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Jesus of Nazareth, Breaker of Hearts

“Why do you think evil in your hearts?” Jesus of Nazareth directed the question to the scribes who lingered among us. He had landed in Capernaum only a short time earlier, and—after permitting him time to greet his hosts and joke and jostle with some of the children—we had brought him to see a friend of ours, recently struck down with a paralysis we could not understand. The scribes, who beyond their official capacities were naturally nosy types and self-appointed historians of our neighborhoods, had followed along, watching to see what he would do. What they saw was something quiet and mostly unspectacular, at least at first. The rabbi had squatted over our friend, surveying him with compassion—with a look of love that seemed at once familiar and detached, that asked nothing, expected nothing, demanded nothing. Seated head on, as I was, my heart was struck by the softness of…

Worry Not

Loving God, your world is a mess. For all its beauty, your creation is now showing its fierce, destructive power. Everywhere on our small globe (and nowhere more than in these United States), people are threatened with death—and dying—from an unforeseen, implacable virus. Young and old, suddenly or slowly after many weeks in a hospital, your beautiful sons and daughters are leaving us.

Countless brave people—medical caregivers like doctors and nurses, essential workers who provide food and keep our cities functioning—are threatened, too. Our efforts to keep this plague from spreading have devastated our economies, driving some toward desperation and despair. Many are stricken daily with searing anxiety. Even the bravest among us wake in the middle of the night in fear. Our political life struggles to be both compassionate and practical. Alas, we the people are fearfully divided.

Yes, Lord, we remember what Jesus of Nazareth taught us: “Do not be anxious about your life, what shall you eat or what shall you drink, nor about your body, what you shall wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?... Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to your span of life?... Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things…. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Jesus told us not to be anxious, “for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.” And then, in the Our Father, as he taught us how to pray, he concluded by telling us to beg you to deliver us from evil.

But, merciful God, it is not only anxiety about tomorrow, or the longing to be free from sin, that troubles, even terrifies our hearts these days. It is the precarious weakness and murderous power of your own natural creation.  How can we not tremble before the threat it poses to our shared human life? Don’t you know that all the faithful—even your most devoted servants—are being shaken?

For what, then, shall we pray? And how? Send us, please, your Spirit to teach us.

Grant us the discerning, humble courage that knows your grace is everywhere—and acknowledges our responsibility for the world you have entrusted to us.

Surely, we pray for courage. But not just any courage. Grant us discerning courage, the courage of our scientists laboring into the night to understand the scourge laying waste to us. The courage of civic leaders teaching us patience, often at great cost. The courage of fellow citizens who refuse to surrender to self-regard. The discerning, humble courage that knows your grace is everywhere—and acknowledges our responsibility for the world you have entrusted to us. The courage to live our faith in Jesus of Nazareth, through whom we are one with you in caring for our troubled world. Help us to live this courage in hope.

Gracious God, we pray for hope. But what kind? Not just hope for a world in your hands at the end. But a hope that rises every morning for a day that is yours and ours together. Hope that knows you want light and life for us all—and for all of us to do whatever we can so that your human family finds light and life.

You give us a world to shape in your image, loving God. But it has turned on us. What shall we say and pray? I turn to your Son, who taught us your love unto a mortal end that was an eternal beginning. I turn to the women and men who became his own and lived not for themselves but in service to others. I turn—to trust. Trust that there is scarcely any limit to what our human family can do for each other if we are selfless enough.

And trust that when we have given all we can, we will again and still and forever be given you, your very Self—in your hands not only at the end but always.

Amen.

Video Games and the Hero’s Narrative

After finishing the Lord of the Rings spin-off Shadow of War, I was looking for a new RPG (role-playing game), and Dragon Age: Inquisition seemed appealing. It checked off all the right boxes for me—at least when it comes to RPGs: Box #1: Does it take place in medieval times? Box#2: Can I use magic? Dragon-Age meets both of these requirements quite splendidly. Plus, I get to battle wild dragons, so call it an all-around win. Yet what draws me to this game and others like it is not so much the cool fight sequences, amazing graphics, or expansive world-maps as its epic nature—its ability to stimulate within my soul a feeling of gallantry. As I mention in other articles, video game culture is not as superficial as one may think. There is a reason so many people are drawn to it. Simply put, video games tap into…

Should My Son Be a Father?

QUESTION: Should a father try to dissuade his son from pursuing the priesthood? “Last week my son asked me if I had ever thought of him becoming a priest. “I’m the first to offer money to the vocations collection; just ask our pastor. We never miss a Mass or a collection! I agree we need priests! But, my boy? A priest? Come on; not him. He’s got such a bright future ahead of him! “I just don’t think being a priest would be a good use of his talents, that’s all I’m saying. . . . It’d be a waste of his true potential. He’s top of his class—a natural leader.  We need our best men in charge of businesses, raising families, and leading governments! Not running the little parish. . . “It just seems like too many priests have some combination of being overweight, not taking care of themselves,…

Why Icons Should Be Part of Catholic Catechetics

When I first met Fr. Steve Grunow, CEO of Word on Fire, I was struck by a strange and beautiful image on his desk. It was an Icon of  the Christ Pantocrator of Mt. Sinai, and the Christ who stared at me was both of this world and beyond it.  Stranger than the image, however, was my feeling that Christ was staring right at me from within the depths of the icon. When I asked, Father Steve kindly explained the theology of the icon, cluing me in on how effectively they can help to engage us and deepen our faith, and even teach us.  Like the Gospels, icons present “the form of Christ” who reveals the “form of God”. With this in mind, I’d like to argue that icons deserve a more prominent  role in religious education.  One…

Joel Clarkson and the Importance of Human Creativity to Faith

Today, Matt Nelson catches up with Joel Clarkson, an award-winning composer, author, and voiceover performer. Joel has a degree in music composition from Berklee College of Music, a master’s degree in theology, and is currently pursuing his PhD in theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He’s recently finished drafting his first solo book, Sensing God: Experiencing the Divine in Nature, Food, Music, and Beauty, which will be releasing at the beginning of 2021. In this interview, Matt and Joel talk about the undying importance of human creativity, even in a time of chaos. This conversation is a much-needed breath of fresh air in a time of anger, fear, and frustration. Enjoy! It says on your website that you can’t recall a time when either music or spirituality didn’t saturate your day-to-day life. Can you tell us a little more about your upbringing and the role that…

How Does a Christian Respond in Time of Social Crisis?

In the early 2000’s an infestation of bark beetles decimated the pine forest behind my childhood home in Central Florida. My father fought the insects for months, but to no avail. Over a year-long period, whole acres of trees were lost, some of which had stood on that ground for centuries. Our family was devastated. A once lush forest was reduced to barren dirt and shrubbery. Only one pine tree survived. We still do not know why. Originally, it was just one among many hundreds of trees, but now it stood boldly in an empty field, a sad reminder of what used to be. For years the tree grew alone withstanding lightning strikes, draughts and even a few hurricanes. Though the tree was strong, it appeared barren not producing any pine cones. We eventually reconciled with the fact that the forest would never grow back and resigned to making the…

Radical Conformity: The Wild Faith of John the Baptist

It is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most. —G.K. Chesterton When one surveys the masterful artwork of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, it is striking how often he painted St. John the Baptist. We see him as a toddler, as a young boy, and as a brooding young man. He is reclining, drinking from a fountain, caressing a lamb, standing with the Holy Family, and even in the act of being beheaded. Invariably, his countenance is dark. His eyes are shadowed by an intensely furrowed brow. Instead of (or in addition to) his camel’s hair and leather belt, the Baptist is draped in a crimson cloak that eerily looks like the copiously spilled blood of martyrdom. In total, Caravaggio painted the wild saint at least thirteen times, and more than almost any other subject save…

Laughter Is a Leap: “Space Force” Can’t Get Off the Ground

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, opening a new era of human exploration. Along with other international leaders, Pope St. Paul VI sent a message with the Apollo 11 astronauts to be left on the Moon for posterity. He quoted the whole of Psalm 8, which includes the memorable verses, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (4-5). He later transmitted this message to Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins: “Pope Paul VI is speaking to you astronauts: Honor, greetings and blessings to you, conquerors of the Moon.” To many people both inside and outside the Church, our success in breaking free from the boundaries of our planet was charged with spiritual significance. It also…

Blurring Boundaries

The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed the way Americans live, both individually and collectively. But has it altered the way we think about the basic fabric of our lives? Not yet. I think it should, though—especially in ways that strengthen the vision of interconnected creation outlined by Pope Francis in Laudato si’.

Influenced by literal readings of Scripture as well as an implicitly Cartesian picture of the world, many Americans operate with three sets of sharp distinctions: 1) between living and nonliving beings; 2) between different types of living beings, arranged in a rigid hierarchy; and 3) between inert matter and vibrant mind or soul. But if we start to consider how viruses operate, all three sets of distinctions begin to dissolve, and interconnections take center stage.

What is a virus? It’s an aggressive snippet of DNA (or RNA in the case of retroviruses). Many viruses operate by fusing themselves with the outer membrane of the target cell, and then working their way toward the nucleus. Once there, they take over the cell’s genetic mechanisms, reprogramming the cell to make more virions (single particles of the virus) rather than fulfill its normal functions. Eventually, the virions overwhelm and rupture the host cell. Newly liberated, the virions go on to seek other cells to infiltrate, moving from cell to cell and from organism to organism.

Does that mean a virus is alive? That’s a difficult question. Some scientists say no, they are more like chemistry sets. Unlike viruses, living beings autonomously consume, process, and expend energy. Moreover, a virus cannot reproduce on its own through a process of cell division, in the way a simple amoeba can. But others argue that a virus is alive, or at least intermittently alive. It may not reproduce itself, but it does actively organize its own reproduction. Maybe there is a middle ground: in a fascinating article in Scientific American (December 2004), Luis P. Villarreal argues there is a “spectrum...between what is certainly alive and what is not.” Villarreal, the founding director of the Center for Virus Research at UC Irvine, asks us to think of life as “an emergent property of a collection of certain nonliving things.”

Viruses may not be alive, but they are lively. And really, so is all matter.

Many people also assume there are rigid boundaries between various forms of living beings, whether that assumption comes from the first chapters of Genesis or a simplistic understanding of evolution. They think that bacteria are one thing, plants yet another, animals a different thing, and people something else entirely. They also assume that the development from simple to complex life forms is neat and linear, so that each more complex being that emerges includes everything in the category below and adds something new and bigger, like a set of Russian dolls.

But viruses show us that the development of complex life forms is itself staggeringly complex and even messy. Villarreal notes that between 113 and 223 genes present in both the genetic makeup of bacteria and human beings are absent in intermediate forms of life, like yeast. He suspects that those genes did not disappear and then re-evolve, but rather were somehow inserted into both bacteria and human beings by the same virus. Evolution’s traveling salesmen, viruses peddle their genetic wares near and far. They create surprising links between vastly different types of living entities, all of which are connected by their dependence on the same four building blocks that make up the DNA of all living things.

Finally, viruses challenge the idea that non-living matter is inert and static. Viruses may not be alive, but they are lively. And really, so is all matter. Inertness is an illusion. In the past century, we have learned that each atom of matter is full of motion and energy, as electrons circle the atom’s protons, neutrons, and nucleus. Chemical reactions occur not only in lab experiments, but inside human beings. More broadly, we are increasingly aware of how our brain and body chemistry affects our minds and sense of self. Serotonin influences mood and affect. Rising and falling levels of estrogen and testosterone throughout life mark not only our physical shape, but also our dispositions and judgment. We are thoroughly embodied creatures, not minds trapped in inert matter.

When Pope Francis published Laudato si’ on May 24, 2015, he couldn’t have known that five years later we’d be living through a pandemic. But that fact has only sharpened the encyclical’s prophetic call to care for our common home, and each other. Its key theme is that “everything in the world is connected,” from the well-being of the poor to the flourishing of the planet itself. Francis vividly expresses these connections when he calls the Earth our sister and our mother. Unfortunately, many people treat these images as mere metaphors, or dismiss them as instances of poetic license. But they are literally as well as poetically true, as the nature and functions of viruses help us to see. Nature is not merely the setting for the drama of human existence. Other living beings are not merely part of the chorus. Even the scenery is not mere backdrop. Everything around us has an integral part to play in the story of creation.