Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

(The hymn is "Colchester" by eighteenth-century English composer William Tans'ur, performed by the Theatre of Voices, led by Paul Hillier.)

The Holy Souls

Dawn Eden has written a moving post about a life-changing dream (which sounds like one of the very few true dreams we may be fortunate enough to receive in this life). Christmas Day is traditionally regarded as a time when many souls are freed from Purgatory; may our prayers help them, and help those who remain.

I wish great joy on Christmas day and beyond to all who visit here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Now That's Sangin'

(as my old voice teacher from east Texas used to say).

In fact, this humble little recital performance is some of the best singing I've ever heard in my life. It's the radiant Austrian soprano Gundula Janowitz, whose peak years were in the 1960s, singing Mozart's little Lied "Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling" (Longing for Spring). The song has something like folksong status in Germany and Austria, where it's known by its first line, "Komm, lieber Mai" -- and, as you can see in the translation below by Emily Ezust, it's a children's song.

Come, dear May, and make
the trees green again,
and by the brook, let
the little violets bloom for me!

How I would love
to see a violet again -
ah, dear May, how gladly
I would take a walk!

It is true that winter days have
much joy as well:
one can trot in the snow
and play many games in the evening;

build little houses of cards,
play blind-man's-buff and forfeits;
also go tobogganing
in the lovely open countryside.

Ah, if only it would grow milder
and greener out there!
Come, dear may! we children,
we beg you!

O come and bring for us, before anyone else,
lots of violets!
Bring also lots of nightingales
and pretty cuckoos!

Friday, December 19, 2008

How I Got That Dress

This is post is going up by special request from Really Rosie and Fallen Sparrow.

December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, was the fourth anniversary of my engagement (which took place, incidentally, in the church in whose excellent choir Fallen sings -- in front of the Blessed Sacrament, which is a good way to win a girl's heart). At the time my then-boyfriend asked me to marry him, however, I had already purchased my wedding dress. How did such an unorthodox thing come to be? Here, gentle reader, is how.

A couple of weeks before that fateful event, I was having a bad day. It was a cold, gray afternoon in mid-November, and I was late with my tuition payment at the university and wouldn't be able to re-enroll for the next semester until that matter was settled. I'd been working part-time while doing my coursework, and had recently returned from a recital gig in England, which, while it garnered me some attention, ended up being, like most recital gigs, rather unprofitable, and my bank account balance that day was hovering around $37.00. I had gone to my bank to ascertain this state of affairs (Amalgamated, "the working man's bank," natch, of which there were only three branches in New York, none of them anywhere near my home). After receiving the disappointing news, I caught a bus down Broadway, wondering what to do, and for some reason I decided to get off at West 37th Street and go into a church that I'd never been in before, the Church of the Holy Innocents, which is right in the heart of the garment district.

For those who haven't been there, it is a remarkable church. It is old, dark, and lit mostly by candlelight, and the walls and nearly every space not in prescribed liturgical use are covered and crammed with old-fashioned images of many saints, some of whom I can't even identify. At any hour of the day, you can find several mantilla-clad abuelas praying in the pews. Being an ethnic American Catholic myself, this is the kind of place I always feel at home.

Once inside, I knelt down and prayed fervently. Mostly I asked God to show me what to do with my life, and in particular to let me know if there was anything I was overlooking. Then I had to go teach a voice lesson (one of my jobs at the time was giving voice lessons to little girls on Park Avenue, which was very complicated for various reasons, about which I will blog another time), and, as I was leaving the church, I saw that it had a thrift shop in its basement. The thrift shop had a sign in the window advertising a very small-sized wedding dress for two hundred dollars. For some reason, I felt as if I should take a look at the dress, just for fun and just in case.

I went in and asked about the dress, but no one working there could find it. I looked at a few white things I saw hanging up, but they were not wedding dresses. All in all, the place looked sad and poor, with a few faded clothes draped limply on the desultory racks. So I made to leave, but just then a man came into the shop to start his shift there, and the other workers told me that his name was John and that he knew about the wedding dress.

John, a diffident, humble older man with kind blue eyes, brought out an enormous garment bag from behind a curtain. He laid it on a table, unzipped it, and inside was the most beautiful dress I had ever seen, white satin with a ten-foot-long embroidered train that could be hooked up to the skirt, and a bodice encrusted with artificial pearls - a princess's gown. Understandably, considering the location of the church, the dress was a designer's sample. It looked as if it would fit me, but I couldn't be certain by eyeballing it, so I asked John if I could try it on. He refused, because he didn't want it to get dirty, and anyway, there were no changing rooms. So I figured it wasn't meant to be -- and why would it have been, since I wasn't even engaged? -- and I made to leave. But then, for some reason, John relented, and said I could try it on, as long as I took off my shoes. So I stood on what honestly looked like a Muslim prayer rug -- I'm not sure why it was there -- and two women sheltered me, and I pulled the dress on over my head found that it fit like it was made for me. Then, to my great amazement, John fell to his knees, made the sign of the cross, and started praying and thanking God. He said he'd had the dress in the shop for a long time, and that many women had wanted to see it, but none could wear it; one, he said, had even left in tears because it was clearly the wrong size, so obviousy the fact that it fit me like a glove was a demonstration of God's holy will. He asked God to bless me and my fiancé (I didn't tell him that I didn't officially have one yet). All of this happened on a Friday, at three o'clock, the hour of Divine Mercy. So clearly I had to buy the dress. I put ten dollars down on it, all I'd been able to take out of my Amalgamated bank account that day, with a promise to pick it up on payday. I brought it home a few days later on the subway in an enormous garbage bag.

So then there I was a couple of weeks later on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament as my husband-to-be produced a small box from his pocket.

We were married four months after that, on the day that Pope John Paul II died ("Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his saints" [Ps 116:15]), in a torrential rainstorm. Our son was born nine months and a couple of days later.

I had been worried that I wouldn't be able to have children; I was in my late thirties, and I couldn't shake the heretical notion that God would want to punish me forever for my abortion. But this whole story, after all, is about how His Mercy (as he made clear to Saint Faustina, who, it is rumored, will soon be declared a Doctor of the Church), is greater than his just judgment.

You can see a picture of me in the dress here. One of my friends in the Sisters of Life, several of whom attended my wedding, thinks that the dress was designed by the same designer who created their distinctive and beautiful habit, which can be seen in a couple of images on this blog.

It is important to emphasize, for my own benefit as much ss for the benefit of those reading this blog, that, as Christ said in Matthew 5:45, good things happen to bad people (and, sadly, vice versa). God allows the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the just and the unjust alike. Whatever God has given me is through no merits of my own, but rather through the storehouse of his unfathomable Mercy.

Dear readers, please pray for John, the man who worked at the thrift shop. I ran into him again with my husband a few months later, praying in another church (he was astonished to see me pregnant so soon after our momentous meeting). He no longer had his job at the thrift shop. He is a poor and holy man who lives a solitary life, and I know very little else about him, but I believe he could use our prayers.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Perils of Blogging

When I began this blog in July 2007, I told four people about it. Two of them were friends of long standing, who had seen me through the darkest and most disorderly days of a life darker and more disorderly than most, as well as the dramatic re-conversion to the Catholic Church that I experienced later. Another was related to me. I never anticipated having a readership larger than a small handful of people who knew me intimately, and who I thought would be amused by reading my occasional thoughts on music, aesthetics, and faith. After a couple of months, I invited a few more close friends to read this blog, including Dawn Eden, who, to my surprise, posted a broadcast about its existence to her readership. While I have to admit that I found this new attention upsetting at first, it has gained me some wonderful readers, and even some real friends. On the other hand, it has also created certain attendant problems. What started as, essentially, a diary for a few close friends has become a more public journal. Where, before, I left out the backstory to my posts' subject matter -- not naming names because there was no need to; my readers knew what I was talking about -- I later had to be vigilant about not writing in too much detail about people, places, and events, in order to preserve the anonymity of the innocent as well as of the guilty.

Radical Catholic Mom's comment on a recent post has gotten me thinking about this blog and its origins. It struck me that the pro-lifer who told RCM's friend "you women need to repent for the rest of your lives" (though it may be true) did not know the circumstances that led to the friend's tragic choice.Really Rosie has told me that she thinks the content here has gotten blander in the wake of what she calls the "character assassinations" left in the combox during the pre-election season. I'll admit that I was deeply hurt, and even haunted, by the viciousness of some of the commenters, particularly those who appeared to self-identify as faithful Catholics. While I think readers are perfectly justified in arguing about the ideas they find here or elsewhere, I do not think they are justified in assailing the essence of the person writing them, unless they know that person in real life, and well enough to have some understanding of the basis for that person's ideas. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church cautions,

To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way: Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it.

I see this rush to condemnation as an understandable defense on the part of those frightened by a world where everything seems to be quickly going off-kilter. But, dear readers, let it be said here that my only wish for this blog, and it is a fervent one, is that someone might find here some small thing, some shred, of hope or beauty.

I've often wondered about the real ability of the repertoire that I have performed to help listeners toward a deeper experience of their humanity. How can it be that some of the darkest pieces, even those that wring tears of real sadness from an audience, can also leave them feeling exalted in the end? The truth is that sometimes we have to touch upon, even delve into, the darkness in ourselves in order to heal it. In the course of a concert, the artist can, if it's a particularly good night, lead the audience through a small healing.

Rosie has said that she misses the introspective blogging about the interior life that has been previously featured on this blog, and perhaps I will take that up again soon; right now, although my dissertation has been successfully defended, I'm still quite busy making edits against the deposit deadline, as well as getting used to a completely different way of life in my new city. In the meantime, I will hope and pray that this blog might one day be a vehicle for someone's small healing.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Musical Saints: John of the Cross

Today is the feast day of the great Carmelite Saint John of the Cross. The Carmelite Order, which traces its origins to the prophet Elijah, is notable for its ethos of close listening -- Elijah himself had to discern the voice of God on Mount Horeb in the midst of a soundscape of terrifying power -- and so it is fitting that the order has attracted holy men and women of a musical bent, incuding Father Hermann Cohen and Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity.

Saint John of the Cross himself spoke of the search for and mystical union with the Savior in musical terms. In his Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ, he described the fleeting moment between night and day as a time charged with the "silent music" of this encounter:

The tranquil night
At the time of the rising dawn,
Silent music,
Sounding solitude,
The supper that refreshes, and deepens love.

Musical saints of Carmel, intercede for us, that we may receive the gift of true hearing!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Pro-Life Movement

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas and also of the unborn. The pro-life movement has taken her as its own patroness for this latter reason.

I have no wish to delve into the politics of the pro-life movement here. To do so would be to duplicate the content of countless other blogs, but would do nothing to advance the cause. My fellow blogger Kyle Cupp, who has written extensively about pro-life politics from surprising and provocative angles befitting his background as a philosopher, is a good place to go for commentary that advances the dialogue toward the ideal state of healing.

All I have is my witness as a penitent post-abortive woman. This witness has been condemned by some commenters on this blog, who have suggested that, because I continue to speak of and to mourn my sin in spite of having had much else restored to me, I provide a destructive example to other post-abortive women. Although I do not know these commenters personally, I do know this: they are not post-abortive. And they do not read blogs written by other post-abortive women. If they did, they might find this one downright cheerful in comparison.

As my beloved Father Hermann Cohen, a fellow penitent and a great devotee of the Blessed Virgin, once said in a sermon, "We have been nailed as signposts before the Gates of Hell, warning others, 'Do not go this way!'"

My prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe today is that she might move the hearts of the virtuous members of the pro-life movement to accept and embrace the fervent witness and participation of women like me. For there are many of us in the movement, including many who are not open about their penitence and its cause. Their reticence is the result of the reality that many others in the movement -- like many faithful Catholics, sad to say -- have an attitude toward penitence not unlike that of the Prodigal's older brother. It would do us all well to ponder the great mystery inherent in the fact that God forgives even great sin, and remembers it no more. Moreover, He rejoices more over the return of the penitent than over those who have no need for forgiveness.

I suspect that women like me could be the future of the pro-life movement, especially as the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens become more and more complacent about the sanctity of life. Indeed, it's not impossible that penitent post-abortive women could even in some way revitalize the Catholic Church in America.

H/T for the quote from Father Hermann: Fallen Sparrow

Best Sesame Street Ever

There's been some discussion of vintage Sesame Street clips in the combox. This one is the clear winner for all time.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Random Acts of Classicism

In my new home town, there is a 1970s-era apartment building in a working-class neighborhood whose cornerstone is inexplicably inscribed with Latin axioms (and one Greek exclamation). I chanced upon it yesterday, and transcribed what I found there:

Mens sana in corpore sano
Omnia vincit amor
[followed by the seemingly contradictory]
Labor omnia vincit
Gutta cavat lapidem
Ex nihil nihil fit

At the bottom of this list, the sculptor appears to have signed his work:

Loran scupsit

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Litany of Humility

A friend of mine sent the following prayer, which was written by Servant of God Cardinal Merry del Val (above). Every cell in my body protests against it, which is how I know that I must say it every day, preferably several times a day.

O Jesus meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,
Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,
Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I,
That others may be esteemed more than I,
That in the opinion of the world, others may increase, and I may decrease,
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. Amen.

The Loudest Voice

I just re-read the Grace Paley story "The Loudest Voice," about a Jewish girl in 1930s New York who, because of her clear, loud voice and expressive reading, is chosen to narrate the school Christmas play. Her mother is against the idea at first, but her father reassures his wife:

"You're in America! . . . In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms . . . Here you got Christmas . . . . What belongs to history, belongs to all men. . . Does it hurt Shirley to speak up? It does not."

So Shirley Abramowitz is allowed to continue with rehearsals. The day of the performance comes, and her voice -- as the voice of Christ -- booms from the wings as the actions she describes are pantomimed on the stage.

"I remember, I remember, the house where I was born . . . "

Miss Glacé yanked the curtain open and there it was, the house -- an old hayloft, where Celia Kornbluh lay in the straw with Cindy Lou, her favorite doll. Ira, Lester, and Meyer moved slowly from the wings toward her, sometimes pointing to a moving star and sometimes ahead to Cindy Lou.

It was a long story and it was a sad story. I carefully pronounced all the words about my lonesome childhood, while little Eddie Braunstein wandered upstage and down with his shepherd's stick, looking for sheep. I brought up lonesomeness again, and not being understood at all except by some women everybody hated. Eddie was too small for that and Marty Groff took his place, wearing his father's prayer shawl. I announced twelve friends, and half the boys in the fourth grade gathered around Marty, who stood on an orange crate while my voice harangued. Sorrowful and loud, I declaimed about love and God and Man, but because of the terrible deceit of Abie Stock we came suddenly to the famous moment. Marty, whose remembering tongue I was, waited at the foot of the cross. He stared desperately at the audience. I groaned, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The soldiers . . . grabbed poor Marty . . . but he wrenched free, turned again to the audience, and spread his arms aloft to show despair and the end. I murmured at the top of my voice, "The rest is silence, but as everyone in this room, in this city -- in this world -- now knows, I shall have life eternal."

Later, the Jewish parents discuss the paradox of their children taking the lead parts in the play. One mother opines that the teachers showed poor taste in assigning the major roles to the Jewish children, while the Christian children got cast in small parts if at all. But Shirley's mother explains: "They got very small voices; after all, why should they holler?"

Shirley listens from the other room to the talk of the grown-ups, then

I climbed out of bed and kneeled. I made a little church of my hands and said, "Hear, O Israel . . . "

. . . . I was happy. I fell asleep at once. I had prayed for everybody: my talking family, cousins far away, passers-by, and all the lonesome Christians. I expected to be heard. My voice was certainly the loudest.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Courtship of the Lost

In times when the Catholic world is healthy, God woos most of us through the institutional channels of family, Church, and culture. But even today, when . . . the object of His love is apt to spurn Him for worldly pleasures, still His quest continues, until either He wins the heart of His beloved or death intervenes. When His courtship is successful and His love returned, He forgives past neglect and pours out His grace unstintingly; repentant sinners are as likely as anyone to become saints. Blessed Josemaría Escrivá . . . urging his followers to welcome a penitent, once advised, "Remember that he may yet become an Augustine, while you remain mere mediocrities."

-- Donna Steichen, Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church

The Gospel reading for today was Matthew 18:12-14, the parable of the lost sheep, in which, as Donna Steichen notes, "Jesus describes the purpose of His life . . . [by comparing] God to a devoted shepherd who leaves the main body of His flock to search out a single lost sheep." As Christ emphasizes in the Gospel text, the shepherd, upon finding the lone straggler, will rejoice more over it than over the ninety-nine who did not stray. This is a salutary reminder of one of the great paradoxes of Christianity: that God's longing to pour out His mercy on his beloved is far above our own thirst for justice. How fortunate then are those of us who, in Isaiah's words, "like sheep have gone astray" (Isaiah 53:6) to be thus wooed.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

My friend Otepoti has either ruined my life completely or improved it immeasurably, depending on how you look at it, by turning me on to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. She sent me this clip, and I was compelled to watch almost every single one of their performances available on Youtube. It almost makes me wish I was still writing my dissertation, so that I'd have something pressing to keep me away from them.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

"There surely is need of youth and innocence"

Today is the birthday of journalist and poet Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918), most famous for his poem "Trees." Kilmer, who was killed in France in World War I, was a convert to the Catholic Church; his journey to Rome was driven by the illness of his little daughter Rose, who died of polio at the age of five.

While discerning the path of his conversion, Kilmer would stop every day at the Church of the Holy Innocents, above, in what was once the red-light district of New York City (it's now the Garment District), on his way to his office at the New York Times. This church has had an almost mystical importance in my life, and I know it's also a place of great spiritual significance to my friend and "antiphonal blogger" Fallen Sparrow. Kilmer wrote about the church to his spiritual advisor, Father James J. Daly:

Just off Broadway, on the way from the Hudson Tube Station to the Times Building, there is a Church, called the Church of the Holy Innocents. Since it is in the heart of the Tenderloin, this name is strangely appropriate - for there surely is need of youth and innocence. Well, every morning for months I stopped on my way to the office and prayed in this Church for faith. When faith did come, it came, I think, by way of my little paralyzed daughter. Her lifeless hands led me; I think her tiny feet know beautiful paths. You understand this and it gives me a selfish pleasure to write it down.

It's appropriate, then, that the Church of the Holy Innocents has a shrine dedicated to unborn children. Anyone who's lost an unborn child, for whatever reason, can enroll the child online in the Shrine's Book of Life. Indeed, the name of one of my four unborn little ones is inscribed there.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Saint Mary Magdalene, Sinner and Bride

One of the topics of my recently-defended dissertation is the patristic concept of the flux between sin and grace in the human soul (what this has to do with music is best left for another post). Some of the Fathers of the Church symbolized this flux with a hermeneutical pairing of Saint Mary Magdalene with the Mother of God.

The Church began to identify with the Virgin Mary in the twelfth century, but remnants of an earlier tradition remained, a tradition that looked to Saint Mary Magdalene, the penitent sinner, as its herald. An example of this tradition can be found in the commentary Origen (above) wrote on the Song of Songs in the third century. In a detalied exegesis of verses 1:5-14, in which he expounds virtuosically on the dichotomy of light and dark, Origen further suggests the similarity of the Bride to Mary Magdalene:

I am beautiful through penitence and faith . . . she who now says "I am black and beautiful" has not remained in her blackness . . . She became black . . . because she went down, but once she begins to come up . . . she will shine with the enveloping radiance of light . . .

[The bride] has repented of her sins; beauty is the gift conversion has bestowed; that is the reason that she is hymned as beautiful.

Origen thus conflates both the individual soul and the Church with, simultaneously, the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50 and the bride of Christ -- a bride in need of purification, "black by reason of her sinfulness but comely . . . because of her repentance [and] because she was loved by Christ." The bride's darkness, as Origen construes it, is not a physical trait but a spiritual one, for, though she is penitent, she is not yet wholly purified from her sin.

What's more, according to medieval legend, the Magdalene was herself a bride -- the bride at the wedding at Cana where Christ performed his first miracle (John 2:1-11); and her bridegroom was none other than Saint John the Evangelist, who, upon witnessing the apotheosis of Christ's divinity in the miracle of the wine, abandoned his bride to become the Beloved Disciple. In anger, Mary Magdalene embarked upon a life of carnality, until, encountering Christ herself, she was called to conversion, and eventually, through years of penance, rose from the depths of sin to the height of heavenly glory.

As Pope Paul VI noted in Lumen Gentium, the Church, "clasping sinners to her bosom, [is] at once holy and always in need of purification, [and] follows constantly the path of penance and conversion."

And as Bob Dylan says in the song "Ring Them Bells": "Time is running backwards, and so is the Bride."

During this season of Advent, when we, in all senses, step outside of ordinary time, may we reflect on these mysteries and seek to be truly converted ourselves.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Odetta 1930-2008

Growing up a dutiful child of the Left, the voice of Odetta was part of the soundscape of my formative years. Requiescat in pace.

This is a beautiful clip of the artist, in a groundbreaking couple of minutes of early 1960s airtime, with the white gospel singer Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Turning Everything to the Purpose

As my readers know, I love Brahms. Like many of the great composers, however, it must be acknowledged that he was not much of a mensch. His well-known apology for not having offended each person present at a dinner-party was a bit of a self-effacing joke on his part; he was notorious for his barbed, even cruel, wit and his heedless egotism, and, according to a friend of his youth, Brahms was "sehr herbe in Wesen": very bitter in his essence. This bitterness was tempered later, when, as one of the only composers in history to be acclaimed and handsomely remunerated in his own lifetime, he was able and eager to show extraordinarily generosity to those in need.

It has often been speculated that Brahms's personal problems were the result of childhood trauma. Although his home life seems to have been happy, his family struggled in poverty, and the young Brahms was forced to quit school and bring in an income to help out. So, from the age of twelve, Johannes played piano in the dockside brothels of his native Hamburg, the Animierlokale ("stimulation pubs"), providing music for the dancing of the St. Pauli Girls and their sailor clients.

Brahms was a virtuoso pianist and musician, and he was able to play the waltzes, polkas, and mazurkas that his employers demanded from rote memory, while at the same time reading from a novel or a book of poetry that he had propped up on the music rack of the whorehouse piano. But, as his biographer Jan Swafford writes,

the effects of the Lokale on him were deep and indelible. For the rest of his life, with friends or in his cups, Brahms would recall those nights as dark and shameful . . . . He told one beloved that "he saw things and recieved impressions which left a deep shadow on his mind" . . . . Between dances the women would sit the prepubescent teenager on their laps and pour beer into him, and pull down his pants and hand him around to be played with, to general hilarity.

And Swafford continues, in an aside which drew mocking derision from Charles Rosen when he reviewed the Brahms biography in The New York Review of Books in 1998:

There may have been worse from the sailors. Johannes was as fair and pretty as a girl [see the sketch of him, at twenty, above].

As Swafford notes philosophically:

Everything that happens plays a part in an artist's life. What elevates one and not another to the level of genius is not only talent and ambition and luck, but a gift for turning everything to the purpose. Many first-rank creators have had traumas in their lives -- Beethoven's drunken father and his chronic illness and deafness, Robert Schumann's mental illness . . . With Brahms, it was first of all the lowlife of Hamburg. The [St. Pauli] Girls shaped him along with the training in music, the novels and poetry. The . . . squalor of his home and the Lokale . . . and . . . the idealistic intensity of his studies and his reading -- all that is one with the story of his music.

I've been thinking about Brahms lately in light of my friend Fallen Sparrow's recent brutally honest posts about his struggles with intimacy. Fallen and I had a discussion about his use of the word "monstrous" to describe some of the women he'd been involved with before he found sobriety. His violation as a teenager by an older woman is monstrous indeed, and I hope and pray that, as Brahms was able to do, Fallen will be able to temper the poison that was given him into medicine that he might use to heal the sick. There are people around him who need that medicine, and who need to receive it from him in particular.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

His Eye is on the Sparrow

Dear readers, please pray for my friend Fallen Sparrow, who is mining the depths of his soul as he discerns his true vocation. (If you haven't been over to his blog yet, take a look around there. He writes with disarming honesty, in a voice that is almost painfully beautiful.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"Yes, Brahms is evil . . . "

I've just stumbled upon this with pleasure.

More on Brahms from his contemporaries:

I have played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard!

-- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1886

The real Brahms is nothing more than a sentimental voluptuary... He is the most wanton of composers... Only his wantonness is not vicious; it is that of a great baby... rather tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise.
-- George Bernard Shaw, 1893


Brahms is just like Tennyson, an extraordinary musician, with the brains of a third rate village policeman.
-- George Bernard Shaw, 1893

I guess that's why we love him so much.

As Brahms himself said:

To realize that we are one with the Creator, as Beethoven did, is a wonderful and awe-inspiring experience. Very few human beings ever come into that realization and that is why there are so few great composers or creative geniuses in any line of human endeavor. I always contemplate all this before commencing to compose. This is the first step. When I feel the urge I begin by appealing directly to my Maker and I first ask Him the three most important questions pertaining to our life here in this world--whence, wherefore, whither? I immediately feel vibrations that thrill my whole being. These are the spirit illuminating the soul-power within, and in this exalted state, I see clearly what is obscure in my ordinary moods; then I feel capable of drawing inspiration from above, as Beethoven did. Above all, I realize at such moments the tremendous significance of Jesus' supreme revelation, "I and my Father are One." Those vibrations assume the forms of distinct mental images, after I have formulated my desire and resolve in regard to what I want--namely, to be inspired so that I can compose something that will uplift and benefit humanity--something of permanent value. Straightaway the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God . . .

and, on another occasion, upon leaving a dinner party:

If there is anyone here whom I have not insulted tonight, I beg his pardon.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Voices That Have Gone, Part 8: By Their Fruits

One day in early July of 2006, Soprannie and I were chatting by long-distance telephone. We both had newborn babies, and the huge energies that had been previously marshalled towards our singing were now being redirected. We spoke about that, and also about a recent recording of Handel arias by the remarkable mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (above). We found out later that she had died just a couple of hours before our phone conversation.

I was privileged to hear this luminous artist live on several memorable ocasions, including her legendary performance of Cantatas BWV 199 and 82 by J.S. Bach, controversially staged by Peter Sellars. Cantata 82, "Ich habe genug," usually performed by a bass soloist, is a gloss on Simeon's joyful utterance of recognition and desire for death at beholding Christ's Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:29-32):

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

In the Sellars staging, Hunt Lieberson appeared on stage in a hospital gown, with a male dancer in black holding the only light source, a bare bulb on a wire, and moving it with her as she traversed the stage. The ends of her once-luxuriant chestnut-brown hair were gathered up in a rubber band, and she was without makeup. She sat cross-legged on the floor to sing the second-movement aria, "Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen" (Sleep now, you weary eyes), and the voice that Peter Sellars has described as

filling the room and you don’t know where it’s coming from . . . going right to the heart of a suffering person, not to increase the suffering, but to heal it, to release it, to offer some kind of balm . . . shocking in its intensity, and then this incredible balm of compassion and tenderness, of generosity . . . is poured out . . . like a kind of liquid that is there to heal

seemed to well up out of complete stillness. Indeed, her stillness and near-nakedness were even more gripping if you knew that she had been battling breast cancer, the disease to which she would succumb five years later.

Lorraine Hunt had run off a few years earlier with the married composer Peter Lieberson, whom she met when she sang the role of Triraksha in his opera Ashoka's Dream at the Santa Fe Festival in 1997. They married after his divorce from his first wife, and she became, like him, a Tibetan Buddhist in the Shambhala lineage. My sister, a member of the same sect, who shared with Lorraine a spiritual director, told me that their teacher knew when Lorraine was dying, and called her on the phone in her final moments to offer instruction on crossing the bardo.

Even if one knew nothing of her life, one could tell from her singing that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was an artist who had known deep suffering. This kind of artist, one who has crossed the path of suffering, is vitally important to our age. We need voices like hers to lead us to a recognition of our humanity in all its brokenness, and to give us the hope of heavenly consolation.

One can certainly argue against certain choices she made, and one can worry, and one can pray for the soul of this artist who the British blogger Pliable has called "one of the rare elect." But one might be consoled to recall Christ's words in Matthew 7:16, "By their fruits will you know them."

An excellent profile of Lorraine is here. And, if you want a taste of the infinite stillness -- and the bending of time -- that was a part of her art, go here. The song is "Unbewegte laue Luft" (Motionless warm air) from the op. 57 group of Lieder by Brahms (Brahms didn't really write song cycles per se, like Schubert and Schumann did, but there's some evidence that he intended the songs he wrote under the same opus number to be performed together). The poem is by Georg Friedrich Daumer, and here is my translation (though I suspect that my friend Otepoti could write a better one):

Motionless warm air,
Nature in deep repose.
Through the still garden at night
Only the plashing of the fountain is heard.
But in my heart there well up hot desires;
But in my veins there swells
Life, and the longing for life.
Should your breast not also
Heave with more passionate longing?
Should the cry of my soul
Not also echo deeply in yours?
Softly, on ethereal feet,
Do not delay to float down to me here!
Come, oh come, that we might
Give each other heavenly satiety!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Feast of Saint Cecilia

Hymn to St. Cecilia

In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean's margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.
Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,
Moved to delight by the melody,
White as an orchid she rode quite naked
In an oyster shell on top of the sea;
At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing
Came out of their trance into time again,
And around the wicked in Hell's abysses
The huge flame flickered and eased their pain.
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.
I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong.
I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
By suffering.
All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.
I shall never be Different. Love me.
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall,
O calm of spaces unafraid of weight,
Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all
The gaucheness of her adolescent state,
Where Hope within the altogether strange
From every outworn image is released,
And Dread born whole and normal like a beast
Into a world of truths that never change:
Restore our fallen day; O re-arrange.
O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.
O cry created as the bow of sin Is drawn across our trembling violin.
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain.
O law drummed out by hearts against the still
Long winter of our intellectual will.
That what has been may never be again.
O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breath
Of convalescents on the shores of death.
O bless the freedom that you never chose.
O trumpets that unguarded children blow
About the fortress of their inner foe.
O wear your tribulation like a rose.
Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

-- W.H. Auden
(Benjamin Britten's setting of Auden's text can be heard here.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Ambiguous Virtue of Thrift

My friend Mrs. T at Fine Old Famly has indulged me by writing a post on one of my favorite topics, bargain-shopping at the grocery store. I've found since moving that, now that we're out of the orbit of the greater New York metropolitan area, we have also been freed from the grip of the Gotham Dairy Cartel. For reasons I could never fathom, dairy products are amazingly expensive in New York City. I never bought Land-O-Lakes butter in New York, for instance, although it's my favorite butter, because it cost $5.99 a pound in the local supermarket. Here, it's $2.99, so I buy two pounds at a time.

I've always found bargain-hunting, whether for groceries or anything else, to be a fun and exciting adventure. Most of my fabulous college teaching wardrobe was culled from thrift stores, as were many of my recital gowns, including the one I wore at my dissertation recital last spring, a vintage Pauline Trigère evening dress from the 1960s. I even bought my wedding dress at a thrift shop, a strange and remarkable experience which must be saved for another telling, for $200. (It happened to be the shop in the basement of Fallen Sparrow's favorite haunt for weekday Mass, a Church that I believe is redolent with graces.) That's me in the dress, above.

So I thought nothing of walking over to the local Catholic Charities thrift shop the other day, with my two-year-old in the stroller, to get a few shirts for his new two-mornings-a-week nursery school. When we got there, the place was packed, which seemed unusual, but I found some very nice things for him in good condition. I got onto a long line to pay, and when I got to the counter, the volunteer staff lady asked for my paperwork. I didn't understand, and she explained that Wednesday was "voucher day"; apparently certain social service programs here include a clothing allotment, which Catholic Charities offers to provide. She let me pay, since I had exact change, but I left feeling like I had done the wrong thing. Maybe getting the nicest possible thing for the least amount of money is no virtue if others need it more than you. I felt like I was taking something that belonged to someone else. It made me wonder if thrift really is a virtue, or just a perversion of Yankee individualism.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

God's Nightingale [UPDATED]

Today is the feast day of Saint Mechthild of Hackeborn (1241-1298), shown above at left with her sister Gertrude; both women were Cistercians in the renowned Saxon abbey of Helfta, which was also the home of Saints Gertrude the Great, who shares her feast day, and Mechthild of Magdeburg, whose feast is November 19. Mechthild of Hackeborn was the abbey's choirmistress, and her beautiful singing voice earned her the sobriquet "God's Nightingale."

Like Saint Augustine,
Mechthild experienced a heightened sense of hearing, which afforded her the grace of auditory visions. In one, Christ proffered a harp drawn out of His Sacred Heart, explaining that the harp was Himself, and the strings were “all chosen souls which are all one in God through love”; then He, who Mechthild described as the “high chanter of all chanters,” struck the harp and led “all the angels with delectable sound” as they sang the hymn Regem regum Dominum: "O come, let us worship the Lord, the King of kings, Who is himself the Crown of all the Saints." Her visions were transcribed and published in the fourteenth century as the Liber specialis gratiae, which was translated into middle English as The Booke of Ghostlye Grace. The Liber also became popular in Florence as La Laude di donna Matelda. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the beautiful lady who Dante hears singing "Venite, benedicti patris mei" on a riverbank in Canto XXVIII of Purgatorio, and who is later identified as Matilda, is in fact Saint Mechthild.

May Saint Mechthild of Hackeborn pray for us, that our ears and voices may be opened to hear and proclaim the truth.

UPDATE: After looking more closely at the image above, I'm starting to doubt whether the figure on the left is really Mechthild of Hackeborn. As a fully-professed Cistercian nun, she would be wearing the same habit as her sister, Gertrude (known as Gertrude of Helfta to distinguish her from Saint Gertrude the Great), shown on the right. I'm wondering now if the figure on the left is actually Saint Mechthild of Magdeburg, who had been a Beguine -- a woman living in a lay community of the faithful -- before joining the abbey at Helfta; as such, she would have worn a different dress and habit before profession. There is indeed some confusion in the biographical records of these saintly women, owing perhaps to the remarkable plethora of mystical Mechthilds and Gertrudes all in Helfta at the same time.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

"Arthur McBride"

I've been trying to post this video, but have been encountering some problems, so you'll need go to Youtube to view it. It's a performance of the beautiful song "Arthur McBride," masterfully played and lyrically sung by Paul Brady in a 1977 live performance.

It's a strange irony that the most beautiful Irish songs are also often the most explicitly, even violently, political ones, including this one, about the failed 1798 uprising (also the subject of the wonderful historical novel The Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan, Caitlin's dad).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Music and Morals, Part 6: Augustine of Hippo

Today is the birthday of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Doctor of the Church, who was born in 354 in what is now Algeria. Augustine's conversion from Manicheanism to Christianity was accomplished through the sense of hearing; as he wept in a garden in Milan, unable through the action of his will to free himself from his slavery to sexual sin, he heard the voice of a child repeating, "Pick up and read, pick up and read [tolle legge]." He picked up a Bible that was at hand, opened it, and read Saint Paul's instruction to the Romans:

Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in lusts
(Romans 13:13-14)

and his conversion was complete.

Augustine, who had written the treatise De Musica before his conversion, struggled mightily afterward to define an appropriate Christian response to the sensual pleasures that music confers. In Book 10 of Confessions, he writes with palpable anxiety of the urge to

[have] the melody of all the sweet songs with which David's Psalter is commonly sung . . . banished not only from my own ears, but from the Church's as well.

He was ultimately able to reconcile his love of music with the hatred of the memory of sin that it evoked by rationalizing that it was not the singing that moved him, but rather the content of what was sung. Indeed, he frequently refers to his own conversion using the language of music, and, specifically, of singing. In Book 9 of Confessions, for instance, he writes of the desire to praise God for granting him the gift of faith by singing a song (invoking Psalm 26) from the very depths of his being:

[Converts wish] to sing from the marrow of our bones, "My heart has said to you, I have sought your face, your face [O Lord] I will require.

And in his Commentary on Psalm 32, Augustine glosses that Psalm's famous opening verse:

The old song belongs to our old selves, the new song is proper to persons made new . . . Brothers, sing well.

The liturgical music performed at his baptism seem to have entered as deepy into Augustine's physical body as into his soul, inpiring the cleansing tears that reflect the ritual water of baptism itself. Augustine describes it in Book 9:

I wept at your hymns and canticles, moved deeply by the sweetly-sounding voices of your church. The voices flooded into my ears, trut seeped into my heart, and . . . tears streamed down, and to me it seemed they were good.

In 1838, Franz Liszt wrote to his friend Joseph-Louis d'Ortigue about Raphael's painting of Saint Cecilia in ecstasy surrounded by SS. Paul, John the Evangelist, Augustine, and Mary Magdalene (top; the second image is Botticelli's rendering of Augustine), which he had seen on a trip to Bologna. The painting impressed him deeply, and he interpreted it as an allegory of the artist's ability to perceive and propagate the divine truths revealed through the sort of heightened sense of hearing that had brought about Augustine's conversion itself. Liszt considered Cecilia, "that virgin, ecstatically transported above reality," to be the exemplar of the artist, who translates divine sounds in such a way that they can be understood by the masses, and he saw the three saints who flank her as representing varying degrees of comprehension of music. As he described Raphael's rendering of Augustine (second from right):

His face is serious and grieved . . . . Having waged a constant war against his senses, he is still fearful of the fleshly snares hidden in the appearance of a celestial vision . . . as one who had been seduced and transported far from God's way by the lure of paganism, he is asking himself . . . whether these harmonies that seeem to descend from heaven are not actually deceptive voices -- a contrivance of the devil, whose power he knows only too well.

May Saint Augustine intercede for us, that we may be given true hearing and be able to discern between the two.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

"Freedom danced on blood roses . . . "

On the battle-field of Marengo reflections come flying around in such flocks that one can almost believe that they are the same which many travelers have suddenly abandoned there in a hurry, and which now go sweeping about. I love battle-fields; for, terrible as war is, it still sets forth the spiritual greatness of man, who has gone so far as to defy his mightiest hereditary enemy Death. And just so with this battle plain, where Freedom danced on blood roses her wanton bridal measures. For, in those days, France was a bridegroom who had invited all the world to a wedding, and then, as the song says,

"Hurrah! upon the bridal eve,
Instead of pots, they broke
Aristocratic heads."

But, alas! every inch which humanity advances costs streams of blood, and is not that paying rather dear? Is not the life of the individual worth as much as that of the entire race? For every single man is a world which is born and which dies with him; beneath every gravestone lies a world's history. "Be silent," Death would say, "as to those who lie here," but we still live, and will fight on in the holy battle for the freedom of humanity.

-- Heinrich Heine, Journey to Italy (1831)

"Barack and Me"

A wonderful post by my friend Tertium Quid.

Happy Birthday (Re-post from November 8, 2008)

. . . to Servant of God Dorothy Day (1897-1980), shown above at Mass with César Chávez and Coretta Scott King.

In her own words:

"'[P]hysical sensations' allured me. I lived a social-activist Bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village, New York City. I think back and remember myself, hurrying along from party to party, and all the friends, and the drinking, and the talk, and the crushes, and falling in love. I fell in love with a newspaperman named Lionel Moise. I got pregnant. He said that if I had the baby, he would leave me. I wanted the baby but I wanted Lionel more. So I had the abortion and I lost them both. . . .

I hobbled down the darkened stairwell of the Upper East Side flat in New York City. My steps were unsteady. My left arm held the banister tightly. My right arm clutched my abdomen. It was burning in pain. I walked out onto the street alone in the dark. It was in September of 1919. I was twenty-one years old and I had just aborted my baby.

. . . . Lionel, my boyfriend, promised to pick me up at the flat after it was all over. I waited in pain from nine a.m. to ten p.m. but he never came. When I got home to his apartment I found only a note. He said he had left for a new job and, regarding my abortion, that I 'was only one of God knows how many millions of women who go through the same thing. Don’t build up any hopes. It is best, in fact, that you forget me.'

. . . . I always had a great regret for my abortion. In fact, I tried to cover it up and to destroy as many copies of The Eleventh Virgin [her 1924 autobiographical novel, in which she wrote about the abortion] as I could find. But my priest chided me and said, 'You can’t have much faith in God if you’re taking the life given to you and using it that way. God is the one who forgives us if we ask, and it sounds like you don’t even want forgiveness — just to get rid of the books.' I never forgot what the priest pointed out — the vanity or pride at work in my heart. Since that time I wasn’t as worried as I had been. If you believe in the mission of Jesus Christ, then you’re bound to try to let go of your past, in the sense that you are entitled to His forgiveness. To keep regretting what was, is to deny God’s grace."

(See "Dorothy Day's Pro-Life Memories" by Dan Lynch.)

John Cardinal O'Connor, the late Archbishop of New York who opened her cause for canonization, said of Day:

"[A]fter becoming a Catholic, she learned the love and mercy of the Lord, and knew she never had to worry about His forgiveness. (This is why I have never condemned a woman who has had an abortion; I weep with her and ask her to remember Dorothy Day's sorrow but to know always God's loving mercy and forgiveness.) She had died before I became Archbishop of New York, or I would have called on her immediately upon my arrival. Few people have had such an impact on my life, even though we never met."

Servant of God Dorothy Day, pray for us all.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

If You're Lucky

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no.

Into the big enamel tub
half-filled with water
which I had made just right,
I lowered the childish skeleton
she had become.

Her eyelids fluttered as I soaped and rinsed
her belly and her chest,
the sorry ruin of her flanks
and the frayed gray cloud
between her legs.

Some nights, sitting by her bed
book open in my lap
while I listened to the air
move thickly in and out of her dark lungs,
my mind filled up with praise
as lush as music,

amazed at the symmetry and luck
that would offer me the chance to pay
my heavy debt of punishment and love
with love and punishment.

And once I held her dripping wet
in the uncomfortable air
between the wheelchair and the tub,
and she begged me like a child

to stop,
an act of cruelty which we both understood
was the ancient irresistible rejoicing
of power over weakness.

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to raise the spoon
of pristine, frosty ice cream
to the trusting creature mouth
of your old enemy

because the tastebuds at least are not broken
because there is a bond between you
and sweet is sweet in any language.

"Lucky" by Tony Hoagland from Donkey Gospel. © Graywolf Press, 1998.


May we be lucky enough to have our hearts broken open by love for our enemies, whoever they are.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Just to Clarify

As some of my readers know, I've been in the midst of a novena to the Holy Spirit to direct me in how I should vote this election -- or, to be specific, whether I should sit this one out, as I have often done in the past, or swallow hard and vote for McCain. As my friends and intimates are aware, and as I mentioned in a previous post, I find Obama an appealing figure, but, because of his extreme anti-life policies, I have never intended to vote for him. That post, in which I mulled over my interior dilemma, seems to have sown the seeds of what would become a full-blown denunciation by a former close friend of mine, as well as by a commenter whom I don't know personally, perhaps because I tried to rationalize the pro-choice position (which is one that I used to hold) without attempting, however, to justify it. A later post, in which I described a dream I had in which I was instructed by the Holy Spirit to vote for Obama, inpired a full-scale condemnation of me, one that employed half-truths, exaggerations, and hurtful falsehoods. I have no counter-condemnation to inflict on my detractors here, however; only prayers for those who -- like the pro-choice politicians and rank-and-file whom I sought to explicate, if not to justify, in my earlier post -- undoubtedly believed that they were doing the right thing.

So, just to be clear here, in case I haven't been in my comments box: I'm voting for McCain. I disagree with virtually all of his positions, and I have found his campaign divisive and disturbing at best, but I've reached the point where I believe that my faith requires a discipline and obedience that, while the execution of it is personally quite umpleasant for me and my pride, compel me to take a stand for the most helpless members of our society. Though, as I've expressed previously, I am somewhat jaundiced about the ability of presidents and the desire of Supreme Court justices to change abortion politics in this country, I feel like it's a necessary act of hope for me to cast this vote, and to do so for those weak and voiceless ones whom we cannot see. (I sincerely hope that no one from my family of origin is reading this post, because I have yet to come out to them, and I'm not quite ready for that. You may call me a coward; it wouldn't be the worst thing I've been called in the past few days).

I am truly sorry if my musing about my inner political and familial conflict gave scandal to anyone. It was not at all my intention to do so. I suppose that I shouldn't have posted about my dream to begin with; in all honesty, I thought it was a silly and ironic dream, not, as I believe I've made clear, any sort of true instruction from the Holy Spirit. I believe, however, that the decision I've come to, which I began to approach after reading Fallen Sparrow's blog post on voting, is in fact the fruit of my novena.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

On Dreams and Evil

Lately I've earned some detractors on this blog, who have asserted that I'm in league with the devil because I dreamt that the Holy Spirit instructed me to vote for Obama. In case anyone missed it, let me say it again: this was a dream. I.e., it was nighttime, and I was asleep. We don't control the content of our unconscious lives, as was well known not only to Freud, but also to the Fathers of the Church. Nonetheless, some commenters believe that even posting about such a dream proves that I am cooperating with evil, in spite of the fact that I have no intention of voting for Obama, regardless of who's telling me to.

I think an important point that's been lost on my detractors (it amazes me that I have them, because certainly neither my blog nor I is important enough to have earned them) is that evil is nefariously subtle. If evil looked hideous and wore a big sign around its neck that said "evil," most people -- yes, even me -- would run from the chance to cozy up to it. The reason evil has such a foothold in us and in our world is that it disguises itself as goodness, truth, righteousness, and beauty. For instance, if my dream were in fact inspired by the devil, he could certainly SAY he was the Holy Spirit and appear to be LIKE the Holy Spirit. The ability of the enemy to disguise himself as the very Author of Goodness has been well documented, which is undoubtedly the reason that when Saint Faustina (above) told her confessor that Jesus had been appearing to her, he advised her to ask the apparition what she had said in her last confession. When she did so, Our Lord told her that He had forgotten - which was proof that He was Christ: the enemy would no doubt have ticked off a list, but, as God told Jeremiah, "I will forgive their sins and remember them no more" (Jeremiah 31:34).

And, because Mercy is so hard for us to understand, the words of Christ to Saint Faustina bear repeating here. Some quotes taken from her Diary:

"I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to my Merciful Heart. I use punishment when they themselves force me to do so; my hand is reluctant to take hold of the sword of justice. Before the Day of Justice I am sending the Day of Mercy. " (1588)

"I am giving mankind the last hope of salvation; that is, recourse to my mercy." (998)


"Let the greatest sinners place their trust in my mercy. They have the right before others to trust in the abyss of my mercy. My daughter, write about my mercy towards tormented souls. Souls that make an appeal to my mercy delight me. To such souls I grant even more graces than they ask. I cannot punish even the greatest sinner if he makes an appeal to my compassion, but on the contrary, I justify him in my unfathomable and inscrutable mercy. Write: before I come as just Judge, I first open wide the door of my mercy. He who refuses to pass through the door of my mercy must pass through the door of my justice." (1146 [39])

It certainly is confounding that the greatest sinners have the most right to God's mercy. But let's not forget that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15:7). May we all appeal to the Abyss of Mercy, and seek to pass it on to others.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Doctor is In

As of today, I'm Dr. Pentimento.

The image above, "The Awakening Conscience" (1854) by William Holman Hunt, is one of the subjects of my dissertation.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mourning Into Joy, Part 3: Is There a Doctor in the House?

Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sin is covered. Blessed is the one to whom
the Lord shall not impute sin.

-- Romans 4:7-8

I'm going back to New York in a couple of days to defend my doctoral dissertation, "Music, Sin, and Redemption in Victorian Visual Culture." It's an exploration of a mostly-forgotten aspect of the portrayal of salvation history in the visual arts -- a trope dating from the patristic era that equates music with sin, and its abandonment with redemption. This trope, or so I contend, for various reasons reapppeared in 1850s England, and can be seen in certain paintings (as well as literary treatments) of fallen women from that time. The preeminent example of the music-sin-redemption conflation, however, as I have discussed in previous posts, is no woman, but rather David, the great musician who became king, the egregious sinner who was nevertheless a man "after God's own heart" (Acts 13:22). David, after being awakened by Nathan from denial of his sinfulness (adultery with Bathsheba, resulting in a son who dies in infancy, and the contrived murder of her husband Uriah on the battlefield), casts down both harp and crown in mourning, or so he was commonly portrayed as doing in medieval illuminated incipits of Psalm 51 (the "Miserere"). David is shown above, in a sixteenth-century painting by Lucas Cranach, spying upon Bathsheba as she bathes; note that he has his harp with him; having not yet seduced Bathsheba, he has not yet discarded it in grief.

I am honored by the presence of Thomas H. Connolly, the authority on Cecilian iconography, on my dissertation committee, especially because his work has been a revelation to me both in my scholarship and in my journey towards God. His book Mourning Into Joy: Music, Raphael, and Saint Cecilia is nothing less than a chronicle of salvation history, and his friendship has been a great gift. I was led to his work by various inexplicable events in my first week of graduate school, and to him personally seemingly by chance by a young woman who'd left the novitiate of the Sisters of Life to become a nurse, whom I met once and never saw again; she had been a member along with Connolly of a Catholic student-faculty consortium at the University of Pennsylvania, where Connolly taught until his retirement.

When I was confirmed, the bishop asked, upon hearing my confirmation name, if I were a musician. When I answered in the affirmative, he instructed me to "pray to Saint Cecilia often." I have often forgotten to do so; Cecilia is so far away from our own time and experience, and my main man these days is Fr. Hermann Cohen, like David a sinner, a Jew, and a musical penitent. But I would like to ask those readers so inclined to please speak to Cecilia about me, even if just one word, between now and October 31. I hope that my defense will not only earn me my degee, but will also afford glory to God, the true author and revealer of all beauty. Please also ask for help for my son, from whom I've never been away before, and his father, who'll be taking care of him solo.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Barack My Vote? UPDATE

I'm taking down this post, as it apparently enraged an esteemed friend of mine, a journalist who'd just written a McCain endorsement, and who accused me in an email of giving moral scandal by being an apologist for Obama's pro-abortion policies and suggested, perhaps rightly, that the spirit instructing me in my dream was that of the enemy (I suppose I should call him an esteemed former friend, because he also used the email to question the sincerity of my conversion and to break off our friendship).

I just want to reiterate that the original post was about a DREAM that I had, and that, as I stated previously, I don't usually believe in the truthfulness or accuracy of dreams.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Amazingly, my new neighborhood has a cluster of streets named after the giants of German and Austro-Hungarian classicism and romanticism. There are streets named after Goethe and Schiller (both pictured above), as well as a Mozart Street, a Beethoven Street, and a Schubert Street (sadly, no Schumann or Brahms), and the unidiomatically-spelled (and perhaps -pronounced) Haendel and Hayden [sic] Streets. Perhaps I will be happy here.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

On the Radio

All alone in my new home and feeling lonely and at loose ends, I turned on the radio to find one of my favorite pieces being broadcast, Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Handel, op. 24. This gave me one of those little shivers of deliciousness that affirm that we are never really alone, for someone else who knows and loves this piece was surely hearing it at the same time as I, and then, of course, God's hand is in all of it too.

Update: I never found out who the pianist was, because my husband and my son came home at the very end.

Get Out My Vote

I have tried to keep politics out of this blog, and I have little stomach for it in most cases anyway, but Fallen Sparrow has written another of his typcially breathtaking posts, this one about the current presidential political conflict in the context of eschatology, and it has gotten me thinking.

I will start off by saying that, unless I'm able to discern that I should do otherwise, I don't expect to vote in the upcoming election. This is not a glib choice, and is actually quite a personally painful one. As some of my readers know, I grew up in an idealistic and committed left-wing family, and the natural choice of my heart, and even of my blood -- my family has had an intergenerational commitment to the civil rights movement going back about seventy-five years, and, coincidentally, that branch of the family is based in Chicago -- would seem to be Obama. And in fact, though I'm not exactly sure what he stands for, Obama is a powerful and moving symbol to me of change, and of the hope that there might be a real chance of healing the festering racial misunderstandings and injustices that still divide our country.

I am, however, repelled by Obama's understanding of abortion rights, so I most likely won't be casting that vote. Still, I hasten to say that I think the furor raised over his stance on FOCA and the "Born-Alive" bill misses the point entirely. I am convinced that Obama, like many if not most pro-choicers, truly believes that, while abortion is a personal tragedy and even a moral scandal, the compassionate stance is to ensure that it's legal. I know, because I was on that side myself, and I can't tell you how many women I've met who say, "While I would never have an abortion myself, I think other women who need to should be able to" (I used to find that complacent opinion particularly devastating after I had my own abortion, and the question of need is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this attitude, but these are issues beyond the scope of this blog post). To call Obama (or any other pro-choicer) a baby-killer or a willing accomplice in evil is wrong and misguided, and only serves to further balkanize the debate. I'll say it again: pro-choicers believe that keeping abortion legal represents compassion towards women in need, and even towards children. If you disagree, as I do, then go out and change hearts. It's better to light one candle, etc.

Nor can I in good conscience vote for McCain, whom I used to respect but whose recent campaign has rather sickened me. To vote for the Republican ticket because of life issues would be, to quote Samuel Johnson out of context, the triumph of hope over experience. The president of the United States has virtually no say over the legality of abortion in those states, as we've clearly seen with the Bush 43 presidency. Regardless of who a President McCain would appoint to the Supreme Court, I don't believe Roe v. Wade will be overturned in our lifetimes. To do so would cause political upheaval; if the current Court overturned Roe tomorrow, there would be carnage in Congress on November 4. Does anyone seriously believe that your congressman wants to go back to his constituents and take a stand when he's finally in a position to vote on a piece of real legislation? High moral dudgeon is easy, but with a real, not sham, bill in Congress or a referendum on a state ballot, careers would be made and lost in an instant, and no one in power now wants to see that happen. And, even if Roe were overturned, abortion would undoubtedly remain legal (with some restrictions) just about everywhere.

I also think there are other criteria on which to choose the leader of the free world, and McCain fails my litmus test on most of them. Any symbolic pro-life aura reflected upon his presidency by his running mate would be seriously mitigated by his own stated support for preemptive war and the torture of prisoners.

In short, I am unable to determine who here is the lesser of two evils. I feel stymied, and, frankly, upset about sitting out this crucially important election, but at present I feel (to make another oblique Doctor Atomic reference) like Arjuna on the battlefield, who has lain down his arms and declared that he will not fight.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

New Home

I write from my new city. The move was something of a disaster, with more going wrong even than usual with this sort of thing. To make a long story short, the moving company's estimate of time and labor turned out to be wildly off the mark, and it took five men almost three days to pack and move a two-bedroom apartment. Granted, I have a piano, but it's a small one; there were also those seven bookcases. But, to compound matters, it turned out that the estimator had also made a gigantic error in estimating the cost of all this, and because so much else had also gone wrong, the moving company decided to write off the difference. So all's well that ends well.

Our new home is a half-house, two stories plus a basement and garage, for exactly half the rent of our old two-bedroom apartment in the inaccessible outer boroughs of New York. But my new hometown is one of the depressed cities of the Northeast, so I imagine the low rent is a reflection of the low desirability of my new city as a place to live. It is beautiful here, however. The city is surrounded by mountains whose names no one appears to know.

Before we left, I stocked up on British sweets. My old neighborhood, with its large population of recent Irish immigrants, featured an impressive selection of English and Irish candy in just about every deli and corner store. Devotees say that there's no comparison between the English Cadbury bars and the American version, and I don't know when and where I'll be able to find things like the Cadbury Flake bar (above) again.

And we just acquired a washing machine and dryer. I am giddy with excitement as I await the delivery and installation. In New York I would wheel my grocery cart down to the corner laundromat every week and do six loads of laundry at one go, but that's not how it's done here, except by students and the very poor. So, while my fabulous college-teaching wardrobe hangs unused in my new walk-in closet, I am poised to become more like the mother in We Help Mommy and do the wash every day; there's even a clothesline here to hang it out on. Perhaps my son will even become as helpful as the two little ones in the book. Right now, he's mostly interested in the novelty of our flight of stairs, and throwing things down them.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Batter my heart"

Anyone who's seen Doctor Atomic, or clips of it on Youtube, will recognize the "Gadget," as the Manhattan Project scientists called it, above; there is an exact replica of the bomb onstage for the second act of the Met production (it was there for the entirety of the San Francisco version).

This site
gives a brief history of the actual event that John Adams's opera dramatizes, the test of the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos in 1945.

H/T: The Big City

Happy Returns

No, not another post about pastry. Today is the birthday of Virgil, Nietzche, Italo Calvino, P.G. Wodehouse, and Maria Puzo (I'm not making this up).