Monday, November 24, 2014

U2?


If you've had your finger on the pulse of our culture in the last few years, then you've certainly become aware of one particular movement, a certain throb in the veins of the zeitgeist as it flows through the muscles of the news and media outlets that surround us; it’s a fixation on homosexuality.

We have been inundated of late by politics, popular music, film, television, and even the world of business and finance with anything and everything “gay.” The scope indeed seems all encompassing, from an official proclamation from the President in 2009 declaring June to be "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month” to the most recent announcement of Apple's CEO Tim Cook on Oct. 30: "I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”

Just a few weeks ago, U2 released the cover art for their new album, Songs of Innocence (pictured above). The image is one of two shirtless men in an intimate embrace, with an older man’s head close to the waist of the younger, pressing his cheek against his stomach.

When I first laid eyes on it, as it scrolled through the carousel of album covers in the iTunes store on my computer, I had an immediate and involuntary response. “You too?” I shook my head, as other images flanking the U2 album, appeared. Many were of nearly naked women, or bare-chested men, in hyper-sexualized positions.

St. John Paul II in his Theology of the Body invited us into a mature attentiveness to those “immediate and involuntary responses” that come to us from the stimuli of our everyday encounters with people. He says we must “distinguish between what, on the one hand, makes up the manifold richness of masculinity and femininity in the signs that spring from their perennial call and creative attraction and what, on the other hand, bears only the sign of concupiscence (lust).” (TOB 48:4)

Mindful of my immediate response to the cover of the U2 album, Songs of Innocence, I set out on a little research and dug deeper. I discovered the two men were, in fact, father and son. The older man is Larry Mullen Jr, U2’s drummer, and the younger man, who bears a shining cross around his neck, is his son. I recalled again the name of the album, Songs of Innocence. In all honesty, I felt both manipulated by the media for having conditioned me to expect such intimacy to be eroticized, and also ashamed of my own accusatory look.

Back to St. John Paul II. “… Although within certain limits these variants and nuances of inner movements of the “heart” can be confused with each other, it should nonetheless be said that the inner man is called by Christ to reach a more mature and complete evaluation that allows him to distinguish and judge the various movements of his own heart. One should add that this task can be carried out and that it is truly worthy of man.” (TOB 48:4)

Let’s return to the stimulus that started this whole reflection. Same sex attraction and homosexuality have indeed become a dominating topic in the culture today. I think many people who don’t experience same sex attraction have their our own knee-jerk reactions that could be summed up in two ways; the “concerned” and “conservative” believer might draw back from discussions on homosexual inclinations and cling to the objective truth in Scripture and Tradition and approach no further. A “progressive” or “liberal” person might accept another’s subjective feelings (and any subsequent actions coming from them) as personal goods for them and so stand off from any judgement or condemnation. In a certain sense, they also keep their distance. But what do we make of these two reactions? Does either actually help man to reach that “more mature and complete evaluation that allows him to distinguish and judge the various movements of his own heart”? Do either of these responses press in beyond one’s desires to the core identity of the person? Are we defined by our desires or by our decisions?

In the midst of the seemingly endless spotlighting of all things “gay”, I know there is another way that goes deeper than the mere acceptance of our desires; a third way. A chaste, “attraction” to someone of the same sex, to be clear, can be a beautiful thing. It’s called friendship. It is in fact foundational for all of us to enter into and experience this gift. It’s an intimacy that doesn’t require the joining of bodies to facilitate the joining of hearts. Deeper still, it is equally and even more foundational that the fundamental embrace, that of a father and a son, be experienced anew. St. John Paul II wrote that the “ultimate purpose of mission is to enable people to share in the communion which exists between the Father and the Son.” (St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 23)

The intimate bond between a father and a son is the penultimate encounter that prefigures our ultimate embrace by the Heavenly Father. U2’s latest album cover, in capturing this connection, has offered us a very provocative image. It can serve as a kind of litmus test to the interior reactions in our hearts. What is our response to this image? What desires are stirred in us? What decisions must we make to begin the road home?

"And I'm a long way from your hill on Calvary
And I'm a long way from where I was, where I need to be…"
- U2, Song for Someone




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Originally posted on the TOBI blog!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Brittany Maynard and the Way of the Cross

Brittany Maynard was a 29 year old woman who, on Sunday, November 2, 2014, decided to take her own life before a terminal brain cancer took it first. She became a kind of heroine of "the right to die” movement, and has been praised by an astounding number of people from across the globe for the “courageous” way in which she took charge of her life, and died the way she wanted to die.

The picture most often connected with Brittany’s story (above) captures her in a seemingly shining moment of life; happy, a beaming smile, cuddling her dog, relaxing in a deckchair under the sun. 

In addition to leaving behind a husband and some extended family members, she also left the world with this assemblage of final words from her Facebook account:

“Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love. Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me … but would have taken so much more. The world is a beautiful place, travel has been my greatest teacher, my close friends and folks are the greatest givers. I even have a ring of support around my bed as I type… It is people who pause to appreciate life and give thanks who are happiest. If we change our thoughts, we change our world! Love and peace to you all… Goodbye world. Spread good energy. Pay it forward!”

Then Brittany took her meds and slipped away. Before the loss of control of her bodily functions, before the awkwardness of being carted around in a wheelchair, before the embarrassment of having her bedpan changed, of being washed and groomed each day by hands other than her own, she escaped. The burning fire of human suffering would not touch her. She would not taste again that childlike dependence that illness and disease thrust into our freedom and independence. Only that beaming picture of Brittany, healthy and strong, would remain. She took control.

When I watched Brittany’s final video, and looked at that beautiful face in the photograph, another face came to mind for me. It was a face of pain from the winter of 2005; another person with a debilitating disease who appeared on our screens, in our newspapers, on the internet. This was a sorrowful face, drooling, having lost control of his bodily functions. I saw the awkwardness of his being carted around in a wheelchair. He was washed and groomed each day by hands other than his own. He was St. John Paul II.  

I remember in those days, voices calling out for him to step away, to retire, to let go, to stop the pain, or at least spare us all of having to witness it. Many wondered why he persisted in that public display. Why does he allow himself to appear so broken, so dependent, so weak on the world’s stage? 

Decades before his decline, in his Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II wrote “These reflections do not include many problems that, with regard to their object, belong to the theology of the body (as, for example, the problem of suffering and death, so important in the biblical message)” (TOB 133:1). How prophetic that those reflections would be written on the very parchment of his flesh in those final days? It would be his very body, broken and carrying the weight of the world that would teach us about the mystery of suffering and how it should be lived? That via dolorosa was his final homily. At St. John Paul II’s bedside, a friend by the name of Cardinal Ratzinger told a gathering of concerned souls, ”The Pope is fully in control of the Church and is now governing it from his bed of pain.”

There is so much here. Concepts and ideas that are fundamental to the human project, to our deepest identity. The problem of evil, of human suffering, of freedom and of purpose. We ask ourselves what good is suffering? Is it useless? Is it an evil to be avoided at all costs? Can it actually be escaped? And would that escape be a worthy path for the human heart? For the follower of Christ, human life is fully revealed in Christ, who Himself entered our pain and did not disdain it. He came to soak up that suffering, that very sting of death and nail it to the tree. Isn’t this via crucis, then, the very way we also must walk, taking up our cross daily to follow Him?

"I have meditated on all this and thought it through again during my stay in the hospital... I realized that I must lead the Church of Christ into the third millennium with prayer and through various activities, but I have also seen that it is not enough. It is also necessary to lead by suffering.... The Pope must suffer, so that the world may see that there is a higher gospel, as it were, the gospel of suffering, by which the future is prepared..."
- St. John Paul II

Suffering is an unavoidable reality. In a fallen world, it may well be the very chisel with which we are sculpted into the sons and daughters of the Father. Suffering knocks away our arrogance, our pride, and it teaches us, purifies us, reminds us of our need for others, and of our radical dependence on the Divine Healer.

Every single human person suffers. We can either repress it and try to run away from this consuming fire or we can enter into it like the three young men in the Book of Daniel. It is here, it is part of human life, and if God allows it then it must have a purpose. According to St. John Paul II, this man who had quite his fair share of suffering in life, that purpose is one we cannot afford to lose.

“Suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards one’s neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a ‘civilization of love.’ ”
- St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, 30

The mystery of suffering. The incapacitating power of it astounds and confounds us. It's power makes us powerless. But in that powerlessness, we can learn that childlike dependence on God and others that is literally a prerequisite to the glory to come in Heaven! If we open our hearts to this mystery and ask what is has to teach us, then that power of love will become our own. The floodgates of grace will be unlocked by our open hearts, our prayer and our sacrifice. Untold riches can flood the world. We have seen all of this before. Christ led the way for us. He is the Way! He is the Suffering Servant. So rather than run from this fire of suffering, let us with the Son of Man enter into it. This is truly the only way through it. The path to Easter Joy is through the sorrow of our own Good Friday.

“Nightmares evaporate like mist in sunshine, fears dissolve and suffering vanishes when the whole human being becomes praise and trust, expectation and hope. This is the strength of prayer when it is pure, intense, and total abandonment to God our provident Redeemer.”
- St. John Paul II, General Audience, July 10, 2002


For the soul of Brittany Maynard, and for all of the souls of the departed, that the blood and water of Divine Mercy might cleanse and wash over them all, let us pray!

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First published at www.TOBinstitute.org

Monday, November 03, 2014

The Humanum Series... Coming Mid-November

LOST and Found in Heaven


 
"Brothers and sisters: You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God..."
- St. Paul, Ephesians 2:19

Sometimes, when I'm boarding a plane to somewhere, I have this strange recurring thought; what if this trip turned into an episode of LOST?

Remember ABC's smash hit series about a motley bunch of airline passengers from all walks of life and all manner of back stories, who find themselves stranded on a "deserted" island? We learned as the series progressed about all of the baggage (no pun intended) that these passengers brought with them. Soon enough, original sin reared its ugly head in that island paradise and fear, and fighting, and grasping was par for every episode.

In the fifth episode of Season 1, Jack Shephard, one of the leaders quelled an uproar among the survivors with what became an iconic line for the entire series:

“If we can't live together, we're gonna die alone."

If this isn't the perennial challenge for humanity in every age, I don't know what is! But how can it be that such an incongruous gaggle of people as we could ever live as one? Can we ever find unity? We, like the characters in LOST, have so much baggage! Pope Francis has a thought in his apostolic exhortation that I believe is perfect for our age, and offers a challenge through the words of our spiritual shepherd not unlike the words of Jack Shephard.
"Appearances notwithstanding, every person is immensely holy and deserves our love... We achieve fulfilment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!"
- Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, #274

On Saturday, November 1, we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints. Now if this isn't the perennial challenge for humanity in every age! To see, to know, to be the communion God dreamed us to be "in the beginning." And it's possible in and through and by the power of Love. To enable this connection, we have to face the right direction. It's not an inward looking gaze, myopic, me-centered on only my survival. The way up to Heaven, to this holy communion of saints, starts with a gaze out of "the closed, inward looking self" as Pope Benedict put it, through love! For we all know the famous line that "no man is an island", especially the LOST fans. Every man and woman is called to the mainland, to that blessed country where we will know and be known, see and be seen, and we will let go of all of that baggage that we've borne for so long. And enter, unencumbered, the Great Dance...

"...The core of all being, the inmost secret of all reality, is the divine communion."- Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, 45 

So to the heavenly "cloud of witnesses" of every age, to all you holy men and women, pray for us!


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First published at the Theology of the Body Institute blog

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