Music Review: The Children of Lir

2796238_0ec1c7bdIn 1999, John Paul II addressed a letter “To all who are passionately dedicated to a search for new “epiphanies” of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world.” The first time I heard a track from Patrick Cassidy’s cantata, The Children of Lir, I certainly experienced it as an “epiphany” of beauty. It was an experience that was quite unexpected in the contemporary cultural climate. I could not believe my ears: a contemporary composer had composed a piece of music that was exquisitely beautiful. What’s more, the composer was Irish.

One critique of the work that I read back then aired what seems to be the major defect of Cassidy’s composition: it is simply “pastiche.” In other words, it is merely an imitation of baroque music. Even if that criticism were fair – and in my estimation it is not – it would be no mean achievement to produce a piece of music à la Handel.

This cantata is a setting of arguably the most poignant of the imaginative tales of Irish literature. The libretto is in the original modern classical Irish version of this tale. That in itself is a first. The musical idiom is, as already intimated, baroque – hiberno-baroque, to be more precise. These two facts in themselves afford Cassidy’s composition a certain uniqueness. There is no other musical composition in the classical tradition that is based on a modern classical Irish text. I am unaware, moreover, of any composition that is hiberno-baroque in style as distinct from being simply baroque.

Ireland never enjoyed a classical music tradition because colonization never allowed such a tradition to take root and to develop here. The Children of Lir, however, gives us at least a hint of what baroque music might have sounded like in a Gaelic style. For those brought up with traditional Irish music and trained in the classical tradition, the interweaving of contrapuntal lines inspired by native musical idioms is well-nigh mesmerising.

The re-release of Cassidy’s early cantata indicates that beauty still has an appeal. If one follows an intellectual tradition inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas this ineradicable allure of the beautiful is heartening, for beauty is a function of both truth and goodness. Where beauty is valued, so too are truth and goodness. Art distils and communicates the Zeitgeist. The cult of the ugly – and, indeed, what is beyond the beautiful and the ugly as Baudrillard points out – gives apt expression to a civilization that has scant regard to truth and goodness. And yet works of great beauty like Cassidy’s furnish a bulwark against this culture and advance the ineradicable claims of the true and the good.

The Children of Lir is, I believe, culturally subversive in espousing classical canons of beauty. In that sense it radiates a very Catholic spirit. Catholics concerned about the direction Western culture has taken might well wish to support this kind of cultural subversion.

Book Review: Art and the Eucharist

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A fairly large proportion of the artistic masterpieces which line the walls of our galleries and museums are out of place. They were created, not for the scrutiny of connoisseurs or the fleeting interest of tourists, but for the prayerful gaze of worshippers: they were made for churches.

The link between art and the Eucharist is, then, at least one of location. Yet church art is not mere decoration: the frescoes, mosaics and paintings which we find in our churches are meant to say something about the Christian mystery. It is this theologically formative function of art to which Dr Eileen Kane turns her attention in Art and the Eucharist, taking inspiration from Pope John Paul’s Letter to Artist: ‘In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art’.

The book is short – only 85 pages – and each chapter covers a different Eucharistic theme in art: ‘The Last Supper’, ‘Prefigurations of the Eucharist’, ‘Sacrament and Sacrifice’, ‘The Altarpiece of the Lamb’, ‘The Eucharist in the Church’ and ‘Stay With Us, Lord’. In the second of these, Kane looks at the ‘Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament’ by the Flemish painter Dieric Bouts: the large central panel depicts the Last Supper, but it is surrounded by depictions of Old Testament ‘types’ (prefigurations) of the Eucharistic event – Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine (Genesis 14), the eating of the Passover meal (Exodus 12), the gathering of the manna in the desert (Exodus 16) and the feeding of Elijah (1 Kings 19). Kane explains the theological connections, and Bouts’ artistic choices, clearly and simply.

Less traditional works of art are also considered. Kane offers a moving analysis of Dalí’s ‘The Sacrament of the Last Supper’. The apostles bow like ‘monks’, provoking a similarly reverent attitude in the viewer of the painting; the scene is embraced by outstretched arms, not yet bearing their wounds; the translucency and strangeness of the scene lend it a timelessness ‘which suggests that the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion which followed it, are still taking place now and will continue to take place into the future’.

Kane’s book is valuable simply for its lucid exposition of key Eucharistic artworks, but what is most memorable about this little book, for me at least, is the way it links the very endeavour of art with the Eucharistic mystery – both involve, in different ways, the elevation of the ordinary. Kane expands powerfully on this connection, which is at the heart of this wonderful book: ‘At the Mass, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the bread and wine, ‘fruits of the earth and work of human hands’, are offered to the ‘Lord God of all creation’, and at the Consecration become the Body and Blood of Christ himself. That is the greatest and most sacred mystery of all. But when, in a painting, earth and eggs, plants and metals become an image of Christ or of his mother, that too is a mystery, though of course a lesser one. In that lesser mystery lies the special affinity that exists between art and the Eucharist’.

(Art and the Eucharist, by Dr Eileen Kane, is published by Veritas.)

Book Review: Thomas Aquinas, Teacher and Scholar

9781846823084It is a curious fact that while the study of Aquinas’ work has been somewhat sidelined in mainstream Catholic theology, philosophers and historians are more interested in him than ever. This collection of Aquinas Lectures at Maynooth (2002-2010), dedicated to the memory of the great Rev. Prof. James McEvoy and appended with essays by several of his students, is a testament to this lively contemporary engagement with the thought of the Angelic Doctor. Two names stand out among the contributors: William Desmond and Eleonore Stump. Desmond writes a stunning piece on the Beatitudes, marked by his trademark originality and his commitment to philosophy done ‘in a spirit of generosity towards [the] religious ‘other’’ (31). Stump’s piece takes on the thorny question of the problem of suffering, and she explains Aquinas’ theodicy with analytic rigour and sensitivity to the real experience of suffering.

Medievalists will find much to interest them in this volume. Philipp W. Rosemann traces the changes in theology’s self-understanding by comparing a textbook from the 12th century (Peter Lombard’s Sentences) with one from the 13th century (St Thomas’ Summa theologiae). John F. Boyle considers these two thinkers again, outlining the contents of a recently-edited commentary of St Thomas on Book I of the Lombard’s work. He notes that this ‘Roman commentary’ is ‘a work of the classroom; indeed the only work from Aquinas’ classroom that is not a commentary on Scripture’ (78). The role of Thomas’ own teacher, Albert, in mediating an ‘intellectual’ interpretation of the Dionysian corpus (as opposed to an ‘affective’ reading) is investigated in Declan Lawell’s essay. Finally, among these ‘historical’ pieces, Denys Turner gives full voice to the context of Thomas’ theological work as a Dominican enterprise. The Summa is explained as ‘friars’ theology… the one scrip that mendicant preachers must carry with them… in a word, a poor man’s theology, the poor Christ as theology’ (142).

The book isn’t all history, however. Several contributors bring Aquinas’ ideas into dialogue with those of our own time. Gaven Kerr distinguishes carefully between the realism of Aquinas from the idealism of Kant, engaging along the way with a dizzying array of modern philosophers, from Quine to Maréchal. The lecture by the late Thomas Kelly is dizzying too, but such is to be expected from any engagement with Heidegger. He analyses the recently published lectures on Aquinas given by Heidegger, focussing mainly on his treatment of the Five Ways. In the course of this treatment, Kelly nuances a Heidegerrian sweeping statement (‘philosophy lacks any organ for hearing revelation’), producing one of the most memorable passages of the book:

That world and thing can become icon is our ear for revelation. Unless language can become God-talk, no revelation is possible. Unless the conditions of the possibility of language are already Godly, if I may use the word so, there is no God-talk. And, as I have suggested, unless language can become God-talk, there is no language. More strongly: unless language is always and already prayer, there is no language (236).

Julia Hynes’ piece on virtue ethics in a medical context brings things right up-to-date, defending Aquinas’ ethics against utilitarianism and deontology, noting that ‘what it was to be a person in St Thomas’ era remains the same in our time’.

It was particularly pleasing for this Dominican student to read two lectures given by Dominican friars who stand in a long tradition of Thomism. Both Liam Walsh OP and Vivian Boland OP have taught almost exclusively in the same context as St Thomas himself: Dominican studia. Their lectures (Walsh on Aquinas’ treatment of the Eucharist considered in the light of current ecumenical concerns; Boland on the doctrine of divine ideas in Aquinas) represent the continuation of a tradition of Dominican study for which St Thomas stands as the exemplar.

In his account of Thomas as teacher, Denys Turner waxes lyrical on the holiness of the ‘the theological teaching act’ performed by Aquinas, which is figured as a ‘disappearing act, a Christ-like ‘going away’ – so that the Spirit might come’ (151). To extend this metaphor, one might consider this volume of Aquinas Lectures to be a veritable ‘fruit of the Spirit’. Its contributors are as enthusiastic about their subject as the Apostles at Pentecost, and although I occasionally found myself ‘amazed and perplexed’ when reading these lectures, I was often, and happily, prompted to ask, with genuine curiosity: ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2:12).

(Thomas Aquinas: Teacher and Scholar, edited by James McEvoy, Michael Dunne & Julia Hynes, is published by Four Courts. This review, written by a Dominican student, appeared originally in The Furrow.)

Book Review: Patrick In His Own Words

54St Patrick is often described as our ‘national saint’, and as our nation becomes secularised, so does our national saint. St Patrick’s Day parades do still show Patrick wearing something approaching episcopal vestments, and some of the more fabulous elements of the hagiography are still re-enacted, but there remains little gratitude for St Patrick’s work in this country as a Christian missionary. St Patrick’s Day events have become more about celebrating our ‘Irishness’ (whatever that means) or even, with enormous irony, our pre-Christian Celtic inheritance.

The Church seems powerless to counter this trend, to re-establish an understanding of Patrick as missionary bishop, but it possesses one little-used resource which can help: St Patrick’s own writings.

Many of the writings about St Patrick were composed centuries after his death, but we are blessed to have some authentic writing of his own, composed in Latin in the 5th century. The Confession is a short text, and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus even shorter, but both express a vivid, Christ-centred, scriptural, orthodox, attractive faith. Patrick reveals himself to be aware of his weaknesses – the Confession begins with the phrase, ‘I am Patrick, a sinner, the most rustic and least of all the faithful’ – but driven to preach the Gospel by the experience of God’s mercy:

Before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. Then he who is mighty came and in his mercy he not only pulled me out but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall. I must, therefore, speak publicly in order to repay the Lord for such wonderful gifts, gifts for the present and for eternity which the human mind cannot measure.

While the Confession is Patrick’s personal account (and defence?) of his conversion and mission, the Letter is written in anger, against the slave-trader Coroticus and his men, nominal Christians who had committed atrocities against Patrick’s new flock. Yet even in this letter of excommunication, Patrick’s deep spirituality shines through: he has come to Ireland as ‘a stranger and exile for the love of God’, and while anger does not come naturally to him, love for his ‘neighbours and children, for whom [he has] given up homeland and family’ arouses his righteous anger.

St Patrick’s writings deserve to be read by 21st-century Christians. The edition of Joseph Duffy, which includes the Latin text as well as Irish and English translations, and commentary on the text, is particularly accessible and useful. If you are a teacher, or a member of a prayer group, or parish pastoral council, or a Christian book club, why not get a copy of St Patrick’s writings and allow him to teach you to be a missionary, compelled by the love of God.

(Patrick In His Own Words, edited by Joseph Duffy, is published by Veritas)

Book Review: Lón Anama

800px-Glendalough_monasteryWe hear much about ‘Celtic Spirituality’ these days. In any bookshop the ‘Mind-Body-Spirit’ section is sure to include a fair few books promising enlightenment the Celtic way. Celtic Spirituality is usually taken to be some unique melding of pagan and Christian: nature-loving, non-dogmatic, with gods and saints happily drinking from the same cauldron. It’s a very popular image, even within the Church, but it doesn’t have the benefit of being based in fact. Practically all the Irish religious texts we have are resoundingly Christian, and are often explicitly anti-pagan. It is true, there are distinctive features of these texts, but they are nevertheless soundly orthodox. ‘Celtic spirituality’, then, is largely a work of the modern imagination.

How about the texts of the Irish tradition themselves? Once we understand them in their proper context, they really are special. Lón Anama is a collection of 77 poems and prayers in the Irish language from the 8th century to the 20th. The texts are arranged with a parallel translation into English, for those whose command of Irish is less than perfect.

A notable feature of these texts is a strong focus on the persons of Jesus and Mary. The first, by Blatmac (fl. 760) is a ‘keening poem’ addressed to Mary, mourning the loss of her son:

 

Come to me, loving Mary,

that I may keen with you your very dear one.

Alas that your son should go to the cross,

he who was a great diadem, a beautiful hero.

 

A well-known poem attributed to St Íte brings this emotional engagement with Jesus’ humanity a step further, as she imagines herself nursing Ísucan, little Jesus: ‘It is little Jesus/who is nursed by me in my little hermitage… Jesus with Heaven’s inhabitants/is against my heart every night’.

Another expression of the intimate and direct piety of this period is the poem ‘Rop tú mo baile’, translated into English in the well-loved hymn, ‘Be Thou my Vision’. There the anonymous poet requests that God be his ‘vision’, his ‘meditation’, his ‘speech’, ‘understanding’, ‘father’, ‘battle-shield’, ‘sword’, ‘honour’, ‘delight’, and so on.

Later poets are known to us by name, like Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin (author of ‘King of the Sunday) and the Franciscan Aodh MacAingil. Contemporary poets are included too, not all of whom are convinced believers. Here, the collection takes an interesting turn, as the sincere and unself-conscious piety of the Irish tradition faces up to the age of doubt. The poet Liam Ó Muirthile, for example, is disturbed, rather than consoled, by a Corpus Christi procession:

 

Is this all we’re left: a welter

of simmering emotion stirred up

with a pinch of belief?

 

We woke to our bodies long ago,

shut the door

on that stale, gutted spirituality.

But behold the bared body

of Christ, awkwardly borne,

unsettling us once more.

 

It’s worth getting a copy of this book for several reasons. Firstly, because it enables the reader to gain an accurate sense of the images, metaphors and biblical events which inspired Christian writers in the Irish tradition. Secondly, though, the fact that the collection spans nearly the whole of Irish Christian literature, it enables the reader to understand where the Christian imagination has been, where it is now, and so, where it might go. ‘Celtic spirituality’ may be a fairly rootless concept, but ‘Irish Christianity’ is a valuable one, and reflecting on the sources of Irish Christianity can lend cultural depth to the beginnings of the New Evangelisation in this old island.

 

(Lón Anama, edited by Ciarán MacMurchaidh is published by Cois Life Press)