Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fists and Flames: Baltimore's Agony is Ours

The fires of Baltimore's street violence (from BBC)
Baltimore, Maryland has flared up in recent days with multiple expressions of conflict, from protests to riots, looting, and physical destruction. The media present the latest American "city in flames" that has caught the camera eyes of the world (who do their best to show as much fire as possible).

The Baltimore Sun: fists and flames.
I share in the common concern. How can we begin to take the steps needed to make healing possible for these deep wounds in our society? This is an urgent question, even though I fear that the road to healing is a long and difficult one.

This time, these events have also struck me in another way: Baltimore is not so far away from my home.

It's a couple of hours' drive east and arching north. Much of it is a very pretty country drive on old Route 340, passing Berryville and through Harper's Ferry where the Shenandoah River empties into the Potomac.

We are connected, at least remotely, by water to the Chesapeake Bay area with its history and its world of life. Nevertheless the Blue Ridge sets us apart. Even though it poses no physical barrier for travel today (and multitudes make the trip daily), the ridge is still there like a mysterious boundary that carves out this region as a distinctive place from America's East Coast.

The Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah Valley are the beginning of Appalachia. We cannot entirely feel like "the East" in these mountains, because there was a time when we were "the West." Two and a half centuries ago, Appalachia was the English frontier.

Perhaps that is why Baltimore (and even Washington DC and the "Northern Virginia" suburbs) seem remote to our quiet life out here. It is not hard to feel like we are in a kind of shelter. Indeed, this might not be the worst place to be if all heck breaks loose in the sweeping population centers of this country.

Still, I think we are in danger of forgetting that the violence in the news is showing us a picture of our own lives. How often is rural life a realm where poverty remains unnoticed, where indifference pushes aside any effort to understand our neighbors?

This is, indeed, the long and old story of life in Appalachia.

There is no real escape from confronting the cycle of violence. All the burning cars should not obscure that fact that even many peaceful protests in Baltimore's streets are heavy with frustration. And we don't have the luxury of hiding away under the shade of the leafy trees of western Virginia.

Rural life and city life: we are closer than we think.
There is no escape from the cycle of violence or the
search for justice, peace, and healing for all of us.
The streets and dirt roads and backwoods of Appalachia are heavy with frustration.

My life is heavy with frustration. How am I dealing with that?

Does the lack of struggle and turmoil in my own heart indicate the healing presence of grace and virtue, or rather does it signify that I have made a truce with mediocrity, that I have allowed myself to stop wanting the fullness of life?

Open violence and human conflict certainly stem in part from the devolution of our society to the fringes of civility, the opportunistic predation of bandits and demagogues, and even the sensationalist provocation of media attention.

But sometimes thrashing and screaming are expressions of pain and the desperate struggle for a tenuous life that is nearly lost. Sometimes... in Baltimore, in the Shenandoah Valley, in my own heart.

The cries of the wounded are piercing and disturbing, but they are driven by the wild strength of desperate hope. They make us afraid, but we have the responsibility to listen and to try to understand and share in the awful pain.

No one wants riots, or anger, or a troubled soul. But real peace comes from commitment and humility, work and suffering.

The alternative stands before us: we can embrace the hard and messy struggle for a peaceful people who journey together upon the road of life, or we can resign ourselves to the silence of corpses.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Spring Evening in Pictures

Most of these pictures have been posted already on the social media circuit. I have been able to get out a little, do some walking, and try to take pictures around the neighborhood.

I'm not feeling well lately, and the small strength of the day is easily spent. It's frustrating, but I've written enough about this problem-which-isn't-going-away. It is a long road that has to be taken up again and again, trusting in Jesus day after day, hour after hour. Often failing, and beginning again. Praying and begging to keep going all the way to the end.

Meanwhile there are many beautiful things to see in these days and I am grateful for that.

Happy Creek road in the evening, with young green all over the trees.
Maple with "baby" leaves.

Blooming dogwood...

...on this neighborhood tree.
White dogwood too...
...everywhere, it seems.
Cratered, crescent moon.
Gray and yellow, orange and red, blue and green -- all the colors that paint the canvas of the sunset.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Christian Life is "Real Life"

The rest of the world often views Christianity as a collection of external rules that more or less interfere with real life, that is, with the part of life that interests and engages me as a person.

What a grim business! No wonder people are not attracted to it.

But how easy it can be to allow this kind of moralism to become my own view of Christianity. I must remember that Christianity is a new life, a supernatural life, a life of communion with God.

Through baptism, I have been given a participation in the Divine life, and through grace this life grows within me and transforms me.

God gives Himself to me; He draws me into a personal relationship with Himself; He leads me to my destiny which is to share forever in His glory, to behold and to love forever the One who is the fullness of all goodness, to belong to Him forever.

Eternal glory has already begun, secretly, in the very heart of this ordinary life, because Jesus has embraced all human life and defined it according to the measure of His love. Through Jesus and in the Holy Spirit, the Father pours out this love in the depths of my heart, empowering me to exist and act in a new way.

God dwells in me, engendering within me a new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus. He calls me to cooperate with His extraordinary, transforming grace right now, whether I am praying or eating chicken, listening to a friend or watching a baseball game, teaching Josefina about the Eucharist or drawing doodles with her.

The Risen Jesus is shaping my whole humanity: my eating and drinking, waking and sleeping, living and dying.

Christianity is not external to the real concerns of my life. Rather, it illuminates them and opens me up to their true meaning.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Love is the Light

The words of Benedict XVI:

Window in the Primary Atrium, John XXIII Montessori Children's Center.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Looking at Things, Truly...

Since I am 52 years old, I suppose this is my 53rd Spring season. My 53rd Easter season.

I have seen many Winters, indeed. This past Winter was, perhaps, the most beautiful one that I can remember. It was a long and contemplative time, full of unexpected surprises of beauty. No doubt taking pictures helped me to pay more attention, but it was more than that.

I spent a lot of time looking at things.

Now Spring is here with its brief, brilliant displays and waves of color. Our Valley has become a garden. And in this natural season of changes and growth in the temperate region of the north, Easter comes, proclaiming the victory of Love, the coming forth of the One who remains forever among us.

I am still determined to take pictures, and more importantly, to continue to look at all these things.


Whether it be blossom,
or budding twig,
or dark drippy patch of moss on rain soaked stone,
when we look at things,
even for a moment,
we are thrown into wonder,
and wounded
by the widening space of longing
that only grows deeper as the seasons pass.
Life runs everywhere
like flood waters washing over our thirst
and filling us
and bursting holes in our hearts so that we die.
But we are also reminded
that time's tomb cannot hold us.
For we have heard the promise.
It is the promise
that the wonder in the brief glory
of feathery flower petals
is worth seeing again and again,
even when we are old,
when the heart holes of longing are aching
and frail and beautiful,
burning open with soft fire as everything speaks,
in its singular simple way,
of the promise long held, and drawing near.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Death, Taxes, God, and Caesar

And so, it's April 15th. Happy American Tax Day. Blah! Boooo! Help!!!

Of course, not everyone waits until the last minute. Maybe you filed weeks ago. Maybe you're getting a refund.

Still, today is a day that we all must remember the fragility of our lives at the hands of the powers of this world. Even those who benefit from the system know that it is a ponderous, ambivalent, and sometimes capricious patron.

They say that there are two things that cannot be avoided in this life: Death and Taxes. It seems to me not insignificant that the One who embraced death for us all began His life by being enrolled in the census.

The Savior of the world was born in Bethlehem with the help of the Roman imperial bureaucracy and its tax system.

Joseph the Builder paid taxes. Jesus paid them too, in the many years of His quiet labor. When God took human nature, He became one of the multitude in the empire of Caesar. He Himself bid us to pay lawful taxes, to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" (Mark 12:17).

So today, even as we recognize Caesar's authority to tax our money, we remember also that we must render to God what belongs to God, our consciences. Yet God seems so far away when the forces of the world loom over us. It would seem like nothing for worldly power to crush the human conscience if it runs out of ideas for how to corrupt it.

And if there were nothing but worldly power and then death, what hope would we have? Where would we, who sin for the sake of convenience, find the strength to adhere to truth at all costs?

Only Jesus has defeated death, and in so doing has affirmed that the relationship of the human person to God is greater than every earthly power.

Our strength is in Him.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Christ is Risen, But What About Me?

How often does it happen that during Easter time we feel uneasy or troubled because we don't have the tangible joy we think we should?

Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead and we all sing, "Alleluia!" and eat lamb and sweets. Then we eat leftovers. We sing "Alleluia" all week.

And now here we are, still plodding along.

I know that I'm not in ecstasy. I'm not marvelously changed, or at least I don't appear to be. I still have the same faults, the same incoherence, and the same sufferings. Some people may even face new or greater afflictions in this time of joy and celebration.

Is there any connection between the liturgical season of Easter and our "all too ordinary" lives with our daily troubles and stumbling and even catastrophies? Does it make any difference?

We hope that we have been moved closer to God in these weeks and months of prayer and penance, solemn commemoration and reaffirmation of faith, and perhaps we have felt this or seen it in some concrete ways. However, we may also feel "stuck" in circumstances that haven't turned out the way we expected them. We may think, "Christ is risen, but I'm still suffering!"

Maybe my life and sufferings are different from yours, but deep down we are all on the same road. We are all sinners, and we fall and try to get up over and over. We can also have periods in life when it's just like groping in the darkness or collapsing from exhaustion.

And we may ask ourselves, "Where is God, like really, as a source of help?"

Don't get discouraged during this time, even if it happens to be Easter time. Jesus in His wisdom and mercy is drawing us to Himself even when our lives seem like an empty tomb and we still don't feel like we know where He is.

When it seems to me that God is nowhere in my life, the only thing I can do is cry out for Him. And trust in Him. And it seems not to make anything feel better or solve anything. I just have to do it again and again, in so many aspects of my own life.

But He does answer, and He works in His time and His way. Sometimes I can see this, but other times it may take years to recognize the first hints of the mysterious work that He accomplishes, and a full understanding can only be found in eternal life. He always gives enough for that next small step on the path, however small and weak it may seem. He gives enough for each little step.

"Ah, but sometimes it all just seems unbearable!"

That's because it is unbearable.

Only Jesus can carry this kind of pain, this pain that is the journey of a human life into the depths of the Mystery of God. My pain, my life: only He knows it all the way through.

The only hope is to abandon everything to Him. "Jesus, I give myself to you. Take care of everything." Again and again, whatever, and wherever, and how, and why... "Jesus I abandon everything to you."

And Mary is always there. She is there to carry us all the way to Him.

I pray in this Easter season that all of you, my dear friends, will be held by the infinite gentleness and mercy of God. I pray that He will pour out His healing grace into all the places where it is needed.

I don't want to sound like I am ignoring the hard realities of life by kicking up a cloud of "religious talk." I really mean that there is nowhere else to go, nowhere else to bring these burdens, this life, this cry of the heart.

Jesus on the Cross. Jesus risen from the dead. This is the hope that changes and transforms life, that saves us. Where else can any of us go? We have to go to Him, and give it to Him.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Mercy Yesterday, Today, Forever

The Octave of Easter. Divine Mercy Sunday.

The Paschal candle continues to burn throughout the Easter season, proclaiming Jesus Christ yesterday, today, and forever.

Trust in His mercy.

He has loved us to the end, through everything. He is the beginning of a New Creation, and He draws us to Himself through love.

Trust in Him.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

We Need To See and Hear Him

John and Peter: why are these men running?
The Sanhedrin, that is, the rulers, the men in power "ordered [the apostles] not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. Peter and John, however, said to them in reply, 'Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard'" (Acts 4:18-20).

Listen to the Apostles. What do they say here?

What would we say?

Perhaps we might say something like, "we are willing (if it comes to that) to defend the doctrines we hold even if it becomes risky." We'd rather mind our own business, of course. Maybe dabble a little bit in "the New Evangelization" and some works of mercy. Because we want to, y'know, "practice" our faith. And, of course, keep the commandments. We'll do what we are obligated to do. And also what we think we're supposed to do in order to be "good Catholics," right?

Really, this is my attitude 99% of the time: I'm willing to do whatever is necessary for me to be able to look myself in the mirror and say, "I'm a good Catholic, or... at least pretty good...."

JJ, listen to the Apostles: "It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard."

This is what it means to be "apostolic." This is a whole level beyond the best of my "99% of the time"! It's not a question of finding a way to fit Jesus into the "larger context" of my life. It's about being drawn into His life, so much so that living means witnessing (speaking, giving, looking at persons and reality in this new way). It would be easier to stop breathing than to stop witnessing.

Wow. How can we become like the Apostles?

In fact, we can't manufacture this attitude within ourselves by our own power. Like the first disciples, we need to see and hear Him.

Christianity, as Benedict XVI taught and as Francis continues to teach, is first and above all "an encounter with a Person who changes us."

Here perhaps we find ourselves saying, "Is such an encounter possible today?"

Many of us don't expect to meet Jesus, really, in the Church today. Yet He is the whole vitality of the Church. Everything comes from Him and leads to Him.

Maybe what we should ask ourselves is another question: "Do we really want to encounter Him, meet Him, see and hear Him, and be changed by Him?"

That's the question. It's also the beginning of a prayer: "Lord, give me this desire... Give me trust...."

Jesus will take care of the rest.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Resurrection: Teaching Us to Trust in Him

Happy Easter Thursday!

Today I present one of my favorite poems from my book Never Give Up (click HERE to learn more). Those of you who know the book are aware of the way in which its narrative is interspersed with poetic prayer reflections, not unlike those I've posted on this blog.

I thought this text was appropriate during Easter week, as our daily toil is touched by the glory of a great hope.

At the heart of this "Divine Mercy Week" is the aspiration and the prayer for the virtue of trust. We hardly even know what it means to trust.

Therefore we must ask of Jesus: "Teach me how to trust in You completely." For if we do not know, what else can we do besides ask? Ask, and ask with confidence, because He will answer. He will form that awareness, that simplicity, that spiritual childhood within us.


Jesus, I trust in You
even in the turmoil of this night:
O let me feel in its wild winds
the breath of Your eternal lips
        enlivening, expanding,
        spiriting dull flecks of my ashy ground
        into form, flesh, body
        of my New Eden everlasting.

For it is You who speak me,
You who call me by name in each moment,
You who penetrate
the spaces within me that I do not know,
the moments of me
        not yet birthed by time,
        nor conceived in the tiny gaps and crevices of my mind,
        nor even beginning to trace dim shadows
               before my near-blind eyes.

It is You who see me.
You who grasp my hand and guide me
in the valley of shadows.
For You have taken every hollow trench
and scaled every slope,
to stand in the fiery sun that has burned me.
You have won the victory
that You proclaim and celebrate each moment,
each day,
when You call my name,
when You call me to awaken
        to the frail pieces of light
        and gray dust of earth’s every morning.

Save me!
For only You know me.
Shut my eyes and stop my ears
from phantom shades who cry out:
        “your name is slave,
         your name is fear,
         blackness is your life.”

You call my name.
O open my ear that I may hear Your voice,
For You carry, whole, within Your Living Light,
the only “me” that will ever glimmer and shine—
        pool of light,
like splendid diamond
clean and cut
with the lines of Your Face.
My real name:
sounding like song, and gushing—
        fresh, cold, sweet water of life,
        that rises up from the deep
        deep well
                of Mercy’s hidden spring.
You call me by a name never spoken before
and never to be uttered again.
Let me live, O Lord, by faith—near blind, near deaf,
        straining the ear of earth to hear the echo of my name
        in gifted speech of hinted truth,
        though shallow like shells:
                Child, Beloved, Likeness, Your Glory
                                              Your Glory.

Lead me,
by the Glory that slips between the crack
of faith’s eye,
        to trust in You,
        to spy the promise of all made new.
Grant me that glimpse,
of all earth’s pain and weight.
Of my fighting, faltering,
fumbling heart’s hope
        washed in White Wonder.

                from Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy
                [click HERE to order; hard copy or Kindle available]

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

No Other Human Face

Left: detail from Ethiopian icon. Right: detail from Chinese illustration.

His face.
He belongs to all peoples,
and yet is always unmistakably himself.
No other human face has ever been loved so much.
No other human face
has ever stirred up so much hope,
inspired so much trust,
or drawn forth the anguish and the longing
and the aching need that cries out
from the depths of our hearts.

This face.

All through the earth he says,
"I am with you. I will stay with you always."

Monday, April 6, 2015

Happy Easter 2015

Happy Easter from the Janaros. Here's our Easter Sunday picture for 2015:

Yes indeed, the kids have grown a lot. Only five years ago, they all fit into a large box:

Of course, if we go back to the year 2001, it's obvious that we've come a long way. Back then, Teresa and Josefina weren't even around. It was three little tykes:

We wait in hope for the resurrection, when the good seeds of our days and years -- sown in the depths of earth -- will blossom and bear fruit in a perfection beyond anything we can imagine. And all our sorrows and tears, having poured out like rain watering the ground, will be wiped away. We will find beneath them our true faces, faces of joy.

Meanwhile, we've got plenty to do in the business of raising kids. Even little kids:
Jojo still enjoys hunting for Easter eggs!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Most Profound Darkness

"We watch full of hope
while awaiting His return,
when Easter will have
its full manifestation.

the darkness of night
seems to penetrate the soul;
sometimes we think:
'now there is nothing
to be done,'
and the heart no longer finds
the strength to love.

However, precisely in that darkness
Christ lights the fire of the love of God:
a flash breaks the darkness
and announces a new beginning.

Something begins in the most profound darkness

We know that the night is darkest
before the day begins.
However, precisely in the darkness,
it is Christ that conquers
and lights the fire of love.
The stone of sorrow is overturned
leaving space for hope."

~Pope Francis

Friday, April 3, 2015

Holy Cross

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you...

...because by Your Holy Cross You have redeemed the world.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

SAINT John Paul II, Ten Years Later

2005 was ten years ago.

It was a hard year. I was pretty sick. During Saint John Paul II's final illness, I was especially sick. I didn't realize at the time that I was on my way to getting better (temporarily). First, however, I would get much worse, to a point which I can only describe (without going into details that no one wants to hear and I don't want to recall) as abject humiliation.

It was a bumpy ride that year.

But April 2, 2005 was not a bad day. Just as thousands had gathered beneath his window in St. Peter's Square, we were all "gathered together" in a mysterious way, within ourselves, in our homes, in our churches. The whole world gathered around his bed to keep vigil and pray and say goodbye. It seemed almost tangible in those final hours that the end of human life is an opening up to God's embrace.

When he died at 9:37 PM, ten years ago, we wept. Something had come to an end. But something new also had begun.

I began praying to him almost immediately. He gained a new availability and a new closeness. He has continued to be a mentor to me, and is now so much more a companion and friend. He is an intercessor, and boy do I need him.

He left us with one final lesson before he died. He taught us how to suffer, to become powerless, to live in a physical state of "abject humiliation." He showed us that -- even in a state of total weakness and vulnerability and dependence -- the human person always remains a gift.

It's a lesson I'm still trying to learn.

But today, I recall a passage from the great encyclical Dives in Misericordia, 14. In the practice of mercy, the one who does good and the one who receives it both "give mercy" to each other.

It is good to consider this mystery of mercy as we commemorate the crucified Love of Christ who saves us through His abject humiliation, His "powerlessness" in suffering and death.
"Merciful love," John Paul II teaches, "by its essence is a creative love. In reciprocal relationships between persons merciful love is never a unilateral act or process." Even when it seems that "only one party is giving and offering, and the other only receiving and taking... in reality the one who gives is always also a beneficiary." This is true above all because we "show mercy to others, knowing that Christ accepts it as if it were shown to Himself." Mercy is different from simple philanthropy: "An act of merciful love is only really such when we are deeply convinced at the moment that we perform it that we are at the same time receiving mercy from the people who are accepting it from us." Blessed are the merciful, in that mercy is expressive of "that conversion to which Christ has shown us the way by His words and example" and draws on "the magnificent source of merciful love that has been revealed to us by Him."

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Spy Wednesday" Pancakes and Me on TV

Yes, we had pancakes for dinner.

No, I did not have thirty of them. But I had a good batch, with butter and honey.

This peculiar bit of "Catholic humor" where people mark Judas's betrayal by eating pancakes is a joke that we don't quite get. Really, pancakes aren't even silver.

Oh well, pancakes are pancakes, and one needs only the slightest excuse to eat them. And perhaps this humor holds onto the wild hope that Judas opened his heart in that final impenetrable moment as the noose was squeezing his neck. We can be certain that even in that moment, nothing was lacking to the mystery of the Divine mercy.

Still, God did not create us to be puppets or slaves. He wants to empower us to love Him freely, but He will not force His way into our hearts. Though we cannot rule out a miracle of mercy in his final moment, we can perceive from what we do know of Judas how the human person falls apart when he turns away from God.

And who among us is immune from the temptation to turn traitor under the weight of the mysterious ways of God? Lord, have mercy on all of us, sinners!

This morning I got a message from a friend saying that the priest who gave the homily for the morning Mass broadcast on the Eternal Word Television Network had mentioned my name. This was followed up by some phone calls, so Eileen and I decided to watch the replay of the broadcast this evening.

When the priest began to talk about "John Janaro writing about Judas," I was surprised and also a little confused. I wondered, "When the heck did I write about Judas?" But he cited the text at length, and then I remembered that I had written the reflection for last year's Magnificat "Lenten Companion" for Wednesday of Holy Week.

He gave a fine homily that was based on the text I wrote. I'm glad those texts are still helpful. I probably have a book's worth of Magnificat reflections from these seasonal issues and from the Scripture commentaries.

Of course, Eileen and I both had that funny "gosh, wow" feeling that our generation (at least) still gets from being on actual television. The proliferation of new media platforms in recent years has not yet taken away the glow of that peculiar vanity that only broadcast television can stir up.

Objectively speaking, however, it was an interesting reflection I wrote for last year's Holy Wednesday, so I'll reproduce it below.