Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Waking Dreams of My Father

I don't know how to talk about what Dad is going through, or what I'm going through trying to stay precariously balanced in a situation that is always changing.

So I'm just going to "talk" about it, rambling and writing whatever comes out.

This is something I never imagined, ever, in the first 54 years of my life.

When my Dad started to slow down in his late 70s, and after he moved into his 80s and slowed down more, I sometimes thought that when we said goodbye at the end of one of our frequent visits to Arlington, it might be the last time.

I thought, "Maybe this is it. Maybe I'll never see him alive again in this world." I thought about that possibility. I won't say I was prepared for it, but I saw it on the horizon.

When his motor coordination and memory began to decline gradually last year, I figured it was the initiation of a slow decline.

But Dad was dependable. He was always basically the same (at least as I perceived him). He loved with persistence and dedication those who were entrusted to him. He took care of my Mom. He took care of my brother and me, taught us the value of hard work and being professional, but without goading us. Worldly success was not an inflexible imperative; when health problems brought my own career crashing down, he was there to help and to be quietly understanding.

He loved his grandchildren and they loved their "Papa." When the kids were little, they saw my parents a lot. We would spend many weekends (and longer visits during the Summer) at their place, with the kids in sleeping bags on the floor in the living room. The kids have so many happy memories of those days, growing up with their grandparents.

Dad wasn't perfect and he had his share of problems and suffering. Growing old was a particular challenge as he began (slowly, it seemed) to have difficulty doing a lot of things that used to be easy for him. He was, after all, over 80 years old. He was getting forgetful, a little hard of hearing (we thought), slower, more frail.

But he seemed to be the same consistent Dad we had known all our lives.

Then came the year 2018. What is probably an Alzheimer's-related dementia accelerated very rapidly in a few months to the point where he now only occasionally manages to speak a coherent sentence. He has also completely lost the ability to walk.

It's like a bomb fell from the sky and just blew up.

It's been a complete revolution, above all in his life but also for the rest of us. We're still in the process of trying to put things together in a new way. Both Mom and Dad are safe and getting the assistance they need, but a lot of things are still provisional.

In retrospect, we can see that there were signs of his illness in the last couple of years. There may have been more that we didn't see. Our parents loved us, but they didn't want to "burden" us. Indeed, they valued their independence, their privacy, their routines, even their furniture (some of which is older than me and still in great condition).

Dad seems adjusted to his new physical surroundings after 6 months (though he doesn't really know where he is; sometimes he thinks he's still at home, or in a hotel, or at a conference, or we don't know because he says words that don't make sense). He gets frustrated because he can't remember what he wants to say to us, or how to say the words.

My brother and I get to see him a lot, and he still recognizes us. A lot of impressions go through his mind from the past, from things that happened a long time ago, from things that never happened at all. At one point the other day, he grabbed our arms and said, "You're real, right? You're really here."

My father lives in a world of obscurity, of waking dreams. Thank God he is being well cared for, and that we can spend time with him.

It has taken me a long time just to realize how difficult it is for me to accept that my Dad is incapacitated. When he says things that make no sense, it's not my fault that I can't understand him.

It's not my fault. That would seem obvious, but it's different when it's your own father's face in front of you, still with some of the expressions you have seen--and the voice you have heard--ever since you were born. This is the face and the voice that raised you, that always "made sense," that you loved, trust, admired, and respected. Around your own middle age, you finally began to appreciate him deeply--to realize how much sense and how much wisdom and how much love came from that face and that voice.

It's still there. Occasionally something flashes through, suddenly and rapidly. He grabbed my shoulder today and said, "Solid fellow. Solid fellow." He is still the same living breathing human person; he is just handicapped by a terminal illness. He can still give and receive love.

And we have to remember that fact in the time to come, as the illness progresses and he can no longer grab our shoulders or even open his own eyes.

I know there is deep-down mysterious suffering for my Dad. I pray for him all the time, and trust in God who knows him entirely and loves him completely. God knows what my Dad needs in this last season of life, and for eternity.

Well, that's enough rambling from me. I'm battling to keep my own head above water. Even though I often feel more useless than ever, I also see (as much as a human being can see such things) that my task in this life is not yet completed.

Even if it seems like nothing, I'll do what I can for each day and throw myself upon the mercy of God.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

What Would I Do Without Music?


I really really don't know what I would do without music. And it's been a good summer of music, with more than the usual amount of live music. I have already written about the concert we saw in July, but I want to at least make reference a couple of other moments.

We had a lovely evening in August when our friend Marie Miller took a break from her headlining summer tour to sing and play music with some friends at the Front Royal Brewery, a new local spot:

Not a good picture, but definitely good music: LtoR, Anna and Rachel McMahon, Marie Miller, Kenny Kohlhaas.


Then, of course, on Labor Day weekend we had the fourth annual Appaloosa Festival, which is always a highlight of the season.


With our hosts, the great Scythian....


...along with numerous other excellent bands on multiple stages. I took some good pictures and posted them on Instagram and other places. Here is a sample to serve as an overview:


After a hot Sunday afternoon, we were all glad to see this beautiful sunset, with plenty of music still ahead:

We had a great time, once again!

I don't know if I'll see more live music this Fall. But if I do have a chance, I wouldn't mind seeing the "Contemporary R&B" Queen who will be touring for her new album Hiding Place, that was just released Friday.

Tori Kelly is a California girl with Anglo, Puerto Rican, and African Jamaican roots. In this new album, she collaborates with Kirk Franklin and some excellent singers and musicians to give a contemporary spin to the old fashioned gospel music genre.

Really good stuff. And from what I have seen on YouTube she sings a spectacular live show.

Stay tuned....



Saturday, September 15, 2018

Takashi Nagai's Journey to Christ


I am republishing my blog post from March about Takashi Nagai, and adding to it a photo reproduction of my article about his early life and his encounter with Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church. Some may have seen the article in this month's issue of Magnificat. This post will fill in a few details about the rest of his great life.

Dr. Takashi Nagai (1908-1951) was a Japanese medical doctor, a scientist and pioneering researcher who specialized in radiology, a highly respected professor, a beloved husband and father, and a convert from atheism to Jesus Christ and his Church. My article about his conversion appears in Magnificat's September 2018 issue.

But there is another story, the story of a more profound conversion, a radical change in Dr. Nagai's whole life that set him on the road to a greater faith, but also involved his passing through an almost unimaginable horror that began at 11:02 AM on August 9, 1945.

First, here is a copy of the article about his early life that just appeared in print:


****************************************************************************************************************

I can only say that the story of this great man, his wife, his family, his colleagues, and his community is one of the most intense and heart-wrenching and terrifying and beautiful stories I have ever come across in the twentieth century Church.

It is a story he lived long enough to tell, in a book called The Bells of Nagasaki. 

The Catholics of the Urakami district of Nagasaki, the disciples of Francis Xavier, the survivors of three centuries of persecution, were not specifically the intended target of the second atomic bomb. But because of various circumstances including weather conditions and wind, the very heart of Christianity in Japan--home to some 30,000 Catholics and their cathedral--became, literally, Ground Zero.

Many thousands of people were immediately reduced to ashes, including an estimated 8,000 Christians at the epicenter who were going about their morning routines, living, working, and praying. The cathedral was packed with worshippers praying for peace when the bomb exploded in the air above it. People in the vicinity of Ground Zero died where they were standing, sitting, or kneeling, in a flash.

The Nagai children were outside the city with their grandmother on that day. But their mother Midori Nagai was in the kitchen of their home in Urakami near the cathedral. The old home was built over a cowshed where her ancestors, the secret Christians, had gathered to pray and pass on their faith for seven generations without any priests, with only a basic catechism and the sacrament of baptism.

Days later her husband found remnants of her skeleton in the midst of the ruins, and some melted metal in the remains of the bones of her hand where he could barely make out the outline of a crucifix. Like so many of the Christians at Ground Zero, Takashi Nagai's wife had a deep devotion to Mary. When the awful fire fell, she had been praying the rosary.

Dr. Nagai was working at the Nagasaki University hospital on that morning. He was pinned under the wreckage of his laboratory, seriously injured but alive. Eventually the handful of doctors, nurses, and students who survived were able to reach him, stop the worst of his bleeding, and bring him to his feet. They formed a team that for several days worked heroically to treat whomever could be rescued from the flames and the scorched ground where there had once been a city.

As doctors, they did what they could to help the wounded, without medicines or supplies. As scientists, they discussed among themselves with horror and wonder the phenomenon that had occurred. They didn't know of the attack on Hiroshima, but they were able to see that this was a wholly new kind of bombing. Dr. Nagai and his colleagues were aware of the trajectory of atomic research, and had heard rumors that efforts were being made to use that research to make a horrible weapon, a nuclear bomb.

Their experience convinced them that these efforts had succeeded, and that they were living through a nuclear holocaust. And it wasn't over yet.

In the hours, then days, then weeks that followed, many people who had survived the blast developed strange and often fatal illnesses from radiation poisoning. Still others would succumb to their injuries. After a month of exhausting labor caring for the wounded and struggling to stay on his own feet, Dr. Nagai himself collapsed and was on the verge of death. His colleagues gave up hope of saving him as he moved in and out of a coma.

He recalled that he was prepared to die, but felt the desire and the need to live for the sake of his children (who had already lost their mother). Then he had a very unusual experience, which he reported to be something like a voice prompting him in a very specific way. In order to understand the significance of this prompting, we should note that Saint Maximilian Kolbe had lived in Nagasaki from 1930-1936 and was well known and much loved by the Catholic community. He had even been one of Dr. Nagai's patients. Fr. Kolbe had, of course, returned to Poland where the final act of his own drama awaited, and all news of him was blocked by the war.

But as Dr. Nagai lay dying, a voice seemed to urge him to "pray to Fr. Kolbe" for healing. No one in Japan knew that Fr. Kolbe was even dead, much less that he had died a martyr, but Takashi Nagai prayed for the intercession of the beloved friar. Soon after, he emerged from the coma, and the injury causing immediate danger to his life was inexplicably healed.

His fellow doctors said it was a miracle.

Unfortunately, his overall health was broken by radiation-induced leukemia, which eventually rendered him an invalid. From his bed, he turned to writing. In the light of his deepening faith, he wrote about the events he had experienced and their implications for the future. He wanted to record all he could for the sake of his native Japan and its reconstruction, for future scientific research, and as an advocate for peace in the world. He lived until 1951 and wrote 20 books, including The Bells of Nagasaki.

He is held in great esteem in Japan by Christians and non-Christians, and his story deserves to be more widely known. As I continue my literary (and film/video) "tour" of East Asia, you will hear more about him from me. His story is deeply Catholic, sorrowful, mysterious, and marked by the distinctively Japanese cultural character that we need to understand better.

But you don't have to wait for me. Fr Paul Glynn, an Australian priest who lived many years in Japan, wrote a very accessible biography that was recently reprinted by Ignatius Press, which you can get HERE. It is not an easy story, but it is one that needs to be heard, and that is very important for our troubled world today.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Cranberries' "New New York"

The Irish have a special place in their hearts for New York. The island people and the great American city have been associated by bonds of kinship and admiration for hundreds of years.

It's not surprising that 9/11/2001 and the days that followed were poignant, tragic, and heroic for the Irish imagination (which is steeped in such things).

On May 30, 2002 the late Dolores O'Riordan visited the ruins of the World Trade Centers in Manhattan. Her impressions became the source of the hardest-rocking song released by The Cranberries since their visceral protest statement against the violence in Northern Ireland in 1994, "Zombie."

But there is something different about "New New York." In addition to being simple, abrasive, direct, and mournful, the song looks beyond the endless repetition of war and destruction. "New New York" is an anthem to a city struggling to rebuild itself.

It concludes in a decisively positive fashion: "They won't tear us apart." With the smoke barely cleared from Ground Zero in 2002, this was a significant statement of hope. New Yorkers and their city have done much since then to realize that hope.

The beginning of this year 2018 brought another tragedy that touched the Irish soul: the sudden death of Dolores O'Riordan at age 46 from the unforeseen consequences of an accident in her London hotel room on January 15.

The conclusion of the inquest was finally announced last week, and ruled out death by suicide.

It seems appropriate to remember those who perished on 9/11/2001 with Dolores O'Riordan's tribute song, as we all hope and pray that together we will see a "new day" that never ends.

WARNING: This video contains rock music. This is not "Dreams" or "Linger," people. It's loud. Turn down your volume, adjust ear phones, etc.😉 Lyrics to the song are provided below (and, by the way, it doesn't pretend to be Yeats or anything; it's a rock 'n roll song—genre is the key to appreciating...many things).


New New York

New, New, New, Ah ah ah ah
New, New, New, Ah ah ah ah
New New York skyline
wounds they heal in time
don't crawl and don't despair
it's a new New York today.

I look across these city streets
my heart is numb, it still beats
nothing to say
there's nothing to say.

I look across this empty room
my heart is still in gloom
there's nothing to say
I only can pray.

New, New, New, Ah ah ah ah
New, New, New, Ah ah ah ah
New New York skyline
wounds they heal in time
don't crawl and don't despair
it's a new New York today.

I look across these city streets
my heart is cold, it beats
thirtieth of May
Ground Zero today
New, New, New, Ah ah ah ah
New, New, New, Ah ah ah ah
I get down on my knees and pray
for the heroes of the day
and no comfort I can find
for the loved ones left behind.

They won't tear us apart
they won't tear us apart
they won't tear us apart
they won't tear us apart

No way

New day
New day.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Christina Grimmie and her Mother: Keeping God First


Tina Marie "Mama" Grimmie was laid to rest this past weekend, next to her daughter who died two years and three months ago on June 10, 2016.

May God hold them both together forever in His eternal embrace.💚💚🕀


Saturday, September 8, 2018

We Are All Called To Be "Missionaries of Charity"

Seriously?

We are all called to be "Missionaries of Charity"? Hey, wait, whoa...!!

This is the congregation founded by (Saint) Mother Teresa, that vows poverty, chastity, obedience, and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. The MCs really go to the margins, and beyond the margins. It's an awesome and totally radical life, dedicated in a visible way—a prophetically significant way—to Jesus in the Eucharist and in the most desperately poor, unwanted, forgotten people.

The MCs are utterly unromantic. They don't have illusions about what it takes on the natural human level (in terms of physical, psychological, and emotional strength) to live and endure their form of life. Good foundations for the development of such strength (with the help of grace) are ordinarily necessary, but of course they are not sufficient.

In fact human strength is utterly incapable of laying hold of the divine dimension of this calling. Thus there are also other ways to adhere to Mother Teresa's great "movement" (e.g. as co-workers, volunteers, or through the offering of prayer and suffering). It is still possible to participate profoundly in the grace of this charism if you are specifically drawn to it, even if you have a constitution that prohibits you from developing the ability to live in any kind of place, eat any kind of food, be moved somewhere else in the world at a moment's notice, do whatever difficult physical or mental tasks are required by the harsh environment of a slum, a war zone, etc.

Clearly, not everyone is called to the specific form of consecrated life that is the Missionaries of Charity.

Vocations are tested extensively, and many good-hearted people who try to join the MCs are told (sometimes after a period of trial) that "this is not where God is calling you." And that is not a judgment against their character; it is realism about the nature and grace of the MC vocation.

The women and men who live for God through the vows of the Missionaries of Charity live in the heart of the Church and at the most desperate extremities of the world. They live the mystical reality of charity (caritas, agape), which is the kind of love that is ultimate and decisive for existence.

"Charity" in the proper sense of the term indicates the love given by the Holy Spirit—the love that is from God and for God, the supernatural love that we Christians all receive in baptism, that empowers us to live as children of God in Christ. It is also the mysterious hidden reality offered to every human being, and communicated (somehow—perhaps by an "implicit baptism by desire") to those who seek faithfully to do the will of God, the ultimate Goodness, insofar as they understand it. Through grace and charity the Spirit guides and shapes the life of human beings toward the fullness of the recognition of Jesus Christ.

Every human person has been created to receive and to give this love.

Charity is the love that endures forever. The MC vocation is to live this charity in an intense, visibly dedicated way, to all the ends of the earth, wherever there are human persons in need of love.

It is an intense life.

I have been a volunteer with the MCs at various times in my life, and for a consistent period when I lived in Rome. Just volunteering was overwhelmingly intense for me. But I'm glad for what I learned from the experience.

By the very clarity and radical nature of their dedication, the MCs are witnesses to the love that we are all called to live in our own circumstances with the people who are "near" us (our "neighbor").

"Love your neighbor." Everyone agrees with that, right? Nevertheless, it's the hardest thing in the world to do, concretely, day in and day out. 

We can't love one another consistently and in the fullest sense without the grace of Jesus Christ. Those who love others with charity are moved by His grace even if they don't know His name yet, or have not yet inwardly perceived the significance of Him in a way they can articulate to themselves, due to unavoidable misunderstandings, psychologically entrenched preconceptions, or other factors about the human personality that are beyond our understanding.

We all need to know Him better. For this we need witnesses. The MCs are witnesses to the love of God in Christ for every human being. Their witness inspires us to want to love more, to grow in love.

We are drawn to a deeper conversion, to greater worship of the Lord, with gratitude and humility, with a more vital spirit of prayer. And we ask the Lord to give us more generous hearts, more open hearts so that He can give His love through us.

Then by helping one another, and even by just living ordinary life with that prayer, that desire, we ourselves become witnesses, "missionaries of charity" (small "mc") wherever we are.

Mother Teresa spoke often of the "smile," a simple thing: "Peace begins with a smile." This doesn't mean fake smiling all the time, nor is it merely the naturally spontaneous gesture of a cheerful disposition. It means becoming (patiently, day by day) the kind of person who smiles from the heart.

Something from the depths of us where God dwells can appear on our faces, maybe not all the time but sometimes, and perhaps more and more as we grow and experience healing.

Even clinically depressed people can give and receive this smile, or suffering people, people in "dark nights" like Mother Teresa herself. It is the joy of Christ. It changes the world, one gesture at a time, person to person.

This is the mission of charity that is entrusted to each one of us.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Mother Teresa: "Bring Love Into Your Home"


"It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start."
– Mother Teresa

(We celebrate Saint [Mother] Teresa of Kolkata on September 5.)

Monday, September 3, 2018

Rest in Peace, Mama Grimmie

Rest in Peace, Tina Marie Grimmie (5/25/1959 - 9/2/2018). She passed away yesterday at the end of a very long struggle with cancer.

She was affectionately known as "Mama Grimmie" to millions of 'frands' of her daughter, the late great singer-songwriter Christina Grimmie (whom I have written about many times in these pages).

💚Mama Grimmie, we will miss you!💚

First diagnosed with breast cancer 23 years ago, Mama Grimmie underwent extensive treatment and passed through several relapses and remissions during different periods of Christina's short life.

Christina was greatly shaped while growing up by the experience of her mother's fragile and unpredictable health, but more important for her was to see her mother live these trials with deep faith, courage, a generous spirit, and an enduring zest for life. Mama Grimmie remained a strong support and a great example to Christina to the end, along with her advice to "keep God first" in her career, her life, and her heart.

Mama Grimmie continued to battle cancer for more than two years after her daughter's death, sharing her own powerfully honest grief but also turning outward to console and help others by establishing the Christina Grimmie Foundation along with her husband Bud and son Marcus.

May the Lord gather her now, together with her beloved daughter, into His eternal embrace.

And may He console Bud Grimmie and Marcus Grimmie, who remain behind, carrying an immense sorrow even as they continue a precious legacy.💚💚

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Even in the Worst Times, the Lord is Here and He Leads Us

The Collect for this liturgical week in the Roman Missal (the 21st week of Ordinary time) is a very helpful prayer for all Christians facing difficulties, and for discerning the path ahead in these particularly opaque times.

Many of us can't find the way through all the confusion caused by the chaos of these sins and crimes that continue to be revealed, that occurred in the Catholic world over the past three quarters of a century.

We hear again of all the abuses of authority, the peculiarly deep personal destructiveness of a sexuality divorced from God's plan for human life and love and weaponized in the service of pride and lust, and all the failures to stop the offenders or to protect or even attend to the victims of this predatory violence.

It is horrible, and we are horrified. But many of us find that we are just being driven down further into the confusion. Nor do we find clarity from the flare-up on the Internet and other media of indiscriminate accusations and loud arguments from many sides, with all their conflicting interpretations of events and proposals for change.

We want to do God's will. We want to hear the voices and respond with compassion and care for those whose humanity has been so profoundly violated. We want to hold perpetrators accountable as well as those in authority who actually could have stopped these predators but failed to take necessary action. And we want to support real and constructive reforms.

But we can so easily find the constant flow of instant news information and blog and social media polemics overwhelming, perplexing, or even triggering to the pain of our own psychological and emotional wounds. Many of us who hear constantly in these days about the current scandals have our own terrible struggles with mental illness, and don't have the resources to process (psychologically or even physically) the enormous stress and tension that have pervaded the Catholic environment. Many of us also are broken because we too have been abused in some serious way by people in the Church or the wider world, in sexuality or other areas involving a deep personal trust that has been betrayed or manipulated.

So for us this moment in the life of the Church means more suffering, often in ways that render us incapable of putting all the whirlwind of information and opinions and arguments into some kind of healthy perspective.

One thing that must be said, however, is that those who are suffering from the awful effects of clerical sexual abuse must not be forgotten. They have priority. They are—in a very urgent way at this time—Christ suffering in his members. It would be a further abuse to use these people as just a pretext for pushing someone's ecclesiastical political agenda. When ideologies crystallize, real persons are easily forgotten, and even the most zealous advocates for justice end up replacing the old injustices of others with new injustices of their own.

We must remember the people who are suffering.

Each victim of sexual abuse is a unique, individual human person with his or her own story of violation, betrayal, and pain. Their sufferings are cries to God that he hears. He wants his people and his ministers in the Church to remember him by listening with compassion to the stories of these persons. So much suffering afflicts Christians and others because people entrusted with the special vocation to be servants and instruments of God's love in the world have forgotten God.

What can we do? The "field hospital" is filled way beyond its capacity. Can the Divine Physician count on his ministers and co-workers to tend the wounded, and also to build a healthier environment? 

Of course, the Lord will not fail us with his grace. He himself carries all the depths of our suffering. He who mysteriously accompanies from within every human being will also inspire in the hearts of some of the Church's members the compassion for the needs of persons, the insight, and the sense of justice that will lead to reform. He is already working, even through the awkward disagreements of people of good faith. He is working most specially in those who give primary attention to caring for the victims, who listen to their pain and to the Holy Spirit who whispers therein his will for the whole Church.

Christians must help in whatever way they have been empowered by the Spirit of God. But we do not know the depths of God's plan, the mystery of the profound goodness that he wills to bring forth from out of the consequences he permits when he allows creatures to misuse their freedom.

God really is good. All the time. And some of us may be called simply to walk through the dark valley, without the comfort of knowing-what's-going-on or the sense of having accomplished anything. Being overwhelmed and feeling "lost" and powerless are not ultimately indicative of defeat. God is in charge. The heart of the Church is Jesus Christ crucified who conquers death and gives eternal life, whose ultimate "weakness" reveals the final, absolute power of Divine love. (I tell myself this, even when I don't feel it.)

We accomplish God's will, in our work and in our suffering, by following Jesus in faith and love, by trusting (maybe in desperation, but never giving up) the mercy of the Father who has loved us first and who loves us now (however troubled we may be). We will find confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit who renews the Church and continually impels her members, even with their flaws, to go forth and witness to the salvation of the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

There is a battle, indeed, but the battle has already been won. We experience tribulation as we respond to God's call. We try to do his will, we fail, we repent. He allows all of us to suffer in different ways (and we will all be divested of our human powers by death) but this is only so that we might have a share in his suffering and thus share in the fullness of his victory.

We need to remember that we belong to Jesus Christ. He has taken hold of our lives, and he reaches others through us, not only through our constructive activity, but also (and especially) through our suffering.

Let us adhere to God's love, whether we are seeking justice, doing works of mercy, spending our talents and energy in his service, fighting against evil, or suffering and finding that all we can do is hold onto him within our helplessness, that all we can do is die with him.

God has come to stay with us. If we remember him, if we open our hearts and let him love us, he will transform us. He will give meaning to everything in our lives.

The prayer from this week helps us to remember him:

"O God, who cause the minds of the faithful
to unite in a single purpose,
grant your people to love what you command
and to desire what you promise,
that, amid the uncertainties of this world,
our hearts may be fixed on that place
where true gladness is found.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever."

Friday, August 31, 2018

Thursday, August 30, 2018

"We Wish We Had No Noses" (a poetic fragment)



"We Wish We Had No Noses" (a poetic fragment)
by JJ 8/30/2018

Anger, it's true, anger
is there.
And other sensations yet unknown,
beyond the edge,
beneath the crust,
of this foot pounded hard shell of earth.

There is a slow poison
punched deep in the skin,
an anesthetic cancer
weaving through spaces of nerves,
imitating normal life.

Slowly, we get used to it.

But then the way is interrupted
by erupting fire shots from the ground.

Strike shocks ear drums,
strains, spins eyes in circles.
We watch pieces of flesh ripped, burned,
scattered in the field,
stinking in the air. We wish
we had no noses.

Anger is there, and sorrow is rain
falling harder and harder
as evening makes

a world of mud lakes.
Now every step slips
in sewers of soft sludge
or kicks open fissures of lightning
hidden under rocks.

Can these old bones

in this child soul
learn to walk again?


*********************************************************

Note on one thematic aspect expressed in the words above: Sometimes in life, you feel like you're in a place full of hidden landmines that keep exploding (literally or metaphorically). That's one of the images (by no means the only one) that enters into the texture of this "poetic fragment."

The image of landmines works within a complex of other themes and impressions grasped through experience, imaginative empathy, and other perceptions and resources. These inspire and shape the 'creative intuition' that guides the practical work of crafting words into a poem (with varying degrees of success).

My initial title for this work was "Landmine," but I chose instead another title--a more concrete and subjective image with more subtlety, that is also suggestive of other interrelated themes that came together in the writing process.

Poetry is never simply argument or narrative (even when it also carries out and/or contributes to these generally prosaic tasks). It flows from an intuition expressed in language that probes reality and provokes insight, aesthetic connection, and sometimes astonishment.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Cross

Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross. (Image from the Stations of the Cross at our parish church.)


Sunday, August 26, 2018

WELCOME TO THE REVOLUTION?

This is an abstract work that has been developing over the past few months. Now is as good a time as any to be finished with it and to introduce it here. The accompanying title is the question, "WELCOME TO THE REVOLUTION?"

I have no interpretation to offer for this piece.

I have been studying the genesis and development of the brutal revolutions of the twentieth century, including their original grievances (which were often fueled by the great evils of prior regimes), their psychological and sociological dynamics, and their ghastly, horrific consequences.

The context out of which I crafted this artwork includes a conviction that I find verified in history again and again, that revolution is not the answer.

A passionate desire for legitimately needed reform that does not attend to justice, equity, realism, and respect for every human person will inevitably be co-opted by ideological violence and manipulated to the latter's own distorted ends.

Revolution is the spiral of violence further intensified, expanded to even more monstrous proportions, and set ablaze. As Dostoevsky said, it is "Fire in the minds of men."

Before we realize it, we become strangers to one another, tearing one another apart.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

"You Are My Refuge..."


"With my voice I cry to the Lord;
with my voice I make supplication to the Lord.
I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.
                  
"When my spirit is faint,
you know my way.

"I cry to you, O Lord;
I say, ‘You are my refuge,
my portion in the land of the living.’
Give heed to my cry,
for I am brought very low."

~Psalm 142:1-3, 5-6

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Jesus is God Drawn Close To Our Wounded Humanity

We live in a world of immense suffering.

We all know how hard it is to deal with acute, immediately perceptible instances of suffering—instances of physical, mental, and/or emotional pain. It's hard enough to hear the stories of other people. And usually we want at least to be distracted, as much as possible, from our own pains. What we feel intensely is the need for relief, and we are grateful for anyone and anything that can give us some real help.

But the whole reality of suffering is deeper than the external struggles that engage so many of us.

People don't suffer "equally" (certainly not on every level or at any given time). But everyone suffers in this world, and everyone's suffering is uniquely their own.

At some point, everyone has distinct and profound experiences that can be at least partially articulated, that indicate the brokenness and incompleteness of their life: something that has disappointed or hurt them; someone who has betrayed them or manipulated them; something that does not measure up to a once-cherished hope; some kind of health issues; some catastrophic events or tragic losses; some family or friends who have let them down, abandoned them, misunderstood them; some limitation that inhibits their freedom; some burden that tires them; some hunger that is never satisfied....

People usually accommodate themselves to reduced expectations about life, especially as they get older. How else could one get through the day? Sometimes, however, one can still catch an echo of a cry of pain, that deep and mysterious pain at the heart of every human life. Life is, in some measure, always something that has to be endured.

Why is this? Most broadly, it's because we live in a radically broken universe. We suffer because of sin: original sin, our own personal sins, and the sins of the world. But why has God permitted so much sin and so much suffering?

God doesn't give a theoretical, intellectually satisfying answer to the depths of this agonizing question. He does something much greater. He comes to dwell with us in this broken world, and bears all our sufferings and sins out of love, thereby transforming the meaning of suffering.

Because of this, we do not suffer alone. We suffer in Jesus Christ, who is God’s love made personal and particular for each one of us.

Jesus is God drawn close to our wounded humanity, so close that He takes it upon Himself—not only in some “general” way, but in a way that encompasses each one of us. Jesus is the intimate companion of each and every human person, even those who do not know Him. He knows each one of us; He unites Himself (He—God the Eternal Son of the Father) to my humanity and to your humanity; He dwells with us and suffers with us in order to raise us up to a share in His life with the Father in the Holy Spirit.

He knows “who I am” and who He wills me to be. He knows the secret of why I was created. He knows my sins. He knows how to heal me of them, how to draw me to Himself, how to make me the “adopted son” that I am meant to be in Him for all eternity.

And so my joys and sufferings too (which He permits) are taken up into His infinitely wise, uniquely crafted, and tender love through which He shapes my life and leads me to my destiny.

How little I really understand about my “destiny.” How little I understand about the “eternal life” which means belonging to Him forever. We must remember every day that God is with us and that He draws us toward our true identity, which is to reflect His eternal glory in that unique way that corresponds to each of us as a person created in His image and likeness—a reflection that we do not yet understand but that He sees and knows.

We ought to dwell upon this and call it frequently to mind. Those little prayers throughout the day are worth so much: "Jesus, I love you." "Jesus, I trust in you." "Come, Holy Spirit." God, help me!" No matter the storms and the fury; the depths of our lives are not solitude. We are never alone.

At the heart of life, of every moment of life, the merciful God who is infinite, unconquerable love accompanies us, gives Himself to us, and asks us to open our hearts to receive Him.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Salve Regina

Here is the Virgin of Guadalupe on a postcard looking "down" upon me from the shelf next to my bed. I really, really need her to take care of me.

Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, Mother of Jesus our Lord and King, Mother Mary... help me.


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

I'm Gonna LOSE CONTROL!

I'm afraid that I'm losing control of life.

I am too highly sensitive a person. Pathologically sensitive, perhaps... hmm, I don't know. My human "shock absorbers" wore out a long time ago, so every bump goes right to the spine. And even in the best of times the road is really bumpy.

Lately, it's been like driving right through the middle of a war.

Maybe it's just my pride. I don't want to "lose control." It's humiliating. It exposes the hypocrisy of all my efforts to impress people, to pass myself off as a "deep person," and to hide all the failures and the utter mediocrity of my character.

Of course, there's also a little bit of common sense, and more (I hope) of a sense of responsibility to the small group of human beings in this world who have been entrusted to me in some concrete, consistent way (wife, parents, kids, brother, a few friends, and that mysterious "neighbor" who always turns up all over the place every day, whom I'm commanded to love).

I feel like I need to stay in control!

Or, rather, I feel like I need at least the illusion of "control" to keep from panicking. I have experienced the chaos of life inside my own head when it's out of control. I can't imagine going back to that kind of chaos.

I don't think that's going to happen again. I pray it doesn't happen again.

But right now, too much is crashing into me from too many places. I can't "handle it," at least not in the conventional sense that one is expected to handle things.

I also can't stop it from coming and continuing to pile on. But that may not be so bad after all. I'm being pushed (again) to "lose control" in the sense of letting go of my expectation that I can control reality—that I possess within myself the power to determine and measure the meaning of my own life.

But if I "lose control," who will take over in my place?

If I don't control the meaning of my life, then who does? Other people? Is the value of my life determined by those who "take control," those who manipulate minds with ideologies, those who have power in this world? This is an existential problem, which means it's a question that really punches me in the guts, and not just me.

This is one of the reasons why people are afraid to admit their vulnerability even to themselves, much less reveal it to others. If we are vulnerable, if we are weak, how can we protect ourselves from being defined (and perhaps used and discarded) by those who grasp hold of power?

I don't know if we can protect ourselves, ultimately, from being misused and humiliated by those who boast of their power and want to do violence to us. But we have to try to remember that—however overwhelming it may be—our vulnerability does not define us either. And no ideology or clique or group or anyone can take it upon themselves to be the measure of the meaning and dignity of a human person. The powers of this world have their limits, and therefore oppression has its limits.

For "the Lord hears the cry of the poor..."

God defines and controls the meaning of my life. He doesn't manipulate me. He is not some great and distant super-power, like the mafia boss of the universe, imposing a scheme on me that is alien to myself.

God is my Creator; He is the guarantor of my inviolable dignity, even when I am absolutely helpless.
God is Love. He has come to share my life, to share my weakness, to bear the afflictions that others impose on me (and even the ones that I impose on myself!).

"Losing control" means learning to trust more fully that Jesus Christ is "in control." When I say, "Jesus, I trust in you," I say it as a prayer. And sometimes it's a dark difficult prayer—a prayer that in a certain sense says, "Jesus I am afraid. I do not know how to trust. Give me the grace to trust in you."

It is after all grace, the gift of God's love, that saves, heals, and transforms our lives beyond our own power or anything else in this world.

Jesus really is in control, and He gives meaning to my life. He is greater than my pride and all my sins. He is with me and working within me even in my neuropathology, obsessions, oversensitivity, weakness, sickness, whatever. He is here, Jesus Himself.

Jesus is my hope. This is true even when the bombs are blowing up everywhere and my nerves are stretched beyond breaking and I don't feel His presence or even reflect on it because my mind is entirely taken up in the task of just trying to BREATHE....

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Crime and Punishment: "I am the Murderer!"

From the cover of a recent Russian edition.
Today I shall present and comment briefly upon two scenes from Dostoevsky's enduring masterpiece Crime and Punishment.

I am fascinated by a trio of characters (one of whom has only a minor role in the story) and how the drama of guilt, suffering, justice, and compassion plays out between them.

Personal guilt is a deep focus of the novel, but a peculiar and extreme character—Nikolay—enters in as one of the figures who represents (here in an exaggerated and unorthodox manner that is rich in poetic shock value) the sense of the universality of human sinfulness and the redeeming value of suffering. Other figures in the novel (e.g. Sonya) are more important for this theme, but Nikolay's short role has a crucial place in the story.

The scenario that connects these characters is difficult to sketch out for those who don't already know the book. Really, if anyone hasn't read this book yet, they should read it. Those who have read it should read it again.

Briefly, the police detective Porfiry Petrovitch is conducting a murder investigation which leads him into a battle of wits with the grim, idealistic proto-Nietzschean Ãœbermensch-wannabe university student Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov.

Porfiry has a scheme to try to prompt Raskolnikov into some kind of "slip" that would reveal his involvement in the crime, and he is about to spring it when one of the house painters who was also at the murder scene, Nikolay, bursts into the room....

...............................................................................................................................

Nikolay suddenly knelt down.

“What’s the matter?” cried Porfiry, surprised.

“I am guilty! Mine is the sin! I am the murderer,” Nikolay articulated suddenly, rather breathless, but speaking fairly loudly.

For ten seconds there was silence as though all had been struck dumb; even the warder stepped back, mechanically retreated to the door, and stood immovable.

“What is it?” cried Porfiry Petrovitch, recovering from his momentary stupefaction.

“I… am the murderer,” repeated Nikolay, after a brief pause.

“What… you… what… whom did you kill?” Porfiry Petrovitch was obviously bewildered.

Nikolay again was silent for a moment.

“Alyona Ivanovna and her sister Lizaveta Ivanovna, I… killed… with an axe. Darkness came over me,” he added suddenly, and was again silent.
..................................................................................................................

Some time later on, Porfiry Petrovitch meets Raskolnikov for an "open conversation" in which he discloses his own conviction about what really happened that night, about why Nikolay was taking the blame for something he did not do, and about who actually killed the two old women with an axe and what his real motivations were. Porfiry has no proof for his explanation. But he believes that the real murderer still has a conscience....

...................................................................................................................
Porfiry is speaking: “Do you know, Rodion Romanovitch, the force of the word ‘suffering’ among some of these people! It’s not a question of suffering for someone’s benefit, but simply, ‘one must suffer.’ If they suffer at the hands of the authorities, so much the better.

"In my time there was a very meek and mild prisoner who spent a whole year in prison always reading his Bible on the stove at night and he read himself crazy, and so crazy, do you know, that one day, apropos of nothing, he seized a brick and flung it at the governor; though he had done him no harm. And the way he threw it too: aimed it a yard on one side on purpose, for fear of hurting him. Well, we know what happens to a prisoner who assaults an officer with a weapon. So 'he took his suffering.'

"So I suspect now that Nikolay wants to take his suffering or something of the sort. I know it for certain from facts, indeed. Only he doesn’t know that I know. What, you don’t admit that there are such fantastic people among the peasants? Lots of them....

[Porfiry Petrovitch goes on to articulate all the holes and contradictions in Nikolay's strange fabricated 'confession,' showing clearly that the house painter couldn't have been the murderer. Rather, Nikolay was a religious enthusiast who wanted to 'take his suffering.']

"No, Rodion Romanovitch, Nikolay doesn’t come in! This is a fantastic, gloomy business, a modern case, an incident of today when the heart of man is troubled, when the phrase is quoted that blood 'renews,' when comfort is preached as the aim of life. Here we have bookish dreams, a heart unhinged by theories.


"Here we see resolution in the first stage, but resolution of a special kind: he resolved to do it like jumping over a precipice or from a bell tower and his legs shook as he went to the crime. He forgot to shut the door after him, and murdered two people for a theory. He committed the murder and couldn’t take the money, and what he did manage to snatch up he hid under a stone.

"It wasn’t enough for him to suffer agony behind the door while they battered at the door and rung the bell, no, he had to go to the empty lodging, half delirious, to recall the bell-ringing, he wanted to feel the cold shiver over again…. Well, that we grant, was through illness, but consider this: he is a murderer, but looks upon himself as an honest man, despises others, poses as injured innocence. No, that’s not the work of a Nikolay, my dear Rodion Romanovitch!"

All that had been said before had sounded so like a recantation that these words were too great a shock. Raskolnikov shuddered as though he had been stabbed.

"Then… who then… is the murderer?" he asked in a breathless voice, unable to restrain himself.

Porfiry Petrovitch sank back in his chair, as though he were amazed at the question.

"Who is the murderer?" he repeated, as though unable to believe his ears. "Why, you, Rodion Romanovitch! You are the murderer," he added, almost in a whisper, in a voice of genuine conviction.

Raskolnikov leapt from the sofa, stood up for a few seconds and sat down again without uttering a word. His face twitched convulsively.

"Your lip is twitching just as it did before," Porfiry Petrovitch observed almost sympathetically. "You’ve been misunderstanding me, I think, Rodion Romanovitch," he added after a brief pause, "that’s why you are so surprised. I came on purpose to tell you everything and deal openly with you."

"It was not I murdered her," Raskolnikov whispered like a frightened child caught in the act.

"No, it was you, you Rodion Romanovitch, and no one else," Porfiry whispered sternly, with conviction.


................................................................................................................


I have read Crime and Punishment many times (more than I can count). The first time I read it was my Senior year of High School. I was 18 years old and going through my own crisis of growing up and faith and pride and (I now realize) mental illness. It left me with a vivid impression, one that seems exaggerated and strange and extreme, certainly, but which was not entirely lacking in truth, at least in the sense that poetry can communicate something of the great and awful mystery of things.

All I can say is that when I finished the book, I said to myself, "I am the murderer!"

I could not escape the powerful impression that I had just looked into a mirror and had seen my own sins, my own guilt, my own inescapable need for "all of it" to come out into the open, and for me to embark upon a path of humility, conversion, and penance.

"I am guilty! Mine is the sin! I am the murderer!"

But along with this dreadful impression, there was something else that struck me, something that was more powerful even though it felt more remote at the time: the possibility of forgiveness. Hope.

For I knew that I would not be making this journey alone.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Turn and Be Converted From All Your Crimes


"Turn and be converted from all your crimes,
that they may be no cause of guilt for you.
Cast away from you all the crimes you have committed,
and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.
Why should you die, O house of Israel?
For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,
says the Lord God. Return and live!"

(Ezekiel 18:30-32).

The Lord says:
"Whom did you dread and fear,
that you told lies,
And me you did not remember
nor take to heart?
Am I to keep silent and conceal,
while you show no fear of me?

I will proclaim your justice
and your works;
but they shall not help you.

When you cry out,
let your collection of idols save you.
All these the wind shall carry off,
a mere breath shall bear them away;
But whoever takes refuge in me shall inherit the land,
and possess my holy mountain.

For thus says the high and lofty One,
the One who dwells forever, whose name is holy:
I dwell in a high and holy place,
but also with the contrite and lowly of spirit,
To revive the spirit of the lowly,
to revive the heart of the crushed"

(Isaiah 57:11-13, 15).

"A clean heart create for me, O God;
and a steadfast spirit renew within me"
(Psalm 51:12).