I’m not a Christian singer


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

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

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

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

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

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

As Pope Benedict XVI said so eloquently:

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

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

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

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

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

House of Gold and Pope Francis

I could not help but smile when I read this paragraph in Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia:

As the word of God tells us, “a man leaves his father and his mother” (Gen 2:24). This does not always happen, and a marriage is hampered by the failure to make this necessary sacrifice and surrender. Parents must not be abandoned or ignored, but marriage itself demands that they be “left”, so that the new home will be a true hearth, a place of security, hope and future plans, and the couple can truly become “one flesh”. In some marriages, one spouse keeps secrets from the other, confiding them instead to his or her parents. As a result, the opinions of their parents become more important than the feelings and opinions of their spouse. This situation cannot go on for long, and even if it takes time, both spouses need to make the effort to grow in trust and communication. Marriage challenges husbands and wives to find new ways of being sons and daughters.

I smiled because it touches on what I have found to be one of the most challenging parts of getting married and having a family: negotiating your relationships with families-of-origin. I know this is a universal challenge, as I have spent uncountable hours speaking with other married men and women about their own struggles with how to interrelate their own marriage and family with their parents and extended family members. By coincidence, just after I read this portion of Amoris Laetitia I went to see the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, which is all about that struggle. Not as funny as the first one, in my opinion.

Years ago, I knew a man who had a very controlling mother. When he was dating a young lady and got engaged, she was clearly jealous of the relationship and made the man feel caught between her and his fiancée. It was very painful to watch. His fiancée finally said to him, “It’s either her or me.” He was tortured by this ultimatum. But one day something absolutely remarkable happened. He and his fiancée were in a public parking lot and a man came up to them demanding money while threatening them at gunpoint. He said it was in that moment, when he realized he would take a bullet for her, that he knew his choice. He called his mother up that night and told her that if she was going to force him to choose, he was going to choose his wife-to-be.

My wife and I often say to each other that we want our children to fly, to discover their own life callings, grow and flourish, and that our greatest hope is that they always find in our home, and our love for them, an anchor, a refuge, a safe place where they can be themselves, know they are loved and supported; where they can share any struggle or any joy. It’s hard! My two sons will be in college this Fall. It’s hard! My daughters are flying through high school. It’s hard! I want them to stay, I want them to go. I want to hold on, I want to let go. I want them to want to stay, I want them to want to go. The words of that Sting song come to mind here: “If you love somebody set them free.”

Okay, so I know you will be very surprised but there’s yet another Twenty One Pilots song that now comes to mind as I am writing this post — House of Gold. My 89 year old mom loves this song. lol. It’s all about the tensions between a mother and a son. The mother wants her son to stay near home and promise to take care of her when she is old and her husband dies, while the son is anxious to set out into life to discover his unique calling. The son clearly loves his mother dearly and wants to promise her everything, but feels torn (literally!) as he also wants to go out and begin a music career (“be a bum so I just might become someone”). The music video is both comedic and macabre, and admits of no resolve in the end.

So with no other better idea as to how to end this reflection today, I will share the wild music video. Enjoy:

Lay Saint!

Today I thought I would simply, and without additional commentary, share with you two strangely related insights found in two different emails sent to me by two different friends.

The first, sent to me by a friend in New Orleans Tuesday afternoon, recounted a remarkable little story. The second, sent to me later Tuesday night, contained a series of excerpts from a letter Pope Francis wrote very recently to Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

I thought the coincidence of time and theme was good enough reason to post them together. I will refrain from commentary as they speak for themselves.

Email #1:

I sat outside today at Rue De La Course studying for my Scripture final exam. I was approached by a homeless gentleman seeking money and we struck up a conversation. His name was Ronnie, he was weathered and obviously living on the streets but had a joyful countenance about him. He noticed I was reading “Jesus the Bridegroom” so the conversation went in the direction of Christ and his love for us.

Ronnie shared with me that for 2 1/2 years he studied at the Baptist seminary because he thought God was calling him to be a pastor. Towards the end of his time there he heard God say to him, “Ronnie, (we talk like that because we are good friends) I called you to study here not to become a pastor but to go out into the world and reach those that only you can reach. I have given you gifts, you are street wise and can work with your hands. It is there that I am sending you to teach them about me”.

Lay Saint! What a great witness he was for me and for so many!

Yea God!!! So cool!!

Email #2:

I remember the famous expression [of St. John Paul II]: ‘It is the hour of the laity,’ but it seems that the clock has stopped.

Clericalism brings about a homogenization of the layperson, treating as ‘mandatory’ limits to his or her diverse initiatives and efforts, and I would dare to say, the audacity necessary to bring the Good News of the Gospel to all places of social and overall political activity.

Clericalism, far from giving impulse to diverse contributions and proposals, turns off, little by little, the prophetic fire from which the entire Church is called to give testimony in the heart of its peoples. Clericalism forgets that the visibility and the sacramentality of the Church belongs to all the people of God and not only an elect or illuminated few.

What does it mean for us pastors the fact that laypeople are working in public life? It means finding the way to encourage them, to accompany them and to stimulate all the attempts and efforts they are already doing to keep alive hope and faith in a world full of contradictions, especially for the poorest.

It is not the pastor who must say to the layperson that which they must do and say; he or she knows more and better than us. It is not for the pastor to decide what the faithful must say in their diverse settings.

Priests often fall into the temptation to think that the committed layperson is he or she who works for the Church or in things of the parish or the diocese, and we have reflected little on how to accompany a baptized person in their public and daily life. Without realizing it, we have created a lay elite believing that only those who work in things of priests are committed laypersons; and we have forgotten, neglected the believer that many times has their hope burned away in the daily fight to live the faith.

These are situations that clericalism cannot see, because it is more worried with dominating spaces than creating processes. We must then recognize the layperson for their reality, for their identity.

It is illogical, and even impossible, to think that we as pastors should have the monopoly on solutions for the many challenges that modern life presents to us. On the contrary, we must remain at the side of our people, accompanying them in their work and stimulating that capable imagination of responding to current problems.

Our role, our joy, the joy of the pastor, is truly in the helping and the stimulating. Laypeople are a part of the Holy Faithful People of God and therefore are protagonists of the Church and the world; we are called to serve them, not them to serve us.

…talkin’ ’bout my girls…

Pope Francis kissing hand of Holocaust Survivor. Taken from euronews.com

Repost from January 2014

I came across this quote from Pope Francis yesterday, and it caused me to reflect on the gift of women in my own life:

The Church acknowledges the indispensable contribution which women make to society through the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess. I think, for example, of the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood. We talk about whether they can do this or that: Can they be altar boys? Can they be lectors? But we don’t have a deep theology of women in the Church

Thanks especially to the witness and influence of my wife and my daughters, I have discovered what John Paul II in his 1988 Apostolic Letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, called ingenii muliebris, the “feminine genius.” That genius, the Pope argues, manifests itself in a great many ways. Cross-culturally, the personal characteristics revered as uniquely feminine are quite diverse. However, the Pope says, there are some universally recognizable and distinctively feminine markers inscribed in the soul and body of each woman. Of these, he argues, the woman’s most precious gift is found in her tender solicitude for the personal dimensions of human life. A women is uniquely suited to cradle human life in her womb, in her arms and in her heart. She possesses a natural instinct to look down with tender compassion on the human face and to be a guardian of fragility. “The human person,” John Paul says, “has been entrusted by God to women in a particular way.”

Let me offer four particular examples of this genius from my own small world.

1. Whenever guests come to our home, my wife has an all-consuming passion to make our home beautiful, warm and welcoming. Flowers in the guest bedroom, fresh towels and scented candles in the guest bathroom, candles and flowers on the dining room table, with libations and hors d’oeuvres in plenteous supply. St. Edith Stein, in her essay, “The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to Nature and Grace,” describes Patti perfectly in this regard: “The natural feminine concern for the flourishing of the people surrounding her involves the creation of an ambiance of order and beauty conducive to their well-being.”

2. Every weekday morning as I pull out of our driveway on my way to drop the boys off at school and head to work, my youngest daughter stands outside to wave goodbye. She is faithful to this practice, whatever the weather. Recently, on a very rainy morning, she stood at the end of the driveway with an umbrella and waived. As I drove down the road I looked back in the mirror. That sight killed me. I had to pull over for a moment to regroup. My boys thought something was wrong with me. That night when I asked her why she stood out in the rain, she said: “Because I don’t want you to feel sad that you’re leaving home.” Do you parents understand the physical heartache such sincerity causes? Her tender love draws out of me a better man. In that mirror is the instrument of my redemption. Every time I watch her wave to me in that rear view mirror she tears fatherhood out of me.

3. A man I know in Iowa was telling me with great pride about his eleven year old daughter’s many academic and sports achievements. In particular, he shared with me a story he said illustrated for him a fundamental difference between his daughter and his sons.

For two years, she was the only girl to receive the highest academic achievement award in her grade. But this year she had to share the award with another girl. When I asked her if it was hard for her to not be top dog this year, she said: “No, it’s okay, but I’m excited that [she and her victorious friend] get to get out of class first period tomorrow and have donuts together!” She was more excited to share donuts with her friend! She wants to win, but in the end it’s about relationships to her.

4. A priest I know has dedicated most of his priestly ministry to serving Catholics who live in economically depressed rural areas. He shared a powerful story.

I was called on one day to give last rites to a man who was dying of mouth cancer. His wife called me. He was a younger man, in his late 40s. He and his wife had two children — a son in his late teens and a daughter in her mid teens. When I arrived at the farm house, the son was outside tinkering with a truck engine. I asked him, “Is your dad inside?” He said, “Yup.” I continued, “Do you want to come in while I anoint your father and pray with him?” He wouldn’t look at me, but said rather flatly, “Nope.” He continued tinkering with the truck, so I went inside.

The father was on a cot, in real pain. His daughter was quietly crying in the corner of the room. His wife stood over her husband. She called him “Papa.” She had a strong and quiet look on her face. She said to me, “Thanks for coming, Father.” She turned to her husband, held his hand, and said with remarkable tenderness, “Father’s here to bless you, Papa.” Then she disappeared from the room.

I took my oils out, knelt next to his bed and began to pray. He was groaning in pain. Suddenly the door opened and the wife walked in with her son, dragging him by the arm. She pulled him next to his father and said, “Now you say goodbye to your Papa! Tell him you love him!” The boy began to sob and, on his knees next to his dad, he threw himself across his dad’s chest and said through heaving sighs that he loved him. As his mom peeled him off, he said, “Goodbye, Papa.” The room was filled with an air of solemnity. I thought, even the angels must have stopped singing in heaven. The boy and his mom walked him out of the room and she closed the door.

I could never have done that. Only she could have. A mother’s love is fierce. Only she could cut through his iron exterior, his anger and fear and break open his heart toward his father. As I anointed the man after they had left the room, I felt that I was offering a Sacrament after having witnessed a sacrament. The sacrament of married love, of a child’s love, of a mother’s love that can soften even the hardest man.

So brothers, today renew your gratitude for the women in your life. Let them humanize you, call forth from you chivalry, nobility and greatness. Thank you, ladies, for the gift of your unique witness to the primacy of selfless love, tender compassion and the personal dimensions of life. Thank you for being the face in which every newborn first discovers the truth that, in the words of Pope Benedict, “each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”

Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world’s understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic. Our time in particular awaits the manifestation of that “genius” which belongs to women, and which can ensure sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance, because they are human! — and because “the greatest of these is love” — Pope John Paul II

If Dostoevsky is right in saying “beauty will save the world,” it will come above all through your beauty, my sisters, just as our salvation first came through the Virgin Mother, whom we call tota pulchra, all-beautiful.

“Virgin and Child,” Elisabetta Sirani, 1663. nmwa.org

Judge, no more

U2’s Bono meets St. John Paul II

I mentioned earlier, I am not easy with the term ‘countercultural’, because it sometimes connotes self-hatred. There is truth to the claim that the Catholic believer must sometimes stand boldly apart from his or her culture and speak a word of prophetic critique; but, at its limit, the claim to be countercultural strikes me as incoherent.

Whether we like it or not, we are shaped – linguistically, intellectually, relationally, bodily – by the culture in which we live. To stand completely outside of our culture is, impossibly, to stand outside of ourselves. More to the point, the language of counterculturalism can give rise to an attitude both mean-spirited and condescending. A culture is transformed only by those who love it, just as individuals are converted only by evangelizers who love them. — Francis Cardinal George

Mark Judge is a conservative author, columnist and art critic. I have read him with great interest over the last five or so years. He said a year ago that he was leaving the Catholic church because he believed the Catholic Church in America was not interested in supporting what was his life’s vocation: to bring faith and pop culture into a serious dialogue.

I am not interested in contesting his logic or responding to his reasons for abandoing the Church — though there is much to be said in that regard. I simply wish to say that he took with him a vision the Church already possesses and desperately wishes her sons and daughters to make a reality: inculturating the Gospel. Let me share a few excerpts from his apologia of departure:

I’m not angry, like so many other ex-Catholics. I don’t have a problem with the Catholic Church’s position on sexual morality. I didn’t have a bad experience with a priest, or resent any nuns that taught me.In the end, I left the Catholic Church because as an artist I could no longer hold out hope that there would be a place for me in the church. The Catholic Church, which gave the world the Sistine Chapel, Dante, and the genius filmmaker Robert Bresson, has lost interest in supporting artists. God is a dynamic and creative universal force who can be found in movies, rock and roll, and poetry.

The Catholic Church is no longer a relevant player in any of those fields, or in the arts in general.

I was raised by an Irish-Catholic family in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. My father was a journalist, poet, amateur painter, and something of a Catholic mystic. He had gone to college at Catholic University of America in the 1940s, during what was a literary high point for the church. In 1948 Columbia graduate Thomas Merton published The Seven Storey Mountain, a lyrical autobiography that became a bestseller. In 1951 Bishop Fulton Sheen began a hugely popular weekly television show, Life Is Worth Living. That same year Diary of a Country Priest, a brilliant and moving film directed by Robert Bresson, was released. Catholicism and the arts seemed go together.

Then the 1960s happened. Vatican II, the church council convened by Pope John XXIII, exhorted the faithful to go out and engage the modern world. To some conservative Catholics this was disastrous, because the world at that particular time was falling apart.

I have asked prominent Catholic scholars and theologians why the Catholic Church has no foundation, think tank, fellowship or even website for the study of popular culture. St. Augustine wrote entire volumes about paganism, and in doing so managed to baptize millions of new converts. Surely something, perhaps a single fellowship at a Catholic think tank, might not be a bad idea?

In reply came only silence — or worse, contradictory and incoherent arguments. I was lectured that the Kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, and I shouldn’t be so passionate about rock and roll, movies, and other efforts of the secular culture. Soon after I would hear that when Jesus said “the kingdom of God is at hand” it meant that Jesus himself had ushered in a new age, that everything was different now, and that God is now present in the world.

If the second is true, then I want to capture it. I want to film it, write about it, and sing about it. And I want to celebrate others in the culture who do the same. Sadly, it’s been decades since any of the good ones have been Catholics.

We need filmmakers, cartoonists, dreamers, and novelists. We don’t need more think tanks. We need romantics and God-seeking artists. Ten years ago this February, Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ. Rather than a ham-fisted and hectoring right-wing lecture, it was, particularly in the early scenes, a work of gorgeous mysticism. In the decade since, conservatives have done little to follow up. There have been some bright spots, perhaps, pointing to the power such projects can have. There was the television miniseries on the Bible, for example, which had a huge following, and is now set to become a feature film this spring. Some websites, such as Acculturated, have started to engage and review popular culture. But these remain only fits and starts. How many conservative donors have started film production companies or funded graphic novels, comic books, videogames, or apps that stand out in the mass culture? Are there grants for artists alight with the desire to create art, an art that serves God and beauty, grants for those who might not be policy wonks or blonde newscasters?

People don’t hate us [conservatives] for our ideas. They hate us because we consider it silly when someone adores a movie, is moved by a comic book, or is smitten with a pop song. They hate us because we have no poetry. We don’t see—as the left has—that poetry moves more than policy. We should be hiring and engaging with the weirdos and rock-and-rollers who will blossom into the intellectuals who affect the culture.

It’s why I am so serious about engaging the work of Twenty One Pilots.

Here’s to hope that this vision Mark wanted to enflesh as a Catholic continues to become #realitycatholic. JP2, take us out:




During my 8-day Ignatian retreat in 2012, my Confessor pummeled me for my tendency to wrest my life free from dependence on God. He said,

…son, your strongest attachment is not to things, but to yourself. You need to decenter your self-reliant focus and fix your eyes on Jesus. Surrender to Him the need to have everything under control, for all the loose ends to be tied up. There’s way too much “you-focus” in all this. You leave almost no room for grace to operate. You’ve put God in a straight jacket. Open up your hands and let God into your open palms, just as He does with you [Isaiah 49:15-16!]. Give Him permission to see everything inside of you. Stop trying to white-knuckle your way through life.

… Your accomplishments are good gifts for Him, that’s always true. But you don’t begin there. He’s really not impressed. But He’s delighted, because He loves you. Begin with your poverty, start with your life as a pure and undeserved gift. When you pray first thing every morning, sit in silence just long enough to be poor. Let Him see how poor you are along with all the riches you’ve gathered up for Him. If you give it all over, the few loaves and fishes of your poverty and riches, He’ll multiply them. You see, only then will He at last find some room in there [he pointed to my heart] to join you in your work, and stop having to remain as a mere spectator. He’s knocking today, now, here, and He’s asking you, Tom, He’s pleading with you right now: Open wide!

And don’t worry, you’ll still work just as hard as you do now. In fact, you will work even harder because it will flow more and more from love. And it will be more working with Him than just throwing stuff at Him … [Before absolution, he said] Okay, Tom, here’s your penance. For your hour of prayer at 3 o’clock today, I want you to just sit before the crucifix in church. Get over yourself. Okay? Give it all over to Christ. Pay attention to His hands. They’re open, not grasping. Open for us, for the Father. They’re held fast by the nails, limited by His weaknesses. But when they’re open like that, their reach is without limit. Yours will be, too …

Now, I would like to invite you to listen to this Twenty One Pilots song, in light of my journal meditation. It’s brilliant. Hear in it the beauty of a desire, born of faith, to stand naked before God in total truth, hands wide open, singing with abandon to the Sky.

The song is called Screen. I have two versions. First, the mashup cover done by my ukulele-strumming daughter Maria and her harmonious friend, the tektōn [artist] Ashley. Second, the Twenty One Pilots version. Lyrics are below:

I do not know why I would go
In front of you and hide my soul
‘Cause you’re the only one who knows it,
Yeah you’re the only one who knows it

And I will hide behind my pride
Don’t know why I think I can lie
‘Cause there’s a screen on my chest
Yeah there’s a screen on my chest

I’m standing in front of you
I’m standing in front of you
I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool

I’m standing in front of you
Oh I’m standing in front of you
I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool

I can’t see past my own nose, I’m seeing everything in slo-mo
Look out below crashing down to the ground just like a vertical locomotive
That’s a train, am I painting the picture that’s in my brain?
A train from the sky, locomotive, my motives are insane
My flow’s not great, okay, I conversate with people
Who know if I flow on a song I’ll get no radio play
While you’re doing fine, there’s some people and I
Who have a really tough time getting through this life
So excuse us while we sing to the sky

I’m standing in front of you
I’m standing in front of you
I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool

I’m standing in front of you
Oh I’m standing in front of you
Oh I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool

Oh oh oh
We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken people, oh
We’re broken people, oh

We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken people, oh
We’re broken people, oh yeah

We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken
We’re broken people, oh
We’re broken people, oh yeah

I’m standing in front of you
I’m standing in front of you
I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool

I’m standing in front of you
I’m standing in front of you
Oh I’m trying to be so cool
Everything together trying to be so cool

Lay Geniuses, Part III


[Alas, the third and final installment! Apologies for any and all grammatical issues as I had no time to edit]

There are two temptations can be cited which the laity have not always known how to avoid: the temptation of being so strongly interested in Church services and tasks that they 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 … The laity fulfill this mission of the Church in the world by conforming their lives to their faith so that they become the light of the world. By practicing honesty in all their dealings they attract all to the love of the true and the good, and finally to the Church and to Christ. They fulfill their mission by fraternal charity which presses them to share in the living conditions, labors, sorrows, and hopes of all people, thus quietly preparing others for the workings of saving grace. — Christifidelis laici

When my wife and I lived in Brandon, Florida, we came to know a man who lived in central Florida and was very involved in an inner city outreach to youth who had run away from home to join street gangs. He had reverted to his Catholic faith about five years before we met him. He worked for a fairly large consulting firm and was married with three children. He said to me that before his personal conversion, he was like most guys his age: worked hard, played hard, drank hard and was willing to cut moral corners when it served his interests. He shared with me his remarkable faith journey story, and gave me permission to share a few parts of that story in my teaching work. I will share a small portion of one of those stories here because it so perfectly illustrates my point. I’ll call him Simon.

Only days after his life-changing spiritual awakening, Simon was at work. It was break-time and, as was the custom at the end of a weekend, his male co-workers gathered to talk about their weekend adventures. “The day had come,” he said, “when, even though I knew I was a different man inside, I now had to call up the courage to go public and face the heat.” His co-worker buddies began to engage in what was previously his favorite part of this Monday morning tradition: the graphic sharing of their weekend “sexcapades and score stories”, i.e. they would each take turns sharing explicit details of sexual experiences with hook-ups, girlfriends or even their wives. He said it was a combination of “whoa!” and “haha!” stories.

When it was his time to tell-all in the circle, he panicked. Then he said a simple prayer to himself, “Help me God.” He decided in that moment that, instead of condemning the practice, he would just tell a story about his wife to honor her. Nothing to do with sex. After he finished, they all laughed awkwardly. One guy said, “What the hell man. That’s a f-ing downer. What’s up with that?” He said he tried to (very awkwardly) share his recent experience of God. A few of the guys responded with mild ridicule and a few “Jesus-freak” comments. But one of the guys came up afterward and asked him in private, “What’s up, man? What’s your new deal?” That coworker eventually became Catholic. Soon after this experience, the Monday morning group stopped meeting. And over two or so years, the influence of these two men brought about a culture change within the firm.

It’s dangerous to speak the mind of God into the City of Man, especially in our post-Christian culture that has declared the Christ and His Church to be mentally ill. But Christians are martyrs at heart and, in their finer moments, have always been the world’s greatest risk-takers — willing to chance being labeled by the world as a fool in order to lead that world back to God. All the gifts of grace and nature, of Sacraments and Scripture, of Religious and clergy are at the service of birthing Christian men and women who live their faith on the front lines, outside the walls of Jerusalem, bearing Christ into culture. For these secular saints, holiness emerges from their wholehearted and Christ-minded engagement in civic life, culture, business, economics, education, politics, science, technology, the armed forces, agriculture, marriage and family life. These serve as the altar on which they offer themselves as a living sacrifice to God for the life of the world (Rom. 12:1).

The Church needs secular saints whose vibrant life of prayer, participation in the Sacraments and in the Church’s communal life throws them back out into the secular world as their native place of flourishing. We need secular saints ready to exit the security of the leaven-jar in order to be kneaded deep into the heart of an unleavened world, saints who flip over every bushel basket to expose the light of Christ in the darkness. We especially need young people falling deeply in love with Jesus, who find their hearts burning to be the social, political and cultural movers and shakers. The Church’s evangelizing strategy has always been to send out culture-making “creative minorities” who are capable of effecting local transformations that feed into broader cultural revolutions. In the past, most of these have been clergy and Religious. But now the Church, kindled by the Spirit, says with special urgency to the lay faithful: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15) by “doing the world” God’s way with that genius that is specifically yours.

The Church’s sacred ministers must help lay men and women in this vocational discernment and encourage them to persevere in their very challenging secular mission. These laity must come to see that their mysticism is not world-fleeing but thoroughly incarnational, wrapped up in God’s self-emptying entry into the ordinary world of family and culture, trade work and play. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings.” These words of the Council set out a spiritual vision for the lay faithful that they might be fully aware that, for them, union with Christ comes about by means of their radical solidarity with the world.

Only a laity invested with this vision of the spiritual life can possibly serve as wellsprings of a new culture and civilization. Only secular saints can give rise to new economists, new artists, new politicians, new journalists, new educators, new students, new spouses and parents, new car mechanics, new salesmen, new justice advocates, new janitors, new business leaders, new lawyers, new doctors and nurses, new digital evangelizers, each of whom excel in their respective field while being thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Gospel.

To be a secular mystic
is to see the intimate bond
between the board room and the indwelling Trinity;
between the bedroom and the Eucharistic Liturgy;
between taking out the trash on Wednesday morning
and taking up the Offertory on Sunday morning;
between harvesting grapes and thumbing rosary beads;
between tailgate parties and the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Without this vision,
one will never discover the way of perfection
in real life,
wherein God lurks in the dust and in the fire.
Secular mystics
must embrace this inextricable bond
if they are to see the glory that fills heaven and earth.
Here abides a most extraordinary truth:
in Christ God made the most
mundane, secular, worldly activities
His own; divinized them
and rendered all of them capax Dei,
“capable of God.”
Learning to love the world with the God
who so loves the world
is the key to lay sanctity.

Secular geniuses set the world free to be itself. The Church must be fiercely dedicated to inspiring the lay faithful become these secular mystics, to become Christ’s Body speaking all languages, living in all states of life, mastering all cultures. These world-wise Catholics stand ready to dialogue with anyone about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, or anything worthy of praise” (cf. Phil 4:8). Nothing that is genuinely human is foreign to them.

But such lay geniuses will never be unleashed into the public square as long as we continue to promote this absurd idea that the really serious, converted and faithful Catholic must dwell in sacristies and sanctuaries, always doing religious things, and are only really “working for God” if they are doing ministry. When we indiscriminately encourage the lay faithful to abandon their worldly careers, secular interests, secular ties or, most terrifying of all, their marital and family priorities, we renounce the mission of the Church given by Jesus. For the secular saint, church activities, ecclesial ministries and religious practices are always to be seen as servants to their core vocation and mission: to do the world God’s way.

Let me end this obscenely long reflection with a final story.

I had a conversation with a young Catholic student at Florida State University that he graciously allowed me to pass on. He once mentioned to me that after his conversion to Christ he felt guilty and dirty every time he did anything that wasn’t religious or churchy. He said:

I feel like I always have to be doing church stuff to feel like I’m close to God. I mean, I totally enjoy all those things, but I feel schizophrenic. I feel like every time I do something outside of the religious world, like if I listen to non-religious music or hang with my non-religious friends or talk about sports or other secular stuff I feel like I’m somehow settling for less. I mean even if I’m not really doing anything wrong I still feel compromised. I hate it, but I can’t shake it. It feels like religious and secular things are oil and water. There’s God-stuff and there’s world-stuff. It’s like life after a bad divorce. Everything seems tainted by the split.

I told him that his previous lifestyle that involved sexual promiscuity, alcohol and drugs before his conversion had saddled him with a long and hard journey ahead. Fusing faith with a dis-integrated moral character is hard work, and I told him he’d have to endure lots of purifying grace from God that would require years of persevering struggle. But I also told him that is what would make him a great saint! But I also told him that if he continued to embrace this divided worldview he would always feel caught in an unresolvable conflict, and that if he remained stuck there too long he would be mightily tempted to abandon the faith, to become lukewarm or try to hide from the world and isolate. He went on to finish his pre-med work and is now in medical school. And he has persevered, thanks be to God.

19th century English Poet Charles Swinburne famously decried what he saw as a bloodless, world-hating Christian vision of life, saying of Christ:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath…

We must belie that accusation and become artists who reveal the infinite colors God has given to the world. We must be the apologia for Pope Benedict’s words, “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great.” We Catholics go to Mass, pray the rosary, go on pilgrimages, spend holy hours in church, become involved in ministries, talk about God just as we read the newspaper with a cup of coffee, go to a movie, feed the hungry, play cards with our kids, tinker with the car, go hunting, play pool, cultivate excellence in our professions, learn to dance, enjoy sports, read a good novel, make love to our spouse and sip a glass of Chianti with a friend while listening to some good jazz music in the French Quarter. And all the while talking about the world. All these things precisely because we are called to be holy, and make the world so, too.

It all matters, as Steven reminds us: