The Sacrament of Music

[re-post from 2015]

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

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

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

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

What’s your song?

Here’s the Sonata:

Red Red Wine

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

[An easy post. Happy Mardi Gras!]

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

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

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

They have no wine. — The Virgin Mary

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

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

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

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

NOLA, If You Axe Me

My annual post, almost Mardi Gras.

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

Running out of Mass into the Secular World

[written in one sit without an edit, so pardon any mess ups]

“I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness” ― E.E. Cummings

I gave 2 talks on Saturday at a catechetical conference, one on the spirituality of a catechist, the other on the mission of the Catholic laity in the world. I told attendees if they wanted a copy of my PowerPoint, I would be happy to share. The notes I will keep for myself as I work to turn them into a book this summer. If you want the PPTs, just email me at

As often happens when I write and deliver talks, my view of everything is affected as my insights infest my vision. As I prepared this laity talk, my mind exploded with brand new insights — most of which did not make their way into the talk. Though they did muddle my talk a bit as I had too much going on in my head!

Most of these insights had to do with the God-given beauty, goodness, autonomy and integrity of the “secular world,” by which Catholics mean the nearly infinite panoply of good things that constitute the entirety of this world in its integrity, the created “temporal” order of time and space that we inhabit prior to death; and the culture-civilization that humanity builds in this temporal world to make it into the life-giving “garden” God made it to be. The whole of Scripture is the story of God’s creating and rescuing the secular to free it to be wholly itself, to reveal His Glory in its own integral structures — all being confirmed in Jesus, God-made-secular.

In Catholic Culture, deeply influenced by the hostility of atheistic secularism to theistic secularism, we tend to think of “secular” as a pejorative, i.e. as hopelessly tainted, of less importance than the “spiritual,” as intrinsically alienating from God, or maybe at best as just neutral “stuff” we have to endure or use as we make our way toward the eternity of heaven, which is obviously not secular. So devout Catholics tend to say things like, “I don’t get involved in secular things like I used to,” or “I used to be totally secular but now I am much more spiritual.” So when Vatican II says that “what is peculiar to the laity is their secular genius” and that their path to holiness is found in “secular professions,” it all seems so, well, wrong.

If we re-claim the Catholic sense of secular, we realize that such negative statements are misguided and buy whole-hog into the atheistic framing of the “secular” world as closed to transcendent meaning, cold, violent, directionless, godless, meaningless and wholly inimical to faith.

Okay, so I will stop and leave the rest for my book, God willing.

My simple point here today was to be this.

I went to Mass the next day at the Cathedral in New Orleans, with all this cycling in my imagination. As the Gifts of bread, wine and alms were brought forward at the Offertory, I had a disruptively intense experience of these Gifts as a highly compressed form of the “secular world” that had been cultivated by human labor and consecrated to the Kingdom of God by human love — more specifically, the labor and love of those people in that Church that morning. The Gifts were compressed artifacts of our work of civilization-building brought to the threshold of the Kingdom of God. I know this is not a novel insight, but it was a novel experience of the truth of the insight for me.

When I swallowed the Holy Eucharist at Communion, wow, it was a stunning awareness of all these insights fusing with the reality of the risen Christ in my mouth and my stomach. I at once remembered the above words of Cummings — which I have always loved. I indeed took the Sun into my mouth, Son of God-made-secular, now, in this Mass, made into our secular right there in Jackson Square. The secular offering of all of us baptismal-priests who had brought that morning the whole world with us into Mass, to give it over to heaven — not for desecration, condemning it, but for Consecration, redeeming it.

Then and there I saw the sacred was simply the secular in its most intensely God-imbued, God-inhabited, God-breathed, God-redeemed form, i.e. the in-breaking Kingdom Jesus Christ in His Church spreading like contagion throughout the universe from this Mass.

After Mass, I had to run fast to find a bathroom (the Cathedral has no public bathroom) — giving me a new understanding of the end of Mass words, “Go! Be Sent!” As I ran out into Jackson Square, in the French Quarter, in search of relief, there around me was wild, untamed, teeming humanity in the center of the secular City. There, with the Sun still in my mouth, I ran with me the Kingdom out Alive and leapt into the ripe air to face the darkness with light, eyes closed in trust of the so-Lover of the world.

There, I was missioned by God to run out and co-cultivate, co-civilize, co-redeem all of this with all of them, and with All of Him, Emmanuel, to gather the whole secular world up again (and again) for the next Mass. And the next Mass. Not to progressively eliminate the secular and make everything spiritual, but too knit heaven and earth, God and world, secular and spiritual together in a hypostatic union. Knit in me, in us who are by baptism the Body of our God, Jesus Christ. Forever. World without end. Amen.

“Let them praise his name with dancing” — Psalm 149:3

[I already wrote on this in 2016, but felt strangely moved to write this post anew. So here it goes…]

We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. I would believe only in a God that knows how to dance. I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher could more wish to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his fine art, finally also the only kind of piety he knows, his ‘divine service.’ — Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

Young love needs to keep dancing towards the future with immense hope. — Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 219

I am very poor at dancing, my wife is quite good. I didn’t grow up with anyone who loved to dance, or even liked to dance. When I was in college, I would only dance under the influence of alcohol, so I remember very little of that. And let’s just say dancing thus didn’t lend itself to chastity. After my faith conversion experience, I lost all interest in dancing because I couldn’t imagine it being anything but compromising for me. I found my physical outlet in weight lifting, softball, volleyball, jogging and swimming, but dance held no interest for me.

And then I fell in love with my wife in 1994 and all that changed.

One evening, about three months into our dating, she surprised me with a romantic dinner party outside on her apartment’s back deck. I came to the door to pick her up and take her out to dinner, and one of Patti’s neighbors, an 80+ year old salt named Robert E. Lee, startled me by intercepting me at my car door to “escort you to the finest dining experience in all of Tallahassee, with a lovely lady who, I understand, loves you very much.”

Steak was smoking on the grill, flanked by baked potatoes wrapped in foil. There was white wine already poured, set on a beautifully adorned patio table surrounded by tiki torches, bathed in Sinatra-genre music and presided over by a gorgeous woman in an equally gorgeous white dress. I was dazed.

She gave me my first formal dance lesson right then and there as we danced to Nat King Cole singing, When I Fall in Love. And we continued to dance for several hours after dinner. It was truly one of those transcendent life-moments — a kairos — that you never forget, that defines you in some deep and new way. That night completely changed — redeemed — the way I thought of dancing, because it was an expression of chaste and genuine love. It’s one of those memories that brings with it (to this day) all the feelings, smells, sights, sounds and tastes of that evening, as if it ended only hours ago.

Last October on our 22nd wedding anniversary, we relived that night of memories and discussed what was so special about it. We both agreed that it had a sacramental quality to it, as it made present in a crazy-tangible way God’s love for us, between us.

After years of being fed the spiritualized lie that loving God required me to view all other human loves as a mere “means to an end” (uti), the end being God alone, my love for Patti allowed me see how the experience of God’s love enhanced our love for each other, and vice versa — that night, and ever since then. This is the deepest truth of God becoming Man, God’s irrevocable affirmation that love for Him, love for human beings and love for His good creation are all integral to our one destiny of perfect fulfillment (frui). Our fulfillment is not in God alone, but in Jesus Christ, who is not God alone but Word-made-flesh, God-with-us in train (John 1:14). Only sin renders these alien to one another.

I wrote in my journal the next morning, “Divine and human love aren’t competitors, I felt so profoundly last night. How liberating. His Face, her face, one grace. If God’s name is love, then we praised His name mightily all night with our dancing. And if we marry, my love for Him will be her, and my love for her, Him. My God, our love then becomes a grace drenched, God-giving and God-receiving Sacrament…”

And it was, incidentally, on that night that I internally resolved to marry her, and seven months later proposed.

Ever since then, every time we get to dance, I am filled with that same presence that re-binds us together.

But two years ago, I had an amazing experience. Patti and I had not danced in quite a long time, but we found an opportunity to go out together and listen to a live band. And dance. It had been so long since I’d danced that I was feeling a bit ‘off’ and self-conscious. Though she was fully abandoned to the rhythm, as ever, I was not able to really enter into it as freely. But it was still fun. The next morning, I woke up to a voice message from an African American priest friend of mine (who very infrequently calls me) who said, “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!”

I immediately wrote in my journal, “Yes, yes! He wants to dance with me in heaven, beginning now with my wife. His dance, her dance, one dance.”


My Advent Back-Flip

This post all about me, so there you have it.

I deactivated my iPhone and have returned to a flip phone for Advent, and from then on.

It’s not a crusade, or some grand protest against smartphones and the like. It was a decision of personal necessity, a recognition of discerned limits.

When my family first got me an iPhone 27 months ago for my birthday, I told them that I had long resisted getting one because I knew myself well enough to know it would be hard for me not to turn it into (1) a portable, total-work-portal and (2) to over-engage my knack for prolixity in communicating with the revolutionary voice-to-text. I give new meaning to the word “hypertext.”

I anticipated I would be tempted, and so it was.

I fought valiantly, devised various schemes for limiting myself, but alas! I was vanquished. I’m intense, and my mind never sleeps. The iPhone, well suited to such a penchant, offered me ever-fresh fodder in steady supply. Good things, indeed, just far too many of them. During our anniversary getaway in October, I realized, after a long and wonderfully deep conversation with my wife, that my mentality — my presence of mind — had become diffused, distracted, doubled by the iPhone. In fact, “doubled” best expressed for me the effect, as the phone had shaped in me a potent bias toward a virtual ‘elsewhere,’ detracting from the concrete world of my immediate daily existence that demands primacy as it contains my primary vocation.

My asceticism in general largely looks like barricade building, as I identify my weaknesses and temptations and then systematically limit their access to preferred suppliers. For me, this works best as, instead of choosing to talk to the devil directly, I just avoid and block my access to his favored haunts. As a friend of mine (who has lived a lot of life) often says, “I can resist everything but temptation.” lol And I usually bring other people into the act, to ensure accountability, as I am too willing to excuse small transgressions until they snowball into sizable ones. I imagine I’m not different than most. My wife is my technology accountability partner, and she has been excellent in keeping me honest, in her typically brutally honest way. Deo gratias.

Yes, I have lost quite a number of wonderful features the iPhone afforded me, which are such gifts; especially group texting, voice-to-text, and easy access to calendar/email. But a week into it, the benefits of flipping have been immediate and wondrous, with some being surprisingly unexpected. If I seem to be exaggerating, I’m not. I’ll name four benefits to give you a taste:

  1. I very quickly experienced a freeing diminishment of those diffusing, distracting and doubling effects, and a rapid re-entry into the slow moving, mundane and concrete world of my immediate daily existence. So much so, that I have had some genuine ‘wow’ moments in seeing my mentality re-center and settle back on the faces and places in front of me. The world has shaded brighter, more colorful, more vivid.
  2. Having lost my GPS, I now have returned to a favorite past-time: reading and memorizing road maps. I found myself this week dazzled at the resurrection of my spacial imagination, realizing I have never really learned Louisiana in my own mind. All I could think of last weekend as I drove to Albany, LA to do a parish mission was Psalm 84:5: “They are happy in whose hearts are the roads to Zion” (Psalm 84:5)!
  3. Now that texting (and emailing limited to my desktop) without voice-to-text is quite an effort, like handwriting, what I text is much more intentional, concise and thought out. I’ve remembered a bit more just how much I appreciate individual words and the labor of writing them. Flip texting (and desktop emailing) also slows down the volume of correspondence massively, which, while I lose out on many good things, has allowed me to re-appreciate simplicity. It has also made me much much more realistic about how many conversations I can (and should) actually sustain.
  4. As the camera-video features are pathetic, I have lost the tendency I had to want to capture, more than simply experience, the world happening around me in real-time. I love taking photos of people and things to treasure and share, but I found the iPhone made me think more and more of life as better captured and shared than experienced raw in the moment without a lens and savored later in conversation and memory.

I share all of this as a personal quest to place digital communications technology in service to my humanity; to my vocation; to my quest to be, as my colleague Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome says so well, “connected toward communion.” I wish to be able to worthily receive the sacrament of the present moment at every moment. I wish to conserve my ability to attend with love, before all else, to my neighbor, to my nigh-bor, the nearby inhabitants of my immediate world that command my attention first and foremost. To receive the grace that’s in my face.

My Advent motto is, Simplify, do or die. Time will tell.

I’ll leave you with 10 additional reasons I, also, preferred the flip. Hopefully they will make you smile.

Mashley, out of Nowhere

I’m not able to post this week, but (my daughter) Maria and Ashley made time to sneak away to City Park in New Orleans on this Labor Day, with their sisters (who wielded camera and mic), and put out a new Beatles cover. Yeah! Finally! Enjoy…