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The Ochlophobist: " past Spite: on books and music"

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  • Christopher Orr
    past Spite: on books and music. *The Spiteful Jesus* *Not the one whose courtesy* *and kiss unsought are nonetheless* *bestowed. Instead, the largely * *more
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 2007
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      past Spite: on books and music. *The Spiteful Jesus*

      *Not the one whose courtesy*
      *and kiss unsought are nonetheless*
      *bestowed. Instead, the largely *
      *more familiar blasphemy*
      *borne to us in the little boat*
      *that first cracked rock at Plymouth*
      *-petty, plainly man-inflected*
      *demi-god established as a club*
      *with which our paling generations*
      *might be beaten to a bland consistency.*

      *He is angry. He is just. And while*
      *he may have died for us,*
      *it was not gladly. The way*
      *his prophets talk, you'd think*
      *the whole affair had left him*
      *queerly out of sorts, unspeakably*
      *indignant, more than a little *
      *needy, and quick to dish out*
      *just deserts. I saw him when,*
      *as a boy in church, I first*
      *met souls in hell. I made him*
      *for a corrupt, corrupting fiction when*
      *my own father (mortal that he was)*
      *forgave me everything, unasked.*
      - Scott Cairns

      In my prior reflection on this
      focused on all but the last two lines and the one word before them:
      *my own father (mortal that he was)
      forgave me everything, unasked.*

      My father is not a man of many spoken words. But he is one who has freely
      asked for and freely granted forgiveness. It is the measure of his life.

      My father also gave me two things. A love of books and a love of music. He
      sat me down at the kitchen table as an elementary school boy and read Walt
      Whitman poems to me, asking, and then teaching the proper interpretation,
      with the historical background of each poem always in his memory. Academic
      theology was a big part of my directed reading as a child. I read
      Bonhoeffer, Barth, Moltmann, Niebuhr, and Kierkegaard by the age of 16.
      There was also the gamut of existentialist texts, the transcendentalists,
      and the standard literature of the Old Left. The novels of my father's
      favorite English novelist, Thomas Hardy, were read and discussed. This
      literary home led me to assume that truth, if there was such a thing, was to
      be found in print.

      After moving, intellectually, from Protestant liberalism and its discontents
      I came to a brief attempt at neo-thomism, and ultimately ended up Orthodox.
      Literature played a role in my conversion, but it was tertiary. I first read
      about Orthodoxy in a *Christian Activist*. Therein I enjoyed an overview
      essay on the Orthodox faith written by, I think, Archbishop Paavali of
      Karelia and all Finland. I had just returned from Russia and I wanted
      answers. I had seen things there which seemed to be above, or beyond, or
      through, the mere words and petty academic alliances which made the modern
      Christianity I knew to be always subject to change, that perverse
      changedness brought about by those masses tossed by every wave, a finally
      boring frivolity lusting after each new supposedly clever turn of phrase or
      argument. Being the bookish young man that I was, I sought words to describe
      that which I had experienced as not being subject to vernaculars,
      nomenclatures, and shibboleths, but rather that very thing which subjected
      them. I read Archbishop Paul, and then the usual suspects one begins to read
      when one inquires of the Orthodox faith. I found the Orthodox had words and
      rhetorical pathways which were different from those which I knew. At first I
      feared that they might be different simply for the sake of difference (in
      Derrida style, not in the "Orthodox get their identity simply from rejecting
      the papacy" sense, which I have found, from my first encounters with
      Orthodoxy, to be an accusation against the Orthodox which is nothing but
      rubbish promoted by jealous folks committed to failing ecclesial
      ideologies), but as I read I found a common theme amongst the rhetorical
      posture. For all of the Orthodox ability to speak with great specificity
      with regard to dogma, the Orthodox were generally very hesitant with their
      words. They did not like to be held within the normal rhetorical confines.
      Words were not to be circumscribed and then strategically positioned by the
      dialectician philosophers, as I would later learn to put it. They were to be
      part of a rhetorical system that was first and foremost, well, liturgical.
      Liturgical language seems sometimes to play by its own rhetorical rules.
      This epistemological hesitance was not due to an obsession with finding the
      proper taxonomies, as in the West, but suggested a reserve with regard to
      any optimism concerning where words could take the human person; words, in
      and of themselves, could take you a part of the way, but there was then
      further to go. For years I could not quite grasp this rhetorical posture. I
      came to understand it on a cold March Saturday in northern Wisconsin.

      My father also taught me to love music. He listens, mostly, to classical
      music. Before I was born when he lived in a commune in Cleveland he was an
      usher at the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra so that he could listen to the
      mastery of George Szell night after night. He thinks that he saw Szell
      conduct at least two hundred times. We listened to a great deal of Mahler,
      Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Wagner, Mozart, Haydn, Grieg, Holst,
      Ives, and Copland. From my father I was granted the sense that mankind had a
      problem, and if that problem was to be solved, finally, it would be solved
      through music. There is something of an irony that in my twenties I chose a
      life dedicated much more to books than to music. It reveals a desire to take
      what I intuited to be the lower path, the lesser, less complete approach to
      truth and the attempt to discern the human condition. I was in a serious
      choir in school (plenty of Latin, French, and German language music;
      virtually none of it from the last 150 years) and continued to listen, and
      purchase, classical music after leaving home. But I found that my tastes
      differed from those of my father. I came to love first and foremost the
      baroque period, Bach, Purcell, Biber, Telemann. July 28, 1750 may well be
      the last breath of the West, everything fair since then being mere eulogy. I
      especially came to love the winds - recorder and Baroque trumpet. In Bach
      one finds a man meditating on the many variations of the order of joy. Music
      is not finally a science, but a theology, which is to say, a prayer or that
      which prefaces prayer. If Narnia is pre-evangelism, Bach's corpus is
      pre-prayer. It enables patterns in the human countenance which make a
      pathway for gratitude, for thanksgiving. But as with words, Bach can only
      take you so far. He might be one's Virgil through hell and purgatory; then
      one must wait for Beatrice.

      Some years ago, when I was yet an inquirer into Orthodoxy, I went to a Pan
      Orthodox Lenten retreat at the rural OCA church in Clayton, WI, Holy
      Trinity. The speaker was Fr. Alexander Golitzin. He was a superb speaker.
      After the lectures there was a Vespers service. The small church was packed.
      The old wooden floor creaked and sighed with each person's steps. Outside
      the sun set over prairie grass, leaning at the weight of another brutal
      winter, and caused the patches of snow to glisten, these not the last
      patches belonging to that winter, but near to the last. *Blessed is our God
      ...* the priest began. 4 or 5 Orthodox jurisdictions were represented, but
      everyone seemed to know exactly what to do, and it seemed as if everyone
      knew the tones. Then *Bless the Lord, O my soul *..., slow, with the strong,
      somber bass. I had heard beautiful Orthodox music before but never like this
      - so many knowledgeable voices in a small, lonely, beautiful setting. It was
      as if tears had been turned into sound. When we came to Phos Hilaron, just
      as the sun fell below the line of pine trees in the distance, I knew that I
      would never again be honest at prayer in another house. This is all there
      is. Fullness and peace. I realized then the Orthodox posture towards words.
      There is only one word for it. Tenderness. The careful, reverent tending to
      the bruised reed of human spokenness. What is the sound of human speech
      recapitulated in Christ? I heard it that day. I have heard it, and sung it,
      many times sense. Again I was struck at the aposticha, with nearly all
      joining in the singing with copies of the text given as handouts. Here the
      essential theological truths of the faith, in great particularity, are
      chanted and sung in the manner of that peculiar Orthodox beautiful
      Here is a theology that one vocally bathes in. Ah, the Mystery of that lone
      night. Here was my Beatrine guide. Truth is to be sung. If a theological
      proposition or idea was not intended, finally, perhaps even primarily, for
      expression in hymn and sacred song or chant, *it is false*. If the Church
      does not sing it, the Church does not know it. For me on that night book and
      music, the two loves my father gave me, kissed. Music had, after all, solved
      the problem.

      A few weeks ago my father, in his seventh decade of life with a resolve to
      let go of things, mortal that he is, gave me 126 classical music cds as he
      downsized his collection (most of which was given to him by various
      parishioners of his over the years, including one who was a violinist at the
      CSO under Szell during the same time my father ushered there). I am thankful
      for his gift as it will greatly help me offer my own children the education
      that my father offered me. That education, felicitous as it is, will only
      take them so far. The Beatrice of the Liturgy offers the further,
      consummative paths, if they will but follow.

      C.S. Lewis said that in heaven there will only be two things: silence and
      music, and that it would do us good to be practiced in both. Part of what
      binds the relationship between Orthodox music and Paradise is the interplay
      between music and silence one finds in the experience of it. Relationships
      require spaces. In Liturgy there is the cadence of near constant movement
      and near constant pausedness, acting simultaneously. While God moves towards
      me and I learn to move toward Him, there is at the same time the reflection,
      or the pronounced intuition, upon the space between us. Space that does not
      separate, but which unites. Sacred, personed, full space. *In the union of
      God and man at liturgy, everything is made sacred.* It is the dancers and
      the full and vibrant air around them, the inhabitedness of the space around
      them that takes on meaning because of the relationship and activity of the
      dancers. The music of the Liturgy is the dance of persons - Divine and
      human. The silence of the liturgy is that inhabited, vibrant space in which
      free persons dwell in love and fullness, being who they are. What makes a
      thing or a space holy is *presence*, specifically the presence of holy
      persons. Where holy persons meet in loving communion, everything is made
      sacrament. Nothing can be left profane. It is vital to understand that this
      dance and space is not a performance, it is not an attempt at art (in the
      modern sense). If it were such it would carry all of modern art's
      affectations. It is a dance (a dance both solemn and joyful) between persons
      who love one another and are concerned about the movement of the other for
      reasons of personal intimacy, and not for reasons of stylization. I have
      been to my fair share of high church liturgies in the now performing at the
      corner of ________ and _______ traditions. As much as I love Baroque music,
      Baroque masses are a performance which, especially when performed today,
      seem to convey more of a dedication to a cause (the "cause" of good music,
      fine taste, appropriate respect with regard to God, etc.) than a
      relationship between loving persons. Modernist liturgies are performances as
      well, whether it be of the minimalist
      pomo<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism>sort or simply some
      kind of tease at Jay Leno shelling out wine and bread.
      It goes without saying that almost all Evangelical and Oldline worship these
      days is no more than the most crass of performances. There are a very few
      exceptions holding out, may God bless them. All of these performances are
      intended to flatter audiences in order to get them to assent to mere forms
      of ideas. There can be no actual communion, and no making of sacred spaces
      and things at a performance. Nothing is really blessed in such a context.
      The highest, at least most fitting, expression of gratitude at a performance
      is that of applause (whether or not it actually happens), the noise of the
      masses. Who applauds one's spouse after sex, or after having given birth to
      a child, or after dying? I would posit only a madman, or one given to some
      disordering spirit. Of course the three things I list are not properly
      performances either, they are the giving, the handing over, of a person. So
      is the Liturgy. And its form involves times of touch and lack of touch,
      times of movement and times of complete stillness, times of sound and times
      of silence, words and the spaces between them. This music and silence,
      movement and stillness, is the icon of how it is persons actually love one
      another. Perhaps this has to do with the stillness of Essence and the
      movement of Energy, and the order of those Persons who first and always
      loved. And were it not for gifts from my father, I do not know that I would
      ever have come to consider such things.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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