[why i wrote] a song about porn
12 January 2017
Dismantled by Love is one of the heavier songs I've written, but it has undoubtedly instigated the greatest volume of response I've ever received from friends, fans, and random listeners alike. I have felt very strongly about pornography for a long time, ever since the first crystallized moment when I myself saw a pornographic poster flash past my eyes at a music shop when I was a little girl. My mom, who was next to me, was browsing through posters, looking for Van Halen (shopping for my brothers), when suddenly - there it was. Mom took in a sharp breath and moved us away immediately: she was shaken, and said nothing.
I remember in that moment feeling incredible sadness, shock, and worry: in my tender mind, I couldn't understand why the woman in the photo would expose herself that way, couldn't fathom that someone would have requested her to do so. The thing that bothered me most of all was the anonymity: to all appearances, she had no name. She was no one. She was just lurid eyes, bleached hair, and impossible boobs. And although I had no concept of sex at the time, something innate sensed the fracture between the person and intimacy. I sensed the exploitation and degradation of it; and I will never forget that sorrow. "She was a little girl once, too," I thought. "Where is her dad? Does he know?..." I never was able to process those thoughts aloud, as sex was taboo in the house, and anyway I wouldn't have known how to articulate the feeling of dread the image burned into me.
That was the only time it ever happened, thankfully, the only time I ever saw it; but porn caused wounds in my life down the road, tangentially. It caused disappointment, disillusionment, and most of all - anger. It led to damaged trust in relationships and contributed to my giving men a weary eye. In my hurt, I became quietly self-righteous and untouchable. I wasn't able to see how much I was acting out of fear, nor was I able to feel compassion toward those who had let me down.
But by the grace of God, my own heart was dismantled and rebuilt through friendship.
Some of the most incredible people I know - the truest, deepest friends, the bravest souls, the most generous hearts - shared with me about their past (or current) struggles with pornography. They trusted me enough to explain the very painful and complex reasons why people become drawn in to pornography. In the first place, the human body is beautiful and good, of course, and it possesses an inherent mystery and attraction. (Just read Love and Responsibility: JP II didn't shy away from discussing the sexual impulse at length.) We are sexual beings and ought not be ashamed of that.
But when that natural impulse obscures the face of the human person - when arousal becomes the most intense experience - emotional, physical, or otherwise - in a given day, there is something much deeper at play: there is a fundamental lie at work. This lie, as described to me by these courageous friends - which could have been planted anywhere along the line in childhood, could have been reinforced through years - says:
"You are neither loved, nor lovable: in fact, you are loathed. So it makes no difference if you loathe these other people and treat them as mere bodies. They cannot reject you: of course, if they knew you, they would surely hate you. You are immanently leave-able, forgettable... But they do not know you. So there is no harm done. Loathe yourself further: but at least make it indulgent. You are neither loved, nor lovable. But you have nerve-endings, so why the hell not celebrate that, at least." A hell-hole of pride and fear, self-loathing and loneliness.
As I came to understand better the broken-heartedness that exists beneath most pornography, I came to identify with that broken-heartedness, too. Shoot, I struggle with wondering if I'm loved and loveable on the daily. That's an old wound that sometimes feels all mended, and other times bleeds freely. It doesn't manifest in pornography use, but it does manifest in pride, avoidance, comparison, pettiness, etc: I, too, fail to believe I am loved and loveable, and rather than deal with the terror of that thought, I lash out at those around me, or curl away from them altogether. I fail to take in their faces, to reflect on the beauty of the soul behind their eyes...
Anger is always a secondary emotion, they say. (Stay with me.) It's the easiest one to give in to, because it makes a person feel big for a moment, big and in control. But it's really just a cop-out, a defense mechanism to avoid scarier emotions. There is a perverse pleasure in anger & unforgiveness - you feel so damn convicted that you're RIGHT, and everyone else is a troll and beneath you - you feel some kind of twisted power.
I'm no psychologist, but I get the inkling that lust acts in the same way. Lust is a secondary passion. It's a cover-up, a momentary escape that makes the brain feel rewarded - read, "liked." And likewise, there is a perverse pleasure in lust - a person feels, for a moment, powerful. Likeable. Desirable. This is easier than uncovering the lie that informs the passion, the lie that informs the rage: uncovering the lie that impels you to uncover others in disgrace, be that through sharp words or by reducing them to a naked form.
Baby, we all have broken hearts. It ain't just you. Reach out in faith and speak. Brene Brown put it beautifully when she said,
"Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending out lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, belonging, and joy - the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of the light."
I am forever thankful to my friends who spoke up and shared their stories with me: by their illuminated wounds I experienced healing in places I did not even know I needed it.
Brother, sister, anyone reading this who's asking if they're loved or lovable and feeling burdened by the way that that fracture manifests in your life:
you. are. truly.
l o v e d.
And this song is for you.
Edit: In the event that anyone thinks my stance toward those who struggle with porn is a lenient or naive one, I assure you that I detest pornography with every fiber of my being, and my heart breaks for anyone who has been wronged by it. Knowing the root of a disordered behavior does not make the behavior less wrong, nor does it soften the blow of its repercussions. There are some who persist in the degradation and infidelity of pornography without remorse or concern for those who are being harmed, and the only appropriate response to such behavior is alarm, sadness, and - at times - removal from the situation.
But if anyone unreasonably thinks that I ought to be espousing the idea that those who struggle with pornography are messed up perverts, and that they are their actions, and therefore deserve to be detested, I invite you politely to go shit in your hat.
WHY "BEING IN LOVE" ISN'T THE BEST THING EVER
16 November 2016
The phenomenon of being “in love” is an experience nearly every person yearns to have realized in his or her life. As a child, I savored depictions of love in art and music, organized weddings for every possible combination of my stuffed animals, prayed dutifully each night for my future husband, and found an outlet for my inchoate mothering instincts by trussing my cat up in diapers and bonnets, explaining to her that her father (my imaginary beloved) was "off to war". It was all delightful play, simple and free. The idea of falling in love seemed to imply a state of heavenly rapture, in which all of one’s heart was shared with another, and likewise the other’s heart became one’s own: all of creation smiled upon you and your beloved, united as you were in a mysterious joy which arose from a single pulsing heart. To be in love, I surmised, was surely a most wondrous thing — the artists, poets, and philosophers have spoken of it, sung of it, and depicted it in various ways for thousands of years as being sheer elysium; an attitude of eternal ardency which vows to never grow dull.
Today, twenty years later, the golden aura which inscribes the thought of “being in love” remains, and this ideal is still relentlessly advertised; though of late it has become more apparent that perhaps the shining image of “inlove-ness” (to borrow a phrase coined by Sheldon VanAuken in his book A Severe Mercy) does not provide us with an accurate glimpse of the reality of what happens in the unfolding of true love. What I mean to say is that, for all the “bells and whistles” that accompany it, this being in love is not the experience of love in the fullest: it is not the fulfillment of, but rather the stepping-stone to, that realm of divine, mutual true love which transcends the ravages of time and the insecurities of the heart. My childhood fancies were what they ought to have been at that tender age: but they have, thankfully, matured and deepened thanks to God's grace: and thanks to experience. I’m going to attempt to reflect on this in light of married love, and consider the various ways in which a proper understanding of the experience of being in love (Eros) can positively affect a marriage, as well as the negative effects a misunderstanding of this experience can have.
Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. All love, no matter how it may be understood or manifested, craves union. One aspect of love’s nature which makes this tendency toward union particularly evident is found in the relationship between men and women: this aspect of love is known as Eros. Eros is “something akin to poetic rapture, and in fact to artistic enthusiasm in general, a state of being carried out of the normality of everyday existence” (So said Josef Pieper, a favorite of mine). It is an attraction which, in the Platonic understanding, draws people to all that is good, true, and beautiful, and it is first and foremost of a sensual and emotional nature. When a man perceives beauty in a woman, he is moved: he is drawn out of himself and awakened to a universe of goodness which he seeks to unite himself to, and, if the woman has been moved in the same way, she makes a mutual response in the direction of attaining said union. They desire to draw closer to each other — not only through getting to know everything about one another, right down to the smallest details, but also with their bodies. Indeed, it is this emotional and sensual experience which most people identify as “being in love.”
People in love will insist upon their everlasting fidelity to one another with remarkable ferocity. Question them, even casually, about the longevity of their sentiments and they will look upon one another with a patiently pained expression, obviously mutually lamenting your ignorance on the nature of their devotion to one another, but tickled nonetheless with the mystery their shared phenomenon presents to the average human. You can’t possibly understand the force which sustains their uninterrupted gravitation to one another, and you are unable to comprehend the depth, uniqueness and thrill of their delightful new reality. The old self of each is dead, decidedly dead, and in its stead now stands a selfless, fully awakened human being, freed from every strand of egoism and indolence, and animated with an irrepressible buoyancy…
But, for all the lingering looks, ardent promises, freakishly similar senses of humor, effusive songs and poems, exchanges of secrets and dreams, and seemingly eternal springtime of this “being in love” — can such an ecstasy persist? Is it really as impervious to human weakness and sinfulness as they say? Can two people remain in a state of self-less libation, bounding about forever in the golden fields of “heaven on earth” for as long as they both shall live? I must be frank at the risk of sounding callous: hardly.
Now, I love marriage, and I recommend it heartily. I also love the varying stages and seasons of falling in love with my husband, and I am anything but a stoic: just ask him! (Or, just consider how often I embolden or italicize phrases in this post. Seneca would be theoretically repulsed by such flagrant displays of emphasis.) It's crucial to be drawn emotionally and erotically to the person you marry. Marriage is too tough to embrace if you're not into the person you're marrying. All I'm saying is - it's so much more than just that, even though it relies on that and draws enormous grace from that. So before you peg me as one of those embittered kill-joys who refer to marriage as "the old ball-and-chain," and who insist marriage makes people miserable (a weakly disguised example of transference: misery loves company), hear me out.
People who are blessed enough to experience falling in love with one another often fall prey to the trap of believing that the thrills and enchantments they discover and share with the other person will last forever, even if they're convinced they're intellectually impervious to such a thing – such is the nature of Eros, which naturally leads lovers to reject as impossible the thought that their sentiments for one another could be transitory. But no matter how strong and good the emotions and sensations which accompany the experience may be (and indeed they are good, for love for another person cannot exist solely in the intellect but rather insists upon a holistic response), they are, as Karol Wojtyla wrote, just the “raw material” of love: though they provide a good setting for it to take root, they cannot be regarded as its fulfillment — for “love as an emotional experience, even if it is reciprocated, is very far from being the same as love completed by a commitment of the will…transient erotic experiences must not be confused with love.” The idolization of “inloveness” often leads to an incorrect view of what is to be expected in married love, as professed by the vows made therein. Granted, when two people make such vows, they do so sincerely believing they shall live them out in their entirety; the discrepancy here, according to S. Vanauken, is a serious lack of understanding that saying “till death do us part,” means just that, quite literally; it does not mean, “for as long as this high and holy feeling shall remain.”
It is this mentality, which equates love with a thrilling feeling, which has lead to the unraveling of many a marriage. Feelings, emotions, and sensations come and go. When couples who are unduly attached to the honey-like sweetness that comes along with the initial stages of their love cease to feel these sentiments, they find themselves looking at someone they’ve never known before. This is because, tragically, (as Vanauken goes on to say), “it wasn’t a person qua person they had been in love with, but a person as an evoker of a feeling, a thrill. Their vows had been to the feeling.” Vows on this level — that is, vows to feelings — are easily transferable amongst people; indeed, people who live on their feelings stay devoted and true to these vows — just not to the people who are attached to them, necessarily. Soon enough, when the shattering loveliness of being in love vanishes, the ego reasserts itself in both parties, and “lover snaps at lover.” Each becomes overly ravenous to receive, and immovably set against giving; and jealousy, resentment, estrangement and pettiness enter in. Before either knows it, the same eyes which once gazed dazedly in devotion at the other now glower coldly at “the stranger I married” while settling things in divorce court on the grounds of ‘incompatibility.’
(Emotions spring from the limbic system. They are frequently poor interpersonal leaders, while being dangerously convicting. If I'm being brutally honest, the most intense emotions we experience can send our mind into its most instinctual stance: eat or be eaten. This works if you're a wolf. Not if you're someone's spouse. Know thyself, and the truth will set you free. 'Specially if you're a melancholic-choleric. Or a human being whose nature can be transfigured by cooperation with grace.)
So, then, this is all rather grim, you're thinking: what can be done to prevent this cycle of the seemingly heavenly gestation of love followed by a heart-hardening stillbirth? I believe that a better understanding of Eros, as well as a deeper seriousness toward the things (or vows) the passions of Eros impel lovers to commit, will allow for a more fecund, stable relationship grounded on true love, which “alters not when it alterations finds.” (Shakespeare, baby. 16th Sonnet.)
One thing we must make ourselves aware of is the fact that, as C.S. Lewis points out, “Eros is driven to promise what Eros himself cannot perform.” As I stated earlier, Eros is a force which moves a person out of himself and awakens him to something that goes infinitely beyond that which is immediately apparent. What happens in erotic love is not a quenching of a desire but rather an opening of the sphere of existence to a limitless satiety which cannot be obtained here and now. Eros, then, is not meant to gratify but rather to “set things into motion”: it is a stepping-stone to Divine Love. It points to something more, something deeper. This deeper reality to which Eros tends can only be revealed through sincere communication with the other on a level which probes courageously into the depths of the beloved’s God-given being. Thus it is of utmost importance that lovers seek to keep the truth about the other person ever in mind, realizing that the emotional-effective responses connatural to Eros can lead to an erroneous perception of the beloved, pinning upon them god-like values which actually have no real substance. A purely emotional love often becomes an equally emotional hatred for the same person. One must never make a god out of Eros, for in so doing, he or she immediately loses sight of the beloved person to whom they seek to be united, and inevitably ends up grappling fecklessly for an increasingly inchoate ideal existing primarily within his or her own isolated ego.
It is only when Eros is recognized as being inseparable from Divine Love that it is experienced appropriately and is properly integrated into the love-life of married couples, or those with high hopes for marriage. To relegate Eros into a little box labeled “Emotional-Affective-Sensual-Sexual Experience” is to disregard the beauty of this love, which is paradigmatic of the totally committed love of God and also gives substance to the word Charity! Charity, or Agape, is commonly understood as Divine Love — and it can never be completely separated from Eros. The more these two loves find a harmonious unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love is revealed and upheld. Christopher West describes the maturation of Eros in conjunction with the will when he writes of it as being “concerned more and more with the beloved, [bestowing] itself and [desiring] to ‘be there’ for the other. The element of Agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise Eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature.” It is natural, then, that Eros tends to take flight in an ecstasy of sorts, seeking the Divine through the love of another and jolting us out of our muteness of heart; but for this very reason it requires a “path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.” (Benedict XVI: God is Love, pgh 5)
This means that two people in love, who have been moved to make vows to one another, must be aware that the ecstasy they experience in the springtime of their love is not the true ecstasy for which they have been made. The true ecstasy comes only after purification through tribulations, perseverance through mediocrities, and uninterrupted efforts at self-renunciation for the sake of the beloved. If love is identified with this Divinely directed ecstasy, which seeks to love for the sake of loving — not for the sake of a feeling — the deepest wish of romantic love will be fulfilled, which is union and endurance.
Of course, this maturation of love is easier said than done, and, as Soren Kierkegaard puts it, requires a “truly heroic soul…[in marriage man is given a chance of discovering that it] requires a great soul to save one’s soul out of the petty.” He continues, saying that romantic love, though a gift, is elusive; and it tragically seeks to go on forever but is caught in the webs of the time. Lacking a factor of the will, it is tossed about in the shallow tide-pool of man’s capricious moods and whims, and is unable to attain the fulfillment it promises. It is this factor of the will, arising from the inner-life of man, which guides Eros from a stage of affection for outer appearances and charms and into those inner depths of true beauty which embody the Divine.
Love involves a definite decision made by the will: by this love we decisively choose a person, not an “evoker of a feeling.” Love is a deep unity maintained by the will and consciously bolstered by habit. Erotic love cannot stand on its own, and its transience requires that it be submerged in the healing current of Agape in order to be drawn up and into its fullest realization. This requires a conscious effort on the part of the will, and a mutual, reciprocative desire to choose, again and again, to love the other person: not as a god, but as a flawed human being who must be reminded that they are loved and lovable: even if it takes years for that message to get through. This may entail some of the following (get ready, my choleric friends - here is a list full of CONCRETE ITEMS):
1. Identifying destructive patterns or tendencies within the context of individual and couples' therapy (which, ideally, would be begun in a couples' individual lives before committing to a long-term relationship, if needed: examining one's own life before laying it down for another is often one of the best things a person can do for their future marriage. Be responsible and start grappling with your mommy-daddy stuff now);
2. Striving toward mutual vulnerability and encouragement;
3. Forgiving one's spouse even when a situation or behavior appears dire; and
4. Being willing to change for the good of the other: even at moments when it may appear that they aren't responding in kind. There will be times when it seems that one spouse is stronger than the other - times when one person is called to abide while the other wrestles beneath the transfiguring grace of proximity: this is love in action, and it can hardly be romanticized.
Our present-day poets, philosophers, and artists still sing the praises of love. But as any thoughtful observer of our current society will agree, there is a disconcerting conflict between the attractively presented ideal of love and the undeniable erosion of the institution of marriage, the very union in which the love of a man and a woman is meant to be sanctioned and made perfect. This is, I believe, due partially to the fact that the popular idea of love, which idolizes Eros (and reduces it to sensation and sex) as the greatest and highest form of love, is commonly accepted as the truth of love, which it is not; and it is also due to a cowardice of will which, coupled with ignorance, fails to transcend the temporal realm with its multitudinous whims and fancies. Taking these fallacies into a marriage will lead to disillusionment and heartbreak (or at least, much more disillusionment and heartbreak than necessary), for love cannot survive unless it embraces the whole of love — not just one aspect of it; likewise it must embrace the whole person, not just one aspect of them.
Love looks to the eternal. It is indeed an ecstasy — not in the sense of a moment of inebriation, but rather as a pilgrimage out of the closed, inward-looking self towards its emancipation through self-gift, and thus towards true self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God (God is Love, pgh 6).
To truly love another person in marriage is a deed of daring. Those who experience the fullness of “being in love” know that its sweetness is made richer by hardship; that it necessarily includes factors of duty and responsibility which exist far beyond the aesthetic sphere; and that it is an encounter of persons who have been created for an eternal reality. Love is a response of both body and soul: not to any particular charms, gifts, talents or features of the beloved — but to the beloved person himself, in his entirety, for better or for worse. Love involves a deeper understanding of the beloved in their totality – it seeks the innermost person who shines, albeit imperfectly, through many weaknesses and inconsistencies.
Being in love is not infatuation. Rather, it constitutes in itself “the climax of [the] full spiritual realization of the beloved person,” and places man and woman in the “only truly awakened state” (Both quotations from Dietrich VonHildebrande). To be in love is to express, with all of one’s heart, will, mind, and body, the Incarnational call to make love the aim of every action, to choose self-gift over self-preservation. It is far, far more challenging - and infinitely more beautiful! - than the movies, songs, poems, and Instagram feeds make it out to be: and best of all, it isn't an end in itself. The best thing ever is yet to come.
PS. I originally wrote this post as a philosophy paper in college, during a time when I was being immersed in the writings of Josef Pieper, Karol Wojtyla, Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, Dietrich von Hildebrand, etc. I recently re-read it and was struck by the accuracy of the assessment of married love and its unique challenges, given that I am a married woman now and have learned a great deal since I was a Junior in college. I updated it here and there to make it more personal and relevant. I am thankful for these scholars who have left a legacy of wisdom and truth behind them, and whose years of diligent prayer and study have helped me and countless others draw closer to the mysterious plan of freedom inherent within God's self-revelation, as expressed through human love.
here's the story
10 July 2016
This is the transcript from a talk I gave in Wichita, Kansas, on June 14 2016. I had never told my story in this way before, and was encouraged by the response afterward: many people said it resonated with them in some manner. I wanted to share it here, as well, in the hopes that it might give a deeper perspective into the journey that has lead me up to where I am today, with a new album entitled Champion set for release on iTunes on July 22, 2016.
I grew up in rural upstate New York.
My Canadian parents married in '77 and moved to the States a few years after, eventually settling in the East and raising my five siblings and me in a big white house set on a hill by a river.
Childhood was a quiet, simple time, unaffected by over-activism or worldly influence. We were homeschooled, and my sister and I (we were the two youngest children in the line-up) spent most of our time reading books by Dickens and Tolstoy, wrangling with Euclidean geometry, exploring the woods and fields around our home, and avoiding the hairbrush as much as possible. The house was filled with vases full of lilac blooms and music, usually. Mom would play classical music in the mornings, and then as evening came she and dad would switch to Andrea Bocelli, John Denver, Billy Joel, EmmyLou Harris, Nana Mouskuri and countless others to provide background as they prepared dinner. They were both musical people: Dad had found time during medical school to learn classical guitar, and Mom had sung professionally while in nursing school and for several years after. Some of my sweetest memories from childhood center around watching the two of them sit down at the table to sing songs together: my favorite was an old Gaelic song called Chì mi na mòrbheanna, the haunting melody of which still drifts through my mind to this day.
There was a great deal of beauty and peace in my childhood; but there was broken-ness, too, as in any family. Being exposed to both brokenness and beauty, along with other converging factors, lead me to be a very sensitive child, given to pondering ontological questions from a tender age.
To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, I had what you might call an "existential awakening" at age six. I was looking out across the frosted lawn from an upstairs window, and had lain my hands across the cool panes of glass. My eyes traveled from the lawn to my hands: my fingertips were rosy from the cold. I realized in that moment that these are my hands, and my hands alone. I realized I existed, that I was distinct and irrepeatable: and it terrified me.
This ephiphany, couched as it was in an uncomfortable sensation of isolation, was quickly followed by an instinctual movement of prayer. I had no idea at the time that I was experiencing what Wojtyla calls original solitude: that is, when we recognize our profound separateness, which sets us apart - elevates us - from the rest of creation, but which makes us painfully aware of a certain sense of being "out of place", homesick, and unutterably, taboo lonely. It is from this very place that the heart seeks God most ardently and truly; this "God-shaped hole" that makes little to no sense biologically, anthropologically, or pscyhologically, when you attempt to split its finest hairs (I have). It isn't exactly helpful or condusive to proliferating the species, after all: no amount of human connection (or distraction) can remedy it, nor any degree of calculated conjecture. And so in my childlike state I did what my pure little soul allowed me to do readily: I reached for God in that moment, and I felt loved, seen, sought, and wanted. I was willed and necessary.
This kind of existential probing imbued my life as a child. More often than not it felt like a bother, and not like a gift: I could hardly even articulate these ponderances to my own mother, let alone other children, who always seemed so glib, care-free, and focused on keeping their Giga pets alive. Why didn't anyone else feel like they were going to crap their pants at the thought of eternity, whatever the blazes that was?!
My greatest existential quandery centered around whether or not I could be truly known. (Good thing Mom and Dad didn't leave any Kant lying around back in those impressionable days.) I craved to be known: I craved to have light spilling into every place of my mind and heart, constantly. Part of that was from a genuine craving for communion, to “be with”: and part of it came from a fallen area of my heart that said I needed to be perfect to be loved; that I simply could not make any mistakes, could not falter or fail in any regard. And somewhere along the line, I thought that it was up to me to make sure that that didn’t happen.
So, while on the one hand, this sensitivity worked against me by way of extreme self-discipline and perfectionism (which, frequently, has ended up wounding people around me), it also opened my eyes up to things of God from a very young age. I would spend hours examining the face of a violet: I would even sing to it and kiss it gently as I memorized each streak and freckle on its petals, sheerly out of love for what God had made. I talked to animals as though they were friends: I think something of their innocence and dependence resonated with me, and I found them to be the most wonderful listeners. The beauty of God’s creation struck me as being for me. I always believed that he had known I would delight in the violets, in the smell of baking bread, in the movement and wildness of a river, in the fog which clings to the atmosphere just above the earth as dusk rolls in. And, while I was a pensive child, I was not serious: I took great delight in things, and more often than not the ready tears that sprung to my eyes were tears of overwhelming joy, not tears of anxiety or fear. I read Calvin and Hobbes voraciously, found the word poop to be uproariously funny - to the half-hearted chagrin of my mother (three older brothers contributed to this) - dreamt in Redwall and dressed my poor cat Caitlin up like a human child on a daily basis.
When my dad would take us to the symphony - which was where I had my first aesthetic experience, that is, my first transdendent experience of being moved by eros, in the platonic understanding of the word - I would sit there and cry silently, overwhelmed entirely by the beauty of the music but even more so by the nobility of the human person, able to work as a body with others in order to create something magnificent. I actually used to feel broken-hearted for little creatures like ants or beetles as I would watch them scuttle along, thinking to myself, “Why was I lucky enough to be created a person, and not an ant? Why should I get to experience consciousness, and not they? They’ll never know what it means to be loved.” (Poor ants. To this day I sometimes pity them for their brainlessness. Other times I envy them.)
This brings me to say that I always believed that God loved me and revealed himself to me through other people. I remember thinking that I was looking at the face of God whenever I would hold a newborn baby, and feeling something eternal about the safety I felt when I would climb into my father’s arms in the evening when he would come home from work. Other people utterly fascinated me - they were other universes, made up of innumerable layers, memories, pains, joys, fears, passions, and purpose: and I yearned to know of them, though for many years I was cripplingly shy and would content myself with simply imagining what it would be like to encounter another person meaningfully. To this day I still struggle with being hesitant to let people know just how dearly I love them, fearing there is something I must improve about myself in order to be worthy of such transparency: perhaps, also, fearing I won’t be received as I hope. I think at times people have thought me aloof and cold, and perhaps disdainful of them (worst of all, indifferent). I have yet to figure out how to convey how devastating it is whenever someone believes that they are not good enough to be loved or noticed by me. I can only imagine the pain of God’s heart when we think the same of him: that he is too busy, too important, and too perfect to be pleased with us.
(I said to my fiance not long ago that in some ways, my image of God is something like that of a noble, highly esteemed Professor: I admire him intensely, wish to be near him and be taught by him always, but am self-conscious about actually approaching him outside of the classroom. Surely he’s too busy to talk with me, the little freshman of the spiritual world, who hardly knows words to formulate a brilliant statement? Surely he’s pressed for time, with meetings every hour when he isn’t in class; and surely he won’t remember my name - how could he recall? I need to be understanding of him and his need for privacy…
Pride and fear have no place in love. But God is patient, and all of his creation is patiently directed toward our eternal consummation with him.)
I found that I could channel all of the intense emotions and thoughts I experienced as a child into music. Though I had begun lessons at age six, when I was about 15 years old I began to more seriously immerse myself in piano, practicing an hour or more each day, and biking to my lessons a couple of miles down the road with a backpack full of music a couple times each week. As I would play the notes of Debussy’s Arabesque or a sonata by Mozart, it was as though some kind of creative dam was loosed inside of me, and the worry of temporality lifted off - the effort of “becoming” was not as apparent. I felt that I was doing what I was made to do, and the tension borne from the struggle between self-gift and self-preservation, which so often rears its head in the division and sinfulness of the human heart, was loosened to the point of being forgotten. I could sense God in the notes, ringing out in the perfect harmonization and mathematical perfection of the theory which undergirded these masterful compositions but which did not, and could not, vivify them: only a human body, animated by life, could do that. Only a human act of creativeness, a small fractal of God’s cosmic act of genesis, could set these static notes into motion and thereby stir the mind and heart with more immediacy than even the most lovingly spoken words. I sensed that I was working with God, that I was doing something my dignity and calling and inheritance allowed me to do: I was participating, in some small measure, in the creative mind of God, and this filled me with indescribable joy and purpose.
Around this time I discovered the new-wave folk/reggae music of bands and musicians such as Dispatch, Sublime, and Jack Johnson (I can’t recommend Sublime’s entire discography in good conscience - your mama won’t appreciate you singing What I Got at the next family barbeque: but - if you’ve never listened to Bradley Knowles’ cover of By the Rivers of Babylon, do yourself a good deed and check it out). I was also digging in deeply to the music of Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, John Denver, and Eva Cassidy: though these artists had been played in our home since I was a child, I hadn’t fully appreciated the depth of their writing and the stories they told through their music until now. I picked up the guitar when I was around 15 in an attempt to play some of these folky songs I loved so much, and ended up accidentally writing my first song soon thereafter.
It happened one rainy day that my sister Magdalene and I were sitting at the dining room table together. I was strumming the four chords I knew on the guitar - perhaps “hacking away” would be a better way to put it - and was simultaneously singing aloud the words of a Reader’s Digest article that was on the table in front of me. It had to do with a brave fireman who rescued a blind kitten inflicted by a trifecta of dropsy, scurvy, and dysentery (or something along those lines). I was trying to get my sister to laugh - which she did - when I realized that the melody I was singing actually sounded quite lovely, and it was coming in one piece, effortlessly. Something urged me to go up to my room, shut the door, and allow the melody to become a song. And so, I did. I went up to my room and within about 15 minutes I had penned the accompanying lyrics to my first song.
After that, I began performing at open-mics in my little country town, usually on Thursday nights. Farmers, skater kids with long hair hanging down in their eyes, business men with weary faces and tattered shoes, little old women accompanied by their grandchildren - perhaps at the bribe of a cup of hot chocolate and a cookie - and my three closest girlfriends were the first people I ever sang for, outside of church. And they were so warm, encouraging, and receptive - much to my surprise. I was shocked, again and again, when I would look out to see grown men leaning against the doorpost, heads down, crying. Or when someone would approach me afterward, thank me for my vulnerability, and share something painful, beautiful, or both from their own life.
Around this time, I had a profound experience at a retreat in Maryland: I was sixteen, and I encountered God in a new and powerful way. I met a boy.
Now, I’ll admit that I had my phases of airheadedness, just like any teenage girl, and I’ll also admit that I often sentimentalized the idea of love and romance into something altogether vaporous and pain-free. But God worked through that saccharine childishness and touched something deep within me when I met this young man from Vermont, who wore thick-framed glasses and had a maganaminity of spirit unlike any I'd encountered before. It was the first time I remember having something deeply feminine awoken in me in the presence of, and directly because of, someone deeply masculine. This young man was so good, so manly, and so honest that meeting him lead me into a deeper experience of my own personhood and identity.
And it was fitting: where my loves had been childish, sentimental, and flighty, something changed interiorly, and the little-girl heart I had always known and identified with began to beat with a womanly, distilled, maternal pulse. I recognized the exclusivity of love, the individuality of it, the responsibility of it: and I understood for the first time that Christ was not some pantheistic warmth that issued forth from the cradle of my infancy. He was someone I had to choose, deliberately; or else deny. There wasn't room for a sentimental middle-ground.
This brings me to mention that the world is so confused about sexuality and eros. It has the distorted idea that sexuality and eroticism have to do with things that happen when people are horizontal, behind closed doors: that they belong in some kind of separate, dark room that doesn’t, and shouldn’t, interfere with or be made to coincide with the other spheres of life. The fact is, we live out our sexuality while we are vertical, at every moment of every day: washing the dishes, stepping over puddles, pulling up weeds, picking up a friend from the airport, and when we are praying. Our sexuality imbues every sphere of who we are: it informs, effects, and deepens how each of us listens, comprehends, and engages. What’s more, our sexuality has everything to do with incarnation: our generative potential is part of our divine inheritance, and it is the means by which God chooses to be reborn again and again in our world, through each individual who bears his image and likeness. God is the divine mover: he is the inventor of ecstasy. He knows what it means to be moved by the beauty and goodness of another person, and he speaks to us through that incredible gift: that incredible experience of being “awakened,” and “commissioned.”
He spoke to me in this way through that young man, nearly ten years ago. I’m not sure where that man is now, or what-ever happened to him: we lost touch some years ago, after a volley of intermittent snail-mail, as it just wasn't meant to develop into anything further. But I give thanks for him still. As a result of his lived manhood, something gave way within me and I awoke to the commission to “Create,” which is one of the deepest callings of woman. And after that retreat, songs began to come like a deluge after a monsoon.
Everything begets itself. A well-lived, integrated heart; a vibrant and wholesome sexuality; and a magnaminity of spirit will beget the same in those around you.
The first person who urged me to recognize songwriting and singing as a God-given talent, meant to be used for his glory, was a Franciscan CFR named Fr. Christopher. He invited me to perform at a couple Catholic Undergrounds in Philadelphia when I was in highschool, not long after the above-mentioned retreat. Those experiences with Catholic Underground were formative for me, and were a further affirmation of the fact that this was not simply a fun talent given to me by God, but a charism I was being called to share. Day after day, year after year, God has moved powerfully in my life specifically through this charism of music: music has, more often than not, been the bridge that has connected me to other people, at least initially, which has then given way to some of the deepest, most life-changing friendships I have ever known. It has lead me to record numerous times, to travel all over the States, to Israel, to Spain, and next year to New Zealand. It has inspired hundreds of beautiful letters and emails from people all over the world, expressing the movement of God in their lives - experiences of healing I can hardly fathom.
One girl wrote to tell me that the music helped her through painful seasons of depression and anxiety. A mother wrote to tell me that my love songs are the only songs that engage her son, who has autism and usually is withdrawn and silent. A young man shared with me that one evening he had been struggling with a temptation to look at pornography, which he was fighting to overcome, and then one of my songs came on and his found the strength to rise above that temptation: “The thought of my future wife bolstered me,” he said, softly and proudly.
Each time I get a letter or email like this, it catalyzes healing in my own mind and heart. The nature of mercy is always reciprocal. The humility, love, and vulnerability of these generous souls calls me on to be more forthcoming and frank about the healing power of grace in my own life, and to be humble enough to let other people know when they have been agents of that grace.
Letting someone know how they have affected you takes guts and humility. To reiterate that point on gifts and charisms: a priest once explained to me the difference between a gift and a charism. “A gift,” he said, “Is something you enjoy doing, something you’re good at: it comes naturally to you. It’s fun for you. A charism, however, is something that heals other people - something that reverberates out beyond you and your own experience of it, and effects change. It’s a responsibility.”
Conversion and healing is always God’s work. Conversion and healing within ourselves or within other people isn’t something we confect on our own, nor is it something we can boast in or take credit for. Admittedly, it’s easy to be tempted to think that our identity and worth lies in our gifts and talents: in the things we do. It's easy to pin our identity on measuable outcomes, because then we aren't as sickenly aware of how effortful the work of "becoming" is. But as soon as the door to that temptation is opened, we start to think in terms of performance: how can I make my talent more impressive, so that I come off as more lovable? What do I have to do to make sure I never lack the feeling and knowledge of being known and loved? That kind of deprivation thinking - the what must I do to fill this lack in my life and feel safe kind of thinking - can consume us if we don’t invite God into our personalities and attempt to surrender our lives to him.
During college, after I had gained a reputation for being a singer, songwriter, and brainiac, I started to feel isolated and fearful. I had enjoyed the attention and image constructed around me for a while, because as long as people had built their own concept of who I was - a concept I was fine with, as it was a pleasing concept - then that meant I didn’t have to take the real risk of intimacy. But God’s light started to pierce my hubris as questions began to surface interiorly. Suppose I lost my voice. Suppose I was in an accident, and I was disfigured. Suppose I hadn’t been born with a lovely face. Would I still be loved? Suppose I had never been able to sing. Would I ever have been noticed?
It was painful to have these questions turn up inside of me, because I’d been able to ignore them in prayer, the reason being that I approached God much like I approached other people - at arm’s length, with a friendly smile and very little true vulnerability. My fear of being flawed and therefore unloveable had mingled with vanity and pride to the point that I was thirsting to death, spiritually. I had wrongly thought that proving my loveability was up to me: that I could call the shots, and that I could somehow pick and choose which parts to share and which ones to keep under wraps. I was trying to fill the gaping God-shaped hole inside of myself with myself and with human affection, and it was obviously an exercise in futility. I was trying to convince myself that I was loveable, that I wasn’t flawed.
But that’s a ruse. Not the fact that I’m loveable - but the idea that I’m not flawed. I didn’t have it altogether, I don’t have it altogether, and even though it had been nice for a time to let people think my life was as tidy and ethereal as my folky songs, I was suffocating in the Ziplock bag of my own ego.
And then God in his mercy tore that stupid bag to shreds and miraculously got through to me and said, “You are my child. That is your identity. And your greatest talent is your ability to love, because I first loved you.”
God could mend a broken heart with a two-string guitar that’s terribly out of tune. He could reach somebody through the least elegant and most faltering of words if he so chose. He can take the most sensitive, overly-cautious and tightly-principled heart and fill it with radiant courage and compassion at just the needed moment. He can take the most bombastic, garrulous personality and radiate his understanding and wisdom directly through it, when he wishes.
The man or woman unlearned in books can be the one Word that makes sense to the people around him or her, the one symbol that makes sense in a world of noise.
It is always his initiative, and it is always his grace. He is the water, and we are the water pitchers, broken but patched back together by adoption and grace. Our job is not to stop and focus on the chinks and fissures we see all over ourselves: our mission is simply to be filled, so as to be poured out. Those who are thirsty for water will not discriminate against the vessel by which they receive it. It’s the water they’re after, after all. It’s the water that replenishes them and cleanses them, not the clay.
This realization, for me, was monumental. It’s one of those things I’ve always known: such a basic, fundamental reality - but one that I constantly have to re-learn it and be reminded of.
There is not a great deal unique about my story, not any more than any one else's, but it's worth telling even so - as is your's.
I grew up in rural New York. I can sing and write songs. I am very soon to be married to a man who, in his love, sets me free and calls me higher (that is another story - the best story! - in which all the other stories begin and culminate). God gave it and he can take it. I'm his daughter and I can love 'cause that's what He is.
21 June 2016
I’ve covered a song! A song near and dear to me, I might add, by a duo I am thoroughly devoted to: the inimitable Penny and Sparrow. I asked my very talented friend and fellow-musician Scott Mulvahill (who plays bass in Ricky Skaggs’ band) to join me one afternoon in Nashville so that we might recreate the tune, and he glibly accepted. The song “Gold” is off of Penny and Sparrow’s latest album, Let a Lover Drown You. The whole album is marvelous from start to finish, but Gold stood out to me from the start as being especially beautiful. Its ebb and flow, brought to life by rich and intimate imagery, and the sense of wistful mystery which imbues the song - lending a certain irresolution to it - all strike me deeply. I admire Andy Baxter’s and Kyle Jahnke’s manner of songwriting, both from a melodic and lyric perspective, and consider this song to be a masterpiece which stands on its own, unique and unaffected.
When I first heard it, I figured right away that it was written from the perspective of someone looking back on his or her greatest love: I recall you, I recall when. The words are very visual and stark, bringing the listener immediately into the most intimate realm of lovers - that realm of embraces which are silly, child-like, tender, and unselfconscious: pulling your shirt up over your head/laugh and get stuck, stuck in bed. . . this gentle reverie is broken, suddenly, by a jolt forward into the present-tense: All that I do is a shadow of you and the lights you make. All that I do, now, is in reference to that past Springtime of love, when we were together and free from the burdens which overtook us.
The song continues from here on a darker, more somber note: the words come from the perspective of someone who now lives his or her life in the shadow of memories, and who has evidently lost the great love of their life and with it, has lost levity of heart: but not without gaining a sense of resolution to honor and safeguard the memory of the beloved.
If you do some research, or if you go see Penny and Sparrow in concert (which my fiance and I recommend highly - great date night!), you’ll discover that Gold was inspired by a series of science-fiction novels entitled “Red Rising” by Pierce Brown. The song focuses on a specific husband and wife in the books who become embroiled in the corrupt government which tyrannizes them and their people. The wife is killed by someone in the upper echelon of society, and her husband sets about avenging her death by-way of infiltrating high-society, one connection at a time. (Penny and Sparrow aren’t the sort to write through rose-colored glasses, nor are they nihilists who insist that futility has the last word: that’s part of the reason why I love them so. They give a frank but doggedly hopeful look at life, relationships, sexuality, God, forgiveness, failure, healing, and many other needful subjects.)While I haven’t read the books myself, I can’t help but be intrigued by the figures represented in this timeless and unusual song, and it is a joy and honor to sing it each time.
I hope you enjoy our cover of “Gold,” and if you feel so inclined, consider tweeting it in the direction of Penny and Sparrow. ; ) And then, go buy their entire discography. Your life and thought will be the richer for it.
8 November 2015
I am proud to be a woman. The creative potential and power of my body is something worth celebrating, something that is beyond my limited experience of existence, and something I ought to be free to nurture and embrace always. I revere and respect the vacancy within me that exists solely for receiving and fostering life. It would be a tragedy to arrest the natural process of my feminine fertility in a misinformed effort to afford myself greater freedom in sexual expression. To fill my body with harmful chemicals and to view my fertility as a disease to be treated or a current to be dammed is tantamount to frustrating one of my greatest powers. My ability to grow life inside of me is something that only I as a woman can do, and something that demands my veneration. I am proud of this beautiful body and its generative ebb and flow.
As a woman who respects her body and the cosmic beauty it expresses - albeit imperfectly - I am unable to comprehend the rationale behind the idea that sex is recreational, to be approached with little regard for its first purpose, which is to generate new life. I am more than my impulses, and so are you. I have a will, and therein lies my freedom.
Please, don't misunderstand me when I speak of freedom: I do not mean freedom from the nature-blessed trajectory of the sexual urge, which is incarnation (read, the ultimate wake-up call that life is bigger than my own universe): I mean freedom for self-discovery through self-gift.
Responsible sex doesn’t mean sex “with protection”, it means “sex in full knowledge and acceptance of what sex is meant to do: sex in full knowledge and reverence for the natural law which governs the body and its power.” “Being responsible” does not mean the shirking off of the natural gravitas that is meant to accompany the mingling of two bodies: that’s cowardice, driven by convenience.
Most of us are gung-ho about respecting nature and law when it comes to littering, carbon-footprints, responding appropriately to traffic signs, choosing not to endanger other people with firearms, and honoring the property of other people: we collectively understand that there are laws in place which we ought to respect and uphold in order to further the common good. Each day, we assent to authorities beyond us and act according to a universalist paradigm. Each day, we post articles about the wonders of science and the incomprehensibility of the Universe and Nature, prayerfully nodding our heads at every esoteric and chilling thing scientists have to say about the vastness and mystery that surrounds us (like hell there are that many people who think it all actually means nothing: and if you’re one of the few who do take such a stance, I guess you won’t bother to comment about it, because if you did, you’d contradict yourself: “There is no objective truth” is an objective statement).
But the moment it comes to sex and the body, the semantics change drastically. Gone is the language of responsibility, of “respecting Mother Nature”, of keeping the speedometer at 70 mph and slowing down in a work zone. Gone is the outcry toward those individuals who choose to mow down other people for no reason other than that they were bothersome, or didn’t fit in their ideal world. Gone is the awe that accompanies the consideration of the Big Bang and the incredible burgeoning of life that resulted over millennia in its wake, and gone are the enthused shares of the ever-popular I F***ing Love Science website. Gone is the sense of reverence in the face of the natural unfolding of our ecosystem, and gone is the sense of fury at its objectification and mauling. Instead, what you hear is: “It’s my body: I can do what I want, with whoever I want, whenever I want, as much as I want. It’s my choice.”
As a believer in the Big Bang, and as a woman who sees a cosmic correlation between that first infinitesimal genesis and each subsequent human act of genesis, this utter lack of love and reason - this two-faced indifference that masquerades as righteous indignance - frustrates me deeply. It is an offense to men and women alike and divests them of their power and dignity, a power and dignity we duplicitously celebrate in our intellectual, business, and political spheres: basically everywhere but where it is meant to be the most readily apparent.
This widespread self-adulation within the sphere of intimacy further fails to take into consideration the enormous potential for self-expression (genuine self-expression being a far cry from self-adulation) within the sector of the mind and will: not only is my body a fertile landscape that ought to be embraced in its fullness, but so, too, are my mind and my will. I can deny myself and my impulses for the sake of loving another person more entirely, with his fertility, his potential for fatherhood. I do not have the "right" to ask any man to obfuscate his natural potency for fatherhood, and no man has the right to ask me to suspend my potency for motherhood. No couple has the "right" to interfere with the generative potential of their union. And if the possibility of that generative potential being realized isn't mindful or wise at a given time in an individual's or a couples' life, I have good news! As persons, we're capable of not having sex and not self-imploding due to abstaining.
I'm capable of choosing not to tear up clumps of wildflowers growing enticingly in some hidden place at Yellowstone: I know, intuitively, that they do not exist for my whim and pleasure, and their beauty ought to be revered, not consumed.
I'm capable of choosing not to flip off my fellowman when he cuts in front of me on the highway, and I can control my desire to "stick it to the man" by speeding off in front of him, full of righteous, crippling indignance (as much as I'd like to, lawdy-lawdy).
I am capable of resisting the utter attraction of that Almond Joy as it sits so close to my hand in the check-out: I could, physically and practically, take it and consume it without paying for it and be satisfied: but since I know that to do so would be wrong, and would cause disorder, I refrain. I understand that it does not belong to me, as much as I would enjoy it. All of this is innate to me, and most likely, to you.
This faculty of the will is something other mammals do not possess, and it’s something that sets us apart as persons. This ability to make informed decisions and to fully accept my body and reverence its creative potential is part of my feminine identity that I am empowered by and that I refuse to stifle.
I want to love other people, respect their decisions, and stand up for the little gal who doesn’t have a voice. I think every woman should experience the freedom of being able to celebrate her body in its entirety, and that no woman should feel pressured into staunching her most powerful faculty or be duped into thinking that doing so is the “more responsible”, or the “self-loving” thing to do. Every woman should experience being loved in her entirety, fertility included. Every woman should know the freedom and joy of exercising her will and mind and being the master of her emotions and desires.
Every woman should know the freedom of putting the good of another life before her own: the freedom of self-gift, which requires an entire self to give.
There are those who will bristle up at this and say how offensive it is for anyone to push an objective moral code on others - those who say that everyone has their own truth, and what they do with their bodies is their business. I wonder: do they not see that they, too, operate according to a moral code, just like everyone else? Do they not see that in advocating for a "freedom" that, at its heart, is no more than license to do whatever one feels they should do, they are showcasing their own bondage, their own tragic lack of freedom?
Like it or not, we all worship something. We're all adherents of some religion: for some, the primary god-head is pleasure and convenience.They do the very thing they most disdain: they proselytize, they judge, and they play the martyr for their cause. They are missionaries for their message, and they worship a sterilized, predictable Ego that knows nothing of the language of sacrifice but is fluent in the language of rights and euphemism.
I don't want euphemisms. Birth-control promises sterile orgasm that falls back on itself in the name of "progress" and "convenience" while robbing both people involved of true intimacy, which always involves responsibility, risk, and creativity.
I'm tired of hearing that access to birth control should be the battle-cry of women. Birth-control has nothing to do with either birth or control, two things I'm naturally good at. It implies that I can't handle the responsibility of my own fertility, or handle the challenge of loving the totality of another person.
I'm a big girl, with a big-girl will and a big-girl intellect. I can handle it. I can handle the challenge of responsible sexuality.
And I'm proud of that.
All photographs property of Joy Prouty (www.wildflowersphotos.com), except for the last two.
[VIR]TUOUS FRIEND, [VIR]TUOUS LOVER
19 May 2015
Maybe he’s quiet, maybe he’s loud. Introverted or extroverted, gentle or tough, tall or short, bookish or mountain-man. Maybe he’s thoughtful, maybe he’s brash. Right-brain or left-brain, sure of himself or carrying hurts, little bit lazy or a little bit uptight, knows Brahms backward and forward or listens to Justin Timberlake on long drives. Maybe he smokes. Maybe he runs many miles. Maybe he swears like a sailor or has impeccable manners, asks too many questions or asks hardly any questions, has lots of experience - good and bad, or has little experience - good or bad. Maybe he has a mind like a steel-trap or maybe he struggles to remember details. Musical or mathematical, pensive or enthusiastic, irreverent or composed, laughs at dry humor or delights in slapstick, comes from a divided home or has never known familial strife, fit in with the jocks or never fit in well anywhere. Maybe he’s full of anxious energy, ready for adventure, or happy to sit and do nothing. Maybe he’s great with computers and technology or maybe he’s the first one to stack the wood. Maybe he’s a fine listener or maybe he’s good at keeping a conversation afloat. Maybe he teases a little too much or maybe he takes himself and the world a bit too seriously. Maybe he lays his days out like clockwork or maybe his approach is a bit different every day. I look at the above attributes, strengths, quirks, and weaknesses and I shrug.
Those things are not essential. They’re windows through which I’ll come to know him and love him, and I have preferences: but they’re not what make the man.
The one thing I unwaveringly hope for is this: he’s trying to be a man of virtue - whether I’m in his life or not. Whether I’m ever in it or not; whether I’m there to see it or not.
Does he have curly hair, an incredible sense of humor, matchless wit and an enthusiasm for philosophy? Is he a messy eater? Does he agree with me that swiss cheese is disgusting, and that it would be worth the effort to tame a squirrel someday and maybe name it Snufkin? Does he sometimes state his opinions too forcefully?
Don’t know. Don't need to know right now. What I want to know is simply: is he trying to - striving to - be a man of virtue?
Does he know how to fish, has he been to Asia, does he write beautiful songs, is he impatient when untangling Christmas lights, is vulnerability difficult for him, is he hyper-sensitive, has he fallen with other women in his past, is he allergic to bananas, does he look handsome in a V-neck, did he stutter when he was a kid, is he intuitive, was he ever a pothead, can he do the scissor-kick, is he all good with his Dad, is he smarter than I, can he cook?
Don’t know, don’t need to know right now. I want to know: is he trying - striving - to be a man of virtue?
See, I want to be friends with this man. Friends remain after honeymoons become memories. Friends are not to be bothered by idealized images set upon pedestals: they prefer the real thing. They love the real thing - not only that, they like the real thing. Lawd knows I am no man's "dream woman" - I will never match up with a list of perfect traits: spend a little time with me and you'll discover that. I'm not an ethereal songbird who only ever floats around pondering the best way to imbue all of my interactions with the personalistic norm. I've got "fatal flaws to call my own", and I'm striving to meet God in those places of emptiness, caverns he wants to fill and make like unto himself. It is this continual invasion of God that makes me crave true friendship - companionship - 'being-with.' And I know that only in a virtuous man will I find a true friend, because only the virtuous man or woman can experience true friendship.
And so I simply want to know: is he striving to be a man of virtue? Everything else follows from that. I'm okay with being surprised: the whole "make a list describing your ideal guy, right down to which side of his head he parts his hair on" thing always seemed a little one-dimensional to me. Makes me think of my favorite scene from Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray's character, Phil, asks the girl he's interested in "what she wants": to which she readily replies with a list of highly desirable - but somewhat idealized - traits that she's clearly compiled over years of dream-casting: romantic, courageous, hilariously funny, good body, the humility of a saint (doesn't know how good-looking he is), kind, sensitive, gentle, not afraid to cry in front of her, likes animals, plays an instrument, changes diapers like a pro; and finally, he loves his mother. Phil listens to all of this patiently, and then asks simply, "This is a man we're talking about?"
What good are all of the most appealing traits if they're not based in a virtuous heart? Where's the beauty in a man's muscled, powerful body if his soul can't match its stride? Those long lists of traits are just the raw material of love. A person's quirks and features are a wonderful part of the whole - but they're not what make him good. What makes him good is his desire to conform his life to the inner-life of God: viz., his virtue. There is a harmony that exists amongst virtuous souls that encompasses, yet goes far deeper than, compatibility.
Is he a man of virtue? Because if he is - I will be in good hands. Tough hands, scarred hands, quiet hands, musical hands, etc. No matter. They’ll be good ones.
Lord, give that man the grace to keep trying. Who-ever he is, whatever his idiosyncrasies and gifts are: give him the grace to strive.
Try, man. Strive, friend.
I'm trying and striving, too.
from Latin virtutem (nominative virtus): "moral strength, valor, excellence, worth," from vir: "man"
TO MAGDALENE, AS YOU MARRY
27 April 2015
(This is the maid of honor speech I gave on July 5, 2014, the day these two kids got hitched. A day of indescribable joy. A number of folks asked for a copy of the speech after, but I've lost track of who; so I figured I would simply post it here.)
To the best of my abilities, I want to take a moment to tell you how much I love you.
I may not make it through this little letter. But even if I were to jumble everything up with tears and fail miserably at delivering this speech, I do know that you will accept the love I have for you, just as you always have, with warmth and gentleness.
Maggie, my sister, it goes without saying that you have been the most constant source of love and joy in my life. From the time we were tiny children with unruly, huge hair until now, when we're in our twenties with the same unruly, huge hair, you have been God's love incarnate in my life, in a myriad of ways. You are my best friend, my beloved fellow pilgrim, my Bert, and a constant reminder of what it means to be a woman who lives in God's will.
My happiest memories of our childhood are all built around you and the things we did together. We were forever exploring the woods, struggling to canoe upstream (a silent exercise in futility - maybe we were trying to channel Jack London?), commiserating over the dread that surrounded piano lessons, swimming in the river and catching creatures where-ever we found them and making "sanctuaries" for them, pretending to be down-and-out orphans who only had one another to rely on, climbing lilac trees, coming up with our own language, writing stories and poems together, delighting in fireflies and, of course, reading for countless hours side-by-side. We were never apart, and our hearts seemed to beat as one. I remember feeling safe next to you as we would fall asleep when we were children, and the cadence of our slumbering breaths was the same; and our cats would be wheezing quietly - asthmatically - over our heads.
I have always known that I could share the deepest parts of my heart with you. We are souls set in the same key, and you have proven to be the most trustworthy keeper of my greatest joys and sorrows throughout all of our lives. I have only ever experienced love and acceptance from you, and immense mercy and encouragement.
As I write this speech, I'm realizing that words could never convey to you the intense joy I have experienced in watching you unfold into the woman you are on this day. God has blessed us with being able to share a beautifully spiritual friendship with one another, and the intimacy of our sisterhood is a result of the shared love we have had for Christ from the time we were small. His Spirit has always been the warmth, peace, and inspiration between us. We have had countless conversations about God together - conversations about suffering and mercy, families and relationships, mystery and paradox, joy and sorrow, prayer and intimacy. In His love for you he has granted you gifts of wisdom, fortitude, femininity, composure, intelligence, obedience, mercy, and constancy - all of which shine forth from you in a stunningly natural way, right from the very depths of your soul.
I have learned so much from you, Maggie, and the way you love God. You love God in everyone around you - most especially in those souls who are broken, abandoned, homeless, or lost. You do not flinch in the face of suffering but rather you rise to meet it, to embrace it, to share in it. Your capacity to receive and embrace suffering is, of course, accompanied by your beautiful capacity for great joy and merriment. You dearly love to laugh, and your buoyant demeanor puts everyone around you at ease. You look at people in a way that makes them feel more real, more wanted, more necessary.
I remember when Timothy came into your life, and I can still see the certain light that came into your eyes when you would tell me things about him. I remember the day when you told me you were in love with him - you looked as though sunbeams were coming out of your face. I sensed then, and know now, that this love was very special, very strong, and very fecund (I know you hate that word, but it fit the bill here).
I liked Tim right away - he took me out for lunch when you two first started dating, and I think we freaked each other out a bit with our "existential resonance" (remember, Tim? We went to Scaffidis and swapped stories of the metaphysical quandaries that haunted our childhoods while we enjoyed the best pasta in Steubenville). I also remember feeling that here was a man who could take care of my sister, a man who could step up to the calling to be a good steward of her soul, a man who would cherish every nook and cranny of her with tenderness and charity.
Timothy's love has transformed you in many ways, Maggie. His love has made you more Maggie than ever. It has rendered you radiant, receptive, and wide-hearted, and it has lead both of you closer to the first Love of your hearts, that Love for whom you will always be restless on this side of heaven. I am deeply confident that your marriage will be a tangible witness to countless people about the covenant God drew all of us into when He wed himself to us through the sacrifice of the Cross. Already, you two have been an example of what a pure, ordered love looks like. You've chosen to save yourselves for one another, to say Yes to the sacrifice that true love demands, and to commit yourselves to a higher calling - to a love that gazes on the beloved with an eternal perspective. You've been living, breathing, human examples of the fact that God's plan for the dignity of love between a man and a woman is not burdensome, imprisoning, or old hat. The vibrancy, freedom, holy excitement, and true serenity that exemplify your love go to show that God is never outdone in generosity, and that when we die to ourselves for the sake of another, and for the sake of his greater glory, he resurrects that love and gives it back to us one hundred fold, far more beautiful than we ever could have imagined.
To quote Merikakis: "We learn of God's liberality with us when, after we have shown that we seek to serve only Him, he then overwhelms us with the very things we thought we had renounced forever, only raised to an infinitely higher potency of truth, perdurance, and delight."
The best is yet to come for the two of you. I love you, Maggie. I love you, Tim. I wish you many years of creative love.
ALBUM REVIEW: "HOME" BY JOSH GARRELS
24 April 2015
Home is the ninth release to date by Oregon-based folk singer-songwriter Josh Garrels, and it is a soulful gestalt that delivers both thematically and sonically. The 11 tracks that make up the album explore themes of pilgrimage, community, forgiveness, sonship, mercy, and the end of ordinary reality and reunion with the Divine, once again revealing Garrels’ to be a lyricist who is eschatologically astute without being over-complex, and numinous without being exclusionary. Musically, this album unfolds with elements of the familiar atmospheric, neo-electronica, synth-acoustic style redolent of his previous albums; but it it is set apart by a consistent soul-vibe which Garrels (with a voice contoured by a warm, warbling bassiness I can only describe as “molten” and a superhuman falsetto that would have given the late Jeff Buckley a run for his money) lays hold of with characteristic aplomb and ingenuity. Organs, casiotones, wurlitzers, horn ensembles, and other sparkly sounds imbue the album with the warmth of vintage funk. The sound is fresh (and attractive to any casual listener), but hardly incongruent with the musical prowess of Mr. Garrels, who seems to epitomize the sentiment “ever ancient, ever new,” leaving fans old and new alike curious and impressed.
Listening to this album, I imagine that Josh Garrels is a man who says what he means, and means what he says: the lyrics are simple, and articulated beautifully. They express particular sentiments without beating around any esoteric bushes. One of my favorite songs on the album, Colors, is something like a spiced-up, stripped-down Canticle of Daniel (sans dolphins):“So let all the creatures sing/praises over everything/colors are meant to bring/glory to the light,” his sings, with a swell of breath and horns that pneumenously beseeches all of creation to give praise and to rejoice in the coming culmination of paradise. The motif of praise and homecoming figures strongly in Heaven’s Knife, Morning Light, Always Be, Home At Last, At the Table, and Benediction, as well. Another theme that evidently inspires Garrels is the encounter of God within the context of human relationships: sonship, friendship, and spousal love are recurring expressions of the immediacy of Divinity in creation. Garrels cherishes these encounters as being forerunners of what is to come, even as they wound him. In the aforementioned Heaven’s Knife, he sings, “I was cut so deep/by Heaven’s knife/When I awoke from my sleep/O my Lord, she’s beautiful/she’s a part of me/she’s my wife.” Similarly, in The Arrow we hear “The arrow was sent to intervene/it pierced my bones and shook my from my dream/Lord You know exactly what I need/Wounds from a friend/a severe mercy”. You get the feeling that Garrels’ is cut from similar prophetic cloth as that of the likes of St. John of the Cross, who wrote extensively on the burning love of God for the soul, a love which longs for consummation: “O living flame of love/that wounds my soul in its deepest center/O sweet cautery, O beloved wound/that tastes of eternal life” (from St. John’s poem “The Living Flame of Love”). Garrels’ desire to “get in” , to “come home”, is woven throughout all of these songs, whether expressed through the prism of melancholy remembrance of mankind’s fractured relationship with his Creator, the struggle with sin, the transformative power of mercy, married love, or the quiet example of nature.
I read an interview wherein Garrels was described by his wife as being incapable of dishonesty in his music - he is as transparent as a stream. Each song expresses some self-actualizing experience or thought in this man’s life, who describes his own conversion as having been one marked by recalcitrance and heavy-duty interior realignment. While Garrels does wear his autobiographical heart on his sleeve in a number of the songs on this album, ultimately this collection is a work of thanksgiving and doxology, and it skirts away from the navel-gazing many meta-minded songwriters succumb to. Garrels’ eyes were evidently fixed upward when he wrote and produced these songs, and his hands-off (or, maybe more accurately, palms-open) approach to his own masterful, multifaceted artistry leaves the listener feeling receptive almost by accident. The fact that the album is sonically pumped full of soul and grooviness just furthers the upward movement of the themes contained within.
I recommend sitting down some Sunday morning with a mimosa, your breviary, a few good friends, and Josh Garrels’ latest. Leisure is meant to be a celebration of creation. Creation points us homeward, and home is where we want to be.
GOD DOESN'T LOVE 'VIRTUAL PEOPLE'
20 January 2015
His frank eyes caught mine again, after the absolution. “You’re not an angel,” he said, smiling with immeasurable gentleness. “Neither is anyone around you. You mustn’t expect that of yourself, or of them - it wouldn’t be fair. You’re looking for paradise on earth, but you aren't there yet.” He paused, gazing at me. I was utterly exposed, and almost couldn’t bear the steady transparency of his look; yet looking away proved to be impossible. He saw right through me. “Who you are is who God loves, and everything is grace,” he finally added. He smiled at me once again, and I smiled back at him. My heart was stinging and singing like it always does when someone speaks truth into my weaknesses. “Thank you, Father,” I said, and then ambled out the doors of the dim church and onto the sun-filled campus of the university I attended.
I don’t remember the priest’s name, nor do I even remember his face, aside from his unwavering eyes: it happened nearly four years ago. What I do remember is the way his merciful bluntness brought me “back down to earth”. He saw beyond my carefully confected exterior of untouchability and poise, and he put his finger right into that illusion and stirred it around. His words awoke me to the fact that God works with real people, in real circumstances, within the real context of our daily lives. I had always known God to be poetic; but that dear priest shook my head out of the clouds that day and reminded me that God is also the consummate realist.
The illusion of having everything under control - spiritually or otherwise - is a ruse every thinking and breathing man and woman on this side of heaven operates under, at some time or another. Simply put, this is because the Incarnation continues to scandalize us, just like it scandalized the people of Jesus' time. The idea of needing God, followed by the idea of God entering into the concrete details of our human experience, is, at the very least, a shock to the system. "If God is conceived as a personal Being, as a Someone rather than a Something, and as a Someone who can speak," wrote Josef Pieper, "then there is no safety from revelation." Revelation - much like I experienced in the confessional that day years ago - is terrifying to us, because it implies a lack of control, a surrender, a nakedness: and it requires accepting ourselves as we are, no more and no less. Most important of all, it demands an open-ness to the unconditional love of God.
The Incarnation - that perfect Revelation of the inner life of the Logos - broke all of the tidy molds men had made of a distant God who they could study and define from a comfortable distance. The Person of Christ defies our laborious, mercenary piety and shows the world that God responds not to merit, but to need.
But accepting our need is hard to do. It’s easier to escape into the realm of how we’d prefer things to be - ourselves included - than it is to willingly embrace the reality of things as they actually are. The tremendous advances our society has made in the area of communication have paradoxically served to exacerbate the age-old human tendency to “put on appearances”: that is, to disconnect from the seemingly unremarkable, unlovable reality of who we are in order to grapple fecklessly after some increasingly inchoate ideal that doesn't require too much risk on our part. Now we are freer than ever to display ourselves in the way we wish, to the people we wish, without any of the messy immediacy that comes along with genuine human interaction. There’s alot of displaying going on, but very little true revelation. True revelation requires vulnerability, and vulnerability requires humility; and humility means being grounded in the knowledge of who you are (and who you are not).
The current zeitgeist of facades and false connectedness has deeply affected our collective sense of spirituality and religion. Putting “spiritual spins” on our interactions with others (whilst carefully holding them at arm's length) makes us look good, which makes us feel good. Sending out face-melting group text quotations from St. Faustina on embracing the will of God might just fool people (yourself included) into thinking that you’re not the impatient, affirmation-hungry, God-hounded soul that you actually are: it’s easier to read an inspiring quote on patience and surrender than it is to bite your tongue and give thanks to God when your intelligence has been insulted or when your life-agenda suddenly starts unraveling. It’s more attractive to say you’ll pray for someone at the close of a conversation than it is to actually kneel down and do it when nobody’s watching or aware. It’s tidier and more romantic - and certainly safer - to write letters to your future spouse about your unwavering commitment to chastity (and then to post them online) than it is to actually love, and be loved by, a flesh-and-blood human being whose brain, drives, body and soul are much different than your own, and who presents another universe that is surely much more beautiful and painful than your previous hopes and dreams and lists could have imagined. It’s cooler to quip, “I’m an INFP who identifies with the Franciscan rubrics of prayer, with some Dominican flavor thrown in” (whatever the hell that means) than it is to constantly face and embrace the arduous task of becoming who God created you to be, with its continual dynamism and constant invitation to rise above mediocrity and self-satisfaction.
Even when it comes to sharing our sufferings with trusted friends - perhaps especially so - we find ourselves defaulting to ambiguous phrases like, "God's just really stretching me right now"; "I'm good"; "So blessed"; "The Lord is just showing me all sorts of stuff, you know?" rather than being frank and upfront about the fact that we're at odds with a loved one, or we're struggling majorly with forgiveness, or we're not making ends meet financially, or we're wrestling with mental anguish or physical pain.
We want control, precision, and cute packaging, to boot. God-forbid that anyone should know that we actually need Him; and God-forbid that we should actually find Him in the embrace of a friend, or in the naked solitude of prayer. We like the idea of God, and the idea of love, and the idea of prayer: but the reality of these things demands a willingness to be revealed for who and what we are, and most of us find that thought a bit daunting. Even more alarming than the idea of self-revelation is the idea of God-revelation, because we know that God has revealed himself most fully to us in cruciform.
God addresses us as we actually are: not as we prefer to present ourselves. He speaks into our heart, not to our facade. And if we genuinely desire to live according to God's invitation, we need to be ready to be seen and embraced on that kind of level, as well as to embrace others in that same unflinchingly honest and realistic manner. Only when we unfurl our fingers from around our contrived personalities and spiritualities will God really get a hold of us, and we will become involved with Him "in spite of ourselves", right in the middle of our fierce struggle against accepting ourselves as we are, good and bad.
It is crucial that we accept our own weaknesses - that we accept the fact that we are not angels, but rather fragile, dusty frames beloved by an Immediate God who reveals Himself to us in the miraculous and the mundane. Acceptance of our weakness (and our lovableness!) opens us up to accept the action of God's grace in our lives.
We need to say Yes to who we are and to who God places in our lives. This is because, as Jacques Philippe says, "God is 'realistic.' His grace does not operate on our imaginings, ideals, or dreams. It works on reality, the specific, concrete elements of our lives. Even if the fabric of our everyday lives doesn't look very glorious to us, only there can we be touched by God's grace. The person God loves with the tenderness of a Father, the person he wants to touch and transform with his love, is not the person we'd have liked to be or ought to be. It's the person we are. God doesn't love 'ideal persons' or 'virtual beings'. He loves actual, real people. He is not interested in saintly figures in stained glass windows, but in us sinners. A great deal of time can be wasted in the spiritual life complaining that we are not like this or not like that, lamenting this defect or that limitation, imagining all the good we could do if, instead of being the way we are, we were less defective, more gifted with this or that quality or virtue, and so on. Here is a waste of time and energy that merely impedes the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts."
Be patient with yourself. Who you are is who God loves. The reality he entered into is the one you're in.
YOU HAVE UPSET MY IDEA OF YOU, GOD
28 December 2014
[Matthew 21:12-17] The cleansing of the temple. You come into my heart and see how I buy and sell the hearts of others, and squander my own. You come directly into my bondages and unremittingly tear them apart. Into the temple you come, shattering the illusory perfectionism, the sterile, stagnant mediocrity of my self-satisfaction; and you reveal yourself to be a God who is immediate, jealous, relentless, and merciful. You do not leave any corner of my heart unturned.
And as you stand in the surrender of my heart - as you wait in the echo of your severe tenderness - I sense you, and so too I sense that I am blind and lame.
For so long I have refused to be loved by you. For so long I have denied my need for you, denied my broken, blind, maimed thirst for you. I have cocooned myself in a temple of pride, where I can buy and sell with ease, and where only those things and those people I find to be palatable may enter, so that I can consume them and distract myself from the thirsty invalid that is my heart.
But you care nothing for conventionality. Beautiful, generous God - you have ruined me and have entered into these comatose rooms. By the light of your Face I see who I am - a child; and my mouth declares only who You are, because at last I am free from this whitewashed absorption. I sing as only a child can sing, tirelessly repeating the Word; the one Word that is all music and rhythm and lyric; the Word who is the beginning and the end, and the inspiration and substance of all love and reality.
But the pharisee within me is indignant... "Shut this singing child up, and send away this unsightly, ungainly cast-off. Tell them that You are not who they think You are. Tell them, for their own good, and then send them away." Yes, Lord, the pharisee within me cannot stand such balm and warmth and beauty, such a Divine act of ransacking, because it is outside of my control. You have upset my idea of you, God, and you mustn't take my sensitivities lightly ...
But still...As this pharisee looks out from her habitually condescending eyes, as she calculates within her mercenary heart, she knows that her need is far greater than that of the blind and crippled soul who now rejoices before You, radiant and renewed, singing the simplest hymn of love to ever pass through an infant's lips.
O God, my being is a living thirst for You. Somewhere beneath these tightly furled habits and judgments and phylacteries there exists a heart that so longs to be overturned by You. O God, I am that child singing praise to You in the temple; I am that blind and lame beggar who is healed by you; I am that pharisee who is scandalized and threatened by You and your battering ram ...
5 December 2014
Imagine that you're standing in a crowd, surrounded by strangers. For as far as the eye can see, there are countless people in every direction. All of these people are talking loudly - about what, you can't be certain, as nothing is readily intelligible within the din. Initially this is interesting to you - so much to look at and be curious over; so much "business" to stare at. But within time, as the noise level rises, you begin to feel unsettled. No one is seeking you out; no one is saying your name. You begin to feel anonymous, and you start to wonder who you even are: we make sense to ourselves according to how others relate to us, and no one is relating to you. You're afraid.
Now imagine that, in the midst of all the hubbub, you hear a familiar voice. You hear the voice of the person who has loved you the most all of your life, calling your name. Imagine the intense sense of relief and safety you’ll feel upon hearing that one familiar voice that stands out amidst the chaos and confusion. You know that that voice means you are not alone – there is someone who is looking for you, and who has found you. This singular voice silences all of the others, and gives meaning to your own identity. This voice heals you. It is the answer to the questions of your existence and your direction.
What's the most natural, visceral response on your part? You turn toward that voice. You turn your body as your eyes scan the mass of people all around you, seeking that beloved person whose voice is a home-coming. You allow yourself to hope: it's almost as though you can feel the heaviness of despair fall from you. You turn yourself until you see the person who is calling to you; you find his eyes. And then? Do you simply stand there and wave to him, over the sea of thousands of strangers? No. You run to him. That is the only sensible thing to do.
This is what John the Baptist meant in the Gospels when he spoke of "repentence": the original Greek word being metanoia. He was literally imploring the people to turn toward the face and voice of Christ. His words then to the ancient people of Israel are just as relevant to us now, in our present day and age, and in our personal lives.
I want to briefly look at the translation here. The Greek word, metanoeo, has not been translated very tidily into English. Sometime during the 2nd century, the original Greek word metanoeō/μετανοέω was translated into the Latin poentientiam agite, and from the Latin it was translated into the English "repentance." Along the way, the original meaning of the word was obscured, and went from meaning a very specific "change of heart and life" to implying an act of sorrow in which one examines and acknowledges one's sinfulness and failures and begs forgiveness. Granted, we need to examine our lives and recognize the areas we need to change, and the attachments we must unfurl our fingers from -- these movements are part of the reorientation of Metanoia; but in order to understand the full dynamism of Christ's first call to us, we need to look even further into the text, and recall the original meaning of the phrase. The original meaning is an all-encompassing, utterly hope-filled command to Arise, turn, and walk in the footsteps of Christ without looking back: to turn our minds away from those things and attitudes we have knighted as the goal of our lives, and to come back into the life of God.
I want to point out one of my favorite examples of this Metanoia occurring within Scripture. Matt 4:17-22.
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Let's consider what's happening here. It starts with Jesus beginning to preach – notice that his first commission to the world is that of the message of repentance, meaning, Metanoia. Jesus is echoing what John had already been saying earlier- check out the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. As we know, John's mission was to prepare the way of The Lord, saying, "Turn around! Look here! If you remain in your old attitudes, if you persist in that dead-end direction, you will miss the tremendous event that is occurring - turn around!" - and now Jesus, the "tremendous event," is actively present. John's preparatory words of expectation have been fulfilled.
Now, as we consider the encounter the first four Disciples have with Christ on the Sea of Galilee, let's go back for a moment to the image of being in a crowd of thousands of garrulous strangers, with thousands of voices crowding insensibly into your ears. Imagine again that one meaningful voice that calls out to you; a familiar voice that beckons you home. I imagine that the disciples experienced something like that in this scene on the sea of Galilee, when Jesus called to them from the shore. The amazing thing here, though, is that they'd never seen Him before, as far as we can tell. They just heard his voice and they knew it.
Here is a most marvelous image of being utterly magnetized. Irresistibly drawn. They dropped everything and went to Him. They went to the source of this voice, the source of this invitation. They physically oriented themselves toward Him, turning their muscled shoulders and raising their honest heads, and they spiritually oriented themselves towards Him as well. There was no pausing to dwell on their unworthiness, their self-concept, their routines or the opinions of those around them: they just went. They heard the Voice above the fray and turned towards it. That is Metanoia. It's hearing the invitation from God to let go of the things you've defined yourself by, turning towards Him, and going to Him.
Not all of us will experience the dramatic conversion as described in the passage we just read: most of us will have to choose to be converted again and again throughout life, and we will have experiences of metanoia until the day we die. And if we’re being entirely honest, we all know that "turning toward Christ and changing our attitudes" can be extremely difficult, often because we’re attached to the habits and the sins that we’ve come to identify ourselves with. The thing that keeps us from experiencing the full lavishness of God - the thing that hinders our natural range of motion - is our attachment to worldly things that we think we need.
I've said this before, but I want now to say it again: Metanoia means more than just the act of turning away from old sins and habits because we know they're bad. It means we change our attitudes and habits because of the presence of God before us. We're not responding to an idea or to a set of principles: we are responding to the living presence of God, as he is perfectly revealed through Christ. We are responding to a Person. It is the presence of Christ that demands a change. We cannot see Christ without experiencing a deep, deep call to unite ourselves to Him and to his Cross. To do this we have to choose, again and again, to turn away from our former attitudes and sins, and turn toward Christ.
What is the senseless hubbub in my life? What voices do I strain to comprehend, but inevitably find to be meaningless and dissatisfying?
And when I hear the Voice of the One who knows me out of the crowd, the one who seeks me in my seeking, do I turn my head and raise my eyes to find Him?
Am I relieved to be known, to be anything but anonymous, or am I resistant?
And when I see Him, He whose eyes never waver from me, do I go to Him?
Or do I let the crowd define me, hinder me, deafen me, and nullify my craving for infinity?
...Closing with a song that I think somehow weirdly (and perhaps unwittingly) captures the ache of the soul when faced with the unfathomable mercy of God, whilst simultaneously becoming more fully aware of just how much junk needs to be turned over to His severe and tender hands - how many idols need to be broken, how many ties need to be cut.
"I didn't know I was broken until I wanted to change. I want to get better."
JOEL THE ELEPHANT (A FABLE OF SORTS, BUT NOT REALLY: MY VERSION OF A CHILDREN'S STORY)
14 November 2014
Once upon a time, in a place similar to New Jersey, there lived a kindly elephant named Joel. Joel never wore shirts, but he always wore shorts – shorts that cinched tightly around his rotund waist in a way that was uncomfortable to look at. One day, Joel happened to be taking a stroll. His mind was on nothing in particular, and his heart was light. He swung his trunk about in his customary cheerful way, and nodded benignly to every person, leaf, toad, and bird that he passed.
It happened that a baby bird had caught sight of Joel, and had been intently watching him for some time. The bird was safely within the confines of its nest, some 15 feet above the ground, and felt that it could survey the elephant unabashedly from there. It was most fascinated by the shorts the elephant was wearing. “Too small. Shorts too small,” the baby bird muttered to itself in its stilted bird-language.
Of course, Joel realized he was being watched, and he swiveled his eyes about nervously. Initially he couldn't pinpoint the location of his “stalker” (as he had begun naming the menacing feeling); but he suddenly noticed a hideous tuft of downy feathers poking up over the side of a branch above him, and upon seeing the tuft quiver, he knew he had found his antagonist.
“Show yourself, you wicked thing,” Joel said, politely. He was trying to be mean, but was failing miserably. The tuft became as still as stone. All quivering ceased, and the only audible sound was a watery intake of breath from the place of the nest.
“Come on, then,” said Joel, “Why stare at me in such a covert way? It's shameful and weird. Let me see your face.” His tone was now so kindly that the baby bird wanted nothing more than to poke its head over the nest. And so it did.
You and I both know that baby birds aren't much to look at. Well, even with that in mind, you and I would both have reacted much like Joel did upon seeing this particular baby bird, who was so terrifically hideous that Joel went blind for two whole seconds. “Sweet mayonnaise,” gasped Joel, and then immediately regretted it, since his mother disapproved of expletives.
“I...I bird,” said the baby bird. It smiled at Joel. This made Joel feel ill, because he thought at first that the bird was turning its beak inside out. Upon recognizing something akin to a smile within the distortion, however, he felt his shoulders relax and his heart expand. “Yes. Yes, you are a bird,” he replied, employing that infuriatingly condescending tone so many people use when talking to babies. The baby bird blinked in annoyance at him, and then continued. “I baby bird, and you large thing in shorts too small. Bad shorts, look dumb.” It then let its beak hang open, and this made it look both wise and stoned.
Joel took a moment to ponder this well-meaning insult. He realized that the baby bird was just trying to make sense of things, trying to figure out syntax and semantics, and probably trying to grasp the concept of object permanence. On top of that, it looked like something you'd find under rock. So rather than take offense to the prattling infant, Joel decided that the baby bird was someone he could find a friend in.
“You don't like my shorts?” he asked the baby bird, smiling. The baby bird shook its head solemnly, and then whispered, “Too tight. Too yellow. Where mama? Where worm? What is life?”
At this, Joel became fed up. He liked his shorts, and he'd never been good at talking with baby birds. “Farewell, bird,” he said, and continued along his merry way.
WHY I WRITE, WHY I SING.
21 August 2014
Hi, my name is Alanna-Marie, and I'm interested in building bridges.
“I thought you were a singer,” you're thinking – and then you raise an eyebrow as you glance at my miniscule arms. "Bridges?" You mumble, as you avert your eyes and smile wanly.
Ok, sure. I write songs. But the reason I write songs is because they are the way I build bridges – bridges from me to you, from you to your friend, from your friend to his father, from his father to his brother, from his brother to his wife, and so on.
Everybody builds bridges. These bridges stretch over wide chasms. They pass across streams of division, rivers of frustration, oceans of forgiveness, swells of intimacy, channels of prejudices, lakes of loneliness, ravines of shame, mountains of joy, seas of vows, and many other beautifully formidable things. They all start on one side and end on another. Depending on where you stand on the bridge, your perspective may change throughout time. But God knows that we all need bridges. God knows, better than we, that there is no love without “other-ness”; that unless we have the mediation of another's eyes, affirming us in our existence and sustaining us through our most trying times, we have: nothing. We have nothing but a ravine, an ocean, a mountain: and we cannot get across. We have nothing but ourselves and our building materials – and if we're not building bridges, we're building prisons.
People build bridges all the time, every day. When a man delights in conversation with a woman, because he knows she loves conversation for the sake of being heard and known, a bridge is built; and when he speaks to her with affection, that bridge is further solidified, and she in turn feels strong enough to build a bridge of tenderness towards him. When your mother packs you an enormous amount of food to take on your road trip, each item organized neatly and cheerfully, and she tears up as you go, even though she knows she'll see you in a few weeks, a bridge is built. When a professor teaches his or her students how to think and conveys truth to them, remaining available for both questions and corrections, a bridge is built. When we do not demonize or scoff at others when they express opinions unlike our own, but rather seek to understand them more fully and respectfully, a bridge is built. When two people make one another laugh to the point of tears, a bridge is built.
Some people write books, and words are the stones they use to build bridges. Others write songs. Still others create technology, or they explore the power of mathematics, or they make phone-calls from a cubicle to help people figure out how to set up Life Insurance. Some drive taxis, or sew dresses, or dig ditches, or tend to the sick and dying in hospitals. All of these are ways that people build bridges to one another.
When we say, “Please forgive me,” with a sincere heart, a bridge is built. When we say, “I love you,” a bridge is built. When we say, “I need help,” a bridge is built. And when we say, “Thank you,” a bridge is built. The words, “I do,” encompass all of these other words, and they are capable of building a most miraculous bridge – one that mysteriously stretches out above time, rooted as it is in the divine.
Vulnerability is the cornerstone of every good bridge: it takes vulnerability to extend oneself toward another, to set your eyes on “the other side” and start building. It takes vulnerability to put forth the materials you've been given in the service of other people: people who will walk upon it, run upon it, lean against it, perhaps even scribble upon it. People do funny things on bridges – sometimes it takes them awhile to wander across, and on the way they might forget what they were doing in the first place and get distracted by examining the materials you've used to build it. Vulnerability can be quite painful, you see: but if your bridge is sincere, it will hold firm, even under the rigorous scrutiny of some of the people who will come across it. Oftentimes people scrutinize others when they're afraid: vulnerability is threatening to them, because in their hearts they know that love is waiting for them on the other side. They don't think they're worthy of the prize that awaits beyond the surging waters, and so they pretend that the best thing to do is to remark on the shoddiness of the bridge. That buys them some more time while they think about whether or not they want to proceed across the bridge. The truth is, some people will never make it across certain bridges. Crossing a bridge takes courage, because it involves love. It's easier to build prisons, which don't involve other people, and therefore “apparently” do not involve risk – and some people will choose to do that, instead.
Sometimes we all choose the more cowardly thing and we give up on bridges. It's easier, after all, and it's “safer,” to just “look out for one's self.” But the fact is that unless we raise our gifts to a higher level that involves self-donation, they tear us down to a lower one, and we end up lonely. We end up surrounded by everything “just the way we want it” – in a nice, neat, tiny cell with mirrors for walls. Ain't nobody goin' mess with your agenda – it's flawless. All of the things you love about yourself: at your service, and no one else's. Sounds dismal, doesn't it?
You and I both build bridges. We build them together. As I build my bridge from this side, you reciprocate and come to meet me from your side. Stone upon stone, brick upon brick, vulnerability upon vulnerability. We gain ground as we lose ourselves at the service of one another. I have to relinquish my stones – gifts, forgiveness, time, gratitude, tenderness, perseverance – if I wish to make it over to you; and you in turn do the same. When you receive me, you love me. When I receive you, I love you.
My bridges are built out of songs – not all of them, but many of them. I write because I long to love and be loved, to know and be known. I am not interested in “getting to the top,” or signing a major record label deal. If those things happen, they'll have to happen naturally, because I have no interest in hustling people or selling a “brand” (there's no such thing as “insincere” art. Art springs from the person: not from an image of one). I cringe whenever I sense a possibility that people put me on a pedestal because I'm a “singer”, a title which often seems to be shrouded in unnecessary mystique. Sure, it's good to rejoice and know that I'm “special”: but so are you, so is everyone. If not for the people who built bridges to me, bridges they let me help build and walk across, I wouldn't have any reason to write, nor would I have the inspiration to do so. I love because I've been loved. I give because everything good that I possess has been given to me. I've learned how to build bridges to other people thanks to other people, and for that the only words I can say are, “Thank you.” Thanks be to God, the Author behind every creative movement.
If not for the bridges that have been thrown to me, I would know nothing of love. It takes tremendous courage to receive someone in their vulnerability – and that's just what so many people have done for me, in listening to my songs and loving me in response.
So, that's why I write, and that's why I sing. I write and sing because I'm interested in building bridges.
INSTANT SMILE FACTORS (GOD'S SIGNATURE)
1 February 2014
The sound that rings across the field when the ball meets the baseball bat. The redness of beets. The sight of my mother cutting my father's hair. Latte foam. Bare feet. The way your name sounds when someone who loves you is the one saying it. Incense burning on the windowsill. The awkward way affection makes people stare and blush. Climbing higher than you've ever gone in a tree you've always hoped to conquer. Being remembered. Songs that come on just when you need to hear them. Bringing someone a cup of coffee—and having them be utterly delighted by that tiny gesture of love. Pugs. Children running up to the edge of the sea and shrieking. Random conversations in the supermarket. Getting an email you've been waiting for. Making faces across the dinnertable. Realizing that someone else finds the same things to be beautiful. Musicians in Central Park. The nervous laughter brought on by the sounds of a ketchup bottle. The steady beat of the kitchen sink's drip. Driving fast with all of the windows rolled down on a summer evening. Good-natured teasing. Rope swings. Purposely capsizing the canoe. Jumping into a lake without premeditation. Singing at the top of your lungs when you're the only one home. Gratitude. Wading in a stream in the winter. Buttercups in a field. Warm sun through windowpanes. People carrying flowers. Jars of homemade jam. The endearing way noses are shaped. Hearing a beloved song again for the first time in years. A hug that's not too short. The sound of the coffeepot percolating. Mud on jeans. Flour on the kitchen floor and warmth from the oven. Doors that are too heavy to open on your own. The way the grass is cool and damp in the shade. Old postcards. John Wayne. The smell of pipesmoke. The curve of eyelashes.
AN OPEN LETTER TO ALL MEN
15 January 2014
Dear Men, With love and respect I say, out of the depths of the collective heart of womankind -
I do not want to be obsessed over: I long to be loved.
I do not want to be put on a pedestal: I long to be seen in my brokenness and humanity.
I do not want to be treated as an opportunity: I long to be cherished as a responsibility.
I do not want to be possessed: I long to be held.
I do not want to be figured out or "mended": I long to be accepted.
I do not want to be told all the things a man thinks I want to hear, nor to be given my way in everything: I long to be creatively challenged, again and again, and to be tirelessly encouraged to become less selfish and less inward.
I do not want to be a monthly muse: I long to be a lifelong companion.
I do not need premature kisses, embraces, lingering looks or passionate words: I long for commitment, fidelity, temperance and honesty; for the slow-in-coming, life-giving warmth of your tender touch.
I do not want to be flirted with as though I am forgettable: I long to be delighted in, like a child delights in the mysterious unpredictability of the ocean.
I do not want to be belittled or torn down: I long to be teased and prodded in tenderness and mirth.
I do not want to be pressured to compromise: I long for the mere presence of a man to inspire me to joyfully recommit myself to my deepest and purest convictions.
I do not want to be one among many: I long to be the only one.
I do not want to be a crutch or a “get-away”: I long to be a sure support and a refuge for my man.
I do not need to be told again that I am the pinnacle of creation, as beautiful as that truth is: I long to be reminded that God was born in poverty, and that He makes all things new.
I do not want for you to be alone: I long to be beside you, to help you.
I do not want you to feel that you must be mighty all the time: I long to hold you as you weep (for I know that you weep).
I do not want you to grovel, or grasp, or ravage: I long for you to be virtuous, that you may respect yourself, and that you may live life fully.
I do not want to slake your thirst or satisfy your desires: I long to be like the sturdy banks of a river that keeps your raging torrents flowing ever onward unto Heaven.