What I Learned in 2009

If you will permit me a rather reflective post:

I leaned quite a few important things this year, particularly from teaching.  I’d like to share them with you.

1.  From my senior theology class:

David Foster Wallace began his now well-known commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

All of my seniors fall into this category.  They have been so indoctrinated into scientism, that metaphysics seemed like a lost cause.  It is a fight.  To get them to admit that they were swimming in water was almost impossible, and yet simultaneously, I realized that if I lost that battle, every other battle I fought was doomed. There could be no backing down on this one: we are either submerged in an ocean of Being or we are the centers of our own universe. We must choose, and that choice defines education: its purpose and success.

I learned, again with the help of Wallace, that there is one choice my students must realize and understand:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

But I also learned that my seniors are all Spinozean Humanists.  They are more than happy to identify God with the laws of physics and with the impersonal.  I learned that there is nothing more scandalous for them — or for anyone else in the history of christianity — than the Incarnation.  It is not right.  It is too up close and personal, and they revolt from it as if they have touched fire.  Because they have.  And they would rather not worship.  None of us want to serve, and an Impersonal Universe requires no such adherence.

2.  From my Greek students:

Everyone is Odysseus.  Everyone needs a nostos, a homecoming.  To live without one is not to live.  And they must hear that.  I realized, particularly teaching this second class of mine, that I am not primarily teaching Greek; I am teaching about the Man, Odysseus.  A man on a journey, struggling to get home, lost at sea, distracted by what he mistakes for love, trying to save his men.  And these 9th graders want to be like him.  They want a Penelope waiting for them, but they have only just begun to articulate it.

I learned to express more clearly to them who my Penelope is — that Jesus Christ waits for me at the end of my day and at its dawn.  That this is the meaning of prayer and of love: what I go to sleep thinking about and wake to with expectation.

I learned that they are looking for role models.  My dad used to take me on walks as a kid every time he had something important to say.  I’ve learned to do the same and realize that they are not looking for you to say cool things.  They are looking for the words of a father, a teacher, a guide.  They want wisdom because there is often nowhere else where they can get it.

3.  I learned from my 9th grade scripture students that their faith is like the child Jesus, lying in a manger.  It is young, itchy, and surrounded by the extremely human and earthly.  It must be gently held and coaxed along.  I remember during my 30 day silent retreat, as I was preparing to meditate on the nativity scene, I was most excited about the prospect of holding the Christ child in my arms.  In my mind, Mary would hand him to me and I would hold him gently and hum and speak to him softly.

In reality, Mary refused to let me hold him.  She said that I was not gentle enough, that I might drop him.  She was right.  It has taken this past year for me to learn how to hold Christ in the faith of these young men.  I must be gentle.  They know so little, yet long for so much.

I learned that what starts in the classroom is only the beginning of their education. The classroom relationships of last year have blossomed into deeper mentoring ones.  I spoke with them constantly about the poor, and this year as I took some out to feed the homeless in downtown New Orleans, I saw what the fruit can be.  As one of them, in response to the request of an older man for a blanket or something to keep warm, ran back to his car to see what he had and returned with a fleece blanket, some of my cynicism fell away.  As much as our culture trains our young people to build strong and thick protective walls around their young lives, a human exchange can break down the strong walls, something that a year in the classroom would never accomplish.

4.  And I’ve learned from prayer.  I’ve learned that to be present is different than to be me. To be me is solipsism.  It is already reflexive, implying that existence is primarily centered in myself.  Yet I’ve learned that what people need is not me, but my vows, and it is my vows that make me present, ecstatic, outside of my own ego. It is my vows alone that allow me to bleed, since they cut open what would otherwise remain a seamless wall of Self.  Poverty opens my flesh to all others; Chastity opens my flesh to all others; Obedience opens my flesh to all others.

From my retreat journal this summer:

Three nails: poverty, chastity, and obedience.  In my great moments of fervor, I will climb up on the cross.  But most times not.  My vows are the nails that keep me there when I would get off.  They are the fastens, what keep me crucified with Christ.

This is how people need me.  I don’t help them as a Jesuit despite being on the cross, but because I’m on it.  The nails are what cause the blood to flow, and it is only this blood, it is only wounded hands and wounded feet that can serve others.  Without these wounds, I cannot help anyone with the help of Christ.  It is the blood that flows out that is mingled with Christ’s blood, and this is what saves others.  Everything else is just selfishness.

Happy New Year to all.

10 Responses to What I Learned in 2009

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Hello Father Nathan, and thank you for this VERY insightful post. Your commentary of life among the Seniors in Theology class was disheartening, but oh, so accurate. It absolutely mirrors my experience in Jesuit University where it often seemed like the lay religion teachers (Priests excluded) and students competed daily for who could make the most earth-shatteringly profound (see: controversial) ascertions.

    Your statement “We are either submerged in an ocean of Being or are the centers of our own universe.” is so true and really hit home, specifically in this holiday season. I think too many of us would like to feel we are submerged in an ocean of Being, but get trapped in our own universe- willingly or not. And I see this over and over; people who take up 2 parking spaces in a lot, families who have boisterous arguments in a crowded restaurant, people walking past mentally disturbed/indigent people on the street (or just anyone on the street) without so much as the realization they exist. I think it’s much easier to lose oneself in the comfort and structure of one’s own universe, rather than confront the perceived chaos of the ocean of Being, thus having to acknowledge and treat kindly and appropriately the ocean’s other residents (as the gospel commands us).

    Lastly, and please forgive the critique, I am not at all a fan of Wallace’s flippant irreverence when it comes to religion, which in this case has led him to make a very ignorant statement: “- be it J.C. or Allah..” “Allah” is a generic word for God in Arabic. Granted, the Mohammedan uses it to mean the proper name for God (Yhwh, to the Hebrews). Etymologicaly, Allah in old Arabic is the same word as “Elohiy” in old Hebrew (or Eloi in our bibles, since neither Greek nor Latin had an “H” sound) and simply means “the god”. “Allah” has been used commonly among Christian Arab speakers for centuries. So, to say “either J.C. or Allah” is like saying “either J.C. or God”, which shows a marked misunderstanding of theology (both Christian and Mohammedan) as well as Arab language and culture. Sorry for the rant, but I have to call a spade a spade here. And once again, GREAT post!

  2. Rachel Phillips says:

    Nathan that was very beautiful to read. Thank you for sharing this. I wish you were closer so Kolbe could be around you more. YOu inspire me in your teaching. Happy New Year and God Bless you,

  3. Father Joseph LeBlanc says:

    A beautiful reflection – even at 80, Wisdom is very elusive .. but keep striving. . .your remarks on the Vows were beautiful . .will send this on to all our brethren . .they do enjoy your work Nathan.

  4. Very existential: thanks!

    How about considering a “take two” on “Wear Sunscreen”
    that was a hit a bunch of years ago. It was an
    address to a graduating class, while humorous, real!

    Your structure lends itself to such similar treatment!

    And your humble ending reminded me of TIME mag.’s
    interview with Cardinal Bernardine:
    he said the adulation of Chicagoans for him was not
    him, but for his “position!”

  5. Francis says:

    I thoroughly nejoyed and benefitted from your post. Your insights are right on target. As a Class of ’74 graduate of JHS in NO, it is good to see that the students there now are so well-instructed. please keep up the great work !!

  6. Qualis Rex,
    Thanks for your appreciation. Also, I understand your critique. There is good and bad in this article. What I think it does for Seniors in our time is to help them realize that the religious sense in itself is better than nothing at all. Choosing something greater than themselves to worship is better than unconsciously worshiping money, power, image, etc. So I agree with Wallace on this point, and it helps me to get across to them what he also says in his speech, which is that there is no such thing as atheism in reality. We all worship someone. So for that point, minus the flippancy, I like it. I’ll deal with who to worship later in the course. We need to start on step one with them.

    Thanks. Glad to see we have some Bluejays reading!

  7. Sr Roberta says:

    Nathan, it has been 30 years since I left the educational scene and I could see my past experiences in what you offered up for consideration. Fr. Joseph Leppard put me on to your site tonight and I was intrigued by the title. Somehow I recall thinking similar about the 3 vows as you do but in my old age now as a Cistercian I don’t think much about the vows though I celebrated 50 years this past August.. Of course having transferred to monastic life the emphasis has changed. How about love, intimacy, tenderness, gentleness and a whole lot more that puts the emphasis not on me but on Him. Once I picked up a book and there was a comment of Jesu: Do you think just because I am God, that I don’t need tenderness. Pretty powerful thought.
    Keeping you and all Jesuits in prayer. I taught in a couple Jesuit run parishes in Toledo–long time ago. Great Men.
    Sr Roberta

  8. Amy says:

    Nathan this was beautiful. The part about being gentle with the freshman and their faith could not have been more true. Most often I don’t know what you are saying it is so beyond my basic theology but when I do grasp something like this post I just keep thinking I hope you never stop writing!

  9. Jack says:

    “I laugh every time I hear that the fish in the sea are thirsty”
    Jalaludin Rumi

  10. Interesting quote, yet on a different plain,
    humanity exhibits spiritual hunger but does
    next to nothing to satisfy it! And so they exist,
    always spiritually starving! Maybe the fish
    example should propel some (most?) to do something
    with their water? (!)

    Kierkegaard is one that wrote extensively on this
    phenomenon, choosing the Greek word “Aisthese”
    which means “sensation” to label the First Stage
    of living, where most of humanity lives and dies,
    as the Aesthetic Stage of life! Choice is necessary
    to move into Stage Two: the Ethical Stage!
    Then and then only, do we swim with the fish!
    And only some make it up the raceway to Stage Three,
    the Religious Stage!

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