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.
Washington has many faces: monumental DC, quiet Sunday morning DC, buzzing active DC, and of course… clogged DC. You know… It’s that map of the Mall on the front page of the Post the day before every holiday… the map with all those red lines where open streets should be… the metro announcements that begin, “Blue Line service will be suspended until…” Clogged DC can be spontaneous too; when you hear the sirens of a sixteen car motorcade coming out of nowhere. ..and God forbid you should get stuck behind a Metro Access van. Parades, protests and presidents are a regular part of life here. Consequently so is the virtue of patience… one hopes.
Patience is the virtue that disposes us to protect good reason against passion (especially sorrow). -St. Thomas Aquinas
Patience it is whereby a man bears evil with an equal mind, lest he abandon with an unequal mind the goods whereby he may advance to better things. -St. Augustine
Standing on a metro platform, or stuck in traffic on a crowded bus at rush hour, patience can be hard to find, but don’t make it harder on yourself than necessary. Consider this…
Virtues are habits built up over time. They always involve struggle, sometimes failure, but over time they involve growth. Patience is hard for everyone, but every struggle brings us closer to achieving that habit and keeping sorrow at bay. Growth in virtue never stops until we [hopefully] reach heaven… which means some degree of struggle will always be with us. Is there any comfort in this world? Certainly…
By definition, when we’re stuck in traffic, we’re stuck with others. Waiting on a metro platform is rarely a lonely event. We’re all in the same boat. That’s a comfort unto itself. It’s also an opportunity for us to frame the struggle for patience as setting a heroic example for the person next to us. Somehow when we’re doing it for another person – even a stranger – struggle becomes more tolerable. Who said you couldn’t look at traffic with eyes of faith?
Words have power. In high school, Bro. George began Senior English, “In the beginning was the word…” (Jn 1:1). Words form our sense of self. Francis Bacon wrote, “Reading makes a full man; conference makes a ready man; writing makes an exact man.” Whole civilizations have coalesced around words. Italy’s fractious provinces and principalities found common identity in Dante’s Comedia Divina (written in vernacular Italian) long before they identified with the tricolour flag. The British established the architecture of modern commerce and globalism by spreading their language to the 25% of the world’s population once held under their imperial sway. Gandhi, Dr. King, and many others have moved whole populations to control just anger, channeling it into effective non-violent protest. And most recently, consider the “Washington Redskins” (need I say more?). Words have power.
That’s why today’s Washington Post article “Redefining the N-Word,” by D. Sheinin and K. Thompson is so fascinating. Before going any further, let me say: This post is not meant to come down on any side of any argument about any word. Today, I’m marveling at the processof talking about words, and a very few of the many phenomena that influence that social conversation. The WP article in question is spurred by he NFL’s latest attempts to ban the n-word from use on the field. It raises some interesting questions (some in the article, some just in my own musing):
Do words have an absolute / fixed – value? …or do words depend wholly on context for their fullest definition? In English, probably a little of both… and when a word seems to move between those to categories confusion and concern result. What is the role of history in language? Throughout English history, words have morphed in meaning and weight. What seems to be so new is the speed with which words change… Has there ever been a time when a word (e.g. the ’n-word’) has -in the course of one generation- so radically and frequently changed? What role has instant print, radio and now digital media played in that process? Can language be controlled by coercive force (e.g. a school district …or here, the NFL)? …and even if it can be so controlled, should it be so controlled? Does today’s article display features of Orwell’s “1984,” or Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”?
Traditionally linguistic questions could find resolution… a final stamp of (dis)approval, either in academia or in the daily language of civil government. Does such a lexical court of final appeal exist today? Has English, at least in the U.S., split into so many mutually exclusive socio-cultural sub sets that emotionally charged words like “Redskins” or the “n-word” will forever be without final definition?
I dont’ have a final answer to any of these questions, but ongoing debates about words can serve as a great forum for our own personal formation as each of us strives to use language prudently and temperately for the good of others and the glory of God.
Recently, a colleague and I were talking about the planned Eisenhower Memorial in the heart of DC. Among many hotly debated questions about Washington’s newest memorial, my friend pointed out one sure thing: it will be expensive… not by the standards of the whole federal budget, but when you think of how many meals could be bought for the poor, houses that could be built for the homeless, medicines provided to say… Eisenhower’s surviving veterans.
It’s a classic debate: Beauty vs. “Utility” and an important one, one we should have frequently to keep us true. True to what? The balance of corporal and spiritual goods. Caring for our fellow man is a moral imperative, to be sure… but so is the spiritual reality of reminding ourselves where we come from and what kind of world our fathers (including God our Father) wanted for us. “Walking around” inside our father’s dreams for us guides us. It also helps our self-understanding to transcend the limited life-span and circumstances we inhabit.
Last night’s PBS News Hour offered up a great example of this in Detroit. Our neighbors to the north have struck a “grand bargain” to move their city out of bankruptcy. As part of it, a consortium of non-profits, including the Ford Foundation, are donating money to secure public pensions AND to safeguard the Detroit Institute of the Arts. Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation expounded beautifully that saving the Art Institute for future citizens of Detroit is not a luxury it’s a NEED for the soul of the city. I would highlight the stunning premise here: that a community of citizens does indeed have a soul!
Jesus strikes this same balance in his ministry. On the one hand he gives us an absolute command to serve the bodily good of our brothers and sisters in need. But in John 12 he also blesses Mary of Bethany for pouring a year’s worth of aromatic ointment over his feet, washing them with her tears and drying them with her hair. Extravagant? Certainly… but Jesus blesses this extravagance. I guess we could say that if the human body needs sober regulated nourishment for it’s health, the human soul needs extravagant love for its best good. If our monuments, houses of worship and other public spaces serve that good, it’s well worth it.
A visit to Tahiti would exciting, but on the off chance that you’re not going any time soon, you can find this painting at the National Gallery of Art. I enjoy strolling the impressionist wing from time to time. The hazy (not quite the right word) quality of impressionist art gives me the feeling that I’m inside someone else’s imagination peering at distant locales.
The Gallery has a GREAT website (www.nga.gov) where you can find pictures to fire your imagination and launch you to far off places before returning refreshed to your day’s tasks. What is it about using our imaginations that’s so restorative?
St. Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics spoke beautifully and frequently about the importance of the imagination as a place where we can engage mysterious or unseen realities. Theres’ nothing more human than spending time with God. Taking time to use our imaginations in positives ways during the day (dreaming of: vacations, positive plans for family, future successes at work) can whet our appetites and drive us to achieve worthwhile goals… or even to make needed course corrections in life. Consciously engaging our imagination can also be a pro-active part of what is all too often a reactive day. A few moments when we give our will permission to run after the truest and deepest yearnings of our heart. If we do this in honesty with ourselves then the exercise of imagination can strengthen us to pursue our truest good: happiness through self-gift. Don’t discount the power of your imagination to play a wonderful role in guiding your life… to Tahiti or otherwise.
I’ve always loved our Metro system. The noble simplicity of its vaulted stations makes every rider a citizen-king. The system is clean (compared to many)… and what heart doesn’t swell with civic unity and pride as we all agree that one should, “Stand on the right!” Metro is certainly an icon of DC life, a staple of our regional culture. It’s also a fascinating petri dish of human experience.
When I commuted on Metro I was a wide-eyed college student, but there were other types of eyes too; muted in their excitement, downcast in fatigue, sometimes downright numb. I still see them. For some it’s a momentary thing, a brief “turning off” before rousing the self and stiffening the sinews for another round of life. But for others I get the sense that those muted eyes are the norm of life. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone that I see, but sometimes the words of Cardinal Wiseman come to mind,
“Who was ever satisfied that his attempt to please the world have been ever fully repaid?” (homily, “On love of the world” – I Jn 2:15)
All of us run in the rat-race of urban life. Too many run that race outside of a truly liberating human context: from one fad to the next, from one job to the next hoping against disappointed hope that eventually life will give way and reward us. If eyes on the metro are any indication, it won’t.
Christianity has always proposed a different way, a sacrificial context for our race in which all the smallest and greatest sufferings we endure can be consciously offered to God to win graces for ourselves and our world. The loving God, not this fickle world, becomes the source of or reward. As Viktor Frankl asserted: a man can survive any “how” if he has a “why.” When that “why” is our role in a divine schema of sacrifice and love, it ennobles us… lifts our spirits and maybe even our eyes when we’re riding the rails to work.
For further reading on living daily sacrifice see the works of: St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Josemaria Escriva, and St. John Paul II, all available at the Catholic Information Center (K St, NW between 15 and 16th St. – Metro: Farragut North)
I enjoy country music… sometimes. Even calling myself a dilletante of the genre would be an exaggeration. I started listening to it when I worked on the Hill. My usual classical station would put me to sleep after lunch… pop music risked being inappropriate to the office. Country’s positive lyrics and pep kept me awake in the mid afternoon. I only mention this to highlight what an ear-opening experience this morning was. Scanning the Post’s style section I found an article about Sam Hunt’s new album “Montevallo.” The glowing album review is typical in many ways, but for this:
“The 29-year-old is a fine-grain storyteller who knows how to roll, bounce, massage and leap-frog syllables in speedy, nuanced bursts. His most emotive verses toggle between singing and speech, locating a previously undiscovered sweet spot between Conway Twitty and Drake.”
The author, Chris Richards hits on a key principle of western aesthetics: the relationship between form and matter. Super quick: form is the other-worldly ideal of a thing… the heavenly perfection of what we wish a thing could be. Matter is the stuff (paint, clay, bricks, words, sound) that we on earth form into art. A thing is beautiful insofar as its form shines through its material reality. (see Saward, John. “The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty.” for more)
Musically, think of a spectrum between pure form and pure matter; the form being pure melody, the matter being words without music. Playing around inside this spectrum has yielded some of our great treasures. Opera leans heavily toward the melodic; sometimes to the point of “bending” bending words to suit melodies. Epic poetry (Homer, Dante, et al) relies on the lilting patterns of words and their syllables to provide a music-less melody simply by pronunciation.
Mr. Richards seems to have stumbled on this philosophy lesson in Mr. Hunt’s latest album. It’s not an altogether new concept. Rex Harrison was famed for “musical speech” in “My Fair Lady,” because – as Harrison confessed – he couldn’t really carry a tune (e.g. I’ve grown accustomed to her face).
I’m not sure if “Montevallo” will make a country convert out of me.. I’m not going out to buy boots just yet… but even as I type I can’t stop listening to the music’s wonderful interplay of form and matter. Today, keep your eyes peeled and ears open to form shining through matter… you may find it opens you to new forms of art and makes life just a little more heavenly.
Despite their gleaming finishes, you might easily miss these men. These are the Marconi monument (West side of 16th Street, NW in Mount Pleasant), and the African American Civil War Memorial (U St, NW). Multitudes of monuments mark our metropolis. Passing them routinely, we can become immune to their message, but they’re all worth thinking about.
Lately in ministry we hear a lot about being “intentional disciples” to improve the quality of our lives of faith. Our monuments (even little ones like Mr. Marconi ) can serve the same purpose. A call to intentional citizenship. We stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. Without the soldiers of the Union, we wouldn’t have a country. Without Marconi we might not have radio technology and I might not be able to blog!
Taking a minute to think about who’s memory I’m passing on the bus can be an inspiration to give my all and leave a better city for future generations of Washingtonians. How can I leave a good mark today?
This Sunday’s Washington Post featured two great articles about getting to know music. The first, by Geoff Edgers follows American orchestras’ efforts to expand their listener base using digital media. The second article, by Anne Midgette, discusses pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recent exploration of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier.
More deeply knowing art is like getting to know people. Artists pour their humanity into their works. So a piece of art (be it music, sculpture, photography etc.) has its own identity independent of me. I have to humble myself, to open myself to that identity. I interact with the art, but I don’t get to control the art or define it. I treat it as another subject (not an object).
Aimard touches on this dynamic when he reflects, “You just have to be in contact with this music as rightly as possible, as sincerely as possible, as generously as possible.” Commenting on LiveNote, an app for concertgoers, Edgers remarks, “…I developed a better sense of how to experience the performance… I felt connected to what was going on in the hall musically but realized that there was a crutch [i.e. LiveNote] if I got curious or confused.”
Just as a good friend helps me navigate my day, getting to know art at a “person-al” level can too. So be sure to explore podcasts, wiki-articles, apps and yes, even traditional bound books as you’re getting to know DC’s cultural resources in a deeper way. You might be amazed at the results.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard will perform this Friday as part of the Library of Congress’ annual music series. See “Touring Tips” for some easy-access concert venues I’ve been to.
Have you ever thought it would be nice to have a soundtrack for life? Some days accommodate music more easily, or obviously than others; today is one of them. November 2 is All Souls Day, a time of special prayer for the dead. If you’re looking for a way to gild your experience of this holy day, consider listening to The Dream of Gerontius (music by Edward Elgar).
The Dream is a poem by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman the great convert, pastor, and academic. Newman describes the experience of a soul dying surrounded by loved ones. It’s a wonderful inspiration for prayer and hope-filled meditation on our own mortality.