Monday, December 21, 2009

Good book About the Art World

I'm reading a very interesting book: Seven Days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton. It caught my eye as I was in Barnes & Noble the other day and I'm glad I picked it up.

The author is a sociologist with a background in art history. She provides an intriguing inside look into the various subcultures that make up the "art world."

Here are a few quotes from her introduction:

The contemporary art world is a loose network of overlapping subcultures held together by a belief in art (p. xi).
[C]ontemporary art has become a kind of alternative religion for atheists (p. xiv).
Although the art world reveres the unconventional, it is rife with conformity (p. xv).

The art world is not a "system" or smooth-functioning machine but rather a conflicted cluster of subcultures--each of which embraces different definitions of art (p. xix).
 The second quote above is especially provocative. I suspect it is a fairly accurate observation.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Selfishness and True Charity are Mutually Exclusive

Is it truly Christian to do a good thing for someone else because I am secretly looking forward to some sort of personal reward from God?

When Christians talk about performing a charitable service in the context of encouraging others to join them they often say, as an enticement, something like, "and you get back so much more than you give." While this may be true, I do not like how common this emphasis has become.

Sometimes such an exhortation primarily emphasizes the benefits to the charitable giver and the benefits to those in need only secondarily. The benefits to others are merely an afterthought. It's as though the person trying to encourage charitable behavior were saying, "If you want lots of spiritual benefits to come into your life, do good things for others. God likes this and will reward you for it. Oh, and by the way, other people benefit also."

This is not an appropriate attitude for anyone who genuinely seeks to imitate Jesus Christ. He did not seem to be the sort of person who said to Himself, "If I do this good thing for this person, yes he will benefit, but I will also get a big reward as well, so I think I'll do it." No. This sort of attitude is selfish and therefore far from the mind of Christ.

When we engage in doing something charitable for others, seeking benefits for ourselves should never be our primary motivation. The fact that we might experience personal spiritual fruits in the course of doing good deeds ought not be the foremost thing in our minds. If it is, our motivation for doing the good work is tainted. We have turned it into an act of selfishness.

When we do good things for others, we should not be thinking of ourselves. Rather, we should be thinking of the other person(s), and how much they, as a child of God, are worthy of our love and sacrifice. Our interior attitude as we perform charitable works should be other-centered, not self-centered. I should not care whether I will benefit when I do a good deed; I should care entirely about the others I am helping and how I can be of service to them.

In some Christian circles it is an all-too-common phenomenon to be mainly interested in the blessings we receive ourselves when we do good deeds for others. This is a perversion of the Christian faith, and is certainly not the example set for us by Christ. If we have to be enticed into loving others by the carrot of receiving a personal reward of whatever form, we have not even begun to comprehend what it means to imitate Christ. We should love because every human being is worthy of nothing less, no matter what happens to ourselves in the process, no matter the personal cost.

We Americans seem to be big on seeking rewards. But staying at this level, that of expecting a reward for everything we do, is ultimately childish. There comes a time when we must put childish things behind us, begin living more as adults and stop looking for rewards; and instead, seek to learn from Jesus how we might give more and more of ourselves away for the benefit of others.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Yo-Yo Ma on Artistic Collaboration

I discovered an interesting set of podcasts. Sony Music has something they call, "Sony Masterworks Podcasts." Included in this is a section on the recordings of cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
And in this section is a podcast titled,
"Musical Friends, Trust, & Collaboration."

In this particular podcast, Yo-Yo Ma talks about what is needed for a good musical collaboration. I transcribed a section of this. I think these remarks apply not only for music, but for any artistic collaboration.

Preconditions for great musical collaboration. Of course there's no formula for chemistry. If there were, there would be great chemistry all the time. But if you had to put approximations of what might be good chemistry between people, I think good chemistry can only occur when two people are ready for it, when people are actually open to it. If one person is closed off, and the other person is willing, you can't have a great musical collaboration. So it's a timely thing, because not everybody is open all the time; and not everybody is closed all the time, hopefully. . . But, there are certain moments when people can be open to each other and to something maybe similar or different; like-minded people--they're searching. . . Once people are open there is the willingness to share what they know--the willingness to not just own and say, "This is mine, you can't play with my toys." But, rather, "This is my toy. And you can play with it. Try this." Or, "Try that. Take it into your room. See what it does in your room." Then, there has to be enough mutual respect from both people to say, "Look, I don't really love your toy but I really like you. So maybe I'll play with your toy and then I discover that your toy is really interesting." So, you have to have some predisposition for respect, that you are willing to take a certain risk. . . [A great collaboration] has to honor the fact that two people are willing to take a certain risk, to trust each other, to be vulnerable to the other person, to have enough respect for each other as well as for yourself that you can be vulnerable and not feel that you are making a fool of yourself. . . All of those preconditions I think are important. . . . I think trust is an essential element in collaboration. . . You have to be willing to jump and have the other person catch you.

So, as pointed out by Yo-Yo Ma, these are especially important themes for a fruitful artistic collaboration (these all apply mutually to the collaborators):
  • openness
  • willingness to share
  • respect (for yourself as well as for each other)
  • willingness to take risks
  • trust
  • vulnerability
[images from the Internet Cello Society photo archive]

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Wexford Carol; A Beautiful, Ancient Christmas Song Sung by Alison Krauss

Happy Advent to all! This is the first week of the Advent season--the season of waiting in quiet expectation for the coming of Jesus into the world.

I am not a fan of overdoing Christmas-themed celebrations before the actual day of Christmas. I think there is wisdom in following the Catholic Church's lead on this, of waiting for the big day and then celebrating for a period of days afterwords. Pre-Thanksgiving Christmas hoopla definitely strikes me as too early, and sadly, brought about primarily for commercial reasons, not reasons of faith.

But, making concession for reality, I want to post this video now instead of waiting for Christmas Day.

Here is a hauntingly beautiful Irish Christmas song, The Wexford Carol, in the style of a Celtic ballad, sung by Alison Krauss and accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma on Cello (Natalie MacMaster plays violin). It dates back to the 12th century.
[For the lyrics see here]

To hear Yo-Yo Ma comment on this song and Alison's singing, go to the podcast here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The "Suffering Artist" Idea Points to a Truth About Persons

Some artists, it seems, perhaps especially those who are young, have a tendency to wish for some sort of suffering to accompany their life as an artist. The idea of the "starving artist," enduring some sort of pain or inner turmoil (misunderstood, before his time, etc.) is a figure that holds a sort of romantic attraction. And perhaps it is not so much true suffering, but to be seen as suffering (for one's art), that holds an attraction for some artists.

Isolation of a sort goes along with this. The gifted artist lives in his own special world enduring a unique pain for the sake of his art. Or, at least, so goes this romanticized idea.

To the extent that some artists have a yearning for something like this (and I don't claim that many artists do; but, there is at least an image of the young artist in pop culture music and movies that inclines in this direction), their yearning is misguided. But is it completely so? Is the notion of the tormented artist (the more gifted, the more tormented) rooted in some sort of authentic truth about the human condition? I would say, yes.

Before expanding on this answer, first, I want to acknowledge that seeking after suffering for suffering's sake is wrong. Artificially bringing pain into one's life does not enhance one's humanity, but degrades it (and I am not referring here to the Christian understanding of voluntary penance, which is not the same as what I am referring to here). And this is where an artist who sabotages his life, somehow artificially adding to or bringing new sufferings into his life, goes seriously wrong. Nonetheless, his instinct is not entirely out of whack.

How so? The answer lies in a particularly Christian understanding of human suffering. Specifically, an understanding of suffering as found in the works of Max Scheler and John Paul II [and here I thank Peter Colosi and his article "John Paul II and Max Scheler on the Meaning of Suffering," published in the journal Logos, 12:3, summer 2009, for enlightening me about this.] In the experience of real suffering (note: not artificially enhanced suffering, but genuine suffering that comes into one's life independent from one's yearning), there is a potential (not necessarily always realized) for the heart to become bigger--for the spiritual center of the human person to become better able to enter into the heart of others who also suffer. In other words, the suffering person can, through his pain, become in turn a more compassionate human being in the way that he loves others. Peter Colosi put it this way, "the link between suffering and love is not merely that they can occur simultaneously, but that to an extent they depend on each other." (p. 21)

For a fuller explanation, please see Dr. Colosi's article. But for my purposes here I simply want to point out that there could be some glimmer of truth about persons hidden behind the twisted yearning that an artist might have for a life touched by suffering to the extent that he would go so far as to bring about circumstances that promise to enhance his suffering. Though he goes about it in a misguided way (i.e. by seeking suffering so that his suffering is in a sense artificial), such an artist intuits something true--that suffering (authentic suffering) has a mysterious potential to increase and enhance the powers of love in the human soul.

Why would an artist want this? Artists are about seeking a communion, a melding of hearts. They want their audience to be able to enter into their vision--to experience the world if only for a moment through their interior, spiritual eyes. They want to communicate something meaningful, something stirring, something worthwhile. And they know through a kind of intuition that somehow, suffering holds at least a mysterious potential to make them, as artists, better able to enter into what they seek to find and to communicate to other human hearts. A heart tempered by the flame of suffering is a heart that might have gained a greater vision into the the most gripping and poignant realities of life. And such a heart might then more effectively communicate and interpret these things to others through art.

Please note, I am in no way implying in this post that the greater the suffering, the greater the artist. It is not a quantitative, direct correlation. Every soul is unique. And again, I would stress that artificially creating suffering in one's life is not the way to achieve an enhanced spiritual vision. But, I do want to make an observation that perhaps the somewhat hidden desire for strife that some artists may have is connected to the truth observed by JPII and Scheler and brought to my awareness by Dr. Colosi, that unsought-for, genuine suffering, handled rightly and with the transforming balm of divine grace alive in the soul, can open up the heart to a deeper capacity to see, understand, and love other persons in all their human splendor. And this in turn can help artistically gifted persons become better artists as they become truer seers and deeper lovers of fellow human souls.

The path for Christian artists into this greater depth of vision and love is not by seeking pain as an end in itself, but through turning to the cross of Christ in the experience of whatever suffering comes into one's life, being open to and embracing grace in the midst of pain. Taking on the heart of Christ, uniting with Him on the cross, by His grace, in whatever crosses we are permitted to suffer--this is how our hearts are expanded and our spiritual vision deepened. And it is a mysterious intuition into this bittersweet reality which it seems to me lies behind any twisted desire of artists to artificially bring pain into their lives.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thoughts about music from conductors [5]

 Here is part 5 of a series [see part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here] drawing from Hilary Hahn's interviews with various conductors.

And continuing some exerpts from Hilary's very interesting interview with Grant Cooper:
HH: When you're working on a project, do you feel most connected to the orchestra, to the audience, or to the music?

GC: I think the most important thing for us as musicians is to remain focused on the music: if we're focused on the music, everything else flows. . . . Through music, one does feel really connected to people. But in the moment of performing, the best moments for me are when I'm connected to the music. The music connects me to the orchestra, and their sounds in turn connect to the audience.

A few comments:

1. Note, Cooper did not say that the important thing is to remain focused on oneself; the important thing is to remain focused on the music (the art). I point this out because I suspect it is a prevalent problem today that many artists immerse themselves in excessive self-absorption during the creative process.

2. Cooper, furthermore, by stressing that the artist place the focus on the artwork itself, is not implying that the audience should be ignored in the creative process. Indeed, he has the audience in mind. But the way in which he feels connected to the audience is through his personal immersion into the art itself. This, as well, suggests that Cooper is of the notion that there is something real in a great work of art that is under the surface, beneath the externally sensible form. There is some kind of hidden anchor tied to and leading from the music, fixed in the cosmos of meaning. If there were nothing more to a piece of music than what you hear in-the-moment, there would be nothing substantial enough to serve as a medium through which to experience a deep connection with other musicians and to the audience. Only something with some stable link to humanly significant truth about life and existence could be capable of grounding this connection among persons.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thoughts about music from conductors [4]

Continuing with the general theme of art and artistic creation, this is part 4 of a series [see part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here] drawing from Hilary Hahn's interviews with various conductors.

Here is another excerpt from Hilary's interview with Grant Cooper.

HH: What benefits did you glean from studying classical music?

GC: First of all, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the genius of the great masters of composition; for me, that is a window into a greater reverence for human capacity and spirituality. . . .

The most beneficial thing for me about what music taught me is that it's ok to abandon scientific methods, that science is not the only way to approach music and life in general.

When you play a wind instrument or sing, everything is covered up, all of your technique is hidden inside the body. You may think you understand what you're doing, but then, when you change one variable and that sets off a chain of reactions, you realize you're in a science experiment from hell. Music taught me to let my body find its own way, to allow Zen-like enlightenment and experience to take place - learning to "let" it happen, rather than "make" it happen. I should say that music itself didn't teach me that; the process of becoming a musician did.

It's revelatory to realize as a musician that, from the 20th century onwards, we've tended to become really ingrained in the scientific viewpoint, to lose sight of how the Mozarts and Beethovens viewed this world. We tend to be overly reverent of absolute notation as we see it in the score. When you consider it, each marking in a score can mean a whole range of things, depending on its musical context. Take the whole idea of music responding to the text of an opera: a Mozart opera is the most glorious example. His marking of a simple forte or piano could mean completely different things depending on the text being sung. Mozart's music demands that we think of a forte, for example, in many ways - a "yearning" forte, a "defiant" forte, a "loving" forte. Yet, to some modern musicians, those markings are scientific; forte means loud and piano means soft. One has to open one's mind to the realization that absolute, defined concepts are not the answer to musical problems.

A few points I would draw from the above:

1. Reverence for the masters of the past. One need not try to copy them, but it is appropriate and highly formative as an artist to learn all that you can from the greatest artists who have lived.

2. Great art provides a window into the human soul. It gives form to the spiritual dignity and nobility of the human person.

3. Artistry involves different powers of the human person than are involved with the empirical sciences (though I do not claim they are entirely different). While art can be studied in a scientific fashion, producing art is not a scientific (in the modern sense) endeavor. There are powers of understanding, of spiritual perception, of intuition, of empathy, that are somehow different from what is entailed in empirical scientific undertakings. [Although it should be said that some aspects of modern science--conceiving of possible new discoveries and intuitions leading to new theories--do have similarities to creating art.]

4. For persons with artistic talent there are aspects of developing their talent that they do not fully understand in the sense of being able to rationally explain in an exhaustive way how they create and perform as a musician. They are able to practice fruitfully and grow in the virtues of musicianship even though the rational part of their mind is not able to completely translate this process into a thorough explanation in words. They become better musicians primarily by engaging in the act of playing music and secondarily by thinking systematically about music. Thinking in an orderly fashion about one's art is certainly helpful and important to being a well-rounded artist, but there is no replacement for the human act of music-making. Without huge amounts of dedicated practice one might become a scholar of music (or, say, an art historian), but could never become an accomplished musician. For this you must practice your craft with a critical ear.

5. Music, as all art, is a deeply human endeavor. And as such, great art, while accessible and meaningful and not trying to be self-enclosed for its own sake, does have an element of mystery. This is because it is human. Poor art can be obscure because it is self-enclosed. Great art is not obscure, rather, it taps into a cosmos of meaning that is inexhaustible. Great art pulls at the heart with meanings too deep for words--a level of communication that is ineffable even as it is deeply real and human. It is full of meaning, understandable, and yet also touching mysteries just beyond the illuminating rays of the mind's eye. This has something to do with why, as Cooper says, "absolute, defined concepts are not the answer to musical problems." This is not to imply that art should be seen as completely irrational or enigmatic--no. Rather, it is something like recognizing that the deepest meaning of a poem cannot be found simply by knowing the rules of grammar (though this may be helpful). It is like realizing that the character of a living person cannot be captured completely by any created form, though one might capture various glimpses.

Manly sports: Timbersports

In the category of things masculine is competition timbersports. Each year (starting five years ago) Stihl (a company that makes chainsaws and other wood harvesting tools) sponsors a world championships of Timbersports. It features five events. My late uncle Donald was a logger, and my father (who grew up in NY City) spent time with him as a young man learning how to use a chainsaw, tractor, etc. in the woods of northern NY. There is something that seems authentically rural, as well as masculine, about being able to handle a chainsaw, ax, woodsplitter, etc. I am decent at handling a chainsaw myself, though am no where near as proficient as the men in the video below!

Here is an interesting intro video about Timbersports. There just seems to be something refreshingly wholesome about this sport in these days of political correctness and the seemingly increasing wimpification of men in general.

And here is a second video showing collegiate competition.

The Zombification of our Youth: TV and Kids

I just ran across this appalling information in a Washington Times article: American children ages 2 to 5 watch an average of 32 hours of television every week. Thirty two hours per week!!! That's preschoolers. Wow.
According to the report, television-watching is at an eight-year high with children ages 2 to 5 leading the way, closely followed by children ages 6 to 11, who watch an average of 28 hours a week. [See full article here]
We are turning our young children into mindless zombies. We are making them less human by stunting the development of one of the most noble and precious assets of the human person--the mind. There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction with flesh-and-blood human beings.

No wonder it seems to me that young Americans are less and less capable of comprehending and making a sustained argument about something. They have been habituated to have a sound-bite-only mode of mental operation. TV can be entertaining and informative. But this absurd amount of vegetation in front of the tube no doubt eventually establishes a pattern of thinking into a person that does not know how to go deeper than a typical 30 minute TV program, which is very shallow and superficial indeed. Lord help us.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Men and Faith

Dawn Eden, over at Headline Bistro, wrote an article, "Love and War," in which she interviews Fr. Angelo Mary Geiger, FI, about the idea of Marian Chivalry.

It raises the topic of men and how they can grow closer to Christ in a way that is appropriately suited to and harmonious with our natural, God-given inclinations as men to serve and protect others. There is a problem sometimes with how men perceive the Christian spiritual life. It can sometimes seem as though church is a place for women. How do men fit in? How can they pursue having a healthy masculinity while being a serious Christian at the same time? This is one of the challenges facing contemporary Catholic parish life. And, I think especially so in regard to single young adult men.

An excerpt from Dawn's article:
 “At the heart of anyone’s standing in the spiritual life is interior union with God,” Father Geiger told me. While the Church sees the bride’s union with the Heavenly Bridegroom as a key analogy for this union, Father Geiger stresses that “men must translate their interior life into a plan of action if they are to maintain their spiritual life.”

Such action is necessary because “men are hardwired to take risks. They must face their fears, confront evil and defend the weak. Otherwise, they either naturally lose interest in the spiritual life or unnaturally consent to be emasculated.”
And later, also quoting Fr. Geiger,
“It is the man’s fundamental role to protect and defend, to put himself between his bride and the serpent. Adam, the first man, failed in this regard. Christ, the New Man, succeeded. A man’s love for God and neighbor will always be defined in this way." [full article here]
Indeed, as men, we need to seek opportunities to put ourselves between our "bride" and the serpent, whether that bride be a human spouse or the Church. And we need to take (reasonable) risks sometimes as we do so. Without these things, as Fr. Geiger suggests, the flame of enthusiasm for the life of faith can grow cold in our hearts. I think, for men, this is as understandable as the knowing smile on our lips when we see a little boy energetically brandishing a play sword, eager for imaginary combat. May we learn more effectively how, as Catholic men, to live a life wherein we can grow both in authentic masculinity and in Christian faith. And grow in such a way that each augments and enhances the other without any discord between them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Vigil of All Saints at the Dominican House of Studies

On the evening of October 31, I had the pleasure of attending the 2009 Vigil of All Saints at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, with a few friends from the West Chester area. On this annual event the Dominican House chapel is packed to capacity with young adults and religious from other communities in the area. It is a special service derived from the ancient Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. It includes selected readings from, or about, several Saints, Dominican chant, a sermon preached by a student brother relating to the lives of the Saints, and closes with a candlelight procession inside the cloister hallways while chanting the Litany of the Saints. A light reception follows. [For more info, including an audio of the sermon preached by Br. Jordan Joseph Schmidt, O.P., see the Dominican vocation web site here]

Here is a short video giving some highlights of the evening, accompanied by the Dominican brothers chanting in the background. The Dominican friars web site includes this in its introduction to the video:
This year, the Vigil of All Saints was a beautiful celebration of the Church’s witness throughout the ages. Dominicans friars throughout the country hosted their own vigils from the Dominican Studentate of the Western Province in Oakland, CA (where the All Saints Vigil Originated) to the Aquinas Center at Dartmouth College to the Church of St. Mary in New Haven, CT right here to the Dominican House of Studies in Washington. Moreover, the All Saints Vigil has started to spread elsewhere. A[t] least two convents of the Little Sisters of the Poor are offering it for their residents. And even students in Gaming, Austria have started it this year.

Attending this Vigil is a wonderfully Catholic thing to do. I greatly appreciated, as well, the opportunity to spend a little time with several of my former classmates and brothers who are now outstanding young Dominican priests.

Isolation and Today's Culture

Here is an example of the sort of simply delivered wisdom for which Fr. Groeschel is known. He makes a point that I think is very relevant for the lives of many single adults.

Tribute to a Great Priest

Here is a nicely done video tribute to Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, for his 50th anniversary as a Catholic priest.

In a time when there are men who give in to temptations to use others for their own self-centered ambitions, it is inspiring to be reminded that there are also men who give of themselves selflessly for the sake of others.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Growth in Supernatural Virtue Involves a Close Harmony Between Nature and Grace

[Update: for a related post, see here]

Here is another topic on which I commented over at The Linde (see this post). It pertains to the big and very significant issue of the relationship between nature and grace. And this issue is a very important backbone to any discussion of how we should understand the virtues, natural and supernatural.

From the point of view of a Catholic understanding of the world, natural and supernatural virtue are closely related and yet very different. Natural virtues can be developed with merely ordinary natural human powers and abilities (e.g. courage, patience, generosity, friendliness). Supernatural virtues have a supernatural goal and can only be developed with the assistance of divine grace (e.g. charity, fortitude, chastity).

* * *

There is a close relationship between natural and supernatural virtues and between the growth of natural and supernatural virtues.

As I studied virtue (natural and supernatural) at the Dominican House in moral theology classes, one of the things that was very intriguing and clarifying to me was learning something about how St. Thomas understands the relationship between these two basic categories of virtue.

An overly simplistic view (and not correct according to St. Thomas)—one that I think is often a default sort of understanding for many Catholics—is that natural virtue gets you to a certain point. Then, supernatural virtue takes over and from that point on it is supernature “building” upon nature (i.e. “grace building upon nature”). Sort of like laying bricks to construct a wall. The first ten rows, say, are brown, and represent natural virtue. Then, rows 11 and higher are red, and represent supernatural virtue. The latter continues building upward, taking up where the other left off. Or, like a relay race where one racer (natural virtue) hands off the baton to the next racer (supernatural virtue). The transition from one to the other is such that there is a clean demarcation line in between—a nice, neat borderline between them. One shifts to the other in a way that you can point to it and say, “there is where one ended and the other began.”

Wrong—according to Aquinas. This is not how it really works. Grace comes in and infuses, permeates, transforms, what is already there in natural virtue. They continue on together, intertwined and enmeshed one into the other. One Dominican professor liked to use the analogy of food coloring. You have a container of water. Then you add a single drop of coloring (i.e. grace). The water does not become something else. Yet, it is permeated throughout by the color as it spreads through all the water in the container. However, when you look at it, you cannot observe a clean demarcation or break between the water (i.e. nature) and the coloring (i.e. grace). They are completely intermingled once the grace has been introduced and just a little bit of stirring taken place. Now, the grace might be a little or a lot (or gradually more over time). But the point is that the nature and the grace are very closely allied to each other and ought not be thought of in a compartmentalized way.

The amount of water might be analogous to the amount of natural virtue. The natural and supernatural virtue are closely related, while still being of a totally different nature—yet not clearly distinguishable once they have been brought together.

An example. Let’s take courage (as the natural virtue) and fortitude (as its supernatural complement). Using the water image, say a person has built up one gallon’s worth of courage. Then, he converts, is baptized and becomes a practicing Christian. He now has one gallon of an intimately close mix of courage but now infused with a new color it did not have before—the color of fortitude. The amount of natural virtue effects the operation of the supernatural. The supernatural is not caused by the natural, but it is enabled to work upon a broader field by the larger presence of the natural. If there were one-half gallon of natural courage to start, there would be one-half gallon of fortitude-infused courage after grace came in. Likewise, if there were two gallons at first, and so forth.

The water cannot make itself red. That must be supplied into it from without. But, the more water there is in the pot, the more of it there is to become the new color red when the color is added. And similarly as virtue is increased. A person in grace grows in natural and supernatural virtue in a such a way that they both grow in an intertwined fashion, each being like a stepping stone for the other (but without the natural ever being the origin of the supernatural).

So, it is not accurate to say grace “builds” on nature as though one stops at a certain point and then the other begins. Rather, grace infuses (transforms) nature thoroughly without destroying it or covering it over. (You can still see through colored water; but you see through it in a new way). The nature persists and the amount and character of it remain essential to the way in which the infused, new supernature can be enacted.

Life's Purpose: Where Do We Find a Shared Vision? A Secular vs. Faith Approach

 I would like to reproduce here some thoughts I initially put down in the comments section over at The Linde (see this post), the blog of The Personalist Project. This pertains to the subject of what is needed for a human culture to be truly human. How do we keep society from degenerating in a downward spiral? Is there a difference between secular humanism and faith-inspired personalism? These thoughts relate closely to my previous post about the myth of utopia.

* * *

Human beings need to understand our common human purpose from a source higher than ourselves. We need our true end to be revealed to us from above. This begins with pre-Christian religious sensibilities and conscience (placed in our nature by God) and culminates in Christ. Without this, we only have our independent, human and worldly ideas about the purpose of human life. Without a source greater than ourselves we are left with a struggle for power as the only way to ultimately settle the problem of which ideas about life should be placed above others.

And again, it could be said this way: there is no “ought” without an “is.” In other words, if we do not have a shared understanding of our own human nature (which comes from God whether we explicitly acknowledge this or not), we cannot come to a peaceable agreement on how we ought to live. And this lack of some minimum shared vision of our nature necessarily devolves into a struggle for power. For unless we have a common “is” we have no rational means by which to unite in common moral obligations.

It goes perhaps without saying that having a shared vision about the purpose and nature of human life does not require explicit faith. It does require good will and openness to what life teaches and openness to one’s conscience and to the innate religiosity within us.

But of course, the highest possible perfection of human society in this world could only happen after the revelation of Christ and the new availability of the New Covenant graces which were unleashed into the world by His passion and resurrection.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Myth of Utopia

I want to comment on a topic that is one of those issues that often declares its presence in the back of my mind. It is something I see as a critical factor underlying many of the social-political problems of contemporary western society. I tend to see traces of it everywhere. If any of us were asked, "What's wrong with the world?" there are probably three or four key themes that we would each gravitate toward. This is one of those for me.

It is the myth of utopia. Utopia is the ideal of a perfect world--a world without war or strife, a world in which everyone gets along nicely and all have what they need for a happy life.

There are two fundamental approaches to this idea. The first is the mindset that thinks a utopia is attainable if only we could find the right social system and the right people to run this system. The second mindset accepts the reality that a utopia is not attainable in this life and yet believes real progress in human society can always be made.

I am firmly of the second mindset. And as I get a little older and a bit more experienced in life, I observe that people of the first mindset are more likely (though I don't claim exclusively) to be those who have lost faith in God. People of the second approach are more likely to be people who have held on to a real faith.

Why the difference? A great deal could be said about this. In fact writing about this profound difference goes back at least to St. Augustine's great work, City of God. I will only attempt here a meager beginning.

Original sin. A classic Christian understanding of mankind knows that man is born with the stain of original sin. This view realizes that man, though not totally corrupted by sin, nonetheless is deeply wounded in his soul and because of this is not capable of acting in this world with perfect motives. Man cannot save himself from sin, and anything he does, no matter how hard he tries, will be tainted in some way by sin and imperfection. An inevitable consequence of this in the political realm is a realistic understanding that a perfect system of governance cannot be achieved in this life, no more than sin can be wiped out in this life.

I acknowledge that those who think a perfectly just social order is possible in this world do not use the term "utopia." But, I still claim that they really do, in practice, hold that it is attainable. They are forever acting surprised at corruption, injustice, dishonesty, and incompetence in others even as they are largely blind to these things in themselves.

What is the alternative to this implicit utopianism (which I think afflicts many on the politically hard left)? Should practicing Christians throw up their hands and say, "to heck with it!" because social perfection is impossible? Do we retreat to our homes and churches and pretty much leave the outside world alone? Some devout Christians do just this. But this is a serious mistake. And as I understand it, this has never been the attitude of Catholicism.

Why does Catholicism proclaim that quietism is wrong--that radical isolation from and lack of involvement with the world (apart from a monastic calling which is a particular detachment that is not without care for the world, but rather a separation from the world for the sake of spiritually benefiting the world) is not appropriate? In a word, the answer is grace! This is the key.

Serious Christians ought not despair about the world. Even though we know a utopia cannot be had--that hoping for such is a dangerous dream and a fantasy--we do know that grace is active. And because of this we know confidently, by faith and by experience of the Christian life, that human beings can truly be transformed for the better when we welcome and cooperate with the healing, elevating waters of grace.

And so here is the mindset of a properly aware Christian. It is the attitude upon which the culture of Christendom sprouted and grew. We look to the future with a balanced, hardened realism. On the one hand, we do not embrace naively idealistic political visions, imagining a social order of perfect peace and harmony could be realized if only we figured out how to structure society the right way. Nor do we indulge in a fantasy about finding and attaching ourselves to one special genius who would show us the way. On the other hand, we do not pull back in hopeless despair, washing our hands of the mess of today's political storms. Why? Because we know by faith, by the experience of our walk with Christ, and by the example of the Saints, that mankind can be transformed. We can, with God's help, overcome our demons. We can serve and love our neighbor. We can imitate Christ. We can be the Good Samaritan. Are we ever perfect? No. But, can we always become more loving, more like Christ? Yes! Even when we fall, grace is there to pick us up and help us start again on the path to wholeness.

We should look at society as a whole in a way similar to how we see ourselves as individuals being transformed by grace. It is a process. There are setbacks, even tragedies. But so long as we do not reject God, do not give up hope, and keep our eyes fixed on Christ, we can continue to be transformed. So too, society. There will be no perfection of the social order in this world. But there is always the possibility of genuine improvement. Though we cannot attain the social ideal we can always move closer to it, just as there is always the possibility of growth in sanctity for the individual person. And so we regard political leaders and political plans with a healthy awareness of the real condition of the human person--fallen, yet redeemed; tainted, yet transformed by grace. We are works in progress. And we never lose sight that two outcomes are possible--two extremes--sainthood, or depravity. The best leader can still fail and let us down. And the roughest slouch can rise to a greatness unforeseen.

So, two views of the world. Utopia as possible, or modest progress as possible. "Progress," not meaning something that will reach its zenith in this world but that will culminate ultimately in the life to come. Perhaps these two views boil down to this: Do we see this world as the sole endpoint of the human spirit's deepest hopes and aspirations? Or do we see this life as a preparation, a training ground, the antechamber, to that truly perfect society of unimaginable joy and vigor and peace which is life with God--heaven? One view, ignoring the full reality of the human person as fallen and then redeemed by grace, ironically leads to an endless struggle for power. The other at least makes possible an imperfect, though improving, society in which persons under grace may strive toward ever greater human flourishing until such time as this world ends and the next begins.

[For more on a related issue, see my post about the Catholic teaching on concupiscence.]

Friday, October 9, 2009

Steeler's Troy Polamalu on Christian faith

Here is a neat video of NFL football player Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers giving a testimony about his faith. Well said. If only there were more examples like this among professional athletes! I love how his first comment in this clip is about serving his wife. Serving with passion is a theme of these remarks.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

St. Therese of Lisieux

Today is the Feast St. Therese of Lisieux (also known as The Little Flower) on the Catholic liturgical calendar. Happy Feast!

I want to mention this wonderful Saint and Doctor of the Church for a virtue I haven't heard referred to her very often: meekness. Perhaps this is because her humility is so radiant we don't stop to consider this other virtue which was so closely allied to her humility.

Meekness is, I think, a virtue which in our times is especially overlooked, misunderstood, and undervalued.

Indeed, St. Therese, whose spiritual life is called, "the little way," was blessedly humble. But she was also marvelously meek. (This word is so misunderstood I still find resistance within myself to using it as a positive attribution, even though I know it is a great virtue). Perhaps, if this can be said, if the other virtues aside from humility were ranked according to how humble they seem, meekness would be at the top.

I'm not sure how closely this corresponds with more expansive and precise definitions of meekness, but the way I think about it, meekness is that virtue which enables a person to absorb any sort of personal assault, offense, or irritation--no matter how big or small--without lashing back in any way that would contravene Christian charity. To be able to immediately respond to personal offense or annoyance with love, with no bitterness in one's heart, is the height of meekness.

Here's where people get confused. Meekness is not equivalent to becoming a door mat. Meekness is not being a wimp. Jesus, the most meek of all ever to walk this earth, was no wimp; nor was he a door mat. When I think of our Lord's meekness I see Him nailed on the cross, in the midst of great suffering, saying "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." The pinnacle of fortitude is perfectly compatible with the pinnacle of meekness.

It seems to me the Little Flower is a beautiful example of meekness because in many and various ways during her days in the convent, she absorbed small hurts, annoyances, and irritations without responding in an unkind way. When faced with small crosses she became so successful at transforming temptations toward frustration or anger into spiritual acts of penance and love that her sisters in the convent did not know what her dislikes were, whether food, chores, or particular personalities. But she was meek not only in small, but also in great ways. When she became ill with tuberculosis (which ended up killing her) and was suffering pain and had bouts of coughing, she did not reveal outwardly that she was in pain. So much was this the case that some of her sisters (that is, until Therese became so ill she would collapse) thought she may have been faking her illness.

Now, it is not a great thing to react once or twice to small annoyances with calmness and equanimity. But to do this without fail--especially when one lives in an enclosed community and sees the same faces every day--and to do this consistently for love of one's sisters and for Christ--this is truly heroic.

May we all strive toward authentic Christian meekness, that meekness so powerful it can absorb the nails of the cross without malice.

If you want to learn more about her spirituality, I Believe in Love, is an excellent book that does a good job of helping you enter into her Little Way. (And of course her duly famous spiritual memoir is Story of a Soul.)

Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, pray for us!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Song of Songs, 7 [on spousal love]

[To see all of the earlier posts and this one gathered together in this my sporadic running commentary on the Song of Songs, look to the sidebar on the right under, "Labels," and click on Song of Songs.]

Chapter 1, v 13-14

The maiden is still speaking. These two verses go with verse 12.

As an aside, I would like to note that ancient cultures made extensive use of tangible, concrete things from the natural world as symbols and metaphors for higher things (with some exception for Greek culture, whose abstract philosophical language was remarkable for its being outside the norm). The Song of Songs uses metaphorical language abundantly. (Our language does this as well, but to a lesser extent. We make more use of abstract, theoretical, philosophical terms.)

In verse 13 she speaks of myrrh--an ancient and valuable ingredient in perfumes and incense. In ancient cultures, myrrh was both very valuable in itself, and, valued for its scent (cf. Gen 43:11, Ps 45:8).

And so the maiden uses metaphorical language to speak of her bridegroom as myrrh--myrrh lying between her breasts. [Please note: this is Sacred Scripture, so any temptations a contemporary reader might have to perceive this kind of language in an objectifying, reductionistic, shallow, pornographic sense, ought not allow himself to go down such a path. Any erotic language in the Song of Songs must be seen as fully in harmony with the dignity of the human person and the nobility and beauty of romantic love--a love in kinship with all that upbuilds and supports a mutually reverent and respectful relationship between man and woman--a love that would never abuse another in any way.]

So, notice that she is using something to symbolize her bridegroom that provides a pleasing physical reaction (from the scent) and is highly prized. Its location provides an obvious connotation of sexual attraction. However, notice also that there is no hint of the sort of physical attraction that might be dominating. The myrrh lays in place. She is aware of it and may be reminded of her bridegroom at any time; however, while its effects may be strong it will not overpower her. A further symbolic consequence, no less important, of the myrrh's location is that it is near her heart. Her bridegroom is always near her heart. The heart is the figurative center of the person; it is where the deepest wellsprings of the self are found.

The next verse, 14, nicely confirms this chaste, pure yet passionate vision of love. Here a metaphor for her bridegroom is used that doesn't seem to have such a direct sexual connotation--henna blossoms among the vines (vineyards) of En-Gedi. Henna flowers (photo here) are clustered like lilacs and are very fragrant. They grow in dryer climates. And according to this source, henna plants were used as a protective hedge around ancient vineyards. So, there is a suggestion of protection and safety (enabling grapes to grow and later be turned into wine), as well as the powerfully pleasing factor of its strong scent. Also, there is an idea suggested by the term En-Gedi of something fruitful and rich amidst a surrounding area of barrenness, for the En-Gedi is an ancient oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea. Here there is a spring of fresh water making possible the growth of palms and other plants amidst surroundings otherwise too dry for such greenery. This, too, suggests protection as well as providing something vital for the full flourishing of life. This kind of protection does not constrict her in the least; rather, it enables her to blossom.

And so the bridegroom is pleasing to the maiden, like a strong perfume in her nostrils. He arouses desire in her and she values him greatly. She keeps him near her heart. She sees him as a protector whose protection will help her to bring forth the rich wine she is meant to produce in her life. To her he is like the most powerfully noticeable and "fragrant" thing in the center of a great oasis. As one emerges from the dessert and approaches this oasis, when the henna is in blossom, perhaps the first thing to catch one's notice is the scent its flowers.

Such is merely a partial portrayal of the character of the maiden's love for her bridegroom.

[Photo of EinGedi garden by Ester Inbar, available from]

Sexual Purity

For anyone interested in the subject of purity (that is, spiritual purity--purity of heart), I heartily recommend this blog post by Fr. Angelo Geiger, FI, on his blog MaryVictrix. (The theme of his blog is "Marian chivalry for the modern world.")

In his post, Fr. Geiger delves into the meaning and purpose of shame in light of the important work on this subject found in the writings of Dietrich Von Hildebrand and John Paul II.

The issues touched upon include that there are different types of shame (e.g. negative and positive shame), the difference between prudery and shame, and the fact that human sexuality has by its very nature an element of mystery built into it. Human sexuality, properly understood, is sublime. And the ways in which we can hurt each other sexually, as well as honor each other, are many and various. Holy shyness (a result of a deep reverence for the profundity of the human person) is a lovely and noble thing. Unlike mere prudishness, it protects and safeguards the beauty and mystery and secret intimacy of a healthy sexual relationship between men and women.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Song of Songs, 6 [on spousal love]

[To see all of the earlier posts and this one gathered together in this my sporadic running commentary on the Song of Songs, look to the sidebar on the right under, "Labels," and click on Song of Songs.]

It's about time I continued commenting on the Song of Songs. So here goes.

Chapter 1, v 12

Here begins a section spanning verses 1:12--2:7 of short alternating statements of praise given first by one and then the other, the maiden and the bridegroom, for each other. It's a kind of alternating duet. This, after they have just finished uttering separate proclamations, the maiden first and then the bridegroom. This is perhaps slightly similar to the form of a contemporary love song duet that begins with one verse sung by one lover followed by the second verse by the other, and then a chorus where they come together and go back-and-forth singing single phrases in alternation with each other.

In verses 12-14 the maiden is speaking of her bridegroom. Verse 12 is perhaps suggestive that the bridegroom, though he has a homestead, lacks something. He may rest in his own room yet he does not have a wife with whom he might share his home. The contrast between the first and second half of verse 12 seems to resonate with this subtle tension. It is a tension meant to be resolved.

The man is content to a certain degree, but restless, for he senses the allure of the maiden--her "nard" calls to him. He cannot help but be aware of his desire for her. It is interesting that it is the maiden speaking here. This reveals that she is quite aware of her powers of attraction and their effects upon her bridegroom. The maiden's "nard" (which seems to symbolize the combined totality of all her womanly allure) is used with an active verb--it yields/gives forth its perfume. Thus, her beauty in all its various shades actively calls out to her lover. The maiden's beauty is like perfume that radiates out from its source--on an active mission--it seeks out and interrupts the awareness of the otherwise contented bridegroom; content, that is, until the perfume of her beauty reaches his heart and gains a firm place in his mind.

I would also suggest that the maiden does not have to try for this to happen. Her beauty calls out to him without her doing anything in particular. Her nard is active on its own and needs little extra help from her. Perfume, when the top is off the bottle, needs no help finding nostrils. It does so by its own powers.

Somehow, the maiden is aware that the entire bouquet of her particular womanly charms is meant for a particular man--her bridegroom. It is to him that the scent of her nard calls. It is this man and not any other, as he rests in his house, whose heart and mind are stirred inexorably in a special way by desire for her. Other women are attractive, but this woman's beauty speaks to him in a unique way, unlike any other. In the quiet of his abode he is aware of her presence, even when she is not physically near.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ray Charles, "Oh What a Beautiful Morning"

More Ray Charles!

Here is an incredibly awesome performance of Ray doing his special jazz version of this classic American song from the Musical, Oklahoma, on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show (and Carson's Tonight Show Band was always a really great band). If you like big band jazz at all, you will love this! It's amazing what he does with this song. I can't imagine anyone else but him singing it like this. One of a kind.

It has a slow intro and then starts swingin' at 2:00.

I love how he puts his entire body into the music! And you can tell it's sincere. He can't help but almost jump out of his skin in his genuine enthusiasm for the music. It's as though every cell of his body is totally absorbed into the soul of the song. Just awesome!!!

This is a good example of great art coming out of a close familiarity with the past. Ray took something older and very familiar to American culture, mixed it up with something a little more recent, and in the mix made it very much his own. And though it is very different from the original, it still has a recognizable trace of its original form. This is one of the reasons the final result is so pleasing. It is old and new and unique and (slightly) familiar all at the same time. It takes real artistic genius to pull this off so well.

Update: If you are a fan of Ray Charles, you will be interested in this. There is a new video podcast series, "Ray Charles, Genius," on Ray and his music available on YouTube. I especially enjoyed the following two episodes: Playing with Ray Charles, and The Real Ray Charles, According to Mike Post. If you are a music lover there is some great behind-the-scenes information in these episodes.

I also especially enjoyed one particular clip from a series of video interviews with Ray made by the National Visionary Leadership Project. Go to this web page, and play the episode, "My First Piano Lessons." (You will need the ability to play wmv files; Windows Media Player or RealPlayer will both work). In this clip Ray talks about his very first experience of the piano when he was only four, via a local boogie-woogie piano player whose music captivated him. It's pretty neat. At the end of the clip he makes this insightful remark, "[music] was just something that was in me, that I just had to be a part of it."

This remark fits nicely with the following idea which I believe is true: great artists have a sense that somehow in the creative process they are tapping into something beyond themselves. The spirit of the artistic impulse is both inside and outside them. When they are engaged in their art, they are not acting completely alone--they are not an isolated island. Somehow, as they create or perform, they are also mysteriously connected to a spiritual reality that informs the artistic process. Note, Ray did not say he had to create music out of nothing as though it were a solitary endeavor; rather, he said he "just had to be a part of it." It, was an already existing reality to which he wanted to become more consciously attuned and connected.

And if you liked that one, the clip, "Hearing my first arrangement," is also quite fun and charming. He describes how thrilling it was for him the first time, still a boy, that he heard musicians play an arrangement of music he had written.

Ray Charles

Another musician whose music I love is the late Ray Charles. There was an incredible ebullience underlying his performances. Soulfulness, joyfulness, mischievousness, intensity, liveliness, quiet passion, are things that come to my mind when I think of Ray Charles' performances.

This is quite fun. Here is a video of Charles appearing on Sesame Street singing the alphabet song to a jazzy shuffle beat with some kids gathered around.

Sadly, he is an example of an artist whose personal life was in some ways not the most admirable. Again, we are confronted with the complexity and fallenness of human life.

I saw him perform live around 2001 or so and it was amazing the incredible zeal, the charisma, and the high performance energy that he still possessed in his 70's!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Krauss and Plant on artistic collaboration

Here is an interesting and kind of fun clip of iconic musicians Alison Krauss and Robert Plant (renowned bluegrass/country, and rock musicians, respectively) in a backstage interview at the 2009 Grammy awards. They collaborated on the 2007 duet album, Raising Sand; it won an impressive five Grammys, including album of the year.

The part I find most intriguing begins at 0:35 in the clip. Robert Plant describes how in making this album he and Alison both intentionally stepped back from their usual roles while doing their own solo projects wherein they are in control and instead let someone else (producer T Bone Burnett) direct the creative process. They did this for the sake of the music. This is a nice example of established artists, who certainly bring longstanding habits and strong views of their own to a project, realizing that they each need to embrace a certain sort of humility in collaboration so that the music can be the focus and not so much themselves.

Here is how Plant put it:
We both removed our own producer hats that we have in our own worlds and gave them to T Bone Burnett [the album's producer] and so we were in a place that was quite magical; it was like a really, a new world for both of us.

I would say this illustrates another principle that is important when artists work together on a joint project: each collaborator must place his (or her) own ego aside and be willing to accept direction and ideas from others for the sake of the overall project. Each one gives generously for the sake of a shared artistic vision which, while not the sole possession of any single contributor, belongs to the group as a whole. The final artistic product benefits greatly from this sort of humility.

Lastest ultrasound technology reveals life in the womb; saves lives

Below is a short video clip from a show produced by National Geographic. It talks about ultrasound imaging of babies in the womb.

Ultrasound technology has made incredible progress in recent years. The newest type of ultrasound imaging is "4D." This type produces moving 3D images of unborn children.

If you would like to donate money in a way that will make a big difference in saving the lives of unborn human beings, one of the best things you could do is to find a pregnancy resource center that does not have an ultrasound machine and that wants to begin using one but doesn't have the financial resources to make the purchase. Help them buy an ultrasound machine (or, help a PRC that has an older, 2D ultrasound to purchase a newer, 3D machine). You will be helping to save lives in a very direct way.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Thoughts about music from conductors [3]

This is part 3 of the series I began here with part 1 and here with part 2 . . . .

A third conductor Hilary Hahn interviewed was Grant Cooper. She asked him,

HH: What kept you with it?

GC: I think that comes back to communication. I really find that we musicians communicate on so many different levels (one-on-one, in larger ensembles with other musicians, with the public, etc.) and in so many different ways: unspoken, mysteriously even, and through shared experiences.

Two points to be drawn from this:

1. There are at least three different levels of communication that a musician might experience while performing. First, if there are only two musicians, communicating with only one other artist. Second, if there are more than two musicians, communicating with a collective of other artists (which is different than interacting with only one). And third, communicating with the audience. Each level of communication goes in both directions. Note, only two of these levels may take place simultaneously (for the first and second cannot happen together by definition).

2. There are a variety of ways in which interactions among fellow performers and between performers and audience happen. Many are non-verbal, mysterious, spiritual, subtle and yet powerful, deeply human, almost telepathic. It is almost as though one were wordlessly passing momentary impressions and emotions back-and-forth to each other, one heart directly to another. As the feeling is passed and becomes shared it gains additional qualities. A poignant and deeply human moment is first privately alive in one's self, then comes to life among a communion of persons. These "moments" happen briefly, like a succession of waves rushing upon a beach. Some are small and delicate, others large and strong. And when things are going especially well and the muse of music visits, there is a sense within those who are most plugged-in to the shared experience that they are somehow, both "in time" and "beyond time."

I think it may be the case that the above points apply more to music than to other art forms. For music, uniquely, is a living art form. It moves dynamically through time, even though it can be represented statically in the form of ink on paper. Music is not fully itself unless being performed. And as it is performed, it is alive. Like a human life, it cannot be captured in or reduced to a single point in time.

By sharing the reality of a musical performance we are given a means to experience communion with each other in a way that is both meaningful and unique; and hopefully it may also be revelatory, insight-bestowing, and wisdom-enriching--in a word, humanizing.

[For more on similar themes see my comments and the videos of Hilary Hahn in two earlier posts here and here.]

Thursday, September 24, 2009

British writer suggests topic for Holy Father on visit to Britain

The online version of the British publication, The Telegraph, today published a post in its blog section, "The Pope Should Talk About Sex When He Comes to Britain," by David Lindsay.

Apparently, the Holy Father is scheduled to make a trip to the UK next year. This is historic, as it will be only the second visit by a Pope to Britain since Henry VIII split with the Church in the 16th century. John Paul II made a pastoral visit in 1982. Though he was warmly received, JPII's visit was not by official invitation of the British government. This upcoming visit by Benedict XVI is in response to an official invitation given by Gordon Brown.

Linday's post includes the following sobering information:

He will, after all, be visiting a country where condoms are practically thrown at children. Yet sexually transmitted infections are at epidemic levels among teenagers and twentysomethings. One woman in three will have an abortion at some point in her fertile life. No one really knows how many underage pregnancies there are, because abortions on underage girls are frequently recorded as other things, if at all, in order to distort the figures. Hardcore pornography is everywhere. Lap-dancing clubs, unknown here (except perhaps in Soho, I don’t know) even only ten years ago, are now all over the place. [read the whole post here]

As bad as we may think things are here in the United States, unfortunately, things seem to be worse in the UK. I would attribute this at least in part to the state of the Christian faith. The British public seems to be less religious as a whole than the American public. Although, interestingly, I understand that among British Christians who attend Church regularly Catholics have become the largest segment to be found in the pews.

A serious and wholehearted embrace of Christianity provides protection against a gradual slide into moral depravity. Without a lasting resurgence of Christian faith Western nations will continue an ever-worsening decline into cultural and moral decay, with aimlessness and violence an inevitable result. We are in a bad way. But hope is not lost. For Britain, as for us, with Christ all things are possible.

Thoughts about music from conductors [2]

This is part 2 of the series I began here with part 1. . . .

Christian Gansch is another conductor Hilary Hahn interviewed. She asked him,

Q: A very compelling aspect of your profession?

A: Music is both an intellectual and an emotional pursuit, for some people even a fulfillment of a basic human need. It's wonderful to have the opportunity to conduct orchestras and be part of that musical experience – but even if I didn't conduct, I'd still study scores (Beethoven, Bruckner, Ravel, Debussy, or Strauss, or Prokofiev, for example). Music is healing, and it illustrates the soul as if in a mirror of compassionate objectivity. [emphasis mine]

A couple points I would draw from this:

1. Music (and any artistic endeavor) at its best involves more than one part of the human person; it stirs up a complex symphony of intellect, will, and emotion--of head, heart, and guts--of reason, desire, and passion.

2. Great art helps reflect the human soul back to itself--for artist and audience both. Part of the task of becoming more human is to understand the human condition more keenly. For this, one needs to be able to establish a certain distance between the immediacy of one's own most powerful experiences, and reason. In other words, we have to step back a bit from ourselves in order to assess ourselves calmly within our own minds. This might be called "compassionate objectivity." Great art can provide us a privileged view, through the lens of compassionate objectivity, into the deeper mysteries of the human condition.

It seems to me that Christian Gansch's answer supports my thoughts about the importance of an artist not being completely self-absorbed during the creative process. For while an artist immersed only in himself may be engaged in a journey of self-understanding (although I am skeptical of this; I would suggest he cannot do this authentically without conscious reference to the world beyond himself), it is likely that he will have erected a barrier for his art ever to be able to serve as a meaningful catalyst of a similar journey for other people. The language spoken by artist and audience has to have something in common if they are to come together through art in a shared quest for deeper insight.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thoughts about music from conductors [1]

I think I will make this a series. . . Violinist Hilary Hahn thought it would be interesting to do some interviews where instead of her being the interviewee, she would ask other music professionals questions about music. Available at her official web site are the transcripts from these interviews (there are five total as of this posting).

I would like to give a few selected excerpts from these interviews as they contain some interesting thoughts about music. And I think they also may be applied more broadly to any form of art. They help to shed further light on that wonderful aspect of being human which is our propensity for artistic creativity.

Here is an excerpt from an interview Hilary did with conductor Bramwell Tovey. Hilary is the questioner:

Q: Classical music in schools – what difference does it make, and why is it important?

A: [. . .] An education without a significant musical component is not a proper education. Music is a language and understanding something of it as a performer or listener is an important part of a well educated mind. The musical philosophies of Beethoven and Mahler are easily appreciated as life enhancing. In the case of Shostakovich, who for some reason still baffles some listeners, he heroically articulated the despair of the human condition under the nose of Stalin at a time when his compatriots were being imprisoned in the gulag. An understanding of the language of classical music is part of understanding our civilization [. . .]

And so, Tovey holds that having a serious exposure to the tradition of classical music that has come before our time is a life-enriching experience. It helps make us more human. His comment about Shostakovich acknowledges how art can reflect elements of an artist's society in a powerful way. It also illuminates the fact that learning about the history and cultural context of the times in which an artist lived is a great help in being able to more deeply receive and appreciate his art.

A few key points might be teased out, reflecting on and embellishing the above:

1. Music (and art more broadly) is an important component of the formation of an educated person. Art provides something to the human soul that is unique. Other kinds of human endeavors cannot replace the special contribution that art makes to a flourishing, well-rounded human life.

2. Being able to appreciate great art in all its depth and profundity requires some education about art. This is not to say that art cannot be enjoyed deeply without this, for it certainly can. But, to gain the most that one possibly might from great art requires at least some amount of artistic education in particular. As Tovey put it, certain types of art speak a kind of "language." Knowing something about this language adds to the ability of a receiver of art to receive in more abundance what a work of art has to give.

3. Part of the education necessary to fully benefit from the work of a particular artist is to learn about the life history of the artist, the history of his society and about the contemporary culture in which he lived.

4. A major facet of Western civilization is its artistic patrimony. If we are to understand our own civilization and its place in the world we must know something about the history, purposes, and special qualities of its great art.

I'll close with another question Hilary asked of Bramwell Tovey,

Q: A very compelling aspect of your profession?
A: The fact that every day of my life I am dealing in some of the greatest creations of the human mind.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Cistercian monks on video

Here is a short (7 min) video about life at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank, located in Wisconsin. The PBS show, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, featured them on September 11.

They did a nice job giving a flavor for monastic life in the contemporary world. Do take a look if you are at all curious about monasticism and its valuable place in the world. We benefit much from the prayers and example of dedicated monks and nuns who pursue a special closeness to God for the sake of the Church and for the whole world.

[HT: New Liturgical Movement]

Saturday, September 19, 2009

An Affirmation: great art is inherently public and involves a community between artist and audience

A few days ago I listened to a podcast of a lecture delivered in June, 2009, by David M. Whalen, Professor of English at Hillsdale College, titled "Richard Weaver: The Language of Conservatism." [available in the online lecture library of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a valuable free resource]

I was pleasantly surprised to find in this lecture a strong affirmation of certain elements of my own thinking about the nature of art and the artistic process. I am referring here to my two earlier posts, Art is Inherently Public, and, Art Needs the Engagement of Artist and Audience Both.

In the former post I remarked that artists, if they are to create great art, should not engage in the creative process in an overly self-enclosed way, as though walled-off from the world beyond themselves. To quote myself, I wrote, "art is created for the sake of being seen (or heard) by someone." The artist must continue to care about the world of his audience even as he explores his own unique, inner vision.

In the latter post I commented that the audience as well must be open to the artist and what the artist is communicating through his art. I wrote, "And so the audience also has to engage. They have to be receptive, open, willing to work to discover what the art has to say."

I attempted to sum up these complementary ideas, saying, "considering the whole context in which art truly serves as art including the creation, presentation, and reception by an audience . . . art, when it is fruitful . . . when it succeeds as art-- is endowed with a concurring spirit of openness and receptivity . . . in both the artist and the audience."

So, with this brief review, let us turn to the above lecture by Professor Whalen. His talk used the thinking of 20th century intellectual Richard Weaver as a starting point, especially as found in Weaver's 1948 book, Ideas Have Consquences. Several minutes into the lecture Whalen addressed ideas pertaining to the creation and reception of art. He explained that Weaver had lamented how our modern, industrialized Western culture was becoming less and less civilized. I transcribed the following from Whalen's talk:

Central to [Richard Weaver’s] work and thought, is the argument that a late medieval rejection of transcendentals or universals renders the idea of knowing anything not immediately perceived by the senses impossible.

[. . .] This is part of the gradual orientation toward endless stimulation and the exaltation of the purely imminent. Sensation itself, it seems, has taken the place formerly held by reflection. In modern art, we see the confluence of this tyrannical egotism on the one hand, and the primacy of comfort and transitory, material, or sensual pleasure, on the other. The thesis that somewhere in the past few centuries all forms of art came to be understood as exalted self-expression is hardly novel or terribly controversial. . . . Bereft of ordering concepts that give definition to the human person and to the idea of communities, art is left to express the self in isolation. Ideals pertaining to heroism, or the family, or the city or community, the good life, or even ideals pertaining to artistic form, genre, or type, traditionally animate artistic production. Attenuated by modernity’s turn from abstract ideals these animating principles fade from view, leaving the artist stranded.

Of course, this can be felt as an intoxicating freedom at first . . . no longer does the individual with talent have to deal with tradition. But the absence of ideals is critically compounded in its effects by the simultaneous isolation of the artist. That is, a tradition also is a kind of community. . . Untune that string, and hark what discord follows. The artist is free to express himself, yes. But, he does so in a vacuum; he expresses himself, to himself. Not only ideals are absent, but so is an intelligible audience or community. No longer does Demoticus [sp?], Homer’s bard, sit at the feast and sing his epics to a wondering audience. He sits alone, instead, or perhaps before a lifeless microphone, and chants faint hymns to the cold, fruitless moon.

The egotism of this self-expression in isolation has a corollary at the other end, so-to-speak, of artistic production. How is art received? “Egotism,” says Weaver, “in work and art, is the flowering after long growth of a heresy of human destiny. The heresy . . . is that man’s destiny in the world is not to perfect himself, but to lean back in sensual enjoyment.” In other words, while the artist expresses himself to himself in isolation, the receiver of art, if I may say so, looks to amuse himself in isolation. . . . The essential observation is that what one does as a receiver of art [in contemporary society] is merely or purely sensual enjoyment rather than that same enjoyment in the course of participation in a public affirmation of a human ideal.

It seems to me that these remarks harmonize well with the ideas I put forth in my two blog posts about the artistic process. A pleasant affirmation!

And I would like to note that professor Whalen, via Weaver, explains why modern artists have tended to create art in an isolated, self-absorbed mode--and likewise why modern audiences have tended to look to art merely for an an experience of the imminent and for immediate pleasure. Sadly, our respect for the traditions and values of the past has diminished. The habit of self-reflection in light of perennial ideals has become devalued. The primacy of the immediate moment and the experience of pleasure has become dominant. This, for art, is a dual curse--to become detached from the values of one's culture while simultaneously becoming excessively preoccupied with self.

How can we contribute to establishing a culture that once again is capable of fostering and appreciating great art? Somehow, we need to relearn--reconnecting with our past, reaching out of ourselves toward others, and putting the merely pleasurable and immediate in its proper place--how to engage in art in a more fully and truly human mode. Connecting with transcendent reality is essential. This is a challenge which everyone, not only art producers, must strive to meet. If we make progress, perhaps once again we may be blessed by living in a community of persons in which the experience of art, for artists and audiences both, is a genuine "participation in a public affirmation of a human ideal."

Satriani on advisability of children entering too early into music business

Here is a short clip where Satch talks about children and the music business. He makes some great points. His remarks are as valid for children involved in any art form as they are for music in particular.

Here are a few points I think follow from and/or are very much in harmony with what Joe says in this clip:

1. Even though certain children may have great artistic talent, they should not enter the realm of the professional performer/musician until they are no longer children and have developed the minimum maturity necessary to handle the various difficult, harsh, even cruel at times realities of the professional music world.

2. The full range of talents and skills necessary to live successfully as a professional artist require more than artistic talent alone. One also needs savvy business skills, prudence about one's own career, and insight into human nature. It is important to have the spiritual maturity one needs to handle disappointments and criticism in healthy way.

3. Maturing young artists need guidance from wise elder practitioners of their art. This is highly preferable to going it alone. They may benefit greatly from the counsel of more experienced artists in both the development of their artistic talent and in many other areas in which they need to gain wisdom in order to navigate the professional art world.

4. Along with great talent, it is necessary for anyone aspiring to make a living as an artist that they have a deep and enduring love and passion for their art and for the creative process. The art itself should be the primary reward rather than expectations of financial success.

Joe demonstrates here an admirable concern for the souls of young musicians and not just a tunnel-visioned interest in their talent (as I suspect is the case with some involved in the arts). He cares for the whole person and makes these comments on that basis. This perspective should inform any experienced adult involved with guiding and encouraging young aspiring artists of any sort. Don't consider them only in regard to their particular talents as artists--rather, keep in mind the whole person and what is best for them as human beings from the big-picture point of view. Kudos to Satch for his example!

Monday, September 14, 2009

The ACORN scandal: Moral indifference has severe cultural consequences

The recent revelations about the apparently massively corrupt organization, ACORN, are rooted in attitudes that have long been promoted by certain key groups/segments of society which have a disproportionately large cultural influence in America.

The shocking undercover videos made by James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles reveal that, at least in the ACORN Housing offices of Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Brooklyn, NY, the idea that a house of child prostitution might move in to their neighborhood in the near future does not upset their employees. In fact, they had no problem advising two individuals posing as a pimp and a prostitute how to arrange their income so they could appear legitimate and get a loan for a house (in which to conduct child prostitution), how to avoid being caught by authorities (because it's illegal), and even such things as how to hide cash in a "tin" and bury it under the grass in the backyard so that other shady characters would not find it in case they came looking for it. Gosh, I wonder if they have thought of this sort of thing before? So much for the integrity of ACORN.

As I say, such attitudes have roots in ideas that have long been supported by a certain segment of very influential cultural elites. What ideas? Well, one of the most destructive of them goes like this:

There is no ultimate purpose for human life, and all ideas about morality, of right and wrong in human actions, are simply matters of discerning one's own already-given, interior feelings and dispositions. Right and wrong are simply what each person feels to be right and wrong for himself (herself). In other words, there are no universal standards of human morality, only personal, individual standards. And the only judgments any person can legitimately make about the morality of human acts are to judge his own actions. When it comes to the actions of other people, we cannot proclaim them right or wrong (good or evil), we can only help them discover whether their actions live up to their own unique personal moral code.

This is moral relativism, which leads inevitably to moral indifference toward everyone but oneself. In my experience, a sector of society with great cultural influence which holds such views is the educational establishment. I don't mean everyone involved with teaching, but I do mean especially those who are in highly respected positions of influence and leadership within the field of education--especially public education. I speak especially of those who educate the educators--writing curricula for teacher education--as well as those who set policy for public teacher's unions and those who have a big influence over textbooks. Most worrisome are those who are considered expert in teaching "sex education" (or "health"), social studies/history, and English.

I am personally convinced that for some decades, many (though not all) public schools have subtly (sometimes not-so-subtly) encouraged moral indifference in regard to a few key areas of human life. Think of the issue of homosexuality and the nature of marriage. How many students, by the time they graduate high school (and then college), have been influenced by what happens in the classroom to look upon an actively gay lifestyle, including same-sex-marriage, with indifference? The same goes for abortion and sexual activity by unmarried teens. If a student reacts negatively to such things it is suggested to him or her (and reinforced many times and many ways) that while it is fine for him personally to decide not to engage in such activity, he has no right--indeed it is grievously wrong--for him to try to convince (or even suggest to) anyone else that they too should not be doing those things.

When it comes to sexual behavior, kids are taught that it is bad to judge the morality of the (sexual) acts of other kids. They may only judge their own acts--whether they are being true to themselves or not (represented by the mindless notion of telling kids they should figure out if they are "ready" for sex). And what happens when adults begin to think this way, not only about other adults, but about children?

What does this have to do with the ACORN scandal? A lot. A great deal!

The ACORN workers in the videos nonchalantly advising a supposed pimp and prostitute about how to get money for a house the workers were told would be used for child prostitution are simply the inevitable consequence of this morally indifferent attitude. This is exactly what our most elite and influential professionals in the field of public education encourage. It is how our young people are taught to view the world. And those areas of our society, I suspect, where this morally bankrupt and putrid approach to life is most heavily pushed are in our poorest neighborhoods and schools. [Note: I would apply this primarily to secular public schools, less to private religious schools, though they are not immune.]

It follows. . . If one cannot say that it is wrong (note: not simply undesirable, but wrong) for two 14-year-olds to have sex with each other as long as they both consent (as many teacher educators would tell teachers), it is not much of a stretch from there to saying that it is OK for a 14-year-old and an adult to have sex, so long as the child "consents." If there were any ACORN workers in the above videos who had any reservations about child prostitution this attitude I describe would equip them to facilitate such activities without a bothered conscience. For they would see any personal reservations as merely personal--particular to themselves only--believing that they have no right to render any moral judgment upon others. "So long as the pimp and prostitute think it's fine and dandy, who am I to say otherwise???"

There are too many adults in our society who seem to hold similar notions (including many in journalism, entertainment, and the arts). Those among us who have a sane moral compass, knowing that there is indeed such a thing as a universal moral code and that a civil human society cannot survive long without recognizing this, have an obligation to act against the forces of moral indifference in our culture. The future of our nation depends on us.