Trouble is a Friend

For my birthday, my daughter Maria, along with Mashley’s lead singer Ashley, did a cover of a song I have asked them for four years to record — Lenka’s Trouble is a Friend. I am a huge Lenka fan. Maria presented it to me on Sunday after I got back in town from a work trip. I was overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude.

I know they get lots of suggestions for songs to cover, so I have refrained from proliferating requests, but somehow in my imagination I always heard them covering this song. Using a super creative setting for the song, Maria recorded the guitar part earlier, loaded it into Ashley’s phone so she could sing with it and then she edited it all later. It took tons of time to practice, plan, record and edit. A labor of love!

The haunting words and minor key, the play on dark and light, the low percussive hum of the road noise, the harmonies, the rosary cross swinging, the falling phone and the final “slurp” all make it a supremely wonderful work of art for a man who loves, above all else, the beauty of the “broken form.”

Thank you my dear daughter and dear Ashley, women beautiful inside and out.

It would have been enough

If the only prayer you said was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough. – Meister Eckhart

I have written on this theme before.

I was sitting quietly early this morning, before the rush of life commenced, and was overwhelmed with an undefined sense of gratitude. Actually, it was very defined. It was a visceral awareness of the gratuitousness of existence, i.e. the fact that anything exists at all is a sheer gift bereft of any claim to entitlement. “Gratuitous” captures this well, I think, as it means “not necessary or justified.”

God needn’t have created anything at all, yet chose to.

While we often complain to God that we do not yet possess well-being, we forget that we already possess something far more radical, extraordinary, stunning, mind-blowing and grounding: being. I am.

Become aware at this very moment that there is something rather than nothing, there is a you, and a whole massive cosmos that did not have to exist at all, but does. Existence is a mystery, a source of wonder, and its very be-ing itself is already excessive.

Another vantage on this. I shared with my students this summer that for most of the Old Testament faithful men and women, there was no clear awareness of a personal afterlife, of a resurrection from the dead that promised reward for justice and punishment for injustice. With death, identity faded into the shadows of non-existence.

I call to you, Lord, all the day long;
to your I stretch out my hands.
Will you work your wonders for the dead?
Will the shades stand and praise you?

Will your love be told in the grave
or your faithfulness among the dead?
Will your wonders be known in the dark
or your justice in the land of oblivion?

The answer to psalm 88’s desperate questions? No. The idea of “eternal life” in Judaism only came later, closer to the time of Jesus.

So imagine, would you remain faithful to God and His commandments in this life, as did the Hebrew saints, amid great hardships and sufferings, amid unanswered questions about good and evil, with no belief that after death an eternal life awaited you. No reward, other than knowing you lived in fidelity, here and now, to the will of the good God who made you and chose you to be His own in this world? Would you have done so wholeheartedly? Would you say, as Tennyson once said so beautifully,

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Back to my morning’s silent insight. It is quintessentially a Jewish-Christian instinct to see gratitude as the foundational virtue on which all else is built, the attitude that sustains all other good things. And this gratitude is not, in the first instance, for this or that good thing, or even for well-being, but simply for the very fact that you, I, or anything exists at all. Ever has, ever will. Period.

When you begin each day with that mindset, it revolutionizes the way you experience life. And then the supererogatory “over the top” excess of well-being that God has in fact granted us in Christ, with the hoped promise of a new creation in which “all will be well in all manner of being well,” becomes a fresh cause to “leap for joy” (Luke 6:23).

In this dayenu, the Jewish soul lives in a constant thankful awareness of a God who says to each of us, in each and every moment, “I love you: I want you to be.” Only then, like the prophet Habakkuk, we can sing:

For even though the fig tree does not blossom,
nor fruit grow on our vines,
even though the olive crop fail
and fields produce no harvest,

even though flocks vanish from the folds
and stalls stand empty of cattle,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord
and exult in God my savior.

Don’t Believe the Hype

This is a really odd post for St Maximilian’s feast day. No obvious link. But it’s what I wrote. And it’s the last piece I have to post for a while as the semester ramps up!

+ + +

When I recently watched the new music video for Twenty One Pilots’ song, The Hype, and I teared up.

Not exactly sure why I did, or why I am even telling you this, but here’s what I thought later — in fact, these thoughts came to me after I spent part of an afternoon with my daughter Maria and her friends discussing TØP lyrics. It was sublime. No, those young women are sublime.

The song and the video are about Tyler & Josh’s fierce struggle to stay grounded, as over the last 10 years they have skyrocketed to international fame. Fame brings with it myriad temptations to delusions of grandeur or to being crushed beneath the critics. In this song, they refuse to buy into the “hype” — good or bad — around them. But it’s not easy, as Tyler sings:

Sometimes I feel cold, even paralyzed
My interior world needs to sanitize

The song and the video take us down into Tyler’s interior world (heart and home), where he hopes to sanitize any contamination. Tyler, who finds solace in music and lyric-writing, takes us through a wild allegorical re-telling of the band’s rapid rise to fame (through the roof!), violent fall, purging, and the final recovery of firm footing where they began: in the humility of home with family and friends. With this return to the true center, a broken and scattered interior world is restored to right-order.

So it seems to me.

Why did this all move me? Maybe because I have such a deep reverence for people who achieve popularity and yet remain unfazed (or uncontaminated) by it. Who keep their priorities in order, and don’t sell their souls to gain the world. These also use their public status (in ecclesial or secular culture) to benefit and bring joy and good to others, not principally to feed their wallets or egos. I have seen how popularity can subtly (and not so subtly) change the mindset and motivations of good people, destroy their core relationships and quickly poison the good being done.

It’s also why Jesus hammered on His disciples about power, influence, talents, gifts being given for service. Along those lines, a mentor once said to me, “Whenever people praise anything you do, think immediately to yourself: How much God must love them to give me these gifts. Because your gifts aren’t about you. And when they criticize you, thank them for doing you a great service: keeping you honest.”

And friendship. Friends keep it real and are an anchor of life.

Oh the greatness of our crucified God-Hero, Jesus Christ, who redeemed power and influence by His cross, who faced criticism with courage and humility. He used His popularity with people and His rejection by the people as opportunities to serve, to lift us up, and to bring us back to the Father’s house.

TØP offers a message of depth and hope to an increasingly homeless and orphaned culture. I’m grateful they’ve chosen to not believe the hype. Which is why Tyler announced this summer they will be taking time off from touring so he and his wife can start a family.

Sometimes I feel cold, even paralyzed
My interior world needs to sanitize
I’ve got to step through or I’ll dissipate
I’ll record my step through for my basement tapes
Nice to know my kind will be on my side
I don’t believe the hype
And you know you’re a terrible sight
But you’ll be just fine
Just don’t believe the hype
Yeah, they might be talking behind your head
Your exterior world can step off instead
It might take some friends and a warmer shirt
But you don’t get thick skin without getting burnt
Nice to know my kind will be on my side
I don’t believe the hype
And you know you’re a terrible sight
But you’ll be just fine
Just don’t believe the hype
No, I don’t know which way I’m going
But I can hear my way around
No, I don’t know which way I’m going
But I can hear my way around
No, I don’t know which way I’m going
But I can hear my way around
No, I don’t know which way I’m going
But I can hear my way around
But I can hear my way around
Nice to know my kind will be on my side
I don’t believe the hype
And you know you’re a terrible sight
But you’ll be just fine
Just don’t believe the hype (don’t believe the hype)
Nice to know my kind will be on my side
I don’t believe the hype
And you know you’re a terrible sight
But you’ll be just fine
Just don’t believe the hype
Nice to know my kind will be on my side
I don’t believe the hype
And you know you’re a terrible sight
But you’ll be just fine
Just don’t believe the hype
Source: LyricFind

The Hearth of Marriage

[today’s reflection is on marriage]

My wife and I have recently begun getting involved in an Archdiocesan program of preparing couples for marriage. It’s been an extraordinary gift to our marriage, as any of those who have done this work know well. The couples we are working with have such exceptional foundations already, so I think we see our role as just polishing the silver and building on the rock. And letting them know they are a kind of miracle in this day and age.

For Patti and me, it’s been a true taste of Jesus’ words in Luke 6:38, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” We give, sure, but we’ve received far more in return.

Doing this has given us an opportunity to talk about topics we don’t usually explore in depth, like nurturing marital friendship, facing tragedies together, establishing common ground in the discipline of our children, keeping our passion for each other alive, agreeing on how couple-prayer fits into our relationship, sorting through different approaches to sex, confronting serious differences, learning to manage a budget together, handling conflict and disagreement, dealing with in-laws, etc.

Before each session, Patti and I meet together for a drink to discuss the topics at hand and prepare talking points. We quickly go deep, remember stories we had forgotten, laugh, establish consensus, debate. Doing this has made us more cognizant of just how much goes into marriage and parenting. It sure looks complicated when you step back and look at it all at once!

And yet, we can see each time that there’s a profound simplicity beneath everything, much as Tolstoy’s dictum has it, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Last week, Patti and I discussed what we thought was the “hearth” that burned at the heart of our marriage, that keeps it indissoluble, alive and vibrant. We agreed on three things: God, our nuptial promises and our friendship.

On God, who gives our relationship an immovable center and a force of unconditional love that we, on our own, could never produce.

On promises, which give our bond a quality of absolute certitude that gives us serenity in facing the darkest of issues together. Patti revealed this a few months ago to me when she said to me, “I’m not going anywhere. No matter what, I will never never leave you.”

On friendship, which gives our marriage purpose, soul and a joie de vivre, as friendship is in truth the sweetest joy of life. I always found it stunning that St. Thomas Aquinas boldly asserted that, “after the love that unites us to God, marital love is the greatest form of friendship.” Over the years, we see clearly this truth is not a given, but must be carefully protected and assiduously cultivated. Like all divine gifts entrusted to our care, if we bury it, take it for granted, we lose it.

We also discussed last week what a friend of mine, who was a Catholic bartender-theologian, said to me just before we got married. He told me, “Remember you’re not called to marriage. Like some ideal abstraction. God has called you to Patti Masters. She is your vocation. God has asked you to belong to her, to Patti, and not to some idealized vocation or wished-for person. You are choosing to love this woman, the whole package, and no other woman ever. Even an idealized one. And she, you. That’s sacramental marriage, right? The Cross planted here and now. Broken form, broken matter, but filled with God.”

Blew me away, and superb advice I’ve found.

The real Patti, the real Tom. With real children, real extended family. Each being broken form, broken matter. Yet those very particular people are the very ones God chooses to encounter us through, with and in. They become our privileged locus of love. Family=forget about me I love you. But it is my spouse, as no other created being in heaven or on earth, who is my singular locus of union with God, my singular way of perfection, the face that is-for-me Jesus saying again and again: “Thomas, son of Edmond, do you love me?” “Yes Lord, you know I love you.” “Love Patti.”

For us, in 2020, it will be 25 years. Glory to the God who is ever at work in us all, enabling us both to will and to work for His good pleasure. May He who began this work bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. Amen.

So for those of you who are married, what is in your hearth, keeping it strong and vibrant? Think back to the beginnings…

Avoiding Trappist traps

For the second time since 1987, I was not able to go on a retreat this year with the Trappists.

Is that right?

When I mentioned this recently to someone I know, he graciously said, “Just wasn’t in God’s plan for you this time.”

Is that right?

Well, I was talking to my biggest fan and critic, my wife, and she set me straight on the first one. After I said, “I am so sad I wasn’t able to go on my retreat this year,” she said, “Or was it that poor planning and overestimating what you could do over the summer is to blame?”

She blessedly hates passive phrasing that evades taking proper responsibility. Veritas liberabit vos.

For the second one, well, my smoking Confessor decimated that slam dunk option, i.e. don’t use God to canonize your ineptitude. Instead, offer it to His mercy.

So what am I left with? As simple as, “by seeking and blundering we learn.”

Or, as my grandfather wrote me, “You’re never a complete failure, you can always serve as a bad example.”

So here’s to next year with the Trappists! Spe salvi…

The Sacramental Truck

“For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.” — Luke 12:34

Here, the truck becomes a sacrament of love and honor: “You’re a hard worker, Dad.”