Sacramentality and Springsteen

Mike Laskey

In the summer of 2006, I completed an important rite of passage for any proud son of New Jersey: I saw Bruce Springsteen in concert.

Toward the middle of the show, Bruce and his band played “My City of Ruins,” a song from his album “The Rising” that he originally wrote about Asbury Park, NJ. After 9/11/01, Bruce famously played the song on the “Tribute to Heroes” telethon, and it took on new meaning as the country began to heal. I had never really listened closely to it until the night of the concert.

The song begins this way:

There’s a blood red circle
On the cold dark ground
And the rain is falling down
The church doors blown open
I can hear the organ’s song
But the congregation’s gone

My city of ruins…
My city of ruins…

Now the sweet veils of mercy
drift through the evening trees
Young men on the corner
like scattered leaves
The boarded up windows
The hustlers and thieves
While my brother’s down on his knees

I spent that summer leading high school students in our JusticeworX service immersion experiences in Trenton, NJ, just a few miles from where I grew up. We were faced with signs of urban poverty each day, and images from the city flashed to mind as Bruce sang those opening verses. He might as well have been singing about Trenton.

It was hard not to have a bleak feeling about things as I stood and listened, and I found myself grieving: for Trenton, for Asbury Park, for those caught in the cycle of poverty, for the victims of 9/11 and the countless lives lost to war and violence each year. I prayed, “Why don’t we just figure this all out already? Hasn’t it been long enough? What are we supposed to do?”

Bruce doesn’t leave us there, though, as the song peaks in pitch and urgency with this line: “Rise up! C’mon, rise up!” Then, he closes the song with a prayer:

Now with these hands,
With these hands,
With these hands,
I pray Lord
With these hands,
With these hands,
I pray for the strength, Lord
With these hands,
With these hands,
I pray for the faith, Lord
We pray for your love, Lord
We pray for the lost, Lord
We pray for this world, Lord
We pray for the strength, Lord
We pray for the strength, Lord

As he sang this prayer, the hands in the crowd began to rise, from the stage back. Without even realizing it, my hands were soon in the air, too. I encountered God that moment in a profound way. He seemed to be offering an answer to my prayer, through the song and the show and the people gathered: “I gave you these hands. Use them.”

That simple wake-up call still lingers with me when I feel overwhelmed. But my reflection today isn’t as much about how to fix urban poverty or how to correct the injustices of the world as it is about finding God in the everyday stuff of life – in the people we meet, the beauty of creation, a rock song.

This is one of my favorite parts about being Catholic: we’re a sacramental people! God comes to us through the simplicity of stuff. I will never understand God, but I can taste bread and wine; I can listen to music; I can see a sunset; I can feel an embrace.

One of my favorite spiritual writers Ronald Rolheiser hits it right on the head: “For Christians, ultimately the whole world is holy and everything in it, especially the physical, is potential material for sacrament. Our belief is that the universe shows forth God’s glory, that each of us is made in God’s image, that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, that the food we eat is sacramental, and that in our work and in our sexual embrace, we are co-creators with God.”

We walk around not with rose-colored glasses, but sort of “sacramental goggles,” and the world around us is transformed. When I see this way, my whole life can become a prayer, even if I don’t have a spare hour during work to sit in the chapel.

What helps me shift to this perspective is to be doing things during the week that are particularly sacramental for me: playing and listening to music, having a drink with friends, taking a quiet walk. Then I start to notice God, my spirit feels more peaceful, and love feels more powerful than hate and fear.

GK Chesterton was surely plugged in to this reality. “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”


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