By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published August 25, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
“Today my thoughts
Are swift and cool
As goldfish in
A lily pool.
Tomorrow, like as not,
Brown turtles blinking
Hard at me.
And I shall be
As dull as they
And blink back, too.
But oh, today!”
— Sister M. Philip, “Today”
I woke up several times during my first night in Italy far from my hometown of Madera, California. I had never been overseas. It was autumn 1997, and jet lag had convinced me that morning had come. The glow-in-the-dark numbers of my mother’s wind-up clock, however, disagreed with my skewed sense of time. My body eventually won the argument and I arose more than an hour before my 6:30 wake-up call.
I stayed with 10 other pilgrims at the Hotel Sirenetta (mermaid), which fittingly stood by the Tyrrhenian Sea, part of the Mediterranean. So I stepped into the lingering rain-sodden night to pray and walk along the seashore.
The harbor city of Ostia, which means “mouth,” sits at the mouth of the Tiber River and had been the most important port of the Roman empire until the capitol moved east to Constantinople. Now the pounding surf seemed to bring only litter to the rocky beach, and most of the shoreline had been claimed by resorts and restaurants.
After a light 7 a.m. breakfast of pastry, we crawled by bus through Rome's rush hour traffic amidst compacts, motorcycles and other buses. Beside the narrow roads, Italian competed with English for linguistic dominance on small billboards and ads, some of which were a voyeur's dream. Gas pumps sat on the sidewalk offering drive-by fill-ups.
We breached the Vatican an hour early for a 9:30 a.m. Wednesday audience with Pope John Paul II. On the way, our tour guide Sylvia Puppio had explained that to join the pope’s Swiss Guard one should be a “good-looking” bachelor who spoke English, German, Italian and Spanish. Alas, I sat two languages shy of the qualifications... among other things.
In St. Peter's Square, 140 stone saints atop the Roman colonnade had me surrounded, not to mention thousands of fellow pilgrims from around the globe. Tickets for a weekly papal audience are free, and courteous Swiss Guard and police directed the crowd, which in time filled the massive square.
On this site in A.D. 67 the apostle Peter (Kephas in Aramaic) had been crucified upside down as part of the Emperor Nero's Circo Vaticano (Vatican Arena) spectacles. Peter’s remains would be buried nearby, and in 326 the Emperor Constantine began work on a memorial church over his tomb. St. Peter's Basilica would be rebuilt in the 16th and 17th century, and has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world even today. I discovered that for myself that afternoon as my mind lost all sense of perspective in the presence of giant statues, pillars, and more.
A cousin later joked that Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18 not only were true spiritually, but literally as well — upon Peter a church had been built. At the time, I preferred to marvel at the sweet irony of how Jesus and all the martyrs had bested the Roman Empire even in the “defeat” of death.
That morning the pope’s open white car passed me before the audience, and I looked up at the tired, swollen eyes of a shepherd I had seen 13 years prior in Vancouver, British Columbia. Time had altered his face like a back alley mugger, but the light in his eyes hadn’t dulled. His strong presence would remain undimmed until the end of his earthly pilgrimage in 2005.
In a numbing diversity of tongues, visiting groups were announced, scripture read (Matthew 19:1-6), and the pope spoke upon the importance of an intact and loving marriage and family. Occasionally exuberant pilgrims would spontaneously break into song, cheer, or chant. The pope bore this with patience and a smile, like an indulgent grandfather.
I struggled to be patient myself as I tried to figure out what language was being spoken as I awaited words in English. But through it all I felt great peace and a gentle joy.
After a blessing around 11:30 a.m., I reluctantly rejoined Sylvia and my fellow California pilgrims for the more mundane matter of lunch. Yet I had already been well fed.
“The storm — the blast — the tempest shock,
Have beat upon these walls in vain;
She stands — a daughter of the rock --
The changeless God’s eternal fane.”
— Robert Stephen Hawker, “Morwennae Statio”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published August 10, 2012, and November 9, 2013, in The Madera Tribune
My father taught that women should be treated with respect and never hit. So whenever a pair of kindergarten classmates would chase or play aggressively with girls at school I would insist they stop. A fight would follow and I would lose.
So began a cycle that would last four school years as the defender became seen as an enemy. Strangely I never stopped defending myself though I never won a single battle.
But the worst indignity happened near the outset: a female kindergartener gave me a love letter.
Technically it was a handcrafted card. The front showed a leafy green plant stalk made of colored paper. When opened, the plant tripled in height and flowered. “My love for you will grow and grow,” it promised. The sender signed her name.
I was horrified. I may have been willing to be beaten up for the sake of girls, but that didn’t mean I liked them. They were strange and alien beings. I’d never heard the silly notion that girls have “cooties,” an infectious social ickiness. But if I had I would’ve agreed.
Nonetheless my parents, who clearly didn’t understand this, said I had to thank her. Compelled by obedience, I waited until she was busily passing out papers for the teacher. As she walked by, I muttered, “Thank you for the card.” Thanks to my skillful timing and her distraction, she didn’t seem to hear me. Thusly it ended.
Years later puberty led a revolution among the hearts and bodies of my classmates and I. But paper flowers only bloom for so long.
Human love is “a mutual relationship between persons,” noted a former ethics professor of the Jagiellonian University and the Catholic University of Lublin. Without mutuality, human love is frustrated. Humans are “co-creators” of love.
True love, he wrote, recognizes the good in another person (attraction), longs for that person (desire), and selflessly seeks the good for that person (goodwill). Of these, goodwill is the purest.
Those insights are only the starting point of a Christian philosophy book, “Love and Responsibility,” by Karol Wojtyla, Ph.D. (1920-2005).
The most obvious element of love, he wrote, is usually “sympathy,” which in Greek literally means “experiencing together.” Sympathy is the emotional attitude a person has for another, a sentimental surrender to attraction and desire, and makes people feel close to each other. When sympathy dies, many think love has ended.
“Yet sympathy is not by any means the whole of love, any more than excitement and emotion are the whole of a human being’s inner life — it is only one element among others,” he wrote.
Another element of love is friendship, which depends on sympathy but goes beyond it and includes goodwill. While sympathy is born a fickle lion, intense and strong, friendship takes its first steps as a fragile lamb that must be nurtured. Only together can the pair grow into something durable.
A third element of love, Wojtyla wrote, is comradeship, which “rests on such objective foundations as joint work, common goals, shared concerns, etc.” Comradeship doesn’t depend on sympathy to exist or grow, but it can enable sympathy to mature into friendship. Comradeship shows itself in sharing, and is more sociable than the other two; it can connect many people instead of only a few.
Beyond all these is a special form of love, which he calls betrothed love. It involves the giving of one’s own person to another. This involves a deep and real paradox, he writes, because by nature no person can be given or surrendered to another. To be a person is to be set on a path, whether accepted or abandoned, towards “ever greater fullness of existence.”
He wrote, “This [betrothed love] is doubly paradoxical: firstly in that it is impossible to step outside of one’s own ‘I’ in this way, and secondly in that the ‘I’ far from being destroyed or impaired as a result is enlarged and enriched…”
Betrothed love isn’t limited to marriage relationships. A doctor, teacher, or pastor can give themselves utterly to those under their care, he wrote.
But betrothed love is most clearly seen in matrimony. For the married, he wrote, self-giving involves far more than sex but certainly includes it. Yet the self-giving within marriage must be mutual to guard against exploitation, a very real danger.
For Christians, betrothed love is worth such risks. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 16:25)
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published August 3, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
The talented musician, Ludwig, wanted little to do with the Catholic Church or its priests, which isn’t completely surprising.
The archbishop of Cologne ruled his birthplace, Bonn, within the Holy Roman Empire of the 18th century. Only two centuries before, a religious and political conflict — the Cologne War — devastated the Electorate of Cologne.
The war began because an archbishop, never known for priestly character, resolved to marry an attractive nun without renouncing his princely position. The pair had a love affair for two years before Archbishop Gebhard von Waldburg announced his conversion “to the light” on Dec. 19, 1582.
His switch from Catholicism to the teachings of John Calvin, a French pastor and theologian, upset the delicate balance of power between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire. The archbishop of Cologne was one of the seven imperial governors who elected future emperors. Previous converts had resigned from office to avoid bloodshed, but Gebhard did not.
So it was that, with the future of the empire at stake, Protestants and Catholics fought for five years with the support of co-believers and mercenaries from elsewhere. Villages disappeared, and the formerly richest region of the empire would be ruined economically.
By the 18th century, life had become normal again. But such recent history hardly inspired trust. Moreover, Ludwig had a passion for more than beautiful music in the major city of Vienna. Prostitutes and young female students would also occupy the elegantly dressed musician’s time.
If he was in a church, it was for the music.
There were exceptions, such as when his mother — the only family member he had a loving bond with — died at 41 in July 1787 of tuberculosis and poor nutrition. His father surrendered more deeply to alcoholism, and Ludwig had to petition to become head of the household — at the age of 19.
His parents had seven children, but only three boys had survived. Ludwig took seriously his responsibility for his two younger brothers. Once when he discovered one cohabiting with an employee, he demanded they marry or he would report them to the authorities. They did so.
A decade later, his own life would change further after he was diagnosed with syphilis, a common sexually-transmitted disease. Though the connection wasn’t known at the time, syphilitic meningovasculitis likely damaged a nerve in his head, and slowly caused deafness.
Fear of what people would think caused him to isolate himself from others to protect his secret. The society he loved was taken from him.
In 1815, his brother Kaspar died. He left behind a wife and son, Karl. On his deathbed, he had asked Ludwig — who never married — to be co-guardian of the 9-year-old boy. That relationship would be difficult and full of heartache and disappointments.
Yet, through his deafness and trials, Ludwig’s relationship with God did grow.
“What is to be done?” he wrote to a friend shortly before his death. “What is to become of me if this lasts much longer? Mine has indeed been a hard doom; but I resign myself to the decrees of fate, and only constantly pray to God… The Almighty will give me strength to endure my lot, however severe and terrible, with resignation to His will.”
During a thunderstorm, Ludwig von Beethoven would die of a cold surrounded by close friends on March 26, 1827. More than 10,000 attended his funeral in the church of the Holy Trinity. The deaf pianist is considered one of the greats of classical music.
Only God can judge anyone’s soul, but I think Ludwig gained wisdom through suffering.
For artists, in particular, he urged: “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets. For it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”
What does he mean? The medieval Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas argued that God is the supreme Beauty, and all that exists reflects that beauty to some degree. Furthermore God is not only the ultimate cause of all beauty; God continues to “pulchrify” (beautify) creation, and God’s creatures participate in divine beauty when they accept and cooperate with God’s light.
Such divine beauty not only pleases the senses but also enlightens the mind. “The eyes and ears of our soul,” Aquinas wrote, “enable our vision to see the transcendent beauty present ontologically in all being.”
Ludwig apparently agreed. Like many throughout history, he discovered that beauty and truth, at their best, can both grant us glimpses of God, and they are worth suffering for.