Monday, June 30, 2008

Fr. Elijah

I just finished reading Fr. Elijah by Michael D. O'Brien, whose painting and writing I discovered last winter. Although at first I found the novel to be overly talky and rather slow going, before long I couldn't put it down. There are some beautiful, even visionary passages relating to the title character's memories of the war (he is a Jewish convert, a Polish Hasid who had been hidden by a righteous gentile in Warsaw before his protector was arrested and deported to Auschwitz - the young boy who would become Elijah escaped), and some absolutely gripping scenes of subtle psychological battle - warfare, really - between the forces of Christ and Antichrist.

It is also a novel that is shot through with an ethos of intense suffering on the level of the individual soul, and with the notion that suffering is redemptive and even beautiful; one of the images toward the end, in a scene in which Fr. Elijah has an epiphany in the desert, is of the light of heaven shining through the holes in Christ's hands as He holds them over the world. This is one of the few novels (along with The Brothers Karamazov and Clara by Janice Galloway, about the great nineteenth-century pianist Clara Schumann) that I truly regretted coming to the end of.

Friday, June 27, 2008

" . . . those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise . . . "

I just got the best birthday present ever (my birthday is tomorrow, the feast day of St. Irenaeus). Really Rosie (the author of the post directly below, as well as this one), had her jeweler friend Bonnie make me a pendant inscribed with an excerpt from "The Troparion of Kassiani":

I shall kiss Thy most pure feet and wipe them with the hairs of my head, those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise, and hid herself for fear.

The tiny text goes around in a circle, like the locket with the text from 1 Corinthians 13 in Bonnie's collection of religious jewelry on her website (I was going to post a picture of the Kassiani pendant, but it didn't come out well).

Really Rosie has reminded me on other occasions that, in spite of the fact that my parish church lacks the sense of fellowship and true community that I long for, I can find those things elsewhere in my life. She is right.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Music and Morals, Part 5: Wannabe [A Guest Post by Really Rosie]

I made it through the wilderness
Somehow I made it through
Didn’t know how lost I was
Until I found you.
I was beat
I’d been had
I was sad and blue
But you made me feel
Yeah, you made me feel
Shiny and new.

When I mention to people that I was a Madonna wannabe (as in “I wanna be like Madonna!”), it makes them laugh. It’s not something you’d expect if you knew me. But somewhere between the time I was a little girl in pink smocked dresses and the time I was a straight-A high-schooler, there was Jamy, and there was Madonna.

We were eleven years old. Jamy was from the outskirts of the city, and I was a suburban girl. She was an only child and a latchkey kid, and the kind of girl who you knew would probably soon be into boys and drugs, but for the time being talked about prank calls and shoplifting and knew what clothes and music were cool. She used to make up elaborate fantasy games at recess, and sometimes I was lucky enough to be allowed to join in.

I adored Jamy, but I never felt secure in her esteem. I thought she was my best friend in the world, but each day when I came to school, she would name a different classmate who was her best friend. I would have done anything for her attention, which she gave to me sparingly and grudgingly. She made fun of me constantly: “Here I am, I’m Rosie, with my sandals and my dresses and my long hair, skipping down the street.” Or once she told me that she knew that whatever she said or did to me, I would still be her friend and follow her around. I would call her every night after dinner, and we would talk for a long time. My mother tried to convince me to skip a night and see if Jamy would call me, but I was sure that she wouldn’t, and that therefore the only way I could talk to her was if I did the calling.

Jamy knew what we should be “into,” and what she was into in 1985 was Madonna. It started with Jamy singing “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” and teaching them to me, and it evolved into full-on hero worship. Soon I was buying record albums with my tooth-fairy money and playing them on my Fisher-Price record player. I was memorizing lyrics and buying fan magazines, cutting out every picture of Madonna I could find, and collaging my bedroom walls. Jamy would sleep over, and we’d play records and dance, tie up our hair with tights and wear ripped clothes and proclaim ourselves “sleazy.”

The music was -- well, I didn’t exactly get it. I had to ask my mother what a virgin was, and I wasn’t quite sure I understood what “material” meant, even after it was explained to me. There was something that scared me a little about the song “Burning Up,” but I liked the opening notes of “Borderline,” and the exuberance of “Lucky Star.” I knew my parents disapproved of the lyrics, the sex, and the pseudo-Catholicism, which onl made me want to love the music more. I enjoyed the looks of shocked disbelief I got when my parents heard me sing a lyric like, “Unlike the others I’d do anything/I’m not the same, I have no shame/I’m on fire!”

I’m not sure when or how things went awry. I started getting into trouble at school. I was frequently made to sit in a chair in the hallway outside the classroom. I double and triple-pierced my ears with safety pins multiple times. I wore eyeliner, rubber bracelets, and fingerless gloves. I started shaving my legs. Once or twice I went to school wearing only a thigh-length black t-shirt and underpants. I started getting into fistfights. I kicked another girl in the head once after I’d already pushed her down. I was angry and hurt and I stopped letting people touch me. Once I half-heartedly tried to strangle myself in the back room at school with the long plastic bead necklace I was wearing. I got suspended and nearly flunked out of sixth grade.

Maybe it was because of Jamy’s fair-weather friendship, or maybe the music that I played constantly but barely understood; but, whatever the reasons, I started hating myself. I used to lie on my bed and gaze up at the life-size poster of Madonna and take everything in, the "Boy Toy" belt, the messy bed-head, the crucifixes, the gloves, the half-closed eyes and half-open mouth. I would wonder who she was, what she was thinking, what she could teach me. And I would wonder who I was. Would Madonna save me from myself if I was her number-one fan? In the rare photos of me taken at that time, I look angry and lost.

When I was twelve, my parents decided at take me and my three younger brothers to Israel in anticipation of my bat mitzvah. I didn’t want to go. Why should I go to a far-away country that had nothing to do with me, to celebrate a milestone that I wasn’t even sure I cared about?

We stayed in Israel for a full month, touring around the country and visiting relatives. My father had hired Laura, a young American ex-pat, to drive us around in a van and serve as our tour guide. And somehow -- starting on the first day we arrived in Israel, and Laura led us through a little Havdalah service, the closing prayers at the end of the Jewish Sabbath, in front of the Western Wall -- I felt something inside me change. There was something familiar to me in the stones of Jerusalem, the green and blue of the Galilee, and the dust of Masada. There was something lyrical in the spoken Hebrew that I’d always found to be so obtuse on the page. Something sweet to be tasted in the persimmons and even the lemons from the tree in my cousins’ backyard. I had always believed in God, but Israel was a whole country of holiness. I opened myself to the experience, and was amazed at what I saw and felt.

And as I am as influenced by people as I am by countries, or music, or literature, I watched Laura. I saw her wait three hours between eating meat and eating dairy and resolved to do the same. She heard me singing in the back of the van and told me I had a nice voice; it made me want to sing more. And I found myself singing not Madonna, but the prayers from the children’s Shabbat service: “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” Laura told me I was pretty; it made me examine myself in the mirror.

When I came back from the trip, I couldn’t wait to finally call Jamy and tell her all about it. I dialed the phone, breathless with excitement, and Jamy answered. Before I could even begin, she said, in her usual scathing tone, “I’d personally never go to that country. So dangerous, with all those Arabs. . .” And I never heard the end of her thought, because I hung up on her. Two or three days later, for the first time ever, Jamy called me. And I told my mother to tell her I wasn’t home.

Perhaps it was right after I had hung up on Jamy, or perhaps it was a day or two later, but I soon realized that I could no longer listen to Madonna. She wasn’t who I wanted to emulate, she wasn’t the direction I wanted my life to take. Where in her music was the music of the Jerusalem souk, the cool salty thickness of the Dead Sea, the green of the olive trees? I had seen and felt beauty, and it wasn’t Madonna. I went into my bedroom and tore down every single picture. For years afterwards, I would have to resist the urge to run when I heard a Madonna song on the radio.

I listened to the song “Like a Virgin” today. It’s bubble-gum pop at its worst: synthesizer, drum machine, untrained vocals. Madonna sounds like she’s singing in a tunnel and using only part of her voice; you want to tell her to try to breathe and use the whole instrument. She sighs; she moans a little. The words fail to titillate or shock me anymore; perhaps they were always this devoid of the forbidden mystery of sex, but I just didn’t know it at eleven.

I suppose we are constantly asking ourselves who we want to be. For a while, it looked like I really could have become a juvenile delinquent. Instead, I threw myself wholeheartedly into Judaism for a time. It still colors my life, my actions, my decisions, the way I see the world. I have been and I am an actor, a wife, a mother. Who I want to be is always evolving. One thing I know for sure, though, especially when I revisit her music: I don’t want to be like Madonna.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


One of my favorite songs by Brahms, op. 47, no. 3, sung by the Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, accompanied by her longtime collaborator Bengt Forsberg. The text, an adaptation by Johann Ludwig Uhland of an old German folk poem, is, in translation:

I have not seen my beloved this whole week;
I saw her on a Sunday, standing before the door;
That thousand-times beautiful girl,
That thousand-times dear heart,
I would to God I were with her today.

I will not leave off laughing this whole week;
I saw her on a Sunday, going to Church.
That thousand-times beautiful girl,
That thousand-times dear heart,
I would to God I were with her today.

It is one of the most perfect songs ever written.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Music and Morals, Part 4

I just got back from a mini-road trip to another city where my husband had a job interview. On the way back, the muffler fell off our car -- luckily, near an exit on the interstate -- and we found a muffler shop where the kind young auto-body fellow fixed it free of charge. My son and I waited in the front of the shop, where the radio, predictably, was tuned to a classic rock station. The Who's 1975 song "Squeeze Box," which I hadn't heard in years, came on, and I found myself listening carefully and liking it in spite of myself. It's a well-crafted and well-played song, with some nice touches, like the entrance of the banjo in the third chorus, and Roger Daltrey's funny and skillful imitation of a woman's voice in a verse repetition, while all but the rhythm instruments drop out. I almost sang along, and then I felt abashed, because I really shouldn't like this song; it is, after all, completely and pointlessly obscene.

This got me thinking about rock music in general. It's not exactly news that both the music and the lyrics of a great deal of rock exploit human longing, especially sexual longing. Does this mean that someone who is trying to carry out the injunction to chastity according to one's state in life is bound to abjure rock? Does rock provide an open door to sexual temptation? This raises further questions: does rock lend itself particularly well to other kinds of exploitation, for instance, the manipulation of human loneliness and vulnerability by the advertising industry to sell products? Is there a rock-industrial complex?

One of my favorite albums of all time is Liz Phair's 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, which Phair claimed was a song-by-song response to the Rolling Stones's Exile on Main Street. The album is raw and brilliant, and I don't think anything she's done since comes close to it in quality. But I gave my copy away, along with a lot of other things, when I got married; I don't think I would listen to it now.

I remember having a discussion once with my late friend and mentor John Allitt about the Beatles. I was chagrined to hear him place much of the responsibility for the disintegration of British society in the 1960s at their feet. John had seen many of his students at the Central College of Art in London go over the edge on drugs, and he believed that the Beatles's music and espoused philosophies had spurred these students onward to destruction. Could he really mean it? The Beatles, arguably as important to Western music as Brahms, and as well-loved by me? Could he possibly be right? Then again, how is a Beatles-loving Christian supposed to take John Lennon's utopian, anti-Christian sentiments in "Imagine"? If you love this music, are you supposed to view it through a lens of ironic distance or cultural superiority?

St. Augustine of Hippo, who had loved music prior to his conversion, struggled mightily afterward with what might constitute a Christian response to the sensual pleasre that music evokes. He went so far as to describe in his Confessions his urge to have "the whole melody of sweet music which is used to David’s Psalter, banished from my ears, and the Church’s too." He was able to quell his conscience on this matter by focusing on the texts rather than the melodies.

Fellow interpreters on the blogosphere (to use Kyle Cupp's felicitous phrase), what do you think?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Two B's

My two-year-old woke up at five in the morning today and couldn't get back to sleep, so I brought him into the living room to play. I turned on the radio and heard the unmistakable sound of a Brahms cello sonata, the opus 38, no. 1, in E minor, which, as often happens when I hear Brahms by chance, almost brought me to my knees. I've loved Brahms since childhood, and remember having conversations about him with my nearest-in-age brother, G., when we were teenagers; I had not studied music theory at that point and didn't know the principles of harmony and voice-leading, but I tried to tell G. that I loved Brahms because his music was "vertical" rather than "horizontal." What I was referring to, though I didn't know how to say so, was Brahms's reliance on harmonic progression rather than melodic line to advance the emotional meaning of his pieces. Although he could write beautiful melodies, some of his most interesting pieces are devoid of the soaring, lyrical lines which are characteristic of his somewhat earlier Romantic contemporaries. Brahms's melodic motives tend instead to be obscured by his use of delayed harmonic resolution, often in the form of sixth chords, which impart a sense of both resignation and unfulfillable longing to his music. When I hear his music, I feel as if I'm being led one step to the side of my everyday life, into a slightly parallel reality of deep contemplation. It is a somewhat jarring sensation these days, when I have so many things to do in the moment; gone are the days when I could listen and contemplate at leisure. I suppose this is one of the great luxuries of driving a car, which I don't do - the ability to carve time out of the quotidian to listen and contemplate, to go into the denser, moister life that's at the heart of the brittle, outer one. (I try to sing some Brahms Lieder every time I have the chance to perform a solo recital, but that's not very often, and because my professional life as a singer was largely focused on Italian repertoire, there is not much demand for my work as a Brahmsian.)

For another wonderful musical moment, go to one of my favorite blogs, The Western Confucian, where American-expat-in-South-Korea Joshua Snyder has a video up of Joan Baez singing Bob Dylan's "Love is Just a Four-Letter Word," with Earl Scruggs helping out on the banjo. I love Baez's chaste, lyrical singing style, which always seems so anachronistic for both her times and her persona.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Vocal Vocations

I got the following email from one of the lay Benedictines for whom I gave a concert earlier this month; they had been praying for my pregnancy.

The news is sad indeed. And there is a lot of sadness, there is no getting around that. We have been praying for you and I informed the inner circle. . . .

And there is more to pray about, if you think back to our conversation in the garden. I am thinking about the total direction of your life, as you prayerfully weather each event and especially weather the direction of these somewhat grisly priests who, orthodox as they may be, seem unhelpful, at least as taken without the required grain of salt.

Concretely my prayer is that you will more and more be able to discern through the sad and the happy events how the Spirit is calling you to a lay vocation where your unique gifts, your motherhood and your song, are used to bless this broken world.

Love in Christ.

This is really something to think about. Right now I'm just stymied. I hope my vocation doesn't end up looking too much like the picture above.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Solidarity Forever

Rod Dreher has a post up about cohousing, which is evidently a new idea to him (it's not to me; I had a vaguely revolutionary boyfriend once who was interested in trying it, and had even gone to visit a cohousing community upstate to see if it might be for him; he was disappointed, though, that this particularly community was centered around caring for its elderly members, as his unstated, but real, hope was to recreate the free-love atmosphere of 1967).

Rod Dreher's post was timely for me. I miscarried over the weekend, and, since I knew this would happen and that I would need help with things like housework and childcare, I made a few phone calls on Friday while out with a friend and our children to try to arrange this with family members. My friend asked if I couldn't call my parish to find someone who could bring over a meal or two. The notion surprised me; I would never even have considered it, because that sort of thing doesn't happen in my community. I wonder it this is an indication that American Catholicism has diverged irrevocably from its roots in immigrant communitarianism, and it calls into mind all kinds of questions about the uncomfortable relationship between Catholic solidarity and American individualism (the latter of which, incidentally, Joan Didion blamed for the fiasco of the 1960s youth rebellion). Perhaps some of you are lucky enough to live in parishes or other faith communities where the members approach one another in the spirit of Christian charity. I wonder what that might be like. As it is, my experience as a Catholic has had little of the sense of loving community about it, which is something for which having an online community is a kind of antidote.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Angel of Mercy

When I went for my ultrasound last week, I asked my good friend J. to come with me. J. had been my NFP instructor before my marriage, is a biologist, and was newly pregnant with her third child. I was very grateful for her support when I learned that I would have another miscarriage. The next day, in an awful coincidence, she miscarried too. She sent the following email message to her friends:

Dear Friends,
Many of you know that we were expecting our third child.
The baby was only 27 days old (from conception) when our good Papa called him Home.
We named the baby Angel.
We are looking forward to being reunited with our Angel in Heaven.
Peace and Love to you all.

She closed with a quote from St. Faustina's Diary:

Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible,
look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might
not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to
Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Bad News

My pregnancy is not viable. I'm supposed to be eight weeks now, but an ultrasound today showed nothing more than my five weeks' ultrasound did. I'm not shocked; I was very fearful about this pregnancy: right away it seemed that the numbers were not going up they way they should have been; but I am sad. I was so hoping to welcome a new little one in January.

At the same time, I am deeply convinced that God is merciful all the time. I know in my bones that His will is mercy, and I can say that flatly, even if I will never, on earth, be able to understand the reason for this loss, or the others (and I don't think the reason is "chastisement"). "My grace is sufficient for you," as St. Paul quoted Him: "For my power is made perfect in weakness." I can only pray for this action in my own life.

Thank you to all who have been praying for me!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

All Mercy, All the Time

Although the semester is over, I found myself back at the music department today to meet with a student from my writing class over a disputed grade (I gave her a B plus; she asked me to change it to an A minus; I agreed because of her perfect attendance and hard work in the course). The university is in a poor but historical area, and after my meeting I decided to walk to a nearby church and sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament, something I have been wanting to do more of late. When I found the church closed, I nearly cried. I walked along, intending to go to a different subway station than usual, and suddenly I came upon one of the friaries run by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (pictured above). I knew it was one of theirs when I saw the collection of beat-up old vans out front covered with pro-life bumper sisters. I know the Friars (commonly called the CFRs) through their connection with the Sisters of Life, their sister community; the Sisters have an apostolate to post-abortive women, and I participated in their retreats a few years ago, becoming very close to some of the nuns, and later sang in benefit concerts for them. I took my courage into my hands and went up and rang the buzzer; I figured I needed prayer, and I had happened upon the right place; in fact, I had been praying for the CFRs themselves just the night before.

A tall, lanky English brother answered the door. I told him who I was, and asked the brothers to pray for me. I told him about my pregnancy, my long-ago abortion, the two pregnancy losses that my former confessor had totted up against it, and my desire for God's mercy. He stood with me in the hot sun and prayed with me right there, but not before saying, quietly and with a firm joy: "God IS mercy."

Bringing It All Back Home

In response to my recent post on Joan Didion's essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," Maclin Horton directed me to his conversion story, which was published in the National Catholic Register in 1981. In it, Maclin relates with eloquence and humility his own journey from the counterculture to the Catholic Church.

About the phenomenon of spring 1967, he says:

. . . it really seemed, for a month or two that spring, like a new world. The flowers were brighter, the new leaves greener, because a darkness had lifted. There were other people in the world who felt as I did. We were finding each other, and soon we would change the world or perhaps build another, where the strange haunting joy that seemed to hover near us would come to rest and be ours.

Soon, however, the utopian promise of the movement degenerated into hedonism and nihilism. Maclin says that at the time he followed "a hodgepodge of more or less pantheistic, vaguely Eastern religious beliefs," but observes that

[t]here is no essential distinction beween the One of Eastern contemplation and the Abyss of Western nightmare; the differece is that the Eastern mind attemps to respond to nothingness with a smile, while the Westerner wants to scream.

Of his gradual journey to Catholicism, he writes:

there was the puzzle of confrtonting smething which seemed wiser than anything around it and yet marred by strange superstitions such as transubstantiation and the infallibility of the Pope. And again there was the slow realization that things which appeared to be deformities were absolutely essential to the structure of the whole, and that things which appeared to be irrational were in fact the foundations of rationality, without which reason itself would wither and die.

Perceptively and provocatively, Maclin notes of his gneration:

It is a strange twist . . . which has made the term "conservative" applicable mainly to the partisans of industrial capitalism. Many of us -- the wandering religious fanatics, the agrarians and communitarians, the artists -- were part of a movement so conservative that there was no longer even a name for what we sought . . . We wanted a world in which fundamental realities -- spirit, earth, light, death -- would be visible in all their simplicity . . . . So we marched off to war and fought for the wrong side . . . But our army scattered in the night . . . Now I find myself at the gate of an old fortress, one of those we had attacked and which we had thought to be a place of darkness -- it had looked so grim in battle -- and I find it alive with light and music . . . . It proves to be the castle of the King . . . . sometimes I wonder why all the ex-hippies in the world aren't flocking to his service. . . . There is simply nowhere else to go.

Please read this wonderful essay. I wish that Maclin would turn it into a book, as he had originally planned to do; I want to read more.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

"Oh! Shrive Me, Father"

I'm just back from giving a concert at a very unsual place, a land trust operated by a lay Benedictine organization. Their concert hall is in a building called Saint Cecilia, which also houses a tiny chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. The program was one that I have done often, a selection of Victorian salon music with one of the foremost performers on the English concertina. One of our pieces is the Londonderry Air, sung not with the familiar text ("Danny Boy," by Fred Weatherley), but with the earliest known lyrics, published as "The Confession of Devorgilla" in 1814.

Devorgilla was a twelfth-century Irish princess, the wife of Tiernan O'Rourke, prince of Breffni. At the age of forty-four she eloped with a rival chieftain, Dermot MacMurrough, and a war ensued between the two factions. Dermot invited Henry II of England, known as Strongbow, to come to his defense, thus paving the way for the first Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. In the end, Devorgilla returned to her husband, and spent the rest of her life in good works, one of which was the establishment of the abbey at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, pictured above. James Joyce is referring to Devorgilla in Chapter 2 of Ulysses when Deasy remarks to Stephen Dedalus: "A faithless wife first brought the strangers to our shore here, MacMurrough’s wife and her leman, O’Rourke, prince of Breffni" (he mixes up the identities of the two men, however).

The song pictures the penitent Devorgilla in the confessional, seeking shriving -- absolution -- from the priest:

'Oh! shrive me, father - haste, haste, and shrive me,
'Ere sets yon dread and flaring sun;
'Its beams of peace, - nay, of sense, deprive me,
'Since yet the holy work's undone.'
The sage, the wand'rer's anguish balming,
Soothed her heart to rest once more;
And pardon's promise torture calming,
The Pilgrim told her sorrows o'er.

The charms that caus'd in life's young morning,
The woes the sad one had deplor'd,
Were now, alas! no more adorning,
The lips that pardon sweet implor'd:-
But oh! those eyes, so mildly beaming,
Once seen, not Saints could e'er forget! -
And soon the Father's tears were streaming,
When Devorgilla's gaze he met!

Gone, gone, was all the pride of beauty,
That scorn'd and broke the bridal vow,
And gave to passion all the duty
So bold a heart would e'er allow;
Yet all so humbly, all so mildly,
The weeping fair her fault confess'd,
Tho' youth had viewed her wand'ring wildly,
That age could ne'er deny her rest.

The tale of woe full sadly ended,
The word of peace the Father said,
While balmy tear-drops fast descended,
And droop'd the suppliant sinner's head.
The rose in gloom long drear and mourning,
Not welcomes more the sun's mild ray,
Than Breffni's Princess hail'd returning
The gleam of rest that shriving-day.

Two of the lay Benedictines told me separately after the concert that they believed my performance of the piece showed too much fixation on my own penitence. "God loves you," one of them said simply, an amazing thing to be told after a performance, and a good thing to hear.