The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

One Thing After Another...

We seem to live in an odd world in which the strange has become normalized.  

Shakespeare, just another dead white male. Consider the University of Pennsylvania (or simply "Penn," as it prefers to be called). Penn is an Ivy League school that commands big bucks for offering its students, in the words of the Penn administration, "an unparalleled education informed by inclusivity, intellectual rigor, research, and the impetus to create new knowledge to the benefit of individuals and communities around the world." I suppose that means they promise some sort of education to their students. To confirm both the inclusivity and intellectual rigor of a Penn education, activist students -- apparently a horde of frenzied English majors -- tore down a portrait of William Shakespeare, whom they dislike, and replaced it with a photo of Audre Lorde, whom they esteem. Lorde, it seems, is a black, lesbian poet who quite probably, like her student devotees, believes she is far more relevant than the Bard. 

The head of Penn's English Department, an academic named Jed Esty, decided that the portrait should not be returned to its former place of honor because Shakespeare, a white male, was the antithesis of diversity. And for those of you who might be paying for a child to attend Penn, listen to what else Professor Esty had to say:
"Students removed the Shakespeare portrait and delivered it to my office as a way of affirming their commitment to a more inclusive mission for the English department...We invite everyone to join us in the task of critical thinking about the changing nature of authorship, the history of language, and the political life of symbols."
The problem for the few thoughtful students at universities like Penn is that to succeed they must parrot this gibberish in their papers and on their exams. Failure to do so would be seen as symptomatic of reactionary uniformity, the opposite of the progressive diversity (paradoxically, a diversity that demands conformity) the school hopes to instill in its charges. You can read more about this incident at Penn here.

Wounded but not healed. After the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the U.S. Congress provided $7 billion in compensation to the families of the victims of the attacks. Each family received an average of $1.8 million. I mention this here not because I disagree with the compensation but simply to make a comparison with the following.

Ten years ago, Dusty Kirby, a Navy corpsman serving with the Marines in Iraq, was severely wounded by an Iraqi sniper. The bullet shattered his jaw and caused serious damage to his mouth. Even after a life-saving surgery and 30 subsequent operations Dusty remained in excruciating pain and suffered from brain injury and PTSD. He could not chew food, speak normally (he'd lost 1/3 of his tongue), or smile since he had almost no teeth left. 

Then, after almost ten years, Dusty turned to the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation an organization that, through its affiliate Marine Assist, arranged for specialized reconstructive surgery at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital. The result was miraculous. The surgeons repaired his jaw and later provided a completes set of dental implants. He can smile, eat and speak. Here's a news story on this young hero.

To me the sad thing about this story is that Dusty Kirby, a Navy corpsman whose service was dedicated to healing wounded Marines, had to turn to an outside organization to receive the healing he needed. These surgeries were not paid for by the United States government who apparently did not consider it important to return this young man to normalcy.

We can pay $1.8 million to the families of 9-11 victims who sadly were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but then treat our warriors horribly. These underpaid men and women return again and again to the war zone, placing their lives on the line to ensure our security. The very fact that the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation, Marine Assist, and many other similar organizations have to exist is a scandal. 

And what about our senior officers and Defense Department officials, you know, the folks whose job it is to care for the people under their command? Do we ever hear them screaming about the poor treatment wounded veterans receive? How many have resigned in protest? How many have taken the case to the public? 

Obama and Israel. Look at a map of Asia and Africa. Draw a line from Turkey south to Somalia and then expand that line into a large rectangle that stretches eastward to Pakistan. Within that box there's one democracy, Israel. All the rest are either military or theocratic dictatorships. They are all Muslim majority nations. And they all hate Israel. By the way, if you're using a map printed by the Palestinian Authority, you won't find Israel on it.

The United Nations, an organization made up largely of nations ruled by thugs, passed its latest anti-Israel (actually anti-Jewish) resolution and for the first time the United States failed to exercise its veto. Our ambassador instead abstained, which it the same as voting 'Yes' since it yields an identical result.

We therefore sided with the terrorists and the nations that support them. This, of course, is nothing new for our president who just thinks the world of his friends who run Iran, the same nation that his own State Department claims is the world's leading supporter of terrorism.
Rouhani and Obama Celebrating

I'll write more about this at a later date. Let me just say that January 20th can't come soon enough.

Carrie Fisher, R.I.P. I really don't pay too much attention to show biz types, their work, their lives, and their deaths. But I was especially saddened to hear that Carrie Fisher died today at the age of 60 after suffering a major heart attack last week aboard a United Airlines flight from London to LA. 

Because Fisher became ultra-famous as a teenager in her role as Princess Leia in the first of the Star Wars movies, most of us probably never accepted the fact that she had aged along with the rest of us. I know I'll always see her as the young, spunky, intergalactic heroine she played so well. 

Princess Leia, Armed and Dangerous
The daughter of two genuine Hollywood celebrities -- actress Debbie Reynolds and crooner Eddie Fisher -- Carrie Fisher suffered much during those 60 years. Drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, strained and shattered relationships all contributed to a deep sadness that seemed to plague so much of her life. 

But it's important to realize that she was more than an actress who reached her peak of fame 30-40 years ago. She was also an extremely talented writer. I'm not a big fan of Hollywood fiction (or non-fiction), but I truly enjoyed her autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge, which I suspect was an honest and painfully humorous depiction of the humanly dysfunctional film industry. She wrote a number of other best-selling novels and was in demand as a screen writer and fixer of scripts. 

I'm sure she will be missed by those who knew and loved her. I pray that the Lord receives her with mercy. Rest In Peace.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Homily: December 19

Readings: Jgs 13:2-7,24-25; Ps 71; Lk 1:5-25
Angel Announces the Birth of Samson
Some years ago I found myself in a long discussion about miracles with a New Testament scholar. To be blunt, he didn't believe in them. He rejected everything from Jesus changing water into wine at Cana all the way to the Resurrection. And, of course, he accepted none of the miracles described in the Old Testament. He was so caught up in the modern spirit of the age that he saw miracles as a scandal. God, he believed, can act only in ideas or thoughts, but certainly not in the material world.

Of course if God does not possess creative power over the material universe, then, quite simply He isn't God. And what is the Incarnation if not God moving in the world.

Today's readings show us how God can move and act in ways miraculous. They speak of trust – trust that God will do as He promises, even when those promises seem impossible. They speak of hope and belief in the miraculous. They speak too of our relationship with God, for God wants us to trust in Him. He wants us to accept that the world is powerless in the face of His majesty. And when we turn to the Lord, when we accept Him as our salvation, He will be our refuge from the idiocies and hatreds of the world. And they also speak of preparation, a fitting theme for the week before Christmas. 

In our first reading from Judges we encounter a foreshadowing of the birth of John the Baptist. Like Zechariah in the Gospel, Manoah's wife was visited by an angel who told her she would bear a son, a very special son, a son blessed by the Lord. He would be called Samson. We encounter a similar event elsewhere in Scripture, in 1st Book of Samuel when Hannah was promised a son, the prophet Samuel.

Each of these women, who had long despaired of being mothers, was granted the gift of a child. And their sons became great, each in his own way a herald of the Messiah who is still to come.

In today's Gospel passage Luke describes the angel's promise of a son to the elderly Zechariah. I don't know about you, but I've always felt a little sorry for Zechariah. He'd finally been chosen, in what amounted to a priestly lottery, to enter the Temple's Holy of Holies, an honor that happened only rarely.

And there he was, this faithful, aging, Jewish priest, fulfilling his duties when the angel Gabriel appeared to him. Now that had to be quite a shock. After all, angelic apparitions aren't very common. But even more shocking is what Gabriel told him:

"Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John" [Lk 1:13]
Gabriel Appears to Zechariah
God had heard his prayer, the angel told him, but maybe Zechariah had long ago stopped praying that prayer, had stropped asking for the son he now believed he and Elizabeth would never have. But that's how God is sometimes. We ask and we receive, but occasionally it can take awhile; for God works in His time not ours.

Gabriel went on to relate wondrous things about this son who had yet to be conceived. But Zechariah seemed to ignore all those wondrous things, and instead focused on the conception issue. That was the problem for Zechariah; and he just couldn't help himself. He had to explain the situation to Gabriel: "For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years" [Lk 1:18], as if Gabriel and God don't already know this.

Yes, how often you and I do the same thing? How often are our prayers filled with explanations, in case God hasn't grasped the details.  How much of your prayer centers on your wants and your will, and how much is in praise and thanksgiving for the manifestation of God's will in your life? Most of us are probably a lot like Zechariah who instead of saying, "Thank you, Lord, for hearing my prayer," proclaimed his doubts by asking, "How shall I know this?" [Lk 1:18]

It was this proclamation of doubt that betrayed his weakness of faith, his unwillingness to accept that "nothing will be impossible for God" [Lk 1:37]. The irony is that later Gabriel uses these very words when he tells Mary of Elizabeth's pregnancy. Yes, with God all things are possible. It's an irony that also displays God's sense of humor.

And so, in today's encounter with the Word, we see the time for preparation drawing to a close, as the world readies for the appearance of its Savior. Can the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah help us to think about the coming of the Lord?

Now is a time to set priorities. Now is a time to decide how to spend these last hours of Advent before they are gone. What matters most to us? 

Can we ask for guidance and grace to spend these brief days in a way that recognizes the core realities of redemption and justice? 

Do we need to turn our hearts toward our family, our children and grandchildren, in some new way, offering love and forgiveness and peace?

Can we open our minds to God's Holy Word, allowing Him to teach us?

And Recall the words of our Responsorial Psalm. Can we make them our prayer today?

"For you are my hope, O LORD; my trust, O God, from my youth. On you I depend from birth; from my mother's womb you are my strength" [Ps 71:5-6].
Can we abandon ourselves to Him and His Divine Mercy, and allow Him to refine and purify us?

Can we turn to the Holy Spirit, asking Him to fill our hearts and minds with God's truth, God's

May the Spirit of wisdom, the Spirit of love guide you this day – and may you have a blessed Christmas season this year!

Monday, December 12, 2016

It's a Dog's World

For almost three years Diane and I have shared our home with a wonderful little dog named Maddie. Now almost nine years old she is a rescued Bichon Frise who has seemingly adapted well to our household. Last evening I took a photo of of her doing what she does best (below). As you can see, she makes herself comfortable wherever she likes, and in this instance has made good use of one of Diane's Christmas pillows and a red throw. The deep dents in the white sofa cushions are the result of her testing out various napping spots. She prefers the extra-soft, down-filled cushions on the living room sofa and do I. Fortunately, Bichons don't shed so I need not follow her around with a vacuum cleaner.
Maddie's a very happy little critter and complains only when we leave her alone for more than a few moments. She also smiles a lot which is a common trait among Bichons, a remarkably sociable and friendly breed. Right now she's resting on the bed in the guest bedroom from which she has a commanding view of our front yard. She seems to believe her primary job is to warn us when anyone steps foot on the property. I consider this adequate work for her room and board; but because she also offers us real affection, we provide her with all kinds of tasty treats -- a true symbiotic relationship.

Among her favorite treats are the large sized milk-bones (see photo below), the kind marketed to big dogs. But when given one of these treats Maddie won't eat it, at least not right away. She will walk throughout the house, milk-bone sticking out of her mouth, sometimes for an hour or more. Then she'll usually "bury" it under a throw pillow and retrieve it the next day. Eventually she will eat it but not before completing this ritual of instinctive canine behavior.
Maddie and I walk together for a mile or two every morning and every evening. The Villages is home to many dogs, so we often encounter several as we stroll through the surrounding neighborhoods. Interestingly, Maddie has never barked or growled at or tried to attack another dog, regardless of the other dog's attitude. Based on her reaction to the dogs we encounter, I've concluded that she places dogs in one of three categories. 

First, there are the nasty little -- and some not so little -- dogs. They represent perhaps 20% of the dogs we meet on our walks and include the small yappers and ankle-biters that really care little for other living beings. The category also includes a few -- and only a few -- large dogs that view other dogs as prey. For example, we sometimes encounter a large Akita who growls whenever it sees another human or canine. Maddie senses the nastiness of all these dogs long before they approach and simply encourages me to avoid them.

Maddie seems to lump many other dogs into the second category. These are the indifferent dogs and represent maybe a third of the dogs we meet. Maddie tries to approach them, wagging her tail in friendship, but they simply ignore her and continue on. These rejections of her offered affection always seem to surprise her. but she quickly puts it behind her. 

The final category includes what I call the dogs with good hearts, the dogs that simply enjoy the presence of humans and other dogs. Maddie herself falls in this category, so I suppose it's natural that she would gravitate to others of her kind. When she spots one approaching, she will often just sit down and wait for them to arrive. They then sniff and play and enjoy each other.

As an aside, I've often noticed that the person on the other end of the leash mimics the behavior of the dog (or vice versa): grumpy, indifferent and happy dogs tend to be accompanied by grumpy, indifferent or happy human beings respectively.

Speaking of happy dogs, someone recently sent me a link to a video of a rescued Pit Bull named Brinks who smiles constantly -- certainly among the happiest-looking dogs I've ever seen.  I've included two videos of Brinks, the one my friend sent me and another of Brinks walking through his Brooklyn neighborhood. This is one neat dog who has apparently become a YouTube celebrity.

Actually, the Pit Bull is a wonderful breed, a naturally friendly and protective dog that makes an excellent family pet. Sadly the breed has been often mistreated and misused by far too many people resulting in its rather bad reputation. In fact, one neighborhood dog is part Pit Bull and he and Maddie have become fast friends. He's about four times her size but that doesn't seem to bother her at all. His name happens to be Trump (no relation), a name he was given long before the onset of the recent presidential race. On our twice-daily walks Maddie insists we go out of our way to visit Trump. 

Over the years our family has been blessed by many good dogs, both large and small, but I really think little Maddie is my favorite. 

By the way, according to the Harvard Health blog: “The evidence reviewed by the AHA indicates that dog owners are more likely to exercise, have a better cholesterol profile, have lower blood pressure, be less vulnerable to the physical effects of stress, and be more likely to survive a heart attack.” Sounds like a good reason to bring a dog into your life.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Flannery O'Connor, the devil, and today's Holy Innocents

I've been re-reading a lot of Flannery O'Connor lately, both her absolutely perfect fiction and her enlightened and enlightening non-fiction. If you've never read her work, your life is grossly incomplete and needs a little shot of Flannery to make it half-full again. Her work is always grace-filled, always surprising. But it's also (at least to me) gloriously optimistic because it tells of the effects of God's redemptive act in the lives of His creatures, even in the midst of tragedy.

So many people in our confused world are half-empty pessimists because they ignore the showering of God's grace in their lives. Either that or they reject out of hand the very idea of God's active presence in the world. For these, God has no role in all that He created and all that He maintains through His love. They evict God from their lives, and Nietzsche's claim that "God is dead!" becomes the watchword of their closed, truncated worlds. They either slide into a deep, suicidal despair or they grab hold of an ideology that assumes man (that's us) is actually in charge and can bring about a perfect world. As Flannery O'Connor wrote to a correspondent:
"The Liberal approach is that man has never fallen, never incurred guilt, and is ultimately perfectible by his own efforts. Therefore, evil in this light is a problem of better housing, sanitation, health, etc. and all mysteries will eventually be cleared up. Judgment is out of place because man is not responsible" [The Habit of Being, p. 302].
And so man becomes godlike, seemingly in charge of his little world. But because he is a tiny god in a massive, sprawling universe, he is not responsible and can escape judgment. And although he must contend with an array of forces, Satan isn't one of them. If a personal, loving God doesn't exist, neither can personified evil. The devil, then, becomes a fiction.

How many people today actually believe the devil exists, that he is a personal entity, a rebellious and fallen creature? How many believe God's grace is a very real and active force in the lives of individuals and in human history? At one time, at least in our Western Civilization, the vast majority of people believed with absolute certainty that Satan and grace were indeed very real. But no longer. 

Shortly before she died In 1964, Flannery O'Connor, addressing the plague of relativism that has infected so many today, anticipated the thought of Pope Benedict XVI and his condemnation of the "dictatorship of relativism" when she wrote:
"Those who have no absolute values cannot let the relative remain merely relative; they are always raising it to the level of the absolute" [Mystery and Manners, p. 178].
On another occasion, discussing her fiction, she wrote something that got me thinking about how the devil, certainly without intention, moves God's plan forward:
"From my own experience in trying to make stories 'work,' I have discovered that what is needed is an action that is totally unexpected, yet totally believable, and I have found that, for me, this is always an action which indicates that grace has been offered. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been an unwilling instrument of grace" [Spiritual Writings, P. 128]
That last phrase -- "the devil has been an unwilling instrument of grace" -- was a bit of a shock to me. But then I found myself thinking of Satan's greatest success in our modern world: the plague of abortion. Since January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court sanctioned abortion through its infamous Roe v. Wade decision, well over 50 million unborn children have been killed in our country, not to mention the hundreds of millions of unborn slaughtered throughout the world. Satan is surely pleased as he revels in the deaths of so many innocents and in the guilt of those who took their lives. 

And yet, where are these millions of innocents now? In their sinlessness, dressed in the robes of their martyrdom, they are in God's eternal presence. They join the saintly members of Christ's Mystical Body; and there, among the heavenly host, they prayerfully intercede for those who took their far too brief lives. Indeed, they pray for us all, for a world that has lost its way. And can any prayers be more efficacious than their prayers, the prayers of the completely innocent?

What, then, has Satan done? In his lust for death he has been "an unwilling instrument of grace." He has unwittingly raised up an army of prayerful saints, millions of God's most precious creatures determined to destroy all of Satan's works. Baptized in the blood of martyrdom, all those aborted babies, through their prayerful intercession are now instruments of God's grace, living signs of His love and mercy. This, then, is another of God's great paradoxes: the slaughter of these innocents, one of the modern world's great evils, has become a blessing that will change the world. Yes, God certainly has His ways doesn't He? For "We know that all things work for good for those who love God" [Rom 8:28].

Satan, as Lucifer, might have been the greatest of God's creations, but as the "light-bringer" he could only reflect God's eternal light. With Satan's fall from grace, having torn himself away from God's love, he can bring nothing but darkness. Flannery O'Connor realized that his works, more often than not, led to the wondrous manifestation of God's grace. "In my stories," she wrote, "a reader will find that the devil accomplished a good deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective" [Spiritual Writings, P. 128]

If God's grace were visible, it would fill the world, bringing light even to those hidden dark corners, just begging every person to reach out for it, to grasp it, to bathe in it. But that grace really is visible, for it's present in the sacraments of the Church, those "grace-giving outward signs" that free us from our sinfulness. Our Church, then, is a Church, not for the smug and the self-righteous, but for sinners who come to experience God's mercy and forgiveness. Yes, it's through an awareness of our sinfulness that we can approach God in repentance and come to accept His saving grace.