Latest from the Jesuit Post
If you’re looking to curl up on a lonely Saturday night with a cup of tea, a warm blanket, and some headphones, then the Lumineers’ newly released III is perfect for you. Even the “happy” songs are sad.
Innovative in its form, the album is comprised of three divisions that recount three generations of a family plagued by addiction, adultery, and violence. A series of ten stunningly tear-jerking music videos accompanies the tracks. There you won’t find the band playing, dancing, or singing. The clips are more like short films than music videos. The common thread uniting the audio and visuals is familial suffering.
III’s dark world is painful. It is emotionally taxing to listen to the album in one sitting. “Donna” gets things started. The chug of a slow train rolls in the background, foreboding the family’s achingly slow self-destruction. It’s one of those songs with lyrics at once surprisingly simple and emotionally evocative. A voice enters, “It’s not the words you say, but how you say it.” The wounds run deep as the artist recalls the tone of an anguishing mother who drinks away her misfortunes.
This matriarch’s addictive patterns continue in the life of the second generation’s protagonist–or perhaps auto-antagonist–Jimmy. In the music video for “Leader of the Landslide,” the Lumineers’ portray him as the “aftermath” of his mother’s “broken glass.” Whereas his mother would mostly drink alone, Jimmy throws raging house parties at which an ample selection of narcotics abound. His son looks on the scene with derision, aware that his father is using drugs to deal with the pain of losing his wife.
The end of the album expands on the image of a broken family as a metaphor for a hypocritical and decadent nation. The lyrics point not only to an individual’s psychological imprisonment but also to the issue of criminal incarceration: “Jimmy believed in the American way. / A prison guard, he worked hard and made the minimum wage. / He found his freedom lockin’ men in a cage, oh.” It’s the irony of a system that ensures the economic independence of some at the cost of the captivity of others. The social criticism continues later in the song. Jimmy takes out a loan after gambling away his money in an effort to pay for his son’s medical bills, but he can’t pay it back. The sharks find him and kick him out of his car onto a bitterly cold street in the middle of the winter. Expensive healthcare drives the family further into the ground. Jimmy, who once counseled his son to stay away from the homeless because it’s either “us or them,” now finds himself among those who are sleeping in the streets and asking for a dime.
Frankly, the Lumineers’ dismal depiction of family and society is simply a depiction of reality, so I am glad that they have done it. An opioid epidemic is sweeping the nation. Suicide is on the rise. Divorce is rampant. Armed massacres recur with baffling frequency. The Lumineers have firmly decided to direct their music towards this sad state of things. They pull out the personal and emotional implications of a drugged, hyper-sexualized, and bellicose nation.
Mainstream pop often tells a different tale. Adultery, drugs, and violence are stripped of their human context and consequences. Sexual promiscuity is fun. Nevermind that adultery tears families apart. Cocaine is an “experience.” Nevermind that lows follow highs. Violence is a sign of strength. Nevermind that real people suffer from the quick pull of a trigger. There’s no need to deny it. Most of the songs on today’s pop playlists are superficial.
Something else is happening in III. The old motto for problem solving counsels us to “observe, judge, and act.” The Lumineers’ latest album may just be the first step in our familial and national healing process. Before we make any decisions about how to leave this valley in which we collectively find ourselves, we have to take a long, sobering look at our present state. We need to let it sink in. We need to confront it. When we listen to III in this light, its impenetrable sadness becomes more understandable. The album is a dramatized narrative of our current affairs, and we are, in a word, depressed.
However, The Lumineers are not inducing our sadness through their music for the sake of bringing us down. They tell this dark tale, but they offer hints of light, as one might expect from the band’s name. A ray emerges in “Democracy,” one of those rare bonus tracks that is clearly more than an afterthought. Amidst the count of a slow but firm battalion drum, a voice hopefully cries, “I’m junk, but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet. / Democracy is coming to, to the USA.” A trickle of light shines in the darkness. A hint of beauty illuminates the black, broken recesses of our lives. The sure sound of the drum’s beat in “Democracy” tells us that, though we may be in the thick of a nationwide overdose, our collective heart is still beating.
It’s as if we are walking on the shards of a broken mirror in the middle of the night, and our eyes catch the reflection of a twinkling star. Somehow, light breaks in. The Lumineers in III are prophets of this light.
A confession: If, when it is all over, when all is said and done, and I am six feet under, dead and buried, the last clump of dirt is cast over my simple, pine coffin, and I somehow come to find out that there is no God after all, I am going to be royally pissed.
Would you be one of those people to tell me that religious life was still a noble enterprise and needed institution despite the minor detail about, you know, there being no God? If so, I would respond: that’s cute, but no thank you.
There are a lot of other paths I’d have pursued, and a variety of other ways I would have arranged my weekends. Those Saturday evenings many of us Catholics customarily gather to celebrate the Eucharist? Well, they would look a lot different. The wine could stay.
I’ve been a practicing Catholic my entire life and less than a year ago I professed perpetual vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience in the Society of Jesus. I placed my life in the hands of an obscure God, made a free choice and said Yes to this Jesus guy, in faith. FOREVER. These vows are meant to counsel and help Jesuits receive consolation through life’s journey. St. Ignatius once articulated a phenomenon he called “consolation without previous cause” – a gratuitous rush of peace that moves one toward God with no external happening to explain its how or wherefore. But nowhere, as far as I know, did Ignatius account for its devilish twin: desolation without previous cause. I know it as an out-of-the-blue vacuous sensation, a kind of existential sucker punch that leaves me languid, somatic symptoms included: an ache in the pit of my stomach as if I’d just gorged myself sick on fistfuls of packing foam. The Yes I gave during vows – no shield is it against the sometimes ferocious struggle concerning the question of belief and unbelief. I know what unbelief can do to a person, or a group of people for that matter.
Fifteen years ago, I was gifted a series of audio lectures from the popular Christian author Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, OMI. Through a folksy, Canadian accent he explained that so many of our sins are committed not out of pride or malice. Rather most of our sins are sins of despair. It struck me as one of the truest things I’d ever heard.
I shared my confession along with Rolheiser’s insight to my Jesuit brothers in a reflection I gave on the fourth Friday of Lent. Passages from the Book of Wisdom and the seventh chapter of John were docketed.
Wisdom opens to a drama of a group of “wickeds” rolling their eyes and declaring the “righteous one” obnoxious. Things escalate quickly. From eye-rolling to name calling, to testing to torturing. Before the wickeds condemn the righteous one to a shameful death, they pause to query: Let us see whether the righteous one’s words be true; let us find out what will happen to him, if God will protect him (Wisdom 2:17). In the passage from John, Jesus’ disciples prod him to perform public acts. Let the world see who you are, they insist (John 7:4).
What accounts for the wickeds’ plotting and the disciple’s pleading? Rolheiser’s insight suggests an answer. Each party is compelled by unbelief born of a creeping despair. And so, each group schemes reassurance: Does this righteousness business really pay off? Could such a holiness vindicating God even exist? Is Jesus really who he says he is, his promises trustworthy?
I know what it’s like to scheme reassurance. There are times when after 30, 40, 50 minutes of prayer I find that all I’ve been doing is staring into the nothingness of my own room. I sit back in my chair, glaring in contempt at the Jesus who’s not there and whisper:
You S.O.B. You who raised people from the dead and lift up bread to become your very body. Show yourself. Now! Respecting my free will, are you? Well, in freedom, I invite you to make the lights flicker. Tear the wooden beams from the roof. Levitation will suffice.
Like those wickeds, like Jesus’ disciples, I desperately proffer demands for signs. And I wait.
But it never happens. So?
In those moments I’ve reckoned myself bereft of God, I have to recall something else I’ve confided in others over the years. Less exciting to tell because it doesn’t have the same emotional smack as its counter, is that somehow when I lean in and engage the People of God, they always have a way of bringing me back to belief and to hope. The mechanics of it are dim, but I have come to see that all the constant pressing for signs and obsessive intellectualizing about God’s existence has not diminished my unbelief and despair but enhanced it. Conversely, an elixir to these solipsistic wanderings has been to let my body lead, to hand myself over in loving service to the suffering and tossed aside. It’s a derivative and ironic phenomenon: when I forget my own incessant demands for reassurance and immerse myself in the needs of others, glimpses of the divine break through. It’s as if the puzzle piece that is me experiences the joy only a puzzle piece could when its jagged contours meet the rough-edged grooves of another. It makes sense since the living Christ I seek is the one with hunks of flesh missing from his side and the God I so desperately want to encounter is, first and last, relationship.
Now in my better moments I pray God would break open my heart and then place me with others whose hearts are broken. Because, as holy scripture says, that is where God is. In those queasy, empty moments of despair, I have to live the psalm that accompanied the readings for that fourth Friday of Lent, nestled as all psalms are in the crack between the two readings, obvious, and thus easily skimmed over (like grace itself): The Lord is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18).
What does is it mean to truly be free? Br. Mark Mackey, SJ, continues to lead us through an introduction to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, in which Ignatius calls for us to shed from ourselves the things that hold us down.
What’s keeping you from peace and joy in your life?
I’m Br. Mark Mackey, and I’d like to talk to you about freedom in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Certain things imprison us and keep us from the happiness we seek. We’ve all been there, and some of us may be there now: toxic relationships, bad habits, addictions, physical and emotional wounds that just don’t seem to heal.
There are also some more subtle barriers: a perfectionism that becomes obsessive, a fear of getting hurt that inhibits deep relationships, a laziness that stagnates our plans and our dreams, and a selfishness that leaves no room for love.
To really enjoy life, we need freedom from these attachments that hold us back. We must ask God to show us a way out of this prison–even if it takes a lot of time and trust to make that happen.
Freeing ourselves from these attachments, we begin to see a new sort of freedom, freedom for love: love of God, of others, of our earth and of ourselves.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola are the handbook that takes us through this movement from attachments to freedom for love. Join us in future episodes as we take you along this journey to freedom, peace, and love.
Are you perfect? Then this may not be the reflection for you. Brian Strassburger, SJ, reminds us that God’s perfect mercy is Jesus’ answer to our imperfections. Based on the readings for Sunday, September 15, 2019, which you can read here: https://bit.ly/2ZqAniz
So tell me, are you perfect?…
Hello?? Of course not! None of us is perfect!
Hi, I’m Brian Strassburger and this is my one-minute reflection.
We hear from St. Paul today: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.” That’s right: the great St. Paul the Apostle considered himself the foremost of all sinners. He knew that he wasn’t perfect.
But St. Paul also recognized the greatness of God’s mercy. Jesus didn’t come to save the perfect, he came to save sinners, like you and me. Even with all our imperfections, God constantly invites us to turn our hearts back to God.
Where do you need God’s mercy in your life today? Have you placed false idols, like wealth and success, above God? Have you damaged relationships with family or friends? Have you been caught in a cycle of sinful habits?
Bring your sinfulness to God. Go to the Sacrament of Confession, even if it’s been a while. Let yourself feel God’s compassion and loving embrace.
Doesn’t that sound perfect?
A few years ago, a Jesuit friend of mine bought me a holy card of Blessed Solanus Casey and put it under my door during a silent retreat. On the back of the holy card was a quotation from the Capuchin friar from Detroit that read:
“Worry is a weakness from which very few of us are entirely free. We must be on guard against this most insidious enemy of our peace of soul. Instead, let us foster confidence in God, and thank Him ahead of time for whatever He chooses to send us.”
I was struck by how such profound and simple words seemed to honestly explain the deep peace issuing from the smile and stature of Blessed Solanus on the holy card. I was challenged, however, because the words seemed overly simple and Pollyanna. Thanking God ahead of time as an antidote to the problem of worry sounded at once both overly saccharine and deeply wise.
Taking time to sincerely thank God ahead of time for whatever he would send me in the future would be a bold act of confidence in God and a sign of great trust in his Providence. That is not Pollyanna or saccharine, that is the theological virtue of faith.
And that is what made me uncomfortable with an initial hesitancy toward his words: did I lack confidence in God?
The only reasonable reticence towards such a practice would be a lack of confidence in God or the notion that I wouldn’t be grateful for whatever God gave me in the future. That is an uncomfortable realization to confront within one’s self: that there are parts of me that struggle to place trust in God and thus believe that whatever he sends me will be to my benefit.
In a recent interview, Anderson Cooper asked Stephen Colbert some questions about his faith and how it has influenced the way he has dealt with tragedy in his life. In it, Cooper says, “You [once] said, ‘What punishment of God’s are not gifts?’ Do you really believe that?”
Waiting for a moment, and then with tears in his eyes, Colbert replied, “Yes. It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that.”
Referring then to the tragic loss of his father and brothers at a young age, he said, “I don’t want it to have happened. I want it to not have happened. But if you’re grateful for your life — and I’m not always — then you have to be grateful for all of it.”
Watching the video, there is a clear sense that Colbert is speaking from a deep faith. He speaks, to use Blessed Solanus’s language, with a confidence in God. Such confidence plainly spoken of can be displacing and deeply attractive at the same time. It sounds true, good and beautiful.
It also sounds hard.
Perhaps that is why Cooper had to clarify, “Do you really believe that?”
Walter Ciszek, the Jesuit priest who spent 20 years imprisoned by the Soviet Union, said that even in his darkest moments, this simple faith is what helped him survive:
“The circumstances of each day of our lives, of every moment of every day, are provided for us by him. Let the theologians argue about how this is so, let the philosophers and sophisticates of this world question and doubt whether it can be so; the revealed truth we have received on God’s own word simply says that it is so. But maybe we are all just a little afraid to accept it in all its shattering simplicity, for its consequences in our lives are both terrible and wonderful.”
In the last few months, I have begun the simple practice of ‘thanking God ahead of time’ as a way of fostering confidence in God and trying to see the circumstances of each day as gift. It has had the exact effect that Blessed Solanus said it would: inviting me into a deeper surrender, a relinquishing of control, and a more childlike trust in God.
Worry, at least for me, is predicated upon the spiritually dangerous idea that I am in control of things. Making a daily act of confidence, a daily reminder that things are in fact not in my control, has helped me receive the future with much more openness, seeing the joys and struggles, triumphs and failures, all in light of God’s generous providence.
On seeing the circumstances of each day as provided by God, Ciszek continued, saying, “If it all seems too simple, you have only to try to find how difficult it is. But you have only to try it to find out as well the joy and the peace and the happiness it can bring. For what can ultimately trouble the soul that accepts every moment of everyday as a gift from the hands of God and strives always to do his will?”
If I had thanked God for whatever he chose to send me, I then had to discover the goodness and the opportunity in the situations that arose in my life, even when they included trial or sadness. This has brought with it a peace and a joy.
It is not as if I’m coming to know why God allows each moment or even that he plans each moment. Rather, I am finding that he gifts each moment. And though it may be mysterious, I think we’re called to be grateful for the moment, regardless of what it entails.
Like Colbert said, after sharing about his mother’s consolation in identifying with Mary after the loss of her son, “We’re asked to accept the world God gives us, and accept it with love.”
Such acceptance, though perhaps simple, does not come easily. So, let us try and foster trust by thanking Him ahead of time for whatever he chooses to send us.
Stephen Colbert: CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters
Solanus Casey: CNS photo/The Michigan Catholic
Walter Ciszek: Courtesy of The Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League
It’s good to exercise the bodies, but what about the soul? We’ve got just the thing for you: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Join us in the next several weeks as we give a quick overview of this great gift of Ignatius of Loyola.
Do we acknowledge where the gift of our faith comes from? Today would normally be the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, so Fr. Joe Simmons, SJ, decided to explore the importance of remembering those who passed on the faith in this week’s One-Minute Homily.
What are the names of your grandparents? How about your great-grandparents? How about your great-great-grandparents?
Hi, I’m Father Joe Simmons, and this is my One-Minute Homily.
A number of years ago I lived with a Jesuit who suffered declining health and loss of vision. Before he totally lost his vision, though, he wanted to memorize all of the gospels, so that he could recite them from memory, every time he preached.
Eventually, we came to today’s Gospel, on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our Gospel recounts the many generations that led from Abraham to King David to the Babylonian Captivity, ultimately to Jesus Christ.
I thought, “surely, Fr. Pat wouldn’t be able to memorize fourteen generations, and fourteen generations, and fourteen generations!” But memorize them he did, because it was important for him to remember where Jesus came from.
It was important for the early Christians to know where they came from. And it’s important for us too to remember the gift of our own faith. One this birthday of Mary, perhaps we can give thanks to God for all of our ancestors who passed on the faith from generation to generation.
I don’t remember when, sometime during high school, I transitioned from ironically listening to Taylor Swift (because, well, high school) to genuinely jamming out to the highschool-sweetheart country/pop tunes. The fact that my high school all-male choir sang a cover of “Love Story” probably helped the move (yes, that’s me with the hair). But over the years, with her rise to a more mainstream pop sound, and the increasingly meta-lyrics about her personal life, I’ve begun to be more conscientious about the underlying messages of the music. Her sixth studio album, reputation, was a full turn into the feuds becoming increasingly public on social media, especially with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West. And from what I can hear, in her seventh album, Swift has become aware of what that turn has done to her as well. But it remains to be seen whether her return to an old sound is also a return to a genuine, healthy love.
After reputation, Swift’s most-experimental and least-commercially-successful album, Lover is, for the most part, a return to many of her old sounds that dominated her mid-career albums Red and 1989 (as one review quipped, “If it sounds as if we’ve been here before, it’s because we have”). Mostly eschewing the electronic, angry, feud-fueled lyrics of reputation, Swift returns to her more sugarpop persona about music. In many ways, despite what “Look What You Made Me Do” asserted, the “Old Taylor” isn’t dead. I felt and heard the old messages of love I was used to without the jarring anger of the public feud. As Swift herself tells Vogue, “This album is really a love letter to love, in all of its maddening, passionate, exciting, enchanting, horrific, tragic, wonderful glory.”
And when it comes to the emotional range of what love creates, Swift does not shy away in the 18-track album (see also TJP’s review of her first single, “ME!”). Swift sings of the highs of falling in love ( “I Think He Knows” and “Paper Rings”), the lows of falling out of love (“Death By A Thousand Cuts”), and that particular mix of jealousy and hope we get around the ones we love (“Afterglow,” “Cornelia Street” and “Lover”). Present, too, is some of the shade of reputation, like in the opening song “I Forgot That You Existed,” which plays into her penchant for those songs about her public appearance (“The Man” and “You Need to Calm Down”). But gone is the anger and finger-pointing of what came in the previous album. Swift also delves into some deeper vulnerabilities as well, singing about her mother’s cancer in “Soon You’ll Get Better.” Overall, as one review writes, the album “showcases Swift’s unmatchable talent of using specificity to evoke the familiar emotions that come with searching for love, finding love, and moving on once that love has been lost.”
The emphasis on love is nothing new for Swift (probably any of her earlier albums could be titled Lover), excepting the aural and thematic foray of reputation. But it was during her Reputation Tour that she realized she wanted to pivot back to her old style, refusing to play into the caricature she felt others had forced her into. “I would look out into the audience and I’d see these amazing, thoughtful, caring, wonderful, empathetic people,” she says. “I see that they actually see me as a flesh-and-blood human being. That — as contrived as it may sound — changed [me] completely, assigning humanity to my life.” It is in this new humanity, I think, that we can hear Swift’s rejection of what the public feud was doing to her.
Now, a quick point: I’m not saying that it’s better for Swift to be nice rather than angry. We, as a society, often focus too much on women being “likable.” Anger isn’t a bad emotion; there is power in anger, to flip over tables of blasphemy at the temple or to uproot institutions of sin. But the anger of the public feud becomes about the spectacle, about the anger itself, rather than being about resolving disputes and (re-)establishing just relationships. As Bogdan, a member of a L’Arche Ukraine community, says, “there are not many ways to fight a war without carrying a stone in your soul.” And Swift, by her own account, did seem to be carrying a heavy stone.
In “The Archer,” the music slows down as Swift reflects on where she came from. “I’ve been the archer, I’ve been the prey / Screaming, who could ever leave me, darling / But who could stay?” Gone is her posturing as she admits to what could be getting in the way of her love. There is contrition here about what she was doing to herself, played out in social media and in her music.
The last lines of the album, spoken at the end of “Daylight,” provide a sort of thesis: “I wanna be defined by the things that I love / Not the things I hate… / I, I just think that / You are what you love.” In many ways, reputation was defined by hate and a rejection of forgiveness (“This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”). And where in “Call It What You Want” Swift asserts, “all my flowers grew back as thorns,” by the time we get to “You Need To Calm Down” she sports a back tattoo of a snake bursting into butterflies. But as much as the themes of her music have returned to what they were before, Swift’s approach to them has changed. In “The Archer,” she sings, “Combat, I’m ready for combat / I say I don’t want that, but what if I do?” If you are what you love, what does it mean that Swift loves getting into fights and conflict with those around her?
Perhaps unknown to Swift, that phrase is also taken for the title of James K.A. Smith’s book on spiritual habits (though the connection was not lost for Smith). Smith’s ideas echo what Sister Sarah Joan says to Lady Bird: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” Smith, a professor of philosophy, points out that we are not always aware of what it is exactly that we are loving; attention, rather than intention, is a better judge. Love is about habit, and “this means that our most fundamental orientation to the world—the longings and desires that orient us toward some version of the good life—is shaped and configured by imitation and practice” (p.19). We build up routines, even rituals, that take our attention and slowly form us in habits of love. Smith refers to these habits as formed out of “cultural liturgies,” which form “a kind of orientation to the world that seeps into your unconscious way of being” (p.37). We are surrounded by cultures, by habits and routines that we pick up from the people around us. The routines we develop can become liturgies, orienting the way in which we become used to loving.
As Patrick Gilger SJ (of TJP fame) writes on Smith’s work, “what we do teaches us how to love. It is meant to help us see how repetitive practices—like shopping or binge-watching or decorating our Christmas trees—point our hearts in a particular direction and by doing so tell us who we are and where we belong.” Often unconsciously, these liturgies pull our attention, even in directions we didn’t intend to go. And it’s not about subliminal messages or secret machinations of ‘Big Business.’ In the everyday experiences of our lives, we engage in liturgies simply because we want to. As Dorothy Day writes in her autobiography, “people have so great a need to reverence, to worship, to adore” (p.84). We revere celebrities, become members of different groups, we pick sides against Swift or against the Wests (as if it matters), and our love becomes unconsciously formed by where we put our attention.
Though not in the same language, Swift realized what the cultural liturgy of the public feud was doing to her as a human being. It required a moment of arrest, a human being facing other human beings, to provide a moment of metanoia that returned her to an old love. The feuds, the bickering and shade, became a ritual unto themselves, and it’s hard to say where they moved from routine into liturgy. But as “The Archer” and other songs show, Swift has become aware of what’s happening. The draw of the feud, thrilling in its own right, had been pulling her into something she didn’t want to be. She swings back to earlier sounds and themes, albeit not entirely dropping the persona she has built up. But there is a clear desire to return to her old cultural liturgies of highschool sweethearts and brushing off haters.
It is precisely in this return to her old sound that this album fails to really push a new type of love, alluded to in “Daylight.” Swift sings, “I once believed love would be (Burning red) / But it’s golden.” In some way, she appears to (at least partially) have departed from the old excitement (her 2012 album is called Red, after all) into a new understanding of what love is. But that new understanding is swallowed up by many other songs highlighting the old puppy love. As much as she points to something different, maybe even a new kind of love, the worship of her liturgy mostly returns to the old shallowness.
Swift has not been afraid to look at her love as a religion. Back in Red, she sings “and right there where we stood / was holy ground” (“Holy Ground”). Then in the slow jazz of “False God,” she acknowledges the absurdity of this love, while still insisting, “Religion’s in your lips / Even if it’s a false god / We’d still worship / … / We’d still worship this love.” Swift is very aware of her fanbase; she seems to delight in planting easter eggs and hidden messages to those dedicated fans. And I think she’s aware of what her worship creates in those who listen to her. Cultural liturgies are, well, cultural. We do them together, to fit in, to feel like a part of something, to share the joy of obsession with others by becoming “fans”. In her own return to “a love letter to love,” Swift invites those listening to also return to that love that pressed its fingerprint into her entire career. Even if it’s a false god.
Now to be clear, The Jesuit Post does not recommend the worship of false gods. But what is noteworthy is that now Swift names the falsity of her god; as much as she loves love, she calls it an idol. There is a challenge in a few of her songs, novel to her oeuvre, carried through this assertion of a false god. Swift is reflective not just about old flames, but about how she as a person has been changed through both her fighting and her loving. She is aware of the liturgies that she’s created and participates in. Swift has given a whole lot of attention to all of the “maddening, passionate, exciting, enchanting, horrific, tragic, wonderful glory” of love. Where has that attention left her?
Loving love will not make us better people if that love is shallow and flits from person to person. Smith calls for “counter-liturgies” necessary to work against the norms and expectations that have already been built up around us. It’s not enough to just jump back to old liturgies without recognizing how we ourselves have changed along the way.
For the most part, Swift has released a catchy, fun, and ultimately very safe album. She relies on many old tropes and musical styles, almost seeming to apologize for the experimentality of reputation. And because of that safety, the liturgy of Lover feels like high school again. The attention is back to where it was before. Now, the unrelenting sweetness of many of the songs is nice; after all, it’s that sweetness that originally drew me to listen to her music. And the little bit of acidity is a refreshing splash against the rest of it. But at the end of the day, it’s still candy. And it leaves me hungry for something a little richer. I’m not in high school anymore.
There are a few moments that point to something deeper, something more honest and fulfilling. Swift sometimes wants not to just rehash old shallow themes, but to move into something that can actually work against the liturgy of feuding and anger that spurred the moment of metanoia. Calling something a “false god” doesn’t remove its power over us. Cultural liturgies build up habits, and old loves are hard to leave. But naming something as false is a first powerful movement against that habit. As Swift points out in “False God,” “they say the road gets hard and you get lost / when you’re led by blind faith.” While many of the old habits are still there, Swift doesn’t seem to be willing to be led by a blind faith in love anymore. There are undercurrents of an actual counter-liturgy, of love that is based on something deeper than the frisson of first dates.
What would that counter-liturgy look like? Bodgan survives through a difficult life in Ukraine by attending to a simple activity: “every day, I let the birds loose in the house.” He reflects, “if you fight with anger, you could forget how to breathe fresh air, how to hold your nephew in your arms.” Only a deep love, that opens our souls rather than weighing them down, is powerful enough to counter the liturgies we build up. In “Daylight,” Swift seems to be pointing to a love, a beauty, that is more profound than what came before. She contrasts what she “once believed love would be” with what she sees now in the golden daylight.
As for me, I will keep listening to Lover. It’s fun to have candy sometimes. But as I listen, and continue to play my part in this liturgy of pop music, I’m aware of that golden love Swift desires. She sings, “I don’t wanna look at anything else now that I saw you / I don’t wanna think of anything else now that I thought of you.” We all desire that love that transforms us, that gets under our skin, under our excuses and failings, to welcome us into something more beautiful. I’ve found that love in my vocation. I’ve found it in my prayer with God, in my brotherhood of the Jesuits, and in the mission I share with wonderful friends. And I’m aware of the challenge that vocation continues to give me: to build up a counter-liturgy of mercy, peace, and unconditional love.
P.S. At the beginning of “Lover,” Swift sings, “We could leave the Christmas lights up ‘til January.” Which is correct, since the Christmas season goes through the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Way to know your liturgical calendar, Taylor.
It was the first cold-ish night of the year, and we were bundled up. As members of the Labre Homeless Ministry, we knew that our evening walk around downtown Chicago could feel much colder than the weather reports predicted.
Labre is a work of the Loyola University Chicago Campus Ministry office inspired by a similar ministry at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. Every Thursday, two dozen students wander around downtown Chicago offering food, clothes, and friendship to our friends-experiencing-homelessness. I’m lucky, they let me hang out and tell them about how their ministry reminds me of what Jesus did, walking in a group and befriending those ignored by the side of the road. St. Benedict Joseph Labre is the patron saint of the homeless.
We climbed off the El armed with our usual supplies: a dozen hot dogs, some PB&Js, fruit and snacks, and due to the weather, strong hot chocolate.
We passed by a downtown university campus, a couple burger joints and more than one Starbucks. To our north, the bright lights of the Chicago Theater beckoned. Dozens of tourists from across the U.S. puzzled over their phones as they tried to find the Hamilton theater. For a few blocks, we didn’t see any of our friends-on-the-street, but then I spotted two gentlemen sitting down the block beside a CVS.
One of the men recognized us. I recognized his big smile extending to the corners of his eyes. Our group of six sat down on the cold sidewalk to chat. For a few minutes, we tried to remember each other’s names, but we both failed at that task. No bother. He scarfed down his hot dog. His friend started his first of five cups of hot chocolate. Then we could relearn their names: Darryl and Dennis.
“I wanted to show you a video” Darryl said, fumbling to get his phone out of his pocket while unwrapping his second hot dog. “Ouija,” he said with a grin.
“Ouija?” I asked. “Like the game?”
He struggled to handle both his phone and his dinner, so I reached out. “You eat,” I said, “and I can look it up.”
I turned on the home screen, skeptical about where this encounter might lead. There were a few new volunteers on the route and I hoped their first encounter wouldn’t be centered around board game witchcraft. I opened Chrome to start the search.
His web browser did not feature occult activity, but instead was a porn video he had been watching before. Embarrassed, I closed the window and heard one of the student leaders struggle to suppress a shocked laugh. I typed “ouija” into the search bar.
“That’s not it,” Darryl said, having finished his hot dog. Taking the phone back, he typed in something new as Dennis repeated “OUI-JA.”
At this point I considered ending the conversation. From the unremembered names to the demonic games and the surprise on the screen, the night was leaving me unsettled. I don’t like being out of control.
Finally, Darryl found the video he was looking for. “WEEGEE,” he said again, showing me the screen. It had nothing to do with board games, but instead was a famous Chicago singer.
Darryl and Dennis sang the song to us along with the video.
Life is hard, and so unfair….
Unless you believe that someone cares….
Someone who’s there rain or shine…
sharing your dreams, your heart, and your mind…
As they sang, my heart melted. All the stress of the encounter, of my classes that day, of the newly frosty weather left my mind. Darryl invited me to share his dreams and his heart and his mind. I had told the students that we would be like Jesus, encountering folks on the street and offering healing. Instead, Darryl found me, touched me deeply. and healed me.
Months later, I was heading downtown to meet up for our ministry, but my mind was elsewhere. I greeted students and met new ones as we got onto the crowded El heading downtown. Again, we passed classroom buildings, and fast food joints. It was so cold that night, I thought about sneaking off to see Hamilton myself, or at least grabbing something from one of the Starbuckses.
I saw a few of our friends on the street and led the group toward them. Suddenly I heard my name: “Jake!” It was Darryl. This time he remembered my name!
“I didn’t recognize you in the new hat,” I told him.
“Yeah, well, it’s winter in Chicago.” He was nestled under furry ear flaps.
Like so often, Darryl was surrounded by other folks experiencing homelessness. He introduced us to those in the group and the students diligently started filling orders for hotdogs.
Darryl serves as sort of a mayor for the folks in his area of the Loop. He knows the particular needs for each of the people around him. “That guy needs gloves.” “He needs a hat.” “Can I have an extra set of hand warmers for somebody who I’ll see later?”
While our friends drank hot chocolate. Darryl and I started catching up on the last few weeks and then looked forward to the next ones.
“My birthday is coming up,” he said. “December 25!”
We discussed the pros and cons of having a Christmas birthday. Darryl is a big Jesus fan, so he’s happy to share.
As Darryl met all the other members of our group. I caught myself distracted, making a list of tasks to complete before bed. First, I’d have to nurse my leg back to health. In the bitter cold, it went numb after just a few minutes on the frozen sidewalk.
I returned to the conversation to hear Darryl say, “I’ll be 48 later this year.”.
“Is your birthday coming up?” I asked. Concocting ways to thaw out my leg was taking up all my mental energy.
“Come on, Jake!” Darryl spouted back as the rest of the group looked at me in disbelief. “I remember your name after all these weeks and you can’t remember my birthday after five minutes!”
“Oh right oh right! Sorry, it slipped my mind.” Bashfully, I laughed at myself and my to-do list’s power of distraction. I found it easy to focus on Darryl for the rest of the conversation.
That night, again, my prediction about who would be healing whom proved incorrect. My preoccupation with my to-do list plagued me like the demons that conquer so many in the Gospels. Darryl channeled his birthday twin and helped me cast it out by forcing me to be present to him. He healed me, again.
Somehow, my leg felt warmer, too.
Chicago got even colder as Christmas approached. On the group’s last night out before break, I wished Darryl a Merry Christmas and a happy birthday.
I asked him how he’d be celebrating, he said he’d be with his brother and his dad. Hopefully one of his sons would stop by, too. It was the first time we’d spoken about his family. I told him about my brother who was struggling. We promised to pray for each other.
Before we left, he took me aside. “I need you guys to bring blankets out for Herbert when you come back in January. He just had all his stuff stolen, and the stuff I’ve been able to find for him is soaking wet. I don’t want to lose another friend to hypothermia. Please bring a blanket. Promise me.”
Every Thursday, I offer Darryl a hot dog, banana, and hot chocolate. But every Thursday, his gifts to me far outweigh my meager snack. Darryl looks me in the eye and diagnoses the worries I’m harboring. I can be sure that his presence and love will free me, even if just for the evening. Based on this last encounter, it’s clear that I’m not the only one whom Darryl is healing.
Darryl has forced me to get rid of my assumptions about how service works. It may sound foolish to believe that God regularly shows up in a man experiencing homelessness who sometimes watches porn outside a CVS. In the way he always looks deep into my heart and casts out my demons, Darryl proves to me that it would be foolish to believe anything else.
Jesus came to put us in our place. Humble the exalted, exalt the humble. Uli Covarrubias, SJ, reminds us that through this Jesus calls us to be near him and the Father. Check out this week’s One-Minute Homily, based on the readings for September 1, 2019, which you can find here: https://bit.ly/2zpsf39
Finally, every book in its right place.
Hi, I’m Uli Covarrubias, and this is my one-minute reflection.
Much like a librarian working with books, Jesus, in his infinite mercy, has come to put us in our place. Giving us the human dignity that comes from being sons and daughters of the Father.
How? Today’s gospel tells us. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who are humble will be exalted.
In other words, Jesus comes to lift up the lowly and to knock the prideful off their high horse.
We’ll probably agree that these are good things.
But we might be a little less enthusiastic when living by these principles takes us beyond our comfort.
When lifting up the lowly means giving up something we cherish, or we have to help someone who doesn’t look, think or act like us, or when it’s we ourselves getting knocked off the horse.
Yet both of these help us to see ourselves and our neighbors as sons and daughters of God, no more, no less.
And if we live according to them, we’ll be right where Jesus wants us, near him, near one another, and near the Father.
College football is back, baby! There are oodles of games to get excited about and most fanatics will start with the season opener of their favorite team. Personally, I am super pumped for a “New Day” in Columbus, Ohio! All that being said, I want to focus on something more important than National Championships and thrilling victories. I want to unveil a hidden yet incredibly common reality behind these amazing, young, talented, and explosive athletes who go toe to toe for 60 minutes on the gridiron: Many of these young men may be suffering with mental illness in silence.
Today, 30% of college students (including athletes) report feeling depressed and 50% feel overwhelmed by anxiety. In the clinical counseling field, anxiety and depression are like best friends – it is hard not to spot them hanging out together. High levels of untreated anxiety and depression, coupled with major life changes, like an athletic injury that keeps a player sidelined for the year, can lead to suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. Notably, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, claiming 1,000 lives each year.
The much-discussed and sometimes dismissed neurological condition CTE can also lead to depression and suicide in athletes. Tyler Hilinski was a star quarterback at Washington State University who shot himself rather unexpectedly on January 16, 2018. He showed no signs of depression and anxiety, and by all accounts was a very enthusiastic and happy young man. Interestingly, however, his autopsy revealed that he did have CTE. His head trauma may have caused Tyler to experience symptoms of depression that he could very well have been hiding for a long time.
Now, I imagine college athletes to be very strong-willed individuals. And it is not outside of the realm of possibility for college football players to put on a “good face” to hide their interior sufferings. This possibility is why head coach Dabo Swinney of Clemson University has created what he calls the “safe seat” for his players to express and share anything and everything about their history and what they are going through inside. To get players to open up, Dabo asks them important questions like “what was it like growing up without your dad?” His players know that it is safe to share anything with their teammates, especially things that pertain to mental illness. This openness about mental health issues creates a culture of change that destroys stigma and restores lives.
For me, it is imperative to destroy the stigma surrounding mental illness if we are to revitalize our society. Today, it is still seemingly easier to talk with loved ones about the fact that you or a family member has cancer than to confess that you or a family member suffers from depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, PTSD, or schizophrenia. Why? Simple… stigma. The stigma surrounding mental illness is that people who are mentally ill are “crazy,” “disturbed,” “unstable,” “weak,” and “needy.” There is generally less empathy for someone who suffers from depression or anxiety than for one who has other physical disabilities.
There is a tweet from athletenetwork.com that says that “mental illness is probably one of the greatest silent epidemics in the country” and I have to agree. To break the silence, I propose the institution of more “safe seats” in our parishes, our local community boards, our families, our classrooms and schools, and anywhere else you can think of.
I realize that talking about mental health issues with others is a private and personal matter. But I have found that the privatization of mental illness prevents people from getting the help and support they actually need from professionals and the community around them. It is time to break the silence. It is time to break the stigma. When you can line up four people in any classroom in the country and tell the class that statistics demonstrate that one of the four is suffering from a mental illness, you know that of the 20 others in the classroom, five of them likely have something they share in common which they would benefit from talking about.
The sheer prevalence and commonality of mental illness should pave the way for open discussions about personal experience with mental illness in classrooms and parishes, etc. in a non-judgmental, open, and safe space. Vulnerability should lead to support not ostracization. If we break the silence around our struggles we will break the stigma and promote healthier communities.
For college athletes, and no less for ourselves, the alternative to a “safe seat” is withdrawal and isolation. And these two beasts are known to lead to more chaos and less connection, which doesn’t make for great teamwork. Indeed, if your favorite team is going to win its opening game, they will need to be very connected. In like manner, if college athletes and people, in general, are going to win in life, we will need to be connected. Connection happens when we are open and vulnerable. Indeed, our strength to connect lies in this very vulnerability and openness. It’s time to connect; it’s time for kickoff. And it’s an even better time for a safe seat. So grab yours today and enjoy the game!
image courtesy of wikimedia commons user johntex
Before I go to sleep at night,
I examine my hands,
I make sure they are empty —
for this means I have given it all in my day.
Before I wake up in the morning,
I examine my hands,
I make sure they are empty —
For this means I am ready to receive it all in my day.
When I follow Christ,
I examine my hands,
I make sure they are empty and bear his wounds —
For now giving and receiving have become one.
”Open Hands” Poem by Michael A. Martínez, S.J.
I was freaking out. It was the day before I would profess vows to live poor, chaste and obedient for the rest of my life!
My heart was pounding. In search of some peace, I pulled one of the older Jesuit priests in the house to a community parlor and word vomited all my fears and anxieties about living these promises until the day I die. He reassured me in his typical Cuban-Jesuit wit and wisdom:
“Professing vows is not magic, as if once you read your promises in the Mass you are automatically self-actualized into a completely poor, chaste and obedient Jesuit. Only God can self-actualize instantly, and last time I checked you are not God. As a human, you are promising to become poor, chaste and obedient — on the journey — as you follow Christ. Thus, you are promising to become — every day of your life — a little more poor, a little more chaste, and a little more obedient until the day you die. The promise you are making is that when you look back on your life, you have become poor, chaste and obedient in pursuit of the ultimate goal — God’s Kingdom.”
My peace returned.
So, what actually occurred that day of taking vows?
On August 28th, 2015 (exactly four years ago today)…
…during a schoolwide “Mass of the Holy Spirit”…1
… at my middle and high school alma mater, Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami, FL
… accompanied by more than 1,700 persons, Belen students and teachers…2
… alongside my Jesuit brothers (including some former teachers and counselors)…
… college friends from Fordham University ‘13…
… my high school friends from Belen Jesuit ‘09, their parents, my family…
… I professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the Society of Jesus until the day I die.3
… and as I reminded all the people in the Mass that day: their concrete stories, prayers, friendships, love and lives give me strength everyday in pursuit of God’s Kingdom. I felt as if I took the vows with them and for them as well.
They too are on the adventure with me and for me.
So, what’s on that piece of paper?
Every Jesuit has to handwrite their “vow formula” three times on three seperate sheets of paper; one sheet is mailed to Rome, another to one’s Province office (in my case to Dominican Republic) and the last copy to keep for oneself.
Ever since the day of my vows, I have made it a point to keep my handwritten vows by my bedside. As the final thing I do before going to sleep, I read them out loud. This is not some pious requirement asked of Jesuits, but rather a personal choice.
It’s my simple way of saying to God: “I have received it all from You, and I give it all to You.”4
What do “Open Hands” have to do with the vows?
As a synthesis of my experience as a first-year Jesuit novice in 2014, during my thirty-day silent retreat known as the Spiritual Exercises, I wrote the above poem “Open Hands”, which captures the core invitation God was making me: to follow His Son Jesus radically and live in the world the way Jesus lived — poor, chaste and obedient to God’s Will.
Originally written in Spanish, the poem “Manos Abiertas” sums up the ‘open hands’ I needed to receive all of God’s gifts, and the open hands to give away those same gifts to every person I encounter.
It was not until 2016, during my graduate studies in digital media at Loyola University Chicago, that I set “Open Hands” to music and adapted it into a “moving poem” that also abstractly encapsulates my vocation story. The various hands in the video belong to Damian Torres-Botello S.J., various youth from St. Jerome Catholic Church and my own hands.
My Jesuit vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, help me to live with radically ‘open hands’ to serve any and all ‘open hands’ I encounter. The vows are a call to love radically.
Can we really live this way for life?
The answer is only by grace, so let us pray:
My Lovingly Liberating God,
Give me hands as free as those of your Son, Jesus Christ
To radically love, give and work.
May my poverty invite others to hold all things with radical freedom to receive and give.
May my chastity invite others to hold all people with radical embrace and compassion.
May my obedience invite others to hold all projects with discernment to radically pursue God’s will and firmly reject that which contradicts it.
Give us Your open hands.
A month after the protests in Puerto Rico that captivated the world, Ángel Flores shares what he lived in the picket line the day the governor resigned. He also includes a brief historical account of the events that led Puerto Ricans to take action against their government and the general response of the local Catholic Church. He then leaves us with a question: how are we mainland Catholics called to emulate this struggle for justice?
July 24, Calle de La Fortaleza
I got there early. It was 3pm. The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, would supposedly resign at any minute, and I was in front of La Fortaleza, the presidential mansion, with a few dozens of protesters. Standing over the police barricade, and with their backs to the governor’s residence, a group of poets led the crowd of demonstrators with their verses and slogans. One could be inspired by the patriotic poems, laugh at the parodic criticisms, dance to the music and give a thankful smile to the tourists who showed their solidarity. But uncertainty was also in the air. Nothing could ensure that the rumor spread the night before would become a reality: Rosselló would step down and Puerto Ricans would make history.https://thejesuitpost.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/video-1566058192.mp4
5pm came. Still nothing. The head of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives decides to begin the official impeachment process because the governor did not meet the agreed deadline to resign. By this time hundreds had joined the protest. They were young, old, radicals, moderates, conservatives, religious, atheists, rich, poor… When night came, we were thousands. Saucepans kept the beat, and the voice of the crowd was shooking the narrow streets of Old San Juan with shouts like: “¡Somos más, y no tenemos miedo!” (We are more, and we are not afraid!) and “¿Dónde está Ricky? Ricky no está aquí…Ricky está vendiendo lo que queda del país.” (Where is Ricky? Ricky is not here…Ricky is selling what is left of the Island.)
It was 9pm. Like every previous night, the police were in high gear. Instructions were given by leading protesters: “Do not throw objects to the police or become violent.” After two weeks of demonstrations, people knew that the governor was only benefitting from the few violent showdowns. A rumor about a video of resignation being recorded had circulated. But by 10 pm, there was still nothing. We had already entered the “tear gas hour.” People prepared for the worst while the leading protesters gave instructions to the crowd from the barricade. Following classic non-violent resistance principles, they exhorted: “If the police throw tear gas, sit down and do not attack, so the real oppressors are made manifest.”
An hour later, I watched on TV the governor’s video presenting his resignation, official in August 2. Governor Rosselló was forced out of power by peaceful protesters. Fortaleza street (renamed “Resistencia” by the protesters) immediately exploded into celebration and shouts of joy. With their creative and inclusive activism Puerto Ricans reaffirmed their sovereignty over their government. And all without a single bullet. Perhaps meant to be, in a city named after John the Baptist.
Brief Historical Background
Ricardo Rosselló had been the governor of PR since January 2017. After Hurricane María hit in September of that same year, he received abundant criticism for being too cautious when making public demands to President Donald Trump. The United States leader had minimized the catastrophic event, which produced between close to 3,000 deaths, causing scandal and anger around the US and beyond. To make matters worse, 2018 began with an increase of economic austerity measures to deal with the Island’s national debt, including the decision to close hundreds of public schools around the Island, cut millions of dollars from the University of Puerto Rico’s budget, and thousands of people protesting in the streets and being dispersed with tear gas. The police also discovered in September 2018 that thousands of water bottles were abandoned in a runway and not given to hurricane survivors before becoming unusable. Meanwhile, Puerto Rican families still lacked power, water, and roofs.
This past summer the situation escalated. In June 29, the secretary of the Puerto Rican Department of the Treasury, Raúl Maldonado, publicly denounced an “institutional mafia” in this office, declaring that he was cooperating with the FBI to investigate government employees. Governor Rosselló immediately dismissed the secretary. Then came the last straw. On July 9, pages of a private chat between the governor and 11 of his collaborators were published by the press. The messages in the chat contained homophobic comments about celebrities like Ricky Martin, misogynistic insults against political rivals like the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, and disrespectful language toward victims of hurricane María. One day later, six members of his government were arrested for corruption charges. But this was not enough to make the governor go. On July 11, he apologized to the Puerto Rican people for his failures but indicated that he would not resign.
The last twelve days of his leadership began on July 13, when as protests demanding his resignation grew, almost 900 pages of a Telegram chat were revealed to the public. The levels of general rage were cemented. For the next week, thousands of Puerto Ricans went to the streets, including world known actors and artists, like Benicio del Toro, Residente, and Bad Bunny, asking for the governor’s resignation. But the Governor did not want to leave. Although he gave up his 2020 candidacy and renounced his position as president of his party, he held on to the governor’s office. After people from every background imaginable had protested through picket lines, horse riding, kayaking, motorcycling, bicycle riding, etc., a 500,000 people march was made in one of the local highways on July 22, being the biggest demonstration in Puerto Rican history to date. Two days later, Puerto Ricans started cheering in Old San Juan after 11:30pm.
This victory was not orchestrated by a group of academics with degrees, it was the result of a massive mobilization of every sector in society, including the church.
Invitation for Catholics in the Mainland
The July protests in Puerto Rico teach us something about democracy: democracy is not a given. Governments must be held accountable through the participation and (when necessary) resistance of its citizens, in order for democracy to survive. Catholics, as active members of society called to imitate Christ in all the dimensions of their lives, including politics, are not excluded from this process. As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church explains, democracy is not just following a set of rules but “a convinced acceptance of the values that inspire democratic procedures: the dignity of every human person, the respect of human rights, commitment to the common good…” (#407). Among these rights is the right to participation which is not limited to just voting in elections. It is understood as “a duty” and a varied “series of activities by means of which the citizen, either as an individual or in association with others, whether directly or through representation, contributes to the cultural, economic, political and social life of the civil community to which he belongs… (Compendium #189). Democracy also includes the right to resistance, exercised when the authorities “violate in a serious or repeated manner the essential principles of natural law” that give testimony to the dignity of everyone. As Saint Thomas Aquinas explains, “one is obliged to obey… insofar as it is required by the order of justice” (Compendium #400). For this reason, we must disobey the “directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2242). This commitment to participate in the renovation of the local democratic system by the impulse of the Gospel, even to the point of resistance, was practiced by Catholics of all kinds in the July protests of Puerto Rico.
As events unfolded during the last month, lay people, religious women and men, priests and bishops, all marched and protested along with people of all faiths and ideologies. The Puerto Rican Conference of Catholic Bishops published 3 documents during the protests, the first in July 18 to explain how the governor had abused his power, hurt the human dignity of diverse groups in Puerto Rican society, and therefore could not continue to exercise his leadership. The second on July 20 to call for a National Day of Prayer in July 26. The third document in July 25 after the governor’s resignation to pray for the future governor and invite all Puerto Ricans to collaborate in the creation of a better society. The Church members of Puerto Rico took matters into their own hands and through their participation in the struggle for justice became lumen gentium, not just in the church buildings, but also in the streets.
The Struggle Continues
The fight is not over yet in the “Island of Enchantment”. The first substitute of governor Rossello lasted less than a week. Wanda Vazquez, the new governor, is under heavy public scrutiny and more arrests of political figures are expected. In the meantime, Puerto Ricans remain vigilant. Protests and creative demonstrations continue to quick the fire of public interest. From all of it a question remains for us in the mainland: what else will we do to ensure that recent abuses to the dignity of human life cease?
Maybe is time for tens of thousands of motorcycles to flood Washington DC to protest against the deaths of immigrant children under government custody, a method used in Puerto Rico during the mentioned protests. Maybe it is time to form a common front between Hollywood actors, and artists and musicians to call for national marches in the US capital with several millions of people participating and lasting for weeks. Maybe it’s time for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to publicly and unequivocally condemn the immoral indifference of many politicians with the thousands of people fleeing violence in their countries, their complicity with gun manufacturers who prefer to let everyone die before allowing legislation that limits their profits, and denounce the increasing bigotry and racism in presidential speeches.
Can we have a national vigil of penance and atonement for the shootings and the continuous growth of white nationalism? Can our pastors demand that a prayer of the faithful is done every week for the end of racism? Can the bishops call Catholics of all sorts to collaborate with social justice initiatives and to transform parishes in centers of social change? I am convinced that the oppressors will capitulate, if like in Puerto Rico, everyone living in the mainland, with the full support of the church, take the streets for however long is necessary, in order to demand from their government to listen to them and change their policies toward immigration, racism, and gun control.
In many ways, this summer has not been an encouraging one: concentration camps for immigrants at the US/Mexico Border, immigrant children separated from families and dying in detention, racist tweets and comments by the US president, and the terrible shootings in Gilroy, California, Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas which combined left 36 people dead. Everyone is left wondering: “When will it end?” Our torches of hope are organizations inside and outside of the Catholic church that are actively fighting these injustices. Those like Annunciation House in El Paso, the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America (IFCLA) in Saint Louis, the Ignatian Solidarity Network, the Jesuit Social Research Institute in New Orleans, and thousands of other initiatives and individuals, from every faith and ideology, who have joined “la lucha”. A special shout out to the seventy Catholics arrested in DC for protesting US border policy on July 18.
I pray that, like them, every Catholic in the US realizes sooner than later that our social sins will end when we allow our prayers to turn into action. When we resist injustice and participate in the creation of the “civilization of love,” as Paul VI and John Paul II called it, along our sisters and brothers from other faiths and creeds. When all of us, like the Puerto Ricans, take the matter “into our own hands” and, additionally to assist with charity work, demand our politicians to act according to solidarity instead of individualism, even if it takes civil disobedience. We must fully embrace what JPII called a spirituality of communion, one that knows “how to ‘make room’ for our brothers and sisters, bearing ‘each other’s burdens’ (Gal 6:2) and resisting the selfish temptations which constantly beset us and provoke competition, careerism, distrust and jealousy”. We cannot act isolated, drowning in the defensive trenches of ideological dogmatism and sectarian purism. We must unite and collaborate with those who share a passion for the common good and a willingness to make it happen.
I also pray that every one of my Jesuit brothers in the US join in, and remember what our Complementary Norms say: “The service of faith and the promotion of justice constitute one and the same mission…” and they “cannot, therefore be separated…”
In the midst of our most recent crisis, Puerto Ricans and the millions of Christians there have provided us with a method of resistance and participation to overcome corruption and to hold democracy accountable. They have been a bright light in a world which desperately needs it. Similarly, in the struggle to build a more just US, the brave women and men assisting the immigrants, promoting anti-racism, denouncing attacks to human dignity, and advocating in favor of the most vulnerable, show us the way to our own objective. It is our Catholic duty to imitate them and stand with and for the poor. It is our vocation to participate in the political transformation of this country into a more christ-like society. Let us stop treating our neighbors as competitors. Let us resist in conversation, social media, and every forum, any discourse or rhetoric that intends to restore isolationism and a false sense of national superiority.
With those women and men in the trenches of solidarity and inclusivism, let us say like Pedro Arrupe, SJ: “I do not resign myself to let the world continue after my death as if I would have never lived.”
The Good News doesn’t always feel so good, but it’s also much greater than a different understanding of religion, says Fr. Michael Rossmann, SJ in this week’s One-Minute Homily based on the Sunday readings that can be found here.
What’s most important is feeling good about oneself, right? Not exactly.
Hi, I’m Fr. Michael Rossmann, and this is my One-Minute Homily.
Christian Smith coined the term “moralistic therapeutic deism” to describe the beliefs of many young people.
Our Gospel today rips apart this notion.
When asked whether only a few be saved, Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”
Narrow gate? That’s scary. And striving? It doesn’t always feel good!
But the one who tells us to strive is the Savior of the world who gives us his Body and Blood as food for the journey. This is far better than the distant god of deism!
Striving is more challenging than a therapeutic notion of religion, but nothing is more worthwhile than laboring so that Christ might be the Lord our lives and that others might know his challenging but Good News.
Rapper Nathan John Feuerstein, known by his initials NF, just released the album “The Search,” which quickly awarded him number one spot on Billboard’s Artist 100 Chart. The album is ultimately about his quest for happiness. Money and fame haven’t resolved the pain of NF’s past. He’s still searching for healing and for wholeness. It’s a search that he recognizes necessarily involves a spiritual dimension. Throughout the album, NF expresses his desire to reconnect with God. Perhaps surprisingly, this echoes strongly St. Thomas Aquinas’s writings on happiness in the beginning of the second part of his Summa Theologica.
NF achieved international recognition with his last album “Perception,” which was released in 2017 and contained “Let You Down” on its track list. “Let You Down” went triple platinum and reached number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 while the album was #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. NF seemed to achieve what every artist dreams, but the Michigan rapper reveals on his new album, “The Search,” that success only lead him into deeper despair. Much of “The Search,” his fourth studio album in five years, addresses the disillusionment that NF experienced in the midst of his newfound fame.
At the heart of NF’s new album is an interlude in which the artist describes how success and fame led him to the deepest depression he has ever experienced. He says in the interlude, “My most considered, like, ‘successful’ moment of my life was the worst. The most depressed I’ve ever been…I got a number one on Billboard, my song is massive right now. Like I may never have a song this big again… So I literally had everything that I had always dreamed of happening. And I felt, I didn’t feel happy at all.”
So how does Aquinas speak to the experience of NF?
Aquinas writes that the ultimate end of all human beings is happiness. This naturally leads to the question, “in what, or in whom, is that happiness found?” Some people search for that happiness in wealth. Others try to find it in glory and fame. Still others look for it in pleasure or power. Aquinas asserts that none of these things is that in which human happiness consists. NF’s new album provides a great confession to the truth of Aquinas’s observations.
The first and titular song of “The Search” opens with NF admitting that, like every human being, he is dealing with issues. He even says that last year he experienced a break down. This was in light of the success of his album “Perception.” He raps, “Got a taste of fame, had to pump my stomach / throw it back up like I don’t want it.” In light of NF’s interlude referenced above, it is clear that fame doesn’t make NF happy. If anything, it accentuates the frustrations he has experienced for so much of his life.
In another song titled “Nate,” NF gives advice and guidance to his younger self. He writes, “You start to write about your life and while they’re all relatin’ / You’ll make up a slogan, call it ‘Real,’ but feel like you’re the fakest.” Aquinas responds similarly as to why glory and fame cannot be the ultimate source of happiness, “Human knowledge is often mistaken, especially when it comes to particularly contingent matters such as human acts. For that reason, human glory is frequently mistaken.”1 In other words, human judgment is often faulty or off the mark. People may praise things that in the final analysis aren’t praiseworthy. Therefore, human happiness cannot rely on something that can be so easily mistaken.
NF’s example is helpful. He recognizes the adulation of his fans, but his pain-filled psyche wants tells him that he is a fraud and his fans are wrong for believing in him. If he bases his happiness on how popular he is among his fanbase, then the demons of self-doubt will always prevent him from experiencing lasting happiness.
In another part of the title song NF raps, “Yeah, the sales can rise. Doesn’t mean much though when your health declines.” Aquinas writes that there are two kinds of wealth. The first is natural wealth which consists in having what one needs to survive. It cannot be an end in itself, since it is sought for the sake of self-preservation. The second type of wealth is artificial wealth which includes money. Artificial wealth is pursued only for the sake of natural wealth, which means it’s even further removed from helping human beings find happiness. Wealth can never be an end in itself. NF’s lyric that money doesn’t mean much if he doesn’t even have health of mind and body act as an unintentional reference to exactly what Aquinas argues in the Summa.
NF tells the listener in the title track that he’s looking for the “map to hope,” a map that he’ll only find in making changes to his life. He advises his listeners to go to the song titled “Change.” The way in which NF points the listener to “Change” gives this song a pivotal role in the message of the whole album.
“Change,” the album’s third track, begins with NF stating that he is “addicted to the pain” of his past. Much of the artist’s music is a self-professed form of therapy (his second studio album is titled “Therapy Session”). Difficult memories and accompanying emotions have fueled much of his lyrics and subsequent success, but NF realizes that these things aren’t healthy for him to hold on to. He raps, “But lately, I been thinkin’ I’ma have to / Lettin’ go of things that I’m attached to / the world don’t stop just because I’m in a bad mood.”
NF is acknowledging that the way he is currently living is not sustainable. Feeding negative emotions is a destructive process. He relates near the end of the song, “all my emotions are liars, all my emotions are violent, they don’t want freedom to find me.”
So what is the ultimate change that NF knows he needs? He juxtaposes at the climax of the song, “Last year, I felt suicidal / This year, I might do somethin’ different like talkin’ to God more.” A relationship with God is the most important change NF needs to make in his life. Why? Because, as Aquinas says, that is where happiness is found.
Aquinas writes, “Ultimate and perfect happiness cannot consist in anything other than a vision of the divine essence.”2 The vision of the divine essence is the beatific vision—eternal life with God—promised to all children of God. That experience waits for us in eternity, but we can begin to live out of that relationship now. In fact, Aquinas writes that humans can only attain happiness, the fullness of which rests in eternity, through a firm resolve of the will and actions in accord with that same resolve. NF’s desire to talk to God more is a desire for prayer, a particular kind of action, that requires resolve and perseverance.
“Trauma,” the final song on NF’s album, is the sort of prayer he knows he needs to engage in more. It is a piano melody full of emotion and honesty, reminiscent of some of David’s Psalms of lament. NF begins the song, “Say you’re there when I feel helpless / if that’s true, why don’t you help me?” This is the prayer of an honest heart, and NF admits in the next lines, “It’s my fault, I know I’m selfish / Stand alone, my soul is jealous / It wants love, but I reject it / Trade my joy for my protection.”
NF has admitted that he has become so used to the pain of his past that it is hard for him to let it go, but the most important thing is that he desires to give that pain to God. Through his music, NF is doing exactly that, and God is transforming it into powerful songs that can help people seek healing for themselves.
The journey to God, in whom our perfect happiness is found, requires us to be honest—with ourselves, with others, and especially with God.
James Keenan, S.J. is the Canisius Professor of Theology at Boston College. He was interviewed by author Malcolm Gladwell as part of a three-episode series on the podcast “Revisionist History.” TJP spoke with Fr. Keenan about his experience of being part of the podcast while also going deeper into some of the themes that are addressed in it.
Tell us how this all came together. How did you get connected with Malcolm Gladwell for his podcast “Revisionist History”?
Keenan: At the end of February, Malcolm Gladwell wrote me that he was interested in the revival of casuistry, a method of moral reasoning. He had read about it and spoken with philosophers on the topic, becoming acquainted with the British philosopher Stephen Toulmin, among others.
Gladwell decided he wanted to look at it through the lens of Jesuit casuistry and asked around. Everyone suggested me, since I have written quite a bit on the topic.
This past semester, I was teaching at the Gregorian University in Rome, so when I told him that, he mentioned he would be in Milan in mid-March. He came down to meet me at my residence, the Collegio Bellarmino, where some 65 Jesuit priests are living who are studying for licenses or doctorates at the Gregorian University, the Alphonsian Academy, or the University of Sant’Anselmo.
Had you read or listened to anything from Malcolm Gladwell before?
Keenan: I had never heard of him before. I mentioned his name to a colleague, and he said that Gladwell had a great following, so I checked out “Revisionist History.” But, fearing I’d become biased one way or the other, I forwent listening to earlier episodes. I have since listened appreciatively to a variety of episodes.
How was the experience of giving the interview? What were your impressions of Gladwell?
Keenan: Before we met, I sent Gladwell an unpublished article of mine called “Jesuit Casuistry.” On the day of the interview, he arrived right on time, set up his simple recording device and started interviewing. We must have talked for nearly two hours.
He certainly read the article I sent, but it seemed to me that he had read a lot of my other material on moral reasoning as well as others. In a word, he was well-versed and well-prepared on the topic, and we covered a lot of ground.
As you mentioned, Gladwell talks at great length in the podcast about the method of moral reasoning called casuistry. Could you give us a brief summary of what this is all about?
Keenan: In the later 16th century, in a world of great expansionism, principles did not apply as simply to new moral questions that were arising. Ethicists began adopting a “case-based” logic of descending into the details of a moral issue while comparing the case in question with a paradigm case. This is what we call casuistry.
A case that I often use, which Gladwell took from our conversation, is when a group of merchants in Holland wanted to know if maritime insurance was really wrong, ethically speaking. Three centuries earlier, the pope had condemned it as usury. The leading nominalist professor at Paris, John Mair, wrote an answer comparing a maritime insurance agent’s work to being like the work of a ship captain. The captain works to get cargo from point A to point B; the insurance agent works to guarantee that the worth of the cargo gets from point A to point B. In a very extensive set of analogies, Mair convinced readers that the insurance agent’s work was like the captain’s case, that is to say, morally legitimate. With all the trade with Asia to say nothing of the pillaging of the Americas and Africa, Europe could not get through the 16th century without reconsidering the teaching on maritime insurance.
Thousands of other issues were resolved through this casuistry: this “case-based” logic of descending into details while comparing the questionable case with a paradigm case (or a “standard case” as Malcolm refers to it). What was needed for the maritime insurance case was a paradigm case to compare it to that was clearly right: the work of the captain of a ship.
In the first episode of the series, Gladwell compares pitcher Andy Pettitte, who used human growth hormone to recover from injury, to the standard case of Tommy John, who had a new surgery performed on him, and to the standard case of Barry Bonds, who took performance-enhancing drugs and improved his play significantly. Gladwell poses the questions: which standard case was closer to the case of Andy Pettitte? This is what it looks like to use casuistry in moral reasoning.
Gladwell quotes you in the series with the phrase “descending into the particular.” Where did you get that phrase from?
Keenan: It’s funny you should focus on “descending into the particular.” The day the first episode ran, a friend wrote me, “I heard ‘descending into the particulars,’ and thought how wonderfully it sounded like Jim Keenan.”
After Gladwell ran that episode I sent him another article of mine that I had published 2 years ago in Theological Studies called, “Prophetic Pragmatism and Descending into Matters of Detail.” The phrase “descending into matters of detail” is right out of Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II 94.4 where he explains reasoning and the natural law and insists that the more we descend into detail, the more we realize that principles and deductive reasoning don’t easily function. We need a lot more than that, presumably, meaning the virtue of prudence. As a short hand for Thomas’ phrase I use “descending into the particular.”
Is casuistry a uniquely Jesuit way to approach moral issues?
Keenan: Not exactly. Every Catholic ethicist did casuistry in the 16th century. Dominicans, Redemptorists and Jesuits were, generally speaking, distinguished by three different philosophies regarding how much freedom there was in interpreting the law casuistically. In time, casuistry got a bad name and the Jesuits were considered the ones with the lenient (humane?) interpretation.
French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s talented but intolerant (and even malicious) ridicule of the Jesuits in his “Provincial Letters” from the 1560s melded the words “casuistry” and “Jesuit” together. But any historian looking at the 16th century would recognize all ethicists as casuists, and as scholars like Julia Fleming at Creighton University and others have proven, their work was not indulgent but fairly painstakingly balanced in their descent into the particulars.
If you want to know more of the details on this history, read my book coming out next year, A Brief History of Catholic Ethics.
What do you think about Gladwell’s application of casuistry in the podcast?
Keenan: I thought it was great. I thought the first episode was a classic introduction: he gave the method, and he made sure that the narratives of each of the three cases of Andy Pettitte, Tommy John, and Barry Bonds were able to be distilled.
In Rome, we had talked about the German theologian Josef Fuchs, S.J. (my own mentor) and about John Rock, the American scientist who helped develop the first birth control pill. Rock was working with casuistry: his work on birth control was to cooperate with “nature.” I thought Gladwell gave Rock’s case brilliantly in the second episode. And I must say, I had never heard Rock’s voice, so I enjoyed the episode even more since it includes audio of him speaking.
I thought the third episode about the complicated case of a man who was shot and killed by police officers was beautifully and compassionately conveyed. As the son of a New York City detective, I was especially moved by the investigative desire to understand what had happened, hoping that the discovery could bring consolation to all the parties.
Are there any cases that you wish Gladwell had included in the podcast?
Keenan: I thought he might get into classic contemporary cases like genetic engineering or other future-oriented dilemmas. But in hindsight, I’m glad he stayed with the familiar. He made casuistry all the more attractive and accessible. Also, it’s indispensable to casuistry that the case is a good narrative. Gladwell scores an A+ on that.
Are there any conclusions reached by Gladwell that you would contend?
Gladwell did some interesting work. Friends of mine didn’t agree with Gladwell on Andy Pettitte. They thought Pettitte was more like Barry Bonds than Tommy John. But when I asked them to explain how that was, they did casuistry!
So, in the end, they learned the method. I think that was precisely why Gladwell used that case; not to convince people about Andy Pettitte, but to argue the case casuistically, a Gladwell move indubitably.
Tired of all the division in our world? So is Jesus. Brian Strassburger, SJ, reminds us that we are called to be one and gives tips on how we can help make this happen. Based on the readings for Sunday, August 18, 2019.
Do you ever get really frustrated with all the divisions in our world today? Well, guess what? Jesus knows how you feel.
Hi, I’m Brian Strassburger and this is my One-Minute Reflection.
“Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth?” Jesus asks, “No, I tell you, but rather division! Households will be divided: father against son…mother against daughter.” Yikes! Jesus is angry.
He knows all too well the divisions in our world that separate us. This is not what he wants for us. His deepest wish is that we may be united: that all may be one. Well, if that’s the case, we clearly have a long way to go.
Where do you fit into this picture? Do you spread division? Or are you an instrument of reconciliation and unity?
See if you can spend more time with people who think differently than you. Look for common ground with those you disagree with. And give people the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming the worst of intentions.
Will that bring peace on earth? Maybe not. But it might bring peace to your heart. And that’s a good place to start.
There is a common feature among every hero known to humanity. It shows up in the face of adversity, in a watershed moment. There is a choice to make: to cave into fear, anger, and despair or to persevere in love, joy, and hope. In this moment the weak go low, but the hero goes high.
Chance the Rapper ventures into this pivotal decision in “We Go High,” one track of twenty-two from his expansive new album The Big Day. The title echoes Michelle Obama’s line from her 2016 speech at the Democratic National Convention: “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.” Whereas Michelle was referring to Donald Trump’s curt, disrespectful political discourse, the enemy in Chance’s song is not another person but rather a voice within himself.
The song is about past mistakes he made with his wife Kirstin. He wasn’t faithful to her, or else he was drinking away his youth instead of caring for her and their child, and he is sorry. Sitting in and praying about these feelings, two voices emerge. There is an internal bully, his “ego,” which tells him, “There he go, prayin’ again, again, the same ol’ thang.” This voice tries to convince him that his prayer is in vain, that his relationship with God won’t make him a better person, that he will always be a good-for-nothing who can’tget his priorities straight. However, when the chorus erupts with “But he go high / And we go high / They go low, we go… / Higher higher,” the listener realizes that Chance is fighting off the devil on his shoulder and trying to choose a nobler path. He does not want to cave into despair. He wants to hope.
Chance’s desire to pursue what is good despite his failings reflects one of Pope Francis’ consistent messages. From the first year of his pontificate, he has urged people to “bet on hope.” Just as Chance feels the frequent need to repent of his errors and start again with a renewed sense of hope, Pope Francis advises, “The journey is never finished. In each of our own lives, there is always a need to restart, to rise again, to recover a sense of the goal of one’s own existence.” We fail to love, yet we are called to love. Love is the goal of our existence even if we sin against love. Our goal does not change when we negate it ourselves, in the case of Chance, or when others around us negate it, in the case of Michelle Obama. We must persevere in doing good.
Jesus is the model for this loving response to trials. Satan tempted him in the desert, yet he chose what was right. His murderers tempted him to despair, yet he forgave them from the very cross on which he was crucified. Chance recognizes Christ’s pattern of “going high.” The “he” to which he refers when he says “but he go high” is Jesus. Following this verse, he says, “And we go high.” What Jesus has done, we must do. He is the way. Whether temptations come from inside or outside, we should go high as Jesus did. Love is the goal, and nothing should take our eyes off of it.
When we realize that love is our goal and that God forgives us even when we fail to love, our natural response is joy. For this reason, the tone of the lyrics shifts considerably in the second half of the song, where he enters into straight up praise:
We give the glory to You, God
One livin’ true God, He make us booyah
And throw up the Wu like U-God
They prop up statues and stones, try to make a new God
I don’t need a EGOT, as long as I got You, God.
The measure of Chance’s life is neither EGOT (the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar or Tony awards he may win) nor the failings of his past. His relationships with God and with his family are worth more than his accomplishments. And, even though he has not cared for these relationships previously, God forgives him and gives him strength to pick himself up, made amends, and recommit to what he really loves.
When they go low, Chance goes high. Let’s do the same.
Going high brings good out of evil, joy out ofpain, peace out of turmoil. Going high means courage, a courage that inspires us to choose what is right for ourselves and that inspires others to do the same. Let’s face it: the world is crying out for both humility and integrity. We desperately need to learn to be humble enough to admit that we are wrong and yet brave enough to never stop pursuing what is good. We can be this sort of person that Chance inspires us to be in “We Go High,” and, as we do it, we can “give the glory to…God” for saving us and lifting us up along the way.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Julio Enriquez.
What would you put in a spiritual survival kit? Fr. Joe Simmons, SJ, talks about bug-out bags and the call to be prepared in this week’s One-Minute Homily. Based on the readings for Sunday, August 11, 2019, which you can find here: https://bit.ly/33sS8gD
If Jesus came tomorrow, what would he find in your spiritual ‘bug-out bag’?
Hello, I’m father Joe Simmons, and this is my one-minute homily.
Once my nephew Edmund was going around the house, putting items into his shark backpack – fig bars, empty shampoo bottles, a toy telephone – and then he set it near the back door. We called it his ‘bug-out bag,’ in case he needed to fly the coup in the middle of the night.
A ‘bug-out bag’ comes from military usage. In case of emergency, troops needed to carry the bare essentials to survive in the wilderness – maps, water, medicine, and a bit of food. Anything excessive – like shampoo – had to go.
All of today’s readings focus on the need to be prepared. Our first reading from Wisdom mentions the preparations made for the night of Passover, and the hope of salvation for the wandering Israelites.
The psalmist cries out, “our soul waits for the Lord, who is our help and our shield.”
We hear in the letter to the Hebrews how Abraham followed God’s command to leave his homeland in hope of things not yet seen.
And in today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds his disciples to lighten their loads, give alms, and gird their loins.
Today is a good time to look at all the ‘stuff’ in our life. Do we travel lightly and give generously?
“Several years after leaving my religion, I felt sure I had encountered all the situations I might possibly need to get used to in my new life. What I had not prepared myself for was death. Grief without faith. Which is to say, death without hope.”
Those were the first words to “Grief Without God,” a recent New York Times Sunday Review piece. The rest of the article has no less candor. In it, Amber Scorah, the author, recounts the period of bereavement she went through after rejecting the faith she grew up with. For her, the only thing thing that ever alleviated the loss of her religion was the birth of her first child. She would then lose her son at the age of four months.
Scorah’s point is to articulate how losing her faith made the heartbreak of losing her child all the more acute. There is the grief of losing a child, and then there is the grief that the grief will never find anything to solace it: “I will grieve my son forever. Or rather, not forever—until I die. This is the one comfort that unbelief gives you, that this life will end and the pain you carry along with it.” That’s the only hope she’s able to name.
Similarly, this year’s winner of Modern Love’s college essay contest focused on the absence of a balm for grief. In it, a student named Kyleigh Leddy walks the reader through what it’s like to mourn the disappearance of someone you love, in this case, her sister. What makes the piece so heartrending is the lack of closure and everything she does to try and find it. Leddy describes calling her sister’s phone just to hear the voicemail and scrolling through the still active Facebook profile. She continues,
Recently I read about the development of chatbots that can imitate human speech patterns. The technology is being considered as a way to facilitate bereavement, allowing us to communicate with loved ones through text messages. Using personal data and old messages, the bots can respond like your father, grandmother or sister. They can use your loved ones’ favorite phrases and dialectic habits. They can say, “I miss you, too.”
Ultimately, she rejects this type of solution altogether. Like Scorah’s piece, the void is considered too big a gulf to seal.
As moving as these essays are—in part for the nature of the loss, in part for the honesty in the author’s self-revelation—I couldn’t help but wonder what’s supposed to sutures these types of wounds. Where do we think we can go to unload this type of pain?
With these questions in mind, I was reminded of a Japanese film that had similar questions about what facilitates closure in grief, the Academy Award winner “The Departures” (2009).
The narrative follows a Cellist who inadvertently becomes a professional in the Japanese tradition of ritual encoffinment. The tradition is called nōkan, and the grace of the film is its depiction of the ceremony, the way it makes a liturgy out of preparing the human body for burial. All the transformations in the bereaved take place when they see the body of the one they mourn treated as if it were sacred. And it is. Not only are you, as a viewer, captivated by the precision and beauty of the rite, but you’re disarmed into a posture toward human life and death that is fundamentally reverent. And it’s breathtaking.
The tone of the film is borderline sacramental. On screen, ritual provides a catalyst and catharsis for emotion. By letting the loss be the foreground of a communal event, something is effected in the bereaved that lets them say goodbye.
I had a privileged experience in ministry with a similar dynamic. It happened while I was volunteering as a chaplain in a hospital. One day, as I was in the elevator, a man accompanied by his wife and two kids sees me in clerics. He asks if I would go with him to see his father. “Of course,” I reply. As we step out unto the floor, he tells me, “my dad just died. Can you just… come say a few prayers with us? The rest of my family is there, too.”
Entering the room, I see a man’s body, untouched, in the hospital bed while the rest of the family is gathered in a semi-circle. As soon as he sees his father, the man who soberly pulled me aside audibly winces and starts to cry. I ask the family to hold hands as we pray a Hail Mary, then an Our Father, and some words asking the Lord to grant this man’s soul eternal rest, that perpetual light shine upon him.
Standing in the presence of his father’s body, this man thanks me with an unmistakable tone of relief. There’s visible peace on his face. I remember that moment as one of the most palpable effects of prayer I’ve ever seen. All this man did, in a moment of prayer, was surrender. And that, too, was breathtaking.
My own prayer is that Scorah and Leddy find the peace that their hearts long for, even if they’ve stopped looking. Searching for hope becomes sacred the moment it’s found. Or in the words of Mary Oliver, “There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.”
Or in the words of Christ, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt 5:3).
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Dave_S.