Of Springboards Spring and Heaven

Sorrow can be a powerful instructor, but I’m firmly convicted that joy is an even better teacher if we can be a little recollected during the day.  The last several days have been such a blessing.  The sun’s been shining (always a good start).  I had a chance to attend a wonderful seminar at Catholic University, visit with friends, enjoy some good meals and lots of laughter.

Today’s saint, Philip Neri (who makes frequent cameos on this blog), understood so well the power of joy.  He was always overjoyed to find God in the people and circumstances he encountered in daily life in Rome.  That joy became what I would call a springboard to heaven for him and those he encountered.  What do I mean by this?

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Washington Navy Yard Waterfront

Take for example a simple walk with friends – A buddy of mine has just moved into a new home in the Navy Yard section of Washington.   Two of us joined him for a hastily arranged BBQ in his as yet unassembled kitchen.  Amidst the moving boxes, we grilled on the back porch and then strolled through this amazing part of “new DC”.  Appreciating the breeze, being inspired by the new construction, savoring a scoop of ice-cream… and more than anything else, focusing on the love and laughter of friends… God is in each of these things… They are signs of his enduring presence among us and each one is a bigger bounce on the springboard of this world, vaulting us closer to heaven.

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St. Philip’s motto, “I prefer heaven” did not mean that he denigrated the world in which he lived.  Rather, he used it for its intended purpose; that is, as a vehicle for our heavenly exaltation… a springboard.  His attitude is beautifully summed up in a thought from St. Augustine who said (and I’m paraphrasing) just because we’re in the world, doesn’t mean we can’t be in the Lord… Christ ascended to heaven precisely so that we could now be able to find him in all things and rejoice as we desire him more and more and eventually reach him.

Suggested spiritual “homework” – Before it gets ridiculously hot this week, stop down by the Anacostia waterfront near the Navy Yard and Nationals Park – listen for the sounds of kids laughing at the local pool park, look for people rejoicing in each others company, take in the natural beauty of the river… and in each of these things search for God.  Finding him in the things of this world, you may find yourself bouncing closer to him in the next.  Happy Feast Day St. Philip!

Picnics and Ponderings

IMG_0564It’s spring in Washington… one of our two all too brief seasons when we can enjoy outdoor activities without either freezing or melting.  One of may favorite spring activities is picnicking.  I don’t get to do it all that often, but when I do, what a gift it is.

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By it’s very nature a picnic pulls us out of our normal routine… gets us to look at things differently by placing us in new surroundings.  Since picnics work best bucolic settings, they can also be a chance for us to strip away the worries of the world and get back in touch with our truest nature.  Two easily reached picnic destinations I’ve enjoyed recently are: The C&O Canal and Sugarloaf Mountain (see photos throughout this post).

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The Canal was intended to be a great water highway connecting the capital with the western hinterlands of the new United States (i.e. Cumberland, MD back in the day).  Never able to turn a long-term profit, the canal never really worked out.  Thanks to preservationists though, it has become a hugely successful national park with ample opportunities for hiking, biking and camping from here to western Maryland.
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Sugarloaf Mountain (in Dickerson, MD about an hour northwest of the city) was a privately owned estate that has now become a nature preserve with trails for hiking, climbing and mountain biking.  It also boasts some wonderful opportunities for animal watching and great views of Montgomery and Frederick counties.

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Picnicking with friends is obviously a great chance for conviviality – a subject covered in previous posts.  That said, don’t discount the blessings of a solo lunch-in-the-wild.  Consider the following thoughts from 20th century theologian Fr. Romano Guardini:

“…man’s attention is broken into a thousand fragments by the variety of things and persons about him  His mind is restless; his feelings seek objects that are constantly changing.  Composure works in the opposite direction, rescuing man’s attention from sundry objects holding it captive and restoring unity to his spirit.”
This “rescue” mission, Fr. Guardini goes on to say, restores man to his fullest sense of self allowing him to face the world in a more genuine way.

Guardini applies his teaching to composing ourselves in preparation for mass, but I think we can reasonably extend his thoughts to another type of meal: the picnic.  Eating out in nature is a great exercise in composure.  It’s a chance to focus on the basics: eating, breathing, perceiving the beauty around us.  Over time, the storm of other sensory and emotional distractions calms… or rather all these “other” things enter orbit around the joy of the meal.  We might even suggest that if a picnic on a beautiful day is a manifestation of God’s love for us, then it is precisely his LOVE that restores order to our chaos.

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So, if you’re feeling a little frayed at the ends this week, take advantage of the good weather, grab some food and a blanket, and enjoy a picnic… you might just come back from it a better version of yourself.

Where Two Rivers Meet

You make springs gush forth in the valleys: they flow in between the hills.
They give drink to the beasts of the field; the wild-asses quench their thirst.
On their banks dwell the birds of heaven; from the branches they sing their song. -cf. Psalm 104

Reading Scripture at the Georgetown Waterfront earlier this week, this quote got me thinking, looking at DC’s rivers through eyes of faith.  The psalm describes two very different creatures watering themselves at the same river, the wild-asses and the birds of heaven: the humble workers and (literally) the peacocks of the world.  All beloved by the Father, all drawing life from the same place…. perhaps reminding us that we’re not really all that different after all.

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Washington is by no means a maritime city.  Water is by no means our identifying feature.  That said, our city, like many others around the world, lies at the convergence of two rivers, the Anacostia and Potomac.  The founders established the new capital here for several reasons, principal among them, a compromise between northern and southern states, but there were others.  Georgetown (formerly “[King] George’s Town”) was a center of commerce, the last navigable stop on the Potomac.  Placing the city at the joining of the two waterways also made it theoretically defensible… a theory shortly debunked when the British burned the capital during the War of 1812.  DC’s waterfront location also played a major role in design concepts for the city at the turn of the last century.  Some of these plans called for elaborate canal systems where the National Mall currently sits, giving the city Venetian sense.

alternate canal plan for National Mall
alternate canal plan for National Mall
Proposal for future tidal basin development
Proposal for future tidal basin development

As much as water is a unifying factor in civic life it can also be divisive.  Rock Creek, for example, served as a source of drinking/washing water for 19th century DC’s servant class.  To this day you can see many of Georgetown’s simpler, smaller row houses  (once occupied by service workers) closer t the creek, while city mansions occupy higher ground  to the west away from the creek’s mosquitos.  Perhaps the most stark contrast between waters is the reputation of “Potomac Washington” vs. “Anacostia Washington.”

19th c. Rock Creek, somewhat less elegant than we know it today
19th c. Rock Creek at P St, NW – somewhat less elegant than we know it today

For various reasons over the course of time, the Potomac became Washington’s monumental facade, while the more industrialized Anacostia suffered as, literally, a backwater.  To this day, the two rivers remain iconic of two Washington’s: one increasingly wealthy and cosmopolitain, the other plagued by economic stagnation and chronic inner city challenges.

Much ink has been spilt over the need to provide more opportunities for the two rivers to take on more equal footing.  Most recently we read about multi-million dollar plans to “re-develop” the Anacostia waterfront with walking paths, green bridges, ball parks, a new soccer stadium etc.   The reality though is that “economic re-develoment” usually means economic dispossession for the working poor in favor of the well-to-do.  The wild-asses of Psalm 104, beloved of the Father are exiled from his waterfront.

Most of us aren’t in a position to directly influence massive construction projects, but we might all do well to ask some questions: Do I know my neighbors?  Whatever their economic state may be, how do I look on them: as equals in dignity beloved by God? …or otherwise?  When I talk about the development/changing of neighborhoods, do I seek to help my neighbors? …or simply push their problems further away from me?  Regularly wrestling with such questions might help each of us do our part to realize the Psalmists hope for man (and for DC) so that together, all of us can draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.

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!