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April 2008

A Question About Guardian Angels

I have a slightly odd question which perhaps can be answered by some of you who either have a lot more theological knowledge than I do, or grew up Catholic and know bits of informal lore that I don't, or both: is it possible to pray to someone else's guardian angel? I'm thinking of the situation where you know the person in question is not doing it. Arguably it's irrelevant if you're going to pray directly to God for that person anyway, but then you could say that about all intercessory prayer to Mary, saints, and angels, not to mention the basic idea of the guardian angel. Anyway, I was wondering, and a few minutes with Google didn't give me an answer.


Sunday Night Journal — April 27, 2008

Men, Women, Sex, and Reality

Sophia blushed and half smiled; but, forcing again her brow into a frown—“If I am to judge,” said she, “of the future by the past, my image will no more remain in your heart when I am out of your sight, than it will in this glass when I am out of the room.”

“By heaven, by all that is sacred!” said Jones, “it never was out of my heart. The delicacy of your sex cannot conceive the grossness of ours, nor how little one sort of amour has to do with the heart.”

“I will never marry a man,” replied Sophia, very gravely, ”who shall not learn refinement enough to be as incapable as I am myself of making such a distinction.”

—Fielding, Tom Jones

Tom, in this scene, is trying to persuade his true love, Sophia, that his several sexual encounters with other women had nothing to do with his heart and with his love for her. Not all women are “incapable” of making the distinction to which Sophia refers, but much grief in the realm of love and marriage, and therefore in human life altogether, arises from the fact that the separation of sex from both love and procreation does come far more easily to men than to women. Try as we may to deny it in the name of equality, I am convinced that this is a fact, and one so obvious that I won’t bother to defend it.

Of course there are exceptions. Some women are physically stronger than some men, but that doesn’t change the fact that most men are physically stronger than most women. Some women treat sex like most men do; some men treat it like most women do. But the generalization holds true. As my wife put it recently, in her straightforward and succinct way: “Men don’t get how important the love part is to women.”

It makes sense that women would grasp the sex-love-children connection more readily than men; it’s built into their bodies. I think it generally takes a real (although perhaps unconscious) effort on a woman’s part (or the effects of drugs or alcohol) for her to shut out the knowledge that the man in her arms may be the father of her child, and therefore the person to whom she should be devoted, and who should be devoted to her. In any case I think it’s pretty obvious that it is generally more difficult for a woman to separate love from sex, and that it requires something like an act of self-injury for her to do it on a continuing basis. The usual result of this self-inflicted violence is anger and depression, on display among women everywhere in the modern world, especially, these days, among younger women.

I’ll go a bit further and say that the body-soul separation is not as pronounced—not as clear and severe—in women as it is in men. I’ve said before that it seems to me that women are their bodies in a way that men are not—that is, in the way they perceive themselves, the way they view their relationship to the world. And when a woman gives her body it is difficult for her not to give her heart. And when she freely gives both her heart and her body she has given her whole self, often irrevocably. I quote my wife again, describing the life of a friend whose whole life was affected by what could be described as the gravitational pull of an early love affair in which she gave all: “It didn’t mean much to him, but to her it meant everything.”

And although it opens the woman to heartbreak, this is the way it ought to be; in this respect woman’s instincts are more healthy and whole, less fallen, closer to what God intends, than man’s. A man is more likely to feel his body as something separate from him, something he inhabits. It is generally easier for him to treat sex as a pure physical pleasure, not only without commitment but quite possibly without any affection at all. And if a child is conceived there is no physical reason why he can’t walk away from the situation, or indeed why he should even know that it has occurred. (I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that women are not as capable as men of using sex in a dishonest, exploitative, and generally sinful way; they certainly are, but it’s usually in a different and more complex way than men.)

So from a very worldly point of view it might seem that men have an easier time, and that the simple biology of being human is unfair to women.

But that’s a superficial way of looking at it. The spiritual reality is the same for both men and women, and one day men will see it. They—I guess I had better say “we”—we will see that every sexual act involved our souls, whether we knew it or not. Our biological good fortune creates an illusion: we are like people who can’t feel pain, and so can suffer terrible injuries without realizing it. The damage is done whether we feel it or not, and greater than it might have been had our senses told us of the danger. The burned fingers no longer grasp; the broken leg no longer supports.

This is another example of the truth Jesus keeps trying to get us to understand, with only limited success: that the way we see things is not the way God sees them, and that in fact the two may be directly opposed—the first shall be last, and the last shall be first; the one who suffers most is given most. Men may scorn as weak the vulnerable heart of the woman, and think ourselves strong because we don’t feel the same pain; we may be pleased that sex is a thing we do, not a gift of our essential being. But we bring a curse upon ourselves:

you will say That
is a dead thing

and you will be talking about the entry
to a chamber of your heart

you will say of that door
It is a thing

and you will be speaking of your heart

—W. S. Merwin, “A Door”


Music of the Week: El Perro del Mar

El Perro del Mar (self-titled)

Well, here’s a Swedish girl with a Spanish pseudonym (meaning “dog of the sea,” I’m told, or maybe just “sea dog”) singing in English in a distinctly American style. One track from this album, “God Knows,” was offered as a free track on eMusic, and on the strength of that, and a good review, I downloaded the whole album.

It’s a pretty slight affair, ten songs in thirty-three minutes, and most of the songs themselves are slight to a fault. El Perro is a good, rather mournful singer, and there’s a lot of potential here, but although the songs are tuneful and very nicely arranged most of them are too simple and repetitive to maintain my interest. Musical repetition is ok in pop music, up to a point, lyrical repetition less so for me. Many of these songs have both, with the result that at an average of three minutes each, some of them still seem to go on too long. Here, for instance, is the complete lyric for “Dog”, as best I can make it out:

All the feeling you got for me
Is that for a dog
Oh what a feeling
Oh what a feeling for a dog

The album has a saving grace, though, in the vocal arrangements. I’m not sure who first had the idea of giving a minor, melancholy, nostalgic twist to “shoobeedoowop.” “sha-la-la,” and other nonsense vocalizations of ‘50s and early ‘60s girl-group pop. The first time I remember hearing it was in the chorus of Eurhythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again.” The masterpiece of this bent-nostalgia sound, at least as far as I know, is Julee Cruise’s Floating Into the Night, one of my very favorite albums, although there it’s done more with instruments than with vocals. El Perro del Mar gets into that territory often enough on this album that anyone who’s susceptible to its appeal will find something to like in it.

Here’s the album, with samples. She also has a new album, From the Valley to the Stars, which certainly looks interesting (read the review), but I haven’t sampled it yet. And here’s the artist’s web site.


More Ultravox

It’s clear that I need to find time very soon to sort my non-classical LPs so I can locate the Ultravox ones—these videos I’m finding on YouTube have me really wanting to get reacquainted with them. Here are a few more that anyone who liked “Vienna” may also enjoy.

I wouldn’t rate Ultravox as great lyricists, but they came up with evocative images and phrases very well-suited to their sound and general ambience. We were talking here not long ago about the yearning that’s a prominent feature of so much pop music; well, you can sure hear it in these songs, especially the last one.

Two more from the Vienna album; first, “Passing Strangers,” with not too bad a video:

Moments caught across an empty room...
Hope turns to dust, shattered by light

And the haunting “Mr. X”:

Perhaps he died in a car crash years ago...
I’ve got a funny feeling I know who he is

And from Lament, which I think is overall not quite as good an album as Vienna, one of my very favorite Uvox songs, “One Small Day.” This is one that really needs to be kind of loud, but the audio volume on this clip is lower than on the others, so you may want to turn it up a bit:

One day
Where I didn’t die a thousand times
Where I could satisfy this life of mine
One small day
One day
Where every hour could be a joy to me
And live a life the way it's meant to be
One small day


Because of the Hardening of Their Heads

...Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts...

So Jesus addressed his people on the subject of divorce. But reading some of our prominent critics of religion makes me think it’s their heads that are the problem; no matter how intelligent and reasonable they may be on some subjects, their minds seem to be impermeable to very straightforward ideas where religion is concerned.

For instance, there’s John Derbyshire’s bizarre complaint on National Review Online a couple of days ago that Benedict XVI is somehow hypocritical or fraudulent when he speaks against moral relativism.

Derb (as they call him) is frustrating. On certain subjects he’s an interesting and sometimes delightful writer. His National Review column, “The Straggler,” is almost always a fine, graceful, wry commentary on the small things of life; one of the better things in the magazine, in fact. But on religion, and especially on Catholicism, toward which he clearly has a residual Anglo-Protestant hostility even though he is no longer even a Christian, he is often strikingly dense. In this case he is unable to grasp that the pope is discussing the question of whether there are absolute moral principles, and the implications of believing that there are none. Derbyshire not only fails to understand this, which should be clear to any person of reasonable intelligence and reading skill, but attacks it with startling irrelevancies that indicate an inability to grasp the difference between physical science and philosophy. The exchange starts here, and then he digs the hole deeper here. (There is some attempt at rebuttal by a couple of other NR writers, but it doesn't get anywhere; see the archives for April 21 and after if you want to try to follow the argument.)

This is a man who has written well-regarded books on mathematics. Yet here he seems to believe that difficulty in knowing and agreeing upon universal moral principles somehow makes assertion of their existence meaningless and hypocritical. The fallacy in this should be obvious to anyone who can think logically. Derbyshire is certainly capable of thinking logically. Therefore something else is at work in preventing him from doing so in this case.

And then there’s Christopher Hitchens. I’ve enjoyed his literary criticism in The Atlantic for some time, but he says such ignorant things about Christianity with such apparent confidence that I can no longer assume that he is speaking in good faith about anything, and will probably not bother reading him in the future: if he tells me Evelyn Waugh said this, or George Orwell believed that, what grounds do I have for supposing that he isn’t just ranting ignorantly, just as he does about religion? Why should I assume that he has intellectual integrity on one subject and not another?

Of course, in spite of the title of this post, I think it does begin in the heart. And it’s an amusing irony, if you care to be amused, that two men who pride themselves on the purity of their reason seem to be so driven by something else where religion is concerned.



Since a Beowulf discussion has sprung up on the immediately preceding thread, and since I just read it and have been meaning to post a note on it anyway, I’ll go ahead and do it now.

I borrowed the Norton Critical Edition from my daughter, who had recently read it for a college course. It includes the Seamus Heaney translation, which is apparently very well-regarded, as well as a number of critical essays and informational notes, including Tolkien’s famous essay (well, “famous” among Tolkien fans, anyway), “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” I deliberately ignored all the apparatus and started reading the poem, not wanting to be prejudiced or encumbered by someone else’s views.

I read Tolkien’s essay immediately after the poem, and was sorry I hadn’t read it first, because if I had I would not have embarrassed myself by falling straight into exactly the shallow reading which Tolkien was determined to correct: to wit, that it’s an odd, aimless poem consisting of a Big Scene, some not particularly relevant lore, and another Big Scene. I won’t try to summarize Tolkien’s argument, which is complex, but I found it persuasive.

However, no amount of abstract demonstration that a poem is good can change the fact that one did not much respond to it. And I think that has to do with Heaney’s translation. I understand—again, abstractly—why it’s considered a good one. But I don’t find much music in it. I’m going to try another translation that maybe attempts to capture more of the archaic dignity that I know must be there.

I’m really struck by how much Tolkien was indebted to Beowulf and, I assume, early Northern literature in general, including, as Ryan mentioned in the other discussion, lifting the whole dragon-guarding-the-hoard story (in The Hobbit) straight out of the poem. And I’m suddenly extremely interested in the lore and history of the period, of which there are tantalizing glimpses in this edition. I really want to learn more, and also want to find that web site I linked to in a comment a few weeks ago which has someone reading the poem aloud in Old English.


Sunday Night Journal — April 20, 2008

Apes With Violins

I suppose the most famous mathematical equation in history is E=mc2, Einstein’s matter-energy equivalence which states that the quantity of energy, E, equivalent to a given mass, m, is the product of m and the square of c, the speed of light. Even if you use one of the larger units, miles per second, for c (the one most of us in the English-speaking world learned in school), c2 is 34,596,000,000. In meters per second, it’s 89,875,517,873,681,764.

Still, a number, especially a very big one, is only a number, and an equation is only an equation, until something makes you really see what they really mean. This equation describes the amount of energy released in nuclear fission relative to the amount of matter involved. And it’s one thing to know the equation, but quite another to contemplate the power of the atomic bomb.

As a Catholic, I believe that sex, love, marriage, and procreation are meant to be so tightly connected as to be aspects of a single thing. But like everyone else I see them separated all the time, and like many or most people I have separated them at times in my own life. I’m accustomed to the sight of it.

But recently, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I’ve come to see that connection in a way I never had before. I don’t mean that I’ve seen more reasons why the connection should be maintained, or that I’ve seen the practical harm that is done by the separation of sex from love and from childbearing and of all three from marriage. The problems caused by divorce, sexual “liberation,” etc. are everywhere, and only a fool would pretend they aren’t serious.

But that’s not what I mean. I mean I now see the separation itself, apart from any worldly consequences, as a sort of shocking mutilation, like the severing of a limb from the body. People learn to live with the loss of a limb, of course, and once it’s healed and the person has adjusted as well as possible its absence may be less startling, but the action of severing remains appalling. And I’m now walking around in a world where this action is celebrated.

As you might imagine, this makes me pretty uncomfortable in our sex-saturated culture. Here’s one example of the effect. My long-time music supplier Robert recently gave me a copy of The Trumpet Child, a cd by the pop group Over the Rhine. It’s a very good album, but a lot of the songs are sexual come-ons, directed by the woman who is the band’s main vocalist to a male who isn’t named or described, and I find that this really interferes with my enjoyment of them. I have to think of the woman as intending the songs for her husband in order not to hear them as saying something comparable to “Let’s get blind drunk and drive west in the eastbound lanes of the interstate.” (My mental revision may in fact be justified: the core of the band consists of the singer and her husband, who together write most of the songs. But you don’t learn this from the songs themselves.)

This is not puritanism. You’ll just have to take my word on this, but neither puritanism nor prudery has ever been a problem for me. Nor does it mean that I have suddenly become immensely virtuous, and immune to all the sexual temptations that have been part of my life since I was twelve or so; nothing has changed in that respect except perhaps my distress at the disorder of my own soul.

No, it’s rather a sense of the tragic distance between what should be in this realm and what is. It’s as if I have finally received the vision of what sex (using the term broadly) ought to be, and it is such a splendid thing that our misuse of it seems horrible and tragic, a continuing disaster comparable to our propensity for war. I see that one reason sex is so important is that it is the most profound manifestation of the most profound fact about us: that we are a union of body and soul. We’re not animals with a consciousness that is only a more complex version of an animal’s emotional and sensory life. We’re not angels who inhabit and control a body the way a driver inhabits and controls a car. We are an indivisible union, but unfortunately no longer a well-ordered one; we are always tipping over toward the animal or the angel. Erotic love, which is a union of spiritual and physical love, is the most profound expression of this most profound fact, but also the most delicate. When we separate love and marriage from sex we separate soul and body—which of course is a way of saying that we kill, or die.

The admonitions against fornication and adultery represent only the absolute bare minimum of what we should not do; they hardly even touch what we should do and, even more, what we should be. For to be what we should be, and were meant to be, we would have to be something we are not: unfallen.

Hearing the talk and the music, watching the TV shows and movies which treat sex as a trivial pleasure have become for me like watching a chimpanzee with a Stradivarius. The ape may find it amusing for a few minutes. He may even pluck or strum the strings and get a certain crude pleasure from the sound. But sooner or later, probably sooner, he will smash the instrument to pieces, and it’s an appalling thing to see.

One thing I can say in slight defense of our species is that the female generally has a better grasp of these things than the male, although she certainly has problems of her own. More on that next week.


Music of the Week: Pergolesi - Stabat Mater

I’ve known that this piece is considered one of the highlights of baroque religious music, but had not heard it until recently when my daughter told me she was going to be singing in a performance of it by her college chorus. I downloaded this version from eMusic so I could hear it a couple of times before the concert. It’s a wonderful work, although to modern ears accustomed to Romantic passion and Modernist bleakness, it may seem more sweet than sorrowful, even almost happy—as Clare put it, bouncy— in parts (e.g. the 4th section, “Quae maerebat et doleba”).

Non-Catholics and/or non-classical music fans may not recognize the title; “Stabat mater” is the opening phrase of a traditional Latin poem depicting Mary at the foot of the cross. It’s been set to music a lot. See here for the text and its traditional English translation, which I think is, to be blunt, very bad as a poem, and very loose as a translation. There’s a link on that page to a literal translation.

I can’t really comment very specifically on the quality of this performance, except to say that it seems very good to me. And Clare’s performance went very well, thanks: she had a solo in section 10, “Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,” and sang beautifully.

But wait a minute. I just went looking for a recording on YouTube, and the one I found provokes some thoughts about performances. As a fairly casual listener, I’m aware that there has been an argument for some years now between those who believe baroque and earlier music should be performed on instruments of the period and with various differences in technique, such as little or no string vibrato, and those who think earlier music is only enhanced by the technical improvements made since that time. I’ve never had an opinion on that question. But the recording I’ve been listening to is in the period style, whereas the one in the YouTube video below is, if I am not totally off base, more contemporary and romantic. And I must say it grabbed and moved me immediately in a way that the first did not. Just listen to the 30-second sample of the first movement at the eMusic link above and you’ll hear the difference.


“No One Can Avoid This”

Following a link on Eve Tushnet’s blog to this Godspy article about The Weakerthans, a band of whom I know nothing, I find this striking paragraph from John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio:

The truth comes initially to the human being as a question: Does life have a meaning? Where is it going? At first sight, personal existence may seem completely meaningless. It is not necessary to turn to the philosophers of the absurd or to the provocative questioning found in the Book of Job in order to have doubts about life’s meaning. The daily experience of suffering—in one’s own life and in the lives of others—and the array of facts which seem inexplicable to reason are enough to ensure that a question as dramatic as the question of meaning cannot be evaded.

Moreover, the first absolutely certain truth of our life, beyond the fact that we exist, is the inevitability of our death. Given this unsettling fact, the search for a full answer is inescapable. Each of us has both the desire and the duty to know the truth of our own destiny. We want to know if death will be the definitive end of our life or if there is something beyond—if it is possible to hope for an after-life or not. It is not insignificant that the death of Socrates gave philosophy one of its decisive orientations, no less decisive now than it was more than two thousand years ago. It is not by chance, then, that faced with the fact of death philosophers have again and again posed this question, together with the question of the meaning of life and immortality. No-one can avoid this questioning, neither the philosopher nor the ordinary person.

As I may have mentioned before, I didn’t think there would be another pope in my lifetime whom I would like as much as I did John Paul II, and was prepared to be disappointed by his successor. If only for more or less temperamental reasons, I actually like Benedict a little better; he often seems a bit more precise and clear than John Paul, and I like that. And I think he’s one of the outstanding spirits of our time. But as this quotation reminds me, the same was true of John Paul.

I pause in my contemplation of this wisdom to wonder why the Vatican’s web site seems to go out of its way to make these texts difficult to read.


Ultravox: Vienna

This song is from one of my very favorite pop music albums, Vienna by Ultravox (1980). In general I hate music videos, and rarely watch one all the way through; if I want to hear the music, I look at something else while the video plays. But I rather like this one. There are places and stories in my imagination that look a lot like the street scenes here (not the interior scenes, especially). (Romantic? Who, me?)

I found two distinct versions on YouTube, one in mixed color and black-and-white:

And one in more or less black-and-white throughout which may just be a very murky version of the color one:

I would prefer it entirely in black-and-white, if it were really sharp. But you can see a lot more in the first one.


New Light

Of course you don’t need me to tell you about the pope’s visit, but there’s one thing in his speech at the White House that I want to note:

[The Church] is convinced that faith sheds new light on all things, and that the Gospel reveals the noble vocation and sublime destiny of every man and woman.

It’s almost strange to me that after almost thirty years as a Catholic—years which have included times when I was sick of the Church and of most of my fellow Catholics and thought I might be happy to dump the whole thing, but knew that I never would because, in the end, it’s the Church or darkness, and I had long before chosen against darkness—the Faith is to me a flower that never stops blooming.

What I always want to say to people who don’t or can’t or won’t believe is that to live in the Faith is to live in a different and better world. In this new light everything is different: you are not just an odd unusually intelligent animal which will soon die and be forgotten, but a unique combination of body and soul created to know perfect love and joy; your life is not a meaningless succession of incidents, but a grand story; the universe is not a bunch of atoms zooming around in emptiness but the product of Thought inconceivably great. And that all this is not a happy fantasy, but a fact; it would not truly be better if it were only a dream. The world to which the Faith provides entry is in reality a better world, because the Faith is true. No, I can’t prove it. But there is more evidence for it than you might think. Much of it is already there, in your heart.

(Thanks to Amy Welborn for the full text of the speech.)

(Re-reading the above, I ask myself why I don’t say “God” instead of “Church”; it’s because I know that I can only know God in and through the Church, and in the end I can’t really separate them.)


Sunday Night Journal — April 13, 2008

Sin, Memory, and Purgatory

Human kind cannot bear very much reality.


“I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains adamant. At last—memory yields.


I’ve thought for a long time that part of the pain of purgatory might be the pain of seeing one’s sins for what they really are. If that’s true, I wonder if I may have begun my purgatory—if, as I pray, such is indeed my fate—early. For the past year or so some of the more egregious sins of my early life have been forcing themselves into my attention, and I’ve experienced directly the conflict described by Nietzsche, though with a different result.

The recognition, the reaction, and the partial resolution come in stages. First there is a sharp intense pain and dismay at recognizing what I really did. This may be something like what one would feel after having carelessly, but culpably, caused an auto accident that killed someone: No—that can’t be true—I know I shouldn’t have been speeding but I never meant to hurt anyone—it can’t really have been my fault—that person can’t really be dead.

Next come sorrow, regret, and remorse. These lead directly to a desperate imperative to undo what was done, and to be given another chance not to do it. The only time I can recall having felt so urgent a need to go back in time and try again was eight or ten years ago when my wife fell off a ladder and broke her leg very badly. I noticed in the days immediately following the accident that I couldn’t get rid of the idea that it must be possible to undo it, to rewind the tape, so to speak, and then change the part where the ladder fell—to make the ladder more stable, or to make her fall in a different and less damaging way. I knew it was impossible, yet the sense that it must be possible didn’t dissipate for several weeks. And in that case I had no personal responsibility or blame, the presence of which only increases the sense of desperation. (Well, no direct responsibility—a co-worker pointed out that I, not she, should have been on the ladder painting the eaves in the first place.)

Then comes a sort of painful calm, when the fact and the irreversibility of the events have been accepted, and accounting must be made. This is something like an autopsy and something like a legal trial: analysis of exactly what was done, and determination of guilt. Of course I always look for something that will remove the blame from me—something in the circumstances, some congenital weakness in myself over which I have no control and for which I am not to blame, some bit of knowledge which I lacked (if only I had known…) and which, being known, would have changed my course. At this stage I think often of one of my favorite Leonard Cohen lyrics:

I told my mother, “Mother, I must leave you.
Preserve my room but do not shed a tear.
Should rumors of a shabby ending reach you
It was half my fault and half the atmosphere.”

—“The Traitor,” from Recent Songs

But even if I manage to put part of the blame on the world and the times, in the end there is always the inner voice saying You knew what you were doing. You knew you were ignoring the voice of conscience, and you did such a good job that you can almost, but not quite, pretend you didn’t hear it. No one forced you. You could have done otherwise. The fact that you didn’t foresee all the outcome does not mean you lacked the knowledge not to have done it.

I can well imagine that without the promise of forgiveness and redemption and healing—not just of myself, but of everyone affected—without the promise that All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, this would be intolerable, and one would always resort to the lie described by Nietzsche: this is not true. The only reason it’s not hell is that there is a way out.

In saying that this might be the beginning of purgatory for me, I don’t mean to imply that I think it can be finished in this life. I’m speaking here of things that happened forty or so years ago; the reckoning for today will always be yet to come, right up until the final moment—and of course the punishment, although I do think this sort of knowledge is a kind of recompense in itself.


Music of the Week: Elgar - The Dream of Gerontius

I had planned to give this work some serious attention during Lent, an intention which was only partially executed. It’s roughly 90 minutes long, and a stretch of uninterrupted time of that length is pretty hard to find for me. But I didn’t want to break it up. Moreover, its wide dynamic range makes it unsuited to listening in the car. Eventually I did hear it through several times in fairly big pieces, the last time on my iPod while I watered some newly laid sod. That actually was a rather memorable experience. It was the week after Easter, everything was green, and the weather was cool and sweet, sunny with a light breeze: a day that encouraged the belief that the gateway from this world to the next is not so remote, in any sense, as we (or at least I) generally think.

I would think that any non-believer who took the trouble to listen to Gerontius attentively would consider it a very good work. For a believer, it may be a great one. I didn’t think so at first, but it grew on me. Since I’m trying to keep these brief reviews even briefer, I’ll direct you to this sympathetic Wikipedia article for a detailed description, and I’ll mention just a few things that struck me:

  • The prelude is, minute for minute, as beautiful a piece of orchestral writing as anything from the late 19th century (within my less-than-exhaustive knowledge). Only the fact that it doesn’t actually stop, but blends seamlessly into the opening words of Gerontius, keeps it from being a great concert piece.
  • The priest’s blessing and sending of the dying man’s soul at its departure (“Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul!”) is about as good a musical and verbal representation of what a shepherd of souls ought to be like as I can imagine. You can imagine that when this guy tells devils to buzz off, they do.
  • The moment of judgment is unforgettable.
  • There are a few weaknesses that are in part also weaknesses of the poem. It’s not quite convincing that the words of a dying man would carefully and explicitly touch a series of theological bases; if he were reciting the Creed, yes, but not in his spontaneous words. It’s more noticeable here than in the poem because you feel like the music is having trouble carrying the words.
  • One who believes that what is depicted here is basically factual, even though the details are invented, may find that some passages bring tears.

The recording I have is this one by the Bournemouth Symphony and Chorus. I can’t say there’s anything wrong with it, yet I also can’t help feeling that it could be better, that there’s a bit of something missing, and so am interested in hearing another.

Here is what I said about the poem a couple of months ago.


Our Noisy but Reclusive Neighbor

Often heard, seldom seen. There are several of them in the woods nearby and sometimes they start hooting steadily at each other (arguments? love songs? who knows?). A few days ago my wife and I were out in the yard around sunset and heard him (her?) from much closer than usual. She managed to figure out where he (she?) was and get this picture. The distance actually was a good deal greater than it may appear—she zoomed in a good bit, and the picture has been cropped some.

(Click for larger image)

Once in a while, outside at night, I’ve had one fly fairly low overhead. It’s very spooky, because they’re absolutely silent in flight, and somehow I just instinctively expect something that big (wingspan maybe 3 feet/1 meter) to make some kind of sound.


"We Know How to Suffer, We Know How to Love"

I’ve just watched a segment of EWTN's “Journey Home” program which featured Rosalind Moss, a Jewish convert who, at the age of 65, is about to start a new order of nuns. She’s wonderful, inspiring in many ways. One thing that particularly struck me was her response to a caller who wondered if she (the caller) was too old to consider a religious commitment. Moss gave her a great little rhapsody on the spiritual benefits of age, which included the sentence quoted above. It confirmed much that I’ve been thinking and feeling for some time now, a strong sense of entering a new phase of spiritual as well as physical life, a paradoxical sense of becoming spiritually younger as my body ages, getting ready for the birth that is death.

Being able to suffer and being able to love are connected. I can’t claim that I really know how to love yet, but I can say for certain that I’m far more capable of it than I was at nineteen.


Sunday Night Journal — April 6, 2008

Daniel Dennett: Wrong About God, Wrong About Man

Daniel Dennett, the well-known evangelizer for atheism, recently made a prediction which may be the most thoroughly mistaken one I’ve ever encountered. Anybody can be wrong about future events, and most people are. But Dennett is wrong about fundamental facts in the here-and-now.

He predicts that religion will soon disappear, and that humanity will proceed to a golden future ruled by what he calls “reason,” by which he means a philosophy of materialism. You can read his case here (and thanks to Mark Shea for the link). I’ll note only what seems to me the most fatuous element in it: the notion that religion is a vice comparable to smoking, and the expectation that information, propaganda, and social pressure will shortly (within twenty-five years) render it as unpopular as smoking. It would be more accurate to compare religion to sex, and to consider the former as likely to disappear as the latter.

Does Dennett really think that unbelief is new, and that exposure to science automatically induces it? Does he really believe that indoctrinating young people in it will crush, within a generation, the human desire for the Absolute? Does he think that no one has ever lost his faith by ignorance and regained it by learning, or lost it by emotion and regained it by reason? Does he think atheism has languished only because no one has ever considered its arguments? Does he, in short, understand anything at all about the human soul? But then he presumably believes that it doesn’t exist, so I suppose he shouldn’t be expected to understand it.

The whole essay is indicative of the fundamental shallowness of much atheist thinking. Even if you think religion is a bad thing, if you also think it’s simply a habit that can be easily dispelled by Dennett’s narrow-minded “reason,” you simply don’t know much about mankind.

Religion is a near-constant in human life, in history and in the present day. Very few societies lack some conception of a spiritual reality and of our relation to it. Even if you think this only proves that most people are fools, you have to contend with that fact and its persistence; to think that people will cease being what they are is even more foolish.

And if you look at the world as a whole, only a very small percentage of individuals are willing to accept the pure materialist dogma of Dennett and his friends. Most people, when pressed, reveal that in their hearts, if not in their intellects, they believe that there is something in the human person that is more than the body and that cannot be explained in terms of material cause and effect—not just believe, I should say, but rather know. It is a conviction that can be suppressed and denied but in the long run is not easily shaken or escaped.

All of religion follows from this conviction, this knowledge. No one, as Mark Shea has pointed out, believes in “religion;” he believes in a specific religion. And specific religions may indeed come and go; they have in fact come and gone. And some have more truth in them than others. But mankind will cease to be religious only when it ceases to be at all.

We Christians may be wrong in our faith. Maybe there is no God. Maybe the doctrines of the Church are only human inventions. But we understand the human soul far more deeply than the materialist does. We understand its desire and its fear, its love and its loneliness, its goodness and its corruption; we know that it longs to see the face of God, and that it is desperately wicked. There is not a greater body of psychological insight in existence than that produced by the teachers and poets of Christendom.

That Christianity is right about man doesn’t necessarily mean that it is also right about God, but the possibility does suggest itself. It’s hard to say whether Dennett is wrong about man because he is wrong about God, or vice versa.


Music of the Week: Philip Glass - Symphony No. 3

I once got sick after eating Mexican food, and it was a couple of years before I could even stand the smell of it (happily, that did not last). I was the same way about Philip Glass’s music for a while. I got off to a bad start with him by listening to The Photographer when I had a headache. The ever-shifting staccato rhythms became the very sound of the headache, and established an aversion that lasted for a couple of years. I did eventually get over that, but still didn’t really like him very much unti I heard this symphony performed by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (for whom it was written) ten years or so ago. I wasn’t expecting much, but I soon found myself caught up in it and in the end was enchanted. It was like a swift voyage on a troubled, but not stormy, grey sea.

I didn’t hear it again till recently, and I find that it’s as good as or better than I remembered. I love it, in fact. I haven’t heard all of Glass’s music by any means, but surely this must be at or near the top of his work. I think it ends a bit abruptly, but aside from that it strikes me as the perfection of his style.

The recording I’ve been listening to is this excellent one by Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony. It’s as taut and rich as I remember the Stuttgart group being.


Music of the Week Resumes

When I dropped this for Lent I wasn’t sure that I would pick it up again, as it had become something of a burden. But I think I’ll give it another try. Part of the burden was that I had, more or less arbitrarily, decided to write and post it along with the Sunday journal. Now I'm not going to fix it to any particular day of the week, but will probably post it sometime late in the week. I also intend to keep it brief.

Those who read it regularly will notice that I’ve changed the format a bit, putting the name of the piece (album, whatever) in the title of the post instead of the date. This is much more informative, and is also an experiment: I’ve noticed in my blog statistics for some time now that when the title of a post is straightforwardly representative of its contents, Google seems to direct people to it more often. I’ll be trying to do that on most of my posts now, if only out of curiosity.


An Excellent Twelfth Night

Last night we watched this 1996 film version, directed by Trevor Nunn, of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and my wife and I both thought it was wonderful (we don’t always agree). It’s very lavishly produced, almost to a fault—one could argue that it’s overdone, but for me the richness of it succeeds very well in creating an atmosphere which is not really of this world but isn’t too far off, either. I can’t imagine what thought process led Nunn to use a 19th century English setting, but it works beautifully.

The word “Mozartean” comes to mind: it’s lyrical and poignant, but with a certain quickness and an underlying joyousness, even in the scenes of sadness and conflict—all of which fits this play perfectly, in my opinion.The acting is all very fine, with Ben Kingsley’s oddly grave Feste likely to become permanently fixed in my mind as the real one.