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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.