Betty Duffy

Monday, July 20, 2009

Music, Greed, and Heaven

There are songs of my faith that evoke memories of significant spiritual milestones. The Salve Regina, sung in chant with the Consecrated every night before we went to bed, signified “a little death” as the failures of each day were assuaged by Our Lady and put to rest. My dear friend Melanie, now an opera singer in New York, sang the Salve Regina a capella at my husband and mine’s wedding. I have sung it to my babies when I put them to sleep.

As my husband and brothers carried my Grandmother’s casket out to the hearse, the Bishop intoned the Salve Regina, and those present who knew the words sang it as Grandma was taken away.

I’m reading a novel right now about the significance of music, and how it shapes our memories. It’s called “The Song is You” by Arthur Philips, and while it’s too soon to recommend, this quote sums up what’s wrong with a lot of modern music:

“Julian sat in the fall air and listened to Dean Villerman on his Walkman, stared at Manhattan, and inhaled as if he’d just surfaced from a deep dive, and he had the sensation that he might never be so happy again as long as he lived. This quake of joy, inspiring and crippling, was longing, but longing for what? True love? A wife? Wealth? Music was not so specific as that. “Love” was in most of these potent songs, of course, but they—the music, the light, the season—implied more than this, because treacherously, Julian was swelling only with longing for longing.”

The main character in this book writes commercial jingles for a living, makes money at using music to contrive longing. I wonder sometimes if music, in its essence, is a conduit of greed—because for me, as well, it has always been about longing, wishing for something that will make the intolerable now a more palatable future. Religious music seems to harness this longing by giving us very specific aims, providing an object for our longing, a hope in Heaven and the things of God.

Consider this quote from “After This” by Alice McDermott as a character, disengaged with his Catholic faith remembers the words of the Salve Regina:

“He thought how even after you’d disentangled yourself from everything else, the words stayed with you:

To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile show us the blessed fruit of thy womb…

Words you could dismiss as a joke as readily as you could claim them as the precise definition of everything you wanted.”

If music uses the artful arrangement of words and notes to create longing, and religious music, to create longing for Heaven, hearing these songs, I have pause to consider my own hope in Heaven. Am I greedy for it? Do I do whatever it takes to get there? Am I celebrating my Grandmother’s arrival at her eternal reward?

When someone like my Grandma dies, we say things like, “She’s so much happier now.” “She’s in a better place.”

If there is a weakness in my Christian belief, however, it is a halfhearted hope in the afterlife. I realized my lack of faith on the eve of her funeral, when I wanted to comfort myself at the thought of her non-existence. I was trying to picture her in Heaven, wondering if she had received her memory back, considering whether or not she might be reunited with my grandfather, and all of it felt a little, I don’t know…sentimental, and even, in an odd way, inconsequential.

If someone has just spent the past ten years of their life in a living purgatory, experiencing separation from their past and the people they loved, what benefit would it be to her soul to receive it all back? What benefit would a Heaven be, if it looked like the best aspects of our life on Earth?

Of course, I could yield to my childhood ideas of Heaven as a cloudy, glistening place where white-robed souls sing in unison to music played on harp and lyre. But such a boring Heaven, I’m sorry to say, holds little appeal.

I know sin makes me miserable. Abandoning a life of sin was more about relinquishing my hell on earth than fear of eternal damnation. Even with the sacrifice Christian living entails, I’ve found that overall, it has improved my quality of life. Sin is expensive, literally, while virtue, as it affects my pocketbook is a very good bargain. Maybe what it comes down to, is that my life has become too comfortable.

As my priest said in the confessional yesterday:

“Of all the things you’ve mentioned, it seems the Lord wants me to speak to you about greed. We all think we’re not the Bernie Madoff’s of the world, and yet, who among us is satisfied with the minimum we require in order to survive?”

My grandmother lived for weeks on a couple bites of food daily, and the absolute charity of others.

Obviously, that would not satisfy me. I have felt, more than once, that I am owed a vacation—and if I had my own private beach for that vacation, I’d be completely within my rights. I cannot enter the grocery store without dropping a minimum of fifty dollars, because there’s always something on clearance at the Manager’s Special table. And if one jar of hot pickled banana peppers is good, then ten must be better. We’ll eat them, after all, even if it takes ten years.

I’m not above Pascal’s Wager. If there’s a Heaven, I will live so as to achieve it. The only concept of Heaven that makes sense to me, however, is a complete body and soul union with Christ, who must be the beloved of my earthly life. And yet how can one feel greedy for that union when there are so many things on this earth to long for? I have such a long way to go.


Pedge said...

I really love this one Betty, I'm going to think about it for a while.

Emily said...

10 jars of banana peppers?? Greed or pregnancy?

Pentimento said...

May your grandmother be with the Lord.

I have lots to say about the music part but it would take too much space. Just this for now: the early Church fathers had very ambivalent feelings about music. Augustine had loved music before his conversion for the sensual pleasure it conferred, and later, in Confessions XXXIII, he wrote:

"At . . . times . . . I err in too great strictness; and sometimes to that degree, as to wish the whole melody of sweet music which is used to David’s Psalter, banished from my ears, and the Church’s too; and that mode seems to me safer, which I remember to have been often told me of Athanasius Bishop of Alexandria, who made the reader of the psalm utter it with so slight inflection of voice that it was nearer speaking than singing. Yet again, when I remember the tears I shed at the Psalmody of Thy Church, in the beginning of my recovered faith; and how at this time, I am moved, not with the singing, but with the things sung, when they are sung with a clear voice and modulation most suitable, I acknowledge the great use of this institution. Thus I fluctuate between peril of pleasure and approved wholesomeness . . . "

Instruments were banned from the liturgy early on because of their association with the theater and hence with prostitution. If a musician wished to be baptized, he had to renounce playing.

There is no doubt that music, and not just popular love songs, stirs up longing. But at best, as you suggest, it's a longing for heaven. And this isn't conveyed in liturgical music alone. Take a listen to the third movement of Brahms's piano quartet op. 60 no. 1 in C minor sometime. The kind of longing it suggests can only be satisfied in another realm. And the beauty of music is a dim reflection of the beauty of God.

I do stuff like the banana pappers all the time. Just in case we end up needing them.

Betty Duffy said...

P, I love the Saint Augustine quote because it illustrates that there is no clear delineation in what will inspire, and what will leave us pining for more earthly things, even from one listen to the next. Music seems to speak to the particular disposition of the soul at the time of its (the music's) consumption. It's so interesting. And I'm glad that the Church rethought its ban on music in the liturgy--though it seems a large portion of the current liturgical composers might benefit from a reexamination of their position on Heaven. I'll be listening to the Brahms.

Betty Duffy said...

Not pregnancy nor act of benevolence towards my spice-lovin' husband.

Pentimento said...

Let me know how you like the Brahms, Betty, and the book - if it's good I'll put it on my long list of things to read when I've cleared my slate a little.

Betty Duffy said...

Having just finished the book, I'd say I liked it. I'm talking about "The Song is You" btw. It's definitely pop fiction, but it has some interesting insights on music, fame, being a muse, and what I found most interesting, the non-consummated love affair. I get frustrated with dialogue that sounds too...I guess it's authentic to the times, but sort of cheap, if you know what I mean. Overall, I give it a thumbs up though. Definitely kept me reading.

Tom in Vegas said...

Well, after reading this post I can scarcely put a coherent thought together, since you hit on an amplitude of points that can easily spark a long-winded response.

I will say this:
1) I'm THANKFUL to you for having written this post and for sharing it with me (and with others).

2) I have to re-read it again so I can express succinctly and coherently all the many responses that are dashing to the top of my head simultaneously [You touched on so many things: the passing of your dear grandmother; music; greed (interesting perspective); necessity; longing; doubt; etc].

3) Why aren't you on my blog-roll? Easy fix:0)

"If there is a weakness in my Christian belief, however, it is a halfhearted hope in the afterlife."

I'm plagued by the same debility. But you have NO idea - I don't think anyone does - of how much of my waking time is devoted to exploring the question of God and the afterlife.

I shall clarify my thoughts and return again. I hope I haven't sounded odd or aloof with my comments. God bless you and your family and nice to have found you!