The Sacrament of Music

[re-post from 2015]

 There is a mysterious and deep kinship between music and hope, between song and eternal life: not for nothing does the Christian tradition portray the Blessed in the act of singing in a choir, in ecstasy and enraptured by the beauty of God. — Benedict XVI

Back in the late 1980’s, I was on retreat at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. The retreat director, Fr. Basil Pennington, asked me a fascinating question when I met with him for Confession. He said, “If heaven’s filled with music, which we know it is, what piece of music on earth would you want to be playing when you first entered into Paradise and saw the face of God? What I’m really asking is, what song evokes God’s presence most clearly for you in this life?”

I told him I couldn’t answer on the spot, too deep a question for a casual response. He asked me to think about it, and when I figured it out to send him a letter letting him know. Time passed, and one day I heard on the radio the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata — which I’ve long loved. As I listened to it, Fr. Basil’s question came to mind and I was overwhelmed with deep feelings. I knew in that instant, without any doubt, that was it. 

Once, I shared that story with my wife, Patti, when she and I were talking about the spiritual power of music. Unbeknownst to me, she proceeded to practice and memorize the Sonata score, and then played it for me on my birthday thirteen years ago. “…we did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this.”

What’s your song?

Here’s the Sonata:

Your Father who sees in secret

Wastefulness is the original Christian attitude. The entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world. — Hans Urs von Balthasar

Yesterday, we read from Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, which contains Jesus’ take on how Jews should carry out their religion’s Big Three: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

The key insight He adds to this very traditional Jewish triad is to do them primarily for love of God-neighbor and not for love of self. To accomplish this re-orienting of the ego, Jesus offers a very simple strategy: do all three in secret. Why? Well, when you do good in secret, very quietly and anonymously, it purifies your intention by taking the focus off of yourself and focusing on the God you glorify and the one your benefit (which is saying the same thing). And if there’s anything that’s core about the New Testament, it’s “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).

Secret deeds also take away the control you exercise over the immediate “cash value” of good deeds, your ability to milk attention, praise, gratitude out of others. In secret, you give “what’s in it for me?” over into the Hands of God’s re-distributing providence, so He can reward your deeds as He sees fit. In other words, they cultivate the spirit of detachment. This, I would venture, is the meaning of Jesus’ refrain, “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

What reward? Well, note that later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus speaks to the rich young man of the reward which is stored up for him as “treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21), the “treasury deposit” reward is the direct result of the man’s willingness to surrender his (earned) earthly treasures to the poor. In giving, receiving. In Christianity, reward is inscribed with the logic of love, which makes my reward anything that benefits my neighbors — their good is my good.

And my guess — the way God acts in salvation history — is that He will use our choicest rewards to benefit those we dislike the most, or who dislike us the most (Matt. 5:43-48). Certainly this is how the Father rewarded His Son’s obedient love — by redeeming His enemies (Rom. 5:10). But the real trick is to live like that divine economy is true now. Because it is.

Heaven should be very interesting.

While this strategy of secrecy in good deeds is not always possible, or even desirable (see Matt. 5:16!), it is a solid ascetical (spiritual discipline) practice that should consistently thread through all of our do-gooding. During Lent, it might be good to choose an area where you are especially (overly) sensitive to needing/seeking others’ affirmation, and strategically choose to avoid and avert any of the subtly (or not so subtly) manipulative ways you tend to use to gain attention, applause or approval.

The Son of God’s greatest act of prayer, fasting and mercy-giving was done on the Cross, in supremely hidden love offered lavishly to His hidden Father for ungrateful humanity. It is the perfect symbol of such Lenten giving.

May my Lent and yours be a living Stations as we strive do likewise.

My weakest Lent ever, hopefully

[re-post from 2013]

Nothing could separate me from Him, because He was in all things. No danger could threaten me, no fear could shake me, except the fear of losing sight of Him. The future, hidden as it was, was hidden in His will and therefore acceptable to me no matter what it might bring. I looked no longer to self to guide me, relied on it no longer in any way, so it could not again fail me. I was freed thereby from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul. ― Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, after spending 15 years in a Soviet Gulag

My story is not unique, but it is my story. 1993. Summer. I was hospitalized for extreme panic attacks, but as they’d gone un-diagnosed for eight months, I believed I was going mad. Confined to bed on and off throughout. Like living in a dark prison that was yourself.

One morning, after a whole night of gripping, object-less fear, my white-knuckled hands were drenched with sweat from the strain of a crushing grip desperately searching for security. My hands throbbed with pain. I was like a small child, lost, scared, sure there was no reassuring hand outstretched that could save me. Alone, attended only by phantom shadows.

I remember it. Dropping to my knees, just before dawn, blabbering some inchoate, tear-choked cry for help: “Why? What the hell? Where are you?” Somehow, for a moment, I managed to confess my powerlessness. I abandoned the solipsistic creed of self-reliance I had for years assiduously cultivated amid the chaos of life. Postured in a hapless prostration, I prayed, “This is not in my power, God. I’m done fighting. I accept.” My hands opened.


A certain peace came. Certainly not freedom from the struggle, I knew, but hope. No better word to capture that moment.

Someone called me later that day to check on me and recommended I see a Dr. Zimon in Boston. I went. He knew immediately, diagnosed. Began my lifelong road to recovery, to self-discovery, and to a far deeper penetration of faith as “the substance of things hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1). Before then I’d never seen so clearly that only faith wed to hope is truly radical faith. Faith is realer than real only when its One anchor is all you have left.

Faith is not assent to some intriguing propositions that tickle the mind, smooth life’s rougher edges or strangely warm the insides. God no! Faith is the interior act of clinging to Life itself in the darkest night, at the threshold of the grave. Only then, only there can you say you’ve permitted yourself to profess credo, “I believe,” I am faith’s act. Only then, only there can you say He’s taught you to pray in faith.

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said,
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Having said this, he breathed his last. – Luke 23:46

To say, when you fall into the gravest hardship or loss, “I believed until this happened,” is to have failed to grasp what faith is, or when it begins. The whole of our faith’s content finds its perfection in the revelation of God’s lifeless corpse sealed in a tomb, harrowing hell’s hopelessness with the immortal threat of hope in a compassionate Father. Faith is assenting trust in the Author of Life hanging on a Tree, a Son commending His spirit into a reassuring Hand outstretched to save Him.

For Lent, I hope…

To become more able to see, sub specie aeternitatis, “under the aspect of eternity,” my every life limit, failure, weakness, hardship, inability and disappointment, i.e. to see all through the Most High’s eyes.

To see in each of my hollow spaces a vacancy inviting His indwelling.

To discover in my poverty His self-emptying riches.

To sense in His painful absence the presence of His blessed yearning.

To know in the deafening silence His breathless attentiveness.

To enter into His Cloud of Unknowing, trusting.

To hear in His patient compassion a call to listen.

To receive Him in the repulsive, the unattractive, the uninteresting neighbor.

To believe in the words of a friend who died of ALS — “When you’re down to nothing God’s up to something.”

To find someone without hope, with whom I can share hope.

To replace every impulse to impugn those who fail the test of my measure with a secret sacrifice to God for their well-being.

To reveal a God who re-fashions the world from a Cross, raises the dead while in a tomb, opens heaven out of the pit of hell, and who said to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9)

Red Red Wine

Miracle of Water into (red red) Wine at Cana.

[An easy post. Happy Mardi Gras!]

“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” ― W.C. Fields

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino! ― Hilaire Belloc

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” — Isaiah 25:6

They have no wine. — The Virgin Mary

“A wedding feast lacking wine embarrasses the newlyweds – imagine finishing the wedding feast drinking tea? It would be an embarrassment! Wine is necessary for the feast.” — Pope Francis

No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments. — 1 Tim. 1:23

“We do not encourage underage drinking.” — Ashley and Maria

You make the grass grow for the cattle
and plants to serve mankind’s need.
That he may bring forth bread from the earth
and wine to cheer the heart. – Psalm 104:14-15

NOLA, If You Axe Me

My annual post, almost Mardi Gras.

“In New Orleans I have noticed that people are happiest when they are going to funerals, making money, taking care of the dead, or putting on masks at Mardi Gras so nobody knows who they are. New Orleans is both intimately related to the South and yet in a real sense cut adrift not only from the South but from the rest of Louisiana, somewhat like Mont St. Michel awash at high tide. One comes upon it, moreover, in the unlikeliest of places, by penetrating the depths of the Bible Belt, running the gauntlet of Klan territory, the pine barrens of South Mississippi, Bogalusa, and the Florida parishes of Louisiana and ending up in the French Quarter.” ― Walker Percy

This week, He burns

BØRNS at the Joy Theater in New Orleans on Monday

[here’s a single post from my journal – in this busy stretch, hopefully I can resume again for Ash Wednesday]

Life is hunger, thirst, and passion for an ultimate object, which looms over the horizon, and yet always lies beyond it. When this is recognized, man becomes a tireless searcher. ― Luigi Giussani

This week, my daughters and I went to a BØRNS concert. As we stood in the mosh pit there together, surrounded by a thousand people far younger than me, I was utterly overwhelmed at the thought that they let their old dad into that space of their young life. Time, perish! Alas, the end.

This week, my son drove out of state to visit some of his friends, but before he left he wanted to get my advice on some repairs he needed done on his car, catch a bite to eat with me, and talk. As we spoke together, amazed to be his father. My God, not long ago I was his age, searching for a father.

This week, my other busy-with-life son just wanted to watch a few episodes of River Monsters together. “How does he do that! Whoa! Crazy. Implausible…” As we watched, a surge of gratitude for spending such unproductive time on each other.

This week, my wife invited me to go out for drinks to just refocus on each other. It’s been a very busy stretch of life. As we sipped, smiled, spoke, I was flooded with joy in a procession of so many memories — how much life we’ve lived together since we met 30 years ago.

This week, a seminarian asked to walk and talk with me about some pressing issues he was facing. I only hoped to give him just a skosh of courage, enough to take the next best step.

This week, a friend texted me his pain, another his excitement, another her anger, a fourth a heartfelt encouragement of me to see embers burning in the dark. Such a magnificent web of life we co-occupy.

This week, I awoke around 3:00 a.m. haunted by my failures, dark shadows around me threatened to unseat my hope. Malice. I was aware whose voices they were, and prayed. I slept enough, but hope kept vigil.

In all of these, I sensed — I sense — the immense, transcendent, limitless power that surges through all relationships. Invited or un. It pulses with a divine and eternal heartbeat, seemingly wrapped in thorns, threading through us all like dancing tongues of fire; selfless love; infinite depth. “I came to bring fire to the earth” (Luke 12:49). Veni!

We run, hide, repel, resist, douse and doubt. But sometimes, for fleeting moments, we succumb, surrender, submit, are ‘still and know’ that, underneath everything — inviting, breaking through the hard rock — His magma forever-burns for us, in us. Forging us into unity, wittingly some, unwittingly mostly.

I swear, I found myself saying {or was it Him?}: “All I need is you.”

So it seemed, after I prayed.

Hectic, havoc and the Jesus prayer

“Sinai Event.” #godhavoc

Savoring the encounter with Jesus is the remedy for the paralysis of routine, for it opens us up to the daily “havoc” of grace. — Pope Francis

This will be a hectic week of deadlines, on through the weekend upcoming, so I have no idea what time I will have to write here. I have given up on saying I won’t post for a specific amount of time, but just know it’s gonna be hit or miss.

Pope Francis’ words above, from last week’s homily on the Presentation, really ring true to me. Prayer that gives God permission to be God in us (which is the whole point of the first 3 petitions of the Our Father) unleashes havoc on evil, on fear, on anger and addiction; havoc on my tightly controlled securities; havoc on my plans for God. I mean, the Virgin Mary prayed like that just once — “let it be done to me according to your word” — and it set in motion all KINDS of personal, familial, national, imperial, preternatural and cosmic havoc.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore. — Isaiah 9:2-7

God, play havoc on all that mitigates against your peace reigning in our lives.

An AME pastor I knew in Florida, whom I have quoted here before, totally got this. He used to open his Wednesday night worship services with a marvelous prayer:

O Lord, invade our staid and steady space
With your raucous and unsteady grace

The Jesus Prayer I have found to be especially poignant in this regard. Saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” repeated rosary-like in the heart on and off throughout the day, unseals the only Name which effects what it signifies, i.e.God saves. Ask the Egyptians what THAT looks like.

I post below a rhythmic chanting of it by the Russian monks of Valaam.

I have used this Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen quote probably a dozen times here, but it is just so well stated and seems a most fitting parting. God bless you, dear readers.

There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life.” We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence to an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness, but where God is not present. As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action?