2048

I’ve been addicted to this game for the past three weeks. It’s the perfect addiction: deceptively easy to play (most of the game can be played with 2 keys, sometimes a third, and the first half can even be mostly keysmash) and seemingly impossible to win. You learn your strategy and try to perfect it and just launch it over and over, because each failure was only one number tile away from a win, and it’ll have to happen next time…

Actually, I’ve been addicted to my own game for a long time, the game where I try to get my life to fit together in the way I want so that I can merge those pairs and bask in the endorphine rush of a new glowing tile. I want the sense that things are going somewhere, that I am taking the right steps, that I can win. Losing is the fear at my elbow, waiting to take over when I can’t force the gratifying situation in the moment that I want it.

What I’m saying is, I might have control issues. Whether it’s fear or pride, or just the hope that I could escape the pressure of preparing for what’s next and relax enough to focus on the actual business of being alive, it has sent me into innumerable slumps over the past year. This must be the real end of childhood: no longer passively submitting to whatever is supposed to happen next, and no longer passively freaking out about the challenges of “real life” and then pushing the hard decisions forward a few years. I have matured into ACTIVELY freaking out.

So, back to this game. Because it’s struck me, over the past few weeks, that the only way to win the game is to stop obsessing over lining everything up neatly every time. You’ll have two fours that have to go in opposite directions, or two eights stranded in opposite corners with only twos and 16s checkerboarded in between, and that’s okay — because the larger pattern requires your largest tile in a corner, and you cannot let it get out of place. At first it seems like you’ll be hopelessly gridlocked and that you are blindly sacrificing the smaller tiles just to box your biggest tile in. What you eventually realize is that, to win, you have to trust that the game will keep offering up these smaller tiles, over and over, and out of this slightly unpredictable, chaotic generosity, there will always be another chance to merge your tiles, if you just focus on matching up what you see and keeping the biggest in the corner. You have to practice a kind of half-blindness and trust that the part you can’t see yet will work in your favor.

What is the reason for elaborating on this fairly obvious metaphor? Well, not to brag or anything, but I totally beat the game last night (and even kept going past the 2048 tile, SUCKAS). So I feel that my ponderous moralizing now has some street cred.

Trusting God and trusting others with my happiness is definitely a harder project (and, I suspect, may take longer than three weeks).

Dionysus

Here’s a song I wrote in part about a friend who died way too young. The recording process was interesting: I used forks, light bulbs, a matchbox, and a rosary for a section of the beat. It’s completely cryptic and kind of a pop-ballady thing. #dealwithit

a thing happened at Mass and I wrote a poem about it

At the Feast of the Annunciation
I heard him again:
the man with the voice
like unto a bellow in the furnace,
an unquiet, incorporeal reverberation
rising to the rafters.

At least a lag behind everyone else
his Amens resound into eternity,
a terrible trumpet blat
up from the rolling out belly of the earth,
a roar of horror, or an angel’s shout
shattering the vaults of dressed stone
we have considerately built to observe our worship.

The cantor is a professional;
she doesn’t miss a beat.
But others of us twitch toward the disrupt
after every antiphonal abuse
and I have thought to myself: I wonder
if he knows what he is doing, wonder
if he can hear himself at all
amidst the beauty of the choir, the obedient
lumbering from the pews,
the polyphonic pirouettes of Catholic artifice.

Before I’d only heard him, but today I saw
a man deaf, all numb to his noise, knuckled
hands gripping the pew in front.
A quiver in the angle of his head
made me imagine him an aged virtuoso
finding himself no longer the master of his
voice unrecognizable and uncontrolled,
Gabriel on a warped tape,
his tongue meeting his thoughts with nothing
hemming him, transparent as Mary’s mouth.

Hail, utterer of the word
I do not strain to hear you
but in heaven you cry in exquisite time
first, not last. Our songs there are delayed,
the rest of us, well habituated
to march in ancient notation,
but you groan the Spirit’s meter,
the voice of an old man or a ghost
dead as a monk to the world of sound,
in contemplation of the Virgin’s silence.

Speak, Lord, your servant is
a wind rending the mountains, a waxing fire,
a still small voice.
Speak.

On “Psalms and Silence”

In lieu of a couple longer posts I’ve been ruminating over, I’m collecting my thoughts on a little piece of microhistory relevant to some of my liturgical interests:

Psalms and Silence: The Soundtrack of John Williams’s Captivity (by Glenda Goodman; the Appendix.)

Williams was a Puritan minister captured by a war band of French and Indian Catholics in the early 1700s. The record of his captivity in the Babylon of French Catholic Canada provides a kind of cutaway view of the yawning liturgical gap separating early 18th century Christians.

Not even two hundred years before, French and English Christians lived in the same world — one bristling with various local and particular traditions, but centered around the same Mass, the same prayers, the same calendar, the same music, and, more than that, the same experience of sacramental and ritual worship embedded in the same religious imagination. By Williams’ time, European (and by extension, American) Christianity was such that, for a Puritan, witnessing the Mass was a profoundly disturbing and incomprehensible experience:

“The third day at Fort Francis Williams was no longer able to avoid the church; his Indian captor dragged him there by force, just as the priests had warned. Williams sat as close to the door as possible, fascinated and repulsed by what he witnessed. He had never heard a Catholic Mass before, and what he “saw [was] a great confusion, instead of Gospel Order.” The elaborate liturgy, the polyphonic music, and the overabundance of priestly noises paired with the ungodly passivity of the silent congregation, were indeed far from a Gospel Order that privileges congregational comprehension and participation. One priest delivered the “Mass in a Tongue Unknown to the Savages”—what use was such a performance, Williams wondered, if those who listened couldn’t understand the words? What’s more, another priest was “singing Prayers among the Indians at the same time”—cacophony and nonsense! Williams grimly noted the ceaseless chanting as “many others were at the same time saying over their Pater Nosters, and Ave Mary, by tale from their … Beads on a String.” Compared to the simplicity and clarity of Puritan worship, the Catholic Mass was incomprehensible idolatry, the music aimed at seducing rather than inspiring sincere conversion. Williams was appalled.”

Of course, Williams’ account was born from and feeds into the history of deliberate exotification of the Mass by the Protestant world. There is much written on the shift from sacramental to nonsacramental worship and the ideological battle it took to accomplish it; by 1704, the status of word and song as “Protestant sacrament” had been firmly established in Williams’ world and even his parents’ world (if they were also nonconformists).

What strikes me on reading this article is not just the gap that separated Williams from pre-Reformation Christianity, but the gap that separates Williams from us.

Formed in a word-and-song tradition, I began learning the ropes of contemporary sacramental Catholicism during my first year in college, only to attend a Tridentine Mass and experience kind of confusion and detachment not unlike Williams’. Changes in the Mass over the past centuries, and particularly in the mid 20 century — including material changes to the language, gestures, and architecture of ritual compounded by coincidental shifts in the basic ritual understanding of many worshippers — move our typical Catholic worship experience a step away from the medieval and the modern Catholic experience. And, in fact, the word-and-song tradition is by no means immune to change: a Puritan service in 1704 would be easily as foreign and uncomfortable for most contemporary evangelicals, due to a deliberate change in form and content intended to overcome many of the same characteristics of “Gospel Order” cherished by Williams.

That said, there is more than just a family resemblance to distinguish the Catholic from the Nonconforming Protestant understanding of worship. How that continuity exists and is felt and lived is a bigger question that I will have to work to keep answering.

Finally, a couple of miscellaneous thoughts:

- I loved learning that Puritan congregational singing in North America was pretty awful due to a decline in musical literacy and formal musical training. Fascinating! And not the familiar image of a robust, preternaturally competent Protestant choral tradition.

- I wanted to draw out Williams’ refusal to enter or pray in a Catholic church — Nonconformist tradition of course rejected the idea of sacred space and the spiritual import of a church building based on sacramental use and the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, but he still considers it not quite neutral ground and has to be physically forced inside, as if the idolatry of the devil has more power to contaminate a place than God has to sanctify it.

- The author writes as if the Indians literally asked the captives to “Sing us one of Zion’s songs” — while this is possible, I suppose, it seems much more likely that Williams is reinterpreting this request (his audience fully in the know) in order to quote Psalm 137.

The Devil Plays Stupid Tricks (or How I Learned To Stop Making Myths)

The syllable count in the lyrics have meaning.

The battle over our hearts
it carries on in a new frame

The gods of old fell apart
But resurrected with new names

All of the disenchanting
All of our deconstructing
Nothing is stopping the war

All of our internalizing
Every product we’ve been buying
Everything has been done before

It’s just a trick up the sleeve
Because the magic still dwells here

We don’t know what to believe
As it builds up under pressure

Still the demons haunt me
Through my technology
They posses me through screens

We made a myth for our age
And so surprised that we bought it

We shed the heavens and earth
Now horrified that we’re caught in

Chasms that swallow us whole
No one has any has any control
Everyone is losing their grip

Building only to tear it down
Losing all of our solid ground
We don’t know how to handle it

Watch for the hero to come
Listen for the battle drums
He is bringing us back home

No Good Reason

Another song. This one I made two years back. Lyrics and discussion below:

I’ve never seen the sunlight

So why should I believe

that these clouds will ever leave

why should I believe

that things will change

why should I believe

that things will ever change

If all I get is a moment

That’s enough to make me free

I’m fighting off the demons

that say what was is what will be

There’s no good reason to trust you

And there’s no good reason to hope

There’s no good reason to love

There’s no good reason

No good reason

I wrote this song sitting in my bedroom on a cloudy day, musing on miracles. “I’ve never seen a miracle” was the first thought that crossed my mind, “and why should believe that I will ever see one?” I started associating my anger and frustration in not being able to see a neat, tidy demonstration of the Divine to the feeling of despair, specifically a despair of faith. “If all I saw was one tiny glimpse” I thought, “I’d be satisfied” (which, of course, probably isn’t true.)

Crossing over from the realm of miracles to faith, the song ends up really being about hoping against all hope. “There’s no good reason to have faith, hope, or love” — especially in the face of things like pain and suffering. In darkness, it’s hard to see any form of reason as good. In fact, it’s  impossible to see anything at all.

But how do you hope for light if you’ve never seen it? Or why should you hope for it if you don’t even know what it is?

In other words, how can you desire it if you don’t believe in it? And how can you believe in it if you haven’t heard of it? And how can you hear about it without someone to tell you? And how can someone tell you unless they have seen it themselves?

How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.

Badly Bound

The Rich Young Ruler turned away unhappy

not because he served no god;

his devotion and his zeal were great

he had religion in his heart

and men are made

by their religion

but his religion

finally unmade him

for he made his maker

into his own image

 

We tell our friends over coffee,

with adamant eyes

and breathy seriousness

our work is our passion

we are changing worlds

shaping lives

good at what we do

and so, made to fit our toil like a glove,

we wear our gloves

on our right hands

in public

and at dinner parties

 

but we don’t wear them; they wear us.

down cast and heavy laden, our yoke is hard

our burden is wet wool

 

Where is freedom?

We don’t have it

religion either—

and think this makes us free.

but nakedness is just as bad,

no religion, bad for winter

wrong religion, bad for summer

shivering, sweating,

indifferent the sun stands judge

over self-made men

who make their maker

in their own image

 

Kyrie Eleison,

look at me

naked from the waste down

the rest of my body strangled

half miserable

full of pride

a Carnival attraction

for good catholics

to gaze upon and laugh.

crossing themselves they say a silent prayer

“Lord, keep me far from folly”

so I pray for them, a patron saint of fools,

“Religare!
We are bound!
and through our binding we had found
the Fundamental,
all our bearing
eating, drinking, clothes for wearing
syllables and definitions
symbols, carvings, prohibitions

Love and language hanging from eternal thread

Relaxare!
Feigned release!
We’ve escaped old walls of peace.
This continental
revolution
still revolving, cannot loosen
chords tied round our neck and hands
No one to meet our strange demands

We act as though the living were the dead

Combinare!
Come together!
Cursed in any type of weather
For sentimental,
we are pining
for woolen coats with linen lining
And wearing them upon our head
We shiver, burn, and lie in bed

We mix our wine and throw away our bread

Come, O Jesus, bind us right again”

Converting Yourself to Christianity

A few days ago I wrote on the Verbum blog about St. Francis de Sales and his teachings drawing me closer to Christ throughout 2013. While ongoing sanctification is a major underpinning to what I wrote and how I analyzed myself, I didn’t feel it necessary to explain or defend ongoing sanctification. The same is true for this blog post. Whether you’re Catholic and you adhere to the doctrine of ongoing sanctification or you’re a Protestant interested in a practical biblical theology for the practice of holiness, I want to offer my thoughts on today’s Gospel reading. Check it out before reading further—Mark 4:1-20—it’s a long passage, but this analysis assumes you’ve read it through.

In the middle of this passage, before Jesus offers an explanation for those whom the parable has mystified, Jesus has this to say:

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12 in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ ”

What?

This passage is a little mystifying. Jesus speaks in parables and concludes by saying that he does it on purpose to obfuscate the understanding of those outside of the Kingdom of God. But there’s a lot more here than just mystery and revelation. Jesus explains the parables to his twelve apostles, enlightening them of the meaning of the parable while leaving the crowds in the dark. Does God create intentional outcasts of his kingdom?

I don’t believe this is the case. Interestingly, the parable is self-referential. This is where the analysis of the passage gets weird—I’m getting the feeling of déja vù as I write this, and am tempted to drop an Inception joke. You see, not only is the understanding of the parable itself withheld from the masses of Jesus followers, but the parable itself is an explanation of why the followers don’t understand it in the first place.

Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all of the parables?

We often think of the parable of the sower as being a parable of conversion. Jesus explains that the seed that is sown is, essentially, the Gospel, or the Word. The various states of soil represent the circumstances surrounding the people who receive the Gospel message, and for whatever reason, be it thorns, rocks, or weeds, the Gospel message doesn’t last long in that person’s heart. It is a parable of conversion; but much more than that, it is a parable of understanding. You see, when Jesus asks the question, “How will you understand all of the parables?” the scope of this parable’s importance becomes paramount.

Now, suppose we make a parable out of this parable. (Have patience with me—I was an English major.) Imagine this parable is the full Gospel—it is the Word of God, the Good News, and the light to the nations. How can you fully understand it? Do you understand God, his methods, ways, purposes, and plans? This parable is a very apt microcosm for the entire Gospel of Mark, and even for the whole New Testament. Numerous commentators before me (Protestant and Catholic) are in agreement that understanding of God comes first from God—for how can we understand any aspect of him unless he allows us to? Therefore, and these same commentators agree, the understanding of this parable is given to us by God—just as we here see Jesus imparting understanding of the parable to his Twelve. But do the Twelve fully understand it? I suspect not. I suspect that our knowledge-based understanding of God and our practice-based holiness go hand-in-hand.

Remember what I said earlier about the parable being a parable of conversion? The seed is sown into different types of soil, where it either takes root or doesn’t. Now, apply this to the principle of ongoing sanctification. We are constantly re-converting ourselves to God—repenting, returning, and redirecting our actions, words, and thoughts to God. The seed—God’s Word, or, more appropriately here, the Gospel and God’s Truth—is being sown into us each day. If you’re Catholic, then this applies even more literally—we have daily readings from the Gospels every day of the year! Whether you’re aware of it or not, God’s truth—his love—is constantly bombarding your heart, looking to take root.

Now that you understand the parable, this brings the most pertinent question before us:

What type of soil are you giving to God’s word? This Great Sower is endlessly reaching out to you. Is your mind open to him? Are you willing to let his love take root? Are you even aware of the state of your soil?

I’ve been thinking lately about the state of the soil where God’s Gospel message is planted upon me, and it shames me to admit that this soil is pretty dry. Filled with entertainment, food, friends, internet, beer, general laziness, and the freedom to do whatever the hell I want, I’m not reacting with conversion or repentance when God’s Word is sown upon me. And trust me, it’s sown through my Christian friends, through the Catholic Church’s daily readings, through prayer, the Mass, and through theology books, but the evidence of a shallow root is quite clear. I’m not able to focus or give my attention for lengthy periods of time. I’m unable to adhere to any kind of discipline or routine. I’ve become weak, lazy, and selfish.

But I know the causes of poor soil. In my case, it’s not for lack of engagement with my Church, community, prayer, or Scripture reading. These things are various forms of the seed, and tossing more seed upon the soil isn’t going to improve the soil. Rather, I need to prepare my mind and body for the reception of God’s Word. My attention span and ability to study have been shot by quick and easy entertainment, fast food, and my ability to control many aspects of my life—who I spend time with, where I go, what I do. I need to prepare myself to convert back to him.

I need to get rid of the distractions. Eliminate the laziness. It is in circumstances like these that various Catholic and secular disciplines can really make the difference. I’m talking about routine exercise, avoidance of YouTube and Facebook, regular reading (and I mean real reading—books, poems, novels, essays, theology, anything longer than a blog post), and controlled diets (not a “diet” as in, eating less food, but controlling how much goes in to you, when it goes in, and what is the contents of your sustenance). What kind of music do you listen to? What kind of games do you play and how do they affect your attitude and heart? How do the people you spend time with affect the ways you think and process reality and affect your behavior and attempt at holiness?

It is for this reason why we Catholics fast from meat on Fridays. Why we sacrifice something significant from our lives during Lent. Why penance is not in any measure a form of atonement, but preventative care. Penance prepares us to receive Christ again in the future, when he calls us again, and we decide whether we’re converting back to him.

Are you prepared to convert to Christ’s call? God is sowing his Word to you even now.

What kind of soil have you prepared for him?

Don’t be far!

Here’s a song I started back in 2009 kind of experimenting with electronic and dissonant sounds. At the time, only one intelligible lyric I had written was

I love / cuz I have to love

I re-worked it to relate to my thoughts on fabricating ecstasy; the song is written from the vantage point of someone who is desperate for some kind of emotion, especially in the context of musical praise. Lyrics below.

Caught up into the skies

Friends to my left and to my right

We’re reaching up to catch ambrosia rain

Fall, come and drown us out

Our noise, let it shake and move the ground

Cuz if you don’t hear us, we’re going to burn

Don’t be far from me

Don’t abandon me

Make me feel alright

Or I could die tonight

Thought that I was alright

But you told me I need to stay up all night

If I was going to prove my love

I love, cuz I have to love

Embrace, cuz I’m forced into your arms

Don’t let me down, come down, and make me high