Friday, February 23, 2018

Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace

Pope Francis has proposed that today be voluntarily observed as a day of prayer and fasting for peace, especially for the central African countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.

Both of these places are enduring protracted political instability, the effects of civil war, and ongoing humanitarian crises of gigantic proportions.

He invites all people of good will to join him in this appeal to God and self-sacrifice, to solidarity and compassion toward these suffering human beings in central Africa and though out the world.

I'm sure even people of "not-so-good-will" can join in too. The proportions of what's going on here are so enormous and catastrophic—everybody, just bring whatever you can to the table!

Click below to learn more:

Voluntary Day of Prayer and Fasting

Situation in Democratic Republic of Congo

Situation in South Sudan

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Rock

There is some serious rock in the region of Caesarea Philippi.
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi
he asked his disciples,
"Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter said in reply,
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Jesus said to him in reply, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,
but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

~Matthew 16:13-19

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Unpredictable Changes: Life is Full of Them

Reepicheep the cat doesn't seem to mind summer in February.😏

I haven't done an episode of My Front Porch in a while, but today seemed like a perfect day. So here I am, talking about the weather that has been changing from warm to cold/snow to hot within the past week.

Unpredictable changes: life is full of them!

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Grace and Freedom of Life in the Spirit

In the first days of Lent, we are exhorted to prayer, fasting, and works of mercy, justice, charity, and compassion.

At the same time, we are reminded that our very capacity to do good and the value of all our good actions are themselves his gifts to us and his work through us in the world.

He is the Creator and Lord, which means also that he is ever the origin, sustenance, and fulfillment of love. He creates us as persons endowed with freedom and sustains us in being at every moment.

Moreover, the gift of his grace in Jesus Christ raises us up beyond ourselves to a participation in his infinite life and love, a "divinized" existence that is fulfilled in our eternal destiny, but that begins even in the here-and-now: in the ordinary circumstances, joys, responsibilities, and sufferings of this life on earth.

This is life in the Spirit, the path along which we are called to grow to full maturity in Christ, and to help one another in living this vocation. Our freedom is empowered by the gift of his grace, and our actions of sacrifice and love sustained by it.

It is true that we must cooperate with grace. When God our Creator and Redeemer works "in" our freedom, he doesn't take its place. Rather, he makes our personal freedom more free, more profoundly our own, just as in creating us he gives us (really) to ourselves.

To live in the Spirit—to live and act by the grace of God—is to live in freedom, to grow toward becoming the fullness of the unique person he is calling us to be with him and with our brothers and sisters forever.

Still, freedom cannot be forced. God wants to empower us to choose and attain happiness, to love him and share in his life. But he doesn't compel us to respond to him, adhere to him, or stay with him. We can ignore his call of love; he won't force us to journey with him on the road he has prepared for our happiness and fulfillment.

But we cannot make ourselves happy by our own power. All good comes from God. Without him we cannot be whole and good; we cannot be happy. Let us therefore turn to him and trust in the grace and love that he surrounds us with all through our lives.

This Collect prayer from the second day of the Lenten season expresses well our recognition of our total dependence on the grace and mercy of the God who loves us and wants to bring us to our fulfillment in his image and likeness:

         "Prompt our actions with your inspiration,
         we pray, O Lord,
         and further them with your constant help,
         that all we do may always begin from you
         and by you be brought to completion.
         Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
         who lives and reigns with you in the unity
         of the Holy Spirit,
         one God, for ever and ever."

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Horror in Parkland Florida

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland Florida. Wednesday, February 14, 2018.

Rapid-fire shots blistering through the halls and classrooms from an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle wielded by angry young hands.

Seventeen students and teachers killed. Numerous others wounded. An entire community reeling from the trauma.

Ugh, the horror. The horror of it! Words can't make it go away. Black ribbons, condolences, sorrow, none of it begins to fathom the depths of the ugliness, the evil, the laceration of humanity.

And the tears of parents, brothers, sisters, family, friends: yet another river of tears that runs into a vast ocean of all the tears that have already been shed.

These are evil times we live in. This is a death culture, with its illusions and excess and waste and loneliness, with "freedom" understood as the proliferation of meaningless choices.

By all means, let's make better laws.

Let's remember too that the particularly ugly violence of our times is not new. It's just getting harder to ignore. It's coming out of hiding. It's showing itself in more brazen forms.

It's showing itself in our own hearts. I see it in my heart: I hurt people, mock them, scoff at them, look down upon them. I do this above all to the people who are closest to me.

The horror casts its shadow within me, and its poison is always within reach. Violence is not just a problem in society. It's a problem in me.

And I can't resolve it. I don't have the answer, and I don't know how to extricate myself from complicity in the war that we all wage against one another.

"Non-violence." Is that just another impossible idea? Is that just more useless talk?

But I am convinced that the non-violence of love is greater than the violence of our hearts, of my own heart—not because I grasp this as a theoretical scheme or a social ideology or an imaginative utopian aspiration.

I am convinced because I have encountered love. I have met love in the flesh, and now my heart pleads for the freedom to follow that love, to see the face of that love every day.

Sometimes it's very hard to remember that beautiful face; it seems shrouded in darkness and there is the danger that we will begin to think that we just dreamed the whole thing up.

We must resist this sad sleep. Let's help one another to stay awake and remember.

It is only when I remember the face of love that I myself begin to have the courage to take the risks of love that bridge the abyss of death.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Open Our Ears and Our Hearts

Here is something of a reflection, a poem, a prayer, a plea from my own misery to the omnipotence, goodness, and mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

This text was published last week in MAGNIFICAT. It seemed to resonate with others, so I am reproducing it here as we enter upon this holy season of prayer, penance, and preparation for the celebration of the victory of Christ's all-embracing love.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Josephine Bakhita Shows Us How to be Free

Today we honor an African woman born in 1869 who endured years of slavery under brutal inhuman conditions before being freed, and discovering an even greater freedom in following Jesus.

She was called "Bakhita" by the Arab slave traders. It means "lucky one."

There was nothing that looked lucky about the horrible abuse and mutilation that she suffered as a slave in Sudan. But then she was brought to Italy, where she worked in the household of an Italian diplomat and merchant and helped care for his daughter.

Accompanying the girl to her convent school, Bakhita encountered the love of Christ among the Canossian sisters, gave her life to him, and was baptized Giuseppina Fortunata ("lucky one" in Latin).

Though the diplomat's family treated her well, her position in Italy had not been legally clarified. An Italian court recognized her freedom, however, when she decided that she herself wanted to join the Canossian sisters.

As a consecrated religious sister she worked for 50 years at the convent and among the people, simply but with profound charity and great joy. She not only forgave her enslavers and oppressors, but said she would kiss their hands if she saw them, because through their hands the Lord had brought her to Jesus.

She died on February 8, 1947 and was canonized in the year 2000.
Saint Josephine Bakhita, you have a lot to pray for. We need your prayers especially in today's world.
Pray for an end to racism, human trafficking, child abuse, and violence against women.
Pray for South Sudan, your homeland. Pray for Africa and people everywhere of African heritage, especially those subjected to racial prejudice.
Pray for people all over the world who have been driven from their homes by war, persecution, or inhuman living conditions.
Pray for us, that we might love our enemies and and not seek vengeance against those who hurt us. Pray for us to be strengthened in the conviction that God loves us and them, that God has a plan, and that God orders everything to the good.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Twenty Six From Nagasaki

"My religion teaches me to pardon my enemies and all who have offended me. I do gladly pardon the Emperor and all who have sought my death. I beg them to seek baptism and be Christians themselves" (Saint Paul Miki, as he was crucified along with 25 others in Nagasaki, Japan, February 5, 1597).

[Photo above, at Martyrs' Memorial, Nagasaki.]

Today we honor the TWENTY SIX MARTYRS OF NAGASAKI, JAPAN. My current research has led me to this same place in the 20th century, to a remarkable Japanese doctor Takashi Nagai, who found Christ thanks to the witness of the spiritual children of these martyrs.

(Sorry, no spoilers from me on Takashi Nagai's amazing story, of which I am writing only the first part. You'll have to wait for the article.)

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Miracle is that "Something is Different" in Our Lives

If we are committed Christians, we know that the love of Jesus is everything. This love has touched our lives, and we know that its power is nothing short of miraculous.

We know that it is wonderful. It is transforming. We know that he wants to share this love with every human person.

And we are his witnesses.

Surely, we want to be on fire with this love so that it can shine through. We want the change in our lives to show that miracles are possible.

Right?  "...Uh...yeah, sure.... I mean, yes, of course. Of course! Hallelujah!" how's that "witness" going?

Maybe not so well, if we're honest about it. If we have known the love of God himself in the embrace of Christ, why do we keep forgetting and going back to selfishness, egoism, distraction, and strife?

Every day we fail. Even those who aim the highest find that they fall short again and again. Should this be a cause for discouragement?

Certainly not.

It should be cause for humility, for prayer, for turning and returning to the sources of grace, the places where Jesus "touches" us. Our faith makes especially clear the fragility of our humanity, our immense poverty, our utter dependence on God for everything.

Still, we know that God is good and merciful, and that he has embraced our lives. We must not give up, but on the contrary cling ever more fully to him.

Knowing the depths of God's love and our own weakness, we have all the more reason to look upon the struggles of every human person with compassion. Knowing God's generosity and our own vulnerability, we have every reason to forgive others when they hurt us.

We cannot be complacent. We must always strive to say "yes" to the love God pours out on our lives, to beg for his love to change us, to turn us into lovers, to show the wonder of his beauty through us.

The "miracle" that people can discover when they look at our witness is not that we're "totally perfect" human beings. We're not even remotely closeand we don't need to hide that fact or pretend that's what we claim to be.

The miracle is not that everything is different in our lives, or that we have become totally coherent—that we have become overnight "instant saints."

Rather, if we are faithful, what people will begin to see is that in the midst of all our real messy flawed human lives, something is different— there is Something Else that gives us hope, "Something"(SomeONE) for whom we live....

Or at least they might see that we try to live for the One who loves us, that we desire it, we yearn for it and beg for it... because he is drawing us to himself.

I look at myself and it's clear that I'm so obviously mediocre, vain, and lazy that if there is any spark of that difference—that newness of life—in me (or even the desire for it) there must be Another at work in me.

I pray to be open to his work, to stay with him, to walk with him, and then in all the craziness of my life something new begins to happen. If as Christians we share the journey of our lives honestly and humbly, the light of the miraculous love that is changing us will shine and awaken hope in the hearts of others. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

Presentation 2018

Details from Mosaic of the Presentation in the Temple, Marko Rupnik.

"Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
'Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
—and you yourself a sword will pierce—
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed'"
(Luke 2:34-35).

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Grammy Awards: It Wasn't ALL Bad

You know the old saying about a broken clock? It's still right twice a day.

Looking at the news, you might conclude that the recent 60th Grammy Awards was a real dumpster fire. I can't say that it wasn't, but the level of conflict doesn't surprise me. The whole music "industry" in its current form is unsustainable.

There are so many issues here that one doesn't know where to begin a diagnosis of the overall problem.

I didn't watch the awards show. One reason is because—like so many "old media" events—it has a bit of the feeling of a 1907 convention of horse-carriage makers giving out awards to one another and ignoring that vulgar and preposterous novelty of the "auto-mobile."

Recording technology has certainly advanced in some astonishing ways, but new multimedia platforms are increasingly catching up and making these developments (and entirely new techniques) accessible to a vast range of creative people, most of whom are "outside" the current system and are not even aware of how they're changing it.

These independent artists might feel a bit snubbed, not invited to the party, etc. People making music on regular labels within the system feel snubbed. Meanwhile, the Recording Academy is stretched way beyond any reasonable limit.

It wouldn't be so bad if the Grammy Awards show was not presented as the Contest For Ultimate Awesomeness, the "Uber-Olympics of Music." Unfortunately, such hyperbole is built in to the current music business model. This garish overreach is part of what's killing the whole thing.

Nevertheless, for an artist to be nominated for a Grammy certainly means something. And winning is a thing to be proud of. It's a recognition of achievement by the USA's realm of professional recorded music. It encourages artists and gives them a platform for their work to become better known.

I don't ignore the Grammys, but I prefer to wait until they're all over and done and then comb through the long list of winners and nominees to see if there was some outstanding work last year that I missed. It takes a little time, but it's a pretty good list.

Even though the Grammys are not attuned to so much of the larger world of outstanding artists who are working independently, and even though the actual process of determining the winner is somewhat inscrutable, the nominations are vetted by a large pool of recording professionals. There are also a lot of categories, the vast majority of which don't appear on the big Prime Time show.

Daniil Trifonov won Best Instrumental Solo for this great record.
Maybe that's too bad. It wouldn't hurt the pop stars and the glitterati (or the rest of us) to sit down for a few minutes and listen to somebody like 26 year old Russian pianist Daniil Trifanov play a bit of Liszt and Chopin. You don't have to be a music snob, or locked on to the lower frequencies of FM radio, to appreciate this guy. He'd blow. everybody's. minds! He is insanely good, and that may be one of the least controversial things I've ever said about music.

Or let's hear four-time Grammy winner and Queen of the Violin, Anne-Sophie Mutter, bring a flow of vivid tones from her 1701 Stradivarius (no amplification required). Or America's own Grammy winning Hilary Hahn who is boldly bringing classical violin into the 21st century.

Classical music is alive and well, peeps. In some sense, it's never been better. In fact, it's overwhelming (like everything else in our world today). The Grammy winners and nominees don't necessarily correspond to the best performances evah but it is a pretty good list of top quality recent material. If, like me, you are looking for some excellent recordings not just for your iTunes playlists but for actually buying in CD form and listening to on a decent music system (or at least with real headphones), the Grammy list is useful. These CDs are expensive, but there's a reason for that.

I've been listening to "records" for over fifty years (I remember "air-conducting" Toscanini's Beethoven with my Dad at age four). The advances in recording technology are just stunning. I see this especially in the category of "Orchestral Performance"—while they still can't capture all the range and nuance (and excitement) of seeing and hearing a live orchestra, recordings have become exquisite works of art in their own right, and they should be appreciated as such.

THIS! Good call, Grammys!
When recording excellence and musical genius come together, the result is pure gold. The Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance in 2017 did not fail to find the gold. I'm excited because this recording is a discovery for me of the past week.

I am so loving this magnificent and intense interpretation of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony by Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Granted, I am a fan of this complex, sometimes tormented but brilliant 20th century Russian composer. When he wrote this symphony, Dmitri Shostakovich was trying to stay alive in Stalin's Soviet Union in 1937. As we know, lots of folks were having trouble staying alive at that time, particularly anyone with cultural status.

While he was willing to fake devotion to the Great Man, Shostakovich would not compromise his music. The result was an epic sonic poem that travels through the deep places of Russia's suffering, and touches the souls of the people while deftly mocking the totalitarian state that enslaved them. Music was the only language that could still speak in those days, and even music had to be careful. Stalin, however, was sufficiently tone-deaf that he did not have the composer shot in 1937. Shostakovich would continue to write an extensive repertoire of such works thoughout the Stalinist era and beyond.

Maestro Honeck is noted for bringing out the hidden gems of orchestral pieces, and after ten years with the world-renowned Pittsburgh Symphony he and the musicians have a great rapport. And just from the streaming of this recording I can tell that it's top notch. I'm waiting for my CD to arrive, with Honeck's extensive liner notes on Shostakovich and on Samuel Barber's beautiful Adagio that completes the record.

Manfred Honeck, Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

But here's the thing: I didn't even know about this record until this week. I have the Grammy Awards to thank for pointing it out to me. So, <cough cough> "Thank you, Grammys!"

I still have to browse some other categories: Jazz, Roots Music, even "Rock Instrumental" (you'd be surprised at the good stuff you never hear about).

The "Big Four," which get all the media attention, have often disappointed me. This year, however, they got one of them right on target. Or, to put it another way, I was very happy to hear that Alessia Cara won the Grammy for Best New Artist.

"Best New Artist." There is something ironic about the whole category. It is, of course, really "Best New Popular Music Artist" which is fine, I suppose, because everybody already knows that. And the varieties of popular music have an excellence of their own.

Here a singer is distinguished by his or her unique style. It's not easy to put this up for a vote to music professionals. The key to the artistry is mastering one's particular voice, bringing various elements together and shaping them into a musically expressive "instrument" of a very fragile type of beauty.

It's a kind of self-exposure, a risky endeavor—thus, not surprisingly, often taken up by adolescents in the boldness of their youth. It's a tremendous thing, to discover and refine a unique talent. But in the past, very young people have often been unprepared for what a combination of success and luck brought about as they suddenly became celebrities.

Now the teens are the pioneers of new media technology. They are finding the creative spaces that open up new paths of putting out music and new (sometimes more manageable) levels of success. These new media also create new problems, but that's a topic for another day. What I want to do here, besides indicate once again the significance of YouTube, is point out how it has served Alessia Cara's development as an artist.

People were saying that Alessia shouldn't have qualified as a "new artist" because her music first hit the charts in 2015. She was well within the limits of the Grammy qualifications for this category, however, so this is all petty quibbling.

The fact is, this kid from Brampton, Ontario started a YouTube channel in 2010 and began posting covers and accompanying herself on guitar. (Brampton is basically part of "the metro Toronto area," but one of the things I like about Alessia is that she specifies it as Brampton. She comes from a real place, and has a sense of connection to it; as far as I know she still lives there.)

She was a 14 year old girl who loved singing, but was actually afraid to sing in front of other people. So she started out in her closet with a camera, hoping that posting videos would ease her into the prospect of singing in front of people. Her original channel is still active, and those first videos are still there. She was good. She had a sound and lots of heart and she worked on it and improved for several years.

Shy? A little bit. Afraid? Not any more.
Unlike others I have written about, Alessia didn't start by becoming a "YouTube star." She developed a small following at her own pace, and eventually got the attention of a talent developer, started writing songs and doing studio recording while finishing high school and living a regular life, having friends, going to parties, going to dumb parties and not having fun at dumb parties....

Apparently, kids all over North America and the world were not having fun at stupid parties. (Maybe this is a sign of hope?) But they weren't telling the rest of us. They were, it seems, waiting for someone to write a song about it. Alessia Cara's song "Here" was all over the place in 2015, as was the clever and stylized music video. My brother and I are both music nerds and between the two of us we have heard everything, but we both thought "this is...interesting, and...different, and, gosh...refreshing, real...and really good."

So she had a Billboard Top 40 hit, but it wasn't instant fame. In 2016 she had a very fine and successful debut album and several more hit songs. She won the Juno Award (i.e. the "Canadian version"😉 of the Grammy) for "Emerging Artist" in 2016. The Grammys, however, hadn't yet noticed her. But this may have been just as well; it gave her more time to grow in an organic, human way.

She kept putting in the hard work, touring, recording, and hitting the audiovisual media a lot: by now, she was big on "YouTube," and she used her official VEVO channel very well. I have followed her since 2015, and it has been great to see her maturing as an artist while still keeping her feet on the ground.

Most importantly, her voice has gotten better and better. Her songwriting is solid and very real. She's a soul singer who puts her soul deeply into her voice. Today, Alessia Caracciolo is 21 years old (what a great name, both parents from Calabria, which is way down South Mediterranean Italy, a place of ardent, expressive people). She's still a "new artist," and I don't care if she was famous, is famous, stays famous, whatever. I want her to keep making great music.

What I would say to her is, "Congratulations! Don't let anybody put you down; you've earned this. Keep making the music, at your own pace, young lady. Work with the raw, earthy sound that you have in your live videos; don't let the studio 'overproduce' it and put too much electronic shine on your voice. Your living voice is what makes you different from the rest of pop-dom. And time is on your side."

Watch and listen to this girl, from early 2017 (video below). PSA: If you don't like this kind of singing, you probably won't like her style. But don't get down on it just because it's not to your taste. The fact is, it's very well done. Recognize that the passion you see here is artistic passion. It's not a common thing.

"And, Alessia, please don't move to some mega-music city like Los Angeles. You don't need to be there. The Big American Entertainment Scene is one huge stupid party and you are not going to have fun. Travel the world, go everywhere, be brave, but don't ever lose touch with your roots in Brampton, Ontario, near the people and places that help you to be strong."

Thank you, Grammy Awards, for getting this one right.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Draw Our Hearts Closer to You

"For know, dear ones, that every one of us is undoubtedly responsible for all people, and everything on earth...each one personally for all humankind and every individual human being" (Father Zossima in Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, chapter 25).

I have always been struck by these words that Dostoevsky puts on the lips of his famous fictional staretz. They may have been inspired by monks the author visited during a pilgrimage to several great Russian monasteries prior to writing his last and greatest novel, just as the character of Alyosha, Father Zossima's young disciple, was inspired in part by Dostoevsky's brilliant young friend and pilgrimage companion, Vladimir Soloviev.

The old staretzy and the youthful Soloviev were mystics. And there would seem to be some mystical intuition at play in this quotation. We are all certainly much more profoundly interrelated than we realize. I don't know how this "works," but it is a mystery that prompts both humility and hope.

By our sins we really do harm one another. Even our omissions are ripples within the chaotic cycles of violence that move through human hearts and cover the earth.

When we do not, in the strict sense, share by cooperation or negligence in the guilt of others' sins, we should still be humbled by our own poverty in fulfilling the vocations God has entrusted to us, by which he wants to flood the world with his love.

At the same time, we must be strengthened by a tremendous hope. For the ties that bind us all to one another also unite us all to Jesus, our brother.

He carries us all.

In him the unity of the human race and all of creation finds its fulfillment. In him are justice, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. Through him, we can turn to one another again, forgive and be forgiven, and love one another as brothers and sisters of God our Father.

Jesus, you love every single human person,
without exception,
especially those who are the most lonely,
the most troubled, confused, and pained,
the most burdened with affliction.

You love those who do not know you,
those who run away from you,
those who reject you,
those who are afraid of you,
those who don't even know how to begin to look for you;
You love each one of them
because their hearts have been made for you.

Jesus, you love especially those who suffer from violence,
those who are beaten, robbed, driven out of their homes,
broken, crushed, neglected, forgotten,
left bleeding and dying while we pass them by
and hold onto our own cold, constricted souls.

Lord, forgive me for ignoring the burdens and sorrows
of my brothers and sisters,
for being too taken up in my own pain,
in my own loneliness and anxiety,

in my own confusion and restlessness,
in my not loving you enough.

Jesus, deepen my love for you today.
Draw my heart, and every heart, closer to you.
O Great Lover, win our hearts,
forgive us our sins,
conquer our fears,
heal our wounds,
show us your beautiful face.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Why I STILL Like Sports: Seven Years Later

It's time to celebrate yet another unusual birthday: the NEVER GIVE UP Blog is seven years old.

Since the subject of this, the second blog post of that day (January 29, 2011), is still pertinent and timely now in 2018, I have decided to repost it.

This is a brief and very general reflection about the world of sports. I used to post much more frequently about sporting events on social media back in those days, to the point of driving some of my friends crazy. I suppose I wrote this as a sort of explanation. Or rationalization. Or something like that.

In any case, I think it still holds true today. Here it is:

The culture of sports in our society, like most things in our society, is OUT OF CONTROL: the physical and psychological pressure on athletes, the preposterous amounts of money involved, the 24/7 media hyper-analysis, the scandals, the fact that athletes sacrifice their real life for their careers, etc.

I know all this and it causes me great sorrow. But I still love sports. Why?

The fact is that I haven't worked out all the reasons myself yet.

I have always been a sports nut. I don't think it contradicts my philosophical side. I used to love to play sports. I can't do much in the way of sports anymore, but I do love to watch.

There are many reasons, but one of them is this: Sports is, in our culture, a realm in which realism still prevails (at least on the field or court).

You are not allowed to have a personal interpretation of whether or not it was a basket. You can't say,
"well, it was a basket for me even though it might not have been a basket for you." It either went through the hoop or it didn't. Period.

There are rules, boundaries, the need for effort, the need to pay attention to other people, the need to submit to objective facts that you can't bend with your own mind.

This is fundamentally good and healthy.

At least on the field, sports have preserved the context necessary for some kind of real human drama, even if it is only play. We do, after all, need "play" in our lives.

It is hard, however, to bracket out the monstrous business of the sports industry, and how it devours people. Although it should also be said that many good people work in the sports profession, and sports on various levels make many positive contributions to our community.

Like everything else in our world, in sports we find the good, the bad, and the ugly. And there are many things in our culture that are much worse.

As I said, the bottom line on the playing field is that you have to deal with reality. By contrast, in my own profession, academia, you can say anything you want about anything you want and call it "interpretation" (as long as you know how to manipulate the system, push the right buttons, ride the prevailing trends).

In sports, you've got to sink that jump shot. The real ball has to go through a real hoop.

When the game starts, there is no huckstering, politics, or distortion. There is a field or a court and you've got to use it. You've got to play by the rules.

That's what I find refreshing and hopeful about sports.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Land Yields Fruit

"We should always be occupied with praying the Psalms or meditating or raising our mind to God, pondering within ourselves the blazing charity we discover and see in the blood of the Word, God's Son. For he has made a bath of his blood to wash away our sins. When we see and consider that God loves us so much, we cannot keep ourselves from loving...filled with God in holy desire, remembering and meditating on the wonderful blessings we have received from him" (Saint Catherine of Siena).

Jesus said to the crowds:
“This is how it is with the Kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.”

~Mark 4:26-29

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle

Detail, 14th century illuminated manuscript. Road to Damascus.

Since we celebrated the feast of the Conversion of St Paul this week, I thought I might repost the very first installment of my monthly Great Conversion Stories series as it appeared in MAGNIFICAT in the December 2013 issue.

Now it's 2018, my fifth year of writing this column. January 2018's issue marked Great Conversion Story number 50! And there's more to come.

Writing these continues to be a great learning experience for me, and I hope I have succeeded in sharing some of it with you. Click HERE to subscribe for upcoming installments of my monthly feature, along with many other informative and inspiring articles, daily prayer and Mass readings, and much more.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Dolores O'Riordan: Missing You "When You're Gone"

"And in the day
Everything's complex
There's nothing simple
When I'm not around you
But I miss you when you're gone
That is what I do..."

~The Cranberries, When You're Gone (1996)

Dolores O'Riordan was laid to rest on Tuesday by her family after a Requiem Mass in the little parish church in Ballybricken, County Limerick—the same church where she grew up singing and playing the organ. This was after a week of shock, public mourning by all of Ireland (along with the sorrow of fans around the world), and still no news on what caused the sudden death of the 46 year old lead singer and songwriter of The Cranberries. 

Ah, the Cranberries! My wife and I saw them back in 1995 at Wolf Trap. It was packed, but we were (still) young, newly engaged, not realizing how footloose we were. The music will always be part of our lives, part of "the soundtrack" of a precious, unforgettable time. We share the gratitude of the Gen-Xers and early Millennials who were growing up with this special music in a remarkable period of musical creativity.

Poor Dolores Mary Eileen O'Riordan. What happened!??

She had a very difficult life.

Certainly it wasn't easy being the frontwoman of the second most famous popular music band in Irish history. It would have been simpler for her and the lads from Limerick (Noel and Mike Hogan and Fergal Lawler) if rock-superstardom had never come so suddenly in 1993, if they had spent their music career as a band playing in pubs.

They wouldn't have been disappointed. They never dreamed of massive global success with all its dazzle and attention and its grueling (inhuman, really) demands. It was exhausting for Dolores, and it exacerbated all the deeper problems that no one knew she had at the time.

What made The Cranberries so remarkable? The band laid down a simple mellow rhythmic background and Dolores carried the melodies with her Irish soprano voice, which was a peculiar mix of ethereal Celtic floating, choir girl precision, alternative-rock edginess, and Gaelic-country-folk sounds, all topped off with riffs of yodeling.

That description makes it seem complicated. In reality Dolores blended it organically into her own signature style. The result was a band that made songs that were a little odd, a bit fringy, definitely original but also catchy and accessible. They had the broad appeal not of cheap novelty hits that everyone forgets in 6 months, but of classic songs that endure, that people never get tired of.

They also came on the scene with the kind of creative "kick" that put the "alternative" in the alternative music vibe of the 1990s. It was not unusual in those days to hear for the first time a new song from some hitherto obscure band and have your socks knocked off. I remember hearing Dreams, and thinking "this is nice, yeah" and then suddenly in the middle of the song there's a bridge where she launches into the yodel, like "laahh haa ya hay yah ya hay yah ey ahh haa ya hay yah ya hay yah haah yaaaah!" And I went, "Dang! What was that? That was terrific!"

The entire album was terrific. The second one was even better, with the uncharacteristically loud epic Zombie hitting the nail on the head about "the Troubles" of Northern Ireland in a way that continues to resonate with other conflicts and all the agonizing, ideologically driven, stupid violence of today. The songs on these albums were not complicated, but all the pieces were in the right place....

How is it possible that Dolores O'Riordan died last week!?

For me this hits harder than the increasingly common but still remote deaths of "celebrities" that I remember from my younger days. I kept up with the Cranberries, their periodic reunions, and Dolores's private and public joys and troubles.

I appreciated her honesty and openness about her suffering, and could relate to some aspects of it. This lady from the countryside of western Ireland—usually reticent, polite (when she wasn't manic), unvarnished, and matter-of-fact in her speech—told the world a lot about her life.

It was a life of physical and mental affliction: bipolar disorder with deep depression episodes, trauma from childhood sexual abuse by someone close to her family, anorexia, alcohol misuse, and (more recently) a very painful chronic back problem. She did love music, though. She also had a marriage that was happy at least for a while and three children to whom she was very devoted. She attempted suicide five years ago, but seemed to be pulling things together. The Cranberries were making new music.

What happened!?? 😔

Dolores O'Riordan had a refreshing, natural lack of concern for anybody's ideology or form of "political correctness." She told the IRA to stop killing kids, and to stop pretending they represented her or her family or ordinary Irish people. She told Rolling Stone magazine that abortion attacked the dignity of women and diminished them. She was a rebellious kid but still kept her connection with the Catholic Church, and said one of the best days of her life was when she brought her mother to meet the Pope. She told Ireland about mental illness (something they need to talk much more about over there). She set the example by telling her own story.

Nobody knows exactly what happened.

She was found dead in her hotel room in London on the morning of January 15. When I first heard the news, the shock of it was compounded by the fear that it was probably suicide.

This fear of mine was not from any disparagement of her character. I knew she was a brave woman. I knew how hard she fought; I read with empathy the accounts of some hard falls she took, and how much courage and spunk she put forth to get up again. And she couldn't have done so much without the love and support of her family, her Limerick, her Ireland. My heart goes out to each and all of them.💔

In any case, the playing out of the post-mortem seems to point away from suicide. What keeps us even now in suspense regarding the cause of her death is the unfinished toxicology report. Dolores was probably taking a variety of medications, which may have included increased pain management for her back.

There are many ways that tragic accidents can happen during intensive medication regimens, especially in unfamiliar surroundings, while traveling, under stress. Mistakes in dosage, unfamiliar side effects, shifts in metabolism, and other such factors can bring on dangerous complications while a person's mind is taken up with so many different things. Sick people sometimes walk on an edge just to get some sleep and pain relief. If they slip, even through inadvertence, the consequences can be dire and ultimately disasterous.

Whatever the findings of the toxicology report and the coroner in the Spring, I do not believe that Dolores died as the result of a free and terrible decision to give up on life. Rather to our eyes this will remain a tragic, sudden, inexplicable death. Ultimately, what more can we say? She was called home.

Dolores fought a long hard war. She struggled to survive not only the trauma from her childhood but also the emotional shell shock of being thrust onto a world stage when barely out of her teens, and forced through the relentless grind of mass-market-driven rock stardom in the mid-1990s.

Some might argue that she was young and willing to live in a high speed danger zone (they didn't know how broken she already was). We were young too and we loved it and paid our money. It's not easy to be an artist. It's even harder to be an "entertainer" in a world that idolizes entertainment.

There's nothing wrong with entertainment in itself, of course. But really, we should take better care of the talented, fragile human beings who sing and dance and make us laugh. The thrill of adulation is fleeting on both sides; what they need and deserve is our gratitude, respect, support, and collaboration in whatever ways we can give it.

They may need it more than we realize.

Grant, O Lord, eternal rest to your servant Dolores, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace.

We commend your soul to God.

And we miss you when you're gone. That is what we do. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

He Helps Us in Our Weakness

Sometimes in this life, people face afflictions that seem to exceed their capacity for endurance. Sooner or later we all find ourselves in these kinds of awful, incomprehensible circumstances. When this happens, everything we thought was strength in us seems to dry up. We gasp and cry out from depths of desperation we never knew existed.

What is going on in our hearts? Have we lost our faith?

Not necessarily. In these dark times, when all understanding seems to have abandoned us, our faith may indeed reach new heights. But we must let our hearts pray.

Our hearts groan, and we don't understand these groanings, but God does.

Let the heart pray.

"The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit..." (Romans 8:26-27).

Grief can be like this, sometimes.

But grief need not become despair. Within this pain, the Spirit is moving our hearts to speak to God in ways that are beyond our thoughts and understanding. Grief is like a deep rupture, an open wound, but it can be poured out. It can become prayer.

God will hear this prayer. He hears the cries of the poor. He helps us in our weakness.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Dignity of Every Human Life

"God our Creator,
we give thanks to you,
who alone have the power to impart the breath of life
as you form each of us in our mother's womb;
grant, we pray,
that we, whom you have made stewards of creation,
may remain faithful to this sacred trust
and constant in safeguarding the dignity
of every human life.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever." 

~Collect for the Roman liturgy for the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children, observed in all dioceses of the U.S.A. on January 22.

"When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities—to offer just a few examples—it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble.... Concern for the protection of nature is incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo?... We need to develop a new synthesis capable of overcoming the false arguments of recent centuries" (Pope Francis, Laudato Si, On Care For Our Common Home, 2015).

Saturday, January 20, 2018

We Need Jesus

The world needs Jesus.

People need the love and mercy of Jesus. People need the freedom to embrace suffering in a way that does not crush them; they need to know and experience the companionship of Jesus in their suffering. 

People need the freedom to forgive and to let themselves be forgiven, so that wounds can heal instead of being passed through the generations until they become great scars that hinder the life of whole societies and cultures.

The world needs Jesus. We need Jesus. I need Jesus!

The love of Jesus is everything. Through his love and mercy, we can be changed and empowered to live a new life. We can become vessels of God's love. We can make God's love and mercy present in the world.

If we look at ourselves just in terms of what we can generate by ourselves, according to the measure of our own powers, we could never hope to do this. But Jesus loves us, and promises to take us beyond the limits of ourselves, to convert us and heal us of our sins, and transform us by the grace of his Holy Spirit.

He wants to make us real lovers of God and of human beings in the image and likeness of God. We should open our own hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit, give the Spirit "space" to work within us, ask him to change us.

God has created us and called us to share in his eternal life, to become and remain forever his sons and daughters in his uncreated, only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. His Holy Spirit is already stirring up this vocation in the depths of our hearts, within the mysterious reality of our daily lives. He is calling us, inviting us to share his joy, even when this call seems inaudible, confusing, or distant.

It often seems perplexing to me, at least when I regard it as an actual proposal for life.

It's easy to talk about it, or talk around it. I can talk forever about being Catholic. I can talk about God and the Church, all the problems in the world, all the errors of people (the closer they are to me, the more eloquent my critique). I can talk about bishops and politicians, doctrine and social issues, who's "good" and who's "bad."

But actually to change, to love the way God loves? How will I ever reach that point? I can hardly even imagine becoming just a little bit less selfish. I could try, but I'd be more likely to fall on my face and end up feeling more guilty. What's missing from my life?

Jesus Christ. A real relationship with Jesus. I forget about him. I forget to communicate with him, to ask him to pour out his Spirit upon me, to renew me, to come and change me. I forget to entrust everything to him, to listen to him, to hope in him. I forget Jesus.

I can go around all day saying "I'm a Catholic, I'm a Christian, I know the right way, I'm one of the good people in this bad bad bad world" -- I can say all these kinds of things and still ignore Jesus Christ.

But I need Jesus. The love of Jesus is everything.

I need Jesus, truly God and truly human, eternally with the Father in the Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, dwelling among us, crucified and risen from the dead, our Lord, our brother: not just Jesus in abstract theological terms but a real Person who loves me and calls me to live in his love.

I don't know how to recognize him and live in a relationship with him. I need to change, but I don't know how to change. All I can do is ask, beg him to change me: "Jesus, change what needs changing in me."

We are always forgetting him. But he is infinite mercy. He comes to us again and again. He calls us. He doesn't want us to remain in our forgetfulness.

When we remember him, we should beg from the poverty of our hearts for his mercy. He knows what we need, how to draw us, to change us, to bring us closer to him.

And when we ask him to change us, we have already begun to love. A new energy, a new kind of life has been awakened in us.

"Jesus, make me the person you created me to be."

Friday, January 19, 2018

He Will Destroy Death Forever

"You have been a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress;
Shelter from the rain,
shade from the heat.

"When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rain,
the roar of strangers like heat in the desert,
You subdued the heat with the shade of a cloud,
the rain of the tyrants was vanquished.

"On this mountain the Lord of hosts
will provide for all peoples
A feast of rich food and choice wines,
juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.

"On this mountain he will destroy
the veil that veils all peoples,
The web that is woven over all nations.
He will destroy death forever.

"The Lord God will wipe away
the tears from all faces;
The reproach of his people he will remove
from the whole earth; for the Lord has spoken.

"On that day it will be said:
'Indeed, this is our God; we looked to him, and he saved us!
This is the Lord to whom we looked;
let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!'"

~Isaiah 25:4-9