Friday, September 25, 2009

The Death of Eurydice

The Superior asked me some time ago to write an article on the history of OHC over the last 25 years, a sort of brief update to the history of the Order I wrote in the 80's, to be published in the 125th Anniversary issue of the Order's little magazine this fall. So I went to work and started doing the chronicle of dates and names and events and so forth onto which to inscribe a more developed narrative. And I have kept at it and at it. And by doing so I have pushed off writing it.

In wondering why I didn't just dig in -- I had some clues of course -- I considered a lot of reasons, and they are all probably true at some level. But it wasn't until early this evening that they came together for me.

After supper I was having a quiet evening in my cell, reading an excellent article by Michael Casey in his The Undivided Heart called "Saint Benedict's Approach to Prayer", which is so wonderful I have been reading it half for knowledge and half as lectio for a few days, not wanting it to end.

I put on a cd of Haydn's L'anima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice, the Hogwood version on L'Oiseau-Lyre, with the incomparable Cecilia Bartoli. It was the only opera he composed after leaving the employ of the Esterhazys, and was written for his first journey to London in 1791, though it was not produced there. It is contemporary with the last of Mozart's operas, but somehow it feels like it is from an earlier age. I was enjoying Haydn's brilliant but not always deeply moving music when, at the end of the second act, something I had completely forgotten: the death of Eurydice. The music dims in volume as Eurydice describes her emotion as the poison in her body takes effect:
Del mio core il voto estremo
dello sposo io vo' che sia.
Al mio ben l'anima mia
dono l'ultimo sospir.
Bartoli sings with such pathos that I was suddenly drawn into the music, into what was happening, in a way I have not been for a long time. As I listened to her, I could feel part of me dying with her.

Then it was time for Compline, and what would the first psalm be but 88:
my life is at the brink of the grave.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I have become like one who has no strength....
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
and darkness is my only companion.
It would be an overstatement to say that I was undone. But tears came. I suddenly realized, sitting in the Chapel at West Park singing Compline this evening, what was keeping me from writing.

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is certainly one of the most important myths in the history of Western art, and deservedly so. The (purportedly) first opera is an Orfeo by Monteverdi, and there are others as well. My favorite is by Gluck. Orfeo is a musician, and at the death of his beloved wife Eurydice, he plays so beautifully that the powers of the underworld are moved to allow him to descend there and be with her once again. But he cannot turn to see her.

There is a lot going on in this myth, as there is in every major myth. Its main attraction to art and music would seem to be the power of music to change what seems unchangeable, and much more, of course. Orfeo's art rearranges the past, if ever so briefly, and resurrects (here we're getting into Christian territory, but that's another set of thoughts) the one so deeply loved, only to be lost again. When they are reunited Orpheus is not to look at her or she will return definitively to the Underworld, lost to him in this life forever. And, of course, he turns and looks at her. Who would not?

I have been resisting writing the article, brief as it will be, because it brings me close to what is gone, to places and times and events now past, to those who are dead, and to people and places living but different than when I encountered them in the early enthusiasm of monastic youth. It brings me close to what might have been but wasn't, and to what is, but not as I had hoped or imagined. And, not to be too lugubrious, some things have turned out better!

For Orpheus the death of the object of his love brings forth the power of his art, and I suspect that this is one of the reasons this story has moved so many for so many centuries, and probably still does. (I would mention the film Black Orpheus as a contemporary witness to the story's power, but it would only date me!) Eurydice's loss opens the gates of creativity to Orpheus, but in this version he cannot continue, and takes poison to join his beloved. Haydn's Orfeo cannot face his loss and live.

How can we write about "the" past when it is our own past? -- because in writing this article I will be writing about myself as well as the community I have been part of, and not something that happened before me. How can we write about what is irretrievably lost except to memory, and in setting it down, in choosing this and not that to represent, how can we not betray that past, that love? How can one continue to live when one's love does not? How can any artist take what he has lost and give substance to what is inexpressible, make what is emotionally inchoate beautiful, externalize it and share it in some recognizable artistic form, and continue to live? Certainly he cannot do so unchanged.

To give substance to the memory of what has been lost to external reality is to change it from the pure but unexpressed memory to a shaped and produced and shared object. By that act the memory, the love, will now always be different. That is the nature of art. In sharing it, it is lost in its completeness, it dies a second death. And so, at a profound level, the artist who "makes music" of his loss is both acting to recapture it and acting to betray its completeness. The work of art is thus not only an act of betrayal (losing its completeness in concrete, shared expression). It is also a work of hope, because in making it, the artist is rejecting the option of joining what is now gone (except for memory) in its Eurydicean oblivion. The artist reshapes and gives to others as beauty what would have drawn him down with it into what is no more. He conquers the Orphic temptation to lose himself in his private, irrecoverable, sensate memory, which will be lost to the world if it is not shared, and ironically, lost to himself (as private, as complete) if he does share it.

The artist, or musician, or writer, or (in my case) historian, takes "the" past, recognizes it as his own past, and makes something new of it, something that will live for others, as well as refashioning it for himself. Neither he nor "the" -- his -- past is the same after it is done.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mystical Chapters

I finished a book last week.

Now ordinarily that's not such a headline statement. There are good reasons not to finish a book: it has become boring; it is badly written and I just can't bear it anymore; I have figured out the main point(s) and a swift glance through the remaining chapters convinces me that my time is better spent elsewhere. I have abandoned many books over the years for these and other reasons. But I finish more than I abandon. At least I think I do.

Last week I finished a book and I was sorry I had come to the end. It is The Book of Mystical Chapters: Meditations on the Soul's Ascent from the Desert Fathers and Other Early Christian Contemplatives, translated and introduced by John Anthony McGuckin. It consists of three "centuries" of sayings arranged in the classic Evagrian way: Praktikos, Theoretikos and Gnostikos. The eastern Christian sages include Evagrios (using McGuckin's Greek-based spelling), of course, but also Maximos the Confessor, Theodoros the Ascetic, Thalassios the Libyan, Symeon the New Theologian, Niketas Stethatos, and many others.

When I got the book I was initially disappointed. Some of the pages aren't printed as clearly as they might be. And as I looked at the layout of the sayings, in loose short-line poetic format, I thought, Oh dear, another smallish essay strung out into book length. I did not lay it aside, but began to read it. And as I did I began to be drawn into the world of the sayings. I decided to make it the book I read a bit of at the beginning of our common corporate meditation time at the noon office. And so began months of reading one or two of the brief chapters. They opened up worlds to me, not so much in that I did not understand what they said: they are perfectly consonant with the logos theology so prominent in the Eastern church from earliest days. But rather, the beauty of their imagery and expression gave me much to ponder in meditation.

When at last I read and pondered the final one, by Symeon the New Theologian, from his Mystical Prayer, I was not left with a sense of disappointment. I was left with a deep sense of satisfaction. It begins "Come true light. Come, eternal life. Come, hidden mystery." and on through 29 biddings, ending in "For I must give you all my thanks for making yourself one with me in spirit." That is how I felt at that moment, and indeed, how I had felt for many moments during the blessing of this book over the months past.

One Chapter remains especially with me. It so reminds me of George Herbert (especially in "Prayer 1") that I wonder whether he in his Greek studies -- because he was a formidable student of Greek as well as Latin -- I wonder whether he might have encountered it and pondered it and allowed its rhythms and substance to influence him. It is by Symeon the New Theologian, to whom I am apparently especially drawn:

My Christ,
you are the Kingdom of Heaven,
you are the land promised to the meek,
you are the meadows of paradise,
the hall of the celestial banquet,
the ineffable bridal chamber,
the table open for all comers.
You are the bread of life,
the wonderful new drink,
the cool jar of water,
the water of life.
You are the lamp
that never goes out for all your saints,
the new garment, the diadem,
the one who distributes diadems.
You are our joy and repose,
our delight and glory.
You are gladness and laughter, my God.
Your grace, the grace of the all-holy Spirit,
shines in the saints like a blazing sun.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

People my age can probably remember the torture session in grammar school when we had to get up in front of the class and tell everybody something about our summer. That's the point when one begins to spot the good speakers, but for others it can be excruciating. I eventually got over it, obviously. Here's my offering for this little class:

I began my "time off" with OHC's Long Retreat, 10 days of silence at the monastery. This is a venerable tradition and I look forward to it every year. It is a time when the schedule is simplified to encourage rest and quiet reflection. Matins in the morning, Eucharist at noon, Vespers at 5 pm, then one silent meal taken together, and that's it. The first few days I basically crash, and then begin to emerge. I was particularly interested when toward the end I thought a Tuesday was a Wednesday (when I was scheduled at the altar) and vested and said the Mass with the commemoration I thought was the right one. Everyone was very kind. I was the only one really upset. But it did make me think twice about the desire to enter the timeless realm!

After taking the Sunday services at Ascension and Holy Trinity one more time, I took off for two weeks in New York City, staying at the House of the Redeemer. I loved it. If you can envision a gentle time in New York, this was it. That neighborhood (East 95th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues) is clean, quiet, genteel even. It is walking distance to several major museums and other amenities. I had dinner several times with Carl Sword, OHC, lunch with some friends, went to the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Sunday, where the Rector, Jim Burns, preached a good sermon. Bede came down for a few days from West Park and we visited museums, saw a show and had some good meals together.

But mostly I rested, walked, listened to music and read. I brought a raft of books to read: Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red; Rupert Shortt's Rowan's Rule; Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a Way of Life; Kathleen Norris's Dakota, plus some technical works on Evagrius and Cassian. But in wandering through some bookstores I got a couple of other books while I was there, and they were what I actually ended up reading: Ryszard Kapuscinski's delightful Travels with Herodotus, and Robert Wright's The Evolution of God.

I also enjoyed being at the House of the Redeemer for an extended visit because it gave me the opportunity to see it up close, get a better sense of the physical work involved in upkeep, and develop a closer working relationship with the Executive Director, Judi Counts, and the other staff.

And so I returned to the monastery rested and ready for the new program year. I hope your summer was similarly refreshing.