Thursday, May 31, 2012

The "Visitation" Happens To Each Of Us

Mary had just conceived God in her womb. She had just uttered the great "yes" that made possible the redemption of the human race, and indeed the whole of the cosmos. And then what did she do? She "went with haste" (Luke 1:39) to her kinswoman Elizabeth. She went to be with another person.

No doubt, she realized that she could be of some help to her cousin. But I think she also went to share her joy. She knew from the beginning that what she had consented to receive was a gift for everyone. So she went to Elizabeth, and Elizabeth's child, to share the joy that she bore in her womb. She began her mission, right away, to bring Him to human beings in a particular way: Elizabeth, who acclaimed her and the One she was bearing in words that we pray every day, and Elizabeth's child, who leaped for joy in his mother's womb.

And Mary expressed her own heart, and gave us all the Magnificat. One thing that is clear from this canticle of joy is Mary's self-awareness. Mary knew that her entire identity consisted in belonging to Him. "He who is mighty has done great things to me, and holy is His Name!" Along with her unique vocation as Theotokos, Mary gave witness in an exemplary way to the truth of what it means to be a created human person who is called to participate in God's life.

She called herself "His lowly servant," and this is but an image of a more fundamental self-awareness: she is, because she is His. Her sinlessness and her singular grace (for she was "graced" from the very beginning - she was "the graced one," kecharitomene [Luke 1:28], "full of grace") enabled her to see clearly that "to be a human person" means "to belong completely to Infinite Love," to be always the gift of the One who is "Giving Itself."

And Mary, who knew and always knows herself to be a pure gift, does not hesitate to give herself to others. No one told her to go to Elizabeth. The awareness of being Loved generates love. Just as God gives Mary to herself in creation and grace, and then further gives her Himself in the Incarnation, so Mary in turn gives and gives and gives, and God-made-man comes into the lives of each of us through her.

The "Visitation" happens to each of us. Mary is our Mother. She hears the cry of each of our hearts, and she is tending to our needs long before we even recognize that we have them. We don't have to summon her from some faraway place. She is already with us, because at the heart of God's plan for each of us there is the particular care and the tenderness of a woman.

She is already here. Let us be like Elizabeth. Let us acknowledge her joyfully and allow ourselves to be loved by her, so that we might discover the amazing gift of her Son.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In God's Hands: The Truth Of The Human Person

Today, when I was reading Pope Benedict XVI, I came across this text from a homily given on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 2005. Here we have expressed again what might be called a "theocentric humanism" - the great doctrinal development in the Church of the truth about the human person and human freedom. This is one of the enduring achievements of Vatican II and a central theme of the magnificent and profound teaching of Blessed John Paul II.

The Church continues to preach the truth about the human person, in a world of people who are so desperate to understand themselves and so vulnerable before the powers of distraction, deception, and ideologies that suffocate the human spirit.

Indeed, the time of the person has come. And through the miracle of Christ's enduring presence in the Church we are prompted to remember who we are.

God's will is not a law for the human being imposed from the outside and that constrains him, but the intrinsic measure of his nature, a measure that is engraved within him and makes him the image of God, hence, a free creature....
The person who abandons himself totally in God's hands does not become God's puppet, a boring "yes man"; he does not lose his freedom. Only the person who entrusts himself totally to God finds true freedom, the great, creative immensity of the freedom of good.
The person who turns to God does not become smaller but greater, for through God and with God he becomes great, he becomes divine, he becomes truly himself. The person who puts himself in God's hands does not distance himself from others, withdrawing into his private salvation; on the contrary, it is only then that his heart truly awakens and he becomes a sensitive, hence, benevolent and open person.
The closer a person is to God, the closer he is to people. We see this in Mary. The fact that she is totally with God is the reason why she is so close to human beings.
For this reason she can be the Mother of every consolation and every help, a Mother whom anyone can dare to address in any kind of need, in weakness and in sin, for she has understanding for everything and is for everyone the open power of creative goodness.

The truth about the human person, with all of our greatness, frailty, and freedom immersed in the drama of the Redemption, is a living reality. We must take it up again and again, and this means that is has to be something intimate, something that does not fly off into abstraction, something that accompanies us.

Here Mary, our Mother, leads us by the hand....

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day Memories

On this Memorial Day, our family remembers especially the sacrifice of my father's cousin, Ralph Viscount, United States Navy, killed in action during the battle of Okinawa on April 22, 1945. He was directing fire of the No. 3 gun of the USS Isherwood, which was hit directly by a kamikaze. Attempting to shoot down the plane, he remained at his post till the end, and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.

He was only twenty years old.

Ralph, may your soul, and the souls of all those who have died serving our country, through the mercy of God rest in peace.

My father still remembers the sorrow of his aunt, while her sisters held the telegram in their hands. It is difficult to imagine what this must be like. A young man, so full of life. Her son. We must not forget all the mothers who suffered too.

Throughout history, mothers have borne the cost of war. Indeed, a mother's pain hardly ends with the birth of her child. Her love endures always, and when she is called to make sacrifices she can reveal great depths of strength and courage.

I remember Ralph's mother very well, my great aunt Florie. By then, she had endured many other tragedies in her life, but I remember her as full of hospitality, and kind to her great nephews and nieces who loved to explore her big old house, with all of its mysterious closets and secret passages.

And there was always food. All the flavors of southern Italy that my father's family brought with them from the prior generation. Oh, the food....

When I published my first book, many years ago, my aunt Florie got a copy and read it. I received a beautiful letter from her expressing her appreciation, and also a sense of "pride" in my small achievement. I was surprised, and honored that she remembered me and cared about me in her very venerable old age. I thought I was just one of the rugrats who used to run around her house.

We may have to face trials and even tragedies in our time. I hope and pray that we will have the strength, the courage, and the magnanimity of our forebears.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Sweet Song of Love

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) - who is well known for her philosophical work, her important contributions to a deeper understanding of the authentic dignity and vocation of women, and her martyrdom at Auschwitz - was also a profound poet, in the true Carmelite tradition. Here are my two favorite stanzas of her prayer-poem to the Holy Spirit, which I post in honor of this glorious feast day. May the Holy Spirit fill us anew with His grace and His mercy, and give us a foretaste of eternal life, that we might run more swiftly and surely toward the embrace of Divine Wisdom and Love.

Who are you, sweet light, that fills me
And illumines the darkness of my heart?
You lead me like a mother's hand,
And should you let go of me,
I would not know how to take another step.
You are the space
That embraces my being and buries it in yourself.
Away from you it sinks into the abyss
Of nothingness, from which you raised it to the light.
You, nearer to me than I to myself
And more interior than my most interior
And still impalpable and intangible
And beyond any name:
Holy Spirit eternal love!...

Are you the sweet song of love
And of holy awe
That eternally resounds around the triune throne,
That weds in itself the clear chimes of each and every being?
The harmony,
That joins together the members to the Head,
In which each one
Finds the mysterious meaning of his being blessed
And joyously surges forth,
Freely dissolved in your surging:
Holy Spirit eternal jubilation! 

To read the entire poem, go to:

Friday, May 25, 2012

Luigi Giussani's Cause: We Have a Prayer

The approved prayer for the cause for the beatification of Msgr. Luigi Giussani was recently presented in English at the annual Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation. The beauty and dignity of the prayer itself testifies to the extraordinary life and witness of this great apostle of our epoch. It is my hope that history will remember him as one of the founding inspirations of the "New Evangelization."

Merciful Father,
we thank You for having given
Your Church and the world 
the Servant of God Father Luigi Giussani.

He, with his life lived with passion,

taught us to know and love Jesus Christ
present here and now,
to ask Him with humble certainty 
that "the beginning of every day
be a yes to the Lord
who embraces us
and makes fruitful the soil of our heart
for the accomplishment
of His work in the world,
which is the victory over death and evil."

Grant, O Father,

through the intercession of Fr. Giussani,
according to Your will,
the grace we implore,
in the hope that he will soon be numbered
among Your saints.

Through Christ, our Lord. Amen

Veni Sancte Spiritus.
Veni per Mariam.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Summer is Coming Soon

School is winding down for our bunch. The Montessori school year is over, although the girls do additional study in the home environment. Or perhaps I should say, three of the girls study. And in fact, Teresa (pictured there at the school) needs lots of encouragement - sometimes all through the day - to get her tasks done. She is bright, though. Sometimes she will ask a question about God or the world, and we will have an interesting conversation. But I'll save that for another post.

Josefina is now something of a free agent. She has a whole shelf full of her own activities, and she continues to learn to read and write. But right now she has more "Daddy time" than ever. I won't exactly say that she thinks the purpose of my existence is to provide her with entertainment (when she feels like it). She does many things on her own, but of course she always wants me to see her accomplishments. Several times a day she comes fluttering over the space that I call my "home office" and says, "Daddy, what are we gonna do?" My nose is deep into some book, trying to pinpoint how Ratzinger/Benedict understands the communion of persons, and how it enters into the relationship of the human being to God. She certainly keeps it all from becoming too abstract. But I do need to dedicate some time to the mental work.

Me: "Honey, I need to work on this right now. We'll do something later."

Her: "Can you read that book to me?"

Me: "You won't like this; it's hard to understand."

Her: "Will you read me childrens' books?" She is very persistent.

Me: "I'll read to you later in the afternoon. Find something to work on right now. Make one of those puzzles."

That often works. Josefina can't always have her way. She's already spoiled enough. But she's also very resourceful, and never really has a reason to be bored. And she certainly doesn't lack attention from me. Of course, she misses her friends from school.

I miss the school too. I miss the rhythm of the week, the interaction with Eileen's class and with the other great people on the John XXIII Montessori Childrens Center staff (check out the website if you want to get some idea of the program[s] at the Center: I feel like a part of the Montessori Center; I am participating in this educational adventure that really has something to offer. I can see its impact on my own kids and others. Its a beautiful thing. When I'm in my wife's classroom (which is elementary level), I feel like I myself could spend hours working with the materials and learning new things.

Meanwhile, John Paul is still in school until the beginning of June. He has to take his final exams covering the whole ninth grade year. Gosh, I don't remember finals in ninth grade. This is the beginning of a short but very intense period for him. So far he's met the challenges, and we are confident that he will come through this just fine. And now, Agnese is applying for Chelsea for next year. She has graduated from the elementary level Montessori. I was proud to see her maturity and leadership by example in the classroom this past year. Lucia still has another year in the elementary program. I love to watch her use the math resources. She's very good at math!

We have some fun plans for the summer, and also some time for Mommy to relax. Meanwhile, we have to wrap up the school year, find homes for the kittens, and get ready for John Paul's 15th (!) birthday.

And everyone needs lots of love. Sometimes I have to correct Josefina, and I can't always hide the impatience from my stern voice.

Her: "Don't be mad at me."

Me: "I'm not mad at you, but I want to make sure you understand that what I'm saying is important" [said in stern and slightly impatient voice].

Her: "You're a little bit mad at me...."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Spirit's Gifts: Let Him Lead The Way

I know I need above all to pray for the grace to let God have His way in my life. So I pray for wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and the fear of the Lord. The Holy Spirit gives His gifts to every Christian, and through them we grow in the likeness to God, which is our vocation. Each one of us is called to become “godlike”—that is our destiny, to “participate” in the life of God. We know that it is here that our ultimate happiness lies, but God alone knows what our true destiny really “looks” like (“eye hath not seen…”). So we must let Him lead the way....

I only see the surface of my life. Deep down, God is working a wonder, and the means He is using penetrate my whole life with its joys and sorrows, and all that is yet unknown....

What God wants for me is so much more, so much greater, so much more glorious and joyful, than what I think I want for myself. In eternity, we shall see all and rejoice in all. Here, we see through that dark glass called faith. Sometimes it is very dark, but we must trust God to give us what we need to sustain hope, and to grow in the capacity to respond to His mysterious Love with our own self-abandoning love.

From my book Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy ()

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Stuffed Yellow Ducky

It is the afternoon. Right now as I type these words, I am hunched over my laptop and trying to peer at the screen. Why am I in this ridiculous position?

Josefina is sitting on my back.

She just came over with her little bag of activities and I guess I was already bent she sat right down. Should I let her get away with this?

Well, I've been hunched over this laptop for a few hours now, researching a couple of theological topics. This was not wasting time; it was serious work. No work seems more worthwhile to me now than the patient and attentive study of Josef Ratzinger, whose theological wisdom is slowly becoming the patrimony of the whole Church. I marvel at how the Holy Spirit, in His own time, continues to unfold in the heart of the Church all the riches of continuity and authentic renewal that constitute the great grace of the Second Vatican Council.

Perhaps I'll offer another lecture series this summer. It's been three years since I did a seminar.

Since then I've published a book, had a relapse, climbed out of it, and began exploring the world of electronic media. All the while, I have read extensively; I have covered the histories of Poland, the Habsburg monarchy, and modern France. I have fought the Napoleonic wars, observed the movements of the Balkans, and suffered with the Poles. Of course, the shadow of Russia was everywhere.

All of this historical study is driven by my desire to understand that mysterious "fault line" that runs through the heart of Europe, that separates "East" and "West." The deep secrets of the tragedy continue to elude me, but I have learned enough to know that we must all pray for a great healing.

Josefina is gone now, but I'm still hunched over. She left her stuffed yellow ducky with me. She probably thinks I need company.

I think I need to take a break!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Shaping My Heart

I have decided to reproduce here the post from one year ago, May 19, 2011. I am doing this because I am lazy. But more importantly, I find that these words still have value. In fact, if I wrote something now, it might very well turn out to sound much like this. O sheesh, it seems that I just write the same things over and over again. Yes, I am inclined to repeat things, to ponder out loud (as all my dear students know well - and many of you would take a little siesta during my lectures, because you knew that you weren't going to "miss anything that would be on the TEST"). 

Perhaps I feel like I need to hear the same things every day, because I don't really understand them--or rather, I understand them with my mind, but they have not yet shaped my heart. I have my desire for God, and my weakness, and the inclination toward discouragement that I must fight every day. But Jesus is present, and He is drawing me to Himself and winning my soul with the love and mercy that He gives to me now. As I read the words below after one year, I do find that perhaps I understand a little more; perhaps I have grown in my heart.

But I do not set myself up as the judge of such things. What really matters is Him. I begin to know myself in the measure in which I grasp that I belong to Him right now. This recognition generates the real possibility to love everything, because every circumstance and every person are His invitation to my freedom, to give myself to Him. The whole world, and the whole of this day, are full of His grace, calling me to discover Him and to love Him, and creating in me the capacity to embrace Him and thus enter into the true meaning of myself and of reality. I belong to Him, and it is through life that He carries out the work of shaping my heart according to His heart.

Well, it seems I've written a post after all. Something conquered my laziness. Still, here are my thoughts from a year ago:

It's easy to fall into the tendency to think of "Christianity" as merely a worldview, or a collection of ideas that explain the universe and direct us regarding what we should do. It's easy to act as if Christianity is primarily an intellectual system that has to be expounded and defended in competition with other intellectual systems. In fact, it's easy to go through the day reading about Christianity and writing about Christianity and talking about Christianity--all the while seeming to forget the reality that makes it worthwhile:
Jesus Christ.
How do I live so much of my life without an awareness of Him? Why does my heart not converse more with Him? O sure, I "pray"--but it's like I'm an official making a report to my boss from time to time. Or even if I speak with Him in sugary, "personal" terms, so much of it is still a game of dodge and duck, an effort to "love" Him but still keep Him at arms length. Which, of course, is the way I interact with the human persons who are important in my life. Please don't enter the fear zone.
But He said, "Do not be afraid."
How seldom do I just enjoy being with Him. Of course I have to attend to the many tasks of life. But He is with me, and He is inside of those little things. I feel as though I say morning prayer and then leave Him there on the wall. Why do I try to leave Him behind?
Sometimes I will turn to Him during the day, even with great intensity...when I need something! "Jesus, give me...." I suppose there is something childlike in this; I tease my own children about it, telling them that they seem to think my name is "Daddy Can I."
So what's the problem? I love Him. Of course I do. But I take Him for granted. And I am a little...afraid.
"Fear is useless. What is needed is trust."
I know. But I am still afraid. Why? I'm afraid that I can't measure up to Him. Of course I can't. I'm also afraid to let Him do what He wills with me. Lord let me see that what You want for me is for my happiness. It's the only thing that can make me happy.
I want to love You more, Jesus. I want to trust in You more. I want to live my life as a relationship with You.
"Lord, you know that I love you." Under all the junk and the forgetfulness and the fear, I love you. Jesus I love you. Jesus I trust in You. Have mercy on me. Deepen my trust.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Wasting Time, Every Day

Making good use of time requires discipline.

It is a particular challenge, however, for anyone who does "mental work." It is difficult because we are surrounded by superficial thinking that comes to us in glittering packages of "information." It can't be denied that the technological vortex of television and the internet creates an environment that makes it so easy to indulge in a dissipating curiosity. Those of us who work regularly with these resources--either professionally or as an apostolate, or both--know how great a challenge this is. It is a daily struggle.

And, almost always, it is a daily failure.

I am a teacher, a writer, and (God help me) an "intellectual." That last category is dangerous, amorphous, and very fuzzy. Beware of the intellectuals! And beware especially of the "Catholic intellectuals"! We are the Scribes and Pharisees. We love to scrub the outside of the cup and leave the inside dirty. We devote all our wits and all our education to scrubbing the outside of the cup, because we don't want it to be known that we've got as much dirt on us as everybody else. We are hypocrites.

I am a hypocrite.

Needless to say, by openly admitting this fact, I am hoping from the inside of my dirty cup that you will look at me and say, "Well he admits it. He's better than the rest of them. He's humble." Haha, don't be fooled. The human heart is a tricksy little schemer.

And I could continue down this self-deprecating path, with the desire that you will respond with comments of reassurance and applause. It's true that with me this is a bit pathological. But who doesn't seek approval? Who doesn't want to be "liked" (both really and virtually)? I certainly do. Please, applaud! Make me feel good about myself! My mangled and mixed motives are part of what keeps me moving along.

Oh, the human animal! This little thing, practically crawling on the ground, that aspires to be the center of the universe. At the same time, there is a grandeur about this small being who cries out, "What does it all mean?" We are full of contradictions, and we make a mess everywhere we go! But then, we are also full of surprises.

At a certain point we all need to just have a good laugh at ourselves.

"Intellectuals" need to laugh at themselves a lot. Certain distractions are good for them. For example, food. Personally, I recommend having a five year old daughter hanging around your neck all day. That's an excellent distraction. But really, we also need time to concentrate. We need to focus. We need to think.

After all, Jesus didn't condemn the intellectuals for thinking. He condemned them for exalting themselves (see Matthew 23:12). He condemned them for being dissipated, preoccupied with the surface of things, with wealth, honor, and reputation. He didn't tell them to stop cleaning cups. He told them to clean the inside first (Matthew 26:26). He told them to focus their attention on the essentials (see 26:23).

One member of the intelligentsia actually evoked the approval of Jesus (see Mark 12:28-34). There was the scribe who asked Jesus, "what is the greatest commandment?" He was aiming at the heart of the matter. He also asked Jesus. Then he listened to what Jesus had to say. Jesus taught him that the heart of the law is the love of God above all, and the love of neighbor as yourself. The scribe received this teaching with the enthusiasm of a discovery. Indeed, he said, this love "is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:33).

This scribe began with a question, with wonder, with the desire to understand. He brought all his learning and training and experience to that particular moment, not to show himself off, but to focus his attention on a Person whom he recognized as having the truth.

And "when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, He said to him, 'You are not far from the kingdom of God'" (Mark 12:34).

Now there are some very useful words of encouragement.

To make good use of our time, we need to be focused. We also need to know what deserves our focus. The kind of intellectuals we need in this world are ones who seek understanding of the truth so that they might grow in love for reality. We need people who are educated to an attentiveness that enables them to "do God's will," to give themselves and communicate the joy of seeking and discovering the truth to those they encounter in the course of their lives. And, of course, to love God above all.

I want to be that kind of person. The only way for anyone to use time well, is to use it in order to love. And this means loving rightly, giving ourselves to the persons and within the "places" where we are called to real love. Let us not forget that we live in a culture in which "love" has become a buzzword for self-indulgence and dissipation.

And as a "Catholic intellectual," I am an expert at that special rationalizing trick that is used to justify wasting time with worthless "information" -- saying to myself that I need to know what's going on in the world so that I can form judgments and help others understand these things, because that's my vocation. There is some truth to that (the best self-deceptions always have an element of truth to them). But does it justify giving time to reading what really amounts to the gossip of the global village?

For me, its easy to neglect professional research and writing in order to read about the latest scandal between X and Y. I have to ask myself questions and make judgments: "Why am I reading this? What do I really need to know about this? What can I know, really?" We all need to be honest and admit that there is a little gossip monster inside of us. I rarely spread gossip, but I do indulge in "self-gossip," wherein I entertain suspicions about someone and jump to conclusions, allowing superficial details and the tinge of the media to lead me into a (rash) judgment about X and Y and their scandal. The fact is that people have a right to their good reputation even in my own mind! In these matters which are none of my business, I should be seeking as much as possible to preserve their reputation in my own mind.

But instead, I conclude that "X is a creep!" Have I accomplished something here? Am I really "living my vocation," or am I just indulging the old desire to affirm my insecure ego at someone else's expense? Or am I just seeking that weird excitement that people seem to get from the odd spectacle of watching another human being go to pieces? The creepiness of X is relieving my boredom! That's the dirty truth about how I'm really spending my time. Of course, I'll probably spin a theory about what has led X to become such a creep, so that I can clothe the whole business with some sort of intellectual respectability.

But do I have any concrete authority over X? Do I have any possibility of offering him correction and help? Do I love X? If he really is a creep, am I willing to enter into solidarity with him and bear the burden (in some way) of his creepiness? (For this is the disposition of heart that should accompany any expression such as, "I'm praying for him.") I should cultivate such a willingness, especially in a world that forces us to confront the lurid details of the wreckage of so many human lives. I should really pray for them.

But most of this is mental garbage. Perhaps others have the responsibility, as observers of contemporary events, to look at all this stuff and venture a provisional (and charitable) assessment of what might be going on. But that is not my vocation. I have a great responsibility to keep an eagle's eye on the behavior of people for whom I am responsible (and that means above all the five little people who are right under my nose). That is my responsibility, along with taking care of my health, and using the charism that I have been given to help others grow in understanding and love, taking good care to form myself toward this end.

How could there be so much time for the scandals of X and Y? It means that something, or someone, is being neglected.

What can I do, besides get up every morning, pray to God for His grace, renew my firm intention, try to recall it during the day, and then beg God's mercy at night for all my mistakes? And then get up again the next day....

But wait...there's more. There's Jesus. He is the difference. He is present. And to make sure that I do not entirely neglect Him, He instituted the sacraments. He is working His miracles, slowly, in the midst of my messy life. He heals me, He forgives my sins, He unites Himself with my life. And I find that I am surprised, and changed beyond anything I could hope to accomplish myself. All in His time.

His time may seem slow, but it is never wasted.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Real Contact With Him

"More than in other dimensions of our existence
it is in prayer that we experience
our weakness and our poverty,
being creatures before the omnipotence of God....

When we feel that God is far away,
that we do not have words
to communicate with Him,
this absence of words
and the desire
to enter into communication with God
is prayer,
which through the Holy Spirit
becomes a real contact with Him."

--Benedict XVI, General Audience, May 16, 2012

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Blessed Chiara Badano Teaches Us About Love

Blessed Chiara Badano, in hospital (1989)

I pray often every day to Blessed Chiara Badano (whom I have spoken about in previous posts - for more information about her, see her website I entrust my family to her intercession, my daughters especially. I ask her to pray for me to grow in love, for that wildly impossible possibility that I might have some small aspiration to love Jesus the way she did. I ask her to pray for me to embrace my own sufferings, and to be willing to sacrifice for Jesus in the little things throughout the day.

I got this thought for the beginning of the week from her Facebook page (you can "like" her on Facebook at

"Whoever loves does not see obstacles."

I have pondered these words, feeling--as usual--rather overwhelmed. I "see obstacles" all the time. I am an expert on obstacles. One thing this tells me is that I don't love much. But I already knew that.

Still, there is another kind of "obstacle" that frustrates me and absorbs my attention: the constraints of my circumstances that keep me from doing what I want to accomplish. There is always the temptation to feel worthless, to give in to discouragement, and to allow oneself to dissipate. All I have to do is look at our worn furniture, or the tired face of my wife who has to work much harder than she should, and I hear a voice that says, "You are a failure. You are a bad husband and father."

The voice of discouragement gains some power from the element of truth it contains. Being ill or in other constraining circumstances does not stop one from being selfish, indolent, inattentive, and lacking in love. And one must work to regain the measure of heath that one can, not only for oneself but for one's family, and for others who need the contribution of one's professional and social life.

But these thoughts are a negative force--an oppression of the soul--that we all experience in various ways. We experience afflictions and other obstacles to so many things that we want to do. But these are not obstacles for love. No confinement, whether physical or mental, can prevent us from offering the depths of ourselves to God.

The "work" that expresses our true value is abandonment to the will of God. God wants to manifest His love through us, and no circumstance is an obstacle for Him. Every circumstance is constructive, if we let Him accomplish the work of love in us. He is Jesus. And Jesus has embraced everything.

Blessed Chiara knew this. Pray for us, Blessed Chiara, that we might live with eyes of faith and love, so as to see in all things the goodness and wisdom of God.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Time Of The Person

For several weeks prior to his visit to Washington D.C., where he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of America, Fr. Julian Carron proposed for our consideration a reflection that centered upon this text of Msgr. Giussani:

"When in fact the grip
of a hostile society tightens around us
to the point of threatening
the vivacity of our expression
and when a cultural and social hegemony
tends to penetrate the heart,
stirring up our already natural uncertainties,
the time of the person has come"
(Luigi Giussani).

This is a stirring text, but if we really understand it, then it becomes clear that it is far from a natural intuition. I know what my own instincts are in the face of "the grip of a hostile society" - I would think that it is the time to run and hide or perhaps (and more nobly) the time to stand and fight.

My inclination is to think fundamentally of what has to be done, whereas Giussani is proposing that the crucial factor is to be a "someone". The first necessity in the face of a society that increasingly aims at the disintegration of the human person, is to be a human person.

But what does it mean, to "be a person"?

It is a sign of the times that in the dominant culture there is no clear answer to this question. There is a kind of broad intuition of the fundamental importance of "the dignity of the human person," but when people try to live this intuition in the midst of our culture, they find that it becomes complex and even contradictory. It becomes a source of violence, as our culture affirms the "rights" of some persons against others, and defines away the personhood of the vulnerable and weak.

In our time, even the term "person" has become an instrument of power, a pretext for individuals, peoples, and nations to make war against one another.

Certainly, we must work to introduce into public discourse and to defend in various ways a true understanding of the dignity of every human person. But what will give effectiveness to this or any other kind of activity? We must be persons. But do we even know what this means?

Msgr. Giussani says that what is essential to living as a person is self-awareness. Here, again, we have what seems to be an ambivalent term in our culture. A genuine self-awareness is crucial here, and that means living the truth of the human heart and its relationship to the transcendent Mystery; it means an awareness that my identity consists in belonging to an Other.

This awareness begins in the heart, and it involves what Msgr. Giussani calls a battle: "the battle between the claimed affirmation of self as the criterion of the dynamic of living and the acknowledgment of this mysterious and penetrating Presence." Do I belong to myself as the absolute and autonomous arbiter of my own existence and meaning, or do I belong to God, who creates and sustains me in being and who is present as the source and goal of my life, the One who gives "meaning" to the search of my heart?

This is the challenge for each one of us. This is the fundamental battle that each of us must fight: to live with an authentic self-awareness, to be present in the world as a person, as someone who is aware that he or she really, concretely, belongs to God. The love of God is the foundation of my identity.

As Fr. Carron summarizes:

"This is the battle needed among us,
in us, in each of us:
whether we place our consistence
in something created by us,
in an ultimate affirmation of ourselves,
of an image of ours,
of a project of ours,
of an attempt of ours,
with all its insubstantiality,
or in the acknowledgment of this Presence"
(Julian Carron).

So why do Msgr. Giussani and Fr. Carron and the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation always use such complicated language? Why not just say, "I belong to God"?

It is too easy, however, to say these words and forget what they mean. It is too easy to say, "O God, I belong to You" in my prayer in the morning, and then go through the day living as if God does not exist--as if the measure of the meaning of my life is my own ideas, my own projects, my own power. I forget who I really am. I cease to live from the energy of being a created person.

Thus, I cannot help being confused and enfeebled, even in my efforts to "do good"!

The language is detailed and intricate, because it is an invitation to work on grasping the meaning of these things, to work on the formation of our reason, and to give direction to the heart. This work is worth the effort. We are invited to find in this work sustenance for this fundamental and daily battle.

And in this environment, which grows ever more hostile, each of us must recognize that the time of the person has come.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother's Day: Parents And The Seeds of Goodness

We had a lovely Mother's Day.

The children cooked the dinner and prepared the dessert. As usual (with some prodding and some supervision) they displayed their remarkable competence.

Mommy (Eileen) got the Mother's Day present of her dreams: a Washington Capitals sweatshirt! Wow, those things are expensive. Thank goodness for Ebay. The shirt did a little to dispel the gloom that still lingered from last night's game seven loss to the New York Rangers in the playoffs.

My parents also made the trip out from Arlington. My own mother's health is poor, and its easier for her to come here with my father than to attempt to host our brood in their apartment. We are all grateful that she is still well enough to make the trip.

I owe my parents so much through all these many years. I have begun to realize how much I take their presence in my life for granted, and how unimaginable it is for me to be without them. As you approach the age of 50, if you are still blessed with living parents, you finally begin to realize how basic has been their companionship of your life, through many years and circumstances, even if you live far away from them.

All of us make mistakes as parents, but I think that if we pray and struggle every day to love our children, the good that we give them is what will take root and endure. We must not underestimate the power of the good, even in small things. Parents and children must not brood over failures (real or perceived), but must persevere in living this relationship that will never end.

Even children who are estranged at present may yet return. We can also hope that the lives they live now, however confused, are still mysteriously directed by the seeds of goodness that have been sown.

I like to tell this story about how my mother had a profound influence on me as a little child, probably without even realizing it. When I was four years old (that was 1967), I was with my mother and she was folding laundry and talking away about the Pope and this "Council" and the problems that came, and then this "peasant" who was also a "philosopher" who was defending the Church (she was reading Jacques Maritain's The Peasant of the Garonne). And something awoke within me that still moves me to this day: the possibility of knowing the truth.

The experience has remained with me. I awoke to the awareness of a great, wide world--a world of earth and heaven, time and eternity, a world where there were things that really mattered. I had a primitive but fundamental intuition that life was the bearer of some transcendent meaning. I think that this was the spark that began my life's work.

It just shows that its never too early to let your kids see your passion for the truth.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Alex Has Kittens!!!

There she is! The proud Mama and her four baby kittens.

Alex had kittens on Thursday afternoon. She gave us no special warning of the imminent event. We knew she had been hanging around with some of the local cats. We also noticed that she had gained some weight.

But then, suddenly, there she was, in the flower box, with two kittens. The girls were so excited. Eileen wasn't here, and I am quite allergic to cats (as I explained in a previous post). So we waited and watched, and then she began to give birth again. That was quite an amazing thing. I had of course seen five live human births (yes, I have "seen" them jokes please, ladies). But I had never seen any (other) animal give birth except on nature videos and on the All Creatures Great and Small BBC series.

Alex was a real trooper, doing it all by herself. No "mid-cat" to help. She just pushed that little guy out, licked him up a bit, and he immediately joined the scramble for the milk. Then she had another kitten about an hour later. By then, we had turned a box into a nice little cat birthing room. Alex was pretty exhausted by then, while the kittens continued to have at the milk.

By the next morning, however, Alex seemed like her old spritely self again, and was even willing to leave the box and run around a bit. The kittens got some direct attention from my girls, and many photographs:

I am told there are two males and two females, although I have not personally verified that assessment. All I can do is peek at them from a distance. But the girls got to pick them up and cuddle them (Josefina was strictly instructed not to squeeze them).

John Paul has been very interested too, but not with all the thrill and flutter of the girls. He is actually capable of spending some of his waking moments away from the kittens. It has been interesting for all of us, and for the girls it is wonderful and surprising adventure.

I am told that we are going to keep one of the kittens, and give the other three away. Somehow this whole thing since last summer has gone from "our neighbor getting a cat," to "us getting a cat with our neighbor" (to help deal with the mouse population), to "us getting a cat, that would live completely outdoors," to "Alex the kitten," to a "cat apartment being set up in the second bathroom, for cold nights," to, PRESTO, five cats. Needless to say, I never use the second bathroom anymore.

But we don't intend to get into the breeding business, which means that Alex (and whatever kitten we keep) will have to make an appointment with "Mr. Herriot" soon, to have their business taken care of.

Meanwhile this has been great for the children. They've always loved animals, and I'm glad that my allergies are not preventing them from having a hands on experience with them.

And I must say, we haven't been bothered by any mice this year.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Strength to Give Ourselves

I must remember every day that God loves me. This is difficult, or at least it seems difficult, for a person with the limitations of physical and especially mental illness. There is a daily struggle to break out of self-absorption.

Living with life-restricting physical and mental illness, however, has also made me sensitive to how much this is a problem for everyone. We all have suffering, and most of us don't have a very good "handle" on it. And even the healthiest people have heads full of junk; junk accumulated from incomprehensible painful experiences, from the betrayal or simply the failure of other persons, from the basic distortion of their relationship to reality that everyone has thanks to the heritage of original sin, from their own sins and self-centeredness.

Add to that the pervasive assault of the distracted and restless environment in which they live, the physical and moral oppressiveness of its inexorable stress, and even the biological toxins from the food they eat and the air they breathe that sap their vitality and engender nervous tension and emotional imbalances of every kind.

That's just "normal people."

Throw in a few genetically and/or environmentally triggered neurological disorders, or a chronic infection or an autoimmune disorder or any kind of disability--along with all the misunderstanding from others that these things generate--and it's no surprise that we're a big mess.

It's a miracle that any person can experience the fact that they are loved.

Yet it happens. We live in a world of miracles.

God loves me, yes. I would not exist in this moment if He did not love me. He is the Someone who is closer to me than I am to myself, and yet also the transcendent Mystery. I am made for Him. But how can I know this God? Or better, how is it that I do know Him, that I trust Him, that I am slowly learning to give my life over to this Mystery?

The only way I can answer this is to say that I have been loved by real people with a love that is different, a love that is a sign of God. I have seen this love. I have seen human beings embraced by a love that is right there in front of me, but also not of this world. I have myself been embraced by this love. It shows itself not so much in great demonstrations, but rather in a whole history of gestures and expressions of life, in the tenacity of a friendship that exists for a reason, that endures even with its flaws.

The only thing that can explain this love is that God has revealed Himself as Love, that God has come to dwell among us, that God is present for me in this moment, and also as Someone who has a name and a face and a history in this world. Through this love, I encounter Him, and I discover that He changes everything.

He changes all my relationships. He changes my solitude. He changes my suffering. It's not necessarily a change in "the way I feel about these things." It's not that "now I feel good all the time" (I don't). He changes the realities themselves; He has entered into the stuff of life because He claims everything for Himself. He is present. He is at work in my life and in the life of every human person.

But how are these persons to know what I'm talking about? Certainly not from my chattering about it. They need to experience the love of God. So if I really want them to know Him, 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 a worldly "tolerance" that evades the 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 an activism that exhausts itself in a self-affirming display.

Loving means loving. It means giving what I have received. It means giving myself, in this moment, to the person or persons who have been entrusted to me. 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.

Perhaps I'm "preaching to the choir." But those who already know Jesus need to be sustained by His love. "Love one another as I have loved you" - this is the heart of the enduring grace that is "the Church." But 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.

The world is starving for love. It is fed every day with counterfeits. It "spends its wages for what is not bread." Of course, 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. 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.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Wonderful Circle of Love and Knowledge

"How can we remain indifferent to such love?
How can we ignore him who has loved us
with such great mercy?
The love of the Redeemer merits
all the heart's and mind's attention,
and can activate also in us that wonderful circle
in which love and knowledge
reciprocally nourish one another"
(Benedict XVI).

Monday, May 7, 2012

It's So Easy to Forget to "Do the Will of God"

Living moment by moment, trying to do the will of God.

I'm a long way from living that way, but it is an "ideal" for which I pray, by which I examine myself. It is an ideal that humbles me, but does not discourage me.

What does it mean, "to do the will of God"?

God's "will" is the same as His wisdom and love. His will for me is His concrete wisdom and love for my life; it corresponds to who I really am, and who I am called to become. To do God's will is to adhere with my own will to reality. Right now, what is really true and good for my life is the relationship between this moment and my destiny.

What is the created world that I am living in right now? It is an invitation and an opportunity to draw closer to God, to correspond from the depths of my freedom to the One-Who-makes-me and the One-for-Whom-I-have-been-made.

"All things were created through Him; all things were created for Him" (Colossians 1:16).

Doing God's will does not mean giving up my own freedom and becoming the slave of some arbitrary metaphysical power that imposes itself on me from the outside. If it seems this way, then either I have misunderstood who God is, or my understanding and my desire are distorted because of sin. God is the One who creates my freedom, and who works "within" my freedom; the very energy of my freedom is my unique, personal capacity to love and embrace the good.

Still, my freedom falls short. I fail to do the will of God. For most of the day, "the will of God" never even enters my head...or my heart. Yet His "will" is His infinite wisdom and loving plan for my life, His design for me. It is what God knows that I truly need in order to become the person He has created me to be. It is the only way that my unique self can be fulfilled as an "adopted son" of the Father, belonging to Jesus and discovering in Him my own true name, adhering to Him with all the energy of my freedom.

Doesn't all that sound inspiring? But how do I live my life? Embroiled in a hundred preoccupations and basically ignoring the love of God.

Here is at least one part of the problem: ignorance. I forget about God. I forget that He is present in my life. It is a weakness of faith.

My faith grows when I "experience" the presence of Christ in my life. The word "experience" does not mean "feel" in the sense of internal emotions. It means to recognize Him, and to become more profoundly convinced that He really does love me, here and now.

This experience grows through the life of the Church, through reading and praying the Sacred Scriptures, through letting the living tradition and teaching of the Church form my mind and heart, and through the marvelous grace of the sacraments. It grows through the help of the people whom Jesus places in my life who remind me--by their words but especially by their example--that He is real. And it grows through learning to respond with love to the small and simple responsibilities and especially to the persons who make up my daily life.

And then there is prayer. In the face of God's call and my continual failure, I can either become discouraged or I can pray. I can embrace the humble fact of what I really am: a beggar before God.
Jesus, have mercy on me. Jesus deepen my awareness of Your presence and Your love in my life. Jesus, give me the grace to know and do Your will. Come Holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit, living in the heart of Mary, come and change my heart.
Veni Sancte Spiritus. Veni Per Mariam. Jesus, I trust in You.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Presence of Mary

May is specially dedicated to Mary. Perhaps one of the reasons is that May always includes the season of the resurrection. It is truly the great time of Mary's life, and yet the New Testament does not report any words she said. It merely indicates her presence, at the foot of the Cross, and in the upper room at Pentecost.

Everything that Jesus suffered on the Cross, Mary suffered in her heart. She embraced the whole mystery of Jesus at the beginning, when she said "yes" to the plan of salvation, when she called herself the "handmaid of the Lord" (Luke 1:38). She gave herself over entirely to Jesus. In His birth and in the first glimpses of His mission, we are told that "Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart" (Luke 2:19, see also 2:51).

And when Jesus gave Himself for us on the Cross, He gave us Mary as well, Mary the mother, Mary with her great heart. "Woman, behold, your son!.... Behold your mother! And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home" (John 19:27). Mary goes to stay with the disciple, to be with him, and to be with each of us, because the "yes" of her heart extends as far as the "yes" of Jesus.

Thus, the season of the resurrection is the season of Mary's silent presence with the disciples, a silence of the understanding and love of her maternal heart. The book of Acts simply refers to the presence of "Mary the mother of Jesus" with the disciples in those days leading up to Pentecost (1:14). Mary was present, her heart luminous with the glory of the resurrection, her soul "magnifying the Lord" (see Luke 1:46).

Her silence was full of maternal love, for the Church, and for the world to which the Church would be sent.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tennis and Community

Tennis is not baseball, but its a lot of fun.

Its the only sport that the whole family likes. The kids have all, until recently, been small. Since we're not one of those power families intent on producing tennis pros, it means that we just play on the courts in the public park, or even in the driveway.

And of course we watch the great ones do their thing on television. Everyone will watch a good tennis match, and marvel at Federer and Nadal and Djokovic and Serena, etc., etc. There is nothing like the drama of a high intensity singles match between two amazing athletes. Really. Try watching the singles finals at the French Open and Wimbledon this summer.

The Chelsea tennis team is more laid back. But its still fun.

Its more than fun. John Paul has done sports camps before, but this is the first time he has ever participated in a dedicated and ongoing sports program. Like in so many things, Chelsea Academy has found the right balance in the education of mind and body. Every student has to participate in at least one sport during the year, and this entails a significant commitment. Since March, John Paul has been practicing 4-5 days a week, as well as playing matches. There are also many in-school sporting events and outdoor activities all through the year.

He's getting in shape. He's getting instructed in the finer points of the game. He is learning the values of striving for excellence, healthy competition, and fair play.

I think its good for John Paul to be on a team. When I was a kid, I played my heart out in every kind of sport. But I never played for a team. We had pickup games in the neighborhood, and of course the daily "gym class" of my public school youth. If anything could be done by pure hustle, I did it. But I had very little skill, and no supervision or confidence building from adults. Then I went to a large high school where the sports program just seemed out of reach.

The good thing about a small school is that its large enough to have access to resources that parents can't provide on their own, and still small enough to ensure that every kid gets attention, and that parents and family can participate in their activities (in fact, parent participation is essential for a lot of the good things that happen at Chelsea).

We are very blessed. Here too, we have another experience of a real community. A real community is not a narrow and stifled place. Its a place where a child can grow into a mature human being, and open up to reality without fear, because he or she lives within an environment of trust.

The aim of community is not a negative; its not a place to avoid "the evils of the world." Community is a human thing; it happens when people gather together to seek what is true and good, and to build constructive environments for themselves and their children.

It happens, because we are social beings. We depend on one another. Sadly, too much of our culture is designed to lead us into a dependence on anonymous forces, generating artificial "needs" that make us forget the essential needs and aspirations of our humanity. We forget about our destiny, and so its not surprising that we forget our need for each other.

Wherever human beings really seek life, they discover that they need to do it together.