Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dominican Ordinations this Friday

This Friday, May 29, four Dominicans of whom I was formerly a brother and classmate are being ordained to the holy priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Please pray for Bros. Bruno, Thomas, Anthony, and Jonah (and Br. Gregory, also, who was in the class ahead of ours). I was a novice with these men at the Dominican novitiate in Cincinnati and lived with them for almost five years. They are truly excellent men of God, and remain, praise God, my friends and brothers.

Please pray for abundant graces to shower upon them on their day of ordination and throughout their lives as Dominican priests. May they all become holy Saints!

Saint Dominic, ora pro nobis.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Scourge of Niceness

Have you ever been in a conversation where there are differing, even opposing, points of view, and then someone squashes the conversation by accusing the participating interlocutors of "attacking" each other and in so doing violating charity?

I would like to call this, "The Scourge of Niceness."

Now, to be sure, there are plenty of occassions when a disagreement among adults can become heated and the conversation most inappropriate--a violation of charity toward one's neighbor.

But, some people make the mistake of finding every firm disagreement--i.e., every argument--downright sinful. This is not so. This is a consequence of placing the value of maintaining an external appearance of niceness (meaning in this case never deliberately opposing the ideas of another) over and above the value of allegiance to the truth.

Any argument should be engaged with respect for the opposition. Shouting an opponent down, ad hominems, or other displays of disrespect should have no place among Christians. But to care enough about the truth to engage in an argument--if the setting permits this without violating prudence--shows a genuine form of love for your opponent, for yourself, and for Christ (who is The Truth).

The Scourge of Niceness is false charity. Provided we maintain personal control and keep respect for all involved, entering into an argument--making our points with firmness and vigor but without any malice--is a virtue highly important for the health of society. Who wants everyone going around avoiding every debate for the sake of keeping up (false) appearances? No, true charity actually demands--when prudence judges the time and place are right--that we have an obligation to seek out the truth with our fellow man. And at times this means having a good argument.

Not to contend together for the sake of truth out of a misplaced notion of niceness is to take too lightly the gift of human reason. It is a form of casual indifference to the great gift of the intellect which God has given us. Often this gift in order to see as far as possible into the truth of things must be exercised in the context of charitable yet vigorously-pursued argument. With grace, we can do this. Let us not be afraid. Down with the scourge of niceness!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Egg Donation for IVF: A Dangerous Thing

On the topic of IVF, there are serious risks for egg donors which do not get mentioned in mainstream media outlets.

Here is the opening of the testimony of a woman who has suffered much because of a decision to donate eggs when she was 29:

In 2002, when I was 29 and in my graduate career, I found myself desperate for a few thousand dollars. I was all-but-dissertation for a PhD in biology. I had a part-time job at the university making about $800 a month. Somehow I never had time to work on my dissertation. I had been a graduate student for more than eight years, my studies were keeping me away from a guy I loved who lived in another city, and my dissertation was stretching out because I couldn't get time in my schedule to write. I was sick and tired of being poor, demoralized from graduate school and the harsh criticism that goes with it, and I desperately wanted to get on with my life. I had seen ads in the free entertainment newspaper paying "$3,000 for Egg Donors" I was only making $10,000 to $12,000 a year, so this seemed like a fortune to me. And why not make money from something I wasn't using?

Read the rest of "Woman X: My Story as an Egg Donor," here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Wonder of the Womb; The Ignobility of IVF

I would like to reflect again on a bioethics-related topic. It has to do with the human womb. (In medical terms, the 'uterus.' But, 'womb' seems a more personal term so I'll use this.) More completely, my topic here deals first with conjugal union as the only appropriate means of bringing about a new human life, and second, with the womb as the only appropriate place for that life to be brought about.

A few months ago at the blog of a friend the situation of the "Octomom" was being discussed. In the midst of this discussion someone stated the opinion that she saw nothing undignified about conceiving a child through in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Another commenter made the astute observation that the IVF process results in "life conceived in the unloving confines of a glass petri dish." I thought this was an excellent and very thought-provoking phrase; and right on target.

I share here some of the ideas I gave then about the contrast between human life conceived how and where God planned for it to be conceived--through the marital embrace and in the womb of a woman--vs. life conceived in a petri dish (as in IVF). . . .

The only appropriate means for conceiving life. Sexual union between persons has inherent meaning. It is full of meaning. In a proper context (spouses who love each other), the meaning of this act is, "I give myself fully, completely to you--I love you, I give myself to you, I commit myself to you, holding nothing back." A husband and wife say this to each other through the built-in symbolism of marital intercourse. With IVF, the creation of the child is divorced from the inherent meaning of conjugal union between spouses. But the two physical events (sexual union and the creation of a child) are meant to be always united together because their meanings are so inherently one.

There is no symbolic meaning built into the act of using lab equipment to unite an egg and sperm in a petri dish corresponding to this profound, built-in, natural (and God-ordained) symbolism of intercourse. The IVF lab procedure simply does not posses the great meaning of natural marital union.

In other areas of life we have no problem seeing the difference between the inherent meaning of human physical gestures and less human, technical processes. Is a physical hug between friends the same in significance as saying hello on Facebook? Technological processes simply have no ability to carry the meaning that is woven into thoroughly human, personal acts. And what more profound and deeply human, personal act is there than a husband and wife giving themselves to each other in love, freely, in the marital embrace?

The only appropriate place for conceiveing life. Sometimes we Christians (perhaps Catholics especially) are accused of a kind of inappropriate womb-worship because of the way some of us privilege the womb as the only place proper for the beginning of human life. We do not worship the womb (to do so would be a pagan thing not a Christian thing) when we point out that the womb is the privileged place God designed for the special and unique event of bringing new human life into the world. God loves human beings in a special and privileged way among all the earth. He would not provide anything less than a very special place for the hidden realm wherein He would lovingly "knit together" (see Psalm 139) the fragile and beautiful beginnings of every human being. There is no impropriety in drawing attention to this beautiful truth. As the place where new life should begin, being more fitted to the inherent, God-given dignity of every human person--hands down, the womb beats a glass petri dish every time!

Indeed, without being inappropriate, I think that the womb certainly is worthy of particular reverence because it is a three-dimensional living canvas in which the master artist of the universe lovingly forms and brings to life His greatest and most cherished creations. Would it be strange to suggest the womb is somewhat like a custom designed studio, perfectly suited for what the master artist who designed it intends to create there?

Only one place was made by God for the purpose of sheltering and nurturing nascent human lives. He could have made various other places. But he made only one: the womb. This is the sacred place He made within which He might reach down and bestow His divine power of creation upon the spiritual-physical union of husband and wife. It seems almost crazy to me to suggest the idea that an inert, non-living object such as a glass dish in a lab could ever be just as appropriate a canvas for God's creative power to touch as the living womb of a woman who is herself precious to and beloved by God!

The ultimate purpose of our lives is to become living vessels of divine grace--each a unique, living jewel of divine truth and love--sharing as a family in the bliss of the heavenly paradise. Our Father in heaven arranged the world in such a way that we--creatures with such high dignity and transcendent purpose--should come into being in a context worthy of the nobility He has given our lives. This context is that we should appear on the stage of existence through a loving soul-body union of our mother and father. And the only place adequate to the great worth of each of us as we begin the earliest stages of our fragile life is the womb of our mother. How beautiful this is!

Miami bishop affirms Church teaching on conjugal love

Since I posted previously about the scandalous counsel of Fr. Cutie, and in the course of my comment I wondered whether the Archdiocese of Miami condones such counsel, I should let you know of the following.

I had emailed the Archdiocese of Miami asking them for clarification as to whether or not they consider it acceptable for their priests to counsel a couple that sex before marriage is fine, even a good thing. I'm glad to report that Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo R.Jimenez, Director of the Family Life Department of the Archdiocese of Miami (which oversees marriage preparation in the diocese) emailed me on May 18. His response included the following:

As Director of the Family Life Department of the Archdiocese of Miami, I want to assure you and everyone that we do not encourage or support anything contrary to the Catholic Church Moral Teachings. We do not support cohabitation, nor having sex before marriage. . . . I can assure [you] that we do not counsel or support this kind of statements in any of our programs.

Thank you, Archbishop Jimenez, for your response, and for your assurance that the Archdiocese of Miami stands fast with the teaching of the Catholic Church about the proper role of the gift of conjugal love as within marriage.

Monday, May 18, 2009

True Chivalry--underlied by a fighting spirit

I just came across, via Dawn Eden's blog, the video commentaries available on the AirMaria web site. The following is a thought provoking and refreshing video comment on the subject of chivalry by Fr. Angelo Geiger, FI (and Fr. Geiger also blogs here). Take a look at this comment; it's good stuff! It's the sort of thing Catholics (and all Christians) need to think about and act upon if we are to become more effective instruments of grace in healing and transforming our declining culture.

For some reason which I do not understand, I can't get this video to embed. So, here is a link to it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Encouraging mortal sin: not a good preparation for marriage

Ever since my conversion to Catholicism I have been interested in issues surrounding the challenge of how the Church in America might be more effective in catechesis and evangelization, matters so important in helping people become closer to Jesus, that they might continue to move forward on the path to sanctity as their life unfolds.

In my opinion one of the most perpetually important things for an effective and ongoing transformation of a Christian society is the preparation of young people for the sacrament of marriage. A great deal of good--or harm--can be done by agents of the Church during the window of time before a couple is married. It is a special opportunity for healing, informing, correcting, and preparing a man and woman, thus enabling them to become better able to draw close to each other and to Christ through the many graces available in Christian matrimony. While there have been good things taking place in the area of marriage preparation, it seems to me that typical courses of marriage preparation in many American parishes still are mediocre at best, sometimes downright awful. Even so I do think progress is being made, though this progress is slow.

On the topic of poor marriage prep and in connection to the previous post, I want to bring to your attention the following. The same May 9 Miami Herald article as referenced in the previous post, included this:
In the process of counseling couples about to get married, [Fr. Cutie] has matter-of-factly said: "Look at the person sitting next to you. If you are not having the best sex of your life, they may not be the right person for you."

Now, this is outrageously horrid advice for a priest to give a young couple preparing for marriage. This is extremely grave matter. If this quote is accurate it would indicate that this priest casually brushed off mortal sin, and with a smile. And not only that, but he actually gave unmarried couples positive encouragement to continue in grave sin, thereby helping set them up for untold continuing and future damage to their souls. Rather than helping them grow in virtue and gain a deeper appreciation for the beauty and mystery of marriage in Christ, he helped them instead to become more accepting of mortal sin, affirming them in approaching it with casual indifference, and thereby contributed to their becoming more spiritually lethal agents of one another’s present and future suffering and degradation as persons. Such a priest, in the name of God, would in fact be leading others into deeper and deeper spiritual destruction. And this, probably at least in part from a desire to appear hip, cool, and nonjudgmental.

If the above quote is true and if Fr. Cutie's bishop (Archbishop John Favalora) knew of it, this alone should have been cause for him to be immediately removed from pastoral duties. Any Catholic priest who is so unfaithful to his vocation that he would counsel engaged couples that fornication is no big deal and thereby, because of his influence as a priest, strengthen them in an attitude that regards mortal sin as OK (hey, they should be doing it and having fun--as preparation for marriage!!!)--has become (whether he realizes this or not) an ally of the devil. And I do not easily say things like this. It is quite literally the truth. A Catholic priest should be the last person in the world who would ever give anyone a green light to act as though objectively grave sin were normal and unproblematic.

What does the Archdiocese of Miami think of this? Do other priests in the diocese do this sort of thing, or is this a tragic aberration from a diocesan norm of priestly fidelity to the teaching of Christ about marriage?

This is so serious an issue that on May 12 I emailed auxiliary bishop John Noonan, Director of Priestly Life and Ministry for the Archdiocese of Miami, asking him if he could confirm whether this quote was accurate. To date I have received no response.

Also, and again because of the gravity of this situation, I thought I should try to find out more about the source of this quote from the reporter who wrote the Miami Herald article in which it appeared--it is unattributed in the article. So, I emailed Lydia Martin at the Herald, asking her if she would name her source, or, at least reaffirm (or recant) whether she could vouch confidently for the authenticity of the quote attributed to Fr. Cutie. She responded to me by email on May 15. She wrote, "It would not be appropriate for me to name my source. But the source is a reliable one, or I wouldn't have used the information."

I thought I should include this email exchange (one attempted and one successful) in this post since Ms. Martin who reported the quote about which I am writing did not name her source. Charity demands that I should have made an effort to ask about the source of this quote before being willing to write critically about the one to whom it is attributed. Although not fully satisfactory, the response of the reporter to stand behind it and the silence of the Archdiocese seems to me adequate to assume it is probably accurate.

Please, let us pray there be no other instances like this of priests preparing couples for the holy sacrament of matrimony by the ridiculous and harmful foolishness of encouraging them to commit mortal sin.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Priesthood, Romance, "Falling in Love"

There is a scandal taking place in Miami over recent revelations about the popular and charismatic Fr. Alberto Cutie. He is a well-known radio and TV personality among Spanish speaking Catholics. A Mexican magazine published photos of Fr. Cutie hugging and kissing on a Florida beach with a woman; they were both in beach attire.

Fr. Cutie has acknowledged that it is indeed he in the photos. The Miami Herald reported that father first met the woman ten years ago. He stated to the Herald, "Falling in love is not something that I chose to do. It's something I have been struggling with for a long time." And further, "We have been friends for a long time. And there has been mutual admiration and attraction for a while, but the more serious relationship started in the last few months." According to the Herald, father wants to get married and start a family.

A brief statement by the Archbishop of Miami is here. An even briefer statement by Fr. Cutie is here. Father is currently on leave from pastoral duties. It looks like he will eventually seek laicization.

I want to comment on one particular aspect of this situation: the phenomenon of a Catholic priest "falling in love." Here are a few thoughts on this:

1. Any normal heterosexual man, no matter his state in life, has a natural attraction to women. This is the way nature works--the way God made things. This natural attraction is personal and particular and will manifest itself more strongly for some women than others.

2. The mere fact of there being romantic, sexual attraction between a particular man and woman does not by itself indicate that they have a vocation to become spouses to each other. It may, but not necessarily. There is more to an authentic call between two people to marry each other than having a mutually strong romantic attraction, as exciting and powerful as this can be.

3. For a married man or a priest or religious, being romantically attracted to a woman (not one's wife) while not acting on this attraction is not in itself sinful. (Though, dwelling upon lustful thoughts would be.)

4. Any man at some point in his life is going to experience some desire for a woman with whom his state in life precludes the possibility of his ever marrying. (Either he is already married, or is committed for religions reasons to celibacy.)

In the case of a mature and virtuous married man committed to being faithful to his wife, if he were to experience some sexual attraction to a woman other than his wife, he would take prudent measures to limit contact with her and to carefully arrange the context of any contact so as not to put himself in danger of fanning flames of desire that have no business being flamed. The human person is capable of using his mind and heart to react responsibly to desires that should not be acted upon so as to reduce the likelihood of these desires ever growing so huge that they are a serious problem. The counsel and company of prudent and mature men can be a great help in this.

In the case of priests and/or religious there is a parallel. As for married men, they need to take prudent steps, with the help of grace, to guard their commitment to their state in life. It does not happen easily or with merely minimal effort and commitment. This includes, first, an understanding that it is natural for a man to have a powerful experience--in the course of a friendly relationship with a particular woman to whom he is also especially attracted--of "falling in love." This experience does not have to mean a crisis of his vocation to a celibate state. However, living a balanced, healthy, sustainable celibate life requires, as a minimum, ongoing prayer, a continually (daily) renewed commitment of his whole mind, heart, and soul to his state in life, a clear understanding of the meaning of his particular vocation and how his celibate state is integrally linked to it, and the assistance of other trusted men to whom he is voluntarily responsible and accountable and to whom he can turn for support in difficult times. This, for the honor of God, the sanctification of his soul, and the spiritual good of others.

And so my point here is to observe that for both priests and married men, "falling in love" with a woman who cannot become their wife (if they are to remain loyal to their vocation and state in life) does not have to mean that they will inevitably leave their current vocation to pursue her. That is, if they posses the virtue and presence-of-mind to realize that such an experience, while difficult and a source of anxiety (it could even be called a cross), is not synonymous with a vocational crisis. It is a spiritual danger; a cross. But, with the careful use of grace-assisted reason, will, and heart to monitor and guard their thoughts and actions, it need not become a crisis. This requires each day that a stable personal commitment engaging all of their person be made anew. As an integral part of their daily fidelity to their vocations, they need to be always mindful of the validity, the significance, the deep meaning and great value to the world of their particular vocation and thus of their state in life as it is fruitfully intertwined with it.

Let us pray for all people of good will that we would implore the Lord's constant help not to allow our merely natural desires and attractions (good-in-themselves yet not infallible as indicators) to become crises that could lead us to step off the path of our true calling.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Notre Dame Commencement--Pro-Life Seniors Witness to Life

Wow. This is something. A group of pro-life graduating seniors at Notre Dame invited Fr. Pavone (of Priests For Life) to come to the ND campus on their upcoming commencement day to lead them in an alternative event:

Fr. Frank Pavone announced today that next Sunday, May 17, he will be present on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.

Members of the senior class who have decided not to attend their own graduation have invited him to lead them in prayer at the Class of 2009 Vigil for Life, which will start at 2pm, the same time as the commencement ceremony in which President Obama will be honored.

The Class of 2009 Vigil for Life will take place at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. The Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary will be prayed and Fr. Frank will give five-minute meditations prior to each decade.

[See the full PFL press release here]

This involves a sacrifice by these seniors. I commend them for their integrity in realizing that the commitment all children of God have to witness to the sanctity of human life no matter how young must come before an understandable desire to participate in their commencement.

Any Catholic university presumably takes seriously the obligation all men of good will have to protect the innocent, the weak, and the vulnerable--to come to the aid of the defenseless. What Catholic college would seriously consider inviting to campus as an honored speaker someone who
advocated infanticide as a way to "spare" disabled children from suffering? What Catholic college would warmly invite to their campus a politician who had said that very sick elderly should not be treated, but allowed to die, as a way to prevent the burden that they might become for others? What Catholic University would eagerly honor a person who was of the opinion that battered women should not be given any special help or protection? What about someone who thought slavery justifiable in some situations? Or who held that Jews really are somehow inferior? No. Appropriately, such people--no matter what their religion, political party, or particular position of leadership--would be considered unfit, unworthy, to address an auspicious gathering of new graduates. Such people would be considered by decent society disqualified from any and all public honors, no matter the occasion.

President Barak Obama (regardless of his largely empty rhetoric) has shown repeatedly--by his actions--that he supports the taking of innocent, vulnerable, defenseless human life while still in the womb. Thanks to him, the United States is once again spending tax dollars to enable people to commit abortions in foreign countries; it took him all of three days in office to overturn the Mexico City Policy.

No one, not even the President of the United States, who thinks it is OK to destroy helpless tiny human beings in the womb deserves to have any sort of public honors. This should be just as clear as it would be for the examples above. Basic decency and respect for the equal dignity of all human life should, without a moment's hesitation, come before the prestige of hosting a U.S. President.

I pray that many of the Notre Dame Class of 2009 will have the courage and heart to make the sacrifice of not attending their tarnished commencement, and instead make an honorable stand for life by attending the Class of 2009 Vigil for Life.

[HT: Jill Stanek]

Sunday, May 10, 2009

More, more Bluegrass! Sierra Hull in 2007

OK. I'm on a bluegrass kick tonight. I just love it!

Here is my last bluegrass post this evening. After the other two posts with a very young Sierra Hull, here she is more recently, in 2007. I think she would have been about age 16 in this clip and it would have been around the time she was recording her first album, Secrets. She is playing an instrumental with her band at an International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) event. Her playing, as well as that of her bandmates, is just amazing. Enjoy the spirit of bluegrass!

More Bluegrass! Sierra Hull and Ryan Holladay as Kids

Here is an awesome performance of a bluegrass instrumental, "Salt Creek," with Sierra Hull on mandolin and Ryan Holladay on banjo. You Tube doesn't say what year this is, but they look to me to be about 12 years old. We can see here an example of the enchanting phenomenon of God-given talent being heartily embraced and developed at a young age.

The maturity and confidence Sierra has in her playing at this young age is unbelievable. An older person with some musical ability (but not prodigy-level talent like this) could practice till they dropped for years and years and never come close to playing like this. It's a gift! But it doesn't come automatic. For sure, they must spend hours and hours practicing, developing this great gift to its fullest potential.

By the way, I highly recommend for any of these music clips that you plug in some headphones into your computer's audio jack before you listen to it. The sound will be much better and you will hear more clearly the nuances of the music.

Bluegrass Music; Sierra Hull

I love bluegrass music! It just has an infectious spirit about it. And it has a simplicity and an honesty--a country, American, "down home" honesty--that is just great. I grew up in a pretty rural area of northern NY (my grandparents were dairy farmers and were 1/2 mile down the road from us. I spent lots of time on my grandparents' farm as a young kid), and I like to think that there is something familiar from the farmer side of my family that I recognize in the spirit of bluegrass music.

It's a more homey, less sophisticated music than jazz. But, this is one of the things that gives it its own special greatness. Bluegrass has a humble majesty about it. And it is a musical style born on the back porches of good ole American hillside farmer folk. It's a music not born with commercial reasons anywhere near in anyone's mind. Rather, it's a music born from real community; born of an organic need for rural farm families and their friends to be together in their leisure time after a hard day's work doing something wonderfully human--making music together. This is what rural Americans in a certain region of the country did with spare time before they had TV to numb their noggins and isolate them from each other in their own homes. Farming on a small family farm is very hard, physical work. It requires of a person a certain kind of honesty about life. And the joys of daily farm life are simple joys: a home-cooked meal, clothes dried on the clothesline in the backyard, the accomplishment of getting the hay in the barn. And you can't have any pretenses. You can't play games with mother nature; she will not bend and cannot be fooled. I think perhaps this hard-working, unpretentious, hard worn honesty, with an ability to find delight in simple daily moments, forms the spiritual foundation for the music.

If you appreciate the simple, honest virtues of bluegrass, you'll love young bluegrass musician Sierra Hull. She is a phenomenal talent, and has been winning contests since around age nine. She recorded her first album at age 16, called Secrets, which I highly recommend. I own it and it's a great album! The instrument she loves best is mandolin, at which she is awesome. She is also a very good bluegrass singer.

Here is a video of Sierra performing live with another great musician, Alison Krauss. At the time of this performance, Sierra was in the sixth grade! I just love how the musicians show their love for making music together. And the young Sierra's joy at performing is also fun to see. The band Alison has with her is a collection of some of the best bluegrass musicians on the planet. They perform, "Cluck Old Hen," which I think is a bluegrass standard.

Friday, May 8, 2009

"Organ Shortage"--What Does This Phrase Indicate?

As this blog goes on there will probably be certain themes that will recur with some degree of regularity. One of these themes will be issues in the area of bioethics (which is closely related to pro-life themes).

I have noticed something that strikes me as odd about the language used in articles about organ donation. At some point, usually the phrase, "organ shortage," or something similar is mentioned. Sometimes, concern is expressed over a rising need for organ donations.

Now, I am not against, in principle, that organs can be donated (provided that death is not hastened, or, that the donor is not in fact killed as a part of the "procurement" process). But I find it somehow off-base, all this talk of "shortages" of organs.

If there is a shortage of something, it means the supply of something has been lessened that normally is available in larger quantities. And this term, "shortage," also usually implies you are speaking of a resource which is normally available and is seen as something that is ordinarily used in an average person's life. There can be shortages of water, oil, gas, food, etc.

But, is it really appropriate to say there are "shortages" of organs that could be used by persons whose organs are failing?

If I were deathly ill and needed a new liver because mine was shot but I died first because one never came available, would that mean I died because of a "shortage" of livers available for donation? No! I would have died of the liver problem. No one dies because of a liver "shortage." But people do die from cirrhosis.

I would like to strenuously point out and affirm that donating organs is an entirely gratuitous thing; it should never be expected nor obligatory for anyone.

There is never a shortage of organs. What there is, is a certain incidence of diseases or injuries that damage organs enough so as to render them unable to function properly. But because organ donation requires either the death of the donor, or, at the very least a serious diminishing of the full natural bodily integrity of the donor (eg. in a kidney donation), organs should never be spoken of as though they are simply another among the many natural resources that have a typically expected supply level, such that there could be such a thing as a "shortage." It can make sense to say a drought produced a shortage of water. But an analogy to organs does not apply. Unless we are willing to say there is some number that is a usual amount of livers we should expect to be available for transplanting (from dead people into living people), we can't say sensibly that an outbreak of hepatitis produced a shortage of livers available for donation (since the number of needed livers would rise and therefore the number of people on an organ donation waiting list for new livers would likewise go up).

My underlying concern here is that when we speak of organ "shortages," we only take account of those who are ill and would benefit from a new organ. We typically ignore the other one-half of the reality of the situation which is the fact that in order for many (though not all) types of organ donations to occur, someone has to die in order to make an organ available. Taking this other half of the reality into account, if it were proper to say there is such a thing as organ "shortages," then this would be in effect the same as saying there is a shortage of people dying in enough numbers to permit their organs to be harvested for use in others' still-living bodies. But I hope my point is clear--we ought never say there is a shortage of the dying, and so too, we ought never say there are organ shortages (shortages which may require death to make the organ available).

Organ donation is an unexpected, out of the ordinary event. The character of the act of organ donation is never one of obligation, but of gratuity. It seems to me we are harming our culture in calling a disparity between the numbers of devastatingly diseased or injured organs and the number of organs available for donation, a "shortage." It's almost as though we are saying we should be eager for more death so we can save more lives.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Song of Songs 2

Here is a second installment of reflections as I continue little-by-little through the Song of Songs.

[Please note: as the Song of Songs is part of Sacred Scripture it is inspired by God and thus authored by the Holy Spirit along with the human authors. This means I assume that any of the language of the Song which is an authentic part of the canonical book cannot be otherwise than to have a meaning that is entirely coherent with God's plan for human life and the Holy Spirit-guided teaching of the Church about chastity and marriage. I will always comment from within this assumption.]

Chapter 1, v 4

Again, the maiden wants to be lead by the bridegroom ("Draw me in". . .). But, this results in their becoming joined together in shared action: "let us run."

The union of the lovers is itself a cause for joy of other people. Spousal-oriented love is both private and public. An aspect of every potential marriage is public--others have a stake in this relationship, for the good of their society. It is right for other members of the lovers' local community to take joy in the lovers' relationship.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Song of Songs 1; meditation on love

For some time I have been thinking about putting down a few notes on the awesome book of scripture, the Song of Songs (also called the Song of Solomon). I suppose there's no time like the present to begin. Each new entry will be successively numbered as I go, "Song of Songs 1, 2, 3, . . ."

It is very remarkable to me that in a previous age (prior to the rift known as the Reformation) this book was the subject of a great deal of commenting by Catholic spiritual writers. But in the modern/post modern era, there seems to be hardly a mention of it. Why has there been such a big shift from great interest and excitement, to silence? I don't know. But, I would speculate that it has something to do with the fact that as we walk further away from our Christian roots, the contemporary Western world has become increasingly unable to set the erotic or passionate aspects of human sexuality into a deeply meaningful and wholesome context--the context which almighty God gave human love from the beginning.

One possible option for devout Christians to face the potential dangers of sexual passion is to identify this passion with sin and so fearfully run from it, stuffing sexuality into a small dark box only to be opened reluctantly. Another avenue (which is closer to the heart of Catholicism) is to regard eros (the especially incendiary and passionate aspect of sexual desire) with respect and even some fear and trembling--but also with a sober confidence that the grace of God can strip away what is sinful, leaving behind an eros which is pure even as it is passionate.

It is in this light that I wish to embark upon making a few comments about the Song of Songs, in the confident awareness that with God's help even our most fiery passions--rather than being needful of eradication--can be transformed and elevated and thus made more akin to the fire of love that burns in the eternal kingdom. Love can be both aflame and undefiled.

I will not attempt a verse-by-verse commentary. I will proceed by sections as they seem manageable. Here is the first. I will refer to the female beloved as "maiden" and the male lover as "bridegroom." I may sometimes quote the Scriptures but I will not attempt to give all the verses in their entirety (in other words if you want to follow along please have your own Bible handy and open to the Song of Songs.) I will be referring primarily to the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) and secondarily to the Revised Standard Version (RSV). The number headings refer to verse numbers.

1: 1-3

O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! (RSV)

Who desires to be approached here? The maiden. Whose kisses seem to be given an initiating quality? The bridegroom's. Is the maiden thinking only in a kind of symbolic, figurative language? Not here at least. She desires real, physical kisses--the kisses "of your mouth."

for your love-making is sweeter than wine;
delicate is the fragrance of your perfume, your name is an oil poured out.

There is a physical, tangible aspect to the love of the bridegroom. It is both sensible (e.g. "sweeter than wine") and tender. The love of the bridegroom is something that envelopes the maiden in a multitude of ways: it is present in the touch of lips (a kiss), in sweetness upon the tongue, in the alluring smell of a perfume, in the sound of the bridegroom's name as it enters the maiden's ears. It is like a valuable oil upon the skin. All the senses are taken up into love: touch, taste, smell, hearing (though sight is not yet mentioned).

The love of the maiden is specific to the unique person that is the bridegroom. It is his love, his alone, something he possesses in his individuality. The maiden says to him, it is "your" love, "your" perfume, "your" name.

The very name of the bridegroom, because it is that of her lover, is special to the maiden among all names.

The bridegroom's love is--as fine wine, delicate perfume, healthful anointing oil--something both tangible and refined.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Music Performance and Theology--Contemporary Parallels

In the practice of Catholic theology there is an ongoing issue as to how one might successfully achieve being faithful to the tradition--respecting the great patrimony of thinkers of ages past--while also being genuinely contemporary, bringing into play authentic contributions from the modern/post-modern world. (For a related earlier post see here.) The best Catholic theologians I think always strive to do both.

I think that an instructive parallel can be seen with music, especially in live music that includes individual solos against a background of a standard tune.

Think of how this works with a live jazz performance (bluegrass would serve just as well). The whole group of musicians launches into a particular song (e.g. "Devil May Care" as below with Diana Krall and her band). If it is a jazz standard, the song has a traditional structure and melody. Its basic foundation is known--solid, stable. And because the musicians are accomplished, well-practiced, and also know the song well and know how they like to play it as a group (since they have rehearsed it), the foundation of the song's basic structure is secure during the live performance. No one has to worry about the song going off track or anyone getting lost as to where the group is in the song. This provides the context for each individual musician to then be able to stretch his wings and shine in various solo contributions as the song is performed. Each soloist can challange himself more to his highest potential as a soloist knowing he can lean upon/rely upon the secure foundation maintained by his bandmates. You can see this taking place among great musicians as they perform live--the security of the known providing a base upon which the creative can soar without fear. [Less accomplished musicians cannot do this well. They are not secure enough in the basic elements of the music to allow for each soloist to flourish to his full potential.]

With the steady, secure foundation of the rest of the band moving along confidently the stage is set to permit the musicians to take turns shifting out of the role of being part of the supportive musical backdrop, "stepping out" into solo roles. Then, after a solo stint they seamlessly shift back into the group's communal performance of the standard song structure, allowing another member in turn to step out for their solo and then back, and so forth, in a flowing, creative back-and-forth between the song as performed by the group and moments of individual creativity and spontaneity.

And a further observation about how this works: As each musician takes a solo turn, they do not do so as though they were detached from the underlying song structure being played by their fellow band members. Very often, the underlying standard melody to which they are all together attuned and "locked in" as a living community in a united dynamic action, provides creative raw material for the soloist to riff on--augmenting, twisting, inverting, playing with the known melody to put his own unique interpretation on it.

So, it is not by acting as an isolated, lone agent that each soloist creates his own special musical contribution of the moment to the living whole. Rather, he makes his solo contribution by allowing it to somehow shadow, reflect, interpret, and build upon--but in a unique and unforeseen way--the known and predictable form that the others are playing underneath. This playful interaction between the known tradition and the creative output of the moment, informed by years of practice and talent development, makes for the occasion of a great live music performance. It is undergirded by the secure familiarity of the known and beloved, while at the same time made refreshingly alive and exciting by the transformation provided by the creative and the new.

Good theology is very much like this! It is a musical interplay of the tradition with contemporary and creative elements. And it is the very presence of the perennial in the contemporary that enables the new to have confidence as it breathes new breath and stretches its wings beyond what has come before.

Br. James Brent, OP, Conversion Story

Br. James Brent, OP, is a Dominican of the Eastern Province and one of my former brothers in religion. He is currently a deacon and will be ordained a priest probably next year in 2010.

Br. James grew up Catholic, but left the faith while in college. He came back to the faith in a very strong way and eventually entered religious life on track to become a priest. He was recently interviewed about his story at a blog called Conversion Diary. I highly recommend reading his story, "From Agnosticism to the Priesthood." It is in two parts and begins here. God bless Br. James for opening his heart to God's grace!

Jazz: Great American cultural gift; Diana Krall

When one is feeling down about our culture, it is tempting to bemoan the seeming paucity of America's cultural contributions to the world. And, I suppose, there may at times be cause for doing so.

But this is not the last word. Jazz music is truly an American gift to the world. And it is a great one at that. I don't think jazz could have originated in any other place on the planet than America.

Speaking of jazz, one of the great contemporary artists whose star is shining brightly in the jazz world now, is Diana Krall. She is originally from Canada. Those familiar with her know that she is one of those rare artists, even among great talents, who bring to their performances an uncanny sensitivity and subtlety. She seems to have a direct line to something absolutely ineffable, yet absolutely captiviating, in the human soul. Music seems to just oooze out of her like honey. She is both a fantastic singer, and, a great jazz pianist. The combination together is quite splendid. She married British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello in 2003; they have twin boys who were born in 2006.

As someone whose life was very centered around music when I was a teenager, I especially love the way great musicians when performing live--especially jazz--seem to "lock in" to each other in a spiritual way where they seem to transcend their individuality and become one, and yet still retain their uniqueness though in a new mode, each as one-among-the-group. It is a sublime coalesence of simultaneious self-transcendence and deepened self-possession. (For me, an intriguing instance of the capacity of human persons for high-level metaphysical "one and the many" experiences.) It reveals something special about the human person, about the capacity for community on a mysterious and deeply meaningful plane. And how community, in turn, gives the person back to himself.

So, if you like jazz, you probably know of her already. Enjoy this clip of her performing live, "Devil May Care." And enjoy the musicians' subtle interaction as they "lock in" and perform together.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Hush Little Baby

Here's a nifty version of "Hush Little Baby" with B0bby McFerrin singing and Y0-Yo Ma on Cello along with bass and violin.

A while ago (ten years or more?) I was somewhat of a Bobby McFerrin fan. After awhile I think maybe he started to seem a little bit gimmicky to me. But, I still think he is very talented and I love the infectious enthusiasm for life that he seems to communicate through his singing. I tend to like any sort of music that seems close to the everyday simple moments of life and that seems to capture something true about the human heart--things like hopefulness even in the midst of sorrow (which I think Irish folk music is great at doing!). But this song is pretty much an expression of a simple joy of fatherhood. I don't know--does McFerrin have kids?