Tag Archives: spirituality

God Only Knows

15 Sep

We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. We want a religion that is right where we are wrong.
~ G.K. Chesterton

Sheryl Crow must be a pretty big star. I know this because it’s apparently significant that she’s gone all country now—significant enough to warrant an interview in the Wall Street Journal.

Crow’s country conversion also included a move to the country—to rural Tennessee where she’s hunkering down with her kids on a big farm. But Sheryl’s celebrity and music and domestic arrangements are not what caught my attention. It was her religion. Here it is:

Since I was 21, I’ve always had a strong relationship and an everyday, ongoing dialogue with a higher power. He or She seems to be most evident in nature, which I guess is why I’m so environmentally driven to preserve what we have around here.

It’s a religion, alright, and Crow “considers herself a Christian,” but really it’s her own personal credo—a DIY version of religion that most people call their “spirituality” these days.

Baloney. There’s a lot of nonsense going around about the divorce between rigid, stale religion (which some people still feel the need to cling to), and effervescent, lively spirituality (which everybody can possess apart from religious belief), but it’s all bunk. Any spiritual insight or practice that isn’t merely a fleeting whim morphs into a religion almost immediately. A religion is a rule, a pattern, and if you repeat a spiritual innovation, even just once, *BAM*, you’ve got yourself a religion. All you need is tax exempt status, and you’re in business!

Sheryl-Crow-Beach-Her-Kids-PicturesNo offense to Sheryl Crow, by the way. It sounds like she’s been through some rough patches, including cancer and divorce, and I respect that she’s trying to do right by her two boys—reconciling a hectic superstar performer’s career with motherhood can’t be easy. I’m sure her spirituality—her religion—has been a comfort to her, and it helps her find her way.

But an “everyday relationship” with a He or She? I’m guessing Sheryl hedged on the gender to avoid giving offense, and she’s free to believe as she sees fit, of course. But, if a hedge, is it really a good idea to shape belief in deference to the sensitivities of others? And if it wasn’t a hedge, is that really how she addresses her Higher Power? Wouldn’t “He and She” be preferable? Or just “She,” if it’s simply a nod to feminist sensibilities?

If I were on the prowl for a fresh take on Christianity, I’d keep my antennae up for ideas that work the negative side of the God equation—a.k.a., apophatic theology, an import from the East that zeroes in on what we know we don’t know. To wit: No definitive revelation about whether God is He or She? Then, skip the question altogether, and use “It.” After all, Obi-Wan Kenobi never used a personal pronoun in reference to The Force. It wasn’t a person; it was a thing. You don’t dialogue with a thing, and there’s no reason to ascribe personhood (and gender[s]) to a thing if you don’t have to.

In any case, I’m not in the market for a new religion. I like Catholicism, one of the old ones. I’m lousy at it, but I believe what the Church teaches. It somehow helps make sense of a crazy world, and I even retain some hope that God won’t give up on me despite my daily moral blunders, volitional gaffes, and outright scaly sins.Christ_Carrying_the_Cross_1580

Plus, orthodox Christianity includes plenty of apophatic elements, in addition to paradox and mystery. It’s an adventure; it’s dangerous; it’s truly the Wild West of religions. And the best part is that, at its core, Christianity is a Person—a definite “He” who breathed the same air as we.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you (I John 1:1-3).

Jesus practiced a trade, made friends and enemies, ate, drank, suffered, died. And yet He lives still, inviting our relationship and dialogue. It’s a maddening Faith, calling us to sanctity in the midst of our frailty. Outrageous, keeping us always a bit off balance, but earthy and real. I’ll take that over a DIY’er religion any day.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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.


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