Archive by Author

The Blessing of Marital Monotony

13 Nov

“The book of love is long and boring.”
~ Stephin Merritt

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Death Prep (Part 2): What We Must Do, What We Ought to Do

6 Nov

“I will then prepare myself for that hour,
and I will take all possible care to end this journey happily.”
~ St. Frances de Sales

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Death Prep (Part 1): What It Is, What We Can’t Do

1 Nov

“Death can be very beautiful…if we make it so.”
~ Ven. Solanus Casey

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The Giddy Appeal of Humanae Vitae

27 Oct

You don’t need a pope or an ecumenical council to tell you
what the Bible clearly teaches.

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Of Pericopes, Susanna, and the Long Form of Our Lives

23 Oct

“We can’t hope to know others as we should like to, but we should make it our business to know them as well as we can.”
~ Dom Hubert van Zeller

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Blessed Maria Theresia Bonzel (1830-1905)

19 Oct

Toward the back of the Franciscan Sisters’ hilltop property in Mishawaka, Indiana, there’s a life-size bronze statue of their foundress situated near blooming flowers. “Mother always wanted the sisters to have a garden,” says Sr. Rose Agnes of Blessed Maria Theresia Bonzel, “and she herself regularly prayed the Rosary in a garden.”

Accordingly, the sculpture features a Rosary spread out in Mother’s lap, but there’s another, more memorable feature: The Blessed’s gentle grin. It might seem insignificant, but it’s a telling artistic detail. “As we pray, so we live,” Bonzel used to say, “and as our life, so our prayer.” The joy evinced in that bronze grin not only marked Bl. Maria Theresia’s life and prayer, but her astounding legacy as well.

Born in Olpe, Germany, in 1830, Aline Bonzel had a comfortable upbringing rooted in her parish and eucharistic devotion. Sent to study in Cologne with the Ursulines, Aline found the sisters’ life appealing, and her own religious calling took shape.

Although illness and her mother’s initial resistance delayed that aspiration, Aline persevered by taking incremental steps, including membership in the Franciscan Third Order (where she adopted the name Maria Theresia) and a private vow of chastity.

Once her health improved and her mother consented, Maria Theresia joined with likeminded friends to care for Olpe’s orphans. Such were the humble origins of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration which was founded in 1863 with Maria Theresia as their first superior.

Bonzel’s foresight ensured that the numerous young women attracted to her ebullient congregation received sound formation, but also a proper education. “Let us joyfully spend…our strength in the service of God,” she wrote, and the sisters indeed had a far-reaching impact through their teaching and healthcare apostolates. Nonetheless, their first commitment was always to constant eucharistic prayer.

The 1870s ushered in an official effort to undermine Catholic influence in Germany, yet under Mother’s bold leadership, the community emerged from the persecution intact. What’s more, the coterie of sisters she sent to Indiana during this period flourished beyond all expectations. When Blessed Maria Theresia died in 1905, she left behind some 1,500 heirs throughout Germany and North America.

Today, this joy-filled community continues to attract young postulants around the world, and many of them happily attended the beatification of their spiritual mother in Germany in 2013.
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A version of this story originally appeared in Franciscan Magazine, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Of Memory, Metanoia, and Manslaughter

15 Oct

Oh, of thine only worthy blood
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sins’ black memory.
~
John Donne

An essay by historian Andrew Bacevich scrolled up in my Facebook feed, and I saw that it had been posted by my friend Shawn Storer of Catholic Peace Fellowship. That was enough to make it a must-read sooner rather than later, so I opened it up.

It was entitled “Autopilot Wars,” and it was Bacevich’s take on our nation’s numb embrace of perpetual armed conflict as a norm. “Like traffic jams or robocalls, war has fallen into the category of things that Americans may not welcome, but have learned to live with,” Bacevich writes. “In twenty-first-century America, war is not that big a deal.”

It was a depressing read, yet hardly a surprising one, for our country long ago inured itself to killing as a way of solving problems. A people who’ve come to tolerate abortion through all nine months of pregnancy is a people primed to mow down entire populations without a second thought. Death has become a way of life, and, in the name of patriotism, we don’t even question the motives or objectives. Heck, we can’t even keep count of how many wars we’re in, let alone why we’re in them.

Bacevich’s article was rattling in mind as I drove to morning Mass. NPR buzzed in the background – it was the TED Radio Hour. I could hear a researcher murmuring about manipulating the memories of lab rats.

I turned up the volume.

The researcher’s name was Steve Ramirez, a professor of neuroscience at Boston University. He and his colleagues developed a technique they call optogenetics that allows them to turn memories on and off by aiming lasers at particular regions of rodent brains. The effects are temporary, but Ramirez indicated that he anticipated further research that will lead to more enduring effects.

It creeped me out. I’d just recently seen the new Blade Runner 2049 which prominently features memory manipulation in cyborg replicants, and here was an actual process for doing the same thing in miniature mammals. However, my creepy feelings turned into alarm when Ramirez and his interviewer, Guy Raz, discussed possible future applications of optogenetics – like altering the memories of those suffering from PTSD; to erase, in effect, the crippling memories of the battlefield. Despite the possibility that such memory manipulation might be abused, Ramirez indicated that the potential for good is much too great to avoid continued research in this area.

I found myself yelling back at the radio, “No! No! Don’t do it! Can’t you see?” Consider what the Pentagon would do such memory altering therapies. We already train our soldiers to suppress their innate resistance to exterminating human life, and we push them forward to the front lines to wipe out as many enemy lives as possible. Then, when they come back to us physically wounded, we patch them up and send them forward to kill some more. Is it really all that hard to imagine that the military would draw on optogenetics to do the same with the psychologically wounded? To take, that is, those suffering from PTSD and re-program their memories to enable them to return to the front?

Even if that appalling development could be avoided – and that’s a huge “if” – the underlying premise of Ramirez’s suggestion is itself flawed. The problem with PTSD isn’t the crippling memories. The problem is what caused the memories in the first place: the dehumanizing horror of war. Isn’t there good reason to remember that horror, painful as it is? It seems to me that such remembering could help undo what Bacevich details as our “collective indifference” to war as part of modernity’s landscape.

Ramirez and Raz were concluding their radio conversation as I arrived at church. I shut off the car, went inside, and settled in for the liturgy. Entrance antiphon, sign of the cross, greeting, and then this:  “My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins” – and that’s when it hit me. Memory of agonizing reality is central to our faith and essential for real conversion – metanoia in the Greek of the New Testament.

In fact, we use a different Greek word that translates as “memory” (anamnesis) to describe how it is that Christ’s singular sacrifice on the Cross is made present for us at Mass. The Reformers of the past and our Fundamentalist detractors in the present accuse us of re-crucifying Jesus in the course of our “false” worship. Yet the Mass is not a repetition, but rather a re-presentation – a liturgical and sacramental remembering that connects what Christ suffered on Calvary with our recollected transgressions here and now.

I think of that scene in The Mission (1986) when Robert De Niro’s character, Rodrigo Mendoza, a former slave trader and mercenary, is lugging the tools of his inhuman trade up a muddy jungle slope. He repeatedly slips and falls until one of his Jesuit companions cuts the burden free. Mendoza subsequent silent descent back down the hill, his angry reattachment of the bundle to his back, and then his slow ascent back up the hill again is a powerful image of real repentance. Rather than forgetting the past – cutting it away and rolling it out of sight – authentic conversion requires remembering. It requires revisiting our painful histories and our damnable decisions. Mendoza was a murderer, and his redemption requires that he thoroughly avow his murderous past before he can experience the grace of forgiveness.

Our faith is dependent on remembering violence, for all sin is violence – a violent battering if not rending of our relationship with God. Similarly, our entire civilization also depends on such remembering, and the tragedy of our times is that we’re already re-programming our memories to avoid unspeakable realities, even without optogenetics. “Responding to the demands of the Information Age is not, it turns out, conducive to deep reflection,” Bacevich notes with reference to our war-making amnesia. “Our attention span shrinks and with our time horizon.”

This is the point that Nicholas Carr made in his recent WSJ essay on our contemporary smartphone dependencies. “Now that our phones have made it so easy to gather information online, our brains are likely offloading even more of the work of remembering to technology,” he wrote. “No matter how much information swirls around us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.” No wonder we don’t care about how many wars we’re in – or how many babies are being slaughtered in our abortuaries.

Granted, remembering more means suffering more, which is a tall order for a world bent on avoiding suffering – at least for ourselves. Remember more anyway, and then choose to suffer alongside those whose memories of killing cause them the deepest kind of distress – coming alongside them figuratively and prayerfully, at the very least, but in reality as well if given the opportunity. Such compassionate companionship might embolden them to speak out on behalf of peacemaking and nonviolent solutions to our problems. We’ll be wise to listen to what they have to say – and commit it to memory.
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