“Person-al” Art

The Greek Muses


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.

Today’s Soundtrack

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).

John Henry Card. Newman
John Henry Card. Newman

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.

(For more on praying for the souls in purgatory, check out paragraphs 210 and 211 of the Compendium of the Catechism).


The Craft of Beer

What’s in a craft beer?  Visiting the “new” Monroe Street, NE (Brookland) I was astounded by the number of craft beers available at a local pub.  Likewise, walking down the street passing two different liquor stores I saw displays of small-batch bourbons and even… this really threw me… multiple brands of craft-designed rye!… a liquor I thought all but extinct.  Searching the Post’s digital Style section, it seems this renaissance of craft liquors has been gaining IMG_0263steam for some time.  This could be a very good thing.  Why?

The Church has a long history with craft-made brews of all sorts.  In Rome we used to prize a hand-made green sambuca made by monks of the Castelli Romani.  For centuries, the monasteries of Belgium have set a gold standard in beer production.  After the Germanic invasions, wine production only continued in Gaul (France) because the mass required the use of quality wine.

What’s behind this Catholic love of all things distilled?  Put simply… they’re very human.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (para. 356) tells us:

Of all visible creatures… man is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake. (cf Gaudium et sees 24.3) and he alone is called share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life.

Genesis presents an escalating process of creation by which everything was made with a useful purpose (Gn. 1:28-31); everything except man.  Man was created by God in an act of freely chosen love for its own sake.  Made in God’s image, we exist beautifully for our own sake, with a capacity to freely love others for their own sake.  In addition, like our creator  we can make beautiful things with love for their own sake.  Greatest among these is life itself (see the linked talk by St. John Paull II on this topic).  Somewhat further down the chain but no less true, we can make “things” with love for their own sake… we call these things “beautiful.”

Whether it’s a monk perfecting a centuries-old process of growing hops for beer… or couple of thirty-somethings learning to make wine in someone’s basement, there’s something especially human about pouring time, talent, humility and love into making something beautiful for its own sake.  Is this perhaps what we detect in our craft beers, bourbons etc.?  Something different and more truly human than mass-produced machine-made mediocrity?  To be sure, many produce and consume these delicacies for all the wrong reasons… a reminder that we should drink with prudence temperance and responsibility… but keeping focused on the true good and beautiful, the growth of these new more artistic drinks may indeed be a reason for all of us to raise our glasses and say, “Cheers!”

The Gracious Ginkgo

Plants make for such wonderful inspiration when you’re walking down the street.  Lately I’ve been noticing an old favorite, the Ginkgo.  The German poet Goethe also took note of this tree and its bifurcated foliage while walking in Heidelberg.  In inspired him to IMG_0275write a poem:

This leaf from a tree in the East,
Has been given to my garden.
It reveals a certain secret,
Which pleases me and thoughtful people.
Is it a living being,
Which has separated in itself?
Or are these two, who chose
To be recognized as one?
Answering this kind of question,
Haven’t I found the proper meaning,
Don’t you feel in my songs,
That I’m one and double?

(Ginkgo Bilboa, by Goethe)

Sophomore year of college at GWU, noticed a tree outside my window.  I had never paid much attention to it before, but as fall got underway  and again in spring, it bore the most brilliant golden leaves.  Really, they were mesmerizing to watch out the window (either that or my studies were just that dull…).  I discovered that the tree was a Ginkgo and that there are many of them scattered throughout our city. IMG_0277

Ginkgos can be grown in any number of ways, but when they’re trained vertically as they often are in our narrow streets, they take on a gracious draping character.  Combine this with their luminous foliage and one finds an elegant ornament right in the middle of the side walk.  Frederick Law Olmsted once described Central Park, NY as an outdoor cathedral… If we apply similar language to Washington’s streets, the Ginkgo makes for wonderful gold leafing in the DC’s canopy in the spring and fall.

Praying with Music

‘just got back from hearing the BSO play Brahms at Strathmore… What a joy!  I was also challenged and surprised by how much I enjoyed a much more modern pice: Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto #1.  Think about the following exercise for your ride home in the car / metro or even while jogging on the treadmill.


It’s hard to get away from the noise of our world.  Hectic lives, car horns, the sound of the metro passing underground, smartphone alerts, push notifications… Even if none of these existed, you  can easily hear five languages at any given moment walking down a street or sitting at a cafe in DC.  Silence is golden… and ultimately the ideal setting for discernment of what’s going on inside each of us at any moment.  But coming from our noisy world, many find real meditative silence intimidating.  

Consider this… consider turning a weakness (distracting noise) into a strength (music for meditation). Some of what follows is drawn from St. Ignatius’ Loyola’s techniques for the discernment of spirits.  Other parts may sound like contemporary trends in “mindfulness.”  I’ve read significantly on both, and both influence my own prayer life, but what follows are ultimately just my own musings.

The Goal – A greater degree of self-understanding.

What you’ll need – music to listen to, some time by yourself, a pen and paper… and an open mind.

I find purely instrumental music (classical, jazz etc.) best for this.  Listening to lyrics can break my train of thought, but if you have the discipline to do so, you can use sung music as well.

Step 1: Listen to your music track once just to hear it.

Step 2: Listen again to get to know it better

Step 3: Listen a third time and begin taking notes.

What are you noting?  It depends on what you notice the most… maybe it’s the pace of the music… maybe a particular instrument stands out…maybe thoughts of an individual come to mind… or something you did …or forgot to do during the day.  Note your emotions too.

Don’t Judge Your Notes!  There’s no right or wrong here… You’re just collecting data to establish “This is where I’m at today.”  So you’re not “wrong” to notice a flute in the middle of a cello concerto.  Realizing you forgot your dry cleaning isn’t necessarily a foolish distraction in this exercise.  It’s just data.  Finally, the feelings you experience in the music make you neither vicious nor virtuous… they’re just data to be considered.  Analysis comes next.

Once you’ve journaled your experience of the music, begin asking the questions like “Why?”  or, “What was behind [fill in the blank]?  Some of the answers may mean nothing.  Some generate more questions.  Others may be self-illuminating.  Others may inspire prayer: “God, thank you for [fill in the blank].” or, “Lord help me to [fill in the blank].”  Still others may need unpacking over time.

Finally, consider that the more deeply we explore the mystery of our own self, the more we begin to know the mystery of Christ who is our origin and end… all of which can only be helpful as we venture out into the noisy world all over again tomorrow.

Seeing more than stone, steel and streets

Walking through the streets as a kid, my imagination used to run wild.  Light posts were never just light posts, they were potential laser canon hiding places… the clump of trees in the park wasn’t just a clump of trees, it was an enchanted grove… columns and building features were, of course, remnants of long lost civilizations.  Like I said, my childlike imagination ran wild in a very C.S. Lewis sort of a way.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.  (I Cor 13:11)

Today I still see more in the buildings, parks and other features of daily life… No longer through a child’s imagination, nor through rose-colored glasses of adult escapism… Today I see through eyes of informed faith that excites everything.  There is more moving behind our world than meets the eye.  Take for example the DC metro.  It’s bronze color scheme is an intentional nod from designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli to our city’s monuments, especially the equestrian statues that mark our [in]famous traffic circles.  Behind these monuments we find not just biographies of individuals, but also monumental virtues: patriotism, self-sacrifice, honesty, fortitude.  All of these virtues represent “a more perfect union” that exists in our minds and we hope will one day exist in our world… but for the moment that bronze tone keeps firing our imagination and our will to keep working for it.

Paul-Signac-Place-des-Lices-1893-1024x822Christ , Mt.Athos, 13th century

A similar dynamic exists in Christian art.  Classical icons always have a gold leaf background reminding the viewer of heaven: a world beyond for which we can strive.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a similar dynamic in modern art at the Phillips Collection.

The gallery’s current exhibition, “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities” beautifully explores pointillism and other forms of neo-impressionist art.  Often, the backgrounds of these paintings are marked by arabesque patterns of foliage, clouds, water etc. The curators remark that the style has “a capacity to move ‘beyond the real’ and to ‘fix the dream of reality’… Canvasses maintained roots in reality, but infused this naturalist ground…to yield a kind of ultra-reality.”  (More about the Phillips Collection in “Touring Tips”)

Walking through DC what do you see?  If the plain appearance of stone, bronze, paint and glass isn’t satisfying, consider looking to the virtues, the histories, and the striving behind them.  You may find a more beautiful sense of our home… and perhaps even a nobler self-conceit.

Stay Tuned! Coming Soon: Music and Inner Life

Johannes Brahms

This Thursday at The Music Center at Strathmore I’ll be listening to Brahms’ Second Symphony… one of my favorites… but it got me thinking: music is an amazing entry into inner realities… including one’s relationship with God.  Stay tuned for reflection on how to use any kind of music, from Bryan Adams to Brahms to learn more about the interior life!

Espressi and Aspirations


Often-times on a day off, with no particular plans, I’ll take an “urban trek,” to explore some part of the city I’ve never really paid much attention to.  It’s a great way to open my eyes to new sights smells and sounds… AND… it doesn’t cost much more than metro fare.  Last week I was on such a trek in Logan circle, when midway I stopped for a coffee.

Better said, I grabbed a “cafe.”  Five years of seminary in Rome fostered a number of religious devotions in me, including my love of espresso.  It’s a great pick-me-up in the morning or midday.  And yes, it can be a religious experience.  Making one requires a certain degree of liturgy whether it’s ritual dialog with your favorite barista or respectfully engaging your own espresso pot/machine to confect the perfect demitasse.  The results can be wonderful.  Psychologically, I break out of whatever rut I was in.  Physically, I get to sit and compose myself before the caffeine sets me up to face the world again.  The whole process doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes.  OK, spiritually speaking it’s not exactly a retreat at Mt. Athos, but one could well call an espresso break the culinary equivalent of an “aspiration.”

Aspirations are small spontaneous prayers we offer up throughout the day.  They’re literally “breaths” sent up to God.  An aspiration can be an act of thanks, faith, intercession of pleading for help.  Aspirations are [hopefully] responded to by in-spirations… “breathing-ins” from God that answer our deepest needs.   As an exercise, consider offering up a short series of aspirations every time you make a coffee break during the day… It may help you to see your day through eyes of faith.

Back to the urban trek… rejuvenated by my stop at Peregrine Espresso, I continued my exploration of the neighborhood… new houses, new restaurants, new everything inspiring me with new reflections and aspirations… and somewhere in all that newness, the distinct flavor of hope (mixed with coffee, of course.)

“I often think that when we come to adore Our Lord, we should obtain all we wish, if we would ask it with very lively faith, and a pure heart.” -St. John Vianney, On Prayer

Rock Creek, A Perfect Place for Re-Creation

The Lord is my shepherd;
there is nothing I lack.
In green pastures you let me graze;
to safe waters you lead me;
you restore my strength.
You guide me along the right path
for the sake of your name.
(Psalm 23:1-3)

“The best things in life are free.”  so the saying goes… and here in Washington it’s true!  Among the most primordial examples is Rock Creek Park, recently featured in the Washington Post Magazine (13 July 2014) as the “wild heart” of our city.  The park overflows with opportunities for personal renewal and growth.  Whether it’s a good trail run on its miles of woodland paths, a pensive horseback ride through arbored scenery or time spent at picnic and play, Rock Creek Park is place to better encounter ourselves and God.

The Stone Bridge in Rock Creek Park
The Stone Bridge in Rock Creek Park

Gaudium et spes (para. 22) speaks beautifully about how man, peering into Christ discovers his own best self.  One could also add that staring into the best parts of each other… we human beings observe sparks of the divine, the latent image and likeness of our Creator.  The result of this mutual study between us and God is re-creation… itself the origin of our term “recreation”.  It’s the whole reason we have parks like Rock Creek: places set apart from the hustle and bustle of the world where we can stop looking at other things and just contemplate ourselves and our Creator.  To experience this point in a an overt way, one of my favorite Rock Creek pastimes is biking the length of Beech Drive listening to Haydn’s “Creation.”  A sumptuous oratorio setting the first chapters of Genesis and other creation-related Scriptures to music, the “Creation” raises the ordinary exercise of a Rock Creek bike ride into a religious experience.

Another faith-dimension to places like Rock Creek is their gratuitousness.  In Washington we’re blessed to benefit from numerous free public institutions.  The nature of these sites, whether the monuments, or jazz in the NGA Sculpture Garden, or Rock Creek park or anywhere else… is to be free gifts that the people of our country have given to each other.  Sometimes these gifts come from the will of individuals.  Andrew Melon, for example, donated the nucleus of the National Gallery collection.  Other times these gifts are organized by the collective will of our nation, as is the case with the national parks.  In all cases these institutions were given as a free offering for the flourishing of our fellow citizens.  In this, our free public institutions participate in God’s own free gift of creation.  How blessed are we as to see the nation’s capital, our home, not only as a monument to human striving but indeed as a place where God’s own virtues can take flesh in us to make us a little more like him.

See “Touring Tips” for more info on visiting the park and beyond.

Now ask the beasts to teach you,
and the birds of the air to tell you;
Or the reptiles on earth to instruct you,
and the fish of the sea to inform you.
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of God hand of God has done this.”
(Job 12:7-9)

Hillwood, where Magnificence Lives


The Hillwood Museum, Estate and Gardens has a motto, “Hillwood, where Fabulous lives.”  Enjoying this typically DC experience through the eyes of faith yields a far deeper reflection.  I humbly submit that Hillwood could well amend its motto to, “Hillwood, where Magnificence lives.”

Hillwood is the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post.  Heiress to the Post cereal fortune, Mrs. Post had a passion for collecting French decorative arts.  When her husband Joseph Davies became ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1930’s her taste expanded to include Russian imperial art, both decorative and liturgical.  In 1955 Mrs. Post made Hillwood her home.  It also became home to her vast collection of French and Russian art.  Everything from icons to paintings to furniture to jeweled easter eggs (Faberge) and gold-thread liturgical apparel is displayed in Mrs. Post’s neo-Georgian mansion.  Throughout her life Mrs. Post was dedicated to philanthropic works.  She gave generously (ofteimages-2n anonymously) to the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Kennedy Center, and the Washington Ballet Guild, as well as other charities.  Mrs. Post was also a patriot and opened her home to wounded Vietnam veterans from Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital to ease their convalescence.  She wanted Hillwood to be a place where true beauty could be experienced in a livable atmosphere.  To this end, she arranged for Hillwood to become a functioning museum after her death.  At first the museum was privately run by her heirs, and later established as a public institution.

The estate’s gardens, greenhouses, gallery space, even its cafe can only be described with superlative adjectives: sumptuous, splendid, opulent.  Its latest exhibit displays Mrs. Post’s personal collection of Cartier jewels; each piece fit for a queen.  Where do such overwhelming riches fit in a Christian vision?  Where can such overwhelming riches fit?  Here we arrive at the core of our reflection: the virtue of magnificence.

Magnificence is the virtue of doing of great things (cf. Aquinas, ST II-II,134), which St. Thomas describes as participating in the greatness of God.  St. Thomas asks very specifically (art. 3) if this “doing” requires great expense, and the answer is “yes.”  Expense is not always a matter of money, but it is a matter of overwhelming, total gift.  One can be magnificent in love, magnificent in humility, magnificent in humor and joy.  Money may not be necessary to magnificence, but it can help, as we see at Hillwood.  The joining of Mrs. Post’s exceptional wealth and her exceptional generosity, as well as her life-long commitment to beauty make Hillwood a truly magnificent gift to our Washington community.  Experiencing such a total and gratuitous gift, walking through it, letting that gift dazzle the senses, I want to be generous  myself,  to be a doer of great things within my own circumstances.

Experiences of splendor, like Hillwood can inspire us to virtue… then we can say with regard to our own hearts, “here is where magnificence lives.”

Check out the “touring tips” page for more.