Gary Jansen on grunge music, angels, Kerouac, St. Cecilia and speaking to the souls of the seekers
Kathryn Jean Lopez April 20, 2018
A new book by Angelus contributor Gary Jansen, an editor and multi-book author, is a tour through some of the Catholic prayers and devotion and culture that so many of us have lost.
How to regain, to teach again and anew? Dive in! Which is what Jansen allows for in the reintroduction he provides in his “Life Everlasting: Catholic Devotions and Mysteries for the Everyday Seeker” (TarcherPerigee, $13). He talks a little about it here.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: I’ve noted more than one person in the last few years refer to you as mystic. Why do you think that is? What does that even mean?
Gary Jansen: If by mystic you mean a clueless sinner with ADHD and a penchant for ’90s grunge bands and Taco Bell, then yes, I’m a mystic.
Truth be told, I am fascinated with the study of the mystical experience, which is essentially an interpreted experience of union with God. Plenty of others are too.
The new catchphrase nowadays for mystical experience is flow. Scientists don’t use the word mystical because it comes with religious baggage, but that’s essentially what many are studying now when they study flow — peak experiences and those moments when you seem to lose yourself and enter heightened states of awareness.
Flow is no different than the mystical experience. I write about a number of these experiences in “Life Everlasting,” and they all have the same ending: “Oh, I didn’t expect to find God there, but there God is.”
Lopez: We’re striving to answer the ineffable call that many of us feel inside for something else, something we don’t understand, but something that makes us ask, “Is this it? Is this all there is? Or is there a secret meaning to our lives?” Why does anyone who is a mystic or writes about mysticism always wind up using that word — ineffable — none of us really hear all that often otherwise?
Jansen: I like it because James Joyce used it in “Ulysses” and Henry James used the word to describe his love of driving automobiles. Both Joyce and James were mystics, though Joyce would probably punch me in the face for saying that (James would probably just get a little sad).
“Ineffable” just means that it can’t be explained in words, it has to be experienced. It’s like eating an orange. I can describe what I’m experiencing when I bite into an orange but that explanation never comes close to the actual experience. Same thing with the spiritual life. You can have a personal experience of God, but any explanation will come up short.
Lopez: Why do we need to think about such things?
Jansen: Jesus never said you need to develop a system of spirituality and work on that every day. He basically said love God and don’t be a jerk. Yet, Jesus was the example of spirituality.
He was ever aware. He prayed. He stayed calm (most of the time), even under great pressure. He kept his Father near. He forgave. And he often went off to be by himself.
Plus, he said that we can do even greater things than he did if we keep the commandments and all he taught us in our hearts.
We forget that — that we have the potential to be awesome like Jesus is awesome. Instead, we often settle for a lot less. Spiritual practice can help inch us closer to the person we’re really meant to be.
Lopez: How can serious people believe angels are constantly guarding us?
Jansen: Ever hang out with a serious person for a long time? Boring! I’d much prefer to spend time with the old Italian lady at Church who still dresses in black out of respect for her dead husband and prays the rosary every day and talks to angels before going to bed.
She’ll inherit the kingdom. Serious people might inherit the kingdom too, but I think they go in the back of the line.
Lopez: What is the point in marking a calendar with the memorials and feasts of saints and blesseds?
Jansen: In the Catholic Church, every day is a holiday! We can celebrate the lives of multiple saints on any given day. Beer companies should really get a calendar of saints and use it for marketing.
If they can do for St. Stanislaus Kostka what they’ve done for St. Patrick, they’d make a fortune, help the economy and maybe we’d all be less uptight.
Lopez: Who is the Church to set aside certain people as canonized saints? Aren’t there a whole lot of people in heaven who never make papal radar?
Jansen: Yeah, who died and made the Church boss! Oh, that would be Jesus. Anyway, we’re all made saints through Christ, right? But I look at canonized saints as God’s employees of the month.
You might have a whole company of outstanding employees, but this month Eugene is recognized for going beyond the call of duty. His example exemplifies commitment. Saints are like Eugene.
Nothing against all the rest of us, but canonized saints often go beyond the call of duty. They get stuff done.
Lopez: How can we better get to know Mary as Mother? Why should we?
Jansen: Through your imagination. Close your eyes and pretend that you’re sitting with Mary in your home and she pulls out a scrapbook of her life.
She shows you pictures of her as a young woman who had a very odd encounter with someone named Gabriel. She shows you a picture of her pregnant and there’s another one of her visiting her cousin Elizabeth. She was pregnant too. Go figure.
Then she shows you one of her husband and a photo of the night her son was born. There were a lot of stars out that night and these guys with sheep came to visit.
If scrapbooks are too old-fashioned you can pretend she’s showing you pictures on her iPhone and going through all these memorable times in her life. Like most moms, Mary really wants to talk about her child. She has a lot of praise for him. We should listen as intently as we can.
Lopez: What’s your chapter on St. Cecilia all about?
Jansen: That’s one of my favorite chapters. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a number of spiritual-flow experiences in my lifetime. Best way to describe that is that I have moments where I feel really connected to God and everything tangible around me seemingly dissolves or becomes diaphanous.
I had one of those experiences in Rome a few years ago. The St. Cecilia chapter is one I wrote in the back pew of the Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere.
I had met Pope Francis earlier in the day and spoke to him for a couple of minutes. I was riding a high, and as I was walking through the city streets in the evening, everything around me seemed really colorful and vibrant.
When I got to the church, I pulled out my phone and just started writing in my Notes app. Everything flowed and I was writing at a furious pace about a vision I was having of St. Cecilia and everything around me.
This chapter in the book is pretty much word for word what I wrote that night. I had to fix some of the tenses and take out a few curse words, but that chapter tries to capture a moment. I’m a huge Jack Kerouac fan, so that chapter is like a love letter to Jack Kerouac.
I love literature and embed literary things in my all my books. The prologue for “Holy Ghosts” is an homage to novelist Milan Kundera, and the “15-Minute Prayer Solution” contains a chapter inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
“Station to Station” contains 14 prose poems that are an appreciation of poet Charles Simic. I always wanted to be a college literature professor, but I didn’t have the attention span to get my Ph.D.
Lopez: To anyone who has read any of this and just wants to know Jesus better, how to start?
Jansen: Do something simple. I would suggest this seven-day experiment. Every morning, just ask Jesus to reveal himself to you more and more. Set an alarm on your phone to go off at 3 p.m. every day and ask Jesus again to help reveal himself to you. Then make the same request before you go to bed.
See what happens. Oh, and read the Bible, talk to friends, go to church and if you’re Catholic, experience the Eucharist.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a contributing editor to Angelus and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.
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