Sunday, June 30, 2013

Lessons from the World of Music

For as long as I can remember I've had unusual tastes in music. I've always tended to prefer the traditional folk musics from all over the world. This fascination has led me to explore the worlds of traditional Irish, Scottish, Chinese, Japanese, and American musics more-or-less in-depth. Growing up, as I did, in the Greater Cincinnati area near the Ohio River in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains I've never wonted for exposure to folk music. Bluegrass and Appalachian music abounds, as does a thriving Irish and Scottish music community, and, I've come to find out, a Chinese music community as well. My family used to make fairly regular trips to Music Hall to listen to some of the great Classical composers, and every year we would sell our wares at the Appalachian Festival in Kentucky, where I'd walk around listening to some great Bluegrass bands and eavesdropping on Bluegrass sessions.

Most recently I've been exploring the world of Tuvan and Mongolian throat singing. This exploration has led me to rediscover a band that I'd actually heard at an Irish music concert years and years ago. The band is called "Huun Huur Tu." At one point in time they did a concert tour with "The Chieftans," one of the classic Irish music groups of the past couple of generations. Why a group of Tuvan throat singers was touring with a group of Irish musicians is beyond me, but I'm sure glad they did.

Why am I bringing up my odd musical tastes? It's not just for curiosity's sake, and it's not to make a big deal over the fact that I have such unusual tastes in music. This morning I was re-watching a concert performed by Huun Huur Tu that has been posted on YouTube. While watching the musicians perform I realized something. Here they are, a group of men that have been performing these songs for years and years, they've performed them so many times that they could perform them in their sleep. And yet there is still a great deal of heart and soul in their music.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that this is true of musicians across the board. The longer you play music, the easier it becomes, but also the more the music transforms you and you transform it. It becomes a part of you. It enters your soul and transforms you. But at the same time it becomes your own and you have a certain impact on it. I've been playing Irish music since I was eleven. Most tunes that I play I could play in my sleep, or hold entire conversations while I'm playing, if I didn't have to blow into my flute. I can play without thinking about it. It's more like I'm listening to someone else play than actually playing the music myself.

I realized here that there is a great parallel between music and the Jesus Prayer. In The Way of a Pilgrim  the anonymous author mentions the difficulty in beginning the Jesus Prayer. His spiritual father recommended he pray the prayer first 1000 times a day, then 2000, then 3000, then to just keep praying it all day long. After some time and great effort the pilgrim found that the Jesus Prayer became automatic, self-actualized, constant within him. He was always praying it even when he wasn't fully aware. He could be having conversations with others and still be praying the Prayer. It was almost as if he wasn't praying the prayer, but Someone was praying within him. Obviously the implication is that the Holy Spirit was praying within him. Isn't this the ultimate goal of prayer; that we cease to be the ones praying and that the Spirit is constantly praying within us?

I find the similarities to learning and playing music striking. The musician dedicates hours and hours to learning the fundamentals of their instrument and some basic simple melodies. Over time more complicated melodies are introduced. Techniques become easier and easier. With a little more time and practice it isn't long before the musician can learn a new melody with little effort. Eventually, after years of practice, playing, and performing the music has become so much a part of him or her that they barely have to think about it when they are playing. This doesn't mean that their heart is not present in the music, but that the music itself has simply become an extension of themselves. Every note they play flows from the heart.

How true this is in our pursuit of prayer as well. At first it is difficult. We have a hard time focusing. We don't have the attention span to be able to concentrate on long prayers, so we must be content with the "short and sweet," those little arrows that are simple to learn, but packed with meaning. We must be content with constant repetition. In our daily prayer we practice the Jesus Prayer or the Rosary over and over again. We delve into the repetitious liturgical cycle, whether that means we follow the cycles of the Liturgy of the Hours along with Sunday Liturgy, or we simply participate in Sunday Liturgy on a weekly basis. After years and years of this sort of practice and repetition prayer becomes a part of us, an extension of ourselves. We are constantly praying. We are constantly with God, aware of His presence. The Spirit moves within us enabling us to engage our relationship with God all the more, while at the same time reaching out to our neighbors. At this point it doesn't take much effort for us to learn a new prayer and for that prayer to simply flow from our hearts. The prayer is already there in our hearts, it has now just been put to words.

Time, practice, patience, perseverance, focus. This is all it takes to learn to pray. I don't mean to imply that the effort is solely on our part. Of course, we must await for our Lord to grant us the gift of prayer. But if we put in that effort, the gift will be given. Whether it is in a day, a year, or sixty years doesn't really matter. I've seen musicians who just seem to pick up an instrument and be brilliant at it within a matter of days. For others I've seen it take them just a little longer. And then I've known others who have put in years and years of practice and yet never seem to improve. But those who persist, whether it take more or less time, the rewards have always been great. The music they've produced has been brilliant. The same is true of our prayer life. We can't worry about how quickly some people seem to "get it," or how long it's taking us. We must simply persist. The fact that it may take us longer doesn't necessarily mean that we are less holy than others. It simply means that the Lord has a plan for our lives and is perhaps working out something deeper within us. May heaven consume us.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Liturgically Engaged

There's no denying that within the Catholic Church as a whole (and even within some Orthodox Churches) there is a widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the liturgy, particularly the Eucharistic Liturgy (a.k.a. the Mass/Divine Liturgy/Qurbono). In some cases this dissatisfaction, I find, may be ill-founded. Caught up in the trappings of the Liturgy many people complain about choirs that simply can't carry a tune in a bucket, priests whose homilies aren't "good enough" (usually meaning the priest doesn't talk about what they want him to talk about or what they think he ought to talk about), lack of real participation and reverence, etc. Many Roman Catholics see these problems and point to the reforms of Pope Paul VI as the root cause.

In other cases the general dissatisfaction has been based on more legitimate concerns. With the advent of a more widespread use of the vernacular languages in the West we have run into the problem of translation. There is no doubt that there have been a plethora of poor translations of any liturgical Rite. Problems have stemmed from ridiculous paraphrases that are more of the translator's interpretation of the text than an actual translation. We also have been plagued with such silliness as "politically correct" translations and even gender neutral translations. The Romans, Ruthenians, Maronites, and even, to some degree, Ukrainians, Romanians, and Greeks here in the U.S. have had their fair share of struggles with translations.

Poor or banal music seems to be a plague unique to the Roman West, although the Maronites, still clinging to certain of their Latinizations, still have a tendency to borrow the worst of Western hymns for liturgical use (e.g. a couple of Sundays ago my local Maronite parish sang "Gift of Finest Wheat" as a Communion Hymn [insert gagging sound here]). But poorly and improperly trained choirs and cantors are no stranger in the Christian East as well.

But the biggest problem that I've found in our work towards liturgical renewal is not with translations, or banal hymnography, or poor homilies, or anything like that. The biggest problem that I've found is lack of participation, or lack of engagement. Let me explain what I mean and don't mean by this. I certainly don't mean a lack of participation in the sense that everyone comes to the Liturgy and sings all the hymns, says all their parts, performs all the actions assigned to them, etc. These things are certainly important, but in themselves they do not constitute full and active/actual participation. As with all prayer, the heart must be engaged. If the heart is not there, then we can perform the outer trappings of participation until we drop over from exhaustion and hyperventilation, but we are not actually participating.

What I mean by active participation is the "interiorization" of the prayers and movements of the Liturgy so that the Liturgy itself becomes fully our prayer. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger mentions this in his wonderful short book entitled Feast of Faith. The prayer of the Church must become our prayer. We learn prayer from our Mother, the Church. By learning to pray from Her eventually Her words become our words, and Her actions our actions. This is how we enter into the offering of the Church, which is the Body of Christ and hence the offering of Christ Himself to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.

In a retreat given to Ukrainian Catholic seminarians in Washington, D.C., Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. makes a very practical suggestion that I believe could be of benefit to all of us. In order to interiorize the prayer of the Liturgy, we need to perform a Lectio Divina of the Liturgy as a whole, particularly the Eucharistic Liturgy. Lectio Divina as a slow, meditative, and prayerful reading of a spiritual text: i.e. the Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers and Saints, or the Liturgy. This prayerful reading is meant to draw us into the heart of the text and ultimately into contemplation, loving communion with the Trinity.

There is actually a systematic form of Lectio Divina. Perhaps it would be best not to describe it as "systematic" so much as a tried-and-true method that has been passed down through the ages. According to the classic text on Lectio Divina, the Ladder of Monks by Guigo II, there are four stages to Lectio: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. The first two steps occur almost simultaneously. One reads the text slowly, noticing key words such as action words (verbs) and descriptive words (adjectives), and also taking note of scenes and sayings. From this reading we are left with questions. What does x word mean here? Why would they use that word instead of another? How has that word been used throughout the history and tradition of my particular Church and the universal Church as a whole? Obviously this second "step," meditation, requires a little bit of study. Now, one does not have to get a doctorate in biblical, spiritual, and/or liturgical theology in order to move on from this step of Lectio. We must maintain a spirit of ongoing meditation, education, questioning, searching, seeking answers. Today we have so many resources at our fingertips that there really is no excuse for us not to fully engage meditation on our liturgical and Scriptural texts. There is so much material available for free on the internet that to ignore such a vast resource is plain ridiculous.

Lest our Lectio of the liturgical texts become too cognitive, we must remember that from meditation we have to move on to prayer. Prayer here can take two forms: our private prayer at home, and our actual participation in the liturgical prayer of the Church. In our private prayer at home we take our questions to God, we thank Him for illuminating the texts of the Liturgy for us in a whole new way, we ask that he deepen our understanding (and hence our participation) in the liturgical reality that is played out before us with the celebration of every single Sacrament, and we praise Him for His great plan of salvation that is laid out before us and that we enter into through the liturgical life of the Church. Then it's time for us to actually go to Church in order to enter into that life!

The last step of our Lectio is contemplation. This is a step that cannot be forced, but is a sheer gift of grace. We must simply predispose ourselves to receive this gift, and then wait for it to be given. God draws us up into His inner life. Through the liturgy He allows us glimpses of what is to come. Now, I'm no saint, and I'm certainly not an expert in Lectio or contemplation, but I do know what it's like to be drawn into contemplation because of one word or one action that jumps out at you during the Liturgy. I've been reduced to tears simply because of a word or phrase at the Liturgy. All else disappeared and I lost track of what was happening simply because God allowed this flood of light to fill my soul. It doesn't happen often to me, but it has happened. It's happened to me at the Roman Mass (even prior to the new revised translation), it's happened to me at Byzantine Divine Liturgies (Ruthenian, Ukrainian, and Melkite), it's happened to me at the Maronite Qurbono, and it's happened to me simply by paying attention to the prayers said or sung at the celebration of the Sacraments. I wept at my wedding because of the sheer power of the words being prayed. I've wept at my childrens' initiation into the Church. I've wept simply by listening to the words of the Anaphora/Canon of the Eucharist. These prayers, whether they are traditional, slightly revised, or even newly written, are filled with a great beauty that comes from 2000 years of the Church living the Gospel message of salvation. We ought to listen carefully. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom repeats a call to action that would behoove us to remember: "Wisdom! Be attentive!." Are you paying attention? Are you listening? Are you engaged? Once you are you will certainly be consumed by heaven!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Are You Involved

Hello All,

So I realize it's been quite some time since I've posted anything. I apologize for that. I've been very busy with work and family issues. But I hope to start posting regularly again. My goal is to have a new post every week. If you all like what you read, please send me an email or upload comments on the posts here. Any words of encouragement and/or suggestions for future posts are always welcome.

Lately I've been listening to lectures and reading books by Dave Ramsey. The man is known as a financial genius and is famous for having helped thousands of Americans swear off debt forever. Obviously I have a good deal of debt thanks to student loans (studying theology at a small Catholic university is not cheap). Financial management has never been one of my strong points, but I've come to realize that as a husband and father I have to be more involved in how my household is managed. My family is not mine. They have been entrusted to me by God to care for, and it is my obligation to care for them in the best way possible, spiritually, financially, physically, etc. It has taken me nearly six years (my wedding anniversary is June 30th) to realize and accept this fact, but I'm going to embrace it with gusto because it is my vocation and, hence, is intimately linked to my own salvation.

But I'm not writing this post to talk about that. Perhaps I could post more on that later on. For now I wanted to comment on a remark I heard Mr. Ramsey make in one of his lectures. "Do you ever get mad at your church?" he asks. "If you don't, you're not involved." The remark comes across as very funny, but it really got me thinking. I grew up in a very Catholic community. The Greater Cincinnati area is heavily populated with the descendants of German and Irish immigrants. The majority of the community was, at one point, German and Irish Catholic. Sure there are plenty of Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and other ecclesial communions; but at one point the predominant population was Catholic.

Since it was such a strong Catholic community, you can easily find people here who care deeply about the Faith. I remember growing up with people who were very discontent with the direction the Catholic Church (and Christianity in general) was headed. It seems that we stray further and further from our traditions. The music is mediocre at best, and flat out horrible at worst; liturgies are poorly celebrated and the people who attend look like well dressed zombies who seem to experience the resurrection as soon as the priest proclaims "The Mass is ended...;" bishops and priests back agendas that are totally contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church; etc., etc., etc. We've all experienced this. Whether we are Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant anyone who gives two shakes about their Church or parish has some negative experience with it.

For some such negativity is enough to drive them away from one Church or parish and into another. For others it is enough to put out the fires of faith completely and turn them into apathetic agnostics. For others it enkindles the fires of hatred for God and His Church. But what can we do? In the face of such hardships that we suffer in the Church, what is our role? We are not priests. We are not bishops. We are not monks or nuns. We're simply lay-folk.

The reality is that the care of the Church hasn't been entrusted to the clergy alone. We are all "stewards of the mysteries" as Bishop Nicholas Samra points out. We have all been entrusted with the Faith and traditions of our Church. It does us and no one else any good to sit around and bemoan the state of the Church. We have to get more deeply involved. We have to practice stewardship. We have to care for that which has been entrusted to us.

What does this mean in practical terms? How do we get involved? What can we do to support our bishops and priests in furthering the Faith and spreading the Gospel message of Christ?

First and foremost we must pray. We must intercede for our bishops and priests, our monks and nuns, and for one another. Without this spiritual support any other effort will simply fail. This does not mean that we focus on this intercessory prayer to the exclusion of any other form of prayer. Nor does it mean that we focus on prayer itself to the exclusion of any other work. Rather, all of our efforts and actions must begin with prayer and end with prayer. All our efforts and actions must quite literally be prayer. Perhaps part of the reason our Church is in the state it's in today is because our leaders have proceeded with actions in an unprayerful way. Perhaps we as a people have forgotten how to pray and how to be living prayers.

We must also know our Faith. This knowledge need not be a purely intellectual knowledge, but some study is required. Knowledge of basic truths and facts of the Faith is required. You wouldn't marry somebody without a basic factual knowledge of fundamental aspects of who they are. Nor would you encourage a friend to marry someone you'd never met personally. How can we uphold and promote our Faith if we don't know it? How can we cry out for properly celebrated liturgies if we have no understanding of what constitutes good liturgy? How can we call for a return to Tradition when we have no concept of Tradition? How can we demand the Church live by the "spirit of Vatican II" if we have no idea what Vatican II promoted, and we have no idea how Vatican II fits into the 2000 year old Tradition of the Church?

Eastern Catholics ought to ask themselves these same questions. What does it mean to be Eastern Catholic? How can we remain faithful to our Eastern traditions while at the same time being in communion with Rome. Is there a distinction between the traditions of local particular churches (including the Roman Church) and the Universal Church? If so, can we restore our identities as Eastern Christians without belittling the traditions and identity of the Christian West? How does our Eastern identity fit into the life of the Church at a Universal level? And how can we, as Easterners, evangelize the culture around us, even if that culture is a Western culture?

Get involved. Be engaged. Pray. Ask questions. Seek answers, but always seek them in a prayerful manner. Educate others after you have become educated. But do all in love, do all in a spirit of prayer, not in a spirit of anger. Never allow anger, discouragement, and disappointment have the last word.

So many Christians, be they Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, shout out in anger at the injustices going on in the Church. The see Christians behaving in unChristian ways. They see Church leaders acting not as Christ, but almost as anti-Christs. They see the Church slipping further and further down the slippery slopes of "relevance" and "political correctness." They see all these things going on and they shake their fists in anger. But anger gets us nowhere. The great spiritual Fathers and Mothers of the East feared anger more than any other sin. They admitted that there is such a thing as just anger, but anger in any form can be so dangerous and difficult to control that they said it was better not even to indulge justifiable anger.

I have some friends, and I've seen a good handful of "Catholic commentators" who seem to have nothing but negative things to say about the state of the Church these days. Anger can get one fired up to do the right thing; to be the change that we want to see in the Church. But if we allow anger to consume us, if the injustices and our own anger become our focus, two things will happen. First we will become completely consumed with our anger to the point that it drives us out of the Church, or at least alienates us from the Church if we don't actually leave. Secondly such negativity simply becomes annoying and drives folks away from us, leaving them with a feeling of hopelessness and leaving us again with a sense of alienation - "Why doesn't anyone care as much about this as I do?" becomes our attitude.

Psychologists have told us that for every negative interaction with our children or our spouse there needs to be a good number of positive interactions, otherwise our relationships fall apart. Do you think the Church is any different? Do you think our bishops and priests are any different? If we only have bad things to say about our priests, our bishops, and our Church do you think that those same folks are going to want to be anywhere near us? Or do you think we are going to actually be able to bring new people into the Church?

In one of his books, Dave Ramsey points out that a good manager manages a staff not by putting out fires, but by encouragement. Recognize a job well-done. Encourage someone when they are doing something right. Always have a compliment on hand. If you are going to correct behavior, make sure that you are also affirming a few good things that a person is doing. As stewards/managers of the mysteries this is a responsibility that we, as lay-folk, have towards our priests and bishops. If we are going to approach them about something, we need to first be grateful for the amount of work that they do for our Church. We need to recognize where they have been successful. And then present them with our problems. Remember, they are people too. Imagine if your child only ever spoke with you to tell you how bad of a parent you are. Imagine if they never thanked you for putting a roof over their head, food in their belly, and clothes on their back. Imagine if they did nothing but complain to you. Eventually you're just going to ignore that child because you just can't handle the negativity. It's also going to make you feel like the worst parent in the world. Why do we think our bishops and priests are any different? They need encouragement just like the rest of us. They need a pat on the back for a job well done just like the rest of us.

If you want to be involved, if you want to be the change that you want to see in the Church, don't just stand in the center of your church and shout "repent! repent!" and then point out every little thing that every person in the parish or the Church at large needs to repent of. To repent means to change one's ways, one's mind, one's way of seeing and doing things. Perhaps we need to repent of the negativity that we have instilled in the Church. Perhaps we need to be the voice of hope, encouragement and recognition that people in the Church need to hear. Isn't that what the saints do? They don't just point to injustice. They give us encouragement. They give us hope. They recognize the good at the same time that they are working to change the bad. I don't know about you, but I'm tired of hearing what's wrong with the Church. I've heard it my entire life. How can the Good News echo to the ends of the earth when the very people who are supposed to be preaching the Good News are shouting about the Bad News?

We have been given a mission. We have been given a task. We have been filled with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit to fulfill that mission. Now let's go do it! Let's get involved! Let's encourage our leaders and be the voice of hope in our Church and in our world! May heaven consume us.