All posts filed under: Arts

Out of Our Mortal Depths

De Profundis by Christina Rossetti Oh why is heaven built so far, Oh why is earth set so remote? I cannot reach the nearest star That hangs afloat. I would not care to reach the moon, One round monotonous of change; Yet even she repeats her tune Beyond my range. I never watch the scatter’d fire Of stars, or sun’s far-trailing train, But all my heart is one desire, And all in vain: For I am bound with fleshly bands, Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope; I strain my heart, I stretch my hands, And catch at hope. I find myself imagining Lent, especially Passiontide, as a time of reaching for things that are beyond me, and Rossetti captures this feeling quite well in “De Profundis.” The speaker of the poem is kept from the things that she is reaching at because she is unable to cross the distance between where she is and where she wants to be, whether it is heaven or the stars that she is reaching towards. Even the moon, the …

Baudelaire, Maistre, and Original Sin

J oseph Conrad once said “It seems as if the discovery made by many men at various times that there is much evil in the world were the source of a proud and unholy joy.” He was musing about fiction, and his insight is worth bearing in mind when we consider that of Baudelaire and Maistre. The Freudian unconscious has a certain transcendental status. Moreover, in its insistence on the primal scene, the crime of patricide as the basis for civilization, pervasive guilt, and yet a forgotten founding crime—this psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious is arguably the return of Original Sin in the more user-friendly mental constructs of modernity. We all know that the industrial and social revolutions in Europe in the 19th century brought along a certain ebbing of religion, a certain erosion of the belief in a transcendental. Yet, there are ways in which the unconscious reinstates a transcendental, as we know. Freud’s unconscious is the royal road back to a transcendental register, even if the map is frequently upside down. That is, …

Lent Intensifies

This final section of pieces from the 40 Songs for 40 Days playlist continues and intensifies the styles heard in the previous ten pieces. We hear from contemporary composers like Morten Lauridsen, Ola Gjeilo, and Paul Mealor, whose choral writing evokes a great sense of serenity in the listener, while James MacMillan and Francis Poulenc call to mind the intensity and drama of the Paschal Mystery. We also hear older pieces from the treasury of Catholic sacred music by composers like Gregorio Allegri, Giaches de Wert, and Thomas Tallis, as well as a chant whose composer’s name has been lost to the centuries, but whose musical legacy continues to lead people closer to God. Pieces like these are vivid reminders of why music has always held such an important role in the Church: the mysteries of the faith come alive in melody, harmony, and rhythm, allowing listeners to encounter them anew, paving the way for a deeper encounter with the One who dwells at the heart of them all. This music bears repeated listening not …

Brideshead Revisited During Lent

Sorting out our many possessive, grasping loves, and redirecting them towards God is the objective of Lent asceticism. Charles Ryder, in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, is transformed by becoming friends with Sebastian Flyte. His love for Sebastian opens him up to a joy in life he has never known. Although their love is tinged with a possessiveness that eventually kills it, Charles is permanently changed. Their relationship raises a theological question: what is the nature of eros? Is it ultimately selfish and unworthy of a Christian, or is it the very soil without which grace cannot take root? In Charles’s spiritual journey, an answer is proposed through suffering and renunciation. It is through, and not in spite of his eros for Sebastian, and later for Sebastian’s sister Julia, that Charles is led to agape, self-gift, and so ultimately from agnosticism to the Catholic Church. Et in Arcadia Ego Charles and Sebastian in Arcadia By the time Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte meet, they are in their second term at Oxford. Each has already begun …

What Mary Oliver Knows About Death and Beauty

Like many of her devoted readers, I spent the months after Mary Oliver’s death re-reading her poems. Her books boast the most worn spines on my bookshelf, but I have to admit that they have seen some neglect since I started an MFA program in poetry two years ago. Mary Oliver is not the kind of poet you are supposed to talk about in class, especially when you are asked to talk about poets that inspire and challenge you (I learned this the hard way on about the third day of class). I get it: her poems do not have an overt political edge, they do not do anything shocking in terms of form, and they do not seem to be scared of being sentimental. One of my favorite poetry professors, a sharp editor, once critiqued a poem I wrote for a workshop: too much wonder in too small of a space. He would hate reading Mary Oliver. I stopped mentioning Mary Oliver on the first day of workshops, when we would customarily introduce ourselves …

The (Video) Game Is On

The remarkable growth of various forms of electronic gaming in our culture may strike us as an ambiguous phenomenon. Yet, it must be admitted that video games are worth taking seriously as an influential popular art form. Even non-gamers like myself can appreciate their visual design, narrative intricacies, and other distinctive qualities. Artists in other media have paid homage to the allure of video games. The AMC television series Halt and Catch Fire nodded to the creativity of early game designers and programmers. Steven Spielberg’s recent film Ready Player One showcased the excitement and power of games. A live-action television series based on the celebrated game Halo is on Spielberg’s production docket. My own interest in popular culture has been an asset to my work in campus ministry. Movies, television, music, advertising, fashion, sports—all of these have currency in young adult culture, and carry the potential for serious reflection. They provide opportunities to explore personal and social issues, or to delve into philosophical and theological questions. A personal case in point involved a college student …

Facing Lent Discouragement

This week’s liner notes unpack the second half of the contemporary/secular portion of the playlist, in which many of the songs touch upon themes of journeying, of seeking out light in the midst of darkness, of the hope of transformation. Many people—myself included—begin Lent in a spirit of zeal, energetically embracing practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that have been thoughtfully discerned and chosen. However, by the second or third week, the energy around these practices often begins to lag, and it is not unusual for minor slip-ups or major falls to occur, which, in turn, can lead to a sense of discouragement in the face of one’s own limitations. When failure occurs, the easy thing to do is to give in to discouragement: to wallow in self-pity or self-loathing, to rationalize, justify, excuse, whatever the case may be. Such is the way of pride, for it curves us inward and keeps the focus on the self, rather than on God, who is the only possible source of healing and strength. Humility provides the only …

The Solemn Joy of Lent

T he beginning of a new liturgical season calls for a new Spotify playlist: 40 Songs for the 40 Days of Lent. Curating this list has presented a unique challenge: there is a lot of really beautiful music out there that would lead one deeper into Lent, but much of it is very somber. Taken in context, this is not a bad thing; it is certainly appropriate for music to reflect the penitential austerity of the season, but it seems unlikely that anyone would want to listen to an entire playlist of funereal minor music. Lent, after all, is not a season without its joys, and these are not simply restricted to Laetare Sunday. Even in the midst of our penitential practices, each Sunday we still witness with growing anticipation the dismissal of the catechumens and candidates for full communion, knowing that it will not be long before they will gather alongside us around the Eucharistic table. Even as we acknowledge our sinfulness, we rejoice as we hear the Gospels: we marvel in awe at …

Who Is an African Without Ancestors?

SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD! For each child that’s born a morning star rises and sings to the universe who we are We are our grandmothers prayers we are our grandfathers dreamings we are the breath of the ancestors we are the spirit of God —Ysaye M. Barnwell of Sweet Honey In the Rock, “We Are” I. Who is an African without ancestors? One of the great challenges of diasporic African life is a constant memory of the loss of home, lineage, and spiritual patrimony. The South African Bantu word ubuntu which translates most literally into something akin to the abstraction “humanity,” is also said to embody the proverb, “I am because we are.” Lasting effects of the Atlantic slave trade have included a cultural dislodging from a holistic worldview tied to land, language, religion, and history. Living in culturally Western societies, whether in Europe, or Latin or North America, has meant that the cultural and aesthetic values that undergird said societies will often be neutral to the flourishing and validation of black life at times, …

Friendship and Freddie Mercury

Bohemian Rhapsody is not a very subtle movie. In the first moments of Bryan Singer’s Queen bio-drama, we get a montage of preparation for Live Aid, the famous 1985 all-star charity concert. The jorts-clad roadies move equipment, thousands of people make their way into Wembley Stadium, the members of the band wait in their trailer, guitars are tuned, costumes are donned, and Queen’s “Somebody to Love” plays on top of it all. Although we soon cut to fifteen years earlier and will not return to this time for another 90 minutes. The movie has successfully telegraphed to the audience: Live Aid is an important climax of this movie. As I said, not subtle. Much of this story is well-known, not only because of the popularity of Queen and Freddie Mercury (a Best Actor nominated Rami Malek), but because it is cliché. In 1970, four young British men form a band to rock on their own terms and for a different audience: “We’re four misfits who don’t belong together . . . playing for other misfits,” …