Sunday, July 31, 2016

World Youth Day: Taking Risks For Love

More than two million young people from all over the world.
The "World Youth Festival" in Krakow concluded this morning with Pope Francis celebrating an outdoor Mass for some two million people. I feel very blessed to have been able to follow some of the events live and others later in the same day.

There is no substitute for actually being there (I shall never forget my own World Youth Day experience in Denver, Colorado in 1993). But there is a great opportunity to participate with the heart, and in very real way also with the senses, thanks to digital media.

The internet is a source of so many evils, and yet it can also communicate great goods. The weeds and the wheat continue to grow side by side in history in so many diverse ways.

Once again, Pope Francis was an outstanding witness to the Gospel. He challenged young people (and their elders) not to be satisfied with being comfortable, but to take risks and move forward in living our faith with love for God and others.

We must take risks!

It's not (honestly) the message I feel like hearing. I think I want nice, comfortable academic, family, and community circumstances and a level of behavior that keeps up the facade of being a reasonably good person (and certainly better than all those immoral people "out there in the world").

Problems? Sure, but I can ignore them or kick them down the road by blaming my illnesses--all the more convincingly (to myself) because there's some truth in that assessment. But there remains for me with every breath the challenge to be human, to be humble and poor and surrendered to God.

It's the challenge to love. To take risks!

Lord, I'm afraid. I don't know how to begin. And I would not even think of beginning were it not for Jesus, who is already here, now, loving me.

I want to love Him, to love Him more, especially when I see the love of others, when I see the joy of these young pilgrims, and the tireless, implacable witness of Francis.

And in these same times, in many places and in the midst of many horrors, we see also the love that embraces Jesus to the very end, that responds to the violence of enemies with the courage of a presence, a giving, and a forgiving that really shows (as μαρτύριον, "martyrdom," testimony) that death has been defeated by the love of this man, Jesus.

It is a testimony that gives us, here and now, a taste of the resurrection and strengthens our confidence in its truth.

This is what I really want, what I really long for, what I don't want to miss in life. Jesus, I want to trust You more. I want to love You more. Have mercy on me.

Pope Francis preaches about the mercy of Jesus at the final Mass of WYD 2016. Images from CTV stream.

Here are some quotations from Pope Francis's final homily at today's Mass:
"We have been created in God’s own image; Jesus has taken upon himself our humanity and his heart will never be separated from us; the Holy Spirit wants to dwell within us. We have been called to be happy for ever with God!"
"As far as Jesus is one is unworthy of, or far from, his thoughts. No one is insignificant. He loves all of us with a special love; for him all of us are important: you are important! God counts on you for what you are, not for what you possess.... He doesn’t care whether you are stylish or not; he cares about you! In his eyes, you are precious, and your value is inestimable." 
"This is the secret of joy: not to stifle a healthy curiosity, but to take a risk, because life is not meant to be tucked away. When it comes to Jesus, we cannot sit waiting around with arms folded. He offers us life."
"Don't let the soul grow numb, but aim for the goal of a beautiful love which also demands sacrifice. Say a firm 'no' to the narcotic of 'success-at-any-price' and the sedative of worrying only about yourself and your own comfort."
The Lord "demands of us real courage: the courage to be more powerful than evil by loving everyone, even our enemies. People may laugh at you because you believe in the gentle and unassuming power of mercy. But do not be afraid. Think of the motto of these days: 'Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy' (Matthew 5:7). People may judge you to be dreamers, because you believe in a new humanity, one that rejects hatred between peoples, one that refuses to see borders as barriers and can cherish its own traditions without being self-centered or small-minded. Don’t be discouraged: with a smile and open arms, you proclaim hope and you are a blessing for our one human family, which here you represent so beautifully!"
"Jesus...wants to enter your homes, to dwell in your daily lives: in your studies, your first years of work, your friendships and affections, your hopes and dreams. How greatly he desires that you bring all this to him in prayer! How much he hopes that, in all the 'contacts' and 'chats' of each day, pride of place be given to the golden thread of prayer! How much he wants his word to be able to speak to you day after day, so that you can make his Gospel your own, so that it can serve as a compass for you on the highways of life!"
View from the air of the millions who gathered for the Sunday Mass at Brzegi Common, Krakow.

Friday, July 29, 2016

A Man Bears Witness to the God of Peace

Father Jacques Hamel, an 84 year old French parish priest, was killed while saying Mass on July 26 by two assailants. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. Father Jacques was a man of peace and dialogue, loved and respected by both Christians and Muslims in Normandy. He is another witness in these turbulent times to the love that is greater than death.

Father Jacques could have "retired" years ago, but he chose to remain active, to stay with his people. In him we see, yet again, how simple daily acts of love are sustained by a heroism that reveals itself in embracing the ultimate sacrifice. A martyr is ready to "give all" at the moment of death because he or she has already been giving everything, giving and giving every day, answering the invitation to love God and others that is offered through all the days and months and years entrusted to each one of us.

The Catholic bishops of France have invited their nation to observe today as a day of prayer and fasting "for peace" in their country and the world. Many Christians and others of good will are joining them in seeking God's blessing and making sacrifices to open their hearts more deeply to His love.

Let us keep in our hearts this day and hereafter the witness of Father Jacques, his love for Jesus Christ to the end and his enduring hope that the compassion and mercy of God might shine forth and rescue human hearts from the cycle of violence.

"May we hear God’s invitation to take care of this world--to make it, where we live, warmer, more human, more fraternal" (Father Jacques Hamil).

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Francis at World Youth Day 2016

"The water that became wine at the wedding banquet
is a great sign,
for it reveals to us the spousal face of God,
a God who sits at table with us,
who dreams and holds communion with us.
It tells us that the Lord does not keep his distance,
but is near and real.
He is in our midst and he takes care of us,
without making decisions in our place
and without troubling himself with issues of power.
He prefers to let himself be contained in little things,
unlike ourselves,
who always want to possess something greater.
To be attracted by power,
by grandeur, by appearances,
is tragically human.
It is a great temptation
that tries to insinuate itself everywhere.
But to give oneself to others,
eliminating distances,
dwelling in littleness
and living the reality of one’s everyday life:
this is exquisitely divine."

~Pope Francis

This morning Pope Francis visited the monastery of Jasna Gora and the great shrine to the Blessed Mother in Czestochowa, Poland. The text above is an excerpt from his homily on John 2:1-11.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

World Youth Day 2016: Why Do They Come?

Millions of youth from all over the world are gathering together in an ancient city in Poland with a man from Argentina who is nearly 80 years old. They gather together in love, peace, and solidarity.

A phenomenon like this should cause any reasonable 21st century person to think and ask serious questions. The fact that we have grown accustomed to these gatherings doesn't make them any less amazing if we pay attention to what is actually happening.

What moves young people to do something like this? What in the world could possibly generate such a gathering?

An ideology?

A political faction?

An abstract story and a set of rules? A collection of sentiments? A general benevolence and vague hope for a humanitarian future?

Remember, we're talking about kids here. Actual young people with the energy and enthusiasm and possibilities to do all kinds of things. Why do young people get together? Why would a million young people get together? They gather because they expect something to happen.

It's not an ideology, or an institution constructed by our own power, or a nostalgia for the past.

That's not why they have come.

They have come together because of an event that really happened in history and that lives right now, an event that generates an encounter, that even today takes hold of human lives and changes them and makes them free.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Daisy in the Sun

This was a pretty popular picture I posted on Instagram and other social media accounts, so I might as well put it up here too.

It's quite simple, a daisy in the summer sun.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Still Alive On This Earth

Blue Ridge mountains of my home.
There are some mornings when I wake up surprised that I'm still alive. It can be a wonderful surprise or an anxious preoccupation, or (most often) something in between.

In any case, I have reached the age where I no longer simply take for granted that "one day will just follow upon another" for gazillions of years of a vast future. Such is the horizon of youth, even for young people who know that no one's days are guaranteed. We all feel especially the strangeness of death when it takes someone in the flower of their youth.

In many ways, I still feel young, and I'm starting to realize that "being young at heart" is more than a cliche. It is the task of gratitude, and it is the anecdote to the emotional immaturity that afflicts me and so many of my generation. It grows in tandem with a realism about the "normal" course of human life and the mystery of God's plan for each individual person's life that corresponds to his or her unique identity.

More and more, I have begun to feel the "vastness" of my own past, the volume of life that I have already lived. I am enriched by many memories even as I am haunted by the awareness of how much time I have wasted.

What remains ahead, especially for someone of my health? It's not something I want to dwell on. I can only do my best to take care of myself, and trust in God that the time ahead will be enough for me and for those who love me. The span of what is "enough," of course, remains a mystery. It always has been a mystery. It always has been a gift, and it is a gift right now.

It is a gift that I awaken to another day. Rather than be overcome by the creeping cynicism of my time of life, I prefer to reconsider and reaffirm my priorities.

Today, I have to judge. I have to act.

Jesus first, above all things, in all things. Jesus, asking for my love. I do love Him. I pray to recognize Him more, ignore Him less, love Him in action with less ambiguity and more simplicity and directness, love Him in all the ways He gives Himself to me.

Beyond everything that constitutes what we would call daily "spiritual" activities (which are essential for any Christian), my life still travels the roads of this world. Here I have to live my life and attend to my responsibilities. Though these mundane realities are themselves deeply charged with mystery, it is possible to articulate much about them, and to consider the duties, possibilities, and questions that they continue to provoke.

Most of life is in the little things, of course. Still, although I know I cannot number my days, there remain horizons that it's only reasonable to ponder. What do I see on this part of my journey, and how does it shape today and whatever days might follow from the merciful hand of God?

I am a man, a husband, a father, a companion to my wife, a paternal authority, guide, and example to my children. I am also--in various ways and to the degree that I am able--a help to others. Whether as a friend or mentor (or both), a supporter, or a source of encouragement, I recognize that on the journey of my life there are others who walk with me, and some who, in a particular way, have been entrusted to me, to the attention, affection, and solicitude of my heart. And I likewise have been entrusted to them.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, my family, my friends, and the many kinds of companionship that often arise in spontaneous and unexpected ways (especially in our times)-- all call upon my daily fidelity in truth and love, appropriately, with discretion, with purity of heart. Here I find the daily struggle to regard the person in front of me above my own selfishness and whims, my own power to manipulate, my own unresolved frustrations and anger.

And though I live with many limitations of health, I remain committed to responsibilities and goals of my profession. Disability (and consequent early "retirement") notwithstanding, I do what I can to keep writing and to live according to my vocation as a teacher and scholar, a "theologian" (God have mercy on me) and philosopher.

Nor do I wish to neglect the artist, poet, and musician that are rooted in my earliest years and that still stir in me. For too long I have set aside my artistry, but in my present circumstances and time of life I find it awakening once more. If nothing else, I want to support and encourage creative young people (starting with my own kids).

I know something of the peculiar suffering of artistic people and the pressures and stresses that often accompany their gifts. Words are the tools of my craft, and poetry is my art (though I find it very difficult). Music, which was as necessary to me as air in my youth, struggles to reawaken, if not through much diminished former skills, at least in the ear and the heart. Drama and cinema, as art and not simply "entertainment," call forth my appreciation and critical skill.

There is much to live for. Indeed, it is more than I can handle on any one day. The vocation of each person's life has its priorities, and I pray that I might attend to them properly and be less distracted. This too is a daily challenge and a daily struggle, full of trying and failing and beginning again. Always begin again. Never let discouragement win. Never give up.

I am surprised by each day, surprised by life. Sometimes it can be hard. Some days are harder than others. But I am glad and grateful to be still alive on this earth today.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

VIDEO: "Deep Topics" Episode 1

Here is a short video which I have titled "Deep Topics," but if you look at who is peeking over my shoulder, you can guess that laughs are in store.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Insecurity and the Search for Solid Ground

The human being has this terrible insecurity deep down inside of his or her life.

I know I do. Since I was a child, my introspection, obsessiveness, and anxiety have convinced me that I cannot trust in myself. I cannot be confident about my opinions of myself. I cannot be confident that I am seeing reality in the right way.

I don't usually feel very well-grounded. Often I suffer powerful anxiety that seems disproportionate to any immediately perceptible provocation. I try to "keep it to myself," but when it breaks through the surface it reveals to others (and to me) something of the fragility and anguish that remains in me, that I would rather ignore.

Although I have peculiar neuropsychiatric issues here, I don't think that this problem is unusual. We all deal with it on some level. We all search, sometimes desperately, for secure ground upon which to stand in reliable "safety," with a self-sustained confidence that gives us a sense of control over things.

For many years, I attempted to trust in a kind of "Christian ideology." I attempted to impose a conception of what was "necessary to be a good Catholic" on the awful ambiguity of my life. It required a fair amount of rationalizing, interpreting, and good old fashioned fibbing to stuff the mess of my life inside this box so that it would not haunt my sense of self-confidence.

Alongside of this, of course, God was at work, I was praying, seeking Him, and genuinely desiring (in however wobbly a fashion) to do His will and to trust in Him. Yet the ultimate uncertainty of my ideas constantly undermined my confidence.

Illness has forced me to face the need to rely on other people. Yet this reliance cannot become an escape from the responsibility of being a unique human person called to grow in understanding and love, to give of myself.

What a relief it would be to bury my freedom, and simply conform myself to the judgment of others. There is the temptation here to seek an unhealthy "safety" in the personalities of other people, to root myself in other people's coherence, as if the reason why I ought to follow the guidance of my wife, my doctors, my friends, my confessor and spiritual father is because they "have it all together" and I don't.

But this kind of attachment-based security doesn't hold up either, because it becomes clear enough--sooner or later--that the other people I put my trust in are weak human beings too, with flaws and limitations and failures of judgment. A crisis ensues in which my security crashes, or else it holds together only through a further irrational submission of my personality to the psychological and emotional manipulation of the (now increasingly domineering) others who seek from me a level of trust beyond what they deserve.

Nevertheless, I live in communion with these other people. We are called to help one another. How is this possible? Where are the roots of the trust that can enable me with all my fragility to live as a human person in communion with other human persons? How can I be confident and self-possessed in a real human community which is guided by the service of authority, by those who are called to assume responsibility for the common good, for its continuity with the past and readiness for the future?

The foundation of life, the dynamism of its expansion and vitality, is trust. Where are the radical roots of a genuine secure, human trust?

For me, there is only one answer. I have to trust in Jesus. This, for me, is not only a spiritual but also a psychological necessity.

I am grounded in Jesus. I cry out to Him and beg for that certainty, and to keep my life centered on Him. In the Church He lives as a Presence for me now: as a way, as gestures, as a companionship. And other persons are given to me by Him to help me to insert myself into that life. It is He who works through them. It is because of His love for me that I can trust them. Even if we make a mistake, I can trust that He is behind us to catch us.

Look at this great mystery: Christian Marriage. Let's be frank here: I drive my poor wife crazy. There is nothing surprising about that after 20 years. But through all the messiness, through the bond that holds us and makes us "one," Eileen and I do help each other.

And together we carry out the task of shaping an environment (kooky, flawed, but also--we hope--full of faith, hope, love, intelligence, and openness) in which our children are growing and maturing as persons.

It's not because we are coherent. It's because marriage is a sacrament. It's grounded in Him. 

From here, it becomes possible to perceive that my relationships with my other companions are grounded in Him, in the communion of saints; that my relationship with every human person is grounded in Him who is the Savior of the world; that my relationship with reality is grounded in Him who is Lord of all creation.

Beyond any pathological condition, there is that radical anxiety, that radical fear of uncertainty, that afflicts us all. The healing we all need comes from Jesus. This is why He says, "believe in me."

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Kateri Tekakwitha: A Girl Who Still Shows Us the Ways of Love

On this feast day of the flower of North America, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), I'm posting the story I published two years ago in MAGNIFICAT (July 2014).

In every place and time, when the Gospel is preached, courageous young women rise up who follow Jesus with all their hearts. Their beautiful (and often mysteriously brief) lives are a shining witness, and their light brightens the path for those around them and for those who come after.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

You Are Precious to Him

"Jesus loves you always,
even when you don’t feel worthy.
When not accepted by others,
[or] even by yourself sometimes,
He is the one 
who always accepts you.
Only believe, you are precious to Him.
Bring all you are suffering to His feet,
only open your heart
to be loved by Him as you are.
He will do the rest."

~Mother Teresa

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Love and Mercy, Today, for the Whole Mess of My Life

We are more than halfway through this year of 2016. And I am already beginning to see the approach of my "mid-50s." There are so many memories to look back upon.

And I must face the truth: I have made a great bungle of my life.

I have failed at nearly everything, and when I have succeeded it has been by the energy of pride and ambition, the self-promotion of vanity and hypocrisy, the desires for what I want, for what pleases me and gives me comfort, for what gratifies my ego and fosters my sentimental illusions.

Illusions. So many illusions. But relentless time begins to make them crumble. I begin to taste the temptations of the later years of life: desperate self-justification, bitterness, envy, cynicism, despair.

However it may look to others or to my own self-deception, there can be no denying that my life has been a mess.

And I cannot use "illness" as an excuse. On the contrary, my greatest failures and (worse) hypocritical, posturing pseudo-"successes" are in the ways I have understood and responded to suffering.

But wait. Stop. Am I not a good man? I pray. I try, at least sometimes. I do believe the advice I have given to others, "Keep praying. Keep trying. Move forward. Never give up!" I haven't given up. Right?

I do try, and when I fail I get up and try again. But so often it's all just tepid. It's half-hearted. It's all tinged, everywhere, with selfishness. Yes, I have loved! But always there is, somewhere, the weight that pulls at least some of that love down from the level of a gift to the level of a transaction. I give of myself, but because I am expecting to get in return.

I have loved, really and honestly, but not with an entire purity of heart. There is always some part of my heart that is calculating and maneuvering so that whatever I good I do, it always ends up being about me.

Too often this selfish tinge is what gives energy to the motivation to love. When I can't see what's in it for me, my love is small and weak and driven by duties that I rationalize away as much as possible.

I look back on 53-and-a-half years of being a proud, irresponsible, vain, lazy, foolish man. It didn't have to be this way. My life could have been so much better!

I suppose it could have been worse, but I can't take credit for that. The grace and the calling and the beauty of God have been so abundantly showered upon me in my life. If I have accomplished anything truly well, if I have loved rightly and truly given myself at all (beyond the murky mixture of my own obscure motives), it is because of the action of this grace in my soul.

Grace and mercy.

What of all the failures of the past? God in His mercy will turn all of it to the good, if only I trust in Him and love Him, now, today.

My love will still be tinged with selfishness, but the miracle is the wonder, the fascination, the recognition and response to God that He begins to engender within my poor love by His healing and transforming grace.

The real story of my life is the mysterious story of what His grace and mercy are accomplishing in me as I beg for His presence, as I seek to adhere to Him and trust in Him and let myself be embraced by Him who has become flesh. Jesus Christ.

I am truly sorry for my foolish life and I am determined to keep trying to do better, to grow as a person, to grow in understanding and love and doing good. But my hope is not in any power that I can give to myself (I should know better by now), much less in an inventory of what I'd like to imagine I've accomplished in my long and mixed up past (God help me!).

My hope is in Him. My hope is in Jesus Christ. By His grace, I hope to adhere to Him whose redeeming love is greater than my weakness, who has loved me from the beginning, who never gives up on me.

Friday, July 8, 2016

A Path in a Park

This image is from a photo that I augmented, edited, and recast in a "painting" style (sort of "impressionistic," perhaps), working with tools from Paint[dot]Net open photo editing software. If nothing else it's an artifact of one of the ways I use to relax my brain.

Monday, July 4, 2016

America: "A Renewed Spirit of Fraternity and Solidarity"

The United States of America turns 240 years old today. Today is a day for Americans to relax and celebrate and watch fireworks. It is also a day to be grateful to God for so many amazing blessings He has bestowed upon us.

I chose as my reflection for today a section of Pope Francis's speech that he gave at the historic convening of a joint session of the United States Congress on September 14, 2015, wherein he addressed crucial issues of our time involving religion and violence, freedom, solidarity, and cooperation in relation to the American experience. 
"A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.
"But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.
"We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.
"Our response must instead be one of hope and healing, of peace and justice.
We are asked to summon the courage and the intelligence to resolve today’s many geopolitical and economic crises. Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent.
"Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments, and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good.
"The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity, and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience.
"In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society.
"Such cooperation is a powerful resource in the battle to eliminate new global forms of slavery, born of grave injustices which can be overcome only through new policies and new forms of social consensus.
"Here I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the mind of the American people. All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' (Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776).
"If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life."

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Somme: A New Bloodbath Begins (July 1, 1916)

'Those about to die' head over the trenches.
I'm two days late.

I have set myself the gruesome task of noting some key moments in the Centenary of Infamy. Let us return once again to France, in the year 1916.

Recall that the German army had initiated an offensive at Verdun on the Meuse river in February that turned into a six month blood-drenched stalemate. With the hell of Verdun still swallowing the young lives of French and German alike, the allied forces nonetheless decided to go ahead with their plan to open an offensive of their own to the northwest, along the Somme river.

The plan drawn up the previous year had called for the French to lead the offensive with support from the British Expeditionary Force. But since the French were too busy dying at Verdun, the majority of the offensive was given over to the British.

It began on July 1, 1916. Now it was England's turn to plow headlong into the futility of trench warfare, to hurl an entire generation of young men at the unprecedented relentless fire of machine guns far more sophisticated than the Maxim gun first pioneered by the British themselves in their own colonial wars. Now the "devil's paintbrush" turned its deadly strokes on them.

On that first day of July, one hundred years ago, the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties, a third of them fatal. The "Battle of the Somme" would eventually draw blood from a million men on both sides before the end of the year.

Too often we must note that famous definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

Poor mad Europe in the summer of 1916. These were the same people, the same leaders, who -- two years earlier -- prided themselves on being the most advanced civilization in the history of the human race, invested with the responsibility to impose order on the whole world.

And now, a hundred years later. we think we are wiser. We think we know better. We think we are stronger and more humane.

Over what monstrous abyss might we be standing, even now, proud and blind and ready to tumble into new and unimaginable forms of madness?

A generation of unknown soldiers without tombs.

Friday, July 1, 2016


On July 2, I turn fifty-three-and-a-half years old!

ME: Hey Josefina, tomorrow is my "half-birthday." Whatcha gonna get me?

HER: ...a half of a card.

Whoa! SIZZLE! Fried by Jojo. I deserved it. I asked for that one!

She's still small enough that I can carry her on my back sometimes.