Saturday, November 30, 2013

Andrew and Peter: Following Jesus Together

St. Andrew "the First-called" is greatly venerated in the East, especially by the see of Constantinople, which traces its origin to him. Andrew was Peter's brother, and undoubtedly unity between the brothers is his greatest concern. Let us therefore join with Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I and pray for unity, on this special day for Christians West and East, Latin Catholic, Byzantine Catholic, and Orthodox.

As the Pope said in his message, the persecution of Christians today in the Middle East, as well as in many places throughout the world, gives this impetus for unity an added urgency. So also does the call for the New Evangelization. "Christians of East and West must give common witness so that, strengthened by the Spirit of the risen Christ, they may disseminate the message of salvation to the entire world" (Message to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople for November 30, 2013).

I love the Kontakion for the day in the Byzantine Liturgy:

"Let us praise for his courage Andrew the Theologian, first Apostle of the Savior and brother of Peter, for in like manner as he drew his brother to Christ, he is crying out to us: 'Come, for we have found the One the world desires!'"

In the prayer, St. Andrew calls Jesus "the One the world desires." We have been created for Him. Our hearts are made for Him. The meaning and mysterious reality of the very impetus of life -- desire -- finds its fulfillment in Him.

Perhaps it sounds strange, disappointing, or even incomprehensible at first: "So the meaning of my life is someone from Nazareth in Galilee who was born two thousand years ago?"

Even then, Nathaniel understood this feeling very well. His reaction to this news was, "can anything good come out of Nazareth?" And the reply was, "Come and see!"

So the Church says today, "Come and see." And just like the first disciples, the Church does not say, "come and see how great we are." She says, "Come and see that Christ is present, here, not by virtue of any power or greatness of ours, but by virtue of His own promise."

Friday, November 29, 2013

Scenes From the Janaro's Thanksgiving Table

We had a beautiful Thanksgiving day, with much to be grateful for. I put together a photo album with a few highlights and (mostly) brief identifying comments. I thought it would be worth sharing here too.

This is primarily a display of the outstanding artwork of the incredible Mrs. Eileen Janaro, assisted by her apprentices. And it gives us the latest look at the children (and young people) of the family.

First, we have the place setting:

And here's the "star of the show," right out of the oven:

Josefina is thankful:

Mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes:

One of the plates of turkey, creatively garnished with an onion:

Cranberry sauce (get this) made from REAL fresh Cranberries! Oh my, this was good! Some people don't even know what actual Cranberries look like. They think they're can-shaped, hahaha:

And the wine. A white wine made from grapes picked on the first full moon after the Autumn equinox, pressed before dawn the next day (very important) and then aged in three different kinds of casks, the first made from the wood of the Black Forest, the second from the great Ash trees of the Siberian tundra, and the third a coral cask fashioned from shellfish from off the coast of Patagonia. It's fresh and woody, with a hint of apricots and Burgundian winter grass. Bottled with the most technologically advanced, "naturale" twist top designed to be removed by hand! (okay, haha, that's enough... you know I'm joking, except for the twist top, which is cleverly hidden in this photo...) Here it is:

Now let's see some growing kids! John Paul and Lucia Janaro:

Left to right, Agnese Janaro (who will turn 15 in a few weeks), "Uncle Walter," and John Paul:

Agnese! It is very difficult to photograph this young lady, who usually dashes away from cameras. This was a lucky shot!

Josefina and Teresa (who will turn 11 next week). Teresa is hamming it up: "Let's EAT!"

Jojo has no intention of being outdone in the "hammy" department. Teresa looks like she's thinking, "O boy!"

Okay, so we ate! A full plate of goodies (also string beans and mushrooms):

Then, after a break (obviously), came the freshly baked pies, pumpkin, apple, and pecan. Truly Eileen Janaro is amazing. She did not want her own picture taken on this occasion. So we must admire her beauty through her work:

Top it off with freshly whipped cream:

What a splendid feast, a lot of which is still left over. But with our bunch, leftovers disappear pretty fast.

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

On Thanksgiving: Compassion For Those Who Mourn

Happy Thanksgiving! May God bless you all, especially those of you who may not feel very happy this year, who perhaps may even find it difficult to be thankful, who are struggling, who are just wondering, "Why?"
 Let me make clear that this is not intended to be a "blue" post. I am writing about this precisely because of my faith that, in the end, gratitude is something true. I believe that we can take the risk of being grateful in our lives because we know that our lives are real, and that they are leading toward something that endures. This is what makes it possible for us to say "Happy Thanksgiving" even in circumstances that are hard; to say it and really mean it, to understand that it is not just a cruel joke on ourselves and others.

I have much to be thankful to God for, and I hope we all do. But we should remember that for many, many people, Thanksgiving and other family holidays are not "happy" -- at least not in the conventional sense of the sentiments conveyed by the greetings and well-wishing that we exchange on these days.

Many people are suffering on this Thanksgiving Day.

And we shouldn't think that these people are so far away. Holidays can cause much pain simply because of the loss of people who are no longer here to celebrate them with us. When the holiday comes, what strikes many people is the memory of a happiness they once had on these days, year after year after year, with another person or persons who are no longer here: a husband or wife, a father, a mother, a child or a brother or sister, or aunts and uncles, cousins and friends.

They're gone.

If someone thinks that there is nothing but this world and this present life, it is truly unbearable to be reminded again, in such a concrete way, of this terrible absence, of loved ones lost seemingly forever. What can people do? They may flee to distraction (maybe this is one the reasons for so much shopping -- it's trying to fill a hole). Or reduce themselves by cynicism. Or they try to stay human, but how?

They just weep.

They bleed from hearts that they allow to be wounded... again!

And they want to tear out their hearts from their breasts and lift them up to the cold, shining, dead stars and cry out, "I'M SORRY! THIS IS JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH!!!"

"I love that person. I want that person. They are gone, but I still want, I still love! Please...."


For those of us who believe in eternal life, the separation from those we love does not cease to be a tremendous suffering (even when that suffering is suffused by the dawning light of hope). We want the person we love to be present with us. We want to see them in front of us, next to us. Why must we endure this fracture, this disconnection that has taken them away from us?

This is an enormous suffering; it is an experience that convinces us that God did not make death, and even as our faith tells us that death has been swallowed up in victory, we know also that it is a victory of suffering love, and sometimes our experience comes very close to those who can only weep and cry out from wounded hearts in the darkness.

This does not come from doubt. It comes from the depths of love.

Love Himself has cried out from a wounded heart that bore the whole weight of this mystery that is "absence". And He has that wound forever in His glorified heart.

On this day, therefore, we reach out to those who carry such sorrow. We want to console them, and we know that there is no cheap way to do it. The only way is to be willing to suffer with them, in whatever way we can. Even if it is only a very small way.

When we say, "Happy Thanksgiving" to one another today, let us do so with compassion. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

In November's Magnificat: Persecution and Perseverance

Persecution and Perseverance

Lord Jesus
I am struck dumb,
inside and outside.
My heart is shrouded by this misery;
my eyes, which look upon your holy face,
are stricken, assaulted by the light,
aching red,
longing to be shut beneath their lids.
I have no voice
except an inner cry,
a mute, distressed animal whimper
that cannot even summon itself to ask for mercy.
My fingers drift
away from my hands
and the tokens of your love
are beyond their reach.

How do I pray?
O Lord, where is the longing of my prayer?
Jesus, Mercy.
Hear the struggle of breath;
Jesus, Mercy.
Hear the scream inside
the shaken contours of this skull,
with brain pierced
by some fiery blade.

O God, Love!
Hear the endless noise,
the pounding,
the howling of skin and nerve,
muscle and joint:
this cacophony of pain
that groans all through the place
where I once felt that I had a body.
Jesus, Mercy, forgive me.
Jesus, Love.
Jesus, I offer.
I long for these to be my words to you,
but lips are speechless quiver,
and thought and heart are frozen in exhaustion.
Prayer is ice that does not flow.
Prayer is a voice of distant memory;
it feels like a stiff corpse
beneath my soul’s total turmoil.
In the end, there is nothing
but the hollowness that holds a thing called me
wanting you.
I want you, Jesus.

Published in Magnificat, November 2013, pp. 381-383.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Remembering Kennedy and the Power of Television

Fifty years ago: America goes to a funeral. And television discovers its power.
Fifty years ago today, America attended a funeral. Millions of people brought to an end a long vigil that had begun (for most of them) sometime on the afternoon of November 22, 1963.

It began with a shock. People remember where they were when they first heard about the unbelievable news. John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States, had been assassinated.

Among the millions was a nearly 11 month old little boy. I was later told that my mother was holding me as she wept. As one of the last of the boomers, I was born before this event took place, although I have no memory of it. Nevertheless I did grow up in its shadow; by the time I was an adolescent, it had become common for political figures to be assassinated, or at least to endure assassination attempts. Many other things that were new 50 years ago have long since become features of daily life, taken for granted. As I observe this 50th anniversary, I am struck by the fact that the Kennedy Assassination was not only a violent and tragic event in American history. It was also a singular moment in the "history of media" that I find compelling, as I try to ponder the significance and the challenges of our multi-platform, interactive, hyper-networked global village of today.

It is worth noting that the approaching years will be a time of more historic commemoration and, no doubt, reappraisal. Some events may receive more attention than others, but we are approaching many dramatic moments that mark the great shifting of historical epochs that I believe we are living through even now.

We will be marking 50 year anniversaries of the many twists and turns of that tumultuous and strange decade, the "Sixties". Far less likely to be noted by Americans are the 100 year anniversaries that will commence on June 28, 2014. This date has little hold on the contemporary imagination. Indeed, if you Google "Franz Ferdinand" your top search responses will be references to a popular music group. Wikipedia, of course, will appear to remind the curious that there was once an Austrian archduke by that name.

In contrast to November 22, there is no doubt that the assassination of June 28, 1914 was a conspiracy. It was also, unwittingly, the beginning of the unraveling of the Western world in a century of war and terror, and the rise of Something Else that we do not yet understand, but that has as one of its defining features the expanse of technological power on a Promethean scale. But I digress; I'll get back to this next June.

The rise of "Something Else" (an epoch that cannot yet be named) is part of the significance of the present anniversary, however. Technological power has affected culture in a profound way. It has affected how human beings experience public events, how they communicate them, and how these events shape their memories. November 22-25, 1963 marks the beginning of a new stage in the history of media.

President Kennedy died a tragic and untimely death by assassination, and this alone is enough to mark his place in presidential history with sorrowful memory. But something seemed different about John F. Kennedy's relationship with the American people. The people of this vast nation felt like they "knew" him; they "connected" with him through an entirely new kind of technological, but also human experience. And this experience was solidified in a singular way by the events that happened 50 years ago.

After Americans heard the news, they went to their televisions and turned them on. An entire nation gathered through the medium of television to grieve, to learn how and why it had happened, and -- as it turned out -- to witness more events unfold as Lee Harvey Oswald was captured and then was himself killed on camera by Jack Ruby. A nation watched as history unfolded, live, before their eyes. This experience, in itself, was "historic". Nothing so dramatic and intense had ever been experienced in this way before.

And 50 years ago today, America went to the funeral.

It seems almost trite now to remark that Kennedy was America's first "TV President." Multimedia are so woven into our daily experience today that it is difficult for us to conceive of the subtle but powerful innovation that occurred during his presidency. It was subtle, because by 1961 the television had already established itself as the technological hearth of the American household. But now this young, (apparently) vibrant, and articulate President became a familiar "guest" in America's living rooms.

Radio, of course, had already tilled the field of direct and "familiar" communication of a leader to his people. But video added a new dimension to this experience of familiarity (as well as new techniques of fabricating the image of familiarity). And the Kennedys were a perfect fit for making "friends" with America. Perhaps the high point of this connection was when 80 million Americans from New York to Kansas to Montana to California sat in their living rooms while being taken on a "live" tour of the White House by none other than the elegant Mrs. Kennedy herself.

This was also the age of the explosion of color photography, which also played an important role in this experience of connection. The Kennedys were everywhere.

Of course there was a great deal of illusion in all of this. The images were carefully cultivated during a time when it was still possible to keep secrets from the public. Ordinary Americans knew nothing of Kennedy's extensive marital infidelity while he was alive. But the biggest secret of all was the fact that this "vibrant young man" was chronically and even dangerously sick with Addison's disease (adrenal failure) and suffered from agonizing neuromuscular back pain. No one knew that he wore a back brace and traveled with doctors, therapists, and a virtual portable pharmacy of stimulants, painkillers, and of course the cortisone shots he needed to stay alive.

Thus the familiar feeling of Americans for their President was primarily a feeling for an "image" rather than the much more complex reality of the man himself. Of course, cultivating a public image is nothing new, but what was new was how media enabled this president to leave his audiovisual imprint upon the imaginations of millions of people. Thus he drew people's affection, and with his sudden death, he drew their grief. Public life would never be the same again.

Thus there was not only a death, but there was also a birth on November 22, 1963 and the days that followed. It was the birth of a cultural experience of historic proportions, the impact of which has perhaps surpassed the historical significance of the American President who was its subject.

A "New Medium" was born out of the sudden agony of those days. By this we mean not a new piece of technology, but a new means for human beings to participate in events. Television had awoken to the vastness of its power, which it would apply in many ways in the years to come, sometimes to clarify events and other times to manipulate them.

Television has since lost its monopoly on audiovisual media. The Newer Media have been placed in the hands of everyone. We must not forget, however, that they remain forms of power through which we can serve one another, or degrade and manipulate one another.

But there are some things that will always remain beyond our vision or any of its extensions. Beyond our power. This too we must always remember.

Rest in peace, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Daddy and the Kids Go Round the World!

Teresa, age 10, hanging out in pajamas
Geography is great. It's fun in itself, but it can also lead to many interesting conversations. We like to just look at a globe and travel around to different places in our imaginations. Nothing on the internet comes close to replacing a good old fashioned globe that you can hold in your hands, and of course nothing will ever come close to replacing the imagination.

Give me a globe and my mind, and all the world and all of human history are at my fingertips.

And if there's a child around who is interested, it's even more fun.

The other day, Josefina found St. Helena Island all alone down there in the Atlantic ocean, and she decided to turn it into the country of her imaginary friends. Jojo and I often talk about real geography, especially the United States. But she was in a different mental mode at this point, and I wasn't about to interfere with that.
We do have bigger globes, but this will do in a pinch

But later I was telling Teresa (our 10 year old) about how Josefina's imaginary friends lived in an imaginary country that was really St. Helena.

ME: "I don't think she wants to put her friends on that island. It's a miserable place!"

TERESA: "Who really lives there?"

ME: "Nobody. It was a place for British ships to stop on their way to South Africa. The only person who ever really lived there was Napoleon" (obviously that was a bit hyperbolic...).

TERESA: "Napoleon lived there?"

ME: "Yeah, he lived the last dozen years or so of his life there. That's where the British kept him prisoner."

Teresa looked at me like, wow that's pretty crazy, so I continued...

ME: "Well, he had his own house and servants and friends who came with him, and he could go anywhere he wanted on the island, but British warships circled it 24 hours a day. That's how scared they were of Napoleon Bonaparte."

TERESA: "Bonaparte? What's Bonaparte?"

ME: "His last name, Napoleon Bonaparte. His last name was Bonaparte."

I could have gone off on a tangent all about the Bonaparte family, the Corsican people, the Second Empire, but I couldn't stop laughing after she said...

TERESA: "Bonaparte? I thought his last name was Dynamite!"

None of us have even seen this movie!

Monday, November 18, 2013

From the Archives of the Antique Blog: The Journey

More from the Antique Blog of 1990
"A man going on a journey summoned his servants and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away" (Matthew 25:14-15).

Jesus said, "A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time" (Luke 20:9).

Something has always fascinated me about these parables. Where is the man going, and why? We're not told anything about it.

Apparently I've been thinking about this for a long time, since I wrote about it in the Antique Blog on November 18, 1990. I still wonder if there might be some mystery here, something more than a pretext for framing the story. Here's what I wrote on that day, 23 years ago:


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Are New Evangelizers Ready to be Hated, Tortured, and Killed?

The New Evangelization is not going to be easy.

No matter how clever Christians are; no matter how kind and gentle and patient; no matter how edgy and cool the presentation; no matter how much Christians bend over backwards and stand on their heads and tiptoe around so as not to offend anybody....
"They will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 24:9, 13).
A genuine witness to Jesus is always a proposal. It is by nature a provocation. It awakens and calls forth human freedom. Christians often fall short in their ways of proposing the gospel, thereby spreading confusion and rendering the gospel obscure at least in part. Still, evangelization takes place even with all the weakness of Christ's disciples. The Church continues and grows throughout the unfolding of the drama of redemption. In our time, however, Christians are making a fresh commitment to take up with seriousness and in a new way the task of evangelization.

The "New Evangelization," among other things, seeks to spread the gospel in the context of a deeper awareness of the dignity of the human person and human freedom. It is clear that Christians witness truly only insofar as they are instruments of Jesus's presence to the human heart. This true witness is full of respect for the human person; it is delicate, affirming, kind, without pretense, amiable, humble, full of conviction about the truth of Jesus, but also open to the unfathomable ways of His mercy and ready to accompany human persons on the mysterious journeys that constitute their own vocations. It is joyful, beautiful, full of vitality, loving, peaceful, patient, merciful, self-effacing.

But it is what it is. It points to Someone who wants to give Himself to another person, and therefore it cannot help touching freedom, and pointing to the fact that this Someone is asking for a decision.

Even if a Christian says nothing, the way he or she lives in the midst of others inevitably becomes something that both attracts and frightens the human heart. An authentic Christian life witnesses to Jesus, and therefore to the mysterious destiny for which every human heart has been made.

It is therefore inevitable that, in front of an authentic witness, people will be provoked. They will make decisions, and that means that some will decide to resist. Even if this decision is not final and irrevocable, it generates opposition and violence against Christian witness, and therefore against Christians themselves.

If people decide to resist or to flee from Jesus, from the very gift of Infinite Love for which they have been made, they will struggle and fight against Him and against anything and anyone who reminds them of Him. But Jesus never gives up. He keeps loving, all the way through the cross.

As followers of Christ, we must do the same. We are called to be witnesses to His love, and to share in that love all the way to the cross, to love in the face of rejection, opposition, and violence.

This suffering can take various forms in our lives. We won't often be killed physically, but we may be ignored, marginalized or forgotten. We may be harassed, slandered, or treated with contempt. We may be divided from our families and friends, and constantly reminded by others that we are different and strange. We may be forced into social or even material poverty.

Or perhaps we may be applauded, but misunderstood. We may be hailed and cheered by people for all sorts of reasons, and perhaps it will be our vocation to endure this fleeting adulation, and even to accept the fact that many people are going to misinterpret our gestures. But we are not seeking applause. We are seeking the truth and the beauty of Jesus, and whatever it is about our witness that attracts people "on the surface" is eventually going to challenge them to invest themselves more deeply. Sooner or later, all those cheering people will discover that they have to decide whether to stay or leave.

Sometimes it happens that a genuine Christian rides a wave of "popularity." Recall that Jesus was wildly popular all over Galilee and Judea, and above all in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He could have been made king, if He had wanted to be a king in this world. But He didn't. He wanted something much greater. He knew that Palm Sunday was leading to Good Friday.

Thus the path of the New Evangelization also leads to Good Friday, to the cross. We must be prepared for that fact, and indeed allow it to form our lives and our testimony. If the crucified and risen Jesus is at the center of our own lives, then we will give a living witness to Him and His love for every person. An authentic Christian witness is a gratuitous love that endures all things, and its vitality comes from the Love that has conquered death.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Jesus is With Us in Our Suffering... Really!

The Gospel readings of this time of year openly proclaim the suffering that comes with belonging to Jesus Christ. Whatever our sufferings may be, if we endure them in union with Jesus -- or, to put it another way, if we recognize our own sufferings as belonging to Jesus Crucified, to Him who has made the suffering of every person His own, then He will shape our hearts through this endurance into vessels that share in His love. Thus He will bring us through death in Him to Resurrection.

The love of Jesus that changes us and brings us to fulfillment is resisted by the "world" -- that is, by the realm of all that closes itself to God and His love; not only the exterior "nations" and the powers that be and the media, etc., but also every aspect of our own selves that has not been completely given over in trust to His transforming love.

To say that "God permits us to suffer so as to bring about a greater good" is more for us than a theoretical conclusion in metaphysics; it is more than a resigned "consolation of philosophy." It is a miracle that is happening in this very moment, because Jesus is with us in our suffering, and whether or not that brings us any consolation is not what matters. What matters is that it is a fact: He is present, and when we stay with Him, when we endure in recognizing and adhering to Him even in the deepest darkness, He changes us.

In the darkest, most painful, most incomprehensible moment, He has hold of us. If we stay in His arms and endure with Him, then He will raise us with Him to an eternal glory that is beyond our understanding, but that draws us through hope, and that begins -- even now -- in the radiance and the mysterious power of the love by which we say yes to Him, by which we endure our weakness being taken up by Him. For "the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Corinthians 1:25), stronger than everything.

This love seems so small and helpless and may be unnoticed in the world, or even by the person who thus loves. It is the smallest of seeds, sown deep in the earth and broken open, that rises up to an abundance of fruit.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Autumn's Colors are Full of Peace

Leaves in full bloom. There are still a few on the trees.

"Geepers, JJ... don't you think the blog has been a little 'heavy' lately? Or, to use the Italian term: Pesante!" (With the appropriate hand gesture, this term says something like "c'mon please, stop, you're killing me here, enough"!)

Che pesante! Janaro, troppo troppo. Basta!

Yeah. Basta cosi! (enough!)

Heck, my parents read this blog: they are two of my five faithful readers. ("Don't worry Dad, Mom, I'm okay... really, just the usual usual, you know... I'm fine.")

Cool cloud formations!
Its time to look at nature for a while. Clear, crisp cool days, and fallen leaves. Autumn's glory is passing, but I do want to revisit a few pictures of these beautiful weeks.

Its great to look at the colors and breathe the air. Sunshine, even with its November slant, just fills a person right up.

Autumn started crazy with rain and then August-like heat. But once things settled down, all the beautiful colors came in. They turned out to be quite exceptional this year, for a Virginia Autumn.

The driveway to Chelsea Academy. No comment necessary.

If you can take your eyes off that blooming red tree, you can see the Blue Ridge.

This is our stretch of the great ancient Appalachian mountain range, some of the oldest mountains in the world. They surround us in this valley; they stand over us quietly with patient faces of stone bearded with trees. At this time of year, other colors become clear in that blue horizon.

Some of the best colors this year, however, were right in our neighborhood. I love to go close to the leaves and just look at them:

We have maples too in Virginia.

Here's a rare one that I took a couple of weeks ago: I aimed the camera at a parking lot and, zoom, voila, everybody! (Except me, of course.) It has become pretty rare to get Mommy and all the kids all together in a picture in an unplanned, unguarded moment. Unfortunately, its not very clear, and I only got Eileen's back (Jojo too, but we see plenty of her in pictures). Still, it gives a sense of how the family occupies space in the Fall of 2013. (And, yes, the big guy is John Paul. There they are admidst the colors. I love these people so much!)

The Janaros in the parking lot. The one constant over the last nine years is that odd white
minivan, the fabulous antique 1993 Toyota Previa. This is the one with the engine under
the driver's seat, and what an engine it is! This van was already old when we bought it,
and the engine had a bazillion miles on it, but it was a Toyota. After nine more years and
five kids and another bazillion miles, the engine still runs sweet! Which is just as well, be-
cause if it ever did break down, there aren't any mechanics left who'd know how to fix it
(or even how to find it). No matter; the doors will fall off this van before the engine goes.

The weather has gotten cooler since then, which requires people to wear warmer clothing in the mornings when they go to the Montessori Center.

You knew I'd find a way to get her into this blog. And the pretty lunch box too!

This time of year, when I step out my front door and walk down the street, its a bright and colorful place, with the Blue Ridge mountains rising up gently beyond the curve further down the road. A few weeks ago, there was still quite a bit of green mixed with changes:

Our street, sometime late in October.

For contrast, I decided to take another picture this afternoon, as the sun was already quite low. We often have unusual angles of light this time of year. Once the trees become bare, new vistas open up. Winter is not so depressing, really. In fact it lets us see many things we can't see when the trees are full. Right now there are still some leaves, and some color, on the trees:

The low sun speckles gold light on the shadows of the mountain.

The ground is now thick with fallen leaves. Now is the time that we begin to appreciate winter greens, like the ivy in our yard. Its all the green that's left.

Time for the rake! :-)

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Chain Saw in My Brain

Jesus said to his disciples,
“Things that cause sin will inevitably occur;
but woe to the one through whom they occur.
It would be better for him if a millstone we
re put around his neck
and he be thrown into the sea
than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin" (Luke 17:1-2).

Oh no. Jesus said, "Woe!" That gets my attention.

<And the mental gears start to turn and turn and turn and SPIN, brroom, brrooooooom!>
"Oh woe, woe... woe to ME. I'm a crummy father, that's what I am, and my little ones are going to sin because I'm not doing enough to teach them, protect them, stop them, help them, love them, give them a good example, work them harder, appreciate them, teach them, show them, help them, I'm not doing enough, I give a bad example, I'm not doing enough, I'm not doing enough...."
<"John, TURN OFF THE CHAIN SAW!"> Says the voice of an old priest friend of mine. Its a voice in my memory, reminding me that my mind is a chain saw that cuts through obstacles and barriers to see the truth of things, but sometimes it gets turned around and then it starts cutting my brain into pieces. Turn off the chain saw! But its spinning around and I've lost control and I don't know how to shut it off!
. . . .

It can be a simple thing, like hearing the reading from this morning's Gospel. Suddenly, I am tempted to feel like Jesus is condemning me personally. I feel like I'm the person who should be thrown into the sea with the millstone around my neck; I'm the goat to whom He says, "Depart from me;" I'm the guy not properly dressed at the wedding feast; I'm the Pharisee, the hypocrite, the one who Jesus looks at and just wants to thrash.

I'm not sure whether other people are troubled in quite this way. But it troubles me. Sometimes Jesus in the gospels feels like He's hard to get close to. I feel like He's saying, "I'm not going to love you and be your friend until you straighten out your life. Go away and fix yourself and come back when you are worthy."

But I know that He isn't saying that to me.

The devil would like for me to believe these thoughts. The devil wants me to be afraid of Jesus, or to get discouraged and just give up. He meddles in all of this. But he is not running the chain saw. Nor is it (simply) a spiritual bad attitude or a lack of self-esteem or a failure by me to do this or that. Certainly my failures are abundant. But that is not where the root of this problem lies.

My brain is "tilted" -- the images and the words get associated with the wrong memories, and certain problems (that may have some basis in reality) are filtered through a hormonal/neurochemical matrix that distorts them or exaggerates their intensity. And thus the images pour through my brain and the ideas and judgments arise in my mind. Intelligence and freedom are on the scene here, but they are limping badly. This delicately constructed body-soul human person has a sickness.

We experience illness in ourselves by self-reflection. If I cut my arm, I feel the pain and I see the blood and I say, "I cut myself." That's simple enough. If I start to lose my hearing suddenly, I might be more confused. I might think, "Why is everything so quiet?" I might tell people to speak louder. I might not realize that I myself have the affliction. When the affliction involves the complexities of the brain, the nervous system, and all the factors that shape perception, it can be very difficult for me to recognize it in myself, to see that there is an illness that is hindering me in the activity of understanding and judging reality and myself.

But even with the reflective effort to understand a "mental" illness, backed by mountains of clinical and scientific study, I still lack the full emotional strength of conviction. Even as I write this, my mind says, "are you sure this isn't all baloney? Are you sure you're not the Pharisee or the hypocrite...?" The illness is so close to my sense of self, much closer than if I just had a broken leg. In the latter case, I wouldn't have these thoughts. I'd just look at my leg. (So would other people, and that would be a lot easier for them too.)

And we have also a real intersection with the self, the conscience, and freedom here. Maybe I am a bit of a Pharisee. But we must lay that to one side for the moment, and face the fact that we are dealing with a sickness. This is not a freely chosen position in front of reality. This is an affliction that distorts reality, like clouds cover the sun.

I don't know how much of a hypocrite I really am. I'm a sinner. I know that. But my mind, with all its rich intensity thwarted by distortion, can take that "negative" factor and blow it way out of proportion and focus.

What can I do, here and now? Before I take Jesus's rebukes and use them to condemn myself, can my reason enter into the matter and at least do some mental pain management?

Yes. If intelligence can still limp, it should at least limp. By limping we can move in the right direction. So in this case, I have to remember that Jesus is speaking to the whole human race, and that there are some very, very, very BAD people out there. Its not judgmental or self-righteous to acknowledge the fact that some people are knowingly and deliberately malicious; there are people who like being bad, people who decide to be bad, which is to say, to oppose what they understand to be "the Good," and not out of weakness but out of strength. Some people are like this... maybe many people are like this.

Jesus warns and threatens in graphic ways because He loves these people too. He's trying to wake them up, not just from sleep, but from a self-induced coma.

This is a reasonable supposition for me to make, but it does not follow that I can sit down and decide who those really, really bad people are. Another person's freedom does not manifest itself so plainly to us. It plays itself out within all the complexity of a particular human person of body and soul and so many hindrances including those I've described above, We know what's good and what's evil, but since we can't read hearts, we can't really judge to what extent someone is willfully bad and to what extent they are afflicted and distorted because they are sick, or wounded by life, or carrying terrible hidden sufferings. Only Jesus can know that. He knows what each person needs to hear.

Jesus is Compassionate Truth: He is
the Truth who comes to dwell with us.
He is Mercy who has come to save us.
I'm a sinner. I want to follow Jesus, but I'm weak. Yes, I sin. Sometimes stubbornly. But Compassionate Truth comes to get me. Truth is hard, but its also my companion that helps me up each step and sometimes even carries me. It deeply understands my weakness and how to work it into strength, with patience. The voice of Jesus to me is always the voice of "Compassionate Truth." I'm a sinner. Jesus loves sinners. He came to save sinners.

If I read the Gospel and feel condemned by it and rejected as an evil person, that is not Jesus talking. Its not my conscience talking. Its depression that's talking; its obsessive compulsive disorder that's talking; its this complex affliction that's talking, blowing my faults completely out of proportion. I'm sensitive, perceptive, and I think deeply, but my neurological / psychological / emotional condition sends all of that down the sink toward the negative: All I can hear is "Maybe I'm the bad one. Why is He so mad at me? I feel terrible about myself!" If I find vanity, self-centeredness, or mixed motives in myself (as I inevitably will), the chain saw starts cutting and digging in to get the badness, to get every bit of it, but it never finds it all, it never gets it out. So it keeps cutting....

And if I happen to be feeling okay with Jesus, I can easily find something else to obsess about and get down on myself: I worry about the next doctor's appointment, the next writing deadline, trying to sleep or accomplish other basic life tasks that should be easy, or getting sick or dying, whatever. The chain saw looks for things to cut. Sometimes I get a handle on it, and I see that it can be used to build, to open up places, and to bring order and clarity to the world outside of myself. But its hard to keep it turned in the direction of reality and the task at hand.

I've had forty years of this kind of stuff (not all the time, but on and off, dormant then triggered... more recently, much better but far from cured). I've learned to deal with the medical and emotional aspects, and do that as much as is necessary. "Success" here is not "being medication and therapy free" -- success is having things more or less in perspective (if meds and therapy are necessary for that, for however long, its no big deal... I thank God for the help).

And I also have to tell my mind: "Listen to the voice of Compassionate Truth, of mercy. Tell the condemnations to SHUT UP!"

Its not easy, but its possible. It can be done. I have learned over the years, however, that it cannot be done alone.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Internet: Are We Addicted, or Do We Just Use It Too Much?

You're online a lot. Probably much more that you would like to admit on any survey. Lets face it: you worry sometimes that you might be "addicted" to the Internet.

(Of course I'm just using the editorial "you" in this post. I'm not implying that you, personally, dear reader, have any kind of problem like this.)

Okay, first of all, I certainly recognize that this can be a real problem. The Internet is powerful, stimulating, and easily accessible. I expect that it can trigger or exacerbate various mental disorders, chemical imbalances, or other neurodysfunctions.

It can also shorten people's attention spans, make them more gullible, more argumentative, and more scattered and distracted in their hearts. The Internet is an almost inexhaustible resource for people to get themselves into all sorts of trouble and preoccupations about things that they can't change and therefore shouldn't worry about because, really, this stuff is none of their business.

The medium lends itself to being misused in these ways. There is also easy access to information and images that can positively fracture the human personality. That's another topic. I have nothing to do with that (nor, as far as I know, do any of the other five people who actually read this blog). But I know all about how the Internet can be distracting.

Of course, I use the Internet for good reasons! I use it for "research," and writing, and to encourage people, and to communicate edifying things, and to learn about important events, and to be a presence on this "digital continent" (as Benedict XVI called it). I want to be in the vanguard of the NEW EVANGELIZATION!

Clearly I have a well-ordered, balanced, virtuous, unselfish approach to using the Internet. Right?

HA! Not even close. I'm hooked just like everybody else.

I am trying to use it well. Some days I do better than others. I'm convinced that its good to be online, and so -- inspired by that great battle cry of G. K. Chesterton, "If a thing is worth doing, its worth doing badly!" -- I march forward on the digital continent. I must learn and grow, here... just like everywhere else. Meanwhile, I pray that the Lord will "write straight" with my rather crooked lines.

All of this is fine, as far as it goes. I know that I'm not a person who is called to give up all electronic devices and go live on an Amish farm. Even there, I think I would probably develop an "inordinate," self-centered attachment to my plow, or my patch of ground, or even my sense of having kept myself pure from the lures of the modern world. I don't need the Internet to be distracted. I can distract myself very well just with my own mind.
Truly, I mean no disparagement here to Amish farmers, nor to agrarians in general. I love agrarians. I have many agrarian friends. I love to read agrarian blogs (heh!) -- We are all given different gifts by the Lord. We can all help and learn from one another.
And I appreciate their gifts... especially when they are gifts of FOOD. Milk from grazing cows. Eggs from ... chickens! I mean straight from the chicken -- eggs that have not been subjected to the approval of 15 different bureaucratic agencies after traveling two thousand miles in a refrigerated truck. Squash, cucumbers, spinach in all of their glorious genetic originality, in all their various shapes and sizes and even with marks where real bugs (!) chewed on them. Bring on the food!
Its great. But I'm not a farmer. I'm a nerd.

Okay, some folks would say I'm an "intellectual" (frankly, I think I prefer the term "nerd"). I'm a thinker, and (I hope) a knower. I want to learn about reality and help others to learn, to see how fascinating everything is, and how many facets of reality there are to consider.

I'm a teacher.

I'm a nerdy teacher. My wife can come to the office at the John XXIII Center and ask me to give a "short introduction" to "the Middle Ages" for 9-12 year old kids. When? In a few minutes.

I told her I would need a large map of Europe and the Mediterranean. And then I went out and started talking to the kids. No notes. No prep. And it was interesting.

I can do the same thing in writing, though not as quickly as when I was younger. And its not easy, although it appears easy (to others and, unfortunately, often to me also... until its too late). It takes a ton of energy, and yet I love it in a way that verges on compulsive. Nevertheless, in the present circumstances of life all of this means that I have the capacity to do some good on the Internet. I think....

But there's more to it. There are more fundamental reasons why I feel called to write and to teach and to just be a human being using the New Media, even with their dangers and distractions. Its about the fact that, in all our efforts to communicate through whatever medium and in whatever context, we are persons living in relationship with other persons. Communication is always personal. If it is not a gift of self, it becomes sterile.

The Internet can easily distract us from the fact that we are persons who are called to be gifts to one another, called to give and receive love. Here, just like everywhere else, the person is on the line.

And I see that this is true. I see the possibility of giving myself and appreciating others in this land of symbols and images and words, this "digital continent" that is so revealing and obscuring, so full of lights and sounds and colors and pathways and signs that play upon (or strengthen and deepen) our longing to see in full the face that looks upon us with love.