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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

There's something about mealtime (C31O)

Jesus eating with Zacchaeus this weekend got me thinking about Jesus eating with anyone, and why the gospels, but particularly Luke, are so concerned with Jesus and mealtime. An article in Worship recently discussed scholarship around the idea that "free meals" may have been a technique of evangelization and recruitment in the first centuries of Christianity. Taussig's In the Beginning Was the Meal (2009, Fortress) further outlines modern scholarship on the relationship between Greek community mealsharing and the developing practices, including the eucharistic origins, of Christianity. Taussig writes, "The community meals of early Christianity were the social stage on which early Christian identity was elaborated." 

It strikes me this morning that one of the reasons that homilies might be so unsatisfying, aside from the old “familiarity breeds contempt” dictum, is that American clergy, like the rest of us, are so fixated on the individual. We pay lip service to community, but we seem, perhaps fundamentally and irrevocably, to have lost our genuine connection to a community that baptism seeks to restore in a sacramental way. Water, we believe, is actually “thicker” than blood. But after Freud and Dr. Phil and a thousand high school psychology classes, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson movies, we can’t get past “me,” the rugged individual, the self-made person, the loner, the drifter, the hero. You hear this subtly in the way preachers tend to preach about the Zacchaeus story as a story of personal conversion, and less subtly as week after week they change the corporate and cultic prayer from “The Lord be with you” (vobiscum, plural) to “the Lord be with each and every one of you” (painfully singular), and make individualistic changes in cultic texts out of some sense of presbyteral entitlement which has no fundament in liturgical principle or law. The repeated anti-ritual focus on “each and every one of you” recalls the markedly un-Catholic notion of individual salvation, the “personal Lord and Savior,” who is indeed a person but who has saved all humanity forever equally, at once, and as one. The path of life is a highway, not a foot trail, through the wilderness.

It comes out loud and clear in the approach we've all heard to the Zacchaeus pericope. The story was about the individual conversion of Zacchaeus to Jesus, we have been told, and his changing his ways. But the text doesn’t necessarily support this. Luke the evangelist is always concerned about the insider-outsider mentality, and in this story, it’s the rich sinner who is the outsider. To Luke, it is the crowd, and not Zacchaeus, which is in the wrong. The murmuring of the crowd suggests that, as in other stories of insider-outsider in Luke, the crowd is making a false accusation, “he has gone to eat in the house of a sinner.” But inside his own house, with Jesus present and the crowd outside, Zacchaeus “stood his ground”! “I give half of my belongings to the poor,” he says, and “if I have defrauded anyone I pay them back fourfold.” This kind of lavish redress, as you can see if you can count, will not work for long if one has defrauded many people. The obvious upshot is that the crowd has made a bad judgment on Zacchaeus, and it is they who need to change their hearts. “Salvation has come to this house” because Zacchaeus has indeed tried to keep the covenant in a complex and unjust world. He and Jericho need to come to some reconciliation, all need to move toward a new truth. Like Jesus, who is on the road to Jerusalem and his own encounter with the demands of his integrity with the covenant, Jericho and one of its wealthier citizens are on a road that is an opportunity for transformation at the very moment of crisis.

All that aside, the implied hospitality of at least dinner with Zacchaeus reminds us of the centrality of eating in the gospel narrative, and always the communal meal, people dining together. You don’t need me to reiterate the ubiquitous Catholic lamenting the loss of the family dinner. That, I think, is a symptom of our pathological individuality, not the cause of it. The gospel mindset, coming from the Middle Eastern world, is that the extended family is a given. Hospitality to travelers, particularly countrymen, is part of the law, but hardly had to be. In order to assure the survival of self and family, some kind of order needed to be maintained that put a high premium on hospitality. In a hostile desert environment, to be separated from the group, whether family or village, was a death sentence. Meal-sharing in the desert culture was literally the sharing of life. Not only were meals nourishment for bodies, but bonds between people, social and religious bonds, were nourished as well. Hospitality to strangers was offered out of a sense of solidarity: “once you were strangers and aliens,” they were reminded, and the tradition of hospitality among peoples of the Middle East endures to this day.

Just look over the last eight weeks or so of gospels we’ve heard from the lectionary on Sunday. One gospel was set at a sabbath meal in a Pharisee’s house; in another we had the accusation that “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” followed by three parables, each of which has a celebration (by implication this means food was share) at its center, including the slaughtering of a fatted calf in the final parable. The parable on September 29 was about the rich man and Lazarus, which included a reference to the table habits of each. October 6 had a reference to service at table by masters for slaves; next Sunday’s reference was, of course, to the meal at Zacchaeus’s house. From the first time we meet Jesus (in a manger, a feeding trough) to the post-resurrection stories in Luke at Emmaus and on the beach in Galilee, Jesus is shown by Luke to be in the life- and solidarity-affirming context of the meal to proclaim by his presence and word the arrival of the empire of God.

As I say, I feel that the loss of family meals in our culture is a symptom of the loss of solidarity among us. We’ve been seduced by the myth of the frontier, of private property, of the self-made man and the American dream. We are so busy pursuing our individual schedules and driving our overscheduled kids to the circus of activities that will make them successful adults that we’ve all but abandoned family meals and created the demand for fast food. Now we’re beginning to see, thanks to the light-hearted muckraking of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and cinematic documentaries like Supersize Me and King Corn, that our diet is threatening both to kill our bodies and turn the biodiverse ecology of the United States into a monoculture of poisoned corn. 

So what’s the lesson here? I guess I’m not sure. Among the many activities of Jesus reported in the gospel, exorcisms, healer, miracle-worker, one of the most commonly cited of his activities, actively or in his speech, is that of eating. Our very act of remembering the meaning of Jesus’s life and death is encapsulated in the weekly sharing of a ritual meal. If our not eating together is a symptom of a social breakdown and lack of communal cohesion, can the disease be reversed by treating the symptom? I guess I feel inadequate to the task even of pursuing the question. Maybe if I can just get up into this sycamore tree, I can get a better view...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Songstories 16: The Trumpet in the Morning ("This Very Morning," GIA, 1998)

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful place called the East Coast Conference on Religious Education. Alas, it is no more.

But ask anyone who ever attended it in its thirty years or so of active ministry, and they'll tell you that it was the East Coast place to be. Terry and Gary and I were there a number of times ourselves for one reason or another; Gary more often than either of us, because he was part of the core team that shaped the prayer and liturgy of the conference. Its management was not without controversy, and its last years under the late good-hearted, if irascible and deeply wounded, Tim Ragan were not easy. But in its heyday, it was the place to be in February, usually a week or two before the larger LAREC in Anaheim, with a stirring line-up of animated educators and spiritual guides, engaging workshops, and well-prepared worship throughout.

I was lucky that, for the 1997 gathering, Tim Ragan asked me if I would write a theme song for the convention that would invite the participants into the jubilee experience into which we were all about to be plunged by the calendar turning over the millennium. It seemed like a good time for us in the church to think about time from the point of view of kairos, that is, God's time, the "acceptable time," the time to experience the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The convention intended to have weavers and other artisans working publicly on pieces through the convention itself that would be used in some visible way during the prayer and worship times at the end of the conference, to incarnate and aspect of kairos, creation unfolding among us. The preaching and mystagogy was going to focus on millennium as an opportunity for jubilee justice: forgiveness of debt, liberation of captives, and restoration of right relationships. Jubilee, the 50th year (i.e., the year following a week-of-weeks-of-years, 7x7+1 years), was to be to human relationships as Sabbath to the week. It would serve to remind us all that "the earth and all that is within it belong to the Lord," and we need to remember to start acting like it.

In order to get a better feel for the task, I re-read Leviticus 25, which outlines the Jubilee economy for Israel:
(8) You shall count seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—such that the seven weeks of years amount to forty-nine years. 9 Then, on the tenth day of the seventh month* let the ram’s horn resound; on this, the Day of Atonement, the ram’s horn blast shall resound throughout your land. 10 You shall treat this fiftieth year as sacred. You shall proclaim liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to your own property, each of you to your own family. This fiftieth year is your year of jubilee; you shall not sow, nor shall you reap the aftergrowth or pick the untrimmed vines, since this is the jubilee. It shall be sacred for you. You may only eat what the field yields of itself....Do not deal unfairly with one another, then; but stand in fear of your God. I, the LORD, am your God.

The land shall not be sold irrevocably; for the land is mine, and you are but resident aliens and under my authority. Therefore, in every part of the country that you occupy, you must permit the land to be redeemed.
When one of your kindred is reduced to poverty and becomes indebted to you, you shall support that person like a resident alien; let your kindred live with you. Do not give your money at interest or your food at a profit. I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. When your kindred with you, having been so reduced to poverty, sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. Rather, let them be like laborers or like your tenants, working with you until the jubilee year, when, together with any children, they shall be released from your service and return to their family and to their ancestral property.
And if they are not redeemed by these means, they shall nevertheless be released, together with any children, in the jubilee year. For the Israelites belong to me as servants; they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, I, the LORD, your God.
Well, that's a tall order, isn't it? It wasn't lost on me, perspicacious student of culture that I am, that there was a good dose of millennialism going around, too, the kind that sees the eschaton around every bend, the parousia peering from behind the lattice. I like the idea of the shofar blowing to announce the jubilee on Yom Kippur, which got me thinking of "trumpet." Knowing the early American hymn "The Morning Trumpet" from Southern Harmony, I started to mull over the possibility of adapting that tune to a different theological perspective, not one of rapture and end time, but one of time transformed, and earth along with it.

The original "Morning Trumpet" from Southern Harmony, melody in the middle.
As I may have mentioned in another post, there is a time in the process of songwriting at which the song begins to write itself. It generally comes for me after many hours of "input," writing notes to myself, false starts, couplets and ideas that go nowhere, studying, praying, despairing, doubting myself, all that stuff. Suddenly it's as though one idea rubs against another one and generates a spark that ignites, and the writing gathers steam. That's what happened here. With the older hymn dictating the form, my imagination with the text, mingling imagery from Leviticus with modern life and the "participating audience" I expected would want to sing my song, I was able to begin to more rapidly assemble the text. With that complete, it was just a matter of deciding on an arrangement. I nearly always write with smaller choirs (SAB) in mind, and the song suggested a sort of fife-and-drum accompaniment, with a trumpet asserting itself, um, brassily, as the song developed.

"Trumpet in the Morning" ended up as the opening cut on our 1998 CD This Very Morning, which was actually imagined as a group of songs for Holy Week and Easter through Pentecost. You might wonder why I would write the song for the millennium, knowing that such an event is once-in-a-lifetime, as long as one is living fewer than a thousand years. But for us Christians, the jubilee is not a matter of chronos, that is, time that can be measured and counted, but is a person, that is, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. For us, Christ is the invitation to and living reminder of the kind of radical, liberating equality that is the birthright of the children of God. It is Jesus who taught us to call God "Our Father," to make our own forgiveness of debt the measure by which our debts are forgiven. So in our worship of the Father in Christ, there is no thousand year wait. The jubilee is now. That's why the song keeps coming back to the refrain:

Lowly eyes shall be lifted while the tyrants taste their fear,
For that sound is both a gospel and a warning,
When we rise as a people who proclaim that God is near,
Who will dare to sound the trumpet in the morning! 

In one of those ironic, iconic ways God gets back at you, GIA published this song with a question mark at the end of the lyric, instead of an exclamation point. Yes, I know...I asked. I suppose it doesn't matter that much, eschatologically speaking. It's a good question, if only it were phrased as one.

"Trumpet in the Morning" at

Audition or download from iTunes:Trumpet In the Morning - This Very Morning

Monday, October 28, 2013

What are you afraid of?

Mr. Barlow, from Salem's Lot. Or possibly
Ann Coulter, without her makeup.
Happy Halloween week. 

I’ll tell you what I’m afraid of later (the list ought to include having to watch David Soul in a dramatic role). While he was home for fall break, my son Desi mentioned in kind of an off-the-cuff way that he had to stop watching a movie the other night because it freaked him out. It was not a slasher kind of freak-out, it was a creepy kind of freak out, which surprised me. He has always seemed to be much less afraid of just about everything than I was when I was a kid, but honestly, what is most amazing to me is that he never spoke about being afraid of things kids are supposed to be afraid of, e.g., the dark, vampires, wolf men, Frankenstein, devils, junk like that. When I was his age, I remember laughing through Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and waiting for Horror Theater to come on every Saturday so I could watch some ancient flick with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Lon Chaney Jr., or some combination of those.
 I would get chills watching Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Outer Limits. But as soon as the lights went out, I got scared. Every closet door seemed to open by itself, there were things going bump in the night, and I never could figure out whether having the door open or closed was better - a little light in the room made things worse sometimes than if it were completely dark. Was it just me? 

We were afraid of a lot of things in the 60s, notably, being incinerated in a nuclear war while crouching under our desks, or being tortured to death by godless communists parachuting into our cities to kill Catholics in a particularly horrible way. We were afraid of God, who could punish us forever for disobeying our parents (was that adultery?) or forgetting to do something we should have done (sins of omission), and afraid of the devil who was in charge of the eternal Abu Ghraib (this may be the reason I got Cheney and Satan confused all the time.) Fear was a big part of religion, and the people in charge seemed to feel it was better to do the right things for the wrong reason than not to do the right things. Catholicism was a sociological and moral ghetto more than a confessional (“God is love”) religion. We seem to have overcompensated a little, or not allowed the corrective Council enough time to take root, or both. Anyway, as far as I can tell, Desi isn’t scared of the devil or of evil spirits or even Russians, though I may have inculcated in him a passing mistrust of Republicans and the American League with its sissy DH rule. 

My idea of scary-creepy is Salem’s Lot, both the Stephen King novel and made-for-TV adaptation, and I have to admit that there were passages in the book that still creep me out, particularly when the two little boys, the brothers, are floating outside the window at night as newly-initiated vampires. The TV version did a good enough job of realizing that scene that I was creeped out again, though I guess over the years I’ve gotten a little more thick-skinned with regard to all the occult stuff. My empirical experience with the paranormal is limited but not non-existent, and I’m not confident enough of empiricism to be able to deny other people’s experience with the occult as chili-induced fantasy or delusion. At least, though, I’m not prone to lie awake at night (“prone to lie” — can I say that?) worried about vampires floating outside my window. I used to be, but not since I was 50 or so. ☹ One of the first movies I saw Anthony Hopkins in was a horror movie called Magic, and by modern standards, it was as old-fashioned scary as it could be. None of that Chucky running around with a knife or chain saw, but I was scared out of my mind every time I saw that ventriloquist’s dummy on camera. It harkened back to a Twilight Zone episode with Cliff Robertson called The Dummy. That, and my scary sisters’ doll all over the house, are probably the cause of my horror of inanimate hominids. Brrr.

Do you think that kids aren’t as creeped out by the occult and paranormal as we were because we don’t, as a rule in the Catholic church, make such a big deal about Satan and the personification of evil? And if so, do you think that’s OK? I think the not-being-afraid thing is healthy, but I wouldn’t want to lose sight of the fact that in fact some things are objectively evil, mostly relational things, and that there are consequences that play out horribly in real life if we choose evil over good (consequences like war, lynchings, starvation, rape, ethnic cleansing, genocide, poverty, slavery.) These consequences are terrifyingly real, because evil is real. In a way, I think fear is wasted on Frankenstein and slasher movies because they're so cathartic. We don’t have any fear left to be moved by our own action or inaction with regard to living moral lives. If you do good because of a boogie-man-God, is it better than not doing good? If we live a moral life out of fear (of punishment, like hell), is it better than living an immoral life? I'm not sure. It's better for the person who isn't killed, maimed, raped, or starved by my immorality, that's for sure, and so it's better for the planet, if not best for me and my actualization as a human being. I think desire gets misshapen by fear, and it ends up coming out of us in all kinds of nasty ways. 

I was trying to write down the things I am afraid of. It was meant to be a top ten list, Letterman-style, but I don’t know if I can make it to 10 or not, but here you go. Now, don’t be afraid to leave me a few of your own:
10. Ventriloquist dummies and dolls. Especially when their eyes move, or they start talking in the dark. I hate that.

9. Getting diabetes or lung cancer or some other horrible disease that is fraught with suffering, because I’m a sissy and I hate the thought of having to give myself shots or not being able to breathe.

8. Drowning. Or being in a plane crash, though I’ve learned to live with the plane thing, thinking it’s better than most other ways of dying. That, and the fact that from the standpoint of probability, you’d have to fly every day for about 50,000 years before the probability of crashing got to 50%, which is pretty good odds.

7. A Ted Cruz or Paul Ryan or Eric Cantor (etc) presidency.
6. Two more years of John Boehner.
5. Losing my job. And almost as great a fear is keeping my job, and losing my humanity and love for Christ and the church in because I can't get the spiritual, personal nourishment I need in the one I have.

4. Anything happening to any of my kids. In a way, I want them all to live dangerously, fully, learn and survive and be better, and not suffer too much for it.

3. Finding out, too late, that Mel Gibson is right, and God is a vengeful son-of-a-bitch who needed his Son to die hideously to appease him for the insult of human sin. In this case, I have genuinely wasted my life, and it would have been better to have tried to get Charlize Theron’s phone number, or being a salesman for Microsoft.

2. Forgetting everything, and knowing it. Alzheimer’s scares the sh*t out of me. I watched my Dad die from Pick’s Disease, and so I’m a little nervous about this.

1. Coming to the end of my life and having a blinding revelation that I missed something and all the damage I’ve done is just the tip of the iceberg. That I could have done more, changed things, and made life better for more people. All of that, and there’s nothing waiting with forgiveness and graceful, creative strategy to ameliorate the destruction I’ve caused. Or waking up and discovering I’ve become a cockroach, or worse, Michelle Bachmann. Talk about existence being meaningless...

What are you afraid of?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Piercing the clouds (C30O)

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one was the pope, the other was a pimp.”

Actually, all that started because of Sunday's gospel story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. I came across Bernard Scott’s quotation of Dom Crossan’s attempt to approximate the shock value of the way the story might have fallen upon the ears of Mediterranean peasants. That is it above, about the pope and the pimp. I wanted to write a little bit more about this gospel than I did yesterday when I was talking about why I chose the music that I did for Sunday. Here we have a parable of the kingdom in which the two protagonists are both wealthy men, possibly with both some sympathizers and some detractors in Jesus’ audience. The Pharisee would be the quintessential “good guy,” studying and interpreting the law and the prophets. Jesus himself was a Pharisee, or at least his teachings and style would put him close to their worldview. Contrast that with the tax-collector, a Roman collaborator, many of whom lined their own pockets by inflating exchange rates and revenues extracted from countrymen. At least, that was the suspicion, and so they were hated by the masses, were targets of assassins, and were persona non grata in the temple precincts. The two go up together, they pray, and when they come down, it’s the tax collector who is justified, and not the Pharisee. What happened up there?

The story is set up much like the parable of the Good Samaritan. Whereas that parable in the realm of moral behavior and relation to the neighbor, this one is about the relationship to God, and the economy of grace. But both use the same means to the end: the temple denizens and keepers of the tradition end up outside the sympathy of the hearer while the hated one, the one who is the stranger to the social realm ruled by the temple turns out to make a claim on the listener’s sympathy.

I was amused that our translation seems to have caught us in the very act of demonization or marginalization that seems to be the butt of the parable’s joke. Did you notice how the Vulgate-inspired translation set up the Pharisee, at the expense of the logic of the story’s own rhetoric? There is a question about the words pros heauton in the Greek, which mean “by himself” or “to himself.” Do they modify “stood” or “said”? The RNAB, which we in the US have as our translation, says, “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,” making us think that the Pharisee is an egomaniac, praying to himself, which would be exactly not a Pharisee’s way of praying. What the rhetoric of the story would suggest is that the Pharisee “took a position (or stood) by himself,” which is the normal way a person would pray in the temple. This is further suggested by the fact that the phrase creates a parallelism with what is said about the tax-collector, a rhetorical device suited to the style of oral teaching. What we have, then, is:
Pharisee   -  stood  - by himself

tax collector - was standing - at a distance

When the prayer of the Pharisee is compared to other prayers of the Talmud and elsewhere, it doesn’t sound so strident, especially when we don’t allow our ears to be polemicized by the prejudices of the gospel that have helped to malform Christianity in anti-Semiticism for twenty centuries. The Pharisee is a good guy. He not only does what is required of him in the law, he does more than is required. One might assume, then, that he loves God in the only way he knows how. The tax-collector, on the other hand, is still a tax-collector. There’s no evidence that he is just or unjust in his prayer, that he intends to redress any injury has has caused; he’s praying the only way he knows how, too. He’s been taught he doesn’t belong with the good guys, and he seems to believe it. What’s the point of the parable, then?

The temple itself, Scott says, sets the map of the holy. Some people are insiders, like the Pharisee, and some are outsiders, like the tax collector. They are both acting the way that they are expected to act, as insider and outsider. The listener, once freed of biblical prejudice against the Pharisee, can see this in the story. The surprise is the ending: Jesus says that the tax collector, returning home, is justified. All this can mean is that the temple economy itself is denied! The temple “map,” in Scott’s word, that makes insiders and outsiders, is not the map of the empire of God. The Spirit of God, divine grace and mercy and forgiveness, are not set by those who control the temple. 

And I suspect that this is true today as it was in year 80 or so, though the temple has changed, the Pharisee has become a pope (or a liturgist) and the tax collector has become a pimp (or an atheist.) What am I supposed to learn from this parable? I always teach, and try to believe myself, that as important as our liturgy is to who we are and what we do, it’s only the liturgy, it’s a sacrament of the rest of our lives, and God’s action in it. How much do I actually believe that, and how much to I cling to the liturgy as the still point of a turning world, and expect that it’s truly there that the empire of God shows up? Well, honestly, I don’t know. I do think that this parable is a corrective, at any rate, and helps me see that I have to be careful not to equate the liturgy or the church with the kingdom of God. In general, I need to remember that I can’t think big enough to be as inclusive as God’s love is, and almost anything I think about God is wrong, or at best, a shadow of what is true.

I suspect that a lot of homilies will follow a line of thought that will lead to pious words about humility, that familiar humilis/humus/human axis, seeing the tax collector as a role model, which was not, to my way of thinking, the point of the parable at all. The point is, whoever we are, whatever we say, however we worship, God is not controlled by our structures. After a while, all of us tend to think we have God figured out. But while we humans are made of humus, (stardust, to be sure!), God made dust, and stars, and people. That gives us a little perspective.

Can we pierce the cloud of unknowing with our prayer for mercy? Apparently so, though I’m not sure what that means. It seems to take some kind of poverty in order to be heard, because “the Lord hears the cry of the poor.” (Again, neither of the men in the parable yesterday was poor: in fact, they would both be privileged members of the urban society.) As I mentioned yesterday, I’m not necessarily one of the poor just because I can sing the psalm or the song. But as a friend of mine once noted, we bless God because God hears the cry of the poor, even though we may not be among them. In fact, I might even be in the habit of praying, “there but for the grace of God go I,” meaning, “thank you that I’m not like the rest of those sick, handicapped, tragedy-stricken other people I know.” God knows I hear good Christians say it a lot. That sounds an awful lot like that bad ol’ Pharisee’s prayer, doesn’t it? Maybe it will only be walking in the shoes of the poor, of the sick, broken, marginalized and tragedy-stricken, that we will finally come to know the heart of the parable, and know that our prayers pierce the clouds of heaven.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Who's in charge here? (C30O)

Back in Ought-Six (that's the way we old fogies speak of the first decade of this new millennium), my redoubtable musical friend and current doctoral candidate Jenn Kerr Budziak had a blog called "Forever I Will Sing" chronicling her work as music director at St. John of the Cross in Western Springs, IL. One of the ways she used the blog was to post her music for the Sunday liturgy with the reasons she chose particular pieces, which I think is a really good way to use a blog, and maybe should be a requirement for us music directors, as it would keep us accountable to something other than our personal taste in choosing music. But I digress. I think it's a good idea, and might get around to doing that myself more consistently, but I thought I'd do it this week anyway as an experiment. Because the music we use for the ordinary parts of the mass, Kyrie, Gloria, Gospel Acclamation, Eucharistic Acclamations, and so on don’t necessarily change 
over long periods and are part of the ritual itself in a different way from the songs, I won’t usually include those in the listing, though I may do so on occasion when there's a reason for it. Here’s what we’re singing Sunday, the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, when the gospel will be the parable, “Two people went up to the temple,” sometimes called The Pharisee and the Publican (or Tax-collector). Our hymnal is Gather 3rd Edition, which I supplement with a worship aid as needed.

Gathering: Canticle of the Turning
Resp. Psalm 34: Cry of the Poor

Prep Rite: To You Who Bow or Simple Gifts
Communion: Blest Are They
Sending Forth: We Are Called

In her book, Sing a New Song, on the liturgical use of psalms in the lectionary, Benedictine sister Irene Nowell laments the fact that the psalm is rarely used in preaching the Sunday lectionary, because the psalm may provide a “key to understanding the juxtaposition” of the first reading and the gospel. This is so clear to most of us who actually prepare the music for Sunday, but we rarely hear the psalm even mentioned in the homily. In this Sunday’s group of readings, the psalm does provide some insight. Over the last six weeks or so, since the last couple of Sundays in September, there have been a number of gospels that dealt with the poor in one way or another: Lazarus and the rich man, the widow and the corrupt judge, the ten lepers, serving God and mammon. “Poor” has come to mean, for us, and thanks to Matthew’s beatitudes, “poor in spirit,” so we often conveniently think of ourselves as poor, even though in every apparent way we’re pretty well off. I remember Tom Conry once telling me about why he disliked using John Foley’s setting of “The Cry of the Poor,” because he saw all of us well-off, if middle-class, white people singing it with tears in our eyes because the tune was so full of emotion, and the thought to himself, “What is wrong with this picture?” I can sympathize with that point of view, and it’s helped me distance myself from the self-deception that “poor in spirit” and “poor” mean the same thing. Anyway, today we have a gospel situation in which neither man is apparently poor, and yet we have Psalm 34, with the questionably inappropriate refrain “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” as the linchpin between the first reading and the gospel. What gives?

First of all, to start at the end, the parable of the tax-collector and the Pharisee, quintessential outsider and insider to the temple economy of status and grace, ends with one of Jesus’s trademark reversals, generally accepted as ipsissima verba: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” This theme which runs through the gospel of Luke is announced by Mary in the Magnificat way back in the birth narrative of chapter one (Lk. 1: 52-53). God looks upon his lowly servant; he scatters the proud in their conceit, “he has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.” Whenever this theme is iterated on Sunday, I try to use the Magnificat, generally either “Canticle of the Turning,” or “Holy Is Your Name,” though in Advent I love to use, when I have the forces, Mike Joncas’s beautiful “Mary’s Song,” his setting of the Oosterhuis paraphrase of the Magnificat. This Sunday, "Canticle" will be the opening song.

The communion and closing songs are two very familiar songs by David Haas that use scriptural passages or language that echo today's scripture and reinforce the message. The Beatitudes paraphrased in "Blest Are They" affirm blessedness (the gift of God's favor unachievable by human effort) in those who seem least likely to possess it: the poor in spirit (or, in Luke, just "the poor"), the lowly, those deprived of justice, those who mourn, the persecuted, and so on. "We Are Called" invites us as we depart to "live in the light" and to "act with justice" in the ways to which the gospel calls us today, not with retributive human justice, but the equalizing "distributive" justice of God's household.

Sometimes we use my setting of “Cry of the Poor” from Psalms for the Church Year, Volume 4, not for any other reason than that the verses are the ones appointed for this Sunday, rather than the verses of the Foley. Written for “Assemblybook” back in the late 1980s, the text is from my more rebellious period, layering other imagery from the bible  story (Rahab in Joshua 2) upon the text of the psalm,
To the heart which is broken

(Yahweh) will soon appear,

God’s hand embrace the crushed and dry their tears.

She buys them back,

She hides the condemned,

She shall rescue them.
 (© 1991, GIA Publications, Inc.)

The song that we'll use at most of the masses for the preparation rite is a new song (well, a year old is still new, right?) of mine called "To You Who Bow." It's a text that acknowledges God as the one whose love is absolutely pure, whose single desire is to give self away, which we experience as creation, incarnation, and rescue, among many manifestations. Commissioned by my choir for my 60th birthday last year, it's part of a group of songs I'm trying to interest a publisher in. I chose it for this Sunday because it clearly (I think) sets apart divine economy from human. The core of the reversals announced by Jesus in the parables of the reign of God is that human barricades of status and worthiness are all completely artificial, and that in God's economy all are equals. God leads the way in that economy by "not clinging to godliness," and descending among us:
To you who bow,
To you who bend,
To you who do not cling to heaven
But unto us descend,
You who summon us as servants
And call your servants "friends,"
To you we lift our song,
Love ever new.
O God who bows, we sing our song to you. (© 2012, Rory Cooney. All rights resvd.)
At other masses with cantor, we may use "Simple Gifts" as an alternate, which familiarly and simply says much the same thing.

That’s what I mean by “who’s in charge here,” as I put in the title of this blog entry. When the Pharisee and the tax-collector in the parable go to pray, the Pharisee assumes that the temple rules govern salvation, and that God will love him because he does what he's told, and keeps the law. Having marginalized so many others (like the tax collector), he thinks he is able to recognize his own beauty because he has defined what is beautiful. But God’s grace and mercy are not so easily tamed, as the parable is quick to point out, and the reversal the Jesus makes explicit in his aphorism demonstrates that God, and not the temple, and certainly not the Pharisee’s self-justifying conformity to precept, is the one who justifies. God is in charge. God invites us to come into the temple (or the nation, or the workplace, or the country club) and not exclude anyone. God’s word keeps us questioning why some are left in the shadows, why some don’t feel it’s possible to join us, The gospel warns us about self-congratulatory liturgy that lets us see ourselves as welcoming people even when we have our blinders on. The reversals of God's reign to which Jesus alerts us are not historical data about the first century CE. They are about this world, today. 

It’s God’s empire, and it’s God’s temple. We have to discern as best we can when we need to cooperate with our structures of power and religion and when to resist them. We generally need to discern this together, in prayer, guided by all the tools we have at our ecclesial disposal. I suppose that I think, in general, that if it walks like violence and exclusion and talks like violence and exclusion then it’s probably not from God, whether it originates in the church or in the government. I know that we live in a sinful world, and sometimes we imagine that the best we can hope for is the lesser of two evils, but I hope when the time comes for me to decide, God will show me the third way. I suspect, however, that this will involve some form of the cross, which is why “the lesser of two evils” is such a popular choice.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Songstories 15: Thy Kingdom Come (NALR, 1984)

As it gets toward the end of the church year, certain songs bubble up from the repertoire that get sung less often during the rest of the year. The gospels of the last few Sundays of Ordinary Time, beginning about the 31st or 32nd Sunday through Christ the King (34th), are taken from the last chapters of the gospels before the passion of the Lord. This year, for instance, the gospel for November 3, the story of Zacchaeus, and the gospel for November 10, the Sadduccees and the resurrection, are  from chapters 19 and 20 of Luke, and "sandwich" the stories of Palm Sunday and the cleansing of the temple. The gospel of Christ the King this year is a section of Luke's passion narrative, the story about Jesus and the two insurrectionists as they hang on their crosses. The first Sunday of Advent, too, takes its gospel in all three lectionary years from this late part of the synoptic narrative before turning backward, the second Sunday, through the ministry of John the Baptist and the beginning of Jesus's preaching ministry to the gospel overtures that we call the "infancy narratives" in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke.

With autumn in the northern hemisphere in full windy and frosty rustle, we naturally seem to turn our thoughts to final things. The church helps us along in this, with the celebrations of All Saints (from which Halloween derives its name) and All Souls at the beginning of November, along with the previously mentioned arc of the salvation narrative in the Sunday gospels. But "final" is a deep metaphor, isn't it? And if we see the arrival of the reign of God and the "second coming" of the Lord with eyes of faith rooted in the here-and-now, we might then begin to hear "final" as meaning something other than "in the distant future," but rather something like next year's harvest, buried in the rime of the present. Not so much temporally distant, but ultimate in meaning and depth. The kingdom of heaven, in our poetic parlance, is not far off, but in the very words of Jesus, at hand. Finding it is a matter of turning in another direction.

So we surface songs from the repertoire (or, on occasion, write new ones) that explore this mystery. Songs like "For All the Saints," "We Shall Rise Again," "The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns," "Soon and Very Soon," and "I Am the Bread of Life" are sung these weeks. I wrote a few months ago about a song I wrote based on the last chapters of Revelation, with the tune "Shenandoah" (SHANADORE), called "New Jerusalem," which we sing in my parish. Predictably, many of these are songs from the Easter and funeral repertoires, because something about death and hope in resurrection brings the "ultimate" meaning of things into the tangible present.

Terry and I were talking yesterday afternoon about my song "Thy Kingdom Come," which is one of the songs that has been part of this season's repertoire for three decades in churches where I have served (well, that is a total of two.) We were talking about it because I happened to be whistling the Stephen Foster song "Some Folks," which I said influenced both the tune and the form of "Thy Kingdom Come" when I wrote it some 35 years ago. Like the Foster song, "Thy Kingdom Come" has a call-and-response verse (twice as long as Foster's) and a refrain set to a lilting cut-time melody that is easily interpreted as swing. Terry said that the opening melodic line is beholden to "I Got Plenty of Nothin'" from Porgy and Bess, but if that is the case, then Gershwin was also influenced by "Some Folks"! This is the Robert Shaw Chorale version of "Some Folks":

I always liked the text of "Thy Kingdom Come," which tried to get at different manifestations of the reign of God in the world, in creating and sustaining the cosmos (verse 1); in the encounter with active word of God (verse 2); in salvation from sin, told with an Arthurian metaphor whose reach may have exceeded its grasp (verse 3); in healing (verse 5); and in the joy of the parousia (verse 5). In each case, a cantor or choir section sings the "call" and the assembly sings the response, "O Lord, thy kingdom come."
1. O you who taught the mud to dream (O Lord, thy kingdom come)
And made the world with life to teem (O Lord...)
Did spin like tops the stars in space (R.)
And guide their paths with an ageless grace (R.)
2. Like seed and rain your word goes out (R.)
In gardens of the heart to sprout.
The blooms that grow there shall remain,
Their scent the sign of your holy reign.
3. From hearts of stone, O Lord, you drew
The sword of sin that passed them through,
And won your kingship with the sword
That cut you down, O precious Lord.
4. And every heart that's sick with sin
The healer king has come to win
The wounded spirit he shall dress
With balms of love and tenderness.
5. And when the skies you break at last
Thy kingdom come to take at last
Then shall there be a joyful noise
Thy kingdom praise you with one voice.

The first line of that first stanza, "O you who taught the mud to dream," is one of which I'm really proud, and it's certainly gotten its share of comments from people over the years. Mostly it makes them smile, occasionally, it's a puzzlement, but it's obviously, I hope, a reference to evolution in the schema of creation. The refrain attempts to incarnate the "joyful hope" we pray so much about in these weeks and the weeks of Advent, making explicit in song what we say so often in words at the end of the eucharistic prayer.
We wait in joy, we wait in joy.
We wait in joy, like flowers wait the sun.
We wait in joy, we wait in joy,
We wait in joy and the Spirit.
Lord, thy kingdom come.
We recorded "Thy Kingdom Come" on our first album, You Alone, in 1984, and re-recorded it in 2000 on the CD Change Our Hearts, on which we tried to make more definitive recordings of our older songs that were anthologized but whose original recordings were out of print. Here's a clip I've posted to SoundCloud. Right below it, a link to the page at OCP and an iTunes link, if you like it and don't already have it. I regret, of course, that it's not available in Gather any longer, but thanks to licensing, it's not so hard to do songs like this on a Sunday worship aid.

Thy Kingdom Come page at OCP. Click here.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Final thoughts (for now) on prayer and the widow &c &c (C29O)

Men and women pray together in Tahrir Square
I do not intend to give the impression that I know anything more about prayer than anyone else. It's a mystery to me, as I tried to expressed this summer in my post "I Say a Little Prayer for You" on intercessory prayer, occasioned by another gospel. Experience keeps summoning wonder. One is called both to evaluate the interpretation of one's past experiences as well as to trust those experiences as revelatory of God's presence. Somehow. But it's never easy, at least not for me.

This summer, I was busy writing a book about Lent. Or rather, it's a page-a-day book with reflections based on the daily readings of Lent, a project that fell into my lap when, I suppose, someone else decided they didn't have the time or energy for it. But I had to confront the same dynamics in those Lenten readings as we have in the liturgy yesterday. Lent encourages us to rekindle in ourselves (or, allow the Holy Spirit to rekindle in us) the discipline of prayer, with those same difficult words from the gospel: "Ask, and you shall receive. Seek, and you shall find. Knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks, receives." Everyone. That's the word I choke on. Really?

Because "everyone" is sure praying. Everyone wants the war to end in Syria. Everyone prays for the end of violence in America's cities. Everyone wants children to have a chance at life. Everyone wants hunger and thirst to stop killing people in Africa and India. Everyone wants to be wanted, to be safe, to be loved, connected, and validated. Everyone wants life and work to have meaning. Everyone wants enough. And to appearances, not everyone is getting very much of any of that, least of all the people who pray for it, and who depend on the Lord to hear the cry of the poor.

Nevertheless, in what may be my first-world, bourgeois milieu, I could not say with integrity that my prayers have never been answered, answered in ways both hoped for and unexpected. And that's just what I am aware of. Who knows what has happened in my life beyond the scope of my awareness and consciousness, or how my prayer and hope might have changed the world in ways invisible to me? But those aren't even my point. I just mean to say that, as far as I am able to discern, I feel that God has heard my prayers sometimes, which, given God's nature and mine, makes me want to say that God always hears my prayers, and sometimes I notice.

As I wandered at Mass yesterday between my anger at what I experienced as carelessness with an important RCIA rite and my anticipation of the Crop Hunger Walk that would almost immediately follow the choir mass, kicking myself for my forgetting to rehearse a new "Holy" while fretting about the ensemble ending together on a strange beat in a new song, I remembered writing in that Lent book I mentioned above something about the temptations of Jesus. Matthew's long version of the story is read on the First Sunday of Lent, and part of what I wrote was based on a homily I once heard about how Satan in the story is giving a Jesus a lesson on how not to be a messiah. Satan, in his temptations, tries to get Jesus to depend on God to answer his prayers with a faith so blind that it is, in human terms, suicidal. Using scriptural language, he encourages Jesus to throw himself down from the heights, because (here, Satan begins singing "On Eagle's Wings" in Linda Ronstadt's irresistible voice) 
For to his angels he's given a command
To guard you in all your ways.
Upon their hands, they will bear you up
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.
But Jesus doesn't buy it. He's already figured out that being messiah, God's anointed, means acting like God acts, which is to say, by loving and inspiring love. He can only be messiah by being human, by accepting the limitations of human knowledge and activity, and by accepting that the God who anoints him for mission is a God who is agape and kenosis, a god less of spectacle than of service.

I suspect that this knowledge informed Jesus's prayer, and thus the prayer of Jesus, the Lord's prayer, is a prayer of mutuality, for the appearance of God's influence in the world, for forgiveness of one another, for enough bread for everyone for today and tomorrow, and, most critically, directed toward a God who is head of a household to which all belong as family, and not toward some other avatar.

Persistence in prayer, then, must somehow be relentlessly pursuing Our Father, the reign of God, daily bread for all, and mutual forgiveness of debts. That is a little different from what I want for me and mine, but right in line with the poor woman in yesterday's gospel, who wanted only what the judge was supposed to deliver: justice. 

I still want my children to have good life partners, meaningful work, and time to rest and enjoy the world. It's just that now I see that I need to add, "And I want that for everybody's children, including my mom's firstborn, whether he deserves it or not." And then my mind goes to my mom's firstborn's enemies, or really, the thorns in his selfish side and the burs in his ample saddle, and praying for the same goodness for them. See how prayer could get to be a full time job, and a manifestation of conversion? I want to be loved, but prayer calls me to love other people because I already am loved, so shut up and stop worrying about it.

All that having been said, then, where do you put Moses's prayer that enabled Joshua to "mow down Amalek and his people with the sword"? We have to hear about that on the same day we hear in 2 Timothy that "all scripture is inspired by God," which makes the whole thing even harder to swallow. I guess it inspired me to ask these questions, and hope that Moses has found a better reason to pray. Like before that heavenly Seder, where he's breaking bread with Amalek.

That's my report from the cloud of unknowing.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Whupped upside a'head by a kvetching Widow (C29O)

There was a judge in a certain town

who neither feared God nor respected any human being.

And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,

'Render a just decision for me against my adversary.
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,

'While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, 

because this widow keeps bothering me

I shall deliver a just decision for her

lest she finally come and strike me.'

Sometimes on Sunday morning it really comes home to me how much Jesus the storyteller is missing from our appreciation of the gospel. Every reading can be done with the same solemn tone, as though it were “gospel” in some pious and solemnly sacrosanct way, and not the “good news to the poor” that it is intended to be. Maybe we feel that if we say it in a dull enough, self-important way, we can avoid the repercussions of the message. A lugubrious reading of the beatitudes, for instance, makes us feel like maybe we’re the poor in spirit for sitting through Mass (we may certainly be the persecuted...☹) The earthy humor that must have been part of the artisan-peasant rapport in a society oppressed both from without (by the Romans) and within (by the temple) is missing from our reading, and possibly never so clearly as when we hear a parable. 

I imagine that there was a lot of “winking” going on when these little stories were told, stories of priests and Levites, judges and widows, Pharisees and tax collectors, rich men, absentee landlords, farmers sowing on rocky ground. The characters were universally known and everyone probably held pretty strong opinions on the people involved. Part of the shock wave that launched these stories into the eternal library of religious literature must have been, before they were canonized and moved from the village into the museum, the way people reacted to their own reactions as the story unfolded. Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? Why did I think it was going to end differently? Who didn’t get their comeuppance, or who did, and why? Why did that one win, and not the other?

Bernard Brandon Scott puts yesterday’s gospel in a cluster with the Good Samaritan and the Pharisee and Publican parables that tease around the edges of "in" and "out," who is acceptable, who is righteous, who is “saved.” In the other two cases, I can see his line of thought more clearly, but in this case, I see this parable more in the place where the mustard seed and wheat and tares are: the emergence of divine justice, or the empire of God, even when corruption stands in the way. 

I wish that the gospel reader would bring out the humor that is implied by this persistent but clearly powerless woman storming the judge’s life for a just hearing. The judge is the one with all the power here, and he is obfuscating the demands of the Torah that the widow be heard and that justice be done for her. Ultimately, he chooses to do what is right not because it’s legally right, or because it is the godly thing to do, but because if he doesn’t, she’s going to give him a black eye. The verb in the Greek that is used where our translation has “she will finally come and strike me,” which isn’t a bad translation, is a verb taken from the language of boxing, and connotes, literally, getting a black eye. He’s afraid she’s going to punch him out. The impossibility of this, the humor of it, never quite makes it into the retelling of the story. 

The evangelist tells us that it is a story about “praying and never losing patience.” I’m not objecting to that at all, just saying that originally, it seems that this story was more about not counting on the court or human judges to be the place where God’s justice lives, in the same way that next week’s parable of the Pharisee and tax collector reveals that justification does not reside in outward obedience to the Torah and the demands of the temple. As westerners and subscribers to the religion of empire and the God who is emperor and judge, we even sometimes want to make the parable some kind of allegory, don’t we? In this interpretation, the judge is God, and we are the widow, and if we just bug God long enough he’ll stop being such a bastard and give us what we want. But it’s unthinkable to equate God with the behavior of the judge, who does the opposite of what God’s law demands for widows (see Psalm 68 and Psalm 146, for instance). It must be something different from that.

If we want to allegorize the parable, I think we’d need to go in the other direction, where it’s we who are the unjust judge, who care not for people nor God, and who hear the widow-God banging on our door day and night demanding justice from us. Wearied by the baying of the Hound (the “Bitch”?) of heaven, we eventually cave and do the right thing, even though it’s not out of agape, but because we’ve been worn down. That would be an eye-opener on a Sunday morning, don’t you think, if the parable were re-interpreted as “the Bitch of Heaven”?

The whole thing about prayer has had me thinking for several weeks about how I pray, and how for so long I’ve felt that God knows what I need that I haven’t really been as specific as maybe I should be in praying, not for God’s sake, but for mine. I always tend to pray for my family and friends in the most general ways, but to hold them and their days present and future in my heart before God, that’s something I guess I haven’t done as well do. I’m not sure why—maybe I feel God has more important things to work on, or that, as I say, God already knows. But maybe I need to remember more than God does. I was thinking, for instance, that I never until very recently thought about praying that my kids would end up with good life partners, like it’s ever too early (or too late) to pray for that. Not that I want to manage how that happens, but to pray that they know love and intimacy in the amazing ways that can happen, that’s something I started doing recently, rather than just praying for their health and happiness in general terms. I don’t know. That’s just what the gospel makes me aware of as I listen to it over and over again, while wishing that just once they’d read it like it had a funny part, where a judge does the right thing because a widow-beeyotch would otherwise give me the black eye I so richly deserve.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Love and death and Passion (again)

"To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you're getting this down.” (Love and Death, by Woody Allen)


Loving you is why I do

The things I do

Loving you is not in my control.

But loving you, I have a goal

For what's left of my life...

I would live,

And I would die for you.


Die for me? What kind of love is that?


The truest love. Would Clara give her life for you?

Would she? I would. Happily. In time you will come

to see what is beautiful about me. 

“There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

Always lurking in the shadows of passion and dancing through the rhetoric of love is death. It couldn’t be more clear in the Sondheim show. Fosca is sickly, from the outset we know that she has a mortal, albeit undiagnosable, malady. Giorgio is a soldier, a man whose business, one might say, is death, and the final duel that is forced upon him by his
Elvira Madigan (spoiler alert)
superior officer, Fosca’s cousin, is ultimately the proof of his passion for her, whose health he will not risk by informing her of this looming combat.

In the recurring literary and artistic theme commonly called “black passion,” the “mortal danger” of eros is played out to its bitter consequences. (Well, we called it “black passion” when I was in college, but maybe that was because I was in seminary and they wanted us to be afraid of it. When you try to look up “black passion” on the internet, all you see are porn sites for black men.) Romeo and Juliet, choosing their love against all counsel and caution, both die. There is the legend of Tristan and Isolde, all the way up through modern works like Josephine Hart’s Damage. As observers, the passion that we witness may be the innocent passion of young lovers or tsunami of emotion that overwhelms the most jaded skeptic, what matters is the tragedy that the inwardly-focused relationship engenders. The obvious analog is the brightly burning star that runs out of fuel and collapses upon itself, becoming a black hole from which nothing, not even light, can escape. 

For me, the story par excellence of “black passion” or whatever the real world calls it, is the largely true story told by the Swedish film of 1967 called Elvira Madigan. It tells the story of a young Danish trapeze artist who meets a married lieutenant while on tour with the circus. They fall in love that is so completely focused upon each other that the rest of the world begins to disappear. The officer is married, and has two children. They run off together for a few weeks; and their money runs out. In the unforgettable final scene, she makes a final picnic of strawberries and cream which they take into the country and sensually feed to each other. The camera loves their faces and their skin and the insanely symbolic colors of the cream and berries. When they have finished, her soldier shoots her, and after the screen goes black, there is another shot. In the words of Linus in Peanuts, “thus endeth the croquet game.” All of that gorgeous passion has transformed the Mozart Piano Concerto #21 into the “Theme from Elvira Madigan.” Such is the power of love. Or at least, of passion.

For the Christian, the word “passion” carries with it the connotations of the death of Jesus, and for some theologians, there is also a connection between his “passion” in the sense of his suffering and his passion in the sense of what made him want to live, what gave him the strength to endure his suffering. In a way, we all talk about the things we’re “passionate” about, what we love so much that it hurts (when we’re not just being hyperbolic, anyway.) But it might just be in this place that we gain some insight into the power of the overwhelming mystery of love and passion. Through love and passion, we believe that we tap into, or are tapped into, the very mystery of God. We begin to share in divine life, and let’s face it, this is a current where we have little ability to navigate. When we attempt to hoard it, or it becomes too focused on one other person, it is dangerous and explosive. It is only somehow in letting that power flow out of us into others as a life-giving force given with generosity and even abandon that it doesn’t start to destroy us or emerge as something unhealthy, as some physical, emotional, financial, political, or spiritual problem.

“Die for me? What kind of love is that?” the incredulous Giorgio asks Fosca at the moment of one of her self-revelatory confessions. And honestly, I wondered that myself. It didn’t seem like a particularly generous act from someone who didn’t seem that attached to life anyway. But it might have been all she had at the moment. I was forced to remember the commandment to “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” and to love oneself is to want to live, to preserve one’s life at every reasonable (at least) cost. To offer that kind of love to another, to put the life of another before your own, is the right thing to do, even if the motivation is off the mark or made askew by mental debilitation or physical disease. No love is perfect, we never go into any of this completely selflessly, fully conscious of all the repercussions of our actions. The expression of this kind of love is necessary for the lover but it still takes us aback when we treasure our own life above everything else, including that of the one who speaks it to us. But love almost always eventually leads to some mention of death. Or to some rejection of death, as in “my love for you is undying.” Well, good luck with that one. It makes me think of words I recently read that were recorded by theologian and story-teller John Shea, who remembered a grieving young widow telling him, as I recall it, “No one told me that every marriage ends in divorce or death.” 

Of course, there are those archaic words from the wedding vows, “’til death do us part,” which have been bawdlerized into “as long as I live” or “all the days of my life.” I can’t even tell you how many brides reject this reading or that song because of words like those of Ruth’s song, “wherever you die, I shall die,” because “they’re too depressing,” or “what does that have to do with love?” Well,  I guess I might have been there at one time or another, but I think I’ve always been too morose to imagine myself as being made immortal by love. By baptism, by God’s love, yes, I can assent to that through faith. But not by my own passion.

Well, that’s enough of all that. Now I want to go rent Elvira Madigan again - I don’t think I’ve seen it in 20 years. And I don’t want, in the least, ever to rent The Passion of the Christ, because appears to be a big self-indulgent sadistic libertarian lie. To each his own, I guess. I prefer a Christ who wanted to live, who had a passion for people, for the empire of God, and who only chose to die when living itself would become a betrayal of his passion for Life. Or, put another way, when it became clear that not even death could stand in the way of God’s passion for him. All that life and passion was meant for all of us, and it’s not enlightened by the language of gore and pain. That’s all I have to say about that, because I’m not going to watch the movie just so I can review it fairly. I have my standards, low as they may be.

And to bring this strange patchwork of love and death, passion and murder to a close, one more (closing) speech from Woody Allen’s almost insanely funny Love and Death (and there’s more here):

The question is have I learned anything about life. Only that human being are divided into mind and body. The mind embraces all the nobler aspirations, like poetry and philosophy, but the body has all the fun. The important thing, I think, is not to be bitter... if it turns out that there IS a God, I don't think that He's evil. I think that the worst you can say about Him is that basically He's an underachiever. After all, there are worse things in life than death. If you've ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know what I'm talking about. The key is, to not think of death as an end, but as more of a very effective way to cut down on your expenses. Regarding love, heh, what can you say? It's not the quantity of your sexual relations that counts. It's the quality. On the other hand if the quantity drops below once every eight months, I would definitely look into. Well, that's about it for me folks. Goodbye. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"Loving you is not a choice"

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?”

 Robert Browning

Portrait of my brain: yesterday at the movies ("Gravity" — see it in 3D and at the theater, or don't waste your time!) there was an advertisement for a filmed performance of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along to be shown on the big screen in a couple of weeks around the country, which got me remembering that it was about this time of year 5-6 years ago that Terry and I went to see a performance of Sondheim's Passion at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. 

Stephen Sondheim seems to enjoy delivering his truth in dark, even menacing vehicles. The texts of his songs layer irony upon irony, using and reusing images and lines, twisting them through the maneuvers of plot and character development, putting them on the lips of different singers, until his argument is inside out and our initial reaction to his thought is overturned. Add to this the not-quite-lyrical roller coaster that is his music, often layered among several characters or groups of characters, complex melodies and dissonances that vex aficionados of the Webber-Disney branch of the genre, and you have a formula for commercial disaster. Fortunately, the very name “Sondheim” on a show means that a large number of theatergoers will give it the benefit of the doubt, and occasionally, as with the preview we saw of the ill-fated Road Show, nèe Wise Guys, nèe Gold!, nèe Bounce, which disappeared in New York after playing a few tune-up runs in theaters in Chicago and Washington, DC, even the great one himself misses the mark by a few meters.

I think of the way Sondheim has always played around on the dark edges of relationships over time in shows like Follies, Company, and my personal favorite, A Little Night Music. He dealt with obsession and revenge in Sweeney Todd, fame and delusion in Assassins, and the compromises and obsessions, vision and blindness of the artist in Sunday in the Park with George. He explored the dark corners of myth and desire in the certifiably un-Disneylike fairy tale that was Into the Woods, coming soon to the big screen. Some of us, post-Sweeney Todd movie, are dubious. 

Passion is his 1994 work based on an Italian (of course) movie called Passione d’amore. I have loved the score since I first heard it—much of what is his vision in this show can be distilled just from the score, but not all. We also saw it a few years ago in the middle of the Sondheim 75th birthday celebration that went on for five years at Ravinia, a stirring version that featured Audra McDonald in the role of Clara, Patti Lupone as Fosca, and Michael Cerveris as Giorgio. What was missing, I think, was the drama that depends upon the judgments that a viewer is making while seeing the action unfold before our eyes. We are being judged, no, judging ourselves, on what the meaning of beauty is to us, what love means, and how those things are related in our understanding. It is in this area that the performance we saw at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, in the sixth floor “little theater,” excelled and exposed both the genius and failure of the creators. Not a failure of vision, I would say, but a failure in the sense described by Browning - that the vision exceeded the grasp, and plunged as we might have been into the mystery of love and beauty (and therefore of the infinite and what is common to all people, and even of God), the condensing of time and emotion was ultimately unable to convince. That having been said, the glimpse this show provides into the depths of eros and philia and the school that they provide into the world of agape love is breathtaking. I certainly came away from the show with the sense that we have wrestled with angels, even if the angels, as usual, won.

Just to briefly synopsize the “plot,” if you’re not familiar with it: Giorgio is a handsome, brave, and thoughtful young soldier who is in love with the beautiful Clara. The two have a clandestine love affair that seems to have both a past and a future, though Clara is married and has a young son. When Giorgio is suddenly posted some distance away, the two are separated for long periods of time, but communicate via almost daily letters, which make up a good deal of the show’s musical subtext, as the letters exchanged by the main characters are often written/read/sung over actions involving other characters, exposing conflicts and deepening meaning. In his new post, Giorgio meets the sickly and very plain cousin of his commanding officer, a woman named Fosca. She is drawn to him and, while he finds her neediness off-putting, his sense of duty leads him to try to be whatever comfort he can be to her as a companion. Fosca, however, soon confesses her passion for Giorgio, and he feels the needs to separate himself from her by spending more time on maneuvers with his men. As the story develops, her health starts to fail because of his inattention, and the doctor unwisely arranges for him to come to her, because he feels his presence and a few kind words will be restorative. His presence has the desired effect, but also restores her insatiable need. Somehow her persistence starts to work on him; ultimately he gives Clara up, drawn to flame of Fosca’s completely unconditional love. There are tragic consequences for nearly everyone. Fosca dies, Giorgio must duel with her cousin, whom he grievously but not mortally wounds, and Giorgio himself is driven to the brink of madness by his choices.

As an idea, the play between Clara’s sensual beauty (in the opening scene, Clara and Giorgio are nude and making love as the lights come up, and it’s hard to shake that image as you negotiate their correspondence) and Fosca’s homely, drawn infirmity as subjects of love and rivals for Giorgio’s affection works really well. Even in the realm of music, where one can forge one’s own reality within the realm of imagination, one can soften Fosca’s sharp angularity and pass quicker judgment on Clara’s duplicity. But in the theater, especially in such a small theater, there is no hiding from the awful truth of what we see, and it is not Clara’s duplicity or Fosca’s neediness that is so exposed, but our own. We really can’t find a reason to sympathize much with Fosca outside of her ideas and her love as so monumentally expressed by Sondheim’s seductive poetry. This is where I think the musical as art might crack apart - or maybe it was I that was cracking apart. I believed in Fosca, but I could not want her. She still seemed like, well, a stalker, though one who thought all the right things and sang them in a way that made me weep. While Giorgio’s transformation isn’t convincing, what he sings shows us he is convinced:
No one has ever loved me

As deeply as you.

No one has truly shown me

What love could be like until now:

Not pretty or safe or easy

But more than I ever knew.

Love within reason -

That isn't love.

And I've learned that from you...

When all is said and done, I’m sitting here wondering: when did what appeared to be obsession become love? What made Giorgio change his mind? Was he sick, or damaged, or drawn in by the mysterious depth’s of Fosca’s passion? Was it the passage of time? Was being away from Clara for long periods of time, and closer to Fosca, the thing that changed him? Was Fosca’s confession of her willingness to die for him, to put his good completely ahead of hers, the news that turned the tide for him? I confess that the answer to all that wasn’t clear to me, though I further confess that from that first scene on it was hard not to be rooting for Clara, whose passion was also clear, though her limits of her ability to love was clearly delineated along lines of what seemed possible to her within the world of her son and husband. 

Confounding as it is, and artfully, wonderfully, as much as it makes us ask these questions about ourselves and our situation in life, this was a great way to spend a couple of hours in the theater. As a church musician, it was good to hear a “secular” artist (if there is such a thing) struggling with what the meaning of love and beauty is with such insight and discipline. Also, as a church musician, I was moved that the show ended in such a diminuendo, as though confronted by and reverencing the very mystery it was unable to contain, as the cast sings a gentle ostinato or canon on the words, “Your love will live in me,” over and over, the way we try to do in church when we’re trying to get inside of a biblical or liturgical text. 

Ultimately both satisfying and confounding, Passion is the work of a musical and theatrical master in his twilight years but still at the height of his dramatic power, wrestling with the same questions with which he dealt 40 years ago, but now with the wisdom of his lifetime folded into the mix. Reaching into the abyss of love and life, this great dramaturge distills resonant truth and sings it out to us through the voices of madmen, cannibals, witches, and sometimes even clumsy lovers like ourselves, letting us wrestle with his angels and demons right along with him. Like love, it’s probably not ultimately the destination by which the artist’s journey is judged, but by the route and our attention to it and reflection on its meaning as we go. It’s the reach, not the grasp, that makes Sondheim’s theater heaven.