Monday, March 31, 2014

Baseball at Last!

Adam LaRouche with a two run shot
O happy day! The baseball season has begun.

And the Washington Nationals staged a thriller against the Mets, beating them in a come-from-behind win at Citi Field by the score of 9-7. This was one of the most exciting opening games I've seen in a long time. There were tense duels between pitcher and batter, two out clutch hits, homers aplenty, and one final attempt by the Mets to come back that fell short.

It had the intensity and excitement of a playoff game in March. Yet it was only the first game of a long season. During this baseball season, John Paul will turn 17. How about a world championship for this faithful, long-suffering kid?

The weather here was pleasant, but New York had snowflakes in the morning and cold sunshine and wind during the game. But no lingering winter can remove the aroma of baseball as it begins its long run through the spring and summer months.

I've lived through more than forty baseball summers. I've seen the game get more complicated, more corrupt, and much more expensive. But the magic is still there. It still takes me back to spring days in 1972 when I was a child, or spring days in 2005 when John Paul was a child.

The child still lives, and is surprised by himself in these moments of wonder.

John Paul (age 8) and Daddy, ready for baseball, Spring 2005

Sunday, March 30, 2014

I Was Just Teasing. Please Don't Be Offended.

I'm always teasing. It's my disposition, and sometimes my effort to show love. Sometimes it's just a bad habit. It's just sloth: fear of the seriousness of life.

Often when people are expressing their frustrations with the ordinary problems of the day (either in conversation or in a post online) it seems natural for me to find something of the humor that runs like a current through all these things. So I tease a little; I try, perhaps, to "make light" because I see some lightness that's really there.

I also know that there is always the temptation to be flippant or dismissive or cynical. There is the temptation to twist humor into a way of evading or denying the impact of another person's suffering on myself. This temptation is strongest with people I know the best, with those who are -- in the most immediate sense of the term -- my "neighbors," my brothers and sisters.

I'm so sorry for all the times I've done this to my loved ones: to Eileen first (who is always quick to tell me to cut it out, thank God) and to my children. I'm sorry when I let amusement (or analysis) become a pretext for a lack of attention. I'm sorry. My dear loved ones, Eileen, my children (especially my quiet daughters), sometimes you may feel put off, but don't be... I love you all so much.

I'm sorry, my friends. I know that the burdens of the day are real. A moment of suffering is beyond measuring, and worthy of offering with Jesus. Precisely that one moment holds a mystery of suffering that encompasses your personal pain and your own cry for God. I always want to respect you, and live in compassion, to join with you in the loneliness of pain.

Humor would seem rather awkward here, but that is because I am awkward. I want to be compassionate, but I am powerless to help you by my own power. I can't reach you, because suffering (in itself) is incommunicable. How easy it is for words to bend in the direction of a dark cynicism or even a veiled rejection. Sometimes even mutual laughter is just noise to distract us from the silence of a resignation to the cheapening of life, or even to despair.

I'm sorry, my friends. I am a fallen human being. I am afraid of suffering. It is so easy to forget, in the moment, and to see nothing but the limitations of everything.

Only in Jesus can we share our sufferings. Jesus bridges all the distances and overcomes the limits of all things. He rises from the dead. I must remember Him and dwell with Him more deeply in my heart. There I shall find the strength for compassion and the healing salve of good humor.

I'm sorry to you also, my friends on the Internet. Especially in a combox, it's so easy to crack a joke that comes off the wrong way because you can't see my face. Winking and smiling emoticons are a poor substitute for a human face that wants to say, "We are together in Jesus. I don't know how to help, but we are together. Your suffering is my suffering, in Him. I joke because I feel awkward, because it's beyond my understanding, but also perhaps because the Risen Jesus already hold all of us and He doesn't want us to be gloomy."

I tease all the time, and it comes naturally. Life can seem melancholy but there's a line of humor through it all that remains like a glimmer of the irrepressible glory of creation, and the surprising miracle of redemption and the undying hope that comes from it.

I see in humor a reflection of God's mercy, and the utter gratuity of everything. Existence is a gift, and we will never be its masters. But the recognition of this restores innocence and awakens joy, and I just want to rejoice in the irony and the beauty of how we all exist, and we are all together, and we are each so peculiar, so ...unique.

And how we are, each and all of us, so dear to God.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Newsflash: Pope Goes to Confession Like Other Sinners

Pope hears confessions at St Peter's
Today there was a Penance Service at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Pope Francis preached about the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. "We are all sinners, but God never tires of forgiving us," the Pope said, as he has said on numerous occasions.

Many priests had taken places in the basilica to hear the individual confessions of the faithful after the service. As is usually in the plan at these events, the Pope himself took a place with other priests to hear confessions from a limited group of people who (I assume) are chosen in advance for this seemingly special opportunity.

But first, the Pope surprised everybody by doing something that was not in the program. Before taking his own place in the confessional reserved for him, Pope Francis took the initiative himself to walk over to another confessional where a priest was waiting to receive penitents. The priest was no one particularly noteworthy, nor did it appear that anyone knew in advance what was about to take place. But the Pope knelt down in front of the priest in the middle of St. Peter's and in front of the world's broadcast cameras and received the sacrament himself, making his own confession and receiving the grace of absolution.

The Pope has his own confessor, to whom he (no doubt) turns frequently to receive this sacrament in private. This is a common practice; soon-to-be-Saint John Paul II went to confession every week. Still, for a pope to kneel publicly in a church and concretely acknowledge his own sinfulness and his need for the mercy of God in this sacrament is a most unusual gesture.

Of course, it's entirely appropriate and exemplary. Perhaps it has happened before, but before the age of ubiquitous video, no one took much notice. Yet here it is, once again much to the surprise of the world.

A lot of people don't realize that popes go to confession to another priest, just like everybody else. Well, now they can see it for themselves.

Maybe some people will see this and decide that if the Pope can do it, they can do it too.

If video does not appear above, click HERE to view on YouTube.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Russian Troops, Western Sanctions, God's Peace

A buildup of Russian troops along the border of Eastern Ukraine continues, while the EU and the United States impose sanctions on Russian banks and key economic players as a response to Russia's incorporation of Crimea. It sounds like the situation is tightening up. Perhaps we will have war in the global village (or rather, more war, since there is already strife in Syria and many other places in the world).

But what would a major international conflict look like in the twenty first century? Someone would have to be the first to let hands go in the elaborate, interactive dance of the global economy. Perhaps this will be a war of economic attrition rather than bombs and battles (at least until someone gets desperate). We will probably develop strange new ways of wrestling with one another, while the great and terrible weapons of mass destruction lie idle or come into the hands of new powers who can then hold all of us hostage. Politics, ingenuity, or perhaps diplomacy may still yield all sorts of surprises. It's a new game. I don't know the rules. I'm far from sure that I even know who all the players are. Still, the essential human drama remains the same, as does the only human hope. Even in this present age, there will be peace only insofar as we depend upon the God of peace, the God of mercy.

"Will there ever be peace on this earth?" A Christian knows that, in a final and complete sense, the answer is "no". Peace comes at the end of all things. It is the New Jerusalem. Evil will endure as long as the present age endures.

A historian knows this too. Jesus concisely summed up the history of the world when He said, "there will be wars and rumors of wars...." The history of the world is largely a history of war.

But can we not desire peace, work for peace, pray for peace -- at least as much peace in as many places as frail human nature will bear? Certainly. "World Peace" is a phrase that leads easily to utopia, to dreams and abstractions. But peace among real people, in real circumstances, in a given period of time (precious time), is within the reach of human efforts aided by the God of peace. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

I have no solutions to offer for resolving any of the current conflicts that plague our world. There are the conflicts that are always in front of us, but there are other wars too, smaller ones that we don't hear about unless we really search through the news. And there are peoples who look upon each other across borders, and even within borders, as hated enemies.

What can I do to be a peacemaker in the world?

There is another beatitude that contains the key: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Mercy is the key to peace.

Peace with God, which is where it all begins. Peace within the family, in the parish, in the community, in work relationships, on the Internet...Peace in my world. Peace can radiate out from me, if I am a man of mercy, if I do the works of mercy.

What does this mean? It means a whole new way of looking at human weakness, human frailty, human failure, in myself and in those I encounter. The weakness of others, the faults of others, the capacity that others have to cause us pain by their failures and above all in their actions toward us--all of these things give birth to conflict, estrangement, and separations. They wound and break relationships. They divide us. They take root and establish the foundations of rivalry and the partisan spirit that so often afflicts our common endeavors.

Mercy changes everything. Mercy sees the weakness in others as a possibility to help, to give, to forgive, perhaps to endure through love. Mercy gives "space" to the other person for growth in love; mercy gives encouragement, extends empathy, seeks to build up--always--unity in truth and love. Sometimes, mercy must have the courage to fight, to break down resistance, to seek out those who have run away--but mercy never fights against the person; it always fights for the person, for their true good and against what hinders it.

Mercy seeks, especially in the face of human weakness and failure, for the constructive possibilities of love, of rebuilding what is human, of healing. Mercy is love's response to weakness, indifference, and even rejection. It does not take offense. It keeps on loving. It loves more.

But I cannot be merciful by my own power. I have received, and continue to receive, mercy from God. He is healing me, and it is only through Him that I can hope to be an instrument of mercy to others. It is only through Him that I will find the courage to suffer that weakness and failure in others and in myself that remains, for as long as it remains.

This is what builds peace: persons, families, communities, environments where mercy is given and received. This is the hope of peoples and nations: forgiving and moving forward, bearing one another's burdens, working together toward a common goal. Solidarity. Mercy. Even on the political level, the Christian proposal is the only reasonable and practical hope for human community: not another ideology of violence but a "politics of mercy."

All mercy flows from the Cross, where Jesus responds to all our violence and all our resistance by enduring it in His own body and giving it back to us as a gift of love.

Let us begin by opening our hearts to receive this Gift. Jesus I trust in You.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mary's Unique Name: The Grace-Filled One

Today is the wonderful feast of the Annunciation. In the midst of Lent, we pause to remember that the foundation of the value of any penance we do is the gratuitous gift of God who comes to dwell among us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the only-begotten Son of the Father has become incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

This is the astonishing, inexhaustibly new "news" that the angel Gabriel announces to a young girl in Nazareth, and to the whole world through her and the witness of St. Luke's gospel.

Inseparable from this revelation, however, is something else that the angel makes known. God has prepared a "place" for himself and his coming. The power of the Incarnation and Redemption "already" brings about in a perfect way the new reality, the new life that God wills to share with the world in giving his only Son.

For the announcement we celebrate today begins with the "angelic salutation" that we know so well. When we pray, "Hail Mary, full of grace" (cf. Luke 1:28) we echo those words. The original Greek text is "Chaire, kecharitomene," and many English language Bibles translate this as "Rejoice, O favored one." Indeed, the Greek "chaire" is well rendered as "rejoice," which is evocative of the messianic joy of "Daughter Zion" in the prophets (see Zephaniah 3:14). Perhaps from the Ave of the Latin Vulgate to the "Hail" of our classic Marian prayer something of the jubilant connotation is not so directly conveyed to us. It is present nonetheless, and it is worth remembering this moment of Mary's joy when we pray the "Hail Mary."

The term that follows, however, is quite precise and unique, even if those translations that use the term "favor" would appear to weaken its force or render its significance vague. The entire content of the Annunciation makes it clear that this is no ordinary "favor" of God. Mary is destined to carry the Holy One, to be "overshadowed" by the presence of God's glory, the Shekinah of the cloud and the fire that descended upon the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary of Israel reserved to the high priest in the ritual of atonement, the place where Moses spoke with God.

Moreover, "kecharitomene" is not a mere adjective but a substantive term, like a name. Mary is not just "favored" in a relative sense; she is "the favored one." And what kind of a "name" is this, and what more does it convey? Gabriel calls Mary kecharitomene. No one else in the Bible is identified with this term. No one. Translations can try to "tone that down" all they want; they can't take away the fact that the "chari" in "kecharitomene" is the "charis" of St. Paul, by which we are redeemed and justified and set free from sin and sanctified. Grace.

The new life. Mary not only "has" it; it totally penetrates her identity. She is the one who is graced. St. Jerome, who's Greek was pretty good, rendered this in Latin as gratia plena. Mary is "full of grace"--if anything the original Greek is stronger and more emphatic than this. It indicates a reality unique to Mary, that entirely encompasses who she is.

Mary is The Graced One; she is nothing else but this gift of grace, perfected by God from the beginning in view of the One who would take flesh in her womb, and with whom she would cooperate by her loving, grace-filled yes all the way to the Cross and to our redemption.

The angelic salutation and Mary's free response are mutual components of the mystery of the new covenant revealed on this day, the truth of human destiny, the full unveiling of the plan of God that already illuminates the joyful heart of Mary full of grace.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Oscar Romero: The Meaning of Death and Life

Photo by Leif Skoogfors. Used with permission.
On March 24, 1980, the Servant of God Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador was assassinated while celebrating Mass in the Divine Providence hospital chapel, where he also resided. In the present time, El Salvador honors his memory with a week of celebrations, and people continue to pray for his beatification.

Once again, I wish to remember this great hero of the faith on the American continent, this bishop whose blood was not spilled in vain, who showed the cost of courage, of putting the gospel of Jesus above all ideologies, of the Church's right and duty to openly denounce evils and call everyone to conversion and to be transformed by the merciful love of God in Jesus Christ.  
"The voice of the Church continues to be known and wants to be the voice that preaches the eternal message of the Lord. Despite the distortions and ill-will and slanders and defamation the voice of the Church wants to be that voice that from the heights of heaven draws all things unto herself so that we can speak about the meaning of death and life, the meaning of government and the struggle for just demands, the meaning of well-being and misery and living on the margins of society and the meaning of sin. The Church wants to speak about all these realities so that, illuminated with the vision of eternity, we make this earth what it was meant to be, a foretaste of heaven and not a war zone or a place where passions run wild. Indeed, as sisters and brothers, as children of God, we are all on a journey toward heaven, toward [Christ] the head of the body."
(from a sermon of Archbishop Oscar Romero, 1979) 
Blood stained vestments worn by Archbishop Romero on March 24, 1980

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Church of Saints, Sinners, and Hypocrites

"See, it's all there. Everything's fine."
The great French poet Charles Peguy wrote that the Christian people are always made up of "saints and sinners." It would be useful to introduce a third category: hypocrites.

The difference between the latter two is that the sinners appear just as they are, whereas the hypocrites -- while not usually trying to pass themselves off as saints (this would hardly look humble) -- spend a great deal of energy trying to convince others and themselves that they are not in the "sinner" category.

The hypocrite scrubs the outside of the cup forcefully and energetically. The world is not going to think it sees a saint, but the hope is that it will see a "good person," an admirable person, perhaps even a person who is "making progress in spiritual growth" and who therefore deserves some credit. Indeed, most hypocrites like to see themselves this way.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about (obsessing over?) hypocrisy, by which I mean above all my own lifelong pervasive hypocrisy in particular. I've been blessed to a great extent, however, by the fact that so often people are not fooled by me (even though I'm a master at fooling myself). They see the wildly incoherent mess that I am as a human being, but also the good that is mixed into it (often in qualities and actions that are not the focus of my attention, that I don't particularly nurture in my efforts to construct my outward appearance). They see it better than I do, because I'm desperately intent on fooling myself and I always at least partially believe the self-image that I try (or feel compelled) to construct.

Thank God, there are some people who love me anyway; they love the whole "package," and put up with my blindness as they try, gently, to lead me in the right direction. For me, there's no question that my wife ranks number one on the list of these people.

It's a patient and slow and long-suffering process for these people, to chip away at this hypocrisy that pains them because they can see how much it obscures the real beauty of the one they love. It's a great work of mercy.

Of course, I know I'm not the world's only hypocrite. Of the "saints, sinners, and hypocrites," the third category is probably the largest by far. Hypocrisy can be a complex thing. There are of course those who just plain fake exterior goodness because it gives them a disguise; it allows them greater freedom to rip people off and do all kinds of bad things without incurring suspicion.

But then there are very many of us who really want to be true heroes and saints. We see that it's good, it's beautiful, it's "what the world needs from us," but a subtle discouragement has worked its way into some deep places in our souls. We realize that we can't make ourselves be really, truly holy. And yet, that's the way we're "supposed" to be, and the way we really want to be.

So we try to do it on the cheap. We try to construct ourselves into the people we think we should look like. So many of us are building houses of wood with stone facades. There is real goodness in us, real aspirations, real gifts, but we try to use them to decorate the outside. And we are afraid to look any deeper than this exterior, this facade, because we want to believe in our strength; we don't want to see the naked, cold, hungry, lonely person inside that house. We are afraid of that person -- that unsolved riddle that is at the deepest core of ourselves -- because we don't know what to do that person, and we can't imagine that anyone else would want to love that person.

I know I'm being hypocritical in this way all the time, but I presume to use "we" in this context because I'm sure my experience is not uncommon. Who among us is not, in some way, in some respect, cheating (just a little bit?) in the project of building themselves? We're fibbing or we're faking or at the very least we're hiding the messy stuff. We're hypocrites.

Woe unto us?

What can we do? After all, the New Evangelization is all about witnessing with our lives, and so if our lives are a mess, shouldn't we at least have a strategy to try to make them look good, y'know so as to "attract people..."?

There is a place to start. There is that cold, hungry, sorrowful person inside us, that poor person. Let's not suffocate that person entirely. Let that person cry out to God. Let that place inside us where there are no illusions be a place that begs for mercy. There is that place where we recognize that we are a total need for Him, and from that place let us cry out and give the whole mess and the hypocrisy and everything else to Him.

He will build us up.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Janaros: What We Looked Like Ten Years Ago

I came across this picture in my archives and it was just too good to pass up. It was taken sometime in the early part of the year 2004. In other words, it's a picture of the Janaro family ten years ago.

Left to right: Lucia (3), Agnese (5), and John Paul (6) on the bottom row.
On top is Eileen holding Teresa (1) and me with the goatee I had back then.

There we are... or rather, there are 6/7ths of the family. Josefina did not yet exist. We could not even imagine Josefina, nor could we have guessed at all the things we would experience and endure in the coming decade. What a time it has been!

What will the next ten years bring? It's not much use trying to predict, much less control, the events that will shape our journey. Of course we must make assessments and judgments about the future and map out a course according to the circumstances that we will probably be facing in one form or another (such as, for example, seeing these four little ones through college and onto their vocational paths). There may be grandchildren in ten years. There will also arise many comic, tragic, joyful, sorrowful, and generally unanticipated aspects of our family life. The world we live in may be a very different place: better or worse, or probably both in diverse ways. And it's always possible that some of us or all of us may be gone from this earth ten years from now.

One thing we know for sure, and that is that whatever happens will be an invitation to embrace more fully the mystery of life, to say yes to the gift of everything and to the One who gives.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

St. Joseph's Day: Reflections on Being a Father

Detail of St. Joseph on our mantle at home.

Yesterday was the beautiful Solemnity of St. Joseph, who has helped me in ways beyond counting all through my life. Every day I pray to St. Joseph and entrust especially our family to him. He has never failed me, and he continues to teach me and sustain me. He takes such strong and gentle care of us, always bringing us where we need to be.

Every day, I thank him.

Yesterday was a day for pondering and praying about fatherhood. I found myself feeling a little sentimental. There was a Nationals' spring training game on TV (regular season starts March 31 -- GO NATS!). We're beginning our tenth season with the Nationals. I remember the year 2005, when John Paul was eight years old and we used to listen to the games on the radio. He hadn't yet become a baseball wizard, and sometimes I would doze off during the broadcast and then be awakened by this little boy shaking me and shouting, "Daddy, what happened?" The sound of loud cheering was coming through the radio. So I had to pay attention and figure out what happened.

And then I remembered myself, about four or five years old, listening to Beethoven's seventh symphony or Dvorak's cello concerto with my father. We were both "conducting" in their air with our hands. Thanks, Dad.

And I prayed to St. Joseph, and asked him to pray for me to the Lord, and obtain for me the grace to become the human person that I have been created and called to be. To be the man, the husband, the father that God wills me to be. To be the friend, mentor, and spiritual father that he asks me to be to those he entrusts to me (indeed, as I get older I see more and more how "spiritual fatherhood" encompasses so many of my relationships with people). To be the spiritual brother that God wills me to be, in some manner, to every person I meet, but especially to those I encounter on my daily path of life. To be a servant, to be helpful, to give encouragement and empathy and attention to persons. To be an instrument of God's mercy.

I pray to be the teacher, the writer, the seeker of truth and understanding that he has called me to be, with humility and also with courage and confidence. Whatever my circumstances, I do have work, and God is leading me into the places where he wants me to do this work.

I pray for these graces, and I ask St. Joseph to pray for me, because I need them. My vocation is infinitely beyond anything that I can accomplish by my own power. This is true of everyone. As fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, we are entrusted with new life in the Risen Jesus, to give and receive and share in his Spirit, as members of his body, the Church, with hearts that seek out every person and all the world.

We are entrusted with Jesus; we are called to give over our energies and aspirations so as to build "places" where Incarnate Love dwells in the world.

No one understands better what this means than St. Joseph. And he can help us so much. He is always ready to help.

St. Joseph, thank you.

Lord God, my Father, thank you for everything.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Winter Storm "Patrick" Makes the Day White

We continue to chronicle the wacky winter weather of the year 2014 with a special "St. Patrick's Day Edition." Do you see that shamrock over there with all of its lovely Irish green?

We didn't see any shamrocks yesterday. We didn't see any green yesterday, at least not outside the house. Yesterday we were treated to a foot of St. Patrick's Day White. If only it were the froth on top of a nice pint of stout. But it wasn't. It was more of the snowy stuff.

We're tired of the snowy stuff. Do you want to know how tired we are of it? I'll tell you: the schools were closed but the children were not happy about it!

The children are tired of snow days. They've built their forts; they've built their tunnels; they've built their snowmen; they've had their snowball fights and done their sledding. Teresa even went cross country skiing! Just look at these pictures, for example. Snow was still fun back in February:

Teresa's snow fort from FEBRUARY: a perfectly respectable time for snow.
Mess around with plastic sleds in FEBRUARY? Sure! (Teresa and Agnese)
Teresa skiing with friends: look at that happy face... three weeks ago!

All that's fine and lovely. But this is Virginia. It's supposed to be... ummm... what we call in America "the South"... and that means by mid March I expect to see something like this:

This is what I should be seeing around St. Patrick's Day: Our wild forsythias in bloom!

Instead, after almost a week of being tricked by nice warm temperatures, St. Patrick's Day brings us this:

No, no, no, this can't be right. Spring starts, like LEGALLY, this week!
So much for the free-spirited forsythia bush. Basketball? Heh, not today...

Enough is enough. This is why we don't live in Minnesota!

Still, weather is weather. I don't know if this has any relation to "climate change" (wasn't that supposed to make it warmer?--I know, it's more complicated than that; just attempting a joke). In the short run, what can we say? There's no one to blame. No place to file a complaint. And nice weather is not for sale.

Weather is not the only thing in these days that is reminding us that our real life is given to us, and that we do not make ourselves according to our own whims. If nothing else, there are air currents and moisture that affect us. When Spring finally comes, there will be things like flies. Flies! (Pascal remarks about how the annoyance of a fly buzzing in the ear is sufficient to prove that the human mind is not in control of reality [see Pensees 366].) Weather and flies, and other persons and the world with its nations and peoples and history and wars....

Perhaps we can still help change the hearts of people. We can pray and fast and bring the real strength of the spirit into play. But today's weather (at least) must be taken for what it is. And "what it is," on this St. Patrick's Day, is snow.

Oh, but it wasn't so bad. Eileen made a stew with chicken and cabbage and carrots and we had mashed potatoes, and there must have been some seasoning in it unknown to the Celtic peoples because it was very tasty!

And we did see a shamrock, in fact. Years ago we bought a small toddler sized tee shirt for a two year old John Paul. We were visiting friends in Boston's North End (i.e. the other ethnic neighborhood in that venerable town) and we found a little shirt with the saying "A wee bit Irish [not spelled out but represented by a shamrock] e tutti Italiano!" John Paul and the other kids all wore it when they were two or three years old.

Josefina is seven and a half. It still fits her:

She's one of "the wee folk"... but worth more than any pot of gold!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Hard Lives

Blankets... you don't wanna see me today
I'm in bed with my Tablet, and I have no idea what I'm going to write. Probably not much.

I feel like my brain hurts.

That makes no sense, of course. It's just a headache, and exhaustion and feeling run down mentally. I've been battling obsessions in the mornings again, from the moment I wake up. I use half a day's worth of my energy to get out of bed.

Today I didn't get out of bed.

I feel like my brain hurts. It's true that I have wacky neurotransmitters. And of course, I also have a chronic bacteriological infection that can cross the blood/brain barrier. So, is the Lyme flaring up? Who knows. I used to blame everything on Lyme disease, perhaps with good reason, but I want very much to believe that we've got that whole business in remission.

The headaches are strange. It's not an intense pain, but more like a draining thing and something that feels... like inflammation. I've had these every so often for years, since the Lyme came along. Eventually they go away.

What about OCD and depression? It's been a difficult winter. There are days (like today) when I feel like I'm walking very close to the edge, but I've been able to pull back. This scares me, frankly. I'm worn out from struggling against this, but I have no choice. Even on the edge, I've got to keep my balance.

I have plenty of respite, though. A lot of the time it's not so bad, and I'm okay if I pace myself and don't push myself too hard (or get too lazy). Sometimes, however, life pushes, and all you can do is spend whatever strength you have, and ask for help when it's needed.

We are a close family. But we're a family with a sick father. Of course, the kids are learning to appreciate their father in different ways and to be compassionate and all that. I know. But it's hard for them, and for their mother. It's not normal. I always write about the funny things, but we have a lot of challenges. And we're not saints. Life is hard.

Many people I know have had hard winters, with kids getting sick over and over again, with crazy weather, with men losing their jobs and women suffering miscarriages, with tragedies to endure. Many people I know have hard lives (everyone does, really, but sometimes things are going better than other times, and sometimes people carry secret burdens).

So we are all together in this, with Jesus.

But my mind is wandering, and I keep typing the wrong letters. I'm going to put this away now. I embrace you all. Let us pray for one another.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

One Year Ago Today: Habemus Papam!

Time is a very mysterious thing. Has it really only been one year?

One year ago today, a face appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. His name was familiar to only a handful of people.

For the rest of us it was a new encounter and the beginning of a new journey.

God bless you with many more years, Pope Francis!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Mirror, Mirror, Of My Self

This would be a good album cover, whoa...
For me, the computer is like an external mirror of my self. The way I often use its many nifty tools (including the Internet) is basically a reflection of the distraction and vanity of so much of my life. But it also presents to me some very vital possibilities for pursuing the path of my vocation, a path where Jesus accompanies me.

With respect to distraction, this powerful gadget doesn't help make things better. It contributes to the fragmented and incoherent character of so many moments in my daily lack-of-engagement with reality, my daily forgetfulness of the presence of Christ in front of me and his Spirit within my heart.

Still, Jesus has grabbed hold of me, burst into my history, and taken control. The Holy Spirit is at work renewing me, and yet there are vast spaces within me that have scarcely heard the echo of the news that he is here; dark and deep places that I don't even know about, but that weigh me down with the fear that still emerges from them.

And yet, the computer and the internet are tools of communication. They can be dynamic places for the creativity of a writer (and the procrastination of a writer, haha). They are a service to my work, and I must make the effort to use them well.

I can recognize my weaknesses and ask the Lord to change me and draw forth from me an attachment to the good, and the willingness to work arduously for it. But the process of all of this, the measure of "how well I'm doing" -- especially for someone like me, for whom illness has rendered the mind such a confusing place -- is something that I cannot easily assess. The Holy Spirit works in his way, in his time.

So I offer everything. I pray for the grace to do the work he wants me to do. And every day I fall short, and I pray for forgiveness and for a greater change of heart. I'm glad God is God, because he can use even my weakness. But this doesn't excuse me from that tension which is involved in the vocation to grow in virtue and charity.

How much we all need to ask Jesus for His grace and mercy.

And right here, with the computer and the Internet, we have tools through which we can remind one another and encourage one another.

Monday, March 10, 2014

To Ponder God's Immense Love

"In these days
the Church asks us to ponder
with joy and gratitude
God’s immense love
revealed in the paschal mystery,
and to live ever more fully
the new life we have received in Baptism....

"May this Lent, then, be a time
when, as individuals and communities,
we heed the words of the Gospel,
reflect on the mysteries of our faith,
practice acts of penance and charity,
and open our hearts ever more fully
to God’s grace
and to the needs of our brothers and sisters."

~Pope Francis

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Social Media and Lent: All or Nothing?

Some people have decided to "give up social media" for Lent. They're "off" Facebook or Google+ or whatever until Easter.

I respect this, and can appreciate why people might choose to do it. Lent is a season to go into the desert, to give our time to God, to withdraw from some activities (even ones that are good in themselves) in order to open up greater space in our hearts for silence, for listening to God. For some people, the simplest and most helpful thing to do is just turn off all the gadgets. Period. I would not want to discourage anyone who concludes, after prayerful consideration, that Jesus is calling them to draw closer to him by taking up this particular kind of solitude.

I do think that anyone who makes this decision, however, should consider carefully that it is not only a personal sacrifice (as if social media were the same as a television program or a preferred kind of food). To "give up" using communications media is to make ourselves unavailable to the persons with whom we usually communicate. When we make this sacrifice, we are asking them also to endure the loss of our presence through these media, to go without communication and companionship with us. This may be something they will have to accept, but it is also an important factor we should consider.

We must, of course, make every effort (not only during Lent) to use social media as instruments of genuine human interaction. If we are doing this (even imperfectly) then we are fostering real relationships with 100% real life human beings. We are sharing ourselves and our real companionship with them by means of these media. The fact that these are "virtual" media does not mean that the persons who use them are only "virtual" humans.

Communication, even by means of technologically refined media, remains an interaction between human persons and therefore calls us to give ourselves and to be receptive to others. This does not mean that it has to be something hard and painful. The fact that we enjoy and find a richness in using these media indicates they have the foundation of genuine human communication.

If we persevere online with a commitment to being faithful to our humanity and the humanity of others, we will find challenges and difficulties and the need to do hard things, such as the exercise of self-restraint, the courtesy that makes room for others, the endurance of misunderstandings, the willingness to admit when we are wrong and to forgive, and all the other elements of being human together.

Certainly, social media in a particular way lend themselves to remaining superficial, to the illusion of easy intimacy, and to giving less attention to more pressing personal and relational responsibilities. With God's grace, we have to recognize and struggle against these negative tendencies that the media allow by the very fact of their versatility, speed, and range. Nevertheless, these media also open profound and positive possibilities for communication and human interaction. We as Christians need to take responsibility for these positive possibilities; we need to cooperate with the grace of the Holy Spirit and make the effort to use these media for the good.

These are media that we can and do use for building real community among Christians and with others, for helping each other, for praying together, and (often unknowingly) for being present in some way to those who are lonely. We can be witnesses to one another, and even open up the luminous "missionary element" present in our daily lives when we share our joys and struggles, because the love of Jesus is at work within these very mundane joys and struggles. We can also consciously reach out to evangelize others, or we can be open to responding to new opportunities to travel paths with new people whom God may bring to us in various ways.

Of course we often use these media in a self-indulgent way (just as we often indulge our vanity in relationships we have with people we see offline everyday). A break of some sort can bring much needed silence and focus.

But is "all or nothing" the only possibility? Some may choose the option of "nothing" and ask us, their friends, to endure their absence as a share in their sacrifice. As true friends, we should embrace them in this and support them even if we do truly miss them.

Still, it doesn't have to be a question of all or nothing. There are many other ways that Lent on social media can be made meaningful.

We must remember that our presence here offers us the opportunity to practice "spiritual works of mercy" (not necessarily "talking about God" but even just being human here and helping others to have confidence that they are not alone in their struggles).

Certainly, there are other ways that social media can serve our Lenten observance of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Some people might consider more limited sacrifices: e.g. staying off three days a week as opposed to a complete blackout, or checking in less frequently each day, or putting aside the use of mobile devices. Perhaps people online might consider some group prayer or penitential practices, such as praying a Holy Hour every Wednesday or Friday at the same time (and encouraging one another in this), or choosing a common text for Lectio Divina and sharing insights, or perhaps agreeing to a special sacrifice for a common intention.

Social media do not have to be a distraction. They could actually help us to stay in front of God in a deeper way, not only during Lent. But we must first recognize and be committed to the fact that social media are not "mind candy" that at best we indulge in as a guilty pleasure, that serve as nothing but a distraction and therefore have no place in the seriousness of our life.

Whatever uses and/or sacrifices we make this Lent (or any other time) on social media and the use of technology more generally should be given proper consideration. They should allow for the enrichment of personal recollection and also help curb careless habits and develop an attentiveness in using these media for good. We should ask Jesus our merciful Lord to form our hearts with his grace as we seek charity -- the motive of love of God and of one another -- as the focus of our presence online.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ashes and Josefina

I got my ashes yesterday and so did everyone else in the family at different times and places... except for Josefina. She's still scared of the priest putting stuff on her head. We can't seem to convince her that it doesn't hurt.

It's ironic: this fragile little girl endured a lot of pain in her first year of life. It was seven months after her birth before she first breathed air outside of a hospital. Now she has all these diverse levels of growth and development as she continues to work through the consequences of those initial strange and dramatic circumstances.

Jojo and her Science Fair project
We were joking (not entirely) the other day about how Josefina is seven years old, but in her level of mental maturity she's more like a six year old; and then physically she's like a four year old, and socially she's like an eight year old or more! (Haha, it's so funny how she charms everybody, and how she can do a presentation -- even before grownups -- with such poise and confidence.)

Sometimes she just acts like a baby (of course).

Lately, she's getting better and better at reading, and sometimes when I listen to her I feel this overwhelming internal groaning sigh of relief and gratitude... and relief: Dear Lord, I'm so grateful that she's alive! It's like some stiff muscle deep inside me is slowly relaxing.


I guess I still have some "post-traumatic stress" over everything we went through with her, even after seven years. Most of the time, I don't even think of it. Josefina is just Josefina; she's our little hobbit. That first year all seems forgotten. But every so often something wells up in me, like I'm still unraveling all the tension that I wound up tight inside myself so I could get through those months.

It's so hard (in a very particular way for men, I think) to watch your child suffer and not be able to do anything about it. You stand there and the medical staff goes around and machines blink and beep, and your child is sedated and has tubes on her face and her body, and you can't do anything. You stand there and you feel like you might as well be a pile of dirt.

You feel helpless. You have emotions but (especially if you're a father and a man) you're probably confused about them and they don't even seem quite appropriate. The mother still has this obvious and aching (and sometimes tragic) connection to her baby. You have to support her, of course. And people help out, thank God, with keeping the rest of the family going.

You just want to drum up the energy to get everyone through it. Adrenaline, or (if you don't have much of that) sheer nerves are summoned to battle. You are going to do your best to clear away anything that interferes with the survival strategy. And human beings are astonishingly tenacious, and can do amazing things. But it takes its toll.

We are all returning unto dust, some more quickly, some more slowly.

Josefina has been closer to death, physically, than any of the rest of us. We kept trying to tell her that the ashes wouldn't hurt. But maybe she knows more than we do about the real significance of this gesture.

Or, more likely, she's just acting like a scared little kid (and she's just not past that stage of things, at least when it comes to stuff like a priest putting black dirt on her head). Or maybe it's some incomprehensible combination of unconscious, inaccessible infant trauma and the fact that she's still just a little tweety bird (and who knows what other factors, like genetics and personality, and...). We can't worry too much; we just have to do what we can to help her grow and learn step by step.

And the steps are worth taking, because no limitation is the final word -- about her or any of the rest of us. We may be returning to dust, but even now we know that we are being drawn forth anew from that very dust into an everlasting life.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Thoughts From Ash Wednesday... From 1991

Kid's head is in the clouds
I can't beat posting the reflections of a 28 year old graduate student named John Janaro written on Ash Wednesday 1991. He was mostly repeating theologians and philosophers and works of literature that he had read. And there's nothing wrong with that, because he was earnest and was engaged in a comparison of everything he learned with his own experience of life.

He was unaware of the fact that he had very little experience. But you wouldn't have been able to tell him that; he would have just thought, "Oh those people over 50 are always saying stuff like that. They sound like my parents."

Still, there was the essential experience of wanting to live, and that is what's at stake here. If anything, we over-fifty types can become a bit too "settled" with our acquired wisdom, and forget that underneath it all the fire of life still burns. We will never be satisfied with dust. If we think otherwise, then it's probably because we have not yet had the ultimate experience which comes only in the act of dying itself. Then we shall be stripped of all but the choice of sadness or a hope that burns its way to love.

God answers the longing that makes us human. I wouldn't say it that much differently today, I suppose. Perhaps the main difference would be that I am more convinced that Jesus is here for me, even if (and when) I can't put anything into words.

I also know a little more about how real and how hard this all is (both death itself and the efforts to evade it), and how much in need I am of the mercy of God.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Make Us Vessels of Your Mercy

Lord, give us peace in our hearts. Give us peace in our families. Give us the grace to build one another up in love, and bring this love to the world.

Jesus, give us the grace to be instruments of your infinite mercy, which is the answer to every person's need, in every situation.

Open our hearts that we might hear your call to us in every moment: to be living vessels of your mercy. 

Give us the desire to live the mystery of your mercy, which is the measure of every moment we live, every action, every encounter with every person.

By your Holy Spirit, fill us with gratitude for the glory of the Father's infinite mercy and love.

We want to love him, to be instruments of his mercy, to radiate his love to others. Of course we fall short and fail in all of this every day, but we keep getting up, we keep begging for His grace to grow in us, we do not become "satisfied" with anything less, and we do not give up.

Monday, March 3, 2014

War Begins in the Heart

Today, the world seems a little more dangerous. And not only because Russia has invaded Crimea.

War is everywhere. It begins in the heart. Indeed, I see the roots of war within my own heart. Saint James articulates the whole thing very simply in the New Testament. We all know that this is true:
"Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts" (James 4:1-2).
Saint James tells us to pray. And we must not pray selfishly; rather in prayer we must surrender ourselves to God. We must give our hearts to God, because he knows what we are really seeking. The face of Jesus looks upon us to help us remember that God is infinite mercy. He wants to give us himself, and in him we shall receive everything. He wants us to trust in his wisdom and love. He wants us to trust that his mercy holds each of us in our depths, and is shaping us according to his designs.

When we forget about God, however, our hearts lose their way. We begin to think we are alone with nothing but the insatiable hunger inside us, and we begin to grasp for whatever is at hand. We crave and covet and we trample upon one another in the desperate effort to find satisfaction.

We make alliances, gather into groups and factions; we surrender our own identity to some designation: a party, a nation, or a social group that seem to contain the promise of power -- a power that can bear us forward and bring the terrible, implacable desire of our hearts to that mysterious place of fulfillment. Or else we try to obliterate the anguish that we find when we look within ourselves; we look for things, persons, causes, and powers that can substitute for our own person, that can allow us to escape from the self so full of needs, so impoverished.

Is it a surprise that we have war? We make war in our families, our work places, our communities, our society, our culture... every day.

It is true that sometimes we fight for justice. We fight to defend the good, to help the poor, to protect the vulnerable. But even here, if our hearts forget God we will lose sight of the real meaning of what we are fighting for, and we will be tempted to turn it into a struggle for our own cause, for the triumph of what we want and what we think we must grasp by our own power. If our hearts forget God, we will turn to violence, and even if we talk all the time about God, and call ourselves "soldiers of God," our fight will degenerate into a desperate, violent effort of self-exaltation. We think we are serving God, but really we are trying to escape from the radical need for God that cries out within us because we are afraid to give ourselves to him. We are afraid to trust in him.
But wait! It's too hard to trust in this "God." Where is he? Really! There have been times when I've had deep religious feelings and I've just "known" that God is there, but then those feelings go away and I'm left high and dry. I know, I'm supposed to have "faith," but what the heck does that mean? Faith in what? It's all well and easy to say, "God loves me," and "God is infinite mercy holding the depths of me," but those are words. Where the heck is he right now?
I know what this desperation is like. We all do. And the world is full of it. It's deep deep down in everyone, even in the most screwed up people.

And what about the God of infinite mercy, who knows us better than we know ourselves, who loves us with the love that is the source and sustenance of the originality of our being, of each one of us? Does he not know this question? Will he not answer it?

As Christians, we profess that God indeed has answered the need of our hearts. He has made himself present in a human way; he has entered the human condition and transformed it from within. He has come to us, and he remains with us.

He is Jesus.

"But where is Jesus right now?" That is a good question. Jesus is with us, and his presence is what changes us. We don't change ourselves by talking about Jesus (and, inevitably, arguing about him). And we are tempted to reduce his discrete presence to our thoughts and projects about him.

Still, his human reality stays "in front of" us. He is present and reaches us in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit through the human reality of his Church. Through the Church, Jesus teaches us, leads us, and touches us concretely in the sacraments. He invites us to approach him in prayer and love, to be united to him by the Holy Spirit as sons of the Father.

He changes our hearts.

Even here, God understands us. He knows we change through time, often slowly. He knows that we can even reduce "the Church" to a routine, or a mere compartment of ourselves. Worse, we can take human elements of the Church and use them badly; we can use them as pretexts for manipulative or destructive behavior.

But not entirely. Jesus remains with us. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon the earth, and works mysteriously in the heart of every human person, leading them to the One for whom they have been created. Every circumstance of every person's life in invested with meaning and value, as the mystery of God's love seeks always to draw each person to himself. On the cross, Jesus has given to each person a love that remains, within and beyond every suffering, every limitation.

Jesus remains with us. This is the great promise of the sacraments, and in particular the Eucharist. Everyone else can be forgetful, and the priest who says Mass can be an incoherent man or even a dangerous man, and still Jesus gives himself to me in the Eucharist. Are the people ignorant, distracted, unfaithful? Is the priest a villain? The Eucharist is still Jesus himself.

Jesus remains with us, constantly provoking our lives. He looks upon us each day and begs for our love through the persons he has placed in our lives. The "neighbor" -- the person who is "near" us -- constantly knocks upon the door of our own limits and preoccupations, asking from the need that rises from his or her heart. The person near me is Jesus. The person near me is my brother, my sister, my companion. We are called to help each other. "Love one another." Jesus has promised to be with us through this mutual love, to build communion among us and with him, to build peace.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Drums of War

Russian soldiers enter Crimea to "protect Russian nationals." President Putin receives authorization from Russian Parliament to use military force in Ukraine.

"On March 1, 2014 the Russian military invaded Ukraine, and the war began...."
This is a sentence that I hope and pray will NOT be written in history books of the future. At this moment, it is still possible to hope....

We cannot imagine what the strange unfolding of the 21st century will bring. The human race has scarcely begun to come to grips with the implications of the unprecedented material power we hold in our hands.

We really have no idea what might happen in a major regional or global war. We are more ignorant than the enthusiastic young men of Europe in 1914, who rushed into battle with their shiny bayonets and were met by machine gun fire.

Peace depends on the grace of God, and a new kind of heroism: a heroic restraint, understanding, communication, savvy, civility, courage, and wisdom.

We must pray for the Lord to raise up heroes, and we must try -- within whatever seemingly insignificant circumstances we may find ourselves, and with trust in God -- to be heroes.