Lighter winter days

I took this photo as I was walking along K Street this morning. I had left the Catholic Information Center and was heading to Americans United for Life a few blocks away. It has felt like spring for the past week, and this morning it looked that way too.

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The days are starting to be noticeably longer, too. It’s great to be able to leave the office past 5pm and still have some light while walking home.

The wind blows where it wills

It’s incredible in Washington this weekend. Beautiful early morning, and it’ll reach 70 degrees today and nearly as high tomorrow. It’s good to still be so early in the new year, and to make time for being with good people and doing good things. I headed to Arlington this morning for Borromeo Brothers at St. Charles in Clarendon.

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We read John 3:1-21 today, which I’ve included below. Fr. Don, the pastor at St. Charles, visited with us this morning before Mass and gave a talk on the sacraments as “efficacious signs”—that the sacraments, starting with baptism, confer the grace they signify.

How difficult it can be to believe. But the same mystery is at the heart of the most everyday things of life and we do not wonder at what we witness: “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes…” If we start from a posture of gratitude, it’s not so difficult to believe what Christ proposes—and to recognize the limited nature of our own will and power.

Nicodemus Visits Jesus

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can this be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

Motorcade on Wisconsin

I work on Connecticut Avenue and live off Wisconsin Avenue, and both frequently feature motorcades. The Naval Observatory, where the Vice President lives, lies north of Georgetown and so his or an affiliated party’s motorcade frequently comes down Wisconsin. That’s what I caught this morning, as I was about to cross the street to pick up a JUMP bike to get to work.

Joining Discovery Institute

I’m excited to be joining Discovery Institute as a Research Fellow in their Center on Human Exceptionalism. I’ll continue with Americans United for Life as Chief Engagement Officer at the same time that I join Wesley J. Smith to contribute to the conversation he leads at the Center on Human Exceptionalism on human life:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 6, 2020 /PRNewswire/ — Discovery Institute is pleased to announce Tom Shakely, who serves as Chief Engagement Officer at Americans United for Life, has joined the Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism as a Research Fellow where he will focus on human dignity, human rights, and law and policy.

“Tom’s passionate and distinctive voice on the human right to life will be a powerful addition to Discovery Institute’s interdisciplinary community of scholars and policy advocates,” said Steve Buri, President of Discovery Institute.

“We’re living through a time of increasingly sophisticated, and ultimately brutal, attacks on human rights,” said Wesley J. Smith, Senior Fellow of the Center on Human Exceptionalism. “Tom is a powerful advocate for the principle of universal human rights who understands the importance of asking this central question: ‘Does every human life have equal moral value simply and merely because it is human?'”

Tom Shakely serves as Chief Engagement Officer at Americans United for Life, where he hosts “Life, Liberty, and Law,” featuring conversations on the human right to life. Tom has spoken on human rights issues at the United Nations, testified to the District of Columbia City Council on conscience rights, and advised on testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and U.S. House of Representatives. Tom holds a B.A. in Political Science from the Pennsylvania State University, M.S. in Bioethics from the University of Mary, and Certification with Distinction in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

“I’ve admired the Discovery Institute for its ability to transcend partisanship and factionalism in American life, and I’ve particularly admired Wesley J. Smith’s relentless commitment to engaging issues of human dignity and human rights,” said Tom Shakely. “I’m grateful to contribute to the conversation on these essential issues.”

Discovery Institute is a public policy think tank whose mission is to advance a culture of purpose, creativity, and innovation. The Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism exists to affirm and uphold the intrinsic nature of human dignity, liberty, and equality, examining the entire spectrum of issues relating to human life in order to inspire, inform, and equip thought and policy leaders with a comprehensive vision of the importance of being human as the predicate to universal human rights and human flourishing.

For more information contact Discovery Institute at Discovery Institute at (206) 292-0401 x1070 or via e-mail at info@discovery.org.

Boarding a train home

Happy New Year! I’m at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, ready to board a train home to Washington after a good week with family.

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I’m eager to be back in Washington, back to what feels like home after so many years of thinking of Philadelphia in that way. But Washington has been a great gift, personally, spiritually, and professionally. And so it’s easy to call it home.

Wherever we find ourselves in life, it’s good to ask whether the place you are feels like home. And if not, to start making it that.

‘Is this not a miracle in itself?’

It’s New Years Eve, and as the year comes to a close I’m reading one of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s sermons and reflecting on the miracle that is every year, that is every month, day, and minute. Every moment we live is a miracle, in that there’s no reason for any of this other than God’s sheer love and willing of our being. In worship, we recognize this gratuitous goodness, along with our inability to repay it or to earn anything, and at the same time the importance of simply thanking God for the goodness that is this life:

On Christmas night the shepherds are addressed by an angel who shines upon them with the blinding glory of God, and they are very much afraid. The tremendous, unearthly radiance shows that the angel is a messenger of heaven and clothes him with an incontrovertible authority. With this authority he commands them not to be afraid but to embrace the great joy he is announcing to them. And while the angel is speaking thus to these poor frightened people, he is joined by a vast number of others, who unite in a “Gloria” praising God in heaven’s heights and announcing the peace of God’s goodwill to men on earth. Then, we read, “the angels went away from them into heaven.” In all probability the singing was very beautiful and the shepherds were glad to listen; doubtless they were sorry when the concert was over and the performers disappeared behind heaven’s curtain. Probably, however, they were secretly a little relieved when the unwonted light of divine glory and the unwonted sound of heavenly music came to an end, and they found themselves once more in their familiar earthly darkness. They probably felt like shabby beggars who had suddenly been set in a king’s audience chamber among courtiers dressed in magnificent robes and were glad to slip away unnoticed and take to their heels.

But the strange thing is that the intimidating glory of the heavenly realm, which has now vanished, has left behind a human glow of joy in their souls, a light of joyous expectation, reinforcing the heavenward-pointing angel’s word and causing them to set out for Bethlehem. Now they can turn their backs on the whole epiphany of the heavenly glory—for it was only a starting point, an initial spark, a stimulus leading to what was really intended; all that remains of it is the tiny seed of the word that has been implanted in their hearts and that now starts to grow in the form of expectation, curiosity and hope: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” They want to see the word that has taken place. Not the angel’s word with its heavenly radiance: that has already become unimportant. They want to see the content of the angel’s word, that is, the Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They want to see the word that has “happened,” the word that has taken place, the word that is not only something uttered but something done, something that can not only be heard but also seen.

Thus the word that the shepherds want to see is not the angel’s word. This was only the proclamation (the kerygma, as people say nowadays); it was only a pointer. The angels, with their heavenly authority, disappear: they belong to the heavenly realm; all that remains is a pointer to a word that has been done. By God, of course. Just as it is God who made it known to them through the angels. …

All who deny themselves in order to carry out love’s commission are on the right path.

Miracles happen along this path. Apparently insignificant miracles, noticed by hardly anyone. The very finding of a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger—is this not a miracle in itself? Then there is the miracle when a particular mission, hidden in a person’s heart, really reaches its goal, bringing God’s peace and joy where there were nothing but despair and resignation; when someone succeeds in striking a tiny light in the midst of an overpowering darkness. When joy irradiates a heart that no longer dared to believe in it. Now and again we ourselves are assured that the angel’s word we are trying to obey will bring us to the place where God’s Word and Son is already made man. We are assured that, in spite of all the noise and nonsense, today, December 25, is Christmas just as truly as two millennia ago. Once and for all God has started out on his journey toward us, and nothing, till the world’s end, will stop him from coming to us and abiding in us.

Christmas visit to Lewes

When I was on the road with my brother last week, our first stop was in Lewes, Delaware to visit Ben Novak and his family. It was a good visit, and we had dinner at Grotto Pizza in Rehoboth Beach, about 20 minutes south of Lewes.

On Saturday, the following morning, we got up and got ready to hit the road to Central Pennsylvania, an approximately five hour drive. But before we did that we went out onto a fishing pier that looks out to the west at the Lewes ferry terminal, and to the east to Cape Henlopen State Park. It was perfect, late December light jacket weather.

If it hadn’t been for the approaching ferry, it would have almost been tough to tell where the horizon and the sky met.

State College and holy families

We’re in State College today, heading back to Philadelphia shortly for New Years with family. I’m here with one of my brothers for a college visit, and it looks like he’ll be a Penn Stater, Class or 2024. We walked the campus last night, which was particularly special because it was as deserted as I’ve ever seen it due to Christmas break. It was like we had the place to ourselves for a private tour and the sort of conversation that flows in moments like that. It’s been a good trip and we’ve had good time to be together. I’m excited for him as he looks ahead to this.

After waking up at the Hyatt Place downtown this morning, we checked out and headed to Our Lady of Victory for Mass. It’s still Christmas, and today is the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. I’m pasting some of Bishop Robert Barron’s Gospel reflection below:

The family is, above all, the forum in which both parents and children are able to discern their missions. It is perfectly good, of course, if deep bonds and rich emotions are cultivated within the family, but those relationships and passions must cede to something that is more spiritually focused.

A biblical prioritization of values helps us to see what typically goes wrong with families. When something other than mission is dominant—a son’s athletic achievement, a daughter’s success at university, etc.—family relationships actually become strained. The paradox is this: precisely in the measure that everyone in the family focuses on God’s call for one another, the family becomes more loving and peaceful.

John Paul II admirably summed up what I’ve been driving at when he spoke of the family as an ecclesiola (a little church). At its best, he implies, the family is a place where God is worshiped and where the discernment of God’s mission is of paramount importance.

‘We aren’t the singular-autonomous individuals we think of ourselves as being’

Charlie Camosy interviews Kristin Marguerite Collier, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, on the relationship between a mother and a child prior to the child’s birth. Kristin Collier writes:

As many of your readers may know, the placenta is the organ through which the mother and prenatal child interface. The placenta is an organ that is attached to the inside of the uterus and connects to the prenatal child through the child’s umbilical cord.

What is not as well known about this organ is that the placenta is the only organ in human biology that is made by two persons, together, in cooperation. The placenta is ‘built’ from tissue that is part from mom, and part from the growing baby. Because of this, the placenta is referred to as a ‘feto-maternal’ organ. It is the only organ made by two people, in cooperation with providence. It is the first time mom and her baby come together, albeit at the cellular level, to do something in cooperation.

Whenever I think of this, I picture the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo depicts God and Man reaching out for one another, hands about to touch and perhaps entwine. In the creation of the placenta, cells from the trophoblast, which are from the embryo, ‘reach down’ towards the mother’s uterine wall while at the same time, the spiral arteries from the mother’s uterus are ‘reaching’ up towards the embryo. This process leads to the creation of the placenta.

The placenta is the only purposely transient organ in humans and unlike the rest of our organs, acts as many organs in one. The placenta functions to eliminate waste, like the kidneys would do, facilitates transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide, like the lungs would do, and provides nutrients, like a GI tract would do. It even has endocrine and immune function. What used to be discarded as just the ‘afterbirth’ is now regarded as a magnificently complex shared organ that supports the formation of the prenatal child.

The placenta is such an important organ that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has established, under its “Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development” arm, the “Human Placenta Project” (HPP). The website says “The placenta is arguably one of the most important organs in the body. It influences not just the health of a woman and her fetus during pregnancy, but also the lifelong health of both mother and child.” The aim of the HPP is to better understand, through research, the amazing placenta with the ultimate goal of improving the health of children and mothers. The research done by the HPP continues to demonstrate that a child’s prenatal and postnatal health is inextricably linked to the health of the placenta.

In addition to the placenta, mother and prenatal child interact at a cellular level in something known as ‘fetomaternal microchimerism’. In Greek Mythology, the chimera is a fire breathing monster comprised of three species in one – a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail. In science, “microchimerism” is the presence of a small population of genetically distinct and separately derived cells within an individual. During pregnancy, small numbers of cells traffic across the placenta. Some of the prenatal child’s cells cross into the mother, and some cells from the mother cross into the prenatal child. The cells from the prenatal child are pluripotent and integrate into tissues in her mother’s body and start functioning like the cells around them. This integration is known as ‘feto-maternal microchimerism’.

The presence of these cells is amazing for several reasons. One is that these cells have been found in various maternal organs and tissues such as the brain, the breast, the thyroid and the skin. These are all organs which in some way are important for the health of both the baby and her mother in relationship. The post-partum phase is when there is need, for example, for lactation. The fetomaternal microchimeric cells have been shown to be important in signaling lactation. These cells have been found in the skin, for example, in Cesarean section incisions where they are helping to produce collagen. Baby is helping mom heal after delivery by the presence of her cells! It would be one thing for these cells to come into the mother and be inert, but is a whole other thing entirely that these cells are active and aid mom for example in helping to produce milk for her baby and helping her heal. These cells may even affect how soon the mother can get pregnant again and therefore can affect spacing of future siblings.

Usually, foreign or ‘other’ cells are detected by the host immune system and are destroyed. The fact that these fetal cells ‘survive’ and then are allowed to integrate into maternal tissue speaks to a ‘cooperation’ between the mother and her child at the level of the cell that parallels that seen in the development of the placenta, suggesting that the physical connection between mom and baby is even deeper and more beautiful than previously thought. Research in fetomaternal microchimerism suggests that the presence of these cells may favorably affect the future risk of malignancy. The presence of these cells in the maternal breast may help protect mom from breast cancer years after the baby’s birth.

To think that a physical presence of the baby in her mother is helping protect her from cancer at the level of the cell, speaks to a radical mutuality at the cellular level that we are just beginning to understand. Some of the effects of fetomaternal microchimerism, however, may be detrimental in some cases. This research is still underway. The big takeaway is that the science of microchimerism supports the fact that some human beings carry remnants of other humans in their bodies. Thus, we aren’t the singular-autonomous individuals we think of ourselves as being.

And Michael Pakaluk writes along the same lines, reflecting on the theological implications of our contemporary understanding of pregnancy:

“Mothers around the world say they feel like their children are still a part of them long after they’ve given birth,” said a recent Smithsonian Magazine article, “As it turns out, that is literally true. During pregnancy, cells from the fetus cross the placenta and enter the mother’s body, where they can become part of her tissues.”

It works the other way, too.  Cells from the mother also cross the barrier.  But these cells are not “pluripotent”; their life spans and possible influences are short-lived.

Evolutionary biologists are fascinated by the exchange, because they view it as a symbiosis that contributes to the “fitness” of both mother and child.  Preliminary evidence suggests that fetal cells may stimulate milk production, help wounds to heal, and strengthen the mother’s immune system. …

But let’s think of Mary’s pregnancy in this way.  Jesus was “perfect God and perfect man,” like us in all ways except sin. Therefore, let us suppose that cells from the unborn Jesus migrated into Mary’s blood and lodged in various organs, where they took on the functions of those organs, and remained until Mary was assumed into Heaven. They were not Mary’s cells, but the cells of the Lord, alive within Mary’s body and playing the same function as Mary’s cells. …

A Church that advances the world

G.K Chesterton writes on the question of whether Catholics can ever be properly understood to be behind the times, and specifically whether the Church should “move with the times:”

Chesterton, in response to a newspaper suggestion that the Church ought to “move with the times”:

The Cities of the Plain might have remarked that the heavens above them did not altogether fit in with their own high civilisation and social habits. They would be right. Oddly enough, however, when symmetry was eventually restored, it was not the heavens that had been obliged to adapt themselves….

The Church cannot move with the times; simply because the times are not moving. The Church can only stick in the mud with the times, and rot and stink with the times. In the economic and social world, as such, there is no activity except that sort of automatic activiity that is called decay; the withering of the high flowers of freedom and their decomposition into the aboriginal soil of slavery. In that way the world stands much at the same stage as it did at the beginning of the Dark Ages. And the Church has the same task as it had at the beginning of the Dark Ages; to save all the light and liberty that can be saved, to resist the downward drag of the world, and to wait for better days. So much a real Church would certainly do; but a real Church might be able to do more. It might make its Dark Ages something more than a seed-time; it might make them the very reverse of dark. It might present its more human ideal in such abrupt and attractive a contrast to the inhuman trend of the time, as to inspire men suddenly for one of the moral revolutions of history; so that men now living shall not taste of death until they have seen justice return.

We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world. We want one that will move it away from many of the things towards which it is now moving; for instance, the Servile State. It is by that test that history will really judge of any Church, whether it is the real Church or no.

The spirit of any age is by nature ephemeral; fleeting. To proclaim something or someone as true is to proclaim a thing that doesn’t change.