Taylor Swift: The Tragic Prophetess

 

t-swift-2Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya.—Taylor Swift

Whether or not one likes her music, everyone must admit that Taylor Swift has been incredibly successful. While her style is not generally my favorite, I have, on occasion, been struck by the pointedness of her lyrics. Seen rightly, the lyrics in many of her most popular hits are as indicting of the contemporary romance culture as the work of many theologians and philosophers. If Miss Swift’s work were seen as such a critique of the culture, it might be a catalyst for great change within the landscape of modern relationships. Unfortunately, Miss Swift does not suggest any alternative, or even seem to desire an alternative, to the destructive relationship choices of modern times. It is because of this duality that Taylor Swift is today’s tragic prophetess.

                A prophet is generally viewed as one who predicts the future, but the bulk a prophet’s actual work in the Old Testament was critique aspects of their current culture and call the people to repent of their actions. Take, for example, the prophet Amos, who said:

 

“Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end saying, ‘when will the new moon be over that we may sell grain…that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandal.’” (Amos 8:4-6 RSV)

 

Here the prophet is condemning the people for cheating the poor.  The Lord commanded the people of Israel to have a special care for the poor, the widows, orphans, and the stranger. By violating these commands, the people violated the fundamental tenants of Justice. The prophets criticized this exploitation, so as to restore justice in the culture.

                Miss Swift also writes lyrics that make pointed critiques of the contemporary culture. Take, for example, her song “New Romantics” which says:

We need love, but all we want is danger

We team up then switch sides like a record changer

 

These “New Romantics” exchange that which is needed, lasting committed love, for the thrill and excitement of fleeting emotional attachment. Because the “danger” of this excitement is fleeting, it leads those engaged in the new romance to wander from relationship to relationship.

Through these lyrics, Taylor Swift is acting the prophetess by pointing out the shortfall in our culture and society’s approach to relationships. Her lyrics demonstrate ways that people use, abuse, and discard others in their life and are in turn used, abused, and discarded, as if “the best people in life are free.”  This cycle, while often exciting and even intoxicating, again and again, leads to heartbreak and pain.

                Unfortunately, Miss Swift falls short of a truly prophetic role. True prophets not only criticize the problems they see but call the people to a different way of life. That is to say, a true prophet calls the people to repentance.  Repentance is more than turning away from something, but more fundamentally entails turning toward something, namely God. Without an alternative, change is impossible and Miss Swift’s critiques become tragically impotent.

Within literature, tragedy occurs when a hero is brought down by some interior flaw of their own. As Aristotle suggests, tragedy elicits two responses: pity and fear—pity for the characters involved and fear of falling in a similar way as the characters themselves. The cause for pity is quite obvious for Miss Swift’s Audience, whether it be: “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “New Romantics,” or “Bad Blood” Her music features characters, often herself, trapped in a cycle of destructive relationships. Also, Miss Swift is unable to offer an alternative beyond “Shake It Off” which, while at times is sufficient, often utterly lacks any promise of true healing.  The only semblance of hope within this system is seen in  “Blank Space:”

So it’s gonna be forever

 or it’s gonna go down in flames

you can tell me when it’s over

if the high is worth the pain

 

Perhaps, Miss Swift says, this relationship will happen to be the one that lasts forever. Barring that, the only possible hope is that the good times of the “high” are “worth the pain” of the fall. Sadly, this balance does not exist for either the characters in the song or the audience. Her only message of hope is ultimately a false one.

The tragic flaw which thwarts Miss Swift’s critique is that both she and her audience are blind to the great tragedy present in their culture. Cast in an upbeat fashion, her music, rather than warning people to flee the destruction of the “New Romantics,” actually encourages them to embrace it. The audience is ultimately reduced to characters within the same tragic narrative that Miss Swift herself seems trapped in.

What is necessary to escape this cycle is a redefinition of love. Love for the “New Romantics” is based solely upon emotion. With such a fleeting foundation, a person cannot help but try to get as much out of their partner as possible. If, however, love is based not on emotion, but rather on a steady will to choose the good of the other and trust the other to choose one’s good in return, then love becomes strong enough to endure the trials, tragedy, and tumult of life. In this love, physical affection becomes an outward sign of the gift of self to another, rather than the mere exchange of pleasure and body parts so common in modern romance. For those with eyes to see it, the task must be to dispel the blindness of those who don’t. Taylor Swift’s many fans must be shown the alternative of self-sacrificial love in order for a change in their own relationships to be possible.  Transformed with a message of true repentance, perhaps Miss Swift could cease being a tragic prophetess and become a real prophetess of tragedy.

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Poor Doubting Thomas

I have always felt bad for our friend St. Thomas, that is “Doubting Thomas.” After all, one moment of questioning ought not become that which characterizes you so completely that it names you such. Peter after all was not named “denying” but is instead known for being the “rock” upon which the Church is founded. Despite this setback in Thomas’ naming, and perhaps because of it, I am quite grateful for the witness of St. Thomas. For, in this moment of crisis, Thomas’ experience shows that God provides what was necessary for belief, and I trust that he will do the same for me.

Cornelis_Schut_-_The_Resurrection_of_Christ.tiff

Cornelis Schut- The Resurrection of Christ

Let’s step back and take a look at the whole event to understand why I think Thomas gets an undeservedly bad epithet. First off, while the idea that Christ, the Messiah, would rise from the dead is part of the common cultural knowledge within our Christian era, this was far from understood by anybody at the time of Christ. So, while we here the resurrection accounts as something quite familiar, and as such less impactful for those experiencing it, seeing Christ risen from the dead was a quite overwhelming experience. Thomas was not the first to doubt such experiences.  The other apostles themselves doubted Mary Magdalen, for Mark relays that when Jesus appeared to “the eleven…he upraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen” (Mk 16:14 RSV). Given this doubt it makes sense that when Jesus appeared to the Apostles (minus Thomas) he showed them his hands and his side, to show to them that He had indeed risen from the dead.

When Thomas then hears what the apostles saw, he, like them, didn’t believe the account of Christ’s resurrection and demanded to see the very thing which had convinced the other apostles of the resurrection (i.e. the wounds in Christ’s hands and side). When we first here Thomas’ statement, “unless I see in his hand the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25 RSV), it sounds a bit harsh and bitter. It is hard to say with what note Thomas uttered these words.

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

Caravaggio- The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

However,  I do think it is fair to say underlying his response, Thomas deeply desired that the other apostles were right in saying Christ had risen. Thomas, like the others, had given up everything to follow this man, Jesus, who had spoken so profoundly and had done such great miracles. To see the very man who had fed thousands, thirst in agony, cured the ill, bled from the many wounds, cast out demons, was tormented by the crowd, had raised the dead, died as a common criminal: such a sight must have been utterly devastating. As such, though Thomas may not have been able to accept the testimony of his fellow apostles, I cannot help but believe that he longed to do so.

Such longing, while less concrete, is no less present in our lives as well. All of us long for that which Christ provides—we long to be in an ever deepening relationship with him. Some, blessed by the gift of faith recognize this already and long for greater faith to enter more fully into this relationship. Others, experience that deep existential longing while unaware of what the object of that longing is. Still others, so distracted by business of the world are unable to recognize that there is a longing for something deeper in their lives. Most of us, bizarrely, manage to have aspects of all three of these levels of longing present simultaneously.

Thomas’ experience though does not only demonstrate our own longing, but God’s willingness to fulfill it. Thomas needed to see the wounds in order to receive faith in the resurrection. Responding to this need, Christ appeared to Thomas, showing him the wounds in his hands and his side.

Most of us are not so blessed as to understand exactly what it is we need in order to believe more fully. We may think we know what we need. We may even make such demands of God that seem to mirror the statement of Thomas, but often this is reflects a misunderstanding of our own needs and nature. Because we often fail to see what it is we truly need in order to have faith, God’s actions to fulfill that need are often less visible except, perhaps, in retrospect. As such, what Thomas’ coming to faith shows us has less to do with his demand for what he needs and more to do with God’s actions to fulfill that need. In turn, we need less to demand signs and actions, and, instead, be more open to the gifts God desires to give us that we might come to believe.

Finally, in receiving faith in the resurrection, this belief was utterly transformative. Already, Thomas had given up everything to follow Jesus, but this self-sacrifice was raised to ever greater heights with the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Having been so transformed, Thomas left not only his home, not only the Israel, but the whole of the Roman Empire. Thomas journeyed all the way to modern day India to share what he had received from the Lord: the hope that death is not the end, but that Christ, by death, had conquered death, and that all who believe might follow Him through death to life eternal. So convicted in this belief was Thomas that he too followed Christ to death and is celebrated as reigning with Our Lord in heaven. While we may not be called to travel to India preaching the faith, we are called to be so transformed that, like Thomas, our whole lives are changed, wrapped up in the joy of the resurrection.

On Forgiveness

                During my formation, I spent a year working with Fr. Dan Barnett; it was a great blessing and I learned an incredible amount from him. One of his sayings has always struck me: “In a world without sin, there can be no forgiveness.” At a surface level this is pretty innocuous and straightforward statement: forgiveness necessarily follows sin, and if no one has sinned there is no need for anyone to be forgiven. It took me a while to realize the deeper significance of his statement. Sin and evil exist in the world whether or not we acknowledge it. However, when it goes unnamed we deny ourselves the tools of reconciliation. It is only through a broader recognition of sin, especially sin in our own lives that forgiveness becomes possible.

John’s account of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) bears this out beautifully. In an attempt to trap Christ in his two-fold mission: fulfillment of the law and the forgiveness of sins. St. Bede comments saying, “If [Jesus] determined that she was to be stoned, they would scoff at him inasmuch as he had forgotten the mercy that he was always teaching. If he prohibited the stoning, they would gnash their teeth at him, and, as they saw it, rightly condemn him as a doer of wicked deeds contrary to the law.”[1] In many ways it was a great trap: two apparent options either one leading to Christs downfall. Yet, by drawing upon his testers’ own guilt and sinfulness, he was able to negotiate a third way, show mercy while not negating the law.

Woman taken in adultery

            This event is a microcosm of the way in which God cultivates mercy and forgiveness in our own lives. When Peter asks Christ ““Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Mt 18:21-22). Christ goes on to explain through parable of the unforgiving Servant. In this parable one servant, having been forgiven a great debt by his master, refuses to forgive a much smaller debt to his fellow servant. In so doing, this unforgiving servant forfeits his own forgiveness.

unmerciful servant

Willem Drost: the Unmerciful Servant

            Christ calls us to recognize the great debt incurred to God because of our sinfulness, and, having been forgiven that debt, to be forgiving in our own lives. We are to be so transformed by this forgiveness as to be judged by the very level of forgiveness that we mete out. Were we to contemplate our prayer a little more deeply we might hesitate to say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I know that I am not perfectly forgiving in my life. Even those whom I desire to forgive, or have chosen to forgive, I sometimes find that I continue to resent in my heart. Fortunately, there is hope that the grace of God will continue to work in my life but will only do so with my cooperation.

            Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular is often criticized for making too much of sin and guilt. While, at times, excessive focus upon one’s own sinfulness can lead to despair, a recognition of one’s own sinfulness is necessary to truly appreciate the great gift of forgiveness that God extends to us. There are many opportunities to embark in such an exercise: at the beginning of nearly every Mass we “call to mind our sins so to prepare ourselves to celebrate these sacred mysteries.” We visit the sacrament of confession to make explicit our faults before Christ. At night, we examine our consciences asking God to forgive us our daily sins. All of these things help us to cultivate a greater sense, not simply of our sinfulness, but of God’s forgiveness. In seeing God’s forgiveness of us, in turn, we hopefully cultivate a greater forgiveness of others in our own lives.

            All that being said, I fully recognize that, while forgiveness is always necessary, true reconciliation, at least in this life, is not always possible. We as humans have the unfortunate capacity to rupture our relationships to such a degree that it is not always possible to repair in this life. Sometimes that is because one party or the other is unwilling to make the changes necessary. Sometimes both parties may be of good will but full reconciliation is simply beyond the scope of this life. In faith, such situations ought bring about two responses in us: sadness at the loss in this life and hope, that in the fullness of time God will heal all wounds and divisions.

            Our command to forgive as God forgives cannot be rightly understood as some mere practice that God has us engage in so as to prepare for heaven. Heaven is not the reward of a donut to small child who obeys himself at Mass. Rather, our call to forgive is intrinsic to the very nature of heaven. Without forgiveness how could we hope to spend eternity happy with somebody whom we cannot stand to spend ten minutes with now?

[1] Homilies on the Gospel I.25

A Practicing Catholic

 

There are few things in the liturgical life of a priest more difficult than the funeral of a family member, all the more so when that family member is a parent. In the midst of your own grieving and loss the family calls upon you to set aside your “son” hat and put on your “father” i.e. “priest” hat. While this is a difficult task for any priest, though in its own way often cathartic, I cannot imagine having to do so under the spotlight of national attention. For Fr. Paul Scalia to simply get through his Father, Justice Antonin Scalia’s, funeral well would have been an achievement. Yet, in the midst of this very difficult situation Fr. Scalia gave us one of the most beautifully profound homilies I have ever heard. While it would certainly be worthwhile to write about Justice Scalia’s funeral, that is not the point of this post. Rather, Fr. Scalia’s Homily is a great inspiration during this season of lent.

In his homily, Fr. Scalia states:

We thank God for his goodness to Dad, as is right and just. But we also know that, although Dad believed, he did so imperfectly, like the rest of us. He tried to love God and neighbor but, like the rest of us, did so imperfectly. He was a practicing Catholic—practicing in the sense that he hadn’t perfected it yet. Or, rather, that Christ was not yet perfected in him. And only those in whom Christ is brought to perfection can enter Heaven.

Here, Fr. Scalia beautifully draws out the verb “to practice” from the adjective, “practicing” Catholic. That is to say, so often when people refer to somebody as a “practicing” Catholic, they do so as if that was the completion of the task, or that some sort of perfection existed in this state of “practicing.” Instead, Fr. Scalia highlights the fact that “to practice” is only the road by which we seek perfection.

 

NY castle-12
Not dead yet (taken in seminary, not high school)

When I think of practice, I think back to my time playing soccer in high school, particularly that dreaded time before school or the season had begun when we had two-a-day practices. For those of you not blessed to experience such a time of pain allow me to explain. Since school had not started yet, our coaches were able to gather us in the morning for the first practice of the day. They ran us through various drills and exercises, attempting to kill us. Having failed to do so in the morning, they would gather us together in the afternoon with the same goal. Of course, this was not their real intent. In reality, they recognized most of us were not in the physical condition necessary for the upcoming season, and that they had a finite amount of time to correct this lest we embarrass ourselves during the season.

In many ways, this is what the season of Lent is all about. None of us are as fully prepared to meet Christ as we ought to be, and, while the whole of our lives will be spent in this mission, Lent provides a special opportunity to focus on the mission, especially as we prepare for the Triduum: Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. By our Lenten practices, we are better able to participate in the Triduum and Easter Seasons.  

Our faith requires such practice, a fact that the lives of so many before us have made abundantly clear. St. Peter is possibly my favorite example of this practice. It took him the entirety of his life to be perfected as Christ desired, despite the intimacy with which he knew Christ and the zeal he had to follow our Lord. St. Peter left his whole life and livelihood to follow Jesus. He was able to get out of the boat and, at least momentarily, walk on water. He saw our Lord transfigured upon the mountain, standing with Moses and Elijah. He proclaimed Jesus as Son of the living God and was given the Keys of the Kingdom

1601-2

Annibale Carracci: Domine, quo vadis?

Even at the end, as tradition tells us, St. Peter initially attempted to leave Rome to avoid martyrdom, and only in encountering Christ, who was carrying his cross to Rome to be crucified again, was Peter given the strength to return and face crucifixion. What strength it was, for in that strength was the humility to seek to be crucified upside down lest he die in the same way as our Lord.

caravagios crucifixion of peter

Caravaggio: The Crucifixion of Saint Peter

Allow me to finish by returning to Fr. Scalia:

We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more; a man loved by many, scorned by others; a man known for great controversy, and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.

In the mess of our day-to-day lives, in the business of the world, it is easy to forget why we are here and what we are doing. Lent calls us back to the recognition that we are all here for one man: Jesus of Nazareth. It is only in the practice of the faith that that man, Jesus, can be perfected in us and that we will one day be called to celebrate eternally with him the feast he has prepared for us.

Life and Football

Gonzaga football team 1934. Photo courtesy of the Gonzaga University Archives.

Gonzaga football 1934.  Photo courtesy of the Gonzaga University Archives.

While football is not my favorite sport (that honor belongs to soccer), I do like the game and all the more so when I can watch it with the brethren. In seminary, football games were one of the major social events, in particular a super bowl party that gathers over a hundred men studying for priesthood. In 2012 the NFL experienced a referee strike leading them to seek out replacements, many of whom proved themselves unprepared for the task.  As a result bad calls came to characterize the game with victories and losses turning more on the lack of skill of the referees than on the skill of the players and coaches.

Football, like all sports and games, is not about the rules. Football is about the skill, athleticism, and strategy of one team pitted against the skill, athleticism, and strategy of the other. However, without the rules you can’t have such a contest.  A bad call can ruin a game:  losers feel cheated, and even the victors feel that the victory has been cheapened in the process.  While the game is not the rules, there is no game without them.

Life is much the same way: it is not about the rules, but it does depend upon them. We so often picture the Christian view of life as a set of rules; follow them and you go to heaven, don’t and off to hell. This picture does not accurately reflect the law of Christ. In truth, the rules are no more the point of life than they are the point of football.

Life is about love, truth, beauty, and goodness. We desire these things at the core of our being and more than merely experiencing them, we desire to fully participate in them. We desire to dive head first into the mystery of it all. In this life we get bits and pieces:  a beautiful sunset, the love of a parent, the thrill of discovery, all of these things touch upon the deeper realities of what life is all about. All of these experiences point to a relationship with Him who is Love, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness itself. Further, He has revealed Himself to us directly through the faith. We see this meaning as through a veil and it is only in the next life that the veil will be lifted, and our relationship with Him who Is is brought to fulfillment. Only within fullness of eternity can the perfection of our desires be achieved.

We are so often like children learning the rules of a new game. We can’t understand, why the rule is what it is: why you can pass forward at one point and not another, or why at one position intentional grounding is illegal and another it not.  We might struggle to see why contraception is wrong or why Sunday mass is so important. Of course there are good answers to these questions, and answers that ought to be found, but they can only be found within the context of the rules. It is only within the law of God that truth can be found, and it, along with love, beauty, and goodness is what it is all about.

Fail Better

try again

Passing the midway point of lent has always raised mixed emotions in me. On the one hand, it is a striking relief to know that I am on the downhill slope to Easter, that there is light at the end of the tunnel… And on the other hand, I cannot help but look back and realize how amazingly I have failed to live up to my hopes for this year’s Lenten practices.

Every year seems to follow a similar pattern, great and lofty hopes for change and renewal in my spiritual life, quickly dashed upon the rocks of my own frail humanity. It is utterly frustrating at times to see the goal and know how to achieve it but fail again and again to actually succeed. It is, in some ways, the most infuriating consequence of the our fallen humanity that we can see the good and know how to achieve it, yet again and again find ourselves utterly incapable of actually doing so. This is true of faith, of friendship, of physical health; indeed, it is true of every aspect of our human life.

All of which brings me the title of this, my first blog post: “Fail Better.” As Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” This might very well be the quote that summarizes my spiritual life. For every step I take seems to lead to another stumble, another fall. Yet, the only way I know to avoid this cycle is to stop moving forward. That is, to quit. To quit, though, is to leave the way. To leave the way is to leave Christ. To leave Christ is to leave love, happiness, and meaning lying at the side of the road right next to my cross.

And so onward I go, “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more” knowing that I’m not far from my next stumble, my next fall. The alternative I cannot bear, and fortunately I know that I am not alone on this path. I follow behind Him who goes before me. It is to Him I return when I stumble and fall and He is the one who picks me up again. Though Christ does not know failure, he does what it is to fall. Christ too, stumbled and fell on his own way to Calvary, and so I, too, shall follow, to try again, fail again, but hopefully fail better.