Monday, July 31, 2017

Contemporary Music: Finding the Gold in the Mud

Paging through Amazon Music's charts....

Why do I bother? Looking for gold in the mud. Occasionally I stumble on something good. It's like flipping through the records in a record store used to be, in the olden days.

Here's the thing: Artists are peculiar. I know that. Musicians (in this case) are peculiar. I get that. I'm a musician myself, and a writer, and lately I've been messing about with photography and graphics. I know that I'm a piece of work. I'm not surprised, therefore, to find that artists are weird.

Creative intuition strains the neurons, as does the tenacity to carry it through to an artistic expression that can be experienced by others. It is intense, concentrated, arduous labor. And many artists are already operating with exotic cognitive wiring and a highly sensitive system of overall perception. Add to this mix the drive of ambition, the pressure to entertain and to be an efficient cog in the wheels of a multi-billion dollar industry, the tumultuous cultural milieu with its widespread decadence, and... and... and...

...the music is going to be weird.

Nevertheless, even given all of this awareness of the challenges of the creative enterprise, it's still a bit staggering to see the freak show that parades by under the name of "popular music."

These are talented people. Okay, some of them are just charlatans but some of them are talented people. But there is a weakness of human context, an excess of powerful gadgets and tricks, and a relentless push to reduce works of art into efforts to get attention. The resulting noise is deafening.

Or, to return to the original metaphor, there's a lot of mud. It's easy to say "yuck" to all the mud. It's also easy (and frankly delusional) to pretend that the mud is gold. The challenge consists in finding the gold. Because there is gold to be found. There are diamonds in the mud. Some are flawed diamonds, but admirable nonetheless.

So it is that I desire to search for whatever has value, to clean it up and make it shine. Or, if it's tragically broken, to mourn the loss and trace the fractured lines of beauty.

Music is a complex crafting of sound, and the world today is filled with unprecedented sounds. We want to be careful to distinguish crass cacophony from the authentic effort to shape hard, brash, strange sounds into rhythms and harmony and song. There is beauty to be found here, made with the unusual sounds drawn from the hum and throb of our technologically sophisticated everyday environment.

This music can enrich our lives, and it is made by some surprisingly peculiar people. Certainly we are looking for creative work that has real value, and therefore we can't just toss away our standards or our sense of judgment in order to affirm the latest trends. But let's not be snobs either.

It's worth the effort to keep exploring music, to keep listening.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Martha of Bethany: Disciple and Believer

Poor Saint Martha. Everyone seems to remember her as the woman who was "busy about many things" and who complained to Jesus that her sister Mary wasn't helping with the dishes.

But we should also remember Martha as a beloved friend of Jesus (along with her siblings Mary and Lazarus) and one of his truly great disciples. In chapter 11 of John's Gospel, Jesus reveals himself to her as the One who conquers death and brings eternal life. In this text, we see Jesus invite her to believe in him. Her response shows clearly that she has come to know in a very deep way the "one thing necessary."

From the Gospel for the feast of St Martha:

Jesus said to Martha, "'I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?' She said to him, 'Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world'" (John 11:25-27).

Scenes from the Summer

Now that the rain has moved in and appears set to bring July to an unusual end, I'm just going to put a few miscellaneous photos from what has been a mostly hot month. Above, we see the gathering of clouds on a late afternoon Blue Ridge horizon.

Below, we have had lots of wildflowers in the fields. The chicory, for example:

And in spite of all appearances, Jojo is not sleepy here as she wheels her scooter up the driveway. But the kid who used to ham it up so much for the camera only a couple of years ago is harder to take a good picture of these days. I have to be satisfied with what I can sneak around and get. She was actually goofing around here and having fun. Seriously! 😏😊

It has been hot. We've kept cool with the help of ... cold drinks! This is a stout from a local restaurant. When beer looks this good, I can't help taking a picture of it:

Reepicheep does what Reepicheep always does: EAT! I was hoping for a nice cat smile, but instead I got a cold cat shoulder. I probably deserved it. It's like she's saying, "Leave me alone. I'm having lunch!"

There are many things I would like to write about--that I have even tried to write about. Words haven't come very easily. I've had much to ponder and I hope to get some of it down in writing eventually.

Meanwhile, life goes on and I continue to live it, day by day, step by step.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Sowing the Seed in Our Hearts

The Gospel reading for today repeated the first section of the reading from Sunday, July 16. It recounted the parable of the sower and the seed (Matthew 13:1-9). This gave me the opportunity to revisit a wider interpretation of the parable as Pope Francis expressed it in his Angelus Address for the Sunday before last. Francis's exposition of the imagery provides a good meditation on God's work in our lives.

First, here is the text from the Gospel:
Jesus taught the people in parables, saying, "A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear" (Matthew 13:3-9).
Jesus then goes on (in verses 10-23) to give his disciples the foundational way of reading the story. The seed bears fruit or fails to do so depending on the conditions of the place where it falls. Jesus identifies each of images of the conditions of the ground with a specific set of people: those who have no openness (the path), those who are superficial (the rocky ground), those who are preoccupied with worldly concerns and fears (the thorns), and finally those who receive the Gospel with joy (the rich soil).

A further meditation and personal application of this story, however, may lead us to discover that we have all four of these conditions in our own hearts and in various facets of our lives. The Lord sows the seed of his love prodigiously in our hearts, but how much of it do we allow to flourish? We don't have very much "rich soil" in our hearts where the gift of God can take root. Too often we are distracted, preoccupied, or negligent. The Lord longs to turn the whole of our hearts into his own flourishing fields and gardens of new life.

However, as Pope Francis indicates, the same Lord who sows will also tend more and more the soil of our hearts through prayer and the sacraments. He will clear away the obstacles and prepare the land to bear more abundant fruit:
"The parable concerns above all us: it speaks, in fact, of the soil rather than of the sower. Jesus performs, so to speak, a 'spiritual radiography' of our heart, which is the ground upon which the seed of the Word falls. 
"Jesus invites us today to look inward: to give thanks for our good ground and to work on the ground not yet good. 
"Let us ask ourselves if our heart is open to welcome with faith the seed of the Word of God. Let us ask ourselves if the rocks of laziness are still large and numerous within us; [if] we identify and we call by name the brambles of our vices. 
"We find the courage to make a beautiful reclamation of the land, bringing to the Lord in Confession and in prayer our stones and our stumps. In doing so, Jesus, a good sower, will be happy to do an extra work: to purify our hearts, removing the stones and thorns that stifle his Word."

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Love that Keeps Our Hope Alive

Today I have been reading Psalm 102. The Bible shows us the whole range of the human condition, and the depths of suffering, sorrow, loneliness, and pain.

The vivid images of the Psalmist express the personal and communal experience of the cry that pours forth from the human heart at the recognition of its own poverty. The heart discovers its inadequacy--and the insufficiency of all things to meet its needs--most powerfully in "the day of my distress."

Still, the heart cries out because the human expectation for fulfillment is more fundamental. The heart cannot help but search, and the heart that knows the goodness and the glory of God keeps hope alive even in the most incomprehensibly desperate circumstances.

But it is not enough for the Lord to hear our cries from a distance. His glory is in His mercy, and so he answers our prayer by coming to share our poverty, our lowliness, our distress, our groaning, our death--to transform suffering through His love.

By the light of this love, we must never give up seeking Him; we must always keep hope alive.

"Lord, hear my prayer;
let my cry come to you.

Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.

Turn your ear to me;
when I call, answer me quickly.

For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones burn away as in a furnace.

My heart is withered, dried up like grass,
too wasted to eat my food.

From my loud groaning
I become just skin and bones.

I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.

I lie awake and moan,
like a lone sparrow on the roof.

My days are like a lengthening shadow;
I wither like the grass.

But you, Lord, are enthroned forever;
your renown is for all generations.

You will again show mercy...[,]
heeding the plea of the lowly,
not scorning their prayer."

~Psalm 102:1-8, 12-14, 18 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Don't Let Go, Lord. Don't Let Me Be Alone.

God gives us everything. Right now, we exist because He is giving us the reality of ourselves.

His love gives me each breath that I take. Even if all I have is that breath, it is a wondrous thing. I want to be grateful for every breath, even the laborious ones, even the breaths that I feel like I'd rather not take.

Lord, even when I don't feel grateful, 
even when I feel angry or frustrated 
or humiliated or empty, 
or when I think I don't want to live anymore, 
give me gratitude for the wonder of you, 
in whose image I am made,
you who alone know the secret of who I am.

Enable me, whatever the awful darkness, 
to be grateful, 
to hold on to your mercy and goodness and love, 
or when I can't find you, 
to allow you to hold onto me 
and carry me in this black night. 
I'm blind and torn and fighting 
and I feel like running away because it's all so strange.

Don't let go, Lord. Don't let me be alone.

You love me even when I don't remember you, 
can't see you, can't feel you, 
can't imagine how hope could be possible in life, 
how there could be anything other than the pain 
and more pain and more pain...

Even when I am far from you and losing myself, 
you are near. 
With my every breath, 
with every stirring of my frame 
and movement of my soul, 
you are near.

God, find me! 
God, find me!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Saint Bonaventure: Theologian at the Foot of the Cross

Of course this is posed, but I really did read!
Today is an especially fine day to read the OTHER great theologian at the University of Paris in the 13th century: Saint Bonaventure.

We are approaching the 800th anniversary of Bonaventure's birth (1221-1274) which is a remarkable thing in itself. The influence of the greatest of the Franciscan doctors is more pervasive than it might first appear. So much of Western spirituality has drawn upon his synthetic approach to philosophy, theology, spirituality, and mysticism.

Bonaventure brings all of his reason and all of his desire to the feet of Jesus Christ crucified. He uses the whole complex apparatus of the scholastic method to focus on the mystery of God who reveals and gives Himself in Jesus.

And he is not disappointed.

Nor will we be, if we learn from Bonaventure's teaching and follow his example.

Our humanity is healed and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In Him we find all goodness. All beauty is His reflection. All glory shines in the Love revealed on the Cross.

"The Cross is the summit of all glory,
the expression of all joy,
the treasury of all wealth;
for God, desiring to restore [us to His likeness]...
became man, humble, pitiful, and poor.
Thus Supremacy accepted misery,
Justice was put to trial,
Wealth assumed necessity;
for the highest Ruler became a lowly slave
that we might rise into glory;
the most equitable Judge received
the basest condemnation
that we might be acquitted of sin;
the richest Lord suffered the deepest need
that we might abound in plenty."

~St Bonaventure, De Triplici Via 4

Saint Bonaventure with the "Tree of Life," 15th century woodcut.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Luminous Simplicity of Saint Benedict

Yesterday was Saint Benedict's feast day. His wisdom has a very specific focus: "Put the love of Christ before all else."

A graphic that presents his luminous simplicity:

Monday, July 10, 2017

Thirteen Months of Remembering Christina Grimmie

It is a long trail of memory that this 22 year old young woman left behind. A year and a month have passed since the night Christina Grimmie was killed after a concert on June 10, 2016. A man she had never met fired five shots at point blank range as she opened her arms to welcome him with a hug at her meet-and-greet.

She was welcoming a stranger, a person, as she had welcomed countless others in her short yet remarkable career. She wanted to touch people's hearts, inspire them, and help them to know they are loved. That was why she gave herself through her music. That was the way she lived, and the way she died. 

The music "industry" and the celebrity world have (for the most part) pretty much forgotten Christina Grimmie. They never gave her the attention she merited while she lived.

They had no real excuse: her amazing talent was widely acknowledged. And her most recent posthumous musical releases only solidify further the judgment that she was already one of the most rich, versatile, and powerful voices of her generation. I will write more about her musical legacy another time.

In any case, fame in this world is a fleeting thing, just another vanity blown away by the wind. Human beings are made for something more.

The multitudes of young people all over the earth who continue to remember Christina have not ceased to find encouragement even in their sorrows. Her greatest legacy is her enduring testimony to the real value of life. She continues to help people to discover and focus upon the dignity and the joy of being human.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Idols of Silver and Gold

"Our God is in heaven;
whatever He wills, He does.
Their idols are silver and gold,
the handiwork of men.
They have mouths but speak not;
they have eyes but see not;
they have ears but hear not;
they have noses but smell not.
Their makers shall be like them,
and everyone who trusts in them"
(Psalm 115:3-8).

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"We Hold These Truths": Life, Liberty, and Happiness

On the occasion of this Fourth of July celebration, I would like to reflect briefly on those fundamental rights presented in America's Declaration of Independence, the rights that every human being possesses by virtue of the fact that he or she is created by God.

I am not going to interpret what Jefferson or the other founders were thinking, or what their historical intentions and motivations were in making these general claims in a highly complex and controversial political context. That is another very interesting topic in its own right, but I will not pursue it here. In this post I am more interested in unpacking the real implications of the "truths" that are identified by that most famous statement in the document:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Leaving aside the epistemological and ethical methods that philosophers are concerned with, let us simply say that these truths are "evident" to the common sense of adult human beings who live a real engagement with the world and with one another. They are some of (not all of) the basic features of being human. If these rights do not resonate with our human experience, then something is fundamentally skewed in our perspective, our relationships, and the environment and condition in which we live.

The merit of the Declaration is its explicit articulation -- in political terms, in terms of the structure and government of society -- of these basic realities that ought to be grasped at least implicitly by common sense and that apply to every human being simply because they are human. These words have inspired people for the past 241 years because they correspond to people's more or less implicit sense of human dignity, justice, equity, and communal life.

Many other considerations enter into how these rights (and others) are understood concretely. It is so easy to lose the focus of common sense, to reduce a moment of insight into a construction of words and ideas that can be manipulated and distorted to serve the agenda of dehumanizing power and violence.

The history of the past 241 years is proof enough of that.

However, insofar as "we hold these truths" in a way that remains faithful to the human and personal existence that has been given to us and to the promise for life that reality evokes in our hearts, we will be much enriched. We will draw out many important implications for personal and social life, and see that there is much yet to discover about being human together.

Here I would just like to reflect on some aspects of these rights in the light of the fundamental value of the human person (which is the profound and essential point of the statement that "all are created 'equal'").

First we affirm the "right to life," because every human being is a person created in the image of God, whatever their condition, social or economic status, abilities, or state of dependence, however they may be perceived by others, however "useful" they may or may not be regarded, whatever their shape, form, hue, or disposition. The right to life, the right of every human person to be protected and loved -- poor or rich, young or old, weak or strong-- exists from the miraculous moment of conception, when the person comes into existence through the unique creative act of God and is first entrusted to the immediate, intimate care of another person, to the woman who will forever be their mother. It extends all through life with its challenges and struggles and suffering, all the way to the moment of natural death when God calls the person to Himself.

We recognize the "right to liberty," because the human person stands in an original relationship to God, and therefore "belongs" alone to that Mystery who transcends the whole universe. The human person lives in communion with other persons, in relationships, in marriage and the family, in communities and civil society, and is called to work for the common good. The original relationship with God entails the capacity and responsibility for relationship with other persons, and such is the realization of freedom. But the human person must never be reduced to something less, to a mere "thing" to be used and discarded. The human person cannot therefore be owned by any other person, cannot be defined by human power or expedience, cannot be forced or manipulated to act against their conscience -- where they stand before the "measure" of God -- nor prevented from seeking and serving the One who alone corresponds to them, who makes them to be who they truly are and leads them to their destiny.

This leads to the third of these basic rights that are proper to being a human person: the right to the "pursuit of happiness." It really is hard to deny such a right, because we have been created to be happy. Human life is a search for fulfillment. As persons, we live by exercising our freedom in this search, and in establishing a relationship with this fulfillment, this "happiness" which is ultimately personal, communal, and mysterious.

Happiness. We all know that we are made for it, and that we must "pursue" it because we do not yet have the fullness of it. But what is happiness?

The American founders have expressed something important here: governments cannot impose or define what ultimately fulfills us, what makes us finally happy as human persons. When governments try to impose a happiness defined by the limits of their own power, they become monstrosities. Whatever might be the good intentions of those who try to construct a utopia, they inevitably become warped and destructive. A political order that tries to erase the drama and the pain and the beauty of the great questions and desires that underlie the pursuit of happiness cannot help crushing the human spirit in the end. And, as the history of the past 100 years has taught us only too well, they also crush human bodies; they sacrifice the lives of human beings on a gigantic, horrific scale.

We must stress, of course, that "happiness" is not an empty term, or a vague reference to the anarchy of "everybody-just-do-what-you-feel-like-doing." The latter view, advocated by some today, only leads to other monstrous, inhuman arrangements. The feelings and interests of the isolated human being are too easily manipulated, diverted, and enslaved by those who are clever and devious enough to build their own fiefdoms of power and profit. There is a delicate and prudent but also very necessary place for various levels of government in protecting human freedom from those who would steal its potential or bend it to their own corrupt purposes.

Overall, politics fosters the common good of human beings living together in this world, using the resources of this world to build an environment that gives context and makes space for the human search for happiness, the human response to the total and mysterious vocation of life. 

Government should protect and
cultivate the human places where happiness blossoms and reveals itself. This is its essential and modest responsibility and the scope of its authority among human persons as they journey together through this life to a transcendent destiny. That goal of ultimate happiness is a mystery that the experience of life never ceases to promisethat it whispers even in the most desperate circumstances. Governmental authority, on various levels, indeed has a role in addressing those "desperate circumstances" that afflict people's lives in this world, especially those that are the consequences of injustice. And there are no shortage of these problems.

But the promise of happiness is written in the human heart by One who is infinitely greater than anything in this world. All human authorities must give way to the One who reveals this "happiness," who makes it possible to encounter this destiny and taste its fulfillment, the One who convinces the human heart of the sure path to destiny.

The human person must be free to follow that encounter that promises and communicates the fullness of life. This is the reality that underlies the "right to the pursuit of happiness" that the American founders indicated, however partial or incomplete their particular conceptions of this pursuit may have been.

Above all, we want to be free to pursue happiness where the beauty of happiness is revealed and given to us, where this convincing beauty shines and draws us onward, calling us and corresponding to the depths of our freedom.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Saint Junipero Serra Day

July 1st is the feast day celebration of Saint Junipero Serra, the "Apostle of California." We made many journeys in his footsteps to the California Missions in our younger days, up and down that beautiful State. 

It's been five years since the last time our whole family was in California. I miss it! To all you Californians, I say, "don't take all that beauty for granted."😎 

And pray to Fr. Serra, who no doubt continues to have a special solicitude for the people who live in California today: so many people and everyone in need of the Gospel and the experience of a new encounter with the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Here's the graphic I made for today: