The Scream

Photo of a woman in Syria from the online website of the Wall Street Journal

Photo of a woman in Syria from the online website of the Wall Street Journal


On a workday in September several years ago, I went to lunch at a local sub shop. While eating my sandwich, I read an article about how then Pope John Paul II was so concerned about the poor in developing countries. 

After lunch, I headed back to my office, driving west on East 15th Street in Tulsa. While stopped at a traffic light at 15th and South Utica, I had an experience that shook me to the core, an experience so vivid and intense that it still has a big impact on me years later.

What I experienced was a scream, not a literal scream that I heard with my ears, but a scream that was so shrill, so primal, so full of anguish that it penetrated every cell of my being. The scream was the result of all the poor, all the oppressed, all the abused and neglected, all the starving, all the unjustly imprisoned, all the aborted people in the entire world crying out in unison. The cry was coming across a huge chasm. All the people screaming were on one side of the chasm. Those of us who were not suffering and hadn't been hearing the scream were on the other side of the chasm.

God was part of the scream, too. I could detect, however, that His cry wasn't one of suffering, but one of rage that so many of us lived with such indifference to the scream, the existence of which was very real. All of this made me burst into tears and beg God for mercy.

As the months went by following this experience, I learned that the scream was connected in the Bible to the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain. After confronting Cain with his crime, God told him, "Listen! Your brother's blood cries out from the ground." The cry of Abel's blood is the cry of all of the victims of man's inhumanity to man. 

The chasm that existed in the experience I had is connected to the passage in Luke 16 about the rich man and Lazarus. In the passage, Jesus quotes Abraham as telling the rich man: "Between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours."

Let us not be on the wrong side of this chasm.



The Importance of Poetic Thinking

The humanities have fallen on hard times lately. With the absurdly high cost of a college education and the resulting burden of student loan debt, there is more pressure than ever for university students to major in “something that will help them get a job.” The translation for that is to study business or information technology.

I’m going to argue that the social cost of the declining interest in the humanities is very high and is becoming increasingly higher. My argument is based upon the principle that all of us, and especially young people, need to think poetically. To the extent we can’t do that, there’s going to be serious trouble.

The serious trouble that I’m talking about includes suicide. According to an article in First Things entitled “Dying of Despair,” in just one year the largest school district in Los Angeles recorded more than 5,000 incidents of suicidal behavior or self-harm. The article describes in grim detail what it calls “a national epidemic of suicide and depression.”

According to the First Things article, the main culprit underlying suicide statistics is social fragmentation. One expert, Angus Deaton, is quoted as saying that the rise in suicide depends “on family, on spiritual fulfillment, and on how people perceive meaning and satisfaction in their lives in a way that goes beyond material success.”

If young people lack imagination, if they think that the meaning and purpose of their lives is directly tied to academic success and financial wealth, then the stage has been set for alienation, isolation, depression and self-harm.

So just where does thinking poetically solve the problem?

In response to that question, I’m going to quote extensively from John Senior, who was the founder and lead professor in a humanities program at the University of Kansas in the 1970’s that led to a great number of converts to the Catholic faith. Many of those converts became Catholic priests.

Senior says that “Poetry is a way of knowing universals in particulars.” He states that “The artist is someone who knows how to speak on an experiential level – about a passing, singular event – while giving us an impression of something beyond the individual, suggesting a meaning of permanent and universal value.” “Modern man,” he once said, “must first relearn how to look at the world in a musical or poetic manner in order to renew his wonder about existence.” Our imagination has to be restored.

The essential truths of existence, the mysteries of being, can only be approached through wonder, through imagination. While this is true of all created things, it is especially true about God, about Jesus. Senior asserts that Scripture is poetic, that we must listen to it like music, letting it sink in.

Accordingly, the motto for Senior’s humanities program was Nascantur in admiratione (Let them be born in wonder.). He once asked one of his graduating classes this question: “In the pursuit of horizontal things, have you failed to raise your eyes and mind and heart to the stars, to the reason for things, and beyond, as Dante says…’To the love which moves the sun and all the other stars.’”

When we have our eyes and our minds fixed on the stars, on the reason for things and the mysteries underlying such reasons, we see our meaning and purpose on a much grander scale than academic achievement and material possessions. And, in the light of that grander meaning and purpose, we are able to overcome the setbacks that might otherwise lead to depression and self-injury.

Incense in the Sky

Our Catholic liturgy often seems baffling to Protestants who visit our services. The changes in posture, from standing, to sitting, to kneeling, are very strange to them. I like to explain that “Catholics pray with our bodies.”

When I was ordained a deacon, a Protestant friend of mine who attended the rite made fun of the “smoke and bells” in his comments to me after the ordination Mass ended.

As with most of the practices of Catholics that are not followed by our Protestant brothers and sisters, what we do actually has a basis in the Bible. With regard to incense, for example, Psalm 141:2 says “Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening offering.” In Saint John’s vision of heaven described in the Book of Revelation is this passage:

“Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones, on the gold altar that was before the throne. The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel.” Rev.8:3-4

I mentioned in my last blog a beautiful Mass which I recently attended at Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico. The Mass featured the liberal use of incense. After the Mass, I went for a stroll behind the monastery, enjoying the view of the cliffs that backed up to the chapel. In the sky above the cliffs were small puffy clouds, the likes of which I had never seen. My first thought upon seeing the clouds was that they were the incense from the Mass, continuing their elevation to heaven, taking our prayers with them. Here’s a picture of what I saw: