Latest from the Jesuit Post
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.
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.
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.
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.
Do you get nervous if someone says to you… “we need to talk”? Check out this week’s One-Minute Reflection with Br. Ken Homan, SJ. Based on the readings for Sunday, January 21, which you can read here: http://bit.ly/2DCZMIz
A striking scene in the recent film Darkest Hour comes when Winston Churchill, in a particularly anguished moment, pauses his dictation of a difficult letter and asks about a photo on the desk of his typist, Elizabeth. She reveals that it is her brother, was recently killed by Nazi troops while attempting to retreat to the shores of Dunkirk. Churchill pauses, slumps in to a chair, and then looks directly at Elizabeth for a long stretch of silence. In the midst of quiet, yet resolute tears, Elizabeth eventually turns to the silent Churchill and asks, “What?” Churchill simply replies, “Just looking at you.”
It was the directness of Churchill’s looking at Elizabeth that unexpectedly struck me in this scene. I felt an ambiguous rush of instinctual emotion as I watched. Part of me felt uncomfortable seeing Churchill silently watch Elizabeth in this moment, but I also sensed the love and care present in Churchill’s attentive look. Eventually, Elizabeth breaks the silence and encourages Churchill to continue his dictation, a newfound compassion born between them. I was left with a sense of awe at the power of a gesture as simple as a loving look.
I’ve often had a difficult time looking people in the eye when they are looking at me. When I’m talking and someone is really listening and looking directly at me, I feel exposed, and I get nervous. I become even more anxious in moments when another person and I find ourselves without words, and are led to look at each other in silence. There is some sort of strange fear that wells up in me that is difficult to describe, and that makes me want to break away.
Some time back a good friend and I were talking, and at one point he remarked, “You don’t look me in the eyes very often.” We were sitting down next to one another, and he was looking right at me. He was someone who sincerely knew me, but there was still something about facing his gaze that scared me.
I told him that I had struggled with looking people in the eyes for a while, and that honestly, I didn’t know why it was so hard to do so. I tried to look at him as I explained, but then felt a gut reaction to turn away. I looked slightly down, or up, or anywhere other than at him as I spoke.
After I tried to explain, he said, “Well, just look at me now.” So I stopped talking, and I did. His eyes looked straight in to mine, and mine in to his. I quickly felt a familiar discomfort. But slowly, the seconds ticked by and I didn’t turn away. I began to actually see him. His eyes were blueish, and soon wrinkled at the corners with a smile. His gaze was kind, respectful, devoid of pity or mockery.
Eventually I relaxed enough to notice I needed to breath. My shoulders relaxed, and I could feel the muscles in my face fall. I smiled, and my anxiety started to abate. He continued to look, and I continued to see more and more the love in that look.
I then began to feel what I would describe as a certain kind of exhilarated relief. There was something in his look that touched on a fundamental need within me. To simply be known. To be loved. To be safe, open, and accepted for who I was. To be drawn out of my protective shell toward a real relationship that was not a mere façade I put up to seek affirmation or maintain control.
There was nothing complicated or uncomfortable about what I felt. It was the opposite of complicated or conflicted. It was simply good, true, and freeing. It was like peeling off some sort of heavy medieval armor with its massive helmet having only slits for eyes. I could actually move around in my own skin. To be known, and to be looked at with love: a simple act with the power of a human person behind it.
Pope Francis said that when he prays, he simply looks at God, and God looks at him. I think that watching Elizabeth and Winston in Darkest Hour and thinking back to this experience with my friend help me understand the power of this kind of encounter, whether human or divine. When another person and I look at one another, there is some way in which the full power of who we are is given and received. It can become the space where we meet each of our doubts and fears about ourselves, face them, and then allow the other person to fill that emptiness with what can only be received as a gift: to be fully seen, and truly loved.
New Year’s resolutions seem to fall clunkily in the middle of the school year – with the return to classes, assignments, and squirrely students, the start of the new semester can leave me a bit weary and jaded from frustrations of the first. Amidst my hope for a good start to the semester, two events politely coincided: I saw the newest Star Wars; and I read Bishop Carlson’s op-ed on starting a new year. While seemingly unimportant and unrelated events, the two have left me with some important nuggets to sit with: build my patience, learn from mistakes, and allow love to be the transforming power.
Build My Patience
Freshmen are quite excellent at trying a teacher’s patience. Despite being the first week back, I found myself losing patience with my sixth period. They struggled to sit quietly as I sprinted through material. Though I would like to blame their chattiness on Christmas candy and having been away from school, it was really a result of my trying to pack too much material into a 45-minute period.
My juniors can also try my patience. Our course explores Catholic Social Doctrine and how we apply it in the world today. While we try to unpack complex issues like the school-to-prison pipeline or the gender pay gap, I sometimes grow frustrated and angry by what I perceive as a lack of empathy on their behalf. When students push back, I can sometimes lean toward arguments that shut them down rather than engage them. Instead of dialogue and compassion, I throw more data at them.
Here lies the wisdom of Yoda and Bishop Carlson: “Patience must you have.” It is very tempting to sprint out of the gate, to give the quickest response we can. Carlson suggests we live by the 24-hour rule, where not responding within 24 hours means you’re irrelevant. Our society as a whole and frequently my own life/teaching employ this rule. But what happens if we wait to respond? Carlson believes we become more charitable, understanding, and truly listening. How can we be more patient with others? How can we be more open to listening?
Learn from Mistakes
Unironically, becoming more patient will not likely occur overnight. Herein lies Yoda’s second dash of wisdom: “The greatest teacher, failure is.” Sometimes as a teacher, I forget that I’m still learning. I definitely make mistakes (see the absurd length of my freshmen semester exam).The constantly-sprinting lifestyle means that mistakes must be quickly glossed over without much reflection.
Unattended scratches become major damages.
Despite being a third-year teacher and some desire to proclaim myself an expert educator, I must stop and recognize my mistakes not just to fix them, but to let their lessons truly manifest. Herein lies a second part to patience – patience with ourselves. What happens if we allow our patience with others to apply to ourselves as well? Do we take time to allow others and ourselves to learn from mistakes? Are we patient with the learning process?
Allow Love to Be the Transforming Power
Growing in patience and listening points to the transforming power of love. In The Last Jedi, Rose stops Finn from a suicide mission to save the rebel base. As Finn runs to ask her why she would do such a thing, Rose replies, “I saved you, dummy. That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” In that scene, Rose boldly summed up the entire Gospel.
My goal as a teacher is not to get freshmen to sit still or juniors to agree with me. Rather, I want to help them experience the transforming power of love and it’s ability to shape the world. Threatening freshmen with boring lectures or hurling statistics at juniors serves only to alienate or frustrate them. And then – they stop learning both the content and the lessons of unconditional love.
But living out that Gospel message will hopefully transform both their learning experience and the world. And so too it is with our own lives. Is love our daily compass? If not, what do we need to do to allow love to be the transforming power? How will love, listening, and learning allow us to be more loving both toward others and ourselves?
Perhaps it’s a good thing that the middle of the school year and the start of the calendar year perfectly coincide. It can push us to reflect on the first semester, more fully relying upon the examen for the new year and second semester. Perfect resolutions might not emerge to start the year. Rather, we can focus on slowing down, learning, and letting love take hold. And if we allow ourselves to be gently patient with ourselves and others, we might begin to lead others to the transforming love that is the source of our truest peace.
The cover photo was made with images from CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review, and Flickr user William Warby.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day. There can be no better tribute to his memory than to re-read his words, or read them for the first time:
And many others
King’s words require no commentary. But I will leave you with one thought. There are two ways to betray his legacy.
First, we can celebrate it while refusing to allow it to challenge us. We can sanitize his legacy as a nice person we all admire, as an exemplar of what we all already want and are doing. We thus anesthetize ourselves from the painful realization that we do not always measure up to his teaching, and in fact are often complicit in the injustice he rejected. But we have to be willing to embrace that pain if we are going to grow from his example.
Second, we can depress ourselves with how far we have fallen short of his challenge. The struggle for justice is never easy, and it takes a personal toll on those who engage in it. But King’s message was one of hope, not of despair. If we find ourselves despairing that we cannot do all that must be done, then we are not imitating King. King trusted in the slow work of God. Only that trust will give us enduring hope.
King could name injustice without losing hope in justice. Instead of “celebrating” King today, let him challenge and inspire you. Can you find the courage to accept the ways you have been unjust, and the hope to keep fighting for justice?
On a rare morning of quiet, I lit a fire, poured hot coffee into a Star Wars mug, and settled into a squashy armchair to read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In moments, I was moving across the dark grounds of a vast castle school, wand at the ready for an attack. I was lost in another world.
I’m a long time Potthead; I first picked up a Harry Potter book 16 years ago – finals week during my freshman year of college. It was a mistake to start reading them at that moment; as I tend to lean toward a world of fantasy anyway, the books were an unreasonable escape from the very real thing I was asked to do – exams and papers. I managed, in spite of an immediate addiction to stunning spells and butterbeer. Harry Potter was my distraction, my release, my stress, and my joy all at once.
In my burgeoning adult life, I’ve returned to Harry Potter when I need to suspend reality. When work becomes overbearing and my anxiety even seeps into my dreams, I find the fiction of Harry Potter actually draws me back to something closer to my real self. I become a person captivated by the gift of imagination and rooted in a loving hope that good will triumph.
Pages melted away as the sun rose and washed out the brightness of the flickering fire. Reality check – I needed more coffee. I dug myself out of the chair and made my way to the pot.
When I returned, fresh steam was rising out of R2D2’s chrome dome. As my mind danced with what form my Patronus might take – surely a humpback whale – I noticed an entirely different kind of book sitting on the coffee table before me: Obama: An Intimate Portrait.
Published a day before the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s election, the book reveals the world of the 44th presidency through the lens of Pete Souza, the official White House photographer during the Obama Administration. Harry could wait. Barry had my attention.
I started at the beginning, remembering events of those eight years. As I meandered through pages, I saw Obama slumped over a desk at Newtown High School and remembered the deep sadness of Sandy Hook. No spell would bring the victims back to life.
I saw a cramped room filled with decorated military leaders and government officials watching a screen unseen, and I remembered the strange blend of relief and lament when Osama bin Laden was found and killed. The soldiers were carried into their mission by boats and helicopters, not broomsticks and Floo Powder.
I saw a man singing and dancing with his enchanting wife in his arms, and I wondered how anyone could manage to smile through the pressure of the presidency – almost magic to try, or perhaps an illusion.
There were trying moments for me during the Obama administration, and all people make mistakes. But still, I was captivated by the bold imagination of it all – trying to care for sick people, trying to help people find good jobs, trying to keep conversations about rights and justice at the forefront of American dialogue. I felt called to do more in rooting deeper hope and goodness in the world.
But first, more coffee.
On a rare morning of quiet, I over-caffeinated and chuckled at the books before me. They couldn’t be more different. One whisked me away to a wizarding reverie, and the other planted me firmly in reality. One boasts werewolves, pixies, and hippogriffs, and the other is made of actual people who suffered and struggled, who sent people to die and who tried to keep me safe. One offered the timeless tale of good versus evil, and the other revealed that the line between them isn’t always clear.
Both, however, reminded me that it is not reasonable to fear a name or the thing itself – dark wizards or presidents or anyone else. Both reminded me of the power of imagination, and the human capacity to dream big. Both called me to courageous action and an indomitable spirit of hope.
And, both gave me reason to pause in the chaos of life and enjoy a well-earned moment of reflection before my day began.
But now, the day begins…
Image by the author.
On Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award. In her acceptance speech, she powerfully remembered the many women who have been victimized by men throughout human history. Speaking of the recently deceased Recy Taylor – an African American woman brutally raped by six white men in 1944 – Winfrey turned our attention to the many women who have chosen to speak their own painful experiences of sexual assault and harassment in the media this year.
Winfrey noted that her own field, the media industry, is just one of every industry where women experience sexual violence and harassment. Many women, however, will never have their stories heard. Despite experiences of gender violence and discrimination, they must continue to work to support their children and families.
But in a powerful call to all the girls in the room watching the screen, Winfrey’s tone changed:
So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say “Me too” again.
Inspiring as this is, the call is not simply to the girls at home watching from their own television screens. The call is for all of us – especially for those of us who are men. Sexual assault and gender violence will not end unless each of us become those magnificent women and phenomenal men. We all are called to action.
Heeding Winfrey’s invitation, we must all ask ourselves, how might we have contributed to gender-based violence? What have we done to prevent gender-based violence in our workplaces and homes? What are we doing to support women so they can vocalize the truth of their experiences? And what more must we do to protect women across all workplaces?
Without sustained, long-term hard work, the hashtag #MeToo will fall out of fashion and we’ll move onto the next social problem of the month. But, if we commit ourselves to the hard work Winfrey calls us to, perhaps we’ll ensure that that new day will finally dawn.
The cover photo is courtesy of Chris Owen of the Flickr Creative Commons.
I had just sat down by the Christmas tree at my grandmother’s house, when I saw the first Tweet about the Bronx fire of a couple weeks ago: a multi-story apartment building in the Belmont section of the Bronx near the zoo up in flames. I gulped. I dreaded that it might be my home or the home of one of the students I teach at the local parish grade school. I breathed a sigh of relief to learn that my house and my students were safe and offered up a prayer for those affected.
It wasn’t until last Tuesday, at the interfaith prayer service at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church, that I really began to feel the suffering of the victims and their loved ones. It is a strange grace of this vocation to be invited into the suffering of seeming strangers. I hesitate to call them strangers because acquaintance with grief quickly overcomes any other lack of acquaintance.
That is not to say that the prayer service wasn’t awkward, in its own way. A loose script, apparent differences among the religions represented, extended off-the-cuff remarks by grieving family members all lent an unpredictable and impromptu atmosphere to the event. But there was a tangible compassion in the air. If one and all did not share the same feeling of sadness as deeply as the victims’ families, everyone at least had the desire to feel that compassion.
The most striking part of the prayer service was not the words spoken by the different faith and community leaders. In situations like this, words are necessary but not sufficient. While a father’s words about the death of his 8-month old child in the blaze moved many to tears, even these words could not bring the healing comfort needed. The most tangible healing, rather, happened during the singing. There were songs sung by the choir and all joined in singing the “Prayer of St. Francis” and “Let there be Peace on Earth,” but the songs sung by the families had the greatest impact.
Some of the victims of the fire were Jamaican, and when the surviving victims and their families first returned to the site they were moved to sing a traditional Gospel hymn “Around God’s Throne.” During the service, the pastor asked if they wanted to sing again and they broke into a haunting rendition:
I went to the house, where I use to live.
The grass has grown up and it covered the door.
Someone across the street,
Said I know whom you seek,
But they, they don’t live here anymore.
They are somewhere around the throne of God,
Somewhere around the throne of God…
The powerful wailing moved all of us in attendance, but the healing power and true beauty of the moment was that they did not sing for us. They sang for God and for themselves. They broke into song because that was the most natural response in the moment of returning to the scene of their loss and in this moment of prayer. They held each other and sang together because singing made more sense than speaking or remaining silent.
Their spontaneous outpouring of emotion sparked the Ghanaian community, who had also lost loved ones, to sing a traditional song in their own tongue. Again they were not singing for the hundreds gathered there to show support. We who had come to share in their mourning played our part by listening and being moved, but they would have sung for no one but themselves if we were not there.
Reflecting later on the power of the singing to heal and to draw folks together, I asked myself what songs I might sing with my loved ones if we experienced a similar loss. What if it had been my house that was destroyed or my students who had lost their lives? The sad strains of “Danny Boy” and “The Parting Glass” drifted through my mind. I had a hard time imagining these songs flowing out of me as naturally as they seemed to from those mourners in church, but I hope that if I am ever in their shoes, I can stand among a community that cares and sing my own song of healing.
Let’s face it: stress builds, anxiety grows, and a laundry list of things influence and pressure us. While we may think that the mounting chorus has been muted in our lives—without proper self-care and awareness—stress and anxiety still operate underneath the surface. The question then becomes, what can we do to address this stress in a healthy way? Ignatius has three suggestions.Presume the Best of Others
Conversation often includes miscommunication, ambiguity, or seemingly offensive statements… It’s easy to take it personally, which can have a negative effect on our well-being as we dwell in the hurt and worry, demonize the other person, or imagine ourselves in a “fight” which may or may not actually exist.
In response, Ignatius encourages us to “assume the best” possible interpretation in every encounter and story—in what the person is saying and of the person themselves.
We should ask: Could I be misunderstanding the statement/person? Is there a different, more positive way I could interpret the story/person? Even if incomplete, is there some truth to what this person says? Where is this statement or action coming from—could it be from a different understanding or experience than my own?
If after asking, we still can’t quite make sense of the person’s statement, Ignatius encourages us to seek clarification. Perhaps, we’ll grow from a deeper understanding of their position. Perhaps, we’ll grow to see them as human and struggling with a complex world, just like us. Maybe, after all of that, we’ll still find what the person says is incorrect. But even then, we can remain civil and kind.
Ultimately, we are invited to see the person as a human being, loved by God. It makes our lives and communication less of a battle or fight—it creates opportunities of deeper encounter.Keep Things, Only as Much as They are Helpful
Anxiety and stress can arise not simply from bad habits, but from good habits that might need to be adjusted for our particular circumstances. For example, running is a great exercise, but if you have an injury it’s important to adjust your running. Reading the news is a good habit, but if it leads you to despair then perhaps there might be a need to limit the time dwelling in the news.
Ignatius offers an insight which might help: indifference in discernment. While indifference can sound “cold” like apathy or lack of care, Ignatius understood it as a sort of freedom—an ability to choose what is best, even if that means setting aside a good thing. The hope is that we will be free and indifferent enough, not only to discern what is best but to set aside the other seemingly good options.
Fundamentally, this discernment invites us to view our habits and practices: What habits, even seemingly good ones, pull me away from my ability to be my best? Am I doing these ‘good things’ for the right reasons, or am I letting them make me anxious or bitter? What good things or habits in my life cause me more stress than relief? What things in my life, even good things, are really just clutter and distractions?
Ignatius’s indifference calls us to use good things as much as they are helpful for our particular circumstances and lives. Even good things, practices, or habits might need to be set aside if they pull us in the wrong direction or lead to unneeded stress and anxiety.Take a Break and Get Away
Sometimes, even after all that we do to lessen the stress in our lives, the best we can do is to take a break and getaway for a moment… which is a very Ignatian thing to do.
Ignatius recommends that we take time away from things, preferably in a place filled with the beauty of God’s creation. Stress and clutter are inevitable, and we can do little to control those external factors which cause us anxiety. Therefore, in order to maintain a healthy balance, it is necessary sometimes to take a step away.
It’s good to spend time “convalescing” or recharging oneself. Spaces with “better air,” beauty, or even quiet offer us the opportunity to step away from the stress of our daily lives—to pause and breathe so that we can dive in again, renewed and refreshed.
It may be impossible to solve the source of anxiety in our lives, but that does mean we should spend all of our time neck-deep in the situation. Heading out to the gardens, the better air, or just taking time away can be an excellent method of mitigating the building pressure of stress in our lives.
In his book Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads, Chris Lowney compares Pope Francis to Gandhi. And it’s not a wholly flattering comparison.
If you haven’t read Lowney’s book, you should. The book is thought-provoking and easy to read. Lowney’s key point, moreover, that Pope Francis’ popularity stems from a deep hunger for good, moral leaders, says as much about the world in which we live as about the pope.
Among other things, Lowney characterizes Pope Francis’ “leadership style” as one of modeling: Francis shows how he hopes the rest of us will act. From wearing simple clothes to carrying his own bag, Francis has consistently applied Gandhi’s maxim to “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”
It’s a beautiful way to lead, and there is no question that it accounts in large part for Francis’ popularity.
The problem is, it’s not enough.
As Lowney points out, the “Gandhi model” is a necessary but insufficient condition for change. Such personal modeling has to move beyond itself. It has to inspire others to take action towards change. But such change can’t be taken for granted. Leaders as diverse as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Pope John Paul II and Gandhi himself modeled heroic leadership. In some cases, change followed. More often, however, the world shrugged and went back to business as usual.
In the case of Pope Francis, the pope can model Christian virtue and piety all day long, but that doesn’t matter if we don’t follow him. Are we following him?
One way we fail to follow Francis is by making everything about him. (I am doing that right now.) An incredible amount has been written about Pope Francis since his election in 2013, and many corners of the Church love nothing more than to talk about him. But here’s the problem: the point of Francis’ striking departures from papal traditions is not to draw attention to himself. His teachings on mercy and love have never been about boosting his own image. Rather than trying to create a personality cult, he’s trying to draw our attention to Jesus.
Another way we fail to follow Francis is when we “defend” him with a total lack of the charity and mercy that are the central message of his example. Yes, critics often treat Francis harshly and unfairly. But his “defenders” are often little better.
As wonderful as it is to be able to gush about Francis’ global popularity, we miss the point of it if his witness never moves us beyond words to actions. And as hungry as we clearly are for the moral leadership he provides, few of us seem willing to accept it for the challenge that it is.
Thus my New Year’s resolution: less talking about Pope Francis, and more acting like Pope Francis. But what I really want, then, is to act and be more like Jesus. I think Pope Francis would approve.
The electricity still wasn’t back on when I woke up— I tried both lamps before I lit a candle. I heard someone down the hall flick a switch one too many times. Nope. Even with five video conferences scheduled for the day, the internet down and no promise of resolution, I felt a strange calm. I watched the candle kick light onto the walls.
I read the first reading with a tactical flashlight hoisted onto my shoulder—you know, the five-pound cold metal one that takes four D-batteries and looks like a billy club. I’m not sure Brother Mike, our sacristan, even uses electricity he’s so old-school, so I wasn’t surprised to find the chapel set and warmly lit when I got there. Candles on the altar and in the Advent wreath flickered soft light on the walls. But they weren’t quite bright enough for reading.
No heat, no lights, but all the regulars, the chapel was a rare and special sort of quiet.
No humming, no whirring, no heavy rumbling of attendant machines, we were together, instead, with every sniffle, shuffle, cough and rustle.
Joe is clearing his throat, again; he’s been sick since October, I think.
Sister Barb’s singing voice is high and melodious, a wonderful balance to our scratchy, male morning voices.
Brother B’s smokers cough.
Each unique voice praying the Our Father.
And the Sign of Peace was just a little bit different. We moved a little more. We bent over seats. We stretched long arms across aisles to greet one another when usually a little peace sign sufficed.
Father George said as much of the Mass as he could from memory, and I lit the rest by flashlight.
It takes a whole lot more than a wrecked transformer to keep these Jesuits, sisters and friends from praying together.
Sometimes, I wonder if the Silent Night was a Holy Night at least partially because it was silent. I wonder if God is especially present when the sounds of town quiet for a moment, or we get away from them for something special– a simple prayer, a candlelit space, an intimate conversation.
…or maybe these are just the cynical things I think about when the lights come back on, the internet comes back on, and as a result, I spend the rest of the soft-start day in front of the computer screen. Dang.
Between calls, I fell into an old daydream, wishing I was born before this time.
Glass not plastic, analog not digital, fires not fluorescents, euchre not Netflix… I have this thing where I wished I lived in a kitschy, Charles-Dickens-nostalgia. Mass this morning only made the feeling stronger.
Likewise, with thirty Christmases under my belt, I feel like my last 15 have been hunting the magic of my first 15. It’s easy to blame the internet and technology and every distraction that they bring, but the fault is also mine. I choose most of the distractions they offer, even when home with family, even when out with friends… even sometimes at Mass.
I’m not sure if any New Year’s resolution will come out of this, nor do I have elaborate plans to sabotage the campus’ electricity for a glorious repeat. But later that evening I powered down a little earlier. I turned the lights off and lit the morning’s candle. Prayer always seems easier by quiet candlelight.
Happy New Year!
As we kick off 2018, there is a lot to look forward to. The Winter Olympics in South Korea. The World Cup in Russia. A royal wedding (plus another royal baby!). The U.S. Midterm Elections and the nonstop media coverage (okay, maybe you aren’t looking forward to that).
Here at TJP, we wanted to give you a list of the top Catholic events to look forward to in 2018. Get out your calendars and add the following:
1.) Papal Visit to Chile and Peru (January 15-22)
In just two weeks, Pope Francis will make his fourth trip to his home continent of South America. While he still hasn’t made a return to his native Argentina, he will be spending a few days in Chile and Peru on this visit.
While there, Pope Francis will be meeting with indigenous populations, including in the Amazon, where rampant deforestation has damaged the area’s natural biodiversity. Expect this visit to be a precursor to a special gathering of the Synod of Bishops in October 2019 that will be focusing on the Amazon region.
2.) Catholic Social Ministry Gathering (February 3-6)
Held in Washington D.C. and organized by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB), the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering brings together over 500 social ministry leaders from dioceses, religious congregations and nonprofit organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities.
The theme this year is “Building Community: A Call to the Common Good,” and it will explore Pope Francis’ call to go to the peripheries as missionary disciples. The event involves opportunities to connect and network, learn best practices, pray together, and advocate on Capitol Hill.
3.) Must-See Movies (February and March)
Several Christian-themed movies will be released in February and March. The most anticipated is Mary Magdalene from director Garth Davis (known for the Oscar-nominated film Lion about an Indian orphan searching for his lost family). Rooney Mara, from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, stars in the title role, with Joaquin Phoenix playing Jesus. If the trailer is any indication, the film takes artistic license and will stir controversy over the way it portrays Mary Magdalene and her role among the early disciples. Stay tuned!
Other films to look out for include Samson about the Old Testament strongman, Paul, Apostle of Christ written and directed by an alumnus of Jesuit schools, and I Can Only Imagine about the Christian band MercyMe and their chart-topping song of the same name (is it in your head now?).
Another national event in Washington D.C., the 41st National Workshop on Christian Unity will explore topics of religion and politics in the context of our multi-faith country.
The event leads directly into the annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days, with the theme of “A World Uprooted” this year. Through prayer, advocacy training and networking, the event will focus on responding to migrants, refugees and displaced persons in the midst of racist, Islamophobic, and nationalistic ideologies. It is a timely topic given the current national discourse and the uncertainty felt by many migrants in the US.
5.) Fortnight for Freedom (June 21 – July 4)
The Fortnight of Freedom is an annual event that involves fifteen days of prayer and reflection focused on the importance of defending religious freedom. It always concludes on Independence Day. Dioceses around the country organize special events, and it can likewise be a time of personal prayer and reflection. The USCCB website from the link above offers a wealth of resources, from fact sheets to prayer guides.
6.) World Meeting of Families (August 21-26)
Held every three years, the World Meeting of Families brings together families from around the world to celebrate, pray, and reflect on the central importance of marriage and the family life. This year’s event will be in Dublin, Ireland with the theme “The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World.” You might remember that the last meeting took place in Philadelphia in 2015 as part of Pope Francis’ trip to the U.S.
7.) Synod of Bishops on Youth (October 3-28)
Pope Francis has convened a Synod of Bishops, which is an assembly of bishops who assist the Pope by providing counsel on important topics by analyzing the signs of the times in light of the teaching of the Church.
This year’s October Synod on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” will take place in the Vatican and will examine the Church’s outreach to youth and young adults (ages 16-29 according to the preparatory documents). To gather data from Catholic youth around the world, the Vatican released a global survey online: did you fill it out?
8.) Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (November 3-5)
The Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice is an annual event in Washington D.C. that is the largest Catholic social justice gathering in the US. It began as a way to honor and commemorate the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador who were killed in 1989. Today the event brings together students and alumni of Jesuit schools, along with anyone who identifies as part of the broader Ignatian family to discuss issues of justice and solidarity.
The Teach-In includes breakout sessions, keynote speakers, and prayer and liturgy. It concludes with a day on Capitol Hill where participants meet with their representatives in Congress to advocate for policy changes.
If you read TJP, that means you are part of the Ignatian family, so make sure to join us in D.C. for the Teach-In!
— A LOOK AHEAD TO 2019 —
9.) World Youth Day: Panama (January 22-27, 2019)
Along with all those exciting events for 2018, don’t forget to mark your calendars for next January. World Youth Day (WYD) will be hosted in Panama- the first time the event has come to Central America. WYD brings together thousands of Catholic youth from around the world for a shared encounter of their faith, along with a visit from Pope Francis. It is an opportunity to experience firsthand the universality and diversity of the Church.
10.) Magis: Central America (January 11-21, 2019)
Organized in conjunction with World Youth Day, Magis is a Jesuit-sponsored event for young adults (18 and over) as a precursor to WYD. The Central American Province of Jesuits will organize Magis with participants spread across six countries from Guatemala to Panama.
The event includes immersion experiences in one of the six countries, with the opportunity to live with and work among a local community. At the end of the immersion experience, all the participants will convene in Panama for a shared Mass with Fr. Arturo Sosa, S.J., the global leader of the Jesuits, before joining in the programming of World Youth Day.
It’s an experience you don’t want to miss!
2017 turned out quite a year for nerd culture. In no particular order, here are some of this nerd’s favorite things about 2017.
#1. Announcement of a New Doctor
So, admittedly I already wrote an article about this piece of news, but it is worth mentioning, simply because it gave fans something exciting to look forward to in the next season of Doctor Who. A few days ago, Jodie Whittaker appeared on screen for the first time as the Doctor. While no official release date has been announced for Series 11, Autumn 2018 cannot arrive soon enough.
#2 and #3. Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey
Mario and Zelda have been two of the Nintendo’s biggest franchises for over 30 years. In March, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was released to near-universal praise. The game also became one of Nintendo’s first attempts to introduce DLC into one of its main franchises.
If Nintendo had simply released Breath of the Wild, it would have been enough to call it a successful year. But in October, Super Mario Odyssey also released to great fanfare. The game’s new mechanic allows players to traverse Mario’s world by taking control of enemies, allowing for an innovative new perspective. Otherwise, it doesn’t add much to the typical Mario formula, but why mess with something that isn’t broken?
#4. Sonic Mania
In August, I previewed Sonic Mania, a game created by people who grew up playing classic Sonic the Hedgehog games in the style of those Sega Genesis classics. And this game lived up to its high expectations. The game is lovingly crafted to feel like a proper sequel to 1994’s Sonic 3 & Knuckles: Filled with throwbacks to the classic games, it includes remixes of eight zones from the original five games and five new ones. Everything about the game feels intentional, from character animations to the placement of items. The game, like many classic games, encourages exploration and leaves hints in its level design. It is no surprise that it has been the best reviewed Sonic game in more than 15 years, one of my favorites in the franchise to date.
#5 and #6. A Silent Voice and Your Name
One of the real treats of this year for me was watching A Silent Voice, one of the most touching films I have seen in a while. But this was far from the only anime film released this year to widespread acclaim. Your Name made its US debut in December 2016 (likely to make it eligible for the Academy Awards), and consequently, it received a more widespread release this year. Makoto Shinkai is known for his photorealistic background work, and his latest became a huge box-office success, particularly in its native Japan. And this was so beloved by its fans that when it did not receive an Oscar nomination for this year, there was some backlash in the community.
#7 and #8. Star Wars and Wonder Woman
Two movies that would feature on nearly any nerd’s list of best-of for 2017 would have to be DC’s Wonder Woman and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I did not have high hopes for the first movie after the earlier DC films. However, it proved its worth, offering a reflective look on human nature through the character of Diana Prince in her attempt to rid the world of Ares. A well-constructed piece of cinema, it may even have been the best superhero film of the year.
And of course, what list would be complete without Star Wars. I won’t say much about the film but instead will let fellow TJP contributor Colten Biro’s review on the film speak for itself. It not only tells a compelling story but also allows the new characters to take more of a central role than in Episode VII, allowing their complexities to show and making them feel more human.
This installment was certainly worth the wait, and it leaves me excited for Episode IX and the Han Solo film (set for a release next year).
#9. Star Trek
Though I may not be a Trekkie, it is hard to forget that a new Star Trek series, Star Trek Discovery, released this year. The long-running sci-fi series made a return to television for the first time in over 10 years. What is perhaps most fascinating is that the new series predates the original series chronologically. To date, reviews have been positive and here’s to more adventures in deep space.
#10 and #11. A Hat in Time and Yooka-Laylee
And it was also a good year for small studios. Both A Hat in Time and Yooka-Laylee were attempts by small development teams to return to a genre of video games that I grew up playing: 3D platformers. While Yooka-Laylee received mixed reviews, it was a welcome throwback to the Banjo-Kazooie games of the late 90s, made by some of the same people who worked on the original games. The trademark humor of the Rareware carries the game and helps to compensate for a lack of polish and antiquated style (trivia challenges).
Far more successful was Humble Bundle’s A Hat In Time, a charming romp through four worlds. Tight controls and a change in gameplay from level to level keep the game from feeling stale as the player collects hourglasses (the collectable of the game). New hats the player can create offer a greater sense of depth to the gameplay. It is so encouraging to see successful games financed by fans do so well. It reminds me that solid games can and are produced from the ground up.
#12. Pokémon: I Choose You
Believe it or not, the Pokémon anime turned 20 this year! A new film was released this year to commemorate the adventures of Ash and Pikachu, presenting an alternate take on the events of the anime’s first season in the Kanto region. As a Pokémon movie, it’s not particularly memorable, but it is an enjoyable throwback to the series’ origins.
The cover photo is featured courtesy of Elliot Brown of the Flickr Creative Commons.
No longer wanting to be that guy who can’t look up from his phone and acknowledge the existence of a fellow human being on the sidewalk, I made a vow to myself that I would no longer walk and read at the same time.
But that just meant squeezing reading into other nooks and crannies of the day. Pocket, which gloriously feeds my addiction to reading articles, recently informed me that I read the equivalent of 110 books on their app in 2017.
As far as addictions go, it could be worse. Reading is great, and we live in a seems-too-good-to-be-true world where great writing is available at our fingertips for free.
Here are my faves from 2017 in no particular order:
1) Can Our Democracy Survive Tribalism?, Andrew Sullivan, New York
This was the article I found myself talking about most at the dinner table (apologies to my community!). Sullivan is on my best-of list almost every year. This is another masterpiece. Sullivan comes out swinging at our self-contradictions, and few – on any point along the political spectrum – can read this without feeling personally challenged:
So many severe critics of George W. Bush’s surveillance policies became oddly muted when Obama adopted most of them; Democrats looked the other way as Obama ramped up deportations to levels higher than Trump’s rate so far. Republicans, in turn, were obsessed with the national debt when Obama was in office, despite the deepest recession in decades. But the minute Trump came to power, they couldn’t be more enthusiastic about a tax package that could add trillions of dollars to it. No tribe was more federalist when it came to marijuana laws than liberals; and no tribe was less federalist when it came to abortion. Reverse that for conservatives. For the right-tribe, everything is genetic except homosexuality; for the left-tribe, nothing is genetic except homosexuality.
2) My Family’s Slave, Alex Tizon, The Atlantic
Readers online spent more time reading this essay than any other article online in 2017. It is incredible. If you have contributed to the 58,000,000 minutes readers have engaged this essay, I highly recommend it. It’s tragic. It’s honest. It’s simply great writing.1
3) Christ in the Garden of Endless Breadsticks, Helen Rosner, Eater
The first two articles on my list are pretty heavy. This is not. But it’s solid, and I love that title. It creatively integrates the two most famous olive gardens – Gethsemane and the restaurant chain – in a thoughtful reflection on nostalgia, non-places, and comfort food. Rosner writes:
Olive Garden is a machine of memory. You go to Olive Garden because you’ve always gone there. You bring your children there, and they grow up having always gone there. It is a restaurant that’s good at some things, a few of them on the menu, more of them about price and convenience and a general exhausted tolerance for unruly children and arguing couples. It is extraordinarily good at being a non-place. It’s uncannily good at being itself: A restaurant that calls on Italy without ever looking at Italy, that promises family without community, that is — in its ubiquity — nowhere, and is better for it. Every time it strays from itself, the collective force of memory intervenes, and it returns.
4) He’s 22. She’s 81. Their Friendship Is Melting Hearts. Daniel Victor, New York Times
This article will make you feel better about humanity. A 22-year-old rapper from Harlem and an 81-year-old retired woman from Florida are an unlikely pair, but their friendship forged from playing Words With Friends makes 2017 seem just a little more hopeful.
5) United Airlines Isn’t the Problem – It’s Good People Doing Nothing, Ryan Holiday, Observer
Ryan Holiday makes me feel bad about myself in that he is younger than I am but ten times as wise. He has written extensively about Stoicism, and this article is a modern-day application of Marcus Aurelius’s maxim, “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” During the unity-in-outrage over the doctor who was dragged off the United flight, Holiday wrote:
The world doesn’t need another person talking on social media about what needs to be done. It needs more people doing it. Nothing major even. Just the little stuff: Being nice. Stepping in. Lending a hand. Drawing a line. Standing up.
6) Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, New York Times
I love anything that Taffy Brodesser-Akner touches. Her essay on the church of Justin Bieber was on my best-of list in 2015, and this essay is even better. I find myself learning about the human experience through her thoughtful, confessional writing.
7) The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic
Trigger warning: This essay lambasts trigger warnings. This essay opened my eyes – and raised my alarms – to how college campuses have changed in the ten years since I graduated. Lukianoff and Haidt write:
Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter, colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control.
Haidt has written a number of articles in recent years expressing similar concerns. His recent essay on younger kids with Lenore Skenazy, “The Fragile Generation,” is just as thought-provoking.
8) Don’t Let Facebook Make You Miserable, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, New York Times
“Compare and despair.” If we compare our imperfections with the way others can appear on social media, it is all too easy to feel terrible about ourselves. This article is immensely helpful – and hilarious. Stephens-Davidowitz contrasts what people post on social media with what they (anonymously) search for on Google. It turns out that we’re all a mess. He writes:
Any time you are feeling down about your life after lurking on Facebook, go to Google and start typing stuff into the search box. Google’s autocomplete will tell you the searches other people are making. Type in “I always…” and you may see the suggestion, based on other people’s searches, ‘I always feel tired” or “I always have diarrhea.” This can offer a stark contrast to social media, where everybody “always” seems to be on a Caribbean vacation.
9) I spent a week with 8,000 worshippers of the fake, fantastical cult of zumba, Amy Wang, Quartz
I was once persuaded to “ditch the workout, join the party” and participate in a Zumba class. It involved more hip-shaking than a Shakira video, and I haven’t had the courage to go back. Still, I find the massive growth of Zumba to be fascinating – and something that the church could learn from. This “party” is clearly connecting with people today. Wang writes:
If going to church called for sweatbands instead of prayer books, salsa music in the place of scripture, and a near-insane amount of neon, it might look something like this.
For another article that highlights the ways a workout craze has parallels with religion, check out “The Church of CrossFit.”
10) Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Nautilus
I have always loved power naps. After this article – and Pang’s book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less – I no longer feel guilty about taking them. Pang’s work made a more positive difference on my life than anything else I read this year. The “deliberate rest” that Pang describes, especially when coupled with deep work, was a recipe for success when writing my thesis.
Those are some of my favorites from 2017. What about you? Please share your own recommendations. And happy reading!
Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user jwyg, found here.
How are you being called to bring Jesus into the world? Tucker Redding explores the plans of Mary and Joseph in this Christmas edition of the One-Minute Homily. Based on the readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent (http://bit.ly/2BAqmV8) and Christmas (http://bit.ly/2zgV1AD).
What motivates us more: the threat of danger, or the promise of beauty?
For most of us, danger only motivates us enough to escape the threat. The promise of beauty—of a truly wonderful experience of the whole big picture — will constantly draw us, and can even be the project of a lifetime. Older methods of preaching tended to highlight danger: convert or risk Hell. Instead of showing why we should run away from everything else, Bishop Robert Barron’s basic approach in presenting Catholicism is to show why it is worth running towards: to highlight its beauty. This approach comes out clearly in his new book To Light a Fire on the Earth.
The book itself is a combination of biography and interview put together by Catholic journalist John Allen. Barron wants “to change the conversation about the faith—to start not with secondary aspects of Catholicism but with its beating heart” (pp. 3-4). Allen respects that desire, and so the book is not going to beat you over the head with details and petty rules, but pulls back to give a sense of the whole picture of Catholicism. How everything connects to everything else, and comes together to form one beautiful whole, is Barron’s main interest.
Barron is not one to shy away from controversy, as many of his YouTube videos attest. When the New Atheist movement charges that religion is not only mistaken, but harms people, Barron will happily answer their criticisms and questions—be they on the problem of suffering, points of morality, or even God’s existence.
But with groups like the New Atheists, Barron thinks that “the problem is that atheists drop their questions just when they get truly interesting” (p. 7). Barron’s complaint is not that they are asking too many questions, but too few—and that the questions are not big enough.
Barron encourages people to ask bigger questions: By all means, talk about evolution, but then ask why there is life to evolve at all. Marvel at the beauty and vastness of the cosmos, but then ask why there is a cosmos to marvel at, or humans to do the marveling. There is a bigger picture that we need to step back and appreciate, admiring how it all fits together–admiring the beauty of the whole.
“The whole” is where Barron wants to begin doing theology. Barron wants to begin with beauty and why Catholicism as a whole is attractive, then appreciate the goodness of Catholicism and how it can help us live better lives, then understand the truth of Catholicism and why it’s claims make intellectual sense. From beauty to goodness to truth, a method Barron picked up from reading the works of the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Marvel at the whole, and then start to appreciate and think about the parts. Barron is happy to talk about the particulars of Catholicism at any point, but in a great mosaic like Catholicism, it is easy to focus on a few tiles and miss the gorgeous picture.
Barron is a baseball fanatic, and likes to give the analogy of the infield fly rule. He says that “it’s a good rule, and I love it […] but there’s no way I would have been drawn into the splendor of the game through that rule” (p. 43). Likewise, we need to “feel Catholicism, to know the essential stuff” or else “it will just seem like arbitrary rules” (44). Asking about the rules can be good, but there are more questions, and more important questions, that we can talk about in Catholicism.
While Barron acknowledges that he can be seen as being somewhat conservative, while Francis is usually seen as being liberal (although Barron also sees both terms as being limiting), he also sees himself as being very much on board with Francis—and Francis probably thought so, too, since he was the one who named Barron to be a bishop. Barron thinks that “the genius of Francis” is getting us back to the big picture questions (p. 133).
In Barron’s mind, Francis’s image of the Church as a field hospital highlights not only the need to get at the important questions, but shows that these are the big questions because they are the questions that matter to a hurting people in an unjust world. Asking the big questions, the questions of wholeness and beauty, can help focus our energies in the right places and see what the important fights for justice are, so that we can bring the beauty Barron sees in Catholicism out into the rest of the world.
In the end, Barron wants people to fall in love with Catholicism. Like any real love story, it is not always easy, and it is rarely saccharine, but it is always beautiful. That is the heart of Barron’s message, one which comes out so well over the course of this book: start with the beauty of Jesus, the beauty of Catholicism, and the rest will follow.