I know I said I wasn't going to post till Monday, but I've been listening, for the first time, to Bach's St. John Passion, and this aria seems perfect for Holy Saturday, containing both the sorrow and the triumph of the Crucifixion. (Regarding the title of the post: I still prefer the traditional "It is finished" to other English versions of those words.)
Es ist vollbracht! It is accomplished ! O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen! What comfort for all suffering souls! Die Trauernacht The night of sorrow Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen. now reaches its final hours. Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht The hero from Judah triumphs in his might Und schließt den Kampf. and brings the strife to an end. Es ist vollbracht! It is accomplished!
(Text and translation from www.bach-cantatas.com), which seems to be one of those wonderful group labors of love that are found on the web. It started in 1999 and the web site still looks that way, but don't let that bother you.)
This performance by Christa Ludwig is not from the Passion I've been listening to, which is a more recent one (i.e. 1986!) conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and more in the favored style of recent years, said to be more authentic. But I saw this one on YouTube and I find it more moving. It's almost a full minute longer than the Gardiner version.
The St. John is not nearly as well-known as the monumental St. Matthew, but it has many, many virtues which I'm happy to have discovered better late than never.
Another one of the many bits of C.S. Lewis's writings that rattle around in my head is one in which he discusses a phenomenon which troubled his youthful Christianity: he was not able to feel things that he was told, or at least that he felt, he should feel. It may be in Surprised By Joy. Or maybe it's a discussion of his reasons for writing allegorically in the Narnia stories.
Anyway, I have the same problem. In a few days I'll be attending various Holy Week liturgies, and in some of them, especially the Stations of the Cross on Friday, I will be contemplating the Crucifixion and quite likely, depending on the texts, be reciting words that say I'm weeping, filled with grief, and so on. But for the most part I won't actually be feeling these things. For whatever reasons, having to do with long familiarity but not only limited to that, I don't feel the intense emotions I rightly should feel about the Passion. I don't mean that I'm indifferent, and sometimes am touched, but mostly my reaction is somewhat abstract: I think very cosmic thoughts about the awesome significance of it, rather than feel simple human grief for this innocent who is so wrongly tortured and killed.
I did feel those emotions very powerfully once, long ago, watching a TV show. Sixty years is a long time not only to remember a TV show but to be touched again by the pity and sorrow which it produced. I'm pretty sure I would find myself having difficulty speaking if I were to try to tell the story out loud.
The show was the old General Electric Theater, hosted by Ronald Reagan. I thought I remembered that much, and thanks to the Internet I was able to find more exact information: the episode was called "The Patsy," and it was first broadcast in February of 1960. So I was eleven years old.
It starred Sammy Davis, Jr., whose name is probably not as well known as it once was, at least not to younger people. He was one of the most successful and best-known black actors of the time--well-known even in comparison to his fellow members of the "Rat Pack"--Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and others. In the show, Davis is the titular "patsy" (a dupe, a scapegoat, the butt of jokes--I point that out in case that old bit of slang is no longer generally known). He plays the only black member of a squad of soldiers. He's naive and maybe somewhat simple-minded, and the other men are constantly making fun of him, playing practical jokes on him, and so forth. If I remember correctly he does his best to take it good-naturedly but is clearly hurt by it.
In the final prank, one of the men drops a grenade which everyone but the patsy knows to be a dummy. The others feign fear and move away. The patsy throws himself down on the grenade and lies there yelling "Run, y'all! Run!," waiting in terror for it to go off. When he realizes it isn't going to, he just lies there, sobbing, still muttering "Run."
At least that's the way I remember it. As a boy growing up in that post-World-War-II time, I had heard of this act of heroism, seen it enacted in movies. The thought of such a self-sacrifice was always moving, but what made it so very much so in this case was that the one giving his life was despised and rejected of men.
I won't be posting again until next Monday. But I'm not going offline completely (probably should), and will still see comments, and respond if/when inclined.
There's a worship song (sorry, I don't know its name) used frequently at my parish which has a refrain that concludes:
My heart's one desire Is to be holy
I cannot honestly sing those words (and I find it difficult to believe that very many people can, but that's none of my business). "one desire"? Hardly. Usually not even the strongest. For me the truth is closer to "Among many other things, I would like to be holy."
The problem with being holy is that it's very difficult. It requires steady effort and sacrifice, and I do not like either of those things. I like things that are easy and pleasant. I would like to be a really excellent guitarist, too. But here I am, going on sixty years since I first picked up the instrument, and I'm not all that much better than I was when I was twenty.
About the best I can say for myself with regard to the guitar is that I have never totally or permanently given up on it. Some thirty-five or forty years ago I decided to get a bit more serious about it, and started taking classical guitar lessons at a music shop not too far from where I lived. I made some progress--I could even stumble through an arrangement of Erik Satie's famous Gymnopédie #3 so that it was at least recognizable. I made progress in part because I made myself practice consistently for at least fifteen minutes a day. That's not much, but it was enough to make a difference, and every week or so I could tell that I was a little bit better than I had been the week before.
But then, as usual with me, my resolve collapsed. I started skipping my practice sessions, blaming work and family life, though laziness and inconsistency were at least equally to blame. Eventually I had gone several weeks without practicing and dreaded going to my lesson. The teacher had been a little impatient with my lack of ability to begin with, and I was embarrassed to show up not having practiced, and therefore not having improved, at all. And clearly the lessons were a waste of money if I wasn't going to work consistently, at least, if not all that hard. So I quit them. But I didn't quit playing altogether, and I still do play (not classical music), and I still don't practice regularly, and I'm still not very good.
I'm not doing very well at all with my Lenten observances this year. I set the bar pretty low and still have fallen short of it. About the best I can say for myself, both with regard to Lent and to the pursuit of holiness in general, is that I have never totally or permanently given up.
Apart from the words, I'm not very fond of the kind of music which that song represents. But our choir is really quite talented, they work hard, and they do that sort of thing very well. And sometimes they venture into older and better music. This Lent, for instance, they have been ending Mass with an arrangement of this chant:
They harmonized it for their six or eight voices, and in addition to the basic Latin chant, they added a sort of descant in English, by two (I think) sweet, yearning female voices. It's the last thing we hear at Mass, and is for a moment or two almost unbearably moving.
I'm a little puzzled by their translation, though. The Latin is:
Attende domine et miserere quia peccavimus tibi
which is something like "Hear us, Lord, and have mercy, for we have sinned against you." But the choir sings "Burdened with sin, we implore you" (or was it "thee"?) which doesn't seem a close translation of anything in the text. So I'm wondering if this is some traditional English version, possibly something from the Book of Common Prayer or some other Anglican source. But I haven't been able to find it. I like it better than the more literal translation, actually. It's more desperate.
Here's the Gymnopédie, by the way, played by Christopher Parkening. As you can hear, it's not that difficult, and of course very pretty, so a nice thing for a not-very-advanced player to work on.
Perhaps you'd find this prayer from the Ordinariate's St. Gregory's Prayer Book useful:
Lord, bless us this Lent — let us fast most truly and profitably—by feeding in prayer on thy Spirit — Reveal me to myself in the light of thy holiness — let me not think I have knowledge enough to need no teaching —
Wisdom enough to need no correction— Talents enough to need no grace— Goodness enough to need no progress— Humility enough to need no repentance— Devotion enough to need no quickening— Strength sufficient without thy Spirit— Lest standing still I fall back for evermore—
May my whole effort be to return to thee — make it serious and sincere — persevering and fruitful in result — by the help of thy Holy Spirit — and to thy glory, my Lord and my God. Amen
The odd punctuation is copied from the book. I don't know the reason for it.
Note: I did not hear "Ashes" yesterday. So I guess I'll need to do some extra little penance to make up for that.
Praise the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, thou art become exceeding glorious; thou art clothed with majesty and honour. Thou deckest thyself with light as it were with a garment and spreadest out the heavens like a curtain. Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters and maketh the clouds his chariot, and walketh upon the wings of the wind. He maketh his angels spirits and his ministers a flaming fire.
This is from one of the several psalms read at the Easter vigil, to which I'll be going in a few hours. A blessed and joyful Easter to all.
What reward shall I give unto the Lord for all the benefits that he hath done unto me? I will receive the cup of salvation and call upon the Name of the Lord. I will pay my vows now in the presence of all His people; right dear in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. Behold, O Lord, how that I am thy servant; I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid; thou hast broken my bonds in sunder.
In more recent translations, "right dear" is "precious." I rather like "right dear."
Save me, O God, for the waters are come in, even unto my soul. I stick fast in the deep mire, where no ground is; I am come into deep waters, so that the floods run over me.
And why? for thy sake have I suffered reproof; shame hath covered my face. I am become a stranger unto my brethren, even an alien unto my mother’s children. For the zeal of thine house hath even eaten me and the rebukes of them that rebuked thee are fallen upon me.
The first two verses are not included in today's Mass reading. I just like them. This is one of the imprecatory psalms, full of curses for the psalmist's enemies, and God's. Verse 23 has some relevance for our society.
Let their table be made a snare to take themselves withal and let the things that should have been for their wealth be unto them an occasion of falling.
In thee, O Lord, have I put my trust, let me never be put to confusion, but rid me, and deliver me, in thy righteousness; incline thine ear unto me, and save me. Be thou my strong hold, whereunto I may alway resort; thou hast promised to help me, for thou art my house of defence, and my castle.
I'm just finishing up A Retreat for Lay People, which I planned to read over Lent, and have actually followed through on that plan. There's a lot of really good stuff here, a lot of quotable stuff. The next-to-last chapter is about Mary Magdalene, and this seems a good note for what will most likely be my last post, apart from the psalms, until Easter Monday.
...for her, the interior virtues. She is the heroine of contrition; and contrition does not, of itself, alter the external fact of our sins; it only alters our attitude towards them. She is the heroine of resignation, and resignation does not help us to do anything; it only helps us to suffer, with patience, those bad times which will come to us whether we are patient over them or no. She is the heroine of hope; and hope does not change the course of the world's history; it only enables us to look forward, in a dark hour, to God's promise that the course of history will yet be changed.
The Lord is my light, and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? When the wicked, even mine enemies, and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.
I have declared thy righteousness in the great congregation; lo, I will not refrain my lips, O Lord, and that thou knowest. I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; my talk hath been of thy truth, and of thy salvation. I have not kept back thy loving mercy and truth from the great congregation.
Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my crying come unto thee. Hide not thy face from me in the time of my trouble; incline thine ear unto me when I call; O hear me, and that right soon. For my days are consumed away like smoke and my bones are burnt up as it were a fire-brand. My heart is smitten down, and withered like grass so that I forget to eat my bread.
The reading for Mass does not include 3 and 4 ("For my days," etc.). But I'm including them because I think they're pretty powerful.
My song shall be alway of the loving kindness of the Lord; with my mouth will I ever be shewing thy truth from one generation to another. For I have said, Mercy shall be set up for ever; thy truth shalt thou stablish in the heavens.
...performed by the Westminster Abbey Choir and the Abbey Consort, under the direction of Martin Neary.
I received this CD as a gift a few years ago, a fact which I mention because the cover photograph would probably have kept me from buying it for myself.
This picture of a rather malevolent-looking young man struck me as the sort of thing a record company might do to get the attention of a browser (this was 1994) for what I presumed to be a sort of anthology of liturgical music on the themes of Holy Week, with Allegri's well-known Miserere as the selling point. I say well-known because even if you don't recognize the description you may well have heard it, as its striking long high ornamental melody has been heard in sound tracks.
I was wrong on both counts--about the photo and about the music, I mean. More about the photo shortly, but the music is by no means a casual miscellany, as the number of different composers included had led me to suppose. It is instead a carefully constructed program of first-rate music beautifully performed. I've listened to it five or six times in recent weeks, and it's become a favorite.
The centerpieces, so to speak--more accurately, bookends--are two settings of the Miserere, or Psalm 51. In addition to Allegri's, there is one by Bai. Here is what the very extensive liner notes say:
It was a desire to set this remarkable pair of Miserere settings in some kind of fruitful apposition that was the point of departure for the present recording. This gradually assembled itself around their twin poles to form a near-palindrome of chant and polyphony for Holy Week: a musical meditation on the Passion and Death of Christ that revolves slowly on itself like a solemn ring-dance of penitence and mourning.
Plainchant and polyphony alternate. The first track is a plainchant hymn, "Vexilla Regis" ("The King's banners"). Next is Allegri's Miserere, then the plainchant antiphon "Christus factus est" ("Christ was made obedient"). And so on. Next to last is the Bai Miserere, (credited to Bai and Allegri, for reasons discussed in the notes), and then a closing plainchant hymn with a refrain (I think) composed by King John IV of Portugal.
The polyphonic works were all written in, roughly, the late 16th and early 17th centuries, except Bai's, which is a bit later. The other composers are, in order of appearance, Lotti, Gesualdo, Gabrieli, and Monteverdi. Of their works included here, I like Gesualdo's best, which is not surprising. Church polyphony is in general a kind of music for which I have more respect than genuine love. I usually feel like I don't entirely get what's going on; I suppose I'm not sensitive enough to harmony, and the kind of instantly affecting melody that one hears in the Allegri Miserere doesn't appear very often, at least to my ears. But there's something about Gesualdo's music that appeals to me, something that seems a bit strange and a bit dark, though that latter perception may be partly a result of the fact that the only music of his that I've heard is for the Tenebrae service. And perhaps even something to do with the fact that Gesualdo is, as far as I know, the only composer of note to have murdered his wife and her lover.
Which brings me to that photo. As I mentioned, the liner notes for this recording are extensive, including a very detailed essay which focuses on the performance history, both technical and historical, of the Allegri, as well as the Latin texts and their English translations. (The two Miserere settings were for more than a century heard only in the Vatican during Holy Week, and were a very big deal. Dickens tried to get in, but couldn't; Mendelssohn did, and made a transcription of the Allegri. The fourteen-year-old Mozart had done the same, only he didn't bother to actually write it down till afterward.) By the time I got to the acknowledgments at the end of the booklet, I didn't pay much attention: thanks to "the Dean and Chapter of Westminster, all at Sony Classical," etc. etc. But later, trying to find out who was responsible for the cover, I read them more carefully, and discovered this credit: "Roberto Valeri (Prince of Venosa)".
Then it dawned on me, and I checked Wikipedia: yes, Prince of Venosa was Gesualdo's formal title. And the back cover of the booklet shows the prince in an attitude of devotion, touching a crucifix to his forehead, and looking troubled.
So that cover which I found off-putting is actually a subtle comment on sin and repentance, most appropriate for the project. According to Wikipedia: "The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable...."
Not surprisingly, this recording of Allegri's Miserere is one of many to be found on YouTube:
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.
Psalm 51 appears a lot in Lent. No wonder: in Latin its first word is "miserere"--have mercy--and it's the text which has been so often set to music and known by that name. This verse is also especially familiar to many Protestants. The King James translation is very similar. The Grail, on the other hand, seems to me a bit weaker:
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.
This he ordained in Joseph for a testimony when he came out of the land of Egypt, and had heard a strange language. I eased his shoulder from the burden and his hands were delivered from making the pots. Thou calledst upon me in troubles, and I delivered thee * and heard thee what time as the storm fell upon thee.
This is one of the few instances I've seen where there's a striking discrepancy in the translations. The standard liturgical translation has:
An unfamiliar speech I hear: "I relieved his shoulder of the burden his hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I rescued you." Unseen, I answered you in thunder...