Flannery O’Connor and the Protestant Ex Voto Tradition

Recently I came across a very strange song from an equally bizarre album. The song was “I’m Not Handicapped, Just Inconvenienced,” by Gary Dee Bradford. It was on his 1979 album of the same title. The piece is a chilling mix of bad ventriloquism, preachy Carter-era Evangelicalism, and awkwardly poor singing. Which means, of course, that I loved it.

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I’m curious what’s on the full album. (Source)

I soon found out that Bradford, who suffers from a rare physical disability called phocomelia (he lacks arms and has hands at his shoulders), produced a few other albums. Although he produced his most recent work in 2002, most of his output came in the 1970’s and 80’s. In one of the only other songs by Bradford I can find online, 1977’s “Good Ole Gospel Music,” we can hear the prepubescent Bradford sing in a high and eerie voice about the superiority of his chosen genre:

It is the sweetest love song
Ever heard by mortal man.
If we had more Gospel Music
We’d have a better land…a better land!

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Gotta love that 70’s montage work. (Source)

It’s catchy, I have to admit. Even if it’s not exactly Mozart.

It would be easy to make fun of the sheer cheesiness of Bradford’s records and write them off as one more episode in the history of odd music. But in fact, Bradford’s albums deserve more respect than that. They tell us something about the history and spirituality of mid-20th century American Christianity. Bradford wasn’t working in a vacuum.

American Gospel music, particularly that brand of Gospel that flourished in the predominately white churches of the mid-century South, has roots in the musical traditions of Appalachia. One of the most common and longstanding song forms found there is the ballad. Appalachian ballads often tell stories of woe and redemption, sadness and hope. When given a religious inflection, they become the musical versions of faith-sharing, testifying to the work of God in redeeming poor sinners. They are also the Protestant equivalents of the Catholic world’s longstanding folk ex voto tradition.

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An example of a Mexican ex voto, 1853. (Source)

The ex voto is a little painted image offered by a devotee in thanksgiving to Christ, the Virgin, or a saint for a perceived blessing. Usually, the scene of the miracle is depicted in fairly simple (or what the art critics would call “naive”) terms, with a short, handwritten narrative describing the incident below. They are emphatically not “fine art.” Ex votos are the result of folk piety, and they depict the most fundamental relationship of the worshiper and the supernatural, the body and the invisible world, faith and crisis.

There’s also a uniquely New-World flavor to the ex voto form. While examples abound from most historically Catholic cultures, the most exemplary tradition of ex votos can be found in Mexico. Indeed, the ex voto has become one of the country’s national art forms, often stylized and reinterpreted by contemporary artists. Frida Kahlo even collected them.

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An ex-voto of a woman stabbed in bed, owned by Frida Kahlo and believed to have inspired her own painting, “A Few Small Nips.” (Source)

We can see the same kinds of spiritual impulses behind a whole wave of calamity-themed songs in mid-to-late-20th century Gospel. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, in a Protestant context, the ex voto takes an audible rather than visual form. Take, for example, Jerry D. Brown’s A Crippled Boy’s Prayer and The Fuller Family’s slightly earlier but almost identical A Little Crippled Girl’s Prayer.

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Not a great song, but it makes sense as a sort of ex voto. (Source)

Sometimes, the album as a physical object mirrors the makeup of an ex voto. The back of the albums often carry long messages of praise and thanksgiving in spite of the various afflictions the artists suffer from. For example, on the back of A Little Crippled Girl’s Prayer, we read the words of wheelchair-bound Marsha Fuller:

It’s so great to be a Christian and serving such a great God. He has given so much to me, for most children with my disease lead a quiet life and never have the opportunities that I have had.  At the age of three He gave me a voice to sing with. And three years later God inspired me to write two songs. Since then, I have written four other songs and made two recordings. He has also blessed me in other ways. He gave me a wonderful Mom and Dad whom have loved and cared for me so much. He gave me a wonderful brother, Gene. You don’t find too many twenty-year-old men who loves to sing for the Lord the ways he does. As a family we have had rough times together. Sometimes we didn’t know where the next meal was going to come from because of hospital bills, but, God has always pulled us through. Our house might not be the biggest and our clothes might not be the finest, but as long as we stay true to Jesus someday we’ll have a mansion that outshines the sun. We truly hope that you will be blessed by our message in song to you. Yours in Christ, Marsha Fuller

There was a veritable cottage industry of Christian albums by blind, amputee, or otherwise disabled artists that flourished in the middle of the twentieth century. To give a few examples:

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Denise’s Closer to the Savior, probably from the 1960’s or 1970’s. (Source)

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Another blind album, It’s Me Again, Lord by Judy & Barbara, the Blind Slye Twins (Source)

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Benny Dean’s I’d Rather Be Blind (In My Eyes Than In My Soul). A bit on the nose. (Source)

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Here’s Something Special from Jeff Steinberg. Note the hook. (Source)

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“Truly a Miracle of God!” (Source)

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Richard & Gail Miller Sing the Gospel of Love. (Source)

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Sandra Kay Hyler in “Through Prayer I Found An Answer.” (Source)

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Another offering from “Little Richard Miller,” this time with cover art that closely if unintentionally replicates the ex voto model. The full album is online for your listening pleasure. (Source)

These musical works differ from the mainstream of Protestant aural culture in that, even when the songs themselves are classic hymns or are just covers of more obscure songs by disabled artists, they take on a new, personal, and highly-charged meaning in the context of public disability. The artists are not just performing music, they are performing both disability and Christianity – indeed, they perform their disability precisely as the core of their Christianity, and their Christianity as intimately bound up with their disability. The singer born without arms or the blind crooner or the organist missing her hands can all achieve a new status as an icon of model Christian disability. Their performance points towards the hope of a transfiguration that surpasses disability in the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, their physical or mental incapacity is often an implicit analogy for the spiritual deformation, blindness, or weakness found in the more conventional Gospel ballad. The healing of both comes from Jesus.

Mary Douglas, among other anthropologists, has noted that the body physical is often used as an analogy of the body politic. The symbolic representation of the individual corpus speaks to the social body at large – culturally-coded anxieties about the limits of the physical body frequently point to an underlying anxiety about threats to the community. Should it surprise us that the most visible flowering of this disability-obsessed genre came at a time when the culture wars were starting to animate the full force of Southern and Midwestern Protestantism into a politically active bloc with an agenda for cultural change? Surely that socio-political context stands behinds Gary Bradford’s “better land.” The Evangelical doom song, with perhaps its best representatives in the Louvin Brothers, rose to prominence at much the same time.

The fundamentalist folk spirituality that these songs present are a major cultural context in the wonderfully disturbing, deeply Catholic work of Flannery O’Connor. In her short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” she injects it into her description of a Southern freak show. A hermaphrodite addresses two crowds – one made up of men, another of women – before displaying its unusual genitalia. The freak says,

“I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.” The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal and neither high nor low, just flat. “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.” Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over onto the women’s side and said the same thing. (The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor 245).

Later, the hermaphrodite leads a kind of religious service centered on its own experience of God’s Providence.

She could hear the freak saying, “God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit,” and the people saying, “Amen. Amen.”
“God done this to me and I praise Him.”
“Amen. Amen.”
“He could strike you thisaway.”
“Amen. Amen.”
“But he has not.”
“Amen.”
“Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple, don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?”
“Amen. Amen.”
“If anybody desecrates the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen.”
“I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.”
“Amen.”
The people began to slap their hands without making a loud noise and with a regular beat between the Amens, more and more softly, as if they knew there was a child near, half asleep. (Ibid., 246)

O’Connor, who suffered from lupus herself, draws a parallel between the freak’s preaching and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. In the two episodes, we can perceive both the sovereignty of God’s Providence and the sacramental capacity of matter to bear God.

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A holy card depicting a monstrance, used in Benediction. (Source)

It strikes me as intuitively sensible that O’Connor should have chosen precisely this story to contrast Protestant and Catholic music. Early on in the story, two young Church of God men try to woo a pair of Catholic sisters by singing a Gospel hymn, complete with guitar and harmonica. The girls, who have been educated at convent school, bite back their giggles and respond with the Tantum Ergo. One of their suitors is more right than he knows when, puzzled and slightly disapproving, he calls it “Jew singing.” The two forms of music, though standing in an apparent contradiction, together anticipate the underlying sacramental truth presented by both the Protestant and Catholic services that conclude the story.

O’Connor makes much of Protestant devotional culture in one of her novels, The Violent Bear It Away (1955). It is the story of a boy called to prophesy, of his skeptical schoolteacher cousin, and of the battle they wage for the soul of a mentally disabled child. At one point, we come to the performance of a family of traveling musical missionaries. The high point of the act comes when their little daughter emerges from behind the curtain to preach a rousing sermon. In the course of her preaching, she delivers what may be the book’s central message:

“I’ve seen the Lord in a tree of fire! The Word of God is a burning Word to burn you clean!…Burns the whole world, man and child…none can escape…Are you deaf to the Lord’s Word? The Word of God is a burning Word to burn you clean, burns man and child, man and child the same, you people! Be saved in the Lord’s fire or perish in your own! Be saved in…” (The Violent Bear It Away 134-35).

O’Connor is fond of granting the most clear-eyed spiritual vision to the children in her stories. Many have profound experiences of grace that mark them forever, or they bear testimony of the invisible world’s dangerous immediacy to more skeptical characters.

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This album makes me think of O’Connor’s 1955 The Violent Bear It Away. (Source)

That includes O’Connor’s disabled children. “The Lame Shall Enter First,” one of O’Connor’s most emotionally crushing short stories, is a close companion to The Violent Bear It Away. It tells the story of a well-meaning social worker, Sheppard, who takes in a clubfooted juvenile delinquent, Rufus Johnson, hoping to steer him towards a productive life. Although he can overlook Rufus’s constant spite, Sheppard is exasperated by the fundamentalist beliefs he clings to. Rufus is convinced he is going to hell, and starts to talk about it with the social worker and his impressionable young son. He steadily grows into the role of preacher even as Sheppard tries desperately to “flush that out of [his] head.” I won’t get into any spoilers, as the story has a wrenching, unforeseen climax. I’ll just say that Sheppard finally realizes he has failed only when Rufus cries at him,

“I lie and I steal because I’m good at it! My foot don’t have a thing to do with it! The lame shall enter first! The halt’ll be gathered together. when I get ready to be saved, Jesus’ll save me, not that lying, stinking atheist, not that…” (The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor 480).

Sheppard attributes all of Rufus’s bad behavior to the emotional effect of his clubfoot. But Rufus finds his one hope of salvation in the fact that he has a disability that, according to the logic of heaven, will ensure that he enters the Kingdom first. For Rufus, as for so many of the artists mentioned above, it represents both faith and hope (if not yet charity). Sheppard is too blinded by his prejudice and his loneliness to see that. The results are calamitous.

Rufus’s underlying insight speaks to a truth often forgotten in the Church’s treatment of the disabled. Those with disabilities are not “problems.” It’s true that they may have some special needs with regards to access, attention, etc. But at the end of the day, they are people who have the same basic spiritual needs as any other human beings. They, too, can embody and image Christ – often better than those of us who are blessed enough to be of both sound mind and body.

Gary Bradford himself has spoken publicly about this issue before. Some time in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, Bradford – by then an adult – gave an interview with a Christian television network. He says,

In the past…so many of our churches, and so many of our people in our church in the past, it’s been the place for the good, the well-bodied, and the abled…And the Church isn’t to be like that; the Church is to take all.

Of course, the other great danger is to place too much emphasis on the disability and not enough on the person who has it. The “magical disabled person” should not become a trope in Christian life. We can’t load our disabled brethren in Christ with that moral freight. It isn’t fair. The disability Gospel genre fosters precisely that kind of harmful thinking; perhaps that is its greatest cultural fault.

I think we can avoid either extreme – neglect or overemphasis – by focusing instead on the individuality and personhood of every disabled Christian. Insofar as the disability Gospel song is an ex voto, it may seem to correspond to a certain type. Catholic ex votos usually do. But that’s only to the outsider who beholds the ex voto. For the one who makes it (or commissions it), the story it tells carries intense and highly particular personal meaning. Put another way; Sheppard may not grasp the hidden meaning of Rufus’s club foot, but Rufus does.

The same goes for the Protestant ex votos we find in this genre. They may seem to correspond to the demands of a cottage industry, but they all epitomize and present individual experiences. That particularity is the best thing we can take from this strange, lost genre of Christian music. There are no generic souls, abled or otherwise.

 

My First Year at Grad School in Twelve Musical Selections

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A still from Farinelli. This was the year I both became an 18th century scholar and discovered Castrato arias. (Source)

12. “Somebody That I Used to Know” only Vaporwave.

11. “Sumer is Icumen In,” from The Wicker Man (1973).

10. “Demons,” by Alex and “Sleep Games,” by Pye Corner Audio.

9. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake theme.

8. Psalm 129 from King’s College Choir, Cambridge.

7. The soundtrack from Le Roi Danse.

6. “Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman.

5. “Pur Ti Miro,” by Monteverdi.

4. The Little Match Girl Passion, by David Lang

3. The Farinelli soundtrack.

2. Michael Nyman’s “The Garden is Becoming a Robe Room,” “Prospero’s Magic,” and “Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds.”

1. Various Arias from Handel, especially Rinaldo‘s “Il Vostro Maggio” and “Lascia Ch’io Piangia” as well as most of “Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne.”

 

Mozarabic Amens

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A Mozarabic illumination (Source)

In his Chapter Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict yesterday, the Prior of Silverstream referred to a Mozarabic Pater Noster, “a chant of striking beauty.” It is marked by a repetition of responsory Amens throughout, an ancient liturgical practice that Dom Mark explains in his post. Naturally, I was curious, and soon found a recording here. I thought my readers might enjoy it as much as I did. It is indeed full of a “striking beauty.”

My Favorite Hymn to St. Philip Neri

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St. Philip, pray for us (Source)

As my readers will well know, St. Philip Neri is my favorite saint and has been for a long while now. I take every opportunity I can to sing his praises on this blog, and today happens to be one of them. In Oxford, we are celebrating the Feast of the Patronage of St. Philip, a local solemnity that honors the canonical erection of the house here as a Congregation of the Oratory. Please pray for the Oxford Fathers on this, their silver jubilee.

To celebrate, here is my favorite hymn to the Apostle of Rome – Pangamus Nerio, as sung by the choir of the Birmingham Oratory. It is the vesperal hymn of St. Philip.

Pangamus Nerio, debita cantica
Quem, supra nitidi sydera verticis,
Virtus et meritum sustulit inclytum,
Carpturum pia gaudia.

Noctes sub spectabus, corpora martyrum,
Quas implent, vigilat sedulus integras,
Ex ipsis satagens discere mortuis
Normam qua bene viveret.

Nocte dum Nereus fercula pauperi,
Gestans praecipitat, panniger Angelus
Tecto significat, qualiter excidat
Numquam fervida caritas.

Orantis penetrans cordis in intimum,
Laxavit spatium Spiritus impete
De Coelo veniens, esset ut hospiti
Immenso locus amplior!

Coelorum Domino, dum sacra munera
Libabat Nerius, saepius advolans,
Tellurem rapido corpore deserit,
Christo fiat ut obvius!

Corpus deseruit, cum Deus Hostiae
Fertur sub niveae tegmine conditus,
Prudens, in Patriam, pergere splendide
Nolens absque Viatico.

Amen.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an English translation (nor the time and energy to translate from the original myself). Alas.

May St. Philip Neri pray for Oxford, for the Oratorians there, and for all of us who call upon him in filial affection.

 

A Ghastly Hymn for Good Shepherd Sunday

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A cope depicting the Good Shepherd. (Source)

I realize that technically last week was Good Shepherd Sunday in the traditional calendar, but as most of the Catholic world (alas) celebrates it tomorrow, I thought I’d offer up this truly dismal hymn from Fr. Faber. I have never yet heard it set to music, so if any of my readers happen to know of a recording, I would appreciate them kindly sharing it. Fr. Faber is one of my favorite spiritual writers and hymnodists…even when he’s outlandishly bad.

The True Shepherd

Fr. Frederick William Faber

I was wandering and weary
When my Saviour came unto me;
For the ways of sin grew dreary
And the world had ceased to woo me:
And I thought I heard Him say,
As He came along His way,
O silly souls! come near Me;
My sheep should never fear Me;
I am the Shepherd true.

At first I would not hearken,
And put off till the morrow;
But life began to darken,
And I was sick with sorrow;
And I thought I heard Him say,
As He came along His way,
O silly souls! come near Me;
My sheep should never fear Me;
I am the Shepherd true.

At last I stopped to listen,
His voice could not deceive me;
I saw His kind eyes glisten,
So anxious to relieve me:
And I thought I heard Him say,
As He came along His way,
O silly souls! come near Me;
My sheep should never fear Me;
I am the Shepherd true.

He took me on His shoulder,
And tenderly He kissed me;
He bade my love be bolder,
And said how He had missed me;
And I’m sure I heard Him say,
As He went along His way,
O silly souls! come near Me;
My sheep should never fear Me;
I am the Shepherd true.

Strange gladness seemed to move Him,
Whenever I did better;
And he coaxed me so to love Him,
As if He was my debtor;
And I always heard Him say,
As He went along His way,
O silly souls! come near Me;
My sheep should never fear Me;
I am the Shepherd true.

I thought His love would weaken,
As more and more He knew me;
But it burneth like a beacon;
And its light and heat go through me;
And I ever hear Him say,
As He goes along His way,
O silly souls! come near Me;
My sheep should never fear Me;
I am the Shepherd true.

Let us do then, dearest brothers!
What will best and longest please us,
Follow not the ways of others,
But trust ourselves to Jesus;
We shall ever hear Him say,
As He goes along His way,
O silly souls! come near Me;
My sheep should never fear Me;
I am the Shepherd true.

A Heathen Song in Time of War

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“Then the black snake coursed the meadow,/The red dragon rose unwombed,/While the storm wailed like a shadow/To eternal anguish doomed.” – Johannes Carsten Hauch (Source)

As the world seems to be reeling towards another horrendous conflict, I am reminded of one of the greatest, most Dionysian pieces of recent anti-war art, Veljo Tormis’s Raua Needmine (Curse Upon Iron). Bleak as the Baltic, majestic as the dark woods of the north, and terrifying as Ragnarok itself, the 1972 piece from Estonia managed to capture the frenzied devastation of war. It is music best listened to with eyes firmly shut.

Nostalgia Without Illusions

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The Wilmington Giant, Eric Ravilious (Source)

Recently I read an article about a genre of music that had previously been unknown to me: Hauntology. In a nutshell, Hauntology is a throwback to the eerie, folksy world of British childhood in the 1970’s. The author summarizes the genre’s affective impact as “strange, melancholy disquiet.” Apparently music is being made today (and has been for some time) that conjures all at once that decade’s public broadcasting for children, the acoustic sounds of the English folk tradition, psychedelia, pagan chants, and synthesizers. Most of this material has been released through a few different labels: Ghost Box, Clay Pipe, and Trunk Records. Each specializes in a different variation of the general theme. On the whole, though, they all produce music that’s unsettling and evocative of a very particular place and time in the last century. There is something autumnal, something anachronistic, something broken in it all. In short, it’s music that’s haunted.

Many of the albums have cover art inspired by Eric Ravilious or John Nash or Sir Stanley Spencer or even Rex Whistler, those painters who so marvelously captured the quiet unease of the British landscape and its denizens. And the multimedia satirical phenomenon that is Scarfolk fits right into the broader movement. Hauntology is more than just a style of music. It’s an aesthetic.

In this respect, Hauntology is to the 1970’s what Vaporwave is to the late 1980’s and 90’s, or, for that matter, what David Lynch’s entire corpus is to the 1950’s.

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Malls built in the early years of Bush I are the stuff of Vaporwave dreams. (Source)

Vaporwave derives its critical bite as well as its occasional airy ephemerality from a unifying sense of dread. Much the same could be said of Hauntology. Only instead of the zombie-like ascent of neoliberal late capitalism under the glittering haze of digital culture and advertising, Hauntology is still preoccupied with the anxieties of the analog age. Orwellian dystopia, the loss of the British countryside, and the destruction of innocence all hover under the surface. It’s drawing upon creepy public service announcements rather than Japanese soft drink commercials. Hauntology is to British Folk Horror as Vaporwave is to Cyberpunk.

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A scene from Blue Velvet (1986), one of David Lynch’s most distinctive films. It set the tone for much of what was to follow in its powerful evocation and ultimately ruthless subversion of mid-century norms (Source).

The common denominator is nostalgia, but a nostalgia free of illusions. Each of these aesthetic representations of a remembered decade – Lynch’s 1950’s, Hauntology’s 1970’s, and Vaporwave’s Digital Age – contains a degree of attachment to that particular time. Usually because the main creators involved in producing the aesthetic grew up then, and thus they draw upon the dreamlike haze which alternately gilds and clouds our world in youth. But it’s all shot through with the very real understanding that the past was not as wonderful as we would like to believe. Something nasty lurks just beyond our peripheral vision. We cannot help remember, but in that remembrance, terror awaits.

I’m an American, and only in my early twenties. 1970’s Britain wasn’t a world I ever knew. Nevertheless, I immediately connected with the emotional phenomenon behind Hauntology. Certain relics of that earlier time appeared every now and then in childhood, and even those that weren’t directly from the United Kingdom of the 1970’s often bring to mind that same feeling of remembered unease. Many of Don Bluth’s films animate precisely this strange, sensitive part of my memory. So do Stephen Gammell’s original illustrations of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. So does The October Country, Ray Bradbury’s wonderful short story collection (which itself significantly predates the main era of Hauntology). So does anything by Lynd Ward. So do parts of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. So does that horrible movie, The Plague Dogs. There are probably more examples I could summon up if I thought about it long enough. I am no stranger to “strange, melancholy disquiet.”

I’ve always liked that sensation, and I’ve always been drawn to other peoples’ nostalgia. As such, I’m super pleased to have discovered Hauntology.

A Note of Gratitude at Year’s End

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Happy New Year! (Source)

Here are XVII things for which I am grateful in the year of Our Lord MMXVII.

1. Graduating from the University of Virginia and starting the next phase of my academic career at the University of Oxford, as well as everyone who has helped me along the way.

2. All of the friends I have left behind in Virginia, and all of the friends I have made at Oxfordfrom Staggers, my Ecclesiastical History cohort, and the Companions of Malta. Also my wonderful family who have been there for me throughout the transition.

3. Everyone who has taken the time and effort to read, share, and respond to what I have written at this blog. As of this writing, I’ve gotten 44,127 views.

4. All of the support I received when my grandmother died right before Holy Week.

5. The fact that I have several friends who have started the process of entering or returning to the Church.

6. David Lynch, Paolo Sorrentino, Peter Morgan, and Noah Hawley.

7. Rekindling my love of creating art.

8. The new basset hound my family got this winter and the rabbits we received in the spring. Not to mention the continued good health of our other pets.

9. Gin and Tonics, Whiskey Sours, and St. Germaine.

10. All the museums I have worked in or visited.

11. Discovering the joys of sticky toffee pudding.

12. My Marian consecration. The continued friendship of many saints, including St. Philip Neri and the Blessed John Henry Newman. Also the many beautiful liturgies I had the chance to attend this year.

13. The memory of those warm and golden weeks on the Lawn between the end of Spring exams and the beginning of final exercises.

14. All of the great music I have come across this year (The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, David Lang, a few pieces by John Tavener and Zbgniew Preisner, George Jones and Monteverdi, Bernstein, Gilbert & Sullivan, Chrysta Bell, James Carr and Pokey LaFarge, Gaelynn Lea, Jackson C. Frank, and so much more).

15. A new appreciation for William Blake and an introduction to the poetry of R.S. Thomas.

16. The fact that we haven’t all been nuked to kingdom come yet.

17. The laughter I have happily shared with friends and family.

May the good Lord bless all of us in the coming year of His grace!

A Song for the Holy Innocents

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“Come, daughter
Help me, daughter”
(Source)

While there are still a few minutes left in this feast, let me share with you the perfect music for the day, David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion. It is a staggeringly beautiful and tragic piece of music based upon the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Little Match Girl. It also won its composer the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and a Grammy in 2010. I encourage you to listen to it in a meditative spirit – slowly, carefully, with the whole soul attentive. You will be richly rewarded.

The Music of the Holy Ghost

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A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983). Clips from Tarkovsky’s films are often incorporated into the Rev Army’s music videos. (Source)

Not long ago, I came across a new band. What a singular group it is. Their music crosses and confuses genres. They produce content at a far scarcer rate than other musical acts. Even their name, taken from a Buñuel film, sets them apart from most of the offerings one comes across today.

Little did I know that I had stumbled upon a cult gem. The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus has been on the scene for quite a while. Almost thirty years ago, they released their first album, The Gift of Tears (1987). Since then, they have only come out with sporadic releases, such as 1990’s Mirror and 2015’s Beauty Will Save the World. The long hiatus has well earned them the title of “One of music’s most elusive and enigmatic acts,” as we can read on their BandCamp site.

Tim Cooper has a great review of their work over at The Quietus:

…the attention-averse trio, who regard themselves as a creative collective rather than a band, make wildly eclectic music rooted in liturgical texts and ecclesiastical iconography, contrasting ethereal beauty with stark brutalism. Celestial choirs rub their cassocked shoulders with squalls of industrial noise, political speeches are interwoven with celluloid dialogue, instrumentation ranges from sombre neo-classical piano to pounding dance beats by way of folk, free-form jazz and experimental psychedelia.

They draw together a variety of spiritual and cultural influences: folk Catholicism, peasant mysticism, Russian Orthodoxy, the experience of post-Soviet Europe, Simone Weil, Welsh poetry. Their work can, I think, be described as sophianic, but it is a sophanicity carefully drawn through the harried cracks of the fallen world. The truth that the Rev Army grips and holds up to the light gleams all the more for being refracted in the shards of our earthly mirror.

Here are some favorite songs with their proper music videos, many of which are just as important for the meaning of the piece as the score itself.

Come Holy Spirit” – the very first Rev Army song I discovered. A bit too much flute and too many drums for me, but it was different enough from anything I had ever heard that it caught my attention.

Bright Field” – the first one that captivated me. The upward lift of the music combined with R.S. Thomas’s stirring paraphrase of the Gospel, not to mention Tarkovsky’s silken, dreamlike visuals, all together inspire something like wonder. Whenever I listen to it, I am reminded of a poem by Rilke.

After the End” – a simple and haunting French ditty set to the grainy images of villagers at prayer. They seem to be visionaries.

Psalm” – a few women chant in English against an increasingly dissonant shower of quasi-industrial background noise. The juxtaposition strikes me as an artistic model of transcendence through persistent prayer.

Repentance” – the most Flannery O’Connor thing you will ever see or hear. I’ll just leave it at that.

Théme de l’homme qui n’a pas cru en lui méme” – a Latin-flavored and occasionally jazzy piece featuring footage from a (staged?) Spanish Lenten procession. In case you hadn’t already noticed, the band is extremely Catholic.

Joy of the Cross” – another Lenten procession, but this time with a soft-edged folk music that makes me think of Fleet Foxes.

Before the Ending of the Day” – the Compline hymn surrounded and supported by an airy yet pulsing larger song. Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev provides the meditative visuals. Note that one of the commenters on YouTube wrote, “Please keep making more of these. This helped still my soul.”

Something epicletic moves through their music. But one can find that quality in lots of other work. What sets the Rev Army apart isn’t just their obsession with the Holy Ghost, nor their stylistic eclecticism. It’s their powerful sense of mystery. They never shy away from the divine darkness with which the Holy Ghost enshrouds His manifold works of grace. How refreshing, in an age of “Spirit of the Council” muzak and shallow “praise and worship,” to find music that is overtly Christian and even mystical without ever becoming preachy, dated, or emotivist. They treat their subject, the perennial and universal longing of the human heart for God, with a rare artistic and spiritual sophistication.

Caught up in marvel at the saving mystery of the Holy Ghost, the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus is the real Catholic charismatic revival.

DescentoftheHolySpiritIcon

An icon of the Descent of the Holy Ghost. (Source)