the actual trees;
toward the end of that summer they
pushed new leaves from their stubbed limbs.
It was the wrong season, yes,
but they couldn’t stop. They
looked like telephone poles and didn’t
care. And after the leaves came
blossoms. For some things
there are no wrong seasons.
Which is what I dream of for me.
Posted by Matt Emerson.
March 20, 2013 § 1 Comment
Dave Gregory contributes another beautiful and eloquent essay, this one on finding meaning and hope through dark times.
Perfection and Crucifixion
March 20, 2013
By Dave Gregory
“When the All Holy enters this world, evil suddenly crystallizes…. It makes a fist and nails the All Holy to the cross. It releases all its anger on the person of Jesus, unto his death; but in the death of Jesus, evil has expended all its energy and thereby lost its potency.
– Sebastian Moore, O.S.B.
Within the past month, two families at Xavier College Preparatory lost parents, and two colleagues lost their mothers. In the middle of writing this post, a senior suffered a traumatic brain injury from a skateboarding accident and currently lays in a coma. Lent for our community has been a particularly somber one, full of tears and questions unanswered, marked by intense vulnerability. The melancholy of recent events has led me to think of my past experiences with death and my contemplations from the Spiritual Exercises, and I’ve been wondering how to bring these reflections to my relationships at Xavier.
Almost two years ago, I was working as a nurse’s aid in a palliative care hospital located in the heart of the Bronx. Given that one of the “experiments” of the Jesuit novitiate is dedicated to serving the sick, I found myself cleaning the bodies of the dead and dying. I had never experienced – and I imagine I never will again – death in such an intimate manner. Those I washed knew they were dying without hope of recovery, that some disease had slowly gained conquest of their bodies. They had come to the appropriately named Calvary Hospital to spend their final days, and my primary ministry consisted of ensuring that these days were as comfortable as possible.
I found myself in the hospital chapel for Mass one day during Holy Week, and sitting a few feet away from me were a husband and wife, both somewhere in their fifties so far as I could tell. She reclined in a hospital chair, unconscious as intravenous bags filled her veins with medication. Her husband sat next to her, gazing at her adoringly, stroking her balding scalp. When the priest came around to distribute the Sacrament, the husband tapped his bride’s cheek, telling her, “Susie, wake up, Communion’s here.”
His words were to no avail. He received the Body of Christ mournfully. Body of Christ, save me… I sat transfixed. Throughout the liturgy, I could not remove my tearing eyes from this couple. I thought to myself, “Is this not how God loves us, in our slumber, in our brokenness, asking for us by name so that we could see Him, if just for a moment?” This image stuck with me that Triduum. It seemed to be some sort of perfection I had not yet encountered in my limited life of 22 years.
In the Third Week of the Exercises, as retreatants contemplate the final days of Christ’s ministry, St. Ignatius asks them to seek a very particular grace: to feel “confusion because for my sins the Lord is going to the Passion.” I am to behold Christ’s love for his disciples, their rejection of him, his suffering and death, and feel that all this remains inextricably intertwined with my own sinful life. He suffers this for me. Were I the only person to have ever existed, God would have suffered all this to demonstrate the profundity of His love.
While making the Exercises in late January of 2011, as I contemplated the crucifixion, I simply spent time in front of the cross, as Jesus lovingly looked at me, blood pouring from his wounds, his body rattling with desperate gasps, and never before have I felt more vulnerable. Blood of Christ, inebriate me… Evil works through confusion and hiddenness, cloaking its power, wanting to keep its form secret. However, upon the instrument of Christ’s death, evil crystallizes, it makes itself known, it attempts to destroy God. For whatever reason (perhaps guilt, perhaps grace, or perhaps some combination thereof), so do my own weakness and vulnerabilities. Without the Cross, I do not know exactly how God shows His Love, but with the Cross, in some strange paradox, Heaven’s gift manifests in a horrible yet beautiful revelation. Passion of Christ, strengthen me… Blood and love poured out simultaneously, yet another perfection I had not previously encountered.
We can offer all sorts of reasons for the crucifixion (Jesus was the target of Roman hostility, the Jewish leadership thought he was blaspheming, so on and so forth), but ultimately there is no satisfactory answer. With the Cross, we will never feel comfortable. Logic and reason break down. Rationalizations lead nowhere and the abyss still confronts humanity. In the hour of my death, call me and bid me come unto Thee… Nothing will bring complete healing to our students, and wounds will remain, just as Christ’s glorified body remained wounded in his resurrection.
Susie’s husband at Calvary Hospital didn’t seek her cure, only her response to his, and God’s, love. Our students ask piercing questions that rip into both the heart and the intellect, seeking answers which we cannot provide: “Why did Brian’s father and Jimmy’s mother die within a week of one another? Why is Greg lying comatose, his skull fractured in multiple places? Why does sadness force itself upon goodness?” We can’t “fix” these lives, and God won’t either. Similarly, as the retreatant understands in the Third Week of the Exercises, Christ doesn’t want us to remove him from the Cross or suture the gaping wounds inflicted upon his body. Within Thy wounds, hide me … He simply wants me to walk with him, to enter into his pain, to suffer with him.
Ultimately, being Church is an experience of suffering with one another. In our own communal and personal experiences of crucifixion, we live that mysterious threshold between death and resurrection. This is compassion (truly “suffering with”) in its depths. All we can do — all these Crosses and Calvaries call us to do — is suffer with one another, hold each other’s gaze, lovingly so, and hope for redemption. Wounds will remain, though transformed. This too is a sort of perfection.
Anima Christi (c. 1500s)
Soul of Christ, sanctify me;
Body of Christ, save me;
Blood of Christ, inebriate me;
Water from the side of Christ, wash me;
Passion of Christ, strengthen me;
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within Thy wounds hide me;
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee.
From the malignant enemy defend me.
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come unto Thee,
That with all Thy saints,
I may praise Thee
Forever and ever.
Dave 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, Gregory was in the Jesuit novitiate in the Maryland province of the Society of Jesus. Gregory’s interests include Ignatian spirituality and the practical implications of the Spiritual Exercises for secondary education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 19, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’ve already put this on Facebook, but here I want to share another helpful resource for wrestling with the question of pain and suffering and its relationship to faith. This, too, is one of the resources I give my students in the Senior Synthesis course, and it’s always appreciated.
It is an article by the late Fr. John Kavanaugh, S.J. (he died in November of 2012), who was a philosophy professor at Saint Louis University. Fr. Kavanaugh taught me when I was at SLU. He directed my senior thesis and also taught a bioethics class that made me want to go to law school. For many years he wrote a column for the Jesuit magazine America. One of his best columns (in my opinion) was titled “The Ocean of Life.” Written in 2005, the column addresses that most haunting of subjects: God’s existence and the presence of suffering and evil. Fr. Kavanaugh touches on physical evils, moral evils, and the full range of forces which leave us sad, hurt, and confused. For teenagers first starting to work through these terribly difficult issues, Fr. Kavanaugh’s essay is a beautifully profound and accessible piece. An excerpt:
If we do not want tidal waves or volcanoes, I guess we cannot want this earth, its atmosphere, its eruptions, its churning tectonic plates, its generative gasses, its mighty mountains and oceans, so awesome and dreadful. If we do not want children of flesh and blood, who can so suddenly and shockingly lose a hand or who have lungs that choke in water, I wonder whether we could even have a human body, its caresses charged with tenderness or its lungs to breathe and sing. I don’t know. But I believe this is the world God made, terrible and awesome, so lovely and lethal.
You can find the full column here.
Posted by Matt Emerson.