Sunday, January 29, 2023

Twelve YEARS of “Never Giving Up”!

This Blog appears to be aptly titled: Never Give Up is now 12 years old, and it shows no signs of… y’know, “giving up.” Why? Am I really that crazy? 

My Blog is still going strong, even though the “hits” on individual articles have plummeted to discouragingly low levels. (Although I don’t really know what those numbers signify.) Sometimes I feel like I’m “The Last Blogger.” I do see Blogs out there, but often their most recent posts are, like, from 2018. I’m not putting anybody down; in fact it’s perfectly reasonable. I wonder, however, how many current Blogs there are out there that have posted 200+ days every year for the past 12 years. And every post is still in the archives! It’s also backed up on PDF files, and a couple of other formats. I hope it will thus survive any Internet disasters that might come along, and remain accessible in some form in the future.

Right now, I probably have enough readers to put in a small classroom… for a seminar. I probably never had much more than that for most of my articles and posts. Sometimes all they get is an “experimental” (i.e. strange) piece of “digital art.” Other times they get pictures of a cute baby. But there is a fair bit of substantial (if rough) writing, and if I repeat the same themes over and over, it’s because I myself need to revisit and remember them again and again. 

There is some material here that should be polished up and put into a more high profile publication. At this stage, I would need technical and editorial assistance to make that happen, and I have no way to hire anybody. It would have to be a labor of love for them (as it is for me)—and I mean the kind of love that looks like this: $0.00 per hour/day/week/month/etc.

I had a couple of Blogs prior to this one. I think I started my first Blog in 2006, when bloggery was already well-established. I was still teaching, and I tried to use it as a potential “new media” forum for interacting with my students. Didn’t have much success with that.πŸ€ͺ In fact—dear former students, if you happen to be reading—it was one instance in which I deserved all the eye-rolls you gave me or at least wanted to give me (and it wasn’t the only instance, but it was one that I remember). Although I did offer chances for extra credit. People always want extra credit, right?πŸ˜‰

Around the same time, I joined that “Facebook” thingy. But it took me a few years to warm up to using social media. After my book Never Give Up: My Life and God’s Mercy was published in 2010, I began to do more stuff on the Internet. I asked my peeps on Facebook if they would be interested in me doing a Blog and of course there were plenty of people who said, “YES!” (There may have been plenty of others who thought, “No,” but they weren’t gonna post that in the comments.)

Thus I became a “blogger” during what may have been peak season of Blog-dom. Everyone had a Blog. Some Blogs had huge followings and their authors were like rock stars in the world of new media. But then along came Twitter and Instagram and TikTok, turning everyone into producers (and consumers) of short, random, flashy multimedia “shows.” The last decade saw the evolution and extension of audiovisual interactive media on a scale beyond anything we could have imagined in 2011 (well, the folks with webcams making their own funky little videos on YouTube were ahead of the curve)Then, of course, screens shrunk to the size of cell phones even as they exploded with dazzling and distracting (or “engaging”) new kinds of content, and everyone has gadgets with tools to produce and/or share audiovisual “splashes” to the whole world. #️⃣HashtagGlobalVillage #️⃣HashtagNOISYGlobalVillage. Ah, McLuhan saw it all coming 60 years ago. He proclaimed it. He warned us about it.

Meanwhile, blogging is dying. A hangover from the old “Gutenberg Galaxy.” Electronic publishing and distribution have certainly revitalized the printed word (or, rather, the virtually printed word). Books, flyers, newsletters are ubiquitous. The “printed word”—precisely because it is NOT printed—has discovered an unimaginable plasticity. The written word has never been bigger. It’s like a supernova, the last glory of a dying star. The more graphically malleable printed words become, the more they draw on the visual powers of the image. Might we even say, the more they merge with the image?

I’m not saying this is good or bad. I’m just trying to understand what’s happening.

Words are far from “dead,” of course. The written word will endure in all that is essential to it. Attentive writing (and attentive reading) will be rare, but then again that has always been the case. Most of the printed words of the Gutenberg epoch were not really necessary. The essential words will remain legible, and perhaps they may be crafted as they once were, with distinctive visual beauty (even new forms of beauty that will enrich the reading experience). Moreover, audio technology (think of audiobooks, podcasts, recorded lectures, etc.) has revitalized and rendered accessible in new ways the beauty of the sound of words and the possibilities for listening to the spoken word.

Maybe I should do a podcast?

Anyway, here is page one, January 29, 2011. Whatever form communication takes, it will never cease to be the gesture that Luigi Giussani speaks of here. And I will continue to pray for “more light and more strength.”


Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Foundational Realism of Saint Thomas Aquinas

No, this is not a philosophy paper. I just want to say “Happy Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas!” I often celebrate the feasts of the great theologians and philosophers by “spending time” with their writings. I have spent lots of time in my life with Saint Thomas. I was educated as a lay student at the Dominican Pontifical Faculty in Washington D.C. (one of their first lay students, back in the mid-1980s). I have published work that deals extensively with Aquinas, and he has laid the “foundations and scaffolding” of the edifice (such as it is) of my extensive study of various modern thinkers. Many of them identify themselves as “Thomists,” among whom Jacques Maritain holds a special place, not only in my intellectual development and published work, but also in my “heart.” 

I remember being four or five years old and my mother was folding the laundry and talking about the reading she was doing that was opening up her mind (and my mother had a huge, ardent, precise, and magnanimous mind). I have images in my memory from that conversation (and perhaps others): there were the two Popes (John XXIII and Paul VI) and the Council and somebody who had influenced her deeply but whose writings were confusing (that would have been the remarkable Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) but then a French Peasant who was a philosopher “corrected” her from going in the direction of the wild ideas that were brewing in 1960s “Teilhardism”… and, she was just learning so much. She radiated her still-youthful enthusiasm for truth and understanding.

And the four-year-old JJ was just imaging a French farmer-philosopher and whatever else and feeling that the being Catholic and following the Church was not a narrow thing but an immense adventure of human reason and faith that embraced everything. Later I started noticing that wise old face of Jacques Maritain staring at me from the bookshelf on the spine of “The Peasant of the Garonne.” It was the radical beginning of my own intellectual vocation, and for many years (from childhood to age 58) it was an ongoing work that I shared with my brilliant mother. How grateful I am to her. How much I miss her.

Years later I would study Maritain, dedicate several chapters of a book to his realist epistemology, and write his and Raissa Maritain’s conversion story. He is one of the great figures of 20th century Catholic philosophy whose influence has been pervasive in the articulation of post-conciliar Church teaching (especially through Paul VI but also John Paul II) even if his person and work have been largely forgotten… at least in this era. The great Jacques Maritain will certainly be read in the future. He has much wisdom to share with emerging new civilizations that embrace the authentic dignity of the human person and an integral humanism—a “theocentric humanism” that Maritain called the Humanism of the Incarnation.

I also studied and wrote about two very different 20th century Catholic figures who both incorporated Aquinas into their original proposals for the renewal of Catholic faith. My STL dissertation on Karl Rahner’s “supernatural existential” was the fruit of years of wrestling with the whole scope of the thought of this singularly brilliant Jesuit theologian. Rahner’s complex efforts to bring Aquinas into dialogue with elements of Kantian, Hegelian, and Heideggerian thought are often dazzling and ingenious, although in my opinion (and others too) ultimately unconvincing. But Rahner’s expositions and inquiries move in many directions and engage many questions in provoking and fruitful ways. My thesis argued that Rahner ultimately went “too far” in the development of his theory of the “supernatural existential,” and in fact changed his original proposal. It’s an extensive study that I really should scan and make accessible online… if I can find my original copy! There is a copy safely bound and shelved in the Dominican College Library, so if necessary I can just make a trip there and scan it from the shelf. It still occasionally pops up in footnotes in other people’s articles and books, so maybe I should put it on the Academia website.

The other great figure of the contemporary Church that I continue to study, who recognized the realism of Aquinas as vital to his own immensely fruitful evangelical witness, is—of course—Luigi Giussani. That work pops up in many places, including this blog, and the paper from my 1998 lecture series “Man in the Presence of Mystery” is accessible online (just go HERE).

But enough for now. The day is nearly over! I actually spent some time revisiting Chesterton’s famous little book on Saint Thomas. These days, when I read Chesterton, I can’t help literally laughing out loud, particularly when he makes gratuitous exaggerated statements off-the-cuff, with a twinkle in his eye, or goes off rambling on a tangent. There is less of that in his book on Thomas (though it’s not absent, and I had plenty of belly laughs today). Chesterton can get down to the point with a flair and brilliance and conciseness that evokes conviction. And let me assure you, the passages in Chesterton that annoy you at the age of 20 or 30 will be hilarious when you read them at age 60. G. K. Chesterton didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was a magnanimous man, and ultimately he is funny because reality itself is funny, life is funny. Thomas Aquinas’s life has more than a few “funny moments” especially when you look at them within the perspective of God’s plan for this unique holy patient brilliant saint whose intellectual charism was destined to be a permanent gift to the Church and to humanity. Yes, there is humor to be found in any good story. Humor, one might say, is the little sister of Beauty.

I will leave you with a quotation from GKC about Aquinas’s realism that is not so much humorous as it is “getting to the point” with gallantry:

“The mind is not merely receptive, in the sense that it absorbs sensations like so much blotting-paper; on that sort of softness has been based all that cowardly materialism, which conceives man as wholly servile to his environment. On the other hand, the mind is not purely creative, in the sense that it paints pictures on the windows and then mistakes them for a landscape outside. But the mind is active, and its activity consists in following, so far as the will chooses to follow, the light outside that does really shine upon real landscapes. That is what gives the indefinably virile and even adventurous quality to this view of life; as compared with that which holds that material inferences pour in upon an utterly helpless mind, or that which holds that psychological influences pour out and create an entirely baseless phantasmagoria. In other words, the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work; reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting is a sort of marriage. Indeed it is very truly a marriage, because it is fruitful; the only philosophy now in the world that really is fruitful. It produces practical results, precisely because it is the combination of an adventurous mind and a strange fact.” (G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, chapter VIII).

Thursday, January 26, 2023

One More “Selfie”-Examination

I realize that we have seen enough of my face this month, but I can’t resist one more comparison photo. Recently I came across an old plastic faculty ID card from the early 2000s with a worn out and scratchy picture of me at probably 41 or 42 years of age.

So I set about “restoring” it with some AI filters. We all know that ID photos are famously unflattering, but the strained, weary, hollowed-out look of the man in this picture from two decades ago is not far off the mark. In those strange days, I was somewhere in the midst of debilitating illness and treatments that might have helped but were not much fun.

Does the current 2023 picture look “better”? I have been a bit run down lately, but generally speaking I have felt better overall the past decade (2013-2023) than I did in the period prior to it (2003-2013). Twenty years, in any case, brings a lot of changes.

I will say that if I had not “retired” from classroom teaching and administrative duties in 2008, there may never have been a picture from 2023. I am grateful that I got to live those days, and for whatever days remain ahead. May God grant me the grace to live them well.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Is There More Love and Kindness in Today’s World?

I don’t think there is any way to “measure” love and kindness in a way that could answer the question of the title of this essay. In any case, it’s not a question that I know how to answer.

There are, however, some ways of taking up this question that might appear to lead us to an answer, but which ultimately prove to be reductive and inadequate. For example, sometimes our silly, overindulgent, comfort-saturated uber-affluent society fancies that “we” (and here we presume to speak for the whole human race) are all growing closer to one another—that we are learning to understand and celebrate everyone’s self-expression, and moving toward a more harmonious and unified life in our global village, and even a more authentic and inclusive “spirituality.” Overall, we’d like to feel good about ourselves in this respect.

Never mind for the moment that there’s a gruesome war going on which appears to be growing beyond anyone’s control, and that in many other conflicted parts of the world, nations are arming themselves to the teeth. The world, in fact, is becoming an ever more scary place, even if there are many sincere efforts to humanize the explosion of technology that is “bringing us closer together” whether we like it or not. We live in dramatic and dangerous times, in which many of us suffer from interior afflictions—often without realizing it—as we face unprecedentedly intense pressure and potential conflict in our daily affairs.

There’s not much tranquility in our real lives. We live in conditions of overextended activity, distraction, and rootless hyper-mobility; and we regard one another with incomprehension and mutual suspicion, and with a strained vigilance for potential conflicts. These circumstances tend to complicate the mood of feathery optimism that we sometimes cultivate in our social milieu. Our subconscious defensiveness, cloaked under the pretense of “progress,” includes the promulgation of a few “new commandments” (which, when rightly understood, are valid in themselves): “Don’t judge people! Don’t condemn others! Be kind! Be tolerant!

Here we even invoke the teaching of Jesus: “Do not judge” (Matthew 7:1).

The problem comes when these legitimate maxims—originally rooted in confidence in God’s providence and a respect for human dignity, and inspired by evangelical love—degenerate into pretexts for defining our human interactions evasively, in ways that precisely fall short of love. This happens when we say “don't judge" but what we really mean is “remain neutral, uncommitted, unconcerned about the real truth and happiness of another person." We wish in our minds to subtly dehumanize the other person, and pretend that their freedom is inconsequential and their choices therefore cannot weigh upon themselves or hurt us. We are, in fact, afraid to love.

We are afraid to take the risk of grappling with the provocation of a real human relationship with a person who is different from us, or who challenges us by their vulnerability—a person who needs help from us, but who also is a need for the Infinite Mystery, a fullness we cannot give them or ourselves. 

And when we talk about "tolerance" and “inclusiveness” what we often really mean is that we want to define in distinctive (and distancing) categories people who are different from us in ways that make us feel uncomfortable, or whose actions and flaws we don’t understand, or whose suffering is beyond our capacity to resolve or empathize with. “Tolerance” can be a wall between people that they agree to build so that they can be protected from one another. Here again there is no room for love to grow, and there is the danger that ultimately we won’t care about anybody beyond ourselves and/or our own group.

This is the disease that festers beneath our pretenses of comfortable optimism. Under the disguise of superficial sentimental expressions of mutual affirmation, we are growing more alone, more isolated from one another.

But Jesus says that instead of judging and condemning one another we must love one another, give of ourselves to one another, forgive one another. This has never been easy, and in today's world it is in some ways harder than ever. Our drift toward isolation and anxiety is not entirely our fault. But we must not kid ourselves that our human relationships are healthy and secure, much less that our society had found the “key” to living together in peace, harmony, and enduring happiness for everyone.

We are still at the threshold of an emerging "new epoch" dominated by power, and we must endure all the tumultuous intensity of its unprecedented experiments in "stretching" the capacities of human persons and environments. Finding ourselves in this bewildering and conflicted ambient, many of us are confused about our own identity, afflicted by trauma, and desperate to protect ourselves.

God alone judges us, and perhaps we can better appreciate this as a blessing. Even as the Lord sees us entirely and scrutinizes our hidden faults, he also knows all the complex circumstances that constrain us and that can diminish somewhat (and even to a significant degree) our culpability.

This brave new world, with its unprecedented and ongoing multiplication of so many kinds of power, smashes and breaks people in the places where they are vulnerable. It's a world of constant mental strain, and those who cannot keep up with the pace of its relentless, absorbing expansion of forces—or at least manage the stress—must shift through the wreckage it leaves behind in themselves.

These are traumatic times. Not surprisingly, many of us are traumatized. Naturally, we are trying to protect ourselves, and we seek out various forms of isolation, motivated by a combination of fear and the instinct for survival.

A few of us can try to hold on strictly by ourselves; we are the intellectuals who analyze everything and commit to nothing. More often, we are isolated "together" behind the fortress walls of our tribes—our illusory substitutes for commitment and community—bound together by violence and fear and the desire to make war on others.

But the light of the Gospel shines even in times like these. The Gospel addresses our whole humanity, and its power not only brings eternal life but also offers the best hope of subordinating the vast scope of our power to the wisdom of an integral humanism and a deeper awareness of the dignity of human persons called (and enabled by the Holy Spirit) to live together as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.

Jesus says "stop judging" and "stop condemning," but at the same time he says, "Give..." which is akin to the exhortation to love, to suffer for the sake of justice, to lose ourselves for his sake so that we might truly find ourselves.

But he does not only exhort us. He draws us on the path that he himself has made through the cross to the resurrection.

Friday, January 20, 2023

“I Drove The Car!” A 21st Century Odyssey

This was a bigger deal than it sounds like. It was quite an achievement for me in the (it sometimes seems) increasingly limited realm of external physical things I’m able to do without help.

I drove the car on a Saturday afternoon. By myself.

For many decades I drove all sorts of cars on long trips and short trips, logging thousands and thousands of miles all over North America. Even after I began to get sick 20 years ago, I still did plenty of driving. As my stamina flagged, however, Eileen took over more of the longer trips (e.g. driving to my parents’ place an hour or so away). But I ran errands around town, and was able to pick up kids and drop off kids.

I drove regularly until around 2015. It took a toll on me, and I didn’t like it much, but then again I never liked driving much (with the exception of a couple of old manual transmission cars I owned back in the late 1980s, which were actually fun to drive). I did like being able to go places when I wanted to.

A decade ago, it was simple. We had two cars and two drivers in the house. We had the Toyota minivan and then we had “Dad’s car.” The other five members of the household were kids. They needed rides, not cars. But when the kids got bigger, it ironically got more complicated.

Eileen always needed a car to get back and forth from the John XXIII Montessori Center, and at first the kids were going to school there, and then to nearby Chelsea Academy or John XXIII’s adolescent program (White Oaks School). But then the kids started getting driver’s licenses and jobs and became university students. So far they’ve all attended “the local university” (i.e. Christendom College, which is only ten minutes away from our house).

We actually acquired more vehicles. We sometimes had as many as four cars. Second-hand, junky cars. But they worked. They were acquired in various, sometimes peculiar, ways. Teresa bought her own four-wheel-drive ATV, but she was working with horses: buying them, training them, selling them, working at stables, holding summer horse-riding camps, sometimes hauling horse-trailers around. So she had her own vehicle. With John Paul, Agnese, and Lucia, things were sometimes “chaotic” during the period when they were all at Christendom. There was a point when there were more siblings at the university than there were cars, and they had to endure the immense challenge of “sharing” —uh, huh, that was not fun for anyone.

But those “sharing” situations didn’t last very long, as I recall. Eventually Lucia got something even better than a car—namely, a boyfriend… who eventually became a husband. So everybody had “wheels,” except for me! Well, technically “we, the parents” had “our car”—a four door Toyota Camry (actually, several Camrys since 2006, in different colors; the engines in those things never die, but eventually some other part of the car wears out, and it’s more economical to just replace the whole car). But over time (and for obvious reasons) “the parents’ car” was rebranded as “Mom’s car.”

After all, I’m not going anywhere, unless it’s with her. When I go out by myself, I walk. That can be hard some days too, but at least the exercise is good, and I can go at my own pace. Otherwise, I “travel” virtually for nearly all my research needs, and to purchase any odd things I might need. It’s just as well, because most days there are no cars in our driveway.

The actual number of vehicles around here has decreased. John Paul graduated, got a job, got his own car (a much nicer car than anything I ever had), got married, and moved across town. Agnese graduated, got a job, and took her car down the road to the house she shares with some friends. Lucia graduated, got married, sold her car, and moved to New Jersey where Mike’s family lives.

Suddenly, our driveway no longer looks like a used car lot (or a salvage yard). We’re back to two vehicles: Teresa’s (and she’s not here very often) and “Mom’s car,” which is coming and going all the time.

This is my predicament: even if I wanted to go somewhere, I don’t have a car. I am a 60-year-old man in a rural town in the United States of America, and I don’t have a car.

It hasn’t bothered me, however, because driving—like everything else—has become an increasingly exhausting activity. My health is still more or less “stable” (on low power) but it also seems to be slowly declining. It requires more energy to do less, especially from the neck down. I haven’t given up yet, though. Recent years, however, have been weird. 

I had decreased my driving to the occasional bookstore, library trip, or visit to a nature spot. Any more just took too much energy and then I would be in danger of getting over-stressed, which is not a safe condition in which to drive. (Actually, I have always been a terrible driver — either philosophically abstracted and not paying attention to the road, or else obsessive, irritated, anxious, mistake-prone: I have written about my utter folly behind the wheel elsewhere on the Blog — see HERE and HERE, which tell an interesting tale of God bringing a wonderfully greater good out of my … uggh… facepalm 🀦‍♂️… almost getting myself killed: it’s a very good story, ultimately, thank God. Check out those links.)

So—to return to the more recent story—I hadn’t driven more than a handful of times in 2017, 2018, 2019… [you know what’s coming up].

2020: the Pandemic arrives. I don’t know if I have quite recovered from the surreal-ness of that whole time. I actually did lots of walking in 2020 and felt quite well, ironically (better that I do now). But nobody was driving anywhere, it seemed, in 2020-2021ish-2022ish(?). There are many ways to consider the Pandemic, not only as an obvious medical crisis (a very real one, that tragically took the lives of some members of our parish community), but also as a socially disorienting event in various ways. In the U.S.A., of course, it was also turned into a political brawl and a media frenzy. And then, suddenly—it seemed—the crisis passed, and everybody went back to acting as if it never happened. Places and events opened up and people started partying twice as hard as ever. Daily Covid statistics seemed to vanish from the News.

It should be said that part of this was due to a “success story.” Immunity and (relative) domestication of the disease through the collaborative efforts of the medical community in vaccine development, plus(?) the virus playing out some natural cycle in the human population seemed to reduce the worst dangers of the disease.(?) [It’s not over yet: China bungled things since Day One and we still don’t know what’s going on over there.] 

But something else suddenly intervened to turn everyone’s thoughts in another direction. In media, politics, and—sadly—in reality too, a new danger rose up and stole the spotlight away from the Pandemic. The plague of COVID-19 seemed to give way to another plague—“contained” for now to a particular place, where it wreaks murderous havoc, but in danger of metastasizing into a global toxic nightmare—a plague of the mind, (at least, it begins in the mind); a virus born in the minds of Kremlin imperialists that is “infecting” the bodies of their targets, but also endangering the diverse minds of those who surround it, who might become inflamed with their own opportunism, manipulation, and greed, and move in directions beyond anything we can imagine. The world seemed united in the fight against COVID-19. How will the world be shaken and burned by the poison of PUTIN-22?

Our hearts break for the suffering of the Ukrainian people, and—of course—they have the right to defend themselves, and other nations should help them as much as possible. But we cannot trust the (il)logic of technological warfare, its potential for rapid escalation, and the possibility of catastrophic retaliation. This war is at an impasse that can only be broken by escalation. Who will control the scope of this escalation? Perhaps there is no choice except to “play with fire,” but let us not forget that it is fire, and let us make sure that the merchants of this fire are held to a high standard of integrity. It is perilous when profiteers are allowed to make the rules of such a dangerous “game.”

Have we learned anything, as human beings, from these traumatic years? I fear we may need to be reminded again and again, in perhaps different ways — but there’s hope in that, because we are not the masters of reality; we live this profound need for something we cannot give ourselves (even if most of the time we distract ourselves from our own radical dependence and indigence). Events that “remind us” of who we really are can be scary, but ultimately what’s more scary is the possibility that we might forget who we are.

This blog post started out as whimsical reflection about me driving “my” car for the first time in three years. Let me return to that story. Last Saturday, John Paul and Eileen had gone shopping in Winchester (and, good son that he is, he drove). Meanwhile, I had it on my mind to take care of something in town… and there was the car. “Mom’s car.” In the driveway. Not being used. So I found my car keys, and—with some small trepidation—got in and started the car. It felt fine. It felt normal. I drove in the town and returned without incident. 

I might just do it again soon. It seems my driving days may not be completely over.

So how did this story get so “heavy”? Well, life is “all one piece,” and I have never been able to ignore that. I am not the master of my own reality. This used to cause me a lot more anxiety, but I’m learning that I grow by responding to the reality that is given to me, whether it’s driving a car or living through the transforming dynamics of home and family life or my own illness or a global pandemic or the suffering, the rage, the injustice, and the ominous unpredictability of war.

Baby [I] can drive my car!”🎢 Ha, I need a car that I can use more often. Jojo will probably get a car before I do. She’ll need it more than me, before long. I just ask to be able to be wherever I need to be today, every day.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Maria Takes a Nap!

Not exactly a “news flash,” but all of this being-a-Papa is still wondrously new to me.

Left: Maria falls asleep on Papa’s shoulder (n.b. Clownie is sleeping too). Right: AWAKE and shaking up that wooden doll.☺️πŸ™‚

Monday, January 16, 2023

Martin Luther King Jr.—The Realization of Freedom as LOVE

My country, the United States of America, is a good country. Its very existence is inspired by an ideal: the ideal of human freedom and the intrinsic and distinctive value of every human being. This is a great human ideal, the fruit of a vital and broad intuition that promised to change the way people lived together and regarded one another. In the beginning, however, the ideal was often poorly, or only partially, understood. Indeed, this is still very much the case today.

Also, the American ideal of freedom has always been entangled with many other circumstances and preoccupations and ambitions. It was often conveniently forgotten when it came down to how certain people were to be treated; the tragedy was that the U.S.A. often proclaimed this ideal most loudly when it was also generating complex protocols for dodging its implications. It is astonishing that the phrase “all men [human beings] are created equal” was articulated in a society where so many men claimed proprietary ownership over other men.

Slavery eventually ended, but racism remains a corrosive force among us. Black people still experience deeply entrenched complex networks of discrimination and a burdensome spectrum of specific difficulties—the damage and the unhealed wounds of current and historic racism in America that greatly hinder black people and black communities from breaking out of the spiral of poverty and moving toward a life of fully human freedom and dignity. The injustices and inequities of racism must be faced in the U.S.A. This task is not an easy one, but it must be taken up by all our people with commitment and realism. 

Its pursuit is a matter of the common good of the whole American people—indeed, the “American people” cannot flourish or mature as a people without an ongoing and courageous effort to regenerate and cultivate the landscape of community throughout our country. We must recognize and work together to repair the cracks and fissures of divisions and oppression that have played an ongoing part in the complex process of forming the history of what is still (relatively speaking) our young nation. We cannot evade or ignore the need for healing that manifests itself so clearly in our own time. If these injustices and wounds are permitted to fester in our society unattended, they will only grow into larger gaping holes swirling with the winds of violence and inviting new and further dehumanizing forces of ideology offering pseudo-solutions that will only make things worse.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that this nation needed a more profound commitment to justice, but he was determined not to answer violence with more violence. He sought to break the cycle of violence—the endless generation of oppression and resentment—through his historic nonviolent protest movement in the 1950s-1960s. In the process, Dr. King touched upon ways of being and acting that were relevant to the whole scope of human life. Though his legacy will always be primarily the fight against racism, Dr. King introduced the practice of nonviolent protest in a way that has been taken up by many social movements in the U.S.A. and around the world. This is not surprising. King realized that racism endures—as do so many human social problems—because of its foundation in the failure to recognize that every human being is a person. The whole multifaceted crisis of isolation and disintegration and the perpetuation of violence among individuals and between groups is a crisis of the human person.

Everyone speaks of "human rights" but no one seems to know what it means to be human, or why human beings have a value that demands respect, a value that deserves to be cherished, fostered, cultivated, defended, loved.

We are very far indeed from recognizing first and above all that each and every human person possesses a unique and ineradicable dignity which has its origin in something beyond the powers of this world, beyond any mere social consensus or political expediency.

Every human person possesses the dignity of being created in the image and likeness of God. Dr. King was emphatic about this point, and it is one of the keys to his ongoing relevance for the entire political project of the U.S.A., or for any nation that aspires to represent a genuinely free people. “Human dignity” is not a political or social construct. It is founded on a Source that transcends the whole world, but also impresses a stamp of inviolable identity and ineradicable value on every human person. Dr. King made this clear when he said: "The whole concept of the Imago Dei or the Image of God, is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. This gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. We must never forget this. There are no gradations in the Image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God's keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that. We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man."

Dr. King focused on the theme of the U.S.A.’s founding document—the Declaration of Independence—according to precisely that “evident truth” that must not be obfuscated or eclipsed if we want to be a society that respects human dignity and human rights: “All are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” Humans are created persons, and their inherent dignity as persons and their rights as persons are given to them by God, who creates them in His image. The American Founders themselves missed the full implications of what they declared here (and thus slavery and racism continued). It would be “four-score-and-seven years” before a U.S. political leader would effectively propose a more profound examination of these founding principles.

A century later, Martin Luther King would challenge his country to go even deeper, to take a further step in an effort to be a nation of persons who are given-to-themselves, radically—who have rights, indeed, to live in the dignity of God’s image, to be free as persons, and to pursue their destiny, their need for fulfillment, for “happiness.” Dr. King realized that the implicit exigency of this declaration projected the actualization of these “human rights” and this freedom as love—love for the God who makes us and directs our history, and love for one another as children of God, as brothers and sisters.

What Dr. King asked from the government was not that it force humans to love one another, but that it would attend to removing the obstacles to freedom that were entrenched in society, the injustices that imposed suffering, encouraged divisions and resentment, and fostered a forgetfulness of our common humanity.

Here I believe that Dr. King—taking up the struggle against racism in the light of the Gospel’s proclamation of grace and redemption—caught a glimpse of how God’s saving love can penetrate and shape even our temporal hopes and aspirations, thereby enabling us to see and to build up the good in this world, to have a society more fair for everyone, more helpful, more loving, more willing to share burdens on the journey of this life toward its ultimate fulfillment.

And we must struggle against social evils and injustices, not in the hopes of building a utopia, but because we who are made in God’s image are called to do God’s will—which is his mercy. The effort to make society better involves the works of mercy, and perhaps looks forward to something like a “culture of mercy” or a “civilization of love” (as Saint Paul VI envisioned it). Here I am trying to see from my own place on the mountaintop something that corresponds to King’s “Promised Land” image that he referenced in his final speech the night before his death—and I see a Gospel-inspired ideal of an entire temporal social order full of the plea for mercy, for peace, of aspirations and attainments of unity, mutual esteem, and solidarity. As a Catholic Christian, I am guided by the consistent teaching and vision of all the Popes in my lifetime, beginning with Saint John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris and developing through the Second Vatican Council to Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis in the present day.

Much of Dr. King’s vision is congruent with the larger aims of Catholic social teaching. King was familiar with the “personalistic” and “communitarian” implications of the Gospel. As he put it, “ ‘I’ cannot reach fulfillment without ‘thou.’ The self cannot be self without other selves. Self-concern without other-concern is like a tributary that has no outward flow to the ocean.”

The dignity of being created in God's image, of being a person, is lived and fulfilled in relationship to other persons. I can only discover "myself" through the gift of myself. We exist in relation to one another, and we realize ourselves in the living affirmation of "being-in-relationship." We fulfill ourselves by caring for one another, by taking responsibility for one another, by living the relationships with the persons who have been given to us.

People today speak so much about freedom, and we think we know that "freedom" means being able to choose for ourselves without being coerced or suffocated by some extrinsic power, whether private or public. But this does not mean that freedom is pure indifference, without purpose. Freedom has a meaning that comes from within itself. It is written upon our hearts.

Freedom does not exist to affirm itself, or to simply lose itself in a blind connivance with psycho-physical urges, forces, and drives within the person. All our human energies are meant to be directed by an adequate vision of reality—a wisdom—so that the whole person might be opened to self-giving love and adhere freely to what is good, to what brings authentic human flourishing and leads to happiness.

Freedom is made for the giving of self. Through freedom the person exists as a gift, the "I" lives in relation to the "Thou." This common unity blossoms into a solidarity that discovers more relationships to others and awakens more love.

It leads to "community"—communion-of-persons in love.

We are challenged to "let freedom ring"—to live our freedom by choosing to affirm the dignity of every human person, choosing to give ourselves in love, choosing to live in communion with God and with one another. The Christian knows that such choices are empowered by the grace of Jesus Christ. We enact an affection for humanity that is born in us when we encounter Jesus and experience his love for our humanity. We can live in a “secular society” as passionate witnesses to this encounter with Jesus and the fullness of life he gives us in his Church, while respecting the freedom of others who search for meaning, goodness, and truth. We can work with them for the common good of this country without compromising or watering down our faith. We can be evangelizers and honor the freedom of everyone, because the goal of our witness is not to manipulate people into becoming partisans of an ideology that compromises their humanity. We know that Christ is the fullness of freedom and humanity for every person, and we want to live and share this conviction with everyone. 

But in so doing, we also entrust all our efforts to the infinite mercy of this loving God who in Christ has “already” embraced every person. We know that the ways of God are mysterious, and that Christ who is the Lord of all can awaken and draw our non-Christian friends “secretly” in the ways of his love and healing—until the day that they finally meet him in his fullness. In society, we Christians ask not for earthly power, but for the freedom to witness to the Gospel, placing our trust in the Holy Spirit for the fruitfulness of this witness according to God’s plan, and in God’s time. Not knowing the deepest interior dispositions of others, we have no reason to feel superior to them. We can always take the lowest place, and choose to follow Christ by seeking his face and serving him in everyone.

The confidence of Martin Luther King Jr. was founded upon his encounter with Jesus Christ, and the conviction that he was called to serve God on a very particular path. His hope was that this world through which we journey in this temporal life might even now reflect more fully “the glory of the coming of the Lord” who is our final destiny, who is greater than all our fears and all our efforts, who is greater than death, who is Infinite Love. Dr. King formed many ideas and specific proposals in his efforts to live out his vocation, and they certainly had an enduring impact on our history that will continue to unfold in the future. But most importantly: in everything he strove to uphold the ideal of nonviolence, because he “just want[ed] to do God’s will”—especially as revealed in Jesus’s words, “love your enemies.” This kind of love—this active mercy in engaging the problems of this world that loves even the enemy and never gives up the struggle and the hope that the enemy might be changed and become a friend—is a choice that God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ has made possible for our freedom.

We can choose to cry out from our hearts to the One in whose image we are made, to seek goodness and love, to share our lives, to respect one another, to help one another, to live in peace with one another. Or we can choose to horde ourselves; we can choose to live according to our whims, our impulses, our narrow perceptions, our prejudices, our fear. But then we will reap a harvest of violence, and more violence.

Martin Luther King, Jr. remains important to our history today, reminding us of what it means to be human persons, to give ourselves, to live as children of God, as brothers and sisters.

His legacy remains with us, to remind us to be free, to remind us of the drama and responsibility of freedom, and of the promise that awakens freedom and draws it (and us) toward the happiness of communion in the One in whose image we have been created.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Pope Francis Describes the “Piecemeal” Third World War

Earlier this week, Pope Francis addressed a gathering of international diplomats accredited to the Vatican. The devastation of Ukraine continues unabated, and the Kremlin has announced the imminent conscription of an additional half a million men to sustain an invasion which has been both brutal and inept. We cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of the immense ongoing suffering of this war, nor the perils of its escalation for the whole world. On the other hand, while we may think we should worry about the possibility of “World War III,” Francis has been saying for years that we are already in the midst of it. In light of Ukraine, Francis’s enumeration of the ongoing, often intractable and bloody conflicts currently raging around the world—along with new or increasing tensions in other places—might seem more compelling to those of us who live in comfort and at a distance from the multiple fronts.

Measuring the scope of global violence today should cause us all to pray and work for peace, begging that Jesus the Prince of Peace will save us from our own sins, from the violence and/or negligence of our own hearts, and draw us to follow Him in the ways of peace in the environments in which we live, in our families and our communities. In as much as we are able in our own given circumstances, we can be “peacemakers.” We can carry out the works of mercy, remembering those who suffer throughout the world, uniting ourselves to Christ’s redeeming love for the conversion of hearts from the many sins that lead to war, and to bring healing to our broken world.

In the first segment of his address (quoted below in italics), the Pope indicates various ongoing conflicts and areas of ongoing danger throughout the world: in Europe since the invasion of Ukraine last February, and also in the Middle East, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, West Africa, Ethiopia, Yemen, and East Asia—especially Myanmar and the increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

As the 60th anniversary of Saint John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris draws near, we should entrust our war-torn world to the Heart of Jesus whose love is greater than our sins and the sins of the world.

Here is the excerpt from Pope Francis’s address:

“Today the third world war is taking place in a globalized world where conflicts involve only certain areas of the planet directly, but in fact involve them all. The closest and most recent example is certainly the war in Ukraine, with its wake of death and destruction, with its attacks on civil infrastructures that cause lives to be lost not only from gunfire and acts of violence, but also from hunger and freezing cold. For its part, the conciliar Constitution Gaudium et Spes states that ‘every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation’ (No. 80). Nor can we forget that war particularly affects those who are most fragile—children, the elderly, the disabled—and leaves an indelible mark on families. Today, I feel bound to renew my appeal for an immediate end to this senseless conflict, whose effects are felt in entire regions, also outside of Europe, due to its repercussions in the areas of energy and food production, above all in Africa and in the Middle East.

“The present third world war fought piecemeal also makes us consider other theatres of tension and conflict. Once more this year, with immense sorrow, we must look to the war-torn land of Syria. The rebirth of that country must come about through needed reforms, including constitutional reforms, in an effort to give hope to the Syrian people, affected by growing poverty, while at the same time ensuring that the international sanctions imposed do not affect the daily life of a people that has already suffered so much.

“The Holy See also follows with concern the increase of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, sadly resulting in a number of victims and complete mutual distrust. Jerusalem, a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims, is particularly affected by this. The name Jerusalem evokes its vocation to be a city of peace, but sadly, it has become a theatre of conflict. I trust that it can rediscover this vocation to be a location and a symbol of encounter and peaceful coexistence, and that access and liberty of worship in the holy places will continue to be guaranteed and respected in accordance with the status quo. At the same time, I express my hope that the authorities of the State of Israel and those of the State of Palestine can recover the courage and determination to dialogue directly for the sake of implementing the two-state solution in all its aspects, in conformity with international law and all the pertinent resolutions of the United Nations.

“As you know, at the end of the month, I will at last be able to go as a pilgrim of peace to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the hope that violence will cease in the east of the country, and that the path of dialogue and the will to work for security and the common good will prevail. My pilgrimage will continue in South Sudan, where I will be accompanied by the Archbishop of Canterbury and by the General Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Together we desire to unite ourselves to the plea for peace by the country’s people and thus contribute to the process of national reconciliation.

“Nor must we forget other situations still burdened by the effects of still unresolved conflicts. I think in particular of the situation in the South Caucasus. I urge the parties to respect the cease-fire, and I reiterate that the liberation of military and civil prisoners would prove to be an important step towards a much-desired peace agreement.

“I think too of Yemen, where the last October’s truce holds, yet many civilians continue to die because of mines, and of Ethiopia, where I trust that the peace process will continue and the international community will reaffirm its commitment to respond to the humanitarian crisis experienced by that country.

“I also follow with deep concern the situation in West Africa, increasingly plagued by acts of terrorist violence. I think in particular of the tragic situations endured by the populations of Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria, and I express my hope that the processes of transition under way in Sudan, Mali, Chad, Guinea and Burkina Faso will take place in respect for the legitimate aspirations of the populations involved.

“I am particularly attentive to the situation of Myanmar, which for two years now has experienced violence, suffering and death. I invite the international community to work to concretize the processes of reconciliation and I urge all the parties involved to undertake anew the path of dialogue, in order to restore hope to the people of that beloved land.

“Finally, I think of the Korean Peninsula, and I express my hope that the good will and commitment to concord will not diminish, for the sake of achieving greatly-desired peace and prosperity for the entire Korean people.

“All conflicts nonetheless bring to the fore the lethal consequences of a continual recourse to the production of new and ever more sophisticated weaponry, which is sometimes justified by the argument that ‘peace cannot be assured except on the basis of an equal balance of armaments’. There is a need to change this way of thinking and move towards an integral disarmament, since no peace is possible where instruments of death are proliferating.”

Thursday, January 12, 2023

January Bare Bright Skies



JJStudios
has been experimenting with portraiture, as the previous post indicated and displayed. But work also continues on natural settings in their seasonal variations. Winter has colors and impressions of its own.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

The Enduring Fascination of Christina Grimmie’s Face

Six years and seven months later, this face still surprises and inspires me.

The face, of course, is that of Christina Grimmie—which I hope is still recognizable through the artistic “interpretation” that my imagination has used to attempt to express one of the ways I perceive it. Here I’m aided by digital filters, “paint” apps, and the specific manual “virtual sculpting” that together constitute a method of virtual artistic expression I am continuing to develop (and, I hope, improve). I work on Christina “portraits” with a persistence, intensity, and patience that surprise me. Rarely am I satisfied with the results, but I continue to seek to do this work—to craft a perspective, a vista, a momentary flash of the inexhaustible personality that animated her face.

Christina’s is still “everywhere” represented online. The late singer/songwriter/teenager-young-adult YouTube pioneer was slain on June 10, 2016 at an open meet-and-greet after a concert in Orlando, Florida. One of the great plagues of our society—gun violence—took her life from this world at the age of 22. Violence took her away from her family, her loved ones, her “frands,” the music she made with her astonishing voice, and the radiant image of positivity and hope that she sustained even amidst difficult circumstances that was a vital inspiration to so many of her young followers. Nevertheless, her legacy has grown over the past 6+ years, and her giving of herself continues to bear fruit.

Today, images of Christina’s remarkably expressive face have multiplied exponentially all over the internet (helped, no doubt, by growing AI technology). Her YouTube channel remains current with just under four million subscribers, and her incredible voice is still being heard by many people, some of whom are just discovering her immense musical talents for the first time. The international Team Grimmie continues to grow. And Christina’s family and friends continue her generous and grateful affirmation of life—her determination to respond to evil with good, to hatred with love—through The Christina Grimmie Foundation which provides financial assistance and human solidarity directly to families of victims of gun violence.

There is something extraordinary about this girl.

I’m still “searching” for her face—from pictures shared by others (always “credit to owners” for the original photographic images presented here; this blog is strictly for gratuitous and educational purposes and is never-for-profit), or from many screenshots of videos that serve as “foundational sketches” for my artistic efforts, or from whatever-other-places she pops up—I have a huge file of materials for my “Grimmie Portraits” which serve as templates for my private and personal art works (many of them “in progress”), a few of which are gratuitously shared here or on social media.

There is reflected in Christina’s face a deep joy, a gigantic passion for life, a powerful yearning to give and to receive love, a sense of responsibility for the gifts (and the people) given to her, and an overflowing gratitude: always this gratitude from the depths of her heart. I look at her face and I’m convinced that her life was full of what she saw deep down in things, the encounter with the Mystery that sustains and resonates through all of reality, and that awakened and energized her in the days of her brief beautiful life.

I want to see what she saw. I want to see more, and to live with greater ardor an adherence to that Mystery.

Six years ago I posted the above image and texts. I used to search out those occasional moments when Christina made explicit reference to her faith. Her words about her love for Jesus Christ were unambiguous and all-encompassing when she spoke about the foundation of her own life. Perhaps by isolating these quotations, however, I was too preoccupied with presenting her in the form of a “pious image.” Certainly, when she said “my faith is my whole life,” she meant it. But the remarkable and truly “mysterious” quality of Christina was that she lived her faith, ardently, right inside of a real and relatable teenage/young-adult life with its panoply of interests and “distractions,” the give-and-take of adolescent fun on her YouTube channel and in her social media, and her pursuit of a successful career in popular music where she could share all of her prodigious musical talents and her stupendous, jaw-dropping singing voice.

In all of this, she remained down to earth. Recently, I found the source of this beautiful quotation in a YouTube live stream. Christina was chatting with her frands about television shows and songs and video games—the kind of talk that my own kids (ranged 16-25 years old) pass around among themselves and with their friends, and that I cannot enter into because I am by nature an uncool Dad. πŸ₯ΈπŸ˜œ Then in the midst of this stream of jocular verbiage, Christina found a moment to make reference to her faith and to clarify it with a seriousness that was earnest yet effortless—that didn’t withdraw from the adolescent mood of the conversation, that was natural and memorable, and that was followed by more talk of food, music, and video games.

My instinctive “uncool old man” reaction would ordinarily be to find nothing particularly remarkable in this kind of conversation, even with a religious reference in the middle of it. But as I watched Christina I began to glimpse something deeper in the way in which she was engaging and accompanying her frands, who were mostly teens and pre-teens. She was sharing her own interests, her own goofy self, but within that normal 21-year-old young woman was the immeasurably greater reality—the Mystery, the Mystery-made-flesh—transforming her, shining through her humanity, Jesus Christ her whole life.

Faith is a great adventure, a growth in conviction, an enlargement of the fascination of life, of hope and love and vulnerability, of the search for the fullness of the meaning of things. Christina Grimmie remains for me a bright light on my own journey of faith seeking understanding, longing to “see,” loving and hoping for the fulfillment of love.

The persistence of my poor artistic efforts over the past six years are grounded here.



Monday, January 9, 2023

God Reveals Himself in the Waters of the Jordan

From Bethlehem to the Jordan to Cana — the Word made flesh embraces our lives and changes us. He reveals to everyone the face of a loving and merciful God who wants to stay with us, who wants us to know that we are never alone, that we are loved with an everlasting love.

Even though the liturgical calendar returns to “Ordinary Time” after this feast, we will keep our Christmas tree, lights, and Nativity Scene up and glowing throughout the month of January and up to the feast of the “Presentation of Jesus in the Temple” on February 2, which is 40 days after Christmas.

This longer “Epiphanytide” is linked to old traditions for celebrating the season, and many places in Europe and Latin America the decorations and Nativity Scenes remain up all through January until the last of the celebrations from the Infancy Narratives recorded in Luke 2:22-40.

As we need little encouragement to prolong the party (not to mention the fact that we have an indestructibly green fake tree that didn’t go up until Christmas Eve, and that nobody minds putting off the tedious tasks of taking it all down, packing it up, and returning it to the attic😜) — we have always observed this time-honored “extension” in our home.

January, after all, remains cold and dark. It is good to continue to remember in this special way that Christ our Savior has come into the world, and that He is our Light.


Sunday, January 8, 2023

Journey of the Magi


Journey of the Magi

   by T. S. Eliot (1927)

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.


Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.


All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.