Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Song of Songs, 7 [on spousal love]

[To see all of the earlier posts and this one gathered together in this my sporadic running commentary on the Song of Songs, look to the sidebar on the right under, "Labels," and click on Song of Songs.]

Chapter 1, v 13-14

The maiden is still speaking. These two verses go with verse 12.

As an aside, I would like to note that ancient cultures made extensive use of tangible, concrete things from the natural world as symbols and metaphors for higher things (with some exception for Greek culture, whose abstract philosophical language was remarkable for its being outside the norm). The Song of Songs uses metaphorical language abundantly. (Our language does this as well, but to a lesser extent. We make more use of abstract, theoretical, philosophical terms.)

In verse 13 she speaks of myrrh--an ancient and valuable ingredient in perfumes and incense. In ancient cultures, myrrh was both very valuable in itself, and, valued for its scent (cf. Gen 43:11, Ps 45:8).

And so the maiden uses metaphorical language to speak of her bridegroom as myrrh--myrrh lying between her breasts. [Please note: this is Sacred Scripture, so any temptations a contemporary reader might have to perceive this kind of language in an objectifying, reductionistic, shallow, pornographic sense, ought not allow himself to go down such a path. Any erotic language in the Song of Songs must be seen as fully in harmony with the dignity of the human person and the nobility and beauty of romantic love--a love in kinship with all that upbuilds and supports a mutually reverent and respectful relationship between man and woman--a love that would never abuse another in any way.]

So, notice that she is using something to symbolize her bridegroom that provides a pleasing physical reaction (from the scent) and is highly prized. Its location provides an obvious connotation of sexual attraction. However, notice also that there is no hint of the sort of physical attraction that might be dominating. The myrrh lays in place. She is aware of it and may be reminded of her bridegroom at any time; however, while its effects may be strong it will not overpower her. A further symbolic consequence, no less important, of the myrrh's location is that it is near her heart. Her bridegroom is always near her heart. The heart is the figurative center of the person; it is where the deepest wellsprings of the self are found.

The next verse, 14, nicely confirms this chaste, pure yet passionate vision of love. Here a metaphor for her bridegroom is used that doesn't seem to have such a direct sexual connotation--henna blossoms among the vines (vineyards) of En-Gedi. Henna flowers (photo here) are clustered like lilacs and are very fragrant. They grow in dryer climates. And according to this source, henna plants were used as a protective hedge around ancient vineyards. So, there is a suggestion of protection and safety (enabling grapes to grow and later be turned into wine), as well as the powerfully pleasing factor of its strong scent. Also, there is an idea suggested by the term En-Gedi of something fruitful and rich amidst a surrounding area of barrenness, for the En-Gedi is an ancient oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Here there is a spring of fresh water making possible the growth of palms and other plants amidst surroundings otherwise too dry for such greenery. This, too, suggests protection as well as providing something vital for the full flourishing of life. This kind of protection does not constrict her in the least; rather, it enables her to blossom.

And so the bridegroom is pleasing to the maiden, like a strong perfume in her nostrils. He arouses desire in her and she values him greatly. She keeps him near her heart. She sees him as a protector whose protection will help her to bring forth the rich wine she is meant to produce in her life. To her he is like the most powerfully noticeable and "fragrant" thing in the center of a great oasis. As one emerges from the dessert and approaches this oasis, when the henna is in blossom, perhaps the first thing to catch one's notice is the scent its flowers.

Such is merely a partial portrayal of the character of the maiden's love for her bridegroom.

[Photo of EinGedi garden by Ester Inbar, available from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ST]

Sexual Purity

For anyone interested in the subject of purity (that is, spiritual purity--purity of heart), I heartily recommend this blog post by Fr. Angelo Geiger, FI, on his blog MaryVictrix. (The theme of his blog is "Marian chivalry for the modern world.")

In his post, Fr. Geiger delves into the meaning and purpose of shame in light of the important work on this subject found in the writings of Dietrich Von Hildebrand and John Paul II.

The issues touched upon include that there are different types of shame (e.g. negative and positive shame), the difference between prudery and shame, and the fact that human sexuality has by its very nature an element of mystery built into it. Human sexuality, properly understood, is sublime. And the ways in which we can hurt each other sexually, as well as honor each other, are many and various. Holy shyness (a result of a deep reverence for the profundity of the human person) is a lovely and noble thing. Unlike mere prudishness, it protects and safeguards the beauty and mystery and secret intimacy of a healthy sexual relationship between men and women.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Song of Songs, 6 [on spousal love]

[To see all of the earlier posts and this one gathered together in this my sporadic running commentary on the Song of Songs, look to the sidebar on the right under, "Labels," and click on Song of Songs.]

It's about time I continued commenting on the Song of Songs. So here goes.

Chapter 1, v 12

Here begins a section spanning verses 1:12--2:7 of short alternating statements of praise given first by one and then the other, the maiden and the bridegroom, for each other. It's a kind of alternating duet. This, after they have just finished uttering separate proclamations, the maiden first and then the bridegroom. This is perhaps slightly similar to the form of a contemporary love song duet that begins with one verse sung by one lover followed by the second verse by the other, and then a chorus where they come together and go back-and-forth singing single phrases in alternation with each other.

In verses 12-14 the maiden is speaking of her bridegroom. Verse 12 is perhaps suggestive that the bridegroom, though he has a homestead, lacks something. He may rest in his own room yet he does not have a wife with whom he might share his home. The contrast between the first and second half of verse 12 seems to resonate with this subtle tension. It is a tension meant to be resolved.

The man is content to a certain degree, but restless, for he senses the allure of the maiden--her "nard" calls to him. He cannot help but be aware of his desire for her. It is interesting that it is the maiden speaking here. This reveals that she is quite aware of her powers of attraction and their effects upon her bridegroom. The maiden's "nard" (which seems to symbolize the combined totality of all her womanly allure) is used with an active verb--it yields/gives forth its perfume. Thus, her beauty in all its various shades actively calls out to her lover. The maiden's beauty is like perfume that radiates out from its source--on an active mission--it seeks out and interrupts the awareness of the otherwise contented bridegroom; content, that is, until the perfume of her beauty reaches his heart and gains a firm place in his mind.

I would also suggest that the maiden does not have to try for this to happen. Her beauty calls out to him without her doing anything in particular. Her nard is active on its own and needs little extra help from her. Perfume, when the top is off the bottle, needs no help finding nostrils. It does so by its own powers.

Somehow, the maiden is aware that the entire bouquet of her particular womanly charms is meant for a particular man--her bridegroom. It is to him that the scent of her nard calls. It is this man and not any other, as he rests in his house, whose heart and mind are stirred inexorably in a special way by desire for her. Other women are attractive, but this woman's beauty speaks to him in a unique way, unlike any other. In the quiet of his abode he is aware of her presence, even when she is not physically near.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ray Charles, "Oh What a Beautiful Morning"

More Ray Charles!

Here is an incredibly awesome performance of Ray doing his special jazz version of this classic American song from the Musical, Oklahoma, on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show (and Carson's Tonight Show Band was always a really great band). If you like big band jazz at all, you will love this! It's amazing what he does with this song. I can't imagine anyone else but him singing it like this. One of a kind.

It has a slow intro and then starts swingin' at 2:00.

I love how he puts his entire body into the music! And you can tell it's sincere. He can't help but almost jump out of his skin in his genuine enthusiasm for the music. It's as though every cell of his body is totally absorbed into the soul of the song. Just awesome!!!

This is a good example of great art coming out of a close familiarity with the past. Ray took something older and very familiar to American culture, mixed it up with something a little more recent, and in the mix made it very much his own. And though it is very different from the original, it still has a recognizable trace of its original form. This is one of the reasons the final result is so pleasing. It is old and new and unique and (slightly) familiar all at the same time. It takes real artistic genius to pull this off so well.

Update: If you are a fan of Ray Charles, you will be interested in this. There is a new video podcast series, "Ray Charles, Genius," on Ray and his music available on YouTube. I especially enjoyed the following two episodes: Playing with Ray Charles, and The Real Ray Charles, According to Mike Post. If you are a music lover there is some great behind-the-scenes information in these episodes.

I also especially enjoyed one particular clip from a series of video interviews with Ray made by the National Visionary Leadership Project. Go to this web page, and play the episode, "My First Piano Lessons." (You will need the ability to play wmv files; Windows Media Player or RealPlayer will both work). In this clip Ray talks about his very first experience of the piano when he was only four, via a local boogie-woogie piano player whose music captivated him. It's pretty neat. At the end of the clip he makes this insightful remark, "[music] was just something that was in me, that I just had to be a part of it."

This remark fits nicely with the following idea which I believe is true: great artists have a sense that somehow in the creative process they are tapping into something beyond themselves. The spirit of the artistic impulse is both inside and outside them. When they are engaged in their art, they are not acting completely alone--they are not an isolated island. Somehow, as they create or perform, they are also mysteriously connected to a spiritual reality that informs the artistic process. Note, Ray did not say he had to create music out of nothing as though it were a solitary endeavor; rather, he said he "just had to be a part of it." It, was an already existing reality to which he wanted to become more consciously attuned and connected.

And if you liked that one, the clip, "Hearing my first arrangement," is also quite fun and charming. He describes how thrilling it was for him the first time, still a boy, that he heard musicians play an arrangement of music he had written.

Ray Charles

Another musician whose music I love is the late Ray Charles. There was an incredible ebullience underlying his performances. Soulfulness, joyfulness, mischievousness, intensity, liveliness, quiet passion, are things that come to my mind when I think of Ray Charles' performances.

This is quite fun. Here is a video of Charles appearing on Sesame Street singing the alphabet song to a jazzy shuffle beat with some kids gathered around.

Sadly, he is an example of an artist whose personal life was in some ways not the most admirable. Again, we are confronted with the complexity and fallenness of human life.

I saw him perform live around 2001 or so and it was amazing the incredible zeal, the charisma, and the high performance energy that he still possessed in his 70's!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Krauss and Plant on artistic collaboration

Here is an interesting and kind of fun clip of iconic musicians Alison Krauss and Robert Plant (renowned bluegrass/country, and rock musicians, respectively) in a backstage interview at the 2009 Grammy awards. They collaborated on the 2007 duet album, Raising Sand; it won an impressive five Grammys, including album of the year.

The part I find most intriguing begins at 0:35 in the clip. Robert Plant describes how in making this album he and Alison both intentionally stepped back from their usual roles while doing their own solo projects wherein they are in control and instead let someone else (producer T Bone Burnett) direct the creative process. They did this for the sake of the music. This is a nice example of established artists, who certainly bring longstanding habits and strong views of their own to a project, realizing that they each need to embrace a certain sort of humility in collaboration so that the music can be the focus and not so much themselves.

Here is how Plant put it:
We both removed our own producer hats that we have in our own worlds and gave them to T Bone Burnett [the album's producer] and so we were in a place that was quite magical; it was like a really, a new world for both of us.

I would say this illustrates another principle that is important when artists work together on a joint project: each collaborator must place his (or her) own ego aside and be willing to accept direction and ideas from others for the sake of the overall project. Each one gives generously for the sake of a shared artistic vision which, while not the sole possession of any single contributor, belongs to the group as a whole. The final artistic product benefits greatly from this sort of humility.

Lastest ultrasound technology reveals life in the womb; saves lives

Below is a short video clip from a show produced by National Geographic. It talks about ultrasound imaging of babies in the womb.

Ultrasound technology has made incredible progress in recent years. The newest type of ultrasound imaging is "4D." This type produces moving 3D images of unborn children.

If you would like to donate money in a way that will make a big difference in saving the lives of unborn human beings, one of the best things you could do is to find a pregnancy resource center that does not have an ultrasound machine and that wants to begin using one but doesn't have the financial resources to make the purchase. Help them buy an ultrasound machine (or, help a PRC that has an older, 2D ultrasound to purchase a newer, 3D machine). You will be helping to save lives in a very direct way.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Thoughts about music from conductors [3]

This is part 3 of the series I began here with part 1 and here with part 2 . . . .

A third conductor Hilary Hahn interviewed was Grant Cooper. She asked him,

HH: What kept you with it?

GC: I think that comes back to communication. I really find that we musicians communicate on so many different levels (one-on-one, in larger ensembles with other musicians, with the public, etc.) and in so many different ways: unspoken, mysteriously even, and through shared experiences.

Two points to be drawn from this:

1. There are at least three different levels of communication that a musician might experience while performing. First, if there are only two musicians, communicating with only one other artist. Second, if there are more than two musicians, communicating with a collective of other artists (which is different than interacting with only one). And third, communicating with the audience. Each level of communication goes in both directions. Note, only two of these levels may take place simultaneously (for the first and second cannot happen together by definition).

2. There are a variety of ways in which interactions among fellow performers and between performers and audience happen. Many are non-verbal, mysterious, spiritual, subtle and yet powerful, deeply human, almost telepathic. It is almost as though one were wordlessly passing momentary impressions and emotions back-and-forth to each other, one heart directly to another. As the feeling is passed and becomes shared it gains additional qualities. A poignant and deeply human moment is first privately alive in one's self, then comes to life among a communion of persons. These "moments" happen briefly, like a succession of waves rushing upon a beach. Some are small and delicate, others large and strong. And when things are going especially well and the muse of music visits, there is a sense within those who are most plugged-in to the shared experience that they are somehow, both "in time" and "beyond time."

I think it may be the case that the above points apply more to music than to other art forms. For music, uniquely, is a living art form. It moves dynamically through time, even though it can be represented statically in the form of ink on paper. Music is not fully itself unless being performed. And as it is performed, it is alive. Like a human life, it cannot be captured in or reduced to a single point in time.

By sharing the reality of a musical performance we are given a means to experience communion with each other in a way that is both meaningful and unique; and hopefully it may also be revelatory, insight-bestowing, and wisdom-enriching--in a word, humanizing.

[For more on similar themes see my comments and the videos of Hilary Hahn in two earlier posts here and here.]

Thursday, September 24, 2009

British writer suggests topic for Holy Father on visit to Britain

The online version of the British publication, The Telegraph, today published a post in its blog section, "The Pope Should Talk About Sex When He Comes to Britain," by David Lindsay.

Apparently, the Holy Father is scheduled to make a trip to the UK next year. This is historic, as it will be only the second visit by a Pope to Britain since Henry VIII split with the Church in the 16th century. John Paul II made a pastoral visit in 1982. Though he was warmly received, JPII's visit was not by official invitation of the British government. This upcoming visit by Benedict XVI is in response to an official invitation given by Gordon Brown.

Linday's post includes the following sobering information:

He will, after all, be visiting a country where condoms are practically thrown at children. Yet sexually transmitted infections are at epidemic levels among teenagers and twentysomethings. One woman in three will have an abortion at some point in her fertile life. No one really knows how many underage pregnancies there are, because abortions on underage girls are frequently recorded as other things, if at all, in order to distort the figures. Hardcore pornography is everywhere. Lap-dancing clubs, unknown here (except perhaps in Soho, I don’t know) even only ten years ago, are now all over the place. [read the whole post here]

As bad as we may think things are here in the United States, unfortunately, things seem to be worse in the UK. I would attribute this at least in part to the state of the Christian faith. The British public seems to be less religious as a whole than the American public. Although, interestingly, I understand that among British Christians who attend Church regularly Catholics have become the largest segment to be found in the pews.

A serious and wholehearted embrace of Christianity provides protection against a gradual slide into moral depravity. Without a lasting resurgence of Christian faith Western nations will continue an ever-worsening decline into cultural and moral decay, with aimlessness and violence an inevitable result. We are in a bad way. But hope is not lost. For Britain, as for us, with Christ all things are possible.

Thoughts about music from conductors [2]

This is part 2 of the series I began here with part 1. . . .

Christian Gansch is another conductor Hilary Hahn interviewed. She asked him,

Q: A very compelling aspect of your profession?

A: Music is both an intellectual and an emotional pursuit, for some people even a fulfillment of a basic human need. It's wonderful to have the opportunity to conduct orchestras and be part of that musical experience – but even if I didn't conduct, I'd still study scores (Beethoven, Bruckner, Ravel, Debussy, or Strauss, or Prokofiev, for example). Music is healing, and it illustrates the soul as if in a mirror of compassionate objectivity. [emphasis mine]

A couple points I would draw from this:

1. Music (and any artistic endeavor) at its best involves more than one part of the human person; it stirs up a complex symphony of intellect, will, and emotion--of head, heart, and guts--of reason, desire, and passion.

2. Great art helps reflect the human soul back to itself--for artist and audience both. Part of the task of becoming more human is to understand the human condition more keenly. For this, one needs to be able to establish a certain distance between the immediacy of one's own most powerful experiences, and reason. In other words, we have to step back a bit from ourselves in order to assess ourselves calmly within our own minds. This might be called "compassionate objectivity." Great art can provide us a privileged view, through the lens of compassionate objectivity, into the deeper mysteries of the human condition.

It seems to me that Christian Gansch's answer supports my thoughts about the importance of an artist not being completely self-absorbed during the creative process. For while an artist immersed only in himself may be engaged in a journey of self-understanding (although I am skeptical of this; I would suggest he cannot do this authentically without conscious reference to the world beyond himself), it is likely that he will have erected a barrier for his art ever to be able to serve as a meaningful catalyst of a similar journey for other people. The language spoken by artist and audience has to have something in common if they are to come together through art in a shared quest for deeper insight.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thoughts about music from conductors [1]

I think I will make this a series. . . Violinist Hilary Hahn thought it would be interesting to do some interviews where instead of her being the interviewee, she would ask other music professionals questions about music. Available at her official web site are the transcripts from these interviews (there are five total as of this posting).

I would like to give a few selected excerpts from these interviews as they contain some interesting thoughts about music. And I think they also may be applied more broadly to any form of art. They help to shed further light on that wonderful aspect of being human which is our propensity for artistic creativity.

Here is an excerpt from an interview Hilary did with conductor Bramwell Tovey. Hilary is the questioner:

Q: Classical music in schools – what difference does it make, and why is it important?

A: [. . .] An education without a significant musical component is not a proper education. Music is a language and understanding something of it as a performer or listener is an important part of a well educated mind. The musical philosophies of Beethoven and Mahler are easily appreciated as life enhancing. In the case of Shostakovich, who for some reason still baffles some listeners, he heroically articulated the despair of the human condition under the nose of Stalin at a time when his compatriots were being imprisoned in the gulag. An understanding of the language of classical music is part of understanding our civilization [. . .]

And so, Tovey holds that having a serious exposure to the tradition of classical music that has come before our time is a life-enriching experience. It helps make us more human. His comment about Shostakovich acknowledges how art can reflect elements of an artist's society in a powerful way. It also illuminates the fact that learning about the history and cultural context of the times in which an artist lived is a great help in being able to more deeply receive and appreciate his art.

A few key points might be teased out, reflecting on and embellishing the above:

1. Music (and art more broadly) is an important component of the formation of an educated person. Art provides something to the human soul that is unique. Other kinds of human endeavors cannot replace the special contribution that art makes to a flourishing, well-rounded human life.

2. Being able to appreciate great art in all its depth and profundity requires some education about art. This is not to say that art cannot be enjoyed deeply without this, for it certainly can. But, to gain the most that one possibly might from great art requires at least some amount of artistic education in particular. As Tovey put it, certain types of art speak a kind of "language." Knowing something about this language adds to the ability of a receiver of art to receive in more abundance what a work of art has to give.

3. Part of the education necessary to fully benefit from the work of a particular artist is to learn about the life history of the artist, the history of his society and about the contemporary culture in which he lived.

4. A major facet of Western civilization is its artistic patrimony. If we are to understand our own civilization and its place in the world we must know something about the history, purposes, and special qualities of its great art.

I'll close with another question Hilary asked of Bramwell Tovey,

Q: A very compelling aspect of your profession?
A: The fact that every day of my life I am dealing in some of the greatest creations of the human mind.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Cistercian monks on video

Here is a short (7 min) video about life at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank, located in Wisconsin. The PBS show, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, featured them on September 11.

They did a nice job giving a flavor for monastic life in the contemporary world. Do take a look if you are at all curious about monasticism and its valuable place in the world. We benefit much from the prayers and example of dedicated monks and nuns who pursue a special closeness to God for the sake of the Church and for the whole world.

[HT: New Liturgical Movement]

Saturday, September 19, 2009

An Affirmation: great art is inherently public and involves a community between artist and audience

A few days ago I listened to a podcast of a lecture delivered in June, 2009, by David M. Whalen, Professor of English at Hillsdale College, titled "Richard Weaver: The Language of Conservatism." [available in the online lecture library of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a valuable free resource]

I was pleasantly surprised to find in this lecture a strong affirmation of certain elements of my own thinking about the nature of art and the artistic process. I am referring here to my two earlier posts, Art is Inherently Public, and, Art Needs the Engagement of Artist and Audience Both.

In the former post I remarked that artists, if they are to create great art, should not engage in the creative process in an overly self-enclosed way, as though walled-off from the world beyond themselves. To quote myself, I wrote, "art is created for the sake of being seen (or heard) by someone." The artist must continue to care about the world of his audience even as he explores his own unique, inner vision.

In the latter post I commented that the audience as well must be open to the artist and what the artist is communicating through his art. I wrote, "And so the audience also has to engage. They have to be receptive, open, willing to work to discover what the art has to say."

I attempted to sum up these complementary ideas, saying, "considering the whole context in which art truly serves as art including the creation, presentation, and reception by an audience . . . art, when it is fruitful . . . when it succeeds as art-- is endowed with a concurring spirit of openness and receptivity . . . in both the artist and the audience."

So, with this brief review, let us turn to the above lecture by Professor Whalen. His talk used the thinking of 20th century intellectual Richard Weaver as a starting point, especially as found in Weaver's 1948 book, Ideas Have Consquences. Several minutes into the lecture Whalen addressed ideas pertaining to the creation and reception of art. He explained that Weaver had lamented how our modern, industrialized Western culture was becoming less and less civilized. I transcribed the following from Whalen's talk:

Central to [Richard Weaver’s] work and thought, is the argument that a late medieval rejection of transcendentals or universals renders the idea of knowing anything not immediately perceived by the senses impossible.

[. . .] This is part of the gradual orientation toward endless stimulation and the exaltation of the purely imminent. Sensation itself, it seems, has taken the place formerly held by reflection. In modern art, we see the confluence of this tyrannical egotism on the one hand, and the primacy of comfort and transitory, material, or sensual pleasure, on the other. The thesis that somewhere in the past few centuries all forms of art came to be understood as exalted self-expression is hardly novel or terribly controversial. . . . Bereft of ordering concepts that give definition to the human person and to the idea of communities, art is left to express the self in isolation. Ideals pertaining to heroism, or the family, or the city or community, the good life, or even ideals pertaining to artistic form, genre, or type, traditionally animate artistic production. Attenuated by modernity’s turn from abstract ideals these animating principles fade from view, leaving the artist stranded.

Of course, this can be felt as an intoxicating freedom at first . . . no longer does the individual with talent have to deal with tradition. But the absence of ideals is critically compounded in its effects by the simultaneous isolation of the artist. That is, a tradition also is a kind of community. . . Untune that string, and hark what discord follows. The artist is free to express himself, yes. But, he does so in a vacuum; he expresses himself, to himself. Not only ideals are absent, but so is an intelligible audience or community. No longer does Demoticus [sp?], Homer’s bard, sit at the feast and sing his epics to a wondering audience. He sits alone, instead, or perhaps before a lifeless microphone, and chants faint hymns to the cold, fruitless moon.

The egotism of this self-expression in isolation has a corollary at the other end, so-to-speak, of artistic production. How is art received? “Egotism,” says Weaver, “in work and art, is the flowering after long growth of a heresy of human destiny. The heresy . . . is that man’s destiny in the world is not to perfect himself, but to lean back in sensual enjoyment.” In other words, while the artist expresses himself to himself in isolation, the receiver of art, if I may say so, looks to amuse himself in isolation. . . . The essential observation is that what one does as a receiver of art [in contemporary society] is merely or purely sensual enjoyment rather than that same enjoyment in the course of participation in a public affirmation of a human ideal.

It seems to me that these remarks harmonize well with the ideas I put forth in my two blog posts about the artistic process. A pleasant affirmation!

And I would like to note that professor Whalen, via Weaver, explains why modern artists have tended to create art in an isolated, self-absorbed mode--and likewise why modern audiences have tended to look to art merely for an an experience of the imminent and for immediate pleasure. Sadly, our respect for the traditions and values of the past has diminished. The habit of self-reflection in light of perennial ideals has become devalued. The primacy of the immediate moment and the experience of pleasure has become dominant. This, for art, is a dual curse--to become detached from the values of one's culture while simultaneously becoming excessively preoccupied with self.

How can we contribute to establishing a culture that once again is capable of fostering and appreciating great art? Somehow, we need to relearn--reconnecting with our past, reaching out of ourselves toward others, and putting the merely pleasurable and immediate in its proper place--how to engage in art in a more fully and truly human mode. Connecting with transcendent reality is essential. This is a challenge which everyone, not only art producers, must strive to meet. If we make progress, perhaps once again we may be blessed by living in a community of persons in which the experience of art, for artists and audiences both, is a genuine "participation in a public affirmation of a human ideal."

Satriani on advisability of children entering too early into music business

Here is a short clip where Satch talks about children and the music business. He makes some great points. His remarks are as valid for children involved in any art form as they are for music in particular.

Here are a few points I think follow from and/or are very much in harmony with what Joe says in this clip:

1. Even though certain children may have great artistic talent, they should not enter the realm of the professional performer/musician until they are no longer children and have developed the minimum maturity necessary to handle the various difficult, harsh, even cruel at times realities of the professional music world.

2. The full range of talents and skills necessary to live successfully as a professional artist require more than artistic talent alone. One also needs savvy business skills, prudence about one's own career, and insight into human nature. It is important to have the spiritual maturity one needs to handle disappointments and criticism in healthy way.

3. Maturing young artists need guidance from wise elder practitioners of their art. This is highly preferable to going it alone. They may benefit greatly from the counsel of more experienced artists in both the development of their artistic talent and in many other areas in which they need to gain wisdom in order to navigate the professional art world.

4. Along with great talent, it is necessary for anyone aspiring to make a living as an artist that they have a deep and enduring love and passion for their art and for the creative process. The art itself should be the primary reward rather than expectations of financial success.

Joe demonstrates here an admirable concern for the souls of young musicians and not just a tunnel-visioned interest in their talent (as I suspect is the case with some involved in the arts). He cares for the whole person and makes these comments on that basis. This perspective should inform any experienced adult involved with guiding and encouraging young aspiring artists of any sort. Don't consider them only in regard to their particular talents as artists--rather, keep in mind the whole person and what is best for them as human beings from the big-picture point of view. Kudos to Satch for his example!

Monday, September 14, 2009

The ACORN scandal: Moral indifference has severe cultural consequences

The recent revelations about the apparently massively corrupt organization, ACORN, are rooted in attitudes that have long been promoted by certain key groups/segments of society which have a disproportionately large cultural influence in America.

The shocking undercover videos made by James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles reveal that, at least in the ACORN Housing offices of Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Brooklyn, NY, the idea that a house of child prostitution might move in to their neighborhood in the near future does not upset their employees. In fact, they had no problem advising two individuals posing as a pimp and a prostitute how to arrange their income so they could appear legitimate and get a loan for a house (in which to conduct child prostitution), how to avoid being caught by authorities (because it's illegal), and even such things as how to hide cash in a "tin" and bury it under the grass in the backyard so that other shady characters would not find it in case they came looking for it. Gosh, I wonder if they have thought of this sort of thing before? So much for the integrity of ACORN.

As I say, such attitudes have roots in ideas that have long been supported by a certain segment of very influential cultural elites. What ideas? Well, one of the most destructive of them goes like this:

There is no ultimate purpose for human life, and all ideas about morality, of right and wrong in human actions, are simply matters of discerning one's own already-given, interior feelings and dispositions. Right and wrong are simply what each person feels to be right and wrong for himself (herself). In other words, there are no universal standards of human morality, only personal, individual standards. And the only judgments any person can legitimately make about the morality of human acts are to judge his own actions. When it comes to the actions of other people, we cannot proclaim them right or wrong (good or evil), we can only help them discover whether their actions live up to their own unique personal moral code.

This is moral relativism, which leads inevitably to moral indifference toward everyone but oneself. In my experience, a sector of society with great cultural influence which holds such views is the educational establishment. I don't mean everyone involved with teaching, but I do mean especially those who are in highly respected positions of influence and leadership within the field of education--especially public education. I speak especially of those who educate the educators--writing curricula for teacher education--as well as those who set policy for public teacher's unions and those who have a big influence over textbooks. Most worrisome are those who are considered expert in teaching "sex education" (or "health"), social studies/history, and English.

I am personally convinced that for some decades, many (though not all) public schools have subtly (sometimes not-so-subtly) encouraged moral indifference in regard to a few key areas of human life. Think of the issue of homosexuality and the nature of marriage. How many students, by the time they graduate high school (and then college), have been influenced by what happens in the classroom to look upon an actively gay lifestyle, including same-sex-marriage, with indifference? The same goes for abortion and sexual activity by unmarried teens. If a student reacts negatively to such things it is suggested to him or her (and reinforced many times and many ways) that while it is fine for him personally to decide not to engage in such activity, he has no right--indeed it is grievously wrong--for him to try to convince (or even suggest to) anyone else that they too should not be doing those things.

When it comes to sexual behavior, kids are taught that it is bad to judge the morality of the (sexual) acts of other kids. They may only judge their own acts--whether they are being true to themselves or not (represented by the mindless notion of telling kids they should figure out if they are "ready" for sex). And what happens when adults begin to think this way, not only about other adults, but about children?

What does this have to do with the ACORN scandal? A lot. A great deal!

The ACORN workers in the videos nonchalantly advising a supposed pimp and prostitute about how to get money for a house the workers were told would be used for child prostitution are simply the inevitable consequence of this morally indifferent attitude. This is exactly what our most elite and influential professionals in the field of public education encourage. It is how our young people are taught to view the world. And those areas of our society, I suspect, where this morally bankrupt and putrid approach to life is most heavily pushed are in our poorest neighborhoods and schools. [Note: I would apply this primarily to secular public schools, less to private religious schools, though they are not immune.]

It follows. . . If one cannot say that it is wrong (note: not simply undesirable, but wrong) for two 14-year-olds to have sex with each other as long as they both consent (as many teacher educators would tell teachers), it is not much of a stretch from there to saying that it is OK for a 14-year-old and an adult to have sex, so long as the child "consents." If there were any ACORN workers in the above videos who had any reservations about child prostitution this attitude I describe would equip them to facilitate such activities without a bothered conscience. For they would see any personal reservations as merely personal--particular to themselves only--believing that they have no right to render any moral judgment upon others. "So long as the pimp and prostitute think it's fine and dandy, who am I to say otherwise???"

There are too many adults in our society who seem to hold similar notions (including many in journalism, entertainment, and the arts). Those among us who have a sane moral compass, knowing that there is indeed such a thing as a universal moral code and that a civil human society cannot survive long without recognizing this, have an obligation to act against the forces of moral indifference in our culture. The future of our nation depends on us.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"Give me One Reason" Tracy Chapman & Eric Clapton

I have to post this song also. Below is a video of Tracy Chapman and Eric Clapton (another musician I love) performing her bluesy song, "Give me One Reason." The two of them together here are awesome! This version of the song is really fantastic! If you like blues, or Chapman, or Clapton, you will love this.

What about these lyrics? Do they suggest something true about the mysteries of love?

Two things about love, to me, are hinted at in this song. First, is that love is not automatic--it requires work. Neither party can simply assume it will remain as it is without effort; it is necessary for each person to tell the other they love each other--and including at times, why--reasons why you find the other person calls forth your love (as in, "give me one reason . . ."). The second, is that love between two people does not completely erase the fact that human beings are never completely, totally, 100% compatible in this life. Sometimes we speak as though there is a "perfect" love if only the right person could be found. But, in reality, our souls yearn for a perfection of love that no human being could ever give us in its totality. Sin gets in the way. So, in this life, the mystery of love between human persons--even two people who are a good match and who love each other genuinely--has a little bit of an edgy, thorny quality. We want to be with a lover, but then, at times we want to escape, to get away, to be alone. This song nicely captures this edgy ambivalence that lurks underneath love and that can creep up to the surface if we don't continue to work (as in the first point) to fan the flames.

I love blues music. Isn't it great! And behind its simple lyrics can be rather profound snippets of wisdom about life.

"You're the One," Tracy Chapman; love sees the beloved with a special depth

Have I mentioned Tracy Chapman on this blog yet? She is another singer/songwriter whose music I really love. When I first found out about her and bought my first Chapman album (her 1988 debut album, "Tracy Chapman"), around 1990 or so, I remember putting it into my car stereo (at the time I had a really great car stereo) and just sitting in my car with the music playing, completely immersed in the music--even mesmerized by it. The spirit she conveys in her music, its simplicity and directness and closeness to human experience is amazing.

Here is a video of Tracy Chapman singing, "You're the One."

I would like to observe that the lyrics of this song indicate a deep truth about people in love. Now the approach of the song toward this truth may not be altogether entirely healthy, but it still points the way to something true about real love. What is this truth? When two people love each other, they gain--through their love--a deeper insight into the hidden goodness of the other person. Love, in a special way, shines a clarifying light upon the unique inner truth that is the core identity of the other person. This song, I think, taps into this reality. She may not have been thinking exactly this way, but nonetheless I think this truth about the ability of love to know the beloved in a special way lies behind the song's lyrics. This is also suggested in that the song speaks of others who are critical of the singer's loved one. But in spite of this she proclaims her loyalty. Now, this might be (and sometimes is) because she is deluded. But, it could also be because her love permits her to see things in the beloved that others cannot see.

Listen to the lyrics, and see if you don't agree with me. (And, you gotta love those cool percussion dudes playing beat boxes with their hands.)

This song is so smooth. With all of her songs, I love the way the music just seems to flow out of her, with such a simple directness and authenticity. Great!

"Overdriver" song by Joe Satriani

Back to guitarist Joe Satriani for a little bit. . .

On his 2008 album, "Professor Satchafunkilus And The Musterion Of Rock," Satch has a song called "Overdriver." I think it's a great tune. It has a neat groove and is fun to listen to.

In the following video clip he describes the origin of this song. He was thinking of a particular childhood memory as he composed this. It's quite intriguing. It has to do with coloring. (his explanation is in the first minute; the second minute is just a partial audio excerpt from the song along with a photo slideshow)

And in this next video he plays the whole song at a clinic for guitar players. Before he performs the song, he describes some of the musical details about the song, and a little about the pedals he uses. You can see from this how much careful thought goes into composing music. There are various layers of structure and organization that makes it all come together in an interesting and pleasing way. I find it very interesting to get some insight into how a great musician like this thinks about one of his compositions. If you just want to skip right to the song, go to 4:10 in the video.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Needfulness of listening to opponents

[Update: I have written two other posts related to the subject of sound argumentation. If this interests you, see "The Scourge of Niceness," and "Frenetic, Distractible, Unfocused Minds."]

Are you happy with the way politicians handle the debates of our day?

I don't intend to blog much about politics. It is something every citizen should care about and should be involved in as he is able, but I don't see that I would add much to the already large number of voices writing regularly about the political scene.

However, I do want to make a comment about a general principle. I am very concerned that the nature of political discourse among the elected politicians of our blessed nation is getting worse from an already low position.

The American political scene (and this is true of any free, representative democracy), if it is to be capable of maintaining any measure of health, must be able to sustain a certain minimum level of sincerity and authenticity in political debate. There is a particular quality that is essential for the existence of politically healthy dialogue between opposing parties (whether these parties be individuals or groups). This is the quality of being sincerely open to and interested in the ideas of an opponent.

Among the more notable figures of history there are great thinkers who were not only great minds but good men. It is important for us today to notice that great and good men who had a great and salutary influence upon their societies, whether of more recent times (such as Abraham Lincoln) or more ancient (such as Socrates), have at least this much in common: they listened to their opponents and took them seriously. They listened because they desired to listen. They considered the ideas of their opponents with respect. A politician cannot be great, indeed, is likely to become a danger to society, if he does not want his own ideas to be publicly challenged. And a close and necessary companion to this quality of openness is to desire the best possible ordering of human society more than you desire your own political success. A politician who has a greater allegiance to his own political advancement than he does to seeking what is best for the common good deserves to be defeated by someone less self-serving.

What got me thinking of this topic? So often now, when I hear a politician speak in support of his (or her) party's position on an issue, it is clear that he has not bothered to listen to and take seriously the criticisms of his opponents. This behavior has no place in a democracy if we are to remain a free society. Men like St. Thomas Aquinas, Socrates, and Lincoln, listened carefully to the criticism of their opponents. One could almost say they were hungry for opposition; they soaked up contrary ideas like sponges. They worked hard to understand those critiques. They tried to represent the ideas of their opponents fairly and to verify that they understood those ideas before crafting a response. Then, after listening sincerely and really trying to see the opponent's point of view, they would do their best to address those criticisms openly and directly and as thoroughly as possible. This kind of noble behavior in disagreement is a consequence of genuine respect for the equal dignity of all persons and of a firm allegiance to such values as truth, integrity, justice, honor, and graciousness.

I am very concerned about how rare it is to find a leading politician (from any party) who seems to be sincerely open to the concerns of his critics. Often, I suspect such appearances are just that--appearances. We ardently need political leaders who understand that finding the best political solutions requires vigorous and honest argumentation among the best and most experienced minds. We need them to seek first what is best for our country through the means of forthright dialectic; we do not need them to seek victory for their side above all else. In other words, we need politicians who want and know how to have real arguments rather than ideologues who will do anything to shut down serious criticism.

Lord, please grant us such politicians in abundance.

What do young adult Catholics need? [5]

They need the most energetic, charismatic, vigorously dynamic, larger-than-life speakers and leaders that can possibly be found!

Actually, no.

Not every single person involved with speaking to young adults or leading young adult groups has to be a human dynamo of "youthful" pizazz and zippiness. To try to acheive this is a mistake.

Now, there is nothing wrong with having such people involved. Their energy and enthusiasm can be a great help. But not everyone involved needs to be like this.

I speak here from direct experience. Young adults will indeed listen to and respond to speakers who are not human Energizer bunnies. What matters more than sheer energy is that speakers and leaders

1) deeply care about young adults (whether they still be one or not) and like being around them,
2) can identify with and empathize with young adults and their needs,
3) have basic public speaking skills,
4) know and love their Catholic faith and can communicate their faith with hope and joy,
5) are authentic,
6) for those in leadership, that they have basic leadership skills, and
7) pray for and with those whom they serve.

To expand on no. 3, it is fine if a person is not necessarily the greatest speaker in the world. But they do have to be at least decent--capable of being understood and of communicating ideas with clarity and conviction. As important as they are, style and delivery are not everything. A mediocre public speaker who is extremely sincere and honest and has a great message can still be very effective. Also, naturally quiet, introverted people can be excellent public speakers (in fact, many Dominicans are actually introverts by nature). One does not have to be a "force of nature" with a great deal of charm and gregariousness to be able to hold the attention of an audience (the joy of no. 4 can be quiet joy, which can have its own special power). I have seen the reality of this demonstrated many times. And besides, no matter how great a speaker is, it is not likely that he (or she) will be able to pluck the heartstrings of every audience member. Different speaker personalities will effect people in different ways. Considering the audience, quiet, introspective types can even be put-off by highly exuberant personalities. So it is a good thing not to always seek the dynamos as speakers.

A good variety of speaker personalities with consistently high quality, meaningful, relevant content, coming from earnest and loving hearts--this is what will work over the long term. Maintaining a standard of good public speaking need not translate into presenters that all have the same style.

Monday, September 7, 2009

What do young adult Catholics need? [4]

So, at this point, I will make a few basic remarks addressing how parishes might begin to do a better job of addressing the most important needs of young adults.

I should say that I think most of these are fairly obvious, given the needs. Also, I won't try in this post to be detailed or exhaustive. I simply want to indicate a few things I believe would be important.

And so here are a few ideas. To my mind, it would be very helpful for American young adults if parishes tried to do more of the following:

Cultivate community--meaningful community, deep-rooted community. Help young adults to form bonds, relationships, and friendships with others that go beyond the trivial and superficial.

Provide guidance in becoming a person of prayer. This helps to bring more stability, self-identity, and self-knowledge into one's life, not to mention provides a healthy reminder of one's place in the world and of life's purpose.

Provide opportunities to serve people in need alongside other young adults. In addition to benefiting others, this helps build community and strengthen one's relationship to Christ.

Provide guidance in vocational discernment. Although a person is employed, in today's culture he (or she) often does not find his place in society until some years after his first or second job. Those with possible vocations to the priesthood or religious life need support and assistance in testing such indications.

Provide catechesis in areas of particular need for young adults. This could include almost anything, but certainly there are areas of particular relevance for young adults. These would include marriage and sexuality and learning more about the nature and content of revelation as it concerns the state of fallen mankind, the relationship between creation and God, man’s place in creation, and the purpose of man’s earthly life as designed by God.

Provide guidance in coming closer to Christ. This, of course, is part of any parish's basic mission to all the people it serves. Nonetheless, young adults are often lacking in this area. For example, the sacraments are all about coming closer to Christ. But, despite religious instruction received in their childhood, many young adult Catholics do not know how the sacraments are truly instruments of grace and healing, and intimacy with Christ.

Looking back at this basic list, it does seem almost too basic, perhaps too obvious. Yet, in my experience of the Catholic Church in America, only a few parishes reach out to adults in a regular fashion along these lines.

I would add something that is also extremely important: finding the right people to work with young adults is vital to the fruitfulness of the effort. Sometimes, it seems as though local Church leaders lose sight of this. You can have a great program outlined on paper, but with the wrong people in charge it will not last long. Outreach to young adults should be, above all, sincere and well-informed. Leaders should be well-educated and well-formed in the faith. They should be good examples of persons on the journey toward ever greater intimacy with Christ. They should have an evident love and concern for young adults. And, they should be good public speakers. Careful selection of group leaders cannot be overlooked in establishing a vibrant young adult ministry. More can be said about this but I will leave at this for now.

What do young adult Catholics need? [3]

I have been thinking more about number 4 of my last post and I want to qualify this a bit.

I do think it is true that many young adults are emotionally and/or psychologically immature compared to my grandparents' generation. And, I still hold that an unbalanced (and directionless) tendency toward excessive navel-gazing, losing oneself in a detached inner world, is bound up with this (note: I do not deny in any way that properly contextualized and purposeful self-examination is very important). However, the aspect I want to qualify is my comment about young people being too emotionally excitable and/or excitable about the wrong things--things that do not warrant a highly emotional response.

Indeed, some adults do suffer from this trait. But, there are also many who suffer from the opposite--something that can be referred to as insensitivity.

Just as there are young people whose emotions are too easily or inappropriately roused, there are young people who do not react strongly to things when decency demands that they should. A lack of passion about things which ought to stir up passion is just as, if not more, problematic as the opposite.

What do young adult Catholics need? [2]

In my previous post I gave some ideas as to why young adult Catholics are not, generally speaking, very engaged in their faith--and especially not engaged in the activities of their local parishes.

Now, to continue this line of thinking about what young adult Catholics need, two movements present themselves for exposition. The first: What realities do young adult Catholics face that are most relevant for Catholic parishes? The second: How might parishes begin to do a better job of addressing them? In this post I will take up the first.

The following realities (in no particular order) are things which I think are especially pressing issues for American young adults. Some of this, of course, comes by way of my own life experience, and some comes by way of observation.

Many single young adults experience the following:

1. A sense of isolation. This is in the form of being only very weakly connected to people with whom they regularly associate. And this, in spite of the fact that a typical young adult may have many acquaintances (hundreds of Facebook friends!), even many of what they refer to as friends. But sadly, these relationships, while fun at times and a source of enjoyment on some level, are not very deep. These connections are, in the end, thin and tenuous, easily broken and then discarded in the ever-growing bin of defunct relationships. For many, their day-to-day circle of human relationships is like standing next to a moving walkway at a busy airport--a constantly moving stream of faces, approaching, passing by, and receding as quickly as they came, the supply of new unfamiliar faces never ending. Another way to characterize this is to say that they lack meaningful community.

2. A lack of stability and a poor sense of personal identity. These are two sides of the same coin, and are related to no. 1. In order to have a firm sense of self-identity--of who you are in the world--you need to have some measure of stability. A significant component of our self-image is shaped by how other people respond and interact with us. But, when our lives as young adults have not had the benefit of a stable presence of a few people (in addition to immediate family) who have known us for a significant time of our lives, it is harder (though not impossible) to receive a meaningful reflection of ourselves through the eyes of others. This complicates the solidification of a secure self-image that should be firming up in early adulthood. Many young adults are able to give an impression that they are confident and secure in themselves. But I suspect despite appearances this is often not the case. In the secret realm of the inner reaches of their own hearts, they are still yearning to know themselves.

3. A desire for some sort of spirituality (or, religion, if they are not put off by the term), yet at the same time feeling at a loss for how to proceed. Another way to characterize this might be to say that young adults sense a need to be connected to something beyond, and greater than, themselves. They need to pray (even if they don't prefer this term). Their souls are not at peace, and at some level this disquiet yearns for resolution.

4. Emotional and/or psychological immaturity. I'm not sure how to describe or substantiate this. But, I think it is true. In part, I suggest this is rooted in our society's overemphasis on turning inward into ourselves. We are told to look inside for the keys to many of the most important things in life, things like identity, morals, purpose, etc. While this is partly true--it is not entirely true. And people who attempt to look only inward to find the roots of all they need for a joyful and stable life are eventually going to become, ironically, scattered, rootless, unselfpossessing individuals. This is not because being self-reflective is bad--within reason it is good. However, it must be regularly balanced and accompanied by other meaningful and deep relationships (with other people, and, most importantly, with God). Young adults tend, I think, to have overly vulnerable, and/or too-easily-influenced emotional lives. They have been shaped by a youth culture that seems to place a priority on readily experiencing highly charged emotional reactions to life. However, this culture encourages emotional drama that is disproportionate to the realities evoking the response. A certain superficiality to human emotional life is ingrained via the off-kilter affective habits of American youth culture. This produces adults who have the psychological unease to realize, first, that emotional depth and intensity is an important and proper part of a fulfilling life, and yet, second, that their personal experience of their own emotions is often out-of-sorts in some way (either too out-of-control or too easily effected by things that are ultimately not significant or meaningful). Young adults are at a loss for how to have emotional passion in a way that is properly balanced and attuned to what is most significant in life. How to be passionate in a way that is nonetheless amicable with stability and meaningfulness and that nurtures a healthy interior life rather than contributes to anxiety and self-doubt?

5. An absent or minimal sense of purpose in life. There is a significant exception to this (and this ties in to no. 4). Some adults are so distracted and caught-up in their daily activities that they never stop to notice that they don't have a firm and hearty understanding of what the point of it all is. (Or, they have permitted themselves to acquire a habit of being satisfied with superficial thrills or distractions, such as video games, internet surfing and socializing, TV, video, etc.) But even in such cases, I would claim that they still suffer from an inner angst the cause of which they cannot pin down. Those who are conscious that they do not have a solid sense of purpose in life are still at a loss for how to resolve their ennui.

6. A desire to "make a difference," but not being sure how. Human beings who have not killed their consciences want to help other people somehow. We want to be a blessing for others. But what is the best way for each of us to make a lasting positive impact?

7. Confusion and anxiety about the meaning and purpose of marriage and the role of the family in relation to society. All the associated concerns having to do with sexuality, dating, male-female relationships, finding the right spouse, I would put under this broad subject. Also, related anxieties about how to enter into a marriage in a way that increases the likelihood of building a loving, close-knit family. How should a person approach serious problems or absences from his own family history? What can a single young adult do now before engagement and marriage that will help make him or her a better spouse, mother, or father in the future?

8. Confusion over masculinity and femininity. This is related to no. 7 but distinctive enough that I'll give it its own number. What does it mean to be a "real man"? What does it mean to be a "real woman"? How does one become more authentically masculine or feminine without adopting a stereotype or taking on traits that do not fit naturally with one's own individual personality? How do we tell the difference between authentic manhood or womanhood and their counterfeits?

9. Uncertainty about one's vocation. What is a person truly "meant" to do in life? What is our life calling; how do we discern this? Is it going to come in one moment of clarity; do we come to it gradually over time; is it different for different people? How do we best engage others to help us grow in understanding in this area? How do we elicit God's help in this, and how do we recognize His guidance?

Just a few things here! Of course, not every young and single adult is troubled by all of these. And the degree to which any one of these issues impacts a person varies. But, I do think they are truly serious issues for many. How might the Church become better at serving young adults in these and other areas of great need?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

What do young adult Catholics need?

As a single adult Catholic and former Dominican seminarian, and ever since my conversion to Catholicism, I have been interested in the matter of how to reach Catholic young adults to help them go deeper in their faith. It is a vexing issue. Single Catholic adults (especially those in their 20's and 30's), especially men, tend to be rather scarce in a typical parish. There are a lot more Catholic young adults out there than usually attend Sunday Mass. Sadly, a significant portion of Catholics cease regularly practicing their faith during high school or college. At some point, when out on their own, their faith becomes secondary to other concerns.

In many Catholic parishes single adults seem to slip through the cracks. In this post I would like to offer suggestions as to why. Here are a few of my thoughts on this:

1. First, there are simply a lot more single adults than there used to be. A few generations back, most people married in their early-to-mid twenties. Now, the age at which most people marry has increased to the late twenties. Many more people are single into their 30's than used to be the case 3 or 4 decades ago. This phenomenon of waiting longer to marry has increased the number of single adults.

2. A "typical" American parish, it seems to me (and there are notable exceptions), operates according to a model of life that is in some ways no longer relevant in 21st century America. Many parishes still seem to act as though all Catholics go to Catholic school or CCD, receive solid catechesis, are confirmed, live their faith uninterrupted, and get married and begin having children in their early 20's. Increasingly, this is not the case and should not be presumed. In other words, the old pattern of parish ministry--still often in place--did not try to do anything specific for single young adults because parishes 50 years ago did not have many of them. They still operate as though single adults are not a significant part of society. But this approach is by now very outdated.

3. Young adult Catholics are not aware of peers who take their faith seriously and would not know where to find them if they wanted to.

4. When a more specific outreach to single adults is attempted--whether at the parish or diocesan level--it is often poorly done. Such attempts tend to be downright silly and/or superficial and unserious. People tasked with such ministry are sometimes poorly matched for it. Out-of-touch, gimmick-laden cheerleaders who seem to have an excessive need to be seen as youthful and dynamic are not the best personality types for long term success with young adults. (I don't mean to imply that energy is a bad thing, but manufactured energy can be seen through.) Another shortcoming can be not perceiving what single adults most need and desire from the Church. Tailoring a ministry according to needs and desires the target group is not much concerned with is not likely to bear lasting fruit.

5. Older Church attitudes presumed that Catholics would remain practicing Catholics. This may have been true in a bygone era. Once beyond the teenage years there was no particular reason to worry that a large segment of adults would stop practicing the faith. The old way of doing things simply did not envision that many (most?) Catholics would--as young adults--grow distant from the Church. Parishes are not in the habit of welcoming such people back to the Church because they used to be able to assume they had never left.

6. Many families of origin of now-adult Catholics are less attached to their Catholic faith than was true of older generations. This has resulted in young adults whose connection to Catholicism is on shaky ground from the day they first leave home.

7. The post-WWII era of mass communication by electronic media has amplified the ability of skeptics and those who despise the Church to attack the faith on many fronts and in many ways. Youth culture has become increasingly isolated from the adult world, is increasingly indifferent or hostile to Christianity, and has come to have an increasingly longer reach into the attitudes of young adults.

8. People are much more mobile than they used to be. Years ago, even if a person remained single into his late 20's he probably still lived in the vicinity of his childhood home and thus had the support of parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and friends from childhood. However, nowadays, many single young adults move away from their hometowns. They are alone in a new city and have comparatively little support. Parishes in the past could safely assume that the few adults who were still unmarried had abundant support for their faith from their nearby families and friends. The Church still functions from within this old point-of-view in which it was not necessary to envision large numbers of single adults living in places beyond the easy reach of their family support networks. Thus, many parishes do not adequately recognize a large and growing segment of society that needs special help and support from the Church.

9. When young adult ministries do manage to have some success, often as not, they are not based in parishes. Even thriving extra-parish young adult ministries seem to fall short of being able to strengthen the connection and integration of young adults into their own parishes. Such ministries, though fruitful for a time, tend to be too personality-based and unstable over the long haul. And, ministries which do have some success with young adults don't seem to have many ties with other similarly successful groups. This hinders the potential for others to benefit from those who are successful. Theology on Tap seems to be the only (non-parish) young adult ministry that has some measure of genuinely helpful national cohesion. And this is a specific, limited type of ministry which while it works well has much it cannot do. Much more needs to be done in parishes.

With these background thoughts in place I will attempt in future posts to identify those needs and desires of Catholic young adults that parishes should be striving to address.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"Choosing Thomas" video; beauty of a fragile life

[Update: The mother in the video below, Deidrea Laux, emailed pro-life blogger Jill Stanek in response to Jill's posting their video about Thomas on her blog. Read Deidrea's note here.]

What follows is an inspiring witness to the reality that the only response worthy of a human person is love.

This video has quickly become a hit with many folks I know on the internet. And for good reason. But, just in case anyone has not seen this, please take a few minutes to watch this. And be ready for some emotion. It is a powerful, heartbreaking and also beautiful witness to the dignity of life and the nobility of a mother and father's love for their child.

The video, "Choosing Thomas," chronicles a husband and wife's decision to allow their newborn son to experience their love even though it would mean pain for them, even though they would only have a few days with him.

This would be great to show teenagers. If you are involved with a teen youth group or religious education/CCD, etc., you might want to download this video and show it to the kids. And then have a discussion about the value of life and about how precious it is to experience deep love even if only for a short time.