music: Joni Mitchell, “California” on vinyl

My curiosity was piqued when I was the intermediary passing two LPs from one friend to another. What is it about vinyl, I wondered, and naturally took to YouTube… and found this. Can you believe that voice?

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music: voces8, Ben Folds’ “The Luckiest”

Happy New Year! It’s just about still early enough (okay, maybe not, but still!).

Sometimes, life (and even music) becomes compressed into a narrow band of Humdrum. One forgets, for example, that overtones exist, that dynamics are possible, that a single note growing in the darkness can send a shiver down your spine and through your heart. That music speaks, basically.

I suppose being able to know that does make you… the luckiest.

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Photo: Lori B. Lemer

On a drizzly Thursday evening, I hurried into the cathedral compound just minutes after the 6.30pm mass began. I slipped into a pew next to a friend, and noted with pleasure that the Rector had decided to take the memorial of the North American Martyrs—he was in red. Plus, like the martyrs he is a Jesuit too, and in an age when congregations are so thin on the ground, anything that underscores the unity in God of a community throughout the passing fads of the world is something welcome.

Father went up to the pulpit and said, “I am going to read your the biography of St Isaac Jogues.” And that he did, all the way from the martyr’s birth, to his entrance to the Society, to his time in what is today upstate NY, to his eventual martyrdom and death. Then, Father added something to the tune of, “Let us contemplate how much these martyrs, and St Isaac Jogues among them, sacrificed so that they could bring these people the good news. Consider the price they paid for spreading the good news.”

It’s something that has stuck with me the whole week since. We say that so often: “spreading the good news”. We talk and talk about evangelisation and bringing the good news and telling people the gospel, so much so that I think we might forget how contentious the ‘good news’ really can be. I mean, we do realise we’re saying, you’re a sinner and you can’t help being a sinner, right? And that you need saving by a God, and that the underlying fabric of the world is that your offenses must be repaid in blood, which was fulfilled by the one holy and eternal sacrifice? And that many of the things you think are fun or OK now are in ways big and small obstacles to your union with God? And that you will have to change—and that you’re not perfect?

That’s all ‘good news’, for sure—for I am convinced of the truth of the Church and her teachings and of the God she worships—but it’s not fun news.

I think back to Father’s description of those Jesuit missioners, of how they tended to the sick, visited families, taught children and adults their catechisms, baptised, married, and buried. It was in listening to that that it struck me, with some sadness, how superficially I had conceived of this ‘good news’. (I’d put some of that down to the phrase itself, but that’s a discussion that won’t quite add value.)

When I hear the admonition to go spread the good news, it’s as if I just have to go and tell it to people, that intellectual understanding, possibly accompanied by an emotional, affective reaction, is the be-all, end-all of Christian evangelisation. The missioners, however, would have had a much different experience of that. Today we call their activities ‘spreading the gospel’, but they did much more than talk. They lived lives, and loved the people they served, and most importantly, must have had to understand the work of evangelisation not as one of intellectual communication, but of conversion of life. It doesn’t matter so much that someone has accepted the monumental claims of Christ, as much as it does that he is changing his life, bit by bit, to align with the authority that those claims exert. It doesn’t matter so much if someone knows that the Logos became incarnate and died on a tree, as much as it does that he is led to see and feel how the pain of forsaking a life once thoughtlessly embraced is in every moment both a thanks-offering to and a suffering-with Christ.

It’s so much more than just ‘spreading the good news‘, basically. And for us Christians, it’s so much more than just knowing the good news, and generally feeling loved and appreciated by such a good God who made the whole universe and every day sustains our being, and so on. There’s an element of earthy work built into the Christian life; we must let the Divine Sower overhaul and make fertile the soil of our hearts, as painful as the hoeing and sowing may be. We must let ourselves be made into a different person—we must let ourselves be conformed to Christ. We must cooperate with the taking-apart and putting-together of our lives, and of the people God has given us to love. We must be doing, whether it is the contemplative’s way, of cultivating the virtue of religion and the discipline to pray; the mother’s, of instructing in a million little ways just to turn out, by God’s grace, a God-fearing child; or St Isaac Jogues, of teaching and instructing and giving until there’s nothing left, trusting that God will provide, trusting that his physical, corporeal oblation would sanctify his spiritual children and himself.

lunchtime conversations and money

“It was only when the economy began to open up that all these things started happening… people started to get greedy, because there were things for them to get, now—”

Somehow in the course of our lunch conversation, we began all listening to my Vietnamese colleague, who had grown up while Vietnam’s economic policy was still very Communistic, and when the Soviet Union was still going strong. “People used to be better to each other, because they were poor together. They got the same amount of money and it was very little. So you help each other out and suffer together. Then… once there was money to fight over, they started fighting.”

It was an amusing topic for us to discuss at lunch, because to some extent, of course, our livelihoods depend on a capitalistic economy. I couldn’t help thinking, though, about what he had said. There seemed almost a romanticisation of poverty in what he was saying—or at least the potential for that—which is something many are naturally wary about. After all, if we romanticise poverty, doesn’t that excuse us from using our relative abundance to help those with less? Doesn’t that line of reasoning legitimise a kind of paternalistic not-helping, if the rich man had said to Lazarus, “being poor is good for you, so just keep being poor!” and resumed his banquet. And along the same line of reasoning, what about “Blessed are the poor”? Now there’s divine sanction for leaving materially poor people to be poor because it’s apparently better for them…

All these are, to some extent, true. In fact, in the examples of the saints and in the very character of religious life, we see hints of something even more radical in how the Church has interpreted this beatitude. It is more than “Blessed are the people who are poor right now”—it’s “blessed are the people who will leave house, home, and inheritance to become poor.” Some among us are called to seek to be poor.

But for what? For poverty’s own sake—that is, for the sake of being in a state of need? What kind of ingratitude is that, to throw away all kinds of riches that poor people would want, and to go and join them in the experience of poverty? No, poverty itself that is a physical state to be sought out. For Christ’s own words command us to aid the poor and those in need, and advise us that whenever we do such a thing, we are helping His own self:

For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me. Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and came to thee? And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:35-40)

The state of need, we can see, is not one that we should leave people in. But then what is poverty good for? To answer this, let us return to my colleague’s story.

He tells a materialist’s story: when there was no money, people were better; when there was more money, people started getting nasty. (Caveat: correlation is not causation, and I’m sure he knows that; but let’s just do this cool rhetorical thing that lets me recapitulate the beginning.) But really, his is a story of the human condition, and the human inclination to grasping for power and control. We want to win, and to get more than we already have; wasn’t that behind the first Fall, the promise of more? Even though our first parents could eat and drink their fill and enjoy the presence of God, it was suggested to them that they could have more—and the rest is history, and the rest is history repeating itself as we keep making the same mistake.

When we don’t think that we want more—whether it’s because we’re fairly certain that we can’t get more, or simply because we are grateful for all we have and happily accepting anything God will give us and detached from whatever we do own—then, undistracted by the promise of wealth and gain and power, we can pay attention to the things that matter: God, virtue, … and become immeasurably rich in the contemplation of the things of God, and in the love of man. In that vein, it’s possible to be materially poor but spiritually impoverished.

The problem most of us have, and which my colleague’s anecdote made mention of, is that it’s far too easy to become spiritually impoverished and materially rich. I feel it too, whenever I have a small windfall or a new cherished trinket, and react with instinctual horror at the thought of its dissipation or loss. But that’s what honesty (to not take what is not yours) and alms-giving (to give away what is yours) are important, although sometimes they feel like you’re getting your teeth pulled out.

AMSA’s performance of ‘Adoro Te Devote’

Adoro te devote, latens Deitas,
Quæ sub his figuris vere latitas;
Tibi se cor meum totum subjicit,
Quia te contemplans totum deficit.
Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,
Sed auditu solo tuto creditur.
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius;
Nil hoc verbo veritátis verius.
In cruce latebat sola Deitas,
At hic latet simul et Humanitas,
Ambo tamen credens atque confitens,
Peto quod petivit latro pœnitens.
Plagas, sicut Thomas, non intueor:
Deum tamen meum te confiteor.
Fac me tibi semper magis credere,
In te spem habere, te diligere.
O memoriale mortis Domini!
Panis vivus, vitam præstans homini!
Præsta meæ menti de te vívere,
Et te illi semper dulce sapere.
Pie Pelicane, Jesu Domine,
Me immundum munda tuo sanguine:
Cujus una stilla salvum facere
Totum mundum quit ab omni scelere.
Jesu, quem velatum nunc aspicio,
Oro, fiat illud quod tam sitio:
Ut te revelata cernens facie,
Visu sim beátus tuæ gloriæ. Amen.

We will be learning this arrangement of Adoro Te for Corpus Christi in June. I’m terribly excited–not in the way where you feel like you get to own the beautiful thing, but in the way where you feel like it will be a wonderful blessing just to be able to convey a beautiful thing to people. (I happen to think that’s a good way to be, in a liturgical choir.) June! But until then, Christus surrexit!

The psalmist said that the Lord’s mercies are new every morning, but most days I realise that I only understand that in the evening. Not just in looking back on my day, and registering the moments God gave me each day, but just in the way the sunset looks. The sun sets every day, but you never know what it’s going to look like until it comes. And in its own givenness–just like every day with God–every sunset is beautiful in its own way.

On Holy Saturday, God incarnate entered “the absolute and extreme solitude of mankind.” Here Benedict pointed out that we have all experienced that terrifying feeling of abandonment, which is why we fear death—similarly to how, “as children, we are afraid of being alone in the dark, and the only thing that can comfort us is the presence of a person who loves us.” And that is precisely what happened on Holy Saturday, he said. Even in the darkest of times, “we can hear a voice that calls us and find a hand that takes ours and leads us out.” If love can penetrate to the very depths of hell, we are never alone or hopeless.

Read more here, at First Things. Christus surrexit!