Saturday, February 27, 2021

Diocese of Lansing Podcast on Lent with Will Bloomfield

For the last few years, I've been working as General Counsel for the Diocese of Lansing. Yesterday, our diocesan Communications director invited me onto the diocesan podcast to discuss Lent. Many of the ideas I discussed have been published in past articles I've posted here, but I thought I'd share the video here.

Have a blessed Lent!

Friday, April 10, 2020

Stations of the Cross

A few years ago, I published a version of the Stations of the Cross to YouTube. It now has over 100,000 views.

It recently occurred to me that it might be better for some families if there were also a digital presentation, so they could go through the Stations at their own pace. To that end, I've now created a Powerpoint Show of the Stations of the Cross. (Click here to download.) I recommend downloading with your smartphone, opening in Google Slides, and then Chrome Casting to your TV. You can then read the prayers and skip to the next image at your own pace.

Happy Good Friday!

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Prayer, Fasting, and Mercy and Exodus 90

Prayer, Fasting, and Mercy

A few weeks into Lent, the patristic reading in the Office of Readings was from St. Peter Chrysologus, who explains the necessity of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (or mercy). St. Peter states:

There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.

Fasting is the soul of prayer, almsgiving is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself. (Emphasis added.)

St. Peter Chrysologus's words about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, especially those about having nothing if you lack all three, have been resounding in my ears these past few weeks. You see, when I first heard them, I was on about day 60 of Exodus 90, which means that I was already well into the daily practice of the three pillars of Exodus 90: prayer, asceticism, and fraternity. And while Exodus 90 uses slightly different wording, in truth, they are no different than the three pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Day 90 of Exodus 90 and Post-Vatican II Confusion

Well, today, Holy Saturday 2019, is Day 90 for me of Exodus 90, so I thought it would be appropriate to share some of my experience here, including my conviction (born out by my Exodus 90 experience) that St. Peter Chrysologus is very right: if you have only one of prayer, fasting, or almsgiving, you have nothing. It is vital that the Church rediscover--and implement--this truth.

I'm now 39 years old. I was raised in the '80s and '90s in a very confused time of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church. Of course, we now know that, over the last 50 years, the Church has lost many members (many of my friends and classmates), lost many vocations, lost much influence in the world, lost much beauty (art, architecture, and music, especially within the liturgy), lost many devotions, lost its traditional catechesis, lost almost all of its obligatory practices of fasting and abstinence, and lost the practice of the Commandments and sexual morality (think of those that skip Sunday Mass and contracept, those living lives mired in pornography and embracing the tenets of the Sexual Revolution, and those in the clergy that have betrayed their vows of celibacy and sexually abused both minors and adults).

The Modern Church's Failure to Embrace Prayer, Fasting, and Mercy

Could it be that the Church has so little to show for the last 50 years because of its abandonment of one, or all, of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? Of the three, I would suggest that the one mostly likely to still be celebrated is the third--almsgiving, or mercy. Although, a search of the collection baskets shows that most Catholics aren't that generous. But at least the Church still proclaims almsgiving and mercy and encourages helping the poor. But when acts of charity become disconnected from a deep spiritual life rooted in prayer and fasting, they become merely human activities rather than the supernatural work of God whereby we become His instruments and do His will. (See The Soul of the Apostolate by Dom Chautard, in which Chautard explains that, for our apostolates to be effective, we must focus on our interior life, which will then overflow into our apostolates and activities.)

But what of prayer and fasting? Praise God, in recent years, I'm beginning to see a renewed emphasis in the Church (at least certain parts of the Church) regarding the necessity of daily prayer, including things such as morning offerings, mental prayer, vocal prayers like the Rosary and Divine Mercy Novena, nightly examinations of conscience, the Liturgy of the Hours, practicing the presence of God, spiritual exercises and retreats, holy hours and adoration and other devotions, and frequent participation at Mass. This is all very good. (And if you follow the links you'll see that I myself have been trying to encourage others in this.) But again, St. Peter says that we have nothing unless we have prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. And unfortunately, the regular practice of fasting has all but disappeared in the life of the Church over the last 50 years.

Catholics used to be obliged to fast all 40 days of Lent, to fast on Ember Days (12 days per year) and vigils of feast days, and to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year. In 1966, the U.S. Bishops relaxed these requirements, requiring only that Catholics fast on two days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. And Catholics are now only obliged to abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent. And while the Bishops' 1966 document encourages Catholics to embrace voluntarily the former practices, almost none are aware of this more than 50-year-old recommendation that has been seldom repeated to the faithful.

So here we are in the year 2019 and few Catholics now living have developed habits of fasting, mortification, or asceticism into their daily lives. Perhaps a few more still practice daily prayer, but this too is a small minority. Could it be that the lack of fruitfulness in the Church is due to our failure to embrace daily prayer and regular fasting? According to St. Peter Chrysologus, this seems likely: "If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing."

Exodus 90 Disciplines of Prayer, Asceticism, and Fraternity

Happily, this returns me to Exodus 90, which is very good news for the Church. Today is Day 90 (and Day 40 of Lent) for me and about 50 other men from my parish. And I expect that there are hundreds (or even thousands of men) around the country who are likewise hitting Day 90 today. This means that, for the last 90 days, Catholic men have been training themselves in the daily habits of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. A quick review of the Exodus 90 practices, which all men in Exodus 90 are expected to adhere to, follows:

Daily Holy Hour (including reading Exodus 90 reflection)
Prayer for fraternity and all Exodus 90 men
Nightly Examen (according to method of St. Ignatius of Loyola)

Take short, cold showers
Practice regular, intense exercise
Sleep at least 7 hours each night
Abstain from alcohol
Abstain from desserts and sweets
Abstain from eating between meals
Abstain from soda or sweet drinks
Abstain from TV, movies, or televised sports
Abstain from video games
Abstain from nonessential materials purchases
Only listen to music that lifts the soul to God
Only use computer and mobile devices for work, school, or essential tasks (no social media)
Fast on Wednesdays and Fridays

Attend weekly (or twice a week) fraternity meeting
Monthly activities with fraternity

To these practices, I also added one of my own: reading the 90 day Bible timeline from the excellent Great Adventure Catholic Bible newly published by Ascension Press.

After 90 days of these practices, I offer the following personal testimony: I have never been more joyful or faith-filled in my life than in these last 90 days. (I'm partly writing this testimony down to remind myself in case my practice of the faith should ever grow lax in the future.) And I think my Exodus 90 fraternity brothers would say the same for themselves.

True Freedom through Asceticism and the Failure of Modern Comforts to Bring Enduring Happiness

And ironically, at least to modern notions of freedom, it's precisely the ascetical practices--the withdrawing from the world's pleasures and comforts--that have been most liberating. Let's face it: the 21st Century has become a very comfortable place: nearly everywhere is climate-controlled, we all have hot water and indoor plumbing, food is abundant (as is refrigeration), alcohol and drugs are plentiful, modern medicine limits pain and suffering, entertainment is instantaneous through streaming music and video, there's 24/7 news on TV and the internet, telecommunications and social media allow for virtual interactions, we can buy almost anything from Amazon and have it quickly delivered, we ride around in several thousand pound hulks of metal that shield us from the environment and propel us at previously unheard of speeds, and many of us work in offices such that their is no physical labor in our work. Yet with all of this (and more) available to us all the time, we have become miserable: depression, suicide, obesity, divorce, sexual abuse, human trafficking, addictions (both to substances and behaviors), consumerism, and even confusion regarding our very identity as men or women. Could it be that our constant pursuit of comfort is not liberating? That it does not bring about human flourishing? And are we turning to comfort and pleasure rather than God? Have we become dependent on a comfortable, easy life, rather than dependent on God?

Pope Benedict XVI put it well: “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness!” On day 90 of Exodus 90, I heartily concur.

Human beings need challenges and sacrifice--not constant pampering. If something is worth doing, it's worth sacrificing for. Of course, Jesus Christ crucified is the exemplar of this. I also suggest that the call to sacrifice rings especially true for men. Think of the discipline of high school boys training for football, basketball, baseball, wrestling, or track. Or think of 18-year-olds heading off to bootcamp with the Marines.

Yet for the last 50 years, the Church has asked almost nothing of men (or anyone else)--and it shows. Men have abandoned the faith for juvenile, destructive, selfish behaviors, and we've failed to lead our families in the faith and protect them from the influence of the world. And even those of us who have stayed and are serious about our faith, too often we have opted for comfort rather than greatness. Men must once again become the spiritual leaders of their families: men who sacrifice for their wives and children, men who lead their families in prayer, men who train their children in the faith, men who model the Father's selfless love.

As Jessus said: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." Luke 9:23.

Recommendation to Men: Sign Up for Exodus 90

I am most grateful for Exodus 90. This is a liberating experience that I encourage all men to undergo. Sign up here for the next group. And to be clear: Exodus 90 is not an experience that ends with Day 90; it continues with Day 91 and beyond as we continue to embrace the practices of prayer, asceticism (albeit not always with the full rigors of asceticism as those practiced during Exodus 90), and fraternity. The Church needs holy men: as husbands, as fathers, and as priests, bishops, and religious. And the Church needs a return to prayer and fasting. Only then will its works of mercy be fruitful.

"If you have only one of [prayer, fasting, or mercy] or not all together, you have nothing."

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Catholic All Year Giveaway

Kendra Tierney at Catholic All Year is hosting another Sacred Art Series giveaway. Please head over to her site to enter! She's also promoting our Daily Sayings of St. Philip Neri.

Friday, October 20, 2017

New CD from Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist

The Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist have a new CD out. Though we're still a few months until Christmas, this album of Christmas music would make a wonderful gift.

Jesus Joy of Man's Desiring: Christmas with the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist is available at Amazon.com.

Here's a trailer that samples the project.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

October is the month of the Most Holy Rosary

October is the month of the Most Holy Rosary. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary is October 7. And the 100th anniversary of the last apparition and great miracle of Our Lady of Fatima is October 13.

One of Mary's principal messages at Fatima was "Pray the Rosary every day."

So this October, let's rededicate ourselves to praying the Rosary every day. This is a great practice to teach our children. If they're little, try beginning with just a decade at a time. (We pray our family decade after dinner; during October, it's time to return to a full five-decade Rosary.)

And don't forget about the Sacred Art Series Rosary Flip Book. It can help us all concentrate better. (Click here.)

Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Recommendation - Online Piano Lessons with Piano Marvel

The Good, the True, and the Beautiful

As a parent, I want to share good, true, and beautiful things with my children. And of course, I want to share these things not only with my children, but with the children of my family and friends, and more broadly, with the world. In fact, this is the principal motivation for my Sacred Art Series, by which I share the Gospels illustrated with sacred art, the Rosary, and the Life and Sayings of St. Philip Neri. It is also my motivation for my personal efforts to preserve the Church’s liturgical heritage of Gregorian Chant, to promote good habits of prayer, and to preserve the Church’s traditional liturgical practices.

In this post, I’m going to share something that is secular rather than sacred, but something that is good, true, and beautiful; that can bring great joy and happiness; and that can also be used to promote sacred things and to lead us to God.

That thing is music. And more specifically, a certain musical instrument--the piano.

A Reluctant Musician

When I was a kid, I had several years of piano lessons. I was a reluctant student. I didn’t like the piano. I didn’t like the lessons. To me, piano was boring. I didn’t want to practice. I’d rather watch TV and play sports.

Little did I know that, despite my reluctance, my parents had planted a musical seed in me. Even though I didn't yet realize it, I’d been given a great gift. I now had some basic knowledge of the musical scale and chords, an improved musical “ear”, and a decent foundation for singing. This seed would eventually bear fruit.

Over the years, gradually, I returned to music. I started playing acoustic bass and acoustic guitar when I was about 14. I wasn't good, didn't have any particular talent, and didn’t have good practice habits or technique--but it kept me interested. In college and law school, I sang in some church choirs; this helped my singing. Then things finally started to click when I began learn banjo over spring break my first year of law school. After a week of practicing each day, and seeing steady improvement, I resolved to practice an hour a day for the next year. I also focused on technique, found good materials, and started playing with my siblings and with other musicians. Eventually, I began practicing even more and then applied this improved musical ability to other instruments--the guitar and mandolin--and rapidly improved on each. I also developed my singing with bluegrass harmonies and, later, Gregorian Chant. (Though not the purpose of this post, here's a link to some of my bluegrass music, which is available for free at SoundCloud.)

Building a Strong Musical Foundation - Piano Lessons

I mention my own musical background because I now realize that my musical foundation could have been built much more surely and quickly had I stuck with the piano in my youth. If only there were a way that my parents could have kept me interested and motivated . . .

A few weeks ago, I discovered just that. I was looking for something that was less expensive than the piano lessons we’ve been paying for for my two oldest kids (ages 7 and 9), but that would be an adequate substitute. I found two such online programs that were the most highly recommended and selected Piano Marvel, since it had a free trial and since it had a much broader musical library and less of an emphasis on “pop” music.  

I signed up for Piano Marvel’s free trial, bought an inexpensive piano keyboard, connected it via USB to my computer, began some lessons . . . and promptly saw its advantage. I then let my 5, 7, and 9-year old kids try it--and soon saw its genius.

Piano Marvel Online Piano Lessons - Educational and Fun

Piano Marvel has four main activities: songs categorized by style and difficulty, lessons in method, lessons in technique, and sight reading tests. For each activity, sheet music loads in an online midi player. Click play, the music counts down, and you begin. Upon completion of the song or lesson or test, Piano Marvel scores you from 0 to 100. The scoring is based on whether you played the right note, and whether you played the right note at the right time. If you get it right, the note appears green on the musical score. Get it wrong, and a red note appears showing which note (or notes) you played and when you played it; that is, the red note (or notes) appears either above or below or before or after the note you should have played.

For a less wordy explanation, watch Piano Marvel's intro video.

With songs, Piano Marvel allows the student to practice the songs in sections. So if a song has 16 measures, Piano Marvel might break the song into four sections of four measures. And for each section, Piano Marvel can further break the song into right and left hand sessions. The practice sessions for each section also begin with a slow tempo, then move to medium, and then to full speed.

Anyone who has achieved some skill on an instrument will quickly see the brilliance of these practice features, for Piano Marvel is not just encouraging the student to practice, but encouraging the student to practice perfectly. And equally important, practicing the piano with Piano Marvel--and getting instant feedback--is lots of fun! With each try, the student naturally wants to play each section better and better until it’s perfect; then, the student moves on to faster tempos; and eventually to coordinating both right and left hands together; and eventually masters the whole song.

I soon personally saw the benefits as I played “Tarentella” faster and more accurately than I previously thought possible given my abilities. My wife began the lessons, promptly besting my sight reading score--and motivating me to do better myself. My 9-year-old soon began tackling new and more difficult songs and improving his timing and accuracy.

Piano Marvel is Also Great for Beginning Piano Students

And most impressive to me: I had my 5-year-old, who has never played the piano nor taken any lessons, begin with Piano Marvel’s very first lessons to see how he would do. For comparison, I had my 7-year-old, who had a year of piano lessons, face off against him. All I did to coach my 5-year-old was help him to find middle C and show him how to place his hand on the keyboard.

The 5-year-old's first attempt was not perfect. He may have scored a 50. Playing notes metronomically was not easy--at first. My 7-year-old also struggled with the timing, but still beat him with a 60. The 5-year-old soon scored a 70 or 80. The 7-year-old beat him again. And soon, both scored perfect 100s and moved on to the next lesson. Over the last week or two, they've been gently competing against each other and steadily progressing in their lessons. And all five of us have been competing with each other for practice time.

A Culture of Beauty through Music

I am convinced that one of the best things we can do to counteract the dangers of the modern world is to make beautiful things--whether crafts, art, cooking, or music--rather than simply consuming them. Piano Marvel gives everyone an opportunity to become a musician, and it does it in a way that is thorough, but also inexpensive and fun.

Recommendation - Piano Marvel

I highly recommend Piano Marvel. You can sign up a for a free account here. The free account gives you access to over 100 songs and the first level of lessons. It's great for beginning students and will give you an idea of the program's capabilities and value. Premium accounts are $15 per month. Use my link or the referral code "will" and you'll get 20% off. (I'll also earn a referral, so you'll be supporting the Sacred Art Series.) The best value is a $99 per year premium account. For the annual membership there's no discount for using my referral code, but it's the best value (and I'll also earn a small referral fee).

Reminder: To access all the benefits of Piano Marvel, you'll want a digital piano keyboard and a USB cable. Here is an inexpensive keyboard/cable package that I found recommended for this purpose. (This link is my Amazon affiliate link, so Sacred Art Series will also benefit when you purchase by following this link.) It's also the one I purchased and it's worked great for me so far.

UPDATE 2/21/18:

It's been six months since we began using Piano Marvel. All of us continue to progress, and I remain extremely satisfied with the product. Below are my sons competition videos for the Piano Marvel Competition 2018. The first video is of my 6-year-old son. He'd never played piano before starting with Piano Marvel in August 2017. The second video is of my 9-year-old son. He already had three years of private lessons before he began with Piano Marvel in August 2017, but he's never progressed so rapidly.

UPDATE 3/15/18:

Piano Marvel has announced their 2018 finalists and both Henry and Dominic made it into the finals in their respective age groups. Here are links to YouTube playlists of the Piano Marvel finalists for 2018 for age groups 5-7 and 8-10. There are some really impressive pianists in the 8-10 category! Piano Marvel 2018 Competition Finalists - Ages 5 - 7
Piano Marvel 2018 Competition Finalists - Ages 8 - 10 And here's a list of all the finalists in all the age groups, with links to their videos.

Here's a playlist of the 2018 Piano Marvel Competition winners (all age groups).

UPDATE 3/16/19:

Henry and Dominic again entered the Piano Marvel online competition this year. Here are their videos. They weren't quite as diligent in their practice this last year (though they've also been learning the violin, which they practice daily), but they've still made lots of progress.

Piano Marvel has announced their 2019 finalists and both Henry and Dominic made it into the finals in their respective age groups. Here are links to YouTube playlists of the Piano Marvel finalists for 2018 for age groups 5-7 and 8-10. For each playlist, I placed the winner first. There are some outstanding young pianists out there!