[ by Charles Cameron — keeping you in the “loopy” loop ]
There’s more ridiculous sloshing around on the web than I can hope to monitor, but my personal collection hit a couple of high points recently that I thought I should share with you. Did you know, for instance, that Israel recently exploded a nuclear bomb in Syria? How could you consider yourself informed, and be unaware of such a thing? It was on YouTube…
But pshaw, that’s secular nonsense, and as you know, my tastes run to the religious. So did you know the emeritus Pope Benedict had a demonic advisor by his side while he was making a major speech?
[ by Charles Cameron — you can safely ignore this if you have zero interest in any or all of Bach, Eliot, Christianity and Sufism ]
It’s Sunday evening here, let’s start with Yehudi Menuhin playing Bach — the great Chaconne:
This post began to coalesce for me when Dr Alan Godlas, whose web-pages at the University of Georgia offer, among other things, a profound “gateway to Sufism“, gave me his permission to quote a comment he’d made in a private communication:
Sufis and Muslims need to learn how to recite and listen to the Qur’an (and how to do dhikr and practice Islam and Sufism) at the depth at which Bach wrote this Chaconne and at which it was played by Menuhin.
That really gets to the heart of the issue of spirituality and beauty — and it brought to mind a comment made by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict Emeritus, in his speech at Rimini on The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty:
The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgement and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true”. The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.
John Eliot Gardiner, the great conductor of Bach with whom I apparently spent some of my earlier school-years, offers us an intriguing insight in In Rehearsal with John Eliot Gardiner (Bach Cantata No. 63), immediately after Sara Mingardo‘s deeply devotional rendering of the recitative O selger Tag —
Nota bene: Bei einer andächtigen Musik ist allezeit Gott mit seiner Gnaden Gegenwart. Now I find that very, very significant. That he’s saying wherever there is devotional music, God with his grace is present. Which, from a strict theological point of view is probably heresy, heretical, because it’s saying that music has an equivalent potency to the word of God. And I think that in essence is why Bach is so attractive to us today because he is saying that the very act of music-making and of coming together is, in a sense, an act which invokes the latency, the potency, the potentiality of God’s grace, however you like to define God’s grace; but of a benediction that comes even in a dreadful, overheated studio like Abbey Road where far too many microphones and there’s much too much stuff here in the studio itself, that if one, as a musician, puts oneself in the right frame of mind, then God’s grace can actually come and direct and influence the way we perform his music.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
I would like to offer three more interpretations of the Bach Chaconne, and one anecdote. The first interpretation is of the entire Solo Violin Partita #2, including the Chaconne, by the young and already great Hilary Hahn. Her rendition of the Chaconne alone is available as a separate YouTube video here:
There’s also a Busoni piano arrangement, played here by Helene Grimaud — it was, I think, our own J Scott Shipman who introduced me to this stunning performance:
Finally –since I obviously love the Chaconne – I would like to leave you with the story of a double performance of this same piece by violinist Joshua Bell at L’Enfant Plaza metro in Washington, DC — as told by Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten — who won a Pulitzer for this article:
HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L’ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play …
Go ahead, read it if you haven’t already — it’s quite a story!
It is also worth remembering the response then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave to a reporter in a 1997 interview:
INTERVIEWER: “Your Eminence, you are very familiar with church history and know well what has happened in papal elections. . . . Do you really believe that the Holy Spirit plays a role in the election of the pope?”
RATZINGER: “I would not say so in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope, because there are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked. I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”
Bearing that in mind, and given the current world context in which the issue of reform within the church is receiving the most fervent press attention, I’d like to pause for a moment to consider “foreign affairs” — and more specifically the Church’s relations with the Islamic world, since the next pope has the opportunity here to be a bridge builder, a literal pontifex, a peacemaker if he so chooses — or a divider, an antagonist.
I am therefore particularly interested in the possibility that Angelo Card. Scola might be elected to the papacy, since he has been involved for some time in Catholic-Islamic dialog through his Oasis project:
The ‘mestizaje of civilisations and cultures’. This refers to the ongoing, novel historical process of mixing of peoples and cultures. Hybridization is neither a theory about cultural integration, nor a general notion explaining realty. It is simply an acknowledgment of a situation that we must all face, whether we like or not, individually or collectively, that requires that each one of us to try to influence it for the better. On the basis of this notion the Oasis Centre aims at transcending certain frames of reference and concepts like multiculturalism, integration and reciprocity that are proving increasingly inadequate to explain the increasing interaction of peoples. It is clear that reflecting upon it cannot be done without taking into consideration the contribution of various religions and the way they themselves interact. In particular the Centre’s focus is on the relationship between Christians and Muslims.
Scola is currently the archbishop of Milan, and was previously patriarch of Venice. For a closer look at his work with what he accurately terms “the Islams” see his 2008 op-ed, The Freedom to Convert and interview with John Allen on “popular Islam”.
ALLEN: What are you hearing from your contacts in Iran these days? Looking down the line, it seems that Shi’a Muslims and Catholics share certain traits: A strong clerical hierarchy, a theology of sacrifice, and deep currents of popular devotion. Does this suggest that Catholicism can play an important role in a dialogue with Iran, where Shi’a Islam is dominant?
SCOLA: Three accents strike me in the Shi’a tradition: the necessity of a continual actualization of revelation in certain physical persons, to the point of overcoming a too-rigid conception of divine transcendence; the lively expectation of eschatological fulfillment; and the reflection on the problem of evil. I have the impression that we’re not well informed on these points, despite the enormous work of study and analysis that’s been done by specialists in recent years. We know Shi’ites better than we know Shi’ism!
The Oasis network really hasn’t arrived yet in Iran, so what I know about what’s happening is what I see and read in the mass media. I don’t doubt, however, that many people in Iran want better relations with the West. We must not forget that Persian culture has shown itself to be extraordinarily fertile and receptive.
The principal problem, if I can put it slightly audaciously, is that Shi’ite messianism, almost unable to bear the weight of the expectations with which it is structurally bound up, has been converted over the centuries, at least in some circles, into a political ideology. We’re talking about a long process that’s not linear, which experience a brusque acceleration with the 1979 revolution. As Westerners, we were caught off guard. We had forgotten that history is also sometimes forged by ‘theological options.’
In any event, all this is reversible.
A comparison of the Shi’ite Ta’zieh “passion plays” mourning the martyrdom of Husayn at Kerbala with the equivalent Catholic play at Oberammergau memorializing the passion of Christ confirms the resemblance Allen suggests between the “theology of sacrifice, and deep currents of popular devotion” in Shi’a Islam and Catholicism respectively.
As for our lack of awareness of the contemporary pull of Islamic eschatology, Scola’s words mirror one of my own concerns to a T:
As Westerners, we were caught off guard. We had forgotten that history is also sometimes forged by ‘theological options.’
[ by Charles Cameron — of headlines and ice cream headaches ]
I’m a tolerant sort of chappie on the whole, but the astounding idiocy of a tweet today from the Huffington Post really caught my attention. It’s in the upper panel of the pair that follows:
I might have been seen the HuffPo tweet, suffered a transient mental glitch and forgotten it immediately — but as fortune would have it, I had also seen the lower of the two tweets earlier in the day, and a tweet in response which pointed Jimmy Sky to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. I’d been intrigued enough, in fact, to track down Betteridge’s Law on Wikipedia to figure out what the fuss was about.
Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.
Does the presence of Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in the United States while Barack Obama is sitting president — indeed, even holding a photo op in the same room with him — mean that the United States has split into five distinct and warring nations?
No more does the presence of a “pope emeritus” alongside a newly elected pope in the Vatican imply that there will be a schism in the church.
The idea is pinheaded.
As British journalist Andrew Marr wrote in his book, My Trade:
If the headline asks a question, try answering ‘no.’ Is This the True Face of Britain’s Young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have We Found the Cure for AIDS? (No; or you wouldn’t have put the question mark in.) Does This Map Provide the Key for Peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or over-sold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means ‘don’t bother reading this bit’
He’s the one who seems to deserve credit for the idea… but Betteridge uses more colorful language in discussing a story titled Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?
This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bollocks, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.
Okay. That HuffPo tweet is probably bollocks.
And that’s a case of characteristic British understatement on my part.
[ by Charles Cameron — more on the upcoming papal election from a “comparative” perspective ]
As you know, I noodle around with parallelisms and oppositions quite a bit. Here are two recent pairings that caught my attenion — one of them just in time for the Oscars:
The other concerns political influence on spiritual appointments…
I had the good fortune to meet and befriend a “tulku” while I was at Oxford, so the whole business of the identification and recognition of reincarnated Tibetan lamas has long been an interest of mine.
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