Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Hand of God in Beauty and Learning to Trust

" ... The evening was bathed in a wonderful silence - and there was a sudden rift in the curdled clouds westward, and a lovely, pale, pinky-green lake of sky with a new moon in it.
"Emily stood and looked up at it with clasped hands and her little black head upturned. She must go home and write down a description of it in the yellow account book, where the last thing written had been, 'Mike's Biograffy.' It would hurt her with its beauty until she wrote it down. Then she would read it to Father. She must not forget how the tips of the trees on the hill came out like fine black lace across the edge of the pinky-green sky.
"And then, for one glorious, supreme moment, came 'the flash.'
"Emily called it that, although she felt that the name didn't exactly describe it. It couldn't be described -- not even to Father, who always seemed a little puzzled by it. Emily never spoke of it to any one else.
"It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside-- but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond -- only a glimpse -- and heard a note of unearthly music.
"This moment came rarely -- went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it -- never summon it -- never pretend it; but the wonder of it stayed with her for days. It never came twice with the same thing. Tonight the dark boughs against that far-off sky had given it. It had come with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of "Holy, holy, holy" in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a "description" of something. And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty."   
- L.M. Montgomery, Chapter 1, Emily of New Moon.

A sunset in Assisi, March 2011
L.M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon Trilogy is one of my favorite pieces of literature. I was smitten with the series' heroine by the first chapter when I read this passage. I found in Emily a kindred spirit in the wonder she holds towards beauty or what she calls "the flash." I don't know if this is simply an artist's quirk, or the blessing of being a seeker of beauty, but I definitely understood what she was trying to communicate in this little passage! I experienced it so many times in Europe: experiencing a Novus Ordo Mass said "ad orientum" in Latin in the Chapel of Our Lady of Czestochowa complete with Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony; enjoying a sunset by a castle wall in Assisi; going to Vespers at the London Oratory; visiting the Basilica of St. Cecilia in Rome. But rather than calling it "the flash," I would call it "the hand of God." To me, the flash is when the curtain between this world and the Beatific Vision is lifted just enough that we get a glimpse of what heaven might be like.
One of the more recent times when I felt this thrill of beauty was when I first listened to the third movement of Dr. Paul M. Weber's composition, "Wilt Thou Forgive." Based on John Donne's poem of the same name, the piece beautifully depicts through music the emotions of a troubled soul as it poses questions to God about whether or not God will forgive him of his sins even though he continues to fall into them. The first and second movement are plagued by dissonance and unrest. The third movement, the text of the last stanza of Donne's poem, begins dark and foreboding, imitating the chant-like melody of the first movement in the cello's opening line as the author expresses the unrest of his soul, "I have a sin of fear that when I have spun my last thread, I shall perish on the shore..." But then the piece takes on a decidedly different feeling. These dark, fearful thoughts begin to disappear when the oboe comes in, like the first golden touches of sunrise chasing the night shadows away. The tension builds until the sun bursts onto the horizon with the basses, "But swear by thyself, that at they death thy Son shall shine as He shines now and heretofor..." The soul begins to soar, caught up for a moment in a gust of beauty, and almost touchs heaven! 
However, the piece concludes on an interesting note (no pun intended). The poem ends with the words, "And having done that, Thou hast done: I fear no more." This can be interpreted in a number of ways, depending on the reader, the speaker (if the poem is recited), or in this case, the music. It could be confident, hesitant, or doubtful. In Weber's musical interpretation of the poem, I feel there is a hint of hesitancy, like a small child placing his hand in the hand of a relative he is still learning to trust. There is neither a perfect nor an imperfect authentic cadence to conclude the piece. Rather, the piece ends on a G major chord in a plagal cadence after a series of suspensions.  The speaker has asked God to swear by Himself to save his soul, but he doesn't know that his soul is saved. The salvation of his soul depends on his choice, not God's. And the choice to save one's soul is a constant battle within the human self to forsake our will for the will of God.  God is merciful and forgiving, but we have to make the decision to turn back from our sinful ways and take up our cross. We have to remember that God the Father, like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, will come running the rest of the way to embrace us, and He will sustain us throughout our trials. "My yoke is easy and my burden light." In the words of Fulton Sheen, "The whole cross is easier to carry than a part." Perhaps this is what is being said through the final chords of this movement. We, the small children, have so many times dropped our heavenly Father's hand for some fleeting earthly pleasure. Realizing our error, we have come running back to His mercy in the sacrament of confession. Now we must take our heavenly Father's hand once again and let Him guide us, renouncing our will for His. We are still learning to trust, we haven't made it back to that major I chord yet, but we are learning. "Unless you become like a little child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."

(I had no idea I was going to end up on this subject when I began this post, but I'm kinda glad it came out that way. I've been wanting to gush about this piece for a while. I hope you won't be bored by the nerdy commentary. But definitely give the thrid movement a listen; it's a stunningly beautiful piece! Please... pretty please.... with a cherry on top?)

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