We're ready to go,
          say goodbye to our homes,
          and now our bed is where we make it
          out on the road.
          "Go" by Vocal Few

This year I actually became more "settled," beginning year 2 of living in the same house and working at the same job. Maybe this is part of why the idea of movement struck me so strongly in these songs. Not because I was feeling restless to travel, but because I became more aware of the dangers of passivity. Floating along a "status quo river" has few rewards.

          And the path we take is older still
          All our ancestors traversed it,
          trading comfort for wilderness.

Exploration and risk are elements that should be part of every life, even settled ones. There are always ways to stretch, initiate, raise your aims.

"1000 Feet" by Scott Mulvahill (and Move and Shake) also really speak to me about intentional change. Probably my favorite lyric of the year comes from this song:

          There's a mountain in my way. 
          Oh, there's a mountain in my way.
          Who's gonna be the one to move?

Listening to that line for the first time, I felt like I'd been caught. There are plenty of obstacles in my life that are easy to complain about or even ignore, hoping they'll just go away on their own. This song points out how ridiculous it is to live like that, and shows that movement doesn't have to happen all at once, but one foot at a time.

I see two different types of movement in Madison Cunningham's "To Another Land." One is negative:

          Oh, I wish that I could escape myself,
          but they say trains don't go out that far.

Exploration and newness are wonderful - for the right reasons. This is why movement has to come after surety. There needs to be a foundation from which to go. Madison shows how movement for the sake of disconnection can't bring satisfaction. (Interestingly, she also sings about the wrong and right way to stay in Window). Going outside of yourself to genuinely connect with others is the risk - and reward - in movement correctly oriented.

          Pick up that left hand groove man,
          beat on the side of your money can,
          play your song to another land,
          take me with you as far as you can.

In 2019, my biggest goal is to go outside myself. I want to encounter God in epiphany, know him in surety and meet others in movement. And after reflecting more deeply on each of these favorite songs from 2018, I hope as I keep them in my musical rotation, they can keep inspiring me to do it!

Part 1.

Epiphany is the sudden realization of truth, but surety is a full trust in truth's unmoving security. However, I've learned that trust isn't always a feeling. Sometimes trust is nose-to-the-grindstone work. It takes effort to return again and again to the rock after being blown by winds of difficulty, even if you always know the rock will be there. There's an element of clinging to surety. The truth doesn't move, but you do - falling from weakness over and over again. I recognize this in the lyrics of "A Better Word" by Bethany Barnard.

          I hear the blood of Abel speak
          in accusation over me.
          I'm guilty and I am in need
          of mercy. 

But every time this happens, no matter how many times it happens, we can to return to the prayer-refrain:

          You have broken 
          the power of my sin.
          The curse I lived in

          has been reversed.

          The blood of Jesus
          is my provision.
          You have spoken
          a better Word.

As Hebrews says, "we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus." This is eternal, never-changing, constant and sure!

This song is a reminder that no matter how much it seems like the devil has the upper hand, as Christians we already know the ending, and we're on the winning side. 

          the harder the wind will blow,
          the deeper our roots will go

Darkness might feel powerfully suffocating, but light obliterates it so immediately. We simply have to open the shades.

          It will flood a blinding light
          it will chase away the night.
          Even if you shield your eyes,
          let it pour in, let it pour in! 

With "Dawn," Jake Scott is yet another artist I've followed through the lyrical changes of falling in love and getting married (including Jess and Beth). But beyond the basic storyline of building a family, I enjoy this song for the way he expresses his place in the world very simply.

          I'm in love

One might wonder how I get a theme of surety from this song when it talks about being displaced, broken and changed. But the sheer number of times he says...

          I'm in love

...shows an absolute surety about who he is and what everything means (or doesn't mean) to him. It's the home where he exists, and it reminds me that love has to be the foundation from which you reach out to the world...to be continued in Songs of 2018, Part 3: Movement. 

I love songs the way I love books. Stories, themes and symbolism can all be as powerfully communicated through 3 minutes of music as they can in a full-length novel. Lyrics do the telling, which is why the words are just as important to me as the sound of a song. While re-listening to some of my favorites from this year, I tried encapsulating what each one was about in a single word, and found that 3 ideas kept appearing. The first: epiphany. 

Epiphany is a sudden widening of your world. "Ghost of a King" by The Gray Havens widens into a new world altogether. It's a meeting that whirls into a supernatural journey and ends in a healing shock of water. The man in the song knows he's broken, but learns that the broken part of him belongs to the supernatural world he never knew existed. He discovers in immediate succession the impossible hopelessness of his state...

          you are a lonely soul 

          with a heart of stone that rakes against your thirsty bones

...and the impossible hope of newness.

          Where no chariot can take you,
          where the river meets the sand,
          there is water there that can quench your thirsty bones
          and make you well.

I recognize all the moments I've felt most alive in Beta Radio's "All at Once I Saw It All." It begins with homesickness for the unknown - a grasping at infinity. You reach and reach until the moment you glance back at time-bound reality. Then in the light of forever, life strikes you in an epiphany. 

          How rare and beautiful
          that we were ever even born.

It's as if the whole of life can briefly be seen "to scale," but of course that also includes a fearful awareness of its end. 

          The ghost parade a shroud,
          my body rearranged.

And you're left reaching for eternity only fiercer than before. 

I think Taylor Leonhardt expresses the bewilderment and joy of epiphany in her song "Everything" (and "Surprising Me" from the same album). I love the discovery of something so significant that it touches every part of living. You get to run from one thing to the next, watching it change in front of you, soaking in the novelty of re-orientation. 

          You flipped the whole thing around
          dropped the sky to the ground
          you are here with us now.

The end of this song brings me to the second overarching idea in my favorite songs this year: surety. To be continued in Part 2...

If my 5th-grade self could have peeked into a crystal ball, she would probably have viewed my math education career as unforgivably traitorous. The battle lines between Sylvia (age 10) and Dad (her math teacher) were firmly established. War was declared, battles fiercely fought, and the eventual peace treaties which were necessary for us to put in writing still exist in a storage box. I was firmly convinced I was "not a math person." Dad's natural abilities in math, plus the fact that he was my parent AND math teacher, put us at what seemed like hopeless enmity. I was outraged that he wouldn't just "tell me how to do it," but that he rather attempted to explain abstract mathematical concepts (which involved "extra" thinking and work) before slowly circling around the shortcut or algorithm (which was all I cared about). I resisted learning the concepts because they were difficult, resulting in misuse of the easy algorithms because I didn't understand what they meant or how to apply them sensibly. 

On the other hand, I knew I was good at reading. It came so much more easily and was actually enjoyable. Entire chapter book series were eaten up in a week or two, and I remember the day the children's librarian couldn't find a single book on World War II from the juvenile section that I hadn't read. My piano teacher was indignant when this 10-year-old brought Jane Eyre to read while sitting on the couch through my sister's lesson. She refused to believe I was actually comprehending it, and she was partly right. I read books that were too difficult for me, picking out chunks of understanding, but knowing a lot was going over my head. Those books went in the library bag anyway because I had the confidence that if I kept reading them, I would eventually get it. 

It took until junior year of high school for the realization to break that practicing math eventually led to mastery too!

In college, I concentrated in language arts and math education with a mission to prove that "not a math person" and "not a reading person" are myths. Just like piano skills are first learned by practice and then enjoyed, so math and reading skills are practiced, mastered and then enjoyed. Sometimes natural skills enable enjoyment in the beginning, and that often motivates further practice. But so many people operate under the groundless assumption that just because they don't naturally enjoy something, that means they never can. 

That might sound painfully obvious, but it goes against a deeply established narrative in our culture. I encounter it constantly in my line of work and sometimes with my students. That's right, the kids I teach on a day-to-day basis are not the ones primarily posing this. Their parents, in email correspondence, conferences, phone calls and even friendly chatter, echo each other with remarkably similar comments: "I can't help them with their math homework," "I was never good at math," "I have to send them to ______ for those questions," "I'm not a math person." 

Faculty lounge lunches carry similar refrains, ranging from "I could never teach math" to "I can't cook" or "I'm not an exercise person." My co-workers were amazed when I told them the story of my dad's long mission to overcome his distaste for tomatoes - now one of his favorite foods. We all know people are born with likes and abilities, but it was absolutely foreign to them that someone could choose additional ones. I remember feeling the same way in college when a professor shared the story of his mom's transformation from a stiff, awkward person to a "great hugger" simply because she decided to practice physical warmth with others. At that point, I had learned my lesson about math, but never transferred the lesson to other parts of my seemingly static personality. 

Over time, I've slowly tried to adjust the wording around my deficits. Instead of "I don't have an artistic bone in my body," it's "I've never spent much time drawing or sketching." Rather than "I kill every plant I've ever owned," it's "I want to learn how to grow things." I was delighted to visit my friend recently and hear the story of her "plant hospital." Even though she never had what she considered a green thumb, she decided to pay closer attention to her succulents each day to find out what made them thrive. After moving the pots around and trying different amounts of watering, the greenery on her windowsill looked lovely and healthy, and she had the wonderful feeling of having learned something new. 

Now I have some projects of improvement in my life. Of course the goal is not to become a master in all the areas of deficit. For some things, changing my attitude and language is enough. I realized for the first time this year that hating winter and complaining about being cold has been a hugely unnecessary energy drain my whole life. Why not train my brain and body to withstand the cold? Why not intentionally look for and appreciate the strikingly beautiful elements of winter? For some deficits, I'm simply working to become more proficient. And a few areas - those that I believe will enrich my life and those around me most - will be long-term efforts to master. But even if I never reach those goals, I know life will be enriched by reaching for them, knowing that they're not "not" possible. 

Skills to improve: 
hosting guests
physical affection
rising early
hair care
event planning
house maintenance 
giving gifts
musical accompaniment 

There has been a steady stream of sexual molestation accounts in the news reports for as long as I can remember. Commentary of coworkers and acquaintances follows each one - the main theme being "these monsters aren't fit to live." They use language to position the offenders as far away from the human race as possible, often calling for capital punishment. And this is all just.

But for some reason, over the past year the news reports and subsequent responses haven't just passed through my mind as ever-present tragedies. They've stuck and started to aggregate so that each new repercussion strikes a gong with all the horrors of the previous ones echoing together. In January, I watched Rachael Denhollander's victim impact statement which had a lot of circulation on social media. It was her contrasting note of justice joined with mercy that made me realize the weight of horrors is not just made up of the abuses, but of our culture's response. It is a justice completely stripped of mercy.

When I see an abuser, I do see someone who should receive, in Rachael Denhollander's words, "the greatest measure of justice available," but I also see a suffering human being. Only the most crushing emptiness drives a person to seek such violent stimulation. In no way does this excuse his sins or unpayable debts, but it's a reality the culture omits.

Visualize the whole life of the abuser. No one develops the capacity for such evil acts in a sudden moment. It's a process that begins with sins not so far removed from ours. He seeks compulsively to fill his emptiness with entertainment, pornography, masturbation. These gradually sink the poisoned teeth of addiction deeper and deeper. Older forms of escape no longer give satisfaction. New forms are needed to arouse and the addiction is a sickness that demands to be fed. Level by level, he descends by increments of violence too small to deter him. He is disgusted by himself, but addiction desensitizes the disgust enough to keep being fed.

In his descent, I see the pattern of my own sins. He's not some monster of a different class of creature. I was born with the same emptiness, the same compulsion to mask it with anything in my reach. I've fallen level by level into disgusting sins, and am only removed from the abuser by degrees. As Pope Francis says in The Name of God is Mercy, "Their fall could have been mine."

I know my weakness is such that I could become an abuser. Only because people around me have allowed the grace of God to work through them have I been protected and restrained. My emptiness was softened by the love I received, not by me. My conscience was well-formed, not by me. My circumstances were wisely hedged, not by me. Even with all these gifts and more, I fall repeatedly. It does no good to stand on this higher ground and claim superiority. The ground of grace is what holds me higher, not myself.

So with Rachael Denhollander, I look on these miserable, utterly evil child molesters with pity, not as "other," but as I might be. And I'm not afraid to proclaim that God's mercy reaches even so low.

A year ago, I thought 2017 would see additions to the "Lessons from the Convent" blog posts. Now I come to the end of December with difficulty grasping any clear lessons at all. I have glimmers and hints of possible ones, but certainly not enough to write a well-formed post about them. Six months ago, it was all I could do to say the prayer, "I believe you have a lesson for me in this." I suppose a new series of posts called "Vague Hints at Lessons from My Roommate's Couch" would be the best I could muster.

Yes, the devil took some swings at me this year. But this is the counterattack:

Thank you, God, for the time I spent in the convent. Thank you for the superior you allowed to be over me. Thank you for the treasured soul of each teacher I didn't understand. Thank you for the work are doing in me that I can't see. Thank you for the work you have given me to do in the moment. Thank you for my boss and colleagues. Thank you for the awesome design with which you created each student and their parents. Thank you for the singleness wherein I can glorify you. Thank you for the body you gave me to experience the beauty of your natural creation. Thank you that every temporal thing I truly need is provided in my scattered possessions. Thank you for the work you are preparing for me.

Thank you for redeeming every sin and sorrow, no matter how deep. 
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;

    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,

    and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;

    the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,

    and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
    let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,

    and we are the people of his pasture,
    and the sheep of his hand.


"If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you." - John 15:19
   As a new Salesian aspirant, I'm experiencing the "not of the world" which consecrated religious express overtly. With vows of poverty, chastity & obedience, distinctive clothing, daily work & life in community - "set-apartness" is externally very visible. The reason I'm drawn to wear a religious habit is to make Christ's love plain. However, although this is one practically with a habit, it's one in practice by every Christian who lives differently.

   The poverty and detachment of consecrated religious may seem like pious add-ons to Chritianity, but in reality they manifest clearly what all Christians are called to live daily. Colossians 3:2 says, "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth." Religious brothers and sisters, by legally owning nothing of their own, are expressing the Christian attitude toward all temporal wealth. Even Christians who are wealthy by the world's standards shouldn't consider money as their own treasure or security. Detachment should be practiced even with the items in one's own possession. Vowed religious and laity both have open palms, not clenching to anything worldly. But by the open, empty palms of the religious we see more clearly the shape of the open palms of Christians holding their possessions loosely.

   The vow of chastity is lived out by a few in celibacy, but the practice of the virtue of chastity is the vocation of every Christian. The Catechism defines it as "the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being" (#2337). How can celibates have integrated sexuality? There are some thoughts on this already in Lesson on Marriage from the Convent, but in sum, the purpose of our sexuality is to physically symbolize the mutual self-giving love of the Trinity. We have Trinitarian love stamped on our bodies to foreshadow the perfect union of Heaven. Celibates witness that the shadow doesn't fulfill, but that only the real, original divine love fulfills. This reminds us that a Christian husband and wife don't ultimately seek fulfillment in each other. Just like the celibate, they depend completely on God's love together. By the dependence on God by the unmarried chaste, we see more clearly the dependence on God by the married chaste.

   What does the vow of obedience have to show us about Christian laity? In the Salesian order, obedience is lived out by going to serve in whatever ministry position is assigned by the superior. This is radically putting aside personal ambition and having enough trust in God to be content in every circumstance. But again, radical trust isn't only practiced by a few people in some kind of higher echelon of Christianity. Due to the stripped-away nature of religious life, it's more recognizable, but St. Paul is clear that every follower of Christ is called to this. "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Colossians 3:17). Not that I complain of want, for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:11-13).

   If I profess the three vows as a consecrated religious someday, I hope my life can remind the baptized that worldly things are temporal and unfulfilling in themselves, calling them back to Christ as everything. To the unbaptized, I hope I can be a bright sign pointing to the radical life of the born-again - these people surrounded by worldly things, but moving among them as free people, not grasping or choked.
"I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away." - 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Older Posts