Thursday, October 22, 2015

St. John Paul II's Letter to Artists

Yesterday was the feast day of the recently canonized St. John Paul II, and I couldn't let the day go by without posting an excerpt from this man's beautifully written Letter to Artists.

 Let me begin by saying that, among popes, John Paul II was unique even in the eyes of the pagan and the agnostic, as evidenced by the following observation from gay icon, Quentin Crisp:

 "Surely, though, the perfect example of someone who found a job to match his style is Pope John Paul II. Like Pope John XXIII, the only other pope in living memory to have style, he brought to the papacy the humility and charm to carry out his pastoral duties as the gentle shepherd of a giant flock, and at the same time the sense of uncompromising strength and authority to be His Holiness the Supreme Pontiff, the doctrinally infallible successor of St. Peter. When God created the job, He must have had Karol Wojtyla in mind." -- Quentin Crisp, Doing It With Style. 1981.

I was given the blessing of seeing St. John Paul in person at a very young age.  I was thirteen and I was standing in the circle of St. Peter's Square with my dad and sister for the Beatification Mass of Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It was truly an amazing experience to be able to stand in his presence and to witness the honoring of Bl. Teresa, a woman whom John Paul himself deeply cherished. Although he was quite frail by then, it was precisely this frailty that was so moving to me. His refusal to hide away in spite of his weakness, to allow the world to see his suffering and his vulnerability is as remarkable to me now as it was then, for it is a choice that I know that I and most people would not be inclined to make.

Fast forward eight years to me as a sacred music major sitting in a medieval Carthusian monastery in the middle of the Alps in Austria. I was a junior in college studying abroad for a semester in a little town called Gaming, taking an art appreciation course in which I was required to read this man's Letter to Artists. Although I knew that the John Paul had been a poet and an actor as well as a theologian and a philosopher, I was not familiar with the letter and so, naturally, I savored every word! Someday, if I ever teach a sacred music/art appreciation course of any sort to high school/middle school/college students, this is one of the first things we are reading! I close with one of my favorite excerpts from the letter.

"Society needs artists, just as it needs scientists, technicians, workers, professional people, witnesses of the faith, teachers, fathers and mothers, who ensure the growth of the person and the development of the community by means of that supreme art form which is 'the art of education'. Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation, artists have their unique place. Obedient to their inspiration in creating works both worthwhile and beautiful, they not only enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity, but they also render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good.

The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know, too, that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. There is therefore an ethic, even a 'spirituality' of artistic service, which contributes in its way to the life and renewal of a people. It is precisely this to which Cyprian Norwid seems to allude in declaring that 'beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up'."

-- St. John Paul II's Letter to Artists, April 4, 1999.

Happy Feast Day!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

I See Dead People

When I was studying abroad in Austria, a couple of my friends and I got together one night to watch the 1999 Night Shyamalan film The Sixth Sense. The film tells the story of a successful child psychiatrist named Malcolm Crowe who takes on the task of helping a traumatized little boy named Cole who appears to be plagued by visions of ghosts. However, as Malcolm's relationship with the boy develops, he realizes that the boy's fantasies are far more disturbing than he imagined.

It is a highly suspenseful and rather gritty film, and one of the key moments in the story goes like this: (SPOILER ALERT)

Cole: "I see dead people."
Malcolm: "In your dreams?"
[Cole shakes his head no]
Malcolm: "While you're awake?"
[Cole nods]
Malcolm: "Dead people like, in graves? In coffins?"
Cole: "Walking around like regular people. They don't see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don't know they're dead."
Malcolm: "How often do you see them?"
Cole: "All the time. They're everywhere."

Later on, a theology professor at my undergraduate school used this scene to help us come to grips with the reality of those who live without the sacraments -- that is, without the life of grace -- either through ignorance, or worse, neglect and/or mortal sin. Whether they know it or not, these people have killed the spiritual life within them and they have become, in a manner of speaking, walking dead people. What's worse is that, more often than not, "They don't know that they're dead."

Problem: Dead people who don't realize that they're dead.

Solution? First of all, how do you make them realize they're dead? Secondly, how do you awaken them, or more accurately, how do you resurrect them? The second question is not so complicated, as that is the purpose of the sacraments of Penance and Anointing of the Sick -- sacraments of healing. But first you must make them realize they are dead. You have to move them to want to awaken.

Let's turn to another rather disturbing story, Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find. The story follows an unfortunate encounter between a family and a band of criminals who are lead by a man known as the Misfit. The main character is a grandmother, a self-proclaimed "lady" who appears to be a religious woman. As the story progresses it becomes apparent that she is not only weak but deeply flawed. However, towards the end of the story, the Misfit experiences a moment of vulnerability and, moved with compassion, the grandmother suddenly cries, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!"  Although she is being held at gunpoint, she foregoes the moral high ground she's staunchly kept and embraces her and the Misfit’s common humanity. The Misfit later realizes her change of heart and observes, "She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." He recognizes that it is in facing death that the grandmother realizes her capacity to be a good woman. If she had lived her whole life at gunpoint, the grandmother might have gained the self-awareness and compassion which she lacked.

In other words, the grandmother was spiritually dead without knowing it until she witnessed the Misfit's moment of vulnerability and she was awakened by recognition of the beauty of the human person.

Beauty. (You knew it was going to be my favorite B-word). Beauty has the capacity to awaken the dead. I'm sure most of us have experienced this at least once in our lives: an unexpected moment in which your breath is taken away by something like the view of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the lush colors of a forest in autumn, walking into a gothic cathedral, holding a baby in your arms, witnessing/receiving an act of kindness. It's a feeling of awe, yearning, vulnerability, as if one has been the recipient of an immense unexpected gift. It's a feeling that inspires one person to say, "I have to ask her to marry me," and another person to say, "I have to beg your forgiveness."

Sunrise over the Alps in Gaming, Austria.
Now we know of plenty of amazing vistas around the world through which the Creator's unmediated voice speaks to us: Niagara Falls, the Alps, the Cliffs of Moher, autumn in Vermont, the Grand Tetons, etc. However, there are plenty of us (myself included) who don't live next door to these natural wonders. How can we give them this sense of the beautiful?

Art. (On to my second favorite, the A-word...) As people become less connected to the unmediated Creator (a.k.a. natural wonders which present the majesty and beauty of the Creator without us having to do anything except stand there and experience it), they are going to need to encounter art that gives them the sense of the beautiful.

We need art that awakens -- not violates, but awakens.

We need art that shoots people every day of their life.
And it is our responsibility as believers to create this kind of art.

But that begs the question, how is this kind of art created? What makes art so beautiful that, as Rainer Maria Rilke writes in her poem Archaic Torso of Apollo, it compels them to change their life?

Most of the smart guys (Aquinas, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine to name a few) seemed to agree that beauty consists of three things: wholeness + harmony + radiance (and you don't have to take my word for it).

These three factors automatically cancel out qualities such as cute, pretty, facile, puerile, and banal. In other words, if it's easy/cheap, it's not beautiful.  Beauty takes effort, blood, sweat,  tears, money, and generous benefactors. Artists pour themselves into their work and they deserve to be paid for what they create.

If art has an agenda -- political, egalitarian or other -- it's not beautiful. Beauty does not bash people over the head. It simply presents the truth in the hope that people's hearts will respond. Exhibit A, B, C:
Altarpiece of Veit Stoss, St. Mary's Basilica, Krakow, Poland.
An Easter Liturgy at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Remsen, Iowa

"Like Great Drops of Blood" by Mary Sullivan
I see dead people... and it's time we helped them wake up.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Life Updates: August 2015

Hello, readers! I hope this post finds you well. I am truly sorry for having neglected this blog for the past summer, but in my defense it has been an intense few months! First I took a trip to Italy with the sacred music program at ND and then I took a French reading course for six weeks. It was exhausting -- we did about a chapter a day and I spent almost every day studying from noon to 5 in the Law School Library -- but it was effective! I can now read French though I can't speak it yet as the class was primarily for research purposes. However, my newly acquired knowledge of French should suffice for the time being!

However, my summer wasn't *all* French! I did do something I've never done before: I started a regular exercise routine using the 21 Day Fix Program from Beachbody! This is a major step for me since I've never been one of those girls who feels motivated to for a run/jog or go to the gym. So what's the difference? The program focuses on different muscle groups for each day of the week and is only 30 minutes long, including the warm-up/cool-down. I've found it works really well with what can be a frantic and stressful student schedule because it is diverse as well as not-too-time-consuming! I've also been watching what I eat and I've lost over 9 pounds this summer! *happy dance* But more importantly, I feel better AND I can wear things now that I used to have to stick at the back of my closet! *happy dance* Here's hoping that I can keep the weight off, keep eating healthy, and keep exercising this year!

I also *finally* read George Macdonald's The Princess and the Goblin, and ... it wasn't as good as I thought it was going to be, but I'm not about to give up on Macdonald as C.S. Lewis claimed Macdonald was immensely influential on his writing, so I'll take his word for it! Other books I treated myself to this summer: Jane Austen's Persuasion, C.S. Lewis' Perelandra, Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick, and Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl's book was by far the BEST thing I read this summer. Every person needs to read this book, and millenials ESPECIALLY need to read this book! A personal account of a man's experiences in Auschwitz, Frankl describes his journey to finding meaning, dignity, and fulfillment even in the midst of the darkest suffering. Read it. If it doesn't save your life, it may help you save someone else's.

In between French and my reading sprees, I took a break from Doctor Who to try out a new period drama: Poldark, the story of an English gentleman who returns from fighting in the American Revolution to find his father dead, his true love married to his cousin and his estate in shambles. A bit of a Robin Hood character, Poldark sets out to restore his father's estate while also defending the rights and dignity of the poor and the weak both at home and abroad. There are definitely some adult themes and content which would eliminate it from the "family" category, but the show is tasteful in what it chooses to portray on screen. Featuring the dashing master of the smolder, Aidan Turner (the actor who portrayed Kili the Dwarf in the Hobbit movie franchise), it is definitely worth a try if you are a period drama fan! Watch the trailer here:

But I am now back to Doctor Who, and I just finished Season 7, which meant it was time to say goodbye to Matt Smith. Some serious ugly-crying went down -- which came as a surprise to me because I did not expect to become as attached to Eleven as I was to Ten! But ever since The Snowmen Christmas special, I've really fallen for Smith, and it has caused quite a conundrum for me as I am fiercely loyal and I was convinced that Tennant was my favorite! But my sister Rachel suggested a solution: Tennant's Doctor is the one you fall in love with, but Smith's Doctor is your best friend! I like this system, but more on that in another post! 

I am currently not too keen on starting the school year, so I've been taking breaks from Doctor Who to watch Gilmore Girls to get a dose of academic motivation from Harvard-bound over-achiever Rory Gilmore. However, on the bright side, it has been refreshing to meet a few of the new incoming students who are both zealous for real sacred music and pursue an authentic, fully Catholic life! I hope I get to know them better this year, and who knows, maybe chant it up a couple times! ;-) 'Til next time!

Reading: On Fairy Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien
Listening to: Song of the Lonely Mountain, performed by Neil Finn
Watching: Doctor Who, Season 7
Quote: "My name, my real name. That is not the point. The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose it’s like, it’s like a promise you make." -- Doctor Who S7E13 The Name of the Doctor. (Seriously, this is going on my wall when I get my doctorate).

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You

There is a quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt that reads, "Do one thing everyday that scares you."

I don't do it everyday, but one thing I've done a lot this past year that scares me is teaching a children's choir. Getting up in front of people intimidates me, even (and sometimes especially) when they are kids. This past year I took a two semester course in vocal methods for organists and choral conductors, which taught me a lot about the workings of the adult voice and helped me to build my confidence in instructing choirs and leading choral warmups (which I've also learned this past year is the MOST important part of any choir rehearsal, professional or non).

Then this past spring I took a course in the basics of running a children's choir, which included learning about the child's voice, how to structure and lead choral warmups for children, and learning how to teach music education using the Kodaly method. The class also included workshops with conductors such as Melanie Malinka from the Choir School of the Madeleine Cathedral in Salt Lake City, and student teaching with the Notre Dame Children's Choir. Both were invaluable experiences! I also received some hands-on experience starting a children's choir at my own parish where I serve as the music director.

Two things I have learned about working with kids: #1) Don't baby them, don't talk down to them. Talk to kids the way you talk to adults. Even though they are far more honest than adults, they are usually far more forgiving. #2) Kids are musically capable of a lot more than adults think they are, and they will give it to you if you ask it of them. Yes, it will take time (months, even years), but they can sing Palestrina, Rheinberger, Gregorian chant -- real sacred music, if you ask it of them and you teach them well! They haven't had the complacency of mediocrity or self-doubt instilled in them yet.

My last final of the spring semester was for my children's choir course, and the final consisted in teaching a group of 7-8 year olds the difference between quarter notes and eighth notes). It was still intimidating and occasionally painful, and I'm still learning how to teach, how to be more confident as well as more demanding. But I have found that I love teaching music to children, and I am getting better with practice (funny how that works!). I hope to keep challenging myself and to keep improving as I get one step closer to my future parish chorister program! One step closer to teaching sacred music to the future of the church!

Choir School of the Madeleine Cathedral, Salt Lake City

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Life Updates: May 2015

Well, I'm back! It's the weekend before finals and I have three projects coming up, two due on Wednesday and one on Thursday ... but that didn't stop me from going to see Avengers: Age of Ultron with my flat mate, Cait, on opening night! I laughed much more than I expected to, I cried a bit, and I loved every minute! Hawkeye was fleshed out a bit more this time, which was appreciated by all since he got the short end of the stick in the last film. There were also a few classy music major moments : Bruce (The Hulk) is listening to the aria Casta Diva from Bellini's Norma in one scene, while another scene features the subtly sinister Kyrie from Arvo Part's Berlin Mass! By focusing on character development and a good story vs. just trying to top the first film, the Avengers team inadvertently outdid themselves and made a terrific sequel!

Also, as a bonus, the previews featured the new Star Wars trailer! That was a beautiful moment, seeing R2-D2, Han Solo, and Chewie on the big screen! :-) Oh, it was Christmas!

Forget about losing it when Han and Chewie showed up, I lost it at R2-D2!
Anyway, life updates: I had my first DMA recital last weekend and it went very well! The recital opened with Durufle's Fugue on the Soissons Cathedral Carillon, followed by J.S. Bach's lively Toccata and Fugue in F Major BWV 540. But my favorite pieces were the O Antiphon Preludes by Nico Muhly and Rheinberger's Passacaglia in E Minor! I had been wanting to learn Rheinberger's Passacaglia ever since I had heard my first organ teacher Paul Weber perform it as the finale to our schola concert in Spring 2010 at the Heinz Chapel in Pittsburgh. Thus, it was a fulfilling moment to be able to play it as the finale to my first DMA recital! The Muhly Preludes are a set of musical meditations for organ composed in 2010 for Westminster Abbey, and are based on a set of medieval chants from the office of Vespers for the last days of Advent! I am always eager to find new sacred music of good quality based on chant that is both enjoyable to learn/play and exciting to an audience, and Muhly's Antiphon Preludes are definitely both!

All in all, it was a good recital! My teacher was very pleased and so was I, especially considering I have had to relearn much of my technique this past year, resulting in some performance anxiety issues!

And I am one-third of the way through my doctorate, which if you divide it up into letters, I am currently a DO-. (Next year it will be DOCT-, and then in my third year I get DOCTOR, I.O.W. I'm the DOCTOR -- does this mean I get a blue police box? ;-) ). It's been rough, challenging, but I'm gonna stick with it! And hopefully it'll get easier the second time around... *fingers crossed*

In the meantime, my summer is kicking off with a two week excursion to Rome and Bologna with the rest of the Notre Dame Sacred Music program, and then I am taking French this summer to pass my language requirement as well as prepare for my dissertation, which is tentatively on 20th century French women organ composers... lots of qualifiers... I gotta run the topic by the head of our sacred music dept. before it's official, but my organ teacher suggested it so that's gotta count for some viability!

As far as fun things go though, I'm going to keep sane by:
 #1) watching Doctor Who (which I just started season 5, but I am still mourning Tennant but it's not Matt Smith's fault);
#2) Hopefully finishing reading the biography of the Monuments' Men and Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter;
#3) Watch the trailer to The Little Prince every couple of days to a) remind me why I am learning French and b) make my heart happy! ^_^ My friend Mary Sullivan introduced me to The Little Prince a long time ago, and I've realized that it's every bit as necessary to a child's library as The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, everything Kate DiCamillo ever wrote, and The Secret Garden (to name a few)! Like all the best children's books, The Little Prince is about the most important things, so don't underestimate it or lose faith if you don't get it the first time! (I had to read it twice!) I should probably blog about it someday...  but for now, got to dash! Long day tomorrow! Thanks for reading!

The Doctor meets the Little Prince on Asteroid B-612
Reading: Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross
Listening to: James Taylor's Fire and Rain
Watching: Doctor Who Season 5, Once Upon a Time Season 4
Quote: "Books! People never really stop loving books. 51st century. By now you've got holovids, direct-to-brain downloads, fiction mist. But you need the smell! The smell of books, Donna! Deep breath!" Doctor Who, Season 4: Silence in the Library.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

When you must change your life

"Archaic Torso of Apollo" by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

Torso of Apollo, Munich. ca 460 BC.
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could 
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Pietro Canonica. The Abyss (detail). 1869.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Disney's Cinderella (2015) : Virtue vs. Victimhood

I just returned home from a lovely spring break with my family, during which my siblings and I treated ourselves to Disney's remake of the classic Cinderella! I not only loved it, I was overjoyed by so many things about the film. I'll try to limit it to a few:

1. The underlying theme throughout the whole film, "Have courage and be kind."Seriously, Disney hasn't made virtue look this good since the good fairies handed Prince Philip the sword of truth in Sleeping Beauty, and that was back in 1959! 
2. A good father-son relationship between the King and the Prince
3. I didn't think anyone could match Anjelica Huston's evil stepmother in Ever After, but Cate Blanchett was equal to the task! I love them both! And speaking of Ever After...
4. I LOVED the subtle tipping-the-hat to Ever After (waving at the gate, Jacqueline the mouse, the Prince and Cinderella stealing away to the enclosed garden amidst castle ruins, Cinderella walking through the rain after the ball, the Spanish princess, etc.)  

I did think Kenneth Branagh was a little heavy-handed with the message (only a little!), but it doesn't change the fact that Kenny is now my hero and I am devastated that he is not directing the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast! (Belle is and always will be my favorite princess -- bookish girls for the win!) Cinderella set the bar so high that it will be almost impossible for Beauty and the Beast to meet my expectations! Kenny showed us what was possible in beautifully revamping a classic Disney fairytale while purposely avoiding the potential traps of revisionism (*cough* Maleficent and even Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland).

Lily James and Cate Blanchett in Disney's Cinderella (2015)

Nevertheless, I realized while walking out of the theatre that most modern critics will probably take issue with a classic depiction of Cinderella, not understanding the reasoning behind her submission to the treatment of her step-family. Why does she stay? Why not make a run for it?

Sure enough, Joanna Weiss over at the Boston Globe writes,"It’s hard to escape the idea that Cinderella chooses to be miserable. At the very least, she accepts her step-family’s cruelty." In the original fairy tale, Cinderella's key quality as her ability to endure, also described as her "victimhood." Weiss takes issue with Disney's choice to portray this "victimhood" as a virtue. Similarly, Rebecca Haines, author of The Princess Problem, says the filmmakers hoped to frame Cinderella's endurance as an act of courage, not victimhood. Haines cautions that not every situation should be accepted (or tolerated), adding that not everyone has a fairy godmother to help them out of a tight spot.

G.K. Chesterton writes in his book Orthodoxy that the message of Cinderella is the message of the Magnificat, exaltavit humiles -- "He has cast down the haughty from their seats, and has exalted the humble." Christ re-echoes the message of the Magnificat (and thus, Cinderella) in the proclamation of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land."

The meek. Meekness. This virtue is at the heart of the issue of Cinderella. Modern minds want empowered or rebellious women, not meek women. What woman actually wants to be meek nowadays? Meek = weak, wimpy, submissive, a pushover, encouraging misogyny and sexism. Right? Even when you look up the word in the Webster Dictionary, it doesn't sound very desirable at first glance, "Meek: quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on; submissive." Submissive is certainly a dirty word nowadays, implying becoming a doormat, relinquishing control.

Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark in The Help (2011)
But is meekness or submissiveness about being a victim, being weak? Let's take a look at another example: Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help. Set in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement in August 1962, a group of African American maids in Jackson, Mississippi collaborate with a white misfit journalist to publish a set of stories about their experiences working for middle-class white housewives and their families. One of the main characters is the maid Aibileen Clark, a soft-spoken 53-year-old woman who has cooked, cleaned, and taken care of white children since she was a teenager. Aibileen is extremely fearful about telling her story (and rightly so) but eventually her love for her son Treelore and the white child she currently cares for, Mae Mobley Leefolt, gives her the courage to go public, albeit anonymously. *SPOILER ALERT* Aibileen's courageous act ultimately causes her to lose her job, but Aibileen is no longer afraid. The movie ends as she reflects, "God says we need to love our enemies. It hard to do. But it can start by telling the truth."

I would like to present Aibileen as an example of meekness at its finest. Aibileen does not lash out at her employers, the Leefolts, even when Mrs. Leefolt is hurtful towards her or Mae Mobley, to whom Aibileen has become particularly attached (unlike another maid in the story, Minnie Jackson, who has a sharp tongue and a knack for revenge and pays for both). During the course of the novel/movie, Aibileen teaches Mae Mobley to believe in herself, telling her, "You is kind. You is smart. You is important." By the end of the story, Aibileen has also found the courage to stand up for herself, not by hurting others, but by telling the truth. And while we all like to root for Minnie and her sass, it is Aibileen who truly inspires us with her heroism.

Aibileen shows us that being meek in one's life is not about weakness. On the contrary, it's about inner strength. It means acknowledging the dignity and worth of every human being, including those who are in authority over you, even when they are wrong and/or they mistreat you. It means rising above the urge to lash out and harm those who hurt us. It doesn't mean accepting things the way they are (this is where courage comes in), but striving to make the world a better place through courage, kindness, and telling the truth. (Just because Cinderella doesn't complain or rebel against her stepfamily does not mean she is accepting of her situation. As she reminds the Prince, "Just because it's what's done doesn't mean it's what should be done.")

Like Cinderella, Aibileen could also be depicted as a victim. However, I would not so much call them victims as I would call them martyrs or saints (saint: a word which here means a person who strives to live the virtuous life; martyr: a word which here means a person who suffers bravely for a cause). As blogger Marc Barnes puts it so eloquently on his blog, Bad Catholic :

"The martyr, then, is not the victim. The victim is referred to some enemy (a victim of a freak boating accident, of the measles, of terrorism) while the martyr is referred to some friend (a martyr for God, for country, for peace). The victim is referred to a moment in the past (she was a victim of gang violence) while the martyr is a martyr by virtue of a quality she has in the present moment, even after she is dead (she is a martyr). The victim is held up to direct our negative attention towards the cause of her victimhood (look at what evil has wrought!) while the martyr is held up to direct our positive attention towards the reason for her martyrdom (look at her incredible faith, her courage, her commitment, her love for God, etc.). The victim’s death works against her life, coming in the form of a homicide, a buffalo stampede, a car crash, all without any meaningful, harmonious relationship to the content of her existence. The martyr’s death, on the other hand, is in profound harmony with the content of her existence. It does not end her life, pulling down the curtain in the midst of Act II, so much as it crowns her life, a fruit and reasonable consequence of its direction and intention — she lived as a Christian and died for it." (Read more:

Neither Aibileen nor Cinderella meet with physical death, but Aibileen risks death, and one could easily see Cinderella having the willingness to die for the truth and/or the people she loves. Aibileen is a martyr for the dignity of the human person. Cinderella is a martyr for virtue (charity, courage, kindness). Barnes writes, "The victim is held up to direct our negative attention towards the cause of her victimhood, while the martyr is held up to direct our positive attention towards the reason for her martyrdom." For Aibileen, this is her faith, her courage, her love for God, Treelore, and Mae Mobley). Similarly for Cinderella, this is her faith in her mother's words, her courage, her love for her parents, her home, and her Prince.

But perhaps none of this will make sense to the modern critic. Perhaps Cinderella will never make sense to the modern critic in a culture that has lost touch with its Christian identity. But to the Christian life, Cinderella is a glorious affirmation.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

What I'm Up To: February 2015

The Grotto, Notre Dame University
Hello, readers! I know that in the past I have occasionally posted little updates from my personal life (e.g. remodelling my room or shopping finds) but have never really committed to regularly posting about what's going on in my corner of the galaxy. However, this year I decided I'm going to commit to writing a little blurb every month or so about what I have been up to lately -- partly because these will take a little less time than my usual blog posts (which means more blog posts!), and partly because I know I enjoy reading about the goings on of the blog authors I follow, so I hope you feel the same!

I just started my second semester as a DMA student in organ performance at Notre Dame University. I will be completely honest, I did not want to go back to school this semester -- which is very odd for me, as I have never experienced this before. I used to like school. I love to learn, I love to study, and I love to read, so much so that when I was finishing up my last semester at Franciscan U. as an undergrad, I was one of the few seniors who did *not* suffer from acute senioritis. Well, it hit me this year, BIG TIME, and the bad news is : I have two and a half years to go before I am handed my expensive piece of paper saying I am a doctor!

Over winter break, I kept asking myself -- why don't you want to go back? And I came up with three reasons:

1) Part of it was due to a few of the classes I took last fall, which left me dissatisfied and frustrated, but that happens, and that's not enough to quit school.

2) Part of it was  due to my frustration with myself. The organ at Notre Dame is unlike any instrument I have encountered thus far in my career as an organist. It is extremely sensitive to the touch of the player, forcing him/her to be very precise when they play. For this reason, most of my lessons and practice time have been focused largely on technique rather than learning lots of repertoire. Improving performance technique is good and extremely important, but I have to be patient with myself, and that's hard because I can usually pick up things relatively quickly. 

3) But I think the primary reason why I wanted to leave was because of my internship as a music director! As some of you know, I started working as the music director at a small episcopal church near Notre Dame and, as it turns out, I love being a music director! While it has definitely challenged me in many ways, (there are currently six people in our choir including myself), there are definitely a lot of good things going on (I get to play one of the best instruments in town every week), and it came to the point where I wished I could forget school and doctoral recitals and dissertations so I could devote all of my energy and time to building up the music program at this church!

So some of you are probably wondering, why don't you just leave?

Three things: 1) The organ and my teacher have shown me that I still have a lot to learn, and so I am going to take advantage of both of these fantastic teachers while I still can! 2) There are plenty of other church musician skills which I can learn and improve upon while I am in school, especially things like vocal technique (a.k.a. good singing techniques), choral conducting, how to cultivate a healthy, vibrant children's choir, how to fund raise, etc. In short, there are still plenty of gaps in my training which I would like to try and fill as much as possible before I head out into the job field! 3) And *least* importantly, I still want to be able to write the letters "Dr." in front of my name someday... and I hope that doesn't sound terribly pretentious...

So far, this semester has been better ... I am making progress with my recital music *and* my technique (woo!), I like all of my classes, and I am taking voice lessons on the side both for my own personal development and (more importantly) to gain more experience/knowledge as a singer so I feel more confident standing in front of a church choir!
So, yes, I may not be able to be a full-fledged music director I want to be just yet (and, as I understand it, this is constantly a work-in-progress), but on the bright side, I suppose it's good to find out that you enjoy what you want to do!

Until next time!

Reading: Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wife by Sigrid Undset
Watching: Downton Abbey, Agent Carter
Listening: Alice in Wonderland Soundtrack by Danny Elfman
Quote: "It was Freak who told me about King Arthur. How he got this round table, and how he got the bravest knights, and the whole world to sit at that table. 'You will be brothers,' said King Arthur. 'And you will fight for all those who ask for help. You will be gentle to the weak, but terrible to the wicked.' It was Freak who told me about King Arthur. It was Freak who told me everything." -- The Mighty, 1998.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Into the Woods is not a Morality Play

Over the holiday season, I went with a couple of friends to see the film adaption of Into the Woods. I first watched Sondheim's musical during my senior year of college via the video recording of the original production on Broadway, and I must admit, I did not like it the first time. I enjoyed the first half, but I was uncomfortable with the moral ambiguity of the second half.

Nevertheless, I must admit I was excited when I saw the previews for the new film adaption (but who doesn't love the idea of Meryl Streep playing a fabulous witch, let's be honest)! Furthermore, my first impression of the story was removed enough that I thought I could approach the story again with a cleansed palate. And I must say that I enjoyed the second viewing much more than the first, appreciating the second half much more. Why? Because unlike typical traditional fables and fairy tales, I realized that Into the Woods is not meant to serve as a morality play/story.

I think that Sondheim was trying to write a modern fairy tale -- not modern in setting where a classic story of good and evil takes place in contemporary society, but modern in the sense that the characters, their values, and their choices reflect tendencies in 20th and 21st century society. In other words, if the story of Cinderella took place according to the values of modern society, what might have happened? I think this mode of interpretation is key to understanding the underlying themes of Into the Woods and reconciling these values with viewers who aline themselves with a more conservative value system. To be sure, this interpretation does not justify the moral choices of some of the characters, nor does it make it appropriate for young audiences. Nevertheless, I do believe it is an intriguing study for mature audiences that shows the artistic brilliance of Sondheim as a contemporary storyteller.  

How does the show reflect tendencies in 20th and 21st century society?


#1. Indecision. One of my personal favorites is the character Cinderella. Cinderella represents the millenial generation, those of my generation who are floating from one job to another because they are uncertain what they really want in life. She knows she ought to marry the Prince and escape her impoverished, abusive life with her step-family, but she's uncertain if that's what she really wants. The outcome of her story proves that her misgivings are not unfounded, but her inability to commit to a decision is a common trait among many of my own friends and extended family.

#2. Greed/Ambition vs. Gratitude. This is represented most clearly by the Prince and the Baker's wife, who by the second half have had their wishes come true (a child for the Baker and his wife and a bride for the Prince. And yet, the fulfillment of their wishes leaves them unsatisfied and somewhat disappointed. Thus, they fall prey to lust and in a moment of passion commit an act of adultery. The trouble is that they ought to be satisfied with what they have. Both seem to have a good life -- not perfect, but good -- yet both are still unsatisfied. Although Sondheim's conception of dissatisfaction is realized in the form of lust and adultery, it is also actualized in our culture's rampant materialism. Jack follows a similar pattern though in a different way. He experiences a sexual awakening while visiting the giant for the first time. But lust and curiosity drive him to visit the giant again and again, eventually bringing trouble and even death to the villagers, including his own mother. As actress Emily Blunt (the Baker's wife) stated beautifully in the featurette regarding the themes of the story, "You should look at what you have rather than what you want."

#3. Niceness vs. Goodness. The Witch informs a group of the characters towards the climax of the film, "You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice." Similarly, when Cinderella confronts her prince about his infidelity, he retorts, "I was raised to be charming, not sincere." Nowadays, we are far more careful to be "nice" rather than good. Being nice to people as a general rule means being polite and not offending people, tolerating other views and life choices which we may not necessarily agree with ourselves. Now not all of this is a bad thing. It is important to be kind, to be polite, and to be tolerant of others, but we should never have to sacrifice things like telling the truth, making the right choice, or our own integrity, for the sake of niceness. And more importantly, as Red Riding Hood points out, "Nice is different than good." Being a nice person does not necessarily make you a good person.

In spite of some of the dark themes which Sondheim explores in his musical, I believe he demonstrates that there is hope for our society through the fate of Jack. The remaining characters ultimately refuse to give up Jack to the giant. While goodness and morality are more than just saving a life, this is one of the most crucial moments in the musical as the characters come to terms with the negative consequences of the choices they made during the course of the story. They have made mistakes in the past, but in the climactic moment they have the courage to make the right choice and work together to save themselves and their fellow villagers. They realize that they have made mistakes; they have not always made the right choices; getting what you wish is not always everything that you hoped for.

Although Into the Woods is certainly not a morality play, it rings true in its portrayal of fundamental elements of fallen human nature and I think this is one of the reasons it has become such a favorite with audiences. It shows us that we all have both light and darkness inside of us. In the words of Sirius Black, "What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are." Yes, we sin. Yes, we make mistakes. But in the words of Thomas Wayne/Alfred, "Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up." 

So if there is a moral to Into the Woods, I suppose it would be this: learn from your mistakes, be careful what you wish for, and be grateful for what you have.