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.


Time for a New New Deal

The summer before I entered the Jesuits was a magical one, full of sunsets, road trips, awesome Western thunderstorms, bison, and a cave. I was an interpretive ranger at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. In the southwest corner of the Black Hills, the cave is one of the longest in the world and the plains above are home to one of the few herds of purebred bison.

All of these opportunities stemmed from my internship through the Student Conservation Association, a program initially founded to model the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and develop future conservation leaders. The long term impact of the CCC and other New Deal programs is evident today. From buildings constructed, to the recording and collection of personal stories, to planting forests, New Deal programs helped shape our nation and communitarian values. As I look at crumbling infrastructure, parks in need, and the number of Americans that go unheard, I am unequivocally convinced: America needs a new New Deal.

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Our Great Depression

Our current economic data hides many flaws. It can be easy to point to the number of jobs created, the rate of unemployment, and the GDP as figures of economic strength. Whereas the Great Depression featured a jump in unemployment to 20%, we presently sit at a measly 4.1%. Examining this data alone might point to a lack of US economic hardship. But while the unemployment rate is low, other factors such as underemployment, poverty, infant mortality, and the wealth gap say otherwise. For many Americans, we are living our own Great Depression.

The wealth gap in the US is almost as high as 1929, which you may remember as the year the stock market crashed to usher in the Great Depression. While this is a relational rather than causational fact, the wealth gap nevertheless points to a tragic maldistribution. This wealth gap is even worse when examined through a racial lens. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the wealthiest 100 households now own about as much wealth as the entire African American population in the United States. Among the Forbes 400, just 2 individuals are African American –­ Oprah Winfrey and Robert Smith. Moreover, the wealthiest 186 members of the Forbes 400 own as much wealth as the entire Latino population. Just five members of the Forbes 400 are Latino including Jorge Perez, Arturo Moreno, and three members of the Santo Domingo family

In addition to this great inequality, other statistics demonstrate the undercurrents of America’s bleaker economic reality. Over 20 percent of America’s children live below federal poverty standards. Even more accurate measurements that account for the needs of families place childhood poverty at a staggering 40 percent.

Another key indicator of population well-being is the infant mortality rate. Of the 20 wealthiest countries in the world, the US has the worst infant mortality rate at 6.1 deaths per 1,000 live births. It again gets worse when examining it by race. In 2014, the Center for Disease Control reported that white children have an infant mortality rate of 4.9 deaths per 1,000 live births; black children, in comparison, have more than double that with 10.7 deaths per 1,000 live births.

America is haunted by entrenched poverty, one which it created and sustains. This deep poverty lurks across major cities, the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, America’s farmlands, and more. While we can point to the Great Depression as a massive fall for America, the preceding Roaring Twenties had their own deeply embedded poverty that often ran unnoticed until the Depression. To truly break these long-standing cycles, America needs to recreate programs for the good of communities so often forgotten.

A New New Deal

The number and variety of New Deal programs is a bit staggering, ranging from the creation of the US Travel Bureau to the National Housing Act. These efforts sought to reduce poverty and inequality while bolstering the health of the nation. Three programs from the original New Deal stand out as having incredible potential to attack the issues at the heart of our current Great Depression: the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC); the Glass-Steagall Banking Act; and Social Security expanded into a national healthcare system.

The FSCC began as a way to simultaneously bolster food prices and provide food to families in need. The program connected and funded food from over-stocked farmers to impoverished communities. In 2016, over 40 million Americans (including 13 million children) were food insecure, meaning that they were unable to afford nutritious and sufficient amounts of food. Meanwhile, America threw out enough food in 2012 for every American to have 1,200 additional calories in their daily diet. Recreating the FSCC could drastically increase the stability of smaller and family farms and ensure that low-income Americans have enough healthy food to eat.

Passed in 1933, the Glass-Steagall Act created a buffer between investment banking (i.e. the stock market) and commercial banking (i.e. everyday deposits & loans). The act helped reduce bank closures from 10,000 at the start of the Great Depression to fewer than 600 from WWII into the 1980s. It also led to the creation of the FDIC. While the Glass-Steagall Act would not directly supply food or other immediate relief, it would decrease inequality and create greater protections for consumers.

Lastly, the United States needs a national healthcare system. Social security initially included a program to provide a baseline of healthcare to all Americans, but pushed it aside to assure passage of the rest of the Social Security Act. Guaranteeing access to healthcare would reduce costs, expand Title V and maternal health, and tackle issues like the boom of poverty-related illnesses like dengue and Chagas disease.

Protecting Public Lands

The original New Deal also had an incredible impact on America’s public lands through the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and even the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). These projects largely started as a way to employ millions of jobless young men, as well as preserve a rapidly degrading land.

The continuing impact is tremendous. From 1933 to 1942, the CCC planted over 3 billion trees, erected over 3,400 fire watch towers, created drainages on millions of acres of land, and helped to restore wild rivers and habitats. They worked to preserve the land, as well as make it more accessible, improving over 800 parks nationwide.

While the CCC frequently worked on land-focused projects, the WPA created the infrastructure to enjoy these incredible places. The list of WPA accomplishments is somewhat absurd, including but not limited to: 40,000 new buildings, 85,000 improved buildings, 1,600 parks, 1,000 libraries, hundreds of lodges, and thousands more spaces for recreation. The lasting impact on America’s public spaces is difficult to quantify. Unfortunately, Congress shuttered both the CCC and WPA with the onset of World War II. We need a new New Deal to renew our commitment to protecting our parks and public spaces.

Recovering our History

The original New Deal also recognized the value of the stories that accompany the lives of American people. For example, the Federal Writers Project collected the stories of hundreds of former slaves. This incredible project realized the importance of people so often forgotten. The value of these stories is hard to articulate. While historians at that time tended to focus on great figures and incredible deeds, the WPA shifted the focus to the stories of those unnoticed.

We need to recapture our history. I wonder what would be the result if we took on a similar project today. In my mind, several groups stand out who have stories and lessons that are worth retelling: those who survived the Great Depression, those who participated in civil rights efforts, veterans of 20th century wars, itinerant laborers, and the people of Appalachia. Each of these groups includes people so often embattled by stereotypes, those who regularly read stories of themselves full of falsehoods and half-truths. America would benefit immensely from people having the opportunity to tell their stories, what happened in their lives, and more. Our empathy, cura personalis, and commitment to justice would drastically increase if we would drastically increase if we re-started the Federal Writers Project in an effort to recapture our history once again.

Communitarian Values

Each of these – economic justice, protecting public lands, and recapturing our history – were essential components of the New Deal. Our current economic and social climate points to the need for a new New Deal.

At the root of it all, I believe that America has lost its tradition and memory of communitarian values. In examining our past, we must realize that we were strongest when we took care of whole communities, recognizing our dependence on communities and their dependence on us.

America’s national childhood (1715 to 1789) took place during a boom of individualism. We grew from philosophies that emphasized our personal liberties and freedoms, and pulling oneself up by their bootstraps. Despite this grand philosophy, it has hardly ever been our reality.  Even while espousing the value of individual hard work, communities bonded to support each other. While our national rhetoric depends on John Wayne-style cowboys who go it alone, our truest identity depends on the stories from the whole community.

I believe that deep down, America truly needs to rediscover itself as a community. It must meet its own neighbors, share their stories, and share in their work. A new New Deal can create programs which can make that happen. We must be willing to offer of ourselves for the betterment of our community and country.

This article by Ken Homan, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.


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.


It Will Happen Again and Again

I get asked for more spiritual advice than I’m actually able to give. I understand why it happens. I write about Christianity in public, and I clearly think about it a lot. But history is rich with contemplative sorts who spent much more time trying to understand the faith than living it faithfully. Like them, I’m a flawed vessel for the only thing that fills me. I’m aware of the history of the religion — parts of it, anyway—but the Christian life is as mysterious to me as anyone.

But if I’m asked to help, I’ll try to. So here’s all the spiritual advice I have, which was learned through experience, not study.

About an hour passes between the second time Peter denies knowing Jesus and the third and final time. It must have felt like an eternity, sitting there in the nighttime firelight, overcome with dread and uncertainty. There was time to think.

Maybe Peter thought about some way to still stop this entire process, this thing that was prepared to happen. That had been his first instinct, after all. Maybe he thought about fleeing. Maybe he thought about the next question that would come, and what he would say. Maybe he tried to steel himself to affirm his friendship with Christ, come what may. Maybe he had the exact words in mind.

And maybe he knew by then, after those first two denials, the likelihood that he would find his strength now was rather low. Jesus had said as much, anyway.

The man must never have known a longer hour. Hope is a thorn in the side of doubt, not a thing with feathers that perches in the soul. It aches. And at the end of it all he does —you will—still fail. Peter denies Christ again. The rooster crows, and Jesus looks at Peter, because even though Peter has denied Jesus, Jesus has not denied him. His opportunities are not yet exhausted.

The majority of us — who Augustine called the non-valde-boni, the not-very-good-ones—live our whole lives in the space of that hour. We hope. We try. We will probably fail. It will happen over and over again. The most relatable Christians in literature are not the subjects of hagiographies, but of the kind of morally ambiguous stories that amount, in the end, to what we call a life. Shusaku Endo’s Kichijiro, who repents only one more time than he apostatizes, is perhaps the ideal form.

In an era where solutions are judged by their efficiency, it can be hard to accept that this is just how grace works on fallen creatures: like a spiral, circling around you over and over again as you repeat the same mistakes, drawing nearer and nearer to your heart the longer you seek it. It isn’t that grace is ineffective or inefficient but that we are, being what we are, imperfect vessels for it. The miracle is that it works anyway.


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