Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

15 December 2014

On Animals in Heaven and The Insufficiency of God

For several reasons I stepped aside from The Shipwrack-Harvest, but knowing that this medium has brought some satisfaction to me and to a few readers, I am picking up the pen once again. No promises of frequency, however. As with everything, I will enjoy what happens while it lasts as God's gift.

In the past week we have witnessed a stir over the subject of Pope Francis reportedly saying that animals will be in heaven. This USA Today article describes how the whole tale swung so swiftly, with misquotations aplenty. How writers could pick up on false leads (or even true ones) and craft sizable articles bolstered with commentary, and do it all so quickly, and do it amid other responsibilities, stymies me. It's one reason I stopped writing for so long.

It seems undeniably true that the mainstream news media have found in Pope Francis a favored son, someone whose gentle appearance and easy manner they can unfairly (and inaccurately) contrast with his mean, doctrinaire predecessor, Father Benedict. I'm afraid this trope won't go away. We'll be seeing media conflations, inflations, and speculations for the remainder of Francis' papacy.

To return to the subject of this recent beef: the possibility, indeed necessity, of animals in heaven.

The following is not relevant to the discussion, but I suspect that people may wonder where I stand with respect to having animals and with animal owners. While I love animals, I won't likely ever have one as a pet (especially a cat, which will probably end up in hell anyhow). I respect people who do. I want to appreciate the profound attachment that pet caregivers can develop. It's an attachment that I don't want to develop, because I am unduly attached to many things as it is. Moreover, the care that pets need exceeds what I am willing and able to provide.

Along with Pope Francis, however, I do share the concern that people may divert undue attention, funds, etc. to pets. Cohabiting and married couples can have "fur babies" instead of human ones. Unwilled infertility is another matter, of course--that is a real cross, sadly downplayed in a material,  insecure world. Every couple must strive to be conscious of the choices they make and the fears that may inhibit them from making other choices (e.g. adoption of children). Openness to children, however God sends them, remains a constitutive element of marital love.

But what a risk is a child! Someone who may not cuddle up to you when you need him, someone who will eventually snub you, loudly shut her door, and exclaim, "You don't understand!" when you are the one who wants to be understood. Someone who will "cost" you, and the government, lots of money over the years, who will be considered a burden from the beginning. Someone you won't be able to put down once she's gotten too least for now.

Scholastic theology has affirmed that animals do have souls. Every living reality has a soul--the tailor-made principle that informs and enlivens the body and distinguishes it from all others of its type. There are three levels of soul: the vegetative (found in plants), the sentient (non-human animals), and the rational (human persons). The vegetative soul can take in nourishment and give off waste products. The sentient can do what the vegetative does, but also feel and communicate with its surroundings. It operates according to instinct, and can seem to be motivated even by care and altruism. The rational can do what the sentient and vegetative does, but also can think and choose freely.

The powers of the rational soul are precisely what constitute man and woman as "in the image of God"--and this before the Son forever assumed human nature. As the inspired author of Hebrews reminds us, God did not become an angel (a purely spiritual creature). Nor did God become an purely instinct-driven animal. God took on the form of the very kind of creature who could (and did) reject Him. The human ability to choose for the good of another for the other's sake is, in a word, love. Regarding the expressions of affection and heroic displays of care that animals have shown toward their own and even toward human beings, I will call that love, but only in a derivative sense. (Basta così.)

Rather than speculate on the eternal fate of the animals, I would rather direct my attention to the eternal fate of human persons. While God's love extends to all creation, I do not consider arrogant the unique and profound claim that human persons--free and rational beings--exert upon that love. We are as undeserving of that love as the rest of creation, but we are most apt for that love because we alone are made in God's image.

Then there are our human, inadequate-by-definition concepts of heaven, marred by sentimentalism and other wounds of our fallen nature. Since earth (our fallen condition) is our current reference point, we base our ideas of heaven on it. Our concepts of heaven can be as self-centered--certainly as inadequate--as we are here on earth.

I can understand people imagining a life with perfect freedom from all adverse situations and consequences. Given our earthly trials, there is merit to such an image; but at its worst it expresses longing for the kind of free-for-all that we can't seem to get away with here on earth. A huge bash, promising eternal satisfaction to the point of surfeit, servants peeling us grapes and so forth. Calories mean nothing, so we can eat and eat and eat! But where is love in that? Where is sacrificial giving, caring for the other "just because"? It sounds like the kind of theological conclusion that follows from a model of prayer as making nice with God, trying to placate Him or stroke His ego--working to end up with the best possible retirement policy.

I have wondered why God's own Life, God's own Presence, wouldn't be enough for people in heaven. Why all the extras? What, you may ask, do I consider an "extra"? Anything that is not God. I do not have to know what the specifics of heaven include, except that God is. If animals and trees and music (even Sinatra's!) are there, fine; if not, that's fine too. I'm happy to note, however, that prophetic presentations of the worship around God's throne include singing...a new hymn, commissioned for a new heavens and a new earth. If other creatures happen to be there, they will be as rapt as we before the Heavenly Throne. Sure, we may be happy to see them, but we'll be infinitely happier to see God.

12 December 2014

Sinatra's Greatest Hits (In One Fan's Estimation)

In honor of the 99th anniversary of the birth of the Servant of Mammon (and, in his own way, of God) Francis Albert Sinatra, I decided to look over what, almost twenty years ago, I dubbed "The Canon": my collection of Sinatra's musical renditions.

The very act calls to mind Mr. George Repella, my senior year English teacher at Nativity, a musical connoisseur and otherwise wise man. At the time of our acquaintance, the extent of my Sinatra knowledge included a handful of the popular "Greatest Hits." It wasn't that Mr. Repella played any of his songs in class; he simply spoke about him, and I listened--first, to him, and then, to *him*. I'll call  Mr. Repella a Sinatra Evangelist, on the basis of these words of Holy Writ
"But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?" (Rom 10:14)
Serious exploration happened in the seminary, which was like regular college in that it gave me a chance to experiment--with styles tonsorial, sartorial, and musical.

My consciousness was expanded in those days--not with the help of illegal drugs, but rather with music. WPEN, WMGK, and Plastic Fantastic (a now-defunct used album store in nearby Ardmore, where you'd swear I was taking an elective for as often as I was there).

Between the purchases from various brick-and-mortar establishments and, more recently, iTunes, I have acquired enough Sinatra songs to last for nearly two and a half days of continuous dulia. ("Dulia" is the honor afforded to the saints. Mary, foremost among them, is said to receive hyperdulia, extra honor. Perhaps Tony Bennett, Jerry Vale, et al would receive dulia, but Sinatra hyperdulia, for he has slain his ten thousands.)

Now not all his recordings were winners; even the Chairman himself would grant you that. Without easy access to liner notes, un/authorized biographies, or Sid Mark, I'd bet that Sinatra would have taken out back and shot not a few of his sides from over fifty years of public singing. "Strangers in the Night" stands as the most cited example; he called it, among other things, "the worst [expletive] song that I have ever heard." But he cursed it all the way to the bank, because it was his first #1 hit in eleven years. As in 1966, so today: what's popular isn't always what's best.

It's not his worst, either; but I'm not writing my first blog post in over two months to limn Frank Sinatra'a worst songs. Rather I will recount my favorites, the ones I scroll past the others to select (if I don't just directly type the ones I have in mind). Their place in this "canon of the canon" can be attributed to, for example, Sinatra's voice, the musical arrangement, an obscure instrumental lick, or my personality.

In no particular order:
  1. Ebb Tide (ok, this one and only this one is "in order," because it has stood out as my favorite. Lush, passionate, and profound in every respect.)
  2. All The Things You Are (Columbia era, the 1940s. Haunting. Lead and backup vocals only) 
  3. Rain In My Heart (from Cycles, an otherwise substandard countrified album. The syncopation of the crash cymbals in the last ten or so seconds is as sharp as the dramatic vocals throughout)
  4. Mam'selle (Nice 'N Easy, a great late Capitol album; the strings trill and he sings so gently)
  5. Hello, Dolly! (from the 2nd Basie collaboration. The arrangement and lead trumpet soar)
  6. Should I (late Capitol; part of a swinging masterpiece album. Short and sweet)
  7. Ol' Macdonald (all-around clever piece, from the same album as #6)
  8. How Little It Matters (How Little We Know) (The Capitol or Reprise versions are equally good, but in the latter he effortlessly hits the F "...and the WORLD around us shatters")
  9. For Once In My Life (Don Costa's arrangement and Frank's sans souci, especially noted in the last few bars)
  10. Nice Work If You Can Get It (teeming with energy)
  11. I Only Have Eyes For You (10 and 11 are from his first collaboration with Basie. Piano and brass deftly punctuate, as only "Splank" knows how to do it)
  12. You Turned My World Around (Power-balladish arrangement that tugs at me)
  13. Ol' Man River (descends to a solid but groaning E, then finishes on an equally solid E up top)
  14. Call Me (from the same kooky album as "Strangers." It has me at the six cymbal strikes in the intro)
  15. Take Me (from the "I Remember Tommy [Dorsey]" album)
  16. You Go To My Head (from the same album as #4, which, in its entirety, is just grand)
  17. If I Had You (from the "Great Songs From Great Britain" album. Like many other songs, Sinatra recorded this more than once. Three times for this one--and the third time is the charm. The second one was a light swinger from the mid 50s: I'd have removed the hook and thrown it back in)
  18. Autumn Leaves
  19. I Think Of You
  20. There's No You
  21. Lonely Town (18-21 are from the same album, Gordon Jenkins-arranged "Where Are You?", the title track of which is also good; but 21 knocks me out)
  22. Forget To Remember (a single found on the larger Reprise compilations. Goes from simple and silent to loud and rich in not much more than a minute)
  23. I've Got A Crush On You
  24. Someone To Watch Over Me (same album as 23, I think)
  25. Three Coins In The Fountain (Capitol-era, not the Academy Award Winners rendition)
  26. London By Night (the Robert Farnon arrangement)
  27. Around The World
  28. Brazil 
  29. It's Nice To Go Traveling (28-30 are from the Come Fly album; 27 also, as an earlier version)
  30. Birth Of The Blues (late Columbia single)
  31. American Beauty Rose (late-Columbia, not from the late-Capitol album of contractually obligated swingers. The arrangement is punchy and Sinatra plays it like a champ)
  32. The Song Is You (he recorded this with Dorsey in the 40s, once in the Capitol 50s, and then for the '79 Trilogy album, which is the best of them all, for its energy)
  33. Let's Face The Music And Dance (from the same album as 33, liked for the energy that was just not evident in the Ring-A-Ding-Ding version)
  34. The Coffee Song (both the Columbia and the early-Reprise versions, each unique but fun)
  35. I Concentrate On You (the mid-60s Jobim version, but also the Swingin' Session chart)
  36. Wave (he digs deep on "to-ge-THER"; in his performances, Mel Tormé jokes, "Antonio, you've got a hell of a range on this song!")
  37. The Girl From Ipanema (36-38 from the first, classic, collaboration with A. C. Jobim)
  38. The Girl Next Door (early-Reprise version with the poignant pizzicato strings)
  39. If You Are But A Dream (Capitol single)
  40. Why Try To Change Me Now? (late Capitol version only)
  41. If I Should Lose You (not the Columbia version, but the late-Reprise version with Q--another example of the Voice improving with age)
  42. Only The Lonely (from the Capitol album of the same title, along with #1)
  43. It's All Right With Me (Capitol and late-Reprise, both. Diverse, but complementary)
  44. Stars Fell On Alabama (only once, for Capitol)
  45. River, Stay 'Way From My Door (he means it when he sings it. Listen for the last "I ain't breakin' your heart", which soars)
  46. Let's Fall In Love (from the Ring-A-Ding-Ding album)
  47. I Have Dreamed
  48. Soliloquy (47 and 48 hail from the same album as #13, The Concert Sinatra)
  49. Indian Summer (from the Ellington collaboration, which also boasts #50)
  50. Come Back To Me (He swings the hell out of this one)
  51. Begin The Beguine (Columbia only; he couldn't have gotten away with it after that)
  52. (Love Is) The Tender Trap (Capitol is better than the Basie one with Reprise)
  53. Everything Happens To Me (the Reprise versions that are only on the Complete collection, which I want for Christmas)
  54. This Is The Night (only with Columbia, a late but pleasant discovery)
  55. Laura (the Capitol version, on the same album as #18-21)
  56. Spring Is Here
  57. Blues In The Night
  58. Where Or When (55-57 from the Only The Lonely album; the swinger of WoW, with Steve and Eydie, is also great)
  59. Day In, Day Out (from the Sinatra and Sextet: Live in Paris; where else would he "grab your lips"?)
  60. I Wished On The Moon (from the Moonlight Sinatra album)
  61. The Moon Was Yellow (same album as #59, but an earlier Capitol version has its own merits)
  62. April In Paris (from the Billy May album that boasts #26-29)
  63. Misty
  64. Prisoner Of Love (Like #63, from the Don Costa Sinatra and Strings)
  65. Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing 
  66. Secret Love (like #65, from the Academy Award Winners album)
  67. That Old Black Magic (late Capitol version)
  68. Star! (allegedly a "Greatest Hit" according to its album. Not; but still good)
  69. It Never Entered My Mind
  70. I Get Along Without You Very Well
  71. I'll Be Around (#69-71 from In The Wee Small Hours album)
  72. Fools Rush In (from same album as #4)
  73. Poor Butterfly (from Ellington compilation)
  74. Baubles, Bangles, and Beads (from the Jobim collaboration)
  75. I'll See You Again (from late-Capitol Axel Stordahl collaboration)
  76. I Remember April (same album as #75)
  77. Last Night, When We Were Young (again, Wee Small Hours. That mid-50s Capitol output might have been his best overall)
  78. Too Close For Comfort (Capitol era)
  79. Downtown (Strangers in the Night album, as #14. He sings the title word with a strange slur that sounds like "oo" to "ew" to "ay," probably because "he can't even," as the kids say today)
  80. Young At Heart (so pleasant, so Capitol)
  81. What's New? (Only The Lonely version)
  82. The House I Live In (mid 60s "A Man And His Music" version comes to mind, but the others, before and since, are good, too)
  83. You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You (early-Reprise era)
  84. P. S. I Love You (from the Close to You (And More) album, which I experienced exceeding joy upon finding, as it had been out of print for several years)
  85. South Of The Border (from Come Fly, with May's signature slurping saxes)
  86. Just One Of Those Things (Capitol--so tender)
  87. How Deep Is The Ocean (from same album as #4)
  88. One Note Samba
  89. Sunrise In The Morning (like #88, from the later Jobim compilation)
  90. If You Go Away (from My Way album)
  91. I Could Have Told You (from No One Cares)
  92. Not As A Stranger (pretty Capitol single)
  93. The Christmas Waltz (Reprise; if I had to include a Christmas one, that would be it)
  94. Come Dance With Me (from the eponymous album)
  95. Something's Gotta Give
  96. Dancing In The Dark (#94-96 from the same album)
  97. Ill Wind (from Wee Small Hours)
  98. Teach Me Tonight (late-Reprise, with Quincy Jones; "What 'ya get for lessons?" Classic.)
  99. My One And Only Love (Nice 'n Easy album, like #4, 87, etc.)
Add your own favorite in the comments, or just leave that one behind and listen to any of these 99.

You may have noticed the absence of "My Way," "Theme From 'New York, New York," and "Strangers In The Night." I like those, and most of the other well-known and well-liked hits, but I wanted this list to set those aside in favor of some more obscure ones. The most erudite Sinatra scholars would include examples far stranger than mine.

In any case, offer a prayer for Frank and for all his fans. May his name, his charitable deeds, and his love "not too wisely, but too well" live on in eternal memory!

Sinatra's grave, what I visited in 1999, a year after his death

07 October 2014

God in the Docket

The "Local" section of my former local daily, the Reading Eagle, has a "Daily Docket," which includes a list of local births and marriage license applications, and, at the top, the "Daily Thought." The Reading-Berks Conference of Churches annually invites about a dozen local Christian clergy to compose a month's worth of Scripture verses accompanied by very brief reflections. The token Catholic priest (however he, or anyone, gets on the list I don't know) very kindly asked me to fill in for him.

It was a delight to put my Thoughts together, because I like people to read my writing and I like the aphoristic mode of communication for purposes of humor and insight. Some of my favorite authors (including Hans Urs von Balthasar) have penned pithily, to good effect. I try to think and talk that way when the Spirit moves me and when I'm drinking enough coffee.

Since many of my readers don't get the Reading Eagle, and now that my month is over, I decided to air my Daily Thoughts, one whole month at a pop--here goes!

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"If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead." (Luke 16:31) –“There’s no telling some people,” they say; but what is your “deaf spot”?

 “He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.’” (Luke 15:31) –Chrysostom said of St. Paul, “Above all, he knew himself to be loved by God”; what else is there, really?

 “Better…if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than…to cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Luke 17:2) –People are paying attention to you. If that’s scary, good.

 “Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be visible through him.’” (John 9:3) –Ask not what God has done to you; ask what God can do through you.

“When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled.” (John 11:33) –Allow yourself to become appropriately affected by the people you encounter in life.

“Peter said to [Jesus], ‘You will never wash my feet.’” (John 13:8) –Don’t be embarrassed when you need forgiveness or assistance. Everyone benefits from it.

“Peter began to say to [Jesus], ‘We have given up everything and followed you.’” (Mark 10:28) –In moments of self-pity, we might think so; but there’s always more, and God will wait for it.

“Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then ear, then the full grain in the ear.” (Mark 4:28) –We can’t fully know, and therefore control, God’s action in others or ourselves.

“Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another.” (Mark 9:50b) –You can learn and grow from interesting, stimulating conversation.

"Then it goes and brings back seven other spirits…and the last condition of that person is worse than the first.” (Matthew 12:45) –Regular spiritual housecleaning prevents the infestation of devilish habits, and demonic inhabitation.

"At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:30) –Even our most nourishing earthly relationships abide in the context of our primary relationship with God.

"Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” (Matthew 6:27) –“No, but that never stopped me before!” Time is short.

“’See, he said, ‘now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.’” (Isaiah 6:7) –Make a point of eating something healthy today, and consider its salutary effects on your soul.

“You have preserved my life from the pit of destruction, when you cast behind your back all my sins.” (Isaiah 38:17) –Consider the power of forgiveness in your own life, and pay it forward whenever possible.

“Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many.” (Isaiah 53:11) –Put your hardships to good use by connecting, even spiritually, with someone else in distress.

“Put not your trust in the deceitful words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord!’” (Jeremiah 7:4) –Authentic believers don’t rely solely on external manifestations of their devotion.

"Then the virgins shall make merry and dance, and young men and old as well” (Jeremiah 31:13) –Remind your face that occupation with God is well worth your time and effort.

“You have become for me a treacherous brook, whose waters do not abide!” (Jeremiah 15:18) –From my perspective, God can seem rather unreliable; what adjustments must I make today?

“If you warn the wicked man…and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.” (Ezekiel 33:9) –There is value to fraternal correction, but don’t ignore your own errors.

“I will…[take] from your bodies your stony hearts and [give] you natural hearts.” (Ezekiel 36:26) –Empathy is one of God’s greatest blessings and man’s greatest needs.

“You shall have honest scales, an honest ephah, and an honest liquid measure.” (Ezekiel 45:10) –Your time and resources are not your own, so use them well.

“I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart.” (Hosea 2:16) –God often reaches us best when we seem at our worst.

"We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’ to the work of our hands” (Hosea 14:4) –What idol(s) ought you set aside in favor of your first, true Love?

“My people perish for want of knowledge!” (Hosea 4:6) –Spend time with informative books, periodicals, websites…and people.

“What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me!” (Exodus 17:5) –Don’t be afraid to share your exasperation with God.

“The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” (Exodus 18:18) –Lending a hand, or an ear, lifts a burden from another’s back.

“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) –Treat the people you see today as sacred, not as means to an end.

“Let those who seek you, God of Israel, not be disgraced through me.” (Psalm 69:7) –Positively put: may my life give honor to God and hope to people!

“Is it in vain that I have kept my heart clean?” (Psalm 73:13). –Only if your obedience is motivated by human respect. God’s respect is most necessary, and most reliable.

“I gave them over to their hardness of heart” (Psalm 81:13). –Some say to God, ‘Your will be done,’ while God says to others, ‘Have it your way.’

“Those who follow the way of integrity, they alone can enter my service.” (Psalm 101:6) –Being the same person with everyone makes us fit for God’s employ.

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Since I'm not living in Berks County anymore, I probably won't, and shouldn't, be asked to submit another month. But there's always the social media. No promises or deadlines (and they can be helpful!), but stay tuned for more Daily Thoughts!

05 October 2014

Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel--Requiescat in Pace

I note with mingled sadness and gratitude the death of Father Benedict Joseph Groeschel, C.F.R., Ed.D. For many years he was the director of Trinity Retreat in Larchmont, New York: a place for priests to make their annual retreat and, in the case of a good number of us over the years, a place to stay while taking extended time for reflection and self-care. Such was my case for a few months in 2006 and 2007.

I had met Father Benedict before that time, when he gave a retreat to us seminarians during our Spirituality Year in 1998-99. Not long into a confession I made with him during that retreat, he looked intently at me, put his hand on my arm, and said: "You are a card-carrying member of the self-haters club." Dead right! Seven years later our acquaintance would be far more extensive--and intensive--because of my stay at Trinity, where occasional meetings with him were one of several therapeutic initiatives in the program. 

Father's life of prayer and years of experience with priests gave him a knack for recognizing the truth. Because of his Jersey City upbringing, he also had a knack for stating the truth as he saw it without ambiguity. His upbringing and personality were perhaps tempered by his life of prayer and suffering, though they were also bolstered by his sense of humor. He would often joke about the town of his youth and its regional accent, using a pronounced version when quoting bygone slogans such as,"When you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer." This saying applies, of course, to the Catholic Church as having been invested with the fullness of the means of grace.

In our meetings Father would mention various priests he knew from our diocese, often with a story and a keen observation. He didn't forget a face. (I just accidentally typed, "fact"; that was also true.) But the bulk of the conversations centered around the concerns that led me to request the time away. I will contend with most of them for the rest of my days; but my perseverance, and God's grace, will redound to my salvation and to that of my charges. Father believed that I would "make it," and encouraged me several times to that effect. From his warm smile and quiet tone I wouldn't have known that he'd almost died from a bus accident a little over two years before. He knew that every moment subsequent to that event (and every moment before it) was a blessing. Sitting with him in his wisdom-infested office, I knew, was also a blessing.

Our final encounter took place at the episcopal consecration and installation of our diocesan bishop, John Oliver Barres, who grew up in Larchmont. Considering that this might be (and was) the last time I'd see Father Groeschel, I wanted to get a photo with him. As Father was caught in a maelstrom of well-wishers (as many for him as for Bishop Barres), I didn't get to say much more than my name and the reason for our acquaintance, if he even needed my reminder. Since the modern media have made it easier to allow no personal data--thoughts, words, and deeds--to go unpublished, I conclude these remarks with that photo, and a Deo gratias for Father Benedict's life and ministry.

CMZ and BJG, 30 July 2009