Saturday, December 29, 2007

Good Talk and the Goal of Art

One of my favorite Christmas traditions, after a short night of sleep, staying up into the wee hours with my wife's family in NY state, nestled in that warm house in the cold, quiet of Montgomery, are my late morning talks with my father-in-law.

It's St. Stephen's Day, December 26, and like clockwork, I go for coffee and donuts (vanilla iced with sprinkles for the womenfolk) and make it back just as he stirs (the ladies won't be up for another hour). Then the talk begins, slow and rambling at first, like a rain stream. Then a clear path is cut by a strong river of serious thought, as we sip our coffee and look out on Eager Road.

Our topics string together like a strand of lights, the classic bulbs, big, bright, and heavy-laden. Then we sit back and watch the glow before the Christmas tree, from the couches in the living room. Our thoughts launch out and hover in the air - on music, books, theology, faith, the world as it is... as it was.... as it should be.

This morning we strayed into talk of classic films, Orson Welles, and Gregory Peck, Paul Scofield and their work. "When a person gives themselves so completely to their passion, be it art, film, etc., what happens to their heart? Can you lose yourself in a negative sense? Where does the personality go when you have not given yourself to another person, but to a performance?"

I mentioned a thought of Michelangelo's I had once read years ago: "Painting and sculpture can never satisfy the soul attuned to the Divine." It could be said for any of the arts.

We wondered about so many actors and actresses, musicians, and artists, brilliant in their work, whose personal lives often seem to be fractured. There is a sadness that often surfaces in their interviews and in talk shows. Is it because they have given their hearts away to a thing - a craft, cause, creation - before they even knew what their hearts were made for? I think we can lose ourselves in our own creations and in doing so forget the Creator. But what's the line, the distinction that must be made? Can both be done?

I remember sitting on the edge of a decision once, back in the early 90's. I was wrapping up my associates degree in visual arts. A choice had to be made: give myself to this art completely, or turn in the road, to who knows where?

I felt it in the heart, this choice. It was like standing on the edge of a precipice, feeling the rush of adrenaline. Feeling almost it seemed, hands willing to grasp my heart, and others waiting to hold it. That was a key distinction.

I chose to withdraw from that fall into the life of an artist, at least the life I was seeing lived by the contemporaries around me. Something seemed off. In the immortal words of Han Solo, I had "a really bad feeling" about it, as though living as an artist (in the secular mold) would have to mean living for art's sake alone. As though I'd lose myself to this amorphous "spirit of art" and the self would be forsaken. I had studied the modern masters and seen it myself... in Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin.

"Painting and sculpture can never satisfy the soul attuned to the Divine."

We so often trace the image, sketch the shadows cast by the Hand of God, and become enamored with it. But we're made for more. I think the total gift of self is meant for a Person, not a pop culture, or a "philosophy." The path to God (and to our truest selves) is indeed a path of self-giving. The leap of Jesus was the greatest self-emptying the world has ever known, but He did it for us, for men and women, for each individual heart that beats in the human race.

In his giving, Michelangelo gave us so much. In the moving, living, work and sweat of artists, poets, actors, and writers, we get great glimmers of truth and beauty. But we must never stop there. We've got to keep reaching out, yearning for that Face the reflection of which even now seems so overwhelming to our senses.

"Too late have I loved you, O Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Too late have I loved you! And behold, you were within, and I abroad, and there I searched for you; I was deformed, plunging amid those fair forms, which you had made. You were with me, but I was not with you. Things held me far from you - things which, if they were not in you, were not at all. You called, and shouted, and burst my deafness. You flashed and shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odors and I drew in breath - and I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for your peace."

- St. Augustine, Confessions

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Christmas House

Do you get all goosey when you see Inflatable Christmas Lawn Art? Does the glow of lights on an otherwise drab house set your heart pumping? Do you find yourself driving the long way home from work in the winter just to catch some extra yuletide wattage? Well we've got the house for you! Getting there is a real journey, but for those intoxicated by Christmas lights and 6 foot Frostys, you can't beat the "CHRISTMAS HOUSE."

It's nestled, oddly enough, on a dark street in a quiet little town called Washingtonville, NY. The house to the left has a porchlight and a wreath, the neighbor to the right is cloaked in shadowy shrubs. But it would take a city of Wal-Marts to beat out the brightness of the CHRISTMAS HOUSE!

And that's just the outside of the house... Every room inside is loaded to the gills with Christmas doodads and whatzits. Classic stuff too; trains, little villages, a hall of thematic trees like the Irish Tree, the Sports Tree, the Penguin Tree, and... the Creepy Singing Tree Which Has Lips and Big Eyes (my personal favorite. I'm not going to explain it to you. Just go! You'll find it downstairs and to the right. Or should I say, it will find you!)

Yesterday, before heading home from NY, my wife, myself, and a bunch of the family made a pilgrimage to this mecca of music and lights. It's open from December 20 to the 30th, from 7pm to 9pm, so time is running out if you want to make the trip!

The CHRISTMAS HOUSE: It's mind-boggling, it's sensory overload, it's Christmas on steroids! The Palmer family will greet you, dressed all in North Pole attire. And donations are gratefully accepted to help offset the electric bill, which I would guess is somewhere between $139,082 a day!

PS - the CHRISTMAS HOUSE happens to be a beautiful family tradition for many in the area and beyond, dedicated to the memory of Christopher Palmer, who LOVED Christmas like craaaaazy, as you'll see. Check out a rough little snatch of video I took below...

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Scandalous Love

For a little reflection this Christmas Eve, I'd like to direct our eyes to some achingly beautiful, wonderfully scandalous passages in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Here's a book that I think is too often passed over as heady, theologically dense, or something only for CCD teachers, sisters, priests, academics or theology students to ponder. But the Catechism is for believers, all believers, to leap into, pour over, pray over, and chew on as an essential part of one spiritually nutritious breakfast! The word catechism comes from the Greek root meaning simply "an echo." And that's all it is - an echo of the Truth and Beauty and Goodness of salvation given to us in the Bible. So here we go... chew slowly and enjoy!


457 "Sick, our nature demanded to be healed; fallen, to be raised up; dead, to rise again... Closed in the darkness, it was necessary to bring us the light; captives, we awaited a Savior... Are these things minor or insignificant? Did they not move God to descend to human nature and visit it, since humanity was in so miserable and unhappy a state?"
- St. Gregory of Nyssa

"For the Son of God became man so that we might become God."
- St. Athanasius

458 The Word became flesh so that thus we might know God's love: "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him." "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

461 Taking up St. John's expression, "The Word became flesh", the Church calls "Incarnation" the fact that the Son of God assumed a human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it. In a hymn cited by St. Paul, the Church sings the mystery of the Incarnation: "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross."

Friday, December 21, 2007

Finally! The Hobbit is Coming to the Movies!

Just heard on Fr. Roderick's podcast "Daily Breakfast." An agreement has been made between New Line Cinema, MGM, and director Peter Jackson! There will be 2 separate Hobbit films, filming begins next year! More later!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Seeing and Serving Christ in the Poor

My guest tonight was Katie Sullivan, Director of the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry, which serves our suffering brothers and sisters in three locations: Kensington in Northeast Philadelphia, PA, Wilmington, Delaware, and Camden, NJ.

"The Franciscan Volunteer Ministry is a group of lay men and women, living in community, who dedicate themselves to ministry in the Church in collaboration with the Franciscans of Holy Name Province. Based on the Gospel message to express love in action, it provides an environment that fosters service to the marginalized, personal and interpersonal development, spiritual growth, and an active prayer life."

We had a great conversation on Katie's own journey to join in the mission of the Franciscans, as well as sending out a challenging message for all of us to live the Gospel in a new and radical way. The podcast of our show will be up by the weekend!

Here is the list of needs for St. Francis Inn that Katie mentioned on the air:

- prayers
- toilet paper
- tea bags
- sugar

- mini deodorants
- prayers
- mini lotions
- toothbrushes
- toothpaste

- prayers
- men's wool hats and gloves
- stretchy gloves (one size fits all)
- thermal underwear
- prayers
- blankets/sleeping bags
- hoodies (hooded sweatshirts)
- lotion again
- and prayers!

Here's the website again for the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry!

I Love Darkness

I've always loved darkness. The crisp, cold dark of winter, the thick, warm darkness of sleep, the pre-dawn darkness that shrouds the morning. Sound creepy? Nah... it's creative. Think about it. All things good, true, and worthy of our contemplation spring from darkness.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss...

It seems darkness is the prerequisite of light. The very stars we love to count sprang from the dark womb of the universe. The flowers and trees we marvel over were born in the seed crushing stillness under the earth; in the wet, dark fodder of fecundity that lies beneath our feet.

Our lives began in darkness. We squirmed and struggled, wound and wrapped up in tiny balls of pulsating blood, brain, bone and tissue, and spirit breathed fresh into that darkness from God, in the wombs of our mothers. Our spiritual birth comes so often from the darkness of doubt and of fear, leaping up from the great Whys we shout up to Heaven throughout our lives, from the darkest of moments. Light and clarity come into the tangled shadows of our own minds, our own clumsy attempts to move about in darkness.

St. John of the Cross once said "If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark."

Abraham moved in the darkness.
Jacob wrestled in the darkness.
Joseph looked up from a darkened cistern.
Perhaps Moses saw that Burning Bush because of the darkness that surrounded it?

Mary was overshadowed....
Joseph dreamed in the darkness.
Jesus sweat blood in the shadows of Gethsemane, and died under the cover of clouds on the darkest of days.

The singer-songwriter Nichole Nordeman sings "Maybe I'd see much better by closing my eyes."

Maybe in these dark, quiet December days, we'd do well to have a night unplugged, and move away from the tinsel and the lights, the malls and the Christmas movies, just for a night. And for a time, just sit in the dark. In the deep cold stillness like the cave in Bethlehem, where Love came wrapped in shadows. The Love that is the Light of the World.

When You Gotta Go....

I was perusing through a closet for something the other day and found an old sketchbook of mine from art school. This is a cartoon I did around Christmas, circa 1990! I call it "When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go."

I suppose it was a remnant of one of my deepest childhood questions on the plausibility of Santa and his ability to make it round the globe without a pit stop. Other thoughts considered the possibility of built-in plumbing on the sleigh, but I won't bore you with those blueprints...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

White Christmas

Oh you just can't beat Bing Crosby's voice in this classic.... it's like butta'!!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Thanks a Million (I mean.... 20,000)!

It was on December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, that I put a hit counter on my blog. I'm pleased to say that in the year that has passed since then, (and we'll round off the hits in that first half a year without a counter) there have been over 20,000 visitors to The Heart of Things Blog!! Woohoo! So thanks for stopping by, for passing stuff on, and for the sporadic comments. They are always welcome!


Teaching keeps me pretty busy, but I am hoping to publish a book soon (soon meaning "before death") encapsulating the most reflective of these reflections... skipping the random allusions to YouTube videos, cheese, and HomeStarRunner... well, maybe we'll keep the silly stuff in there for good measure.

Would you read a book like this? With a few hundred one to two page reflections on God, Life, and Everything in Between? I hope so. I figure that's what I like; short and sweet, but meaty enough to get me through the day. The podcast is coming along, with a few bugs to work out still. It's basically a kicked up version of the Radio Show I do each week at In His Sign Network. Maybe when there's time, I can get the new idea for a podcast out there. It's gonna be called "The Good Stuff" - movies, music, poems, books, the stuff that just drips of Beauty, Truth, Goodness, Action, Adventure, the whole dang drama of being human!

There have been a few additions to the blog: I have a couple web albums if you scroll down and look on the right column. One is pics from the trips I used to make to the missions, the other is a collection of masterpieces of sacred art. And at the podcast site, I've just uploaded a page called "Theophanies" - a collection of close ups of creation. I hope to keep adding to it! And maybe pick up a better camera with more megapixels. Those pics were taken with a Canon A510 - 3.5 megapixel camera.

Here's a little video I took at Malvern yesterday; as the ice covered trees started to melt, the water sounded like music.

Random Stuff I've Been Meaning to Share

1. iPods are amazing.
2. Podcasts are FREE... and amazing.

What's an iPod? Well, officially, an iPod is a portable media player (music, videos, movies, even photos) designed by Apple and about the size of a pack of gum. It was first launched on October 23, 2001. I have a video iPod that now holds EVERYTHING... family photos, music from Springsteen to Mozart, John Cougar to the Crouching Tiger soundtrack! Talks by Peter Kreeft, Bishop Sheen, Scott Hahn, Christoher West, Scripture readings, episodes of Lost, Scrubs, the Office! Gregorian Chant, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Barry Manilow (yes, real men listen to Barry!), U2, Dave Wilcox, Greg Brown, Charlie Brown Christmas Album, Movie sound bytes that make me laugh, and... and.... lots of stuff! Like podcasts....

What's a podcast?
A podcast is like a broadcast, only one that you the listener can actually control. You can pick it, play it, pause it, or peruse it at your leisure. You can listen to a podcast just like you listen to your music on an iPod or Zune or MP3 player, or even on your computer at home (you don't need an iPod to listen to a podcast!)

Podcasts come in boatloads of different shapes and sizes. And a great place to find them is at iTunes, which ANYONE can download for free from Apple (even if you own a PC and not a Mac).
Here are some categories of podcasts:

Arts, Business, Comedy, Education, Games and Hobbies, Government and Organizations, Health, Kids and Family, Music, News and Politics, Religion and Spirituality, Science and Medicine, Society and Culture, Sports and Recreation, Technology, TV and Film.

And here are some of my favorites:

Daily Breakfast, voted the #1 Catholic podcast with Fr. Roderick, a priest of Holland. It's a 30 minute mix of theology and technology, music, movies, TV series, history, health, inspiration and more!

Catholic in a Small Town, a fun, lighthearted podcast from Mac and Katherine, a young Catholic couple from a small town in Georgia, talking about movies, entertainment, family, Catholic Stuff, and parenting.... pretty much everything!

Pray-as-You-Go, a new prayer session is produced (roughly) every day, lasting between ten and thirteen minutes, it combines music, scripture and some questions for reflection.

Meditations from Carmel, brought to you from the Order of Carmel Discalced Secular at the Carmel of St. Joseph in St. Louis, Missouri. "As Carmelites living in the world, we listen to hear the whisper of God in the silence of our hearts. We seek Him, who we know loves us, and contemplate His wonders."

CoffeeBreak Spanish, aimed at total beginners, learn a wee bit of Spanish with your latte from two Scottish podcasters! How cool is it to learn Spanish with a Scottish accent, I ask ye?

Then there's Fr. Roderick's "Godspeed" video podcasts, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic Short Videos of octopus eating sharks and stuff like that. I mean seriously, is this not cool beyond words?


Share the wealth! Post a comment below!

New Narnia Trailer is Out!

The new trailer for the next Narnia movie, Prince Caspian is out! Have a look! May 16 is the release date...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Baby in a Box...

A POWERFUL little video from to prepare our hearts for the Right to Life March in D.C. next month. Please be sure to pass this link along! Beautiful... and subtle in its efforts to lead us to the truth about Life.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Grace Upon Grace

Well, I'm blogging while my Immaculata students take their final exam. Is that irresponsible? Heck no, 'cause they're a group of amazing young people who can take a test despite the feverish click and clak of these keyboard keys! Yeah!

It's been an awesome experience, teaching at a University level this semester. And the provident convenience of Immaculata U. being just 7 minutes and 32 seconds from Malvern Prep was another convenience. I'm looking forward to next semester already, though the Christmas break will be nice.

This was a course on Marriage and Family, with a strong emphasis on the Theology of the Body. We read the thoughts of Pope John Paul II, Mary Healy, Christopher West, we critically watched film clips, listened to popular music, and had discussions on the meaning of being human, the reason we are alive, the battle between love and lust. What better way to spend a Tuesday night from 7:15 to 9:45 I ask you!? To be honest, being home with Rebecca would have been better, but she has been amazingly supportive and so encouraging of me in this vocation of teaching. And despite the long nights, I'M LOVING IT! When you find your passion, your passion finds a way. And teaching theology, gazing wide-eyed into the Mystery of Mysteries Who is not a dry dogma or a program but a Person, is my passion!

What will it be like in 10 years, 20? I feel I'm just a baby teacher in many ways. But the Truth and the Goodness and the Beauty are what lead me on. In the words of one of our Malvern teachers, Mike Rawlings (whom I believe is quoting Alison King) a good teacher is not a "Sage on the Stage, but a Guide by the Side." That's what I hope to be more and more.

Nothin' Says Christmas Like an Archway Cookie!

I'm serious. (And I promise to post a more substantial reflection soon, not that enough of these cookies aren't substantial. Just been real busy with teaching, grading, podcasting, blah, blah!) We ran a few errands Saturday after a beautiful Mass on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. As I zipped through the aisles of Acme, seeking out the 2% milk (though I'm partial to the scandalously retro Whole Milk; feels rebellious just typing it!) I passed by a display of Archway cookies. This was an almost religious experience for me. I don't know why but I often forget about my friends at Archway throughout the rest of the year. Well, once in the middle of summer I had a craving for those massive iced oatmeal cookies and some cold milk. Wow. So if you're out and about this season, look for the "cashew nougat cookie-ball looking things" - they are amazing!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

An O'Henry Christmas - Review

"The poorer you are the more Christmas does for you."
- O.P.

The little stage in Lansdowne's 20th Century Club is intimate; a theater in the round, and all of us gather 'round a cluster of crates and a barrel lit within with faux fire. But the real warmth comes from the characters that soon appear; Marguerite, Agnes, Fran, Grover, Hal, Dinty, Guido the cop, and finally, the master storyteller - O.P. In their rags and wrinkled suits, they are the poor, and it's Christmas Eve, and this is where they'll hold their vigil. It's Howard Burman's play, "An O. Henry Christmas," playing this weekend and next in Lansdowne, PA (details following).

On a railroad spur, on the tattered fringes of New York City, 1893, a group of homeless souls carrying nothing but their own mental baggage, have clustered about this fire seeking its heat for their bodies and, perhaps subconsciously, some warmth for their souls. Suddenly, a stranger appears. In an exchange for food, "O.P." offers to entertain with a series of cryptic yet charming tales, each taking flesh in the characters gathered about the fire. The stories are some classic gems of author O. Henry, including "The Last Leaf" and "The Gift of the Magi." Grace pours out in the telling, and somehow by the end of that cold night, a new fire burns in each person's heart.
The actors are well cast, the laughs come steadily, and yet surrounding it all, and in fact in the middle of it all, burns a powerful message. It's voiced in the words of O.P. and then made flesh in the character of Marguerite. O.P. whispers to Dinty, the cynical, literally "starving" artist who sees nothing but misery in life, "You've got a choice you know. You can choose to see the flower or the manure in which it's growing."

This philosophy, these hopeful stories, these little acts of kindness performed by the homeless players (more and more willingly as the night goes on!), are taken in all the while like a slow and steady drip from a heavenly IV into the dying veins of Marguerite. She is a woman of the streets, who now lies quietly on an old mattress, dying a slow death of her own choosing. We meet her early on, but she, like us, is a silent witness, for the most part, to the events of the night. She has lost the will to live and has projected her very last hours onto an old dying vine. With every veined leaf that falls, more life seeps from her own. We watch as the tales of O.P. and the enthusiasm of her friends try valiantly to cut the webs of her melancholy like swords. But this play holds a two-edged sword, and we are soberly reminded that real love comes at a price.


An O'Henry Christmas" opens at Celebration Theater on November 30th. Jack Roe as "O.P" spins a tale to down-and-out travelers Amanda Williamson and Rebecca Donaghy in Celebration Theater's "An O'Henry Christmas".

The show runs through December 16 in Lansdowne at the 20th Century Club on 84 S. Lansdowne Avenue.

Blogging, Believing, and the Blessed Mother - An Interview with Mark Shea

This week's show was an interview with Mark Shea, a popular Catholic writer, speaker, and blogger. In addition to being co-author of the smash bestseller A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions About The Passion of the Christ, he is also the author of The Da Vinci Deception: 100 Questions About the Facts and Fiction of The Da Vinci Code (Ascension), Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did (Basilica), By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (Our Sunday Visitor) and This is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence (Christendom Press) An award-winning columnist, he contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register.

Mark is know nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio and he is also a guest each Tuesday on "Heart, Mind, and Strength" radio with Dr. Gregory Popcak. He has also appeared numerous times on television to talk about the Catholic Faith.

In addition, Mark is a nationally known speaker on various issues in Catholic faith and life. Finally, Mark is Senior Content Editor for He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

You can listen to our conversation at the podcast here!


Talking to Your Little Ones About the Big Topic of Sex

A much repeated sentence we hear at our Theology of the Body retreats and courses is "I wish I heard this when I was younger!" ...