A Touch of Genius

Or, Finding God in Mozart

My new classical music station of choice is WQXR-FM out of New York City. No, this isn’t a paid commercial. I just want to express my appreciation for having this great channel. I even like their style of fundraising and proved it by making a donation! They were playing Mozart at the time, and were offering donors a couple of CDs with the “best of Mozart.” I don’t know how you’d go about selecting M’s best — it’s all so spectacular!

As you may know by now, if you’re a reader of my blogs, sometimes a thought jumps into my head and prompts other ideas to germinate. I consider this a blessing. It keeps my brain from atrophy (I hope) and invites insights and even clarifications  that I might not have had if I had just lolled around with only the one thought.

This time, what popped into my head was the 1984 Oscar winner for best film: Amadeus.

Peter Schaffer, author, capitalized on a rumor that had been floated when Mozart died at the young age of 35. The rumor was that the envious court appointed composer, Antonio Salieri, had caused Mozart’s death. The truth is that Salieri was a highly respected composer and teacher. Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt were among the most famous of his pupils, and they had dedicated compositions to Salieri. Pretty good recommendation, I’d say!

On the other hand, Mozart’s wild manners and foul mouth are well documented. Clearly, Schaffer used this situation as a device to explore the true nature of Genius.

There’s a wonderful scene at the beginning of the movie that shows Mozart horsing around (sorry, no other word for it) with his beloved fiancée Costanza, and using very coarse language. Salieri is disgusted to witness this highly improper behavior when suddenly, from the other room, are heard voices of wind instruments breathing out heavenly strains of music: one of Mozart’s Serenades.

Salieri is baffled. How can this uncouth boy create such glorious music when he, Salieri, who has dedicated his life and talent to God, can produce only hackneyed phrases? Has God no respect for his efforts? How can he favor this unworthy brat over me, a sober hardworking craftsman?

Playwright Schaffer named his play well, using only Mozart’s middle name, Amadeus, which means God loves. Indeed, God loves anyone and everyone for his own reasons, whether or not they’re reasonable to us.

Schaffer made good use of this alleged enmity between the two composers and the unfounded hoax surrounding Mozart’s death. He illustrated an important point about Genius which is this: Genius does not require moral Goodness in those whom Genius chooses to visit. Not all poets and artists, sculptors and musicians were models of virtue. But their lack of virtue or even good manners, never kept the spirit of Genius from entering what we earthlings might consider very foul homes.

I see this same paradox in what Jesus tells Nicodemus about the need to be re-born in the Spirit (John 3). To be born “of the flesh” is merely to follow the dry mandates of the law. Someone like Salieri might be well versed in the rules of harmony and composition, but may lack that special spark, the spark we call “divine inspiration.”

To be born of the Spirit means going beyond our hollow, dry, legalistic approach to God. Our model of divine inspiration is none other than Jesus the Christ. Yes, God has now given us Jesus to rely on; Jesus, The One who has come down from heaven and therefore knows first hand what is heavenly. Jesus taught of being born of the Spirit and even gave his life to prove the authenticity of this teaching.

We are, for now, on the outside looking in, and may not yet be able to know whom the Holy Spirit decides to visit, or why. The Spirit does not require our permission to visit those we consider worthy. Nor does the Spirit need to obey us when we want to exclude those we judge unworthy. The Spirit is like the wind that “blows where it wills. . . you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

That’s why Jesus’ teachings, parables, etc., so often feature  “losers” coming out on top, over the ones we’d consider “worthy.” For example:

  • The Good Samaritan who was a despised foreigner.
  • The laborer who was paid for a full day’s work in the vineyard, though he’d only put in a couple of hours.
  • The Prodigal Son, versus the “faithful” son who stayed home to work the farm.
  • Zacchaeus, who had cheated taxpayers but is now rewarded to have Jesus stay with him, just because he climbed a tree to see him!

Typically, we’re not good judges of character, especially as to who “deserves” to enter the Kingdom of God. On one occasion Jesus bluntly told Peter, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Matthew 16:23).

We don’t get to barter or bargain with the Almighty; there’s no quid pro quo.

Most of us have no idea what humility is, much less Genius or holiness, even though Jesus modeled these for us so thoroughly.

So tell me, when was the last time you heard a composition by Salieri on your radio?Mozart at 6, in court dress.
Link to a scene from the movie Amadeus:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ciFTP_KRy4

I Will Go to the Altar . . .

On the first steps of my spiritual journey, I thought how very nice it would be to live in a monastery. There, I would be officially called to prayer by the ringing of bells for the chanting of the canonical hours. Here at home, on the other hand, I’m constantly interrupted and distracted. The only bells I hear are from the telephone or my oven timer — not to mention the ongoing clanging of tinnitus in my ears!

In response to this situation, my spiritual director reminded me of Thérèse of Lisieux and introduced me to Brother Lawrence and Jean-Pierre de Caussade. These three holy persons taught that, because God is everywhere, prayer can be offered everywhere and any time. With the intention and desire to meet God more frequently, God can be loved in everything we do. With practice, I was given to understand this principle.

Remember  the old Latin prayer recited by the priest as he began Mass? I will go to the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth! I adapted this prayer to fit the ordinary practices of my day.

I will go to the altar of my laptop
As I compose this prayer.

I will go to the altar of my piano,
Where I touch the soul of Beethoven.

I will go to the altar of the sidewalk
That leads me to my neighbor.

I will go to the altar of my phone
As I call or respond to a friend.

I will go to the altar in my kitchen,
As I prepare what God provides.

I will go to the altar of my appliances
That make light work of my chores.

I will go to the altar of my books
That bring food to my spirit.

I will go to the altar in my prayer corner
Where I find the grace to surrender …
To love.

 

Space and the Spirit

It’s no big mystery how the name of this blog came to be. Experience has taught me that it’s impossible to say anything about the spiritual life unless the Spirit itself, this wonderful Muse, dictates it.

So for now, I remain spiritually locked up until the now-distant Spirit decides to let me in on a personal secret or two that I can write about.

These days I ask myself: why has my “inspiration” dried up? Surely I must be doing something wrong. I don’t think I’m alone in typically blaming myself first for anything that seems to go wrong in my spiritual life. But then, as soon as I think or write those self-defeating words, the questions start. Why is something “wrong” just because it’s different from what I was feeling and experiencing just a short time ago? Why is change “wrong”? Where is it written that I must be continually overflowing with ideas, sentiments or (heaven forgive me!) insights?

Because I’ve been given the kind of temperament that looks for reasons, I start looking for them. When I first started writing posts, I saw them as a sharing of graces given. Except for the editing, they rolled almost effortlessly out of reflections on scriptural passages, or from situations in my life. Can I blame the dry spell on the season’s imprisoning weather? Not really. Can it be because I’m sharing deeper conversation with friends and am somewhat used up by talking, instead of filled up by silence? I’d like the inspiration to stay strong. I don’t like the sensation of being dropped, as it were – dropped by the Spirit simply because I may have temporarily diverted my attention. That can’t be the reason.

No. I think this “dry spell” has actually become something to write about. There’s a different kind of lesson here. God is not all around me just for my entertainment, or just for handing out goodies that make me feel privileged to share.

Recently, as I was in my living room, pondering this question and attempting what I sometimes think of as prayer, my eyes wandered to the various pieces of art on my walls. Each is different. Each hangs alone, separated from the others by varying degrees of space. They’re not all hung, one right next to the other. What a disturbing and disagreeable effect that would have on anyone in the room! The violent ocean scene would be scrunched up next to the serene French village next to the embroidered sampler next to my parents’ wedding photo, and so forth. Ancient Latin used to be written like that, without spaces or punctuation. The sentence I just wrote would have looked like this:
ancientlatinusedtobewrittenlikethatwithoutspacesorpunctuation

You get the idea. The perceived emptiness of space is necessary and inevitable. The space we perceive as “emptiness” must exist if we are to find meaning in what emerges from within that space. We can’t appreciate what is until we notice and appreciate what isn’t. I suspect that the emptiness I’m experiencing now is not really space or absence or emptiness, but some thing that’s just different, an entity in its own right.

Each of us is separated from one another. And though we often feel that space between us and God is infinite, it is the miracle of love that moves us to bridge that space and, in fact, to ultimately succeed in finding an undreamed-of unity. For God is even in emptiness. All I have to do is keep my eye on that space and continue my spiritual practices with gratitude.

Finding God Where??

Sundays are special. Sure, it’s about going to Mass which is special since I see a greater number of people there than I do at a week-day Mass. The church looks and sounds livelier too on a Sunday. The singing has obviously been practiced and goes smoothly, though we’ve lately had the benefit of very beautiful and calming piano music at the weekday services.

So I see a lot of folks I know, and many more I don’t know, all of whom seem nevertheless to be acquainted, drawn together by a single motive – but I’ll get to that later.

The other part of Sunday that makes it special is that I often go to the supermarket after Mass. [I think I’m allowed to say it’s most often Wegman’s.] It’s usually quite crowded during the post-church hours, so again it’s a real community time.

I have yet to meet anyone crabby at the supermarket. You’d think there would be a few – especially the parents who are trying to keep two or three young-uns from fanning out from one end of the aisle to the other. (Oh yes, I remember that time of my life!) Or maybe there could be some exasperated sighs as a shopper discovers that they’ve rearranged some of the products.   No, instead just about everyone is ready to step from the middle to the side of an aisle, or to move their cart to let you pass, or to adjust calmly to the new marketing design.

I’m a special needs shopper, being “vertically challenged” and needing someone to reach the skim milk that’s on the top shelf of the dairy case. It might have bothered me a very little bit the first time I had to ask for help, but now it’s no problem at all. I simply watch for someone who’s taller than I – which includes 99.99% of the people in the store – put on what I hope is a confident smile, and fire away. Invariably, the person I ask responds with a ready and even pleased demeanor, as if I’m doing him or her a favor.

On one occasion (at Weis’s this time) a family of visiting Spaniards was at check-out and asked the rest of us where would be a good place to have a picnic lunch. A flurry of suggestions were offered but eventually there was a consensus to refer them to Eldridge Park. Everyone started giving directions (and I could picture them trying to remember all the turns they’d have to make, and unsuccessfully navigating one-way streets), until one gentleman said, “Wait five minutes till I check out and I’ll lead you there.”

I was once in the position to offer help to a shopper in a wheel chair. There’s not much you can reach from a wheel chair. The woman thanked me but declined my offer. Instead, she somehow got a conversation going about the Lord. “Are you saved?” she asked, point blank.

“Yes, I am!” I responded with total assurance. (This was no place, after all, for a theological discussion.) I suppose I could have guessed that she’d then proceed to the next step. “May I pray with you?” and I consented.

A bit surprising. After all, she was the “disabled” person here. But on the other hand, maybe she saw my height as a condition more disabling than her own. Or perhaps . . . Oh, who knows what prompts a person to share God with another, even a stranger (in a public place, no less!)­.

In the Vatican II era we used to call these kinds of events “encounters.” For me, they extend the Mass experience: People forming a bond of sorts, coming together to be fed; being helpful, kind and giving to one another; serving others, even strangers; teaching the Gospel without quoting from it.

We’ve gotten so that we think being holy (ooh, that word!) consists of going around kissing lepers or being martyred. Thank God he hasn’t made it that difficult for almost all of us, for it’s these small, do-able acts of kindness that express an everyday holiness, that create true joy in our lives and the lives of our fellow humans whom we don’t even know.

And even when we arrive at check-out, we are sent on our way with a cheerful benediction: “Have a nice day!”

Translation: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord in one another.

Finding God Where???

Last week, I was drawn to think about our animal brethren and how Christ used them as examples to follow. Think of it: creatures we consider far below us — certainly as far as intelligence is concerned. But Jesus found them worth our study.

This week, I’m focusing on the animals we bring indoors to become members of our family. We don’t refer to ourselves as pet “owners” but as pet “lovers” and caretakers. Often enough, however, it’s the other way around.

Since God is everywhere, it follows as night the day that anyone who has ever loved and cared for a pet can learn something God-like in the relationship between humans and pets. Ignatian spirituality teaches the practice of finding God in all things, and I’m suggesting that this can include our pets – preferably furry ones.

Yes, I’m serious: pet lovers are likely to be at an advantage in understanding divine love.

Now wait, isn’t that a stretch? What about meaningful relationships with humans? Sure, but you must admit that they’re frequently more difficult to love than pets. Do let me continue.

Let’s look at the world and its humans. What would an alien think if he/she/it were to land squarely in the middle of the typical living room? The TV blares, showing police cars racing after perps, sirens screeching. What about the many mug shots on the nightly news, people photographed at their worst? There’s a hopelessness there, and maybe no remorse. [We won’t even mention the political news.] From what the visiting alien sees of planet Earth, its inhabitants don’t seem to like one another.

But now let’s suppose the alien arrives in the living room of a pet owner. It’s late afternoon. The daddy is stretched out on the sofa, relaxing after his day of bringing order out of chaos. By his side is this strong, furry dog, breathing a sense of “all’s right with the world; you’re OK here.” You can practically see the smile on his face as he adoringly guards his sleeping friend.

Or, the kitty you’ve just finished scolding for knocking over a plant, or boldly sitting on a forbidden piece of furniture. Sure you’re annoyed. But at the same time, you’re amused and maybe even secretly proud of her because, after all, she’s acting like a cat! Which is what she should be doing, just as we ought to act like the human beings God intended us to be.

Here, then, are these two pets: one projecting the strength, care and fidelity of God Himself. The other, loved and admired in spite of her naughtiness, just as God loves us in spite of (or maybe even because of) our human failings.

Pet companions are shining examples of unconditional love, given and received.

Yes, Fido had an accident on the carpet. Maybe you made him wait too long? Yes, Fifi woke you up, meowing loudly, at 3 in the morning. Well, she is a nocturnal creature, you know. And even after we scold them roundly, they don’t hold it against us. No grudging, no judging.

I’m just saying: when we, like Ignatius, talk about finding God in all things, one of the easiest places in the world is in the behavior of the pets we’ve been given. Thank God for them!