Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Will of the Father is Truth and Love

It is time to close out the month of August. The Europeans view September as the beginning of the "social year" and here in the USA it marks the beginning of the Academic year and, with Labor Day this weekend, the end of the summer vacation season. Let us therefore conclude with these words from Pope Benedict XVI that we can ponder for the time that is before us. He indicates that it is in union with Jesus Christ that we are able to accomplish the work of being truly conformed to the will of God:

Man of himself is tempted to oppose God’s will, to seek to do his own will, to feel free only if he is autonomous; he sets his own autonomy against the heteronomy of obeying God’s will. This is the whole drama of humanity. But in truth, this autonomy is mistaken and entry into God’s will is not opposition to the self, it is not a form of slavery that violates my will but rather means entering into truth and love, into goodness. And Jesus draws our will–which opposes God’s will, which seeks autonomy–upwards, towards God’s will. This is the drama of our redemption, that Jesus should uplift our will, our total aversion to God’s will and our aversion to death and sin and unite it with the Father’s will: ‘Not my will but yours.’ In this transformation of ‘no’ into ‘yes,' in this insertion of the creatural will into the will of the Father, He transforms humanity and redeems us. And He invites us to be part of His movement: to emerge from our ‘no’ and to enter into the ‘yes’ of the Son. My will exists, but the will of the Father is crucial because it is truth and love (Benedict XVI, General Audience, April 20, 2011).

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Person, Communion, and Christian Culture

I have written about the miracle of Christian friendship. This unique kind of friendship leads to a unique kind of sharing of life, which St. Paul calls koinonia, and which we translate as "communion"--it is a communion of life, from its center to its many particular expressions. Communion is not an invasive smothering of the person, but an interpersonal environment in which the special vocation of each person is discovered and flourishes. Since the person discovers his or herself and realizes his or her freedom through self-giving love, there is always a reciprocal relationship between the authentic realization of personal freedom and the building up of communion. Communion and liberation. They are inseparable. Thus Christ, who creates communion of life, fulfills the destiny of the human person and the human community.

This Christian community of life is "the Church," lived concretely. In our time, the Lord is calling us to new ways of "tapping into" that profound bond that unites us, really, "physically" in Christ. This life pertains first and always to our eternal destiny. But what will also emerge from it in the midst of the world is the reality of "Christian culture." We think we know what Christian culture means.  We think it's "the way things used to be" in the Age of Faith. And it must be said that the reality of "Christendom"--as it was once known--was a living fruit of real faith in Christ. But I believe that our basilicas and cathedrals of the past, and our wayside shrines and saints' feast days, and all our social and cultural symbols from the past are just a preview, a taste, of what a Christian culture might become if we begin to live the mystery of the Church in a more consciously committed, freely embraced way that expresses itself in interpersonal solidarity.

We would have our new, beautiful external expressions of Christian life (as well as our reverence for history), but they would be expressions of a bond that is recognized and lived in a more integrally human way, with an awareness and a mutual love which would generate a common missionary impetus to the world.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Providence: He Cares For Us, He Hears Our Prayers

Well, the hurricane has come and gone, and most of us have thanked God that it wasn't as bad as it was predicted to be. And in this gesture I realized something that might have been missing or not sufficiently emphasized in my previous blog about God's providence.

The distinction I draw between God's "ordinary" providence and His "miraculous" interventions may be a bit too cut and dried for the real mystery of how the God who became man and died on the Cross for love of each and every human being actually works in our everyday world and in our ordinary circumstances of life. The mystery of God's transcendence has it's corresponding element in the mystery of His intimacy and His profound, particular, and personal concern for the lives of each and every one of us.

God does hear our prayers, even for temporal things, for seemingly mundane things like good weather. He answers them according to His purposes, which are mysterious, but for people of real faith it is a simple fact of experience that He often answers them favorably, or else He guides people through difficulties in such a way that they begin to realize that He has brought greater good out of circumstances that appeared obscure or meaningless at the time they were initially endured. He is involved in the small things of life. We thank Him for our food. We thank Him for a good day. We pray to Him to help us to get better when we are sick; we pray to Him for safety when we travel; we pray to Him on behalf of others for a multitude of concerns. And we do so with faith that prayer matters; that God wants us to experience daily life as a gift from His loving hands. "Give us this day our daily bread."

When we analyze from the point of view of metaphysics or empirical science, we speak of time and eternity, the reality of secondary causes, God's omniscience. But this should not obscure for us the truth that God is personally, lovingly engaged in shaping the path of each and every one of our lives. We must trust that if we ask we shall receive, and if we do not receive what we ask for it is only because God knows that what we need is something else, something mysterious and difficult perhaps, but more in keeping with our final destiny.

God's transcendence does not imply His absence from our lives, but on the contrary it indicates--in a manner beyond our understanding--the freedom of His complete presence in our lives: the fact that He holds each of us in the palm of His hand.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Place Of Friendship

One of the miracles of the Church is friendship. When we meet real brothers and sisters in Christ, and we perceive their love for Him, we know that we already share the most profound and most all-encompassing Reality in common. It opens up a space in which we are free to be ourselves, to be human, and thus to discover "communion" with one another--a real human connection--because He is human and all of our humanity belongs to Him. This discovery of friendship reminds us again that He is Real, that He is alive, that He is with us.

The grace of the living Presence of Christ accompanies and forms a real human path of friendship, a path in which modesty and the awareness of one's own dignity join with joy, cordiality, and openness to build a common sharing of life which helps us to remember eternity because it is destined to endure for eternity. We remind one another of eternity, of our Destiny, and in this way we build one another up, we really help one another.

We can’t live Christianity alone. We can't be human alone.

We need this companionship. Thus, Jesus will always find new ways to bring His people together and help them to build one another up. He has created us to be together forever with Him, and so we must strengthen one another in the heart as we perceive in one another that common destiny for which our hearts are made.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Natural Upheavals: Is God Telling Us Something?

Today I was asked what I thought of the coincidence, here in the United States, of that fact that we had an earthquake and are about to have a major hurricane here on the East Coast within a week. Is this a sign from God? Is He punishing America for our sins? For our wanton disregard for the sanctity of human life? In fact, various people in the social network world have been buzzing about the meaning of these events. Is God warning us of impending doom? Or is He perhaps just manifesting His majesty and power? What do I think it means?

Well, first of all, I think it means that we are having an earthquake and a hurricane that happen to be in the same week! I have every reason to believe that it can be explained by forces in the natural order of things.

Of course, I do not deny the primary, transcendent, and particular causality and providence that God exercises over every event in the universe. The question is, how does He exercise this causality? According to His ordinary providence, God creates, sustains, and empowers secondary causes in the running of the physical universe. Of course it's all from Him, and the whole of His providence has a plan. Thus, undoubtedly, He has empowered and brought it about in His plan that these causal factors--in their own order and according to their own inner dynamic that He gives them--come together for many reasons, and all of those reasons are present to His omnipotence and infinite intelligence. Certainly the very fact that some have thought of His majesty and power was intended by Him from all eternity as one of His purposes in this event, as is also the fact that there are some who are led to remember the limits of their lives and that they will be called to account for their actions, as is also the husband and wife who comfort each other in the hurricane shelter and conceive the child that He has loved from all eternity and for whom He died on the cross, as is the watering of the plants, as is the punishment of people for sin because all of our suffering has its cause in sin and is also transformed by Christ's redemption (which is the ultimate purpose of everything in God's plan).

What I have no reason to believe is the idea that these events are some special intervention by God that "interrupts" (so to speak) the order of His ordinary providence--e.g. as in a miracle or a prophecy or a "sign" by which He intends to act within nature in order to communicate something specific to people. The simple coincidence of events in nature happens too frequently and is therefore too "normal" to serve as a special sign from God. It does not bear the evident mark of His special intervention. In such a case, we would expect to find an event or series of events that could not be explained by natural causes.

As for punishment, God is already punishing us for our sins and for our open violation of the dignity of the human person by allowing the consequences of these sins to unfold: in spite of our many good intentions and our technological advancements we are experiencing the gradual but implacable disintegration of our Western secularized civilization. Do we need a clearer sign than this? It is enough to strike fear and trembling into me.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Christ, Religion, and the Human Being

The human heart has a desire for truth, for goodness, for justice, for love, for beauty; these are the fundamental needs inscribed in every human heart. And every heart, from the first moment of its awakening, is summoned mysteriously by the grace of God revealed and given in Jesus Christ (even for those who do not yet know Him "explicitly"). The human heart is made for more than this world. The human heart is made for God. This is the most powerful and the most dynamic impetus in the life of the human person. It is for this reason that the human being is by nature a religious being. The very power and depth of the religious factor accounts for why people can abuse it to trick others and twist their minds and thereby do such profound violence to their humanity. To do this is a great crime.

Many religious people have been immoral (many, many others have also been good, and it is simply unfair to deny this). Many religious people have made dysfunctional religious institutions. But "religion" exists because the human being is made for God and cannot "help" seeking God. If he denies God, he sets up another "total reality" in God's place. When the human being denies religion, he sets up his very denial as an unassailable absolute, and clings to it with all the impetus of his religious soul. The human heart cannot avoid searching for, affirming, and adhering to something that is perceived to be of definitive importance. And when the heart is disappointed it takes up the search again.

But Jesus Christ goes beyond the human search for God. He is the Answer to that search. And He has taken the "risk" of putting Himself in the hands of sinful human beings so that He can continue to give Himself to us twenty centuries later, in a concrete way. He has promised that He will reach us today through the Church. We trust Christ in His Church. Even if many of His representative are great sinners, He has promised that we will always find Him in the Church, and He has established the means whereby He makes good on this promise. Thus, for example, Christ reaches us in the sacraments and makes Himself present for us in the Eucharist, even if the minister--His human instrument--is unworthy to represent Him.

We must never forget this. It is not a matter of an omnipotent, merely human priesthood conjuring Christ by some magical incantation. It is a matter of His sovereign determination to be with and to give Himself to you and me in the space and time and reality of our lives through human gestures that take place in our world today--gestures which are guaranteed to have value for our lives because it is He who performs them through His ministers. The value of the sacraments and their meaning for our lives is founded on the presence and action of Jesus Christ, not the merits or worthiness of those He uses as instruments. He is present in His Church, and it is always to Him we adhere. Even as we recognize that He comes to us through other men, we trust Him, and we know that He will not deny Himself to us because of their weaknesses and limitations. This is the promise that Christ in the sacraments has made to the human heart that seeks Him.

He has come to be the Answer, available to us here and now. He will not let our search be in vain.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Christianity Is A Person

"The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." - G.K. Chesterton

I beg to tweak the great G.K.! Christianity is not an ideal, and if we view it as such it is no wonder that we find it both wanting and "difficult" (in the wrong way). Christianity is a Person. It is the love of Christ that is so often left untried. It is Jesus Christ who seems so "difficult" because we do not trust Him.

Indeed, the thought that the “Christian ideal” is too difficult is not entirely unreasonable. How could we ever put it into practice by our own power? We are lost in the wilds. We do not know, by our own power, how to even begin to “try”.

It is not the lost sheep who finds the Shepherd. It is the Shepherd who finds the sheep. It is not the lost sheep who finds his way back to the fold. It is the Shepherd who carries him on His shoulders. The sheep needs to trust the Shepherd and let himself be carried.

He carries us, but He does not coddle us. He does not seduce us into trusting in Him. He draws us to Him by showing us the beauty for which our hearts were made, the real beauty; and when we see Him we will know that we are not being tricked. We will know that whether we say yes or no is a matter of our freedom.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

We Survived the Earthquake

On the whole, it really wasn't a big deal.

In fact, I hope that the world doesn't think that we East Coast Americans are insensitive if we indulge in a bit of a collective laugh at ourselves.

We know that natural disasters can be among the hardest burdens that people have to endure. We have mourned natural and man made catastrophes, and some of us have been touched by them directly. We also know that this 5.9 earthquake that was centered in Eastern Virginia and that shook the East Coast from New York to Georgia did some damage to structures that are not built to withstand earthquakes. Large seismic events are not common in this part of the country. This was the largest earthquake here in over a century.

The jokes we're making are really on ourselves. For many of us, who have never experienced anything like this, it was an utterly peculiar event. Even though for most of us the damage was limited to a spilled cup of coffee or a few nicknacks falling off the shelves, it was an unsettling moment, or at the very least it was a strange moment. To some extent, our laughter is motivated by a sense of relief.

It is also and perhaps primarily the sheer oddness of it all. Many had no idea it was an earthquake until after it was over, and the result was some very funny speculations running rapidly through people's minds about what the heck was happening. I was standing in the living room with John Paul and Eileen was in the bedroom. The girls were outside. We have been dealing with a mouse problem (see previous post), and so our attention has been particularly attuned to listening for sounds of mice or mousetraps.

Suddenly there was this rumbling and my first thought was, of course, "Mouse? What kind of mouse is this?" I had a flash image of thousands of elephant-like mice running through the attic. John Paul, who was not facing me at the time, later told me that his first thought was that "Dad must be mad at the computer and is stomping around" (a fine example I set for my son). In the bedroom, Eileen's first thought was the same! Well, if you read this blog you're not surprised; you know how I lose my temper at technology.

Then my mind veered in another direction. Even though we live in a small country town, we are not so far from Washington, D.C. We know people who heard the sounds and saw the fires at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 (and in New York, for that matter). So a thought and images went through my mind that were like the same ones that flashed through the minds of many people in Washington and Manhattan when they first felt the earthquake: "Bomb. Terrorists. Horror."

What does this say about the world we live in? An unusual and disturbing natural event occurs and among our first thoughts are memories and fears of human violence. Perhaps when bombs first fell from the sky on cities, people initially thought, "is it an earthquake?" But we have become accustomed to this. Now when the earth shakes, people think, "is it a war?" There is something here that merits further consideration.

But this feeling quickly passed and was followed by pure confusion; I wasn't sure what I was imagining and what was real. By this time the quake was nearly over. Then my wife burst into the living room and said with all the authority of someone who has lived in California, "That was an earthquake." And I must admit that my first inclination was to respond: you've got to be kidding! We don't have earthquakes in Virginia. But on second thought, it seemed the most plausible explanation.

We turned on the television and there was just the usual daytime TV. Where is the famous "Emergency Broadcast System?" I wondered. I briefly became a confused late 20th century man, thinking, "Wait, if it was real it would be on television, right?" Then the man of the third millennium awoke in me as I went to my laptop. What about Facebook? Even as I posted my querying status, the news feed was lighting up with others from New York to Georgia reporting the same experience. It was an earthquake.

We scooped TV! By the time the news was on the air, people had already posted links. There was something awe-fully significant about this moment. While the television news droned on in the background, another kind of earthquake was happening on the social media sites. Everyone was reporting in. And I realized that we are the media now. We hold mass communications power in our own hands. This is something new. Even newer than an earthquake on the East Coast.

Is this a good thing?

I don't know. I suppose that, like most human things, it will be as good or as bad as the use we make of it. The wheat and the weeds grow together.

One thing cannot be denied. It is a fact. We must understand it, judge it, master it, and use it as a tool in our search for the good. 

Monday, August 22, 2011


We have unwelcome guests in our house.

There is a mouse, at least one mouse--probably more--running about our living space these past 24 hours. And I mean something besides our usual live-in "mouse," Josefina. Real four legged furry things. Last night one bolted into the living room and another was spotted in the kitchen, setting the entire household into turmoil.

Children love mice in books and videos, talking mice all dressed up and dancing about. Real, wild, uncontrollable, shooting-across-the-floor mice are a different matter. They might crawl on someone. They're creepier than bugs and too big to squash (not that my kids deal very well with bugs, either). Arrrgh!

Like a flash, the bed in our room is suddenly covered with frightened children. Not even John Paul is particularly thrilled with the idea of mice. The truth is, Mommy and Daddy aren't very jazzed about it either. Bleeech. Traps. Disposal of their eventual contents. Errrgh! And nobody wants creepy things running around the house. (As for Teresa, she has been more stable in recent days. We are still working on her particular problems, but they don't seem to affect her reaction to a mouse, which is that of any regular eight year old.)

One person seems puzzled and not quite aware of what is going on. Josefina. "Can I see the mouse?" It's all kind of hazy and exciting for her. "Can we keep the mouse and play with it?" Josefina hasn't actually seen the real mouse. I don't know if she ever has seen one.

We've had mice in the house before. But it has been some years. The neighbor's outdoor cat has been keeping control over the mouse population for some time. But recently our neighbor gave the cat to her granddaughter. No more cat. Our address has once more become known to the mouse population as a safe place to hang out and maybe get lucky and raid a box of cheerios.

Last night was a strange night. A mouse snapped a trap but somehow escaped. Another trap was robbed of its peanut butter. Meanwhile there were a few extra squeamish human occupants in our queen sized bed. Nobody slept well. Everyone had nightmares about strange mouse-ish monsters invading the house.

Today everyone has gone about gingerly. We have assembled a whole arsenal of traps. Any rodent who sets foot in this house now faces nuclear war.

But we don't see or hear a peep.

Maybe they have day jobs.

Tonight I expect they'll be back, and we shall catch them. I'm a night owl, and I hope they don't wait until after I go to bed. Perhaps this is why owls are up at night.

At dinner time, I crept up behind Josefina and grabbed her and said, "I have the biggest mousetrap, because I want to catch the biggest mouse!"

"I'm not a mouse," she said.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Theotokos and the Unity of East and West

I am always struck by how much Mary is invoked in the Eastern Byzantine liturgy (which is such a contrast to the Roman liturgy, which rarely makes explicit reference to Mary). Even though they do not have the tradition of the Rosary, the presence of Mary in their prayer traditions is so pervasive that she surely gives them great blessings and ardently desires all to be in full communion with the Successor of St. Peter.

Listen to how the all the elements of the Western "Hail Mary" are contained in a beautiful way in the prayers for the Feast of the Dormition:

"Hail, O Woman full of grace, the Lord is with you, the Lord who, because of you, bestows great mercy upon the world" (from Vespers). "Blessed are you among women and blessed is your womb that contained Christ, in whose hands you committed your soul. O pure Virgin, intercede with Christ our God that He may save our souls!" (at the Apostichon).

How can Mary not want them to have the fullness of unity with us?

So why hasn't it happened? We must not be praying hard enough! We are not loving, learning, or sacrificing enough of ourselves. They need to see the face of love, the face of Christ, in the faces of those who adhere to the Catholic Church. The Orthodox peoples of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and in a special way those mysterious people beloved of God--the Russians--need Peter in order not to lose what they have, and in order to give to the whole world the riches of their faith!

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Reason to be Joyful

The Byzantine tradition celebrates an octave of the Dormition of the Theotokos (i.e. the Assumption). So today is the Fourth Day of the Celebration of the Dormition. Let us then continue to keep in our hearts the hymn of the Feast:

"You were a Mother, and yet remained a Virgin; you went up to heaven, and yet did not forsake the world, O Mother of God. You have passed to life, being the Mother of Life. Through your intercession, save our souls from death."

There is some echo of this in the current Roman calendar, in that the eight day after the Assumption is the feast of the Queenship of Mary (August 22).

So I like to think that we are in a "Marian Season." The light of Mary's Assumption and her taking up in its fullness the role of Mother of the whole human race shines through in these days.

This brings hope and strength even in the midst of trials and affliction. It reminds us that we have reason to be joyful in heart. Mary is real and alive and cares about each of us personally. She loves us. She carries us especially in those places where we are most fragile.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Child's Pain, and Her Parents' Hope

There's our Teresa, playing with Josefina. Teresa is eight years old. She is the lively, cheerful mischief-maker in the house. She is also thoughtful, sympathetic, and affectionate. She considers things carefully and feels things deeply. Lately she has been worrying about a lot of little things.

But in the last few days, she has been afflicted.

She lays on the bed, with vacant eyes. She looks at me like she doesn't know me. Then she starts screaming. And she won't tell us what's wrong. We ask her and she screams louder. She scared us so much the other night that the only thing we could think to do was to take her to the ER. I know, obviously, that mental illness runs in the family. It runs right through me. But at a certain point one throws assumptions out the window and starts to think, "Is my child having a seizure? Is this going to get worse? Is she going to hurt herself?" Going to the ER is sort of the modern equivalent of calling the doctor in the old days (except you go to them instead).

So now she has seen several doctors and had blood tests, and we are trying to keep her comfortable while we wait to see what comes next. The work of keeping her calm has been exhausting for both Eileen and me. Of course, there are many possible causes for this, and we have to let them look at different things, but I think I know what's going on.

In my book I talk about a range of illnesses which are beginning to be classified as neurobiological disorders--these are "mental illnesses" that are rooted in chemical imbalances in the brain or the failure of the brain to carry out properly its delicate and complex operations. We know that neurological disorders can cause people to have chronic "tics" or muscle spasms. Well, it appears that on a more subtle and "invisible" level the same kind of disturbances in brain functioning can cause "mental spasms"--quirks, repetitions, or distortions in the imaging, impressive, and expressive activity of the brain that accompanies our thinking.

Thinking is fundamentally spiritual, but in the human being who is a mysterious union of soul and body it is something that is done in conjunction with (and is therefore affected by) physiological processes. We all know that drinking alcoholic beverages affects the brain and thereby inclines us to perceive things differently and even to "think" differently. Surely it is possible that all kinds of circumstances that we do not yet understand may affect (and afflict) the brain in more subtle ways. These circumstances may even be rooted in genetic factors, which seems to be the case in more obvious, visible neurological disorders.

Certainly all this has become something of a fad in some sectors of the psychiatric field. These kind of problems are overdiagnosed. They are also overmedicated, or many of the medicines made for them are clumsy and ineffective. Having said that, it must be admitted that the great achievement of modern clinical psychiatric medicine has been the discovery of the neurological basis of many mental illnesses. Moreover, advanced brain imaging technology is confirming the clinical evidence. We are just beginning to learn the need for careful and attentive medical care for the most important and mysterious organ in our body, the brain.

We have learned that the brain can't be ignored. Psychoanalytic therapy has many values, but we know it won't help a person with Tourette's Syndrome. Now we also know that it won't help the underlying condition of a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The same thing can be said for many (though not all) types of depression, anxiety disorders, and that increasingly expanding category of complex conditions called "bi-polar" disorder. Psychotherapy has its place, especially in helping repair the life damage that comes as a consequence of these conditions. Certain types of therapy may even help stimulate healing processes within the brain itself. But what we know for certain is that in these situations the brain, as a physiological entity, needs medical help.

We are also learning that the brain can't simply be nuked with medications that are designed to counteract artificially its chemical or functional imbalances. "Brain medicine" is a delicate art of integrative health care, and here it is especially clear that it is impossible to be effective without treating the patient as a whole, i.e. as a human person.

It is also worth mentioning here the advances being made in the treatment of brain injuries, e.g. "concussions." If anything good has come out of the recent wars (though, tragically, not good for those who have had to endure them), it is the advancement in the understanding of brain injuries, how they can occur, what permanent damage they may cause, and how they may be related to conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Having suffered and recovered from a major concussion in a car accident in 2005, my personal hunch is that "minor" brain injuries--perhaps even on the internal level--probably happen much more frequently than any of us realize.

The brain is, truly, a remarkable, resilient and durable instrument, for all its complexity and delicacy. I believe there are vast possibilities for healing the brain and supporting the overall health of the brain. We are only beginning to discover them.

Meanwhile the human brain remains much afflicted. I am not a health practitioner at all. I am a sufferer. I try to give an account of this aspect of my debility in my book, Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy. My own bi-polar disorder--a complex of depression, anxiety, and obsessions--has a long history in my family, and it has afflicted especially those who also have outstanding talents. It is reasonable to consider the possibility that it has a genetic character. It is a curse, but also a blessing, in my family.

I was ten years old when I first began to experience this problem. So as I watch my Teresa suffer and try to help her, I am not surprised. There may be other, aggravating conditions involved in her case (as there are in mine). But it appears that she has the "family blessing"--a wonderful, precocious, creative, intelligent, imaginative mind that somehow is connected to a brain that does so many things well but doesn't get the seratonin and dopamine flowing properly. Why? Who knows. Perhaps with fallen human nature, these kind of things come as a "package."

Still, we endeavor to heal the sick. And we can have a measure of success. And people who suffer in this way can be helped to live without fear and darkness and the self-condemnation that it can generate. So I have hope for my Teresa.

Her road to healing may be long, though I pray not as long as mine. I am still on the road.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

More Than Rules: A Living Relationship

It's hard not to think about political, social, and cultural concerns these days. And a Catholic Christian is naturally inclined to try to articulate a "position" regarding how people should live, as individuals and in their common life. To a degree, this is necessary in order to participate in public discourse. But we must not allow it to truncate our fundamental sense of who we are and the fullness of what we are called to propose to the world.

I think we sometimes talk a lot about the moral "do's" and "don'ts" of our faith, but forget that we need to invite people to the possibility of a living relationship with Jesus Christ in the Church. It is only inside that relationship that people are given the grace that empowers them to live the demands of the faith. And it is only inside that relationship that people are enlightened to see the ultimate reason for living what the Church teaches.

When we forget about Christ, the "Catholic position" becomes a bunch of rules, which--even if they can be shown to be reasonable--are only going to make people feel guilty because they don't have the power to live up to them.

We must bear witness to Christ, to His grace, to the new life that He gives through His living presence in the Church!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Preparing For Mary's Feast

Byzantine Christians have been observing a two week fast in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (the Assumption in the West) on Monday. During this period, they pray a special office of supplication to the Mother of God, the Paraklesis. Here are a few brief selections from this venerable prayer of the Eastern tradition:

*O Virgin, I beseech you who have given birth to God the Savior, deliver me from my afflictions. It is to you that I now come for shelter, to you that I lift my heart and my thoughts.

*O you who alone are the Mother of God, you who are good and the Mother of Goodness, take away the disease of my body and soul: make me worthy of your good care, and of the coming of God.

*O Maiden, you have been given to us as a wall behind which we may seek refuge, as a perfect means of salvation for our souls, as a joy in our tribulations, for in your brilliance we always find delight. O Lady, save us at all times from every danger and evil desire.

*O you who gave birth to the Doer of Good, to the Cause of all Delights, let the wealth of his generosity abound within all souls, for since you have borne the almighty Christ, you have power to act according to your will, O you who are blessed of God!

Also, as the feast of the Dormition/Assumption approaches, I desire to commend in a particular way to the Mother of God all Christians who are facing persecution or the threat of persecution throughout the world. My heart and mind turn especially to the Church in China and to the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East. Mary’s tender love is reflected in this beautiful prayer from the Coptic Egyptian tradition:

O Theotokos, the second heaven
You are the honoured Mother of the Light.

From sunrise to sunset
the faithful offer you praises

You are the bright and unchanging flower
and the mother who remained a virgin
for the Father chose you
and the Holy Spirit overshadowed you
and the Son deigned to take flesh from you.

Wherefore, ask the Lord
to give salvation to the world
which He created
and to deliver it from all tribulations

Let us praise the Lord
and sing to Him a new song
now and forever and from all ages to all ages


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Family Life: Judging the Meaning of the Moment

The starting point is experience. Not what you feel, but experience, which is what you feel judged by criteria of the heart [the need for truth, goodness, beauty, justice, love, for the infinite, which the human being seeks in his/her engagement with reality], which, as criteria, are infallible (infallible as criteria, not as judgments: an infallibility can be applied badly).... Either the criteria are of the heart, or we are alienated, sold on the market of politics or economics (Luigi Giussani).

Oh no, it's another one of those "eyes glaze over" Giussani quotations! Can't we have more stories about Josefina? Tell us about the kids!

But I have to ask myself, "why do I care about my kids?" Why do I love my family? What is my experience of my family? Is it just the sentimental good feelings that I get out of the time we share together? Why do I love Josefina? Is it just because she is a cute little cuddly, snuggly muffin? All of that is true. These positive feelings give me a warm-hearted tender disposition toward my family.

But it's not enough. It won't even get me through the next family flu or stomach virus. Josefina's not cute when she's throwing up. Not cute at all. But never mind that. Even if we had nothing but good times and warm feelings, it would all come to an end. They are growing, and as they grow they become more independent. We can't hold onto the good times with our children and try to give those times a permanence that they don't possess. We'll end up in nostalgia and sadness, or we'll attempt to frustrate our children in order to hold onto them, somehow.

So what do these feelings mean? What does a good day with the kids mean?

I don't want to minimize the importance of these experiences either. I want to live them according to what they truly mean. These are moments full of significance. They are full of the taste of beauty and goodness. They do not give perfect happiness and it would be violent and destructive to my family if I tried to grasp perfect happiness from out of such moments. Rather these are moments full of promise. They inspire hope for the fulfillment that lies at the end of the journey we are making together. And so they empower me to love my family and to take the next step with them as time builds the road we travel.

Eileen and I love our children in the experience of the joy of being together because we glimpse therein that we are all made for the same destiny. The only reason to love our children is for their destiny (which is the same as our own), for the fulfillment of truth, of love, of freedom, of joy–this is the reason why their hearts have been entrusted to us in this moment. And this moment itself, this experience, bears witness to this fulfillment and draws us on toward it, together.

There must be some reason why Pope Benedict XVI reads Luigi Giussani's conferences and meditates on them every day. Everybody talks about "experience" but Giussani defines it in a completely different way from the common mentality.

By "experience," Giussani doesn't just mean "what happens to you" or "what enters into your consciousness." He means the way you engage reality by means of a judgment--not a relativistic judgment, but one that is based on the fundamental (God-given) impetus of human intelligence and love.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Rosary Time!

In our family, the Rosary at the end of the day is more than just a special time for this very precious and beautiful common prayer. "Rosary time" has become the most interesting time that we gather together as a family.

It's true that we also eat together, and dinner conversations can be interesting too, but the Rosary gathering has a special quality to it. There is always a certain period of time between when we sit down and when we actually start saying the Rosary, and a unique atmosphere of family community seems to arise spontaneously during this time. Conversations, questions, all kinds of teasing, and of course the antics of Josefina fill this time, in part because we are all together and in part because we are all procrastinating from actually getting down to the business of praying.

Let's face it. Praying the Rosary is sometimes dull. Okay, usually dull. Well, maybe "dull" isn't exactly the word. I love the Rosary. I want to say it well. Maybe what I feel is frustration at what seems like my continual failure to keep a sustained attention to the prayer and meditation it involves. But I know, of course, that Our Lord and His Mother see our effort, and give us far more than we deserve. Then the "family rosary" with children--which I must say is like glue for my family and which I think builds our unity like nothing else--poses its own "mechanical" problems with keeping the kids in the game and above all with managing the unique, "wild card" factor introduced by the participation of Josefina.

I know that it is a work that is bearing fruit. The maternal love of the Mother of God keeps us faithful to it. And this fidelity is something essential to our family life. There is something special about the whole gathering.

"Rosary time!"

This usually needs to be said more than once. At first people are in and out. Someone has to go to the bathroom. Someone needs a drink of water. And so we start to talk. Tonight Lucia asked me, "Daddy what was The Great Depression?" She is reading a story set in the period of the Depression, apparently. But everyone knows that you don't ask Daddy a question like that unless you want a thorough and detailed answer, because once Daddy gets going it's hard to stop him. Nevertheless, I restrained myself and answered briefly, with a few allusions to the differences (and also the similarities) between that period and the one in which we are now living.

Meanwhile Josefina distributes rosaries. That's her job. No matter how long it takes. And nobody else would dare to try to do it for her. So we talk about all kinds of things. John Paul is always full of questions, so he baits me with another one. Josefina romps about, swinging the rosaries. "Don't do that; the rosary is for praying." Finally everyone has their rosary and Josefina is perched on Mommy (unless she has decided to take advantage of the family stage to put on an act and make everybody silly). Still we search for things to talk about. Then finally we begin.

Midway through a decade Teresa used to always interrupt and say, "What mystery is this?" Now she has a guide that she uses that has pictures, so she doesn't do that anymore. The special challenge comes when it is Josefina's turn to lead a decade. She has just started doing this recently, and sometimes she alternates with Mommy. Josefina's Hail Mary is still just one big long word that she doesn't understand. Still she is very proud of the fact that she is able to say it. Sometimes she gets us laughing with her pronunciation or her squirming. But she really wants to be part of it. She is one of our "five mysteries," after all. And she knows who Jesus and Mary are, and wants to love them.

Really, it's a time of love, with all the clunkiness and awkwardness that family love has for us, and that it will no doubt continue to have in different forms as time goes on.

But with God's help, we will continue to pray together and stay together.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Edith Stein: Seeking and Finding the Truth

Today the Roman calendar observes the memorial of St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, known in the world as Edith Stein. Hers is a great story, from her Jewish roots, through atheism, to the search for truth in philosophy, to conversion to Christ in the Catholic Church, to teaching and advocating the dignity and vocation of women, to the cloister of Carmel where she continued to write philosophical and spiritual works, and finally to Auschwitz where she gave her life.

Edith Stein should be a special saint and helper for all who are searching for the truth. She knows what it means to search, and to find. I came across this prayer on Facebook today, and have been circulating it all around. I don’t know where it comes from in her writings, but it expresses so poignantly her relationship with God. It is a prayer for any person who is seeking the truth, and for anyone traveling the path of life:

O my God, fill my soul with holy joy, courage and strength to serve You. Enkindle Your love in me and then walk with me along the next stretch of road before me. I do not see very far ahead, but when I have arrived where the horizon now closes down, a new prospect will open before me, and I shall meet it with peace.

Monday, August 8, 2011

He Loved Me and Gave Himself Up For Me

With Christ I am nailed to the cross. It is now no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me (Galatians 2:19-20).

This is Christian life.

What can I add to this? I have been dwelling on this text all day. What happened on the Cross? He intervened, definitively, in my life. He did something completely new, so new that it changes who I am. He identified Himself with me, to the point of even taking on my sins, from which He sets me free in the mystery of His love.

He loved me and gave Himself up for me. We should read these words every day. He loved me and gave Himself up for me. What is this "me" that He loves so much? Weakness. Selfishness. But then He takes hold of my life at its roots. Where I am helpless He comes with the love and the gift of Himself, He the Son of God. He claims my life, in order to become the source of something new. He asks me to let Him embrace me and become a source of new life--a life that is beyond the selfish prison of an "I" that struggles to find meaning in itself, alone. He breaks down the wall that separates me from the God that He is, the God that my "I" was created to live "for"--and this living for Him means that my self is opened up to Him. I am no longer alone. He lives in me.

How can this be? What does it mean? I live in the faith of the Son of God. I live a vital, obedient faith, full of hope, love, and trust because He has loved me. He has found me, He has given Himself to me, He has made it possible for me to recognize Him and live for Him. The Christian "I" lives in a relationship of self-abandonment to Jesus Christ, a relationship made possible because He gives Himself first.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Walking With Him, All The Way


A glimpse of glory. The voice of the Father: "This is my Beloved Son." How could Jesus have made Himself more "real" for these men? They saw all the miracles. They spent each day with Him, experiencing His tender gaze, marveling at His beauty. The man who is God: they were with Him. They saw Him. How could they ever falter in their faith? Why, after everything, did they still give in to fear?

Peter. After everything, after the promise of the Keys, after the calming of the storm, after the light of Mount Tabor, after the ardor of a heart that said in the peak of human sincerity, "I would lay down my life for You," how could he deny Him? Yet Jesus drew Peter's heart back to Himself. "Lord, You know that I love You."

Our life is so fragile and our experience so fragmented that we cannot energize ourselves to persevere in fidelity to the Mystery of God's presence and His love for us, even when He dwells with us and breaks bread with us every day and proves Himself trustworthy again and again and again.

And so He offers us this too as a gift: We may fail, we may turn from Him, we may forget Him a thousand times a day, but still His grace and mercy offer us the strength that we cannot generate from ourselves--the strength to rise and remember Him again, turn to Him again, be surprised by Him again, and if we cry out to Him and beg Him for His mercy, to walk with Him all the way through the end. All the way through death.

In the whole course of our life, He is prompting us, "Turn to Me, listen to Me, let Me draw you to myself, let Me give you what you need to take each step." Without Him we can do nothing. With Him we will have eternal glory. And He made us to be with Him, He wants us to be with Him.

Friday, August 5, 2011

He Knows Each One Of Us

My own trials have opened my eyes, my ears, and my heart to something I never noticed in my youth.  Maybe it is because I have finally started listening to people.  The fact is that so many people are struggling with suffering, most of them more than me.  Indeed, suffering is deeper than the immediate external struggles that engage most of us. Everyone has something missing in their life, something that has disappointed them, something that does not measure up to a once-cherished hope, something that inhibits their freedom, some burden that tires them, some hunger that is never satisfied.

People usually accommodate themselves to reduced expectations about life, especially as they get older.  How else could one get through the day?  Sometimes, however, one can still catch an echo of a cry of pain, that deep and mysterious pain at the heart of every human life.  Life is, in some measure, always something that has to be endured.

Why is this?  We suffer because of sin: original sin, our own personal sins, and the sins of the world.  We suffer in Christ, who is God’s love made personal and particular for each one of us.  Jesus is God drawn close to our wounded humanity, so close that He takes it upon Himself—not only in some “general” way, but in a way that encompasses each one of us.  Jesus is the intimate companion of each and every human person, even those who do not know Him.  He knows each one of us; He unites Himself (He—God the Eternal Son of the Father) to my humanity and to your humanity; He lives in us and suffers in us and through us.  He accompanies us through our companionship with one another and reaches out to others through our witness.

He knows “who I am” and who He wills me to be.  He knows the secret of why I was created.  He knows my sins.  He knows how to heal me of them, how to draw me to Himself, how to make me the “adopted son” that I am meant to be in Him for all eternity. And so my joys and sufferings are His infinitely wise, uniquely crafted, and tender love through which He shapes my life and leads me to my destiny.  How little I really understand about my “destiny.”  How little I understand about the “eternal life” which means belonging to Him forever.  We must remember every day that God is with us and that He draws us toward our true identity, which is to reflect His eternal glory in that unique way that corresponds to each of us as a person created in His image and likeness—a reflection that we do not yet understand but that He sees and knows.

We ought to dwell upon this and call it frequently to mind.  Those little prayers throughout the day are worth so much: “Jesus, I love you.  Jesus, I trust in you.  Come, Holy Spirit.” No matter the storms and the fury; the depths of our lives are not solitude.  At the heart of life, of every moment of life, there is companionship with the Merciful God.

There is Someone with us in our lives, every moment.  There is Someone “on the other side” of our prayers, listening, full of tender love, wanting to bestow mercy on us every moment with an attentiveness and care infinitely greater than that of any father or mother for their children.

From my book Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy (

Thursday, August 4, 2011

"The Old Media"--Still The Real Thing

I was on the radio today.

I did an interview on a program called "Meet the Author" on Radio Maria network. They have actual stations in numerous states. Remember radio stations? You know, you could pick them up on a gadget like that thing on the left.

Of course, they also have a website and a webcast. Everyone I know of so far heard the program on the internet. But someone, somewhere, heard me on the radio.

Wow. I'm famous.

Actually, that's not accurate. This was not my first radio program. I was already famous before this broadcast. And I've been in the newspaper too! And, in the summer issue of Faith & Family Magazine there is an article (!) about me and Eileen and the kids and our adventures in these recent, troubled years. Then of course there is the book itself. A real book. Not available on Kindle.

Maybe it's just a prejudice of my generation, but the old media still seem more "real" than the new media. I write all the time on the new media. I might reach more people on the new media on a given day than I did on that radio broadcast. Still, the radio seems more "solid." So does a magazine. It's an odd feeling. We are in the midst of a change in the way we look at media and the alleged "fame" that it brings with it. Whether this is good or bad I don't know.

I know this: old media or new media, the desire that moves me is to communicate with people. That's what matters. I think I have something to give.

Someone called in to the radio program who has been disabled 16 years. My heart goes out to all those people whose suffering is so much greater than my own. Jesus have mercy on the sick, especially those who are alone in their pain. O Jesus, enter that solitude with your mercy.

I have been blessed and supported in so many ways. I pray that God would use me as His instrument to praise His mercy. In Your way, Lord. Your will be done.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Witness of the Celibate Life

I'm a married man with five kids. But I think celibacy or “virginity” is beautiful for those called to it. The fact that there have been terrible abuses by some people who have violated their commitment to celibate life does not indicate that there is something wrong with the life itself (indeed, greater levels of such abuse are found in general among the married population). The problem of clerical abuse suggests various reforms, but the elimination of the celibate life is not one of them.

Celibacy is an ancient and venerated and specially blessed way of living the Christian life. Many different forms of living the Gospel are developing or being rediscovered in our time, which is a great grace. But this special consecration to God is as old as St. Paul and Jesus Himself. It is no imposition, but freely chosen by those whom God calls. It is a special and higher calling; I have no problem with that. I thank God that such people are part of my life. I thank God for their witness. Indeed, this special consecration to God is flowering in new ways today, in the midst of the secular world, in the ecclesial movements, even as it continues to be beautiful and fruitful in its classic forms.

It is certainly true that today the Church has placed great emphasis on the need for married people to seek God while living amid the cares and diverse circumstances of providing for a family and engaging in a secular career. We have many more positive images for “ordinary” Christian life in the world today, but it remains difficult for those of us who live in the ordinary way to remember the ultimate purpose of all the things we do and the concerns that press upon us. Being "in the world but not of the world" can become cliche if we forget the mystery of "self-transcendence" and transformation in Christ that are at the heart of every vocation, by virtue of baptism; St. Paul says, "remember you have died; your life is hidden with Christ in God." The exclusive dedication to God of those who embrace the consecrated, celibate life is a concrete witness that this is a fact for all of us, that it shapes the mystery of God's plan in the circumstances of our lives.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Why Do We Go To Church?

How do lay people participate in the liturgy? Must we leave the pews and go into the sanctuary? A few may perform certain tasks of assistance to the priest and the rest of the worshiping community such as serving at the altar or reading the Word of God. But that does not mean that the rest of us who remain in the body of the church are mere spectators in an action that does not involve us.

The real way for the laity to "get more involved" in the liturgy is for us to unite ourselves through liturgical worship to the offering of the sacrifice of Christ, to unite our whole lives to that offering. And in giving ourselves in earnest prayer, with words and heart, we, the faithful, also offer Jesus Himself–in the mysterious sacramental re-presentation of that One Sacrifice by which He redeems the world–to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the sacred ministry of the priest who acts in the Person of Christ, and together with him.

Listening and praying God's word, gestures, hymns, and responses are meant to dispose our hearts, minds, and bodies to this sacrifice of Christ, in communion with our brothers and sisters. Through the liturgy, my whole life can be united to Christ's act of loving obedience to the Father on the Cross, and that is what gives my life real value, ultimately.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Dog Days Of Summer

The dog days of summer are here. The days are only a little bit shorter. And they are hotter, and the air stays warm at night.

It's the beginning of yet another month. I have written a great deal in this year 2011. Paging back through it, many things come vividly to mind. For example, I can remember how cold it was in February. Mmmmmm, that would be nice now!

This might seem strange, but I often go back to these posts and learn something from them, or remember something that I had forgotten. In desperate moments, I am reminded of the mercy and love of Jesus, and that He is worthy of my confidence. I see again how He has been working in my life, and surrounding me with signs of His tender care. I am frequently tempted to doubt. These pages have sustained me in the face of those temptations.

It's like having a diary (with a bit of scrapbook too), a diary that I show to everyone else. That's okay with me. I'm an open person, open to a fault. I'm one of those people who actually answers the question, "How are you?" I don't have many secrets; only the ones that I don't even tell myself. So of course there's some fibbing in these pages, but there would be in a locked and bolted diary book too, because we all lie to ourselves.

I know this: God is at work, in me, in our marriage, in our family, in these gestures and attempts to communicate. There are flaws everywhere. It all seems tinged by my faults and my self-centeredness, and especially by my vanity. There is vanity in my reflections and actions and especially in my words. Less, perhaps, than there used to be--I am learning a little more about how to let things go, if only because I am getting older and I just can't fool myself quite as well as I managed to do in the dreams of youth.

Of course, there are no doubt as yet undiscovered realms of foolishness in this, the sophomoric period of my middle age. The desire remains to be recognized and acknowledged, and frustration remains at being ignored. Yet that is not the whole explanation for why I write.

To paraphrase Fr. Carron, the point is not that I can talk about Christ being present in my life. The point is that He is present in my life. That is the difference. I probably talk about it too much. But in the midst of all these words there is testimony to the fact that He is here.

That is what really matters.