Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

The film Florence Foster Jenkins is a great movie (as one would expect with Meryl Streep in the starring role). But the fact that it is based on such a truly amazing story makes it even more compelling. Originally from Pennsylvania, the real Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) was a 20th-century, New York socialite, who had a lifelong passion for public musical performance, which she usually indulged only in carefully controlled situations, except for her final concert - at Carnegie Hall in October 1944. That was more widely attended and exposed her to more critical reviews, which may (as the movie suggests) have precipitated her death the following month. In the movie version, she seems unaware of how bad her singing is and what a joke it seems to others - until she experiences authentic reactions to her Carnegie Hall recital. Her final words in the film were People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing. 

The film captures the flamboyance and the humor (and sadness and loneliness) of her life very well, and Meryl Streep does an excellent job imitating Madame Florence's terrible singing. The movie also captures her strange network of relationships - especially her curious relationship with her second "husband", mediocre Shakespearian actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and with her young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg).

An interesting question - in the light of contemporary medicine - is whether the syphilis she contracted from her first husband and her consequent series of health problems contributed to her poor performance. Today, of course, her syphilis could have been cured - and she might have well become a better singer. but perhaps her singling would have been just mediocre - as opposed to so flamboyantly bad - and her performances and indeed her life would have attracted less attention and interest as a result. Who can say?

From the perspective of an absolutist obsession with "truth," her wealth appears in this film as the great corruptor - allowing her to indulge her fantasy and buying off others to play along (who are mostly more than willing to do so for the financial benefits her charade provided them). But one could also look upon her wealth as simply providing her with the opportunity few others ever get to experience life at a fuller level than her talents would otherwise have allowed - to indulge a harmless fantasy that in the end not only gave joy to her life but brought a lot of much-welcomed joy to others as well.

People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Between Easter and the End

Today, the octave day of the Assumption, the Church celebrates the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, complementing and completing the 4th glorious mystery, Mary's assumption, with the 5th, her queenly "coronation." In 1953, when Pope Pius XII's Commission for the Reform of the Sacred Liturgy was debating whether to support the establishment of this popularly requested feast, its introduction was seen as presenting the Mother of God in the context of the fullness of her glory. At a subsequent session early in 1954, the future Cardinal Bea further related Mary's Queenship to her continued role in the Church. 

The modern evolution of this date is its own tale of liturgical change and counter-change. Originally the Octave Day of the Assumption, August 22 became the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary during World War II. Devotion to Mary's Immaculate Heart (originally popularized by Saint John Eudes, whom we celebrated just last week) increased in popularity especially in the 20th century particularly after Our Lady's apparitions at Fatima. The post-conciliar calendar reform relocated the Immaculate Heart of Mary to the Saturday after the solemnity of the Sacred Heart, a logical parallelism already reflected in the popular piety that pairs the devotion of the (9) 1st Fridays and the (5) 1st Saturdays. August 22 then became free for the more obviously Assumption-related festival of the Queenship of Mary, originally introduced by Pope Pius XII during the 1954 Marian Year and assigned by him to May 31. Although the liturgical celebration of the Assumption Octave itself is now 60 years gone (along with most other octaves), the logic of the Octave is acknowledged (implicitly at least) in the current calendar's deliberate alignment of this feast with that of the Assumption. (If the traditional May Crowning were not so popular and so strongly established in the popular imagination as a May event, it would really be much more logical to have such a celebration today rather than in May.)

More important than its liturgical history, however, Mary's Queenship completes the Assumption with a renewed focus of Mary's intercession in the present on our behalf.  O God, who made the Mother of your Son to be our Mother and our Queen, graciously grant that, sustained by her intercession, we may attain in the heavenly Kingdom the glory promised to your children.  That concept was also already prominent in the pre-1950 feast of the Assumption. But then the new Mass text created on the occasion of the dogmatic definition naturally highlighted the specific doctrinal content of that definition (a case, so to speak, of lex credendi dictating lex orandi.)

Complementing that development, the intercessory dimension of Mary's continued role in the Church in the fullness of her glory was highlighted in the Office of the 1954 feast by a sermon of Saint Bonaventure (1221-1274), in which he spoke of God's grace coming to us through Mary "as through an aqueduct." Bonaventure presented Mary as a Queen who "sues for forgiveness, overcomes strife, distributes grace, and as a result leads us to glory." Instead of Saint Bonaventure, the post-conciliar Office features a homily by Saint Amadeus of Lausanne (1110-1159), who likewise presents Mary, if not as a classical aqueduct, then as a kind of irrigation channel. "With divine assistance she has redirected these waters [that flow down from Mount Zion] and made them into streams of peace and pools of grace."

The doctrine of the assumption highlights Mary's participation in her Son's glory, an anticipation of our own eventual participation in that glory. But the imagery of her queenship appropriates that glory for us in Mary's continued role in the Church on our behalf - in the here and now between Easter and the end.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Church's Lost Song

Today, the Solemnity of the Assumption, also happens to be the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Letter Sacrificium Laudis ("Sacrifice of Praise"), which was addressed to the general superiors of clerical religious institutes obliged to choral recitation of the Divine Office. Like so much of the post-conciliar liturgical legislation - indeed like much of Vatican II's liturgical constitution itself - much of its wisdom was quickly lost in the weirdness of the 1960s, with deleterious consequences both for religious communities and for the overall life of the Church.

The context for Paul VI's letter was the introduction of what the Pope called "discordant practices" into the liturgy and an apparent flood of requests for a vernacular Office with contemporary music. The Pope described himself as "disturbed and saddened" by all this and wondered how it had come about, given the clearly contrary direction of the Vatican Council's liturgy constitution (e.g., Sacrosanctum Concilium 101.1: In accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office.)

Well, that is an old battle in a long-ago war, its outcome long-since settled. For better or for worse, we are all the heirs of the 1960s. That is who we have become, and the challenge is not to try to recreate some artificially idealized past but to make the best of what the present offers and build anew for the future. Still, the Pope's lament about the loss of the Church's song seems not just poignant but prophetic.

Pope Paul realized that the ultimate issue was not just one of language but the very nature and survival of the choral office itself. He warned communities bound to choir that their way of celebrating the choral office had been one of the factors underlying the survival of those communities. and he wondered whether people would still frequent those communities' churches if the Church's song was no longer sung there.  Switching from audio to visual imagery, he called the potential alternative "a snuffed candle," neither giving light nor attracting others. 

In fact, however, such a sad state of affairs had already become normative in much of the modern Church. The French Revolution and its attendant movements and conflicts had led to widespread suppressions of religious houses and entire religious communities. In earlier centuries there had been multiple opportunities all over Catholic Europe for the faithful to experience the sung Office publicly celebrated on a daily basis. The cataclysmic breakdown of organized religious life thanks to the suppression of religious houses and the consequent numerical decline of religious communities deprived the ordinary Catholic layperson (and not a few members of religious communities) of any real opportunity to participate in the sung Office. The Office survived into modern times primarily as the opposite of what it was supposed to be - as something to be read, rather than sung, by clerics and religious, a duty done largely individually and in private. Prior to the 1st Vatican Council, proposals were indeed made to "reform" the liturgy and in particular the Office, but not for widely restoring the public sung conventual Office.

When I was growing up on the eve of Vatican II, the only access I would have had to the public sung conventual Office would have been if I had had occasion to travel downtown to Saint Patrick's Cathedral, where Solemn Vespers were sung on Sundays (only) at 4:00 p.m. In the aftermath of the Council even that minimal concession to the public sung character of the Office would eventually disappear. Of course, the Council itself proposed the opposite. It recommended recitation of the Office in common even by clerics not bound to choir and called for at least Vespers to be sung on at least Sundays and greater feasts. But then the weirdness of the sixties took over, and the Church's song grew even fainter and rarer than it had already been before the Council.

History shows how easy it has so often been to destroy the legacy of the past. The challenge of constructing a viable Christian community life in the present period is to start building for the future - not artificially rebuilding what has been irretrievably lost but building a new structure for the Church's communal prayer, properly rooted so that it can salvage the spirit of the ancient Office in a way that can be made meaningful in a post-modern Church.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Setting the Earth on Fire

Several years ago, I read a wonderful biography of Prince Philip of Hesse, who died in 1980, and was head of the distinguished dynasty that had ruled part of central Germany until the 19th-century unification of Germany. One of the book’s themes is the interconnectedness of Europe’s princely families and the drama of those relationships during the 1st and 2nd World Wars, when royal relatives found themselves divided from one another by forces beyond their control. Philip himself was a nephew of the German Emperor, William II, whose Prussian dynasty had earlier dispossessed Philip’s family. During World War I, Philip’s cousin, Britain’s King George V, was his country’s principal enemy. In World War II, Philip’s father-in-law, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, was an ally who famously switched sides midway through the war, with consequences catastrophic for Philip and fatal for his wife, the Princess Mafalda, who died in a German concentration camp 72 years ago this month.

Royalty, of course, are not the only ones divided by wars. The American Revolution famously found Benjamin Franklin and his son on opposite sides, while in the Civil War Abraham Lincoln’s brothers-in-law fought for the Confederacy – family divisions that were widely replicated in the experience of so many families at all levels of society.

Nor are wars the only causes of family conflict. We all know, perhaps from our own experience, how common conflicts can be among those closest to one another – and how painful that experience can be precisely because of the bond that binds family members to one another, like it or not.

Jesus in today’s Gospel [Luke 12:49-53] used possible family conflict to illustrate his larger point about what was expected of every disciple. It’s a fact of life is that saying “Yes” to some one particular person, cause, or commitment entails saying “no” to other options. So it is with following Jesus, a commitment that changes everything. In this matter, Jesus himself set the standard. After all, Jesus did not die peacefully in his bed or casually while on vacation at the beach. Rather his death was due directly to the way he lived and the opposition that produced.

Of course, no one wants to be at odds with one’s family, friends, country, or whatever. No one should ever want conflict. But conflict happens – not always, but often enough, and especially in those great either/or choices that produce martyrs (and almost martyrs, like poor Jeremiah in today’s 1st reading). One of modern history’s more sobering facts is that the 20th century produced more Christian martyrs than any previous century, a pattern that seems to have continued into this 21st century, as recent events have reminded us. And then there are all the ordinary situations, which lack the high drama of martyrdom, but which can on occasion also call for doing something different from what one would otherwise have done, even at the risk of opposition.

Of course, we would all prefer a calm, untroubled life, in a calm, conflict-free world. We voice that sentiment every day when we pray that we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress. It’s not conflict per se to which Jesus calls us. It is rather his mission - setting the earth on fire - to which he calls us and faithfulness to  which he challenges us – fidelity what matters most, to our true purpose in life, and to what needs to be done (or not done). It is the constant, life-long challenge to let ourselves be transformed by God’s grace into the persons God wants us to be – and being thus transformed while still a part of an otherwise untransformed world.

But, because we live in an otherwise untransformed world, that transforming experience can at times really resemble a sword separating us from whoever or whatever we would otherwise have so readily clung to.

Jesus does indeed promise peace to his disciples – the peace of his kingdom, a very different peace from a momentary absence of conflict. As Christians, we must never go around with a religious or cultural chip on our shoulder as if we were spoiling for a fight. After all, the fruits of the Holy Spirit include love, joy, and peace – not hatred, hostility, and anger! The Christian challenge, rather, is always to build bridges, not walls – and so pave the way for more and more people to experience the peace and unity of God’s kingdom, yet all the while still struggling against an unconverted and untransformed and hence potentially hostile world.

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time,Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 14, 2016

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Faith like Abraham's

An Episcopalian friend of mine used to like to say that having a prescribed Lectionary (instead of being free to choose the Sunday scripture readings yourself) is its own kind of blessing because it lets God’s word set the theme. However that may be, I remember my very first Sunday preaching here at Immaculate Conception, six years ago this week, and how, if I had been free to choose a scripture reading myself, I probably couldn’t have done much better than the one assigned – namely today’s 2nd reading from the letter to the Hebrews [Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19], interpreting the ancient story of Abraham, whom the Roman Canon calls, fittingly, “our father in faith.”

According to the account in Genesis, Abraham - at the astonishing age of 75 (when most of us are ready to stop or at least slow down) – was commanded by God to move from his ancestral home to a new land which God promised would belong (eventually) to his descendants. Of course, my move (when I moved here six years ago) was nowhere near so dramatic. I got on a plane at Newark airport and two hours later landed in Knoxville. I did, however, have many boxes of books and other personal possessions shipped ahead of me – more probably than I really needed to take. Often when we preach about such things we emphasize how possessions way one down and get in the way. Abraham, on the other hand, we are told traveled with his wife, his nephew Lot, and their herds of animals and whatever other possessions he (and they) had accumulated in those 75 years. The New Testament author of the Letter to the Hebrews rightly wanted to emphasize Abraham’s faith. And surely Abraham’s faith was the most important thing he brought with him to the Promised Land, but I think that those other people and things that he brought along mattered to him too.

Jesus famously told his disciples to travel light. Detachment from other people and from possessions is important – and at times absolutely necessary. And that is why we usually put the emphasis there when we talk about relationships and possessions. Still, as Aristotle insisted, a life without friendships would be hard to bear. And Jesus himself valued his friendships, as did his disciples in the early Church. As for things, they can be pretty attractive too – in harmful ways to be sure, but also in ways that are not altogether bad. All those gadgets we accumulate may weigh us down with possessions and possessiveness, but they can also make our lives easier and more fulfilling in some fundamental ways which help us become better people. As for all those iphones and computers that make our social interactions seem so artificial, the fact is that they also make some social interactions possible that wouldn’t even happen otherwise. And one of the important lessons these six years of parish ministry have impressed upon me is that the mission of the church depends for its success on the mission of the parish, and that the mission of the parish presumes caring about people and nourishing human relationships as well as caring for things, like maintaining buildings and raising funds. Mission and maintenance are not opposed. They go together, and each requires the other. 

So I think Abraham basically got it right when he realized - probably instinctively without thinking much about it -  that living productively in this world and maintaining fulfilling human relationships are important values in themselves and will always require paying significant attention to other people and things. But what made Abraham’s human relationships and possessions so especially meaningful and gave them a whole new dimension was the confident faith that freed him always to respond trustingly to God’s commands, no matter what else may have been on his mind. So it must be for all of us, as we navigate our way through the ordinary demands of daily life and the extraordinary challenges of this troubled time in which we live.  A faith like Abraham’s invites us to recognize in the challenges we encounter new opportunities to respond to, new opportunities to rediscover the heart of who and what we are fundamentally meant to become by means of our relationships with other people and things – and so become the people we hope to be when we settle down once and for all forever in God’s kingdom.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Agust 7, 2016.