Friday, January 10, 2014

labyrinthine tangle of assents

true beauty, in which every century recognizes itself, is found in upright stones, ship's hulls, the blade of an ax, the wing of a plane.
--Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

When I was fifteen, there were three things I didn't understand.
They were the following:
Taking blame for a fault for which you were not actually guilty; the Angelus; and Schubert's Impromptu, Opus 90 No. 4.

 If I achieve nothing else in my life, I think I'm okay, for I have achieved one thing: I have finally finished George Weigel's massive (or as one reviewer dubbed it: "encyclopedic") biography of John Paul II.
It weighs more than I did when I made my first appearance into the world of daylight.
I think I'm joking.
But I'm not entirely sure.
Not only was it a relief to prove to myself I was still able to read, (which I seriously doubted after a rushed semester that left a hurricane of skimmed pages in its wake), it was a meditative crash course in the history of Europe in the 20th century.
The books has found a unique vantage point: history through the eyes of Karol Wojtyła, a young Polish philosopher/thespian (philospian?), who one day woke up to find himself the 264th Bishop of Rome.
It was a much-needed eye-opening walk through European history from a Euro-centric view.
My fifteen-year-old mind never really grasped what a diplomatic nightmare Europe (and much of the rest of the world) necessarily was following two world wars and the fall of the Soviet Union. And somehow this man was supposed to shepherd 1 billion souls, scattered all over the world, through that turbulence.
It was easy to feel overwhelmed simply by reading about what seemed to be just one crisis on top of another.
If it wasn't some frustrating diplomatic kink with the Patriarch of Moscow, it was a disagreement with the US Secretary of State. If it wasn't a German bishop verbally shredding one of Karol's encyclicals to bits, it was a stay at the papal hospital suite in the Gemelli.

But, at the eye of the storm, in the midst of all these events, these manic doings, was the being himself, who was mesmerizing and charismatic, even from the distance that a book forces between its reader and its subject.
If you flipped back several (hundred) pages before, you would remind yourself that this man who was juggling difficult conversations with Fidel Castro, and preaching religious freedom to dictators was the simple parish priest, with a vibrant life of prayer and an insatiable penchant for the outdoors, that we met earlier in the story.
The most impressive aspect of this priest seemed to be this radiant interior peace.
It was beyond all understanding, and far beyond the touch of any disturbances of this world.
As the horrors of the Holocaust swept over his country, faith-breaking horrors of which Primo Levi wrote: "if for no other reason than that Auschwitz existed, no one in our age should speak of Providence," this man escaped unscathed.
He lived in the peaceful acceptance of a person who knows that his life is no accident, and the events that swirl around him, the exterior drama in which a human is acting is coinciding with a deeper, interior drama playing in all our hearts.
He is an Angelus man.


I sat down at the piano and felt for the first time how stiff my fingers had grown.
The notes no longer floated off my fingers like words from my keyboard, I felt as though my brain was poorly translating the notes on the page into a language my fingers could barely grasp, as they stumbled over the notes like a lush over his feet.
After a few practice bars, I revisited the once-familiar runs of notes, which welcomed me back like a forgotten mother-tongue.
As I listened to the wistful melody appearing in the dense jungle of notes, I realized that this music was painting a sound that I couldn't recognize at the age of fifteen.
At the age of fifteen, my heart hadn't made that sound yet.
But now, as I heard it again, now soaring, now whispering, darting between the chords, I recognized, tone-for-tone, a sound that my own heart had made.
Someone had lifted it out of my breast and gave the tune there color, shape, and life.


As I read John Paul's biography of words, I heard the notes of Franz Biebl's Ave Maria, which could probably serve as an appropriate musical biography.
Biebl's Ave Maria has a strength in it like iron, its beauty is stern and solemn.
It is a piece whose beauty is structured and grounded, as Levi describes.
It is a prayer for a century that is chronically tragic; for a century who has a certain duty to mourn the events that took place during its reign.
I don't know if there was much reason for optimism in the twentieth century.
In the face of a fact such as Auschwitz, optimism must stagger, if not fail completely.
But as optimism dies, something much stronger must rise out of its ashes, as certain and sure as the sweet bass tones of Biebl's chorus.
For there is nothing weak about this Ave Maria.
The sound that fills out the harmonies is the sound of Hope.
It is the sound of a song that, when faced with a terrifying, dumbfounding prospect, embraces the mystery with trust.
In spite of the vast meaninglessness of the world, there is such a thing as the fullness of time.
Despite the persistence of slavery, Biebl's song staunchly proclaims the freedom for which humans were born, which rolls of the tongue of the soloist in a delicate phrase: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.
That phrase transcends optimism; that phrase is the reason for hope.

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