Thursday, December 8, 2016

Van Gogh's Advent

By the summer of 1875, Paris was in an uproar. The art world was under siege by a rebellious band of young painters who challenged the academicism of Renaissance art. They splashed the canvas with bright colors and loose brushwork in an attempt to “paint light” and capture the “little fragments of the mirror of universal life.”[1] Their critics howled with outrage, calling these new works “absurdities,” even crimes, accusing young radicals like Claude Monet of conducting a veritable “war on beauty.”[2]

The young Vincent van Gogh was there that riotous summer. As an aspiring artist himself, one would think that his personal correspondence (he wrote over 800 letters, most to his brother Theo) would be filled with the daily spectacle of Renoir, Degas and other Impressionists painting passers-by on the street and the horrified art community writhing with hostility. Yet not a word. Vincent’s prodigious letter writing mentioned nothing of this cataclysmic clash at the center of the art world.

Why? In short, van Gogh had found God.

Captured by the ascetic spirituality of Thomas à Kempis, van Gogh simply eschewed the worldly trappings and glittering lights of his day. In a sense, Vincent turned dramatically inward. He followed the example of Christ as Kempis saw him, “Withdraw your heart from the love of things visible, and turn yourself to things invisible.”[3]

On this solemn Advent day in December, the Church likewise turns inward as we celebrate the Immaculate Conception. “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, and the virgin’s name was Mary. “Hail, full of grace!” he said, “the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:26-28). Though the turbulence of the world swirled around her and the murderous mania of Herod threatened her very life, nothing could disrupt the eternal truth. All the grace and righteousness of God was growing inside her. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus . . . and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end” (Lk 1:31, 33).

Van Gogh, though assailed throughout his life by mental illness and social alienation, kept the Advent hope alive that God was indeed making his presence known through him. He articulated it this way:

There may be a great fire in our soul,
yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it,
and the passers-by only see a wisp of smoke
coming through the chimney, and go along their way.

Look here, now, what must be done?
One must tend the inner fire, have salt in oneself,
Wait patiently yet with much impatience
For the hour when somebody will come
And sit down near it – maybe to stay?

Let him who believes in God
Wait for the hour that will come.

Though the world clamors with cymbals and gongs, though our eyes may not be honed enough to see it, God’s kingdom is growing among us. In Christ, God’s grace has been conceived in us and it is our task, in this blessed Advent season, to “tend that inner fire”. May we wait patiently, as the Blessed Virgin Mary did, for that hour to come when that seed of grace will be born in us. And maybe, just maybe, somebody will come, sit down near the fire of our love, and receive its warmth and light.

[1] Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life (NY: Random House, 1012), 102.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Thomas à Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ (Charlotte, NC: Commission Press).

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Spirits in the Material World

What is the common thread connecting contemporary geopolitics, mid-twentieth century paleontology, and the Second British Invasion? You may be surprised to discover at that eccentric intersection the Apostle Paul (who would, of course, point us to Jesus). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start from the beginning.  

I was recently on a long training run when Pandora served up one of those savory musical delights I was not expecting.[1]  The opening lyric not only transported me back to the early 80s but also perceptively summoned my sinking thoughts about American politics and our current culture at large:

There is no political solution,
to our troubled evolution

My heart was suddenly pounding with the offbeat syncopated rhythms of “Spirits in the Material World,” the 1981 classic by The Police. The song, written by lead singer Sting, is eerily prophetic (I encourage you to listen as you continue to read: The opening lyric reminded me of a bumper sticker I had seen the day before. With all the stars and stripes of a typical campaign slogan it simply read, “2016: We’re screwed.” I had to chuckle before I realized how much this captured my actual thoughts about this year’s political season. My heart sank but I told myself, “Keep running.”

We are spirits in the material world

My pace had picked up notably, owing to a strange combination of musical inspiration and sudden fear about the future. “We are spirits in the material world. What did they mean by that?” I thought to myself, trying not to let the thought interrupt my breathing.[2] It seemed like a particularly insightful thing to say, and in fact reminded me of the famous quote attributed to the astute paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Cardin:

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.
We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”[3]

It turns out that the song (some say the best Sting ever wrote) was heavily influenced by Hungarian philosopher Arthur Koestler.  Matter of fact, the entire album “Ghost in the Machine” derived its name from one of Koestler’s books by that same title. Koestler was wrestling with humanity’s tendency toward self-destruction, especially in the context of the late 1960s and the very real fear of nuclear annihilation. As he saw the world slipping into tragic patterns of alienation, dissipation, and violence, he wondered if our higher (one might say “spiritual”) capacities or “ghosts” were being systematically snuffed out by the “machine” of big business, big government, and global institutionalism.

Our so-called leaders speak
With words they try to jail you
They subjugate the meek
But it's the rhetoric of failure

I was going at a good clip by this time, sweat pouring from my brow. I was trying not to think too deeply but the song was ringing so true and the angst of it all propelled me forward. Like many in the postmodern era, I had long since abandoned any faith in politicians. I had become disillusioned in all of modernism’s rhetoric about progress and the technological promise of Eden. For all of our “advances” (some of which I am enjoying right now as I sit in this air conditioned room and type on my personal computer), the twentieth century was nonetheless the bloodiest of all time. My mind raced to this summer’s chilling visit to Auschwitz, not to mention two world wars, the Russian pogroms, and contemporary genocides in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. There were more Christians martyred in the last hundred years than all the previous centuries combined. Can we really call this “progress”?

Where does the answer lie?
Living from day to day
If it's something we can't buy
There must be another way

For all his philosophical ruminations, Koestler offered no definitive answers, and neither do The Police.  But I have to take issue with one seemingly small but consequential lyric from the song in question. In the very opening stanza, Sting suggests, “There is no bloody revolution.” Yet in today’s readings the Apostle Paul sheds a deeper and more primordial light on the matter:

We have not received the spirit of the world
But the Spirit who is from God. . .
We speak not with words taught by human wisdom,
But with words taught by the Spirit. . .

Now the natural man does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God,
for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it. . .
But we have the mind of Christ.[4]

It doesn’t take modern philosophy to understand what Paul is saying. The wisdom of God has always been and will always be a stumbling block for the proud, for those who place trust in themselves and the promise of their own sophistication. There are no political solutions because our problems are not primarily political but spiritual. The elusive answer for which Koestler and Sting and the natural man in all of us strive lead us not to human wisdom but to the Cross. While “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, we proclaim Christ crucified,” Paul says.[5] It was that bloody revolution on the Cross that represents the pivotal apex of human history.

It is only by Christ’s sacrificial love that all of us – Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and foreign nationals – will be saved. And while “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” Paul reminds us, “to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”[6] Holding high the image of the crucified One, we live as spirits in the material world. As we live from day to day, we proclaim by faith the words of Teilhard de Chardin: “The Cross is not a shadow of death, but a sign of progress.”[7]

Where does the answer lie? It is right in front of us. It is not found in a political party or candidate. It is not a philosophy or ideology. It is nothing we can buy or sell or barter for or earn. It is a Person. It is the divine Person, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God slain for us, the light of the world given to us. It is the Spirit descending into this material world and showing the way for the “ghost” in all of us to break out of the machine and shine for God’s glory. If that be foolishness, I am ready to play the fool.

[1] Part of the genius of Pandora’s Music Genome Project is its algorithmic ability to instantaneously analyze over 400 musical qualitative attributes of (in this case Rush), including melody, harmony, composition, rhythm, form, and lyrics, and spit out the lead song from The Police’s 1981 album “Ghost in the Machine.”
[2] Sting explained the song's meaning in Lyrics By Sting: "I thought that while political progress is clearly important in resolving conflict around the world, there are spiritual aspects of our recovery that also need to be addressed. I suppose by 'spiritual' I mean the ability to see the bigger picture, to be able to step outside the narrow box of our conditioning and access those higher modes of thinking that Koestler talked about. Without this, politics is just the rhetoric of failure."
[3] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Joy of Kindness (1993), 138.
[4] 1 Cor 2:12-16 selected.
[5] 1 Cor 1:22-23.
[6] 1 Cor 1:18.
[7] Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity in the World (1933), IX, 108.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

World Youth Day 2016: A Candle Lit in the Darkness

What kind of world do we really live in? If we attempt to answer that question by watching the nightly news, surely we’d come to the conclusion that our world has gone off the rails. The ubiquity of random and senseless violence, the absurd comedy of our political zeitgeist, the perverse affront to human dignity at every turn – it seems as though the human condition is totally if not irreparably depraved.

This is certainly how I was feeling about the world when I stepped on the plane a few short weeks ago. I honestly thought to myself (because surely I would never voice such a radical opinion out loud) that this must be the beginning of the end. This is the final and farcical finale before Jesus returns and sets everything straight (and leave it up to Jesus to time his return with the Cubs fated victory in the World Series). Frankly I welcomed the idea. Feeling so powerless in the face of evil, I yearned for the day when sanity could be restored and love could triumph once and for all.

Then something happened.

I took a journey, a pilgrimage, that allowed me to see beyond the matrix of fear and helplessness. Arriving in Krakow, Poland I lifted my gaze to see other pilgrims, two million of them to be exact, on a similar journey of the spirit. They too had left lands where violence and brutality had ripped apart their homes, their families, their peoples. They too had come to Krakow to see if divine mercy really had a place in this world, if this Jubilee Year of Mercy was more than wishful thinking amidst the “real world” of callous inhumanity.

World Youth Day restored my faith in God, in the Church, and in the larger narrative of redemption in human history. One moment in particular marked the turn in my mind. It was the Saturday night Papal Vigil. We had hiked eight miles out of Krakow, under intense summer sun, to reach the dusty plains of Campus Misericordia – the “Field of Mercy.” That night two million young people lit candles and knelt in prayer, lifting their hearts to Jesus, united as one people of God, commiting their lives to mercy, to forgiveness, to love. Two million faces illumined with the spark of hope. Two million hearts turned to Jesus. Two million lights cast out the darkness.

In that moment I realized once again that there is no greater power, that our present sufferings are nothing compared with the glory that will be revealed to us. In that moment I was reminded of the words of St. Paul, the patron saint of missionaries and evangelists, that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:38-39).

What kind of world do we really live in? God’s world. And we are his children. We are ambassadors of hope and heralds of the kingdom where nothing (and I mean nothing) can separate us from the love of God that we know through Jesus Christ. Though in the world we may have trouble, let us take heart, today and always, echoing the words of St. Faustina Kowalska, Polish nun and mystic, “Divine Mercy, inspiring hope against all hope, I trust in You.”

Friday, May 27, 2016

Synergy in Syracuse: A Model of YL-Catholic Collaboration

Two weeks ago, I had the great privilege of attending an ordination ceremony in Syracuse, New York. But this was no ordinary ordination (as if any ordination is). On May 14, my dear friend and colleague Nathan Gunn became the first Young Life staff person ever to be ordained into the permanent diaconate of the Catholic Church.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral was packed. The excitement was palpable as the trumpets blared and the angelic choir sang the processional hymn, “Christ be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness.” Nathan’s lovely wife Tammy, his two teenaged sons, and a whole entourage of friends and family - Young Life staff and volunteers, Protestants and Catholics, kids and adults - joined Nathan in prayer, song and reverence. Goosebumps flushed through my skin as the Gloria rang out, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.” I glanced over to see Nathan fighting back the tears only to find myself caught up in the emotion too. The gravity of the occasion weighed heavy on my heart. This man was about to be ordained as a permanent sacramental sign of Jesus Christ, the Lord, who came “to serve and not be served.”

Young Life has been in Syracuse for a long time, but under Nathan (now Deacon) Gunn’s leadership the Catholic Church and Young Life have become real partners in reaching kids for Christ. Notre Dame graduate Brigid Clary is the youth minister at Holy Cross Catholic Church in town. She says, “I couldn’t do my job well if Young Life was not in Syracuse. They’re already in the hallways and at the ball games. YL leaders not only set an example of how to enter into the lives of kids, but they are constantly inviting me into it!” Further articulating the relationship, Clary comments:

Young Life staff and Catholic ministers have a real opportunity to be true partners in the mission.  It is challenging as a youth minister to focus both on evangelization and discipleship. With Young Life’s mission of reaching every kid, evangelization is happening already. New students are encountering Jesus every day thanks to the passion of Young Life leaders. The question to ask is, now what? And I think that is where the Catholic Church can step in.

Stephanie Cawley, a Young Life area director in North Syracuse, agrees. “Young Life is great at being on the “turf” of adolescent culture,” she says. “The Catholic Church is great at offering kids a home that will nurture them beyond their high school years.” A practicing Catholic herself, Stephanie recognizes the strengths that both Young Life and the Church bring to the table. “Young Life excels in building relationships. The Church excels in sacramental and liturgical living. Both are so valuable as we journey with Christ.”

Part of Young Life’s success in Syracuse has been their commitment to reflect the communities they serve. In a metro area that is over 62% Catholic, that has meant being intentional about inviting Catholic committee members, volunteers and staff into the ministry of Young Life.  Nathan says, “At the heart of incarnational ministry is being representative of the community we serve.  As a Mission, it’s both a great challenge and blessing to find ways to integrate into the worship lives of all the churches we work with.”  That integration has led to many practical and fruitful collaborations:  combined Wyldlife Clubs, extensive sharing of YL Camps for Summer and Weekends, Catholic Churches hosting Campaigners, a 10-year tradition of taking high school students to serve in rural El Salvador, the creation of an inner city summer service opportunity… the list goes on and on.

Leanne Sherwood, YL area director in Syracuse East, believes that Catholics should be considered as potential partners in Young Life’s mission in every area:

If we never invite Catholics into the ministry of Young Life, we’re really missing a whole segment of the Church. We’re not utilizing a huge part of the body of Christ. By having Catholic staff and volunteers on our teams, we’re living out the bigger picture of the kingdom of God. I can’t overstate how valuable this is and how much of an impact this can have on your local area!

This is particularly true in areas where Catholicism is so prevalent. In places like the northeast or the southwest where as much as 98% of the population is Catholic, one can hardly imagine an effective ministry strategy without the Catholic Church. Cawley says, “Syracuse has a large Catholic population. At least half of our ‘churched’ kids grew up in the Catholic Church. Being on the same team as we reach kids makes both Young Life and the Church more effective.”

Our staff in Syracuse are dreaming the big dream. What if Protestants and Catholics came together to lift teens up to Jesus? What if the relationship between Young Life and the Catholic Church was marked by mutual support and prayer, healthy communication and shared victories, comfort in suffering and continual growth in love and humility? The dream is becoming a reality and we tip our hats to Deacon Gunn and the rest of the YL Syracuse crew who are making it happen.