Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Mary's Maternal Protection

“Let us entrust the Church, ourselves and the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Let us pray for peace, for the end of the pandemic, for a spirit of penitence and for our conversion. Let us place ourselves with trust under her maternal protection" (Pope Francis — General Audience, May 12, 2021).

Monday, May 10, 2021

Christina Grimmie, Music, and Me: A Personal Story

[Credit to owners for the original pictures on which these artwork/designs are based.]

It doesn’t seem so long ago that I wrote about the phenomenon of Christina Grimmie for the first time. In fact, it has been nearly five years. I wrote with astonishment back in June 2016, because I had begun to realize that I had encountered something mysterious in the very last place I had ever expected to find it.

There seems always to be a cresting wave of young singers, musicians, artists, and performers full of talent and aspirations. I have kept my eye on it (more or less) for many years, but the wave is so big that no one can see everything that sparkles. And then the sparkles fade so quickly when the wave crashes onto the shore and the waters recede. It seems all a spectacle of momentary glitter, of ephemeral flashes of light that become monotonous and practically indistinguishable the more familiar you are with the shore. And then you begin to turn cynical when you start to realize how polluted the water has become.

How incredible it is when one day a diamond washes up on the beach.

I am descended from a long line of Opera lovers, and so it's not surprising that I love a "good show." As a musician who played many gigs in my youth, I also know that a lot of hard work goes into making a good show, and that "performance" isn't simply driven by an ego trip (though it can degenerate toward that). Performing artists have an irrepressible urge to give something beautiful and valuable to people, and the best ones have a kind of "genius" for it.

Performers are motivated by the ideal of a great show, but are often disappointed at its elusiveness. Even when achieved, it is soon forgotten and the public demands an even better show. Many performing artists find this pressure overwhelming (though there are a few who actually thrive on it). 

When I was young, I has musical aspirations that were quite strong, along with no small talent: I was classically trained on the cello, and played in my high school orchestra, Pittsburgh's All City orchestra, and a remarkable private venture called the Ozanam Jazz Group (we once shared the stage with the legendary Count Basie). Meanwhile, I was also self-taught on the guitar, jammed and played in garage bands, and wrote a number of instrumental songs. The musical road was a viable option for me to pursue as the decade of the 1980s began. But I had other options that were ultimately more compelling, that led me to pursue advanced academic studies, teaching, and the intellectual life. That doesn't mean I gave up music. I kept playing (though much less since the decline of my health) and I kept my eye on the musical world - both classical and popular - where I continued to discover much that was excellent. I also heard a lot of music of lesser quality and some that was just junk.

I have also seen a great deal of real talent spoiled: artists are simultaneously indulged  and overworked, their own vision thwarted and replaced with superficial material, their performances marred by excess and exhibitionism, cheap spectacle, emotional manipulation, smugness, confusion, nihilism, exhaustion. The big music world grows more monstrous (like everything in this epoch of power), more artificial, more banal.

I realize (from personal experience) that artists can be a bit wacky, and that you won't see creativity if you don't allow some "space" for their wackiness. I also know that performers are moved by an incessant impetus, a peculiarly talented but in some ways chaotic energy that requires immense effort for it to be forged into an integrated human virtue. Many great artists fall short, but I think we can appreciate their struggles and whatever beauty and goodness can be found in their ambivalent success without endorsing their weaknesses and failures, much less proposing them as moral exemplars. Even in the classical period, there were artists who wrote and performed sublime music but were much less admirable in the "art" of behaving like decent human beings.

Thus, I have continued to listen to all kinds of music, even as I mourn the plight of the artist-celebrity and note also the way it often spills over into his or her work. When I write about musicians and other artists on this blog, I don't usually recommend their stuff for your kids; certainly your kids need to learn discernment, and it is helpful if they grow up in a pedagogical environment that fosters the education of the heart to authentic freedom.

Still, I have always loved music overall, and I loved the drama of seeing people take the stage to sing or play their hearts out, putting themselves into an achingly vulnerable position because the deep human desire to be creative, to give something from their talents, to touch the mystery of creativity had stirred them to take such tremendous risks. I loved it, but I never expected to find anything more than good music and some signs of that exquisite, desperate but determined human longing for meaning, value, and permanence. I hoped that somehow the momentary flash of light on the foam of the wave that disappears might suggest to the desire of my heart that there is a beauty that endures, that prevails, that continues to shine.

But I never expected to find a diamond on the shore of the murky sea of popular music.

In 2016, I was living in a house full of teenagers. (It wasn't quite as bad as it sounds!😉) This was a Catholic Christian household that my wife and I did our best to sustain through prayer and charity and bounderies that were essential without being onerous (see the earlier years of this blog). We were trying to guide the kids to maturity within an atmosphere that would facilitate a deeper encounter and relationship with Jesus, a committed following of Him in the Church, and a renewed mind - not conformed to "the world" (i.e. the world of sin and its effects, the "structures of sin" that reject and oppose the love of God in Christ) but able to discern, to "test everything" and hold fast to the good. 

We weren't alone either. We also had an excellent school and a good community - not fanatical, not puritanical, but just solid, with some very special friends to help us to remember that we belonged to Christ.

It was far from a perfect home. I'm sure we made many more mistakes than we know. In any case, there was an abundance of music and movies in the house, and a variety of tastes, which made things confusing but also interesting. 

Meanwhile, in 2016 I was (and still am, somewhat) recuperating from a long illness. I spent some time studying and engaging with the constantly developing media technology and its various consequences, including the new possibilities that were being opened up for music. Mostly I was "put off" by the big pop stars, but places like YouTube were alive with creativity. If you were just tuning in to the scene, there was a lot going on by the middle of the last decade. It was easy to see Christina Grimmie as just one among many, from my (scattered, inattentive) vantage point. 

My focus in those days was drawn more to others, like that girl who danced and played electric violin (I mean Lindsey Stirling, of course) -- anyone who played a classical stringed instrument in my youth dreamed of being able to "plug in" and have the sonic "weight" to really jam. (When I was a kid, I bought a Radio Shack "transducer" for my cello: it was a suction cup with a cheap mike in it that you were supposed to stick on your instrument and plug into the stereo. Radio Shack did a lot to bring joy to my childhood... but not with this disappointing piece of low-tech!😜) Also, five, six, seven years ago, there were some YouTubers crossing over to the mainstream: back then I was more familiar with Tori Kelly and Alessia Cara (both terrific singer-songwriter-instrumentalists) than I was with Christina. (I still tell people to pay attention when they listen to Christina, to appreciate all the superb features and versatility of her voice.)

And then came June 10, 2016 ... and all the tributes and effusive praise and sorrow from famous people and ordinary people all over the Internet. That's when I realized I had to learn more about Christina. I found out how many YouTube videos she had, how far back they went, how "novel" all of these kinds of homemade webcam song covers were back in 2009. In the beginning, some people did karaoke covers for fun, but 15-year-old Christina made her own arrangements for her piano keyboard, and played them while she sang. She was making the videos herself, without fancy gadgets, with a simple microphone. She was a kid in her room in New Jersey, with a poster of Sonic the Hedgehog behind her on the wall, and she was making freaking history!

Christina's legacy is "history" in so many ways. She was an amazing person - which is ultimately more important - but what got my attention and helped me to see something of her great personality was her prodigious music.

From the beginning, in 2009, her voice was remarkable and her musicality was impressive. Then she rapidly began to mature even more in her vocals. Her dynamics are still among the best I have ever heard: from a booming belt to soft, gentle notes with flawless and apparently effortless transitions, Christina had incredible vocal control that didn't sound "controlling" or forced but almost spontaneous. Her head voice continued to expand and the resonance - already stunning - was widening out in her chest. By the age of 17, her voice was beautiful, stunning, brilliant, poignant, soothing, soulful - a magnificent instrument of the whole range of emotional expressiveness. 

The most amazing thing was that she was so young. Her potential as a vocalist was still developing. Recordings from her last concerts and live appearances suggest that she was rapidly growing more supple, richer in tone (if that's possible), and that her range was expanding. Christina loved to full-on belt, of course, and it made for some of her most epic moments. It was large pitch-perfect sound from such a small girl, but also a young girl. Something of that youthfulness remained in her belts, and if she had been granted the years to mature to her full adult stature, this would have grown into a kind of fullness that I can't even imagine. She would have shaken the earth.

The voice we did hear up to age 22 was, I believe, great enough and unique enough to establish her ineradicable musical legacy. I am quite sure that in the future she will be remembered and appreciated as one of the greatest singers of our time. She will certainly never go out of style. 

I have said a lot in previous articles about Christina's faith. I remember being really struck by how so many people (Christians and non-Christians alike) talked about the impact of her faith on them in those days following June 10, 2016. Yet it didn't seem like she mentioned it herself all that often. With a couple of exceptions, she didn't cover "Christian songs" at all. But she did speak about Jesus and refer to his love in moments when she was moved to express it. And as I watched more and more of the videos, I began to realize that her belonging to Jesus Christ was the foundation of everything she did. 

This was the secret of her vast magnanimous open-hearted humanity. She was utterly genuine. She was unscripted. Shy at first, then funny, goofy, direct, self-deprecating... until she started playing and singing with intensity, focused passion, and... I feel like I want to say... "authority." She "owned" the songs she sang and played - not only those of her own composition but also her covers (which were often just plain better than the originals, but were always presented and articulated in her own inimitable way).

When Christina did have something to say by way of advice or encouragement - whether on YouTube or her busy and very interactive Twitter page - there was power in her words. She was simple, direct, personal, strong, tender, loving, and wise - without ever ceasing to be an approachable teenager/young-adult who was at home with her adolescent frands, and open to everyone. She might use a simple common phrase, but - coming from her - even apparent clichés like "be yourself" were the opposite of evasive generalizations. We know that absolutely everybody says "be yourself." But from Grimmie, you hear it differently. It suddenly comes alive, like a provocation and a challenge.

At a certain point, it began to dawn on me that I was no longer "educating myself about someone important in music and media" in the first half of the last decade. I was meeting a real person and she was helping me see things in a new way. She was helping me to recognize the love of God shining in places I knew nothing about, or places I might have considered "too dark" for any light to make a way. She was convincing me that the people "on the margins," people with unremarkable lives, people with problems, sick people, disabled people - people like me - really do matter. We are loved. I am loved.

And this love is greater, stronger, "deeper" than death.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

"You Are Beside Me"

"In life, the worst anxiety, arises from the sensation of not being able to cope. We need Jesus’ help. And so we can say to Him: 'Jesus, I believe you are beside me and that you are listening to me. I bring to you my troubles. I have faith in you and I entrust myself to you'" (Pope Francis).

Friday, May 7, 2021

Hong Kong: A New Phase of Suffering and Patience

In Hong Kong, the Repression against the pro-Democracy movement goes on, through the relentless machinery of the Chinese Communist PartyState's bureaucracy and its implementation and enforcement of codified decrees (which has been called "Lawfare"). Arrests continue to be made on alleged violations of "national security." Meanwhile, convictions and heavy sentences are still being handed down in relation to the 2019 protests.

The remarkable young activist Joshua Wong - already serving a prison term for one protest - had his sentence extended on a further conviction for another protest. He also faces charges under the new National Security Law.

He may end up spending a long time behind bars as Beijing continues the crackdown which is dismantling what was left of Hong Kong's autonomous status. My hope and prayer is that Joshua Wong (following in the tradition of the practice of Non-Violence) will endure suffering in prison with hope, and allow it to form him as a mature, magnanimous, and wise statesman for the future. 

There will be much need of him, and others of his generation, to be leaders in the future when, God willing, the time will be ripe for Hong Kongers (and others) to attain political freedom.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Vine and Branches

"Dear friends, each one us is like a branch that can live only if, through daily prayers, participation in the Sacraments and charity, we can boost our union with the Lord. Whoever loves Jesus, the true vine, bears the fruits of faith for an abundant spiritual harvest. Let us beseech the Mother of God that we may remain firmly connected to Jesus and that all our actions have in Him the beginning and the end" (Benedict XVI, on today's gospel). .

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

"Not as the World Gives..."

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).

Monday, May 3, 2021

Jesus is the Way to the Father

May 3rd honors Saints Philip and James, two of the Twelve Apostles (this is the younger James - not the son of Zebedee - but "James the Less"). They are joined together in the Roman calendar because of the basilica that was built on the site of their relics (bones), which were brought to Rome and reinterred there in ancient times. The basilica today is called Santi Apostoli
In the liturgy for today's celebration, we read in the Gospel the second part of the introduction to the what have been called the "farewell discourses" of Jesus (John, chs 14, 15, and 16). These words are spoken only to the Lord's closest companions, as the setting indicates (it is on the way to Gethsemane, following the Last Supper). The discourse of John 14:1-14 can be seen as an identifiable "segment" within the teaching presented in these three chapters. Everyone would agree on the crucial significance of Jesus's words here.

In vv 1-6 it is Thomas who asks the decisive question (and we read this part of the gospel last Friday). Today, Philip the Apostle asks the question that permits Jesus to provoke the disciples (and us) once again with the stunning, mysterious, and in a sense "overwhelming" affirmation of who He is.

We bring our questioning hearts before the Lord every day, begging for the fullness of life. Jesus continually reminds us, "I am the way and the truth and the life." So often we are afraid in a world where God seems to be absent, but Jesus draws close to us through the sacraments and through His presence in the companionship we share as members of His Body, the Church, and He says, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."

The Holy Spirit gives us the grace to seek Jesus, hope in Him, trust that His presence is sufficient for us no matter how difficult the circumstances we face. God has drawn close to us, walks with us, stays with us, and draws us into union with Himself.

The gift of God in answer to our hearts is Himself. He is so much more than we ever would have imagined; He is infinitely beyond any possibility we can grasp by our own power. But His compassion is boundless. His infinity is the infinity of Love. He has promised to give us whatever we need to attain the fullness of His joy which is our destiny.

When I was younger, I had a Cistercian monk from Holy Cross Abbey in Berryvilke, Virginia as my "spiritual father" (we lived closer to the monastery in those days). After confession, he always gave me as penance the task of prayerfully reading chapters 14, 15, and 16 of the Gospel of John. As you can imagine, that takes a bit longer than saying "three Hail Marys." But I think Father Edward (may he rest in Christ's peace) considered this reading to be more a joyful than a burdensome penance, and he was right.

We will hear most of these three chapters during the daily liturgy between now and Pentecost, as we prepare to welcome the Holy Spirit who opens our minds and leads us into the truth these words express. Especially during these precious days of the Easter Season, we will be greatly blessed by these Scriptures. Our attention to them will bear abundant fruit.

Here I represent John 14:1-14, the Gospel texts from last Friday and today's liturgy, the words spoken by Jesus to Saint Philip, Saint James, and the other Apostles:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“'Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
In my Father’s house
there are many dwelling places.
If there were not, would I have told you
that I am going to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come back again and take you to myself,
so that where I am you also may be.
Where I am going you know the way.'
Thomas said to him,
'Master, we do not know where you are going;
how can we know the way?'
Jesus said to him,
'I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
If you know me
then you will also know my Father.
From now on you do know him 
and have seen him.'
Philip said to him,
'Master, show us the Father,
and that will be enough for us.'
Jesus said to him,
'Have I been with you for so long a time
and you still do not know me, Philip?
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
How can you say, "Show us the Father?"
Do you not believe that I am in the Father
and the Father is in me?
The words that I speak to you
I do not speak on my own.
The Father who dwells in me 
is doing his works.
Believe me that I am in the Father
and the Father is in me,
or else,
believe because of the works themselves.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever believes in me
will do the works that I do,
and will do greater ones than these,
because I am going to the Father.
And whatever you ask in my name, I will do,
so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
If you ask anything of me in my name, 
I will do it.'"

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Christian Faith is a "Universal" Call to Love

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and He wants to be with us - with each and every one of the human persons He has created and redeemed. But "where" is He? There is so much to say about this question. I will take up different aspects of it in other posts.

Let us begin by acknowledging that Christ's presence endures visibly and efficaciously in the community of believers who adhere to Him throughout history, who are gathered by His shepherds - the successors of His original companions and eyewitnesses, the Apostles, in communion with - and under the leadership of - the successor of Peter. The is the Church, where Jesus gives Himself concretely to human beings and forms them into His people. We are thus distinguished (beginning with our new birth in the sacrament of Baptism) from other people, as a sign and instrument of God's presence and love which are for everyone, and which everyone needs in the depths of their being. We are distinguished - as "members of Christ's body" - not so as to be separated from the human race as a whole, but to be companions to everyone, to be brothers and sisters to one another and to everyone. 

In following Jesus, we are called to love everyone He places on the path of our lives with great esteem, respect, attentiveness, and patience; like us, they are journeying toward their destiny and we have much to learn from the riches of their traditions and the aspirations and struggles of their experiences. Love also impels us to an intelligent and articulate witness about ourselves. As Christians, we will invariably overflow with this testimony to the foundation of our own lives in Christ, in whom we have found the pervasive presence of the Mystery, corresponding to the whole scope of our humanity, of human reason and freedom. 

We will speak about and propose to non-Christians the joy of Christ and His redemption within the concrete circumstances of our human relationships with these people, according to the particular ways that the Holy Spirit leads us. Our growing relationship with God empowers us to be His instruments according to God's wisdom and God's working within the persons He entrusts to us. Prayer and love are the sources of evangelization.

Today there are billions of people who live their lives and search for meaning, not knowing Jesus but nevertheless prompted and shaped inwardly by mysterious graces that are at least preparing them for their ultimate, decisive encounter with Him - and which may even effect some secret encounter and response in their hearts which is mysterious to us and not explicitly understood by them. We have no claim to power over them, and we can learn from them and their efforts to express the mysterious ways of God. We love them, and gladly call them brothers and sisters because we belong to the One who is calling them and who continues to call us to follow Him as we journey through this life together.