As is fairly usual with me, I started off pretty well with Lent and gradually got slacker and lazier. I'm going to make an effort during Holy Week to attend more to the occasion. It seems especially important this year since I can't actually go to Mass. So I won't be posting anymore till Monday April 13. I'll still participate in conversations, if there are any, but there won't be any new posts.
Today for the first time since public Masses were cancelled I watched one on television. As I said in a comment here a couple of weeks or so ago, a televised Mass just seems all wrong to me in some fundamental way that I haven't made the effort to articulate. I don't mean religiously wrong, just off. Unreal. Weird. But I have already noticed a tendency on my part to start drifting without the anchor of weekly Mass (and also in my case a weekly holy hour--which I still do at home but of course it's not the same). I keep thinking of what Janet said about the Japanese Christians who held on to the faith for...what was it?...250 years without priests, and I'm ashamed.
(I think this is relevant to all Christians, not only Catholics but at least those whose communions have a liturgy, and worth the attention of those who don't. Or for that matter anyone who cares about the Western musical and spiritual tradition.)
Since you can't go to Mass today, probably, allow me to suggest that you listen to one of the great musical settings of the Latin Mass. One of my Lenten things this year--I can't truly call it much of a penance, but "discipline" is justifiable--is to confine my listening to sacred music. So far that's mostly been settings of the Mass, and, if you do this attentively--not just playing it in the background while you cook or wash the dishes or something--it's more or less inevitable that you will attend very carefully to the words and reflect on them.
So far I've mainly spent time with Bach's Mass in B-Minor, which of course I had heard before, having bought one recording way back in the late '60s (I think) and another in the '80s, but never really gotten to know. It takes a bit of effort, as the work is something of a monster. It requires somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours to perform, depending on the conductor, and was never performed in Bach's lifetime. And if you're like me you may have trouble listening to two straight hours of non-operatic music (opera has a plot, and characters). But that's ok. The Kyrie and Gloria together run well over half an hour, the Credo most of a half-hour. And each of those sections is a complete musical work as well as theological statement.
My two recordings are pretty much opposite interpretations. You can gather that from the running times: two hours and fifteen minutes for one, an hour and forty-five for the other. The slow one is the one I bought when I was in college: Otto Klemperer, the BBC Chorus, the New Philharmonia Orchestra, and an all-star group of vocal soloists including Janet Baker. The faster one is John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists, and vocal soloists whose names I don't recognize (not that that means much, except that they aren't superstars). (I don't know why an orchestra calls itself "Soloists".)
The Klemperer is rich and majestic. The Gardiner is clear and lively. The former is, to speak very loosely, more or less in the more or less romantic tradition of Bach performance, while the latter is pretty much a textbook example of what's called the "HIP" approach--Historically Informed Performance. (You can read about it at Wikipedia.) I think the two camps have at times been at war over the past several decades. I know some traditionalists hate the thinner, drier sound of period instruments, and some HIPsters mock the grandiosity of Mahler-ready orchestras and choruses applied to 18th century music.
But I am very happy to have both these recordings. Very happy indeed. The traditional recording brings greater depth (in every sense) to some parts, but the big powerful choir and orchestra sometimes overwhelm the counterpoint or just seem inappropriate, too much. The HIP one is wonderfully clear, but the more somber, heavier parts have less emotional power.
Thanks to YouTube, you can compare them for yourself. Yesterday I listened to the Laudate section of the Gloria four times, twice in each version. (The work is so massive that each idea or sentence in the text gets its own separate composition.) And I really like both. This is one part where there is, to my taste, no definite preference. I really like the light, bright quality of the Gardiner. The singer, compared to Janet Baker, sounds almost girlish, which for this section is appropriate, as is the sprightly tempo. But the violin obbligato, which is beautiful in the Klemperer, is anemic in the Gardiner. And so on.
I'm speaking as if you only have to take your recording off the shelf and put it on. But if you don't own one maybe you subscribe to one of the streaming music services. Or you can listen to one of the many recordings, whole or partial, that seem to be available on YouTube. If your knowledge of the Latin texts is no better than mine, and you don't own a recording which would typically include the texts, you'll probably need something you can read. You could start here and find the parts.
Men have always known that something was wrong with human existence; that everywhere stupidity, injustice, deception and violence were at work. Consequently there was always the feeling that someday things must be set right and fulfilled. Some expected this clarification to come from human history itself: humanity by its own powers would fight its way through to a kind of divine existence. Let us allow this hope to die a natural death; it is flagrantly contrary not only to Revelation and Christian thinking, but also to the conclusions that must be drawn from a single honest glance at reality.
--Romano Guardini, The Lord
I admit that there's a part of me which is sympathetic to nihilism when it opposes sentimentality of the "arc of history" sort.
It is as though humanity were one of those enormous ocean liners that is a world in itself: apparatuses for the most varied purposes; collecting place for all kinds of passengers and crew with their responsibilities and accomplishments, passions, tensions, struggles. Suddenly someone appears on board and says: What each of you is doing is important, and you are right to try to perfect your efforts. I can help you, but not by changing this or that on your ship, it is your course that is wrong; you are steering straight for destruction.
Christ does not step into the row of great philosophers with a better philosophy; or of the moralists with a purer morality; or of the religious geniuses to conduct man deeper into the mysteries of life; he came to tell us that our whole existence, with all its philosophy and ethics and religion, its economics, art, and nature, is leading us away from God and into the shoals. He wants to help us swing the rudder back into the divine direction, and to give us the necessary strength to hold that course. Any other appreciation of Christ is worthless. if this is not valid, then every man for himself; let him choose whatever guide seems trustworthy, and possibly Goethe or Plato or Buddha is a better leader than what remains of a Jesus Christ whose central purpose and significance have been plucked from him.
Subtitled "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." If you were paying much attention to music in the early 1990s, you probably were aware of it, even if you weren't especially interested in contemporary classical music. This recording was something of a crossover hit:
You can read all about the piece itself and its fortunes, especially the fortunes of this recording, at Wikipedia. I bought it, though it must have been somewhat after its heyday, because I don't think I had a CD player in 1992. And I have to confess that I didn't really listen to it very closely. I thought "Well, that's nice (in a slow-moving, almost ambient sort of way)," and was glad that so many people were drawn to it, and at least not put off by its religious imagery. I also confess that I heard a couple of dismissive critical opinions and thought perhaps those critics might have a point, that it is fundamentally a bit on the dull side, and probably over-rated. This idea got a further grip on me because I listened to it in the car, where some significant portions of it are inaudible.
Rob G mentioned here recently that a new recording in which Beth Gibbons (of the band Portishead) is the soprano will be released soon. As I said in that discussion, I can't imagine her singing it. I mean, I guess as classical vocal music goes this is probably not the most demanding, but I would think singers who aren't trained that way would find it pretty difficult.
Anyway, that conversation caused me to put the CD on, sit in a chair, and listen attentively. And I hereby renounce all my reservations. This is a beautiful, powerful work. I'll leave it to the listeners and critics of the future to decide on its true and permanent place in the scheme of musical things, but I think it's extremely good.
It always seems a little weird to select and recommend music for Lent. Silence is probably more fitting. But if you do want to hear some appropriate music, this certainly qualifies.
Seeing is more than indifferently reflecting (as a mirror reflects all that passes within range). It is a vital process that directly affects our lives. To see, perceive, means to receive into oneself, to submit to the influence of things, to place oneself within their grasp. Necessarily, the will mounts guard over the vision. One protection against precarious things is to look at them sharply, so as to discover their weaknesses; another is to look away, so as to remain unaffected by them. On the whole, we see what we choose to see; the selectiveness of the individual eye is a protective measure of life itself. This being true already on the natural plane, how much truer it is on the spiritual, with its cognizance of others, of the positions we take to the truths and demands thrust upon us. To see another human being as he really is means to lay ourselves open to his influence. Thus when fear or dislike moves us to avoid him, this reaction is already evident in our gaze; the eye caricaturizes him, stifling the good, heightening the bad. We discern his intentions, make swift comparisons, and leap to conclusions. All this proceeds involuntarily, if not unconsciously (in which case our powers of distortion, uncurbed by reason, do their worst). Seeing is a protective service to the will to live. The deeper our fear or distaste of a person, the more tightly we close our eyes to him, until finally we are incapable of perception or the profound German word for it, Wahrnehmen: reception-of-truth. Then we have become blind to that particular person. This mysterious process lies behind every enmity. Discussion, preaching, explanations are utterly useless. The eye simply ceases to register what is plain to be seen. Before there can be any change, a fundamental shift must take place in the general attitude. The mind must turn to justice, the heart expand; then only can the eye really begin to discern. Little by little the sheen of the object on which it rests strengthens its visual power, and slowly it recovers the health of truth.
--Romano Guardini, The Lord
I said I was not going to discuss current events and controversies during Lent. But this passage is uncannily applicable to those.
This picture has nothing to do with this post. But suppose you associate red with someone or some group you hate and/or fear.
The intellect cannot cope with such paradoxes, though it somehow senses the reality beyond all reality, the truth beyond all truth. Precisely here lies the danger. The mind must never allow itself to be misled into seeming 'comprehension,' into facile sensations or phrases with nothing solid behind them. The whole problem is a mystery, the sacred mystery of the relationship of the triune God to his incarnate Son. We can never penetrate it, and knowledge of this incapacity must dominate our every thought and statement concerning Jesus' life.
--Romano Guardini, The Lord
I think this basic idea is itself almost a commonplace now, so much so that it can become another means of evasion, of "seeming 'comprehension'". So that stern "must dominate" is still needed, and always will be.
People, mainly. Those who speak to me, whose words I read; those with whom I associate or would like to associate; the people who give or withhold, who help or hinder me; people I love or influence or to whom I am bound by duty--these rule in me. God counts only when people permit him to, when they and their demands leave me time for him.... Things also rule in me: things I desire, by the power of that desire; things that bother me, by their bothersomeness; things I encounter wherever I go.... No, God certainly does not dominate my life. Any tree in my path seems to have more power than he, if only because it forces me to walk around it. What would life be like if God did rule in me?
I've been wanting to read Romano Guardini's The Lord for some time. This past Christmas I received it as a gift but had not so much as opened it, so I decided to make it my Lenten reading. If I had looked first and seen that it's 625 pages long I might not have chosen it. Sure, to average fifteen pages or so a day doesn't sound like it would be a problem, but it's probably not especially quick reading, and I know from experience how missing just a few days can completely wreck projects like this. Well, I'll proceed. I read twenty pages today and am greatly impressed.
After noting the failures and crimes of various figures mentioned in the genealogies of Jesus, Guardini says:
He entered fully into everything that humanity stands for--and the names in the ancient genealogies suggest what it means to enter into human history with its burden of fate and sin. Jesus of Nazareth spared himself nothing.
In the long quiet years in Nazareth, he may well have pondered these names. Deeply he must have felt what history is, the greatness of it, the power, confusion, wretchedness, darkness, and evil underlying even his own existence and pressing him from all sides to receive it into his heart that he might answer for it at the feet of god.
I'll probably be posting less during Lent, though "less" may mean shorter posts, not fewer. We'll see. Either way I'm going to make a big effort to stay away from current events, politics, and so forth, and to concentrate on the permanent things. But before I drop that stuff:
For at least ten years I've been writing that secular liberalism or progressivism or whatever you want to call it is a species of religion, and that the so-called culture war is essentially a conflict between two religions. Other people may have been saying the same thing then, but if so I didn't come across their writings, and I thought I was saying something that was not the conventional wisdom. Now suddenly I'm seeing it everywhere--for instance in this piece by David French. It has become in fact a pretty conventional observation. Although it's pleasing to be vindicated, I'm not entirely happy about this development, as the idea is central to the book for which I'm now trying to find a publisher, and which now has that much less to be said for it. Oh well.
I'm also thinking I may sometimes post pictures without words, partly in an effort to quiet my always-chattering mind a little, and to encourage silent contemplation, on my part and yours. But also I like posting pictures, and haven't been doing it for a while. They're pretty conventional, I know, and very limited in range. Most are taken within a hundred yards of my house. But I am continually amazed by the world.
I'm a little shocked that spring has come around again. The cypresses have been leafing out for a couple of weeks now. They're one of my favorite spring colors.
This was a notable Ash Wednesday. I went to Mass at the cathedral in Mobile, and for the first time in many years I did not hear "Ashes." Griping about it had become an annual custom for me, and I'm glad not to have to work on stifling that irritation, though I guess rejoicing that I didn't hear it is almost the same thing as griping about it. I had been working on treating it as a penance, with not much success. Anyway, as my wife said, the great thing about it is that you don't have to actually hear it--all you have to do is think about it to get it stuck in your head.
At that Mass Fr. Michael Farmer delivered the best Ash Wednesday homily I've ever heard. This is something close to an accurate transcription of it in its entirety:
Today we enter a period of deeper devotion, a time of fasting, prayer, and penance. Start doing it.
After posting Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" a couple of weeks ago, I found myself remembering other bits and pieces of his poetry, so I got out a couple of old textbooks and went looking for them. Principal among these fragments was this, which used to be widely quoted:
Wandering between two worlds, one dead, The other powerless to be born.
I couldn't remember which poem it was, so after browsing a bit I resorted to the internet, and quickly found that it's from "Stanzas From the Grand Chartreuse." You can read the poem at that link, though to my taste it's a bit long for reading on the web (250 lines or so). I can't say I think it's a great poem, but it's an interesting one. It's an account of Arnold's visit to the founding house of the Carthusian order, and is a more extensive lament for the passing of the old Christian world than "Dover Beach," which was written fifteen years later. More extensive, and more explicit--and more confused, really, it seems to me. Poor Arnold: intellectually he finds the faith of the monks almost contemptible, and is quite certain that the skeptical modern age is right about that question. Yet he deeply laments its loss.
Let's have the whole stanza ("these" are the monks):
Wandering between two worlds, one dead, The other powerless to be born, With nowhere yet to rest my head, Like these, on earth I wait forlorn. Their faith, my tears, the world deride— I come to shed them at their side.
Later in the poem he hopes that the coming age will be wiser and happier, but asks that for the time being he be left alone with his melancholy.
It's not "Dover Beach," but it's really a pretty good poem, though it would be greatly improved by the removal of nearly all the exclamation marks, a habit of the 19th century which perhaps did not sound quite the same to them as to us.
I wonder about that world which was in Arnold's time "powerless to be born." I think I can say without too much oversimplification that he found the skepticism of his age sterile, and he seems not to have had a clear idea of how it could become fruitful, really fruitful in the way that Christian civilization had been, though he thought that in time it must. Has that new world been born yet, or are we still waiting for it?
I feel fairly sure Arnold would have been surprised, maybe astonished, by what would happen to Europe in the 20th century. I know he would have been appalled: unprecedented material progress, unprecedented slaughter. Was that what was waiting to be born? The "rough beast" that Yeats so famously saw stirring? (You know that poem, probably; unfortunately politicians have been quoting it in recent years--unfortunately but also somewhat appropriately, though they usual don't get to that last bit.)
Or are we still in transit to some new and more Godless world? If we are, it promises to be, as far as I can tell, some sort of combination of 1984 and Brave New World. No one wants 1984, but I think there are a good many people who could read Brave New World and not understand that it is meant to depict a dystopia. After all, almost everyone is happy there, and isn't happiness what it's all about? Some of the mechanisms of 1984 would still have to be in place there, some means of insuring that people not only behave correctly, but that they think correctly. Those means needn't be violent; in fact violence, as the history of fascism and communism shows, is in the long run counter-productive because of the resistance it provokes. More likely it simply won't happen. Those who wish to get rid of God are finding the task rather more difficult than the skeptics of Arnold's time might have anticipated.
Speaking of getting rid of God: a movie based on Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time has just been released. I ran across this commentary on the movie, in which the screenwriter is quoted as saying “I think there are a lot of elements of what [L’Engle] wrote that we have progressed on as a society.” I don't resent the removal of Christian themes in the movie (which, after all, is what you'd expect of Hollywood) nearly as much as I do the suggestion that its removal from everything that counts as real life is a fait accompli, and that the only "we" that counts is composed of those who have removed it from their own lives.
I doubt that I'll see the movie. I'm really not a great admirer of the book. I know it means a lot to a lot of people. But I didn't read it until I was in my thirties, and as I recall it didn't send the meter any higher than "pretty good."
Last week I discussed the culture wars, and in particular the gun control debate, as being in part a conflict between two political visions, the "free citizen" model and the "sheep and shepherd" model. As I said in a comment in the discussion following that, I knew this would seem to be loading the question toward the former, because in our culture the latter sounds demeaning. But I actually do write this journal in a few hours on Sunday evenings, and nothing better presented itself. Still doesn't, actually. There is a great deal to be said for the sheep and shepherd model. It is, after all, the essential structure of the vision contained in Judeo-Christian religion, and in fact is the same image. And it may very well be the most natural and in the long run most effective and durable mode of government. It may very well be that all this self-government stuff is coming to an end, dependent as it was on certain cultural foundations which are not only decaying but the object of active efforts at demolition.
In any case, it is almost self-evident that the vision I attributed to the Founding Fathers, of "a nation of free citizens: farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen, and mechanics," no longer has very much to do with our social reality. The typical or characteristic way of life in contemporary Western societies is that of a wage earner, a condition which is inherently more dependent and less free than that of one who lives by his own direct effort and property. Moreover, the characteristic employer, the paradigm that sets the tone and pattern for all, is a gigantic organization, whether "private" (corporate) or "public" (government), of the type which in textbook terminology is classified as a "machine bureaucracy." It's not meant to produce free citizens. And it doesn't want them.
While browsing the Arnold section of Poetry of the Victorian Period, I came across a line which I had completely forgotten, but which made me laugh. Someone, either Dr. Eugene Williamson, who taught me that subject, or a critic whom he perhaps quoted, held this up as being astonishingly bad:
Who prop, thou ask'st, in these bad days, my mind?
Well, he was only twenty-seven when he wrote that, and he was no Keats; his best work came when he was much older. Still...that's awful. The rest of the poem (here) is not bad, though. In fact, it contains a phrase which became a sort of byword for Arnold's thinking. I'm not sure, but I believe he himself may have used it in his writings about the necessity of culture: the writers who "prop" his mind "saw life steadily, and saw it whole." That is a rare and important gift in any age.
Well, I've finished The Lord of the Rings, and I repeat what I said last week: if this is not a great work, I am no judge. I mentioned several weeks ago an essay that I'd published years ago in Caelum et Terra that I might dig out and publish here. Turns out I had done that a while back. I read it over the other day and it's still pretty accurate with regard to my opinion of the book. You can read it here.
Here, at Touchstone, is another appreciation of the late Billy Graham, one I thought worth passing on.
Here's what I have to put up with at St. Gregory, my Ordinariate (not-technically-a-)parish. In the Divine Worship liturgy, which incorporates various Anglican elements, we are instructed to "rehearse the Decalogue" (quaint phrase) on Sundays in Lent. Fr. Matt explains why. This is really just audio, and the one photo moves around a bit, so I recommend you look at something else and just listen. It's thirteen minutes long.
It's azalea time here. About 85% of them are this color, which is not my favorite, but I included this picture as an example of the way they're supposed to be grown. This doesn't show the entire bush, which is at least fifteen feet wide, and over six feet tall. They're supposed to be big and luxuriant like this.
There's a pale orange-pink color which I like better, also a dark red one which I like even better, but I didn't see any of those on the walk where I took this picture. I did see this nice white one, though. I like the white ones a lot but they very quickly take on a dingy and dilapidated look.