Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Birth of Oscar Romero, August 15, 1917

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

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

Conflict and the Way of Love

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Christina Grimmie: The Sorrow Remains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But life is such a fragile thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Martyr

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

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

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Mental Illnesses are Real Illnesses that Need Treatment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

A Study of a White Rose

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 3, 2017

He Can Create Us Anew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Wheat and Weeds, Decision and Patience

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

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

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

Monday, July 31, 2017

Contemporary Music: Finding the Gold in the Mud

Paging through Amazon Music's charts....

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

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

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

...the music is going to be weird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Martha of Bethany: Disciple and Believer

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

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

From the Gospel for the feast of St Martha:

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

Scenes from the Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Sowing the Seed in Our Hearts

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Love that Keeps Our Hope Alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From my loud groaning
I become just skin and bones.

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

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

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

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

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

~Psalm 102:1-8, 12-14, 18 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Don't Let Go, Lord. Don't Let Me Be Alone.

God gives us everything. Right now, we exist because He is giving us the reality of ourselves.

His love gives me each breath that I take. Even if all I have is that breath, it is a wondrous thing. I want to be grateful for every breath, even the laborious ones, even the breaths that I feel like I'd rather not take.

Lord, even when I don't feel grateful, 
even when I feel angry or frustrated 
or humiliated or empty, 
or when I think I don't want to live anymore, 
give me gratitude for the wonder of you, 
in whose image I am made,
you who alone know the secret of who I am.

Enable me, whatever the awful darkness, 
to be grateful, 
to hold on to your mercy and goodness and love, 
or when I can't find you, 
to allow you to hold onto me 
and carry me in this black night. 
I'm blind and torn and fighting 
and I feel like running away because it's all so strange.

Don't let go, Lord. Don't let me be alone.

You love me even when I don't remember you, 
can't see you, can't feel you, 
can't imagine how hope could be possible in life, 
how there could be anything other than the pain 
and more pain and more pain...

Even when I am far from you and losing myself, 
you are near. 
With my every breath, 
with every stirring of my frame 
and movement of my soul, 
you are near.

God, find me! 
God, find me!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Saint Bonaventure: Theologian at the Foot of the Cross

Of course this is posed, but I really did read!
Today is an especially fine day to read the OTHER great theologian at the University of Paris in the 13th century: Saint Bonaventure.

We are approaching the 800th anniversary of Bonaventure's birth (1221-1274) which is a remarkable thing in itself. The influence of the greatest of the Franciscan doctors is more pervasive than it might first appear. So much of Western spirituality has drawn upon his synthetic approach to philosophy, theology, spirituality, and mysticism.

Bonaventure brings all of his reason and all of his desire to the feet of Jesus Christ crucified. He uses the whole complex apparatus of the scholastic method to focus on the mystery of God who reveals and gives Himself in Jesus.

And he is not disappointed.

Nor will we be, if we learn from Bonaventure's teaching and follow his example.

Our humanity is healed and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In Him we find all goodness. All beauty is His reflection. All glory shines in the Love revealed on the Cross.

"The Cross is the summit of all glory,
the expression of all joy,
the treasury of all wealth;
for God, desiring to restore [us to His likeness]...
became man, humble, pitiful, and poor.
Thus Supremacy accepted misery,
Justice was put to trial,
Wealth assumed necessity;
for the highest Ruler became a lowly slave
that we might rise into glory;
the most equitable Judge received
the basest condemnation
that we might be acquitted of sin;
the richest Lord suffered the deepest need
that we might abound in plenty."

~St Bonaventure, De Triplici Via 4

Saint Bonaventure with the "Tree of Life," 15th century woodcut.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Luminous Simplicity of Saint Benedict

Yesterday was Saint Benedict's feast day. His wisdom has a very specific focus: "Put the love of Christ before all else."

A graphic that presents his luminous simplicity:

Monday, July 10, 2017

Thirteen Months of Remembering Christina Grimmie

It is a long trail of memory that this 22 year old young woman left behind. A year and a month have passed since the night Christina Grimmie was killed after a concert on June 10, 2016. A man she had never met fired five shots at point blank range as she opened her arms to welcome him with a hug at her meet-and-greet.

She was welcoming a stranger, a person, as she had welcomed countless others in her short yet remarkable career. She wanted to touch people's hearts, inspire them, and help them to know they are loved. That was why she gave herself through her music. That was the way she lived, and the way she died. 

The music "industry" and the celebrity world have (for the most part) pretty much forgotten Christina Grimmie. They never gave her the attention she merited while she lived.

They had no real excuse: her amazing talent was widely acknowledged. And her most recent posthumous musical releases only solidify further the judgment that she was already one of the most rich, versatile, and powerful voices of her generation. I will write more about her musical legacy another time.

In any case, fame in this world is a fleeting thing, just another vanity blown away by the wind. Human beings are made for something more.

The multitudes of young people all over the earth who continue to remember Christina have not ceased to find encouragement even in their sorrows. Her greatest legacy is her enduring testimony to the real value of life. She continues to help people to discover and focus upon the dignity and the joy of being human.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Idols of Silver and Gold

"Our God is in heaven;
whatever He wills, He does.
Their idols are silver and gold,
the handiwork of men.
They have mouths but speak not;
they have eyes but see not;
they have ears but hear not;
they have noses but smell not.
Their makers shall be like them,
and everyone who trusts in them"
(Psalm 115:3-8).

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"We Hold These Truths": Life, Liberty, and Happiness

On the occasion of this Fourth of July celebration, I would like to reflect briefly on those fundamental rights presented in America's Declaration of Independence, the rights that every human being possesses by virtue of the fact that he or she is created by God.

I am not going to interpret what Jefferson or the other founders were thinking, or what their historical intentions and motivations were in making these general claims in a highly complex and controversial political context. That is another very interesting topic in its own right, but I will not pursue it here. In this post I am more interested in unpacking the real implications of the "truths" that are identified by that most famous statement in the document:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Leaving aside the epistemological and ethical methods that philosophers are concerned with, let us simply say that these truths are "evident" to the common sense of adult human beings who live a real engagement with the world and with one another. They are some of (not all of) the basic features of being human. If these rights do not resonate with our human experience, then something is fundamentally skewed in our perspective, our relationships, and the environment and condition in which we live.

The merit of the Declaration is its explicit articulation -- in political terms, in terms of the structure and government of society -- of these basic realities that ought to be grasped at least implicitly by common sense and that apply to every human being simply because they are human. These words have inspired people for the past 241 years because they correspond to people's more or less implicit sense of human dignity, justice, equity, and communal life.

Many other considerations enter into how these rights (and others) are understood concretely. It is so easy to lose the focus of common sense, to reduce a moment of insight into a construction of words and ideas that can be manipulated and distorted to serve the agenda of dehumanizing power and violence.

The history of the past 241 years is proof enough of that.

However, insofar as "we hold these truths" in a way that remains faithful to the human and personal existence that has been given to us and to the promise for life that reality evokes in our hearts, we will be much enriched. We will draw out many important implications for personal and social life, and see that there is much yet to discover about being human together.

Here I would just like to reflect on some aspects of these rights in the light of the fundamental value of the human person (which is the profound and essential point of the statement that "all are created 'equal'").

First we affirm the "right to life," because every human being is a person created in the image of God, whatever their condition, social or economic status, abilities, or state of dependence, however they may be perceived by others, however "useful" they may or may not be regarded, whatever their shape, form, hue, or disposition. The right to life, the right of every human person to be protected and loved -- poor or rich, young or old, weak or strong-- exists from the miraculous moment of conception, when the person comes into existence through the unique creative act of God and is first entrusted to the immediate, intimate care of another person, to the woman who will forever be their mother. It extends all through life with its challenges and struggles and suffering, all the way to the moment of natural death when God calls the person to Himself.

We recognize the "right to liberty," because the human person stands in an original relationship to God, and therefore "belongs" alone to that Mystery who transcends the whole universe. The human person lives in communion with other persons, in relationships, in marriage and the family, in communities and civil society, and is called to work for the common good. The original relationship with God entails the capacity and responsibility for relationship with other persons, and such is the realization of freedom. But the human person must never be reduced to something less, to a mere "thing" to be used and discarded. The human person cannot therefore be owned by any other person, cannot be defined by human power or expedience, cannot be forced or manipulated to act against their conscience -- where they stand before the "measure" of God -- nor prevented from seeking and serving the One who alone corresponds to them, who makes them to be who they truly are and leads them to their destiny.

This leads to the third of these basic rights that are proper to being a human person: the right to the "pursuit of happiness." It really is hard to deny such a right, because we have been created to be happy. Human life is a search for fulfillment. As persons, we live by exercising our freedom in this search, and in establishing a relationship with this fulfillment, this "happiness" which is ultimately personal, communal, and mysterious.

Happiness. We all know that we are made for it, and that we must "pursue" it because we do not yet have the fullness of it. But what is happiness?

The American founders have expressed something important here: governments cannot impose or define what ultimately fulfills us, what makes us finally happy as human persons. When governments try to impose a happiness defined by the limits of their own power, they become monstrosities. Whatever might be the good intentions of those who try to construct a utopia, they inevitably become warped and destructive. A political order that tries to erase the drama and the pain and the beauty of the great questions and desires that underlie the pursuit of happiness cannot help crushing the human spirit in the end. And, as the history of the past 100 years has taught us only too well, they also crush human bodies; they sacrifice the lives of human beings on a gigantic, horrific scale.

We must stress, of course, that "happiness" is not an empty term, or a vague reference to the anarchy of "everybody-just-do-what-you-feel-like-doing." The latter view, advocated by some today, only leads to other monstrous, inhuman arrangements. The feelings and interests of the isolated human being are too easily manipulated, diverted, and enslaved by those who are clever and devious enough to build their own fiefdoms of power and profit. There is a delicate and prudent but also very necessary place for various levels of government in protecting human freedom from those who would steal its potential or bend it to their own corrupt purposes.

Overall, politics fosters the common good of human beings living together in this world, using the resources of this world to build an environment that gives context and makes space for the human search for happiness, the human response to the total and mysterious vocation of life. 

Government should protect and
cultivate the human places where happiness blossoms and reveals itself. This is its essential and modest responsibility and the scope of its authority among human persons as they journey together through this life to a transcendent destiny. That goal of ultimate happiness is a mystery that the experience of life never ceases to promisethat it whispers even in the most desperate circumstances. Governmental authority, on various levels, indeed has a role in addressing those "desperate circumstances" that afflict people's lives in this world, especially those that are the consequences of injustice. And there are no shortage of these problems.

But the promise of happiness is written in the human heart by One who is infinitely greater than anything in this world. All human authorities must give way to the One who reveals this "happiness," who makes it possible to encounter this destiny and taste its fulfillment, the One who convinces the human heart of the sure path to destiny.

The human person must be free to follow that encounter that promises and communicates the fullness of life. This is the reality that underlies the "right to the pursuit of happiness" that the American founders indicated, however partial or incomplete their particular conceptions of this pursuit may have been.

Above all, we want to be free to pursue happiness where the beauty of happiness is revealed and given to us, where this convincing beauty shines and draws us onward, calling us and corresponding to the depths of our freedom.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Saint Junipero Serra Day

July 1st is the feast day celebration of Saint Junipero Serra, the "Apostle of California." We made many journeys in his footsteps to the California Missions in our younger days, up and down that beautiful State. 

It's been five years since the last time our whole family was in California. I miss it! To all you Californians, I say, "don't take all that beauty for granted."😎 

And pray to Fr. Serra, who no doubt continues to have a special solicitude for the people who live in California today: so many people and everyone in need of the Gospel and the experience of a new encounter with the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Here's the graphic I made for today:

Friday, June 30, 2017

Suffering... WHY?

One way or another, suffering is inescapable. And the question that suffering grinds out from our guts, and that sooner or later reaches our (outer or inner) throats, is "WHY?" 

The agony of this "why? question" is at the heart of human suffering. 

It is a mystery, of course, a great mystery. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we who are mere creatures (a creature is a nothing-in-itself) are being transfigured, divinized, given participation in God's infinite life. The endurance of suffering-in-trust is an inescapable element of this destiny as it is realized in a world of sin and death. At its heart is this radical, transformative love that we are called to accept and respond to, that breaks us open so that we can go beyond ourselves and realize the "likeness-to-God" for which we have been created.

We must endure ("he who loses himself...") with trust ("for my sake," says Jesus). 

Still, it makes us gasp. It feels like leaping into an abyss. It's unimaginable. How can we possibly "do" this losing of ourselves, this passage through suffering and, ultimately, dying

What makes it possible for us is the fact that God Himself has already "done it" in history, in a moment that embraces all moments and all human beings and all suffering. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus cries out, taking all the suffering of all of us sinners as His own. But in the same breath, He says, "Father into your hands I commend my spirit."

The "distance" of "forsakenness" is filled by absolute, self-emptying love. Thus all suffering is transformed into His suffering which is an expression of His love for the Father in the Spirit, and the revelation and communication of the glory of the God who is infinite Gift

We can grow, therefore, through suffering in union with Him and His suffering

It isn't even so much that we (by some autonomous act) "offer" or "unite" our sufferings to His. They already are His sufferings, and through them He draws us into union with Himself. We begin by giving ourselves over, surrendering, trusting in Him, begging Him to accomplish the plan of His love in us. The Lord, in accordance with His wisdom, will generate and sustain within us the very freedom by which we cooperate with Him. He will empower us to say the profound "yes" by which our freedom grows into a communion with Him and a sharing in His freedom and love.

This is indeed a great mystery. We should not be surprised that we feel so poor in front of it, that it can seem so strange, so difficult, so psychologically dislocating sometimes. God sees the depths of human hearts, beyond anything we can understand, even with regard to our own. 

Let us never be discouraged. The mystery of His mercy is always at work. Trust in Him! 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Who Was "The Catholic Bach"?

My regular column ("Great Conversion Stories") in MAGNIFICAT this month features the story of a famous composer named Bach.

No, not that Bach (the immortal Johann Sebastian), but his youngest son, Johann Christian Bach, sometimes called "the London Bach" for his many years in England. Obviously, since he made it into my column, there is good reason to call him "the Catholic Bach."

I had to shorten the published version of the story, but I thought it would be worthwhile to present the "uncut" version here, where I could include a few more biographical details. I also want to add a few words about (and give a sample of) the music.

I am rather fond of the music of "the Catholic Bach." If it sounds somewhat conventional for its time (1760s-1770s), that may be because he was one of the architects of the "conventions" as well as one of the innovators who paved the way for the famous composers who came after him.

Thus I can take the opportunity here to share once again my passion for music, which follows a variety of paths ("from Bach to rock" would be a concise but rather corny and inadequate way of putting it). Beauty is a transcendental, with a scope as wide as being itself. In the craftsmanship of sound, beauty is analogously predicated of a vast array of musical "artifacts" in various ways, on various levels... but this subject requires a blog post for another day.

Here below is the extended, deluxe version of the conversion story of Johann Christian Bach:

This is a story about faith, conversion, and 18th century music in Europe. But let’s make clear right from the start that this is not some secret story (or speculation) about the man most people associate with the name “Bach,” i.e. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who is ranked among the greatest composers of all time. Certainly all of Christianity has been greatly enriched by Johann Sebastian’s prolific output of sacred music, in which his musical genius and his own deep commitment to Christ (as a Lutheran) are both expressed. It must remain a mystery, however, why Protestantism’s most outstanding sacred artist (he has been called “the Fifth Evangelist”) dedicated the final three years of his life and all the energies of his declining health to composing the epic, sublime Mass in B Minor.

The Great Bach integrated faith and art in such a way that enabled him to discover the "ecumenism of beauty." He also passed on his devotion to Christ and some measure of his musical genius to his large family. Four of Bach’s sons became musicians and composers in their own right, and their works are still performed today. His youngest son, Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), was the most prolific and important of the four. Johann Christian Bach branched out beyond his father’s accomplishments to stand out as a significant 18th century personage in his own right. He moved from the churches and courts of Saxony to the theaters and concert halls of Italy, France, and above all England, where he lived the final 20 years of his life. He also took another step “beyond” his father and the rest of the Bach family by converting to the fullness of Catholic faith.

The young Johann Christian learned keyboard performance and composition from his father and older brothers, first in Leipzig and then in Berlin at the Prussian court. But in 1754, as Prussia became preoccupied with the buildup to the “Seven Years War,” he made an important decision to travel to Italy to continue his education and begin his career. This would allow him to blend his German mastery of harmony and technique with the more popular Italian melodic style. More importantly, in Italy he met the man who would become both his musical and his spiritual “father”: Padre Giovanni Battista Martini, one of the eminent musical scholars of the time and a Franciscan priest. Johann Christian spent several years under the tutelage of Padre Martini in Bolognia and Milan, and devoted this period of his life to the composition of sacred music. These early works, including two Masses, a Requiem, and hymns, are particularly rich in musical inspiration.

Johann Christian entered into full communion with the Catholic Church around 1760. Most music historians consider his conversion to be merely a matter of professional convenience, and it is true that young Bach’s benefactors had secured a position for him in the Milan cathedral.

But this does not rule out the likelihood that Bach's conversion was sincere. Padre Martini had become a mentor and true friend to Johann Christian. And the young composer encountered something new in his venerable teacher: a man whose faith was integrated into the whole of the artistic life. In Padre Martini, Bach saw that Christian life could be incarnate in a music profession that was in a lively and expansive phase of artistic development, and that was entering the broad sphere of secular entertainment.

With the encouragement of Padre Martini, Johann Christian’s path followed that development as it shaped the “popular music" of the time: Opera. His early operas were a sensation in Milan and Naples, and he soon became the maestro of the 18th century’s greatest multimedia entertainment business. Both Italian Opera and concert music brought Johann Christian Bach to England where he worked under the patronage of King George III and Queen Charlotte.

From then until his death after a brief illness in 1782, Johann Christian remained in contact with his mentor Padre Martino and, though not a candidate for sainthood, he kept his Catholic faith. His overall behavior was honorable, and the financial problems toward the end of his life were not the result of dissolute living but the consequence of failed business ventures and embezzlement by his financial manager. He was not only appreciated for his outstanding music, but was also loved by all who knew him. He was known for his cheerfulness and his willingness to mentor the younger generation of musicians, the most famous of whom—of course—was Mozart. Bach met Mozart when the latter came to London with his family as an eight year old “child prodigy” on an extensive European tour. They became great friends, and Bach—who didn’t have an envious bone in his body—gave greatly of himself and his musical expertise to help Mozart develop and mature his amazing gifts.

Today Johann Christian Bach has a familiar place in the canon of classical composers. One of the reasons why he may seem “underrated” is that history places him between two incomparable giants: His great father and first teacher, Johann Sebastian Bach, and his greatest “student,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In many ways J. C. Bach is a kind of bridge between the two very different composers, just as he is a bridge from northern to southern European music styles, and a bridge from Lutheran Christianity to the Catholic Church. His own life and music have their value too, as a witness to the unity-in-diversity that shines through in all that is beautiful.

Watch and listen to a brief clip of J. C. Bach's music below. This is the third movement from his G minor symphony. It shows one of his forays into a more dramatic sound from a small ensemble in a musical form that was just beginning to take shape.

Friday, June 23, 2017

How Can We Love Others the Way God Loves Them?

People in this world need to experience the love of God. 

This is not just an analytical statement of religious discourse. This matters to me, personally; as a Christian this concern has been entrusted to me as a responsibility (see e.g. Matthew 28:19-20). So what can I do?

If I really want people to know God--not just as a theory but as a Presence who changes their lives, who loves them-- then I must love them

The God who is Love, and who became man, wants to use my humanity to show Himself to others first and above all by loving them, unconditionally, as they are, for who they are. He wants me to love them the way He loves them...which is to say, the way He loves me.

This is entirely different from the pretense to a kind of "tolerance" that in fact evades the other person and distances itself from the person. This is not a "relativism" that uses a superficial affirmation of the other as a pretext for remaining closed within myself, thus escaping the challenge of loving and being loved.

This is not any kind of activism that tries to impose a utopian ideology on people or that exhausts itself in a self-affirming display.

Loving means loving. It means giving what I have received. It means not dreaming about how wonderful love is, but actually giving myself, being a gift in this moment, to the person or persons who have been entrusted to me on the path of daily life. 

And if I'm "busy" with things--if I am speaking or writing or communicating on the internet--I must ask myself, "Why am I here? Am I here to give myself, or to build up and enrich my capacity to give? Am I here for love?"

My writing is worthless unless it is an act of giving myself to those I hope will read it.

I realize that most of my readers are already Christians. But those who already know Jesus need to be reminded and sustained by His love. "Love one another as I have loved you" - this is the heart of the enduring grace that is "the Church." And I must resist the temptation to allow "the Church in the abstract" (however glorious and beautiful and wise I may conceive it) to replace my responsibility to give myself right now. 

Christians are called to share this love in the Holy Spirit, and to be His loving presence in the world. However great our faults and failures may be, His love is greater, and it urges us onward to all the places where human beings live.

The whole world is starving for love. And too many people are fooled by counterfeits; they "spends their wages for what is not bread." Therefore, real love entails a communication of the truth. But love addresses itself to the person, and its witness is always a gift, a humbling of one's self, a sacrifice. This is what opens the possibility for the truth to be embraced by the other person.

Still, we find ourselves afflicted with so many obstacles: we have our own daily struggles, we are sick, we are tired, we are stressed out. We must bring all of it to the One who has loved us; entrust the whole mess of ourselves to Him again and again; keep trying, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, not being discouraged by our own weakness.

Perhaps we feel that our love is only a poor imitation of the love we have received, that our love is all mixed up with self-promotion and vanity. And indeed it is. Let's love anyway. Let's do what we can, and also nourish ourselves continually at the places where we find Him who has loved us.

Indeed, we must let Him love us, through the Church, through the sacraments, through prayer, through our brothers and sisters, through the very truth and goodness of the joys and the sufferings of life. It all belongs to Him, and it is all the work of His great and mysterious love for us and our destiny. 

In His love we will find the strength to give ourselves, and to give Him to others.