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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mosquitoes, Other People's Children, and My Own Frail Nature

One of my favorite quotes has always been:  "If you think you're too small to be effective, then you have never been in bed with a mosquito."

Fairly self-explanatory, I think, as most of us have had the experience.  I think most of us have also had our George Bailey moments, when we wonder whether we make a difference to anyone, whether our being here is of any significance at all.  Of course, our friends and loved ones are usually anxious to reassure us, and those of us who have faith understand that there is a higher purpose that we cannot yet see, but there are times when we still doubt our own self-worth.

Which brings me to a child who will probably never know the incredible impact he has had on my life.

This started in March.  I overheard a conversation among a group of women that rather distressed me.  They were discussing a baby.  The mother, no longer a young woman, was being advised by her doctor that her unborn child was at enormous risk of being born with myriad disabilities.  His primary basis for this was her age.  He suggested that she consider aborting the child.  The conversation was very matter of fact, full of jokes about being called Grannie should she opt to carry to term, how hard she had worked to lose that last forty pounds, and how thoroughly inconvenient a baby would be with the other children just leaving home.  What made this so particularly horrendous for me was that she was already showing, and was cradling the child between her hands, one above and the other below the obvious bulge in her belly.

I wanted to say something, anything to discourage this woman from killing her child.  Instead, I went back to my office, sat down at my desk, and cried.

I found myself wanting to do something to save this child, to do something that would convince the mother not to do this thing, not to kill her child just because he might not be perfect. I wanted her to understand how damaging this would be to her own soul and happiness.  It wasn't just a matter of killing a baby, but of killing THIS baby, a child that would have a very particular and unique way of looking at the world, a child that might have her eyes, share her birthmarks.  A child that would grow into an amazing individual and make a wonderful parent or spouse, or maybe he would be a gifted artist or musician.  Perhaps he would just be that taciturn fellow who grumbles a lot but can always be counted on to help you start your car on cold mornings, and who always makes sure you're ok after a storm.  There was purpose there, cradled between her hands, a tiny being who could, and would, change the world in his own peculiar way, if she would only let him live.

"A person's a person, no matter how small."

This was a turning point for me.  At first I thought of how horrible it was that these women could discuss abortion so casually, as if it were not a big deal.  Something so evil, so intrinsically wrong, and they were discussing it as if  choosing between paper and plastic, just another decision to be made, another choice in the automat of life.

Then I started thinking of my own choices,  my own sins and weaknesses, most of them more damaging to me than to others, but something inside me suddenly wanted more than absolution.  I found myself needed to make reparation for the harm I had done with some of my stupid decisions over the years, for those things that had changed the course of my life and ultimately, lessened my purpose.  I could, finally, see the end result of my chief sins, and for the first time, I could see their impact in the world immediately around me.

It was a shock, and has led me to make some serious changes in my life, beginning with my prayer life and moving outward into my marriage. From there, it has taken on a momentum of its own, and seems destined to change my life into something it should have been long ago.

It has made me long to be holy.  Not in a pious way that finds me mumbling my beads and muttering prayers, draped in sackcloth and ashes beneath the feet of a gargantuan crucifix, but rather in how I live and in how I approach others.  I want to draw people to God by example, to show them what is good in life and how important life is, how very important life is.   There is so much good in all of us, not perfection, to be sure, but there is no one who does not reflect God in some way, shape or form.  We are all created in His image, in His likeness, and He formed us, each one of us, individually, placing us in our mother's wombs to be cradled as He was, to be born and to fulfill our place in His creation, that which we've already damaged so by our sins, and which we damage again and again in this, the destruction of our children.

And so I cried that day at my desk, drifting eventually into prayer, and from prayer to an examination of conscience that was more painful than anything I'd ever done.   It has brought me closer to the cross, and to God, and has reduced me to needing both in ways that I have never before admitted.

 A beautiful and healthy boy was born a few weeks ago.   He has ten little fingers, ten little toes, an incredible set of lungs and very intelligent eyes just like his mother's, already an influence upon this world, even before he was born.  

Someday, I hope to thank him.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Passionate Pianists, the Propers, and Something More than Taste

My husband is very fond of Chopin.  I, alas, am not.

It is not that I do not recognize the genius of his work, or even the beauty of the music, but to appreciate is not to necessarily enjoy.  I do not take pleasure in listening to Chopin.  

Such music pulls at my emotions and draws up the residual sorrow of the day, making me melancholy and peevish, restless in spirit.  There is no solution to such a mood for me, it spoils me for the company of others.

It leaves me, in a word, distracted.

It is an easy thing to do...distracting me with music.  It was a ploy my mother used often when I was young.  Waking a child is never easy, often entailing repeated attempts that result in general aggravation for all parties concerned.  She called me to the beginning of the day in another way.  She would play the piano, drifting through my favorite things to sing, knowing I would be lured from my bed by an irresistible urge to join her, and invariably, I did.  These are some of my fondest memories of childhood, sitting beside my mother on the piano bench, singing Southern gospel hymns until time to go to school, church, and yes, eventually, even college.

I grew up with this same distraction, readily yielding to it at awkward moments, finding my ear drawn toward music instead of the conversation of those around me and with me, finding it pulling me nostalgically away from the present into a past I would not remember without the intervening tunes that play in my head.  I equate everything with music, there is a melody for every event and every moment, and each one leads naturally to another, plotting the course of my thoughts, of my actions, and of my days.

It is one of the reasons I sing in choir and schola, sometimes acting as cantor or even trying my hand at the direction of music, although I have no great love for the last.  Music is a form of prayer for me, a way of transcending the thoughts of the secular world and reaching a place where there is nothing else but that which the music brings to mind.  Here the distraction is a good thing, it takes me from my everyday thoughts to those of a higher station, focusing my thoughts on the cross, on things eternal, and on the Mass.  It takes me from the mundane, in the most archaic sense of the word, and into the seriousness that is our eternity.

Music is an orderly distraction.  It is defined by clear delineation of tone, recognizable to both eye and ear, to fingers when played upon instruments, to feet in rhythm, to lungs, to throats, to the body as a whole.  It is a participatory art in every possible sense of the word.

In the Mass, it is even more particularly so, one of the many ways that this, my adopted Faith, differs from that of my childhood.

Baptist Hymns were random creatures, a few seasonal in nature, but most were selected much as the scripture of the day was.  Favorites surfaced most frequently, those found to be bland or difficult most often ignored. It was a pleasurable surprise to hear what was to be next on the day's selections, but there was no rhyme or reason in the selection beyond that of the songleader's personal taste.

I must confess, when I first became Catholic, I found this to be much the same, saving that there were more selections labeled as seasonal.   Yet, having been an Anglican in the intervening years between my childhood and my conversion, I had developed an understanding of what was an appropriate selection and what was not.   Much of what I heard was subjective in nature, focusing on the people, or expressing rather weird sentiments of social justice, even the lyrics of the better hymns corrupted for gender neutrality, that rather silly idea that using masculine pronouns was somehow demeaning to women.

I was not sure how to avoid this, how to correct it, how to go about educating those selecting this music that it wasn't worthy of the Sacrament.  I had no position of authority, still don't and have no desire for it, but I wanted the music here to do for my spirituality what music in general does for my life.  I wanted it to edify it, to improve it, to lift my heart unto the Lord.  I didn't need Eagle's Wings for this.  I needed something more ethereal.

Then someone introduced me to chant.

It amazed me to learn that this incredible sense of order existed within the musical world of the Church.  That here was an Introit, designed to focus the congregation on the priest's entry into the sanctuary.  That here was a Kyrie designed to focus our thoughts, not just on our own unworthiness, but on God's Mercy.  The Gloria proclaims in no uncertain terms Whom we are to worship.  The Gradual, the Alleluia and Tract, these frame the scriptures and prepare us to hear them.  Thus the Mass moves forward, each part in its Proper place,  each day with its own music, and each year finds it sounding fresh and familiar, a comforting combination that leads us from the steps of the altar to Calvary, to the victory of the Resurrection, to our own reception of our Lord while the Communion antiphon and verses echo  about us, providing that timelessness that is so like memory, and which is reminiscent of eternity.

Here I wake from worldly pleasures and sit with Our Lady, the ethereal strains of earthly music joining with the celestial ones above.  May God find our offering pleasing, may it distract Him from our failures, and May He show us His Divine Mercy as a sign of His favor.

Kyrie Eleison.  Lord, Have Mercy.  Amen.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ex Tenebris in Lucem

There is something lovely about the natural interruption of darkness.

There is gentleness about it that doesn't come from Edison's inventions, a subtleness that soothes rather than disrupts, that softly leads the eyes to focus on shadows as they develop into shapes, things becoming visible when once they were invisible.

Light, that which enables us to see, that which dispels the terrors of childhood, that which allows us to go forward into the unknown with more confidence, our steps secure on the path we can see. It removes the need to feel the way before us with our fingers and toes, timidly, nervously, expecting the abyss or the stumbling block that always exists before us when in the dark, if only in our imagination.

Light, that which flickers beautifully in fire, warming our hearths and homes, adding a romantic glow even in the modern age that no longer sees the flames as necessary, but cannot quite abandon that which once separated us from animals, that which alerted nature to our superior intellect and mastery, our ability to create heat and illuminate our world setting us apart in this creation, the burning of oil and tallow allowing us to hold darkness in contempt, to do away with the fears of the night, to increase in learning, in art, to refine our pleasures and prolong our waking hours.

I remember when I first discovered liturgy, how thrilling it was to watch the darkness vanish at my first Christmas midnight service, the pastor of the Anglican Church having the theatrical taste to darken the church during the lessons and carols, entering as we left the dregs of Advent behind, led by candles into a church as he processed with the Christ Child born aloft, the light arriving with Our Infant Lord in a sensory overload, our being compelled to awe by the ritualistic beauty of both language, music, sign, and illumination.

So I became enamored of liturgy, the use of ritual, the comforting familiar sounds and phrases, the candles positioned and weighted, precise in their heights and even in the steadiness of their flames. Then there came the morning sun, illumining the various scenes in the stained glass windows, calling to mind those who were now in the Light, and who began, as we all do, in absolute darkness.

Those were my years of seeing "through a glass darkly".  There was the Light, distant and beautiful, the shadows around me becoming clearer each day, my beliefs, well established from my youth, becoming understood, growing to a fullness of Faith that took me far beyond the simplicity of Mere Christianity into the blazing Light which is Christ Crucified, Christ Resurrected, and Christ again on the altar, exalted and elevated in the Eucharistic Host.

It is a gradual thing, a generous thing, a gift both real and surreal, a promise extended each day to us, providing an eternal hope of a perpetual light that is just beyond us, there on the outskirts of our understanding, but not yet for our sight.

Language has no equal to God before us, He is is seen and unseen, He is welcomed and spurned, consumed and all consuming, exalted at our altars and abased in our world.  It is His Light that awes us, His is the Beauty our souls seek in the darkness that hides it among base pleasures.  

Lumen Christi.  

Reason would have it thus, that there is One Truth, that there is One God.   The Light of the World, the reason we face the East in expectation, the Presence we acknowledge with the subtle glow of a candle, constantly renewed before His altar.

Lumen de Lumine.   

The Light that shines in the Darkness, driving away all doubts and despair, giving us the hope of the life everlasting in the world to come.

Deo Gratias.  Amen. 

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cardinal Newman's Hushed World and a Busy Girl's Blues

Feeling a bit blue tonight.

There's no real reason for it, just the sort of restless disgruntlement that follows a wonderful week of doing what one loves, with the subtle letdown of knowing that one must now return to reality.

Reality, of course, entails a return to one's everyday life...the job, the commute, the news with the fluctuating bias depending on the sources of NPR, CNN or FOX.  It means watching two people eat lunch together while texting other parties, barely noticing the other except to be sure the check is split correctly.  It is listening to the useless debates over who can get married and who can't, as if marriage in the public eye holds any sort of significance at all any longer.  It is watching the rapid decline of common courtesy, human dignity, and viable civilization.

So how would I have it be, in my vastly superior attitudes and wisdom?  What view would I wish to see as I leave the sanctuary of my home and venture forth into society?

I would have the busy world be hushed.

It is one of my favorite expressions, this line from Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.  It conveys a sense of calm, a sense of wonder, a feeling of serenity that he seemed to possess in abundance and could invoke with a few well-chosen words.  It is not a cry for quiet, or for all things external to end, but rather that the senses be dulled to them, that they cease to matter, that we somehow transcend them.  It is one of those things that I somehow consistently fail to do.

One of my goals since Lent has been to improve my prayer life.  To this end, I have started new and somewhat uncomfortable private devotions.  I have set aside time to talk to the Almighty in both His language (Latin) and mine (Southern).  I have sought to befriend His Mother and His more faithful servants.  I have added daily Mass to my weekly routine whenever possible, as well as Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

It is in His Presence that I find the peace that the Blessed Cardinal Newman describes.  Before the altar of God, I find that the world is hushed, that the secular does not speak of its violence and horrors, or even of its pleasures and distractions.  There is no time here.  There is nothing to interfere with simply being in His Presence.

I needn't speak to God.  He needn't speak to me.  Just as I once sat comfortably in silence with my grandmother, enjoying the gentle sounds of her performing her usual tasks, so it is with God.  I can simply sit in His temple, before a monstrance, before the elevated Host, before His tabernacle with its shimmering candle announcing that God is here.  It is enough that He is.  It is enough for Him that I believe this, and that I can linger in silence, content in His company, watching with Him for one hour.  He asks so little of me, and I fail even in that, and even in my longing I fail Him, and so I find myself in sorrow, despising a world that no longer knows Him, not knowing how to correct this, and no longer wishing to be a part of it, even while knowing I must.

I would have a world that yields to quiet contemplation, that gives credence to Beauty and Truth, that applies Reason to its actions.  I would have it filled with that gentleness that seems to be dying away, that "keep calm and carry on" attitude that curbs the hysteria that we see in our daily surroundings.  I would want it to recognize what is good, not necessarily what is perfect, but what is worthy of humanity, what makes it civilized instead of merely human.  It is not enough to be sentient.  It is not enough to educated and enlightened.  The world needs to feel the longing for eternity again.  It needs to recognize that there is something other, something beyond, something greater, and it must mute its own voice to do this, as I must mute mine when in His Presence.

I would have it hushed, if only for a moment, for in that moment, God can place eternity, and the shades will lengthen, and the evening will come, and we will have peace at last.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Canopies, Kyrie, and Credo

Mass IX is my favorite ordinary.

Perhaps this stems from my Anglican days, for we sang this setting in English fairly often, dividing the parts between the men's choir and the women's, or, when available, between the men and the boys...and is there anything lovelier in English choral music than the sight and sound of boys in their choir robes?

It was a sad realization for me, when I first became a Catholic, to say goodbye to that pomp and beauty in the liturgy.  Even though we were being received in a "traditional" parish, there were no choir robes, no grand processions.  Antiphonal meant that the choir sang and a few brave souls in the pews below responded.  The organist provided lovely preludes and postludes, but there seemed to be few occasions for the truly glorious sounds that this instrument can produce...those tones both dulcet and dissonant that proclaim the presence of something greater than what the world can offer.

That was ten years ago.  A decade, as we know from our Rosary, is a powerful thing.  Each year brought changes to our world and to our liturgies.  Yes, there are individuals who refuse to acknowledge that the Church is only in the world and not of it, who have sought, whether with good intention or evil design, to change Her, to force Her sacred shape into a secular garment into which She cannot ever fit.

Tuesday of this week ushered in the next decade for Her.  For the first time in over forty years, the Diocese of Charlotte held a Solemn High Mass, attended by the bishop, bringing back to the Church that sense of ritual that I once thought lost to me, only now made greater for being in the One True Church, in the presence of the Real Presence, as it were.

Here was a canopy prepared for the bishop, heralded in by an organ fanfare of deafening magnitude and emotional depth, the sound indicating that this was an heir to the apostles of the Church, here to bestow his sanction and blessing upon this occasion.  Here the priests processed, draped in beautiful vestments, the acolytes approached the altar with militaristic precision, their movements as sharp as the creases in their cassocks.  Here the people sat in quiet anticipation, witnessing the pageantry and beauty of the Mass as it should be, reverent and beautiful, an occasion of unity, not just with those gathered here, but with all those who have come before us, and all those who will follow.  It was not a static moment, clinging to one place and time, but a consistent and eternal flow, guiding the Church toward her Lord, the anticipation of eternal bliss bound in this ritual, these rites.

It is a common but appropriate image that appeals to me, that of the Church as a Bride...beautiful, reverent, ideal, divine, eternal.  It is an image that inspires anticipation, yearning, and fidelity.  It is a moment in which every aspect of Her countenance should be at its best, from the coverings of Her head to the shoes on Her feet.  Her body, like those of many women, may not be perfect, but She should adorn it well for the occasion of offering it to the Bridegroom, her brocades, her silks and satins, the gold, silver and jewels of Her ancestors draped from Her ears and about Her hands, the glass slippers that fit only Her feet upon them, or perhaps those of ruby that can always take Her home.  She is pure, She is chaste, She is prepared, and She is strong.

She sings to Her Lord as She approaches,  Her introit of Latin keeping pace with Her feet.  She greets His steward with a cry of Ecce Sacerdos  as he goes to the high altar.  She begs the mercy of the Bridegroom's Father as His servants prepare the table, She sings the glories of Her Faith in Gloria and Credo, She chants psalms as She kneels to receive Her Lord, each time a marvel and miracle of grace, a moment that is bittersweet, for it is a foretaste only of Her eternity with Christ, and is all too fleeting here.

This is the moment when She is most set apart from the world, in Her worship.  It is the Mass, a liturgy rich in tradition, firm in promise, divine and holy in its descent from the hands of Christ Himself, His gift to His Bride, His Chosen, His Beloved.

Her Mass is always one of preparation for the moment that She is united with the Bridegroom, when the jeweled cup is held aloft by His servants, when the bread upon which She is to dine is exposed before Heaven, to become the Body and Blood of her King and Lord, and then to be offered to Her, a courtly gift of love that has no equal.  He not only said He would die for Her, He did die for Her, and makes the offering again and again in the rituals that are best suited to so great an occasion.

She is the focus of the pageantry as She travels the aisle toward the altar, but there the attention shifts to what she is accepting, to the Truth that awaits Her there, to the Sacramental graces that descend upon Her and make Her, no longer simply beautiful, but perfect.

Here there is perfect union, never with the world, but only with Her Lord, and She kneels before Him as the echoes die away, the Mass is ended, and She goes forth in peace.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Romance, Reality, and the Universal Truth

I have never been able to take a cue note from a guitar.

This was an embarrassing thing when I was a young Baptist.  So many of my friends and family sang with nothing else to accompany them except guitars, banjos, and other instruments associated with the Southern culture.  I would cock my head to the side, listening with all my might, but invariably, I had to wait until someone else sang to get my starting pitch.

I realize, now, that this was a precursor to my conversion.  How could I remain a Baptist when I couldn't sing along with a guitar?  It didn't help that I hated to clap, and certainly had no inclination to raise my arms to heaven when my eyes and thoughts would suffice.  Mine was a sedate nature in worship, although not necessarily so elsewhere, and I found the idea of "Be Still and Know that I AM God" an intriguing notion that deserved more attention.

I do not write this to offend my childhood friends and family.  I still adore attending Gospel sings and I'm more than happy to join in (once someone else has gotten me started on the tune).  I can't imagine how miserable my childhood would have been if my moments involving guitars, drums and pianos were eradicated from it.  Yet, while I enjoy these things, it is not my primary source of worship.  There is something beyond enjoyment, something greater than taking a personal pleasure in praising God.  There is something that is "meet and right so to do".

Anglicanism sated my initial desire for decorum.  There was a romanticism about it, a nostalgia wrapped in the trappings of the English language at its artistic height, its liturgy made fable by the hundreds of movies that used its rites for fairy tale weddings and to bury BBC heroes.  There was a gentleness that refused to recognize the abhorrence of the world, and the Church of England rolled on toward an eternity of black frock coats and ivy-covered country homes, and for ten years I drifted with it, content with the 1940 Hymnal, the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and the thought that God was in His Heaven, and all was right with the world.

Then came my conversion to Catholicism, the story of which I've already shared here in an earlier post.  I had no desire to disrupt my reverie of God, my firm grasp of His Goodness, my love for the trappings of faith to which I'd become so attached.  There was much in Catholicism that I found gauche, much I could not bring myself to accept, much that I sought to reject because it was not convenient for me to do otherwise.

Catholicism was not pretty when I came to her gates.  Her music was distorted by forty years of secular influence.  Her churches were bland and utilitarian, often downright ugly.  Her priests weren't exactly finding favor with the world at large in the year 2000, and even though the vast majority of them were very worthy men, the public images were enough to revolt someone who was already reluctant to swim the Tiber.

Yet, there is something to be said for a Faith that is not always beautiful to the eye.  Just as the old and infirm can light up a room despite their frailties, just as the quavering voice of an old monk can demonstrate the beauty of a chant, even as the Body of Christ can be displayed grotesquely and broken on a cross and still be a work of art, so is our Faith.  Her beauty is in Her Sacraments, in Her consistency from generation to generation, in handing to the next what those closest to Christ knew.  Her Beauty is in Her Truth, which is Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Our God, found in the Eucharist and elevated before us, whether in a Cathedral of marble or a basement school chapel, omnipresent in His Heaven, yet deigning to dwell with us on earth.

Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro.
Dignum et iustum est.  

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hell, Happiness and His Sorrowful Passion

Introspection does not become me.

I do not refer to rational thought or critical thinking, using both discernment, discretion, and yes, discrimination in my everyday decisions, but rather that common self-induced coma that folks dwell within when they wish to "find" themselves, to figure out what makes them tick, and how to make this more important to others.

I have never felt this need to soul search, to figure out what perfections or flaws lie within.  I get out of bed, shower, brush my teeth, make sure my hair isn't embarrassing my mother, and go to work.  On my days off, I center my world around some obscure time and place that has as little to do with my real world as possible, and there I stay until it's time to sally forth into a general populace that really could care less if I rejoin it or not.

In a nutshell, I'm a realist.  I have bills to pay, therefore a job is necessary.  I believe in God, Heaven and Hell, therefore a Faith is necessary.  I believe there is One Absolute Truth, therefore I am Roman Catholic.  I believe in right and wrong, sin and redemption, just reward and just punishment...and lately, more than of old, Divine Mercy.

It has been a difficult year.  My personal losses have forced me to face a mortality that I've never denied, but never dwelt upon.  The rapidity with which the world is changing finally seems to be leaving me behind a little, which does not grieve me so much as surprise me. My responsibilities are the same as they have always been, but I've had the sudden realization that they are not at all what I expected them to be at this stage of my life.

To quote a heretic, Here I Stand, and the question arose, is this where I wish to be?

My life is not simply a good one, it is nearly perfect.  I have a lovely home, a wonderful marriage, an incredible priest and parish, a comfortable job, and no physical complaints beyond that of every Rubenesque woman of a certain age.  Yet, something was needling me, making me look at things with a jaundiced eye, viewing both my actions and inactions through a more potent lens.

I began to wonder if too much happiness can send one to hell.

A strange statement, but ours is a culture based upon the pursuit of happiness.  It is one of the three unalienable rights espoused by our governing forefathers, one of the few bits of our political history that permeates the cultures of both the elite and the oppressed in our society.  It is an expectation, if not an outright demand from the highest to the lowest, from Beacon Hill to Hell's Kitchen, and it could be a noble one.  But happiness in the modern sense is a subjective thing, and what makes one set of folks happy destroys that of another, for we no longer have a common ground upon which to build our House of Fun.

So, Lent began and I found myself acting out the part of Lady Slane, (All Passion Spent, by Vita Sackville-West) questioning my happy life and wondering about those things I'd left undone, wondering if I should now try to go back and do them, or if it is best to let them remain a part of my intellectual solitude.  These weren't necessarily things that would add to my earthly pleasure.  I would go so far as to say some of them would seriously impede it, but it seemed that my spiritual well-being was somehow trapped behind these unopened doors, and I wondered if I should open them.

I decided to talk to my favorite bartender about it, and made an appointment with Father Reid...and over wine, whiskey, and two weeks' worth of Italian Cappuccino, Pandora's Box came open with all its miseries and woes.  We talked both in his office and while on Pilgrimage in Italy.  His advice, echoing that of other spiritual advisers over the years, was to pray.  He suggested the Divine Mercy Chaplet, in particular.

I wanted no part of such a simple solution.  My prayers are of a more spontaneous and flippant variety.  Rote prayers, beyond the Mass, can rarely hold my attention. I have no doubt God expects some focus from the supplicant, and my thoughts are too often elsewhere for such litanies and novenas to be effective.  Besides, I have a touch of snobbery about visual images.  I dislike color on statues, velvet in art, and cherubs in particular.

Rays of light arcing from an exposed heart on the garden variety Jesus did not move me.  It was not even an image that I could consider quaint.  I didn't say these things to Father Reid, merely making some vague suggestion as to what else I might do, and he smiled in that annoyingly knowing way of his, and reiterated that I pray about it and let God lead my decision.

Roger Waters released an album some years ago that had a single entitled "What God Wants, God Gets."

What I got in return was understanding.  Our pilgrimage to Italy was intended as a vacation with holiness attached.  It became one of the most moving experiences of my life, and every step seemed to be directing me toward this image that I found so unappealing, toward this door that was before me rather than behind me, not  one of the doors from my past, but a gate toward eternity that I had never given much thought before.

Every conversation, even that with total strangers, seemed to hone in on some aspect of this devotion, this focus on the Mercy of God through the intercession of His Son, that here, in the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, was all that I had missed through my own fault, my own most grievous fault, in the past.  All that I had left undone could be corrected by this gift of Mercy.  All that I had done in error could be washed away.  All the harm I had done with deliberation could be forgiven...and none of it was through my own action, but through that which I found distasteful and abhorrent, through the grotesque Sacrifice that is displayed on the cross, from Whose Side the Blood and Water flow, and Whose Mercy is everlasting, and in Whom happiness can be found in abundance, and Whose Beauty, even in watercolor, is everlasting.

Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy on us and on the whole world.  Amen.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Bedrocks, Long notes, and the Rational Jesus

I am a soprano.  I adore long notes.  I love the way they echo in a room, the way they fade away gradually, sometimes to start again, sometimes just to end in silence.  Perhaps I hold them a little too long on occasion, perhaps things slow down because I do...but that's not always a bad thing.

We live in a world that slows down for nothing and no one.  Daily, we find our tasks made faster by technology, yesterday's work becomes redundant and obsolete, the pace that satisfied yesterday is no longer sufficient.  At some point, we can no longer keep up, and we become harried and stressed, forever behind and forever trying to reach some distant island of stability that is little more than a proverbial carrot dangling in the distance.

We miss so much because of this. There are opportunities lost to us, pleasures and gifts from God that are bypassed in our pursuit of this imagined happiness, this secular satisfaction that is, at best, only a vague descendant of what the generations before us knew to be necessary.  We have lost our sense of fulfillment.

I mention this because I've lost three very important people this year.  I would go so far as to say these three individuals formed me in ways that no one else did or can do, and while I believe they all knew their importance in my life, I can no longer go to them and tell them, in person, what they have given me, that sense of vocation, an idea of what is important in life and how to obtain it.   The three are my grandmother, Mr. Jesse Walker, and Father Martin Kelly.

My grandmother taught me to be an original, gave me a general sense of tenacity, and taught me the meaning of unconditional love. She gave birth to my mother, who in turn gave birth to me, the gift of life from God Himself accepted and cherished, nurtured and encouraged, sent out into a world that may not respect it, but must acknowledge it.  My belief in God came through this maternal line, my character was formed by the society that was established around it, and it was a wonderful thing to be part of this family, to have this bedrock beneath me as I began life on my own.

Jesse Walker was a familiar sight to me long before he became my teacher.  All of my siblings had been in the Worth County music programs, as had my mother and several of hers.  This man was a teacher like no other. He thought nothing of driving miles to pick us up and take us home.  He lectured, he teased, he cajoled, and he taught music...such music!!  There were the obligatory marches, there was Wagner, there was Verdi.  He introduced me to jazz.  He taught me the importance of breathing, the importance of simply drawing in breath and exhaling it...something so necessary to life as to be vital to music as to studied.  Life and music intertwined, the breath of one becoming the voice of the other.

I married, I moved away, landing in the wilds of New Hampshire, there to encounter Father Martin Kelly, who (I mentioned this before) asked me if I was alright with Jesus, and from that singular spot led me into the world of Catholicism, with its beauty and ritual, its explanations for all of those things seen and unseen, those things hoped for...lovely things that we may not always understand but simply believe through Faith.  He gave me an understanding of eternity, the timelessness of it found in the Mass, the foretaste of it in the Eucharist, the sound of it echoing through chant...the human voice, drawing in breath, releasing it again in the exquisite sound that has carried across the ages to provide solace, beauty and faith to those of us who dwell still in this life, awaiting our opportunity to greet once more those who have entered into the fullness of Faith with Our Lord, Our Lady, and all the Angels and Saints in Heaven.

In paradisum deducant te angeli
In tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres
Et perducant te in civitatem sanctorem Ierusalem
Chorus angelorum te suscipiat
Et cum Lazaro quondam paupere
Aeternam habeas requiem.

May God grant them peace.  May they pray for us.  May they sing with us in all the eternal moments left to us in this life. Amen.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

An Ave for Dante, the Sole in Exile, and an Ernest Lament

I sang an Ave at Dante's Tomb the other day.

I can't swear he would have recognized the Latin, but the tune would have been familiar, the Gregorian melody the same that has been sung by generation after generation of Catholics around the world since before even he was born.

It somehow seemed appropriate to sing this, our ancient form of the prayer to Our Lady, at the graveside of one exiled, a banished son not just of Eve but also of Florence, his final resting place discreetly tucked away on a dead-end street in the town of Ravenna, Italy.  We passed by it several times, finding it crowded with tourists who didn't seem quite sure why their guide thought this an important they dashed, out they dashed, some took pictures, some wandered toward the square, finding the nearby restaurants and shops of more interest than a dead poet.  Italy, after all, is full of such shades:  the bones of saints, the images of artists, and the whispers of writers.  It is impossible not to see the reflections of all that is divine in mankind while walking these streets.

One could not turn a corner without catching a glimpse of a Madonna rendered in oil or stone against a high wall, overlooking  a little side alley that someone found worthy of her attention and protection.   The fountains, once so vital and necessary to the inhabitants of the cities, were carved into elaborate and fantastic shapes and designs, water flowing from and over the pagan gods and mythical creatures, obelisks rising from elephants, churches rising from pagan temples, saints lying in wait beside ordinary folk, art mixed with slang graffiti, ruins beside the ruined...death, life, time and eternity mingled as only God's creation could be.

It was fascinating to me.

Here I stood beside the tomb of one of the greatest poets that the world has produced, a momentary lull in the flood of tourists leaving us lonely, and I sang a prayer for him.  What an awe-inspiring thought, that of the continuity of the Church, that   we could share in something not only across centuries but into eternity.  As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.

I caught glimpses of others as we wondered through the streets, particularly in Venice.  The characters of Brideshead surfaced more than once with all their faults, the illicit loves of Julia and her father found their way into my thoughts as we dined on sole that was as unobtrusive as Waugh had described it, the brandy in a thimble if not in Charles' presence, and the beauties of the Catholic world were laid out before us in St. Mark's and so many other lovely chapels, all reflected in the water of the canals, all expressing the Faith as majestic and powerful, sacred and beautiful.  Venice, too, can claim souls for God by her very incredible existence, something of beauty in a place she shouldn't be, her stability resting on water, wood and rock, much as our salvation rests on Baptism, Holy Rood, and Faith.   It is no wonder that such a city appealed to Lord Marchmain in his self-imposed exile.  I fancy that he was thinking of her as he lay dying, her streets, saints, and basilicas, only to be restored to a more eternal beauty in the sign of the cross he offered near the end, a simple gesture that drew again on the rites instigated by Our Lord's Baptism and Passion.  Vidi aquam egredientem de templo, a latere dextro...

There were others, too, that came to mind, those secular beings who may not be called saints, but who have so influenced me in my decision to become Catholic.  We stopped in Venice for the obligatory drink at Harry's Bar, a favorite watering hole of Ernest Hemingway.  I do not know that anyone would consider him a good Catholic, but he professed the Faith and was buried within Her rites, and so we drank a toast to Ernest and traded quotes from our favorites of his novels...and yes, we prayed for him in a nearby Church, requesting Our Lady intercede for him, asking the Fisherman who served Christ first as Bishop of Rome to remember another who loved to fish.   I would like to think of him in Heaven...along with so many others who lived and died within our Faith.  Frederic Rolfe, whose bones lie on the island of San Michele...Virgil, Dante's virtuous pagan escort, even an old bluesman named David York that we remembered in a tiny chapel in Rome, a relic of the Precious Blood unexpectedly within our view bringing us more wholly to our knees as we offered our intentions, those private and those profound, praying that God would grant them, and us, sufficient mercy to find each other in Heaven someday, and that it would be much like Venice, Rome, and all the places here that have brought such happiness to us.  Isn't it pretty to think so?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Dubious Approach to Veritas

I've always had a soft spot for Doubting Thomas.

Perhaps it is because I am always second-guessing my every action, always looking at every scenario in a "what if" light, and ultimately, falling back on the most important, tried and true mechanism of decision making that I know.  I ask my husband.

It is a very feminine thing to do, and I'm sure meets with no small amount of disapproval in a society that expects me to ignore all advice from such sources, but I respect his use of logic and reason, his very linear approach to problems, his absolute answers.  Then, like all women, I do what I want to do anyway, having firmly reconciled his good opinion to mine.

Decisions and doubt play no small role in our lives, be it the secular side or the sacred.  We are most confident in our desires and needs only in our earliest years, before the gift of reason assails our infant urges to scream and cry when hungry or pained.  Our confidence fades as we learn to walk, finding the world a much larger and more confusing place than that which our hands and knees had shown us.  We learn to express our desires through the civilized art of conversation, only to find that others interrupt or refuse to lend an ear to any oration that is not to their liking.  Our doubts grow as we see the obstacles that are tossed in our path, those things that seem designed to keep us from succeeding in this life and others that could very well keep us from salvation, if we do not overcome them.  We are all doubters, in some way or the other.  We are all novices at belief in ourselves, in our culture, and even in our God.

I must admit, when I first encountered Catholicism, I most certainly was a doubter. (The less generous among you would have called me a heretic, actually.)  Belief in God and Jesus?  Certainly.  Belief in Eternal Life?  Absolutely.  The Real Presence...well, maybe.

It is odd, in thinking on my Baptist days and our rare version of the Lord's Supper, to think how seriously we approached the unleavened bread and grape juice, how whatever remained was carefully buried while we sang solemn hymns, how we left the church quietly, reverently, to go back out to our friends and family.

As an Anglican, we mimicked the Mass in our Eucharist, the Olde Englishe Thous and Thees rolling off of the Reverend's tongue as smoothly as they flowed from the throats of the small but competent choir.  The congregation was in place by the gospel and remained quiet and still until the fourth verse of the recessional hymn, the radical believers lingering until the candles were extinguished on the altar.

I had found in these services a mystery.  There was an eternal why that they could not answer. There were actions and steps that could not be accounted for within their doctrines, beliefs that required an enormous leap to reconcile with behaviors.  It was this gap, this doubt, that allowed me to approach Catholicism at all, as a skeptic, as a critic, questioning all without expecting answers.  That was what made my conversion so very absolute.

There were answers.

For every gesture, there is a reason.  For every phrase, there is an antecedent. For every doctrine, there is a source.  Catholic teachings are not based solely on fragmented scriptures, they are not subject to the perpetually evolving social mores of a secularized state.  They are unchanging in the face of conflict, firm derivatives of natural law, witnessed and supported by sacred tradition.

Here is Truth.  Here is Christ, present in the Holy Eucharist, present on the altar, present in the Elevation of the Host, and my doubts are fractured anew each time the priest breaks the Host in his hands over the chalice that contains the Blood of Our Lord.  His hands are plunged again into Christ's side, his fingers feel the wounds of Christ's hands and feet, and in witnessing this, I cry, as Thomas did, "My Lord and My God."

Credo.  I believe, and it is a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

God's Grace in the Gestures

I am fascinated by hands. 

I think my fascination began when I was a little girl in church, my head resting in my mother’s lap as she toyed with my hair, smoothing it behind my ear, twisting and braiding it while the pastor ranted on about matters that were far above my childish concerns.  Those same hands would move over the keys of piano, stretching what seemed to me to be impossible distances to connect the sounds of low notes to higher ones, adding the harmonies or the dissonances of what lay between.  The dexterity of her fingers was an incredible thing to watch as she sorted through fresh-shelled peas, pulling out those that were less than perfect, removing the bits of hull that had fallen in through our negligence as we worked in a hurry, disgruntled by the task and anxious to get back to our more youthful pleasures.  I loved the sparkle of her wedding bands, and as I grew older, the gentleness with which she tended her patients in the hospital where she worked, and eventually, the care she gave her own mother as she entered her declining years.  

It is an amazing thing, what God has crafted in the human hand.  It is an example of both the strength and frailty of the human condition.  The same hands that can save one can destroy another.  To have four fingers and a thumb on each is to incline us toward normalcy in a world that still abhors that which is different or strange.  We lend a hand, we discuss what is on hand, we admire the dexterous and dread the sinister, we hold things dear to us within them, we wring them in worry, we clasp them together when we adore, we strike our breasts to indicate remorse.  They are as expressive as our speech, in every gesture and sign. 

I am, as an adult, no less fascinated by hands.  I do not have the same vantage as that of my childhood, and the hands that cared for me then no longer offer such ministrations, yet I find that I still watch another’s hands when I am in the house of God.  The one who ministers to me now stands at the high altar, facing God in His tabernacle, and handles things which are sacred and holy, using the ritualistic gestures of Christianity’s youth, performing the rites of sacrifice, each movement graceful and lordly, each action the same as yesterday, the same as those like him around the world who celebrate this feast.  These hands hold aloft the Body of Christ, ever present in the Eucharist, ever held within His Most Precious Blood.  They fracture the Host, breaking His Body, as he who wounds our Lord thus proclaims himself unworthy.  They grasp the altar’s edge as the priest kneels in adoration, they bring our Lord to those of us who wait, our own hands making the sign of the cross as we receive Him upon our tongues.  Our every gesture, our every sign during this corporate moment is to present ourselves to our Lord as an offering, to be made worthy of His Sacrifice, to take upon our tongues what we dare not take into our hands. 

I have my mother’s hands.  They are, in their imitation of hers, perfect in every way.   I accept this gift without question, without seeking to justify why or how she gave them to me, recognizing that there was no other gift that would replace them, no substitution for their design.  So it is, too, for those who offer the Mass for us, whose hands, perfect to this calling, present our offerings to God in the eternal moment that perfects us all. 

Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands that holy things have taken.  Amen.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lessons under the Chestnut Tree

My reason for not drinking beer died earlier this year.  That is to say, in more polite terms, my grandmother entered life eternal on February 2, The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord.

What does this remarkable woman have to do with rejecting beer?   My grandmother was a good Baptist woman, and it was a common occasion when I was growing up for her to corner one of my more wayward cousins and demand an answer, "Have you been drinking?"  Trust me when I say she would have the truth, and it did not set one free.  

I can honestly say I never touched a drop of alcohol until I was twenty-six years old, but still, whenever I went home to visit, she would sometimes ask that dreaded question.  I occasionally drink wine, and I drink whiskey, but I could look my grandmother in the eyes until her dying day and reply, "Why, Grannie, I've never had a beer in my life!"    It was very Jesuitical of me, I'm sure, but it answered her question and avoided a venial sin, and created a boundary that I will never cross.  I will not, even with her passing, drink a beer.  

I have no qualms in admitting that I am old-fashioned.  There are any number of things that I will not do because they are unladylike.  I do not wear white before Easter or after Labor Day.  I will always wear hosiery, and it will always be off-black, off-white, or nude.  I will not ruin my very fair complexion by worshipping Apollo, and I will not argue with my husband or family in public.  It isn't to be done, no matter what Jerry Springer may think.  My perfume will always be a floral, preferably the one to which my husband has grown accustomed in our twenty years together.  A lady should have her own signature scent, her own unique style, and above all, personal respect, as well as respect for others.  That, I think, is the most important lesson I learned from my grandmother.  To be lady is to both give and demand respect.  

Like so many others, I can point to her death as the passing of an era, the final nail in the coffin of my childhood.  Always before, I could envision my old home the way it was, the same fences and fields, the Chinese chestnut tree that my cousins climbed when I wouldn't, leaving me on the ground, seeing things a little bit differently from a firmer position.  I could imagine the old barns still standing, and the willow trees that stood between my house and hers, long since gone, but always there in my memory.  I can remember the holidays, filled with everyone's favorite foods and the family all gathered around the piano in the old house, sometimes with other instruments, sometimes with none at all, but always singing something, usually hymns.  My memory serves me well, and I have no desire to return to those places now, for it would be hard to convince me that they ever existed if I saw what they have become.   

My grandmother was not a fool.  She was not dim-witted, blind, or gullible.  I have no doubt that she knew precisely why my response was always the same, and I am sure she was offering me the same subtle respect that I was offering her.  It was that way with much in my life by this point, including my conversion to Catholicism.  I am not sure that she ever understood my love for liturgical worship, but she recognized that I was no longer the little girl standing alone beneath the chestnut tree.  The music that I now sing is older even than the hymns she knew, the prayers I offer by rote convey the thoughts that I cannot always express in my own words, the Mass that is offered brings us both before God in that wonderful communion of saints, and she, I've no doubt, genuflects before Him, giving God the respect to which He is entitled, and He, in turn, will raise her up, and listen as she intercedes for me.  

"Lord, now lettest Thou Thy Servant Depart in Peace.  According to Thy Word."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Culloden, Bosworth Field, and the Love of Lost Causes

My husband and I are probably one of the most compatible couples you will ever meet.  Not only are we still madly in love after 21 years, but we still like each other.  A few weeks ago, I received an email from him that went something like this:

Sometimes I’m an idiot.  I just realized that your birth date is the same as the Battle of Culloden.”

This may not seem a significant oversight in most relationships, but ours is built on the bedrock of romanticism.  I am not referring to gifts of roses, chocolates, or badly sung ballads with bunny hug lyrics, but to an ideal that has survived centuries of malevolence, ridicule, and realism.  We are people who want to believe in happy endings, and who will always believe in a better world than what is currently around us. 

Those of you who know my husband will beg to differ.  He is a public cynic who takes a perverse pleasure in avoiding society at all costs.  I, while more social, am also inclined to sarcasm and tend to take a general dark view of the world.  We both withdraw from it whenever possible, preferring our own microcosm of two adults, two mice, and a black cat named Maledictus.

Yet, we can spend hours bemoaning the fall of the Stuarts, or wishing the Tudors hadn’t triumphed at Bosworth Field (my husband’s birthday falls on THIS date).  We regularly raise a glass to the last King “over the water” (Henry Benedict Stuart, Cardinal Duke of York, later King Henry IX…sigh).  We dwell in the past, and our hope for the future involves a return to the values that were dear to those we most admired, those  generations who understood the difference between manners and etiquette, a world in which there was always an eternity that outweighed the importance of everyday affairs.

We are, in fact, searching for Eden.

We are not alone in this endeavor.  We just marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the “War of Northern Aggression”, and there have been any number of nostalgic posts about the bygone era of Southern chivalry and the Old South.  Of course, no one wants to return to the days of slavery, merely to recapture the elegance that pervaded the culture at its best, that elegance that was both its cream and its corruption, its saving grace and its downfall.

It is the same with so many lost causes.  Were the Plantagenet kings and the House of Stuart all that we believe them to be?  My heart gives a resounding yes, my head recognizes the impossibility of any time being as golden as we imagine.  To have been young in the 1920s would have suited me perfectly, but I would still be a Rubenesque woman of no significant fortune in Audrey Hepburn’s world.  Tara may have existed, but it lacked air conditioning, and even Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t get through life unscathed.  It is simply impossible for us to create perfection on this plane.

Yet, we still seek it.  We still look for that perfect sunset, trying to capture it with our cameras and videos, always finding the light at home to be unequal to the task of recreating what God gave only that once.  

We seek it in our Faith, we find it only in the Sacrifice of the Mass, that one moment when time becomes eternity, and we glimpse our God in the elevation of the Host, and we feel a tangible pull toward the altar as He is once again reclined.  It is His perfection that we seek, our last and distant King, and we His loyal subjects, come again and again to watch His descent to us and His Sacrifice, restoring us for just a moment to a perfect creation, restoring us to an untainted Eden in preparation for Paradise. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mantillas, Cum Jubilo, and other Acts of Rebellion

I am not, by nature, a rebel.  That is not to say I'm a conformist, but I've never had any great desire to change things or to be part of a movement.  I've always found the motion of the world to be too much like the Borg.  "Resistance is Futile".  It is what it was, and isn't a place I care to be, but I won't swear that my soul is any sort of shape for the better of the remaining options, so here I'll stay until the Good Lord deems otherwise.

Yet, I seem to constantly find myself at the center of some controversy when it comes to music and liturgy. As you've no doubt gathered, I am a musician, specifically, a singer.  I am one of those dreaded sopranos who can be either very good or very bad, depending on the piece and the mood, but regardless, I am LOUD.  I have a set of lungs that can overpower the shrillest set of screaming infants, even in an acoustically challenged room.  But I digress.

I learned how to sing as a Baptist.  I learned what to sing as an Anglican.  Then I became a Catholic at a time when it appeared that almost no one in the Church knew how to do either. This was eleven years ago, during the Easter Vigil 2000.  I was blessed from the beginning with an excellent set of priests and a beautiful parish. There were still minor horrors in the music, the occasional "Lord of the Dance" or "We Saw Him!", but these were easily brushed aside by hearing the regular and seasonal chants in the appropriate season, and the hymns that flanked these were often very good.  At this point, I had never heard of the Propers, nor had I heard the Ordinary referred to by that term.  I knew quite a few chants by rote, both in Latin and Greek, but thought of them as just other, and infinitely better, "hymn" options.  It was a very happy time for me as a Catholic, less so for my long-suffering choir directors, but God gives us all enough grace to muddle through.

Then came the day when we decided to move back to the South.  We were again fortunate to be near the Diocese of Charlotte, which has a lovely Cathedral with a choir master of excellent taste, but it was a bit of drive and it was outside of our diocese.  We wandered from parish to parish, trying those nearest our home, finding the music was abysmal, the liturgy often altered, and sermons, at best, mundane.  To quote an acquaintance of mine, when I glanced at the crucifix, I could really relate.

So, I became a rebel.

My first rebellion was in wearing a mantilla.  I still recall the first person who commented on it.  A woman whose name I will never know actually accosted me after Mass to tell me "We don't have to wear those anymore!!".  I smiled sweetly and replied, "I know".  I wasn't there to argue.  I was there to worship. The mantilla was an outward sign to me of my need to ignore the distractions around me.  The black veil to either side of my eyes kept me focused on the altar and our Lord,  as present there as on any high altar, despite what was going on around me.  It was not a sign of submission to "men" but of submission to God, and I see no degradation in showing humility before the Almighty.

By this time, we had found a tolerable parish within our diocese, if outside of the county.  The priest was sound, a Jesuit of the old school, and he was most encouraging of his more orthodox parishioners.  This led me to join the choir, and to my second form of rebellion. After all, life is too short to sing bad hymns.  Wrong lyrics?  Having a prestigious memory, I just sang the right ones (circa 1940, for those in the know).  If the hymn was particularly bad, I just knelt and ignored it.

In other words, I inadvertently started a parish war.  I needn't go into the specifics, as that would defeat the purpose of what I wish to express here, but suffice it to say that the priest (whom I still respect and love) asked me to leave the music ministry as I was a disruptive influence (I must agree with him) and he, like so many others, preferred a calm choir, even if it was of only two performers whose tastes were at odds with his, the majority of the congregation, and the Holy See.  Calm was still preferable.  We have all seen this again and again...better the devil you know, so to speak, perhaps literally.

So we left the parish rather than continue to disrupt it.

I was very bitter and angry after leaving, and decided I would not seek out another choir, but would look for a different venue, something generic that wasn't affiliated with any particular parish that would fill my need to sing.   In my wanderings, I stumbled across an ad for something called a "Colloquium" that was being held in Chicago.  I yielded to an impulse and registered.  This was far beyond my comfort zone.  I am not a traveler.  I am not shy, but I am not the sort of person to make friends easily, nor am I one to join groups.  Yet, I went to Chicago, even found my own taxi, and hesitantly approached the registration desk, waiting my turn to get a a registration packet and something called The Parish Book of Chant.

Like most such events, there was a reception the first evening.  I stood alone, looking over the lake, trying to figure out what in the world I was doing here.  Obviously, most of these people knew each other.  Obviously, they were professional musicians, with far greater gifts than mine.  I snagged a second glass of wine and started looking for the exit, when a soft-spoken man in seersucker and a bow tie blocked my way.  Our conversation was brief, but somehow got around to the recent unpleasantness of my last choir experience and he related similar feelings from years before, and then, he mentioned, in that vague and wonderful way of his, how pointless such anger is, how better directed the world would be with a different focus, and somehow, in the course of that conversation, he conveyed to me how to do this.  This was the beginning of a true Catholicity for me,  an understanding of Faith that is far too difficult to put into words.  

I cannot tell you what a wonderful experience that entire week was.  I had some familiarity with chant and polyphony, but had never been presented with it in context of the Mass.  The beauty overwhelmed me, I was literally in tears at the first Mass.  I was totally out of my league, but that was okay.  I needn't be able to sing everything to participate.  I needed only to be able to see the choreography of the priests and acolytes, to hear the organ, chant and polyphony, to smell the incense that really did seem to carry the prayers to the throne of God.  This was the Mass raised to an art form, and it made me feel both small and exalted at once, my own inadequacies abandoned in the timelessness of worship, that sublime moment of eternity that God gives us with each prayer of the consecration.

It was here that I first truly understood the power of continuity, of singing what the Fathers of the Church had sung, of seeing the ancient beauty and rituals that lured some of the vilest sinners away from their vices, that which drew the most brilliant of writers and composers to lend their talents to its service, and that which still draws us, the gifted, the mediocre, the vain and the clueless, toward the Mass, to give of ourselves that which is fitting for the service of God, and hoping to be made perfect by this, His gift to us.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Plate Glass, Plate Glass, on the wall...the importance of translations.

I adore fairy tales.    I love the reliable beginning of "Once upon a time" and the predictability that all will end "Happily ever after".   I even like what Disney has done to some of them, although I prefer the more authentic versions collected by the Brothers Grimm and their cohorts.

Recently, while hunting and gathering in Walmart, I paused to peruse a copy of Snow White.  The book, an adorable little pop-up, was opened to the famous scene in which the evil queen demands an answer of the looking glass, "Mirror, Mirror, on the wall...who is fairest of them all?"  It was the word "fairest" that caught my attention, and it called to mind a minor annoyance from a recent Mass I attended, involving, gasp, a hymn.

The hymn was "Beautiful Savior",a translation of an old German hymn, Schönster Herr Jesu. the opening lyrics as follows:

Beautiful Savior, King of Creation
Son of God and Son of Man!
Truly I’d love You, truly I’d serve You,
Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.

Compare the above to Fairest Lord Jesus, a slightly different translation:

Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature,
O Thou of God and man the Son,
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor,
Thou, my soul’s glory, joy and crown.

The two translations both convey sentiments about the beauty of Jesus in comparison to the created world, and they share the same lovely tune. It boils down to a mere matter of preference which version to use, does it not? After all, one word is just as good as another.  Beautiful is just another way of saying fairest, isn't it?

Uh, no.

Beautiful is an adjective, and it can be applied to multiple people, places, or things and still allow for an equality among what is being discussed.  She is beautiful.  HE is beautiful.  THEY are beautiful.  Fairest is an adjective in the superlative form.  Only one can be fairest.  Only one can be the most beautiful of all, and in the second version of the hymn, it is the Lord Jesus who is fairest, who is the ruler of all nature.

Ruler and King also convey very different ideas.  To rule is to exercise authority, to be obeyed.  To be King (since we've lost the Stuarts at least!) is to be figurehead, perhaps a ruler, but most likely merely something for the masses to adulate, or, as the case may be, to despise.

Cherish versus love?  Cherish is to hold dear, to desire. It requires one to grasp in some way that for which he longs and to bring it into contact with his very being, as we do each Sunday when we receive our Lord.   Love is a more passive emotion, something that can, and often is, done from a distance.

There is a difference in the focus of the first and second versions, as well.  Beautiful Savior focuses on the singer.  "I" would love.  "I" would serve.  Fairest Lord Jesus emphasizes what is to be cherished and honored.  "Thee would I cherish, Thee would I honor, Thou, my soul's glory, joy and crown."

Some might say that it still comes down to a matter of taste, of preference.  Yet there is one final and deciding factor that must be explored.  There is an original text, in an original tongue, and it opens in the superlative form, which gives the second hymn the added advantage of being the more faithful mirror.  It reflects the Fairest, not simply the Beautiful.

As those of us who are Catholics are aware, there is a new translation of the Mass coming forth in Advent of this year.  Many of us have seen examples of these changes, and I, for one, find them pleasing.  They are poetic, they are graceful, they are more accurate.  They restore to the Mass some of the subtlety and nuance that was lost in the earlier zeal to be understood at the visceral level that seemed so important forty years ago.  It is still in the vernacular, that corruptible everyday language that is born and dies with each passing generation, but here is an effort to frame the rites and prayers in more beautiful phrases that move our focus and thoughts toward the altar rather than toward ourselves.  These are important changes and will lead us to focus on important things, to call to mind that this is Christ's Sacrifice before us, His Body and Blood, His Truth and His Beauty, and all of it has been provided for our salvation, for our good.  Surely there is something to be said for wanting to convey such things in the most beautiful way possible.  Once upon a time Christ died for us, so that we could live happily ever after.  Not all beautiful stories are fairy tales.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Kissing John the Baptist and Flirting with the Lord

I've never read Oscar Wilde's Salome.

I'm sure I'm not the only person to ever say that, but I, at least, find it rather shameful.  I was an English major (the first time around) in college with a focus on British Literature, and I've read practically everything else by Wilde, and from that branched out to read his contemporaries.  We have several lovely copies of the play on our bookshelves, including a rare, privately bound copy illustrated by John Vassos.  Yet, somehow, I've never gotten around to reading this work, one of his most celebrated and one of his most reviled.

We all know the story of Salome.  The beautiful princess, stepdaughter (and niece) to King Herod, who danced for a prize considered grotesque even by his standards--the head of the prophet, John the Baptist.  In Wilde's version, Salome lusts for the prophet and is rejected, only able to sully his lips with a kiss once he is dead, his head severed from his body and brought before her on a silver shield.

Perhaps I've avoided reading the work because of my purist tendencies.  I dislike seeing Shakespeare or Opera brought into contemporary sets, the modernization of dress and emphasis, the mechanical vulgarity of our times inflicted upon the natural vulgarity of theirs. Wilde, after all, did not simply retell the Gospel version in his play.  He created his own monsters in Herod and Salome, or at least, he released them.

This is not a story that would have been flaunted in Victorian society.  In a time when table legs were decorously hidden, one didn't discuss virgins stripping themselves lasciviously before their stepfathers.  One didn't discuss lusts that carried one to kiss the lips of  dead desires.  Wilde not only chose to discuss these things, but chose to dramatize them.  Why?

Wilde lived a risqué life that is now remembered for three things:  His writing, his sexuality, and his end.   There was nothing bland about any of this.  His writing is witty and urbane.  His sexuality, frowned upon to the point of public punishment, is an acceptable vice in our world.  His end is now the acceptable prejudice, for he chose to end it by living up to his jest.  "The Catholic Church is the only one worth dying in".

What has this to do with Salome?  Here is a relationship that is against nature, that of a King who takes his brother's wife as his own while lusting for the daughter. Here is a worldly beauty, the girl herself, performing a dance that moves men beyond reason.  Here is reason, imprisoned and unheeded, silenced at last by the death of conscience in exchange for an empty promise that seemed important until it was fulfilled.  Yet, even in this final silence of death, beauty and reason kiss.

Wilde was fascinated by Beauty.  It drew him again and again toward Catholicism.  He found the ritual and formality of it appealing to him, the ultimate aesthete.  There is much that has been written and said on this subject, and I am far from the expert to expound this any further.  Yet, the corrupted beauty of Salome, so appealing in both the dance and the unveiling, dimmed before the appeal of the Prophet, John the Baptist. His voice rose from the pit, condemning the corrupted beauty, condemning the unnatural relationship, condemning the failing conscience.

Perhaps that is why I haven't read this play. We always want what we can't have, and what we shouldn't.    What woman, especially in an age so intrigued with sexuality, wouldn't like to be as beautifully enticing  as Salome?  Who wouldn't wish to be as powerful as Herod?  To give up such earthly desires is to give up an appealing wistfulness.  While I might draw the line at kissing a severed head, there are certainly earthly prizes that lure me to violate my conscience. Yet, it is Beauty that draws me back.  It is Reason, the knowledge of the ultimate loss, that lends me the strength to keep my focus on what is true and good.

It is the Church that provides this Beauty, in her chants and rituals, in her vestments and art, in the Holy Sacraments of her altars.  It is the Church that has adopted Reason to shape our conscience, to teach us how to discern the corrupted beauty from that of Truth.  It is the Church that won the heart, and mind, of Oscar Wilde in the end, long after his eyes and ears had paid Her homage, and, I have hope, it will be Wilde who is able, one day, to greet John the Baptist and Our Lord with a Holy Kiss, when the veil before him at last falls.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reluctance and Regina Caeli

"Let's leave Mary out of this.  Let's talk about Jesus.  You're okay with Jesus, right?"

With a curt nod I gave my first assent to Catholicism.  Yes, I was okay with Jesus.   I was NOT okay with the news that my husband of ten years was converting to Rome.

This was not the future I had envisioned.  I didn't believe in any of this.  They worshipped statues, and COOKIES for crying out loud.  They didn't use the same Bible.  They sprinkled babies, although I didn't mind that so much, found it rather quaint.  But, and this was the worst of it for me, they had ghastly music.

I must confess that I was brought up on the gospel music of the rural Deep South.  I knew the Sacred Harp and shape note hymns inside and out.  I was baptized into that tradition at the tender age of nine, and hold a fondness for it even now.  But, I grew up.  I met and married an Anglican, not an Episcopalian with an inclusive mentality, but a High Churchman who believed in Sacraments and the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.  As Islam believes there is no God but Allah, High Anglicans believe there is no hymnal but the 1940.  There it began, my love affair with sacred music.

Yet here I sat, arms crossed, scowling at a priest (who sounded just like Joe Pesci) as he listened to my husband explain why he wanted to become a Catholic.  He knew I didn't believe and didn't want to be there.  And so he waved my husband into silence and asked me.  "What about you?  Where are you in all this?"

My response was a rude one.  I didn't believe half of what the Church taught.  I didn't think Mary was all that and I thought confession was a private matter to be handled discreetly between the Good Lord above and the one who had "erred and strayed" from His ways "like lost sheep".  Father Kelly (of St. Patrick's, can one get any more Irish?) interrupted me,  brushing aside all but one of my objections with the words above.  "Let's leave Mary out of this. Let's talk about Jesus.  You're okay with Jesus, right?"

Somehow, he convinced me to listen a little longer.  He coaxed me into the RCIA program and quickly saw that I was beyond the basics.  High Anglicans, especially those married to men with a Masters in Apologetics, didn't need the Sacraments explained.  We didn't need to be introduced to Liturgy.  Former Baptists didn't need to be introduced to the Old Testament stories and the Roman's Road to Salvation, either.  But, I was a singer.  He had a choir.  And, God be praised, he didn't like "On Eagle's Wings."

"Tell you what, you come here for half the class, then you go over there and sing with the choir...that okay with you?"

I would have said it wasn't, but I was curious.  I had always been in a choir.  I assumed I would still be in one.  I hoped to bring my favorites with me, and being a tenacious sort, rather assumed I would eventually have the director using the "right" versions of the hymns.  So off I went, joining them for the rosary beforehand, saying only the Our Father and the Glory Be while they drifted antiphonally through the Aves, until, suddenly, I realized they weren't praying TO Mary, they were asking Mary to pray FOR them.  Then they sang:

Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae:
Vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.

I had never heard anything like this.  I wanted to learn it.  I did.  Then came the preparations for Easter, the Vidi Aquam, the Regina Caeli, the original words to "Humbly I Adore Thee".   I began to sing along with the Latin Ordinary, and in so doing, began to learn the Mass.

I made a reluctant first confession (the priest commended my obedience even as I protested too much) and was received into the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church while the choir sang above me.  As I received Our Lord for the first time, a timid soprano began the Regina Caeli, the phrases swelling as voice after voice was added in the loft above, until it sounded as if the Heavens were themselves declaring her as Queen.  I fell in love with Our Lady through the beauty of her song.  Nothing so sublime could be anything but true.

And so I am a Catholic.  I learned the prayers of the church first in singing them, understanding first their beauty as child recognizes the beauty of a lullaby, its purpose secondary until it has done its work.  The child is drawn to sleep, the singer to Truth, and I find it beautiful.