Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Glenn Gould on Bach.

As a Canadian summer slowly slides into fall, here is an old favorite which I watch again every few months, a 1962 CBC broadcast program featuring Toronto's own Glenn Gould musing about the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (and performing the cantata "Widerstehe doch der Sünde" with countertenor Russell Oberlin and a small ensemble). Here is a bit of what Gould has to say:
Bach, you see, was music’s greatest nonconformist, and one of the supreme examples of that independence of the artistic conscience that stands quite outside the collective historical process. The age of Bach, speaking in a very general sort of way, was what we can now call the age of reason – perhaps an age of reason; there have really been quite a lot of them. It was fundamentally an age in which man struggled against fear, against predeterminancy. It was an age in which he asserted confidently the wonders of science and of human initiative. It was at times an age of hubris, of defiance for the gods.

But at its most poetic, it was still an age in which the wonderful utilities of science and the proud genius of man could coexist with the magical, mystical, fearful rites of belief – and so the art and poetry and music of the Baroque at its best is touched with this feeling of compromise, this conciliation between the will of man and the inexorable power of fate.

But even during the lifetime of (Johann) Sebastian Bach, this vibrant spiritual compromise which gave such anguish and purpose and passion to his music, became for other artists of his generation ever more difficult to achieve. And slowly but surely fact and logic, the explainable and the predictable became the basis of philosophic premise. And by the time of his death, the world was a very different place from that into which he had been born. It was a world which longed to be logical, a world for young men and for young ideas.

When Bach died, it was not he but rather his sons who were considered to be the masters of music – masters of a music so very different from that which their father had known. It was then composers like the teenager Joseph Haydn who were soon to lay the groundwork for a new musical style in which all of this scientific optimism, all of this naively logical philosophical thought of their generation would find a counterpart in an art in which the aim would be not the communication of man with God, but rather man with man, in which those traits of (Johann) Sebastian Bach which parallel in music the realization of the incredible richness and indefinable complexity of the human estate could find no place. It had become an age in which the focus of musical activity had moved from the church to the theater, in which the new art would rationally reflect a rational world, in which it would be required to deal with probabilities and not to participate in mysteries. This is not to say that the aspiration to transcend the human condition would be forever lost to art; certainly it’s the essence of Beethoven’s work, for instance, that we feel him struggling to strike beyond the realization of human potential. But the grandeur of Beethoven resides in the struggle rather than in the occasional transcendence that he achieves – and it might perhaps never again be possible for us to own more than a glimpse of that inordinate state of ecstasy which (Johann) Sebastian Bach never thought to question.
For a bit more Glenn Gould, consult this post written three years ago at the time of his eightieth birthday. You might also be pleased to learn that the Glenn Gould statue in downtown Toronto has been augmented by a new historical marker, which reminds me that I have yet to make good on plans to make a pilgrimage to the site. AMDG.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

David Warren on Sainte-Chapelle.

Of the various historical sites I visited during my recent sojourn in Paris, Sainte-Chapelle merits special note. Built at the behest of King Louis IX and consecrated in 1248, Sainte-Chapelle is widely considered to be one of the finest Gothic structures in the world; I know some people who would go even further by describing Sainte-Chapelle as the most beautiful church building ever constructed, and, though I tend to be suspicious of unqualified superlatives, in this instance I can certainly appreciate the sentiment.

There are few experiences quite like that of seeing the Upper Chapel of the Sainte-Chapelle for the first time, as one ascends the narrow, winding staircase from the Lower Chapel and suddenly finds oneself in one of the most dazzling spaces ever built by human hands. Toronto-based writer David Warren captures something of this experience in a recent entry on Sainte-Chapelle posted on his blog Essays in Idleness:
Survival is never an accident, in this world. The story of the survival of Sainte-Chapelle, to the present day, nearly eight centuries after its conception, is so tangled that I won't begin. The miracle is that it is still there, right in the centre of Paris, notwithstanding such facts as the French Revolution; that it has been preserved and repeatedly repaired. God is surely mixed up in every turn of this unlikely story.

Tourists still flock through, with the tour guides, trudging the way tourists trudge. Except, the chapel explodes before them, and in the brilliant light of midday they are stunned. Human eyes are not prepared for such beauty: it is like looking into the Sun. They could not have imagined that such a shrine could be built with human hands. They are looking at the product of a civilization almost infinitely greater than their own. It is like an encounter with the extraterrestrial.
As Warren later observes, the survival of Sainte-Chapelle is particularly significant given humankind's generally dismal record in such matters, with iconoclasts of various stripes doing their bit to completely destroy the architectural and artistic legacy of past generations in the name of ideological purity:
It is a bleak fact that most of the great works of art in the highest phases of civilization have been, over time, destroyed — either pointedly and purposefully, or as "collateral" from some larger intentional act of destruction: war usually, or riot. Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, can be troublesome, too, in districts that are prone to them. But man, as a destructive force, is by far the worst enemy of great art.

"Modern man," in his tower flats and suburbs, who thanks to "progress in education" may not realize that milk comes from cows, needs to have these things explained to him. The grand minsters and shrines whose ruins may enchant him, did not dissolve like cakes in the rain. They were wrecked on purpose, and the missing stone was "privatized." They became stone quarries. For without protection, founded in love, nothing survives.
As I have noted before, iconoclasm kills; efforts to eradicate the physical evidence of the past are usually carried out in tandem with efforts to eliminate human beings whose existence is deeply inconvenient to the iconoclasts. As "extraterrestrial" as Sainte-Chapelle may seem to denizens of a contemporary, secular society, the preservation of such sacred spaces represents an act of cultural defiance, an implicit challenge to radical groups like ISIS who would seek to cleanse the world of cultural artifacts that seem to threaten their vision of the world.

Last month, I was very moved to read the story of Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Assad, who spent his entire adult life working to preserve the ancient city of Palmyra and was beheaded by ISIS for his refusal to turn over priceless artifacts which the terrorists wished either to destroy or to sell on the black market to finance their activities. The world needs monuments like Sainte-Chapelle and Palmyra to call us back to an awareness of our best selves, and we also need heroes like Khaled al-Assad who are willing to sacrifice themselves in defense of things of enduring value. AMDG.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan.

For the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, here is some decidedly non-liturgical music which I always revisit on this date: the finale of Richard Strauss' opera Salome, in which the eponymous princess sings an unsettling aria to John's severed head. Premiered in Dresden in December 1905, Salome became an instant sensation, controversial for the unorthodox tonality of its score as well for the perceived salaciousness of its storyline and libretto, which were taken from a play by Oscar Wilde. As Alex Ross writes in The Rest is Noise, many of Strauss' contemporaries saw Salome as "something beyond the pale - an ultra-dissonant biblical spectacle, based on a play by an Irish degenerate whose name was not mentioned in polite company, a work so frightful in its depiction of adolescent lust that imperial censors had banned it from the Court Opera in Vienna." In some sense, the opera's finale anticipated the scandalized response of its audience: after watching in horror as his stepdaughter lovingly caresses the bloodied head of the martyred prophet Jochanaan, Herod orders his guards to put the girl to death. For those who wish to read along as they listen, here is the relevant section of the libretto, first in Strauss' original and then in my own translation from the German:
Ah, ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan.
Ich hab' ihn geküßt, deinen Mund.
Es war ein bitterer Geschmack auf deinen Lippen.
Hat es nach Blut geschmeckt?· Nein.
Doch schmeckte es vielleicht nach Liebe.
Sie sagen, das die Liebe bitter schmecke.
Doch was, was tut's, was tut's?
Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan,
Ich hab' ihn geküßt, deinen Mund.

HEROD (turning to the Soldiers)
Man töte dieses Weib!


Ah! I have kissed your mouth, Jochanaan.
I have kissed your mouth.
There was a bitter taste on your lips.
Was it the taste of blood? No.
But perhaps it was the taste of love.
They say that love has a bitter taste.
But so what? What does it matter?
I have kissed your mouth, Jochanaan.
I have kissed your mouth.

HEROD (turning to the Soldiers)
Kill that woman!
The title role of Strauss' Salome is notoriously difficult, calling for a soprano with great vocal power and range who also possesses the physical agility to perform Salome's infamous dance before Herod and who can otherwise convincingly portray a teenage girl. One singer who could manage all of this was Teresa Stratas, who performed the role in a 1974 film adaptation of Salome conducted by Karl Böhm. The version heard in this post features Montserrat Caballé, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Erich Leinsdorf with James King as Herod. Caballé more than matches the vocal and dramatic demands of the role, while Strauss' music is compelling enough to set the mood and to allow the listener to easily imagine the scene in the absence of the visuals one would see in the opera house.

Many who heard the early performances of Strauss' Salome regarded the opera as a lurid spectacle which misappropriated the Gospel text for impious purposes. Though Strauss certainly did not see Salome as an exercise in Christian apologetics, his retelling of the death of John the Baptist offers an effective reminder of the chilling reality of the mysterium iniquitatis. A vulnerable young woman made the object of others' lust and psychological manipulation, Salome cannot help but repeat the same destructive patterns of behavior in her fatal obsession with John the Baptist. The familiarity of the Gospel account should not be allowed to dilute its moral force, and in times like ours - times characterized by a general state of global action in the face of horrors like the genocidal rampages of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram - perhaps the shocking drama of Strauss' Salome is needed to shake us from complacency. AMDG.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

From Andalusia to Savannah.

This post concludes the chronicle of the Southern road trip that Matt Dunch and I took in the spring, with stops in Louisiana, Alabama, and, as seen here, Georgia. Keeping with the Catholic and literary emphases of the trip, on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker we paid a visit to Andalusia Farm, the rural homestead where Flannery O'Connor lived from 1951 until her death in 1964 and where she wrote most of her published fiction. Open to the public since 2003, Andalusia still looks much as it did when O'Connor lived there with her widowed mother; exploring the property, it's easy to imagine Flannery at work on a short story, writing letters to friends in faraway places, or tending to her peacocks (though it bears mentioning that, with the recent death of Manley Pointer, only one living peacock remains at Andalusia, down from a group of forty in Flannery's time - sic transit gloria mundi).

The front porch at Andalusia, a good place to sit on a spring day.

Flannery O'Connor's bedroom and study at Andalusia, located just behind the porch seen in the preceding photo. The pair of crutches near the bed offers a poignant reminder of the acute lupus that struck Flannery in her mid-twenties and left her increasingly housebound; since Flannery was unable to climb the stairs to the second floor of the house, this former sitting room on the first floor became her bedroom as well as the place where she did most of her writing at a desk right beside her bed. Among other items in the room, I was struck by the presence of a volume of the Breviarium Romanum sitting atop a pile of books on the bedside table.

The dining room at Andalusia, just across the hall from Flannery's bedroom.

The 544 acres of the Andalusia property include rolling hills and woods as well as developed farmland.

This pond is also on the Andalusia property; it's only a short walk downhill from the house to the pond, but it was sobering to think that Flannery O'Connor would have been unable to make the walk for much of the time she lived here.

Andalusia Farm is located on the outskirts of Milledgeville, a small town about one hundred miles southeast of Atlanta. Born in Savannah, Flannery O'Connor moved to Milledgeville with her family when she was thirteen and spent most of her remaining years there. After graduating from Peabody High School in Milledgeville in 1942, Flannery stayed in town to attend Georgia State College for Women, now known as Georgia College. Georgia College has changed a lot since Flannery's time - it became coeducational in 1967, and, notwithstanding the 'college' moniker, it is now a university - but the campus still has a genteel, easygoing quality.

The library at Georgia College is home to Flannery O'Connor's personal papers as well as a memorial room including items like this college yearbook (where Flannery's surname is inexplicably misspelled "O'Conner").

Also on display in the Flannery O'Connor Room at Georgia College is this typewriter used by the lady herself.

The interior of Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville, where Flannery O'Connor and her mother attended daily Mass and where Flannery's funeral was held following her death in August 1964.

West Hancock Street, Milledgeville's quiet main drag, seen on a pleasant spring evening.

Flannery O'Connor's grave in Milledgeville's Memory Hill Cemetery.

Moving two and a half hours east of Milledgeville and further back in the chronology of Flannery O'Connor's life, this is the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, where Flannery was baptized in 1925.

Lafayette Square in Savannah, where Flannery lived for the first thirteen years of her life; obscured a bit by trees and the fountain in the middle of the square, Flannery's childhood home is visible in the center of this photo.

A historical marker outside Flannery O'Connor's childhood home in Savannah. Though the house is open to the public, Matt and I decided to forego a visit in order to see other sights on our one full day in Savannah; after an especially evocative stop at Andalusia a day before, I suspect that this house would have been a bit of a letdown in any event.

Pulaski Square, one of the twenty-two squares of Savannah that help to give the city its particular charm.

Here is Forsyth Park in downtown Savannah.

Of course, Savannah is known to most people for reasons that have nothing to do with Flannery O'Connor - in recent years, the city has attracted particular notoriety thanks to John Berendt's 1994 book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and a subsequent film adaptation by Clint Eastwood. To acknowledge the Midnight connection, here is the Mercer-Williams House made famous by the book and the movie.

Less of an international tourist draw than the Mercer-Williams House but just as deserving of a visit, here is the Jepson Center for the Arts, one of several Telfair Museums in downtown Savannah. Housed in a lovely modern building designed by Moshe Safdie, the Jepson Center collection includes a respectable selection of works by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol as well as a Midnight icon, the Bird Girl sculpture seen on the cover of Berendt's book.

Showing that a particular Southern tradition is alive and well in Savannah, this downtown clothier features seersucker fashions for both men and women.

Broughton Street in downtown Savannah, captured at nightfall on the last evening of our trip.

On the aforementioned Broughton Street, here is my intrepid traveling companion at Chive Sea Bar and Lounge during the final dinner of our trip. Matt was the one who first came up with the idea for our Southern road trip, so it seems appropriate to end this series by thanking him again for the inspired suggestion that we spend part of the spring exploring a part of the world that was largely new to both of us. I'm grateful for his company and for the adventure, which offered a fine vacation in the weeks preceding my ordination to the priesthood. AMDG.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

It is You Who offer and You Who are offered.

This morning I concelebrated the Divine Liturgy at St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church for the first time since my priestly ordination, having been away from Toronto - and thus away from the parish - for nearly two months. Today was the Feast of the Transfiguration according to the Old Calendar, so I also had the opportunity to offer the traditional Blessing of First Fruits at the end of the liturgy. I noticed again this morning, as I had before my ordination but even more so in the weeks since, that some of the most striking words in the liturgy come in the "private" prayers meant to be recited sotto voce by the priest. What caught me with particular force today was this prayer read quietly by the priest during the singing of the Cherubic Hymn, a prayer entirely suitable for the "great and awesome" task to which the priest is called:
No one who is bound to carnal desires or pleasures is worthy to approach You or to draw near to You, or to minister to You, O King of Glory. For to serve You is great and awesome, even to the heavenly powers. And yet, because of Your love for mankind — a love which cannot be expressed or measured — You became man, unchanged and unchanging. You were appointed our High Priest, and, as Master of all, handed down to us the priestly ministry of this liturgical and unbloody sacrifice. You alone, O Lord, our God, have dominion over heaven and earth. You are borne on the throne of the cherubim: You are Lord of the seraphim and King of Israel; You alone are holy and rest in the holies. I implore You, therefore, Who alone are good and ready to listen: look upon me, Your sinful and useless servant; cleanse my heart and soul of the evil that lies on my conscience. By the power of Your Holy Spirit enable me, who am clothed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this, Your holy table, and offer the sacrifice of Your holy and most pure Body and precious Blood. Bending my neck, I approach and I peti­tion You: turn not Your face from me nor reject me from among Your children, but allow these gifts to be offered to You by me, Your sinful and unworthy servant. For it is You Who offer and You Who are offered, it is You Who receive and You Who are given, O Christ our God, and we give glory to You, together with Your eter­nal Father and Your most holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever and ever. Amen.
Good wishes to all. AMDG.

Friday, August 14, 2015


Rather belatedly, I'd like to keep a promise I made a few months ago to post more photos and narrative from a Southern road trip that my friend and confrere Matt Dunch and I took in late April and early May. I've already written about the start of our trip in New Orleans, and today's post covers our time in Alabama. Here is St. Joseph's Chapel at Spring Hill College in Mobile, seen on a lovely April morning.

The Jesuit cemetery at Spring Hill, with the old Sodality Chapel in the distance. Built in 1850, the Sodality Chapel is the oldest surviving building on the Spring Hill campus, and Mass is still celebrated there each morning.

Buried at Spring Hill College, Father James H. McCown, S.J. was a friend and correspondent of Flannery O'Connor. Some of O'Connor's letters to Father McCown are included in The Habit of Being, and the two Jesuit characters in O'Connor's short story "The Enduring Chill" were apparently inspired by Father McCown and one of his confreres.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama earned an iconic place in American history on Sunday, March 7, 1965, when a group of unarmed civil rights activists were violently repelled by state and local police as they sought to cross the bridge as part of a planned march from Selma to Montgomery in support of equal voting rights. The "Bloody Sunday" attack drew national media attention and helped to galvanize popular support for civil rights, leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.

"It's Nice to Have You in Birmingham," a slogan used to promote the eponymous Alabama city since the 1950s and regarded by some as unintentionally ironic when the city became a flashpoint for resistance to integration in the 1960s. "It's Nice to Have You in Birmingham" has made something of a comeback during the last decade, with local boosters commissioning new murals featuring the old slogan and producing t-shirts and other wares bearing the same message.

Another site significant in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Kelly Ingram Park features a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. gazing towards 16th Street Baptist Church, which served as an important organizing point in the Birmingham Campaign led by King and others in the spring of 1963. In the midst of the campaign, on April 12, 1963 - Good Friday that year - King was arrested and spent Easter in the Birmingham City Jail, where he wrote a particularly famous letter. Early on the morning of Sunday, September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church achieved lasting and tragic notoriety when a group of civil rights opponents planted a bomb under the church steps which subsequently exploded during Sunday School classes, killing four young African-American women and injuring many others. Meant to intimidate supporters of integration, the bombing instead helped to generate greater sympathy for the Civil Rights Movement.

While making the rounds of historic sites in downtown Birmingham, Matt and I had lunch at Urban Standard. A recent Yelp review by a visitor from Seattle described Urban Standard this way: "The name is entirely accurate as it's your stereotypical fresh-out-of-a-tumblr-blog café run by every hipster in every major city... but this is one of the best I've been to. This place is the real deal and worth stopping by." I'd say that's about right: Urban Standard is the sort of downtown hipster hangout one finds in many North American cities, but it also offers great food and a neat atmosphere, and I'd rate lunch there as one of the highlights of our time in Birmingham.

To give you more of a sense of the place, here is another view of the interior of Urban Standard. If this post leads at least one visitor to Birmingham to check the place out, I will be content - and I'm sure the proprietors will be happy as well.

This poster was seen near the pickup counter at Urban Standard; I'd never heard of the Dead Milkmen before, but one report in the Birmingham media describes them as "satirical punk rock legends, walking a line between punk’s roots and its poppier days of the 1990s." Saturn is apparently Birmingham's newest venue for alternative music; I didn't go there, but I was pleased to learn of Saturn's existence.

Spending a few days in Birmingham also gave me an opportunity to serve as a deacon at the televised daily Mass on EWTN, with Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J. as celebrant. Mitch graciously hosted Matt and me in Birmingham, and some may recall that he later concelebrated at my first Mass as a priest.

Sixty miles north of Birmingham, the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville is home to a community of cloistered Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration and a place of pilgrimage. Built in the late 1990s at the behest of EWTN's founder Mother Angelica, the Shrine's Italianate architecture is meant to evoke the founding era of the Franciscans; nestled in the rolling hills of northern Alabama, the Shrine is also a sort of Catholic bulwark in the heart of the Bible Belt - a sort of missionary outpost, one might say, much as EWTN itself was in its early years.

The interior of the Shrine - a peaceful place to pray, and a reminder that it's still possible to build beautiful Neo-Gothic churches in America.

Further posts completing the saga of the Southern road trip will hopefully be forthcoming in the next few days - I recognize that I made a similar promise in the spring, but this time I might actually be able to follow through. Good wishes to all in late summer. AMDG.

Sunday, August 09, 2015


At the kind invitation of Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., this past week I spent a few days at Stift Heiligenkreuz in the Wienerwald. Pater Edmund and his confreres were gracious and generous hosts, and the experience of living and praying with them for a short time led me to reflect anew both on the monastic character of Ignatian spirituality and on the innovative (and distinctively Early Modern) shape that St. Ignatius gave to the new religious order that he created.

My time at Heiligenkreuz also gave me a chance to relive some of the graces that I experienced at the time of my ordination in June. Knowing that I was ordained less than two months ago, the monks asked me to serve as presiding celebrant at their conventual Mass on one of the days of my visit, giving them the opportunity to assist at the Nachprimiz of a newly-ordained priest. Following the Mass, I was also asked to give the special blessing of the recently ordained, the Primizsegen. As Pater Edmund reminded me, the Primizsegen is an especially venerable tradition in the German-speaking world; I was told something similar on the night of my ordination by a Jesuit who had spent his first summer as a priest in rural Bavaria, where he quickly lost count of the number of times he was asked to impart the Primizsegen. It was a great consolation and joy for me to once again give thanks for the gift of my ordination and to impart the blessing of a new priest upon a community whose dedication to the common life and to the opus Dei of the liturgy has impressed and inspired me. I'm also happy to know that there are now a few dozen people in Austria who have copies of my ordination prayer card; may that card remind them to pray for me, just as I pray for them. AMDG.