Sunday, February 19, 2017

Christina Grimmie Won't Be Invisible. Her Light Blazes On.

Christina Grimmie's first posthumous single, Invisible, was released by UMG/Republic Records on Friday. Along with it came news that Side B, the companion to last year's EP Side A, would appear next month.

The strong electronic music style represents yet another direction for her, and she takes hold of it with a wonderful brightness and originality. The large spectrum of sounds and variations of beat are a rich setting for her brilliant voice as it soars beautifully with all the colors and power and gracefulness we have come to know and love. And more.

It's an exciting introduction to this final phase of her musical career.

Then there are the striking lyrics to this anthem that rings with the persistence of someone who refuses to be put down by the negativity of another person.

The lyrics, indeed... wow! There is something deeply dramatic going on here.

The song is about a girl and a boy that she once trusted in some way, enough to allow herself to be vulnerable and open to him ("I thought you were worth it / Pulling back the curtain / I see why I was hurting, boy"). He tried to make her "disappear" or even die, at least metaphorically, but she insists that this is not going to happen ("I won't be another ghost / No, I won't be invisible / You see me everywhere you go").

Indeed, this "boy" is not the master of her existence ("I don't need your permission / to go on existing with or without you, boy"). She will not be defeated by his effort to put her down; rather she will go on with a presence that is stronger than ever. The bridge of the song is enough to give you chills down the spine. She sings these words twice, transitioning with a crescendo into the finale:

"I won't be diminished, eclipsed, or hidden
You're gonna see my light blaze black to life
Like the phoenix rise."

"You're gonna see my light blaze back to life like the phoenix rise."

On the surface this appears to be a song about a girl breaking free from a bad relationship that had descended to the level of emotional abuse, a girl who is determined not to be smothered by the boy who refuses to respect her humanity. Sure. I don't want to take anything away from this obvious meaning.

But it's striking how the life and death imagery is so strong. It's expressed as a struggle against being "eclipsed," becoming a "ghost," becoming "invisible." What is at stake is the determination "to go on existing" and to be the opposite of invisible, to be present, to have an impact on reality.

Then there is the phoenix. In fact, the phoenix is a powerful symbol both in classical mythology and in Christianity, where it is a reference to the resurrection, to the triumph of eternal life over death in Jesus Christ and those who belong to him. Indeed, the sharing in Christ's resurrected and glorified life has an impact even on this present age, and those who have gone to be with the Lord remain with us even as he remains with us in his presence and his power.

We're gonna see her light blaze back to life like the phoenix rise. Wow!

It's remarkable how this song resonates symbolically with the strange and awful event that took place a few months after it was recorded. It almost sounds like an "answer" from her in opposition to the inscrutable violence that tried to destroy her (and that, ironically, has made her in a very painful sense "invisible" to our earthly eyes -- because we walk in the darkness of faith, whereas she says "now you see me with the lights on").

In spite of the occasional spunky references to the "boy," it almost seems as though she is speaking to us, reassuring us, strengthening our hope in the One she has loved and continues to love. In another sense, we should remember that Christina lived her whole life 'opening her arms' with trust, letting herself be vulnerable. She was always offering herself, loving others whatever the risk might be. Of course, she was very human, with all the flaws and complexities of an ordinary life, as well as the beauty and special challenges of a prodigious musical talent: the ambition, the sensitivity, the energy, and the suffering that go with being an artist. And she had a unique gift and calling to communicate love with the simplest words and gestures, and the grace of a compassion and a companionship that reached out to people all over the world, that welcomed everyone but especially teenage kids who needed encouragement or who felt lonely, lost, hopeless, afraid, rejected, or forgotten. By living her life, by just being true to her real self, Christina made this love present in those very ordinary places where 21st century kids go to search for meaning and affirmation.

I tend to exaggerate things, and I don't want to do that here. I want to point to the mystery here: a grace that was "incarnate" in the real life of this girl from New Jersey, who was a regular kid with all the regular problems of any girl her age, all the incoherence, all the "shocking" mundane peculiarities of being human, along with her outstanding musical talent. I do not want to dress up Christina as an "angel" or a "saint" in the ethereal and distant, "unfamiliar" way we tend to think of such things. But I want to point to this secret fire, this extraordinary love that was inserted, like a hidden diamond, within all her ordinary human expressions, her quirks, her goofiness, her passion for music, her love for her family and friends and food and video games, her YouTube creations, songs, recordings, concerts, everything. This gift was easy to ignore or to miss entirely, but precious to those who discovered it.

This vocation that led her to invest herself so deeply, to offer herself in love, to take the risks of gratuitous love, must have weighed heavily on her in ways that no one ever knew. As a Christian, however, she knew first of all that she was loved with an everlasting love. This was the source of her hope, her courage, her willingness to keep getting up and keep going, to be faithful to her vocation, to risk letting her "light blaze back to life" even when it was painful. Christina was hurt in many ways in her life, and no doubt made plenty of mistakes and bad judgments, indulged in vanity and folly, committed sins and begged for forgiveness. We all carry the treasure of Christ's love in our frail earthen vessels. Christina carried this treasure that was luminous and radiant for the sake of the world; she carried it in her utterly fragile humanity, entirely dependent on His grace every day. She was called to be a witness to this great love, and she often fell short but she never gave up. And in that final moment, in the face of violence, she didn't give up. She opened her arms. She refused to be invisible. She refused to stop loving.

Getting back to the song: it's as if she is reassuring us with these words that she hasn't stopped loving with that remarkable, unconditional love that even now personally touches people. Her light still blazes. She shines on, this bright beautiful star.

Of course, I'm not saying she intended to convey this level of symbolism when she originally wrote the song. All these images work on the most obvious level of meaning as strong and dramatic metaphors. I wouldn't blame anyone if they said, "Hey, Professor JJ, come on... aren't you stretching this a bit too far? It's just a dubsteppy pop song... a three minute song, a dance song, it's fun, it's spunky, it's a bounce-back-after-a-bad-relationship song. Aren't you just over analyzing it? You know, like you tend to over analyse everything!"

Am I? Well, it's true that I over analyse things. It's also true that reality is mysterious. In any case, I'm not the only one listening to this song and going, "What? Whoa!" Ultimately, I don't believe in mere coincidence in this strange universe. In any case, I think we're glad to hear her sing these words of tremendous affirmation at this time. We're glad to hear her voice.

She's still surprising us even now, this "blazing light" that keeps shining.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Here's a Conversion Story, Because Writing is Too Hard!

Clement of Alexandria was a pioneer Christian scholar in the third century

I have a lot of days where I would do anything to avoid actually writing!

I would like to say that the reason is because I need to allow my thought processes and my modes of expression to "mature" like fine wine in the deep cellars of my subconscious mind. That may be partially true, but mostly I have to admit that writing is hard.

Sometimes, I would rather walk on hot coals than write. And I'm supposed to be a "writer." Even writing on the blog is hard, and what I do so often here is just offer "pieces" of writing. But writing of any kind requires a lot of energy. It's like breaking rocks with your mind. Even if you're good at it, it's exhausting.


Since there may be a few people out there who are not already subscribers and faithful readers of MAGNIFICAT, I decided to escape from actual writing by presenting my Great Conversion Story for this month's issue (which appears on pp. 270-271, right before today's segment).

This month's witness comes from Clement of Alexandria, who in a certain sense was the forefather of the Catholic university as we know it today, with its confidence in both faith and reason.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Hope: The Lord Remains With Us

I have been messing around again with graphics, using texts from Pope Francis's most recent Wednesday Audience addresses in which he is presenting his catechesis on hope. Background, fonts, colors, patterns: using the resources lets some parts of my brain rest while others are engaged. And I can listen to music while I do this. Meanwhile there is the useful effort to learn the possibilities for presenting written texts in a visual context.

Here are two versions of another beautiful text from the same homily:

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Creativity and Suffering in the Artistic Life

Words for a artist friend who is going through a difficult time, and who is also a Christian:

Your wonderful creativity is born out of the peculiar attention and vivid sensitivity of your experience of reality, your rich inner vitality, and your desire to communicate in concrete ways. You have an intensity of soul that cannot be kept inside you; it is the energy that pushes you to make your art, which is one key facet of the whole impetus of your life.

You live this way by nature, temperament, and the particular talents you have cultivated, but especially by the gift of grace--the charism--by which the Holy Spirit lives in you and suffuses your being and activity with his presence and life. He sustains your humanity and your dedication to your art and gives it the form of a mission.

The Spirit works through all your human engagement, commitment, and effort. But his power is most manifest in the places where you experience the greatest fragility, incomprehension, and sense of helplessness.

That is what will enable you to carry on even in the midst of suffering, and to remain with hope in front of even the most desperate circumstances.

The poetic intuition born in you--it grows deeper in suffering. Seeing and feeling deeply means more pain in life, I know. Give yourself from that depth, in your art, in your writing, above all in love (as Jesus did) and you will do beautiful things and the Lord will use you to open the hearts of others.

Your mission, in Christ, is a mystery that he alone understands.

And it is good that you allow us, your friends, to see you as you are, in all your dedication and limits and sorrows. Thank you for being totally yourself in front of us. Jesus is working through all of this in powerful ways, in our hearts, in ways we may never recognize in this life. But his work remains real and essential for you and for us. Just hang onto him and trust him, and keep being yourself, in grief, in hope, in joy, in work and the new things that open up in your life, in silliness, in times of "I-can't-take-it-anymore," being broken, wounded, consoled, the whole of it.

God is at work through it all. He is working his Divine art, fashioning a wonder of beauty through your weakness. It is the radiance of the love that endures all things, the love that never ends.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

We Are Afraid to Trust in God: What Can We Do?

We must trust in God. But why does this seem so hard?

If trust is something we are afraid of, then we must ask Jesus to take the fear, to heal us, to open our hearts so that we will be able to trust in him. Whatever we are afraid of, we must bring it to Jesus, and let Mary help us.

And we must keep asking, keep praying, never give up.

God's plan for our lives is to heal our hearts and enable us to love him. But we can't see this with our eyes. We need faith.

We need to reach for God from wherever we are. He is with us and loves us and will open us up to that love in the way that he knows is good for us.

He wants us to ask for him, not because he is holding back, but because he knows that it is by asking for his love that we open up space inside ourselves to receive him.

I have begun to realize that I just have to give everything to Jesus. That means especially the feeling of resistance that I have toward him, the feeling of wanting to keep myself because, in some ways, I trust myself more than him.

I just have to give the whole big mess to him and say, "Jesus here I am. Change what needs changing in me. Enable me to trust in You. Enable me to open myself. Come to all the hidden places where I throw up obstacles to Your love. Come to all the places where I am hurt, where I am damaged and afraid and cannot see that You are here for me."

That is my prayer. Dear good merciful Mother Mary, hold me, carry me.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Springs of Living Water

I can't let this weekend pass without any reference to the wonder of Lourdes, the tender care of the Lord's Mother for the sick and suffering who call upon her intercession, and for that spectacular humble girl of France who in the year 1858 was given the courage to be a prophet before all the world.

Bernadette Soubirous was willing to be regarded as a fool, then to be misunderstood, ridiculed, and to bear physical pain and the soul's aching thirst for God so that she might participate in a great sign for our own times of the Springs of Living Water.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Christina Grimmie Opened New Paths in Music and Media

It is the tenth day of February.

One of the most important reasons why we measure this mysterious thing called "time" is to mark our connection with the past, especially the moments in the past that still shape our experience and awareness of the present. We mark time because it helps us to remember.

Christina Grimmie was murdered eight months ago, on the tenth of June in the year of 2016, by a deranged man who approached her at an open meet-and-greet after her concert in Orlando, Florida and fired four bullets into her head and chest at point blank range. The 22 year old singer/songwriter/musician had opened her arms wide to welcome this man who witnesses say looked troubled, nervous, and perhaps shy. She chose to approach the stranger in the same way she had approached so many others in her brief but stunning career, with love.

The most amazing thing about Christina Grimmie was this love. But it was not the only amazing thing about her.

There was her amazing voice, her amazing skill on the piano keyboard, her songs, and all the effort she put into a significant collection of original music that we have not yet heard. Apparently Christina did an enormous amount of work recording original songs during the last four months of her life. Her family, manager, and fellow musicians are working on bringing together these songs and releasing them according to her own intentions. That means new songs by Christina Grimmie are still coming out. A new single called Invisible will debut on all the media platforms on February 17.

Perhaps she might yet receive the recognition she should have been given during her life. Everyone in the music industry has acknowledged her gigantic talent, even if they didn't know how to "package" her to fit the mould of the dominant trends, or to generate the vast commercialized attention (and profits) expected of "music celebrities." Undoubtedly Christina Grimmie's significance as an artist will continue to unfold into the future. Maybe it remains for those who come after us to appreciate the magnitude of what she has accomplished.

When I first wrote about Christina last summer, a few weeks after her death, I put a lot of emphasis on her foundational and formative influence for this new kind of media-thing called "YouTube" (read that article HERE). Over the past ten years, I've experienced a lot of YouTube videos. I think that YouTube (and audiovisual multimedia streaming in general) is the most radical social media platform of the present time, far more significant in the long run for human interaction than Facebook or Twitter.

But until fairly recently, YouTube just seemed to me to be another place for watching videos, or making videos for other people to watch. It seemed like an expanded version of the "television-vcr-dvd-videocam-thing." In a certain sense it is. In another sense, however, it has a creative dynamic and a reach all its own. I am still struggling to understand this dynamic, but I have learned a lot from Christina Grimmie. She shaped concrete works of performance art that were (indeed they still are) powerful expressions and communications of herself as a person. It's not surprising that she really touched (and continues to touch) people all over the world.

There is more to this phenomenon than mere human art, and I have written in other places about her faith and her special charism. But I don't want to neglect the artistic achievement forged by her tremendous human energy, her great humanity. It's not something you see by watching just one or two of her videos. You might be impressed right away by her music, but it takes time to begin to experience the way that a permanently accessible audiovisual media presentation conveys the unity of the artist with her music and her audience. This is only one of the many facets and possibilities of a media platform like YouTube, but it has a particular appeal for the performance artist. It is one thing to perform for a television show broadcasting to a mass audience. It is something else to craft one's own performance video and then share it in a way that reaches individual persons one at a time who can engage and interact with the video. In this dynamic, one's art is crafted as a personal gift and as an ongoing invitation to interpersonal relationship, to community.

This is what Christina Grimmie began to do in the summer of 2009. She wasn't the first or the only one to do this, but she had a "genius" for it. The genuine expression of her personality was woven into her songs and music and her talking and humor in a pervasive fashion. But it doesn't overwhelm the person watching it, and it can take some time to recognize the powerful gift of herself that she made in her videos and in all the other ways she shared her music. Indeed, it was something she herself developed over time, something that she eventually carried over also to her live concert performances and her remarkable interaction with her followers and supporters.

Christina took new paths as an artist, crafting new kinds of "artifacts" which have their own beauty because they are invested with the beauty of her own person and shaped to express that beauty. At the heart of all of this, of course, is music. Her videos remain to show us how personal music really is. This is even more striking and moving in light of the fact that she has completed her task in this world and has herself passed beyond our markings of time and into the Mystery that originates and fulfills everything.

Her videos show the continuing resonance of the gift she has given us, a gift of humanity and music.

I wonder whether perhaps fifty years from now she will be regarded in a way analogous to how we view another pioneer from fifty years ago, another musician who died tragically at the age of 22 but not before making a permanent impact on the whole realm of electronic ensemble music (i.e. "rock 'n roll"). The plane crash tragedy of 1959 was only part of the reason why Buddy Holly became a legend. He was also a real pioneer, one of the first to really grasp the fact that what he was playing was more than just a guitar with an amplifier attached to it. It was an electric guitar. It was a new kind of thing.

Maybe he never conceived of the whole matter abstractly, but he perceived it in an artistic way, he used it differently, to make new sounds. Musically, Buddy Holly opened up a new world. Electronic music has continued down so many new paths from the trail that he blazed 50 years ago. That's why Buddy Holly is a legend.

Fifty years from now, audiovisual streaming technology with be unimaginably rich in ways of communication and artistic expression. And everyone involved in it will know the legendary Christina Grimmie. They will be grateful to her.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Saint Josephine Bakhita: A Slave Who Became Free

On this feast day of Saint Josephine Bakhita, I thought I would reprint my Great Conversion Story published in MAGNIFICAT in the September 2014 issue.

  Great Conversion Stories
   Saint Josephine Bakhita

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Agatha Still Lives!

February 5 is observed on the liturgical calendars of Eastern and Western churches as the feast of Saint Agatha of Catania (who was tortured and martyred c. 250). She was another courageous young woman who gave her life for Jesus Christ.

Her heroic sacrifice, her total gift of herself to Jesus, has been celebrated since ancient times. She is one of the patron saints of Sicily. Since Sicily was at that time a Greek island, Agatha is an important figure in the Eastern tradition. On this day, the Byzantine liturgy honors her with many beautiful prayers such as this one:

You were a fragrant flower of virginity and an undefiled bride of the Lifegiver; you desired the Source of all good and excelled in martyrdom. O glorious Agatha, intercede by your holy prayers for those who lovingly honor your contest.

Agatha and countless others who followed her example of courage down through the ages bring to mind the words of Saint Paul: "I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ, know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death" (Philippians 3:8,10).

Even today, Catania celebrates Saint Agatha with a three day festival, including a procession of her remains through the city streets accompanied by crowds of hundreds of thousands of people. It is one of the largest "religious festivals" in the world.

What ancient personage has such a vital connection to real people today? This is not a celebration for Julius Caesar or some great philosopher or politician or king or movie star from the past. This is the celebration of a teenage girl who gave her life for Jesus Christ nearly 1,800 years ago!

Today, Saint Agatha is still remembered and honored with love by countless people, and she is a friend to their hearts. Real people have had real relationships with this person through the ages. They have looked to her example, confided in her, asked for her help. This is not superstition. This is the reality of the Church, the communion of saints.

This communion of persons with God and with one another in Jesus Christ cannot be broken by the power and the violence of the world. They couldn't destroy it in the year 250. Long after the powers that raged against her have been forgotten, Agatha still lives! They can't destroy it in 2017. They will never destroy it.

Violence is only for a time. Love never ends.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Presentation of the Lord

"Forty days have passed since we celebrated
the joyful feast of the Nativity of the Lord.
Today is the blessed day
when Jesus was presented in the Temple by Mary and Joseph.
Outwardly he was fulfilling the Law,
but in reality he was coming to meet his believing people.
Prompted by the Holy Spirit,
Simeon and Anna came to the Temple.
Enlightened by the same Spirit,
they recognized the Lord
and confessed him with exultation.
So let us also, gathered together by the Holy Spirit,
proceed to the house of God to encounter Christ.
There we shall find him
and recognize him in the breaking of the bread,
until he comes again, revealed in glory."

~from the "Introduction" for the procession and the blessing of candles on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (a.k.a. Beato Angelico), Presentation, San Marco, Florence

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Woodpecker VIDEO and Other Fun Scenes from January

I'm rounding off January 2017 with some of the month's most interesting pictures...along with a special fun treat. From my place in the Valley, it was warmer than usual with very little snow at all, though there was a fair bit of clouds and wet, rainy weather.

Last week, this pileated woodpecker was knocking its way through the neighborhood. This was some big bird! Not a particularly patient photographic subject, but I got a few good ones:

😊😏 That's the thing with digital cameras: I took dozens of pictures while this bird jumped around and peck peck pecked. Most of them were blurs, but with enough chances one is bound to get lucky. 😉

Another advantage of digital cameras it the chance to switch over to video. Why not put the woodpecker on YouTube? I have to post something every once in a while:

Almost could be a nature show if I added some music and the omniscient narrator with a British accent. ♫♬♬♫♪ "Heere... the North American woood-peckah pursues its prey... with rrrelentlesss tenacity!" ♫♬♬♫♪♫♬♬♫♪

Here are some other pictures that capture some of the more striking moments of earth, air, and sky in the local atmosphere of the month:

Winter sunlight on the bare trees.

Happy Creek plays with the afternoon light.

Strips of sunlight and clouds in the afternoon dusk.

Monday, January 30, 2017

We Need a "Revolution of the Heart"

It would be an understatement to say that many people have politics on their mind these days. The past week or so have seen various provocative gestures in the political arena, particularly here in the United States. We Christians have lots of ardent concerns about these issues, we often disagree on particular points, and-- like everyone else --we're not always sure we even know what's going on.

What can we do? Our particular responsibilities will vary depending on our proximity to the issues, our capabilities, our state of life with its demands, and various other factors.

In any case, we can't bury our heads in the sand and try to ignore the problems in our society.

Christian life is in the fullest sense human life, and therefore it is invested in the drama of human beings living together in community. It is important for Christians to take interest in politics. Depending on circumstances, possibilities, and needs, Christians are urged by their faith itself to get involved in political engagements, discussions, promotion of or opposition to policies and proposed legislation, rallies and protests, and movements for social reform.

Christians should be especially attentive to protecting and fostering the dignity of every human person, especially the poorest and most vulnerable in society. We should also be peacemakers, always seeking ways to prevent violence and encourage dialogue.

Even when it is necessary to stand firm for the truth and fight against certain political positions or attitudes, we must at the same time present our witness to the truth in love, seeking to understand others, listening to their opinions and concerns, and working to establish alternative possibilities for people in crisis situations.

We Christians know that concrete issues are interrelated because they are rooted in the basic features of the human drama and the human vocation. We must therefore attend to the broader context of the complex social problems that generate violence and the unjust structures of violence that become deeply rooted in culture and social consensus.

All of this emphasizes our responsibility to work for the good and to fight against evil in our society. We must work in a way that is balanced and prudent, just and courageous. It can be very intense, because as Christians we have a passion for humanity.

But it must be the work of love.

We must not allow ourselves to be "carried away" in a loss of focus or a kind of rage that robs our efforts of their constructive possibilities and descends into belligerence, manipulation, or cynical criticism. In these urgent affairs, it is all too easy to forget our faith, to forget love, to forget the foundation of our identity as Christians, to forget the One to whom we belong and the scope of the mission He has entrusted to us.

That is why I want to continue to reflect upon the essential role of prayer and sacrifice in our practice of politics. If we think these distinct realms have little to do with one another existentially, it is because we have a tendency to divide our real life into compartments and put boundaries around the awareness of our faith. It is always helpful, therefore, to remember the central importance of prayer and sacrifice in the Christian life as a whole.

Prayer and sacrifice are at the heart of who we are and everything we do.

It is understandable how politics today can appear all-absorbing. We live in tumultuous times. But as Christians we must always remember that what defines our life is our relationship with Jesus Christ and our eternal destiny which is to dwell with God. We must live this relationship first and above all: this relationship of love which, because it attains God Himself, encompasses the real depth of our relations with one another as brothers and sisters.

Our relationship with God in Jesus Christ has its own "language" -- prayer. And it grows by being conformed to the measure of Christ's love, which takes us beyond ourselves and leads us to surrender ourselves and all the circumstances of our lives to God. Thus we become gift, we become "outpouring of love beyond our own measure," we become "like God," we are "made holy" through this self-abandonment that we call sacrifice.

Prayer and sacrifice are at the core of our Christian existence. Here we begin to experience the peace that the world cannot give us, the peace of Jesus Christ which grounds us and gives us hope. Precisely because of this, they are also supremely practical for our vocation in this world. They open us up to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. When this happens, we begin to take up our engagement with reality in a new way, according to the dynamic of self-giving love, of service, of the mercy that generates a more human environment, a real human community.

It begins with the heart, with my heart and with your heart. In the words of Dorothy Day:
"The greatest challenge is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us. When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the cross, then we can truly say, 'Now I have begun.'"

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Six Years of Blogging and I Still Haven't "Give[n] Up"!

The Never Give Up blog is six years old.

I floated the idea in January of 2011 with friends and social media connections about starting a little personal blog. I thought, among other things, that it might be useful for the promotion of my (then still fairly new) book Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy (which is still a good read, and you can order it HERE).

Six years later, the blog is much, much longer than the book (which had a terrific editor, whereas here we basically shoot from the hip). But it continues to be a worthwhile project, at least for me (it is, as I have remarked before, my writing "workshop"). It's also interesting for a few other folks too, from time to time, I would like to think. (?)

I really should compile some "greatest hits" and work them up into a book.

Here is the first blog post, six years ago. The quotation is still one of my favorites:

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Hope of Saint Thomas Aquinas

For all the years that I have read and studied the theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, I have found myself returning again and again to this very simple and yet very rich prayer that is attributed to him. So much of the depth of his theological understanding and contemplative experience is expressed in this humble petition:

        "Grant me, O Lord my God,
        a mind to know you,
        a heart to seek you,
        wisdom to find you,
        conduct pleasing to you,
        faithful perseverance in waiting for you,
        and the hope of finally embracing you."

        ~St Thomas Aquinas

Monday, January 23, 2017

Prayer and the "Politics of Mercy"

"Everything begins with prayer… If all the world’s rulers and leaders would spend a little time on their knees before God, I believe we would have a better world" (Mother Teresa).

Today, the Catholic Church in the United States observes the National Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children (the ordinary day of observance, January 22, having fallen this year on a Sunday). Catholic Christians in America are called especially to a "day of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life and of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion."

While we must continually remember and resist all of the cruelty and horrors inflicted in this world, we observe this day with a focus on the violence of abortion, because this violence is directed against the most invisible and defenseless of human persons, and it brings division to one of the most vulnerable and essential of human relationships: the relationship between mother and child.

This is why Pope Francis, speaking in particular about the dignity of unborn human persons, insists that "a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be" (Pope Francis).

So we are invited to prayer and penance, today and every day. It is a good reminder for us of the fundamental significance of own interior life, of this hidden, grace-empowered dimension of our humanity.

Prayer and penance are the irreplaceable means that we possess, as sharers in Christ's royal priesthood through baptism, in the struggle against our own sins and the sins of the world. They are the means whereby Jesus's redeeming sacrifice "extends" its human proximity through all space and time, to transform the world. And these means are always available within that immediate and specific piece of the world--of history--that has been entrusted to us.

Through our prayer and sacrifice, God's love draws closer to the anguish and destruction of human violence, to initiate and nurture (often in unseen and unheralded ways) the process of conversion, of the change of hearts, of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing. Here, then, is the soul of whatever other kind of political or social activism we judge to be prudent and necessary or helpful to build up the common good, to work toward protecting the dignity of every human person and healing the wounds of every kind of violence.

Prayer and sacrifice (which can be a voluntary penance or even the embrace, in faith and love, of the unavoidable sufferings of the present moment) are "activity" that anyone can carry out. They do not replace our specific social and personal responsibilities toward our brothers and sisters in justice and charity. Rather, prayer and sacrifice remain always the vivifying center of the love with which we carry out all our other actions--because we are thus united in our own hearts (which are the origin of our freedom and love) to Christ's crucified love.

We must not allow our actions and our hearts to lose this focus, because the love of Jesus is the only hope for humanity.

Prayer and sacrifice are also a kind of "power" that cannot be taken away from us, no matter how poor and oppressed we are, regardless of sickness, pain, or weakness, in whatever limitations we find ourselves.

This does not, however, give any excuse to those who hold human power to neglect their responsibilities toward those in need. Not only charity, but also justice and the proper use of political power are the concern of all of us and require our vigilance. We are all responsible for cultivating justice, peace, generosity, and community among the persons and in the places we find ourselves, within our particular circumstances with their demands and possibilities, and as members of a larger society.

We must always do what we can to love those who have been entrusted to us, and each of us is responsible before God for discerning the concrete ways he calls us to be involved in the various levels of social life. Prayer is not a substitute for the more "external" work of seeking justice and mercy in human affairs, protecting the weak, or building up our families, communities, living environments, peoples, nations, and the international community. But prayer is what carries forward all these good works, and it is also what always remains possible even when no other kind of work is possible.

Prayer is thus the most fundamental political action and also the most "democratic" in that it is always available to everyone, because the Spirit of Jesus is at work in every person's heart. Prayer has the highest aim, in that it directs itself to the One who can do all things, the God of mercy who loves us.

Anyone can pray. Anyone. And if you pray, truly, from the heart, turning to the loving and merciful God who has already redeemed the world, you can be sure that the change you seek has begun--already, in that very moment--in a new way.

For God sees, and God listens, and God works within the mysterious connections that unite us all, one with another. And when you pray, it is because he has already begun to work in you.

It is the beginning of "the revolution of the heart." It is the awakening of the politics of mercy.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Saint Agnes Put Jesus First

Saint Agnes and the "Lamb of God"
Agnes of Rome (c. year 304) was a young woman who put Jesus Christ first in everything, and neither the allurements nor the violence of the powers of this world could take Him away from her.

"What I longed for, I now see; what I hoped for, I now possess; in heaven I am espoused to Him whom on earth I loved with all my heart" (antiphon for Saint Agnes, January 21).

Friday, January 20, 2017

Becoming King....

"The order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our author and our end.

"Now what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, tilting at the ring, etc., and fighting, becoming king, without thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man."

~Blaise Pascal, Pensees 146

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

If God is With Us, Why is Life So Full of Darkness?

I have been reflecting recently on the theme of "epiphany," which indicates that the Mystery--the infinite, inexhaustible fulfillment of meaning, goodness, justice, beauty, and happiness that our hearts are made for and that all reality points toward--that this Mystery beyond our understanding, beyond the reach of all our striving, has become manifest, has appeared in the world.

He has indeed revealed himself by taking flesh and dwelling among us, by becoming fully human: Jesus of Nazareth. In the coming months we will reflect upon the whole unfolding of God's revelation and communication of himself to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

In these events, God, without ceasing to be the Mystery, enters into the depths of human history for the salvation of a world that not only does not fathom him, but that also fears him and rebels against him. God has redeemed the world.

Because of all this, we proclaim that Jesus is Lord. He has all things. He is the meaning of the universe, the meaning of history, the meaning of today, this day, this moment, now.

But that doesn't mean all our problems "go away." The redemption is not magic. It's not a formula for worldly success. It's not a way of escaping the struggles of being human. It's not about protecting us from suffering.

It's about love. God's love, which is the real truth, the real meaning of history, of this moment, this "now."

Jesus's death happens in a moment in time; his resurrection reveals that he has encompassed all of time and embraced the life of every person in his redeeming love. Jesus enters into our "now" and transforms it into an invitation to respond in love to the mystery of his love. His presence empowers our hearts and draws us to respond more and more in love to his love, to abandon ourselves to his love.

The Source of all things, who sustains all things and "saves them from nothingness," is here. He is with us. His presence and his promise touch our hearts. Yet he remains the Mystery and our lives remain mysterious, full of perplexities, tensions and changes, the foretaste of eternal joy, but also (in what can seem contrary to it) our own insoluble problems, our own pain and suffering.

Human beings live in fear of the mystery of life; they flee from it because it appears to them to be a gaping abyss of darkness. The Christian proposal for our lives does not deny this mysterious abyss, or seek to replace it with some ideology or cheap sentiment. True Christian faith lives the mystery of being human all the way to the abyss and suffers its darkness. Christian faith knows that Jesus is here too, and above all.

Jesus has fathomed the abyss of our own mystery, and calls upon us to trust in him because he encompasses it all in the Mystery itself, in the greater abyss that is Eternal Love. This abyss is an infinite Mercy that will finally take us beyond yearning and longing, beyond ourselves and our limits and into the fulfillment for which we have been made.

He is here and we will be saved if we adhere to him and hold onto him and never let go.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Power that is Good

Remembering on this day the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These simple words have not lost their relevance.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Do I Really Believe in Him?

What does this man Jesus of Nazareth propose to his disciples? And what does he offer to my life, in response to my aspirations, my questions, my struggles with my own limitations, my suffering?

He offers himself. "I am the way and the truth and the life," he says. "Believe in me, follow me."

Do I really believe in him?

Jesus claims that he is the reason why I exist, that I was created so that I might be his brother, the brother of God the Son--the Word made flesh--and thus come to be, in union with him, a child of the Father in the Spirit. This is why I exist; this is the foundation of my identity and destiny as a created person. God made me because he wanted to love me and to give me the power to love him. I was created so that I might be raised up to share in the life of the Trinity.

And this is true for absolutely every human being without exception. It is at the very core of the humanity we all share. Every person is, by the mystery of God's mercy, on a path of life that leads ultimately to an encounter with Jesus, even though so many know nothing about him right now. This is why our lives and words witness to him, Jesus, always, even as we respect people of other religions, engage in dialogue with them, and learn many beautiful things from their stories of seeking truth and longing for goodness and beauty, from the genuine wisdom embodied in their cultures and traditions, and from the mysterious ways God has drawn them and worked in their lives. As we accompany others, collaborate with them, live in friendship with them, and witness to them, we are servants of the grace of God at work in them and in us.

Jesus wants to share his burning love with others, through us. Jesus wants everyone to meet him and to discover that he is the only answer to the search for meaning and the yearning for love that God has fashioned in the depths of every human heart. Only Jesus really knows me; only he can answer for me the question, “Who am I?

At this point, I feel that I have to ask myself: Is this something I really believe? Is it the concrete, motivating impetus of my daily life? Do I experience the presence of Jesus and his real love for me? How do any of us answer these questions?

If we are Christians, we want to say "yes" in some way, however fragile, however buried beneath distractions, obscured, forgotten, or mysteriously at work in deep places of our darkness. If we do not know this joy, how will we share it with others?

We must grow in this awareness, for our own sakes and for others. We must beg the Lord to deepen the conviction and the ardor of our faith and love, so that we will perceive more concretely that the glory of Christ is the real, superabundant, unimaginable answer to every human misery, every human cry of anguish, every authentic human desire for something more than the limits of this world can give.

We Christians: we need this capacity to see life as it really is. Then we will be able to serve others as witnesses, to give love, to bring healing, to meet human needs with God's mercy.

Going out to the margins, the places of anguish and loneliness, becomes possible and vital as we become more deeply aware of the fact that Jesus himself corresponds to the mystery of the human heart -- my own heart, and the heart of every person I meet. We must beg God to give us the grace to see our world, our circumstances --vividly --in light of this truth.

We must beg God to teach us how to pray, to open our eyes and our hearts to recognize his presence, to be changed by his "humble glory." We must seek him in the life of the Church, drawing strength from the Eucharist and the sacraments, and from one another in the companionship that is born from this new unity we share in his goodness and love.

In this begging, this prayer that adheres to the Lord only to long for him all the more, it becomes clear that every person really is my brother or my sister, that we all stand together in need of his mercy.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Christmas All Through the Year

Detail from Ethiopian icon
Although the great feasts of the Christmas season culminated this past weekend, some of us will keep our lights burning through the rest of the month until February 2. Thus the glow of our Christmas cheer will continue to brighten the often gray wintry days and the long cold nights of January.

Ultimately, however, "Christmas" indicates a fact that shapes all of our days and all of our years: God has come into the world.

From Bethlehem to the Jordan, we have celebrated in these recent weeks God's "opening up of himself," his giving of himself to us. He who is the Mystery that every human person seeks, who is on "the other side" of the More that every person pleads for in front of reality: he has done something beyond all of our dreams and our myths and our philosophy and our striving. He himself--the Infinite Mystery--has come into our reality, into actual human flesh and blood.

God is with us. He had made his dwelling among us and remains with us. He has intervened directly and totally in the story of the human race. God himself dwells among us, in the midst of our human weakness, our self-indulgence, our cruelty, barbarism, blindness, idolatry, and willful ignorance of his compassion and love.

God has given everything; he has poured himself out in love, and in so doing he manifests his ineffable glory, for God is Love. The fullness of the revelation of God is in this love that overcomes sin, that embraces us and saves us, redeems us and heals us. The Infinite Mystery is Infinite Mercy.

And Divine mercy has a human face and a name: Jesus.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"My Faith is My Whole Life"

Seven Months.

"My faith is huge to me. It's not like, 'Oh it's just a section of my life.' No, my faith is my whole life" (Christina Grimmie).

Monday, January 9, 2017

Looking For the Meaning of Life? Listen to Him.

Baptism of Jesus, detail from Ethiopian icon.
"A voice came from the heavens, saying, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased'" (Matthew 3:17). And then again, at the Transfiguration: "From the cloud came a voice that said, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him'" (Matthew 17:5).

“Listen to him.”

Is it not a wonderful thing that there is Someone to whom we can listen?

It means that our lives are not meaningless chaos. All the uncontrollable circumstances, the violence, the disappointments of our lives are understood and taken up by Someone who turns everything to the good, who draws the whole of this crazy life towards a purpose, a fulfillment in wisdom and love.

And if we listen to Him we can enter into that purpose and discover therein redemption and mercy.