Wednesday, July 30, 2014

There Are No Good Wars

Gaza, January 2009
There is no such thing as a good war. Debates have been carried on for centuries regarding the justness or otherwise of the declaration and the prosecution of war, but every war has inevitably left devastated nations and convulsions of misery in its wake.

The notion of war is loaded and complex. It is tinged with elements of heroism and cruelty, of nobility and barbarism, of honour and depravity, of idealism and cynicism. Acts of war are always enacted upon an other, be that other an individual, a tribe or a nation. Inherent in such acts is a conviction regarding the truth and the righteousness of one’s own position and the error and worthlessness of that held by the other.

Yet no one group can ever be entirely aligned with the true and the good regardless of the delusional rhetoric that springs from all sides in justification for acts of war.

The process of civilisation has tempered the views of every nation regarding the nature and purpose of war. It has generated castes and institutions that willingly and consciously concern themselves with developing an ethos to guide those who would take on the role of warrior or protector of their people. This has been understood as necessary to ensure the safety and security of those within the community who are not in a position to protect themselves from the organised actions of hostile forces intent on destroying the peace for whatever reason.

Even as a purely pragmatic response to the historic experience of war and its consequences, the organisation of warrior castes and their associated institutions has enabled the cultivation of disciplined readiness, the capacity for skilled negotiation and, in its failure, a preparedness to engage wilful and belligerent opponents skilfully, decisively and fairly. Such institutions were developed during periods when warfare was engaged face-to-face, warrior-to-warrior, field-to-field. One acted and reacted in the field of battle and the effects of one’s skill and fortune - or lack thereof - were immediately visible and irrevocable.

Gaza, November 2012
Everything has now changed. Rules of engagement may be formulated and invoked, but acts of war as we have come to know them in the present age are planned and executed at a distance by men who have never seen the living face of war and its monstrous consequences. The clash of sabre on sabre has been muted for centuries.

The booming of artillery and the crackling of bullets have pierced and sundered the past twenty decades. The slow dance of aerial engagement that once tested the reflexes and determination of young pilots during the so-called Great War has been replaced by infernal powers that thunderously impel silicon-guided missiles to their well-mapped targets. And this is all done at a safe distance by those with the hardware and the know-how.

But who truly knows the consequences of such acts apart from those unfortunates in the line of fire, and those heroic individuals who witness and document the human reality of what is otherwise counted in the ledger of contemporary history as anonymous casualties and collateral damage?

The men who flew Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the sweetly named Little Boy into the lives of the people of Hiroshima, witnessed - albeit at a distance - the immensity of their action. So too did the crew of the Bockscar that delivered its terrible cargo Fat Man to the unsuspecting women and children of Nagasaki three days later.

In the present disregard of such direct witnessing, F-16 fighter jets, remotely controlled missiles, pilot-less drones and distant tanks deliver their lethal loads out of sight and often out of mind of those who direct these deadly forces.

In this new perversion of warfare that has shaken and shattered the nations of the earth over the past two centuries, it is ever the innocents who have suffered most grievously. The true warrior has always lived with the knowledge that his chosen role may cost him his life. But the great majority of lives taken in contemporary acts of war are those of innocents.

The largely forgotten millions who were herded into the killing camps of the Nazis, the hundreds of thousands who were flayed and ashed in the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo and in the atomic sackings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 500,000 children of Iraq whose young lives were taken by the silent and covert consequences of twelve years of crippling sanctions that kept a despot in power and a people exhausted, the hundreds of thousands of lives that have been squandered in the Iraqi misadventure driven by George Bush and Tony Blair, the thousands of families in Afghanistan and Pakistan who continue to grieve the loss of their loved ones from past volleys of air-strikes, and the thousands of women and children blown apart in Gaza from Operation Cast Lead in 2008/2009 to Operation Protective Edge at the present time are all tragic witnesses to the fact that it has all gone horribly wrong.

Gaza, July 2014
Rule by force can never succeed. People can never be bludgeoned into peace. How long does it take to learn that no one is entirely right, that no one is entirely wrong? How long will it take before the cultivation of wisdom and sensitivity to the needs of those one aspires to represent become high values in those who would lead their people? How long must we wait before the principles of fairness, compassionate advocacy, reasoned and reasonable negotiation and the acceptance of difference become the keystones of political office and enlightened governance?

The times ahead will require precisely these attributes. 

The work has barely begun in the task of saving what yet can be saved and of putting aside those entrenched practices that darken further an already darkening future. The earth and her people have for too long now been lashed by cruel assaults of increasing violence, power and destructiveness. Where will it end?

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
July 2014


1. Slouching Towards Gaza

Two days after Christmas in 2008, the isolated and densely populated city of Gaza was visited by volley upon volley of deadly missile and mortar fire. The intense bombardment of one of the most densely populated places on earth continued unabated for a period of three weeks. By the end of the assault, over 1,400 Palestinians had been killed and more than 5,000 wounded, many seriously. Between three and four hundred of the dead were children. A total of 13 Israelis were killed during the same time, four of them by the action of their own troops.

Slouching Towards Gaza offers both an audio presentation carrying the reflections from a number of informed commentators and a substantive essay in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of that tragic event.

2. Lines from the Edge of Darkness

We who live in regions of relative stability and prosperity in the so-called developed world and who are free of the uncertainty and the unpredictability that are part of daily life in war zones will occasionally be startled out of our false sense of security and certainty. Such occasions though generally rare, will often have a transformative effect on our lives. Yet we seem to maintain our sense of privileged steadiness in the face of a constant stream of disturbing images and reports that fill the electronic and print media. Such images remind us daily of the reality of ongoing wars, the horror of terror attacks, and the despair of vast numbers of families and individuals who have left everything in order to seek refuge from violence and danger, from ruined streets and houses, from bombs and bullets.

Lines from the Edge of Darkness offers a selection of thirteen original poems written over the past two decades reflecting on war and its consequences.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. Healer for a Broken Time

Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, the Capuchin priest who carried the wounds of the crucified Christ, embodied truths that have been stridently denied by many who would tell us how we are to think and what we are to disbelieve during these times of overwhelming power and overwhelming impotence. This remarkable man bore witness to the essential truth carried in the Christian understanding of the Incarnation, of the human embodiment of the living Christ. As one who bore the stigmata, the five wounds of the crucified Christ, Padre Pio projected historical truth. He shares this witness with such others as Saint Francis of Assisi, Therese Neumann and more recently, Emma de Guzman all of whose lives have shattered the illusory certainty of what has been considered the limits of the possible.

We pride ourselves on the cogency of the scientific knowledge and understanding that have enabled us to crack apart both atoms and atolls, leave flags and footprints on the moon, and map the structure of cellular DNA. This same pride has decreed that only through such methods as those sanctioned by science can we arrive at Truth. But despite our proofs and our powers, many aspects of the phenomenal world continue to defy scientific interpretation.

Sixty years ago, historian of science Thomas Kuhn described how our ways of thinking can become so fixed that we refuse to accept any evidence that cannot be explained or accommodated by our view of the world or the paradigm through which we interpret reality. Kuhn went on to describe the progressive accumulation of "anomalous" evidence that does not fit in to our way of thinking. This can often force a complete reassessment of the paradigm or model through which such evidence is interpreted. This process underlies the periodic revolutions that occur in scientific understanding.

There is no shortage of "anomalous" manifestation in the world. And there is much that occurs in the experiences of many that simply cannot be accommodated by a materialistic and rationalistic view of reality.

Padre Pio first received the stigmata, or the marks of the crucified Christ when he was in his twenties. Prior to that time, as a novice and young monk, he had engaged in a number of ascetic disciplines. His self-mortifications were extreme and, by today's standards, excessive. Despite the fact that every authentic spiritual tradition acknowledges the transformative power of ascetic practices, there are some who would consider them to be severe aberrations of spirituality. Yet the life and influence of Padre Pio as experienced by many during the course of his life showed him to be a man of great grace and unusual attainment. He has clearly walked a very particular path reserved for but few souls on the earth.

The activation of psychic energy through his spiritual practices unleashed demonic forces that literally made Padre Pio's life hell. He lived fully the paradox of the heavenly grace bestowed through the stigmata, experienced concurrently as indescribable and agonising physical pain.

In many ways, Pio's life overturns the modernist denial of the miraculous and the numinous. He lived the impossible. The way in which he acquired the stigmata of Christ Jesus resonates strongly with the experiences of Saint Francis of Assisi and would test the imagination of even the most adventurous writer of fantasy. For Padre Pio, the inhabitants of hell-worlds were not the fanciful constructions of archaic myth-makers, but actual presences with whom he actively contended.

He possessed in great measure many of the siddhi, or perfections described in the Yogic literature of India. These included bilocation (the ability to be in two places at one time), visions, ecstasies, the ability to read the minds of others, powerful healings, luminosity, and the emanation of sublime fragrances. Yet he never claimed these manifestations as his own. He was truly a great priest of Jesus who lived a life of dedicated service and humility.

His mission was also marked by extraordinary works. The creation of the Casa Solievo Della Sofferenza, a large hospital constructed in San Giovanni Rotondo during the 1950s was driven largely by Padre Pio from within the confines of his monastery. Despite his accomplishments in both the physical and the spiritual realms, Padre Pio claimed no exalted status, but right to the end, remained surprisingly ambivalent about his own relationship with the Divine. His biographer C. Bernard Ruffin comments:
Incredibly, Padre Pio at times seemed to doubt that he was in a state of grace. "You have respect for me," he told a friend, 'because you do not know me. I am the greatest sinner on this earth." Complaining that every good intention was marred by vanity and pride, he insisted, "I am not good. I do not know why this habit of Saint Francis, which I wear so unworthily, does not jump off me. . . .  Pray for me that I might become good." [Padre Pio: The True Story, p. 373]
Such extraordinary comments made towards the close of his life cast the reality of relativity into sharp relief. Did Padre Pio hold dark secrets, or was he so conscious of the nature of perfection that the minor foibles which constantly assail everyone in the course of their daily lives became for him a source of great angst and self-recrimination? Perhaps the self-expectation of those who have truly transcended human limitation and who fully inhabit spiritual reality is beyond the comprehension of humanity at large. This attitude may perhaps also reflect the folly of complacency and hubris in considering one's own relationship to the Divine.

Padre Pio of Pietrelcina represents yet another remarkable enigma born of Italian Catholic spirituality. His life has served to reaffirm the deeper values of love, healing and transformation carried by deep Christianity during this broken time of materialism, nihilism and abuse that subvert and deny the essential truths taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
March 2014

A Prayer for Healers

by Padre Pio

O divine healer of bodies and of souls, Lord Jesus, Redeemer, who during your life on the earth cared for those who were afflicted and healed them with a touch of your all-powerful hand, we who are called to the difficult mission of healing honour you and recognise in you our sublime model and source of strength.

May you ever guide our minds, our hearts and our hands so that we may deserve the praise and honour bestowed by the Holy Spirit upon our vocation.

May there awaken within us a growing awareness of our role as your collaborators in the protection and the development of humanity, and of our role as instruments of your divine mercy.

Illuminate our intelligence in the pursuit of an understanding of the pain and difficulties caused by the numerous afflictions that can assail our bodies until, by skilfully availing ourselves of the findings of science, the causes of sickness no longer remain hidden to us. By your grace, may we be neither deceived nor mistaken regarding the nature of our patients' symptoms, but with sure judgement, select the best remedies or treatments that have been made available through your Divine Providence.

Fill our hearts with your love and help us to recognise your own self within our patients, particularly those who are most wounded and helpless. May we respond to the trust that they have placed in us with the utmost care and energy.

Imitating the example you have set for us, may we be parental in our concern, sincere in our advice, diligent in our ministrations, strangers to deception, and wise in our discernment of the mystery of suffering and of death. Above all, may we be constant in our defense of your sacred law of respect for all life against the assaults of our self-serving and perverse instincts.

As healers who give glory to your name, we vow that our activities will be continually guided by moral righteousness and that our lives will honour the laws of morality.

Finally, grant that we ourselves, through the Christian conduct of our lives and the just practice of our profession, may one day be worthy to hear from your lips the blessed words that you have promised to those who have ministered to you in the form of those who are in need: "Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." (Matt. 26, 34)

May it be so !

(Translated from the Italian by Vincent Di Stefano)

Original Italian Version

O Medico divino della anime e dei corpi, Redentore Gesù, che durante la tua vita mortale prediligesti gli infermi, risanandoli col tocco della tua mano onnipotente, noi, chiamati all’ardua missione di medici, ti adoriamo e riconosciamo in te il nostro eccelso modello e sostegno.

Mente, cuore e mano siano sempre da te guidati in modo da meritare la lode e l’onore che lo Spirito Santo ascrive al nostro ufficio (cfr. Eccli. 38).

Accresci in noi la consapevolezza di essere in qualche modo collaboratori tuoi nella difesa e nello sviluppo delle umane creature, e strumenti della tua misericordia.

Illumina le nostre intelligenze nell’aspro cimento contro le innumerevoli infermità dei corpi, affinchè, avvalendoci rettamente della scienza e dei suoi progressi, non ci siano occulte le cause dei mali, né ci traggano in inganno i loro sintomi, ma con sicuro giudizio possiamo indicare i rimedi dalla tua Provvidenza disposti.

Dilata i nostri cuori col tuo amore, sicché, ravvisando te stesso negli infermi, particolarmente nei più derelitti, rispondiamo con indefessa sollecitudine alla fiducia che essi ripongono in noi.

Fa che, imitando il tuo esempio, siamo paterni nel compatire, sinceri nel consigliare, solerti nel curare, alieni dall’illudere, soavi nel preannunciare il mistero del dolore e della morte; soprattutto che siamo fermi nel difendere la tua santa legge del rispetto alla vita, contro gli assalti dell’egoismo e dei perversi istinti.

Come medici che ci gloriamo del tuo nome, promettiamo che la nostra attività si muoverà costantemente nell’osservanza dell’ordine morale e sotto l’impero delle sue leggi.

Concedici, infine, che noi stessi, per la condotta cristiana della vita ed il retto esercizion della professione, meritiamo un giorno di ascoltare dalle tue labbra la beatificante sentenza, promessa a coloro che ti visitarono infermo nei fratelli: “Venite, o benedetti del Padre mio, prendete possesso del regno per voi preparato” (Matt. 25,34).

Cosi sia !

"Pray, Hope and Don't Worry"

A documentary examining the life of Padre Pio


1. In the Presence of the Transcendent. Giuseppe Caccioppoli and Padre Pio of Pietrelcina

The meaning of the life of Padre Pio cannot be fully encompassed by knowing his story or the range of his spiritual gifts. It is only in the context of his day-to-day influence on the lives of those who knew him and loved him that one can begin to form a coherent understanding of the man and of his mission. The reminiscences and stories of those who were close to him will provide far more light than any formal examination of the many available histories and commentaries that attempt to describe his life and detail his attributes. One such story is offered by Giuseppe Caccioppoli, a spiritual son of Padre Pio.