Why are We Here?

Many of us believe that now and again it is a good idea to ask, “why am I here?”

Why am I here…why am I here…? Such an innocent question. Such an infinite variety of existential responses. And, though we may never be fully satisfied with our answers, entertaining the question is worthwhile.

Right now, DePaul University finds itself asking institutionally “why are we here?” That question emanated throughout the Mission Statement dialogues undertaken around the university over the fall quarter. And, it continues to challenge us as we respond to the Covid public health crisis and wrestle with its corresponding economic circumstances. Addressing this question will take all the good will, wisdom, and participation DePaul can muster. Thankfully, we have DePaul’s nearly 125-year history to help illuminate our reason for being here today. Beyond that, we have the Vincentian tradition begun by Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, and their earliest colleagues. How might that heritage be helpful in shaping our answer to the question “why are we here?” Among many possibilities, one comes to mind.

In the spring of 1658, an elderly Vincent de Paul presented his only published work, “The Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission,” to his community. It was meant to serve as a guide and instruction manual. Not by accident, Vincent chose to begin the first and last chapters of the Rules with the same biblical verse. Taken from the first verse of the Acts of the Apostles, it says Jesus began “to do and to teach.”1 Vincent chose this phrase as the inspiration and model for his missionaries.2 How wonderfully it captures the legacy of Vincent de Paul and how prophetically it names our purpose at DePaul University.

“To do and to teach” calls us to be active and public facing in order to benefit the common good. To do and to teach asks that we be intentional and reflective in learning from our experiences. As community members and collaborators, to do and to teach means giving and receiving respect, joy, and empowerment from one another. We are called to do virtuous work, aspire to the highest ideals, and to pay particular attention to those who are neglected or marginalized. Now and moving forward, to do and to teach means being anti-racist. It means caring for the earth. It means giving our students the most cost-effective, holistic education possible; one that prepares them to succeed. At the same time, it means providing our staff and faculty with a place that is equitable and inclusive; a community wherein they flourish.

Why are you here? To do and to teach! Such a simple question and response. Such transformative, empowering potential.

REFLECTION QUESTIONS: How would you answer the question: Why are you here? How would you answer the question: Why is DePaul University here? How does “to do and to teach” apply to you?


1 “It is worthy of note that both the first and last chapters of the Common Rules open with the same biblical reference, namely to the fact that Jesus ‘began to do and to teach.’” Warren Dicharry, C.M., “Saint Vincent and Sacred Scripture,” Vincentian Heritage 10:2 (1989), 139. See: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.‌edu/vhj/‌vol10/iss2/2/

2 In the Common Rules, Vincent made clear that Jesus began by doing and then followed with teaching. Both pursuits were equally important, with the former shaping the latter, and emphasized the importance placed on experience, action, and incarnation. See Chapter 1, Common Rules: https://‌via.‌library.‌depaul.edu/‌cm_construles/3

 

ANNOUNCEMENT:

You are invited to join us for Lunch with Vincent on Tuesday, March 2nd, from 12:00–1:00 pm. We will be joined by our colleagues from the Office of Religious Diversity and Pastoral Care: Mat Charnay, Jewish Life Coordinator; Minister Jené Colvin, DePaul Christian Ministries; and Abdul-Malik Ryan, Muslim Chaplain. Together they will share how each of their Abrahamic traditions empowers them to be anti-racist. Participants will be invited to reflect and share how their values, philosophies, or religions calls and sustains them to be anti-racist.

To RSVP for Lunch with Vincent on 3/2/21: http://‌events.r20.‌constantcontact.‌com/‌register/‌event?‌‌oeidk=a07ehla8zhr4d41a1c6&llr‌=qiic4w6ab

 

 

Vincent de Paul and Accepting Change

In the cold mid-winter of 1656, Vincent de Paul took up his quill pen and began writing a letter to a community member far away. At one point in his epistle, Vincent reflected upon the changeability of the human experience and wrote to his colleague:

…the instability of the human person… is so great… that the person never remains in the same state. What he wants this year, perhaps he will not want the next—maybe not even tomorrow…1

In essence, Vincent was saying to his friend that to be human is to change. From one year, from one day, even from one moment to the next, for better or for worse, change is inevitable.

For all its universality, however, change is still so difficult for us to accept. It can surprise us, discomfort us, frustrate us, and plainly terrify us. No wonder we sometimes lose sight of the joys and benefits that only occur because of change in our lives. Without change, we don’t learn, we don’t progress, we don’t grow. As the journalist and author Gail Sheehy famously said, without change “we aren’t really living.”2

Right now, the year 2021 is still as fresh as new fallen snow. The DePaul community—students, staff, and faculty—are in the midst of an academic year that has summoned us to generate more creativity, resilience, and faith than we knew we had within us. Perhaps now would be a good time for us to look back on 2020, with all of its challenges, and ahead to 2021, with all its hope, and ask how we might harness change to lead us to better things.

What is one change you wish to keep from the year that has just ended? What is one change you wish to embrace in the year that has just begun?


1 Letter 1842, To Étienne Blatiron, Superior, In Genoa, 19 February 1655, CCD, 5:316.

2 See: https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/38338.Gail_Sheehy

Reflection By: Tom Judge, Chaplain, Division of Mission & Ministry

A History of the DePaul University Seal and Motto

Most of us are probably familiar with DePaul University’s coat of arms, but have you ever wondered what it means, or where the ideas for the symbols came from? In the 1950s, a handful of university administrators took on the task of creating DePaul’s armorial seal and motto. Leading the charge were Mr. Arthur Schaefer, Director of Public Relations, and Rev. Alexander Schorsch, C.M., Dean Emeritus of the Graduate School.

In a 1990 letter to then DePaul President Rev. John Richardson, C.M., Mr. Schaefer recalled a conversation with “Father O’Malley [7th President of DePaul] that our various college catalogues were of uneven quality… with no common logo for the name and worst of all a seal that bore little relationship to the university’s mission—especially the physician’s symbol and the engineer’s wheel.” (DePaul University Ephemera, Box 2, Folder 9, Special Collections and Archives, DePaul University, Chicago, IL) A picture of the circular old university seal is shown.

Later in the same letter, Mr. Schaefer explained how the university motto was adopted as well. “I learned from early minutes of St. Vincent’s College that one of the faculty was assigned the task of coming up with a motto, but nothing ever came of it… I invited [Fr. Schorsch] to suggest a motto. He came back with five, all taken from the Bible, and we agreed on the Via Sapientiae.” (Ibid.)

The seal’s layout was designed by William Ryan, a heraldry expert in New York. Mr. Ryan was President of Ryan-West Banknote, a company that “printed or engraved securities and heraldic symbols” for Catholic institutions. (New York Times, 23 July 1981) After a visit to DePaul to “absorb its origins and local history,” Mr. Ryan created the seal in early 1954, and it was adopted by the university later that year. The cost for Mr. Ryan’s services? $150. (Ephemera, Box 2, Folder 9)

 

Symbolism of the University Seal

The following description is from The DePaulia, published on 9 April 1954, announcing the new Armorial Seal:

…the seal features a traditional coat of arms and a new university motto, Viam sapientiae monstrabo tibi, ‘I will show you the way of wisdom,’ taken from Proverbs IV, 11.

The main section of the field, consisting of a series of nine checky panes (a distinctly French charge) forms an heraldic cross, representing the Catholic faith. In the center pane is the heart, the symbol of charity, for St. Vincent de Paul, titular head of the university, whose lifetime of service to God and humanity has made him the international symbol of charity. The pane above the heart is charged with a crescent, the symbol of Mary under the title of the Immaculate Conception, under which she is the patroness of the United States.

The chief (upper compartment) is devoted to the coat of arms of modern France, the country of St. Vincent de Paul, with its three fleurs-de-lis honoring the Triune God. The embattled lines of partition at the base of the chief, the heraldic equivalent of a fort, betoken Fort Dearborn, established by the United States on the site of Chicago—just a short distance from the present downtown DePaul center. The phoenix on the crest, the symbol of immortality or the Resurrection, is derived from the seal of the Archdiocese of Chicago, whereon it betokens the resurrection of Chicago after the great fire.

 

Reflection Question

The University Seal uses many symbols to convey meaningful aspects of DePaul’s Catholic, Vincentian, and urban mission and identity. If a new coat of arms or seal were created today, what symbols would you now include? How would you illustrate what is important to DePaul University in 2020?

Reflection by:

Michael Van Dorpe, Program Manager for Faculty and Staff Engagement, Division of Mission and Ministry. Special thanks to the DePaul University Archives and Special Collections.

We must go there!

candlelight-vigil

October 1, 2015.  My family and friends were texting me. “Are you ok?”

I ignored them.

I knew what they were asking and I didn’t want to go there.

I didn’t want to return to a horrible day at Northern Illinois University — Valentines Day 2008 —when a student burst into a classroom and started shooting. Months before this heinous act on a campus that was supposed to be safe, I had begun serving as a campus pastor. Years later as news broke this past Thursday that there was another shooting on another “safe” campus I tried my best to ignore the realities that come with such a tragedy.

I didn’t want to remember the screams of disbelief from friends and family who discovered that a dear one had been wounded, or even worse, killed. I didn’t want to remember the scenes of confusion and cries of terror in the hospital emergency room. I didn’t want to remember the funerals and vigils. I didn’t want to go there.

But tonight, here at DePaul, I WILL go there.

I will stand with students, faculty and staff around the St. Vincent Circle in the heart of campus and I WILL go there. I will enter into the depths of heartache and I will stand with others as a gesture of solidarity against violence in our communities, on our campuses, in our world. I will remember all of the people in a slumbering university town not too far from Chicago who were affected by gun violence. I will reflect upon all of those in Roseburg, Oregon and throughout the country whose hearts are broken and whose lives are disrupted by another senseless killing rampage. And I will pray for peace and yearn for the same in my heart and the hearts of victims of violence.

Taking a few moments to light a candle, to offer prayer and to take a stand against violence may seem like a very small thing to do. But I know–having been with the mothers and fathers, sisters, grandparents, professors, friends, brothers and broken community members—that such a small gesture is more powerful than anyone can imagine. I know how important moments of remembering are for those who are trying to make sense out of the senseless.  I know the warmth and balm that one small shining candle can bring to hearts broken.

Tonight, WE must go there! We must go and stand with our brothers and sisters near and far and pray. We must go there to remember those who have died and those who are dying inside over loss of life and so much more. We must go there to let the world know that this school, built upon the foundations of loving and serving one another, is standing solidly together to offer a bit of balm and a prayer for peace for all those whose lives are ripped apart—or ended—by violence.

Tonight, standing around St. Vincent’s Circle, our lights will burn, our prayers will be offered and we will tell our sisters and brothers in Roseburg and the world that we are resolved to be lovers of peace and caretakers of one another. Tonight we must go there!

Rev. Diane Dardon is a Protestant Chaplain at DePaul.  She invites you to join the DePaul Interfaith Scholars tonight at 6:00p.m.  in St. Vincent’s Circle for a Vigil to honor those slain last week at Umpqua Community College.

DePaul Charleston Vigil – Opening Remarks

Rev. Keith Baltimore,University Minister, DePaul Christian Ministries, led a July 1 vigil on the Lincoln Park campus for the DePaul community to honor those killed in Charleston, S.C.  Here are his opening remarks.

vigil candles

This afternoon, we as community have come together to acknowledge and remember the nine people whose lives were tragically ended in Charleston, South Carolina.

On the evening of Wednesday, June 17, 2015, nine people of faith gathered as they always did for Bible study, fellowship and prayer at their church – the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston. During that bible study, they welcomed someone they did not know into their sacred space.  This person sat among them a while, before standing and violently shooting and killing nine people.

The unusual nature of this tragedy can cause even the most devout person to doubt or scramble for some meaning that makes sense. Trying to answer the question of “Why? Why? Why…” can be frustrating and overwhelming.  I know because I’ve been there… In fact, I’m still there.  I’m still in that cold, dark space in my heart and head trying to sort it all out.  As of today, I have nothing.  I’m still confused, still at a complete loss and I am still searching for something that will help me make sense of all this evil.

At some point we may need to recognize that we won’t be satisfied.  While I may never understand this… I refuse to accept it.  I refuse to get used to innocent people being savagely killed for some insane reason.  We must not become desensitized to violence that tears away at our community and our spirit.   I’ll admit to you again that I don’t have any answers, but let me offer to you something very small that I know for sure that has helped me.  Nothing…nothing stays the same.  I know for sure that our country and its people have the capacity to change.  So I will hold on, I will continue to work and I will keep on fighting until true change comes.

There is much to learn from this tragedy.  The discussions and, more importantly, the work necessary to identify and then end what caused this great tragedy must and will continue.  We can’t allow ourselves to become distracted by trite debates over state flags that simply symbolize racism and do nothing to end actual racism.  The time for wrestling with the cause of this great evil that occurred in Charleston will come soon enough, but for today… today we must admit that we feel broken, shocked and overwhelmed with sadness.  So right now… we will just sit together, cry together, and remember them the best way we know how.

A concurrent vigil was also held on the Loop campus, and moment of silence was held at 12:30 p.m. campus wide for those who could not gather as a community.  We will continue to hold all affected in our prayers, and DePaul is sending a Resolution for the nine church members, read at the vigil, to Emanuel AME on behalf of the university.

Abdul-Malik Ryan, Assistant Director of the Office of Religious Diversity, welcomes mourners to a memorial service for the victims of the Charleston (SC) church shooting. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)
Guests light candles in honor of the victim as the DePaul University community gathered for simultaneous memorial services Wednesday, July 1, 2015 at the Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Chapel and the St. Louise de Marillac Chapel to remember and mourn the nine victims of the Charleston church shooting. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)
Guests light candles in honor of those who were killed. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)

Goodbye for Now

by Katie Sullivan

“Goodbye for now, love you, and keep in touch.”  My senior year of college a priest said these words at one of our last masses of the year; they always come back to me around this time of year when a new group of students is graduating and getting ready to move on to the next chapter in their lives.

On May 29th, I marked ten years since I graduated from college.  Ten years since I left the University of San Diego and the great experiences I had as a college student.  In some ways, I can’t believe it’s been that long but I think that’s at least partly because for the last seven years I have worked in higher education and gotten to celebrate with students each year as they have reached the milestone of graduation and set off for new adventures.

graduation
Katie with her friends and family on her graduation day ten years ago

In my three years at DePaul, I have greatly enjoyed being part of our baccalaureate mass tradition each year welcoming the graduates and their families and celebrating with them at the start of the graduation weekend.  Bacc Mass is a great time to take a breath, reflect on the journey, ponder what comes next… (you can join us Friday, June 12th at 4pm in St. Vincent de Paul Church if you’d like). Each baccalaureate mass I attend brings back memories of my own and the feelings I had as I got ready to graduate.

I remember wondering if I was ready.  I knew what I was going to do after college (lifeguard at the neighborhood pool for the summer and then off to Hartford, CT, for a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps), but I was definitely not sure that I was ready to leave my friends and the community I had built.

So, in that vein, I’d like to let our graduates know that it’s okay to be feeling some nerves along with the excitement that comes with graduation.  Maybe you’re a little uncertain – you don’t have a job or you have a job in a different city.  You are not alone in your uncertainty nor will you be alone on the journey out of uncertainty.  Look to your family and friends.  Your mentors and role models.  Seek advice.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Remember to check in with your friends even if you are spread across the country in different cities doing different things every day.  It’s not about how often you talk but about the fact that you remember the other exists and you want to remain connected to them.

And, as you move on from DePaul, maybe instead of saying goodbye to your friends, say “goodbye for now, love you, and keep in touch.”

Katie Sullivan is the University Minister for Catholic Social Concerns in DePaul’s Catholic Campus Ministry office.

A Parade of Casseroles

casseroleWorking at DePaul University I’ve learned a lot about St. Vincent DePaul the charity saint. While many others were doing good works during his time, Vincent was the first to organize charity in a systemic way. One of the first places he experimented with this was at a parish in Chatillon, France. He recognized that parishioners would respond when there was a neighbor in need, but that the person would be overwhelmed with too much attention all at once and so the good will was not put to good use – back then they didn’t have freezers to hold extra casseroles! So, Vincent began to organize the parishioners into small groups of people who would go out and do home visits to assess need and then decide together how to respond to it. In these visits, both the physical and spiritual needs would be attended to.

This practice continues today around the world with the St. Vincent DePaul Society and other ministries, where volunteers go into others’ homes. It is also happening right here in Chicago in my own St. John Berchmans (SJB) parish community thanks to the ministry of HOPE (Helping Other People Enthusiastically).

For the past few weeks my family has been the gracious recipient of the generosity of SJB friends who have brought us meals as we welcome home our son Theodore.

Typically I’m on the giving, not receiving end. At first my husband was hesitant to receive such generosity since “we” don’t really need it. When I asked if he was going to suddenly take up cooking as his new hobby and leave his newborn in order to go to the grocery store, he quickly changed his mind. Yes, perhaps we could use some extra help! It is a humbling time as we welcome with open arms a parade of casseroles and tasty treats to give us the endurance to push through sleepless nights.

There is something very intimate and sacred about inviting someone into your home, especially during a moment of need. People we see in the pews on Sunday entered both the joy and messiness of our life with a newborn. Some would stay and visit for a while, sharing their wisdom on parenthood. Others saw we had our hands full and just left instructions of how to heat the food.

The simple act of preparing and delivering a meal is profound way to continue to build bridges of solidarity together. We are grateful for the physical and spiritual nourishment we’ve received from the SJB community –the actual meals and the many powerful prayers that have made all the difference in our and Teddy’s life. Hopefully someday you will have the opportunity to join or receive a parade of casseroles too.

Joyana Dvorak serves as Service Immersion Coordinator with DePaul University Ministry when she’s not home on maternity leave with her son.

Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org

 

What George Clooney Taught Me About the Importance of Education

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What does a mediocre rental movie have to do with existential questions of humanity and the value of higher education?  Probably very little, but I will let you peek into the firing of my synapses which found a connection.

It was a free night with no plans so my wife and I rented a movie from the box in the drug store.   After some discussion we choose The Monuments Men. The movie follows the ‘based on a true story’ tale of a group of art scholars tasked with preserving masterpieces during the throes of World War II. The mission is carried out while the Nazis are seeking to seize masterpieces from the countries being militarily conquered. Worse still, because of the war paintings, sculpture, and architecturally important buildings could be destroyed either due to the fighting and bombing or intentionally due to the Nazis’ desire to eradicate a people’s culture from the earth.

The movie focused on some key questions for us as people. How can we reconcile the spending of resources on preserving works of art (no matter how beautiful) with the fact that resources are in short supply and in high demand for other needs? How can we spend lives saving art rather than defeating the enemy? More importantly, what is it we are actually fighting for? What do we truly value?

These questions make me think of current debates regarding the value of higher education.   What is higher education’s purpose or need when, in a changing job market, a college education is not necessarily required and is certainly not a guarantee of employment?

If higher education is reduced to being a hoop one needs to jump through to get a lucrative job, I will concede pursuing it may not make sense. It is however more than that. Though it may help one get a job (and well it should), higher education is about education — learning, imparting wisdom, and helping one discern vocation. Perhaps most importantly, higher education is about discovering the contributions a person will make with their one precious life.

The process of education is about making sense of life and our world; it is not so our job market can ask us what sense higher education makes.   If education was all about how to get high-paying jobs (which are not bad and can be quite good) and that is all we focused on, our societal response to positions of care and compassion for our sick, elderly, and vulnerable would be very small. Human services would not be a field, nor would most liberal arts studies. History would be lost to time, and we would gain nothing from the accomplishments of those who have gone before us. The greatest accomplishments in thought and philosophy would go unlearned and unexamined. If it is all about high paying jobs, we may well be excellent producers of products, but we may never have learned how to think.

I recently watched the eyes of a large Mexican family – all of them, from oldest to youngest, men and women – fill with tears as they looked on with pride as their loved one (daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece, great niece, cousin) donned a DePaul cap and gown, becoming the first in their family to graduate from college. She will be going into a helping profession.

If higher ed is primarily about money this scene does not make sense, but if education is about more than that – striving to achieve, learning, living dreams, discovering passions, extending one’s understanding of community – the very things that make us human, then I think we have answered what the value of higher education is.

The movie The Monuments Men makes a compelling argument that we were not simply fighting to save people nor only to stop an imperialist power. We were fighting to preserve cultures, people’s histories, and greatest accomplishments. It makes the point that we value difference, beauty, and expression as humans. It also makes the point that we are willing to do what is necessary to preserve these elements for future generations. We do this so that those who come after us will be inspired to learn about their culture, learn about where they come from, and learn about the very essence of what makes them who they are.

Presumably this is also why we continue to offer and place value upon higher education. Without education present in our society we risk becoming a culture of task completers, valued chiefly by our capacity to produce. With learning present in our society, we are humanized and we are a culture of beings valued for who we are as a people.

In the movie one of the characters asks, “Who would make sure that the statue of David is still standing or the Mona Lisa is still smiling? Who will protect her?” If the focus had only been on defeating the Germans, the “monuments men” would not have made sense and neither would the art they were trying to save. If our focus is on our humanity and our greatest expression of such, these are the values we hold dear, these are the values we fight for, and these are the reasons we endeavor to learn.

 

Robert J. Gilmore is the Coordinator of Faith Formation for DePaul’s Catholic Campus Ministry

 Monuments Men image from from wikipedia.org; Egan Statue from http://abt.cm/1nTAZDq

 

Faith and Deconstructing the Exclusivity of Truth

world

Enass Zayed gives her take on the concept of faith and truth in a world of varied ideologies and experiences.

Over the course of this last year I have been asked to reflect on my religious ideologies quite a bit. There have been questions that I have had welling up from my own traditions that I have had to find answers to and there have been aspects of other traditions that I have felt were so profound that I have tried to incorporate them into my own belief structure. One of the biggest things that I have had to work my mind around is the concept of faith and how it exists within the concept of exclusive truth. There are many people who hold the belief that their traditions are the only proper way to behave. This phenomenon is prevalent in all aspects of life; religious or secular. My biggest challenge has been trying to remove myself from the ranks of the exclusive.

On our very first meeting, Mat Charnay asked me to define faith. While the clear and obvious answer is full trust in something outside of your self, I felt as though that was not enough to encapsulate the idea. Faith is taking the leap and hoping something catches you. In my mind, the strongest faith comes from knowing that there is a possibility that things are not quite as you imagine them, but committing to your ideas anyway. Faith is built by making informed decisions and seeking knowledge in all its forms so that any ideas that are created are likely to stand the barrage of obstacles that life throws at us. I am a firm believer in the idea of individual truth as opposed to a general and exclusive truth. Not everyone’s idea of religion are going to be able to satisfy the needs of the rest of the world and that is okay. In fact, that is the most beautiful things about faith in general. When properly executed, faith allows many people to have beautiful, complicated, and extensive ideas about every part of their lives: ideas that are relevant to their relationship with their world and their religion.

While most of this idea is pretty elementary to most, the part that I believe is left out is the idea that we might be wrong. I know that there is slight possibility that everything I hold true could be proven wrong tomorrow, but this understanding is what keeps my concept of faith growing. My personal approach to religious belief is that (most) everything is fluid. Ever since I was a child, I have done my own research into the religious systems that have surrounded me. I was never content to let someone give me traditions without understanding why there were valid or relevant. I was never content in settling on one answer because that would have meant that my research into faith would have stopped. Once I reach a comfortable conclusion, there is no point in continuing my search for a self relevant truth. My faith is built on the idea that I have to build knowledge to minimize the possibility that I am wrong about everything.

So, is the exclusivity of truth even relevant in the discussion of faith? In my opinion it is. From personal experience I have found that many people are unwilling to question their concept of truth as it would apply to another person. There is also little thought put into the idea that we do not always have the answers to everything. The idea of an exclusive truth lends itself to the idea that one religion is more valid than any others. This concept is problematic because so many religions teach that religion is a shared experience even if we do not all carry out our beliefs in the same manner and traditions. While my understanding of truth may be valid today, it is valid only in my experiences and only until something to the contrary comes into my world view. Until then, I feel as though I owe it to my faith and my religious belief to continuously research and build a stronger foundation from which I can take my leap of faith.

Faith, Falling Down, and Vampires

downloadInterfaith Scholar Thano Prokos gives his insight on music, faith, and spirit. 

We recently opened our Scholar meeting by answering the question “What fills your spirit?” Being the indecisive and long-winded person that I am, I decided to present my fellow scholars with my own litany of spirit fillers which in includes (but is not limited to) church, writing, English Renaissance literature, going on walks, singing in large groups, drawing pictures of pink fluffy unicorns, and listening to music.

Given that June will soon spring upon us, like a Greek grandmother on a cup of communion, I’m about to fill my mouth, ears, and spirit with song because it’s…. wait for it… THE SUMMER CONCERT SEASON! And this year, I’ll be starting off my annual concert binge with Vampire Weekend in early June, followed by Jack White in July, and concluding with Chicago’s Riot Fest (with some other names in between).

But Thano, how can you—a practicing Orthodox Christian—submit yourself to the Devil’s melodies on one day and go to church in good conscience the next day? Well old crotchety 1950’s man, let me tell you a little somethin’-somethin.’

It’s definitely challenging to be Orthodox and a lover of modern music. I’ll be blunt: there’s a lot of stuff out there that I consider garbage—garbage I sometimes listen to—but garbage nonetheless. There’s art that’s uncreative, there’s art that doesn’t challenge you, there’s, there’s art that’s totally shallow, there’s art that purely seeks to antagonize certain audiences, and I really feel that a lot of that stuff doesn’t really do anything good for listeners.

But at the same time, there are songs that are critical of certain religious beliefs that I really appreciate. Take, for example, a couple of my favorite tracks from the latest Vampire Weekend album: “Unbelievers and “Ya Hey.” Both of these songs depict their speaker’s inability to connect to the divine and the Judeo-Christian concept of God.

The chorus in “Unbelievers” goes like this:

 

I’m not excited [about God], but should I be?
Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?
I know I love you,
and you love the sea,
but what holy water contains a little drop, little drop for me?”

It refers to the lack of nourishment that the speaker receives from the religious culture that surrounds him.

Ya Hey” uses a few biblical allusions to describe an inability to connect with God, while background vocals continuously repeat the song’s title (a pun on Yeweh):

“Through the fire and through the flames
You won’t even say your name,
only “I am that I am.

But who could ever live that way?”

So, both of these songs depict a struggle with spirituality, and though I’m probably on the other side of this struggle than the band’s songwriter Ezra Koenig, I can definitely relate to the difficulties of experiencing faith that Ezra Koenig sings about. Do I ever feel like religion isn’t doing anything for me? Do I ever feel like God is distant? Of course I do! Going to shows like these is one of my favorite examples of inter-faith in action: People who believe different things, but still use music to confront similar struggles of belief.

So let’s get back to spirit-filling. How does acknowledging my struggles—and thereby confronting my own moments of spiritual emptiness—fill my spirit? Is it filled from watching some of my favorite musicians dancing and enjoying themselves on stage? Is it filled from the sound of a stadium full of people singing along to my favorite song? Is it filled by the misty sensation of a cup of Miller Light raining down over my head as it flies further up towards the stage? Not quite to any of these, but I actually do enjoy getting the occasional beer shower.

When I confront really challenging songs or poetry, the filling of my spirit comes from knowing that if I do “fall down” from maintaining my relationship with God, I have the opportunity to “get back up” and continue dealing with my struggles. Here’s a better articulation of that comforting thought from the Orthodox theologian Jim Forrest’s book Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness:

The story is called “A Fallen Monk Seeks Advice From St. Sisoes the Great”

A young monk said to Abba Sisoes: “Abba, what should I do? I fell.” The elder answered: “Get up!” The monk said: “I got up and I fell again!” The elder replied: “Get up again!” But the young monk asked: “For how long should I get up when I fall?” “Until your death,” answered Abba Sisoes. “For a man heads to his judgment either fallen or getting back up again.”

And who knows, maybe one day there will be a Vampire Weekend song about that.