Monday, October 19, 2015

Digital Contraception

I wonder if I should just stop there, with that phrase - "digital contraception" - attached to this image, and allow us time to ponder this picture?

In this crowd of "popearazzi", (if I might coin a phrase,) an older woman, face radiant like Moses on the mountain, gazes without obstruction on Pope Francis, who appears to be looking at her. She's not touching him but is clearly touched. The younger woman, hand actually grasping the Shepherd's hand, holds in her other hand a smartphone, through whose 3 x 5 screen she stares at a pixelated image of the actual man five feet away from her. Granted, she too is touched. Both are joyful and smiling, but there is something sociologically intriguing about this image. Which of these two is having an actual, personal encounter? A 'communion of persons' for only a fleeting moment?

I think we all know where this is going. And you may have strong feelings about it.

Some history. Facebook launched 11 years ago this year. YouTube is just 10, and Twitter is 9 years old. The first iPhone debuted only 8 years ago. What a decade it's been. The digital revolution is in full swing. A tsunami of smartphones brimming with social-sharing apps has washed over nearly every continent and seems to be omnipresent, popping up even in the most remote of Third World villages. It's important we talk about its effect on us as persons, called to interpersonal relationships. I hope to do this in a circumscribed manner. So let's shift gears for a few paragraphs and then we'll return to this pregnant phrase, pardon the pun, of "digital contraception."

Decades before the digital revolution, in fact, shortly after the sexual revolution of the late 60's, the Theology of the Body debuted. It's a biblical and philosophical reflection on the human person by St. John Paul II; a glorious life-giving vision of the potential of human love. It speaks of how our sexual complementarity as created by God is meant to be a fruitful sign, imaging the gratuitous gift-giving nature of God Himself, Who lavished on creation from the very beginning a design of communion and complementarity that, when embraced, is creative and efficacious on many levels. It's an extensive catechesis on the human person as imago dei, a being fully realized in relationship, in family, for God in His deepest essence, as St. John Paul II wrote, "is not a solitude. God is a family."
Those who have reflected upon this beautiful teaching of the Holy Father, who have opened their hearts, minds, and bodies to its life-giving truth, can certainly attest to this fruitfulness in their own lives. When one receives the teaching, which in essence is Christianity itself, the gospel "reloaded", then the walls come tumbling down. Illusions are blown away. Misconceptions about who God is and who we are get a proverbial facelift and our faith is lifted! One finally sees within one's masculinity or femininity, not a confused and solitary shuffling around for meaning and purpose that we must construe by ourselves, but a divine dance. A holy communion. A divine romance.

Circling back... Today, the life-giving joy that flows from living the theology of the body shines all the more brighter as we live and move and breathe in this increasingly suffocating, contraceptive culture. When I speak of contraception and of a contraceptive mentality in the present culture, it isn't merely the biological block. It isn't merely latex or a pill that is the issue. That exterior contraception is really the manifestation of a deeper interior contraception. An emotional contraception. A kind of spiritual contraception that holds back the heart and soul of one person from another. We see it everywhere. We struggle with it at multiple levels. In our frenetic activism we've failed as receivers. We've neglected to become that naked heart to the real and raw encounters of everyday life.

In his beautiful reflections on our common home, Laudato Si, Pope Francis wrote "We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature." (Laudato Si, 44) Can we add our little gadgets to this list?
Pope Francis advised us that "the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction. It becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life... a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony. Let us refuse to resign ourselves to this, and continue to wonder about the purpose and meaning of everything." (Laudato Si, 113)
These naked hearts, open to encounters with the real world of persons and signs and wonders often feel as though they are the person who escaped from Plato's dark cave of self-inverted shadows and they've seen the light. They return to the cave changed. They try to express what they've seen and heard and touched with their hands but everyone in the cave is touching screens. 

The walls of smartphones that we've seen in the photos and videos of the recent visit of Pope Francis are certainly not intrinsically evil, or even sinful, but they sure seem strange. In a certain sense, these phone walls can be just as much a block to the life-giving call of humanity to love as other forms of contraception. I think you all know what I'm talking about. You all have experienced it in your own lives, in restaurants, movie theaters, workplaces, sidewalks and even busy streets.
Dozens of times per day, people hold up a very thin wall in front of faces. A 3 x 5 screen that aids us remarkably in communicating with others, yet too often hinders the communion with the real flesh and blood right in front of us.

Again, Pope Francis' insights here are spot on. In the Joy of the Gospel, he wrote that some people "want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command. Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness." (Evangelii Guadium, 88)

During the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States, watching video and looking at photographs from the various places he went, I was struck again by this reality of "digital contraception". I fall into the same struggle, I wrestle as much I'm sure as anyone with the wonder of these little gadgets but it leaves me wondering. Many of us touch these screens so many more times a day then we touch other people's hands and little heads of children, and blades of grass and the bark of trees. Our touchscreens have left us out of touch with the very real world we've been placed in by God. I think we need once again to possess our possessions rather than have our possessions possess us. Let's all make a promise to be more present, to be more of that naked heart who can really receive the other person in front of us. For as C.S. Lewis once wrote,
"Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses." 


Originally posted here for the TOB Institute

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Stumbling on the Way of Beauty

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
- Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring
It was a signature grace for me to teach for the first time this summer a new elective course for the Institute; Theology of the Body and Art: The Way of Beauty. This was a five day head and heart immersion into the great transcendental that's synonymous for the God Who is Beauty. He, in His Trinitarian Splendor, first captivated me as a young man and drew me into this Way, through the sounds and scents of the pine woods and streams I'd walked in my youth, through the lives of the saints, the varied writings of authors like Thoreau, Plato, Chekov, Sheen, Lewis and Tolkien. He was singing to me in the music of Van Morrison, John Williams, Palestrina and Purcell. But above all He was drawing me in through the sacramental encounters with Christ in those sweet clouds of incense surrounding His Mystery in adoration.
I'd been longing to intentionally walk this Way of Beauty with others for decades, to shed light on its path and to reveal Beauty not as a decorative diversion but an essential need. Now, with the release of the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I'd been given papal orders to do so.
Pope Francis wrote in Joy of the Gospel that "Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the 'way of beauty'... Every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus..." (Evangelii Gaudium, 167). This way has been acknowledged and alluded to by every modern pope back to Blessed Paul VI, who said to artists at the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart... unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands... Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world."
In teaching this course, however, in opening up this “school” of the contemplative gaze, of wonder and awe, of the listening heart before creation, I didn't quite realize that I’d be the one schooled the most. As it turns out, from the first pages of our meditations, pondering our own posture before Christ as either Martha or Mary, the overactive doer or the contemplative receiver, I discovered I was more the former. The whirlwind of work, the rollercoaster ride of family life, the splintered directions that social media (even when intentionally used) can take you on, all of these were taking a toll on my heart. Those first few days, those initial steps on the Way of Beauty course turned out to be a kind of detox.
So much more than gazing at beautiful paintings or sculpture, pondering poetry or story, this Way took us into the deep of our relationship with Beauty Himself. It asked the question "Is it enough for me to simply sit at His feet, or do I feel that incessant urge to be busy and anxious about 'many things'?" We moderns too often are distracted by the glitz and glam of gossip or the latest gadgetry, as our fingers nimbly flip through our newsfeeds on our smartphones like hands in a bowl of popcorn. Is there ever enough? With all that is happening in our present culture in the realm of faith and marriage and family life, there is so much work to be done! And yet, our good shepherd, St. John Paul II, was advising us (me) to stop.
“Ours is a time of continual movement which often leads to restlessness, with the risk of ‘doing for the sake of doing’. We must resist this temptation by trying ‘to be’ before trying ‘to do’. In this regard we should recall how Jesus reproved Martha: ‘You are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.’” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 15).
Beauty, we learned, is arresting. It holds you still, draws you in, heart first, through the senses, and then Beauty wants to teach you something invaluable. Something essential, which is at the same time deeply disquieting; you are not necessary. You, and I, and this entire world in all of its varied intoxicating glory, is an extravagance, a superfluity. We don’t have to exist. We are gift.
The pure gratuitousness of the world can be a stumbling block for our pride. As we pondered in the course, it can even lead some (perhaps too full of a misdirected sense of their own importance) to despair. Sartre said in one of his works "If man is terrified at the bosom of Nature, it is because he feels trapped in a huge amorphous and gratuitous existence which penetrates him completely with its gratuitousness: he has no place anywhere, he is just put on earth, aimless, without any reason to be there, like a briarbush or a clump of grass." (Sartre, Jean-Paul, Baudelaire, Gallimard, Paris, 1947)
In our utilitarian age, where things only have worth if they have a use, beauty can not stand. The German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote “Man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy... what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.” (Leisure, The Basis of Culture). But when one discovers that at the heart of the universe, of God's plan for creation is this paradigm of pure gift, then this truth is a liberation. The conclusion is, I don’t have to own, grasp, take, clutch at life, at goods, at others as if they are essentials who define me. I also don’t have to save the world, fix everything, establish my worth or my existence through something I have done or accomplished! There is only one thing necessary, one thing essential; our openness to Him. And He is Gift. And He has made me to be gift, and to see all as gift.
Since teaching (and taking) this course, I have stepped back into the Way of the Busy, the maelstrom of modern life. But honestly, something has changed. I’ve caught the fragrance of the Beautiful; I’ve literally stopped to smell the roses, and discovered that this seemingly wasteful act is in fact the entire point. The tyranny of the immediate has loosened its grip. The tentacles of technology have receded into the shadows, as I begin to take a bit more ownerhip of my time and leisure. 
I still stumble, but I am learning to keep my head up and heart open. One of the lessons learned is that this Way of Beauty is above all an invitation. If one accepts, they are taken by the hand into a quiet place. It's a place where one sits still, allowing the senses to slowly engage the reality that surrounds the heart. If one refuses, they quickly fill their senses with the busyness of the day, or with experiences that might please the senses, though only at the level of the senses. The quiet place is the better part. The place where rich veins of inspiration are tapped, revealed, and pour into us with the water of His rejuvenating grace.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner once wrote, “Entrances to holiness are everywhere. The possibility of ascent is all the time. Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places.” (Mishkan T’filah, prayer book).
If we've stumbled on our way, allowed our gaze to fall into a nest of distractions, come, let us rise up. The Way is always present, this door is always open.
This reflection first appeared at 
 BILL DONAGHY has been hounded by beauty since he first heard John Williams’ score for Star Wars in 1977. He works as an international speaker & curriculum specialist for the Theology of the Body Institute, where he has been hard at work developing the Institute's new elective course on Theology of the Body & Art: The Way of Beauty, beginning June 21, 2015.  A husband, father, sinner & lover of bacon; Bill cannot pass by the glimmering glance of beauty without a gaze in wonder and awe. Consequently he is late for work. A lot.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Graphene and the Gift of Self

Graphene is the thinnest, strongest material known to man, and was first isolated at the University of Manchester in 2004. Imagine what incredible things could be accomplished with this material! Stronger bridges, buildings, even lightweight but virtually indestructible rooftops for the poor and vulnerable in third world countries who are susceptible to mudslide or earthquake: the possibilities are endless! But according to Bill Gates and a band of scientists, Graphene could serve even a "nobler" purpose: contraception.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is awarding the men that can harness the power of Graphene and morph it with latex condoms a cool $100,000. Dr. Papa Sow, a senior program officer on a HIV research team, said a "redesigned condom that overcomes inconvenience, fumbling or perceived loss of pleasure would be a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty.”

A powerful weapon against poverty? Doesn't he mean against the fecundity of women and the life-giving potential gifted to every man? How about crafting us a weapon against lust, misogyny, adultery? How about a weapon that can aid in the quest of honor, virtue, purity of heart?

As a good friend of mine always says, “The best form of birth control is self control.” The visionary Dr. Sow seems to envision man as some kind of animal, incapable of self-mastery, who needs the unbreakable power of graphene to shield him from his own weakness when it comes to the sexual act. He continues… "If this project is successful, we might have [an everyday] use which will literally touch our everyday life in the most intimate way."

Intimate? Yes. Nothing says "I love you and want to be a total gift to you” like a barrier made of the thinnest, strongest material known to man, holding back what’s emblematic of his total gift of self; a man’s seed. 

In all actuality, the strongest material on earth is the heart filled with grace, ablaze with the virtue of purity, with eyes that can see the glory of God shining in the human body and calling that heart to freely and fully give of itself. That kind of self-awareness leads, as St. John Paul II writes, to a whole-hearted self-giving in which man is “reconciled with his natural greatness.” The weakness at the center of a contraceptive mentality is the fearful heart that shrinks from the wild adventure of life, of total giving, of children, of love and responsibility. Only the strong-hearted, united to Christ, can build a unbreakable and saintly civilization of life and love. And that is worth more than $100,000. It’s truly priceless!

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable."

- C.S. Lewis

Originally posted at

Friday, April 24, 2015

Jesus, the X-Men, and My Boyhood Dream of Flying

Flowing from the unprecedented joy and awe inspired by the resurrection of the Lord Jesus in this still ongoing Easter season of the Church, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the five reasons why I believe Jesus was one of the original X-Men (If you are not familiar with the cultural phenomenon of the X-Men via graphic novel and blockbuster Marvel films over the last decade concerning people born with special powers, welcome aboard. It’s fun fantasy that I’m about to argue has roots in reality.) I will then proceed to ponder briefly the awesomeness of Reason #1, which we eagerly await to witness at the close of this Easter season; that is, his ascension into Heaven.

So, the five reasons why Jesus was one of the original X-Men…

1. He could fly. 
2. He could pass through walls. 
3. He could read your thoughts. 
4. He could miraculously heal himself (and others). 
5. He could change the molecular makeup of stuff into other stuff (water, wine)

Let’s spend the remainder of this reflection focusing on my personal favorite. Flying. When I was a kid I wanted to fly. I'm pretty sure I’m not alone in that desire. I think everybody has a deep-seated longing for the freedom of the birds, the freedom to simply lift off, float, ascend, sail away. From the Greek myth of Icarus to Leonardo's sketches of flying machines, to the Superman and X-Men modern mythologies, human beings have never been completely content as muddy-shoed bipeds.


When I first saw Superman in 1978, I wanted to fly like crazy. When I saw E.T. and watched Elliot and his alien friend cruise over the heads of those mean grown ups on his dirt-bike, my eyes were like saucers. I dreamt about flying across the moon on my sweet Huffy Pro-Thunder BMX Bandit with the star rims for weeks! Where am I going with this one? Excellent question! Give me a moment. I'd like to leave the cap off on this one for awhile; open, like the sky itself. I suppose there’s a part of me that doesn't want to bring closure to these youthful dreams. Adults are good at putting lids on things, limitations, caps and ceilings. “Now be realistic son. Get your head out of the clouds!” But isn’t that exactly where we last saw Jesus? And the clouds are the very place he said he’d come back through to take us home? C.S. Lewis once spoke about our desires in his powerful apologetic work Mere Christianity; “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” If we but give ourselves a moment to reflect on the wonderful, glorious theology of our bodies, we too will feel this longing for flight, for freedom, for a trajectory that takes us straight into the heavens! Body and soul.

Consider this: Jesus ascended bodily into Heaven, Mary was assumed body and soul. There are even stories of saints on this side of the eschaton levitating... sailing up to the rafters of a Church after receiving Communion, or even hearing the names of Jesus and Mary!

Why is our culture filled at the moment with so many movies about super heroes or supernatural beings that have amazing powers, from Spiderman to the X-Men, Superman to the Avengers? We give them the gifts we wish we had!

The animals don't dream like this! They’re satisfied with their lot. But we, made in the image of the Divine, are never satisfied. The truth revealed here is this; the animals are home, we are not… yet. In a certain sense, it's our home away from home. More accurately, we're exiled. The stuff of eternity is in us, and earth can't contain it.

Now I'm not saying we should try and fly, or levitate for that matter. St. Teresa of Avila, one of the Church's greatest "superheroines" (aka mystics), once hinted that she would rather have one normal experience to a thousand mystical experiences any day. She thought it too distracting for others I suppose, and the gift of her mystical experiences became a burden when people came for the show rather than for Jesus. That's humility!

Where did that power come from anyway? Not pride in their own skills, but from the LOVE they received deep into their very bones, their very DNA. The power lies in the theology of our bodies, written within as gift, and it fills us up like helium. Flight is not something we can master or muster at our own command. Love is free, and love is the fuel that gets us off the earth and into our eternal destiny!

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
- 1 John 3:2

Let’s conclude with another thought from one of the greatest fantasy writers of his own generation, and one whose work still fires the imaginations of young and old today, C.S. Lewis:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves — that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can't. They tell us that "beauty born of murmuring sound" will pass into human face; but it won't. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.
- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory


Originally posted on the Theology of the Body Institute blog:

Thursday, March 12, 2015

LUCY and the Longing of the Heart for More

I was a young boy in the 1970’s and 80’s, coming of age in the early days of the movie magic of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas; of galaxies far, far away, of Close Encounters, and hidden mysteries, of Lost Arks and great adventures. I can honestly say my formation and invitation into wonder and transcendence was assisted, however imperfectly, by the films of my youth. St. John Paul II once wrote in 1998 that movies are "the mirror of the human soul in its constant search for God, often unknowingly. With special effects and remarkable images, it can explore the human universe in depth. It is able to depict life and its mystery in images. And when it reaches the heights of poetry, unifying and harmonizing various art forms — from literature to scenic portrayal, to music and acting — it can become a source of inner wonder and profound meditation." I love movies! And I love St. John Paul II.

But let's be honest, as much as a film can form, or even transform the viewer, so it can also deform. There are the obvious movies that are simply full of explosions or exploitations of the beauty of human sexuality (or both). These films cheapen the human person, leaving their darkened images to cloud our thoughts like gnats incessantly buzzing about, and those images aren’t easily brushed away. But there are also the more subtle scripts whose ideas not only carry an impure vision of the human person but a deeply twisted one. With that in mind, let’s look at the recent release of the Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman movie “LUCY."

It’s premise is one I've always been fascinated by; accessing the full potential of the human brain. It’s an idea present in movies like the 1995 Sean Patrick Flanery sleeper “Powder”, the 1996 John Travolta film "Phenomenon", the more recent piece starring Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper called "Limitless” (2011), and in a more tangential way, last year’s “Transcendence” starring Johnny Depp. I’m fascinated with the idea because the speculative theologian in me has always imagined that the “unused” 90% of our brains might be due to the Fall in Eden. We’ve been promised that the full potential of the human person will be unlocked for us in Heaven. Perhaps there we’ll enjoy the full spectrum of light and of sound, of the deep knowledge of the physical universe and of a thousand other gifts that God wanted preternatural man to have in imaging His own beauty? After all, St. Irenaeus wrote “The glory of God is man fully alive.” LUCY, however, sees a far more impersonal eschaton. Prepare yourself for spoiler alerts.

Against her will, Lucy becomes a “drug mule" who transports a highly unstable new drug that can unlock the brain’s potential. Through a series of painful encounters, the pouch within her is punctured and the drug released into her blood stream. Lucy then frees herself from her captors and begins a whirlwind ride as her “unused” brain matter is exponentially actualized, even as her captors are in hot pursuit of their “stolen” goods. 

There are plenty of explosions, narrow escapes, speculative science jargon and even touching moments to make this film engaging. I was moved the most by Lucy’s phone call to her mother. Her brain power is climbing, 20%, 30%, 40%, as she sees her life and health (due to the drug) unravelling, she reveals a “knowledge” that no one before could possibly access, and it's done so tenderly. "Mom? … I feel everything... The heat leaving my body. The blood in my veins… The pain in my mouth when I had braces. I… I can remember the feeling of your hand on my forehead when I ran a fever… I remember the taste of your milk in my mouth. The room, the liquid... I just want to tell you that I love you, mom, and dad… I want to thank you for the thousand kisses that I can still feel on my face. I love you, Mom."

This for me was a climactic moment in LUCY. It revealed a fullness of humanity in the dimension of relationship. This is ultimately why we are here; for communion! In his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis wrote that “the core of all being, the inmost secret of all reality, is the divine communion.” (Lumen Fidei, 45) Human love here below is the gateway, the primer, the first steps we take to enter that communion!

But alas, the materialistic philosophy of the writers of LUCY stops short of such sublime communion. Instead, the more Lucy’s brain matter is actualized, the less human she becomes. Her communion is only with matter, not spirit, not the depth of other people or of the Divine, but only their DNA. She knows every atom, but she doesn’t know Adam. Lucy becomes increasingly stoic, vapid, almost as expressionless as a computer screen. In the end, this is exactly what she becomes; a disembodied cloud of consciousness who can “access” everything and yet touch no one. As Lucy sees herself slipping away she kisses a police officer, telling him she does this so she “won’t forget.” As a last ditch act of selfless heroism, we see Lucy wanting to give all of the “information" her brain has tapped into for the benefit of science. To take on this noble task, there is the ever popular Morgan Freeman, playing the role of Professor Norman. The dehumanizing philosophy of the LUCY film than reveals itself in a dialogue between them:

Lucy: "I don't feel pain. Fear. Desire. It's like all things that make us human are fading away. It's like the less human I feel... all this knowledge about everything; quantum physics, applied mathematics, the infinite capacity of a cell's nucleus. They're all exploding inside my brain, all this knowledge. I don't know what to do with it."

Professor Norman: "You know… if you think about the very nature of life. I mean, from the very beginning. The development of the first cell divided into two cells. This whole purpose of life has been to pass on what was learned. There is no higher purpose. So, if you're asking me what to do with all this knowledge you're accumulating, I'd say, pass it on. Just like any simple cell going through time."

No higher purpose? Aquinas once posited the question of the hierarchy of knowledge over love. He reasoned that the knowledge of a thing gave us a power over it; hypothetically our knowledge could give us a power over the whole universe. But love, he saw, was our greatest “power." Love is that true evolution that is, as Chesterton wrote, a revolution. It allows us, not to possess, but to be possessed. Pope Benedict once wrote that "Love is the very process of passing over, of transformation, of stepping outside the limitations of fallen humanity... into an infinite otherness."

Our perennial lust for material knowledge can never satisfy the human longing for intimacy, the kind of knowledge that is in fact deeply spiritual. This contemporary craving for a disembodied life detached from the “limitations” of our earthly existence, is in reality a fear; a fear of love. Perhaps a fear of our own fragile humanity. But what appears to be weakness or a limitation is in fact our greatest gift; just think of the naked, crucified Christ, who is perfect love poured out for each of us! Films like LUCY and philosophies like that of the transhumanists posit the idea that we are deeply flawed in our bodies; that our “biological package” needs an upgrade. The transhumanist website envisions a world that affords us "the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology…" (Max More 1990, But the path to true human flourishing, and the full actualization of the human mind must never be at the expense of the heart, or of the integrity of the whole human person. These ideas show us a twisted hunger for the kind of fuller knowledge that once shimmered in Eden, when the first man and woman could "see each other even more fully and distinctly than through the sense of sight itself... they see and know each other with all the peace of the interior gaze.” (St. John Paul II, TOB 13:1) This is the knowledge that leads to love, which is the “innate and fundamental vocation of every human being.” (St. John Paul II, Familiars Consortio, 11)

May we who have been given the beautiful integrated vision of the human person in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body shine a light on this ache for true knowledge, and lead modern man and woman back home to themselves. 

Lucy: "I want to thank you for the thousand kisses that I can still feel on my face. I love you, Mom."
Lucy's Mother: "I love you too, sweetie. More than anything in the world."

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

GUEST POST: A Woman's View of 50 Shades of Grey

On 50 Shades of Grey
By: T Nicole Cirone Wilkinson

I've been thinking a lot about the 50 Shades of Grey issues ever since the book came out in 2012. People started buying it up—the more “prudish” reading it on Kindles so as to obscure the cover, and the brazen ones flaunting it on the beach and the subway; book clubs all over the country featured it as their choice of discussion material (even on the heels of the likes of Reading Lolita in Tehran), and the phrase “mommy porn” was used to describe the controversial book.  Now with the release of the movie (just in time for Valentine’s Day!), I have the same reaction that I had three years ago, when the book, whose storyline turns around what used to be a taboo, marginalized sex fetish, a “whips and chains” obsession of fringey weirdos, suddenly took mainstream culture by storm: WHY?

My first reaction to reading the (TERRIBLY written) book, which I read to see what all the fuss was about was, "this isn’t sex—this is abuse!" It's not just power and powerlessness, but abuse and torture that's being softened and packaged to women as something not just acceptable, but desirable-- something we should expose our most precious and vulnerable selves to in the name of pleasure. What the heck?

I know the whole fetish community and the people who practice BDSM have been around a long time. And it’s not the first time it’s made its appearance in mainstream or popular culture.  Those of you who are around my age (40something) may remember in the 90s when mainstream fashion adopted the multi-strap "Dominatrix"-style dress and high boots. The look was "supposed" to be "sexy" and "dangerous"-- but we just kind of wore it and didn't think twice that it looked like we were tied up in those dresses and bound in those shoes because, I think, it wasn't thrown in our faces as something we regular people should/could/might consider a legitimate sexual turn-on. It was “just fashion.” Maybe as a feminist, one could study those clothes in the 90s and say, well, they corresponded to a moment when women were actually gaining a lot of power in the workforce and the world as decisionmakers and policymakers, and the fashion industry (run by men, both gay and straight) wanted to rein them in in some way, making them dress in chokers and strappy black garments. But that’s a reach for the general population who just liked the thought of wearing 10 black straps and stiletto knee-high boots and didn’t think about being bound and whipped because they were wearing a choker (come on, I know some of you out there wore black ribbon chokers—did you want to be tied up and beaten during sex?). In fact, speaking of the 90s, I remember people used to use “S and M” terminology to describe people who unnecessarily brought pain upon themselves (why are you working so much—are you some kind of a sadist?) or mean people (don’t tolerate that masochistic boss who makes you work 15 hours a day!).

So now, with the 50 Shades series and movie and this whole "mommy porn," mainstream accessibility to what used to be a sort of sick view and practice of sex and sexuality, I am personally horrified.  Why aren’t more of us speaking out? Aren’t you angry? Here’s why I refuse to see the film and why I think more figures with a little influence in society need to get angry and speak up. 
Women have fought for centuries, millennia, not only to be recognized in society, but to be treated with respect. Throughout history, women who were held captive as sex slaves, forced to be confined in palaces, sold as property or forced to work as prostitutes are the most extreme examples of what we have fought against, but also, women who wrote poetry or wanted to be healers or who wanted a say in whom they would marry or a say in the law of their land, or in what jurisdiction we have over our own livelihoods and bodies and sexuality, or those of us who just wanted to be able to go to work and use our gifts without harassment from the men in the office, or from families, who may have encouraged marriage over education, have all been held captive in some way, victimized and bullied and sometimes even abused by a male-dominated society. And society’s norms have embraced this gender dynamic because when people are put in specific boxes, the powerful aren’t threatened when they have control over the powerless. In the past century, women have finally fought our way into society, and now I feel that mostly, we are beginning to be able to look at gender relations as less of a power play and more of a give and take-- women have fought for and taken opportunities to do amazing things in the world—with the freedom to choose their path in life, and in many developed countries, they have a say politics and business and a right to education. 

Furthermore, the international community has frequently rallied behind women who are still tortured in the form of sex trafficking and FGM; many individuals, governments and organizations have begun to address the inequalities that still exist in the world (though of course, there is still work to do) and most of our community and world leaders have said no to torture and abuse and sexual power dynamics. 

And finally...finally, it seems the beauty and power and gifts women have to offer (in addition to—and in some cases, especially childbearing) are recognized and honored in the developed world, and in the developing world, women are still fighting to get there because they know they don't deserve to be beaten down (physically or otherwise). They are not the second-class beings.

SO...this is one reason why 50 Shades and the mainstream complacency over not just the popularity of the book or the release of the movie—but the availability of bondage-themed sex “toys” in TARGET, of all places, disturbs me. Because after all of this...our society-- and WOMEN in our society-- embrace a book and film that tells us we don't really want to be in control of our bodies, ourselves and our lives. . What we really want as women is to be controlled and dominated-- not just in the bedroom, but in all aspects of our life, because being a thinking woman or an independent woman in the modern world is “too hard” and it’s “against our nature.”  Those of you who are familiar with the book will recall that in addition to his particular interests in the bedroom, Christian Grey is a control freak who doesn’t want to be vulnerable—so he won’t allow himself to be touched, and he starts controlling her entire life, down to the clothes she wears and the details of her life, and Anastasia is no longer her educated, intelligent self. In fact, she is consumed by his demands. And she feels “special” because he lavishes his attention on her—maybe the same way women will gravitate toward the “bad boy” and feel special when they win the guy over. There’s a bizarre sense of power tied up in that (pun intended).  

Sexual domination and abuse packaged in a way that makes BDSM seem sexy and desirable because it's "taboo" and "dangerous" is, I think, enticing for a lot of women who have not realized their own beauty or power because they feel they are "just a mom" or they are married to men who have given up on the relationship (because, in my humble opinion, of the ready availability of cheap, quick porn and standards of "beauty" that NO real woman could ever aspire to). Perhaps the way 50 Shades is packaged is supposed to appeal to the woman who "really" wants to be dominated by a man because she doesn't know what to do with herself in society-- the pressure of "thinking" and "performing" in a "man's world" is too much-- so naturally, she wants a man to put her in her place, to dominate and hurt her, and this is supposed to be a fantasy for all of us who have fought so hard to get out of the possibility of domestic violence or degradation or trapped in marriages we never wanted but were arranged by our fathers and husbands. The fantasy or escape aspect is supposed to be exciting to people who have been told all their lives to play by the rules and keep things safe. I suppose the book allows women to escape to this place, where things would probably never happen to them, but vicariously, they can experience the attraction to danger. But it is, in fact, danger, and pain—not beauty and intimacy-- so if what women “want” is to feel pain and danger during sex, how, then, can we know rape is absolutely wrong but see a “gray (grey) area” in sexual domination that uses force and pain to bring “pleasure”—and, worse yet, put it out there to mass market consumers? Is this acceptable because Christian Grey shows some concern for her and asks her if she’s ok once in a while? 

Grey’s dangerous "red room of pain" gives women who are desperate to feel a vicarious way to experience sensation-- even if it's imagined pain-- because they have lost sight of their own power.  And we as a culture have lost sight of the intimacy of sex and have made it a game, a sport, a pursuit-- and not just for men. "Everyone" has casual sex, and the Friday and Saturday night Tinder booty call is alive and well in bars all over the country (yes, some single people use this app to meet people -- but I recently read that married people use it "just for fun"-- as a drinking game and a way to “safely window shop”).

So what is the solution? I think maybe a little more vocal outpouring from religious organizations about the beauty of women's strength will help. For people who aren't religious, I think more groups-- not just feminists (because people will say, oh, it's those feminists again) need to address this.  Why is Hollywood making this movie? It's going to make money because people are going to pay to see it. Where are the female actors who have used awards ceremonies as a podium for advocating women’s voices and women’s rights now? Why are they not speaking out against the message this book/movie sends? And my biggest fear-- has our mainstream culture become so numb to this that we really aren't horrified?

If a woman was taken hostage by someone and bound and whipped and made to believe that she liked it, we would respond with outrage. Why are we supposed to be watching this for entertainment? We are no better than countries in which women are stoned in public, then, for sexual misconduct, or kept under lock and key. We are embracing that which we despise. In Canto III of Dante’s Inferno, he describes the souls in hell in this manner:  “their dread turns wish; they yearn for what they fear”—and then Dante is so frightened and horrified by this that he faints. 

In our wonderful country, we have the freedom to say what we want, to write what we want, to read what we want, to view what we want. And the erotica genre has been around a long time. Anais Nin and Henry Miller were both writers of erotica, and their books were banned for scatological passages. I am not suggesting we go on a censorship tear; rather, I think the accessibility and easy acceptance of BDSM as mainstream entertainment is symptomatic of other forces at work. This is about love and sex and the beauty of sexuality, which is being lost. It’s also about gender politics. It fundamentally cuts women-- and men-- to the core, and just because it’s out there and “softly” packaged so that it’s mainstream culture-friendly instead of on a fetish porn site or an adult store doesn’t mean we have to support it. Financial support is our greatest tool as a free-market culture. Without demand, the supply dwindles. What if we could raise enough awareness and make enough noise that we could prevent more of this sort of material from dominating mainstream culture (or at least keep it out of family-oriented stores like Target, for heaven’s sake!)? 

And if we really want to be bold… what if we looked at our culture and, even in our own lives, tried to make a small difference in uplifting both men and women, by fighting against not only the most blatant abuse and domination and sexual politics but also the micro-aggressions that slowly chip away at the self-worth and sense of beauty of those around us? Would 50 Shades be so entertaining then?  


T Nicole Cirone Wilkinson has a BA in Political Science 
and Italian Studies from Rosemont College, an MA in 
English Literature from Rosemont College and an MFA 
in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. 
She is a published poet and writer and teaches English 
at Malvern Preparatory School.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


I’m sure anyone reading this has already seen Fifty Shades of Grey to the point of saturation; a myriad of images, quotes, stats and rants on their Facebook and Twitter feeds about the “groundbreaking" film that has put sex toys in Target department stores (true story). In case you haven’t heard, it's the tale of a dominating billionaire who seeks to obsessively own a college student, luring her into his sadomasochistic world where her pain brings him sexual pleasure. It opens not on the eve of Halloween as you might expect, but Valentine's Day. Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey is being painted as a love story. However, the dominant color on its palette is still grey.  I don't want to talk about the movie anymore. I don't want to dwell in that murky grey any longer than we have to for the purposes of this piece. I want to make a heartfelt appeal to you all as men and women, first to my dear sisters, then my brothers, about what might be the reason this story has become so popular and how, I hope, a greater good can come out of it.

Ladies first:
I think Fifty Shades of Grey is the blurred negative of what every feminine heart is really thirsting for, and literally made for: obedience and submission to a man. Let’s qualify that phrase, then turn to the men. The man the ladies are really longing for is not Christian Grey (or any other man for that matter) but Christ. Not a fallen man who dominates them, but the Risen One who divinizes them. 

To my brothers:
I think Fifty Shades of Grey is wildly popular because we have not truly loved women as we ought. I take the onus on myself as much as any man. Sadly, it is we who have led women to this “red room of pain" by not truly feeling theirs. It is the failure of men to listen, really listen.

Our refusal to put ladies first, to honor and empathize, to feel deeply their inner ache and to offer tenderness to them has led women to seek such torturous extremes in their thirst for love. In a word, it's the failure of men to be the Man. To love all women as Christ loved the Church, giving himself up for her. 

This is a hard saying. This is a bitter pill to swallow but in the end I think it's good medicine. Let’s try and understand each separate sex now by looking at both together, as it was “in the beginning,” and hopefully we can shed some golden light on these shades of grey.

There is a cosmic dance that we were all meant to learn at our genesis. We still hear snatches of the tune that inspired it in childhood, and catch the melody in our more vulnerable moments. The song was first piped in the primordial freshness of Eden. It then reached a crescendo on the hill of Calvary. The words to this music are the same in both the beginning, the climax, and in the end: "This is my body given up for you." And the response, "Be it done unto me according to your word.” The first word holds the blueprint for masculinity, the second for femininity....


Monday, January 12, 2015

SEEK2015 and You Shall Find

As you’ve heard many times I’m sure, there are typically two ways of looking at things. You can focus on the bad news, or focus on the good news. If you focus on the bad news, it’s depressing. The path will be dark and full of injustice, leaving you most likely full of angst and perhaps a bit scattered in your vision of the world, and even of God’s governance of it. 

The second way of looking at things is to focus on the good news. Focus on the good (that where there’s life, there’s hope), and your path will be lighter and full of peace, leaving you rich in hope, compassionate, and unified in your vision of the world, and of God’s governance of it.

Now for a test of what your default perspective might be, picture nearly 10,000 college students, over winter break, in a luxurious five star hotel with all of the amenities, in the heart of a major city… for five days.

Bad news? Good news?

Read the rest here!

Thursday, January 08, 2015

God in the Nooks and Crannies

If one of the 12 labors of Hercules would have been to clean out our family minivan, the son of Zeus would have failed miserably. The Augean stables pale before the cumulative debris in our Honda Odyssey. The three-headed Cerberus he battled was a puppy before the monstrous mess our three kids, ages 6, 4, and 2 can make if given enough time, Crayola products, and cheesy puffs. How these little ones can accomplish the turning of sandwich bread, sugar-fruity loops, and french fries into atomized bits that somehow permeate and penetrate every crack and crevice of that van is beyond me. Once we get the great minds to work out how a two year old can get an intact potato chip under the sealed hard plastic infrastructure of a car seat, then I believe we can have teleportation figured out within months.

Children have a gift for getting into those places we thought impenetrable and inaccessible...

Read the rest 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!" ...