Thursday, August 03, 2006

Making Music in a World Gone Mad

It has been awhile since I've been able to devote much time to music. I should get back to it. The nice thing about a bowed psaltery (pictured above) is that it hardly goes out of tune for months at a time.
Here is Sr. Christine, OSB, from St. Scholastica Monastery in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, playing the autoharp. The nice thing about living in community is that there are often other musicians to play with, and there are plenty of opportunities for performing.

Here is a picture of me performing with Srs. Therese and Lisa, OSB when I was chaplain at Holy Angels Convent, Jonesboro, Arkansas. This was during Christmas one year. I was able to arrange some pieces for us to do together. Being busy nuns, they rarely had time for practicing, so we kept things simple but elegant (as Benedictines always should).

We live in busy times, and follow many schedules and agendas. Too bad we don't make more time for things that truly refresh the soul, like music, art, and good conversation. Too often our thoughts and words are about the peripheral and the ephemeral---even among vowed religious. St. Benedict tells us that we should basically keep quiet most of the time, and only open our mouths for prayer and worship. Not a bad idea even to this day.

I don't know what the saint would say about folk music. He probably wouldn't like it and consider it to be too trivial or distracting. In earlier times our monasteries were way more cultured than they are today. Almost every monastery had an orchestra in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An entering novice was given an instrument and told to learn to play it. Not any more, though.

It is always interesting to see the daily schedules of the monastery and school from decades past. There was so much time given over to cultural pursuits. You wonder how they had time for all that they did. Nowadays even monks feel the squeeze of time in the daily routine. Only when one has retired to the infirmary (excuse me, Health Center) does a monk have time on his hands. But then every room there has a television.

Perhaps the whole problem began with the advent of the ball-point pen and triple carbons on forms. Ever try to fill out a carbon form with a fountain pen? It is designed not to work. Function triumphed over art and swept aside the elegance of the fountain pen. So much for illuminating manuscripts. Perhaps, if we had more time, we could do things like this in monasteries again (left).

The real problem is convincing ourselves that we should take time for things. Just as constancy in prayer is the only way that we can be said to have a prayer life, so also, taking time for the arts is the only way that we will live a cultured life that nurtures the spirit, too.

Cheap crafts from China have flooded the religious goods markets and drive out real Christian art. This has led me to postulate Pilcher's Law of the Economy of Art (modeled on Gresham's law) that bad art drives good art out of circulation. I think that it's time for people to start spending time doing things of the spirit. Especially Catholics.

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