St. Paul and the Painted Ladies

For almost three weeks my oldest son was home prior to deploying overseas. At least twice a day I’d go outside to our covered patio behind the garage and find him there, sitting with Buster his beagle, iPhone in hand, smoking a cigarette. Just three years ago I’d have been mortified by the sight of him sitting with no shirt, tattoos on his shoulders, smoking a cigarette. But there are battles to fight in this life that are worth fighting and as he left for boot camp later that October in 2014 I knew those were two skirmishes to be avoided. Three years later I find myself not minding so much.

And as was the case the last time he was sent overseas I’d go outside and be met by the starkness of his absence. It was like being struck in the face to go back there where I prayed a rosary or the Divine Office every day and have that image so fresh in my mind of him occupying that space. Yet I remind myself on a regular basis that he’ll return, or at least that’s the hope. I know there are hundreds and thousands of parents each day who face an empty patio chair, couch or bed of a loved one who will not be returning as they have left the earth. This sobers me and I’m able to keep myself together.

Yes, I take pictures of ash now.

The Sunday we took him to the Omaha airport to fly back to his base a few days before he deployed, we returned home to a house once again occupied by the four of us. Five counting Buster. I walked slowly outside and stared at the place we he’d sat just hours before and had “a last cigarette at home” and talked to me about “just stuff.” Sitting in his spot I looked down and saw the remnants of his habit: cigarette ashes. When he left for Iraq last year I’d swept the patio rug clean right away. This time, however, I’ve left them to linger. In a few weeks we’ll be sweeping the rug before rolling it up and putting it away for the winter. But for now I decided they could stay. Two years ago he promised me he would give up smoking when his four years were over, and he told me on that final Sunday morning that he was going to use his deployment to do so. Where he’s going cigarettes will be hard to come by, so he figured it would be the best time to do it. Right now I don’t care. I just want my son back.

The days before he arrived home for his leave my wife had clipped the dying flowers off the row of Black-eyed Susans we have near our deck. During his visit one small, defiant flower emerged and stood watch. I checked this morning in the rain and note that almost a month later it’s still there. For reasons I cannot explain this has brought me much comfort and every day when I’m outside praying I focus on that burst of yellow among the drab hues of autumn: the dark greens and the browns.

At her post.

On this, a gray, rainy day, and feeling down, I took my breviary to the Pink Sisters chapel as I try to do each week. I prayed for my family, friends, for peace but most especially for my son and his fellow soldiers. The following passage in the Office of Readings caught my eye and I spent the next 15-20 minutes re-reading and meditating upon it.

There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving, and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honor, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise. Keep doing all the things that you learnt from me and have been taught by me and have heard or seen that I do. Then the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:6-9

The nuns have a little bookstore at the front entryway and I paged through a book that caught my eye. A Mind At Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction  contains a forward by Fr. Paul Scalia, son of the recently deceased Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. He writes:

But we live in a schizophrenic culture. As much as we might want that peace, we still desire the world’s distractions. We love the gifts of the digital age: “Big Data,” connectivity, constant streaming, and so forth – even as we sense a need for quiet, for relief from information and communication overload. We want both the promises of the digital age and the habit of recollection (“mindfulness,” as it is now fashionable to say). It is increasingly clear how difficult it is to have both – to be at once digitalized and recollected.

Finding myself guilty of the above I decided to get the book.

As I wrote earlier this week social media…connectivity…all of the noise has finally gotten to me. I longer care to participate. While I have not deleted my Twitter account I’ve started with baby steps and “unfollowed” any and all political pundits or media people outside of one or two. This significantly reduced the clutter on my Twitter feed. It is now mostly comprised of baseball-related organizations, coaches and the like that I follow as well as Catholic priests, authors and media. Facebook is a beast I aim to tackle in 2018 once and for all. I’m also three years in to my old iPhone 5s and early next year am going to “downsize” my phone into a lesser model. Because the opening paragraphs of that books Introduction asks the same questions I’ve been asking myself for over a year.

Have you ever regretted sending an e-mail, a text, or a post? Have you recently forgotten an appointment that a year or two ago you would have had no difficulty remembering? Do you catch your mind wandering when you should be attending carefully to the task, or the person, right in front of you?

What about the way you have been spending your time? Is it difficult to refrain from checking your phone or e-mail every several minutes? Are you uncomfortable being alone and quick to look for relief from boredom? Do you find yourself browsing websites or trying to keep up with the latest news? Do you fall into binge-watching television shows, or playing just one more round of a video game? Are you preoccupied with social media to the point of compulsively checking updates, statuses, and likes?

Are you more often ill at ease or anxious than in the pasts? Are you uncomfortable with your own thoughts? Do you feel unfocused, distracted, restless? Are you finding less joy in conversation, reading, and prayer than you used to?

Yes! To all of the above. I remarked to my wife the other day that in 2017 I’ve read fewer books than I have since we were married almost twenty-five years ago. My lack of sustained focus and ability to read for more than twenty minutes annoys and also scares the hell out of me.

Feeling somewhat buoyed by what I read from St. Paul and the pages I’d scanned in the book, I went outside where the rain had momentarily stopped. While walking to the parking lot I was suddenly surrounded by little butterflies. They bounced off my face and head and I noticed that I had walked right by a flowered area. We’ve been enjoying thousands of these little visitors throughout Lincoln this fall and have a few dozen that have been squatting on some flowers in our yard as well. They are called Painted lady butterflies and our local paper wrote about them here. I watched them for several minutes and snapped a few pictures. Even after it once again began to rain I stood there watching them. It’s a fluke that they are even here this fall and I’ve not stopped to really notice and appreciate them. I recalled what I’d read by St. Paul in Philippians in the chapel:

…fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honor, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise.

And so I will. Tonight I’ll look at a lone Black-eyed Susan in my backyard.

I’ll watch the Painted ladies.

And then the God of peace will be with me.

– Oct. 6: feast of St. Bruno

Painted ladies on Pink Sisters’ flowers.

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Blank screen

Over the past year I’ve occasionally been asked why I stopped writing.

[stares at blank screen for six minutes]

There’s the answer. Or part of it.

I don’t know what the root cause is to be honest. I started to sense it last year at this time as the final month before the US election reached its fever pitch. It continued past the election as the losing side began to throw a big heaping tantrum of crazy. I figured it would be bad if Trump won, but I had no idea the lengths to which people would go, even those I know personally.

The only dog I had in that hunt was the United States of America. And I figured that no matter which candidate won, she (America) would lose. Not because either of the candidates was horrible (though they were both deeply flawed) but because I knew that the losing side would pitch the hissy fit of all hissy fits. And they did. Still are, in fact. I was called a “c*nt” not once (when did this word become so accepted among supposedly grown men?), but six times by an acquaintance and self-identified liberal from my own parish (and father of one of my daughter’s favorite classmates) because I dared to say both sides were at fault regarding a particular issue. Just a week ago another admitted liberal wrote a message on a rare post that I made public on Facebook that “your son is a member of a horrible murdering terrorist organization and tool of a corrupt and illegal government” kind of took the wind out of my desire to engage anyone at all. That he’s deployed yet again into a dangerous part of the world for a nation of ungrateful and unworthy sons of bitches that spit on him and others like him? That might explain yet another staring contest with a blank screen.

And yes, I know that both sides do this. One of the disadvantages of having an open mind, staying above the fray and observing people of all political persuasion is to see that rotten fruit on either side of the fence.

The result of knowing that friends of mine, or those I thought were friends, refuse to support him, the child of a man they personally know, so as not to be seen in conflict with the collective hive mind of their political ideology and party? Can you imagine what that’s like? My gut reaction is to tell them to go to hell and then block them out of your social media and your life. I have ignored my gut. For now.

[Blank screen]

After that I removed my post and resolved to keep everything locked down and private as before. To hell with these people and their sickness. I am a sinner, and admit that my mercy and understanding falls woefully short. I am a work in progress. Psalm 38 this morning speaks to this for me and is why the Psalms remain my favorites:

I said, “I will watch my ways,
I will try not to sin in my speech.
I will set a guard on my mouth,
for as long as my enemies are standing against me.”

I stayed quiet and dumb, spoke neither evil nor good,
but my pain was renewed.
My heart grew hot within me,
and fire blazed in my thoughts.

I’ve always tried to write about seeking out the good in the world. Finding joy. For the past year I’ve struggled at times to see those things despite the fact that I know they are present. It’s just that the fog and smoke of this age have managed to obscure a lot of it from my eyes.

Every morning I use a special cloth to clean my glasses before putting them on for the day. It helps to clear away the grime, film and smudges accumulated during the previous twenty-four hours. For almost twenty years I’ve received the same sort of cleansing by using prayer to keep my eyes clear. Admittedly that has been a struggle this year. I can’t seem to keep them clear and God unobscured no matter the prayer. That once fertile plain has become arid and dry. But I continue to work that land knowing that one day the rains will come again.

So I’m going to try to write once more in the hope that the clouds will burst.

It worked today at least.

[looks at his screen]

This screen isn’t blank.

Oct. 4, 2017 – Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (my Confirmation patron saint)

Friday Five – Volume 120

It’s been six months since I last wrote. It may be another six before I do again.

These five prayers represent things or events that I have and will continue to pray about.

Natural disasters and their aftermath. A son about to leave for his second deployment overseas. Vocation and employment. My children. Peace.

These are prayers I found in Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers and Manual of Prayers. Both from my bookshelves. Neither collecting dust.

The excerpts prior to each prayer are quotes that I’ve been saving from articles read prior to my six-month absence. They don’t always “work” with each prayer subject, but they’ll do. Until the next time:

An Old Gaelic Blessing
May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face. May the rains fall softly upon your fields. Until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

[Manual of Prayers, page 296]

— 1 —

“God’s first language is silence.” In commenting on this beautiful, rich insight of Saint John of the Cross, Thomas Keating, in his work Invitation to Love, writes: “Everything else is a poor translation. In order to understand this language, we must learn to be silent and to rest in God.”

It is time to rediscover the true order of priorities. It is time to put God back at the center of our concerns, at the center of our actions and of our life: the only place that He should occupy. Thus, our Christian journey will be able to gravitate around this Rock, take shape in the light of the faith and be nourished in prayer, which is a moment of silent, intimate encounter in which a human being stands face to face with God to adore Him and to express his filial love for Him.

[Source]

Houston Police SWAT officer Daryl Hudeck carries Catherine Pham and her 13-month-old son Aiden after rescuing them from their home surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Prayer for Protection During a Storm
Loving God, maker of heaven and earth,
protect us in your love and mercy.
Send the Spirit of Jesus to be with us,
to still our fears and give us confidence.

In the stormy waters,
Jesus reassured his disciples by his presence,
calmed the storm, and strengthened their faith.
Guard us from harm during this storm
and renew our faith to serve you faithfully.
Give us the courage to face all difficulties
and the wisdom to see the ways
your Spirit binds us together
in mutual assistance.

With confidence we make our prayer
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

[Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers, page 334]

— 2 —

Young man, be not forgetful of prayer. Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education.

Remember, too, every day, and whenever you can, repeat to yourself, ‘Lord, have mercy on all who appear before Thee today.’ For every hour and every moment thousands of men leave life on this earth, and their souls appear before God. And how many of them depart in solitude, unknown, sad, dejected that no one mourns for them or even knows whether they have lived or not! And behold, from the other end of the earth perhaps, your prayer for their rest will rise up to God though you knew them not nor they you. How touching it must be to a soul standing in dread before the Lord to feel at that instant that, for him too, there is one to pray, that there is a fellow creature left on earth to love him too! And God will look on you both more graciously, for if you have had so much pity on him, how much will He have pity Who is infinitely more loving and merciful than you! And He will forgive him for your sake.” (The Brothers Karamazov, book 6, chapter 3 (g) – Conversations of Fr Zossima: Of prayer, of love, and of contact with the other worlds)

[Source]

A Prayer for One’s Vocation in Life
Lord, make me a better person: more considerate towards others, more honest with myself, more faithful to you. Help me to find my true vocation in life and grant that through it I may find happiness myself and bring happiness to others. Grant Lord, that those whom you call to enter priesthood or religious life may have the generosity to answer your call, so that those who need your help may always find it. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

[Manual of Prayers, page 302]

— 3 —

How often the grieving have said, “I never told him how much I loved him.” But if they did love, it would have shown; it did not need to be advertised. The words, perhaps, should not have been omitted; yet words are just words, whether uttered or printed in books. They might be words of fire and power – “winged words” in the Homeric vernacular – or mere formalities. Some are crucial; most are unnecessary. Often, silence says more than words.

[Source]

Blessing Before Leaving Home for Deployment (excerpt)
O God, you led your servant Abraham from his home
and guarded him in all his wanderings.
Guide this servant of yours, my son Nolan.
Be a refuge on the journey, shade in the heat,
shelter in the storm, rest in weariness,
protection in trouble, and a strong staff in danger.
For all our days together, we give you thanks:
bind us together now, even though we may be far apart.

May your peace rest upon this house,
and may it go with your servant always.

Grant this through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

[Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers, page 285]

Image source.

— 4 —

When we’re able to put aside our hang-ups about rejection and tell people honestly how much they mean to us and how thankful we are for them, it can entirely change a relationship. We no longer experience the world as separate individuals but in solidarity, mutually experiencing our bond together as a source of strength. If a relationship with a friend or family members seems uninspired, bland, or dispirited, perhaps it has something to do with you and me. A few simple honest words of appreciation can set things on a whole new course.

[Source]

Prayer for Strength
God,
we pray for our young people,
growing up in an unsteady and confusing world.
Show them that your ways give more life
than the ways of the world,
and that following you is better
than chasing after selfish goals.
Help them to take failure,
not as a measure of their worth,
but as a chance for a new start.
Give them strength to hold their faith in you,
and to keep alive their joy in your creation.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
Amen.

[Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers, page 197]

— 5 —

Our world has become very noisy. The hurry has sped up. The distractions have multiplied, the blare has increased, and everywhere I look is advertising. Even books scroll by on monitors, backlit and shining in one’s eyes. And the eyes, all around, seem elsewhere. Man, without God, scurries towards a Hell he cannot begin to imagine.

Imagination itself has been “put to work,” selling things.

[Source]

Prayer for Peace: To Mary, the Light of Hope
Immaculate Heart of Mary,
help us to conquer the menace of evil,
which so easily takes root in the hearts of the people of today,
and whose immeasurable effects
already weigh down upon our modern world
and seem to block the paths towards the future.

From famine and war, deliver us.
From nuclear war, from incalculable self-destruction, from every kind of war, deliver us.
From sins against human life from its very beginning, deliver us.
From hatred and from the demeaning of the dignity of the children of God, deliver us.
From every kind of injustice in the life of society, both national and international, deliver us.
From readiness to trample on the commandments of God, deliver us.
From attempts to stifle in human hearts the very truth of God, deliver us.
From the loss of awareness of good and evil, deliver us.
From sins against the Holy Spirit, deliver us.

Accept, O Mother of Christ,
this cry laden with the sufferings of all individual human beings,
laden with the sufferings of whole societies.
Help us with the power of the Holy Spirit to conquer all sin:
individual sin and the “sin of the world”
sin in all its manifestations.
Let there be revealed once more in the history of the world
the infinite saving power of the redemption:
the power of merciful love.

May it put a stop to evil.
May it transform consciences.
May your Immaculate Heart reveal for all the light of hope.
Amen.

[Catholic Household Blessings & Prayers, pages 375-76]

Friday Five – Volume 119

— 1 —

For several months now I’ve been getting up early on Saturday mornings to watch an hour’s worth of Have Gun – Will Travel episodes. I remember watching the show as a young boy, but the fact that Paladin was such a learned and literate philosopher/hired gun was lost on me. A recently aired episode called The Education of Sara Jane involved a graveside back-and-forth that would not likely survive the editing room of today’s television studio.

In the mountains, Paladin comes upon a riderless horse with blood on the saddle. He follows the horse to the dead body of a middle-aged man. When the man’s daughter arrives, Paladin learns that her father is the latest homicide victim in a blood feud between two families. Over the father’s grave, Paladin recites John Donne and a back and forth follows between he and Sara Jane who interrupts with a string of vengeful Old Testament selections. Paladin counters with biblical quotations emphasizing love and forgiveness.

Heady stuff for a Saturday morning that could easily by missed as the exchange lasted under one minute.

“Any man’s death diminishes me for I am involved with mankind.”

“You get those words from the book?”

“Well they’re words from a book. It was written by a man named John Donne.”

“Words spoken over the dead should be from the book. ‘The Lord my God is a jealous God.’”

“God is love.”

“Honor thy father and thy mother.”

“Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”

The scene begins at the 5 minute mark.

— 2 —

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Anthony Esolen’s new book Out of the Ashes. Occasionally I have made an effort to highlight passages in the book as particularly relevant. I read this particular one about the time I read about Teen Vogue’s promotion of abortion to young girls.

The question remains. What does it mean to be a woman?

I hear the answer, mainly from a certain kind of woman, “It means whatever you want it to mean.” Sorry, but that is equivalent to saying that it means nothing. Women, in my experience, prefer their nihilism to be dressed up in perky relativist clothing. Relativism is nihilism for girls.

If we are to believe the women’s magazines on sale at groceries and drug stores, a woman is obsessed with her body, eager to learn new sex tricks, always on the watch for dirty revelations about pop-culture celebrities, prone to consulting horoscopes, ready to shell out a lot of money for new fashions, all-in for “safe” gay men who destroy one another’s lives rather than women’s lives, and firmly committed to “women’s health,” which depends on contraceptives and abortions and everything else that is meant not to restore healthy function to a diseased organ but to thwart the natural action of a healthy one.

If we are to take as evidence women’s political shows, a woman is loud, vulgar, screeching, ignorant of history, morbidly touchy, vindictive, smug, voluble in slogans, impervious to the principles of any coherent political philosophy, and ready to see the world as the she-bear sees it when her cubs are restless and the food is scarce. Men, for their part, would be boorish, violent, indolent, reckless, cruel, proud, and ready to soak the world in blood for the sake of a principle.

That is not what women are. That is what bad women are. It is what happens when you fail to cultivate the difficult virtue of womanliness, just as the thug and the lout are what you get when you fail to cultivate the companion virtue, manliness.

Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture by Anthony Esolen. Page 118.

— 3 —

Tracy Ullman has made me laugh since I first saw her video They Don’t Know in 1983.

— 4 —

Love is Not Tolerance
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen

Christian love bears evil, but it does not tolerate it.

It does penance for the sins of others, but it is not broadminded about sin.

The cry for tolerance never induces it to quench its hatred of the evil philosophies
that have entered into contest with the Truth.

It forgives the sinner, and it hates the sin; it is unmerciful to the error in his mind.

The sinner it will always take back into the bosom of the Mystical Body;
but his lie will never be taken into the treasury of His Wisdom.

Real love involves real hatred:
whoever has lost the power of moral indignation and the urge to drive the buyers and sellers from the temples
has also lost a living, fervent love of Truth.

Charity, then, is not a mild philosophy of “live and let live”;
it is not a species of sloppy sentiment.

Charity is the infusion of the Spirit of God,
which makes us love the beautiful and hate the morally ugly.

— 5 —

In January there was a debate about what word would be selected as the “Word of the Year” for 2016. At the time the Left was pushing for that word to be “fascism”. I maintained then, and still do today, that the word of 2016 (if not the last decade or more) should be “hypocrisy.” If you pay any attention at all in a non-partisan manner to the political events in America it practically leaps off the page or out of your television screen and punches you in the nose. Statements said by a Republican are abhorrent, until it’s revealed that a Democrat said the same thing and was cheered for it. A Democrat bill or legislation is reviled until or unless it is now a position of the Republican majority in Congress. It never ends.

Being a hypocrite in this manner demonstrates all too easily how critical thinking has been set aside. Instead of having to research and think about something, one can merely look to see which political party favors the issue and that alone will firm up the stance one takes on said issue. This shallowness also leads to each side attempting to co-opt a popular book, movie or character in order to, through relativism, paint their political opponents as evil or reaffirm their position as virtuous and good. For example, Orwell’s 1984 is popular with Democrats during the George W. Bush presidency, with Republicans during the Obama era, and now once more required reading for the Left in the Trump term.

The problem with this shallowness is that the truth is always deeper and more profound than this partisan preening. Thus it’s easy to point out that Republicans are not Nazis and Trump is not Lord Voldemort. The lazy way around an argument is to seize upon such comparisons. I get that. But I can’t help but laugh at the moral smugness and superior position assumed by those who are this lazy. It employs the same ploy used to shut down those we disagree with by calling them a racist/homophobe/xenophobe/Islamophobe/etc. By doing so we “otherize” those we deem offensive.

I could point out flawed logic from the Right as well but these are the two most prevalent themes I’ve been reading of late. (A quick Google search of “Trump is Voldemort meme” will show you quite a few, some of which did make me laugh at their creativity.) Thus, as Bart Gingerich points out on the Mere Orthodoxy blog, it’s quite a stretch for the Left to make such a claim regarding the Harry Potter world:

Why do progressives like Harry Potter? Ever since the election of Donald Trump, the left has been regularly referencing to JK Rowling’s popular books in order to rally the opposition to the new president. When you read the books closely, however, it’s a strange move. The contradictions of Millennials’ self-perception and insertion of themselves in the Harry Potter narrative can be quite drastic:

  • Opposing the Death Eaters in fiction while supporting abortion, euthanasia, and transhumanism in real life
  • Loving the boisterously warm-yet-poor Weaselys while visibly troubled by large families (and the sacrifices necessary to keep them)
  • Fascination with the authoritative traditions that order life in the Wizarding World while doing everything they can to destroy and dilute the same in the actual world
  • Reveling in the concept of godparents like Sirius Black while not actually participating in the baptismal liturgies and vows of the Church that create such relationships in real life
  • Longing for the committed, sacrificial love of the Potter parents while hesitating to enter marriage themselves and blowing up said institution by co-habitation and legal redefinition

Most recently, progressives have leaned on the series to oppose Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, identifying the newly minted secretary with Dolores Umbridge. How an advocate for less government oversight, more freedom of school choice, and the potential for increased moral formation in education could be conflated with a bureaucrat enamored with state oversight and questionable curricular hegemony is almost beyond me. Almost. But that is precisely the point.

It’s time to make critical thinking, and honesty, great again.

Carrying the cross of history

A little something I read on Ash Wednesday and wanted to share.

Rides the Sun

One of the greatest artistic evocations of the grittiness of Lent is Peter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary, which is housed in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum [Museum of Art History]. The Procession to Calvary is a large work, five and a half by four feet, featuring hundreds of small figures, with the equally small figure of Christ carrying the cross in the center of the painting. Bruegel included certain familiar motifs in rendering the scene: the holy women and the apostle John are in the right foreground, comforting Mary; the vast majority of those involved, concerned about quotidian things, are clueless about the drama unfolding before their eyes. What is so striking about The Procession to Calvary, however, is that we are in sixteenth-century Europe, not first-century Judea: Christ is carrying the cross through a typical Flemish landscape, complete with horses, carts, oxen, and a…

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Friday Five – Volume 118

A week ago today was the first of six days of 70+ degree weather. Today it’s 23 degrees outside and as I look out my window all I can see is a large white flurry of snowflakes accumulating. Hello again February.

Friday Five-Mere Observations

— 1 —

Yesterday I mentioned three books I have been waiting to read in early 2017. I’m currently in the middle of the first book by Anthony Esolen. The second book in my “trilogy” is by Archbishop Charles Chaput. I picked it up a few days ago and plan to dig into it by the end of next week when I’ve finished Esolen’s Out of the Ashes. Robert Royal reviewed Chaput’s new book yesterday. I highlight this excerpt from his review as it speaks to what I wrote yesterday: I’m done with the complaints. It’s time to get to work. It’s time to rebuild.

Many people have recently worked this same ground, but none more astutely and with such breadth of cultural reference. Chaput brings together some of the very best secular as well as religious thinking about our situation: the American Founders, Tocqueville, Charles Péguy, Romano Guardini, Pierre Manent, Leon Kass, Charles Murray, Alasdair MacIntyre, even the great German poet Rilke, and many others. No brief account can do this book full justice. You have to read it, slowly, to appreciate its richness and texture.

But the wide-ranging social analysis is just a preliminary. The central question for us, right now, is what can be done. The answer, the Christian answer, is that there may not be much we can do on a large scale. But what we can do, however modest, we must do. Visiting the sick or dying, maintaining solid families and marriages, having the courage to speak when some human value is violated, being willing even to talk about God, in the right way, amidst a culture that wants, above all things, not to hear the name. Political action, too, as needed. The possibilities are infinite. And we cannot complain that “the times” are evil, because we are the times.

But even that is not enough. Chaput transports all these considerations into a different key by reminding us that the true Christian response to our predicaments is to live in Hope. Hope is not optimism – a foolish thing in a world so obviously wounded by sin and folly. Neither is it confidence in Progress, that 19th Century counterfeit. We have Hope, true Hope, he says, because 2000 years ago, in an obscure regional capital, a man – Jesus – rose from the dead, and defeated the world, the flesh, and – let’s say this openly – the Devil.

The world scoffs at such things, of course, and always has. There are a number of intellectual battles that must be fought to dispel wrongheaded scientific, social, and cultural assumptions. Perhaps the most challenging problem, however, is that the people who most need to hear such arguments are now virtually impervious to reasoning because of the way they have been conditioned to live. Chaput remarks, “The more problematic the behavior, the more sacred grows the liturgy of alibis.”

I like that term, though I hate what it stands for: the liturgy of alibis.

— 2 —

Another excerpt:

chaput_strangersKnowing “about” Jesus Christ is not enough. We need to engage him with our whole lives. That means cleaning out the garbage of noise and distraction from our homes. It means building real Christian friendships. It means cultivating oases of silence, worship, and prayer in our lives. It means having more children and raising them in the love of the Lord. It means fighting death and fear with joy and life, one family at a time, with family sustaining one another against the temptations of weariness and resentment.

And what about beauty? Beauty can be admired. It can be venerated. It can inspire gratitude or awe. But it cannot be consumed as a product or “used” for instrumental purposes without defacing it. Beauty doesn’t do anything … except the one most precious thing in life: It invites and elevates the soul beyond itself, beyond calculation, beyond utility, and thus reminds us what it means to be human.

Beauty, to borrow from Augustine’s thoughts on the First Letter of John, is like a ring a bridegroom gives to his bride, a sign and a seal of God’s enduring love. It’s the antidote to the deeper, demonic, pornographies of our age: anger, despair, vanity, violence, cynicism … beauty refreshes our hearts in this world while lifting us toward the next, “for here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” (Heb. 13:14)

— 3 —

While on the subject of beauty…

Several weeks back I mentioned having watched the movie Collateral Beauty in the theater with my wife. The usual cadre of critics lambasted the film but, as usual, I enjoyed what they were unable to grasp. I haven’t mentioned that I had a similar experience with another movie in January: The Sea of Trees.

Again, the critics tried to crush this movie in the cradle and to a large part succeeded. It was actually booed at the Cannes Film Festival and the once-promised theatrical releases largely cancelled. I was able instead to watch it on Amazon Prime. Yes, its pace is slow. Yes, the actors actually act and no CGI is involved. Yes, you have to be able to think and have empathy. Thus, critics and much of today’s movie audience were deaf to what the film was trying to say.

Again I will pass on offering a review. I do recommend the film and plan to watch it again in fact. From the Internet Movie Database:

Arthur Brennan treks into Aokigahara, known as The Sea of Trees, a mysterious dense forest at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji where people go to commit suicide. On his journey to the suicide forest, he encounters Takumi Nakamura, a Japanese man who has lost his way after attempting suicide. The two men begin a journey of reflection and survival, which affirms Arthur’s will to live and reconnects him to his love for his wife.

— 4 —

skeleton-smartphoneHere’s a shocker. Social Media Are Driving Americans Insane.

Social media use has skyrocketed from 7 percent of American adults in 2005 to 65 percent in 2015. For those in the 18-29 age range, the increase is larger, from 12 percent to a remarkable 90 percent. But while an increase in social media usage is hardly surprising, the number of people who just can’t tear themselves away is stark: Nowadays, 43 percent of Americans say they are checking their e-mails, texts, or social media accounts constantly. And their stress levels are paying for it: On a 10-point scale, constant checkers reported an average stress level of 5.3. For the rest of Americans, the average level is a 4.4.

Know what else has increased in use?

To the uninitiated, the figures are nothing if not staggering: 155 million Americans play video games, more than the number who voted in November’s presidential election. And they play them a lot: According to a variety of recent studies, more than 40 percent of Americans play at least three hours a week, 34 million play on average 22 hours each week, 5 million hit 40 hours, and the average young American will now spend as many hours (roughly 10,000) playing by the time he or she turns 21 as that person spent in middle- and high-school classrooms combined. Which means that a niche activity confined a few decades ago to preadolescents and adolescents has become, increasingly, a cultural juggernaut for all races, genders, and ages. How had video games, over that time, ascended within American and world culture to a scale rivaling sports, film, and television? Like those other entertainments, video games offered an escape, of course. But what kind?

Read the entire article about video games here.

Neil Postman was right back in 1985. We are amusing ourselves to death.

— 5 —

One of my dad’s favorite recording artists would have celebrated a birthday on February 26th. I grew up listening to my dad’s Johnny Cash records, as well as Elvis, The Beatles and the comedy of Bill Cosby…even Charlie Pride now and then. But there was always something about Cash’s songs. They went just a little deeper, and even in my younger days I knew there was more “there” there. I highly recommend this article about The Johnny Cash You Never Knew.

It was a tough line, the line Cash was trying to walk — the line we’re all trying to walk between our worldly and spiritual lives.

Cash was once asked how he was able to reach so many people with his message without ever hiding his faith, and he gave a simple and perfect answer: “I am not a Christian artist. I am an artist who is Christian.”

Cash was revered by artists of every genre, from hip-hop to rock. Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and Snoop Dogg all admired the openly evangelical Southern man. And all because Cash transcended stereotypes and musical categories. He even transcended time, something that can be said of very few stars in any medium.

His 2002 acoustic take of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” was about as courageous a recording as any ever made by a popular artist. Cash took that song, originally written about the pain of heroin addiction, and turned it into a reflection on his own mortality.

“The truth of fading beauty, forgotten earthly achievements, and broken human bonds, powerfully and yet wordlessly seep from the screen,” Steve Turner said when describing the music video, which peaks emotionally when Cash sings these words:

What have I become, my sweetest friend?
Everyone I know goes away in the end.

As he delivers those lines, the video cuts to a picture of June, standing at the foot of a staircase watching her husband. “Her lips quiver,” wrote Turner, “as though she knows that she is watching the man she loves singing his final testament.”

What no one knew as the video crew shot that scene was that, on the day before, June Carter Cash had been diagnosed with a leaking heart valve.

I’ve watch this video a lot over the years. I think it’s because when it flashes back between the younger Cash and the 2002 version, I see a lot of my own dad. In the words and in the images.