Sunday, September 27, 2009

Posts Taken Down

Dear friends, I have removed the three posts about my friend M.'s very difficult family situation, because if they came to her husband's attention it could contribute to her legal difficulties. Thank you for your continued prayers for her and her child.

Mendelssohn Duet

This is the artlessly beautiful "Gruss," number 3 of the Six Duets, op. 63, for soprano and alto. The text, a poem by the Romantic poet Eichendorff, was also used by Brahms in a melancholy, etheral setting for women's chorus.

Wherever I go and look,
in field and forest and plain,
down the hill to the mead;
most beautiful noble lady,
I greet you a thousand times.

In my garden I find
many flowers, pretty and nice,
many garlands I bind from them
and a thousand thoughts
and greetings I weave into them.

I must not give one, though, to you;
you are too noble and fair;
they will have to fade too soon;
only love without equal
stays in the heart forever.

Mendelssohn chose not to set the last verse, which gives the poem an entirely different meaning:

I seem to be of good cheer
and work to and fro,
and, though my heart bursts,
I dig on and sing,
and soon I will dig my own grave.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Vivian Marie Cupp

Kyle Cupp of Journeys in Alterity and Vox Nova lost his baby daughter yesterday, fifteen hours after her birth, due to the effects of anencephaly, which had been diagnosed in utero. Throughout their pregnancy, Kyle and his wife Genece were brave and loving witnesses to mercy and life. May God comfort them, and may Saint Vivian Marie pray for us.


I'm done with the first draft of my article, and am headed out of town tomorrow for a big family event back in New York City, so I thought I would take this opportunity to write a mini-post about a dream I had last night: I dreamt that I went to Rod Dreher's office, on a mission to ask him to tone down the vitriol on his blog (in all fairness, I believe most of the vitriol there lately has arisen out of the comboxes), but couldn't get the words out and simply put my head in my lap and burst into tears. Dale Harris, the late music critic who wrote for the Wall Street Journal, who was working in a neighboring cubicle, was appalled, and ordered me out. I was secretly flattered, however, because he scolded me by name. I think I'm feeling a bit guilty because my article, a review of a documentary film, was a touch hard on the film's director.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I'll Just Leave You With This . . .

R.I.P. Mary Travers (and Cass Elliot).

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Light Blogging

I am going to be blogging infrequently for the remainder of this month. I have to go out of town, and I have a fast-approaching deadline on an article I'm writing for a scholarly publication. If anything is burning to be posted, I'll be back before the first of October, but probably not otherwise. God bless you all in the meantime.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tantum Ergo Sacramentum

While doing my dissertation research, I made the acquaintance of an elderly laicized priest. I got in touch with him because, though not a professional scholar or musicologist, he had published an important piece of scholarship in the 1990s in a semi-obscure journal -- the only work on its subject written in English. I can't emphasize enough how invaluable his research was to my own, and I cited him copiously -- almost reverently -- in my dissertation, and sent him a copy when I was done.

He has put me on some sort of email list now, and forwards items about the usual sorts of things that appear to preoccupy elderly laicized priests -- the ordination of women and whatnot -- so I usually delete them without reading. Today, though, the subject line of his email caught my interest: "Real Presence and Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration." I have a great love for the practice of adoration, so I read the email, only to find that it was the text of a recent article by Fr. Richard McBrien, well-known professor of theology at Notre Dame, in the National Catholic Reporter. McBrien's article purports to analyze the revival of interest in Eucharistic adoration, and in so doing he descends from the theologically sound -- explaining that during the Canon of the Mass, the bread and wine, though they retain the properties of bread and wine, are changed sacramentally into the body and blood of Christ -- to the insulting -- scoffing at traditional beliefs and pious practices surrounding the Blessed Sacrament. Even so, I found his concluding sentence -- "Eucharistic adoration, perpetual or not, is a doctrinal, theological, and spiritual step backward, not forward" -- shocking, and in fact felt almost physically ill when I read it. This sort of thing makes me wonder if the Traditionalists aren't right when they hint darkly that the priests and bishops are actively seeking to destroy the Catholic Church from within.

The irony is that the musicological work my contact did in the 1990s was on Father Hermann Cohen, a.k.a. Père Augustin-Marie du Très Saint Sacrement, who initiated the practice of perpetual adoration at Sacré Coeur in Paris.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Scent of Water

As a child, I spent a great deal of time at the neighborhood library, which had a brilliant, sympathetic children's librarian who often recommended books for me. As I grew older, approaching adolescence, she told me that she thought I would love the English writer Eliazabeth Goudge (pictured above). For some reason that I no longer recall, I never did read any books by Goudge, until now. My friend Janet, whose acquaintance I made through one of the felicitous online encounters that are a particular pleasure of blogging (she comments frequently at Maclin Horton's blog, where there has been much discussion of Goudge lately), encouraged me to buy myself Goudge's novel The Scent of Water for my birthday earlier this summer, and I'm very happy that I took her advice.

The novel is about Mary, an unmarried, middle-aged woman who leaves her life in London to take possession of a house in an isolated rural village. The house has been left to her by a distant cousin whom Mary had met only once, on a luminous, life-changing occasion, when she was a child. Living there, Mary finds slow and quiet waves of grace and transformation breaking over her, and a healing of the past, which affect her neighbors in their turn. The book is prefaced by a quote from the Book of Job: "For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof was old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant."

As one preoccuppied with an awareness of the possibilities of grace, transformation, and healing of the past, I find the book to be profoundly moving and to offer a great deal of truth. One character, a writer, notes, "if you understand people you're of use to them whether you can do anything for them or not. Understanding is a creative act in a dimenstion we do not see." Later, Mary considers that "love alone doesn't go far enough . . . It must be charged with understanding." The desire to understand others, no matter how strange or repellent they seem, is, I think the root of the compassion I wrote about in the post just below this one.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mercy Is as Mercy Does

Yes, another post on single motherhood. This is the issue that just won't go away, at least for me, at least until I've finished this blog post.

When I came back to the Catholic Church in 2002, my return was not motivated by the shining example of faithful Catholics around me (admittedly, I didn't know that many). It was, rather, a vertical phenomenon. I had a personal, spiritual experience of Christ's forgiveness for the sin -- abortion -- that I thought could never be forgiven, in spite of the fact that I'd long since confessed and been absolved for it. I am a devotée of the Divine Mercy because I have known Christ's mercy most intimately in my own life, and I recognize that He is always pouring Himself out for us, and always challenging us to take up what He's poured out and to approach the suffering and the sin in our midst with a compassion modeled upon His own. Blessed Julian of Norwich wrote of how, at the beginning of her conversion, she "conceived a great desire, and prayed our Lord God he would grant me in the course of my life . . . the wound of compassion." I believe that compassion can only grow in us when we've come to recognize our own hopeless woundedness, and, moreover, that acting upon it requires us to incur and accept further wounds. Saint Faustina wrote in her Diary of receiving a vision in which she was given to understand that, when God looks at the world, he looks at it through the wounds of His Son. Thus, I believe, we are called upon to accept further wounds as we seek to alleviate the wounds of those around us.

This does not mean that we should descend to dangerous depths in the service of our brothers. It does mean, however, that when we condemn others' sinfulness, we are demonstrating both willful ignorance -- willful, that is, if we have read the Gospels and profess to follow them -- and extreme folly. I mean, Our Lord really couldn't have been much clearer when he said, "Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone."

Yet there is stone-casting aplenty on the Catholic interwebs, and the self-appointed moral scolds who profess our faith seem to take a perverse pride in their ability to detect and call out others' sinfulness. I can only ascribe their seeming indifference to the peril in which they place their own souls to a particular kind of blind spot. I've seen this blind spot up close many times since I started hanging around with conservative Catholics, most recently and hurtfully when a rather well-known Catholic writer and apologist who had been a very supportive friend (and a one-time suitor) misinterpreted something I had written about Barack Obama on this blog, and sent me a personal email in which he recited a litany of my past and present sins, giving prominent place to "the unspeakable crime that [I] committed against [my] own unborn child," which had happened long before he knew me, as well as accusing me of being in league with the devil. I cried about it every day for about two months, and sought the advice of a very trusted and holy priest to try and discern whether I was in fact abominably evil and had just conveniently chosen to overlook it. In the end, though, I had to conclude that this generally good man had been seized by a folly born of (self-) righeous anger, and had acted with dangerous precipitousness, and I started offering up prayers and sacrifices for him, notwithstanding the fact that I wouldn't be sorry if I never saw nor heard from him again.

This is why we have priests, I suppose: to help us to discern clearly, to bring us back from the brink of self-destruction, and to remind us that even the best of us frequently misinterpret the teachings of the Gospels, blinded as we are practically every minute of the day by our insane but innate urges toward pride and self-justification. Which brings me back to the point of this post. I have been reading the book pictured above, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, by two sociologists, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, who teach respectively at the University of Pennsylvania and Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. The two lived among and studied hundreds of single mothers in impoverished white, black, and Hispanic neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and found that, contra the commonly accepted wisdom presently abroad in the culture, poor single mothers do not disdain marriage. In fact, they revere and idealize it. The reality of their lives, however, and of those of the men who seduce them (often when the women are in their teens) with the heart-stopping line "I want a baby by you," results far more often than not in the early rupture of their fragile relationships. When a man says "I want a baby by you," the clear implication to these women and girls, even when the experience of friends and kin has demonstrated otherwise, is that the man will stay: the baby will be a bond between them, an unassailable pledge, and the women who become pregnant hope that they may be married when the man has proven he can provide for his young family. Neither a marriage nor a steady job is usually forthcoming, however; the early promise of love and family happiness is often disrupted when men, confronted with the pregnancy they'd desired, deny paternity, use drugs and alcohol, abandon their girlfriends and even beat them viciously, sometimes with the intent of inducing an abortion. And yet, almost all the young women studied say that their children were their salvation, spurring them to become mature adult women with new purpose in lives that had formerly been devastatingly bleak, which can't be entirely a bad thing.

I wish that the Catholic commentators who kick these single mothers to the curb would read this book. Perhaps then they would understand that there are other parts of the picture besides a sexual behavior that offends their sense of morality. They might then redirect their (self-) righteous anger away from poor women whom they believe have been led away by the monstrous Pied Piper of Feminism to the land where they can have all the illicit sex they want and force "taxpayers" to support the babies that result. These commentators might then learn that the great majority of these poor single mothers work, and they might also turn their attention to the social conditions -- among them the disappearance of urban manufacturing jobs that used to keep at bay the burgeoning of a poor underclass -- that have led poor young girls in blighted and dangerous neighborhoods into early sexual behavior and unwed motherhood. And, oh yeah, they might remember that men are involved too, and that the singleness of the mothers in question is usually due to their abandonment by the fathers of their children. (Then again, it appears that the latest rant of the above-linked commentator is indeed an attempt to hold men accountable for their sexual behavior, although she doesn't extend her logic to consider their impoverished partners who become pregnant outside of marriage.)

At any rate, in the end, I can only agree with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that "[i]f we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."

The only antidote for our massive blind spots is to do as someone once suggested:
"Dear friends, let us love one another." May God help us to follow this extraordinarily difficult and counterintuitive commandment.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Not an hour of the night goes by

This song is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking I know: "Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär" (If I were a little bird), a folk poem set by Robert Schumann. I've always loved it, and once sang it for a dear friend while we were driving from the suburbs back into New York City. She told me afterward that she found it so beautiful that she almost crashed her car.

While looking for a clip of it, however, I found many performances of the original folk song, which is exactly the same as Schumann's version, with the exception that it's in a major instead of a minor key -- which makes it a shockingly different song with an entirely different meaning. Here is a delightful performance.

The translation:

If I were a little bird
and had two little wings,
I would fly to you.
But since it cannot be,
I must stay here.

Although I'm far from you,
in sleep I'm beside you,
speaking with you.
But when I awaken,
I am alone.

Not an hour of the night goes by
that my heart doesn't awaken
And think of you,
and imagine that, many thousands of times,
you give your heart to me.

Above: "Solitary Tree" by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), one of the greatest artists of German Romanticism.