AN EMØTIØNAL RØADSHØW

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The sky on the drive into the city for the concert

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It finally happened. 3/2/17 my daughters, their friends and I went to the Twenty One Pilots (TØP) concert in New Orleans, the fourth to last gig in their Emotional Roadshow tour.

Someone the next day asked me to choose a single word to describe my experience. I immediately said: Transcendent.

The lead singer in one of the two opening acts, Jon Bellion, captured perfectly the marvelous distinctiveness of TØP:

You know, when you’ve got a band that makes it big as fast as they have; that can pack arenas all over the globe, like tonight; and you’ve got a band with only two men in it that can put on a show of the quality you’re about to experience tonight — and they still remain just as kind, humble and compassionate as they’ve always have been — well, you know you’ve got something amazing going on. Right? [cheers] And you fans tonight — right? — who you are, well, it’s a worthy reflection of who these guys are. So let’s get hyped, okay! Are you there?

I don’t know how to really convey my thoughts on this whole experience, so I’ll just let it flow without a plan. Yesterday, the morning after the concert, I was slammed, beginning at 5:00 a.m., with a series of intense work-related stresses, so I had to tuck away the fire that I had burning within me until my work day ended late last night. It’s still burning in me as I write.

Being at this concert with my daughters and their friends was a piece of heaven for me. That’s really the highlight of the night. These are all very special young women. One of my sons once said of all these girls, “Where do they come from? No one their age is like that.” They’re deep, beautiful throughout, hip, smart, fun, faith-filled, loving, not petty and real people. The fact that they were thrilled I was there with them, were totally jazzed that I knew the words to every TØP song, as I danced, jumped and arm-waved (all of which is, I believe, worth doing badly)? Well, it was nothing short of a suspension of the laws of teen nature. Here they are:

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It was transcendent. The concert, that is. Transcend, from the Latin trans (above or beyond) and scandere (to climb up), captures perfectly the effect of Josh and Tyler’s musical performance  — propelling, lifting, drawing, dazzling my spirit up into wild joy, forgetfulness of my cares, amazement and (a number of times) profound prayer. Their music in general, and this performance in particular, bears a profound sense of empathy, human solidarity and — there is no better single word for it — hope. Hope, because you feel in your guts you are not alone in the mess of things. Hope, because the unspecified “you” that marks so many of their songs is so naturally, though not assaultingly, open to God.

Someone asked me yesterday, “Are they a Christian band?” I immediately said, “No, they’re a schitzo-pop band who, as they write, sing and perform, inhale and exhale Christ, who is God so near that He’s nearly invisible.” They are artists who draw living water from the well of Christ who, in the words of Vatican II, “reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” Yep, their music brings to light the high calling of men and women who find themselves presently very, very low to the ground. Often with the high skies blanked out of view. Especially as they sang Addict with a Pen, Trees, as well as a haunting — almost mystical — cover of My Chemical Romance’s song, Cancer. 

As I wrote last summer, while there are significant differences, concerts like theirs deeply resonate with the meaning and experience of liturgical worship. I think of the almost sacramental character of the lights, sights and sounds; the communal singing of common texts (lyrics) that unite all; the ritual body movements; the focus around a “sanctuary” populated by celebrants clothed in symbolic vestments; or the feeling of being removed from everyday experience to enter into a world of higher-deeper-wider meaning that transfigures the way you think-see-hear-feel everything. These events give baptismal priests like myself the opportunity to give voice to the liturgy of creation that shouts and whispers, sings and groans with all the vitality and agony of life in a world laboring to give birth to a new creation. In fact, a friend of mine texted me just before the concert began: “Prayers for your night of lay high priestly worship!!”

Jamie Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, argues that humanity is naturally homo liturgicus, “liturgical man.” We are drawn to ritual and liturgy, are naturally oriented toward worship and desire for the taste of transcendence in liturgy. Psychologically, socially, spiritually. He makes the point that good education, which is meant not simply to train workers with skill-sets for lucrative careers or give head-knowledge, but to form the whole person, must be thoroughly liturgical. Hence, it must engage the whole person in every aspect of existence, while being at the same time a full immersion into the dynamic mystery of God. He says,

Education is not primarily a heady project concerned with providing information; rather, education is most fundamentally a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people. What makes them a distinctive kind of people is what they love or desire – what they envision as ‘the good life’ of the ideal picture of human flourishing. An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart — the gut — by means of material, embodied practices.

The Sacred Liturgy is not a concert, but concerts have the capacity to profoundly bear the imprint of Sacred liturgy. When done well, musical events lead us into the Sacred Liturgy and intensify the force of the dismissal Rite — Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life — empowering us to set the world on fire. Artists like TØP make present a FarNear Kingdom burgeoning with divine Fire, a Kingdom guilty of breaking-and-entering a world grown old and cold in sin. In the words of Ode to Sleep:

I’ll stay awake,
‘Cause the dark’s not taking prisoners tonight.

Why am I not scared in the morning?
I don’t hear those voices calling,
I must have kicked them out, I must have kicked them out,
I swear I heard demons yelling,
Those crazy words they were spelling,
They told me I was gone, they told me I was gone.

But I’ll tell them,
Why won’t you let me go?
Do I threaten all your plans?
I’m insignificant.
Please tell them you have no plans for me.
I will set my soul on fire, what have I become?
I’ll tell them.

Thank you, Lord of Fire, for TØP, who share with us words of hope and fire that consume the flaming arrows of dark demons who whisper despair into the night.

Here are a few videos I shot, portions of songs captured with my 432-times-dropped phone. So realize the quality is low and a dim reflection of the reality.

Very end of Car Radio:

Mashup of Screen and The Judge:

Ode to Sleep:

Migraine:

Cancer:

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Catherine and Maria, lights in my life

Ashley and Maria, Sh-Boom

Life Could Be a Dream may be my favorite Mashley video yet. It’s playful and joyful, with fun harmonies, smiles and slip ups. It was recorded in the seminary on Friday night, with the Blessed Mother behind them outside smiling, unquestionably. And a blooper bonus at the end.

My heart sang. I love Mashley.

Don’t Worry, Mashley’s Here

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Maria (right) and Ashley

This last Sunday, my daughter Maria went to Mass with our family at a parish connected to the Seminary. After Mass, a number of seminarians who are fans of the music of Ashley and Maria came up to her and shared their appreciation. She was delighted, and therefore I was delighted that she was delighted.

One of the seminarians told Maria that the guys in the Seminary really needed a good song to help them get through the upcoming hardships of their exams.

Well, that’s all it took. She was on a mission.

As soon as we got in the car, Maria called Ashley and started to plan what song to cover for the seminarians. She asked me to drive her to straight to Ashley’s house. I dropped her off and in 35 minutes they had chosen a song, practiced it and recorded it. It bears their signature staid demeanor (in marvelous juxtaposition to the words), with birds singing in the background and a car whizzing by.

One of the seminarians told me to tell them: “The song reminded us of an oasis in the midst of life’s frenetic pace; to just stop everything and waste some time singing on a Sunday afternoon. Just because.”

Exactly.

Here it is:

 

Twenty One Silence

[re-post from March 2016]

Those of you who read my blog with any consistency know well that I share my daughters’ affection for the group, Twenty One Pilots. I dig their sound, energy and vibe, but even more their clean and meaningful lyrics. I wish I could find a way to communicate to them my admiration for their work. I was thrilled to see on Word on Fire philosophy professor Father Damian Ference make these comments about them:

What I am saying is that Twenty One Pilots has offered a masterful incarnation of the culture of encounter. They meet their audience where they are, as they are, and they let them know that they “get them.” Once their audience trusts them, then they can slowly challenge them to consider a new way of seeing, a new way of living, and a new way of being. Is it evangelization? Maybe not exactly, but it is encounter, which is a prerequisite for authentic evangelization. They’ve accomplished the important work of preparing the soil for seeds to be sown, which isn’t easy. And, if by the end of the night, Twenty One Pilots can get some young people to say “Hello” to God for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, well, that’s better than most.

Among their songs, I have a number I really love and have nearly memorized. Among these is Car Radio, which is about abandoning the culture of distraction and being confronted by the frightful vulnerability found in stark silence. The lyrics are fabulous. I have given several retreats on the value of silence over the last twenty years, and have said far more about silence than anyone should. I’ve found again and again that people benefit more from those silent retreats about silence than any other I have given. Precisely for the reasons stated in this song. The music video for Car Radio, in true Twenty One Pilots form, is off-beat schizo-pop. It offers a wild visual narrative of the painful process of being stripped, shaved, of all those external “noises” that distract us from facing our inner struggles, preventing us from having to face head-on life’s most profound meaning-questions.

A man I know, who is now a bishop, said to me back in the 1980’s when I took a philosophy course from him:

There are nights when I feel the pain of loneliness to such a degree that I feel almost desperate. I used to immediately distract myself with TV or a phone call, or head out to the drug store to buy chips. But now I just sit in the chapel in my rectory and let it burn through me, in the silence, with tears, and ask Jesus to make me a better priest. Silence is the only way I can allow what is deep within me to surface out into God’s presence. And it’s a taste of hell.

I couldn’t help but think of this segment of the Creed:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell…

Okay, let me get to the song and video. I’ll preface it with a gritty quote from Henri Nouwen that I’ve used to open many of the silent retreats I’ve given.

As soon as we are alone in silence, inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.

I ponder of something great
My lungs will fill and then deflate
They fill with fire, exhale desire
I know it’s dire my time today

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

Sometimes quiet is violent
I find it hard to hide it
My pride is no longer inside
It’s on my sleeve
My skin will scream reminding me of
Who I killed inside my dream
I hate this car that I’m driving
There’s no hiding for me
I’m forced to deal with what I feel
There is no distraction to mask what is real
I could pull the steering wheel

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

I ponder of something terrifying
‘Cause this time there’s no sound to hide behind
I find over the course of our human existence
One thing consists of consistence
And it’s that we’re all battling fear
Oh dear, I don’t know if we know why we’re here
Oh my, too deep, please stop thinking
I liked it better when my car had sound

There are things we can do
But from the things that work there are only two
And from the two that we choose to do
Peace will win and fear will lose
It is faith and there’s sleep
We need to pick one please because
Faith is to be awake
And to be awake is for us to think
And for us to think is to be alive
And I will try with every rhyme
To come across like I am dying
To let you know you need to try to think

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit

I ponder of something great
My lungs will fill and then deflate
They fill with fire, exhale desire
I know it’s dire my time today

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

Fall Away

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Maria

[Re-post from February 2016. Extremely busy days for me, so re-posts help. Oh, but did I mention that March 2, 2017 I’ll see Twenty One Pilots live, in concert, in New Orleans? #frenziedjoy]

God does not want to impose the good, but wants free beings. There is a certain usefulness to temptation. No one but God knows what our soul has received from him, not even we ourselves. But temptation reveals it in order to teach us to know ourselves, and in this way we discover our evil inclinations and are obliged to give thanks for the goods that temptation has revealed to us. — Catechism #2847

My daughter Maria introduced me to the group Twenty One Pilots in 2015 and I have (figuratively) joined their fan club. I will be posting more on them soon. Recently Maria wrote a brief reflection for school on a song of theirs, and I found her reflection so excellent I asked if I could publish it here. She graciously agreed.

Here was the prompt she received in class:

For this activity, you will be analyzing a song, poem, article, short story, or character in a book. Your typed response will answer the general question, “How does these lyrics or story promote authentic human freedom?”  You will need to attach the lyrics of the song, the article, the story, or some type of description of what you chose to analyze to the assignment (If you do a song or another media source you may attach the youtube clip as well).  Your response must be at least 200 words.  Pay careful attention to clarity of writing and grammar.

Here was her answer:

The song “Fall Away” by twenty one pilots discusses authentic human freedom in an obscure but brutally honest way. Tyler Joseph, the writer of the song, divulges his struggle of concealing who he really is and talks about his fear of “falling away” from the truth and, ultimately, God.

I believe that the message Joseph is trying to convey is that he strives to live the life he is supposed to live, but many self-doubts hinder his ability to do so. The line “but I don’t want your way, I want mine” is Joseph addressing God, saying that he wants to create his own path instead of taking God’s path of true happiness. Another line, “I can feel the pull begin/feel my conscience wearing thin,” expresses his struggle to retain his original beliefs and morals as the outside world pulls him away, giving him a false idea of what freedom is.

While this song does not exhibit an explicit representation of authentic human freedom, it does describe the difficulty many face to use their freedom how they ought to. In our tainted, confused world today, freedom is generally defined as the right to do or say whatever one wants. Especially with the recent upsurge in social media, the pressure to believe in a fixed set of ideas has increased, leaving many people in doubt.

Only with God can freedom be used unerringly, which is why it is imperative that we make ourselves immune to the temptations around us.

Here’s the song:

Here are the lyrics. 

I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I’ll keep the lights on in this place
‘Cause I don’t wanna fall, fall away 
I disguise
And I will lie
And I will take my precious time
As the days melt away
As I stand in line
And I die as I wait as I wait on my crime
And I’ll try to delay what you make of my life
But I don’t want your way,
I want mine
I’m dying and I’m trying
But believe me I’m fine
But I’m lying,
I’m so very far from fine And I, I can feel the pull begin
Feel my conscience wearing thin
And my skin
It will start to break up and fall apartI don’t wanna fall, fall away
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I’ll keep the lights on in this place
‘Cause I don’t wanna fall, fall awayEvery time I feel selfish ambition
Is taking my vision
And my crime is my sentence
Repentance is taking commission
It’s taking a toll
On my soul
I’m screaming submission and,
I don’t know if I am dying or living
‘Cause I will save face
For name’s sake
Abuse grace
Take aim to obtain a new name
And a newer place
But my name is lame
I can’t walk and I ain’t the same
And my name became
A new destiny to the graveAnd I, I can feel the pull begin
Feel my conscience wearing thin
And my skin,
It will start to break up and fall apart
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I’ll keep the lights on in this place
‘Cause I don’t wanna fall, fall away

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.

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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.