Friday, September 30, 2022

Francis on the Prayer of “Ciao”

Here is the Instagram post from Pope Francis’s most recent Wednesday Audience, screen-to-screen pictures of the video in which the Pope spoke in Italian and subtitles were provided. In case they’re too small on your device, here is the text from this clip:

“Let us ask for this grace:
to live a relationship of friendship with the Lord,
as a friend speaks to a friend.
I knew an old religious brother 
who was
the doorman of a boarding school,
and every time he could, he would approach the chapel,
look at the altar, and say, ‘Hello,’ [“Ciao” in Italian]
because he was close to Jesus.
He didn’t need to say blah blah blah, no:
I am close to you and you are close to me.’
This is the relationship we must have in prayer:
closeness, affective closeness
as brothers and sisters, closeness with Jesus.
A smile, a simple gesture,
and not reciting words that do not reach the heart.
As I said,
talk to Jesus as a friend talks to another friend.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Saint Michael, Help End this Horrible War!

Today is the feast day of the Archangels: Saint Michael, Saint Gabriel, and Saint Rafael. We really need their help in the grave moments that are coming upon so many peoples in this world.

The picture here is a detail from a UKRAINIAN Byzantine icon of Saint Michael. The suffering that continues in Ukraine after seven months of invasion is staggering. Now there are new perils and unimaginable dangers that might result from the Russian leadership's desperate escalation of the stakes in their own disastrous and largely-failed invasion. Prayer is especially necessary in these days.

Holy Archangels, pray for us. 
Saint Michael, protect us from the wickedness and snares of the devil…

I beg you to protect Ukraine, and help deliver Russia from a tyrannical regime that endangers its own people as well as its neighbors. Help deliver all people in this conflict and throughout the world from the machinations of those in power who think themselves to be "gods" and authorize themselves to crush the dignity of human persons under their feet.

Protect and give courage especially to Russian young men who are now being drafted into the military, that they will refuse to kill their brothers in this unjust, horrible war of aggression. 
Holy Archangels, protect our poor world from the scourge of war, and pray for the conversion of every heart to the One who's coming was announced by Saint Gabriel.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

September 2022: Artistic and Musical “Notes”🎶

This is a long one. So sit back, relax, and prepare yourself for a good read.🙂

Nearly 13 years ago, I began this peculiar chronicle (on a format that was once known as a "web log" - hence "blog" for short - and I wonder if people have even heard of that original term). In those days, the content was frequently focused on "the Janaro family" - which consisted of five fun energetic kids, the oldest of whom was 13 at the time. I could always count on at least two readers: my mother and father ("Grandma" and "Papa" to our kids).

All those years are still in the archives of this site, and I'm glad I wrote about them. Now, of course, the life-situation (or, as German literary scholars say, the sitz-im-leben) of these blog posts has changed in ways that, every once in a while when I really think about them, astonish me. 

I am going to turn 60 years old in three months. For whatever reason, I am still a "Blogger" (I don't think many of us are left anymore). I have social media (predominantly Facebook and Instagram, which are both instances of what was once called a "microblog") but I don't do much writing there anymore. I don't have the mental energy to spare for something as bewildering as TikTok. (😳) I am, therefore, a Blogger. And "blogging" remains a still-developing literary genre (or, I should say, multimedia platform). There are many approaches to using it, and surprising new possibilities are always cropping up.

I frequently post examples of my efforts to use new (and ever-expanding) digital graphics technology with digital photographs, not for the sake of "tricks," but rather as a search for a visual medium that I can work with artistically. I have always had a "creative side" of my personality, and as I grow older I find myself more drawn to take up once again the "physical creativity" of my youth in areas besides literature. This means not only the "digital sculpting" of images, but also music. I am more engaged with these activities now, and - of course - I also have a need to write about them.

Basically, this blog has always been my "Workshop" (primarily for writing, but more recently for photos and digital art as well). Among other things, I have allowed myself the freedom to "tinker around with" many of my interests here, without necessarily polishing up the final form or content of what I wished to express. I have done everything from celebrating saints' days to drafting articles to "thinking out loud." I have pondered the mysteries of faith, the fundamental questions of life, and the interesting things that are happening around me. Sometimes I have tried to think through problems, or just express my struggle with them (which can be therapeutic, if nothing else). Sometimes I have drafted poems (and then gone back to revise them). I will continue to do these things, as well as post cute pictures of our granddaughter every so often (😊). But I may also bring more of my reflections on culture, music, and art as I perceive it "from the inside" - not simply as a critic but also as an artist myself.

In any case, what you get here is me... somewhat unfiltered. I am a proud man, a broken man, desperately trying to hold onto God who is present here and now in my life through Jesus Christ (who "holds me" even when I forget His mercy, and I am forgetful ... most of the time). I am also trying to look at the world and my own various interests objectively, which is to say, according to the glory of Christ who has overcome sin and death, and the Holy Spirit who is at work in my life as a member of Christ’s Body, the Church, and who also works mysteriously in the heart of every human person. I try to find the good wherever it may be stirring to life, even in strange circumstances, and to foster that small flame if possible. In certain instances, I think something good is there, but it is not really there after all. Still, I think it's worth a try.

This is why I have written from time to time about music and artistic creativity since this blog began. It’s inevitable that the pursuit of “Media Studies” crosses paths with lots of creative people. But that's not the only reason. These interests are personal for me. I empathize with the experience of artists as artists, with their efforts to create works of beauty - even if those efforts are flawed, or mixed up with elements of the vulgarity that is hard for any of us to avoid in this society. Often there is good seed growing amidst many weeds, or (to use another image) real gold hidden in a lot of mud. Sometimes the oddballs and the freaks have their fingers pointing toward important things, and if anyone can accompany them it's me (since I myself am an oddball and a freak who has yet to find a "box" that he fits into).

Music is a big part of my life. Up to around the age of 20, music was a potential career path. I was classically trained in cello with a private tutor and played in various orchestras and ensembles beginning at the age of 9 (see cartoon of JJ as a young man, playing the cello). A bit later, I taught myself to play guitar and bass, and I played in a rock band (a loud rock band) as well as a jazz orchestra and a dance ensemble. I played gigs with them, and even toured a little bit. 

I also "wrote" (composed and played from memory) a series of original instrumental pieces for nylon-stringed "classical guitar." They were carefully crafted, and widely appreciated by those who heard them. I performed them many times in public during my college years, but always "by memory." Though I am fluent in reading and writing standard music notation for piano, cello, and orchestral instruments, I never learned how to play from sheet music for guitar. I knew the names of some chords, but otherwise I played guitar entirely by ear. I'm not even good with a chord chart.

Therefore, I never wrote down any of these somewhat complicated instrumental pieces, thinking - as young people do - that I would "always" remember how to play them. But a lot of life has come since them and taken me in different directions, and - though I haven't entirely abandoned my guitar - I no longer remember how to play any of my old songs. 

Actually, I did make some provision for preserving my music way back in the early 1980s. At some point - somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 years ago - I recorded many (perhaps all) of these guitar pieces on a cassette tape (that was the only sort of productive media we had in those days). If I could listen to the recording of these songs, I probably would remember (or relearn) how to play them, although my hands are not as agile as they used to be. But I could remember them, at least. That would be great. The only problem is that (of course!) I don't know where the tape is.

I did try written music composition as well (with music sheets, a pen, and a piano to guide the musical notes) but not much ever came of that. And where is that sheet music today? Who knows!

I had some talent. Music could have been my life's work, but when I came to that proverbial "fork in the road" I chose the intellectual path, while keeping my creativity alive by writing poetry. (I have a substantial collection of poetry written over the course of more than thirty years; most of it is decidedly third rate, but there may be a few pieces worth passing along.) Pictorial arts were part of my childhood, and I have taken them up again using digital tools, along with photography, in recent years. Here I am still experimenting.

I am rusty with playing my instruments, but I still love music and have not forgotten my education. I love all kinds of music (which is not to say that I think all forms of music are on the same level). Music, fundamentally, is the crafting and arrangement of sounds so that they express an artist's creative intuition in an original, structured, interconnected sonic form. Sound is a mysterious thing. It has its own intrinsic proportions that are rooted in mathematics; the artist usually chooses to build upon these proportions. They are free to choose apparent dissonance in their work, but they better know what they are doing. It's always possible to construct more complex forms and open up new perceptions of beauty. But since music is communicative - since it presupposes the relationship with the listener - it is appropriate that it be accessible to others (unless, of course, a composer is simply "playing with sound" for himself). Thus, music tends to emerge from traditions and styles, which musical artists take up as part of the "material" of their craft, which they reproduce or perhaps develop by marking it with their own original perception and skill.

But enough theory.

I still play my guitar, but it has been a long time since I have picked up my cello (yes, I do own a full-size cello, still in good condition, which might be the most expensive thing my parents ever bought for me when I was a kid). I am very much aware that "making music" (composing, recording, and even writing notes on paper) has ridden the new wave of technological explosion in media just like so many other things. As high school students, my friends and I used to pour over the pages of music store catalogues and discuss, admire, and dream about all the sophisticated (and usually big) gear that we would never be able to buy.

I had a second-hand electric guitar (an Ibanez Les Paul copy, pretty nice for a copy) and a second-hand (awful!) steel string acoustic guitar. I also had a second-hand amplifier that was huge. Today you can buy these little things that practically play the music for you, but my old amp could only do one thing, amplify. It did that very well and very loudly. I had a second-hand fuzz box and a second-hand wah-wah pedal, along with several tape recorders that by today's standards were poor quality (there weren't much even by 1980 standards). I paid for this stuff with money from a part-time job washing dishes in a local restaurant.

I was serious about my guitar playing; and I continued to improve my playing through college. Acquiring a classical (nylon string) guitar took my music in new directions. Meanwhile, I still had my very nice cello. I played the cello consistently through the days and weeks, the months and years of my life between the ages of 9 and 18. I was mostly an ensemble player, and I loved it. All through this time there were orchestras to play in (schools, community centers, even the "junior" city orchestra). But university shifted me into a different environment, with other opportunities. Meanwhile, I began to pursue seriously the academic life.

Music took a back seat, but it never disappeared entirely. In my teaching years, I acquired various instruments, but played them very seldom. When the kids reached a certain age, I passed many of them along to them. By the time I took up my "Media Studies Project" in earnest, the tech revolution was shifting into high gear. There were music programs (and, later, apps) like "Garage Band" that provided you with your own "studio" and all the instrumental sounds you had ever heard (and some that you hadn't heard). On the internet there was YouTube, of course, for everything, but more specifically for music there was SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Musicians were collaborating "remotely." We never saw these things coming forty years ago. Kids (including mine) took up these new modes of expression, but they all seemed too complicated to me. All these options, sheesh it's overwhelming!

The world in general has become a blizzard of easily accessible choices that can make our lives swell up and explode. Possibilities are good, but people also need criteria for focusing, so that they can commit themselves to certain possibilities and work for their realization. Otherwise, we are paralyzed by all the options. Perhaps we might turn into distracted observers, skimming over the surface of reality, overstretched by too much stuff - none of which we love in a meaningful way - and becoming jaded and cynical as time moves on.

It's very hard to be a young person in today's affluent world. No wonder people are so confused about "who they are." When "freedom" is defined as "having unlimited possibilities," how can freedom ever commit itself to love? Can freedom choose persons and tasks in such a way that freedom focuses us, that it secures decisions as commitments, not only in the face of external threats, but also as an anchor against the winds and waves of our own whims, urges, distractions, and emotional states which are shifting all the time inside us? Instead, people are told that they should commit themselves solely to "keeping-their-options-open" so that they will always be open to "the next new thing." For young people, this might seem alluring, because they haven't yet discovered that they can't construct their own material infinity that will guarantee that the energy of their still-newly-emerging desires can keep running on its own strength, without growing. The thrill of the search makes us never really want to find anything. Thus, we don't find anything.

The media explosion certainly feeds on this (lack of) dynamic. As in so many other facets of life, it becomes more chaotic as we become diminished; but it ensures that we keep buying stuff even as we become more and more exhausted by everything.

But if we have encountered the meaning of life, or at least if we are searching for it in earnest, then we do have criteria that focus us. We have commitments and relationships that focus us. If we remember the meaning of things in this world, we can take them up in constructive ways. We may get distracted, lost for a bit, forgetful, stupid. We may even wipe out. But we can find our way back, we can be drawn back; indeed, we have others who are looking for us. We don't need to do things alone.

Speaking of "distraction," I'm getting too broad (and too long) with this post, and I want to wrap up the "arts and music" topic that I hope to visit more often in this blog in the future. People have seen plenty of what I'm trying to do artistically with digital graphics. I have begun a project to once again write music using musical notation. I'm looking at a very simple beginning here: drawing out some melodic themes for solo cello (that are within my range of competence). There are some apps that allow you to use limited functions that are nevertheless very helpful for bringing together and storing needed materials in one compact "space" (i.e., the size of an iPad). That's something I can use.

I had forgotten how much I really love composing music, letting melodies and sonic frameworks take shape and develop.

And, of course, I am listening to plenty of music. Sometimes I find new music, but generally I don't wander too far from the eclectic (many people might say "enormous and strange") constellation of styles I appreciate. Right now, I will comment on two of the things I've been listening to lately. First, there is a new recording of the Symphonies of Franz Schubert. The pared-down sound of a chamber orchestra probably gives us a more authentic rendering of the composer's original early-19th-century idea. Recall that Schubert was a younger contemporary of Beethoven. He died at the age of 31, only one year after Beethoven whose music had such a powerful influence on him (and everyone else who came after).

Schubert composed an enormous amount of music, and his talent was recognized during his lifetime, though he came to be appreciated as one of the "greats" only some years after his death. I always gravitate toward Symphonies, and the last two of Schubert's are especially grand. It's common to think that the two movements of the famous B Minor Symphony are a symbol of his tragic early demise (to typhus). The "Unfinished Symphony" is magnificent in what it gives us, and therefore understandably evocative of "what-might-have-been," but we can't let this distract us from its overall grandeur. This Symphony (generally numbered as the 8th) brings Schubert the orchestral composer decisively "out" from behind the long shadows of Beethoven and Mozart. Or, to put it another way, sometimes Schubert seems squeezed between Beethoven and Brahms, but his distinctive lyricism fills this work. It also fills the unusually long and very much "finished" 9th Symphony in C Major. These are the standouts, but I have enjoyed all of them. I find melodies from my childhood in the 3rd, the 5th, and the 6th Symphonies.

The recording pictured above is newly released (and thus it caught my attention). The Swedish Chamber Orchestra presents a consistent and competent rendering of the collection, demonstrating how the varied dynamics of orchestral works from this historical period can be performed and heard vividly and vigorously without requiring the massive orchestras that once dominated symphonic recording. Schubert, especially, deserves this more “intimate” presentation. 

So much has been made possible by the tremendous advancement of recording technology in my lifetime. Even in classical music, studio production has begun to “move beyond” the effort to simulate a “live” performance, and has begun (perhaps only subconsciously in this genre) to realize that it contributes, in subtle ways, its own “interpretive artistry” to the recording. A recording is more that a mere “neutral medium” of music; it stands as a particular work-of-art in its own right - a collaboration in creativity that involves many contributing artists in various and diverse ways. On vinyl LPs and digital CDs, it was (and is) still possible to find that long printed list of contributors. I don’t know of anything similar in the streaming format, which is a problem that needs fixing. People appreciate being acknowledged for their work, even if its only in “the small print.” In any case, “bravissimi” to everyone who contributed to this lovely Schubert recorded presentation.

I have paired with the Schubert recording, in the picture above, something very... different. During my time in high school, there was something in music called "New Wave." The implication was that it was the latest "wave" from the U.K., but these Irish boys and their band got lumped into the category. Do you recognize who they are?

In 2022, there are two, maybe three, generations that take U2 for granted. They've just always been around, it seems. In the past decade, people started to get a little fed up with them (like "Why is this U2 album on my iPhone?" etc. if you even remember that). This is understandable, of course. These guys are, after all, older than me. What we must not forget, however, is how remarkable it is that they have stayed together and stayed creative for so long. What a catalog of innovative recorded music over the course of 3+ decades! I don’t like all of it, but I like a surprising lot of it. My "U2 Faves" playlist on Spotify is huge. But I have been rediscovering the particular quality of their earliest albums, Boy, October, and War. There are hints of the signature sounds to come, of that virtuoso simplicity placed so perfectly by The Edge's guitar, of that expansive dramatic voice that made Bono the best male pop singer in a long time (and one of the best ever). Generally, I prefer the higher ranges of the vocal register in popular music; which means I prefer female vocalists. There are not that many men who can credibly sing "up there," although - thanks to the microphone - "falsetto" is a more accessible vocal technique for some singers. Bono stays mostly within his "natural" range; he doesn't overdo higher notes, but uses them only when nothing else will do. 

All in all, the Irish boys were still very young in these early albums. Edge starts a primitive form of rattling and humming in War. Bono's voice is developing into the convincing crooner he will become. In retrospect, early U2 sounds a lot like "New Wave" as I remember it in general. It's also quite good, with thoughtful if at times awkward lyrics. If you remember those days, you won't mind revisiting then. If you don't, you can educate yourself.😉

I didn't like the "New Wave" when it hit North American shores in the late70s/early 80s (I think I appreciate it a lot more today than I did at the time). In those days, I played mostly blues and rock on electric guitar, but the music I listened to was "Prog" - My friends and I particularly appreciated popular music that was way beyond our playing capacities (though I did eventually learn how to play Steve Howe's "Mood for a Day"... and have long forgotten how to play it). It was a special form of appreciation, I think, when you had some understanding of the inspiration, the energy, and the techniques of the music, but could also just be blown away by it, amazed by it. My headphones were full of the music of bands like ELP, Genesis, and Yes. Especially Yes. They had/have a kind of synthesis of rock and classical styles that sometimes goes over the top, but other times really works. By the way, this year marks the 50th anniversary of an album that was one of the definitive achievements of “Prog”: Yes’s epic masterpiece Close to the Edge. I will speak about that anniversary before the year ends. This album was a watershed not only for Prog as a genre, but for the whole future course of electronic recorded music. If you own a cheap electronic keyboard, let me tell you something: many of the colorful sounds that you can make on that keyboard with a simple presetting were laboriously invented by the creative blending of gigantic and unwieldy pieces of analog technology by these English lads fifty years ago. But even more importantly, I single out CttE because the music is beautiful.

Anything else? Well... shifting gears again, I want to shout out to Avril Lavigne, whose birthday was this week. She's 38 now. I already wrote about [click here] the twentieth anniversary of her terrific debut album Let Go. Still celebrating that! And I posted this on social media for her birthday, especially because I thought what she did here was fun. This could be called "the Twenty-Year Challenge."

Oh my, this musical journey has taken us from Schubert all the way to "Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, yeah!" The analogous variety and scope of beauty is as diverse as the differences in the universe of being itself: the differences are not in conflict with one another, but rather in harmony - just as a variety of flowers, shrubs, trees, and plants make up a forest or a garden. The “hierarchy of being” (and beauty) does not negate the unique qualities of different beings. There has never been anyone like Schubert. There is definitely no one like Avril.

I have also had a chance to catch up with what Avril is doing these days. She has moved away from the mellow look (and style) of her post-Lyme-Disease recovery album Head Above Water and has revived a different version of her mid 00s "punk-pop" look, complete with lots of leather, black boots, and orange streaks in her hair. She has been touring all over the place for her new album, which is entitled Love Sux. That doesn't sound very "encouraging," neither for love nor for the English language! (I'm laughing, actually.) Avril can go overboard in a number of directions, but her sense of humor, her feeling for the ironic, and her sincerity are very often in play. We must factor these into any effort to consider and appreciate what she’s trying to do.

At first glance, this album appears to be a set of mostly brief, loud, drum-and-guitar-driven, up-tempo songs in which Avril sings "eff you" to guys who have hurt her (and in one sense it is, quite literally, that). Drums and real guitars, I can go for that. They had begun to look like endangered species in pop music, where everything seems to be done by (often tedious) electronic tricks. The songs on this album are musically "catchy" (they stick easily in your mind, but pleasantly rather than annoyingly). They are not profound (nor are they intended to be). On closer inspection and listening, some of the songs are humorous, or are parodies on one's own or other people's dysfunctional behavior. Others express anger at what are, sadly, the stinky ways that so many men treat women in relationships. There are a couple of songs on another level, however, that have struck me. "Kiss Me Like the World is Ending" is a glowingly positive song where, once again, that implacable search breaks through for something that lasts forever, really forever. Again, something compelling in Avril’s vocalization takes it deeper than the words. The other song is "Avalanche," and it concerns me because I relate to the desperate feelings it expresses only too well: "Honestly, I can't shake it, shake it, shake it / Yeah, honestly, I can't take it / I say that I'm just fine, but I don't feel alright on the inside / I say that I'm okay, but I don't feel okay right now, no..." (that’s “nooo-ooo-hooo-woah”🎶).

I'm hoping this is a song based on past experience fighting the Lyme Disease dragon, and it may well be drawn from there. But it probably still comes back from time to time. So, Avril, just know that we hear you, sister. No shame, no surprises, we got your back, remember that. And you have my prayers.

Below is some digital portraiture of Avril, based on details from recent photographs and internet posts. She's one of the celebrities (I only work from images of ubiquitously public people, or - of course - myself) who is fun to present in this format of "digital sculpture" (which is what I'm inclined to call my attempts at these portraits) because she brings a lot of detail and color: all the hair and the highlights and the signature black eyeliner and the classic, prominent French-Canadian nose. I don't know if you notice this, but singers often have "prominent" noses. The nose is part of what makes the resonance of the voice, peeps.

In November, Avril goes to Japan for a week to perform five big concerts. They love her like crazy over there. She's like royalty in Japan. That week will be full like I can't imagine. It's going to be intense. Dear Avril, take care of yourself, please.🙏

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Goodbye Summer, Hello Fall!🌴🍁

The weather is beginning to change. Autumn is a mild, lovely, and long season around here. It has just begun, and the leaves are still green but you can feel Autumn’s arrival in the cooler air, and of course in the decrease of daylight hours.

Here are two digital art pictures I call “Goodbye Summer, Hello Fall.”

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Following Jesus Christ Changes the Way We See Reality

For Christians, baptism is the beginning of a new life; it is the event in our own history when Jesus Christ first “takes hold” of us in a decisive encounter with each of us as persons. Baptism unites us concretely with the death and resurrection of Christ, frees us from original sin and previous personal sins, and makes us children of the Father and heirs to the kingdom. 

Nevertheless, even after this great, foundational gift of new life in the Spirit, we Christians are still... kind of a mess. It’s all too easy to get “stuck” in this mess, and - even if we don’t abandon our faith and Christian identity - just muddle along, giving little attention to our baptismal vocation, keeping it buried beneath the multitude of distractions that pull us in every direction: our self-image, social status, work, money, ambitions, or whatever else we perceive to be our more immediate preoccupations and more urgent concerns.

Yet the God who gives himself to us in Jesus Christ wants us to “invite him in” to every aspect of our lives. He wants to change our lives.

We must remember Jesus, who is present in our lives now: remember him, stay with him, and open our hearts to the grace that comes to us through our relationship with him, our crucified and risen Lord who wants so much to be with each one of us. He has embraced our entire life on the cross, so that our whole humanity might be healed and transformed. The work of becoming conformed to his total self-giving death-and-resurrection continues throughout our lives, as we "take up our cross" (that life-giving cross) and follow him. Our life of discipleship will face many obstacles, and endure many burdens and hardships, but we must persevere in hope, with confidence that God is good, and that he carries us through it all in his love.

We certainly can't become obsessed with our own ideas and schemes of what is entailed in the "project" of making ourselves perfectGod knows all the particular and inexpressibly peculiar ways we need to be healed and changed. He is our Father, who loves us far more dearly and intimately than we love ourselves. He has given so much, given totally - he has given us his Eternal Son - and he loves us immensely. He wants us to “open up” our freedom and let ourselves be loved by him. 

Our path of growth is through cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit, through prayer, spiritual guidance, and the powerful grace of the sacraments - especially frequent encounters with Jesus who heals and strengthens us through Confession and gives us himself, substantially, in the Eucharist. We also have companions on this journey: brothers and sisters we are called to love and encourage, and from whom we also receive love and solidarity, and experience the mercy of the embrace of Christ through sharing the needs and challenges, the sorrows and joys of our lives

Together, we will find the Holy Spirit stirring us to a greater compassion, a courage, a greater awareness of our own need to see the face of Jesus and love him in the poor and marginalized, the suffering and burdened, the lost, forgotten, violated, discouraged, lonely people who are everywhere in this poor world. They hunger for love, for food, for shelter, for a sense of purpose, for respect as human persons, for understanding, for education, for so many human things, but in all these things they hunger for God. In Christ, we share that hunger. The Holy Spirit engenders and fosters the compassion that sends us forth (in countless different ways) as missionaries of mercy, “workers of mercy” who give and receive mercy in ways beyond anything we would have imagined in our own thoughts.

Living our Christian vocation slowly changes the way we see reality; it is a life given to us that empowers us to recognize the presence of our loving God in every circumstance. We change more profoundly when we begin to recognize, concretely, that the gift of God in Jesus Christ is the heart of all reality, the meaning and value of everything. In recognizing him, we begin to want him and to love him more than our foibles and insecurities and our anxious attachment to ourselves and our own limited perspective.

In Christ we discover the reality of belonging to God, participating in his infinite life even now as we journey toward our fulfillment as adopted sons and daughters of the Father and heirs to his Kingdom of unending love. We also become more aware of the preciousness of every moment of life, more filled with passion for living vividly and joyfully all that is good, with a greater desire to seek the truth of all things, more patience and peace even in enduring the deepest wounds of sorrow and pains of suffering - which we know serve God’s mysterious purposes by giving us a share in Jesus's sufferings, but which do not thereby cease to be deep and painful and difficult.

In being Christians, we do not cease to be human. On the contrary, in following Jesus Christ we become more truly and fully human.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Maria is “On Her Feet”

I think we can officially declare these as “steps”!

Maria is a champion crawler, which is still her preferred way of getting around (although that may change by the time you read this). The other day I was finally able to get a few video clips of her on her feet.

Hooray for Maria!☺️🌟 She’ll be running all over the place before we know it!

There should be a video link below.🙂 See for yourselves:

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Vocation of Saint Matthew

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him” (Matthew 9:9).

This account of Matthew’s conversion and apostolic vocation from Matthew’s own gospel is presented in similar words in Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27 (except they give “Levi” as his name, but clearly it was the same man). Notwithstanding their brevity, these references to Matthew’s vocation are presented in a way that reveals the depths of his conversion.

The first thing that is clear is that Matthew was a public sinner in the judgment of his own people. He was an official within the complicated and corrupt bureaucracy that the Roman Empire had imposed upon Galilee by means of the “client state” of the tetrarch Herod Antipas. He was a representative of Roman imperial power, and he wielded this power in Capernaum on behalf of a puppet king installed by
this foreign government. He also used it to his own advantage.

Why would anyone in Israel want to be a tax collector? The compensation for being ritually cut off and generally hated by the people was the accumulation of significant wealth. Matthew was officially responsible for providing the government with a fixed sum of money periodically from his region. In order to acquire this sum, however, he was free to set his own tax fees, collecting as much as he could get from the people. The tax collector’s position was virtually defined as the opportunity to practice unlimited graft and extortion. Above and beyond the required government sum and a fair wage for his own efforts, the tax collector used the force at his disposal to rob the population and enrich himself.

Matthew was, in fact, a thief and a criminal.

Then Jesus saw him. Jesus looked at the Mafia boss of Capernaum, who was in his “business office” (so to speak) doing his sordid work of squeezing people for money and keeping records of these “transactions.” A tax collector in Galilee (unlike the fishermen who followed Jesus) would have been literate in both Aramaic and Greek.

Jesus saw Matthew, the person, and loved that person. No doubt he also perceived that after Matthew ceased keeping records of his own extortion racket, he could begin an altogether different sort of record keeping. He could record the words and deeds of the Teacher in writing, and see that they were passed on.

Jesus saw Matthew and spoke to him: “Follow me.” Matthew had probably heard of Jesus from the people, and may have even watched his ministry. Before this moment, however, he had not conceived any hope that his life could be different.

The encounter with Jesus in this moment changed everything.

Matthew’s response was simple but had rich implications. Our text says he “got up” and followed. The Greek term used here, however, is the same word used to express Jesus’s “rising” from the dead. The power of Jesus’s gaze and his words had a miraculous effect, achieving something even more amazing than when he later “raised” Lazarus from the tomb. Jesus “raised” Matthew from the deeper deadness of sin, and invited him to become his companion. So also Jesus looks upon each one of us, and calls us to
do the same.


The picture above is my own digitally artistic rendering of Matthew the Apostle, rendered from a base of a black-and-white photograph of a statue. It was a good project for me on this day.

But the limits of my own poor artistry, in whatever media, are also clear, because we can’t have “Saint Matthew’s Day” without gazing at the work of The. Incomparable. CARAVAGGIO! This painting below (c. 1600) of “The Call of Saint Matthew” changed the course of the history of Western religious art.

No one ever painted like this before. Or after, for that matter (although many have tried). Light and shadow (and their contrasts) display their powerful illustrative potential in this work. Artists continue to “learn lessons” from Caravaggio.

And I remember a time when the original was just a brisk walk away from where I lived.

In the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, I fed many many 200 Lira coins into the machine that turned the lights on for two minutes in that dark corner chapel where this painting makes its home. Remember the 200 Lira coin? I lived in Italy in the ‘90s, long before the “Euro” replaced all those peculiar, fun, and sometimes inconvenient and complicated old currencies of European countries. 

Old folks like us remember…😉

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Korea Yesterday and Today: Martyrs, Heroes, and Challenges

On this feast day of the 103 Korean Martyrs canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1984, I want to draw attention to the beautiful ancient land of Korea (and also refer to my column in Magnificat for the month of October 2022). Today is an important day for the Korean Catholic Church, which has a significant and growing presence in Korean society today (in South Korea, Catholics make up 11% of the population).

The Korean peninsula is homeland to a great distinguished people with a united history and culture for more than a millennium. It was Koreans themselves who first acquired the Chinese writings of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, studied them on their own, and then approached priests in Beijing in 1784 and asked to be baptized. These lay people – led by Blessed Paul Yun Ji-chung – began sharing the Gospel with others in Korea, so that by the time the first Catholic priest arrived from Beijing a few years later, there were already 4,000 converts! The new church endured a series of persecutions beginning in 1803, in which thousands of Catholics gave their lives for their faith.

Two groups of Korean martyrs have been documented by name and raised to the honors of the altar. Today we celebrate the group of 103 martyrs from the anti-Catholic persecutions of the middle of the 19th century, including the first native Korean Catholic priest, Saint Andrew Kim Taegon, and a leading lay person, Saint Paul Chong Ha-sang (who was himself the son of one of the original lay Catholics who were martyred in the previous generation). There is also a second group that represents Korea's earliest Christian community: they are 124 martyrs (including Blessed Paul Yun Ji-chung, mentioned above, and Blessed Augustine Jeong Yak-jong, the father of Saint Paul Chong), who were beatified by Pope Francis in 2014.

Korea continues to endure the consequences of their national tragedy in the 20th century, which began with the Japanese conquest and colonization in 1910. On August 8, 1945, the Soviet Union entered the Pacific Theater of World War II with a massive invasion of Manchuria. One and a half million Soviet troops swept down from Siberia into Japanese held territories before the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. They entered the northern regions of the Korean peninsula and occupied the area after Japan's surrender, and after agreeing with the United States to "divide" the administration of newly liberated Korea at the 38th parallel (latitude, north of the equator).

There is more about modern Korean history in the article below. While present-day "North Korea" has no Catholic population, the Church has grown remarkably in "South Korea," gaining many contemporary converts who have played important roles in the complex public life in the South. I have written about the conversion of South Korea's first Catholic President, whose full name was Thomas More Kim Dae-jung. The whole story of "D. J. Kim" is a long one, and not lacking in heroism and inspiration in itself.

As always, I only tell the beginning of the story here. During and after my work on this article, I read the entire 1000+ page memoir of D.J. Kim (who died in 2008), which was recently translated with the title Conscience in Action. It is very long, and requires some understanding of the complex history of post-war South Korea. It's not the first book I would recommend to someone who is not already familiar with Korea, its history, and its recent crises. For me, however, reading five years into my still-immersive East Asian Studies Project, D.J. Kim's memoir was a fascinating resource, shedding much light on the significance of Korea today, and allowing me to hear in his own words the dramatic story of the man who has been called "the Asian Nelson Mandela," who was a devout Catholic democratic political activist, prisoner under a repressive South Korean dictatorship, freely elected President at the age of 75, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts to draw North Korea into a constructive relationship through prudent and practical interactions. He cannot be blamed for the fact that his efforts did not bear immediate enduring fruit.

Korea is historically, ethnically, and linguistically one country, one people. The "demilitarized zone" (DMZ) at more-or-less the 38th parallel remains like a kind of 21st century "Berlin Wall." North of it are Koreans who suffer in poverty under the domination of a reckless totalitarian State, born from Soviet Communism and now a criminal, bizarre, militarized regime with increasingly dangerous nuclear weapons and enigmatic intentions. In the South, Koreans live with democratic institutions and political freedoms, great wealth, information technology and their own multimedia "brand" of pop culture that is influencing the whole world, but also with many facets of a sterile secularism learned from the West.

Korea is a dramatic and important place, sure to be prominent in the future of the 21st century. But more on that another time. Here below is the article on Kim Dae-jung appearing in October 2022 Magnificat.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Happy Janaro Day 2022!😉

Once again it’s "Janaro Day"! Buona Festa di “santo patrono” della nostra famiglia!
Today is the Feast Day of the Original Janaro, Saint Januarius, the fourth century bishop and martyr. I don’t really know anything in the way of cold hard facts that would prove this assertion, but I decided years ago to initiate the “legend” that he is, somehow, related to us. I base this on the regional traditions of Benevento and Naples (from which many of my ancestors came). He could be an ancient “cugino” (cousin). Why not just run with it?

Today, of course, he is known as San Gennaro, but our family name ("Janaro" with the "J") may be a variant in old Neapolitan dialect of the name "Januarius." There is probably at least some common connection between the names. My great uncle Gerry (the oldest Janaro I knew personally, God rest his soul) insisted that our name was not a spelling mistake made by some overworked Anglo-American clerk at Ellis Island. In fact, the four Janaro brothers came to the U.S.A. in the 1880s, before the great Italo-American migrations at the end of the century. 

Back then, Ellis Island was still a naval fort, and the unified federal immigration system didn’t yet exist. Moreover, the Janaros were professional artisans (tailors and “interior decorators”) who had some sort of "pre-approved" immigration status. In any case, they immigrated in (relative) style, sailing across the Atlantic in second class cabins, with all the authorizations and paperwork completed before the ship docked in Manhattan. (Some of my immigrant ancestors had rough experiences coming over, but not the Janaros).

In any case, “Janaro” is an antiquated spelling drawn from the cross-cultural, pre-standardized, peculiar regional dialect of Naples. More importantly, the etymology of both “Janaro” and “Januarius” traces back to 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).

Perhaps the ancient Janaro ancestors were “gate-keepers,” though my life as a Janaro has not been characterized by mastery over any “gates.” I have spent a lot of time trying to convince various modern gate-keepers to admit me into the realms they guard. Occasionally I have been successful. Perhaps Saint Januarius has assisted me and our family to obtain admittance to places we really needed to enter. For this, I am grateful, especially today.

All things considered, and based on these indicators, hypotheses, and some good-old-fashioned stretching, I feel I can claim him as the patron saint of the Janaro Clan. Saint Januarius (San Gennaro), pray for us all.

[The image above is a detail from a larger work, Il martirio di San Gennaro (15th c.) by Neri di Bicci.]

I celebrated today’s feast by spending some quality time with the youngest person among us (thus far) to inherit the Janaro name, our rapidly growing granddaughter Maria.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Responsibility to be Fulfilled

Words for our time, and all times. (And the JJ “avatar” says “👍” but don’t let that distract you.) 

Saturday, September 17, 2022

"The Great River of Mercy"

"Let us allow God to surprise us. He never tires of throwing open the doors of his heart and repeats that he loves us and wants to share his love with us. The Church feels the urgent need to proclaim God’s mercy. Her life is authentic and credible only when she becomes a convincing herald of mercy. She knows that her primary task, especially at a moment full of great hopes and signs of contradiction, is to introduce everyone to the great mystery of God’s mercy by contemplating the face of Christ. The Church is called above all to be a credible witness to mercy, professing it and living it as the core of the revelation of Jesus Christ. From the heart of the Trinity, from the depths of the mystery of God, the great river of mercy wells up and overflows unceasingly. It is a spring that will never run dry, no matter how many people approach it. Every time someone is in need, he or she can approach it, because the mercy of God never ends. The profundity of the mystery surrounding it is as inexhaustible as the richness that springs up from it" (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus 25).

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

“God Greatly Exalted Him”

September 15: The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
~Philippians 2:6-11
Jesus is exalted "in a total gift of himself on the Cross, and on the Cross itself—the supreme act of love—he is glorified because love is the true glory, the divine glory" (Benedict XVI). [Painting from “Crucifix” series by William Congdon.]

Friday, September 9, 2022

Queen Elizabeth II, Rest in Peace

Queen Elizabeth II has died at the age of 96, three months after the celebration of her “Platinum Jubilee” marking an extraordinary 70 years as constitutional monarch of the United Kingdom, as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and ten smaller independent nations formerly of the British empire that still retain the British monarch as Head of State.

This has struck me in a personal way. Everyone from my generation knows "the Queen" (no further specification was necessary). English speaking peoples in particular - regardless of whether or not they were her "subjects" - were aware of her as a kind of cultural institution. I remember her from my childhood. There are very few established public figures from my childhood that are still alive today. But the Queen and her royal family have lived very much "on the stage" of the latter half of the 20th century and the 21st century thus far. She was a consistent presence in everything from global politics to gossip. She was "around" and "in the background," like a mountain. As the years went by, she didn't seem to change very much. So many things were changing, wildly changing, in my younger days, but the Queen remained statuesque, a living "monarch" who was pictured on Canadian money and associated with so many English traditions that were familiar to all of us. We knew that she didn't have any "real power" and yet somehow she "mattered" in the U.K., and that sense echoed throughout the English-speaking world.

The "British Invasion" of popular culture in North America was (and remains) a formative influence for anyone who listened to music or watched television in my lifetime. I have never considered myself an "Anglophile" - I have no ethnic connection with the British, and their stiff-upper-lip ways are decidedly different from my own. But the English language does create a certain kind of common bond. The waves of British cultural influence have affected that bond during my life. It wasn't only the Beatles and all the subsequent music; it was also Shakespeare on television, and the quality of British actors in various dramas and comedies that were an inseparable part of the Anglo-American experience (from Brideshead Revisited to Fawlty Towers). And Her Majesty the Queen was always on the horizon.

In 1981, I watched the wedding of Prince Charles to "Lady Diana Spencer" on television, because back then there weren’t so many live broadcasts of internationally significant events, much less something as colorful and unusual as a royal wedding. I knew some things about Prince Charles too. I knew that "someday" he would be King, though I expected it to happen much sooner than 41 years into the future. (I also knew that Charles played the cello, which interested me because I also played the cello. Little details about the royals - not anything shocking, in those days - were always popping up in magazines and such.) Charles was "preparing" to be King in the 1970s, then in the 1980s, and then everything fell apart with Princess Diana and it began to appear that it would be better for Charles live out his life quietly in some corner and never become King. Into the 21st century, Prince William entered the scene with Kate Middleton, and Williams’s father seemed more or less on the shelf, a retired heir, while the Queen looked like she would just go on forever. Now, suddenly, in 2022, she is gone from this world, and he is King Charles III.

May God grant eternal rest to Queen Elizabeth II. Now, for the first time in my lifetime, the British are once again singing, “God Save the King.” In the whirlwind of fresh turmoil that seems inevitable to me in the near future, the King is not the only one who will have to grapple with new and difficult challenges. The English, for the moment, are holding back their worries over the future of their monarchy, but in the long run it’s hard to envision how that future might unfold.

I can’t say it’s the highest on the list of my worries. After all, my country declared independence from the British monarchy 246 years ago. Part of what shapes the imagination of people in the United States of America is that we don’t have any kings or queens here. Right? As a native citizen of the U.S.A., I’m expected to view any form of monarchy as antiquated at best and tyrannical at worst. But I have studied too much history to dismiss the potential for monarchy - in certain nations - to be a constructive, organic element among interrelated political institutions that serve the common good of persons in society. For example, many democratic countries today have some kind of more-or-less symbolic "Head of State," who is not involved in the political or legislative process, but who serves as a "ceremonial" leader: someone who presides over national celebrations, bestows honors, receives diplomats, and represents "national unity" from a perspective "above" the often-contentious political fray. 

This public figure is often an "elder statesman" of some wisdom and good judgment who does not have effective political power to initiate government action, or to make, veto, or enforce laws, but who does have some measure of "soft power" as master of ceremonies, ambassador-at-large, mediator, advisor, and point of reference for continuity in the midst of changes in the actual government. He or she may exercise a formal constitutional role in appointing ministers and approving legislation, but the constitution itself prevents him or her from changing decisions of the democratically elected legislature. 

This office is effectively the equivalent of a "constitutional monarch," and in a Republic is often styled as "President" (e.g., the "President of Italy" is one example that comes to my mind). Government institutions vary in particulars from one nation to another, but this type of ceremonial/symbolic presidency is particularly suited to nations that are structured according to the "Westminster Model" of parliamentary democracy (which is, of course, the British model in its broad elements), in which the leader of the majority political party - or governing coalition - in Parliament is the de facto head of government, with the title of "Prime Minister." In such a system, the quasi-monarchical "President" is elected directly or indirectly for a long - though usually not unlimited - term of office. Such Presidents serve as the custodians of the dignity of public life in their countries, and in relation to other countries.

It is not difficult for new nations to design an office of this kind, and provide for a ceremonial Head of State who serves a definite term in this “presidential office” practicing the valuable art of “political diplomacy” as his or her contribution to building up the common good. But the particular type of hereditary monarchy that acquired its distinctive style in medieval Europe is by its very nature an institution with centuries of heritage, and if it exists in any form today in some European countries it is because it has retained consistent popular approbation.

Generally, kings and queens in a constitutional monarchy fulfill many of the roles of "Presidents" described above. The hereditary feature, however, allows a royal family to also serve as a vital link to the past, the achievements of previous epochs, and the historic and natural beauty of the land itself where the citizens dwell.

It’s hard to imagine how a new nation could set up a useful hereditary monarchy “from scratch” in the world today. The rituals, customs, and popular deference that give such monarchies the supportive context for carrying out their national roles are not things that can be manufactured. They must emerge from many generations of history, and they endure by balancing consistency with flexibility that allows them to adapt in the face of historic changes. But if a country already has an ancient monarchy that has adapted itself to remain vital within the participatory and representative democracies of our time, I think they would lose an important component of their national life and cultural patrimony by simply getting rid of it.

The British monarchy has had its ups and downs over the course of more than a millennium, to say the least. Its greatest tragedy remains its role five centuries ago in the violent separation of Anglican Christianity from the Catholic Church shepherded by Christ through the Successor of Saint Peter. Ironically, while distancing itself from Christ's sacramental presence in the Catholic Church, the British monarchy preserved (but also to some extent “petrified”) many of the outward forms of monarchical ritual, solemnity, and pageantry from the Middle Ages. It is hard to see much real value in these unique features of the British monarchy except insofar as they remain echoes of the Catholic people who once recognized their significance. Today, of course, the U.K. is a society of many ethnicities and diverse religions. It is also a troubled and divided society. At the same time, the Catholic Church has been undergoing a small but persistent renewal ever since the conversion of the great Saint John Henry Newman in the mid-19th century. We must continue to hope that the monarchy will set itself aright once again, at least regarding its claim to “rule over” (even symbolically) the Anglican communion as England’s official, “national form” of Christianity. A secularized Britian with a monarchy entering into a period of lower profile may create conditions in which this long and necessary process of healing and reconciliation can flourish and grow in new ways. May Jesus and His Holy Mother grant that it be so.

Queen Elizabeth II was probably “existentially ignorant” of the real meaning of the destructive rupture that took place when her predecessors imposed (sometimes brutally) upon their realms and peoples a separation from the fullness of Catholic unity in the 16th century. She was also hindered by other limitations of perspective, and yet she accomplished much that was admirable in her long reign. The fact that the British monarchy has survived to 2022 (and has a chance at continuing to be valuable in the future) owes much to the long years of dignity, persistence, and dedication that Queen Elizabeth brought to her seven decades of service in the midst of so many changes and so much immense material growth as well as dizzying upheaval.

The two pictures below give us a sense of how remarkable and how historically extensive the quiet work of the Queen was during her 70-year reign. As Queen, Elizabeth II was served by no less than 15 Prime Ministers. In the picture on the right, we have the last public photograph of the Queen, who formally received the newest British Prime Minister Liz Truss on September 6 at Balmoral Castle (two days before her death). In the picture on the left, young Queen Elizabeth greets her first Prime Minister in 1952. His name was Winston Churchill.