Paul Simon, The Voice of American Wandering, In Concert

Paul Simon played at Merriweather Post Pavilion last Friday with a full band, and I had the pleasure of seeing him and his opener Sarah MacLachlan, a singer I’ve seen twice, with my sister. Simon is a master and his presence fills the stage.

In his 70s, that legend of the 60s was swaying on stage, nodding and stretching out his arms, bobbing his wrist to simultaneously conduct the band. He led with his fingers and his chest like a much younger man.

The instruments: Mandolins, accordions, xylophones, trumpets and the staples: drums, a piano, and guitars. Some sea shells added sound too and a chime that looked like it was made out of spoons, although it surely wasn’t.

The crowd was mostly white, old and young. We sat and stood, bounced and bobbed, cheered and called.

He played my favorites: America, The Boxer, Graceland, Homeward Bound, Call me Al, many I did’t know and finally, alone on stage, The Sound of Silence–the classic that drew me into Simon and Garfunkle in my freshmen year of college.

There is no word for Paul Simon but master: he moves and commands attention with that easy grace of someone fully self-possessed, with the comfort that lacks self-consciousness and hesitance. His twirling wrist signaled the band and his hips moved with his guitar, whether it was acoustic or electric.

He carries that hard-won air of someone who has passed through the stages of craft and relationship:  1) being enamored with music, sound and fame–then 2) the ever-looming disillusionment at the pitfalls of an industry, fickle audiences and imperfect others, and then finally 3) to fully embrace the American musical scene as an institution and his role within it. To be a master, he didn’t abandon music or the audience, but took up his instruments and his listeners–the imperfections and all, and loved American folk music and its people, thereby lifting it–and us–to a higher level.

That’s what a true master does–he doesn’t abandon the imperfect world to seek a purified craft, but embraces the whole endeavor and so raises the water-level of the culture.

Paul Simon’s America

Simon’s music has wandered decades; he’s been and is the voice, the poet of America. His chords are the anthems of American folk music and the playlist of my dishwashing. The lyrics frequently touch on the peculiarities of the life of the poor. The Boxer for instance, tells the story of a young man gone out to seek his fortune;

“Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places only they would know.”

Simon’s heritage, the New York Jew, the Yankees fan, the hippie all bring together strains of America that unite our disparate factions and allow us to remember and cherish the collective past, something our nation often seems to struggle with.

Somehow, we believe that we are a class-free society, that one person can strive and rise, bootstrap-style to upper echelons. We are cantankerous; hard work is its own reward; we welcome the stranger, but aren’t afraid to put up our fists when we have to.

Wandering

Yet we are also highly individualistic and have a sub-culture of roaming–whether for itself or transplanting for work. There is a roaming spirit in Simon’s music that I think speaks for America, for that impulse to strike out alone, to wander, to be pilgrims, in a way, never quite at home.

The wandering spirit pops up in other areas of culture; I think of Jack Kerouac, On the Road and The Dharma Bums. More recently, writer Mary Karr surfed as an idealistic young woman before heading to college after a terrifying encounter hitchhiking. The drive to get up and go, to seek, seems part of our cultural ethos, or maybe it’s just a strain that interests me.

There is nevertheless always a tension or a balance between wandering and stability. The ability to tramp around depends on the stability of most of society–otherwise whose trains would they jump onto? Whose fields would feed them? But the wandering impulse is also a check to a way of a life which has forgotten to wonder.

When I think of the wandering pilgrimage type of life I course cannot help but think of St. Francis and the medieval European pilgrims trailing about from place to place, Canterbury or St. Juan Compostela. We are pre-programmed to search, and that makes sense to  me. Though I live in my home-metropolis, I still search.

But back to Paul Simon: what he captures to me is that wandering spirit, of seeking, of longing, and in the American voice, the poor pilgrim always searching out home. To see him was an honor, a legend who set the water-mark.

Questions: Do I have it right? What do you think of Paul Simon? Is there someone else who also or instead epitomizes American music? Who is your favorite music artist? what does that person’s work mean to you?

Why A Catholic College is Good for Intellectual Freedom, My essay from the Cardinal Newman Society: Origins of Dissent in Catholic Universities

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Originally published by Catholic Education Daily, an online publication of The Cardinal Newman Society

http://www.cardinalnewmansociety.org/CatholicEducationDaily/DetailsPage/tabid/102/ArticleID/4901/Finding-the-Origins-of-Today%E2%80%99s-Dissent-in-Catholic-Colleges.aspx

“On April 18, students at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., and at the graduate campus in Alexandria, Va., welcomed a calm and unassuming young priest with closely shaven blond hair to talk about the origins of dissent at U.S. Catholic colleges. The history and the events described during the presentation help to understand the many Catholic identity problems seen on college campuses today…

“The story began in April 1967, a few short years after the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965. Father Charles Curran, a young theology professor at CUA, taught openly that Catholics ought to follow their conscience, even if it differed from the teachings of the Magisterium. Fr. Curran caught special attention because his field was moral theology, and he focused on sexual ethics and contraception.

“The bishops on the board of trustees of CUA tried to quietly oust the nontenured professor by not renewing his contract. Fr. Curran responded by heading straight to the press and followed up by igniting a protest that included both students and faculty. Fr. Mitchell pointed out that Fr. Curran’s protest tapped into widespread resentment among faculty about an overly authoritarian style of leadership from the pre-Vatican II hierarchy, thus adding cultural fuel to the fire.

“Within a legitimately pluralistic society, the faithfulness of a Catholic college strengthens rather than diminishes its ability to make a unique contribution to the intellectual community and the nation at large. Fr. Mitchell argued that a “Catholic” university is no less for being Catholic; rather it is a university in the fullest sense, “dedicated to teaching the truth, seeking to understand rightly the meaning of academic freedom and tolerance for diverse opinions.”

The specific, magisterial methodology for the theological and philosophical disciplines indeed sets Catholic universities apart; it is also what gives them their distinctive character. Authentic theology models a way of investigating truth in a clear manner, albeit different from narrow interpretations of a rationalist scientific method that tend to predominate at secular universities.

The Catholic faith teaches that truth has but one source, that all truth comes from and points back to God. So there is nothing to be lost from different approaches, provided they are honest and reasonable.

The freedom to be truly Catholic is just as American as freedom of religion itself, the first clause of the First Amendment. Being a Catholic university, then, means holding to the fullness of the faith, including loyalty to the Magisterium (which in no way prevents lay people from recognizing real faults in the actions of priests and bishops themselves). There is nothing threatening, unfree or un-American about letting a Catholic university be Catholic. It exists as an expression of the freedom to seek truth in differing ways, essentially an embodiment of pluralism at its best.

 

– See more at: http://www.cardinalnewmansociety.org/CatholicEducationDaily/DetailsPage/tabid/102/ArticleID/4901/Finding-the-Origins-of-Today%e2%80%99s-Dissent-in-Catholic-Colleges.aspx#sthash.0q1NDXJp.dpuf

Questions: This definitely goes against conventional wisdom. Do you buy it? Can a Catholic College be a good thing for pluralism?

 

Christ Crucified and Racial Solidarity

I’d like to share the video of the master’s thesis presentation of a friend of mine, Nic Don Stanton-Roark at Anderson University School of Theology. He addresses “Politics and Eucharist,” explaining why the Church’s celebration of the eucharist is a political act beyond secular understandings of politics as statecraft. It establishes a distinct community with different organizing principles than the state.

Further, following Nic’s work has contributed more than anything else toward shifting my understanding of race relations in America. That and reading Ruby K. Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Gradually, I came to see how deeply entrenched racial tension is as it is lived out over the generations. It’s not that all white people consciously hate all black people. It is true, however, that being white meant our parents and grandparents benefited in certain ways whereas being black meant that that person’s parents and grandparents were harmed in certain ways. Our status and means are handed down to us from our parents. My grandparents who went to college on the GI Bill and received a home loan handed more to my own parents than the black family could who was quietly denied home loans because of their race during the Jim Crow period.  These are hard things to realize, but they are true and there is a reason the ghettos formed in inner cities.

Racism is not at all inconsequential or a relic of history, and it’s something that Christians ought to care about because we believe that all human beings are made in the Image of God and be treated as beloved children of God.

Nic’s thesis discusses the political implications of the crucifixion of Jesus as both a state execution and a mob lynching. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to say the least, and I think it’s one of the best reasons I’ve heard articulated for why Christians ought to be inherently suspicious of the state, and also why racial solidarity is a key issue for Christians. (Not to say that the state never does anything good; we are rightly grateful for roads, basic civil order, enforceable contracts, etc. We must admit though that governments can and do abuse their power and do so quite frequently.)

Watch. Consider. Thoughts?

Nic is on Twitter https://twitter.com/ExilePolitics

All four videos  are at this link and also below. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrgMXcHLEgpgO2yRp3ddX0Q/videos

My essay in America Magazine: A Gospel for the Middle Class?

My first printed article in a pretty big publication was this essay about poverty, having money and being Christian. It sprang from my own ponderings over Christ’s words in the Gospels about giving up material possessions and the conflict I felt with my own middle class life. The full article is available online here.

I’m still not sure I am doing it right, but we are trying. Here’s an excerpt:

“The Gospel is indeed a message of liberation from earthly suffering aimed at all people, especially those who suffer the most. This naturally comes as welcome news for men and women living with the hardships of poverty. In contrast, for those in the middle class this present life may be so good that they see little need to hope for something beyond what this world has to offer. A “good life” can easily become centered on accumulating more goods, which can distract from eternal realities.

“Still, Jesus’ message is for everyone, and everyone includes homeowners and wage earners. As St. John Paul II put it in his encyclical “Centesimus Annus”: “It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life, which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward ‘having’ rather than ‘being’” (No. 36). To put it another way, having a full refrigerator and dresser is not itself problematic. What ails the Christian life is instead an avaricious desire that places ultimate value in possessions, status and acquiring. Ultimate value stems from God alone.

“Christ teaches us about the proper ordering of values later in the Sermon on the Mount. Directly following the exhortation “Do not worry,” Jesus says: “For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:32-34). The key here is in that last sentence. God must come first in our lives, but he knows we need worldly goods, so he provides them as well. Regarding this passage, St. Augustine says in his “Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount” (2.16.53):

When he said that the one is to be sought first, Jesus clearly intimates that the other is to be sought later—not that it is to be sought at a later time but that it is to be sought as a thing of secondary importance.

“Jesus is not saying that we ought not to work to supply our human needs of food, clothing and shelter. That would be irresponsible if we have the means to provide for ourselves and others. What it means is that our efforts to meet our physical needs must be subordinated to our highest good, which, Christ tells us, is to seek God’s kingdom. When that is our primary motivation and ordering principle, everything else will fall into its rightful place.”

-Full article printed in America Magazine, Nov. 9, 2015

Available online here.

Three Reasons No One Should Be Disappointed with Pope Francis’s Visit

[From my post on the Truth and Charity Forum of HLI]

The Pope has surprised a number of committed Catholics by his talking points, mostly because he did not focus too heavily on abortion. However, it should come as no surprise that Pope Francis focused on many of the same themes from Laudato Si, his first encyclical, such as the environment, immigration, ending the death penalty, ending arms proliferation and human trafficking, and supporting the poor and marginalized. These issues are generally given more emphasis by more liberal Catholics (and non-Catholics).

Of course, the pope has also mentioned the hallmark conservative causes, particularly the importance of the family and the sacredness of human life, but not anything against abortion or same-sex marriage by name. R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, called the speech to Congress “modest” and said that, “Francis discourages conservative Catholics, more by silence than anything else. He encourages progressives, both by his silences and his affirmations.”

francisThat seems to sum up the reaction of many faithful Catholics to Pope Francis’s visit: disappointment that he didn’t shore them up or champion their causes.

However, I don’t think such downtroddenness is appropriate for three reasons:

The first is that “popes speak Vatican-ese,” as a Jesuit priest and professor of mine Fr. Gerald Fogarty once put it. The pope is head of a worldwide Church with many different cultural, national and ethnic sensitivities that they seek to balance in their pronouncements. It is rare for popes to come out with guns blazing, naming specific condemnations of specific national laws and policies. Pope Benedict did discuss abortion and Pope Francis did mention immigration by name, but he also linked it with the wider refugee crisis of displaced persons fleeing the Middle East. His concern is global, as the Church is global.

Read the whole thing here: http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/three-reasons-no-one-should-be-disappointed-with-the-popes-visit-to-america/

Did you see Pope Francis? Did you listen to or read any of this talks? What did you think?

Welcome Pope Francis, the Man Who Walks the Walk

The Pope, himself!

I am very excited for Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S. that includes Washington D.C. (hi!), New York, and Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families.

Pope Francis is the second pope since I’ve been a Catholic. I loved Benedict XVI, see my post on his Jesus of Nazareth series, but I love Pope Francis too! In his way of life, he captures a lot of the shock but also sincerity of Christ’s teachings, and people are drawn to him. The pope recently called for all parishes and monasteries to open their doors to refugees from the Middle East. Few people realize that Pope Pius XII also did this for Jews during World War II. This is using the office well, and it’s inspiring to see.

The pope will arrive in Washington next week on Wednesday, September 23. I doubt I will be able to manage the logistics of lining up to see his parade on the mall, but I wish I could! Pope Francis will meet with the President, pray at St. Matthews and canonize Junipero Serra later at the National Basilica.

More information about his Washington visit is available here from the Archdiocese of Washington.

http://adw.org/2015/09/10/archdiocese-of-washington-announces-parade-route-for-pope-francis-in-washington/Then he’s off to New York and Philly. The pope’s full schedule is online at the USCCB’s office.

http://www.usccb.org/about/leadership/holy-see/francis/papal-visit-2015/2015-papal-visit-schedule.cfm

Welcome Pope Francis! from Stephanie, at this little blog.