Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Writer's Evidence for Easter

"Catholicism is about facts.  You know the story in St. John's Gospel when Peter ran to the tomb at the time of the Resurrection?  The beloved disciple was running behind him, but he caught up and passed him and got there first, and found the sheets piled on the left-hand side of the cave and so on.  It is because he describes one disciple catching the other up and passing him that I know it must be true."
--Graham Greene

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Quality of Mercy

Bradbury Building (1893)
(click to enlarge)
We attended a fabulous a capella concert last night in the historic Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles. The Tallis Scholars performed choral music from the late Renaissance, along with some contemporary compositions, all of which resonated brilliantly against the hard sufaces of the five-story atrium. Our favorite piece was the last, Miserere mei, Deus (Latin for "Have mercy on me, O God"), by the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652). 
It's a setting of Psalm 51, and is said to be the papal choir's greatest musical triumph, composed exclusively for use in the Sistine Chapel. In fact, a papal ban prevented any copy from leaving the Vatican, which "only served to heighten its status and mystique." The intricate composition remained a secret for nearly 150 years--until it was finally memorized by a 14-year-old boy: 
"According to the popular story (backed up by family letters), the fourteen-year-old Mozart was visiting Rome, when he first heard the piece during the Wednesday service. Later that day, he wrote it down entirely from memory, returning to the Chapel that Friday to make minor corrections. Some time during his travels, he met the British historian Dr Charles Burney, who obtained the piece from him and took it to London, where it was published in 1771. Once the piece was published, the ban was lifted; Mozart was summoned to Rome by the Pope, only instead of excommunicating the boy, the Pope showered praises on him for his feat of musical genius. [...] Since the lifting of the ban, Allegri's Miserere has become one of the most popular a cappella choral works now performed."  (from Wikipedia)
The Miserere lives up to its billing (15 minute standing ovation last night).  I can say without qualification, it's the most achingly beautiful piece of music I've ever heard.  Heartbreakingly beautiful.

[YouTube  recording (1994) of Tallis Scholars' Miserere here.]

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The new Holy Father

With the election of the new Pope yesterday I was struck by the profound emotional connection among the celebrants, and their palpable joy in welcoming the new Holy Father.   It reminded me of a quote from G.K. Chesterton--a Catholic convert--comparing the dry intellectualism of Buddhism with the heartfelt passion of Christianity: 
"To the Buddhists was given a conception of God of extraordinary intellectual purity; but in growing familiar with the featureless splendour, they have lost their heads; they babble; they say that everything is nothing and nothing is everything, that black is white because white is black. We fancy that the frightful universal negatives at which they have at last arrived, are really little more than the final mental collapse of men trying always to find an abstraction big enough for all things. “I have said what I understood not, things too great for me that I know not. I will put my hand upon my mouth.” Job was a wise man. Buddhism stands for a simplification of the mind and a reliance on the most indestructible ideas; Christianity stands for a simplification of the heart and a reliance on the most indestructible sentiments. 

"The greater Christian insistence upon personal deity and immortality is not, we fancy, the cause so much as the effect of this essential trend towards an ancient passion and pathos as the power that most nearly rends the veil from the nature of things. Both creeds grope after the same secret sun, but Buddhism dreams of its light and Christianity of its heat. Buddhism seeks after God with the largest conception it can find, the all-producing and all-absorbing One; Christianity seeks after God with the most elementary passion it can find—the craving for a father, the hunger that is as old as the hills. It turns the whole cry of a lost universe into the cry of a lost child."
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)