Benedict Sheehan: Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom

Six long-gone years of piano lessons hardly qualify me to write about music of this caliber. You can learn far more about its technical excellence and its place in the traditions of great music from the notes provided here.

I am able to write about it as a human being.

I converted to Orthodox Christianity as an adult. My decision rested, among other thing, on the numerous moments in which some expression of the faith, whether in liturgy or theology or age-old tradition, aligned perfectly with what my own life has taught me about being human. There is something intrinsically, almost primordially real about this Christianity. It is worship for the intellect certainly, but for the heart also, and all five senses. I treasured these moments, and still do. To me, they constitute glimpses into the essence of things. The veil is thin, praise God, and permeable.

Listening to Sheehan’s liturgy, even in snatches, is an encounter with this wholeness, this PERSONHOOD. Almost unbearably beautiful. Nothing left empty, no fragment of attention or feeling withdrawn. Dear God, let us never forget how to make such music. Layers of meaning, of spirit, grief, revelation, transcendence, and peace enfold me. Even if my lips are still, I am singing.

It fascinates me to experience this liturgy as a physical phenomenon. My brain loves this music. My body is wired to respond with euphoria. Why is that? There is science for this, I know, but I also know that the natural posture of a human being is eucharistic. Everything that has breath is created to praise the Lord. This music, made solely with human voices trained by years of patient effort, is a breath offering. Air, lungs, sinew, intelligence, all the facets of the human instrument produce the sound, and the human instrument and its soul respond because this is a manifestation of our nature. It is our selves rendering up our truest identity to the God who gifted us with this magnificence.

You should buy a copy, of course, either directly from Cappella Romana or on Amazon, both because it’s beautiful and because it’s important. Inches from your face at this moment, via the same device you’re using to read this post, you can find horrifying evidence of disaster in the world. Corruption, oppression, greed, unreasoning rage, and perversion of every kind. It’s not even worth arguing that people are sometimes the worst problem this world has to offer. That’s why you need this music, and that’s why it’s important to support this music. We need to hold on to the better things, to the glory for which we were intended. We need to remember that this music exists, and we need to remember how to make it, and we need to keep on making it. We must grasp it with both hands, and never let go.

More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day.

For what are men better than sheep or goats

That nourish a blind life within the brain,

If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer

Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

For so the whole round earth is every way

Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

In seventh grade, my English teacher required the class to memorize Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.

Decades later, I still remember it.

What makes certain words last forever in my mind? Why do others, apparently more important, vanish minutes after they arrive?

When someone you love experiences Alzheimer’s disease, you ponder memory as you watch it disappear. It’s like an onion, many layered, and one by one the layers peel away. The first layers are at the core, and they last the longest. Our oldest memories, made when our brains and lives were fresh, remain with us when later life has disintegrated.

There are medical reasons for this, and I have read about them, a little. But I am not a scientist. I am a writer, always looking for the poetry of things. Everything is symbol, and symbol glimpses truth. I think we gaze into the heart of things in these glimpses. We can’t take in the entirety, so we must content ourselves with musing and pattern-seeking, waiting for the eventual gleam of light or the bright burst of insight.

Sonnet 18 remains with me because my brain was young when I encountered it. But that can’t be the only reason. What else did I learn in school that year? Ten months of curriculum framed that sonnet, and much of it is lost to me, or blurred, and if I remember it at all, I do so only when present-day context reminds me that I once knew something about it.

Love strengthens memory, I think. I love beauty. Real beauty. Deep, bright, lasting, shining things. I love words. I love them so much. I was seeking after beauty, even in seventh grade, and Sonnet 18 is beautiful. Lyrical, spiritual. Layered.

A friend of my sister’s sketched her in profile that year, or the year after. It was a good sketch. Her friend was talented. Finishing the sketch, across the top she wrote, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” in light, graceful script.

Someone (it may have been me) in the class began work on a parody of the sonnet. “Shall I compare thee to an Oldsmobile? Thou art more shiny, and more round of wheel.” I’m not sure this effort went any further. Fortunately.

Memory is part of the sonnet’s beauty now. I am not young now, and I am not old. I’m journeying through the years between those places, and I have shaken off much of the chaff in my inner world. I know what’s precious to me, then and now and some day, and I like to take it out and polish it. I like to say the words and hear them again, with their old associations and current perceptions.

I can still say this sonnet from memory. I will type it for you here.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

and summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,

and often is his gold complexion dimmed.

And every fair from fair sometimes declines,

By chance or Nature’s changing course untrimmed.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

nor lose possession of that fair thou ownest.

Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade

when in eternal lines to time thou growest.

So long as men can breathe and eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Now I’ll look it up and measure my memory against the original. Here it is.

Sonnet 18 in the 1609 Quarto of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
By William Shakespearehttp://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/by2g21, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

It’s still mine. Punctuation and capital letters have faded here and there, but the Sonnet remains with me, as it promises to do.

Who Has Known Heights

This poem has lingered in the reaches of my consciousness for decades. I don’t recall where I first read it, only that I shared it with my Dad, who understood the feeling it conveyed.

Who Has Known Heights

Who has known heights and depths shall not again
Know peace – not as the calm heart knows
Low, ivied walls; a garden close;
An though he tread the humble ways of men
He shall not speak the common tongue again.

Who has known heights shall bear forevermore
An incommunicable thing
That hurts his heart, as if a wing
Beat at the portal, challenging;
And yet – lured by the gleam his vision wore –
Who once has trodden stars seeks peace no more.

Mary Brent Whiteside

I remember how strongly I felt, reading this poem, how well it expressed my experience then. But now that I’ve found it and read it again, after these decades of life have washed over me, I can see that it is no longer all of my experience.

I do seek peace now.

The heights and depths are there, but they exist more in my inward thoughts. I have learned to guard them, and I have learned that sometimes weariness trumps artistic exuberance.

The memory of those heights tinges my quest for peace with guilt sometimes, and I believe that’s good. I don’t want to be a seeker of peace at any price. I want only to maintain the balance I hadn’t yet discovered in those urgent younger days.

Whether I will or no, I exist within limits. I reread books I’ve read dozens of times. I decide not to watch a film I know will make me cry. I accept the spiritual poetry of scrubbing dirty dishes in warm water in a home of my own.

I choose my quests more cautiously, remembering that final victory may elude me or, more likely, appear in ways and times that can’t be prophesied.

Embroidery on Buildings in Madrid

On My Modern Met this morning, you can read about an artist who embroiders buildings! Imagine the delight you would feel if this was your idea. Maybe you were sipping tea, gazing through a window, or you were fingering a favorite embroidered cushion, or, more likely, you saw the blank stretch of painted facade on a building and presto! Your imagination began cross-stritching roses across the plaster.

In whatever way the inspiration came to her, Raquel Rodrigo is embroidering buildings. Or rather, she’s installing large cross-stitched pieces on buildings. She uses the same technique you do, but her “cloth” looks like the large mesh you might use to hold up a tomato plant in your garden, and her “embroidery thread” looks like colorful rope.

The result is delightful. You can see fascinating pictures of Raquel’s work on her website. Go look!