Thursday, January 31, 2008

In the Spotlight

In the late 80's and early 90's, I was studying fine art at a community college; painting, drawing, sculpture and design. I loved it, and I often reflect on how I could just lose myself in an abstract watercolor or in the brushstrokes that leapt like flame from a canvas of sunflowers or a field of wheat by Van Gogh. It was always incredible to watch something come to life, so to speak, from my own paint-spattered or clay covered hands... to see it start to fill in and fill out of the void of a bleached canvas or a lump of clay.

I remember one project in particular; we were each commissioned to make a copy of the work of an old master. I chose a painting of Carravaggio's called The Lute Player. A great way to learn, in the way of art, music or for that matter the spiritual life, is to mimic the art of the masters, to trace the outlines of their marks and movements, and by habit to acquire some of their gift. We catch the sparks from the fire of their creative genius and carry it back to the kindling in our own souls.

As my work was coming along, I could see the hints and possibilities, a resemblance coming to light. After a week or so off, coming back to get my canvas from the art room closet where we stored them, I was "impressed" at my own work! Not too shabby, I thought. But that was cloaked in shadow. I pulled it from the dimly lit closet and out into the studio. Hmm....

Time away from things can clear the head and the heart, giving us a fresh look. I noticed some things needed serious reworking; brush hairs were stuck in certain spots, colors I thought had matched the original were a shade or three off. And those flesh tones... oiy. The guy looked sickly.

"The eyes of the LORD, ten thousand times brighter than the sun, observe every step a man takes and peer into hidden corners."
- Sirach 23:19

When I was young and new to the walk of faith, a line like this one from Sirach would, in layman's terms, "freak me out." This Master Painter wanted to be too close to us, it seemed to me. His Light was too bright. I had a sense of Him breathing down my back, my imperfections simmering their in the white-hot light of His Studio of Sanctity. I wondered if He really could see everything. Was the canvas of my heart and mind that open to Him? Could He see all the little smudges and mistakes, the haste and the waste I put down, sometimes merely out of obligation, just to get the grade? Sheesh... talk about pressure.

Today's Gospel from Mark 4 has Jesus speaking of this light, this blazing, penetrating beam of brightness that just will not leave us alone... “For there is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light. Anyone who has ears to hear ought to hear.”

Now I'm older. I look back and I see more clearly. I think there are two kinds of light. One is
man-made, like the light of flash bulbs from paparazzi; those annoying money-hungry celebrity photographers who are forever hovering over Hollywood and endlessly snapping shots of the famous and the vulnerable. And the other light is the light of God. It is claritas, lux mundi, the Morning Star and the Sun of Righteousness. The man-made light is merely a flash. It intrudes, grasps, glares, and exposes weakness for the sake of gossip, mockery, or transference. Or it beams on the beautiful for their moment in the sun, splashing a false light, a dream decoy to us in an effort to sell something.

God doesn't do that with His Light. His Light is simply reality. It is Truth.... and "in His Light we see Light." We see ourselves, the world, other people in the correct sense, and in the clarity of that Light, we let the Master's Hand enter in, touch the clay, shape the heart, move the brush and color the mind with the image of His Son.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

That Miserable March for Life

We had a good trip down to D.C. this past Tuesday, January 22, for the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. Over one hundred teenagers came along from Malvern and the Villa, and they were so good. With a three hour drive and no stops, walking to and standing in a cold field near the Washington Monument for an hour, then finally creeping slowly through the streets of D.C. for another hour or two, and back on the bus for the journey home (no stops).... it's a lot to ask anyone. I didn't hear a single authentic complaint. I'm proud of those kids!

For many of my boys, this was their first time at the March. I was hoping for a little more organization (always hard to manage with so many people), and for us to make it all the way to the Supreme Court building, which has been the custom for Rebecca and I each year. But things got a little off track and we needed to reign in the troops. At the same time, I suppose, letting them move through the crowds, listen, and look, and experience it for themselves without any preconceived ideas was efficacious enough. And it was.

We were present at an event that gathered almost a quarter of a million people (roughly 225,000). Yup, 225,000 human beings, gathered for the same reason, in the same place, and prayerfully, peacefully, and powerfully moving towards the Supreme Court building to overturn by the sheer power of prayer and peace and petition, the most unjust and demonic law of the land; the law that says unborn children are nothing... non-persons.... throw-aways. And we can dispose of them whenever we want, even up until the ninth month of pregnancy.

My students saw a massive body of young people like themselves; high schoolers, young adults, college students; there were rabbis, pastors, bishops, monks, sisters, politicians, mommys and daddys carrying, cuddling, and cruising their kids along in strollers. People from all over the country and from every walk of life. Some drove for 14 hours, others flew in the night before. Banners waving, drums rolling, chants from the silly to the sacred rising up from this body of believers like incense.... a prayer to honor the sanctity of human life.

But you know something? It's a miserable march. It's a tragedy that we should have to gather there, in the nation's Capitol. This is a trail of tears. Yes, there is hope and song, always so much life, so much joy in the power of each other's prayer. But when you round the corner every year and hit that spot where the massive images of aborted babies glare out at you... the weight of it hits you hard. This march is mournful. This is a hidden holocaust.

My students also saw something else, after returning home from the Capitol. Or should I say it was something they did not see? I wonder if you saw any coverage on it... Any pictures of the crowds? Those 225,000 souls. I did some searching Wednesday, desperately trying to get something, anything. I learned that Yahoo! pulled the picture I placed at the top of this post from their homepage after showing it for just a few hours. I never heard the actual number of marchers, and a local Chester County paper actually ran an article on its front page reading "25 Brave Chill" in support of Roe vs. Wade... OK, 25 people supporting abortion as a "right", standing in the cold for an astounding 45 minutes. While 225,000 travel from across the country travel to D.C. for one of the greatest outpourings for a single purpose in our history: to cherish and reverence life, from the womb to the tomb. Miserable, unjust, scandalous... pathetic.

Now for a chilling image so we can all have a sense of just what is at stake in the March for Life. It's a website with a page of single dots, each representing a single human life. The square of 10,000 dots is the building block for each of the graphics it lists below. Each square contains 1,000,000 dots, or 100 squares like the one above. Remember, each dot represents a human life. The sum total - more than 48,000,000. God have mercy on us... visit it by clicking here.

"Even though you can't hear or see them at all, a person's a person, no matter how small."

- Dr. Seuss

The podcast of this event is available here, and at iTunes.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

New Year's Resolution #4 - Letting Go

Letting go of things is never easy.
Letting go of our addictions is never, ever, easy...

Even when they are burning hot Rings of Doom, made by the Enemy, emblazoned with the fiery script of the Black Speech of Mordor, and pretty much telling us in so many words that they are in fact Evil, we are loathe to part with our precioussss "fill in the blank."

We cling so often to what we know is not good for us, to what we know in our minds and hearts is unhealthy for us. We wantsss it, precioussss.... we wantssss it... Perhaps because it gives us a sense of control or some comfort or it nurses our pride, or becomes the envy of our enemy. What makes the letting go so difficult is the fact that we have poured so much of ourselves into the Thing (whatever, or whoever, it is), just as Sauron poured his malice and his cunning and all of his art, twisted though it was, into the Ring of Power. What happens when we pour ourselves into a creature and not the Creator? Then the possession, the creature or created thing, becomes the possessor. It gets a power over us, and the possessor gets possessed! By refusing to give ourselves freely in love, we lose ourselves tragically in lust; for a power, or a plaything, or even a person that we have made into a god.

We need to break these addictions. We need someone to unfold our knotted fists and open them up to freedom.

Frodo of the Shire. Even Mr. Baggins failed in the end, didn't he? At the end of all things, it appeared that even Frodo could not resist the power of the Ring, and succumbed to its weight, there at the very Crack of Doom. "Just let it go!" cried the ever faithful Sam. But Frodo could not loosen his grip and let such a small thing fall away from him.

I've often pondered Tolkien's decision in writing this ending. After all, they had come so far, proven themselves over and over again, starved and staggered, fasted and fumbled through countless miles to come to this point. Why did Frodo fail in the end?

This is the melancholic tone that sounds throughout Tolkien's writing, the sadness and sense of what Tolkien himself called the "long defeat." It's a reflection of our human story. We are all of us prodigal sons and daughters. Original Sin should be the one dogma of the Catholic Faith that needs no defense or apologetic. Its echo resounds in every one of our endeavors, every task, every ambition, encounter, effort and ache in the heart. We are wounded, and we need help. We can only come so far, give so much and then, when the leap is wider than our eyes can fathom, or the task to heavy for us to bear, we choke. We hold back. We don't want to let go, jump, trust, abandon. And the discordant music that ripped a black hole in the fabric of the cosmos swells up again in the human heart. "I will not serve." - "I won't let go!"

Thank God another hand was there that day, when Frodo refused to let the Ring fall. But it was an unexpected hand, a gnarled and withered hand that saved the day. Gollum clutched and grasped at his master and bit the hand of Frodo, causing the Ring to plummet into fire and out of memory.

How often does it seem that Providence puts these unwelcome hands in our way, gnarled and withered hands that take things away from us, tear at us and tease us. It should be stressed that this is not the Hand of God... directly. He wills only our good and we must believe this, we must trust this. But we must know too that God is a jealous Lover. And He may from time to time unbind and allow the hands of the Devil to act. This is the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, and the mystery of Good as well. The puzzling Plan of Providence.

Does this frighten us? Is this an unsettling thought for us? To consider that God would ever allow us, His children to be burned, to be hurt, to suffer like Job? It takes tremendous faith, and a laser focus on that one thing needful, that pearl of great price. It is, we find in the end, not the pearl that matters, but the Person holding it. All else must fall away. Everything must fall away and we must be stripped, just as Frodo and Samwise on their journey through Mordor, and Abraham through the countless miles to Canaan, and Moses in the wilderness, and Hannah in her tears, and David in his battles, and Anthony in his barren cave, Clare in the cutting of her hair and all the ties that bound her to comfort. Everyone must pass through Mordor, through Calvary. And there, if we are to be free, we must lay down the Precious. Cast it into the fire, let it burn upon the altar of the Cross.

And then will be free. Then we will cry with Samwise when the Ring was destroyed and he passed from death to unexpected Life "I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!"

For when our hands are truly empty, God can finally fill them.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Contraception - A Hard Pill to Swallow, Interview with Nancy Valko

Nancy Valko, RN, is a contributing editor for Voices and long-time advocate of patients with disabilities, She writes the regular "Bioethics Watch" column for Voices. A Registered Nurse since 1969, she is president of Missouri Nurses for Life, a spokesman for the National Association of Pro-life Nurses, a board member of Missouri Right to Life, and past co-chair of the Saint Louis Archdiocesan Pro-Life Committee.

Our conversation on the Heart of Things Radio show last night centered on the ramifications of a "contraceptive mentality" - the outlook that fertility and pregnancy are first and foremost seen as a disease or obstacle to a woman's freedom and beauty. Nancy shared her personal stories and life experiences in a powerful way. Her sincerity and pursuit of the truth about the pill led her to become a voice for others, unpacking the lies so often told about the side effects of contraception. Nancy's writing can be found here at the website Women for Faith & Family - an excellent resource that to assist women in their effort to provide witness to their faith, both to their families and to the world, and to serve as a channel through which questions from Catholic women seeking guidance or information can be directed. The podcast of my interview with Nancy Valko is available here.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

New Year's Resolution #3 - Get Dirty

When I was in college, they called me "Nature Boy." I had an adverse reaction to pavement. I would never walk on the sidewalks. This is true.

It wasn't exactly a conscious endeavor on my part. I just found myself off the beaten path (well, pavement) en route to another building in the middle of the day, or heading towards chapel as the sun was tipping over and spilling its liquid light over the horizon. Then a guy would yell out, "Hey Thoreau! See any slate colored juncos lately! Ha hah!" ... and stuff like that. I'd just smile and keep on.... meandering.

Just yesterday, I was contemplating the sad fact that I don't wander as aimlessly as I used to. I travel from Point A to Point B.... POW! Mission accomplished. I'm running over concrete towards a linoleum floor, then back to the asphalt for the ride home. At the illustrious private boys school where I teach, the students are not allowed to walk on the grass because, get this, this would make the grounds "unpleasant" to look upon. You see, when you walk on grass a lot, it goes away.

Remember that image of Chief Iron Eyes Cody looking out on a sprawling modern mess of pollution, and a single tear runs down his ancient face? I loved that commercial! How far we've come from that respect for the land, from that love of the earth in all it's beauty. Who doesn't feel refreshed at the scent of spring rain, rich soil, fallen leaves, and the thick, warm breath of a garden or greenhouse crammed with life?

This Christmas, Santa got me a new pair of shoes (is that a song?). Oh they're nice. All leathery and cushiony, great for standing on your feet all day teaching too. Smithsonians or something. The other day I was walking around campus and I felt the call to wander up the hill and along the path that circles Malvern. Like Sirens, those countless hours growing up in the pine woods of south central Jersey, the hikes, the walks, the ritual journey into the silence and the serenity of the cranberry bogs and cedar creeks of Browns Mills was whispering to me, tapping me on the shoulder with long flowery fingers.

Why do we choose a hard, slick, "artificial" surface when God has designed a soft, grassy carpet for us.

The Road goes ever on and on, Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with eager feet, Until it joins some larger way, Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.
- J.R.R. Tolkien

I think the sign of a happy soul can be found on the sole. So let's walk today, away from the things of man, and when duty calls, go back again.... but take the long way!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

NFP vs. Contraception Commercials

Here's a brilliant set of videos directed, written, acted, and edited by Catholic seminarians at the Institute for Priestly Formation in Omaha, Nebraska. They're short commercials in the now famous Mac vs PC style, comparing NFP and Contraception. Just brilliant! I just wish they would upgrade the film and voice quality (it's a bit rough, but hey, they're seminarians without a lot of funding). These should be broadcast EVERYWHERE!

New Year's Resolution #2 - No False Gods

Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original source of beauty fashioned them.
- Wisdom 13:3

We're moving through Exodus in my biblical studies class (yes, I like to move slowly through the beginning of the Bible, everything happens in Genesis and Exodus anyway. The rest of the Old Testament right up to Malachi is just a vicious circle... until Jesus breaks in!).

So... presently we're looking at the idolatrous practices of Egypt, and Israel's addiction to false gods too. After all, it was the very air they breathed for 400 years, and the moment they are out of Egypt and left alone for a few weeks, they go and build a Golden Calf (aka, a tribute to the Egyptian cult of Apis, which is basically an obsession over sex, power, and wealth for the ancients). Israel falls right back into Egypt!

I like to tell my students how refreshing it is, how ennobling, that we can all look back and laugh at those silly ancients, worshiping frogs and the Nile River and bulls and sheep and stuff. Ha! We've certainly learned from their mistakes, eh what? My how we've progressed! No false idols here, no sirree. No physical wrappings or trappings enshrining strength or virility, control, power or sex for us moderns. As the old Virginia Slims ad used to say, "You've come a long way baby!"


I'm not gonna lie to you. I have my addictions, my own list of idols. I love my Mac, my ipod. I look at my cell phone about 124 times a day. That's why they call it a "crack"berry. I wonder if I could go a day without the internet, how 'bout a week? Yes yes, I know, it's a part of life now. My work is IN the internet. It's a tool, a platform for teaching, for information, etc. etc.

All true.

I'm not saying the iPhone, the internet, Blackberries, Blueberries, ipods, whatever are BAD. Don't you know me? And guess what... for ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and yes, our dear Israel, the stuff they slipped into wasn't bad in and off itself either: the beauty of the stars, the paragon of animals, their strength and virility, their power and cunning, the life-giving waters of the Nile; these really did bring them life after all.... and yet.

"... If they were struck by their might and energy, let them from these things realize how much more powerful is he who made them. For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen." - Wisdom 13:4-5

How easily I slip into excess. From moderation to undulation, and from seeing the icon (a light-flooded sacrament of a thing), to twisting it into an idol. Into my precioussssss....

Sound dramatic? Well... if I end up spending more time looking at my techno-gadget than I do the person in front of me, or around me, than that ipod has become an igod! Is this a real kick in the pants for you? It is for me! I stink at fasting! LENT IS COMING!! I jokingly said to my students yesterday that I was giving up the internet for Lent...

"Impossible!" they cried in unison.

"It can't be done!" they shouted.

"Is this going to be on the test?"

Poor us, so addicted to electricity, gadgetry, ease and comfortability. It's been called "technolatry" - the new idolatry for the 21st century.


St. John of the Cross once wrote "It comes to the same thing whether a bird be held by a slender cord or by a stout one; since, even if it be slender, the bird will be as well held as though it were stout. . . . And thus the soul that has attachment to anything, however much virtue it possess, will not attain to the liberty of divine union."

Ouch. Time for some soul searching and a little more letting go. I just have to turn to my wife Rebecca for inspiration. So grounded is she in the person before her, it astounds me. When I try to show off some new fireworks, bells and whistles I've found on the "Machine"... she just smiles and makes some tea.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Faith, Films, and the Culture of Life - Interview with Tim Drake

My guest on tonight's radio show was Tim Drake, Senior writer with the National Catholic Register and Faith and Family Magazine. He's also an award-winning journalist and author, having published more than 600 articles in publications such as the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Faith and Family Magazine, Catholic World Report,, Columbia Magazine, Gilbert! Magazine, This Rock Magazine, and many others.

Our conversation centered on the movies (a personal favorite of topics for me!) and the seemingly pro-life message in some recent works of the silver screen.

Here's the family friendly alternative to NETFLIX that we discussed:

Faith and Family

And the Vatican's list of the Best Films to date (and growing!)

ClearPlay DVD Player is the resource for families that will "clean up" those movies for family friendly viewing.

Monday, January 07, 2008

New Year's Resolution #1

Well, we never made it to the Outback Steakhouse this past Wednesday. It was Dad's birthday and we left the choice up to him. He chose simplicity; a night at Casa Donaghy with catered food from Paul Revere's (the local pizza place that Rebecca and I do in fact "revere." Man those Greek fries!).

But alas, the other night we were determined to hit the hallowed halls of Aussie Steakdom ('cause that gift card is burning a hole in our collective wallet!). So there we were, all gussied up and proper: and the sheila (that's Aussie for colleen, which is Irish for young girl) that took our name said, in her finest non-Aussie accent "It's a 2 hour wait."

Yup. 2 hours...

Consisting of 60 minutes each, by the way, for a grand total of 120 minutes.

Now you may be thinking, dear reader, that anyone in their right mind would 86 the place for a reasonable alternative (to which I reply, "Have you not tasted the Outback Special?"). But several factors like tent pegs helped us stand our ground:

1. the fact that we were already out,
2. ready to eat,
3. holding a gift card to said establishment.
4. and the Olive Garden (other gift card, thanks Mom!) was about 30 minutes away with its own wait.

So we waited. Rebecca actually split for Target down the street to return something, so that killed time. I walked around outside, perused the Office Max, the back of the buildings where the dumpsters sat gloomily (hey, they come in lots of different shapes...who designs those things?), and I finally grabbed a stool at Baja Fresh for some $1.60 chips and salsa to tide me over. When I returned to the non-Aussie hostess and inquired about our progress, I got a little frown and a "One hour, 17 minutes."

"Is that it! Cool."

Does this sound ridiculous?

NO! Because it got me to thinking... globally...

Back in 1987-ish, a Polish family stayed with us at the Browns Mills domicile in NJ. The Sikorsgies had a beautiful little boy, not yet a year old, who needed open heart surgery. Browns Mills is home, not only to Alba's Pizza (oh man those Sicilian pies), but also to Deborah Heart and Lung Center, world-renowned for their expert cardio-care. So old Joe Frazier from the Holy Name at St. Ann's asked if we could set them up for a few weeks. It was more a blessing for us, as often is the case in serving others, than it was for the family from Poland. For we got to see our life through their eyes, and their life through their stories.

The fact of the matter is, most Americans live like kings and queens. We have so much more than we need, and compared to the rest of the planet, most of us are spoiled beyond comprehension. A two hour wait for food was half the wait for them back in the late 80's in Poland. They could wait up to 5 hours for their meat, or dairy, or meds. When we took them through our local Acme they staggered about like drunkards, like kids on Christmas morning. All of this food! All wrapped up for you, and COLD? And the cold air is just leaking out onto the floors as we walk by, and the refrigerators are packed and everything is so fresh. You can buy as much as you like? This was unheard of.

Move your hand over the spinning globe to Haiti, to the slums of Cite Soleil, to Africa, to the fear filled streets of Darfur, to any number of places where daily life is a real sacrifice and a physical, sweat and blood and bone, life and death struggle.

So we waited in the cozy strip mall of Springfield Township, and there were no guns, no pollution, no dictators, no death squads, no malaria. And the meal was wonderful, and the service was a gift, and there is soooo much more to be thankful for.

NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION #1: No more complaining.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

For Mary and for Us

On a darkened night 12 years ago, I first heard the Ave Maria by Franz Biebl, performed below by the Smoky Hill High School Symphonic and Chamber Choirs. When I first heard it performed, it was sung by the St. Charles Schola, a well trained group of seminarians who knew their Latin well! I had just wrapped up two years of studying the mother tongue myself, so it was with a deep sense of awe that I sat in my pew, after taking the Son of God into my heart in the Eucharist, and took in also the words of the Angelus sung in Franz Biebl's piece.

I was completely blown away that night. It was one of those wow moments that change your life, add a layer of gravitas, lift you up to a new plateau, shift the paradigm, and adjust the focus, so that suddenly what you thought you clearly knew about God and Life and Yourself was blown to bits and reconstituted before your very eyes; clarified and reconfigured, better than you imagined it ever was.

The most stirring moment of the song (captured more in the seminarian's singing when I first heard it) was at the verse "et Verbum caro factum est... et habitavit in nobis" - and the Word was made flesh... and dwelt among us...

The voices hushed to a whisper and I felt the air electrify, angels hanging in deep amazement. She said yes!! Mary opened the door to the Bridegroom and let Heaven into her heart! No longer holding our breath, no longer in exile, we find the Savior has found a home in Mary, and through her now He comes to us in every Communion. What Adam and Eve had lost, Jesus and Mary have revealed! God wants to dwell among us, and better still, within us! He wants to be all ours and us all His! So let us speak with Mary that great consent. "Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum." - Be it done unto me according to Your Word. How's that for a New Year (and a New Life's) resolution? To open the gates to Divinity, to redemption, to healing, to mercy...

What a wondrous God we have, willing to pour Himself out into us weak and so often clueless creatures, for the sake of Love, for the rescue of our captive hearts. Come Lord Jesus!

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!" ...