for the sake of sanity, prayer

January 31, 2012

One of the little blessings I’ve had throughout my life is that I’ve always gone to school with a chapel nearby.

At St. Philomena Elementary, I always liked to visit the Blessed Sacrament across the street for a couple of minutes after school.  At Loyola High School, I attended a short 20-minute mass offered everyday before class.  And at Notre Dame, I’m supremely blessed — everyone is — to have a chapel in the dorm.  (And I’m even more blessed that my dorm is one of the few on campus that celebrates mass in an orthodox fashion).

Especially in my freshman year, Little Flower Chapel in Morrissey was my safe haven — a place that offered stability and calm, where I could relax, think, and know that God was listening.  And when life got busy after freshman year — well, at least I had the Grotto, the place from which I believe grace flows most on campus.  With how crazy life gets at Notre Dame sometimes, I seriously believe that it’s the Grotto that kept me sane.  It was the Grotto that gave me perspective.  It was the Grotto where I was reassured that our Lady and our Lord are watching over everyone who walks the grounds of Notre Dame.

If there’s one place I miss most while I’m in Rome, it’s the Grotto.  I also miss daily mass, and I miss simply having a place where I can sit down, unwind, and reflect.  Maybe that’s why I’ve been a tad bewildered these days and why I’ve been getting left behind…I don’t take time to thank God and put things into perspective anymore, so I’m living life wandering aimlessly about, trying to find direction that only daily prayer and reflection can offer.

I discovered that there’s a chapel just on the corner of my program’s building here in Rome that offers daily mass at 6:30pm every night.  I think it’s time I start going.


To close, some words on the Grotto from Tom Dooley, engraved on the hearts of every Notre Dame student:

But just now. . . and just so many times, how I long for the Grotto. Away from the Grotto Dooley just prays. But at the Grotto, especially now when there must be snow everywhere and the lake is ice glass and that triangular fountain on the left is frozen solid and all the priests are bundled in their too-large too-long old black coats and the students wear snow boots. . . . if I could go to the Grotto now then I think I could sing inside. I could be full of faith and poetry and loveliness and know more beauty, tenderness and compassion. . . .


“open up the blinds, realize I am blessed with LIFE” – March for Life 2012

January 27, 2012

You know how sometimes you wake up in the morning with a certain song playing in your head?  This is the song I woke up to today…a little throwback to 2005:

It’s called “Can I Live?” by Nick Cannon, in which Cannon recounts his mother’s struggle to decide whether to abort him or not.  It’s a rare pro-life song by a popular cultural icon.

It’s interesting that this of all songs would get stuck in my head (seemingly out of nowhere) now — in the wake of the March for Life 2012.  Even though I’m an ocean away, I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about the March from facebook friends and Catholic news sites (though most of the “major” news sources like the New York Times, typically, seemed to have forgotten to cover it).

What’s really cool to hear is the number of people who came out to support the March.  Number estimates reach up to 400,000 or even 500,000 protestors.  500,000!  To put that into perspective, that’s more than the Civil Rights March of 1963 (250,000), the GLBT Rally in DC of 2o09 (100,000), and the Occupy Movements in the U.S. on 10/15/2011 (the largest single day of protests in OWS, 100,000) combined.

And what’s super cool — and what makes me even prouder to be part of this generation — is that the March for Life was primarily comprised of young people.  (And these aren’t “the unwashed and angry young people occupying Wall Street.”  Rather, they’re young people who know how to “have a peaceful, well organized and legal protest and still be radical.”)

We have lots to look forward to as Catholics and pro-lifers in general.  Life is a gift, a blessing, and a right.  It’s our duty to defend life for the generations to come.  Till the next March, keep praying, keep advocating, and keep loving life.

n.b. incidentally, the  title of this post does not come from “Can I Live?”  It’s a verse from the song “Paving the Way” by Incise.  I just really like the lyrics and thought they’d be relevant to the post…

Thoughts from Top Chef: What does it mean to be “Strong?”

January 19, 2012

I think that all of us, whether we realize it or not, like to control other people — at least sometimes.  I’ve seen people unnecessarily criticize friends (without any constructiveness) to make them feel better about themselves, and I’ve seen leaders give followers pointless and difficult tasks because it gives them a thrill watching others listen to them.  Putting others down, asserting our authority over others:  It gives us a power-rush.  It makes us feel strong.  It’s pathetic, but many if not all of us feel the propensity for it at least sometimes.

I began thinking about this when I was watching Top Chef last night.  I recently started following the TV series again after abandoning it after season 5 (Hosea as Top Chef?  Dear God, what a joke).  I became more annoyed than entertained by the personalities and basically didn’t have anyone for whom to cheer.

But a few weeks ago, when I randomly flipped the channel to Top Chef Season 9, I did find someone to cheer for:  Beverly Kim.  Maybe it’s because she’s Korean and I feel Asian solidarity with her and love to see her crank out delicious-looking galbi.  Maybe it’s because I relate to her:  She freely admitted that she is socially awkward and lacks common sense because she’d rather stay in and study than go out while growing up. Or maybe it’s because of her darn cute and funny mannerisms.

But the main reason that I and so many other fans love her is that she brings a whole new definition to what it means to be “strong.”  Many of the other chefs — Sarah, Heather, Lindsay — demonstrate strength by dominating others: bossing other chefs around, unnecessarily insulting teammates, and putting down competition by force of overbearing, egotistical will.  Bluntly put, the other female chefs know how to be loud.  And for some reason, they like to pick on Beverly.

Beverly is a different type of “strong,” though.  She might seem docile:  She’s non-confrontational and non-controlling, and she accepts criticism without complaint (“Beverly, what did I tell youuu?” “Sorry!!”). She’s a top-notch chef, but she’s widely recognized as the underdog.

While other chefs think that “being strong” means outwardly dominating others, Beverly’s “strength” exudes a sort of quiet integrity and confidence in oneself — a strength that can withstand the verbal assaults of others while also refraining from retort. She stands up for herself simply by being better than the competition.  Beverly doesn’t need to put others down; she focuses on herself, does what she does, and does a great job at it.  (Think about the Gospels:  The Pharisees tried to show off their power by “bullying” Jesus, but Christ, ever confident himself, always turned the other cheek and still won the hearts of others.  Which of these would we as Catholics consider demonstrations of true strength?)

That is why so many fans felt for Beverly when she was eliminated in last night’s episode, while other chefs with downright rotten personalities survive.  She was an underdog yes, but she also represented a refreshing contrast to other “strong” chefs who seek to dominate and destroy. Charming and sweet and a little bit ditzy, Beverly demonstrates an inner-strength that wins hearts over; she proves that you can be nice and still rise to the top.

As she seeks to resurrect herself in Last Chance kitchen (she already beat the surging Nyesha), she’s as strong as ever.  Because she should know that the world is cheering for her.

Dean Martin: “Cooler” than Frank Sinatra?

January 18, 2012

In my quest for sophistication, I’ve started listening to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra of the Rat Pack a lot recently.

After hearing their music and reading some brief biographies, I’ve come to admire both of these men for their confidence and class.  Cigarette or martini in hand, these virtuosos could sing, act, and crack jokes.  Both flourished out of rocky beginnings:  Martin was an amateur boxer who fought in bare-knuckle bouts because he couldn’t afford wrapping tape, while Sinatra had to carry his own P.A. system to perform at run-down saloons.  And in their Rat Pack heyday, they were comfortable enough to crack innocuous jokes about race, religion, and gender yet ultimately principled enough to refuse to perform at clubs that excluded African-Americans and Jews.

These were cool guys.  Just listening to Martin’s “Who’s Got the Action?” and Sinatra’s “I Won’t Dance” when I wake up every morning makes me feel like a cooler person for the rest of the day, for real.  In a sense, they’ve joined the ever-growing ranks of role models in my life as I seek to become a more complete person.

So, why am I talking about Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in a Catholic blog?  (It’s not just because both of them were born and raised Catholic.)

It has to do with the idea of role models. Especially when we are growing up, the role models we choose for ourselves are critical to who we become.  A lot of the time, these role models of ours come from popular culture; they are often recognized throughout much of society and demonstrate distinctive behavior or ideals that we want to emulate.

The reason I think that Dean Martin is “cooler” than Frank Sinatra — I use “cooler” facetiously, considering he was nicknamed the “King of Cool” — or, rather, the reason that I like Martin better as a role model, is that he seemed to have his priorities straight.

Though Martin divorced three times (once for his wife’s alcoholism, another time in the midst of a mid-life crisis), he was always if not outwardly recognized as a family man.  A father of 8, he cared immensely for his family even after his divorces, and he often left immediately after performances to spend time with his kids.  It’s said that Sinatra was actually quite irked that Martin preferred quiet time with his family to a rowdy time with the Rat Pack.  Martin was also shattered when his son Dean Paul Martin died in a plane crash and bowed out of a reunion tour with Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Furthermore, Martin, unlike Sinatra, enjoyed solitude.  While he always was able to have fun during a night on the town , he much preferred being at home with his family, or playing golf, or eating alone at his favorite Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills.

These two characteristics — a love of family and an ability to be alone with oneself– are important to emulate, particularly for Catholics. Catholics need to keep the family strong because familial love is often a child’s first experience of God’s love.  Catholics also should learn to be alone with themselves sometimes, because in doing so, we can better discern God’s call and contemplate our lives.

As his divorces show, Martin wasn’t perfect.  He also liked to keep up a persona of hard-drinking and irreverence; it got him the admiration and adulation he needed to stay a popular performer.  But Martin didn’t really need the attention.  In his private life, he knew what really mattered.  And that is what makes him, I think, “forever cool.”

Books Catholics Should Read: The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire

January 16, 2012

If you’re looking for a provocative read, look no further than H.W. Crocker III’s Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire.  Here, Crocker takes on the sacred cows of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism and defends (as an American and a Catholic) the legacy of the British Empire.

Our modern world, and America in particular, seems to be extremely hostile towards the idea of empire.  America’s story begins with revolution against empire.  We love anti-imperial nationalist movies like Braveheart and Gandhi.  Our country gets caught in military quagmires when we “meddle” in international affairs (look at Afghanistan and Vietnam).  Aren’t FDR, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and current presidential candidates like Ron Paul right  for trying to keep America isolationist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonialist?

Wrong, declares Crocker.  For as he makes clear, the world would not be as humane and just today if not for the British Empire (and her if somewhat unwilling heir, the American Empire).  It was the British Empire that spearheaded the death of slavery across the world.  It was the British who promoted free markets in the New World and Hong Kong.  It was the British Empire that kept Hindus and Muslims from killing each other in India and tribes from warring with each other in Africa.  The British abolished widow-burning and child-abandonment.   The British brought infrastructure, hospitals, and schools to India while comprising less than 1% of the population. The British stood alone (at one point) against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia, and Imperial Japan.  It was the British Empire that introduced ideas of democracy, limited government, and rights to America, Ireland, India, Africa, and Australia.

Sure, the British (almost arrogantly) believed in their own superiority, and they therefore sought to spread their civilization and culture to soften the harsh realities of the rest of the world.  But for an imperialist power, Britain was remarkably open-minded and lenient:  Her colonies could retain their social structures, governments, customs, and language, while gaining all the benefits of British progress and values.  It’s little wonder everyday citizens in Africa and India pined for the British to come back after they left.

The British were an inspired people.  And that, ultimately, is Crocker’s goal: to inspire his readers with the British example.  That is why at its heart, Crocker’s Guide is less of a history than a collection of mini-biographies of some of Britain’s most prominent figures.  These great men were extraordinarily diverse:  Crocker presents conservatives and liberals, Anglicans and atheists, pure-blood Brits and colonial-bred Aussies and Irish.  What ties them all together is their discipline, taste for adventure, brilliance, commitment to empire, and faith in British ideals and values that should be spread to the rest of the world.

H.W. Crocker III is quickly becoming my favorite historian for his swashbuckling, page-turning, and occasionally (and unabashedly) politically incorrect narratives of some of the world’s greatest stories.  (Check out his histories/biography of the Catholic Church, of the American military, of the Civil war, and of Confederate general Robert E Lee; you’d be doing yourself a favor to check out his comic novel The Old Limey while you’re at it).  You won’t be disappointed by his latest installment, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire, either.

In short…
: Survey of the history of the British Empire.
Style:  Section for each major region of the Empire (India, Africa, Middle East, Australia, Ireland), each with a short introductory chapter and three illustrious British men representing a region.  Readable yet elevated writing style.
Catholic?:  One might wonder how Crocker, a Catholic convert from Anglicanism, could praise the British Empire, which persecuted famously Catholic countries like Ireland, but he meets these concerns head-on.  Moreover, he points out how English ideals are compatible with Catholic teaching.

Overall: 4/5

Reaffirming Human Dignity with a Look and a Nod

January 14, 2012

In downtown Los Angeles, you learn not to look at people.

Part of it is because LA is extraordinarily impersonal.  But a lot of it is because you could potentially make yourself a target.

LA natives know well that some strangers you encounter can be unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst.  I have a family friend who accidentally made eye contact with gangsters; they apparently didn’t like the way he looked at them, and slashed his tires.

I myself can speak from personal experience.  In high school, I ran into a homeless person who asked me for money for food, and I willingly obliged; however, as I handed over a $5 bill, I heard the man mutter, “Dumb bitch, I’m gonna get so fuckin high on this shit.”   And last summer on my way to work, I made eye contact with a mentally ill homeless woman, who, disturbed by my looking at her, immediately began storming towards me, shrieking, “Why you looking at me?  We’re gonna get you!  We’re gonna get you!”

Experience has trained me and other Los Angeles residents to ignore others, especially if they are homeless.  It’s not that we’re cold-hearted.  It’s just that, while some of us might like to reach out to the poor on the street, the potential abuses and dangers you put yourself into force you to stay away.  Many accept this as the harsh, unfortunate, and tragic reality.  (Many people prefer instead to volunteer at or donate to poverty-relief organizations.)

That was the mentality I had when I was walking to work last week and approached a homeless man sitting on a curb.  As he lifted his head to look at me, I instinctively darted my eyes away, pretended he wasn’t there, and walked farther away.  Out of the corner of my eye, though, I saw that the man had lowered his head again, with a crestfallen and empty look.  It was a look that said, “I’m worthless.”

At that moment, I had never felt more pathetic about myself.

It could be that if I had made eye contact with him, he might have chased after me in a frenzy or begged me for drug money.  But it also could be that if I made eye contact with him — and merely nodded in acknowledgment — I could have reaffirmed that he is a person, that he does have worth, and that someone out there does care for him.

A lot of us — myself included — tend to ignore homeless people, sometimes out of convenience, a lot of times out of fear.  Having their existence ignored probably does a lot to reduce the poor’s self-worth.  However, we don’t have to give  money or even spend a lot of time with the poor to help them regain their sense of human dignity.  If we only look at them and nod and maybe say “hello” when we pass them by, we acknowledge their existence, and therefore reaffirm that they are indeed human beings, just like us.  It is in small, random occasions like these that we can establish a connection in which we are equals.

Our world can be harsh, and it can lead us to harden our hearts out of necessity.  But we as Catholics and Christians should remember that our mission is not to harden our hearts, but to open them.  It doesn’t have to take any extraordinary effort.  A simple look and a nod can make someone — especially someone who feels unloved and uncared for — feel like a person again.

I don’t know what happened to that homeless man I ran into last week.  For now, I can only pray for him.  And I can hope that someone, more courageous and with a better head and heart than I, ran into him, looked at him, and gave him a smile — from human to human.

Twas the Twelfth Night of Christmas, and when it’s over…

January 5, 2012

…the message of Christmas must live on.

This probably seems foreign to us — laughable, even — because nowadays it appears that the Christmas celebration ends once December 25 is over, let alone the Twelve Days of Christmas after.  As early as the 26th, radio stations stop playing Christmas songs, malls begin their “After-Christmas” sales, and friends start planning their New Year’s parties.

Of course, one could say that in America, the Twelve Days of Christmas have been moved to before December 25, as opposed to after.  (No one seems to care much for Advent wreaths anymore, after all.)  But the stress that we impose upon ourselves on those days — what with shopping sprees, constant cooking, and endless gatherings — often means we don’t get much chance to contemplate the Christmas season.  And the premature secular celebrations often mean we fail to celebrate the true reason for Christmas — the mystery of the birth of Christ.

Before we go any further, however, I think it’s worthwhile to ask why, exactly, there are the Twelve Days of Christmas.  The reason for it is the Epiphany, a feast that celebrates the child Jesus being revealed as Lord and King of the world to the Magi, who followed a star to Bethlehem and offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn boy.  (This is probably the scriptural basis for the tradition of gift-giving at Christmas, in addition to the story of St. Nicholas and pagan winter customs like Roman Saturnalia and German Yuletide.)  The Epiphany is traditionally celebrated on January 6 (or, in US dioceses, on a Sunday between January 2 and 8).  The Twelve Days of Christmas, then, bridge two essential feasts of the Church: the Nativity on December 25, and the Epiphany on January 6.

(Incidentally, the Eastern Churches also celebrate the Epiphany, or the Theophany, though it focuses more on the Baptism of Jesus.  ALSO incidentally and much less relevant, the three Magi — Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior — offer their names to the three sages in arguably one of the greatest RPG video games of all time, Chrono Trigger.  Geek fact of the day.)

What, then, is the message of Christmas, and why is it so essential for us to live it out?

One might say that the message of Christmas is the family, or being home, or giving to others.  These are all important and true.  But even more so, the message of Christmas is finding Christ — true God and true Man, born miraculously of the Virgin Mary, so that He could die and redeem mankind– and proclaiming Him to world.

Follow the example of the Magi.  Quite often, we will find Christ where and when we least expect Him.  The Magi, after all, found Him in a shoddy, out-of-the-way stable.  They found him while pursuing their everyday activities, i.e. stargazing (wise men in the east at that time were expected to be able to interpret the movements of the stars).  But when the Magi did find Him, they were ready.  They humbly put aside the pretensions of their wealth and rank, offered gifts and adored, and proclaimed Jesus as Son of God and King of the World.

That is what Christmas is about.  That is the spirit we are meant to renew.  And that is why the message of Christmas needs to live on.  Find Christ in the unlikeliest of places, and give thanks for that little boy, the son of God, miraculously born to die, so that we might truly live.

The Twelfth Night of Christmas is coming, and soon the Christmas season will be over.  But continue to live out the message of Christmas in your hearts.

Suggested further reading:  on the Epiphany  |  on the Twelve Days of Christmas  |  on Advent