From the Supreme Court to St. Paul: thoughts on the DOMA aftermath

June 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

I fell behind writing about the JSEA colloquium, as the schedule of events and long socializing allowed meager moments to crack the knuckles and spend QT with the Mac. But I also withdrew into more-than-usual brooding after the Supreme Court published its decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

It was noteworthy, I thought, that the Court released the decision during the middle of a conference dedicated to the intellectual and spiritual life of the next generation. As hundreds of educators discussed how to adapt to popular technologies and evolving methods of pedagogy, as we shared strategies for preparing minds for a Christ-led navigation of post-high school terrain, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on a question that also involves the future, that also involves a grappling with evolving understandings of the human person and life in society.

In the brief moments I had to read about the decision, I resorted to my Facebook feed and a few news sites, where I saw the just-add-water commentary that is so predictable in the wake of major events. As expected, reactions clashed. Some treated the Supreme Court’s decision with the excitement of a father bursting from the delivery room, newborn in hand; others reacted as if their car had blown a tire and there was no tow truck available. They sat, they stewed, they blogged.

Both sides had their overreactions, but among opponents of the decision there was particular alarm. In much of the criticism there was a hopelessness, a despair, an angry gloom. Someone I don’t know, writing on a friend’s timeline, said that the United States had “officially” become Sodom and Gomorrah. Another person, commenting on a post at America magazine’s blog, wrote, “We’re all Gay Mormons now.”

Not honorable disagreement over an important moral issue; not the understandable disappointment of those committed to traditional marriage; not the respectful summons to additional advocacy: this was not what I was seeing. With few exceptions, what I saw was a breakdown in thoughtfulness, a retreat into catastrophic thinking and, at times, viciousness. In mainstream magazines and from mainstream (or so I’ve always thought) people, I saw the use of a language and tone so hyperbolic you’d think we were living in World War Z.

It was especially bad on places like Facebook and Twitter. Since people “friend” and “follow” the like-minded, few voices exist to offer any cooling, humanizing perspective. People transform their impulses into letters and type away into a virtual gated community. Their online neighbors await to echo the same response.

As I read the comments and compared them to the judicious dialogue underway at the colloquium, I realized what lie before us. It wasn’t the merits of the decision itself that first captivated me; it was the aftermath. The reactions revealed the attraction of extremes, the allure of affirmation, and the ease with which our virtual gated communities can corrode our empathy for those outside the walls.

It reminded me of the debate over immigration. How often does the national conversation turn persons into issues and seclude us from the noble human longings at stake? The population we call “illegals” are moms and dads, wives and husbands, caretakers and protectors. They want what we want. We can affirm the importance of secure borders and also acknowledge the dignity of those men and women. Men and women who, born imago dei, strive for a stable job, a reliable government, and the conditions to flourish and feel fulfilled; men and women who, through no choice of their own, were born into a place that leaves them little chance to enjoy the lifestyle that many of us take for granted.

Ignatian education, all of Catholic education, has its task. As social media lures us to customize friends and news on the criteria of “likes” or “shares,” our schools must introduce young men and women to people and stories that broaden and deepen their worldview. As the Internet dares students to ridicule, to vent from afar, Catholic schools must encourage students to cross into the territory of the designated “other,” to see the person before the issue. Catholic schools must insist, as St. Ignatius and the early Jesuits did, on conversation or, as St. Ignatius put it, “colloquy.”

This does not mean we abandon the Gospel, the teachings of the Church, or the truths of divine revelation. We carry forth with our Catholic faith. It does mean, however, that we honor the full spiritual dignity of those with whom we disagree. The gay couples I know well simply want their love to be celebrated and affirmed in the way that heterosexuals want. Their motivations arise from a wholesome place, and they should not be cheapened.

This is difficult. Really difficult. It is easy to denounce and condemn, much harder to discern. It is easy to dish sneering asides before an audience of flatterers, much harder to navigate competing moral, legal, and theological claims and then articulate a view, in a spirit of charity, to those who vehemently disagree.

It is easy, in other words, to eliminate tension. But that is not the Ignatian mission. It is within what Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., once called “constructive tension” where we ask students and faculty to dwell. In doing so, we draw on the essence of Ignatian identity. As Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., once wrote, “In the Spiritual Exercises themselves there seems to be an inbuilt tension between immediacy and mediation, between personal freedom and obedience, between universalism and ecclesiocentrism, between horizontal openness to the world and reverence for the sacred and the divine.”

To those tensions, we can add many others, including the tensions that surround the way human societies honor love and commitment, and the tensions we especially feel when our moral convictions cause wounds for family or friends, coworkers or fellow citizens.

We will not solve these tensions. There will be tough conversations. But we do have the choice to work through the tensions constructively, with a preference for persons over issues, with humility, and with a spirit charged by the words of St. Paul: “For I long to see you, that I may share with you some spiritual gift so that you may be strengthened, that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by one another’s faith, yours and mine.” (Romans 1:11-12)

Posted by Matt Emerson.


Fr. Clooney, S.J., on “slow learning”

June 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Fr. Francis Clooney, S.J., a Jesuit priest teaching at Harvard, has a beautiful meditation in America magazine on his personal and professional quest to understand Hinduism. His post advocates for what he calls “slow learning,” and he offers what strikes me as profound advice for those of us who are on a similar quest to make sense of the big questions, for those of us attempting to navigate through wondrous and perplexing plurality while nonetheless coming back, day after day, to the hope signified by the empty tomb.

Reading Fr. Clooney’s reflection, one gets the sense he has lived, as Stanely Kunitz would say, “in the layers.” An excerpt.

Beginning those days in Kathmandu, I found my way among the Hindu texts and practices, insights and emotions, visited the great temples, and created a space at the school where the boys could pray and praise God in their own language and by their own music — and I could watch and listen, drawn into the devotion and vision underlying their practice. I found myself as person, scholar-to-be, and Jesuit, in those two years. It was then and there, in July 1973, that I began my study of Hinduism, that field of expertise in which I have persisted and which I have deepened over these four decades as traveler, student, and professor. Without fully realizing what I was getting into, I was in fact laying the foundation for the entirety of my life: the American Catholic Jesuit priest and scholar who would study Hinduism for forty years and more, learning from Hindu traditions on every level of my being. What I do now began then.

Full post here.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

“Best essay” from Catholic Press Association

June 29, 2013 § 2 Comments

As I recently wrote on my personal Facebook page, I want to engage in what I hope is some tasteful self-promotion.

I learned last week that the Catholic Press Association named my September 2012 essay “Help Their Unbelief” from America magazine as the “best essay” in the category of national general interest magazine for 2012. (You can find the official CPA announcement here.)

I hesitated writing about this, because self-promotion feels unseemly. But if one wants to continue to grow one’s audience as a writer (not to mention as a musician, artist, lawyer, doctor…), it’s occasionally necessary. Talented writers sit at every corner of the world wide web, and with limited time each day, and still less time to engage in discretionary reading, it’s difficult to know where to spend one’s intellectual capital. We cannot read everything we want.

I know everyone who reads this blog has been faithful without me pointing to outside recognition, but I hope the CPA award inspires more confidence and motivates you to continue to read and share and link and comment. I continue to try to increase readership, and every “like” or tweet helps.

Here is the essay that won and below is a little screenshot from the CPA awards site. Thanks again for reading!

Picture 2

Screenshot from Catholic Press Association site

Posted by Matt Emerson.

JSEA Colloquium Day 2: Teaching as a spiritual exercise

June 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Our class is a prayer.” These were the words of Susie Cook of St. Jospeh’s Prep in Philadelphia in her keynote presentation yesterday, and they were my favorite lines of the day. Her talk came in one of the “context” sessions, which help establish the broad themes of the week and provide real-world examples of the application of Ignatian ideas.

Cook called her English class a sacred place. And listening to her talk, I believed it. I didn’t get the sense that Ignatian identity was an element she added to her class; it was her class. What she taught was reflection, action, experience, and discernment, and the subject of English was merely the vehicle. The repetition of vocabulary words and grammar exercises builds to a mastery that she compared to the practice of prayer. The community that develops during the writing process mirrors the community of faith. She wanted her students to be “writers with and for others.”

"The Pilgrim." Statute of St. Ignatius outside SLU's main building

“The Pilgrim.” Statute of St. Ignatius outside SLU’s main building

For Cook, teaching students to write well was a way to teach them to become more thoughtful, more prayerful, more dedicated to excellence, and more authentic. Speaking of one of her student’s progress, she said, “He has learned to hear himself.” What better way to describe the fruits of contemplation, wherein we strive to “hear ourselves” in total unfiltered honesty?

The entire day drew heavily from Ignatian spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises. The morning opened with JSEA President Fr. Jim Stoeger, S.J., leading all participants in a “composition of place,” a method that Ignatius employs in the Exercises to help the retreatant enter into the scene or image that forms the context for one’s prayer. In the composition, we try to imagine precisely what we see, what we hear, what we touch, and what we feel. We try to form a visual and emotional context for our meditations. (Composition of place often occurs when people pray on a passage in Scripture. For example, if I’m praying on the Last Supper, I would imagine myself actually attending the dinner with Jesus and the apostles. I would try to see the candles on the table, smell the scent of the air, hear the bread being broken, the shuffle of nervous feet under the table . . .)

Yesterday morning’s composition wasn’t primarily a spiritual exercise, but Fr. Stoeger, along with Andrew Boone of McQuaid Jesuit (Rochester, NY) and Laura Krueger of Walsh Jesuit (Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio), engaged in a kind of composition of place for Ignatian education. The goal was to describe, through an informal interview, a few features of our schools, a few of the challenges, a few of the lights and shadows with which the entire room could relate. Fr. Stoeger asked Boone and Krueger questions like (and I paraphrase), “What Ignatian or Jesuit characteristic matters to you most? How do you relate with your colleagues? What are the lights and shadows of your ministry?”

The composition of place exercise led to some great discussions at my table. My group focused on social media and technology. I was surprised to hear of the openness of many schools regarding technology. “We don’t want to fight them,” said one principal. He thought it made no sense for students to be required to use old-school daily planners when the rest of their life is catalogued and programmed into their smart phone. “What,” he said, “would we think if medicine used such outdated technology?”

Another teacher said, “We want to change the language surrounding technology.” “We don’t want it to be us v. them.” Another offered, “Banning is not a teaching tool.”

The consensus seemed to be a classic Ignatian thought: live in the tension. Rather than choose an extreme (complete embrace or outright ban), my counterparts emphasized that teachers and schools must teach and model responsible use. One school actively encourages teachers to be on Twitter so that students can see Twitter used properly (although, to be fair, some teachers struggle to do that). Treating social media as a forbidden landscape only encourages a “wild west” mentality that further increases online anarchy. The idea was to enter into the chaos and be an example of the intelligence and charity that we want students to demonstrate.

The morning sessions also discussed cura personalis. Joe Ryberg of Creighton Prep (Omaha) and Kristen Cupillari of Loyola School (NYC) spoke of cura personalis in terms of the four weeks of the Exercises: love (week 1), mission (week 2), challenge (week 3), and hope (week 4). Put another way, the four motifs correspond to discovering that one is loved by God despite one’s sins (love); that we are invited to make a choice to follow Jesus (mission); that sometimes the choice to follow Jesus brings with it suffering (challenge); but that we must summon our students to live in the light of the resurrection (hope).

Ryberg and Cuillari then spoke of specific ways they’ve used these four themes in dealing with students. For example, when it comes to student discipline, Cupillari talked about how students need to know that though they might sin, they are still loved. Though they might make poor choices, their lives (or their high school careers) won’t be forever defined by those choices. Turning to another example, Ryberg mentioned those moments where a student’s “world collapses” and everything they thought meaningful is gone. In those times, he said, we have to live out week 3 and join students at the foot of the cross.

Colloquium participants also attended a couple small-group presentations depending upon their particular interest (I will spare you commentary on the ones I attended). Those smaller presentations were followed by Mass in St. Francis Xavier College Church, a nice and timely reminder of what, ultimately, this entire week and our schools are about.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

Person-centered education: Reflections from Day One of the Colloquium

June 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

It’s come full circle. Yesterday I walked into the damp, hot humidity of St. Louis, MO and felt immediately at home.

This week I am at Saint Louis University (SLU) for the Jesuit Secondary Education Association (JSEA) Colloquium. SLU was my home for four wonderful years as an undergraduate student (class of 2004). It is good to be back.

Last night was the opening session for the 500-plus attendees. It consisted of some socializing, dinner, and a few short speeches from Fr. Lawrence Biondi, S.J., President of SLU; Fr. Paul Stark, S.J., SLU’s Vice President of Mission and Ministry; Fr. Jim Stoeger, S.J., President of the JSEA; and Bill Hobbs, Vice President of the JSEA. Representatives from the St. Louis Jesuit high schools put on an excellent welcome video for all the colloquium participants.

One of the compelling features of the recent commencement series is that, reading them, I feel like I’ve taught at the different schools represented. When I hear my colleagues talk about the grad at grad and magis, when I hear them talk about going to El Salvador or on other immersion trips, I know exactly what they are talking about. And when students read these commencement addresses, they too feel a kinship. Though my students at Xavier Prep in Palm Desert have never met teachers from Boston College High School or Bellarmine Prep in San Jose, the shared language and mission provide a familial link.

Photo by Matt Emerson

The view of campus at daybreak. Photo by Matt Emerson

I noticed this last night. I had dinner with faculty and administration from Rockhurst High School in Kansas City; Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis; Regis High School in New York City; Dallas Jesuit High School; St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland; and DeSmet Jesuit in St. Louis. Within seconds, we had fallen into our common language and experiences. One of my table companions said, “These events are like coming to see your cousins.” The language of the Graduate at Graduation, magis, and A.M.D.G., the recognition that learning should be about transformation, faith, and excellence in all things, bonded us effortlessly.

This is not to say that the schools are copies of each other. Bill Hobbs showed a video clip last night of Pope Francis urging Jesuit educators to know their time, place, and circumstance, essentially to teach with an adequate appreciation for context and the signs of the times. I sensed this, too, from my table. Within the commonalities there are differences.

For example, at dinner I learned that one midwestern Jesuit high school is doing away with substitute teachers for seniors. When a teacher misses class for a retreat, sporting event or another reason, the seniors will be given either in-class work or be told to use their time however they see fit. The idea is to give them more freedom and responsibility so that they aren’t worn out. One principal said, “We [meaning faculty] would revolt if we had their schedule.” Another teacher, also from the midwest, mentioned that his school carves out time for its sophomores to leave campus for the afternoon for their individual service projects. Although I know many schools do something like that, I don’t think I’ve known of a school that gives such freedom to sophomores.

Bill Hobbs, the Vice President of the JSEA, offered a few remarks last night, and one of the themes he hit upon was the “apostolic dimension” of our schools, the idea that somehow all of us are in the process of being sent somewhere, especially our students. Borrowing from an often-repeated quotation of Fr. Greg Boyle, Hobbs stressed that an Ignatian institution is not primarily a place “you’ve come to; it’s the place you go from.”

That was the most moving part of the night for me. It reminded me that we are, as a people of faith, and as educators in faith, always on the move. Like Mary and Joseph during Jesus’ infancy; like the apostles, like St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier and so many other heroes in our tradition, we are called always to keep our eyes on the horizon. We are called not to settle, but to unsettle. We are called to build but as a means to move forward. Our schools are base camps.

Another theme I drew from last night’s conversations: Ignatian education is not so much student-centered as it is person-centered. To say that we focus on students doesn’t seem adequate. The word student still connotes primarily academic formation, a fixation on grades, test scores, and college acceptances. But the way my colleagues in Jesuit education talk, and the way that our schools emphasize soul formation, I realized last night that we start from the broader category of the person and move from there. We teach unique persons, persons made in the image and likeness of God; the persons who are also students, athletes, actors, dancers, musicians and more.


I must be on my way for Day 2. I hope to report back later today or tomorrow morning. Thanks for reading.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

The wrestling match of faith

June 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

Jacob wrestling with the angel. By Gustav Dore. Courtesy of

Want to share a passage that will go great with a nightcap or perfect with your morning coffee. I know a lot of people — parents, students, and teachers; men and women of all ages and backgrounds — are working hard to come to meet God, striving to hear His voice. This passage, I believe, will be of some inspiration, as it is for me:

Faith is not certainty. It is the courage to live with uncertainty. Faith is never easy. The great heroes of the moral life, like the great artists and scientists and thinkers, like anyone who has undertaken to live a life of high ideals, know failure after failure, disappointment after disappointment. What made them great is that they refused to despair. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, they said to fate, “I will not let you go until you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). Judaism is built on that faith. Jews refused to let go of God, and God refused to let go of them. They wrestle still. So do all who have faith.

-Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, from his book The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning

Posted by Matt Emerson.

The death-daring walk of Nik Wallenda

June 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Just heard about this: Nik Wallenda, a man of daredevil stock, will attempt to walk across part of the Grand Canyon tonight. Actually, it’s not exactly the Grand Canyon. According to NBC:

The stunt will not technically take place inside Grand Canyon National Park because authorities declined to grant him permission to perform it there. Instead, it will be held on the eastern part of the Grand Canyon within the Navajo Nation territory. While the wind is always an X-factor, another element that creates uncertainty is the powerful updrafts of hot air that can emanate from the bottom of the canyon.

Wallenda will take his evening stroll across a two-inch thick piece of cable. The distance from side to side is 1400 feet; the distance to the ground is 1500 feet. The most noteworthy part of the event? He will not use a harness or a safety mechanism.

If he falls, he dies.

NBC, NPR, Forbes and other news outlets have reported on the story. The Discovery Channel will broadcast the walk live, both on television and online, with (for reasons you’d expect) a 10-second delay. Mitsubishi Motors is the official sponsor.

For the obvious reasons, an event like this cannot fail to compel interest. I am among the many who are tempted to watch. Death-daring feats excite something primal in us, and tonight’s gamble probably comes from the same part of human nature that led to gladiators, bull fights, and Django Unchained. But with the exception of Quentin Tarantino movies, I doubt prior episodes of voyeurism were as monetized as they are now (whatever “monetization” would have been like in ancient Rome).

Discovery’s web site has a countdown, Mitsubishi is offering a sweepstakes to give away a car, and you can even take a virtual tour of that part of the canyon that Wallenda will traverse. In its marketing and presentation, it’s part shuttle launch, part boxing match, part reality television show, and part video game. All it needs to complete the spectacle is a berating Simon Cowell.

I’m not sure we have to delve into ancient ethical theory to think that this whole affair is unseemly, unbecoming of a proper regard for human dignity. Wallenda’s consent to the hype makes no difference. Consent alone does not ease ethical concerns. After all, the fellow might die. His life is literally on the line. It disturbs me in the extreme that so many people and corporations will enrich themselves on the strength of the question, “Will he, or will he not, slip and fall?” I don’t know what the odds of fatality are, but they cannot be small. (According to NBC, Wallenda’s grandfather died in 1978, at 73 years old, in a high-wire accident.)

“Human nature is human nature.” So said a wise priest to me once when, cigar in hand, he was ruminating on the missteps of mankind. I understand what he means, and I think he’s right, but events like tonight make me especially hopeful for the grace that builds on that nature, for the grace that calls us to safeguard a gift that should never be commercialized or commodified.

Posed by Matt Emerson. 

[Update: Well, he did it. And one news story reported that Wallenda prayed to Jesus the entire way across. He even had megachurch pastor Joel Osteen join him for a pre-walk prayer.]

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