Thursday, November 24, 2022

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

We “Beg” God For an “Answer”…

We humans have been given freedom so that we might freely adhere to God— the Mysterious Other we long for, the One who is our origin, sustenance, and destiny. Through freedom, we can love God as persons; we can enter into relationship with God.

Human freedom is profound, but sometimes it seems so complicated, and even overwhelming. The little human being—the bodily person in the world of time and space, who spends a third of his or her life asleep and much of the rest of it eating, drinking, and "going to the bathroom"—the little human being gets beaten down, gets sick, gets old, or just gets exhausted.

Our human fragility points to the fact that our freedom finds its crucial realization in prayer. When we discover our littleness, it is easier to pray. The Lord always responds to our cries for help, though often we do not understand His ways, and we don’t “see” the ways that His goodness is at work in us. We search for His light in the darkness of our difficulties; we beg to “understand,” we beg for an “answer”….

What is God's answer? How does God answer our begging, when we're just helpless and there doesn't seem to be a way out?

There is no discourse that can adequately communicate this "answer." God's answer is that He comes to be with us, to seek out each one of us, and to stay with us. His "answer" is to love us, and draw us into the experience of the infinite mystery of his goodness, of communion with his very being, He who is Absolute Love.

He created us for this communion, and it corresponds to what our hearts truly seek. To accomplish this fulfillment, to bring us to himself forever, God comes to dwell with us in our weakness.

He is present in this moment of our lives. He is here. Jesus is here.

Jesus is here with us in all our helplessness, our sense of being overwhelmed, our confusion and anxiety. He is with every person on the unique path they travel. Jesus is with us in our weakness.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

On this last Sunday of the liturgical year, we gaze once again on the face of our King. Crucified Love measures the depths of all things, and will have the “last word” in history.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Full and Lasting Happiness

This week’s Collect prayer: “…it is full and lasting happiness to serve with constancy the author of all that is good …”  Doesn’t this sound simple and obvious? “Goodness” in the reality that I encounter is what awakens my heart. And “engaging the good” brings me a joy that is real, but that also points beyond the limitations of time and space and change that characterize all the various good things of life in this world. All “good” things whisper the “promise” of a Goodness that never ends, the Mystery that originates and sustains all the goodness, the being, the reality of things, the Mystery that is Goodness itself. Only this Mystery corresponds to the desire of our hearts for “full and lasting happiness.” 

But we are broken, distracted, negligent, inconstant people. The “Mystery” is so easy to “forget” —and we choose instead to grasp at limited goods and try desperately to “stretch them” to the measure of our hearts, or “contain them” somehow by our own power, make them not-go-away… so that their inevitable constraints, changes, and dissolution in time leave us in a prison of disappointment, discouragement, and sadness; or our frustration blazes into anger and we plunge deeper into our desperation and cunning, seeking more techniques and greater power to attain mastery over reality, to remake everything into a Utopia of “lasting goodness” even if it means tearing the real world apart by violence. We become monsters in perpetual conflict.

But is it not more reasonable to seek the “Author of all that is good,” to cry out from our ultimate poverty to the One who alone can make us happy? Might the One who is Goodness itself open up a way for us to “serve with constancy” this Mystery here and now, in this world of flesh and blood?

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The “Word” — through whom and for whom all things have been made — has come to be with us on all the roads of this human life. “The Word” became flesh. “Beauty” became flesh. “Truth” became flesh. “Goodness” became flesh.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Maria is an Artistic GENIUS!☺️πŸ˜‰

Earlier this week, I stepped out of my “home office” to get some coffee from the kitchen, and I came upon the Artiste at work. Oh my, excuse me!

Maria wielded the green pencil with an adroit hand, and lines of emeralds poured out of its tip. Something grand was in the making. I decided this process was worth an effort in photographic journalism. [Poor Maria, hounded by paparazzi in her own family!]

But she kept scribbling without regard to my intrusions. I’m not sure what role “Clownie” played in the creative process. Was he a perspectival tool (covering one eye), or was he just there to be snuggled? “Clownie” is a second generation toy who “lives” at Nana’s and Papa’s house (he goes all the way back to her father’s babyhood, as well as her four aunts). Maria expects Clownie’s attendance upon her presence whenever she comes over, and so he’s usually nearby.

Finally, we had the completed work! The artist herself added texture at the end with some folding and… umm… crumpling.πŸ˜‰ However, the smiley face is clearly a different “style” from Maria’s more gestalt approach, and the words “the cat is fat” are obviously added by another hand (Aunt Jo?). These are problems we will leave for future scholarly debate.😜☺️

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Gertrude, Enraptured by the Heart of Jesus

Today is the Feast of Saint Gertrude “the Great” (1256-1302) of the 13th century Benedictine monastery of Helfta in Southeastern Germany, which was part of the town of Eislebem (now primarily known as the birthplace of Martin Luther). After the area became Protestant, the nuns were driven out (and did not return until in 1999). But nearly three centuries before Luther, the Helfta monastery thrived in medieval Saxony and counted among its nuns women of advanced education and intellectual refinement, as well as several mystics and visionaries whose experiences are extensively documented. 

The influence of Helfta was such that it could be said to be a “center” for women theologians in the 13th century. (The diverse features of the medieval world, and the measure of opportunities it provided people—relative to their abilities or desire to take them up—remains under-appreciated in historical studies.) The writings of these women drew on the theological foundation of a contemplative life that accentuated the humanity of Jesus, and in particular (especially for the visionaries) the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Their place in sustaining and developing “devotion to the Sacred Heart” hundreds of years prior to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque is crucially important. The Helfta nuns not only prayed, read, studied, and wrote, but they also played a role in advising many people, including political and ecclesiastical figures of the time. 

No one was more remarkable than Gertrude, who devoted her early years in the monastery to pursuing a liberal arts education and developing a fluid Latin literary style. She began to have special experiences of God’s love, however, that led her to a “conversion” from what she saw as vain pursuits in comparison with the overwhelming graces, attentiveness of God, and the ardor of Jesus that filled her soul. Her intense dialogue with Jesus continued to grow and she committed to writing many profound experiences, while she also served as an exemplary religious and an accessible presence in the community, a counselor to many, and a mystic enraptured by the merciful and loving heart of Jesus.

Personally, I hope that one day she might be given the title of "Doctor of the Church." It seems like a possibility to me. Dear Saint Gertrude, pray for us in these troubled times, pray that the love of the Heart of Christ will touch us too, heal us, transform us, and set our hearts on fire.

“O devastating glowing coal, my God,
You who contain, radiate and brand with living heat!
You exercised Your inextinguishable power on my damp and slimy soul,
first drying up in it the flood of worldly pleasures
and afterwards softening the rigidity of its attachment to its own ideas,
a position in which it had long been completely fixed.
O truly devouring fire, You who wield Your power against vice
so that You may reveal Yourself to the soul gently 
when the time comes to anoint it!
In You and in none other do we receive this strength,
so that we may have the power to be reformed 
into the image and likeness of our original state.
O powerful furnace, in the lovely vision of true peace,
by whose operation dross is transformed into refined and choice gold
when the soul, wearied by deceit, 
at long last blazes with an inner and insatiable desire
to track down what belongs to it, 
and which it may receive from You alone, very Truth!”.

~Saint Gertrude the Great

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

What a Difference a Week Makes!

…in November, anyway. Wet, cold, dark, rainy. Two days in a row. That’ll bring most of the remaining leaves down, but it will get the creek water up.

Friday, November 11, 2022

The Past and Present of “The Great War”

One hundred and four years ago, the Armistice began. Conscripted soldiers in Europe (who were still alive) were no longer under orders to shoot madly at one another because of the incomprehensible aims and tangled alliances of power politicians. Sadly, after four years of futility, ten million young men were dead. Red poppies grew in the fields by their graves. We remember them with sorrow, and we honor them. 
Many nations mark November 11 as Armistice Day, the day “the shooting stopped.” This day in 1918 was meant to be the end of what was called “the Great War,” and what idealists termed (and many hoped to be) the-war-to-end-all-wars.

From the perspective of 2022, it goes without saying that hopes that the Armistice of November 11 was “the end of all wars” were naive. A century of wars was approaching—wars on a scale beyond anything people could have imagined. The Armistice was merely a temporary pause… and even in this respect it was only a pause for some

For others it corresponded to the beginning (or the escalation) of further sufferings under the power of revolution and dictatorship, leading to decades of oppression, persecution, genocide. Fires were still blazing. Fire in the minds of men burned new ideologies to shape their ambitions to master the world—ideologies that aimed to remake humanity by imposing huge, unprecedented, all-pervasive schemes of social reorganization on vast numbers of the human population. Disconnected from real human experience, these ideologies preyed upon the uprootedness, instability, and disillusionment that arose out the the ashes of the Great War and its consequences. 

Two forces emerged, both clothed in the mantle of Science: one was a pseudoscientific theory for constructing a new social hierarchy based on a bizarre system of racism meticulously set forth in shamelessly fabricated biological terms. The other was a pseudoscientific theory of radical “social equality” (which, in fact, sought to impose a program of comprehensive personal and collective slavery) based on the supposedly necessary historical dynamic of “dialectical materialism.” From the midst of the flames of these ideologies emerged two of the most violent dictators in the history of the world—two “monsters” in possession of gigantic power, megalomania, ruthlessness, and destructive genius.

Ideological fire soon ignited the fires of fresh conflict—at first, the master of the pagan racist state and his allies seemed to pour over the world, destroying millions of lives and committing genocide against a people beloved of God. To defeat this monster, the nations chose to make an alliance with the other monster, the fierce and cunning ruler of the dialectical materialist slave empire. Terrible technological tools brought unprecedented horrors, with not only military but civilian deaths on a cataclysmic scale. The nations negotiated with their monster ally, and the monster made promises and assurances and declarations, but they were all lies. Instead, he took over much of the territory lost by the first monster, and continued to foster “revolutions” all over the world.

After what has been called “World War II” (with Roman numerals), the world became in fact more divided and dangerous than ever. The human race, it seemed, placed its trust in the ever more horrific weapons it continued to develop. In “The Cold War,” the superpowers “deterred” one another from using stockpiles of quasi-apocalyptic thermonuclear weapons only through the “devil’s bargain” of Mutually Assured Destruction, in which the price of global stability was to hold vast populations of innocent civilians “hostage” to the threat of indiscriminate annihilation. Meanwhile, “hot wars” raged everywhere, fought with all kinds of smaller but still devastating weapons that were bought and sold all over the world.

The free nations supposedly “won the Cold War” in 1989-1991, but not before the slave empire had inspired new imitators, new totalitarianisms, new atrocities in many places, but above all in East Asia where the old materialist ideology—losing none of its relentless grip—today creates new combinations of alluring economic prosperity and draconian political control over a fifth of the world’s population. While the “free nations” become slaves to their own stupendous riches, other countries struggle for their own national identities, often within borders they did not make for themselves. The Middle East still seeths and explodes and wrestles over borders drawn in the wake of the Great War in 1919. New ideologies clash against (or sometimes combine with) reawakened old myths and fanatical dreams, whose adherents take new weapons in their hands, wreaking old and new forms of violence. 

Not surprisingly, historical (or pseudo-historical) claims are reasserted in many places, with their gods of blood, clan, tribe, and territory pitted against the power-worshipers of the dominant technocracy. Old and new hegemonies are grasping for “spheres of influence” as the latest project of “world (dis)order” has failed to deliver on its false promises, and continues to pillage the earth to serve the wealth and self-indulgence of its elites while stranding the multitudes in deserts of alienation.

And now, 104 years after Armistice Day, the truce stands broken again in Europe for the past nine months, as artillery blazes, guns fire, and bombs fall against a nation that has already endured so much of the terror of the past century.

We live in more than the shadow of “the Great War.” We are, in a certain sense, still fighting it. If we do not turn to God, we will never find peace.

The poppies are red in remembrance of people long dead, but also with fresh blood.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

Christina Grimmie’s Seamless Vision of Life

It has been six years and five months since the young singer-songwriter Christina Grimmie was killed at an open meet-and-greet after a concert in Orlando, Florida on June 10, 2016. As she was reaching out, arms wide open, to welcome a stranger who came from the line, he drew out a Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistol from a concealed holster and fired five shots, hitting her once in the head and twice in the chest. She was 22 years old.

Christina was a pioneering YouTube artist for several years before her magnificent run in 2014 on North American mainstream television, making the finals of Season 6 of The Voice. She called her followers “Team Grimmie” and referred to them as “frands” (combining the words “fan” and “friend”). She loved her frands, truly, in a way that is hard to describe. It was an expansive love, a love without calculation, a gratitude for anyone and everyone who listened to her music.

She was a “regular girl” in so many ways, but with an extraordinary talent and a great heart. She gave and received love with a confidence that was willing to take risks, to reach out to strangers, to be radically vulnerable. And Christina would not want us to regard her brief life as merely a tragedy, because—as she professed humbly but unambiguously in moments that called for it—her whole life and everything in it belonged to Jesus Christ, and she lived everything for His glory.

Why does her faith and following of Christ make a difference here? From every natural human perspective and consideration, her death was a crime and a catastrophe, a cause of awful grief, a manifestation of the relentless violence that permeates our society and has only grown more open and brazen since her death. All of this is true, but it is not the final word on the meaning and value of Christina’s life.

Christina saw everything within the embrace of her belonging to Jesus, and in this light we can glimpse the beauty and the “heroism” of her love for her frands, and the passion with which she gave of herself in her music, hoping to inspire others, always expanding the reach of her love, and persevering in that love all the way to the end.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Summer in November?

The weather has us confused lately in the Shenandoah Valley. We have been having temperatures in the 70s (F) during the day. We had to turn off the heat, and turn the air conditioning back on. #FirstWorldProblems

Then we set the clocks back this past weekend. On Monday the thermometer nearly reached 80! Balmy breezes, bare branches, colorful leaves, a few flowers, and sunset at 5:00 PM? What’s going on? Did the earth tilt in a different direction? This is planet earth, right?

Seriously it was a beautiful day to say “goodbye” to warmer weather. Even the flowers are perplexed, and in a few places they bloomed and competed with the leaves for attention. (See below.)

Alas, things will be set right soon enough. Frost is on the way.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

“Cartoon Videos” Keep Getting Easier to Make

It’s almost scary how much easier it is becoming to make cartoons. Apps are being developed and improved constantly in the line of recording or transferring digital videos into AI-generated cartoon. The technology still has a ways to go, but it has come a long way too, even in the past year.

Here we can see the possibilities of an iPhone in late 2022. Enjoy the show(s).

Thursday, November 3, 2022

The Vast Multitudes of Unknown "Holy Souls"

November is the month in which we pray for "the faithful departed." This has become a very particular and deeply felt task for me in recent years. 

My own parents are now among the faithful departed, a reality that I am aware of every day. They have joined this important and very large group of persons whose bodily life in this world has ended, but who are still vitally "connected" to us in Christ's Body, the Church.

At the same time, I continue to think of, and pray for, all the faithful departed, the people of every race and nation who are being made ready by Christ, through the mystery of mercy that we call Purgatory, to enter into the fullness of God's life, to share His beatitude, to see Him face to face forever in perfect freedom. 

How great must be this multitude! Often, we pray for "the souls in Purgatory who have no one to pray for them." I often wonder how many belong to this category because their own faith was a secret work of God's grace while they were on earth. I think of the five billion people in this world who are not Christians in any visible sense, the billions of people, adherents of the religions of the world, vast civilizations of people past and present who have a heritage rich in so many ways but lacking an explicit place for the Gospel as proclaimed and lived.

I believe that Jesus Christ is the sole mediator of salvation. Yet billions of people live their whole lives without ever hearing His name or having any real knowledge of who He is. Countless others know something about Him, but are confused by all sorts of images and ideas of what He represents, or have not had the opportunity (at least, not yet) to encounter His love for them, the way in which He has come into the world for them, and the fullness of all the ways He wants to give Himself to them.

Of course, Jesus calls His disciples to bear witness to Him in word and deed. We have encountered Him, followed Him, and come to know His love as the overflowing gift of God that “answers” all the longings and questions and perplexities of life, that corresponds to all the need and the searching of the human heart for meaning, for justice, for beauty, for a fulfillment that endures. We have been created to be sharers in God’s life, children of the Father in His Son, brothers and sisters of Jesus, united in the Holy Spirit. Christ’s love sets us free from sin and death, and makes us free to love God and find our happiness in this love. If we have the joy of loving God, then we will want to make Him known and loved by everyone. Every human person has the “right” to know the saving and transforming love that Jesus has for them particularly and personally, to know the whole scope of God’s plan in taking flesh, dwelling among us, dying and rising for us, staying with us. Christianity is missionary by its very nature, because Jesus belongs to everyone, and everyone is called to realize the truth of their humanity and their personality through a relationship with Him.

When we consider the billions of people on earth who do not know Him in all His fullness, our first impetus is toward evangelization. Nevertheless, up until the present moment, most of the human race has never really heard with their ears the Good News of God’s love, or the whole truth about their human dignity and vocation. Christ’s Church works within human history, sometimes in extraordinary ways, but overall moving within the dynamics of history. Still, He does not neglect a single one of those billions of His brothers and sisters from the past or in the present moment of history.

People who do not know about Jesus Christ are still loved immensely by God, and we can be sure that they are led by His grace. If they search for Him and follow what their conscience shows them to be His will, He leads them (in mysterious ways) to say "yes" to the Person of Christ who is present in their lives, and thus they can be saved by Christ and joined to the Church even if they have never heard of either. This must also be true of people who have "heard" of Christ and the Church, but do not understand them properly through no fault of their own.

Jesus, by becoming man, has united Himself in a certain way with every human being. The secret drama of every person's real life is their decision to say "yes" or "no" to Jesus Christ as He makes Himself present in their circumstances. Since Christ’s coming, there have been many people who have never heard of Him, but they have sought God's will, and have sought through the knowledge that was available to them to do what they thought God wanted of them. They love the good, and in that love God's grace is at work so that they can somehow encounter and accept the person of Christ through love even if they do not know His name. 

If a person truly wants "God's will," then they want Christ even if they don't know it, because Christ is God's will, and Christ places that desire in them. Jesus Christ is what every human person is searching for. And so all those who truly search for the Mystery of life, and beg for that Mystery, will be led in a vital way to God's revelation of that Mystery: Jesus Himself. Thus, many who do not know "about" Jesus in a way that they can express or articulate, can still say "yes" to Jesus in their lives through love, through fidelity to the grace that God gives them, and through mysterious ways that we don't understand.

There are various theological theories about how this can happen, and I am not proposing any of them here. Nor am I saying that someone who recognizes the truth about Christ and the Church can reject it in favor of some other path that he or she prefers. If I am truly searching for the One who loves me, and then He shows Himself to me in Person and reveals His Name, how can I not accept Him, let myself be embraced by Him, and embrace Him in return? If fear or my own preferences were to prevail at this point, it would mean the failure of my search rather than its fulfilment.

What I want to point out is the simple fact that God’s grace is central to the life of every human person, and it has ways of working even in those whose connection to the Church cannot be seen by us. These countless multitudes of people, living and dying with Christ along obscure roads in this life, have now come to a full communion with His Church and a special fellowship with us, either in heavenly glory or in the purifying experience of Purgatory. How much these vast multitudes of unknown Holy Souls need our prayers! To help them is a special sharing of fraternal love and a beautiful work of mercy.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Hope Remains Firm in the Midst of Many Changes

Here is a bit of an “existential reflection” on how the past four years have been so different from what I expected them to be. It was a good time to reflect on the truth that I “belong to another,” and that adherence to Him always give light for the “next step” in the human journey.

I apologize for the shaky quality of this video, but I hope that you will persist in watching, or at least listening to it. With this we say “goodbye” to October 2022.πŸ‚πŸπŸƒ

Sunday, October 30, 2022

The Surprise of an Encounter

Today’s Gospel reading about Zacchaeus the tax collector reminded me of an article I wrote on his conversion in my column in Magnificat, published in January 2016. It is a story that vividly displays the gratuitous and transforming power of the encounter with Jesus Christ.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

“Portrait” of Blessed Chiara Luce Badano

JJ Studios presents “portrait artwork” of Chiara Luce for 2022.

The origin of this portrait is a small and very grainy photograph. It was crafted with a variety of digital graphics tools, plus detailed work by hand. It preserves the original “red tinge” of the photo. 

Chiara Badano was considered “the prettiest girl in town.” She was modest but not frumpy. She had a boyfriend at one point, and experienced heartbreak. She had trouble with math in school. She was an avid tennis player. She liked popular music (including Bruce Springsteen). She was a girl of her time, and a girl of deep faith. That faith grew immensely during her nearly two years of suffering from osteosarcoma, until her death three weeks short of her 19th birthday on October 7, 1990.

"I offer everything, my failures, my pains and joys to Him, starting again every time the Cross makes me feel all its weight. The important thing is to do God’s will. I might have had plans about myself but God came up with this. The sickness came to me at the right time... [and] now I feel like I am wrapped into a wonderful design that is slowly unfolding itself to me…. What a free and immense gift life is and how important it is to live every instant in the fullness of God. I feel so little and the road ahead is so arduous that I often feel overwhelmed with pain! But that’s the Spouse coming to meet me. Yes, I repeat it: 'If you want it Jesus, so do I'" (Blessed Chiara Luce Badano).

Chiara still needs her second “officially approved miracle” for canonization, although I wouldn’t hesitate to ask her prayers for anything, even little things (especially “little things”).

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Happy 16th Birthday Josefina Janaro!πŸŽ‚πŸŽ‰

Today is Josefina Janaro's 16th birthday. Happy Birthday Jojo!

I can’t believe she’s 16 years old. When I began this blog in 2011, she was only four! Of all our “kids,” Jojo has been the most featured on this blog. It covers most of the years of her life, and recounts many funny observations and anecdotes of her growing-up. Back in 2011, it was still evident that Jojo had been a “premee” with a unique history of challenges. Now I have almost forgotten about that time long ago (n.b. I said “almost”…). But it’s hard not to remember the drama that began 16 years ago on this day. It was a difficult beginning not only for her, but also for us.

I have made many new connections and acquired new readers since our youngest child was born. Many of them don't know the crazy story of the first year of this irrepressible young lady's life. From the beginning, she was small in size but with a personality big enough to fill the room.

Josefina was "supposed to be born" in December, so when Eileen began having what seemed like the early stages of labor on the morning of October 26, 2006, we called the doctor's office. They didn't think anything unusual was happening. "Still," they said, "why don't you come in and we'll make sure...."

It's a good thing we went in that morning.

By the time Josefina was born a few hours later, the hospital had already determined by sonogram that she had an undeveloped intestinal tract, and we knew she would need major surgery (although it was hard to imagine what that could mean). In view of the emergency situation, I baptized her right away. The chaplain arrived some minutes later and administered Confirmation, which in the Latin rite of the Catholic Church is given to babies who are in danger of death.

Before long our tiny daughter was behind glass in an enormous, technologically decked out mobile incubatory contraption in order to be transported immediately to Fairfax Hospital for emergency surgery. The neonatalogists operated on her, and amazingly connected her intestinal tract, using surgical techniques that were truly marvelous. She was then set up with an intravenous feeding tube and given her place in the "NICU" (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). We were told that when the operation healed and she began digesting normally, we could bring her home. The original estimate was that it would take three weeks.

We thought three weeks was going to be an unbearably long time to wait for our little girl to come home. But we had no idea what was coming…. Josefina kept having setbacks. Weeks turned into months. The NICU staff took wonderful care of her. Still, Josefina wasn't healing properly, and no one could explain why. Christmas came and went. The Spring semester of 2007 began, and I returned to my classroom even while keeping one ear on my phone in case the doctors called. .

Josefina continued in the NICU, her condition varying, but still causing concern to her doctors and staff. Their concerns were justified. On March 6, 2007, Josefina needed another emergency surgery. Things improved after that, although there were some scary points as the recovery time stretched on. There were infections and breathing complications. My mother-in-law came from California to take care of the house and kids while Eileen drove every day to Fairfax to be with Josefina. We will always be grateful to all of our extended family members and friends who helped us in countless ways.

My wife once again proved to be heroic.

I was still working full time at my university as a teaching professor. My health had been good for a while up until then. Indeed, I had had a lengthy remission, and was in great shape until the strain of Josefina’s odyssey started to wear me down again. I would go to Fairfax Hospital with Eileen as often as I could, and I took videos so that the other children could see their sister (older children were not allowed in the NICU).

Recall that, way back in '06 -‘07, I needed a digital video camera that used micro "digital video cassettes." I would then use a special "DVD Burner" to transfer the video to a disc (we called it "burning a DVD" in those primitive days). Then we could watch the videos on our analog television using a triple-color-corded hooked-up DVD player. I was like "Wow this is the future, man!" (Meanwhile, I also had my rather uninteresting "cell phone" in my pocket, for phone calls. Period.) I did my best to make humorous and happy videos for Jojo’s siblings, who were 9, 8, 6, and 3 years old. It wasn't difficult, because the "subject matter" was so cute! (We still have all those DVDs, though we haven't watched them for a long long time.)

Josefina charmed everyone with her enormous eyes and dimply smile. She was adorable, but also fragile. The problems, and the length of time it was taking to resolve them, continued to baffle the doctors. After nearly seven months of the tension of living this way, everyone was exhausted and I was headed for another major health relapse, with a debilitating flare up of Lyme Disease that ultimately necessitated my retirement from active teaching in 2008. It was an extraordinarily difficult, uncertain time for us all.

Seven months in NICU… actually it was six months, after which she was transferred to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (or PICU). I was wondering if I should call the Guinness Book of World Records at this point, but I never got around to it.

But Josefina made it. She finally came home on May 16, 2007, still weighing only ten pounds. She started out with a nasal-gastric feeding tube, but soon she was on her own. She needed a special formula, had some digestive problems, and a moderate asthmatic condition for the next few years, but everything was fine after that.

And now Jojo is a healthy, energetic, omnivorous, sweet 16-year-old teenager who does Irish dancing, sings beautifully, and has performed on stage the past two years with her drama club. She has grown to be a very socially oriented young lady; she is good at getting to know people, making them feel welcome, and putting them at ease. She makes friends, and is kind to everyone. 

She also loves watching T.V. with her Dad, which is good because some days it’s all I can manage. But we do get to spend lots of time together, and we also have many great conversations. She empathizes with me in my pains and frustrations, but she also brings me out of myself and challenges me to be more human, to be fully engaged with life.

We thank the Lord for Josefina. We love her so much, and we are so proud of her. We look forward to the years ahead with her and all our children (and, of course, grandchildren too☺️).

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

“Impressionistic Autumn Scenes”

JJ Studios presents: “Impressionistic Autumn Scenes” by JJ (digital art from original photos, October 2022). 1 & 2.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

October 1962: The Edge of the Abyss

On the evening of October 22, 1962, television screens across the U.S.A. and in many other places in the world presented an emergency speech by President John F. Kennedy. In this speech, Kennedy made public for the first time one of the most urgent crises of the Cold War era. American intelligence had discovered (beyond doubt) that the secret construction of Soviet nuclear missile bases in Cuba was underway and rapidly approaching completion. Aerial reconnaissance photography unveiled multiple bases in remote locations on the Caribbean island, along with an increasing buildup of medium range ballistic missiles capable of hitting two-thirds of major population centers in the United States, as well as many cities in Central and South America. The time from launch to impact of these weapons of mass destruction was estimated to be less than five minutes. Kennedy demanded that the Soviet Union dismantle the missile bases, and he declared that the U.S. Navy would enforce a “quarantine” around Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from delivering any further military supplies to them. The “quarantine” was a blockade in all but name (calling it a blockade would have been an “act of war”). The American Navy would surround Cuba, asserting the right to stop and search all Soviet vessels approaching Cuban ports and to refuse entry to any ships containing weapons or any other materials pertaining to the further buildup of the bases. If the Soviets violated the “quarantine,” further U.S. military action would be taken.

The world learned that night, through the medium of television, that a confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers had reached the brink of World War III.

The Soviets insisted that their only interest was to defend Fidel Castro’s newly Communist Cuba from “imperialist invasion” by the United States. But this buildup was clearly beyond anything Cuba might have needed for its defense. It was a provocation, perhaps a gamble, by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to maximize the benefits of the U.S.S.R.'s presence in the Western Hemisphere. It was an attempt to gain an advantage in the weird standoff of the Cold War. One particular outstanding issue pertained to the Soviet leader’s frustration over the lack of a treaty between East and West Germany, and the consequent presence of "West Berlin" as an outpost of the NATO alliance in the midst of the Eastern Bloc. Perhaps Khrushchev was hoping that a military confrontation over Cuba could provide a pretext for seizing West Berlin by force.

But this would only have been one motive within a larger context that continues (at least in the background) to frame all consideration of warfare since 1945. The invention of "nuclear weapons" placed a whole new level of power — power that harnessed the energy of the core foundations of the material world as modern science understood it — into the hands of human beings, who could now choose to unleash its immense destructive capacities in warfare. The U.S.A. had already demonstrated the monstrous power of atomic bombs against Japan at the end of World War II. The ensuing generation saw the development of the much more powerful hydrogen bomb, and its voluminous proliferation in both the United States and the Soviet Union.

A strange paradox surrounded these weapons. They were so vastly, indiscriminately, and unpredictably destructive that the use of them in warfare, for any reason, seemed to be unthinkable. We might choose to unleash their power to serve our aims, but once unleashed, how could we hope to control it? Who could predict the physical and psychological effects that human beings would undergo during or after the unprecedented event of a multi-pronged thermonuclear attack? What manner of economic chaos and social disorder would remain for the survivors (assuming there would be any)? The short, medium, and long term impacts on whole human societies, countless millions of people, and the consequences for regional and global environmental health were beyond imagining.

Humans apparently saw the need to avoid ever using nuclear weapons. But how could we be sure that such a catastrophe could be avoided? This was a particularly poignant question for the U.S.A. and its allies, nations that at least in principle were politically free, open, and transparent in the way they were governed. The Free World advocated these political and social standards as the ideal, even if the realities of politics and statesmanship constantly failed to measure up to them. No such ideals hindered Soviet Communism; rather, it held as a creedal principle that political ends justified every means, including all manner of lying and deception. The post-World-War-II world, indeed, revealed that allied countries had been excessively credulous in their expectations of Stalin’s “honor” and their confidence in his promises. It seemed clear that trust was not a viable foundation for security in the atomic age. What options remained?

In the Cold War era, a sort of culture of mutual terror emerged between the rival blocs, within which a measure of "security" was at least felt to be within human reach: the perception was that the only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons would never be used was to threaten to use them in retaliation if the enemy chose to use them first. 

Ultimately this became a kind of "pact" that "kept the peace" during the years I grew up; or, at least, it kept peace between the U.S. dominated "First World" and Soviet Communism, while Third World populations endured dictatorships, revolutions, and proxy wars (in a wide variety of local circumstances we have scarcely begun to understand). It was called “Mutually Assured Destruction” (aptly abbreviated as “M.A.D.”). Somehow, this strategy became acceptable (or at least tolerable) to political leaders, even though it bound them up with maintaining, as at least a threat, the possibility of inflicting enormous, disproportionate, indiscriminate violence and destruction upon entire nations and their populations.

It was a harsh paradox: our world spoke in terms of becoming more united in peace, freedom, and understanding — while also generating escalation scenarios for total war and spending gigantic sums of money to stockpile weapons that were capable of destroying the human race. It was ultimately an implausible paradox, and in trying to stretch themselves to reconcile themselves to it, free nations became further alienated from the Christian humanism they still claimed (however vaguely) as their heritage.

In his speech that night, President Kennedy laid the foundations for the difficult exchanges between American and Soviet regimes over the next terrifying week. This led to the eventual Russian withdrawal of the nuclear missile bases from Cuba, gaining for a time a measure of “security” against the possibility of cataclysmic war. But the hidden cost was high, in terms of a hardening of the U.S.A.’s political willingness to “wager” on the immediate safety of millions of innocent human lives. 

The apparent insufficiency of the “quarantine” in the days that followed very nearly led to a full scale invasion of Cuba by American forces. U.S. intelligence at the time, however, was deficient regarding the Russian military equipment already in place. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years later did the world learn that by October 1962 Cuba was already armed with smaller “tactical nuclear weapons” designed to be used in battlefield conditions. These weapons were more “limited” but still horrendous in their destructive capacities. The Cubans (and, therefore, the Russians) were prepared to “cross the nuclear threshold” to push back American forces invading Cuba. This could have triggered the protocols of “Mutually Assured Destruction,” bringing about an escalation of retaliative nuclear strikes that would have had its own bizarre logic. Both the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. had their larger (“strategic”) nuclear weapons aimed at major population centers filled with millions of innocent civilians who might die in a nuclear attack without even knowing that their country had entered a war. And the escalation would have continued…

In any case, the targeting of American strategic nuclear weapons toward the indiscriminate destruction of civilian population centers required President Kennedy to press the threat “to retaliate” to any nuclear attack initiated by the Russians. The U.S.A. in effect held the civilian population of the Soviet Union “hostage” in order to dissuade the Soviet Union from attacking American civilian populations (and vice versa). It was intrinsic to nuclear deterrence to put millions of non-belligerent civilians in danger of death, and in a crisis this danger had to be presented as a threat (in atomic new-speak terms, “a full retaliatory response”). Kennedy was a man of noble sentiments who aspired to do good, and who was personally appalled by the brutal “requirements” of this crisis. Yet he saw no way to escape the evils entailed except through cowardice. And he refused to stoop to cowardice, or subject his nation to what he could only perceive as a humiliating and dangerous appeasement. Thus, he endeavored to present the available options for this desperate crisis in noble terms (a nobility which means very little to today’s political discourse). But ultimately it was the tragic nobility, born of an atrophying society that was drifting far from the resources of its original inspiration in the Gospel’s testimony to the love of God and the dignity of every human person.

Sixty years later, we still drift - as we face new kinds of war and old threats of nuclear weapons - we drift in desperation, not knowing where our politicians want to take us (or why); or we drift like beggars in search of a renewed evangelical inspiration, a renewed wisdom in which we might find the courage and compassion to affirm the transcendence of human freedom, and to discover new ways of reconfiguring vast and potentially destructive material power into the energy of service to human persons, relationships, and communities.

Words from JFK’s televised speech of October 22, 1962:

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Happy Saint John Paul II Day!

Here is another version of the “family icon” for today’s feast.πŸ˜‰ Truly, John Paul II was a “living icon” for people of our generation, a living and convincing witness to the love of Jesus for us.

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Abundance of God's Love is Greater Than Our Sins

I am a sinner.

I do not say this as a clichΓ©, but as a simple statement of fact.

I am also a Catholic Christian. I have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, renewed by the Holy Spirit, and made a new person in Christ, a child of God, an heir to eternal life. I have been restored by Christ through the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation for those times when I rebelled against my loving Father and went my own way, only to see my proud illusory schemes dissolve into disappointment and misery. I continue to be sustained and nourished in this new life in the Spirit - this supernatural life of grace, of adopted sonship, of belonging to God - by the enduring offering and “substantial presence” of the crucified and risen Jesus who gives himself to me as food and drink in the Eucharist. Christ vivifies me; he is the life of my life.

I have learned that by trying to ignore God's creating and redeeming love and his radical outpouring of himself, his giving of himself for me, I do violence to the very foundation of my own person. Adhering to him is the only way I can be true to myself.

I don't trust my own ideas or my own power. I trust in Jesus Christ.

Still, I am a sinner.

There are those sins the Catholic tradition calls "venial sins" which hinder and perhaps even cripple but do not break off our relationship with God.

My daily life is full of these "slight" sins: the facade that I think of as "myself" is largely a construction of vanity, of "benevolent" intrigue, fibbery, excessive love of comfort, the desire to please people, laziness, coldness, negligence and evasion, sharp-edged words, impatience, complaining, sentimentalism, distraction, and - of course - that ill-governed curiosity about events and people into which rash judgment and gossip inevitably creep, wearing a thousand conceptual disguises.πŸ˜‘ I'm not complacent about all of this. These sins injure me as a person and injure others. They are hindrances to the fullness of union with God, and sooner or later they will have to be cleansed away by the Refiner's fire, Love's fire.

I struggle against these sins; I want to grow in love and to do God's will, but part of me is pulled in the direction of trying to cut some kind of a deal with him.

It's easy for me to forget that he's the Infinite Lover who makes me and sustains me, who first gives me myself and then gives me himself. A worldly image seeps through the corners of my mind and tries to distort the reality of God, painting him as just a "big power" in the universe who confronts me "from the outside" with some (more or less arbitrary) prohibitions and demands. My diplomatic temperament inclines me to negotiate, as though the ultimate meaning of life is to save one's own skin. I do not believe this, but I recognize it as part of a toxic atmosphere around me that can stir up what remains in me of the effects of the original lack-of-trust (i.e. “original sin”) that afflicts humanity.

It's not surprising that serious Christians (far more serious and dedicated than me) still commit many "venial" sins. So much of this behavior is rooted and woven within our complex, partly inscrutable subconscious dispositions. They divert and obscure our understanding and our freedom so that we stumble along the path of life, or we hesitate, we dither, we are distracted, anxious, forgetful. In our daily actions and evasions, we fall short or fail to follow our vocation to love.

These frequent failures are “small” and/or inadequately deliberated or mistakenly perceived by our weak and afflicted minds. They are “venial sins” (according to the terminology of classical moral theology) that aren't sufficient to constitute a willful rupture in our relationship with God, but that deserve some measure of blame. They do not lead us closer to the perfect happiness for which God has created us. They obscure somewhat our focus on true happiness. They drain our spiritual strength and make us more vulnerable to greater temptations, and more divisive toward one another..

I am a sinner. I don't know myself. I cannot find complacency just by looking at myself. My sins may be far greater than I imagine, far more dangerous and destructive than I think. "Who can detect trespasses? From my secret sins deliver me, O Lord" (Psalm 19:12). I am a sinner who stands before God in need of his mercy. I recall the venerable words of the ancient prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

We are all sinners, but the love of God has been revealed to us. This is the foundation of our confidence and our joy. We pray to the God who has poured out his love for us in Jesus, with confidence in the power, wisdom, and mysterious fruitfulness of this love. We struggle with our still-somewhat-distorted inclinations, and we repent of our sins and endeavor to make amends while growing in the knowledge and love of God. We do the best we can with what God entrusts to us, using our understanding, freedom, and energy to adhere to him in a cooperation with his grace that shines light on our fragility, our total dependence on him, and the wondrous power of his love to transform us. Then, beyond the horizon of our own limitations, we abandon ourselves to his infinite mercy.

We find confidence in God and a living hope for eternal life when we live and grow in this relationship with him. "Do not be afraid," Jesus says. The abundance of God's love is greater than our sins. Indeed, his love is greater than anything in us. Even the sanctity that we share in, the supernatural heroism that he empowers us to achieve in union with him, doesn't measure the "size" or the "limits" of his mercy.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

So, What Are We Afraid Of?

Today’s first reading in the liturgy succinctly expresses how the Mystery who creates and sustains us — the Mystery who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as the Triune God who is Infinite Love — wants to transform our lives, how ardently He wants to give Himself to us, how worthy He is our our trust. This is Saint Paul’s inspired prayer for the Ephesians of two thousand years ago, and for all of us of every time and place:

I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:14-21).

So then… what are we afraid of?

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Colored Leaves… at Last!

Cooler temperatures are moving things along for Autumn colors in Virginia.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Luke is the “Ox” of the Evangelists

Today is the feast of Saint Luke the Evangelist and companion of Saint Paul during some of his missionary journeys. Luke is the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Iconography in the Western Church identifies Luke with an ox (often even with wings). 

This symbolism is based on the association of the four gospel writers with the “four living creatures” featured in the great visions of the Divine presence recounted in Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4. In both visions, the “living creatures” have faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. As early as Saint Irenaeus (second century) these faces were declared to be symbols of the evangelists. In the fourth century, Saint Jerome identified the “standard” references that are found in iconography and other sacred art thereafter: Matthew is the “man,” Mark is the “lion,” Luke is the “ox,” and John is the “eagle.” A variety of explanations are given in the accompanying homiletic tradition. It’s interesting to note the manner in which the four living creatures together have a cosmic significance, representing birds, wild and domesticated animals, and the human being (a “summary” of the whole animal creation). In the visions of both Ezekiel and John, they are extraordinary beings, with wings indicating the cherubim. Symbolically, the Evangelists can be associated with these heavenly images because they serve as Divinely inspired witnesses to the glory of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Why is Luke the ox? The general interpretation was that the ox is one of the animals of sacrifice, and Luke’s Gospel emphasizes Christ’s atonement sacrifice. Also, his Gospel begins (1:9) in the temple, where Zechariah the father of John the Baptist is serving as priest. It also ends in the temple (24:53), where the disciples gather to praise God after Jesus’s Ascension. 

These associations may seem “forced” to us, but the ancient Church had a rich awareness of the interrelationship of symbolism throughout the Scriptures and indeed all of creation, where everything pointed toward the centrality of the Word Incarnate (typology expresses this most precisely in the Bible, but the typological “style” extend the imagination to an overall allegorical vision of the whole universe). This is grounded in the sense that God “made himself at home” at the center of his creation, dwelling with humans in our history and in the midst of our ordinary (even impoverished) circumstances, as Saint Luke makes clear when he tells us that the Lord was born in a stable, where Mary “wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). 

Perhaps near that manger there was an ox… an ordinary ox on earth who for one night was in the presence of the definitive revelation of the Glory of God, dwelling with us as a newborn child, resting on the animals’ hay.

The images here are from medieval illuminated manuscripts, where Luke is either represented by the ox or is portrayed together with the ox.