Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Romano Guardini's "The Lord" Never Gets Old

So often, over the past 30+ years (i.e. since my days as a graduate student), this singular book has been one of my companions during Holy Week. The Lord is a book that has graced many bookshelves of Catholics since my childhood (including, if I remember correctly, that shelf in the home I grew up in, where I first encountered so many great writers).

It is a series of erudite yet bracing and provocative meditations on the life of Jesus Christ. It is provocative in a very positive sense, in that it challenges our comfortable images of Jesus and our efforts to "domesticate" Him to fit our agendas and our measure. It confronts us continually with the mystery of the Person and mission of Jesus, who is "The Lord."

Romano Guardini - a brilliant 20th century churchman towering in stature as a teacher, immense in influence even to the present day, yet also remarkably underappreciated - wrote many books on subjects ranging widely over theology, philosophy, and Western literature. He was also a pioneer in the liturgical movement and in pastoral ministry to young people many years before Vatican II.

He was a unique figure who defied categorization: an Italian by heritage who grew up and spent nearly his entire life in Germany, and spoke and wrote in German. He was not a systematic theologian, but the depth of his faith and learning inspired the theological studies and the vocations of many figures (including the last three Popes) and many currents of thought that came after him. 

His insights into Christian personalism were of significance to Saint John Paul II, while he was much loved by the German Papa Ratzinger. And Jorge Bergoglio began (but did not have the chance to complete) a dissertation on Guardini, and Pope Francis continues to draw from the wealth of Guardini's insights for following the narrow path of the Church's mission in a world of technological power.

Guardini was wonderfully attuned to the whole range of the aspirations and the tragedies of human life, and his lectures at the University of Berlin in the 1920s and early 1930s were widely attended by Catholics and Protestants, and also non-Christians, agnostics, and anyone searching for truth.

It is useful to understand that The Lord was written within a precise context, as a perennially valid proclamation of the uniqueness of Jesus that perhaps owes something of its particular vividness to Guardini's open rejection of the Nazi ideology. Guardini was determined to oppose Nazi efforts to co-opt Jesus and reinterpret his life in support of their racist pagan agenda. 

Guardini had already criticized these views directly in articles, so that when the original German edition of Der Herr was first published in 1937, it was clear that he was holding up the mystery of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery as light in the darkness that was overtaking Germany. The SS responded by storming bookstores and ripping the books down from the shelves. The internationally renowned professor himself was too large a target (at that time) for open persecution, but Hitler's government "invited" Guardini to "retire" from his professorial chair at the University of Berlin. In the face of this attempt to silence him, Guardini took his course on "Catholic Worldview" to the Jesuit church across the street, and his lectures remained packed in 1939.

It was clearly not a situation that would long be tolerated. During the war years, Guardini was effectively "internally exiled" to a rural area, but he continued to privately publish and circulate pamphlets on the significance of the Christian life that sustained many ordinary Catholics in their fidelity to Christ and refusal to worship the idols of the National Socialist State. But Guardini's emphasis remained the profound positivity of "Christian existence," which is the fruit of God's gratuitous love that establishes a "new criterion" in front of all human circumstances.

For this reason, Guardini's preaching continues to resonate powerfully in today's very different global social and cultural context, and is relevant in front of any and all totalizing political and/or social ideologies. Guardini's intention was always to bear witness to the whole "uncompromising" reality of Jesus - so that Jesus might be encountered as the gift of the freedom of God's overflowing love - but also with acute awareness of the resistance raised in a multitude of forms by "the world" (the realm inhabited by humans insofar as they are closed to God and trapped within their own criteria).

The text quoted immediately below expresses the summons and the challenge that Jesus "the Lord" is for us, and how He becomes the criterion for seeing the whole of reality. The entire book illuminates the Gospels and the New Testament in light of this summons to conversion and the freedom it promises:
"One must cease to judge the Lord from the wordly point of view and learn to accept his own measure of the genuine and the possible; to judge the world with his eyes. This revolution is difficult to accept and still more difficult to realize, and the more openly the world contradicts Christ's teaching, the more earnestly it defines those who accept it as fools, the more difficult that acceptance, realization. Nevertheless, to the degree that the intellect honestly attempts this right-about-face, the reality known as Jesus Christ will surrender itself. From this central reality, the doors of all other reality will swing open, and it will be lifted into the hope of the new creation."

Here below is another particular selection from my reading this week, which gives insight into the seemingly "peculiar way" (in human terms) that Jesus "fails" to play the winning hand that his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem had given him. He is clearly pursuing something beyond the boundaries of merely human, earthly success:
"A man convinced of his high mission and placed in a similar position [as Jesus found himself in after Palm Sunday] would have done everything possible to drive home the truth. He would have spoken with the priests, the Scribes, with those who had influence among the people; he would have taken Scripture to hand and clarified his identity with the aid of the Messianic prophecies. He would have attempted to recapture the hearts of the crowd, to reveal to them the essence of his teaching, and to win them over to his side.

"Is this what happens? No!

"Jesus does proclaim the truth, and his words are powerful and penetrating; but he makes nothing like the effort we expect of him. And his manner is anything but winning; it has something uncompromising about it, harsh and challenging. One eager to do everything in his power to swing a crisis in his favor does not speak as Jesus speaks....The man we mentioned might also have reasoned thus: The time for persuasion is past; now for action! The adversary impermeable to reason must be met on his own grounds - force with force. He would have attacked each group at its weakest point. He would have played the Sadducees against the Pharisees and vice-versa. He would have appealed to the people, would have warned them, stirred them to action, would have denounced their leaders and won them over. Or he would have realized that the odds were against him and flee.

"Jesus could easily have done so. The Pharisees even expected him to: 'You will seek me and will not find me; and where I am you cannot come' (John 7:34-35). The Jews
[i.e. the elites of Judea] therefore said among themselves, 'Where is he going that we shall not find him? Will he go to those dispersed among the Gentiles, and teach the Gentiles?' Our man would probably have done so. He would have gone to Alexandria or to Rome, certain of finding open ears there and hopeful of returning later under more favorable conditions. But this idea is totally foreign to Jesus.

"There remains one more possibility: that our man admit himself defeated and, according to his nature, exhausted, despairingly, or proudly die. Perhaps he would even fling himself into death, as the mysterious counterpole of success, reckoning on the logic of death and life, catastrophe and new beginning. 
Nothing of all this applies to Jesus, though attempts were made into the period in which 'the eschatological' was in
vogue [i.e. 19th century liberal protestant exegesis], to prove that when all possibility of earthly success was clearly out of the question, Jesus played upon the 'success of a failure,' on the mysterious intervention of God, hoping that from his death would come the fulfillment of all things. Actually, there can be no talk of this. Jesus does not capitulate; never is there the slightest trace of 'breakdown,' and it is as false to speak only of catastrophe, as it is to take his earthly failure in a bound of mystic-enthusiasm that tries to make a creative downfall of his death. This is unrealistically exalted and, by comparison with the truth, thin psychology.

"Here is something quite different. What?

"If we follow the Gospel reports of Jesus' last days closely, we find nothing of extreme concentration on a single goal; nothing of relentless effort or struggle in the usual sense of the word. Jesus' attitude is entirely serene. He says what he has come to say - unmitigatingly, objectively; not with an eye to its acceptance, but as it must be said. He neither attacks nor retreats. He hopes for nothing as humans hope and fears nothing. When he goes to Bethany by night and stays with friends because of the opposition against him, this does not mean that he fears his enemies, but simply that the ultimate is postponed because its hour is not yet ripe.

"Jesus' soul knows no fear, not only because he is naturally courageous, but because the center of his being lies far beyond the reach of anything fearful. Therefore, he cannot really be called audacious in the human sense. He is only completely free for what in every minute of his life must be done. And he does it with unutterable calm and sovereignty.

"The more closely we distinguish between Jesus and any other man, the more clearly we see that what is happening here is not measurable by human standards. True, it is conceived by human spirit, willed by human will, experienced by the most ardent and sensitive of human hearts; but its origin and the power with which it is consummated give Jesus a greatness outside human comprehension. So God's will is done, and Jesus wills this will" 
(from The Lord, 1954 English edition, pp. 344-346).

Saturday, March 27, 2021

COVID and the Ways of Our "Crosses" ... With Jesus

It is Saturday, March the twenty-seventh, in the year two-thousand-twenty-one.

Last year, March began with hints of Spring in the air. By the end of the month, however, the world seemed to have rolled off its axis and into a dark hole. The COVID-19 Pandemic came roaring into the United States of America.

The past year has had no precedent in my lifetime. Nothing like this ever happened: the sudden spread of an evasive highly infectious worldwide pathogen bringing mild illness to many and deadly illness to some (relatively, we might even say "few," but still far too many for us to do nothing); the heroic efforts of doctors and scientists to contain it, along with the often chaotic responses of political officials who admittedly needed to address many complex social and economic concerns but who also - here in the USA at least - had to spin their responses through the vortex of the pressures and political conflicts of an election year.

A year later, here we are, still "dealing with the Pandemic." Vaccines are being rolled out, and high risk populations and essential workers are getting them with varying degrees of success and/or difficulty. Possibilities are also beginning to open up for a broader range of demographic groups. The challenges of the vaccination campaign, nevertheless, remain formidable. Meanwhile, we have almost become accustomed to the infection-limiting rituals that have allowed businesses, stores, restaurants, and many schools to open after the lockdowns of last Spring. 

Generally, people continue to follow prudently the indications and recommendations of public authorities (which vary in many ways from one U.S. State to another, or even between different local areas within States). Lots of people continue to be devastated by the economic impact. Many others have been mentally afflicted by all the uncustomary stress and social restrictions that have been imposed, then lifted, then imposed again (this latter experience is even more characteristic of Europe, I think).

We have vaccines, which should work against mutations of the virus. Still, we remain in this weird zone of living differently and not seeing clearly how this will all play out. Some parts of the world, no doubt, will get control over Covid-19 more quickly and more effectively than others.

As a "semi-invalid" since 2008, I didn't think my material life would change all that much when everyone else was placed under restrictions. In fact, though I have appreciated from long experience the concerns and difficulties of others about being "stuck-in-the-house," the Covid world has also been bizarre and perplexing in new ways for me personally. I still have my own chronic health problems, which have not fared well recently. Lyme Disease is not acting up more than usual (technically I'm "cured" - no thanks to the medical people in my country who made up the still-very-disputed criteria for all this in 2007 - but I still have a "syndrome"... or whatever...) and I'm taking extra care to ensure that it doesn't have any reason to flare up.

Mental health is a different story. I have had some significant episodes of depression in this past year. Depression is the "funk," the bewilderment, the immobilization of healthy inclinations, the ponderousness of mind which I have come to recognize as "physical" - as an affliction of the physical dimension of the cognitive/emotional process. Of course, the human mind and heart transcend this process (in the depths of the spiritual person) but they don't detach themselves from it.

Sometimes I feel so ... isolated. I feel like an impenetrable blob, disconnected from everything. It's a "feeling" that I know doesn't define me, but still... it's a feeling, every bit as much as a punch in the stomach is a "feeling."

It's a form of suffering

I know that the greatest suffering peculiar to the Pandemic is endured by people who get the grave, life-threatening version of this disease, who are sick and isolated in hospitals: especially people who die alone, and their loved ones who could not be with them. I cannot imagine what an awful catastrophe this has been for them. My heart and my prayers are with them.

But other kinds of suffering in relation to these times are also real. Many have been afflicted in many ways.

A year of the COVID crisis has been a huge strain on my mental health. I will not emerge without "damage," but we'll work through it. I have medication, of course, and ZOOM consultations with the doctor. As Nick Fury says, "this is not my first rodeo," but I can only imagine how much strain this is for so many people - how much suffering people continue to endure, how desperate they have become.

It's so hard, my friends. I know. 

Some of you I have corresponded with via social media. Or I have heard of your distress in the news. Young people - who need to meet other young people, socialize with them, have a life of growing and experiencing new things together - my heart goes out to you especially. It has been hard for my own kids/young-adults to navigate this past year. In our area, the schools and universities opened last Fall and have managed to stay open. But I know that many young people are still struggling in more restricted circumstances. Let us hope things get better soon.

But things will never be the same for people who have lost jobs and/or had careers or businesses fall apart. I know how hard that is, how shocking, how traumatic. It creates a lot of material problems, but also causes its own type of grief. I know how that is. I'm still broken myself from my own previous experiences of this kind of loss. (You can read about my story in THIS BOOK [click HERE] - which is from 2010 but still relevant and, I hope, helpful.)

Grief. That's another thing I'm still trying to endure. 2020 seems like a warp in the time-space continuum. Grief got "shelved" temporarily (I don't know how else to put it), like time had just stopped along with everything else.

Last year, if I thought about the loss of my father in 2019, I felt - in part - a certain "relief" that we were able to accompany him through his own final illness (which was awful enough). Those days in March of 2019 seemed more precious last year, as I heard stories of elderly people dying alone in confusion and pain, in hospitals, without their children and grandchildren, sometimes (if they were Catholic) even without the sacraments of the Church, which are such a tremendous help to sick people.

We had so much time at my father's bedside. I am so grateful for that time, even though it was still shattering in its own way, even though it ended in his death.

Now, it is two years ago that he lay dying. I find that I am grieving again. I miss Dad so much.

Everything has gone "crazy" in the past three years. Last year the whole world "decided to join in" and turn upside down. But now I feel very close again to those days at the end of March 2019, my final days with my Dad, and all the days that came before, when he was still with us in this life. I wish I had loved him more, and listened to him more. He had such a good heart.

I'm glad he had so much time with his grandchildren. They gave him so much joy. His eyes-that-were-of-this-world are now closed, so he will not look upon his great-granddaughter when she is born in July (nor will she look upon him in this present age). But I will tell her about him, and we will pray for him.

I know that he is still near to all of us, through the Heart of Jesus. I know by faith... but such knowledge is the light before dawn, and sometimes it seems a luminous darkness. Faith does not take away grief. Grief must be endured, with all its strangeness. Faith reminds me that this endurance, and all our sufferings, have meaning.

Jesus does not leave us alone in our suffering.

Two years ago, while we kept vigil with my father, I wrote the words below (in the burgundy color) on my BLOG. Who is this guy who writes this stuff? Me, JJ, the Christian Wimp? I relate to the disciples when the storm came and Jesus was asleep in the boat, and they said "Help! Please wake up! We're going to sink!" I am "he-of-little-faith," and I'm not just playing humble here. Ask anybody who knows me. Ask my wife or any of my kids.

But I know what I write here is true, and I must say it. Sometimes I glimpse it myself... in a moment... like Peter when he stepped out onto the water. His initial boldness reminds me of myself 30+ years ago, as an aspiring young philosopher and theologian. And that too was born of faith. It still is, when reason sees the whole truth of reality in faith, when we walk on water toward the face of Jesus.

But most of the time, I'm like Peter looking at himself on the water and going, "What am I doing? This is impossible! It's crazy!" And then I'm drowning and I cry out, "Jesus, save me!" He grabs hold of me.

That's my whole life. Letting Jesus grab a hold of me. What matters is not whether or not I can water-ski. What matters is that He is here.

He is here. That's where these words came from, two years ago. The fact of His presence with us. He really is here: 

We walk with Jesus on the path of our own suffering, offering ourselves and whatever we are called to endure to God our Father, as He draws us by the Holy Spirit into a deeper participation in Christ's "Pascal Mystery" - the Event of His death and resurrection. Here God reveals and gives Himself as Love.

The Mystery who makes us and all things reveals Himself as "the Mystery of Unfathomable Love."

He always remains "Mystery," higher and deeper than our comprehension, but He is the super-luminous Mystery of Truth and Love who gives meaning and purpose to our lives. And He is the Mystery who shows His love for us by coming to dwell with us, the Mystery-made-flesh. 
He is with us. Our very flesh is akin to His flesh, as we were created - each one of us, and all of us, every human being - to be His brothers and sisters. 
And it is Unfathomable Love that takes up all our vulnerabilities and (for the sake of Love) bears them all the way to the end. He reveals the glory of Divine Love by taking upon Himself and enduring our weakness, our suffering, and even our sins by which we have separated ourselves from Him and one another. 
God loves us. He is infinitely "deeper" (as Love) than our hatred and violence and selfishness and all the horrible wounds we inflict by sin, and He wants to be with us. He is also deeper than our sorrows, burdens, fears, and infirmities. 
He is with us in our infirmities. Indeed He has made them His own by love, and has begun even now to transfigure them from within. 
We who live an apparently insignificant life in this frail flesh, who grow old and sick and dispossessed of everything we thought we could control as we slip away into the obscurity of death - we are grains of wheat sown deep in the earth with Jesus in His death, and the mysterious power of His resurrection already begins to bear fruit in us. 
Jesus is here, carrying us in our infirmities, because He wants to be with us. He does not love our suffering. He loves us. He is transforming our suffering, and He calls on us to trust in Him to continue and fulfill this work of purification and transfiguration He has begun in us.

Friday, March 26, 2021

The Annunciation is the Beginning of Our Redemption

Yesterday we celebrated the Solemnity of the Annunciation. It was a poignant "foretaste" of Easter and also a good preparation for the coming Holy Week. This image is from the unique contemporary mosaic iconography of Mark Rupnik:


The profound Collect Prayer for the liturgy includes the mysteries of the Incarnation, grace that transformes and empowers our freedom, and our ultimate destiny to become "partakers of the divine nature." This is the Redemption that Christ will win for us on the Cross, conquering the darkness of sin and death:

O God, who willed that your Word 
should take on the reality of human flesh 
in the womb of the Virgin Mary, 
grant, we pray, 
that we, who confess our Redeemer to be God and man, 
may merit to become partakers even in his divine nature. 
Who lives and reigns with you 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

One of the options for today's Collect continues these themes, referring more explicitly to the events we are about to relive in the coming celebration of the Paschal Mystery. We cling to Jesus as our hope, asking for grace and expressing gratitude for God's gratuitous love from the depths of ourselves, following the way of Mary's "Yes" and relying on her intercession:

O God, who in this season 
give your Church the grace 
to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary 
in contemplating the Passion of Christ, 
grant, we pray, through her intercession, 
that we may cling more firmly each day 
to your Only Begotten Son 
and come at last to the fullness of his grace. 
Who lives and reigns with you 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Hope of Saint Oscar Romero

On this day we mark the 41st anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Oscar Romero, the great Archbishop in the Central American nation of El Salvador, murdered for his love for Christ in the persons of the poor and the oppressed at the beginning of his country's terrible civil war. We need his intercession more than ever in our lacerated hemisphere so full of suffering, so much overtaken by the culture of death.

We need the clarity of Romero's way of seeing reality, the courage of his witness, and the hope that constantly renewed his firm adherence to Jesus Christ and sustained his commitment to the human dignity of Jesus's brothers and sisters in their suffering.

Romero was assassinated in the late afternoon on March 24, 1980 while saying Mass for the religious sisters and patients at Divine Providence Hospital where he lived. A professional hit man of a "Death Squad" fired a single shot from the back of the church after the Archbishop had concluded his homily and as he approached the altar for the Offertory. It is fitting to mark this day with quotations from that final homily. In these few words, we learn much about how the Redemption of Christ penetrates all of life, invests everything with meaning, and grounds the action that fosters and cherishes whatever is authentically human.

They are words that help us understand why it is worth living every day, and why it is worth dying in union with Jesus who is the Life. They are the last words of an Archbishop, a martyr, and a saint, who was given to his people and to all of America - North, Central, and South - for our own time and for times to come, for who-knows-what unknown challenges we will have to face together:

"...You just heard the Gospel of Christ: we must not love our lives so much that we avoid taking the risks in life that history calls for. Those who seek to shun danger will lose their lives, whereas those who for love of Christ dedicate themselves to the service of others will live. They are like that grain of wheat that dies, at least in appearance. If the grain does not die, it remains alone (John 12:24-25). If it yields a crop, it is because it dies, allowing itself to be immolated in the earth; it is by being dismantled that it produces the crop."

Romero then quotes from the text of Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes (39):
"We do not know the time for the consummation of the earth and of humanity, nor do we know how all things will be transformed. As deformed by sin, the shape of this world will pass away; but we are taught that God is preparing a new dwelling place and a new earth where justice will abide, and whose blessedness will answer and surpass all the longings for peace which spring up in the human heart. Then, with death overcome, the sons and daughters of God will be raised up in Christ, and what was sown in weakness and corruption will be invested with incorruptibility. Enduring with charity and its fruits, all that creation which God made on humanity’s account will be unchained from the bondage of vanity.
"Therefore, while we are warned that it profits us nothing if we gain the whole world and lose ourselves, the expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age. Hence, while earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ's kingdom, to the extent that the former can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the kingdom of God. 
"For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in his Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, fraternity, and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father 'a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace.' On this earth that kingdom is already present in mystery. When the Lord returns it will be brought into full flower." 
Archbishop Romero continues in his own words: "This is the hope that inspires us as Christians. We know that every effort to improve society, especially when injustice and sin are so widespread, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God requires of us... Of course, we must purify [these efforts] in Christianity and invest them with hope for what lies beyond because in that way they become stronger. For we have the assurance that we will never fail in all the work we do on earth if we infuse it with Christian hope. We will find it purified in that kingdom where our merit will be according to what we have done on this earth.... 

"I ask all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to view these things that are happening in our historical moment with a spirit of hope, generosity, and sacrifice. And let us do what we can. We can all do something and be more understanding... If we illuminate with Christian hope our intense longings for justice and peace and all that is good, then we can be sure that no one dies forever. If we have imbued our work with a sense of great faith, love of God, and hope for humanity, then all our endeavors will lead to the splendid crown that is the sure reward for the work of sowing truth, justice, love, and goodness on earth. Our work does not remain here; it is gathered and purified by the Spirit of God and returned to us as a reward.

"This holy Mass of thanksgiving, then, is just such an act of faith. By Christian faith we know that at this moment the host of wheat becomes the body of the Lord who offered himself for the redemption of the world, and that the wine in this chalice is transformed into the blood that was the price of salvation. May this body that was immolated and this flesh that was sacrificed for humankind also nourish us so that we can give our bodies and our blood to suffering and pain, as Christ did, not for our own sake but to bring justice and peace to our people."

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Experiments in Color, and Other "Digital Dabbling"

I would like to update the BLOG with some of my most recent artistic adventures. What I present here are a few highlights of stuff I have already posted on other social media.

These are experiments that consist in taking photographs and "recasting them" with colors and (the illusion of) textures that availible to me in my now-considerably-enhanced (but by no means "professional") Digital Art and Graphics Studio.

Response on my social media to these pictures has been... well... mixed... Heh... 😜 Some folks, no doubt, would recommend I "stick to writing" Well, I'm still writing, don't worry. In fact, what concerns me is that people (increasingly) seem to have stopped reading. It's not just that they don't read my longer and more "verbally articulate" (complicated? boring?) blog posts. People don't want to read anything that's too long to fit into a box, or that's not incorporated into a multimedia presentation. But that's a subject for another day.

Even if no one reads, I will always write: it's an important part of my thinking process. And as a mode of communication, writing will never "go out of style."

Meanwhile, I wonder if people are slowly (but increasingly) moving in the direction of "picture-reading" (which is a very ancient form of cognitive articulation with erudite past achievements and who-knows-what future potential). It's just as well that I enjoy making pictures (or trying, anyway...). We teachers - whether we like it or not - are going to have to learn to communicate using these forms in powerful and inspiring ways if we want to reach people. If nothing else, it will force us to be concise.😉

Digital media tools also have hidden artistic possibilities of their own, beyond "imitating" type fonts and paint styles. Perhaps we have already begun to discover these modes of creative expression, but it's very early on, and exploration remains "hesitant."

I'm not bold enough to do more than dabble in this enterprise, but I shall enjoy dabbling and joining others is pushing a bit further toward the horizon.

Here are some fun digital art experiments from this month:

We have evening skies in different style and luminous accents...

...this one needed some careful detailed work.

March is the last chance to "play" with bare branches: here in imitation watercolor...

while these next two are "experiments" in prismatic colors....

...and imitation textures.

Late Winter colors can be dull...

...or bright...

...or ominous.

But, as the closeup photographs show, Spring has begun to break through...

as the Maple trees stir to life.

Finally, three trees on a hillside are seen as if in a dream. What a dream!

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The "Fatherhood" of Saint Joseph

We have just celebrated Saint Joseph's Solemnity during this special year dedicated to him as "patron of the Universal Church." Christians who honor Joseph and rely on the help of his prayers know what a tremendous "father" he is to everyone (and to each one personally) in that great family which is the communion of the Church - the brothers and sisters of Jesus.

But sometimes we may wonder: "What was Joseph like during his earthly life?" 

We know very little from the New Testament about Saint Joseph’s life before or after the events of Jesus’s birth. The “infancy narratives” do give us impressions of what kind of person he must have been: a just man who loved God with his whole heart; an honorable, prayerful, practical, and persistent man; a man of deliberation and firm action who could nevertheless respond and adjust to changes in circumstances.

That description says quite a bit, yet it might also be classified as a gigantic understatement. We know Joseph's singular role - and the hardships and dangers he faced - in protecting and caring for Jesus and Mary in those first years (recounted in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2). We can be sure that he served them with devotion and sacrifice through all the days of his life (which lasted at least until Jesus's adolescence - as indicated by the temple story in Luke 2:41-52). Indeed, Joseph's life was centered on his unique vocation (and all the responsibilities he freely and lovingly embraced) of exercizing the role of human fatherhood toward God's only-begotten Son. Jesus was entrusted to Joseph in God's plan from the beginning, when He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, who was already betrothed to Joseph.

It was from Joseph that Jesus was linked to the House of David in accordance with the Lord's promises. This was not simply a formality (much less a deception for the sake of appearances); rather it fulfilled the covenant with David in a super-eminent manner. This becomes clearer if we consider some implicit (but reasonably inferred) features of Joseph's "backstory" which corresponded to his decision to take the Virgin Mary as his wife. It seems clear that beneath the ordinary and unremarkable exterior of this man there was a profound interiority deeply nourished by the Lord. Matthew tells us (1:19) that Joseph was a "just man" by using the special term "saddiq," with is not merely a general uprightness but a holy fidelity on the level of the patriarchs and prophets. Given the unique role he was to carry out, it is not unreasonable to presume that he was remotely prepared by the Lord by many special graces.

In deciding to marry Mary, we have no reason to suppose that Joseph had no idea whatsoever of what he was getting into. In these Messianic times, with the Spirit specially at work in the midst of the people of Israel (see e.g. Luke 2:25-27), Joseph himself - led by the Spirit - may have already decided to share Mary's prophetic status of "lowly servanthood" (see Luke 1:38 and 1:48). The Scriptures do not tell us this, but a careful consideration of circumstances suggests that Joseph had already made the total, radical sacrifice of giving up (and freely offering to God) the earthly way of becoming a father: the means of biological generation by which humans materially and instrumentally "cooperate" with God's mysterious creative action of bringing new human persons into existence in space and time. Earthly fatherhood was a blessing for the people of Israel. Yet Joseph had chosen as his spouse that incomparable young woman who had questioned the angel regarding her future motherhood proclaimed at the Annunciation: "How can this be, since I do not know man?" (See Luke 1:34).

Though there are different ancient traditions about Saint Joseph, it is clear that Mary had given herself in total, radical "openness to God" from the beginning. Mary had chosen virginity, not out of any disdain for human sexuality, but as a more radical and utterly humble way of placing herself entirely at the disposition of God's will (and, of course, as a response to a special vocation of which she was already certain). Joseph's betrothal to her indicated his readiness to join her in this sacrifice and commitment.

This kind of marriage was (and is) entirely extraordinary, as much in the time of the Church as it was in the time of Israel. In the New Covenant, Christ consecrates through the sacrament of marriage the mutually self-giving and fruitful bodily union between spouses. Sexual relations within the lifelong covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, in mutual love and openness to procreation, are a blessed and holy means of living in Christ and participating in God's providence in the unfolding of history. The vocation to virginity is to a different form of sacrificial life "for the Kingdom of God," usually linked to other forms of community that entail the related sacrifices of obedience and poverty.

Under the Old Covenant, such commitments were not regularly taken up. It seems that among certain groups in Israel near the time of Jesus (e.g. the Essenes) some people practiced celibacy in expectation of the coming of the Messiah. If there was a wider scope to such a practice, however, it was known only to the Lord and the hearts of God's poor who drew no attention to themselves. Perhaps some such vocations were quietly undertaken, prompted by the Spirit's special graces.

The Virgin Mary was always determined to follow this unusual path. Otherwise, she would not have asked the angel how she could possibly become a mother. After all, she was in the midst of the ritual process of marrying Joseph, and she knew that ordinarily marriage was ordained to the blessing of children. If by saying "I do not know man" Mary had meant simply, "I haven't had sexual relations with a man yet" (with the presumption, of course, being that she would "know" Joseph very soon), then her question would have been a most strange response to the angelic news that she would bear a son. That was usually the hope of a woman who was getting married.

What we are invited to consider here is that Joseph embraced a similar special vocation to "virginity" (or celibacy) so as to "wait upon the Lord," and already had this in common with Mary. Mary was greater, as her being the "All Holy" (Panagia), the "Immaculate" never touched by any sin (not even original sin) was qualitatively greater than Joseph being the "just one" - saddiq (even though the latter term indicates that Joseph was virtually peerless among men in his devotion and uprightness). Perhaps Joseph had taken Mary as his betrothed so as to help provide for her and protect her commitment to God. Certainly, he loved her deeply and personally. What an immense love it must have been!

I like to think that they knew one another's hearts, and - assuming that Joseph was also young - that they prepared with youthful enthusiasm for the great adventure of following the love of God together as husband and wife, but with the physical sexual aspect of the marriage bond sacrificed and entirely abandoned to God, because they knew that God was calling them to make that vital "space" of their lives into something mysteriously greater and immeasurably more fruitful than anything they could aspire to. Somehow the Lord made it known to them that this was His will, in a way that was entirely convincing and strengthening to them. Perhaps they were the only ones who knew this "secret."

They would have had a hard time explaining it to anyone else. They were simple, humble people. Joseph was a tekton - a "builder," an artisan, perhaps doing more than the woodwork that we associate with a carpenter today. In any case, he had a trade, which brought a modest living in the village of Nazareth in Galilee. This northern region had been resettled by Judaeans from the South after its reconquest by the Maccabean kings of Judah, so there is no surprise in Joseph's having Bethlehem as his ancestral village or in the fact that family members still lived in that area. 

There was certainly plenty of family in Nazareth: we hear about the "brothers" of Jesus, who were children of another "Mary" -- a "sister" who appears to have been "the wife of Cleopas," who may have been Joseph's older brother. If Cleopas had died, Joseph would have taken his widow and children under his care and they would have been part of the household with Jesus and Mary. Then, no doubt, there were other cousins, aunts and uncles, and neighbors in and out of dwellings that were built close together and/or on top of one another. There were joys and tragedies, sicknesses, celebrations, and lots of hard work to be done in Nazareth.

Mary and Joseph could have lived their secret-openness-to-God in the midst of these busy and humble surroundings. The Incarnation was, of course, the real surprise. Joseph's own ensuing struggle (see Matthew 1:18-25) may not have been known to anyone else at the time. As I have written about elsewhere (see HERE), I rather think that Joseph's "doubts" were not about Mary, but about himself. Mary's conception was an exponentially new stage in God's plan, and Joseph no longer saw a role for himself in Mary's vocation. He thought he would "release her" from the betrothal so that God could choose a more "fitting" environment and household for His Son to dwell. But then the angel came to Joseph to remind him that he was "Joseph, son of David." 

Though Mary was indeed the true mother of Jesus in every sense, Joseph's role was not simply abstract or empty of human relational significance. Clearly his "adoption" of Jesus, his "fatherhood" in the Holy Family, was full of immense self-giving, affection, and tender love. It also fulfilled a key role in the history of salvation. Though not His "biological father," Joseph established the place of Jesus in David's heritage, in a way which was consistent with the mysterious and miraculous origin of the Messiah (from a "virgin") that was already expected according to the full sense of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. Matthew emphasizes this point in chapter 1 of his Gospel (see especially vv 22-23), and its importance was understood by the first Jewish Christian converts. This is the whole point of Matthew's genealogy from Abraham through David to Joseph "the husband of Mary" (see Matthew 1:1-17). Its entire significance, no doubt, has depths beyond our knowledge. But the angel indicated in his dream-vision (Matthew 1:20-21) that Joseph was the one who was called to give Jesus His "name," welcome Him with a father's love, and establish the legitimacy - publically, historically, "officially" - of Jesus's lineage as heir to God's covenant with David.

The task being made clear, Joseph took it upon himself wholeheartedly. His prompt, direct, and courageous actions during the infancy of Jesus speak for themselves. The rest of his life was no doubt full of similar actions - acts of love - carried out day by day under far more "ordinary circumstances."

It is not surprising that he is such a good father to all of us, and to the whole Church.


* I hope to continue reflecting and writing about Saint Joseph during this special year dedicated to him. *

Saturday, March 20, 2021

JJ Studios Begins Cartoon Series!

Not really...😉

But I have found a way to use one graphics application to put "regular" video into cartoon form. And I decided to experiment... using myself as the subject, of course. It's hardly likely that I could get anyone else to participate in something so goofy.

The "cartoon" is just an illusion created by filters that mess with the videographic process. It's not very convincing.

But the video is mercifully short. The tech will improve. It probably already has, and I'm just discovering it late as usual. Right now it doesn't appear useful for much, other than for me to have a bit of fun at my own expense.

Without further ado, let's roll:

Thursday, March 18, 2021

A Truth I Still Need to Remember...

I posted this text on March 19, 2011 (i.e. 10 years ago) on Twitter. I have underlined the date on red.

So much has changed since then, but this remains the same. I know that I still need to "remember" every day that God's love for me is stronger than all my sins, weaknesses, disappointments - that God embraces me in my loneliness.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Saint Patrick’s Day

We have begun the “Feast Day Breaks” during Lent. The Solemnity of Saint Joseph is in two days, and then comes the great Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25 (next Thursday), only four days before Holy Week begins.

Today is also a big day, especially if you are Irish, or if you live in the lands in the West that seem to be the Great Extension of the Emerald Isle, that are also known as the “United States of America”!😉

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!


What does this mean for the Janaro clan (part Irish on my wife’s side of the family)? Well, the clan is spread around a wee bit more these days (and growing!), so we didn’t get to raise glasses together or sing songs.

But we did ask for the prayers of Saint Patrick here at home. And we ate good food with a touch of the green theme, as usual: the lovely “O’Ravioli” with spinach (green!) and a bit of parsley (green!) sprinkled with the cheese on top [picture 1, below].

Yes, there was also dessert! (What’s a “break” from Lent without dessert?) It was a lovely “Bailey’s Irish Cream” Cheesecake [picture 2, below].

Such things have a place too in our preparation for the celebration of Jesus’s victory over death. Small gifts such as these...

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Calling On The Spirit

"It often happens that we don't pray, we don't feel like praying, or sometimes we pray like parrots: with the mouth, but the heart is absent.

"This is the time to say to the Spirit, ‘Come, come Holy Spirit, warm my heart. Come teach me to pray, teach me to look to the Father, to look to the Son. Teach me the path of faith. Teach me to love, and above all teach me to have an attitude of hope.’ It's about constantly calling on the Spirit to be present in our lives" (Pope Francis).

Monday, March 15, 2021

Everything is Grace? Reflections on Grace and Freedom

"Everything is grace," Saint Therese famously said. Indeed, that is the Gospel of redemption in Jesus Christ.

This doesn't mean we don't "have to do anything" in our relationship with God. We respond, act, and even "merit" the fruit of our actions, but all of this (and much more) is the gift of grace through Jesus Christ. God inspires, sustains, and brings to fulfillment every act that we perform that takes us forward along the path of salvation.

God is the source of all that is good. He gives us our good actions, but in such a way that they are really our own. We are not puppets. We are free human persons who freely love God because He empowers us to love Him and "moves us" in the very depths of our freedom. The Holy Spirit anticipates, awakens, inspires, enlightens, draws, heals, elevates, sustains us totally. He precedes us, touches our hearts, mysteriously works within our humanity, calls us and begins to change us, "sowing the seeds" and "cultivating the field" of our hearts, and He does this in the lives of all human beings, including the billions of people who do not (yet) "know" Jesus explicitly. God's goodness is always "at work" - He draws us according to His mysterious plan of wisdom and love, and then inspires us to "cooperate" with His work, so that the infinite victory of Jesus on the Cross and in the Resurrection might fill and transform our lives, and be the vital center of the whole world and all of history.

There is much that is mysterious in this plan of God for every human person in Jesus Christ. Jesus is, after all, the Mystery drawn close to our lives, the Mystery made flesh, dwelling among us. The grace of Christ is superabundant, and the wide world and its many peoples strike us with awe and wonder at the unfathomable ways Our Lord works in every human heart through the inexhaustible love of His Most Sacred Heart.

If we really love Him, we want to share in His work. We want to witness to Jesus Christ, with humility, with reverence for every person, for peoples and cultures, for all that is holy and good in all the religious traditions, and for the many efforts throughout history to articulate the cry of the human religious sense (already stirred up, drawn, and helped in countless ways by God's grace). It is love that moves us to cry out (with our voices, with our lives) that Jesus is the gift of God, the source of all grace, the embrace of God who opens His arms to each one and to every one, who makes all things possible.

We who are Catholic Christians ought to meditate on the mystery of God's gratuitousness, which is beyond all measure. We must not shy away from the awesome mystery of God's grace.

I would like to propose a few considerations:

Everything really is grace. God accomplishes our salvation and sanctification in us and with us. He raises us up through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit according to His gratuitous love, freely adopting us as His children and giving us a participation in His own life. He calls the human persons He has created to a life that eminently fulfills and validates all our fundamental desires for truth and goodness, even as it draws us "beyond" this world to a new creation that "eye has not seen, nor ear heard," in which God will "be all, in all." 

He forms our very identity as persons in light of this destiny, for we are not merely hypothetical realizations of some abstract concept of "human nature." We are members of the human family who enter into the concrete reality of human history that unfolds according to God's wisdom. This entails the tragic mystery of our own indigence, our disoriented humanity, but God is here for us with His ever-greater love, giving Himself to us in the incarnate, crucified, and risen Jesus. And through Jesus in the Spirit, He gives us new life - He prompts, initiates, empowers, and sustains our loving response to Him. 

Everything is grace. Even our response to grace is the work of grace giving us supernatural freedom and its acts in such a way that they are truly our own, so that we really participate in God's love and become like Him and totally abandoned to Him even as we become most fully "ourselves"!

Everything is grace. This is a mystery which we cannot understand, but which we can contemplate in such a way that our confidence in God's love for us grows even as we attend to the responsibilities He entrusts to us in this life.

It sometimes appears, however, that we forget the full measure of what God's grace means, and we live according to a reduced conception of the depths of God's love for us and the dignity of our vocation.

We Catholic Christians can give the impression (and sometimes we even think, in the practical order of things) that grace is a sort of deal where God does half of it (or even most of it) but we have to "come up with something in addition" to what He does - we have make some radical contribution (however small) from ourselves alone, from our own power that we possess "autonomously." In the drama of salvation (as well as "good works"), we can be tempted to think that there is something we do "without God," something that fundamentally originates from us and us alone. If we "do our part," then God's power can and will "help" us.

This way of speaking, especially in the form of exhortation, is not uncommon in pastoral theology and homiletics. It aims to address the freedom of the will in its practical dynamics, the psychological reality of how this mysterious thing called freedom - my freedom - engages, chooses, and carries out actions that are truly my own actions.

The Catholic understanding of freedom, however, is embedded within the context of the whole mystery of salvation as conveyed by the complete, integrated witness of Sacred Scripture to the love of God, the human beings He has created, and the person and redeeming work of Jesus Christ - the witness that has been handed down from the Apostles, and that continues to be preached and given and lived in the Christian community today.

It takes a lot of theology to unfold what this means for human freedom. Suffice it to say that omnipotence does not cancel out human freedom, or render it "less free" or less "my own." On the contrary, Divine omnipotence is what makes human freedom possible, what makes my freedom possible, and what makes it possible for my actions to be truly "my own" - it is what makes the very reality of "me" in such a way that I am truly "myself." Clearly, much more needs to be said, and we learn a great deal from theology. But at the end we still find ourselves intellectually in the presence of a luminous paradox, which we recognize as the mystery and the ineffable splendor of superabundant Love only by means of a living, trusting, ecclesial faith.

As Catholic Christians in today's world, however, we can very easily become removed from effective contact with the environment generated by the witness to salvation, the reality of Jesus Christ living in His members through history and in the here-and-now (even with all the sins, mistakes, negligence, and stupidity of these members). He has promised to be with us always, and that we will always find Him here - the Crucified One, the Risen One who saves us. Here is where we are called to "live our faith." If we become distant from the "gathered people" called together by God (the ekklesia, the "church") and entrusted by God with the witness of salvation, we will be like fragments, like fishes out of water. We may identify ourselves as Catholic (even with a measure of intellectual coherence) but still be in some manner "distanced from" the life, the nourishing vitality of this "church," Christ's Church, Jesus Christ living in His Church. In this fragmented condition, our understanding and our words about our faith can subtly slip out of the context of the whole.

Not surprisingly, our mentality can thus easily reduce the mystery of grace and freedom to the idea that God does "some of it" or "most of it" but that we have to do "our part" - indeed that we have to do our part "first," fundamentally, exclusively from our own solitude, "before" God can do anything for us. We may live this mentality as an attitude toward life even if we intellectually reject what it expresses - which is in fact the heresy of "Semi-Pelagianism."

I think that this weakens the confidence, the hope, the trust of many Catholics, because they feel like they don't have that self-initiated, self-sustained "oomph" of will or energy that they think they need in order to summon from within themselves that radical "first step." In fact, they don't have the "oomph" to conjure God's love.

The good news is that our God doesn't need to be "conjured." He is already here. He has come to be with us, to make us like Him. He is "already" loving us, and if we even begin to turn to Him it is because He has already called us. Everything is from Him.

Everything is grace, even our (truly free, truly "our own") response to grace. God wants to give us the capacity to love Him and the realization of that capacity. He enters into every aspect of our lives by taking flesh. Jesus. 

The grace and salvation of God reach our lives in and through Jesus. Whenever we speak of these things we always must look to Jesus and come back again and again to Jesus. We are adopted sons and daughters of the Father IN HIM. We depend totally on Him, Jesus Christ.

What can radically "originate" from a human person "independent" of God? Nothing. No thing.

I can't adequately explain the mystery of how we freely "cooperate" with grace. We cooperate with grace by means of grace - by the working of the creative and transforming power of the Infinite Love of God in us, empowering us and effecting our action, which is precisely what makes our cooperation really free and really our own.

I don't know how we even exist - how we have "being" in a way that is totally dependent on God and also truly "our own" - there is no adequate metaphor for the primordial mystery of a created person, much less the grace-given "meritorious" (praiseworthy) acts of an adopted child of God --well, the images in the New Testament are best.

What is maybe a bit easier to see is the one "way" that we really are radically, independently "free" - without God we can do nothing, which implies an awful possibility. What if, in the presence of God, solicited constantly through life by His Infinite love, embraced by Christ on the Cross with the redeeming and transforming power that wills to generate a new freedom within us, we do... nothing?

Freedom implies that we don't "have to" love God. We can "non-accept" all this tremendous grace and love. Let us not think that saying "God takes the initiative" means that we should just sit around and do nothing, waiting for God to "show up" in a way that impresses us. He is already here and already at work within our hearts. We have no excuse to "do nothing." Of course, no one can entirely negate themselves, which is why our "non-acceptance" of God's love in Christ leads us to the wild effort to flee from Him and plunge into the nothingness of sin.

We may try to identify ourselves with the nothingness of our non-response to God's grace, but God remains omnipotent. He can create (or recreate) "something" where before there was "nothing." He is the Lord. Nevertheless, if we really are trying to be frozen in our nothingness, being recreated as something new is going to be a momentous change. God is not a bully. Are we going to "allow Him" to change us?

We have to (inadequate words here) "let" God change us, "let" Him empower us, etc so that we live more and more in Him. This is important, because the self-shriveling unfreedom of sin ultimately brings home to us the reality of our powerlessness and we may be tempted to despair. If I feel stuck, lost, afraid, frozen, "unwilling," what can I do?

PRAY. "Lord give me the desire..." "Jesus, give me the desire for the desire..." These things are mysterious, but prayer begins because we allow ourselves to be drawn into the relationship. Jesus will give us what we ask for. The Father loves us and is always tending us for our good even long before we think of praying. Be He doesn't force us. We can "stay closed" to God's love. We can say "not" to all the ways Divine love pours out to open us up. This is the mystery of sin, of iniquity. 

The negation of God's love: our desperate world seems dominated by it. Our own hearts have so much need for light to reach dark and shadowy places within them. Sin and death are a terrible weight, and a pretense of meaninglessness that brings misery and destruction. Still, God's love wins the victory through Jesus Christ. His grace is the gift of healing and redemption, salvation and transformation to eternal life.

There's so much that needs to develop from these thoughts, but there they are for now.