AN EMØTIØNAL RØADSHØW

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The sky on the drive into the city for the concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very end of Car Radio:

Mashup of Screen and The Judge:

Ode to Sleep:

Migraine:

Cancer:

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Catherine and Maria, lights in my life

Lent, the Liturgy of Agápē

Lent! It’s here, the party’s over. The liturgy bids us cease the festive parades of Carnival and enter the quiet desert of heart-rending penitence. In place of the laughter and cheer of Mardi Gras, we now hear the weeping of Adam, the dirge of Eve that echoes still from the primal Fall (Gen 3:19), along with the press of mortal ash that crosses our foreheads:

Memento, homo, quia pulvis es,
et in pulverem reverteris.
“Remember, man, you are dust
and to dust you will return.”

Liturgy is God’s manner of (re)structuring and redeeming time and space.

We who have been Baptized into Christ and anointed by the Spirit become ourselves liturgical beings, seized by the redeeming work of God (Phil. 3:12). In us the Holy Spirit recapitulates the life, death and resurrection of Christ so that we might be daily remade in His likeness. We pray, “Christ, live your life in me.”

Like a signet ring pressed into soft wax, the Spirit-filled liturgical seasons of the church year mark history’s unfolding with the diverse facets of the mystery of Christ. The church, born of and birthing the liturgy, makes the Kingdom’s re-ordering of time and space present here-and-now, in innumerably creative ways. Just think of how — no matter the distortions — these liturgical seasons and feasts have shaped the American culture of time: Advent-Christmas, Mardi Gras, Groundhog Day (Presentation of the Lord), Valentine’s Day, Lent, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter.

Liturgy, when it is made alive in us, is meant to become a primary locus and force of the Spirit’s shaping of human culture according to the pattern revealed by Christ in His words and deeds (Ex. 25:9). In the Sacraments we become a living, breathing, walking, speaking, singing, working, suffering sacramental liturgy in the world, allowing the Risen Christ, now exalted beyond history, to daily “crash the party” of life, transforming revelry into the celebration of redemption. As liturgical beings, we permit Christ in each moment of history, through-with-in us, to “do His thing” in all human cultures until the end of time.

Lent is the liturgical space-time warp when the church accompanies Jesus into the great silence of the Judean desert and face the ancient Tempter of humanity with all the weapons of the Father, i.e. prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Let me offer a brief reflection on each of these.

Prayer: Prayer is intimate communion with the living God that allows us to bring our existence under the sway of His energetic power. Prayer affirms our dignity as stewards of God’s creation, allowing us to participate in His providential governance of all things, including evil. We have all been marked in Baptism with a priestly nature, and priests above all mediate, which makes each of us a center of commerce, so to speak, between heaven and earth. In this sense, prayer exists to increase in the world Heaven’s premier commodity, agápē. Agápē, in the New Testament, is the catch word for the singular manifestation of the “no greater love” shown by God in Christ on the Cross. This form of love is the signet ring’s image, the signature style by which God governs all things. It’s why the demons, purveyors of loveless death, despise prayer because they know it is Heaven’s chosen means by which creation is soaked in God’s life-giving and redeeming love. Fr. Hopko makes this point with his customary sharpness:

If you wish to prove the existence of Satan, start praying daily with depth and consistency and watch all Hell break loose to try to stop you with a thousand good reasons why you don’t need to pray now. “Not today, later, plenty of time” is their refrain. But God says to us, “Now is the time of salvation.”

Fasting: Fasting is usually associated with cultivating self-discipline, losing weight, taming the unruly passions, breaking addictions or helping turn our focus from purely material to more spiritual realities. In a word, fasting facilitates inner freedom for Christian excellence which requires self-mastery, with the appetites and emotions being under the rule of right-reason informed by faith. Fasting gives wings to prayer, helping snap our tethering cords and allowing us to feel in our bodies the ache of our yearning for God.

Fasting is also about exercising the muscle of solidarity — “I am my brother’s keeper” — under the form of hunger, inscribing the law of sacrifice into our body. Like a nursing mother, Christians eat always with the feeding of others in mind. Fasting involves renouncing good things, especially needful things, in order to free certain “goods” up to benefit others who lack them. This is why the demons hate fasting, because it frees the heart for agápē, for life-giving sacrifice. And whenever we present to God a sacrifice born of love for His glory and the good of our neighbor (tautology), no matter how tiny it is, God infallibly responds in a 100:1 ratio (Mark 10:30). St. Therese said this beautifully:

Even to pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.

Indeed, sacrificial love is the grain of God written into creation, marred in the Fall, and found deeply embedded in the core of the wood of the Cross. When we sync our lives with the endless rings of this grain, we re-create creation with the Creator.

Almsgiving: Almsgiving flows from prayer and fasting. We pray to become capable of loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, strength and our neighbor as ourself. Prayer inspires us to offer to God our bodies as a living sacrifice, fasting prepares the material for the sacrificial feast and almsgiving is the feast offered to “the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13). This sacrificial feast can be a feast of food, of hope, of friendship, of justice advocacy, of time spent in patient listening or any number of other acts of agápē that bring life to the world around us.

As an elderly priest said once in a homily, “If we give up sweets for Lent, it’s so we can become sweeter to the bitter.” Love that.

In the desert and on the eucharistic Cross, Jesus prayed, fasted and gave sacrificial Alms to satisfy our hunger with finest Wheat and quench our thirst with the rivers of tender mercy that flowed from His open side. God’s liturgy of love makes of every desert an oasis and of every Cross a Tree of Life.

There is a woman I know — have known for decades — who has a son with Down Syndrome, who is himself beset by several severe disabilities. We will call him Tony. Among his many challenges, he has a sleeping disorder that keeps him up for 3-day stretches 2 to 3 times a month. And this has gone on for nearly 30 years. Because he is terrified of being alone during the night during these stretches, she stays awake with him, and then works during the day while he is at school. That astounds me. Once when I was speaking with her, I complimented her amazing stamina and selfless love for him. She said, “No, it’s Tony who’s the champ. He’s the one who suffers with this. Me? I have the privilege to accompany him. You know I say that if I’m ever saved when I die, it’ll only be because of Tony. He pulled me out of my self-centered life and taught me how to love.”

And is that not the meaning of salvation? To think less of yourself in order to think more of others.

Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. — 1 Pet. 4:8

This Lent, may our chosen way of prayer, fasting and almsgiving thus save us, and the world, with the beauty of Christ’s sacrificial love.

Judean desert. swordsoftruth.com

Sex, semiotics and society

The conception of the Virgin Mary, aka Joachim and Anne making love. vatopaidi.files.wordpress.com

[A plenary indulgence if you make it through this opening quote into my post. It’s a long post, but really fun to write for me! Or text…]

Jesus was a sign-maker of a disturbingly revolutionary kind. And Christian culture echoes his sign-making. This communal sign-making is, for Christians, the most authentically basic bit of culture. Is it just another bit of human culture? Yes and no: for here, we believe, the true myth is performed, the fullest meaning is made.

On what grounds do Christians affirm the ideal of lifelong monogamy (and also the ideal of chastity)? Is it that God dispenses a few non-negotiable rules, one of which is the wrongness of casual sex? No, the legal paradigm is inadequate; it doesn’t help us through the inevitable grey areas.

The Christian should approach the question of sexual morality by means of communication, sign-making. The sexual impulse invites us to semiotic anarchism: casual sex hints at huge meanings that we don’t mean; it is not safely “meaningless”, but is meaning-shaking. Miraculously, the tables can be turned on the semiotic anarchism of sex: a disciplined approach to it (which does not deny but affirms its goodness) is perhaps the loudest communicative tool available to us. Sex is redeemed. — Theo Hobson

[semiotics is the study of how cultural “signs” work]

A friend a few weeks ago asked me a really seraching question that I will do injustice to its sophistication here. He asked me, what is so wrong with pre-marital sex if the couple intends genuine love and feels the need to make certain, as they do in every other area of their relationship before marriage, they are sexually compatible. I mean, there are horror stories out there about couples who marry and find out in sex they just don’t jive. What makes a sexual act before marriage so — or always so — sinful?

I have been trying to respond for weeks, but part of my response ended up being a voice-to-text while sitting in an airport terminal waiting on a flight. It certainly drew interesting looks from other travellers who clearly found what I was saying into my phone a bit off-beat, shall we say. It’s certainly only the seed of an argument, and as a single brief post does not attempt to say everything necessary, but I thought it decent enough to post so I edited it into a respectable form for you here.

My main point in the text was to correct the American cultural over-emphasis on the experience of personal fulfillment in marriage at the expense of its broader social meaning; or the over-emphasis on erotic love at the expense of the demands of justice, etc. It teases out an intuition I have had for years but never took any time to think about in a focused way.

But I left it’s “text feeling” as much as I could, because that’s how it started. My hope is that it will help you, as it did me, to think ‘outside of the box’ on the likes of marriage, sex, contraception, abortion. In no way does this post intend to malign the beauty and heroism that can be part of single parenthood, nor mar the dignity of victims of divorce who struggle in its wake. Grace is everywhere. Rather, it is intended to reflect on the full meaning, beauty and implications of sex & marriage as the church says God intended it…in the light of which we all fall short, and require His everlasting mercies. That said, the church’s teaching always remains the fullness of beauty which mercy longs to reveal in all.

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I am writing this as a voice-to-text, stream of consciousness, so pardon any mistakes as we go!

I’ve been thinking about our conversation about various rationales for sex before marriage. I am waiting on my ride here in Des Moines, so here’s to entertaining the audience before me! Here it goes:

First, at the core of Catholic teaching on sex is the 2-fold meaning of the sexual act: unitive and procreative. Unitive=sex is good because it bonds the couple, knits them together and allows for the building and expression of intimacy and love and passion for each other.

Procreative=sex is good because every sexual act is oriented toward reproduction, conception, cooperatively (with God) bringing about a new human life made in the image of God. And here’s a key: each of those meanings strengthen the other, which is what makes every sexual act intrinsically *marital*.

The unitive meaning spiritually, psychologically, biochemically solidifies, seals and cements the marital union in mutual self-gift (which is in itself an end of marriage) SO it might serve well as a fortress, a garden, a home, a safe space and stable playground within which pro-created children can come into existence, grow, flourish, be sent on mission and return to that same safe space when needed.

I always imagine that the (theological) reason the sex drive is *so* powerful is because God placed in it His awesome command: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). No wonder it’s so hard to contain and restrain, with that kind of apodictic divine command surging in my body! But that command was issued to a married couple, created “male and female”, by a God who also said, “that they may be one as we are one, Father” (John 17:21). Monotheism, monogamy and monogamous sex go together.

Even after the age of fertility, or with couples who are infertile, the sexual act remains oriented toward this same 2-fold end as children grow, grandchildren are born, new family members are added, adopted, welcomed into the Playground. On that last point, I’ve known couples who, though they could not have children themselves and did not adopt, were very engaged in social justice/charity outreach work, or offered tender maternal and paternal support to other families that flowed out of the fruitfulness of their own married love. i.e. their marital bond was fruitful for neighbors. The marital union needs to remain a solid and binding force in the extended family, church and society needs unitive cement to keep it fiery, dynamic, tender, passionate and unshakably stable as a center of family unity.

The love of each spouse for the other, so intensely beautiful in itself, also always exists for the sake of “communion” — in fact, the Sacrament of Matrimony is called a “sacrament of service to communion” because it exists in service to the extended family, the church and all of society.

And so sex has profound import in society. Sex binds strong a stable and permanant bond on which the social order depends, is built. Social order, social flourishing, social justice require such a binding stability, unwavering commitment to others’ welfare – which grounds of justice – as well as requiring the nuclear ethic of love and intimacy that originates in marital union. Sex can never simply be about orgasm, personal satisfaction. Every sexual act is massively sign-ificant. Every sexual act is also a social act, a familial act and, in an extended sense, a political, economic, cultural, etc. act. Because all of these things are interconnected, interwoven into the primal fabric of marital love, which serves as the foundation and stable center of human solidarity.

We share the powerful sex drive of all animals because we are rational animals, called to integrate all of the beauty of animal life into the beauty of the image of God that was stamped into homo sapiens at a certain moment in history. Biology is clear that the sex drive is so powerfully implanted in every living being to ensure propagation of species (procreative meaning). Biology also testifies to the unitive meaning, as sex creates powerful affective, biochemical bonds between man and woman. ESPECIALLY for the woman who bears the burden of child bearing and rearing, and requires the man to rightly raise the children.

It’s quite telling that those who engage in sex outside of marriage often intentionally sever the unitive meaning from its procreative meaning (contracept, abort) precisely because they recognize – even if only seeing it as a raw biological datum – that the sexual act is ordered toward a permanent bond made visible, incarnate in each family-making child born to them. Children conceived outside of marriage suffer an injustice because they lack the safety of the permanany, stable social bond (marriage) that should welcome them into a world of justice and love where they can grow up sorrounded by the full image of God, male and female, living in the image of His love, faithfulness, justice, kindness, patience, longsuffering, et certera.

Statistics testify powerfully to the link between children conceived out of wedlock and the breakdown of social order and the proliferation of social injustices. Sex indulged in apart from its deep-structural meanings, sex reduced to conceptions of fulfillment defined by radical autonomy and pleasure-defined utilitarianism, now dominate Western culture, stripping sex of its power to express the beauty of personhood, of communion made in the image and likeness of a Trinitarian God.

A SECOND POINT: as far as the question of having to experiment with potential partners first, or the challenges of having sexual relations for the first time after the wedding day and not before. Really? Come on! If you accept that cohabiting is also wrong by an extension of this logic — since cohabitation mimics the total sharing of life that is marriage (including sex) — you will also realize that after the wedding day a HOST of surprises await the couple as they learn about each other up close, day in day out, and have to slowly figure it out. The art of human love is complex, messy, progressive, requiring growth and learning and communication, and seeking counsel from experienced couples who’ve been through it. This reminds me of a gentleman from India who, speaking about arranged marriages in India, said to a priest I know:

I see you’re surprised about this as an American, and wonder how someone could ever have a loving and happy marriage if they did not fall in love with their spouse to be and choose to marry. Okay, let me share an analogy that might help you see my perspective. Think of marriage as a pot of water and culture as a pile of sticks. In your culture, marriage is a boiling pot of water steaming with passion, while your culture is a pile of cold, wet sticks. In our culture, marriage is a pot full of cold water, while the wood of our Sikh culture is ablaze with fire. So, while your boiling water sits atop the cold and wet sticks, it warms the sticks for a brief time but eventually the water cools and turns cold. When our cold pot of water is placed on our tight-knit culture burning with passion for lifelong marriage, the water slowly warms eventually to boiling. While both systems have their problems, from what I’ve seen of the state of American marriage, I’d choose our fire over your boiling water.

Also an acceptance of the fact that “great sex” in marriage means many things to many people, and is never going to match a culture that hyper-idealizes sex and links it with self-pleasuring hedonism (e.g. Cosmopolitan magazine) and not to selfless love, self-gift and sacrificial love.

“Marriage is not for me.” Because marriage is NOT essentially about the couple’s personal fulfillment, but about providing a stable foundation for just social order rooted in unifying love and self-gift. Sex always is understood to be the handmaiden and servant of this primary good. As I said, every sexual act is a marital act. Extra-marital sex has disastrous social consequences, many or most of which are not seen and felt by the couple fornicating. Short term gain, long term pain, you might say.

Extra-marital sex is sinful because it assaults justice and charity, exalts personal satisfaction above the common good, commits an injustice against children conceived outside of marriage (or banned from existence by contraception or abortion) and strikes at the foundations of a just and stable social order — a culture of life and a civilization of love. Extra-marital sex is more akin to masturbation than is the two-in-one-flesh marital act that images the divine-human covenant that binds humanity as one indissoluble family.

Something like that. That’s a stab. Gotta go! God bless!!

I sent this text to a priest I know, who has worked for years as a prison chaplain. Here was his text back to me:

Your linking sex with justice-charity-stability is brilliant and truthful. Faithfulness and trust creates the bond that allows sex it’s generative, intimate force. Covenant is the biblical expression of social bounds that allows life to flourish. I love your remark on how faithful, marital love creates the life ethos for children to play and encounter the goods of communion.

I might add that in most cases I’ve experienced, those with multiple partners have experienced a diminished capacity of trust. A cynical jadedness emerges regarding intimacy. This isn’t a fact so much as it is observed through wisdom.

As you know, I visit multiple incarcerated men every week who came from frivolous sexual relationships. Our nation’s great evil of slavery obliterated familial and marital customs for so many generations which continues to reap so much devastation. I have little tolerance for those who espouse sexuality as experimental. It is indeed an issue related to social justice

I will end with a song that I believe ties together beautifully my emphasis here on both the social-familial and personal-intimate dimensions of sexuality in marriage — Duet, by Penny and Sparrow.

I bet your shoulders can hold more than
Just the straps of that tiny dress
That I’ll help you slide aside
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And the steel drum weight of me
Effortless, just like that dress
That I’ll take off

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

I bet your back can carry more than
Just the weight of your button-down
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

I’ve seen you carry family
And all my insecurities
One by one, they’ll come undone
When we get home

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you
And I’m not going anywhere

Because I’ve seen you
And I know you

In the Image of Love

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My daughter Catherine, who’s in 9th grade, wrote this as part of an essay on self-image, self-esteem. As she was reading the essay out loud to me to see what I thought, when she got to that line I said: “Yes! Can I post that?”

Her points were all spot on. In my words: To develop a self-image properly, you first have to know the blueprint for your dignity. Know who and whose you are. Only then can you look in the mirror of self-knowledge and judge yourself aright. If you ground your self-worth and self-image in your looks or personality, your intelligence or your wealth or the opinion of others, you are building a house of cards. “God’s image in us means His beauty is our beauty.”

Yes!

Her reflections made me think of a story I had posted here previously in 2013.

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When I lived in Maryland, I met a woman who suffered from bulimia and self-harming (cutting). She worked as a volunteer at the hospice I served at and I got to know her and her husband quite well. She gave me permission to share her story for the high school retreats I would give back then, so I will assume that permission remains.

Her arms were covered with scars above her wrist up to her elbow. Before meeting her, I had never known anyone who had suffered from those disorders. She shared with me the story of her childhood. She grew up tangled in a web of abusive family relationships, caught in cycles of guilt and shame. She was an only child. Her father would frequently physically abuse her mother when he drank too much, and then would blame the daughter for his abusive behavior, saying the daughter’s birth had driven a wedge between him and his wife. The mother, who lived in survival mode, would never stand up for her daughter against the father’s accusations. So she grew up feeling worse than worthless. She believed she was a curse.

When I met her she was on the far side of recovery. She had been through years of counseling, married a remarkable man and discovered faith in Christ as an Evangelical Christian. She was very honest with me about the fact that the scars on her body were really external manifestations of the deeper scars on her soul. For her, cutting relieved her emotional pain, even if only briefly. Though she had made great strides past those dark years of her life when I met her, she said she still struggled mightily with her inner demons. But, she said, the good that had come into her life in early adulthood opened up something genuinely new. She now had hope.

She told me about her experience of conversion. She was invited by a co-worker to a prayer meeting at a Pentecostal church. When the people in the prayer group discovered she was a newcomer, they immediately encouraged her to put her trust in Christ and give her life over to God. Although she was resistant at first, feeling a bit “freaked out” by their forcefulness, she eventually agreed. She said she prayed inside before they prayed over her, “God, if you’re real, help me out.” As they prayed over her, inviting her to accept Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior, she felt an intense rush of energy go through her body. It was like “pure love, something I had never ever experienced before. No judgment, no blame, no shame. Total acceptance.” She cried copious tears. While driving home alone afterward, she pulled off the road as she was overcome with even more intense emotions. Things she’d never felt before. She said she prayed “from the heart” in her car that night for the first time in her life, and as she poured her heart out to God she heard a strong yet gentle voice say, “You are my beloved daughter, with whom I am well pleased.”

Her father had never once said that to her. Nor had her mother, who always seemed to resent her. No one. She said when she heard those words, “I felt like — there’s no better word for it — a princess.” And suddenly everything else in life seemed to pale in comparison to that love. Everything just fell into place. All her priorities just seemed to rearrange themselves. “That’s the moment I realized that harming myself, as I had been, was just buying into the filthy lie I’d been fed all my life. You’re worthless, a burden. By showing me He was my Father, God told me I was worthy of His love. God had saved me from my sins of self-harm and from the sins of everyone else in my life who had fed into that destructive lie. And let me say that if I hadn’t met Jesus before I met my husband, I probably would’ve married an abusive man who just reinforced my self-hatred. That’s why I say that Jesus is my first love. And when I have children, God willing, I won’t have to pass on the hurt to another generation.”

Catholics must evangelize the world boldly so others will have the opportunity to meet Christ, the Only Friend of Man, who alone can save us from our despair. Pope Benedict:

There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him. The task of the shepherd, the task of the fisher of men, can often seem wearisome. But it is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.

90

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Margaret Neal, my Mom, looking at a Magnolia near our house last week.

In this spirit, dear elderly brothers and sisters, as I encourage each of you to live with serenity the years that the Lord has granted you, I feel a spontaneous desire to share fully with you my own feelings at this point of my life, after more than twenty years of ministry on the throne of Peter. Despite the limitations brought on by age, I continue to enjoy life. For this I thank the Lord. It is wonderful to be able to give oneself to the very end for the sake of the Kingdom of God!

At the same time, I find great peace in thinking of the time when the Lord will call me: from life to life! And so I often find myself saying, with no trace of melancholy, a prayer recited by priests after the celebration of the Eucharist: In hora mortis meae voca me, et iube me venire ad te – “at the hour of my death, call me and bid me come to you.” This is the prayer of Christian hope, which in no way detracts from the joy of the present, while entrusting the future to God’s gracious and loving care. — St. John Paul II

My Mom turns 90 soon. She was born on 2.26.27. So this weekend is partay time for the Neals, with family flocking southward from up North too, to honor her life. So I won’t be posting until the festivities have ended and I have recovered. 🙂

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. — Proverbs 31:30-31

That’s my Mom. Her works praise her. They magnify God. She’s endured so much hardship in her life, and yet she remains a sweet, loving, beautiful soul filled with joy and hope. Pure, refined gold. I am not worthy to kiss her feet.

At my wedding, for the mother-son dance, I had Wind Beneath My Wings played.

Did you ever know that you’re my hero,
And everything I would like to be?
I can fly higher than an eagle,
For you are the wind beneath my wings.

My life’s debt is to live with worthy gratitude for the sacrifices she made to make my life better.

She loves to remind me that, when I was 3 years old and she was pulling me in a wagon through our neighborhood, I said to her: “I love to look at your face.”

Still do.

The salvation of the whole world rests on a Mother’s love. The world’s salvation still rests in mothers. You know them. I know them.

Though age has caused my Mom decrease in abilities and shrink in height, her soul continues to expand in vigor. Hers is a magnanimity to which I aspire.

May God bring her good and happiness the rest of her days, and may the highest heights of eternal glory joyously greet her in the next.

Amen.

Sound of Silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

Last weekend I happened on a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence by Passenger. Dang. It’s such a brilliant song, both for its lyrics and its melody, and Passanger draws out from it such depth of feeling. It was part of my childhood, and so whenever I hear it now I think of my brother’s scratchy vinyl album playing in the living room as I tinkered with my Lincoln Logs.

Though I am not entirely certain what the song’s lyrics meant to Paul Simon, they have meant different things to me at different points in my life. I’d like to share very briefly here one meaning they took on for me while I was serving at Mother Teresa’s homeless shelter and hospice in D.C., Gift of Peace, back in the early 1990’s. I’ve shared this story here before, but when I heard Michael Rosenberg sing I thought of this experience in a whole new way. I’ll paste it again here and add a few flourishes:

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I was assigned to care for a man, we’ll call him Richard, when I started volunteering at Gift of Peace. Richard was in his 40’s, was originally from Tallahassee, Florida and had had a stroke while he lived on the streets. Actually, he had a stroke in midwinter, while he was sleeping in an abandoned car under a bridge suffering from hypothermia and frostbite. He was found and survived, but lost some of his fingers and toes, as well as his ability to move freely or speak intelligibly. A life full of tragedy, it seemed.

The sister who paired me with Richard said that, in addition to the bodily care he needed, more than anything else he required my companionship. My time. He needed me to sit with him, mostly without any practical purpose, and learn his language, talk about Tallahassee (where I had previously lived), sing songs, talk sports or just wheel him around. He had come from a world where no one listened, where few, if any, cared. I wrote in my journal one night, “Sr. Manorama wants me to break Heaven’s silence, be a word of God for him. That’s deep. Hope I can fill such a tall order.”

I would imagine him living out in the streets, surrounded by countless people, yet utterly alone. Those silent nights of dreamless sleep. There are so many like him in D.C., in every city and town, in homes, offices, marriages. Lazarus again passed by, unnoticed, neglected. No time or place is immune from the disease of apathy, the curse of neglect or ‘harmless’ benevolence. Studdard Kennedy writes of this in the Birmingham, England of the early 1900’s:

When Jesus came to Golgotha, they nailed Him to a tree.
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds–and deep.
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham, they only passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of His, they only let Him die.
For men had grown more tender, they would not wish Him pain.
They only passed down the street, and left Him in the rain—
the winter rains that drenched Him through and through.

And when all the crowds had left the street.
Jesus crouched against a wall, and sighed for Calvary.

When my time at Gift of Peace was complete and I was ready to leave — for good — I had to say goodbye. I hate goodbyes. I planned to soft pitch it to him with an “I’ll be back to visit” white lie. But Sister would have no part of that. I had to tell him I would not return or he would think I was like everyone else. A liar, abandoning him.

So I told him. He would not look at me. He was hurt. Mad. Disappointed. I finally convinced him to look at me. In the eyes. Then I said very spontaneously, “I love you, Richard.”

It was a detonation.

He exploded into wailing and sobbing, heaving gasps. I was horrified. What had I done? Was my love a dagger? I tried to console him, but he would not be consoled. A Sister came over and told me it was okay to leave. She would take care of him. I walked away, down the hall to say goodbye to Sister Manorama. I told her, “That’s exactly why I didn’t want to say that was it, last time. Never again. Terrible.” She asked me what happened. I told her. She said, “Don’t you see how important that was? You told him you loved him. Who do you think has said that to him in his life? See, better than words, first you showed him your love was true these last months. That’s why those three words had such power. Got into his soul. Now he knows he’s loved by a man who knew him well. A brother. No one can take that from him. Go in peace.”

I still was haunted by those wailing sounds. Go in peace? A small comfort. Yet I saw, differently, all my life as an opportunity to break God’s silence, to fill deadly silence with love so that silence is no longer barren absence, but pregnant presence. Full of human and divine love. This is why each of us exist: to be a divine word, a divine thought spoken into the deep wells of silence. Transubstantiating absence with Presence, non-being with Being, darkness with Light, the wailing dirge with a New Song.

“But this song only really works if everyone’s super super quiet.” Only thus are we able to listen to the Word.

O God, split the night, that we might know we are not alone. Only then will others come to know, through us, they are not alone.

For you are with us, in the silence.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a streetlamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

“Fools” said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls (can’t you see that we’re lost)
Oh silence”

Don’t Worry, Mashley’s Here

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Maria (right) and Ashley

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

Here it is: