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!

Reflections on an Urban Trek

Last week, with spring’s return, I put on my walking shoes and took my first urban trek of the season.  As regular readers know, the purpose of this blog is to look on life in Washington through eyes of faith.  What better way to do that than to just get out there and start walking.  This trek took me from the heights of Brightwood in far upper NW, to the carefully manicured gardens of Georgetown.  I’ll present my reflections in two parts.  The first follows:

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I began at Nativity Parish (13th and Peabody, NW).  Nativity one of the best examples of local church architecture that we have.  Built in a gothic revival style, it’s pointed arches and stained glass windows provide a feast for the soul, a lavish space where the Lord can easily enter our day-to-day experience.  And isn’t that precisely what the mystery of the Nativity is all about?  The parish population has shrunken significantly over the last several decades, but exciting work is going on there under the new Administrator, Fr. Evans, who is so dedicated to his people and their neighborhood of Brightwood.  If you live nearby, consider popping in for a prayer and a visit.  You may find yourself prompted to ask, “How can I be a part of bringing Christ to this part of Washington?”  You’ll find a warm welcome from Father and the angelic staff at the Rectory!

From Nativity, I strolled through Brightwood on my way to the bus corridor of 16th St., NW.  It was mid-morning and everywhere parents and children were walking to school and work.  Neighbors used to taking the same bus each morning found ready smiles and greetings at their various bus stops.  There was a wonderful sense of new life for a new day.  Along those lines, I was inspired by a local community garden.  What a perfect metaphor for new neighborly life!

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To cut just a little walking out of the trek, I took the S9 Metrobus down 16th Street to Mount Pleasant.  If you’re a resident of Silver Spring or another nearby suburb, the “S” bus lines from Silver Spring Metro are a great gateway into the city.  They’re generally prompt and there’s just something nice about commuting above ground.  I find that when I’m not behind the wheel myself, driving in DC is actually a pleasure… especially on 16th street where stately homes, and expansive recreation zones mingle in bright sunshine to cheer up anyone willing to look.  Those who have eyes should see!

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The S9 dropped me at Mt. Pleasant, a district always teeming with life.  Mount Pleasant is an interesting intersection of urban cultures and histories.  Rich in civil war history as a major medical camp for the Army of the Potomac, it has been considered alternately as: a site for the Lincoln Memorial, a palatial gateway to the city, a hub of DC’s African American Jazz and literary scene, a civil rights launching point and now a hub of urban renewal.  Here, The Salvadoran immigrant community mixes with the bohemian crowd from Adams Morgan, the well-heeled residents of expensive condos and the longtime African American population of the area.  Some iconic points preserve the the imprint of these distinctive cultures.

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Sacred Heart Parish has been the hub of Spanish speaking Catholic ministry in DC for decades.  It’s grand architecture was a double statement of (a) God’s glory and (b) that the Catholic community of DC had ‘arrived.’  Today it remains a palace for any soul looking to be ennobled and comforted by the vision of God.

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A colorful mural adorns a 15th Street row house just south of the merge into 16th Street.  It presents an intermingling of cultures and communities that is the reality and not fully realized goal of Mt. Pleasant.

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Following 15th Street South, I eventually came to Meridian Hill Park (a.k.a. Malcolm X Park).  The Park was one of the sights originally considered for the Lincoln Memorial.  This plan was eventually abandoned in favor of the National Mall.  Standing on Meridian Hill Today, it’s easy to understand why.  Locating the Memorial there, Lincoln would’ve dominated the city like an Olympian god; not at all in keeping with his devotion to our democratic republic.  The park became an ornamental Italian garden to rival anything you’ll find in Florence.  Cascading waterfalls, walking paths, shade trees and the occasional statue make Meridian Hill Park the perfect place to find some peace in the middle a busy day.  Here, you’ll find monuments to President Buchanan, Dante Alighieri and even St. Joan of Arc.  Situated at the head of the park’s upper mall, St. Joan charges into the bright sun shine, her horse rearing up over DC’s skyline… a powerful witness to her faith, hope, love … and patriotism… virtues available to each of us every day.

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, Cardinal Newman advised that we should always look at life poetically… seeking mysteries wherever we can find them.  If you’ve enjoyed this first set of reflections, looking “poetically” at last week’s urban trek… stay tuned.  Part II will be posted soon!

John Henry Card. Newman
John Henry Card. Newman

“With Christians, a poetical view of things is a duty, – we are bid to color all things with hues of faith, to see a Divine meaning in every event, and a super-human tendency.”
-Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman

The ??Silence?? of the City

Saturday and Sunday morning’s in Washington, you’ll notice something unusual in Washington.  Listen carefully, can you hear it?  You may well respond, “I can’t hear anything.”  And that is precisely the point.  It first struck me when I was a college student at GW.  Sunday mornings I would trundle down to the alley kitchen at the end of our dorm hallway at 22 and H to make breakfast for friends.  From the window came a pleasant breeze and …silence.  Again, recently when walking in the city: by some quirk of traffic light timers I was standing at an intersection with NO cars… and it was blessedly silent.

Much of DC is purely residential: neighborhoods like Woodley/Cleveland Park, Brookland, Brightwood… but even mixed areas like Foggy Bottom are blessed with quiet weekend mornings because the government is closed and our socially active neighbors are sleeping in from last night.  What a blessing!  Why?

Some thoughts on silence, rising from reflections by Fr. Romano Guardini (a literary hero of mine):

To begin with: in DC we talk…and talk and talk… words are very important to us.  But well-formed well-meant words only emerge from silence.  Silence is also the best milieu to receive and actively consider the words of others… and this, we call communication.  As Washingtonians we pride ourselves on the value of our communication skills, but are we actually communicating or just making noise?  Many of our neighbors would assert the former.  How can we improve communication?  Ironically, the answer is: more silence.

For those who desire to follow Christ, silence is particularly important.  In John, Chapter 6, Jesus says, “Who listens to the Father and learns from Him comes to me.”  Listening, learning… both require silence.  Silence is that clean-swept upper room of our heart that we make ready to receive Jesus… the more of or noise that we sweep out, the more of his Word he can fill in.   Enjoy the silence of Washington weekends… there might be more there than you first realize.

suffering and seeds of new life

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The Pieta, the great work of Michelangelo’s youth… amazing, huh?  I mean how do you make something like that before you’re thirty and not think, “It’s all downhill from here”?  but I digress…  The Pieta last crossed the Atlantic for the 1965 World’s Fair.  It will probably never cross the ocean again in our lifetimes, but at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception – right here in downtown DC – one can find numerous depictions of the same sacred reality: a sorrowful Mary holds the body of her dead son.  In a Church committed to proclaiming the Resurrection, particularly during these spring weeks of the Easter Season, one might well ask, “Why is this morbid scene of such fascination?”  Let’s consider it a little through eyes of faith…

Jesus, and by extension Mary, has experienced the ultimate death.  (A) He’s God, he’s not supposed to die (B) He died in the prime of his life, pre-deceasing his own mother.  (C) He was murdered.  His executioners were all either liars (local authorities in Jerusalem), ignorant (the consenting crowds) or just apathetic (the Romans).  If this isn’t a perfect storm of human suffering, I don’t know what is… and in the Pieta, Mary holds the fruit of this whole experience in her hands.  One recalls the question of the great Lenten hymn, the Stabat Mater, “Can anyone’s suffering be as great as mine?”

Even in this moment, however, there is light.  Jesus and Mary willingly accepted this moment.  Jesus himself put up no defense, and Mary – far from running away from this moment – stays there to watch and embrace her son.  They will not allow death to be the last word.  Neither will they allow death to separate them form those they love nor from fidelity to their own missions.  In short, life goes on awash in pain for the moment, but living nonetheless.  The instrument by which Jesus and Mary hold on to life is faith in the Father… and by that tenacious faith in the Father, Resurrection dawns three days later.  Life and joy return more glorious than anyone could possibly have imagined at the foot of the Cross.

Way back at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, there’s a great line.  Simeon says to Mary, “and you yourself a sword shall pierce so that thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”  (Lk 2:35).  I never understood this line until I was at the National Shrine yesterday meditating on the Pieta.  In some ways, the experience of Jesus and Mary was obviously unique, but in some ways it was an “every man” experience revealing what goes on in all of our hearts.  In our daily life in DC the experience of Resurrection finds its seed in this moment of accepting suffering… the very fact that we are courageous enough to let the suffering happen and mingle with our faith is already an anticipatory experience of the Resurrection promised by God our Father.  In this we can rejoice even in the midst of great pain.  In the midst of spring, be sure to trek up to Catholic University and visit the National Shrine to spend some time with the Pieta.

Pieta in the National Shrine
Pieta in the National Shrine

the three-legged race of heart and head

Often enough, parishioners will approach me with one of two conundrums:
(a) I yearn so much to be good, to be holy, but I can’t figure out how.  OR
(b) I follow all the rules, do everything I’m supposed to, but I don’t feel any closer to God.

Another common variation on this themes substitutes “being good/ begin holy/ following the rules” with that sticky phrase, “being a ‘good’ Catholic.”  …still not sure quite what makes a ‘good’ Catholic, but I digress… 

Whatever nomenclature one prefers the issue comes down to this: the relationship between heart and head… feeling and will.  The false assumption at the root of my parishioners’ tension is that the decisions of the will and the satisfied feelings of the heart will (a) be simultaneous and (b) only be justified if they happen simultaneously.

Life experience proves however that such assumptions are, as I say, false.   Our pursuit of goodness is often more like the three-legged races the kids are currently running as part of field day… bound together, but more often than not quite clumsy.  Heart and head alternately lag behind, catch up or over compensate one for the other.  Don’t be alarmed, this is actually the norm for the spiritual life.  Consider St. Paul himself

 What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. (Rm 7:15)

and again

If Christ is in you the body is dead because of sin while the spirit lives because of justice.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will bring your mortal bodies to life also. ” (Rm 8:10-11)

There’s always this sense of a lag between head and heart.  Chalk it up to the imperfections of our fallen world and move on.  In some ways its kind of nice having the two slightly out of sync… when one is weak the other can make up for it always keeping us on a forward moving path.  Writing to his brother Francis about his own spiritual life, Bl. John Henry Newman used this phrase, “It is my daily  and – I hope – heartfelt prayer…”  I don’t think Newman was being rhetorical, I think he was being quite realistic.  Sometimes the search for holiness is lead by the head and the heart catches up… sometimes the opposite.  Like the kids in the three-legged race who stumble left and right, the important thing is that we keep moving forward and rejoice in the interplay.

Divided but undimmed

Spring is here and with it a familiar smell.  Laden with memories of late night conversations, laughter and so much more, we begin from time to time, block to block, to smell barbecues alight once more!  Friends from the south and from Texas will admonish, “They’re not real BBQ’s, all you have are ‘grills’…”  In NY (where I come from), if you burn stuff and cook over it, it’s a BBQ.  …’nuff said.   And in DC it’s not just BBQ’s burning nowadays.  Folks sit in their front gardens and back yards gathered around swiss chimneys, and firepits (which incidentally are not pits so much as elevated braziers, but again, I digress…).

All this pyro-centered social gathering has me thinking, examining the phenomenon through eyes of faith.   In the Church, we’re still celebrating the Easter season.  At our masses, the Easter (Paschal) Candle is still lit at all masses to remind us of the night when the light of Christ re-entered our experience at the end of Lent.  During that ceremony on Holy Saturday night, the new Easter fire is kindled, the candle lit, and then – from the one flame – hundreds of others spread as the faithful light their individual baptismal candles from the Easter candle.  The great hymn that captures all this has a great line, the flame is “divided but undimmed.”  That’s the great quality of holy light and holy joy… it can be spread without diminishing its beauty.

Likewise with people of faith… we can spread out across a hundred block parties, BBQ’s, happy hours ’round the fire pit, you name it… and bring the fullness of Christ to each of those encounters divided but undimmed.  He is present in our joy, our hope, our compassion and mercy for others and always our living of the Truth.

Pope St. Leo the Great said, “not in tis life, it is true, but only in eternity will God be all in all, yet even now he dwells whole and undivided, in his temple, the Church.”  That goes not only for the whole Church across the globe… not only for each individual parish tabernacle… but also for each of the faithful who become living tabernacles on the day of their baptism and each time they receive the Eucharist at mass.

As the light of springtime festivities spreads across Washington, let’s bring the light of Christ, divided but undimmed to each of those encounters and show the world how brightly the Church shines with the glory of his light!

What you do matters… Really.

What follows is my homily from the Easter Vigil (Holy Saturday Night).  The Vigil is the holiest night of the year, when all the adults entering the Church are received into the community by celebrating the sacraments of initiation.


What we do matters… An individual human life matters, so do its actions and its in-actions. Such, brothers and sisters, is the history of salvation: Adam and Eve’s actions mattered, Noah’s actions mattered, Abraham, Moses, David… their “yes’s,” their “no’s” were the hinges of salvation history leading up to the yes of Mary… and the individual human life that changed everything, Jesus. We heard his, “yes” yesterday in the Passion, “not my will, but thy will be done.”

Think about how awesome that is: that God has chosen for human actions to matter to the salvation of our own souls and indeed the return of all Creation to him in heaven.   And because the Father traced this course in Salvation history, leading up to the Passion Death and Resurrection of Christ – what we do tonight, the sacraments we do tonight – matter.  They have meaning.

He was baptized. He told us to “Go baptize all nations”… so we do baptism
He forgave sinners and told us “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven.” and “Unless you forgive seven times seventy you will not be forgiven.” So we do confession… we forgive sins.
He healed and “through the Apostle James commanded us ‘are there any sick among you let them send for the priests of the Church and let the priests pray over them annointing them…” So we do the Anointing of the Sick.
He went to marriages and called the Church his Bride… so we do marriage.
At the Last Supper he left of a priesthood to serve us so we do Holy Orders.
On that same night He left us his very Body and Blood as food for the journey…and so we do this in memory of him.

Our brothers and sisters who have completed the RCIA process have all been touched by God in one way other another and perceiving his love compelling them they did something about it. They prayed and learned and now they celebrate the Sacraments because they know that doing this tonight…and living sacramentally every day of their lives matters to them and to those they meet…and indeed to Christ himself.

I’m harping on this doing of stuff because it may not be as obvious as we think. The dominant culture of our time even within some quarters of Christianity implicitly tells us that nothing do matters.

Consider death… the one thing that affects absolutely every human being… practically speaking most people think that either we die and nothing happens (in which case life has no meaning) or we die and everyone goes to heaven… Hell is reserved to Hitler Stalin and maybe one or two other people …but everyone else -no matter what- goes to heaven regardless of who they were what they believed or how they lived… in other words nothing they did in this life had any affect on the next.

On the flip side there are fundamentalists who will say that yes there is a well populated heaven and a well populated hell, but your actions have no influence on where you’ll go, it’s all decided by the whim of God… again, the message: what we do doesn’t matter.

So brothers and sisters what we celebrate tonight is three-fold:

That Resurrection is real and that God desires it for us.
That our catechumens and candidates… and all the rest of us… have been touched by this hope and responded by doing something about it… immersing ourselves in the sacraments…living each day sacramentally.  And finally, that in the best tradition of Catholic humanism the physical things we do… the sacraments, our actions leading up to and coming down from them… what we do matters and has a real affect on our eternal lives and the eternal lives of all.

The Seven Churches and The Pilgrimage of Life

It’s a frequent topic of conversation: DC’s transient population.  Young adults flood the city’s universities.  The ebb and flow of Congress brings with it aides, lobbyists, staff, family members and more.  And of course even if you’re not new to the city, there’s no guarantee that you’ll live in the same apartment for an extended period.  Rents change, buildings get bought for redevelopment, neighborhood dynamics shift… and then there’s that wonderful thing called marriage whereby your simple thousand-dollar-a-month efficiency just doesn’t cut it anymore.

At its most exalted, we call this culture of movement, “dynamic,” but when the rubber hits the road on moving day it’s just burdensome.

Iconic of all this… I was walking one day, and discovered a moving box rental company… I can’t say that I’d have much confidence in preowned cardboard boxes, but I digress…

In demographic terms, we refer to a constantly shifting population as transient (such a sad sounding word), but might we look at this especially DC phenomenon through eyes of faith?

In “Meditations of the Christ,” Father Romano Guardini (see previous post) describes Jesus as always being “in passage.”  It’s true.  The Lord was always moving about, slipping in and out of crowds, developing his ministry to its ultimate goal: the Passion Death and Resurrection.  Using the widest angle lens possible, we say that Christ was always on a pilgrimage back to the Father in heaven.

Our most ancient authors, especially St. Paul, speak beautifully about this sense of a life-pilgrimage to heaven:

“So we are always courageous, although we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord.  Therefore, we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away.” (II Cor. 5:6-9)

Seen in this light, a culture of frequent moves doesn’t have to be quite so daunting… It’s just one more reminder of the reality that we’re invited to somewhere greater – heaven.

Yesterday, a group of intrepid Washingtonians took part in a beautiful exercise meant to remind all of us that every day of life in our city is part of a larger pilgrimage to the City of God… Our Young Adult Ministry, (www.DCCatholic.com) engaged in the Seven Church Walk.  Started in Rome by St. Philip Neri, the Seven Church Walk was a pilgrimage to the holiest basilicas of the Eternal City.  The faithful pray at each stop, but along the way they find Christ in each other through conversation, laughter, song, and food.  Some years ago this venerable tradition came to Washington.  Each year the faithful trek to 7 different historic parishes of our fair city… with the added bonus of tweeting, instagraming and facebooking the experience as they go!  Since I was occupied with holy week activities at my own parish I took great inspiration from the social media version of the pilgrimage!

As Catholics observe the start of Holy Week, we’re literally walking with Christ toward the Cross and Resurrection.  Never forget that whether it’s Holy Week or the Seven Church walk, all of this is a microcosm of how we can understand each and every day of our lives… moving, from apartment to apartment, job to job ever closer to God and our final goal, Heaven itself!

The social life of… an alleyway??

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During our last snowfall… and I do hope it was our LAST snowfall, I stayed with brother-priests for my day off.  Their rectory backs up on something quintessentially urban… an alleyway.  At first blush so what; most homes in downtown DC backup on an alleyway, but there’s more here than meets the eye.  Alleys are, in the first place – to be sure – places of utility.  They’re built so that  city residents have access to parking, and so that garbage trucks, repair crews and other day-to-day workers can access homes without blocking street traffic.  Reading in the morning light of my third-floor urban aerie, I noticed another side to alleyways: they’re places of great social interaction!

If a front garden is the outdoor drawing room of a townhouse, the back yard is the den where Washingtonians really let their hair down.  How interesting to watch a retired resident thoughtfully sipping hot coffee on a chill morning.  Small children in another yard pelt each other with snowballs.  In still other precincts young adults with the world on their shoulders clear off cars for a day’s work.  Taking out the trash, homeowners enjoy a shared moment, talking over everything and nothing all at once.  An old woman receives groceries from a helpful neighbor… And everyone engages in a cautious industrial waltz backing cars in and out of their garages, carefully giving way to one another, venturing out for another day contra mundum.  They alleyway is also, in a certain sense, a place of safety, “Yes… I’ve made it through Washington Circle alive once again!”  They’re the entry ways to that special reality called HOME.

Speaking about evangelization and urban life, Pope Francis has this to say in Evangelium Gaudium,

“God’s presence accompanies the sincere efforts of individuals and groups to find encouragement and meaning in their lives.  He dwells among them, fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice.  This presence must not be contrived, but found, uncovered.”

If this isn’t what I saw going on in a DC alleyway last week, I don’t know what is.