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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.