Saturday, September 20, 2008

Refuge of Losers

As some readers of this blog know, a commenter recently took it to task for "[making] the Catholic Church into little more than a compensatory prize for the losers in life," and implied further that I was one of them.

I have no doubt that she is right on both counts. I have experienced devastating losses -- the loss of my first husband, the loss of four of my unborn children, the death of beloved friends, and rather many bitter heartbreaks -- some of them the results of my own ill-considered actions. I think it is safe to say that I have been completely broken by these losses, and will most likely never recover (does anyone ever really recover?). So, am I a loser? Indeed so.

In the midst of some of my most painful periods of loss, I kept singing. In fact, I usually did my best singing when I was going through some horrible crisis or other. My singing was my weapon, my tool in the world; I used it to attract, to deflect, to barter, to attain, to compete, to triumph over, and to escape from. And yet, at a crucial moment, when I was starting to build some career trajectory, had signed with opera management, and was getting auditions with important conductors (one of whom told my manager, though he didn't cast me, "she has everything"), I abandoned the career that seemed to have fed so much upon personal tragedy and impure ambitions, and decided to go into academic musicology instead. So, am I a loser? Undoubtedly so.

As for the Catholic Church, yes, again: I will admit that I have thought of it as a compensatory prize in my recent years of bitter pain. Since my reversion to my childhood faith in 2002, it has been a refuge I've clung to. If, as Christ said, we have to lose our lives in order to gain them, then the repository of wisdom and consolation that is the Catholic Church should be the compensatory prize for all believers, and we should all strive to become the kind of losers that Christ intended. (Mind you, I am not this kind of exalted, transformed loser; I'm more of your common house-and-garden sort).

Some of my readers also know of my great fondness for Fr. Hermann Cohen (a.k.a. Père Augustin-Marie du Très Saint Sacrement), above. Hermann is one of the subjects of my nearly-completed doctoral dissertation (I'm defending in October), which treats the subject of what I call "musical conversion" in the nineteenth century. I have studied the few extant sources on the life and conversion of Fr. Hermann, as well as his compositions, both published and in manuscript, from both before and after his conversion.

Hermann was acclaimed as a genius in the 1830s and '40s. Liszt wrote of his protégé, describing a concert in Geneva:

Hermann’s pale and melancholy appearance, his beautiful dark hair and frail physique, provided a poetic [image] . . . . The dear boy gave further proof of that precocious understanding and profound feeling for art which already set him apart from the ordinary run of pianists and lead me to predict a brilliant, fruitful future for him.

Perhaps this was true at least of his playing. The results of my study, however, have shown that as a composer, Hermann was pretty run-of-the-mill. Might he have become another Liszt, who was, along with Wagner, the arch-proponent of the Music of the Future? We cannot know, because Hermann abandoned the life of an adulated musician and retreated to the Carmel following an unhappy love affair. During his novitiate, he was forbidden both playing and composing; afterward, however, he was allowed to live as a musician again, but a transformed musician, offering praise in the form of sacred hymns and canticles, some of which remained in the liturgical repertoire in France until the turn of the twentieth century.

Was Hermann a loser? He was a loser in love, to be sure. He lost powerful and sympathetic friends, among them Liszt (with whom he much later reconciled) and George Sand. He was a compulsive gambler whose losses at the table were legendary, and produced the kind of dreadful consequences in his personal life that the behavior of addicts generally does. Could he have survived prodigy-hood to become a serious musician and composer? In my assessment, this question is unanswerable at best.

But was the Catholic Church a "compensatory prize" for him? Perhaps it might be alleged by those of us who don't like to think of ourselves as losers that he retreated to the Church as a refuge from his losses. What better thing could he have done? He found the compensatory prize to be the true prize, the "pearl of great price," and I believe that he is offering transformed musical praises in heaven right now.


Anonymous said...

Having read the original comment in context and then all subsequent blog entries in response (four entries to a single comment! doth you protest too much?), it is clear the original intent was to label “losers” those who have failed as artists, not as people, for you certainly would not fall in the latter category. At your age, the litany of losses you catalog (divorce, abortion, 3 miscarriages, death of friends) is tragically unremarkable in light of the devastating statistics we have: In America, 1 out of 2 marriages end in divorce; 1 in 4 women abort their children; nearly 1 in 3 women have suffered multiple miscarriages. Many middle-aged women younger than you are losing their adult children every day in Iraq; many more have lost parents, siblings and multiple friends; and quite a few have never carried a single child to term in spite of dozens of pregnancies and having never aborted a single one. I would consider you quite blessed, frankly, with a husband who married you in spite of it all and a healthy child. It’s a shame you don’t see this, preferring to stubbornly insist on always being “completely broken” and “likely never [to] recover” from losses that pale in comparison to thousands of Catholic women in this country. You are richly blessed. Deal with it. And stop whining.

Pentimento said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pentimento said...

I know that I am richly blessed, without a doubt, and you can be sure that I'm grateful. But I also feel that I'm completely broken. Such are the paradoxes of life. And you yourself call the statistics among which I am numbered "tragic." In light of that desigation, you mightalso legitimately call my pensiveness about my life "mourning" rather than "whining." Thanks for the vote of confidence, though, since I do feel like I've failed utterly as a person.

Anonymous said...

It is time to get new readers, Pentimento. Seriously, where do these people come from? And why are they reading your blog?

As Scripture tells us, there is a time for all things, and a time for mourning happens. And when you are in it, you are in it. That is where you are supposed to be at that time.

And regarding baby losses, it would be far more tragic to live your life as if nothing happened, then it is to sit down and mourn them. Their is something so inherently anti-human in not grieving our loved ones. If we cannot grieve for our lost children, when and who can we grieve? Must we be machines?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post - it means more to me than I can say. Christ truly is hope for the 'losers'.

Pentimento said...

He is our only hope, isn't He? And if He's not for us, who is He for? He came to heal those who suffer, after all, and suffering is the result of sin. My suffering is the result of my sinfulness and that of those around me, simple as that.

I suppose some people are fortunate enough not to need as much healing as others, but it seems to me indicative of our culture's fear of suffering that even we Catholics, who traditionally have had a deeper acceptance of the place of suffering in life, are offended by those who mourn.

Pentimento said...

Addendum: having thought about this a bit more, I think the real offense is that those who are not blameless also mourn; perhaps our society only approves the mourning of the innocent.

Fallen Sparrow said...

Fr. Cohen, in a homily at which he baptized a Jewish friend of his, once said, "We have been nailed as signposts before the Gates of Hell, warning others, 'Do not go this way!'" I see that spirit in you, which is part of why I recognize a kindredness with you; I drifted aimlessly for years, throwing myself with grim resolution into a life of lonely addiction.

Because we have suffered greatly, we can also rejoice greatly in Christ's love, mercy, and salvation. That said, we mourn our sins, we mourn our exile here in this vale of tears, because we have hope that we will ultimately be united with Him in the world to come. It's not an arms race of suffering.

Perhaps people like you and I are particularly hardheaded, but it seems we need to be completely broken in order to see our need for His love and healing and mercy. At least that is the case with me.

We are a people of sorrow for our fallenness, and joyful expectation of the resurrection. Grim resolution is the stuff of those virtuous pagans, the Stoics, not of Christians.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for your comment, Fallen. Yes, I believe I'm on your team. I hope and pray that my witness is not one of despair, as the original commenter suggested in her comment to the post directly above this one. In fact, I hope and pray that it will become, at some point, a witness of hope and of Christ's mercy. For now, perhaps, it is only one of warning. But God works on us and works on us, and gives us great opportunities through our suffering to be close to him and His own.

You're also the only commenter who remembered that this post was largely about Fr. Hermann Cohen.

caleb said...

This is a lovely piece of contemplative writing.

I was writing you a comment applying my own experiences to your post, but in writing it I was reminded of TS Elliot's Ash Wednesday. The imagery Elliot creates -- not of "winning" or "losing," but the spiral staircase winding upwards -- echos my own triumphs and tragedies in life and my relationship with the Church.

Anyway, its a beautiful piece. You're probably familiar with it -- it begins:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Caleb. I actually feel more kinship right now with Four Quartets, particularly the East Coker section:

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless. . . .

. . . . To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

caleb said...

hear, hear!