Voices still cry in the wilderness

Today the Church observes the memorial of the Passion of John the Baptist.  We recall his death at the hands of Herod.  As St. Bede points out in the Office of Readings, John was not executed explicitly because he pointed to Christ (though this was the thrust of John’s ministry).  No, John died for testifying to the truth – namely: that Herod’s affair with his brother Philip’s wife Herodias was unnatural.

John’s heavenly father reminds us in the Church today that all Truth is worth professing… The earthly circumstances surrounding his fate remind us that with or without ever mentioning the name of Jesus, Truth can have a degree of danger associated with it.

John described his prophetic mission as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”  Normally my reflections on John the Baptist turn to Richard Wagner’s opera Salome.  It’s well-worth a listen, especially when the discord of Herod’s court is pierced, silenced really, by the pure tones of John’s voice rising from his prison cell… but that’s not today’s focus.  Today I want to point readers to a very fine interview from NPR (see below) with an intriguing artist, Sir “The Baptist.”  Sir is a preacher’s son who’s using hip-hop’s art form to cry out in the wilderness about the needs of our most vulnerable in the inner cities.  Whether or not you’re a fan of hip-hop, you may find yourself mesmerized by the poetry of Sir’s words and the pathos inherent in his message.  His efforts to spread a message about real human needs using contemporary cultural methods is certainly worthy of a standing ovation.

 

Crossing the Street to Be a Good Samaritan

-Norman Rockwell, The Four Freedoms
-Norman Rockwell, The Four Freedoms

Looking with eyes of faith, we find that flags in DC have been at half mast for far too long.  In light of recent events, and this morning’s Gospel about the Good Samaritan, I’m posting two items here for your consideration:

First – My Homily about the importance of speaking up and taking real action to help those in need.

Second a letter I’m posting today to our Mayor.  Feel free to cut and past from it as a start to your own communication with our leaders to make our city a safe and loving place for all its citizens.

 

Solidarity with the homeless

As I type, I’m on pilgrimage in Spain with a group of parishioners.  It’s been Ana amazing experience this far. We’ve seen inspiring natural beauty, marveled at cultural treasures… And most of all we’ve prayed offering our days’ challenges, joys, and quiet times to Jesus for a long list of prayer intentions from home.

As I type it’s also 315am… No it’s not the jet lag.  Arriving in the city of Betanzos we encountered another traveler in the hostel.  He struck me as odd right off the bat.  From my experiences with the homeless at home – if I had to guess – I’d say this gentleman isn’t well.  Not dangerous necessarily, but certainly not well.  He’s sleeping upstairs in the dorm… Snoring like a buzz saw and making some very discomforting noises bedsides.

As I type il trying to look at this with eyes of pilgrim faith.  For me this will be a challenge on tomorrow’s 20 mile trek to the next pilgrim refuge… But that’s all it is, a temporary discomfort eased by my friends and over when I get to my hotel in Santiago in a few days.  But  what about the homeless of DC?

As I type hundreds of men women and children struggle to sleep in our city in situations that ARE dangerous… That are kore than an inconvenience… They are a way of daily life!  My foreign neighbor in the next bunk has a snore and an odor that are keeping me up for one night… What’s it like to live like that 24-7?  It’s no joke.  I’m not being facetious in any way.

As I stay up (I’ve given up on real sleep at this point), I offer this night to God in solidarity with the homeless of Washington.  I beg the Lord who loves us all to see this movement in my own heart and relieve the suffering of one of my neighbors in DC.

 

The Health Consequences of Porn: It’s hurting us, and science proves it

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Since her first days, the Church has preached in favor or healthy physical relationships among men and women.  The word used by St. Paul for UNhealthy sexual relationships is porneia.  From this root, we get a modern term, “porno-graphy,” for unhealthy sexual images.

It’s surprising to me how often I interview couples for marriage and discover that one or both don’t think that pornography is necessarily detrimental to a marital relationship.  I use anecdotes from pastoral ministry and my own reading trying as I might to disabuse them of this notion… but sometimes I get the sense they’re just smiling and nodding.

Today the Washington Post Outlook section published a wonderful article (LINKED HERE) on the wide-spread and curiously silent scientific research proving that porn is hurting us as individuals and as a society.  Just a few highlights: The average age for a boy to view porn for the first time is 11.  Porn has been proven to dispose men to violence toward women, including sexual assault.  The porn industry hides statistics about the instances of STI’s among their performers.  Internet pornography is more frequented that major sites like Netflix, Hulu and Youtube… combined.

This is an insidious social ill that dwarfs the effects of its predecessors in ways we are only beginning to discover.  But the Church offers resources to begin breaking the porn cycle.  Check out some of the information / resources available form the Archdiocese of Washington’s Family Life Office at this LINK

There are other ways of thinking about this…

Washington has changed so quickly.  Even in the short [sixteen] years that I’ve called it home whole new neighborhoods have been redeveloped, become safer, revitalized.  There’s lots of verbs to be used… one particularly vexing one is, “re-gentrification,” as if somehow gentle people don’t live in economically depressed areas.

For most of DC’s new residents, it’s all been very positive… summed up perhaps by the phrase, “Isn’t this a great place to live!”  and from my own point of view I’d agree.  But there are other ways to think of this.  Last week, Perry Stein examined once such case  in the Post, “A D.C. resident hopes these yard signs can save his neighborhood from gentrifiers”  I was immediately interested because the article concerns Brightwood, a neighborhood where a friend of mine serves as a priest.  My initial reaction was based solely on my own experience, “Who would oppose improvements in a neighborhood.”  Likewise at dinner recently, friends and I discussed market forces and what a great deal longtime residents are getting as they sell homes to new arrivals in DC.  Then I read the Book of Kings in today’s Office of Readings…

“Naboth… had a vineyard in Jezreel next to the palace of Ahab, king of Samaria.  Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard to be my garden… I will give you a better vineyard in exchange, or, if you prefer, I will give you its value in money.’  ‘The Lord forbid,’ Naboth answered him, ‘ that I should give you my ancestral heritage.’ ”  (cf. I Kings 21)

There are other priorities in people’s lives besides the force of the market, the value of money and the easy availability of yoga studios and organic markets.  As Naboth references, things like family legacy, personal memories, history… who’s to say that all these things aren’t just as important as what new arrivals in DC value?  To be clear, I’m not judging the values on either side… but reading this passage, as well as some of Pope Francis’ recent comments in S. America compels me to at least consider sets of legitimately human values other than my own as I, along with my fellow Washingtonians,  think about how  our city sees itself and changes over time.

Just something to think about through eyes of faith.

Where Two Rivers Meet

You make springs gush forth in the valleys: they flow in between the hills.
They give drink to the beasts of the field; the wild-asses quench their thirst.
On their banks dwell the birds of heaven; from the branches they sing their song. -cf. Psalm 104

Reading Scripture at the Georgetown Waterfront earlier this week, this quote got me thinking, looking at DC’s rivers through eyes of faith.  The psalm describes two very different creatures watering themselves at the same river, the wild-asses and the birds of heaven: the humble workers and (literally) the peacocks of the world.  All beloved by the Father, all drawing life from the same place…. perhaps reminding us that we’re not really all that different after all.

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Washington is by no means a maritime city.  Water is by no means our identifying feature.  That said, our city, like many others around the world, lies at the convergence of two rivers, the Anacostia and Potomac.  The founders established the new capital here for several reasons, principal among them, a compromise between northern and southern states, but there were others.  Georgetown (formerly “[King] George’s Town”) was a center of commerce, the last navigable stop on the Potomac.  Placing the city at the joining of the two waterways also made it theoretically defensible… a theory shortly debunked when the British burned the capital during the War of 1812.  DC’s waterfront location also played a major role in design concepts for the city at the turn of the last century.  Some of these plans called for elaborate canal systems where the National Mall currently sits, giving the city Venetian sense.

alternate canal plan for National Mall
alternate canal plan for National Mall
Proposal for future tidal basin development
Proposal for future tidal basin development

As much as water is a unifying factor in civic life it can also be divisive.  Rock Creek, for example, served as a source of drinking/washing water for 19th century DC’s servant class.  To this day you can see many of Georgetown’s simpler, smaller row houses  (once occupied by service workers) closer t the creek, while city mansions occupy higher ground  to the west away from the creek’s mosquitos.  Perhaps the most stark contrast between waters is the reputation of “Potomac Washington” vs. “Anacostia Washington.”

19th c. Rock Creek, somewhat less elegant than we know it today
19th c. Rock Creek at P St, NW – somewhat less elegant than we know it today

For various reasons over the course of time, the Potomac became Washington’s monumental facade, while the more industrialized Anacostia suffered as, literally, a backwater.  To this day, the two rivers remain iconic of two Washington’s: one increasingly wealthy and cosmopolitain, the other plagued by economic stagnation and chronic inner city challenges.

Much ink has been spilt over the need to provide more opportunities for the two rivers to take on more equal footing.  Most recently we read about multi-million dollar plans to “re-develop” the Anacostia waterfront with walking paths, green bridges, ball parks, a new soccer stadium etc.   The reality though is that “economic re-develoment” usually means economic dispossession for the working poor in favor of the well-to-do.  The wild-asses of Psalm 104, beloved of the Father are exiled from his waterfront.

Most of us aren’t in a position to directly influence massive construction projects, but we might all do well to ask some questions: Do I know my neighbors?  Whatever their economic state may be, how do I look on them: as equals in dignity beloved by God? …or otherwise?  When I talk about the development/changing of neighborhoods, do I seek to help my neighbors? …or simply push their problems further away from me?  Regularly wrestling with such questions might help each of us do our part to realize the Psalmists hope for man (and for DC) so that together, all of us can draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.

Picturing Mary on her Feast Day

Caccia, "St. Luike the Evangelist in the Studio" (ca. 1625)
Caccia, “St. Luike the Evangelist in the Studio” (ca. 1625)

Today, January 1, 2015, Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God… what a perfect day to consider the National Museum of Women in the Arts’  (NMWA) big hit exhibit, “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea”.

I visited the museum for the first time a few days ago, and while my only goal was to take in the Mary exhibit, I was impressed by the museum as a whole.  The facilities are beautiful, the location ideal and (and this is always important) the gift shop was up to snuff.  The NMWA’s raison d’être is to educate people about the role played by women in the arts.  As the founder of the museum, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay acknowledges in her Forward to the gallery book on the exhibit, Mary is of such importance to the western artistic understanding that “Picturing Mary” was conceived at the same time as the museum itself.  How beautiful then to see both come to fruition this holiday season!

Three reflections… First on the exhibit itself, second what I personally gleaned from the exhibit, third a brief response to the one critique I’ve read about the exhibit:

Vast libraries have been created to house people’s reflections on Mary, and the art inspired by her.  There’s just too many good things to say about Mary and this wonderful exhibit dedicated to her.  Briefly then… The quality of the pieces displayed was superb. I found myself beaming throughout… my only sadness being that eventually most of these exquisite works will have to return to their European homes.  I was also happily surprised to find that the explanations for each piece of art were generally accurate in presenting Mary as she has always been loved by the Church.  Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE should take an opportunity to see this exhibit.

For myself, just having celebrated Christmas and preparing for today’s feast, this exhibit really hit home.  I have an intense relationship with Mary. I’ve studied her in the Gospels, prayed with her in our chapels, visited her great shrines… Despite all this I’m always discovering new deep realities about her and consequently about my own relationship with God.  What did I take away from the NMWA exhibit?  Mary loved Jesus.  It might seem obvious… but look to each work and see the Blessed Mother holding a mystery in her hands.  She loved him, contemplated him, protected him… She drew her very being, her reason for life from him, and then something happened.  At a wedding in Cana they ran out of wine.  Mary directed the stewards to her son, the as yet little-known Jesus.  She pushed him out of the nest… she gave him to the world knowing full well that one day “a sword would pierce her heart,”… and so it did.  Two or three years after that wedding miracle, Mary held in her arms the dead body of the son she once nursed at Bethlehem.  “Picturing Mary” taught me in a new and deeper way than before that the only way to show you treasure someone beyond all price is to share that person with the world, for the sake of others, even if it means you will suffer.  Mary embraced such suffering because it allowed Christ to come to the fullness of his glory, and that joy was worth it for her and for us.  As a human being it’ll be good for me to consider what treasures I have that I need to be more generous about… or question whether I really treasure them.  As a Christian and a priest, I know my greatest treasure is my relationship with Christ (just like Mary)… How am I doing at sharing him with the world?  What would I be willing to sacrifice in order to share him that much more effectively?  How can I more effectively “Picture Mary” and so imitate her.  Visiting this exhibit was a great start.

Finally… Philip Kenicott of the Washington Post and Kriston Capps of City Lab are both fine writers and commentators on art, architecture and all things urban.  I often enjoy reading their articles and tweets.  Both have [separately] reviewed “Picturing Mary,” and I concur with much of what they’ve written.  Their one critique raised by Mr. Kenicott is that exhibit doesn’t consider a modern (19th-21st century) secular feminist critique of traditional depictions of Mary.  Perhaps it wasn’t so much a critique as a reasonable question, “Why doesn’t the exhibit address the secular feminist critique?”  It’s a reasonable question, partially answered: the curators simply weren’t concerned with it.  I suppose if someone else wants to mount an exhibit on secular feminist critiques of Mary they’re welcome to do so… “It’s a free country.”  Given the proliferation of ably supported women’s studies programs in schools, universities, think tanks and other institutions, It’s hard for me to question let alone fault the NMWA for leaving that worthy discussion to others at this time.

Separately from these two reviews, questions about Mary and feminism often lead back to a deeper root question, “What’s with Catholicism and women?”  It’s a question that the Church has addressed with exhaustive energy over the last several decades.  St. John Paul II wrote beautifully about the dignity of women in his letter Mulieres Dignitatem (and many other places)The reflections of two of our greatest intellectuals,   Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar are expressed beautifully in “Mary the Church at the Source,” (Ignatius, 1997).  More broadly speaking, the Church’s universal teaching about her equal esteem for men and women can be found in the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” (Chapter 3) assembled by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana in 2005.  Certainly Pope Francis has spoken beautifully on the subject.  All are great reads, easily available, that might help those left with questions after visiting “Picturing Mary.”  My only personal contribution to the conversation would be point out that among human beings there are only two before whom I would happily prostrate myself… one is the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ… the other his his totally human, totally woman, totally awesome mother, Mary.

Peace on Earth and in DC

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I was doing one of my favorite DC things… waiting in line for coffee and a croissant.  As my scarf slipped, a university student noticed my collar.  He asked if I was a priest from Georgetown.  The mistake was understandable, but as a proud graduate of GWU and it’s Newman Center, his words fell hard on my ears.  There’s not much love lost between DC’s two big schools of international affairs.  …but, I digress.  The student and I had a pleasant conversation waiting for our lattes.  He said that he was studying journalism, but had a real passion for the new Social Justice major at GU, and was considering a related graduate degree.

How wonderful this young man’s ambition to help others, to improve our world.  How quintessentially Washington!

“Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.” -President Kennedy

It was also apropos of the season of “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”  A cynic might ask… “Is a better world really possible?”

A partial answer lies proof of the existence of God “from desire.”  (Here, I’m drawing not only from the proof itself, but from Father Robert Barron’s 11/19/14 reflection on it).  In a nutshell: An innate or natural desire indicates the reality of the thing desired.  We get hungry because food exists and we need it.  The argument hinges on our desire being innate, not psychologically contrived.  I cannot have an innate hunger for dinosaur meat since I have no experience of dinosaurs… I can contrive that it might be interesting to taste T-Rex but that’s all it is, a contrivance.  Likewise I can suppose that Zambian food might be interesting, but never having experienced it, I can’t say that I desire it.

All people, especially the most in need among us, desire a better life.  We’ve experienced hints and inklings of it.  From time to time, history has even proven it possible.  St. John Paul II called it “a nostalgia for original beauty.”  The desire and reality of a better life is so real that it drives some to crime, others to cross deserts on foot in search of a better life.  It drives us to work hard to give our kids a better life than we had.  At its height the desire and reality of a better world can drive men to total self-gift (think Abe Lincoln or Gandhi).

Any student majoring in social justice… anyone with a concern for neighbor really, has a long hard fight in front of him.  It’s important to keep an inner place where we can regularly recollect the reality of the good we’re fighting for.  Pop-psychology calls this a “happy place.”  Origen said, “There should be in us a kind of spiritual paradise where God can walk and be our sole ruler with his Christ.”  I call it my inner cathedral.  Insofar as innate desires testify to the reality of the good we seek, we can hold on to those desires and keep them as part of that inner place, where we’re recharged to fight the good fight ahead.  One more way of seeing desire through eyes of faith.

Surprised and touched by La Boheme

The Promenade at the Kennedy Center
The Promenade at the Kennedy Center


Puccini’s La Boheme, had a much greater effect on me than I was expecting.  The storyline was simpler even than the synopsis I read two nights ago… Girl meets boy, they fall in love, girl gets sick, girl dies. The music, the music was much more.  It’s going to take some time to unpack the power of Puccini’s melodies.

The Surprise – La Boheme is principally about people in love, but what really stuck me was their poverty.  Mimi dies of consumption, brought on poor conditions.  In every scene, poverty is an unseen character as the cast cajole their way out of paying rent, trick the aloof Alcindoro into picking up the lunch tab or pawn clothing just to buy food.  In Act I, Scene I, Rodolfo (a poet) burns his poetry just to stay warm.  The duet he sings with his roommate Marcello elevates the moment through their fraternity, but there’s a symmetric tragedy to burning your living just to stay alive.  At the end, Mimi dies shortly after her friends have run to pawn their clothing for medicine.

I spent some time today meditating on the Seventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”  In relation I consulted the social teaching of the Church to see how I might conceivably have preached Mimi’s funeral.  Catholics believe in a concept called the “destination of material goods” (Catechism Para. 2403-04).  All resources are ultimately intended for the flourishing of the human family.  St. John Paul II said,

“Christian tradition has always understood this right [to property] within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” (Laborem exercens, para. 14.1-2)

NOTE: St. John Paul precedes this with a warning that this teaching “diverges radically from Marxist collectivism… and it differs from the program of capitalism.” Neither system can claim the Church as its own.

What the Church’s social teaching is getting at is this: Before we are “labor or management”… before we are “poor or rich” all of us are “people” … People who can love and sacrifice for each other, just as Christ does.  On that basis we should at least work to keep each other alive and healthy… before we worry about increasing each others property.  Such indeed was the case for poor Mimi, who – as one capable of such love – deserved better than to die for lack of medicine.  …Certainly something to think about as the holidays and (more urgently) the cold weather arrive in the capital of the richest nation in the history of history.

Check out “Touring Tips” for thoughts on Dining before Performances at the KC.

Beauty Poverty and the Public Good

Recently, a colleague and I were talking about the planned Eisenhower Memorial in the heart of DC. Among many hotly debated questions about Washington’s newest memorial, my friend pointed out one sure thing: it will be expensive… not by the standards of the whole federal budget, but when you think of how many meals could be bought for the poor, houses that could be built for the homeless, medicines provided to say… Eisenhower’s surviving veterans.

It’s a classic debate: Beauty vs. “Utility” and an important one, one we should have frequently to keep us true.  True to what?  The balance of corporal and spiritual goods.  Caring for our fellow man is a moral imperative, to be sure… but so is the spiritual reality of reminding ourselves where we come from and what kind of world our fathers (including God our Father) wanted for us.  “Walking around” inside our father’s dreams for us guides us.  It also helps our self-understanding to transcend the limited life-span and circumstances we inhabit.

Last night’s PBS News Hour offered up a great example of this in Detroit.  Our neighbors to the north have struck a “grand bargain” to move their city out of bankruptcy.  As part of it, a consortium of non-profits, including the Ford Foundation, are donating money to secure public pensions AND to safeguard the Detroit Institute of the Arts.  Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation expounded beautifully that saving the Art Institute for future citizens of Detroit is not a luxury it’s a NEED for the soul of the city.  I would highlight the stunning premise here: that a community of citizens does indeed have a soul!

Jesus strikes this same balance in his ministry.  On the one hand he gives us an absolute command to serve the bodily good of our brothers and sisters in need.  But in John 12 he also blesses Mary of Bethany for pouring a year’s worth of aromatic ointment over his feet, washing them with her tears and drying them with her hair.  Extravagant?  Certainly… but Jesus blesses this extravagance.  I guess we could say that if the human body needs sober regulated nourishment for it’s health, the human soul needs extravagant love for its best good.  If our monuments, houses of worship and other public spaces serve that good, it’s well worth it.

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For more, consider listening to Fr. Saward’s marvelous talk (10/11/14) to The Catholic Arts Society