Saturday, September 19, 2015

Music and Memory, Part 36: Walking Away

After a long illness, Christine, the wife of my friend and former opera colleague G., died a couple of weeks ago, just shy of her fiftieth birthday. I wasn't able to go to her wake or funeral because of my teaching schedule here in Northern Appalachia, but I've spoken with G. at length in the days since. G. is a wonderful lyric tenor, and, beyond that, truly one of the best musicians I know. For a number of years he sang in many of the great opera houses of Europe and America, but he withdrew from all of his contracts a few years ago to care for Christine, and because opera gigs are scheduled at least two years out, that meant his career was effectively over. A late bloomer who grew up in a working-class Irish-American family and spent his early adulthood tending bar and giving guitar lessons, G., after walking away from the opera stage, never looked back. He now lives and sends his daughters to college on the proceeds from his church job and a small income earned teaching music to the disabled.

I've known G. for a long time. We studied with the same voice teacher, and on Thursday nights we would meet at the Liederkranz Club on East 87th Street, which was around the corner from his house (but far from mine), to work out the opera arias we sang at our auditions with a quirky but gifted stage director. "I can still see you twenty years ago," he told me recently. "I can see what you were wearing, and your hair. You were this hilarious, talented Italian chick who just said THESE THINGS." I remember G. picking me up and driving me out to Long Island one evening to run through obscure arias with a brilliant pianist whom I'd never met and never saw again. "I don't coach my repertoire," he said that night, with a cockiness that, in his case, was wholly warranted. "I just know how the music is supposed to go."  He was on the cusp of a great career, and I was on the cusp, for reasons still not completely clear to me, of using my career as a tool in the blowing up of everything in my life.

G. has what I would call -- though he does not call it this -- a visionary gift. Since childhood, he's been able to correctly intuit certain people's fates, including those of relative strangers. He's often able to discern whether someone is going to die, and roughly when. In fact, he and his wife both had the foreknowledge, years before she became ill, that she would not live to see her fiftieth birthday. But this gift -- or call it what you will, and he's often prayed that God would rescind it -- comes in the context of his deep, even mystical, Catholic faith, a faith he and Christine shared. Because of this faith, the death of his beloved, though it's devastated him, hasn't utterly crushed him. He has a kind of palpable, tactile, tangible knowledge of God's great love for him, for Christine, and for all of us, and he talks about it often. It was G. who told me about the rosary novena after I came back to the faith, and I have prayed it during some momentous times in my life. While I'm not sure the novena has always "worked," it has changed my life.

I thought of all this recently when I read some caveats going around the internet against praying the novena to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. Someone knew someone else who had prayed the novena, upon which the supplicant's life had rapidly started coming apart. A hard-line Catholic apologist I used to date mentioned once that he was terrified to pray to Saint Rita, because, according to popular legend, she would give you what you wanted, but it would come wrapped up in unconditional awfulness. And more than one friend has told me to be careful about praying the Litany of Humility, because that prayer was bound to be answered in particularly humiliating ways. But all of this goes back to the great fallacy of American Christianity across creeds: that when you embrace Christ, your life will get better. This is only a slight variation on that other characteristically American conclusion: that, if your life is good, it's because you deserve it (and conversely, if it's bad, it's because you don't, a faulty maxim upon which much unfortunate policy has been based). It's some combination of gnosticism, paganism, exceptionalism, and fatal self-regard, and it's so pervasive in our culture that, in spite of my own status as a miserable sinner, I have to remind myself multiple times a day that if my life has any good or happiness in it, it's not because of my relative merits. But if I lack merits, which I do, why do I possess or experience anything good at all? So many people I know have little, or even nothing, in their lives that is good. 

When G. and I became friends, I was married to M. He was an artist, and he strongly encouraged me in my singing. I wanted to get at something -- I used to tell myself it was the truth -- in and through my singing. I asked M. once if he would still love me if I stopped singing and did something else, say, became a lawyer. He didn't even entertain the question, because (he said) if I weren't a singer, I would no longer be myself. Ironically, M. is now a lawyer himself. 

Apparently one of THOSE THINGS that I said back in our aria class was along the lines of "I used to be Catholic, but no more." G., whose father is a deacon, took note of that statement. He brought it up recently, and reminded me that without my life blowing up, I would never have come back to the faith, which is true.

Towards the end of his short life, Henry David Thoreau, the great naturalist and visionary in his own right (one scholar has written a book about Thoreau's "ecstatic witness") seems to have lost his vision, the hypersensory awareness of the indwelling sublime that formerly had colored all of his encounters with the natural world. The mystic of Walden, who called the telegraph wire that ran along the railway "the telegraph harp," and wrote of it: 

by the end of his lifetime had reduced his writing to dry journal notations about the seasonal changes of various plants and animals.

I have in fact been praying the Litany of Humility for a long time now. My hope is that God will give me the humility to walk away from the dreams that damaged my life and the lives of those in my midst, and to do it with good cheer. You'd think this would have happened by now; we've been living in Northern Appalachia for almost seven years, and my professional energies have mostly turned from performance to teaching, which I love. But I still reflexively try to assuage my loneliness in this small (and in some ways sad) place with the old thoughts of my talent and the delusion that it gave me special privileges. I pray that I will be able to walk away simply, as G. did, because, as he knew, in the estimation of God there was something better and far more important to do.


Paul said...

Thank you for this. I will say that the Litany of Humility is a powerful prayer and not one to take lightly. I can understand some people being scared off.

Paul said...

Thank you for this. I will say that the Litany of Humility is a powerful prayer and not one to take lightly. I can understand some people being scared off.

Enbrethiliel said...


A hard-line Catholic apologist I used to date mentioned once that he was terrified to pray to Saint Rita, because, according to popular legend, she would give you what you wanted, but it would come wrapped up in unconditional awfulness.

This is just subjective now, but St. Rita sounds to me as if she didn't lose her sense of humour when she went to Heaven! =P

As for how awful "unconditional awfulness" can be . . . Several years ago, I read a life of St. Rita that moved me to ask her to look after my two younger brothers. I'm alluding, of course, to her prayers that her own two sons would not commit the mortal sin of murder that they had been planning--prayers that were answered when both boys took ill and died! Which in turn reminds me of actor Nathan Lane's story about coming out to his (Catholic) mother: her exact words to him were, "I'd rather you were dead." It can be a scandalous thing for a mother to prefer that her children be dead rather than guilty of mortal sin--but perfectly logical for a mother who believes her children are destined for eternal life. (Besides, I'm sure both St. Rita and Mrs. Lane would agree that they'd pick "alive and not guilty of mortal sin" if they had a choice.)

Anyway, this was also how I felt about my two young brothers, one of whom was already showing an attraction to a certain sin that I knew would be worse than death if he committed it. So I asked St. Rita to help out . . . and one of my brothers died. But not the one with the worrying attractions. St. Rita is weird.

(Yes, I know that correlation does not imply causality. I just thought I'd toss more fuel on that apologist's fire. Because I can be trollish like that.)

Of course, I also agree with your analysis that people think everything should be all rainbows and unicorns after you give your life to God. I have a dear friend who has been slowly edging out of the Church (and out of any sort of Christianity) for the past few years, and one of her reasons for doubting the Christian idea of God is that she has just seen too many Catholics who "do everything right," only to have it bite them in the butts. You'd think, she argued, that God would take special care of those who try the hardest, instead of seeming to throw them under the bus. In the meantime, other believers who water down how much they give to God really do seem to have it much easier.

Pentimento said...

Enbrethiliel, I didn't know that you had committed your brothers to the care of St. Rita.

But, as we know, giving our lives to God generally means taking up the cross. I have this idea that every gift comes with the cross (though not necessarily wrapped in unconditional awfulness).

Pentimento said...

Paul, thanks for your comment. I just read this, which offers some good context for the Litany of Humility.

Sheila said...

Thank you for this post. And it was through you some years ago that I discovered the Litany of Humility. I am so thankful for you, for Sally, for the rathe rodd way we connected, for your generosity that was part of that. Perhaps one of these days we may meet in person, but meanwhile I am thankful for the meeting of hearts. God bless you.

Enbrethiliel said...


The flipside of every gift coming with the Cross (Or would it be better to say, "through the Cross"?) is every effect of sin being mitigated with some grace. I've often wondered how much of what is good in the world is really just the patchwork repairs of what sin has damaged. A "consolation grace," if you will. Maybe all of it is, though to varying degrees.

A few years ago, I had a thought that the man I was supposed to marry was aborted before he could be born. And it was such a real possibility to me that for a while after that, I kept my eyes peeled not for a Catholic bachelor I might get along with, but for a middle-aged woman still struggling with the scars of abortion. Maybe, I thought, she and I could bring each other some consolation, even if I could never be her daughter-in-law and the mother of her grandchildren.

For sure, there is no way I will know whether or not this is true in this life . . . and in any case, I still want to get married. And when I do, I have great hope that it will also be something beautiful in God's sight. But assuming that I am right, then my marriage will be a consolation grace. That is, not something that followed God's plan to the letter, but something that can stand as a sign of His mercy. We break things all the time, but He is already fixing them.

Pentimento said...

That's beautiful, E, and I agree that all good is consolation, and that God's will is accomplished even through bizarre concatenations.

Unknown said...

This was a lovely post and reminded me of that quote of St.Catherine of Sienna saying to God that "if You treat all Your friends like this, it's no wonder You have so few of them!" It's hard for us Catholics to understand that suffering is a "promotion" and that we must be promoted to our level of incompetence, since that is the exact point where Christ living in us takes over, and so the point at which His glory comes to fulfillment in us. But, of course, prayer is very powerful and that is terrifyingly awesome (or awesomely terrifying). I picture myself saying the litany of humility at a point where I have become very proud of my humility (ironic, eh?) and then that prayer answered quickly would resound like a fall from a high precipice to the feet of God, which is, from the sound of those naysayers, what's happened to other people too. At this point in my life where I can look back to many answered prayers I would have to say that at no time has God lost His capacity to surprise me!