Sunday, November 12, 2023

Christina Grimmie as Seen By the Eyes of a Catholic Christian

November is here again: the month in which we remember in a special way our departed brothers and sisters. My “list” of people I have known and loved who have passed away has gotten a lot longer since 2011, when I began this blog. Above all, it includes my two most faithful readers: my father and mother. There are also many relatives, friends, and mentors. So many people—known and unknown—have died, and so many things have changed.

This is the eighth November since the awful murder of the amazing young singer, songwriter, musician, and pioneering “YouTube star” Christina Grimmie. Images and sounds remain, and this reason alone would be enough to account for why I feel like addressing her in the first person, as if I could “write her a message.” Yet this is not the only reason. Sometimes I have the desire to “talk to” her, and I have reason to hope that she “hears me” within the fellowship we share in Jesus Christ. I’m not referring to anything directly empirical, of course. I don’t “see visions” or “hear voices,” nor would I want to try. I see Christ and hear His voice through His Church, and through the gift of the Holy Spirit that I beg for every day, the gift of faith that renews and deepens our hearts. Meanwhile, Christina has presented herself and all she wanted to say through her videos, in her words and songs and music. It is a blessing that these expressions of her personality and her love remain accessible to us. This accessibility makes me feel like I can say something to her in a seemingly natural way. In any case, I can share my words with my readers, which is obviously my intention and renders this whole exercise a “literary device,” though it is not only a literary device. I love this person, and I endeavor therefore to speak from my heart. Here are my words:


I have been “hanging out” with you, Christina Grimmie. I see you every day on frand accounts all over social media, as well as in my own virtual art workshop where I labor on digital portraits. With the ongoing explosion of AI technology, your media-iconic image multiplies, acquires greater clarity, and inspires new modes of creativity (screenshots from your videos were the starting points for the three diverse cartoon-style portraits in this blog, which were crafted using technological tools and filters but also lots of detailed work by hand on a virtual screen—I’m improving slowly with this new art form, but I’ve got a long way to go). You remain for me an inspiration and a “muse” in visual arts, poetry, writing, and more. Meanwhile, many people are still encountering you for the first time, being helped by your joyful smile, your gentle affirmation, and—of course—being amazed by your incredible voice and your music.

All of this remains deeply provoking, because you no longer live in this world. Your love, however, continues to resonate all over the audiovisual media that you helped to revolutionize in the second decade of this century. It remains a resonance that is precious, and I can understand why people want to affirm it and emphasize it as your legacy, so that you are remembered for more than being the victim of a shocking and terrible murder. It continues to be awful, scary, and traumatic to think about what was done to you. Still, the tragedy of your being taken from this world seven years and five months ago brings some kind of sorrow whenever we see and hear you, and it reawakens the profound question: “Why?” We find ourselves “suffering” these questions unavoidably: “Why do people live with so much precious, unique vitality… and then die? Why death? Why the ‘absence,’ the apparent breaking off of relationships that mean so much? Why the grief?”

These are questions provoked in us by the experience of an apparent “disconnection” between our hearts’ desire for a limitless goodness and the inadequacy of all the finite, so often narrow, so often disappointing things that preoccupy our lives. Since your death, Christina, I have endured a “season” of facing these hard questions. I never knew until my father died in 2019 that these questions could be so visceral and so disorienting in an almost-“physical” sense of dislocation that makes one feel confused and “dizzy,” like the world has “tilted” and everything is out of balance. That was 2019 for me. My world became strange and unprecedentedly “different” in 2019. 

In the following years between my father’s death and my mother’s in 2021, the whole world actually was plunged into unprecedented strangeness, confusion, and fear. The earth was stalked by a plague, a capricious grim reaper that “picked off” human beings in an unpredictable way, even with all the radical cautions desperately employed by frightened nations as medical experts tried to understand and learn to combat a terrible new disease. The Pandemic! Things eventually “returned to normal,” and no one wants to think anymore about the months of lockdowns, cancelled events, masks, barriers, social distancing. And yet, future pandemics are practically inevitable in the global village. Did the sufferings of 2020 make us more aware, more mature? Did we grow from this experience, or have we just been driven further into distractions, noise, and rootless living as we try to flee from the anxieties that press in on us?

Some people have nowhere to run. Yesterday’s pandemic has yielded to the monstrous wars of today: there are hostage-takings and murder, bombing of civilians, mass graves, crimes against humanity, and a systematic direct attempt at cultural genocide. Death is everywhere, and it weighs heavily in the air. It refuses to be ignored. For me personally, its most direct impact has been the loss of my parents, the deaths of some friends, and the tragic deaths of children of my friends… and your death, Christina. Your death, along with all the violence that surrounds us, provokes another very hard question: “Why do people kill other people?” Why do we kill one another and do violence to one another and ourselves? Why do we sin against God, recklessly driven by our own uncontrolled self-indulgence and covetousness, abusing and poisoning the created world to serve our own cupidity, and desecrating beautiful and unique human persons that God has given to us in His love—persons who bear the image of God, given to us to be our brothers and sisters?”

Even Christians who know that Jesus has conquered sin and death and who journey through this life with hope in His resurrection still suffer these questions and sorrows; our human fragility and vulnerability must follow a long process (through which the Holy Spirit is also at work) and we must trust in the Lord. The meaning of our lives is an unfolding mystery—an adventure that we participate in with all our energy, but that we cannot grasp, dominate, or take control over. Our lives belong to God, who fashions in an ineffable way even the very freedom that we value so much in our times. We try so hard to construct our freedom, to “make ourselves” by our own power, in isolated mastery, in illusions of pride and arrogance. We don’t realize that our freedom is given, and is made to embrace the One who made us, to share His eternal glory. Our freedom is made for love—a love that is real, that does not disappoint, but that exceeds our understanding. We learn more and more that the realization of freedom follows the path of utter dependence on God. This God is not a “big boss” who oppresses us. He is the God who gives us our very selves, who bursts and overflows all the categories we use when we try to describe Him. He is THE Mystery, but we are His children, and He makes us out of love. He is the Mystery who is Absolute Love.

Wow, this “message” to you, Christina, is just going all over the place. But my friends will attest that this is the way I write “real” messages, and the way I wrote letters for many years. I’m a hugely intense, serious person. If I had known you when you were alive on this earth, I probably would have driven you crazy. I surely would have challenged your legendary patience and magnanimity. I don’t know. If you were alive, there would be a little less sorrow for me, and your joy would have lightened my heart. 

But I would still be someone who thinks and talks about all the deep things in life. You had a simplicity, a sense of strong faith that spread light through everything you did, that took the form of kindness and merciful love toward YouTube people and then people in the mainstream music industry and above all your Team Grimmie frands. Your faith and love were amazing because you didn’t try to overpower people with them, but you also spoke in discrete moments—the “right moments”—and just enough to make clear that Jesus Christ was everything to you, that He was the great love that encompassed all your aspirations.

It’s mid-November 2023, and there are so many more “faithful departed” that I know personally than in the earlier eras of my life. Lots of people come to my mind and my prayers this month. 

My dear Christina, I remember you too. 

In the passage from death to the fullness of eternal glory, there is a mystery and a gift of God’s love that most of us need very much, a purification, which is what we Catholic Christians mean by “purgatory.” I know you were not Catholic in this life, but you were a Christian who sought follow Jesus and be faithful to Him according to the ways that had been given to you. Team Grimmie is an “ecumenical friendship,” and an inter-religious friendship that gathers together people from all over the world who have in common a love for your music and a fascination with your “extraordinarily ordinary” personality. You were normal, funny, goofy, down-to-earth while also being a fountain of joy and love that seems to be still flowing and gushing today. We are drawn to that mysterious and beautiful joy, which was so real, so “earthy” and inexplicable at the same time, so vulnerable and yet tenacious, such an unlikely combination of innocence and badassery intent on really being “in Hollywood” but not “of Hollywood,” walking the carpets and doing some of the fashions which was actually possible because you always carried yourself with such dignity, radiating a quality that held off objectification because it was a tenderness that disarmed people with its simplicity while also shining like a Queen, like a daughter of God. Then you would go off to eat junk food and play video games. 

There were no “labels” that could classify you, Christina Grimmie. You weren’t “perfect,” you made mistakes, you worried, you got frustrated. You also bore the sufferings of your Mom’s long struggle with cancer and your heart grew toward people who were suffering from all kinds of afflictions. You were full of goodness. Yet you weren’t “obvious,” and part of that was because you were just a kid (and eventually a 22-year-old woman) and you were still learning many things. You also were the most prodigious musical talent in your generation of pop music, with a spectacular singing voice. And plenty of people in Hollywood knew that. They also knew that they would never be able to own you. You had a strength they didn’t understand. You declared that clearly enough when you said, “Jesus Christ is the reason I can even sing. It’s not my voice, it’s His. And I will use it, win or lose, for His glory.” You knew that your music career and all your ambitions for success were shaped by a vocation, an “impossible vocation” that nevertheless is so desperately needed precisely today. You stayed faithful, did your best, and—above all—you loved and loved and loved and never grew tired of loving “everyone” that God gave you. You said that your frands were “gifts from God” entrusted to you for a reason. 

Because of that reason, because of that love, you opened your arms to welcome them and offer encouragement and a hug. You cherished the opportunity to meet them after your concerts, and would stay late into the night so that you could meet everyone. You marveled that Jesus had placed these people in your life, and you loved them with a gratitude that was almost like veneration. Every artist says they “love their fans” but you really loved them in a poignant and achingly beautiful way. You coined a term for them—not just “fans” but “friend-fans,” frands. This love was ardent and engaging without being possessive, without vanity. Many of the people you met, you “already knew” because you had communicated with them online. Before there was any concept of the “social media influencer,” Christina Grimmie, you had over three million followers on YouTube. You were the original “influencer” without intending to be. You blazed that trail too, but in a way that remains uniquely personal and unrepeatable.

You kept welcoming, hugging, stretching out your arms to people right up to the final moment when a man responded to your great heart by drawing a 9mm semiautomatic Glock pistol from out of his jacket and pumping bullets into your head and chest at point blank range. He then shot himself in the head. This is shocking and horrible. We can’t bear to think of it. But Jesus fulfilled His ministry by being crucified, by loving His Father to the end and imploring forgiveness for His executioners.

In the midst of all the horror and the blood and the evil of June 10, 2016, we see you, Christina, open, defenseless, offering love. Someday, we may perhaps see something of a “sign” in all of this? I cannot presume to declare that it was a sign, a sacrifice, a fulfillment of your great desire to be conformed to Jesus. “His glory” is something we on earth cannot see except with the eyes of faith, and we need to grow in that faith. So I declare nothing, but I do wonder about it.

Meanwhile, I’m a Catholic Christian who has no official authority to say anything, and I’m out of my depth in any analysis of the existential “darkness” of such intensity of love and sacrifice. If there is something to see here, it will become clear at the right time. Many people I knew in this world have died, and I pray for them all. I pray for all the “souls in purgatory,” whose needs are deeper and more essential than anything I can understand, but whom I know that I can help through the communion of the Church. I don’t presume that any of my departed brothers and sisters are beyond the need for these prayers and the constant solicitude of the whole Church (except of course those who have been beatified or canonized), but I trust that communion in Christ’s body endures between those who are still living their earthly journey and those who have “died in the Lord.” 

I know also that the Christian people often have a “sense” (in some cases stronger than others) that among those who have gone forth through death in Christ there are a few whose lives have “already” prepared them to see God in the fullness of His absolute glory and love. We have a sense that these people can “already” help us, and we find ourselves spontaneously relating to them in this way—but we don’t claim any right to “declare them saints.” We may have a desire that they be recognized by the Church, and we might even make a proposal that ecclesial authority consider the “holiness” of their lives. (I’m using lots of quotation marks in this text, not to imply that I doubt the realities within them, but because I don’t want to just breeze by these terms that are so much more fundamental and mysterious than we imagine them to be.)

So, yes, I pray for you, Christina, and for your Mom. May your souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.

Prayers for the dead are never “wasted.” They can be shared and given over to those who need them. Purgatory is a unique and difficult experience, but it’s also the dawn of victory, the beginning of the reign of Love that never ends. The faithful departed are “with Christ” and in purgatory He is “opening their eyes” and clearing away anything that remains of imperfection and distraction, anything that falls short of the happiness, the beatitude, of the direct vision of God, the fullness of our being-conformed to Christ. Catholic expressions may sound complicated to non-Catholic Christians, but they are all about grace and salvation and the glory of God in Jesus Christ. But you have already come to know all this, Christina. I’m repeating it for the benefit of those “looking over my shoulder.”

Christina, you certainly have a different profile from most “Catholic saints,” even among the recent young people from our own time. In fact, you are not like anyone I have ever seen or heard of in the six decades of my life, but then again these are unprecedented and turbulent times. I wonder very much about you, and I have the sense that there was something “heroic” about your way of loving and your perseverance in offering yourself for the glory of Christ. I am grateful to you beyond anything I can express. Your humanity has changed my life, and I think your witness has strengthened my hope in the face of my own death, which cannot be very far away from now. I’ll say this, for what it’s worth: if you had been Catholic during your brief time on this earth, I would drop all my other projects and devote myself to investigating whether it might be possible to propose your remarkable life and death as worthy of ecclesial recognition and honor. It sounds crazy thinking of you—the funny girl who made the “Lava Lamp” video—being declared a “saint” someday. It appears to be so “outside the box” of anything we’ve ever seen in the Catholic Church. But beneath the surface level of appearances, it’s not so strange at all. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has ever thought about this
Still, as it stands in reality, you weren’t a Catholic, and so there are whole tangles of questions and issues that would arise from ecumenical perspectives. Ecumenism is a historical path that will probably advance in slow steps over the course of many generations. The time is not yet ripe to carry out anything like what I have allowed myself to imagine here. Who knows? God willing, the future might open up new possibilities….

Meanwhile, I know that the Christian people need witnesses and examples like you, Christina, in these days when the world seems to be spinning out of control. It is a simple matter to see the greatness of your love for Jesus and for people of every kind. You still bring consolation and joy to me and many others today. You inspire me to wonder, and to thank the Lord for giving us a glimpse of His glory through you.