Tag Archives: faith

Van Morrison Saved My Soul

18 Aug

Now there’s an inflammatory and hyperbolic title! More on that in a minute. First, drugs.

I never did drugs growing up. No weed, no acid, no coke, no nothing. There was plenty around and accessible, to be sure, but I just wasn’t interested. When my friends would offer me their latest substance of choice, I’d say, “no thanks,” and that I just preferred reality—wjefferson_airplane_980hy distort it? It was definitely a fork in the road: They couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand them.

At least, I couldn’t understand their desire to trip out, but I think I have an inkling of what tripping out was like for them thanks to Jefferson Airplane and their song White Rabbit. It came on the radio as I was driving home the other day, and immediately I was pulled into Grace Slick’s hallucinatory riff on the children’s classic.

It’s an effectively suggestive song, even to the point of being trite or corny. There are references to hookah pipes and mushrooms, and the twangy guitar combined with the psychedelic paraphrasing of Lewis Carroll couldn’t be more reminiscent of those groovy times. The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds does the same, as do any number of songs by Jimi Hendrix or the Doors. In all, songs like these conjure up an experience I’ve never had, but through them I can sample that experience, at least as an observer and outsider, and even if it’s only for a couple minutes.

The music of Van Morrison did something similar for me, but with reference to mystical union with God. I started listening to Morrison right around the time of my flirtation with Catholicism, and his blend of Celtic melodies and images along with pop undercurrents and poetic streams of consciousness became like a soundtrack for my spiritual pilgrimage. Album after album—Common One (1980); No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (1986); Enlightenment (1990); Hymns to the Silence (1991)Morrison’s songs seemed to give voice to my own searching and yearning, and I listened to them over and over.

A good example is Coney Island, Morrison’s haunting meditation from the album Avalon Sunset (1989). It’s not sung, but instead it’s a spokVan-Morrisonen narrative about a visit to the seaside with friends. Intensely evocative, the song seems to draw the listener into the scene—to join in the ambling and conversation, to feel the warm sunshine, to share in the placid joy the companions have discovered. It’s a little taste of heaven.

So, fine, I like Van Morrison. Does that justify the hyperbolic blog post title? Why the heresy?

Admittedly, it was a hook to get you to read on, but not only that.

In fact, properly understood, I do think it’s a true statement, and not heterodox at all. A helpful parallel, I think, is Cyrus of Persia—savior of the Jews! Cyrus the Great, the sixth-century B.C. ruler of the Achaemenid Empire, was a pagan. Nevertheless, he is celebrated in the Old Testament as God’s instrument in restoring the Jewish people to Palestine and rebuilding the Temple. Isaiah even referred to him as “shepherd” and “anointed” (or, “messiah”), although Isaiah and the Jews certainly weren’t confused about Who was the power behind Cyrus’ throne.

Same with Van and my spiritual renewal. It was as if Morrison’s music was a Cyrus for me—an instrument used by God to restore and rebuild. And, like Cyrus, it makes no difference what particular creed Van adheres to, for God was able to use him and his music regardless.

Tomáš Halík, in his description of second-wind faith that often follows initial conversion and subsequent disillusionment, says this:

Maybe we won’t encounter Christ where people tend to seek him first, but instead he will come to us like he did to the travelers on the road to Emmaus: as a stranger, an unknown fellow traveler. And then we will have to let him retell the “great narrative” of the Bible to us.

Van Morrison’s music mediated Christ to me in a fresh, unprecedented manner. For me, it was, and still is, an Emmaus encounter, recapitulating an overly familiar Gospel, and compelling me to meet Him afresh.

Make no mistake: I know Who is really saving my soul. I catch a glimpse of Christ and his grace in Morrison’s music, but I encounter them directly through the Church and the Sacraments. Even so, I return to Van Morrison regularly, on bad days and good, to conjure up those images of peace and paradise, and to help me re-set my sights on heaven. “And all the time going to Coney Island, I’m thinking,” Morrison intones in Coney Island. “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”

Yes, great indeed. Let it be so.


Our Lady of the Overgrowth

17 Aug

Yard work is not my thing.

We have a statue of Mary in front of our house, and she’s engulfed with weeds. Rather than sit here and write about it, I should get out there and clear up the environs.

Yes, yes, in time. But first, an observation.

On the Feast of the Assumption, Pope Francis spoke of spiritual warfare and Our Lady’s solidarity and solicitude. She’s really on our side, and all we need do is avail ourselves of her help. He said, “The Mother of Christ and of the Church is always with us. She walks with us always, she is with us.”

From the Cross, Christ gave her to us, and we to her, and now she’s at His side in heaven (what the Assumption is all about), so she has his ear. It’s so easy to forget—like she’s lost in the weeds. We know she’s there, but out of sight, out of mind I guess.

It’s comforting to know that she’s there all the same—waiting, watching, ready to come to our aid. She’s our Mother, after all, and like any earthly mother, she can’t wait for our call and our request for aid. She wants to help—a pleasant thought as I drive past the front of my house every day, and reflect on the Blessed Mother’s near eclipse in the brush and brambles.

Our earthy papa knows all this already. The Pope knows that we are typical children that love their mother, yet neglect her. His scolding, however, is gentle, and he coaxes rather than condemns. “The Rosary sustains us in the battle,” he said at one point on Thursday. “Do you pray the Rosary every day? But I’m not sure you do … Really?”

I scan those words, I recall similar exhortations from Monsignor’s Assumption Day homily, I look at the Rosary dangling from my dashboard, and I pick it up. Not a whole Rosary, mind you—I think I got through a couple decades before I arrived at my destination. No matter. It’s the most Rosary I’ve prayed in a long time.

And Mary doesn’t care really. She’s delighted by every act of devotion, every affectionate gesture that we make. But why the Rosary? My Protestant students often express their puzzlement: Why the repetition and rote recitation? What good is it?

It’s good because it pleases her. She likes it—just like a mom likes flowers and a card and some extra attention on Mother’s Day. If you didn’t do those things, would your mom love you less? Would she refuse to help you if you asked? I doubt it. But would you be a cad if you could do those things, and didn’t?

W.C. Fields once said, “Now don’t say you can’t swear off drinking; it’s easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.” Same with the daily Rosary: It’s easy to do—I’ve initiated the practice a thousand times. Looks like it’s going to be a thousand and one.

Oh, and the weeds? I’ll get to them in a bit…after I say my prayers.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

The Madness of Faith

11 Jul

All of us who do not regularly experience hallucinations or delusions reside on what may be called a ‘cliff of sanity.’ Some of us, for reasons still unclear, are closer to the edge of the cliff than others.

~ Dr. Samuel T. Wilkinson, Department of Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine

Mary Poppins (1964) is by far my favorite Disney movie, and one of my favorite scenes is the rooftop rendezvous of chimney sweeps wBerthen they sing “Step in Time.” Remember that? They’re racing around, jumping off and on chimneys, rolling and kicking and dancing up a storm.

At one point, the sweeps dance along the ledges of the buildings. They pretend to be balancing with some difficulty, holding their arms out and teetering like drunks, but then the music starts and they start leaping and twirling again in perfect coordination.

Yes, I know it was filmed on a Hollywood set, and, yes, I know they weren’t in any real danger. Nonetheless, their exuberant defiance of death strikes me as an apt image of the Christian life. The Gospel requires a kind of foolhardy abandon if we embrace it fully, and like the dancing chimney sweeps, we often enough come perilously close to the edge—right where Christ can do something with us. In other words, there’s got to be a bit of madness in every Christian.

Consider the Gerasene demoniac. He was a raving looney, running about, whacking himself with stones, busting up the chains that restrained him, and crying out night and day. The guy was plagued by so many devils that he called himself “Legion.”

And that’s me! That’s you, too, I’d imagine. We love Jesus, we’ve given our lives to Him, we struggle to pray and be virtuous and become saints. But we fail and fail and fail again. We, too, are harassed by numerous weaknesses, temptations, and faults, and, like Legion, we beat ourselves up about it, bemoaning our lot, and wailing to all who’ll listen. And why not? We’re schizo, affirming a Gospel that we can never live up to.

Then, Jesus comes, restores order, and tosses out the demons—and not just tossed out, but tossed into a bunch of pigs that run over their own cliff and drown. The next scene is telling, because when the gawkers observed the demoniac sitting at Jesus’ feet, “clothed and in xp-heals-the-gerasene-demoniac-alexander-master-kinoiniklijke-bibliotheek-the-hague-1430his right mind” according to Luke, they were “seized with fear.” Fear? Of what? Of Jesus tossing out their demons too? In any case, they feared Him enough to “beg him to leave their district.”

Perhaps the crowd had their own madness in preferring to hold onto old ways and familiar devils, and maybe we do, too. M. Scott Peck alludes to this human tendency in The Road Less Traveled when he writes, “Balancing is a discipline precisely because the act of giving something up is painful.” Many times, we avoid mental and spiritual health because it’s just easier to stay put. Why approach a precipice, with all its attendant unknowns, when it’s so much more convenient to keep ambling along well away from danger?

But He won’t leave us alone. He draws us to the edges of our lives and confronts our neuroses and petty sins—in ways that can seem downright cruel at times. Peck picks up on this idea in a section he calls “The Healthiness of Depression”:

As likely as not the patient will report, ‘I have no idea why I’m depressed’ or will ascribe the depression to irrelevant factors. Since patients are not yet consciously willing or ready to recognize that the ‘old self’ and ‘the way things used to be’ are outdated, they are not aware that their depression is signaling that major change is required for successful and evolutionary adaptation.

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?” we shout out with Legion. “I beg you, do not torment me!” Spiritual dryness and doubt, difficulties, disease, and disasters, even nervous breakdowns and mental illness—torments all. They’re not imposed by Jesus, but they are used by Him to get our attention and bring us to that place of vulnerability where we’re compelled to change.wire

He’s going to put us there teetering on the ledge whether we want it or not, so let’s race out to meet Him rather than shrinking away—to be acrobats after holiness rather than plodders, casting aside everything that holds us back. Nik Wallenda, the aerialist who recently walked across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope, has said, “I have never in my life walked with a harness. The weight of the tether makes it feel like I’m dragging an anchor behind me.”

Legion, the madman, cast off his chains and ran to Jesus to be healed. So should we, come what may.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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