The Ash Wednesday wake-up call is the start of a spiritual spring cleaning I always love, even when the spiritual work is heavy and messy. I love the Mass readings (“Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart . . .”). I love the sense of ancient tribalism that accompanies the smearing of ashes onto foreheads—this outward sign of penance, of belonging, of self-revelation: I belong to Christ, and I am a sinner. I even love being reminded, as the priest or deacon marks me, that absent my soul I am only dust, and to dust I will return. There only time I dislike Ash Wednesday is when the sermon becomes an unfocused ramble that feels too long, whether it’s delivered at 7 a.m., when we’re afraid of being late to work, or at 5 p.m., when we’re tired and hungry and the kids are…
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My dad recently sent me video footage of when I was a little kid. Part of it showed a moment that is one of my earliest memories: dancing with my sisters and cousins in my Uncle Tommy’s house to George Michael’s new hit at the time, “Freedom! ’90.” While everyone danced—it certainly has a catchy beat—my little cousin Danny stood in the middle of the dancing chorus belting out “Freedom! Freedom!” along with the song. It’s a sweet, funny memory.  It brought up another sweet childhood memory: of the Mass. My parish near the South Side of Chicago tried to incorporate traditional black gospel music into the liturgy. (We grew up on the Blue Brothers, okay?) Parishioners never could get the gospel groove quite right, though, always frustrating the parish music director who was going for a James Brown church revival vibe.  I link…
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In this second article of a two-part series (read part one here), I offer five more reasons why faith is good news for our mental health. A sixth resource that comes with faith is the support it provides through community. Many depression and mental health problems are made worse by isolation and thinking we are suffering alone. Christians believe in a God of relationship—of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who share a life of communion and love. Faith draws us into that communion of love, uniting us to God and to others who share that relationship with us. Here is the spirituality of communion, which gives us an ability to think of our brothers and sisters within the profound unity of the Mystical Body of Christ and therefore as part of our lives. For all Christian Churches, a sense of welcome and belonging is fundamentally important along with the…
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Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of Temper and every evil Habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own Souls. —from Jane Austen’s Prayers “Henry Crawford had too much sense not to feel the worth of good principles in a wife, though he was too little accustomed to serious reflection to know them by their proper name.” In so few words, the narrator of Mansfield Park identifies the foundation for the remarkable attachment of the charming and playful Henry Crawford for the demure and boring Fanny Price. Henry’s doomed attraction to Fanny and his unsuccessful endeavor to win her regard comprise, perhaps, one of the greatest tragedies in all of Austen’s work. While many may lay the blame for Henry’s downfall at the…
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Stories about outsiders or imposters who come to a community and act as catalysts are always intriguing to us, which is why the idea is revisited so frequently in fairy tales, in literature, and in cinema. I think of Lawrence Kasdan’s so-so film Mumford, about a pretend psychologist who unburdens people of their secrets. And then there’s Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat, in which a mysterious confectioner hawks her delicacies in a French village during Lent, eventually loosening everybody up (for better or for worse). But what happens when a fake priest comes to town? This is the question posed by the Polish film Corpus Christi, recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Film.  The answer is complicated. Released abroad in 2019, Corpus Christi…
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It’s insidious. You don’t even know it’s happening. The initial reasons all seem worthy and innocuous, and you imagine, “There’s always tomorrow. Just this once.” So you chip away at it, you excuse yourself, you rationalize, and then, finally, you stop. Game over. “Today, I have a very busy day ahead of me, I need to get a head start on things. So I’ll cut the time down just a bit.” The next day as you settle into your focus, your busied mind is taken away by some pressing worries, and you succumb by heading over to your laptop to send out just a few emails. You were just certain that would do the trick and let you focus, even though it didn’t. The following day, before you even begin, you decide you will just quick-check the news first, get that out of the way, and then go right to…
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In this first of a two-part series, I would like to offer a few thoughts on a super important topic today—namely, that of our mental health and how it benefits from a mature and lively faith. What good news does our faith offer to us when we feel down, depressed, and suffer in our minds? Here I offer five reasons why our faith in Christ is Good News that brings light in times of darkness. First though, a few caveats that are important. The first of these points out the obvious—namely, that having faith does not immunize us from mental health problems as we see in the lives of people like St. Louis Martin (1823-1894, father of St. Thérèse of Lisieux) and St. Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-1783). Both were firm believers but suffered in their minds. Second, not every mental illness has a spiritual cause, so having weak faith or…
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Below is Jared Zimmerer’s introduction to Bishop Barron’s new book, Centered: The Spirituality of Word on Fire. Learn more about the book here. One of the highlights of my life was meeting with the late Cardinal Francis George. Before he passed away, he came to the Word on Fire office in Chicago and met with several people on staff. I was invited by Bishop Barron to join the meeting, even though it was still a few years before I officially joined Word on Fire. I remember Cardinal George asking the very serious question, “Where are the movements in the Church today? Where are the movements that will respond to the spiritual and existential problems of our time?” He was challenging Word on Fire to take its mission to prayer—and through his inspiration, the ministry gave rise to the Word on Fire Institute, a teaching arm designed to form and…
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Give us grace to endeavor after a truly Christian spirit to seek to attain that temper of forbearance and patience of which our blessed savior has set us the highest example; and which, while it prepares us for the spiritual happiness of the life to come, will secure to us the best enjoyment of what this world can give. —from Jane Austen’s Prayers Describing them as “the last great representative of the classical tradition of virtues,” Alasdair MacIntyre identifies in the works of Jane Austen a marriage of Christian and classical themes. Many elements of a systematic virtue ethic shine through the entire body of Austen’s work, as the search for happiness undergirds the actions of each character that appears in the novels. Whether it entails discussing Shakespeare’s sonnets with a charming young man or accepting the proposals of a very silly…
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Both of my sons are wordsmiths, and the elder one has a particular facility for delivering groan-inducing puns with such lightning speed that even as you roll your eyes, you can’t help but be a little impressed—or terrified—by how dexterously his brain can associate many things with many other things. A few years ago, during a chat about Traditional Chinese Medicine, I explained that practitioners will advise their patients to nourish and build up the yin energies through autumn and winter and the yang energies in the springtime and summer. I had barely finished my sentence when he said, “Well, obviously! What’s yanger than springtime?” A gift for wordplay is the sign of an active, engaged mind, and I always appreciate seeing evidence of Jesus’ vigorous intellect in the bits of affectionate, word-based, and rather Semitic humor on display in Scripture; I marvel at Jesus’ deft tongue. In Matthew 14,…
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My favorite moment of an otherwise underwhelming Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night was when Shia LaBeouf came on stage with Zack Gottsagen, a thirty-four-year-old actor with Down Syndrome. Together they presented the award for best live-action short film, making Gottsagen the first person with Down Syndrome ever to give an award at the Oscars. LaBeouf and Gottsagen starred together in the touching 2019 film The Peanut Butter Falcon. They are genuine friends and have marvelous chemistry on screen. It was a shock, therefore, when LaBeouf was accused on Twitter of making fun of Gottsagen on stage when, to my eyes, LaBeouf and Gottsagen both appeared nervous, and LaBeouf seemed to have been helping Gottsagen relax and say his lines. In any case, it was a joy to see a person with Down syndrome in such a popular forum. In a room full of influencers who promote myriad…
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Friends, during Lent, we apprentice to Jesus in his forty-day sojourn in the desert. We stubbornly stay with him, doing what he did there, facing what he faced there. The desert is the place of clarification. When we have been stripped of the relatively trivial desires that preoccupy us, we can see, with a somewhat disturbing clarity, who we essentially are and what most pressingly matters. Blaise Pascal said that most of us spend our lives seeking divertissements (distractions), for we cannot bear the weight of the great questions. We play, gossip, eat and drink, seek the most banal entertainment—so that we don’t have to face the truth about ourselves, the reality of death, and the demands of God. The Spirit drives holy people into the desert because it is the place where the divertissements disappear: “He fasted for forty days and forty nights.” At the end of the Lord’s…
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Prior to Sunday, January 26, 2020, the most famous Catholic on Earth was a Black Catholic. Excluding the Holy Father, there is little doubt concerning the accuracy of this claim concerning one Kobe Bean Bryant. Yet the thought has probably never crossed your mind. Why? This is the great conundrum of Black Catholics: they are at once one of the least familiar and yet most long-standing Christian groups in the United States. They are everywhere and apparently nowhere all at the same time. They are a demographic of uncommon faithfulness, forgotten legacies, and hidden figures. During and after my relatively short journey into the Catholic Church last year, I have experienced within Black Catholicism this peculiar sort of contradiction at almost every level. This journey began primarily as a theological question (“What is Catholicism?”), but I eventually realized that bound up in that question is the issue of history…
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Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. —William Shakespeare My father used to say, “With almost no exceptions, assume that anything you say to anyone will be known to all at some point.” In other words, realize that people who truly hold confidences are few, and so entrust your sacred secrets to only those rare people who have proven themselves worthy.  Or as Schopenhauer once put it, “If I maintain my silence about my secret it is my prisoner. If I let it slip from my tongue, I am its prisoner.” I have found this to be an iron law. Yet I myself have failed innumerable times over the years in keeping to this law. A confessor once said to me, “If you demand others to respect confidentiality, you have to hold yourself first to the highest standard.” He added, “When someone…
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For all whom we love and value, for every friend and connection, we equally pray; however divided and far asunder, we know that we are alike before Thee and under Thine eye. May we be equally united in Thy faith and fear, in fervent devotion towards Thee, and in Thy merciful protection this night. —from Jane Austen’s Prayers “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.” Such are the thoughts of Charlotte Lucas concerning the…
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While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. —Luke 15:20 On preaching this particular Gospel reading, a favorite homilist suggested that it is easy for us to identify with either of the sons, the prodigal or the ignored-feeling obedientiary who has long toiled in his father’s field. “But the story is not really about either of them. It’s about the father.” Sensing this priest was about to serve up something instructive and meaty, I took notes, which were recently rediscovered during a desk overhaul. Here is what I had jotted down: “The father who created you in his image, and loved you enough to give you free will; the father who steps out daily and casts his eyes upon the horizon, looking for…
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Last fall, I received a letter from a student who said she would be “graciously appreciative” if I would tell her “just what enlightenment” I expected her to get from each of my stories. I suspect she had a paper to write. I wrote her back to forget about the enlightenment and just try to enjoy them. —Flannery O’Connor You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. —Flannery O’Connor Some of my favorite anecdotes featuring Flannery O’Connor involve her encounters with English teachers. A brilliant young southern novelist with acerbic wit and penetrating insight, Flannery suffered no fools . . . and especially fools who fashioned themselves the wise men of academia. This slight woman racked with the consuming pain of lupus had no qualms about rebuffing the…
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On June 13 Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill will turn twenty-five years old, and although Morisette will tour this summer to celebrate her groundbreaking, generation-defining debut record, there’s another perspective of the album currently playing on Broadway. Jagged Little Pill, the musical, opened in December at the Broadhurst Theatre, and I saw it with a priest friend while I was home for Christmas break, mostly for the sake of nostalgia. I was nineteen when Jagged Little Pill was released, having just finished my first semester of college seminary, and even saw Morisette play her first show in Cleveland back in August of 1995, so I assumed the new musical would be a good trip down memory lane. It was, but in a way significantly better than anything I could have anticipated. Although the show includes all the music from Jagged Little Pill (plus other songs by Morisette, including two…
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It was a bit of a shock, for the whole nation, to learn of the death of Kobe Bryant and his daughter in a helicopter crash that took nine lives. The common lamentations came quickly: “Forty-one is so young.” “His daughter was with him.” “LA is in mourning.” “Mamba forever.” Those who don’t follow basketball or pop culture may wonder who Kobe was and why the world seemed so shaken by his death. Wikipedia and social media can fill them in on his stats and history, but to get at the root of why Kobe’s death mattered to people who did not know him, it perhaps helps to think of three distinct ideas he embodied that can speak to all of us: You Are More Than What You Do During an interview, Robin Roberts tried a little word-association exercise with Kobe: “What one word comes to mind when you…
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Several years ago, the downfall of the young NFL player Aaron Hernandez shocked the sports world. On April 15, 2015, the New England Patriots’ star tight end was convicted of first-degree murder for the death of Odin Lloyd, a semi-pro football player and friend, who was dating his fiancée’s sister. When Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison, it evoked the drama of O.J. Simpson and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman two decades earlier. There was a lot of national media attention. There was even a car chase. In the end, Hernandez took his own life in prison. There are a million “whys” in stories like Aaron Hernandez’s. The new Netflix miniseries, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, indulges our obsession with celebrity scandals, and it tries to explain the unexplainable. Killer Inside reminds us of the obvious: murder is horrifying. Who would “claim for…
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