Mashley, slanderer, tektōn

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Maria and Ashley with…

[re-post from March 2016]

None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when—like the artists of every age—captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colors and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you. — St. John Paul II

Today I am thrilled to feature my daughter Maria’s writing, with her gracious if blushing permission. But that’s not all! I also get debut the writing of her dear friend and co-vocalist, Ashley. Yes, of the famed Ashley and Maria. 

Maria’s poem was written as part of her English class’ unit on poetry. She asked me to read it and then tell her what I thought it was about. I read it quietly. As I read it slowly through, I was delighted by the artfulness of her language and her ability to beautifully structure the meter and rhyme. But when I got to the last line, I exploded out a “WHAT??” and then drained my hyperbolic word bank dry while I lay prone on the carpet. Here it is:

There for my compulsions of cathartic release
A vacuum for my thoughts ‘til my mind is at peace

The greatest of listeners, absorbing every thought
Unfailingly present whenever you’re sought

Upon your exemplary performance, my success is dependent
With you in my grasp, my thoughts grow transcendent

Transporting me to where my mind is seldom sedentary
I yield to your craft, O slanderer of the ordinary

I immediately knew the moment I lifted that last line from the paper, through my eyes and into my mind, that she was describing the very pen she had employed to slander in this poem! I added to my explosive WHAT??, “Are you kidding me? Majestic! Outrageous! Stupendous! What is this? How did you think of that?”

She smiled.

Then, just when I thought I was safe from any more unsettling provocations, Maria passed on to me Ashley’s poem. Who are these 16 year olds? Where do they come? After having Maria admonish all pen-wielders to slander the ordinary, Ashley the tektōn indulged me in her slandering fest, consecrating raw empirical data into a sacrament of beauty. That’s how it felt! Ashley’s poem is a protest against modernity’s insular vision, against its atrophied imagination, healing her generation’s neurotic fear of punching upward-opening holes in our synthetic ceilings for fear they might reveal God’s downward gaze.

Those eyes! What hue? Azure? Indigo? Turquoise? Zaffre?

As I read “On the Lake,” I was transported into Ashley’s world, drawn through her eyes to envision a landscape of colors I had never seen myself. I even tasted her colors: bitter sweet! And I could hear her heart singing praises to the FarNear God in words that carved new depth into those canyon crags, only to leap up again with joy into the skies.

Let me allow her to speak:

On the Lake// 
I want to paint a picture of it, but no painting could do justice to its surreality.
Rusty-colored rock walls, built towards the sky, seemingly endless.
The ground not solid, but a crystal clear lake of blues —
The kind of blues that can only match the color of God’s eyes.
For even the blind man could recognize an aesthetic realm such as this.
The canyon could dizzy and perplex even the most intellectually gifted of men.
It has the kind of beauty I begin to develop a deep nostalgia for even before I arrive, as I
know how I will miss the grace of the natural atmosphere.
It is the closest place to heaven on earth, like a mirror parallel to the blue of the sky-
The reflection of the bitter-sweet color strays before it hits the rock.
It is the land of Aphrodite and Venus, where they sang and danced and laughed.
It is easy to feel free in the midst of the red rock, the same rock that shifts and transforms
and never looks the same, but always maintains its allure.
A land so dry and barren, yet still, I have never felt more tied to the earth, with all its
humbleness and peace and magnificence.
The sun kissed my shoulders, my skin now the same shade of red as the rock walls.
But I didn’t care. How could I? How could I possibly care about anything besides taking in
every inch of the canyon walls? How could I think of anything so extraneous when
surrounded by this insurmountable beauty?
I must let this earth consume me completely,
For in just a few days, I will desperately dream to be on the lake again.

+++

Here’s what I wrote later in my journal:

That’s the true vocation of a writer, isn’t it? To make the familiar strange and the strange familiar; the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary? Maria’s, Ashley’s love of language, and their firm grasp on its potential for beauty, bleeds through the pen. Their voices are inflected with faith, intoning the forgotten power of language to reveal, by a surprising refraction, countless concealed beauties. Language rightly used is the rainbow-sign of God’s enduring true love.

Faith! I’m absolutely convinced that an imagination captured by faith, hope, love, breathed into us by Christ the Tektōn [artisan], creates a capacious imagination. Faith, i.e. to think in Him who is the Word, the Origin of all beginnings, the Goal of all strivings, the restless resolve of all opposites, the Unity that preserves all difference. He gives to the mind its fullest “breadth and length and height and depth” (Ephesians 3:18)!

He is the Most High slanderer of the ordinary, the Writing God who has chosen US to be, and do, His calligraphy. We are the Scribes of the Wild Kingdom (Matt. 11:12; 13:52), word-smiths who render the mundane, celestial; the stable, an earthquake.

Writers discover, recover, uncover the uncommon in the common, mine infinite ore hiding within a flat wasteland, reveal the surplus of meaning lying latent in every empty space.

I also thought, after reading Maria and Ashley’s work, about the word tektōn, which is used in Mark 6:3 to describe Jesus’ profession. It’s usually translated “carpenter,” but is so much broader. A Greek lexicon says it includes “a worker in wood, a carpenter, joiner, builder, any craftsman, or workman, the art of poetry, maker of songs, a planner, contriver, plotter, an author.” Fabulous! God is a tektōn, all of these things, so of course Christ was also a tektōn. Brilliant!

I thought of the Catechism #2501 “Indeed, art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches. Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man’s own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing.”

Real Love and a New Miriam

“Miriam Dancing,” Carlo Maratti, 1710.

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[I accidentally posted this yesterday. Now is the acceptable time.]

“You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ll never be hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.” ― William W. Purkey

“Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister,
took a tambourine in her hand;
and all the women went out after her
with tambourines and with dancing.” – Ex. 15:20

Obviously I love to write about my marriage and family on NealObstat, and I am exceedingly grateful for people’s indulgence of this penchant of mine.

For those who read my blog post on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord this year, they will remember the audio clip I shared of my wife, Patti, and Cornelius “CC” Celestine together singing the spiritual, Wade in the Water. Well, Friday night, CC invited Patti and me to see him perform with his Motown singing group, Real Love, at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club in New Orleans. Four hours of electric energy rushing through the 50 or so patrons there to hear the performance. Most of the music was from the 60’s and 70’s, which we both love. But when they played Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk, Patti jumped to her feet and cut a rug.

As I talk often about Patti’s dancing, I decided to catch her on film so I could share with you exactly what it is I’m talking about. Sadly, my phone recording does a terrible injustice to the music, and it’s a bit dark, but good enough to offer you a glimpse. Best part was she had no clue I was filming.

CC is the singer at the middle microphone.

Lake Ella Sky

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” — Ansel Adams

Another self-indulgent photo album from the 3 days Patti and I spent in Tallahassee, Florida during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Tallahassee is our spiritual home: found our faith there, met there, married there, had all our children there, made lifelong friendships there. The photos capture sights that caught my fancy. Each had a specific meaning to me that I’ve tried to distill in these brief captions. And I’ll end by treating you to the wildly gifted Colleen Nixon’s playful song about our beloved Tallahassee! For those so disposed, enjoy…

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“Crux.” This is the crux of a cross made by a dear friend of mine. It’s gorgeous. If the Cross is a symbol of God’s love for the world, this cross is a symbol of my friend’s love for God.

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The stream where my sons and I would spend hours catching small fish, tadpoles and building dams made from stones and logs. This must be There (Rev. 22:1)

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And great grammar!

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Lake Ella, where Patti and I spent hours and hours walking and talking. She would even let me practice my first lectures with her as we walked.

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The games I would play with a friend at Black Dog Cafe, as we spoke about Russian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev

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Realized eschatology. My dear friend Peter Bond, Regina Cigars, Abita Amber and Momo’s pizza. Maranatha.

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Pete Bond’s own “Jerry’s Cigar Shop & Ashton Lounge”. Come on, man, can’t you have this in New Orleans?

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The Live Oak tree our children loved to climb when they wanted to climb trees. Also There (Rev. 22:2)

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Graffiti: man’s irrepressible need to deface

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Firing range at our friends’ house.

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“You make wine to cheer man’s heart” (cf Psalm 104:15)

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My daughter, Catherine just before her Freshman dance. Where’s the stop button?

LA LA LAND

[written this past Monday immediately after leaving the theatre]

I just went to see the musical-movie, La La Land. Not being a big romance movie fan, based on the preview I had seen I would never have chosen to go had my wife, daughter and a guy friend all said to me very insistently: YOU MUST SEE THIS. I went and I am so grateful I went.

I’m not an art critic, but a theologian, which could make this a bit of an odd take. With that warning in mind, a few meandering thoughts…

It’s a movie about dreams, love, art, passion, imagination, success, failure, heartbreak, choice, destiny and so much more. It touched something very deep in me, as all great art should, and helped me see parts of my own life story with fresh eyes. Drama, if done well, should unveil the world anew; stretch your horizons; fill your palette with more colors with which to see and paint the world. In fact, I think I remember St. Catherine of Genoa referring to a vision of Paradise she had which, she said, revealed to her colors she had never seen before. The hard thing about that is you can’t describe them, because they don’t exist in human experience. This movie gave me some new colors that illumined parts of my life I had not been able to see beauty in before. My wife said to me before I saw it, “It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.” Seemed enigmatic until I saw it, and now I get it.

After it was over, I sat– or rather, hid! — and cried for quite a time. I am not a crier. The tears did not flow from being touched by this or that sentimental scene. Rather, tears came because I saw something unexpected and received an insight into life I was unprepared for. What? Something like: I saw splendor in my very ordinary life. I saw providence afresh in my personal story. I sensed a strange hope in my dashed dreams and my darkest failures. Though the movie contained no explicitly religious themes, it revealed to me the surprises that spring from divine providence. But this was more like an intuition than a clear concept, like the invisible light of the sun which only shows its spectrum when it strikes concrete objects; that can only be appreciated in reflection (or refraction!).

Thank you, God, for the gift of art.

Obviously I really recommend seeing it.

Slight spoiler:

Among my favorite scenes was when Mia auditioned for a role in a movie set in Paris. She’s asked to make up a story on the spot. She tells of an Aunt who seems to have inspired Mia’s own artistic vocation. This woman was a free spirit with an artist’s soul who lived both triumph and tragedy. Her greatness, to Mia, was in choosing to live not merely admiring the beauty in life at a safe and calculating distance, but risking the embrace her “mission” to experience and bring beauty, with all its terror and wonder, into the world. Only those who have taken this risk, who have drunk deeply of reality and lived to tell of it, can recite so eloquently of its majesty. St. John Paul II says as much:

What artists manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendor which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit.

Okay, here’s Mia’s audition song (text and song), The Fools Who Dream:

My aunt used to live in Paris
I remember, she used to come home and tell us
stories about being abroad and
I remember that she told us she jumped in the river once,
Barefoot

She smiled,
Leapt, without looking
And She tumbled into the Seine!
The water was freezing
she spent a month sneezing
but said she would do it, again

Here’s to the ones
who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts
that ache
Here’s to the mess
we make

She captured a feeling
Sky with no ceiling
Sunset inside a frame
She lived in her liquor
and died with a flicker
I’ll always remember the flame

Here’s to the ones
who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts
that ache
Here’s to the mess
we make

She told me:
A bit of madness is key
to give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why they need us,
So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters, and poets, and plays

And here’s to the fools
who dream
Crazy, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make

I trace it all back,
to that
Her, and the snow, and the Seine
Smiling through it
She said
She’d do it, Again

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

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↑ 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.