Monday, October 31, 2016

All Hallows Eve Nostalgia

After seeing all these pictures of cute little kids dressed up and going out for candy, I got a bit nostalgic. So I decided to look back, but not too far: just five years ago.

Here are the Janaro kids as they appeared on the night of October 31, 2011:

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Your Spirit is in All Things

"You have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook people's sins that they may repent.
For you love all things that are
and loathe nothing that you have made;
for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.
And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?
But you spare all things, because they are yours,
O Lord and lover of souls,
for your imperishable spirit is in all things!
Therefore you rebuke offenders little by little,
warn them and remind them 
of the sins they are committing,
that they may abandon their wickedness 
and believe in you, O Lord!"

~Wisdom 11:23-12:2

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Chiara Luce and the Young Faces of the Communion of Saints

People are starting to recognize this beautiful young woman.

On this day which is her memorial on particular church calendars and which would have been her 45th birthday, I have been thinking about and talking to my friend Blessed Chiara Luce Badano.

I have only met her "in faith," a generation after her death in 1990 at the age of 18 and about a year and a half after her beatification. But I cherish her as a very real companion in the Lord, and I don't credit any initiative on my part to discovering her. The Communion of Saints is deeply mysterious, brilliantly awesome, gently intimate, and entirely human. She introduced herself to me, discretely, with something like a tap on the shoulder.

She is close to me and to many others, helping us from her special place within the heart of Jesus.

But I think she wants us to know that she is not the only "modern" teenager or young adult who is with Jesus now in the Father's house, and who prays for the rest of us. There is a cloud of young witnesses, a multitude of kids whose lives and sacrifices are not well known to us, whose days were very ordinary and hidden, or who may have been known to some but appreciated by very few. But they are no less heroic in their love for God, their willingness to embrace Christ.

They may not all have the kind of remarkable "coherence" that marks the Catholic saint, but the Lord made them ready to come to Him, bravely, in answer to His call, in circumstances that often seem to us to be "too soon" and perhaps even incomprehensible.

But their young lives were not wasted. Quite the contrary. The Lord has a plan, and the young people who have gone before us in love are especially vigilant in leading the way and being a light to the elders they have left behind. They strengthen our hope in the midst of all our struggles in this poor world.

Thank you, dear Chiara Luce for "tapping me on the shoulder" a few years ago and offering to be my friend. Thank you for praying for me, listening to me, helping me to see the goodness and share the suffering of others, introducing me to new friends in places I never would have looked, and for the surprises: when you tap me on the shoulder and say, "Look. There! There is the light of Christ. There is the love greater than death!"

Thank you.

Some words of Blessed Chiara Luce Badano (1971-1990):

Friday, October 28, 2016

His Peace

Jesus said to his disciples,
"Peace I leave with you;
my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give it to you.
Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid."

~John 14:27

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Josefina: What A Decade It Has Been!

Same kid in the top row and the bottom row.

I just can't wrap my head around the whole thing. It's been ten years. TEN YEARS!!!

If someone had come up to me on October 25, 2006 and told me what the next ten years of my life were going to be like, I would have gone bonkers!

Actually I did go "bonkers" during this past decade, but that's only part of the story. (And "bonkers" is not an accurate term, but I'll let it pass since I'm making a joke at my own expense.) I have told most of the story elsewhere on this blog. Indeed, Jojo was only a bit over four years old when I began writing this blog. She has been one of my most consistently popular topics, for reasons that are obvious.

Josefina with her Birthday "loot"
She is still small for her age, though she can fill the entire room with her personality. She is still wacky and fun loving and likes to sing while she does things around the house. She is great company and has a generous heart.

She has a great imagination, and is fascinated by people and places. She doesn't like math but she loves history. Her mind is growing in so many ways that she keeps surprising me with how she looks at things, with the questions she asks, and with how much she is able to understand when she puts her mind to it.

She is utterly devoted to her mother, and I don't blame her. She is very good to me, and especially kind when I don't feel well. She is such a joy. And she can also be such a pain in the neck, haha! But so lovable.

I know there's no way I can imagine the next ten years. For all the many struggles, it's a marvelous life. There is joy when kids grow, but a kind of sorrow too because you have to "let them go," but only to discover them again in new ways.

Happy Birthday, Josefina. God bless you!

Josefina with Mommy, opening presents. One thing she wanted was a Capitals jersey so she could be Mommy's hockey pal.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Like a Watered Garden

"Their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
I will turn their mourning into joy [says the Lord],
I will console and gladden them after their sorrows."

~Jeremiah 31:12,13

Monday, October 24, 2016

A House Full of "Family Pictures"

The other day I posted an Instagram photo of part of a bookshelf in our house in which a five volume English edition of St Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae and other books have a framed picture of St Mother Teresa plunked against them casually, almost haphazardly.

Next to my bed, the Mexican holy 
water font, Our Lady of Guadalupe
and Jesus with his Sacred Heart (also 
from Mexico), Jesus in the Divine
Mercy icon, the papal crucifix, an 
icon of the Last Supper, St John Paul, 
St Joseph (image of our home statue), 
and then the words of Edith Stein
(St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) 
that so often give me strength. I can 
see this shelf even when lying in bed. 
It helps to focus my heart each day.

I noted that the reason we have saints' pictures all around the house is not because we are fanatics or idol worshipers (we don't worship the saints) but because they are our friends, indeed they are "family" -- members of God's family who are alive in the Church in glory and who care for us, inspire us, and pray for us.

Soon after that came St John Paul II's feast day and I posted our "personal" JPII pic, from our honeymoon journey to Rome in 1996. That is, of course, a very special picture because it is a kind of memorial of a real meeting that took place (I also met and spoke with Mother Teresa in 1993, but no one was around taking pictures of that event, nor do I feel the need of one).

The picture of JPII, however, is always there to evoke a memory for both of us. That encounter, our brief conversation, and his blessing of our marriage will always be precious to us. In those moments, we were struck by his amazing capacity to give of himself, his humanity, and also his vulnerability, his frailty, his own need to be loved. I think that, for a moment, we consoled him too.

It is an important memory of an event that has very much to do with the history of our journey as a couple and a family. It helps us remember that even now his prayers continue to accompany us. That intense interpersonal moment, I am confident, remains present in the glorified awareness of St John Paul and gives shape to the mysterious but close affection with which he cares for us and helps us to remember Jesus Christ.

And we keep that picture, in a frame, in a very ordinary place in the corner of the dining room.

Well trafficked though otherwise ordinary corner, next to the family Apostolic Blessing that was obtained for us by friend.

*Of course, you don't have to meet a saint during their earthly life in order to develop a deep and fruitful companionship with them. I am convinced that there are times when saints you've never even heard of will "come along" and "tap you on the shoulder" (in a sense). They initiate the relationship with you, and you become aware of their solicitude for you a certain times in your life even as you are prompted to ask for the assistance of their prayers.

Some saints "nudge" us frequently to make sure we don't forget about them, as if to say, "I'm here, you know!"

I'm using the terminology of ordinary human interaction because these are genuine human relationships, even though for us they live within the sphere of faith. The saints are our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ, members of His Body just as we who are still on our earthly pilgrimage are members of one another in Christ.

God's Kingdom is a communion of persons, a great family gathered for the wedding feast. None of our great friendships with the saints in glory -- or with our fellow Christians in this present life, or with those others who have been given to us in life, who are loved by Christ and destined for this glorious banquet even if they do not yet know it -- take away from the uniqueness of our belonging to Jesus the Bridegroom. On the contrary, the fruitfulness of His love is their foundation and sustenance.

On another book shelf, the busts of Jesus and Mary carved in the Holy Land from olive wood.

Friday, October 21, 2016

One Hope

The text below this picture is one I have posted before, but it seems worth recalling once again in these days, especially since it was the first reading for today's Mass. This is one of those Scripture passages that is clearly inexhaustible, and speaks to us in so many ways. It's worth pondering.

"Live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another through love,
striving to preserve the unity of the spirit
through the bond of peace;
one Body and one Spirit,
as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all,
who is over all and through all and in all."

(Ephesians 4:1-6)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Autumn Adventures

This is a good time to take a break from the serious stuff and mark a few more ordinary events from this October.

First of all, Autumn leaves... as in the lack of them! Until recently we didn't have much color. The trees were starting to look like old broccoli rather than a "second Spring."

Ironically, some color finally started coming out this past week, in the midst of a heat wave that brought daytime temperatures of 85F.

Sunsets have left in their wake some colorful hues on the Blue Ridge at twilight.

The October "Hunter's Moon" was large and very bright. Unfortunately I missed that perfect moment for taking a picture of it: the moon rises right around sunset and there is only a short period when the sky is bright enough to allow my primitive gear (and primitive ability) to get a vivid picture. So I had to settle for a fuzzy overexposed picture that at least captures something of the dusky atmosphere.

Meanwhile, October has also been about baseball for the Janaros. We went to the last game of the Washington Nationals' terrific season, a rollicking 10-7 victory over the Marlins. Our seats were a bit high, but--going into the playoffs--our hopes were also high.

Eileen and I went with John Paul and a couple of his friends... and someone else who decided to come along (mostly because she wanted to "be with Mommy").

*So we had fun at the game.

But, alas, in the National League Division Series against the Dodgers, our Nats fell short. At one point they led the series two games to one, but they couldn't pull off the decisive victory.

We watched with John Paul on T.V. as the Nationals lost game five by the score of 4-3. Another disappointing ending. Another Nationals heartbreak!

Wait till next year!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

I Trust in You Now

Jesus died on the Cross. Each of us will die. What do we know about the mystery of our own death?

Where will my heart be in that hour? Let me entrust it NOW to the Divine Mercy, asking that Jesus insert me into His most compassionate heart and that Mary surround me with the maternal love of her immaculate heart.

The Lord Jesus and His merciful Mother have claimed that final hour as their own on the Cross, and at the foot of the Cross. I do not want to deny them that hour, and so I offer them what I have now, this hour, this "now"...

Jesus I trust in You, through Mary.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Sorrow Finds a "Home" in My Soul

These days and weeks hold some difficult personal memories for me. It has been 11 years now since a close friend of our family took his own life. This was soon followed by my own serious car accident which resulted in a concussion and a relapse into debilitating illness. Although we didn't realize it at the time, I would never fully recover.

As the years have passed, the trauma of the accident has mostly receded. My disability is "managed" in a somewhat stable fashion. But the grief over my friend's death has not decreased. Rather, it seems to have found a "home" inside my soul.

It endures as a sorrow, a weight that I am somehow "willing to bear," and a compassion that drives me to tell the story of my own mental illness and encourage others to get help.

I want people to "keep on living" because they matter. Every person matters. We are all linked together in this mysterious human drama, and every single one of us has a unique role. Every person is unique. Every person is worthy of love.

But this sounds vague in comparison with the aching immediacy of human pain. I can't help remembering my friend and the crippling depression that afflicted him. I'm trying to say to myself, "Take your mind off it. Take your mind off that feeling of lostness, that terrible emptiness that must have been there."

But then another part of me keeps coming back to it because I don't want to leave him alone there. I’ve been in that place. I can’t just turn my back on him, and on the others who are lost.

My soul still cries out to heaven, "Where were you, O God? Where are you, when your children are so desolate?"

But I know--I always know--that God's answer is Jesus Christ. Jesus is with them in that utterly lonely place. Jesus on the cross went to every person, walked every person's road, "bridged the distance" to every person.

Jesus has especially bridged those distances that people have created for themselves, willfully, by sin. And my friend's distance was not generated by his own will; it was a suffering, a terrible illness that I too have known in a large measure, enough to understand how moral responsibility can be greatly diminished by the distortion of inner self-perception and the bewilderment of so much mental pain.

There are deeper distances and greater lonelinesses that Jesus united himself with, traveling the mysterious inner world of every human being, personally, in that "mystical night" that was the cross.

None of us can say to God, "You don't understand what I'm going through!" He has been "with us" through all of it. The "three hours" of Jesus on the cross intersect with every human life. This shakes up our ideas about human experience and space and time (and theologians can try to understand the "how" of all this), but when we realize that God is Infinite Love, it's not so surprising to learn that he wanted to do this, to make it possible, to love all the way to the end.

So what is it in me that desires (even a little) to "be with" other persons in their suffering rather than to be "satisfied" in myself. Is that love?

Or is it just my own depression?

Or is it, somehow, both? God works through everything. God works through our weakness. He works especially through our weakness and our suffering, and the love with which he enables us to embrace it.

O Lord, shape me in this difficult time. Make me who you will me to be. I can’t figure myself out. I offer all this to you.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Do Ugly Times Make Us Ugly People?

These are some hard days for Americans. If you live in the USA, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't live here, you probably still know. Our politics has descended to a level of ugly that is dark and strange even for our usual presidential elections. Ugly.

Ugly is never good. It corrupts the end and the means of any human endeavor.

People have passionate convictions about what they think must be done in the present circumstances. That's fine. Passionate convictions make for a good dialogue, a useful dialogue where we may be able to discover the deeper reasons for our positions, where we actually agree and where we disagree, and why.

Dialogue is based on mutual esteem for one another. This esteem is not merely a sentimental "being nice" -- it can be expressed in many forms. It can be feisty, provocative, edgy, and frank, as well as diplomatic, courteous, careful, irenic, and many other things. It has room for a fair measure of humor and even a dash of sarcasm, especially when everyone in the discussion has a taste for spice. Dialogue should be as reasonable as we can muster, without arrogance, seeking understanding, and patient with all our slow plodding ways of knowing. It should always be vigorous, honest, magnanimous of mind and heart, and humble. And it should give everyone space to be human--which (generally) entails being somewhat intelligent and somewhat ignorant, diverse in temperament, possessed of dignity and worthy of respect, sometimes articulate, often awkward, capable of learning but inclined to misunderstanding, occasionally brilliant, always peculiar.

Fruitful dialogue encompasses all these things. But it should never be ugly.

None of us is perfect at this business, and we will be messy about it in different directions, depending on our temperament, emotional state, fears, weaknesses, neurobiological quirks, and so on. Indeed, we can get very messy about it.

Some among us lose our perspective, or try to berate points beyond what the circumstances of a discussion (or the limits of a particular communications media platform) can bear. Others are largely silent. Perhaps a few of these latter people find silence to be the better part of wisdom. Many are silent because they are afraid to speak, or because they don't know what to say, or because they are confused. Maybe they simply don't want to talk about it, and they don't want to tell us why they don't want to talk about it. Dialogue cannot be forced. People's freedom must be respected.

Some are just too sick. They don't have the physical, mental, and/or emotional resources to invest in an intense conversation about what to do in the presidential election. They have to focus the few resources they have on the most fundamental tasks of life and relationships. Be kind to them. They especially need it now.

Presidents of the past in stony consternation
Here in America we have an ugly election, and different features of the ugliness stand out in different ways. It looms over all of us, and we still have to live our days together, bump into one another, interact in the nitty-gritty of one another's lives. Trying to ignore the whole ugly thing is very hard and usually artificial. It comes up in conversation, in references. It weighs down our concerns. Things can get messy. None of us should think that we are superior or somehow exempt from the messiness of being human. We may find ourselves fighting with one another. It happens.

But, please, let's not be ugly to one another.

Realism forces us to face the ugliness associated with political organizations and the people who aspire to be the leaders of the United States of America. Ugliness! But what is to be done about the ugly monster that approaches us? It is a passionate question. And one thing that is very clear is that good people disagree about what is still possible, what can or should be done before, on, or after November 8th. Decent, trustworthy people have different convictions, or opinions, or hunches, or degrees of confusion or frustration about what is to be done. That will probably continue and extend to different points after election day.

We hope and pray that we are among the "good, decent, trustworthy people." Perhaps this is not something that we should simply take for granted. How much are we ourselves affected by the ugliness that we face? How much is the present Big Ugliness the reflection, the consequence, the fruit of our own little narrow nasty ugliness, accumulated and perhaps hidden and strangely cherished in our hearts? I know these are questions I must ask myself. It won't hurt any of us to undergo a serious and honest examination of conscience, without scrupulosity but with realism.

After all, our hope is not grounded in our own ability to keep ourselves from becoming ugly. Our hope is grounded and sustained by an Inexhaustible Mercy.

And in any case we will still get messy. There will continue to be arguments. But let's not be ugly to one another. Let's resist the great temptation that tries to convince us that the only way to destroy a monster is to become another monster. We all know this is wrong, but it still exercises a deep practical attraction on our human weakness, our inner dysfunctionality, our frustrations, fears, and propensity for violence.

It's worth noting a few considerations that might be helpful for us.

When we fight with one another verbally, let's refrain from personal insults, from jumping to nefarious conclusions about one another's motives, and from attacking one another's basic human dignity. Let's try to banish such things even from our thoughts insofar as we have the awareness and the capacity to do so. This is very important.

But this is also very important: we all know that some people are more inclined by temperament to be actively aggressive. Thank God for these people; they are the ones who get things done! But they are also tempted (in various ways) to be bossy, overbearing, or too quick to use words without thinking. The better we know these forceful, dynamic, aggressive people, the more aware we are of their qualities and weaknesses.

For such people, this ugly season is especially difficult to bear.

Let's not, therefore, fall into the sneaky trap of passive-aggressiveness. Now, especially, is not the time to bait these friends to an ill-considered expression of anger and frustration so that we can secretly relish what we fancy is our own phlegmatic superiority. No! This is all the more ugly for its proud disguise.

Spit out the ugly thing!

Yes, we're human. Let's talk at times and in places where conversation can be useful. Let's try to be generous toward one another in our style of expression. Let's listen to one another. Do we end up arguing? Fighting? Let's at least do it like brothers and sisters.

Because that is who we are.

We are brothers and sisters in a good family. It's tumultuous and dramatic and messy, because we are not a bunch of robots. We are human beings, children of God called to "grow up" together in this world, in this life we share. We grow by loving one another, and some of us are too loud, others too taciturn, or too smug, or too hesitant, or too self-assured, or too rosy, or too gloomy, or too... whatever!

And now we are in an ugly place, and we have to help one another get through it. But let's not forget our real home, or the reason why we are together.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Person and the Art of Compassion

Most people want to be compassionate. Anything, therefore, that contributes to their practical understanding of the suffering of others has interest and value.

We do need to learn how to build one another up, to share one another's burdens. That's why it's important to listen to one another's stories and to tell our own.

There is also much to learn from the accumulated wisdom of older people and the experience of professional caregivers. We will find many common themes that can give us a broad outline of the "art" of compassion and the ways of expressing and living empathy and solidarity.

But no amount of knowledge or experience can give us a guaranteed "formula" for approaching human suffering and loving another human person perfectly, without mistakes. True compassion is always personal, and the only way to really learn it is in-relationship-with-the-particular-person, by living that precise relationship with patience and persistence.

We need to stay with one another and keep loving one another concretely even though we will always make mistakes. We will always be weak; we will always fall short in love, and we will often hurt one another. We must try as hard as we can and learn as much as we can to grapple with this problem, but we will never eradicate it entirely.

Only Jesus solves it, but he doesn't solve it by magic. He works in us through real life, with our good intentions, our weakness, our efforts to learn, our commitment to one another as persons, and the forgiveness, perseverance, hope, and compassion for one another that His Spirit engenders within us.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Saint John XXIII

October 11: Pope Saint John XXIII.

Saint John XXIII was the pope when I was born, and--in addition to John the Baptist--I was also named after him.

On October 11, 1962, less than three months before I was born, John XXIII formally opened the Second Vatican Council.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Contemporary Music and its "God-Haunted" Spaces

Here is the second part of some continuing (provisional and incomplete) reflections on music.

Artists can debase their talents by enslaving themselves to projects that are unworthy of the dignity of the human person. Great technical skill can be used to produce ideological propaganda, anarchic degradation, and/or the manipulation of human perceptions and appetites. This is a significant problem in the presentation, context, and lyrics of so many popular songs and indeed of the overwhelmingly crass, artificial, cheap glittering realm of the contemporary "music industry."

How much of what we hear and see today in music and performance is hedonistic, grandiose, superficial, and obsessed with sexual and violent imagery? This stuff does us no good, and it's something we certainly want to protect our children from. But we cannot merely reject--in a negative, moralistic way--all contemporary music, which is so diverse and changing, and which draws upon so many different facets of the human experience we all share in common in our world.

Insofar as we are human, we live in the context of a culture that we cannot simply escape from. Rather, what we need above all is education--for ourselves and our children--in the perception and judgment of what is truly worthy of human life, human purposes, and human destiny.

It is important, therefore, to have an intelligent and attentive aesthetic sensibility toward the very large and variegated world of mainstream music, not only to filter out the bad stuff but also to be edified by so much real human expression found therein. We need particular discernment to recognize the "God-haunted" spaces that echo through some of this music: the pain, the questions, and the gratuitous vitality that struggle to be expressed over a wide range of styles and forms.

Indeed, we often find these elements in places we would not think to look. The restless searching and the cry of the human heart don't necessarily stand out "on the surface," or in every aspect of a song, recording, video or concert mass-marketed as entertainment. But there can be a drama, a frustration, a stubborn hope, and an obscure but intense longing for God that come through even along with the spectacle and the excesses of these artists and their performances. These things push to break through in the midst of so many distorted and misdirected expressions.

We must learn to perceive and to discover and, according to our particular circumstances, to foster the true elements of the arts and music of our time.

This doesn't mean we should just expose ourselves to entertainment media that are harmful to us, on the pretext that we might be able to find something of value. We need guidance and we need to help one another on an educative path that takes into account our relative strengths and weaknesses and maturity as well as the dysfunctionality of our fallen human condition.

There is no place for presumption here. Rather we need to do this together, with accountability, drawing upon the grace of Jesus in his Church, through prayer and the sacraments, in the ardor of Christian love, sustained by dependence on the Holy Spirit and the teaching and guidance of the Church.

This is a work of prudence and temperance and all the Christian and human virtues by which we are formed in Christ. I don't intend to propose here any kind of systematic method for engaging in this work. I can't say I know all the possibilities or all the cautions that must be observed. I need help here as much as anyone else. Many of us play and/or listen to contemporary music already, and would only benefit by helping one another to carry out a more attentive work of judgment and appreciation. What I also want to emphasize, however, is that if it is rightly carried out, this work will discover more that we expect. It will be a work that will surprise us.

This is because the inescapable human need for a relationship with reality in all its authentic fullness--with truth, goodness, beauty, justice, love, happiness--is ultimately a need for God whether or not it is acknowledged or recognized as such. Insofar as a work of art genuinely embodies a creative intuition of the fundamental connection between human existence and an infinite fulfillment--a creative and constructive intuition that grasps the essential human drama and is not reduced to manipulation, distraction, or cloying spiritual suffocation--it will contain, however obscurely, the mark of the human longing for God in its mysterious and sometimes dark beauty.

Aesthetic sensibility is not simply the logical application of some theory. Informed by truth and the experience of objective reality, it also entails a practical perception in peculiar circumstances. Contemporary music has and continues to give us genuine works of art: musical compositions, songs, recordings, and live productions. Even (indeed especially) in a secularized context, we can find signs of the depths of the human heart that can only be filled by God. Lyrics that don't mention God explicitly may still articulate the heart that searches for Him. The energy, the engagement, sometimes the suffering or sadness expressed, or the way the musician or singer pours his or herself out in performance--these things may indicate the longing for the unknown God or the God perhaps obscured but mysteriously sought, the wounds exposed that only He can heal.

Music is a powerful force. Contemporary music is often a force that drags people down, but it also can draw them up. In the increasingly desolate human environment in which we live, we must discern and value the things that draw us up--and be prepared to find them in some unexpected places.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Saint Francis: The Abundance of Love

"My Lord Jesus Christ,
two graces I beg of you before I die:
the first is that in my lifetime I may feel,
in my soul and in my body,
as far as possible, that sorrow which you,
sweet Jesus,
endured in the hour of your bitter passion;
the second is that I may feel in my heart,
as far as possible, that abundance of love
with which you, Son of God, were inflamed,
so as willingly to endure so great a passion
for us sinners.
I beseech you, O Lord,
that the fiery and sweet strength of your love
may absorb my soul
from all things that are under heaven,
that I may die for love of your love
as you deigned to die for love of my love."

~Saint Francis of Assisi

Monday, October 3, 2016

Contemporary Music: Industry or Community?

I have given attention for many years to contemporary music. This phrase is perhaps too broad to have more than a vague meaning. Much of this music involves highly diverse variations and styles. Yet there are some reasons why all these different types of sonic craftsmanship find themselves under the same big tent.

I have often struggled to identify the common elements that justify using the category "contemporary music" as something more than a merely temporal reference. One element, I think, is its usual creative vehicle: the electronic sound and rhythm ensemble, commonly known as the "band." (Yes, I am smiling and laughing at myself as I write these words --it seems rather nerdy to try to be so verbally complex about something like a band. But I am wearing my philosopher's cap at the moment.)

Contemporary music also straddles a line between three very difficult enterprises, artentertainment, and business. The result is that its most successful practitioners are under enormous pressure to be simultaneously artists, celebrities, and producers of marketable consumer products. They must create, record, perform, and sell not only music and songs, but also their own peculiar attractiveness as individuals and as a group, or at least their capacity to grab the attention of paying customers.

This is a lot to expect from often young musicians, and it's not surprising that "the music industry" crushes many of them, or compounds their own problems and raises them to a gigantic scale. This results in many wildly unstable artists who are physically and emotionally exhausted, incapable of sustaining healthy relationships, reckless in their habits, and addicted to drugs or alcohol. Too often it results in a musical "product" that is a glitzy sham, an arrangement of tricks and cliches packaged to enthrall the public appetite for cheap stimulation of the senses, vulgar novelty, and--of course--sexual titillation, distraction, and even violence.

Yet I not only pay attention to a lot of contemporary music. I like some of it very much. I've played a fair bit of it as well on my guitar, in bands and jam sessions. It would be superficial and unfair to simply dismiss all contemporary music. There is a lot of very good music being made today, music which succeeds on different levels depending on what it aspires to achieve. Even some artists whose lives have been broken by the excesses of the celebrity lifestyle have done remarkable work.

Contemporary music can be innovative, fascinating, fun, groundbreaking, exciting, and beautiful. Much of it is worthy of appreciation. In our time, I have new hope that artists will be able to break free from the dynamics of a merely functional "industry mentality" and express their creativity within a context that recognizes beauty as a value in itself.

Certainly artists need money and stuff, just like everybody else. Material wealth has its place, as do honor and appreciation. But the overarching motive of the musician must be to embody the creative intuition of beauty through the craft of shaping sound.

To ensure this, we need something more than a music industry. We need a music community.

[Stay tuned for more thoughts on music and the arts in upcoming posts.]

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Therese in the Arms of God

"It is enough to recognize one's nothingness and to abandon one's self like a child in the arms of God"
(Saint Therese of Lisieux).