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Phrases on Stun: Honor Star Trek’s 50th in Words

Let’s boldly go into a brief blog post honoring this week’s 50th anniversary of the “Star Trek” universe. Calling it a brand or franchise is correct but inadequate. Like the actual universe, “Star Trek” seems to keep on growing, spawning new creations and rekindling inspiration.

As the CBS online news network reported, “Star Trek” is sometimes mocked for having led young fans to adopt nerdy as cookie-cutter imitators of their favorite characters, repeating favorite lines and re-telling favorite stories. While this happened in some instances, Gene Roddenberry’s brainchild showed human diversity at work and encouraged people to pursue their own unique dreams with hope for the future. Phrases that motivated viewers “to boldly go” into the “final frontier” impacted people’s lives because they were memorable words that were lived out—in fiction and in fact.

So, as I have been developing a new web home playfully called OnWord, complementing and continuing my professional forays into the frontiers of writing and communication, I realized I should offer my own salute to “Star Trek.” I’m incorporating into my blog and my business this occasional theme, or meme: “Phrases on Stun.”

You’re hereby invited to join me in recalling, and awaiting daily with new receptivity, key phrases and other well-crafted combinations of words that literally can become “words to live by.” I’m planning to honor—and, please God, to help create—verbal content that adds to the net quantity and quality of ideas, meaning, and purpose in this universe.

This is important. I fear the overflow of text and its permutations, so easily accessed online today, can lead to “information inflation.” This devaluation can rob content of meaning and nullify the power of good writing and communication to renew us, to surprise us. Remember, we celebrate this power to “stun” in a positive sense, and we reject the negative power of those words which are weaponized like phasers, used to capture attention only to destroy or demean or dismiss.

As my first proposal in this installment of “Phrases on Stun,” I offer the words of Jesus in this Sunday’s (Sept. 4) Gospel reading, from Luke 14: 25-33. You can read the whole passage, but here’s one taste of the Eternal Word’s unmatched ability to stun people and revitalize futures with his phrases: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” This hard saying surely lived on in the minds and hearts of Jesus’s followers when they saw him suffer on his Good Friday journey. It jolted them even as it jolts us with tough love in our church pews today.

I would like to hear your candidates for “phrases on stun,” and I invite you to enjoy the habit of listening for new stunners—and celebrating them whenever and wherever they jump out from today’s dull mainstream of words lacking passion or compassion.

To assure you that this exercise can be fun—and not always as challenging or holy as today’s Scriptures imply—I return to the anniversary we’re celebrating this week. Captain Kirk’s son, David Marcus, reaffirms my purpose behind “Phrases on Stun” in this memorable father-son dialogue from the movie “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan,” as archived at the Memory Alpha website. David begins:

“You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life.”
“Just words.”
“But good words! That’s where ideas begin. Maybe you should listen to them. I was wrong about you, and I’m sorry.”
“Is that what you came here to say?”
“Mainly. And also that I’m proud—very proud—to be your son.”

Tonight, Steven welcomes … the Philippians

If you haven’t completed your daily Scripture reading yet, you’re in luck. I can provide four profound Bible quotes, all from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, pre-packaged in an entertaining video format. We can thank three slightly surprising sources–a politician, an actor, and a comedian–who had memorized their own favorite slices of Philippi when I saw them on TV. The comedian, Steven Colbert, a clever and joyful Catholic satirist who deserves to be watched closely as he hosts “The Late Show,” orchestrated this unusual Bible study. He prays and preys in popular culture–sometimes worthy of a censer, sometimes worthy of a censor.

Colbert can spark memorable moments that evoke the best, timeless virtues of television entertainment. As a host (someone who makes good things possible for others), he can bring together talented guests for intelligent, witty conversations that bring audiences hope about themselves and the world. Under ideal circumstances, viewers can head to bed feeling truly entertained–that is, given sustenance, paid attention to, respected for their dignity.

The Late Show accomplished this act of kindness for me during some random moments on Thursday, Aug. 25. You can simply enjoy seeing (around the 2:30 mark in this video) how it came to pass that Colbert playfully exchanged Philippians quotes with vice presidential candidate Gov. Tim Kaine.

Later, Colbert opened the door for two more quotes, enthusiastically pitched/preached by celebrity Tony Hale of the HBO series “Veep” (at about 2:29 in this video). My thanks go to blogger Blake I. Collier here for the images and insights. He captured Hale’s supporting role in the New Evangelization.

Three ostensibly coincidental pop-culture incursions by the Holy Spirit on a single, sometimes coarse late-night show? Proponents can use the term “Godwinks” for such coincidences which stage midnight raids on TV’s toxic thinking and shameless self-promotion .

We might credit this troupe of accidental purists–Colbert, Hale, and Kaine–with suddenly taking a detour around conventional edginess, jolting us with references to St. Paul’s inspired writings, instead of something cynical or dismissive. Their unscripted conversations connected the dots between the wise words of Phil 2:3, Phil 4:6, Phil 4:8, and Phil 4:13, not necessarily in that order. We can’t promise this connectivity was birthed in total innocence. This game of verse-versus-verse might have roots in Pharisaical show-off instincts.

But we can be grateful that quoting the Philippians, in some contexts, is still considered a desirable public act (albeit humble bragging). Acting through various amalgams of good will and mere pretense, boastful self-promotion and spontaneous authenticity, God continues to pass along the Good News, in our acts of speaking and listening, in print or video. We watch imperfect human beings perform as empowering hosts and engaged guests, somehow inviting the Holy Spirit in for a moment of true entertainment. The Late Show, like other TV shows where real professionals cultivate wit and kindness, can literally point to a brighter new day. Paul foretold this in Phil. 1:15-18. We can learn from the Philippians, who were a receptive audience for Paul, “staying tuned” as he unveiled paradoxes and other truths with life-changing implications.

THANKS TO ALL OF YOU FOR STAYING TUNED! With this entry in my long-running blog at blogs.nd.edu/word/, I am transitioning so that past reflections and new commentaries all can be found in a different online place. They are part of my independent venture, OnWord, with its official home at onword.net, which will grow as a reflection of my larger body of work, thoughts, relationships, and aspirations for the future. One playfully misspelled word sums up that lifetime vocation of communication, driven toward perfection through collaborations among colleagues, clients and communities of all sorts. That word is ONWORD!

Sing God a Simple Song — Bernstein, Holy Cross, and More

Thank you, Holy Cross Associates, for the national conference you’re holding this weekend at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, IN. A great friend of mine invited me as his guest to attend the opening sessions this morning, which featured a talk by “America” magazine editor Fr. Jim Martin, SJ, and times of prayerfulness that included the singing of one of my all-time favorites.
Several ordained and lay followers of Blessed Basil Moreau, CSC, rose to sing the joyful, simple, transporting introduction to the magnificent theater piece known as Bernstein’s “Mass.” Drawing upon the psalms, they invited us to “Sing God a simple song.” They urged, “Sing like you like to sing. God loves all simple things, for God is the simplest of all.”
This was the perfect beginning to a weekend following a week filled with lots of physical pain and some spiritual pain. I have come to crave and treasure peace as an embodiment of the Lord’s presence. “I will sing the Lord a new song/To praise Him, to bless Him, to bless the Lord.”
The Holy Cross Associates, I have learned, are also people who crave the peace of the Lord’s presence in simple companionship with Him and with others who feel called to missions of service. Fr. Martin rounded out this morning of renewal with reflections on the simple life of Jesus and an invitation into contemplation of the Biblical scene where Jesus multiplies the loaves and the fishes. Our faith allows us to find renewal at the intersection of the awesomely miraculous and the authentically uniting. Here’s to the Holy Cross Associates, who are building their own beautiful renewal on the groundwork of human companionship mixed with intimacy with God, as well as miraculous hopes mixed with the simple ministry of presence. Find out more about those Lay Associates.

Mercies are better in the plural

Let’s not risk a mercy shortage. Especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, I vote that we multiply the word and amplify its meaning so as to immerse ourselves in it.
As I pondered the word one day, I looked it up in the index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Would you believe the book mentions mercy only twice? At least that was the number of entries in the index of my admittedly old edition of the 1994 catechism. Fortunately, the index of the online edition has been updated to point to 12 references.
Fortunate because it’s a more accurate reflection of the catechism’s contents–and better because this update may reflect the fact that, thanks to St. Pope John Paul II, St. Faustina, Pope Francis, and others, the Church over time has become more mercy-conscious.
Now I recommend just one more improvement in the handling of this beautiful word. My online research also turned up an apparent neglect of the very interesting plural form of the word–namely, mercies. The singular form can often be applied to a single “act of mercy” that we human beings can perform, even as it can refer to a defining character trait of our loving, forgiving God.
I’d like to raise our consciousness of that even more compelling, beautiful word, “mercies.” It seems to me that dictionaries too often suffice it to say this word is simply the plural of mercy. But I think “mercies” can take us into an even richer time of reflection, focusing us on the graces bestowed and actions taken, so consistently and generously, by our Lord in our lives. It evokes a story of supernatural abundance, patience, and loyalty, causing us to be especially thankful.
My favorite use of the word “mercies” is found in that wonderful hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” We sing that, morning after morning after morning, we see new mercies and graces that prove God’s ongoing involvement in our lives–His love as an action word.
My edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church had no index entry for “mercies,” and the online search I used at the USCCB site made no distinctions when I asked for “mercies” instead of “mercy.” Alas, the Bishops’ Bible site did not even use “mercies” in the Lamentations 3:22 passage which served as a basis for “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
So maybe “mercy” and “mercies” constitute a distinction without a difference. But please keep praying for this year to be a jubilee of multiple mercies–an ongoing, interactive flow of mercies shown by the Lord and by us under the inspiration of the Divine Mercy, and indeed a flow that will continue after this formal year is over. Let’s enjoy that sense of abundance and real encounters in countless lives, a mandate not limited to checklists of specific “acts of mercy.” Rather let’s focus on a compassionate heart which continues beating, breaking, and blessing–acting in love constantly. It’s something we can remember and rediscover alwys … because His mercies endure forever.

A word of apology … sorry, that’s the word

Elton John has sung, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” But the word “apology” and its derivative, “apologist,” seem even harder. Believe it or not, today’s feast of St. Justin, Martyr, is what prompts these observations.

The Catholic Encyclopedia describes St. Justin as a Christian apologist. To be a skillful apologist for the Catholic faith is a wonderful thing, and every Catholic should seek knowledge and skills suited to the work of apologia, or defending and explaining one’s faith.

But here’s one of those cases where a marketing firm might have chosen a different word; the common understanding of apology, or apologist, or apologetic, tends to emphasize regret for a mistake, not the search for truth. To the contrary, these days (or anytime), it can be an act of education, courage, and mercy to proclaim and explain Catholic and Christian insights. The Church’s combination of faith and reason can light a candle in the darkness of ignorance or prejudice or purely emotional reactions.

Some folks might want Catholics to be regretful or reluctant when expressing their faithful perspectives in the public square, and sadly there are people in the world today who, like St. Justin, suffer martyrdom when they stand up for their beliefs. Only if we maintain and project the sense of joy and hope that comes from our commitment to truth will the candle stay lit as an invitation to dialogue.

That’s what Peter writes in his epistle: “But even if you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you. Do not be afraid or terrified with fear of them, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.” (1 Peter 3:14-16)

St. Justin, pray for us so that we may unapologetically venture into free and fair conversations, locally and globally, in search of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Apologist may be a hard word, but it can just as easily be a word of invitation as a word of sorry withdrawal.

Love Thee, Notre Dame, and the Grace of “Yes”

Thanks to @LisaHendey, author of two great blogs A Good Measure and Catholic Mom.com, for her article that cited my two books with University of Notre Dame Press: Football Weekends at Notre Dame  and Words of Life: Celebrating 50 Years of the Hesburgh Library’s Message, Mural, and MeaningI’m also thankful for Lisa’s new book, The Grace of Yeswhich celebrates the grace that’s all around us if we seek it, recognize it, and accept it wholeheartedly with a sense of need and zeal.

Joy to the Word — Not a misspelling, but an exhortation

Thanks to Notre Dame Magazine for inviting me to contribute to their “What I’m Reading” blog. You can see my response at http://magazine.nd.edu/news/50016-what-im-reading-the-joy-of-the-gospel-pope-francis/

Writing this blog post gave me a chance to meditate not only upon the joy that comes from getting to know Pope Francis better (by reading his apostolic exhortation,  Joy of the Gospel), but also upon the joy that comes from learning and pondering a “bigger story.” Journalists too often condense stories by making the content fit their mold.

I’m not saying a story has to be long, although the blog post celebrates the power of a book to reveal the context and connections that reveal the mind and heart underlying the author’s content. The blog’s point is that looking for connections–in either short- or long-form media–helps us to transcend the fault lines emphasized too often in our politics and punditry.  More importantly, it seems to me, one of Pope Francis’s points in his book-length exhortation is that looking for connections–between the good news and bad news in everyday life, between the theological insight that blesses us and the missionary impulse to go forth and bless others–brings the joy that St. Francis of Assisi embraced. And this special saint didn’t need to write books! Or even use words!

Stephen Colbert, GK Chesterton, and Conversations of Hope

Here’s a shout-out to ACE’s own Patrick R. Manning for his cover story in the latest America magazine, noting that TV’s Stephen Colbert offers inspiration to catechists with his threefold approach: “delight, instruct, and persuade.”

This connection between the ability to delight people and the ability to persuade them, an idea Patrick attributes to St. Augustine, is worth pondering. The combination makes me think of my hero in matters of evangelization (and all constructive argumentation), the renowned British author G.K. Chesterton.

Chesterton, a genius who lived in the first half of the 20th century and famously visited Notre Dame in 1930, took delight in writing about nearly everything and trying to convince his readers of truths he had drawn  from his reason and his Catholic faith. His efforts at persuasion often included delighting his readers in various ways—through witty observations and brain-tickling paradoxes, for example.

He saw dangers arising in the culture around him, but he found joy in his faith, so he maintained a charismatic demeanor. He gave so many people consistent delight that they became loyal readers throughout his career as journalist/author/poet/playwright.

“He is a [sane] man who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head,” Chesterton wrote in Tremendous Trifles in 1909.

Perhaps we do need to more consciously and consistently combine delight and persuasion in our dialogues about faith and values in 2014. It works for Colbert as he energizes his audience and prods them to think between the lines of the news stories of the day. He must be a great catechist in his own Catholic parish in New Jersey.

I raise  one caveat: Any delight or comedy we use in the New Evangelization, or in secular civil discourse, has to be approached with prudence, purpose, and moderation. The confusion of “news coverage” with crude satire, slapstick, cynicism, mockery, or nihilism has proliferated in some circles. This blurring  of lines is counterproductive for teachers and learners alike. We need to emulate Colbert when he quests comically for “truthiness” and sustains the dignity of himself, his subjects, and his audience amid his mischief. A sense of dignity is essential for true delight and persuasion to occur.

I am reminded of the Wall Street Journal op-ed piece written by University of Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, CSC, a year ago, in which he noted that recovering persuasion as a goal and skill in our national discourse will help society to regain a sense of civility. That, in turn, would pave a broader road of dialogue for the pursuit of truth, wisdom, and smart solutions for today’s great challenges.

Father Jenkins put it this way: “If I am trying to persuade others, I first have to understand their position, which means I have to listen to them. I have to appeal to their values, which means I have to show them respect. I have to find the best arguments for my position, which means I have to think about my values in the context of their concerns. I have to answer their objections, which means I have to work honestly with their ideas. I have to ask them to listen to me, which means I can’t insult them.”

The Colbert Report takes these prescriptions seriously, partly because they also happen to work for building audiences. Indeed, these approaches cause delight. They make people laugh, partly because Colbert himself is clearly enjoying himself as he embraces this dialogue with people. He is undaunted by this Chestertonian dialectic between  tragedy in the heart and comedy in the head, between the weakness and the wonder of human life which together point us toward God. The discovery of hope as one walks the way of the cross is a theological insight that can indeed delight people. It just happens to be a foundational insight of the Congregation of Holy Cross, with its watchwords “Ave crux, spes unica” — Hail the cross, our only hope.

So thanks to Patrick Manning for pointing us toward an evangelization that combines delight, persuasion, and civility in our engagement with cultural issues and our encounters with individuals—whether they be students, TV viewers, book readers, or simply fellow citizens. Good evangelization opens the door to good catechesis as the participants journey together toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life. As Chesterton would testify, it’s the work of a lifetime—and longer—but our stubborn rejection of dejection is really the only way to communicate, and to live.

Now for a word from South Africa, via Popes John Paul and Francis

Thanks to Rocco Palmo and his “Whispers in the Loggia” blog for teaching me the word Ubuntu.

Wikipedia defines Ubuntu as a South African word meaning human kindness. In tribute to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Palmo posted on Dec. 5 a text of remarks that Pope John Paul II (also of sainted memory) spoke to Mandela and the people of South Africa during his visit there in 1995.

“South Africa refers to itself as a “Rainbow Nation,” indicating the diversity of races, ethnic groups, languages, culture and religions which characterize it,” the Pope said as quoted by Palmo. “And you have the extremely rich concept of UBUNTU to guide you, according to the saying that “People are made people through other people.” John Paul went on to honor Mandela’s government for striving to create a fairer and more prosperous society in which people of all faiths would work together and share together, keeping alive a “flame of hope.”

Fast-forward to Dec. 10, 2013, when the word Ubuntu and the teaching that “people are made people through other people” are top-of-mind as we watch news coverage memorializing Mandela. It is good that our Pope Francis today calls all Catholics worldwide to prayer and action against the scourge of hunger. See the Loggia’s blog report on this Caritas campaign, which likewise must endure a long time, keeping hope alive.

Palmo provides the prayer being circulated for the Dec. 10 global wave of prayer, appropriate for prayers of the present and future, reminding us always that “people are made people through other people.” Ubuntu is a rich concept. I think Pope Francis would see it reflected in his flock as we pray without ceasing this call for basic human kindness, for feeding our bodies and souls:

O God, you entrusted to us the fruits of all creation so that we might care for the earth and be nourished with its bounty.

You sent us your Son to share our very flesh and blood and to teach us your Law of Love.

Through His death and resurrection, we have been formed into one human family.

Jesus showed great concern for those who had no food – even transforming five loaves and two fish into a banquet that served five thousand and many more.

We come before you, O God, conscious of our faults and failures, but full of hope, to share food with all members in this global family.

Through your wisdom, inspire leaders of government and of business, as well as all the world’s citizens, to find just, and charitable solutions to end hunger by assuring that all people enjoy the right to food.

Thus we pray, O God, that when we present ourselves for Divine Judgment, we can proclaim ourselves as “One Human Family” with “Food for All”. Amen.



This Whovian — or Whoosier? — Learned from the Doctors: The Present Isn’t Enough

The recent blockbuster episode of the brilliant BBC series “Doctor Who” got me thinking again about the danger of “presentism” in today’s world.

Did you see the episode entitled “Day of the Doctor,” in which three different reincarnations of that lovable Time Lord, Doctor Who, come together to rethink and reshape the past, present, and future? The episode, marking a 50-th anniversary celebration of the ingenious series and (according to the Wikipedia article) a tribute to generations of Doctor Who fans called Whovians (I presume in Indiana we’re called Whoosiers), presented many unforgettable images and ideas. My favorite was the notion of capturing an entire scene, nay, an entire planet, in a moment of time, inside a picture frame, where so much has already happened, so much is ready to happen, but we’re told the viewer of this brilliant 4-D “painting” in a Time Lord’s gallery can “just add time” to bring the scene to life, as one “just adds water” to Lipton’s Cup-of-Soup.

I may never look at an art gallery the same way again. Every enduring work of art, I realize, is of its own time but is somehow of all time.

The reason I bring this up is the connection of this time-freezing to the compelling notion of “presentism,” to which I was introduced by Daniel Rushkoff’s recent book, Present Shock. The word presentism is not new, but it’s very thought-provoking. Rushkoff talks about how our modern society, with its advanced technology and rapid pace of life, makes life seem like everything is happening in the present. I haven’t read enough of Rushkoff’s insights to fully understand how he analyzes this phenomenon, but it coincides with an impression I’ve had for some time. When we want everything to happen right now, or when now is the only timeframe that matters, or when we pursue the titillation of a completely immersive now, we risk forgetting or discounting the past and the future. Our imaginations and faith, used constructively, help us transcend the traps of the present moment. The past and future are gifts from God, although they also impose accountability upon us.

It has been my privilege to write a book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Hesburgh Library and to see how the building, its people, and its role on the Notre Dame campus literally and figuratively bring past, present, and future together. This coincidence of three timeframes is the stuff of journeys and stories. It gives the Notre Dame campus its traditions, its lively celebrations of victory and discovery, and its focus on people and projects representing hope for the future.

Presentism, if I understand Rushkoff’s insights correctly (and I hope to study them more carefully in the near future!), poses a danger even as it seems to offer an alluring opportunity to live in the moment–an immensely exciting, adrenalin-charged moment–and then to move on in a series of random, disjointed, busy moments. Here’s my thought as it relates to communicating messages about society, about human life, about Notre Dame, and even about Doctor Who. I think Time Lords would agree that isolating present moments inside picture frames must be the exception, not the rule, even though those frozen scenes of potential energy are hauntingly beautiful. In everything we do, in every story we tell, we must be energized by the changing times, not mesmerized by a single moment. We Whoosiers can embrace the Doctors’ advice to embrace the learning that occurs in its own good time, from past to present to future. There can be immense energy (and human efficiency and divine grace) in the present moment, but don’t get trapped in it. Just add time.