The Garden of Cats: On Heroism

“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”  J.R.R. Tolkien

A couple of years ago, I spent several weeks learning everything I could about the war in Syria. I was writing a story set in Aleppo about a Syrian-American doctor who provides medical aid to war victims, and I researched the topic by studying news articles, maps, and timelines about the conflict. As I forced myself to look at pictures and videos of the dead and wounded, I remembered a comment one of my professors made after presenting a conference paper about spousal abuse in the Middle Ages. “Never write about anything,” she wearily advised us, “that it makes you sick to think about.”

I haven’t followed her advice. I’ve written about drug cartels, animal cruelty, murder, and other unpleasant, even painful, subjects. But I can’t say that the full meaning of her words ever struck me the way they did during those weeks of immersing myself in the details of the greatest humanitarian disaster of our time. My fictional characters were always just that, and though their struggles certainly felt real to me as I mapped them out in my imagination, they had never been individuals whose real-life antecedents were drawing breath even as I wrote.

I doubt that anyone could have remained untouched by all that I read and saw: people gasping for breath after chemical attacks, a full-term baby scheduled for a breech delivery killed by sniper fire as his mother walked to the hospital, small children whose hands were blown off by cluster bombs they mistook for toys. I saw parents who refused to relinquish their dead children, a screaming man carrying the body of a headless boy, a couple whose five children were all ripped apart by the same barrel bomb. In June of 2016, pro-Assad warplanes bombed a health center for newborn babies, among other medical facilities in the city of Aleppo. By November, there were no hospitals left.

Studies have demonstrated that people who read literary fiction tend to possess greater empathy, and, as I imagine that goes double for those who write it, my reaction was perhaps unsurprising. Seven thousand miles from Syria, surrounded by my family, in good health and with nothing in the world to complain about, I spent several weeks in an emotional state bordering on a full-scale depression. Then, as a presidential campaign predicated on discrimination toward Muslims in general and refugees in particular unfolded in my own country, my sadness began to turn to anger. As Pope Francis prayed for Syria, François Hollande mourned the “martyred city” of Aleppo, and world leaders like Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau welcomed in the displaced, Donald Trump announced his plan to prevent any Muslim’s immigration to the United States and, as if to add insult to injury, his son posted a tweet comparing Syrian refugees to poisoned candies. I had never been so ashamed of my country.

But amid the almost entirely bad news from Syria and the campaign trail, I unexpectedly began to encounter stories that affected me very differently. Fred Rogers, PBS’s “Mister Rogers,” used to recount how in times of crisis his mother reminded him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I wasn’t looking for such people, but I found them—individuals with stories of incredible heroism and courage even in the face of unimaginable suffering. People like Doctor Firas al-Jundi, one of a few remaining surgeons at the only hospital left in Maarat al-Numan, and Malaika (last name unreported), head nurse at the Aleppo Children’s Hospital. Without enough medicine and with water too dirty to perform surgeries, Dr. al-Jundi stayed on, providing what medical assistance he could. When a reporter asked the doctor why he didn’t leave Syria, he replied, “If I did that I would abandon my conscience…Who would treat the people? I am prepared to die rather than to leave.” Malaika, whose family fled without her, slept at the hospital after an airstrike destroyed her home. She continued working, even as she underwent multiple surgeries to remove shrapnel from her own wounds. When asked why she stayed, Malaika—whose name means “angel” in Arabic—responded, “The children… If we leave these children, who will be here to help them?”

Mohammad Alaa al-Jaleel, an engineer from Aleppo who began driving an ambulance during the war, found himself caring for several cats who’d been abandoned by their fleeing owners. Over time their number grew to several hundred, and, with the help of an Italian liaison foundation, Alaa built a cat sanctuary that doubled as a playground for the besieged city’s children. I’ve watched videos of him, surrounded by cats and children in his Garden. “Someone who has mercy in their heart for people,” he says in one, “has mercy for every living thing.”

I write about these people in the past tense because I don’t know whether or not they’re still alive. In the hope that they are, I pray for them among my more general prayers. It gives me solace to say their names aloud—names that won’t appear in history books like Bashar al-Assad’s and Vladimir Putin’s, and that may never be spoken again once this generation dies out. These people and countless others like them remind me that no act is without meaning and no living creature too insignificant to merit kindness. They show that ordinary people can be extraordinarily good and noble, and that the Arabic proverb Lesa el donia bkhair—”Still, the world is good”—is true after all.

April Vázquez is the winner of the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and a Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Orison Anthology award nominee. Her favorite line from a novel is “Jane had occasionally tried to develop her own hidden depths, but she never could decide what to hide or how far down.”


Romero Remains Relevant

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All day, every day, I hang out with about 55 Salvadoran teenagers. I’m a teacher, and I work with immigrant students in a neighborhood full of pupuserias and cumbia. Inside the walls of our bright, beautiful schools, the kids make it clear—they miss El Salvador. Their families aren’t clinging to Salvadoran culture because they want to change the US, but rather because they didn’t want to leave their homes at all. The journeys across the deserts and rivers of Central America and Mexico were not to come benefit from some mythical American dream, but quite literally to save their lives and the lives of their children.

The Death Squads of the Civil War have become history, but the violence continues. After the Salvadoran Civil War, the US had one major export to El Salvador: the gang culture of Los Angeles, which filled much of the power vacuum in the wake of the Civil War. In the San Diego International Law Review, Juan Fogelbach wrote about the risk factors that lead Salvadoran youth to the gangs: neglect, violence, poverty, lack of opportunity, and a family relationship to gangs. When seeking a solution to these problems, few options are offered to the poor of Central America.

In El Salvador, a handful of elite oligarchs continue to disenfranchise the rest of the nation. Even as mining revenue grows the country’s GDP, most families continue to live in abject poverty. Archbishop Óscar Romero, soon to be a saint, saw the same forces at work some forty years ago. He recognized that taking on the cause of the poor is dangerous, for individuals and for the Church. But without taking that danger upon ourselves, we cannot fully live Christ’s greatest commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

In the month before he died, Romero traveled to Europe, where he accepted an honorary document at Louvain and implored St. John Paul II against supporting the government in El Salvador. When speaking at Louvain, Romero said, “Once again it is the poor who enable us to understand what has really happened. That is why the Church has understood the persecution from the perspective of the poor. Persecution has been occasioned by the defense of the poor. It amounts to nothing other than the Church’s taking upon herself the lot of the poor.” Romero must continue to be our model for taking on the passion of the poor and accepting our own persecution for the defense of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Salvadoran community in the US continues to experience persecution. Our government has stripped them of protection, and our immigration laws put families trying to escape violence in danger of deportation that is more like a death sentence. Can we put ourselves and our Church on the line to protect them the way Romero did?

Romero doesn’t only matter in the face of violence and injustice. He is also relevant to a Church battered and divided by politics. Especially in the US, it can be so easy for us to align ourselves with a party and to assert that a “real Catholic” votes a certain way. It isn’t so easy or simple. Romero’s only partisanship was to justice, to truth, to holiness. He didn’t broadcast the names of the missing and killed because he was a Marxist member of the Liberation Front. No, he preached against repression and murder because he believed in the unalienable dignity of the human person. The only label he wanted for the Church was one of unity and Incarnation.

In a homily given on November 11, 1979, less than six months before his assassination, Romero said: “We are not being political when during the homily we point out political, social and economic sins. Rather this action is the result of the Word of God becoming incarnated in our reality which often does not reflect the Word of God but rather the reign of sin. Therefore, the Word of God points out to people the paths of redemption.”

Santo subito.

Brigid Hogan is a teacher, writer, and reader who lives in Northeast DC


Why Do People Enjoy Films?

Why do people enjoy films? What is it about the cinema that we find so captivating? What draws us to sit in a dark room with strangers or alone on our living room sofas and stare at a screen for hours—sometimes experiencing a story we’ve visited many times before? From the first public film in 1895 to the thousands of films per year produced in 2017, audiences show up time and time again to watch light dance across a screen and tell someone else’s tale. Why? It can be argued that, initially, the human fascination with cinema stemmed from a sense of wonder at the possibility of harnessing and projecting moving images in the first place. It may not have mattered what was on the screen, for the very fact that a moving image was, in fact, on the screen garnered interest and allure. A century after film’s origination, this reasoning cannot explain why film is an 88-billion-dollar industry. While there are certainly still people who regard the ability to harness, manipulate, and project light an amazing feat, the vast majority of film-viewers must be drawn to the medium for alternate reasons. I suggest that the human captivation with cinema exists not because of what film is—controlled shadows and light—but because of what film does—sacramentalize existential human experiences.

I, myself, am intrigued and repeatedly fascinated by film’s ability to sacramentalize human experience. Having dabbled in the field of film production for several years, I appreciate the artform and understand the unique combination of creative instinct and technical skill required to produce a film. However, having more thoroughly immersed myself in the field of theological study, I am continuously intrigued by the myriad ways that these two areas of study illuminate each other. In doing theology, I often study God by studying God’s creation—creation that includes the wondrously multifaceted being referred to as “human.” While the human is just one being among many interconnected and mutually dependent creations, I have found a focus on the human (albeit not exclusively) to be beneficial to understanding how God works in the world. Viewing films with a framework of theological anthropology allows any film that captures human experience and shares it on screen to also provide a window through which one views the divine. It is this opportunity to witness film’s sacramentalizing effect on human experience that repeatedly draws me to the cinema. It is this invitation to experience humanity from different perspectives that encourages me to watch and re-watch my favorite films. It is this convergence of storytelling, life-experiencing, and meaning-making that captivates me, as a theologian, and insists that I participate in the ongoing love that humanity has for the cinema.

For the theology scholar, film offers “a compelling alternative route to religious experience at a time when we desperately seem to need it, with film functioning either as proxy for religion (Lyden, Plate) or a means of enhancing or perhaps even revealing existing faith (Sison, Nayar)” (Joseph Kickasola, John C. Lyden, S. Brent Plate, Antonio Sison, Sheila J. Nayar, Stefanie Knauss, Rachel Wagner and Jolyon Baraka Thomas, “Facing Forward, Looking Back: Religion and Film Studies in the Last Decade,” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 17: Iss. 1, Article 32: 53). Storytelling, life-experiencing, and meaning-making are all things that can be achieved through a written narrative, as well. But, there is something different, and I argue advantageous, about participating in this process via film. Using film in theology allows one to explore major theological themes in a contemporary climate, reminds one that theology has an unavoidable and important public dimension, and enables one to awaken the emotional and aesthetic aspects of faith that are often left unstimulated when reading text on a page: “Precisely because film as a medium works through the creation of an emotional response first and foremost, as a reaction to the visual image presented, film invites theological reflection to begin through an emotional channel” (Clive Marsh, “Film and Theologies of Culture” in Explorations in Theology and Film, 32-33). Viewers experience the material sensually and then think about it, instead of encountering the material intellectually and then being asked to apply it to lived experience. The primacy of sensory experience allowed by incorporating film into the study of theology provides a new way with which to engage theological material that is beneficial to the rigorous theology scholar and the non-scholar, alike.

Film’s power of visual imagery results in great influence over modern society. People are often likely to have more vivid memories of something they see and hear than something they read. Because of this, film’s influences naturally persist outside of the theater complex: “Film has stepped down from the screen to infiltrate political, social and religious lives. The argument here is that religion and film leave the temples and theatres, synagogues and living rooms, and meet in the streets, stairways, parking lots, weddings, funerals, cities and deserts of the US” (S. Brent Plate, Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World, 79). People do not leave their filmic encounter at the door of the cinema. Once experienced, it unavoidably informs their lived experiences from that point forward. In a sense, our film viewing experience is nothing short of sacramental.

Stephanie Clary serves as the Manager of Mission Outreach and Communication for the Diocese of Burlington and the Assistant Editor of Vermont Catholic.


Practical Holiness

In his new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis offers a vision of holiness that is both deeply spiritual and deeply practical. I expected the former. In fact, when I first heard that the document would be about holiness, I wondered if it would have any practical resonance. A reflection on holiness could be inspiring, certainly, but would it speak directly to the challenges of faith in modern life?

I realize now that I did not give the Holy Father enough credit. Throughout the five years of his papacy, he has been consistently concerned with how the rubber meets the road for our Catholic faith. Gaudete et Exsultate is no different. This practical focus is yet another example of Francis the pastor responding to the needs of his flock.

Holiness often seems irrelevant or unachievable in our oversaturated, hyperconnected, postmodern world. Our lives are cacophonous, far from the cloistered silence that we imagine when we think of holiness. We divide our time between jobs, school, family, friends, hobbies, fitness, civic engagement, entertainment, and those rare moments that we can carve out for ourselves. Email, texting, and social media mean that others have access to us at every hour of the day. Silence is a foreign concept.

With all of these competing, urgent demands on our time and energy, faith becomes just one more responsibility to compartmentalize. It has its place in our lives (often, for forty-five minutes on the weekend) but that is where it remains.

Gaudete et Exsultate calls us to resist that compartmentalization, in favor of seeing our entire lives as a journey towards holiness. For Pope Francis, holiness is something we do. It has as much to do with how we carry ourselves through our lives as it does the amount of time that we spend in prayer: “We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves” (14).

There are times when the document reads less like a spiritual reflection and more like a collection of best practices. Take, for instance, his discussion of the Beatitudes (65-94), which examines how each one can be put into practice today. Or, immediately after, read his treatment of Matthew 25, where he connects Christ’s great criterion for Judgment with the current plight of migrants and refugees (102-3). He even talks about how Christians should treat each other online (115). Holiness is active.

At the same time, Francis realizes that our world desperately needs silence. “We are overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din,” he says. “How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God?” (29). Contemplation and action go hand in hand. Carving out time for silent prayer may be countercultural, but not because it rejects culture. To the contrary, “It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service…. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission” (26).

This is the vision of holiness that we need today: deeply spiritual, active, challenging, and real. Instead of fleeing the world to find God, Pope Francis calls us to a greater mindfulness of God’s presence in our everyday lives and how responding to God’s call sanctifies our daily activity.  In his own words: “We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness” (31).

John Dougherty is the director of campus ministry at Saint Peter’s Prep in NJ, and you can follow him on Twitter @johndoc23.


Why I’m (Still) Angry at Stephen Hawking

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I get really mad at Stephen Hawking sometimes.

I think about this man – this great, honorable man who taught us so much about the world – and I find myself frustrated by him. Frustrated by his atheism. Confused by his outlook on life – by his unrelenting stance on the meaninglessness of the universe beyond random chance. How could he not see God in that which he studied?

For me, Hawking’s life and death are intimately personal. The disease from which he suffered is one I know too well. My grandmother was diagnosed with ALS with dementia in 2009. She died less than a year later.

I see Steven Hawking, and my first instinct is that it’s not fair. It’s not fair that his family got so much longer with him than I got with my grandma. It’s not fair that he got to live so long with this disease and that because his access to technology and his own body supported him for so long, he’s seen as a miraculous success for this disease with no cure.

But there’s also something about Hawking and his view of life that deeply troubles me. I know well the suffering Hawking had to experience in his life. There were likely moments where he struggled to speak something he desperately needed to express to a loved one, who could not decipher the meaning behind the words that his mouth could not enunciate. He will have woken up one day unable to move his fingers – later, unable to support his body on his legs, and still later unable to eat, drink, swallow. His mind was trapped inside a body that could no longer contain him, and he was given an expiration date and no hope of a cure.

As a devout Catholic and as someone who watched my grandmother and my family grapple with ALS, I have trouble reconciling Hawking’s atheism with his disease – almost as much trouble as I have reconciling his genius, his love of the cosmos, with his belief that there is nothing beyond it. I cannot bear to think that this suffering that he underwent, that my grandmother underwent, and that thousands of individuals per year undergo has no purpose – that it simply is. Read More


God vs. Your Financial Planner

As a financial planner, I encourage people to take control of their finances and plan for their future. I often wonder if this contradicts my faith, which teaches us to entrust our lives to God. Matthew 6:26 tells us that our Father will provide for our needs. Jesus Himself calls us to trust: “No one can snatch you out of my Father’s hand.”

When we take control of our finances, we develop a plan for everything –we determine how much we need to set aside in our 401(k) and IRAs so we can retire comfortably, develop a budget so we can save for a house or a vacation, buy insurance to protect our loved ones from unexpected events, etc. Numerous studies have shown that a comprehensive financial plan helps working families build more wealth, reduce debt, and achieve at least one financial goal.

However, Ignatian spirituality teaches us detachment, where we accept whatever life presents. Having a financial plan necessitates we take control, while our spirituality invites us to surrender to the future that God has prepared for us.

Ultimately, I’ve come to believe that these approaches are not contradictory and that they in fact reinforce each other.

God encourages us to work. Proverbs 6: 6-11 commends the ant that stores food in the summer even without an overseer, in contrast with a lazy man who does nothing and comes to poverty. In the parable of the talents, Jesus alludes to God’s appreciation of putting our talents, gifts, and resources to work, so they may grow. Just like we take care of our own health and visit the doctor regularly, we need to take care of our personal finances, so we can be better stewards of our money.

At the same time, Jesus tells us we are not to worry about anything. The Bible is filled with verses reminding us to not be afraid. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD in Jeremiah 29:11:, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” This establishes God’s good plan for all of us.

We all have life goals. However, as we seek God in our daily lives, we develop an awareness that we do not need to achieve our life goals in order to be happy. We can be happy now, with the gifts and graces that God has bestowed upon us. We can simply view our life goals as preferences. It would be nice to go on a vacation in Paris, for instance. But if we cling on to them too much and believe that achieving them is necessary for our happiness, then we risk becoming enslaved by them.

When we turn to God to fill the void inside us, our urge to splurge on things we don’t need is reduced. When our hearts are filled with gratitude for the gifts we receive each day, we stop comparing ourselves to our co-workers’ latest car acquisition. When we spend less, it makes it easier to work towards giving 10% of our income to our church or charities. When we live a simple life, it frees up the clutter and helps us focus on the things that matter most.

When we develop a financial plan and organize our financial lives, our energy is redirected from worrying about and scrambling for money to helping others and discerning how God is calling us to serve.

I believe all of us need to take steps to get our finances in order. But, more importantly, we need to lift all our efforts up to God and surrender to the future that He has in store of us.

Alvin Carlos is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and Chartered Financial Analyst at District Capital Management. He is a parishioner at Holy Trinity in Washington, DC, a Jesuit parish. He practices Ignatian Spirituality and is currently undertaking the Spiritual Exercises.


Can We Stop Sexual Harassment and Abuse When Most Men Habitually Objectify Women with Pornography?

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the numerous reports of sexual harassment and assault that followed, our nation is engaging in an ongoing conversation about the culture of complicity that allowed such predatory behavior to continue unabated. Over the next few months, we are bound to see (thankfully) many articles describing the pervasive nature of this culture of complicity in other industries (the music industry, service industry, etc.). All of this will hopefully lead to structural changes through enacting laws, policies, rules, and customs specific to those industries. But sexual assault and harassment is a cultural problem, not merely an industry problem, and I fear that focusing on specific industries alone will fail to address the wider culture of complicity, as it exists in society as a whole.

Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling that humans try to avoid, and focusing on sexual harassment in specific industries allows people who are not part of that industry to ignore their own involvement in the wider culture of harassment. Someone who is not in the entertainment industry can easily say, “If I were there, I would have said something. I would not have ignored the obvious predatory behavior,” without recognizing the myriad ways that most people already accept the sexual degradation and harassment of women. In our national conversation surrounding these scandals, although we have sought out hidden contributors to this abusive culture, we have avoided one elephant in the room: porn. Read More