Saturday, September 23, 2017

Something Greater Than All Our Misery

We have heard much about different people's sufferings in these recent days, especially due to various natural disasters. My heart goes out to all of those who have endured terrible losses and who continue to struggle with hurricanes, floods, and the aftermath of earthquakes in recent days.

We are all moved by the stories and the images from these places.

We know too that beyond today's news are all the afflictions that sooner or later will burden every human being in this poor life. How do people endure living in this world? The impetus to keep going says something tremendous about the human person.

But the most striking thing is that even in the worst times, the light of compassion and solidarity is not extinguished. We encounter some who have the capacity to love from out of the midst of their own deepest personal pain.

This is a wondrous thing, like a miracle. It bears witness to a profound truth: that there is something greater in this world, something greater than all the implacable misery that presses down upon us with a weight that would suffocate our souls.

During His Passion, Jesus cried out to the Father, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This is very mysterious, but we know that on the Cross, Jesus has taken to Himself and borne for us and is present within every suffering that we endure, even and especially the suffering of feeling abandoned and alone, of the great open wound that is our anguish and that can do nothing but cry out.

Trusting in Him even as we cry out may bring no comfort, but the truth is that Jesus is here, that there is Love, that there is healing, that He has made a way through the darkest places.

The very fact that we believe this, even with the smallest glimmer of faith, is a sign that we are already beginning to be transformed.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Shared Responsibility for the Human Family

"It is a sign of hope that the religions of the world are becoming more aware of their shared responsibility for the well-being of the human family. This is a crucial part of the globalization of solidarity, which must come if the future of the world is to be secure. 

"This sense of shared responsibility increases as we discover more of what we have in common as religious men and women. Which of us does not grapple with the mystery of suffering and death? Which of us does not hold life, truth, peace, freedom, and justice to be supremely important values?

"Which of us is not convinced that moral goodness is soundly rooted in the individual’s and society’s openness to the transcendent world of the Divinity? Which of us does not believe that the way to God requires prayer, silence, asceticism, sacrifice, and humility? 

"Which of us is not concerned that scientific and technical progress should be accompanied by spiritual and moral awareness? And which of us does not believe that the challenges now facing society can only be met by building a civilization of love?"

John Paul II
     (Pastoral visit to India, 1999)

Friday, September 15, 2017

The NEW "New Media"

Recently, I was watching a stream of one of those savvy young (i.e. "twenty-something") YouTubers (they're the ones who see what's happening right now). This kid was chatting naturally, and at a certain point casually referred to a story about some event that happened five years ago, and they said, "you know, that was back in the days of Facebook."

"...that was back in the days of FACEBOOK"! ๐Ÿ˜ฎ Just let that sink in for a moment. Now if you're well over fifty years old you've probably lost track of this whole business, unless you're an IT professional or a nerd who studies the philosophical dimensions of communications media.

If you're the "Facebook Generation," however, you're grappling with the trauma of being awfully close to (if not already past) the age of thirty. SCORCH! ๐Ÿ”ฅ It's hard enough worrying about being "old" (which, let me assure you, you are not). Now they're saying "back in the day" about Facebook? So Facebook is now "Old Media"? Crazy, huh. 

Ah, get used to it kids!๐Ÿ˜œ 

But, seriously, there's more to this phenomenon than just your age. This is the ongoing communications revolution that began long before you were born.

The great pioneer communications philosopher (and the original nerd) Marshall McLuhan always knew that audiovisual multimedia interactivity was the ultimate trajectory of "New Media" —one of many terms he coined back in the early 1960s, when people were beginning to discover that television was connecting the world in new ways. McLuhan perceived that there was something inherently "involving" about the TV experience, indeed that the medium generated an experiential environment different from audio or print communication. He saw television technology evolving in such a way that the general population would ultimately become not merely consumers but also producers of audiovisual media expression. 

When I was growing up, we never imagined the possibility of everybody having their own personal TV broadcast channel! But the internet, the development of mobile devices, and platforms like YouTube have made this a reality within the past ten years.

Meanwhile, Facebook is rushing to catch up, as I'm sure you've noticed from the audiovisual platform they keep trying to develop.

Where will it all go from here? As we used to say "back in the days" of old fashioned television: STAY TUNED!

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Towers of My Memory

This is me (yes, it is really me—stop laughing!) probably in the summer of 1983, on the Staten Island Ferry gesturing to the barely visible Manhattan skyline in the foggy distance. It's not just the picture quality here; I recall that it was this sort of cloudy day, though I can't recall who took the picture. Needless to say, we had no selfies back then.

Can you see the two exceptionally tall buildings through the mist, standing far above the others? I remember when those "twin towers" opened ten years earlier.

For a long time, they were just part of the landscape of New York.

During the course of many visits, I went up to the top and marveled at the amazing views. (It was fun to take visiting Europeans up there; in fact it's fun just taking them to New York, which is not like anything they've ever seen except in the movies). I hung around various parts of the buildings day and night, walked by them, saw them from many angles of the skyline, saw them from airplane windows....

It seemed like they would just be there forever. Like mountains.

The nightmare that took place 16 years ago was inconceivable for a large part of my life. We grew up imagining nuclear war (and those images are proving more resilient than I had hoped). But the primitive evil of September 11, 2001, along with the personal catastrophes and the heroism that followed, proved once again a very old truth.

It proved that the greatest power in the worldfor violence and destruction or for valor and courage and solidarityremains the human heart with its designs, its choices for good or evil, and its vocation that draws it to love and to hope and to begin again.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Foundation of Joy

During his visit to Colombia, Pope Francis is preaching a message of peace for a nation torn by fifty years of civil war, and for all of us:

Francis: "The Lord embraces all, and—listen to this!—all of us are important and essential to Him."

People in plaza, Bogotรก, Colombia:  Large crowd cheering, waving colors, etc.

Francis: "During these days I would like to share with you the most important truth: that God loves us with the love of a Father who encourages us to continue looking for and desiring peace—that peace which is authentic and abiding. God loves us with the love of a Father. Shall we repeat this together?"

People: "God loves us with the love of a Father!"

Francis: "This is the foundation of joy."

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

People Disappoint Us, But We Should Love Them Anyway

Goofy cartoonish picture of the author

When we love people, sooner or later they disappoint us. This can make us feel cynical about others and inadequate within ourselves.

Too often when somebody lets us down or distances themselves from us, we feel like this somehow reflects an "objective" judgment on our value as persons. On the exterior we might get angry and defend ourselves or lash out at the other person, or we might think critically of them, but on a deeper level it eats away at our sense of self-worth. It's like "they dumped me because I'm not worth it" and then we inwardly recite the litany of all our flaws, and the anxiety and depression "switches" get flipped, and we spiral downward. Well, that's the way I have been, anyway. It took many years for me to realize that that's just not reality.

This is reality: You are a person. You are a gift. You are made to love and to be loved. Your very existence is a gift to those who encounter you, and if you give yourself in love, in friendship, in compassion, you aspire to be received by another, to be embraced, to be loved. That aspiration is not selfish. It is properly personal. It might (usually does) get mixed up with selfishness to some degree, but the foundation is real and worthy.

In daily life, we offer ourselves to other human persons. But people (every one of us) are a mysterious intersection of temperament, problems, original-sin-based-wonkiness, a thousand quirks, hidden hurts and hidden preoccupations, and FREEDOM... all under the even deeper mystery of God's infinitely discrete, clever, and relentless grace.

We can't fix one another. We offer ourselves, and it's a risk... but it's also a victory, always. Real self-giving (ordinary daily self-giving) is always constructive. Sure, we're not perfect. We have to pray and open ourselves more to God's love, to work on our faults with persistence and patience, to practice courtesy in our relationships, to benefit from what others can teach us by their counsel and their example. If people turn away from us because we really have hurt them, we should seek to make amends and ask for forgiveness.

At the same time, self-giving love requires realism and balanced judgment; it must be distinguished from a kind of emotional dependency that constantly gets defined and degraded by the violence of an unloving person. Self-giving is founded upon a proper "self-possession" and, indeed, a proper love of self. It does not mean allowing ourselves to be reduced to being someone else's punching bag.

But in ordinary (non-dysfunctional) human relationships, there is something distorted about the consistent perception that whenever we are not adequately loved, it is entirely our fault. We shouldn't think that the reason for this experience is that we are defective or somehow less than fully human persons. This is often a feature of the pathology of depression, but our freedom is involved here too, in that we must not give in to self-pity, resentment, and discouragement, and begin to block off the love that God offers to us—especially the way He gives Himself through the feeble and often disappointing love of our brothers and sisters.

We are made for love and worthy of love. The hope of being loved by another is not an illusion or a selfish flaw. Jesus says, "Give and you shall receive." The gift of self is a mysterious outpouring, a self-"emptying," a "disinterest" not because by it we devalue ourselves, but rather because in it we grow beyond the incomplete "place" of ourselves from moment to moment. But our seeking is destined to be fulfilled.

In human love we experience a sign of this fulfillment, but also something that can only fall short—if for no other reason than that even the most perfect human love is less than infinite Love. So we experience one another, and the hope for a definitive fulfillment grows, patience widens our hearts, we learn to forgive and to be forgiven, to bear with one another and to help one another.

We do "lose ourselves" when we love, but the promise is that we will find ourselves, even through pain.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Happy Saint "Mother Teresa" Day!

Happy Saint "Mother Teresa" Day! 

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa of Calcutta (September 5, 1997). Those of us who remember her must pass on her witness to the generation that has grown up after her death: her enduring witness of love and compassion and reverence for the dignity of every human person.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Freedom and Friendship in Christ

Several very simple but supportive gestures of solidarity experienced in recent months have led me to ponder once again with gratitude the tremendous grace that is Christian friendship. 

This unique kind of friendship is founded on a unique kind of sharing of life, which St. Paul calls koinonia, and which we translate as "communion"—it is the communion of life in Christ, from its transcendent center to its many particular expressions. Because it really is a participation in God's love in Christ, this communion is not—in itself and by its own proper character—anything like a conformist imposition or an invasive smothering of the person (and insofar as we drift into this sort of reductionism in our living out of relationships with one another, we are not being true to the koinonia of Christian friendship). Our communion in Christ is a unity-in-diversity of persons; it is an interpersonal environment in which the special vocation of each person is discovered and flourishes. 

Since the person discovers his or herself and realizes his or her freedom through self-giving love, there is always a reciprocal relationship between the authentic realization of personal freedom and the building up of communion. 

Communion and liberation. They are inseparable. Thus Jesus Christ, who creates the definitive communion of life, fulfills the destiny of the human person and the human community.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Wonders of the Sun and the Terrors of the Storm

My heart goes out to all the people who are suffering in different ways from the furies of the weather in these recent days.๐Ÿ’š Here in the United States—only a week after the nation gathered to watch a strange and wonderful solar eclipse—a major population center has been paralyzed by a deluge from the sky.

The Weather Channel's website has had many, many pictures of the devastation wrought all along the region near the Gulf Coast of Texas. The aerial photo (above) of Houston underwater, taken by David J. Phillip for Associated Press, captures something of the surreal vastness of the massive flood that almost looks like a permanent alteration of the geography of this huge sprawling city. It's all the work of a hurricane with the deceptively benign name of "Harvey" dumping several feet of rain on Houston and its surroundings, overwhelming the area by brute force.

The waters will eventually dry up. But the human impact will remain, and the work of rebuilding homes, neighborhoods, and civic life in Houston will take years. For many people, the losses will never be replaced.

O this poor human life!๐Ÿ˜ข The things we build, the security and wealth we accumulate with such ingenuity and labor and anxious care: how fragile it all is.

Houston? No, Macao in China, flooded by a typhoon this week.
The ancient Chinese were no strangers to droughts and floods. For all the highly articulated order and ritual propriety of their Confucian system, the Chinese remained baffled before an "incomprehensible heaven," even what they sometimes called a "cruel heaven" that nevertheless—they were convinced—had its inescapable purposes.

The reference to China here is not simply to note that flooding is an ancient scourge. It also arises from current events: earlier this week, even as Houston and coastal Texas were deluged, an enormous typhoon hit the regions around Hong Kong and Macao on the other side of the world, bringing disastrous floods and sundering winds upon the people there. Indeed, disasters like Hurricane Harvey's washout of Texas—sometimes with far worse consequences for human life—happen all the time, all over the world. And human beings, from time immemorial, have grappled with the mysteries of the "heaven" above them, that enormous, awesome, usually-regular-but-occasionally-unpredictable space that seems to have so much to do with life and death. Today, our technological world has measured the "heavens" and developed a plethora of tools for analyzing and predicting rainfall, heat, cold, the flow of the winds, and even the movements of the sun and the moon.

Nevertheless, whether it is the wondrous phenomenon of last week's solar eclipse or the catastrophes of this week's floods, the vast environment that shapes our world still remains beyond our control. We fill the skies every day with airplanes, we connect with one another through the airwaves and via satellites, we send rockets to explore the moon and beyond, and yet...we are not the masters of reality.

A natural disaster is a terrible and painful experience for those in its path. It is also a reminder to all of us of the two aspects of human life that are so difficult to reconcile: its preciousness and its frailty. A serious meditation on human life often arrives at a kind of stoic resignation or fatalism. It can even tempt us to bitterness or a hardened cynicism.

Photo of partial eclipse taken through dark glass, on our porch.
How do we hold together the preciousness and the frailty of life? On the one hand, there is so much beauty that draws us; so much that makes life worth living to the full. And yet nothing we attain seems to last. Everything passes away. "All is Vanity," the old wise man says (see Ecclesiastes 1:2). But this is not the whole truth about life, and by itself it only leads us to an irresolvable dissatisfaction and sadness. It does not explain our hope.

Indeed, the project of life is one in which we are always seeking goodness, beauty, truth, justice, love—in a word, happiness, and not just for a time, but a fulfilling and enduring happiness. We struggle to build relationships and an environment where the goodness and beauty—the happiness—we seek can be experienced and fostered. At the same time, precisely within our most passionate attention to reality, we discover the need to "let go"—not because we suddenly find ourselves falling into an abyss of nothingness, but because we are touched by the wonder at the heart of reality, and our need to be open to receive the gift beyond all our efforts and understanding.

During the moments of the eclipse, everyone experienced a wonder that was beyond our control. Everyone was fascinated, and for all our efforts to measure it and take pictures, we knew there was no way to capture its surprises. We felt like children again, receiving a gift in joy and wonder.

For those rendered homeless by the floods in Texas and Macao and—no doubt—other places that didn't make the news this past week, "letting go" feels very much like having the good and happy things of life wrenched away by an accidental and capricious violence. Here people encounter something "beyond their control" but it hardly seems fascinating. It seems, rather, to jar the trajectory of their existence off what they thought was a stable path. They grieve for losses that are all too real.

Grief is strange and arduous and incomprehensible. But it too touches every human life, and it affects each person in a unique way. There is no simple way to "resolve" it. It is a long and mysterious path of "letting go and opening up" that unfolds in its own time, that must be borne and lived and endured. We can accompany one another and help one another in grief through solidarity and compassion, and the works of mercy that flow from them.

And will we discover, in time, that even grief endures by the light of wonder beyond what has been lost, by the hope of finding it again more fully, by the stubbornness of the longing that remains and secretly grows within us?

Partial eclipse in Virginia, on our porch, reflected through the tree shadows (left) and observed through paper projection holes by Josefina (right)

Monday, August 28, 2017

Augustine Speaks to God, and Writes a Book for All of Us

Today we remember the great Saint Augustine, the man who found Jesus and in following Him chose to abandon his profession as a rhetorician, and his aspirations to "make beautiful and compelling presentations using words."

Then, in one of history's great ironies, Augustine told the story of how he found Christ, and in so doing he crafted one of the most beautiful and compelling presentations using words that has ever been written.

He addresses his words to God, and yet, in writing this singular work of literature—his Confessions—he teaches human beings from every place and time about the hearts they possess, full of yearning, deceived by sin, and longing for salvation, healing, and peace:
"You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You....Who shall bring me to rest in You? Who will send You into my heart so to overwhelm it that my sins shall be blotted out and I may embrace You, my only good?.... Behold, the ears of my heart are before You, O Lord; open them and say to my soul, 'I am your salvation'. I will hasten after that voice, and I will lay hold upon You. Hide not Your face from me. Let me die so that I may see it, for not to see it would be death to me indeed" (Confessions, Book I).
Throughout his account and up to its decisive moment, he crafts an unparalleled poetic expression of human desire, failure, and struggle, and above all the joy of encountering God through Jesus Christ. These words are classic, and it doesn't seem that we can ever ponder them too much:
"Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You called, You shouted, and You broke through my deafness. You flashed, You shone, and You dispelled my blindness. You breathed Your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for You. I have tasted You, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for Your peace" (Confessions, Book X).
It may seem crude for a secondary source to try to recount the conversion of Saint Augustine, and yet people have been doing it anyway for well over a thousand years. Though they cannot replace or reproduce anything like the original, they have their own modest reasons for attempting to take the measure of some aspect(s) of this towering man.

I have participated in the ongoing effort to write about Augustine in what was just the second article of my regular column in MAGNIFICAT, "Great Conversion Stories" (the column has now been running nearly four years with more to come). My article on Augustine appeared way back in the January 2014 issue of this beautiful monthly journal of prayer, meditation, readings, and art (you can subscribe by clicking HERE).

Since I get new readers all the time, I thought I would share again this (poor quality but legible) reproduction of the column:

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Experiments in Graphic Art: The Cartoony Flower

Here I attempted to use a cartoon style photo editor, supplemented by the usual photo editing software that I have in my toolkit, in order to produce this... well... cartoony flower.

One would think by the way these applications present themselves that it would be very easy. But it actually took some time and considerable effort to get the particular structure and the corresponding colors that I wanted for this image. It was, in fact, harder than I thought it would be to produce this modest result.

Whatever its merits, it has gone through a process from being excerpted from my camera photograph to a series of precise edits with filters and adjustments but also using the tools "by hand" (still gotta use a mouse to "draw" and click for certain things). Though never touched by a real pen or pencil, it's entitled—in the broader sense in common use today—to be called an experiment in "graphic" art.๐Ÿ˜Š

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Courage to be Seen

I'll take this opportunity to get the blog up to date with my more recent experiments in computer graphics and the artistic presentation of text.

This is a simple format with some filtering for an excerpt from a text of Pope Francis. These are, once again, challenging and crucially formative words for anyone who follows Jesus Christ:

That crowds a lot of words into a square, of course. I was working with the ideal shape for an Instagram post. Perhaps it's a bit much for Instagram; I often still think in the text, font, and page formatting of the late twentieth century. I'm a rather old dog who is trying to learn a few new tricks, slowly.

Here below is another arresting passage from a homily of the Pope that I arranged in conjunction with an image. This passage is shorter and more visually engaging:

And then there's this text, with colors and geometric patterns:

I also have a couple of Scripture texts in graphic form using various editorial techniques:

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Their Death is NOT Just a Statistic

It keeps happening. This strange, violent, awful way of dying.

I refuse to be reconciled to it, as if it were some phenomenon of social science or an unavoidable fate for certain people.

I keep trying to write this post, but I can't find any adequate way to talk about it. There really isn't an adequate way.

We live in tumultuous times. Our immensely powerful and stressful world pushes forward with a relentless force that continually multiplies itself, enlarges itself, leaping over limits of speed, annihilating space, defying gravity, racing in all directions. We are all riding behind this wild engine, gasping for air and grasping for a place to hold on. We don't really know who's driving or where it's going. Perhaps we are lucky enough to have learned some tricks for hanging on to this crazy train.

But people face all kinds of challenges and make a lot of mistakes. Some of these challenges are complicated by mental disorders that become more exacerbated by this wild ride. They are slipping and having trouble regaining their footing.

They're falling off the train. Too many of them are falling off the train. (But what is "too many"? One is too many!)

From all the noise and the scramble, they find no peace. They only fall into the cold stillness of the ground. And they are hardly noticed.

Suicide has become a statistic.

It will never be just a statistic for me! There are too many names and faces, too many people I love who have been devastated by this awful thing. Too many people who have been lost, or who have had their loved ones ripped away from them.

I know the trajectory of Depression, and how its internal chaos can connive with the recklessness of a toxic environment. I know that we must never give up hope. We must hope in the infinite mercy of God, and recognize all the factors that can diminish or eliminate culpability when a person does something that brings their life to an end.

I have a precious friend for whom I keep that flame of hope burning. Let us keep those flames burning, even though it means that our own hearts will continue to be struck and scarred by the heat.

Let us grieve and hope for our loved ones, and stand in solidarity with others who have lost their loved ones. At the same time, we must recognize that suicide is a disaster that stands at the end of a chain: often a bizarre and complex chain that has lots of links (and we must do as much as we can to understand and try to unhook those links). Still it is a chain that is held by the hand of the Enemy of the human race.

We must oppose this Enemy without compromise. Jesus tells us clearly: the Enemy is a liar and a thief! No compromise. Suicide is never, never the anything.

Dear suffering people, it is good that you are here. Stay!๐Ÿ’— Don't give up. Talk to someone about it. You matter, believe it, you matter so much more than you think!

For the rest of us: Understand that there are people among you who suffer. Some of them are young people who seem so full of vitality, or successful people, or people who seem so strong. They suffer in secret. Be ready to welcome with kindness and compassion any person who shows you their pain.

Other people suffer more openly, and we are tempted to think the unthinkable. The horror! We must resist this temptation with all our ardor.

The only true response to suffering is love and compassion (which includes every effort we can muster to alleviate the particular pains and suffering of a living human being). No matter how dire their circumstances may be, however, we must not let any human person ever think that the "solution" is to end their own life, much less should we provide the means and assistance for them to do so.

Worst of all is the social "normalization" of suicide, either through negligence or through the endorsement (by law and social mentality) of anyone making the terrible mistake of ending their own life. We must never say to any human person, "your life has no value." This is a lie! It is treason against humanity, the failure of love, the mockery of justice, the icing-over of the human heart.

And do we think we can allow this to become the norm, and somehow limit or control it? Right now, the weak are struggling to find a place to stand. In a cold world of fake compassion and icy hearts, the weak will fall and fall and fall. Indeed, we who are strong, who hold power, will push them.

The statistics will rise. And if our eyes remain dry, the stones will weep. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Birth of Oscar Romero, August 15, 1917

Today is the centennial of the birth of one of the truly great prophetic witnesses of the 20th century: martyr, bishop, lover of Christ and His poor, "man of the Church"Blessed Oscar Romero (1917-1980).

Blessed Romero, pray for the peoples of the Americas, pray that we might have the courage to love, to work for justice, peace, and solidarity.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Conflict and the Way of Love

The words of Saint Maximilian Kolbe during the darkest moments of his own time speak eloquently to each one of us in the midst of the crises of the present day, and of those yet to come:

Kolbe knew that the only way to resolve the conflicts of society and the conflict within ourselves is the way of love. This way is possible because God loves us first, and empowers us by His grace to love Him and be transformed in His likeness.

Thus we love God our Father who makes us, through Jesus Christ who died for us and rose from the dead, in the Holy Spirit who descended upon the Virgin Mary and who continues to enter intimately into our lives in union with her maternal love, her all-holy, all-beautiful, all-pure woman's heart that loves each and every human person with inconceivable tenderness.

In this way God's goodness shapes us as children of adoption; the tenderness of Mary shapes our way of seeing and our response to every person. Maximilian Kolbe's own life and death show us how tremendous the response of love can be. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Christina Grimmie: The Sorrow Remains

I was going to write some notes on the posthumous album of Christina Grimmie tonight. But after two months of listening to the music, it's still hard to articulate my thoughts about it. The range of emotion evoked by this album remains overwhelming for me.

I cannot get beyond the aching, poignant perception of these last recordings: the combination of amazement at a stunning artistry in the process of blossoming into maturity and the pathos of the awful silence that haunts these songs, because we know that she will never sing them live or cheerfully appear on YouTube and dazzle us with stripped down piano-and-vocal versions of any of them.

Her family and friends did a remarkable job putting together some of the songs she had prepared in the period prior to her death 14 months ago, when she was murdered by a deranged gunman at a meet-and-greet. The result is a rich musical achievement that solidifies further her legacy, but is not currently receiving the attention it deserves.

The album appeared on the eve of the first anniversary of Christina's death, charted on iTunes for a short time, and then (it seems to me, at least) disappeared from the view of the music world. Maybe we're not ready for it yet.

Team Grimmie is more ready and more appreciative than anyone. But even Team Grimmie--her dedicated international following, her group of "frands" (as she always called them) who connected with her through YouTube and digital media and at concerts, who supported and (being mostly teens) emulated her--is still processing the traumatic and strange experience of her death at the age of only 22.

Older folks are less ready. It is perhaps especially hard for old music hacks like me, who are parents of teenagers, who were stunned when they realized that this sweet kid on YouTube was doing something unique with the contemporary pop music that had never interested them before, bending and stretching it in new ways by the sheer force of her enormous talent and the radiance of her personality.

How do we get used to her death in the face of the powerful vitality of this new album?

If you love Christina and you love music, you can't escape the rush of questions about the fragility of life, the value of art, and the meaning of death when you listen to it.

In light of these aching questions, the album is appropriately titled All is Vanity (from the book of Ecclesiastes and the tattoo on her forearm). It is a collection that brings together several of the distinctive styles that Christina was developing in the last years of her tragically brief career. She always loved electronica, and the tech music comes out as her main template here. We might miss the simplicity of her melodious piano arrangements, but not really, because all the songs are driven by her soaring voice.

Contemporary pop and EDM styles are harnessed to create the atmosphere for her vocals which combine a classic, soulful R&B sound with her utterly unique stratospheric sonic gymnastics. She croons and hums and belts up and down her three-and-a-half octave range (and more) with a flawless pitch and the vocal control that Graham Nash thought was so remarkable that he described it as "insane" on season six of The Voice.

The result is that a great vibe runs through the whole album. Sometimes you want to dance. Other times you want to hum, to swing, to close your eyes and move your head. You feel alive. You're glad to be alive.

But life is such a fragile thing.

For this century, for this era, June 10, 2016 is "the day the music died."

Christina Grimmie believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death, and so do I. There is much consolation in knowing that in death "life is not ended but changed." Faith, hope, and love give rise to the lively confidence that now she lives, truly and personally, in Christ. In His heart, she can have a new and wider and more profound capacity to touch the lives of all the people who love her. 

In a sense she is more than ever the companion she always wanted to be, the friend of every person who was moved by her passion for music and life, of every person who ever approached her or hoped one day to approach her or wish they had approached her after a concert when she remained at the venue as late as necessary to greet everyone who wanted to see her. She offered her life to inspire people, to welcome strangers and reach out to them with love and with all the vulnerability that entails. And she died with her arms wide open, offering that love to a stranger.

How can such love end in frustration? Thanks be to God, we don't have to be buried under the weight of such a question. Our hope in Christ includes an ongoing (even deeper) companionship with her.

But this companionship is now hidden in the mystery of God, and is silent to our earthly ears. Faith does not make this silence go away. It does not eliminate the poignancy and the tragedy of the silencing of Christina Grimmie's beautiful voice.

So it is that this album brings a touch of sorrow to my heart. I know it will not last forever, and even now it is mixed with an inexplicable joy and peace, as well as a gratitude for a collection of terrific music. 

And yet the sorrow remains, and it must be allowed its space.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Martyr

"Human action cannot help us, but only the sufferings of Christ. My aspiration is to share them" (Edith Stein, Cologne, Germany, 1938).

Edith Stein, a young Jewish philosopher who found Jesus Christ and entered a Carmelite convent as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz on August 9, 1942. Today the Catholic Church honors her as a saint and a martyr who gave her life alongside her Jewish brothers and sisters -- the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Mental Illnesses are Real Illnesses that Need Treatment

I keep coming back to this issue because it's so important that we get it straight. 

It's an issue that can be difficult, because there's still a lot that we don't understand about mental illness and people who suffer from it. The pathology of "Interior Perception Distortion" is not accessible in the same way as a rash or a fever or a broken bone. It seems more bound up with personality, sensibilities, temperament, etc. It's difficult to empathize if we haven't experienced it ourselves, and it's not easily "fixed."

But we cannot afford to ignore it, or try to deal with it as if it were just a spiritual or moral problem, or assume that it's just another bogus evasion produced by the bad bad evil "modern world." Mental illnesses are real and they've been around from way back.

Anyone who gets sick enough knows it's not just a trick invented by doctors and drug companies. Sure, some people try to take advantage, which is not surprising. There are always people trying to make money off our sickness and our health, our fears and our desires, our search for quick and easy solutions. This is a problem that permeates the whole health care system; indeed, it's a key factor in the dysfunctionality of a consumerist society.

That doesn't mean that we should reject treatments for mental illness, including medical treatments. Psychiatric medications are overhyped in some cases, or used as an exclusive and formulaic response to certain conditions. But medications are also unreasonably feared in many cases where they can help. 

Psychiatric medication is like a bandage, and bandages can be cumbersome. But they stop you from bleeding out of control all the time. Psychotherapy can accomplish significant things, or--in situations of chronic illness--it can at least help people manage a condition and reduce its constraints (even if they have to accept that it will always be in some measure debilitating).

This doesn't seem very satisfactory, but we must do the best we can. Stop the bleeding and work to heal the wound or at least to live as fully as possible with the condition. If the bleeding starts again, we have to do the best we can to try to stop it...again. We may need to use a lot of "bandages." But make no mistake: mental illnesses don't get better on their own. We must seek treatment and care for these illnesses. 

Of course, we can only do our best for ourselves and our loved ones, and fight as hard as we can with whatever means we have available to us. Mental illness may still make a big mess out of life, and cause pain to ourselves and others. Like any other affliction or personal trial, we must use our freedom wisely but also be willing to accept that some things are beyond our control. We must be patient with one another, sorry (and forgiving) for any real personal failures, and beyond that not be burdened by false guilt or grudges. 

Of course we have to pray. We can't live any personal challenge without prayer, and illness--whether externally physical or mental--is a profound challenge. Should we pray for healing? Certainly! Prayer bring all kinds of mysterious healing, but that's God's business. We need to give Him room to work in us, and we need to listen, because God loves us and wants to teach us to love Him.

But we might pray deeply and ardently for healing and still need medication-- and that's humbling. The Lord may not take away mental illness, but He'll use it for the good and He'll help us to begin to "see" it within the scope of His loving plan to bring us to Himself. We won't see it completely, but He will give us what is needed to draw us onward; He will give us enough to take the next step and then the next and then the next....

There seems to be a lot of mental illness today, and that is not surprising either. We live in a tumultuous world, with unprecedented power that makes our lives materially advanced and complex, but also puts many of us under intense and peculiar stress and imperils our health in ways we don't even understand. It's a world that triggers predispositions to illnesses like anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, depression. 

People have to judge how to use resources that can help even in limited ways, and they can't do it alone. It challenges families, friendships, and communities --but with God's grace it can bring them closer.

Stigma and ignorance, however, are useless and dangerous. People who are fighting against real illness --fighting to survive and indeed to live as best as they can --deserve our understanding, our help, our support, our patience, and our compassion.

Friday, August 4, 2017

A Study of a White Rose

This illustration began as a photograph from my cell phone of a single white rose standing in a glass of water on our dining room table.

The digital photo is the "base" of the graphic illustration. The work of applying filters and various edits and adjustments using photo editing software engages an active creativity and requires some time and effort.

The digital applications make available to me opportunities to work with an image in ways that I would not be able to do "on my own," i.e. by freehand drawing. I begin these experiments in computer graphics with my own digital photographs, and then various types of software provide the tools to manipulate the images.

Here I go beyond "using photoshop" to simply improve or clarify the photo as a photo, within the photographic art form. I use it instead to make something different, something distinct in style and form, often (though not in this instance) adding further content or graphic imagery as well as redesigning the original image.

Even with inexpensive and widely available resources, some bold and striking visual graphics are possible.

My own very modest improvisational efforts are enough to convince me that digital graphic design is an art form that has vast potential for development. It is not "hard" to make something that "looks pretty good," but the higher levels of excellence in this craft will still stand out, and new possibilities will open up for original expressions of brilliance in visual artistry.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

He Can Create Us Anew

Each of us is created by God's mercy, redeemed by His mercy, and transformed by His mercy.

The God who gives us being, out of nothingness, can bring new life to restore us from all the violence we have done to ourselves. He can create anew, overcoming the "voluntary nothingness" of our sins.

We are all sinners, and we all struggle with the temptation to run away from God. Even if we willingly alienate ourselves from God by denying Him or doing violence to His wise and loving plan for the world and for the truth of the human person, we do not need to be broken and destroyed forever. We do not need to be lost in our own self-made abyss of separation from God and from our own true identity.

God wants to create us anew. He has made the way, and His grace is already at work seeking ways to stir up in us the desire and the hope for healing.

We can choose to wallow in our own abyss, or we can cry out to Him, We can beg Him that the mercy He has already given might take hold of us and change us. We can trust in Him. Trust reaches out to a Presence that we recognize. It adheres to that Presence, and follows Him. It surrenders itself to the ways of God's mercy and love. Trust never gives up.

If we trust in Him, He will really change us, He will give us a new heart, He will work miracles. There is no evil in us so great that He cannot heal, and He wants to awaken, change, and give us a new energy of love beyond anything we can imagine. We must trust in Him. We must adhere to Him. We must follow Him. He is Mercy.

On the Cross, He has revealed and given His mercy, to me and you, to each one of us. And He remains with us in the Church, in the miracle of the sacraments, and in the faces of those people who have shown us that it is possible to be changed, to live in a new way.

We must go to Him in trust, to let Him heal us and transform us. If we trust in Jesus Christ, He will make us into the persons He has created us to be.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Wheat and Weeds, Decision and Patience

Tuesday's Gospel reading on the parable of the wheat and the weeds gave me another opportunity to revisit the Pope's reflections in a recent Angelus address.

Here it appears that Francis draws on the famous observation of the great Alexander Solzhenitsyn that the line separating good and evil is not found between nations or parties or classes, such that we could fix the problem of evil simply by eliminating the people on the wrong side of the line. Rather, Solzhenitsyn observes that this line passes right through the human heartevery human heart.

Francis uses this parable of the wheat and the weeds in order to draw our focus to the perennial circumstances of the world and the power of the redemption to win the victory of evil by purifying our hearts according to God's wisdom:
"With this image Jesus tells is that in this world the good and the evil are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate and extirpate all the evil. God alone can do this, and He will do so in the Last Judgment. The present situation, with its ambiguities and its composite character, is the field of the freedom, the field of the freedom of Christians, in which the difficult exercise of discernment between good and evil takes place. 
"Therefore, in this field, it is about combining, with great trust in God and in His Providence, two seemingly contradictory attitudes: decision and patience. The decision is to want to be the good seed — we all want thiswith all our strength, and, hence, distancing ourselves from the Evil One and his seductions. Patience means to prefer a Church that is leaven in the dough, who does not fear soiling her hands washing the clothes of her children, rather than a Church of 'pure ones,' that pretends to judge before the time who is an who is not in the Kingdom of God.
"The Lord, who is Wisdom incarnate, helps us today to understand that the good and the evil cannot be identified with defined territories or specific human groups: 'These are the good, these are the evil.' He tells us that the boundary line between the good and the evil passes in the heart of every person, passes in the heart of every one of us, that is, we are all sinners.
"Jesus Christ, with His Death on the Cross and Resurrection, has freed us from the slavery of sin and He gives us the grace to walk in a new life. However, with Baptism He has also given us Confession, because we are always in need of being forgiven for our sins. 
"To look always at the evil that is outside of us, means to not want to recognize the sin that is also in us....
"May the Virgin Mary help us to pick up in the reality that surrounds us not only the filth and evil but also the good and beautiful; to unmask Satan’s work but especially to trust in God’s action that makes history fruitful."
~Pope Francis, Angelus, Sunday July 23, 2017

Monday, July 31, 2017

Contemporary Music: Finding the Gold in the Mud

Paging through Amazon Music's charts....

Why do I bother? Looking for gold in the mud. Occasionally I stumble on something good. It's like flipping through the records in a record store used to be, in the olden days.

Here's the thing: Artists are peculiar. I know that. Musicians (in this case) are peculiar. I get that. I'm a musician myself, and a writer, and lately I've been messing about with photography and graphics. I know that I'm a piece of work. I'm not surprised, therefore, to find that artists are weird.

Creative intuition strains the neurons, as does the tenacity to carry it through to an artistic expression that can be experienced by others. It is intense, concentrated, arduous labor. And many artists are already operating with exotic cognitive wiring and a highly sensitive system of overall perception. Add to this mix the drive of ambition, the pressure to entertain and to be an efficient cog in the wheels of a multi-billion dollar industry, the tumultuous cultural milieu with its widespread decadence, and... and... and...

...the music is going to be weird.

Nevertheless, even given all of this awareness of the challenges of the creative enterprise, it's still a bit staggering to see the freak show that parades by under the name of "popular music."

These are talented people. Okay, some of them are just charlatans but some of them are talented people. But there is a weakness of human context, an excess of powerful gadgets and tricks, and a relentless push to reduce works of art into efforts to get attention. The resulting noise is deafening.

Or, to return to the original metaphor, there's a lot of mud. It's easy to say "yuck" to all the mud. It's also easy (and frankly delusional) to pretend that the mud is gold. The challenge consists in finding the gold. Because there is gold to be found. There are diamonds in the mud. Some are flawed diamonds, but admirable nonetheless.

So it is that I desire to search for whatever has value, to clean it up and make it shine. Or, if it's tragically broken, to mourn the loss and trace the fractured lines of beauty.

Music is a complex crafting of sound, and the world today is filled with unprecedented sounds. We want to be careful to distinguish crass cacophony from the authentic effort to shape hard, brash, strange sounds into rhythms and harmony and song. There is beauty to be found here, made with the unusual sounds drawn from the hum and throb of our technologically sophisticated everyday environment.

This music can enrich our lives, and it is made by some surprisingly peculiar people. Certainly we are looking for creative work that has real value, and therefore we can't just toss away our standards or our sense of judgment in order to affirm the latest trends. But let's not be snobs either.

It's worth the effort to keep exploring music, to keep listening.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Martha of Bethany: Disciple and Believer

Poor Saint Martha. Everyone seems to remember her as the woman who was "busy about many things" and who complained to Jesus that her sister Mary wasn't helping with the dishes.

But we should also remember Martha as a beloved friend of Jesus (along with her siblings Mary and Lazarus) and one of his truly great disciples. In chapter 11 of John's Gospel, Jesus reveals himself to her as the One who conquers death and brings eternal life. In this text, we see Jesus invite her to believe in him. Her response shows clearly that she has come to know in a very deep way the "one thing necessary."

From the Gospel for the feast of St Martha:

Jesus said to Martha, "'I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?' She said to him, 'Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world'" (John 11:25-27).

Scenes from the Summer

Now that the rain has moved in and appears set to bring July to an unusual end, I'm just going to put a few miscellaneous photos from what has been a mostly hot month. Above, we see the gathering of clouds on a late afternoon Blue Ridge horizon.

Below, we have had lots of wildflowers in the fields. The chicory, for example:

And in spite of all appearances, Jojo is not sleepy here as she wheels her scooter up the driveway. But the kid who used to ham it up so much for the camera only a couple of years ago is harder to take a good picture of these days. I have to be satisfied with what I can sneak around and get. She was actually goofing around here and having fun. Seriously! ๐Ÿ˜๐Ÿ˜Š

It has been hot. We've kept cool with the help of ... cold drinks! This is a stout from a local restaurant. When beer looks this good, I can't help taking a picture of it:

Reepicheep does what Reepicheep always does: EAT! I was hoping for a nice cat smile, but instead I got a cold cat shoulder. I probably deserved it. It's like she's saying, "Leave me alone. I'm having lunch!"

There are many things I would like to write about--that I have even tried to write about. Words haven't come very easily. I've had much to ponder and I hope to get some of it down in writing eventually.

Meanwhile, life goes on and I continue to live it, day by day, step by step.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Sowing the Seed in Our Hearts

The Gospel reading for today repeated the first section of the reading from Sunday, July 16. It recounted the parable of the sower and the seed (Matthew 13:1-9). This gave me the opportunity to revisit a wider interpretation of the parable as Pope Francis expressed it in his Angelus Address for the Sunday before last. Francis's exposition of the imagery provides a good meditation on God's work in our lives.

First, here is the text from the Gospel:
Jesus taught the people in parables, saying, "A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear" (Matthew 13:3-9).
Jesus then goes on (in verses 10-23) to give his disciples the foundational way of reading the story. The seed bears fruit or fails to do so depending on the conditions of the place where it falls. Jesus identifies each of images of the conditions of the ground with a specific set of people: those who have no openness (the path), those who are superficial (the rocky ground), those who are preoccupied with worldly concerns and fears (the thorns), and finally those who receive the Gospel with joy (the rich soil).

A further meditation and personal application of this story, however, may lead us to discover that we have all four of these conditions in our own hearts and in various facets of our lives. The Lord sows the seed of his love prodigiously in our hearts, but how much of it do we allow to flourish? We don't have very much "rich soil" in our hearts where the gift of God can take root. Too often we are distracted, preoccupied, or negligent. The Lord longs to turn the whole of our hearts into his own flourishing fields and gardens of new life.

However, as Pope Francis indicates, the same Lord who sows will also tend more and more the soil of our hearts through prayer and the sacraments. He will clear away the obstacles and prepare the land to bear more abundant fruit:
"The parable concerns above all us: it speaks, in fact, of the soil rather than of the sower. Jesus performs, so to speak, a 'spiritual radiography' of our heart, which is the ground upon which the seed of the Word falls. 
"Jesus invites us today to look inward: to give thanks for our good ground and to work on the ground not yet good. 
"Let us ask ourselves if our heart is open to welcome with faith the seed of the Word of God. Let us ask ourselves if the rocks of laziness are still large and numerous within us; [if] we identify and we call by name the brambles of our vices. 
"We find the courage to make a beautiful reclamation of the land, bringing to the Lord in Confession and in prayer our stones and our stumps. In doing so, Jesus, a good sower, will be happy to do an extra work: to purify our hearts, removing the stones and thorns that stifle his Word."

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Love that Keeps Our Hope Alive

Today I have been reading Psalm 102. The Bible shows us the whole range of the human condition, and the depths of suffering, sorrow, loneliness, and pain.

The vivid images of the Psalmist express the personal and communal experience of the cry that pours forth from the human heart at the recognition of its own poverty. The heart discovers its inadequacy--and the insufficiency of all things to meet its needs--most powerfully in "the day of my distress."

Still, the heart cries out because the human expectation for fulfillment is more fundamental. The heart cannot help but search, and the heart that knows the goodness and the glory of God keeps hope alive even in the most incomprehensibly desperate circumstances.

But it is not enough for the Lord to hear our cries from a distance. His glory is in His mercy, and so he answers our prayer by coming to share our poverty, our lowliness, our distress, our groaning, our death--to transform suffering through His love.

By the light of this love, we must never give up seeking Him; we must always keep hope alive.

"Lord, hear my prayer;
let my cry come to you.

Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.

Turn your ear to me;
when I call, answer me quickly.

For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones burn away as in a furnace.

My heart is withered, dried up like grass,
too wasted to eat my food.

From my loud groaning
I become just skin and bones.

I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.

I lie awake and moan,
like a lone sparrow on the roof.

My days are like a lengthening shadow;
I wither like the grass.

But you, Lord, are enthroned forever;
your renown is for all generations.

You will again show mercy...[,]
heeding the plea of the lowly,
not scorning their prayer."

~Psalm 102:1-8, 12-14, 18