Allegory in a Dream

The night after I drifted farther from the center of the purity path than I had in some time, I had this dream. It was strikingly vivid and full of minute detail in a way that dreams rarely are. I wrote it down for my own benefit, only to discover that it might serve as a good mediation for more people than myself. I hope it will.

I was on my way to a theater with some old friends, walking through a town that looked like 1940’s America, when I realized I had left my keys behind.  When I turned back to retrieve them, everything suddenly looked like an Irish countryside instead of that town. I decided to try to take a shortcut and went off the road. On my left, as I went through the moors, I saw through the mist an enormous ruin of an old gothic cathedral, with heavy, moss spotted stones and an open roof in most places, and a multitude of small rooms coming off the main body of the church at every level.

I walked to a side entrance and carefully pushed open the tall, damp, heavy wooden door. A few steps in, I heard voices and I saw lights coming from somewhere below me. I found myself at the back of the main church and saw the altar at the end of a long, uneven aisle, far away from me. I looked down, and saw a vast hole in the floor, opening to level upon descending level, as far as I could see, with a narrow but strong stone staircase winding in squares along the edges of every level. There was the sound of wedding bells, far off, and on each level I saw a medieval bride in procession, with a heavy cathedral train spread out in a great length behind her, bridesmaids in simple medieval dress attending either side of the train. Each bride had vibrant dark red hair, very curly and long, flowing down around her arms, and shrouded by a finely-wrought and impressively long lace veil that followed the length of her cathedral train. The veils framed each face on a sort of tall and wide headdress of white flowers and silver drippings that piled several inches above the forehead and off to the sides above the temples of each bride. I could see the expression on the face of the bride on the highest level, just a few feet beneath me; though her attendants had downcast, sober faces as they held the edges of her train, her eyes were lifted up as she smiled hugely and insipidly. But she was entrancingly beautiful nonetheless. She walked slowly and regally, taking each step deliberately (all the brides at all of the levels stepped in time with each other), but going in a continuous square around the level she was on, never rising higher. There was no staircase that led up; presumably she would continue walking where she was, not realizing, in her vapidity, that there was no way out.

Some of the brides below her, though, had found a staircase. Just as slowly and regally, they were ascending one level at a time. They were equally radiant, and all seemed something out of a dream, even within my dream. There was an ethereal, other-worldly quality to the whole picture that I saw through the floor, and it left me in wondering, confused amazement.

I decided to explore the rest of the cathedral ruins, thinking maybe I could find someone who would explain to me what I had just seen. I realized, to my consternation, that the door I had come in was gone, so I turned to my left, and through some dark rooms at the back of the church, I found another staircase, this time of heavy wood, leading up to another level. As I moved toward the staircase, I heard the sound of a child crying, and realized that a thin small boy with dark curly hair was sobbing in a little heap in the hidden underside of the staircase. I bent down to see if I could help him, and he reached his arms up around my neck so I could pick him up. He was wearing almost nothing, and his skin was dirty. I cradled him in my arms like a baby, supporting his head with my hand, and turned his face so I could make eye contact with him and try to calm him. All at once his subsiding cries turned to maniacal laughter, and his mouth widened into a demonic grin until it was almost the only thing on his face. His scrappy arms with sharp fingers began scratching at my face, gouging deep gashes across my cheeks and eyes and lips as I screamed in fright and pain, and tried to drop him and push him away. Hardly able to see, I ran up the stairs, but he clung to me and continued to scratch at my face, neck and shoulders, tearing slashes through my clothes as he cackled. I felt fat drops of blood splashing from my face to my chest, leaving large red spots all over my off-white linen peasant’s shirt.

As I reached the landing at the top of the stairs, still unable to fight off the demon, I saw a man walking calmly towards me and cried for help. He reached in with one hand and easily plucked the creature away. It screamed as it was tossed back down the stairs and disappeared around a dark corner. Gasping and trying to calm myself, wiping blood out of my eyes, I looked at the man who had saved me. He was wearing a light brown robe with a knotted white rope around his waist, had a trimmed, pointed beard and an unwearying but peaceful warrior’s look to his thin face and stature. He was taller than I, and yet his height came more from the aura of subtle indomitability than his physical form. He might have been St. Joseph, or one of the early founders of a monastic order. I asked him, as I regained my composure, what that thing had been, and what the brides below were doing, and what they meant.

He answered with a stern but not unkind economy, “That is one of the demons disfiguring you because you love your intended more than you love God. They will continue to torment you until you have learned to put your loves in the proper order. The brides below are caught in their circular procession, close to marriage and yet unable to marry, for the same reason. You cannot take shortcuts to find the key, and you cannot marry properly unless you love God more than anything else. You will not find a door out of this ruin until you have worked here for many years and learned to love.”

He turned away to resume his own work, explaining as I looked past him and saw a busy scene, all under the open daylight of the roofless cathedral, that he and the other saints, and other workers I saw, were all there to help me and people like me to learn to order our loves. Some of the industrious crowd I could see were like me, but had started some time ago and were on their ways to sainthood. There were large drafting desks with piles of notes of accounts that needed to be calculated, and there were also mountains of fine cloth to be washed and folded and sorted. In some ways the room looked like a sacristy; there were long, narrow drawers to hold vestments, and other wooden cupboards among the remaining labyrinth of stone rooms and crannies.

As I took my first step out of the corner, preparing to join in the tasks at hand, an enormous stone gargoyle, tall and thin, swung suddenly into my path and began to advance on me, towering over me, prepared to crush me. I determined he should not win, and that I would conquer him with my own strength, and crack him till he fell to pieces at my feet. I realized, after I took my first swing, that I had barely impacted him at all, and he began to grin with the same long, wide demonic leer of the savage child. He moved in closer and faster, and his shadow blocked out the light as I backed into the corner and tripped on my hem, stumbling away from him. All at once I realized I couldn’t defeat him on my own, and that he was moments away from crushing me. I raised my arms above my head to shield myself and cried out, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, protect me!” I heard a wild sound of stone being crushed, and felt debris rain down on my hair and hands, and then felt warm sunlight. I opened my eyes, and the gargoyle had vanished, leaving only some light gray dust and rubble on the floor.

I blinked, and saw the man who had plucked away the first demon. He looked over his shoulder from where he was busy at work, nodded curtly, and said, “Well done. Now begin your work. Clean that cupboard, and then those drawers, so we can put away the priest’s vestments.”

I opened the cupboard he had indicated and a small animal came out, the size of a raccoon, but not fitting a description of any animal I knew. It leapt at my face, screeching, determined to attack me, but I stabbed it swiftly with the sharpened end of my broom handle, and it disintegrated. I nonchalantly brushed away the dark cloud it had left hanging in the air and looked inquiringly back at my guide, who had calmly watched the whole episode. He gave another curt nod in answer to my implied question. “Yes. With each task given to you, a new demon will come from the dirt, some large and powerful, some more easily defeated. You must destroy each one, and so you will gain your freedom as you clean and prepare the dark spaces.”

As he finished speaking, I heard a trumpet sound from far away. Everyone in the room smiled radiantly as they paused their work, and looked expectantly at the stairs. I saw a bride ascending, and she was simply dressed. She no longer had a train, and her bright red hair was all loose and flowing, covered only by a white lace mantilla that fell to the floor, meeting the hem of her dress. Rather than the six or eight attendants I had expected to see, there was only one. She looked at the bride now, rather than at the floor, and she smiled serenely. And the bride, no longer grinning vacuously at the sky, smiled a private, shy smile as she looked at the ground and was a little embarrassed at the pleased attention of the joyous onlookers. She walked across the room with an unhurried surety in her step, and a door opened in the stone wall across from where I stood, surrounded by wheat stalks and golden light. It opened to a brightness I couldn’t see, and she and her attendant stepped up into it. I ran to follow them, to try to see where they had gone, but the door closed before I could reach it. It disappeared, and the stone wall grew back.

“She has finished her work,” said my guide, “As you shall.”

Towery City

Poet, translator, and classicist A.E. Stallings has been nominated for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry. The post was established in 1708; if elected, she’ll be the first woman on a list that includes Matthew Arnold, Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, and Seamus Heaney. Stallings herself has a few remarks. Angela Taraskiewicz has more to say in an essay for the Valparaiso Poetry Review that touches on strings, female storytelling, and classical mythology.

In other Oxford news: at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carol and Philip Zaleski discuss Oxford’s Influential Inklings and their enduring cultural legacy. Elsewhere in England and the British Isles, Robert MacFarland is teaching us about landscapes, languages, and landspeak, ever since the Oxford Junior Dictionary decided to refine its vocabulary in ways that would make Hopkins weep.

A Playlist for the Rosary: The Luminous Mysteries

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For a Playlist for the Glorious Mysteries, click here. For the Joyful Mysteries, click here. For the Sorrowful Mysteries, click here.

The First Luminous Mystery – the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River

Wade in the Water by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company

Don’t close your eyes for this one.

The Second Luminous Mystery – The Wedding Feast at Cana

Mvt. 3, “The Wedding Feast at Cana” from the Oratorio Il-Qalb ta’ Kristu (The Heart of Christ) by John Galea, performed by The Sofia Collegium Symphony Orchestra

Sung in Maltese

The Third Luminous Mystery – The Proclamation of the Kingdom

The Beatitudes by Vladimir Martynov

Vladimir Martynov is a contemporary Russian composer. The Beatitudes is sung in Church Slavonic.

The Fourth Luminous Mystery – The Transfiguration

Kantyk Mojżesza (Canticle of Moses), composer unknown, sung in Polish

“Sing to the Lord because of His great power and glory!”

The Fifth Luminous Mystery – The Institution of the Holy Eucharist

Pange Lingua by Anton Bruckner, text by St. Thomas Aquinas, sung by the Concordia Chamber Choir

Sing, my tongue, The mystery of the glorious body, And of the precious Blood That for the world’s salvation The fruit of a noble womb, The king of the nations, shed.

For the complete translation, click here.

 

Pope Francis Book Club

Move over, Oprah, there’s a new Book Club in town!

At his last Wednesday audience (May 27th), Pope Francis invited every engaged couple in the world to read Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Speaking of the book in an audience that reflected on the time of engagement, Francis exhorted:

It is necessary that young people should know it [The Betrothed], that they should read it. It is a masterpiece, which tells the story of an engaged couple that suffered so much pain; they travelled a path full of difficulties until they arrived in the end at marriage. Do not leave aside this masterpiece on engagement that Italian literature has in fact offered you. Go ahead, read it and you will see the beauty, the suffering, but also the fidelity of the engaged couple.”

“Necessary,” no less! That’s high praise. We might ask, why does this novel (perhaps the second best-known of all Italian literature) take pride of place for fiances? The answer is that the novel embodies Francis’ vision for marriage preparation in the Church: an extended time of hard work on love. Francis calls engagement “the time in which the two are called to work hard on love, a participated and shared work that goes in depth.”

But what would such “hard work on love” require? While his audience was no systematic treatise on marriage preparation, I see an overarching goal and two pegs in Francis’ plan for engaged couples. First to the goal. Francis sets for its goal the attainment of the conditions necessary for couples to fruitfully celebrate the marital sacrament, thereby receiving the grace of strengthened indissolubility. The work itself will be “hard work on love,” but as we said such a phrase needs content. Francis focuses in on one of the principle fonts of love: knowledge. Francis envisions a journey in two kinds of knowledge to pair with the flourishing of two kinds of love: (1) a “pedagogical journey” in the discovery of human knowledge of “man” or “woman” in and through coming to know intimately one’s fiance; and (2) a “spiritual journey,” of the couple coming to spiritual knowledge of God together into Scripture, into the sacramental life of the Church, and into the prayer characterizing the domestic church. Each journey in knowledge invites a further falling in love, a further appreciation of the true, good, and beautiful as more clearly visible in the beloved. At the same time, my own distortions of what is lovable become more apparent and beg for correction. Finally, such a journey will take time and conscious effort.

Each of these these points (human knowledge, spiritual knowledge, and conscious effort over time) deserves its own treatment, however brief. First, as to time and conscious effort, Pope Francis seems to mean for the betrothal period to be long enough to reasonably accomplish its pedagogical and spiritual goals at the level of knowing each other and knowing God. As to its duration, “The covenant of love between a man and woman, a covenant for life, is not improvised; it is not made from one  from one day to another. There is no express marriage: on must work on love, on must journey. The alliance of love of man and woman is learned and refined.” God’s six days of creation, as a work of love, “Created the conditions of an irrevocable, solid alliance destined to last.” An engagement “is a course that goes slowly ahead, but it is a course of maturation. The stages of the course must not be burnt. Maturation is done like this, step by step.” These and other passages suggest the extended time couples should devote to marriage preparation–time enough at least to read Scripture and The Engaged together.

As to knowledge of each other, we must remember that the lover can only love what is known in truth. Love follows knowledge. Increased knowledge of the beloved augments love, which in turn inspires the lover toward yet deeper knowledge. Stunningly, Francis openly takes to task any who would claim cohabitation apart from marriage as a fruitful means to gain such an important knowledge of the promised spouse. “Yes, many couples are together for a long time, perhaps also in intimacy, sometimes living together, but they don’t really know one another. It seems strange, but experience shows that it is so” (emph. mine). What does it take to know someone? Kudos to Francis, who tells the engaged that it is a sharing of the most important questions of life reflectively, and the most important experiences of prayer, spiritual reading, and works of mercy together.

What is it that couples come to know at the human level during their engagement? Francis seems to think the engaged come to know “man” and “woman” in and through this man or this woman. An interesting claim. Francis seems to hope fiances will learn fundamental, universal truths about their complementarity–not so much the specific, unique idiosyncrasies of each partner. Again, a refreshing, though not novel approach. The resonances with St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body cannot but fill the mind here. Just as Adam discovers woman as gift to him and thereby discovers himself as gift for Eve, so too do fiances discover in steps what it will mean to give and accept irrevocably oneself and the other as total, fruitful, faithful, free gift of love. Francis mentions 1 Cor 6:15-20, one of Paul’s injunctions against fornication, and bemoans culture’s refusal to take Paul seriously: “The strong symbols of the body hold the keys of the soul: we cannot treat the bonds of the flesh with heedlessness, without opening some lasting wound in the spirit (1 Cor 6:15-20). Certainly today’s culture and society have become rather indifferent to the delicacy and the seriousness of this passage.”

In the realm of spiritual, or divine knowledge, Francis sees three elements:  (1) “the Bible, to be rediscovered together, in a consious way”; (2) prayer, both liturgical and “domestic”; (3) and the Sacraments, especially confession. Francis mentions explicitly Jeremiah, Hosea as examples of God’s having betrothed himself to a faithless people, a people whose idolatry amounts to adultery, a people, however, whom God will journey with until they become his bride made spotless in the blood of Christ. , and 1 Cor 6:15-20. He calls this reading of the Scripture “essential.” How many marriage preparation programs require daily Scripture for the engaged? How many, furthermore, require confession? Francis doesn’t even mention Eucharist but rather confession. That emphasis is amazing in itself.

As Francis says, “Love itself demands this preparation, which makes possible a free, generous and sober decision to enter into a life-long covenant of love.” Couples who prepare will be able to “truly receive one another ‘with the grace of Christ'” through the “lovely celebration of Marriage in a different way, not in a worldly but in a Christian way!” Prepared couples are initiated into marriages of “surprise!–to the Surprise of spiritual gifts with which the Lord; through the Church, enriches the horizon of the new family.”

Let us return, now to where we began. Those who have read The Engaged will immediately see how this masterpiece weaves together the long-term, pedagogical, and spiritual journey into the graced knowledge and love envisioned by Francis in this audience. For those who have yet to read The Engaged, there’s no better time to join the Pope Francis Book Club!

I will leave you with a final thought-picture. For me, it is a great joy and encouragement that our Pope envisions a world where a priest could plausibly reply in the following way to couples seeking marriage in his parish: “God bless you, and congratulations! Go read The Engaged, by A. Manzoni, and we’ll meet in a month to talk about it.”

May God grant us this grace!

 

 

Drama is a Mirror

I saw the film Age of Innocence a while back and loved it. Controversial opinion alert! This is Scorsese’s best film.

Are you serious bro

Another criminally underrated work of art, but I digress.

I’ve been hoping to read the Edith Wharton novel on which the movie is based and finally got around to it this past week. It is a fantastic read and there is much to discuss, but what interests me the most is the way in which each of the two books making up the novel begin at the Opera.

In Wharton’s mind, 19th century New York City society is nothing more than an elaborate play. The setting may be a concert hall, but the real dramatic performance is taking place offstage where the upper class gaze at each other through binoculars as they act out vignettes in private boxes. Each person is not so much an authentic human being but, rather, a created character molded by societal expectations. The dictates of form and etiquette are faithfully observed, each small deviation speaking worlds of meaning. True opinion is tirelessly obscured and those who stumble in even the most minor way are excoriated.

Edith WhartonWharton herself was raised in such a society and has since made her escape. Clearly, she sees in her upbringing both good and ill. At times, societal pressure has a civilizing effect, forcing responsibility, for instance, on Newland Archer to honor his commitment to May as well as exerting the conditions by which he is enabled to subvert his own desires for the good of his children. And yet, Wharton herself escaped such conditions and sees many of the formal expectations as artificial and harmful. There are those, such as the Countess Olenska, for whom mercy and forgiveness (if indeed this is what should even be required for her situation) are out of the question. She is marginalized, pressured to resubmit herself to an abusive husband, and ultimately, firmly but oh so politely escorted out of New York for the continent never to return.

In his Poetics, Aristotle defines drama as mimesis, an imitation of nature. As practiced by human beings, imitation has a moral purpose and for this reason we understand that it is ordered to displaying either goodness or badness. Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type, it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse. The artist actually contributes to the shape of the narrative and has an independent, moral voice. This is to say that he is not filling the role of journalist. The moral instinct is distinctly human, and our drive to create drama (Aristotle calls it poetry) is written into human nature.

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. Herein lies both the blessing and the curse. We are a mixture of goodness and badness. It follows that drama will highlight both aspects, what Aristotle calls Comedy and Tragedy. The blessing is the ability of the artist, like Wharton, to praise the good and question the bad. The curse is the ability of a skilled artist to confuse and invert the two.

Aristotle attempts to tame drama by insisting on formal elements. Here he departs from Plato, who sees not the potential but the danger. In Plato’s ideal republic, poets are treated with caution and many of them are not welcome. They are forced to justify their existence. Why? Artists have the power to sway men to false belief through an appeal to the emotions. A drama can distort reality through the skill of the writer and actors, clandestinely departing from nature and corrupting an unwitting audience. In the Republic, Socrates elaborates that a drama is dangerous because it, even though fiction, produces very real emotional reactions. It is capable of seducing us away from reality and thus, if it is to remain a part of culture, must prove that it is being honest. Wharton maintains that we view the formal structures of our societal interactions in a similar manner. These formalities are a kind of drama and must always seek the truth of things and thus be in service of the human being.

Jane AustenAnother author who makes use of the dramatic arts as analogy is Jane Austen. In much of her work she is concerned to show the difference between superficial, false impressions and the often very different underlying reality. It’s right there in the titles: Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility. Appearances are often false and the emotions misleading. This is no less the case in Mansfield Park, the heroine of which is the misunderstood Fanny Price. Fanny, it is said, is a character who appeals to precisely one person—Jane Austen. Everybody else hates her (I kind of like her, so now there are two of us). She is too…good. My theory is that we are all simply ashamed in comparison. The objections are elaborated by CS Lewis’s Screwtape, who says that Fanny is,

a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) …Filthy, insipid little prude!

Appearances are deceiving, though, and Fanny is no prude. Perhaps we think her so because we don’t understand her motivations (What I mean to say is that I am often primarily motivated by peer pressure and so find those who are not to be inscrutable). Rather, let us say that she is virtuous. When her cousins embark on an amateur production of a play, she disapproves not because she is an uptight puritan but because she knows it will upset her uncle Sir Thomas, for, “His sense of decorum is strict”. The play, based upon Lovers’ Vows, is an opportunity to go against the grain of reality. By the acting of it, the participants are able to make-believe romances and engage in illicit flirtation. It turns out that, in Mansfield Park, the play is a prophetic instrument. It seeps into the formal social structure of the group itself, imposes a false narrative, and causes lasting unhappiness. Fanny seems prudish and odd only because she resists the false narrative that is cast by the play. Instead, she stays true to reality and in the end is proven to have chosen the more felicitous path.

The play itself, we might note, is prophetic in the sense that it begins to bend reality around it like a black hole bends light. The play has little value of its own but is able to distort the outlook of those who participate. The lives of those around Fanny do not end happily, in part because the play has encouraged a false perspective of the moral life. Subsequently, happiness is sought in all the wrong places.

There is great power in art. The artist has the ability on the one hand to produce that which leads to true beauty and on the other to seduce the unwary. A robust culture will produce all manner of art: visual, song, poetry, drama…we need not shy away and eject them from our perfect republic as Plato would seem to have it, but beautiful art is always in service of humankind, an explication of goodness, and always maintaining an honest even if challenging moral perspective.

I suppose that as this essay winds down it is morphing into a sort of encouragement wrapped up in a warning to Catholic artists. You are needed. However, what we need is not a false aesthetic movement that mimics the distorted Lover’s Vows of our day. It seems to me that this is precisely the sort of stuff that both Wharton and Austen critique. We very much need to continue developing a true, challenging, beautiful, and living tradition of art in the Church. One that, even if at first glance is strange or unexpected, reveals itself to the inquisitive, thoughtful, wonderful, and ever opening up on the endless vistas that have been divinely stretched through all of creation, including most particularly within the human soul.

A Fellow of Infinite Jest

(Credit: Hachette Book Group)

(Photo Credit: Hachette Book Group)

What is one to do with David Foster Wallace? As much as I admire his writing style, his self-effacing humility, and his frequent brilliance, I have never quite connected to the man’s work. Like many in my generation, I have read a few of his essays and short stories. I have even made a few vain attempts at reading his magnum opus, the door-stopping Infinite Jest. But he lived in a strange other-place where reality is so complex as to lack any simple, unifying principles. It was so terrifyingly despairing that one can barely pull back from the brink. The first Wallace short story I ever read was “Incarnations of Burned Children.” It was almost my last.

All this came to mind after seeing the new trailer for upcoming biopic The End of the Tour, featuring Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as his interviewer.

Mr. Wallace was a north star for many lost young men and women of my generation. They were attracted to his compassion and to his apparent insight into the reality of our distorted existence. Was he a post-modernist guru? A cliched reclusive genius? A novelist disguised as a surfer dude? A Hemingway obsessed with cleaning his shotgun?

David Foster Wallace the author is difficult to enjoy, but David Foster Wallace the man is impossible to hate. Even a casual fan like myself felt a long-lasting and numbing anxiety upon hearing of his suicide. By hanging himself from his patio rafter, he joined the company of Virginia Woolf, Walter M. Miller, Jr., and Ernest Hemingway in the group of authors who made their own way out of this world. It is a dubious company, indeed.

I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning?

A Playlist for the Rosary: The Sorrowful Mysteries

JesusarrestedContinuing the series of music for meditating on the rosary. For the Glorious Mysteries, click here. For the Joyful Mysteries, click here. For the Luminous Mysteries, click here.

 

The First Sorrowful Mystery – The Agony in the Garden

Meditation 4: The Agony in the Garden by Simon Johnson

If the counter on YouTube can be believed, I was the first person ever to watch this video, perhaps because it truly portrays agony.

The Second Sorrowful Mystery – The Scourging at the Pillar

“He was despised” from The Messiah by G.F. Handel, sung by Sarah Connolly

The Third Sorrowful Mystery – The Crowning with Thorns

Crown of Thorns by Danielle Rose

The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery – Jesus Carries His Cross

Jo Krus Pe Kurbaan Hai by Vijay Benedict

Unfortunately, this title stumped both Google Translate and Babelfish. Vijay Benedict is a former Bollywood singer who now writes and performs Gospel songs in Hindi.

The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery – The Crucifixion

O vos omnes by David N. Childs

“O all ye that pass by the way, attend and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow.”

I have to direct you to an external Website to allow you to hear this piece for free. It is worth it.*  Click here, then hit play on the sound file.

crucifixion2

* I was privileged to help bring David Childs’s music to Europe alongside David himself. He was a doctoral student in choral conducting, and I just one of the many voice majors who performed in the LSU A Cappella Choir. One of the stops on our European tour was at the Mendelssohn Conservatory in Leipzig, Germany. During rehearsal, moments after we began this piece, the conservatory’s choir director leaped out of his seat with the look of a salivating wolf and began hovering at our director’s shoulder, trying to see the score. As soon as the song ended, he snatched the music off of the stand, demanding, “What is this? Where did you get this?” I think he nearly fainted when our director introduced him to the composer.

No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross

Carrie and Lowell

When I first listened to Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, I thought it beautiful. At second listen, I found it frightening. I now find myself unable to stop listening. Stevens has a gift for gorgeous melodies, and in his work he often romanticizes the world and reveals beauty.

In this interview, he explains,

I’m prone to making my life, my family, and the world around me complicit in my cosmic fable, and often it’s not faith to manipulate the hard facts of life into a vision quest. But it’s all an attempt to extract meaning, and ultimately that’s what I’m in pursuit of, like, What’s the significance of these experiences?

There can be a dark side to his method. In the past he has waxed eloquent, for instance, of serial killers and cancer victims. Sometimes, we want so desperately to find meaning that we struggle to admit that not everything in life has one. There are times when sin and chaos so overwhelm us that there is nothing to be found but pain and suffering. If there is meaning to be found, it must lie beyond this life.
In his new album Stevens confronts the death of his mother, Carrie, and attempts to find meaning. His mother abandoned the family Sufjan Stevenswhen he was only 1 year old and their relationship was ever after, well, complicated. The poetry in the songs is so personal and raw that it almost feels voyeuristic to be listening in, and I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to write this review because it seemed somehow invasive, and yet, the artist himself has polished these tunes and invited us to take the journey with him. After spending a lot of time with the songs, I have to agree that there is plenty of meaning to be found. So, here goes…

Art has the power to make a universal out of particulars, to climb the ladder from limited, personal experience up to profound insight concerning fundamental truths about God and nature. If we are attempting to ascend closer so as to gain a whisper of a heavenly refrain, it is music such what Stevens has made that forms the rungs on the ladder.

Let’s listen closely to a few, specific songs.

 

Fourth of July

At first listen, this is a sweet tune. Stevens has always had a gift for melodies so catchy that they border on twee, but after living with the song for a while the bitter begins to seep in. There is a gentle pulse in the instrumentation along with slowly changing synths. The sound brings to mind cherubs lazing about on heavenly clouds. But if this is a pulse, after a while it becomes awfully insistent. The recognition eventually dawns that, if it represents a heartbeat, it is not gentle at all. Rather, the pulse is elevated, a sure sign of stress.

We struggle to come to terms with death. In one sense it is a natural end to our time here and it deserves a lullaby, as if we are putting a dear loved one to bed for the night. We may miss them terribly but everything will be alright. On the other hand, death is and always will be an affront to the dignity of human nature. It is disorienting, frightening, and unnecessary. It runs counter to the eternal soul and is a sign of brokenness. What has gone wrong? How do we fix it?

The evil it spread like a fever ahead
It was night when you died, my firefly
What could I have said to raise you from the dead?
Oh could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?

There is no escape, nothing we can do or say to avoid death, no way to become the atmosphere by which another continues to breathe deeply and shine brightly.

The hospital asked should the body be cast
Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky
Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth
Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?

Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light

I don’t quite know how to comment on these verses, they are melancholic and tender and haunting all at the same time. I’ve written and erased a few different attempts and officially declare that I give up. Let’s be content to allow them to stand as their own heartbreaking  tribute to a man’s mother.

 

The Only Thing

The death of another brings about thoughts of one’s own mortality. We all end someday, so how do we come to terms?

The only thing that keeps me from driving this car
Half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night
Signs and wonders: Perseus aligned with the skull
Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all

There is a world beyond this one, sparingly glimpsed through signs and wonders, and yes, even death. In the mystery of human solidarity is the dawning realization that these miracles are part of who we are. Sometimes, it is almost too much too bear.

Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow

We wish to save our beloved, to protect them, and yet we cannot. Instead we dolefully gaze at that which reminds us, we are haunted by memories long past and yet somehow present. It is the nearness that we still feel that makes the pain so acute. Like a limb that has been removed that is still felt, it is never truly gone. We are part of each other, and when one sorrows, all sorrow.

When it is your own mother you wish to save, I imagine that the grief is all the worse. It is the final alienation of the nurturing, creative life-giver. If she can die, so can we all. This doesn’t rest easy with me. Not at all. It is a counter-sign that puts humanity at odds with ourselves; we refuse to accept that this is the true destiny of any person, to die and disappear, let alone a mother! She, of all other creatures, will not suffer such a fate.

So we mythologize the Mother, search for her in the midst of a world that is slowly but inexorably wearing itself out. Stevens seems to have no answer and knows that behind his carefully constructed fable the truth is often far more complex. He wants to immortalize his mother, to honor her, and yet he cannot help but show the scars of their actual relationship while she was alive. She “tired old mare”, and he was “afraid to be near you.” In spite of these flaws, he sings “I forgive you, Mother”, a name he admits he never actually used for her when she was alive. In death, perhaps it becomes more clear than ever that the sacrifices parents make overwhelms their shortcomings. The sacrifice overcomes all. The gift of life is supreme. Stevens himself says that “Parenthood is a profound sacrifice”. It is a sacred, priestly act. The Church goes so far as to say that it is a Vocation; the father a domestic priest and the mother an icon of the Blessed Virgin.

Is there meaning in the death of the Mother? Can it be anything other than pure, unmitigated loss? If not, it is surely an act of desperation to attempt to make it so. It seems to me that there is only one possible way to bring the universalizing quality of art to the grief of losing a mother, as in, my own mother, in such a way that it participates in beauty and thus in goodness—to situate it in the context of a truly universal Mother. If each of us has our own, natural mother, we also share one, single Mother in the order of grace, Our Lady the Church, exemplified by the Blessed Virgin who, by mothering the God-become-Man has become Mother of us all. It is the Blessed Virgin who willingly enters dormition out of love for her children, the result of which is that she is now resplendent in heaven mediating for her children. Her suffering is a form of love, and her death a transformation so that she might watch over her children more closely. She stands death on its head, voluntarily accepting it so as to emerge on the other side victorious.

If I may be indulged to create my own fable, the sorrow that I hear in Carrie and Lowell is a searching glance to Our Lady of Sorrows. Stevens doesn’t intend this (I don’t think), and to the extent that he doesn’t see her clearly there is confusion and despair in his work. How wonderful for us all that a mother does not require perfection from her children before she loves them.

 

A Playlist for the Rosary: The Joyful Mysteries

annunciation

Continuing the musical meditation on the mysteries of the rosary. For a Playlist for the Glorious Mysteries, click here.  For the Sorrowful Mysteries, click here. For the Luminous Mysteries, click here.

The First Joyful Mystery – The Annunciation

Ave Maria by Franz Schubert, performed by Kristina Murphy, organ and Karen Ullo, soprano

Because there are few things more joyful than when a child sings to her Mother.

 

The Second Joyful Mystery – The Visitation

Magnificat by Arvo Pärt, performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Arvo Pärt is an Estonian, one of the most widely performed living composers of classical music. The Magnificat is the Canticle of Mary from Luke 1:46-55.

The Third Joyful Mystery – The Nativity of Jesus

Of the Father’s Love Begotten, Eleventh Century carol, performed by Larry and Carla Sue

The Fourth Joyful Mystery – The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

Aaronic Blessing in Hebrew, sung by Rico Cortes

From Numbers 6:23-27, the traditional benediction given over the people every morning by a priest of the Aaronic line.

The Fifth Joyful Mystery – The Finding of Jesus in the Temple

My Father’s House by J.P. Cooper

(There is a studio version of this song available here, but I didn’t want to interrupt your prayer with the obnoxious ad at the end.)

Friday Links

The pilot for Jim Gaffigan’s new sitcom, loosely based on his life, is now available for free on his website. Try not to squirm as he tackles the outrage industry and our modern anxieties about religion head on. Matthew Lickona wants you to see Mad Max: Fury Road. Wilfred McClay ponders the nature and aim of the liberal arts, and he wants you to stop calling them the humanities. Stephen Bayley yawns at contemporary art.

Update: Poet and Catholic convert Franz Wright has died. Artur Rosman remembers him at Cosmos in the Lost, plus here’s an old appreciation of his work by Micah Mattix. Requiescat in pace.