Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

15 December 2014

On Animals in Heaven and The Insufficiency of God

For several reasons I stepped aside from The Shipwrack-Harvest, but knowing that this medium has brought some satisfaction to me and to a few readers, I am picking up the pen once again. No promises of frequency, however. As with everything, I will enjoy what happens while it lasts as God's gift.

In the past week we have witnessed a stir over the subject of Pope Francis reportedly saying that animals will be in heaven. This USA Today article describes how the whole tale swung so swiftly, with misquotations aplenty. How writers could pick up on false leads (or even true ones) and craft sizable articles bolstered with commentary, and do it all so quickly, and do it amid other responsibilities, stymies me. It's one reason I stopped writing for so long.

It seems undeniably true that the mainstream news media have found in Pope Francis a favored son, someone whose gentle appearance and easy manner they can unfairly (and inaccurately) contrast with his mean, doctrinaire predecessor, Father Benedict. I'm afraid this trope won't go away. We'll be seeing media conflations, inflations, and speculations for the remainder of Francis' papacy.

To return to the subject of this recent beef: the possibility, indeed necessity, of animals in heaven.

The following is not relevant to the discussion, but I suspect that people may wonder where I stand with respect to having animals and with animal owners. While I love animals, I won't likely ever have one as a pet (especially a cat, which will probably end up in hell anyhow). I respect people who do. I want to appreciate the profound attachment that pet caregivers can develop. It's an attachment that I don't want to develop, because I am unduly attached to many things as it is. Moreover, the care that pets need exceeds what I am willing and able to provide.

Along with Pope Francis, however, I do share the concern that people may divert undue attention, funds, etc. to pets. Cohabiting and married couples can have "fur babies" instead of human ones. Unwilled infertility is another matter, of course--that is a real cross, sadly downplayed in a material,  insecure world. Every couple must strive to be conscious of the choices they make and the fears that may inhibit them from making other choices (e.g. adoption of children). Openness to children, however God sends them, remains a constitutive element of marital love.

But what a risk is a child! Someone who may not cuddle up to you when you need him, someone who will eventually snub you, loudly shut her door, and exclaim, "You don't understand!" when you are the one who wants to be understood. Someone who will "cost" you, and the government, lots of money over the years, who will be considered a burden from the beginning. Someone you won't be able to put down once she's gotten too least for now.

Scholastic theology has affirmed that animals do have souls. Every living reality has a soul--the tailor-made principle that informs and enlivens the body and distinguishes it from all others of its type. There are three levels of soul: the vegetative (found in plants), the sentient (non-human animals), and the rational (human persons). The vegetative soul can take in nourishment and give off waste products. The sentient can do what the vegetative does, but also feel and communicate with its surroundings. It operates according to instinct, and can seem to be motivated even by care and altruism. The rational can do what the sentient and vegetative does, but also can think and choose freely.

The powers of the rational soul are precisely what constitute man and woman as "in the image of God"--and this before the Son forever assumed human nature. As the inspired author of Hebrews reminds us, God did not become an angel (a purely spiritual creature). Nor did God become an purely instinct-driven animal. God took on the form of the very kind of creature who could (and did) reject Him. The human ability to choose for the good of another for the other's sake is, in a word, love. Regarding the expressions of affection and heroic displays of care that animals have shown toward their own and even toward human beings, I will call that love, but only in a derivative sense. (Basta così.)

Rather than speculate on the eternal fate of the animals, I would rather direct my attention to the eternal fate of human persons. While God's love extends to all creation, I do not consider arrogant the unique and profound claim that human persons--free and rational beings--exert upon that love. We are as undeserving of that love as the rest of creation, but we are most apt for that love because we alone are made in God's image.

Then there are our human, inadequate-by-definition concepts of heaven, marred by sentimentalism and other wounds of our fallen nature. Since earth (our fallen condition) is our current reference point, we base our ideas of heaven on it. Our concepts of heaven can be as self-centered--certainly as inadequate--as we are here on earth.

I can understand people imagining a life with perfect freedom from all adverse situations and consequences. Given our earthly trials, there is merit to such an image; but at its worst it expresses longing for the kind of free-for-all that we can't seem to get away with here on earth. A huge bash, promising eternal satisfaction to the point of surfeit, servants peeling us grapes and so forth. Calories mean nothing, so we can eat and eat and eat! But where is love in that? Where is sacrificial giving, caring for the other "just because"? It sounds like the kind of theological conclusion that follows from a model of prayer as making nice with God, trying to placate Him or stroke His ego--working to end up with the best possible retirement policy.

I have wondered why God's own Life, God's own Presence, wouldn't be enough for people in heaven. Why all the extras? What, you may ask, do I consider an "extra"? Anything that is not God. I do not have to know what the specifics of heaven include, except that God is. If animals and trees and music (even Sinatra's!) are there, fine; if not, that's fine too. I'm happy to note, however, that prophetic presentations of the worship around God's throne include singing...a new hymn, commissioned for a new heavens and a new earth. If other creatures happen to be there, they will be as rapt as we before the Heavenly Throne. Sure, we may be happy to see them, but we'll be infinitely happier to see God.

12 December 2014

Sinatra's Greatest Hits (In One Fan's Estimation)

In honor of the 99th anniversary of the birth of the Servant of Mammon (and, in his own way, of God) Francis Albert Sinatra, I decided to look over what, almost twenty years ago, I dubbed "The Canon": my collection of Sinatra's musical renditions.

The very act calls to mind Mr. George Repella, my senior year English teacher at Nativity, a musical connoisseur and otherwise wise man. At the time of our acquaintance, the extent of my Sinatra knowledge included a handful of the popular "Greatest Hits." It wasn't that Mr. Repella played any of his songs in class; he simply spoke about him, and I listened--first, to him, and then, to *him*. I'll call  Mr. Repella a Sinatra Evangelist, on the basis of these words of Holy Writ
"But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?" (Rom 10:14)
Serious exploration happened in the seminary, which was like regular college in that it gave me a chance to experiment--with styles tonsorial, sartorial, and musical.

My consciousness was expanded in those days--not with the help of illegal drugs, but rather with music. WPEN, WMGK, and Plastic Fantastic (a now-defunct used album store in nearby Ardmore, where you'd swear I was taking an elective for as often as I was there).

Between the purchases from various brick-and-mortar establishments and, more recently, iTunes, I have acquired enough Sinatra songs to last for nearly two and a half days of continuous dulia. ("Dulia" is the honor afforded to the saints. Mary, foremost among them, is said to receive hyperdulia, extra honor. Perhaps Tony Bennett, Jerry Vale, et al would receive dulia, but Sinatra hyperdulia, for he has slain his ten thousands.)

Now not all his recordings were winners; even the Chairman himself would grant you that. Without easy access to liner notes, un/authorized biographies, or Sid Mark, I'd bet that Sinatra would have taken out back and shot not a few of his sides from over fifty years of public singing. "Strangers in the Night" stands as the most cited example; he called it, among other things, "the worst [expletive] song that I have ever heard." But he cursed it all the way to the bank, because it was his first #1 hit in eleven years. As in 1966, so today: what's popular isn't always what's best.

It's not his worst, either; but I'm not writing my first blog post in over two months to limn Frank Sinatra'a worst songs. Rather I will recount my favorites, the ones I scroll past the others to select (if I don't just directly type the ones I have in mind). Their place in this "canon of the canon" can be attributed to, for example, Sinatra's voice, the musical arrangement, an obscure instrumental lick, or my personality.

In no particular order:
  1. Ebb Tide (ok, this one and only this one is "in order," because it has stood out as my favorite. Lush, passionate, and profound in every respect.)
  2. All The Things You Are (Columbia era, the 1940s. Haunting. Lead and backup vocals only) 
  3. Rain In My Heart (from Cycles, an otherwise substandard countrified album. The syncopation of the crash cymbals in the last ten or so seconds is as sharp as the dramatic vocals throughout)
  4. Mam'selle (Nice 'N Easy, a great late Capitol album; the strings trill and he sings so gently)
  5. Hello, Dolly! (from the 2nd Basie collaboration. The arrangement and lead trumpet soar)
  6. Should I (late Capitol; part of a swinging masterpiece album. Short and sweet)
  7. Ol' Macdonald (all-around clever piece, from the same album as #6)
  8. How Little It Matters (How Little We Know) (The Capitol or Reprise versions are equally good, but in the latter he effortlessly hits the F "...and the WORLD around us shatters")
  9. For Once In My Life (Don Costa's arrangement and Frank's sans souci, especially noted in the last few bars)
  10. Nice Work If You Can Get It (teeming with energy)
  11. I Only Have Eyes For You (10 and 11 are from his first collaboration with Basie. Piano and brass deftly punctuate, as only "Splank" knows how to do it)
  12. You Turned My World Around (Power-balladish arrangement that tugs at me)
  13. Ol' Man River (descends to a solid but groaning E, then finishes on an equally solid E up top)
  14. Call Me (from the same kooky album as "Strangers." It has me at the six cymbal strikes in the intro)
  15. Take Me (from the "I Remember Tommy [Dorsey]" album)
  16. You Go To My Head (from the same album as #4, which, in its entirety, is just grand)
  17. If I Had You (from the "Great Songs From Great Britain" album. Like many other songs, Sinatra recorded this more than once. Three times for this one--and the third time is the charm. The second one was a light swinger from the mid 50s: I'd have removed the hook and thrown it back in)
  18. Autumn Leaves
  19. I Think Of You
  20. There's No You
  21. Lonely Town (18-21 are from the same album, Gordon Jenkins-arranged "Where Are You?", the title track of which is also good; but 21 knocks me out)
  22. Forget To Remember (a single found on the larger Reprise compilations. Goes from simple and silent to loud and rich in not much more than a minute)
  23. I've Got A Crush On You
  24. Someone To Watch Over Me (same album as 23, I think)
  25. Three Coins In The Fountain (Capitol-era, not the Academy Award Winners rendition)
  26. London By Night (the Robert Farnon arrangement)
  27. Around The World
  28. Brazil 
  29. It's Nice To Go Traveling (28-30 are from the Come Fly album; 27 also, as an earlier version)
  30. Birth Of The Blues (late Columbia single)
  31. American Beauty Rose (late-Columbia, not from the late-Capitol album of contractually obligated swingers. The arrangement is punchy and Sinatra plays it like a champ)
  32. The Song Is You (he recorded this with Dorsey in the 40s, once in the Capitol 50s, and then for the '79 Trilogy album, which is the best of them all, for its energy)
  33. Let's Face The Music And Dance (from the same album as 33, liked for the energy that was just not evident in the Ring-A-Ding-Ding version)
  34. The Coffee Song (both the Columbia and the early-Reprise versions, each unique but fun)
  35. I Concentrate On You (the mid-60s Jobim version, but also the Swingin' Session chart)
  36. Wave (he digs deep on "to-ge-THER"; in his performances, Mel Tormé jokes, "Antonio, you've got a hell of a range on this song!")
  37. The Girl From Ipanema (36-38 from the first, classic, collaboration with A. C. Jobim)
  38. The Girl Next Door (early-Reprise version with the poignant pizzicato strings)
  39. If You Are But A Dream (Capitol single)
  40. Why Try To Change Me Now? (late Capitol version only)
  41. If I Should Lose You (not the Columbia version, but the late-Reprise version with Q--another example of the Voice improving with age)
  42. Only The Lonely (from the Capitol album of the same title, along with #1)
  43. It's All Right With Me (Capitol and late-Reprise, both. Diverse, but complementary)
  44. Stars Fell On Alabama (only once, for Capitol)
  45. River, Stay 'Way From My Door (he means it when he sings it. Listen for the last "I ain't breakin' your heart", which soars)
  46. Let's Fall In Love (from the Ring-A-Ding-Ding album)
  47. I Have Dreamed
  48. Soliloquy (47 and 48 hail from the same album as #13, The Concert Sinatra)
  49. Indian Summer (from the Ellington collaboration, which also boasts #50)
  50. Come Back To Me (He swings the hell out of this one)
  51. Begin The Beguine (Columbia only; he couldn't have gotten away with it after that)
  52. (Love Is) The Tender Trap (Capitol is better than the Basie one with Reprise)
  53. Everything Happens To Me (the Reprise versions that are only on the Complete collection, which I want for Christmas)
  54. This Is The Night (only with Columbia, a late but pleasant discovery)
  55. Laura (the Capitol version, on the same album as #18-21)
  56. Spring Is Here
  57. Blues In The Night
  58. Where Or When (55-57 from the Only The Lonely album; the swinger of WoW, with Steve and Eydie, is also great)
  59. Day In, Day Out (from the Sinatra and Sextet: Live in Paris; where else would he "grab your lips"?)
  60. I Wished On The Moon (from the Moonlight Sinatra album)
  61. The Moon Was Yellow (same album as #59, but an earlier Capitol version has its own merits)
  62. April In Paris (from the Billy May album that boasts #26-29)
  63. Misty
  64. Prisoner Of Love (Like #63, from the Don Costa Sinatra and Strings)
  65. Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing 
  66. Secret Love (like #65, from the Academy Award Winners album)
  67. That Old Black Magic (late Capitol version)
  68. Star! (allegedly a "Greatest Hit" according to its album. Not; but still good)
  69. It Never Entered My Mind
  70. I Get Along Without You Very Well
  71. I'll Be Around (#69-71 from In The Wee Small Hours album)
  72. Fools Rush In (from same album as #4)
  73. Poor Butterfly (from Ellington compilation)
  74. Baubles, Bangles, and Beads (from the Jobim collaboration)
  75. I'll See You Again (from late-Capitol Axel Stordahl collaboration)
  76. I Remember April (same album as #75)
  77. Last Night, When We Were Young (again, Wee Small Hours. That mid-50s Capitol output might have been his best overall)
  78. Too Close For Comfort (Capitol era)
  79. Downtown (Strangers in the Night album, as #14. He sings the title word with a strange slur that sounds like "oo" to "ew" to "ay," probably because "he can't even," as the kids say today)
  80. Young At Heart (so pleasant, so Capitol)
  81. What's New? (Only The Lonely version)
  82. The House I Live In (mid 60s "A Man And His Music" version comes to mind, but the others, before and since, are good, too)
  83. You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You (early-Reprise era)
  84. P. S. I Love You (from the Close to You (And More) album, which I experienced exceeding joy upon finding, as it had been out of print for several years)
  85. South Of The Border (from Come Fly, with May's signature slurping saxes)
  86. Just One Of Those Things (Capitol--so tender)
  87. How Deep Is The Ocean (from same album as #4)
  88. One Note Samba
  89. Sunrise In The Morning (like #88, from the later Jobim compilation)
  90. If You Go Away (from My Way album)
  91. I Could Have Told You (from No One Cares)
  92. Not As A Stranger (pretty Capitol single)
  93. The Christmas Waltz (Reprise; if I had to include a Christmas one, that would be it)
  94. Come Dance With Me (from the eponymous album)
  95. Something's Gotta Give
  96. Dancing In The Dark (#94-96 from the same album)
  97. Ill Wind (from Wee Small Hours)
  98. Teach Me Tonight (late-Reprise, with Quincy Jones; "What 'ya get for lessons?" Classic.)
  99. My One And Only Love (Nice 'n Easy album, like #4, 87, etc.)
Add your own favorite in the comments, or just leave that one behind and listen to any of these 99.

You may have noticed the absence of "My Way," "Theme From 'New York, New York," and "Strangers In The Night." I like those, and most of the other well-known and well-liked hits, but I wanted this list to set those aside in favor of some more obscure ones. The most erudite Sinatra scholars would include examples far stranger than mine.

In any case, offer a prayer for Frank and for all his fans. May his name, his charitable deeds, and his love "not too wisely, but too well" live on in eternal memory!

Sinatra's grave, what I visited in 1999, a year after his death

07 October 2014

God in the Docket

The "Local" section of my former local daily, the Reading Eagle, has a "Daily Docket," which includes a list of local births and marriage license applications, and, at the top, the "Daily Thought." The Reading-Berks Conference of Churches annually invites about a dozen local Christian clergy to compose a month's worth of Scripture verses accompanied by very brief reflections. The token Catholic priest (however he, or anyone, gets on the list I don't know) very kindly asked me to fill in for him.

It was a delight to put my Thoughts together, because I like people to read my writing and I like the aphoristic mode of communication for purposes of humor and insight. Some of my favorite authors (including Hans Urs von Balthasar) have penned pithily, to good effect. I try to think and talk that way when the Spirit moves me and when I'm drinking enough coffee.

Since many of my readers don't get the Reading Eagle, and now that my month is over, I decided to air my Daily Thoughts, one whole month at a pop--here goes!

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"If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead." (Luke 16:31) –“There’s no telling some people,” they say; but what is your “deaf spot”?

 “He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.’” (Luke 15:31) –Chrysostom said of St. Paul, “Above all, he knew himself to be loved by God”; what else is there, really?

 “Better…if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than…to cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Luke 17:2) –People are paying attention to you. If that’s scary, good.

 “Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be visible through him.’” (John 9:3) –Ask not what God has done to you; ask what God can do through you.

“When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled.” (John 11:33) –Allow yourself to become appropriately affected by the people you encounter in life.

“Peter said to [Jesus], ‘You will never wash my feet.’” (John 13:8) –Don’t be embarrassed when you need forgiveness or assistance. Everyone benefits from it.

“Peter began to say to [Jesus], ‘We have given up everything and followed you.’” (Mark 10:28) –In moments of self-pity, we might think so; but there’s always more, and God will wait for it.

“Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then ear, then the full grain in the ear.” (Mark 4:28) –We can’t fully know, and therefore control, God’s action in others or ourselves.

“Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another.” (Mark 9:50b) –You can learn and grow from interesting, stimulating conversation.

"Then it goes and brings back seven other spirits…and the last condition of that person is worse than the first.” (Matthew 12:45) –Regular spiritual housecleaning prevents the infestation of devilish habits, and demonic inhabitation.

"At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30) –Even our most nourishing earthly relationships abide in the context of our primary relationship with God.

"Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” (Matthew 6:27) –“No, but that never stopped me before!” Time is short.

“’See, he said, ‘now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.’” (Isaiah 6:7) –Make a point of eating something healthy today, and consider its salutary effects on your soul.

“You have preserved my life from the pit of destruction, when you cast behind your back all my sins.” (Isaiah 38:17) –Consider the power of forgiveness in your own life, and pay it forward whenever possible.

“Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many.” (Isaiah 53:11) –Put your hardships to good use by connecting, even spiritually, with someone else in distress.

“Put not your trust in the deceitful words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord!’” (Jeremiah 7:4) –Authentic believers don’t rely solely on external manifestations of their devotion.

"Then the virgins shall make merry and dance, and young men and old as well” (Jeremiah 31:13) –Remind your face that occupation with God is well worth your time and effort.

“You have become for me a treacherous brook, whose waters do not abide!” (Jeremiah 15:18) –From my perspective, God can seem rather unreliable; what adjustments must I make today?

“If you warn the wicked man…and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.” (Ezekiel 33:9) –There is value to fraternal correction, but don’t ignore your own errors.

“I will…[take] from your bodies your stony hearts and [give] you natural hearts.” (Ezekiel 36:26) –Empathy is one of God’s greatest blessings and man’s greatest needs.

“You shall have honest scales, an honest ephah, and an honest liquid measure.” (Ezekiel 45:10) –Your time and resources are not your own, so use them well.

“I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart.” (Hosea 2:16) –God often reaches us best when we seem at our worst.

"We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’ to the work of our hands” (Hosea 14:4) –What idol(s) ought you set aside in favor of your first, true Love?

“My people perish for want of knowledge!” (Hosea 4:6) –Spend time with informative books, periodicals, websites…and people.

“What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me!” (Exodus 17:5) –Don’t be afraid to share your exasperation with God.

“The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Exodus 18:18) –Lending a hand, or an ear, lifts a burden from another’s back.

“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) –Treat the people you see today as sacred, not as means to an end.

“Let those who seek you, God of Israel, not be disgraced through me.” (Psalm 69:7) –Positively put: may my life give honor to God and hope to people!

“Is it in vain that I have kept my heart clean?” (Psalm 73:13). –Only if your obedience is motivated by human respect. God’s respect is most necessary, and most reliable.

“I gave them over to their hardness of heart” (Psalm 81:13). –Some say to God, ‘Your will be done,’ while God says to others, ‘Have it your way.’

“Those who follow the way of integrity, they alone can enter my service.” (Psalm 101:6) –Being the same person with everyone makes us fit for God’s employ.

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Since I'm not living in Berks County anymore, I probably won't, and shouldn't, be asked to submit another month. But there's always the social media. No promises or deadlines (and they can be helpful!), but stay tuned for more Daily Thoughts!

05 October 2014

Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel--Requiescat in Pace

I note with mingled sadness and gratitude the death of Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel, C.F.R., Ed.D. For many years he was the director of Trinity Retreat in Larchmont, New York: a place for priests to make their annual retreat and, in the case of a good number of us over the years, a place to stay while taking extended time for reflection and self-care. Such was my case for a few months in 2006 and 2007.

I had met Father Benedict before that time, when he gave a retreat to us seminarians during our Spirituality Year in 1998-99. Not long into a confession I made with him during that retreat, he looked intently at me, put his hand on my arm, and said: "You are a card-carrying member of the self-haters club." Dead right! Seven years later our acquaintance would be far more extensive--and intensive--because of my stay at Trinity, where occasional meetings with him were one of several therapeutic initiatives in the program. 

Father's life of prayer and years of experience with priests gave him a knack for recognizing the truth. Because of his Jersey City upbringing, he also had a knack for stating the truth as he saw it without ambiguity. His upbringing and personality were perhaps tempered by his life of prayer and suffering, though they were also bolstered by his sense of humor. He would often joke about the town of his youth and its regional accent, using a pronounced version when quoting bygone slogans such as,"When you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer." This saying applies, of course, to the Catholic Church as having been invested with the fullness of the means of grace.

In our meetings Father would mention various priests he knew from our diocese, often with a story and a keen observation. He didn't forget a face. (I just accidentally typed, "fact"; that was also true.) But the bulk of the conversations centered around the concerns that led me to request the time away. I will contend with most of them for the rest of my days; but my perseverance, and God's grace, will redound to my salvation and to that of my charges. Father believed that I would "make it," and encouraged me several times to that effect. From his warm smile and quiet tone I wouldn't have known that he'd almost died from a bus accident a little over two years before. He knew that every moment subsequent to that event (and every moment before it) was a blessing. Sitting with him in his wisdom-infested office, I knew, was also a blessing.

Our final encounter took place at the episcopal consecration and installation of our diocesan bishop, John Oliver Barres, who grew up in Larchmont. Considering that this might be (and was) the last time I'd see Father Groeschel, I wanted to get a photo with him. As Father was caught in a maelstrom of well-wishers (as many for him as for Bishop Barres), I didn't get to say much more than my name and the reason for our acquaintance, if he even needed my reminder. Since the modern media have made it easier to allow no personal data--thoughts, words, and deeds--to go unpublished, I conclude these remarks with that photo, and a Deo gratias for Father Benedict's life and ministry.

CMZ and BJG, 30 July 2009

17 September 2014

Books I Have Loved

One of the latest "challenges" being issued over the Internet is to name ten books that wielded a particular influence in your life. Most people just list them without any commentary, which is to be expected on Facebook. Until a few years ago a person's status wasn't allowed to exceed something like 420 characters. I suppose it is best to save the commentary for the blogs.

Therefore, in order of recollection, I present with exhausting commentary these ten books, along with an eleventh because I miscounted:

1. Existence and the Existent, by Jacques Maritain.
On our first day in the seminary, we had an ice-breaking exercise in which we were to obtain others' answers to various questions. I can remember only one question, to which I could give no answer: "Who is your favorite pre-Socratic philosopher?" (Today I can tell you without hesitation that my favorite pre-Socratic philosopher is Heraclitus of Ephesus.) Existence and the Existent is a rich treatise, addressing the "Problem of Evil" among other subjects. It demonstrates Maritain as a man of deep faith and reason. Around the same time, and in the same philosophical context, I encountered the second book.

2. I and Thou, by Martin Buber.
This work opened me up to the mystical relationship of philosophy and her mistress, theology. Before first reading this book, one of my seminary professors introduced us to the term "reification," from the Latin res, "thing." There is the perennial and pernicious temptation to treat our fellow human beings as things, means to an end. Engaging the other as a sacred experience, a "Thou" and not an "it," is the primary mode of human interaction, not to be ignored amid scientific, informational pursuits.

3. Light of the Word, by Hans Urs Von Balthasar
One seminary professor used a volume of Von Bathasar's Theodrama in class. Some seminarians wanted no part in his work—or maybe the prof's interpretation of it; others ate it up and hungered for more. I was closer to the latter, but wished for a "For Dummies" version. One day as a younger priest I visited a classmate in Philadelphia. At the now-closed Pauline Books and Media store on "the [Roosevelt] Boulevard," I came across this book. It is no "For Dummies" adaptation, but rather a reflection on the Sunday readings. Very handy, very Balthasarian. It's good to have around.

4 Lift Up Your Heart, by Fulton Sheen
My first church job outside of St. Clair was as an organist for the now-defunct St. Francis de Sales Church in Mount Carbon, a suburb of Pottsville. The pastor, Fr. Edward B. Connolly, became a mentor and friend. He is known for owning many books. Once I asked to borrow this book. I read it quickly and savored every word. (Whatever is happening right now with Archbishop Sheen's cause for canonization, I hope they just knock it the hell off.) I wanted a copy for my own. This was before the days of the Internet, so I called every bookstore from Dan to Beersheba, to no avail. Then, when I had just about given up, I went for a walk over town to the St. Clair Emporium (a.k.a., "Zerdy's"). Now the Emporium is a hole-in-the-wall purveyor of staple items, most notably Sunbeam bread, Guers products, cigarettes, lunch meats, penny candy, and Italian Water Ice. The foremost source of revenue, for as long as I can recall, has been the Pennsylvania Lottery. Mr. Zerdy is not known for selling reading material, except for outdated magazines (all clean). I think the most recent Sports Illustrated issue on the shelf--to this day--features Mary Lou Retton's gold medal. Anyhow, that day he had a few shelves full of books, from an estate, I think: mostly romance novels, cookbooks, and late-1800s readers that would put our third-grade textbooks to shame. The only religious book in the whole lot was...a hardcover copy of Lift Up Your Heart. Checkmate, Atheists!

5. Death In Literature (?; a textbook used in a high school elective)
Mr. George Repella taught at Natvitiy B.V.M. High School for just over 50 years. A number of parishioners from past assignments, as well as some of the hospitalized I currently visit—even if they graduated thirty years before me—all share with me the auspicious experience of Mr. Repella. He taught "Death in Literature" with the eponymous textbook, introducing us to the literary perspectives of Dorothy Parker ("Résumé"), E. A. Robinson ("Richard Cory"), Jessica Mitford ("The American Way of Death"), and others. I did my class project on the Scripture and oration options from the Church's Order of Christian Funerals.

6. Marathon, by Hal Higdon
Several blog posts have treated my love of running. Although I started running in 1999 as part of a four-square fitness frenzy, my recent return happened a decade later. Per custom, I bought many books on the subject to make sure I was doing it right. Joe Muldowney's Running Shorts would have qualified for this list--runner-ups come to mind for several entries--but Higdon's fourth edition has served as the Bible to my running devotion. When I barely thought that 26.2 miles would be possible, Hal Higdon showed me how to start, what kinds of problems I might encounter along the way, and something of what it would feel like to cross the finish line.

7. Joey Adams’ Speakers’ Bible of Humor, by Joey Adams
In fourth grade I took the bus each morning to the former Blythe Township High School, then the site of several grades of the Saint Clair Area School District. (The building now houses the Simon Kramer Cancer Institute and the county Coroner's Office.) While browsing in the library I came across this dated tome. I rented out that book for the rest of the school year. I don't think anybody missed it. If the school knew some of the jokes in that book, I think they'd have pulled it. "And the eyes of both of them were opened...and so they hid themselves" (Genesis 3:7). I carried it around as if it were a textbook and I were a nerd. The Speakers' Bible was a perfect complement to old Match Game and new Hollywood Squares episodes.

8. Complete Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins
I first found Hopkins in the appendix of the Liturgy of the Hours. The "standard" religious ones: "Pied Beauty," "Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord," "The May Magnificat." But then, thanks to this omnia opera, "The Wreck of the Deutschland" became my favorite. A line from it is the basis for this blog's very title: "Is the shipwrack then a harvest? Does tempest carry the grain for Thee?" I learned many things about Hopkins: It turns out that he was equally skilled in Welsh, Latin, and Greek. It further turns out that his family struggled with his embrace of Catholicism, and he himself struggled with same sex attraction. Here I can identify: His years as a teacher didn't go so well, at least from his perspective. Anyone who can retain a knowledge and love of God and the Engilsh language, yet be able to toy with both so adeptly, is my man.

9. People’s Mass Book (1970s), World Library Publications
In my earliest recollections of going to Mass, our parish used this hymnal. In the mid-1980s, we acquired a newer edition--though not the one specially commissioned for our diocese, the one that had "Here I Am, Lord" and several other Glory & Praise songs. As a little kid, I would sit upon my grandfather's knee and play the "Old PMB" hymns on my little Casio that didn't even let you play more than one note at once. Many of its tunes seem dated now, more suitable for a hootenanny than for the Sacred Liturgy, but I have a soft spot for them. While attending a retreat a few weeks ago I sat at the Hammond organ in the chapel and played these songs for about a half an hour. I count that time, and times like it, sitting at an organ bench and "letting my fingers (and feet) do the walking," as a spiritual experience.

10. The Ugly American, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer

Through this book I learned of the term "Ugly American" as embodied by certain disrespectful characters. Raised in a local culture that understandably and justifiably promoted love of country, and never having visited a foreign land until that point (either junior or senior year in high school, when American was a summer reading option), I did not consider the possibility that not everyone around the world adored Americans, or that Americans didn't deserve respect or deference simply because they were American. I felt bad that I couldn't fluently speak a modern foreign language. I still can't, but at least I see that as a deficit--especially when many visitors speak more than enough English to get by.

BONUS 11. Anguished English, Richard Lederer
One of my favorite pastimes as a kid was to sit on the floor in a bookstore and read a book until justice would demand I pay for it. (I'll bet the way they work that kind of thing out in purgatory will be interesting.) One of the first books I read in that fashion was this gem of Professor Richard Lederer, the first of a series. Replete with words, word origins, and wordplay, Anguished English increased my respect for my English teachers, and for anyone else whose command of the English language was such that they could fool around with it. That's the kind of person I wanted to be when I grew up. So far, so good!

14 September 2014

A Mirror of our Sinfulness, A Window to our Salvation

            Once again, a special feast trumps a Sunday in Ordinary Time—this one honoring the Holy Cross. This is not a celebration of planks of wood. It has been said, with no small amount of snark, that if someone assembled all the existing relics of the “True Cross," they could form a giant redwood. True or not, that statement betrays the great devotion Catholics have shown throughout the centuries to the Cross.

On every liturgical day the Church is celebrating our Incarnate Savior. In his letter to the Philippians Saint Paul reminds us that, by becoming man, God the Son set aside the glory of divinity (though not divinity itself). That “emptying of self” is what enabled Jesus to live a full human life, with the full array of joys and sorrows—in particular rejection and scorn, and above all the pains of His passion and death.

And yet God also experienced much of this from us prior to the Incarnation. Take, for example, the Israelites’ rejection of God at various points along their trek in the wilderness. Time and again Israel set aside the true God by worshipping foreign gods and treating people unjustly. Israel understood her chronic tragedies as God’s response to their sins, while in reality those tragedies were the consequences of participating sinfully in a sinful world.

While it is not accurate to portray God as fickle and sensitive as we human beings often are, this much is true: God is not pleased with sin, and He wants it out. In the account from Numbers, God instructs Moses to mount a bronze serpent on a pole so that the afflicted can look upon that serpent and be healed. What is really happening in this transaction? God is holding a mirror up to the people’s faces, so that they can see what their sin has done to them, how it has disfigured God’s image in them to the point of nearly becoming unrecognizable. Only then can they acknowledge their sins and turn to Him who would restore them by His mercy to a greater beauty than before.

There is the wonder of the Cross: it is the instrument of our salvation because on it our Savior was lifted up in mingled shame and glory, thereby allowing us to perceive the double truth of our alienation from God in sin and God’s drawing us to Himself in love. With joy and gratitude we draw near to the Cross, and to its Occupant, for by that Holy Cross He has redeemed the world.

24 August 2014

Compelling Authority

This Gospel is the standard reference for Jesus establishing His Church upon the authority of Saint Peter. If you’ve ever been to Rome, or read or watched anything about St. Peter’s Basilica, you may know of those famous words etched along the center apse: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram ædificabo ecclesiam meam (“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church”; Mt 16:18). Since St. Peter’s is so huge, part of the next verse also fits up there: Et tibi dabo claves regni cælorum (“And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”; 16:19).

There is a definite motion on Jesus’ part to gather people from Israel and from outside of Israel; "ecclesia" comes from the Greek "to call out" from various places to a point of assembly. Jesus forms the “New Israel” that knows no earthly boundaries. 

He further chooses Peter to safeguard and strengthen that people’s unity in belief, worship, lifestyle, and prayer. The apostles and their successors, the Bishops, and their priest-coworkers, continue to make this unity a living reality by absolving sins, and making pronouncements of doctrine and discipline. Their authority is not meant for bossing around, but rather for promoting people’s spiritual condition.

That wasn’t the popular impression years ago (depending on who you ask, it still may not be). We catch glimpses of that misconception in the apostles themselves, as we read of them being envious of one another, arguing with each other, even siccing their mothers on Jesus! An authoritarian mode can be prideful, giving the impression that the leaders are better off than the people, in a higher class. Institutions with human beings are subject to such unfortunate tendencies.

Today Jesus asks for a pulse reading from the apostles on who people think He is. They give several different readings: Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah or another prophet. You can imagine them chuckling at “how silly and uninformed these people are,” until Jesus turns the tables on them by asking the same question—the question at the very heart of the Gospels. Who is Jesus? What does He mean for you? 

You can almost hear the apostles stammering and shuffling their feet until Peter pipes up. (He was always known for having something to say.) What does he say? “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!" "Good answer! Good answer!" the disciples said, as if they were on "Family Feud."
"We asked one hundred liturgists...oh, we had to scratch that survey, because we got one hundred different answers."
Here as elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus acknowledges the faith of those who dare to enter into dialogue with Him. In other cases He healed people because of their faith—not really because they gave the "Number 1" answer, but because they gave the honest answer: because they opened their hearts to Him in relationship. 

Jesus always gives us the opportunity to open our hearts to Him as we are. When we open our hearts to the open Heart of Christ, He can work miracles within us. He gives our lives a share in His authority that moves people toward greater faith, hope, and charity—not in a bossy way, but definitely a compelling way.

Perhaps the greatest miracle is that God becomes real for us: infinitely more than a vending machine that’s supposed to give us what we ask for, something we might want to kick, or manipulate, when “it” doesn’t “work.” Growing up, that is to say, growing out of such a flawed appreciation of God, is a hard thing. It takes a lot. It takes life, but it also gives life.

13 August 2014

On Suicide and Surrounding Sicknesses: Further Reflections

After completing my previous post in memory of Robin Williams, I took to the webs and read even more on the subject of suicide and mental illness.

There is some worthy debate out there, of a more-than-merely-semantic nature, about the use of the term "selfish" in reference to suicide. First I encountered The Matt Walsh Blog, and later a contrary-minded piece by Dean Burnett from The Guardian. 

I don't want to be overly concerned about the disputations. "Take what you like, and leave the rest" is another one of those clever sayings I've heard over the years. Denizens of the blogosphere survive because of it. 

I summarize my takeaway from Walsh's offering from an excerpt of a tweet he included in the article: "It's not just clinical, it's spiritual." If by "not just" he means "but also," even "but primarily," it is acceptable. The soul is that which gives life to the body; the two are tailor-made for each other, and the soul is directly infused by the Author of Life, who cooperates with our parents in the sacred moment of our conception. I don't altogether dismiss his contention, but it requires some nuancing.

Concerning the central theme expressed in the article's title (Williams' "choice" of suicide): I do not judge the voluntariness of any particular suicide, as I state above. Nor can any man or woman fully plumb the darkness that impinges upon a profoundly depressed individual. In support of this, read Shaun McAfee's post, born of understanding and experience.

The claim that depression is a spiritual malady need not imply that "praying harder" or "thinking happier thoughts" or any merely human effort should do the trick, or that failing to do any of these things is defying or discounting God. Human persons suffer a profound deficit--a wound--in our nature, courtesy of original sin and compounded by personal sins. The wound manifests variously, but especially in the many forms of mental illness.

Burnett's article reinforces for me the reality that mental illness does not discriminate, and it disables the use of standard logic in those who suffer it. 

Warning of the supposed selfishness (or, if you will, "sinfulness") of suicide is not an adequate deterrent, instead providing further reinforcement of a negative self-image and assurance of others' (projected) ill feelings toward them. 

How exactly, I wonder, does one deter suicide, or alleviate depression? If depression is, as we often hear, "the common cold of mental illness," what's the prophylactic protocol? Upon hearing the first sneeze, is it time to say "God bless you" and start making funeral arrangements? "I speak like a foolish person" (2 Cor 11:21). Measures include prevention hotlines, therapy, medicine, personal outreach born of genuine attentiveness, and all the rest. 

The Sacraments, above all, have a healing effect on those who strive to partake of them with a pure heart. As I and others have noted, the attainment or maintenance of good feeling is not the aim of religion, and not even of spirituality (as if the twain never meet!); but Jesus did come "so that you
might have life, and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10)!

But let's return to "personal outreach born of genuine attentiveness": that is the key!

'How are you,' he lied.

"How are you?" Pesky question, that. Blessed are they who respond courageously and honestly. Blessed, too, are they who care when they ask, and listen reverently to the response and all its undertow. It makes a difference, believe me.

Nobody has directly demanded a retraction of my use of the word "selfish," as people are focusing instead on blogs that garner appreciable traffic. I don't believe it's necessary, as my previous post did qualify it with the appropriate Church teaching on the factors that compromise freedom and understanding. 

In that brand of neurosis that normally calls for "podiatric dentistry," I will nevertheless shade my story by suggesting that suicide starts in a self-centered frame of mind. In his article Burnett speculates about people who take their own lives as a courtesy to those who, in their minds, couldn't care less, or more kindly, about them: an interior booby trap! Mental illnesses, like their corporeal counterparts, have a way of turning people in on themselves, their fearful projections of abandonment. When something--anything--is not right in me, I don't seem to care quite as much about others' problems, large or small.

Now self-concern can be a very good thing. When a life preserver surfaces, the drowning person will and should grasp for it. But there also remains the risk of self-pity and contempt for God, the "One with the infinite power" who does not seem to be too eager to remove this stumbling-block to belief in His omnipotence and goodness. God's silence in the face of physical and moral evil is the greatest scandal, likely underlying more of the New Atheism than New Atheists probably care to recognize.

To return to the first article of note, a spiritual solution is indicated. It is systemic in scope, and ultimately addresses what Pope Saint John Paul II called "the culture of death." Now I don't hold up Robin Williams or any other suicide victim as a billy club for the "culture war." Rather, every opportunity to affirm the value of our own existence, from generous parenthood to living wages to respect for the elderly to attentive listening to you-name-it: it's all the spiritual solution!

+ + + + +

Now my keener readers may have noted (though none openly) that my "In Memoriam" piece on Robin Williams failed to include a single recollection of the man--his generosity, sensitivity, faith, energy, or talent.

Comics appeal to the incongruous, the absurd. Prophet-like, they point out to us where things don't match up when they should. They don't so much predict the future but disclose and decry the peculiarities of the present. We laugh at comedians, because somewhere their truth resonates within us, especially when that truth contains a hint of tragedy.

Yes, I watched a number of episodes of "Mork and Mindy" (1978-82) when I was a kid. I enjoyed "Moscow on the Hudson," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Dead Poets' Society," and a few other Williams films. But one more recent discovery has seized my interest, courtesy of another Burnett: Carol. Her show's 11-year run concluded in my toddlerhood (1978), paving Williams' way for "Mork" and subsequent gems.

Thanks to YouTube, millions get to enjoy the lunacy (pardon the use of the word in this context) of the stars and skits. Here is one of my favorites, the Funeral sketch. Poking fun at our contemporary sterilization of mourning, Robin teaches Carol how to "keen":

12 August 2014

Rage Against The Dying of the Light (In Memoriam, Robin Williams)

So Robin Williams committed suicide. Cue the flood of tributes, laments, reposts of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), how "cunning, baffling, and powerful" (to steal a phrase) depression can be, how it tends to infest comic souls* and how particularly insidious depression can be when substance abuse accompanies it.

I am not for an instant maligning this response. Renewals of human solidarity usually take a tragedy to happen, but not always. The Internet is laced with incidents promoting carefulness, courtesy, and compassion "between the acts." And we'll always be "between the acts" (of suicide), for "the poor you will have with [and within] you always" (Mt 26:11).

Persons suffering from depression, substance abuse, and suicide temptations can be helped, but many well-intentioned attempts end up reinforcing it. Helping seems a delicate art, but not impossible and certainly not "for professionals only," because it's the amateurs--literally, those who love--who are the "first responders" in emotional crises.

Among my initial reactions to news like yesterday's is frustration and irritation. "Robin Williams! Well, that sucks! What a waste of talent, generosity, and energy! What'd he do that for? Couldn't anyone have tried to stop him?" As an adult, in the minds of his loved ones he might not have merited round-the-clock supervision; perhaps by that point he had a sense of calmness about arriving at his solution.

I don't know...and that's just it.

If we knew, that knowledge still wouldn't control the situation, now that it--he--has passed. Suicide understandably prompts guilt over the very fact that we "didn't know," or perhaps may have denied, the extent of the person's problems.

We may also be angry--at depression made flesh, at the suicide victim for seeming selfish..for being him/herself in that mysterious state, which is already very much given over to silence, to brooding, to isolation and alienation, and their attendant pain, so that suicide appears the only available option, the last, best prescription for pain relief. 

Objectively speaking, the taking of one's own life is a selfish act, contradictory to "the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life...gravely contrary to [the just love of self, of neighbor, and of God]" (Catechism, 2281). It is one of many ways people deny and defy the goodness of their own existence and its Creator.

However, given the numerous factors that inhibit the full use of one's intellect and will, compromising the full exercise of understanding and freedom, we have every reason to entrust tortured souls to the Divine Mercy that exceeds the limits we conceive (CCC, 2282-83).

But we still should "rage, rage against the dying of the light" (as John Keating, Williams' character in Dead Poets Society, might exhort). Our rage may take many forms: prayer, sharing links to helpful articles on depression and suicide prevention, keeping your eyes, ears, and heart open to the people around you each day--which may present you the opportunity either to extend compassion to someone who suffers, or to disclose your own hurts to someone who cares.

*Language alert ("Cracked," remember.)

10 August 2014

Dire Straits?

In anticipation of the weekend’s readings, I read an article that treated a matter of personal and ecclesial concern. The people of the Coal Region once were known for, among other things, their deep identification with the Catholic faith. What happened to that?

The current religious and spiritual landscape is becoming increasingly arid. When I visit the hospital, I receive a roster of patients grouped according to parish membership. The largest classification is “Unaffiliated." It contains people of all ages. I sometimes feel like I’m trying to sell something to them

More to the point, I feel like Saint Paul as he lamented all the graces that his own people were failing to appreciate. Maybe his manner of expression was dramatic, maybe it was sincere; but he said he’d be happier losing his own relationship with the Lord if it meant that people could gain theirs.

So as to redirect my pessimistic tendencies, I found a more accurate way to express myself in the article I read: We can no longer count on the secure transmission of the faith from parents to children within the larger context of fervent families and parishes. 

For good or ill, people had a better chance of becoming and staying Catholic if they were of a traditionally Catholic ethnic background (e.g., Polish, Lithuanian, Italian). Cultural expressions and family traditions conveyed the faith as perfect supplements to sound Catholic schools and CCD programs. Of course, knowledge alone doesn't purvey genuine faith: one can get into even heady theological discussions where God is best incidental and at worst a bludgeoning tool.

On one hand, then, a person can have absolutely no experience with a community where God is praised, doctrines taught, and morals lived; on the other hand, one can learn everything about God, pay strict attention to rubrics, and do the right thing, but never come to know God personally. Neither scenario is ideal. What is? 

As a universal Church, as a diocese, as a parish, as families, and as individuals, we need to become the place where God is praised, doctrines taught, and morals lived, and all this propelled by a vibrant communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, with Mary and with all the saints and angels. If heaven and earth do not start to come together in us, here and now, we will never raise a generation who really cares about either.

In order to cultivate a real and living relationship with God, the first requirement is the ability and willingness to be silent. Face it: it’s not easy to be silent for long enough, like Elijah, to hear the “tiny whispering sound” of God. Our minds better resemble the storm-tossed boat in which the distraught disciples suddenly found faith. 

(By the way, “distraught” comes from an old adjective “distract,” which was an archaic past participle of “stretch.” You might say Peter and the other disciples, and every disciple since, has had to be stretched in order for faith to grow.)

The proliferation of sin prompts doubt about our worthiness of God. "I suffer from this or that failing. I rationalize my bad actions. I fear I may die without friends. My heart's desires will remain unfulfilled. Life has not dealt me a good hand. Untreated resentments about people and things in my past stew within me. I am distracted in every imaginable direction. I am beset by paralyzing fears, selfish attachments, and wayward drives. I’m a mess!”

Can we become honest enough with God and other people, to let them in? Are we that honest with ourselves? By His own admission, the Lord Jesus is the perfect audience, the perfect companion for messes like us: like our families, our communities, our workplaces and schools and world. It has to start with us. We have to let us into us so we will let Him into us, and then let Him move through us.

And fortunately, in establishing a personal relationship with us, Jesus “jumps the gun,” precisely by giving us the Eucharist, His own Body and Blood. He inserts the Mass into our mess, so we can take our mess to the Mass. The communal relationship of Holy Communion facilitates the personal relationship that the Catholic faith needs to flourish in our land.