The Miracle of Language

My eight-month old daughter now makes three sounds. She gurgles raspberries, aspirates a popping “P” sound, and purses her lips to deliberately and painstakingly makes a little lamb “Baaa”. The latter in particular is an all encompassing communication and not merely a noise. She looks me in the eye, holds up a chubby hand to command the room, and “Baa”s meaningfully. Her great-grandmother uses her hands when she talks, too.

It really is a miracle that humans are able to speak at all. I don’t mean the making of sounds, which is fascinating enough from a physical perspective, but I mean it is a miracle that we communicate in any medium. I once read in a semiotics essay that, when humans communicate, the signs we use include symbols. We can speak with animals and animals can speak with one another, but the method of communication in the animal world is by way of sign and response and does not use symbols. A prairie dog lookout shouts that a specific man in a yellow shirt is approaching and everyone scatters. A dog hears a command from his owner to sit and sits because he knows a delicious treat is soon to follow. Animals have an amazing capacity to interpret signs and make responses, but, as semiotics would have it, this falls short of making use of a sign in the manner of a symbol. A human hears the word “sandwich” and, while he may or may not begin to salivate and look for a particular sandwich to eat, is also in his intellect able to contemplate the ideal of a sandwich. The particular word conjures a universal idea. We can even contemplate that which we have never even seen in the real world, for instance a 40-sided polygon. Through symbol, we are able to make the leap from a particular thing or situation requiring a response and into the realm of universals.

It is not hyperbole to refer to this human capacity as miraculous. From whence does it come, and why are we capable of that which is far beyond our evolutionary needs? This capacity is why humans write novels and poems and songs, a faculty having nothing at all to do with how large a mastodon I am able to shoot with bow and arrow.


Language is an irreducible triad connecting us to real objects and allowing us to make a conceptual leap to the whole. I say that it is irreducible because the clues to how we communicate seem to be irretrievably hidden in pre-linguistic clues. You either communicate or you don’t. Even an infant child, although physically inferior to pretty much every other creature at the same age of development, seems to be capable of communication. Any mother will tell you so. The ability to communicate reveals the intellect that is the distinguishing mark of our species. We are rational animals.

As I was playing with my daughter, I showed her a “DaDa” sound, hoping she would gratify me by saying my name. She watched my mouth intently, trying to see how the sound is formed. She reached out her hand as all babies do in their adorably pain-inducing way and pinched her fingers onto my lower lip to capture the magic of the sound. She is a Fisher of Men and I her catch.

We are hooked by language, enchanted by the innocence required by speech, to venture a communication in this vast, veiled world of sign and symbol. I say innocent because surely we are naive to expose ourselves to others through the act of communication. I don’t mean merely misunderstandings of intent but, more specifically, the fundamentally incomplete nature of language itself. Perhaps artists feel this most keenly. I once fancied myself a poet until I realized I am utterly, devastatingly, aggghhh…incapable! (incapax for all you Latinists). I am incapable of finding the words that truly express my intent. It is a helpless feeling. I am in awe of those who are able to write well and, to me, a poem is a finely polished gem of inestimable value; it reflects and colors the atmosphere. Novelists often feel that their work is unsatisfactory and would almost certainly continue revising forever, happily impoverished in a garret room lit by a single coal if a cruel editor didn’t eventually force them to cease and publish. Musicians find their past work inadequate and often refuse to play it. St. Thomas Aquinas himself exclaims that all he has written is like straw compared to the reality of God’s love.


We are all so many toddling babes struggling to form clumsy sentences. I cannot help but feel that, even in the masterpieces of great art, there are depths of emotion merely gestured towards, unbounded vision stuck within the strictures of a formal framework, artistic intent of infinite expanse compromised to the present world. There is no use pretending that our ability to communicate is anything other than incomplete. What is odd, though, is that if we depart from formal structure we achieve the exact opposite of what we might intend. Form is left behind because it feels constricting and what we want is a grand, all encompassing statement. What is left, though, is but a moment, a stream of consciousness snapshot of the mind of the artist with very little value. Formality turns out to be the container by which eternity is bounded. If we break with formality, the meaning of our words slips away like water from a broken pot.


I do not understand 95% of this but am posting a pic so I seem smart

Language is an interpretation of the universe, a way of making sense. There are always other interpretations but, although it is conjectural, it is not what we would call subjective. Rather, we might say that it is both accurately descriptive and incomplete at the same time. Michael Polanyi writes in Personal Knowledge, “Our choice of language is a matter of truth or error, of right or wrong–of life or death.” We are not nominalists and language is not a game. Babbling babes and poets alike are engaged in serious business.

Language is but straw. This ought to make us happy, because it reveals that language is analogical. If all we wanted was to receive a banana when we push the correct button marked “banana” in the lab experiment, then our communication would be perfectly adequate, for the banana would swiftly be ours. Human communication is much more! It is truly a miracle that binds earth to heaven, a word that participates in the eternal Word who speaks worlds into being, a part that somehow brings with it the whole.

Human language has pried open a crack in the fabric of the universe. We peer through and glimpse our future. Maddeningly, the future remains just that, far ahead out of reach in the present moment. We are babes forming earnest but ultimately inadequate speech. Let’s never stop, because it is truly a miracle.

The Mock Epiphany of Captain Grimes


Everyone who has read contemporary fiction in any great volume has enjoyed, and suffered through, a thousand stories that end in what Joyce dubbed the “epiphany.” Rather than ending in a confluence of plot threads or a climax of character arcs–an art taken to its extremity in Dickens novels–the protagonist rises briefly out of the ebb and flow of the apparently meaningless stream of events in order to receive a vision of the mysterious interconnectedness of all things. Think of the end of “The Dead,” Mrs. Dalloway, or Go Down Moses. Some might argue that the epiphany is too often a mere bandaid on the gaping wound of poorly wrought, narrative-less fiction. Others with a mind to do so might take the trope as an opportunity for satire.

Evelyn Waugh’s early novel Decline and Fall features a certain Captain Grimes, a public-school man who finds himself constantly “in the soup” with the authorities for various indiscretions. The protagonist Paul Pennyfeather ends up “in the soup” himself after taking the fall for his wealthy fiancee’s human trafficking business, and meets up with Grimes in prison, recently arrived for bigamy.

It is not long before Grimes is chomping at the bit, and he makes an escape attempt one day while returning from the quarry. His escape is traced to Egdon Mire, but the hounds cannot follow the path any further, and his hat is found floating in the most treacherous part. But later, Paul considers poor Captain Grimes and the inevitability of death. He wonders about the mysteries of life, and comes to a sudden epiphany:

Paul knew that Grimes was not dead. Lord Tangent was dead; Mr. Prendergast was dead; the time would even come for Paul Pennyfeather; but Grimes, Paul at last realized, was of the immortals. He was a life force. Sentenced to death in Flanders, he popped up in Wales; drowned in Wales, he emerged in South America; engulfed in the dark mystery of Egdon Mire, he would rise again somewhere at sometime, shaking from his limbs the musty integuments of the tomb.

Surely he had followed in the Bacchic train of distant Arcady, and played on the reeds of myth by forgotten streams, and taught the childish satyrs the art of love? Had he not suffered unscathed the fearful dooms of all the offended gods of all the histories, fire brimstone, and yawning earthquakes, plague and pestilence? Had he not stood, like the Pompeian sentry, while the Citadels of the Plain fell to ruin about his ears? Had he not, like some grease-caked Channel swimmer, breasted the waves of the Deluge? Had he not moved unseen when darkness covered the waters? (269-70)

Excelsior, Captain Grimes! Once more into the mire!

Salve Regina

In keeping with ancient devotion, the Church has been chanting the Salve Regina at Compline (and if your priest is a Pope Leo XIII fan, after low mass) since the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.
Straight outta compline

Because he faithfully spread its devotional use, there is a legend that the poem was composed by St. Bernard of Clairvaux (whose feast day we recently celebrated). St. Bernard was said to have first entered a parish in Germany on Christmas Eve chantingSt. Bernard Salve Regina the words and genuflecting at the clemency, love, and sweetness of the Blessed Virgin.

The legend is doubtful, though, and it is widely accepted that the poem was composed by the monk Hermann of Reichenau. Even accepting his authorship, its origins are veiled in mystery, supposedly first overheard in a vision chanted by a choir of heavenly angels. One might almost believe the legend; the transcendent, haunting and yet peaceful melody combined with the sweetness of the poetry is enough to make anyone believe in its divine origins. When I first heard it, it felt as though I had been embraced in the very womb of the Church.

Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae;
vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Hevae.
Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia ergo, advocata nostra,
illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte.
Et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis post hoc exsilium ostende.
O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria.

Here is the version most of us are more familiar with:

In the 18th century, Marian devotion was under attack from Protestants and Jansenists. In response, St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote a book that is now considered a classic, The Glories of Mary. Each chapter is a commentary on a line of the poem. For instance, the first chapter is dedicated to “Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae” and begins,

As the glorious virgin Mary has been raised to the dignity of Mother of the King of Kings, it is not without reason that the Church honors her, and wishes her to be honored by all, with the glorious title Queen.

St. Alphonsus goes on to explicate the theology of Mary’s queenship with liberal quotes from Church Fathers, saints, anecdotes, and Scripture. A Queen is a symbol of mercy, a type of Esther, exalted the right hand of the King and thus capable of dispensing favors on supplicants. This Queen happens to not only be our sovereign but also our Mother. In bringing forth Our Lord, she also brings forth many unto salvation. Further, she stands watch at the death of her Son, heart pierced Simeon prophesied, and through her sorrows helps to birth the Church. St. Alphonsus is careful to note that Our Lord redeems mankind and chooses to do so alone, “I have trodden the winepress alone,” but Mary co-operates with him and adds her suffering his. This Our Lord acknowledges, glancing to the disciple he loves and saying “Behold thy Mother.” In this way she, as a type of the Church, becomes the Gate through which we enter heaven.

This beautiful poem is a treasure of the Church. It communicates the reality of our life together in a way that a theological treatise never will. By meditating upon it and chanting it each day, I have come to love Mary more and more, and as I draw closer to her I cannot help but feel that she is steadily encouraging me and leading me closer to her Son. For all of us, memorizing the Salve Regina along with its plainchant and making use of it often is a commendable practice. Through the singing of it, one practically ascends to heaven and joins directly with the praise of the heavenly hosts.

The Song That Katrina Blew In

NOAA-Hurricane-Katrina-Aug28-05-2145UTCAugust 29, 2015 will mark the tenth anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast of the United States. The retrospectives have been pouring into my newsfeed for weeks. In a way, too much has already been said–too much, because there is no way to ever say enough. Neither statistics nor memoirs, videos nor photographs, can ever fully describe the ways in which Katrina permanently altered the lives of everyone in its path. But I think my church community–St. Jean Vianney Parish in Baton Rouge, Louisiana–may be unique in that Hurricane Katrina permanently altered the way we celebrate our liturgy. For that reason, I dare to add my voice to the cacophony.

Our national memory of Hurricane Katrina centers on images of horrific flooding, primarily in and around New Orleans. However, the people who fled New Orleans had to go somewhere, and for many of them, “somewhere” was Baton Rouge. Baton Rouge is the closest city of any size to New Orleans. It is also further inland and above sea level, which makes it an appealing place of refuge in a storm. In August of 2005, the population of Baton Rouge doubled overnight. Double the traffic. Double the demand for gasoline and groceries. Double the demand for real estate.

And double the number of people attending our churches.

I had been music director at St. Jean Vianney Parish for just over a year at the time Katrina hit. There have been many moments in my career when I have seen evidence that it is the Holy Spirit who chooses our music and I am only His vessel, but the weekend after Katrina was my first, most solid proof. August 29 was a Monday; the following Sunday, we worshipped in a building packed to overflowing with people who either did not know whether their homes were still standing, or who knew for a fact that their homes were gone. The songs I had selected for that weekend–chosen weeks in advance, before the hurricane ever formed–included titles like “Stand Firm” and “Love One Another.” There were many moist eyes as our congregation sang those words together, and many people who told me how much it gave them strength. But the Holy Spirit’s work of healing our community through music was only just beginning.

Our pastor, Tom Ranzino–who had just joined St. Jean Vianney on July 1 of that year–welcomed into residence Fr. Doug Doussan, pastor of St. Gabriel parish in New Orleans. St. Gabriel stood in Gentilly, one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods of New Orleans. Virtually everyone in Fr. Doug’s congregation, including Fr. Doug himself, became homeless after the storm. Because Fr. Doug was with us, dozens of members of St. Gabriel began attending Mass regularly at St. Jean Vianney. St. Jean Vianney is a predominantly white, suburban parish; St. Gabriel is a predominantly black, urban one. But far from allowing our differences to cause friction, the two communities found strength in diversity. In the coming months and even years, St. Jean Vianney sent teams of volunteers to aid in the clean up and rebuilding of St. Gabriel. In return, St. Gabriel gave us something even more beautiful: a witness to the power of community, and a song.

There was no sheet music. That would have been too easy. Instead, Fr. Doug handed me a CD and said, “This is a song that is special in our parish. Could you please play it here?” Our music ministers listened, put our talents together, and arrived at a rendition that reasonably resembled the CD. For our efforts, we received a “Thank you,” and further vague instruction to please play it more meditatively next time.

In the beginning, we only played it at Masses when Fr. Doug presided. His parishioners would call ahead to find out which Mass he was saying and adjust their schedules so they could all be together at prayer. Imagine–a community of people whose world had been devastated, all of them scrambling to create a new life even while they worked to rebuild the old one, who nevertheless made a special effort to come together to worship. Then, between the reading of the Gospel and the homily, they would sing with one voice:

Holy Spirit, come and fill this place,

Bring us healing and your warm embrace.

Show your power, make your presence known.

Holy Spirit, come fill this place…

It was not long before St. Jean Vianney began singing St. Gabriel’s anthem at all of our weekend Masses–even at the early morning Mass that otherwise has no music. Five months later, when Fr. Doug finally returned to his rectory in New Orleans, we tried for a week or two to let the song go with him, but it had taken root too deeply. For ten years now, at every weekend Mass, between the reading of the Gospel and the homily, we have sung:

Breath of God, we need a touch from you.

Shine down on us with the light of truth.

Stir our hearts and set our spirits free,

Holy Spirit, come fill this place.

Holy Spirit, come fill this place.

During those ten years, we have heard many complaints that our Masses are too long, but not a single person has dared to suggest removing this song as a way to solve the problem. Our congregation sings it with a variety of instrumentations, and a cappella during Lent. Though the Creed or the Gloria may occasionally be omitted in favor of some special rite, “The Holy Spirit Song” (as we call it) never is. Visitors to the parish frequently beg me for copies of the music. Parishioners often request it for weddings and funerals. Some of our ministries sing it at their meetings. It has truly become St. Jean Vianney’s own anthem. I will not be surprised if it lasts through many pastors, many music directors, and even many generations.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed a great many things that can never be rebuilt, including many human lives. But the winds that sheared away whole towns also carried the renewing breath of the Spirit, filled with brotherhood and beauty. “Holy Spirit Come and Fill This Place” by Marty Hennis and Babbie Mason has been recorded by many top Gospel artists, and I’m sure it is a staple of worship in many Christian churches. It stands on its own merit as a work of art. But in my parish, it will forever be the song that Katrina blew in, a song that binds our community in prayer even while it testifies that in the midst of death, there is always resurrection.

The rebuilt St. Gabriel church with Fr. Doug presiding.

The rebuilt St. Gabriel church with Fr. Doug presiding.

Summer Reading Suggestions

Happy Feast of the Assumption!

It’s not easy suggesting books for summer reading. Some readers consider summer to be a time for easy, lazy reading: the slow, torpid days between the last hurrah of Pentecost and the chilly onset of Advent. Others want to spend their summers expanding their minds as well as their travel repertoires. I personally like to have a little of both in my pile of Ordinary Time reading. This here’s a list of what I have been reading and expect to be reading soon.

The Confessions, by St. Augustine (Catholic Classics)

What can be said about The Confessions that a thousand Catholic high schoolers haven’t said before? I have been taking my time rereading it, and frequently find myself disagreeing with this bishop who was surely far holier and erudite than me. Who can seriously hate tragic dramas? Bosh, I say.

Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward (Literary Criticism)

Long but readable, Ward’s extensive examination of the influence of Medieval cosmology on the Narnia series is educational, compelling, and fun. It goes to show how much work Prof. Lewis was willing to put even into his children’s books. I have little doubt this volume will spark the careers of many a future Medievalist.

Propaganda, by Edward Bernays (Essays on Culture)

One wonders how devious Mr. Bernays must have been to have written so clearly about the practical uses of propaganda in the ordering of a democratic society, all while having been one of its major practitioners. This is a short work, quick and to the point. Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, and perhaps a little of the old family desire to reshape humanity rubbed off on him.

In the Night Garden, by Catherynne Valente (Fairytale Fiction)

Both a throwback to the ancient art of fairy tales and an experiment in metanarrative, Valente’s first volume of her Orphan’s Tales series is rich in character and feeling. Witches, princes, fallen stars, necromancers, and mischievous foxes populate this fantasy world. It’s a bit like The 1,001 Nights with more intertextuality.

Mystical Theology, by Dionysius the Areopagite (Seminal Spirituality)

So short you can read it faster than this blog post, the Mystical Theology set the groundwork for many later schools of mysticism. He proposes the via negativa approach to the Divinity. It is affirmation through negation, the attainment of light through darkness. I am told that the perennially popular Cloud of Unknowing owes much in concept to this essay.

The Death of Woman Wang, by Jonathan Spence (Oriental History)

While I have only just begun this short book, it promises to be full of life and interest in a part of Chinese history poorly known in the West. The rural T’an-ch’eng county provides the backdrop of a 17th-century slice of life, wherein a tax collector, a farmer, and an unhappy wife live out a terrible drama that ends (unsurprisingly) in death. The contemporary short stories of P’u Sung-ling are used to recreate the inner lives of these real-life characters.

Walking to Sleep, by Richard Wilbur (American Poetry)

Admittedly, I do little but read “Seed Leaves” over and over, but Wilbur’s poesy demands a slow digestion. He could write a poem about paint drying that would make it seem to be of cosmic importance. (“But something at the root / More urgent than that urge / Bids two true leaves emerge…”)

Ancestral Shadows, by Russell Kirk (Ghost Stories)

I have already lauded this collection, but will happily repeat my recommendation. Perhaps ghost stories are better suited for late autumn than summer, when the chill winds have blown all but a few of the leaves from the trees, and begin to howl through the cracks in the house.

But maybe not.

After all, there is that old legend from St. Odilo of Cluny, who said that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin sent such a shockwave of mercy through the cosmos that even the damned received a day of respite, and still do. Perhaps the ghosts of our ancestors walk the earth today, taking their short, yearly stroll through their old haunts and weeping for what has been forever lost.

The Art of Distraction

See here and here for parts I and II in which we meditate on the presence of nostalgia in art and what its meaning might be.

 We have already discussed how art creates an unnamed longing for that which we do not have (and, as pointed out by a commenter, we ought to note that art is also created by the longing. Let’s think of it as a virtuous spiral created by both receiving and giving love that leads ever upward). Nostalgia is the sign of a human intellect that dreams and seeks to grasp greatness. Cardinal Ratzinger points out that nostalgia is not irrational but rather takes into account the whole human being and sets us on the path to reality. He also is quite clear that nostalgia is not saccharine; it wounds us gravely because it sets before us a reality which we fail to fully attain in this life. It unsettles and confuses, especially if we do not see clearly the path upon which we have been set.

The challenge of art is not always accepted. It is easier to be comfortably distracted. Anxiety never quite goes away, though, so we must normalize the distraction by gently (or not so gently) mocking those who refuse to conform. For instance, how many of you are considered odd because you read big, thick books? Or because you go to the Opera? God help a man if he wears a suit and tie on casual Friday at work! We are in the midst of a cult of formlessness that has as its central sacraments casualness and distraction. We have televisions in every room of the house, mobile phones under thumb at all times, lots of driving about and errands and shopping, schedules, vacations… It is odd, we are poorly dressed and our houses are not appointed with particularly high-quality furniture and yet we shop all the time! We love sports but instead of playing a game with our children or friends we spend all afternoon watching on the television! We are distracted so as not to feel guilty about life passing us by and part of the game of casualness is the refusal to believe that we can become more. We all settle into a life of comfortable mediocrity.

One need not be particularly religious to notice the phenomenon. Comedian Louis CK talks about hearing a Springsteen song while driving alone one night,

I started to get that sad feeling and reached for my phone, but I thought ‘don’t’ — just be sad, let it hit you like a truck. I pulled over and I just cried…it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic…I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true, profound happiness.

Feel the Nostalgia!!!

Feel the Nostalgia!!!

He reaches for his phone, he explains, to text random friends so as not to feel alone and sad anymore, but then he makes a serious decision. He chooses nostalgia with all its attendant grief, he leans into the yearning and absence and, on the other side, meets happiness.

That is what is so odd about art and nostalgia; often it makes us very sad. Perhaps this is because it doesn’t allow for distractions, instead forcing an encounter with reality itself, who we are, what our purpose is, and to where we are going. Great art is the opposite of casual. It is a formal statement, naïve and earnest, challenging and striving to lift us out of everyday life. It causes us to pause and recollect. The sadness, though, is often the path to happiness. Whereas we often mistake pleasure for happiness, or lack of suffering with happiness, nostalgia points out a different definition for happiness. Nostalgia is proof that true happiness lies in the eternal nature of the human soul and the way we fit ourselves for the life after this one.

Cardinal Ratzinger offers a robust definition of beauty. Taking into account these moments of profound sadness and grief, he points to Our Lord, who is Beauty itself,

The experience of the beautiful has received new depth and new realism. The One who is the Beauty itself let himself be slapped in the face, spat upon, crowned with thorns… in his Face that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes “to the very end”

Crucifixion by Andrei Rublev

Crucifixion by Andrei Rublev

It is particularly fitting that the beauty of God would be incarnate, taking on physical form like any other artwork does. The beauty of which we speak begins in the senses but expands beyond to the spiritual. This is to say, beauty is where earth meets heaven. God is not an idea. He is the one who assumes humanity and actually becomes beauty in the literal wounding of his side. The Crucifixion is nostalgia in its purest form. When we experience nostalgia, it is the longing of love. A lover sees beauty in the eyes of the beloved. Perhaps what we are missing so desperately as a culture at the present is a connection with the Dying God through whom divine love pervades the whole world, and because we have not looked into his eyes because it makes us sad to see him thus, beauty and nostalgia too are disappearing.

The icon of the crucified Christ sets us free from this deception that is so widespread today. However, it imposes a condition: that we let ourselves be wounded by him, and that we believe in the Love who can risk setting aside his external beauty to proclaim, in this way, the truth of the beautiful.

Will we allow ourselves to be wounded? Will we face reality and look true Beauty in the face? This is a journey that each of us must make individually, to be struck by the arrow of nostalgia and, instead of retreating from the encounter into pleasurable distractions, to see that it is the privilege of those who love greatly to be wounded and in the suffering comes the beauty of Christ himself to lift us up to our true home.


Contemplation of Beauty

Go here to see Part I on the longing created by art

The question in my mind is not whether nostalgia exists in the works of artists such as The Tallest Man On Earth, but rather, what does nostalgia mean? It is both the belief that around the bend of the next gravel road there is a Garden of Eden and the willingness to trod such a path, the inborn compulsion to keep moving until we discover a resting place, a wound of desire that maims us and sends us limping off clutching a hole near the heart, a new Adam in search of his bride. Nostalgia aches for beauty but finds that the beloved is revealed only fleetingly and always retreats as if an unsolveable mystery. Like the dark bird, she disappears with a fell swoop and we are left only with memory and desire.

I’m just a dreamer but I’m hanging on
Though I am nothing big to offer
I watch the birds, how they dive in then gone
It’s like nothing in this world’s ever still

(“The Dreamer”)

The human soul is made to last forever, and yet all around is change and decay. How can we possibly ever be at home here? Don’t settle into a comfortable, unexamined life. It is not silly to feel unsettled or excited about possibility, to step on the car brakes in the hopes that the next small town diner will have the perfect maple sausage, or to challenge yourself in encounters with great art. It is not childish to long for your true home.

Often, nostalgia is dismissed as being secondary to the actual, adult business of life. As such, art is similarly dismissed as an “extra.” Some may appreciate art and some may not, go ahead and take it or leave it as you please but it really has no necessity of its own. This is an incorrect evaluation of the value of art. In fact, art is fundamental to who we are and nostalgia is the sign of the rational soul of a human being. Without it, what are we doing here? Where have our dreams gone? We may be more comfortable leaving the challenge aside and settling in to a steady diet of reality television, bland magazine-curated interior design, and top 40 pop hits, but we are certainly less human for doing so.

Art does not point to an imagined beauty or that which is merely in the eye of the beholder. Rather, it mediates and participates in a very real beauty; this beauty is eternal and living, fairly destroying those who encounter it. This is the true meaning of nostalgia.

In 2002, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger gave a talk entitled “Contemplation of Beauty.” He begins with Plato, explaining,

Plato contemplates the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that makes man leave his shell and sparks his “enthusiasm” by attracting him to what is other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer.

Nostalgia drives us out of ourselves and sets us to the impossible task of grasping the world just beyond this one. We glimpse just enough of it through art that the search continues, and yet it is always veiled. This hurts. And yet, it is necessary!

st sebastian 2In a Platonic sense, we could say that the arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him and in this way gives him wings, lifts him upwards toward the transcendent.

If Icarus flies too close to the sun and burns his wings, well, that is sometimes the price of dreaming. The pain is a sign of human greatness and, even more, of a great God who is all Beauty. Art creates the thirst to know God more and to love him better. It cannot give all of the answers, for who can explain God? But the encounter is nevertheless genuine. It is God-shaped, beyond words, soul-expanding, and once you experience it you are addicted. Whatever it is that we are longing for remains an enigma, inexpressible, nameless, and yet it is nuptial bliss itself.

Ratzinger cautions that, by praising nostalgia, we are not unhinging from reality and promoting a fantasy,

True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of Beauty that wounds man, moved by reality…

The rationality he has in mind is not based on scientific deduction, but this does not mean that art and nostalgia aren’t reasonable. To limit ourselves to deductions is to limit ourselves to this earthly life, to material objects, and only admit as rational that which can be experimentally repeated. Such a limitation is unreasonable, our experience says as much, as does our ability to love, conjure universal concepts, and appreciate beauty.

to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.

Benedict at St Peters

Pope Benedict XVI at the high altar in St. Peters

I agree that, if anything will rescue our nostalgia-impoverished society from empty functionality, it will be beauty. It does not make us irrational aesthetes to believe that beauty will save the world. It seems to me that there is a general doubt of truth and goodness afoot today. Truth is relative and goodness contingent, but beauty? Beauty is impossible to efface. Sure, there is lots of ugly art out there but most people seem to intuitively dislike it and, even if our aesthetic sensibilities are malformed, there is still the persistent belief that some things are beautiful and this is desirable.

Ratzinger reminisces on how this has affected him,

For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.”

This love of beauty is the reason I have hope. Each virtue participates in all of the other virtues, so we know that the longing to seek out beauty eventually becomes a longing to seek out truth and goodness. Cardinal Ratzinger says, “This is the very way in which reason is freed from dullness and made ready to act.” In other words, nostalgia is the most rational activity in which we engage! Exposure to beauty inspires us not only in the realm of aesthetics but also to know truth and goodness. Compared to the challenge of art, any appeal to comfortable distraction is irrational.


Okay, there is too much to say and I am getting out of control. Tomorrow, Part III in which comedian Louis CK explains the problem with distraction and we finally discuss where it is towards which nostalgia directs us.

 In the meantime, enjoy this Bach Cantata; rumor has it this is one that Cardinal Ratzinger heard that night. It is okay to feel nostalgic while you do so.

Dark Bird Is Home

Dark Bird Is Home

Nostalgia, I am told, is very bad. Or at the very least it is quixotic. Young people are nostalgic because they don’t know any better, mature adults, on the other hand, accept life as it is with all its gritty realism. To an extent I accept this argument; it can certainly be problematic to long for a golden era that never actually existed, to tilt at windmills or take up residence on Sunset Boulevard. Nostalgia has a dark side when it is unhinged from reality.

"What are you rebelling against, again?" "You know, stuff."

“What are you rebelling against, again?” “You know, stuff.”

So why won’t nostalgia go away? Why do we return to it again and again as a form of artistic expression?

Recently, The Tallest Man On Earth, also known as musician Kristian Matsson, released his 4th album, Dark Bird Is Home. Like much of his work (and the work of other many other musical artists), it is overflowing with nostalgia.

Take a listen at your own risk, because this tune will do a slow burn into your mind and never leave:

(warning: one curse word at the end)

Dark Bird ruminates on memories of childhood, wild nights racing in the streets of the town, lost loves, and empty fields outside of town. Matsson references endless dreams, shadows, and the fear that life is passing him by. The sound of the music reinforces the lyrical theme. This record sounds like it was made 50 years ago. Today, when production is dominated by auto-tune and slick, mp3-ready sounds, Dark Bird lets the instruments breathe. If you listen closely, you can even hear the sound of the guitar strings rattling before the instrument begins to resonate. Often, this sound is either cleaned up or eliminated by moving the microphone away from the instrument. It makes for a cleaner sound but a less human one. With Dark Bird, there is no question that you are hearing the artistic output of a real, actual human being. This in itself seems quaint and nostalgic.

Dark Bird Is Home is already a phrase that creates a certain response, evoking thoughts of nocturnal restlessness longing for a domestic paradise long past.

And suddenly the day gets you down
But this is not the end, no this is fine
Still a tower’s in the valley
Still winds down the stream
Still we’re in the light of day
With our ghosts within

Which of us has not experienced a sudden, seemingly random moment of sheer anxiety? From nowhere it arrives and just as suddenly moves on. This is a natural, common experience, this nostalgic longing so intense that almost seems to hurt. There is no “Why”, the day just happens to get you down. The past creeps up and causes a moment of reckoning at the oddest moments, driving your car at night with music playing, waiting in line at the checkout, driving by the old school…

And there are many ways of sorrow
For just stepping out
Everyday a growlin’ storm
But they’re kind somehow
Fall in love but keep on falling
I held you for life
But letting go rope in hand
There’s just leaving now

Try as we might to make these memories permanent and forever inhabit halcyon days, life is a constant departure. We leave old friends and places and, even if we are to someday return, it is never the same (try walking around your old college campus sometime!). As Mattson opines in a song from an older album,

And nothing good out there won’t be old

Oh sometimes the blues is just a passing bird

(“The Dreamer”)

Everywhere we have spent time is now haunted, remaining only in the human capacity for memory. We have ghosts within.

This shows up in art specifically because artists create out of a sense of nostalgia, the belief that somehow, someway, their contribution will connect with a primal longing in mankind for a lasting resting place. If we are always on the move, leaving people and places behind, art is a way of standing still for an uncounted moment, not to stay in the past forever but to commemorate the preciousness of passing things. Of course, there are other marked moments when this occurs. For instance, I was recently talking to my five-year old son about his younger brother’s birthday. He was proud to tell me that he, unlike his brother, will never be three years old again. Suddenly, the day got me down. I mourn lost time and past experiences that will never again be possible. These moments, however, are random, they simply happen, whereas creating nostalgia is one of the very purposes of art.

At the very least, nostalgia is a creative cause. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard talks about nostalgia as “anxiety”. He writes,

Anxiety is a qualification of dreaming spirit.

Dreams are shadowy, dark birds. They are present as a sign of possibility and longing, a searching grasp for a definite reality beyond this one, and yet they remain achingly frustrating because they are forever beyond our grasp. Kierkegaard refers to it as the “dizziness of freedom,” like looking into a great abyss and seeing endless possibility. If human beings are mere animals only made for this physical world, we would not dream, we would not create, and we would not suffer from nostalgia.

This is why art exists, to express the possibility and greatness of the human being. We are made to live in a world beyond this one and we stretch out to discover it. Aristotle defines poetry as the language of what might be and what should be. It cannot help but proceed by analogy, by dreaming, and by nostalgia.

But if we don’t have a firm grasp of what might be or what should be, if we dream impossible fantasies, then there is danger in nostalgia. It can become the unhinged romanticism that compels Lord Byron to Greece and Sebastian Flyte to Morocco. It leads you and me to do unwise things, like move to New York City to languish because it seems a fairy tale in the movies, take flight on an endless series of adventures in an endless search for what we do not have, leave family and friends behind in misbegotten wanderlust, always restless, always searching for a reality that will in the end prove to be nonexistent. Nostalgia out-of-control seeks the impossible, diagnoses the wound but rips it open further like a writhing animal, launches a ceaseless barrage of questions but provides no answers. Nostalgia is a sign of lack and insofar as it creates desire is a good. It sets us off on a great pilgrimage to find our destiny, but how we go about the journey can result in so many sad mistakes.

That said, I will gladly wallow in nostalgia for a million years before I willingly listen to music that concentrates only on “the moment”, physical pleasure, and thoughtlessness. It is one of the roles of art to bring nostalgia and desire to the forefront, to gaze wide eyed at the mysteries of human existence, create suffering and inhabit it.

No this is not the end and no final tears
That will lead to show
I thought that this would last for a million years
But now I need to go

Mattson seems to understand that we cannot grasp too tightly to passing moments in search of false realities, to hold on to that which is never meant to last. Sometimes the blues is a passing bird. Understanding that our lives are delineated by loss, however, doesn’t mean we make peace with it, and with an exasperated curse word, The Tallest Man On Earth retreats from the microphone.


(I have a lot more to say on this topic, but this essay is becoming long. Begging your patience, I will continue soon with some more thoughts on art and nostalgia.

 In the meantime, I’ll be listening to this song while bicycling around the “gravel road/In Missouri light/Rolling to the way back when/Simple was alright”)

The Haunted Kirk

We are essences, the General thought, essences that flow like mercury. Each of us is a myriad of particles of energy, held temporarily in combination like purposes or forces we understand no better than did Lucretius.

While he is known mainly for his political writings, Russell Kirk ought to be known also as fiction writer. I have to think that his proclivity for writing ghost and occult stories is what has kept him from receiving recognition. Last month a friend lent me Ancestral Shadows, a collection of Kirk’s short stories. While not every piece was to my taste, I cannot deny that they are all well-written and contain some interesting ideas.

Kirk converted to the Catholic Kirk at the age of 45, but his interest in the uncanny predated that by many years. Sometimes his ghosts are those of damned vicars who are compelled by more just spirits to do a charitable work for their parishioners. Sometimes they are in competition with their own doppelgangers. Sometimes they do not realize they are dead, and are in the midst of an in-between state of purgation.

Yet, Kirk’s ghostly imagination was not originally formed along Catholic lines. He is not obsessed with saintly relics, guided tours of the afterlife, or burning apparitions of poor souls begging for novenas. Even his ideas of Purgatory are more general, and his dead souls are often as ignorant about their current state as the living. A scrupulous Catholic might be tempted to nitpick his fiction against the orthodox doctrines of the afterlife, but that would be to miss much of the pleasure of his chilling tales.

Why write ghost stories in an age of realism? “Literary naturalism is not the only path to apprehension of reality,” he explains. “All important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural… can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.” He believed that the naturalistic bias in art was a product of an unbelieving age, and noted how materialists, even when confronted with clearly ghostly encounters, would dismiss them as mere hallucinations.

As a literary form, then, the uncanny tale can be a means for expressing truths enchantingly. But I do not ask the artist of the fantastic to turn didactic moralist; and I trust that he will not fall into the error that the shapes and voices half-glimpsed and half-heard are symbols merely. For the sake of his art, the teller of ghostly narrations ought never to enjoy the freedom from fear….

In an era of the decay of religious belief, can fiction of the supernatural or preternatural, with its roots in myth and transcendent perception, succeed in being anything better than playful or absurd? The lingering domination of yesteryear’s materialistic and mechanistic theories in natural science persuades most people that if they have encountered inexplicable phenomena–why, they must have been mistaken. How is it possible to perceive a revenant if there cannot possibly be revenants to perceive?

Many of these stories are claimed to be taken from Kirk’s own personal experiences and those of his wife. Mr. Kirk spent much time in Scotland around haunted castles, and the good Mrs. Kirk had some horrifying ghostly encounters of her own. It is not an offense against realistic fiction to feature ghosts and devils, for these are not unreal things. We avoid using them simply because we fear unbelievers (and half-believing Catholics) will scoff at them. We reduce them to allegorical figures or madcap elements of a magical realist style, but this is an injustice. Even Thomas Aquinas concurs that “according to the disposition of Divine providence separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men…. It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the damned.”

The reduction of these apparitions to mere hallucinations or magical realist symbols is just something comforting we tell ourselves so we can sleep better at night. Kirk knew better. He knew that sometimes a malign and hungry intelligence will stride across the great gulf between Hell and Earth to claim its prey, and that we must always be prepared to flee.

Who could possibly consider this trashy?

Who could possibly consider this trashy?

Dispatches from the Holy Land: Gethsemane

Guest series by Jason A. Baguia

In the garden of Gethsemane outside the walled old city of Jerusalem, stones speak. There, in the shade of an olive tree that a pope once planted, someone had used white stones to spell peace.

P1140871Peace. Shalom. Salaam. The word cries out to the men, women and children of the land, for even on days when Israel and Palestine spare the global news headlines, disquiet reigns within and between the states.

Kate, whom I happened to meet when I sat by the garden on one such day confirmed what I had begun to suspect. A spirit of discord has possessed many of the youngest kids in the Terra Sancta.

She had come over from Hamburg in Germany, and before that, from Ukraine, her home that she preferred to keep from the spotlight if conflict alone drew to it the world’s eyes and ears.

Passing through one of Jerusalem’s narrow, pilgrim-smoothened pavements, she walked into a group of boys at play. When they noticed her, they all motioned as if to kick her in the rear.

It did not really matter, she told me with a smile and hand wave. Oh, if only she did not share the story after I recounted to her how some of the boys chilled my own spine.

Before I found the Basilica of the Agony, I had been looking for Lion’s Gate that led to it. I turned here and there, climbed and descended steps using a hostel-issue map as best as I could. The old city can be a labyrinth, its streets a meandering course of sunlight shining down between roofs, shadows that huddles of houses tall or over passages cast and colors of everything from rosary beads, shirts to rugs sold in rows of shops.

Turning to a small alley, away from the sound of shopkeepers fishing for patrons and the smell of bread fresh from bakery ovens, I came upon a boy. He had black hair and dark, mischievous eyes. He would probably go to fourth grade in the fall.

He looked at me and aimed at my face a toy pistol.

I looked at him, smiled and kept walking. I kept walking and came across his playmates. They all toted toy guns. I kept walking till they all stood behind me, kept walking when I heard the click of a plastic trigger and felt one pellet ricochet off my left sleeve.

One boy shouted at the others. The first one? Did he stop his friends? Did he feel a touch of remorse over cold, violent play? I could only hope. I did not look back.

Summer shone at its peak over the gated Gethsemane and the basilica that loomed over it. Beneath the ancient olive trees, amid a gentle breeze, orange roses, purplish hollyhocks and pale corn binds danced.

I had been sitting on a bench, resting my back against the basilica’s outer wall, enjoying the lush churchyard view when Kate walked by with a camera. She took pictures of the garden.

“Excuse me. Would you please take my picture?” She asked when she noticed me.

I said “yes” and indulged her request, asking where she would like to appear in the frame. I took the shot, returned her camera and told her to check if she liked the photograph. She did.

By and by we asked each other for our names and places of origin. She came from the Ukraine. Did she come from Kiev? I asked. From Kharkiv, she replied. I smiled, embarrassed that I had not heard about Ukrainian locales apart from Kiev and Donetsk.

News of conflict in the latter region made Ukraine recognizable today, she said with a note of sadness in her voice. But as my encounter with the gun boys showed, no news at all, as she desired, does not necessarily mean good news. Journalistic silence merely masks the causes of conflict that persist between the bombast.

P1140889Who taught those children to aim guns at people’s heads? Their parents? Scenes of strife to which they grew accustomed? Did I even need to ask? The city of peace and of the Abrahamic faiths showed itself hostage to a cult of weaponry. Armed soldiers and cops guarded the entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a streetcorner on a stretch of the Via Dolorosa and the Lion’s Gate.

When Kate left, I entered the Basilica of the Agony. Its facade, bearing an image of Jesus at prayer, faced the walls of the conflicted old city. I knew the words of the Lord’s petition. Father, take this cup of suffering from me, but let not my will, but yours be done. Who will teach the sons and daughters of the Holy Land this prayer for vulnerability?

P1140894Inside, the stained glass turned the afternoon light into many purple shades. Three mosaics greeted me. The one on the central apse depicted Jesus at prayer on a slab of stone. The actual stone lay in front of the altar, enclosed in a metal crown ornamented here and there with figurines of birds and a chalice.

Two millennia have passed. The drama of pursuing peace continues here today. Many who chase concord repeat the error of Judas Iscariot and the Roman soldiers who came with him to the garden to seize the Prince of Peace.

“Am I a hardened criminal,” he had asked, “that you should come take me by force?” “Live by the sword and you perish by it.”

“Who do you look for?” He asked his would-be captors.
“Jesus, the Nazarene,” they said.

“I am he,” he replied. A second mosaic in the basilica captured this scene. The artist bathed the Christ in dazzling light. Those who came to arrest the Lord of hosts fell back when he identified himself.

The wielder of arms recoils when peace shows forth his face. His gaze indicts the heart. Why fight with your brothers for peace or secure serenity with arms when your war should be against your own flesh, the decadent world and the evil one? Peace comes with his own sword, ready to cut and strip away the decrepit, old selves of those who yearn to drink from the cup of life and fly.

P11408811But we are Peter, James and John. We shun vulnerability. We sleep, as the artist showed them in the mosaic, distant and deadened, though close enough, if awake, to see our prince sweat and bleed his prayer of self-surrender. Or we are Judas, the man on the left mosaic, drawing close to the Nazarene to kiss him. Our kisses seal our treachery to peace.

Nevertheless, we do not have to flee. John’s heart for his master and closeness to Mary eventually made him brave the way of sorrow until he stood with her at the foot of the cross.

The basilica at the foot of the Mount of Olives also goes by the name “Church of All Nations.” Catholics from several countries donated their resources for the church’s construction. The mosaic on its facade aptly points to Jesus as the mediator between all nations and our heavenly Father.

This is the way to peace, in Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, standing, praying in the breach between heaven and earth that is the real dissension, letting down one’s guard and taking pains to gather and embrace everyone. The way calls for a modicum of trust, and in the city over which Jesus wept, when one stays long enough, the haze of tension sometimes dissipates to reveal spaces of hope. I saw them in the children who say “Hello. How may I help you?” and in vendors who uttered words of welcome to pilgrims and tourists without hectoring them into their shops.

Hours later, I needed to find my way out of the city and back to the hostel. At Saint Francis Street, a gentleman came up to me and asked, “What are you looking for?”

“The Jaffa Gate,” I said.

“I am going there,” he replied.

We walked together. He asked me where I came from. The Philippines, I said. I gave him my name. He introduced himself as David. David had an uncle who left and settled in my home country long before his birth. He never saw his uncle. He had been around the world, to Latin America, to the United States. He ran a grocery with his brother, got tired of the business, moved around some more and came back to Jerusalem.

We came to the gate. “Welcome to Palestine,” he said. “This is not Israel.” I did not argue.

A little boy came over and tried to tie a red string around my left wrist. David stopped him. The gesture apparently entailed that I give the boy money. I walked through the gate. In a niche in the wall, a woman dressed as an angel played the harp. The boy caught up with me and tried anew to give me the string.

“It is for school,” he said. “It is hard to go to school.”

I had no money to spare. I patted the boy on the head.

In the garden, Jesus once prayed for deceiful and sleeping friends. In that sanctuary named after the pressing of olives, even stones speak peace. What was a newcomer to divided Jerusalem, someone who knew little of the city apart from its mediatized strife to do? I gave my name and a handshake to a man who used to be a stranger, died inside over young boys who played death, offered a bittersweet smile to a girl from war-torn Ukraine, left a light touch on a boy who wanted to go to school. Perhaps, perhaps, for each visitor to drink the city, its glories and its woes is for him to take it one tiny step into the way of peace.

Jason A. Baguia is a mass communication instructor at University of the Philippines Cebu. He is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism, media and globalization under the European Union’s Erasmus Mundus education program.