Part two of my Kairos talk series on God’s workings in our lives through those around us.
So, now, as I go through the relationships and experiences of my own life, I invite you guys to listen attentively and go along for the ride. But, I will say, if some experience I recount to you resonates with you, stick with it – hold it in your mind and in your heart and come back to it later in your reflections. Ignatius always recommends sticking with the prayer experiences we have that work for us, and exhorts us to practice “repetitio” where we go back to visit an especially powerful moment of reflection we had in order to gain new graces from it. I’ll also do my best to make these experiences concrete, so that you can loosely practice Ignatius’ “application of the senses” (seeing the sights, smelling the smells, etc., to get a good feel of the experience) and really latch onto them for your own fruitful reflection.
Thanks be to God, I have had the grace of experiencing His friendship through the relationships of my life from a very young age – in fact, from before I even had an age. I am blessed to have two parents who, though with their share of marital difficulties and their own conflicts with me, have nurtured and raised me from the moment of my conception, even to this present day. All of our lives begin with the high point of our birth. Though we cannot remember the experience, from the very first moment of our existence we experience God’s friendship through the relationship of our parents. God’s role in our lives as Creator, which I spoke of at the beginning of this talk, is expressed to us right at the beginning of our lives through our parents’ loving willingness to bear us into this world and nurture us in it. In our parents, we see the nurturing and tender love of God that is pure gift to us.
I experienced this parental love in a special way in what is one of my earliest memories – and it’s a funny one. The exact details are hazy. What I can remember is standing in the middle of the Kindergarten classroom at St. Dominic’s, with the sun streaming in through the windows, my fellow 5-year-olds playing and sharing all around me. Suddenly, awkwardly, in the midst of all this life and happiness, I stood there and completely wet my pants. Presumably everyone looked on and thought it was hilarious, and of course in hindsight it is! Who knows why I didn’t just go to the teacher and tell her I had to go to the bathroom. I was very shy as a kid. But what is important in this experience is what happened after the incident. As I’m sitting in the dark nurse’s office, very uncomfortable and very embarrassed, who shows up to take care of me – not the nurse, not my teacher, but my Dad. Though it was the middle of the day, my Dad left his busy job so that he could come tend to me in my moment of need. Presumably he brought me a change of clothes so that I could feel comfortable again. I’m guessing he took me home after the incident. I don’t really remember any of those details, though. In fact, I can’t even remember any words that he said to me at that time. But what I do remember is his presence. Just the fact that he was willing to take time out of his busy day to come be with his very embarrassed son is something that, I’m sure, meant a lot to me as a 5 year old. It’s something that means even more to me now as a 24 year old. And, with the help of reflection and prayer, I can see that this early experience of the love of my parents (and of course there are countless others) is also an early experience of the tender love of God. I’m blessed to have had such an experience at such a young age.
Surely because of the traditional, loving way my parents raised me, and with grace’s help, from the get-go I was always one of the “good kids”, as well as a good student. As I mentioned, I was shy, reserved, certainly partially out of fear, but also out of refraining from the sillier things some of my grade school classmates would speak about. I can remember many instances of my classmates (and perhaps some of my teachers as well) asking “Are you going to be a priest?” I didn’t know how to take this question and for a long time assumed it was a bit of teasing they gave me for being so quiet and shy. In retrospect, it seems that although there certainly was some teasing hidden in this question, what it did indicate more was the oddity or rarity of my own attraction to the good. I still can’t really explain to this day why I was never attracted to getting in trouble or doing sneaky things. I really don’t think it was out of fear of getting caught and the consequences. For whatever reason – and I’m chalking this one up to God – I always chose to follow the good example of my parents and of my conscience.
Another embarrassing early experience of mine might also shed some light on my attraction to goodness, love, and respect. I can remember early on in my grade school career being with my fellow male classmates, waiting around the water fountain after a game at the annual St. Patrick’s Day basketball tournament at St. Dom’s. At one point, thirsty because of just having played in a game, I bent over the water fountain to take a drink. One of my classmates, much more talkative than I (he had many older brothers and so had a lot more experience with life in general than I as the oldest child did), and definitely one of the “cool” kids throughout grade school, thought it would be a pretty hilarious idea to go up behind me make some inappropriate gestures behind my back. Of course I didn’t realize it at first, as I was taking the drink, but I quickly realized what he was doing and stopped my drink. Now, there wasn’t a huge scene made after my classmate’s act – a few of the goofballs of the group snickered, but overall the reaction was pretty calm and we carried about our business. However, for whatever reason, despite not really becoming a public sign of mockery, despite the event being rather tame in comparison to what it could have been, that disrespectful act that my classmate did to me has sat with me for the rest of my life. I still never bend over at the waist to take a drink, but rather bend at the knee or lean over. The event, though seemingly harmless at the time, has ended up being something that has put me, at times, on the defensive or into an over-sensitive mode in my everyday experience.
Of course, the evil one rears his head in other ways than temptation to perform bad acts. He began to do so in a different way with me, attacking me not through a temptation to do bad acts but, such as through the aforementioned experience, weakening me through a temptation to build up a bit of a protective covering about myself. This protectiveness also came about through my insecurity with my less-than-common striving for what is right and good, something that made me not a loser but certainly not one of the cool kids either. Additionally, my excellence as a student began to lead me to build up a hidden inner pride about my own mental aptitude that I still carry to this day. (I can seem very close minded to others, and I appear to always be thinking that I am right, no matter what.) With this intellectual pride also came a building inner pressure to perform and be ever and ever better for others, to the point of almost performing for others rather than being good for its own sake, or realizing that I am good independent of others’ opinion of me or my own productivity. This almost imperceptible habit that began in my grade school years, but built up throughout high school and college, has certainly had an adverse effect on my life. But, God has still worked though those adverse experiences for a greater good.
I often felt on the outside in many of my interactions with my classmates at St. Dominic’s. I was “friends” with all of them, but only truly close with one of them. His name is Jim. Like me, Jim was for whatever reason never concerned with being popular or standing out. He was and continues to be a very normal and level headed guy, easy to talk to, always willing to share a meal and whatnot. One of my earliest experiences of friendship with Jim happened sometime shortly after he moved to Cleveland from Connecticut in the 2nd grade. I can remember it being springtime, the trees beginning to bud, but of course, being Cleveland, the skies were gray and it was rainy. I remember ambling down the street seven houses to Jim’s. Providentially, he lived on the same block that I did. We were new friends at that point, getting to know each other and what we were both interested in. That day, Jim introduced me to a new experience that would change the course of my life for years to come. That experience was my first time playing a handheld video game system – the illustrious Sega Game Gear. I can remember playing Sonic the Hedgehog on that tiny 4” by 4” screen, with Sonic moving and collecting coins in that bit-by-bit fashion that is the trademark of super old video games. He even let me borrow the Game Gear to take home that afternoon! But more importantly, handing off the Game Gear between me and Jim, I can remember the excitement and thrill of having my first true friend – an experience that might not have been as rich if I had not previously experienced some strife with the “cool kids” of St. Dom’s.
Again in prayerful examination of myself, I now see that my friendship with Jim, in contrast to my relationship with some of my other classmates, allowed me to experience in a concrete way the love of God, this time more as redeemer, as Jesus. My strong friendship with this fellow man, rooted as it was in important values, helped me to appreciate who I was for my own sake, not because of the good grades I got or my own desire to avoid trouble. The same is true of our Lord Jesus. He loves us for our own sake, not because of what we do, but because of who we are. This important quality of friendship – total acceptance – was spoken of earlier today. As you can see, this experience of Jesus’ acceptance of us is usually done most effectively through another person’s loving friendship.
The next vivid concrete memory of God’s friendship through other people comes early on in my Ignatius experience, more accurately just before it. With my good grades and a nice score on the Ignatius entrance exam, I scored a spot in the Streicher honors program my freshman year. Of course this meant that I got to go to a nice dinner in the spring of my 8th grade year so Ignatius could try to convince me to go to there. A senior graduating in the class of 2002, Joy Hurd, spoke to us at this dinner. Joy was the consummate Ignatius leader – class president, valedictorian, etc. Again, like my Dad’s presence with me in my time of need early in my life, I don’t remember exactly what Joy said at that dinner. I just remember him having a certain presence about him, a certain presence about him that truly struck me, a feeling that I wanted what he had – intelligence, manliness, composure, and the like. I had been wrestling between going to Benedictine or Ignatius up until this dinner, and I think it was my encounter with the Ignatian formation that Joy had gone through himself that proved the tipping point for me to choose Ignatius. I see now that it has been God’s call for me to have and develop an Ignatian heart, something that has been one of the mainstays of my spiritual life. In this experience just before my time at Ignatius, we can see how we can profoundly affect people we don’t even know. Sometimes we don’t even know these people are listening, but we speak to them through our simple presence, the general feeling we give off as persons (and sometimes through our words). One of the amazing things to me is that I don’t really know how Joy was as a person at all. He could have been a jerk. But in that moment of my experience with him, he seemed to be a great & loving guy (and from all accounts I’ve heard of him, he is). Through this experience, we can see how God in His providence can work through us even when we don’t know he’s doing so, and when it’s not even apparent what our relationship with another person is, or if that relationship exists at all.
Along with many joys, my first year and a half at Ignatius had its share of difficulties. I made “friends” with many guys in the honors tracks, but none of them resonated like my friendship with Jim (who went to Shaker for high school). My sophomore service experience set the grounds for the development of my first authentic high school friendship with my cohort at Lutheran Hospital, Brady. You could say we built up this friendship through “adversity.” Our usual work the first half of our time at Lutheran consisted of sitting in a windowless room, stapling together hundreds of medical form packets for patients. By the end of our two hours of service, our fingers would be getting raw from handling so much paper (not to mention all the paper cuts). Thankfully things did get better later on. We had the chance to visit with many of the sick patients at the hospital. Brady, a member of Circus Company and an actor in a few Ignatius & Beaumont plays, helped me in our conversations in that blank room and in our conversations with the patients to be more comfortable with myself and more conversational with other people. God worked his friendship, his ability to free me from my own preoccupations, through Brady’s own (apparent) comfortableness with himself. I don’t think I would be able to be as open with you guys as I am now without the help of that great friend of mine. We can see God working as Jesus the friend, the redeemer from my own insecurities, through Brady. I’m thankful that, again, Brady and I are friends to this day.
Naturally, a huge experience of the friendship of God occurred to me when I was sitting where you guys are right now – on my own Kairos, #103, back in late winter of 2005. I’m a little ashamed to say that I can’t conjure up any concrete memories of my own retreat during my junior year. (Hopefully yours is a little more memorable!) Obviously, again, the experience of the retreat has mainly left its impression in how I live my life less than in certain memories. I do, however, have concrete memories leading a Kairos retreat my senior year (#108), around this very time of the year that we’re in now. This was a big experience for me, as it was one of the first moments in my life experiencing myself as a leader in any respect, let alone spiritually. As you can imagine from what I’ve said so far, although I did play sports I was never a star on the team. Though I was a good student, I was never at the tip-top of the class. I didn’t even really do any service in my time at Ignatius, sort of ironic considering I’m an AV now! But my experience as a small group leader and as a presenter on Kairos 108 gave me my first brush with being the spiritual leader I now strive to be in a full way. One random memory I do have from my high school Kairos experiences (that I’m actually allowed to tell you, since you guys have already experienced this part of the retreat) is giving my talk. Of course, being sensitive, self-conscious and perfectionist, not to mention an unrefined public speaker, I was extremely nervous to give my talk. What’s funny is the only thing I can remember from it is looking at one of the adults out of the corner of my eye, playing with a small piece of string in the back of the room as I delivered my talk. I don’t know that this memory means anything, but it’s pretty funny, and especially funny that it’s stuck with me all these years. Again, God sometimes speaks to us through other people in funny and mysterious ways.
Of course, my Kairos experience would have been nothing if not done in relationship with other people, most especially my small group members. Both the experience of sharing my faith life with my fellow Ignatius men during my retreat, and leading others to more carefully examine their own relationships with God during K108, brought me to a greater acceptance of myself as a faith-filled man and being proud and free with that strong faith, that ardent search for goodness. This acceptance was carried out concretely through the affirmation of my small group members, my fellow leaders, and the adults with whom we worked. It was a transformative experience, a sanctifying experience for me, leading me not only to be redeemed and accepting of my faith life, but also an experience for me to push deeper into that faith life, especially in my desire as a leader for others in their faith lives. Thus my Kairos experience one of my clearest moments of a close encounter with the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier, who brings us ever more deeply into relationship with the Trinity.
Let’s fast forward to my experience at Boston College. Like at Ignatius, my first semesters were filled with some definite hardships. Like it will be for all of you guys, college was my first time in my life of living away from home, under the same roof as my immediate family. I being a momma’s boy, and still just a little shy, the transition left me feeling lonesome and confused about the path ahead. It didn’t help that, while I did make some beginner’s friendships with the people in my dorm, sometimes our relationships brought more strife than joy. I have one vivid memory of laying in my bed around 12:30AM, tossing and turning, unable to sleep as my friends shouted and argued with each other while doing homework in the common room right outside my door (don’t ask why they designed the common room to be right outside a bedroom door!). The frustration I felt at those times is still palpable to me today. Throw in many weekend nights being filled with those around me getting silly drunk, hooking up with people they barely knew, and in general acting like idiots, freshman year was pretty tough for me, still striving to do what was good. What was especially painful about those experiences was not that I wanted to join in with my friends in their pernicious activities but was unable to due to my prudishness or fear of getting caught. No, what hurt me so much in those relationships was seeing my friends hurt themselves by resorting to those activities. I firmly believe, mainly through the conversations we had during the week, that 95% of the weekend antics of drinking and hooking up were due to my friends’ own insecurities with themselves and expressing their feelings to one another, especially to those whom they had romantic feelings for. To know that they were engaging in harmful activities because they felt insecure was so tough for me to see.
So where was God in all of this? When I felt alone and confused, what was God doing for me? He was waiting for me just around the corner, giving me the chance to clear some others things out of the way to make more room for Him. This “clearing” or shaking things up is usually the reason God allows bad things to happen to us – so that we open up more and more to relying on Him.
One of my dorm-mates freshman year happened to be friends with a Jesuit on campus earning his doctoral degree (perspective: BC hosts over 100 Jesuits on campus, the second most in the world outside of Rome. You thought Ignatius had a lot!) This Jesuit, Fr. Tony Corcoran, had helped my friend in his conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism during his years at New Orleans Jesuit, where Fr. Tony had been assigned for ministry for a few years before BC. My friend, Ryan, brought me to a group of young men who would change my life for the better, and through whom I have seen God working more clearly than almost any other group of people in my life. This group of young men was called the Sons of St. Patrick. The group basically consisted of a dozen or so college students who were striving to live an authentically Christian life on a campus, despite being a Catholic campus, so often hostile to Christian principles (just recount the stories I told you about freshman year). The Sons met weekly on Thursday evenings, the gateway to the weekend, for common prayer, fellowship, and discussion on topics of Christian living. Needless to say, I had finally found my home at BC.
One of my earliest experiences of the Sons was their St. Patrick’s Day party my freshman year. As you can imagine, as a freshman going to a party off campus, I was a little nervous about what was going to happen. However, in stark contrast to the abuses some my freshman classmates succumbed to, the Sons’ St. Patrick’s day party – which as you guys know has the potential to be the sloppiest party of the year – was clean, orderly, and most importantly, far more fun than the drunken escapades going on all throughout Boston that day. Alcohol was consumed, yes, but in moderate proportions – and, may I say, by those who were allowed to be enjoying it! Girls at the party had no worries of being taken advantage of by the men in the room. Heck, people were even playing giddy live music on fiddle and guitar, singing and clapping and dancing along, and enjoying the homemade Irish foodstuffs that those at the party brought in – all with saying grace together before consuming the food! Best of all, the elder statesmen of the group, who could have been big bad junior-senior upperclassmen, welcomed me and had conversations with me as if they had known me all their lives – as if we were brothers. And, as my weekly experience with the group the next four years proved, we were brothers – brothers in the Lord. Once again, through the friendship of those around me, God expressed his brotherly friendship, the experience of Jesus our brother, who took human flesh. I experienced for the first time at BC direct acceptance for my clean ways, appreciation for my desire to live a Christian life, and the freedom to live that in ever greater measures. (And, importantly, I figured out ways to have a good time without getting silly drunk or hooking up with my female friends. In fact, these ways were better and more fun!)
These Magis experiences in the Christian life I had in my time at BC included prayer and communal experiences the complementary group to Sons offered. The main prayer outlet was a Eucharistic Adoration group called the St. Thomas More Society. The friendships I gained and and prayer experiences I had through this Monday evening meeting is a prime example of the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier, working in my life. In communion with over 40 friends my age, I partook in a weekly Holy Hour, which consisted of praying before the exposed Blessed Sacrament, with a few hymns and some incense but mostly in silence in the chapel connected to the St. Mary’s Jesuit Residence at BC. This time together in prayer allowed the Lord, through his Eucharistic presence, to expand our capacity to desire & receive his love. The Holy Hour was followed by time chatting together, eating some really good pizza, and listening to a guest speaker present on a topic of Catholic intellectual or spiritual life. Needless to say, this was all right up my alley. I grew tremendously in my faith during that time spent on my knees, soaking in the presence of the Eucharistic Lord in community with my collegiate brothers and sisters.
I firmly believe that I would not have a strong relationship with God, nowhere close to the relationship that I am now blessed to have, if I did not spend ample time with Him in personal prayer. Yet, this time of personal prayer, in adoration and silence, would not have been enough – nay, would not have been effective at all, if I did not have a community of fellow believers around me experiencing the same wonders in their own hearts. If I had gone about this endeavor solo, the evil one would easily swipe me away to think that the experiences I had of God’s love there was simply my own imagination, or that if they were real they weren’t going to have an effect in my life. However, since I did have so many people around me who believed and realized that the same things were happening in their hearts as were happening in mine, and since I had around me many people older than me (student and adult/Jesuit alike) who encouraged and confirmed me in those desires, the growth in faith I experienced at BC in those times at STM was able to germinate and grow strong in my everyday actions. My experiences with Sons and STM are in my top five most life-changing experiences, and none of them would have been possible without God working through those with whom I had relationships – whether Ryan, who led me there, or through many the lifelong friends I made through those groups.
Third and final section coming tomorrow.