Saturday, September 29, 2018

Real Superheroes

Let's call on some REAL Superheroes:
Michael, Rafael, Gabriel, we need your help!

The image is from a Copic icon of St Michael the Archangel.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Avril Lavigne: "God Keep My Head Above Water"

Still shot from her new music video released on Thursday.
Canadian pop-rocker Avril Lavigne shot to stardom in the first decade of the 21st century, becoming a familiar voice in the lives of late millennials all over the world. In 11 years, she recorded five studio albums with numerous hit songs. She toured relentlessly and became a mainstay of popular culture.

Then, in 2014, she disappeared. Toward the end of the year, she tweeted to her fans that she was ill. Nothing more was known until April 2015, when Avril Lavigne revealed in an interview that she was suffering from Lyme Disease.

I knew very little about Avril in 2015, except that she was a music celebrity who had the same disease I had (indeed, all too many of us have it). I wanted to learn more about her story, so I read some interviews and watched some videos.

It didn't take long for me to realize that I knew this story only too well. The systemic pain and exhaustion, the collection of other peculiar symptoms, the incomprehension of doctors, finally finding the right doctor, getting the right diagnosis, going through an extensive treatment, becoming virtually an invalid, starting to improve, having good and bad days, and so on. And so on. ...

Poor kid.

Actually, she just turned 34. She's not a "kid" anymore. Especially considering how hard her past five years have been. Lyme Disease can make people feel "old before their time."

I also checked out her music and her career in greater depth. My reaction to her whole catalog of songs was "mixed," but some things I liked very much. It was clear that she was very different from (and more talented than) the slick combination of heavy makeup, skimpy attire, and autotune that was (and still is) the sad template of the "entertainment industry" for a female pop star.

Indeed, Avril Lavigne became "iconic" (in the media sense of the term) for a different style. It is said that she took the "rebellious punk" vibe and reinvented it for the 21st Century. Recall her classic "look":

There was something real about her "in-your-face" presentation (even if it did spin a bit out of control). It resonated with lots of young people who were formed within the confusion, the pressures, the manipulative expectations and unglamorous reality, the questions, impulses, and combustibility of ordinary adolescence in a time of massive technological expansion and confusing social change.

Not only that, the kid put out some good rock 'n roll songs -- the kind that engage basic emotions and tell stories that everyone can relate to. There is a genuine creative intuition involved in the art of crafting a song that goes beyond passing trends and presents perennial themes in an original way. Avril's best music will be around for a long time.

Her image in those days was "alternative" to the overall pop style, but it had (or developed) its own ambivalent and disturbing elements. Like many artists, Avril mirrored the troubles and excesses of the times and struggled with them herself. Nevertheless I think that (notwithstanding these problems or the gratuitous "f-bombs" she sometimes threw around in her lyrics) there was in some of her songs a measure of artful, ironic questioning that challenged the shallow inadequacy and cheap rip-offs that mainstream cultural trends offered (and still offer) to adolescents and young people who are trying to figure out the value of life.

Sometimes in her songs she's a rebel who wants something different, who wants to break out of the constraints of what-other-people-think of her, to be free to find all the beauty of the world, to "taste" the deep fascination of persons and things, even to control it or grab onto it with desperation and prevent it from the inevitable slipping away in time that brings so much bitter disappointment.

In other songs, she gives voice to a persona who seems to want to ride high on the waves of the trends, or just have some reckless fun, mess around, even be shallow.

I don't find this "shallow Avril" very convincing. Perhaps she's not meant to be convincing; the words of these songs (at some level) often have elements of their own critique built into them.

Maybe I'm just overanalyzing, as I so often do. But I won't grant this point so easily this time. I do not think that Avril was just a music-industry-manufactured "counter-trend" of the past decade. Quite the contrary: in her there is just the sort of convergence of talent, quirkiness, conflicts, limitations, and aspirations that can only be found in a real human person.

She has always fiercely "owned" her art, and I intend to take her seriously as an artist.

Avril Lavigne in 2018: older, wiser, and recovering her health

It's clear that Avril is a very skilled singer, songwriter, and musician. And in the past she has also shown a deeper and more intense side in certain places in her songs and music, a capacity to probe the complex texture of real human experience, to express the tenderness of relationships, to feel wonder, and to pour out sorrow and pain. She also has a sense of humor, and an intuitive feel for satire and parody that (I think) inclines her to spoof herself, and to exaggerate in song the role that life has thrust upon her (and which, in part, she enjoys) as the "pop-punk princess" who insists on cutting loose and getting what she wants "'cause she's a big shot."

But I'm not being naive. Creativity cannot avoid grappling with the tensions of worldwide pop superstardom. The twists and turns can get wild and bizarre. It's very hard on a person's humanity.

In any case, Avril had lots of success over the course of a decade, selling tens of millions of records, making more music, building a huge fan base, expanding her brand, and (apparently) "letting the good times roll."

But sometime late in the year 2014 Avril Lavigne's fast-moving rock star life ran into a "wall"—the debilitating wall of Lyme Disease. I have written about my own experience of "running into this wall" as some length (see, for example, my book Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy HERE ). Needless to say, I empathize with Avril's agonizing struggle with Lyme Disease. I really appreciate her tenacity and courage here, and I understand the health challenges she continues to face.

What is Lyme Disease? I'll just note a few things in this post (click here for extensive information). It's a notoriously tricky disease. Lyme varies in symptomology and degree of severity, but it can be truly frightening, especially during the (often extended) period of time in which doctors are fumbling around trying to figure out what's wrong with you, or misdiagnosing and inadequately treating you, while you keep feeling worse and nobody knows why.

Lyme Disease is transmitted by several common species of ticks who carry its bacteria and a variety of co-infections. These ticks frequently attach to humans in ways that can transmit the disease, and there are some places where they are very common. (It's important for people to be aware of ticks and take appropriate preventative measures.) Lyme is a significant and much misunderstood health problem, and I often wonder why it isn't even worse than it is. Surely there are more tick bites than anyone can count; still it seems that many people don't become ill (at least, not in any noticeable way) even in endemic areas.

Those areas are not limited to New England (where the disease was first identified in Lyme, Connecticut), New York State, Pennsylvania, Northern Virginia and my own lovely Shenandoah Valley, although they remain places with a particularly large concentration of reported cases. Lyme Disease has been reported in all fifty of the United States, and the amount of real cases may be as much as 10 times what is reported.

Eastern Ontario across the border from New York, where Avril Lavigne comes from, surely has its share. As does the rest of Canada, no doubt, especially in its southeastern part. Lyme Disease is also a problem in many countries in Europe and throughout the world.

These ticks can easily go unnoticed. So why isn't everyone sick? I don't know. Scientific research will, hopefully, increase our understanding of this complex phenomenon. For example, there may be factors of the immune system that enable some (perhaps many) people to fight off the infection, but that are lacking or inadequate in those who get ill and need treatment. Meanwhile, we should not panic, but educate ourselves, be vigilant about checking for and removing ticks (especially after extensive outdoor excursions), and seek medical treatment if early warning signs appear. My speculations about the immune system are just an uneducated guess, offered as an illustration. No one should presume they are "immune" or be reckless about ticks and tick bites, especially in their habitats and in Lyme endemic areas.

Lyme Disease can be treated most successfully with antibiotics if the infection is identified in its early stages. It becomes more complicated if left untreated for a longer period, but options remain for managing the disease and its effects. There is a lot of argument among medical practitioners in the United States about the details of late-stage Lyme Disease, approaches to treatment, and long term effects (I don't know how things stand in Canada).

Everyone agrees, however, that there is much we don't understand. Too many patients fall through the cracks in the system, and must endure not only the strange, painful, energy-draining symptoms of Lyme, but also the often terrifying experience of not knowing the nature of their illness or where it's all going.

Can Lyme Disease be fatal in itself? There are reports of the infection bringing about heart failure and doing damage to vital organs. Experts can argue the technicalities regarding "cause of death," but from time to time we do hear, in laypeople's terms, that someone "died from Lyme Disease." I'm not surprised. Still, I have heard very few reports like this and I don't know the medical details behind them. Thus I'm inclined to think that direct "death by Lyme Disease" is probably rare. But no one really knows the degree to which it might contribute to or exacerbate other potentially fatal health problems. It certainly doesn't do any good.

Most of us who have fought the long and often obscure battle with Lyme, however, will agree that there are times when you feel like you are dying or going to die. If you don't know what's wrong with you, that only makes things worse.

That's_how bad things got for Avril Lavigne. At one point, she says, she was convinced that she was dying.

I'm quite sure that this is no melodramatic overstatement. As she lay helplessly in bed, held in the arms of her mother (who had moved into her home to care for her), Avril tells us that she prayed to God.

She felt like she was drowning. (And, yeah, I can really appreciate the descriptive vividness of this metaphor. How often I have used it myself!)

Avril felt like she was being suffocated, like she was drowning. So she cried out to God. She begged, "God keep my head above water!" She says she felt the mysterious closeness of God in that moment. That prayer and the sustenance she received in that dire moment also became the inspiration for a new song, and a new album.

Already in 2015 she was speaking about new songs and new music. Now we know that the album will soon appear. She says that many of its songs were written and even recorded from her bed. (With regard to the latter, it's wonderful what technology makes possible for people with disabilities or lengthy illness; this is something I have been very grateful to experience myself.)

Thanks to a long period of treatment and convalescence and her own wellness regimen, Avril has been feeling a lot better recently. She made the music video below to accompany her new single, "Head Above Water." When the song was released last week, there was a flurry of excitement among folks in some circles that Avril Lavigne--whom they thought of as a cussing, hard-partying, weirdly dressed rock chick with an attitude--had undergone a conversion experience.

I think she has had a kind of conversion, a very real conversion to a profound awareness of her need for God. But people who are expecting instant religious coherence from her now that she has sung about God are going to be disappointed. Much less should they think she will suddenly fall into "conventional patterns of behavior." She is an artist, and artists are often gifted with peculiar insights and broken in peculiar ways. It's not that God judges artists by a different standard (judgment, in any case, is His business); rather it's that we should seek to understand what they're trying to say and do, even when they're flawed, or just seem odd to us.

Avril is also a human being. We really know practically nothing about her personally, her deepest issues, or her problems. The celebrity world is a weird aristocracy. I don't envy those who have had it thrust upon them, nor those who have striven to obtain its rank only to find that it doesn't give them the enduring glory they were looking for.

I am grateful to Avril Lavigne, however, for her willingness to talk publicly about her fight with Lyme Disease. Before she got sick personally, she already had a project devoted to people with serious health problems: the "Avril Lavigne Foundation." Now her foundation includes a special dedication to research on Lyme and assistance for those who suffer from it. Check out Avril's information and resources about Lyme Disease HERE.

I am grateful to her also for letting the vulnerability of her own suffering shape her musical art. Suffering might be inspiring and dramatic in the abstract. But real suffering is banal, unattractive, humiliating, and strange. When we feel better, there's a natural desire to try to forget it ever happened. Instead, Avril has chosen to give voice to her own suffering through her music, and thereby to give us all a little more courage for whatever suffering we endure.

"Head Above Water" is not a complicated song. It is simple, brief, and powerful. It is a compelling song that grows on me a little more every time I hear it. Avril was raised in an Evangelical Christian home, and, while the song never mentions Jesus by name, it contains biblical images and Christian themes. It is a genuine prayer, full of desperation and hope. It is a prayer that articulates my own cry to God, both in physical sickness and in the darkness of Depression. It is a prayer that will help many people.

Listen to the song and watch the music video below.
So pull me up from down below / 'Cause I'm underneath the undertow / Come dry me off and hold me close / I need you now I need you most // God keep my head above water / Don't let me drown / It gets harder / I'll meet you there at the altar / As I fall down to my knees / Don't let me drown ... God keep my head above water / I lose my breath at the bottom / Come rescue me / I'll be waiting / I'm too young to fall asleep ...

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A New Heart, a New Spirit

Thus says the Lord:
"I will take you away from among the nations,
gather you from all the foreign lands,
and bring you back to your own land.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you
to cleanse you from all your impurities,
and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
I will give you a new heart

and place a new spirit within you,
taking from your bodies your stony hearts
and giving you natural hearts.
I will put my spirit within you

and make you live by my statutes,
careful to observe my decrees.
You shall live in the land I gave your ancestors;
you shall be my people, and I will be your God."

~Ezekiel 36:24-28

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

"September" Art and Photography

Here are a few digital art projects and photos from the end of the Summer that have been posted on other media.

This is called "September" (art).

"Virginia country house" (art).

"Blue Ridge Mountain Roads" (art).

A pic of some potted foliage in the front of a building in "the big city."
I thought the color variety was pretty interesting.

Sunset in the neighborhood (around 7 PM these days) featuring
the steeple of the local Baptist church (photo).

Monday, September 24, 2018

Suffering and Christian Life: Sometimes It's Just SO HARD

"For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

God brings salvation through Jesus Christ, through His suffering and death on the cross. In ways that are mysterious, personal, particular to each one out us, He invites us to share His sufferings so that we might also share in His resurrection.

Jesus unites us to Himself on the cross. Often there is consolation and a sense of strength in knowing this and calling it mind. You look at the cross and it brings peace. Certainly you should do this as much as possible.

But sometimes, in some circumstances, it's just very very hard.

It's so hard, when you can't see Him. He's brought you so close to Him on the cross that you're seeing and feeling the wounds and you can't see His face.

We believe that Christ is risen, and that our real life is in Him. There's a radical joy in the hope of eternal life. Suffering and death are not the final words on our existence.

There's also sorrow and suffering because we're human, because we don't understand, and because faith and hope can be very obscure. But God knows our hearts, better than we know them ourselves.

Salvation is not an escape from being human, from suffering and sorrow. It redeems our humanity and gives meaning to suffering that is otherwise incomprehensible, that even seems cruel.

God not only binds our wounds. He bears them in their open, bleeding, emptying-into-death and transfigures them in His risen body into the signs of the love that lives forever.

That sounds mysterious and profound and good.

But how does such a statement "connect" to the actual experience of the pain and dying of me and you from moment to moment? If we're looking for pablum, for a sentimental solution, or any solution we can measure, then these words will fail us. They will sound like abstract theology.

God didn't give us pablum for our salvation. He didn't give us "solutions" for our salvation. He gave us His Son.

Explanations fail us, people fail us, our own bodies and brains ultimately fail us. Jesus will never fail us.

"Whoever believes..." Hold onto Him, and don't let go. Allow Him to hold you.

Don't go away. Don't run from Him. Stay. Let Him hold you.

"For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him" (John 3:17)... so that you might be saved through Him.

Don't lose hope. He will hold on to you.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Waking Dreams of My Father

I don't know how to talk about what Dad is going through, or what I'm going through trying to stay precariously balanced in a situation that is always changing.

So I'm just going to "talk" about it, rambling and writing whatever comes out.

This is something I never imagined, ever, in the first 54 years of my life.

When my Dad started to slow down in his late 70s, and after he moved into his 80s and slowed down more, I sometimes thought that when we said goodbye at the end of one of our frequent visits to Arlington, it might be the last time.

I thought, "Maybe this is it. Maybe I'll never see him alive again in this world." I thought about that possibility. I won't say I was prepared for it, but I saw it on the horizon.

When his motor coordination and memory began to decline gradually last year, I figured it was the initiation of a slow decline.

But Dad was dependable. He was always basically the same (at least as I perceived him). He loved with persistence and dedication those who were entrusted to him. He took care of my Mom. He took care of my brother and me, taught us the value of hard work and being professional, but without goading us. Worldly success was not an inflexible imperative; when health problems brought my own career crashing down, he was there to help and to be quietly understanding.

He loved his grandchildren and they loved their "Papa." When the kids were little, they saw my parents a lot. We would spend many weekends (and longer visits during the Summer) at their place, with the kids in sleeping bags on the floor in the living room. The kids have so many happy memories of those days, growing up with their grandparents.

Dad wasn't perfect and he had his share of problems and suffering. Growing old was a particular challenge as he began (slowly, it seemed) to have difficulty doing a lot of things that used to be easy for him. He was, after all, over 80 years old. He was getting forgetful, a little hard of hearing (we thought), slower, more frail.

But he seemed to be the same consistent Dad we had known all our lives.

Then came the year 2018. What is probably an Alzheimer's-related dementia accelerated very rapidly in a few months to the point where he now only occasionally manages to speak a coherent sentence. He has also completely lost the ability to walk.

It's like a bomb fell from the sky and just blew up.

It's been a complete revolution, above all in his life but also for the rest of us. We're still in the process of trying to put things together in a new way. Both Mom and Dad are safe and getting the assistance they need, but a lot of things are still provisional.

In retrospect, we can see that there were signs of his illness in the last couple of years. There may have been more that we didn't see. Our parents loved us, but they didn't want to "burden" us. Indeed, they valued their independence, their privacy, their routines, even their furniture (some of which is older than me and still in great condition).

Dad seems adjusted to his new physical surroundings after 6 months (though he doesn't really know where he is; sometimes he thinks he's still at home, or in a hotel, or at a conference, or we don't know because he says words that don't make sense). He gets frustrated because he can't remember what he wants to say to us, or how to say the words.

My brother and I get to see him a lot, and he still recognizes us. A lot of impressions go through his mind from the past, from things that happened a long time ago, from things that never happened at all. At one point the other day, he grabbed our arms and said, "You're real, right? You're really here."

My father lives in a world of obscurity, of waking dreams. Thank God he is being well cared for, and that we can spend time with him.

It has taken me a long time just to realize how difficult it is for me to accept that my Dad is incapacitated. When he says things that make no sense, it's not my fault that I can't understand him.

It's not my fault. That would seem obvious, but it's different when it's your own father's face in front of you, still with some of the expressions you have seen--and the voice you have heard--ever since you were born. This is the face and the voice that raised you, that always "made sense," that you loved, trust, admired, and respected. Around your own middle age, you finally began to appreciate him deeply--to realize how much sense and how much wisdom and how much love came from that face and that voice.

It's still there. Occasionally something flashes through, suddenly and rapidly. He grabbed my shoulder today and said, "Solid fellow. Solid fellow." He is still the same living breathing human person; he is just handicapped by a terminal illness. He can still give and receive love.

And we have to remember that fact in the time to come, as the illness progresses and he can no longer grab our shoulders or even open his own eyes.

I know there is deep-down mysterious suffering for my Dad. I pray for him all the time, and trust in God who knows him entirely and loves him completely. God knows what my Dad needs in this last season of life, and for eternity.

Well, that's enough rambling from me. I'm battling to keep my own head above water. Even though I often feel more useless than ever, I also see (as much as a human being can see such things) that my task in this life is not yet completed.

Even if it seems like nothing, I'll do what I can for each day and throw myself upon the mercy of God.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

What Would I Do Without Music?

I really really don't know what I would do without music. And it's been a good summer of music, with more than the usual amount of live music. I have already written about the concert we saw in July, but I want to at least make reference a couple of other moments.

We had a lovely evening in August when our friend Marie Miller took a break from her headlining summer tour to sing and play music with some friends at the Front Royal Brewery, a new local spot:

Not a good picture, but definitely good music: LtoR, Anna and Rachel McMahon, Marie Miller, Kenny Kohlhaas.

Then, of course, on Labor Day weekend we had the fourth annual Appaloosa Festival, which is always a highlight of the season.

With our hosts, the great Scythian....

...along with numerous other excellent bands on multiple stages. I took some good pictures and posted them on Instagram and other places. Here is a sample to serve as an overview:

After a hot Sunday afternoon, we were all glad to see this beautiful sunset, with plenty of music still ahead:

We had a great time, once again!

I don't know if I'll see more live music this Fall. But if I do have a chance, I wouldn't mind seeing the "Contemporary R&B" Queen who will be touring for her new album Hiding Place, that was just released Friday.

Tori Kelly is a California girl with Anglo, Puerto Rican, and African Jamaican roots. In this new album, she collaborates with Kirk Franklin and some excellent singers and musicians to give a contemporary spin to the old fashioned gospel music genre.

Really good stuff. And from what I have seen on YouTube she sings a spectacular live show.

Stay tuned....

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Takashi Nagai's Journey to Christ

I am republishing my blog post from March about Takashi Nagai, and adding to it a photo reproduction of my article about his early life and his encounter with Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church. Some may have seen the article in this month's issue of Magnificat. This post will fill in a few details about the rest of his great life.

Dr. Takashi Nagai (1908-1951) was a Japanese medical doctor, a scientist and pioneering researcher who specialized in radiology, a highly respected professor, a beloved husband and father, and a convert from atheism to Jesus Christ and his Church. My article about his conversion appears in Magnificat's September 2018 issue.

But there is another story, the story of a more profound conversion, a radical change in Dr. Nagai's whole life that set him on the road to a greater faith, but also involved his passing through an almost unimaginable horror that began at 11:02 AM on August 9, 1945.

First, here is a copy of the article about his early life that just appeared in print:


I can only say that the story of this great man, his wife, his family, his colleagues, and his community is one of the most intense and heart-wrenching and terrifying and beautiful stories I have ever come across in the twentieth century Church.

It is a story he lived long enough to tell, in a book called The Bells of Nagasaki. 

The Catholics of the Urakami district of Nagasaki, the disciples of Francis Xavier, the survivors of three centuries of persecution, were not specifically the intended target of the second atomic bomb. But because of various circumstances including weather conditions and wind, the very heart of Christianity in Japan--home to some 30,000 Catholics and their cathedral--became, literally, Ground Zero.

Many thousands of people were immediately reduced to ashes, including an estimated 8,000 Christians at the epicenter who were going about their morning routines, living, working, and praying. The cathedral was packed with worshippers praying for peace when the bomb exploded in the air above it. People in the vicinity of Ground Zero died where they were standing, sitting, or kneeling, in a flash.

The Nagai children were outside the city with their grandmother on that day. But their mother Midori Nagai was in the kitchen of their home in Urakami near the cathedral. The old home was built over a cowshed where her ancestors, the secret Christians, had gathered to pray and pass on their faith for seven generations without any priests, with only a basic catechism and the sacrament of baptism.

Days later her husband found remnants of her skeleton in the midst of the ruins, and some melted metal in the remains of the bones of her hand where he could barely make out the outline of a crucifix. Like so many of the Christians at Ground Zero, Takashi Nagai's wife had a deep devotion to Mary. When the awful fire fell, she had been praying the rosary.

Dr. Nagai was working at the Nagasaki University hospital on that morning. He was pinned under the wreckage of his laboratory, seriously injured but alive. Eventually the handful of doctors, nurses, and students who survived were able to reach him, stop the worst of his bleeding, and bring him to his feet. They formed a team that for several days worked heroically to treat whomever could be rescued from the flames and the scorched ground where there had once been a city.

As doctors, they did what they could to help the wounded, without medicines or supplies. As scientists, they discussed among themselves with horror and wonder the phenomenon that had occurred. They didn't know of the attack on Hiroshima, but they were able to see that this was a wholly new kind of bombing. Dr. Nagai and his colleagues were aware of the trajectory of atomic research, and had heard rumors that efforts were being made to use that research to make a horrible weapon, a nuclear bomb.

Their experience convinced them that these efforts had succeeded, and that they were living through a nuclear holocaust. And it wasn't over yet.

In the hours, then days, then weeks that followed, many people who had survived the blast developed strange and often fatal illnesses from radiation poisoning. Still others would succumb to their injuries. After a month of exhausting labor caring for the wounded and struggling to stay on his own feet, Dr. Nagai himself collapsed and was on the verge of death. His colleagues gave up hope of saving him as he moved in and out of a coma.

He recalled that he was prepared to die, but felt the desire and the need to live for the sake of his children (who had already lost their mother). Then he had a very unusual experience, which he reported to be something like a voice prompting him in a very specific way. In order to understand the significance of this prompting, we should note that Saint Maximilian Kolbe had lived in Nagasaki from 1930-1936 and was well known and much loved by the Catholic community. He had even been one of Dr. Nagai's patients. Fr. Kolbe had, of course, returned to Poland where the final act of his own drama awaited, and all news of him was blocked by the war.

But as Dr. Nagai lay dying, a voice seemed to urge him to "pray to Fr. Kolbe" for healing. No one in Japan knew that Fr. Kolbe was even dead, much less that he had died a martyr, but Takashi Nagai prayed for the intercession of the beloved friar. Soon after, he emerged from the coma, and the injury causing immediate danger to his life was inexplicably healed.

His fellow doctors said it was a miracle.

Unfortunately, his overall health was broken by radiation-induced leukemia, which eventually rendered him an invalid. From his bed, he turned to writing. In the light of his deepening faith, he wrote about the events he had experienced and their implications for the future. He wanted to record all he could for the sake of his native Japan and its reconstruction, for future scientific research, and as an advocate for peace in the world. He lived until 1951 and wrote 20 books, including The Bells of Nagasaki.

He is held in great esteem in Japan by Christians and non-Christians, and his story deserves to be more widely known. As I continue my literary (and film/video) "tour" of East Asia, you will hear more about him from me. His story is deeply Catholic, sorrowful, mysterious, and marked by the distinctively Japanese cultural character that we need to understand better.

But you don't have to wait for me. Fr Paul Glynn, an Australian priest who lived many years in Japan, wrote a very accessible biography that was recently reprinted by Ignatius Press, which you can get HERE. It is not an easy story, but it is one that needs to be heard, and that is very important for our troubled world today.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Cranberries' "New New York"

The Irish have a special place in their hearts for New York. The island people and the great American city have been associated by bonds of kinship and admiration for hundreds of years.

It's not surprising that 9/11/2001 and the days that followed were poignant, tragic, and heroic for the Irish imagination (which is steeped in such things).

On May 30, 2002 the late Dolores O'Riordan visited the ruins of the World Trade Centers in Manhattan. Her impressions became the source of the hardest-rocking song released by The Cranberries since their visceral protest statement against the violence in Northern Ireland in 1994, "Zombie."

But there is something different about "New New York." In addition to being simple, abrasive, direct, and mournful, the song looks beyond the endless repetition of war and destruction. "New New York" is an anthem to a city struggling to rebuild itself.

It concludes in a decisively positive fashion: "They won't tear us apart." With the smoke barely cleared from Ground Zero in 2002, this was a significant statement of hope. New Yorkers and their city have done much since then to realize that hope.

The beginning of this year 2018 brought another tragedy that touched the Irish soul: the sudden death of Dolores O'Riordan at age 46 from the unforeseen consequences of an accident in her London hotel room on January 15.

The conclusion of the inquest was finally announced last week, and ruled out death by suicide.

It seems appropriate to remember those who perished on 9/11/2001 with Dolores O'Riordan's tribute song, as we all hope and pray that together we will see a "new day" that never ends.

WARNING: This video contains rock music. This is not "Dreams" or "Linger," people. It's loud. Turn down your volume, adjust ear phones, etc.😉 Lyrics to the song are provided below (and, by the way, it doesn't pretend to be Yeats or anything; it's a rock 'n roll song—genre is the key to appreciating...many things).

New New York

New, New, New, Ah ah ah ah
New, New, New, Ah ah ah ah
New New York skyline
wounds they heal in time
don't crawl and don't despair
it's a new New York today.

I look across these city streets
my heart is numb, it still beats
nothing to say
there's nothing to say.

I look across this empty room
my heart is still in gloom
there's nothing to say
I only can pray.

New, New, New, Ah ah ah ah
New, New, New, Ah ah ah ah
New New York skyline
wounds they heal in time
don't crawl and don't despair
it's a new New York today.

I look across these city streets
my heart is cold, it beats
thirtieth of May
Ground Zero today
New, New, New, Ah ah ah ah
New, New, New, Ah ah ah ah
I get down on my knees and pray
for the heroes of the day
and no comfort I can find
for the loved ones left behind.

They won't tear us apart
they won't tear us apart
they won't tear us apart
they won't tear us apart

No way

New day
New day.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Christina Grimmie and her Mother: Keeping God First

Tina Marie "Mama" Grimmie was laid to rest this past weekend, next to her daughter who died two years and three months ago on June 10, 2016.

May God hold them both together forever in His eternal embrace.💚💚🕀

Saturday, September 8, 2018

We Are All Called To Be "Missionaries of Charity"


We are all called to be "Missionaries of Charity"? Hey, wait, whoa...!!

This is the congregation founded by (Saint) Mother Teresa, that vows poverty, chastity, obedience, and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor. The MCs really go to the margins, and beyond the margins. It's an awesome and totally radical life, dedicated in a visible way—a prophetically significant way—to Jesus in the Eucharist and in the most desperately poor, unwanted, forgotten people.

The MCs are utterly unromantic. They don't have illusions about what it takes on the natural human level (in terms of physical, psychological, and emotional strength) to live and endure their form of life. Good foundations for the development of such strength (with the help of grace) are ordinarily necessary, but of course they are not sufficient.

In fact human strength is utterly incapable of laying hold of the divine dimension of this calling. Thus there are also other ways to adhere to Mother Teresa's great "movement" (e.g. as co-workers, volunteers, or through the offering of prayer and suffering). It is still possible to participate profoundly in the grace of this charism if you are specifically drawn to it, even if you have a constitution that prohibits you from developing the ability to live in any kind of place, eat any kind of food, be moved somewhere else in the world at a moment's notice, do whatever difficult physical or mental tasks are required by the harsh environment of a slum, a war zone, etc.

Clearly, not everyone is called to the specific form of consecrated life that is the Missionaries of Charity.

Vocations are tested extensively, and many good-hearted people who try to join the MCs are told (sometimes after a period of trial) that "this is not where God is calling you." And that is not a judgment against their character; it is realism about the nature and grace of the MC vocation.

The women and men who live for God through the vows of the Missionaries of Charity live in the heart of the Church and at the most desperate extremities of the world. They live the mystical reality of charity (caritas, agape), which is the kind of love that is ultimate and decisive for existence.

"Charity" in the proper sense of the term indicates the love given by the Holy Spirit—the love that is from God and for God, the supernatural love that we Christians all receive in baptism, that empowers us to live as children of God in Christ. It is also the mysterious hidden reality offered to every human being, and communicated (somehow—perhaps by an "implicit baptism by desire") to those who seek faithfully to do the will of God, the ultimate Goodness, insofar as they understand it. Through grace and charity the Spirit guides and shapes the life of human beings toward the fullness of the recognition of Jesus Christ.

Every human person has been created to receive and to give this love.

Charity is the love that endures forever. The MC vocation is to live this charity in an intense, visibly dedicated way, to all the ends of the earth, wherever there are human persons in need of love.

It is an intense life.

I have been a volunteer with the MCs at various times in my life, and for a consistent period when I lived in Rome. Just volunteering was overwhelmingly intense for me. But I'm glad for what I learned from the experience.

By the very clarity and radical nature of their dedication, the MCs are witnesses to the love that we are all called to live in our own circumstances with the people who are "near" us (our "neighbor").

"Love your neighbor." Everyone agrees with that, right? Nevertheless, it's the hardest thing in the world to do, concretely, day in and day out. 

We can't love one another consistently and in the fullest sense without the grace of Jesus Christ. Those who love others with charity are moved by His grace even if they don't know His name yet, or have not yet inwardly perceived the significance of Him in a way they can articulate to themselves, due to unavoidable misunderstandings, psychologically entrenched preconceptions, or other factors about the human personality that are beyond our understanding.

We all need to know Him better. For this we need witnesses. The MCs are witnesses to the love of God in Christ for every human being. Their witness inspires us to want to love more, to grow in love.

We are drawn to a deeper conversion, to greater worship of the Lord, with gratitude and humility, with a more vital spirit of prayer. And we ask the Lord to give us more generous hearts, more open hearts so that He can give His love through us.

Then by helping one another, and even by just living ordinary life with that prayer, that desire, we ourselves become witnesses, "missionaries of charity" (small "mc") wherever we are.

Mother Teresa spoke often of the "smile," a simple thing: "Peace begins with a smile." This doesn't mean fake smiling all the time, nor is it merely the naturally spontaneous gesture of a cheerful disposition. It means becoming (patiently, day by day) the kind of person who smiles from the heart.

Something from the depths of us where God dwells can appear on our faces, maybe not all the time but sometimes, and perhaps more and more as we grow and experience healing.

Even clinically depressed people can give and receive this smile, or suffering people, people in "dark nights" like Mother Teresa herself. It is the joy of Christ. It changes the world, one gesture at a time, person to person.

This is the mission of charity that is entrusted to each one of us.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Mother Teresa: "Bring Love Into Your Home"

"It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start."
– Mother Teresa

(We celebrate Saint [Mother] Teresa of Kolkata on September 5.)

Monday, September 3, 2018

Rest in Peace, Mama Grimmie

Rest in Peace, Tina Marie Grimmie (5/25/1959 - 9/2/2018). She passed away yesterday at the end of a very long struggle with cancer.

She was affectionately known as "Mama Grimmie" to millions of 'frands' of her daughter, the late great singer-songwriter Christina Grimmie (whom I have written about many times in these pages).

💚Mama Grimmie, we will miss you!💚

First diagnosed with breast cancer 23 years ago, Mama Grimmie underwent extensive treatment and passed through several relapses and remissions during different periods of Christina's short life.

Christina was greatly shaped while growing up by the experience of her mother's fragile and unpredictable health, but more important for her was to see her mother live these trials with deep faith, courage, a generous spirit, and an enduring zest for life. Mama Grimmie remained a strong support and a great example to Christina to the end, along with her advice to "keep God first" in her career, her life, and her heart.

Mama Grimmie continued to battle cancer for more than two years after her daughter's death, sharing her own powerfully honest grief but also turning outward to console and help others by establishing the Christina Grimmie Foundation along with her husband Bud and son Marcus.

May the Lord gather her now, together with her beloved daughter, into His eternal embrace.

And may He console Bud Grimmie and Marcus Grimmie, who remain behind, carrying an immense sorrow even as they continue a precious legacy.💚💚

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Even in the Worst Times, the Lord is Here and He Leads Us

The Collect for this liturgical week in the Roman Missal (the 21st week of Ordinary time) is a very helpful prayer for all Christians facing difficulties, and for discerning the path ahead in these particularly opaque times.

Many of us can't find the way through all the confusion caused by the chaos of these sins and crimes that continue to be revealed, that occurred in the Catholic world over the past three quarters of a century.

We hear again of all the abuses of authority, the peculiarly deep personal destructiveness of a sexuality divorced from God's plan for human life and love and weaponized in the service of pride and lust, and all the failures to stop the offenders or to protect or even attend to the victims of this predatory violence.

It is horrible, and we are horrified. But many of us find that we are just being driven down further into the confusion. Nor do we find clarity from the flare-up on the Internet and other media of indiscriminate accusations and loud arguments from many sides, with all their conflicting interpretations of events and proposals for change.

We want to do God's will. We want to hear the voices and respond with compassion and care for those whose humanity has been so profoundly violated. We want to hold perpetrators accountable as well as those in authority who actually could have stopped these predators but failed to take necessary action. And we want to support real and constructive reforms.

But we can so easily find the constant flow of instant news information and blog and social media polemics overwhelming, perplexing, or even triggering to the pain of our own psychological and emotional wounds. Many of us who hear constantly in these days about the current scandals have our own terrible struggles with mental illness, and don't have the resources to process (psychologically or even physically) the enormous stress and tension that have pervaded the Catholic environment. Many of us also are broken because we too have been abused in some serious way by people in the Church or the wider world, in sexuality or other areas involving a deep personal trust that has been betrayed or manipulated.

So for us this moment in the life of the Church means more suffering, often in ways that render us incapable of putting all the whirlwind of information and opinions and arguments into some kind of healthy perspective.

One thing that must be said, however, is that those who are suffering from the awful effects of clerical sexual abuse must not be forgotten. They have priority. They are—in a very urgent way at this time—Christ suffering in his members. It would be a further abuse to use these people as just a pretext for pushing someone's ecclesiastical political agenda. When ideologies crystallize, real persons are easily forgotten, and even the most zealous advocates for justice end up replacing the old injustices of others with new injustices of their own.

We must remember the people who are suffering.

Each victim of sexual abuse is a unique, individual human person with his or her own story of violation, betrayal, and pain. Their sufferings are cries to God that he hears. He wants his people and his ministers in the Church to remember him by listening with compassion to the stories of these persons. So much suffering afflicts Christians and others because people entrusted with the special vocation to be servants and instruments of God's love in the world have forgotten God.

What can we do? The "field hospital" is filled way beyond its capacity. Can the Divine Physician count on his ministers and co-workers to tend the wounded, and also to build a healthier environment? 

Of course, the Lord will not fail us with his grace. He himself carries all the depths of our suffering. He who mysteriously accompanies from within every human being will also inspire in the hearts of some of the Church's members the compassion for the needs of persons, the insight, and the sense of justice that will lead to reform. He is already working, even through the awkward disagreements of people of good faith. He is working most specially in those who give primary attention to caring for the victims, who listen to their pain and to the Holy Spirit who whispers therein his will for the whole Church.

Christians must help in whatever way they have been empowered by the Spirit of God. But we do not know the depths of God's plan, the mystery of the profound goodness that he wills to bring forth from out of the consequences he permits when he allows creatures to misuse their freedom.

God really is good. All the time. And some of us may be called simply to walk through the dark valley, without the comfort of knowing-what's-going-on or the sense of having accomplished anything. Being overwhelmed and feeling "lost" and powerless are not ultimately indicative of defeat. God is in charge. The heart of the Church is Jesus Christ crucified who conquers death and gives eternal life, whose ultimate "weakness" reveals the final, absolute power of Divine love. (I tell myself this, even when I don't feel it.)

We accomplish God's will, in our work and in our suffering, by following Jesus in faith and love, by trusting (maybe in desperation, but never giving up) the mercy of the Father who has loved us first and who loves us now (however troubled we may be). We will find confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit who renews the Church and continually impels her members, even with their flaws, to go forth and witness to the salvation of the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

There is a battle, indeed, but the battle has already been won. We experience tribulation as we respond to God's call. We try to do his will, we fail, we repent. He allows all of us to suffer in different ways (and we will all be divested of our human powers by death) but this is only so that we might have a share in his suffering and thus share in the fullness of his victory.

We need to remember that we belong to Jesus Christ. He has taken hold of our lives, and he reaches others through us, not only through our constructive activity, but also (and especially) through our suffering.

Let us adhere to God's love, whether we are seeking justice, doing works of mercy, spending our talents and energy in his service, fighting against evil, or suffering and finding that all we can do is hold onto him within our helplessness, that all we can do is die with him.

God has come to stay with us. If we remember him, if we open our hearts and let him love us, he will transform us. He will give meaning to everything in our lives.

The prayer from this week helps us to remember him:

"O God, who cause the minds of the faithful
to unite in a single purpose,
grant your people to love what you command
and to desire what you promise,
that, amid the uncertainties of this world,
our hearts may be fixed on that place
where true gladness is found.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever."