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Reflections on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

When I started seeing people, famous or otherwise, taking part in the ALS Challenge. I thought it was a new social media fad, and in a sense, it still is. I went from some people to all kinds of people with all different understandings of the disease. A few things I noticed about this particular fad. It made people feel good (in an emotional way, freezing cold water is never pleasant). They felt they were taking part in something large and beyond their minimal contribution. They got to participate in at least a lazy activism. What stuck out most was how many didn’t mention the detriment of ALS and the difficulties it causes families. It seemed the “feel good” was more important that the point of the challenge. Ultimately, I felt I was watching a national vainglory.

I knew, because the nature of my public life, I would eventually get challenged, thankfully it was by a parishioner.  I couldn’t not respond, if not for respect to New Orleans hero Steve Gleason, who has publicly struggled with the disease for the last few years. So I wanted to do something different and helpful. Certainly, many fellow Catholics have mentioned Fr. Michael Duffy’s post of the moral difficulties with the challenge.  I felt the needed to share that. It seemed to me that it would be most effective to enter into a small piece of solidarity with our brothers and sisters who suffer from this disease. It came to me to take away, even for a brief time, my ability to move, to be tied to a chair, which do to me never having older brothers, has never happened before. The gag was that I was going to donate but not do the childish Ice Bucket thing.

I saw the Ice Bucket pour as childish. Why would that be that way to create awareness for ALS? It is quite comical ice water buckets and humans because so many things can go wrong (and go wrong they do). The deeper I thought the only answer I could find was in the fact that the cold war freezes your nerves even for a few seconds giving the sensation, or lack thereof, that ALS patients experience, so dousing yourself with frigid water is a small act of solidarity. Being tied to my chair, I could not move after being poured on with primarily ice (the facilities manager would have it no other way). So I was stuck unable to move. And I’m not going to lie, I was afraid. I was afraid I would freeze to death in Southern Louisiana on mid-August morning. You can notice that I yell untie out of fear. Only if I moved and got my blood flowing would I be able to recover from that frozen bath.

Later this morning, as I took a warm shower that moment came back to me. That’s what ALS patients feel all the time. As much as they would want to get up and move, they can’t. I could get up, be untied, walk around, complain about the chill by talking and laughing my ridiculous laugh. Men and women like, Steve Gleason cannot. It left me very grateful for the gift that I have to still have full neural control of my muscles (except when I trip).

Lastly, I invite you, dear reader, to pray for those who are suffering with ALS. I can image how easy it would be to lose hope, especially in a society that values so highly productivity. They are in need of our prayers and need of the grace to unite the physical and emotional suffering to the cross. Pray also for their families who have to undergo a large lifestyle change to take care of their loved one.

 

Personal Correspondence (or My Story of Why I Write Letters)

I had a good friend as a young child. She and I would do everything together. We would play Ghostbusters and imagine catching ghosts in our respective house. We would play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and fight off Shredder and the foot with the most deft of karate moves untrained 5 year olds could muster. She was unequivocally my best friend, as 5 year old friendships went. Then her father was transferred to the mysterious place called Iowa. Even at our young age, we promised to keep in touch by writing each other (texting and social media were not an option). We probably wrote 3-4 letters to each other over the course of a year. Then, we stopped writing, for no relational reason; we didn’t have a letter fight, we just fell in with our lives without each other.

I really enjoyed the process of letter writing. Writing from the heart, sharing the most mundane but important things, signing your name, then sending it off. After that, the wait started. When will she respond? What will she say? What will be attached? Excitement would build until one day a letter addressed in children’s handwriting would arrive. Such an arrival was usually greeting with jumping in excitement.

Fast forward twenty years, not a personal letter had been sent by me to anyone. I began to into the world of fountain pens. I found a community of fellow pen geeks on Instagram. One of them asked if I would be open to a pen pal. At first I was wary, responding in the untrustful logic of an adult. Eventually, after some thought, I acquiesced, sending him my address. A letter arrived a week later and I was taken back twenty years to the joy of receiving a letter (I nearly jumped for joy). This time, though, the letter was from a stranger, a mere avatar and photostream. I enjoyed reading his ramblings and though and seeing the different pens and inks he used. So I responded. One pen pal turned into ten from all around the world, from Los Angeles to Australia, from Canada to South Africa.

I have found letter writing is a much more personal way to communicate than the way in which I met all of my pen pals, social media. It removes the coldness of typeface and adds the warmth of a unique handwriting, whether scribble scratch or Spencerian. We communicate person to person not avatar to avatar. The avatar has a greater tendency to allow the person to hide behind good moments and the beauty of human life. A scratched letter can’t hide behind Futura typeface or filtered photographs. One communicates person to person faults and joys, quirks and triumphs.

Writing letters also gives new insight into the lives of our ancestors who used writing as THE main means of communication across distance. Children would write letter home from school. Soldiers would write home from the battlefront. Friends would keep in touch through correspondence. The written word becomes more than just something to be read but becomes the revelation of someone’s humanity, that he or she is in need of community, established, fostered, and maintained, in reality. Technology reveals man’s reason. The written word can reveal the soul that is reasonable. With each loop of the “l” and cross of the “t,” more is revealed about a certain individual well beyond his/her likes, dislikes, job, and particular cultural niche. So contact an old friend or make a new one, solicit an address and get writing. Let the relationships begin.

Over the next few posts I will share some stories with you about thing that have happend to me due to my taking up regular correspondence.

Christianity in a Post Religious Culture

Many scholars speak of the “Post Christian” world and ask how “religion” and “faith” should fit into this world. I think that these designations reveal the prejudices of such scholars. As a Christian myself, I think it much less provincial, and much more vital, to ask “what place does Christianity have in a Post Religious culture?” For the last century-and-a-half, culture has chosen to ignore religion in general. It is not the first time in human history that the gods have been thus ignored. Nor do I think that it is attributable to any doctrine besides that of the Fall. The more humanity gains knowledge of evil, the more it is aware of its own nakedness in a sea of threats. So, as in Genesis 3, it becomes afraid and it hides from God.

This “hiding from God” is what most characterizes the present circumstances. It is not, as far as I can tell, that humanity is any more optimistic about its fate. If that were the case, the argument could be made (and some sociologists do maintain this argument), that humanity has “progressed” or “advanced” beyond its need for reliance on the uncertain spiritual myths of ages past. This bland answer fails to take into account the extreme angst of the two world wars, the nuclear age, the digital age and the socio-economic unrest of the last 100 years. It does not seem that humanity has any reason to be more optimistic than she was just prior to the beginning of the 1914. In fact, hindsight being 20/20, it is a wonder that she has any optimism left at all.

I do not think that we can blame this “flight from God,” this fugo Dei, on mere secularism. Mere secularism has always been around. There has always been an element of culture and society that has looked at God, religion and prayer as a waste of time. Quite often, it has been a large element. It has always been a rich and influential element. Many of the aristocrats of the late middle ages & early Enlightenment were just as “worldly” as the present day upper-lower-middle class first-worlder. The difference, I believe, lies not in what a secularist believes (or claims not to believe), but rather in how a secularist lives. It is the lived-contradiction of the old aristocrats that makes them different from the contemporary secularist. The old secularist still gave lip service to God, faith and the like, even if they were an utter Philistine behind closed doors. Contemporary secularists is of a much less duplicitous mind. They will proudly proclaim their agnosticism. They go out of their way to make it clear that they could are less about the existence of an Eternal Truth.

The new skeptics cannot forgot about God, but desperately desire to seem like the whole question of His existence is somehow “beneath” them. Here, I believe is the significant point of departure between the Old and New secularist and what makes the new secularist truly “post religious.” The new secularists are determined
to remain undetermined. If told they had to reveal their naked conscience, they would rather walk through the streets naked (and most explicitly choose this latter option…at least, they do here in New Orleans). Their logic: in order to “do business” in this society, they must be perceived as a tolerant, open-minded, quasi-educated 21st century person. Religious conviction of any sort gets in the way this goal. Therefore, they pretend not to care about truth, faith and the question of God’s existence. Their posture, or pose, allows the secularist to meet with the least social friction as possible. It is “cool” to be a slightly sympathetic agnostic skeptic. It gives you access to the most wealth and opportunity with the least resistance.

The funny thing about this state of affairs is that these new secularists do NOT disavow sin. They are just as keen on “social justice” as ever, even if they ignore Divine Mercy. They might act as if Heaven is empty, but they still seem quite frightened at the prospect of Hell. This is why it is best to refer to this period, not simply as “post Christian” but “post religious.” It lacks that most vital quality of any religion: hope. The secularists of this age know quite well that the world might be going to Hell in a hand basket. They can be just as scathing a social critic as any Christian preacher or Jewish prophet ever was, and have just as dire predictions about the fate of humanity. The difference between the secularist and the believer, however, is that the believer still looks to heaven on the horizon.

All this to say, there seems to me no need to be intimidated by the dreams of the contemporary secularist attitude. It is a ghastly depressing thing that says that humanity’s greatest hope revolves around comfort and convenience. They imagine we live in a paradise of spas and smartphones…and nothing more. It is their despair that should shock us and move us, not to fear, but to a strong and persistent pity. Therefore we must, as Pope Francis has said, be the field hospital. We must make hope our banner. Yes, these are depressing times, but not for the Christian or religious person. Rather, the post religious period is most depressing for the secularist. Their hope has been extinguished and they pray not for dawn. Its a good thing, then, that we are the light of the world…

The Canonization of St. John Paul II (or the Joy in my Heart)

Divine Mercy Sunday was a crazy day. I celebrated mass at my parish at 7:30 am, and, then hurried over to the high school where I am chaplain to celebrate mass for the Dad’s Club who park cars for the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. After the mass, I helped them park cars for an hour or so then made my  way over to the festival to enjoy good music and good food. The day was topped off with a n unforgettable performance by my guitar hero, Eric Clapton. All of this was expected when I woke up that morning.

However, during the Eucharistic Prayer, at the 7:30 am mass, the LORD gave me a gift I didn’t expect. “May he make of us an eternal offering to you, so that we may obtain an inheritance with your elect,” I prayed, “especially with the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, with blessed Joseph her spouse, with your blessed Apostles and glorious martyrs, with St. Rita, St. John XXIII, St. John Paul II …” At this point, I choked up and nearly started weeping. “and with all the Saints, on whose constant intercession in your presence we rely for unfailing help.” John Paul became a saint since the last time I said the Eucharistic Prayer!

This man came to my hometown. This man’s writing helped me fall in love with the truth. He helped me first contemplate the depths of priestly ministry (Pastores Dabo Vobis). He helped me understand the moral life with greater clarity (Veritatis Splendor). He gave me the gift of a fully fleshed (pun not intended) theological anthropology (Love and Responsibility and Man and Woman He Created Them). He gave me my first theological reflections on the family and the beauty of femininity (Familiaris Consortio and Mulieris Dignitatem). He helped me fall in love deeper with the Blessed Mother (Redemptoris Mater). He taught me why I need to go out in to the world to proclaim the Gospel and not follow my natural introverted tendency to be insular (Redemptoris Missio). He hepled me understand for the first time many of the documents of Vatican II. His intellectual rigor paved the way for me to receive so well the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI.

I consider him one of my intellectual mentors, and this man, who taught me so much, is now in heaven, inteceding for me as a brother priest, as a man who tries, even if I fail, to take part in the New Evangelization. He was and is one of the priest I looked up to in seminary, a priest I wished to emulate, both in pastoral activity and spiritual and theological reflection.

All these memories came to a flooding head at my praying the Eucharistic prayer that morning. Such joy filled my heart at him being in heaven, that my emotions couldn’t handle. This man whom I love, both as a father and a pope, is before the throne of the lamb adoring the Lord of Hosts and offering supplication for all of his flock, you and me included.

O WHAT JOY IT IS TO BE CONNECTED TO SO GREAT A CLOUD OF WITNESSES!

 

Wonderland Un-Eclipsed (Or, the Best Play I’ve Seen in Years)

“‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’”-GK Chesterton

Last night, I was privileged to enter into fairyland in the heart of New Orleans. Indeed, every New Orleanian knows innately that fairyland’s borders lie right around eachcorner. The scent of a nearby crawfish boil or the strains of jazz carried by the winds of our city keep us ever in proximity to that child-like land of milk and honey. Yet, last night, in the middle of City Park, the sheerness of the veil was illuminated and, like a scrim on stage, revealed the heart of the child that lies in each one of us.

The play was “Alice in Wonderland” and it was staged (if ‘staged’ is even the right word: a whole garden is used as the acting space) by the formidable artists at the nolaproject theatre troupe (http://www.nolaproject.com/). Complete with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the Queen’s Croquet, a disappearing-reappearing Cheshire Cat and the countless other characters, Wonderland was re-created in the NOMA Sculpture garden. It was a “choose your own adventure” style performance, where audience members pick their guide when they purchase their ticket. You could run with the Red Queen, prattle along with Alice or watch the Mad Hatter and Co. re-enact the whole story from the comfort of the Tea Party.

Now that you know the facts, you must be made aware of the more essential information: the nonsense. It is timed to coincide with the sunset, so the play begins in daylight, passes through twilight and ends in almost darkness. The statues in the NOMA garden, including a few token Rodins and Renoirs, are poked fun at and even made into characters. The young adult cast does more cartwheels, somersault, singing and fighting than occurs at your average kindergarten recess. Finally though, and most significantly, the lines of Lewis Carroll are delivered flawlessly in casual, if not flawless, British dialects. All these elements are sown together by the outdoor location, which provides punctuations of bird songs, wind, cloud and crunch as one steps across the grass to reach the different sets. So intoxicating and inviting is the experience that there moments of almost somatic surrender. I have never in my waking life questioned whether I was truly dreaming or just daydreaming until last night’s production. It was like the last chapter of the “Man Who Was Thursday” brought to life. (If you have not read GKC’s masterpiece, you need to drop what you’re reading and read it now).

Now that you have the nonsense, you should be made aware of the substance. This staging of Alice in Wonderland has, at it’s foundation, the same essential message (I won’t call it a “lesson” or “moral” for those words are just not silly enough!) that Chesterton makes at the end of “The Ethics of Elfland.” The message is, to quote the Mad Hatter, “that the world needs less facts and more mystery.” Children are often right, and adults are often dead wrong, when approaching the question “Why?” A child is comfortable waiting for the story to unfold, whereas the impatient adult wants the answer right away. Alice is happy to travel through Elfland for hours. Tedious and terrible adults can barely stand the place for a few minutes. Yet, humanity needs Wonderland, for a land without wonder is hardly worth fighting for, much less living in. God looked into the Abyss and said “Let there be light!,” there by conquering in one Word forever the darkness of a mere dark fact.

The veil of fact was held up to the light last night and what shone through was the Divine spark dwelling in actors and audience alike. We are all children playing in the Garden, even if most of the time we are acting like naughty children who have spoiled the Trees. The message at the end of the tale (for, again, it was neither a lesson nor a moral) is that learning to say sorry in the right way and learning to share your talents with God and others are the ends we must pursue. It is a message that every child of the Father must learn. Sometimes, nonsense is a better teacher of these truths than all the facts in the world. In a society increasingly organized by economy, bureaucracy and efficiency, I am tempted to change that “sometimes” to “most of the time.” Instead, I will leave you with this paraphrase of the play’s penultimate line; “I am sorry for being selfish. I am not sorry for being imperfect, but I will try, in both cases, to be better in the future.” Wonderland can and does bring us this message. Just remember that the border between here and Wonderland is paper thin…

Leading a Foodie Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

I don’t really talk about food much on the blog, although it is a regular part of my daily conversation. I love food. I love to eat, and I love to cook. Neither of which have found themselves in my writing. I do often blog about my faith (I am a priest), and it has been a faith-life-long dream to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and see where the mysteries of our Redemption took place.

A friend of mine, Jeff Young, of Catholic Foodie fame, approached me about being chaplain for a pilgrimage he was leading to the Holy Land, only it wasn’t the normal sort of pilgrimage. Instead of food merely being involved as culinary adventurism into foreign territory, it would be co-headliner to the pilgrimage sites themselves. He described a trip filled with the sites of Christ while learning the cooking and foods unique to the Middle East, from Middle Eastern, Israeli chefs. A Foodie Pilgrimage.

My calendar, being free of weddings, allowed me to sign on as chaplain of such a wonderful and extraordinary trip.

DOWNLOAD THE BROCHURE HERE

Photo is St. Peter Fish by Etan Tal

 

Something Strange is Happening ( or the Descent into Hell)

Last year I think Daniel posted this. It is one of my favorite readings in the whole year for the liturgy of the hours. Christ will soon come in glory.

From an ancient homily on Holy Saturday

The Lord descends into hell

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

The image at the top is the The Descent in Hell by the Master of the Osservansa

Of Incense & Instagram (Or, Comparing the Medieval’s Lent to Our Own)

The Middle Ages is too often made the whipping boy of contemporary skepticism. We post-moderns hear all the time about how superstitious, rigid, prudish and pious the medievals were, and I believe it is because we like ignoring how silly, inconsistent, picky and priggish we are. In any event, one of the many complaints often lodged against the medievals was that they were far too pietistic when it came to celebrating their religion: too many people passing out during the fasts, too much wine at the feasts, lengthy liturgies, overly-solemn silences, and (strange as the criticism may sound) far too much incense. It is tempting to take a look at March Madness with the same sort of skeptical snobbishness (too many charts! too many teams! too much time watching Doritos ads! etc.), but I think the more constructive comparison is to ask “Well, contemporary society, how do you propose we celebrate Holy Week? What sort of cultural institutions would you set up to celebrate (as you would put it) the rebirth of the year and Spring Resurrection?” I expect no direct reply to this query, since secular skepticism seems hardly interested in answering questions of any sort, but I find an answer by observing how people act. Most members of our culture still self-identify as “Christian.” Let us see what lived-answer our actions give.

Answer 1: Shopping (Instead of Almsgiving).
I know that the economy is only slowly getting back on its feet, but how is it that we always are able to find an excuse to buy that new trinket that we like, yet are unable to dig deep enough to help a suffering person? A sale price or coupon for a new spring outfit can get a twenty out of our wallet. Why can’t the face of the poor inspire us to do the same? The medievals might not have been effective community organizers or been able to benefit large social services, but at least they had a sense for seeing God in the eyes of the poor. We don’t even see the eyes of the poor, much less any other part of them. Our ads and commercials keep out attention fixed on the rich, as if paying them for goods and services can really lead to human development. Again, the medievals might have been overly dour or dramatic when emphasizing almsgiving, but they were much more logical than we are about spending.

 

He seems cool and all, but would going through fasting and exposure just to hear him speak!?

Answer 2: Entertainment (Instead of Fasting).Last night, Cosmos‘ very own Neil deGrasse Tyson gave a speech at Tulane University, down the street from my house. People lined up in a tornado-producing thunderstorm just to have a chance to stand out in the rain in the back of the over-flowing auditorium to hear him speak. They went through all sorts of bodily pains and mortifications to hear this prophet of the heavens spout the same facts that his audience had heard already for free on PBS. I have nothing against Dr. Tyson. Apparently he gave a talk four years ago in the same auditorium and drew a crowd of about a dozen. The only difference between now and then, as far as I can gather, is that he wasn’t a featured TV star back then.

I use this small example to illustrate a point: people are still willing to go through pain and self-deprivation. Fasting and detachment are never far from the human experience. The question is not “will we fast?” The question is “what do we fast in the name of?” The answer yesterday was “entertainment disguised as education.” Again, I have no qualms with Dr. Tyson. He is an interesting speaker. Yet, his presentation last night contained nothing ground breaking or innovative in the world of astrophysics. His audience could have found all the same answers by reading scholarly articles or, heck, picking up a high school cosmology text.
I use this one small case, witnessed with my own eyes 12 hours ago, to illustrate a point. The medievals fasted and endured pains with the goal of drawing closer to God (whether they actually did draw closer to him is another question). Post-moderns endure the same sufferings to draw closer to a human simply because they saw him on TV (whether they actually did draw closer to him is an easier question to answer: they did not).

 

Answer 3: Technology (Instead of Prayer)
Why do we not pray? Because we have a prayer simulator that we charge every night. Our computers and seemingly-smart phones have, for many of us, replaced real communication. We do not commune with others at the table because we are checking Instagram. We do not commune with God at the Lord’s Table because we wish we were checking Instagram. How easily we miss the Lord’s instant gift of self because we want to post something, download something or (digitally) chat with someone! How often we fail to even chat with those right in front of us because we are “chatting!” My goodness me, this situation is just too absurd!
I’m tired of hearing the argument “the ancients wasted their time in prayer” from a culture that wastes it’s time on Facebook.
But, to be honest, I am just tired of most everything these days. This last leg of the Lenten race always takes it toll. Thus, maybe this all has come across as nothing more than a disjointed rant. Even if it hasn’t, my words probably have not been “inspirational” or “inviting.” Well, there will be more than enough time for those two things after the next two days. As for now, I think it is good to make one last self-assessment before Lent is over. Yes, self-assessment, because, of course, everything I wrote above was as much directed at me as it was at anyone else.

Page CXVI Good Friday to Easter Review

I was introduced to Page CXVI by a Facebook post of this video (which you should watch right now).

 I was intrigued by their style so, as can happen often with Youtube, I followed the link chain of all their videos. Their music was refreshing, It was instrumentally simple and quite direct. It presented with the old revered hymns and yet offered them in a setting more akin to postmodern ears, wonderful, theologically rich lyrics with a sound that had influences of Coldplay and Death Cab for Cutie. They did this without all the baggage of trying to be a worship band writing worship songs. They took songs of worship and prayed with them.

I quickly bought their catalog, which was surprisingly quite extensive. I loved hearing fresh ways of familiar things, like looking at your house with a different pair of glasses. I followed them on social media and secretly wished they’d come to New Orleans ( a selfish though, I know). One day in the fall of last year, they announced an ambitious project I honestly wish I had thought of first. They would make three albums following the liturgical calendar: Advent to Christmas, Lent, and Triduum to Easter.

I thought the backstory necessary so that this review doesn’t come out of left field (I don’t review music very often, although I probably should). Today their final album in this series, Good Friday to Easter came out. They were kind enough to offer willing bloggers the chance for a review copy, of which I am one.

My initial impressions were a let down, compared to their previous work. I hoped more time would be spent with Good Friday. After only two of the eight tracks, the album begins its transition into Easter. I wasn’t ready for the Alleluia’s when they came. Furthermore, the first song on the album seems almost verbatim the recording of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” from their B-Sides EP. That choice seemed lazy. Then, I noticed “How Deep the Father’s Love of Us” was also a double from the previously mentioned EP. I can’t fault them for using material again, especially with such a wide cannon in such a short period (Good Friday is their 11th release since 2009), but I still felt let down.

Then, I listened to the Lent album in tandem with this one and my first response was proved harsh. A second and third listen to Good Friday to Easter proved not only more satisfactory but mysteriously delightful. I began to appreciate the artistic and compositional choices they made. So let’s dive in.

The album starts with the sparse arrangement of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” That sparsity gives the feeling of Christ surrounded not by friends but, rather, surrounded by a crown of thorns. It is tinged with sorrow and loneliness even while St. Bernard’s words ring poetry. The song finds its pinnacle in the added chorus, “You bled by our hands.” All of this suffering is caused by our own sins and is a reminder to us why He mounts the gibbet.

Then, we go back in time a night and start at Gethsemane in “Go to Dark Gethsemane.” This hymn is a lyrical guided meditation, accompanied by strings, of the Passion, going from Thursday night to 3pm Friday. It is the most hymn-like of all the pieces in the retention of the melody. The music swells and the added lyrics make a beautiful play on words, “He wept, we wept,” making reference to Jesus in front of the grave of Lazarus.

With “Three” we enter into the grave. This look is unique in its reflection. From the first, through etherial notes,  what we hear is mysterious and confusing. Three counter melodies are interposed representing the three days in the tomb. Each of these melodies are somewhat familiar but together they sound foreign. “Lay Your Body Down” is a an English folk song reflecting on the grave. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is an old spiritual reflecting on the transference of Elijah on the chariot of fire, which is itself a foreshadowing of the resurrection. The third though, may not be easily recognizable; it is part of the chorus Page CXVI wrote for the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy, wherein they praise the Lord for liberating us from the captivity of sin. These three melodies play together in a mix of sorrow and hope. I can see why for another reason, they chose to spend not as much time on Good Friday placing this song entitled three as the third track.

Then, we’re moved with hesitant, muted joy into “Roll Away the Stone.” It took me a while to figure out the source material for this one. A Google search came up empty, but I noticed toward the end of the song a reference to my favorite Easter hymn, O Sons and Daughters. It was only when looking at the lyrics did I realized it was an adaptation of that 500 year old hymn. Hearing it anew was both refreshing and jarring like the first cup of homemade lemonade for the summer, its both sweet and bitter. The added chorus gives  great hope, the promise has come to pass!

The energy rises in “Christ is Risen.” The joy is still somewhat muted as the mystery of the Resurrection begins to seep into the hearts of the believer. Oh what a mystery, bursting the bonds of death, people must be told! Swell the strain! I especially like the heavenly Gloria in the bridge with all of heaven and earth singing. I also like that there is bass guitar which is absent in most of the songs, which is sorrow for this bass guitarist’s heart.

Then comes the centerpiece of the album. They take the most notable of all Easter hymns, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and use the 21st Century “happy” instrument, the ukelele, to introduce the song. It almost gives the feeling of the risen Christ eating breakfast on the shore of the sea of Galilee with the apostles, and they sing this song. The joy builds with each verse. Then in a turn so drastic the song moves from beach to the temple with an Hebraic Hallelujah, sung in hope and longing, that one day we to will rise from our graves. What joy! Christ the Lord is Risen Today! Christ has opened Paradise!

Then joy moves to gratitude in “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” This is my favorite song on the album. I can’t listen to it and not cry (baby priest). Although this song has already appeared in their canon, the arrangement is more full and beautiful. Taking poetic license from 1 Peter “by his wounds we have been healed,” the chorus “your wounds have paved the way” just hits me. I well up in gratitude at “you’ve renewed this poor soul after all it has done.” The song builds on this theme of gratitude from Passion to Resurrection. The Church indeed rejoices at the new life in the Resurrected wounds of Christ.

On an apt note, the album ends with a revision of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Although the album doesn’t mention it as such, I hear this as the words of the angels upon Christ’s ascension into heaven, where He sits at the right hand of the Father to reign. I like the quiet melodic reference to Leonard Cohen’s song of the same title, which has become a sort of contemporary secular hymn. In making those references, the song wishes the kingdom of this world to enter into and be transformed by the kingdom of the Lord.

As I followed along the path with Page CXVI leading me from Gethsemane to the Resurrection I realize how important the lyrics are to the movement of the songs. The lyrics themselves are more integral to the album than the music. The music, like chant, serves the lyrics. If you are not familiar with some of those source hymns you can easily find lyrics through Google. And, although, my initial impression of this album was poor, the more I immersed myself in the mysteries it communicated the more I was moved by it. This is a great album with which to spend time in prayer.

Finally, with a deep look at each track, the more respect musically and ministerially, I had for this trio of musicians and their friends. It is a well thought out mystery play done in lyric, verse, and song all while, in creating a beauty uniquely theirs, pays tribute to the beauty of the past. I have spent much time with Page CXVI over the past two years, returning to their music more often than any other artist. This is by far their best and most cohesive record, and it has become over the past week one of my favorite albums (which is not a title I throw around lightly).

Why I Use a Fountain Pen

Many say we are in the full swing of the digital age. Smart phones are in pockets and purses. Tablets are in backpacks, briefcases, and handbags. Social media is a main means of communication. We type more than we use a pens. Pens are mainly used for short quick notes for those over the age of 35. Evernote and other note-taking apps have overcome the post-it note. Why, with all this great and useful technology, would I choose to use a pen and in particular a pen that requires cleaning and maintenance. I can get a free app or use a Bic (the pen that expects no responsibility, like a writing one-night stand).

Black Pilot Falcon

photo by gouletpens.com

It all started while I was in my final semester of graduate school, soon before I would be ordained a priest. Each year the seminary would send the first year theologians on a mission trip to Granada, Nicaragua. I was part of the leadership team that assured that everything flowed smoothly for the participants so they could enter into the experience of ministering to the poor in and around Granada. Towards the end of the trip each year, we had a celebratory meal at a local restaurant. The place that year was new to us veterans. It was situated on a bay of Lake Granada with one the mountains overlooking it. It was a perfect spot for a restaurant. All the seating was outside at this long table fitting all 36 of us. Sitting next to me was one of the participants who over the past two years I admired. He had left a successful career to follow God’s call for him to priesthood. During our conversation that night, we somehow got to talking about pens and the fact that he writes almost exclusively with fountain pens, which to me was new and exciting and mysterious and strange and wonderful and romantically out of date. He was gracious enough to let us try the pen he was currently carrying and if my memory serves me write (pun intended) it was a black Pilot Falcon with a soft-fine nib (shown above). He took out a pocket notebook, and I put pen to paper.

I had never seen a fountain pen before, except in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Brody uses the ink as a weapon onMarcus Brody an unsuspecting Nazi tank engineer. I certainly had never used one before. It seemed as foreign and exotic as the locale I was currently in, a place that I would visit but never stay. Pen to paper the feel was so smooth compared to the (yes) Bic I had in my pocket. The line was dark and seemed like it would would never fade, and this particular pen had a semi-flex to the nib so the line width changed depending on the amount of pressure I used. I resolved that afternoon in the shadow of a mountain with the breezes of a Central American lake in the middle of January, “I am going to buy a fountain pen.”

Noodler's Apache Sunset

picture by Azizah from gourmetpens.com

It is now two years later. What was one pen in late January in 2012 is now around seventy fountain pens, ballpoints, rollerballs, and brush pens. Over the course of those two years, I fell in love again with writing, the very act of it. There is a certain tactile pleasure of feeling the nib/tip hit the page that a touchscreen mitigates. The pages, for the most part, give resistance, which lets you know you are putting something down. Using a stylus or my fingers on a keyboard keep me at (pun intended again I guess) arms length from whatever I’m producing. With a pen, I feel fully immersed, me, my thoughts, and my thoughts communicated through colorful characters flowing from a pen.

It is isn’t just the feel that keeps me writing. It what’s going one in my brain. Each stroke, each word, each phrase needs to be much more intentional. There is no autocorrect or spell-check with pen and paper. Writing exercises my brain as well. Typing on a laptop for me doesn’t tax my brain (I had a job as a data entry clerk for a while). Typing may be more productive in word count per minute, but in that action of <click> <click> <clap> <click> my heart and my soul is not as lifted or moved.

Lamy Turquoise

Photo by Citirine of inkofmefondly.blogspot.com

With pens, and fountain pens in particular, I’m able to inject a bit of color in my normal everyday life. I’m able to take down a phone message in a blue reminiscent of the clear waters of the Florida beach (to the left) or a black that reminds me of looking up from my sleeping bag in a tent while camping, total darkness (below), or an ink with the varying shades of  a tree in autumn (above).

Finally, I carry around with me not just something that is functional, but something that is also beautiful. Many of my pens are works of beautiful engineering and design and can be considered works of art. By being in hand, they can lift me up from mere use to the one who is the Most Beautiful, the One from whom all beauty flows. Each pen, then is a reminder, that I am loved. That I was created to admire beauty. That I wasn’t created to be for mere use but to be enjoyed for my own sake. It is a reminder that all around me are revelations of the God I love and serve.

Noodler's Blacks

photo by Ed Jelley at edjelley.com