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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.


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).

Deconstructing “Montana” (Or, Miley Cyrus Naked on a Wrecking Ball)

When my students first told me about Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” (which together with her twerking has made her an Enemy of the State with concerned parents everywhere), I dismissed it as a fad. I saw a clip of the video, could tell why adults were upset and teens aroused, and left it at that. After of weeks of trending, however, it seems that Miley’s nude demolition has not itself been demolished. Parents are still distraught. My students are still distracted. Even Hollywood and the recording industry are discussing it (and, surprisingly, often on the side of the distraught).

I finally watched the whole thing this morning. It is disturbing, but I do not think that it’s visuals are primarily to blame. Yes, there is Hannah Montana, stripped of all her Disney accessorizing, twerking in slow-mo on wrecking ball. Having never heard the song, though, I tried to pay as much attention as possible to the lyrics. Believe it or not, I found the message of the music most distressing. The story she sings is one I have heard many times over during my decade-plus in youth ministry: girl meets boy, thinks she can ‘save’ him, throws her self at him like a wrecking ball…and ends up broken herself. Thus, the image of a naked 20something hanging on to half-a-ton of forged steel. There are many who would say that the image is pornagraphic, but within the context of the song it is something far worse: it is suicidal.

So, here and now, I would plead with anyone reading this to stop criticizing Miley for her risque behavior. She is not so much Madonna as she is Lindsey Lohan. It is not self degradation, but self destruction, that lies at the heart of all this. From a cultural standpoint, I can understand why parents are upset at the nudity, but from an artistic standpoint, they should be more concerned about the wrecking ball. After all, when a naked person of any age, sex or background rides a wrecking ball, the concern should not be for their modesty but for their safety. And Miley’s music is much closer to the edge than her video.

With that in mind, I would like to offer a short philosophical perspective on what this is really about. Miley grew up with Hannah Montana. Hannah told Miley (along with all the pre-teens that watched the show) that love is as simple as throwing your attractive-teenage self into life. If you can dream it, you can do it. If you meet some boy who has walls, give it all you got and you’ll watch those walls fall like Jericho. Only, Billy-Ray’s casual Bible references totally missed the mark. It wasn’t the Israelite’s good intentions and sweet-sounding music that felled the walls: it was their faith in God. Without that faith, the walls won’t collapse: we will. Miley hurled herself naked on a wrecking ball of self-confidence, hoping to heal achy-breaky hearts. Instead, she got her own heart broken by a world of teen-gossip, tabloids and tediously-low ratings. Therefore, she sings sincerely about being broken by the wrecking ball. That is precisely what has happened in her own real life.

That is the story we see in the music video. When the critics are right it is always for the wrong reasons: they are right to say that it is hedonism, but its not the sexuality that makes it so. It is the hopeless, whiny tragedy of it that makes it hedonistic. They say that Miley has gone of the deep end, and they are right, but they are wrong when they associate it strictly with the fact that she has taken off her cloths. Miley is merely expressing a disillusionment with candy-coated-middleclass-materialistic sort of love. It is a disillusionment that her fans share: its just that Miley is their sacrificial victim.

(Perhaps that seems too strong an ending, but, upon second glance, I’ve kept it because it expresses my thesis: Miley is to be pitied, not prodded, just as her fan base is to be pitied.)

Passionate Repeat Viewing

I’m watching “The Passion of the Christ” 5 times through this week. Maybe six. It’s what comes of being a high school religion teacher and wanting each of your classes to be exposed to one of the most historically accurate depictions of the crucifixion and death of Our Lord.

I do believe that it is historically accurate but, even if it weren’t, it is psychologically and spiritually accurate. The way the torturers treat Jesus, the way Pilate tries to worm his way out of the act, the way the crowds persecute and the way that the Sanhedrin prosecutes: it is all real to human life. As for spiritual accuracy, the fact that the script only departs from Scripture when showing extra-Biblical events is a testament to its depth and sublimity.

In any event, I’m not writing to argue the accuracy of the movie. I am confident that most anyone who has stumbled upon these words will agree. What I do want to reflect on is, in general, the sheer power of remembering the Passion event. When I was young, before I put aside childish things, I used to reason thus; “Why go to the Stations of the Cross? Why read the Passion readings twice during Holy Week? Why pray the Sorrowful Mysteries so much during Lent? I get it: Jesus died for me. Looking at it again and again and again: isn’t that just a bit over-indulgent? Why not have one big Passion liturgy every year and then have done with it?” It wasn’t just the Catholic guilt that intimidated me: it was the Catholic logic. It wasn’t just the shame and disgrace: it was the theology. Over and over again being hit with the Crucifixion, I felt like there was nothing more to see or learn. I knew that I should accept the Crucifixion as true and salvific, or I was a bad person. Once convinced of its power and meaning, was there any real reason to keep witnessing it, meditating on it, praying over it, etc?

All this I thought while still a child. Then I became a man and learned about love. I learned that love is not a matter of being ‘satisfied’ or doing something ‘enough.’ (It is interesting that the Latin word satis occurs so often in “The Passion.” So frequent is its use that my students even asked me “Why do they keep saying satis and what does it really mean?”) I am slowly learning that love, Christian love, is a matter of never drawing a line. It is a matter of seeing things through regardless of personal consequences.  It is about giving to the other at not just great, but total, risk to the self. It cares not for what is “necessary” but about what is best for the beloved.

As I watch Jesus die again and again and again over this week, culminating in the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Friday, I feel that this is really what I need to remember. God’s Infinite generosity is what we see modeled in the Crucifixion. Given the status of the world and, more importantly, the status of my heart, I do not think I can look on this model often enough:

Men Preparing for the Priesthood Using Their Bodies Well

Warning: After you press play, you need to move the video cursor thingy forward for it to start playing. Bear with the freeness of the website.
A buddy of mine attends seminary at the North American College in Rome. Each year there is a soccer competition between all of the seminaries in Rome called the Clericus Cup. This year its final was covered by FoxSports.
Other than the awesomeness of being covered by a national news syndicate. These men and their formators were a great witness. Monsignor Claudio Paganni, President of the Clerius Cup, threw out the theology of body on a major news syndicate. “We are showing here how games and the body are values and not imitations … The human body should used to give glory to God not for acts of deviance.”
Such a great witness to the whole world and nobody was “copping a vicious headbutt when the ref’s not looking.”

Check out a song I wrote

You can find it here.

Reading Insights from Catholic Underground

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with Catholic Underground’s podcast. Two priests and two layman get to get together to talk about faith and technology. Trying a new format, Fr. Ryan Humpheries heads this show. He talks about the Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical Caritas in Veritate as well as a very popular book called The Death of a Pope by Pierce Paul Reid. Fr. Humphries gives a great explanation on Benedict’s idea of the continuity and unity of Catholic teaching. He also warns people of the problems of Pierce Paul Reid’s book. I personally have not heard all of the hooplah over this novel, but according to Fr. Humphries it’s been the book to talk about in Catholic circles. Nonetheless, it also deals with the continuity and unity of Catholic teaching or lack thereof. Check it out.

Friends Rocking the Blog-o-sphere

About a month and a half ago, I was sent an invitation on Facebook to be a fan of Histube. I was evidently curious as to what this would be. My first thought was a cheesy Christian ripoff of youtube. (I love first thoughts. They get proved wrong so many times.) This is one of those cases. I found out a friend of mine and fellow seminarian, Joshua Johnson (a diocesan brother of Brent, the dude without a nickname that writes for this fantastic blog), had set this up in conjunction with Focus Television Studios. Focus most definitely has an older audience in mind with more of their television programing. Histube is their foray to the younger generation. It’s basic premise is the same as youtube (post video, comment about said video and other videos, etc). It thankfully lacks the useless and tactless comments found on many videos you find on youtube. Furthermore, they are very spiritually helpful. It also has a blog section called Through the Grapevine. Two fine ladies new to the blog-o-sphere have taken over this arm of the site. My younger sister Katie and fellow lover of John Paul II, Dorissa, write for the blog. Although they new to this medium of publication they are new in sharing their faith and minsitering through their written word. They are very much guided by the Holy Spirit. Although at the moment, one cannot follow them via RSS feed. Checking the blog every once in a while will never leave you disappointed.

Upon further research of said site there is a place to gather a feed (the bottom left hand side of the homepage). Sorry for the misinformation