Mystery, Meditation, Media: An Interview with Matt Swaim

I recently had the good fortune to talk with Matt Swaim, producer of EWTN Radio’s Son Rise Morning Show, regarding his first book, The Eucharist and the Rosary: Mystery, Meditation, Power, Prayer (Ligouri Publications, 2010).

Shane Kapler: Matt, I know that you entered the Church at Easter, 2005.  Tell us about your journey:

Matt Swaim: I was baptized by the Presbyterians, although it would be improper for me to say that I was ever formally Presbyterian.  I was kind of United Methodist then Nazarene, then Free Methodist, then sort of non-denominational, then part of the Emergent Church Movement. I actually had a Bible study that kind of turned into a house church along the way — totally by accident.  Then I eventually made my way to Catholicism.

I can say this:  it seemed like I was joining newer and newer, smaller and smaller Christian communities.  Not just newer parishes, but newer denominations…and there was just this breaking point, where I realized there was no smaller and no newer available to me.  I realized the only option left to me was the biggest and the oldest thing out there!  Namely Catholicism, because I had exhausted every single other narrow possibility.

Kapler: In your book you relate how you had been reading various authors and the ones who made the most sense to you turned out to be Catholic.

Swaim: The gateway for me was C.S. Lewis, who was not Catholic – mostly because of his baggage.  He and I are very similar in that regard; I had sort of anti-Catholic prejudices much like Lewis did.  But Lewis is very Catholic in his worldview and he opened the door for me to go other places.  Some people stay stuck on Lewis forever and never advance beyond him, but some people say, “I gotta get a bigger fix than this.  He’s touching on things but not exploring them to the full extent.”  Then I went on to Chesterton, and Chesterton really swings that door wide.

A lot of those issues that Lewis brings up are fleshed out by Chesterton, and when I say “fleshed out,” I mean Incarnation.  Lewis is essentially a Protestant — not just because he claims to be one — but because, even though he was a High Anglican, his sense of the sacraments falls really short of Catholicism; and there was a dissatisfaction that I developed reading his work.  I still totally love it, but I did have that dissatisfaction and so when I moved on to people like Chesterton I felt the tangibility there.

I found it especially in the works of Catholic fiction writers, because that incarnational worldview is so imbued in the way they look at fiction, that it’s hard to deny.  One of the most profound theological statements that I’ve ever heard about the theology of communion is from Flannery O’Connor when, in reference to the Eucharist, she made the comment that, “If it’s not the Body and Blood of Christ, then to hell with it!”

Kapler: When you started reading these Catholic authors, what was your view of the Rosary?

Swaim: I had a total indifference to it.  When I thought of Catholicism I didn’t think of the Rosary. I thought of Mary worship and the arrogance of the papacy.  The Rosary was something kind of symbolic to me, kind of like a crucifix.  If you had showed me a set of beads with a crucifix on the end, I would have said it was a cross necklace.  It wasn’t until the end of my journey toward Catholicism that I had a concept of what the Rosary was.

Once I started to have a hunger for Catholic prayer, and I mention this in the book, I thought of it more like a Catholic i.d. card.  When I started praying the Rosary at first, it was to try and develop some Catholic “street cred.”  As I began to pray it seriously, I quickly realized that there was a whole lot more to it.  Here was the entire Gospel and a method for reflecting on the entire Gospel in a 15-minute span.  Here was this thing that I thought was a decoration, and it ended up being the entire Life of the Church that you could fit in your pocket, so to speak.

Kapler: Great image.  So was there one “ah ha” moment, when you first recognized that there was power in this prayer, or was it just a gradual thing?

Swaim: My whole entry into the Church was very gradual.  It was probably about an eight year, incremental journey toward Rome; and the Rosary was probably in the last 25% of it.  It wasn’t an “ah ha” moment in that I found this crazy, awesome tool; it was more like, “This is my journey; I’m going to pick up every weapon I can find along the way to get to where I have to get.”  And the appreciation for it has definitely developed over time.  It’s not like an explosion; it’s like a spark that grows steadily into a bonfire.

Kapler: What about the Mass?   When did you first attend, and what was going through your mind as you were listening to the prayers?

Swaim: I have to tell you, the first time I went to Mass, I did not love the Mass.  I had grown up in the Bible-Belt.  Most of my trek toward Catholicism had happened before I met a single Catholic, because they’re just not around in central Kentucky, or so I thought.  When it came to my Catholic understanding, I developed a completely Catholic worldview based on people like Chesterton, Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Graham Greene.  I developed this worldview without any experience of the Liturgy whatsoever.

I moved up to Cincinnati in 2004, and after awhile decided I was going to attend my first Catholic Mass.  Now at that point I had no concept of what the Second Vatican Council was, nor of this thing they call “the spirit of Vatican II.”  I walked into that first Mass and was expecting to be smacked between the eyes with incense and incarnation, liturgy and eternity — to be just knocked off my feet.  What I found was really mediocre music, even worse preaching, and a whole bunch of people who didn’t even say, “hello,” to each other at the end of the service.  And I thought to myself, “What a lame experience this is.”  I had come from the Bible-Belt which is powerful hymns, dynamic preaching, deep and engaging fellowship.  I thought to myself, “Maybe the Sacrament wasn’t there this time,” because I just didn’t have that understanding of the Church.

Now, as I went on to understand, I had to weed the Protestantism out of myself — the Protestantism that was “cult of personality,” or that follows services because they appeal to me, or they get me where I need to be got.  I realized that there’s a total difference between the way that Catholics view the Mass and that Protestants view church services.  Mass is not designed to appeal to the congregation.  Mass is designed to yank the congregation out of themselves and force them to focus, if only for an hour, on something that is totally bigger, totally greater, totally beyond them.  It is not to call God down from Heaven, although that happens in the epiclesis.  It is to call us up into Heaven — just for peeks, so that we can get can get a taste of what we will hopefully get, if everything works out well.  The development of my appreciation for the Mass was really difficult because first I thought, “What if I can be a Catholic and just not have to experience the lameness of this progressive, boring Mass?”  Now eventually I found things like the Latin Mass and English Masses that had great reverence and great homiletics; but that was a real struggle for me from the beginning.

Kapler: I’m amazed by this element in conversion stories, how often times the first experience people considering conversion have when they come into contact with Catholics attending the Liturgy can be very disappointing, and yet how the Holy Spirit continues to give them the grace to persevere until they find an authentic manifestation of liturgy as it is meant to be.

Swaim: Well, I can tell you what that is: it’s a testament to the grace of the sacraments.  I believe I mention this in the chapter on the Visitation, that regardless even of the disposition of the people in the congregation, Christ is present.  It’s real, no matter how “bad” the people around are, or even how “bad” the priest is.  And that’s really something that a lot of us cynical people need to break out of — that no matter how much liturgical abuse you see, as long as the right things are said, at the right time, by the right person, it’s real no matter how annoyed you are afterward.

Kapler: You’ve described your book as a work of personal devotion – you are reflecting upon the illumination the Rosary gives the Eucharist and vice versa — as opposed to a work of speculative theology.  I couldn’t help but notice though, how you are repeatedly communicating some pretty intense theological insights in the process.  Which truths stood out to you most clearly as you were writing?

Swaim: One of the things that was really helpful for me, was to have finalized this book during the Year for Priests.  As I was working on – especially mysteries such as the Fifth Luminous Mystery, the Institution of the Eucharist — some of the thoughts of St. John Vianney really struck me.  In his Catechism on the Priesthood he talks about how, “If you wish to attack religion, you begin by attacking the priest.  Without the priest there is no sacrifice, and without sacrifice there is no religion.”  If there is no sacrifice then there is no religion, you’re just getting together and talking about how to be nice people.  For me that was a really striking thought.  You can’t talk about the Mass without talking about the priest, because the priest stands there, right there, in the person of Jesus.  The priest has had hands laid on him, by a guy who had hands laid on him…all the way back to Jesus Christ.  And that’s the only reason you can have a Mass.  You eliminate the priesthood and you eliminate the Church.

That sounds like a slap in the face to our equilateral, post-modern, laity-empowered ecclesiology, but it’s not.  It’s understanding how the Body of Christ works; and it’s recognizing that priest is there to empower the laity, but then the laity have the work of evangelizing the whole world!  And so, you can’t breathe with only one of those lungs. So for me, the fact that I was writing during the Year for Priests, really helped to connect some threads that I was thinking about at that time.

I want to say something about personal devotion too.  I should point out that I’m wired more intellectually than devotionally, so I wrote this book probably — and I don’t mean to sound overly narcissistic — to try and snap myself out of some of my dry musings on eternity into more of a devotional relationship with these two prayers.  It’s easy to be able to write down on paper what this all means.  It’s a lot harder to let your heart be impacted by what’s happening.  I’m really good at intellectual assent to truths such as the Real Presence, but I’m really bad about letting myself be moved by that knowledge.

Kapler: With you only starting to go to Mass and to pray the Rosary about six years ago, I’m very curious how God took you so deep, so quickly.

Swaim: As we all know, the Rosary is prayer of discipline.  It’s like the baseball season.  You practice, you play, you do the best you can.  Some days you go 0/4.  Some days you go 4/4.  You’re successful if you bat .300.  That’s the way it is with the Rosary.  I pray it, and I pray it, and I pray it.  If I were to give up on it altogether, I know that I’d be missing out greatly.  Now, I pray it and sometimes and fall asleep in the process.  I’ll pray it sometimes to fall asleep.  But every now and then something strikes you that you never were struck with before, and that’s what makes it worth it.

When it comes to some of the things I include in the book — those weren’t things that occurred to me the first time around.  Those weren’t things that occurred to me even the 100th time around.  But I will say this:  the Rosary, because it is the gospel, and because I was raised in a family that had such a deep love of the Scripture, the framework was all there.  It’s like building a remote control car and putting in the battery!  Now it could go.  Once I had that Catholic understanding, and once I saw the Mass the way I should have seen the Mass, it was just bulb after bulb waiting to go off — not all simultaneously, and not as fast as I’d liked; but the bulbs continue to go off.

Kapler: In the book you make a distinction between Christian meditation and Eastern meditation, Buddhist and Hindu meditation.  Describe proper Christian meditation for our readers.

Swaim: Wow, I’m a Swaim, but not a swami.  Our spiritualistic culture says we’re all just going up the same mountain, using different paths.  Well, if you know anything about eastern theology, we’re not even on the same dadgum mountain.  The pinnacle of Eastern meditation is to become annihilated and subsumed into the great whatever, whereas Christian meditation is to be given ourselves back fully, so that we can participate as our actual selves in the heavenly Kingdom.  The way that Christians and Easterners meditate reflects that.

As Christians we come with what we have and are and look at Something greater than ourselves, not because we want to forget ourselves completely but because we want to understand how we can reconcile ourselves with that.  The Eastern view of things is that we focus inward on ourselves to become totally annihilated.  The fact of the matter is, if you’re meditating inward on yourself, you’re going to worship what you’re meditating on; and that’s why Easterners tend to think they’re a part of God, as opposed to a part of the Kingdom of God.

Kapler: How would recommend a Christian dispose himself, or herself, to meditate most successfully?

Swaim: For me, I have to have a tool.  If it’s just me hanging out, deciding, “I’m going to contemplate now;” and I don’t have an object of contemplation, I’m going to contemplate on everything in the world except for what I set out to contemplate.  I’m going to contemplate some song stuck in my head, some responsibility I’ve left undone, my own interests or obsessions.  That’s why I think iconography is so useful, why Adoration is so fruitful.  That’s why I think the Rosary is so powerful — you have a system.

I joke in the book that having a tool and an object for contemplation forces you to meditate on the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as opposed to the holy trinity of me, myself, and I.  We want to think that what’s between me and God is just between me and God; and we have this personal relationship.  Well, do you?  Do you? What do you know about God, this Guy you have a personal relationship with?  How can you know this Person that you never think about, or Whose sufferings you never enter into?  How can you know that Person?  Of course He knows you, but how badly do you want to know Him?

Spontaneous prayer obviously has great value, but some of us aren’t mature enough to keep our spontaneous prayer disciplined, in order to focus outside of ourselves.  If we let that be our dominant form of prayer, very often our spontaneous prayer can be extremely narcissistic — at least I know mine is, and I’ve spoken to many people who relate the same thing.  So I think the great thing the Catholic Church offers us is balance.

Kapler: If you had to summarize your greatest hopes for what readers will take away from your book, what would you say?

Swaim: I want people to realize that the things they get to do everyday, such as attend Mass or pray the Rosary, are not ordinary things in the sense that the world uses the word “ordinary.”  They are ordinary in the sense that they order us.  I think that if we understand the genius of the Church in trying to imbue the entire Gospel into both of these prayers, that we will get a much better sense of what it means to be a Catholic, a Christian, who is redeemed by God and loved by God – to understand why He was born in the first place, why He died, and what that means for us in the eternal picture of things.

Kapler: So what is in the works, what’s next on your plate?

Swaim: I have a lot of really insane ideas, none of which will probably come to fruition.  I think the most practical thing that I’m working on right now is something having to do with prayer and the age of information — something having to do with contemplation in a media-saturated culture.  I’m trying to be really tangible with that so I’m taking some of the insights of St. John of the Cross and St. Therese of Lisieux, someone like T. S. Elliot.  I’m going to try and use some St. Benedict, some Teresa of Avila and Augustine in there too.  The great thing about writing something systematic like The Eucharist and the Rosary is that I had a definite start and a definite end point.  This next project is just like, “Where do you stop?  When have you said enough?”  Of course the fact of the matter is, you can never say enough!

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