Mashley’s Silent Night, a capella, on a birthday

apia

↑ My motto as Maria continues to grow older ↑

Ashley and Maria released a new cover again! Silent Night.

“Lovely and haunting. Two thumbs up!” – Dad.

AND today is Maria’s birthday! 17. A young lady with a soul as sweet as her voice. No, sweeter. Some descriptors: joyful, faithful friend, lover of God, soft light, encouraging, fun(ny), smart, honest, humble, artsy, soulful, night owl, cool, a family’s delight, caring.

But the subtitle of her preschool yearbook picture sums her up best:

Beautiful Maria.

A Day in the Life

I took some fun pictures and recorded some sounds this last week of things that, for various reasons, captured my attention. I include captions.

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What can I say? Heaven spotlighted for me this odd piece of New Orleans artwork as I drove by. The man behind me beeped with impatience as I paused to snap this shot.

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The International Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Our Lady of Fatima, sculpted in 1947, has visited 100 countries and came to New Orleans this last week. My 90-year old mom and I prayed in front of her last Saturday. My mom’s prayers are nuclear.

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Someone left their coffee thermos on the levee. No one in sight anywhere.

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Someone left their champagne bottle on the levee, 300 yards from the coffee thermos. Also no one in sight.

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The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

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December 17. Quietly protesting the claims of winter.

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Welcome relief after a 45 minute walk-run along the levee.

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Festive neighbors.

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A December Monarch on a holdout goldenrod!

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Party bus stopping at a neighbor’s house. They were rockin!

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I made a Twenty One Pilots symbol with my ketchup.

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Catherine’s sketch of a wolf.

I took a 7 hour bus ride this week, and during the ride, as I was writing a lecture on the Mass, this announcement came on:

Maria’s high school, Mount Carmel Academy, had their Christmas concert the week before last, and I recorded them singing their Alma Mater. It always gets to Patti and me.

O Church: Serve the Sacred Secularists!

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One very big obstacle to getting a significant number of lay Catholics to participate in missionary formation is the fact that, when this formation is complete, there will be no “job” for the “graduate” to perform. The current lay ministry formation processes run successfully on the hopeful premise that after lay students complete their formation they will be employed or given meaningful work by a pastor, or a hospital or a prison or some diocesan office. There is no such incentive for formation in the lay apostolate. This is a real hurdle to overcome if we are to attract larger numbers of parishioners to a formation in a theology of the laity. In short, after any education in the meaning of lay life is complete (if it ever really is), one will simply remain, for example, a plumber, a doctor, a truck driver, and will continue in the vocation of marriage, with two children, a dog, and a house payment. The missing incentive of getting to do pastoral ministry (e.g., being an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist or a visitor to the sick), cannot in itself abrogate the necessity of finding a way to offer such formation. To neglect this task is to neglect our duty to fill the world with secular missionaries. — Deacon James Keating

I met with some colleagues yesterday to discuss lay faith formation. You know, my same ole’ trope. Here’s my journal entry from last night. A collage of thoughts:

Every diocese, and every parish and Catholic institution in every diocese, should communicate unambiguously that their best energies are in service to lay Catholics called to live and move and have their being in the world, doing their secular things, and learning how to do them God’s way. In service to helping the lay faithful discover, embrace and carry out their noble secular vocations. Their best energies in service to the work of formation, catechesis, preaching, cultivating small faith communities, etc. All geared toward adequately resourcing those 99% of Catholics not called to church ministry but called to be salt, light and leaven in the lay apostolate. All geared toward illumining the specificities of people’s professional lives; the specificities of their life as faithful citizens in the ordinary, local, day to day worlds they inhabit; the specificities of their married/family lives; the specificities of their engagement with culture.

Those called and gifted for church ministry, ordained or not, need to be all about the specificities of these secular missionaries, experts in the actual details of the real people they are called to serve in the parish, school, nursing home, hospital, etc. under their care.

I remember when a reader of this blog 2 years ago wrote me and begged the church for this:

I am a cradle Catholic and a business owner. I have been very active in my parish for most of my adult life and I have had the benefit of having very orthodox priests and pastors in my life.

Here is my problem. A struggle every day with a whole variety of issues which challenge my ability to live my Catholic Faith in the business world, a world which is agnostic at it’s best and anti-Christian at it’s worst. I am dying for assistance on this, but what do I get at my parish? Homilies which deal with things too general to be helpful, from “do good and avoid evil” to immigration reform and abortion. Don’t get me wrong, I totally believe everything Mother Church teaches and I appreciate homilies which remind me of her teachings. But the Church also teaches us to live our Faith out in the world, and I am not getting any help on doing this.

So I beg you, Dr. Neal, to pursue your inspiration to find people who can speak to those of us in the secular world.

My business consultant friends tell me that if you want to find out how to improve service to your customers, you need to talk to the customers and ask how you can serve them. Even better, talk to former customers and find out why they left.

I’m not saying that the Church is a business, but I have never heard of a priest asking his parishioners for homily ideas. Actually, that is not quite accurate. I have heard many “church people” telling the pastor that he needs to deliver a strong message from the pulpit to the riff raff who show up late, are inappropriately dressed, leave early, etc. I’ve been on all the committees, so I know that the pastor is busy, but perhaps the pastor needs to talk to the riff raff to find out why they arrive late and leave early. And by “talk to,” I don’t mean send out a check-the-box questionnaire. I mean really get to know them, like a father knows his children.

Isn’t that how it is supposed to be?

I desire nothing more in my work as a theologian-catechist than to detonate this “lay apostolate” teaching of the Second Vatican Council in the midst of the ecclesiastical scene of America. I feel I am inept before such an immense task! I want to kiss the feet of those who are sent out into the world to live there, love there, work there, play there, witness there, struggle there, suffer there in order to bring every aspect of the secular life they inhabit into contact with the re-creating power of the living God.

The aggressiveness of anti-religious secularism begs for an equally impassioned religious secularism, an unleashing of the secular genius of the laity that does not withdraw into safe-zone ministries or world-renouncing enclaves insulated from society and culture, but a laity that boldly exits every Mass with a re-enkindled sense of their world-enhancing mission to imbue all-things-secular with the very earthy love of God.

In particular, two temptations can be cited which they have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that some fail to become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world; and the temptation of legitimizing the unwarranted separation of faith from life, that is, a separation of the Gospel’s acceptance from the actual living of the Gospel in various situations in the world. — St. John Paul II

Those of us who are Baptized are living temples (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19), bearing within the fullness of a God who longs to take delight in His creation. As His image, we were created to be the locus of His delight in creation, the nexus of His love, the fire of His justice, the channel of His peace, the overflow of His mercy, a prism for the light of His Face to shine gloriously on all things He has made (Revelation 4:3). Man’s vocation is to reveal to all creation that His love for her transcends her finite longings. It is astonishing to think that it was by becoming man (John 1:14) that God chose to purify, reconcile (Isaiah 11:6-9), elevate, espouse (Isaiah 62:4) and reveal to all creation her final destiny of transfiguration in a New Creation where God will be all in all. The Incarnation was not just about us, but about the whole cosmos He entrusted to our care to cultivate and lift back to Him transformed and consecrated by means of our priestly hands (Romans 8:18-30; 12:1).

How God loves all He has made (Wisdom 11:24-12:1)!

St. Maximus says it beautifully:

…the Cause of all things, through the beauty, goodness and profusion of His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself in His providential care for the whole of creation. By means of the supra-essential power of ecstasy, and spell-bound as it were by goodness, love and longing, He relinquishes His utter transcendence in order to dwell in all things while yet remaining within Himself. Hence those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for he longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.

Lord of the Dance

While I am posting pre-written work, I’ll just do it again once more. This one’s from June. I did not think it was complete, but now it seems so…

“Young love needs to keep dancing towards the future with immense hope.” — Pope Francis, #AmorisLaetitia 219

I love to dance, but I am so bad at it that I rarely get the chance to let loose without extreme self-consciousness. Only when I’m with my wife, who can dance and loves to dance, or when I’m alone do feel free enough to allow myself permission to dance with abandon. One day, Patti and I will take dance lessons.

One of the reasons I love dance is its uselessness. It’s a sheer act of expressiveness. When I dance with my wife, I am able to say with my body: you are simply a joy to be with. After we dance, I always feel like we celebrated our wedding all over again.

Just like liturgy, dance is a form of play. Play expresses freedom and creativity and the celebration of existence “without a why.” Dance is an imaginative shrine for choreographed spontaneity that shows how artful intertwining freedoms can be. How wonderful! In play we can see the dramatic nature of existence as a wild and dangerous love story, carried out amid light and shadows, performed with abandon. While there are rules that govern play, the rules give ample space for risk, which is the premise of every aspiration to greatness.

The revered liturgical theologian Romano Guardini eloquently expressed the playful aspect of liturgy in his book, Spirit of the Liturgy:

The liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game which the soul plays before God. And, if we are desirous of touching bottom in this mystery, it is the Spirit of fire and of holy discipline who has knowledge of the world who has ordained the game which the Eternal Wisdom plays before the Heavenly Father in the Church, God’s kingdom on earth. Truly it is Eternal Wisdom’s delight “to be with the children of men” (cf. Proverbs 8:31).

Jews know how to dance. The scantily clad King David famously celebrated his liturgical whirl around the Ark of the Covenant, much to his wife Mychal’s chagrin — “David danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Sam. 6:14).

Dance inscribes music in the body, shaping it into the form of its rhythms, melodies and harmonies. If the baptized body is a temple of the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), and the body is to become at all times a liturgical offering glorifying God (Rom 12:1; Col. 3:17), can we not say that when we dance we are enacting, in a singular way, the lived liturgy of joyful praise to God? It’s hard to imagine a more worthy manner of revealing the beauty and goodness of this world and the world to come.

An African-American priest I am blessed to know once texted me something totally remarkable. I received it last Fall, the morning after my wife and I had attended our parish’s annual festival. We had danced the previous night for about two hours to live music played by a local band called Bag of Donuts. Though we were one of the few couples dancing, it was so much fun! Because of her. Well, he wrote me these words in his text: “Dr. Neal, I was praying last night for you and got this crazy sense that Jesus wanted me to tell you to not be afraid to dance like a white boy. That when you get to heaven He wants you to dance. So go ahead and dance, Dr. Neal!”

Jarring.

So during my recent silent retreat [in June], I did something totally new for me. And a bit odd. The retreat house was completely empty and so on one of the nights I decided to try it out. I put my earbuds in, set my iPhone playlist to songs I like, and danced in the mostly dark dining room for the next hour. At the end I was soaked with sweat and full of joy.

It. Was. Awesome.

With eleven statues of saints lining the walls around me, I swear I caught sight of a few Mona Lisa smiles on their faces.

All I could think of as I danced was the line in the Prodigal Son story: “as [the older son] came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing” (Luke 15:25). That’s what goes on in the Father’s house, so I felt in good company. And even if I am poor at it, I have to believe God is delighted with the spirit behind the action.

Try it sometime if you haven’t.

Let them praise his name with dancing,
    making melody to him with tambourine and lyre (Psalm 149:3)

Ode to Twenty One Pilots

Yes, the obsession continues.

Someone recently sent me an interview with Twenty One Pilots lead singer, Tyler Joseph. He is so young, yet possesses a remarkable depth and authenticity. He is plagued by the anxieties and insecurities of our age, which makes him a powerful voice for the inhabitants of this age.

I was particularly interested when the interviewer asked him what the mission and purpose of Twenty One Pilots was; what explains the origin of their lyrics, their musical style? He struggled to answer, wading through the numbers game that dominates the music industry — profits, number of fans — and admitted these tempts him. But, he said, what really drives him is the idea that their music makes people think about life’s deepest and most universal questions. He said if their music lifted just one person up, making his or her life better and more full of joy, then that was the mission of Twenty One Pilots. “I don’t just want to entertain people,” he said, “I want them to think with me, to think about universally true things. I’m a seeker. I ask questions and hope they lead to joy.”

There’s no doubt the Christian worldview inhabits the lyrics, but Tyler is exceedingly careful not to speak with overtly religious language. He is very aware of the constraints of reaching a broad audience in a radically pluralistic world. His circumspect approach seems quite intentional. After listening to the interview, I wrote in my journal:

It’s like their music is composed and performed — “offered up” — on “the altar to an unknown God” St. Paul identified in the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17:23). It’s a natural space to plant faith in the midst of our increasingly pagan culture, without being preachy. It’s a place where faith can encounter, give voice to and respond to the great questions and anxieties of our day. Their (lay) genius, to me, is that they are out there in the midst of that culture, singing with abandon of and to an unknown, hidden and humble God.

I also wrote a poem in my journal after hearing the interview. It’s my summary take on what I see to be their artistic mission. If I could send them a message, which I have concluded I cannot, it would be this poem.

Prophets of Zeitgeist

Voice of angst, prophets of zeitgeist
in authenticity, integrity unsacrificed
inscribing, singing a silent Christ
by twining faith in life, deftly spliced.

Rappers of deepest dark reality
facing who we are, we long to be
discovered by Truth who sets free
we, a restless, twisted humanity.

Not thru preaching, but evoking;
not thru imposing, but provoking
us to think thoughtfully; soaking
greying despair in colorful cloaking

by words that cut, yes make us bleed
though then only to heal and feed
souls yearning for an immortal creed
that won’t break the most fragile reed.

Your call and mission seem clear:
daring us hope in a world of fear;
outing a hidden God, so silently near
who whispers, “I am with you, here
wiping, drying, shedding every tear.”

I’m not a Christian singer

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I was sitting in McDonald’s the other day waiting for my car to be repaired, trying to write up some end-of-the-academic-year reports amid the noises that tend to populate a McDonald’s. Right above me was a TV that was blaring daytime talk shows. I mustered all of the skills of attentiveness that I have acquired over the years studying and writing amidst screaming children running wild in the house.I was successful until this one interview caught my attention.

I don’t know the name of the TV show, but the host was interviewing a rap artist about his lyrics. When I heard the beginning of the discussion, I stopped my work and started typing what I heard. Evidently his lyrics are free from the usual fare of profanity and sexually explicit content, which makes him unique among pop rap artists. Although he said he talks in his music about real-life struggles, and especially the hard realities of inner city life, he refuses to glorify sex, drugs and violence. The man interviewing him finally asked him, “So, are you a Christian artist?” He said, “It depends on what you mean by that.” He went on to say that there’s a real danger in putting himself in that genre of music, because he would immediately get stereotyped and holed-up in the “religion” box. He said something like this,

If I come into a studio to record and sing a song about life on the streets of Chicago — and that means tellin’ my stories about broken relationships or poverty or despair or about just tryin’ to make a livin’ — and then in the middle of my song happen mention Jesus, they’re gonna to say to me: ‘Yo man, what’s up? You a Gospel singer?’ I say, no man. But what that basically means is, ‘You ain’t a serious rapper cuz if you Christian you have to be all nice and sweet and syrupy about everything. They right away think you ain’t gonna be real and down low with the rest of us. Pie in the sky kinda deal. If you religious, they say, you can’t tell it like it is.’

But that’s not true, man, you know what I mean? Just cuz God comes into the picture doesn’t mean now you unreal, can’t face the dirt on the streets. But that’s the way they see it in the industry. So look, I can say I’m a Christian man who raps, but I can’t say I’m a Christian rapper. Then it’s all over for my career. I’ll get pigeonholed. See, religion’s been put inside this box and you’re either in or out. You can’t be both. You got Christian music and you got secular music. Oil and water. But I don’t like the box, so I just ignore it and sing about life. And God’s just, like, already out there in real life, so I ain’t tryin’ to drag people where they ain’t already livin’. I’m just showin’ what I can see. It’s the same world they see, except faith lets me see God’s right there in the middle of everything. And I want to show it’s a much better world when He’s around, you know?

His brilliant insight reveals very well the depth of impact a radically privatized faith has on how that faith is expressed in public. Every day we move closer toward what Richard Neuhaus called the “naked public square,” where religion is stripped from public life either by being domesticated and contained or by being altogether excluded.

It seems to me that artists, like this rap singer, are particularly well positioned to challenge and help us rethink the hegemony of this aggressively atheistic paradigm by reintroducing a vision of faith that does not threaten to abolish or overwhelm real life, but rather embraces it, builds on it, beautifies it, purifies it and perfects in it all that is good, true and beautiful.

As Pope Benedict XVI said so eloquently:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.

As I am writing here of pop culture and faith, I have no option but to mention Twenty One Pilots. I believe they transgress the artificial barriers between faith and life, revealing in their music the infinite ways in which faith and life shade into one another. Their music leaves you more honest, more hopeful and more human precisely because they see so clearly that Christ is what it means to be fully human, God’s way. Like the rapper, I would say Twenty One Pilots is not a “Christian band,” but are musicians whose creativity emerges out of a rich Christian imagination. To that point, I mentioned to someone the other day that they epitomize Paul’s (slightly reworked) injunction:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, sing about these things (Phil. 4:8).

By the way, I found out yesterday they are coming to New Orleans in March. I am beyond manic about it.

Back to my point. They are particularly masterful at giving clear voice to the existential “feel” of living in a post-Christian culture that is no longer sustained by a Christian architecture. Ours is a deracinated culture, uprooted from faith and so rife with anxiety. Our world has lost its sacraments, repealed its laws, silenced its scriptures, and rendered opaque the stained glass windows that once let in the light of eternity, leaving us stumbling about in the dark. Twenty One Pilots articulates, with such grit, the tremors of Doubt that shake our cultural landscape, especially among the young. Yet — their gift! — they teach us how to pray right out of the heart of this world:

Mind-blowing immensity

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One who seeks to comprehend God is like someone who finds himself on a mountain ridge. Imagine a sheer, steep crag, of reddish appearance below, extending into eternity; on top there is this ridge which looks down over a projecting rim into a bottomless chasm. Now imagine what a person would probably experience if he put his foot on the edge of this ridge which overlooks the chasm and found no solid footing nor anything to hold on to. This is what I think the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity. From here there is nothing it can take hold of, neither place nor time, neither measure nor anything else; it does not allow our minds to approach. And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is connatural to it, content now to know merely this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things that the soul knows. — St. Gregory of Nyssa

Today I was, for whatever reason, overcome by an overwhelming sense of God’s immensity, along with a sense that the unthinkable vastness of our cosmic home is but an inkling of that immensity. As you saw in my opening quote, to give voice to this inner intuition I turned to St. Gregory of Nyssa. He always delivers. But whenever I try to articulate a deep intuition like this, I always feel I am somehow carrying out, to use Thomas Merton’s expressive phrase, “raids on the unspeakable.” As if I am doing violence to something that is better left in silence. So what I will do to minimize my act of violence is share three artistic works that seem to get at what I’ve sensed today: (1) a textual selection from the Liturgy of St. Basil, (2) a 7 minute NASA recording of “cosmic music” and (4) Cynthia Clawson’s rendition of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (with lyrics below video).

If you have a few minutes, I hope you can allow all three to sweep over you.

How great is our God.

Master, Lord, God, worshipful Father almighty,
it is truly just and right to the majesty of Your holiness
to praise You, to hymn You, to bless You, to worship You,
to give thanks to You, to glorify You, the only true God,
and to offer to You this our spiritual worship
with a contrite heart and a humble spirit.
For You have given us to know Your truth.
Who is worthy to praise Your mighty acts?
Or to make known all Your praises?
Or tell of all Your wonderful deeds at all times?
Master of all things, Lord of heaven and earth,
and of every creature visible and invisible,
You are seated upon the throne of glory and behold the depths.
You are without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible,
beyond words, unchangeable.
You are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who is the great God and Savior of our hope,
the image of Your goodness,
the true seal of revealing in Himself You, the Father.
He is the living Word, the true God, eternal wisdom, life,
sanctification, power, and the true light.
Through Him the Holy Spirit was manifested,
the Spirit of truth, the gift of Sonship, the pledge of our future inheritance,
the first fruits of eternal blessings, the life giving power,
the source of sanctification through whom every
rational and spiritual creature is made capable of worshiping You
and giving You eternal glorification, for all things are subject to You.
For You are praised by the angels, archangels, thrones,
dominions, principalities, authorities, powers,
and the many eyed Cherubim.
Round about You stand the Seraphim, one with six wings
and the other with six wings; with two they cover their faces;
with two they cover their feet; with two they fly,
crying out to one another with unceasing voices and ever-resounding praises…

Let all mortal flesh keep silence
And with fear and trembling stand
Ponder nothing worldly minded
For with blessing in His hand

Christ our God to Earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand

At His feet the six-winged Seraph
Cherubim with watchful eye
Veil their faces to His presence
As with ceaseless voice they cry:

“Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, Lord, Most High!”