Florence Foster Jenkins and the Victory of Music

This evening, as part of my day off, I went to see Florence Foster Jenkins at the Georgetown movie theater.  Based on a true story, the film follows a NY heiress in 1944.  I followed her experience, watching with eyes of faith.  As the movie makes clear from the start, Madame Florence has no ear and even less voice, but she has a huge a heart for music.  Not one for  overly sentimental subjects, I was incredulous through the first third of the movie, but this story eventually touches deep truths.

Madame Florence’s love for music and what it can do for the human soul moved her to sing.  While her singing is (in a word) terrible, something  shines through it to win the admiration of many, including a packed house at Carnegie Hall.  It’s not just an affection for music, but rather a reverence for it… and a celebration of life even in the midst of great imperfections.  For Madame Florence, those imperfections included a life threatening 50-year battle with syphilis (contracted from her unfaithful first husband), as well as the setting for the whole film, World War II.

There’s a certain tragic clarity when someone who can’t sing adores music… when a woman fighting daily for her life can be a celebrated socialite and rouse the spirits of young men wounded in war.  It says to us, “there’s more to this.”  Florence Foster Jenkins’ music was, perhaps, a witness to hope.  For that, it deserves a standing ovation.

Hubert Robert and Inspiring Imagination

H. Robert, “Discovery of Antiquities”

It’s been a while since I last paid vows in that awe-filled agora of the aesthetic, the National Gallery of Art.  So I was thrilled to find on exhibit the works of Hubert Robert (1733-1808).  This French luminary was known in his time not only for his mastery of architectural painting and classical history, but also for his identity as something of a bon vivant in Parisian and Roman society… quite an achievement given the French Revolution consumed many of his working years.

Detail: H. Robert, "Maderno's Portico of S. Pietro"
Detail: H. Robert, “Maderno’s Portico of S. Pietro”

Robert’s particular genius was to evoke the grandeur of ancient Rome.  His nick name, “Robert of the Ruins” comes from his love for depicting the remains of the imperial city.  Often, he would combine various monuments into what is known as a capriccio, “trick,” depicting scenes that never actually existed.  Looking at Hubert Robert’s work through eyes of faith, what can we see?

Like most who’ve tried to capture “ROME” in stone or on canvas, Robert conveys three sensations: warmth, la vita, and greatness.

H. Robert, “Hermit Praying”

Located as it is in central Italy, Rome has always been a warm city.  Snow is so rare that when it fell on the Esquiline Hill, Pope Liberius dedicated the Basilica of Mary Major on the spot!  This gave rise to the Roman saying, “when it snows, we build churches…” but I digress.  Looking out over Rome on any given afternoon there is a sense of haze… sometimes that of modern smog, but more often a glow of sorts; perhaps the result of the city’s stones radiating the day’s heat back into the atmosphere.  It slows down life.  Roman’s walk slower, take their time at meals and are rarely in a rush to work.  Romantics suggest this is a nod to the city’s eternity… a state in which rushing is pointless… I like that idea well enough, but practical experience taught me, things are slow because it’s just plane hot.  Robert captures this warmth in his paintings, and perhaps especially in the hazy strokes of his favorite medium, red chalk.

H. Robert, “Archaeologists”

La Vita is a concept characteristic of Italians.  It’s their sense that life will be what it will be and we have very little control over it.  Consequently life should be enjoyed.  Historians and commentators suggest that La vita rises from centuries of conquest as foreign powers literally marched all over the peninsula.

Detail: H. Robert, "Maderno's Portico of S. Pietro"
Detail: H. Robert, “Maderno’s Portico of S. Pietro”

This sense of la vita is typified most eloquently by the Italians’ use of a joyfully sardonic or ironic humor throughout their literature.  Robert captures la vita by juxtaposing monumental architecture with the realities of peasant living; it’s subjects pulsing with triumph, tragedy and a healthy does of groundling laughter throughout.

H. Robert, “Architectural Capriccio” of the Pantheon and Porta della Ripetta

Finally – and most important for us – Hubert Robert’s Rome is a GRAND vision.  Think for a moment, have you ever seen a “humble” vision of Rome?  No.  Everything from Ben-Hur to Gladiator to the works at the Gallery show Rome as mighty.  To be sure, when one walks the via Sacra in the Roman forum, it is impressive.  The fact that at it’s height the city was home to well over one million people… two thousand years ago… is astounding.  And yet… our images of Rome are often even greater than her reality.  One sees this on display in Rome today.  The Victor Emmanuel II Monument (the famed “Birthday Cake”) was built to show Rome’s resurrection under the Kingdom of Italy (1870), but – with the exception of the Colosseum – it dwarfs all of the monuments that once stood in the forum… which is one reason that modern Italians generally consider the monument to be garish in its disproportion.  Nonetheless, behold the power of imagination.

H. Robert, "Architectural Fantasy"
H. Robert, “Architectural Fantasy”

Imagination has a vital role to play in our lives and should be exercised often.  St. Thomas Aquinas spoke frequently about the role of imagination in prayer, in dialogue with the Lord, and generally in transcending this world.  St. Ignatius Loyola gave great practical advice in this regard, by tracing out the concept of “Imaginative Prayer” as part of his Spiritual Exercises.  In a hyper-empirical age, Robert’s outsized image of Rome could be criticized as “inaccurate,” but it was ideas fit to those mythic proportions that inspired people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; ideas like “Republic,” “Equal Justice Under the Law,” “Freedom from tyranny”… all of which found their origins in Roman government.  That same dream of Rome is at the core of our city: the Capitol is spelled with an “o” as a reference to Capitoline Hill in the Forum… which, by the way, is reflected in the National Mall… Even Constitution Avenue, used to be a canal running through the capitol… a canal called, “Tiber.”  Maybe, even in a scientific post-modern age, a little imagination has a useful role to play in building up our own city on a hill and bringing us all to the heavenly city one day.

H. Robert, "Stair and Fountain"
H. Robert, “Stair and Fountain”

The Beauty of Mary Magdalene

“While we live in our present tent we groan; we are weighed down because we do not wish to be stripped naked but rather to have the heavenly dwelling envelop us,so that what is mortal may be absorbed by life.” (From II Cor 5)

Donatello, Mary Magdalene
Donatello, Mary Magdalene

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  A few years ago, the National Gallery hosted an exhibition, “The Sacred Made Real,” displaying a series of sculptures carved to make people’s favorite paintings in 3-D.  It was the 17th century version of 3-D experience.  One such statue was of today’s saint, Mary Magdalene.  Mary is depicted nude, clothed only with her long hair.  It’s actually an iconic way of portraying the saint who tradition assumes is the “woman caught in adultery.” (Jn 8)  The imagery is shocking, one sees the Magdalene humbled, almost haggard in her nakedness… and yet… This is Mary at her best.  Brought before the Lord, she does not deny her sins, and in that nakedness, in that emptiness she is completely filled by Jesus: Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”  “No, Lord,” she said.  And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”  She does not clothe herself in defense, in pride.  Sitting in the nakedness of truth, she is lifted from the ground and clothed in new life by Chirst.  In a way, she undoes the dynamic of Eden.  No fig leaf for Mary; whatever shame it may cost in the eyes of men, she is loved by her God, and that becomes enough for her.  At the end of the Gospel (Jn 20:11-18) Mary is again completely empty.  Jesus has been taken from her.  Going to his tomb she weeps and once again he appears, Resurrected, to give her new life.  At this point Mary becomes the apostle to the Apostles, running to deliver the Good News to Peter and the others.

Lavinia Fontana, Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
Lavinia Fontana, Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

Speaking of Peter, he demonstrates a marked contrast to Mary.  A few nights before (Jn. 18) Mary’s garden encounter with Jesus, afraid, vulnerable, weak, as Christ was being arrested, how does Peter respond?  He slices off the ear of the High Priest’s servant.  Clothed in earthly strength, Peter sets himself up for the biggest fall of all, the triple-denial of Christ later that night.  Like Mary, Peter’s restoration comes days later when in the triple confession of his love for Jesus, his humility gives Christ space to forgive him and restore him as the chief pastor of the Flock.  “Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21)

Sometimes penance comes involuntarily, as it did for Mary when she first met Jesus.  If in those moments we accept our penances we demonstrate wisdom.  Sometimes penance comes… or needs to come… voluntarily, chosen as an exercise to help us grown in wisdom and grace.  We can do this by fasting, praying, giving to the poor or some other form of appropriate self-denial, to – again – make a space our heart for Jesus.  Such is the beauty of Mary Magdalene and the beauty, really, of penance.  It makes a new space in our hearts for Christ and for new life.

“While we live in our present tent we groan; we are weighed down because we do not wish to be stripped naked but rather to have the heavenly dwelling envelop us,so that what is mortal may be absorbed by life.” (From II Cor 5)

Praying in Congress

St. Damien of Molokai – 1 of 4 priests with statues in the halls of Congress

Everyday I pray “for” Congress… but today I had the unique experience of praying “in” Congress!  The US House of Representatives has a Chaplain, currently Fr. Pat Conroy, but on some days they ask a guest to come in.  The chaplaincy is not limited to any specific faith-group, and the prayer offered to open each session of the House is not sectarian.

The prayer I offered was excerpted from Archbishop Carroll’s Prayer for the US Government (my excerpt in bold):

We pray, Thee O Almighty and Eternal God! Who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy, that Thy Church, being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy Name.

We pray Thee, who alone art good and holy, to endow with heavenly knowledge, sincere zeal, and sanctity of life, our chief bishop, Pope N., the Vicar of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the government of his Church; our own bishop, N., all other bishops, prelates, and pastors of the Church; and especially those who are appointed to exercise amongst us the functions of the holy ministry, and conduct Thy people into the ways of salvation.

We pray Thee O God of might, wisdom, and justice! Through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist with Thy Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people over whom he presides; by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government, so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge; and may perpetuate to us the blessing of equal liberty.

We pray for his excellency, the governor of this state, for the members of the assembly, for all judges, magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare, that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.

We recommend likewise, to Thy unbounded mercy, all our brethren and fellow citizens throughout the United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union, and in that peace which the world cannot give; and after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.

Finally, we pray to Thee, O Lord of mercy, to remember the souls of Thy servants departed who are gone before us with the sign of faith and repose in the sleep of peace; the souls of our parents, relatives, and friends; of those who, when living, were members of this congregation, and particularly of such as are lately deceased; of all benefactors who, by their donations or legacies to this Church, witnessed their zeal for the decency of divine worship and proved their claim to our grateful and charitable remembrance. To these, O Lord, and to all that rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshment, light, and everlasting peace, through the same Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Remember to pray for the Members of the People’s House every day.  But also, remember to pray for their staffers.  Most of the folks we minister to here in Washington are able and dedicated career staffers of the government… and those institutions in its orbit.  Whether in public service  or private business… Yes, even the lobbyists… all of these good men and women came to DC to make a positive difference according to the dictates of their consciences; and that’s a noble enterprise.  Among the workers here in DC are a special breed: the institutionalists.  Every now and then their stories come out in the news: the Librarians of the Supreme Court, the Sergeants at Arms of the Congress, the clock winders a the White House.  Whether they hold very simple or very exalted positions, these are the folks who keep the machinery of government moving; they keep the conversation going, the lights on and the roads in good repair even when their bosses may get… distracted...  So let’s give thanks this morning and pray for them.

St. Juniperro Serra

Radicalism: something we can all fall into

Talking over drinks with a parishioner last week I was struck by something he said: “When people feel like they’re getting nothing, they end dialog.”  He was referring to developments in American political life.  My parishioner’s comment has been with me for the last week.  Rarely does a person get 100% of what he/she wants out of an encounter.  If that’s the goal, dialog – encountering other people – becomes useless and society fragments into isolated tribalism.  Put another way: My late great uncle -commenting on economic life- used to say, “being middle class means making choices.  For the poor there is only one choice, ‘no.’ For the rich there is only one choice, ‘yes.’  For the rest of us life is a mix of, ‘yes,’ and, ‘no.’ ”  Another colleague, a psychologist, frames the issue thus, “It’s true you won’t ever get 100% of what you’re hoping for, but can you content yourself with 50?”  Looking through eyes of faith, if the Crucifixion teaches us anything, it certainly teaches us that even God himself did not ignore the reality of sacrifice as part of the human experience.  If you’re going to be a human person you can’t have everything you want.  But boy do we try…

In political life we’ve seen this in the growing perception of “division” in our country; so-called Radical Republicans, or Left-wing Democrats.  Paralysis in Congress and accusations of Executive overreach.  Not content with anything less than 100% each group becomes insular, defensive, and too often offensive.  All suffer from the fight that ensues.

Reporters tell us that working class non-college-educated white people in the US are discontented, as are the urban poor.  What do they have in common?  Our culture has failed to make them feel secure, valued, respected.  Gone are the church observances, block parties, retirement plans, bowling leagues and other varied forms of societal embrace that convinced people, “You know I may only have 50% of what I dreamt, but that’s not so bad.”  Without that embrace radicalization occurs.

We’ve seen it in the UK.  Brexit was a mass movement of older English subjects who felt awash and isolated in a new world.  Globalizing elites had forgotten about them so they raised their voice by voting for a radical change of national policy.  Was it a good idea?  Who can say… but it was a radical shift generated by a lack of societal embrace.

In Turkey, the recent coup was no surprise.  There, the military has been enforcing Ataturk’s secular vision since he founded the Republic after WWI… but what caused the coup?  The perception that the government in Ankara is becoming more radically nationalistic/Islamist… and that in response to decades of faithful Muslilm’s feeling marginalized in their own Turkish culture.  Unable to get 50% of what they wanted, they elected a strongman, Erdogan, to take it for them… hence the coup.

Generationally we saw something of this radicalization when former Secretary of State Madeline Albright rebuked younger women democrats for not being more supportive of Secretary Clinton: “We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done. It’s not done,” Albright said of the broader fight for women’s equality. “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”  Speaking as a millennial myself I know many of my age cohort who are baffled that established leaders in society (mostly older than us) are still focused on race and male/female issues.  It would never occur to those of us educated in the 80’s and 90’s to discriminate on the basis of either.  We generally see challenges as economic, and victories as -eventually- achievable… indeed inevitable… through civil/cultural means.  An older generation may see that as a rebuke of their hard-fought revolution; it’s not.  If anything we are the product of their success, but because millennials are not 100% like their parents, parental figures like Secretary Albright (for whom I have immense respect as a public servant, by the way) sometimes fall into radical positions like condemning their fellow party members to hell.

Finally, even in the Church, radicalization can be a reality. For us, it’s the move from a healthy appreciation for Tradition to Traditionalism … from open-minded to progressivist.  The fastest way to turn an average reasonable Catholic into a liberal Catholic or a conservative Catholic is to tell them they are absolutely forbidden from having any (even 50%) of what they might reasonably be interested in.

This issue flared up most recently in a suggestion by Cardinal Sarah (the Pope’s chief advisor on matters of liturgical worship) that we may have misinterpreted the desires of the Second Vatican Council in matters of worship.  His Eminence suggested that a thorough study of the Council’s actual words, as well as historical evidence leading up to and following it reveals that priests really should celebrate the second half of the mass facing, with the People, toward God.  Sarah’s conclusions don’t come in a vacuum: Pope Benedict XVI, and much of the scholarship carried out under St. John Paul II support his conclusions (See the linked article in First Things by Dr. Christopher Ruddy for an able exposition on this).  The reaction to his words has been swift and strong from many quarters.  Personally I echo the thoughts of my brother priest, Msgr. Charles Pope (see linked article), that revisiting Conciliar teaching has to happen at the pace set by local bishops and that all of us owe due respect to them.  That said, the reactions of all whether in this particular example or those above should strive just that, “reactions” and not reactionary.

“When people feel like they’re getting nothing, they end dialog.”  When people don’t think they can respond through reasoned dialog they often turn to unreasonable violence (metaphorical or actual)… and that’s something we’ve seen far too much of.  So I’m not praying for 100% ever again, Id’ be thrilled with 50.

Words Symbols and daily life… some musings

Some time ago I read an article about the concept: “the medium is the message.”  It asked – essentially: How does the dawn of instant digital communication affect the transmission of the Gospel? As with all human creations, the internet/social media can be bent to serve the Gospel.  I saw this on display when our diocesan high school students generated great content to send to their friends/contacts on social media.  Such a positive experience depends, however, on taking a moment out to really think about what one is doing online, what tools one is using, and what the best language to use (pictures, video, text etc.) may be.  It applies no less to the power of printed words than it does to our latest communications revolution, digital media.

Iris Murdoch, in her essay, “Against Dryness” described the modern world as, “a scientific anti-metaphysical age in which dogmas, images and precepts of religion have lost much of their power.”  To anyone who’s walked down the street, it may seem odd to think about our world as devoid of “images,” but in a philosophical sense it is.  If I can put a brief gloss on Murdoch’s commentary, I read it as and age without “symbols.”  Despite a proliferation of pictures, and other stimuli for the eyes, there’s not a lot that we stop to take in, discern, and ultimately [hopefully] appreciate/adore.  Normally the pictures we see stop at their surface value, without pointing us to greater truths.  Our wold is much more dominated by the printed word, and more specifically, the technical printed word.

Modernity is considered by some to have begun with the invention of the printing press by Guttenberg.  On that day in 1440 Western life was forever changed.  Words proliferated and with them very specific, set, flat meanings…  Language became technical/specific rather than symbolic/poetic.  The diffusion of information that occurred because of the printing press contributed largely to the scientific revolution of the 16/17th centuries in the universities, the enlightenment in politics, and the protestant reformation in religion.  If you need more evidence, think about how protestantism replaced stained glass and sacraments (symbol images) with the doctrine of sola scripture (“only Scripture” …i.e. words.).  The change didn’t happen immediately… and certainly not with any sort of a clean break between eras.  Poetry, theater, music are all still with us, bastions of symbol.  Remnants of the age of symbol/image are certainly still with us everywhere we look.  One need only walk through DC’s monumental core.  They city’s layout, the iconography of the monuments, all of it points toward higher truths… All of it invites the viewer in the comfort and freedom of his own mind to explore those truths over time.  Compare that to more contemporary manifestations of the technical word present in the very same streets: ads on buses, signs in shop windows, news stories (written, audio, film) etc…  In an almost nominalist way, the words tell you what to think and their meaning stops there.

Catholicism still considers itself as founded on image/symbol.  Christ is after all the Revelation of the Father.  Saint Paul says, he was “in the form of God.”  While Christ is rightly understood as the “Word” of God, the Greek from which that term descends is “Logos,” which really has a deeper sense of Christ being the “fullness of the meaning of the Father.” The Church defines herself as the great “sacrament” of salvation (a sacrament is a visible sign that conveys God’s divine life).

But even in the Church, “the medium is the message” has had an impact.  Everyone wants to know what law, what policy, what definition the Pope or the Synod assigns to a given issue.  Magisterial teaching from previous Popes/Councils etc. is appealed to as if Christians were in a court battle.    Words have certainly occupied a powerful place in the daily life of the Church.  In contrast, what people seem to love so much about Pope Francis is not the convincing power of his words (though they’re pretty great), but rather the visual example of his actions.

This issue is also, literally, on display in the Mass.  Having turned to face the People, and with the new influence of speaker systems, priests’ now-audible words are the main focus of people’s attention at mass.  On the church steps, what does everyone say to Father?  Either, “Nice homily, father.” or, “You know I think your homily was really off father.”  Homily… words.  Even the Eucharistic Prayer, though it is a dialogue between the priest and God, must be heard by the people.  Last week my lapel mic broke (as they often do) and one man approached me with great urgency to say, “I couldn’t hear the words, what was I supposed to do with myself?”

In considering the medium/message relationship I’m not trying to directly critique words, images or anything else…  All these media have their benefits and all can be turned to serve the Gospel as surely as my high school students turned social media to evangelization.  But like those kids, we all need to take some time out and use our eyes of faith to discern: Where is the balance between various media?  Am I lopsidedly focused on any one medium?  Do I spend enough time exploring symbols and the truths to which they point?  What affect does that have on my daily life?  ‘just a few musings this morning.  Peace!