Sunday, May 29, 2016

What I Saw from the Choir Loft on Pentecost Sunday... and How it Changed My Conception of the Holy Spirit

Catholic art is not just there to be pretty, it is there to preach, or rather it is attractive because it has something profound and beautiful to say. I remember somebody once referring to the Holy Spirit rather condescendingly as simply a "bird", pointing out just how weak the symbolism is. In fairness, he was trying to encourage a more interesting discussion surrounding the Holy Spirit by suggesting that we could do a lot better than offering forth a "boring old bird" as the third Person of the Blessed Trinity.

Nevertheless, I would suggest that the problem isn't the "bird", but the lack of an artistic imagination on the part of those who behold this image. The key is to see these winged creatures as a child sees them. The creature isn't boring, we are. When we were children and saw a swallow ascending like a kite, who among us did not take flight with them? And what about those stories we heard as children (and the pictures we saw) of those ancient birds known as pterodactyls? What about the hummingbird, or the bluebird (on our shoulder, as it were)? And how "boring"is it to take a flight in a dream, or on a plane or in a parachute for that matter?

I say this not because it is always easy for me to come up with an inspiring images for the Holy Spirit, but because I too must do the "leg work" of the imagination if I'm going to be inspired with gratitude for the Spirit.

Consequently, what I observed from the choir loft this past Pentecost gave me quite a head start in this department. High above the congregation, and far from the priest and the altar, I experienced one of the most magnificent gestalt-switches imaginable, a trick of the eye that immediately provoked a deeper contemplation of the Holy Spirit. Maybe it was my imagination, or maybe it was intended by the creator of the iconographic image (or maybe it was some combination of both). What is irrefutable is the fact that it deepened my gratitude for the Holy Spirit.


First of all, while casually observing the priest from the choir loft, what I perceived on his chasuble was what seemed to my eyes to be the Holy Spirit "dive-bombing" humanity. When Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan, Scripture says that the heavens were "torn open" and the Spirit descended like a dove. Notice, Scripture never claims that the Spirit is a dove as such. Rather, the Gospels say that the Holy Spirit descended "like" a dove. At any rate, in this context the image struck me with incredible force, the notion that the Holy Spirit- like some youth waiting to get into a rock concert- rushing forth in a riot of divine energy, as the gates of heaven are torn asunder. Indeed, what a mind-blowing paradox, the dove of peace, appearing almost (as in the photo below) like some sort of divine arson.

Surrounding this particular type of Holy Spirit imagery, it is not uncommon to see accompanying streaks and flames that attend the action of the Spirit, ready to set the world ablaze with the love of God. Yet these streaks surrounding this Holy Bird also appear, at least to the untrained eye, to represent the tremendous speed at which the Spirit is traveling. He is like a doctor rushing with urgency to reach an ill patient, as if having in his possession some sort of vaccine, an antidote desperately needed on account of a world-wide pandemic. And perhaps the reason he leaves traces of fire wherever he passes is due to the pure speed at which he travels (like a Marvel comic book hero).

Secondly, I observed something of which I am far less certain, but which is nevertheless the very thing that inspired this post in the first place. Because I was so far away from the altar, my imagination (and eyes) were able to take a little impressionistic journey. Indeed, as I squinted to look at the vestment, it occurred to me that not only was the Spirit "dive-bombing humanity," but the image also revealed something quite opposite, though anything but contradictory.

Much like those images that reveal one thing when you look at them one way, and something quite different when you look at them another (see above image), so also for me at the Mass that day. Yes, there was a dove facing downward, but as I looked a little bit longer, I also observed what appeared to be a kind of Firebird facing upward. Immediately I was reminded of images I had seen somewhere depicting the mythical creature known as the Phoenix rising from its ashes. In this upside down Gestalt, what was formerly the tail, now appeared to me to be the head tilted to the side, and what was previously the head of the dove,  now represented the ashes from whence this mystical bird arose.

Thus, it dawned on me that the gates of heaven were not just "torn open" so that the Holy Spirit could  rush upon us, but that we too, like the Spirit, could ourselves storm heaven. Was it a dream, or are my theological instincts correct? Quite possibly both. For in Baptism it has been revealed that we too will receive the "wings" of the Spirit. Indeed, is this not the whole point of the dogma of the Ascension, as well as the Assumption? As a matter of fact, if all of these theological dogmas are true, then we too should one day expect to soar into the choir loft of heaven, we too should expect to rise from the ashes of our demise, singing for joy, not like some "boring old bird", but rather like those beautifully terrifying and exotic creatures described in myths of old, as well as the ones detailed by John in the Book of Revelation.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Stand by Me: 5 Popular Songs Which Provide Key Insights into the Hidden Meaning of the "Stabat Mater"

I wouldn't be the first blogger to point out that a song like "Let it Be" has certain Marian overtones, but I may be the first one to point out a certain reoccurring Marian theme known as the Stabat Mater in popular music. May is the month of Mary, so usually we are inclined to hear a decent amount of flowery images surrounding the Blessed Virgin Mary (both literally and figuratively). However, the Stabat Mater is- in many ways- the opposite of that.  The phrase is associated with Mary’s presence at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion. In fact, during Stations of the Cross there is often a hymn by the same name which accompanies the reciting of each station.     

Translated, the Latin phrase means "the mother stood". On the surface, this is perhaps the least impressive thing that could ever be said about someone we are looking to emulate. "Sean stood", well, congratulations! Indeed, unless I was previously paralyzed, or had just come back from the dead, that is hardly an impressive feat. However, what I learned from listening to the Beatles, and other famous artists, was something quite unexpected. This innocuous little phrase is not only quite potent (if not poetic), but has been sung about and celebrated on more than a few occasions by a whole variety of artists.

How can this be (to use another Marian phrase)? I am not implying that these various artists have some kind of Marian devotion, but rather by virtue of their poetic insight, my own eyes have been opened (Emmaus style) to the beauty and power of a phrase that was formerly "hidden" from me.

1. The Beatles - Let It Be (Stabat as Comforter)

This song not only has "Marian overtones", it is practically a guide to Marian theology. I am well aware that Mr. McCartney wrote this song about his own mother Mary (and not the Mother of God), but need an artist always be completely aware of the profundity of his insight for the insight to be profound? I would love to ask Mr. McCartney if the phrase itself "Let it be" was an accident, or if he recognized the fact that it echoed Mary's fiat? I would love to ask him if he  recognized the fact that the lyrics seem to imply that this Mary is not only a mother for him individually, but a sign of hope for humanity in general? And lastly, and more pertinent to this post, I would love to ask him if he saw a parallel between his own mother coming to him at a dark time, and Mary at the foot of the cross?

"And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, 'Let it be'"

This Lady of "Wisdom" does not pretend to take away the darkness, or remove the cross from the shoulders of the one who must bear it, but she does promise constancy, even while others abandon us. She stands with us until the darkness passes. Her burden is not that of the cross itself, her cross, as it were, is to watch her child suffer. Indeed, her cross is to stand firm and not fall apart beneath the weight of the agony of the one who is flesh of her flesh and bone of her bones.

2. Ben E. King - Stand By Me (Stabat as Companion)

"When the night has come and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we'll see. No I won't be afraid no I won't shed a tear, just as long as you stand, stand by me… If the sky that we look upon should tumble and fall, or the mountains should crumble to sea. I won't cry, I won't cry, no I won't shed a tear, just as long as you stand, stand by me." 

This is another song with some very Biblical overtones. One might even call it apocalyptic (or at least as apocalyptic as early 60s music can be). In any case, I cannot help but to see a little of Golgotha (as well as the Gospels in general) in these verses; "From the sixth to the ninth hour darkness covered the land/ the sun was darkened… At that moment the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked and the rocks were split." Matthew 27:45; 50

In this instance, the virtue of the Stabat Mater is quite clear: 'I can endure anything that hell throws at me, as long as I know that you are with me.' Without companionship in dark times, it is nearly impossible to avoid falling into despair. Consequently, only love can keep us strong in the face of death, and only the one who remains faithful to us through it all, can offer us a reason to hope in the face of misery.

3. The Pretenders - I'll Stand By You (Stabat as a Sign of Solidarity)   

One of the great virtues which tends to be present in the feminine is a willingness to "cover a man in his nakedness". In other words, when everyone else is running for cover, this lady is willing to stand with us. How difficult it is to endure the taunts, stares, and threats that accompany such a brave form of solidarity. As it relates to Jesus, this willingness to help "cover his nakedness" (for indeed he was naked), is something that few in Jesus' company were willing to do. Why? Beyond the potential threat to their lives, it was the larger burden of associating yourself with a loser, the guy, as it were, who "lost you the game", the one who will ensure that even your "friends" will have nothing more to do with you, especially if you continue to defend him. The ones brave enough to "stand" beside you under these circumstances, possess a form of moral courage that isn't so much measured by human activity, as it is by a willingness to prefer justice over human respect.

"I'll stand by, I'll stand by you. Won't let nobody hurt you. I'll stand by you. Take me in, into your darkest hour. I'll never desert you… I'll stand by you"

Perhaps my favorite Hollywood example of this was the time that Robert Downey Jr. defended Mel Gibson during an awards show ceremony.


4. Tammy Wynette - Stand by Your Man (Stabat as Loyalty and Forbearance)

In this particular song, "standing" is all about the virtue of fidelity to ones spouse, especially when one's spouse is anything but. Lyrically, one might argue that this song is somewhat misogynistic, if not particularly antiquated. Yet beneath all of the cultural trappings, there is the simple message in the song, one that many of the saints have echoed throughout history (St. Monica in particular comes to mind). Indeed, sometimes love is about fidelity in the face of betrayal. Obviously Jesus betrayed no one, but this kind of "stabat" is not simply about Jesus and Mary, but rather about the Christian life in general. If we think about it, there is probably someone in our own life who believed in us, or who stuck by us, even when we were monumentally unworthy of such fidelity. Without that goodness, that fidelity, that long suffering, there would be no hope for us at all! In any case, there are moments in the song that do indeed echo the fidelity of Mary at the foot of the cross.

"Even though he's hard to understand... Stand by your man, and show the world you love him. Keep giving him all the love you can… Stand by your man."         

5. Stand - Sly and the Family Stone (Stabat as Defender of Truth)

As exciting as the physical act of standing can (and should) be, the expressions that I am highlighting here are less about the physical act itself, and more about the metaphysical virtue of never backing down. For example, he was "the last man standing", "stand up for yourself," and Bob Marley's "Get up, stand up. Stand up for your right!" There are even famous books and movies based on this premise. There is Stephen King's novel "The Stand" which is all about a final apocalypse, and making a final "stand" against evil. There is also the movie "Stand and Deliver", a movie about a teacher who inspires students in low income situations to transcend their particular cultural circumstances. Hence, to stand in this particular sense is synonymous is not merely about being sentient, but rather about a kind of unconquerable will. The song "Stand" is in some ways a kind of self-help (it was the late 60s after all) approach to overcoming fear and indifference, and standing up for what you know to be right and true.

"Stand! There's a cross for you to bear, things to go through if you're going anywhere. Stand for the things you know are right. It's the truth that the truth makes them so uptight. Stand! "

OK, not Shakespeare. However, my point isn't so much about the genius of the song, as it is about the particular manner in which the expression is used here. To stand for something, especially the truth, is not only brave and virtuous, but downright (at least according to Stephen King) apocalyptic. The refusal to remain on the canvas, and to stand erect in the face of hell's fury is why Stabat Mater is anything but a passive stance. Thus, in the order of grace and virtue, Mary is the ultimate prizefighter, an historical juggernaut who cannot be vanquished- no matter how many haymakers the enemy throws.

Bonus Track: I'm Still Standing - Elton John (Stabat as Perserverence)
"Don't you know I'm still standing better than I ever did, looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid. I'm still standing after all this time, picking up the pieces of my life without you on my mind… I'm still standing."  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The 10 Things I Learned from Prince About Venerating Saints

One of the biggest mistakes that Catholics make in attempting to explain the Faith to others is that they often tend to use language and concepts that are foreign to the listener. Indeed, they are much like the scientist seemingly incapable of using anything other than abstract scientific terms to explain themselves.

The challenge of the evangelist is something more personal and empathetic than all that. They have to stand outside of themselves and imagine what the Faith might sound like to someone who has never heard it before. In practicing empathy in this regard, they can then begin to help the other individual to truly comprehend the beauty of the Faith from their own perspective. The question is, how does one go about this?

Simply put, the best way to accomplish successful evangelization is not by becoming more "spiritual" in your explanation, but rather by being more down to the earth. The trick is to realize that the heavens have already spoken. It is now our job to translate and make those ideas incarnate. The good news about all this is that we do not have to re-invent the wheel. Not only are there good apologists out there, but even better, we have our own personal experience. The world already imitates in a secular way what the Church expresses in theological terms.

The doctrines of the Catholic Faith are fundamentally the doctrines of humanity, albeit infused with a supernatural significance (or, rather, their deeper significance). Hence, if you ever want to know how it is to explain the Catholic Faith to anyone, simply observe man and how he reacts to those things which he deems to be the most essential. In other words, he may not value what we value, but he will nevertheless ultimately go about those things the same way.

The clearest example of this can be seen every time some popular artist or celebrity dies. For example, a few weeks ago when Prince died, social media, along with society in general, spent several days in mourning, grieving over the loss of this artist who apparently meant so much to them.

Below, I outline 10 ways that people honored Prince (as well as other recently deceased artists), each of which bears a natural kinship to the Catholic practice of venerating saints:

1. Santo Subito

As is this case when many popular artists die, there's a natural tendency to idealize their lives. "Santo subito" is the Latin phrase which declares, on behalf of the sensus fidelium and the vox populi, that this man warrants immediate canonization. Obviously the standard is very different in the eyes of world as to what that means (virtue is not always high on the list), but nevertheless there is a similar attitude of indefectibility that we impute to the artist. There's almost a kind of general absolution that is granted to them, especially with regard to any indiscretions they may have committed. They are afforded this because of what of all the good we impute to their particular talents. Interestingly, the religious saint has much more claim to this "absolution", though the world tends to see it in reverse. Below is a tiny clip taken from the funeral of Whitney Houston, a beautiful singer, who tragically overdosed on drugs. However, Costner speaks of her as if were reflecting on the Blessed Virgin Mary. I point this out not as a mockery, but in order to indicate how natural this instinct to canonize is.

2. Iconography 

Whether one is talking about a famous figure like Princess Diana, or someone like Blessed Mother Teresa, the term “icon” is often used interchangeably. In the strictly religious sense it refers, at least artistically speaking, to a specific type of art that serves as a window to the divine. But in the broader sense it refers to anyone who seems to have transcended their own historical time period. The  world uses this term as a kind of catch all for anyone whose name has endured. Coupled with their memory, there is also usually some kind of iconic photo that accompanies their fame, not to mention an image which is ultimately emblematic of their success, and seems to embody what is most memorable about them. Prince is no exception on this front, for there are any number of "iconic" symbols, colors, and images associated with him.

3. R.I.P.

While praying for the dead is associated with the souls in Purgatory (i.e. those who have yet to experience the full beatific vision), these prayers are nevertheless offered for those whom we hope will be heaven, so it applies at least in that sense. Granted, this is only a rudimentary form of prayer, almost a subconscious aspiration offered by admirers of the particular celebrity, but it is prayer nevertheless. In the town that I reside, on the day Prince died, there was a neon billboard that prayed that Prince would "RIP", or rather, "rest in peace". The "RIP" prayer is basically a universal way that people can express their desire for eternal peace for someone without explicitly saying it (whatever your religion or irreligion). Perhaps this is because the acronym "R.I.P." feels a little less Catholic, thus the rest of the world is a little more OK with it. I won't tell them (or maybe I will), that it comes from the Latin requiescat in pace… which is a Catholic prayer for the dead.

4. The Name Change 

This example isn't so much about how individuals honor the popular figure as it is about how the popular figure seeks to define (or re-define) himself. Whether in Hollywood or in the religious life, it is hardly extraordinary to change your name. In the case of the religious figure, their name is changed often to embody some virtue or figure they wish to imitate. When one is canonized such a figure frequently becomes synonymous with their place of origin, or with some virtue (and sometimes even a flaw) that captures the larger narrative of their life. As it relates to the artist Prince, Prince was indeed his given name (though interestingly it was given to him by his father who had previously taken this as his own stage name). In any case, this was not enough for Prince, for at some point in his career he chose to change his name (so to speak) to an unutterable symbol. So "sublime" was this particular performer (apparently) that no word could capture his essence. Beyond "The Artist", as he was sometimes called, there are countless other examples of people taking stage names for all of the same reasons that religious figures do (Sting, Bono, Marilyn Monroe, Snoop Lion, David Bowie, Madonna, etc.), though their reasons for doing so are usually considerably less humble, say, than consecrated Religious who take on a saint’s name upon profession of vows. 

5. Relics 

Without getting into the different classes of relics that one can possess, it is more than a little easy to see the connection between the Catholic mentality surrounding relics, and the larger attitude of society surrounding objects connected to significant events and people. Whether you're talking about sports, film, music, or even loved ones, objects have an incredible power over us to the extent that they are connected to our favorite figures. Indeed, no one would call it strange to kiss a picture of someone we love, or even someone who we long to be loved by. No one would deny that they have at least at one point kept an object, ticket, article of clothing, as a keepsake because it connected us to a memory of a person in whose presence we felt a kind of glory. I can only imagine all of the Prince "relics" that are out there now. And while the Catholic faith takes it a step further by directly connecting those objects to the divine realm, this kind of higher devotion seems to be a natural extension of the former. One can even find direct examples of this in Scripture, whether in the Old or New Testament, all the way from the healing bones of the prophet Elisha, to the miraculous handkerchief of St. Paul. If we experience the power of some drumstick thrown into the crowd by a musician, how much more should we venerate the relics of one who is totally united to God in heaven?

6. Reverence and Piety 

Most people have certain level of respect for an individual when they have recently passed away. For example, if anyone makes jokes about this individual's death shortly afterwards, one may be heard to retort "TOO SOON", though that artist may have in fact "danced with death" their whole career. Yet, when it comes to music and Hollywood, there is a special kind of gentleness of tone that certain individuals may not afford anyone else. These individuals often build shrines, speak about their influence, and even wax poetic about the meaning and substance of their life. I still remember when heavy metal legend Ronnie James Dio died, and many of his admirers talked of his kindness and good deeds. Indeed, one does not to appear before a saint in a cathedral to see a vigil candle lit in the name of a beloved popular figure. Simply look at the awe and "holy fear" with which the devotee speaks of their favorite artist, whoever they are, and you will see that very same instinct. In this famous scene from the film Wayne's World, the lead characters demonstrate just how naturally we fall into religious postures, even when the figure seems to evoke quite the opposite of that instinct.

7. Beatitude 

Along with attempting to canonize these popular figures in the earthly sense, there is also a push by the vox populi to place him or her in the high heavens, bypassing in just about every the Catholic criterion (which is founded on holiness). This could be seen most distinctly after the death of David Bowie. One particular meme quipped that God had finalized his "super-group", for there had been a recent spate of popular musicians dying in a relatively short period of time. But, whatever the case, when artists like this die, people admit religion, if only as a kind of desire or aspiration, a way for that artist to live on in perpetuity. In some ways this explains the seemingly paradoxical study (Link #3) that came out in the U.S. recently that showed that people hadn't given up the belief in heaven per se, but they had stopped believing in God. I will leave to my readership to write the punchline on that one.

8. Revealing Our Favorite Stories About Them

When we become enamored with a particular artist or athlete, we often find ourselves scooping up every little detail about them, real or imagined. When it comes to the lives of the saints, the Church has sometimes been criticized for conflating the truth with reality. Yet this is not only a Church problem, this is rather a human tendency anytime when we encounter someone who is in our sight remarkable. Just look at how stories are sometimes framed surrounding Pope Francis (for good and ill), especially surrounding the manner in which he bucks the traditional narrative of a pope. My favorite story came with this particular headline: "Pope Francis Picks Up Hitchhiker" (Link #4). From such a headline, any number of magnificent images and stories might arise. What was the story on the ground? A priest friend of his from Argentina happened to be in St. Peter's Square as the pope was making his way through the crowd, so the pope gave this priest a ride in the "pope mobile." This is not to say that extraordinary things do not happen, but rather that even the ordinary becomes extraordinary in the presence of a beloved figure.         

9. Mourning Their Loss (though we never met them)

A few days after the death of Prince, there was an article (Link #5) in a music publication which successfully explained from a secular perspective- and provided justification for- why Catholics choose to venerate and mourn people whom we've never met. According to this  article, we do so because the artist is able to speak to our collective psyche; they give voice to our inexpressible desires and longings. Obviously one can quibble with the extent to which Prince does that in the positive sense, but what can't be argued is that the true saint does appeal to us for just that reason. He or she is able to make living a life of holiness that much more intelligible to us. If we struggle in understanding God's will for our own lives, or the meaning behind the world as we experience it, the iconic figure, for whatever reason, seems to be an apt translator. They make it easier not only to understand life, but to fathom the beauty therein even in the midst of sorrow. And so when they die (if they were alive in our lifetime), we feel sorrow because they made us feel, not only closer to the divine, but closer to ourselves.      

10. Intercession

Perhaps one of the most perplexing things, at least from an outsider's perspective, is why Catholics ask "dead people" to pray for them. As a Catholic, I cannot help but point out to people who say this, that saints are not zombies, nor are they spirits of the damned, but rather those who have entered into eternal life, or as Jesus said; "I am the God of the living, not of the dead" Matthew 22:32.

Nonetheless, what can the death of a musician like Prince teach us about this particular Catholic instinct. First of all, it should be pointed out that, Catholic or no, the instinct is already there, even if it's only in a rudimentary kind of way. For example, how many times have you heard an individual say; "I know she's watching over us", or "I felt her presence at that very moment." Yes, both of these common sentiments definitely imply a kind of grace filled moment, wherein an individual was helped/comforted by the presence of someone who is deceased and is not the Deity. However, as it relates to Prince and other famous figures such as these, do we collectively acknowledge their power to intercede, or pray for us? Perhaps not in the fullest sense- as it is not common practice to say; "David Bowie, ora pro nobis."

The dictionary defines it as "the action of intervening on behalf of another". Yet what is "intervening on behalf of another" if not gifting them hope in their hour of greatest need. In this case, it may be retroactive intercession, but God is outside of time, and is not limited by it. How many individuals have found their calling through an inspired writing of some saintly individual? How many people have felt saved by a song that came on the radio, or by an artist that seemed to translate the inarticulate groanings that lay deep in our hearts. On the road to Auschwitz, and in the heart of a starvation bunker, St. Maximilian managed to get his fellow inmates to sing songs of hope that they might face death, not in the grips of despair, but rather with a melody on their lips. Don't tell me that intercession is only praying "dead people", it is anyone in heaven, on the earth, or in between that gives us strength to run the race and finish it!

So as with everything on this list, we can see that the Church does not simply leave our worldly instincts as they are, but rather elevates them to their highest form, for "grace builds on nature, it doesn't destroy it". A final example of this parallel can be seen in Chris Carter's Hall of Fame induction speech. In the speech he even makes the connection himself. Yet what is most moving about his approach is that the speech is only secondarily about himself. First and foremost, the speech is about all the people who made him great, those who challenged him and those who saw greatness in him. The speech itself is a kind of sermon on the communion of saints.