Saturday, March 31, 2007

Christianity in a Box

A brief rant and apologia for my post tomorrow (on Palm Sunday) that will combine Scripture with a review of a ‘secular’ film. Sorry, no Saturday science post today; it will resume in two weeks.

I do not think there is such a thing as ‘secular art.’ There is art that uses recognized religious subjects and is destined for churches, chapels, and private shrines, and there is art that uses other subjects and is destined for concert halls and parlors. However the use is divided, this does not mean that art in the latter category is purely ‘secular’ in intent. Is there anything secular about “Contessa, perdono” in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, or some of Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic landscapes, or parts of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Terrence Malick’s take on the Battle of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line? ‘Secular’ subjects used to be featured alongside ‘religious’ subjects frequently: fieldworkers stood near prophets and saints in medieval cathedrals. There’s nothing non-religious about the ‘secular.’

Rather, the divide is between the sacred and profane in art (and I will not now delve into how/why this divide occurred - perhaps after Easter I will do so). The artist can use a religious subject (Berlioz’s use of Dies Irae in Symphonie Fantastique, Bacon’s Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ immediately come to mind) and be profane, and the artist can use a secular subject and aspire to the divine. The older dichotomy, Apollonian vs. Dionysian (before redefinition by Nietzsche) is also helpful. Does it appeal to the divine, or to sinful human appetites? And is art that portrays the sinful less ‘worthy’ of view by Christians because it is reflective of fallen humanity?

There are a group of Christians who want to be exposed to no art unless it is ‘religious’ art with blatant religious themes, or so watered down it is completely innocuous entertainment (art that cannot move someone is not art). Perhaps it is my bias as a systems neuroscientist and my knowledge that a human being is an organism run by neurons communicating with other neurons, that informs my belief that there is no such thing as a ‘religious’ theme. The story of humanity is the story of Christ’s life, from birth to Passion, death and resurrection. Human life is ALREADY a religious theme – it became so when God formed man in His Image and breathed life into him. There is no story, no aural journey, no pictorial that can be separated from Our Creator and Savior. “All things came to be through Him, and without Him nothing came to be” (John 1:3). Art, as a reflection of the aspirations of humanity, always has an attitude towards the Divine and can never be indifferent to God – even if it appears so, God has different ways of reckoning (Rev 3:15-16). I think those who want to place art into a secular category and therefore dismiss it are attempting to hide from humanity.

I’ve heard this argument used: by being exposed to only religious themes, one is seeking to form the conscience. One’s conscience has to be formed separate from humanity? One must be cut off from human life in order to be Christian? Does NOT seeing or hearing really protect one against temptation? The art isn’t the problem; the indulgence in sinful thoughts is. It is a different mission to enter the desert for discipline than it is to enter it to hide from Satan – Satan can find even Christ in the desert. (Those communities that seek to shut themselves off from the rest of the world, be they cults or the Amish, have frightening reports of sexual abuse, particularly of children; let’s not go into the various misdeeds that occur within religious communities.) The problem is not out there in the works that our neighbors produce; the problem is in here.

And yet it seems to me that some want Christianity in a box that they can polish like a pretty trinket and humanity in a squeaky-clean form, and anything less than those presentations of both is inherently bad. Well, fallen humanity is messy and dirty and in need of a Savior. And art, when it works, is the remembrance of Eden, the internal longing for a Savior, and the hope for the Age to Come. It speaks the words: this is how far we have fallen into iniquity, Christ come! or this is what Heaven may be like. We think, we feel, we yearn with our brothers and sisters for what God has in store for us. And in good art, those experiences are poured out for the rest of us to contemplate and be moved. Don’t run away from art, or avoid it because you think it will somehow taint you. As in all things, it is Christ in you that matters.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Faith in the Suburbs

I thought about giving this post the title of "Love in the Ruins," but decided that would be exaggeration to those not familiar with the novel, and I'm not reviewing it now. However, Walker Percy (1916-1990) did make his home in Covington, Louisiana, a town only a stone's throw away from where I lived from middle school to college. In suburbia.

To quote Percy's novel (1971): "Our Catholic church has split into three pieces: 1) the American Catholic Church whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois; 2) the Dutch schismatics who believe in relevance but not God; 3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go. "

How I hate the suburbs. There are too many whites (sorry, but for me it’s true). It’s so ridiculously superficially Protestant. And where it’s not Protestantism in the shallows, it’s completely God-less. And yet it still manages to be conformist. The religion practiced in the suburbs is consumerism. If you are able to buy the newest SUV model from the most popular line, it is because God is blessing you. If you lose your job, you’re a sinner and God is punishing you. Convenience is sacred. Living in the suburbs (and adolescence) drove me into Catholic apologetics. How else to deal with the horror of a belief that people who suffer are accursed by God? Or that people who are living in poverty are simply not working hard enough? That’s some cold re-tooled Protestantism at work, and I say that from knowledge that the people I have encountered who have most strictly held that view are also Evangelicals.

Ah, the Evangelical Protestants. The teenagers would “fellowship” during the week, throwing pizza parties, eating Doritos, reading some Bible verses, and singing some awful Praise and Worship songs. I hate pop-inspired Praise and Worship songs, as should anyone who has any aesthetical taste. It’s a sugary derivation of white rock from the 60’s and 70’s, and I also hate white rock. As I quoted Balanchine below, I don’t think this is the way to “find” God. This is the “Me and God, My Buddy and Me” crowd, and I don’t know what God that is. (Or maybe it’s because they would then get in their really nice cars and drive away – what? “God has rewarded me by giving me an expensive car from my parents!”)

At Texas A&M, the Evangelical groups got together and celebrated this thing called “Resurrection Week” during Holy Week. Is it crass to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord before Easter Sunday, and to do so during a solemn week for Catholics? Could it be inappropriate to have a barbecue on Good Friday?

I’m building my little black ball of hate, because it reminds me that it makes complete sense why so many cradle Catholics who care about their faith and are stuck growing up in suburbia take refuge in Patristic studies and Newman, Gregorian chant and the Council of Trent. There isn’t much that is magical or fantastical about the suburbs, and even the fairy tales are watered down nowadays. It’s hard to see God in all things when every thing looks the same anyway, and in any suburb in the country. At least a young Catholic can try to have a “life of the mind,” a shelter from the depressing environment around him or her.

But there is also the power of art, and those who live in the suburbs have more access to it (at least through purchasing power) than most. Balanchine, flaws and all, was viewed as a demi-God by people not only because he was an artistic genius but because he had a philosophy on life that depended on self-abnegation to a higher vision, continuously, in the present, NOW! The audience could believe in a Higher Power when watching/experiencing his ballets not because he used overtly Christian themes (he really didn’t), but because of Balanchine’s devotion to beauty and the mystery of individual longing. His work is a reminder that it is the person and the experience melded in this moment that matters, that a person committed to the present is a person who can show the truth that belongs to eternity, because God can be experienced in each moment of our lives. We worship the living God Who seeks to transform us in every moment, not the god who is our pal, or the god who wants us to sing praise songs to him twice a week and do whatever else we want the rest of the time. As A.V. likes to say in his frequent sermons, the problem is us.

I don’t have a solution that would create a thriving Catholicism in suburbia – there’s probably not meant to be one there, if Catholicism is meant to thrive anywhere other than in the souls of believers. Perhaps I’m suspicious of traditionalist Catholics for the same reason I was suspicious of my Evangelical classmates – their outward behavior emphasizes the externals. I can only do whatever it is I do, in this moment, now, and pray to God for it to be something.

Postscript: In Love in the Ruins there is a device called the Qualitative Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer that measures the fallenness of the human soul: it is "the first caliper of the soul and the first hope of bridging the dread chasm that has rent the soul of Western man ever since the famous mathematician Descartes ripped the body loose from mind and turned the very soul into a ghost that haunts his own house." It detects angelism and bestialism, and those who have a mixed angelism-bestialism strain are "ghosts with erections."

Mozart on Death

From The Letters of Mozart and his Family, ed Emily Anderson, 1985

I have now made a habit of being prepared in all affairs of life for the worst. As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling! And I thank God for graciously granting me the opportunity (you know what I mean) of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness. I never lie down at night without reflecting that, young as I am, I may not live to see another day. Yet no one of all my acquaintances could say that in company I am morose or disgruntled. For this blessing I daily thank my Creator and wish with all my heart that each one of my fellow-creatures could enjoy it.

W.A. Mozart to his father Leopold, 4 April 1787

Posthumous portrait of Mozart by Barbara Krafft (1819).

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fairy Tales and a Film Favorite

“Love can make man a beast. Love can beautify ugliness.”

The genesis of many of our popular Western European fairy tales is in the Middle Ages (the first written versions can usually be found in the Renaissance). The motifs of a young woman on a journey, step-parents who are neglectful or lustful, in-laws who are spiteful and vengeful, and dreamy Prince Charmings partly developed out of a time when young children often experienced the death of a parent and the guardianship of a step parent or other family members and of arranged marriages, a time when young girls could be sent far away from their homes, placed in the world of their future groom, and could only hope that he would love them enough to walk through fire and fight dragons and be so entranced by his bride’s charms that he would not abandon her (for war or other conquests). Dreams of true love and partnership in a world of chance and fortune. On another level, fairy tales appeal to our desire for the fantastical and supernatural in our world. If one is not too jaded, if one has the simplicity of a child, "once upon a time" becomes possible in the present.

Folklorists can characterize all fairy tales into several basic types and themes that recur across locations and cultures. I will not get into fairy tales, categories, and archetypes here; all I’ll say is that I once read a book of folk stories from Central European gypsies and it was fascinating how frequently the devil appeared in these stories to steal children and young women. Hmm.

[First rant: A relative did not want his children exposed to fairy tales, because of the ‘absence’ of God in them (and the magic and witches). Of course, almost all the characters in a good fairy tale are forced to make moral choices between good and evil. Passivity, in a fairy tale, will get you stuck in slumber for a hundred years or trapped in a tower. “Proper” moral choices are awarded with supernatural favors (be it through fairies or magical animals). This did not mean that it occurs in a ‘God-less world.’ Now if one wants to argue about tales that take place in a God-less world, one can look at the Harry Potter series.]

Children like real (play) terror; they like to be scared while in safe confines. Give me the old Disney movies, when the Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland, 1950) is so loony that there’s real bite in her “off with their heads!” – the incompetence of her silly card soldiers is the salvation of her prisoners - or the glimmeringly evil and vamping Wicked Queen in Snow White (1939). Maleficent (The Sleeping Beauty, 1959) generated nightmares for years – she just looked like pure evil even before turning into a fire-breathing dragon (insert my sister’s predictable comment: “It’s the ram’s horns! Gosh, you’re SO STUPID!”). She talked about the “powers of hell,” and to this day I can barely listen to Maleficent’s theme music even though in the original ballet it’s the music for the harmless pas de deux of Puss N’Boots and the White Cat and has no malevolent overtones.

Disney fairy tale films really lost their energy, however. In The Little Mermaid (1989), the story is re-imagined for our mermaid, Ariel, to survive and be reunited with the prince. Like Hans Christian Andersen, I much prefer – and did even then – our scantily clad swimmer with dreams of human love committing suicide in the end. A bit morbid perhaps, but it taught a vital 19th century social lesson about the importance of class distinction. Besides, I’m unsure what kind of positive message can be gleaned from the story of a creature who sells her soul (oops, her voice) to an enemy who wants to enslave her people in exchange for physical transformation, and ends up getting both her voice back and the cute boy in the end. Girls should do ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING for love: don’t stop at physical mutilation and cooperation in the subjugation of others when a dreamy prince is the end goal. There’s a reason why the original fairy tale ends the way it did.

[Second rant: Even as a 10-year-old, I recognized that The Little Mermaid and other Disney fairy tale fare were overt attempts of indoctrination into white patriarchy and the notion of ‘love’ as female submission, and I wasn’t buying it. In the Hughes Brothers’ American Pimp (1999), while the pimps are talking about physically and emotionally abusing their prostitutes, the women are expressing hopes that the pimp will fall in love with them and be with them forever. This notion of female romantic love, torn asunder from the social constructs that once necessitated it, now work their seductive and oppressive powers on women in a society divorced from a male obligation to women that used to be compulsory. Men always want it both ways. Down with matrimony!]

In Peau d’Ane (Donkey Skin, 1970) directed by Jacques Demy, a king (Jean Marais) decides he must marry his own daughter (Catherine Deneuve), for he has promised his now-deceased wife (and mother of that daughter) that he will marry the most beautiful woman in the kingdom (shades of St. Dymphna). The Princess is quite willing to go along with this: “All little girls, asked who they want to marry when they grow up, say 'I want to marry daddy.' “ The Princess is put on the correct moral path by her fairy godmother, who tells her to delay this fate by requesting dresses the color of the weather. And the dresses that the costume designer creates are really the only magical part of this fairy tale adaptation. The music by Michel Legrand is horrible, the supposedly surrealist artistic schemes are awful. But I may be allergic to Demy’s films, as I nearly prayed for deafness when watching The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). And BTW, Donkey Skin is a real fairy tale collected in Charles Perrault’s volume of fairy tales (1697). The donkey excretes gold and jewels for the kingdom before the Princess takes his hide (having requested it from her father) and then hides under it and flees the country, only to be found by a prince, and so on. I eagerly await Disney’s sanitized version of this one.

In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991), the beast is as cuddly as a teddy bear, the kind of sentient animal you can take to bed without fear of ravishment, and little girls I babysat for did. Unfortunately, the drama of the fairy tale is thrown off by both the Beast’s cuddliness (see below) and the sub-story of Belle’s desire for female empowerment (grrrl power), when all she can possibly become is lady of the manor. She is supposed to civilize the beast within a man so she can then be a loving wife to him, not conquer the world by being literate and well-read. But she’s reading nothing but stories about sword fights and princes, so she’s not even the latter.

Beauty and the Beast (first written down in the 18th century) is about woman’s attraction to male virility, Samson and Delilah redefined, from sexualized woman to male redemption through female beauty. The beast represents both what is untamed and what is highly potent. The story is the conquering of the adolescent girl’s fear of the wedding chamber – doing it at her father’s request and for the survival of the family - and her hopes to transform a prospective groom into faithful and loving partner. As with so many other fairy tales, it’s partly about sex. [Another example of the beauty and the beast tale on film is King Kong (1933); a work as different as Raging Bull (1980) also utilizes it.]

"There is no master here but you."

Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946) is the best fairy tale on film I have seen. With Henri Alekan as cinematographer, Christian Bérard as production “illustrator,” and Georges Auric as composer, not including the luminaries hanging around the set, it’s a major collaboration among prominent French artists of the first half of the 20th century. (There’s also an entire side-story of how difficult it was to make this film in post-War France.) Depending on one’s mood and experience, it’s a tale about personal transformation through beauty, the power of love and mercy, the thrall of sexual potency, the acceptance of death, or an S&M flick heavy on the subtlety. Is it Symbolist? Is it Freudian?

Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête is filled with double meanings. Beauty (Josette Day) lives with her sisters (two harpies who make her do all the housework), a ne’er do well brother, and an aging father. Her brother’s friend, Avenant (Jean Marais, who also plays the Beast and Prince Ardent), is in love with her but she rejects him because she must care for her family. Her father gets lost in the forest and finds himself at the Beast’s castle. His fatal error is to pick one of the roses in the beast’s garden, and so the story continues….

The first half-hour of the film comes straight out of a Vermeer exhibition. It is only once Beauty decides to spare her father’s life by mounting Magnificent, a huge white horse, and saying the magic words, “Go where I want to go. Go, go, go!” that the magic takes over. The scenes of her arrival in the castle, her movement in her slow motion and her steady glide through a corridor, are pure fantasy. Her door, her mirror, and other inanimate objects talk to her, and her bed cover invites her to enter – every little girl’s dream room, and every adult’s nightmare of being constantly watched. Real arms hold the candelabra, real faces are along the mantel, watching. The forest outside encroaches into her room, untamed nature waiting for both her dominance and her surrender. When she must leave him to see her dying father, she cries tears that turn into diamonds on her cheek, and her grand jewels turn to rope in the hands of her greedy sisters. She has become part of a different world, one of transformation.

The Beast (Jean Marais) is a predecessor of the Wolfman and Chewbacca, awkwardly wearing clothes meant for an 18th century lord. With fur smoking from the conquest of a kill, he asks Beauty not to look at him. She does so anyway, and her eyes have the same gleam as Deneuve’s housewife by night/masochistic prostitute by day character does in Buñuel’s Belle du Jour (1967) when looking into a keyhole, watching a fellow prostitute with her client, turning towards the camera to say “that’s disgusting!” and then going right back to voyeur behavior. She is attracted to that which repulses her. (It’s probably no coincidence that the room that holds the Beast’s earthly treasures is called “Diana’s Pavilion,” and anyone who enters without the golden key is killed.) Beauty redeems him through mercy and love and his own longing to be civilized through nothing more than the presence of her beauty. (There is an apocryphal story that Marlene Dietrich, when first watching the film, screamed “Give me back my Beast!” during the scene following transformation.)

And yet even the ending is open to several interpretations: Beauty admits to having loved her suitor Avenant, and the two lovers fly through the air and seem to ascentdto the kingdom of Prince Ardent. There are moments that look like Rubens’ Assumption of the Virgin (1626). Has this really been about Beauty’s acceptance of death, her conquering the fears of going into the unknown that exists beyond the grave? Is the rejected and suffering Beast a Christ figure? Cocteau’s film successfully operates on all these levels, with so much imagination and belief in magic added.

[Final note: Philip Glass wrote an opera to this film that is synched to the film track on the most recent DVD release of this film.]

Paintings are Edward Burne-Jones Sleeping Princess (1880) from Briar Rose, Gustave Moreau Orpheus (1865) and Odilon Redon Orpheus (1903); I don't like much of the artwork from fairy tales, so I've included Symbolist works instead. Some days the art I choose is directly related to the subject, sometimes not.

Faith according to Merton

It's a strange day when I drag out a quote from Thomas Merton:

Faith is primarily an intellectual assent. But if it were only that and nothing more, if it were only the “argument of what does not appear,” it would not be complete. It has to be something more than an assent of the mind. It is also a grasp, a contact, a communion of wills, “the substance of things hoped for.” By faith one not only assents to propositions revealed by God, one not only attains to truth in a way that intelligence and reason alone cannot do, but one assents to God Himself. One receives God. One says “yes” not merely to a statement about God, but to the Invisible, Infinite God Himself. One fully accepts the statement not only for its own content, but for the sake of Him Who made it.

Too often our notion of faith is falsified by our emphasis on the statements about God which faith believes, and by our forgetfulness of the fact that faith is a communion with God’s own light and truth. Actually, the statements, the propositions which faith accepts on the divine authority, are simply media through which one passes in order to reach the divine Truth. Faith terminates not in a statement, not in a formula of words, but in God.

If instead of resting in God by faith, we rest simply in the proposition or the formula, it is small wonder that faith does not lead to contemplation. On the contrary, it leads to anxious hair-splitting arguments, to controversy, to perplexity and ultimately to hatred and division.

The important of the formulas is not that they are ends in themselves, but that they are means through which God communicates His truth to us….They must not falsify God’s truth…But we must not be so obsessed with verbal correctness that we never go beyond the words to the ineffable reality which they attempt to convey.

Faith is not just conformity, it is life…Until a man yields himself to God in the consent of total belief, he must inevitably remain a stranger to himself, an exile from himself, because he is excluded from the most meaningful depths of his own being: those which remain obscure and unknown because they are too simple and too deep to be attained by reason. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 1961)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Balanchine as God and on God and religion

Martha Swope Photo, Balanchine with Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d'Amboise

From Toni Bentley’s Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal (1982):
A lover once said to me, “If I could have even half the power over you that this Balanchine has….” Most women have two important men in their lives – their father and their lover. We have three. Mr. Balanchine is our leader, our president, our mother, our father, our friend, our guide, our mentor, our destiny.

He knows all, sees all, and controls all – all of us – most often by saying very, very little. He seems to believe in self-discovery, and at times this is hell – when one knows that he knows but will not tell. Trusting him forces us to trust ourselves…His power over us is unique. I doubt any girl has passed through the world of NYCB without feeling the deep influence of Mr. B upon her and upon the course of her life. He has our admiration. He loves us all. He adores our beauty and extends it out of all conceivable proportion in his ballets. What more could a girl ask of a man than such an appreciation?

…Trying to come to terms with his enigma only enhances it in the end. He becomes more, not less. He doesn’t seem to lack anything human, spiritual, emotional, or practical.… His life is our example. With dancing, he is direct and simple. He wants to see the steps, the movement, each movement, with all the energy that exists – now, now, now! “What are you waiting for? What are you saving for? Now is all there is.” “You must practice being happy, as you must practice everything, and you will be.” “If you rehearse sloppy, you will dance sloppy. You rehearse how you will do it.” “Just do, dear, just do it. Don’t worry, just do.”

Balanchine (born Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg in 1904) was a life-long believer; he’d sometimes refer to his dancers as “angels,” for they were messengers of the divine. Although Russian Orthodox, he would also attend Catholic services at times and light candles in churches, and the attempted assassination of John Paul II briefly sent him into a rage: “How could they try to kill the Pope? Awful! The pope is like Christ on earth! I KNOW who did it – the communists!” His grandfather, Amiran Balanchivadze, was a priest who became a monk after the death of his wife, and eventually bishop of Kutaisi (after changing his name, Amiran – Georgian for Prometheus - to the more Christian-sounding Anton). His father, Meliton Antonovich, was a composer and musician who collected Georgian folk songs and sacred hymns (he was known as the Georgian Glinka). His uncle was the Archbishop of Tbilisi, and would give the young Georgi small objects to bless. Below are a few quotes from interviews (Balanchine hated writing, and would always claim to know ‘only a few words.')

"I was probably a lot influenced by the Church, or our [Orthodox] Church, the enormous cathedrals, and by our clergy, the way they were dressed, you know; and they also have a black clergy, those important ones that become patriarchs and wear black…So that also to me was God. Not that it’s “God Invisible.” I don’t know what that is. God is this wonderful dress you see. Even now, always, I have to say I couldn’t just think of God in some abstract way, to connect with Him just by spirit, by mind. You have to be really mystic to sit down and meditate, to worm down in yourself. But I can’t do that. As they say, my work is with what I see, with moving, with making ballets. So too with God – He is real, before me. Through Christ I know how God looks, I know His face, I know His beard, and I know how He’ll talk, and I know that in the end we’ll go to God. You see, that’s how I believe, and I believe so fantastic…" (4)
"You see, I got a message. Each one of us is here to serve on this earth. And probably I was sent here to see and to hear – that’s all I can do. I can’t see something that doesn’t exist. I don’t create or invent anything, I assemble. God already made everything – colors, flowers, language – and somehow there had to be a Mother. The more you choose, the more amazing everything is. But I can’t explain what I do.” (4)

“Look at Jesus Christ Superstar: People say it’s very good, they thing they get something from it, but they get nothing from it, it’s miserable. That’s no way to find God – going to sleep, having a drink.” (3)
(In response to Taper’s question of how often he reads the Bible) “Always. Slowly. It tells you everything, the wars, the prophecies. It’s very interesting, the Bible. It’s entertaining.” (3)
[On A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962)] “When Bottom the Weaver is transformed into an ass, he says: ‘The eye of man hath no heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report what my dream was.’ It sounds silly, but it’s full of double and triple meanings. And I think that at moments like this, Shakespeare was a Sufi. It reminds me of St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 2, 9]: ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.’ What Bottom says sounds as if the parts of the body were quarreling with each other. But it’s really as if he were somewhere in the Real World. He loses his man’s head and brain and experiences a revelation. And then what happens? Bottom wants to recite his dream, which ‘hath no bottom,’ to the Duke…but the Duke chases them away. And the really deep and important message was in that dream. At one point, when I was choreographing the ballet, I said to myself: In the last act, I’ll make a little entertainment and then a big vision of Mary standing on the moon, wrapped in the sun, with a crown of twelve stars on her head and a red dragon with seven heads and ten horns…the Revelation of St. John!...Then I thought that nobody would understand it, that people would think I was an idiot.” (4)
“For me Christmas was something extraordinary. Naturally, Christmas is no Easter. At Easter, the church bells pealed joyously throughout the night! Nothing is like Easter. But for Christmas St. Petersburg was all dark and somehow strange. It wasn’t the way it is now, with everyone shouting, running around panting as if it’s a fire instead of Christmas. Back in Petersburg there was a stillness, a waiting: Who’s being born? Christ is born! I’ve never seen a Christmas like we had in Petersburg anywhere else – not here in American nor in France. It’s hard for us old Petersburgers! I tried to get people in the Orthodox church in New York to take Christmas more solemnly, more seriously, with understanding. But nothing came of it. They get to church with their candles and it starts: ha-ha-ha, ho-ho-ho. Russian talk, gossip. It’s all wrong! In Petersburg they had the Christmas service at nearby St. Vladimir’s. And naturally in all the big cathedrals: at the Kazan, at St. Isaac’s. An unforgettable moment of mystery: when the candles were put out, the church was plunged into darkness, and the choir came in. They sang magnificently! In the Orthodox church, the service is a real theatrical production with processions and all that. The priests come out in pairs wearing velvet kamilavka on their heads, the deacons and altar boys in brocade vestments. And finally, chasuble glittering, the Metropolitan himself." (1)
“The Metropolitan came to their church on St. Catherine’s Day because the memory of St. Catherine the Great was revered in Russia. The liturgy made a wonderful impression on me when I was a child, too. The priests came out – all dressed opulently in gorgeous miters, looking just like saints. And the service itself is so touching and beautiful. The boys in the church choir sing so delicately, like angels. I always envied them. I wanted so badly to sing in a church choir…And then, after the revolution, when I was old enough, our school no longer had a church choir." (1)
[After hearing a description from Tchaikovsky’s letter to his brother Modest on church services: “I always come away with the impression of piety, splendor, and beauty. But unfortunately, every time the impression was marred by the extremely dragged-out nature of our service…there is much that is excessive, which lengthens the service with no need, wearying the most stubborn attention, cooling the most ardent feelings…”] “Of course, of course, it’s too long, too long! They wave and wave the censers. And read and read. And keep repeating the same things: “Let us pray unto the Lord” – “Lord have mercy” – “Let us pray unto the Lord” – “Lord have mercy.” The Easter service in the Orthodox Church is very long. We would be at St. Vladimir’s Church in Petersburg for four hours. I’d come at the very beginning with my aunt and mother, and we stood throughout the whole service on the stone floor. Four hours on a stone floor! (1)
“Tchaikovsky talks about preparing the chrism…[the rite of blessing the chrism] is a sacred mystery that recalls the Pentecost. We know that the Holy Spirit came down to the apostles, thereby creating the Church from them. Everyone who is christened is anointed by the chrism. It is a very important thing. And I can explain the plashchanitsa Tchaikovsky writes about, too. It’s also called Epiphatia, and it symbolizes the Body of Christ. It’s a cloth, velvet or of precious fabric, on which is depicted the body of Christ removed from the Cross. It is brought out from the altar into the middle of the church and set upon a pedestal covered with flowers. For us this symbolizes the removal of Christ from the Cross so that the people can worship Him. And naturally I remember the Vespers in St. Petersburg, the first day of Easter. At first everyone stands there, waiting. Then the priests come out slowly, the service begins. And then it gets merrier: the choir starts to sing, the altar attendants walk around. The choir sings, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” The Metropolitan blesses the people. In St. Vladimir’s in St. Petersburg, I remember, they opened up the altar. At Easter the opening of the altar is a miraculous event. Then the service is over, the doors of the altar are shut, and it grows dark.” (1)
“I do not see many people today who have real faith. Because it is very difficult. You must not only obey some rules, you must believe that the Son of God was born, suffered, and was resurrected. And believe that He rose to the Heavens. And will come a second time to earth. Religion is primarily faith, and people today are used to treating everything skeptically, mockingly. That cannot be. You can’t test faith.” (1)
“I’m sometimes asked, ‘How is it that you are a believer?’ You can’t come to faith suddenly, just out of the blue. You have to achieve faith from childhood, step-by-step. That’s how Tchaikovsky did it, that’s how Stravinsky did it. They read the Gospels from childhood, memorizing them. The words of the New Testament are rooted in all of us. We were all christened, anointed with miro, taken to church; we took Communion. You can’t plunge into faith, like diving into a swimming pool. You have to enter it gradually, like going into the ocean. You have to start doing it in early childhood.” (1)
“I am only a servant, that’s all. I am a waiter – for God. We are all servants of God, or destiny, whatever you wish to call it. I am not so proud, and I am not so great – I’m nothing but what He has wanted me to be. He has said to me, ‘You are going to teach and serve and make them dance,’ and I know that nothing anybody on earth could do could prevent me from doing what He wants me to do. And as soon as He says, ‘Fini. That’s enough for you,’ then I will go.” (2,3)

Quotes from:
1 Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky by Solomon Volkow (1985)
2 George Balanchine: Ballet Master (1988) by Richard Buckle & John Taras
3 Balanchine (1987) by Bernard Taper
4 Portrait of Mr. B (1984) by Ballet Society

Monday, March 26, 2007

Sweet Nothings...

Oh, the things men will admit to thinking...(and repeated here with permission.)

A.V. says to me (after a tirade against the Latin version of the Novus Ordo), "you know, people who go to the Novus Ordo Mass probably aren't all going to hell..."

I see why he needs to dedicate poems to me, hoping I can sneak him into heaven...I love him anyway.

Saying Your Prayers

I first learned of the Annunciation from “My Catholic Devotions,” a book that had pastel-colored pictures depicting the mysteries of the rosary. My mother let us look at the pictures while reciting our Hail Mary’s, so we memorized words and images.

I was compiling quotes from George Balanchine on religion and I realized how right he was about one thing: children have to learn faith when they’re young, or they will never have it. Adult converts can have something – a turning over of mind and heart to the Lord, but the natural belief in the supernatural, the nearness of transcendence, the ritual will always be somewhat off. Can adult converts really have the suspicions that children can: that dragonfly wings sound like what one’s guardian angel’s wings sound like, or that the movement of the wind was the Mother of the Lord sighing just for you to hear it, or that the sun beaming through the window was Christ Himself wishing you a personal Good Morning? Perhaps, but adults have to struggle against skepticism to believe in it; it all comes so naturally to children. This is where the importance of the example of St. Anne and St. Joachim comes in – could Mary have believed Gabriel without those saints as parents? As a child, I believed that if I were silent enough, I could hear my guardian angel hovering around me. She had wings and was a bit naughty – if I sat in complete silence, the sound of the air conditioner coming on at the exact same moment as I appealed to her was her form of communication. Was I a crazy child who didn’t understand probability and coincidence?

Religion is first learned in the home. It matters not that you take your children to Mass every Sunday if you don’t pray with them two or three times a day, and if they don’t see YOU praying several times a day. But it’s not just the indoctrination they need; it is also the feel of the rhythm of prayer in their lives. These have to be absorbed when we are sponges, before the second-guessing. It’s striking to me that when I pray, there are prayers I can only say aloud, or at least only when moving my lips. These are the prayers that I learned not from the printed page, but from my mother’s lips, the ones I gradually learned to recite with her. There are certain prayers my mother says back-to-back, like the Hail Holy Queen and the Memorare, that now strike me as overdoing it, if saying prayers to Mary can be overdone. (Why not at least insert the Prayer to St. Michael between them for a little diversion, Mom?) And yet this is what I do every time too. I also find it impossible to say certain prayers while reading them – I get lost in the text itself and the meaning - the visceral and spiritual sensation - disappears.

There are phrases that I’ve always thought of as tongue twisters: “that we may be made worthy of the Promises of Christ,” yet I can’t imagine changing it to something simpler (“It’s easier in Latin!” a certain person is no doubt thinking right now.) In CCD class in junior high school, besides doing poor remedial Catholic catechesis, our ‘teachers’ (I use the term loosely) would give us tests: recite the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. Most of my fellow CCD attendants didn’t know these prayers and neither did their parents, suggesting that the wheels were off in Protestant America before Vatican II, except in those places where Catholicism had firmly taken root. Our CCD teachers would also teach us an “easy” version of the Act of Contrition that went something like this: “God, I am sorry for my sins. Please forgive me, and help me to avoid sinning again.” That’s no way to instill Catholic guilt! Even worse, it misses the meditation on one’s sins that the older version features: “…but most of all because it offends You, My God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love.” I think it got dumbed down out of fear people didn’t understand the words they were saying, and could be more reflective if the text were easier. Who cares? Formal prayer isn’t about getting all the words right, or about understanding everything you are saying (if that were true, most of my formal prayers from the time I could speak to the age of seven were for naught). It’s about creating an atmosphere like an enclosed aquarium, separate from the real world, that you can fly or swim around in for several minutes, a place where the mundane and pedestrian do not have entrance. It’s not about getting the words right, it’s about getting the spirit.

A.V. has a problem with Low (Laudes) Sunday becoming Divine Mercy Sunday by decree of John Paul II. I’m not about to get into a liturgical argument with A.V. - I don’t pick fights I can’t win – but I have always liked the Divine Mercy Chaplet. My mom is a Third Order Carmelite, and so she’d bring all manner of prayer cards and third class relics home with her from meetings. I remember learning the Divine Mercy prayers fairly early on and I think we Catholics know a good prayer when we hear it. My mom would also sometimes have to glue and sew Brown Scapulars, and every now and then I would help her do so. It was fun to ‘have the inside track’ on those religious items that people, believing in the promises of Our Lady to St. Simon Stock, devoutly wear. But it was also wonderful to know that these religious items were touched again and again by human hands, touched with love and fingers pressed on the image on the front. I would ask my mom if the promises applied to even those who didn't believe, and she'd respond, "Only God knows...why do you ask so many questions?"

The favorite prayer of both my mother and grandmother is the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...” I was too much of a warmonger, too much in the “life is injustice, and that’s wrong” vein to say this devoutly; I needed prayers that would inspire me to win or that guarantee some form of win. But I was at least not so stupid to have not loved these lines:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as t
o love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Paintings are works of Francisco de Zubarán (1598-1662),
The Annunciation (1638-9), The Archangel Gabriel (1631-2), The Holy House at Nazareth (1630), Agnus Dei (1635) and St. Francis Kneeling (1635-9).