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Tag Archive: Tradition

Because Being a Christian is Eternal Being and Eternal Youth

Posted: Saturday, November 27, 2010 (8:52 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Saturday, November 27th, 2010:

Hans Urs von Balthasar on Saint Francis and the transcending power of holiness over-against a stifling traditionalism, in Razing the Bastions (1952), from a translation published by Ignatius in 1993 (p.32):

The true peaks rise as the distance grows; we must take care not to consider our own age as an age without salvation or saints. Everything depends on that awareness that we have of our Christianity. For Francis, to be a Christian was something just as immense, certain and startlingly glorious as to be a human being, a youth, a man. And because being a Christian is eternal being and eternal youth, without danger of withering and resignation, his immediate joy was deeper. Not one single year separated him from Christ, the one who had become flesh; from the manger; from the Cross. For him, not one speck of dust had settled on the freshness of the wonder in the passage of time. The hodie of the liturgy on the great feasts was the hodie of his life. Is there a saint who has had any other Christian consciousness of time?

This is a powerful little book (103 pgs.) that is taking me a long time to read, because I am stopping on almost every page to dwell on something Balthasar says.

To really encounter and embrace the eternity that characterizes the life of Christ we share in as Christians is both bracing and mesmerizing. The unity of the Church across time and space, while it may be readily available to consciousness during Eucharistic worship, is otherwise all too easy to lose sight of in the daily hub-bub.

But with the liturgical year ending today, and the new year beginning this evening, it strikes me that this sense of connectedness can can also be facilitated by even petty traditions. Tomorrow being the 1st Sunday of Advent, the afternoon will be time to pull down the seasonal decorations from the garage, and go through the annual process of setting the house up for Advent. It’s a small thing, and it can get corny, but it serves as an opening both for the kids – and us – to reconnect with our own shared past, and for all of us to share in the drama of waiting and preparation that the Church has practiced for two millennia.

It may not be the kind of transcendent presence to Christ that Balthasar ascribed to Francis, but it’s a start. I suspect Francis would appreciate our poverty.

The Great Gig in the Sky

Posted: Wednesday, September 17, 2008 (11:24 pm), by John W Gillis


Pink Floyd keyboardist and co-founder Richard Wright died Monday at his home. He was 65.

Rock stars die all the time, and I never really knew anything about this quiet guy, but news of Wright’s death set me to reflecting quite a bit yesterday on my youth, the role of pop music in the lives of youth, and the fate of those whose lives turn them into rock stars.

I hope the title of this post isn’t overly corny – and I’m sure I’m not the only one to whom it will occur to use it. It refers, of course, to the title of what is my favorite song from Pink Floyd’s landmark 1973 album, Dark Side of the Moon – a song Wright wrote, or co-wrote with Roger Waters. Like all Floyd music, it is tortured to a point that approaches despair. And I had to wonder today if Wright ever found an answer to the angst-ridden but cynical cries for justice, peace –and just plain sanity- that comprised so much of the music that defined his professional life. Even acknowledging that Roger Waters was the primary architect of the eventual Pink Floyd milieu, both musically and lyrically, it would seem impossible to separate any of the members from the whole.

For that matter, it’s hard to picture Wright (and others like him) apart even from the larger community of commodities we call rock stars. For all the glamour and magnetic appeal these characters have to adolescent minds, it’s not a pretty sight when you peel back the thrill. There is no hope in rock culture: it promises a quick fix in some form of indulgence (for the going price, of course), but it cannot offer hope, because it cannot be open to the future; it cannot be open to life. Hence, the prevalence of drugs, fornication, and contempt for roots (tradition). It struggles to build its own tradition – a kind of “history” that spans perhaps 50 years – but it doesn’t really know how to grow up, have children, bury parents, nurture wisdom. It’s hard to overstate how important deep roots are to true flowering. Yet rock “culture” encourages kids to envision their roots in rebellion, which is the very death of culture.

I was not a real big Pink Floyd fan as a teen (I actually listened to them more later on). Although I was, of course, mesmerized by Dark Side of the Moon – as the whole world seemingly was. I liked the two follow-on albums, Wish You Were Here and Animals, I just wasn’t wild about them, like so many were. I also never liked the early work (although Meddle’s OK), and I could never understand the appeal of The Wall – an album that, even from my youth, I’ve always thought was the epitome of whining self-indulgence and overbearing melodrama. There are a few good songs, but surrounded by much too much drivel. Dark Side, however, was a piece apart. Just the fact that it spent more than 14 years on the Billboard charts is mind-boggling – occupying, as it does, a world of faddish impatience in which yesterday’s style is today’s trendy object of scorn.

My own engagement with Pink Floyd began in a manner quite befitting the spirit of the psychedelic world the band embodied in 1973. Unlike so many events of that period, I remember this clearly, as I must have understood at some level, even then, what a cad I was.

I was 12 or 13 years old when I decided I wanted a copy of this album, which had already quickly become a signature of the age, and I was by then fully entrenched in the lawless and immoral underbelly of the so-called counterculture – despite my tender age. My bicycle at the time was a black Schwinn I’d inherited from my older brother, which had an aluminum basket on the handlebars for cargo. I rode the bike to the Natick Mall after dark, and stole a copy of the album from one of the stores. I’d left the bike just outside the door. I slid the album under my coat, headed out the door, hopped on the bike, and started pedaling down Speen Street toward home – even pulling the album out of my coat to admire it along the way.

But something happened during the ride, and when I got back home, I realized that I no longer had the album. It must have bounced out of the basket somewhere on Speen Street. I was furious. I had stolen it fair and square, and considered it cosmically unjust that I had to go back to the store and steal it again, greatly increasing my risk of getting caught.

So I got on the bike again, and pedaled back up Speen Street – carefully retracing my route in the vain hope of finding “my” album. I never did. Instead, I stole a second copy that night – the same way I had stolen the first – but I held this one in my hand the entire way home. Believe it or not, I still felt gypped by fate.

I share this story because it needs grieving as much as Richard Wright does. The memory – not so much of my actions, as of my unfathomable self-righteousness – stands as a sentinel in my conscience, always ready to mock any attempts to justify myself, while also providing a quiet witness to the danger of being glib about the potential for perverse ethics to blind us to truth.

I bought that album eventually – some years later – and I played it a couple times yesterday, raising a mental toast to Rick Wright as I listened. Now he really gets to play The Great Gig in the Sky – though what that means to him, I surely cannot say. I can say that he drank deeply from a poison cup I know all too well, and that the darkness that streams forth from it is a formidable enemy for any man. The end can come so quickly, and so easily find us hiding from the light, even searching the lonely road for the ill-gotten fruits of our violence and shame.

I hope you embraced the light, Richard, for we all move into the consuming fire in the end. Sorry about the thievery.

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A Topographic Easter Tradition

Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2008 (6:40 pm), by John W Gillis


Staying on my theme of music I listen to on the holy days… I have an Easter morning musical tradition that stretches back a lot further than the 10 years or so I’ve been listening to Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony on Good Friday.

I don’t remember when I started listening to Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans on Easter morning, but it goes well back into my murky pseudo-Christian (proto-Christian?) past, into those pre-Church days when I thought that Christianity was something you believed – maybe even something ontologically transformative – but not something that meant, by necessity, an inescapable belonging to – like an ancestral heritage, but of the Spirit. Well, change we must, as surely time does (to borrow a line from the piece).

The music is a bit of an odd choice to commemorate this highest of Christian holy days, being as it is a musical and poetic reflection on the Shastric Scriptures. Religiously, it falls into the category of cheesy New Age noodling. In rather stark contrast to the flesh and blood realism of a resurrection faith, it meanders through layers of mysticism, mythology, and dualistic struggle.

Tales From Topographic OceansStill, it’s not a wholly inappropriate choice for the occasion. The work’s final movement is, as principal writer Jon Anderson notes in the album’s liner notes, “about the struggle between sources of evil and pure love” (Ritual), and the other major themes of the work revolve around the irrepressibility of revelation, and of the role of tradition – memory and ancestry – in forming the foundations of culture, which is really just a single word for the experienced reality that forms the canvas of the work’s character.

And the Easter message is, after all, about the triumph of love over evil, though Christianity would see the struggle as one of faith lived out in human history, rather than a cosmic struggle between opposing forces – a view naively supposing that God might have an adversary (therein obliterating the meaning of Godhead in monotheistic religion). Indeed, Christianity has much criticism to offer the essentially agnostic character of this and other eastern religious worldviews, but that should not obscure the significance of the reality that many points of contact make such criticism viable.

All the same, the occasion of Easter morning would warrant a Christologically-ordered musical accompaniment – something that says “we are of the Son,” rather than “we are of the sun.” In that light, I set the piece aside for a couple years or so, trying to either replace it with something more orthodox, or just leaving the music off. But I’ve found that, so far at least, neither tact has worked.

Part of the problem is that none of the Christian music in my collection has the gravitas required to be a soundtrack to Easter morning. I have a couple Masses, and you’d think they might be appropriate, but I’m not looking to hear Mass at home on Easter morning – the time for my listening to Easter morning music is typically after I’ve been to Easter morning Mass, the time when breakfast is being prepared, and served, and the family is relaxing or getting ready for the afternoon. I guess I’m looking for gravitas, but not that much gravitas. And the rest of the music? Well, it’s just … songs, for the most part, and I’m not looking for songs; I’m looking for music.

Part of the reason Tales works so well in our house on Easter morning is that, while it does explore certain ideas, the lyrical focus is so abstruse as to be virtually meaningless at most points. Particular turns of phrase certainly carry with them images, which together form a kind of patchwork of meaning once or twice removed, so to speak… but the abstractness is so pronounced that the meaning of the work becomes almost wholly malleable in listening to it. In many ways, the words are really just important for their aesthetic character – Anderson could be singing in Sanskrit and it wouldn’t make much difference.

This was a nice characteristic of early Yes music, which would eventually give way to lyrical content with much more direct intent, which I think has the unfortunate consequence of highlighting some of the underlying silliness of the New Age sensibility that has more or less always informed Yes’ and Anderson’s work. “Equal rights for equal people,” Anderson writes in 1997’s “Children of Light.” You’d think it couldn’t get much gushier than that, until in 2001’s “In the Presence Of” he writes: “If we were flowers we would worship the sun, so why not now?”

However, I think the larger part of the reason the work has, so far, retained its place in my house on Easter morning is that it simply feels like it belongs there. In other words: tradition. I’m not sure I would have played it this morning until Joyce dropped a not very subtle hint that she thought it should be playing. It’s just been that way for a long time, and it ties today’s Easter morning together with our past Easter mornings, which in a way is how they themselves are tied together with that morning in Judea long ago, when Mary Magdalene was startled to encounter the living flesh and blood of a man she had seen die two days earlier.

I think if I were to encounter Topographic Oceans as a new piece of vocal music today, I would not want it played in my house as Easter morning “mood music.” I would consider it largely inoffensive in what it had to say about reality (even if a little loopy at times), but sorely lacking in terms of what it does not understand, and hence misleading as an artistic expression intended to provide musical context for this particular, great Solemnity. But I do not encounter it as if it were new, I bring 35 years of familiarity to my encounter with it – and for many of those years, it held a place of high honor in my hierarchy of artistic value. It still does today, in a sense, though primarily because of what it has meant to me – especially in my youth.

At one time, this work was probably the most “spiritual” creation I’d encountered, and it had significant influence in the beginnings of my journey toward God. Not long afterwards, I began to encounter Christ in the Christian Scriptures, where I found some stark differences between the pathos of the Christian (and Jewish) God, and the sterile idealism of the search for enlightenment. I began to understand that my journey to God is not so much a “journey to” at all, but a turning back to a faithful Creator and Redeemer who had been seeking me from the moment of my conception in his Mind. The “journey to God” is actually what the Muslims call islam, submission.

But I would remain without Church for a long time, and in the absence of a genuine organizing principle in the spiritual life, something else will always take its place – even something like music that seems to connect at a deep level. For some years, listening to Topographic Oceans on Easter morning was the closest I ever got to liturgy. In a way, then, it was both a catalyst to my turning toward God, and a workable substitute for a genuinely Christian expression of faith in community.

All this is not to say that we can’t – and shouldn’t – move on from the affections of our youth, just that there are important spaces in our lives that need to be filled – and will be filled – with something…usually something familiar. Jesus himself expressed much the same idea when he warned about the unclean spirit who comes back to the person it had left, and finding his former home “empty, swept clean, and put in order,” returns to dwell there with seven spirits even more evil that itself (c.f. Mt 12:43-45). Now, I’m in no way trying to depict Yes’ music as unclean with this analogy, the point is just that we need to proactively fill the spaces in our lives with the most perfect good we desire, with the deepest truth w can apprehend, because they will be filled with whatever fits, regardless. Things tend to stick, regardless of their character, and the spiritual life is about nothing if not about repentance…

This opens up many questions – which I’ll have to leave, and hope to pick up at a later time – about the nature of tradition, about how it is personalized, about how it develops, about how cultural forms might play very different roles in a stream of tradition, depending on its developmental nature (e.g. how a particular form might play a constructive role in the tradition at a particular point in history, but take on a destructive role later on based either on an anti-historical formalism or a sentimentality that fails to note its contingent character in pointing to something beyond it – such as a puritanical or biblicist attempt to recreate the apostolic-era church).

At the least, though, this problem of mine should leave me more charitable than I was in my recent lament over the way some very poor liturgical music seems to have found communal staying power by living in familiarity’s comfort zone for many older (and not quite so old) priests. It looks like I’m in a very similar boat, after all. But let me also say that I’m very ready to let my Easter morning tradition develop appropriately toward a more orthodox expression of faith, just as soon as I can find something that can also meet the aesthetic standards demanded by the occasion. Ideas are always welcomed!

He is risen, alleluia!

ΑΩ