Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Have We Allowed the Seeds of Betrayal to Enter Our Hearts?

Giotto (14th c.), detail of Judas
Judas clearly chose to betray Jesus. This was no sudden impulse. It was a premeditated decision to sell his Master for money.

But why? Surely, Judas had once loved Jesus. He left everything to follow Him. How did this love die?

It probably began slowly. Perhaps what happened to Judas, in the beginning, was the same thing that happens so often to us.

As the fervor of his first love was tested, and as he began to realize that Jesus and His plan were not like his initial hopes, Judas allowed disappointment to creep into his love. Over time, his love for Jesus grew cold, even though he continued to “go through the motions” of discipleship.

As disappointment grew into bitterness, his heart turned to other loves: money, personal ambition, independence, perhaps even the desire to follow someone else. We don’t know.

But we face the same temptation to betray someone we love. Consider our commitment to our marriage. Time inevitably reveals that our spouse is different, and that God’s plan for our marriage is different than we first imagined. Here we are challenged: Will we trust in God, be faithful, and allow love to grow? Or will we give in to disappointment, begin to seek other loves, and slowly betray the other person (and God) even as we still “go through the motions”?
Father of love, protect our hearts from the disappointment that leads to betrayal, and grant us the faith to follow your mysterious and loving plan, rather than selfishly clinging to our own expectations. We ask this in the name of Jesus your Son, who has loved us to the end. Amen.

[Published in Magnificat Lenten Companion, 2014, p. 60]

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Jesus, Death... and Taxes

And so, it's April 15th. Less than two hours to go.

If you are an American, no further comment is necessary. You know that today is a day of penance, even when it doesn't fall during Holy Week. Of course, not everyone waits until the last minute. Maybe you filed weeks ago. Maybe you're getting a refund.

Still, today is a day that we all must remember the fragility of our lives at the hands of the powers of this world. Even those who benefit from the system know that it is a ponderous, ambivalent, and sometimes capricious patron.

They say that there are two things that cannot be avoided in this life: Death and Taxes. It seems to me not insignificant that the One who embraced death for us all began His life by being enrolled in the census. The Savior of the world was born in Bethlehem with the help of the Roman imperial bureaucracy and its tax system.

Joseph the Builder paid taxes. Jesus paid them too, in the many years of His quiet labor. When God took human nature, He became one of the multitude in the empire of Caesar. He Himself bid us to pay lawful taxes, to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Mark 12:17).

So today, even as we recognize Caesar's authority to tax our money, we remember also that we must render to God what belongs to God, our consciences. Yet God seems so far away when the forces of the world loom over us. It would seem like nothing for worldly power to crush the human conscience if it could not corrupt it.

And if there were nothing but worldly power and then death, what hope would we have? Where would we, who sin for the sake of convenience, find the strength to adhere to truth at all costs?

Only Jesus has defeated death, and in so doing has affirmed that the relationship of the human person to God is greater than every earthly power. Our strength is in Him.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Cherry Blossoms and Holy Week Together: Must I Be Sad?

If I take their picture, will they last forever?
The cherry blossoms are finally in their glory.

I saw the pictures from the banks of the Potomac river in Washington D.C., but we have them here too, 70 miles away, lining Main Street Front Royal and popping up in clusters, here and there, all over town.

They are always a sign that Spring is taking hold. Some types have the cherry streaks, but many are bright white, as if the touch of warm air has transformed the very snow into flowers.

I realize that the lovely weather of recent days is going to cool off this week, and even bring some frost. Poor folk in the northeast and midwest are even supposed to get more snow! Oh, but it will melt right up.

While life bursts all around us, we walk the path of Holy Week. Perhaps that seems incongruous. Spring has finally come, and now we must be gloomy and think about death?

At this time of year, life is new and fresh and full of promise, but only for a season. The promise is fulfilled in growth and fruit and harvest, and then there is the sleep of Winter again. The beauty of things wounds us with longing. It whispers "forever" to our hearts and then it fades. Perhaps we should just not think about all that and simply enjoy the flowers. Still, the flowers will fade. The time will pass. The "forever" that life whispers... where in this world can we find it?

Holy Week is not a time to brood upon death. Death haunts us all the time (whether we brood or not). Death presses everywhere against the limits of our lives, in the exhaustion of our paltry loves, in the inexorable advance of weakness as all the seasons pass and the beauties fade.

Holy Week does not come to haunt us with death. It comes to awaken us to a greater hope.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday: What Really Happened

Palm Sunday

"Exult greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
Behold: your king is coming to you,
a just savior is he,
Humble, and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

--Zechariah 9:9

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Would Jesus Have Made the Cover of TIME Magazine?

Inside the magazine: Dateline Jerusalem, April 13, 0033

Here He comes! Everyone in Jerusalem is talking about Him.

He was just voted the most popular and the most influential man in Israel for the past year, beating out both the high priest Caiaphas and Herod. He has been hailed as the Son of David, the King of Israel! He is the enormously popular new rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.

At today's Jerusalem rally, adoring crowds roared, "Hosanna!"

"We really think that Jesus can make a difference. He'll change things around here," said one observer.

"Jesus is great," said another, "We've been waiting for this moment since that time in the desert when he multiplied the bread. Just think what this will do for the economy!"

"And we can stop worrying about affordable health care," said another, "because he can just cure everybody. Problem solved!"

There is still no official confirmation of the report that Jesus is about to declare his candidacy for "Messiah," but his approval ratings in the polls have never been higher. There is no doubt that the Jesus Effect is being felt everywhere. He is the most popular rabbi in the world.

Even the opposition seems to recognize the fact. Leading Pharisees are reportedly saying to one another, "You see that you [i.e. we] are gaining nothing. Look, the whole world has gone after him" (John 12:19).

Nevertheless, the opposition coalition of Pharisees, scribes, and priests continues their nightly strategy sessions, and there are some reports that indicate they may have established contact with a disgruntled high ranking member of the Jesus Campaign. So this story may yet contain some surprises.

As of now, Pontius Pilate's office has made no comment.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Blogging: A Small Gift of Love I Offer to You

The Internet "thingy" that connects us.
What am I trying to do when I blog? I am trying to give of myself, because as a human being I am impelled by the urgent desire to offer what I am and have--as a human being I want to love. I am also trying to open myself up and show myself and ask to be loved, because I am a human being and I need to be loved. I want to love and to be loved.

So I write because I want to love, to affirm and to give goodness. And I don't want it to be fake. This means I want truth. And I don't want it to be boring. This means I want beauty.

This is what I want to do in my writing. I want it to be a gift of love.

I say this not as a theory, but as a judgment. I know that this is true. I know that the motor of my life is love. It is a judgment drawn from experience. My humanity is alive inside me because I have been loved. The experience of being loved awakens the human heart. The difference between living a human life and living a life of desperation is the awareness of being loved. And this awareness is grounded on, and continually nourished by, the experience of being loved.

It began in childhood. I have had problems, and sicknesses, and mental distress since childhood. But these are the consequence of illness. Beneath them all was the radical security that came from being loved by my parents. As I came to maturity, I met people who loved me--sometimes in very simple ways--and I grew. I finally met a woman who loved me with a love that embraced me in a way I didn't deserve, to which I wasn't entitled, and which I could not earn. It was a gift. Beyond attraction and common interest and sympathy of personality there was that radically undeserved love, a love that could not be grasped, but only received according to the form of a gift, within the space created by a gift in return. And so we were married.

It was the great sign that radical, undeserved, gratuitous love was the foundation and sustenance of my life. And it remains a sign that grows. It is a gratuitous love that overflows and is fruitful.

I need this sign to continually manifest itself, if I am to remain convinced in the reality of my heart that I have been created to love and to be loved. Every day I need to place myself in the position of receptivity to the love of my wife, and my children. I must acknowledge my need, my poverty, and that my capacity to give is founded on the fact that I am a gift. I am loveable. I see it in the simplest things in the day, such as when I am hungry and my wife makes pasta, because she loves me. The kids want me to read them a story, or help them with their work, or have a conversation with me not just because of their own needs because they want me. They love me. Why am I wanted? Why are there these people in my life who say to me, "it is good that you are you, that you exist"?

They are witnesses that I am created by love, that I am given to myself in love, that I am worthy. And this engenders in me the desire to give myself, because goodness wants to be shared, to be given away. It is not afraid of being lost. And so I am writing, in the confidence that these words are a gift, even if only a fragile one. I want to tell you that it is good that you exist. I know that. And I want you to experience it, and be sustained by it.

Let us love one another....

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Foundation of Our Social Problems (Part 1)

Our world as seen by Google
Clearly the world is in a great deal of trouble. Many good people are engaged in practical action, dialogue, and the kind of realistic negotiations that are so often necessary to maintain a fragile peace or to secure fundamental human rights.

This work is necessary, and indeed heroic because it requires immense energies and creativity to find ways to patch up a crisis or bring some measure of relief or protection in situations that require continued vigilance. Social problems are never solved once and for all. They must be grappled with again and again.

The human ideal remains elusive in this world, and yet the human quest for justice and compassion must press forward here and now, placing its ultimate hope in something greater than our capacities.

It is important to reflect upon the roots of the particular social malaise of today: roots that are as old as human history and yet have a particular significance for our times because our society has obfuscated these roots in unprecedented ways. This is a challenge to us to look explicitly at what so many are trying desperately to evade, and make sure that we ourselves do not forget these roots and the urgent need to address them.

Beneath so many of the problems of our society it is possible to recognize a foundation (or, rather, the profound sense of an absence of foundation). Human beings have no sense of the ground upon which they stand. Often today this is evident in the most basic circumstances. People are disconnected from the human foundations of their own families, and they lack the experience of social stability or of any traditions or customs. They lack any strong human investment in a particular place or a community, and it is difficult to find sustaining motivation for constructive activity or commitment.

Underlying all this human instability is a more radical, existential insecurity. Our society feeds this insecurity insofar as it pretends that the human world is a self contained entity filled with inexplicable yet also autonomous human beings. Our social environment says that human persons come into existence from nowhere and live for nothing, and at the same time that they are invested with the power to act and the freedom and responsibility to define themselves.

It is a bipolar vortex between insignificance and urgency. The human person feels as if he or she is just "here" in time and space, hanging onto existence by a slender thread, and yet wanting to be here, to be and to be more, although the person does not know how or why. There is no foundation, and it is terrifying to just hang here swinging one's legs over an abyss of extinction. Not surprisingly, the person looks for something, anything, that has the appearance of security; something that feels like solid ground on which to stand.

Of course, people don't often feel consciously the naked terror of having no identity, no foundation, no reason for existing. It's an unbearable experience, and most of the time the survival instinct kicks into gear and people quickly find some reason, some seemingly solid reality in the world that will give them a purpose for existing; something they can belong to. Or else they bury themselves in external distractions. But even with the wildest distractions, the feeling lingers subconsciously and so people feel compelled to say things like "I'm trying to find myself."

The presupposition in this society is that your own bare self exists in radical solitude and lack of definition and value. You have no value unless you have found something or someone (or some cause or group) that gives value to you.

No wonder we are so desperate.

No wonder we sink ourselves so readily into factions and ideologically driven groups that wear labels. They give us a sense of belonging. They "validate" our existence.

And no wonder we are willing to wage ruthless war against any idea, group, or person who opposes our faction, or questions its adequacy. We have become convinced that it's a matter of survival, that our identity is at stake -- the very meaning of our existence.

But wait. Do I really belong to nothing in myself? In this moment, am I simply "here," scrambling to assert myself into a self-defined meaningful identity?

Let me, JJ, consider what I experience about myself right now. I would say that I'm here in this moment trying to write something coherent, trying to communicate with others, so as to serve them (and to be appreciated by them -- haha, let's be honest). I want to be "in union with other people," or rather to deepen my union with them.

I find myself "here," in this moment, in a way that can seem frightening but in reality is challenging and dramatic. I am here with a need. I need goodness, love, and not only appreciation but also self-giving. Yes, there is a profound anxiety and lack of self-confidence in me, a fear of nothingness, a sense of insignificance and an impulse toward self-assertion -- but that is not all there is to my being. There is also the fundamental desire to give myself, the intuition of a richness that wants to share itself. I know that my existence is good. No matter how obscure it may seem, I know that I am grounded in something fundamentally, radically good, and that I am responsible to that good, which is the root of me and at the same time "other" than me.

We live in such fear. But what is fear? It is the response to the possibility of losing something. This implies that something is already there, something more fundamental than our fear. It is goodness, truth, and beauty: fundamentals of existing that we do not define.

It is the fact that we are given to ourselves by Another, that our existence is rooted, firmly, in the love of Another. But this Other is beyond anything in the world. The world everywhere points to this Someone, and opens up a journey to seek His fullness, and to belong fully to Him and thus to everyone and everything else.

I exist as "gift" of this Someone, and so I am truly myself by being a gift, by giving myself, by loving.

Our society needs to grow more into an environment that affirms the value of the human person as created by God and called to give his or herself in love ever more fully to God and to others according to God's wisdom. Foundational human experience is complex and ambivalent because human persons have a brokenness; they are burdened with an affliction. They are overwhelmed by anxiety and a desperate sense of the need to create their own identity, because their connection to the transcendent Mystery, the creating, sustaining, infinitely loving Other, so often seems shrouded and obscured.

And this obscure ambivalence in our self understanding is rooted in the whole of human history and its origins, the "original sin" which is the cause of the divided heart that we all experience within ourselves. We cannot pretend that it's possible to ignore these basic truths about the human person and still find real solutions to social problems or make the world a more human place. This is the basis of the human problem, and we must not forget it. No theory or political or economic system is going to make it go away. We need to be aware of it, and as much as possible help others to be aware of it. Of course, we also want to remember and witness to others the answer that God Himself has provided, the miracle of His presence among us.

We do not need to make ourselves or find something that gives value to our being. We have been made, we have value, we are loved. We need to be healed and to grow into our true greatness, to attain the likeness in love of the One who loves us.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Realization of Freedom

"It is in the total dimension
of our fulfilment
that freedom will be realized,
according to its entire nature,
as capacity for total satisfaction.
Freedom is the capacity for the infinite,
the thirst for God.
Freedom, then, is love,
because it is the capacity for something
that is not us:
it is Another."

~Luigi Giussani

Monday, April 7, 2014

Spring is "Springing"... Sort Of

Well, they are not very peppy, but here they are: forsythias at long last! They are weighted with morning dew here, and there are still spots on the bush that have yet to bloom.

But we're so happy that the month of March has finally come to Virginia. (That's not a mistake; it's a joke.)

Nature is emerging in a cagey way, as if she wants to make sure that this is not another trick. I think we're okay this time. There are even rumors of cherry blossoms coming.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Our Children are Made For God

In my last post, I spoke about marriage and children. Ah yes, the children. The vocation to participate in God's creative love for them extends to the "raising" of these children.

It’s hard enough to provide them with food and the needs of daily life. But our task as parents is greater than this. Each child is a person—a developing and expanding spiritual universe of understanding and love, of creativity, of searching and questioning and hunger. Their hunger is not just for bread, or for education, or for human affection. It is all these things, but—within and beyond all of this—it is a hunger for God.

How can my wife and I give them God?

The awareness that we are called to be instruments through which our children discover and experience the love of God as Father is truly overwhelming. Nevertheless, we see in the gospel that Jesus is always asking His disciples to do the impossible. After He finishes preaching to five thousand people, He tells His disciples to give them the food they need to eat for their journey home. "Feed these five thousand people!"

What do they have to give? They have seven loaves and a few fish. They have something, but it is clearly not enough.

We too have something: our own poor, selfish, struggling humanity. But there is something else we have, and—like the disciples—we keep forgetting it! We have Jesus!

My wife and I have Him in a particular way, precisely in the way that our children need to come to know Him, through the grace of the sacrament of marriage. Our marriage is the foundation for a communion of persons, and Jesus is at the center of that communion, so that we and the children can grow in the ways of self-giving love.

We need to ask for faith to recognize that He is with us as husband and wife, as father and mother, as two fragile, limited people, so that He can take us, and (yes, like the loaves) break us, and give Himself through us to our children and to everyone He entrusts to us.
Lord Jesus, give us faith to recognize Your presence in our lives every day, and increase our confidence that with You, nothing is impossible. In Your hands, may our poor humanity be transformed into the gift of Your love for each other and for our children.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Most Important "Work" of Marriage

Lately there has been a lot of talk about marriage in the blog world (especially among Catholic Christians). Young couples enter into Christian marriage, perhaps, with starry eyes and optimism and even a bit of forgivable "overconfidence." We've been there, and felt that way. We know that time will teach them the hard work of married life, of unity and fidelity, of the experience of discord (even the Pope recently mentioned how "throwing plates around" is a normal experience of spousal argument).

But, above all, time (and their openness in faith and love) will allow them to experience the inexhaustible power of the grace of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Jesus in the sacrament of marriage. The hope, of course, is that Christian newlyweds are prepared in such a way that they truly believe in this grace from the beginning. Nevertheless, the whole of married life is an ever deeper verification of the reality of the grace of marriage and it's superabundant adequacy to endure and to grow through a vast array of unimaginable circumstances.

All of this is very true. Older married couples can list circumstances of good times and bad, sickness and health, a million awkward things about sharing life right down to who hogs the blankets every night. We can talk about the importance of nurturing our unity through these circumstances and through communication and trust and forgiveness.

All of this is very true.

But there is something lacking in this conversation. Maybe we take it for granted because it's so obvious. Or perhaps because it's so unique, and so seemingly "beyond us" when we think about ourselves as married couples that it gets left out when we theorize about marriage.

Eileen and I would say after almost 18 years -- and through many trials involving work, money, my disability, illness, and such -- that the experience of our marriage is marked overwhelmingly by five very precise, very unique circumstances that unite us deeply and personally, in wonder and prayer, in fear and trembling.  

Their names are John Paul, Agnese, Lucia, Teresa, and Josefina.

In the old days this was called the primary end of marriage, articulated in what may seem to be less than soul stirring language as "the procreation and education of offspring" (I've never been keen on the word offspring. It makes me feel like we're bugs or something. How about another word, like children.)

Of course, husband and wife must love each other. But this unity is inseparable from the fruitfulness it engenders; it exists within that fruitfulness. The sacrament of marriage is the fountain of that most basic community of persons, the family. Even if spouses cannot procreate physically for some reason, their unity has an intrinsic fruitfulness of radical constructive hospitality that God will reveal to them (whether it be adoption, foster care, or some other special charism of giving to the larger community).

So marriage is about building up the relationship, the "two-becoming-one-flesh," the friendship, the mutual help, the fidelity. It's a relationship between two people, a husband and a wife. And yet, precisely insofar as it succeeds in really being a genuine spousal unity, it will transcend these two persons, it will "take flesh" in life -- and not only in the agreements about things like leaving the toilet seat up or down -- but above all in other living human beings, which means that if nature is unhindered these will be new human beings, new persons created by God within the radical openness to Him that spousal love entails.

Let me put it simply: marriage is about children. That doesn't mean reducing an interpersonal relationship to a mechanism for "reproduction," for cranking out offspring. It means that married love is radically at the disposal of God's creative action. Married love is procreative; it is God's instrument for engendering and fostering human community. It is interpersonal love, and that is why it includes the possibility of human reason discerning the will of God regarding all the NFP stuff, because married love must always be radically at the disposal of God's creative action, even when a given expression of love is not seeking to result in a child. After all, men and women don't produce babies. Rather, their love creates a space of psychosomatic unity within which God creates new human persons.

Thus marriage is the stuff of families, of children and then of grandchildren, of communities and eventually of peoples who encounter one another. And the sacrament of marriage in Christ builds up God's people, who go out into all the world bringing the gift of his love.

When we speak about married life, let's not forget about family, about our children, or (as the nuptial blessing puts it) our childrens' children. The family is not in competition with the unity between the husband and wife; rather it is the place where that unity is most profoundly expressed and lived.

And children are never abstract. They are the history of the husband and wife loving each other in God. Eileen and I don't just have some anonymous "offspring." We have been given John Paul, Agnese, Lucia, Teresa, and Josefina. Each is loved uniquely by God, is uniquely His image and likeness, and is destined to live and love and share in His glory.

As Eileen and I journey together toward the Lord, our children remain the great, astonishing, incalculable surprises, the mysteries, the primary expressions and concrete engagement of our unity, and our most profound "common interest." In front of each of them, we remain in awe of God, and of each other.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

John Paul II's Death and His Continued Presence in Our Lives

Today is the nine year anniversary of the entrance into eternal glory of Blessed John Paul II. He died on the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, a few minutes after the Mass for the feast day was celebrated at his hospital bedside.

How well I remember that vigil, and the days leading up to it. The last lesson he gave us was showing us how to die. We wept, and yet we also knew that although something great had come to an end, another greater and more wonderful thing was just beginning. John Paul II, having entered fully into the heart of Jesus, took up a new place as a powerful advocate for us in the communion of saints.

He seems more accessible, more close personally since his death, more aware of me and Eileen and the lasting value of the blessing he gave us on our visit to Rome in 1996 and the few brief words we shared. His blessing of our marriage on that day seems to open up into an assurance that in God's Kingdom he has a great solicitude for us and our family. I rely on his powerful intercession.

Later this month, on Divine Mercy Sunday, he will be officially canonized as a saint of the universal Church. What a blessing it was to grow to maturity in his days, to see him and hear his words, to witness his struggles, to find again and again in every kind of circumstance his passionate love for Christ.

The central grace of my life was 25 years of learning to follow Jesus through the teaching and witness and courage of this man. Thank you, Lord, for your mercy, for giving us this living icon of your Son.

Blessed John Paul II, pray for us!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Baseball at Last!

Adam LaRouche with a two run shot
O happy day! The baseball season has begun.

And the Washington Nationals staged a thriller against the Mets, beating them in a come-from-behind win at Citi Field by the score of 9-7. This was one of the most exciting opening games I've seen in a long time. There were tense duels between pitcher and batter, two out clutch hits, homers aplenty, and one final attempt by the Mets to come back that fell short.

It had the intensity and excitement of a playoff game in March. Yet it was only the first game of a long season. During this baseball season, John Paul will turn 17. How about a world championship for this faithful, long-suffering kid?

The weather here was pleasant, but New York had snowflakes in the morning and cold sunshine and wind during the game. But no lingering winter can remove the aroma of baseball as it begins its long run through the spring and summer months.

I've lived through more than forty baseball summers. I've seen the game get more complicated, more corrupt, and much more expensive. But the magic is still there. It still takes me back to spring days in 1972 when I was a child, or spring days in 2005 when John Paul was a child.

The child still lives, and is surprised by himself in these moments of wonder.

John Paul (age 8) and Daddy, ready for baseball, Spring 2005

Sunday, March 30, 2014

I Was Just Teasing. Please Don't Be Offended.

I'm always teasing. It's my disposition, and sometimes my effort to show love. Sometimes it's just a bad habit. It's just sloth: fear of the seriousness of life.

Often when people are expressing their frustrations with the ordinary problems of the day (either in conversation or in a post online) it seems natural for me to find something of the humor that runs like a current through all these things. So I tease a little; I try, perhaps, to "make light" because I see some lightness that's really there.

I also know that there is always the temptation to be flippant or dismissive or cynical. There is the temptation to twist humor into a way of evading or denying the impact of another person's suffering on myself. This temptation is strongest with people I know the best, with those who are -- in the most immediate sense of the term -- my "neighbors," my brothers and sisters.

I'm so sorry for all the times I've done this to my loved ones: to Eileen first (who is always quick to tell me to cut it out, thank God) and to my children. I'm sorry when I let amusement (or analysis) become a pretext for a lack of attention. I'm sorry. My dear loved ones, Eileen, my children (especially my quiet daughters), sometimes you may feel put off, but don't be... I love you all so much.

I'm sorry, my friends. I know that the burdens of the day are real. A moment of suffering is beyond measuring, and worthy of offering with Jesus. Precisely that one moment holds a mystery of suffering that encompasses your personal pain and your own cry for God. I always want to respect you, and live in compassion, to join with you in the loneliness of pain.

Humor would seem rather awkward here, but that is because I am awkward. I want to be compassionate, but I am powerless to help you by my own power. I can't reach you, because suffering (in itself) is incommunicable. How easy it is for words to bend in the direction of a dark cynicism or even a veiled rejection. Sometimes even mutual laughter is just noise to distract us from the silence of a resignation to the cheapening of life, or even to despair.

I'm sorry, my friends. I am a fallen human being. I am afraid of suffering. It is so easy to forget, in the moment, and to see nothing but the limitations of everything.

Only in Jesus can we share our sufferings. Jesus bridges all the distances and overcomes the limits of all things. He rises from the dead. I must remember Him and dwell with Him more deeply in my heart. There I shall find the strength for compassion and the healing salve of good humor.

I'm sorry to you also, my friends on the Internet. Especially in a combox, it's so easy to crack a joke that comes off the wrong way because you can't see my face. Winking and smiling emoticons are a poor substitute for a human face that wants to say, "We are together in Jesus. I don't know how to help, but we are together. Your suffering is my suffering, in Him. I joke because I feel awkward, because it's beyond my understanding, but also perhaps because the Risen Jesus already hold all of us and He doesn't want us to be gloomy."

I tease all the time, and it comes naturally. Life can seem melancholy but there's a line of humor through it all that remains like a glimmer of the irrepressible glory of creation, and the surprising miracle of redemption and the undying hope that comes from it.

I see in humor a reflection of God's mercy, and the utter gratuity of everything. Existence is a gift, and we will never be its masters. But the recognition of this restores innocence and awakens joy, and I just want to rejoice in the irony and the beauty of how we all exist, and we are all together, and we are each so peculiar, so ...unique.

And how we are, each and all of us, so dear to God.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Newsflash: Pope Goes to Confession Like Other Sinners

Pope hears confessions at St Peter's
Today there was a Penance Service at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Pope Francis preached about the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. "We are all sinners, but God never tires of forgiving us," the Pope said, as he has said on numerous occasions.

Many priests had taken places in the basilica to hear the individual confessions of the faithful after the service. As is usually in the plan at these events, the Pope himself took a place with other priests to hear confessions from a limited group of people who (I assume) are chosen in advance for this seemingly special opportunity.

But first, the Pope surprised everybody by doing something that was not in the program. Before taking his own place in the confessional reserved for him, Pope Francis took the initiative himself to walk over to another confessional where a priest was waiting to receive penitents. The priest was no one particularly noteworthy, nor did it appear that anyone knew in advance what was about to take place. But the Pope knelt down in front of the priest in the middle of St. Peter's and in front of the world's broadcast cameras and received the sacrament himself, making his own confession and receiving the grace of absolution.

The Pope has his own confessor, to whom he (no doubt) turns frequently to receive this sacrament in private. This is a common practice; soon-to-be-Saint John Paul II went to confession every week. Still, for a pope to kneel publicly in a church and concretely acknowledge his own sinfulness and his need for the mercy of God in this sacrament is a most unusual gesture.

Of course, it's entirely appropriate and exemplary. Perhaps it has happened before, but before the age of ubiquitous video, no one took much notice. Yet here it is, once again much to the surprise of the world.

A lot of people don't realize that popes go to confession to another priest, just like everybody else. Well, now they can see it for themselves.

Maybe some people will see this and decide that if the Pope can do it, they can do it too.

If video does not appear above, click HERE to view on YouTube.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Russian Troops, Western Sanctions, God's Peace

A buildup of Russian troops along the border of Eastern Ukraine continues, while the EU and the United States impose sanctions on Russian banks and key economic players as a response to Russia's incorporation of Crimea. It sounds like the situation is tightening up. Perhaps we will have war in the global village (or rather, more war, since there is already strife in Syria and many other places in the world).

But what would a major international conflict look like in the twenty first century? Someone would have to be the first to let hands go in the elaborate, interactive dance of the global economy. Perhaps this will be a war of economic attrition rather than bombs and battles (at least until someone gets desperate). We will probably develop strange new ways of wrestling with one another, while the great and terrible weapons of mass destruction lie idle or come into the hands of new powers who can then hold all of us hostage. Politics, ingenuity, or perhaps diplomacy may still yield all sorts of surprises. It's a new game. I don't know the rules. I'm far from sure that I even know who all the players are. Still, the essential human drama remains the same, as does the only human hope. Even in this present age, there will be peace only insofar as we depend upon the God of peace, the God of mercy.

"Will there ever be peace on this earth?" A Christian knows that, in a final and complete sense, the answer is "no". Peace comes at the end of all things. It is the New Jerusalem. Evil will endure as long as the present age endures.

A historian knows this too. Jesus concisely summed up the history of the world when He said, "there will be wars and rumors of wars...." The history of the world is largely a history of war.

But can we not desire peace, work for peace, pray for peace -- at least as much peace in as many places as frail human nature will bear? Certainly. "World Peace" is a phrase that leads easily to utopia, to dreams and abstractions. But peace among real people, in real circumstances, in a given period of time (precious time), is within the reach of human efforts aided by the God of peace. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

I have no solutions to offer for resolving any of the current conflicts that plague our world. There are the conflicts that are always in front of us, but there are other wars too, smaller ones that we don't hear about unless we really search through the news. And there are peoples who look upon each other across borders, and even within borders, as hated enemies.

What can I do to be a peacemaker in the world?

There is another beatitude that contains the key: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Mercy is the key to peace.

Peace with God, which is where it all begins. Peace within the family, in the parish, in the community, in work relationships, on the Internet...Peace in my world. Peace can radiate out from me, if I am a man of mercy, if I do the works of mercy.

What does this mean? It means a whole new way of looking at human weakness, human frailty, human failure, in myself and in those I encounter. The weakness of others, the faults of others, the capacity that others have to cause us pain by their failures and above all in their actions toward us--all of these things give birth to conflict, estrangement, and separations. They wound and break relationships. They divide us. They take root and establish the foundations of rivalry and the partisan spirit that so often afflicts our common endeavors.

Mercy changes everything. Mercy sees the weakness in others as a possibility to help, to give, to forgive, perhaps to endure through love. Mercy gives "space" to the other person for growth in love; mercy gives encouragement, extends empathy, seeks to build up--always--unity in truth and love. Sometimes, mercy must have the courage to fight, to break down resistance, to seek out those who have run away--but mercy never fights against the person; it always fights for the person, for their true good and against what hinders it.

Mercy seeks, especially in the face of human weakness and failure, for the constructive possibilities of love, of rebuilding what is human, of healing. Mercy is love's response to weakness, indifference, and even rejection. It does not take offense. It keeps on loving. It loves more.

But I cannot be merciful by my own power. I have received, and continue to receive, mercy from God. He is healing me, and it is only through Him that I can hope to be an instrument of mercy to others. It is only through Him that I will find the courage to suffer that weakness and failure in others and in myself that remains, for as long as it remains.

This is what builds peace: persons, families, communities, environments where mercy is given and received. This is the hope of peoples and nations: forgiving and moving forward, bearing one another's burdens, working together toward a common goal. Solidarity. Mercy. Even on the political level, the Christian proposal is the only reasonable and practical hope for human community: not another ideology of violence but a "politics of mercy."

All mercy flows from the Cross, where Jesus responds to all our violence and all our resistance by enduring it in His own body and giving it back to us as a gift of love.

Let us begin by opening our hearts to receive this Gift. Jesus I trust in You.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mary's Unique Name: The Grace-Filled One

Today is the wonderful feast of the Annunciation. In the midst of Lent, we pause to remember that the foundation of the value of any penance we do is the gratuitous gift of God who comes to dwell among us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the only-begotten Son of the Father has become incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

This is the astonishing, inexhaustibly new "news" that the angel Gabriel announces to a young girl in Nazareth, and to the whole world through her and the witness of St. Luke's gospel.

Inseparable from this revelation, however, is something else that the angel makes known. God has prepared a "place" for himself and his coming. The power of the Incarnation and Redemption "already" brings about in a perfect way the new reality, the new life that God wills to share with the world in giving his only Son.

For the announcement we celebrate today begins with the "angelic salutation" that we know so well. When we pray, "Hail Mary, full of grace" (cf. Luke 1:28) we echo those words. The original Greek text is "Chaire, kecharitomene," and many English language Bibles translate this as "Rejoice, O favored one." Indeed, the Greek "chaire" is well rendered as "rejoice," which is evocative of the messianic joy of "Daughter Zion" in the prophets (see Zephaniah 3:14). Perhaps from the Ave of the Latin Vulgate to the "Hail" of our classic Marian prayer something of the jubilant connotation is not so directly conveyed to us. It is present nonetheless, and it is worth remembering this moment of Mary's joy when we pray the "Hail Mary."

The term that follows, however, is quite precise and unique, even if those translations that use the term "favor" would appear to weaken its force or render its significance vague. The entire content of the Annunciation makes it clear that this is no ordinary "favor" of God. Mary is destined to carry the Holy One, to be "overshadowed" by the presence of God's glory, the Shekinah of the cloud and the fire that descended upon the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary of Israel reserved to the high priest in the ritual of atonement, the place where Moses spoke with God.

Moreover, "kecharitomene" is not a mere adjective but a substantive term, like a name. Mary is not just "favored" in a relative sense; she is "the favored one." And what kind of a "name" is this, and what more does it convey? Gabriel calls Mary kecharitomene. No one else in the Bible is identified with this term. No one. Translations can try to "tone that down" all they want; they can't take away the fact that the "chari" in "kecharitomene" is the "charis" of St. Paul, by which we are redeemed and justified and set free from sin and sanctified. Grace.

The new life. Mary not only "has" it; it totally penetrates her identity. She is the one who is graced. St. Jerome, who's Greek was pretty good, rendered this in Latin as gratia plena. Mary is "full of grace"--if anything the original Greek is stronger and more emphatic than this. It indicates a reality unique to Mary, that entirely encompasses who she is.

Mary is The Graced One; she is nothing else but this gift of grace, perfected by God from the beginning in view of the One who would take flesh in her womb, and with whom she would cooperate by her loving, grace-filled yes all the way to the Cross and to our redemption.

The angelic salutation and Mary's free response are mutual components of the mystery of the new covenant revealed on this day, the truth of human destiny, the full unveiling of the plan of God that already illuminates the joyful heart of Mary full of grace.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Oscar Romero: The Meaning of Death and Life

On March 24, 1980, the Servant of God Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador was assassinated while celebrating Mass in the Divine Providence hospital chapel, where he also resided. In the present time, El Salvador honors his memory with a week of celebrations, and people continue to pray for his beatification.

Once again, I wish to remember this great hero of the faith on the American continent, this bishop whose blood was not spilled in vain, who showed the cost of courage, of putting the gospel of Jesus above all ideologies, of the Church's right and duty to openly denounce evils and call everyone to conversion and to be transformed by the merciful love of God in Jesus Christ.  
"The voice of the Church continues to be known and wants to be the voice that preaches the eternal message of the Lord. Despite the distortions and ill-will and slanders and defamation the voice of the Church wants to be that voice that from the heights of heaven draws all things unto herself so that we can speak about the meaning of death and life, the meaning of government and the struggle for just demands, the meaning of well-being and misery and living on the margins of society and the meaning of sin. The Church wants to speak about all these realities so that, illuminated with the vision of eternity, we make this earth what it was meant to be, a foretaste of heaven and not a war zone or a place where passions run wild. Indeed, as sisters and brothers, as children of God, we are all on a journey toward heaven, toward [Christ] the head of the body."
(from a sermon of Archbishop Oscar Romero, 1979) 
Blood stained vestments worn by Archbishop Romero on March 24, 1980

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Church of Saints, Sinners, and Hypocrites

"See, it's all there. Everything's fine."
The great French poet Charles Peguy wrote that the Christian people are always made up of "saints and sinners." It would be useful to introduce a third category: hypocrites.

The difference between the latter two is that the sinners appear just as they are, whereas the hypocrites -- while not usually trying to pass themselves off as saints (this would hardly look humble) -- spend a great deal of energy trying to convince others and themselves that they are not in the "sinner" category.

The hypocrite scrubs the outside of the cup forcefully and energetically. The world is not going to think it sees a saint, but the hope is that it will see a "good person," an admirable person, perhaps even a person who is "making progress in spiritual growth" and who therefore deserves some credit. Indeed, most hypocrites like to see themselves this way.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about (obsessing over?) hypocrisy, by which I mean above all my own lifelong pervasive hypocrisy in particular. I've been blessed to a great extent, however, by the fact that so often people are not fooled by me (even though I'm a master at fooling myself). They see the wildly incoherent mess that I am as a human being, but also the good that is mixed into it (often in qualities and actions that are not the focus of my attention, that I don't particularly nurture in my efforts to construct my outward appearance). They see it better than I do, because I'm desperately intent on fooling myself and I always at least partially believe the self-image that I try (or feel compelled) to construct.

Thank God, there are some people who love me anyway; they love the whole "package," and put up with my blindness as they try, gently, to lead me in the right direction. For me, there's no question that my wife ranks number one on the list of these people.

It's a patient and slow and long-suffering process for these people, to chip away at this hypocrisy that pains them because they can see how much it obscures the real beauty of the one they love. It's a great work of mercy.

Of course, I know I'm not the world's only hypocrite. Of the "saints, sinners, and hypocrites," the third category is probably the largest by far. Hypocrisy can be a complex thing. There are of course those who just plain fake exterior goodness because it gives them a disguise; it allows them greater freedom to rip people off and do all kinds of bad things without incurring suspicion.

But then there are very many of us who really want to be true heroes and saints. We see that it's good, it's beautiful, it's "what the world needs from us," but a subtle discouragement has worked its way into some deep places in our souls. We realize that we can't make ourselves be really, truly holy. And yet, that's the way we're "supposed" to be, and the way we really want to be.

So we try to do it on the cheap. We try to construct ourselves into the people we think we should look like. So many of us are building houses of wood with stone facades. There is real goodness in us, real aspirations, real gifts, but we try to use them to decorate the outside. And we are afraid to look any deeper than this exterior, this facade, because we want to believe in our strength; we don't want to see the naked, cold, hungry, lonely person inside that house. We are afraid of that person -- that unsolved riddle that is at the deepest core of ourselves -- because we don't know what to do that person, and we can't imagine that anyone else would want to love that person.

I know I'm being hypocritical in this way all the time, but I presume to use "we" in this context because I'm sure my experience is not uncommon. Who among us is not, in some way, in some respect, cheating (just a little bit?) in the project of building themselves? We're fibbing or we're faking or at the very least we're hiding the messy stuff. We're hypocrites.

Woe unto us?

What can we do? After all, the New Evangelization is all about witnessing with our lives, and so if our lives are a mess, shouldn't we at least have a strategy to try to make them look good, y'know so as to "attract people..."?

There is a place to start. There is that cold, hungry, sorrowful person inside us, that poor person. Let's not suffocate that person entirely. Let that person cry out to God. Let that place inside us where there are no illusions be a place that begs for mercy. There is that place where we recognize that we are a total need for Him, and from that place let us cry out and give the whole mess and the hypocrisy and everything else to Him.

He will build us up.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Janaros: What We Looked Like Ten Years Ago

I came across this picture in my archives and it was just too good to pass up. It was taken sometime in the early part of the year 2004. In other words, it's a picture of the Janaro family ten years ago.

Left to right: Lucia (3), Agnese (5), and John Paul (6) on the bottom row.
On top is Eileen holding Teresa (1) and me with the goatee I had back then.

There we are... or rather, there are 6/7ths of the family. Josefina did not yet exist. We could not even imagine Josefina, nor could we have guessed at all the things we would experience and endure in the coming decade. What a time it has been!

What will the next ten years bring? It's not much use trying to predict, much less control, the events that will shape our journey. Of course we must make assessments and judgments about the future and map out a course according to the circumstances that we will probably be facing in one form or another (such as, for example, seeing these four little ones through college and onto their vocational paths). There may be grandchildren in ten years. There will also arise many comic, tragic, joyful, sorrowful, and generally unanticipated aspects of our family life. The world we live in may be a very different place: better or worse, or probably both in diverse ways. And it's always possible that some of us or all of us may be gone from this earth ten years from now.

One thing we know for sure, and that is that whatever happens will be an invitation to embrace more fully the mystery of life, to say yes to the gift of everything and to the One who gives.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

St. Joseph's Day: Reflections on Being a Father

Detail of St. Joseph on our mantle at home.

Yesterday was the beautiful Solemnity of St. Joseph, who has helped me in ways beyond counting all through my life. Every day I pray to St. Joseph and entrust especially our family to him. He has never failed me, and he continues to teach me and sustain me. He takes such strong and gentle care of us, always bringing us where we need to be.

Every day, I thank him.

Yesterday was a day for pondering and praying about fatherhood. I found myself feeling a little sentimental. There was a Nationals' spring training game on TV (regular season starts March 31 -- GO NATS!). We're beginning our tenth season with the Nationals. I remember the year 2005, when John Paul was eight years old and we used to listen to the games on the radio. He hadn't yet become a baseball wizard, and sometimes I would doze off during the broadcast and then be awakened by this little boy shaking me and shouting, "Daddy, what happened?" The sound of loud cheering was coming through the radio. So I had to pay attention and figure out what happened.

And then I remembered myself, about four or five years old, listening to Beethoven's seventh symphony or Dvorak's cello concerto with my father. We were both "conducting" in their air with our hands. Thanks, Dad.

And I prayed to St. Joseph, and asked him to pray for me to the Lord, and obtain for me the grace to become the human person that I have been created and called to be. To be the man, the husband, the father that God wills me to be. To be the friend, mentor, and spiritual father that he asks me to be to those he entrusts to me (indeed, as I get older I see more and more how "spiritual fatherhood" encompasses so many of my relationships with people). To be the spiritual brother that God wills me to be, in some manner, to every person I meet, but especially to those I encounter on my daily path of life. To be a servant, to be helpful, to give encouragement and empathy and attention to persons. To be an instrument of God's mercy.

I pray to be the teacher, the writer, the seeker of truth and understanding that he has called me to be, with humility and also with courage and confidence. Whatever my circumstances, I do have work, and God is leading me into the places where he wants me to do this work.

I pray for these graces, and I ask St. Joseph to pray for me, because I need them. My vocation is infinitely beyond anything that I can accomplish by my own power. This is true of everyone. As fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, we are entrusted with new life in the Risen Jesus, to give and receive and share in his Spirit, as members of his body, the Church, with hearts that seek out every person and all the world.

We are entrusted with Jesus; we are called to give over our energies and aspirations so as to build "places" where Incarnate Love dwells in the world.

No one understands better what this means than St. Joseph. And he can help us so much. He is always ready to help.

St. Joseph, thank you.

Lord God, my Father, thank you for everything.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Winter Storm "Patrick" Makes the Day White

We continue to chronicle the wacky winter weather of the year 2014 with a special "St. Patrick's Day Edition." Do you see that shamrock over there with all of its lovely Irish green?

We didn't see any shamrocks yesterday. We didn't see any green yesterday, at least not outside the house. Yesterday we were treated to a foot of St. Patrick's Day White. If only it were the froth on top of a nice pint of stout. But it wasn't. It was more of the snowy stuff.

We're tired of the snowy stuff. Do you want to know how tired we are of it? I'll tell you: the schools were closed but the children were not happy about it!

The children are tired of snow days. They've built their forts; they've built their tunnels; they've built their snowmen; they've had their snowball fights and done their sledding. Teresa even went cross country skiing! Just look at these pictures, for example. Snow was still fun back in February:

Teresa's snow fort from FEBRUARY: a perfectly respectable time for snow.
Mess around with plastic sleds in FEBRUARY? Sure! (Teresa and Agnese)
Teresa skiing with friends: look at that happy face... three weeks ago!

All that's fine and lovely. But this is Virginia. It's supposed to be... ummm... what we call in America "the South"... and that means by mid March I expect to see something like this:

This is what I should be seeing around St. Patrick's Day: Our wild forsythias in bloom!

Instead, after almost a week of being tricked by nice warm temperatures, St. Patrick's Day brings us this:

No, no, no, this can't be right. Spring starts, like LEGALLY, this week!
So much for the free-spirited forsythia bush. Basketball? Heh, not today...

Enough is enough. This is why we don't live in Minnesota!

Still, weather is weather. I don't know if this has any relation to "climate change" (wasn't that supposed to make it warmer?--I know, it's more complicated than that; just attempting a joke). In the short run, what can we say? There's no one to blame. No place to file a complaint. And nice weather is not for sale.

Weather is not the only thing in these days that is reminding us that our real life is given to us, and that we do not make ourselves according to our own whims. If nothing else, there are air currents and moisture that affect us. When Spring finally comes, there will be things like flies. Flies! (Pascal remarks about how the annoyance of a fly buzzing in the ear is sufficient to prove that the human mind is not in control of reality [see Pensees 366].) Weather and flies, and other persons and the world with its nations and peoples and history and wars....

Perhaps we can still help change the hearts of people. We can pray and fast and bring the real strength of the spirit into play. But today's weather (at least) must be taken for what it is. And "what it is," on this St. Patrick's Day, is snow.

Oh, but it wasn't so bad. Eileen made a stew with chicken and cabbage and carrots and we had mashed potatoes, and there must have been some seasoning in it unknown to the Celtic peoples because it was very tasty!

And we did see a shamrock, in fact. Years ago we bought a small toddler sized tee shirt for a two year old John Paul. We were visiting friends in Boston's North End (i.e. the other ethnic neighborhood in that venerable town) and we found a little shirt with the saying "A wee bit Irish [not spelled out but represented by a shamrock] e tutti Italiano!" John Paul and the other kids all wore it when they were two or three years old.

Josefina is seven and a half. It still fits her:

She's one of "the wee folk"... but worth more than any pot of gold!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Hard Lives

Blankets... you don't wanna see me today
I'm in bed with my Tablet, and I have no idea what I'm going to write. Probably not much.

I feel like my brain hurts.

That makes no sense, of course. It's just a headache, and exhaustion and feeling run down mentally. I've been battling obsessions in the mornings again, from the moment I wake up. I use half a day's worth of my energy to get out of bed.

Today I didn't get out of bed.

I feel like my brain hurts. It's true that I have wacky neurotransmitters. And of course, I also have a chronic bacteriological infection that can cross the blood/brain barrier. So, is the Lyme flaring up? Who knows. I used to blame everything on Lyme disease, perhaps with good reason, but I want very much to believe that we've got that whole business in remission.

The headaches are strange. It's not an intense pain, but more like a draining thing and something that feels... like inflammation. I've had these every so often for years, since the Lyme came along. Eventually they go away.

What about OCD and depression? It's been a difficult winter. There are days (like today) when I feel like I'm walking very close to the edge, but I've been able to pull back. This scares me, frankly. I'm worn out from struggling against this, but I have no choice. Even on the edge, I've got to keep my balance.

I have plenty of respite, though. A lot of the time it's not so bad, and I'm okay if I pace myself and don't push myself too hard (or get too lazy). Sometimes, however, life pushes, and all you can do is spend whatever strength you have, and ask for help when it's needed.

We are a close family. But we're a family with a sick father. Of course, the kids are learning to appreciate their father in different ways and to be compassionate and all that. I know. But it's hard for them, and for their mother. It's not normal. I always write about the funny things, but we have a lot of challenges. And we're not saints. Life is hard.

Many people I know have had hard winters, with kids getting sick over and over again, with crazy weather, with men losing their jobs and women suffering miscarriages, with tragedies to endure. Many people I know have hard lives (everyone does, really, but sometimes things are going better than other times, and sometimes people carry secret burdens).

So we are all together in this, with Jesus.

But my mind is wandering, and I keep typing the wrong letters. I'm going to put this away now. I embrace you all. Let us pray for one another.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

One Year Ago Today: Habemus Papam!

Time is a very mysterious thing. Has it really only been one year?

One year ago today, a face appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. His name was familiar to only a handful of people.

For the rest of us it was a new encounter and the beginning of a new journey.

God bless you with many more years, Pope Francis!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Mirror, Mirror, Of My Self

This would be a good album cover, whoa...
For me, the computer is like an external mirror of my self. The way I often use its many nifty tools (including the Internet) is basically a reflection of the distraction and vanity of so much of my life. But it also presents to me some very vital possibilities for pursuing the path of my vocation, a path where Jesus accompanies me.

With respect to distraction, this powerful gadget doesn't help make things better. It contributes to the fragmented and incoherent character of so many moments in my daily lack-of-engagement with reality, my daily forgetfulness of the presence of Christ in front of me and his Spirit within my heart.

Still, Jesus has grabbed hold of me, burst into my history, and taken control. The Holy Spirit is at work renewing me, and yet there are vast spaces within me that have scarcely heard the echo of the news that he is here; dark and deep places that I don't even know about, but that weigh me down with the fear that still emerges from them.

And yet, the computer and the internet are tools of communication. They can be dynamic places for the creativity of a writer (and the procrastination of a writer, haha). They are a service to my work, and I must make the effort to use them well.

I can recognize my weaknesses and ask the Lord to change me and draw forth from me an attachment to the good, and the willingness to work arduously for it. But the process of all of this, the measure of "how well I'm doing" -- especially for someone like me, for whom illness has rendered the mind such a confusing place -- is something that I cannot easily assess. The Holy Spirit works in his way, in his time.

So I offer everything. I pray for the grace to do the work he wants me to do. And every day I fall short, and I pray for forgiveness and for a greater change of heart. I'm glad God is God, because he can use even my weakness. But this doesn't excuse me from that tension which is involved in the vocation to grow in virtue and charity.

How much we all need to ask Jesus for His grace and mercy.

And right here, with the computer and the Internet, we have tools through which we can remind one another and encourage one another.

Monday, March 10, 2014

To Ponder God's Immense Love

"In these days
the Church asks us to ponder
with joy and gratitude
God’s immense love
revealed in the paschal mystery,
and to live ever more fully
the new life we have received in Baptism....

"May this Lent, then, be a time
when, as individuals and communities,
we heed the words of the Gospel,
reflect on the mysteries of our faith,
practice acts of penance and charity,
and open our hearts ever more fully
to God’s grace
and to the needs of our brothers and sisters."

~Pope Francis

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Social Media and Lent: All or Nothing?

Some people have decided to "give up social media" for Lent. They're "off" Facebook or Google+ or whatever until Easter.

I respect this, and can appreciate why people might choose to do it. Lent is a season to go into the desert, to give our time to God, to withdraw from some activities (even ones that are good in themselves) in order to open up greater space in our hearts for silence, for listening to God. For some people, the simplest and most helpful thing to do is just turn off all the gadgets. Period. I would not want to discourage anyone who concludes, after prayerful consideration, that Jesus is calling them to draw closer to him by taking up this particular kind of solitude.

I do think that anyone who makes this decision, however, should consider carefully that it is not only a personal sacrifice (as if social media were the same as a television program or a preferred kind of food). To "give up" using communications media is to make ourselves unavailable to the persons with whom we usually communicate. When we make this sacrifice, we are asking them also to endure the loss of our presence through these media, to go without communication and companionship with us. This may be something they will have to accept, but it is also an important factor we should consider.

We must, of course, make every effort (not only during Lent) to use social media as instruments of genuine human interaction. If we are doing this (even imperfectly) then we are fostering real relationships with 100% real life human beings. We are sharing ourselves and our real companionship with them by means of these media. The fact that these are "virtual" media does not mean that the persons who use them are only "virtual" humans.

Communication, even by means of technologically refined media, remains an interaction between human persons and therefore calls us to give ourselves and to be receptive to others. This does not mean that it has to be something hard and painful. The fact that we enjoy and find a richness in using these media indicates they have the foundation of genuine human communication.

If we persevere online with a commitment to being faithful to our humanity and the humanity of others, we will find challenges and difficulties and the need to do hard things, such as the exercise of self-restraint, the courtesy that makes room for others, the endurance of misunderstandings, the willingness to admit when we are wrong and to forgive, and all the other elements of being human together.

Certainly, social media in a particular way lend themselves to remaining superficial, to the illusion of easy intimacy, and to giving less attention to more pressing personal and relational responsibilities. With God's grace, we have to recognize and struggle against these negative tendencies that the media allow by the very fact of their versatility, speed, and range. Nevertheless, these media also open profound and positive possibilities for communication and human interaction. We as Christians need to take responsibility for these positive possibilities; we need to cooperate with the grace of the Holy Spirit and make the effort to use these media for the good.

These are media that we can and do use for building real community among Christians and with others, for helping each other, for praying together, and (often unknowingly) for being present in some way to those who are lonely. We can be witnesses to one another, and even open up the luminous "missionary element" present in our daily lives when we share our joys and struggles, because the love of Jesus is at work within these very mundane joys and struggles. We can also consciously reach out to evangelize others, or we can be open to responding to new opportunities to travel paths with new people whom God may bring to us in various ways.

Of course we often use these media in a self-indulgent way (just as we often indulge our vanity in relationships we have with people we see offline everyday). A break of some sort can bring much needed silence and focus.

But is "all or nothing" the only possibility? Some may choose the option of "nothing" and ask us, their friends, to endure their absence as a share in their sacrifice. As true friends, we should embrace them in this and support them even if we do truly miss them.

Still, it doesn't have to be a question of all or nothing. There are many other ways that Lent on social media can be made meaningful.

We must remember that our presence here offers us the opportunity to practice "spiritual works of mercy" (not necessarily "talking about God" but even just being human here and helping others to have confidence that they are not alone in their struggles).

Certainly, there are other ways that social media can serve our Lenten observance of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Some people might consider more limited sacrifices: e.g. staying off three days a week as opposed to a complete blackout, or checking in less frequently each day, or putting aside the use of mobile devices. Perhaps people online might consider some group prayer or penitential practices, such as praying a Holy Hour every Wednesday or Friday at the same time (and encouraging one another in this), or choosing a common text for Lectio Divina and sharing insights, or perhaps agreeing to a special sacrifice for a common intention.

Social media do not have to be a distraction. They could actually help us to stay in front of God in a deeper way, not only during Lent. But we must first recognize and be committed to the fact that social media are not "mind candy" that at best we indulge in as a guilty pleasure, that serve as nothing but a distraction and therefore have no place in the seriousness of our life.

Whatever uses and/or sacrifices we make this Lent (or any other time) on social media and the use of technology more generally should be given proper consideration. They should allow for the enrichment of personal recollection and also help curb careless habits and develop an attentiveness in using these media for good. We should ask Jesus our merciful Lord to form our hearts with his grace as we seek charity -- the motive of love of God and of one another -- as the focus of our presence online.