Friday, February 09, 2018

Eternal Rome.

I have never visited Rome, a fact that sometimes surprises my friends. This will change sometime in the next three months or so, as I need to go to the Eternal City to do some archival research for my doctoral dissertation. In the meantime, I was struck by this piece just published in First Things, in which German novelist Martin Mosebach reminisces about his long relationship with Rome:
I was fifteen when I first saw Rome. One of my mother's sisters had invited me to stay with her; we lived in a little hotel near the Via Nomentana and we were on our feet from morning till evening because I wanted to see "everything." I came home convinced that I had actually seen "everything." It took a few more years before I began to realize that I would never be able to see "everything" in Rome, and would have to spend the rest of my life exploring it.

Having grown up in the western part of Germany after the war, in cities that had been destroyed and then drearily rebuilt, I arrived in Rome in 1966 to find a city that, it seemed, had yet to undergo the heartless ravages of modernization. I saw Pope Paul VI carried through the streets on the gilded platform, the sedia gestatoria that once bore the consuls of the Roman Republic; it swayed past me, borne aloft by eight sediarii clothed in red damask. The accompanying cardinals wore ermine mozzettas about their shoulders, their long red satin trains buttoned high, clinging in folds on their backs. At that time, the radical decisions that would break with the liturgical tradition had already been taken, but the old forms were still being observed, just as, seen from Earth, certain stars still twinkle although their light has already been extinguished.
Mosebach acknowledges that the timelessness he perceived in Rome in 1966 was partly illusory, as the city had already suffered "a series of savage modernizations" in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, as a young man he "experienced the city as a place where, after immense and violent depredations in past centuries, time now stood still." This was ultimately expressed not so much in Rome's architecture as it was in the way that Romans inhabited their city. As Mosebach observes, "The city was not seen from the point of view of tourism, of how it could be made pleasing to visitors. The ancient view was that a city should be a place of liberty, often to the point of anarchy — a place where many conflicting forces should be allowed to clash without restraint, and thereby achieve a non-managed cooperation that is different from state regulation." Returning twenty years after his first visit, Mosebach was pleased to find that "the cats went about scavenging, the pigeons were messing up the pavements, and the narrow, echoing streets amplified the whining of the traffic into a thunderous din." For the author, "the city groaned under the weight of its history — and for me it was a liberation from a Germany that was devastated by both war and reconstruction. Dwelling among those Roman walls, I was able to bridge the grievous historical discontinuity."

In the succeeding decades, Rome changed, following other European capitals in which "the priceless historical 'old city' is no longer the home of the indigenous folk who once inhabited it in their inimitable ways," but rather turned into a pedestrianized commercial district where "the shops no longer sell salad and potatoes but jeans and tourist paraphernalia," making the center of Rome "a single giant restaurant" catering to hordes of tourists. Mosebach mourns the loss of the idiosyncratic tokens of the Rome he once knew - "the confused old ladies who fed [cats] spaghetti and tomato sauce at street corners," and the Roman pigeons now "decimated by the seagulls who long ago colonized the city." Despite his disappointment at the changes that have taken place, Mosebach finds solace in the idea of 'eternal Rome':
Eternity is not merely a particularly long time but something qualitatively different from time; yet Rome was called "eternal" long before this genuinely incommensurable concept could have been put forward. In a poem (written during the reign of Augustus) that plumbs the deep recesses of the past, the elegiac Tibullus, a contemporary of Horace and Ovid, was the first to refer to Rome, the "urbs," as "eternal." He uses this appellation as a matter of course, as something universally acknowledged: "Not yet had Romulus formed the walls of the Eternal City." If we accept 753 b.c. as the year of the city’s legendary founding, when Tibullus called it "eternal," Rome was not even a thousand years old. When Romulus, in a land sparsely populated, circumscribed the first boundaries of his foundation, Babylon and Memphis had long existed without anyone thinking of calling them "eternal Babylon" and "eternal Memphis."


It would be pedantic to insist on a precise meaning for a word that has a certain intoxicating quality and seems to hint at the unimaginable. All the same, one might specify under what conditions the idea of eternity could meaningfully be linked with matters of transitory history. If human beings with their brief life span call something "eternal," they are setting their sights on something far beyond this span. We have not experienced the end of the world, but we have witnessed the collapse of particular worlds. Whenever a city or country is annihilated, whenever a civilization is extinguished — whether it is the Hittite Empire or a long-hidden Indian village in the Amazon jungle — when cultural continuity is violently broken, those who witness such catastrophes experience the end of a world. An impenetrable organism of religious, poetic, social, economic, and legal elements is torn apart — the world came to an end, in Carthage and Königsberg, Smyrna and Aquileia. Neither the western nor the eastern Roman Empire was spared this kind of annihilation of a world.

On the other hand, when a city has not only survived its own death — this does happen — but continues to exist, with values and aspirations intact, in the face of profound trauma, playing its recognizable role despite huge transformations, in a context that is markedly different from what it was, we can only be astonished at such a miracle, and call it "eternal." So we acknowledge it to be a great exception, a unique shattering of what, according to the laws of history, might be expected. In calling Rome "eternal," the Augustan poet may have been daring and presumptuous, but at the same time he may have been inspired. He said more, at that time, than he knew.
Mosebach goes on to consider how the understanding of Rome as the 'eternal city' remained even as the Roman Empire was collapsed and the Catholic Church rose in its place, with the erstwhile imperial capital becoming a universal symbol even as its political importance diminished:
It was the state's transformation into a civilized and religious ideal embracing entire nations that remained when the empire fell apart; it was this ideal that guaranteed the city’s global significance even as it lay in ruins. The ruler became the mother. The substance of the Roman Empire was trodden in a winepress, so to speak, and subjected to a process of fermentation — ultimately producing the priceless wine of the European nations. They all considered themselves to be Rome’s legitimate heirs; they jealously refused to acknowledge others' claims to this inheritance and so kept the idea of Rome alive. Rome lived on in its many daughters. First of all, of course, came the Roman Church with the pope, who took the place of the Roman emperor, claiming universal jurisdiction. Then, with the translatio imperii, came Germany, and France, the Church’s "eldest daughter" (whose king enjoyed imperial dignity), Spain with its worldwide Catholic realm, England with its empire, and the United States with its fragile Pax Americana. But the Orthodox Byzantines, too, regard themselves to this day as Romaioi, and the Russians speak of Moscow as the "Third Rome."

Rome, in comparison, seemed to be nothing more than a piece of history, turned to stone. The city never sank so low as at the end of the Papal States, when it became the capital of a newly united Italy. But just when it seemed doomed to be the capital of a mere province, the pope renewed his claim to worldwide authority and, when his European state was lost, created the basis for his influence in Asia, Africa, and the two Americas. The title "the eternal city" justified itself. Or do we really think that millions visit Rome every year just to view a corpse? No doubt many of them do not have much idea what they are looking for, but this only makes the incessant, ant-like flow of visitors even more mysterious. No place on earth, surely, could avoid being ruined by such an invasion, but we are inclined to believe that Rome is indestructible because it has such a dire history behind it.
Mosebach finds evidence of this varied history in the omnipresent spolia, fragments of ancient Roman masonry repurposed in the building of new structures over several millennia. "Shards, fragments, and split stones determine Rome's atmosphere," Mosebach writes. "To be really Roman, the nave of a church must have ten different kinds of pillars from long-forgotten pagan temples. Its altar, which is also the sarcophagus of a martyr, was once a bathtub of red porphyry that stood in the thermal baths of a palace." The same is true in all manner of Roman buildings, such that someone "who has become vividly aware of this unreflective incorporation of ancient ruins into the creation of later architecture can no longer take seriously any house that does not have such stone fragments in its walls, or any church that lacks a pillar or two from a pagan temple." In spite of all these changes and adaptations, Mosebach finds remarkable signs of continuity beyond the control of any architect or engineer:
In Rome, in the autumn, a miracle of nature can be observed, as beautiful as a sunset or a mighty waterfall: Clouds of starlings with their little black bodies take off in a daring attempt to darken the skies. They are a particularly impressive testimony to Roman continuity — even Pliny the Elder described them... They put on a kind of firework display, compacting together in thousands to make a dark sun, and then exploding in all directions like sky-borne chrysanthemums; they change into a swarm that wafts this way and that like waving flags; they form huge hearts, vast ellipses, as if their common aim is to present the world with an astonishing, perfect show of figure-flying. Then they change plan and allow themselves, from great height, to drop like rain onto the city roofs. A winged vanguard aims directly toward me and then, just in front of my window, shoots into the air again, only to return and repeat the game. They do this only to let me hear the most beautiful and delicate sound of all: the rustling of the tiny wings, like — what? Like the rustling of a taffeta petticoat or the gentle chatter of a stream over multicolored pebbles, or the bursting of soap bubbles. No, it is indescribable, and awakens in me a yearning to hear it anew, again and again.
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Schall at Ninety.

My former teacher Father James V. Schall, S.J. celebrates his ninetieth birthday today, an occasion that has led a group of his friends, fans, and former students to offer birthday tributes on The Catholic Thing, published together with a new essay by Father Schall written to mark the start of his tenth decade. Looking back on his many years of teaching and writing, Schall has this to say:
In retrospect, much of my life consisted in recommending things to read. I discovered Plato at a relatively advanced age. At Georgetown, every so often, I would spend a semester with a class in which we would read as much of Plato as we could.

To read Plato, however, it helps to be well-grounded in Aristotle and Aquinas. Few are more helpful in putting all these together than Charles N. R. McCoy, Josef Pieper, Joseph Ratzinger, and Robert Sokolowski. I had been fortunate in my early studies to have had as teachers Clifford Kossel, S. J. and Heinrich Rommen.

When asked what "field" I was in, I usually said "political philosophy." But lest that sound hopelessly narrow, I argued that from this beginning one could and should go in many directions. If there is any "distinct" Schall contribution to political philosophy, it is basically distilled in my Political Philosophy & Revelation: A Catholic View.

The essential point is that reason and revelation belong together in a non-contradictory way. But we see this only after acknowledging what questions that philosophy can ask but not answer by itself. At this point, we become aware that an intelligence is found in revelation. The mind of revelation and the mind of reason have the same origin.


Ultimately, "teaching" consists in two things: 1) the teacher and the student together read the same books that bring both to the truth, to the heart of things (Plato is the quickest way); 2) A professor, to recall Frederick Wilhelmsen, must state, over the years, what he has learned in his teaching.
To read the rest, click here. To Jim Schall, ad multos annos! AMDG.

Monday, December 25, 2017

A new and wondrous mystery.

Repeating the annual tradition of this blog, I would like to extend my prayerful best wishes to all readers who celebrate Christmas today. As always, I wish to mark the occasion by sharing part of a Nativity sermon preached by St. John Chrysostom:

I behold a new and wondrous mystery.

My ears resound to the Shepherd's song, piping no soft melody but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory.

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now, for our redemption, dwells here below; and he that was lowly is raised up by divine mercy.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven: she hears from the stars the singing of angelic voices; in place of the sun, she enfolds within herself on every side the Sun of Justice.

Ask not how - where God wills, the order of nature yields. He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed, and all things move in obedience to God.

This day He Who Is is born, and He Who Is becomes what He was not.

Christ is born! Glorify him! AMDG.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Handel in Byzantium.

When I lived in North America, I made a habit of attending the annual performances of Handel's Messiah that are easy to find in the United States and Canada. My experience attending one such concert in New York in 2008 ended up earning me a mention on one of my favorite music blogs, On An Overgrown Path - a modest accomplishment, perhaps, but one of which I am proud. During my four years in Toronto, I was faithful to the annual performances of Messiah offered by the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir under the direction of Ivars Taurins, and I still enjoy listening to Tafelmusik's recording of the work as a happy reminder of those concerts. Living in Washington last year, I didn't take in any of the DC-area Messiah concerts but instead waited until I was home in Massachusetts to attend one of the Handel and Haydn Society's annual performances of the oratorio at Symphony Hall in Boston. I broke a long streak of annual Messiah performances this year in Paris, where Handel's masterwork is known but less often performed; I somewhat regret this, but there is always next year...

When I heard Handel's Messiah last year in Boston, I was joined by my friend Father John Panteleimon Manoussakis, a Greek Orthodox priest and philosopher who has been mentioned here before in posts on prayer and on the Annunciation. Father Panteleimon wrote some reflections on the concert the day after the event; I asked him whether I could share some of his words in a blog post, and he readily agreed, though I did not follow through on the promised post until now. The following is adapted from what Father Panteleimon wrote, with some minor additions by me added in brackets:
Unlike Bach's and the rest of Handel's own oratorios, Messiah does not conform to an expectedly historical and historicized narrative: for sure the story of the birth, death, and resurrection of the Messiah is told, but with little or no reference to the testimonials of the New Testament at all. Handel is interested in a theological rather than a historical narrative; thus, the emphasis falls on the meaning of the events and not on their factual details. Christ’s nativity is told through the words of Isaiah, Zechariah, and Malachi; his passion, death, and resurrection through the poetry of Psalms. That allows Handel to follow the story of messianic expectation beyond Easter Sunday to an eschatological future still to come (Revelation) and yet already present (1 Corinthians). Handel's usage of those scriptural passages retrieves and preserves their usage in the liturgical context of the Eastern Church. [To provide but two examples, Handel's use of Isaiah 53:8 - "He was cut off from the land of the living..." - parallels the use of the text in the prothesis, the rite of preparation of the gifts for communion, in which it also anticipates Christ's passion, whereas the chorus that follows shortly thereafter - "Lift up your heads, o ye gates," from Psalm 24:7-10 - echos the use of the same verses in the Byzantine text of matins for Good Friday.]

By a long-standing tradition, the audience rise on their feet and remain standing during the "Hallelujah" chorus. Even though in last night's program a polite note was inserted ("To stand or not to stand?") suggesting that we should remain seated ("it is a distraction from Handel's powerful opening to the chorus..."), the entire audience rose and stood. The change in bodily posture effects a much more dramatic change: the "sacred" is revealed in the secular as the concert hall becomes transformed into a place of worship, blurring the distinctions between sacred and profane space. Standing is of course an eschatological posture, as Basil the Great explains in his homily on the eighth day. It is an acknowledgment of being in the presence of the Lord’s lordship (cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Herrlichkeit).
Peace to all who read these lines. AMDG.

Thursday, November 30, 2017


At the end of October, I took advantage of the generous fall break accorded to students in France to spend a few days at the Abbey of St. Wandrille in Normandy. Founded in 649 by the Frankish monk for whom the abbey is now named, St. Wandrille has been dissolved or pillaged numerous times; writing about the monastery in a slim volume called A Time to Keep Silence, Patrick Leigh Fermor observed that "St. Wandrille seems to have been spared by none of the disasters of French history," and indeed the community has been ravaged by foes as various as the Vikings, the Huguenots, and France's republican government, only to be reestablished and rebuilt by subsequent generations of resilient Benedictine monks. Once part of a powerful network of Carolingian monasteries spread across Normandy, since the nineteenth century St. Wandrille has belonged to the Congregation of Solesmes.

I was inspired to visit St. Wandrille by the testimony of two authors who wrote with great affection about the monastery and about the Benedictines who live there. One of these two authors was Fermor, who arrived at St. Wandrille in the early 1950s expecting "necropolitan gloom or bigotry" only to find that the monks' "company was like that of any civilised well-educated Frenchman, with all the balance, erudition and wit that one expected, the only difference being a gentleness, a lack of haste, and a calmness that is common to the whole community." The other author who led me here was the twentieth-century French theologian Louis Bouyer (1913-2004), who left behind his youthful Protestantism and entered the Catholic Church in the 1930s under the influence of the monks of St. Wandrille and retained an affinity for the community for the rest of his life.

The architecture of St. Wandrille vividly evokes the abbey's long and sometimes tortured history, with the ruins of the medieval abbey church (destroyed during the French Revolution) preserved alongside a complex of seventeenth-century buildings constructed when the abbey belonged to the Congregation of St. Maur. As Patrick Leigh Fermor writes in A Time to Keep Silence, a visit to St. Wandrille offers a poignant reminder that the Benedictines "were . . . for centuries the only guardians of literature, the classics, scholarship and the humanities in a world of which the confusion can best be compared to our own atomic era." Fermor notes with regret the destruction of once significant monastic centers like the abbeys of Cluny and St. Germain-des-Prés (writing in the 1950s, he colorfully describes the remains of the latter monastery in Paris as being "just visible between zazou suits and existentialist haircuts from the terrace of the Deux Magots"), but he finds reason for hope in the fact that "in scores of abbeys all over Europe, the same liberal traditions survive and prosper." Were he able to see St. Wandrille today, in an ever-more secular and postmodern Europe, Fermor would perhaps find all the more reason to insist upon the importance of monasteries like St. Wandrille, even as the "scores of abbeys" preserving venerable traditions are fewer than they were sixty years ago.

If Patrick Leigh Fermor appreciated St. Wandrille primarily as a place where a valuable cultural patrimony was preserved, Louis Bouyer knew the abbey first and foremost as the setting in which he became convinced of the truth of Catholicism. Having visited St. Wandrille for the first time in 1931 as an eighteen-year-old already studying for the Protestant ministry, Bouyer returned repeatedly to the monastery over the following decade before being received into the Church there on December 27, 1939, at the age of twenty-six. In the Memoirs that he wrote decades later, Bouyer recalled that it was at St. Wandrille "that I had been convinced by the Benedictine life that the Catholic Church, despite the possible inadequacies of many of her representatives, beginning with some of the most eminent (as Saint Paul says, ‘those who appear to be something’), was nevertheless the survival of the one Church founded by Christ on the apostles."

Despite his admiration for the Benedictines, Bouyer did not become a monk - he was ultimately ordained as a priest of the French Oratory, and spent most of his life as an academic theologian - but he was nevertheless bound to the monastery by ties of friendship that endured until his death in 2004. Bouyer spent most of his last two decades living at St. Wandrille as a permanent guest of the community, regarding the monastery as his home base even as he spent several months of each year teaching at the University of San Francisco (in his Memoirs, written in residence at St. Wandrille, Bouyer refers at one point to "my Norman masculine abbey where I usually live when I am not on the edge of the Pacific"). No matter how familiar St. Wandrille became to him, Bouyer seems to have always viewed the abbey with a sense of wonder. As he wrote, "There is a discreet charm, a serene beauty in this little wooded valley. The buildings that remain there, the best of the Maurists' construction, around a cloister from the last centuries of the Middle Ages, illumine and animate it without in any way eclipsing or overriding a nature that . . . [is] a witness to that implicit art with which the Benedictines have humanized it everywhere just as they themselves were being sanctified in it."

Describing the ruins of the medieval abbey church and its modern replacement, Bouyer noted "the felicitous contrast between the ruins of the ancient church, bursting up to the sky, and the at once rustic and cheerful destitution of that fifteenth-century barn with impeccable taste transformed into an oratory simply with an altar, a sanctuary arranged with a precise sobriety for which one can no longer hope today!" It is poignant to read these words knowing that Bouyer would be buried on a hillside overlooking the ruins and the new abbey church that he describes; it is perhaps the monks' greatest tribute to Louis Bouyer that he would be buried in their midst in the abbey cemetery.

The "precise sobriety" that Bouyer described is indeed a hallmark of the abbey church at St. Wandrille, though the austerity of the physical setting does nothing to diminish the beauty or solemnity of the monastic liturgy. Patrick Leigh Fermor took evident relish in quoting some lines of the hymn Te lucis ante terminum chanted each night by the monks at compline: Procul recédant sómnia / et nóctium phantásmata; / hostémque nostrum cómprime, / ne polluántur córpora. As Fermor glosses these lines, "The windows are barred against the lurking incubus, the pre-eighth-century iambic dimeters seal up any remaining loophole against the invasion of the hovering succubi." For my part, I am pleased to note that this text is still chanted in its integrity at St. Wandrille, even as many other monasteries have adopted a revised version of this hymn from the 1970s that disappointingly banishes any mention of the insidious phantasmata.

To bring this post to an end, here is a photo that I took one morning as I walked to the abbey church for the celebration of lauds at 7:30 am, just as the sun was rising over the Norman countryside. During his years of residence at St. Wandrille, Louis Bouyer often eschewed the celebration of lauds with the community, admitting candidly that "I do not attend the night office, and I go to Lauds in the morning only when they are fully sung (recited psalmody invariably puts me to sleep with its monotony)." Though I only spent a few days at St. Wandrille, I made a point of attending all of the offices in the church, whether sung or recited, and even though this meant having to rise at 5 o' clock for matins. It was, to be honest, a thrilling experience, and one that I hope very much to repeat someday soon. AMDG.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Dies irae, dies illa.

In accordance with my annual custom, I am marking All Souls' Day by reposting a translation of the Latin sequence for All Souls that I made a few years ago. The translation below is the same one that I have provided in years past, though I have tweaked the commentary slightly; I still hope to eventually revise the translation, but for now I hope that my annual reposting of this text is helpful and edifying to some readers.

Typically attributed to the thirteenth-century Franciscan Thomas of Celano and long prescribed as part of the Latin Requiem Mass, the Dies Irae enjoys a special place in Western musical culture thanks to the memorable settings of the Requiem text by composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi to Britten, among many others. For All Souls, I typically avoid any 'classical' setting of the Dies Irae in favor of the traditional Gregorian setting, because some days when only chant will do - and for me this is one of those days.

Below you can find the Latin text of the Dies Irae followed by my own English translation. I decided to translate the text myself out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the various translations that I found online, as a spiritual exercise for All Souls' Day - and, finally, to practice my Latin. The translation was made in haste and could certainly be improved - indeed, I have sometimes thought of starting from scratch and doing a new one - and I welcome comments and criticism; my goal was to convey the meaning of the original faithfully without trying to reproduce the poetic meter of the original. So here goes:

Dies irae! Dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit, et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Iudicanti responsura.

Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus iudicetur.

Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet, apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix iustus sit securus?

Rex tremendae maiestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.

Recordare, Iesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuae viae:
Ne me perdas illa die.

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.

Iuste iudex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis
Ante diem rationis.

Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce, Deus.

Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.

Preces meae non sunt dignae:
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.

Inter oves locum praesta,
Et ab haedis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.

Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis:
Voca me cum benedictis.

Oro supplex et acclinis,
Cor contritum quasi cinis:
Gere curam mei finis.

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:

Pie Iesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.


O day of wrath, that day
when the earth will be reduced to ashes,
as David and the Sibyl both testify!

What great fear there will be,
when the judge comes
to judge all things strictly.

A trumpet casts a wondrous sound
into the realm of the tombs,
calling all [to come] before the throne.

Death and nature will both marvel
as the [human] creature rises
to answer its judge.

A book will be brought forth
in which all things are recorded –
all that for which the world will be judged.

When, therefore, the judge appears,
all that is hidden will appear,
and no ills will remain unavenged.

As miserable as I am, what am I say?
whose protection may I invoke,
when even the just lack security?

O most majestic King,
who freely saves those to be saved,
save me, source of mercy!

Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the one for whom you came:
may I not be lost on that day!

Seeking me, you sat down tired:
to redeem me, you suffered the Cross –
may your toil not be in vain!

Just and avenging judge,
may you grant remission [of sins]
before the day of reckoning.

Guilty, now I sigh,
my face red with shame:
save thy petitioner, o God!

Having absolved Mary [Magdalene],
and heard the plea of the thief,
may you give me hope as well.

Though my prayers are not worthy,
be kind to me, o Good One,
that I may be spared the eternal fire!

Place me among the sheep,
and separate me from the goats,
setting me at your right hand.

When the wicked are confounded
and given over to bitter flames:
call me among the blessed.

Meek and humble, I pray,
with a heart contrite as ashes:
Help me reach my final end.

How tearful that day will be,
when from the ashes will arise
the guilty man for judgment.
Therefore spare him, O God!

Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

To some modern ears, some of the above lines may seem a bit harsh; the familiarity of the Latin text and the beauty of its poetic form can easily distract us from the admonitory content of the Dies Irae. As stern as these words may be, though, they also remind us that God is merciful - indeed, the very source of mercy - and they call on us to pray: first for our beloved dead and for our own repentance, but also that we may offer to others the same mercy that we seek for ourselves. May all of us who celebrate this Feast of All Souls take these words in the right way, and take them to heart. AMDG.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Messiaen again.

I've written here before about Olivier Messiaen, the twentieth-century French composer whose musical output includes everything from mystical choral works on Catholic feasts to an opera on St. Francis of Assisi to the sprawling Turangalîla-Symphonie, a work that Messiaen's leading interpreter Pierre Boulez once described as "bordello music" and one that I once likened to "alien invasion music" suitable to a 1950s sci-fi flick. Messiaen is one of my favorite composers, and I hope that living in his home country for a few years will give me somewhat greater access to his music.

2017 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Messiaen's death, occasioning various commemorative events and concerts in Paris and throughout France. The anniversary also got me interested in trying to find a recorded interview with the composer, since I had never heard his voice even though I had heard a lot of his music. That search led me to this program produced in 1974 for a French TV series called Court Circuit, which takes the novel approach of staging an encounter between the composer and a twenty-year-old engineering student who also happens to be a talented amateur musician and a fan of Messiaen's music. At the end of their interview, the young student muses thoughtfully about the encounter and remarks on Messiaen's personal simplicity and accessibility. Messiaen comes across as humble and unassuming as well as a gifted pedagogue, and his willingness to discuss his Catholic faith in an encounter recorded for public television says something about the evangelical spirit that animated his life and work. If you understand French and you're interested in Messiaen, have a look. AMDG.