Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Invasion of the Blue Jays

I think people are probably in the mood for some bird-watching. We were practically invaded by blue jays in the past few days. It was a bit noisy but I got some awesome pictures.

Like this!

...and this!

And this!

And this!


And don't think that these big blue jays were just hanging around posing for pictures. They were aggressive. It was soon clear that their behavior had a distinctive purpose.

They were keenly aware of the presence of a predator. And they exemplified the old saying that "the best defense is a good offense." They took turns chasing, squawking, and standing guard.

But what "predator" could they possibly fear outside the front of our house?

Actually, this one... poor, lazy old Reep!

The next morning it became clear why these birds were determined to turn Reepicheep into a nervous wreck. We found a couple of little jays flitting about and scuttling along the fence, stretching their growing feathers.

The strategy worked, as this picture of a terrified Reepy makes clear. She just wanted to be left alone, poor cat.

Monday, June 29, 2015

"Love," "Freedom," "Dignity": What Do They Mean?

As June draws to a close, I am drawn to reflect upon the profound and crucially important continuity between the teaching of Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si' and that of his recent predecessors in the Petrine ministry.

It is striking to reflect upon the prophetic witness of the successors of Saint Peter to an authentic view of the human person, a view that is so important for shedding light on many problems of our time. This testimony by the popes and the bishops of the world in union with them, drawn from the providential insights of the Second Vatican Council, continues to be a beacon of light for those who are searching for what it means to be a human being in the midst of the expansion and development, the wild upheaval, the chaotic shifting and tumult of this period in human history.

So often we articulate deeply diverse proposals for human life in this world using the same words, such as "dignity" and "freedom" and "love," or "growth," "progress," "community," "relationship," "maturity."

How is it that we use the same words to express radically different approaches to human life and human activity? Perhaps we use the same words with different meanings. Or maybe sometimes we use the words, but without their necessary context, which results in their losing coherence and even being manipulated.

How do we know the meaning of these words that we use to speak about the human person? This question points out the great significance of the prophetic witness of the popes and the Church in our time.

The popes who have shepherded the Church during the gradual emergence of the post-modern world -- this yet-unknown New Epoch of global interdependence, unprecedented human power, and the need for a new and deeper responsibility -- have stressed the same crucial points about the dignity of human persons, their dependence upon God, and their place in the world created by God.

At the end of this post are some passages taken from a homily of Pope Saint John Paul II over a quarter of a century ago (1989). John Paul has the same concerns as Francis, as these and many other passages from his teaching make clear.

In particular he points to a foundational and defining issue that Francis also identifies, and that I wish to unfold briefly here in this post. It is the attempt to articulate human freedom and responsibility without reference to the deepest truth about the human being, namely that the human person is radically given to his or herself. The human person is created by God.

If we forget God, if we live as if God did not exist, we let go of the fundamental basis for everything we say about ourselves. We may use the same terms -- human dignity, the human person, freedom, relationship, love, happiness -- but these words only have meaning in the context of an understanding that we are created persons.

Remembering that we are created persons means affirming the radical relationship with God that originates and sustains the gift of existence that expresses God's love for each of us, the love that gives me to myself.

And it affirms the call from God, the human vocation that leads us to the fullness of our true identity as unique human persons by bringing us to the fulfillment of love and freedom with Him.

Insofar as we forget that we are created persons and "live as if God did not exist," however, our words about ourselves drift away from their genuine significance. The same vocabulary -- human dignity, the human person, freedom, relationship, love, happiness -- becomes unmoored from basic human experience, and the true elements of our perception of reality begin to fragment.

When we forget that we are created persons, we shake the foundation of our being. We attempt to withdraw ourselves from the central relationship that defines us. Thus, a variety of confused perceptions, prejudices, emotional reactions and fears can easily become mixed into our understanding of ourselves and therefore into what we mean by the words that refer to the human person and core human values. 

The same words can thereby take on different meanings. They can become pretexts for desperate efforts of self-affirmation, or defensive words that we use to protect our ever-widening isolation from others whom we mistrust, or whom we wish to avoid because of divisions, resentment, emotional pain, or just ordinary selfishness.

Thus, it is not difficult to find ourselves in solitude and plunged into an incomprehensible and radically unstable experience of life.

We may endure this agonizing loneliness and confusion for a time. Usually, however, we seek out or stumble upon others who we think can support us in defining our identity. But we cannot understand ourselves if we seal off our own existence from the absolute, secure Source that establishes and sustains us.

Too often we have forgotten that Source, or pushed Him to the margins of our awareness. We have reduced Him to an abstraction or perhaps domesticated Him into a background figure who provides comfort, whose agency is limited and defined by our own measure. Or, we have never known anything about Him, and have never responded to the provocations in life that could have awakened our interest in seeking Him. We can thus become closed off, confused, anesthetized, or asleep in front of reality.

Insofar as we fail to live some kind of vital openness to this all-good, loving, creative, radically affirming Source of our human dignity -- the Source of the real identity and preciousness of each one of us -- we live without roots. We become disconnected from the original dynamic impetus that constitutes our freedom and makes our lives human: the search and the desire for the Mystery that sustains everything.

When peoples and cultures cut themselves off from this search, they lose the sense of who they are. They attempt to "search for their own selves" but they don't know where to look, and they often conclude that their only hope is to create their own "value," using various inadequate or even arbitrary criteria.

How often we live this way today, trying to invent ourselves and invest ourselves with value. But this is an anxious, distressing, and ultimately futile project. Life "works" only to the extent that we recognize and live with a vital awareness of the gift that originates and sustains reality and ourselves -- the gift that bestows meaning, and that awakens and draws forth our fascination with everything, our wonder at the beauty of things, the universe, and our own tremendous being as created persons.

Nevertheless, we forget, and we are tempted to try to manipulate the world and ourselves. We try to create the meaning and purpose of our lives -- our identity -- relying solely on our own ingenuity, impulses, and whims. We may succeed in putting on a spectacle, but we cannot generate satisfaction or any enduring confidence with these self-definitions. We will always be haunted by the anxious sense of precariousness, fragility, and ultimately the failure of our inadequate projections. We may be able to suppress this from our consciousness and skim through our days on the surface of shallow satisfactions, but it always remains beneath our awareness like an awful, gaping hole: "This is not real. This is not who I am. This is not... enough!"

Thus, when we live the project of self-invention and self-validation, we also live (paradoxically) with a desperate hunger for affirmation from others. Seldom do we try to stand alone in the madness of an openly anarchic affirmation of ourselves by ourselves. We feel the need for affirmation from others. We want to hear that we are good, that we have value, that we deserve to be loved. This need for affirmation is profoundly human, but it becomes distorted when we subject it to our project. We start to measure the authenticity of affirmation from others -- the genuineness of the love others offer to us -- by whether or not it endorses the artifice of our limited, self-conceived identity and the ideas implicated by it.

This distortion of the need for affirmation leads us to search for places and groups outside ourselves that correspond to and support our ideas. Or, in times of confusion, we look for places where the affirmation of others resonates with our fractured self-image, but also seems to restore roots to our existence. Eventually we are willing to allow the affirming group to impose its own definition on us. We come to depend on this group-identity for a sense of coherence in life and for our understanding of the meaning of being human.

There are no lack of places, groups, and human social constructions that we can adhere to in this dysfunctional way: political structures, ideologies, nations, tribes, cults, corporations, social status, wealth, entitlement, resentment, and lifestyles that appear to satisfy but in reality thwart the actual humanity that has been given to us. We take up whatever seems to feed this need for affirmation, and we set ourselves against anything or anyone that appears to threaten it.

When this happens, there is no more room for discussion of what our words about "human person" and "dignity" and "love" actually mean. Instead we form into factions, seek security in our power, and inevitably make war against our rivals. Even the beautiful word "peace" becomes a mask for violence when we try to live as if God did not exist.

It is entirely different if we remember God, the Living God who creates us, holds us, loves us with an unshakable firmness, crafts each one of us down to the depths of our own freedom.

When we remember that the Good God is the Source of who we are, then we turn to Him, we seek Him, we open up to the mystery of our own destiny, we beg Him to show us His face, and we trust in Him.

Then we begin to discover the reality of our own identity, our dignity, and our greatness. We begin to become truly free.

Here are selections of the homily of Saint John Paul II given on June 4, 1989:

God is all-holy, he is the Creator who gives us life and who makes all that exists in the universe. We are creatures and his children, in need of healing because of our sins.
[Yet] it is easy to lose sight of the Creator, from whose loving hands all things come. It is easy to live as if God did not exist. Indeed, there is a powerful attraction to such an attitude, for it might seem that acknowledging God as the origin and end of all things lessens human independence and places unacceptable limits on human action. But when we forget God we soon lose sight of the deeper meaning of our existence, we no longer know who we are.
Is it not fundamental for our psychological and social well-being to hear God’s voice in the wonderful harmony of the universe? Is it not in fact liberating to recognize that the stability, truth, goodness and order which the human mind increasingly discovers in the cosmos are a reflection of the unity, truth, goodness and beauty of the Creator himself?
A radical challenge facing the human family ... [today] is to use the earth’s resources wisely and responsibly, which means with respect for the limits to which these resources are necessarily subject. To do this is to respect the will of the Creator.
And in human affairs the challenge is to build a world of justice, peace and love, where the life and equal dignity of every human being, without discrimination, is defended and sustained. To do this is to recognize the face of God in every human face, and especially in the tears and sufferings of those who long to be loved or justly treated.
Every act of goodness is an important contribution to the changes we all wish to see.... All our good actions constitute a victory for justice, peace and human dignity. But our selfishness and lack of moral courage lead to the persistence and even strengthening of injustice in the world.
The entire Good News of our salvation [is a] witness to the wonderful Gift of God himself, expressed in the Word of life. God bestows on humanity an absolutely free gift – a share in his own divine nature. He endows his creatures with eternal life in Christ.
Man is graced by God... far beyond anything that [we by ourselves] could humanly achieve or even desire, for the gift is truly supernatural. The wonder of this gift is that it makes it possible for us to achieve the object of our deepest longings: to live forever in intimate union with God who is the source of all good.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Human Person: What a Mess!

The human person. Image of God.

Made from dust. Destined to return to dust.

Redeemed by the grace of the God who took the dust and made it His dust, raising it up to eternal life.

This is the truth. I believe it. I believe -- which is to say I know with certainty -- that this is the truth.

This certainty is a gift from God.

It is not up to me or anyone else to change the truth that He has given to the world. Nor would I want to change a single iota of the truth, because it is here that I find the mercy and the love that I need.

The human person. What a mess!

Who can understand the heart of a human person? I know, from my own experience -- from my own suffering and from the suffering of those I love -- something of the hindrances, the obstacles, the feebleness of enfleshed human intelligence and human freedom.

The opaque afflictions of the bodily person lead to the confusion and the interior realm of misperception that limit us and so often hinder our judgment. Due to various disorders we've only begun to understand, we are born with brains and nervous systems and endocrine systems and other systems that are off balance, "tilted," more or less dysfunctional in a myriad of ways.

We all enter into a world of relationships with other people who have more or less the same dysfunctions, people who also have a history of living with their problems and dealing with the struggle of trying to be together in the world. They make judgments and act freely, thereby a growing a little in love or becoming more selfish and destructive (or moving back and forth between the two). But real people think and choose inside a thick fog while carrying a lot of weight.

Intelligence and freedom are not lost, but they are often obscured (to a significant extent) because they are incarnate in a broken human frame and pass through all the afflictions of a distorted human life.

We think and act, indeed. But it is difficult.

We Catholic Christians know that at the root of this dysfunction is original sin. Jesus died to free us from the sin of Adam, and baptism frees us from original sin and all other sins. Still, the "effects" of original sin remain in us at various levels of our humanity.

We Christians engage in the struggle and the journey of life along with our non-Christian brothers and sisters, who do not yet know that they too have been redeemed by Jesus and are living within the context of the profuse, mysterious action of His grace.

If we have truly encountered Jesus, then we long for them also to see His beautiful face. With all our faults and weakness, we aspire to live in such a way that His glory shines through us. But the "results" of our witness are in His hands, and we must trust in Him because He holds the destiny of us all, of each and every human person with immeasurable and ineffable love.

Meanwhile, we all journey together in this life, and we are all broken.

Original sin darkens the intellect and weakens the will, certainly. But it also makes us sick. Physically sick. Disoriented. "Off-balance." Afflicted. Passing from generation to generation in pain. Sweating to bring forth thistles and thorns from the earth.

We all suffer from a terminal illness. We are all dying.

And we are all stunted as human beings by a subtle and diffuse distortion of perception and emotion. Most of us struggle to overcome this condition. A few stand out in extraordinary ways, as "saints" or heroes. Others live flawed but beautiful and admirable lives. A great number of us (I hope) just keep working at it, trying move forward. We make the best choices we can. We fail, we make mistakes, we acknowledge them, we take advice from others, we keep trying, we build up the good in ourselves and others.

Sometimes others can see that we've made some progress.

Sometimes, however, this stunted, "chronic and terminally ill" human condition can overcome a person even in spite of their best efforts; it can be as powerful as the acute disorientation that we recognize when a person has a great fever or a massive brain seizure. This sickness, in reality, is a kind of "brain damage" that we don't yet fully understand.

It is the crisis brought on by those diseases that we classify as "mental illness."

But often our poor feeble human frame undergoes more subtle convulsions that we don't perceive on the surface of our lives. The pain is deep down in the layers of memory, wound up with hormones and the whole emotional structure, with the nervous system and the brain and its tangled neurological arrangements, or with other more obscure aspects of our humanity that we have not discovered or about which we can only guess.

Humans get sick, grow old, and weaken. We experience this in various ways at various times in ourselves and/or in those we love. We all carry great burdens.

We are all suffering.

The road is difficult. Human freedom, nevertheless, is real. It is woven into all of this mess. The love of Jesus is also real, and it is offered to us within all of this mess.

Our lives therefore, are inescapably dramatic. Love is always possible in this life. So too is sin. We know this if we are honest with ourselves. We know when we have freely chosen to do something that is evil. The weight of our human condition may diminish the blame we deserve, but we still know that we must take responsibility for the things we do wrong.

We must examine ourselves honestly, and repent of our sins.

It is true that our myriad human afflictions can reduce (in various ways) our measure of responsibility for the evil that we do.

But nothing in our particular human condition can turn evil into good. If something is morally destructive in itself, there are many aspects of our burdened humanity that can make it less destructive for us. But there is nothing that can make it good for us.

If our misery drives us to plunge deeper into more kinds of misery, this is a sorrowful event that should evoke compassion, solidarity, and the effort to help. We deserve this solidarity, each one of us, because we are human beings!

But we cannot use our misery to justify ourselves. It doesn't work. We remain miserable. Even if the whole world told us we were happy, would it make any difference, really?

Self-justification is a project that ends in despair.

It doesn't help, however, simply to point this out. Because we all remain broken and in need of healing. We need healing.

Jesus is the gift that brings healing and hope.

Jesus heals us from our sins and begins to heal the brokenness all the way through us, to lift up our humanity, to empower our freedom, and to enable us to embrace the mysterious path of suffering for ourselves and others.

Our destiny is the glory of God, and His glory is a healed and transformed humanity in which we are brothers and sisters of Jesus forever right down to our bones and nerves and tissues, right down to the delicate and exquisite balance of all our parts, to the depths of spirit and mind and heart and flesh and blood.

The human person: alive and whole forever. Filled up and flowing out with joy.

The hope for every human person is Him. God wants each and every human person to be beautiful and whole forever, and He has promised to bring us to this integral fulfillment when we trust in His Son Jesus.

This is the hope that enables us to taste even now the promise of fulfillment. This is the hope that generates the compassion which we are called to have for one another, the interest in life, the building up of the good in this world, the struggle to move forward without being crushed by our own burdens.

In all things, this is our hope.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Without Him, We Labor in Vain

"Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city,
the guard keeps watch in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
when He pours gifts on His beloved while they slumber."

~Psalm 127:1-2

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Just an "Ordinary" Anniversary?

On our nineteenth wedding anniversary, we went out for an early dinner, had good food and some laughs, and then returned home to watch Team USA's women's world cup match. Last year, the men's team lost a thriller on our anniversary, but our ladies came through with a win yesterday.

And I said to Eileen, "I had such a lovely time with you today." Sometimes the days are so busy, exhausting, frustrating, or self-absorbed that we can forget what a wonder it is that we are together.

Marriage is a vocation. That means that it is difficult but good, and that it always raises new challenges.  It also means that there is grace! It's not "cheap grace"--we have to ask for it and ask for it, again and again, day after day. Not because God is stingy, but because we have to keep making room to receive His gift.

The gift of grace is abundant. Grace is at the center of marriage. It's not "magic"--it doesn't "fix" the other person or the circumstances in such a way that everything becomes easy. It generates the possibility of love, even in the most difficult circumstances, and it builds new ways of looking at everything: the trials and also the joys, the past, the present, and the future.

It builds slowly, day by day. Week by week. Month by month. Year by year.

All this history together that began as friendship, grew into a singular intense affection, then a commitment for life, and then... life, with its shared experience and shared transformation when, by the touch of God, new faces looked at us and we grew together as parents of children who are each unique in themselves.

The children grow, their needs change, and then we have that renewed wonder of watching them take their own places in the world even as they carry our hearts with them.

All of this slow building is the working out of a beautiful and mysterious life that means more than we understand. We are granted glimpses of it, enough to keep us going, to sustain in us the sense that all the ordinary moments have meaning.

This vocation, this relationship of marriage, is so mysterious and so real.

It is an education into the fact that reality itself is mysterious, arduous, sometimes overwhelming but also good, wise, and worthy of trust. I would have to lose my reason and become delusional in order to deny that Eileen and I belong together and are called to walk the road together all the way to the end.

We live in delusional times, however, which is all the more reason we are grateful for the sacrament of marriage with all the grace that transfigures the mystery of daily life. The grace of the sacrament enables us to remember that reality is full of a promise that has already begun to be fulfilled. In the taste of that fulfillment we find the strength to work together, to forgive each other, to remember who we are, to get up when we fall and keep going forward with hope.

Of course, we forget about grace in the flow of the day. Grace is at work nevertheless. Let us thank God for the moments that we remember, and ask that those moments might increase. In spite of how it may seem at the beginning, the grace that builds up married life is not a great wind or a roaring fire. It is the sound of the breeze, and the still, small voice.

Marriage is a sacrament, and through it the Crucified and Risen Jesus draws us into His love, and calls us with His voice, saying, "Do not be afraid."

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Laudato Si' ... What it Means For You and Me

I finished reading the entire text of Pope Francis's majestic encyclical letter Laudato Si', which -- I would say -- is about the place of the human person, human cultures, and the human race in the whole of the created universe.

That is the most concise way that I can express the scope of the document and its pervasive wisdom.

All I have for now are some preliminary reflections, along with the observation that the encyclical deserves many more hours of study and prayerful reflection. It also demands a conversation with my brothers and sisters in which we all aspire to grow in our way of perceiving reality.

The basic challenge of this teaching is to convert our minds and hearts so that we might see things (more and more) as they really are.

Like Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and Paul VI before him, Francis focuses on a conception of the human person that prevails in our time. It is the fruit of a pervasive mentality that renders profoundly ambivalent certain aspects of the amazing and often genuinely useful structures that human ingenuity has brought forth from the physical world.

The problem is not that we use our reason to understand the created world around us and to develop its potentialities in such a way that the world becomes a more human place. Francis, like his predecessors, recognizes and appreciates all the genuine achievements of technological progress.

The problem is that we do not always shape the capacities of the material world wisely. Indeed, how can we deny that human reason has too often gone awry in its conception of the human person and in its engagement with the world?

We have allowed the infinite desire of our hearts to be turned away from the reality of God and have sought to satisfy it by the acquisition of material goods and the exercise of power over one another and the created world. This fact leads Pope Francis to indicate a dimension of what Benedict XVI called "the dictatorship of relativism," namely practical relativism -- the ideology that dominates and justifies our technological interventions in the physical world, including our own bodily persons (see Laudato Si' 122).

Practical relativism approaches reality and seeks to manipulate it in order to bring about immediate, tangible satisfactions, without regard to the larger common good of human persons present and future living in a world created by God for His glory. We use reality in the attempt to "feed" the human heart, instead of engaging reality in a way that draws our hearts out beyond their immediate space and toward our destiny in communion with one another and the world.

Wonder is thus replaced by the obsession with consumption, and the vocation of the person to love is buried by the artificial deflection of the heart toward the excessive and distorted acquisition of possessions. Not surprisingly, humans are not satisfied by these possessions. They constantly seek more, and are always ready to replace old (and now boring) artifices with newer ones.

This is at the heart of the throwaway culture that Francis always speaks about.

The corollary to the "consumer-person" is the exaltation of the value of the "producer-person." People are valued in terms of their talent for manipulating reality and marketing it to disordered human appetites. Especially powerful are those who can promise quick and easy satisfactions by manipulating the reality of the human body itself, particularly in those bodily aspects that are distinctively expressive of the person.

Our culture today embraces relativism, but insists that its ethic is not a total relativism. Rather, it is said, any kind of human action is permitted as long as it does no harm to other humans. The Church has always insisted that acting contrary to creative wisdom of God inherent in reality (a.k.a. the "law of God") always does harm to human persons.

Too often, however, the devastating harm is not immediately perceived. The lure of partial and reductive gratifications of disordered desires often blinds us to the catastrophe of losing our connection with God and our perspective on reality. Thus we do not perceive the corresponding, inevitably unfolding process that leads to the disintegration of ourselves, the affliction of suffering on others, and the destruction of the created world.

Today, the created world is showing signs of the destructive behavior of human beings, signs that are difficult to ignore. Pope Francis has thus written an encyclical about ecology. There is much to say about the profound theological significance as well the widely perceived need for this approach. One thing that should be noted is that Francis, like Benedict before him, wants to direct and give adequate context to the ecological awareness that is emerging in the "post-modern" world.

The Pope appeals to certain prominent and deeply disturbing scientific studies of the environment, not to support some secular political agenda, but to exemplify a basic problem as it is widely perceived. Things are happening in the natural world that require our attention and concern.

It's possible that the particular details, projections, and modes of investigation of the present scientific consensus may change, but what is more crucial is the fact that the secular culture (however confusedly) is beginning to realize that human power does not have decisive control over the world. This means that empirical science and technology cannot solve every problem. They cannot excuse us from the task of making judgments of what is true and good.

There is, in fact, a reality in front of the human person. The human person is not the demiurge who constructs the universe out of otherwise meaningless cosmic stuff. The human person is not the ultimate authority over reality. We must attend to reality and act according to what we judge to be the genuine good, even if it is not easy, even if it goes against the grain of our immediate desires or our grand schemes.

In fact, reality is suffused with a beauty and a "wisdom" of its own. It is a gift to the human person, who can recognize this wisdom, wonder at its beauty, and work with its potentialities to foster an environment that points more profoundly to truth, goodness, beauty, justice, love, and freedom.

The dominant secular culture finds itself confronted with the experience of objective responsibility. There is an awakening, here, to the objective foundation of the fundamental human impetus to do good and avoid evil. "Do good" apparently cannot be reduced to "Do whatever I want as long as it doesn't seem to hurt anybody else." It cannot be reduced to "Do whatever we have the power to do, as long as people have an appetite for what we produce."

"Do good"... is a moment of openness to the Mystery that human beings do not determine, the Mystery that we seek. It is a moment of grace. As Pope Francis states:
"We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts" (Pope Francis, Laudato Si' 205).
Of course, the history of "grace at work deep in our hearts" is often a bumpy path full of obstacles and dead ends. God is patient. Not surprisingly, the secular culture -- struck by the mystery and the urgency of goodness -- often draws wildly wrong conclusions from this recognition, and then busily constructs utopian or reactive ecological ideologies. Pope Francis is entirely aware of this problem and its destructive potential, and he points it out many times in the encyclical. For example:
"Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence" (Pope Francis, Laudato Si' 119).
Francis speaks instead (and often) of the interrelationship of everything, founded upon the fact that everything is created, everything receives its being through a transcendent loving tenderness, everything is a gift.

Within the wisdom of the gift, human creativity and technological power can do great things to develop the world. But these latter things must be subordinated to this wisdom that comes from Another. In the cosmos and in his or her vocation of stewardship, the human person discovers the Other, the "Creator," the original Giver. In creation, the Giver begins to unfold the mysterious wisdom that is ultimately fulfilled in His giving of Himself.

So the creativity and freedom of the person are not subjected to "someone else's manipulative power," as though there were some alien force suppressing the person by violence. We are not called to be slaves of some other power in the universe that is simply greater than our power.

Rather the One who gives creation, and who gives us to ourselves, is Himself the Gift. He becomes Gift to us, because He is, in Himself, Infinite Gift. He is the radical opposite of selfishness. He is Love. We are called to adhere to Him in love. In this way, our freedom finds its fulfillment.

The freedom of love: this is what the whole creation awaits, groaning in travail, with such eager longing (see Romans 8:22).

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Out From the Abyss of Misery

God searches deep into the heart of every human person, of every one of us, because He wants to find us and to save us.

At this very moment He is already with us in our wretchedness. He is already mysteriously at work.

Cry out to Him! Never give up!


Prayer of Saint Faustina

O greatly Merciful God, Infinite Goodness,
today all humankind calls out from the abyss
of its misery to Your mercy,
to Your compassion, O God;
and it is with its mighty voice of misery that it cries out.
Gracious God do not reject the prayer of this earth's exiles!

O Lord, Goodness beyond our understanding,
Who are acquainted with our misery through and through,
and know that by our own power
we cannot ascend to You,
we implore You: anticipate us with Your Grace
and keep on increasing Your mercy in us,
that we may faithfully do Your holy will
all through our life and at death's hour.

Let the omnipotence of Your mercy
shield us from the darts of our salvation's enemies,
that we may with confidence,
as Your children await Your final coming--
that day known to You alone.

And we expect to obtain everything promised us by Jesus
in spite of all our wretchedness.
For Jesus is our Hope:
Through His merciful Heart
as through an open gate we pass through to heaven.

(Diary of Saint Faustina, #1570. Source: Catholic News Agency)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Love All the Way

No matter how I may feel, or how distant God may seem to be from my life, I know that I can always find Him, and love Him.

He may seem hidden from my thoughts, my emotions, my psychological experience, my health, but even in this darkness He can be found through my love. Even the experience of the energy of desire may flag, but love always remains possible.

Where is this God who asks for my love?

He is inside the needs and tasks of this day, in the kids and their concerns, in the time Eileen and I have together, in the rhythm of my work and prayer.

When I write, He is here. When I do research, He is here. When my words are blocked or I've reached a dead end or I'm just tired, He is here.

When I go exploring and take photographs, He is here. When I learn new techniques, and use multimedia or the internet, He is here. When I put a lot of effort into a project and it ends up being something useless, He is here.

All day, in the house, He is here. When we eat our food and bump into one another and annoy one another, He is here. When I smile and say, "Thank you" to Eileen, He is here -- and also when I say, "Sorry" or "Excuse me," or something dumb, something I wish I hadn't said. When we pray the Rosary, even though we may all be falling asleep, He is here.

Creative mess. On the floor.
When we watch movies or TV, He is here. When we converse about everything from faith and philosophy to weather to birds to superheroes to silly names to boiled eggs, He is here. When we clean up the messes in the house, He is here. When we trip and fall over them, again and again, He is here.

When I have to just lay down in my bed, alone, in the middle of the day because my body hurts too much, He is here.

In all these moments, I want something, I am drawn by some hope that doesn't die even though I'm often frustrated by not being able to find what I think I need.

When I pray, "Come, Holy Spirit," I am asking Him to manifest Himself; to enrich my awareness of His presence. He calls out and gives Himself through the invitation to love and the longing for love contained in the most ordinary circumstances.

His invitations say, "Love all the way. Do not stop at your own satisfaction or give up because of your frustration. Seek the Source of what attracts you, and -- in affirming the goodness of whatever is given in the circumstances, and sustaining hope beyond all limits -- allow yourself to be embraced by the Source."

This sounds profound, but in practice it's really pretty overwhelming. Often our situation seems dull, repetitive, and fruitless, if not painful or desolate. But even in the best of circumstances, it's not easier to "love all the way" -- the weight our limitations pulls us toward something less, some position that appears for a while to correspond to what we want, but that can't help falling short and eventually taking on the bitter taste of discouragement.

Our hope is Jesus, because He makes it possible for us to love in the way we were created to love, which is to love in union with Him, all the way to the Father.

He sends His Holy Spirit from the Father to transform the smallness of our love, to enlarge our hearts and our loving to His measure, which is beyond all measure.

We must call out to the Holy Spirit, and listen to the silence in which He whispers to us the secrets of Divine Love, and shapes them into the flesh of our daily life.

Monday, June 15, 2015

When We Feel that God is Far Away

"More than in other dimensions of our existence
it is in prayer that we experience
our weakness and our poverty,
being creatures before the omnipotence of God....
When we feel that God is far away,
that we do not have words
to communicate with Him,
this absence of words
and the desire
to enter into communication with God
is prayer,
which through the Holy Spirit
becomes a real contact with Him."
--Benedict XVI, General Audience, May 16, 2012

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Heart of a Mother

"I treasure Your word in my heart.
I will ponder all Your precepts,
and fix my eyes on Your ways"
(Psalm 119:11,15).

At the center of the mystery of the universe and of life, there is the heart of a Mother who loves each one of us.

Through her never-failing intercession, let us pray especially for women to say "yes" from the heart to the vocation that God gives each of them to cooperate with His grace, and to be instruments of His love, compassion and mercy in the world.

We place our trust in the All-Holy, Immaculate Heart of Mary, Mother of God and Mother to each of us and to every human being. Merciful Mother, keep us in your heart and bring us to Jesus.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Heart of Jesus, Heart of Love

Blessed be Jesus in His Most Sacred Heart!

The all-holy, all-merciful God loves each and every one of us, all the way to the depths of our being, with His own human heart, the Heart of Jesus.

May we know this Love today, as we celebrate this great feast, and give Him all our love and all our trust.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Is it Really Possible to "Be Happy"?

There's more to "happy" than just a "smiley face"
What does it mean to "be happy"? Is it possible to be really " happy" in this life?

Well...yes and no.

We can attain goals in life, and draw a measure of satisfaction from them. But life doesn't stop. When I achieve what I want, I find new possibilities opening up.

The question emerges, "what shall I do next?"

It can be a joyful experience, this journey. In fact, it is meant to be. But it keeps moving. It's an adventure, and as long as you are still breathing, you know in your heart that it's not over.

Look at the way you act. Why do you do things? Because you want something. There is a sense of anticipation, a sense that reality has something to offer. So you choose, you act, and you possess things, enter into relationships, live life. And that sense of anticipation is verified. You have a taste of genuine goodness.

But the sense of the possibility of fulfillment only deepens. The desire to live intensifies. To move forward. Because you want something infinite.

The heart has no boundaries. Yet here we are, in this moment, in the midst of things that are limited. If we try to grasp things and stretch them so that they correspond to the scope of our hearts, we will distort them and ultimately tear them apart.

This is the source of violence.

But if we act with the recognition that there is something more, that the goodness of things points to something and promises something that we do not see and cannot attain by our own power, then we act with receptivity, with a need and a question that opens us up to something or Someone who corresponds to our boundless hearts.

This is the seed of prayer.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Robin Family "Leaves the Nest"

Time for a "Robin Family" update. Gosh, they grow up fast! Some amazing pictures from the beginning of June:

These three quickly learned how to make noise, and to eat a lot!

They started opening their eyes...

And within a week they are out of the nest, though still carefully watched over by Mama bird. They flitter into tall grass...

Then, off "on their own," perched on their own branches. So soon!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why I Am a Catholic Christian

The Catholic bloggers are all writing about this, so I decided to join in. I have woven together and revised some previously written texts and added a few things. I thought it might be worthwhile to present a few points that strike me and sustain me.

These are just some considerations that in no way exhaust the mysterious fact that Jesus has made me a member of His Church by baptism, and has sustained me in faith by His grace.

He made me His own before I understood anything. But I can also say that I have really encountered Him living in the Church—in her teaching, sacraments, governance, and guidance, as well as in the communion of life with many brothers and sisters that endures in the midst of so many obstacles.

I am a Catholic Christian because Jesus is concretely present in the Church through time and space. His humanity reaches me here, in the Catholic Church. God became man 2000 years ago because He wanted me to encounter Him. He wanted (and still wants) to reach me, and you, and every person.

"What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:1-3).

God became man so that He could be seen, heard, and touched. God became man to be our shepherd, our servant, and to wash our feet—to accompany us in our own history all the way to its ultimate fulfillment.

God became man so that He could teach with a human voice, so that He could stretch forth a human hand over a person and say "your sins are forgiven," and—in the ultimate humiliation to which He was impelled in His gratuitous love—so that He could break His human body on the Cross and distribute it as "food and drink" to the whole human race, so that His death-defeating, immortal, risen human flesh could generate the resurrection of the flesh of all those who eat His body and drink His blood.

God became man so that He could be seen, heard, and touched.... He communicates His infinite, ineffable, transcendent Mystery through His humanity, and through visible, audible, tangible actions that are human.

The Son of the Father became man without ceasing to be God. Thus my eyes and ears don't "grasp" the Mystery of God in a reductive and limited way when they interact with this humanity of Jesus. Rather, He takes the initiative by showing Himself, by speaking, and by healing with His touch. Through His human presence and action, God awakens and nourishes my faith; He shapes the path by which my heart and soul come to know (by faith, hope, and charity) who God is, and to know His Mystery as a mystery of Love.

Jesus's living humanity was the method by which God willed to communicate His grace and revelation to human persons.  Therefore, this same method must characterize the way that God saves me today! This is the method that follows as a consequence of the Incarnation, and it is the method that is most adapted to the condition of human beings who walk through the world of space and time.

Why did Jesus rise from the dead? Was it to become less present, less active, less effective in His saving mission? Why did Jesus ascend to the Father? Was it so that the revelation He brought might cease to present itself to our senses, might remove itself from human history, becoming once again intangible, unapproachable, distant? Was it because He didn't want to meet people one-on-one anymore, didn't want to call them personally, accompany them personally in their lives, forgive their sins personally?

On the contrary. In the Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus's humanity is transfigured and perfected; it does not cease to exist or cease to be significant. His humanity becomes greater, and the human energy of His mission becomes more extensive—after the resurrection Jesus becomes more capable (not less capable!) of being present on the roads of the world. Jesus's humanity has reached its perfection, and that means a perfection of His humanity's capacity to mediate salvation to every human person, to be humanly present in the concrete life of every person.

Therefore, today, in 2015, I should be able to find a community of the followers of Jesus who still have access to His humanity in all of the human facets that He displayed during His earthly mission. The "place" in the world today where I can follow Jesus must be a place in which His mission continues to be carried out visibly, audibly, tangibly in all of the aspects that are proper to it. There must be a human reality in the world that continues the human presence of Jesus. "I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world."

If I were in Judea and Galilee in 30-33 a.d. I would have been able to interact immediately with Jesus.

I could have listened to His teaching with the certitude that it was God's teaching, and the certitude that it had not been corrupted since it was coming directly from the mouth of the One who reveals and articulates Divine truth in a definitive way. I could have listened with confidence that this one human voice was to be followed over all the other conflicting voices including the confused voice of my own narrow subjectivity.

I could have obeyed the will of this man, done the things He told me to do, practiced His demands in my life, confident that His will was the expression of the will of God for my life. I could have gone up to this man and told Him all my sins, and when He said "your sins are forgiven" I would have known that God had forgiven my sins in that very moment and through the very action of Jesus enunciating these words with His human voice.

I could have stood at the foot of the Cross in the very moment when He was dying for my sins; I could have touched His risen flesh with my hands, and sat with Him at table when He broke bread and said, "take this and eat, this is my body."

These are the human gestures and human actions through which Jesus saved people. Therefore, even today, I want to be in touch with these saving human gestures and human actions of the God-man.

Jesus says, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." Jesus is saying here, "through me you learn what the truth about God is; I show you how you must live your life; and my action is what makes it possible for you to have that 'new humanity,' that transcendent participation in the life of God for which you were created."

Thus the place where I can follow Jesus today must be the place where His teaching continues with a single voice, His instruction continues through a single authority, and His sanctifying work continues through human gestures that communicate Divine life. Unless all of these aspects are available to me now, how can the humanity of Christ be my salvation?

Is it enough to have a book that tells me about what He did 2000 years ago, with some merely interior assurance that it applies to me now?

It is enough for me to have a book—even a book that I believe to be Divinely inspired—is it enough for me to have a book about a man who did things 2000 years ago, things the human images of which I have to reconstruct with my own imagination? Is it enough to have maybe a group of people with whom I can talk about Jesus and try to stimulate my memory and emotions with words spoken about His absent humanity?

Is it enough to have God as a "spiritual presence within," as though after the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, God suddenly decided to abandon the method of using human realities as His instruments, and instead to give direct, interior, spiritual subjective revelations?—revelations, moreover, about which everyone disagrees and which each interprets in his own way, so that the clear human voice of Jesus can no longer be distinguished in the cacophony of conflicting testimonies to inner experiences?

Or is there a hypothesis which is much simpler, more consistent, more adequate, more in keeping with the kind of man Jesus was and the character and intent of His mission?

The very nature of Jesus's presence in the world as God Incarnate suggests that the fundamental characteristics of this presence must continue if Jesus's saving work is to continue. This means that, in some humanly real way, the same possibilities for interacting with Jesus must exist today that existed in 30 a.d. Indeed the possibility of "encountering" Jesus must be greater now, not less! "Greater works than these you shall perform, because I go to the Father."

Jesus rose from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit. Some non-Catholic Christians, however, may not grasp the full significance of this. They seem to think that the Holy Spirit replaces the humanity of Jesus; that the work of Christ's humanity is over and done, and that everything is now left to the interior, illuminating presence of the Spirit testifying in the heart of the person.

But in the Catholic understanding Jesus sends the Holy Spirit in order to deepen and amplify the mediation of His humanity, not to lessen it. The Holy Spirit effects the interiorization and the vitality of what Jesus gives me through His sacred humanity, but my personal encounter with Jesus retains its human concreteness—Jesus remains humanly objective, "in front of" me and not simply "within" me (although He is also within me).

Jesus became incarnate so that human beings would not be alone in their own subjectivity—so that we would not be alone with our speculations, so that there would be a humanly perceivable reality in front of us to which we could submit ourselves, upon which we could depend.

Jesus became incarnate so as to mediate the way, the truth, and the life to us from a "position" that is outside of our own subjectivity, a "reference point" that is objective for every human person, "present" for every human person. "No one has ever seen God; it is the Only Son, ever at the Father's side, who has revealed Him" (John 1:18).

Thus there is some reason for making the following point about the "modern epoch," with all due respect to non-Catholic Christians who are sincerely opposed to the autonomous individualism of our culture today. It must be said that the Protestant tendency to make the decisive reference point for Christianity an inner illumination (supposed to be the testimony of the Spirit) rather than an objective human presence (a presence to which the Spirit bears witness) has led us inexorably into the trap of subjectivism. Ultimately, there is no objective authority that can ever tell me that my inner experience or personal interpretation is wrong, and there is no objective contact with the human concreteness of the Mediator who saves me.

But I want (and I need) this contact! I am not pure spirit. I am not pure consciousness. I am a man of spirit and body, and God became man so as to address me wholly, spirit and body.

It's true that Jesus says, "The flesh profits nothing"—but the "flesh" (sarx) is not my bodily reality as a human person. The "flesh" is materiality and temporality emphasized exclusively and in itself; it is the "stuff" of my humanity insofar as it is "cut off" from (or resistant to) the Spirit of God, and therefore also not integrated into my personal reality as a human being.

Christ's words "are spirit and life," but that means that they are spiritual in a way that informs life, human life; they are spiritual in a way that communicates life also to the body, that saves the body from degenerating into dead flesh and restores it to its integral place within the human person. Human spirituality that rejects the goodness of the body is as bad (or even worse) as human carnality unruled by the spirit. The human being needs the integration of both; which is why he needs the mediation of the Incarnate Word.

This understanding of the Incarnation has implications for our question about "how to follow Jesus today."

In the world of 2015, I must look for a human voice that teaches the truth of Jesus with consistency, with unity—a voice that I can count on, that won't lead me astray.

I must look for a human authority to which I can entrust myself, which I can follow with confidence because the demands of this authority communicate to me clearly the will of Christ which is for the ultimate good of my person.

I must look for those human gestures through which Jesus Himself calls me to be His disciple, strengthens me and sends me off to bear witness to Him, looks upon me compassionately and forgives my sins.

I must find a way to "stand at the foot of the Cross"—to be touched directly, physically by that once-and-for-all sacrificial act that happened so long ago but that happened with direct reference to me.

If I were to find the place where all of these factors were present, I would find the place where Jesus continues to be present and where the saving mission of His sacred humanity continues to operate with all of the human immediacy of the Incarnation. Indeed, I would find that place, that human and divine reality, called the Catholic Church.

And indeed, I have found this Church, and I continue to discover her anew as I walk the path of my life. I am a Catholic Christian because Jesus is present in His Catholic Church, because He has called me to belong to Him and to share this belonging with the people He entrusts to me in the places He sends me.

The Catholic Church is His Church, and the shape of her life is His glorified life radiating through history, His Lordship of every time and place. He uses the Church's ministers and members, even with all their enormous faults, to go forth into the world and give Himself.

He also works through the Church in the lives of those Christians not fully in communion with her, because of the measure of unity that really does exist.

And He works through the Church even among the multitudes of non-Christians, through the Church's dialogue and witness, her presence and prayer, and also—mysteriously—through the way human existence and human destiny are in themselves consecrated in Christ through the Church.

The Catholic Church is for every human being because Jesus loves every human being, and seeks the salvation and eternal fulfillment of every single human person with all the ardor of His Sacred Heart. What matters first and fundamentally is that He is at work in and through His Church.

I entrust everyone to His infinite mercy.

Jesus living in His Church is not my "belief system," not just my particular “philosophy of life” or my “support community”—something that “works for me” but might not necessarily “work for you.” He is for me, because I am a human being. That means He is for you.

I am sure of this.

But how? Who do I think I am anyway? What makes me so sure that my ideas about the meaning of life are true for everyone? That is just the point: these are not “my ideas”—this is a relationship. He is here, in my life, in a relationship with me. In fact, He started it—not me.

There is no way I could give myself this certainty, not even with all the philosophy of all the ages. What could possibly sustain this certainty in a blockhead like me?

I am amazed at myself, at the fact that I am so sure about this. I haven’t seen any miracles. I haven’t had any visions. And it is definitely not because I have a “deep spirituality”—I am a spiritual wimp.

What make me certain? It is Jesus Himself—not just some vague ideals about “goodness” or “the importance of Christian ethics” or “my understanding about the meaning of suffering.”

It is Jesus, the objective, actual, true Son of God, the living man who is with us now.

That is why I am a Catholic Christian. Because He is here. I need to be with Him. We all need to be with Him.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

June 6, Feast of Saint Norbert. Who is He?

Today is the Feast of Saint Norbert (1080-1134), who laid important foundations for the renewal of Christian life that blossomed in the High Middle Ages. In her Collect in today's liturgy, the Church prays:

O God, who made the Bishop Saint Norbert
a servant of your Church
outstanding in his prayer and pastoral zeal,
grant, we ask, that by the help of his intercession,
the flock of the faithful may always find shepherds
after your own heart
and be fed in the pastures of salvation.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

In case you missed the story of Saint Norbert's conversion and vocation (Magnificat, April 2015) or simply would like to read it again, I shall reproduce it here for your convenience. I encourage you, if you have not already done so, to subscribe to this wonderful magazine (click HERE).

One reason why you should read the magazine is that the quality is much better than these very quick, photographed reproductions that I make, that often look like old microfilm (who remembers that?). I apologize, but the text below is at least clear and legible (old geezers like me might want to put on their glasses!).

Saint Norbert, pray for us!