Saturday, January 31, 2009

Pray for the Dead as if They Were Still Alive

I just read this in Heather King's Redeemed:

"I read a reflection by Dorothy Day . . . that because God transcends time, we can pray for the dead as if they were still alive; we can pray for God to be close to them with respect to problems or illnesses or crises they had when they were still alive, and the prayer somehow helps them with those problems they had when they were still alive."

Has anyone ever heard of this before? I hadn't, and I liked it.

There and Back, Part 1

While my journey back into the Catholic Church was a relatively swift one, spurred by a tangible experience of Christ's mercy and forgiveness back in 2002, my journey out of it had been long, slow, and meandering. I was never quite severed from my belief (someone once said that being a Catholic is like being from the South, something that marks you for life and that you can never really shake, no matter how you try); rather, I tried to pile a lot of other, strange beliefs on top of it, mostly in order to make the way I was living seem rational and justify it in my own mind. My trip away started in adolescence, when my parents, who were struggling in their marriage, stopped taking the family to Mass. From that point, I started down a path of a kind of casual, flaky neo-paganism to which I later on made more formal commitments, and which I now see allowed a great deal of evil into my life -- not that the doors to evil had not already been wide open, unfortunately, since my childhood.

There's a certain type of intellectual/artistic woman in New York City (and no doubt elsewhere) who rejects traditional religion and social morality in the quest for freedom and self-realization, but at the same time craves the connection and sense of rightness that those more traditional practices convey. She tends to take up non-western spiritual beliefs, or to accrue an amalgam of eastern and occult practices which she undertakes mostly on her own and sometimes with others. These patchwork belief systems are attractive because they seem non-judgmental; most of the time, this woman is getting her heart broken over and over in her search for love, because that's how it is, and, having abandoned traditional mores, she can avoid being indicted for her sexual behavior; the synthetic and syncretic belief systems instead provide means of explaining the heartbreak and jettisoning the notion of sin. While this woman is almost bound not to admit it, she's really searching and hoping for a real love, one that will last, i.e. a traditional husband, but she's not allowed, by the standards of the company she keeps, to come out and say so. The morality of this company accepts that people will partner up and then drift apart, and that women can't expect commitment from most men, even after they've given all of themselves; though they may try to pretend otherwise, this state of affairs is usually devastating for the women in question.

I think that in many ways the accretion of beliefs that these women profess is meant to soothe their troubled souls from so much heartache, and to give them a sense of power in the face of such powerlessness. I've known many of these women; they've been friends, colleagues, family members, and respected teachers. I can see now what I couldn't see then: that moral relativism is a subtle ploy of the enemy, one that has a particular appeal to intellectuals, and that it leads to sin, excuses sin, and then perpetuates the cycle. The first stirrings I had that it might be a load of crap were when I would hear women of this type say about abortion: "Well, I would never have an abortion myself, but I am committed to other women's right to have them." Being post-abortive, hearing this was always like a kick in the stomach to me. You mean you DIDN'T think abortion was okay? At least not for you? And if it's not okay for you, why would it be okay for me, or for anyone else? I assumed that something that people were organizing about, marching for, professing, and demanding must be something, well, in the interest of the common good, but my pro-choice friends clearly thought abortion was a bad thing that other women (subtext: other, less-fortunate, women) should be able to have without questions or restrictions. Believe it or not, I found this shocking.

The disconnect in logic, morality, and compassion in this paradox began to awaken my sense of horror at my own abortion, as well as my acceptance of the need for real forgiveness, not the kind of self-made forgiveness cobbled together from the ideas encountered in books on meditation or the tarot. The shifting definition of the good -- that what would be repellent to me might be swell for you -- was understood by the women in my circle to be the price we paid for liberation, and heartbreak the price for freedom and the journey to self-realization. This was the real world, was the message: no longer the safe, constricted world of our mothers. The real world, real relationships, real love, were categorically NOT safe, and we were brave women, we told ourselves, for venturing out onto those choppy waters. Because there were so few tangible rewards in any of it, the journey itself, or so all the books claimed, was supposed to be its own reward.

I am one of the lucky ones who got out. This has meant a certain distancing, if not a complete break, from many of my old friends. It's also meant that I am forever, in a certain sense, marked by heartbreak. This is not to say that I don't have joy in my life; I do. Joy, however, does not cancel out heartbreak; in fact, real joy can never really be that distant from heartbreak, as we know from the Gospels. Joy and pleasure are not the same thing. Conversion has made me a different person, and yet I'm also the same foolish, misguided, deluded, and desperate woman I always was. Heartbreak has left a permanent mark on me, and I pray that it may be a sign to others not to go the way I went.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mercy Mercy Mercy

When I came to New York to deposit my dissertation last week, my first stop upon setting foot in the city was the Church of the Holy Innocents. My arrival coincided with the Hour of Divine Mercy, and I wanted to ask God for His particular guidance and mercy in the beautiful church that has been so important in my life. Holy Innocents has exposition all day long on weekdays, and so I was dismayed when I got there to find something that never happens: the church was closed. I was afraid that the parish had fallen victim to the Archdiocese's plans for realignment. I went to the rectory and leaned on the bell. No one came. Before walking away, I rang once more, and this time s young man answered, a parish volunteer who was there to work on a special project. I explained that I was visiting New York (how strange to say that!), and had wanted to pray in the church and say the Divine Mercy Chaplet. He told me that the church had closed early for Martin Luther King Day, but he let me in to say my devotions. It was a rare and mysterious privilege to be allowed to pray alone in silence in that holy spot, illuminated only by the candles lit by the faithful.

More Redeemed

From Heather King's memoir Redeemed:

“As for abortion, I’d had three by the time I was confirmed [a recovering alcoholic, King had a conversion and was received into the Catholic Church in her forties], and knew instinctively when I had them, and believe even more strongly now, that abortion is wrong. . . . I’m not saying I don’t understand any number of reasons why I had, and other women have, abortions, or feel driven to abortion, or feel there’s no other option but abortion, but an act of violence can never also be an act leading toward true freedom . . . We have to act as if the universe we long for is already in place, as if the kingdom of God is already here. And by believing it, and acting in accord with our belief, we bring it into being . . . a universe where we admit that actions have consequences and take responsibility for them . . . a universe where every child is welcomed . . . . In a way, [abortion is] a murder of ourselves: a murder of hope, of love, of the only reason we were put here, which is surely to care for and be kind to each other.”

Happy Birthday

To Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born on this day (in the old calendar, the feast of Saint John Chrysostom) in 1756.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Matchmaking 101

I'm still on my university music department's mailing list, and I forward the notices I receive of interesting concerts and lectures around New York to the students I've taught in the university's senior colleges over the past couple of years. One of my Music 101 students from the Spring 2008 semester wrote me back to tell me that she had been dating another student she'd met in the class, and that they'd gone together to some of the events I'd recommended.

It's good to know that I made, or at least facilitated, an appreciable difference (and I hope it's a good one) in at least two lives!

Thursday, January 22, 2009


A few years ago, a good friend gave me a subscription the The Sun magazine. I have clear memories of many occasions of clutching it to myself and weeping as I read it on the subway on my way to work. Although some of the writing was trite and the editorial stance predictable, there was usually something in each month's issue that would just kick me to the ground. Usually it was the "Readers Write" section, to which readers sent in their own meditations on a prescribed topic. The writing ability of that magazine's general readership was of an outstandingly high level, especially with respect to the ability to get right to the point using an economy of language.

I eventually stopped subscribing, mostly because of The Sun's well-worn hostility to traditional (i.e. Western) religions. Christianity was generally treated to reinterpretations from Gnostic gurus, or became the foil for a writer's reminiscence about his grandmother or about growing up in a tough ethnic neighborhood (in which case the Christianity was always of the Catholic variety). But there was one frequent contributor who was a professed Catholic, and whose work I usually found both moving and bitingly funny. Her name is Heather King, and I've just started reading her new book, Redeemed (pictured above).

I think I'm going to like it. She opens with an epigraph by Wittgenstein:

"The Christian religion is only for one who needs infinite help. That is, only for one who feels infinite anguish . . . The Christian faith -- as I see it -- is one's refuge in this ultimate torment. Anyone to whom it is given in this anguish to open his heart, instead of contracting it, accepts the means of salvation in his heart."

King explains:

"I don't know about you, but this is the kind of quote that makes me feel right at home."

I'm down with that.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Goodbye, All of That

I've come back to New York to finish up my business here. Today I am set to turn in my dissertation and sign out of the university, which will sever my official ties to this city in which I spent most of my life.

I lived variously in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan Valley, the East Village, and Washington Heights. I reached adulthood in New York. The city has undergone gradual but ineluctable changes in the past two decades in ways I could never have foreseen in my youth, and whose cumulative effect is startling, especially after coming back to the actual city, not to the city of my memories and my interior life, after time away. I've always believed that I know New York like the proverbial back of my hand, but now, since I was last here a couple of months ago, I already feel like a stranger.

Some things are familiar, but altered somehow. I stayed overnight with one of my brothers, who lives in a Brooklyn neighborhood (its backyards are shown above, in the snow) where I spent a great deal of time over the past twenty-some years. Through a set of fairy-tale-like circumstances, he has come to live in one of the most beautiful apartments that anyone could imagine. One window looks out over a courtyard covered with snow and criss-crossed by paths like a Kertész photograph; from another, one has the hypnotic, strangely beautiful sight of an endless parade of cars and trucks on the arching overpass of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the container cranes at the Port of Elizabeth. From my former knowledge of the neighborhood, I could never have conceived that a home like this could exist there. If I lived there, I would never want to leave the house (though outside it's just as charming), but would stay in looking out the windows all day (his wife works from home; I'm not sure how she can manage with all that distraction from the mesmerizing view).

But I couldn't stay and look out the window. I left my brother's at 7:30 in the morning. My path took me through the Lower East Side, where I saw a group of Chinese immigrants practicing a fan dance in the snow in Sarah Roosevelt Park, and I crossed the street where, a hundred years ago, my great-grandfather had a pushcart. I realized that, once my dissertation was deposited and the flurry of bureaucratic office visits and paperwork that went along with the process was over, I would have no more real business here. It was an astonishing thought.

Going through the administrative process at the university was bittersweet. The six years I spent getting my doctorate were among the happiest and most fulfilling of my life. I felt like I had finally found my place. I would walk from my day job to the university and back several days a week during my coursework and research years, and once I got to school, a sense of rightness would settle upon me, and I wanted never to have to leave. I hadn't felt that way at first, however. I recall that, at the music department's orientation in the fall of 2002, I was gripped with fear, sure I would fail. The next day's general university orientation was much more reassuring, though. One of the things that cheered that day me was a speech given by a woman doctoral candidate, who said, among other things, "You can get married in graduate school. You can have a baby in graduate school." Those possibilities were among my fondest wishes (though, as it turned out, they did not involve the beloved man who was my boyfriend had at the time. He moved away, and I met my beloved husband a few months later. My baby was born in the midway point of my doctoral work).

So my path away from the life I'd known for many years coincided with my doctoral studies, which were also a sort of path away from performing and towards teaching and scholarship. My work finished successfully, but so many other things in that old life did not. The psychic landscape of my New York is littered with bitter failures of all kinds. In a way, it is a countryside of utter brokenness, of devastating memories. Because of that, I'm not entirely sorry to leave; sometimes I feel as if our move away from New York is a hejira, a flight from danger (at least according to Joni Mitchell's definition of the word).

Still, I will miss New York terribly in so many ways. Most of all, I think, I'll miss New Yorkers. There is a beautiful kind of unspoken understandng among people of all origins here; people approach one another with a frank openness, mostly lacking in the preemptive suspicion and guarded hostility found elsewhere.

I don't know when I'll be back next, but I do have commencement in May.


Monday, January 19, 2009

More Dreams

Last night I dreamt that Condoleezza Rice and I were picking up patrons' lost and broken gold jewelry from the floor of the Great Hall at the Metropolitan Museum after closing time. Not sure what that one means.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Die Junge Nonne"

Dame Janet Baker sings one of Schubert's later songs, composed in 1825, in recital at Covent Garden. I'm guessing this performance took place in the late 1970s.

If you don't know the song "Die junge Nonne" (The Young Nun), you're in for an experience. The poem (text below, in German and English) is narrated by a nun who has taken refuge in religious life from the anguish of the world. Notice how the key changes from minor to the relative major in the third stanza as she describes her newfound peace, and the ringing of the bell in the high register of the piano (a bit of word-painting). Don't miss, however, the rumbling chords in the left hand of the piano near the end of the song, as the disordered theme associated with the young nun's past reappears, signalling that more turmoil awaits her.

The first time I performed in England, in 2001, I was asked at a dinner party afterward who my favorite singer was. I thought the other guests were going to make me a Dame of the British Empire myself when I answered that it was Dame Janet Baker, but it was -- and is -- true. Words cannot describe her superlative artistry. Oh, and Murray Perahia plays the hell out of the piano part, too.

Die junge Nonne (Jakob Nikolaus, Reichsfreiherr von Craigher de Jachelutta, 1797-1855)

Wie braust durch die Wipfel der heulende Sturm!
Es klirren die Balken, es zittert das Haus!
Es rollet der Donner, es leuchtet der Blitz,
Und finster die Nacht, wie das Grab!

Immerhin, immerhin,
so tobt' es auch jüngst noch in mir!
Es brauste das Leben, wie jetzo der Sturm,
Es bebten die Glieder, wie jetzo das Haus,
Es flammte die Liebe, wie jetzo der Blitz,
Und finster die Brust, wie das Grab.

Nun tobe, du wilder gewalt'ger Sturm,
Im Herzen ist Friede, im Herzen ist Ruh,
Des Bräutigams harret die liebende Braut,
Gereinigt in prüfender Glut,
Der ewigen Liebe getraut.

Ich harre, mein Heiland! mit sehnendem Blick!
Komm, himmlischer Bräutigam, hole die Braut,
Erlöse die Seele von irdischer Haft.
Horch, friedlich ertönet das Glöcklein vom Turm!
Es lockt mich das süße Getön
Allmächtig zu ewigen Höhn.

Here is my translation:

How loudly the howling wind roars through the treetops!
The rafters rattle, the house shudders!
The thunder rolls, the lighting flashes,
And the night is as dark as the grave!

Just like this, not long ago,
It raged within me too.
My life roared, just like this storm,
My limbs trembled, just like this house,
Love burst into flame, just like this lightning;
And my heart was as dark as the grave.

So rage then, you wild, turbulent storm;
In my heart there is peace; in my heart there is tranquility!
The loving bride awaits her bridegroom,
All cleansed by the purifying flames,
To eternal Love betrothed.

I await you, my Saviour, with longing gaze!
Come, heavenly Bridegroom, take your bride;
Rescue her soul from earthly bondage.

Listen: the bell rings peacefully from the tower!
That sweet tone invites me overpoweringly to the heights of heaven.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Aroma of Longing

Recently in the combox, some of us have been discussing longing. When I asserted that longing is the post-Romantic condition, Mrs. T corrected me: it is the human condition.

We live on one side of an old two-family house from the 1930s, and when we moved in, I had perhaps irrationally high hopes that our other-side neighbors, a young-ish married couple with no children, would become great friends of mine. But it was not to be. Soon after we arrived, they complained about our noise: our son, whose third birthday was nearing, is a very rambunctious boy, and my husband and I would talk in our bedroom, which abutted theirs, apparently past our neighbors' bedtime. We have tried to be sensitive -- I don't consider us a loud family (except for when I practice, when my husband plays the piano or his accordion, when my son is screaming, when I am yelling ... hmmm) -- but sometimes we forget. My husband was vacuuming the living room the other night when the wife called and said she had just gone to bed and could we please stop; it was, um, 8:30.

So this great friendship was not to be. But I have a kind of olfactory voyeurism into my neighbors' lives. The house has two separate basements, one for each side, with built-in chutes on the first and second floors to throw dirty clothes down to the laundry room. Whenever I open one of the chutes, I can smell what my neighbors are cooking. It always smells so good that I feel disappointed by what I'm cooking on my own side of the house (which is usually also quite good) and seized with longing for what they're having for dinner. They make a lot of popcorn, which is not something we have over on this side. And this morning, as I was throwing last night's pajamas down to the basement, I caught the aroma of their coffee. It was wonderful - cinnamony, inviting, seemingly nothing at all like the coffee I was brewing back home. I imagined what life must be like on the other side of the house: bathed in warm colors, with attractive, artsy knick-knacks strewn about. But my own coffee was good too, and the husband of the couple is getting his doctorate in something called post-subculture studies, so maybe it's just as well we didn't become friends.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Prayer Request

From Really Rosie:

Please pray for my friend R. She is twenty weeks pregnant with her third child, and went for a routine fetal anatomy ultrasound yesterday, which showed that she is carrying a boy with two markers that correlate with Down Syndrome. The doctor ordered an amniocentesis to verify, but the results won't be known for two weeks. Although they are Catholic, her husband has indicated that he would want to terminate this pregnancy if the amnio proves conclusive. R. is feeling guilty (she has two boys, and had been praying for a girl) and scared. Please keep her family and her new little one in your prayers.

"Having Confessed"

Having confessed he feels
That he should go down on his knees and pray
For forgiveness for his pride, for having
Dared to view his soul from the outside.
Lie at the heart of the emotion, time
Has its own work to do. We must not anticipate
Or awaken for a moment. God cannot catch us
Unless we stay in the unconscious room
Of our hearts. We must be nothing,
Nothing that God may make us something.
We must not touch the immortal material
We must not daydream to-morrow's judgment—
God must be allowed to surprise us.
We have sinned, sinned like Lucifer
By this anticipation. Let us lie down again
Deep in anonymous humility and God
May find us worthy material for His hand.

-- Patrick Kavanagh, from from Collected Poems © W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


I feel like I live in Russia, while everyone around me lives in America.

It's been blisteringly cold here, and, because I don't know how to drive, I've been taking my son to his twice-weekly nursery school on a sled (everyone else rumbles past me in four-wheel drive). One of the main reasons I chose this school was that it's in walking distance, about a half-mile away. We got the sled after I tried getting there in the stroller one day after a snowstorm. We were unprepared for the fact that after snowstorms in our new town, there is snow banked up at every curbside, and not everyone shovels the walk in front of their homes. I ended up making my son walk while I dragged the stroller behind me through the snow. A kind woman rolled down her windshield to ask if we needed help, and a crew of sanitation workers commandeered their garbage truck in our direction, thinking my car had broken down. It was too complicated to explain to them that we were recently arrived from a place where one doesn't need to drive. From the looks of us, we might as well have been from Russia.

My sister said that I reminded her of the Lapland Woman from Hans Christian Anderson's wonderful tale "The Snow Queen," who, because she never wastes anything, writes a message to the Finland woman on a dried cod. Let's hope that even these experiences won't go to waste.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

McNamara's Blog

Fallen Sparrow, the source of much that is excellent, has put me on to a blog that's right up my alley, McNamara's Blog. The eponymous author, a historian, works as an archivist for the Diocese of Brooklyn, and his blog is full of fascinating facts about Old (Catholic) New York.

(He also has a recent post up about Servant of God Sister Elizabeth Prout, above, in whom I have a special interest; an English convert, she founded the Passionist Sisters in England, the order to which the fictional opera singer Evelyn Innes, one of the subjects of my dissertation, repairs in retreat from the worldly sensuality of her life on the stage.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Remembering Father Richard John Neuhaus

Robot Boy, of all people, sent me the link to this brief but excellent profile of Fr. Neuhaus. When I had the time to read First Things regularly, I always turned to the back pages, Fr. Neuhaus's "While We're At It," first. He was a keen observer of the ironies of American cultural life, and I always learned something -- occastionally something truly heart-changing -- from his column. I cancelled my subscription in the end, in part because I was too busy teaching, parenting, and dissertating to read it every month, and also, it must be admitted, in part because I found First Things' editorial position, which sought to use pro-life rhetoric to justify support for the Iraq War, frustrating. I still don't have time to read it, but it is a real loss that we won't have Fr. Neuhaus's witty and compassionate voice to illuminate the coming years of the Obama presidency. If anyone could challenge the morality of abortion law on the basis of civil rights (a compelling and cogent challenge), Fr. Neuhaus could.

I heard Fr. Neuhaus say Mass once at Fallen Sparrow's parish, and was moved by the fatherly love with which he preached on the subject of chastity. I was saddened to learn later from the parish priest that a few of the communicants at that Mass, most of them young women students at Barnard, had complained about the content of his homily, arguing that infringed upon their freedom.

Fr. Neuhuas, requiescat in pace.

(P.S.: First Things is where I first read the excellent Mrs. T., and it was in Fr. Neuhaus's column that I first saw the poem "O Eve!")

Thursday, January 8, 2009

"It's time for Congress to rejuvenate the sexual appetite of America . . . "

Blogging will be light over the next couple of weeks: I'm revising my dissertation in advance of the deposit date later this month. I'm interrupting my work and my usual no-politics rule today, however, to bring you this sign of the coming Apocalypse (hat tip: Canadian blog Work in Progress).

Sunday, January 4, 2009

"Getting My Life Back"

A powerful reflection on motherhood and real life by Jennifer F. at Conversion Diary, which is a particularly appropriate read for me on the eve of my son's third birthday. Jennifer F. is a Catholic convert and a radical truth-teller.

(H/T: Tertium Quid at From Burke to Kirk and Beyond.)

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Crime of Inhospitality

Last night I dreamed that I was on trial in Cincinnati, a town I've never been to in real life (though I've performed in several other Ohio cities). I had committed the crime, it seems, of having come to town as a visitor and failed to show proper hospitality to its citizens. I acted as my own lawyer. Where, I asked in my defense, was the crime in being inhospitable, especially when I was a visitor? Wasn't it incumbent, rather, on the citizens of Cincinnati to be hospitable to me? And if lukewarm welcomes for strangers were prosecutable, there wouldn't be too many free men walking around, would there?

In spite of my efforts, it appeared that my conviction was likely; the prosecutor was also the judge. I planned to appeal.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Our First Parents [UPDATED]

Then passed forth into the quiet night an ancient and time-worn hymn, embodying a quaint Christianity in words orally transmitted from father to son through several generations down to the present characters, who sang them out right earnestly:

. . . Remember Adam's fall
o thou man
From heav'n to hell!
How we were condemned all
In hell perpetual,
There for to dwell.

Remember God's goodness,
o thou man,
And promise made!
How he sent his son, doubtless
Our sins for to redress:
Be not afraid!

-- Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872)

I found out at Mass on Christmas Eve day that it was also the Feast Day of Saints Adam and Eve. I had never thought of our first parents as saints, acclaimed by the Church as dwelling in heaven in the glory of God and interceding for us, their wayward children, on earth, but upon reflection it made a lot of sense.

Though disobedient to God and the authors of our own intrinsic sinfulness, Adam and Eve were saved through redemption. Christ, Saint Paul tells us, is the "last Adam" (1 Corinthians 15:45), who ransomed us from the ineluctable condition of sin into which we fell through the disobedience of the first Adam. And Mary, according to Saint Irenaeus (whose feast day, incidentally, is also my birthday), is the New Eve, who loosened "[the] knot of Eve's disobedience . . . by [her own] obedience. The bonds fastened by the virgin Eve through disbelief were untied by the virgin Mary through faith."

I have a particular love for the saints of the Old Testament, especially the penitent musician David, and I am going to be adding our first parents, Saints Adam and Eve, to my litany and asking their help in the new year.

A happy and blessed new year to a who visit here.

(To hear a very nice solo performance of the hymn that the the Mellstock Quire sing in Thomas Hardy's novel, go here.)

UPDATE: via Maclin Horton, a beautiful poem by a Trappistine nun about Mary as the consoler of Eve. From that page, you can also hear the exquisite musical setting of "O Eve!" by Frank La Rocca. Enjoy!