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?

The Miracle of Child Birth

images

Walking along the street in DC this week, I noticed something I haven’t seen since I lived in Italy: an “It’s a girl!” bow… A big puffy bow proudly attached to the front door of a townhouse.  Seeing those announcements always makes me smile.  You know that the neighbors have all congratulated the family, that far-flung relatives will be coming for visits… An aura of joy seems to grace the house when that bow goes up.  It made me think of one of this season’s great Biblical quotes,

“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:5)

Every parent I’ve ever met agrees, childbirth is a miracle.  The irony is that an infant is something so self-contained, so dependent, so knowable.  Aren’t miracles all about the un-knowable?  Yes and no.

Some people say that miracles (or anything to do with God, really) are unintelligible and so they question the existence of any object of faith.  The birth of the Infant Christ gives us a clue to another way that we might consider things of faith.  Father John Saward puts it this way in his book, “Cradle of Redeeming Love” :

“When a man meets a mystery of faith, he finds not a deficiency, but an excess of intelligibility: there is just too much to understand.”

…kind of like holding a baby, be it the Infant Jesus or one’s own little sister.  That child is understandable, but there is so much there, that our minds can’t possibly grasp it all at once.  All the possibilities of a baby’s life, all the love he or she will experience and share… the feeling when an infant grips your finger with all his or her strength… the experience of being embraced by an baby with a combination of utter neediness but also clearly gratitude and love.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s miraculous.

The mysteries of God are like that, but multiplied by infinity: I can’t fully understand a baby’s embrace, but I don’t doubt the child exists.  Maybe that’s one reason the Savior decided to come to us precisely as a child.

Travel: a voyage without and within

IMG_0318

Travel, one of life’s great experiences, opens us.  Exposing us to different palates of color, sound and taste, travel challenges us to navigate, not only across geography but across the contours of the self.  What does the place I’m visiting have in common with me and my life?  What differences seem to be of value?  Can I incorporate useful diversities into my own life and sense of self?  Washington is a traveler’s city, to be sure.  Not only is our home a destination, but from here our neighbors go to the four corners of the world for civil, military, humanitarian, or commercial purposes.  So travel seems a worthwhile subject for meditation when we look at DC through eyes of faith.

One way to engage in such meditation is a visit to the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries.  To begin with both galleries are dedicated to Asian arts, subject matter that is foreign to most Americans’ experience… Beyond the art, the very design of the [Sackler] building is wholly different: the entire gallery is subterranean.  It’s a wonderfully wrenching way to open one’s mind, leaving not only the “West,” but even the surface of the earth to be immersed in a culture that is so “other” than one’s own.

Two exhibits, currently on view at Freer/Sackler focus specifically on the power of travel travel art: “The Traveller’s Eye,” and “Fine Impressions.”

IMG_0316

Unlike many exhibits of travel art, which look at other parts of the world through western eyes, The Traveller’s Eye shares travel art by Asian artists about voyages on their own continent.    Abstract East Asian miniatures, painted with single-hair brushes populate some incredible silk scrolls.  There’s also a collection of brilliantly colored photos by Indian photographer Raghubir Singh that, for the first time in my life, made me think, “Maybe I should visit India.”  To see these works is to be transported, to question all one’s own aesthetic assumptions, and, arrive at newer deeper understandings of them.  I visited the exhibit a week ago and I’m still chewing on how to incorporate what I saw into my own understanding.

banner-default

Fine Impressions is -for me- more familiar.  It’s James McNeill Whistler’s Venetian prints.  Having studied in Italy for five years, Venice is one of my favorite places in the world.  The curator’s praised the artists’s ability to capture light in black and white IMG_0306etchings.  For me though, examining Whistler’s prints, I was struck by how – with ink and paper -he could communicate the “creakiness” of the city.  I could hear the squeak of doors opening, the rustle of long-withered canopies in the breeze and the aged yawning of gondolas plying the canals.  Perhaps the greatest witness to Whistler’s ability is that these prints inspired Charles Lang Freer to begin his collection art from overseas, eventually expanding into Asian arts… and bequeath it to the nation as a gift for all citizens.  Behold the power of travel!

For more on The Freer and Sackler Galleries, visit their WEBSITE.  For more on American artists who studied/worked abroad, consider reading David McCullough’s excellent work: The Greater Journey.  For classic books that demonstrate the power of travel and travel art try: The Italian Voyages (by, Goethe), The Stones of Venice (by, Ruskin), The Voyage of the Innocents (by, Twain), likewise works by Frances Mayes, and Bill Bryson.

Our Deepest Yearning: The Love that moves the sun and stars

Gustave Dore, "The Empyrean" from Dante's Paradiso XXXIII
Gustave Dore, “The Empyrean” from Dante’s Paradiso XXXIII

Recently, the Catholic community of Washington experienced a sad loss.  Our Auxiliary Bishop (bishop who assists the Cardinal), Leonard Olivier died.  At 91 he led a long, holy and truly gracious life.  Attending the vigil mass (mass celebrated the night before the actual funeral), I was struck by a line from the Book of Job, “my inmost being is consumed with longing.”  So far this week, we’re reflected on the longing for a better world, the pitfalls of ambition (another kind of longing)… Let’s muse just a little on the power of yearning…on why it is that longing can consume our whole being… shall we?

Job is one of the great characters of Biblical history.  In the midst of great suffering, he is consumed with longing for seeing his Vindicator/Redeemer.  St. Augustine said that prayer is “yearning for God…for our heavenly homeland.”  It’s an all-consuming yearning.  In his Confessions, Augustine affirms, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee [God].”

This is the “root” desire that fuels all our other wants/needs: to be enveloped in perfect love… to return to the original communion with God from whence we came.  Recall again, St. John Paul II’s great phrase: man has a “nostalgia for original beauty.”  For Catholics it makes sense that desire is such a big part of our lives… and lest anyone should think that I’m over-exalting desire, consider this: The very word “desire” is from the Latin “desidera,” “of the stars.”  Even Carl Sagan, a cynic about traditional conceptions of God, said that man is made from “star stuff.”  Desires, man’s reaching for the stars, are serious things that speak to our origins and our end… Desires merit a sacred reverence.

Dante Alighieri situates his entire Divine Comedy in terms of desire.  At the beginning of his epic pilgrimage through hell, purgatory and heaven, the author finds himself in a mid-life crisis, “Midway upon the journey of our life I found that I was in a dusky wood; for the right path, whence I had strayed was lost.”  His journey through the frustrated lesser desires of those in hell, and the noble yearning of those in purgatory culminates in the acceptance that what man truly longs for “with his inmost being” is nothing less than the Love of God: “by a lighting flash my mind was struck – and thus came the fulfillment of my wish.  My power now failed that phantasy sublime: My will and my desire were both revolved, as is a wheel in even motion driven, by Love, which moves the sun and other stars.”

What are my desires?  Do I have desires that consume my inmost being?  How are they connected with my own sense of identity?  Do my desires ultimately drive me toward the stars, toward something higher?  How are my desires connected with my sense of the divine?  All good questions to ask ourselves from time to time.

The Heights and Pitfalls of Ambition

DC-Skyline-Night

It was a very DC moment… I was sitting on the National Mall admiring “The Dome.”  Contemplating the US Capitol, ambition practically emanates from the building.  It’s very name, spelled consciously with an “o,” reaches for antique splendor.  It’s a reference to the “CapitOline Hill” center of the greatest empire in western history, Rome.  But back to the 21st century… Ambition oozes from the place: the desire to serve our country, and all-to-often a desire to serve one’s career.  Both of these desires typify life in our city.  The fact the both these desires typify life in our city frustrates many, but it shouldn’t surprise.  To be clear: this post isn’t about pointing fingers, judging, or apportioning good and bad desire to any group(s) of people.  Rather, it might be good to look at the concept of ambition itself through eyes of faith.  For this we turn to an old friend, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas tells us (ST II.IIae q131 a1) that ambition is the seeking of honor, and that “honor denotes the reverence due to a person in witness of his excellence.”  Not so bad, really.  In fact it has a ring of justice to it.  If I do something excellent, it ought to be recognized.  That’s certainly what Aristotle thought in his Ethics.  And if that’s where ambition ended it’d be a purely good thing… but as with most of life, ambition is more complicated than that.  Why?  Because: (a) We tend to take more honor to ourselves than our excellence deserves… and (b) If we become concerned only with taking honor to ourselves, we fail to give anything to anyone else (whether it’s honor, or basic necessities like food, or love).  As always, Thomas talks about this twisting of ambition in terms of “inordinate” ambition.  It’s not that ambition is always evil, but when we pursue it in “inordinate” ways it can ruin us and fail to serve our neighbors; everyone loses.

It’s something we all do… and I do mean ALL of us.  St. Augustine talked about it recalling a childhood incident when he stole a pear.  It wasn’t even a ripe pear (he tells us), so why’d he do it?  In the end, he wanted to receive the praise and honor of his pals who watched the whole thing happen.  One doesn’t have to work under the dome to understand ambition.

DC’s stoney edifices are sprouting evergreen boughs.  Shop windows magically fill with gift ideas.  Maybe all of us can use the signs of the season as inspiration to turn inordinate ambition back toward the generosity that characterizes us and our hometown at our very best.

Peace on Earth and in DC

earth

I was doing one of my favorite DC things… waiting in line for coffee and a croissant.  As my scarf slipped, a university student noticed my collar.  He asked if I was a priest from Georgetown.  The mistake was understandable, but as a proud graduate of GWU and it’s Newman Center, his words fell hard on my ears.  There’s not much love lost between DC’s two big schools of international affairs.  …but, I digress.  The student and I had a pleasant conversation waiting for our lattes.  He said that he was studying journalism, but had a real passion for the new Social Justice major at GU, and was considering a related graduate degree.

How wonderful this young man’s ambition to help others, to improve our world.  How quintessentially Washington!

“Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.” -President Kennedy

It was also apropos of the season of “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”  A cynic might ask… “Is a better world really possible?”

A partial answer lies proof of the existence of God “from desire.”  (Here, I’m drawing not only from the proof itself, but from Father Robert Barron’s 11/19/14 reflection on it).  In a nutshell: An innate or natural desire indicates the reality of the thing desired.  We get hungry because food exists and we need it.  The argument hinges on our desire being innate, not psychologically contrived.  I cannot have an innate hunger for dinosaur meat since I have no experience of dinosaurs… I can contrive that it might be interesting to taste T-Rex but that’s all it is, a contrivance.  Likewise I can suppose that Zambian food might be interesting, but never having experienced it, I can’t say that I desire it.

All people, especially the most in need among us, desire a better life.  We’ve experienced hints and inklings of it.  From time to time, history has even proven it possible.  St. John Paul II called it “a nostalgia for original beauty.”  The desire and reality of a better life is so real that it drives some to crime, others to cross deserts on foot in search of a better life.  It drives us to work hard to give our kids a better life than we had.  At its height the desire and reality of a better world can drive men to total self-gift (think Abe Lincoln or Gandhi).

Any student majoring in social justice… anyone with a concern for neighbor really, has a long hard fight in front of him.  It’s important to keep an inner place where we can regularly recollect the reality of the good we’re fighting for.  Pop-psychology calls this a “happy place.”  Origen said, “There should be in us a kind of spiritual paradise where God can walk and be our sole ruler with his Christ.”  I call it my inner cathedral.  Insofar as innate desires testify to the reality of the good we seek, we can hold on to those desires and keep them as part of that inner place, where we’re recharged to fight the good fight ahead.  One more way of seeing desire through eyes of faith.

Highways Byways and Hospitality

rx-01_aerial_bc

The beginning of conversation at just about any DC get together: “So what do you do?  Where are you from?  Where’d ya go to school?”  We’re all from somewhere else; a fact very much on everyone’s mind as Thanksgiving travel looms.  This past weekend I spent a bunch of time in airports myself, traveling to/from a college friend’s wedding.  The experience of strange airports, and hotels took me back to the start of my life in DC.  Then (1999), Washington was a shiny new airport called “National.”  It was hotel lobbies and university tours.  It was coffees at “XandO Cafe” and “Kramer Books”… and it was infinite excitement at even the possibility of an [unpaid] internship that would spread democracy (somehow) through my best efforts… on a copy machine.

I’d be willing to bet that many of us can recall some variation on this theme in our own DC story.  It’s an important part of DC’s identity and culture: So many of us are from somewhere else.  So many of us arrived in this place in need of hospitality, vulnerable to one extent or another.  On the flip side, the shared experience of moving to DC disposes our fellow citizens to give hospitality to visitors and new arrivals.

…All good stuff to think on as we travel the highways and byways later this week… and even more so as all roads lead back to Washington after the holiday.

For further reading, consider ethicist Leon Kass’ excellent book, “The Hungry Soul.”  In it, Dr. Kass maintains that all the best dimensions of our humanity (including the vulnerability/hospitality dynamic above) play out in the experience of dining… which is another wonderfully Washingtonian experience!  Happy Thanksgiving DC!

Happy Hours’ Truest Happiness

How good and how pleasant it is,
when brothers dwell together as one!
-Ps. 133:1

What’s so happy about happy hour? …or spinning class? …or social media for that matter?  It’s the other people, isn’t it?  On the flip side, one of the greatest tragedies of city life is that people can live in the midst of a metropolis and feel completely isolated (What St. John Paul II referred to as the “anonymity of the city”).

More than most, Washington is a city built for community.  Think about it, an artificially created jurisdiction whose whole purpose is to bring together representatives from across a continent.  Even the physical layout of our city is meant to bring people together: our many parks, traffic circles and other green spaces.  My grandfather once commented, “It’s a tragedy that people should fight so viciously in a place so beautiful.”  Contemporary additions to our communal dynamic include the Metro system and now social media.  Consider how excited people are that the silver line is nearing completion… Where does that come from?  The DC bar and restaurant scene, and now the advent of coffee culture all serve to bring people together because that’s where people are happiest – in the company of friends. Why?

Catholic tradition holds that made in God’s image and likeness, humans are most human when they live in community.  God is one God in three Persons (Father Son and Holy Spirit).  So we form families – unified domestic communities of persons.  Likewise we seek out friends for a drink after work, for exercise and recreation at our gyms… and now, we use social media [at its best] to extend that communion across vast distances and circumstances.

Looking to Genesis we find that when Adam was alone, there was something incomplete?? about him, and so our humanity was split-in-two “God made man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (1:27) Adam needed a partner with whom he could share his life and his love (Gn 2:20), and so came Eve.  There is a need in our humanity to resemble the Trinity.  Is it any surprise that so many of Jesus’ greatest moments happened around dinner tables (Cana, Zacchaeus, Martha and Mary, the Last Supper to name a very few)?

…just something to think about next time you find yourself smiling at a Happy Hour, or feeling good about your next trip to the gym to workout with a friend.

Also try visiting the webpage for our local Young Adult Ministry, which hosts great sessions of Theology on Tap.

Reverence? for our Mobile Devices?

images-6

Pass the windows of any DC coffee house, glance around you on the metro…when it’s warm again, look to any park bench and you’ll see it: Washingtonians reading.  To all those grade-school teachers who warned millennials that watching TV would stop us from reading, this certainly counts as a plot twist!  Admittedly some people now use their mobile devices for video games on the long bus ride home… and those who are reading aren’t necessarily plumbing the depths of Plato or Plotinus… but let’s look for the good with eyes of faith!

St. John Damascene writes:

The apostles saw Christ in the flesh: they witnessed his sufferings and his miracles and heard his words.  We too desire to see and to hear and so to be filled with gladness. …Since he is no longer physically with us, we hear his words read from books and by hearing our souls are sanctified and filled with blessing and so we worship, honoring the books from which we hear his words.”

St. John is talking about specifically liturgical texts, but we can telescope his teaching into the world.  For Catholics, all truth finds its origin and end in Christ the living Word of God.  Searching out truth can always [then] be a Christ-centered experience… a touching of the divine.  That’s what’s so exciting about the proliferation of mobile devices.

Whether in novels or treatises, the great truths of our human experience are now available at the touch of a screen.  Many of our classic texts are even available for free.  Case-in-point: a friend of mine wrote nearly his entire theology thesis based on resources kept on an iPad.  Another colleague keeps his entire library in his pocket.  New note taking options on devices like the Kindle even allow for the cross-referencing of texts and one’s own thoughts.  Truth in the palms of our hands.

Consider this too, all technology is in one way or another an extension of the person wielding it (Pop culture example: Thor’s hammer, Tony Stark’s “Iron Man” Suit).  Very often these tools extend/magnify our strength.  In the case of mobile devices we’re extending something else though, our reason… that gift which makes us most like God.  …quite a thing to share with the world.

Mr. [Fred] Rogers once testified before the US Congress that the space between a child and a TV is sacred because of the personal formation possible there.  Likewise for St. John Damascene the space between a reader and a sacred text… and for us the space occupied by our mobile devices.  Whether in a coffee house, in the Metro, on a park bench, reverence for the good that can happen as we search for truth can help form us into the best versions of ourselves.  Pretty cool, huh?

No humdrum life for us

images-5


Tonight, I make pilgrimage to the pantheon of DC culture: The Kennedy Center.  La Boheme is closing this week and I’ll be going to see it with a friend.  It’ll be my first time seeing/hearing this classic of the repetoire.

Among the many adjectives ascribed to opera, one must certainly be, “Over the top.”  Storylines are frequently complex, never dull.  Plots range from the very most tragic to the heights of Olympian triumph, never neutral.  The music represents an incredible synthesis of melody and character development, perhaps the world’s first form of multi-media entertainment.  And then there is, of course, the volume (‘nuff said).  Yes, opera is superlative… and because of that many people turn away from it.  “To each his own,” I suppose, but opera can prove a great exercise in measuring how we live.

Chapter five of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church frames the life of human beings as an ongoing response to what, in the Church, we call the “universal call to holiness.”  The most condensed summary I can manage is this: God invites and affirms that all people can be more like him; each in a way particular to his/her vocation and life circumstances lived according to the truth.  Not a bad starting point for leading one’s life… but something we can easily lose track of.  Commenting on the universal call, theologian Marianne Schlosser (Univ. of Vienna) comments in the winter 2013 edition of Communio International Catholic Review,

“Holiness in every day life as inconspicuous as it may be, is not humdrum…  The language of a call to holiness is challenging, indeed, ‘steep’ – an ‘arduum’ is sought and hoped for from God.”

And here, we come back to the world of opera.

Opera’s etherial heights and infernal depths mark the dimensions of human experience, perhaps not as we see them, but certainly as God created them.  Mothers and fathers balancing the struggles of child-rearing, work, social and civil life are saints and heroes; likewise the idealistic young intern moving to DC to make our country a better place.  Reading the synopsis of La Boheme last night, I discovered that it is the story of poor hard working students who fall in love.  They pawn their meagre possessions for food and medicine.  They wear tattered clothes.  They die.  Nothing could (to human eyes) seem more humdrum, but Puccini’s music helps us to see their ordinary lives through eyes of faith in which heroic love and tragic death reveal something deeper about ourselves, a touch of the divine… so that even at the tragic end we stand up and applaud beauty in the opera, and in ourselves.