Voices still cry in the wilderness

Today the Church observes the memorial of the Passion of John the Baptist.  We recall his death at the hands of Herod.  As St. Bede points out in the Office of Readings, John was not executed explicitly because he pointed to Christ (though this was the thrust of John’s ministry).  No, John died for testifying to the truth – namely: that Herod’s affair with his brother Philip’s wife Herodias was unnatural.

John’s heavenly father reminds us in the Church today that all Truth is worth professing… The earthly circumstances surrounding his fate remind us that with or without ever mentioning the name of Jesus, Truth can have a degree of danger associated with it.

John described his prophetic mission as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”  Normally my reflections on John the Baptist turn to Richard Wagner’s opera Salome.  It’s well-worth a listen, especially when the discord of Herod’s court is pierced, silenced really, by the pure tones of John’s voice rising from his prison cell… but that’s not today’s focus.  Today I want to point readers to a very fine interview from NPR (see below) with an intriguing artist, Sir “The Baptist.”  Sir is a preacher’s son who’s using hip-hop’s art form to cry out in the wilderness about the needs of our most vulnerable in the inner cities.  Whether or not you’re a fan of hip-hop, you may find yourself mesmerized by the poetry of Sir’s words and the pathos inherent in his message.  His efforts to spread a message about real human needs using contemporary cultural methods is certainly worthy of a standing ovation.

 

The Turks say, “Yes.” – On the evangelical quality of sacred music


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This year our parish began the Advent/Christmas season with an evening of sacred music and readings in honor of Our Lady.  Last night we closed out the season with a similar concert in honor of our Lord’s Epiphany.  It was a sublime way to bookend such a sacred and joyous time.  Listening to the music and the readings from some of Christianity’s greatest writers last night, I did not forget all my troubles… but I was lifted to a place where I could see them for what they were, mere distractions from the Love of God for me.  Prayer has often been defined as “a lifting of the soul to God.”  No other medium does this in the way that music does.  That’s why in all the teaching of the Church, music is considered an integral part of Christian life… and sacred music, in particular, is not only integral but constitutive of the the Holy Mass.


For more on this concept I highly recommend reading the teachings of recent Popes and of the Second Vatican Council:

St. Pius X, “Tra le sollicitudini,
Vatican II (Bl. Paul VI) – “Musicam sacram,” and
St. John Paul II – “Chirograph on Sacred Music
My own reflection will be somewhat limited (Sunday mornings are pretty busy around here).


 

Last night, as people walked in off the street to listen to their fellow parishioners and neighbors singing great works of the western musical canon, I was reminded of a true story from one of our teacher in Rome.  Father Marcato was our professor of New Testament scripture.  A Dominican, he had spent a significant amount of time visiting holy sites from the first century in Asia Minor, especially Ephesus.  While in a Dominican priory in Turkey, he met local Christians and was amazed to discover that many were recent converts from Islam.  Turkey, while technically a secular state, doesn’t make conversion easy for its citizens, certainly Turkish civil society has little time for those who want to leave Islam.  I only mention that to highlight Fr. Marcato’s surprise at his confrere’s success in baptizing Muslim Turks.  My professor asked the local Prior, “How do you find a safe space to speak with these people about the Gospel.”  The answer: “We leave the doors open at Vespers.”  Like so many religious communities, the Dominicans in Turkey chant the psalms at Eveing Prayer, according to the customs of the Church.  Western music is infinitely more melodic than anything the local Turks experience at their mosques and so people would just walk into the Church attracted and elevated by the music.  There, in the privacy of the cloister, they could ask all the questions they wanted about this thing called Christianity, ultimately asking for Baptism.

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In American parishes our musical development has been largely stunted these last several decades.  The reasons are many, too many to examine here.


**For more, consider reading Thomas Day’s excellent book, “Why Catholic’s Can’t Sing,” and its follow up by Jeffrey Tucker, “Sing Like a Catholic.”  (the second book is slightly polemical expressing the author’s heartfelt concern for the spread of the Gospel and the quality of music, but it’s points are well-made and researched)


Among the many reasons given I can anecdotally relate one: We need to make Church more accessible.  Access is good, all people should be able to access the Truths of the Gospel, but all too often our imperfect human nature slides from “accessible” music to “comfortable” music, and then to music which is purely of this earth… and by definition then, “secular.”  What begins as a well-intentioned desire to give people access to the saving truths of the Gospel too often ends in parish music programs that trap people in earthly categories.

Last night’s concert (and really all the music our choir presents at Mass) reminded me once again that “hard” and “challenging” are not the same as “bad.”  …that humbling ourselves before the musical patrimony of the Church can be a new, even an uncomfortable experience at first, but that it ultimately rewards us with tasting heaven on earth… and that gives HOPE.  To use a family analogy, it’s like  giving yourself over to a grandmother’s hug.  When you’re a kid, it’s often awkward, even embarrassing to be smothered in the love of an older relative… but when you get over it, you realize, there’s nothing more affirming or elevating that the warm (if sometimes choking) embrace of family.  If more of our parishes embraced people with sublime sacred music, might we win more converts?  The Turks would say yes.

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Symphonic Spirituality

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view from the KC Roof terrace

Last night, joined by a brother priest, I enjoyed the last of a four- concert series at the Kennedy Center.  Visits to the KC, especially on perfect spring days like yesterday, are about much more than just music.  If you’re planning on taking in a concert, always make the most of the event.  Take a stroll along the Potomac, stop for a bite to eat at the Georgetown Waterfront… just soak-in the whole experience.  You’ll find yourself renewed… And isn’t that the whole purpose behind recreation (i.e. “re-creation”)?

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riverside strolling by the Potomac

But I digress…

The music last night was a real revelation.  Two pieces: Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor and Mahler’s Symphony #5 presented great food for thought.  If last week’s meditations on Romantic music presented a somewhat negative critique of its subjectivism, I’d like today to look at the blessings we can find in that same phenomenon.

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Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (available on iTunes) starts out with three simple notes played by the soloist against a background of shimmering strings.  These three notes form the core of the first (and longest) of three movements in which the theme is explored in various phases of development.  The exploration/experimentation is alternately joyous, confused, anguished, pensive, but ultimately finds a resolution that is celebrated in the [shorter] second and third movements.  The subjective individualism of the soloist throwing the theme back and forth to the orchestra is an easy metaphor for the everyman.  The theme is our life… it’s developments triumphs and tragedies are our experiences.  The exchange with the orchestra is something akin to Jacob wrestling with the angel of God.  In music we see subjective life-experiences played out in-small. …which may explain why audiences (consciously or otherwise) find such pleasure in the the harmonious resolution of themes.  It offers hope.

Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler, who knew Sibelius, wrote the same dynamics into much of his own music, but at a level infinitely more complex.  If you like titanic orchestral works, listen to Mahler.  I think his theory was: If less is more, then imagine how much more more will be.  That being said, the composer hits the mark beautifully.  His own subjective experience of life, full of struggles and loss was a background for his music.  Often, Mahler would incorporate traditional Austrian folk tunes, children’s songs and other leitmotifs into his work to convey lifelong meditations on innocence, adulthood, struggle, joy, etc.  In several of his major works, Mahler even incorporated children’s choirs and adult soloists into his scores to great effect.

By the end of the Fifth symphony the emotional rollercoaster ride Mahler has led us on through a night of meditation finds fulfillment in an new sunrise at the end of the last movement… which is not to say all his life-questions have been answered, but rather, that there is hope as a new day begins.

Mahler and Sibelius’ self-explorations are certainly the musical children the Romantic period, but they also bear unique marks from  their own times (early 20th century).  Both wrote as psychoanalysis was exploding on the intellectual scene in central Europe, and (in Mahler’s case) as the Austian Empire was collapsing leading Europe -ultimately- to the Great War.  It was a period of profound questioning, self-examination even re-definition for European civilization.  The age may have found more peaceful fulfillment in music than in its political realities (two world wars in one hundred years)…. which brings about our ultimate question: What brings resolution to the human soul’s experiences?

Public Art on Display at Kennedy Center
Public Art on Display at Kennedy Center

The Catholic response is simple: Mercy… and not just any mercy, but particularly pietas… a mercy that is absolute… and filled with more than just juridical pardon… filled with compassion, love, patience, empathy.  The ONLY way to make any sense out of life’s ups and downs… the ONLY way to bring resolution to our themes is the application of such mercy.  Freud, Nietzsche, Bismarck, Marx and other central European luminaries of late-19th early-20th century tried their own solutions… I don’t think they worked very well.  But if you listen to Sibelius and Mahler and hear the subjective experience of the human person crying out from inside their music… how can the answer the anything other than pietas?  It brings a new beginning a new dawn for a new day… and most of all renewed hope! As the Church prepares an extraordinary jubilee “Year of Mercy” (read Pope Francis’ Bull of Indiction) consider the role played by mercy in the symphony of your life and your loved ones.  If you want to learn more, stop in to your local parish and seek out a priest for spiritual direction or Confession.  You’ll be amazed at the resolution it can bring!

Music makes us wonder “Am I going or coming?”

Yesterday, the National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach presented an evening of music that was sublime.  Sublime not only for the quality of its execution, but also for the expansive history of musical / artistic thought that can be looked at through eyes of faith.  We’ll consider the two principal pieces, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso #1 for Three Cellos and Orchestra.

In theology we adhere to a principle called exitus et reditus.  The concept basically means that all things exist in a rhythm of coming forth from God and eventually returning to him.  This leitmotif characterizes all the activities of our lives.  Think of the whole scheme of life, for example, generated by God at birth and returning to him after death… exitus et reditus.  On a larger scale one could argue that this process was on display at last night’s concert.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, indeed his entire career represents an massive musical exitus.  In today’s common parlance, all orchestral music is lumped into the category of “Classical” music.  Take any music 101 course, however, and you’ll discover that actually, orchestral music has many subdivisions… most commonly: ancient music (pre 1500), the Baroque (1600-approx. 1725), Classical (1725 – 1800), Romantic (1800-1900) and modern (1900-present).  “Classical” music represented the zenith of a partnership between classical rules/forms, and the technical development and expertise of composers/artists.  Paragons of the classical movement include Haydn, and Mozart.  The Romantic period, begun about the year 1800 represents the shifting of that partnership decidedly in favor of the composers/artists.  Rules were tested and often broken to tap into the deep pathos of the listeners’ psyches.  Consider, Beethoven’s 9th: it includes – to very great effect – a choir… something unthinkable before him.  The other quality of the Romantics, something we find on display in Beethoven’s 5th, an immense subjectivity.  Understanding musical principal isn’t enough you have to know the composer in order to appreciate the music as he/she intended it.  In the case of the 5th Symphony this mean’s reading up on Beethoven’s conflicting attitudes toward the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquest of Europe.  Just by way of brief example: the pattern of the four famed opening notes of the symphony is considered by some to be a play on the four opening notes of the French national anthem.

This musical subjective turn, like the Cartesian philosophical turn that preceded it (“I THINK, therefore I am”) has pluses and minuses.  It pulls on the heartstrings of readers/listeners by diving into the deepest parts of the human heart… but it also arrogantly assumes that the author/composer’s point of view give an accurate, even authoritative account of reality.  Beethoven then is a musical exitus from the music that came before him, which found its beauty in an objective vision of music rather than the composer’s individual experience.  This process continued expanding through the Modern period, the twentieth century.

In Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso, one hears the influence of deconstructionist philosophy and materialism.  Tones and harmonies themselves have been broken down to atonality for examination… Music has become, in some senses a rationalistic laboratory, particularly in the atheistic Soviet Block under which Penderecki lived.  And yet…

Something in Penderecki spoke to him so that for all the exitus of the last two hundred years, something began to call him back to honor the old rules, structures and observances of classical and even Sacred Music.  As the Program Notes from last night indicate, the composer began to buck the communist system and even wrote a St. Luke Passion, that brought about his own re-conversion to Catholicism.  One hears both influences, the deconstruction and return, at work in the Concerto Grosso.

All beings have their own existence… a degree of exitus is necessary for life, for being… but balanced always and inevitably by the return to our origins (ultimately to God) having benefited and grown from the journey.  Is this where music and the arts are headed?  We’ll see.  But in our own lives, it’s a worthwhile question to ask, “How do I bring the two dynamics of going forth and returning to God into harmony in me?”

Thanks to maestro Eschenbach and the folks at the NSO for inspiring such an exploration here in DC!

Light From Without and Within

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Piero di Cosimo – Detail of St. Antony the Abbot from Visitation

 

Continuing a recent theme… Thursda was a day full of light and warmth.  No I’m not writing from vacation in Jamaica.  Even in the depth of winter I had an amazingly “warm” day through two encounters.  In the morning, I joined friends for a visit to the National Gallery.  We enjoyed lunch at the museum’s Garden Cafe, which – P.S. – has a reliably quality buffet for a reasonable price before enjoying the NGA’s newest exhibit: Piero di Cosimo: Painting in Renaissance Florence.  Cosimo’s works are typical of the time: numerous religious themes, fidelity to the Florentine school.  Unusual was the imaginative style with which he explored stories of pagan mythology, whose subjects he portrays in a wide range of characterizations from the beautifully sympathetic to the grotesque.  I’m not a huge fan of Olympian mythology, but it was fun to walk around inside the imagination of such an original artist.

Ottorino Respighi, Composer
Ottorino Respighi, Composer

Yesterday’s second experience, also with a brother priest, was a visit to the Music Center at Strathmore to hear the BSO.  Under the baton of Marin Alsop, the BSO is always in good form, but they were especially so last night, the tenth anniversary of the opening of their Montgomery County venue, Strathmore.  The orchestra presented excited  listeners with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano concerto and Respighi’s Roman Tryptic.  Both played at the heartstrings of the audience.

Three levels of light pervaded the day.  Most superficially, the sun itself.  DC was its usual beautiful self under low-lying winter sun light.  In the middle of February that should be enough to lift anyone’s spirit, but there was other light too.  Piero di Cosimo’s canvases seem to radiate the light of sacred realities portrayed.  It was almost as if the gallery’s track-lighting wasn’t necessary.  Likewise, the BSO’s performance of Respighi.  I was transported back to warm walks along the Janiculum Hill, admiring the Pines and fountains for which Rome is so famous.

So there’s the external sunlight of the present and an artistic light from the past… The last level of light I experienced was the light of friends… and unlike the first two, this illumination is internal.  Beautiful friendships illumine us from within helping us to discover different parts of ourselves, helping us to heal parts of ourselves, and also helping us to celebrate parts of ourselves.  Maybe that’s why in darker times of year, the light of the local pub is so welcoming: it presages the joy of friendship within.  Looking at your DC experience with eyes of faith, where are your light sources, and what characterizes them?

Where do I find light in my life?  To what degree is that light satisfying?  How do I chase after illumination with ever greater conviction?

Music from the not so dark ages

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Bronze of Shakespeare in the Folger’s Great Hall

 

At the risk of sounding like a cliched art critic, last night was a revelation.  I joined two parishioners for a concert at the Folger Shakespeare Theater by the Folger Consort.  This exceptionally talented musicians are dedicated to preserving and presenting early music (pre-1600) performed on period instruments.  Last night’s concert of Christmas music from Italy and Flanders set all my cultural grey cells humming.  First, there’s the Folger Theater itself: a small copy of Shakespeare’s Globe housed within the Folger Library on Capitol Hill.  Music filled the space transporting listeners back to olde Europe.  It was also a treat to see the period instruments: sackbut, harp, viola di gamba, and flutes of every sort… just amazing.

I could go on, but let’s get to our central question, “What was the experience, seen through eyes of faith?”  The answer is one word, “Hope.”

As Washingtonians experiencing the renaissance of our city, the benefits of [seemingly] unbounded technology, and the sense of possibility that inherently attends our city’s increasingly young-adult population, we have every reason to be a hopeful people, right?  And yet… Depression and anxiety are our most common psychological challenges.  Anecdotally: I recently visited my dentist.  Having just passed a birthday, age on my mind, I asked him what the best thing I could do for my teeth, longterm, could be.  His answer surprised me.  He warned, “Don’t ever start grinding your teeth.  The most common problem we deal with in middle to older aged folks in DC is cracked teeth from years of stress-grinding.”  So much for hope in the comforts of modern living.  Could our renaissance forbearers have something to offer?

Consider these verses from last night’s concert,

“[Mary] thou art the supernal queen of glory, and the true  medicine of an anxious mind.”

“Let’s now praise the Lord, with songs and musical sounds, for this day is salvation come to this house.”

“In you, Lord, I have put my hope to find lasting mercy: But I was in a sad and dark hell, and struggled in vain, but in you Lord I have put my hope.”

Do these sound like the words of an oppressed feudal people from the “dark” ages?  Last night’s music was anything but dark.  It was audible light… not a bright shining sunlight, as Palestrina or Bach, but rather a warm hearth glow, comforting as much as inspiring.  Hearth language fits in other ways too: much of renaissance music originated from “dance bands,” that is groups of minstrels who would roam from village to village playing for dances by fire light at pubs, inns, etc.  As those dancers of old gathered, they’d swap stories, recipes, tales of homelands, but also experiences of faith.  Long after the dances ended, after the wine was drained… after plague or war or even death, the faith behind the lyrics remained, woven into hearts by the mellifluous melody.  Whether they lived or died, these people had hope.  I wonder if they ground their teeth like us.

Alleluia for the Oratorio

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Did you know that the Washington metro area has one of the highest concentration of (semi)professional choruses in the country?  It’s true, Washington is blessed with a huge number of choirs and other vocal groups.

I love choral music, as a person and particularly as a priest.  That said, there are certain choral works with which I (and many priests) have a love/hate relationship.  For example, the Ave Maria is a staple of Catholic life… loving the Ave is sort of a ‘must,’ like loving the poor, 061and embracing lepers; it’s not an option.   The Ave, however, is performed at EVERY wedding and funeral… often regardless of the soloist’s ability to sing the music.  Another such piece is Alleluia Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.  Especially during Advent/Christmas, the choirs of the Metro region will perform Handel’s Alleluia in every way imaginable: the original setting, a rock setting, a Trans-Siberian Orchestra setting, the Ella Fitzgerald scat setting, and of course, the sing-along.  If you only hear the piece once in a season, it’s no problem… but imagine how many times (and ways) I get to hear it. (Thus endeth my venting process)

All that said, the frequent performance of the Alleluia Chorus got me thinking, reexamining it through eyes (and ears) of faith.

Handel’s Messiah may be the most famous example of a great musical form: the Oratorio.  Oratorios (probably better rendered, “oratorii”) are large musical settings with storylines, characters, soloists, choirs and instruments.  Sounds like an opera, right?  Wrong.  Oratorios are concert pieces, never acted out on stage.

The oratorio began in 17th century Rome under the inspiration of St. Philip Neri.  Philip was a major proponent of using the best parts of contemporary culture to spread the experience of Christ in daily life.  Poetry readings, literary studies, talks, plays, and yes – concerts were all part of his schtick.  Great idea, right?  The only problem was that in 17th century Rome such activities were strictly forbidden in church buildings.  So…Philip and his disciples built an annex onto their church (Santa Maria in Valicella a.k.a. Chiesa Nuova).  The annex – a building used for prayer and evangelization, but not necessarily for mass – became known as an oratory, lending its name both to the musical pieces performed there and to Philip’s nascent religious community, the Oratorians.

In addition to being a performance, an oratorio is really a kind of prayer, uniquely suited to bringing God into daily life.  Yes, you leave humming the tune.  Yes, the music helps us to learn Gospel lessons in CMAA Logoa mnemonic fashion… but there’s more.  In ecclesiastical Latin, there are two categories of prayer: prex, and oratioPrex is something I initiate… I am the primary actor.  Oratio is my speaking the word’s of another (e.g. Jesus).  The other works mystically through my voice and enters not only me but – through my voice – my world.  Oratio is the category to which Mass belongs: Christ works through the voice of the priest pronouncing His words, and becomes present on the altar.  An oratorio (like Handel’s Messiah) can be a non-sacramental parallel to such prayer.

A very short list of great oratorios includes: Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Haydn’s Creation.  (all avail. on iTunes)

 If you’re interested in St. Philip Neri’s mission, you might check out the website for St. Thomas the Apostle in Woodley Park, DC, where an Oratorian community has been given stewardship of the parish and is doing great work.

Holiday Music, Memories and Anamnesis

Last night, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented a memorable review of classic holiday pops music at Strathmore.  They were accompanied by two fine singers (Debbie Gravitte and Ted Keegan), a host of tap-dancing Santas from the Baltimore School for the Arts, and acrobat Timber Brown.  Listening to so many seasonal favorites stirred a swarm of happy scenes from childhood… which got me thinking…

Some of my favorite memories came back to me listening to last night’s concert… vague recollections of driving in dad’s station wagon down a snowy wooded street to get pie from “that” bakery (you know, the one everyone knows has the best pie, where you have to order it a week in advance)… Another memory, much clearer, was my great aunt and uncle’s yearly Christmas party with ALL the cousins (in an Italian family that’s a lot, believe me).  I can still hear her voice teaching me how to sing “White Christmas.”

Whether we’re traveling over the hills and through the woods to grandmother’s house, or making a valiant effort to find the last quart of egg nog in town on December 24, or just trying to clear the driveway of snow in time for guests to arrive, the Christmas season can be such a rich trove of graced experiences.  Music associated with the season instantly takes us back to those realities.  It’s a cultural version of the religious experiences Catholics know as anamnesis.

Anamnesis is the memorial presentation of a reality… but it’s more than just digging up a fuzzy memory.  It’s actually living the substance and reality of the thing remembered in the present.  When at mass, praying over the bread and wine, a Catholic priest says the words of Jesus from the Last Supper, it’s as if we are all there with Jesus again.  His  Body and Blood become sacramentally present among us.  Christmas songs aren’t quite the same, but experiencing them through eyes and ears of faith can be a good way to keep not only the memories, but the realities of the season ever new in our hearts, for our good and our neighbors’.

What, the Fugue!

Later this evening I’m giving a talk on sacred music, maybe that’s why my eye was drawn to an article in today’s Post by Simon Chin: “Emerson String Quartet at Baird Auditorium Masters the ‘Art of Fugue’”.  It’s a fine review and it got me thinking about this wonderful art form.

A fugue is a musical form in which a theme is taken up and developed in an interweaving recursive manner until it reaches final resolution.  If you’ve ever sung Row Row Row Your Boat as a round at camp, you’ll understand the concept. The wonder of the fugue is that each successive ‘round’ of the theme fits seamlessly into the one before it and after it.  J.S. Bach is the most famous master of the fugue.  Like other baroque musicians he used fugues in much of his work.  The most famous fugue of all time is his: The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (i.e. stereotypical Dracula music).  Better for understanding how a fugue works is Bach’s “Little Fugue in G Minor,” in which the theme is simpler and easily distinguished even as it repeats (All of these are available on Itunes).

I like listening to fugues.  When I’ve had a confusing or frustrating day, a fugue’s ordered elegance helps rearrange my own tumult.  Like developmental psychology, fugues present recursive stages of development. We’d all love it if life progressed simply from A to Z.  We’d never have to look back, everything would be altogether new every day.  But that’s not how we human beings roll, is it?

Instead of showing life as a linear journey, the fugue presents the same cycle of themes over and over again, developing and maturing in an ascending spiral.  We move from A to Z in one theme… then again, only this time from A’ to Z’…then again, A’’ to Z’’.  It makes sense.  History, after all, “repeats itself”… and “those who would not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”  …and, of course, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”  A good fugue makes life’s spiraling pilgrimage a little less queasy, assuring us that in the end, things will work out.

Biblical history is something of a fugue.  Similar human themes are presented over and over through a successive series of covenants between God and his people.  Each new generation takes comfort that however the last attempt went, they can grow and God will not abandon them: the beat goes on and so does the theme’s maturing development.  Was this, perhaps, on Bach’s mind as he composed in the organ loft of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche?

Surprised and touched by La Boheme

The Promenade at the Kennedy Center
The Promenade at the Kennedy Center


Puccini’s La Boheme, had a much greater effect on me than I was expecting.  The storyline was simpler even than the synopsis I read two nights ago… Girl meets boy, they fall in love, girl gets sick, girl dies. The music, the music was much more.  It’s going to take some time to unpack the power of Puccini’s melodies.

The Surprise – La Boheme is principally about people in love, but what really stuck me was their poverty.  Mimi dies of consumption, brought on poor conditions.  In every scene, poverty is an unseen character as the cast cajole their way out of paying rent, trick the aloof Alcindoro into picking up the lunch tab or pawn clothing just to buy food.  In Act I, Scene I, Rodolfo (a poet) burns his poetry just to stay warm.  The duet he sings with his roommate Marcello elevates the moment through their fraternity, but there’s a symmetric tragedy to burning your living just to stay alive.  At the end, Mimi dies shortly after her friends have run to pawn their clothing for medicine.

I spent some time today meditating on the Seventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”  In relation I consulted the social teaching of the Church to see how I might conceivably have preached Mimi’s funeral.  Catholics believe in a concept called the “destination of material goods” (Catechism Para. 2403-04).  All resources are ultimately intended for the flourishing of the human family.  St. John Paul II said,

“Christian tradition has always understood this right [to property] within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” (Laborem exercens, para. 14.1-2)

NOTE: St. John Paul precedes this with a warning that this teaching “diverges radically from Marxist collectivism… and it differs from the program of capitalism.” Neither system can claim the Church as its own.

What the Church’s social teaching is getting at is this: Before we are “labor or management”… before we are “poor or rich” all of us are “people” … People who can love and sacrifice for each other, just as Christ does.  On that basis we should at least work to keep each other alive and healthy… before we worry about increasing each others property.  Such indeed was the case for poor Mimi, who – as one capable of such love – deserved better than to die for lack of medicine.  …Certainly something to think about as the holidays and (more urgently) the cold weather arrive in the capital of the richest nation in the history of history.

Check out “Touring Tips” for thoughts on Dining before Performances at the KC.