Monday, July 31, 2023

The Beginnings of Ignatius Loyola’s Great Mission

There are many wonderful stories from the life of Saint Ignatius Loyola (July 31) as he followed the Lord’s call (together with his earliest companions) to found and foster the emergence of a singular missionary charism in the life of the Church: the Society of Jesus. 

It all began within the heart of Ignatius, as the Holy Spirit drew him from the ambitions of a worldly life to a total commitment to follow Christ. Here is the text of my column on Saint Ignatius that appeared in the May 2014 issue of Magnificat.

The “great conversion story” of Saint Ignatius is well known. An element that deserves more attention, however, is the vital human connection between the wounded soldier destined to found the Jesuits and a medieval Carthusian’s witness to the Person of Christ. Born in 1491, Ignatius was the youngest son of a noble family in the Basque region of Spain. With a passion for earthly glory, he became a soldier in the armies of Castile, and was seriously wounded by a cannonball in May of 1521. During a long recovery, he became bored, and asked for books of chivalrous tales to pass the time. But the only books available were “saints’ lives” and “a life of Christ.” Having nothing better to do, he began to peruse these books. It was there, in his bed, that he encountered Jesus Christ, and the extraordinary change in his life began.

The saints inspired Ignatius. He found his Catholic faith incarnated in the stories of heroic men such as Saint Francis and Saint Dominic. His ambition began to change, slowly, as he felt the aspiration to “compete” with the saints for this new ideal of holiness. The witness of the communion of saints began to shine for him. Most importantly, however, he read and pondered for the first time the events of the life of Jesus. Ignatius did not read the New Testament in 1521, for it did not exist in Spanish translation. What he was given to read was a most extraordinary four volume “Life of Christ” by a 14th century Carthusian hermit, Ludolph of Saxony.

Ludolph takes up the Gospel stories methodically, following the events from the Annunciation to the Nativity and infancy, to the Baptism of Jesus, His Public Life and ministry, His Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, and onward to the Final Judgment. Each event receives copious attention with Ludolph drawing on Scripture and the Church Fathers to illuminate its meaning. Ludolph’s method is to lead the reader to place himself “inside” the particular events. He gives rich imaginative descriptions and exhorts his reader to “look” at the details, consider their significance and embrace the grace of a prayerful encounter with Christ. The fruit of his own contemplative life became a written witness to the Person of Christ that could be shared. .

But Ludolph’s image-rich meditations were destined to have an audience he could never have imagined. A century after his death came the printing press. Suddenly, the hermit was translated into several vernacular languages (including Spanish, at the express request of Queen Isabel) and widely distributed among pious people all over Europe (including the sister-in-law of Ignatius, who brought it to his bedside in 1521).

Ludolph’s witness led Ignatius to grow more and more in love with Christ. Ignatius took some three hundred pages of notes on the text, and there is no doubt that this medieval monk inspired Ignatius in the formation of his own great instrument for bringing people to a deeper relationship with Jesus, the Spiritual Exercises.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola had many other encounters that shaped his own vocation, but it was on his sickbed that he met Christ, and it was the witness and work of saints and holy people that originated his own witness with its enormous fruits for the coming epoch.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Gift and the Vocation of Faith

Here I am, still blogging. Why? What do I know?

I know a few things, even if I am constantly prone to distraction and forgetfulness about them. I know the ineradicable “structure” of my own human heart that cries out for meaning and fulfillment. I know that in Jesus Christ I have encountered the inexhaustible “answer” to the “need” that constitutes my humanity. I know that He is the Word of the Father, made flesh, who died and rose to save the humanity of everyone.

I know that Jesus remains present in the Catholic Church by the working of the Holy Spirit within a historical community that carries the witness of the Gospel and a living tradition, entrusted to the authority of certain people from generation to generation—ministers of word and sacrament who are in themselves flawed and unworthy human beings like me, and who sometimes can even be criminals and/or cowards. But the Holy Spirit guarantees that Jesus will remain present and communicate Himself to those who hunger and thirst for Him, through the Church, even when His ministers are cruel, ignorant, incompetent, or wicked. He continually renews and sustains the Church in its pilgrimage throughout history. (The sins and scandals of the present time are only the particular form of the perennial failures of the Church’s members—which does not excuse their perpetrators of being held responsible and does not excuse us from following Jesus and struggling toward maturity in our own vocations.)

I know that trusting in Jesus, following Jesus by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the Church, with fidelity and obedience and patience, with prayer and love for God our Father and for other human persons—especially expressed in mercy toward those in need, with whom we can share what we have been given—will bring us to the fulfillment of eternal life, sharing in the all-embracing Gift of the Triune God who is Eternal, Infinite Love.

I also know that Jesus reaches “beyond” what I can see, in ways that I cannot understand (even though theological pondering and—far better—the “prayer” of a merciful empathy can glimpse some possible paths of the Holy Spirit); His salvific love is offered mysteriously to every person, which does not excuse me from making Him known in witnessing His Gospel, but which does place me humbly before every person as a servant of the God who wants us both to be brothers/brother-and-sister in Him. I want to understand persons who are called to Him even if they don’t realize it. I know grace makes a difference in their lives, their stories, their cultures, and the history and traditions of their peoples with all their human richness and brokenness and suffering.

That is all I know.

If it seems like “a lot,” it is important to remember that I can’t take credit for any of this knowledge. None of it constitutes an “achievement” of my own. All is drawn from the free gift of faith

All I can “own” as coming from myself is my constant failure to see all of reality and every person with these “eyes of faith” that have been given to me. Too often I would rather hide in the false comfort of the Pharisee who thanks-God-that-he-is-not-like-the-rest-of-men (and who, even in this narrow self-assessment, vastly overestimates himself). Too often I would rather place my trust in my own self-coherence as a “member-of-the-tribe-of-Truth,” a partisan of the right-interpretation-of-history—the right “ism”—who can pour out contempt on the incompleteness and flaws of other views (and other people who hold them). But none of these attitudes bear any fruit. They lead only to delusions, or worse.

We would like to call ourselves courageous. But is it really “courageous” to just fight for a “Christian worldview” against other more-or-less decadent worldviews, with the aim of “winning” what is ultimately a worldly victory for our own (usually only partially perceived and so often practically-compromised) view of “Christian values”? In a world of sword fights, the Christian—often with the best of intentions—takes up whatever sword is at hand in order to fight for the truth, without realizing that they have placed their trust in the same weapon as their opponents. “Whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.” How quickly does the fight distract us from the real demands of charity, respect for the human person’s dignity, humility, simplicity, and joy? How soon does it lead us away from justice, into detractions and calumnies against our opponents (because we have reduced them to monsters who can be condemned without reservations)? Ultimately, are we even willing to sacrifice truth itself “for the sake of the cause” and descend into craftiness and guile and outright lies?

I have fallen into these traps many times over the years, so I do not intend to judge anyone. Moreover, in this world, danger sometimes looms imminent, threatening to destroy us or those we love, and we are compelled to fight in defense against it. In specific instances of perceived dangers, people must follow their consciences. Is it possible, however, that too often we are led not so much by conscience or the concrete judgment of the virtue of prudence but rather by the allurement of the idolatry of “success” that is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our society?

Let us not forget that courage above all has to do with the willingness to endure suffering; we must ask the Lord for the grace to endure much that is burdensome in the living of our faith in front of other persons—without condemning them, dehumanizing them, hating them, perpetrating violence against them. I have sinned so many times in this way: Lord have mercy on me, on all of us, on the whole world.

The vocation of living the faith, of following Jesus, begins with allowing ourselves to see reality with the eyes of faith, to see the other person as loved by Jesus, to see Jesus identifying Himself with others in their suffering, their needs, their hunger and thirst for food and drink, for companionship and healing, for love.

What do we really know about them, about how to even begin to care for them? How will we know them, how will we know their specific, concrete needs, without listening to them, accompanying them, and also being open to receive from their gifts that can touch our own poverty, and above all being willing to co-suffer with them, being vulnerable—in the measure God asks of us—to the awful abysses of their suffering?

Such living may well lead us to “make mistakes.” But mistakes will happen no matter how we live. We are not yet perfect; indeed we are far from it. We desire perfection, we are called to perfection, we beg for the grace, we journey toward, we strive to grow into the perfection of Christ who has redeemed us. But we do not have the power to make ourselves perfect according to the Father’s wisdom and love, which are beyond any “measure” we comprehend or possess within ourselves, and can only be realized through the grace of a living relationship with Him. We must not trust in our own perceived sense of having some sort of perfect coherence in our own self-justified goodness. We are all sinners. We must trust in the mercy of God, in His greater wisdom and love, and pray for the grace to adhere to Him, love Him, and do His will each day by living in relationship with Jesus Christ, who is present in our lives now by the working of the Holy Spirit in the real Catholic Church to which our lives have been entrusted now. This is not some Church of the idealized past or of the idealized future (which are ultimately just the products of our own imagination), but the Church right now, which links us to the Apostles and Jesus who said, “I am with you all days….”

What matters is that we stay with Jesus, follow Him, take “risks” for Him—risks to our comfort, our ego, our illusory sense of “safety.” And it is possible to live this way without “giving up” a single iota of the truth of our faith. On the contrary, this is the path by which our faith becomes “flesh,” takes on the real vitality of evangelization, begins to transform the world (and ourselves).

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’m afraid of these risks involved in the vocation of living my faith, of following Jesus. We need to beg Him for the grace to overcome this fear, to grow in courage and confidence by trusting in Him.

Please forgive me for the presumption of my own words, which can’t help falling short of what I hope to say. I have no commission to preach. I claim no great knowledge. I am only a poor brother who wants to speak what is in his heart, hoping that he will be heard with mercy, and offering it to the God who loves us all.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Everything For Which the Human Heart is Made

Today we commemorate those particular friends of Jesus during His earthly life, Saints Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. For this day, I want to post a selection from Spiritual Exercises of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation in 2022, preached by the Abbot General of the Cistercians—Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori. That weekend in April-May 2022—which I was able to participate in from my bedroom thanks to live-streaming internet technology—was an extended meditation on today’s Gospel reading from the 10th chapter of Luke. Here we see, amidst the ordinary circumstances of domestic life, the radical origin of Saint Martha’s vocation to recognize in Jesus “the one thing necessary”—the One who enters into our lives of anxiousness and worry and reminds us that He is with us, that He wants to be with us.

This is true for each one of us, for every human person. Jesus’s words to Martha remind us of the reason why we exist, what we are made for, what gives meaning and value to every moment of life.

The selection from the Conference preached by Father Mauro-Giuseppe on Saturday morning, April 30, 2022 follows below in bold type:

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing” (Luke 10:41-42).

Jesus repeated her name twice. What attention He showed her! What esteem! It is precisely like when God called Abraham to ask him to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1), or when He called Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3:4); that is, in the crucial moments of salvation history. Or it is like when Christ called Saul of Tarsus, who was wholly intent on his mad mission of persecution: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 9:4) 

Martha also found herself in front of the God who seizes you in the place where you think you possess your life and asks you to have a preference for Him. In that moment Abraham was sure he possessed his posterity forever. Moses encountered God in the burning bush, and Saul was sure that he was doing what was right and true, the rightest and truest thing a man can do. Right there, where you think you possess your own life, right there, God asks you to have a preference for Him. 

Actually, He not so much asks you as proposes it to you. And immediately there is a mysterious attraction in God's proposal of Himself as the all of your life, as the life of your life. For this reason, Abraham even obeyed the proposal to sacrifice his son; Moses removed his sandals and approached the burning bush; Saul let himself be led like a baby and entrusted himself to the small Christian community of Damascus he had wanted to destroy.

For Martha it was the same call, brought down into her daily existence, but it was the same call. What difference of value can there be between the call of Abraham or Moses and that of this woman harried and busy in the kitchen, if the call comes from the same Lord and God? Actually, I would say that Martha's call was even more extraordinary, because the Eternal One did not call from heaven or a burning bush, or from Mount Sinai, but He was there, sitting in her house, there, speaking, a man like us who arrived tired and sweaty with dusty feet, and who then sat down to eat and drink like us. This is more extraordinary than the burning bush, more extraordinary than Mount Sinai smoking and trembling and causing the people to tremble. 

As Jesus said of John the Baptist: “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11). We are greater because the proposal God makes us in His incarnate Son is more extraordinary. The way God offers this proposal in the incarnate Son, and thus in the flesh, in the daily life of our human existence, is more extraordinary. 

Martha’s kitchen, like the Virgin Mary’s little room or cave in Nazareth before it, were even more sacred places than the oaks of Mamre for Abraham, than Sinai for Moses, than Oreb for Elijah, because God had never been so present as He was in Jesus Christ. “And the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14); literally, came to “pitch His tent,” to place His tent in our midst, to set up His tent in our midst, to encounter us up close, familiarly, within our life, and in this way with disarming simplicity to offer us in Himself everything for which the human heart is made, of which the heart of every human being in human history is made.

When someone is surprised by this, by this event, like Martha that evening at the words of Jesus, what happens? What should be done? What reaction is asked of the freedom provoked and attracted by such a proposal of fullness made by God? For Martha, a journey, a following began. The Eternal One revealed to her that He is everything, not only in Himself (even the pagans knew this!) but for her, precisely for her “Martha, Martha!”—just as for Mary and Lazarus, as for Peter and the other apostles. Jesus was everything specifically for her!

But when Christ reveals Himself to us as the only One necessary, as the only One we need, this first of all asks a decision of us, because if it is true that I need only Him, then I can no longer separate myself from Him.

Friday, July 28, 2023

Moonrise, Sunset

The moon was rising in the evening sky, before darker clouds moved in, colored all along the horizon by the subtle reflected glow of the setting sun.

Here are two photographs and a piece of digital artwork.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

My Granddaughter is a Toddler!

 Here’s the latest “Papa and Maria” picture. Look how pretty she is!

Maria is getting smarter every day. She knows lots of words, sings songs, counts, tries to imitate Jojo in Irish Dancing, and loves to have books read to her. She is sweet and cheerful (unless, of course, she doesn’t get her way☺️). She had a good attention span; here she is playing with an “educational toy” (not exactly a Montessori activity, but similar).

We celebrated her birthday while Lucia and Mike were visiting from New Jersey. Two years of Maria spreading joy through our whole family! May God continue to bless her for many many years!

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Saint James, Apostle and Martyr

Happy Feast of Saint James the Apostle! 

Saint James, the brother of Saint John and the son of Zebedee, was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and the first of “the Twelve” to suffer martyrdom. 

He was beheaded around 44 a.d., and the event is recounted in the New Testament: "King Herod laid hands upon some members of the church to harm them. He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword" (Acts 12:2).

Today’s first reading is appropriate for this feast. The words of Saint Paul regarding the fruitfulness of the suffering of his own Apostolic ministry certainly apply to the blood shed by Saint James in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago. From the Holy Land (a land of too much conflict down the centuries even to the present day) to the Shrine of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain on the threshold of the Atlantic Ocean (a place of pilgrimage for centuries which claims some of his relics) to the whole world of every place and time (to which he and his companions were originally commissioned to witness to Jesus Christ), Saint James’s witness and suffering continue to bear fruit, accompanied by the constant solicitude of his intercession.

“We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

“So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since, then, we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written—I believed, therefore I spoke,’— we too believe and therefore speak, knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and place us with you in his presence. Everything indeed is for you, so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:7-15).

Sunday, July 23, 2023

“The Hills of July” (ongoing project)

This should be easy, but it’s not. 

Digital art technology (along with lots of literally “manual” labor) plus an overactive imagination have me obsessing over these old Blue Ridge mountains with their range of bright and dark hues that vary in sun, haze, clouds, and ominous approaching thunderstorms.

Anyway, I’m not playing games here, but trying to discover and work with the genuine artistic possibilities within these most recent developments in “new media.” They seem to be changing from one day to the next. I’m sure that I’m barely scratching the surface of this wildly manipulative explosion of visual technique.

Here are “the Hills of July” in all the varieties I’ve been working on. I’ll continue to put more pictures here, if I do any more on this theme. I’m not adding comments. That would go on forever. Let’s all just look:

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Mary Magdalene: “A New Creation”

“The love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died. He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer. So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (Corinthians 5:14-17).

So we read on this feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, “apostle to the apostles,” who encountered the Risen Jesus in the “Garden” near His empty tomb. The love of the Risen Christ impelled her to announce this good news to the apostles, to proclaim the beginning of a New Creation.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Blooming in the Sun

Closeups from Summer in the neighborhood! Hibiscus bushes and other garden flowers bloom in July, in various shades. They are mostly native to East Asia but they thrive in North America. They are popular in tended gardens, but no one knows when they first “arrived” on these shores in their wild forms.

Asia and the Americas have had more interaction through the centuries than we realize.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Saint Bonaventure on Progress as “Renewal in Continuity”

The late Pope Benedict XVI drew much inspiration from the Augustinian theological tradition and had a special affection for Saint Bonaventure (Feast, July 15), writing his doctoral dissertation on Bonaventure’s theology of history. In the brief selection below from the second of three homilies on Saint Bonaventure in his series of Wednesday audiences devoted to Medieval Doctors of the Church, Pope Benedict emphasizes Bonaventure’s profound conviction that the life of the Church develops and grows even as it remains rooted in Jesus Christ and His Gospel as handed on from the Apostles.

Saint Bonaventure saw that the charism of his teacher Saint Francis of Assisi represented a new “moment” in the history of the Church. Nevertheless, it did not represent a break with the past, but rather a coherent unfolding of the inner vitality of Christian faith and life. One might say—as Pope Benedict often emphasized regarding the Church today—that it was a moment of “renewal in continuity.” Bonaventure viewed the rise of the mendicant orders as a deepening of the Church’s own understanding of the “inexhaustible riches” of the revelation of God’s love given in Christ and handed on in the Church’s living tradition. The works of Christ “do not fail but progress” in the Church’s earthly pilgrimage through history in union with His fullness.

Here Pope Benedict summarizes the great thirteenth century Saint’s approach to the conflicts he faced as Minister General of the rapidly growing Franciscan order in its still-early days:

“Jesus Christ is God's last word—in him God said all, giving and expressing himself. More than himself, God cannot express or give. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. Christ himself says of the Holy Spirit: ‘He will bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you’ (John 14:26), and ‘he will take what is mine and declare it to you’ (John 16:15). Thus there is no loftier Gospel, there is no other Church to await. Therefore the Order of St Francis too must fit into this Church, into her faith and into her hierarchical order.

“This does not mean that the Church is stationary, fixed in the past, or that there can be no newness within her. ‘Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt’: Christ's works do not go backwards, they do not fail but progress, the Saint said in his letter De Tribus Quaestionibus. Thus St Bonaventure explicitly formulates the idea of progress and this is an innovation in comparison with the Fathers of the Church and the majority of his contemporaries

“The Franciscan Order of course as he emphasized belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ, to the apostolic Church, and cannot be built on utopian spiritualism. Yet, at the same time, the newness of this Order in comparison with classical monasticism was valid and St Bonaventure…defended this newness against the attacks of the secular clergy of Paris: the Franciscans have no fixed monastery, they may go everywhere to proclaim the Gospel. It was precisely the break with stability, the characteristic of monasticism, for the sake of a new flexibility that restored to the Church her missionary dynamism.”

~Pope Benedict XVI (General Audience, March 10, 2010)

Thursday, July 13, 2023

“Summer Skies”

Here’s a work of digital art by JJStudios: a breath of cool air for your mind on these warm buggy July evenings.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Christina Grimmie and the YouTube Creative Revolution

There are so many dimensions of Christina Grimmie’s life that I have grown to know and love over the past seven years, as anyone who reads these “almost-monthly” tributes knows. But sometimes I forget to express sufficiently my appreciation for the fundamental talent—the gift, the “genius”—that pervaded her life, that she developed with relentless dedication, that first drew the support of her frands from every corner of the earth, and that continues to amaze and astonish me afresh every time I see and hear it.

The simple facts are: Christina was a brilliant and creative musician and songwriter, a groundbreaking, innovative, and charismatic performing artist, and—above all—a great singer. But she also had the singular distinction of putting all of this into a “package” and communicating it through a new form of media when that interactive audiovisual media platform was still young and malleable, when its possibilities were still being discovered and invented.

YouTube was (and remains) the largest and most flexible “space” for the ongoing revolution that is flipping the whole dynamic of the relationship between the viewer and the screen—a dynamic that had dominated audiovisual media for half a century, which for my generation (the “late boomers” who never knew a world without ubiquitous TV) spanned our whole lives. It was like people hardly noticed the change as it was taking place. They started “watching” YouTube, and soon discovered that they could comment on the videos by opening their own YouTube account, and this account empowered them to post their own videos if they wanted to. Even if the vast majority of people remained “viewers” and didn’t “broadcast” their own videos to what rapidly became a global public audience, they could not avoid realizing that a new horizon had been opened. 

In the first decade of the 21st century YouTube turned every viewer into a potential broadcaster. After 50 years of “watching TV,” it took me some time to realize that, suddenly, I had been invested with my own personal television station with the potential to reach anyone in the world… for free! Like most people, I didn’t have the skill or the time to make much use of it. But the younger generation adapted spontaneously and began to produce innovative content. YouTube—almost “accidentally,” without anyone realizing what was happening—connected creative people to the whole world in a way that was unprecedentedly simple and inexpensive. It was so easy to share videos on YouTube that kids could do it. So, they did.

Mostly, they did it for fun. Some also daydreamed wildly of being “discovered” by a rich and famous entertainment-industry-“gatekeeper,” taken under his or her patronage, and launched into superstardom. It was still a crazy dream 15 years ago, but it did seem slightly less impossible than before.

The daydream of being discovered—in itself—was an old and inextinguishable daydream in the minds of generations of youth. My band mates and I “dreamed” in the ‘70s of being “discovered” and becoming famous. Both myself and my fellow guitarist could take turns shredding epic leads (actually, we were pretty good). But none of us could sing. If only we’d had a “Christina Grimmie” at our high school! But it wasn’t meant to be, and in any case none of us were sufficiently driven by our daydreams in this regard. We were happy enough having a nerd-fest pouring over the latest music equipment catalogues and “dreaming” of owning a stack of Marshall amps and all the latest sound-altering gadgets. 

After my own youth had passed, I continued to pay attention to the music scene, and I noticed the increased possibilities of sharing music through recorded media: quality cassette recording made “demo tapes” possible, and video tapes widened the sphere wherein one could seek an audience. Tapes could be copied and distributed through the mail. A simple demo tape might catch the attention of a person with bigger “connections” who might get it to a music manager who might pass it around until, maybe, an A&R developer at one of the many record labels in the vastly enlarged music industry took an interest in it. This could lead to a recording contract and, with determination and a lot of luck, eventual superstardom… which was the only way to spread your music around the world and build a global base of committed fans who appreciated and supported it.

Worldwide popular music success was necessarily linked to celebrity status, with all the vainglory, pressures, expectations, anxieties, isolation, and self-alienating and destructive behavior this status frequently entailed. Music needed new outlets, new ways expression that enabled the artist to remain in control of his or her craft.

Although I took up the teaching and academic profession and it remains the primary focus of my professional activities, I have also been immersed for most of my life in many facets of music. I have been on both sides of the stage in concerts of diverse genres. I was classically trained on the cello, and taught myself electric and acoustic guitar. I learned to read musical notation and wrote instrumental music (and I’m trying to revive those efforts). I have also participated in the tremendous expansion of media and technology for musical performance and recording that has taken place during the span of my own lifetime. From “stereophonic” vinyl records to cassettes to CDs to iPods to Spotify and streaming audio, from “concert films” and documentaries to multi-camera-angle television broadcasts to MTV to concert DVDs of outstanding quality, from basic musical instruments (which in themselves are the fruit of centuries of craft and technical refinement) to analogue electronic augmentation (I had a “transducer” in the 1970s to amplify my cello) and the complex, huge, and amazing versatility of the analogue Synthesizer (1960s-70s) to the increasing sophistication and digital transformation of the portable electronic keyboard… I could go on and on…

In any case, I knew that the outlets for musical creativity (and other forms of creativity) were bound to expand in the wild explosion of interconnectedness that the internet was spreading like fire in the global village. We were already seeing this phenomenon (with regard to the written word) in social media as the years passed in first decade of the 21st century. Blogs were everywhere. I began blogging in 2006, although my early ventures didn’t last. This present blog, however, has endured. 

But I was blindsided by YouTube. When it first appeared, it seemed like just another way to watch videos. By the time my adolescent kids started showing me what was happening with YouTube creators, it had already been going on for some time and already had established artists. Only in retrospect did I see how it all began and how it grew.

Mainstream highly-produced music videos by pop stars grabbed most of the attention of music audiences and got the most “views” in the beginning—for that matter, they still do today. But people began to post their own videos, playing music and singing from their own bedrooms (and, sometimes, bathrooms—because of the superior acoustics there). This often began with the sense that only a small circle of friends would be watching them sing cover songs karaoke-style. But from the beginning, remarkably talented people stood out and drew larger audiences. At first, YouTubers were as surprised as everyone else to see their videos “take off,” to get encouragement and comments from people from distant places, and to accumulate more views than they ever imagined possible.

Among these creative pioneers was a 15-year-old girl from Marleton, New Jersey, named Christina Grimmie. In the Summer of 2009 she began recording cover songs in her room with a laptop and a webcam. What was rare about Christina from the start, however, was not only her singing quality but also the way she interpreted each song, arranging her own “stripped down” versions for piano and then accompanying herself live on her electronic keyboard. Even with relatively primitive recording equipment, Christina put enormous work into crafting performances that were perfect (or nearly perfect) from start to finish. Her agile, beautiful voice and her unique arrangements captivated people in those first days. I try to imagine how astonishing it must have been to go through a bunch of different videos and suddenly stumble upon this girl expertly playing her piano and singing like an angel songs that you had heard “on the radio” (or wherever) before but that you had never heard in the form Christina Grimmie had given them. She brought her own sense of beauty to the songs she played and sang in that room, in front of a poster of Sonic the Hedgehog.

She was a regular kid—with no promotion, no overhead, no tricks—creating beautiful new renditions of popular songs and broadcasting her videos directly on to your screen. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see her in those days, when the videos that (thankfully) we can still watch in her archives were posted fresh—for the first time—entirely unique in comparison to any of the other content surrounding them. It must have been a cause for wonder. It certainly inspired other young artists who came after her to take the risk of sharing their best music, to take the new media platform seriously, to “aim high” in their artistry.

Of course, it wasn’t long before Christina was noticed by people who could help her advance her music career in more conventional ways. She gained everyone’s attention in those few unforgettable weeks in 2014, on Season Six of The Voice (broadcast in the USA on “old-fashioned” network TV). Her singing became more expansive and more passionate as she gained experience and her voice began to mature, and as she expanded the repertoire of her own original songs. During those final two years, her music became more inspiring, comforting, thrilling, evocative, luminous, and soul-shaking. Still she stayed with her YouTube channel and continued her series of inimitable cover songs. She had frands all over the world, and met some of them face-to-face in tours and performances in Europe, Singapore, the Philippines, and the USA. Her voice and her talent were at the level of once-in-a-generation by the time she was 22 years old. I tremble when I imagine how great she might have become. For anyone who is an artist, or a human being, the awful tragedy of Christina Grimmie’s death seven years and one month ago is an enduring sorrow. We will not see or hear the likes of her again in these times (even if we are sustained by the hope to be with her again in God’s kingdom, where all sorrows will be turned to joy).

Still, she left a creative legacy that remains foundational for music and media in our time, and—undoubtedly—for the times to come.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

The Story of “Young Saint Benedict”

On this beautiful July 11th—the feast of Saint Benedict—I knew I had more to offer than experiments with digital graphics or colorful renditions of the “proper prayers” for the liturgical celebration. I decided to reproduce the my column in Magnificat from March 2015 (more that eight years ago) on the “conversion” of Saint Benedict. As you will see, this is a different kind of “conversion,” as Benedict was raised a Catholic Christian and remained faithful to his baptism. This is the story of  Benedict’s deeper conversion—we might call it his “vocation story” (and every vocation prompts a more profound, interior conversion).

Saint Benedict’s “flight to the desert” was a radical response to a grace which he hardly understood at the beginning, but which began to be realized by his fidelity to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and the guidance from brothers in Christ to whom he was entrusted along the way.

The column is below. As you see, also, I did not neglect the JJStudios virtual workshop. I have rendered (above) a visual “interpretation” of Saint Benedict in his later years, when he was Abbot of the Monte Cassino. I also have placed today’s (very rich) proper prayers in colorful settings. Perhaps these efforts remotely approach something like “beauty” in the widest and most expansive analogical sense of the term.😉

Nevertheless, let me share the fruits of my own primary and professional labors, in the medium of words from my monthly column (which tells a new story every month from December 2013 to the present):


And here are the prayers for today:

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Escalation in the Ukraine War: Can We Find “Paths of Peace”?

Some sectors of opinion have expressed frustration at Pope Francis because he doesn’t seem to be more “Pro-Ukraine” in the ongoing war. However, not only would such temporal partisanship serve no practical purpose. It would also hinder the Pope from carrying out his essential role for Christian peoples and for the whole world.

Francis has recognized that the Ukrainian people have a right to defend themselves. He has expressed his awareness of and solidarity with them in the immense suffering that has been inflicted upon them. He is not speaking here (see below) as a diplomat trying to broker some sort of inadequate compromise that ignores the requirements of “a just and stable peace.” As a Pastor, he must encourage peace because he knows that God will give the gift of peace to those who convert to Him and seek ways to love one another. The inherently reckless trajectory and desperation of intractable wars—especially modern technologically destructive wars—wreak havoc on a huge scale, radically destabilize the international order, tend to spiral out of control more and more, and sow the seeds of vengeance and resentment between peoples that lead to further wars. The Pope is therefore emphasizing that every morally possible means that might contribute to building peace must be given attention and consideration, in order to move toward bringing about a just and equitable conclusion to this conflict with its increasingly wanton and large-scale destruction. The explosion of the Nova Kakhovka dam, for example, has not only put homes and lands throughout the region underwater—see top picture—but it is also an environmental catastrophe much larger than many of us in the West appreciate. The time and cost (even the possibility!) of recovering the land for habitation and restoring its prior terrestrial vitality are incalculable. The fact that this was almost certainly the fault of Putin’s Russian forces cannot be forgotten (nor can anyone afford to ignore the danger that the massive Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant might be deliberately damaged—sending toxic radiation on west winds over Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and other parts of Europe in a disaster that would make 1986 Chernobyl look small by comparison). .

International law points to the duty to impose punishments, insofar as it is possible, on the perpetrators of these war crimes according to justice in the service of peace (not, however, as a tool for revenge by the victors). But wars often brings their own “rough justice” (or vengeance) against those who commit crimes within them. At present, it seems that Putin no longer has stable control over his own armies, especially the large “contract forces” of the Wagner group. Their recent march toward Moscow was not “defeated” but rather “called off” by Wagner’s own leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Wagner troops remain in their camps. If Putin is ultimately overthrown, he is likely to be replaced by someone more reckless and dangerous.

Meanwhile, wars are fought between human persons. Even the Russian leaders are persons. The Ukrainians are (and will be) challenged immensely by the need to look upon their enemies as persons—with the dignity they ineradicably possess as persons—even as the Ukrainians use military force in their efforts to liberate their country and rescue their own people. Only the grace of Christ can empower them to face this challenge and sustain this “inner non-violence” that is the radical foundation of true peace. And then there are Ukraine’s Western (undeclared) “allies,” some of whom want to avoid risking their own super-comfortable materialist-saturated lifestyles and choose instead to give Ukrainians weapons and money according to their own agendas; there are undoubtedly many agendas at work here—not in a conspiratorial way, but haphazardly—fraught with inner tensions and known only to those who are driven by them. Such is the dynamic of chaos, power, internal divisions, and alienation that results from “the idolatry of money.” As for our respecting the dignity of persons in this conflict and everywhere else in the world, we in the West need to resolve our own unprecedented level of confusion about human realities, our reductionist identity politics, our callow disregard for vulnerable and powerless people from whom we have nothing to gain for ourselves, and our bewildering hyper-excessive, thoughtless, heartless lifestyles, so that we can renew and cultivate our understanding of what it means to be a human person.

Human persons are suffering because of this war. Channels of dialogue between human persons must be sought out and opened up, however small they may be. So many circumstances in war are uncontrollable, and even those who strive to use force with justice and restraint to defend themselves need also to talk to persons who represent the other side. They must remember the humanity of the actual persons they fight—often helpless young conscripts—who are being used (even coerced) to do the dirty work of brutal and incompetent leaders. This is a heroic posture to maintain; it is a spirit of “inner non-violence” that must be held firmly even (especially!) when it becomes necessary to use external force. Modern warfare so easily loses the sense of restraint and honesty in the use of “proportionate means,” and pushes forward technological weapons that are designed to prioritize “efficiency” over respect for the human dignity of the adversary. That dignity must not be violated, even when the enemy doesn’t seem to deserve such respect. It remains a matter of honor for those who truly wish to serve their homeland by defending and rescuing their compatriots. When there is failure here, it should be followed by sorrow, humility, repentance, and a renewed dedication to the difficult task of loving one’s enemies even in the fight—to keep one’s honor and to be ready always to seek ways toward peace. 

The channels of dialogue must therefore remain open to the humanity of the others, with readiness to allow space for change, for repentance, for new perspectives, for a willingness to engage in honest conversation. They also must be ready for the possibility that suddenly “the other side” might be led by different persons with different aims. Their aims may remain violent, but their rationales, their grudges, their grievances, their personal and social wounds may be very different. Firm, frank, open-hearted dialogue is the only way to learn who these person are, on “the other side,” how they may be changing, and what new possibilities may open up. 

The point of dialogue is above all not negotiating compromise but building (however slowly and painfully) mutual understanding. It is a small, seemingly powerless “instrument” through which people can actively “love their enemies” and sow seeds for interpersonal relationships. This is not achieved by naïveté but by hard work that only God can make possible. Societies and cultures, as well as particular people, must not “return evil for evil,” but trust in God and work relentlessly to “overcome evil with good” (see Romans 12:17-21). Seeking true dialogue engages people in the works of mercy, and mercy is what is needed to bring fully human healing to war-torn places.
We all need to remember these things, even if there aren’t any easy answers for how to bring about a just peace. Vladimir Putin and his government unleashed this war, but all of us must seek peace, pray for peace, be converted for peace, make sacrifices for peace, and look beyond our own selfish interests for the sake of a peace that has any chance of being real.

Pope Francis says these words quoted below because they are true. And he is speaking not only to Russia, nor only to Russia and Ukraine, but to all of us in a world where we can no longer afford not to work together, where we must recognize one another as neighbors—brothers and sisters—even if we’d rather not. The possible dangers are too great for us to just wave banners and look upon this conflict like it’s a game (and be proud of ourselves for backing the “winner”).

Here are the Pope’s recent words: 

All wars are in fact disasters, utter disasters: for peoples and families, for children and the elderly, for people forced to leave their country, for cities and villages, and for creation, as we have recently seen following the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam… The tragic reality of this apparently interminable war requires a common creative effort on the part of all to envision and create paths of peace, in view of a just and stable peace.

What stands in the way of peace is ultimately the bitter root that we carry within us: greed, the selfish desire to pursue our own interests at the personal, community, national and even religious levels.

The remedy is the conversion of hearts, renewing them with the love of the Father,”
the Pope emphasized. The achievement of true peace requires a gracious and universal love that is not confined to our own group.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

“How Many Fireflies?”

At nearly 9pm it’s still light. I’m not sure of the number. But there are more than we can see in this video. They are all around as it gets dusky.

Can you guess? Look closely!🙂

Monday, July 3, 2023

After Two Years, I Still Miss My Mom

Today marks the second anniversary of my mother’s death. We pray for her, entrusting her to the goodness and mercy of God. May the Lord Jesus give her eternal life.

I know that “in death, life is not ended, but changed.” My parents are nearer to me than I realize, yet with my eyes of this world I can’t see them, and my ears can’t hear them. I miss them in these days of the mysterious journey of my own life. 

Time is so fragile. I can’t see the new steps that lie before me. Sometimes I wish I could talk to my parents, to ask them how to grow old, how to let go, how to become simple. I move forward with a sense of obscurity, but also with hope. May the One who is Infinite Love embrace us all in his mercy.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

A “Catholic Uncle” in the British Royal Family?

Not many people know that the world-famous man who will one day become King of England has an ancestor who is “on the path” to sainthood in the Catholic Church, who was declared “Venerable” in 2021.

The early 19th century conversion story of George Spencer (later known as Father Ignatius Spencer)—the youngest son of the 2nd Earl Spencer of the Althorp estate—is noteworthy for all people of England and the United Kingdom. Father Ignatius is the great-great-great-great uncle of William, current Prince of Wales and heir to the British throne, a relation that passes through William’s mother, the late Princess Diana, daughter of the 8th Earl Spencer. Althorp in Northamptonshire is one of the most historically and culturally significant “Great Houses” of England, and the Spencers remain among England’s highest aristocratic families. In the first decade of the 19th century, George Spencer grew up in the same house that would be—in the latter part of the 20th century—the home of then-“Lady Diana Spencer” and the scene of her difficult childhood in a broken family. After her tragic death, she was buried on the estate in 1997.

Stay tuned to my monthly article series in Magnificat magazine for the remarkable details of this journey to the fullness of Catholic faith by Prince William’s ancestral uncle (coming to Great Conversion Stories in February 2024).

In thus introducing George (Ignatius) Spencer, I am not seeking to draw him into the whirlwind of cheap journalism that surrounds the British royal family, nor do I desire merely to scrutinize the pedigree of today’s largely symbolic British aristocracy. The Venerable Ignatius Spencer was profoundly dedicated to promoting prayer for Christian unity in his native land, and surely he continues to intercede for this great grace even to this day from his place within the Communion of Saints that unites us through all the generations of history. This is the fundamental basis of his significance, and of the value of his “story.”

Nevertheless, I am not one to neglect an apparent “coincidence” when it appears in the history of our faith. As someone who hopes and prays ardently that Anglicans and their rich Christian heritage will be drawn into full communion with the Catholic Church, I value any connection I can find that links the pioneers of the ongoing “Catholic movement” that began in the early 19th century with current British persons who hold exemplary ceremonial public offices. It was, after all, a King who separated England from Rome 500 years ago. It might seem like a miracle would be needed for the full conversion, renewal, and ecclesial reunion of the remnants of Anglican Christianity in today’s England. 

But I believe in miracles. And it doesn’t hurt to pray for them.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

Saint Junipero Serra: Faithful to His Mission

July 1st is the feast day celebration of Saint Junipero Serra, who remains the patron saint of California and one of the crucial saints for all the people of the United States of America, even (perhaps especially) for those who have slandered and attacked him in recent years.

Father Serra is a saint; we know this from the Holy Spirit’s guarantee that insures the veracity of a formal canonization by the Church. Certainly, Father Serra was a man shaped by his times and constrained by the limitations of the evangelizing methods available to him in 18th century Spanish America. But this only makes his heroic dedication to the spiritual and temporal welfare of the indigenous peoples more remarkable. 

In spite of a painful physical disability that made him virtually lame, Serra traveled thousands of miles on foot up and down the coast and the mountains from San Diego to the Bay Area during the last 14 years of his life (1770-1784), establishing mission communities, serving his people, and defending them tirelessly against the powers of the military forces and the colonists who would have otherwise pushed the natives to the ground without a thought. 

Becoming a saint does not mean never making mistakes, or always enacting miraculously visionary judgments and having perfect solutions to every complicated problem. Father Serra knew he was a sinner, but he had a passion for the glory of Christ and he allowed the grace of the Holy Spirit to transform him by leading him from the comforts of his home and his university professorship in Mallorca to serve Christ in His poor brothers and sisters on the other side of the world. He became a saint by persevering in following Christ and fulfilling his vocation, with a humility that the millions who have come to California in the past two centuries and live from the wealth of its land would do well to admire.

Our family made many journeys to the California Missions in our younger days, when we visited Eileen’s parents in California. But it’s been eleven years since the last time we all traveled to California together—eleven years since the last time I was there. I miss California! The tall redwoods and the dry sea air always seemed to rejuvenate me.

Saint Junipero Serra no doubt continues to have a special solicitude for the people who live in California today: such multitudes of people—the few remaining descendants of the indigenous inhabitants (many of whom continue to foster their own historical identity in relation to the Missions that were homes to their forebears) as well as Anglos, Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and others whose ancestors came (or have come themselves) from all over the world—and with every one of them in need of the Gospel and the experience of a new encounter with the love of God in Jesus Christ.