Mercy in Music

As part of our Adult Faith Formation programming in connection with the Year of Mercy, Our Lady or Lourdes’ Organist and Choirmaster Chris Ganza gave a talk this morning on Music of the Church: Mercy in Music.

After talking generally about types of church music and the issues involved in selecting music for liturgy, Chris used three pieces to illustrate the theme of mercy: Frederick Faber’s There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, Robert Vaughan Williams’ setting of George Herbert’s poem Love, and Ola Gjelo’s version of Ubi caritas et amor.  His talk addressed the both the theological and musical themes of each.

Perhaps because it is already a favorite of mine, I particularly enjoyed his discussion of the Herbert poem, which is such a beautiful expression of God’s forgiveness and mercy.  In the face of all of our protestations of our unworthiness, God keeps saying – join me, enjoy my feast.

I’ve posted Herbert’s poem here before, but it is worth posting again in this Year of Mercy.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

What Does it Mean to Be Heroic?

Yesterday was the final session of the undergraduate honors seminar I taught during St. Thomas’ “J-term”, Heroes and Heroism.  In our final class, the students presented on figures that included Oskar Schindler, TE Lawrence, Edward Snowden, Alan Turing and others, and engaged in lively discussion and questioning about whether some or all deserve the label “hero.”

This is the second time I have taught this course.  Part of my goal is to help students see heroism (in the words of Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo) as “something that seems in the range of possibilities for every person, perhaps inspiring more of us to answer that call.”  In furtherance of that goal, one of the assignments I added this year (a last minute inspiration as I was finalizing the syllabus) was a journaling one.  I asked the students to keep a daily journal during the four weeks of the course in which they were to jot down some thoughts based on a daily examen in which they ask themselves:

Where today did I have the opportunity today to display heroic virtues?

Did I take that opportunity?

If so, what did that feel like?

If I rejected the opportunity, why did I reject it?

I told the students I would not ask them to hand in their journals to me.  Rather, I asked them to submit a two-page reflection commenting on what the process was like for them; what changes, if any, you noticed in your behavior during the weeks; their assessment of the value of keeping such a journal; and anything else they wished to share.

I spent time yesterday afternoon reading the journals (and we talked about the process a little during the final minutes of class yesterday) and they exceeded my expectations.  I was deeply moved by the level of honesty and self-reflection in what I read.

Many of the students expressed that they were unsure at the outset what they thought of the assignment – at least one confessed to being daunted, another thought it would be silly, a few just groaned based on their prior experiences of journalling.  However, their views changed over time.  In one way or another, each of them found  value in keeping a journal that encouraged them to examine their behaviors and they all begin to observe things that would otherwise go unnoticed.

That last was what I found in almost all of the journals: that the process led to an increased awareness of opportunities to display some of the heroic virtues we discussed in class.   One student acknowledged, “It is hard to be a hero when you don’t see the needs of people around you. I think that was the biggest realization I had through this process of journaling. Being a hero is about seeing the needs and being able to serve the people around you. Through journaling, I have been able to look at the people around me and see what their needs are. …[S]mall actions aren’t technically “heroic,” but they are heroic to the people they are done to. Through journaling I have noticed that I can do “heroic” actions in my everyday life.”

Many of the students admitted that they could not imagine themselves in the situations of Oscar Romero or Malala Yousafzai or Sophie Scholl (three of the individuals we focused on during the course).  But many expressed in one way or the other the lesson I wanted them to see: that while we may reserve the term Hero (with a capital H) to the Romeros and Scholl’s of the world, heroism is not something reserved to a select group of people.  They all have the opportunities to display heroic virtues and engage in heroic acts.


Who Is Sent Out

I was struck this morning by the conjoining of the two readings for today’s Mass on this celebration of the conversion of St. Paul.  The first reading is one of the two accounts of the conversion contained in Act’s – this one, the first person recounting of the event by Paul.  The Gospel is Mark’s account of Jesus’ final appearance to his disciples.

Paul’s account ends with Ananias telling Paul, “you will be his witness before all to what you have seen and heard.”  And Jesus last words to his disciples are his instructions that they “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”

We are reminded over and over again that the “sending out” did not stop at the Apostles. Yesterday at the final session of the series on the Creed I’ve been offering at Our Lady of Lourdes, we discussed our belief in the “holy, catholic, apostolic Church.  As the apostles were sent out, so was Paul, and so are we.

The sending out of Paul – the former persecutor of Christians – reminds us that God does not only call the best, the head of the class.  Over and over again, God surprises us by the fact that he invites even those we would not think of as being on the invitation list.

Praying to the Holy Spirit

Jack Levison, author of Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life and 40 Days With the Holy Spirit (which I wrote about here and here) has just had another book published by Paraclete Press.  The book, Holy Spirit, I Pray, is a book of prayers to the Holy Spirit.

A slender, beautifully bound book, Holy Spirit, I Pray contains a series of prayers divided in categories – prayers for morning, prayers for nighttime, prayers for discernment, prayers for crisis and prayers for anytime.  Each prayer is accompanied by the Scripture text that inspired the creation of the prayer.

As I observed to parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes when I led a book study of one of Levison’s earlier books two years ago, it seems to me that the Holy Spirit often gets short shrift. We know that we get the gift of the spirit at Pentecost, some of us can even list the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but we don’t spend a lot of time focusing on that person of the Trinity.  Levison observes in his introduction to this book, citing St. Basil,  the Holy Spirit is often seen as a medium of prayer and worship rather than as an object of prayer and worship.  (Clearly there are exceptions, and there are some well-known prayers to the Holy Spirit.)

There are many beautiful prayers in this book.  I thought I’d here share one of those that immediately resonated with me.

Holy Spirit
Spirit of Jesus
Spirit of Truth:
Ignite in me a passion for the truth
Instill in me a craving for knowledge
Inspire in me a hunger for wisdom.
Not just any truth, random knowledge, indiscriminate wisdom
But the truth about Jesus
who barked at his mother
who cried like a baby
who wore the towel of a servant and washed feeg
who prayed the night away
who broiled fish on a spring morning.
Come to me as
the Spirit of Truth
the Spirit of Jesus
Holy Spirit.

You might consider this book as part of your Lenten prayer.

King’s Challenge (Reprise)

Four years ago today – the day on which we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. – I wrote the following post.  I reprint it here in its entirety because the words he uttered to American Christians in 1956 are not less necessary to hear today than they were then:

Today we commemorate one of the great leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. We remember him for his commitment to work for the end of racial segregation and other forms of racial discrimination through nonviolent means.

King was a powerful speaker and, on any number of occasions I have quoted from one speech of his or another. One that I think is particularly salient to us today is his 1956 imaginary letter from St. Paul to American Christians. Here is an excerpt of what King imagines St. Paul might have to say to us today:

…America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.

I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. That is what I had to do. That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. …

But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Phillipian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God. …

It is worth spending some time reflecting on whether the indictment in these words are true. If so, some examination and reformation of our behavior is in order. We all need to ask ourselves: what is my particular responsibility as a Christian in the environment in which I find myself? Are there places I am called to take a stand? And what graces do I need from God to be able to fulfill that responsibility?

What Has This to Do With Me?

I’ve prayed with today’s Gospel reading  – St. John’s account of the Wedding Feast at Cana – any number of times.  What struck me in my prayer this morning, however, was not the miracle.  Rather, it was Jesus’ response to his mother when she tells him their hosts had run out of wine.  “What has this to do with me?”

What immediately came to my mind was Scrooge in the Christmas Carol when solicitors come seeking a contribution for the poor.  “It’s not my business.  It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.”

And that, too often, is the response – consciously or unconsciously – to the pains and suffering of others.  The fact that some lack adequate housing, food or medical care.  The reality that many in other nations lack access to clean drinking water.  The plight of refugees.  What has this to do with me?

Mary’s response to Jesus, effectively, is: You’re here and you can do something about it, so do it.  That’s the response to Scrooge and that is the response to us.

As I sat with that thought, I heard John Donne’s lines: “Every man is a piece of the continent…Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind.”

Jesus Gets Baptized

Today the Catholic Church and many Protestant churches celebrates the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In the Gospel we hear St. Luke’s account of the event. Jesus goes down to the Jordan, where John the Baptist is baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus allows himself to be baptized by John, after which “the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'”

Why does Jesus allow himself to be baptized? He was sinless and thus had no need of the healing power of the ritual. Indeed, in Matthew’s account of the event (although not in the Luke account we hear today), John tries to argue with Jesus that it is John who should be coming to Jesus for baptism, not he other way around. But Jesus is insistent that John baptize him.

The answer has to do with the voice from heaven. In the words of one commentator, Jesus submitted himself to baptism “in order to invite us to share in his relationship with the Father announced from the heavens.”

St. Paul says that at our baptism, we are baptized into Christ. When we are baptized into Christ, we receive the same Spirit who descended upon Jesus from heaven. And just as God declared Jesus to be His beloved son, we are the beloved sons and daughters.

It is worth spending time praying with this Gospel passage. And not just hearing God speak to Jesus, but hearing God say to you: “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Pope Francis’ Prayer Intention for January

I can’t remember a time when I’ve gone this many days without blogging! But I’m teaching two “J-term” courses – January term courses, each of which meets for six hours a week for the four weeks of January – an undergraduate honors seminar called Heroes and Heroism at University of St. Thomas and a graduate Theology course in World Spiritualities at St. Catherine University. Suffice it to say that 12 hours of teaching and the related course preparation are taking a lot of my energy!

I’ve managed to pay enough attention to things outside of my two courses to watch Pope Francis’ first video message for the traditional papal prayer intention for the month, in which he calls on people of different faiths around the world to work together for peace and justice. The reaction to the video has been sharp and varied, with some expressing joy and admiration for the Pope’s words, and others questioning the Pope’s catholicity.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to interfaith dialogue is how to reconcile Christianity’s faith in Jesus Christ as the universal Savior with the positive meaning in God’s plan of salvation of the other religious traditions and their saving value for their adherents. To quote one commentator “How to make sense of the universal mission of Christianity for the whole world without having thereby to depreciate and undervalue the significance of other religious faiths for their adherents?”

It is not a small challenge.

Here is the video, which I plan to show to my World Spiritualities class this evening before we begin our discussion of Judaiam:

Overcome Indifference and Win Peace

Today we celebrate the World Day of Peace. The theme of Pope Francis’ message for this year’s World Day of Peace is Overcome Indifference and win Peace.

In his message (which you can read in its entirety here), Pope Francis wrote

There are many good reasons to believe in mankind’s capacity to act together in solidarity and, on the basis of our interconnection and interdependence, to demonstrate concern for the more vulnerable of our brothers and sisters and for the protection of the common good. This attitude of mutual responsibility is rooted in our fundamental vocation to fraternity and a life in common. Personal dignity and interpersonal relationships are what constitute us as human beings whom God willed to create in his own image and likeness. As creatures endowed with inalienable dignity, we are related to all our brothers and sisters, for whom we are responsible and with whom we act in solidarity. Lacking this relationship, we would be less human. We see, then, how indifference represents a menace to the human family. As we approach a new year, I would ask everyone to take stock of this reality, in order to overcome indifference and to win peace.

What will you do to help overcome indifference as we begin this new year?