Saturday, May 31, 2014


HAPPY FEAST OF THE VISITATION: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" (Luke 1:40). And joy was given and received by two unborn children.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Janaro Music: The Next Generation?

John Janaro on acoustic guitar, around 1984
This young guitarist is recognizable to some of you, perhaps. Around 30 years ago, he had composed at least a dozen original songs, none of which he can remember a single note of today. We did record all of them once... on a cassette tape! I don't know where the tape is. Although I still love music in a variety of genres, I have been away from the guitar for a long time. Too long, perhaps?

I bought a lovely black Ibanez Les Paul copy when I was in high school. It lasted me through college, but then in graduate school I sold it. Graduate students would often sell anything that they couldn't read or eat, because they needed ... money, so that they could buy... books and food. Ah, but that's another story for another day.

Over the ensuing years I collected guitars of all kinds, and often had plans to "start playing seriously" again, but life would always take a different turn. I have a Telecaster copy that I bought right around the end of May in 1995. I got a practice amp too. I decided I was going to make a comeback that summer. What else was there to do for fun? I had no other plans. But then this young woman that I had always kinda liked decided to move to Virginia, and... well... there ended up being no time to play guitar. Then, of course, we got married and along came the kids and the stress and greater responsibilities of work and then I got sick, and....

New generation: Classy look
Actually, those kids may finally get me going again, since John Paul and the others are digging out my old equipment and messing around trying to play the guitars and invent music with a keyboard or even the electronic music composition applications like MuseScore that anyone can download onto their computer for free. John Paul can compose music on the computer and have the music actually play back according to tonal varieties that he chooses (which are supposed to be "instruments" like violin or flute, but don't really imitate those sounds). Programs like these have led to a lot of cheap music, but they also open up possibilities for the development of musical craftsmanship in new ways. They are their own kind of musical instruments, like the enormous Synthesizers of the 1970s that we used to gaze upon with such admiration and awe in magazines. They cost unimaginable sums of money and were the size of a wall. But John Paul has everything he needs right on his laptop.

Our family never did much for the kids with music lessons beyond choir (which has been a great thing for the girls). But John Paul, in particular, is a very creative kid who likes to experiment with whatever he has at hand, whether it's a ukulele or a dollar-store keyboard or computer programs that I don't have the patience to be bothered with (a good Montessori education helped foster the curiosity, capacity, and competence to explore all kinds of possibilities with ingenuity and perseverance).

For years, the kids wanted to play with the electric guitar from 1995 that had been sitting in dusty corners ever since it was bought. Sometimes I let them, and mostly they broke strings. John Paul has remained interested, and even though the electric guitar only has four strings right now, he still plunks on it. So I've decided to get a few new sets of strings. He can add some guitar sounds to the synthesized tracks that he's already "produced" with the computer (or maybe I will add a few licks, if he lets me).

The things kids can do creatively with music thanks to computer technology are beyond the wildest dreams of that guitarist from 30 years ago in the picture at the top (and we dreamed big in those days). Of course, nothing will ever replace the sound of the human voice, or the natural material resonance of traditional instruments. We could let the ease of technology ruin our musical art (and it's doing that a lot). But we can also shape technological capacities into genuine forms of artistic expression; we can elevate them to express and communicate beauty. We can also bring the ancient and the new together in beautiful ways. This too is being done today, though you have to look around to find it... or try to do it yourself. Why not?

Perhaps while I'm helping John Paul and the others, I might rediscover some of my old songs. Or compose some new ones.

It may turn out to be a very musical summer.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Summer is Beginning, and It Won't be Dull

She spies something BIG!
It is good for one's health to have a small person such as this dashing about, chirping, bending one's ear, and asking questions all day long. Now that the school year is over, I can look forward to a summer full of such invigorating company. Yes, the school year for our family is rapping up as Chelsea prepares for its graduation this weekend. John Paul is about to turn 17 and to become a rising senior; at this time next year he will be graduating.

I'm sure we'll have good times together as a family this summer. But the older kids will do their own things, and Teresa (even though she's still my little girl) will no doubt have her usual whirlwind social life. There will be visitors and excursions. Some of the family might travel. The horizons of our children continue to expand.

Meanwhile Eileen will get a bit of a break from the teaching grind, and we will be able to sit at the table and drink coffee together in the morning, slowly. How splendid. And Josefina will bounce through the whole of my day and I will not be able to keep from laughing.

Sometimes she sees my face and knows I'm gritting my teeth. She comes over and grabs my head and holds it, and then starts patting my head (even bopping it a bit) and says, "C'mon Daddy, c'mon Daddy...."

And I feel like I'm going to be okay.

There is this mysterious level of maturity in her, but even as I say that I feel that it sounds like an exaggeration. She is just a little kid, with all of a kid's fragility and a kid's personality taking shape. She needs my strength. They all do. O Lord, please give me the strength that they need from me.

Really, Josefina is an energetic, sometimes exasperating, always engaging child with an abundant and creative sense of humor.

In other words, she's an absolute hoot.

Thank God for her!

Of course, when we saw these cookies we just had to buy them!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Storms in the Sky, and in the Soul

Storms pass through.
Thunderstorms pass through. Noisy, dramatic, unpredictable, even frightening... but they pass and they wash many things clean.

Sometimes when the rain comes, it just falls on us and runs all through us and pours out of us. We may feel like we're drowning, really drowning, but the raging waters are washing us and enriching the soil within us, so that it might bear fruit.

Storms in the sky, storms in the soul. Contemporary singer and songwriter Sara Bareilles gives poetry and voice to an experience that never ceases to be turbulent and ardent. Her song Let the Rain is a mysterious, searching cry of the heart for the waters that make a brand new ground (click HERE to hear the whole song on Grooveshark). This verse especially resonates with me:

I hold on to worry so tight;
it's safe in here right next to my heart,
who now shouts at the top of her voice,

          "Let me go,
           let me out,
           this is not my choice."

And I always felt it before
that the world was filled with much more
than the drowning soul I've learned to be;
I just need the rain to remind me

I wanna darken in the skies
Open the floodgates up
I wanna change my mind
I wanna be enough
I want the water in my eyes
I wanna cry until the end of time

I wanna let the rain come down
Make a brand new ground

Let the rain come down.

Sara Bareilles

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Free as a Bird?

Wouldn't you like to be free as a bird?

I wonder where that expression came from. As I write this, we are watching one of those BBC nature videos. The erudite voice of some distinguished British gentleman is telling everyone about the glorious life of animals, which basically consists in sleeping, seeking food, mating, and avoiding predators. And it is a wonderful thing, in its own way, the multitude of diverse ways in which animals all over the world -- in all their many colors and shapes and sizes -- use their remarkable instincts to seek food, to mate, and to avoid predators; in a word, to live. But it takes a bit of the romance out of my lonely black bird. There is surely much poetry in his sturdy vigil, perched atop a fence post. All the splendor and spontaneity of his instincts are focused on the task of living. For him it means spying the worm, the grub, tending the nest, avoiding the cat.

But he is not free.

He is bound to this labor. He comes forth from his shell, struggles into flight, searches for food, perpetuates his species without even knowing what he is, searches for more food, and one day dies. But the whole sky is full of birds. Flocks of birds in full flight. They give no thought to their freedom, or their burdens.

It is we who find the image of freedom in their flight.

It is we who are melancholy at the recognition of their passing lives.

The animals, in their unreflected innocence, remind us that the whole world is passing away. And perhaps too, there is an echo in animal life of the sadness at the heart of creation, a sadness that reflects something irretrievably lost.

Yet we do not get caught up in the mourning of this loss. Our gaze upon the natural world and our poetry are full of hope. We yearn for the freedom of the birds. We watch them in flight and we sense the promise of freedom. For the eager longing of creation awaits the revelation of the children of God. There is another mystery at work at the heart of creation, and it whispers in our hearts a restlessness, an expectation, a promise.

The birds will return to the earth and be joined to it. And one day, the earth will be transformed. The mystery of this is hidden from us.

But we will fly. We will be free.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Can There be Joy, Even in Pain and Tribulations?

"Joy is like the seal of a Christian. Even in pain, tribulations, even in persecutions" (Pope Francis).

I don't think we can stress this too much, as long as we know what we're really saying. Joy is not the same thing as "always seeing the bright side," or always maintaining a constant smile or a good mood or good feelings. It's not merely a good disposition or an energetic manner.

External cheerfulness and a peaceful, confident, positive internal feeling or state of mind are not the same things as Christian joy. Indeed, joy often coexists with all sorts of apparently contrary dispositions of a complicated human personality, ranging from bad digestion to intense physical or psychological suffering. "Even in pain, tribulations, even in persecutions" the Christian person possesses joy.

The obvious appearances and feelings of joy may be signs and expressions of real joy, or some of its elements. But in and of themselves, they may indicate nothing more than natural realities such as a certain personality type, a cultural expression, a physical and psychological equilibrium, or a response to a satisfying experience. They can even be a fake dress worn by hypocrisy, or a facade that hides an agenda of violence, abuse, and personal manipulation.

Real joy, however, is deep and foundational. It is an underlying reality of the new humanity that we receive from Christ, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The heart of Christian joy is a participation, already begun here and now in the life of grace, in the very mystery of God's own infinite joy, of His life, of His glory. No experience in this life can simply be objectified, analysed, and classified as "joy-in-the-radical-sense," because it is God sharing His joy with us -- the joy that is God Himself.

God elevates and purifies our affections, draws us through them, and gives us much help that passes through our psychic experiences and strengthens us. But even when we cannot "feel Him" in any way, we still believe in Him by faith and cling to Him in hope. We know that the source of our joy is with us, and that if we love Him, then we possess that invincible joy even if the world rages at us, even if sorrow overcomes us in the face of earthly loss, even if neurotransmitters in the brain or hormones in the body go bonkers, even if incomprehensible pain fills our entire conscious awareness.

It is for our encouragement (not our discouragement) that the grace of the Spirit touched some of the martyrs and saints, so that they embraced gruesome death "as if going to a wedding feast." But God's Kingdom is overwhelmingly made up of saints who probably went through their deaths with considerably less enthusiasm. Many lived their lives with temperaments that would not be classified as "joyful" in the mundane sense.

The joy of God is lived within the love of God, and it realizes itself vitally within our personality in the measure in which we love God and our neighbor. The resonance within experience and the external signs of joy have different forms, different levels of intensity, and variations that correspond to the secret ways in which the grace of God is at work transforming mysteriously the particular person according to his or her own history, wounds, and suffering.

If we are patient and loving with people, we will be surprised by their joy as it peeks through like the sun on a cloudy day. And a glimpse of it will enrich us.

In sum, smiles and good feelings may arise from true joy, but the joy that is the gift of the Spirit is always deeper and "beyond" any of these expressions. If life becomes more happy and "fun" in general for those who love God (and it does), it is because God's presence brings healing to the whole person... but in different ways and in different measure, always mysteriously and personally, not always obvious and evident.

After the resurrection, Jesus didn't ask Peter: "Simon son of John, do you feel good about me...."

He asked, "Simon son of John, do you love me...."

It is in God that we have joy, and nothing can separate us from this radical joy: neither principalities and powers, nor the present or the future, nor the kings of the earth and their designs, nor persecutions, tribulations, pains, nor the tragedies of life, the loss of loved ones, the oppression of harsh task masters, nor sufferings, nor piercing screams from some horrendous cancer treatment (whether it is us who scream, or the person we love most in the world as we stand by their bed), nor the harrowing abysses of psychiatric disorders, the darkness and deadness of depression, the anxiety and obsessions that rage like fire in our brains, nor the implacable daily unseen torture of a chronic illness that no one else seems to understand, nor any of the countless ups or downs of life -- extraordinary or ordinary -- that we can imagine.

When we hear the words of Pope Francis, we shouldn't say, "Oh, I don't feel joyful, so I guess I'm not a real Christian." Rather let us say, "No matter how I feel, my joy is in Christ and in belonging to Him."

When we say this, let us examine ourselves, and seek forgiveness for all our sins (which never bring true joy in themselves, although our sorrow over them is already the beginning of joy). And let us live in hope, because the life of God is our joy, and His love is stronger than our suffering, our wounds, our frailty.

We have confident joy because He has reached down to our deepest need. God has joined Himself to us in the most desolate places of our pain and tribulation. Jesus is with us, and our wounds belong to Him; they are His wounds, forever. Joy is the revolution of transfigured open wounds, open forever in His resurrected body, because of His love which He gives to us.

The joy of this love becomes mysteriously radiant even within all the moments of this present life -- this often arduous journey -- because love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7). In His love we keep going, we hope, we desire, we offer, we trust, we cry out for God, we never give up.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

I'm Muddling Along. Isn't That Good Enough?

A sick "selfie"! Do I look attracted to Infinity? Well, the palm tree looks nice...

I've spent the past half hour mentally zoning out in front of the screen. I'm not going to complain about being sick. Sunday was a good day. Now I'm mostly back in bed. But there will be other good days.

They're all good days. Some of them are just difficult.

I must bear the difficulties, "carry the cross," and offer it up. Right?

But the problem is, I don't want to bear difficulties. I can't stand it! I'm not good at "offering up" stuff. I'd rather grumble and feel sorry for myself, darn it!

But there are Eileen and the kids, these people who are inescapably "in my face" every day. We've got to have some order, and some effort to get along, so I raise myself up with all my energy and I manage to muddle along.

That doesn't seem like a very Christian attitude, but I'm a bad Christian; really, I do the whole thing badly. I'm not good at trusting, or praying, or loving my neighbor, or taking care of the poor. I'm selfish, lazy, and foolish. I'm the Rich Man (or, at least, I would like to be the Rich Man, feasting splendidly... but in any case I do have the riches of the First World, a table with plenty of scraps falling carelessly all over the place).

I do see Lazarus at the door. Perhaps I'm not so bad. I'm sorry for Lazarus, and I don't want to ignore him. I'll gather some of my scraps and give them to charity. Lazarus is hungry. I'm glad we have "people-who-deal-with-that-sort-of-thing." Trained people. Professionals. Other people.

Of course, the real problem for me is not that I don't want Lazarus to have a nice, happy, well-fed life. The problem is that Lazarus is a weirdo. Lazarus has all these problems, he's difficult, and so darn demanding. Lazarus is "another person," and I'm too tired to be bothered with him!

Feed him. Give him a full plate. In fact he can have the whole dinner. Just keep him outside. Or, forget it, he can have the house. I'll go outside!

What I don't want is for Lazarus and I to get involved in each other's lives. I don't want to love Lazarus, because that would mean recognizing his deeper hunger. It's a hunger that I don't understand, and don't know how to fill. Let him go to a psychologist or a priest or "somebody else." His hunger is too much like my own hunger, and I don't want to feel my own hunger!

What has always struck me most in the parable of "Lazarus and the Rich Man" is the fact that, when the Rich Man is in torment, he asks Abraham to "send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue" (Luke 16:24). He says, "send Lazarus...."

So he knew Lazarus by name. How did he know him? Who was Lazarus? His friend? His brother? His son? Or perhaps just someone from the neighborhood. Still, he knew him by name. He recognized his face.

It is terrible to let a stranger starve at our gate. But the people starving at our gates are people we know by name. Lazarus is our friends, our brothers and sisters, our parents, our children, our spouse.

Our Lazarus lives in the house. Is he starved for our love?

I know what this means for me. It means that "muddling along" is not good enough. We are all too hungry. I must face my hunger and live it and cry out from it and beg to be fed. Then, I will have something to offer.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I Will Praise Him Still

"Why are you cast down, my soul?
Why groan within me?
Hope in God; I will praise him still,
my savior and my God" (Psalm 42:12).

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Everything is New and Wonderful

The weather was beautiful today. And I am guardedly optimistic that I am recovering from the most recent flareup of what I call my "rheumatism," which put me in bed and in some significant pain over the past couple of weeks. Rest and patience do appear to be the best medicine for preventing a relapse (at least for the past several years). I'm glad that my present circumstances permit me to be flexible and to moderate my activity and step back when I feel the need to.

Exercise is important, of course, when I can manage it. I was able to enjoy today's weather and walk around the neighborhood a bit. It is easy to forget how lovely it is here in the Shenandoah Valley, but today everything looked new and a little wonderful.

Down the block, a road leads to the commercial area of town.

Of course, that can be explained in part by the fact that Spring is ripening into a green and growing Summer. It is as if you can just stand still and hear the leaves drinking in the sun and the grass drawing up to the sky.

I hope it was a peaceful Sunday for everyone.

Sunset is well after 8 PM, leaving the air warm in the lingering light of dusk.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Path of Little Cuts

John Janaro around the year 1992
I meant to post this a couple of days earlier, to correspond with its original date, but I haven't exactly been on the ball lately. Nevertheless, it turns out to be a happy delay. This little anecdote has some echoes of the theme of personal suffering as articulated by Msgr. Albacete in yesterday's post.

The young man who wrote these words in May of 1992 was still riding on the cloud of his recent success in the public presentation and defense of his complex theological thesis. He was full of the praise of the examining professors and the audience, and perhaps had begun to puff up with the feeling that he really was as "brilliant" as they seemed to think.

One may or may not be brilliant, but it is not helpful to allow one's self to become preoccupied with any kind of overconfidence, since it obscures the real smallness and fragility and radical neediness that constitutes our human condition, even the condition of someone who is a genius.

I've since learned that whatever brilliance I may have had was easily paralyzed by debilitating disease, and easily turned into a weapon against itself by neurological dysfunctions of the brain. The human person is fragile indeed, but also -- by the force of the implacable aspiration of a living vocation and the strength of Divine grace -- tenacious and adaptable, capable of refocusing and moving forward.

One learns, slowly, that self-satisfaction and pride choke off the true growth of the person, and that what is needed is a realistic assessment of one's capacities and a giving-over of everything to the wisdom and goodness of God, to follow the way that He leads.

As I said, one learns slowly -- for the most part. This lesson is a journey of trust, realism, and self-surrender.

I am still on that journey, 22 years after I wrote these words. I still have a scar on my finger from the injury I describe below. It was a small suffering, but it reminded me that I was on the road to transcendence, a long and arduous road.

Young John Janaro, May 14, 1992:

Thursday, May 15, 2014

How Can We Have True Compassion For Those Who Suffer?

William Congden, Crucifixion series
I'm not going to offer my own reflections on such a profound problem. Instead, I have a few striking selections (with notes from me, occasionally, in brackets [ ] ) from a book that is rich in what it offers to both the mind and the heart, by the great and unheralded theologian (and my old friend) Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete. The little book is called God at the Ritz (click the link and buy a copy). The title is both serious and funny, but I'm not going to explain that here. You'll have to get the book to find out.

These thoughts (selected from pp. 81-116) are worth going through, because I think Msgr. Albacete presents an understanding of compassion as "co-suffering" that is essential to how we can really help one another and stand together with one another in solidarity in suffering. This ingredient of "co-suffering," I think, is proper to every gesture of compassion including those that bring relief to the suffering of others.

It's something I want to ponder and develop further, personally as a human being and perhaps also philosophically/theologically. Note that the "audience" for these remarks is not just Christians but all people who search for meaning, who suffer and practice love and compassion:

What is human suffering? Suffering is not the same as pain. Pain is a symptom indicating that something is wrong at one or more of the three levels of human awareness: physical, psychological, and spiritual. [Note: there is an interesting discussion of this point, but the theme is that what distinguishes the core of specifically human suffering is the way it touches a person's identity, the way it introduces a rupture of the person's expectation of the "good-for-myself," or even the presumption of its realization. This rupture, experienced as "against-me," provokes—in the intrinsic reality of human personal suffering—a fundamental and vital question.] 
Suffering occurs when you seek to understand the reason for pain—not the cause of it, but the reason for it—the "ultimate reason" if you will, for "why this should happen." We ask "why?" because suffering breaks our mental schema of how things should be. Suffering tears apart our worldview, our assumptions about life. We ask why in the face of inexplicable imperfection. Asking why drives us beyond our preconceived notions toward something more.
Often, without realizing it, we address our "why" to the Source of meaning. We look for a face that is ultimately responsible for everything. In essence, then, we aren't looking for explanations. We are looking for something else: we are looking for salvation, for redemption. When we suffer, asking "why" moves us toward transcendence.
[This question (why?) is in some way the distinctive form of the experience of human suffering. The question] surges out of the human heart and breaks through all attempts to suppress it. [And, it] opens us to others who are also suffering, thus creating a solidarity among those who suffer. To suffer together means to walk together toward transcendence.
This solidarity is the proper human response to [the] suffering [of others]. This doesn't mean that we "share the pain" of those who suffer. While this phrase is used quite often, I don't think this is possible. Nothing is more intimately personal than the pain of suffering. It is, after all, a wound in our personal identity, and personal identity cannot be shared. Each person is unique and unrepeatable. What we share is the questioning, and thus we suffer with the one who suffers. We "co-suffer" with that person.
The only adequate response when confronted with another person's suffering is co-suffering. It is the only way to respect the suffering of another. Co-suffering affirms the wounded personal identity of the sufferer through our willingness to expose our identity to the questioning provoked by the sufferer's pain. This willingness to share suffering is an act of love. Co-suffering is the way we love the one who suffers.
In our relationship with the one who suffers, we as co-sufferers can impose nothing on the other person. We can only help the other to ask the question "why" by asking it together—that is, by praying together. Praying together with the one who suffers is the just response to the suffering.
The redemption of suffering, as our experience indicates, cannot be found as an "ultimate answer" to a problem: it can only be an event that transforms the drama of suffering into a drama of love and shows love to be more powerful than its denial. The possibility of this event sustains a realistic hope and an unfailing determination to protect and defend human freedom and the dignity of human life.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


"Whenever we feel weary or discouraged
along the journey of faith,
let us ask the Holy Spirit
to grant us the gift of fortitude,
to refresh us
and to guide our steps
with renewed enthusiasm."

Pope Francis

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

An Extraordinary Motherly Protection and Care

St John Paul II, moments after being shot on May 13, 1981
May 13 commemorates two great interventions of the Mother of God in the twentieth century: Her appearance to the shepherd children at Fatima in 1917, and her intervention in St. Peter's Square in Rome to save a bishop in white from what should have been a fatal bullet in 1981.

Saint John Paul II confessed his faith with his blood on May 13, 1981, and the Virgin Mary saved him for the sake of the Church, and the world.

Thank you, Merciful Mother Mary! Thank you for preserving your devoted son who had entrusted everything to you, the bishop of Rome whose motto was "Totus Tuus." Thank you for making of him a great gift to all of us, as a voice in the night, a light in the midst of so much darkness.

Five months later, on October 7, 1981, the Feast of the Holy Rosary, he returned to St. Peter's Square and to his public audiences, where he said:
Again I have become indebted to the Blessed Virgin and to all the patron saints. Could I forget that the event in Saint Peter's Square took place on the day and at the hour when the first appearance of the Mother of Christ to the poor little peasants has been remembered for over sixty years at Fatima in Portugal? For in everything that happened to me on that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet."
Anyone who has lived from that day to this day should know that it's worth it to trust in that motherly protection and care, and to have confidence that Jesus is in charge of His Church, always. Pray the Rosary... and don't worry!

Monday, May 12, 2014

All That Lies at Hand

O God, O Jesus, O vivifying Spirit:

Without You I can do nothing.
Without You,
every moment is a crushing burden;
every trial pricks and stings my tired flesh.

Without You,
I do nothing;
I am nothing;
I am a huge, hollow hole of nothing.

O Lord my God;
O Jesus, Redeemer and Healer;
O Holy Spirit—Lord and Giver of Life:

With You
I can do all
that lies at hand
in the small space of today.

With You,
I can endure whatever weight
You ask me to bear in this moment,
trusting in Your wisdom and love.

--adapted from a passage in my book about the challenges of living with chronic debilitating illness: Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy (Published by Servant/Franciscan Media).

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Happy Mother's Day

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY to two amazing, outstanding women, my own incredible wonderful wife Eileen Janaro, and the tremendous human being who is my mother, Joan Janaro. I love them both more than I can ever express, and I am grateful to them beyond measure. And Happy Mother's Day to all you good mothers, family and friends. Remember: you are GREAT! God bless you all.

Social Media post, May 11, 2014

Here is my beloved wife Eileen.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Young People are Made for the True Richness of Life

May blossoms in the morning.
Last night I had a really beautiful discussion with John Paul and Agnese about the value of learning, of being educated as human persons, of experiencing the meaning of things in the context of truth, goodness, and beauty.

They are already beginning to see these things in high school. (Chelsea Academy has been such a blessing.) But they certainly are old enough. They're opening up like blossoms in the morning of their lives, in the time when their adult personalities are taking shape. Certainly they're having lots of fun, but it's within the context of discovering the true richness of life.

These years from 15 or 16 years old on through college are so rich in the potential for growth, for laying the foundations of one's attitude for the whole of life. What a waste it is to throw these years away in superficial satisfactions. Young people are "wild" because the great upsurge of freedom within them tries to connect anything that is given to it with infinity.

And this society tries to enslave that wildness to individual and reciprocal indulgence; to behaviors, styles, and products that promise falsely to satisfy, but only lead to banality and then a new round of false promises. This society distorts the youthful thirst for life, and deflects it into a pattern of perpetual consumption and dissatisfaction. The result is that people grow bitter with age, but they never grow up.

Nevertheless, people keep buying stuff. There is a lot of money to be made off of perpetually misdirected and frustrated hopes. But it is an outrage to turn the sacred space of the human heart into a den of thieves!

Instead, why not cultivate an environment of true freedom for young people, for our kids? Why not point them in the direction of the more profound truth -- the ultimate truth -- that their mind's eye has begun to seek? These free spirits who continue to grow and surmount boundaries: they are drawn by the Infinite, the inexhaustible Mystery who makes them.

Can we not accompany them and guide them toward the decisive encounter of their lives? In so doing, we will rediscover our own youth.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Wasting Time, Part II: How I Ended Up in Russia

And now I shall continue this rambling story, and you will find that it is not without interest.

I grabbed this book off my shelf yesterday and became absorbed by it, but, as I said, the Lord is merciful. It turned out to be a very interesting book about Saint Sergius and Russian Spirituality. Yes. Really! That book attracted my interest, and I started reading. I found it hard to stop reading. (I challenge anyone to a NERD contest, any time, any place... I will outnerd you!)

This icon has pretty much the whole story.
But seriously: I already knew a lot of what was in this book, and I knew that is was great and deeply significant history, but present circumstances put it in a new perspective.

Sergius of Radonezh is a Russian Orthodox saint of the 14th century. He is one of the great saints of Russian monasticism who also played the role of peacemaker among the factions that were emerging as the Mongol grip was loosened in the north. St. Sergius is a national hero and symbol for Russia, although this is something of an accident of history. His monastery was near Moscow, and his counsel to the prince and his prayers are linked forever to the decisive Battle of Kulikovo in 1380, which was a "Lepanto-like" victory by Christian Slavs over the Mongols.

Stay with me here, because this matters. This is the birth of the Russia we know today. This Russia traces its origin to the great lost city of Kiev, which was a wonder of the 11th and 12th centuries and known well throughout Europe. Ancient Kiev was vaporized by the Golden Horde in 1240, and I mean really vaporized! The Mongols -- an inscrutable confederacy of nomads brought together by Genghis Khan -- were like a combination of an unstoppable force of nature and a ferocious weapon of mass destruction.

Ancient Kiev, the Kiev of St. Vladimir and the people of Rus, was basically nuked. The "Golden Horde" didn't need a bomb. They killed everyone. They burned everything. Then they pitched camp, chewed on dried mutton, rested, raced their horses, and headed for the next town.

They had a simple philosophy. A divine being ruled heaven, and they ruled earth. Their motives for being ruthless weren't very clear, but at some point they realized that if they came to a city and decided not to just toast it, there was a lot of money to be made.

The Christian Slavs who could fled, many to the north. Kiev was erased from the map. Part of the problem of tracing the Slavic heritage is this unparalleled event and its consequences. The Mongols swept over the world of medieval Rus, wiped part of it out and left the rest of it to pay tribute. This was terrorism. But it also became, over time, a migration and partial assimilation, with the "Tartars" settling and some even converting to Christianity. The khans were curious about religion, and even considered Christianity. In the end, however, they chose Islam.

Russia was born over a century later, inspired in part by a monk who was a man of peace, a monk who lived as a hermit and shared his bread with a bear every day, who founded a monastery under obedience to the bishop and served as abbot by building the cells of his novices and bringing them water and food, a monk who counseled peasants and princes, and who convinced princes not to fight with one another.

The Battle of Kulikovo was a matter of self defense. When it became clear that the Horde could not be stopped by tribute or even temporal humiliation, Sergius blessed Prince Dmitri and told him to go forth boldly, trust God, and prepare for death. Many did die on that day, but the Prince lived and prevailed. Muscovy and its princes became the unifying center of the Eastern Slavic world. Eventually they became Emperors with a stature beyond anything St. Sergius could have imagined in the 14th century.

Fascinating stuff. And, in fact, very much worth knowing and remembering.

In celestial glory, St. Sergius prays for peace between his brothers on earth today. May his prayers be heard.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Wasting Time (Part I): The Allure of Old Media

Well, this day was basically a bust. I just couldn't make anything happen today. No words... even though I have to finish an article.

Let me look on the bright side. It was like this today:

It was good coffee too.

Actually, I got totally diverted this morning, and the amazing thing is that this diversion WAS NOT CAUSED BY THE INTERNET! I cannot blame the Internet for sucking up my time today. It wasn't the Internet that Kept-Me-From-Smelling-the-Flowers-and-Watching-the-Sunset-and-Looking-Deeply-Into-the-Eyes-of-Those-I-Love....

Easter lilies don't last long: smell them while you can!
I should have been online. I could have watched the sunset in Jamaica!
As for "the eyes of my loved ones," well... this is just NORMAL around here.

Nope. Don't blame Zuckerberg for today. Blame Gutenberg.


Long before the Internet was born, I had already developed the talent of "book-surfing." I didn't call it that, of course. I used the technical term for it: research!

Not these books. Another shelf.
All joking aside, surfing the bookshelf is not the most efficient way of acquiring or deepening one's understanding. One of these days I shall blog seriously about a genuine problem, a cultural, spiritual, and personal problem, the real problem of wasting time, which is not so much about "productivity" as it is about losing focus.

For now, I just want to say that I pulled a book off the shelf (it's just like clicking the link) and got lost in it. But the Lord is merciful. I actually did learn something. It's late, however, so I'll leave you in suspense (can you bear it?) and finish the story tomorrow.

Good night. (I hope I don't stay up reading....)

Friday, May 2, 2014

St. Athanasius Helps Us Remember Who Jesus Really Is

In honor of the feast of the St. Athanasius, I am presenting here an excerpt from an earlier book of mine: not the one with the fish bowls on it, but a book published in 2003, entitled The Created Person and the Mystery of God. Since it doesn't sell many copies these days, I might as well "recycle" some of this interesting material. Various parts of this book were initially drawn up for classroom or other lectures. What is presented here, however, was written for a broad audience.

St. Athanasius shows us that the explicit formulation and development of Catholic doctrine was not a matter of abstract philosophical speculation. It was, rather, an unfolding of the central features of the Gospel. Catholic doctrine protects the saving and transformative word of the Gospel from degenerating into a mere human philosophy. It assures that Jesus present in the Church remains free to approach the human person in the fullness of the truth of who He is and what He wills to give to every human life.

St. Athanasius 
The first heresy in Christian history to wield extensive political and social power was a kind of rationalist attack on the Trinity—in particular a denial of the true Divinity of the second person, the Son and Word of the Father. In the center of this storm was the singular figure of St. Athanasius, the celebrated bishop of Alexandria and fearless defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy. The greatness of St. Athanasius was not only his implacable opposition to Arianism in all its forms, but also his insight into the relationship between the mystery of the Trinity and the way in which God truly gives His creatures a share in His own eternal life and glory.
In the first decades of the fourth century, a popular, talented, and politically astute priest in Alexandria named Arius had developed a theory about the Trinity. Up until this time, most attempts by Christian thinkers to shed light on the unity and distinctness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had been provisional at best. For Arius, classical Catholic accounts of the Trinity were dissatisfying and ambiguous and seemed to involve the Church in irrational and contradictory affirmations about God. 
He proposed a simple solution, logically coherent, easy to understand, and—at first glance—seemingly consistent with the language of the New Testament: God is one. He is the Unoriginate. The Logos, the Word, is his first and greatest creature. The Word is a reflection of the Divine Being, so perfect that he is called “Son” and God is his “Father” in a unique manner. Nevertheless, he is a creature. According to a famous slogan of Arius which he even set to music, “there was a time when he was not.” This first creature fashioned everything else in turn; therefore he is called “god” in relation to the rest of creation; however he is not divine by nature.  The Holy Spirit, too, is a creature, the first and greatest creature of the Word who is himself the divine-like creature of God the Father. 
What Arius proposed was ingenious and remarkable, and seemed to give a rationally satisfying explanation of the Trinity. In fact, however, Arius had deconstructed the mystery of the Trinity. After causing some significant controversy especially in Alexandria and the other Eastern churches, and arousing the concern of the Emperor Constantine, Arius’s theory was condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325, wherein the Only Son of the Father was proclaimed God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father. After this Council, however, the Arian party succeeded in gaining imperial favor by means of deception and intrigue. Enormous political pressure was brought to bear against orthodox bishops by Constantine’s successors, and imperially sponsored synods tried to construct and then impose compromise Trinitarian formulations that secretly favored the Arian position. 
It was under the pressure of the now supposedly Christian (but in fact Arian favoring) Roman political administration that St. Athanasius gave his great personal witness to the Catholic faith. Athanasius was exiled from his see no less than five times during his tumultuous career, because he stubbornly opposed any and every politically engineered compromise with the Arian position. Modern secular historians may often wonder why Athanasius was so passionate and so persistent about what might seem to be an abstract theological point. Yet we can appreciate the energy of his zeal if we realize that he perceived the deep connection between the mystery of the Trinity and the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption. 
Athanasius’s conviction about the Trinity was inseparable from his conviction about the Christian event and its significance for the life of man. Through the incarnation and redemption, God has made it possible for us to share in His very life. Our union with the Word made flesh gives us a participation in the Divine life. This is the great patristic teaching on deification (“theosis”): God became man so that men might become “gods”—that is, adopted sons of the Father. 
Athanasius perceived the radical implications of Arius’s theories: if the one who became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary was not fully Divine, how could he possibly give us a participation in the Divine life? In the Arian system, the magnificent destiny of the Christian man comes crashing to the ground. The one who walked the earth, who became our friend, who gave us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink, was merely another creature like us. God has not shown us His face nor invited us into his friendship. He remains a stranger to us. 
Thus Athanasius declares: “the Son of God became Son of Man, so that the sons of man, that is, of Adam, might become sons of God. The Word begotten of the Father from on high, inexpressibly, inexplicably, incomprehensibly and eternally, is He that is born in time here below, of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, so that those who are in the first place born here below might have a second birth from on high, that is, of God.” Moreover, if the Holy Spirit is not fully God, how can he possibly transform us into the likeness of God? “If the Holy Spirit were a creature, there could be no communion of God with us through Him. On the contrary, we would be joined to a creature, and we would be foreign to the divine nature, as having nothing in common with it…If by participation in the Spirit we are made partakers in the divine nature…it cannot be doubted that His is the nature of God.” 
Thus for Athanasius, the full co-eternal divinity of the Word and the Holy Spirit was not only a truth about the mystery of God; it was also a matter of life or death for man—it was a truth decisive for the human vocation. Only the Divine Word made flesh divinizes His brothers and sisters in the flesh. If Christ is anything less than God, then the gates of heaven are closed and man is still in exile from his eternal home. The comfortable rationalism of Arius, in the end, robbed Christianity of its very heart.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Work of Tenderness

We have already completed one third of the year 2014. It has certainly been an eventful time. Here in America, the flowers of spring are finally blooming after what was for many of us a harsh winter. The coming of spring was a certainty, but many events in the world are developing in ways that we cannot predict.

We continue to watch and pray over the dramas of peoples and nations, and we still wonder what will happen in the coming months at the crossroads of Russia and Ukraine. We wonder what kind of contemporary agendas may be taking advantage and imposing themselves upon a situation that could otherwise be resolved. There is the old and complex problem of integration, coexistence, and conflict among Slavic peoples whose historic sufferings are rarely appreciated or understood. But there are also many new factors -- strategic ambitions and concerns, political and economic struggles, disputes over natural resources, the great geopolitical centers of power struggling for dominance, advantage, prestige, or even their own corrupt enrichment.

Many of us feel confused about what exactly is going on, and we don't know how it can be resolved, or who should be involved. We wonder what the ongoing, escalating tension on the steppes of Europe's eastern frontier in May of the year 2014 might mean for the West, for the United States, for our children....

Certainly we have hope that peace will prevail. No one wants to imitate the inexorable march to catastrophe of our ancestors a hundred years ago. No one wants to learn by experience the strange, unforeseeable cruelties of global warfare in a new century. We have enough brutality among ourselves as it is. We have enough need to take responsibility for our own families and communities, to turn to God and to one another, to build up the good, to help one another, to bring healing to the broken, strength to the weak, protection to the vulnerable.

We don't need war. We are already living in the midst of war. Each of us has bruises from the long battle waged within our own minds and hearts, and we also live in a society riddled with open violence, and plagued by so many forces that subtly manipulate and degrade the human person. This is our war, the war that still wounds us and the people around us. We need to draw upon the great sources of healing and mercy that have been given to us, and then care for our brothers and sisters. This is our work. We need to become peacemakers, builders of human places -- places of healing -- in our own communities.

May day is observed as Labor Day in many countries around the world, and the Church marks this day as a feast for St. Joseph the Worker. Every human being is called to be a worker; we are called to engage in the circumstances of our daily lives, called to work in mostly humble ways so that goodness and beauty might flourish and grow. If we give our hearts to God, He will work through us so that we can bring to our fragile human world a much needed tenderness.

In speaking about St. Joseph and his work, Pope Francis emphasized this special quality, and we must beg God to make us tender toward one another and our world if we are to hope for peace:
"Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!" (Pope Francis, March 19, 2013)