Monday, August 25, 2008

Tristis est anima mea

The latest installment from the performances of the Notre Dame Choir is Orlando de Lassus' "Tristis est anima mea" that we performed on the morning of Good Friday at the Tenebrae service. The text of the piece appears in the video in lieu of pictures, as is fitting for such a contemplative and sorrowful work.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lot's Wife Looked Back in August

In a previous meditation I remarked, Lot's wife, in looking back, became pure, distilled tear-stuff, the physical manifestation of sorrow. And now here she is, popping up, in her own way, just about everywhere I stop off to read this week. That all of this reflection on the Woman Who Died of Sorrowful Nostalgia is taking place now, in the tempestuous, beautiful, and brutal month of August has me wondering, "Is there something about the month itself?"

August, as the incomparable John Zmirak reminds us, is a month of great upheavals in history: the beginnings of The Great War, the Soviet Invasion of Poland, and the American use of atomic weapons on Japanese cities being several examples. I was born a short 11 days after Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency of the United States.

In my own life, August has always been, beginning with my birth, a month of new beginnings, of great and sometimes traumatic changes; August permeates my family history, as well. My parents were married in August, my father and his father got sober on the same day in August, my first drink of alcohol went down on a hot August night, I moved to New York in August, and, ultimately, I, too, got sober in August.

All of these changes have led to this heat-blasted month taking on the weight of a terrible nostalgia: I become reflective, and, if left alone too much, pensive in my recollections of the movings-away, of the many agonies of days past, of the joyous and wondrous liberation I experience to this day. And this year I have observed, for perhaps the first time, that changes are going on for others this month, as well: friends moving away in this month to pursue new goals, new friends to meet who are coming into my community. The world suddenly seems teemingly alive with goings and comings, with returns to school or moves to new cities, with career changes or simply new projects.

I wonder if the long days of heat, coupled with the foreknowledge of autumn, of the impermanent nature of things, of the anticipation of the end times, drives us to burst forth in violent and urgent ways, and then to look back at what we've left behind, sometimes in sorrow.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Celebration - I'll Make it a Double

Thirty-four years ago today at 9:38 a.m. I was born at a now-defunct hospital on the south side of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and six years ago today around 7 p.m. a still, small voice promised me I was having my last drink at a now-defunct bar in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. This time of year is both difficult and also a great blessing: difficult because I have a visceral memory of how bad things had become in the summers of '01 and '02, and a great blessing because I was miraculously lifted out of that death-in-life.

My father and stepmother are visiting me from Minnesota to celebrate with me, which has kept me away from the keyboard and out in the world. I hope to have more content to post by the end of the week, but until then I will not be writing much.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ave Sanctissima Maria

Two months ago I wrote a piece on Hope, Justice, and Mercy, in which I discussed Haydn's Farewell Symphony and Nicolas Gombert's "Ave Sanctissima Maria" as expressions of hope. I am pleased, at last, to share with you the recording of the "Ave Sanctissima", so that you might have a better understanding of what I wrote back in June.

Again, the text that is being sung (fitting for Friday's Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) is:

Ave sanctissima Maria,
mater Dei, Regina caeli,
porta paradisi, Domina mundi,
pura singularis:
Tu es Virgo,
tu concepisti Jesum sine peccato,
tu peperisti creatorum et Salvatorem mundi
in quo non dubito:
libera me ab omni malo,
et ora pro peccatis meis.

The English translation is:

Hail, Most Holy Mary,
mother of God, Queen of Heaven,
gate of paradise, Lady of this world,
uniquely pure:
You are the Virgin;
without sin you conceived Jesus;
you brought forth the Creator and Savior of the world;
of this, I do not doubt.
Free me from all evil,
and pray for my sins.

The piece is written in the Myxolydian mode (major with a minor 7th), in this case F (with an Eb rather than the expected E-natural), which students of the temperaments point out enhances the melancholic temperament; this might explain the hint of sorrow within the major sound of the piece. As I discussed previously, the key leaves the listener looking for a resolution in Bb; this tension builds around the 2:20 mark or so, and at last resolves, for the first time, at the word "Virgo" at 3:00. Listen for that joyful burst, as well as the one at 3:40 at the words "sine peccato."

This motet is one of my favorite pieces I have sung in over five years with the choir, and I believe we executed it quite well here; it's a pleasure to share it with you, especially after the favorable reception of the Gombert "Media Vita" that I posted last month. I am excited to have one more opportunity to sing it this Friday, the Solemnity of the Assumption at the Profession Mass for the Sisters of Life. Pray for us and for the Sisters who will be making vows on Friday.

The pictures in this montage were taken in the following locations: Emmittsburg, MD, Chartres and Aix-en-Provence, France, and the Church of Notre Dame, NYC.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

"And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased."

A Sky as of Fire - Hunters Point, 8/2/2008

Pentimento's recent posts on moving away from New York have me thinking about my relationship with the city. Originally, this post was going to be about my excitement about New York and how much I love living here, and the dynamism of the place. But I found I couldn't because it's not entirely true.

Metaphorically, I became a Roman citizen when my parents took me to a priest, who asked them, "What do you ask of God's Church for C.?" and they replied, "Baptism." At some point in my late adolescence, I expatriated from Rome to Carthage (to use Eve's language), and eventually found myself living in New York, squalid and broken. A voice announced the end of my exile, and I was led back to Rome, not on the back of an elephant, leading an army, but shaken and defeated, coaxed by a gentle woman.

And there I remain to this day, veteran of a bitter and lonely war. I have the stories to tell, not for the sake of making noise (though I do) or for the sake of shocking or getting laughs (though sometimes this happens), but to let others know that God's grace is real: the ones who never went to Carthage can be assured that the trip isn't worth it, and those in Carthage can become aware that they can leave, that hope and peace are just across the sea.


New York is a difficult city to love; the pace of change, the constant building up and tearing down, the comings and goings of its people make it a challenging place in which to keep one's humanity. The insults to affection and love come from many angles: friends move away (to Brooklyn or Boston or London or a marriage bed), beloved Italian restaurants close and get replaced by hardware stores, and entire blocks get torn down (not even so hallowed a place as Yankee Stadium is immune to this). The hazardous reaction to this frantic change is to try insulating yourself against loss by becoming immune to attachment. Stoicism is the natural emotional stance, even for a Christian: at times I fear I've become crush-proof.

For all the years I drank the waters of the Lethe, there are tableaux from my past that seep through my spotty memory: usually, but not exclusively, these scenes involve a woman. Encounters with The Other have that ability to overpower oblivion itself. Sometimes the memories are ones of desolation and sadness, and sometimes they are of a gay and frivolous levity, and other times (very rarely) they are of a brief yet honest expression of tenderness and lovingkindness. How to hold those last and keep them without morbidity or bitterness?



The just man followed then his angel guide
Where he strode on the black highway, hulking and bright;
But a wild grief in his wife's bosom cried,
Look back, it is not too late for a last sight.

Of the red towers of your native Sodom, the square
Where once you sang, the gardens you shall mourn,
And the tall house with empty windows where
You loved your husband and your babes were born.

She turned, and looking on the bitter view
Her eyes were welded shut by mortal pain;
Into transparent salt her body grew,
And her quick feet were rooted in the plain.

Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not
The least of our losses, this unhappy wife?
Yet in my heart she will not be forgot
Who, for a single glance, gave up her life.

- Anna Akhmatova (tr. Richard Wilbur)


Today's Gospel lesson has Jesus walking on the water toward the storm-tossed boat in which the Apostles sit.

"Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water," St. Peter says. As Peter walks out on the water toward Jesus, he becomes afraid of the wind and begins to sink, crying out, "Lord, same me."

Jesus reaches out and catches Peter, saying "O man of little faith, why did you doubt?" Upon their return to the boat, the wind died down and the Apostles worshiped Jesus, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

This morning, for the first time, I saw the parallel between Lot's wife and St. Peter sinking in the water. Both are called out of peril to believe in God's protection, and out of fear and doubt, they stumble. Lot's wife, perhaps the most heartrending figure in Scripture, loses her life for a look, while St. Peter finds himself sinking in fear of drowning. And in the parallel of these two episodes, we see two ways in which God relates to His people: through justice and mercy.

God's relationship to His people as described in the Old Testament is with His chosen people Israel, with the Nation as a whole through the Covenants, the Patriarchs, the giving of the Law, as set forth in today's Epistle (Rom. 9:1-5). Perhaps the expectation of the Messiah was in line with one of the Nation as a whole: an expectation of a strong King who would come and throw off foreign oppression and establish strength and justice here on Earth, rather than the personal Savior who came to console and love sinners and call them friends, to die for the forgiveness of sins and rise again in order to conquer death.

His relationship with Peter and the rest of the Apostles is personal, not national: on the personal level, He displays His mercy, extending His arm when Peter cries out. It is of note, however, that He is not so personal as to save Peter outside the context of the group: though He certainly could have carried Peter to dry land by carrying him across the water, He instead gets into the boat with Peter and the rest of the Apostles, who then acknowledge Him as Messiah. In other words, it is within the Church that Jesus makes His salvation and mercy available to us, not in isolation.


The great paradox of life in the city is lack, for many of us, of either solitude or companionship. At times it seems that this is a city of 8 million people alone in a crowd, struggling to get from one place to another in a hurry and without interference, while hoping, at some level, for a friendly disruption; in some ways this is a place where meeting people is easy, but the challenge lies in building a lasting intimacy. I don't know how to do so, but after years in exile, I know that, as with Peter, it takes place inside the boat, and not on the storm-tossed sea.


UPDATE: I just realized now that Lot's wife, in looking back, became pure, distilled tear-stuff, the physical manifestation of sorrow.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Love Is Real and It Is Terrifying

Despondent lounge singer Happy Franks (portrayed by the brilliant Steve Buscemi) holds forth in the 1998 movie "The Impostors."

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