We have finally lost our hold on the meaning of ‘exists’

[This was a stream of consciousness journal entry written after my son and I spoke about prayer late into the night]

What the ‘proofs’ prove is, at one and the same time, the existence of God and that, as said of God, we have finally lost our hold on the meaning of ‘exists.’ … Reason is rooted in our animality and it opens up into the mystery which lies unutterably beyond it, for it can, out of fidelity to its own native impulse, ask the question which it knows it could not answer, the asking being within its powers, the answering being in principle beyond them — Denys Turner

This quote captures for me a deep taproot of wonder, the sacrament of which is the question. Theology is defined by St. Anselm of Canterbury as “faith seeking understanding,” an understanding of the content of divine revelation entrusted to Israel and fully manifested in the person of Jesus Christ.

Let me say a few words about “divine revelation.” The history of Israel, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, is the history of an astonished race of nomadic Semites who found themselves beset by an unexpected god, guilty of breaking and entering their world with an utterly new, completely unsought, unspeakably bizarre and thoroughly disorienting revelation. This was a god who violated all usual constraints of the ancient Near Eastern pantheon, including the territorial and celestial borders each god observed. This God of gods seemed to feel free to roam wherever he wished (which is why Jonah fled to the sea in 1:3, thinking himself safe from the land god!) and vanquished all divine competitors (as Ex. 12:12 indicates, the plagues each specifically targeted the most powerful Egyptian gods).

The Exodus effected by this Roaming Conqueror was one theologically disorienting experience for the Hebrews and Egyptians.

Think here of Moses in the Sinai desert happening on the absurd vision of a burning bush that speaks to him and commands him to return to Egypt and confront the god-king, Pharaoh. And then when Moses asks this terrifying and fascinating deity for a name, what does he find out?

Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14).

Seriously? I am? Clearly, it is a name that is at once a firm evasion of being named, evading any human claim to manipulative control of a god. This god is uncontrollable, cannot be bribed or manipulated (Deut. 10:17), because he is holy, i.e. wholly other, totally unique, completely singular, sui generis. A capital G God.

Theology is the description of the work of an exploring mind that has had opened within it a radically new capax, a “capacity” for entering into this absurdly new and uncharted field of inquiry; into the God’s real-time, living self-disclosure. And faith is the name theology gives to this remarkable new capacity given to the mind for accessing immediate knowledge of the source-less Source of all existence. In fact, faith opens the mind to immediate contact with God, mind to Mind, moving the believer from mere conceptual knowledge about God to personal knowledge of God. This is what the monk Evagrius meant when he said, “The theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” Prayer is the act of faith opening the mind to God, which is another way of saying acquiring the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). Jesus is God’s human mind, which is why all prayer leads us into Christ (John 14:6).

When I think of all this, I am with John:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (Rev. 1:17).

St. John of the Cross argues that the union of the mind with God through faith requires a passage through darkness and death precisely because it involves a finite mind opening up within itself an infinite capacity. In this sense, the “dark night of faith” requires a leap of surrender that gives God permission to lead us from our narrow field of vision into the “vast and silent desert” where He can cease to hide and be fully God-for-us. As Mother Teresa said it, “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself: Ask and seek, and your heart will grow big enough to receive him and keep him as your own.”

Prayer ensures that the theologian’s knowledge is of God; of the outside-the-box, wild and transcendent God who is source-less, beginning-less, origin-less, un-created, un-bounded. God, in an absolute way, transcends our finite experience of existence. While we would say that there is a certain likeness between God and the world He created, which gives theology something to talk about, we also affirm a greater unlikeness gives theology something to be quiet about. This is prayer in its final flowering: to contemplate mystery, to permit God full freedom in us, embarking on love’s endless quest into the inexhaustible self-disclosure of God in Christ.

So, son, if you want to pray be ready for the ride.

And don’t ever forget, all of this raucous mystery finds its sweetest fruit only in the capacity to love like Jesus; especially to love one’s enemy.

Who is God?

Matthias Grünewald – Crucifixion. 1524. playbuzz.com

Re-post 2015

I was listening to a lecture by Orthodox theologian, Fr. John Behr, and he made a fascinating, yet very basic point. He said that Christians, before beginning a debate about God’s existence, must first clarify which God they are claiming exists. And across global human cultures there is actually quite a wide variety to choose from. Often, he argued, our description of God remains rather abstract and non-specific, such as “God is good, omnipotent and omniscient.” We use these terms that are only thinly content-specific to set up very specific problems regarding how one can reconcile the existence of a God so-described with the way the world is. The problem is, these qualities we attribute to God beg questions like, “What exactly is this power, this goodness, this knowledge like?” — and if you have left the descriptive attributes without much specific and clear content, the debate will be hard to press forward far.

But if you are Christian, he said, the answer is actually quite specific. Shockingly specific. The answer is God is like Jesus of Nazareth. “No,” he added, “God is Jesus of Nazareth, because we believe Jesus is God made fully human.”

The Christian claim is that the most complete expression of what it means to be God — of who God is — is to be found only in the historical man, the first century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Not some God revealed in an idealized, conceptually pristine or generic way, filled with clear and distinct ideas that we then try to “fit into” our experience of this world. Christianity confesses that everything about God is revealed in the most excruciatingly minute details of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. More specifically, he argued, we confess a God fully revealed in the all-too-humanness of Jesus — in His weakness, brokenness, death, burial. In John’s Gospel, the crucifixion is the moment that reveals God’s glory and majesty in its totality, for while His executioners intended the details of Jesus’ torture and crucifixion to represent a mock enthronement, God intended the details of His execution to serve as the most perfect manifestation of what majestic power looks like in God.

Fr. Behr said that in Jesus we encounter the character and manner in which God’s omnipotence and omniscience are exercised, and we encounter the way God relates to our world that He once loved into existence; a world which has fallen into ruins. He added (and this is what I found to be the most powerful insight) that when we try to discern God’s providential care for us in the face of our various painful and challenging life circumstances we must, if we are Christian, look not to our general, preconceived ideas of how an all-powerful, all-good and all-wise God should meet us in our distress to give us hope. Rather, we should fix our eyes on the life of Jesus, found in the Scriptures, to see the real-time workings of God’s providence in our fallen world. He said,

The encounter with Christ provides a new, and yet eternal, vantage point from which to understand one’s own past: we are invited to see our own past retold as nothing less than our own “salvation history.” In this nothing is left aside or glossed over, as being too shameful or painful, something that we would prefer to forget (but which even as “forgotten” continues to act negatively in the present). Rather, just as it was through that which is all-too-human — his death — that Christ shows himself to be God, so also it is through our sinfulness and brokenness that we come to know the transforming and loving power of God; not that we should thereby sin some more, as Paul warns [Rom 6.1-2], but to see ever more clearly how deep our brokenness extends. “It is,” St Isaac of Syria affirmed, “a spiritual gift of God to be able to perceive one’s own sins,” and such a one is greater than those who see angels or raise the dead by their prayers.

To plumb the depth of our fallenness is to scale the heights of divine love. The more we are given the grace to see in this way, the more we begin to understand how everything is encompassed within the divine works of God: standing in the light of Christ, we can see him as having led us through our whole past, preparing us to encounter him. He alone knows the reason why he has led each of us on our particular path, for we walk by faith not by sight (2 Cor 5.7), but it is a faith that all things are in the hands of Christ, and that “in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8.28).

All of this reinforces a final point I will leave you with. If we wish to encounter the reality of God, and not simply a self-manufactured projection, we must come to know Jesus. Yes, so basic! Which means we must prayerfully read the Scriptures — especially the Gospels — at every opportunity, especially in the face of every trial and hardship. In the words of St. Jerome, “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,” and ignorance of Christ is ignorance of God.

 

Remembering God with God

Psalm 77 is remarkable for its daring honesty with God, as the psalmist wonders how the catastrophe Israel is facing in his time can be reconciled with the memory of the God of the covenant whose faithful mercy once led them out of the land of Egypt. O God of the Exodus, where are you now?

As a faithful Jew, when one wishes to turn to God for help one remembers. The Jewish conception of memory (zikaron) is remarkably different from how we think of memory now, and defines our Christian understanding of liturgy (the Mass especially). Jews believe that when God’s covenanted people remember, with faith and trust, God’s “wonderful works” from the past, the same saving power of those works is renewed in the present. It’s as if God opens up life-giving fountains at definite points in history, to which all future times must return, through memory, if they wish to drink of that life.

Liturgy is nothing more than this life-giving memory that opens a fresh fountain here and now.

For Jews, the fountain of fountains is the memory of the greatest of God’s wonderful works, the Passover-Exodus when God rescued His people from slavery and brought them into the Land of Promise. For Christians, the fountain of fountains is the New Passover-Exodus, the open side (John 19:34) of our dying and rising God, Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ Passover, God rescued all of humanity and all of creation from the slavery of sin and death (Rom. 8:18-30). And (amazing amazing) in Jesus, who is God and Man, the remembering of God’s wonderful works by His people becomes one and the same. You see, at the Last Supper, Jesus remembers the Exodus event both as the God who wrought it and as a Jew who remembers and is rescued by it — and at that moment of memory the whole of creation is suffused with (transubstantiated by!) God’s rescue, beginning with a bit of bread and wine … that we dare to eat and drink.

OMG.

In Psalm 77, the author cries aloud to God (hear, yells heavenward in desperation) in a time of great hardship, returning in memory to the fountain of the “deeds and wonders of the Lord” in the Exodus. He faces with radical honesty the fact that the present reality does not align with the power and beauty of God’s past rescuing mercy. He wonders if this means “the way of the Most High has changed”? That’s daring for a Jew! But instead of ending in doubt, skepticism or despair, he does what every faithful Jew does in the face of this dissonance: he liturgizes, he remembers God’s past invasion of history with mercy, and he overwhelms the present with his vehement, trusting, pleading memory of God’s past saving actions. “O God, remember your past mercies, wonders, deeds and do it all again, now, here!”

That is prayer, that is liturgy, that is the Jewish and Christian response to every present suffering, evil, catastrophe: to remember God’s faithful love, His endless mercies, invoking them on the present in prayer and then consenting to allow God to renew them in the present through, with and in us (and not just for us), Especially as we eat and drink in order to become God’s rescue in the world.

“Do this in memory of me” means something very different thought of this way, does it not? Notice it in the Mass next time, memory language saturates its language. It also gives the definition of prayer as “remembering God” a whole new depth of meaning — not a generic memory, but the memory of God’s corpse hanging on a Tree, God descending into Hell and God rising from the Tomb to re-member us into life. Even now.

So let me invite you to pray this psalm with me. First, pray it as a Jew, and then to pray it with Christ who prayed this psalm and remembered with us and for us; and thereby watered all of creation with His unchanging mercy. And then listen to a marvelous musical rendition of this psalm….

I cry aloud to God,
cry aloud to God that he may hear me.

In the day of my distress I sought the Lord.
My hands were raised at night without ceasing;
my soul refused to be consoled.
I remembered my God and I groaned.
I pondered and my spirit fainted.

You withheld sleep from my eyes.
I was troubled, I could not speak.
I thought of the days of long ago
and remembered the years long past.
At night I mused within my heart.
I pondered and my spirit questioned.

I said, “Will the Lord reject us for ever?
Will he show us his favor no more?
Has his love vanished for ever?
Has his promise come to an end?
Does God forget his mercy
or in anger withhold his compassion?”

I said: “This is what causes my grief;
that the way of the Most High has changed.”

I remember the deeds of the Lord,
I remember your wonders of old,
I muse on all your works
and ponder your mighty deeds.

Your ways, O God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
You are the God who works wonders.
You showed your power among the peoples.
Your strong arm redeemed your people,
the sons of Jacob and Joseph.

The waters saw you, O God,
the waters saw you and trembled;
the depths were moved with terror.
The clouds poured down rain,
the skies sent forth their voice;
your arrows flashed to and fro.

Your thunder rolled round the sky,
your flashes lighted up the world.
The earth was moved and trembled
when your way led through the sea,
your path through the mighty waters
and no one saw your footprints.

You guided your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

God in search of God

Father of the prodigal son. stmarklincoln.org

[This meditation flashed into my mind as I sat at the coffee shop watching people come and go, sitting at tables around me exchanging words, gestures, laughter, silences. It seemed to me everyone was engaged in a pursuit of the other, trying to get into them and, through them, into themselves. I left it all really raw and did not try to translate it into normal language. Sorry in advance!]

Who knows, perhaps God is simply the search for God. – Nikos Kazantzakis

In turn, the gulf between an infinite God and finite creatures is not a stopping-point for human knowledge of God, but an open field of action, of eternal movement and self-realization. — Ekkehard Mühlenberg

An Orthodox Jewish rabbi I knew in Hartford back in 1988-89 said something to me that captured my imagination, as he exposed me to the work of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He said something to this effect, “By bringing into history the idea of a limitless God who is not part of the finite world, or bound by its laws, but rather transcends it and is the primal Originator of the world and its laws, Judaism introduced the idea of faith. Faith acknowledges that God, as the Cause preceding all existence, is hidden in His transcendence and so must be searched for; can only be known indirectly and mediately and never directly and immediately. Faith also asserts that God, who infinitely transcends His creation as its Source, can only be known at His own initiative, by freely choosing to reveal Himself as He did at Mount Sinai. Faith sets man on a journey that, the seeker quickly discovers, is in fact a response to the journeying of a God in search of man. But what is most remarkable is that when God at last finds man, and man God, it is really God encountering Himself as He finds His image stamped into creation. Man’s greatness is being the locus of this ecstatic discovery.”

The whole meaning of created existence is a participation in God’s search for God, which is why man, caught in the midst of this eternal pursuit, is forever restless, seeking, searching, questing.

Wow.

This line of thought set me to thinking about the Trinity, a God who is three Persons, each of whom only knows Himself through the Other Persons, who are also God. And in the Incarnation — God becoming man — God seeks to know and love Himself in what He has created. And in doing so, gives the creature a share in that love. The Father sends the Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit, into history to restore in man the beauty of the divine image, seeking out what is lost and bringing all back to the Father. Then, with all restored, the Father can see and love in us what He sees and loves in His Son. The Father knows the Son in and through us. The Son, exiled in time from the Father by the Father, searches for the Father even as the Father searches for the Son — down into the very depths of hell. This is really the story of the Prodigal Son, in which both father and son search for each other.

This search is the essence of love, which is always defined by seeking the good of the other, by an endless running after. For the beloved whom we seek can never be fully possessed, but always must be sought. Forever.

This blows my mind.

Word become Sign

“La crucifixion” (1597) by El Greco. denvercatholic.org

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.” ― G.K. Chesterton

It’s been an exceedingly hectic few weeks, which made “kindled” writing impossible for me. But such is the flow of life! “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl. 3:1).

Here’s an uncontrolled stream of theological consciousness that emerged at sunrise this morning…

These weeks have been filled with “furious opposites.” In my own life, and among people I have encountered, the world around and within me has both blossomed with exceeding joy and intersected with terrible sorrow and tragedy. As the years press on, and as my life experience grows, I become more and more convinced of Jean Pierre de Caussade’s contention that Christian faith demands of us a radical act of consent to the sacramental character of the present moment in all its ambiguities. In other words, freely facing the full reality of life at each moment is the only path to encountering the reality of God.

What do I mean by “sacramental”? In the most basic sense, a sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace, a manifestation of God’s character and action in creation, an appearing of divine glory under a form that both reveals and conceals God’s character and action. Because God is infinite and we are finite, our understanding of God is always partial, is always greater than any one expression, idea, image. The language of signs has the ability to convey meaning as endlessly rich and expansive as is the reality signified. So the rose I give my wife for our wedding anniversary is a sign that contains within itself the whole story of our love, all of our aspirations and ideals, all of the pain and joy, as well as the whole mystery of divine love for humanity our marriage is meant to signify, contain and communicate. The rose, as sign, is infinite.

Sacramental signs are a language that always demands interpretation — what do they mean? What exactly are the signs around us saying about God? Of themselves, the events of daily life don’t present an obvious meaning in regard to the character and action of God. Set side by side, the joyous birth of a child and the horrors of the Armenian genocide do not simply yield a clear understanding of God’s mystery. What conclusion would one draw for each, or both? Signs are naturally ambiguous, and require God’s self-revelation to decode their deep meanings.

For human beings who naturally seek transcendent meaning, each person, place, event in life is implicitly a pregnant “sign” that points beyond itself and begs for interpretation. Provoked by the mind’s restless pursuit of meaning, we ask open-ended (“transcendent”) questions that seek ultimate responses: “Why?” “From whence?” “To what end?” Our minds, in this sense, naturally seek God. In particular, it is extreme encounters with good or evil, beauty or ugliness, life or death, virtue or malice, triumph or failure tend to awaken us from our dullness (or pseudo-certitudes) and set us out in search for meaning beyond the immediate. These moments of vulnerability, of questioning, of existential crisis open us to faith, which is the opening of the mind to God’s self-revelation.

The Gospel of John tells us that the world was created by God, through His eternal Word. This makes creation the expression of divine language, bearing the imprint of the mind of God, and identifies the Word as the interpretive key to the sign language of existence. If you want to understand creation, you must seek to know the Word through whom all things were made. The book of Genesis says that humanity is made in the image of God, stamped by the divine Word and is empowered to rightly interpret the divinely inscribed sign language of creation by returning all things to God in an obedient “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15). Like the sign, humanity stands at the crossroads of time and eternity, Creator and creation, spirit and matter, finite and infinite as a nexus, a mediator, a priest whose vocation is to unify all of creation into a single Word.

“God is love.” — 1 John 4:8

My God, what a volatile space to occupy! No wonder we are a perpetual earthquake, so terribly unstable, like a volcanic vent jettisoning out magma, or like a fault line between two worlds constantly seeking to achieve a reconciled equilibrium. In fact, according to Genesis we proved ourselves unable to sustain these tensions faithfully. By our disobedience, humanity catastrophically failed to carry out its titanic vocation. Blaise Pascal captured this volatile mystery eloquently,

What a Chimera is man! What a novelty, a monster, a chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy! Judge of all things, an imbecile worm; depository of truth, and sewer of error and doubt; the glory and refuse of the universe.

Yet, God did not abandon us to our failure. By an act of crazed love — called mercy — God came down to rescue us and empower us to yet again fulfill our vocation of knitting heaven and earth together by rightly interpreting the language of God in creation through deeds of loving kindness, lifting up a new song of praise to the Lord of all creation. And so how incredibly fitting and beautiful it was that God’s Word, to effect our rescue, became human (John 1:14). The signified became the sign, the Word became the interpreter. Jesus is the interpreted sign by which all other sacramental signs in creation are to be deciphered. Especially, He entered the realms of darkness where the language of creation is at its most ambiguous.

Eternal Light entered our darkness, the Most High was pushed by us into the abyss we had opened by our sin and allowed Himself to be crushed to death with us and for us. The Word was betrayed, tortured, crucified, died and was buried by us. And He descended into hell with us. There, in that dread Sabbath of death’s silence, He sang a new creation into being out of the Netherworld:

Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you. — Ephesians 5:14

We who have been baptized are that new song arising from the Netherworld, cantors of the new creation who interpret all things in the light of hope in the Word of the Cross, Jesus Christ, by doing the truth in love.

Even in Houston…

Love, love, love

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. — Catechism of the Catholic Church

I don’t have much time to seriously write, but I had to share this.

First, tomorrow is the solemn feast of the Holy Trinity. It is a “dogmatic feast,” celebrating the epicenter of Christian faith that was fully disclosed in the mysteries of Holy Week and Easter season. God is three Persons, one God. Three whos and one what, as they used to say in the old catechism. A mystery, meaning not a puzzle to be solved or an illogical assertion to be blindly accepted, but a truth so excessive that the mind is always surpassed when that truth is revealed. Like Niagara Falls. But because we are made in His image, we are able, in an infinite trajectory of growth, to know that mystery. And divine mystery, who God is, can only be made known by God. God must freely choose to make Himself known. Mystery cannot be deduced, only encountered and received. And in the mystery of the Trinity, the Son reveals the Father who sent Him, and the Spirit reveals the Son who sent Him.

Here’s what’s most amazing to me: the concrete circumstances in which God revealed Himself.

The eternal Son of the Father was fully revealed in His death, resurrection and ascension, and the Spirit was made known last Sunday at Pentecost. The mystery of God was disclosed under the form of self-emptying Gift. Divine mystery was made known not as an abstract theorem that we can contemplate and analyze at a safe distance, but was revealed to us fully immersed in the total mess and majesty of human life. In Jesus. In fact, we can say that the pinpoint laser of divine revelation took place in the stripped naked, brutalized, fly-covered body of the eternal Word who, from the cross, spoke to His Father of us and breathed out His Spirit on us as He died.

Faint.

When some asks, “What is God like?”, the Christian points wordlessly to the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) and says, “Like that.” St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, looking at the cross, cried out in prayer: O mes Trois! “O my Three!” See, the Father handing over His Son, and receiving the Son’s self-offering for us through the eternal Spirit. God with us. God for us.

I met a priest very recently, whom I will write more about another time. He graciously gave me permission to share his story that he confided to me. In short, he suffered for several years from a series of terrible illnesses, from which he has now fully recovered. During those years, he said, he passed through what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the spirit.” He said,

During those years as I was physically debilitated, God chose to pass my soul through His love. I don’t know how else to say it. I can testify to you under solemn oath that God is a consuming fire. I know it with absolute certitude. It’s impossible to describe. The love, that is. His love. So selfless. Selfless in a way we cannot even imagine. Honestly. Not even imagine. On the cross He suffered our loveless, wretched, hateful, apathetic, bored, egocentric cruelty with absolute love that caused Him suffering we could never imagine. He showed me just a flicker of the furnace He is, larger than the universe, and asked me to allow Him to transform me to become that flicker. That is the Trinity. The infinite furnace of selfless love. So tender and pure. I can tell you, even though I really can’t because it’s beyond any word, that the Trinity is simply this: total, pure, selfless, infinite loving. A verb of loving, not a noun. Everywhere you go in creation, you can’t escape it. Everything is filled with that love. But because we are petty and small and selfish and consumed with ourselves, we can’t see it or feel it. But if we allow just a flicker of His love to purify this, we would see. You can’t imagine, Tom. We would be happy for every hardship and suffering and challenge of life, because they allow us to become that love even more. I tell my brother priests when they have hard times or illness, this is a gift, let God use it. When God draws you into Himself, it’s total selflessness. Love, love, love. I wish I could put into that word “love” the meaning I experienced in those years. I’m almost afraid to use it for fear of cheapening it. I want to say: No! You don’t understand. You have to know it first hand.

Cough Syrup and Jesus

Another off-beat, idiosyncratic Neal creation. First, have you ever read this St. Paul “what if” musing? It’s just remarkable!

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead! — 1 Cor. 15:13-20

A dark world aches for a splash of the sun. — Young the Giant

Today I would like to share a brief reflection on a song called Cough Syrup by the group, Young the Giant. For whatever reason, ever since Maria and Ashley introduced me to that song last year (their cover), I have never tired of listening to it, finding again and again new inspirations in its tune, lyrics and music video. Why? In part, I think this is because when Patti and I got away to Biloxi for our 21st wedding anniversary last October, this song was playing on my Playlist as we sat out on the balcony of our condo watching the sunrise dapple the Gulf waters. At that moment it was like time collapsed, all my cares fled and I was surrounded by things that bring me intense joy: my wife, nature and music. Whenever I hear it play, without exception, I am thrust back to the transcendent power of that moment.

An aside: A priest I know emailed me the other day and said he so often finds in “non-religious” music a much more profound and honest exploration of the great existential questions of humanity than what he finds in most pop Christian music. I would concur entirely, and could list 100 examples. Christian faith is incarnate and paschal, taking its point of departure in divine revelation’s full immersion in the human condition.

Cough Syrup is a symbolic fest, though I would not say I believe Young the Giant intends “faith” explicitly. But I am Catholic, so any human search for meaning is already friendly to the light of faith. I won’t attempt a serious commentary on Cough Syrup, nor claim I really understand what the composers intended. I’ll just toss out a few comments and then share the music video/lyrics for you to reflect on. If you feel so moved!

During this Easter season, I am seeing so many resonances of death and resurrection all around me.

Cough Syrup seems to be about the quest for meaning and happiness in life. Universal. It speaks to struggles with depression, despair and a sense of purposelessness. The “fishes” and “zombies,” having lost all meaning and purpose, tempt the singer to return to their shadow-lands. The song and music video are chock full of rich symbols. “Cough syrup,” I think, symbolizes temporary fixes, like psychotropic medications (Xanax, Zoloft) that dull the inner pain. Though these medications serve a great purpose and can allow you to catch your breath, if your crisis is rooted in the collapse of a sense of substantive meaning in life meds will never be able to free you. Those drowning in the gray hues of depression long to spring out into the colorful, hopeful, playful and restorative light of the sun, that most ancient symbol of the rising Christ.

In both song and music video, I see with the eyes of faith a baptismal font in which we both die and rise; a dark tomb holding the dead Christ; a Paschal candle; the rising sun, disciples running to the empty tomb; the immobilizing chains of sin; mind-bending metanoia; a buried treasure in a field; the surrender of faith; redemption as restoration; a foray into God’s prism beauty that inspires Christian liturgical play and sung celebration (Rev. 4:3); knowing the shortness of life (Psalm 39:4).

Oh! The power of art to bring hope, meaning and beauty to a hopeless, meaningless and ugly life.

Enjoy, if you wish:

Life’s too short to even care at all oh
I’m losing my mind losing my mind losing control
These fishes in the sea they’re staring at me oh oh oh oh oh oh
A wet world aches for a beat of a drum, oh

If I could find a way to see this straight, I’d run away
To some fortune that I, I should have found by now
I’m waiting for this cough syrup to come down, come down

Life’s too short to even care at all oh
I’m coming up now coming up now out of the blue oh
These zombies in the park they’re looking for my heart oh oh oh oh
A dark world aches for a splash of the sun oh oh

If I could find a way to see this straight, I’d run away
To some fortune that I, I should have found by now

And so I run to the things they said could restore me
Restore life the way it should be
I’m waiting for this cough syrup to come down

Life’s too short to even care at all oh
I’m losing my mind losing my mind losing control

If I could find a way to see this straight, I’d run away
To some fortune that I, I should have found by now

And so I run back to the things they said could restore me
Restore life the way it should be
I’m waiting for this cough syrup to come down

One more spoon of cough syrup now whoa
One more spoon of cough syrup now whoa