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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.