The Boxer, c/o Mashley

Here’s the latest Ashley-Maria (Maria is my daughter) music video, shot by Maria’s sister, Catherine as they hung out in the girls’ bedroom on a rainy Sunday.

This song, more than any other they’ve done, made my heart overflow. Nah, explode. My wife and I adore Simon and Garfunkel. I wrote this as soon as I heard it:

beautifully blending
celestial sending
angels lending
limits rending
hearts ascending
heaven extending
harmonies friending

A friend of mine, who is a musician, texted me after watching it last night. She was the one I mentioned back in June who flew all the way from Chicago just to hear the girls perform at the Chicken Jam. Sui generis. Her words express so well my own enthusiasm for this performance:

I love that song! Now i m going to have to go back to new orleans to sing it with them. Such a great song for them becuz immediately reminds u of simon and garfunkel and their amazing harmonies, and then u realize that is the amazing kind of thing the girls are doing w/their harmonies–sophisticated musicianship made to look easy. i saw simon and garfunkel for their one reunion concert in central park–sort of a whim trip –and to this day so glad i went. It really wasnt til i heard this tho that i harkened back maria and ashley’s harmony style to theirs–such cool parallels. When the girls play central park i will definitely be there.

In a lost embrace

This is a text I sent last week from the Houston airport to my wife, children and some other friends.

Supreme moment of digital age disconnection: woman runs to greet a teen boy (seemed like she was an Aunt), and as she embraces him tightly and verbalizes her love for him and marvels @ how much he has grown, behind her back he is scrolling on his screen looking at his Instagram. Breathtaking.

The woman had been excitedly talking to someone near me for some time about a relative she had not seen in years. She kept saying, “It’s been so long, I wonder if he’ll even recognize me.” I assumed she would be meeting him when she landed wherever she was going, but suddenly she jumped to her feet and ran toward this 15 or 16 year old boy who had walked up to our terminal. “Seamus!” The energy from her voice electrified the air, catching the attention of lots of people and generating lots of smiles and “awws.”

But, as I happened to be leaning against a post right next to them, I noticed the details of what I described above. She squeezed him for a good thirty seconds, rocking side to side as she repeated, “I love you! I love you! You are so big! I am so happy to see you again! Thank God! It’s been too long. How have you been?…”  I could see him scroll the Instagram posts up, “liking” pictures in rapid succession.

Yes, I knew I should turn my head away from this private moment, but that stunning sight seized control of me.

After they strolled off together, I sat down to take that all in. Someone next to me must have noticed my reaction, and said, “Yeah, I know, I saw it too. Sad.” I said, “Yeah. More like, unreal.”

Unreal. That’s it. We need an asceticism, a virtuous discipline that places technology at the service of ordo cartitatis, “the order of love,” attending first to the neighbor nearby, to the priority of real relationships grounded in the immediacy of real presence. Virtual reality should flow from and lead back to the reality that soaks your clothes in rain, makes you shiver in the cold or warms your heart in an embrace of love.

My wonderful and gifted colleague, Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, said once in an interview,

Out gadgets connect us but our screens can make us forget that on the other side there is another person there, a full, embodied complex human being. Communication toward communion keeps this in mind and forges true encounter.

That’s what was missing. And in the presence of the bodies of others, screens should pass away in favor of face to face, embrace to embrace, I and Thou.

My daughter Maria, about six years ago, was desperately trying to get my attention as I was working on my laptop in the dining room. I was writing a blog post (maybe on effective parenting? lol). As I typed away, looking intently at the screen, she repeated with antiphonal force, “Dad! Dad! Dad!” I quipped back several times in a sharp tone, “What?! Say it, child!” But she would each time resume her antiphon. Finally after half a dozen times, eyes still fixed on the screen’s dim glow, my exasperation got the better of me and I shouted, “What! Say it! I’m listening!” She said back, in a low voice, “But your face isn’t.”

That slayed me.

Since then, any time I am tempted to stray my attention away from the person I am with, and toward a gadget, I can hear Maria’s haunting words sound in my head.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. — 1 Corinthians 13:12

“Wonder is the only beginning of philosophy” — Plato

I received this postcard in the mail from a seminarian yesterday, and on the back of the card he indicated this quote made him think of me. If this is all people say I did for them as a teacher or writer or friend, it would have been enough.

Also, how can I sufficiently extol the virtues of a young man who takes time to send a handwritten postcard to a professor? In such times, such borders on the heroic.

Back in 1989, when I was studying at the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, I took a course on the Jewish Talmud. I remember one particular class when the Rabbi who taught the course was excitedly describing the fiery passion students of Talmud have as they debate the right interpretation of Talmudic texts. “Their passion” he said, “is rooted in their love for God and Torah.”

To sharpen this point, he quoted the well-known 20th century Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel,

Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.

He added, “Their love was itself driven by wonder before the majesty of the Lord. If you have wonder, you already possess everything to be known. Like the acorn already possesses the full grown oak. But if you have no wonder, you possess nothing. Only the dead acorn.”

I felt like my brain exploded in that moment, and said to God within, “I want that.”

Like begging for the gift of prayer, I begged for wonder. “O you who are Wisdom without measure, grant me your eternal appetite for knowledge! O Source of all that is to be known, permit me to know all with you!”

And to wonder, like this:

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree. — Joseph Mary Plunkett

Or like this:

Christina, Little Girl

[a brief interruption of my week-long posting break…]

Those who perceive in themselves… the artistic vocation as poet, writer, sculptor, painter, musician, and actor feel at the same time an obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it to service of their neighbor and humanity as a whole. — St. John Paul II

The YouTube sensation, Christina Grimmie, was one of our daughters’ favorite up-and-coming singers. She was exceedingly talented, sweet and humble, a devout Christian who modeled femininity magnificently. And she was tragically gunned down in 2016 after a concert in Orlando. Our daughter Maria was especially devastated.

In May of this year, two days before Mother’s Day, one of Christina’s never before released original compositions was made public, a song called Little Girl. It’s gripping. She began writing it when she was 12. The song is a tribute to her mother, a sort of musical rendering of Proverbs 1:28, “Her children rise up and call her blessed.”

I post this song today because I happened on it by chance last night and was deeply moved. I also post it to honor Christina’s memory and artistic mission, allowing you to hear her beauty if you have not yet had the privilege of experiencing it. And then below that song, I included the eulogy by her mom and dad at her memorial service. There you will see where Christina came from.

May she rest in God’s eternity.

I rely on the Word

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. — St. John Paul II

Back in May I wrote a reflection on a woman, whom I called Mary, who works at a local pharmacy. Her faith shines through her work.

I saw her a few days ago when I was picking up some things for my Mom, and she came over to me as I stood in the checkout line. We struck up a conversation about what each of us has been up to this summer, and I was yet again amazed at how attentive she is to details I have shared with her in the past. “How’s your Mom? Is your wife still loving her job? Did your daughter get to do that performance at Lakefront? What are you teaching about now?” I said to her, “How do you remember all of that?” She said, “It was important enough for you to tell me, so it’s important enough for me to remember.”

The week before, I had seen her briefly, but she was in a great hurry and was unusually curt with me. As we continued to buzz about our summer, she said, “Hey, I wanted to apologize for being so short with you last week. It was the end of my shift and I had a women’s Bible study to get to and I was late.” I said, “Of course you did!” We laughed.

She continued, “You know I always tell you how much I rely on the Word to get me through the day. I just don’t know how people do it without taking in His Word. It’s my soul food. It’s like a mirror, you know? I look at myself in those pages and know who I am. I’m His daughter, beloved, no matter what. I set my anchor in that rock when it’s hard or I’d lose my way. And I also see in that mirror where I don’t match up. The Bible’s a truthful mirror, it don’t lie! But I see His mercy, too. Forever! If I don’t take time every day to pray into His Word, I forget who I am and can’t live the Word.”

Then she said, “You know, faith makes you a better worker, too. I give my all to every detail. I love what I do because it’s His work. And people notice it, you know? They say, ‘Why do you seem to enjoy your work so much? Are you crazy in the head?’ I tell them, ‘Yes, I am crazy in the head! Crazy in love with Jesus.’ Then they really think I’ve got a screw loose. But that’s okay! Just last week a customer came up to me and said, I’ve been watching you for years and you are the best thing [this company] has going for it. I’m going to write corporate to let them know what a gem they have in you.'”

She got slightly choked up and said, “Can you believe that?”

As we finished talking, she said, “Thank you for letting me talk like this. You know, the Lord says don’t throw your pearls before swine. So I only share these things with people I think will appreciate what I am saying, and know that I’m not tooting my own horn but only boasting in the Lord. It’s all about Him, His glory. You know.”

As I stepped back into line to checkout, the cashier, who was also a manager, said, “You know, what she said is true. She’s a little crazy in the head, but she’s the best employee we have. And I say, if religion makes you better doing what you do here, more power to ya!”

 

“I try to stay away from all secular music.”

[this tom tome is a re-post from 2014]

The world is in itself secular. — Pope Paul VI

The laity have a secular genius which is properly and peculiarly theirs. — Vatican II

“I try to stay away from all secular music.” I overheard this comment over lunch during a retreat I gave, as the people sitting at the table next to me were talking about how difficult it is to live in such a “secular world.”

My interest was piqued, so I said to the woman who made the comment, “I hope you don’t mind my intrusion, but can I ask you a question?” She said, “Sure.” “What do you mean by secular music?” She replied, “Oh, I just mean all of the godless music out there. You know, the trashy music about sex and violence.” I said, “So secular music to you really means music that promotes immorality?” She said, “Yeah, I guess. But also music that’s about worldly things and not about God.”

I decided to press it further. “This is really helpful. I love to learn from other people’s perspectives. Do you mind if I ask more questions?” She seemed open. “So do you think that for music to be good or worthy to listen to it has to mention God?” She said, “Well, not really. I guess my problem is focusing on the world and the secular, and not on spiritual things.” I continued, “Do you think the world has a spiritual value?” “Yes, if it’s connected to God.” I replied, “What does it mean to you for the world to be connected to God?”

At this point I was worried she was becoming uncomfortable with my inquisition, and everyone else at her table stayed silent. But after a few moments, she said, “If you use the things of the world to do God’s will, that seems like it would be somewhat spiritual.” I replied, “That makes sense. So going back to your original comment about secular music. What does the word secular mean to you?” She said, “Godless. Worldly.”

That was it. The words “secular” and “worldly” were for her both entirely pejorative terms. So, I thought to myself, how can one possibly speak about the positive value of this life on its own terms? What word do we use?

I pressed her further, “Okay, so fair enough. Then if you were asked by someone who was not Christian, what word would you as a Christian use to describe the goodness of this life now that you live in? You know, the world that includes things like money, the natural environment, social and political institutions, science, art, business, human love, suffering, tragedy, and so on. If you can’t use the words worldly or secular, what would you say?”

She paused and said, “That’s a good question. I don’t know if I can find a word. Maybe creation?” Then she said, “What word would you use?” I said, “World and secular.” We all laughed. I continued, “Here’s the thing, secular and world are words that Christianity treasures in its vocabulary. ‘Secular’ comes from the Latin saecula, which simple means ‘age’ or ‘epoch,’ and refers to the realm of time and space we presently inhabit in this world, in contrast to the realm of eternity, which is called the saecula saeculorum, the ‘ages upon ages’ that never end. For Christians, God is the creator of the saecula, the secular time-bound age we live in, and the saecula saeculorum, the endless Age to Come. So secular and world are in a sense synonymous. So to be secular and worldly are the way God intended us to be.”

She seemed puzzled, and said, “Then why does the Bible tell us that the world is against God or that we shouldn’t be worldly?” I replied, “Because the Bible uses ‘world’ in several senses. First, it is the ‘very good’ world Genesis describes, created by God out of love in the beginning. Second, world is used to describe creation in rebellion against God, which is what you described when you said ‘worldly’ in a negative way. And third, world is a description of creation as the ‘theater of redemption,’ as loved by a God who wants to redeem and heal it from its rebellion. As in John 3:16’s famous ‘For God so loved the world that he gave…'” I continued, “So we have to be careful not to conflate all the meanings of the word ‘world’ into the Second negative sense only. That would be a disservice to God’s view of things, ignoring two-thirds of the Bible’s meaning.”

At this point, the woman said, “Please, join us at our table.” I sat down and we continued our lively exchange. I said, “Okay, so can I rephrase your original comment about music?” She said with a chuckle, “Sure. Why not!” “Okay, so what you really meant to say was, ‘I try to stay away from all music in rebellion against God.'” Everyone laughed. She said, “Exactly! You took the words out of my mouth!” I went on, “But music that is about anything in God’s good world — about humanity’s attempt to make sense of that secular world in all its complexity, or about the drama of evil and the struggle to find redemption — these worldly themes would be okay to enjoy as a Christian? Or even to write and perform such music as a Christian?” She said, “Yup, I guess so.”

“So,” I concluded, “you do enjoy secular music!” She and all her companions all laughed and she said, “Yes! Guilty as charged.”

Then the woman said, “So why does the word secular just sound so bad? Get such a bad rap?” I replied, “Because in the last several centuries, western culture has come to define the secular without any reference to God, as a closed system that is not open to transcendence; not open to an understanding of the world as filled with God’s presence and action and glory. God was seen as a threat to the world’s autonomy, in some ways because certain prominent strands of Christianity tended to treat the world as hopelessly corrupt, condemned by God. Or as a mere thing to be used, subordinated to the really important things: religion, spirituality, God. I like to say, when Christians feel the need to debase the world to exalt God, or debase the material to exalt the spiritual, the world feels the opposing need to debase God and the spiritual in order to exalt the world and the material.”

I continued, “And inasmuch as Christianity privileges the negative Second Sense of world, beats up on the secular world or trivializes the importance of this life in the grand scheme of things, Christianity promotes and emboldens the very atheistic secularism it abhors. A Christianity that highlights rejection of the world as hopelessly tainted, or as alien to what is truly spiritual feeds atheistic secularism. And a Christianity that idealizes ‘fleeing the world’ into a totally ‘religious bubble’ as the highest expression of what it means to be Christian, makes those 99% of people called by God to immerse themselves fully in the secular world feel they have to choose between God and the world. Between being spiritual and being secular.”

The woman said, “Never thought of it that way.” I replied, “Think about it, if your best option is to at least mildly disdain the secular world in order to fully love God, those who feel the innate and powerful mission to give themselves to the secular world will be left with little choice. Of course there’s much more to the story, but that’s an important part.”

“So,” I concluded, “we people of faith who live in the world have to love the world even more than our atheist secular neighbors. But we have to love it the ways God does, in accord with His commandments and the law of love. And we have to realize that sharing in God’s love for a broken world looks like the cross. But the point is we must be lovers of His beautiful, broken world. So we really have to get our language clear on this or we just continue to feed the ever-deepening divide that has tragically divorced faith from life in the secular world.”

If I had had my Vatican II texts with me, I would have concluded with this:

They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.

Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his secular duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. Christians should rather rejoice that, following the example of Christ Who worked as an artisan, they are free to give proper exercise to all their earthly activities and to their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God’s glory.