Friday, June 30, 2017

Suffering... WHY?

One way or another, suffering is inescapable. And the question that suffering grinds out from our guts, and that sooner or later reaches our (outer or inner) throats, is "WHY?" 

The agony of this "why? question" is at the heart of human suffering. 

It is a mystery, of course, a great mystery. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we who are mere creatures (a creature is a nothing-in-itself) are being transfigured, divinized, given participation in God's infinite life. The endurance of suffering-in-trust is an inescapable element of this destiny as it is realized in a world of sin and death. At its heart is this radical, transformative love that we are called to accept and respond to, that breaks us open so that we can go beyond ourselves and realize the "likeness-to-God" for which we have been created.

We must endure ("he who loses himself...") with trust ("for my sake," says Jesus). 

Still, it makes us gasp. It feels like leaping into an abyss. It's unimaginable. How can we possibly "do" this losing of ourselves, this passage through suffering and, ultimately, dying

What makes it possible for us is the fact that God Himself has already "done it" in history, in a moment that embraces all moments and all human beings and all suffering. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus cries out, taking all the suffering of all of us sinners as His own. But in the same breath, He says, "Father into your hands I commend my spirit."

The "distance" of "forsakenness" is filled by absolute, self-emptying love. Thus all suffering is transformed into His suffering which is an expression of His love for the Father in the Spirit, and the revelation and communication of the glory of the God who is infinite Gift

We can grow, therefore, through suffering in union with Him and His suffering

It isn't even so much that we (by some autonomous act) "offer" or "unite" our sufferings to His. They already are His sufferings, and through them He draws us into union with Himself. We begin by giving ourselves over, surrendering, trusting in Him, begging Him to accomplish the plan of His love in us. The Lord, in accordance with His wisdom, will generate and sustain within us the very freedom by which we cooperate with Him. He will empower us to say the profound "yes" by which our freedom grows into a communion with Him and a sharing in His freedom and love.

This is indeed a great mystery. We should not be surprised that we feel so poor in front of it, that it can seem so strange, so difficult, so psychologically dislocating sometimes. God sees the depths of human hearts, beyond anything we can understand, even with regard to our own. 

Let us never be discouraged. The mystery of His mercy is always at work. Trust in Him! 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Who Was "The Catholic Bach"?

My regular column ("Great Conversion Stories") in MAGNIFICAT this month features the story of a famous composer named Bach.

No, not that Bach (the immortal Johann Sebastian), but his youngest son, Johann Christian Bach, sometimes called "the London Bach" for his many years in England. Obviously, since he made it into my column, there is good reason to call him "the Catholic Bach."

I had to shorten the published version of the story, but I thought it would be worthwhile to present the "uncut" version here, where I could include a few more biographical details. I also want to add a few words about (and give a sample of) the music.

I am rather fond of the music of "the Catholic Bach." If it sounds somewhat conventional for its time (1760s-1770s), that may be because he was one of the architects of the "conventions" as well as one of the innovators who paved the way for the famous composers who came after him.

Thus I can take the opportunity here to share once again my passion for music, which follows a variety of paths ("from Bach to rock" would be a concise but rather corny and inadequate way of putting it). Beauty is a transcendental, with a scope as wide as being itself. In the craftsmanship of sound, beauty is analogously predicated of a vast array of musical "artifacts" in various ways, on various levels... but this subject requires a blog post for another day.

Here below is the extended, deluxe version of the conversion story of Johann Christian Bach:

This is a story about faith, conversion, and 18th century music in Europe. But let’s make clear right from the start that this is not some secret story (or speculation) about the man most people associate with the name “Bach,” i.e. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), who is ranked among the greatest composers of all time. Certainly all of Christianity has been greatly enriched by Johann Sebastian’s prolific output of sacred music, in which his musical genius and his own deep commitment to Christ (as a Lutheran) are both expressed. It must remain a mystery, however, why Protestantism’s most outstanding sacred artist (he has been called “the Fifth Evangelist”) dedicated the final three years of his life and all the energies of his declining health to composing the epic, sublime Mass in B Minor.

The Great Bach integrated faith and art in such a way that enabled him to discover the "ecumenism of beauty." He also passed on his devotion to Christ and some measure of his musical genius to his large family. Four of Bach’s sons became musicians and composers in their own right, and their works are still performed today. His youngest son, Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), was the most prolific and important of the four. Johann Christian Bach branched out beyond his father’s accomplishments to stand out as a significant 18th century personage in his own right. He moved from the churches and courts of Saxony to the theaters and concert halls of Italy, France, and above all England, where he lived the final 20 years of his life. He also took another step “beyond” his father and the rest of the Bach family by converting to the fullness of Catholic faith.

The young Johann Christian learned keyboard performance and composition from his father and older brothers, first in Leipzig and then in Berlin at the Prussian court. But in 1754, as Prussia became preoccupied with the buildup to the “Seven Years War,” he made an important decision to travel to Italy to continue his education and begin his career. This would allow him to blend his German mastery of harmony and technique with the more popular Italian melodic style. More importantly, in Italy he met the man who would become both his musical and his spiritual “father”: Padre Giovanni Battista Martini, one of the eminent musical scholars of the time and a Franciscan priest. Johann Christian spent several years under the tutelage of Padre Martini in Bolognia and Milan, and devoted this period of his life to the composition of sacred music. These early works, including two Masses, a Requiem, and hymns, are particularly rich in musical inspiration.

Johann Christian entered into full communion with the Catholic Church around 1760. Most music historians consider his conversion to be merely a matter of professional convenience, and it is true that young Bach’s benefactors had secured a position for him in the Milan cathedral.

But this does not rule out the likelihood that Bach's conversion was sincere. Padre Martini had become a mentor and true friend to Johann Christian. And the young composer encountered something new in his venerable teacher: a man whose faith was integrated into the whole of the artistic life. In Padre Martini, Bach saw that Christian life could be incarnate in a music profession that was in a lively and expansive phase of artistic development, and that was entering the broad sphere of secular entertainment.

With the encouragement of Padre Martini, Johann Christian’s path followed that development as it shaped the “popular music" of the time: Opera. His early operas were a sensation in Milan and Naples, and he soon became the maestro of the 18th century’s greatest multimedia entertainment business. Both Italian Opera and concert music brought Johann Christian Bach to England where he worked under the patronage of King George III and Queen Charlotte.

From then until his death after a brief illness in 1782, Johann Christian remained in contact with his mentor Padre Martino and, though not a candidate for sainthood, he kept his Catholic faith. His overall behavior was honorable, and the financial problems toward the end of his life were not the result of dissolute living but the consequence of failed business ventures and embezzlement by his financial manager. He was not only appreciated for his outstanding music, but was also loved by all who knew him. He was known for his cheerfulness and his willingness to mentor the younger generation of musicians, the most famous of whom—of course—was Mozart. Bach met Mozart when the latter came to London with his family as an eight year old “child prodigy” on an extensive European tour. They became great friends, and Bach—who didn’t have an envious bone in his body—gave greatly of himself and his musical expertise to help Mozart develop and mature his amazing gifts.

Today Johann Christian Bach has a familiar place in the canon of classical composers. One of the reasons why he may seem “underrated” is that history places him between two incomparable giants: His great father and first teacher, Johann Sebastian Bach, and his greatest “student,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In many ways J. C. Bach is a kind of bridge between the two very different composers, just as he is a bridge from northern to southern European music styles, and a bridge from Lutheran Christianity to the Catholic Church. His own life and music have their value too, as a witness to the unity-in-diversity that shines through in all that is beautiful.

Watch and listen to a brief clip of J. C. Bach's music below. This is the third movement from his G minor symphony. It shows one of his forays into a more dramatic sound from a small ensemble in a musical form that was just beginning to take shape.

Friday, June 23, 2017

How Can We Love Others the Way God Loves Them?

People in this world need to experience the love of God. 

This is not just an analytical statement of religious discourse. This matters to me, personally; as a Christian this concern has been entrusted to me as a responsibility (see e.g. Matthew 28:19-20). So what can I do?

If I really want people to know God--not just as a theory but as a Presence who changes their lives, who loves them-- then I must love them

The God who is Love, and who became man, wants to use my humanity to show Himself to others first and above all by loving them, unconditionally, as they are, for who they are. He wants me to love them the way He loves them...which is to say, the way He loves me.

This is entirely different from the pretense to a kind of "tolerance" that in fact evades the other person and distances itself from the person. This is not a "relativism" that uses a superficial affirmation of the other as a pretext for remaining closed within myself, thus escaping the challenge of loving and being loved.

This is not any kind of activism that tries to impose a utopian ideology on people or that exhausts itself in a self-affirming display.

Loving means loving. It means giving what I have received. It means not dreaming about how wonderful love is, but actually giving myself, being a gift in this moment, to the person or persons who have been entrusted to me on the path of daily life. 

And if I'm "busy" with things--if I am speaking or writing or communicating on the internet--I must ask myself, "Why am I here? Am I here to give myself, or to build up and enrich my capacity to give? Am I here for love?"

My writing is worthless unless it is an act of giving myself to those I hope will read it.

I realize that most of my readers are already Christians. But those who already know Jesus need to be reminded and sustained by His love. "Love one another as I have loved you" - this is the heart of the enduring grace that is "the Church." And I must resist the temptation to allow "the Church in the abstract" (however glorious and beautiful and wise I may conceive it) to replace my responsibility to give myself right now. 

Christians are called to share this love in the Holy Spirit, and to be His loving presence in the world. However great our faults and failures may be, His love is greater, and it urges us onward to all the places where human beings live.

The whole world is starving for love. And too many people are fooled by counterfeits; they "spends their wages for what is not bread." Therefore, real love entails a communication of the truth. But love addresses itself to the person, and its witness is always a gift, a humbling of one's self, a sacrifice. This is what opens the possibility for the truth to be embraced by the other person.

Still, we find ourselves afflicted with so many obstacles: we have our own daily struggles, we are sick, we are tired, we are stressed out. We must bring all of it to the One who has loved us; entrust the whole mess of ourselves to Him again and again; keep trying, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, not being discouraged by our own weakness.

Perhaps we feel that our love is only a poor imitation of the love we have received, that our love is all mixed up with self-promotion and vanity. And indeed it is. Let's love anyway. Let's do what we can, and also nourish ourselves continually at the places where we find Him who has loved us.

Indeed, we must let Him love us, through the Church, through the sacraments, through prayer, through our brothers and sisters, through the very truth and goodness of the joys and the sufferings of life. It all belongs to Him, and it is all the work of His great and mysterious love for us and our destiny. 

In His love we will find the strength to give ourselves, and to give Him to others.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"Mr. and Mrs. Janaro"

Eileen and I celebrate 21 years of marriage today.

I am so grateful to God for this wonderful lady, our life together, our home, our family, and an abundance of blessings beyond all calculation!


Monday, June 19, 2017

La Belle Jeune Femme Retourne Γ  la Maison

After five months, a great experience of linguistic and cultural immersion, lots of new friends, fabulous food, adventurous travel, unforgettable experiences, some chic accessories, and a good tan, Lucia is finally coming home from France!πŸ’—


A candid moment during her visit to Paris a few weeks ago.

Friday, June 16, 2017

"I Wail With Anguish of Heart"

I am a sinful man. Lord have mercy on me. I am a sick man with a mind full of insight but weighed down by affliction.

To bear this long, tedious, unremarkable suffering--not worthy of pity or warranting complaint, dull, not heroic, incomprehensible to myself and everyone else--is probably the most essential task of my life, and will bear more fruit than anything that I aspire to accomplish.

Here are some excerpts from Psalm 38 that I pondered today.

I am bowed and brought to my knees;
every day I go about mourning.
All my frame burns with fever;
all my body is sick.
I am numb and utterly crushed;
I wail with anguish of heart.
My Lord, my deepest yearning is before you;
my groaning is not hidden from you.
My heart shudders, my strength is spent;
the very light of my eyes has failed....

Do not forsake me, O Lord;
my God, be not far from me!
Come quickly to help me,
my Lord and my salvation!

~Psalm 38:7-11, 22-23

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

We Remain Beggars

So many sorrows wash over us with the passage of time. Still we endure through all the desperation. We search for meaning, in the expectation that it might be found.

We search in times of sorrow and also in times of prosperity and success.

In this life, even our most sublime moments are merely "anticipations." The seeking, the hunger, the desire, and the need of our hearts remain, crying out for the fullness of love. 

We remain beggars, but with a promise of fulfillment that grows through what life gives us, deepening in us both the longing and the hope for Love's ultimate embrace.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Christina Grimmie Remembered the World Over, One Year Later

Christina Grimmie continues to reach people and inspire them with her great heart, her great music, and her spectacular voice, as well as the legacy of all her videos, her image, her smile, the "Grimmie green," and the love of the Team Grimmie people all over the world who continue to work with her family and close friends to make her remaining recorded music available and better known.

Her posthumously released full length album, All is Vanity, is now available. (Click HERE)

This graphic is my small contribution to a very large memorial marking this first anniversary of the night of June 10, 2016, when violence and love looked at one another, face to face. Violence brought murder and sorrow and grief, but love did not cease to be love!

"Love never ends."

Love is sublime. Love blazes back to life. Love shines on.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Wild Swans and the Long Sorrowful Song of China

Jung Chang's memoir was one of those books that I had been "meaning to read" for a long time. Wild Swans was first published in 1991. I had an old paperback copy lying around getting dusty on top of some other books on one of many shelves.

I recently wrote an article that required me to look at 20th century China, and I remembered this book and actually found it (that doesn't always happen in our vast, uncatalogued library😜). I ended up reading the whole thing.

I always thought I knew this history of China and its characters, and all their brutality and crimes.

I. Had. No. Idea. πŸ˜°!

Jung Chang tells the story of China from the end of the 19th century until about 1980, as experienced (vividly) by three women: her grandmother, her mother, and herself.

It's a story that begins in the Manchu Empire, passes through the revolution of 1911-12, the ensuing disintegration, the brutal Japanese invasion, the (often corrupt) regime of the Nationalists during the civil war, the Communist victory and all the madness that came after leading up to era of Deng Xiaoping.

Chang went to Britain in 1978, perfected her English and earned a Ph.D., married a British historian, and decided to stay in the West.

We should all be glad she did.

Chang gives us a rare view of a harrowing historical period in a country whose history we scarcely know but whose presence in the world today is critically significant.

When I was a little kid, "nothing" in America was "made in China." We had some things from Taiwan, which America still regarded as the "official" China (I even remember calling it Nationalist China). But an immense fog covered the mainland, and all we knew was that things were very bad beneath that fog. It covered over a place called Red China.

Then, I remember, the President of the United States visited China. We all saw pictures in the media of a jowly Richard Nixon meeting with a grandfatherly-looking old Chinese man who called himself "Chairman Mao." Of course, everyone knew that Chairman Mao had done lots of scary things (even The Beatles knew that "carrying round pictures of Chairman Mao" was off the deep end). But Nixon and Kissinger and company told us that things were going to get better.

So much for my memories.

Jung Chang has richer and more complex memories. She grew up in China during this period. She gives us a picture in which concrete experience opens up into a panorama of the whole: she gives us China with its beautiful mountains, forests, and rivers as well as its ecologically ruined landscapes; China with its deep traditions and its ossified habits; China full of good people, dedicated people including Communist officials who really believed they could build a better society, and also corrupt people, ruthless people, bad people.

She also conveys what it was like to grow up enraptured by, in awe of, and ready to die for a man who effectively demanded worship from a quarter of the earth's population and who is still today venerated as the father of his country. She recounts how, gradually, even while keeping up appearances out of fear (along with so many of her compatriots), she began to discover that this man was in fact a psychopath who was responsible for the deaths of 70 million people.

Mao Zedong was a ruthless, monstrous fraud intoxicated with his own power and with perpetuating destruction and violence.

But Wild Swans is not written as a systematic, intensively researched expose of Mao and deconstruction of the "Mao myth" (Chang does that in her 800 page biography Mao, The Unknown Story published in 2005). Wild Swans is the story of three women and their fathers, husbands, and children. It is the story of a Chinese family held together by love, loyalty, honor, and honest (even if badly mistaken) commitment to the alleged ideals of the Chinese Communist Party. It was a family with its fair share of flaws and ugliness and regret. And it was a family that was agonizingly ripped apart beginning in 1966 by the chaos and mayhem that Mao called his "Cultural Revolution."

By the end of the book, I felt ripped apart. It is a riveting, intense, heart-rending account written in beautiful English.

The book is not a "conversion story," except insofar as Chang discovers and adopts (in some measure, and in her own way) the ideals of Western secular humanism. It's not about Christianity. Chang does not indicate that she has any religious convictions, but she does have a deep devotion to classical Chinese literature and the most noble elements of its ancient culture. She clearly has the capacity to mediate this perspective to the West.

White Swans is a very intense book. I would only recommend it to people who have a disposition to read about some really really sad and really really awful stuff. I'm not sure that it was good for me to read it at this time, but I can't unread it now (I am not ready for her Mao biography -- I need to "recover" from the existential shock of Swans, and go back to some "lighter reading" about the comparatively small blunders and ordinary incompetence of the good old-fashioned monarchies of Europe).

I should also read and reread some classics and some more history of China. It's so easy for a Westerner to forget about this mysterious place that seems so far away (even though many of our products are made there today). In fact, China is a profoundly human place and we in the West must remember it and know it better.

Jung Chang's justly famous memoir is 26 years old now, but it remains timely. It's still "officially banned" in China even to this day, though it has been widely read by anyone who can get it. Perhaps it's even more important for a generation that knows nothing of this history. It is a great story told with beauty and pathos. It is an ardent, compelling, devastating book.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Three Hundred and Sixty Two Days

My ten year old daughter and I have had a lot of deep conversations about life and death, good and evil, and the love of Jesus this past year. The other day it was just brief and simple.

Me: What music would you like to listen to?


Me: ...ok.

Josefina: But don't cry, Daddy!

Me: ... ... Sometimes tears are good, Jojo ... ...


Christina Grimmie, March 12, 1994 - June 10, 2016. We will always love you. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Christianity is a New Life of Communion With God

It is common today to view 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 us as human persons. What a grim business! No wonder people are not attracted to it.

We Christians must beware that we do not allow this kind of moralism to become our own view of Christianity. We must remember that Christianity is a new life, a supernatural life, a life of communion with God. Through baptism, we have been given a participation in the Divine life, and through grace this life grows within us and transforms us. God gives Himself to us; He draws us into a personal relationship with Himself; He leads us to our 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 God dwells in us, and God is at work in our lives. 

So why are we so dull, so unaware, so unresponsive to God's work in us? 

Because we need the light of the Holy Spirit to recognize the path He has laid out before us. Christianity is not external to the real concerns of our human life. It illuminates them and opens us up to their true meaning. But this only happens if we live the relationship with God that He continually desires to deepen throughout our lives.

And how can we live and grow in a relationship with Eternal Love except by asking for Him to change us, asking for Him to empower us to love Him more, asking Him to enable us to see the Church as the instrument of His love, and her teachings and sacraments as the road of love that really corresponds to our life? 

I want Him to "come" into my life, deepen my relationship with Him, and make me more aware of His presence. This is why I must ask, continually, for the gift of the Holy Spirit to be renewed within me. My heart realizes the fullness of its actual impetus for life only insofar as it becomes a living, loving, begging prayer for God's grace.

Come Holy Spirit! Transform my heart!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Saturday, June 3, 2017

"Yes, Lord, You Know That I Love You"

Jesus said to Peter, " 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?' Simon Peter answered him, 'Yes, Lord, you know that I love you'....

Luigi Giussani remarks on the event recounted in John 21 in a striking way:

" 'Yes, Lord, You know I love You.'

"All my human preference is for You, all the preference of my mind, all the preference of my heart; You are the extreme preference of life, the supreme excellence of things. I don’t know, I don’t know how, I don’t know how to say it and I don’t know how it can be but, in spite of all I have done, in spite of all I can still do, I love You.

"This yes is the birth of morality, the first breath of morality in the dry desert of instinct and pure reaction. Morality sinks its roots into this Simon’s yes, and this yes can take root in man’s soil only thanks to a dominant Presence, understood, accepted, embraced, served with all the energy of your heart; only in this way can man become a child again. Without a Presence, there is no moral act, there is no morality."

(Quoted from Luigi Giussani, Generating Traces in the History of the World. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010. See pp. 60-61.)

Friday, June 2, 2017

Agnese Graduates High School

Our oldest daughter graduated this afternoon with the Chelsea Academy Class of 2017. We are so proud of our dear Agnese, who has grown into such a lovely young lady.

I hope her grandparents see this post. They, like us, have many memories of that joyful, smiling face over the past 18-and-a-half years.

Here's just one flashback:

When she went on stage to get her diploma, I could see that she was still the same little girl.