Monday, August 17, 2015

Images Not Made By Hand

Yesterday's feast of the Icon Not Made By Hands remembers when King Abgar of Syria was suffering from leprosy and asked for an image of Jesus, the sight of whom would be enough to heal. Christ wiped his face on a towel and sent it with his retained image to the ruler, and he was healed; many more were healed by the image for years afterward.

Coincidentally, I also realized that I posted almost fifty photos yesterday. It got me wondering: What is a photograph but a surface that is open and receptive to the forms before it? Aren't they also images written not by hand but by light? While not miracles, I do hope that my "images-not-made-by-hands" can be not only beautiful but maybe even a bit salvific or healing.

Happy Feast Day to my many photographer and filmmaker friends!

Monday, August 4, 2014


During my time doing my Masters at Boston College, I had the honor of being a Lonergan Fellow and studying the work of Bernard Lonergan, S. J. Lonergan was a Canadian Jesuit priest whose philosophy and theology centered around what it means to have an insight (which can also be called an "intellectual conversion"). I'm convinced that Lonergan will likely be known as one of the most comprehensive and original philosophers in modern history, if only because I have seen the kind of community that has grown from the study of his work. There are few communities as joyous, intellectually acute, or collaborative as Lonerganians, who are some of the most attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, and loving people you're likely to meet.

There are two recent developments in my post-grad Lonergan community. In the first place, this fall I will present my paper "Façadebook: The Internet, Cognition, and Grace" at Marquette University's Lonergan on the Edge conference (Sept 19-20). Look forward to snippets of my research appearing on here as I stumble upon things and sketch them into a presentable form. Secondly, my Thinking About Thinking (with a Little Bit of Drinking) reading group starts up next week, and our first book is Lonergan's masterwork Insight. We are an Inklings-style group interested in reading about cognition, epistemology, and creativity (over beer). Sketches from our readings and meetings will appear on here as well.

The reason Lonergan appeals to me as a creative human being is that creativity is contingent upon and constituted by insights. An insight is what gets us out of writer's block and what lets us lay down the first lines of a drawing—so one could say to be creative is to have insights. But one must not only have insights; one must also know what an insight actually is. Thus, one must have insight into insight (and, for that matter, insight into oversight) if one is to be truly creative, and not merely a hack who regurgitates old solutions or someone ever waiting on the capricious muses of inspiration to show up. Without insight into insight, people will try and force things that have worked in the past on the present or they will stare blankly and wait for things to fall into some ideal order. However, a truly insightful and creative person can look at the present and look at themselves and know that the answers are emerging from the questions, the solution is in the problem, and what is to be is already coming into being.

Lonergan begins Insight with the anecdote of Archimedes. Even if the average person doesn't recall the story of the Greek thinker rushing out of the baths after discovering the displacement of water and solving the problem of the king's crown, still the shouting of Eureka! is the archetypal image for most people about what it means to have an insight.

For the time being, here's an excerpt from the introduction where Lonergan unpacks the gravity of inquiry and the joy of insight nascent in this story:

Deep within us all, emergent when the noise of other appetites is stilled, there is a drive to know, to understand, to see why, to discover the reason, to find the cause, to explain. Just what is wanted has many names. In what precisely it consists is a matter of dispute. But the fact of inquiry is beyond all doubt. It can absorb a man. It can keep him for hours, day after day, year after year, in the narrow prison of his study or his laboratory. It can send him on dangerous voyages of exploration. It can withdraw him from other interests, other pursuits, other pleasures, other achievements. It can fill his waking thoughts, hide from him the world of ordinary affairs, invade the very fabric of his dreams. It can demand endless sacrifices that are made without regret though there is only the hope, never a certain promise, of success. What better symbol could one find for this obscure, exigent, imperious drive, than a man, naked, running, excitedly crying, 'I've got it'?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Finding the Right Words

I'm a little embarrassed by how long it's been between posts, but silence is a good thing. While I've never been particularly consistent about posting on here (After all, it is largely a poetry blog and when have poets ever been known for consistency?), in the past I could always use my Master's degree as an excuse—essays, theses, research, editing, and proofreading were always higher priorities that ate up my daily word quota.

Since leaving the academic world, there have been many other things conspiring to scatter my attention. A deluge of decisions and surprises pertaining to work, relationships, family, housing, and career have all taken the words out of my mouth month by month this year.

While I wasn't necessarily content with living the contradiction of being a poet, a writer, a theologian and teacher without words, I knew it was never time wasted. One of the Desert Fathers, Abba Arsenius, said, "I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having been silent." I was also strengthened by the curious image of Abba Agathon, who purportedly lived for three years with a stone in his mouth in order to find peace in silence.

It makes me think of St. John's Apocalypse, where it says "To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it" (Rev 2:17). I'm sure that after three years of conquering his passions, desires, and tongue that stone and the stillness that came with it gave Agathon both a sense of perpetual sustenance and identity—if only because it was a constant reminder to listen to God, who was constantly listening to him.

Another reason I have stayed away from blogging is a distaste for the oversaturation of media today. Whether you look at your Facebook news feed, your email inbox (or work inbox), Twitter exchanges, or Instagram feeds, it all seems like a losing game of Tetris. Information is rushing in, and you never have a chance to put it—or yourself—in order before another bit drops from on high.

If it doesn't come from an impersonal marketing machine trying to entice you toward some commodity, and if it doesn't come from celebrity or mainline news sources which are uniform on trivial matters but confused on important matters, it often comes across as some blogger narcissistically "working through things" with all of us as his or her anonymous therapist.

Needless to say, I didn't want to be known as that guy. Hopefully, I never have been. Hopefully, I never will be.

But thank God, words and thoughts have been flooding back to me lately, and I'd like to share some with you. Summer leisure, great books, being invited to speak and contribute to great conversations, letting go of what you can't fix and being open to that which fixes you, all with an abundance of encouraging blank pages in notebooks and sketchbooks tend to help with these things.

You see, I'm a creative soul, which means I measure my life not by what I receive but what I give away. Actually, I think we're all creative souls, and the reason I hate today's media is that it is designed for consumption and not creativity; it's designed to be stored away, like food that can only to be turned into fat and not muscle. Likewise, most of today's media is good for nothing else but being burned.

So enough of this apologia pro vita sua, I doubt my absence was noticed by anyone besides myself. And again, the absence was not me being on my blog, but the right words being by me. Though, the problem I found with finding the right words, is that you can never find the right words. Life is a work always in progress, and speaking is always an unfinished business. We speak, because we think someone is listening—and we not only want them to listen, but for them to speak, which means our words are not the end of the story but its beginning.

So let me get on with some of the things I find, and let me know what yours are. Let me share some words with you that were surprises to me, and hopefully they are to you as well. Then maybe we'll be like the Desert Fathers, hanging around in one of the most barren places one could find going around to each other, asking for a word.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Boston Marathon Anniversary

Last year, the Boston Marathon bombings set the scandal of suffering and beauty down the street from me. Friends stumbling with ears ringing, wounds being dressed by flags, chapels crowded with runners still wearing their foil shock blankets—whether seen, heard, or felt, suffering was experienced with every sense, and yet there was no promise of it ever making sense. 

Then a kind of Spring came as spectators became heroes near the finish line, old friend friends who I thought forgot me long ago called to see if I was still alive, runners donated blood at hospitals, and whether shoes, rosaries, or prayers, we all left something at the Copley memorial. In a city where normally no one looks anyone in the eye, in the days afterward, every glance was imbued with gratitude that the other person was fine, with charity if they were not, and with compassion because not none of us was. 

I remember even taking stock of myself during a phone call that day, and I just felt utterly guilty when I realized I had no wounds, no tears, no dramatic stories to share. Why did my friends feel the street shake, while I was safe miles away: experiencing things from a distance, like everything else in a scholar's life? When my prayer asked, "Where is my suffering? Why do have to feel so fine? To feel nothing?" I just had the feeling that I was missing out on something. My dry eyes could not see what my friends' eyes clouded with tears could. Though, with time the shock and dam fell and it came to me too.

I would never say that suffering is "necessary" for such beauty to come to light, but when I remember the unprecedented strong yet tender love that followed the bombings, it's hard to say why exactly that's not the case.

A year has passed, this pain pricks our memories once again, and I ask myself a hard question: have we once again fallen so far and become so numb that it would take a bomb to make us grateful for one another and our city? Has our love become so weak that it only exists as a reaction to evil? I pray that's not the case, because that would be a tragedy worse than the one we already suffered. The fact is that we are all missing out on something—everything is gradually being taken away from us. That's the sad but true revelation of the Marathon; so please, let us be grateful for everything today even as it is leaving us, because it was given to us for some joyful reason at the present moment.

My heart goes out to Boston today, because in many ways I found it there and left it there one year ago today, and there's nothing I'd love more than to go for a long walk down to Copley right now to find it again. Κύριε ελέησον ημάς.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Tongues of Babes

I'm certain infants would speak if only they wanted;
but their lack of desire comes from being all too often
caught up in all that which we are too busy to behold.

When God perfects His praise on the tongues of babes,
it is very likely through an eloquence of silence that
their gaze proclaims His Mystery, and it is only when

they learn to look away (in a way they learn from us)
that they begin to fuss and cry for Him whom they've
lost. Each wrenched and contorted call is a fall into

speaking, which seems to us less a lapse from presence
into absence, but rather a growth and development, in
our manner of self-expression and -proclamation. Yet

mixed among jumbled attempts at restoring communion
through communication, this babe reaches up with eyes
and hands while it sucks from its mother's breast. With

its stubby nipple fingers it plays with its mother's lips
as if to ask, if she is also hungry, if she remembers
her own mother's milk and breast, and with its eyes

imbued with all severity, "Do you remember that love
which held and gave you life?" it, while drinking, asks.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Thomistic Posture

With his feast day now passing, I thought I should share this favorite passage of mine from Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiæ. For anyone who thinks Scholasticism is nothing but a bunch of hairsplitting rationalizations about trivial questions, look at how Thomas mystically answers the question of why we stand up straight:

An upright stature was becoming to man for four reasons.

First, because the senses are given to man, not only for the purpose of procuring the necessaries of life, which they are bestowed on other animals, but also for the purpose of knowledge. Hence, whereas the other animals take delight in the objects of the senses only as ordered to food and sex, man alone takes pleasure in the beauty of sensible objects for its own sake. Therefore, as the senses are situated chiefly in the face, other animals have the face turned to the ground, as it were for the purpose of seeking food and procuring a livelihood; whereas man has his face erect, in order that by the senses, and chiefly by sight, which is more subtle and penetrates further into the differences of things, he may freely survey the sensible objects around him, both heavenly and earthly, so as to gather intelligible truth from all things.

Secondly, for the greater freedom of the acts of the interior powers; the brain, wherein these actions are, in a way, performed, not being low down, but lifted up above other parts of the body.

Thirdly, because if man's stature were prone to the ground he would need to use his hands as fore-feet; and thus their utility for other purposes would cease.

Fourthly, because if man's stature were prone to the ground, and he used his hands as fore-feet, he would be obliged to take hold of his food with his mouth. Thus he would have a protruding mouth, with thick and hard lips, and also a hard tongue, so as to keep it from being hurt by exterior things; as we see in other animals. Moreover, such an attitude would quite hinder speech, which is reason's proper operation.

—S.T. I, 91, 3 ad 3

And as a post scriptum, I might add he goes on for the sake of thoroughness:

Nevertheless, though of erect stature, man is far above plants. For man's superior part, his head, is turned towards the superior part of the world, and his inferior part is turned towards the inferior world; and therefore he is perfectly disposed as to the general situation of his body. Plants have the superior part turned towards the lower world, since their roots correspond to the mouth; and their inferior part towards the upper world. But brute animals have a middle disposition, for the superior part of the animal is that by which it takes food, and the inferior part that by which it rids itself of the surplus.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Morning with Marmi

Suffused with this winter's morning light
the drapery glows a gentle eggshell white
casting stripes stretched across a blue floor
umbric bars breaking space up a little more.

The clock ticks and it tocks, the cars pass by,
the lone piano quietly drinks in their sound.
Its silent keys, its hidden strings give no reply,
but stand still with light and questions all around.

In the kitchen window a spindly naked tree
reaches beyond the curtains' faux floral lace.
Descending from her sun-basking, now I see
my cat climbing up the couch, and to my face.

She puts paws to my belly and begins to knead.
My hands brush her aside, but don't succeed,
as she deftly returns to the task at hand
for reasons only felines must understand.

It could be she was a baker in her former life,
who filled mornings punching dough for bread.
Away from pastry-cases, she was a devoted wife
even years-after her husband fell ill and dead.

Perhaps she also had a piano not unlike my own
where their faded photos and portraits would alight:
family, youth, and love, like birds who'd never flown;
and her hands would play by the curtains' white

simple scales and preludes to how things used to be
for her husband, for herself, for the naked spindly tree.

Now her paws have paused to rest,
and after purrs, her green eyes pour
a glance imbued with some request
to me, the piano, then the floor.