I often joke with friends from the Mount Saint Michael community about how much the Mount has changed me. For better or worse, I am a bit of a cultural mimic—I pay attention to human interactions and am always on the lookout for ways of speaking and ways of doing things that can help me better understand and relate to those around me. Unfortunately, I sometimes even accidentally pick up pieces of accents. So yes, five years in the Bronx has affected me. One buddy from Mount who is both an alumnus and teacher there recently referred to me as a “Mount Boy”, which I think he meant it as a compliment. Regardless, I now naturally code-switch… when speaking informally with young people from the New York area, my Mount mannerisms come out. When speaking with other generations (including my own peers) or young people who wouldn’t get it, I more or less speak like my old self.
I was changed by Mount because I let myself be changed. I remember once when supervising a sophomore retreat, one of the troubled kids I taught in class dedicated his shot to me on the basketball court. That’s the safe way that a Mount student can say he appreciates you without actually showing emotion. As much as a teacher has to be tough in a school like Mount, you also have to let the students there soften you. Many of the students are big-hearted kids in their own discrete way.
Mount Saint Michael also changes students—at least those who are willing to be changed. I taught a boy as a freshman who came from a tough background including a violent neighborhood and gang connections within his immediate family. He chose a Catholic school because he wanted a different future for himself, but he had difficulty adjusting because he’d never had to comply with rules before. Of course, he had anger issues, because he had a lot to be angry about. Of course, he got in a lot of trouble because he’d never had the opportunity to develop the habits of good behavior. Nonetheless, over time he came to realize that he was in a safe place; he learned to drop the hard armor that was so necessary to survive on the streets and he began to show his goofy adolescent self. This was only possible through the dogged love and firm support of Marist educators
Those entering Mount Saint Michael Academy are greeted with a sign proclaiming “The City Streets Stop Here.” I once assumed that the sign was to remind students beginning their day to leave street behavior behind and comply with expectations. As I think about the dangerous neighborhoods some of our guys walked through to get to school however, I wonder if the sign was much more a promise of safety than a prompt to act a certain way. Where the streets end, those young men no longer have to act tough—they can be the fun-loving kids they actually are, at least for a while. They can be transformed by love if they will allow it.
I’ve seen this drama of such transformation played out in many contexts, particularly during the Encounter retreats that we Marists hold for adolescents. The reliably massive change in the retreatants by the end of the second day always gives me great joy. I see the young participants confronted with the fact of how loved they are by others and by God, and I see how this newly discovered or strengthened awareness helps them to love themselves more and to share love with those around them.
I’ve occasionally come across insightful comparisons between the Apostles Peter and Judas Iscariot. Yes, Judas the traitor who was also an apostle called by Jesus. Peter and Judas both betrayed their friend, and I have heard it suggested that the main difference between the two is that Peter accepted forgiveness. It can take great courage to seek forgiveness though, even when it is assured.
I can’t blame Judas for not seeking forgiveness after committing a betrayal so great. I can only imagine his despair as he came to understand the magnitude of his guilt. Judas didn’t have to seek forgiveness though. Even after his great sin, if he had just accepted the love Jesus offered him (and offers us all), what could he have gone on to do? I know that I am my best self when I allow myself to be loved by others… what would we each be capable of if we truly let others love us?
My idea for this week’s “ear candy” came to me very quickly after I settled on a general topic for the week, and before I fleshed out some of the details, so do not be surprised that the key phrase at the end was echoed throughout the entry above. This week’s “brain candy” is a historical retrospective describing how Sisters of Charity gradually learned to share the love they felt from God to overcome social barriers and become early leaders in providing care for HIV patients.
Ear Candy: “Desperado” by The Eagles (performed by Linda Ronstadt)
Brain Food: “The Catholic Hospital that Pioneered AIDS Care” by Michael J. O’Loughlin
Come back next Saturday for a new post!