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:

Affair of the Mind

I am re-posting this 2013 piece because in the last two weeks I caught news of three different men who are porn addicts, each of whom are connected to people I know. One lost his wife and children because of it and is still addicted. Another is married and hides it from his wife. The third is a single man who lives in a cycle of shame and dependency.

Taken from

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials. — CCC #2354

I spoke with a woman recently whose husband had indulged in pornography for several years of their marriage. She gave me permission to share the general lines of her story.

It was crushing to listen to the pain she suffered.

What stood out most to me as she recounted its disastrous effects on their marriage was this point she made:

What suffered in me most was my sense of personal worth and dignity. I felt demeaned and betrayed … The greatest harm was the near total erosion of trust and the terrible feeling of always being insecure and worthless. I was clearly not enough for him … Having accidentally happened on some of the filth he’d been viewing on his laptop gave me a shocking awareness of just how vile and repulsive the images and sounds were. So then I knew this was what was in his mind every time he looked at me. Once I discovered it, his every gesture toward physical intimacy with me made me physically nauseous. Once I vomited. When you expose your body to your husband, it’s an act of trust. You believe it will be received and looked at with love.

Eventually her husband got help in a 12-step sex-addict program. She forgave him. He has worked mightily, she said, to rebuilt trust and their marriage has been renewed. She said they practiced abstinence after his recovery for many months before she felt ready for any physical imtimacy, and his willingess to wait and still be affectionate and gentle proved to her he again loved her with the honor due.

I could not stop thinking about it over the next several days. I collected various thoughts in my journal. Here are some:

In a Christian culture men are gentlemen, careful to honor the dignity of each woman and promote her feminine genius. JP2 says that every man is called to be a new St. Joseph, “to be a protector of every woman’s honor and dignity.” Men must honor every woman because their dignity is inalienable, infinite, and every woman is held in supreme honor in the mind and heart of God.

The statistics show that a staggaring percentage of men, and growing percentage of women, consume pornography regularly. By 2017, a quarter of a billion people are expected to be accessing mobile adult content from their phones or tablets, an increase of more than 30% from 2013. Porn use breeds isolation and self-absorbtion, trivializes and degrades the sexual act, crushing underfoot its beauty as a covenant sign. It rewires the brain with an addict’s neuro-grid and enslaves the imagination. As theologian David Hart says well:

The damage that pornography can do — to minds or cultures — is not by any means negligible. Especially in our modern age of passive entertainment, saturated as we are by an unending storm of noises and images and barren prattle, portrayals of violence or of sexual degradation possess a remarkable power to permeate, shape, and deprave the imagination; and the imagination is, after all, the wellspring of desire, of personality, of character. Anyone who would claim that constant or even regular exposure to pornography does not affect a person at the profoundest level of consciousness is either singularly stupid or singularly degenerate.

I once wrote an email to an acquaintance, a Catholic married man who struggled with porn addiction. I remember agonizing over how to respond to his honest and tortured confession. Among other things, I wrote:

God loved your wife before you ever did, and He loves from all eternity each and every one of those women who are exploited in porn. High price for a cheap thrill. God loves them far more than you or I ever could, and will judge us one day on how we handled these pearls of great price, i.e. His daughters.

Along with links to resources for overcoming addiction, I included in the email Michelangelo’s painting of the creation of Adam. Under the picture, I wrote:

Note who’s held tight under the arm of God as he creates Adam. It’s the woman, Eve, whom God has not yet drawn from Adam’s side and entrusted to Him as His gift and image. She is still God’s dream awaiting creation … Pope John Paul II has a powerful comment in a letter he wrote on the dignity of women (Mulieris dignitatem) to this effect: “The dignity and the vocation of women find their eternal source in the heart of God. Consequently each man must look within himself to see whether she who was entrusted to him as a sister in humanity has not become in his heart an object of adultery; to see whether she who, in different ways, is the co-subject of his existence in the world, has not become for him an ‘object’ — an object of pleasure, of exploitation. Christ’s way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women.” In invite you, my friend, to join the protest.

Sub specie aeternitatis — under the light of eternity — one sees everything differently.

Porn culture calls for the evangelization of imagination, which means the purification of imagination — not merely by a renunciation of pornography’s graven images, but by an encounter with icons that uncover the true dignity and beauty of the human body that was created to glorify God.

Christian gentlemen stand on the front lines of the New Evangelization. Let God’s chivalrous revolution, once conceived in the eternity of a Father’s heart, begin in time. Now. In you.

Bring Me to Life

Icon of the Resurrection (Jesus lifting Adam and Eve out of Hades)

Jesus reveals to us God who is one with us in suffering, grief and death… a God who weeps with us. God doesn’t intervene to prevent the tragedies and sufferings of life. If we had a god who simply swooped down as some “deus ex machina” to prevent human tragedy and sinfulness, then religion and faith would simply be reduced to some form of magic or fate, and we would be helpless pawns on the chessboard of some whimsical god. Where is God in the midst of human tragedies? God is there in the midst of it all, weeping. This is our God who stands in deep, human solidarity with us, and through the glory of the Incarnation, embracing fully our human condition. — Pope Francis

Back in 2011 a coworker of mine introduced me to a song by Evanescence called, Bring Me to Life. She said, “I think this song could be about prayer.” I listened to it but never gave it too much more thought until last year when I met a young woman on a retreat who told me that this song helped her find faith. Though the band’s intent in writing the song is not totally clear (their music video is a fanciful story of a suicidal woman), the lyrics lend themselves powerfully to a Christian interpretation. In any event, this woman I met on retreat told me that she had been entertaining suicidal thoughts in the wake of some personal life failures. Especially after her long-time boyfriend suddenly left her.

She said she was driving in her car one evening and was desperate to relieve her inner pain. That night she came as close as she ever had to giving up and ending her life. She said, “I never really thought about God much before. I grew up in an agnostic home. It wasn’t that I was really an atheist, I just didn’t see religion as relevant. But in my desperation that night, my thoughts raced. I was searching for some meaning and purpose above the pain and loss. I turned the radio on to distract me. And then this song came on and devastated me. I had to pull over. As I heard the lyrics, and felt the music’s call for help, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably. I found a voice for my inner torment. And without my even knowing it was happening, I suddenly thought of God. It was God who was the only possible object of all my cries for relief. I was alone, but not any more. For the first time ever, I prayed. I prayed the words of that song.”

I listened to the song later at home and was overcome with emotion thinking of her pain, and with an overwhelming gratitude that the God behind this vast universe is, in His deepest nature, the answer to this song’s desperate cry. I imagined her sitting in the car, drenched unknowlingly in God’s co-mingling tears.

Listen with good speakers, feel and imagine her prayer:

Consecrating and consecrated

I had an insight while I was teaching a few weeks ago (on the lay vocation) and it blew my mind. I shared it with a friend afterward and he said, “Write it down as soon as you can.” So I did. I will share it with you on this Holy Thursday. It is actually not really a new insight, just a new vantage on a previous insight.

That evening I was teaching on paragraph #34 in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, which says this:

The supreme and eternal Priest, Christ Jesus, since he wills to continue his witness and service also through the laity, vivifies them in this Spirit and increasingly urges them on to every good and perfect work.

For besides intimately linking them to His life and His mission, He also gives them a sharing in His priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of men. For this reason the laity, dedicated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and wonderfully prepared so that ever more abundant fruits of the Spirit may be produced in them. For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Together with the offering of the Lord’s body, they are most fittingly offered in the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, as those everywhere who adore in holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.

This passage links in a stunning way the Eucharistic Sacrifice to the ordinary lives of men and women who live in the world, and go about gathering the “material” of their spiritual sacrifices, which are accepted by God and joined to the sacrifice of His Son by the Holy Spirit. “Pray, brethren, that your sacrifice and mine may be acceptable to God the almighty Father…” This work of “gathering” material for the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Council tells us, is an act of secular consecration that necessarily precedes the sacred consecration in the Mass. The lay faithful, who were made priests in Baptism, gather each day the fragments of what they have consecrated by means of their faith-full lives, and gather those fragments together at the Offertory as bread, wine and alms.

With that very basic background, let me share the insight that kindled a little fire in my mind. Here is what I sent myself as a voice-to-text email the night I had this insight. It’s a string of messy sentences, but I will leave it as it was from my phone (correcting bizarre v2t spellings!). Sorry it rambles:

Teaching tonight about the link between the two consecrations–liturgy of Daily Life and liturgy of Eucharist. There is a profound connection, and fiery analogy between the transubstantiation of the bread and wine effected under the force of Christ’s words of selfless and self-sacrificing charity AND the consecration of the world to God by the lay faithful, which is ALSO effected under the force of their Christlike lives that speak His Word of self sacrificing love and call down the Spirit poured out into their hearts at Baptism. In the liturgy of the Eucharist the bread and wine receive a new substance: the merciful Christ’s risen Body and Blood. In the liturgy of Daily Life the secular world receives a new form: the mercy of Christ. Parallel liturgies going on, one feeding into the other: Life into Eucharist and Eucharist into Life. My God.

So I was thinking in class teaching today: in Latin theology it’s the Words of Institution that bring about the transformation of the bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood — “this is my Body broken for you…my Blood spilled out for you”. It’s very specific. How can I say this? The Christ made present in Mass at the consecration is very specific in His mode of presence: Present at the apogee of His selfless outpouring, the most concentrated moment His life-giving merciful love for fallen humanity: this my self-sacrificing Body and Blood for you. The Eucharist is not a “generic” Jesus presence, but Jesus in-the-midst-of-offering-His-life-in-love presence. And there is no mistake He changes bread and wine. Yes because it’s Passover, but also because God is a feeding God who lives and loves to give joy to humanity [Psalm 146:7; 104:15].

So this is amazing: the Eucharistic transformation at Mass is a paradigm, a model, a source, an exemplary sign of the Way [John 14:6] the lay faithful, in their secular contexts of life, are supposed to consecrate the world to God in Christ: building a culture of mercy, a civilization of selfless and sacrificial and merciful love for fallen humanity, feeding the hundry and giving joy to the downcast. Consecration, which means to “make holy,” does what holiness is, and holiness is of course the “perfection of charity” which is perfectly modeled in Jesus’ sacrificial death. The laity in the world love like Jesus does in the Passion, which is what the Last Supper really is. The Meal of that sacrificial-love-in-action. The Truth of the Way of Life that Christ revealed to us AND gave to us at the Last Supper, epitomized in the Words of Institution, IS the very specific meaning and sructure of how we are to “consecrate the world.” It’s the consecratory pattern (taxis/ordo) after which we are to build a culture of life and civilization of love [neat typology for this: Exodus 24:8-12; 25:40]. No accident that “love one another AS I have loved you” is said at the Last Supper in the midst of Eucharistic Consecration [John 17:17].

The new transubstantiated substance that remains in the aftermath the re-creating Consecration is also to be the new substance of the culture we are to be building. It’s why He commands us to eat and drink before He says: Go! The Real Presence is the Real Blueprint and source and cause and goal of all our world-consecrating strivings after-Mass. Empowered in our baptismal priesthood, we are lay missionaries who go out into the world as its soul, threatenig to love that world into new life. We are a praying laity who call the Spirit down everywhere we go in hope that every quark of time and space will be redeemed in that “eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace.” I’m thinking: Catholic Social Teaching really is in the deepest sense the specific application of this Eucharistic paradigm to the whole social order. If we say: how do I apply Eucharistic logic to business or economics or the arts or war or sex or medicine? CST! For the laity CST is their new “Way of Perfection” to transforming and transformative union with Christ the Lover of Mankind. Teresa of Avila gave her nuns a contemplative’s Way, the Church has given the secular lay geniuses their Way.

When the priest says, “Go! Be Sent!” he really means, “Continue in your lives the substance-changing liturgical work you have seen and heard and ingested today. Gather more grain for bread and grapes for wine, grind them down by your labors, bake bread and ferment wine by your charity and return again with all you have gathered to offer it here so we can send it up  on High to store as Treasure in Heaven for the life of the world and the glory of the God who made heaven and earth to be filled with His glory.” So when St John Paul says “Christian marriage is in itself a liturgical action glorifying God” this what he means, that marriage is a great work of preparing material for the Kingdom. My God!

I know a woman who has a Down Syndrome son who is also severely disabled. He suffers from chronic insomnia, and regularly has sleepless bouts that stretch for three days in a row. And he’s afraid of the dark, so she stays up with him for that whole stretch of time and then works during the day. She’s been doing this for 24 years. Never complains. Whenever I compliment her, she deflects it by saying: “He’s the champ, not me.” And one time she added, “If I’m ever saved when I die, it will be because of him. He pulled me out of my selfishness and taught me to love. He’s the champ.” Well, the whole world is saved by her Christ-like love, is consecrated. Between mother and son, their daily “sleepless” sacrifices of love given and received are so vast — I imagine — that were they physical and not spiritual things they could not be contained by a thousand worlds. Such a beautiful love, a beauty that saves the world.

I leave you with an image of the Consecration of the Eucharistic Liturgy to capture the union of the two liturgies into one. The faithful, Christ’s Body, are anxiously watching as their offerings are being accepted, consecrated and taken up into the Kingdom:


Kitchen Sink

This is the last in the collection of reflections I wrote on Twenty One Pilots while I was traveling a few weeks ago. I had a stretch of quiet free time and a sense of the muse, so I went with it.


I would like to share a poem that I wrote. It flowed out of my meditation on the irony of social media’s capacity to foster an isolated generation. That meditation was inspired by  a TED video a colleague sent me, called Alone Together, on the isolating dynamics of social media, as well as by the Twenty One Pilots’ song, Kitchen Sink.

The vision of this poem flooded my mind the moment I heard Kitchen Sink’s final line, that pulls its author back from the brink of isolation. The sudden change of course is heralded by the the shift from a weary and eerie cry, “Leave me alone!” to a more insistent but equally eerie, “Don’t leave me alone!” The song’s solitary quest for meaning (represented by his private understanding of the metaphor, “kitchen sink”) in a sense affirms the uniqueness of our dignity as an individual and meaning-making person. Indeed, each person’s experience of their inner life is incommunicable. But there is a temptation in this gift, the danger of moving from an inner solitude of the heart to an external isolation from others and inner fragmentation without being in touch with the common good of shared meaning. The singer is, however, rescued from this threat of isolation as he opens out in the last lines of the song toward a quest for the shared and public meaning of human existence. Though we never want to submit our unique individuality to the uniformity of a “copy and paste” culture, we can only truly affirm the depth of our uniqueness when we are able to join our inner life to others’ inner lives in a community and communion of truth and love — becoming one mind, one heart (Phil. 2:2-3). We are persons only in relation to others, and that interrelationship requires a real presence to those who are with us in real-time and real-space — and not just virtually. I recently thought, 3 John 13-14 could be the motto for a redeemed digital culture:

I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink; I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together mouth to mouth [stoma pros stoma].

The final cries of the song — “Oh!” — let us know this man’s struggle is an ongoing story, still lived out from within a culture increasingly Alone Together.

First my poem, then their song.

Today lives are lived – they say – connected,
webbed, networked, yet vivisected;
bound to a thousand friends, all-intersected
we believe, profess ourselves inter-affected;
yet, powered down we fall into deathly isolation
overtaking our illusions of loving relation, as we,
adrift on shifting sands, fragmented bits of meaning
swaying left, right, split by unbridgeable leaning,
our dialogues turn dark, unilateral, soaked in profanity
cooling us cold, into silicon embers, an LCD humanity
incapable of being within, indwelling another view
— killing the graces of inter-meaning faces —
shrink-wrapped into bundles, purveying anesthetized insanity.
For unto oblivion are our softly lit faces, gently distracted
by a fast-paced semblance sense of having interacted,
only to realize our subdivided soul had been subtracted.
Sadly weeping, we fall down and tumble to solid earth
only from there reclaiming our Height, our inalienably dimensional worth
grasped first in the moment we saw a humanly divine Face at our birth.
From earth, praying on knees bent on, upward reeling, crying out
piercing through azure Skies capped without ceiling,
feeling my heart bleeding, precisely incised by paschal healing.
O Christ, twice born as Face from Face, leave me not now left alone
locked in hopeless dissipation, faceless, and roll back this heavy stone
O Fisher of all nations, freeing me from my tangled Nets, together-unrelated,
insulated, refrigerated, always agitated in a mind ever more disrelated;
in a mind dulled, driven by the senseless quest to be alleviated
from pallid meaning; my shallow swamp of self-syndicated gleaning
masking fitfully an inner pine for One whose love is joy all-beaming;
joying precisely because this One is at once the thrice intersected We,
always and for all ages on ages, an interfacing, all-loving Three
forever toward Another, Facing forever and forever eternally
all for me
for thee
that we
may see
in love alone
are we
set free.

Okay, now hear 21P here:

My Twenty One Pilots Obsession (apologia pro musica sua)

A very fun to write entry from my journal:

“What’s with the Twenty One Pilots obsession, Tom?”

I was asked this question a few weeks ago by a local reader of my blog, who quickly added: “Just kidding!” She asked a good question. What’s my good answer? Of course, there’s always something inexplicable about why you like this kind of music and not that. My taste in music is quite eclectic and idiosyncratic, spanning Athonite Byzantine chant, Pat Benatar, Lara Fabian and Twenty One Pilots. But here are a few reasons I can articulate: Sharing my daughters’ joy in them. Their alternative sound. Their artful and substantive lyrics. Their youthful passion. Their apparent sincerity. Their refusal to indulge in our culture’s sexual pathologies.

But most of all, I am enamored by their willingness to plunge headlong and clear-eyed into the tangled anxieties of postmodernity, all the while remaining free from its caustic cynicism, in order to open up the possibility of redemption in Christ. Twenty One Pilots is about the work of re-enchanting a thoroughly disenchanted world. Their quest to reach the victims of our age of anxiety makes me think of the Greek word St. Paul uses in his Acts 17 “men of Athens” speech (in vs. 27) to describe the non-Jewish world’s searching quest for the one true God:  psēlaphēseian. It means something like “groping about,” referring to what a blind man does when he tries to make his way through a dark and unfamilar space.

Tyler and Josh are ready to join their generation, and all seekers, in this stumbling journey through the darkness led along by the light of a divine darkness that is faith. Western culture is ever-more a de-sacramentalized world, made incapable of gesturing beyond itself, of supporting the pursuit of the ecstasy of charity outstretching toward God and neighbor. It is a world rendered flat, insipid and banal by a progressive evacuation of the infinite dimensions of transcendence. The motto of (post)modernity, fearful of the Most High, is “stay low.” This is the world Twenty One Pilots rebels against, a world described so powerfully by David Bantley Hart:

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an even greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the one truly substantial value at the center of our social universe: the price tag. So it really was only a matter of time before atheism slipped out of the enclosed gardens of academe and down from the vertiginous eyries of high cosmopolitan fashion and began expressing itself in crassly vulgar form…In a sense, the triviality of the movement is its chief virtue. It is a diverting alternative to thinking deeply. It is a narcotic. In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys.

Twenty One Pilots sings of the epic themes of human existence: life and death, hope and despair, sin and redemption, love and violence, addiction and freedom, alienation and presence, fear and trust, God and man, et alia. Their songs are sometimes quiet, sometimes screaming, sometimes whimsical, sometimes grotesque, sometimes searching meditations on the complex relational interplays between man and God, man and man, and man within himself. So many of their songs are deft condensations of latent beauty-truth-goodness, of faith-hope-love found fully in Christ. They make these triplets haunt, infest, inhabit, infiltrate our world of uncertain shadows, but never in a moralizing or preachy way. Their lyrics make clear that prayer need not simply be an effusion of plastic pieties, but can be a raw, gritty experience turned upward in “hope against hope” that postmodernity’s deafening silence masks something far deeper: an exquisitely attentive Word of eternal listening.

I write and comment on them because they are a sign, a witness, an example — even at times, exemplar — of the lay vocation to consecrate the world to God with all the quiet subtlety of transubstantiation. Just think of how in the Liturgy, without notice, the bread and wine are radically remade into a New Creation by the God who makes all things new. We lay faithful are to employ our secular genius by renewing the secular world in Christ, embodying daily the challenging truth of these majestic words from the Second Vatican Council:

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 men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds (Gaudium et Spes #1).

And while we Catholics must have a strong ecclesial [churchy] center from whence we are sent out among the wolves (Matt 5:44), as strong Communion leads to a strong Mission, and must avoid being assimilated by our materialist and consumerist society, we also mustn’t succumb to simply holing up in a gated community. We cannot rest secure in confidently smiling out from our airtight apologetics-Ziploc bag, being bearers of Truth who look on a confused world only to curse its darkness. No! Instead of such triumphal insularity, we must unzip all our synthetic seals and be poured out into the midst of the din of sin, the moans of despair, the rebellious sounds of revelry, and there sing a new song that all can join in on. We must with confident love invite the intoners of postmodernity’s cacophony to hear our rich harmonies, and make it clear our song is for them and about them. We must give them opportunity to come to know in us the Jesus who said to the safely-sealed-up chief priests and elders: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots enter into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31). We must take up Pope Francis’ challenge to the youth at World Youth Day:

I want to tell you something. What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses! I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out! … if they do not do this, they become a non-governmental organisation, and the Church must not be an NGO.

Twenty One Pilots has gone out into the streets, casting seeds of hope into the field, leavening our cultural grammar, salting our syntax and illumining our lexicon with a grammar, syntax and lexicon drawn out of the inkwell of the Gospel. Yes, they do so imperfectly, as it always must be. But they are risking precisely what I passionately believe our Church absolutely must begin to seriously and systematically cultivate among the lay faithful: not simply inward-facing ecclesiastical ministers but outward-facing ecclesial apostles; not simply keepers of an enclosed garden, but day laborers ready to go out and work day after day in the hot sun cultivating the hard, rocky, weed infested field of the world. We need culture-makers willing to risk everything to cast seeds into the world.

In the movie, Risen, there’s an amazing scene where the Roman tribune Clavius, in his frantic search for the corpse of Jesus, interviews a blind old woman named Miriam. She tells him she heard the voice of the risen Jesus. He spoke to her. After Clavius dismissed this as lunacy, Miriam walked away. But she stopped, turned back and said to Clavius in an ominous tone: “Don’t you want to know what he said to me?” He said, “Sure.” She told him: “He said, ‘You are seeds, already cast.’” Then she said, referring to Clavius’ plan to crush this new messianic movement: “You’re too late.”

We are the seed casters and the seeds cast.

It only seems appropriate to leave you with another Twenty One Pilots song. I will not comment on it other than to say that this song is their manifesto of refusal to succumb to the commodifying, mass production-oriented and often heartless tendencies in the pop music industry. Here’s to hoping and praying they will remain part of the faithful resistance, (re)inscribing a new heart onto the chest of an increasingly heartless culture. As usual, lyrics are below the video:

They say stay in your lane, boy, lane, boy
But we go where we want to
They think this thing is a highway, highway
But will they be alive tomorrow?

They think this thing is a highway
If it was our way
We’d have a tempo change every other time change
‘Cause our minds change on what we think is good
I wasn’t raised in the hood
But I know a thing or two about pain and darkness
If it wasn’t for this music, I don’t know how I would’ve fought this
Regardless, all these songs I’m hearing are so heartless
Don’t trust a perfect person and don’t trust a song that’s flawless
Honest, there’s a few songs on this record that feel common
I’m in constant confrontation with what I want and what is poppin’
In the industry it seems to me that singles on the radio are currency
My creativity’s only free when I’m playin’ shows

They say stay in your lane, boy, lane ,boy
But we go where we want to
They think this thing is a highway, highway
But will they be alive tomorrow? Will they be alive tomorrow?

I’m sorry if that question I asked last
Scared you a bit like a hazmat
In a gas mask
If you ask Zack
He’s my brother, he likes when I rap fast
But let’s back track, back to this
Who would you live and die for on that list
But the problem is, there’s another list that exists and no one really wants to think about this
Forget sanity, forget salary, forget vanity, my morality
If you get in between someone I love and me
You’re gonna feel the heat of my cavalry

All these songs I’m hearing are so heartless
Don’t trust a perfect person and don’t trust a song that’s flawless

They say stay in your lane, boy, lane, boy
But we go where we want to
They think this thing is a highway, highway
But will they be alive tomorrow?
They say stay in your lane, boy, lane, boy
But we go where we want to
They think this thing is a highway, highway
But will they be alive tomorrow?

Will they be alive tomorrow?
(Will they be alive tomorrow?)

They say stay in your lane, boy, lane, boy
But we go where we want to
They think this thing is a highway, highway
But will they be alive tomorrow?
They say stay in your lane, boy, lane, boy
But we go where we want to
They think this thing is a highway, highway
But will they be alive tomorrow?

Help me Polarize

“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

One of my Scripture professors years ago said:

The goal of reading the Scriptures with faith [aka lectio divina] is to allow the biblical stories to become your stories, to allow them to weave into your life so deeply that you begin to think of your life in their terms. That way you don’t just think ‘about’ Scripture, but you think ‘out of’ Scripture. Jesus told parables not so we could struggle over them like some logic puzzle, but so we would see the world through them.

When I first heard the Twenty One Pilots Song, Polarize, I felt powerfully their capacity to see the world “out of” the parable of the Prodigal Son. Let me take a shot at capturing its meaning, though not without remainder as there are a number of images and sounds I will not mention. Here’s some notes I jotted down after listening to it one night.

When I first heard it, what I sensed immediately in both the lyrics and sounds was the visceral anguish of the prodigal son, languishing in throes of famine, close to starvation and death, plagued by shame over a betrayal of both his father and his brother. This son-brother “lost his halo” in the nighttime of his exile among the swine herds, which represent the son’s abandonment of God’s Law and resulting desperation. His alienation from God has set Sunday, which is the Lord’s Day, on fire (Domingo en fuego = “Sunday on fire”). His God-touched searing conscience now stirs him, beckoning him to run back to his father. You can hear the agony of living with so many “disguises,” with hypocrisies (hypokrisis means to ‘act’ or ‘pretend’), as well as his desire to recover the authenticity of his true identity as a son of the Father and as a brother of humanity. He, and his friends who share his plight, want to be better. They want to parse out within themselves — or, better, have God parse out — what is right from what is wrong. That’s the promise of the new heart and new spirit in Ezekiel 36:26-27. The singer wants to escape his repeated denials (3x), his cycles of compromise, and learn to live according to the law of love of God and neighbor, i.e. to “be a better brother, better son.”

The whole song is spoken to God as a prayerful colloquy, offered up by a lost and penitent soul who longs to be found by his Father. Though he wants to run to God, he finds that he is still weak, stumbles, finds himself unable to break free from the pull of the night. He wants God to “polarize,” separate within himself good and evil. Only God can save him from his incessant inner compromises with evil and sort out the human mess. In fact, the whole song bears within it — to me, simply and brilliantly — the agonizing inner “fight” found in St. Paul’s public confession in Romans 7:14-25. We are the problems, indeed! This radical confession of powerlessness, this cry out from the depths to God, is what makes the climactic line of the song so exquisite:

I don’t know where you are
You’ll have to come and find me, find me

He screams these words to God. Wow! A desperate plea lifted up to a running Father (Luke 15:20) who spies him from a distance and goes out to find, meet, embrace, clothe and celebrate his rescue. Even the very last lines of the song linger in the feelings of longing and lamenting regret, have the feeling of a plaintive call, three-times repeated, and backed by the sound of a church organ.

What a powerful expreession of gut-felt faith. Listen to the whole song (with good speakers if you can) if you feel drawn in by this: