On Laughter (Or Why Lent is Really Worth It)


” ‘ A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.”

It’s a strange thing how infectious true laughter and joy can be. I can think of the nuns near my house where I grew up, who always were so happy. Something about their eyes, their faces, radiated a joy that we rarely see nowadays. To the modern world, this is paradoxical. These women have given up their lives to care for mentally handicapped women – why are they so happy? I’m not saying we don’t see people smile; but I do mean true, authentic joy.

What is mirth, or laughter? Where does it stem from? Why does it have such a ripple effect upon others?

Chesterton put it this way:

“Angels are able to fly because they take themselves lightly”. (and a pun! What joy!)

Tongue in cheek aside, we’re able to joyfully fly as we learn to take ourselves less seriously, to see ourselves the way we really are, which is beautiful yet fallen. We’re able to fly as we better understand and discover our relationship with Love.

Some thoughts from Pope Francis’ encyclical Evanglium Gaudi, otherwise known as The Joy of the Gospel:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”.

That’s what this current season of Lent is for – it’s supposed to be a time of preparation, right? It’s a time when we withdraw, we reflect. A priest once put it this way – “Ask yourself this: at the end of this season of Lent, how will I become more like Jesus Christ?” Lent’s not this time to make us feel better about how much mortification we can give, how often we can deny ourselves. If it’s all about that, we’re missing the point that it’s to draw us into a closer and stronger relationship with Jesus Christ. It should remind us why life is so good, should remind us to taste the Cross so that we can live the joy of the Resurrection. No one is excluded from this, no, not even you! You too are called to take yourself lightly. More from Joy of the Gospel:

“How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew.”

Within this season of Lent, we’re given a wonderful chance to jumpstart – it’s every reason to renew those resolutions we made back in January. And guess what! You don’t even have to promise yourself you’re going to do it for a whole year – just until Easter! (And not even on Sundays, if you like!) The joy of life, of living well, comes only if we’ve learned how to fast – only then can we properly feast.  

Learning how to fast in order to feast is something that enables us, as humans, to better enjoy life. We appreciate things more after being in the desert for a while. Being people who are able to retreat and restrain ourselves translates as well into our civic duties; think of the Ancient Romans, who conquered through their civic virtue. Justice, temperance, fortitude – yes, mercy was at times lacking, but we’re overlooking that for now. But the thing is, if we want our world to be better, to become more…well…happy?, it can only start with us. The attractiveness of a joyful soul in love cannot be understated. It’s an ember that catches fire to all that draw near it.

Laughter and learning how to cultivate true joy is something that is greatly needed today by an unhappy polus. But is this really the case – wouldn’t it be just as easy if we were dour and serious? On the contrary! Think of the soul that happily sets themselves to the task at hand – all the posters from the last 20th century depicting patriotic workers have them smiling. This doesn’t mean we can’t be serious; sometimes we need to be serious, and oftentimes we are working with grave things. Our civic lesson for today is that if we want to be joyful souls in an unhappy world that’s forgotten what true laughter and joy is, we need to start by using this time to take ourselves more lightly; and we can only do that if we take time to better learn to shape ourselves through time in the desert. Time to give thought to where we really are – maybe some silence for a weekend would do you good.

But I’m not talking about some weird, clowny humor where we walk around with a constant smile pasted on our faces; life is great, we say, as we struggle through serious difficulties. No! On the contrary – life can be very difficult. Life is hard! But the joy I look for is that of a soul in love; no matter what life throws at this soul, they endure because they have found their beloved. Nothing can take away this joy, for it becomes the light that shines in greatest darkness. It is, in some sense, like the Light of Galadriel given to Frodo to ward away the darkness; it brings a constant, unfailing light in the deepest of night. Cultivating this joy is not easy – but it is possible.

That great Shadow has indeed departed. Christ has conquered – let us remember that as we renew for this week, entering once more into the desert. In doing so, I wish you the following words a close friend shared with me once:

May you seek Christ. May you find Christ. May you fall in love with Christ.

And so joyfully live out the good news.



The Feast of the Presentation: Recognizing Christ in the Ordinary

Here at Passionately Loving the World, we write over and over about encountering the good, the true, and the beautiful in everyday life. We do so because, quite honestly, we think it’s possible for everyone to encounter them in their day to day happenings. My own personal reflections are merely here as food for you, gracious reader. Ok, well then. On to the good stuff!

So with that little tidbit, some thoughts about the Feast of the Presentation. I know, a little late to the party here – but hey! Something true in the past is true now, right? So hush and reflect, cause it’s still true now. Anyway. This feast celebrates Christ being brought to the Temple as a baby, where Simeon and Anna encounter the Child with Mary and Joseph. I’m sure you’ve heard the story many times before, but it bears repeating again. I paraphrase from the Gospel of Luke.

“And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon…and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”

I pause there for a brief reflection on the passage above before moving on. Simeon had been promised something, but it’s not the promise itself I want to think about; it’s rather Simeon’s response to the promise – he didn’t give up. It doesn’t say when or where the promise was made – this could have been made when he was a young man! Think of the years waiting and waiting – it’s like being promised that you’ll meet your heart’s desire before you die, but without a time or place being specified. It’s enough to drive one mad!

But Simeon doesn’t go mad – he waits, patiently. He waits, day after day, trusting that what was promised would be fulfilled. In the same way, we can reflect Simeon’s patience as we move along with God’s plan for our lives. Day after day, we are given a wonderful opportunity to encounter the extraordinary within the ordinary. We are given a chance to be like Simeon, trusting that we will encounter the Christ. But there’s more.

“And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God…”

There wasn’t some massive army of angels going before Mary and Joseph proclaiming the Savior of the world was entering the temple. There wasn’t a massive neon sign pointing out to Simeon “Christ child here! Say hi while you can!” No. But Simeon trusted that what had been promised him would be fulfilled – and that’s the other part of Simeon’s response to the promise. He trusted that it would happen.

The virtue of hope is something we’ve lost to a great extent in our society today. Hope, to quote from the Catechism is: “The confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God…” We don’t, to a great extent, seem to act like we even care that this will happen. I’m not talking about even here; it’s also about what comes after this life. Either we think God is dead and have ceased to care, or we don’t think it’s possible for me to get into Heaven. I know, this is you we’re talking about here – little me! What could God possibly want of me?

But as I’ve written earlier , we’re made for a relationship with Love! Living out the virtue of hope implies, to some extent, the fact that we trust we’re made for just such a relationship. It’s not easy. Go back to Simeon and think of how many days he must have woken up, longing to see Christ. And at the end of the day, going to bed disappointed. But he didn’t give up, fostering that relationship as he waited for the day he might meet his Savior face to face. So we should take example of this, because we’re can encounter Christ in the people we meet, in the jobs we work, in the people we love (and hate). Hoping that God will give us what’s necessary to finally meet Him and be with Him forever, we shouldn’t give up on this pilgrimage of ours.

Our world needs us desperately to not do so. It’s hard – just read anything about our culture or politics, and it’s enough to make us want to step out and leave. But we can’t do that – it’s our time to keep watch, like Simeon, waiting for Christ. As we wait, we can’t sit idly by either; we’ve been given a task to take care of, a small plot of land to farm. Are we preparing it well? This can take all forms, from raising children, working a white collar job, ministering to the sick, to so many other things.

Just like Simeon, we’ve been told the Good News. We know that Christ has already come once, that he’ll come again. This is great – but what about my ordinary stuff? It’s hard to find Christ in the middle of dirty dishes, long commutes, and smelly garbage. But He’s there! Just as He was there with a seemingly ordinary couple coming to the Temple as prescribed by the Law. And Simeon, watching for Him, recognized his Love. Are we living out this same watchfulness, hoping that what the Lord has promised us will be fulfilled?

This week, let’s be like Simeon, watching at the Temple gates for our Lord, looking for Him in the most ordinary of circumstance. And in doing so, I can assure you that you will truly find (and begin to live) the extraordinary.

A Reflection of Love

Many, if not most of us these days, seem to struggle with what we might call a “crisis of identity”. We all wonder where we’re supposed to be, what we’re supposed to do, and most importantly, who we are. I know this happens to many of us in the few years after college.

We’re supposed to find ourselves, discover everything about who we are and why we’re here. Isn’t that why we went to college? But we don’t. Well, most of us don’t – and that’s ok.

It’s hard, trying to discover one’s identity. Because it’s something that stems in part from our relationships with others. College is, for some, a time where we learn better about what it means to have a relationship with someone; or rather, a time where we learn to choose to have a relationship with someone. My brother Patrick recently wrote an awesome article on the subject of fraternity, and the importance of having good male relationships for men that I suggest you check out.

Our relationships help form us, help us discover more about ourselves. How do we react to so and so after a long day? Why does that person rub us the wrong way, and we do we respond? Are we the one pursuing friendships, or do we simply let them come to us?

All of these are reflections on us because each of these involves a personal choice as to how we welcome the other. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “the crew”, signifying a group that always hangs together. Their identity comes, in part, from the relationship they have with each other as a whole.

Who we are, then, is defined in part by these relationships, because each one, no matter how superficial, is real and personal. We get to choose whether or not to enter into them.

This should give cause for thought. Because we are in part defined by our relationships, we should take care to choose wisely. Even as we can choose to have a relationship with Beauty, we can choose not to. Evil is real and personal. It’s something that we can choose, which is scary. Because we can so often be blinded in picking well, we can oftentimes pick quite poorly, even when we intended otherwise! It’s a scary thought that I could be blind enough to not choose well – that should scare you, too.

But our identity as a human person is not rooted in evil. It’s rooted in something far greater and better – Love. Our personhood, our human identity, is intrinsically rooted in an act of complete self-giving, in a pouring out from above, in Love. Sounds too good to be true? But it is! If God is Love, and we’re created in an act of Love, then our reflection and identity of our very human soul reflects that from which we came, Love.

But it’s hard to have a relationship with Goodness, with Love Itself. I mean, it sounds nice and all, but…it’s a little far away.

But it’s not. He’s not.

“For behold, I bring you good news of great joy. For unto you is born, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

And Love came down and took on human flesh. The God who so loves you, yes you, came down and took on human nature. In a way so that we could better get to know Him. Because we are made for a relationship with Love!

It’s hard to imagine having a relationship with some distant Being. But it’s much easier to approach a human being, right?

So often, we crave for a relationship that fulfills, a relationship that satisfies. But we come short. Because our infinite longing can only by satisfied by an Infinite Love. So as you go into this new year, take a moment to remember this time, this holiday or “holy day” of Christmas, which is a special gift for us. Important because it’s our celebration of why we’re here.

That we’re not forgotten. That we are beloved. Wanted. Terribly. Wanted so very, very much that our Creator, our Father, would send His Son to come down. And He would come down with the full knowledge of what would happen with His Passion. And yet He would still choose to be born.

The mystery of a Child who is God!

We here at Passionately Loving the World hope that you see this mystery, that you encounter it.

Remember this, as you go into this new year. Remember the Babe laying in the manger as we surge forward, full of hope and enthusiasm. Yes! You may be scared at why you’re here, scared because you don’t have answers. But it’s ok – just remember that you are made for so much more.

The question is, what are you going to do about it?

Shamelessly, we hope it’s to go and passionately love the world.

Hate Free Zones: A Modern Utopia

It’s getting harder and harder to start these posts…I was blank-ing something, and so forth seems to be the general trend. Insert philosophical thought about everything being a moment of the past, or how the present is a gift. Ha ha. Haters gonna hate.

Speaking of haters, we seem to have this obsession lately with creating these “hate free” zones. I’m sure you’ve seen the signs outside houses that proclaim the house is a “hate free” zone. Maybe your house has one. It seems to be a trend today that whenever we find an opinion we disagree with, we simply label it “hate speech” and call it a day. A classic example of this is our campus culture at most big universities, which seeks to protect the feelings of any and every student from a dissenting opinion that might hurt their feelings. Doubtless it’s important to help people grow, but it seems to be at the expense of any real thought happening at all.

The irony of all this is that our politics don’t reflect this at all; tweets about how someone is a “insert derogatory comment here”, or a that reigns supreme. Our gut reaction to all this is to go the opposite extreme and pull away from discourse altogether. The thing is…you’re doing the same exact thing as the name-callers. Those who name call cease to rise to the occasion of a well-made argument, of actually thinking through why a certain point is either right or wrong; this line of thinking out a well-made argument has a name, and it’s thousands of years old. It’s called logic (Rhetoric, technically, but let’s not quibble over details). In any case, by withdrawing entirely from discourse because of hurt feelings, we are failing to enter into a reasonable debate with our fellow man.

So instead of attempting to engage someone in discourse, our reaction instead is that we can create a place where no one disagrees, a hate-free zone where everything is perfect. Sound too good to be true? It’s because it is – unfortunately, Utopia isn’t a place of this world.

Man has been chasing after utopias since the world began. The roots of this modern American utopia can be traced back to Woodrow Wilson. Wilson and his fellow progressives thought that the end times were near, that only a few dissenters needed to be won over so that the perfect end times could be brought to the present. History existed as some tangible thing that man could manipulate. Take the following passage from Wilson:

“We are going to climb the slow road until it reaches some upland where the air is fresher, where the whole talk of mere politicians is stilled, where men can look in each others faces and see that there is nothing to conceal, that all they have to talk about they are willing to talk about in the open and talk about with each other.”

It’s almost the kind of message you’d hear from a preacher telling people about Heaven; except in this case, it’s coming from one of the most powerful men in the world. Not good when that person thinks they should run the country from the Oval Office.

This “perfect state” for man could only exist if those in power were willing to overlook the individual for the sake of a higher destiny. What matter was not the human, but humanity. All of mankind was yearning for this perfect state, and only a few stupid people stood in the way. Sounds awfully similar to a certain someone by the name of Marx.

In both Wilson and Marx’s vision, the individual became sacrificed for the sake of the “common good”. Wilson wrote often about the need for centralized thought to control the great mechanism of the country’s social and economic fabric. The times had changed and so government needed to change to become stronger to control things. Often referring to this centralized control as the queen bee of a hive, Wilson thought that a perfect state could only exist if one strong person in authority existed to tell everyone else what to do. If that doesn’t scare you, well…we need to talk. This hive mind doesn’t want you to pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful. No, it wants you to simply do as it wishes, as it decrees. You become, well, a husk. And that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun at all. If you’ve ever read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, you know exactly what I’m talking about. In her book, L’Engle tells the story of a world that has been taken over by a evil being known simply as “The Brain”. All those on the planet fall into a deadly routine dictated by the Brain as it sits at the center of a web of despair.

So how does this relate back to hate free zones? I know, cheesy filler line to get us back to where we started. Feel free to send me a better transition line. But in all seriousness, when we simply surrender our ability to freely discourse with others because we’re in a “hate-free zone”, we’ve effectively given up our rights as an individual to pursue Truth. I do say right because we’re each rational beings endowed with the ability to pursue Truth. If we fail to engage people (charitably, mind you) with others, then we are succumbing to a Brave New World, to the Brain. It’s a scary thought – I like to be able to think for myself, and I sure don’t need some inanimate ruler doing it for me.

This is not to say that we should have a free-for-all. On the contrary. We need rational discourse; and rational discourse involves humility and listening to the other person. They actually might be right on something. Oftentimes people ask if you are of one party or another; we’re not really in an age of voting along party lines anymore because we should be able to think for ourselves. Sure, sometimes it’s necessary. But other times, you need to think. THINK. PLEASE. No, the upper case was not an accident.

If you don’t want to be under the thumb of the Brain, if you want to pursue your God who loves you so  much to die for you, then you better do something about it. Do better! Think better! I’m not asking you to be Einstein – just use your brain to the best of your ability. That doesn’t mean you need to be an intellectual: you might be better with people, or better at listening. Whatever your gift is, use it. We hear constantly about the steward who didn’t use his gifts well, and he had all that was left taken away – don’t be him!

This essay has come a long way from hate free zones. Why? Because if we’re patient, listen well, and see the other person as a child of God, then we don’t need some authority creating these zones. Every time that you and I fail to fulfill our responsibility to properly engage as an informed citizen, we cede a little bit to the administrative state. I don’t mean that we’re going to have an epiphany every time we enter into discourse with someone. Of course not; you may disagree vehemently with people you’re close to about things you hold very dear. But what does matter is that you take the high road by trying to see them as a child of God; it will be hard, but it will be worth it. What I mean is exercising prudence in your discourse with others; some hills are worth dying on, others are not. Choose yours wisely.

You’ve been given many talents. You know what those are; they can’t flourish if you let them sit in a “hate-free” zone being nice to others. You weren’t made to be nice. Nice is so…meh. You were made for so much more. You were made to be like a hot ember, turning all you touch into flame. Yes! You are made for greatness, as cheesy as that sounds. Your greatness may be different from others; it may never be seen by the rest of the world.

But do you know what? It could make all the difference in the life of one person. Just one.

And in the end, would it not be worth it?

Because if He were to come down and go through His Passion knowing that one soul would come to Him, you can bet everything you have that He’d do it.

You and I should go out and do the same.

The Time and Crises of Today

 “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

We’ve all been there – talking with friends, colleagues, family, and the subject turns to how good people had it before us. We wish we had this president again, or that time of goodwill. If only they hadn’t enacted this policy, or followed that one through! This sense of nostalgia at times seems like it wants to engulf us – we’re creatures of the present eternally rooted in the past. Yes, we undoubtedly have ties to the past – we are creatures of time and space, after all. But there’s something important and worthwhile about being grounded in the present moment.

In his book The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin talks about our nation being stuck in an “age of nostalgia”. Levin writes:

“Our political life is now exceedingly nostalgic. The ambitions of most of its various partisans begin with calls for a reversal of some portion of the great diffusion of our national life that has defined the American experience for more than half a century. This nostalgia is at the core of the frustration that so overwhelms our politics now. If we could see our way past it, we might gain a much better grasp of the nature of the problems we face and the shape of potential solutions.”

Levin goes on to reflect that most of us are stuck in either a hope to return to the 1960s or 1980s, depending on our political persuasion. But both, he thinks, are not thoughts focused on the present. We’re in a completely new age and social paradigm (what a great word), and what we’ve done before doesn’t set precedent now; simply sending a letter to someone via snail mail would be considered a rude replacement for a phone or Skype call.

This doesn’t mean we ignore the past in some Hegelian blindness that sees only the present age as the “end times”. No! We have roots in the past, and learn from it – but it’s about taking those experiences and learning how to apply them to the present moment. In arguing for the new Constitution, the Federalists used examples from history to illustrate how they had (hopefully) learned from the past, reflecting on the failures of Sparta and other ancient Greek city-states to show how their new Republic would be different. It’s ok to miss the past and hope for the good that was – it’s often because of something good that we yearn for a past time. Levin writes “Nostalgia, after all, is by no means bad. And the analysts, scholars, journalists, and politicians who bemoan how things have changed in this half-century are pointing at some important truths about both the past and the present. We must be careful not to dismiss what they see, but also not to ignore what they miss…to learn from nostalgia, we must let it guide us not merely toward ‘the way we were’, but toward just what was good about what we miss, and why.” We don’t want to cut ourselves off from our forefathers because they had some truths about ourselves that we could learn. But it’s up to us to actually digest these things and then see how we can apply them to our present time. Why? Because our present time needs us very, very badly.

Josemaria Escriva once remarked that “These world crises are crises of saints. God wants a handful of men ‘of his own’ in every human activity. And then…’pax Christi in regno Christi – the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ’.” Two idea pulled from this saying of his: One, these crises are ones that require a saint to face; or two, these crises occur as a result of a lack of saints. Either way you look at it, think about this: what would have happened to the Cold War if John Paul II had not helped topple the USSR? Or if Rudolph Hoess (commandant of Auschwitz) had decided to do better with himself? If we are indeed creatures of time and space, why aren’t we doing something to change the time and space we live in?

So my practical note to close. Why should I care? Who cares if I’m holy, if I’m pursuing the true, the good, and the beautiful? Who cares if I pursue a relationship with Love or not? The famous economist Milton Friedman had a theory about an idea known as “the neighborhood effect”. This effect boiled down to the idea that when someone did something good, other people would indirectly benefit. Say for example you decide to invest in repairing your local soccer field so your kids have a place to shoot goals. You’re not doing this at face value for your neighborhood, but as a result of your hard work, the rest of the neighborhood can now enjoy playing soccer. The same goes for us if we pursue holiness in the times given us.

Don’t look for the next crisis. The next crisis is now, here, today, now. It starts with you, in smiling at that person who’s being a particular kind of something this morning. It starts with you being patient with that coworker who’s maybe taking longer to understand a concept that comes easily to you. It starts with you. Frodo was welcomed as great by those around him – yet he didn’t slay any mighty beast. He didn’t even throw the Ring into Mount Doom at the end. But he did persevere in his small steps, day after day. He persevered so that while he was unable to cast the One Ring into Mount Doom, someone else was (albeit on accident). Abraham Lincoln wasn’t born in the White House – he was born in a little log cabin in the middle of nowhere. He worked his tail off quietly, silently for many years, preparing. So don’t be let down if you’re not at the center yet. You will be one day – it may not be where or when you were expecting, but it will happen. The question is, will you have used the time given you well so as to be ready for the time then? What will you decide to do with the time given you?

When You Come to Narnia, Your Worries Come Too

It’d be a little cliche to say I was reading something lately…that seems to be the going trend for how I write most of these articles. But I was reading something recently, and I am going to start that way. So ha.

I was recently reading an article  in The Atlantic on why we should read fiction by a fellow of the name of Lev Grossman here. Apparently he’s written some sort of “older” Harry Potter (Whatever that means). I’ve never heard of him before, nor have I read his works , so I post a caveat that this post is not a proclamation of his works. Merely of an article I read by him. So if I’ve accidentally introduced some modern Nietzsche, my apologies. There is more than the void.

So with that out of the way, I was reading this article about why we should read fiction by Lev Grossman. For Grossman, fantasy is something that helps us better learn how to deal with the world we live in. He writes:

I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they’re exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.

When you come to Narnia, your worries come too. There’s something about the world of fantasy that helps us see better what it is we fear, what we’re most afraid of confronting. Perhaps it’s the dragon under the Lonely Mountain. Or maybe it’s the Brain, sitting at the middle of its web of despair.

What reading good fiction shows is how human we really are; it flips things upside down so that we can gain a better perspective on things by putting us in someone else’s shoes. Even something like Jacques’ Redwall, mentioned in my earlier blog here, shows us how much we need good companionship and community through something like food.

I had a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago who was rethinking his school’s history curriculum. His grievance with the current history textbooks was that they simply transposed a series of dates onto a timeline. The problem when we do that, he said, is that we lose sight of why we actually study history. We study history (or used to) in order to learn something about the human person; that’s what history is, after all – a series of events involving the human person, right? People used to read Plutarch’s Lives not just because they were learning about a series of dates, but because they were learning about the human person. When we simply hear about the dates of the Peloponnesian War, we lose sight of what really happened. We lose sight of Pericles and his love for Athens, the city of beauty. Instead, when we learn history through reading the lives of those who came before us, we learn not just dates, but something more. We learn how about the human person as that human person reflects us and those around us. So too with fantasy.

By taking things and putting them inside out, we’re better able to get a sense of where the land lies. By exacerbating things, as Grossman put it, we’re forced to come to grips with things sooner. Edmund undoubtedly would have let things fester for much longer if he hadn’t been put on the line by the White Witch. Yes, sometimes fiction can help us to escape, for a little while, the cares of this world; and sometimes not. Sometimes it is to help us see clearly, to help us turn things inside out so we can get a better look. It’s meant to help us learn more about..us. About you  and me. Good literature, then, is one that helps us be better, to be more human. C.S. Lewis’ closing book in his Space Trilogy, entitled, That Hideous Strength, is a wonderful example of this. Within the pages of this book, Lewis paints the human person with all their struggles. One particular character, the scientist Mark, is caught in the middle of the battle between good vs. evil, but in this case, it’s a much more real, more “grey” evil. The evil of Lewis’ Hideous Strength is one that paints itself as “that group” that we all want to be part of; it’s the “inner circle” that we’re all afraid of being left out of. Marc so desperately feels left out, so alone, that he gives up his very soul to be “in”. And do you know what? We’ve done the very same, so many times. Like Mark, we come this close to forsaking what is most dear to us – to find out more what I mean, you’ll have the read the book. Cheers.

Reading then, is not just a path to some escapist reality. Rather, it helps us to see the world better, to get a better angle on things through characters with whom we’ve learned to laugh, cry, and love. Reading helps us see that the wicked prince we hate so much was once good. Really, he was; he just made a few bad decisions, surrounded himself with the wrong people. We see the dragon and realize that sometimes it’s okay to run away when we don’t have Gandalf to protect us. And we see the Pearl of Great Price, so valuable that a merchant would sell all he had to possess it.

So why read fiction? Why walk into the land of Narnia at all? Sometimes, a story can help us see what it is we really value most. It can help us turn our darkest corners inside out, so the light can help us better clean out those dusty corners. And sometimes, it can help us see that good really does win in the end, that we really are made for more.

So maybe reading fiction isn’t your thing. Fine. Good. Go read some history. Go read Plutarch’s Lives. But do think about what you read, and ask yourself this: am I more like Lucy, or am I more like Edmund? Am I like Alcibiades, or am I like Coriolanus? Where are my worries, and how am letting Aslan conquer my White Witch?

Take my hand, then, and take a step with me through the wardrobe. I guarantee you will not be the same.

Who knows? Even brats come back as mighty kings and queens. And sometimes the most unbelievable things really are true – like a lowly village girl becoming the Mother of God.

It’s a dangerous world out there. But it’s a beautiful one.

On Eating Well (And Why God Enjoys Deep Dish Pizza)

I’m going to start this article by declaring I am not against fast food. In fact, it’s sometimes quite nice – who doesn’t like grabbing french fries from the golden arch at 10pm?

As humans, we’re a little obsessed with food. Just a little – we even have a holiday dedicated to it in America, called Thanksgiving. (I mean, let’s be real. We’re all about overstuffing ourselves and passing out on the couch after, as much as we’d admit otherwise. I will publicly admit to the sin of gluttony as well. This is not a civic virtue, for the record.) But there’s also something about eating that humans have peculiar to themselves – I mean transforming eating into a social event, into something particularly more than just the need of a creature. I refer back to Thanksgiving – we all look forward to the (hopefully) good conversation, time spent with friends and family, and general good will had by all. Food, something rather basic, becomes an opportunity to rise above the animal nature to something higher. The imagery of a feast is something included in many religions, whether it be the halls of Valhalla for the Norsemen, to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in Heaven for Christianity. The art of eating becomes, in some ways, a path to the Divine.

Now I don’t want to over spiritualize eating. After all, a hamburger is just a hamburger. Or is it? Does the way we eat trickle into our culture? Our modern American dream, founded on efficiency and one-night stands, is all about how little commitment we need to put into something. We’ve all done this – selected the “maybe” response on a Facebook event; it’s so much easier to say we might make it than to make a hard decision either way. Charlie Brown is, in some cases, the perfect reflection of this; he doesn’t really know which way he’ll decide on something, and waffles back and forth forever. It’s so much nicer that way, actually. No obligations, no prior commitments – it’s a millennial dream come true!

But in the midst of all this, something very human is being lost and forgotten – the art of eating well. Yes, I did say art; eating well requires practice, and a certain level of decorum. Just as the ancient priests of any religion needed to be brought in slowly to the inner sanctuary, so we as humans need to be taught the art of eating well. If you’ve seen Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,  you know exactly what I mean. The Beast, through years of neglect, has forgotten what it is to eat well. Belle has to re-teach him what it means, and he begins to remember what it meant to, well, be just a little bit more human. While scarfing down a burger may satisfy our stomach, it’s not a particularly transcendental experience. But think instead about sitting down to a meal with family or friends. Seems a little more…human, right?

As a kid, one of my favorite series to read was Brian Jacques’ Redwall series. If you find yourself smiling at the mention of that series, good. You’ve done something well. (And if you haven’t read them, it’s never too late.) In Jacques’ fictional accounts of mice, squirrels, and otters fighting against wicked weasels and savage stoats (alliteration, anyone?), we find numerous feasts being laid out in great detail. You never ate (excuse me, read) the books on an empty stomach – Jacques’ detailed feasts would set your mouth watering and your stomach rumbling. Yes, all would eat their fill. But they’d share favorite platters with each other, and share in something wonderful. Now imagine if we had the same thing – we do at weddings, at least. The greatest celebration for humans is to have a feast, where simply nourishing our bodies becomes something more.

So why don’t we have more of these? Is it simply because we’ve run out of time – the 21st century was supposed to give us all the devices that would enable us to have more time, not less. Perhaps it’s because we never learned. Or we’re simply not interested. But I dare you to try it sometime – find a recipe (previously tried, of course – no one wants to see if eggplant and pineapple lamb will be a hit), and invite a few friends over. Don’t be rushing on to something else after – take your time. Start the night off with some appetizers; cheese and crackers are easy and a simple start. Have a tablecloth and real plates, not paper (as wonderful as they are). Think. Listen to your friends and get to know them better – what are they interested in? Bring the conversation a level deeper than just niceties; you’re friends with these people, so hopefully you respect them enough to respect the fact that they know how to think. Use your brain – after all, you are human, and more than just a creature. You’ve got within you the Divine Spark. Realize it, as you feast with friends. Eat well, enjoying what is before you rather than acting as if you’re in a food eating contest. Take your time, and slow down a little. And in so doing, may you become a little more human.


Work and “Pushing the Bucket”

I’ve been reading Arthur Brooks’ recent book The Conservative Heart. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you pick up a copy for yourself. Brooks looks to create a sequel to Russel Kirk’s momentous volume The Conservative Mind, which followed conservative thought throughout the ages (Kirk somehow misses Madison and Jefferson in it, two of the greatest conservative minds for America, but that’s a different story for a different day).

In The Conservative Heart, Brooks attempts to make the argument that conservatives have forgotten to fully communicate why we hold work to be so important, and why economic issues are, at heart, moral issues. A brief snapshot from the book follows:

“We (conservatives) admire hard work, admonish people who slack off, and support policies such as work requirements for welfare. We understand that when society empowers people to work for social assistance, we help those people twice. First, through welfare, we are helping their immediate material needs. And second, through work, we are helping them earn success – the key to a fulfilling and dignified life.”

Sometimes we fail to properly argue these thoughts and instead, as Brooks points out, turn them merely into materialistic arguments. I don’t want to raise the minimum wage so I can line the pockets of billionaires, but because I want to help those people on the bottom rung of society that would be hurt by increasing the minimum wage.

Why haven’t we talked this way before? Is it something that we, as conservatives (sorry libertarians, but you’re getting thrown into the mix as well) are missing? So often we argue against something, rather than for something. Changing our arguments makes all the difference. With that in mind, I’d like to refocus on the meaning of work.

We all joke about winning a million dollars and never working again. But would we really? There’s something fused into the human person that craves work, something to do. We all look for meaning in life. Ultimately, that’s found in our Father God who, in the words of John the Evangelist, “So loved the world that He gave His Only-Begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Different story for a different time. But at the beginning we read in Genesis how Adam was put into the garden to care for it. Oftentimes we have this rather idyllic view of Eden, with Adam walking around as fruit literally falls into his hand; Adam didn’t have to expand any effort to make this happen.

This sort of narrative is, I think, wrong. It paints work as something to be shunned, something that became part of The Fall. Those today who are lucky to be rich enough to avoid work somehow have been able to conquer the Fall itself. I’d propose instead that it’s only the toil associated with work that became part of the curse of Original Sin. Work itself was good, in fact, was part of man’s original vocation. Adam was placed in the garden to care for it; the second Creation narrative in Genesis tells how the ground had no herbs coming forth as there was no man to till it. Creation is only complete with the work of man to care for it.

In light of this new narrative, work takes on new meaning. It’s something to be pursued, to be done well. Just as the Ancient Greeks saw doing things excellently as to be commended, so we too should once again turn to pursue work well. What does this look like for us daily? A cheerful smile, putting in 110% to something we may find dull or mundane, in short, doing our best. This is not an ode to workaholics; on the contrary, it is simply to working well. It’s an ode to stewarding well the gifts given us.

If we find fulfillment in work, why would we not want others to share in this same fulfillment? If you have good news, you want to share it, right? So in this new understanding of work; those who perhaps are unable to find work, how can we help them better their position? Unfortunately, in today’s age of all things college, the focus has shifted to mostly white-collar work; somehow any working with one’s hands has fallen below us. But there’s something quite fulfilling and human in working with one’s hands all day, whether that is anything from construction to plumbing. All have potential for discovering more one’s own inherent dignity. There are different types of work for all according to their talents and abilities; their work does not make them more or less human than you or I. If the office janitor didn’t do their job well, we’d be walking around in piles of trash. Thank them for the hard work they do; look them in the eye and see them as another human being.

Brooks tells the story of an organization in New York City known as the John Doe Fund. The John Doe Fund’s goal is to help the incarcerated get back on their feet and off the streets. It all starts with “pushing the bucket”, or cleaning the streets of New York City. These men start to realize something as they work; they feel wanted, needed. They give directions to people, keep the streets clean, help remove snow in the winter months. But they begin to hold their heads higher; in seeing that they can do something simple well, they begin to realize their human dignity. Eventually, they learn a skill that will help them place a skilled job in the workforce. In giving them a chance at working, they begin to realize their own inherent worth.

So the moral of this story is simply work hard, and the rest will come, right? Wrong. There’s undoubtedly something wrong with the way we currently help the homeless as a country. Perhaps more John Does need to spring up around the country. But I think it’s something more. It’s our very attitude towards work – how often have you and I complained about having to get up for work on a Monday? Work is a wonderful gift – can we learn to appreciate it, and so open a dialogue with others on how we can thus help others learn to appreciate this same gift?

The moral that’d I’d like to draw, then, is this: as conservatives who promise a lower tax rate, greater economic prosperity, better governmental spending, are we truly communicating that we care about these because we fundamentally, at the core, care about the human person? Do we communicate that we care not really about how much money a person makes, but more about his finding meaning in work, because it reflects his original vocation here on earth? Do we look someone in the eye and see a human person, rather than a number that’s “eating tax dollars”? If so, then we are no better than the person across the aisle from us. No, we are no better than a certain Ebenezer Scrooge, who was so caught up with money that he lost what was most precious to him, his very soul. Only through the intervention of three spirits did he eventually come around; may we never have to come to such a point.

Let us not be Scrooges. Let us be John Does, realizing that not only do we have worth, but that the lady taking our coffee order does too. By your example, show others that there is something distinctly, beautifully, human in work. Take the following words from Martin Luther King to heart:

“And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.”

You profess to have heard the Good News? Go and act like it. Go be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.

Witness to Truth

We exist in strange times; as someone once put it, “something is afoot”. The similar remark was made that Christianity is now entering into a new age, an Apostolic age. This comes as no surprise to many of us; the general culture is undoubtedly no longer as Christian as it once was. Instead of former Christendom, we’re now moving back into the Apostolic age, closer to the early first centuries of the Church.

If this is so, what does this mean for us politically? Since politics reflect to an extent how we are culturally, is it possible we need to readdress the existing political paradigm? In previous ages, much could be argued from a theological standpoint; now, with Christianity ever on the attack, this no longer seems to be the case. If we are indeed moving back into the Apostolic Age, it might be wise to briefly reflect on what attributes were found in the early Church, and then see if those apply to our modern “political problem”.

First of all, the Church won cultural victories through two ways: personal example and baptizing the local culture. Personal example could be the early Christians going to their deaths in the Coliseum singing, or bringing joy into a culture that had largely forgotten what true joy was. Baptizing the local culture meant finding what was good in the local traditions and claiming it for Christ. Taking the pagan celebration of Saturnalia and instead replacing it with Christmas was one way the early Church would do this.

Secondly, arguments could be made about the good simply because, well, it was good. Society benefitted if a man and woman stayed in a faithful relationship, i.e., marriage; local communities would benefit from this union as the man and woman would look to invest in each other, and the local communities around them as they become more stable and began to put down roots. Similarly, a society that valued its children generally fared better than one that did not; children were formed better, thus became better adults, and would grow up to be well-formed and invested citizens. In turn, they would then pass on the gifts they had been given as children to the next generation. All this meant that society flourished, and with it, the human person. People saw that there were some things inherently good for man That is to say, these things were to be pursued by man simply because they were good for him as a human being. Because of that, things could be argued for simply by reason; we look t Aristotle, who reached that virtue was inherently good for man despite having no revelation.

So what does this have to do with Christianity, in particular the Catholic Church?

The Catholic Church brings something distinct to society that no one else has ever, or will ever, do. In this case, proclaiming human rights, individual dignity, freedom, and a call to something higher. All these will disappear if the Church is forced from the public square. The Church stands for every human being because she sees each individual person as precious. The bigger she keeps the public square open for herself, the larger it becomes for others; and the reverse stands as well. If the Church is forced from the public square, then one of the last checks on government has been removed. Men then only have the incentive of Hobbes’ Leviathan to force its citizens into quiet servitude.

Living out our personal witness is crucial for the times ahead; people are not going to be won over if we’re always moaning and dour about life. Honey attracts more flies than vinegar (not to draw a perfect analogy, but still). But even as we live out our own lives well, we need to take what is good from around us and baptize it. America’s culture still has remnants of good left in it; it’s up for us to extract what we can from the culture around us just like the early Church (if you think I’m giving up on my annual summer Marvel movie, you’ve got another thing coming).

A recent story was circulating around Facebook about a priest that had recently passed away. Fr. Arne Panula, a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei, had worked for years at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., pursuing his vocation amid professional life to bring others to Christ. George Weigel penned the following comments about him in National Review here

Father Arne became, for many, the embodiment of what Saint John Paul II called the “New Evangelization” in the nation’s capital. He could do that because, like the witnesses the Church will read about during Easter Week, he had met the Risen Lord. And that made all the difference.

An encounter with Truth can only happen if we ourselves encounter Truth, Christ Himself. Yet, even if we ourselves experience this, we cannot then shy away from it, from proclaiming that same Truth to others. Charles Chaput, then Archbishop of Denver, reflected on Pauls’ example in using the language of the times to bring the Gospel to the culture in an article for First Things here. Written shortly after Obama’s first election in 2008, he speaks tellingly to our current situation:

There is a second practical lesson we can learn from Paul, for he refused to fear. If “Be Not Afraid” became John Paul II’s motto, it is because fear is the disease of our age. And Catholics are by no means immune to it. Paul wasn’t afraid to bring to the Areopagus the new and profoundly radical idea that God and truth could be known through a person—Jesus Christ—and ultimately in no other way. Finding this one way to truth matters eternally for each of us. Elegant, academic discussions may appeal to us as an intellectual exercise. But the only thing that finally matters is truth.

I would posit that John Paul II was one of the most admired and influential men of the 20th century. Yet, here was a man who was unafraid to proclaim the Truth. In doing so, he helped to topple one of the great evils of the 20th century – Communist Russia. Proclaiming the Truth boldly, with both joy and personal witness, can do much in today’s world.

I return to my thoughts at the beginning of this essay, and close with a thought about politics. Humans are by nature political animals, according to Aristotle. We are endowed with reason, and use it in entering into political life. As the Church moves back into the Apostolic Age, those of us in the beloved US of A should not despair. Personal example goes a long way, and true, authentic joy is something our world craves. We have a vast array of knowledge at our fingertips to help us better know and understand Truth. Our Catholic Faith is something built on both faith and reason; as we enter into public discourse, let’s make sure to use both. We can argue things from reason, and thus need to be well-formed intellectually if we are to be ready to engage in debate when necessary; prudence would dictate when and how. More importantly, however, are we ourselves living out what we preach in our daily lives? If not, we fall short of being a witness to Truth. And that makes all the difference.

Many Partings and Stewards of Gondor

In some ways, the ending of the Tolkien’s fellowship parallels our leaving college; we’ve all gone to Mordor and back again together, and now the time approaches for each of our own fellowships to end. That’s not to say we still won’t foster and cherish those friendships; on the contrary! But it would be naive not to admit that an age has ended; perhaps our own Third Age. First Age being childhood, the Second Age being adolescence, and the Third Age our coming of age in college. Now the Fourth Age, adulthood, approaches. Will you and I be up to the task at hand?

It’s told that the stewards of Gondor received their power from the king, who gave them strict instructions to take care of the kingdom until his return. Sadly, the last king died with no heir, leaving the stewards to tend Gondor for centuries. Eventually, the Third Age and the War of the Ring came, culminating in the overthrow of Sauron and the restoration of the kingdom of Gondor under Aragon, son of Arathon, and rightful heir to the throne of Gondor.

You can see where the analogy is going; we’ve been given care of the kingdom by the King until His return. Each of us have unique gifts that we’ve hopefully been honing and preparing over the past years. But I’m not ready, is my response. Insert yourself into Frodo’s place in the following exchange:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us. And already, Frodo, our time is beginning to look black. The Enemy is fast becoming very strong.’

We fear not being ready, not being up to the task. Our time in college was so short! If only we had another year or two – then we’d be ready! But our time is now. At the end of the Return of the King, the hobbits beg Gandalf to accompany them to help cleanse the Shire. But Gandalf refuses, telling them that they are more than ready. Now is the time to prove their mettle, to put to the test all that they’ve learned.

To all my fellow Ravens, or fellow graduates wherever your alma mater may be – do not be afraid! The time is ours to take; the chance, if you choose to join the Fellowship, is now. A new Fellowship is forming, to defeat the Sauron of our times. This Sauron is ours to battle with and defeat. A new Mordor looms on the horizon, threatening to take over our dear land. But this war is not to be won in some great battle far off; no, it’s to be won in the small daily victories. In the small Shires we create by welcoming others cheerfully, in making the lives of others easier through our joy, sacrifice, and witness to Truth.

It’s time for our own Scouring of the Shire. The ruffians are among the Gaffer’s cabbage patches, and Sharkey looms, bringing with him the shadow of Mordor. Yes, the King has already won; but there is still much work to be done. I stay purposefully vague because I don’t wish to give particular directions; they are not mine to give. Rather, they are for you to figure out by looking around you; what needs fixing, what ruffian needs running out? You’ve received the training – now put it to use! The King will return one day; but in the meantime, let’s make sure there’s something worth returning to. The stewards kept the kingdom of Gondor faithfully; can you do the same?