Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Saint Jerome "Finds the Words of God"

"So you want 'realism'?" Caravaggio asked. "My kind of realism? OK, but I'm gonna at least give him a table. I mean, people can only take so much...." 


"Your words were found and I consumed them;
Your word became the joy and the happiness of my heart
" (Jeremiah 15:16).

Happy Feast of Saint Jerome!

Monday, September 28, 2020

Baseball Braketology Begins

Oh you crazy 2020. Staaahp!

I have seen many wild, weird, wacky things in my 57+ years of life, but I never dreamed I would live to see anything like... this, THIS... nutty baseball "season."

Now the "Irregular Season" is over after 60 games. On the one hand, we did get to have baseball. It was worth it.

Baseball on TV only. With no fans (but artificial "fan-track" - which was actually better than nothing). Baseball with seven inning doubleheaders, universal DH, extra innings starting with a runner on second base. (!) And now, sixteen teams in the "postseason," an entire first round of seeded matchups, eight three game serieses to determine who advances to the "next round."

Baseball "Braketology"?

Alas, our beloved World Champion Washington Nationals didn't even make the "Round of 16." The Nats were just getting warmed up when the season ended.

There are some happy things. The Nats finished strong, rallying to a final record of 26-34 and tying the Mets for fourth place. It was a dignified ending. Juan Soto hit .351 to win the National League batting title a few weeks before his 22nd birthday. Some young players brought some excitement to... well, our house at least, and no doubt many others.

I'm proud of our Nationals. I hope we can have a "regular" regular season next year, but we know not what awaits us in baseball or any of the other events we had grown accustomed to in the pre-Covid19 world.

I hope that baseball has not passed the point of no return. When (if?) we return to the old ways, someday, I hope we won't keep any of these crazy new rules. Sixteen playoff teams??

I know, it’s just “special” for pandemic, they say! That’s like what the mythological Pandora said before she opened the box ... “I just want to take ONE little peek, just once.” 

Forces have been unleashed! Is the proverbial “cat out of the bag”? I hope not.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Avril Lavigne is How Old???

In her kitchen, like... last week! Seriously?
Happy Birthday, Avril Lavigne!

The Sk8er Grrl is 36 years old, and everyone finds it hard to believe. "She hasn't aged a DAY since 'Complicated' came out in 2002!", people cry out with a mixture of amazement, admiration, and... I don't know, maybe envy?

They are exaggerating.

First of all, 36 is not that old. 36 is still young! Secondly, she has "grown" artistically and survived some very difficult experiences (the insanity of superstardom and the paralysis of serious illness). I'm struck by the fact that she's "still in one piece," she's sober (and pretty much always has been, in spite of her rebellious role-playing), she's relatively normal (as rock stars go). Aging? C'mon, she has “people” to make her look good, plus she is just one of those small-sized folks who is just always going to "look young."

Avril's "ageless look" may be a crisis for the younger generation. People my age don't think much of it. We are much more likely to envy her Beverly Hills mansion, her swimming pool, and her 55-million-dollar net worth. (Greed lives longer than all the other vicious temptations.) I'm actually impressed that she has not squandered her money, and that she invests her time advocating for people with chronic illnesses. I'm grateful for her dedication to fighting Lyme Disease.

But I get how folks born in the '80's might be freaking out. Calm down, peeps. I know. This is not really about Avril. It’s about a more fundamental experience you’re going through that has you a bit... unsettled. The bottom line is this: if Avril Lavigne is in her mid-30s, then so are you. Yikes!😟

Dear Millennials everywhere, I feel your pain. "Where did those years go?" you ask, as your hairlines have begun to recede, your backs are aching, and you complain about all the awful music kids listen to these days...😏 (you're right about that, by the way😝). You are perplexed by the person who stares back at you from the other side of the mirror - a person who every day looks more and more like your parents. You wonder, "What happened to my 18-year-old self?"

Generally, you still "feel" the same as when you were 18, at least in terms of your physical energy. If you have a family of your own, of course, you can't help being aware of many "lifestyle changes" that come with having kids (n.b. Avril does not have kids of her own; she has nieces and nephews and is undoubtedly the cool Auntie). Parenthood changes us in many ways. Although, according to most generational studies today, your kids are probably all under 12 years old, which means you can still put them all together in the house with a babysitter and go out for a fun night with your friends - at least once in a while (which means the-big-changes in your lifestyle and sense of identity and responsibility are yet to come; I can't explain how it will all happen, but I advise you to "buckle up" and get ready for a "bumpy ride"!😳😜 #DontWorryItsNotThatBad).

But whether or not you have families of your own, you all notice some basic differences in daily life. Cars today seem to require more bodily maneuvers to get out of - not like when you used to just open the door and bounce out in a single effortless motion without even thinking about it. Some of your old clothing has shrunk!! You think, "How did I ever fit into this?" Fortunately, there is usually a corollary question: "WHY did I ever want to wear this? Or you go to the grocery store (I'm assuming, or at least hoping, that you're not an alcoholic) and you open the beer fridge. As you grab your favorite craft beer or - better still! - a bottle of Belgian Ale brewed by monks according to a thousand-year-old secret recipe, you look over at the six-packs of Bud and think, "I can't believe we drank that stuff in college!"

I empathize, partially, with what you're going through. I am not a Millennial. I was your undergraduate university professor back in 2002, and I was a little older than you are now. You have changed, grown, and matured much more than you realize. I am so proud of most of you (and if you're actually reading this, you're probably near the top of that category). In any case, my ears are still open for you and my virtual office (on Facebook, Instagram, etc) is open, anytime.

But back to MUSIC: in 2002 you kids were sitting in the grass around campus with your CD boom boxes and I would walk by and think, "What awful music kids listen to these days!" And I was right... for the most part.😏 But there were some diamonds in all that mud, and I might have noticed them if I had been paying more attention. Some of you were definitely tuned into the good stuff back then.

Avril wore a loose tie? Everybody wore loose
ties! She actually stopped wearing the ties when
she realized that kids were imitating her.
Half of her lifetime ago, Avril Lavigne was a bright and talented kid from the "five-thousand-person-town" of Napanee, Ontario. She skateboarded, was a good hockey player who could hold her own on the ice with the guys ("always-beat-the-boys-up"). She was a nice girl known to everyone in town, who "made-her-money-cutting-grass" and, it seems, "got-fired-by" the local "fried-chicken" ... ummm... restaurant(?). She also sang at local county fairs, book stores, and churches in that "small town, Na-pa-nee!" that had no idea it was on the verge of becoming an international tourist attraction (for a few years, anyway). [Italics quotations from the song "My World"]

They may not have realized that young Avril had enormous aspirations, fierce ambition, remarkable talents, tons of energy, and - to top it all off - that indefinable, potentially great, potentially dangerous quality that makes people natural leaders or lets them get away with doing whatever they want: charisma. But in order for things to happen, she needed to leave the small town and head for New York (and later Los Angeles). She got a contract and began recording (all the stuff that never got released can be found without too much trouble on YouTube, and some of it is very nice).

Avril's special singing style was shaped by her particular background and experience growing up - with roots in Evangelical Christian music and the Canadian strain of Country music, then her later discovery of Rock and increasing fascination with it. The result was a voice that could be sweet, sassy, bold, and sorrowful - that could disarm you with soft tones and then crash down on you in a storm of euphoria or anger. She could bend words over a variation of notes, wiggle vowels beyond their grammatical limits, and add nuances and character to her intonation like fine brush strokes on a painting.

Avril had immense versatility and lots of her own ideas by the age of 17, and she resisted efforts by some of the "suits" at the record company to force her into a targeted genre. But she was too talented to ignore. Thus, many hands went into the making of her first album, and the resulting mashup was recorded on both coasts with several different producers and different musicians and song co-writers. The kid couldn't do it by herself, but she unified all the various (and in themselves quite substantial) contributions from others and made it all her own by her inimitable voice and her personal charisma - that "indefinable quality" that gained her a world of wildly loyal fans, made her a pop superstar for over a decade, and eventually got her into more than a little trouble. In this moment, however, she was just beginning to spread her wings.

By the time you all came back to school in the Fall of 2002, Avril Lavigne's voice was everywhere. The album Let Go was a tour-de-force, an astonishing debut. You kids heard it then, whereas I didn't really hear it until some years later. But it's still fresh even today. It's a classic, from your era, that can take its place alongside the "classic rock" of my era.

Just a word about words: No one since The Beatles has taken that overused word "Yeah" and raised it to such lyrical, evocative, stunning heights as Avril does in "I'm With You" (and in basically every other song she sings it). While I'm on the topic, there are also her signature "La-La-La-La..." and "Na-Na-Na-Na..." tossed in everywhere: in the background, the chorus, the lead voice, at the beginning, the end, the transition, or making up a whole verse, puntuated with a "Yeahh-ee-yah-ee-yeh-Yeahh"! A cynic would grumble that "she probably couldn't think of any more words." I say it's brilliant. It's the simple, spontaneous, exuberant outburst of affirmation and possibility - the echo of the freedom of childhood - made into art. It lights up everything.

It never gets old.

And you kids shouldn't worry about getting old either. Experience enriches memories, so that revisiting them revives and renews the sense of wonder through which we grow as persons.

A big "yeah, yeah, yeah" to that.

Avril Lavigne just turned 36 years old, and Let Go recently turned 18.(!) Above is a recent still shot of Avril playing the piano at home on an Instagram video. Next, of course, is the album, with the famous "baggy-pants." (The Japanese edition. They went crazy for her in Japan.)

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Suicide Prevention and Awareness about Mental Health

September is National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month.

And, inevitably, it's not until the end of September that I can bring myself to write anything about it. I know how horribly real, devastating, and incomprehensible it is when a family member or friend dies by suicide.

I think that when this happens, it is rarely the result of a fully rational and free choice by the person to kill his or her self. Generally, these tragedies involve people with severe psychiatric afflictions that may or may not be evident to those around them. The behavior that results in their death is set in motion by a pathologically distorted perception of themselves and/or their environment.

What I might be able to contribute along the lines of "awareness" is to emphasize some important factors regarding mental health.

Please note: I am not a medical doctor nor do I have any training in the mental health or counseling professions. I am an experienced patient, as well as a university professor in humanities, an active scholar and author, and an incurable thinker who has had a lot of time (and a lot of personal motivation) to think about these things.

The psychological dimension of our humanity remains mysterious in many ways, but we continue to learn about what helps and what harms its delicate balance, how it shapes our attitudes and actions, and how psychological disorders can hinder and even cripple a human being. Psychological health is affected by our own actions, but it is to a significant degree woven from predispositions, events, and experiences that impact us in ways outside our control. Obviously, there are ways to respond to and reintegrate the damage inflicted by bad experiences on our psychological "inner fabric" (and important ways to be helped in doing this). But often we can't "fix" all the complex features of inner brokenness, and therefore we must endure the pain that remains. Psychological suffering is real, and none of us can presume to measure how great is the burden borne by another person.

There is another important and particular point that continually needs to be emphasized: what we categorize as psychological or mental problems are often connected to empirically accessible "physical" diseases, imbalances, and afflictions. Overall physical health and the hormonal and central nervous systems have a significant impact on how well we "think and feel." Then there is the health of the brain itself. In my lifetime, much has been discovered about the complexity of brain functioning and the wide variety of ways it can be damaged or diseased. Neurobiological research still holds much potential, but medications have already been developed that help treat brain disorders in a more "fine-tuned" manner. There are no miracle drugs, but psychiatric medications - responsibly used under proper supervision - can contribute to a therapeutic regimen that makes a big difference in people's lives.

I can vouch for this. Psychiatric medications have been a great help to me in my own 47-year-long battle with depression and OCD. (Ten years ago, I published a book about my experiences which is still available HERE.) I'm old enough to remember what it used to be like struggling with mental illness. Things have gotten a lot better, and the stigma surrounding it has generally decreased.

At the same time, it is often said that we have more mental illness in today's technologically advanced societies than ever before. In part, this might be explained by the fact that we have more awareness and more openness about mental health. But it may also be true that the stressful environments we live in today may be harder on brain health, especially for people who have a (possibly hereditary) predisposition to develop neurochemical imbalances.

There are many reasons why life today has a higher tension, requires more mental energy, and passes through more phases of stress and abrupt change than in the past. I have written about this elsewhere on the blog, with regard to issues related to the enormous growth of technological power. I think it's important to be aware that depression (which is often a factor in the tragedy of suicide) can be a condition "managed" over a lifetime, and subject to different phases of intensity. And while most people learn to navigate the hard stresses of modern life, there are some (perhaps more now than in the past) for whom modern tensions are experienced as overwhelming and "tramatic" events, and who face more personal disruption as a result.

People who are already "managing" (formally or informally) with depression or some related disorder based on a neurobiological-dysfunction/chemical-imbalance in the brain are subject to experiencing a "flare-up" (i.e. their disorder may become symptomatically acute) because of a triggering event - and in our society these may involve disruptions in physical or emotional life, employment, or any number of intense transitions or problems similar to what many people experience in one way or another as stressful and difficult, but manage to recover from and move on. Whereas for people with depression these circumstances and events can have a traumatic effect. They can crack the very fragile edifice of coping mechanisms, the network of convictions, and perhaps even the neurological "rerouting" that the brain has developed to compensate for its chemical or functional weakness. The result is that the whole edifice is destroyed, and the person loses their handle on their "normal" perception and judgment of life, interests, relationships, etc. Recovery will depend on the person's success in reconstructing another "cognitive edifice" with the help of a positive environment and support, psychotherapy, short-term or long-term assistance from medication, and other kinds of therapeutic care. The healing that is achieved will always be tenuous and susceptible to re-injury.

There are many ways you can help someone suffering from depression, but it does not help to tell them to make themselves better by their own willpower or some kind of self-initiated activity. The depressed person cannot "get over it" or "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." This helplessness is one of the distinguishing characteristics of depression.

Nevertheless, depressed people often don't recognize their own helplessness, which means that they are already adding frustration and self-blame to the depression itself. What you may be able to do is to help them realize their need for specifically psychiatric help, or at least to encourage them and help them to accept that there is no shame in seeking care for mental health. Be gentle, be supportive, be available, and - depending on your relationship with the person - try to help them be accountable for keeping up their healing work, keeping concrete goals in focus, communicating with doctors and therapists, taking their medication, and assessing progress. Be a human being, and treat them as human beings, with all the dignity and love they deserve. Don't dismiss the human person with prepackaged demands or ideas for what they must do to "fix themselves" so that they might become "worthy" of being loved and respected as human beings. This is actually more difficult than you might think. We tend to disrespect one another all the time, even in "normal" situations. You will not always succeed, but be humble and keep trying. Be a friend. Become better informed about mental health, and get advice from relevant mental health professionals and resources (see e.g. HERE) on specific conditions and other factors that bear on the concrete circumstances of the situation the person is facing, and that help you to discern the best ways that you can be helpful in this particular person's life. Be a part of their "team" along with caregivers and other friends and family. Know the role you play and work together with everyone else.

It is very important for other people not to add fuel to the fire of emotional abuse that a depressed person is already afflicting themselves with. That person has already run through the list of "healthy lifestyle choices" they've failed to make, "positive attitudes" they haven't cultivated, prayers they've failed to say, and many other reasons why they think that they ought to blame themselves for their various incapacities. This spiral of self blame and deeper incapacitation can become a whirlwind of interior violence that spins entirely out of the bounds of rationality. A level of delusion emerges which can lead to external self-inflicted violence.

We can imagine how something like suicide may be waiting at the bottom of this descending spiral, like a black hole. But this hardly even begins to grasp even one facet of the destructive catastrophe that is suicide. I know something of the incapacitating strangeness of depression, the suffering it causes, the disconnection from one's sense of one's own value such that one longs to shrink into a little ball and disappear. None of these afflicted states are necessarily aiming at suicide. That doesn't mean we shouldn't care about people who are suffering in this way. It's terrible suffering. We need to help people who are suffering in these ways.

Of course, even in these general and limited considerations, I cannot forget that I am a Christian. Faith, prayer, the sacraments, and spiritual guidance matter very much here. They can reach aspects of suffering (physical or mental) that are inaccessible by other efforts. Jesus brings light to every kind of darkness. Jesus wants our healing. But he wants us to follow him, to do the will of the Father. The things of faith are not meant to replace our humanity. Faith is not a cheap substitute for the human care we owe to ourselves and to one another, or for the application of what medical science and the arts of the healing professions can provide. "Miracles" are possible, but they certainly won't happen for us if we neglect our responsibilities to receive God's help through the natural and human gifts he has already placed on our path. We can rely confidently on God's grace to give us the courage to follow him by seeking all the appropriate resources for help, and by enduring the sufferings that cannot be helped because they exceed the possibilities for human healing available to us and because God permits them (for a time) because he has encompassed them within his plan, through Jesus Christ, to unite us more fully to himself.

It is our task to bring comfort to the afflicted and mercy to those in need. We can't judge with condemnation the ultimate destiny of anyone who dies by their own hand. On the contrary we have reasons to hope in God's mercy, including the perspective that an awareness of mental illness gives us, that suggests full culpability is so often lacking in these tragedies. Why God permits this kind of awful thing is a question that remains mysterious and painful for the living. Still, we must continue to trust in God, no matter what. Before suicide happens, however, we must also do everything we can to help the afflicted person step away from the edge. We must accompany them, love them, and beg them to stay with us. Life is always a gift. As long as it is given, we don't have the right to choose to give up on it, or to neglect other lives entrusted to our care.

I don't have "internal experience" of what leads to a suicide attempt. I have been at the bottom of some of depression's awful holes, but I'm not suicidal. Not everyone with serious depression thinks about or makes a plan or tries to do something to end their own life. There are differences between "feeling like you want to die," "feeling like you are somehow 'dead'," "feeling like you have no value" and "feeling like you should take steps to end your own life." They are all destructive and dangerous states of disordered perception that require personal attention, and medical and therapeutic care.

I know something of what it feels like to "want to die," such that I have had to work on "wanting to live." I still work on it, although in these days - as difficult as they are - I find that I very much want to live. I have never "felt like ending my own life," which is not anything I can take credit for. It's not one of the sufferings that afflicts me. I have wailed in desperate sorrow for the incomprehensible loss of someone else. Why him and not me? I don't know. There are different kinds of depression and different levels, and different ways that it combines with a wide spectrum of other mental disorders. Prevention experts have useful information for helping us identify signs of specific danger (this LINK is an accessible and wide ranging resource from the National Institute of Mental Health).

We can only do our best. Most of the suicides I know or have heard about are very complicated. They still seem like a bunch of knots that I cannot even begin to untie.

There's an element in suicide that is quite obscure to me, that I can't analyse. It's inexplicable to me how I lost my friend 15 years ago on a bright beautiful Fall day, or how we lost some kids in our area over the past decade. Nothing I think or say will ever be anywhere near enough to explain what happened.

To loved ones who remain behind, it stays like an open wound. It always hurts, but it's a pain that cries out to the infinite mercy of God. It stays open as a space where the seeds of ultimate hope mysteriously grow for those we have lost.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

"O Lord, You Have Been Our Refuge"

From the readings of the day:

"Vanity of vanities!
All is vanity!
What profit has man from all the labor
which he toils at under the sun?

"All speech is labored;
there is nothing one can say.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing
nor is the ear satisfied with hearing"
(Ecclesiastes 1:2-3, 8).

"In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge"
(Psalm 90:1).

[Image above: Tattoo, "All is Vanity" from right forearm of Christina Grimmie.]

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

We Are Grateful to Padre Pio

My blog seems more and more to be pictures and commentary on the Roman liturgical calendar.

One thing I love is how the cycle of seasons, feasts, and memorials of the saints fill the entire year with "beautiful days" - like flashes of transfigured light breaking through into our time, marking our days as we journey toward the unending fullness of that glory.

Every month, every week has special moments to anticipate. There are the seasons and particular observances and celebrations of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the maternal companionship of Mary.

Then there are all the days honoring the lives of (and nurturing real ongoing "ecclesial relationships" with) men and women of every time and place, language and culture, who have gone before us and are recognized as "co-workers" with Christ by the Church's liturgical prayer.

The saints are all glorified members of Christ's body, His servants, His instruments, our companions and helpers. They are gifts to us, entirely formed by God's grace and love, witnesses to the glory of Jesus our Savior. At the same time each one of them is unique, with his or her own personality and humanity that reverberates in the Church's memory in many different ways.

The more recent saints may be remembered from the time of their earthly journey by some people who are still living. I myself have met and spoken personally with two saints, John Paul II and Mother Teresa, both of whom had a profound personal impact on my life. This is true for many of my generation. In our time, "giants walked the earth." Every age has them, of course, but there were a few in the late 20th century whose greatness was impossible for anyone to ignore even while they lived in this world. Through then, the Spirit kindled fires in many hearts.

Padre Pio was a little before my time, but people from the previous generation remember him while he was still in this life. I have known some families where the parents knew him personally (one even worked as a doctor in his hospital). Of course they have special stories about him, beautiful and very personal stories...

But like all saints, Padre Pio has become immensely greater since he went home to be with the Lord on September 23, 1968. Still, he was widely known and sought out (especially by Italians) during his years at the Franciscan Friary of San Giovanni Rotondo - this priest who bore the wounds of Christ, the "stigmata" (as well as many other deeper hidden pains and trials), who tirelessly heard confessions and through his special gifts reconciled so many and brought spiritual healing, and who also had a special dedication to serving and accompanying people afflicted with physical illnesses. Among the many aspects of Padre Pio's legacy is the beautiful hospital he built near the friary, which he called "the House for the Relief of Suffering."

He is dear to me in a particular way for his tremendous compassion for the sick. That compassion and companionship is a personal gift that he still offers today. He brings consolation to the afflicted when they call upon him.

My own story has a little place here. I didn't have any special devotion to Padre Pio. But I "feel like" he sought me out and offered his help (saints do this more than we realize, I'm convinced). Around the time of our Teresa's birth (in 2002) and shortly before the beginning of some very difficult times for me, it seems like he made me aware of his humble presence, as if to say, "I'm here for you, I'm helping you." Even though this may have been just a subjective experience or my own human psychological impression (and there's no way to prove it was anything more), still I find that I want to describe this as having something of the nature of an encounter. It was personal.

Since then I think he has “touched my shoulder” a few times and in some way said to me, “John, I know what you suffer. I had these sufferings too in my life” (I don’t know if he actually had specific illnesses related to mine, but it’s possible - Padre Pio was much afflicted in so many ways during his life).

I know that I have been consoled and encouraged and helped by him, and I invoke his intercession every day. I am reminded that God understands me, because people often don’t understand, and I don’t understand myself. Even regarding the complexity of my health, no one really knows what's going on. I don't know, and sometimes I feel confused and overwhelmed. Why am I such a mess, such a human wreck? Why do I have such a clunky brain?

But I have been so greatly blessed by the Lord, so much more than anything I have had to endure. And like so many people, I am grateful to Saint "Padre Pio" for more than I know, and I will continue to rely on his friendship in the communion of saints.

Near the end of his many years of fidelity and suffering, he is reported to have said, "tell everyone that, after death, I will be more alive than ever. And to all those who come to ask, it will cost me nothing to give to them."

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Equinox is Here Again

Image from dictionary[dot]com, click LINK

Happy Autumn Equinox to all my peeps in the Northern Hemisphere.

¡Y feliz Eqinoccio de Primavera a mis amigos SureΓ±os en lugares como Argentina!πŸ˜‰

And Happy Spring-on-ya to the Aussies. G'day mates!

September 22, 2020 was a beautiful day and evening here in the Valley! The sky looks like this before 7:30 PM now (and the only reason it's this late is because of that wonderful "Daylight-Savings-Time" which will give us at least some evening light until November...).

Late sunrises don't bother me, because I'm a writer and a scholar. For me, all year round, there is nothing worth calling "morning light" until after I've had COFFEE!

You see what I mean?

Anyway, the evening of the Equinox also treated us to a waxing moon over the still-very-much-green trees.

As always, we shall watch the Northern Hemisphere's delightful Autumn develop in these pages over the next two months. Or at least I shall watch it, because it still surprises me, year after year.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Matthew and the Gaze of Jesus

Pope Francis often links the beginning of his own vocation to the priesthood to his experience of the merciful gaze of Jesus, who looked upon him and called him in late adolescence through the eyes of a kind parish priest who was his confessor and guide.

Some years ago, the Pope took the occasion of today's feast of Saint Matthew the-tax-collector-turned-apostle to preach about this loving, penetrating way that the Lord regards each one of us.

"Jesus’ gaze always lifts us up. It is a look that always lifts us up, and never leaves us in our place, never lets us down, never humiliates. It invites you to get up; [it is] a look that brings you to grow, to move forward, that encourages you, because it loves you. The gaze makes you feel that He loves you.

"And sinners, tax collectors and sinners, they felt that Jesus had looked on them, and that gaze of Jesus upon them (I believe) was like a breath on embers, and they felt that there was fire in the belly, again, and that Jesus had ​​lifted them up, gave them back their dignity. The gaze of Jesus always makes us worthy, gives us dignity. It is a generous look.

"'But behold, what a teacher: dining with the dregs of the city!'

"But beneath that dirt there were the embers of desire for God, the embers of God's image that wanted someone who could help them be kindled anew. This is what the gaze of Jesus does.

"All of us find ourselves before that gaze, that marvelous gaze, and we go forward in life, in the certainty that He looks upon us. He too, however, awaits us, in order to look on us definitively, and that final gaze of Jesus upon our lives will be forever, it will be eternal.

"I ask all the saints upon whom Jesus has looked, to prepare us to let ourselves be looked upon in life, and that they prepare us also for that final – and first! – gaze of Jesus!"

~Pope Francis

Sunday, September 20, 2020

They Keep Blooming...

If these roses insist on blooming seven months out of the year, I'm going to keep taking pictures of them!🌹

Saturday, September 19, 2020

"Saint Janaro's Day?" I Say "YES"!

Happy "Janaro Family Feast Day"! Buona Festa di San Gennaro!
Today is the Feast Day of the Great Ancestor of the Janaro Clan, the original Saint Januarius, fourth century bishop and martyr in what is today south-central Italy.

That's our paese, at least for the Janaro part of the family. My great-grandfather came over from there to New York in the late 19th century.

He arrived a bit prior to the stampede of Italian immigrants who poured into the USA, Argentina, and Uruguay around the the turn of the 20th century. His name was Pasquale Janaro, and an Italian friend once told me that such a name could only come from within a stretch of 50 kilometers around the greater Neapolitan area. So I'm sure Saint Januarius must, somehow, be related to us, what with the "Benevento" and "Naples" regional traditions and all (umm, I'm gonna resist the temptation to say something cheesy like "his BLOOD moves through our veins," no, no jokes like thatπŸ˜‰).  
But there must be some connection, because "Janaro" (including the "J") is a variant in old Neapolitan dialect of "Januarius." Both of which are derived from the mythical Roman god "Janus," the "guardian of the gateways" and all places where people come in and go out (note that "January" is the first month, the end of one year and the beginning of another).

Thus I hypothesize... I don't have tons of authority to back up these fancy claims. But this is a family story. It's meant to widen the eyes of children (and at this point, as God wills) grandchildren, and help convey to them a sense of kinship with their distant cousins in that beautiful and crazy city on the glittering blue Mediterranean sea. And of course to have a patron saint for the whole family.

So scholars, do me a favor: don't screw this up for me, please?

In any case, according to Legend (and I should know, because I made up the legend) today's ancient bishop and martyr is the patron saint of the Janaros.


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Time and Memory: Encountering a New Humanity (Part 2)

I want to remember again those days, weeks, and months from thirty years ago.

Many of the things I remember from the year 1990 impress upon me a sense of nostalgia. They seem recent and familiar, but then distant and antiquated. There is a spectrum of memories of places, environments, music, work, books, theories, news, political problems, weather - sights, sounds, smells, feelings of expectation, enthusiasm, accomplishment, dread, embarassment, boredom.

I feel like I can practically inhabit my skin from back then, and yet ... where did it all go? It's so "strange," this business of being human. What is time and memory? What is this "me" through which so much passes and apparently vanishes and yet also somehow "remains"? And time keeps going on and on, and the person reaches out for things, gains them, loses them, begins again, has sorrows and joys, and always yearns for more, and then ... dies?

Maybe we appeal to belief in the immortality of the soul and "the afterlife" - okay, but what is all the hum and scrum and bother of this life all about? Does it really matter? The sage and the cynic say, "no," but for different reasons. We look to religion to tell us the things that do matter in this life, and we feel like we can come away with a (hopefully manageable) "list of things that matter." But then it seems we are left with "the-other-99%-of-life" to fiddle around with, scramble through, or endure aimlessly ... But then why do we find so much in life fascinating? Why do there seem to be so many "important things" in this (utterly?) perishable world? And why are even the little peculiarities so endearing?

The would-be "religious person" might be tempted to try to check off the boxes on the list of obligations and prohibitions, and then - with regard to the rest of life in this world - stay disengaged, cold, "safe," mediocre (this is a caricature of a genuine religious attitude, of course, but it's easy to slip into it).

Why am I alive in this world? The particularities of time and memory, aspirations and disappointments, people and relationships, eating and drinking, living and dying - what is the point of all of it? How is it connected to my ultimate destiny? Why does the past still move me as if it is not yet fulfilled (or disturb me as ruptured and in need of healing)? If we are made for happiness, why must we pass through so much suffering?

There are responses to these questions that, after more than half a century of living, I can articulate in various ways (from the Catechism, from theology, from philosophy) and those articulations do matter very much. But words alone are not enough, because these questions remain on an existential and personal level. That is to say, they come from "the guts" of my life and they indicate the mystery of who I am and what reality is, the mystery that is intimate yet elusive, and that moves me to continue in the hope that things do "fit together" in the end, that "all of it" has meaning.

And, one more question: "What does all of this have to do with 1990 in particular?" Well, something happened to me in that year. It wasn't that I "found answers" that removed the drama from, or neutralized, these questions. Rather, I found help in "living these questions" within my faith, within my relationship with Jesus Christ. I found a place where, even now, I can continue to face these questions with greater intensity...

Central to my life is this "relationship with Jesus Christ," because it isn't a thought subject to my control that gives meaning to everything in my life. It isn't an ideology that gives meaning to my life.

It is a Person. Life is about a relationship with a Person I encounter in my own history. The Mystery who is the Source of all reality and the Source of me - who is "within" me and "beyond" me in a manner I cannot comprehend - has come to meet me and be present in my life, to reveal Himself as my destiny and my life as a journey toward His fullness, a journey in which He accompanies me.

The Mystery became flesh, so that He could look upon me with a human face and love me and engage my life with human gestures. This is Jesus Christ living and acting through His people, the Church - Jesus drawn close to my humanity, "dwelling" with me (and there is room for every aspect of Catholic ecclesiology here).

He entered the history of my life in an original and unrepeatable way on March 10, 1963 - the day of my baptism. It is an encounter that has deepened in many significant ways over the years. In 1990, I was renewed in this meeting with Him through a group of friends who were then at Catholic University of America. They have helped me, and continue to help me to journey with Jesus in the Church and to hope for the fulfillment and transformation of the whole of my life. With them I learned to seek the face of Jesus and to ask to discover anew His companionship through all of the persons He has entrusted to me, in all of the places and circumstances of my life each day.

To ask for the grace to recognize Him, remember Him, trust in Him... more and more: this is the way of living and praying and following Him that I began to learn in a very particular way in 1990. Though I have learned very little, forgotten too much and too often, and have not been very coherent with what it proposes, it remains my way even now.

Thus, over the past thirty years I have belonged to the "ecclesial movement" founded by Monsignor Luigi Giussani that is called (in English) Communion and Liberation. If you have heard of it, you might be wondering, "Oh, is that still around?"

Well, I'm happy to say that CL is still very much around.

It has been a long time since the days when the once-"new" predominantly lay movements and groups were getting lots of attention and even enthusiasm from the Catholic press. A lot has happened since those days. We have indeed learned that not all that was "glittering" in the Church at that time was in fact "gold."

But there was much that was (and remains) good and genuine and constructive to the witness of the Church. The Holy Spirit poured out abundant gifts on God's people during the past century - gifts that were profoundly suited to the unprecedented times of the emerging global epoch and the evangelical renewal proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council.

Some of these "charisms" have generated new religious congregations or other specifically structured forms of supporting Christian life and witness into the new millennium. Others have brought about certains "styles" or accents of Spirit-filled living within a variety of diverse contexts. These latter tended (in varying degrees) to involve more flexible organization, different levels of commitment, and a very wide scope for the drama of our human freedom and responsibility which are personally attracted, engaged, and offered possibilities by the mysterious workings of God's grace.

CL is definitely in this latter category of charisms. This does not imply that it is not challenging and awesome and "demanding" - we are, as I said, talking about a way of living our relationship with Jesus.

It is a great way, that provokes every aspect of life, but it does so with immense respect for freedom and the dignity of the person along with an abundant witness to the forgiveness and mercy of Christ.

Thus even with all my negligence and incoherence, I find that it is possible for me to stay. It is even possible to be changed, slowly, beyond the stiffness of all my anxieties and the clenched teeth of all my stubbornness.

[ be continued.]

Monday, September 14, 2020

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Jesus Changes Our Experience of Life

When we encounter Jesus and begin to follow him in the Church, our way of perceiving, judging, and valuing reality starts to change.

We may not "notice it" so much (at first) or reflect on it beyond the particular "practices" that we take up as the most obvious dimension of our response to him. Our feelings about ourselves and our lives do not necessarily become warm, fuzzy, and comfortable, or exhilarated and self-consciously zealous. Or perhaps, we have an initial emotional enthusiasm that doesn't continue in the same way after a while. We certainly do not find our actions instantly rendered coherent with everything Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Mount.

Nevertheless, the Spirit is at work in us, inviting us to move forward on the path toward God's kingdom, and also healing us and deepening our adherence to Christ in mysterious but very real ways. 

Msgr Luigi Giussani always emphasized the impact of this change on our humanity. The journey of faith makes you a new creature, who has "the dignity, the certainty of your destiny and the capacity to operate in a new and more human way." This new humanity means "A different experience of the sentiment of yourself, a different perception of things, a different emotion of the presence of others, a different impetus and density in relationships, a different gusto in the troubled dynamic of work, an outcome that was inconceivable, unimaginable before."

Friday, September 11, 2020

Remembering 9/11: Overcoming "Hatred of the Human"

The attacks of September 11, 2001 were rightly described by the late Lorenzo Albacete as springing from and expressing "hatred of the human." The dawn of the 21st century was marked by this new and awful turn in the "cycle of violence" that continues to wreak havoc all through the earth. 

Violence begets violence. It feeds into the mayhem of destruction, the drive of a ferocious resentment that would - were it possible - unmake being itself.

Violence is ultimately the enactment of hatred for the human person, for humanity, for reality-as-gift, for the mystery that always transcends the grasp of individual ego, collective pride, and the arrogance of the logic of power.

Let us never forget September 11, 2001. And let us rededicate ourselves, again and again, to opposing the violence in the world and in our own selves by a renewed sense of wonder, gratitude, and desire for the good. 

Let us make space in our hearts, our families, and our communities for the recognition of the dignity of every human person, for the awareness that we have been entrusted to one another as brothers and sisters, for the giving and receiving of authentic love. This will nourish the impetus for mutual understanding, forgiveness, justice, equity, solidarity, and the appreciation of all the diverse gifts and riches of our common humanity.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Christina Grimmie: The Brightest Stars Burn With Love

Christina Grimmie was a bright beautiful star who gave her whole heart in all that she accomplished in her brief life, to her very last moment. Today I honor her memory (after four years, three months) and next week her family and musical collaborators will be bringing out a new song from the still-substantial archive of her unreleased material.

Here is my usual "10th-of-the-month" bit of digital graphic art. I have taken some phrases from the upcoming song "Cry Wolf," seemingly out of context since the song (like so many pop songs) is about a broken human relationship.

In fact, when Christina wrote songs on these themes, she often accented the experience of suffering that comes from dishonesty and superficiality. This highlights how important truth and candor are to human relationships, and how we are disappointed and hurt when these characteristics proper to the reality of existence are lacking in interactions between people.

Artistic expressions of such painful human stories, however, can touch the poignancy of their distress and open possibilities for the recognition of a deeper meaning emerging from them. Songs about betrayal, lies, and heartbreak affect us because they take bad experiences and help us to find new and creative connections with truth and beauty, with the justice we desire and the joy we refuse to give up on.

This reflects the whole of reality.

Evil and violence do not have the "last word" in defining the value of life. Love has the "last word." Love will always have the last word. Day by day, I (slowly) grow in confidence of this - in the face of whatever may come - and Christina's witness is real help to me.

Her star continues to burn brighter as time passes. She remains a light, through her signature gesture of welcoming (this work of mercy so necessary in our world today), the inner "hospitality" that she directed toward those who needed companionship, the respect she had for their dignity, her powerful and authoritative sense of the worth of the person, and the gratitude for existence that always moved her beyond her own fears.

Christina Grimmie is lighting up the way for us and filling us with hope and courage to give our hearts, generously and without hesitation to those who need our love.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Happy Birthday to Our Beautiful Mother Mary!❤

Happy Birthday to the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of our Lord and mother of all of us who are His little brothers and sisters!

The Byzantine tradition is rich with iconography of Mary’s nativity (often in this form of presentation, with Mary and an attendant on the lower right and her mother Saint Anne on the couch and Nazareth in the background).

Nine months ago we celebrated Mary's immaculate conception — we believe that she was preserved from original sin from the first moment of her existence in view of the saving merits of her Son. She is therefore "redeemed" and "saved" wholly and entirely from the beginning of her life. Her birth, therefore, is a unique and joyful epiphany of grace in salvation history.

Though not presented explicitly in Sacred Scripture, the significance of Mary's birth is handed down from the early Fathers of the Church and ancient sources, and it is entirely consistent with her unparalleled mission as it is recounted in the brief but vivid details of the Gospels.

Mary is the first light heralding the dawn of our salvation through her Son. She is the morning star, full of light, the “Panagia,” the All-Holy one prepared in advance by the grace of her Son to be a pure dwelling place for God the Word who would take our flesh in her womb. Mary is the All-Holy, Immaculate Mother, whose heart is united to her Son, and therefore is “large enough” for each and every one of us. She is our mother who knows our hearts and our sorrows. She draws us together with Jesus our Savior and with one another.

Don’t be afraid to entrust everything to her, because through her you encounter Jesus, the Word truly made flesh, our God and our brother!

“Blessed are you, holy Virgin Mary, deserving of all praise; from you rose the sun of justice, Christ our God" (Gospel Antiphon).

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Person of Jesus Gives Me the Truth of Myself

Saint Paul famously declared: "I no longer live; Christ lives in me" which means that "I live in faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). 

Do we Christians view our lives in this way? 

There are times (fewer than I would like to admit) when I really do remember that I belong to Jesus, that the source of my identity and the energy that draws me to seek and build the good is His love and mercy.

Living faith is trust, and that requires me to realize that the source of my life is something more than a man who lived and died two thousand years ago. Jesus is the Risen One, glorified at the Father's right hand. He lives. He loves me and gives Himself to me now. There are moments when I remember this truth, this real fact that defines me and that defines reality right now.

But too often, it slips away from the present. Somehow, the truth of "Jesus loving me in this moment" subtly turns into "the Christian worldview" or "the Christian system of thought." These latter things, of course, have their place as aspects of living with Jesus, knowing and loving Jesus, following Him in the Church, and witnessing to Him in the world.

The problem comes when they become a substitute for the awareness of belonging to Jesus, of being in a relationship with the Person of Jesus who is present in my life, who is working by the power of His Spirit to make me an adopted son of the Father. When "Christian thought" loses its vital connection with the Person of Jesus, it atrophies. It becomes my system, my project, my way of defining myself.

It's so easy to become a member of the "Christian party," to fight for "Christian ideas," or even to discourse on things like love, mercy, and presence (such as I am doing right now) and forget all about the Person of Jesus Christ! I can so easily live as if He doesn't exist, which means, of course, that I live in the presumption that everything depends on me. 

Which, means, ultimately, that I am alone...

I am not saying that it is necessary to constantly conjure a picture of Jesus in my mind, or be obsessed with explicitly thinking about Him at every moment. No. This relationship is a living reality, an intimacy, which entails an attachment of the heart, an impetus for love.

He loves me and gives Himself for me: this is what constitutes the real value of my "self." How much do I live this and depend on it? Very little. I live in forgetfulness and distraction. 

But He never forgets.

The only way to grow in this awareness is to pray. "Jesus deepen my awareness of Your presence in my life. Deepen my trust in You."

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Mother Teresa: "The Hunger For Love..."

Mother Teresa understood the need for love, the longing that cries out from the boundless depths of every human heart. That's what made her so unique.

Friday, September 4, 2020

"Nurture in Us What is Good"

I wanted to take note once again of another very rich "Collect Prayer" from the Church's liturgy (it's too easy to miss the content of these prayers from Sundays and the days that follow during the week). 

This is from the 22nd Week of Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar of the Roman Rite, a week which ends on Saturday, September 5. Here again we find several basic facets of our relationship with God expressed and interconnected in a concise plea for His grace.

We could benefit from praying and meditating on these words personally any time of year, and it might be useful to have a book that "collects" the Collect Prayers, especially the series from the six month-or-so period after Pentecost. This is the longest continuous stretch of Ordinary Time in the liturgical year, lasting until Advent begins the new annual cycle. 

The first half of the Church year is strongly marked by preparations and celebrations of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: Advent and Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter with its season culminating in the great feast of Pentecost.

However, we should not grow inattentive or distracted after the Easter Season ends. The fire of the Holy Spirit continues to illuminate the weeks and months that follow, so that this "Ordinary Time" (which does not mean "down time" or "insignificant time") represents the continuation of Pentecost. In these weeks, especially, we implore the Lord to strengthen and bring to fulfillment His grace that He has given us through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit.

Consider our prayer over this past week:

This is a prayer full of the awareness of our dependence on God and our confidence in His tenderness and goodness, in His fatherly care for us whom He has made His children.

God is the "giver," the Source of all goodness, and He calls us to know Him and love Him in Christ, to call Him by name - "Abba, Father" - with the love and grateful reverence of children. This is how we begin, even now, to share in God's own life that He has opened up to us through Jesus in the Spirit, the inexhaustible life of the Trinity, of the God who is Love.

Note again that not only does God give us this vocation. He also gives us the power, the expansion of freedom, which carries our response to His calling and our cooperation with it as we journey in faith, hope, and love to our fulfillment. He gives us His life, His goodness, in which we are destined to share.

In this prayer, we ask for Him to work the great mystery of His wisdom within us. We ask Him to "put into our hearts" the love of His name, and to "deepen" our awareness of His awesome and wonderful reality, His infinite goodness. Then we ask Him to "nurture" the goodness that is this new life in Christ, to watch over, care for, and "keep safe" this life that has been poured forth into our hearts through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

We ask the God who is Love, with what is truly "filial" (childlike) confidence and affection, to continue to foster - through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit - the growth of that new life in the Risen Jesus Christ which is the "beginning" of our eternal destiny. We ask Him to strengthen this "belonging-to-Him" which is our good, to draw us and care for us along the mysterious journey of our growing-in-Him, and to "keep safe" this life He has nurtured, until it reaches its fulfillment.

God is so good! He wants so much to love us and give Himself to us. Even if we feel dead as a stone, He wants to transform us into His sons and daughters, and heirs to the Kingdom where His love will be all, in all (see 1 Corinthians 15:28).

And when we begin to ask Him to give us what we can't give ourselves, it is because His love is already at work in us.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

"Full Moon in September"

This piece is titled "Full Moon in September" (Digital Art by JJ - September 3, 2020).

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Pandemic: Faith and the Fragility of Being Human

At the beginning of September 2020, the world continues to pass through various kinds of unusual and uncertain situations in the ongoing effort to control the spread of coronavirus, treat those who suffer from it, and learn more about it.

Some places have loosened restrictions (e.g. careful attempts are being carried out in Virginia and other U.S. States to reintroduce at least some measure of in-the-classroom education). Other places (such as parts of Latin America) are seeing a return of restrictions due to a flare-up of new cases.

Meanwhile industries and patterns of employment have changed, people have lost jobs, businesses, livelihoods, and it's difficult to imagine how the longer term impact on human society will unfold. And people continue to lose loved ones, compromise their own health, or at least live with an ongoing anxiety about health problems and the continually shifting practices judged necessary to stay safe.

People are afraid. They are battered (physically and/or psychologically) into exhaustion and traumatized by this ongoing vivid experience of their own profound vulnerability.

This overextended fear keeps people in a state of tension, always aware of the threat of great personal losses if the objects of these fears were suddenly to come upon them. Indeed, at this point, every scenario for the resolution of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to entail one form or another of loss, diminishment, and suffering for at least some people. We may become sharp and belligerent, or obsessive beyond all practicality, in our efforts to protect ourselves from being among "those people." Underlying these aggressions, howerver, is fear and anxiety fueled by the recognition that we don't have the power to guarantee, absolutely, our safety. The fear of loss, and the experience of loss, are traumatic to our human frailty.

No doubt this trauma is intense for those who see their horizon of attainable happiness as limited to the empirical world that they can measure - to a world that holds no promise for transcendence. Indeed, it is terrifying to be helpless and alone and losing something (or someone) into the void of a meaningless universe that is not held in the hands of Infinite Love. So many people are afraid that life has no meaning, that love doesn't win in the end, that everything is swallowed up by nothingness.

But we who believe in and worship God are hardly strangers to this fear and sense of helplessness (and if we are honest, the fact that faith doesn't simply take away our fears and the experience of our human frailty can be unsetting in itself). But this really isn't so surprising, because faith does not replace or eliminate our humanity. Ultimately we walk by faith in the One who is true, good, beautiful, but also the Infinite Mystery. Faith does not "resolve" the mystery of God or of reality; rather, it brings the mystery closer to us, yet in doing so it also gives us a path and a reason to hope even in the valley of the shadow of death.

The Mystery has entered the history of our lives. Jesus didn't say He had come to explain the often difficult ways and obscure challenges of our lives. He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." He said, "follow me" not to form an exclusive club, but (among other things) to draw us more intensely into the experience of being human, all the way to the Cross.

So even in faith we feel this great fragility of being human, this "helplessness" - but we learn that it is rooted in our need to live in dependence on something greater (on the One who lovingly holds our destiny and accompanies us and every human being). Even in the anguish of our lives and the feeling of fear and loss, He is opening a path for us and a "space" inside us so He can lead us and shape for us a good and beautiful fulfillment that we cannot yet "understand."

We live in the world with a HOPE for a transcendent fulfillment in which everything is transformed but "nothing is lost." Often we can't see what this means for our concrete aspirations, circumstances, and relationships and why there is frustration and loss (or "sacrifice").

But Jesus sees; He has endured it all and He is risen. He lives (indeed He IS) the fullness of being human and He stays with us.

In this crisis, and in every human crisis, the power to rise above fear and desperation, the power to find courage, comes from the fact that He has raised up our humanity and (whether we are explicitly aware of it or not) He is with us and He is drawing us to Himself.