Sunday, March 16, 2014

Thank You, God

It's been adventurous to be a young American Catholic man trying to learn what adulthood is all about. I'm 20, and my initial and ultimate conclusion is that adulthood is merely childhood dressed in more elegant robes. Too see it this way, we need to have a proper view of childhood as being our ultimately flawed existence in any and every situation, despite our best efforts. Adults, especially parents, glory in some perfection (Mom and Dad are always right), yet the moment that we reach the age when we are to be parents, we realize that the ability to have a child, have sex, hold a job, drink or drive does not guarantee we reach some sort of perfection in our maturity.

The immaturity of adults simply just has more consequence. Where a failed high school relationship results in a pair of temporarily broken hearts, a broken adult relationship results in a life-shattering divorce. When the kid thinks that jumping on the bed won't result in a cracked skull, he's a stone's throw away from the adult who thinks that cheating, alcoholism, and any sort of brazen selfishness won't crack his mind. Yet the innocence of childhood is also reflected in the innocence of adulthood. If we look at the romantic outpourings of the most passionate of adults, they should be, at most, childlike. Not immature, but reflecting of innocence. 

My spiritual journey as an ADHD boy leaving an addictive past is one about making peace with myself. I am not a god and I am imperfect, but to be like a child is to be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven. This isn't a childhood typical of children, but of adults - learning to chuck every next anxiety in favor of trust in God as father, not letting the horrifying mistakes of my not-so-distant past come to haunt me, and accepting my falls as the stumbles of a child trying his very best to impress his Father. Those falls are more common than the successes, but at least I can see the prize - not living a life free from speed bumps, but a life that learns to laugh joyfully and with faith at the speedbumps. At least, if I can't laugh, I'd love to just ride over them and enjoy, in a deeper sense, the ride of life on earth that is my one chance at learning what heaven is all about. 

I'm tired of people putting their hands in the air asking God to change everything in their lives and in the lives of everyone around them. I'm tired of people lamenting a broken society and world. That's not news; news is that we need to love it anyway. What if we looked at it this way: what if the Catholic "issues" of abortion, contraception, same sex issues were opportunities of love that God has given us? Even better, when a plane disappears, what if it were an opportunity to put our faith in God? What if we all just shut up and listened, accepted that we couldn't change most of the things around us, and stop hurting people trying to change it all?

I don't write often because I'm finding less and less reasons to write. Life's beautiful, and I don't need to join the cacophony of squeaking voices, a devil's choir, to try to drastically amend the world's state. Would I prefer things differently? I prefer as God intends, and I think the arbiter of the universe would be able to alter our state very easily if he wished it. He wants us to think less about the times we are in, the way the world is ticking, and instead to love it, love ourselves, love others and love him. Love will encourage us to do good in the small circle of people we call our friends and loved ones. And that's enough of a moral prerogative for me. 

P.S. I was at my grandmother's Catholic charismatic meeting this past week. They are a [literally] dying prayer group with less than 10 people present, with a kind, elderly violinist with hands that could barely keep stable to play the tunes to the worship songs. As they kept saying over and over, "Thank you, God," these people with less and less left in their aging lives remind me that we do not foster gratitude by meeting a certain quota but by living it no matter what we have at any moment. To literally say the words "I need this to be happy" is to cease to live, except if that need is eternal. To say the words "Thank you," is to start to live once again. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Simple Joy of Love - Cloud Cult's "Love"

Cloud Cult's newest album, "Love," is a motivational creation meant to inspire a mental, emotional, and spiritual investigation into what Love itselt means in our own hearts, through careful consideration of challenges as well as joyful praise of lightheartedness. 

The albums usually reviewed for Indie Catholic Radio tend to involve deep metaphors where I need to search diligently to connect themes and ideas. I usually make pages of notes next to album lyrics. But my margins are quite empty next to the lyrics of "Love," for the joyous, eternal, and love-filled lessons are spelled out clearly, somtimes bluntly, within the words of the songs. For Indie Catholic Radio, it is a masterpiece that lights my way. And for all of us, Cloud Cult lights a path to happiness, both temporal and eternal, that is an essential lesson for mind and soul.

 Christ himself declared that His yolk is easy and His burden is light; the way of sin is one of sad heaviness. One sees the lack of love that becomes present when our weighted-down hearts try to reign like little Gods. We see the confusion of "Complicated Creation," the hard work of "The Calling" and the isolation present in "It's Your Decision."  We are weighed down by the punches in "1 x 1 x 1." This is all contrasted as the album continues with the jocular paradoxes uttered in "Good Friend,"  the romantic joy discovered in "Meet Me Where You are Going," the innocence of our "Cartharsis" and the susequent harajuka within "The Show Starts Now." As a result, the album's broken heart has two halves. One half mourns for the challenges we endure in our striving for love, and the other - in elated rejoicing - celebrates our ability to still bring the beauty of love in the world. Love is aptly named since the album is able to capture the meaning present in that difficult, elusive virtue of the saints and God.

The album begins by introducing us: We are "the wind, the flood, the flame," powerful as can be, yet weak, since we're "the only thing in our way." Humanity's greatest stumbling block to goodness is ourselves, all the way from when the apple was first beheld in Genesis. Yet it also reveals our potency, for God's gift of free will to us means we have the capacity to be the greatest and most virtuous of creatures, or the banally worst of all. The hope of such a bold realization immediately sets in with panic as we, arbiters of good and evil, face the challenges within "It's Your Decision" and of our "Complicated Creation." These songs, with their muscially strong sets as the panicked voice of Craig Minowa reveals some of our deepest and truest anxieties:

"Back off, Back off, I'm discontented.
I don't want to talk about it,
Can't put my finger on it.
It's the strangest thing, when you've tried most everything,
Yet something's always missing." ("It's Your Decision")

"If you get rid of all your baggage you will likely float away,
But you can't know beauty if you don't know pain.
Gotta feel it all, feel it all.
There's your medication." ("Complicated Creation")

And what a medication it truly is - we beat ourselves up over and over in "1 x 1 x1," as we assail our better natures rather than facing the punches that life gives us. The man than numbs himself with pleasure, materialism, or ignorance is only putting off his happiness, the happiness that first requires us to "feel it all" in the first place. For "the next best thing" will only result in "more and more holes."We will have to do "what must be done" regardless, suggests Minowa, so why not "learn to do it with some levity, levity"?  We were better, not as the raging "complicated creation" but as the "simple one" that this song reveals we should pursue: a simple one which loves lightly and happily.

The next instrumental piece "All the Things We Couldn't See" grows musically as the album shifts. No longer is there a debate about love, especially after we beat ourselves up in "1 x 1 x 1," but now we see the beauty that love shows us. We are then faced with a harajuka with "The Calling," a definitive song that reveals the panic, not in what to do but how to make that choice and leap to "so much more we were made to be":

"All our love, and all our pain,
Is gonna make us precious,
If it don't make us insane:
You have a calling."

So we instrumentally proceed with "Love and The First Law of Thermodynamics". Love is something that is given and received, not merely created in isolation. The music lightens up, we are greeted by a "Good Friend" in which we realize the beauty of nature, complementing that broken heart which started this album in panic and fear. Pain now is embraced with joy, knowing we aren't alone in the pursuit of happiness and love, as we are even reminded of God's love:

"Some of us are laughing, some of us are choking.
Some of us can't change 'til every bone has been broken.
All the while the maker just sits there joking, "You never really were alone."

Not only do we find such a love in our friends and in God, but also, for many, in romantic love. I know that my girlfriend has been first among many to help me see that "foolish pride" I needed to rid myself of. We rejoice as such in "Meet me Where You Are Going," which I believe to rank as one of the best Indie Rock love songs of all time - simple, yet profound in its subleties of the difficulties and lessons of discovering emotional intimacy with another human being.

Even so, our journey is not finished. These beautiful experiences are an impetuous to reflect on ourselves. We realize that we are a "Sleepwalker" where we understand that, just because we have blood pumping in our veins, we can very easily remain lifeless. As such, we may mourn over the length of the journey, but the cold yet true words of "It Takes Alot" reveals that this is an essential truth: that the story of learning love is not one that happens easily and quickly, and the paradox that becoming lighthearted and free requires much heavy lesson-learning.

Finally, the album closes with "Your Show Starts Now." It may be bold for me to say to suspend strict theolocial concerns, but that is exactly what Minowa would want us to do by the close of this album. We must live in this moment, not any other, and "do" what we believe we are. If we believe, either as deep philosophers or simple laymen, that we are God's sons and daughters, then there is no reason to put off acting as such. For the album could not get away with forgetting about such an essential message: that, when faced with all the knowledge of our previous journey throughout the other twelve songs, we are still, just like with The Lonely Forest, facing a choice by the end of the album. And the simple metaphor of our "show,"  - to go out and play our part on Shakespeare'stage of a world - couldn't be more fitting, for within the tense suspense of walking out in front of an audience is the joy that we get to display our character, our smiles, and our Love.

The ultimate messages revealed in "Love" need to be straightforward, without metaphorical pretense, for it reflects the ultimate theme of the album itself. That theme is this: that love is easiest when we don't get in the way of ourselves, and we make that choice to let Him carry us on. But we need to make that choice: it's "our decision," to turn away from the complications and concerns of hell to the foolish hopes of heaven. There's an audience of friends, family and God, all waiting to see the character we bring forth on the stage of life.

And that means your show starts now.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Fighting our Sin: The Lonely Forest, "Arrows"

Scarred by original sin, we struggle always against the addiction of sin that has been within us since Genesis. In fighting sin throughout our lives, in whatever context we see good and evil within, we experience some of the most extreme warfare, in victory as well as defeat, that any person can ever experience. This warfare, even greater, is within our own soul.  What human suffering can hold a candle to the blaze that is the struggle with the self? This is the self that St. Paul tells of in Romans, Chapter 7:14:25

 For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I work, I understand not. For I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do. If then I do that which I will not, I consent to the law, that it is good.  Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.  For I know that there dwelleth not in me, that is to say, in my flesh, that which is good. For to will, is present with me; but to accomplish that which is good, I find not.  For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do.  Now if I do that which I will not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.  I find then a law, that when I have a will to do good, evil is present with me.  For I am delighted with the law of God, according to the inward man:  But I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin, that is in my members.  Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? The grace of God, by Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with the mind serve the law of God; but with the flesh, the law of sin.

This type of struggle takes a person to the deepest and darkest parts of his own self. It makes him yearn that his sufferings could be the sufferings controlled by others. Especially for a man, there is no greater suffering than to view yourself doing the "evil which I hate." It immasculates us to the point that we wish to - and sometimes, even do - deny that it even happens. Our worst evils are trivial, or even goods in themselves. Such a self-denying man becomes a liar to himself and to others. Then, he is at risk of being truly lost for good. He has lost even that minute understanding of self which preserved, rather than undid, the sanity of St. Paul, whose own transition from Saul to Paul represents well the transition from boy to man, from immature self-denial and hate to mature self-love and humility. 

Arrows, by the Lonely Arrows, is an indie rock album, heavy with guitars, that attempts not to conquer its listeners with blind ambition for power. Instead, their music is submissive to God and hope in a way few rock artists would be able to be. They commit mortification to their own music, almost to a point where they lack self-esteem, within "Turn off this Song And Go Outside" where they literally encourage their listeners to stop listening and to go do something better, admitting that their gift is nothing compared to "the orphan, or the song she sings." It may be the first that a singer admits that research, discussion, and some blind rock-hero worship may not actually be an act where we "find someone to love." Right in the beginning of the album, our impulsive society is shoved right back in our faces - as for this song, the whole album, or anything else out there that may be of entertainment, we can simply "listen to it later."

The album proceeds by examining unique perspectives we and others can take to God, nature, our living surroundings, and - ultimately - ourselves viewing ourselves, preparing for that great battle for the self. "[I am] The Love Skeptic" suggests that "only in our dreams can we perceive reality" as the band begins to blur the lines between cold-hard skepticism and the mysterious truth around us, which  this reviewer believes ultimately points to God. It also provides the solution for those stuck in such a silly state (the song begins by mocking the skeptic who sees a song as "just chemical, animal sound") by promoting tolerance, but not submission, to unique ideas:

Just let him speak,
He's got a good point, brother.
Can't you be close and disagree?

Once this door has been opened merely a crack, the singer bursts into full-throttle, passion and desire with "[I Am] The Love Skeptic." The singer sings to God himself, acknowledging that he has learned that he had been shown that "I must die to live." The skeptic is mocked as the singer admits all his "body really needs is spirit, soul for the pain to ease." Yet even here, the singer's desire to "be addicted to love" is one that does not cure him of his fears ("And why are we so loveless? I'm worried...") and doesn't make him into a man ("...please, take me home!"). Ultimately, that's because his flawed idea merely wants to replace the addiction of his sin with an addiction to love: something mindless that merely replaces whatever he is abusing at the current moment:

Give me something new, for my soul to use,
Something mittable, for my heart to abuse.
The drugs are never enough.

"[I Am] The Love Addict" sounds like an attractive song, one we are called to adore and follow, but it still represents a flawed view of love. It begins the album, compared and contrasted with a song about skepticism, because it is another mindless extreme that the singer must journey, through heart and soul, to overcome. 

The eerie, slow riffs of "Coyote," with the howling coyotes the singer hears in his sleep, bring his love-addict self right back down to a darkness of sin that is far deeper in his heart, as he wonders whether his sin is "interesting" as he grieves the loss of his beloved due to it. He yearns for a peaceful place in "I Don't Want To Live There," rejecting hand-in-hand the cowardice of Nashville and the weighty glitz of Los Angeles. Cities seem to be the least of his problems as he travels deeper, to the war within himself in "Tunnels." He "digs lies to get around obvious contradictions, childish self-afflictions," fighting off help from the outside as he eliminates "a spy lurking around in an attempt to save you." Within his destroyed self-inspection, he snarls singing about things opposite as they should be, as the one to save him becomes that "spy" and he who "warns" of the saving one is a "dove." But he speaks the barrenness of his heart with a direct metaphor:

My heart is a room in a ranshackle house
Where the shades have been drawn 
And all scenery is gone....

...Occasionally visitors come and knock,
trying to see if someone is inside
I try to speak but no one's there.

The clutter within himself, hearkening to some things I have spoken about on here concerning the loss of innocence, ends up becoming a series of infinite and slightly bizarre questions with "End it Now!" The singer is tired of his pointless wanderings and wonderings, finding that "the list of questions goes on." Indeed, the "scientist leads a miserable life" if he or she believes that the meaning of life will be ultimately and fully found by "one linear mind." No wonder the singer wants to "end it now," laden with raging heavy guitars and loud drums crying out for a peace that the world cannot give. 

The climax of the album is reached in the crux of this problem: with the perspectives of the sinful, isolated man exhausted to find peace and tranquility, who are we and what is our calling? And so a hand "griped my hand like a vice" because of our sin - mercy. Humility admists "we both have fallen short time and time again." The Chorus of "Woe to Me...I Am Ruined" is the iconic rock-bottom:

And All I can do is make others bleed,
A Prideful Ego Fire I'm ego to feed.

And they say I'm a good guy."

What differs the Lonely Forest from such despairing bands as Imagine Dragons, who believe with calm confidence "no matter what we breathe, we are made of greed," is something as simple as the tone of voice. That calm confidence is not present in the voice of John Van Deusen, who is not stating a truth but searching for something more. We know that The Lonely Forest believes, with their entire heart, that such a state can be changed, and shame can be brought to a new life within Hope and Love Himself. That shame is as real as the coyotes that howl, and even of the love they wish they could be addicted to, but that doesn't make it inevitable. 

Far from it, they recognize the answer subsequently in "In Time We Sing". They mock such crappy material ends of those "monsters [who] trample through woods and dirt they feed," they who "burn the nation's budget" and "send boys overseas." They mourn the addict, the "tweaker" whose "syringes lined the floor." But their answer here, to screaming verses, is a chorus that, while fast-paced, is calm and confident of a victory: 

In time the trees die and light will fade,
But I hope for a new breath, a new life to take me away.

Such a religious triumph, for us on Indie Catholic Radio, would be more than enough to close the album and call this journey through the gross and the sublime as through. Yet the title track itself, "Arrows," with a creepy piano riff and riddled with warning of "animals inside my head" seems to undermine the strong message of "In Time We Sing," as he admits that darker times cause him to "drink a sinister mead, that drives away the good," even though the "melancholy boy is gonna shine" and avoid that dark song forever.

Why this contradiction after the dramatic and beautiful story we have taken with Deusen up to this point? Why is is triumph swan song for this album being overpowered by this slow, slightly grating ballad about bearing weapons to some fight, with "arrows out"? As the singer's repeated chorus fades, we should all realize that he is telling us something about the story before, once again an extraordinary point about the truth of his message: that, once we have recognized the beautiful, new opportunities ahead of us after our suffering, after any addiction and self-affliction to sin and death, we will fight. We may fight that "spy lurking around in an attempt to save you," as you guard your dark heart with a wall and guards, or it may be the fight of that chorus in "Woe to Me" - that when the world tells us that all we do is "make others bleed," we fight back and live a good life. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Harmonium Project

I'll get right to it - I wish the Harmonium Project was my idea.

It would be perfect. Indie Catholic Radio is about connecting the elements of music, especially Indie Rock, to eternal aspects of beauty. There's something about The Head and the Heart's music that can stir the soul, or the unique challenges of Arcade Fire that sound like the fiery prophesy of Jeremiah. God's dream is to be seen in all things, for when we see God we see eternal joy and love. Helping people see God 's beauty within true music and the arts is my dream.

But The Harmonium Project does it so much better. While I've been blabbering on the radio, Marc Barnes has been starting an IndieGoGo project designed around loving others. Particularly those in Steubenville, Ohio - the birthplace of Dean Martin, whose mirth and financial success left when the steel plant closed. It is the iconic story of a hidden, despairing America, which only got exposure to the world when students in the local school decided to rape a drunk girl. From my personal experience visiting there, I could tell: the town, psychologically and financially, is depressed.

Up on the hill shines Franciscan University of Steubenville. For Marc Barnes, current student, it is an uber-Catholic college that has shined far too long apart from the dark, devil-infested depression of the town below. I have found that when a Catholic truly realizes that he is standing apart and independent from his neighbor, rather than loving, he does something drastic, dynamic, and truly bold. And Marc and friends have invested time, money, effort, and probably many sleepless nights into revitalizing their Steubenville neighbors.

Their plan, however, reeks of the divine and mocks the utility-driven loveless ways of the world. It's glorious - revitalize a theater, attract artists to come and play beautiful music, and help teach the beauty of music by starting a music school for young people. It is the literal belief that beauty can drive out darkness, even financial despair. It is the belief that joy can outshine any evil, and love has the capacity to bring a depressed town to new life. I'm sure Dean Martin, as well as Jesus Christ, would appreciate such an effort centered around music.

As a result, it's not allowed to fail. We as Catholics can't allow it to fail. Too often, in a culture that shortcuts beauty to provide lustful pleasure, or denies beauty for a selfish practicality in destroying a life, or condems beautiful hope to a cold, heartless "fact," we need to shine a little light. As a result, Indie Catholic Radio will be working overtime through January 27th, and hopefully beyond, to promote The Harmonium Project. Please donate, so that this effort of love by Marc Barnes can be made faithfully and surely.

We are called to donate to many things, and many of these things claim to be bringing beauty and hope. It is true that many of them do. I have yet to see another using the beauty of art, of music, to catapult an entire city to hope and financial growth, at the same time.

Not only are we called to donate, which I emphatically urge you all to do, but we are called as well  to carry out this work in our own lives. When we find an opportunity for beauty, no matter our fears or reservations, we are called to hope and hope infinitely. We must reach out to those we seek to alienate, we must show them Christ. Right now, Steubenville is looking at us and at Marc's Catholic Church.

Are we the type to invest and believe in beauty?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Relationship between Fortitude and Belief

Fortitude is the persistance in an act or way of thinking despite concrete obstacles, and belief is the acceptance as fact principles or ideas which are not guaranteed or verified by concrete evidence. Atheists even must admit that, within the human psychology, we must believe in principles that are beyond our ability to test. These principles may be as simple and earthen as transcendental-like things like good, success, glory. For the Christian, that transcendant principle becomes embodied in a man - Christ, God, on the Cross - as well as being embodied in all of othe other transcendant principles. The Eucharist translates into these things not only in tradition but in this relation of a Man to them - Christ died, embodying sacrifice, love, suffering for something greater. The essence of Christian fortitude is this sacrifice, and all that eminates from it. When it is hard for us to mentally focus on this particular sacrifice and instance of human history that coincides perpetually with our present, we may mentally access lesser transcendental examples of fortitude as well as the philosophcial isolation of these principles themselves, knowing they can never be fully isolated from the higher principles that govern the Christological mystery.

Fortitude, like all the pillars of faith, connects the concrete and material goods we seeks to access to the higher heavenly goods. For the man struggling through trial, fortitude translates the eternal principles of Christ's suffering, ministry, death and persistence in love to concrete actions and situations such as counting days, building habits, balancing schedules, and dealing with fatigue or mental exhaustion. The greatest thing about God's connection to all these things is that He as a person also has the ability to provide Joy to all of them, which means that all these exertions of fortitude involve at least perpetual satsifaction, at most the emotion of happiness.

Forgiveness in the face of failing at fortitude is especially forgiven, for Christ himself recognized the frailty of the flesh of his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. Many times, falling in fortitude is something outside of our control, when situations make our best exertions too difficult. This is also a paradox, for exertion when there are all concrete odds against you is a particular strength found within fortitude.

Ultimately, fortitude is taught itself by habit. Especially as Americans, we grow up in a bubble-wrapped comfort filled with goods and gifts. We are heavily blessed in our peace within comfort, a good that should be sought, but are deprived in our lack of suffering. When the comfort-filled soul meets suffering, he or she learns that ultimately we all face suffering despite all the comforts we throw up at it. To this fact it has a fight, flight, or acceptance reaction. If we fight such a reaction, we will always seek to find comfort and never face a suffering. If we flee the suffering, we will do a similar thing - throw things, not comforts, in the way of such suffering so that we can rest in our comforts and not be disturbed. Acceptance of this fact, however, allows us to commune with that necessary suffering. If we do so, then we will be prepared for all suffering, strong until any end.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"7 o'clock News/Silent Night" - Beauty and Suffering this Christmas

At the beginning of last summer, I was listening to Simon and Garfunkel's "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme" album. The album closed with one of the most unique and beautiful commentaries on life I had ever seen from a music group. It is a simple combination: performing "Silent Night" with a recording of the 7 o'clock news playing as a backdrop. 

We hear all the time that we never see good, beautiful things playing out on the news, but only the conflicting things in life. The news likes to make us think that they report "the real, objective world," by being so unbiased in their discussion on life. Yet nothing in our human expression can fully capture the reality of the world. In two minutes, we hear only certain news stories chosen among many. Who knows - on that particular evening of the 7 o'clock news, maybe more young men escorted old ladies across the street, or more people helped buy meals for beggars on the street.

Historiography is a little-practiced study. It is the study of what history chooses to tell (i.e., there is a reason high school history books don't primarily talk about agricultural advancements in the Middle East between 1939 and 1945). Being aware of this - that other things happen in our world we may not even be aware of - allows us to put all of this into perspective.

And so the news serves as a backdrop for Silent Night. Or it is the other way around? Regardless, when we witness the beautiful peace this world offers, we must be sure to remember its suffering, as to avoid complacency. And, when we agonize in despair, we must remember the Son of God in the manger. Simon and Garfunkel may have painted a contradiction, but what I see is a real commentary of the Christian's perpetually broken heart.

Merry Christmas, Sufjan Stevens Style.

Happy Merry Merry to you all! As the Advent awaiting for Christ comes to a close, we are glad to be "home for Christmas," both in our homes with friends and family as well as in our spiritual lives with Him, who has come to save us.

To honor the occasion, since we love the weird as well as the beautiful, I present Sufjan Stevens's rendition of "I'll be Home for Christmas." We'll be playing him on Indie Catholic Radio next semester, so stay tuned if you are interested. Have a Merry Christmas!