Wednesday, December 27, 2006


This post's title is the opening word of the Sequence sung at St. Thomas Aquinas last Sunday. It means full of joy. And it gives some good reasons for the joy we call everyone to join in at Christmas. Note that people didn't just follow in lock-step in medieval times, when this poem was written; they needed convincing back then, too.

Here's the Latin, then the English:

Exsultet fidelis chorus.

Full of joy
let the chorus of the faithful exult,

Regem regum
Intactae profundit torus;
Res miranda!

A spotless womb brings forth
the King of kings,
cause for wonder!

Angelus Consilii
Natus est de Virgine,
Sol de stella.

The Angel of Great Counsel
is born of the virgin,
Sun is born of a star.

Sol occasum nesciens,
Stella semper rutilans,
Semper clara.

A Sun which knows no setting,
a star forever shining,
always bright.

Sicut sidus radium,
Profert Virgo Filium
Pari forma.

The Virgin as unsullied
by bringing forth her son
as the star by its light.

Neque sidus radio
Neque Mater Filio
Fit corrupta.

The star loses nothing of its radiance
Nor is the Mother corrupted
by the Son.

Cedrus alta Libani
Conformatur hyssopo
Valle nostra.

The tall cedar of Lebanon
conforms itself to hyssop-size
in our valley.

Verbum ens Altissimi
Corporari passum est,
Carne sumpta.

He the Word of the Most-High
suffers to become embodied,
taking flesh.

Isaias cecinit,
Omnis terra meminit;
Numquam tamen desinit
Esse caeca.

Isaiah sang of it,
All the world remembered it,
yet it has never ceased
to remain blind.

Si non Judae vatibus,
Credat vel gentilibus,
Sybillinus versibus
Haec praedicta;

If not the prophets of the Jews,
One might believe the gentiles,
in the verses of the Sybils
it was predicted;

Infelix, propera,
Crede vel vetera:
Cur meditaberis

Hurry, unhappy one,
believe these ancient wonders:
Why will you meditate
on vain things?

Quem docet littera
Natum considera:
Ipsum genuit

Behold His birth of whom
all scriptures taught:
she who was in labor
has brought Him forth.


I like the part about "if you won't believe the prophets of the Jews, how about all the others, like the Sybils?" Unbelief, and endless meditation on vain things, have always been with us.

Christmas Eve

I attended an Episcopalian service on Christmas Eve because a flutist friend of ours was performing there. It was... interesting.

In accord with the Episcopal tradition, which is very strong on good music, the music director at this church is very committed to playing and singing the classics. We had Vivaldi, Sammartini (I think), and Handel. Not terribly well done, except for the flute sonata by our friend and her husband (on harpsichord). The choir is just not big enough, nor does it have enough strong singers, to tackle the kind of repertoire the music director picked. But at least they were trying. That's more than you can say about many Catholic churches.

Despite this, there was something very noticeably missing from the service, that's present at even the humblest Catholic Mass when reverently celebrated: a sense of awe and wonder at the presence of God.

Which, I suppose, isn't too surprising. When you've dumped the belief in the Real Presence, all you have left is that kind of presence Christ promised when he said, "Wherever two or three of you are gathered in my name, there am I also." That's a very good thing, of course, but it's just not the same as having Him physically in the room with you. Perhaps it's a little like the difference between (1) chatting with someone on the phone and (2) talking with them face to face. The first is nice, and may be perfectly satisfying for the more philosophically advanced, but the second is what most of us mere humans would prefer if we can get it.

In this case, we were also stuck with a kind of entertainment, one that We Must Get On With. There was the minister's bumptious "let me tell you about the interesting things that happened to me" sermon, and the jaunty remarks he tossed in here and there. But the real prize came at the Sanctus, when the music director found that the organ stops had stuck on the previous settings, which were loud and trumpety, not the softer ones he wanted. In the few seconds' pause that ensued, the minister turned to the congregation and said, "Well, let's go on," and then launched into his Eucharistic Prayer. He skipped the Sanctus completely! Couldn't we have just have... spoken it? Guess not.

The Episcopalians have traditionally had great gifts for music and the English language -- the renderings of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, not to mention the gorgeous 1928 version on which the later one is based, beats the wretched Catholic ICEL translations of the 1970's, hands down).

But for all the beauty they can produce with those gifts, I'm convinced that the kindest thing one can possibly do is to try, gently but persistently, to draw them back to where they can find the Real Presence; and the road to that destination runs through Rome.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas

Sung at the noon Mass today (the Fourth Sunday of Advent) at St. Thomas Aquinas church by the St. Ann Choir under the direction of Prof. William Mahrt:
  • Tomas Luis de Victoria, Ave Maria
  • Pierre de la Rue, O salutaris hostia
  • Paolo Aretino, Verbum caro factus est

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The power of one

From Riverside, California, we get a new lesson in what happens when bad ideas start to become dominant in a society, and that one person with that bad idea can ruin things for a whole bunch of people.

By now you probably know the story: at an ice skating show featuring Olympic figure skater Sasha Cohen, a local high school choir was ordered to stop singing Christmas carols by a low-level special events official, because the official was suddenly concerned that Cohen, who is partly Jewish by birth, might be offended by the music.

A few items to note:

According to her mother, Cohen herself was "stunned" to hear, well after the event was over, that the carols had been stopped on her account. She thinks the official's action was ridiculous, period. Score one for Miss Cohen.

Higher-ups were quick to distance themselves from the action. The suppressed annoyance in the mayor's remarks is palpable:

Mayor Ron Loveridge called the incident "unfortunate."

"You kind of wish people [would] do a little checking first. You certainly have my apology," he said, referring to the choir members.

... and here:
City Development Director Belinda J. Graham confirmed the incident.

"This request was simply made by a staff member who was attempting to be sensitive to the celebrity guest, without considering the wider implications ... or consulting with her supervisor for guidance," Graham said in an e-mail to the newspaper.

And we also learn this:
The city staff member, special-events employee Michelle Baldwin, could not be reached for comment.

... probably because she is already on her way to the unemployment office. If so, score one for Riverside's government.

But to me, the most notable thing about the incident was contained here:

A city staff member, accompanied by a police officer, approached the Rubidoux High School Madrigals at the Riverside Outdoor Ice Skating Rink just as they launched into "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" and requested that the troupe stop singing...

So this Michelle Baldwin thought she needed to bring along a police officer??? So typical of the low-level staffer determined to wield the power of the state on behalf of her impulse. Those carols are stopping right now, ya hear, or believe me, the cuffs are coming out!

But think: how did it come to this?

This wasn't some carefully considered corporate policy to forbid employees to say "Merry Christmas", or some leftist judge with a fifty-page judgment ordering a creche off city property. No, this was the impulsive act of one person -- probably a successful graduate of our public education system -- who had gotten imbued with one of the many bad ideas that are now taking over the American psyche, the idea that the every public voicing of specifically Christmas cheer has to be suppressed because someone, somewhere, might someday, somehow be offended by it.

And no matter how repentant she and the rest of Riverside's government may be, the fact remains that she stopped the music. The bad idea that she had absorbed carried the day. She won.

And everyone else lost.

Moral of the story: when you hear one of these bad ideas being put forward, don't let yourself turn away; attack it and crush it with the truth. Or someday, some low-level official with a police officer in tow may approach you, armed with that same bad idea, and you may not like the result one bit.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Those nasty Middle Ages

As an historical period, the Middle Ages don't get a lot of respect these days. Come to think of it, they haven't gotten much since the Renaissance, when the intellectual elites first adopted their permanent sneer when looking back into the immediate past. They idolized and idealized the world of Greece and Rome, and so the culture of the centuries since the end of the Roman Empire just had to be all bad -- a catalog of unmitigated ignorance and disaster -- because it was, well, not Roman.

That's how the period got to be thought of an age of simply marking time, an age of no other significance than that it was between the glories of pagan Rome and the glories that the elites were now going to build in emulation of Rome. The period got another drubbing during the Enlightenment, notably at the hands of Gibbon and Voltaire. Modern authors occasionally decide to take another swing at it, e.g., William Manchester's well-written monument to his own bias and ignorance, A World Lit Only by Fire. (From the first time I heard of it, I've always thought that his title was absurd. What did he think the cities and homes of Greece and Rome had been lit by? Compact fluorescents?).

"Feudal" is another word that's now become a term of contempt; if some corner of the world is thought to be particularly backward, it is often (absurdly) said to be a feudal society. And since the Catholic Church's period of greatest cultural influence occurred during the Middle Ages, in whose early centuries feudalism was the primary organizing pattern of European politics, the Church is often tarred with the same brush that has turned feudalism very black indeed in common wisdom. Our modern world is, of course, so much more civilized and humane than those nasty, feudal Middle Ages. Isn't it?

Maybe not so much. Here's something from one of the few college textbooks I've hung on to through all these years, Prof. Robert Hoyt's Europe in the Middle Ages (first published in 1957, before the PC roof fell in on American education):

It has been said that feudalism "would have been a very excellent device if it had been administered by archangels." In other words, theory and practice diverged, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, even as they do today. But feudal strife should not be exaggerated; armies were small, wars were local, and fighting rarely extended beyond the summer months. The feudal age knew no total war, no genocide, no mass destruction of life or property -- all characteristics of a more modern civilization. In a world where violence and hardship were normal, where the danger of invasion was perennial, rather than recurring from one generation to another as in the twentieth century, feudal lords and vassals accomplished much without benefit of archangels and without being angelic themselves.

So, Beatles fans, imagine. Imagine there's no total war. Imagine there's no genocide. Imagine there's a Church that is far and away the dominant influence in human society.

Imagine the Middle Ages.

Monday, December 11, 2006

This Sunday at St. Thomas Aquinas

I've been away for almost a month, mostly handling the aftermath of my 93-year-old mom's most recent hospitalization. There have certainly been plenty of events to comment on these past few weeks, and I've got a lot of catching up to do! Might as well get started with an easy one:

Sung yesterday by the St. Ann Choir at the noon Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas in Palo Alto, CA:

  • Jean Mouton, Ave Maria
  • Heinrich Isaac, Jerusalem surge
  • Guillaume Dufay, Conditor Alme Siderum

The last item is from the 14th century, but sounded remarkably daring and "modern". Everything old is new again!