Written by: Bro. Brian Poulin
Memorial of the Spanish Martyrs of the 20th Century
One of Bro. Sam Amos’ favorite instruments of academic torture is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, sections of which he assigns to high school seniors in his Faith, Science, and Reason class at Marist High School in Chicago. The best-known quotation from the book proposes that, “what we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.” Like so many things, it sounds better in German.
The frustration we encounter in nevertheless trying to describe the inexpressible is summed up by the considerably more accessible (and anonymous) quotation that I first heard attributed to the joyful mayhem of Adult Vacation, a week of summer camp for special needs adults held annually by the Mid-Hudson Valley Camp at the Marist Brothers Center in Esopus: “From the outside looking in, you could never understand it; from the inside looking out, you could never explain it.” At the risk of speaking tautologically, there are some experiences that can only truly be shared with those with whom one has shared said experiences.
Our Marist Youth Ministry is very conscious of this reality. At the end of the Encounter retreat program, the final talk always includes a reminder to the young retreatants that they are about to return to a family, social circle, and school where most people have not had the rich experience they just lived through. No matter how much love and support they may experience in their home setting, they have just had an intense bonding experience with new friends characterized by sharing both vulnerability and silliness, tears and laughter. As with so many of life’s most powerful experiences, we need to be prepared to describe something of our experience to those who ask us, while at the same time recognizing the gross inadequacy of the meager words with which we try to convey our reality.
My situation is sometimes a bit less complicated in that respect. For example, with regards to the Encounter retreats specifically, so many people within my circles have participated in this program at one time or another, that even a particularly moving Encounter can be described by using previous ones for a baseline comparison. “The students bonded exceptionally quickly.” “The speakers were particularly impactful.” Et cetera.
None of us are completely cut off from the possibility of indescribable experiences though. And when the indescribable happens, by definition it cannot be adequately described.
A couple weeks ago, a variety of faculty members from Marist schools throughout the USA, together with a handful of other members of the Marist community, gathered with outside experts to explore themes related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The most pressing issues centered around the question of how we can ensure that our schools are nurturing environments for all students entrusted to our care, regardless of the various ways each one identifies in terms of cultural heritage, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. The experiences and insights we shared included vulnerable moments of seeking acceptance and of welcoming others, and of painful realizations and even more painful misunderstandings. All this from people who truly do try to do the best we can, as so many of us generally do. All this from people who have experienced that good intentions are not always good enough when we desire to truly honor the God-given dignity of all those we encounter each day.
Needless to say, the outside presenters did not feel like outsiders for very long at all. While the material they shared was important and timely, the most salient feature of the weekend was the blessed community that we formed together. I don’t easily rank experiences of community, but suffice it to say that even given my history of living in religious community and of the deep communion I have enjoyed with our Marists of Champagnat throughout the USA and beyond, this experience was something extraordinarily special.
I have spent this past week at St. Joseph Academy, our Marist school in Brownsville, TX. Perhaps one of the most earnest questions a student asked me during this time was posed by a junior early in the week. He simply asked, “How do we know God loves us?”
God’s love is like any other love, insofar as you cannot explain, describe, or justify it in any satisfactory way. I cannot convince you of God’s love. But once you have felt it for yourself, I hope that it never lets you go.
This week’s ‘ear candy’ is a hauntingly beautiful song used frequently by our Marist Evangelization team during reflective time on retreats and other programs. It particularly grabbed my attention during the program I mentioned above. It speaks of both belonging and loneliness. The ‘brain food’ is a brief reflective article in which the author shares his experience of building community by serving those who are marginalized, including young people who have been forced into homelessness.
Ear Candy: “Known & Loved” by Joel Ansett
Brain Food: “One Man’s Mission to Provide Housing and Human Connection” by Paul W. Hamann
Come back on the first Saturday of next month for a new post!