Saturday, December 30, 2017

Christmas on New Media (My Christmas Music, Part 3)

I'm still enjoying my Christmas music this week; indeed I'll keep it up through the "Twelve Days" which bring us to the Epiphany, the celebration of the arrival of the "Magi" from "the East."

In this post I want to just indicate and introduce you to a few of the very talented and dedicated people who make music on YouTube. Here I am referring not to mainstream label artists who post their music (though it's great that good artists do so).

I am referring to (usually independent) artists who use YouTube as a "place" where they really "do" their music. This often includes taking advantage of the possibilities offered by an audiovisual medium, as you will see here. These artists each deserve their own post (and I intend to write more about them and others). Today, I am just going to offer a few Christmas songs.

I do want to emphasize that the artists here, and others like them, are not amateurs, though some of them started out that way, and grew over the past decade along with the huge development and unprecedented access to high quality audiovisual media. Many of them are still very young. These "jewels" are not always easy to find in the rough and chaotic world of YouTube, where anybody can post videos.

I have been paying close attention to this media platform for about seven years, but even though I keep my eyes and ears open for good music, there are many outstanding performers that I have not found, or that I know very little about. YouTube is a vast and ever-changing realm. Often the best we can hope to do is to find our own niche where there is music we enjoy, and then expand our horizons a bit by trying some new things.

Let me show you a few examples of some good YouTube music artists that I know, in the context of their Christmas music.

Tyler Ward. This talented young man has been a protagonist on YouTube for a long time. He does covers and original songs, and also tries to bring other YouTubers greater recognition. He coordinated a YouTube Christmas Show in 2014 with many other artists to raise money for charity. In this video, Tyler sings Silent Night in a subdued acoustic presentation of his "pop-country" style:

Cimorelli. Here are six girls who have been singing covers and also their own songs on YouTube for nine years. They are also a YouTube star story, who began in their living room and now have nearly four million subscribers from all over the world and over a billion views (that's not a typo; that's billion with a "B"). We will have to tell more of their story another time.

Oh, did I mention they are sisters? They're all sisters. Six sisters. Not sorority sisters or step-sisters or half-sisters. Full sisters, all from the same mother and father. Oh, and there are five brothers too. That's 11 kids in the Cimorelli family. (Well, some of them are grownups by now.)

They often do a very interesting pop a-cappella style, with the girls trading off different sections of the lead singing role. They are all fine singers and blend very well together.

"But wait," you say, "who the heck is this family with 11 kids?" It's a big wacky, ebullient, hilarious Catholic family! I'm sure some of you who are reading this blog know families like them. (Some of you are families like them!)

The Cimorelli sisters are an excellent and admirable group of kids and young people. Still—notwithstanding their serious demeanor in this recent, very lovely cover of Carol of the Bells—they are also a hoot! They are funny, full of laughter, and have a fascinating interpersonal dynamic. They are very hip with teenage girl stuff and definitely boy-crazy (though with clear boundaries, which they do not hide). They are also willing to talk about problems that kids go through, and speak about their own experiences, vulnerability, and the lessons they have learned.

But more about Cimorelli "next year." Listen to this beautiful rendition of Carol of the Bells:

Just to give you a sense of their funnier side, check out this cover too, of Santa Claus is Coming to Town:

Jonatan Narvaez with Veronica Sanfilippo. YouTube is really bringing together the international music scene, or rather, it allows local music scenes to remain local while also being connected with others all over the world. Singer, songwriter, musician, and producer Jonatan Narvaez of Buenos Aires, Argentina brings outstanding young talent from around the region to his YouTube channel, working with them and giving them a place to develop their singing and performance art and producing the highest quality music videos.

I will be writing more about Jonatan and this very special Hispanic musical community. Here we present an original Christmas song, Ha Traido la Esperanza, beautifully sung by the very talented young artist Veronica Sanfilippo:

Peter Hollens and Mike Tompkins. When it comes to the audiovisual art of being a one person a-cappella choir, Peter Hollens is the master; he is brilliant in so many ways. I don't have time to write much about him here, so I'll have to take up his phenomenal accomplishments at another time. Peter has built a solid following on YouTube and finances his unique music performances through Patreon, one of several crowdfunding platforms specially dedicated to building community between artists and their "fans"—the latter being in fact actively engaged in a creative collaboration. He also seeks to help other artists by working with them on his platform.

On this cover of the classic Little Drummer Boy, Peter Hollens joins forces with another a-cappella YouTube star. Mike Tompkins is a one person band, who specializes in vocalizing a large variety of rhythmic and instrumental sounds in addition to singing. Here are the two of them presenting a rousing and polished rendition of the rumpa-pum-pum:

Friday, December 29, 2017

Tis The Season For Mozart? (My Christmas Music, Part 2)

Every season is Mozart season.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) needs little introduction. He is one of the greatest classical composers of all time. Mozart's music covers the entire 18th century European repertoire: church music, ensemble music, concertos, sonatas, symphonies, operas, and songs and dances. And much of it has a joyful exuberance which is the result of the intersection of great intuition and technical perfection.

I fell in love with Mozart's music when I was 11 years old. I was old enough to borrow vinyl records from the library for two weeks at a time and wear them out with listening. He inspired me to dream of becoming a classical composer, and even to try my hand at it (after all, Mozart himself began composing at the age of five).

He was a child prodigy. I was not. But it was fun trying.

Anyway, it's not hard to find Mozart's music on Christmas playlists or in choral performances during this time of year. He didn't write music specifically for Christmas, but he wrote festive music for sacred and secular contexts that is appropriate for accompanying this joyful season.

After Advent, the Gloria returns to the Latin liturgy on Christmas, and is sung throughout the week. I find the Gloria from Mozart's magnificent Mass in C major especially lovely this time of year:

Another Mozart work appropriate for enjoying at Christmas is the Motet Exsultate, Jubilate. Though it has prayer as its theme, this has been a concert piece from the beginning. It calls for the kind of vocal dexterity that really showcases the talents and skill of an operatic soprano.

Here's another thing that makes YouTube great. Pick someone awesome, like Kathleen Battle. Search on YouTube and BOOM listen to and watch a performance from 1994. Here's the first part:

Mozart also wrote music for parties. Among his German Dances is the one titled "Sleigh Ride," complete with jingling bells. If this isn't yet part of your Christmas playlist, you should really add it. Even this "light" music has that touch of the Maestro's hand, that elegance, delightful flow, perfection, and joyful quality that mark Mozart's genius and make his music so wonderful for Christmas:

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Light that Leads Us

The Christmas Season is here. We are celebrating the birth of Jesus, the true Light who enlightens every human being, and who came into the world to dwell with us.

Jesus in the manger, with Mary and Joseph. The angels. The shepherds. And, in these days, the Kings are journeying to Bethlehem, with the light of a star leading them.

Christmas is a special time for children. The gift of God in Jesus Christ is reflected in the Christmas gifts, the bright decorations, the foods, the gathering together of families, and the expectation of a new year.

When we grow up, we may grow cynical. We may lose our faith. We may carry great burdens. Still, Christmas comes around every year. Even in difficult times, these days in December have a hold on us. They won't allow us to lose our sense of wonder.

But as we get older, the celebration of Christmas is more and more filled with memories that are precious and tender but also irrevocably past.

People who shaped this day for many years are no longer part of it. The present time, and (God willing) the times to come will bring fresh memories, but we become more aware of how fragile they are.

It is not so much that we learn to take nothing for granted. Rather, we learn that everything is, truly, granted. Everything is a gift. We pass through life, through time and pain and aching loss. Past memories and present suffering can cause us to weep, and we learn how poor we are in front of one another.

All of our gifts and all the efforts of our love fall short, and we cannot calm one another's restlessness.

Still our present moments and our memories have a warm glow like garland when we remember that they reflect the light that is leading us home.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A Christina Grimmie Christmas (My Christmas Music, Part 1)

During this Christmas Week, I'm going to share some music. I'll begin with an artist that, as you know if you read this blog, has moved me so deeply in recent years, and in so many ways.

Christina Grimmie sang various traditional and contemporary popular Christmas songs that are still accessible on YouTube. Even though these are not necessarily the best (and certainly not the funniest) of her videos, these songs are marked in a particular way; they are all arranged by her, performed on her electronic piano, and sung by her unique, versatile, powerful soul-stirring voice—an inimitable voice that no longer sings on this earth. It was silenced much too soon.

What we do have, musically, is a kind of "archive" unknown to previous generations: an archive of publicly accessible videos that are as fresh as the day they were made.

Christina sings in what is broadly termed a rhythm-and-blues vocal style. It's the style often used by pop singers today. Some of my readers probably don't like this singing style, and I can understand that. Everyone has different tastes. I'm not particularly a fan of this style myself, unless it's done really, really well.

Christina Grimmie did it really, really well.

I'm going to link a few Christmas song videos here. The sound quality of these particular videos varies depending on the circumstances in which they were made. Listen if you wish, or jump off into YouTube and explore others.

As I've said before, it's worth it to "get to know" this extraordinarily talented, big-hearted, generous but also down-to-earth, sweet, fun-loving, goofy, accessible and in so many ways "ordinary" girl. Christina Grimmie lived something extraordinary even within the most ordinary features of her life. This may not be apparent at first, but the precious multidimensional and multimedia archive of her last seven years in this world conveys a powerful impression that grows over time.

She doesn't come across as what we conventionally think of as a "saint" or "holy person" (and she certainly had ordinary struggles and made plenty of ordinary mistakes). She does exhibit a striking but also familiar kind of goodness; she comes across as someone you would want your daughters to be friends with. And eventually you do really begin to see even more; you start to recognize how her ordinary human ways were suffused with a passion and a tenderness, a contagious joy and an affirmation of life that even now, in the legacy of her videos, proves itself greater than the ultimate weapons of violence.

We need witnesses like her in our poor world. It's not surprising that Christina Grimmie fits in so well with Christmas, and not just for her music.


Returning to the subject of music, let's have some music!🎹🎵

First, here is the classic song What Child is This? It was recorded in Christina's room, with her brother Mark playing an accompaniment on the guitar. Mark himself is an excellent guitarist and musician, but you can't hear him very well over Christina's piano arrangement and ringing vocals. It would have been nice to hear how this would have mixed in a studio. But it's a beautiful performance.

Above all, it's precious just to see the two of them together.

That video was from Christmas 2013. The previous year she did her first of two Stageit Christmas shows, live streaming and interacting directly with a live audience of viewers all over the world. Here is her rendition of Jingle Bell Rock (or as she titles it, "Jingle Bell Rawwk," in reference to the distinctive "Rawwk Fingers" signal she shared with Team Grimmie).

Another "pop" Christmas song she covered was Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas is You. Her second Stageit Christmas show in 2014 may not have the best audiovisual quality, but in my opinion it's her best rendition of it.

Of course, we don't want to leave out her epic and soulful rendition of O Holy Night for Christmas 2011, when she was only 17 years old.

Finally the picture at the bottom (even though it's not from Christmas) seems fitting to illustrate the Christmas tweet I have reproduced below it. Christina used many forms of social media to connect with her frands and respond to them. Twitter was one of the instruments she used to network with kids all over the world.

Christina always tweeted about Christmas and Easter. Sometimes she tweeted a few simple words on a Sunday. Occasionally she would just spontaneously declare her love for God, express her gratitude, or her dedication to the glory of Jesus Christ. But she was never preachy, and usually she was tweeting about the multitude of things that your teenagers and mine are interested in, and reaching out especially to the desperate kids, the ones whose lives were terribly broken, and who so much needed the experience of being loved.

And she did it without any program or scheme or affectation. She did it as a human gesture toward a person, in ways that were possible. She responded according to the concrete opportunity, to a person watching Stageit, on Twitter, in a crowd at a concert, or standing in front of her at a meet-and-greet. She did it with love.

At Christmas, though, she always emphasized the source of that love; and of the joy and vitality of her brief beautiful life.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Pope Francis: To Live in Hope is to Live in Light

"What does it mean to be Christians?
It means to look at the light,
to continue having faith in the light,
even when the world is obscured by night and darkness.

"Christians are not free from darkness,
external and also internal.
They don’t live outside this world,
but thanks to the grace of Christ
received through the rite of Baptism,
they are men and women who are 'oriented':
they don’t believe in darkness, but in the light of the day,
they don’t fall prey to the night,
but they wait for the light of the day;
they are not defeated by death,
but they are eager to be resurrected;
they don’t bend to evil,
because they trust in the infinite possibilities of good.

"And this is our Christian hope,
the salvation given to us by Christ thanks to his light
which is able to save us from darkness.
We are the ones who believe that God is the Father:
this is the light!
We believe that every affection, every friendship,
every good desire, every love,
even the smallest and neglected ones,
one day will find their realization in God:
this is the strength that compels us
to embrace with enthusiasm our daily life;
this is our hope:
to live in hope is to live in light!"

~Pope Francis

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas 2017

Merry Christmas from the Janaro family!

The kids have grown a lot since this blog started nearly seven years ago. Left to right: Teresa (15), Lucia (17), Eileen (Mom), John (Dad), John Paul (20), Agnese (19) and in front of her Mom and Dad, Josefina (11).

Jesus Christ our Savior is born. Glory to Him!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Turning the Power of Fear into the Power of Charity

Pope Francis says some very important things about fear, love, courage, and hospitality on the night of Christmas in Rome. Important words for our consideration and meditation in the coming year:

Christmas "makes us see God present in all those situations where we think he is absent. He is present in the unwelcomed visitor, often unrecognizable, who walks through our cities and our neighbourhoods, who travels on our buses and knocks on our doors.

"This same faith impels us to make space for a new social imagination, and not to be afraid of experiencing new forms of relationship, in which none have to feel that there is no room for them on this earth. Christmas is a time for turning the power of fear into the power of charity, into power for a new imagination of charity. The charity that does not grow accustomed to injustice, as if it were something natural, but that has the courage, amid tensions and conflicts, to make itself a 'house of bread,' a land of hospitality. That is what Saint John Paul II told us: 'Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ' (Homily for the Inauguration of the Pontificate, 22 October 1978).

"In the Child of Bethlehem, God comes to meet us and make us active sharers in the life around us. He offers himself to us, so that we can take him into our arms, lift him and embrace him. So that in him we will not be afraid to take into our arms, raise up and embrace the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned (cf. Mt 25:35-36). 'Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ.' In this Child, God invites us to be messengers of hope. He invites us to become sentinels for all those bowed down by the despair born of encountering so many closed doors. In this child, God makes us agents of his hospitality.

"Moved by the joy of the gift, little Child of Bethlehem, we ask that your crying may shake us from our indifference and open our eyes to those who are suffering. May your tenderness awaken our sensitivity and recognize our call to see you in all those who arrive in our cities, in our histories, in our lives. May your revolutionary tenderness persuade us to feel our call to be agents of the hope and tenderness of our people."

~Pope Francis, from Homily at Midnight Mass, Christmas 2017

Saturday, December 23, 2017

"O God, Enlighten My Darkness"

"In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace"
(Luke 1:78-79).

As Christmas Day approaches, I look back over this brief Advent season—and on this whole year which has felt like a long "Advent," a period of often obscure expectation, sometimes desperate hope, and large changes in life that have already begun as time moves relentlessly forward.

There is a prayer that very often comes forth in my mind and even quietly on my lips. It comes spontaneously and a bit strangely from a deep place my heart:

"O God, enlighten my darkness!"

This is not the "mystical darkness" of John of the Cross (see my post for December 14). It's a darkness of my peculiar complexity as a believer and a broken human being who hangs on to Jesus by what sometimes seems to be the thinnest of threads.

I'm being drawn, slowly, out of the darkness...but also—and I don't exactly know why—I'm passing through the darkness.

"O God, enlighten my darkness!"

What is "my darkness"? It's a mess of features all interwoven in a concrete experience.

I am a sinner who is being wrenched and pried away from the petty sins that I am not willing to give up. That's part of the darkness. It's especially painful because I am so stubborn. But there are more dimensions to this darkness.

Somewhere along the line, without my even noticing it, my youth vanished; I stopped being "the kid with such a promising future," and I found myself looking at the dark wall of all the "promise" that will never be fulfilled, all the accomplishments that will never happen because I was thwarted, or the opportunities didn't arise, or I was just too lazy and I wasted too much time. (Yes, I know there is still much that I can accomplish, God willing, and I remain focused on that.)

So there is the darkness of late-midlife crisis. I can't pretend it's not real. It's a dense, poignant experience that is part of being human.

"O God, enlighten my darkness!"

Then there are the fluctuations of chronic illness, the periodic exhaustion, and the quirky, mostly bearable but probably irreversible damage it has inflicted on my system. Closely related to this is my "Beautiful Mind" riding on its wild neurological roller-coaster, intersecting with an expansive, vast, vigorous, intuitive, penetrating, burdened, broken, sometimes borderline-delusional, often obsessive-compulsive, always hypersensitive, and incurably self-conscious psyche—my psychological profile, my inherited and acquired equipment that I bring into play as a human being interacting with the world.

So is that all? Is that the darkness?—my being a sinful, sick, crazy old genius of a man? With God's grace mixed into all of it, wrestling with me, changing me, drawing me to himself?

No. There is something else. If this sounds like a virtue, then I have failed to describe it. By nature I am sensitive, sentimental, and melodramatic. Those emotions bounce around along with the rest of the mess, but that isn't the "something else" I'm trying to express.

It's not something I do. It's something I suffer and I don't understand why except to say that there is something vocational about it.

I find myself called to compassion. It is a gentle but persistent pain that almost "can't help" resonating with the suffering (especially the interior suffering) of others. It is beyond my human capacities and yet sometimes I think it's the deepest reality of myself. It usually overwhelms me, but I know that it is a path that I desire to follow.

Compassion. And I'm not thinking about martyrdom or doing great deeds for anybody. It's something utterly unremarkable and ordinary—I feel stupid even trying to articulate its importance. But it's part of the darkness.

"O God, enlighten my darkness!"

I find myself inescapably aware of the suffering of other people, especially the people "around me," with whom I interact—all the "regular people" with their many quiet, forgotten sufferings—the people that are part of my life.

These people have been entrusted to me. There are the obvious ones: my parents, my wife, my children, my brother. The ongoing, changing drama of our lives "weighs" on me, but it's not an oppressive weight. It is, however, dark in that we're moving into existential territory in which we don't have a map. This is a human reality, of course. Life changes. The dynamics of family relationships change.

All of this is hard, my dear ones, but I'm with you all the way.

Others who have been "entrusted to me" are in the Christian community that accompanies the daily life of our family. Then there are still others who are spatially distant from me, but we are drawn together by a common path of life and commitment and suffering, by a vocation to solidarity. I think God also has some who are unknown to me, but who are linked to me in the mysterious workings of his grace.

Certainly, God hears the prayer of my "morning offering" and he uses me in ways I don't know.

All of this is part of the "darkness"—the most important part, the hardest part (in some ways), but also it's the most tactile place where I grip the thin thread of the Mystery of God and hold on tight. The "darkness" of compassion—of "suffering-with" other persons—is "brighter" than any light I can find purely within myself.

"O God, enlighten my darkness!"

And thank you, Lord Jesus, for all the people—near and far, known and hidden—to whom you have entrusted me. Those who "suffer-with" me are gems of light in my life. Thank you!

I hold you all in my heart this Christmas. We are all having hard times, in different ways. Let's remember that we are together and let's celebrate and endure sorrows together, with our hearts united. We cannot create this unity by our own power.

Rather, this unity is a gift. It is accomplished and renewed by the One whose birth we are about to celebrate.

The dawn from on high is breaking upon us! Joy is glowing just over the horizon. Soon we will say, "Rejoice! Jesus Christ our Savior is born!"

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Negativity: It's a Bad Thing! (😉)

Being negative is bad! You shouldn't do it! 😜
You saw what I did there? I'm being negative about negativity: Don't be negative!

Seriously, we live in troubled times. We are prone to complaining about all the bad things that happen and running people down.

It's so much easier to focus on all the negative aspects of life, especially when they are always being packaged and served up to us in one way or another in the news.

And there's so much negative stuff out there ready to be packaged. We can't "pretend" that everything is nice. We can't make evil go away by ignoring its reality and destructiveness. Certainly we must hunger for justice.

But how do we keep from just adding more injustice to what has already been done? How do we keep from feeding the cycle of violence through revenge or cynicism? How do we keep from tearing one another apart?

How can we preserve a vision of the ultimately positive, redemptive value of life?

I know that I need to "find Jesus Christ" more in every circumstance, not just because this is the "right thing to do" but because I need it; really, I need him.

Without him every day, my humanity goes off the rails.

Troubled times can be a blessing, in a way, if they help us remember that Christ is everything, that he is the reason "why" I go on living, why I love my family, why I still have passion for the things I'm doing. It's not just human "morality"—it's the fact that he is changing us, he is transforming us into the new creation that he has already established in himself.

I sometimes feel very frustrated because I don't live as if I really believe this (and I will "forget" again, before I finish writing these words) but in that moment when we do recognize it, when we do "remember," ...what a miracle that moment is!!

This awareness comes from God; it's a gift of his love that also leads me to remember my true self and the reason for which each one of us has been created.

I need to pray and beg God to help me to remember more often.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

In the "Bleak" Mid-Winter?

The days are short, with sunset before 5:00 PM. But while they've lasted, they haven't been bleak.

They've been bright.

Hidden things come into view this time of year. The horizon is opened up and simplified. On sunny days, the sky seems bigger and it clamors for our attention with its color and unusual angles of sunlight.

December Silhouette.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The "Politics" of a Living Relationship with God

Frustration with those who wear crowns mustn't discourage us
Politics. It's complicated. I have basic convictions about what it means to entrust people with responsibility for the common good, and I have ideas about various persons and issues.

More often, my ideas are inadequate or unrealistic. But like many others I have a strong sense that things could (and should) be better than they are now.

Above all, I always feel that I have to step back and remember the humanity of people.

I don't want to forget that everyone in this scrum that is our belligerent society has the dignity of being a human person made in the image of God and loved by God.

It's normal to feel angry, repulsed, and disgusted because of the way some of our political leaders and other influential people behave in our society, and to seek justice and look for people more worthy of these responsibilities. Though the urgency of all this stuff may seem more acute these days, there is nothing essentially new about it. This is an ongoing human drama, and problems sometimes get addressed, but even then there remains a residual dissatisfaction. We want the world to be a better place. We want things to change, and the world's resistence to change makes us angry.

What does this mean for our particular lives? These emotions are normal and human, but acknowledging their legitimacy is only the beginning. When we are thus moved, we must do more that simply react. How can we govern these forceful emotions and integrate them into a constructive response that takes into account all the factors and the persons in front of us?

This task calls for a kind of inner discipline that we can only cultivate in a living relationship with Jesus, in the Church. Growing in this way is more "politically" significant than anything else, in my opinion.

This will lead us to develop a habit of mind and heart, a supernatural "common sense" that can help us make judgments about life as a whole, which is ordered to eternal life, and thus also about the manner in which we engage the issues, the injustices, the possibilities, and the limitations of our current political and social situation.

As Christians, our concern for the good in this world is rooted in our living relationship with Jesus Christ.

It does not follow, however, that we should form ourselves into a Christian political party, or make explicit, self-conscious confession of faith into a partisan political ideology.

We live at present in a society where people are in very different places in their journey toward the Mystery for whom they have been created. Certainly there are plenty of people who are bent upon moving in the wrong direction, and others who are misdirected and confused for various reasons about where they are going.

There are also those who live mysteriously within an actual relationship with Christ while not realizing it because of misconceptions and psychological blocks or limits or whatever. Or they recognize it "in part," while also to some extent struggling with it, fleeing from it, or circling around it tendentiously. Christians can also be (and in fact are) in various complex positions in their concrete life, which entail the whole range of human sins.

We are all struggling together on this journey to our ultimate destiny.

In any case, Jesus has made it clear that God wants a relationship with every person, and we can be sure that each person is profoundly engaged in countless mysterious ways at the depth of their life by the One who loves them.

God's grace is always working in people's hearts, and as Christians we want to be wherever that work is, to build human community from there.

I don't know a whole lot about "how" this turns into a big idea for changing the world. But while we must take up this work, we must also resist a kind of utopian expectation that inevitably leads to frustration, discouragement, and cynicism.

We have to apply the "good sense" that develops within our relationship with Christ, the relationship that gives us a concrete awareness of the ultimate purpose of life, and the ultimate reason for our belonging to others as children of God, brothers and sisters.

In this light, we look at the circumstances of life and work hard with what has been entrusted to us. We can only do our best for the day, try to learn, repent for our sins and endeavor to forgive and be forgiven, and then be at peace.

This is a much more heroic challenge that it may at first appear. In fact, we cannot live like this in the world unless our relationship with the Lord continues to be nourished and to grow. We cannot turn ourselves into perfect people or build a perfect community or construct the perfect "program" for social life according to our own design.

Rather we must turn our desire, for every aspect of life, toward the wisdom and love of God. In the midst of the limits of this life, we must pray, we must turn our work into prayer, all our hopes into prayer, and even our politics into prayer.

The Lord will answer that prayer in His own ways and time, and thus we really do change. The point is not that we become self-sufficient, as if in the end we might be able to "leave God behind" once we have become "more right" in our views or "more rigorous" in the control of our behavior.

Rather, the relationship with God grows deeper, and within those depths our lives become more real, more free; we become truly happier, more profoundly human, more like Christ.

THIS is what will change the world.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Rejoice Always!

Gaudete Sunday.

"Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus"
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-17).

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Ways of Real Love

"May I never boast,
except in the Cross

of our Lord Jesus Christ,
through which the world has been crucified to me,
and I to the world"

(Galatians 6:14).

San Juan de la Cruz (a.k.a. "John of the Cross"). Wow, the water is really deep here. And I don't know how to swim!

Of course, it's all true. We won't reach the infinite, transcendent God until we have really endured something like these dark nights. I'm not even close. I've suffered a little and complained a lot.

I'm very small in the ways of real love, which as Father Zossima says in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov "is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams."

Jesus, I throw myself upon your infinite mercy.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Saint Lucy's Light

Traditionally St Lucy's Day was the shortest day of the year. Byzantine iconography has the 4th century Sicilian martyr holding a cross and a lamp, as "Lucia" means "light."

The ancient liturgical prayer shows her to be a young woman who gave herself radically and totally to Christ, loving him as the bride loves the bridegroom:

"O Jesus, your Lamb Lucia cries out to You with great love: 'O my Bridegroom, I long for You in great pain. I am crucified with You, and in baptism I am buried with You. I suffer for Your sake in order to reign with You, I die for You in order to live in You. Accept me as an immaculate victim, since I am immolated for Your love.' Through her intercession, O Merciful One, save our souls!" (Troparion for the Feast of St. Lucia, Byzantine Rite.)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Go to Guadalupe!

The miraculous icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared on Juan Diego's tilma nearly five hundred years ago. I could speak of scientific studies that have only deepened the sense of amazement evoked by this singular image that is kept in the great basilica on the hill of Tepeyac in Mexico City.

Instead I will be very brief. I will say simply this: Go!

Go to Guadalupe! You will have to go to an enormous, chaotic city, to a large and often crowded basilica where you will be directed to a moving walkway beneath the image. You will see something like this (above) when you look up.

In less than a minute, you will pass it. The natural flow of traffic from here appears to lead to the gift shop.

But don't just go to the gift shop and then leave for another tourist spot. This is your time. Mary is here for you.

She won't force you to stay, or to notice her. But if you spend time with this mysterious image of the Mother of Jesus, if you recognize that you have been invited by her to a personal encounter, you will meet her and something new will be born in your life.

Spend time. Give her your attention. Find somewhere in this enormous church where you can sit for a while, and give some space for silence in your heart. Let the Lord enter into the silence that His Mother has specially prepared for you in her "house."

The miracle of Guadalupe is a gift, not just for Juan Diego or Mexico or "the Americas." It's a gift for you, personally. She is your mother, and you are more dear to her heart than you can possibly imagine. How could it be otherwise? Jesus is your brother.

He speaks to her from the Cross about you: "Woman, behold your son" (John 19:26). He also speaks to you: "Behold, your mother!" (John 19:27).

So go to Guadalupe. If you have been there already, go again! She will bring the tenderness of God's love close to you in all your sorrows and fears. She will begin to untie the knots. She will draw you closer to Jesus.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Christina Grimmie's Gift of Herself

The live streamed Stageit concert that Christina Grimmie gave from her home on December 21, 2014 is still archived in several places on YouTube. My daughter Josefina and I were watching it again this afternoon.

Today happens to be 18 months—a year and a half—since the Lord called this outstanding young woman to Himself at the age of only 22.

If you love Christina Grimmie, you know how each one of these videos is precious. There is, above all, the collection of videos she made for her own channel (the famous "zeldaxlove64") but there are also other videos from television appearances, and then many taken and preserved by people who attended her concerts, or who recorded some of these originally live streamed audiovisual media events and subsequently shared them on YouTube.

This "Christmas Concert" from 2014 is a special gem. She spends an hour or so playing the keyboard and singing songs (some Christmas songs, others regular songs), while interacting with a global audience via a message feed. The sound quality is basic, and the video gets choppy or breaks off from time to time. Live streaming on internet platforms has been improving technically in recent years and will no doubt improve a great deal more. But the relatively primitive nature of the medium does not prevent her from shining through.

At the close of 2014, after an amazing year as a finalist on Season 6 of The Voice, a year in which she sang on television and on large, elaborate stages, she ends up—once again—in her room with her piano keyboard singing on the internet. But this was originally done "live," so there are no edits. The freshness and spontaneity of the original global Team Grimmie hangout with Christina remains vivid.

She expresses herself with an indescribable combination of courageous, unaffected confidence and a kind of (I don't know if this is the right word) "shyness" ...but not in a negative way. Rather it is a striking absence of guile and self-preoccupation, a sense of humor about herself, and a transparency in the way she responds to persons and things. She is genuine and full of goodness, with an innocence that is not naive but, on the contrary, intelligent and brave. The beauty and value of innocence and goodness radiate out from her and draw other people in the same direction.

It no longer surprises me that so many kids who interacted with her and followed her say things like, "she changed my life."

The truly remarkable quality of Christina Grimmie as a person, however, is a discreet and gentle thing. It's easy to "not notice it" (especially for us grownups). We could watch this or some other of her videos and say, "Oh what a sweet person" and then return to our life of complicated thoughts and ambitions and prejudices.

If we at least take time to listen to the music, we will recognize her extraordinary talent. Here she is, without the high tech of a studio or sophisticated equipment, without retakes, just dealing out one great song after another—fresh, creative interpretations of even her own songs, entirely carried by her actual voice, with all of its agile strength, stunning range, and breathtaking versatility.

But even if we notice the music, it's easy to miss the greatest thing: the way she loved, the way she gave of herself. It can take some time for us to notice the persistence and ardor of this self-giving, which takes shape in so many little things: in gestures, in the way she carries herself, in the way she speaks and in the generous effort to put herself forth.

Somehow, she uses this medium as a way to be present, insofar as is possible, to every person watching. But she is not invasive. She does not push, but rather creates a kind of relational dynamic of openness and welcome that is enthusiastic but not intrusive. She generates an environment, a space where you can feel at home "with" her, in some sense. It's a humble thing, which makes it easy to miss, but precious to discover. There is love invested in what she does, love that anticipates the encounter with people, that goes out to meet them.

And it's still possible for her love to reach us now, even though her life on earth was ended by an act of incomprehensible violence, 18 months ago.

Violence comes and goes in time, but love endures. Christina Grimmie's gift of herself (which includes her music and so much more) continues to be real just as she continues her real life as a person in and through the mystery of God's merciful love.

The joy that is visible in her life remains accessible, pointing to the promise of a fullness of joy that we are all called to share forever.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin

"In your strength, O Lord, the just one rejoices;
how greatly your salvation makes him glad!
You have granted him his soul's desire"
(Entrance Antiphon for December 9, cf. Psalm 21:1-2).

Friday, December 8, 2017

Full of Grace

"You shall be called by a new name pronounced by the mouth of the Lord" (Isaiah 62:3).

Hail Mary, Full of Grace,
The Lord is with you....

"I am the Immaculate Conception" (the Blessed Virgin Mary to St Bernadette at Lourdes, 1858).

Grace can do anything. No one was more completely and profoundly "saved by Jesus" than Mary, whom he saved even from the "Fall" itself so that this daughter of Eve might be in every respect the New Eve, from whose flesh God would bring forth the New Adam.

It was totally, entirely the work of God's grace. "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord," Mary says. "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:46-47).

All generations call her "blessed" (Luke 1:48). Ever-Virgin and Mother, who--according to the Lord's plan and by the power of the grace of her Son's redemption that he won on the cross for all times and places--was preserved from sin from the first moment of her existence.

We take up the angel's greeting as we acknowledge the joy of Mary Immaculate, Panagia, All-Holy, Kecharitomene, Full of Grace.

But we don't adore Mary. We adore Jesus, the Eternal Word made flesh in her womb. We love Mary and we depend on her because she brings Jesus to us. So that we might especially trust in God's closeness, he has willed to touch our humanity through the tenderness of a woman's heart. Mary!

Thank you, Jesus, for the wonderful gift of your Mother Mary, for the love of her all-holy immaculate heart. She carries us all and keeps us close to you.

"Behold, your Mother..." (John 19:27).

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Grief, Sorrow, and Longing for Home

This is a time of year when people prepare for celebrations. But we must not forget that, for many people, this is also a time of year when loved ones are missed, when grief flows afresh in the wake of cherished and bittersweet memories of those who are no longer with them in this world.

As Christians we know that death is not the end. The One whose coming we await in this season is the One who gives eternal life. We are people of radical hope.

Yet we experience grief in all its poignant human and mysterious senses. And I don't think we ever overcome in this life the suffering of our deepest and most intimate griefs.

Rather, as we grieve the loss (from this earthly life) of those we love the most, we "grow into" our grief. Eventually, it takes shape as a kind of "peace," but not the quietude of forgetfulness or satisfaction. Rather, it is a peace in which sorrow grows into longing. We cannot help but continue, in the depths of ourselves, to live within that real connection with persons who have fundamentally shaped who we are, even when it stretches us "beyond" the limits of this world, beyond what we can perceive or imagine. Perhaps grief is one of the great struggles of life that leads us to the beginning of a deeper sense that eternity is our true home.

Thus we begin to recognize that even now we are invested in that eternity, that what we are living now only comes to fruition in eternity, in the resurrection, in Jesus where all of God's mysterious wisdom is revealed.

Eternity is the measure of His plan for us and for our loved ones. It has the whole of His unique love for each one of us as unique human persons, and it unveils how through this uniqueness we are brought together in a communion of love with God who is Love, who is Communion (Father, Son, Holy Spirit - One, but not "solitary," not alone). Thus also we are brought together in perfect communion with one another.

Eternal life is where the meaning of everything in this present life finally comes into focus. At most we get glimpses of it during our journey here, enough (I believe) to keep us going, to take the next step of this present moment in the journey with a more ardent awareness of our destiny.

Enough to press onward with longing and with hope that we will all finally come to our true home.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Earth Shall Be Filled with Knowledge of the Lord

"The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,

and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.

"The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra's den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder's lair.

"There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord,
as water covers the sea."

~Isaiah 11:6-9

Monday, December 4, 2017

Darkness in the Prison of My Mind

I feel like my mind is in prison. In a closed cell. In solitary confinement.

We lay it all out here on this blog. This is a place where people can see the utter poverty and personal brokenness of a man who "looks pretty good on paper," who speaks and writes in an articulate way about history, about the lives of heroic men and women, about God and conversion and faith, theology, philosophy, and literature and all that stuff.

For those new to the blog, I have chronic illness. I suffered a physical and mental breakdown ten years ago which led to my "retirement" from active teaching (you can read more about it in this BOOK from 2010). I am now a writer when I can be. I am just one wounded person trying to help others with what I can still give. If that frightens you away, I can't do anything to keep you from running. It can be a frightening thing.

I believe all the things I write, and I draw on my own experience with its more or less obscure indicators as well as its occasionally vivid signs. These things are at least in my memory, even if right now I find myself in the dark.

This year has just been so very, very hard.

I am oversensitive. I think too much. I am too often alone. Nevertheless, there are many times when I don't mind being alone, and I need to think and be sensitive. So I make the best of it.

But it's out of control. I'm trapped. Everything feels shattered and crippled and messed up in my life, but I do have this small strand of myself on which, if I am very careful, I can manage to live in a human way.

So I try to write and communicate with people, and read and think and pray. I try to love my family, though I feel useless and frustrated for being useless.

As I get older, the space gets smaller. Everything slowly gets harder. The paralysis of the rest of me seems to grow. Even when I wrote Never Give Up (the book) I didn't really see how the passage of time would affect me in this way.

But I am fighting against it, at least in some ways. I am trying to learn new things, and to be open to reality which has so much mysterious richness for me even after nearly five and a half decades. I am trying to live in empathy and solidarity with others who are suffering and to encourage and rejoice in the fresh energy of the coming generation (including my own children).

I'm fighting, except in those places where I'm still too proud to admit I'm poor and in need.

I'm fighting and I'm losing sometimes and maybe winning a little. Still, my "center cannot hold. Things fall apart." I know where this all leads, ultimately, and I am afraid.

I am scared of death.

Mostly, I am scared of death because of my weak faith. But also, death is a strange and incomprehensible and mysterious thing. It's a plunge into the dark. Even though it may yet be years away, I feel scared. I feel the darkness of it even now, as time slowly diminishes me.

I know Jesus is here in this darkness. He is here all the way to the end. He accompanies me and asks me to entrust myself to Him. It doesn't really comfort me right now, but that doesn't change the fact that He is still here

I need Him to hold onto me.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Advent 2017

Advent 2017 is only 22 days long.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel...

Friday, December 1, 2017

Fire in the Desert

Blessed Charles de Foucauld was a man of tremendous passion and energy. 

As a wealthy youth in France at the end of the 19th century, he poured his energy into a playboy lifestyle. He tried to saturate himself with the pleasures of life, but they left him empty.

When he tired of dissipation, he turned to more serious worldly pursuits: he joined the French foreign legion in Morocco, then returned on his own to explore the region extensively, draw up detailed maps, and publish an acclaimed book. 

None of this adventurous activity satisfied Charles. But then he returned to the Catholic faith of his childhood.

He met Jesus Christ, who set his life on fire.

Charles tried joining a monastery in France, but this did not prove to be his vocation. So he went to the Holy Land, and worked for a while as a gardener to a community of nuns. Then—drawn by the Holy Spirit and helped in his discernment by others in the Churchhe returned to Morocco as a new kind of "missionary," living a monastic life of prayer, presence, and service deep in the Islamic world, among those who knew nothing of Christ.

But even this was not enough. For the love of Jesus, Charles sought to live among the poorest and most forgotten people, and he made his hermitage deep in the Sahara desert among the Tuareg, a Muslim nomadic people who called him "marabout" (holy man). He did not preach. He spent his days in contemplation and caring for the people.

The French abandoned this "colonial frontier" to fight the Great War, but Charles remained. Finally, he found fulfillment on December 1, 1916 when he was shot and killed by a local militia group.

After his death, others were moved to follow his path. His inspiration led to the founding of the institute of the Little Brothers of Jesus (and soon after that, the Little Sisters of Jesus) who live today not only in the Sahara desert, but in many environments as "contemplatives on the roads of the world."

In simplicity and poverty, their life is devoted to worshipping God and loving the people around them, because in the heart of Jesus Christ they have discovered that every human person is worthy of love.

"We are all children of the Most High. All of us: the poorest, the most outcast, a newborn child, a decrepit old person, the least intelligent human being, the most abject, an idiot, a fool, a sometimes sinner, the greatest sinner, the most ignorant, the last of the last, the one most physically and morally repugnant - all children of God and sons and daughters of the Most High. We should hold all human beings in high esteem. We should love all humankind, for they are all children of God."
-- Blessed Charles de Foucauld 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Dorothy Day: Loving One Another in the "Here-and-Now"

Dorothy Day's long labors came to an end on November 29, 1980. After her conversion, she spent half a century bearing witness to Christ and serving Him in the poor.

Dorothy was a radical in every sense: she was rooted in prayer, penance, and fidelity to the Church, while also recognizing that a living faith has radical implications for the way human persons regard and interact with one another.

Her extensive writings are a dimension of her whole personal witness, and her voice was prophetic in that it pointed to a way of looking at the world—the demiurgic, tumultuous, explosive world of the twentieth century (that continues today). She endeavored to give a voice to the poor, to the dignity of the human person and the mysterious workings of God's grace, and to the deep passion and hard realism of loving our neighbor, of loving one another in the here-and-now.

Before she began her powerful apostolate and founded The Catholic Worker, however, Dorothy Day underwent her own long and often difficult conversion experience. The hand of the Lord was upon her from childhood, but she ran from Him in the days of her youth. She ran down desperate roads and into dark places only to encounter the love of God again and again, until she finally surrendered to Him.

Her story is, indeed, a "Great Conversion Story," and though I cannot do justice to this remarkable story in two small pages of a magazine article, I gave it my best shot in last month's MAGNIFICAT

I have been writing this monthly series called Great Conversion Stories for four years in this excellent magazine, and there's much more to come in 2018 and beyond. And my column is only one of many reasons to subscribe to MAGNIFICAT and benefit from it every month.

The Servant of God Dorothy Day died 37 years ago. In marking this anniversary today, I can only provide the most brief of introductions to the early years of this great and unique, holy and challenging woman of faith: