Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Whole Truth

This post is partially inspired by the below quote from Venerable Fulton Sheen and also by the article Why I Am Not A Heterosexual from Bad Catholic blogger Marc Barnes. I have been mulling over this issue has been in my mind for several months now, so I wager it's a good topic with which to resume blogging.

Venerable Fulton Sheen

 "There are two extremes to be avoided in discussing married love: one is the refusal to recognize sexual love, the other is the giving of primacy to sexual attraction. The first error was Victorian; the second is Freudian. To the Christian, sex is inseparable from the person, and to reduce the person to sex is as silly as to reduce personality to lungs or a thorax. Certain Victorians in their education practically denied sex as a function of personality; certain sexophiles of modern times deny personality and make a god of sex."

-- Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Three to Get Married.

 If there's one thing I've learned over the past few months, it's the complicated matter of the reduction of a person to his or her sexual orientation.  This is not necessarily done on purpose.  It can be as simple as asking if your classmate or your favorite actor, writer, you-name-it person is gay or straight. But in the broader spectrum of the sexual revolution, I think we have been deceived.  By doing this, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that we're speaking about a person. When we're determining whether the person is gay or straight, homosexual or heterosexual, we are talking about ONE of the many aspects that make up a person: their sexual orientation. Granted, a person's sexual orientation plays an important role in influencing their personality in a variety of ways, but it's important to keep in mind that, "to reduce the person to [their sexual orientation] is as silly as to reduce personality to lungs or a thorax." This reduction operates under the same principle of pornography -- reducing a person to their sexual attributes. A person is far more complex than that!  Blessed John Paul II warns against this reduction in his book Love and Responsibility:

"Moreover, the sexual urge in man and woman is not fully defined as an orientation towards the psychological and physiological attributes of the other sex as such. These do not and cannot exist in the abstract, but only in a concrete human being, a concrete man or woman. Inevitably, then, the sexual urge in a human being is always in the natural course of things directed towards another human being–this is the normal form it takes. If it is directed towards the sexual attributes as such this must be recognized as an impoverishment or even a perversion of the urge."

To paraphrase Marc Barnes, labeling someone (or one's self) as gay, straight, homosexual, heterosexual can lead to diminishing the person to a particular type of sexuality relating to a particular "type" of object, when sexual attraction is meant to be oriented towards a PERSON, a unique him or her. A person communicates and is understood through their body, but this body also has an immortal soul. He/she has their own thoughts, beliefs, emotions, memories, experiences, skills, and talents. Regardless of one's beliefs, our understanding of sexuality must be rooted in the whole truth of the person, otherwise we do them and ourselves a great disservice.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Hay Maker by W. A. Bouguereau

Hello, readers! I'm back! I did not abandon my blog for good! The past semester proved to be exceptionally difficult, between theory and music history classes, DMA applications, and recitals. But now the madness has temporarily subsided, I'm hoping to get a little blogging done in between preparing for DMA entrance exams, auditions, and learning the rest of my recital repertoire... hehehe... like all that's going to happen in one month... But at least I can try!

In the mean time, guess what I found? The Hay Maker by W. A. Bouguereau!  I saw this painting for the first time as a sophomore during a trip to the art museum in Pittsburgh and it has stayed with me ever since!She reminds me a little of Danielle from the film Ever After, somewhat in her looks but more so in her personality! I think her expression is fascinatingly complex as though she has an interesting story to tell!

The Hay Maker 1869, W. A. Bouguereau (1825-1905)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Understanding Brideshead Revisited

A friend of mine recently asked her contacts on facebook for a few recommendations of books to read over summer break. I recommended to her one of the best books I have read over the past year, British author Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited. Her boyfriend (a philosophy major) responded that, while he had also read this novel, its meaning had escaped him. I sympathized, as I did not really begin to understand it until the very end.


 When I had picked up the book, I had been told it was the most Catholic novel of the 20th century. However, I had a difficult time understanding. Many of the characters are Catholic, but they are hardly models of holiness. None of them are excellent examples of their religion. Some are fallen away Catholics living as self professed semi-heathens, others are law-abiding albeit seemingly heartless, while others are perhaps overly compassionate, lacking integration of the intellect and will.

Diana Quick as Julia Flyte, Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder
So what is the reader to make of all of this? It does not fully come clear until the end of the book, which contains the final conflicts. The first conflict: Julia Flyte and Charles Ryder are having an affair with the intent of eventually marrying once both have settled their divorces with their former partners. Julia is somewhat torn about the marriage due to her Catholic faith. Although she was able to boldly cast her beliefs aside when she married Rex Mortram, she has never been fully able to leave them behind. Guilt and regret continue to gnaw at the back of her mind, resulting in bouts of temper. For almost the entire novel she has been torn in two pieces: her knowledge of the faith and its teachings, and her ambition when she married Rex, which has given way to her love for Charles. She is trapped in the middle, uncertain of what she truly believes. This first conflict is tied up with the second.

The second conflict comes about through the failing health of Lord Marchmain, who has come to Brideshead to die. Lord Marchmain became Catholic when he married Julia's mother, but abandoned the faith when he left her to live abroad with his mistress. Lord Marchmain is slowly slipping away, but he is afraid of death, clinging on to life with an unspoken terror. Meanwhile the members of the family (Julia, Cordelia, Bridey -- his children) debate with Charles over whether or not they ought to send for a priest so that Lord Marchmain might receive the sacrament of last rites. If a priest is sent for, on the one hand, they fear it may frighten Lord Marchmain and worsen his condition; on the other hand, it may bring him considerable peace of mind, thus easing his passing. The problem is that since Lord Marchmain is largely unconscious, it is uncertain whether he desires reconciliation with the church. Charles doesn't want the man tricked into anything he wouldn't desire were he in his right mind. This debate is a source of tension between Charles and Julia, for there is more at stake here than what is readily apparent. It's really about whether or not Catholicism is true. If it isn't true, than sending for a priest and receiving the last rites is stupid, futile, pointless. If it is true, then Charles and Julia's future together is jeopardized. By acknowledging the truth of the faith in the situation of her father, Julia must confront the truth about her relationship with Charles. She must acknowledge the sinfulness of entering into a marriage with Charles, in spite of their love for each other.

The conflict within Julia, her desire to be faithful to her religion and her longing to be united with Charles, are similar to the conflict that occurs within each human person. Every person has a desire for the true, the good, and the beautiful, but he is divided against himself through concupiscence. He deceives himself into the desire for lesser goods, or is blinded by his passions, by avarice, pride, and selfishness. Yet, the beauty of this novel lies in the truth it displays about Catholicism. No matter how far one strays from the Catholic faith, the Mother Church is always waiting to welcome back her children. The Church hates the sin, not the sinner. Like the parable of the prodigal son, he is always welcome home regardless of how far he has strayed. This imagery can also be seen in the house after which the novel is named: Brideshead, home of Julia, Sebastian, Cordelia, and Lady Marchmain. Although the characters come and go, although they may stay away for years, they always return to Brideshead.

 There is a wonderful quote near the end of the story that beautifully sums up this theme:

“I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from His mercy. ... Or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, He won't quite despair of me in the end.”

I think that this quote is brilliant. It is difficult to not sound preachy when writing this kind of material. Yet Waugh pulls it off with honesty, authenticity, and elegance. 

This book is packed with themes about love, beauty, and the human soul, and there is so much more to uncover and discuss. However, I think this is one of the most significant points of the story: the lesson of sin and grace, the lesson of redemption.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In Defense of Harry Potter

At 11:20 pm on Sunday, May 19th, I finished reading Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. I had started the series in December and had been reading steadily through them since then. I did not begin to seriously become acquainted with Harry Potter until quite recently, first via the film adaptions during my undergraduate years in college, and then via the books during my first year of graduate school. 

Growing up in a relatively sheltered, conservative homeschooled family, my exposure to the world of Harry Potter was relatively minimum. However, I think I should make the disclaimer that my parents never once pronounced that the Harry Potter books were either evil or from the devil. Their main qualm with the series was the inclusion of magic. The dislike I held for them when I was a child stemmed more from what I had heard from my friends, who were largely repeating what they had been told by their parents. I was an avid reader of the fantasy literature by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but I had no desire to familiarize myself with J.K. Rowling's stories. Nevertheless, as the series became more and more popular as well as more and more controversial in Christian circles, I made the resolution that one day I would read these books and discern for myself what all of the fuss was about: whether they merited a place on the book shelf or was this just a fad that would eventually collapse into oblivion.

"Hogwarts is My Home" by Mellissageovana at Deviantart
Then, during my sophomore year of college, I began watching the films with my friend Edmond, a fellow ex-homeschooler who had also grown up largely avoiding the Harry Potter phenomenon. At first I was mildly entertained, but as the series progressed I found myself falling in love with the endearing friendships among Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the wonderful world of Hogwarts, and the complexity of Severus Snape, to name a few of my favorite things about the Harry Potter series. I still vividly remember curling up on the couch to watch the final installment of the films (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II) at my friend Mary's house for thanksgiving along with two of my other classmates, and bawling my eyes out when ... well, I don't want to spoil it for those of you who have yet to experience it. Nevertheless, I didn't start reading the series right away. Even after I had established myself as a mild fan of Harry Potter, I was hesitant to read the books since I had heard that Rowling's books were not exceptionally well written. However, I finally convinced myself to start the series in December of 2012, and read steadily through them until I finished in May 2013. Having finished the series, I would recommend them more for older children (high school and up). However, I do highly recommend them! 

"Erised" by TomScribble at Deviantart
I could see that my parents' concern with the series was not entirely unfounded, for magic plays a significant part in the story in so far as the story revolves around Harry Potter and his education in magic at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is one of the reasons why I would say that magic in Harry Potter is slightly different than in Narnia and Middle Earth. However, there are three things that I think disarm this element of the series. 

First of all, the children must be born with the capacity to do magic in order to become a wizard or a witch.  This ability is passed on genetically. One does not simply acquire the power to become a witch/wizard. Similar to Gandalf the Grey and the elves in Middle Earth, either you have it or you don't. An average person can't simply study magic and become a magician. 

Secondly, magic in Harry Potter, similar to the magic in Narnia and Middle Earth, is neutral -- that is, it can be used for good or for evil, depending on the choice of the person. As a young adult speaking to parents, I would encourage parents to explain the difference between magic in Harry Potter and other fantasy worlds, which is neutral and can be used for good or evil, and magic in reality, which is acquired through demonic powers.

Thirdly, the Harry Potter books are not a "How-to" if one wanted to learn how to do actual magic. One does not shout out Latin phrases and wave a wand about to perform real magic.

The only element that set off warning bells for me at first was the class on divination in HP #3: The Prisoner of Azkaban. However, this turned out to be a false alarm as it quickly becomes apparent that the class is largely a bunch of rubbish, partially confirmed by Dumbledore at the end of the book, and further confirmed in HP #5: The Order of the Phoenix.

 The most foreseeable danger I saw was that certain children, when reading Harry Potter, might experience the desire to explore the actual methods of performing magic. This is not going to be the case with every child depending on his or her disposition, but for this reason I believe that a parent's decision to let their child read Harry Potter should be made on a case-by-case basis. (*** PLEASE NOTE: For a more in-depth examination of the magical elements in Harry Potter from a Christian perspective, I highly recommend reading the article posted in this link:

  In truth, the magical elements did not concern me so much. On the contrary, what bothered me more was the frequency with which Harry and his friends broke the rules at Hogwarts.  In addition, neither Harry nor Ron are model students, while Hermione, the bookworm and over-zealous scholar, is viewed as a freak. These traits might be problematic for young children, in whom you are trying to instill good morals and to whom you are trying to give good role models for them to look up to. However, this is not a problem for older audiences. I discussed this issue with my friend Mary, who pointed out that if Harry had been a goody-goody, he would not have been believable. Older audiences want three dimensional, relatable characters, which Rowling delivers. Many of the experiences and struggles that Harry encounters as we follow him through his  years at Hogwarts are similar to our own. In the words of fellow blogger Elenatintil, "We know what it's like to be misunderstood and unable to communicate our worries. ... We 'get' both his desire to follow the rules, and find him more human and more like us when he fails (because we all do). ... We sympathize with his struggles to be understood and appreciated for who he is and accepted as a mature young man. ... And we cheer when he grows into a fine young man and a true hero in every sense of the word, because it fulfills our faith in him and gives us hope for ourselves." 

These are some of the cautionary elements to be aware of when introducing the series to impressionable young minds. But now on to the virtues of Harry Potter! First of all (and best of all, really), Rowling's series revolves around the theme of sacrificial love, a theme which is also the foundation of Christianity. At the beginning of the story, Harry's parents give their lives so that their son might live. The theme of sacrifice, particularly in regards to Harry's mother, Lily, returns again and again throughout the series. Eventually, Harry also gains the courage to lay down his life for his friends. Harry stands in stark contrast to the villain of the series, the ambitious evil wizard, Lord Voldemort. At one point in the series, Voldemort's disembodied spirit attempts to possess Harry, but the pain he experiences upon entering Harry's being is so great that he is forced to leave almost at once. Voldemort cannot possess Harry because of the love Harry holds for friends and family.


“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all those who live without love.”
(#7, HP & The Deathly Hallows)

Next to love, I would say that the theme of death is equally prevalent throughout the series. Harry learns how to cope with death in a variety of forms, from the death of his parents to the death of a friend to the deaths of his mentors, to one day facing it himself. These two overarching elements, sacrificial love and death, are timeless, universal themes that all races and all ages can relate to, and this is part of the reason why these stories are beloved by so many audiences. We all are created to love and to be loved, and we will all have to face death someday. In a way, the most important moment in our lives is when we die, and I think Rowling shows that in her own way through Harry. But even more importantly, Rowling shows that love is stronger than death, another theme which Harry Potter has in common with Christianity.

“Books! And cleverness! There are more important things — friendship and bravery.”
(#1, HP & the Philosopher's Stone)
Secondly, Rowling emphasizes the importance of loyalty and friendship throughout the series, particularly amongst Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, and Luna. What is even greater is that she also emphasizes the importance of compassion towards one's enemies: particularly in the case of Harry's arch-enemy, Draco Malfoy and his cronies.

“If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” 
(#4, HP & The Goblet of Fire)

Thirdly, whether she intended this or not, Rowling upholds the importance of the family. One of the best examples of this is found in the Weasley family. Harry grows up without a biological family, or more accurately, Ron Weasley's family becomes his family. One cannot read the Harry Potter novels and not fall in love with the diverse family of gingers known as the Weasleys.  Both Mr. and Mrs. Weasley are wizards, as are all six of their children, and together they inhabit the little cottage fondly known as the Burrow. Mr. Weasley works for the ministry of magic while Mrs. Weasley is a stay-at-home mom looking after their five sons and one daughter. Although they are poor in finance, they are rich in love and generosity. Reading about their Christmases together in with Harry and Hermione, or their family dinners before school begins, what reader doesn't want to belong to the Weasley family? Who wouldn't want to chat about muggles with Mr. Weasley, have a tea with Mrs. Weasley, or play Quidditch (a wizarding game) with the Weasley children? The Weasleys stand in sharp contrast to the Malfoys, a snobbish, cold-hearted, family of three, or the Dursleys, Harry's close-minded, cruel aunt and uncle and their piggish son, Dudley.

"Harry and Hedwig" by Marykyart at Deviantart

"Every human life is worth the same; and worth saving." 
(#7, HP & The Deathly Hallows)

While I did find Rowling's grammar and sentence structure weak at times, I do believe that she is a great storyteller, weaving plots and subplots excellently into an overarching tale of love, loyalty, heroism, and sacrifice. She also excels at creating three-dimensional characters, from the enigmatic Severus Snape to the paternal yet equally mysterious Albus Dumbledore. Her technical skills in writing definitely improve as the series progresses. The fact that the novels get better as the series progresses says something, I think, because generally sequels aren't as good as the first book. (This is usually because the author is pressured to finish quickly in order to keep up with the demands of audiences and publishers). Somehow Rowling is able to avoid this problem! I also appreciate how Rowling avoids sexualizing the story (*cough* Twilight). That doesn't mean the story is without romance, but in an era where the media seems determined to inculcate every nook and cranny with a false portrayal of sexuality, this came as a welcome breath of fresh air!

Call me a rebel, but I would like to conclude that I believe the Harry Potter books have been unfairly demonized. There are certainly some elements of Harry Potter that are more appropriate for an older audience. However, there are so many good and enjoyable elements that to avoid the Harry Potter series all together would be a great loss indeed! 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Chesterton on Beauty

One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in a garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it. There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.
-- G. K. Chesterton 

Bergere by Edward Frederick Brewtnall

Friday, April 19, 2013

Reflections from Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L'Engle, 1918-2007
The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver. In a very real sense the artist (male or female) should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.

…I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses; but the obedient response is not necessarily a conscious one, and not everyone has the humble, courageous obedience of Mary. 

As for Mary, she was little more than a child when the angel came to her; she had not lost her child’s creative acceptance of the realities moving on the other side of the everyday world. We lose our ability to see angels as we grow older, and that is a tragic loss."

-- Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Summer Reading: Princesses, Goblins, and Gaskell

Summer is just around the corner, and you know what that means! Time for summer reading lists! So many books to read and so little time to read them as I'll have to squeeze them In between learning new music, now that my recital is over (and it went very well, in case you were wondering), working two jobs, and studying for my comprehensive exams next fall. But I'll hopefully have time for at least two or three! I've also become a fan of audio books lately, and since I'll be commuting for part of the summer, I think I'll be able to "read" several books that way.

One of the authors with whom I've really been wanting to acquaint myself for several years is George MacDonald (1824-1905), particularly via his book The Princess and the Goblin. Why? Mainly because of the high regard C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton have for him. 

"I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; … of all the stories I have read, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called ‘The Princess and the Goblin’, and is by George MacDonald..." -- G.K. Chesterton.

"I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him." -- C.S. Lewis

Who was George Macdonald? A Scottish author, poet, husband, and father to eleven children.  He was also briefly a congregationalist minister, though he was pressured to resign his pastorate in 1853 due to certain beliefs he held that conflicted with his profession. He wrote approximately 51 books during his lifetime, including thirty novels, two fantasies for adults, five fantasy books for children, five collections of sermons, six poetry collections, and three books of literary criticism. He is quoted to have said, "I write, not for children, but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five."

The Princess and the Goblin is a fairy tale which tells the story of young Princess Irene and her friend Curdie, the son of a minor, who together must outwit the evil goblins who live in caves beneath her mountain home. From the reviews I've been perusing, it seems that the author uses a didactic style of writing similar to C.S. Lewis' style in The Chronicles of Narnia (Though MacDonald preceded Lewis), which I really like when it is used well.

So there's one of them! Another book I'm very much hoping to read this summer is Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865), born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson, was an English novelist and short story writer in Victorian England. She is known for her biography of her friend Charlotte BrontĂ« and penned six novels in addition to several short stories. Her first novel, Mary Barton, won the admiration of Charles Dickens, who invited her to contribute to his magazine Household Words, where her next work Cranford was serialized. Gaskell's novel North and South was published in 1854.

If I were to compare it to another genre or author, I would say this is what might happen if one merged the social commentary found in Charles Dickens with the beloved romance stories of Jane Austen, specifically Pride and Prejudice. (No, it is not about the Civil War, as I thought when I first heard the title). North and South follows the story of the woman Margaret Hale, a 19-year-old woman from the rural southern village of Helstone, England whose family is suddenly uprooted to the northern industrial city of Milton at the bidding of her father, a former Anglican minister who abandons the church on a matter of conscience. Here she meets the formidable self-made gentleman, Mr. John Thornton, a wealthy owner of one of the many cotton mills in Milton. Complicated emotions of dislike and attraction ensue while the social conflicts which accompanied the Industrial Revolution erupt around them.

I first heard about this one via my friend Teresa, and then was captivated by the new BBC miniseries adaption from 2004 starring Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton (Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit; Guy of Gisbourne in the recent Robin Hood tv series), Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale, and Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey) as Nicholas Higgins. Depending on how you like to fall in love with a good story, whether watching a film adaption first or reading the book first (or both at the same time), here is a good adaption and a good book with which to become acquainted! I'm certainly planning to acquaint my family with this story over the summer, one way or another!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Thoughts on the Eve of My Recital

Tomorrow I'm giving the first of two recitals in partial fulfillment of my requirements for my master of music degree in organ performance.  I will be performing music by Maurice Durufle, J.S. Bach, Dietrich Buxtehude, and Johannes Brahms, all very different people from different time periods but each an excellent musician and composer.  

It's easy when you're studying music at a professional level to get caught up in all the technical and artistic things involved in performing a piece of music. These are all important and a necessary part of the process of learning a piece of music. But in the end, it's actually quite simple. You're making music. You're making something beautiful to share with your audience, to share with the world.

by Anatoli Egorov [Breslau, 1945]

"Playing their song" by Joseph Lorusso

Friday, March 8, 2013

Unexpected Treasures & Saying Goodbye to a Kindred Spirit

Have you ever had a day where you acted upon an impulse, uncertain if maybe it was the smartest or the most sensible thing to do, only to have it actually turn out even better than you thought? I definitely had one of those days today!

After my sacred choral repertoire class today, I decided I wanted to do some window shopping. As you might expect, it turned into the usual female shopping excursion where the woman begins with no particular inclination to buy anything, but she returns home with less money in her pocket than when she left. I started by going to a couple boutiques, but not needing anything in particular clothing-wise, I decided to explore a nearby second-hand store. My mom, sisters, and I are regular thrifters, so I thought I might have better fortune there, and you never know what you might find at these odd and sometimes extraordinary shops. Sure enough, there I found and purchased two unexpected treasures that I thought were well worth the price!

As I was perusing the religious/inspirational section of the book shelves, I stumbled upon a biography of St. Dominic, a saint to whom I have a particularly strong devotion from my years in undergrad. at Franciscan University. This may seem odd: Franciscan University, Dominican saint? This is a lengthy story for another time, but to put it briefly I have come to believe that the vocation of a musician has more of a Dominican character than Franciscan. The distinct vocation of the Dominican order is to study, to preach the truth, and to share the fruits of one's contemplation. Musicians share the preaching aspect of the Dominican charism in that they are called to preach through Beauty.

St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers

But back to my story! There are precious few biographies of St. Dominic, partly because so little is known about this saint. This one, titled "St. Dominic: The Grace of the Word" is by Fr. Guy Bedouelle, O.P. In addition, they are not necessarily found even at Catholic bookstores. So imagine my surprise to find this in an ordinary little thrift shop! I knew immediately that I could not leave this for someone else to find -- even if it wasn't about St. Dominic, I almost always feel a sense of obligation to "rescue" Catholic items from thrift stores or garage sales or rummage sales, mainly because some of them are sacrementals (that is, visible signs or reminders of invisible realities) and I suppose as a Catholic I think I mighty be partially responsible for what happens to them.

St. Hildegard von Bingen, patron saint of sacred musicians
and Doctor of the Church
My second treasure was a CD I found titled "Music from the Vatican: Alma Mater" featuring the voice of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. I had seen this at the Franciscan University bookstore a couple times. It seemed particularly appropriate to bring this home with me for a couple reasons.  First of all, it seemed even more valuable now that he is no longer the Holy Father, though he is still very much with us in prayer and in spirit. Secondly, it is a CD consisting largely of Gregorian chants. Benedict XVI is a great lover of music: he plays the piano and his favorite composer is Mozart, which makes me appreciate him immensely. He was also pope at a significant time in my life when I was discovering the wealth of sacred music which belongs to the Catholic Church, from Gregorian chant to Palestrina and so much more! These are things which the pope also prized immensely, as seen during his pontificate both in the liturgies at the Vatican and in his actions as pope. These actions for the promotion of beautiful music and beautiful liturgy together accomplished so much for us sacred musicians, from his motu proprio on the extraordinary form of the Roman liturgy to his canonization of St. Hildegard von Bingen, patroness of sacred musicians, to name two of the most significant events. Having the combination of chant and his voice on this CD seemed like an ideal combination, as well as a comfort in these times of uncertainty as the Church awaits the selection of a new Holy Father. It seems ironic, or perhaps meant to be, that one of Benedict XVI's final actions as pope was to call the year of faith and now we -- or at least I am called to grow in faith that  the Lord will provide us with a capable shepherd. It was an immense comfort to know that I had a kindred spirit on the papal throne (did I mention he also was a cat person, and an introvert), thus making it very difficult to say good-bye. However, I pray for the cardinals as the conclave approaches and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  I also continue to pray for Benedict, as even though he is stepping down from the papal throne, he is still going to have his health problems to bear.

I'll conclude with a beautiful quote from our beloved Benedict XVI.

"I am convinced that music really is the universal language of beauty which can bring together all people of good will on earth."

 -- Pope Benedict XVI, Paul VI Audience Hall, Vatican City, 16 April 2007.

We love you, Benedict XVI, and we miss you!

(source: Program notes for the CD "Music from the Vatican: Alma Mater, featuring the voice of Pope Benedict XVI")

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Beauty of a Woman

This post is a commentary semi-inspired by a note a friend of mine posted on Facebook several months ago. In this note, my friend complained about the many recent posts and memes depicting girls and books and implying that the classiest girls are those who do a considerable amount of reading. She argued that just because a girl reads a lot does not automatically make her a smarter, or better person. Ever since I read her note, it has been on my mind. Then when I saw this picture while browsing through my tumblr feed, I remembered her post and decided I'd add my two cents worth to the conversation. 

It certainly seems true that being well-rounded and reading a great deal has become particularly attractive in recent decades. One of the best ways I think to sum this up is found in a scene from the first episode of the second season of the BBC series' Sherlock, where Irene Addler quips to Sherlock,  "Brainy is the new sexy." 

"Brainy is the new sexy."

But is one's attractiveness or beauty contingent upon knowledge, nerdiness, or intelligence any more than one's attractiveness or beauty contingent upon one's physical appearance?

Now, in case you were thinking this is a tirade against reading or being well-rounded, let me begin by saying that I am a self-proclaimed nerd and I have enjoyed reading ever since I was in grade school. Furthermore, I strongly advocate reading and educating one's mind whether one is eight, eighteen, or sixty-five. Reading, education has so many benefits: it helps a person to develop an appreciation for other cultures, ideas, history, science; it can feed inspiration, build confidence, and teach discipline. The more people are educated in the philosophies and the disciplines of the mind and the universe, the more possibilities there are for improving society.

Nevertheless, I wish to argue that being an avid reader, having a bachelor's degree or a doctorate, or being well-rounded (or all the above) does not necessarily make you more beautiful, smarter, or a better person. 

First of all, knowledge comes in many shapes and forms apart from books and the internet. Life experiences such has hard work and interactions with fellow human beings, both good and bad, have the ability to teach so many things that cannot be learned from books. 

Secondly, beauty and the betterment of the human person comes from virtue and strength of character, not knowledge. A great example of this can be found in the story of A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The main character of the story is a young girl by the name of Sara Crewe, the beloved only daughter of a wealthy British army captain. The only daughter of a wealthy army captain, she is sent to a girls' boarding school, where she befriends the friendless Ermengarde and the lonely scullery maid Nellie. She loves to read and is treated like a princess in nearly every way until tragedy strikes, leaving her an orphan and a pauper. Her books, her frocks, and all of her belongings are sold and she is forced to earn her keep as a scullery maid alongside Nellie at the boarding school. She dresses in rags, sleeps in a freezing attic, and often goes hungry.
In spite of her misfortunes, Sara resolves to maintain her noble character. "Whatever comes," she says, "cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it." Later she confides to her friends, "Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend I am a princess so that I can try and behave like one." 

A Little Princess, tv miniseries from 1986

Sara experiences her own moments of doubt and despair, but she is able to overcome them through her kindness and her vivid imagination. She does not become bitter or selfish because of her misfortunes. One day while running errands for the cook, she comes across a six-pence on the street outside a bakery. Instead of pocketing it, she takes it in to the baker and inquires if anyone has come looking for the money. The baker insists that she keep it as  no one has come inquiring after the lost coin. Sara uses the sixpence to buy a few rolls from the baker. However, having noticed a starving beggar girl sitting outside the door, Sara gives most of them to her. Sara's ability to look beyond her own sufferings to ease the pain of others shows that beauty does not originate in reading, knowledge, or wealth, but in simple acts of kindness and love. 

Now one might argue that one learns about living a life of virtue through reading. This is certainly true, but a person must critically evaluate and apply this way of thinking to their own life: in short, reading/educating one's self is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. One must also be able to discern the good from the bad -- not all one reads is worth emulating.
I conclude with a few words spoken by Audrey Hepburn. As it turns out, they are not her own words but the words of educator-humorist Sam Levinson. She read the following on Christmas Eve in 1992 and she adopted it for when she was asked for beauty tips.

"For attractive lips, speak word of kindness.

For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.

For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.

For beautiful hair, let a child run his or her fingers through it once a day.

For poise, walk with the knowledge that you never walk alone.

People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed; never throw out anyone.

Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you'll find one at the end of each of your arms.

As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.

The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries or the way she combs her hair.

The beauty of a woman must be seen from in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.
The beauty of a woman is not in a facial mode but the true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives the passion that she shows. The beauty of a woman grows with the passing years." 

(From Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris, 1996, Putnam)

Photo of Audrey Hepburn from 1989

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Vulgarity is no substitute for wit

We all have those moments when someone drives us to the point of wishing to verbally express our frustration, impatience, or anger in less than admirable language. However, my experiences over the past year while growing accustomed to city life and attending a music conservatory have shown me that the use of swear words in every day speech is far more common than I had realized. Walking down the hall or sitting in the computer lab, it is not uncommon to hear the "female dog," s***, a**, or even the F-bomb dropped more than once, a word which is considered serious enough to give a film an "R" rating if used too many times.

It has been my understanding that these words are generally used in moments of pain, frustration, or anger -- instances when words like "darn" don't quite do justice to the situation. However, these recent experiences have proven to the contrary. My question is: why has the use of the f-word and other expletives become so common place?  Do people use them because it is a bad habit they've picked up through their youth, schooling, or entertainment? Are they frustrated or upset the majority of the time and less offensive words just don't cut it anymore? Is the use of expletives a rite of passage to adulthood and now people enjoy giving full reign to the new addition to their vocabulary? Do they think that they make themselves sound more "impressive," "cool," or "daring" by using these words?  Or maybe it's just me and these words just aren't as "bad" as they used to be.

Whatever the reason behind the expletive over-usage, it seems to me that those who are guilty of it seem to have a considerable problem expressing themselves.  In Shakespeare's day, at least folks were a bit more creative in their word choice, with expressions like, "You brood of vipers!" or "You carcass fit for hounds!" which, I've gotta say, sounds far more intelligent than "F*** you!"
It demonstrates a limited vocabulary and expresses a limited emotional venue, even if it does not reflect the truth. In a way, it's the opposite problem of how the word "love" has become the new "like." People say they love everything when they actually don't mean what they say. A young man might say he loves his girlfriend and he loves a particular movie. What he actually means is that he really likes or enjoys said movie, but he has affection for and wills the good of his girlfriend, even if he just used the same word to express two completely different situations. Perhaps it is the same with swear words. Just as there ought to be different degrees of "like" vs. "love" (where "love" is reserved for God and for persons and "like" is reserved for chocolate, scarves, movies, and laptops), perhaps a hierarchy ought to be restored to the realm of swear words, if they are even necessary in the first place (this is a debate for another time).

Another point to take into consideration: if the use of swear words has become so commonplace in someone's speech, is he really in control of his tongue or has he become a victim to a bad habit?

Finally, if a person thinks that by frequently using expletives in his vocabulary he is coming across as more impressive, "adult", or "cool," in the words of the Dowager Countess of Grantham, "Vulgarity is no substitute for wit." Language is meant to be something beautiful. Kindly take your f-bomb over-usage back to the gutter where it belongs.