Community

Disciples and Emojis

Think of the movie, The Sandlot. It is a classic tale of kid lore and childhood memories—revolving mostly around baseball. When the main character, Scotty, makes neighborhood friends the first summer he moves into a new neighborhood, he runs to the sandlot to play baseball (even though he has no idea what he’s doing). When the motley baseball team finds that the ‘Beast’ has Scotty’s dad’s baseball, autographed by Babe Ruth, Benny takes off running through town as a decoy to allow his friends to capture the all-important ball from the Beast’s backyard. In almost any good kid movie, at some point, the plot will depend on one character taking off running because the message they have to deliver deserves a quick pace.

Adults seem to lose this feeling of urgency with age, don’t you think? There’s a laughable, old Geico commercial that illustrates how this looks. When was the last time an adult ran to tell you anything? More than likely, much of the work of conveying emotion is done by emojis—they are quick, efficient and express most of our commonly-experienced emotions. Best of all, we don’t even have to break a sweat.

This is the antithesis of the story from Matthew’s Gospel today. This Easter Monday, we read:

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went away quickly from the tomb,
fearful yet overjoyed,
and ran to announce the news to his disciples…


Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have just had their worlds rocked at the discovery of the empty tomb and they cannot move fast enough to deliver the message of hope they have received. Who’s to say that in a different time they might have chosen a different means of communication, but some news is best shared, personally—like the fulfillment of our Salvation story in Christ’s rising from the dead.

Certainly we would be quick to find any number of distinguishing characteristics between our own lives and those of the women who find Jesus’ tomb empty. Yet, as an Easter people, the ways in which we re-engage the world after celebrating the Triduum has the capacity to convey the same truth that Mary Magdalene and Mary’s delirious rushing, produced at the time of Christ.

Today might be your first day back at work after the Easter holiday. Perhaps you work in the private sector that gives Easter Monday as a holiday. Either way, the Marys pose an important question to us today:

How am I choosing to share the news of the Resurrection?

Sandlot-style or Geico-style?

 

 

Star Wars: Our American Mythos

My childhood, like so many, was the combination of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and of course, John Williams. I would often sit, perhaps unhealthily, for hours in front of a TV watching VHS tapes of dinosaurs eating people, a professor stealing holy artifacts, and lightsabers crashing. I absorbed it all, and my brothers and I practiced it. We would duel with our plastic (the old sturdy ones) lightsabers, hurting each other's’ fingers and feelings. Around high school, I had somewhat of a “nerd-retreat,” a time when being a fan of Star Wars was for some reason uncool. College reopened my love for the great saga, and now, I unashamedly utilize the galaxy far, far away in my classroom teaching economics and government.

Every fandom has its gloriously diverse and vast fan-fiction with theories that range from the plausible to conspiracy. Star Wars, through the former Expanded Universe (dubbed “Legends”) and the official Canon, is ripe with opportunity for fans to write, speculate, and imagine. My three younger brothers and I constantly engage in this activity, debating over the merits of Emperor Palpatine as the murderer of Padme Amidala, and the like. But while all of this is fun and engaging, it seems to lack a certain gravity of importance. I asked this question a few weeks ago: if it lacks importance, why do so many love to do it? What brings millions to engage in such an activity?

In order to understand this question, we need to understand the definition of a key word: mythos. A mythos is a common set of stories that can be used to explain the world, and more often provide a foundation for a cultural morality. A mythos is not the equivalent of religion. Religion tends to provide an explicit and prescriptive morality. A mythos provides more of a cornerstone worldview, a basic layer for other to build morality upon it.

Any discussion of mythos has to include renowned mythologist, Joseph Campbell, whose seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, elaborated on what’s called the “hero’s journey.” Essentially, the hero’s journey is a basic story-structure, where a seemingly boring individual rises to become a hero, with the aid of mentors and friends, and must brave great adventures and villains. Campbell identified the hero’s journey across all of culture. The same basic myth-narrative is repeated across nearly all geographies and ethnicities. The hero’s journey is, at heart, the common human story repeated everywhere.

This monomyth, as its called, has been studied and examined ever since Campbell’s work. It’s changed here and there, with different scholars adding different things, but it remains more or less the same. The monomyth can be clearly seen through the Star Wars saga, but especially in Episode IV: A New Hope. Luke, a seemingly unbecoming farm boy, is called to the adventure of saving a captured princess from black-cloaked villain, and initially refuses. With the help of a wizardly mentor, and a band of unbecoming allies, he becomes entrapped in the belly of the beast in the Death Star, where they escape with the reward of the Death Star plans, but not before Luke endures the pain of watching old Ben Kenobi die. The final trial, destroying the beast, is Luke’s great transformation from the boy on Tatooine to the next generation of Jedi Knights.

This is fascinating stuff, and very exciting. Not only was the 1977 cinematic experience great, but the entire saga’s story is wonderful, however much it may be masked by poor dialogue and acting. Even then, film critics have never been a fan of the movies, even for their stories. They say it’s too easy, made for children, cartoonish, etc. I read that as, “This isn’t morally ambiguous, and therefore, not a good story.” Such nihilism is apparently cool, but I don’t buy it. No, the stories aren’t all that complex, but the thing is, that’s the point. Remember, a mythos is supposed to aid us in developing an understanding of the world from a certain point of view. Through stories, we lay a foundation to build an ethical code and of morality. The purpose is to get us to think about how we act, and why we act. If we get bogged down Inception-class complexity, we lose that powerful purpose.

The story in Star Wars is intentionally simple. The characters are stereotypical, but archetypical, and resonate a certain set of traits we can easily identify. It can sometimes feel like a children’s story. Again, that’s the point. The essence of a mythos should make us wonder in awe, tap into our imagination, bring out our inner child. When I watch these movies, I’m like a giddy boy, relishing in the narrative. When the movie is done, it’s almost as if my inner child, having finished the adventure, returns and consults with my adult on what just happened. That’s mythos; the dialogue between wonder and reason.

The master of this myth-creating process was J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. He saw that England lacked a true mythos, one separated from reality (thus eliminating anything relating to King Arthur and Beowulf). He set out to create an entire universe that he could populate with stories; thus born Middle Earth. His goal wasn’t necessarily to write great stories (which he did), but to provide an epic universe with histories, a genesis (see: The Silmarillion), and languages with dialects. LOTR has a distinctly English feeling to it, one his countrymen could understand. He wrote it so others may think about the world in a certain way. Some of these stories, like The Hobbit, are so relatable, they feel like a children’s story.

Now, George Lucas is no Tolkien. He is a controversial creator, one who nearly destroyed his saga. His storylines can be disjointed, almost contradictory, and he can seem self-serving. Nevertheless, his universe is nevertheless a fountain of myth, and one that resonates with millions of Americans. Why?

America, at its core, is part of Western Civilization, and relies heavily upon its philosophy and religions. As such, it is greatly influenced by morality that there exists objective good and evil. But we are also a multicultural nation, one that has accepted and welcomes many Eastern philosophies as well. As Americans, we are intrigued by the at-first exotic beliefs of the East, and we find a certain tranquility in them. We are drawn toward the idea of a Buddhist monk devoid of personal possession and at peace with everything. We see his balance, and we desire it.

Star Wars seeks to establish a clear dynamic between good and evil. The Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire; the Jedi and Sith; Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. There is great conflict between these easily identified sides (I mean, for crying out loud, the lightsaber colors reveal it all). Yet, the theme of balance is always present. The Chosen One was to bring balance to the Force; a Force which is at once an inanimate energy field made up of microorganisms, and yet also a personal, willing thing. Is this a contradiction? No, it’s the basis of a mythos worldview.

You see, Americans love a good cops and robbers story, the cowboys and Indians conflict. But we also seek a peaceful tranquility of balance. Star Wars gives us that battle, but breathes of a peaceful spirituality. Destiny must be fulfilled in this universe, but personal choice never disappears. Americans, historically, believe they have a duty, a manifest destiny, in the world. But liberty is at our heart to, and we can choose to reject this duty. We are drawn to Star Wars because it mimics what we feel in the first place.

Why does this matter? I believe it is very important for great societies to have a basic cultural commonality. For America, we used to be fairly homogenous in our Protestant religion. That’s not the case anymore, and when it was, there was no unified denomination. Religion doesn’t make the cut, and politics certainly doesn’t. We need a myth, one with an acceptable starting point, a square one. Star Wars is arguably one of the only viable mythos for America. It has such a wide arrangement of characters and messages, that different people can gain different things from it. It embraces our Western-Eastern dichotomy, and quite frankly, it’s pure fun.

We need Star Wars not because it is a masterfully created cinematic experience, has great dialogue, or anything like that. We need it because the story, much like the Force itself, can surround and bind us together.


 

Finding Community, or Building Community?

Post-college can be a difficult time for people to experience community. Colleges offer a ready-made community of peers for four years, and many of us develop lasting intimate friendships during that time. After graduating we move to new cities, or return home to cities that don't feel quite like home anymore. We are ready to pursue new careers, follow dreams, and start families. But for many of us, in a new place, or in a not so familiar old place, we can struggle to find meaningful employment, we sometimes feel we have to compromise our dreams for practical considerations. Others seek to find a spouse and start a family but can't seem to meet the right person. It is when we encounter these difficulties that the distance of our childhood or college friends can strike us deeply. It is in those moments we can feel so lonely, so disconnected, and so absent from any community. 

When I encounter people in a place like this, one of the things I consistently hear is, "I just can't find a good community," or "I haven't experienced any community here." I understand these sentiments, I've felt them myself, but they are dishonest, and they won’t help us escape our lonliness.

Lasting community isn't something we stumble upon, it is something we consciously build. Community isn't only something we externally experience, it is something we are.

CBC was created to help build and grow Catholic community in cities throughout the United States, and I'd say we've been doing a pretty good job of that. CBC host wonderful community events, but the events themselves are not community; they are a means to community.

Simply attending a community event like a CBC meetup can be a social experience, but if your communal interactions do not go beyond large social events you will never find true community. I know many people who attend young adult event after young adult event and still experience profound loneliness. CBC and many other Catholic young adult ministries and outreaches are often lumped together and then called the “(Insert City Name) Catholic Young Adult Community.” But I would say the events, ministries and outreaches are not the community, the people are. 

The simple dictionary definition of community is a group of people living in the same place or having similar interests or characteristics in common. Under that definition, yes the "(City) Catholic Young Adult Community" is a community because it is people living in the same city, who share the same characteristic and interest of Catholicism. 

However, community is much more than being in the same place at the same time and having similar interests. The heart of community, as my fellow blogger Kyle Sellnow recently expressed, is love! To love is to know, and to be loved is to be known. This is the proper end of community. If however, all we ever do is attend large social events and engage in mindless chatter, if we don't really get to know each other, we will always end up walking away still feeling a sense of loneliness.

This is why I prefer the ecological and biological definition of community, a group of interdependent organisms growing or living together. I like that, "interdependent!" That lends more gravitas to community, and rings true for the body of Christ, the Church. "There are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I do not need you,' nor again the head to the feet, "I do not need you.'" (1 Corinthians 12:20-21)

We are a community in Christ and we need each other. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. When one of us suffers loneliness, when I am isolated, that loneliness impacts the entire body of Christ. So, wherever you may be, whether you are the person that knows everyone, or you are the person that knows nobody, commit to being a community builder. Don't walk idly along, naively thinking the community you have will always be there, or without action hope that community will come your way. We need to build community every day. That means deepening relationships we have, and encountering new people. It means welcoming outsiders in, and not being afraid to let an insider leave on a new mission.

If you feel like you do not have community, don't run, community will never overtake you. Instead DIG! Dig where you are. Encounter those around you. Maybe they aren't the same type of people you were close to in college, but they are beautifully and wonderfully made, and if you encounter them, if you seek to know them, you'll be surprised to find that they will get to know you, and you will experience love.

A lot of good conversation happens at CBC and other young adult events. These events are good. But we can’t expect them to solely satisfy our need for community. We need to meet in smaller groups as well throughout our day-to-day. We need to get involved at our local parishes as well. When you are at the next big event, try making plans to continue a conversation with someone at a later date, or plan a brunch. Schedule something and follow through. It is those interactions and choices you make that will truly build community.

Stop looking, start building!

 



If you've been a long-time reader, you know Kyle and I like this topic a lot. For more practical ideas for how to build community you can read Kyle's articles 4 Steps to Creating Community That Matters, or Avoiding Frenzied and Lonely. You can also read a previous article of mine, 7 Ways to Start Having Conversations that Matter.

Beauty Worth Writing Twice About: Thoughts on the Beginning of a New School Year

It is the end of the summer semester, and the fall one begins soon, and the sunrise-sunset nature of it all always gets me thinking (seems appropriate for a professor). I have been involved now in the education of college students for about a decade, and most of that has been spent in some way with Faith Formation or Campus Ministry. All this wistful nostalgia prompts a question: why do I stick with it? My all-too-easy answer: because it is important. But that of course is not really an answer, because one would immediately ask: why is it important? Let me make a feeble attempt to explain.

The truth of the matter is this: I wrote a version of this essay much earlier in my career, promoted by an assignment asking the same question be answered for a newspaper article, directed my way by my boss at the time.

It was summarily rejected.

Various reasons were given, but the main gist was that it was weird, and not the answer folks would expect. You can decide for yourself if that is indeed the case. And with more years under my belt, I understand that philosophical musings are not the best draw when raising money and awareness is involved (this is obvious to everyone but we philosophy majors). But as this essay is not now expected to raise a dime, I can freely admit: I still feel the same way, and hope to feel so for many years to come.

For you see, the importance of a thing rests not in what it does, but what it is for. So a great amount of money spent on some frivolous thing is worthless compared to the momentous giving of the widow’s mite. While what a school or a ministry IS depends largely on what it does, why they are important depends on WHOM these things are done for.

And who are all these classes and programs and formation opportunities for? The easy answer would seem to be the many college students served by a host of staff and volunteers. College ministries are important then because the students they minister to are important.  All this is true enough in its own way, but I think it confuses the issue, and does a disservice both to the staff and students of the various ministries throughout the Church.

First of all, in putting the students “first,” we are prone to set the dynamic of ministry squarely in the consumer-based model of our work-a-day world. Thus, staff members become customer service representatives that provide student-clients with a product. If the clients are not satisfied with this product, then they will take their “business” elsewhere.

This is unfair to both parties. First of all, the Ministerial staff will never outdo the allure of the modern entertainment juggernaut. Nor did they sign up to put on a show—they signed up to be a part of an Apostolate. Secondly, it is unfair to the students as well—this model does not challenge them, does not treat them like adults, nor does it act like they have anything positive to contribute to the aforementioned Apostolate.

In fact, the fundamental “problem” with how we conceive of Young Adult Ministry rests in this fact: we deal with this group like it is a problem,  a riddle within the Church to be solved! We throw ministries at them because they are a “lost generation,” or because they are “addicted to the modern world,’ or because “the future of the Church is bleak without them,” etc., etc.

But we who work with Young Adults can attest to a different reality, that the real reason we choose to work with this group is not because they are a problem to be solved. We choose to work with Young Adults because they are beautiful. (This is where the weird, unpopular part of the essay really picks up steam!)

Look, young Children are beautiful too, but in their own way: their heads-too-big-for-their-bodies, wide eyes, and silly smiles are cute in precisely the same manner a fat, fuzzy caterpillar is cute—not so much like the beauty of a butterfly per se! Similarly, we “Non-Young” Adults are beautiful in our own way as well, but in a way more like the Grand Canyon: “look how time has eroded the rocks to show the majestic, weathered layers underneath!”

But Young Adults, they are beautiful in the proper and fullest sense, like the first flowers that bloom in Springtime. They are pleasant to observe, wonderful to talk to, fun to listen to, and refreshing to be around. They may give us “old folks” our fair share of grey hair, but they make us feel young all the same.

They are, in a word, beautiful.

By now you can see how this answer does not strike a fundraising note, nor even an easily digestible introduction to a ministry. It is undoubtedly off-kilter, and easy to misunderstand. To be blunt, I am saying much more than the simple fact that most of us wish we looked like our 20-something selves. (This is also a stinging commentary on our paltry sense of the word "beauty," but I digress). However, without such an answer, I do not know how to explain my commitment to this wonderful, blessed calling.

Why is college ministry important? Because beautiful things warrant that we should attend to them, that they should not be left to mere chance. We tend gardens, we curate museums, and we, too, should have places for Young Adults to grow. It is the glory of Christendom that Universities took root in the soil of its culture, and the happy lot of all ministers to young adults that we are grafted onto this every-growing vine.

And ultimately, we do this not for the students, the future, or even ourselves. We do this for the sake of God, who deserves to be praised with an offering most beautiful, a bouquet of our best and brightest. God deserves our Young Adults to fill His Choirs, and we owe it to God to offer as many Young People up to His throne as possible. Certainly He deserves them more than the world or the devil. This, and this only, is the true reason that working in college ministry is important. And it has been worth every moment.

It is even worth writing this essay twice!

 

Commitment in the Modern Age

At a conference in January, I was planning on getting together with some friends for drinks one evening. We set a time and a meeting place. As the time drew closer, we heard the place we wanted to go was filling up, so I sent out a quick text to change the plan, in the hopes of expediting the process of getting a table. Then we got word of another party. Only half of the group had arrived, so I sent out a quick poll to see if we wanted to change our plans. We ended up making the new party our new meeting place before going back to get our drinks—so another text went out to inform all those who were still catching up to all the changing plans. Someone had to run back to the original meeting place to find someone who got lost, someone went to make sure we didn’t lose our table, and someone texted that they were getting food before meeting us. At some point I realized how ridiculous the whole situation was becoming, and marveled that anyone ever did anything social without a cell phone. When I mentioned this, a friend put it rather simply,

“People made plans and they stuck to them.”

People made plans and stuck to them. What’s funny, is since it has become relatively easy to change plans on the go, doing so is no longer considered a breech of commitment. We can change our plans to fit our current whims, and it isn’t considered rude, so long as we keep everyone informed.

Now, before I get going on this one, I must say there are legitimate reasons to change plans, and cell phones make this process much smoother than communication technologies past. When it’s pouring rain on the site of you picnic, or your roommate broke her leg, or you realize you double booked yourself, or there was a car accident on the way, it is proper to change plans as necessary, and communicate clearly with those who are involved.

BUT, does this mean that when something more exciting comes up, or when we realize we don’t feel like doing what was originally planned, changing our plans to suit our new interests is ok? I can think of instances when I was planning on having dinner with a friend, and when other options presented themselves, the plans were changed. I was included in the new plans, but I am not convinced this means that the original commitment was fulfilled. Why?

The original commitment wasn’t made a priority, it was weaseled into something new. The planned event occurred, but it was changed to fit a different context than originally intended. It was changed to prevent it from getting in the way of something else. And because I was still being included, I wasn’t asked, but was told.

It is no secret that our generation is talked about as one that is afraid of commitment. Is it possible that we simply don’t understand commitment? Is it possible that we see commitments as things we can alter to fit our preferences, even as they change? Is it possible our fear of commitment comes from our lack of practice? From our (somewhat lazy, and selfish, in my personal opinion) idea of what keeping a commitment means? And is all of this being disguised by the fact that constantly changing plans, constantly trying to fit it all in, is socially acceptable?

It is hard to constantly strive to keep to commitments, and to keep them as they are, especially in most modern social landscapes where last minute events are constantly popping up. I hope, however, that you will ask yourself these questions, and then take a look at your own habits in light of your response. Determine what it means to keep your word. And then make sure you keep it. Determine what it means to fulfill a commitment, and then fulfill it. Doing so in small matters is the only way to prepare yourself to do so in large ones.

We may belong to a generation notorious for being flaky. That doesn’t mean we should settle for being flaky ourselves (or letting others get away with being flaky with us for that matter). Let us be men and women of our word, and show our peers the joy that comes from doing so.

 

 

 

Getting to Know the Real You

Getting to Know the Real You

I admit it. I’m guilty. Recently I was chatting with a co-worker, attempting to get to know her better, and I slipped into “camaraderie through complaining.” This camaraderie is a warped manifestation of something beautiful, something we take seriously at Catholic Beer Club, the desire for community. The events of this past weekend . . .

Our Community at Large: Remembering the Holy Souls

Our Community at Large: Remembering the Holy Souls

Br. Emmanuel so appropriately set the stage for CBC and how both community and evangelization are both meant to be ordered toward Sainthood. In my own modest involvement with Catholic Beer Club, I have always viewed it as a way to fulfill the old adage of striving to be in the world but not of the world (see Romans 12:2). Catholic Beer Club attempts to take a secular experience