Video & Song: I heard the Voice of Jesus Say

Music and the Spiritual Life

I have found that music has a profound ability to remind me of truths and lift me out of a dark mood. Also, as I reflect on it, I realize that the Christian musical canon had a more formative impact on my development than I realized.

In school, I did chorus, and we learned plenty of medieval and Celtic music. Sometimes the lyrics were Christians, sometimes not.

In church, I began to recognize the melodies of many hymns because they were the same traditional ballads carried over from the old countries and brought to new life and reshaped by new communities with new lyrics.

It’s both a cultural phenomenon and purely beautiful. I credit my exposure to medieval music and chant as one of the primary reasons I never dismissed the Catholic Church as just archaic and weird. The beauty that rose from the tradition in music and art was already part of my own foundation.

One of my favorite songs I first learned as a celtic ballad and then relearned it as a hymn: “I heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” It’s one I sing to my kids at night

A formal choir version is in the video above. What do you think? Do you have favorite hymns, spiritual songs or others that just put you in the right place?

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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?

When Truth is Disturbing: Another Look at Wuthering Heights and the Purpose of Literature

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Flannery O’Connor

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, drew me in immediately, pulling me through every lurid page. Yet I felt oddly uncomfortable about how much I liked it as it is populated by selfish, angry, dysfunctional characters, only one of whom possesses much of a moral compass.

Like a good Catholic (I say that sarcastically), I tend to want to spend to time reading things that will edify or offer some great insight or meaningful lesson to take away, which I usually look for in Christian themes or uplifting messages. But this is exactly the attitude that Flannery O’Connor excoriated in her 1965 essay, “The Catholic Reader and the Catholic Novel,” in which she skewered the legions of “pious trash” that Catholics have written and that Catholics read. O’Connor argued that good art or literature has to be good in and of itself–that is, it must also be true. Something that disregards basic truths or doesn’t testify to them fully will inevitably be bad–no matter how pious.

She says, quoting Aquinas, “a work of art is good in itself…this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten.” When she cites him, she (and he) mean “good” in the metaphysical sense–that is the worth of the art comes from itself, not just from its relation to ideas we approve of. Goodness is one of the transcendentals; the others are truth, unity and beauty. Goodness, in this sense, is its desirability in so far as it exists, its ability to attract and move the will. It is a property co-existent with being, one that is not dependent on our feelings about it. To my judgement, “goodness” in a work of art will correlate with one or both of two things: its beauty and its truth.

In written work, with the exceptions of certain poetry, the value defaults to coming from truth. Then the value of being a Catholic writer or a Catholic work doesn’t come from having “uplifting” themes, but from being true, of offering real insight into reality and human understanding. Many secular works succeed at this; many Christian ones fail.

But, Catholic belief should be an effective instrument that contributes to a work’s goodness. Far from a shackle, O’Connor says, “dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.” She further explains: “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.” Thus the Church’s understanding of the span of natural and supernatural realities is a magnificent insight that aids the artist or viewer in seeing and composing a true picture of the world.

Nevertheless, she says, the artist must still use her own eyes. The Church offers an extension of sight, not a replacement. O’Connor cautions that “When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.” Just like grace does not exclude free will, the Catholic vision still demands the vision of the writer him or herself. Her insight is that Catholic literature is really anything that is true, but that something that pursues the whole scope of reality will inevitably be better. I think here of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Having established that good art is true. That leads me back to Wuthering Heights. Someone as wretched as the abusive Mr. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights still offers us a great catholic value; Healthcliff shows us a dark side of humanity, an anti-hero whose love, while real, is distorted and disordered and plays out to the harm of the generations, the cast of characters whom he taints.

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Book Review: L’Engle’s Walking on Water – Overly Lofty

9780804189293In one sense, Madeleine L’Engle’s “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art,” was pleasant to read and stroked my ego as as a wanna-be writer. Parts of it were inspiring. Overall, however, I found it insipid and overly foofy; it talks of writing and art in the loftiest of idealistic prose, as the highest reaches of human meditation and striving.

In a sense, I agree with most of it. But an idealization of the writing vocation is only a tenth of the story. The other nine-tenths are work, the basic discipline of hitting the nail with the hammer every single day. In this sense, it’s like any other skill or job, one where talent and know-how deepen as experience progresses.

Here’s an example of what I didn’t like:

“The world of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, is inimical to the secular world, and in total opposition to it, for it is interested not in limited laboratory proofs but in truth.” (46)

I love fairy tales and fantasy far more than the average fellow, but science is not something to dismiss. I am not a scientist, but I suspect that a tech-minded reader might react defensively, “Hey that’s what my lab tests are all about–truth.” Of course scientific methodology excludes philosophy, meta-narrative claims, but the whole purpose is to learn true things about how the universe works in order to understand it better. This mentality oversteps when we view ourselves as masters of the universe, meant to tame it. But in general, I would say science and laboratory experiments are at the service to truth, a different approach to understanding our world. I think it throws the baby out with the bathwater to pit science in opposition to truth, as if creative types have some sort of lock on that.

Then there was this:

“In art, we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.” (47)

Bleck. I am an idealistic person, and I am sympathetic to what she is getting at, which I take to be that art or creativity is an attempt at knowing or expressing truth. Seeking the fullness of truth can be understood as a sort of prayer or connection with reality aka God. That striving to speak truth can bring the speaker to the heights of human calling.

But. I find L’Engle’s language so over-the-top as to discredit it. It’s as if she divinizes the artist himself rather than showing him as a mere human glimpsing at participation with the divine–which is really the intention. Much of life, and I suspect much of an artist’s life, is spent in murky misunderstanding, darkness and trials, and the prosaic daily activities of buying materials, preparing food and changing sheets. Even the highest peaks of sublimity in creation pass unnoticed because the artist is so absorbed in the act. Never is she really conscious of “moving unfettered among the stars.” Maybe L’Engle is, and that sounds amazing.

But the work of other writers and artists, such as Stephen King and Flannery O’Connor, who have explained their craft, spend more time focusing on the process, on the work, of being surprised by the product despite their best plans. So while the artist does do some amazing co-creation, it is rather unknowable. My concern is not that L’Engle is wrong, but that the tone is deceptive.

Artists are not really a breed set apart for transcendental experience, but rather fellow stumblers along the road. More accurate would be Oscar Wilde who said, “We are all lying the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Continue reading

8 Things that Make a Good Day

To tell the truth, I often agonize over how to spend my time: what is the right balance of work/play/socializing, etc etc etc. But there is something that helps me. The moral philosophers from Aristotle into the present day always ask what is the good–that which promotes man’s flourishing?

So I ask myself: what is good? What is flourishing? I think monks flourish. It’s no secret that I admire the avowed religious life very much.  But I think everyday lay people in cities and countries can flourish too. So what’s that like?

But what are the actual daily activities that comprise a life well spent?

  1. Loving relationships-spouse, friends, children, parents, churches, organizations, civic life. The people we love tie us together and are worth spending time with and enjoying.
  2. Cooking and eating – food is part of life, and a good part. Cooking it, enjoying and it and sharing it combine an connection with the source of food and sustenance, enjoyment and community, a chance to share partake in those relationships mentioned in 1.
  3. Enjoying art – music, books, visual art, etc. Beautiful things, natural or man-made, invite us to appreciate life simply as it is and sometimes to contemplate the source of the beauty. Man-made art adds a layer of human reflection to contemplation.
  4. Maintaining the goods of our lives – our homes, our tools, our clothes, aspects of our communities etc. It shows care and gratitude to repair and clean the things that contribute to our lives. It keeps us grounded to provide for own physical needs and that of others.
  5. Creating – contributing our gifts to something new and meaningful, be it pottery, gardening, painting, writing, carpentry. This work also contributes to our community and engenders mutual flourishing
  6. Exercising – Care for the body that allows us to live and move is so important
  7. Being in nature, even if it’s just the yard or garden, or gazing at the sky from our city balcony. Watching and interacting with creation is both an appreciation of beauty, and it reminds us of what it real and the forces of the earth which are more powerful than we are.
  8. Spirituality – in addition to appreciating the beautiful and loving one another, to attempt to and to commune with God, the source of all, restorer of all and our own maker, is the simplest grounding there can be.  (PS there is a short-cut, the sacraments, the Bible and the Catechism)

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Wordy Wednesday: The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats

lake-isle-innisfree-irelandI used to hate poems and most “literature,” even though I loved reading and stories. But by the time I was finishing my undergraduate program, I had finally come to the realization that perhaps, maybe, poetry might be more than gibberish arrangements of the English lexicon.

Since art, faith and culture gracefully co-mingle in practice and in the quest for beauty, truth and goodness, perhaps some poems might be apt for this blog, particularly for their enjoyment.

Without further ado, one of my current favorites, The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Yeats (d. 1939) was Irish and Innisfree is an unihabitated island there that he spent summers on during his childhood. Yeats said he had inspiration once upon being reminded of that place to go there and live as Thoreau did in Walden in the U.S. (He didn’t actually do it though).
I like this poem because I have similar fantasies of living alone in nature like a monastic hermit. And I like the line “peace comes dropping slow,” because it reminds me of the honey which is mentioned in the first stanza.
Well, that’s all. Not an especially “deep, hidden meaning” here,  though I can be game for those too.
What do you think? Can poetry be fun? Is it always mind-mindbogglingly deep? Or perhaps always a load of blarney?

Catholic Poet, Dana Gioia, Reads at CUA and Calls on Catholics to Revive Their Place in the Arts

Poetry is far from dead, according to faithful poet Dana Gioia

On Friday, April 22, 2016 at Catholic University of America, Keane Auditorium was brimming with eighty students and locals and their quiet conversations as they awaited not a party but a poetry reading by renowned contemporary poet Dana Gioia, wearing a gray suit and pink tie, looking completely at his ease as honored guest, poet and speaker.

(Image from Catholic World Report)

As a few more stragglers joined the room and took their seats, a hush fell, and Gioia began the reading, or recitation more accurately, as he narrated most of the poems without checking the text, and when he did steal a glance at the pages, it was only occasional. Gioia shared twelve poems with personal introductions from his new book: “99 Poems, New and Selected.” One of them, “The Angel with the Broken Wing,” used first person perspective to the tell the story of a mexican carved angel that was vandalized during the persecutions and then removed from its ritual context and placed in a museum. “The staff finds me too fierce, and so they shut Faith’s ardor in this air-conditioned tomb,” read the end of its first stanza.

The introductory context he provided to each poem gave key interpretational clues. Afterwards, he took questions for almost thirty minutes, some regarding the role of the Catholic faith in the arts, a topic Gioia is well-known for addressing. In his 2013 landmark essay in First Things, “The Catholic Writer Today,” Gioia noted the decline of the presence of Catholics in the literary arts, a trend which seems to be met with mutual disinterest by both the Church and the secular arts establishment.

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3 Principles for Pro-Faith Education (From T&C)

A recent piece of mine from the Truth and Charity Forum, “3 Principles for a Pro-Faith Education in the Modern Age,” in which I reflected on the most basic of basics of what I think kids need to learn in order to grow into thoughtful, curious, decent adults.

Where do they learn about reality? Their heritage? God’s love? In Nature, Art and each other, of course.

To see the elaborations; visit here

“As the social environment becomes more polarized, a need develops for education grounded firmly in the truths about life, its goodness and the human person. Catholic schools go a long way to meeting this need, but the foundations of learning are still worth considering as parents, the first educators of children and also for the sake of continual growth and reform in existing schools.”

Nature:

“The first step is going outside in the natural world, observing plant and animal life as well as geological phenomena, and learning about how it works. This comes innately to small children and adults, I think, and inspires wonder.

natureLater this serves as a foundation for hard sciences and math and also as an introduction to the wonder of God and creation.”

Art:

“Over time, the introduction of culture through poems, songs, prayers and art provides the foundation for all the humanities: literature, philosophy, history, languages etc. I even think that the love of one culture inspires not hatred for others, but curiosity because one has glimpsed the transformative and shaping power of language, beauty and thought.”

Love:

“Love of neighbor is much simpler; it is concern for others as equally worthy of love as we are. And it requires appropriate love of self because if we have no concept of our own lovableness before God despite our woundedness, we will be unable to see the lovableness of others despite their woundedness.”

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/3-principles-for-pro-faith-education-in-the-modern-age/

What did you think of this? What would/did you share with your children? Where did they/do you want them to go to school?

Yellow Day: Fighting the Dark Side in Real Life

Characters with dark backgrounds, who have experienced loss, abuse, alcoholism, or who simply live with a disability are around us more often than polite conversation would lead us to believe. And such characters populate Yellow Day, a new film opening Christmas for teens and their parents that plunges unafraid into the darkness of our fallen world with the fresh hope of the light, Jesus.

The stories of a young man and woman who meet through chance in a locked church unfold interspersed with “the good man’s” search for his love at Camp Grace on the Yellow Day, a retreat camp founded by a wealthy philanthropist to support and uplift children who suffer in different ways; young people with disabilities and who suffer from abuse are featured prominently. Yellow Day, like the real-life Camp Grace, focuses on celebrating life, forgiving those who have hurt us, and finding courage to carry on despite deep pain. In so doing, it offers chance to approach dark realities with compassion for one another.

The film’s creator, Jeff Galle, explained that after working in entertainment and performance for 16 years, he grew a good deal in his own faith and “wanted to be a part of something that expressed different values than what I saw in the marketplace. I wanted to make a quality film that provided kids and parents something they could discuss together. It’s a film with weight to show that entertainment can be more than just a distraction and that within the family space, we can confront issues that are difficult.”

Yellow Day showcases tough situations through flawed but good characters who receive help and love at Camp Grace and grow from it. John, the “good man,” seeking his true love, at one point explains that “You asked me who the good and the bad man is. Honestly, I think we’re all both. But we should always try to move ahead, towards the Yellow Day.”

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Themes for 2015: Farm, Creation, Writing, Crafting, Painting

Pinterest recommended that I come up with “themes” for the New Year instead of “resolutions.” While I could always eat healthier and go running more often, calling it “themes” stirred far more ideas in my mind. So here goes:

For parenting:

Farms – this year I want to teach my littles about farm life: growing food, raising animals, living on the land. So that means I’ll be doing a lot of learning myself. I got them two farm picture books for Christmas. I plan to visit local kid-friendly animal farms, barns and of course Claude Moore Colonial Farm, my favorite place in Northern, VA. I even plan to try my hand at raising a few veggies again. Never once have I succeeded at bringing a plant successfully through the spring, summer and fall alive. May this year be different. My youngest will be one year old in the spring, so maybe she will be interested too. I think it would be a good way for us to get outside, learn about American history and culture, see animals, exalt God’s creation, and as always, eat food. I like food.

Art – My two year old loves painting with his dad’s art supplies. I plan to fill out our art supply cabinet and bag with way more acrylics, brushes, canvases and also the kiddy construction paper, glue, scissors, markers, crayons, poms poms, etc. I think this will be a great family activity for us all since we all love this stuff. I also look forward to making posters out of the things my boy finds in nature.

The Grown-Ups

Devotion: finding ways for us both to grow in our Faith. As with business or the mind, if it’s not growing, it’s dying. Stagnation is death. May we blossom and flourish. [Additionally, I hope to get better at talking about my Faith instead of being weird about it. Yeah, most people aren’t super Catholic, but I am and I love it, so why would it be weird to share that with someone interested in me as a person?]

Creation: Nature, God’s creation is so calming and pure. Just a walk outside lifts my mood more than a million cupcakes. I want to get outside more, which relates to my parenting themes. My hubby and I have recently compiled a decent array of camping gear. It only got tested once last summer. Let’s break it in this year.

Drawing: For Will, drawing. Lots of it.

Writing: For me, both my novel and articles. Because I write Catholic articles, when I took a break from it, my spiritual life suffered. For me, writing little Catholic articles is actually a form of devotion. I would like to balance this better with my longer project.

There are more of course, but I’ll leave it here for now. Do you have any themes for the new year?