Mysterious Reminders

My mother sent me the snap accompanying this post of a page from a booklet she received when she went to hear the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

I was curious to look up these various symbolic interpretations of the significance of the shofar. This list was devised by a rabbi from the late ninth-to-early tenth century.

I had heard Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recall how Maimonides considered the shofar as “God’s Alarm Clock“, but I had never before heard about the connection between the sounding of the shofar as a reminder of the resurrection of the dead.

Eliyahu Kitov’s article says, “The sounding of the shofar serves to remind us of the resurrection of the dead, as the verse [Isaiah 18:3] states: All those inhabitants of the world and those who dwell in the earth, when a sign is lifted upon the mountains you shall see and when the shofar is sounded you shall hear.”

I went and tried to read that chapter of Isaiah in context and I could not really figure out what it had to do with the resurrection of the dead.

I also tried to find other Jewish sources speaking to the importance of being reminded about resurrection on Rosh Hashanah and I didn’t really find anything.

The shofar can only be the spiritual wake-up call it’s meant to be if it’s understood what exactly we are being awoken to and for.

What difference would it make if we were reminded, even annually, to think about resurrection?

Musical aid in suffering

The other day I met a woman who is a classical singer and musical therapist. Over lunch she told me about how she works with some stroke patients who cannot speak, yet who can sing.

The photo accompanying this post is from this article explaining how this works.

Take a look at this quick clip showing showing an example of neurologic music therapy:

This classical singer has also worked with orphans, palliative care patients, and others in vulnerable states.

Another musician at the lunch explained to us that the more complexity there is to the music, the more order the music can put into your soul. This led me to think: Instead of medical aid in dying, we need musical aid in suffering.

First things first

A few days ago, I attended a conference at which I met a Venezuelan currently in exile in the U.K.

This young man is passionate about politics and philosophy.

When I shared with him about some of the current debates in Canadian politics concerning bioethics, he was perplexed.

Essentially he expressed his perplexity as follows: My country is a mess. There is massive corruption, countless human rights violations, and many basic needs of citizens are unmet. We imagine that Canada is so much more advanced. Yet, you seem to be divided on the most fundamental questions.

Indeed, Canadians are divided about what it means to be a man, to be a woman, to be married, to be a person, to be alive.

Despite industrial development, material prosperity, and impressive longevity, we are still unsure about a lot of the basics.

It is revealing that someone from Venezuela can question our supposed advancement in this way.

Black & White

Recently I was getting ready to head to the U.K. for a five-day seminar.

Before leaving, I showed the webpage announcing the program to a Chinese student at my residence.

As he scrolled the webpage, a concerned expression spread across his face.

“Why are these photos black and white?” he asked nervously, perusing the headshots and bios of faculty and fellows.

“Just for branding and aesthetic,” I shrugged. “Why?”

“In China, black and white photos indicate the person has died,” he explained to me.

Ah, I realized.

No wonder he had looked so startled upon seeing my black and white headshot on his laptop as I sat across from him.

“The light she has lit in my life is still burning.”

On this feast day of Saint Mother Teresa, I read the address that she gave upon being awarded the Templeton Prize and came upon this striking anecdote:

“And in one of the places in Melbourne I visited an old man and nobody ever knew that he existed. And I saw his room in a terrible state, and I wanted to clean his house, his room, and he kept on saying ‘I’m all right!’ but I repeated the same word, ‘You will be more all right if you will allow me to clean your place’, and at the end he allowed me. And there in that room there was a beautiful lamp covered with dirt of many years, and I asked him ‘Why do you not light your lamp?’ Then I asked him, ‘Will you light the lamp if the Sisters come to see you?’ He said, ‘Yes, if I hear a human voice I will do it.’ And the other day he sent me word, ‘Tell my friend the light she has lit in my life is still burning.’”

How many in our world, particularly after this painful season of mandatory isolation, also need to hear a human voice for the light of their life to be rekindled in their soul?

You can read the full address here:

In Silence and Solitude

“I’m looking forward to a season of retreat and contemplation,” I told a Dutch priest upon my arrival to Italy.

“And you’re moving to Rome?” he asked incredulously. “Have you been there before?”

Of course I had been to Rome before and I knew exactly what he meant. Rome is extremely chaotic, noisy, and bustling.

But I have the great privilege of living in a place known as a “retreat” of the Passionist Congregation – a beautiful site atop the Celian Hill – about which the founder of this religious community wrote in 1747:

It is one of the most solitary places in Rome, a place of great silence and recollection, almost a mountain, with good air, a garden, with water […] There are cabbages, enough fruit for summer and winter, at least partially, figs, grapes, artichokes, beans, broccoli, enough even to give to your novices. […] It is a fine location, not a better one is to be found in Rome with delightful air – a place prepared by our Great Father for his servants.

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A memory to sustain you as you suffer

In this clip, Rabbi YY Jacobson tells a powerful story about what saved a certain man when he was forced to undergo a death march as a child after his father had just been murdered.

Here’s that story:

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Filial Piety and Patriotism

Today I came across this striking passage in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France:

To avoid therefore the evils of inconstancy and versatility, ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice, we have consecrated the state, that no man should approach to look into its defects or corruptions but with due caution; that he should never dream of beginning its reformation by its subversion; that he should approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude. By this wise prejudice we are taught to look with horror on those children of their country, who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces, and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution, and renovate their father’s life.

There is a relationship between filial piety and patriotism. The reverence we have for the traditions of our political communities is analogous to the reverence we have for our parents. Are we able to receive from our parents and from our tradition?

To what extent is our political culture reflective of “hack[ing] that aged parent”?

What difference could restoring filial piety have on renewing authentic patriotism?

“Prepare Yourself for An Ordeal”

Fr. Mark Goring, CC of the parish I attended in Ottawa likes to preach often on the first verse of the second chapter of the Book of Sirach which says, “My child, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal.”

It is a startling sentence when we stop to think about it because most of the time we go through life trying to prepare ourselves for loving relationships, meaningful successes, a reasonable amount of prosperity, and an abundance of opportunities.

What, if anything, are we doing to prepare ourselves for an ordeal, for tests, for trials?

What young person, on being asked what he or she is doing or hopes to do, will respond that they are preparing themselves to suffer hardships honourably?

And yet, the verse above speaks about “preparing yourself” – not even being prepared simply by God or by circumstances – but intentionally and resolutely preparing yourself for the tests and trials of life that are sure to come.

What difference would it make if we set ourselves up not only for success but for ordeals?

And, what sort of education and training constitute such preparation?

Ever nearer to the grave

I just came upon this evocative sermon on death by John Henry Newman called “The Lapse of Time.”

Such is death considered in its inevitable necessity, and its unspeakable importance—nor can we ensure to ourselves any certain interval before its coming. The time may be long; but it may also be short. It is plain, a man may die any day; all we can say is, that it is unlikely that he will die. But of this, at least, we are certain, that, come it sooner or later, death is continually on the move towards us. We are ever nearer and nearer to it. Every morning we rise we are nearer that grave in which there is no work, nor device, than we were. We are now nearer the grave, than when we entered this Church. Thus life is ever crumbling away under us. What should we say to a man, who was placed on some precipitous ground, which was ever crumbling under his feet, and affording less and less secure footing, yet was careless about it? Or what should we say to one who suffered some precious liquor to run from its receptacle into the thoroughfare of men, without a thought to stop it? who carelessly looked on and saw the waste of it, becoming greater and greater every minute? But what treasure can equal time? It is the seed of eternity: yet we suffer ourselves to go on, year after year, hardly using it at all in God’s service, or thinking it enough to give Him at most a tithe or a seventh of it

It is rare to think with this level of attention about the brevity of life.

However, some people do.

A couple years ago, I went to meet someone at his office where I noticed a poster with many small dots on it in rows and columns.

When I asked this man about it, he explained that it is a sort of life calendar depicting how many weeks he has to live if he lives the average lifespan of someone in his demographic.

He showed me the point in the poster at which he is now and explained that having this reminder in his office of the shortness of life spurs him on to tackle his tasks with resolve, gratitude, urgency, and enthusiasm.

To me, this memento mori exemplified the conscientious of which Newman speaks.