It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m cleaning my bathroom. I’ve selected an exceptional playlist on my phone, encouraging my feet to dance. Then I hear it. Ben Folds. It’s “Zak and Sara.” And with it a Back to the Future Delorean-like transportation of sound and fragrance for a particular place and person.
No longer am I surrounded by bathroom tiles and the potent scent of bleach. I’m in a white pickup truck. I hear a voice sitting next me, driving us someplace my memory can’t recall. It’s a voice belting lyrics while turning up the volume. A voice that knows every instrumental movement and taps their hand on my leg to the rhythm. The voice of a musician with perfect pitch. It is the voice of someone excited by the music and who shares their excitement with me. I am falling more and more in love.
But, it’s more than the voice. It’s the white pickup truck that smells like soap, citrus and sandalwood and spice. It’s the empty Skoal chew containers strewn about, adding a hint of wintergreen. It’s the constant sound of empty plastic bottles being crushed under my feet. It’s the way the voice’s eyes catch the light and seem to smile when we look at each other. It’s the way this voice seems to be singing to me and the way my skin responds to it. It’s the memory of a memory, and I welcome it as I sit on the edge of the tub and pause, forgetting about the toilet brush in my hand.
In 2014, I professed vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity in the Society of Jesus. As I and ten other men anticipated the beginning of this ritual, the pianist began to play the entrance hymn – “The Summons.” Tears formed at the corners of my eyes, and my heart was full of love. Memories waltzed through my mind in a seemingly choreographed awe – my first crush dancing with my first broken heart, the death of a friend in step with the birth of my goddaughter, the voice in the white pickup truck. All those moments led me to the back of that church with these companions, with whom I had made even more memories.
A couple weeks ago at Mass I heard the piano begin playing that same song. And I began to recall the faces of these friends who stood with me in the back of that church four years earlier. These past few months some of them have been experiencing rough times, but now we’re not together in the back of a church. We’re miles apart. It’s been an inviting challenge to discover how to be in relationship with people whom I deeply love, but who are nowhere near my front door.
As the congregation sang, all I could do was pray the lyrics for my friends. All I had in that moment was my deep love, my voice, and that song. So I clenched my eyes together and shout-sang, wanting my prayers to offer rest and relief. My jaw quivered from the urgent appeal to God, please, Lord, please, carry their cross, help them carry their cross.
Much like a movie, there’s a soundtrack to our lives, underscoring everything, helping us to remember.
When “Zak and Sara” makes its round on my playlist, I return to that pick-up truck. Nevermind the heartache that would eventually befall that relationship. Now, I can look back without hurt and regret and recognize the gift of having been in love. A song like “The Summons,” which carries a wondrous joy of commitment, becomes a prayer of love and hope for hurting friends and an acceptance of my reliance on God.
Music almost always makes its way out of the speaker and into my heart. It becomes more than sound – it becomes a light, illuminating the hard and hopeful, the sad and surreal, the amazing and the average. Listening back, I’m reminded of who and where I was. My heart ready to see how God loves me into existence, then and now. A love that’s always been there. A love always eager to hold me and guide me forward. A love easily heard with the help of music.
When people argue about Pope Francis, how often are they really disagreeing on more fundamental issues – like the nature of the Church and who is Jesus Christ?
Last Wednesday night, Ross Douthat and Massimo Faggioli, two well-known Catholic public intellectuals, engaged in a public discussion looking at the first five years of the Francis papacy. To those unfamiliar with these men, they often represent two different parts of the spectrum of American Catholicism. Faggioli is a theologian at Villanova who has written extensively on Vatican II and who often is seen as a spokesman for a more progressive Catholicism; Douthat, who regularly writes opinion columns for the New York Times and who has written several books critiquing American culture, is seen as a similar spokesman for a more traditional Catholicism. Though their public meetings had previously consisted in pithy—and sometimes heated—exchanges on Twitter, the conversation they had in person at Fordham University was, to my eyes, one of depth and real seeking after truth.
To try to rehash the whole conversation in this piece would be too much, so I hope to offer instead a glimpse of what I took to be the heart of their disagreement and common concern. To that end, one might be surprised that the event, “Francis@Five,” wound up being only partially about Francis. The topic that seemed to take center stage was really Vatican II. Francis was a recurring topic but both men seemed to come back to a central question: how does the Church understand Vatican II and its documents?
Both men acknowledged that Vatican II called for a shift in the ways the Church thought about and interacted with the larger world. However, they also both acknowledged that the current conflicts in the Church—especially those in the American Church—stem from divergent interpretations of what exactly shifted and to what extent. There appear to be at least three different main interpretations.
First, there is the view in which Vatican II means that the Church ought to dialogue with external voices—secular and interreligious voices—and accept that the Spirit might call for the Church’s traditions to continually be shaped anew and transformed by that ongoing dialogue. From this perspective, even Church teachings on moral issues might be significantly changed through engagement with modernity. This position is most common among more progressive Catholics.
Second, there is what Douthat called the John Paul II synthesis, in which Vatican II called for dialogue, but one in which the firmness of most of the Church’s teachings acts as a witness to those with whom it dialogues. Here there is room for change and growth in response to modernity–on some aspects of interfaith dialogue, or the historical investigations of scripture, for instance–but there is also a strong sense that the Church’s moral teachings stand as a sign of contradiction to the world’s values.
If this second interpretation is more traditional, there is a third position that goes a step further. When asked to characterized those in the Church who oppose Francis, Douthat suggested that there is a growing group that has come to see Vatican II largely as a mistake by either of those interpretations. As he put it, if the John Paul II synthesis paved the way for Francis’ raising questions even about issues of marriage and sexuality, then that is to them a sign of the failure of the John Paul II synthesis and so calls into question the legitimacy of Vatican II. On this interpretation, there seem to be few areas in which the Church can change in response to modernity.
The three interpretations of Vatican II seem to me to ring true as far as generalizations go, and I think it crystallizes the point at issue: if the discussion stays at the level of Amoris Laetitia or any one controversial issue, those in disagreement will continue to talk past one another. The conversation must get to the question of how we are to understand the Church, its traditions, and the ways they can and possibly cannot develop.
Here it appears to me that Faggioli and Douthat have different understandings of the Church and its role in the world, as evidenced by the way they spoke at this event. For Faggioli, the Church is a living organism whose purpose is continually growing closer to Christ. ‘Growing,’ is the key term here, and Faggioli rejects the framework—used especially by Pope Benedict XVI—of continuity and discontinuity as unhelpful if we think of the Church as organism. Though he did not really explain how we can dispense with this frame without completely opening every aspect of tradition to discussion, he seems to hold that the Church, like an organism, must continue to respond to the needs and problems of its environment. On this model, he thinks, even significant changes need not be seen as ruptures.
Douthat, on the other hand, seemed to refer to the institutional Church when he used the word; if he did not specifically mean the ecclesiastical hierarchy, he at least seemed to emphasize the magisterial role of the Church as teacher. From his emphasis on synthesis, it seems he believes the Church needs to have clear teachings that hold to absolutes. Pastoral flexibility cannot risk calling these principles of the divinely-instituted moral law into question without undermining the Church’s role. Several times Douthat questioned the “endgame” of certain changes called for by those supportive of Francis, whether they are just first steps to more radical changes—and implying that there are points beyond which the Church cannot go.
This questioning of what the Church is goes even further, though. Ultimately, it is a question about who Christ was—and this came up in discussing his reaction to the Samaritan woman at the well. Do we understand him as having been willing to relax a moral absolute for the sake of pastoral care, or do we see him as having cared for her within the framework of that moral absolute? This seems a key question underlying the discussions of Church, tradition, and Vatican II.
These are questions we Catholics will have to keep working to answer together. As both men pointed out, it took the Council of Trent at least a hundred years to sink in; we are only about fifty years out from Vatican II. We may hope that time will lead to greater unity. We may not, as Douthat pointed out, take that unity as inevitable. The Church’s history is marked by conflicts, schisms, and civil wars.
Still, I do not think we should be afraid. Love casts out fear, and love in the form of charity will guard us against the animosity that turns disagreement into schism. Such charity remains, despite significant differences, and it was visible last week in two men who both care deeply about the future of the Church.
After watching one of the most ritually-rich secular events in the world, what did we take from the liturgical experience? Was it the stunning aspects of the game? The intensity of our emotions as they volleyed to and fro? The hilarity of the commercials vying for our consumption of things we don’t need?
Or, did anybody get the idea they were watching a sham? An over-glorified modern-day version of Roman gladiators battling to the death to entertain our gleeful desires for violent entertainment?
Am I being cynical and irrational here? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean there is not an element of truth to my sudden criticism of a sport I have always loved watching.
You see, I’ve been experiencing an epiphany of late regarding the nature of football. The more I read about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and how much CTE is linked to repeated concussions among football players, and even from the repeated impacts that offensive linemen experience on every snap, the more I wonder if I should be excited about football anymore.
I’ve also recently come to learn that the Super Bowl is used to exploit large numbers of people, mostly women, in the business of sex trafficking. Human sex trafficking is a daily occurence in our world, and becomes especially prevalent during major sporting events like the Olympics and the Super Bowl. In sex trafficking, people become subject to consumption, they are stripped of their dignity, and are enslaved to the whims of their pimp and clientele. The sexual exploitation of human beings does serious psychological and physical harm to victims of human trafficking. This reality is despicable on all accounts, but easily gets lost in the spectacle and bright lights of championship football.
But what can we really do about it? Law-enforcement increases resources and sting operations to try and limit the occurrences of sex trafficking in and around game day. But what about the 364 other days a year where sex trafficking continues to plague individuals from all walks of life? How can more people got involved in changing the culture where these atrocities are seemingly permissible – or at least where it is permissible to ignore them?
I’m thinking about the football players here as well. These players are paid pennies on the dime compared to what their owners are making, and what do they get for their labors besides an early death sentence in many cases, some by suicide? A gunshot to the heart like Junior Seau? Or a hanging like Aaron Hernandez, a former New England Patriot who hung himself at 27 after being imprisoned for murder and diagnosed post autopsy with the most severe case of CTE ever seen in a person his age? These are real consequences which substantially change the lives of players who are purchased for our entertainment. By in large, these changes are not beneficial for the flourishing of the tremendous athletes we just saw pour their hearts out on the field.
If football is to continue, then the way the game is played has to change. I’m not sure what it would look like, but something has to give. We are talking about human lives, not gladiatorial slaves!
Where does all this leave me? I just witnessed one of the best Super Bowls I have ever seen in my life, and I am torn between the magnificence of the performance by both teams on the field and the sad thought that the athletes and people in attendance are being used. There is no doubt about the power of sport to bring a city together. Philadelphia is flying very high at the moment. But this jubilation does not change the fact that the athletes who play the game of football are risking their physical and emotional health for our satisfaction. That might be OK with the players and owners and you the fans. But I’m not sure I’m OK with it anymore.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Alex Valentine.
Everyone wants a short homily on Super Bowl Sunday. Here’s yours! Enjoy this brief, but powerful homily from Brian Strassburger, SJ. Based on the readings for Sunday, February 4, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/2DKu37B.
I’ve played a video game where you get points for hooking all kinds of fish. Accidentally catch the old shoe or tin can and points count against you. I love the metaphor of Jesus as the living water. I want to be immersed in God’s great love, swimming like a fish with the flow of God’s direction, and I use my imagination to contemplate being a fish in the immense ocean of God. Lately I’ve [...]
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
Our constant invocation of the rhetoric of polarization and division can drain us of hope and blind us to new possibilities for unity. But there are opportunities for us to grow together, and we should embrace them.
The Left’s New Love for Subsidiarity
Subsidiarity has never been popular on the American Left. Perhaps it sounds too much like “states’ rights.” Perhaps the party of the Civil Rights Movement knows that change often has to come from the top.
But Trump is changing that. Bill de Blasio, the progressive mayor of New York, has swung decisively toward the local in his policy-making. He sounded like a Tea Party conservative when he said in November that “the danger to New York City isn’t here. It’s 200 miles down I-95.”
Part of this is normal party politics: the party in favor favors centralizing power until it’s out of power, and then it becomes “anti-Establishment.”
But the Democrats have long favored national over state politics, and that has weakened them in the age of Trump. As David Axelrod argues:
I wonder, sometimes, whether the Democratic Party has contributed to [a decline in local politics] by making the president and the federal government the fulcrum of so much, and suggesting that we can solve these problems from the top down. Democrats have ceded a lot of statehouses and legislatures. Congress has been gridlocked… What can the president do with the power that he has to try and create some progressive action? It just puts a lot of weight on the presidency, when maybe we have to be a bit more innovative.”
These days the party of FDR and LBJ cannot expect to get things done in D.C., unless of course it sweeps the Congress in 2018. But it would be a tragic victory were Democrats to win back the Hill and forget the promise of local and state politics. If nothing else, Democrats will want to have more of a say in the redistricting process after the 2020 Census than they did after 2010. And Democrats can engage in innovative policy-making at the local level, much as they have with the minimum wage.
Republicans should welcome this chance to work with Democrats on local-level policies. Indeed, the GOP has long proclaimed their love for local government and devolution. Here’s their chance to prove it.
The Press’ New Love for the Truth
In an age often skeptical of “truth,” it is amazing how robustly the press has championed that notion since Trump’s election.
Perhaps in the past the concept of truth wasn’t flashy enough: it was more edgy to talk about how truth was socially constructed in the name of power. But many in the media now feel obligated to reclaim the truth as a force for good, to re-examine their journalistic commitments to balance, objectivity and neutrality. As Christiane Amanpour said in 2016: “I believe in being truthful, not neutral.”
Many of the press’ antagonists, however, have failed to see how the rules of the game have changed. The phrase “fake news” has become banal, but it’s been effective at blunting our recognition that we all care about the truth, and that truth can be a new common ground.
Where conservatives – and conservative media – have attacked the press for their “fake news,” they should be applauding the press’ new-found love of truth. If diverse groups believe that democracy indeed depends upon truth, we should be fostering a conversation about what kinds of truths are essential to democratic politics, not calling each other liars.
The Right’s New Love for Sin
I saved this one for last.
I’m glad that so many conservatives can forgive Trump. I’m glad that Trump reminds so many that everyone deserves the occasional mulligan.
But if religious conservatives are serious about embracing sin and forgiveness, they need to spread that message beyond Trump. If conservatives can forgive Trump, they can forgive others, too. While the GOP is quick to jump on the many moral failings of the Democrats, they have had more than their fair share of David Vitters, Bob Packwoods, Rudy Giulianis, John Ensigns, Bob Barrs, Tim Murphys, Dennis Hasterts and now Donald Trump.
And their understanding of forgiveness needs to be more serious: forgiveness cannot substitute for repentance and reparation. Forgiveness cannot be a carte blanche to carry on as they were before. Political expediency is no substitute for contrition.
I’m not saying the Left has a monopoly on virtue or forgiveness. I am saying, however, that the GOP does Christian values no favors when it routinely fails to practice the values that it constantly criticizes the Left for flouting. It makes Christians looks like hypocrites, and only makes it more difficult for a skeptical public to take seriously the claims of religion and morality in the public square.
It would be far better for the GOP to concede to the Democrats that it often fails at the task that it sets itself, and that it has not cornered the market on virtue. If Republican exercised their defense of morality with more humility, and with more actions than words, the GOP would be in much better shape. And then we could all take the moral dimension of politics more seriously.
By Tim Muldoon
The late philosopher René Girard suggested that human desire is “triangular,” meaning that it arises not from any intrinsic value in the object of desire, but rather that we imitate others and experience desire for the same things that they desire. The toddler wanting the toy that another toddler has; the junior executive wanting the same clothes and car that the senior executive has; the lover pining for the same beloved as a rival—these are [...]
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a couple in their swimsuits lounging under an umbrella on some beach. The caption reads: “Oh, no. We’re still us.” I think this captures very well how many of us are feeling by February or March of any given year. We thought we’d do better this year! We planned more carefully for those projects we want to complete. We were more realistic with the New Year’s resolutions. But we’re [...]
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
The text message read, “Meet your replacement.”
Soon after, the picture arrived. I saw a litter of puppies, most playing and roaming around in the background, except for one. One puppy stood firmly with his back toward the camera, but with his head turned over his shoulder staring directly into the lens. His two huge ears like radar dishes, that he will inevitably never grow into.
I held my phone, looking eye-to-eye with my parents’ new puppy, my replacement. As much as I wanted to be jealous, I couldn’t. Looking at those enormous ears and those focused eyes, I knew I had lost the battle to the adorable puppy, but I wasn’t jealous at all.
In August, I met him. A half corgi, half blue heeler mix, he would always be short with dwarfish legs and a long torso. My mother appropriately named him “Tyrion Lannister Biro,” in honor of one of her favorite characters from Game of Thrones.
One evening during my short visit home, after a long day, my mom, dad, and I sat around talking. The puppy played at mom’s feet, or rather, little Tyrion fought valiantly to return his rope toy from under my mom’s foot. Eventually, as his tugging waned and the effects of a long day full of exploring and playing caught up to him, my mom picked up Tyrion and held him in her lap.
It’s strange to say that a puppy can melt, but this one did. He laid on his back in my mother’s lap, and simply melted into sleep. His head leaned back. His arms fell to his side. His stomach faced her, inviting a belly rub. His positioning would seem awkward to anyone who has bones, but for a puppy dissolving into the comfort of being loved, he looked like he was in heaven.
A few months later, I quickly learned two lessons from my parents about Tyrion. First, be careful not to get the puppy too excited. Second, be careful the tone you use when correcting the puppy.
He gets very excited very quickly, and—still being quite young—he has trouble holding his bladder. Every time Tyrion sees me, his excitement leads to his little chirp-like bark, and nearly every time a little accident.
At one point, I unwrapped something and accidentally dropped a piece of the paper. Looking down, I realized Tyrion had grabbed the paper, so I said, “Drop it.” His little ears drooped back, he dropped the paper, and slowly stalked away. Right where he was standing, a little puddle remained. I hadn’t been loud, only firm.
I later tracked him down, and I apologized—which I know sounds crazy to do with a puppy, but I did it anyway. Only, I hadn’t planned on how happy Tyrion would be—as if he understood that I wasn’t actually mad at him—and he got too excited…
One evening, Dad, the puppy, and I were watching football. Tyrion was sleeping comfortably in the chair with dad. Something we did must have woken him up, and he sat up.
There was a look on his face, and I knew that look meant trouble. While sitting up on the extended legs of dad’s recliner, he looked with a ferocious focus at me and my chair. Mental calculations occurring. His ears twitching, checking wind speed. His little legs quivering with energy about to explode. Then, he jumped.
The little puppy, too small to genuinely make the distance, sprung into the air. His short, stubby legs outspread like Superman leaping over a building in a single bound! Despite his belief to the contrary, Tyrion is still a corgi—there was no way he was going to make the gap. At the last second, I sprung forward to catch him and pull him into my lap.
He curled up on my lap and went to sleep. What I thought of as a death-defying leap, a Evel-Knievel-esque dare, he somehow knew would be perfectly fine. His smug little nose hid itself between my arm and the seat cushion, and I couldn’t help but wonder if all along he had planned for me to catch him.
And here’s the honest truth: I am jealous of the puppy, but not in the way that you might think. It’s not that he’s more adorable than me; I concede that willingly. It’s not that he gets to play all day, though that sounds pretty awesome. I’m jealous of how simple things are from his perspective.
Sitting in my mom’s lap, Tyrion knows he is entirely safe. He lays there, in total peace. No worrying about how to fit his work into the hours of his day. No obsessing over whether something will or will not work. No struggle to navigate when to be guarded and when to be vulnerable. No overcomplicating things. He trusts entirely that it’ll be OK—that someone will catch him even if he falls.
It’s pure. It’s simple. It’s a faith without questioning or overthinking. It’s a faith with a little heart entirely open. It’s a faith so authentic, that I’m jealous. It’s the faith of a puppy, a faith that I wish I had.
Photos by the author!
Criticizing the March for Life for being primarily about abortion is like criticizing Black Lives Matter for being primarily about black lives. It’s okay for a movement to seek action on a particular issue.
I came to this important realization while attending the March for Life in D.C. a week ago. (For those who might not be aware, the March for Life is a demonstration that protests the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, a case that made abortion legal nationally.)
That said, I know my comparison between the March for Life and Black Lives Matter is problematic for many. Thus, before proceeding any further, let me acknowledge and address a common objection to this perspective. You might be thinking that, as opposed to the name “Black Lives Matter,” the name “March for Life” misleads people: the movement is not primarily about life in general but rather about unborn life. You might say that the cause should more properly be called the “March for Unborn Life.”
Though this objection has some merit, I don’t think that it holds much water in the last analysis. Just as the name “pro-choice” in the context of Roe v. Wade does not refer to choice in general but rather to choice concerning abortion, “pro-life” in the context of Roe v. Wade does not refer to life in general but rather to life concerning abortion.
Indeed, “pro-life” can mean “pro-all-life,” and in broader contexts it should mean “pro-all-life.” Nevertheless, my agreement with the broader sense of “pro-life” does not undermine my commitment to the unborn. When it comes to Roe v. Wade and abortion in the U.S., the position of the March for Life is the pro-life position. When we consider the horrific fact that more than 60 million lives have been lost to abortion in the U.S. since that fateful Supreme Court decision, it becomes clear that the March for Life is worthy of its title and its special place in the wider pro-life movement..
Returning to the main thrust of this piece, I hold that, while it is very true that all social justice issues are intertwined, there should be a place for raising awareness and activism on particular types of injustice.
All too often, we distort the “seamless garment” or comprehensive approach to social justice. We absolutize it unnecessarily. In seeking to listen to the cries of all marginalized groups, we often fail to listen to the cry of one marginalized group.
Some on the left say that the March for Life should be about all lives, not just about unborn lives. Others on the right say that Black Lives Matter should be about all lives, not just about black lives. The parallels are clear, and they are problematic.
Now, these detractors do have a point: all lives do, in fact, matter. A just society involves more than justice for the unborn and the black community.
However, this just society most definitely includes justice for the unborn and the black community. For us to make this progress towards social justice, some people need to dedicate themselves to these topics in particular. Everyone can’t do everything.
Let me point out another key problem with this dismissive approach to single-issue protests.
Such behavior against the March for Life and Black Lives Matter increases political tribalism. Instead of engaging the topic of abortion, some leftists knee-jerkingly prefer to point to potential inconsistencies in the thought of the march-for-lifer. Instead of engaging the topic of the systematic oppression of the black community, some rightists instinctively prefer to interrogate their opponents on their orthodoxy in other areas.
Both groups of critics often assume that their opponents are inconsistent, when, in fact, they have no idea about a given protester’s complete social philosophy. These assumptions are dizzying and disconsoling, whether they are right or wrong. We need to dialogue with dignity, and we desperately need to stay on topic. If we can’t have a civil and generous conversation about one social issue, we will never be able talk to each other about society as a whole.
Don’t get me wrong. I do think comprehensively, and I do vote comprehensively.
But let’s be real.
As soon as there is a march that actively advocates for the twenty or thirty social justice stances with which the Catholic Church and I agree, I will be there. Believe me. I will be there.
Until then, I will support the March for Life
Until then, I will support Black Lives Matter.
Until then, I’ll see you at your local single-issue protest.
Do you ever wonder why we pray for people? Praying for the living and the dead is, after all, a spiritual work of mercy. I believe one of the key characteristics of Ignatian spirituality, being a contemplative in action, offers us insight into this work of mercy. To me, living as a contemplative in action means being a person of prayer who puts that prayer into concrete reality. It doesn’t mean that we merely act [...]
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
Jesus once said to the apostles, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) So when a book comes out titled Happiness in this Life: A Passionate Meditation on Earthly Existence with the pope’s smiling face adorning the cover, it is bound to raise eyebrows.
Has the Vicar of Christ on Earth gone back on the words of Christ Himself? Are we allowed now not to hate our lives in this world and still gain eternal life? Can we go even further and be happy in this life?
Thankfully, perhaps, this book is not a theological treatise on happiness, nor is it Scriptural commentary. Happiness in this Life isn’t even a single piece of work. Rather, it is a collection of brief snippets, none more than 2 small pages long, culled from Pope Francis’s homilies, writings, and speeches since the time of his election in 2013. These snippets are organized around a few central themes, although at times, discerning the common thread in successive excerpts is challenging.
For this reason, I can’t recommend reading straight through the book. Instead, this book is tailored for savoring a few passages at a time. It makes a good reference work for someone who might be struggling and needing an encouraging word. Even better, it could provide material for daily meditation, because it is packed with insight about the big questions in life which cannot be addressed purely intellectually.
“There is one word that I want to say to you: joy!”
Early in the book, I started underlining every occurrence of the word “joy,” but soon I realized if I continued doing so, I wouldn’t be able to set the pencil down. That Pope Francis emphasizes joy will not be surprising to anyone even slightly familiar with him. The four parts of the collection each emphasize related, but distinct, aspects of the search for joy in our earthly life.
The first part treats the individual spiritual conditions for joy, with a special emphasis on the Beatitudes. Pope Francis offers insights on individual Beatitudes, explaining what purity of heart and meekness are, for example. These insights draw connections with our concrete lives in fresh and thought-provoking ways.
Considering our contemporary political climate, one may be fascinated to read, “The poor in spirit is the Christian… who is not obstinate and opinionated, but who listens with respect; and who willingly defers to the decisions of others. If there were more of the poor in spirit in our communities, there would be fewer divisions, disagreements, and controversies!”
Pope Francis encourages us to work hard to create a coherent life, one in which we identify a grand dream or long-term goal and then organize our daily activities around that goal. Speaking with the wisdom of experience, he laments, “It is sad to reach a certain age, to look over the journey we have made and find that it was made up of scraps, without unity, without form: everything temporary.” The pope lauds the spiritual freedom that enables the Christian to recognize and choose the good and realize that life project. This freedom comes to us from God’s grace working in our daily lives.
The material in the second and third parts of the book addresses the theme of joy in various circumstances or states of life. Pope Francis frequently teaches that our joy is found in relationship, in going outside of ourselves and encountering Christ in the poor, suffering, and outcast.
While there is ample material to reflect upon about human relationships in general, the collection shines in the chapters dedicated to families, priests and religious, and women. Pope Francis movingly speaks about the importance of a strong family life, for the family is the “school where we learn the art of living together.” The excerpts on women praise their dignity and their role in the Church, and the pope petitions for work to be done on a theology of the woman. My critique is that the pope does better at raising questions than providing steps towards answering them.
Any work on happiness in life must contend with the issue of human suffering. The passages on suffering gathered in the book display Pope Francis’s characteristic down-to-earth rhetoric. He employs personal stories, such as his reaction to watching people consult fortune-tellers in a park in Buenos Aires. Later, he muses on whether those who cause suffering, such as weapons manufacturers, can live eternally with God.
Most importantly, he emphasizes the mercy of God, encouraging us always to seek His forgiveness, especially in confession. If we are struggling under the weight of our sin, we must let God take care of it. “You may be ashamed to tell your sins, but as our mothers and our grandmothers used to say, it is better to be red once than yellow a thousand times,” explains Pope Francis. “We blush once, but then our sins are forgiven and we go forward.”
A short fourth part on prayer brings the book to a close. It includes a selection of prayers the pope has drawn attention to during his pontificate. Psalm 103, which extols the compassion and mercy of God, receives special emphasis, as Pope Francis challenges us to read it slowly every day. “Bless the Lord, oh my soul…Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger, abounding in mercy.”
Jesus explained to the apostles, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)
The message of Jesus is that we must lose our own lives in order to be filled with His life, which brings total joy, even in this life. As Pope Francis explains, “This joy is not a question of hope, or something that awaits us in Paradise, as if we are sad here on earth but we will be filled with joy in Paradise. No! This joy is real and tangible now, because Jesus Himself is our joy, and with Jesus joy finds its home.”
So has the pope contradicted Christ in this book? Of course not. Has the pope offered us guidance on how to find true joy in this earthly life? Well, is he Catholic?
Jesus will leave us astonished…if we pay attention. Check out this week’s One-Minute Homily with Fr. Michael Rossmann, SJ. Based on the readings for Sunday, January 28.
Ash Wednesday is February 14, 2018, so today we’re highlighting just a few of the many Ignatian-inspired features designed to help you observe Lent. An Ignatian Prayer Adventure Join in an adapted version of the Spiritual Exercises, perfectly timed as a Lent and Easter retreat. This year Barbara Lee (pictured), author of the new book God Isn’t Finished with Me Yet: Discovering the Spiritual Graces of Later Life, will share her experiences with the retreat [...]
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
Some days, you try and have a conversation and just feel like hitting your head against a wall. It goes nowhere, you feel frustrated, and you wonder why you bothered.
The last few days have been like that for me regarding immigration. A topic like this should be fairly straightforward to discuss. People are suffering, we have resources, let’s make things happen. And yet…
I have seen arguments like “I can call North Korea a shithole country, but it’s not racist, because South Korea is fine, they’re the same race, so calling something a shithole country is just saying something true.” (That one actually happened, by the way.) Arguments abound online about safety and security and how it’s their own fault that their country is so messed up. No matter how many times you try and talk, things just devolve into shouting.
Catholicism has a rich intellectual tradition that can speak to the current situation—a tradition which Pope Francis has brought out in full force, with his great pastoral instinct. Scripture has much to say about immigration. When Pope Francis declared in December that “the presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” referring to a massive group of Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, this was an absolutely Biblical argument based on Matthew 25.
But even for those who have questions about the Bible, there is a philosophical tradition that Catholicism draws upon.
One of the key concepts at our disposal if we wish to make an argument that does not rely on a specific religious tradition is that of human flourishing–the idea that there are drives and abilities that all humans have which it is good to fulfill. Human flourishing was the basis for much pre-Christian morality. Aristotle’s entire system of virtues revolved around what helps humans to flourish. Christians like Thomas Aquinas would later use this as the starting point for their own systems of ethics. When Jacques Maritain helped draft the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he was drawing upon this tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas. People have these rights because they need to flourish.
But as soon as we look at these rights, we start to see problems. Article 5, for instance, says that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” How many arguments have we seen since the start of the War on Terror about what counts as “torture,” or what is “degrading”? The statement seems so simple, and we should be able to say “respecting this right allows a person to flourish.” But we cannot even do that.
We cannot do that because we cannot agree on what it means for a human to flourish. And plenty of people don’t care if a person flourishes. Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation called capitalism “God’s way of determining who is smart and who is poor.” That might be a caricature, but not by much. If you aren’t flourishing, this line of reasoning goes, that is your own fault. God helps those who help themselves, after all.
If we want to have the conversation on immigration, first we need to have the conversation on flourishing. We need to talk about what it means for a human to be what they were meant to be, and why that matters. Aristotle’s entire system of virtues, of how to live to develop our human potential—and many of the rights we hold dear today—depend on that conversation.
In the meantime, we can still continue to act and advocate. We can still point out the suffering of those migrating, we can point out how U.S. foreign policy is responsible for much of this suffering, and we can give aid and sanctuary to those who come. But while this might alleviate some of the symptoms for the moment, there is still an underlying disease of how we think about immigrants and their home countries that shapes how badly we treat them. Protests and aid are good, but they are short-term solutions.
The long-term solution is talking about what it means to be human, and what we owe to our fellow humans. We can help promote the people who have come here and help share their experiences of migration to help make the issue and its causes concrete for people. Earlier this month, for instance, the U.S. bishops’ conference sponsored an event at Catholic University of America that featured not only policy experts, but shared the stories of immigrants, including child migrants. It is easy to say “I don’t care” about an idea, but it is much harder to say “I don’t care” while you’re looking someone in the face.
These are the conversations that shape policy and move hearts and minds. Aristotle himself observed that if you are not getting anywhere at one level of conversation, you need to go to the more basic level until you have some principles you agree on. Right now, there is no shortage of disagreement. Our conversations are going to have to get very, very basic if progress is to be made.
A few months ago, I made an eight-day silent retreat. Following St. Ignatius’s advice, I began my prayer trying to “see myself standing before God our Lord.” Sitting in silence with closed eyes, I tried to concentrate and see God before me. Image after image slid through my imagination like an old picture show: the old father, the wise mother, the waterfall, the sun, anything. Each one, however, was insufficient, and I was left unsatisfied. To the blank darkness of my eyelids I prayed, “God, just let me see YOU.”
Nothing appeared. There was no vision, no way to see myself standing before God. The image in my mind was no different from the image before my naked eye: air and objects, none of which supplied the full essence of God. With a knot in my stomach I began to wonder, “have I been praying to nothing my entire life?”
I began to feel like the ground had vanished beneath me and yet was still firmly standing upon something. Nervous, frightened, and confused, my mind became flooded with questions of what God’s existence really was. I was sensing something whose essence was ultimately beyond my senses. I was experiencing the poverty of my eyes, of my imagination, my words, and my spirit. God, though beyond my grasp, was still somehow present. Perhaps reality and visibility, reality and comprehension are vastly different things, I thought.
“Nada, nada, nada, nada, nada.” Nothing.
‘Nothing’ is how St. John of the Cross, one of the most famous mystics of all time, described his vision of God. This description could perhaps seem discouraging. So could recalling Mother Teresa’s prayer life. She once wrote, “I feel that terrible pain of loss…of God not being God, of God not existing.”
This admission of blindness and confusion however is deeply consoling to me. The ability to comprehend God only as “Nothing,” somehow did not deter John of the Cross from devoting his life to it, did not stop Mother Teresa from sacrificing everything for Jesus dwelling in the poor.
God’s transcendence, His invisibility is a painful paradox. It can tempt me to believe something lacks within me because I cannot see God. The invitation to live in faith can be scary and confusing. For it is, at times, an invitation into Nothingness. It is a mystery to me that even though I want God to be clear as the daylight, visible, and audible — “nada” can somehow be enough.
I find encouragement in the life of others. Sister Aelred, a Poor Clare nun, shares, “I say to God sometimes, if you would just let me see just for a moment, I would be quite satisfied, how beautiful you are, how wonderful you are, how amazing. Just let me see you just for a minute.”
Then, with a confident and warm smile she adds, “But He never does.”
Why then after so many years is Sister Aelred still wearing those silly clothes? Why didn’t she marry the man she loved, the one she could see and touch in a human body?
Grappling with God’s invisibility has allowed me not only to make peace with my limitations, but to understand prayer differently. I was not following St. Ignatius’s advice that day on retreat. I was trying to imagine God before me, not myself before God. The prayer reverses itself. The initiative is with God.
God is the pray-er. I am the object before God. My invitation is to simply sit defenseless, completely exposed to His gaze. And, noticing every flake of skin and cell of blood He smiles upon His creation.
Sitting cross-legged on my prayer chair, kneeling in the chapel or walking down the sidewalk, I no longer wait for the right image of God to appear. Rather, I sit, stand, walk, kneel trying to become conscious of how exposed I am to God. I become defenseless not only to His gaze, but to my wild and confusing desire to love Him.
As I sit exposed to the air, the fabric of my clothes, the trees, the sunlight, and the heat I realize that God’s recognizes all of it, down to the very protons. All of it upheld by God’s invisible but intentional work. Although not God, each created object becomes a sign-post plastered with the love and the call of God. Creation reaches for my attention, as if its purpose is to say on God’s behalf, “Come here. Just let me see you.”
Everything in my life is much simpler when I’ve been conscious, even for a moment, that Almighty God stares at me with intense love.
Just think about this: God, the creator of our vast universe, made each of us in his own image and likeness to be his friend and to cooperate with God in the great adventure of developing this planet. Moreover, after thousands of years of seeing how often human beings mess things up, God still delights in us so much that God became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth. God becomes as vulnerable as any [...]
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
With two simple questions, Google’s Arts and Culture App sparked a fascinating trend:
“Is your portrait in a museum?”
“Take a selfie and search thousands of artworks to see if any look like you.”
The 2-year-old App began as an attempt to offer tours and artwork from over 1,000 museums, but the recent feature immediately made it one of the most popular Apps in both iOS App Store and Google Play. But, why?
The Face Match feature invites users to take a selfie of themselves, then it compiles a list of artworks similar to your face—offering percentages of how similar the artwork is to the selfie. These side-by-side comparisons have gone viral often because they capture so striking a resemblance or because App’s limitations make the comparison at times so comically wrong.
Yet, this doesn’t quite explain the popularity of the trend—unless it’s about something more than just a selfie game. Perhaps, this is about appreciating our own beauty. Maybe we are fascinated by this side-by-side image of a selfie and a work of art, because we all want to believe deep down in our very bones: each of us is a work of art.
This isn’t just something similar to the #nofilter movement offering a raw glimpse into a moment, but the side-by-side comparison of selfie-vs-artwork makes a value statement: we stand beside art, or stated differently—we are more than the selfie; we are works of art.
In the same way, the artwork in the Google Arts and Culture App seeks to inspire a deeper appreciation of the power that art and beauty have to move us. It reminds us that “art” does not contain some sort of simple quantifiable value; it is a matter of appreciation, wonder, and awe. And perhaps, that is the most amazing thing about this trend: it invites the us to look at ourselves and others as more than objects or portraits, but to see ourselves and others in comparison to artwork.
Despite our minor flaws, smudges, and even our shortcomings, we are more than just the images we post to Instagram. The very act of creating a pairing or comparison between ourselves and works of art, reminds us of something that we don’t often think or hear enough: we are beautiful and we are loved.
In some way, this trend might even invite us into a small understanding of the way in which God views us. As Anthony de Mello, SJ once encouraged: “Behold God beholding you… and smiling.” Imagine if we loved ourselves and others as much as God loves us, as wonderful works of art.
So, we can laugh at the comparisons. We can pause at the resemblances. We can giggle at the percentages. But hopefully, the trend invites us into a deeper understanding of the art of creation encapsulated not just in a museum but within ourselves.
By Andy Otto
This short period of Ordinary Time after the Christmas season is a great time to prepare ourselves for the season of Lent, leading to Christ’s Passion. We can spend time getting to know Jesus, encountering him, growing in friendship, witnessing his way of proceeding, and coming to know his heart. The Sunday readings in these weeks move from stories of calling, in which the disciples make a commitment to follow Jesus, to stories of Christ’s [...]
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
Criticism of our sitting president has become commonplace. Though almost always accurate, such criticism is sometimes accompanied by an implicit assumption that things were virtually perfect before his presidency, all the while signalling one’s own progressivism (i.e. “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could”).
And there’s no question that 45 has turned the clock back on most of our country’s progress. But it’s important to also consider that none of these worsening issues are really new, because their underlying causes have been around for a while; in other words, our president’s actions and rhetoric are symptoms, rather than the start, of our problems.
Stepping back and noting that is critical because when we rest on the laurels of our past “progress,” it can become a reason to not look at the groundwork that allowed for our current state of affairs. When this happens, our negative slide only gets worse. And so, here are a few of those long-standing issues (in no particular order) it’s important to acknowledge and which we can never imply began on January 20, 2017:
1. Our society being “so divided” – The presidential campaign was a nasty and exhausting experience, leading some to decry the deep “divisions” it sowed in our society. Yet, in virtually all of our cities, residents could almost always tell you where the [insert racial group here] part of town is. There’s also the racist history of why and how suburbs were created. This didn’t start last year.
2. Racism in the White House – Woodrow Wilson sought peace in Europe during and after World War I, but at home, he segregated federal agencies and generally surprised even the people of his time with his racism. His often-tacit support for the Ku Klux Klan, policies, and attitudes, contributed to the continuing of the country’s domestic reign of terror against African-Americans and other groups such as Latinos, Jews, and Catholic immigrants. A little more recently, as documented by President Reagan’s first education secretary, cabinet members and staffers would sometimes throw around racial slurs during policy discussions, for example describing Arabs as “sand-n*ggers” or MLK as “Martin Lucifer Coon.”
3. Mass incarceration/“Law and Order” – Especially starting in the 1960s, “law and order” politicians claimed that tougher penalties stop crime; this causal relationship is at-best questionable. What we have done is gone deeper into (privately profitable) punishment over correction as we continue to lead the world in incarceration. Ava DuVernay’s documentary, “13th,” gives a chilling account of the intentional and racist trends in our justice system.
4. Unfair immigration Policies – The president’s destructive rhetoric on immigration – like his “build the wall” campaign (although there have long been “walls” along the southern border) – are unfair, short-sighted, and contradictory, but they are not new. President Obama was dubbed the deporter in chief, and even before him, the process of who we accept into our country or reject has long been characterized primarily by our economic desires, not from any respect for “sh*t-hole” countries, from forced Black African labor for agriculture to cheap European labor for industry. Today, those with technical skills and degrees as well as manual laborers are still needed, who though hated, are still demanded because they’re beneficial for most of us.
5. The Importance of Physical Appearance – Beauty pageants, for both adults and children, are known for both their pros and cons. On the pros’ side, some argue that it teaches contestants poise, self-appreciation, and confidence. On the cons’ side, others argue it encourages a commodification and oversexualization of bodies that can lead to all kinds of negative consequences and mixed messages, in particular for young girls. The president himself has faced many accusations of sexual improprieties during his ownership of the Miss Universe Organization.
6. Biases taught by media – Think about who almost always does the shopping, cooking and cleaning in commercials, who fixes the cars, or how quickly you know who’s being talked about when superpredators or urban is mentioned on the news. We learn and internalize biases then act through them in small and large ways, both in how we treat one another as well as in the voting booth.
7. “Military Industrial Complex” – Today, we are by far the world’s largest arms exporter, fueling conflicts around the world. Sadly, we are fulfilling President Eisenhower’s (also a World War II veteran) 1961 warning and prediction about the dangers of the military industrial complex.
8. “America First” – Every president readily states that their top priority is advancing US interests. Despite the even more problematic history of this mindset, an American president is expected by voters to uphold American interests before any others, regardless of the morality of his actions. Besides, you don’t win elections by helping people who can’t or won’t vote for you; our political system is set up for candidates to “play to their base.”
9. Supporting the “Strong Man” – This usually gets described as a foreign phenomenon, but we’ve not only had this for some time, we export it. We’ve trained, educated, and/or supported plenty of brutal “strong men” abroad, like the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo (r. 1930-1961) or the “warlord” Charles Taylor (r. 1997-2003) in Liberia.
10. Pro-Business orientation – In some quarters, there’s a basic belief that nothing’s wrong with the unscrupulous businessman seeking profit because “greed is good.” Voters similarly expect our president to make us richer through constant economic growth (though realistically, such growth is not sustainable forever). But as the pro-business deregulation of the 80s resulting in the modern recent financial crisis showed, negative long-term consequences are the natural result of this path, despite any short-term gains.
11. Politicizing Religion – Religious commentator Karen Armstrong has researched our country’s religious history, in particular its less healthy, historical images of God. These have given rise to the traditional notion that because of our “successes” (often military), our “City Upon a Hill” is especially blessed and singularly favored as God’s new “chosen people.” This has given free reign for atrocities like during early American expansion as well as more current ones.
12. Presidential sexual violence – There’s been much research on the decades-long sexual “relationship” between Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings, especially on the question of consent. One sobering account of this relationship bluntly explains that the relations began “when Hemings was a teenager and Jefferson was in his 40s. It was not, in any sense of the word, consensual: Hemings was a child, and Jefferson literally owned her; she was not in any position to give or withhold consent. What Jefferson did to Hemings was rape.” From Roy Moore to “locker room talk,” this story of #MeToo is tragically not new.
I’m sorry, but “maybe she wanted it, maybe she liked it” is not a new insight. https://t.co/HvJxj8g07N
— Betsy Phillips (@AuntB) April 7, 2016
But I’m Still Mad!
And you should be. We must critique and expose the harm that’s going on today and avoid the other extreme of trivializing our current problems as if everything’s all good, because it isn’t. But if our critique ignores the past and implies that before the election was some golden age, there’s a problem.
It would be easier if Trump was revealed to be psychologically imbalanced or an outlier in some other way, but he’s all too typical. He didn’t worsen the above (non-exhaustive) list of issues alone; we – as a country that doesn’t like deep acknowledgement of our painful histories – had a part too. We continue to contribute to all this if we name him the lone scapegoat of all the problems because when we do this, it only takes us off the hook from working on the structural issues that have existed for a long time. When that happens, these deeper issues then have all the room they need to flourish.
Images courtesy FlickrCC users hyperlinked from images.