Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Amazing Grace of U2 by Christopher West

A new book called The Gospel According to U2 captures two of my great loves in life - Jesus and the music of these four men from Ireland: Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. Most people who follow popular music know about the Christian roots of the biggest rock band in the world. But many of the Christians who followed U2's career in the 1980's thought they "lost it" in the 1990's. I was one of them. And I was wrong.

Truth be told, I wasn't much of a Christian in the 80's. I was a rebellious teenager pursuing the pleasures of the world, and, because of it, I was empty. In no small measure, it was the music of U2 that kept me alive during those tumultuous times. With these guys, it wasn't your typical "sex, drugs, and rock'n roll." They sang about dying for love and yearning for heaven. Anthems like "Pride" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" got in my blood and became hymns of hope. They stirred a voice in me that sometimes whispered and at other times screamed: Keep searching!

I was new to faith in the early 90's, and it seemed the band that had inspired me to pursue belief had now gone off the deep end. I couldn't help but love the Achtung Baby album, but what was one to make of Bono appearing on stage dressed as the devil? It seemed he had flipped completely to the "other side." With tinges of self-righteousness, I decided to "pray for him."

In 2000, a friend and fellow fan of the "earlier U2" called me with great delight having just listened to their latest album All That You Can't Leave Behind. He said two simple words: "They're back . . ." They were indeed - as was my enthusiasm for their gift. In fact, I became a bigger fan of U2 in my thirties then when I was a teen. And I was also put to shame for how judgmental I was of them during the 90's. As Greg Garrett, author of The Gospel According to U2 put it, "What those in panic mode did not understand [about their approach in the 90's] was that U2 had not completely lost their minds; they had merely changed their methods." With deliberateness, they had exchanged their sincerity for satire and irony.

It was a big gamble that took incredible chutzpa to pull off - indeed, they would have to (and did) put their musical career on the line for the chance to make at least two critical points to their vast, but divergent audience. First, by appearing - quite convincingly! - to have bought into the debauched excesses of "rock stardom," they knew a large segment of their fan base would not even begin to understand what they were up to, and would write them off (guilty!). But in the very process they would be demonstrating just how superficial, "uptight," and judgmental believers can be at times (guilty!). Imagine my surprise when I learned that Bono was actually acting out scenes from C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters when he dawned that devil costume.

The second point they were trying to make was aimed at a different segment of their audience - those who thought the excesses of "rock stardom" were the be-all and end-all of life. As with all effective satire, the joke was on those who believed the ruse. By appearing utterly self-absorbed and full of himself in front of stadiums full of screaming fans, Bono was saying: Don't you see how ridiculous it is for you to think I'm as great as you think I am!?

Bono and the gang are certainly not saints. But nor are they your typical debauched rock stars. Those with eyes to see it can recognize that grace is at work in these four men and their craft - amazing grace. This was confirmed all the more for me at a recent U2 concert in New York City. The pinnacle of any U2 show is when the band transitions artfully into "Where the Streets Have No Name," a song about heaven. On this night, it happened as Bono was singing "Amazing Grace" - yes, "Amazing Grace" - with eighty thousand people singing along. Then, behind Bono's voice I heard the familiar organ swell that signals the beginning of "Streets." I was pierced by beauty, utterly overwhelmed. And it seemed that, together, eighty-thousand people were tasting a bit of heaven.

What an amazing grace indeed . . . I was filled with such gratitude for these four men and what their music has meant to me over the years. And I hope this column gives you the permission to "claim the comfort," as Garrett says, that your favorite music has offered you.

Written by Christopher West. Published here -

Monday, October 5, 2009

Almost Paradise

I often ask an audience, before giving a talk or a retreat, what they want. What is your deepest heart's desire?

Typically, of course, it goes well beyond the shallow "lottery" or "new car" or "better job" picks. It runs deeper; it's a longing for happiness, joy, peace. And we want it to last. Even in the midst of life's daily experience of fading fads and fashions, frustrated dreams, economic upsets, and a near 50% divorce rate, we press on. We yearn to be happy.

Every human heart has a deep craving for infinite joy. Not just infinitely good feelings, but an Infinite Good. After all, we were made for joy, placed in the bliss of the Garden of Eden in the beginning, and God has destined us for the bliss of Heaven in the end.

"I have come that My joy might be in them, and their joy might be complete."

Oh but isn't Christianity all about rules and commandments and not screwing up? Isn't pure unadulterated bliss.... sinful? Are we scandalized by this idea that God actually wants us to... enjoy ourselves here?

The great secret of Christianity is that God says YES, I WANT YOUR ULTIMATE JOY. He wants us to experience happiness... even now. "Heaven all the way to Heaven," as St. Catherine of Siena put it. And one of the ways God has ordained for being a channel of grace and joy in this life is called Marriage. Yes, ironically, the very thing so often mocked, ridiculed, fractured, and revamped these days in our culture. The very thing that the media paints as being the quintessential wet blanket of spontaneity and fun. But listen to this:

In the joys of their love (God gives spouses) here on earth, a foretaste of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. - Catechism, #1642

Wow. Marriage as a foretaste of Heaven? I've heard it said more than once that marriage is hell! Even when I was first engaged that sad view came to me from certain people: "Oh, the old ball and chain" and "Enjoy your freedom now"

But when viewed through the lens of the Theology of the Body (TOB), this sacrament is seen as a "sign" of something else. The TOB in its profound reflection on the Scriptures reveals that human love, indeed the marital embrace itself, is meant to be a little glimmer, a coming attraction, an appetizer to the Main Meal that will be the Banquet of the Lamb! It's called the Spousal Analogy, and shows us that God's plan from the beginning was to "marry us!"

Earthly marriage is meant to veil the most incredible truth, and point to our deepest desires... our ultimate union with the God Who Is Love in Heaven! Understood properly then, marriage really is "Almost Paradise"....

Enter our Twisted Mystic of the day: Loverboy and the lead singer from Heart.

I thought that perfect love was hard to find
I'd almost given up, you must have read my mind
and all these dreams I saved for a rainy day
they're finally coming true, I'll share them all with you
cause now we hold the future in our hands

Oooh almost paradise... we're knocking on Heaven's door
Almost paradise, how could we ask for more?
I swear that I can see forever in your eyes

The word "almost" in this song is absolutely critical. The Spousal Analogy teaches us that this union with God can only be spoken of in human terms, and that in the end, all analogies will fall infinitely short of the Infinite Mystery of God. Marriage here is forever "almost paradise" because our spouse is a human spouse, with sins, and weaknesses, and limitations like everyone else. But the analogy still shines.

Pope John Paul II has said that this Spousal Analogy is the best way we can image God! He said that it's the least inadequate of all of our analogies and images of God that the human mind can utilize, that of human love! The most intimate picture we can have of God here below then is that of a Lover with His Beloved.... Talk about a paradigm shift from God as Judge, or God as Grandpa!

... and in your arms salvation's not so far away
its getting closer, closer every day...

With the help of grace, and with a keen eye on the proper end of marital union, we can also realize that sex is not the be all and end all of human existence. Communion of our hearts with the Divine is! So, hand in hand, facing not just each other as man and wife, but turned towards the Son, lovers can discover that it's more than a feeling that fuels their joy... In the words of Pope John Paul II, "only the value of the person can sustain a stable relationship. The other values of sexuality are wasted away by time and exposed to the danger of disillusion. But this is not the case for the value of the person... which is stable and in some way infinite. When love develops and reaches the person, then it is forever."

I swear that I can see forever in your eyes... almost Paradise....

God, please grant us the eyes to see not just what is, but what ever shall be!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Pope and Pocahontas

OK, stay with me. I believe this works.

I was recently reflecting on Pope Benedict's latest letter to the world, Caritas in Veritate, and was captivated by the attention and reverence he gave to creation. It was in section 48. And then I thought about the Disney Pocahontas song.

Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest
Come taste the sunsweet berries of the Earth
Come roll in all the riches all around you
And for once, never wonder what they're worth

Now I grew up loving the woods. I discovered Thoreau's Walden when I was in high school and I found myself reading snatches of it constantly, and reflecting on them as I'd walk the bogs or the pine woods of southern New Jersey. As a young Catholic, I discovered that God not only poured his Grace and Love into us through the Bible and the seven sacraments, but through His first Book, Creation as well. God has planted (and continues to plant) countless lessons for us in the rise and fall of the seasons, and in the rhythm of life of all manner of creatures.

Creation is our first birthday present, in a manner of speaking. These miracles around us are like little love letters for us. With prayer and a sacramental vision, we can discover in a walk outside a shimmering trail of signs pointing to God.

Sadly, I've met many "Conservative" Catholics who are afraid to read this book. They feel it's like dipping our toes in the waters of the New Age movement. But how can God's creation, when rightly viewed, lead anywhere else but to... God? Enter Pope Benedict...

Nature expresses a design of love and truth. It is prior to us, and it has been given to us by God as the setting for our life. Nature speaks to us of the Creator (cf. Rom 1:20) and his love for humanity. It is destined to be “recapitulated” in Christ at the end of time (cf. Eph 1:9-10; Col 1:19-20). Thus it too is a “vocation”. Nature is at our disposal not as “a heap of scattered refuse”[116], but as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order, enabling man to draw from it the principles needed in order “to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15).
- Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 48

Years ago, when the Disney film Pocahontas came out, I remember being struck by some of the lines in the song Colors of the Wind.

You think you own whatever land you land on
The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name...

Now I knew there was some truth to this, but I knew as well that something was just a bit off as the song continued. Man suddenly became "lost in the cosmos" to quote a Walker Percy title. Just another piece of the mosaic, with "the heron and the otter as his friends." So just as I've met some who shy away from creation, I've met some who have obsessed about it, seeing God as somehow in everything - a kind of Christian pantheism. We should remember that the Spirit hovered "over" the waters in the beginning of Genesis, not within them. That's what we mean by the term "supernatural."

I think we just need balance, which is exactly what the Pope gives us in his latest encyclical:

...It should also be stressed that it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person. This position leads to attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism — human salvation cannot come from nature alone, understood in a purely naturalistic sense.
- Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 48

Keeping our heads about us is the key. Pope Benedict quoted his predecessor Pope Paul VI as saying that “the world is in trouble because of the lack of thinking.” We need to recognize that our place in the universe is not random or insignificant, nor is our role to act as dominators of the environment.

...It is also necessary to reject the opposite position, which aims at total technical dominion over nature, because the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a “grammar” which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation.
- Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 48

We are sons and daughters who have been given the task of caring for and custody of all creatures great and small. We are stewards of a great gift, and if we are attentive to it, if we listen to it, we can learn much from it. As the Pope said in his letter, "The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself..." (CV 51)

You can own the Earth and still
All you'll own is earth until
You can paint with all the colors of the wind

That "wind" in my mind is the Holy Spirit, Who alone can give us the insights and the grace we need to untwist what is twisted in our thoughts, our music, our agendas and ideas, and essentially our world. So come Holy Spirit, enlighten us!

With Christians, a poetical view of things is a duty. We are bid to color all things with hues of faith, to see a divine meaning in every event.
- Cardinal John Henry Newman

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Riddle

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were driving from some place to some place else when Five for Fighting's "The Riddle" came on the radio. "Have you heard this one?" she asked. "I don't think so..." Then she smiled, "You're gonna love it." She was right.

"The Riddle" is a tapestry in tune that weaves man's fear of being insignificant, the quest for meaning in life, and a child's sense of wonder into a love song. For Love, we discover, is the answer to the "Riddle."

Love is at the heart of singer/songwriter John Ondrasik's other works as well (The name Five for Fighting is not the number of band members, incidentally, but alludes to the penalty time for fighting in hockey). Through a dominant lead of piano and his operatic ability to hit those soaring notes, Ondrasik begins with the question of questions put to an old man who is soon to die; "What's the sense in life?"

What is it all about? Why me, why here, why now? The answer comes as a riddle. The aged man invites the younger to ask the big questions, to experience the wonder of the world and draw his own conclusions.

He said, "Son, why you got to sing that tune?
Catch a Dylan song or some eclipse of the moon?
Let an angel swing and make you swoon
Then you will see, you will see..."

Then he said, "Here's a riddle for you.
Find the answer: There's a reason for the world
You and I."

Today, we are so often made to feel insignificant as human persons. Some larger entity becomes the driving force of our efforts and our time, and we are cogs in the machine, consumers that must consume to drive on the economic mechanism, the success of the Almighty Dollar. But we know there's more to Life than this. We all hearken to the strains of this music that sings us a fairy tale, a story about our being More than just random pieces in a random puzzle that's the result of random chance.

"Man is not a lost atom in a random universe"
- Pope Benedict XVI

The younger man in the song grows older and has a son of his own. Still he longs to know the answer to this riddle of human life, and asks his son on the way home from school if he's "learned anything";

He said, "Dad I'm big, but we're smaller than small
In the scheme of things, well we're nothing at all."
Still every mother's child sings a lonely song
"So play with me, come play with me."

And hey Dad, here's a riddle for you
Find the answer: There's a reason for the world
You and I?

Faced with the enormous size of the universe, we can often feel that "in the scheme of things, well we're nothing at all." But it is not always the size of a thing that matters. Is not the miracle of human life communicated through the microscopic cells of sperm and egg? If the human body were compared to a universe, and those reproductive cells could speak, they would certainly think themselves insignificant. But the continuation of the human race literally depends on these seemingly insignificant, "smaller than small" cells!

Some philosopher's speak of the anthropic principle, according to which the whole universe seems to have been mapped out from the start for human life to develop. Dr. Peter Kreeft says "If the temperature of the primal fireball that resulted from the Big Bang some fifteen to twenty billion years ago, which was the beginning of our universe, had been a trillionth of a degree colder or hotter, the carbon molecule that is the foundation of all organic life could never have developed. The number of possible universes is trillions of trillions; only one of them could support human life: this one. Sounds suspiciously like a plot. If the cosmic rays had bombarded the primordial slime at a slightly different angle or time or intensity, the hemoglobin molecule, necessary for all warm-blooded animals, could never have evolved. The chance of this molecule's evolving is something like one in a trillion trillion."

The Riddle sings on...

There are secrets that we still have left to find
There have been mysteries from the beginning of time
There are answers we're not wise enough to see
He said, "You looking for a clue? I love you free."

For me, sitting in the car with my wife, driving down a random road to a place I can't remember now the first time I heard this song, I felt that "love" flowing right from the lips of the Creator. The answer to the "problem" of human life, of the whys and whats, is none other than a Person. We are here for each other.... You and I. We are made for communion with God and Neighbor. We are made to be gifts... and everything made is a gift for us.

A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart's contemplation of the mystery of the Trinity dwelling in us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us.
- Pope John Paul II

If we surf through the lyrics of some of the "top hits" today, we find very few that celebrate the pure gift of love, the sheer wonder of looking at another person as gift and not just something to use for pleasure or power. "The Riddle" is a refreshing return to the miracles around us and in us as human persons, to the vision of life that is free from the distorted lens of lust. To the wonder of You and I.... made in God's image and called to image God.

The batter swings and the summer flies
As I look into my angel's eyes
A song plays on while the moon is high over me
Something comes over me

I guess we're big and I guess we're small
If you think about it man you know we got it all
'Cause we're all we got on this bouncing ball
And I love you free, I love you free....

If I could add anything to this Twisted Mystic, it would be to untwist this last verse. Are we all we've got on this bouncing ball? Does Ondrasik leave out the Divine Musician Who set the melody to this music in his own heart? Well, the riddle perhaps continues in another song of Five for Fighting's... "If God Made You:"

I can't say what I might believe
But if God made you then He's in love with me

This Twisted Mystic is obviously still searching for answers. But aren't we all?

Monday, July 6, 2009


The Virgin Mary is a Magnificent Woman. She is the woman par excellence. In the life of the Church, she has always been seen as magnificent. Why? Because of her magnanimity.

Now there's a word you don't hear every day. It means largeness of soul; greatness of spirit. The ability to remain at peace in the midst of great trouble. The Church - packed shoulder to shoulder with the "poor banished children of Eve" - has always looked to this New Eve, Mary, as to a beacon in the midst of life's storms. Here was a woman who stood strong. Stood in fact at the crossroads where time and eternity, love and hate, war and peace met - at the Cross. And the sparks from that conflagration are still flying. They have been catching souls and burning them with the fire of love for God since Mary's stand!

Now, not only the Church but the pop culture at large can get a little glimmer of this Magnificent Heart of Mary. We can hear a little of her heart's cry to belong to Love, and not just to herself, beneath the folds of a flowing melody of U2's called, aptly, "Magnificent."

In the video linked above, a Middle-Eastern town appears, and the band plays it's rumbling tribute to a person who was "born to sing." In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Bono admits that the person is in fact the Virgin Mary.

"Magnificent was inspired by the Magnificat, a passage from the Gospel of Luke in the voice of the Virgin Mary... There's this theme running through the album of surrender and devotion and all the things I find really difficult," Bono says.

I was born... I was born to sing for you
I didn't have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise…

Wasn't this Mary's great YES? In the encounter with the Angel Gabriel, she thought only of the Song that God had always wanted to sing for Israel (she knew it from her study of the Torah and the Prophets). Mary would sing that Song of Songs, and she still sings it, while we too often send notes of selfish discord into Love's melody.

In the music video, the desert town is wrapped in long, mysterious white veils. Entire buildings are completely covered! Only slowly as the song progresses do these veils give way to the dance of wind and rise up into blue skies. A powerful image of reverence, mystery, revelation, and liberation.

The song reveals further how the heart of the Immaculate was truly "pierced by a sword" as Simeon predicted of Mary in the Gospel of Luke. "Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted... and you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." (Luke 2:34-35)

Bono, who wrote this song, and who writes most of the lyrics to U2's music, sings:

Only love, only love can leave such a mark
But only love, only love can heal such a scar

So Mary's great yes, the lifting of the veil of her heart to God, involves a great risk - that of being wounded, crushed by sorrows. She models the path ahead for us. Magnificence comes shining through suffering. It's brilliance is heightened by the darkness it has come through, the dark valley that Psalm 23 points to as the necessary path for every follower of Christ.

But in the end there is rejoicing.... it was a joyful noise…

Justified till we die, you and I will magnify
The Magnificent.... Magnificent

May we sing the lyrics to this song today, mindful of the majesty of Mary, that was bestowed on her because of her humility, her openness, her willingness to bear "such a scar" as the suffering of her Son on the Cross.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Promise

Your touch, your kiss
Your warm embrace
I'll find my way back to you
If you'll be waiting...

Think of times in your life you've waited for Love's reply. Will the call come, will the heart respond to mine, will that face I've longed for turn the bend and come to me, turn her face and look on me.

I've longed for you and I have desired
To see your face your smile
To be with you wherever you are

Waiting.... hoping, and with it comes such a surge of emotion, tied inseparably to the deepest cords of the soul (for our bodies and souls are one). Longing not just for the physical sensation of nearness, but for the mystical, the spiritual, the infinite of which human love touches only the hem.

These days before Pentecost are the days of waiting, this is the age of the Holy Spirit... remembering those expectant hearts of those ancient men and women of Israel; Peter, John, Mary, James. Seeing them, hearing them; warm breath, beating hearts, fearful, clustered together like birds in shadows.

"Wait...." Jesus had said. This is all they knew to do. Not knowing they lie at the turning point of human history, those happy few, soon to be quickened by the Breath of Divinity and numbering in the billions! Here at the embryonic level, the Mystical Body of Christ was sewn together again by the grace of God through the Virgin of Galilee; this Body of believers was "knit together in its Mother's womb." For Mary knew about waiting, about being open to receive the Holy Spirit.

Together again
It would feel so good to be
In your arms
Where all my journeys end
If you can make a promise
If it's one that you can keep,
I vow to come for you
If you wait for me and say you'll hold
A place for me in your heart.

Let's look up as the Wind builds and the Flames gather on the eastern rim of the world. A Divine Heart is beating, ageless as the sea, coming with Water and Fire and Wind to wash, burn and break over us again. That's the Promise...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Play Me

OK, I know that when you first saw this dazzling pic of Neil in his technicolor dreamcoat, you were tempted to go and google the etymology of "cheese" or something; anything rather than consider that Neil Diamond might have something deep to say to you today.

Maybe you thought "Twisted Mystics" was about young hipsters, youth in angst, or mainstream rockers and rollers. Well it's time to broaden them horizons!

I was first introduced to Neil as a young lad, through the big, bulky "Jazz Singer" soundtrack my mother owned on an 8 track tape. Those tapes were awesome and could double as coasters, or a hammer if you were desperate and really needed to hang that painting.

Anyhoo, back to Neil. Let's take the following words and set them into the mouths of lovers... of a husband and wife. This is what we do here at Twisted Mystics; we transpose. We find the theme and set it to a theological melody. We take a rambling branch and graft it to the Divine Vine from which all branches break forth.

She was morning
And I was night time
I one day woke up
To find her lying
Beside my bed
I softly said
"Come take me"
For I've been lonely
In need of someone
As though I'd done
Someone wrong somewhere
but I don't know where
Come lately

You are the sun
I am the moon
You are the words
I am the tune
Play me

Ah the Cosmic Dance of masculine and feminine! "She was morning... and I was night time." It's common knowledge that men and women are different. Common knowledge but commonly misunderstood, or seen as some kind of obstacle ("the battle of the sexes"). Today, there also appears to be a great effort to level the playing field.... to asexualize our sexuality and invite people to "pick" which one they want, as if from scratch. But if we scratch below the surface, we discover an extremely damaging agenda here.

In the olden days (before Neil Diamond) people used to conform themselves to reality. This is a very sane thing to do. Today we are insane. We try to conform reality unto us. Rather than discover in our creation as male and female something of the mystery of God's image and likeness, we determine that we will make ourselves after our own image and likeness. The problem with this is, aside from a cosmic arrogance, we don't have a clue as to who we are.

"When we lose sight of the Creator, the creature vanishes," so spoke Vatican Council II.

Our origins, revealed in Genesis, tell us so much about what masculinity is and what femininity is, if we could but sit still and listen. The mythic elements (not myths) in Genesis speak of man being formed from the earth, with Spirit (God's ruah in Hebrew, breath) whispered into us. Is this why men seem to be more independent, detached, more comfortable being alone, distant at times? But in all our land-locked travels, we long to return to the heart.

For I've been lonely
In need of someone
As though I'd done
Someone wrong somewhere
but I don't know where

Men, despite the sometimes tough exterior, long to be in love, lost in it, we long to swim in an ocean that is deep and mysterious. That ocean is made from us, flows from us, flows to us from God.... and from Woman. Then God took a rib from Adam, and formed from his side Woman.

The “first man and the first woman must constitute ...the model... for all men and women who, in any period, are united so intimately as to be ‘one flesh’”
- Pope John Paul II, TOB, 50).

In Hebrew, the rib bespeaks the whole person. Bone is emblematic of the whole body, the whole person. Woman then is formed from the side of a rational human person. Is this why women tend, generally speaking, to be more relational, intuitive, contemplative, nurturing, gentle, emotional?

Songs she sang to me
Songs she brang to me
Words that rang in me
Rhyme that sprang from me
Warmed the night
And what was right
Became me

Men and women were never meant to clash with but to complement each other. Sin is at the root of this conflict. And so the remedy to the poison brought by the first Adam and Eve, is revealed in the gift of the new Adam and Eve. Never has there been a duet more beautifully sung than that of Jesus and Mary. In their words we learn how to untwist all of our twisted ramblings. For He is the Sun, and she is the Moon, He is the Word and she is the Tune...

And so it was
That I came to travel
Upon a road
That was thorned and narrow
Another place
Another grace
Would save me

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sending Out an SOS

Suffering can set us free. Crying out can often lead to a catharsis. Sorrow affords us a chance to struggle and squirm our way out of the black cocoon of self and into the wide expanse of the world of the Other.

The song Message in a Bottle by the Police captures this journey of self-discovery through suffering. Sting, the lead singer of the former band, is a much revered icon in the music world today. He confessed to Jools Holland of the BBC that Message in a Bottle is his favorite song.

Just a castaway, an island lost at sea, oh
Another lonely day, with no one here but me, oh
More loneliness than any man could bear
Rescue me before I fall into despair, oh

In the late and great Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body, the Holy Father seeks to answer two questions that I feel everyone in their heart of hearts asks at some point in this life:

What does it mean to be human?
How can I be truly happy?

In the first question, he looks into our origins, our history, and our destiny to discover just what it means to be to be human. The Pope's early life was fraught with sorrows - loss of family, Nazi occupation, friends sent to concentration camps, and a Communist takeover of his beloved Poland. But he didn't let these sorrows exile him to an island of isolation. To make sense of it all, he dove into a heartfelt reflection on our beginnings as man and woman. One of my favorite reflections in his Theology of the Body centers on the idea of Original Solitude. That is the experience of Adam, in the beginning, as a being that is in fact "alone."

I'll send an S.O.S. to the world
I'll send an S.O.S. to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle,
Message in a bottle...

Alas, Adam cries out, I see myriads of creatures, beautiful and diverse, but not another person I can love who can return my love! Sending out an SOS is Adam's first "prayer."

Pope Benedict once wrote that "man comes in the profoundest sense to himself not through what he does but through what he accepts. He must wait for the gift of love, and love can only be received as a gift… One must wait for it, let it be given to one. And one cannot become wholly man in any other way than by being loved, by letting oneself be loved...”
(Introduction to Christianity)

A year has passed since I wrote my note
But I should have known this right from the start
Only hope can keep me together
Love can mend your life but
Love can break your heart

Adam falls into a deep sleep, an "ecstasy" in the original language. He realizes, perhaps, the risk involved in what lies ahead but he must make himself vulnerable; he must be open and ready to receive the gift that will make him whole. And the God Who Is Love draws a lover from his side. Only "love can mend your life." Adam receives the gift of Eve, and this love wells up in him, giving birth to the first love song, the first poem in human history!

Alas, this one is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!

Walked out this morning, don't believe what I saw
Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore
Seems I'm not alone in being alone
Hundred billion castaways, looking for a home

The home we are all seeking is this communion of persons, formed by God right from the beginning! It is Love that is the meaning of life, love that can move not only mountains, but islands! As we look out on our wounded world today, at the faces in the crowd, the faces in the subways and trains and malls and marketplaces, tiny islands of solitude and loneliness, let us call out to them in love. Sending out an SOS, a prayer for everyone. Let's pray that all of us castaways might find a home in God, the source and summit of meaning and purpose and direction in life, and in relationships with others, for we are each another incarnation of His Love in the world!

For a video of the first live performance
of Message in a Bottle, click here!)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Billy Vera, The Beaters, and the Passion of Jesus

What did you think
I would say at this moment,
when I'm faced with the knowledge
that you just don't love me.
Did you think I would curse you.
Or say things to hurt you
'cause you just don't love me no more.

Perhaps it might seem a little scandalous to be posting this passionate love song (made famous by Alex and Ellen in the 80's sitcom Family Ties) during Holy Week. But think for a moment about the scandalous love of Jesus displayed in the events of His Passion, and you'll see where I'm going with this.

Twisted Mystics.... it's about finding the Voice of God hidden in the voices of the artists and songwriters of our time. Here, in the pleading tones of this particular tune, we can hear Christ. We can hear the Lover, the One Whose Passion is a fire atop His Sacred Heart, shining out to us with the Truth that He does indeed love us so. Especially when He's "faced with the knowledge that we just don't love Him."

For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly.
- Romans 5:6

The song, At This Moment, swells and soars on a natural level. It has the kind of power that wins us over. The power of an unconditional love... "You mean even if I reject you, abandon you, leave you.... you'll STILL love me?" This kind of human love is rare, admittedly. But we still strive for it, we're overwhelmed when we encounter it, and we know it's the Ideal even when our experiences draw a cloud across it's face.

The Passion of Jesus is swelling up again in the heart of the Gospels this week, and this love is stronger still. It's stronger than death! "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!" (Luke 12:49) We've never had a love like this before! He loved us and still loves us even when we reject Him, when we walk away from Him. That's what the Passion is all about, for it comes from the word "to suffer."

Did you think I could hate you.
Or raise my hands to you.
Now come on you know me too well.
How could I hurt you when darling
I love you and you know
I'd never hurt you oo-wo-ooo...

The only way we can fathom this unfathomable love is to step out into it, to wade into the water and let the Passion sweep us away. The saints and mystics (the real ones, not the twisted ones) have always told us that if we were the only ones on earth who fell into sin, Jesus would have done it all just for us. Do we believe this?

The words below are taken from an ancient homily given in the fourth century. Hear the love that streams forth from each image, as the Divine Artist reshapes and recreates our broken hearts. His Passion is for us; may it renew and return us to a deeper passion for Him!

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who, once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree. I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you... The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity....

Monday, March 2, 2009

Let's Get Mystical

OK, this is old school. Olivia Newton John, the early years. She played the lovely Sandy in the movie Grease. As a recording artist, one of her more famous tunes was "Let's Get Physical." How's that for blunt? The lyrics went like this:

I'm saying all the things that I know you'll like
Making good conversation

I gotta handle you just right

You know what I mean
I took you to an intimate restaurant
Then to a suggestive movie

There's nothing left to talk about

Unless it's horizontally

Let's get physical, physical
I wanna get physical ...
Let me hear your body talk

OK then. This sounds like the mating ritual of something in a Brazilian rainforest. I'd like to suggest that we're made for a bit more than only the physical. I think real love goes a bit further than that. Let's Get Mystical!

The truth revealed in Scripture, and echoed in our hearts through our human experience, is that we are actually a beautiful and mysterious harmony of spirit and matter. We are "sacraments" in the broad understanding of the word; visible signs of an invisible reality. This is part of the brilliant plan of God in making the universe... that there should be things visible and invisible, and that we humans would be the bridges between the two worlds. This explains our restlessness, our deep yearnings for More. It explains why we are at the same time both like and unlike the animals we share the planet with.

You see, the animals are the ones who get physical.... they eat and sleep and forage for food and build their little dwellings in the bush. They mate, they reproduce. But we humans dine, we rest, we create.... cathedrals, symphonies, prayers, poems and promises (a little John Denver reference there). And we make love.... though sadly, even this phrase is being stripped from the vocabulary today. People just have sex. Having sex used to mean being male or female, and checking the appropriate box. It went from a noun to a verb in just a generation or two.

These mystical phenomena we experience as humans set us worlds apart from the animals:

- music
- laughter
- poetry
- philosophy
- love!

St. Paul called us to dwell on these higher things.... "Think of what is above, not of what is on earth." (Colossians 3:2)

The trap that the "Let's Get Physical" approach falls into is the same trap that was set from the beginning by the Evil One; to divorce the physical from the mystical within us. The illusion is that we're made for one or the other and we must decide. Do we become hermits or hedonists? Well the answer is a combination. “As a being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols” (CCC, n. 1146).

The art of being human lies in distinguishing the difference between idolatry and iconography; between worshiping the thing itself, or allowing it to lead us in wonder to the One Who created it. In the song, there's clearly a descent into the lower realms of lust, not a climb to the heights of love. The singer is using the other person for their own selfish pleasure, and pulling out all of the stops to make it happen; "I'm saying all the things that I know you'll like, making good conversation... I took you to an intimate restaurant. Then to a suggestive movie..." The song ends with the same refrain again, but a curious change takes place.... "Let's get animal, animal. I wanna get animal..."

In the words from a famous scene in the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles... "You're going the wrong way!"

We'd all do well to heed the words of Pope Benedict XVI:

An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in “ecstasy” towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.
- God is Love, 4

So let's get mystical! That's the direction towards which we truly yearn. And we can find it in our human loves, as Pope Benedict asserts: "From the standpoint of creation, eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfill its deepest purpose." (God is Love, 11)

Friday, January 2, 2009

Hole Hearted

OK, raise your hand if there was ever a time in your life when you thought to yourself "If I could just have/meet/become/get _________ then I would be totally happy."

Now raise your hand if you subsequently got/met/became that ___________ and thought to yourself "But wait.... If I could just have/meet/become _________ then I would really be totally happy."

The rock band Extreme once sang: "There's a hole in my heart that can only be filled by you, and this hole in my heart can't be filled with the things I do…"

I remember hearing this song and running out to grab it when it first debuted in 1991 as a "single" - a little cassette tape with just the one song on it. Old school, I know. Right off the bat my spiritual sense was tingling, like Spiderman. "Oooo, why yes, I have one of those holes in my heart too," I thought to myself. "Seems like everything I think will fill it just fails to satisfy. I always want more!"

Life's ambition occupies my time
Priorities confuse the mind
Happiness one step behind
This inner peace I've yet to find

Wow.... Is this not the soundtrack of our lives? Are we not all starving for inner peace? Look at the self-help sections in bookstores. I just did a google search for "self help" and it gave me 95,300,000 websites to visit. Seriously, who's got that kind of time?

Thanks be to God I've come to realize a simple truth that will save me all of that searching: Self-help is useless. I can't help myself. I'm helpless. I can't "pick myself up by my own bootstraps." That's physically impossible.

This hole in my heart.... this longing for More, this sehnsucht that sometimes seems to pull my heart out of me in a crazy mixture of joy and pain can only be filled, quenched, and completed by the Maker of my heart.

If I'm not blind why can't I see
That a circle can't fit
Where a square should be

I think most of us have come to realize this second truth; that nothing can fill our hearts... that is, no-thing can fill our hearts. That our hearts are made for relationship, for other persons, and ultimately the Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Three Who are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

How long it takes for many of us to come to this discovery... for us to make this journey out of self, to empty ourselves so that God might fill us? Sometimes a lifetime. But all along we should keep up the journey. Keep singing the songs of our generation, but with a heart that stops at nothing to find the truth that really fills us. We've got to scratch below the vinyl so to speak, until we come to the core, to the very heartbeat of Music itself, to the Sanctuary where all Song is born. There, finally, we'll find true harmony.

Here are the lyrics from another melody:

I will rise then and go about the city;
in the streets and crossings I will seek
Him whom my heart loves.
I sought him but I did not find him. The watchmen came upon me
as they made their rounds of the city:

Have you seen him whom my heart loves?
I had hardly left them
when I found him whom my heart loves.
I took hold of him and would not let him go
- Song of Songs 3:2-4