Friday, October 21, 2016

One Hope

The text below this picture is one I have posted before, but it seems worth recalling once again in these days, especially since it was the first reading for today's Mass. This is one of those Scripture passages that is clearly inexhaustible, and speaks to us in so many ways. It's worth pondering.

"Live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another through love,
striving to preserve the unity of the spirit
through the bond of peace;
one Body and one Spirit,
as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all,
who is over all and through all and in all."

(Ephesians 4:1-6)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Autumn Adventures

This is a good time to take a break from the serious stuff and mark a few more ordinary events from this October.

First of all, Autumn leaves... as in the lack of them! Until recently we didn't have much color. The trees were starting to look like old broccoli rather than a "second Spring."

Ironically, some color finally started coming out this past week, in the midst of a heat wave that brought daytime temperatures of 85F.

Sunsets have left in their wake some colorful hues on the Blue Ridge at twilight.

The October "Hunter's Moon" was large and very bright. Unfortunately I missed that perfect moment for taking a picture of it: the moon rises right around sunset and there is only a short period when the sky is bright enough to allow my primitive gear (and primitive ability) to get a vivid picture. So I had to settle for a fuzzy overexposed picture that at least captures something of the dusky atmosphere.

Meanwhile, October has also been about baseball for the Janaros. We went to the last game of the Washington Nationals' terrific season, a rollicking 10-7 victory over the Marlins. Our seats were a bit high, but--going into the playoffs--our hopes were also high.

Eileen and I went with John Paul and a couple of his friends... and someone else who decided to come along (mostly because she wanted to "be with Mommy").

*So we had fun at the game.

But, alas, in the National League Division Series against the Dodgers, our Nats fell short. At one point they led the series two games to one, but they couldn't pull off the decisive victory.

We watched with John Paul on T.V. as the Nationals lost game five by the score of 4-3. Another disappointing ending. Another Nationals heartbreak!

Wait till next year!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Sorrow Finds a "Home" in My Soul

These days and weeks hold some difficult personal memories for me. It has been 11 years now since a close friend of our family took his own life. This was soon followed by my own serious car accident which resulted in a concussion and a relapse into debilitating illness. Although we didn't realize it at the time, I would never fully recover.

As the years have passed, the trauma of the accident has mostly receded. My disability is "managed" in a somewhat stable fashion. But the grief over my friend's death has not decreased. Rather, it seems to have found a "home" inside my soul.

It endures as a sorrow, a weight that I am somehow "willing to bear," and a compassion that drives me to tell the story of my own mental illness and encourage others to get help.

I want people to "keep on living" because they matter. Every person matters. We are all linked together in this mysterious human drama, and every single one of us has a unique role. Every person is unique. Every person is worthy of love.

But this sounds vague in comparison with the aching immediacy of human pain. I can't help remembering my friend and the crippling depression that afflicted him. I'm trying to say to myself, "Take your mind off it. Take your mind off that feeling of lostness, that terrible emptiness that must have been there."

But then another part of me keeps coming back to it because I don't want to leave him alone there. I’ve been in that place. I can’t just turn my back on him, and on the others who are lost.

My soul still cries out to heaven, "Where were you, O God? Where are you, when your children are so desolate?"

But I know--I always know--that God's answer is Jesus Christ. Jesus is with them in that utterly lonely place. Jesus on the cross went to every person, walked every person's road, "bridged the distance" to every person.

Jesus has especially bridged those distances that people have created for themselves, willfully, by sin. And my friend's distance was not generated by his own will; it was a suffering, a terrible illness that I too have known in a large measure, enough to understand how moral responsibility can be greatly diminished by the distortion of inner self-perception and the bewilderment of so much mental pain.

There are deeper distances and greater lonelinesses that Jesus united himself with, traveling the mysterious inner world of every human being, personally, in that "mystical night" that was the cross.

None of us can say to God, "You don't understand what I'm going through!" He has been "with us" through all of it. The "three hours" of Jesus on the cross intersect with every human life. This shakes up our ideas about human experience and space and time (and theologians can try to understand the "how" of all this), but when we realize that God is Infinite Love, it's not so surprising to learn that he wanted to do this, to make it possible, to love all the way to the end.

So what is it in me that desires (even a little) to "be with" other persons in their suffering rather than to be "satisfied" in myself. Is that love?

Or is it just my own depression?

Or is it, somehow, both? God works through everything. God works through our weakness. He works especially through our weakness and our suffering, and the love with which he enables us to embrace it.

O Lord, shape me in this difficult time. Make me who you will me to be. I can’t figure myself out. I offer all this to you.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Do Ugly Times Make Us Ugly People?

These are some hard days for Americans. If you live in the USA, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't live here, you probably still know. Our politics has descended to a level of ugly that is dark and strange even for our usual presidential elections. Ugly.

Ugly is never good. It corrupts the end and the means of any human endeavor.

People have passionate convictions about what they think must be done in the present circumstances. That's fine. Passionate convictions make for a good dialogue, a useful dialogue where we may be able to discover the deeper reasons for our positions, where we actually agree and where we disagree, and why.

Dialogue is based on mutual esteem for one another. This esteem is not merely a sentimental "being nice" -- it can be expressed in many forms. It can be feisty, provocative, edgy, and frank, as well as diplomatic, courteous, careful, irenic, and many other things. It has room for a fair measure of humor and even a dash of sarcasm, especially when everyone in the discussion has a taste for spice. Dialogue should be as reasonable as we can muster, without arrogance, seeking understanding, and patient with all our slow plodding ways of knowing. It should always be vigorous, honest, magnanimous of mind and heart, and humble. And it should give everyone space to be human--which (generally) entails being somewhat intelligent and somewhat ignorant, diverse in temperament, possessed of dignity and worthy of respect, sometimes articulate, often awkward, capable of learning but inclined to misunderstanding, occasionally brilliant, always peculiar.

Fruitful dialogue encompasses all these things. But it should never be ugly.

None of us is perfect at this business, and we will be messy about it in different directions, depending on our temperament, emotional state, fears, weaknesses, neurobiological quirks, and so on. Indeed, we can get very messy about it.

Some among us lose our perspective, or try to berate points beyond what the circumstances of a discussion (or the limits of a particular communications media platform) can bear. Others are largely silent. Perhaps a few of these latter people find silence to be the better part of wisdom. Many are silent because they are afraid to speak, or because they don't know what to say, or because they are confused. Maybe they simply don't want to talk about it, and they don't want to tell us why they don't want to talk about it. Dialogue cannot be forced. People's freedom must be respected.

Some are just too sick. They don't have the physical, mental, and/or emotional resources to invest in an intense conversation about what to do in the presidential election. They have to focus the few resources they have on the most fundamental tasks of life and relationships. Be kind to them. They especially need it now.

Presidents of the past in stony consternation
Here in America we have an ugly election, and different features of the ugliness stand out in different ways. It looms over all of us, and we still have to live our days together, bump into one another, interact in the nitty-gritty of one another's lives. Trying to ignore the whole ugly thing is very hard and usually artificial. It comes up in conversation, in references. It weighs down our concerns. Things can get messy. None of us should think that we are superior or somehow exempt from the messiness of being human. We may find ourselves fighting with one another. It happens.

But, please, let's not be ugly to one another.

Realism forces us to face the ugliness associated with political organizations and the people who aspire to be the leaders of the United States of America. Ugliness! But what is to be done about the ugly monster that approaches us? It is a passionate question. And one thing that is very clear is that good people disagree about what is still possible, what can or should be done before, on, or after November 8th. Decent, trustworthy people have different convictions, or opinions, or hunches, or degrees of confusion or frustration about what is to be done. That will probably continue and extend to different points after election day.

We hope and pray that we are among the "good, decent, trustworthy people." Perhaps this is not something that we should simply take for granted. How much are we ourselves affected by the ugliness that we face? How much is the present Big Ugliness the reflection, the consequence, the fruit of our own little narrow nasty ugliness, accumulated and perhaps hidden and strangely cherished in our hearts? I know these are questions I must ask myself. It won't hurt any of us to undergo a serious and honest examination of conscience, without scrupulosity but with realism.

After all, our hope is not grounded in our own ability to keep ourselves from becoming ugly. Our hope is grounded and sustained by an Inexhaustible Mercy.

And in any case we will still get messy. There will continue to be arguments. But let's not be ugly to one another. Let's resist the great temptation that tries to convince us that the only way to destroy a monster is to become another monster. We all know this is wrong, but it still exercises a deep practical attraction on our human weakness, our inner dysfunctionality, our frustrations, fears, and propensity for violence.

It's worth noting a few considerations that might be helpful for us.

When we fight with one another verbally, let's refrain from personal insults, from jumping to nefarious conclusions about one another's motives, and from attacking one another's basic human dignity. Let's try to banish such things even from our thoughts insofar as we have the awareness and the capacity to do so. This is very important.

But this is also very important: we all know that some people are more inclined by temperament to be actively aggressive. Thank God for these people; they are the ones who get things done! But they are also tempted (in various ways) to be bossy, overbearing, or too quick to use words without thinking. The better we know these forceful, dynamic, aggressive people, the more aware we are of their qualities and weaknesses.

For such people, this ugly season is especially difficult to bear.

Let's not, therefore, fall into the sneaky trap of passive-aggressiveness. Now, especially, is not the time to bait these friends to an ill-considered expression of anger and frustration so that we can secretly relish what we fancy is our own phlegmatic superiority. No! This is all the more ugly for its proud disguise.

Spit out the ugly thing!

Yes, we're human. Let's talk at times and in places where conversation can be useful. Let's try to be generous toward one another in our style of expression. Let's listen to one another. Do we end up arguing? Fighting? Let's at least do it like brothers and sisters.

Because that is who we are.

We are brothers and sisters in a good family. It's tumultuous and dramatic and messy, because we are not a bunch of robots. We are human beings, children of God called to "grow up" together in this world, in this life we share. We grow by loving one another, and some of us are too loud, others too taciturn, or too smug, or too hesitant, or too self-assured, or too rosy, or too gloomy, or too... whatever!

And now we are in an ugly place, and we have to help one another get through it. But let's not forget our real home, or the reason why we are together.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Person and the Art of Compassion

Most people want to be compassionate. Anything, therefore, that contributes to their practical understanding of the suffering of others has interest and value.

We do need to learn how to build one another up, to share one another's burdens. That's why it's important to listen to one another's stories and to tell our own.

There is also much to learn from the accumulated wisdom of older people and the experience of professional caregivers. We will find many common themes that can give us a broad outline of the "art" of compassion and the ways of expressing and living empathy and solidarity.

But no amount of knowledge or experience can give us a guaranteed "formula" for approaching human suffering and loving another human person perfectly, without mistakes. True compassion is always personal, and the only way to really learn it is in-relationship-with-the-particular-person, by living that precise relationship with patience and persistence.

We need to stay with one another and keep loving one another concretely even though we will always make mistakes. We will always be weak; we will always fall short in love, and we will often hurt one another. We must try as hard as we can and learn as much as we can to grapple with this problem, but we will never eradicate it entirely.

Only Jesus solves it, but he doesn't solve it by magic. He works in us through real life, with our good intentions, our weakness, our efforts to learn, our commitment to one another as persons, and the forgiveness, perseverance, hope, and compassion for one another that His Spirit engenders within us.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Saint John XXIII

October 11: Pope Saint John XXIII.

Saint John XXIII was the pope when I was born, and--in addition to John the Baptist--I was also named after him.

On October 11, 1962, less than three months before I was born, John XXIII formally opened the Second Vatican Council.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Contemporary Music and its "God-Haunted" Spaces

Here is the second part of some continuing (provisional and incomplete) reflections on music.

Artists can debase their talents by enslaving themselves to projects that are unworthy of the dignity of the human person. Great technical skill can be used to produce ideological propaganda, anarchic degradation, and/or the manipulation of human perceptions and appetites. This is a significant problem in the presentation, context, and lyrics of so many popular songs and indeed of the overwhelmingly crass, artificial, cheap glittering realm of the contemporary "music industry."

How much of what we hear and see today in music and performance is hedonistic, grandiose, superficial, and obsessed with sexual and violent imagery? This stuff does us no good, and it's something we certainly want to protect our children from. But we cannot merely reject--in a negative, moralistic way--all contemporary music, which is so diverse and changing, and which draws upon so many different facets of the human experience we all share in common in our world.

Insofar as we are human, we live in the context of a culture that we cannot simply escape from. Rather, what we need above all is education--for ourselves and our children--in the perception and judgment of what is truly worthy of human life, human purposes, and human destiny.

It is important, therefore, to have an intelligent and attentive aesthetic sensibility toward the very large and variegated world of mainstream music, not only to filter out the bad stuff but also to be edified by so much real human expression found therein. We need particular discernment to recognize the "God-haunted" spaces that echo through some of this music: the pain, the questions, and the gratuitous vitality that struggle to be expressed over a wide range of styles and forms.

Indeed, we often find these elements in places we would not think to look. The restless searching and the cry of the human heart don't necessarily stand out "on the surface," or in every aspect of a song, recording, video or concert mass-marketed as entertainment. But there can be a drama, a frustration, a stubborn hope, and an obscure but intense longing for God that come through even along with the spectacle and the excesses of these artists and their performances. These things push to break through in the midst of so many distorted and misdirected expressions.

We must learn to perceive and to discover and, according to our particular circumstances, to foster the true elements of the arts and music of our time.

This doesn't mean we should just expose ourselves to entertainment media that are harmful to us, on the pretext that we might be able to find something of value. We need guidance and we need to help one another on an educative path that takes into account our relative strengths and weaknesses and maturity as well as the dysfunctionality of our fallen human condition.

There is no place for presumption here. Rather we need to do this together, with accountability, drawing upon the grace of Jesus in his Church, through prayer and the sacraments, in the ardor of Christian love, sustained by dependence on the Holy Spirit and the teaching and guidance of the Church.

This is a work of prudence and temperance and all the Christian and human virtues by which we are formed in Christ. I don't intend to propose here any kind of systematic method for engaging in this work. I can't say I know all the possibilities or all the cautions that must be observed. I need help here as much as anyone else. Many of us play and/or listen to contemporary music already, and would only benefit by helping one another to carry out a more attentive work of judgment and appreciation. What I also want to emphasize, however, is that if it is rightly carried out, this work will discover more that we expect. It will be a work that will surprise us.

This is because the inescapable human need for a relationship with reality in all its authentic fullness--with truth, goodness, beauty, justice, love, happiness--is ultimately a need for God whether or not it is acknowledged or recognized as such. Insofar as a work of art genuinely embodies a creative intuition of the fundamental connection between human existence and an infinite fulfillment--a creative and constructive intuition that grasps the essential human drama and is not reduced to manipulation, distraction, or cloying spiritual suffocation--it will contain, however obscurely, the mark of the human longing for God in its mysterious and sometimes dark beauty.

Aesthetic sensibility is not simply the logical application of some theory. Informed by truth and the experience of objective reality, it also entails a practical perception in peculiar circumstances. Contemporary music has and continues to give us genuine works of art: musical compositions, songs, recordings, and live productions. Even (indeed especially) in a secularized context, we can find signs of the depths of the human heart that can only be filled by God. Lyrics that don't mention God explicitly may still articulate the heart that searches for Him. The energy, the engagement, sometimes the suffering or sadness expressed, or the way the musician or singer pours his or herself out in performance--these things may indicate the longing for the unknown God or the God perhaps obscured but mysteriously sought, the wounds exposed that only He can heal.

Music is a powerful force. Contemporary music is often a force that drags people down, but it also can draw them up. In the increasingly desolate human environment in which we live, we must discern and value the things that draw us up--and be prepared to find them in some unexpected places.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Saint Francis: The Abundance of Love

"My Lord Jesus Christ,
two graces I beg of you before I die:
the first is that in my lifetime I may feel,
in my soul and in my body,
as far as possible, that sorrow which you,
sweet Jesus,
endured in the hour of your bitter passion;
the second is that I may feel in my heart,
as far as possible, that abundance of love
with which you, Son of God, were inflamed,
so as willingly to endure so great a passion
for us sinners.
I beseech you, O Lord,
that the fiery and sweet strength of your love
may absorb my soul
from all things that are under heaven,
that I may die for love of your love
as you deigned to die for love of my love."

~Saint Francis of Assisi

Monday, October 3, 2016

Contemporary Music: Industry or Community?

I have given attention for many years to contemporary music. This phrase is perhaps too broad to have more than a vague meaning. Much of this music involves highly diverse variations and styles. Yet there are some reasons why all these different types of sonic craftsmanship find themselves under the same big tent.

I have often struggled to identify the common elements that justify using the category "contemporary music" as something more than a merely temporal reference. One element, I think, is its usual creative vehicle: the electronic sound and rhythm ensemble, commonly known as the "band." (Yes, I am smiling and laughing at myself as I write these words --it seems rather nerdy to try to be so verbally complex about something like a band. But I am wearing my philosopher's cap at the moment.)

Contemporary music also straddles a line between three very difficult enterprises, artentertainment, and business. The result is that its most successful practitioners are under enormous pressure to be simultaneously artists, celebrities, and producers of marketable consumer products. They must create, record, perform, and sell not only music and songs, but also their own peculiar attractiveness as individuals and as a group, or at least their capacity to grab the attention of paying customers.

This is a lot to expect from often young musicians, and it's not surprising that "the music industry" crushes many of them, or compounds their own problems and raises them to a gigantic scale. This results in many wildly unstable artists who are physically and emotionally exhausted, incapable of sustaining healthy relationships, reckless in their habits, and addicted to drugs or alcohol. Too often it results in a musical "product" that is a glitzy sham, an arrangement of tricks and cliches packaged to enthrall the public appetite for cheap stimulation of the senses, vulgar novelty, and--of course--sexual titillation, distraction, and even violence.

Yet I not only pay attention to a lot of contemporary music. I like some of it very much. I've played a fair bit of it as well on my guitar, in bands and jam sessions. It would be superficial and unfair to simply dismiss all contemporary music. There is a lot of very good music being made today, music which succeeds on different levels depending on what it aspires to achieve. Even some artists whose lives have been broken by the excesses of the celebrity lifestyle have done remarkable work.

Contemporary music can be innovative, fascinating, fun, groundbreaking, exciting, and beautiful. Much of it is worthy of appreciation. In our time, I have new hope that artists will be able to break free from the dynamics of a merely functional "industry mentality" and express their creativity within a context that recognizes beauty as a value in itself.

Certainly artists need money and stuff, just like everybody else. Material wealth has its place, as do honor and appreciation. But the overarching motive of the musician must be to embody the creative intuition of beauty through the craft of shaping sound.

To ensure this, we need something more than a music industry. We need a music community.

[Stay tuned for more thoughts on music and the arts in upcoming posts.]

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Therese in the Arms of God

"It is enough to recognize one's nothingness and to abandon one's self like a child in the arms of God"
(Saint Therese of Lisieux).

Friday, September 30, 2016

Why Is It Worth It "To Keep Living"?

The month of September is coming to an end. I know that various initiatives have been taken to raise awareness about suicide and its causes during what has been designated as World Suicide Prevention Month (particularly on the day of September 10).

Our friends at TWLOHA ("To Write Love On Her Arms," see my blog post here) have a designated theme each year, and this September the theme has focused on people deciding to stay alive, deciding not to give up.

Mental illness can be a relentless scourge that afflicts a person for reasons beyond their control. We recognize that it can reduce personal responsibility to the point where many suicides are not deliberate and fully free choices of self-murder. From a subjective point of view, death by suicide often is a consequence of the actions of desperate, compulsive, gravely depressed people. These people are afflicted by a complex and severe mental disability that hinders and distorts their perception of themselves and others, a disability with a significant neurobiological component that flares up and becomes crippling and degenerative because of negative experiences and the absence of medical treatment, adequate counseling, and/or basic human understanding and support.

Suicide prevention requires everyone to become more aware of the sufferings of people with depression and related illnesses. I have made an effort to share my own experiences with this (see, for example, my BOOK) and I think it is important to stress that the struggle to keep living is acute and ongoing in various ways and on different levels of severity for mentally ill people. For some people, staying alive is an invisible heroic achievement every day. Even those who are not facing such immediate and total danger, however, have peculiar hindrances that they struggle against as they try to move forward in life.

We all need to encourage and build up one another. Those who have been blessed with mental and emotional strength, however, have a special opportunity to share their gifts, to cultivate an active and affirmative support and service toward their afflicted brothers and sisters. Above all, we must all remember that the embrace of Jesus Christ brings an ultimate fulfillment to every aspect of our humanity, not by "solving" our human problems in some magic way, but by transforming us from within and making our gifts and our needs, our strengths and our weaknesses into paths toward communion. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, the compassionate and the vulnerable alike experience the mercy that renews all things, and gives hope in the midst of the most incomprehensible circumstances.

As I ponder this interplay of vitality and fragility in the circumstances of life, I am reminded of the ways in which love proves itself both in the magnanimity of its human reach and in the (apparent) weakness of its mysterious self-emptying, through which it passes beyond the experience and understanding of this present age so as to win the victory that endures forever.

It brings to my mind a young woman with an enormous heart, who was drawn so powerfully by Jesus Christ that she seemed to want to embrace the whole world. She had a joy that poured itself out in music and in a tireless enterprise of connecting with people by all the means she could find.

Our beloved Christina Grimmie had a human strength and a gift for communication and encouragement. She also knew that she belonged to Jesus, and that all the value of her strength and talent came from Him. She was a very real person, with flaws, sensitivities, problems, and failures like anyone else -- very much an earthen vessel that nevertheless carried the treasure of Christ's love in a manner that communicated something of that love's heroic stature.

Christina knew that His love could sustain the human heart, and thereby foster healing and bring consolation and strength to those who struggled to keep living. In April of 2014 she made a very short, spontaneous video that took its point of departure from eating disorders and self-harm issues but opened up from there. Anyone could articulate these kinds of statements on a video, of course, but what she expresses here has a palpable authenticity because it comes from within the context of her whole life as a daily risk, an availability to the people she met, a passion for Christ and her music and the people to whom she gave the gift of her music.

In this meme I designed from the video, the first panel summarizes a slightly longer discourse, but the other two panels are her exact words that she felt were so urgent, so significant for affirming the value of all the people who were touched by her music, and indeed of every human person who might watch it. The video is still up on her YouTube channel along with everything else, but here is my graphic summary.

It is something that strikes me very much.

Christina never tried to sell her faith. When she did mention Jesus, it was to affirm a conviction that couldn't be expressed without an explicit reference to Him. Her own love, in its source and its urgency, its value and its significance as a gift to others, was inseparable from His love.

It requires a certain kind of audacity to tell people to love themselves and recognize the beauty in themselves 'because Jesus loves you... and I love you.' It requires a certain kind of audacity to express and give ourselves in a way that says to our family, to our neighbors, to everyone we meet, that it is worth it to keep living 'because I love you.'

This is the kind of love that is not afraid to open its arms to anyone, that is not afraid to open its arms because it always has confidence in the One whom it seeks to embrace. Such confidence engenders a real courage, a real audacity that is more powerful than all the harm that human beings can inflict upon others and themselves, more powerful than the violence that tries so terribly to negate it, but that cannot prevail in the end.

The world needs this kind of audacity. The world needs this kind of love.

22 year old Christina Grimmie in concert earlier this year. She would stay long after every show not only to sign autographs, but also to spend time, take pictures with, and listen to everyone who wanted to meet her. She gave lots of hugs and welcomed everyone. On June 10, 2016 she opened her arms wide for a stranger in the meet-and-greet line at the Plaza Live theater in Orlando, Florida. He pulled out two concealed guns and shot her once in the head and three times in the chest. He then killed himself. Murder and suicide, both shrouded in mystery. We'll never know the whole story of the killer, but Christina died doing what she did all her life: welcoming a person, risking herself, giving unconditionally, loving. It has been so awful, so shattering and devastating for her poor family, friends, and the large number of fans all over the world who interacted with her on YouTube and social media, that "Team Grimmie" about which she said, "we are one big family." So heartbreaking, and yet how can we deny that the world--desperately--needs more of this kind of love?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Cup of Java With JJ

Happy National Coffee Day!

You can celebrate with me over on my YouTube channel. Learn what JJ considers the perfect cup of coffee, and check out his special cream pitcher.

Drink up!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

God Never Stops Wanting Our Good

"There is no sin in which we may have fallen,
from which, with the grace of God,
we cannot rise up again.
There is never a person who can't be recovered;
no one is unrecoverable, because
God never stops wanting our good, even when we sin!"

~Pope Francis

Monday, September 26, 2016

It Is Heartbreaking to Bury Our Children

Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins, his pitching dominance, his expressive face, and the wreckage of the boat.

Jose Fernandez, who came to the United States on a raft as a refugee from Cuba at age 15, who rose to become the ace of the Miami Marlins pitching staff and one of the most promising young baseball players of this generation, was killed along with two others in a boating accident on Sunday morning, September 25, 2016.

He was only 24 years old.

Lord, grant him and his friends eternal rest, and console loved ones, friends, Marlins fans, baseball lovers, everybody.

People have spoken of his ebullience and vitality on and off the field, his active presence in the community, his devotion to his mother and grandmother. He had grown up by the sea, and had risked his life three times to cross successfully the Florida Straits in order to take sanctuary in America. Not surprisingly, he was an avid deep sea fisherman who spent much time on the water.

But baseball was his greatest love, and he was an artist on the pitcher's mound. We just saw him on television last week pitch a masterpiece, shutting out our Washington Nationals, allowing only three base runners while striking out 12. We were tearing our hair out even as we were dazzled in admiration.

Who knew it would be his last game? I know that baseball seems utterly meaningless in the face of this terrible tragedy, but it was a human connection that brought us to know something of this young man.

I have reached the age where I look upon the younger generation with a father's concern (after all, this is my children's generation) and also a father's joy. We want young people to blossom, grow, flourish, do great things. We ourselves are full of memories which enable us to be mentors to the young and to rejoice in the continuation of the human adventure.

O God, it is heartbreaking to bury our children!

In these recent months we have seen the lives of young people with great talents and promising futures suddenly and ruthlessly broken off. Their particular abilities drew our attention to them, but these abilities were not the source of their value as persons.

Every young person is a fresh promise, a possibility for a unique unfolding of human life. And though we know that their future will be full of disappointments, we also know that it is a life worth living. And their freshness helps us to remember that in the present moment we too are young, we too are offered the possibility to be amazed once again, to awaken to something new, to love more deeply.

All the more shocking, then, to see the bright face of youth covered in a shroud. Vitality is turned to ashes by some seemingly capricious, random collusion of circumstances.

We weep for the fragility of life.

Life is made of wind, it seems. Everything is an evanescent mist. And yet this frail thing is the bearer of a boundless promise. We breathe each breath, take each step, risk everything because our hearts tell us that the promise of reality will be fulfilled.

I believe in the fulfillment of the promise. I believe in what you, O Lord, have done for us. But when a young man--only a few years older than my own son--is struck down in death, my faith passes through an abyss of sorrow. When a young woman--full of music and song, a role model for my daughters--disappears suddenly into silence, it's hard....

It's hard, Lord!

Faith must grow in these moments, because the shadows of the mystery of reality loom large. The frailty of everything we can see and hear and touch, and the smallness of everything we can do, become concrete in the experience of our own helplessness.

"Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,
before the evil days come,
Because man goes to his lasting home,
and mourners go about the streets.
And the dust returns to the earth as it once was,
and the life breath returns to God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities...all is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 12:1,5,7,8).

All is vanity...all that we think we possess by our own power, all that we think we can make secure by our own cleverness or manipulation or avarice or violence. All is vanity...if we remain within our own limits.

And so we walk by faith, with hope that vanity does not have the final word. In that hope we entrust our departed young friends to the mercy of God.

Rest in peace Jose Fernandez (1992-2016). Rest in peace Christina Grimmie (1994-2016)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Loving One Another is Like Climbing Mountains in the Dark

We cause pain to people we love.

We all do this to one another. We hurt one another. Even when we are trying our best to avoid doing this, it still happens.

This is not to say that we shouldn't try our best.

We must keep trying, always striving to move forward. With God's grace we will grow. The harder we try, the less pain we cause to those we love, and the more we forgive, the more we are healed of the wounds that we have received.

We must try our best. We must struggle with this. God is calling us here. Jesus says, "Love one another."

Still, we must not be discouraged by the fact that we fail so much. We must get up and keep loving, and offer our weakness to God's mercy, trusting in His healing power that works in often hidden ways, but always with perfect wisdom, understanding, and compassion for who we are and for those we love.

God doesn't answer all our questions. He doesn't explain the deep paths of His mercy that is always at work in our lives. He asks us to trust Him.

He allows us to endure the profound pain of not being able to understand one another in so many ways. Our effort to love one another in this present life remains (in some ways) like climbing a mountain in the dark. We keep bumping into the rocks. We keep bumping into each other. In the darkest moments of this journey, however, God remains with us. He enables us to get up again and again, and to help one another, to forgive one another, and to keep going forward.

God is at work in the darkest places. Each of us must believe that Jesus died for me. "The Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me" (see Galatians 2:20). God is closest to us in our suffering, and He enables us to go forward and grow in love. As Pope Francis keeps saying, He never abandons us.

He stays with us and endures that "space of darkness" that we so often experience in our relationships with one another, that "space" full of pain and failure and vulnerability and resentment and guilt. That space of darkness that remains even with all of our efforts to love each other. That space of loneliness that we cannot fill up in ourselves and that we will never totally fill or satisfy in those we love.

We have been made for Him, and we need Him -- each of us individually, and in our relationships with one another. We need Him, and He has come to be with us, and His love is always greater.

Jesus on the Cross. For you. For me. For us together. For the world.

He is with us, with such tenderness, with total understanding and compassion, and He wants us to depend on Him.

We don't have to "understand" this. We don't have to feel this. We must trust in Him.

He hears our cry in the darkness. And when we fall and are in pain, we must believe that He is with us even though we can't see Him, and we must cry out to Him to lift us up.

Jesus, I trust in You.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

When The Door Opens To Violence

"When human beings, the summit of creation,
stop contemplating beauty and goodness
and withdraw into our own selfishness,
when we think only of ourselves
and our own interests
and place ourselves in the center,
when we permit ourselves to be captivated
by the idols of domination and power,
when we put ourselves in God's place,
then all relationships are broken
and everything is ruined;
then the door opens
to violence, indifference, and conflict."

~Pope Francis

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Festival of Music and Joy

It has been more than two weeks since the Appaloosa Festival filled the Shenandoah Valley with music on Labor Day weekend. Though I haven't had a chance to write about it here, I have commented and posted lots of my own photographs on social media platforms. The joy and exuberance of the whole thing still resonates within me.

The Appaloosa Festival was a celebration of life.

It was a blast! Music all day on five different stages, lots of food, good beer, perfect weather, and plenty of friends we don't see often enough.

How could it not be fun?

But that doesn't get to the heart of it. The music is hard to describe. This was supposed to be a "Roots/Americana/Bluegrass/Folk" festival, and it certainly was all of those things. At the same time, the quality and variety of performers were striking, and a lot of what we heard was really a fusion of diverse genres, or a playful dance through and beyond all the genres.

But how can I put it more simply? Perhaps it's enough to say that the host of this festival is the "World-Music/Celtic/Americana/Bring-the-House-Down" band Scythian. For those who have seen and heard Scythian in concert, no further explanation is needed. Obviously not every band had the same musical style or explosive energy as Scythian, but what prevailed everywhere was the group's enthusiasm for music, infectious joy, and gigantic hospitality.

It was also loud.

The legendary Scythian

There were fiddles and banjos, upright basses, kilts, Irish and folk dancing, accordions, harps, and many other things. There were also electric guitars and basses, keyboards and drums, and amps that made sure everything could project a large sound.

It's not surprising that there was lots of fusion between traditional music and the whole range of contemporary electronic and rhythmic ensemble styles.

To put it more simply, the Appaloosa Festival rocked!

The Black Lilies

But there was also lots of space in the ample fields and camping areas of Skyline Ranch Resort. Plenty of room to get close up to the stages and feel the music, and also to step further back to the food tents, local area vendors, activities for kids, or perfectly audible and relaxed conversations with friends old or newly met.

This was no overcrowded, ponderous, self-important celebrity project. It was a festival in the deep human sense of the term.

We came away having seen a great deal of virtuoso musical performances by people who used their talent to share something beautiful and joyful with us. We came away with a sense of gratitude.

And we'll be back next year for sure!

Irish music and dance with the Gothard Sisters

Carbon Leaf and Marie Miller


Fiddler front man Alex and Larissa on bass

People enjoy the afternoon, get food and beer, have conversation

Surrounded by vistas

Sunday, September 18, 2016

We Need Compassion

We all suffer. It seems to be part of the human condition, a distressingly common and pervasive factor of human existence.

But suffering is also personal. It is always a "someone" who suffers, especially when we consider the deepest part of suffering which is the "WHY?" that comes forth from it. Each person experiences that "why?" for themselves, as related uniquely to themselves.

Nevertheless we can accompany another person in their suffering, we can "share" the journey of suffering in different ways and on different levels. We can choose to "suffer-with" another person by embracing our own afflictions "with them" in solidarity. Going even further, we can freely choose to consider their experience as if it were our own, and to let ourselves be afflicted with them. That is what we call "compassion."

Real compassion is not sentimental or condescending. It is companionship, co-suffering, a sharing of vulnerability that our common humanity makes possible and that our freedom actualizes through a genuine and profound gift of self.

It's hard to explain compassion in theoretical terms. But life and its pains and frustrations teach us that compassion is real and that we need it. We wouldn't be so disappointed by false or inadequate "compassion" if it weren't for the fact that we need the real thing. But real compassion is often misunderstood, unappreciated, or even resisted: it's only later on (sometimes much later on) that we realize how much certain persons have "been there" with us, how much they have endured, how we have been sustained and carried by them.

In fact, we've carried one another. The person who shows compassion also receives compassion, and the one who suffers is also a "gift" even when he or she is helpless. Compassion generates relationship and community. This is a mystery.

Indeed, it is a great mystery to be created persons, made for love and called to be transformed by a love that is both the deepest source of our own being and a transcendence beyond the whole created universe.

These are mysteries that make me feel very small, and yet under the burden of suffering--my own or someone else's for whom I have compassion--I cannot help looking to God and showing Him my pain, hoping, longing, for healing.

And I believe that God has entered into the very center and heart of the whole business of suffering and compassion. Not only because He IS Love and Compassion, but because God has accomplished this, in history, as a man.


I believe in His great compassion that leads us through death to eternal life, though I can't say that I have anything like an understanding of how it actually "works" for me and those who have been entrusted to my own poor compassion. I have only begun to have a sense of confidence about the deep strength of it all (and it always seems to be "at the beginning").

But I have enough to know that it's worth it to hang on to Jesus, come what may.

Friday, September 16, 2016

God in Every Human Life

Even if the life of a person has been a disaster,
even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs,
or anything else—God is in this person’s life.
You can, you must try to seek God in every human life.
Although the life of a person
is a land full of thorns and weeds,
there is always a space in which the good seed can grow.
You have to trust God.

~Pope Francis

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Holy Cross


Jesus is exalted "in a total gift of himself on the Cross, and on the Cross itself—the supreme act of love—he is glorified because love is the true glory, the divine glory" (Benedict XVI).

"Through your holy cross you have redeemed the world."

Mosaic of Christ with Adam and Eve by Marko Rupnik.
"He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness. And [being] found human in appearance, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:7-8).

Georges Rouault, Crucifixion, 1918
"There is no cross, big or small, in our life which the Lord does not share with us" (Pope Francis).

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

We Have to Say "Yes"

We trust God because we know He loves us.

Everything is His gift, and expresses His personal love for each of us and for the relationships between us. He is Love. He can only love. In the Cross He reveals that He is Love and He gives Himself as love, and He shows us that He is totally united to us in our difficulties. Totally united with us. So we don't have to be afraid of anything. It's hard not to be afraid, but of course, He is with us even in our fear. He has given Himself and gives Himself as present in our lives now through Jesus and His Church.

In the end, we will be amazed when we realize what He has done for each of us. The marvelous truth will be clear: God is the Great Lover, He pours Himself out for each person, as only God can -- all the hidden ways will one day be manifest. He gives because He is the Giver, He is Gift.

Of course, a gift needs to be received, and love is only received in a fully personal way by the return of love. We have to say "yes" to God, through our life.

We are called to say yes to God, to say yes to the next step as God's light makes it clear to us, to say yes and to pray with trust that He will make it possible.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Swallowed Up By Life

"For we know that if our earthly dwelling,
a tent, should be destroyed,
we have a building from God,
a dwelling not made with hands,
eternal in heaven...
For while we are in this tent
we groan and are weighed down,
because we do not wish to be unclothed
but to be further clothed,
so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life."

~2 Corinthians 5:1, 4

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

"Words Cannot Express...." Speaking From the Heart to Those Who Mourn

The text below is written in the form of an address to "my friend" -- a person who has lost a loved one to an act of violence.

These words could apply to many people who continue to suffer and question their faith in the wake of brutal actions that have taken place all over the world this past summer, or in recent years. They could also apply to people whose grief is not connected to anything we have read in the news. And, though I bring up the element of human violence, there is much here that could pertain to any person who grieves the loss of a loved one.

Perhaps someone can find a helpful thought or phrase in all of this muddle of my words. It's a muddle, indeed, but as I have said before, this blog is my verbal "workshop" where a lot of things come out of experience and reflection and begin to get hammered into written words, expressions, sentences, paragraphs, communication. It's a work in progress.

I must emphasize that this is not the transcript of an actual note written to a particular person (not even I would be so pedantic as this in a real note!). It is true, therefore, that to a great extent this "speaking to my friend" is a kind of literary device. What is written here cannot be taken as applying to only one person; in many ways the praying, pondering, and writing about our violent world has drawn my awareness into solidarity with many people in distant places. But there are some elements, some raw points that may still come through in this text, because it has as its origin real personal circumstances and communications, real pain, real friendship.

I indicate this to emphasize that--"abstract" style notwithstanding--this is a suffering that I am speaking to from the heart. But I have removed specifics here, and I have also "mashed in" my own thoughts, my own efforts to understand, and my own grieving over the grieving of others--my own poor efforts of empathy. I have expanded the horizon of the original context and taken the suffering of others to heart as well.

I thought it might be useful to share some of this on the blog, though I don't know quite how--I certainly don't propose to plop this in front of someone as an answer to their grieving. It's all too analytical. It is, as usual for me, TOO MANY WORDS. Sometimes I think all my words should just be reduced to "Lord, save me!" or "Lord, save us!" The rest is vanity. But words... ah, that's what I have been given in life, so I labor with them. Here are the words, then, for you all to read. I can only leave it to God to measure them, to use them in His way, for whatever benefit He may wish to communicate through His mercy. I have done my best. 
My friend, you have been struggling a lot with grief this past summer. I know about the psychological stages of grief, and I want to stay with you in faith and love, and with all the humanity and friendship I can muster.
But this is a hard grief, a particularly black grief, the grief that follows in the wake of violence.
How can I ever really understand what depths of misery and solitude you have experienced? You are suffering the consequences of a profoundly personal assault that has robbed you of someone you love, that has upended the entire structure of life as you have known it. I want to stand with you, but there are depths of your affliction that are beyond the reach of my poor love.
You feel as if you are having a crisis of faith. Violence seems to have shattered your sense of the goodness of God. A particular human face that matters so much to you has suddenly been ripped out of your universe by a malicious act. How can this be?
It feels like evil has somehow prevailed. There is the terrible and real temptation to reject faith, to doubt by choosing to turn away from the truth, by choosing to withdraw from a vital relationship with God.
Though I will never comprehend the abyss of your personal pain, my friend, I beg you not to make this choice. God alone understands. God is your only hope.
Hold onto your faith, even if it hangs by the barest thread. Right now you are experiencing a psychological turmoil that feels very much like "doubt." Suddenly it seems like everything you thought you knew about God's goodness and His particular providence for your life has been overthrown. Perhaps you try to say that "God is good" and that "He loves you" but these words seem to recede to the furthest edges of meaning. You have no strength. The pulse of life itself is so thin, and it quickens only as a nervous response to the shattering noise that still shakes your awareness to the core.
You are plunged into a particular kind of darkness, a state of spiritual shock.
But you still have faith. You have not abandoned God, and He is in fact so mysteriously close to you, but you may fear that all the turmoil and confusion in your mind indicates a loss of faith. You may think, "I can't pray to God anymore. I've lost all the words. I don't know what to say, and I feel like all my prayers in the past were just talking to myself."
Indeed, when we pray we are often "talking to ourselves" (to our own images of God) more than to God, insofar as the strength of our prayer relies on our own resources. But grace is at work nevertheless. God listens to us when we pray, even though we are much more self-absorbed than we think.
But your whole sense of yourself has been blown to pieces. So much of yourself was invested in relationship with this person (and it was a good investment; it was love). You believe that the relationship still exists, but it seems like all the reference points of connection to this precious person have been annihilated. So much of your love for God was bound up with the face of this person, who was a daily reminder to you of the need to love and to be loved. This unique image, this precious gift, was swept away from your sight by wickedness.
You may wonder if it is still possible to pray. What if you feel like you have nothing to say? Everything has been stripped away from you, and you don't understand why. All you have is "nothing."
But you can pray, my brother.
Honestly, I'm "reading the map" here. I don't know the territory you are travelling through. But here is this map we've been given. I am describing something I don't understand, but I am going to take a chance and do it anyway. Why? Because I love you. I don't really know the weight of those words or where they will lead me, but I'll say them again: "I love you." And I trust the map.
So here I am, looking at Romans 8:18-27: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness." What I want to say to you is this: Pray! Take that emptiness of yourself and "pray it," lift it up, give it over to Him. Or just ache in His presence. Cry the hurt. Beg the hurt. Or just hurt. Don't be afraid to hurt. Don't think that pain distances you from Him. Let Him draw close to the pain in His incomprehensible way.
Ah, His "incomprehensible" ways. I'm tossing a word around that I have hardly thought about, and you are immersed in the very reality of it. I'm scared, and I want to distance myself, so I start "doing theology." I'm scared. When I try to pray for you, I don't have the words either. Oh God. Help. Save us!
But, wait. The map points to the Holy Spirit. Pray, brother. Just hurt in front of Him. God will hear the prayer in your pain. He hears within it the "sighs too deep for words" of the Spirit, who helps us because we don't know how to pray as we ought.
After all, we are all dying. In reality you understand this right now a lot more clearly than I do.
What is the Lord doing? He is drawing our relationship with Him more and more into that "hope" for things we do not yet see, the inward groaning which is not doubt (not a willful, sinful rejection of the truth) even when we experience it as a psychological and emotional earthquake. Rather, it is God working in us. He is deepening our hope and it feels like it's breaking us apart, but in reality what is being born within us is the longing for the fulfillment of God's plan.
When we talk about "being broken," however, it is not a cheap symbol. You have really been broken, my friend.
Indeed the break is so real that it opens you. You have begun to long for the "things that are not seen" -- because you can no longer see the person you love and yet you know that she is real, you know that--beyond all the violence of this world--she endures. She has gone before you into the Mystery which we know by promise and by hope, but not by sight.
You miss her, achingly, inconsolably. And she was always a gift from His love and still lives on in His love. But in this world, she was--in a very special, specific, unique way--the presence of His love in your life. And evil has taken her away. It is as though God Himself has in some sense gone away, not forever but for an unbearably long long time. And God has permitted wicked people to take Him away from you.... Why?
Of course. This is Christianity. You know about the Cross. And the Resurrection. This is the Cross. This is salvation. Your salvation. And mine.
But still, right now, you miss that person. You miss her love. You miss the way He loved you through her, the way He was present in your life through her. You miss her precisely in the way she was a unique, irreplaceable gesture of His love. You really miss her, and in the awful strangeness of that experience it can be said that in a sense you miss Him.
You miss God.
So your pain is in this longing for her, which is becoming for you a deeper kind of longing for God, a longing that fills your existence and your soul, and also your eyes and your ears and your hands and your heart and your bones and your blood. It is a deeper kind of love. A love deeper than death, and more tenacious than all the evil that tries to destroy it.
Why does it have to be this way? I don't know. I am not God and I do not understand His ways. I know that love is a terrible mystery and an overwhelming beauty and that it's the only thing I really want!
That is something we have in common, my dear violated brother. We know that it ends in the incarnate realization of ineffable wisdom and goodness, and through the Spirit that realization has already begun in us.
So, let us throw ourselves into the arms of this wild loving God who wants to teach us to love the way He loves. Jesus doesn't explain it to us. Instead He comes to accomplish it for us, and then He enables us to do it in Him.
I don't know what this means really, and I'm afraid of what it means. Help me, my friend.
We need to stay together. We both need to trust Jesus, and in the darkest places in life we will have this hope, and the help of the Spirit who enables us to endure, to "wait with patience."
Forgive me, my friend. I have said too much. Forgive me.