Tag Archives: Van Morrison

Of Down Syndrome, Anne of Green Gables, and Van

3 May

“‘Dear old world,’ she murmured, ‘you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.’”
~ L.M. Montgomery

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Holy Saturday: On Looking Back and Peering Ahead

2 Apr

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“Something strange is happening….”
~ Bp. Melito of Sardis

This past Holy Saturday I had the privilege of sponsoring my friend Chris as he made a profession of faith and became a Catholic – Deo gratias! What a joy to stand with him, attest to his readiness, announce his new name – “Monsignor, this is Thomas Aquinas” – and then celebrate with him afterwards.

Easter VigilAnd he was hardly nervous – way less nervous than I was 31 years ago as I awaited the same watershed moment. For those coming home to the Catholic Church, there’s a daunting realization that nothing will ever be the same after Holy Saturday – that life will get harder, not easier – and yet for some of us, there’s also a fear that something will mess it up. “What if I say the wrong thing and it doesn’t take,” is how my mind raced. “What if I’m not properly disposed – or that my Presbyterian baptism wasn’t valid?” I wanted to be a Catholic so bad that I couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen.

Even so, it did happen, despite my scruples and paranoia – again, praise God! The Easter Vigil is always glorious, especially for converts – those joining the Church that night as well as those who’d already done so, whether the previous year or even decades before. The rising action of the liturgy and multiple readings, the darkness and fire, the bells, oils, and dousings – the entire Holy Saturday mystique conjures up our first enthusiasms for Christ and his Church, which in turn remind us why we made such a reckless break with our relatively sedate trajectories and safer worlds.

Yet even that foolhardy conversio – that radical turning around which leads to new passions, new futures, new living through dying – is often accompanied, in the best circumstances, by delicate connections to pre-Catholic histories and experience. They won’t be tethers that hold back, but rather echoes that signify continuity. Our Easter conversions do not extinguish our past selves, but rather baptize and elevate them.

For me, there were two such echoes when I joined the Church. One was my friend Kevin, who was a student at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute at the time, whereas I was in Uptown, part of a Catholic Worker extended community. I was so glad Kevin agreed to attend the Easter Vigil – to support me as a longtime pal, despite his evangelical reservations.

He came up on the subway and sat in the way back – it was standing room only that night at St. Thomas of Canterbury. Kevin and I didn’t get to talk that night he left to catch a late train downtown as soon as the liturgy ended – but I know it constituted one of the more bizarre worship experience of his life. As if the Easter Vigil liturgy itself wasn’t strange enough for a Moody student (let alone seeing an old youth-group buddy become a Catholic), the rich cultural diversity of St. Thomas was on full display that night: Readings, hymns, and preaching in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese; a congregation that included immigrants from Korea and Cambodia, Brazil and Eritrea; and representatives from every conceivable socioeconomic and ideological stripe, anarchists and John Birchers, retired professionals and homeless vets. Kevin’s prest. thomassence in that highly charged and holy setting embodied a true bridge between my old life as a suburban evangelical and this (evidently) wild, unpredictable Catholic life I was embracing, and it gave me great comfort.

The other echo happened earlier in the day. Following my midday visit to St. Peter’s in the Loop to make my first confession, I anxiously watched the clock, anticipating the evening’s climactic events, going over the profession of faith repeatedly, and checking in with my sponsor, Jim – “What am I forgetting?” Then, a knock at the door – the FTD guy with a bouquet. “Congratulations,” read the card. “Love, Mom and Dad.” It was a long-distance gesture, an affectionate embrace from my folks in Colorado – most particularly my mom. She’d been raised in a Masonic, anti-Catholic home, and I knew she was worried sick about her crazed, do-gooder son joining the big Popish cult. Still, in the end, her mom-ishness overcame her Masonic prejudices, and she sent me flowers – a clear signal that she wanted to love what I loved to the degree that she could.

Such were the echoes that connected me to my pre-Catholic life back when I was received, but what about now? Easter compels us forward – are backward glances still appropriate?

It’s an idea that came up as I was driving to Mass the other day, listening to Van Morrison on the stereo. “We’ll walk down the avenue and we’ll smile,” he was singing. “And we’ll say, ‘Baby, ain’t it all worthwhile?’ when the healing has begun.” That’s the song’s title – “And the Healing Has Begun” – and it’s from his 1979 Into the Music album. It’s bright and cheerful with a buoyant violin accompaniment, and all the restorative references seemed apropos to the Octave.

Yeah, sure, I know the song is not exactly about spiritual matters, particularly in light of its later, more lascivious images, but its jubilant tone is hard to resist, and I hummed along as I drove – then this line popped up: “I want you to put on your pretty summer dress,” the singer requests. “You can wear your Easter bonnet and all the rest.” OK, bonnets, joy, healing – maybe it is an Easter song, or at least I made it one for myself that afternoon.

A few bars later came a jarring moment, however, when Morrison gleefully tossed out an odd declaration: “I can’t stand myself.” Wait – what? But he kept right on going with his jaunty melody and veiled seductions, and I was left scratching my head. “‘Can’t stand yourself? Where’s the healing in that?”

peterAt Mass, Fr. Lapp seemed to pick up on the same theme in his homily. “The Easter feasting continues, and that’s as it should be,” he said. “But in the midst of it, the Lord is still calling us to repentance and conversion.” It’s like Peter in yesterday’s Gospel, out on his boat following the Resurrection – returning to his fishing occupation, a pre-Jesus safe zone. Suddenly, the Lord appears and calls out advice from the shore: “Cast your net on the other side!” – an acknowledgement, in part, of this occupational echo. The Apostle perks up and swims back in to face his Savior, leaving the fish, but dragging his past with him. This is the same Peter – the “Rock” – who denied Jesus three times, betraying him despite an oath not to. I can just see him rushing to the Master to be close, and yet hanging his head in shame – wouldn’t you?

Anyway, that’s me for sure – that’s me! It’s the painful part of Holy Saturday every year, for I know better – I’ve studied the Faith, I’ve received the Sacraments, and I know how I’m supposed to conform my life to Christ, but I still don’t. There’s Easter celebration, no doubt, but an awkwardness, a disgrace: “I’ve been a Catholic 31 years, and I’m still…this?” Like Van, “I can’t stand myself;” like Peter, I rush to the Lord, then hold back, abased.

There’s more to that seaside Gospel, however, and it comes later this Eastertide. We see the risen Lord simultaneously eliciting Peter’s repentance and enveloping him in healing. “Do you love me?” he asks three times, and three times a sign of trust, “Feed my sheep.” In the end, Jesus points ahead: “And when he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”

So, Easter looks forward and backward – it’s not static, nor is anything else static associated with this resurrected Messiah. “The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise,” goes the ancient Easter Vigil homily. It’s a look back, but then, ahead: “I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven.” He’s always on the move, saving indiscriminately, past, present, future – everything in his path.

We dare not duck.
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A version of this essay appeared in Crisis Magazine.

Summer Spiritual Direction: Do Nothing

6 Jul

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Don’t go back to the library. Go out. Enjoy yourself with your friends. Hmm?
~ Professor E.M. Ashford in Wit

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Put Down the Missalette Already!

15 Mar

Songwriters put notes on paper.
That’s not music. You make the music.
~ Guitarist Tommy Tedesco of The Wrecking Crew

Let’s say dreams come true, and I get to see Van Morrison in concert somewhere, somehow, some day. Aw, man, Van-Morrisonit would be so great – a once in a lifetime opportunity! I doubt I’d sleep the night before, and I’d be checking on my ticket every hour or so – to see if it was still there, still real.

Then, the moment would arrive: I’m there in the audience, the instruments are tuning; the microphones are getting the “check, check, one, two” treatment – and it begins. Van kicks off the first song…

…and I drop my eyes to some wireless gadget in my lap, Google the lyrics, and read along as Van is singing on stage.

Right? Noooo, of course not! I’d soak it all in – a total immersion, listening to and watching a great songwriter give voice to his own compositions, himself, in person! They’re songs I mostly know already by heart anyway, but even if I didn’t, why would I waste that exquisite privilege by reading along?

That’s what I think of when I go to church and see folks with their noses in the missalettes – those little booklets in the pew that contain all the readings and parts of the Mass. Worse still is when their eyes are glued to iPhones or other gadgets as they follow along on apps while the lector drones on pointlessly up front.

It’s like every college student’s worst nightmare: A professor that flashes one PowerPoint slide after another, reading them word for word. Then, as if to purposely add insult to injury, he’ll sometimes pass out lecture notes with the slides already on them. Torture.

“The readings from the Word of God are to be listened to reverently by everyone,” the General Instruction explains, “for they are an element of the greatest importance in the Liturgy.” Catch that? Listened to, not scanned, not perused. In the liturgy, the Word of God is meant to be uttered and received. Here’s more from the General Instruction:

When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel.

The lector thus becomChurch-Pulpites another alter Christus, parallel to the priest who will confect the Eucharist and give us Jesus to eat. Dei Verbum makes this parallel quite explicit by insisting that in the Mass, the Church “unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.”

So the lector’s job really is a vital one, but we treat it as if it were purely functional – a task that is required by the rubrics, yet largely irrelevant since we have the text so readily available, usually right there in the pew. “A reading from the First Letter of…,” the lector begins, which ought to put us on the edge of our seats. It’s Christ himself, after all, announcing his Word – the Logos, his very divine Self, enunciated for us, for me!

And yet, what’s our typical response? “Ho-hum (*yawn*), maybe I’ll grab the missalette and read along.”

That’s wacko.

Don’t get me wrong: Reading Scripture for ourselves isn’t bad, and the Church has never asserted anything even close to that – despite the lingering anti-Catholic canard to the contrary. Indeed, there’s no question Gutenberg did all of Christendom a huge favor by inventing the printingannunciation-mid press and making the Bible easily and universally obtainable. Yet personal Bible reading ought to be reserved to times outside of Mass, and particularly around Mass – like, for example, a family coming together to read the Gospel before church, or reflecting on it at home afterwards.

When we’re at Mass, however, we should skip the missalette altogether lest we fall into what is essentially a Protestant approach to the Liturgy of the Word. In keeping with the Reformation precept that everyone should interpret the Bible for himself, many Protestants bring their own Bibles to church and read along as the Scriptures are read. It’s as if they’re checking up on the reader’s accuracy and precision – almost like rabbis peering over the shoulder of a young boy reading the Torah at his bar mitzvah. But if we’re reading, we’re not really listening, and the Liturgy of the Word becomes just another cerebral exercise instead of an incarnated, holistic epiphany.

Sacred Scripture was meant to be received aurally in the liturgy, in the same way that classic iconography depicts the Blessed Mother receiving the Word of GoXIR404562d via a dove entering her ear. In fact, we call that blessed event the Annunciation because it was St. Gabriel’s “announcement” that itself realized the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception. “Come and gaze upon this marvelous feat,” St. Athanasius attests, “the woman conceives through the hearing of her ears!” We’re called to do the same during the readings at Mass: To imitate Our Lady in receiving the Lord through hearing a proclamation, much as her cousin Elizabeth “received” an encounter with Jesus the moment she heard Mary’s greeting at the Visitation.

And the missalettes? Should we ditch them outright? I wouldn’t go that far, for there are circumstances when they do come in handy – and are even necessary. For instance, those who are hearing impaired have to rely on missalettes when there are no sign language interpreters or amplification devices available. Plus, let’s face it, sometimes it’s not easy to understand certain lectors, even if you want to. I know for myself that if I’m up front reading, and I see folks reaching for their missalettes, I automatically assume that I’m doing a lousy job – that my “proclamation” is not “audible and intelligible” as the Catechism says it should be.

Still, I probably shouldn’t be so hard on myself, because I know that many of us grab the missalette and open it up out of habit, regardless of how good the lector is. What I’m suggesting, I suppose, is that we should break that habit, and experience the Liturgy of the Word as it was mehandicappedant to be experienced: Through our ears.

Think of it this way: When you go to your local library branch with an armful of books and videos to return, do you ever hip-bump the blue handicapped button and wait for the door to open automatically – even though you’re not handicapped? I know I do, and that’s not so bad, right? But here’s the bad part: It’s now a habit for me, even when I don’t have an armful of books. Yup, it’s true, I’ll whack that blue button out of sheer laziness, especially if I have a contingent of kids with me. What ought to be an extraordinary, occasional use of an assistive device has become ordinary and routine.

This Lent, why not add to your fasting regimen by abstaining from missalette use completely and trust your lectors to convey the Word of God to you. By the time Easter rolls around, I’m guessing you won’t go back, for you’ll have discovered how much more you can get out of Mass when you truly “hear, contemplate, and do in the celebration” (CCC 1101).
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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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