Thursday, August 01, 2019

TOB: As Timely as Ever

In the week since I've been back from the retreat house (and before I go back again, next time for my actual retreat), Theology of the Body issues have been back in the news.

Marc Chagall, The Four Seasons, det. (Chicago)
There was a veritable storm on #CatholicTwitter over changes at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Rome, which as of 2017 is being completely restructured (under a Motu Proprio from Pope Francis). In fact, the Institute founded by Pope John Paul has been dissolved, and a new one with a slightly broader name and mission (John Paul II Theological Institute for Matrimonial and Family Science) has been established in its place. Students who were already enrolled in studies will be able to finish their degrees according to the former program ("if they wish"!), keeping their same doctoral advisors.

At this stage, all of the earlier Institute's professors have been terminated, a few positions and one major course area eliminated, and there is general consternation over the future of the Institute. Those changes will obviously also eventually affect the Institute's branches in other parts of the world (including the US). Current and prospective students are in dismay. Since very little was coming from the official media office (at least in English), this left a lot of room for speculation, most of it on the negative side. I must confess that the response from the official media office in answer to the criticisms on social media did not really encourage my confidence, but it has increased my prayers. In the end, God is always in charge, no matter the human machinations.

Then there was the story of the baby on the doorstep. Ten days ago, a Florida man answered a knock at the door, and found the police there with a newborn baby. The infant had been left on the doormat of his apartment. A note with the child gave the time and place of birth (5:45 pm, in the bathroom) and asked that the baby be taken to the hospital, a safe haven. (Unfortunately this was not done, since neighbors had heard the baby crying and called 911 earlier.)

That mother, a victim of domestic violence, gave birth alone and unaided.  Alone and unaided, still under threat of unspeakable violence, she tenderly washed her baby and fed him, swaddled him in a t-shirt, and when the coast was clear, brought him to the attention of a neighbor she hoped she could trust with the baby's life. The note explained that the father "is a dangerous man" who "tried to kill us both," and asked that everything be kept secret.

And then there is the story of the sixth wife of the fabulously wealthy Emir of Dubai. According to yesterday's news, she asked a British court that a "forced marriage protection order" be applied to one of her two children, and that both children be made "wards of the court."

Pope John Paul said over thirty years ago: Woman is "the master of her own mystery" [TOB 110:7-9].

With the Bible, Pope John Paul insists that "The 'language of the body' reread in the truth goes hand in hand with the discovery of the inner inviolability of the person." This is precisely what we see those two women in the news intuitively and so rightly defending. The Pope goes on: "When the bride [in the Song of Songs] says, 'My beloved is mine,' she means at the same time, 'It is he to whom I entrust myself'... The freedom of the gift is the response to the deep consciousness of the gift expressed in the bridegroom's words" which had acknowledged her self-possession: "A garden closed, you are, my sister, my bride; a garden closed, a fountain sealed" (Songs 4:21). "One can say that both metaphors express the whole dignity of the woman, who, as a spiritual subject, possesses herself and can decide not only the metaphysical depth, but also the essential truth and authenticity of the gift of self that tends toward the union about which Genesis speak" [TOB 110:4].

Clearly, as in the two women's stories, this is not the way the world actually is. But the Pope's words are more than wishful thinking or the theme of the next Disney princess story. According to Pope John Paul, who clearly remembered the scores of couples who had bared their souls to him across the decades, this is the way we were made: this is God's real plan for us. To the extent that we live according to it, the family and society flourish. The farther we depart from it, the more the family (and each member of it) suffers.

How can we help society awaken from its delusions about atomized, individualistic freedom (apart from the "sincere gift of self" that is the secret of human fulfillment) and from the loss of a sense of the reality of the body?

Friday, July 19, 2019

Time-Out for TOB (again?!)

I'm at the retreat house this week, not on retreat but for a “writer's retreat.” There actually is a spiritual retreat going on, so the atmosphere is quite recollected while I am working on a Theology of the Body project for our MYSISTERS community. (Hopefully that project will eventually reach a broader audience as well, in some form.)

During this time, I've been reviewing my old notes (and the half-written project that has been on hold for ages), as well as picking up the text of JP2's talks again and taking down pertinent passages in longhand. I have to confess that I was feeling a bit of scruples over this, knowing that my take on the Pope's talks is a step or two removed from the needs out there in the real world. And yet those realities kept coming at me this week from Catholic Twitter, as if to emphasize the need for all sorts of “takes” on the Theology of the Body (maybe even mine).

The first of those realities was an opinion piece by Fr. Peter Daly, “The priesthood is being crucified on the cross of celibacy”(@NCRonline, July 15). From the context, it is clear that this crucifixion is some kind of problem. The real problem is that being conformed to "Christ and him crucified" is the whole point of Christianity. (It was the focus of Paul's preaching, according to 1 Corinthians:1, and his life, according to Philippians 3.) So that would put clerical celibacy right at the center of … Gospel life. Especially since Jesus himself was the one to introduce celibacy as way of life in the first place. (As more than one respondent to the piece noted, complaints about and/or proposals to optionalize priestly celibacy almost always appeal to contemporary expectations and almost never to the prophetic words and example of Jesus.)

The comment stream went on, by the way, for days. Then toward the tail end of many responses to Fr Daly's piece, someone posted a challenge (it has since been deleted), asking for “full detail how celibate folk deal with natural sexual urges.” This was bolstered with the claim that “sexual release is healthy and a biological necessity.” Well, the “celibate folk” and quite a few supporters came out en masse, some of them taking the question seriously, but the majority (mostly guys) blowing off the question and laughing at the “scientific” datum. Among the more important responses was one woman's short thread, which I retweeted (see end). Unfortunately, I was among those who could not take the man's question too seriously, and for effect, I quoted his claim about sexual release in my retweet. How shocked I was to receive a message from him the next morning thanking me for agreeing with him, and asking me for a woman's perspective on the matter (hint: see end). I confess I did not respond well. I even said that I thought the idea was “preposterous.” What bothered (and continues to bother) me the most about it is the way this idea seems to make a kind of idol of the whole sexual aspect of the person, as if this one dimension was actually the core of human life: of an individual human life.

Now after prayer and reflection it has sunk in, ever so slowly and painfully, that this is where many people are really truly coming from; that this is the way people do think; that their understanding and experience of their own humanity is that limited, that un-free. The person who posted this was not some kid living in his parents' basement, but a professional man in the prime of life. This is probably what his father had taught him, and what he was teaching his own kids, and he could not even conceive of anything different, not even for the highest motivation. I completely missed that. And hours later, the man's entire Twitter account had been deleted. I couldn't even reach out to say “I'm sorry.”

Then I came across @TravelingNun (not a nun; not Catholic, either, as far as I know, but a chaste Christian intellectual). Her provocative question raised much the same issue, but from an LGBTQ perspective:

@TravelingNun has the most nuanced theological position of all. (I wouldn't be surprised if she has read all of TOB.)

Really, all three posts deal with the same subject Pope John Paul covers in the first 27 sessions of Theology of the Body (when he's only revving up the engines). It is what @TravelingNun is hinting at: We are not dealing with the situation that God created us to experience. We are facing something not of his making.

And Pope John Paul wants us to look at that situation squarely, acknowledge it honestly, and then listen as Christ makes his “appeal to the human heart.” It is an appeal to “historical man,” to man and woman as they find themselves—with hearts not always under their own control.

As I have been reading Pope John Paul's words today, I see the man from Twitter reading over my shoulder, shaking his head in a mixture of disbelief and irritation: “Where has this been all my life? Why have I been left on my own to deal with unwelcome and intrusive temptations with only the guidance of 'Thou shalt nots,' when there are whole traditions that could strengthen me from the inside and set me free? Why have I been cheated for so long?...
Why didn't anyone tell me?”
Even the pagans of ancient Greece and Rome had more to work with than Catholic adults in America under age 65. At least the pagans knew about the “cardinal virtues” of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. For two generations now, though, Catholics, are deprived through no fault of their own of basic formation in those old virtues (the word itself connotes maturity, strength, and self-possession) and, like everybody else, are at the mercy of their passions, rather than in possession of themselves through self-mastery. How nearly unthinkable it must be to keep the letter of the law of the 6th and 9th Commandments (never mind the Sermon on the Mount!) without having first been trained and schooled in the cardinal virtues! Avoiding sin must be like life on a storm-rocked sea without navigation skills or tools that could tell you where and when the storms are likely to arise or who you could skirt them. Life at the mercy of the waves would be all you know.

I think of a man deleting his entire 9 year Twitter account over the fallout from one poorly expressed question. And it turns out he really meant it.

Yet there are skills (from nature itself) and tools (the helps we find in grace) targeting precisely these types of storms... I will only briefly mention them here; for an adult this is really the area for a spiritual director's expertise. (There are also books that help with the first steps: Planof Life: Habit to Make You Grow Closer to God is one of them.)

The skills are largely in the areas of self-knowledge and self-mastery: consistent, life-long practices, not emergency procedures (though it doesn't hurt to have a few personalized approaches for occasions when one is caught off-guard). These are what make a person interiorly free. This is why we teach little children to make small acts of self-discipline for Lent. For now it is the urge to grab that piece of chocolate or that cookie (still warm from the oven!), but later, the urges will be stronger, and with far more delectable objects—not that these inclinations are always to be suppressed, either! 

Self-mastery is not self-denial of every good thing that comes our way, but part of plan of life, in view of being the kind of person who is free for the greatest of the good things that are meant to be ours. Fr Landry, echoing St Josemaria, says that the first and greatest act of self-mastery most of us can put into practice immediately and easily is simply getting up every morning at the appointed time. (Even on Saturday!). The kind of person who overcome the tendency to hit the snooze button is also the kind of person with the resources to more easily master other sorts of bodily indulgences.

“At the price of mastery over these impulses, man reaches that deeper and more mature spontaneity with which his 'heart,' by mastering these impulses, rediscovers the spiritual beauty of the sign constituted by the human body in its masculinity and femininity” [TOB 48:5].

The “tools” are supernatural: fasting, prayer (also good for emergencies!), sacramentals (Holy Water, the Sign of the Cross, etc.) and frequent celebration of the sacraments. The sacrament of Penance (confession) combines self-knowledge with sacramental grace as we bring to the Lord (in the person of the priest) the ways we recognize ourselves falling into sin: the tendencies, the habits, the little lies we tell ourselves that keep us trapped in sinful patterns. A certain self-mastery is also needed in order to establish a personal pattern of prayer. Making room for God in our daily schedule makes room for him in our mind. Giving space in our mind for God's Word (for example, the Mass readings of the day) lets the Holy Spirit purify and even sanctify our thoughts and attractions. Far from just avoiding sin or “dealing with urges,” the Holy Spirit gradually reshapes us into people who think, act, speak, and “gaze” the way Jesus did.

Christ's words, as Pope John Paul presents them in Theology of the Body, “indicate the road toward a mature spontaneity of the human 'heart' that does not suffocate its noble desires and aspirations, but on the contrary liberates and helps them” [TOB 48:5].

This is a lot, and it is characteristically cerebral, I know. I'm still processing. Now you can, too.


More for you to read:

I thought this one responded well to many of the questions and assumptions that are pretty commonplace on Catholic Twitter (and elsewhere!). It ends on a really high note, too!

A somewhat intellectual take (in case mine wasn't enough for you). I especially like the line referencing Pope Benedict's remark to the effect that celibacy agitates the world so much because it is a sign of the kingdom to come.

And here's one woman's response to the crass question that provoked all this. Although it is not my own take (apart from the brain-altering effects of porn use, it seems to me that a woman's characteristic movement is above all relational—"your urge shall be for your husband"; see Gen 3:16), this young woman is making some very important points. (I also couldn't resist including the final response from another reader!)

Monday, July 08, 2019

Vows season

We celebrated our Pauline Family's own "Solemnity of St Paul" the Sunday before last (June 30), and that means that this is the season of vows and anniversaries of vows. My own anniversary (41st!) was two days later: July 2 had been the Sunday closest to the Feast of St Paul in 1978.

This year on June 29 we had the great joy of welcoming Sister Amanda among our newly professed sisters. (In the video, we are all straining to hear Sister Amanda's "new name": we keep our baptismal name, with the option of adding a new "profession name" on the day of our first vows.) Sister Amanda's co-novice had made her own first vows in Germany hours earlier--and on Facebook we are seeing the photos of joyful sisters in Africa who made their first vows that same day.

Speaking of Africa, it was there (specifically in Kenya) that one of the sisters from our province made her final vows this year--a little earlier than the usual Feast of St Paul, however. Sister Jacqueline Jean-Marie met us as a graduate student at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). (In fact, she is there right now, celebrating her final vows at her Alma Mater and its great Newman Center; we think this is the fifth celebration she has had!) Throughout her studies, Jackie continued her discernment, visiting different communities, but always coming back to our Chicago center. She made an impression on us the very first time she came through the door. The sisters were loading boxes into the van for a book fair. Jackie grabbed a box and joined the effort before she had even put her overnight bag into the guest room. That's the kind of person she is. Shortly after her graduation, she joined the postulancy.

Fast forward through the years, and Sister Jacqueline Jean-Marie (her name in vows) was stationed in Chicago and New Orleans, and then moved to Italy to prepare for final vows. She got permission to make her perpetual vows in May,  in her homeland, Kenya, and in her own district of Nyeri so that her extended family and her many friends could be a part of the day. Needless to say, our sisters in Kenya were happy to participate as well! Our provincial superior, Sister Donna, crossed the oceans for the special event and witness the vows in an official capacity. She also gave Sister her first official "mandate" as a perpetually professed sister, assigning her to New Orleans to be the National Director of the Pauline Cooperators Association (!).

I'll let Sister Jacqueline Jean-Marie tell the rest of the story:

Sr Donna arrived on May 15 and after a night of rest, we visited the Pauline apostolate in the main publishing house in Nairobi. We got to see the new bookstore inaugurated a few years ago and the building with their new sound studio and conference room. We also got to visit Editorial, digital, shipping, etc. and learn of the kinds of projects they are working on. The latest project in the works is the Roman Missal in Swahili which they are waiting approval of language. We also got to visit the Giraffe Center in Nairobi. I've heard about it but it was my first time visiting it...we had a blast feeding and learning about these beautiful and gentle creatures! We also made a brief stop at Gabriella house, the house of formation for the junior professed sisters. The house has a bookcenter which quite conveniently serves the many religious communities and students from a couple Catholic universities in the area who do not need to go down into the city to purchase their religious books.

Friday May 17 was travel day to Nyeri. It was a great time to share with Sr Donna the scenic route to the Mount Kenya Region (the central part of Kenya). My hometown of Nyeri is higher altitude than Nairobi and therefore a lot cooler. It is near Mount Kenya, a significant landmark for my country. Nyeri is farm country, rich with volcanic soil where we grow a lot of tea, coffee, corn, beans, all kinds of vegetables and horticulture. Before the rehearsal, we had lunch as a family with Sr. Donna. It was quite a peaceful afternoon and quite relaxing. Truly God-given because it would be the calm we would experience before the good storm of Profession! 

During our visit in Nyeri, we were hosted by some wonderful sisters, Sisters of Mary Immaculate. It was from there we shuttled to and from the Cathedral on May 18 and to my
parish - St Joseph's Catholic Church in Giakanja, Nyeri - on May 19 for the Mass of Thanksgiving. The celebrations were colored in a particular way by lots of dancing and singing by the Catholic Women Association (women dressed in blue and white or maroon). It is also a group that my mother is a member; one that provides tremendous prayer and moral support for families with children who serve as priests or religious in the Church.

The Archbishop of Nyeri, Anthony Muheria could not make it to celebrate the Mass due to another pressing engagement that came up just before the profession. However, he had
asked Archbishop Emeritus Peter Kairo to be the celebrant. Archbishop Kairo knows our community well. He had been the celebrant for perpetual professions of a few of our sisters and had even served on our FSP communications board. It was a delight to have him with us. The Mass was colorful and full of joy. I prayed for you and your intentions in a particular way at that Mass. The Lord was truly with us and His presence with us so tangible. I was particularly moved at the Litany of the Saints and could not hold back my tears of joy after the profession. It was amazing!

Right after the profession, there was photo-taking in the Cathedral and we proceeded to the hall where we continued the celebration with the reception. There was lots of food,
Sister Jacqueline Jean-Marie with traditional
Kikuyu dress over her habit.
music and more dancing and singing, truly wonderful efforts from the Cathedral and St Joseph parishes, our sisters, my family and friends. The hall was beautifully decorated by
the sisters. It was full. My Godmother, my mom and the Catholic Women Association dressed me up in our traditional Kikuyu tribal dress, a significant symbol of maturation in one's vocation (usually in marriage, or in this case religious life).

Mass of Thanksgiving at our village home in Nyeri on May 25, 2019

The last celebration was the Mass of Thanksgiving at our village home in Nyeri. By this time, Sr Donna had returned to the US and my brother and his family as well. So, just my sister and my parents as well as extended family members and friends were present. The pastor from my parish was the main celebrant. This Mass had a particular significance in my clan and family. It was a prayer of Thanksgiving offered by my family for the gift of perpetual profession. 

After the Mass, there was another celebration of blessings and prayers carried out in the Kikuyu tribal tradition. First, there was a prayer by the clan fathers, commending me to God and asking for His blessing in my new mission and "forever" stage of religious life. After this blessing, there would be the cutting of and sharing of goat meat. The women of the clan prepared a certain type of traditional porridge. This would be served from a gourd onto calabashes (half part of a gourd). These prayers and symbols of sharing in the meat and porridge served to solidify the seriousness of the commitment just made; that now, as a woman married forever into Christ's household, the mothers and fathers of the clan were offering up these special prayers and blessings as a call to grow in my vocation, to grow in maturation in my relationship with Christ my Bridegroom and to know that I am now not only called to receive but also be able to give counsel as a bride now and forever in "Christ's household".    

The prayer was said in my tribal language of Kikuyu. Here is the loose translation of the prayer:

"O God send forth your blessings upon this liturgy of Sr Jacqueline..."Thaai thathaiya Ngai thaai", (i.e. “May peace prevail between God and men)"

"You O God who is Alive, pour your Holy Spirit upon Sr Jacqueline so that she can announce and preach your words in the way of wisdom that You Yourself have given her... "Thaai thathaiya Ngai thaai", (i.e. “May peace prevail between God and men)"

"O God, our God, we, as the fathers of Sr Jacqueline, we give her to you so that she may serve Your People on this earth in which You Yourself created for us "Thaai thathaiya Ngai thaai", (i.e. “May peace prevail between God and men)"

O peace! O peace!
Nations...peace! Parents...peace! Church...peace! Men...peace! Women...peace! Children...peace! Sr Jacqueline...peace! Daughters of St Paul....peace! Priests of God...peace!
O peace! O peace! O peace!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

When Abraham's faith failed

Today's Mass readings work together powerfully to call us to profound faith, but they do it in a rather
sideways manner. In fact, the first reading, from the Book of Genesis, is practically the reverse of yesterday's first reading--and if not for the utter faithfulness of God, would seem, in the light of today's Gospel, to bode ill for Abram.

Sarai brings Hagar to Abram, determined
to  have an heir, one way or the other.
Matthias Stom; Wikimedia.
Yesterday, Abram "believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (words that will be fundamental to Paul--and to fundamentalists!). God had made an incredible promise, and backed that promise up with a covenant, and Abram knew that what God promised IS, even if it is as invisible to us as the stars are during the daylight. This is the faith that made Abraham the "father of all who believe" (Paul's words) and "our father in faith" (the Liturgy's words).

In the Gospel today, Jesus sums up the Sermon on the Mount by telling his disciples that "Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock." In today's reading, though....well, it was not Abraham's finest moment. Instead of relying on the words of God's promise, Abram today listened and acted on Sarai's words. The fear and anxiety Abram and Sarai must have experienced over their situation, the need to "do something" to "make it go away" once and for all, caused Abram and Sarai both to fall short in their relationship with God as they tried to force a solution that would resolve in a manageable timeframe and on their own terms.

I certainly find myself falling into the same kind of trap. It reminds me of that line in The Hound of Heaven where the soul "fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears..." (This is especially the case if I don't particularly like the direction I think I see things going... O Lord, increase my faith!)

This week I have seen pious, Mass-going, Rosary-praying Catholics spew forth some of the most cold-hearted, appalling comments ever about current social issues. I won't even repeat them. The remarks are as bad as any disparaging thing pro-abortion radicals say about unborn life. In fact, the type of expressions are interchangeable.

How have these hostile, cruel, inhuman convictions found a home in a Catholic heart? I believe that the way we use media has a powerful part to play in this. In fact, because of the stereotyped language in the harshest comments, I am convinced of it. Today there are many voices like that of Sarai. Their insinuations can enter into the fabric of people's thoughts and compromise their free and ardent response to the Word of God even when it is spoken as clear as day through the teachings of the Church, including the applications of the Gospel to urgent moral issues.
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." 
Today's Gospel contains a serious warning, but it comes to us on the vigil of the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is an appeal of love: "If you cannot even bring your words of prayer and your words about society into communion with each other, you can still bring that conflict to Me."
  • What causes me to pull back from the clear, concrete demands of Gospel, from "the will of the Father in heaven" that is especially detailed in Matthew 25 (vv 31-46)?
  • To what degree does anxiety and my own fear for the future color my ability to see other human beings and view moral issues with the eyes and mind of Christ? 
  • Whom do I look to as a reliable guide and interpreter when it comes to matters of good and evil, right and wrong, and the common good? Are their principles consistent with those given in the Catechism of the Catholic Church?
For a few days, keep a notebook handy to write down the key words that your most trusted radio and TV commentators use the most often. Next week, revisit the word list. Circle the words that impart a sense of calm or confidence. Underline the words that, just upon reading them, cause you to experience dread, anger, or anxiety. Now tally up the two kinds of words. What tendency dominates? What can you do about that?

If you simply find a lot of words, both uplifting and wrenching, perhaps you simply need to cut back on talk media in general. That can allow more space for the Word of God to "abide" and convince us, deep down and for good, of God's dependability. "Heaven and earth will pass away," and everything on the face of the earth, "but My Word will not pass away" (Lk 21:33).

Prayer for a Renewed Heart
by St Claude de la Colombière

O God, what will You do to conquer
Sacred Heart (detail), by Joseph Fanelli
the fearful hardness of our hearts?

Lord, You must give us new hearts,
tender hearts, sensitive hearts,
to replace hearts that are made of marble and of bronze.

You must give us Your own Heart, Jesus.

Come, lovable Heart of Jesus.
Place Your Heart deep in the center of our hearts
and enkindle in each heart a flame of love
as strong, as great, as the sum of all the reasons
that I have for loving You, my God.

O holy Heart of Jesus, dwell hidden in my heart,
so that I may live only in You and only for You,
so that, in the end, I may live with You eternally in heaven.


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Book Review: Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man
I was grateful to receive an advance proof copy of the upcoming release, Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man, from Plough Publishing. In fact, it reached me within a week of Vanier's death, as I wrote earlier. I have not written more about the book until now because from the very first pages the work (which could be called an "authorized biography") by Anne-Sophie Constant made very clear that it was not to be consumed, but contemplated.

There were lines in the Introduction that stayed with me for days. "Yes, this." That was my response to certain expressions, certain choices Vanier made along his ninety-year journey of discipleship. The L'Arche founder could have become such a different man, given his background: His father was at the top of a list of the 100 most important Canadians of all time; his mother was a chancellor of the University of Ottawa. But he followed a mysterious call, one that led along a way no one would have planned.

He left home as a boy of 13, crossing an ocean during wartime to attend the Royal Naval College (with his parents' somewhat bewildered blessing). Later, he acknowledged the striking gift his father had given him in that act of emancipation: Had the permission been denied, Jean would have obeyed; would have stayed close to hearth and home; would have followed a scholarly path to the priesthood, lived a devout life. But he would not have changed the lives of tens of thousands: disabled people, their families, their assistants, the witnesses of the communal life of L'Arche.

Constant takes us through Vanier's life, but also into Vanier's life with Jesus, because the driving force for Jean Vanier has been his desire to live with Jesus. This is what led him as a young naval officer to take the night watch and use it to pray Matins, and to use his shore leave to go to Mass; what inspired him to spend "a year" (he ended up with a doctoral degree) studying theology in France as a kind of discernment period while he focused on his future; what prompted him to invite the first disabled men to leave the institution where they were housed and share a home with him, that "ark" which became the first of many.

It was unsettling to read a book that was meant to celebrate the life of a man who was still on this earth as its last paragraphs were written (just this past January). I can't imagine the publisher pulling the proof from the printing schedule and updating the whole text to reflect Vanier's recent death, but the book is so beautiful I think it would be worth doing. This is a book that can be (ought to be!) fruitfully brought to prayer.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. In addition, I received a review copy of the book mentioned above for free in the hope that I would publish a review of it. I am committed to giving as honest a review as possible, as part of my community's mission of putting media at the service of the truth. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Making Media choices, part 2

Continuing yesterday's reflection on how we use media:

I recently fielded a question on Facebook from someone who perhaps just needed to hear herself express the doubt in order to know her own mind. I'll share the exchange here, since it was in a public forum. Please weigh in with your own feedback on this.
Hi, I really like this TV show called "Pretty Little Liars". I was wondering if watching this show is sinful. It has sex scenes, homosexuality, evil themes, etc. I am not led to sin in any way but am I sinning by watching it?
I do not know the show you mention, but you could simply ask yourself: Is this show all about sex, homosexuality, infidelity, and evildoing? If so, then what it is doing is filling your mind and imagination with those things, and bending your heart toward them. Even if you do not directly sin during or after the show, you are being "conditioned" to familiarity and comfort with them. This "normalization of evil" is the precursor to a very dangerous situation for your mind, heart and relationships.
  • Do you really depend on this particular show for entertainment?
  • Why?
  • What void does it fill? (This is a super important question to reflect on.)
  • What else can you watch--or DO--to relax, that does not regularly depend on themes that are unwholesome?
There are some programs that are spectacularly well-written, but in which there
are definite portrayals of evil. (One example would be "Breaking Bad.") In shows like these, the characters are extremely well developed, real "persons" with stunningly good qualities, who make choices that led them, little by little, in the direction of evil. The harmful consequences of their choices is also very clearly portrayed in the show: there is no "glamorization of evil" such as  you often find in afternoon TV dramas ("soap operas"). Evil LOOKS like evil. It makes you feel ill. That is an appropriate portrayal of evil. Even though the whole story line depends on evil, it is not an evil that captures your imagination in a way that stirs desire, but that tells the truth: evil makes us less and less human, less and less like God.
Is that what "Pretty Little Liars" does? Even the title makes me doubtful of that. 
These are questions to ask about any media choices.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Making media choices

This weekend I gave a really brief social media workshop in a Cambridge parish. The participants were mostly Holy Family Institute novices and their families, and a few other parishioners.  I've also been doing some moderating of our community's Facebook pages. So I've had "social" and "media" on my mind over the past few weeks.

When I first entered the Daughters of St Paul (in 1975!), I would never have thought to put the two words together: social was one thing, media another. (Even now, isn't "social media" social life for introverts?) But more than ten years before I joined the #MediaNuns, the world's bishops had been seriously thinking about media, and it was they who put "social" and "media" together. In fact, they prized the "social" dimension. What good is media, the bishops at Vatican II asked, without the people behind the technologies and messages of communications?

Now I am reflecting in a different way: social media and Theology of the Body. The teachings of Theology of the Body on what it means to be made in the image of the Trinitarian God perfectly align with the Church's 1971 definition of communications: "the giving of self in love."

Maybe “self-giving” isn’t the first thing you think of in terms of communication.  But ultimately, all worthwhile communication points in this direction. This is the best we can offer, right? It means we’re holding nothing back, communicating everything: and the giving of self in love is perfect communication when it is mutual, as in the Divine Trinity.

When God wants to communicate his love to the world, he comes in person, in a human body: Jesus! When he wants his Gospel to go to the ends of the earth until the end of time, he wants it to be visible in US. For we who are the created images of the Trinity, the basic “media” is the human body itself. (Come to think about it, even our media technology depends completely on our bodies.) WE are the media! Our words are very important, but our lives are the real communication. We are second only to the Eucharist in being the Real Presence of Jesus on earth: body, blood, soul, and—yes, that share in the divine nature that makes us a communication of God. We are the greatest media of communication on earth.

And this filters all the way down to our everyday choices, including the choices we make about how we use media technology: picking up our cell phone while at the wheel; scrolling through messages during a boring meeting; checking "that" website ("just this once"); indulging in a questionable TV show...

The definition of communications can be a good basis for an examen on our way of using Instagram or Facebook, or whatever our favorite social media or TV show or gaming device is.
  • How is this app/show/game/device helping me be more present…for the gift of self that the people I am with need or have a right to?
  • How is this app/show/game/device pulling me away from the people who have a right to my attention or service (and this means at work, too)?
  • What strategies do you want to put in place to safeguard the values of family, privacy, community, balance? 
More about this tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Living with the Least: Jean Vanier

Thanks to Plough Publishing, I just received an advanced proof copy of Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man, a biography of the L'Arche founder, who died last week at age 90.

Vanier has been an inspiration to me since the early 90's, when I first encountered his writings and his witness of living with the profoundly disabled. He taught the world what he learned from experience. His book, Community and Growth, is one of the textbooks for our novices--with good reason.

Life in community with the profoundly afflicted means more than community meals and prayers; it means close companionship and intimate forms of service.  The poor, the vulnerable, the fragile, especially those with serious intellectual and physical disabilities, are unable to mask their weaknesses or needs. They cry out until their needs are addressed, whether it is the need for water, or to be heard, or to be shifted in one's wheelchair, or for a diaper change... Vanier knew that we can run, but we can't hide from these cries, because what the poor ones are doing is articulating the hurt and weakness all of us feel, but that some of us (the "strong" and "capable" ones) are able to divert, cover up or compensate for (temporarily).

My takeaway from Vanier from the 90's and to this day is this: Encountering people who insist on showing me their wounds, who, as it were, demand from me the charity of my attention or my kindness, tends to arouse not compassion, but resentment in me. Sometimes I just don't have the resources to keep up the act and I respond with a sharp word that reveals my weaknesses to me so that I, too, find myself crying out to God and to others for the forgiveness, reconciliation, tenderness, acceptance that I might ordinarily have too much ill-conceived self-respect to beg my neighbors for (until the time comes when I will have grown in tenderness and vulnerability myself and will be gracefully able to manifest my needs in freedom).

Such a powerful message. And it all came from Vanier's willingness to hand his life over to the Gospel whole and entire. Between Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier, the modern world was given this matched set, this image of the complementarity of masculine and feminine love for the ones society would trample down, cast away or at least keep out of sight. Instead, Vanier and Mother Teresa made the “least ones” the center of their community, telling everyone who would listen that they would find Jesus in serving them. What a privilege it has been to be their contemporaries! (And what a challenge!)

For further reading:
L'Arche UK (Official): Announcing the Death of Jean Vanier


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Heart to Heart with St Jean-Marie Vianney

The Knights of Columbus are sponsoring the visit to the US of a major relic of the patron saint of parish priests, St Jean-Marie Vianney, known in his day as well as ours as the "Curé of Ars." Today it was Boston's turn and the newly renovated Cathedral of the Holy Cross was the first stop. So three of us who hadn't seen the Cathedral's new look decided it was the perfect opportunity to combine different forms of devotion in one relatively quick trip. 

When we got in, we saw that there was a talk going on: a perfect time for me to surreptitiously clip on and activate a GoPro camera. (I didn't want to be snapping phone pictures of the Cathedral or of a holy relic, opting instead to sport a wearable video camera like a misplaced phylactery--albeit one with a blinking red LED.) The Cathedral is lovely, and quite an improvement over its earlier, dark self (with raised pews that inevitably tripped the worshipers on their way in or out).

Visitors were invited to come up two at a time to venerate the relic (no kisses, please). It was as recollected as can be, giving me a lot of space to call to mind the special intentions I had for priest friends of mine, as well as for priests who have fallen short in their vocations or betrayed them. Priests who have served my family, and priests who have failed to preach the Gospel forthrightly to them. Young men called to the priesthood right now. I prayed for them all.

(Too bad my camera was a little crooked... I could fix the video but that would take forever.)

Holy cards and a brochure were also available, and by the time we were leaving, a prayer intention card (with handy email form so you could stay in touch with the Knights while your prayer intentions were brought to Ars). (The sisters had to wait for me to fill out my prayer intention card, giving St Jean his homework.)

Monday, April 22, 2019

Earth Day: The Whole Creation Awaits

The whole of creation is turned toward this mystery in man, this is interior becoming, struggling and unfolding. It is a waiting, and the attention of this waiting is not directed immediately toward God, but toward man, for the way of creatures to God goes through man. Their hearts and heads should be in him; he should lead them to God, and in him all creation should be blessed. But he turned away from God and dragged creatures with him. So the curse struck them also, together with him, kept them at a distance from God, subjected them to transitoriness and vanity brought it about that there was no longer an answer to the questions whence, whither, why, for what purpose. Nature itself was not guilty, for it cannot have guilt of its own. It exists for the sake of man and receives its meaning from him; hence it was from him that the disaster came upon it. And now it waits that the blessing of salvation shall come about in him, and that it may share therein through him. From all sides a silent, anxious expectation is directed toward man.
Romano Guardini, The Word of God on Faith, Hope and Charity