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?

Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the newest book I’ve read in a long time, weaves together the stories of a young French girl, Marie Laure, who is blind and a German orphan boy, Werner, who is gifted at mathematics and tech. Over the years of the Second World War, their lives intersect at surprising points. I enjoyed the style: the present tense, poetic descriptions of the scenes. The best part was how it captured snapshots of what “the war” was like, and how it followed up with the characters as adults, revealing how their childhood experience of World War II forever changed the direction of their lifelines, like changing the threads and changing the whole tapestry.

Some themes I picked out were:

-intransigence of life

-the war: living through it, how actions by leaders at the state or military level trickle down into daily life

-overcoming trials: carrying on or just going along is contrasted in Marie Laure and Werner. Werner accepts a deepening spiral of Nazi commands that drags him into moral quicksand

-happiness: what is it? All the Light We Cannot See, would say, rightly, that it is not a permanent state, but something we can catch glimpses of if we try to do our honest best in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Sometimes circumstances can snatch it away entirely, such as when Marie loses her father.

-the randomness of birth and outcomes: circumstances beyond our control determine a lot of what happens in our lives

-freedom despite the randomness: But free will matters too, and our approach and our willingness to respond can change things for the better. Werner does finally learn this lesson, I believe.

Over all, it seems very accurate about the nastier aspects of war and difficult circumstances. I would say the balance the book strikes between free will and circumstance is one of its best features.

It’s not a particularly religious book, and it captures some very unpleasant wartime realities, but I think it’s pretty accurate about what it means to make good choices and try to live a good life on the ground. And it’s not the darkest book I’ve ever read; I’d say Graham Greene is darker, and he was Catholic.

Here are some quotations I picked out:

From Werner’s childhood, the contrast between his orphange and the opulence of the SS Officer’s home:

“The lance corporal looks around the room–the coal stove, the hanging laundry, the undersize children–with equal measures of condescension and hostility.” (80) [He is coming to collect Werner to repair the radio of the SS Officer Siedler. Werner goes there and successfully repairs the radio.]

“Werner gathers his tools. Herr Siedler stands in front of the radio and seems about to pat him on the head. ‘Outstanding,’ he says. He ushers Werner to the dining table and calls for the maid to bring cake. Immediately it appears: four wedges on a plain white plate. Each is dusted with confectioners’ sugar and topped by a dollop of whipped cream. Werner gapes. Herr Siedler laughs. ‘Cream is forbidden. I know. But”–he puts his forefinger to his lips–“there are ways around such things. Go on.'” (83)

Then, later,

Marie Laure misses her father:

“Oh, to the free. To lie once more in the Jardin des Plantes with Papa. To feel his hands on hers, to hear the petals of the tulips tremble in the wind. He made her the glowing hot center of his life; he made her feel as if every step she took was important.” (403)

Finally, this quote from the end shows the ripples of the war in the characters’ later lives. Jutta, Werner’s sister, receives a token from Werner that had belonged to Marie Laure, so Jutta goes to visit, but she is very nervous and self-conscious about her German-ness as she travels:

Jutta and her son ride the train to visit Marie Laure in France:

“Before dark, a well-dressed man with a prosthetic leg boards the train. He sits beside her and lights a cigarette. Jutta clutches her bag between her knees; she is certain that he was wounded in the war, that he will try to start a conversation, that her deficient French will betray her. Or that Max will say something. Or that the man can already tell. Maybe she smells German.

He’ll say, You did this to me.

Please. Not in front of my son.

But the train jolts into motion, and the man finishes his cigarette and gives her a preoccupied smile and promptly falls asleep.” (507)

I love how this final quote captures how we sometimes feel like others can see through us, can read our invisible thoughts, and we can become very paranoid about nothing.

Two Old Freelances: Prep for Trump; Pro-Life is Definity still a thing

Here are two of my freelance pieces that were published (online) in December.

One was a way to think about being Catholic under a Trump presidency. His pro-life policy changes are great and we should celebrate them, but we shouldn’t forget his problems, such as fear mongering about immigrants.

Being Catholic Under a Trump Presidency

“If this election of Mr. Trump is to be a true victory for people of faith, advocates for life and for all Americans, much work needs to be done in understanding, not demonizing, the other side, in building the hard linguistic, philosophical and relational bridges that alone can lead to mutual understanding, even if not necessarily agreement. Finally, as citizens and as Catholics, we must all be willing to do the actual work of enacting the basic human values that respect the Image of God imprinted into each person. ”

http://truthandcharityforum.org/being-catholic-under-a-trump-presidency/

Pro-life Politics Are Not Obsolete or Fringe

This piece is a bit dated now that Trump has been inaugurated and changed some of these things but still. The point was to recognize that pro-life politics still matter even though Roe v. Wade still stands. A lot of conservatives are wont to be disillusioned with Republicans who claim to be pro-life “but don’t do anything.” I understand that, but it’s worth pointing out that there are a lot of little pro-life compromises that pro-life politicians fight for, and even those would be a lot to lose.

“There are two quiet pieces of U.S. law that mount a stand for the lives of unborn infants by prohibiting federal funding for abortion: the Helms and Hyde Amendments. These legislative acts are protected in Congress each year by pro-life Republicans, who do not always receive obvious credit or press accolades. The Helms and Hyde Amendments are not guaranteed features of American civic society and they came under fire from the Democratic candidates during the 2016 election both from Bernie Sanders and from nominee Hillary Clinton. The fight to protect all lives is far from over, and the issue of federal funding still looms precariously.”

http://truthandcharityforum.org/pro-life-politics-are-not-fringe-or-obsolete-the-hydehelm-amendments/

So to you: What do you think of Trump so far? Has he done anything you like? Don’t like? Why so?

And–the politics of abortion are far from settled. Much to the chagrin of those of you on the left. I know it’s considered a tough issue. I’ll have another piece with more explanation of my views on abortion soon. For those of you on the right, what do you think of Hyde/Helms amendments. How much do you think they matter?

Why Old Magic was Innocent, According to C.S. Lewis

As I’ve mentioned, That Hideous Strength dealt with a number of things, and there is one of them I’d like to explore more in depth, as it is a topic that interests me a lot and is relevant to the general enjoyment of literature and other of my favorite works such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Arthurian tales such as The Once and Future King by T.H. White and the more recent Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which I hope to begin soon.

Through the character of Arthur Dimble, a professor of ancient languages and mythology, C.S. Lewis speculates on the role and place of magic in ancient times as contrasted with its place today. Here is an abbreviated version of the discussion on the subject between Dimble and his wife:

“Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time….[For a man like Merlin] there were still possibilities for a man of that age which there aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were much more like physical actions. And there were–well, Neutrals [spirits] knocking about…A conscious being is either obeying God or disobeying Him. But there might be things neutral in relation us [humans]….There used to be things on this Earth pursuing their own business, so to speak.”

“I think there was room for them then, but the universe has come more to a point.”

“In Merlin’s time…though you could still use that sort of life in the universe innocently, you couldn’t do it safely. The things weren’t bad in themselves, but they were already bad for us….Like polygamy. It wasn’t wrong for Abraham, but one can’t help feeling that even he lost something by it.”

“Merlin…is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead–a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases.”

(from That Hideous Strength, p. 284-285)

Lewis, who like Dimble, was an expert in languages and in English literature especially would have encountered this issue theologically and in explaining the value of the myths from various cultures that engrossed him so much.

His answer regarding the status of pre-Christian or early post-Christian magic is that the world was a bit different back then, when distinctions about power and agency were perhaps less clear. It was a time, he says, when angels or other spirits may not have had a position towards humans and when the spiritual, even animal, realities of nature could be tapped into innocently, though he adds not safely. Continue reading

Yes, Deep, hidden meaning in books and movies is really there

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From Prospero's books

I was snot-faced in high school. I loved to sneer at novels in english class and say, “if the meaning is so deep and hidden, maybe it’s not really there. Maybe it’s just a story.”

Well, if myself today could teach a lesson to myself back then, it would be that “yes, it’s really there, and probably more than you think.”

Having written myself a good bit, I know that no one bothers to concoct a whole story and characters and plot points for no reason at all. Whatever conflicts and relationships the author finds compelling and powerful will be the  plot and choices available to the characters. Writing a novel, play or movie is hard work, and no one undertakes it just for the heck of it.

Every choice of clothing, setting, tone, obstacle is selected to have a certain mood in order to create meaning and connection in the reader’s imagination. An author tells a story because he or she deeply believes that it is worth telling. And the things that we think are worth telling others are the most significant facets of reality. Continue reading

Advent: The Reason The Traditions We Hand Down Matter

My latest article from the Truth and Charity Forum is about Advent and why the traditions we institute with our kids matter so much. It’s not about feeling guilty for not doing a million things; it’s the opposite actually. Sometimes we need to do less but with more heart. Are we teaching consumerism or faith? What do we say Christmas is about? All this has been closer to home than ever for me as my oldest is three years old and fully able to absorb what we teach this year.

“in families, we transmit an understanding of reality, of good and evil, of values and truth. It is so abstract sounding that words often fall short, but it is real. So the arrival of our children and the role of parenthood, which we inherit, are immensely transformative, and they should be for both us and our little ones. As parents, we will build the framework that forms their entire lives, even if we cannot always see it.

AdventCandles“In the new book “The Choice of the Family,” which is an interview with Bishop Jean Laffitte, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, the interviewer quotes him a passage from Karl Wojtyla’s (who became Pope John Paul II) play The Jeweler Shop:

When they [children] grow up under our eyes, they seem to have become inaccessible, like impermeable soil, but they have already absorbed us. And though outwardly they shut themselves off, inwardly we remain in them and–a frightful thought–their lives somehow test our own creation, our own suffering (p. 167).

“This captures it so well; because children first encounter the world through the lens of their families, it is true that they “absorb” us, in a sense. And their lives then become tests of us. It’s not that the outcome of our children is our fault or responsibility, it’s that the tools and habits we consciously or unconsciously teach them as they grow will come to manifest in their adult lives, just as the lessons from our parents came to manifest in ours. We will have to take responsibility for the tools we transmit, and they will have to reckon with the tools they receive.”

And “Advent is the time of preparation, of waiting for the coming of our Lord, of God made flesh who made the world and desires to draw us back to himself. It is this God who bestowed our life, who bestowed the lives of all children, who came into physical reality within a family himself. It is his introduction to this family that we await in Advent. He who authored all families, broken or whole, came like us, into a family himself in order to restore wholeness to us all, who are all at varying levels of brokenness without him. And he encounters us to the extent that we let him, for God forces no one. This is what we believe, and this is what we have the opportunity to joyfully share.”

Full article here.

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/advent-in-the-family-a-transmission-of-values/

So what do you do with your kids? What did your parents do with you? Did you change the traditions that you grew up with or hand on the same ones?