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

28 December 2016

Year in Review: Celebrity Dying, Quotidian Living

I don't have a "Year in Review" media piece in front of me, but I can tick off the proverbial top of my head several celebrities who died in 2016. Starting from the most recent, but otherwise in no particular order: Carrie Fisher, Keith Emerson, Florence Henderson, George Michael, Prince...OK, that's all I could think of without help.

Found since the writing of the first paragraph, a rather partial list. Clockwise (from memory, starting from top left): Muhammad Ali; Alan Thicke; David Bowie; Nancy Reagan; John Glenn; Gene Wilder; Florence Henderson; Chyna; George Michael; Alan Rickman--not from memory (thanks, TLK!); Arnold Palmer; Prince; Carrie Fisher (center). Image credit: unknown and unsought.
The diversity of my Facebook friends shines forth in the varied reactions to these deaths. Nobody who posted on it was wholly indifferent (else, I suppose, they wouldn't have posted; I shared my selective share, as well).

Like much else, it moves me to wonder: maybe I care too little about people, or I just don't care about celebrities, or I consider myself "more sophisticated" (read conceited, even callous) for not caring so much about those particular people, their artistic prodigies or the fact of their deaths.

Except for the general sadness concerning death as a human institution, especially any death I consider "premature" or "before their time," my level of caring depends on my level of attentiveness and interest in their contributions to culture. It definitely is a reflection of me, for good or ill, or neither or both. For example, yesterday's death of Carrie Fisher registered lower than the death of Prince or George Michael, because I liked a few songs of the latter two persons and I care hardly at all for the Star Wars phenomenon. (Blasphemy, perhaps, but it's where I am. "Don't judge," but judge away.)

Nothing new here: Death is not going to stop. Celebrity deaths are not going to stop. The older we all get, the closer we all get to death. Pace Keith Richards, drug and alcohol abuse increase (but don't "guarantee") the likelihood of premature death. The cult of celebrity is not going to stop. The Internet is not going to stop, nor is the Internet-exacerbated tendency to react quickly and emotively to death, tragedy, and injustice.

In short: We need to renew our prescription for chill pills...and yet we must beware overdosing on chill pills, for we ought to take seriously many things, most of all our health, safety, and salvation. But we obsess over various uncontrollables to distract ourselves from the fundamental malady that includes "not being right unless we're not right" ("right" in the sense of "well"). The syndrome won't go away, though each day, please God, we can confront it--gently, yet head-on.

To retool a phrase: "The poor you always have with you" (Mt 26:11) meaning not only the material, but (here especially) the panoply of spiritual poverty that rock and roll our world. In the manner a friend once proposed a similar observation to me: we ought to keep in the front of the mind that in the back of our mind we are always seeking physical, emotional, moral, and spiritual self-destruction, aided, I now add, by the ancient enemy of genuine human fulfillment and the influence of that enemy in the culture.

One of my high school classmates, a fellow of intellectual bent and, if I recall, a fan of Jim Morrison, wrote this in his 1994 yearbook inscription to me: "Rem. [sic] your own death as often as possible." Upon first reading his esoteric entry, I concluded: whether or not I remembered my own death, I would remember him for having exhorted me thus.

One of my seminary professors, in his introductory ethics class of Fall 1997, told our class: "All philosophy is an attempt to address the problem of death." Implicit in that assertion, by virtue of their mutual service, is the inclusion of "all theology" with "all philosophy." The brevity and fragility and preciousness of life, besides being a proof for the existence of God, catalyzes the cranium for contemplation, especially that sort best supplemented by appropriate action.

I won't deny: 2016 was a difficult year for the entertainment industry and for many of its fans. Next year will be, too, I predict, if only because the celebrities of yesteryear, whose output was undeniably better than any of the drivel being released today, are dying off. (I mean, whenever, say, Tony Bennett or Betty White dies, the flag should be half-mast! When Sinatra died, I wore black all day! To explain: I was in the seminary, so I was wearing my cassock, specifically receiving my B.A. in Philosophy, which got me nowhere but wherever I am.)

"The beatings will continue until morale improves" [or, if you will, "until morals improve"--and even if they did improve, that wouldn't guarantee anything but greater disillusionment, and more grist for the atheist/anti-theist/hedonist mill]. 

But more than that: grist for the human mill. I grind with the best of 'em.

‘Some find me a sword; some
            The flange and the rail; flame,
        Fang, or flood’ goes Death on drum,
            And storms bugle his fame.
    But wé dream we are rooted in earth—Dust!        85
    Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
        Wave with the meadow, forget that there must
The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.
(G.M. Hopkins, "Wreck of the Deutschland," Stanza 11)

The last spoonful of mirror-directed moralizing on the matter: Excessive luxury of all sorts does not go unaddressed, whether by living or by dying. That's my takeaway from 2016. I'd like to keep it in mind every day.

10 December 2016

Prayer and the Divine Perspective

The following is an upcoming column from my parish bulletin corner. I have published it with the same impatience that might undergird intercessory prayer or Christmas requests.

Youmay have heard of a prayer called “The Saint Andrew Christmas Novena,” which people pray from 30 November (the feast of St. Andrew) to Christmas Day, as often as five times a day. While a novena (from the Latin novem, “nine”) normally goes for nine days, it can refer more broadly to any prayer repeated over a span of time.

Youwanna hear it? Here it goes: Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires (mention your intentions here), through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

Prayers like this are a helpful mental and spiritual discipline. Prayer is classically defined as “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (St. John Damascene; cf. CCC 2559). Here the “heart” is not merely the locus of our affections (as in the shorthand “<3”), but also of our thoughts and decisions. So prayer principally raises one’s will to God, following the pivotal petition of the Lord’s own prayer: Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

When we attentively recite a formulaic prayer in which we can offer a specific need, or when we flat-out ask for this or that in our own words, it is important to remember that we are seeking to conform our wills, if not our preferences, to God’s. And how does God reveal His will, or His preference? In the way things unfold.

Godcertainly does not prefer every human decision, but He does permit the sinful ones in particular because to forbid any and all sin might appear to make for a better world, but not a free world in which people either will or will not participate in the good through loving actions, words, and thoughts.

In our prayer(s), another author has said that our deepest desire, when we dig far enough, is to share in the divine perspective on our person and our needs, which includes the whole network of people and situations that contribute in any manner to our person and our needs. That’s a big perspective, a mysterious one that, finally, we will be treated to in heaven. When we happen to receive glimpses of it along the way, God be praised; but that’s His prerogative to grant when and how He might deem it beneficial for us.

Where is that divine perspective located? At once on the cross of Christ and in the unity of the Trinity, for God the Son embodies total suffering and total love. God has so designed it that love and suffering are “total” insofar as they include yours and mine.

Regarding Christian suffering, Saint Paul said, “In my flesh I make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24). Regarding Christian love, again Paul: “[God] encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God” (2 Cor 1:4; it is appropriate to substitute the word “love” for “encourage/ment” passim).

If we want an answer to that pesky question “Why,” we’d better brace ourselves if we ever got an answer!