Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Love Never Fails," Therefore We Must Never Be Discouraged

The second reading from today's liturgy is the famous chapter 13 of Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Even Catholic Christians, who are not famous for memorizing Scripture verses, know these words well enough. Some of us like to point out that the "love" here is not just any sort of love. It is "agape" which the venerable Latin of Saint Jerome translates as "caritas" and which we know to be the theological virtue of charity.

So we're not just talking about any sort of love, much less some kind of vague sentimental everybody's-okay-lovey-dovey stuff. We are talking about the supernatural virtue of charity, God's own love in which we are called and empowered to participate through God's grace and His utterly mysterious, free and supernatural gift of Himself.

All of this is true.

Still, look at how Saint Paul describes this "love" -- patient, kind, not pompous, not rude, not grudge-bearing, rejoicing in the truth, enduring all things.

Enduring all things. That certainly seems beyond any sort of limited human love. But also patient, kind, not pompous, not rude, not quick-tempered or self-interested. It rejoices in the truth. It never fails.

This is a close, intimate love. It is a human love, the most human of loves. It is the love that we have been created to give and receive, and which we long for whether we know it or not.

Indeed, this inexhaustible Love corresponds to our whole humanity, because He has entered our history. He has become flesh.


Love has given Himself to us, to each and every one of us, so that we could be touched by Him and respond to Him with faith and hope, with trust, and be transformed into lovers of Him and of one another.

If I look at these verses seriously, I can't help but be struck by the fact that my life is so far from being this way. It causes me sorrow, and sometimes I am tempted to look away, to settle for some lesser kind of love. But I would have to lie to myself (and others too) because I know deep down that this love is the only thing that matters in the end. I was created for this love. You were created for this love.

But we must not lie to one another, and we must never become discouraged. We may stumble again and again in the ways of love, but He is with us, always ready to lift us up and lead us forward if we let Him. We can begin again, every day, because He has come to dwell with us. God became our brother because He wants to be with us.

Let us place our confidence in Him, and begin again.

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, it is not pompous,
It is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.
If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing;
if tongues, they will cease;
if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child,
think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
At present I know partially;
then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
So faith, hope, love remain, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Five Years of Never Giving Up!

January 29th marked five years of blogging.

I know that I tend to say the same things over and over again. I've always been repetitive. Sorry about that. I never feel like I've said it well enough.

And, of course, I haven't.

Maybe I come back to these same themes because I need to remember them and go back to them every day.

The first quotation from the very first post on January 29, 2011 is always worth remembering:
"No gesture exists that does not involve the whole world. That's why we get up every morning: to help Christ save the world, with the strength we have, with the light we possess, asking Christ to give us more light and more strength" (Luigi Giussani).

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I Follow Jesus. So Why am I Still Such a Big Mess!?

Jesus has come into my life and taken hold of me. He has rescued me from slavery to sin, given me new life, and made me a child of God. Yet I still live mostly for myself, afraid to go beyond my own limits. God has given Himself to me, but where is my love? Why is it so small?

So much of me still sleeps in superficial preoccupations. God's life in me is hidden away, buried, constrained by all my own nonsense. I am alive in Christ, but wounded. Even when I want to walk, I limp badly.

If there is anythinganything at allthat has real value in my life, it comes from the grace of Jesus. He really does act and renew my particular life, in such a way that it is clear to me that I must never let go of Him.

Jesus is building up my humanity. I want to let Him work in me, change me, and empower me to cooperate with His loving plan for me as a human person destined for eternal life.

There is a lot of work to be done.

I am still a mixture of genuine aspirations and hypocrisy, possibilities and failures, faith and love and sin and mediocrity, hope and the struggle against falling back into fear. I have a few poor and fragile intentions to do God's will, to be true, good and beautiful, along with some not-so-good character flaws, a desire to live deeply but also inclinations to pride, stubbornness, vanity, and laziness.

Then there is my overall disposition: I try to be loyal, perceptive, affectionate, and intuitive, but I have a quirky personality that is sometimes overconfident and other times painfully insecure. I have "a beautiful mind" wanting to think deeply but always thinking all over the place and ready to find some problem to worry about, some situation to overthink, or some way to overcomplicate an easy task. I have a lot of education, and I can speak and write with some skill. I also have some poetic insight and some craft when it comes to turning a phrase. I have a sympathetic temperament, an artistic sensibility, and a love for music. I have reached the age where I have a fair amount of life experience, but little wisdom and many rough spots, disappointments, unresolved conflicts, and scars. I still have vast gaps of emotional immaturity, and of course a neurologically dysfunctional brain, other health problems, disability, insomnia, and just the ordinary "weight" the human condition. And I can't even begin to understand all the stuff that is going on in the "subconscious" (or whatever it is), that vast murky underworld beneath my awareness.

What we have here in John Janaro is a big mess! Lord, have mercy on me. Help me! I keep seeking Him and I keep praying. With all of this mess, I still have hope because my hope is in Him, and all the weakness in me reminds me of how much I need to stay with Him.

But then I turn around and judge other people. I judge other people? How preposterous!

We really have to love people.

That doesn't mean we ignore when they are being self-destructive and destructive of others. Of course we must bear witness to the hope that is in us, and the One who has embraced us. We must try to help people, but always we must endeavor to see them as God sees them, with real love.

Here we have to be especially humble, because only God truly knows the depths of any person. Even when we know what's true and real and we see externally the wrong behavior of another, we don't know all that's going on inside that other person.

I gather from my own experience that the inner world of every human being is basically pretty freaky.

Jesus needs our love to touch deep places in the lives of others that we will never understand. This mystery, along with our awareness of our own weakness, should make us humble lovers.

If we have been given some of that bread that is the Word of God, and we see someone hungry, we must share it, not by bending down and offering a few crumbs, but by being with them, and sharing both the gift and our common poverty. If they turn away from us, we still have to stayas best we canand share their suffering.

For we are all poor, poor, poor human beings. Whatever our circumstances, we all have hearts made for God. We are poor and hungry and invested with a desire that refuses to die even when it turns to desperation. We are wounded and, somewhere in the midst of all our freakiness, we are longing for healing.

I am a poor Christian. How can I be a witness? Certainly not by pointing to myself and saying, "look how great I am." But Someone Else has come into my life and awakened an unconquerable hope that my poverty might be transformed into humility and love. I don't know how this will reach its fulfillment, but this hope engenders trust in Him, moment by moment, and I begin to find healing.

This is something that can become visible in my poor world.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Janaro Cabin Fever

Things have been a little nutty around here. We've had plenty of indoor time and some silliness has ensued. I wanted to try out some software that might improve my webcam, which, of course, immediately attracted the video bomber.

There's not much depth in this very brief video, but there are a few laughs.

Clearly, we're more than ready to go back to school before the snow makes us kooky!

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Snow Came Tumbling Down

Our mild winter was strangely interrupted by The Snow Monster, oras it has been variously calledSNOWZILLA, SNOWPOCALYPSE, SNOWMAGEDDON, etcetera, you get the idea.

On Thursday afternoon, it certainly didn't look like a blizzard was coming.

The Janaro Estate on the afternoon of January 21, 2016. Peaceful?
Nevertheless, I knew the snow was coming, not just because of the forecasts but also because I could feel the damp cold in my bones and joints.

Ouch, ouch, ouch!!! Winter arthritis kicking up.

By Friday afternoon the snow was pouring down. By Saturday morning it was a whiteout.

The snow let up a little in the afternoon, and the intrepid explorers ventured out.

Josefina couldn't wait to start digging her snow tunnels.

Teresa measured just over two feet of snow.

Sunday morning was cold, sunny, and blindingly bright. Over thirty inches of snow were on the ground.

Compare this to the same scene two days ago!
Reepicheep got to do some sunbathing.
School was off today (Monday). Our roads were plowed but there was still lots of work to do in more remote locations. Temperatures grew warmer and a few clouds moved in.

Teresa and Josefina showed me their snow cave.
The mix of clouds and light made for a spectacular dusk at the afternoon's end.
School is closed again tomorrow. This is turning into a Snow-cation for the kids. It's good having them all around, although I've had more than enough of wintery-winter.

I'm ready for the warm breezes of El Niño to return.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Practical Force of Love

As the United States of America honors the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., I present a few texts from many of Dr. King's sermons and speeches that I have seen today.

Again and again we hear in his words the underlying themes of confidence in the dignity of human persons and love as a practical force for building up good in the world according to the will of God.

The spiritual human person, made for eternity:
"We thank thee, O God, for the spiritual nature of man. We are in nature but live above nature. Help us never to let anyone or any condition pull us so low as to cause us to hate. Give us the strength to love our enemies and to do good to those who despitefully use us and persecute us… Help us to realize that man was created to shine like stars and live on through all eternity" (excerpt from a prayer).

Image of God:
"The whole concept of the Imago Dei or the Image of God, is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. This gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. We must never forget this. There are no gradations in the Image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God's keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that. We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man."

Truth worth dying for:
"Unless you have found something to live for that is more important to you than your own life, you will always be a slave. For all another man needs to do is threaten to take your life to get you to do his bidding. [But if you have found it,] even if they try to kill you, you develop the inner conviction that there are some things so precious, some things so eternally true that they are worth dying for."

Forgiveness and Love of Enemies:
"We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us."

Globalization, Technological Power, and Fraternal Love:
"The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.
"Now it is true that the geographical oneness of this age has come into being to a large extent through modern man’s scientific ingenuity. Modern man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. And our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took weeks and even months. All of this tells us that our world is a neighborhood.
"Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.
"We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.
"This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured."

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Cana in Galilee

There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee,
and the mother of Jesus was there.
Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding.
When the wine ran short,
the mother of Jesus said to him,
“They have no wine.”
And Jesus said to her,
“Woman, how does your concern affect me?
My hour has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servers,
“Do whatever he tells you.”
Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings,
each holding twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus told them,
“Fill the jars with water.”
So they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them,
“Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.”
So they took it.
And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine,
without knowing where it came from
— although the servers who had drawn the water knew —
the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him,
“Everyone serves good wine first,
and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one;
but you have kept the good wine until now.”
Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee
and so revealed his glory,
and his disciples began to believe in him.

John 2:1-11

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Zacchaeus the Tax Collector

I have begun a new year of Great Conversion Stories in the pages of that unique magazine that is smaller than a pocket tablet and still has real pages. It should be another fascinating year of stories of the action of Jesus through His Church in so many different times and places.

Returning once again to the pages of the New Testament, here is the story of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector in the January 2016 edition of MAGNIFICAT:

Friday, January 15, 2016

How Can I Love People Truly?

Nothing in the world can satisfy the human heart. 

We stand before each other like open wounds, aching for the love of God. It is Jesus who brings us God, brings us healing, and brings us together.

Jesus, I bring to You my broken heart,
broken by the desire to love
and the confusion over how to love well and truly.
O Lord, forgive me.
I have not loved You as I should,
and I am self-seeking and divided in all my relationships.
How can I love people truly,
with the "detachment" that recognizes that they belong
to You alone,
and also with the passionate attention that recognizes
in each of them
the beauty of Your image and the glory of Your redeeming power?
Jesus, open my heart to receive Your healing mercy.
Change my heart, and make me silent, patient, and tender:
full of awe and wonder and gratitude
before Your gift of Yourself to me and to every person I meet.
I am so in need of healing.
I am so in need of conversion.
Have mercy on me,
and make me the person You will me to be.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Death Comes for the Artists... and Hope for Mercy

The author is also a musician
Recently, there have been several deaths of actors, composers, and musicians from various causes. Indeed, as I get older, many of the entertainers and celebrities that I remember from my youth reach the end of their lives.

When the news comes out, I am certainly moved to pray for these people's souls as I would be for anyone. Often I can't help thinking about the sometimes deeply disturbed and distressing lives many of them have lived, and their apparent lack of faith.

At the same time, I cannot help being touched by nostalgia as the reviews of their life work raise long forgotten personal memories and the striking recognition of their originality and creative achievements in their artistic fields.

Among those who have died recently there were some remarkable artists. I can appreciate a career and the work that came out of it without endorsing the crazy, dysfunctional lifestyle of the artist. No amount of special talent exempts anyone from responsibility for their actions. I must admit, however, that (being a poet and musician myself) I have a particular empathy for artists, musicians, writers, and performers.

Artists in general endure much suffering in the creative process. They often carry other forms of psychological baggage that come with their gifts. Moreover, in the strange and stressful and turbulent times we live in, with the need to negotiate the pressures (as well as the possibilities) of the explosion of technological media, the artistic vocation can be a very hard life. It has been destructive in many ways to talented young people who are thrust suddenly into wealth and celebrity status, without a human context that can guide them, and under intense pressure to manufacture products for sale that stultify their real artistic aspiration and perception. This does not simply excuse, but it may give some context to a lot of outrageous behavior of artists in our time.

So they live, take the stage, crave attention, fear failure, make their marks, and then if they survive exhaustion, physical neglect, and/or addictions they grow old and die. I can only pray for them and hope. I have reason for hope, because I know that there is Someone greater than all the chaos of our world.

Jesus's sacrifice is infinite. His mercy is infinite. He died for everyone, even the poor crazy artists (and they are poor, no matter how much wealth they may have hoarded or squandered in their brief lives). He knows the real depths of their sufferings, the desires of their hearts, their questions and their (often hidden) cries for help. He knows how much or how little culpability they bear for their sins, however huge and preposterous they may look to the world.

I myself am a sinner who has been foolish in my youth and stubborn in my old age, and it may be pride and timidity as much as anything else that keep me looking "respectable" on my own small stage in life. If all we had was our own fragile human freedom, what could we do? But the grace and mercy of the God who loves us finds ways to draw us, surprise us, provoke us, and even "outwit" us.

The Good Shepherd seeks out all His sheep, He knows our roads. He has traveled them all the way to the end.

The mystery of human freedom remains. We must walk with God and struggle and fight against the evils we face and our temptation to settle for less, to go our own way, to be self-satisfied and self-centered. I pray especially for artists to be faithful to their calling, and me to mine and all of us.

My hope is that the infinite mercy of God will win our hearts in the end.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

God Comes in History to Change Us


The Christmas season culminates in the celebration of "the Baptism of Jesus," known in the early Church (and still in the Byzantine tradition) as the TheophanyThe mystery of the Trinity is revealed as the Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove and the Father's voice is heard (theophany means the "appearance of God").

We see this event portrayed and written in images in the basic structure of the icon of Jesus's baptism. Let us note a few other details: Jesus is immersed in the waters, not for his own purification (he doesn't need it, obviously) but to consecrate the waters of the world by contact with his body and to begin the restoration of all creation as the New Adam. Jesus is naked (sometimes, as here, portrayed with a loincloth), which symbolizes the restoration of Adam's innocence before the Fall. Strange beasts and humanish forms under his feet symbolize the demons defeated by Jesus. John the Baptist gazes not at Jesus but at the Holy Spirit, corresponding to his own testimony in John 1:32-34. Angels wait upon the shore in adoration and in readiness to serve Jesus who is the Lord of all creation.

This is brief reading of the icon above. As we reflect on the important symbolism here, however, let us not be led to think that this is nothing more than a clever and imaginative mythological story. This imagery conveys the truth about a real event that happened to a real man, Jesus. This man is the answer to the human search for the Mystery that sustains everything and gives ultimate meaning to life.

God has answered the question of our hearts by entering our history as a man, giving His life to us, and accompanying us on the journey to our destiny, to live in the glory of His love forever. Christians receive the sacrament of baptism from Jesus, through His ministers, because God's love for the world and for every human person is not abstract, distant, cold and inaccessible. God has touched us in Jesus, our brother. His love enters our history and changes us.

Let us be grateful for our baptism, orfor those who do not yet know Himardently seek this encounter with the Mystery who heals and saves and brings the heart to fulfillment, this touch of God who has come to meet every person on their journey, and who will begin to draw to Himself whoever opens their heart and asks for the truth and beauty of life.

Friday, January 8, 2016

"...And We Saw His Glory"

"The Word became flesh, and made His dwelling among us, and we saw His glory..."
(John 1:14).

In His humility we see His glory, for He humbled Himself to reveal His love, and thus He reveals the mystery of Himself, for God is Love.

The Infinite Mystery is revealed as Infinite Love. The Trinitarian God is the absolute, inconceivable communion of love eternally "poured out" within His own Divine life. And this Mystery has chosen, out of the freedom of love, to create free persons and invite them to share in this communion.

God is love. God loves us. Each and every one of us. His taking flesh, His life, His death for our sins, His resurrection are all the manifestation and communication of this love, which is His glory.

He is Love, and His love for usHis mercyendures forever.

Pope Benedict XVI reflects on this at the beginning of his first encyclical in the year 2006:
"We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.... Since God has first loved us (see 1 John 4:10), love is now no longer a mere 'command'; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us" (Deus Caritas Est, 1).

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Manifestation of God in the Flesh of This Man!

"In the beginning and before all ages, the Word was God
and he humbled himself to be born the Savior of the world"

(antiphon, Epiphany Week).

The full significance of Christmas is found in the celebration of the Epiphany (or "the Theophany," as it is know in the Eastern tradition).

This is the celebration of the manifestation of God to the world in the flesh of this man Jesus, who was born of the Virgin Mary. God manifested Himself to the world as a child.

Here is a rendition of the beautiful Byzantine icon of the Nativity, which I present for your contemplation. Perhaps it is good that I am neither prepared nor sufficiently energetic to attempt to explain it right now. Let it be thus, and let it show itself to those who dwell upon it:

The Western Christian Epiphany tradition places emphasis on the Magi from gentile lands, who travel by the light of a star in search of God's promise. Now the Three Kings have arrived at the end of their journey. Here is a picture of the Nativity Scene in the Janaro house (above) and the Kings at our parish church (below):

The parish church sanctuary continues to glow with the lights of Christmas:

What I would really like to do is give a shout-out to the unsung hero of the Three Kings' entourage, without whom they never could have made the trip:

The Camel!

May the light of Jesus Christ give you joy in this Epiphany season. It is good to begin the new year with the memory of the extraordinary and unforeseeable event that has happened in history, in real life, in real "space and time" -- the Infinite Mystery has come to dwell with us, to reveal and communicate His love.

God became human, took flesh, and gave Himself for us.

This event defines everything in history. It changes everything. It gives us an unconquerable hope.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Young Jesus in the Eyes of an Old Scribe

I have been thinking about this thing of being 53 years old. It's a bit striking to realize that I am twenty years older than Jesus when He was crucified.

I'm old enough to be one of the Scribes or Pharisees.

I can imagine myself watching this young Jesus and stroking my beard and remarking on the "interesting novelty of the Jesus phenomenon." I would be determined to give further study to this religious and sociological development... a some point, when I could find time.

After all, a venerable scribe, noted for his wisdom—someone who enjoys being called "rabbi" (or "teacher," "professor," whatever)—such a person has many other pressing concerns and plans to do good things for people, for society.

Then the dark night would come when I would be roused from sleep and called to a hasty assembly of my colleagues to vote on the fate of this unusual young man. I would be bothered by having to make a rash decision, but in the end I would vote with the group because that's where my interests would be vested. As always, when it comes to a decision, I would be looking out for myself.

I hardly need to project myself back two thousand years and imagine such a scene. How much of my real life has been taken up with this kind of intellectual distance, coldness, indecisiveness, vanity, selfishness.

Nevertheless, what reaches me is the grace of the Holy Spirit and the witness of His disciples. A person can be "born again even if he is old." God pours out His mercy and love upon us all.

"In this way the love of God was revealed to us:
God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.
In this is love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us
and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another" (1 John 4:9-11).

Sunday, January 3, 2016

And It's Another Birthday For Me

Here are some birthday pictures from last night. Some pasta with red wine:

Then there is the masterpiece of cake. "Sing 'Happy Birthday' fast or we'll have to call the FIRE DEPARTMENT!" But there it is, a beautiful cheesecake baked by my wife, so yummy:

It's a very simple cake, not a "Doctor Who" cake. Although we did notice the opening on the top of the cake when it came out of the oven. Scary! "It's a crack-in-space-and-time! Well, sort of... looks like part of one, anyway. But we must not be too precise because the very existence of the universe itself may be in danger! Call the Doctor!!"

Let me try to illustrate the crisis:

The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) find the cracks everywhere, even on Amy's childhood bedroom wall. It's hard to summarize the dangers here (they're proposterous but they're really bad).

Oh NOOO! See the problem???

 — Well, never mind. "Whovians" will know what I mean. Everyone else will just think we're a nerdy family (which is true). It's all fun and nonsense!


But seriously, it was a difficult day in some ways, full of reflection, some anxiety, and prayer. On this January 2, I turned 53 years old. Fifty three. Years!

I admit that I'm slightly freaked out by that number.

Where did the last decade go? Can I possibly be just two years away from "senior discounts"?

Still, I feel healthier today than I did ten years ago (I was very sick back then) andstrangelyI even feel "younger." Who knows? The future is in God's hands, always. He gives me this moment here and now, full of miracles of His love, inviting me to trust in Him and walk with Him.

During the day, I worked up an "impressionist-art" style graphic with digital software from a photo I took not long ago of a country road going off into the evening light.

Lord, lead me on this journey of Yours, one step, one day at a time.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Forward to What Lies Ahead

The Church Fathers ... they really 'get it.' Here Gregory Nazianzen ("the Theologian") preaches around the year 390 on Christian community. He nails it.

"Let each one of us, no matter what his walk of life or circumstances, offer to God all that he can on every occasion according to the measure of his capacity, according to the gift bestowed upon him.... Let one contribute his riches, another his abject poverty; a commendable deed, another a perceptive thought; one a timely remark, another eloquent silence; virginity that is pure and severs all contact with the world, another a marriage that is devout and in no way divorced from God; one fasting that is not tainted with pride; another feast tempered by restraint; one unbroken prayers and spiritual hymns, another the care of the poor; all of us our tears, all of us our purification, all of us our upliftment and a straining forward to what lies ahead" (Saint Gregory Nazianzen).

Friday, January 1, 2016

Roberto Clemente: Grace in the Flesh of the Moment

New Year's Day.

It means many things, but to a group of people from my generation who happened to be sports-crazy kids growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania or Puerto Rico, this day will forever be associated with El Magnifico, "the Great One," Roberto Clemente.

We had witnessed his passion and courage on the baseball field, and it was clear even to a ten year old boy like me that this was something more than just playing a game for Roberto Clemente. This was a way of living life, of going out into the day and putting forth everything, risking everything for the possibility of finding beauty and grace in the flesh of the moment.

January 1, 1973 is as clear in my mind as yesterday. My Dad was doing something (shaving?) in the bathroom with the door open, and he had turned on his transistor radio.

It was a news report. An urgent news report. And we couldn't believe what we were hearing. We just couldn't believe it....

Roberto Clemente and a plane loaded with relief supplies for earthquake-stricken Nicaragua had disappeared over the ocean off the coast of Puerto Rico.

The Coast Guard.... Search parties, divers.... What were they looking for? Was there still hope? Maybe he survived and swam to a little island somewhere!

I kept hoping, we all kept hoping... for awhile.

But then reality dawned upon us.

Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash, on a mission of mercy to people in desperate need. It was clear to us even then that he had taken the ultimate risk, that he had offered his life on that day.

We mourned the loss of him. At the same time, the whole thing was somehow "not surprising." We watched Roberto Clemente "offer his life" over and over, in every at-bat, every time he ran the bases, and in right field... Oh yes!--the man marshaled his entire body into a cannon and threw bullets to third base and home plate. He was always pouring himself out: the way he played baseball gave the impression of a man with a singular passion, a very specific destiny that was worth dying for.

I didn't have these words when I was ten years old, but it is that ten-year-old who lives in me today who is speaking from an indelible memory.

As the years went by I learned the details of the event. The earthquake of December 23, 1972 in Nicaragua was a humanitarian catastrophe of epic scale. It was comparable to what happened in Haiti in 2010. We all remember how difficult the Haitian relief effort was, especially in the first days. And in 1972 coordinated humanitarian aid for natural disasters in third world countries was in its pioneer days.

There wasn't much of a "script" to follow (there still isn't, really). But Clemente, who has just returned from a month of coaching a youth sports camp in Nicaragua, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He was one of the most well known and well respected figures in the Caribbean and Central America. He summoned his fellow Puerto Ricans to give whatever resources they could. Food and medical supplies were desperately needed.

But Nicaragua's government and military were corrupt, and were looting the supply planes that came into the country. Clemente had no troops to accompany and secure his relief effort. He had only one "political" asset on hand that could command the respect of everyone and ensure the safe delivery of needed supplies: himself. In the midst of such an emergency, El Magnifico thought his own stature in the region would be sufficient to put local government looters to shame and focus the work of everyone on the ground.

In any case, he thought it was worth the risk.

There has been much discussion about the faulty aircraft, its excessive load, and its unqualified crew. It appears that Clemente himself was aware of the dangers, as he refused the offers of several friends who wanted to accompany him on the night of January 31, 1972. For the chance of helping thousands of people, he took the risk only for himself.

Roberto Clemente often acknowledged that God holds the life and death of every person in His hands. It was his simple trust in God that gave him strength to take risks--not out of recklessness but in the service of building up the good. He knew that "greatness" is nothing if it does not spend itself in service and fulfill itself by being given away. Clemente was a flawed man, certainly, but he was a man of faith, and in the end he really was not only a "sports hero," but a hero pure and simple, a man who showed us the greatness of the human heart.

All these things I learned later.

But I can still feel the sorrow I felt as a child on New Year's Day. It is a sorrow mixed with awe and something like gratitude. Roberto Clemente defined an aspiration in me that still remains (though I nearly always fall short): the desire to be courageous in responding to the needs of the moment, to risk everything to find beauty and grace in the flesh of the moment.

Roberto Clemente, acknowledging cheers after his 3,000th (and last) hit, Sept 30, 1972. Rest in peace, brother. And thank you.