Break

I am taking a 2 week break from posting to focus on family and other important commitments I have to complete. The April 14th weekend I will resume.

I am grateful for all of the recent comments on my posts. I had written most of those while I was on a personal retreat a while ago — which is always my best space for writing. But I have no more in the docket, and have much pressing these days on me.

May the Risen Lord be with you these days of Octave and Easter joy. May the mercy of God inundate your life.

¡Triumph!

Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a “proof” of the things that are still unseen. Faith draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a “not yet”. The fact that this future exists changes the present; the present is touched by the future reality, and thus the things of the future spill over into those of the present and those of the present into those of the future. — Pope Benedict XVI

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

For Christians, joy is the preeminent sign of the new creation, exploding from the empty tomb, spilling into the present. Joy is the most important element of witness Christians can give the world. Joy, which is the delight of unshakable hope in a God who eternally loves us, testifies with unparalleled eloquence to the living Truth faith embraces and confesses.

Yet it is not simply that Christians are themselves to be a joyful people, but that they, with irrepressible zeal, bring joy into the world around them. Each disciple of Jesus is to be a charatokos, a “joy-bearer.” Like angelic messengers flashing with superabundant joy, we are sent into the world to roll back the stones from every tomb and leave in our wake a new world “unveiled” by Christ.

The world I touch should always be more hopeful, lighter, brighter, more beautiful than it was before, because “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27) overflows into the deserts of this world. In us, Isaiah 41:18 is to be fulfilled:

I will open rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
and the dry land springs of water.

God, who is rich in joy, created all things to share in His joy. The incarnation of God in Jesus, under the form of the Passion, had as its goal the dispossession of divine joy for us. 2 Cor. 8:9:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Marked by such a divine economy, joy is never possessed, only held in trust; and then, only when it’s given away. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, “if you have no joy, find another with no joy, lead them to joy and you will discover joy.” Yes,

give, and it will be given to you.
A good measure, pressed down,
shaken together, running over,
will be put into your lap;
for the measure you give
will be the measure you get back (Luke 6:38).

So flood the world these 50 days of Easter glory with the inexhaustible wellspring of joy!

Like this:

Arabic: Al-Masih qam minbain’il-amwat,
wa wati al mowt bil mowt,
wa wahab’l hayah lil ladhina fi’l qubur

Greek: Christos anesti ek nekron,
thanato thanaton patisas,
ke tis en tis mnimasin,
zoin charisamenos!

English: Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

Into the abyss of our abandonment

The Harrowing of Hell

In truth – one thing is certain: there exists a night into whose solitude no voice reaches; there is a door through which we can only walk alone – the door of death. In the last analysis all the fear in the world is fear of this loneliness. From this point of view, it is possible to understand why the Old Testament has only one word for hell and death, the word sheol; it regards them as ultimately identical. Death is absolute loneliness. But the loneliness into which love can no longer advance is – hell.

This brings us back to our starting point, the article of the Creed that speaks of the descent into hell. This article thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he. Hell is thereby overcome, or, to be more accurate, death, which was previously hell, is hell no longer. Neither is the same any longer because there is life in the midst of death, because love dwells in it.

Now only deliberate self-enclosure is hell or, as the Bible calls it, the second death (Rev 20:14, for example). But death is no longer the path into icy solitude; the gates of sheol have been opened. From this angle, I think, one can understand the images – which at first sight look so mythological – of the Fathers, who speak of fetching up the dead, of the opening of the gates. The apparently mythical passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel becomes comprehensible, too, the passage that says that at the death of Jesus tombs opened and the bodies of the saints were raised (Mt 27:52). The door of death stands open since life – love – has dwelt in death.  — Pope Benedict XVI

I gave an evening of reflection during Lent last year at a parish. It was on the meaning of the Cross. After I finished speaking, we had a period of prayer and then people left in silence. After everyone had gone, a woman who had remained came up to me after and shared with me a grace she received from God during the evening. I asked her if I could share this story.

She said because of some severe family problems when she was growing up, she learned life meant hiding from threatening situations. This pattern, she said, led her to hide as an adult, living in mistrust and inner isolation, feeling trapped inside a secret past that she has never dared to share with anyone for fear that by opening it, like Pandora’s Box, chaos would be unleashed in her life.

“But,” she said, “tonight I could see something I had never seen before. In those halls of shame that I live in, Jesus is already there with me. He sees it all. He was so quiet in there, just sitting with me, I didn’t even notice Him. He was waiting for me to recognize Him and give permission for Him to open the doors and allow the light in. I could see this as I prayed. You said Jesus descends into our personal hells to blow them open from the inside out, but with the greatest tenderness imaginable. What did you call that? [Me: The harrowing of hell] Yeah, well, I felt something break deep inside of me and I opened up. I feel I can seek help.”

She cried.

Then she said, “And when you told us that Jesus’ name means ‘Yahweh rescues,’ and that that’s another way of saying ‘God is love,’ because love always rescues the lost — that idea [she paused] — I fell in love with Him.”

We ended with a brief prayer and she went home. I sat for a few minutes alone, in thanksgiving, and thought: I’ve spent 31 years of studying theology precisely to that end. So I could know how to remove stones that prevent others from seeing that Jesus, Emmanuel, is God always and already with us. Harrowing our hells with hallowing mercy.

I have never so clearly understood the meaning of 2 Cor. 5:20 as my personal mission and the mission of every Christian: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

Today, Holy Saturday, we reverence God’s decent into hell in silence, as He penetrates the deepest darkness with the bright light of His immortal life and love.

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

God against himself

For this holy Day, a quote from Pope Benedict, a spoken reflection by me (excuse the ambient knocking noise outside my car where I recorded), and a hymn.

Israel has committed “adultery”
and has broken the covenant;
God should judge and repudiate her.
It is precisely at this point
that God is revealed to be God
and not man:

“How can I give you up, O Ephraim!
How can I hand you over, O Israel!
My heart recoils within me,
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger,
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God
and not man,
the Holy One in your midst” (Hosea 11:8-9).

God’s passionate love for his people
—for humanity—
is at the same time a forgiving love.
It is so great
that it turns God against himself,
his love against his justice.

Here Christians can see
a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross:
so great is God’s love for man
that by becoming man
he follows him even into death,
and so reconciles justice and love. — Pope Benedict XVI

You Want It Darker

wikimedia.org

[re-post 2017]

So this week while I was out of town staying at a hotel, I happened on an article about singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Jewishness and how it impacted his music. Knocked my socks off. I had heard his famous Hallelujah, but was not aware of his other music. Now I am. I wrote a journal entry late at night on a song from his final album. I won’t bother editing or cleaning it up. It is what it is. It’s heavy.

++++

Cohen’s music is searching, pained, edgy, gritty, socially engaged and religiously dissident, but he relentlessly clings to a Jewish biblical landscape. It was his Judaism, eclectic as it was. Right to the end of his life, he inhabited — and was inhabited by — his Hebrew faith. Its language, worship, narratives as he grasped for meaning at the very edge of meaning. At the edge of the grave, his grave. This was one of the final songs written and recorded just before his death in 2016. It utterly captivated me last night: You Want It Darker. I dreamt of it and then woke up at 3:00 a.m. to write.

I wish I could explain the inner sense of awe, holy fear I felt as I awoke.

Cohen’s gravelly voice bears all of the gravitas of a man near death, weakened by the decay of his aging body. Haunting.

There’s so much going on in it. The song, addressed to God as “you,” is suffused with the language, and tones, of the Kaddish — Jewish prayers for the dead.

Cohen wants his poetry to find its luminescence beneath the long shadows that arc over the atrocities of history. Especially those perpetrated against Jews. Intended to extinguish the flame of their existence from the earth.

He invokes in the song what seem to be phrases from the story of the “binding of Isaac” in Genesis 22, when God commanded Abraham to slaughter his beloved son, Isaac. The Hebrew word Hineni, which means “Here I am,” is repeated thrice in You Want It Darker song and in Genesis 22 (vs. 1, 7, 11).

vs. 1-2: God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

This is the first, but not last time it appears in Scripture.

Hineni punctuates this song’s dread reckoning with God’s seeming complicity with darkness and murder in the Isaac story. Cohen grapples with the meaning of God’s “permissive will,” allowing evil space in creation. Or is it His ordained will with Abraham? Allowing death such immense power in the world, through the bloodstained hands of every Cain, His own image. Man.

“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.” Blaise Pascal.

Hineni resonates with obedient readiness. It is what a faithful Jew says to God when summoned and called, even in the face of the “valley of the shadow of death.” But Cohen is not so willing to embrace this word in the face of such deep darkness. Indeed, he “wants out” if thus is how the Dealer deals. He will not simply submit without protest against death, without shouting out from within the dark mystery that enfolds humanity.

Cohen contends with God, like Abraham at Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33), like Jacob at Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-32), like Moses in the desert (Exodus 32:9-14), like Job in anguish (Job 31), like Jeremiah in terror (Jeremiah 20:7-18; Lamentations), like Esther facing genocide, like the psalmists crying out from the suffering of catastrophe, exile, slaughter.

“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.” Psalm 77:8-11

Cohen refuses to accept the image of a God complicit in injustice and evil, even if by permission.

Hard stuff.

Undoubtedly the Holocaust, along with its countless modern genocidal analogues, looms large in his mind as he, a Jew, writes, recites, sings — prays — this song.

When Cohen says, “Hineni. I’m ready my Lord,” what does he brace himself ready for?

Unresolved.

“Vilified, crucified in the human frame.” Easy to imagine in this a Christian meaning. But for a Jew, the very fact that God’s image is marred by human cruelty causes insufferable dissonance. A shattering paradox, as divine image slays divine image. Genesis 9:5-6. The slaughter-bench of history’s endless procession of image-smashing murderers. Permitted to “murder and maim.”

Why is such horrifically expansive latitude given to evil? How does this work in a divine economy? A paradox to blame? But what comes of this paradox’s unresolved tensions? Is their a deeper protest at work in God Himself?

“Why?” Psalm 22:1

The song is just brilliant. Its raw, shocking honesty, protest in the face of the dark night of evil — spoken before the face of God. It does not sound to me as rebellion, but a laying before God the cursed evil without submitting it to an easy resolve. Not cushioned, romanticized, coated, softened, but prayed out of dark faith into God.

Like the absolutely stunning Psalm 88, the only unresolved lament among all the psalms. The psalmist ends his for God’s place in the chaos in the night, moaning beneath heaven’s dead silence. Or the Book of Lamentations, which makes your heart sweat if you really pray into it. Especially at night. Why don’t we have this oft in the Lectionary for Sundays? We human-wailers need its honest desperation turned Godward.

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He is to me like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding; he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow. He drove into my heart the arrows of his quiver. My soul is bereft of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and my expectation from Yahweh.” (Lam. 3:1-14; 17-18)

Such is prayer for those who “descend into hell.” Prayer de profundis “out of the depths” (Psalm 130:1). In the abyss, hope shines brightest. Hope blooms fullest only in hopeless spaces, in fathomless oceans requiring infinite anchors.

And God cannot redeem what He does not make His own, what we refuse to surrender to Him. The meadows and the sewage. Prayer that emerges from such a radical depth of honesty is that of very few, it seems to me. Those from whom all has been taken. But it alone achieves a depth of redemption that, as St. John of the Cross says in the Dark Night, makes the entire creation shake to its foundations. Sanatio in radice, “healing in the roots.” Jesus prayed this way from the cross, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!

Cohen is voicing prayer for the prayer-less, those paralyzed spirits who sink into the pit, are mired in PTSD, breathe death in the gas chamber, suffer.

Why? Where? How long? Wake up! Act! Save! Come! No facile answers to the mystery of iniquity. No easy comforts wrapped in smiley tinsel. Only wailed protests for justice, cries for mercy that, after they are drained to the dregs, surrender. Hineni.

Pope Benedict, son of Germany, speaking at Auschwitz:

To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible – and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany. In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence – a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.

David Bentley Hart, reflecting on the 2004 Indian basin Tsunami that claimed more than 230,000 lives across 14 countries:

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

God
who
suffered
was crucified
died
was buried
descended into hell
rose again
from
the dead

“The limit imposed upon evil by divine good has entered human history through the work of Christ.” Pope Benedict XVI

Ode to Twenty One Pilots

[re-post]

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. — Vatican II

My Twenty One Pilots obsession continues.

Someone recently sent me an interview with Twenty One Pilots lead singer, Tyler Joseph. He is so young. But what a remarkable depth. A poet’s mind, disarming authenticity. He truly shares the anxieties of this age, which styles him a powerful voice.

The interviewer asked him a fascinating question: what is the mission of Twenty One Pilots? From whence their lyrics, their musical style?

Tyler struggled to answer. He spoke of the numbers game that dominates the music industry — profits, number of fans. He admitted these tempt to distract him. But what really drives him, he said, is the idea that their music makes people think about life’s deepest and most universal questions. “If our music can lift up just one person, making their life better and more joyful, then that is the mission of Twenty One Pilots. I don’t just want to entertain people, I want them to think with me, to think about universally true things. I’m a seeker. I ask questions and hope they lead to joy.”

Their song Car Radio captures this brilliantly,

There are things we can do
But from the things that work there are only two
And from the two that we choose to do
Peace will win
And fear will lose
There’s faith and there’s sleep
We need to pick one please because
Faith is to be awake
And to be awake is for us to think
And for us to think is to be alive
And I will try with every rhyme
To come across like I am dying
To let you know you need to try to think

Precisely the definition St. Anselm gave to my life’s work, theology, which is fides quaerens intellectum, which I like to translate as “the quest of thinking faith.”

Unquestionably, there is a Christian worldview that inhabits their sounds and lyrics, but Tyler is exceedingly careful not to use overtly religious language. Being an inhabitant of our creed-averse culture,  he creatively engages the challenge of trying to carry with him a “theology” into a diverse, splintered and radically pluralistic ethos. Faith “latently” informs their art, making TØP songs like fissures that compromise the integrity of the hardened walls constructed by an atheist, materialist, consumerist secularism. Letting some transcendent air in the room so we can breathe deep.

Or you might say they sing their music (deftly) into a culture comfortable only with an agnostic form of worship offered on “the altar to an unknown God” (Acts 17:23). There on that altar, faith can quietly lead us to contend more seriously with life’s great questions, to grapple with the rawest anxieties of our day, with an eye to hope.

When I went to the TØP concert with my daughters last year, I found my own faith stirred in a powerful way. It was truly an off-beat experience of worship for me, that left a mark for months afterward. All I could think of at the end of their concert, after they finished the song Trees, was the name for God coined by the 13th century Beguine, Marguerite Porete

FarNear

There in the commercialized Smoothie-King Center in NOLA, the God made “far” by our disenchanted culture drew stunningly near. “I want to know you, I want to see you, I want to say, Hello.”

After listening to the interview with Tyler, I wrote a poem. It’s my summary of what I see to be their aesthetic mission. Dang, I wish they could read it.

Prophets of Zeitgeist

Canting angst, oracles of Zeitgeist
haunted by a restless Father’s Love
whirling about the cross of Christ
faith to life stitched, deftly spliced.

Rapping deep into a living Tree
facing the face of fear, whilst longing
to be found, kissed by Truth set free
love filial, of our gnarled humanity.

Though never preaching, evoking
a beauty that saves, invites, feeds
thinking into our within, provoking
hope, suicidal minds all-soaking.

Your words, incise, cut, make bleed
yet gently wound to heal and bind
our inscape to a life-giving creed
bruising none of each fragile reed.

Your igneous mission rings clear:

Dare us hope Up, out of the fear
into the peace of God, Unknown
Heart Whisperer, “I AM, here
weeping dry every falling tear.”

Where I’m From

Our almost 16 year old daughter, Catherine, wrote this for her English class. The assignment, “Where I’m From,” was to describe yourself in terms of events of your life — mostly small things — that have shaped who you are. I just loved her version of her upbringing and our family. Though it is hard to catch all the images she uses without the backstories, you can catch the drift.

But what it really made me see, besides the beauty of her literary artistry, is the kaleidoscopic complexity of influences that color who we are, as well as the power of the past to shape our vision of the future. The power of relationships. The power of family. The power of faith. And the power of memory.

My grandfather wrote Patti and me a letter after our first son was born, and said, “Among the greatest gifts you can give your children are good memories. The memories you give them will stand as a reserve of wealth to draw on later in life. Hope in hardship, cheer in sorrow … Memories that they were loved will carry them far. Waste your time on them now, and they will ‘want not’ then. While you may often regret not having made enough time for them when they were small, you will never regret having given them too much time. Nor will they.”

The power of love. Hope.

My wife said to me the other day while we were having a cocktail out on a weekend evening, “My hope is that our children can look back as adults and see in the midst of all the mistakes we made along the way, ours was a home full of God’s love. And that they always write thank you notes and never go to someone’s house empty handed.”

Yeah, that.