“Can you give up your sorrow for My joy?”

This text was written while experiencing the wonderful performance of Dan Forrest’s “Jubilate Deo!” by Bradley Community Chorus, conducted by Cory Ganschow.

“Those that I love are dying… My world is shattered… You talk about some meaning, some happiness… how so? What is the point of asking for things when death surrounds you? What is the point of singing, of dancing… when… Joy? I find no more.”

“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth”

*

“My child no longer speaks to me, and I’ve no strength to call him. My days drag on, no light in sight… my candle quenches… Some children on the street sing on, today, when people carol. And You, my God, so far away… Can’t you appease my sorrow?”

“Jubilate Deo!”

*

“Who is the old man who looks back at me from that mirror? Whose face is it, with those cold eyes, and wrinkles, and no hope? No wonder he is lonely, betrayed, and left by all, with nothing but a mirror for company… no door that he could open… no window… joy no more…”

“Worship the Lord with gladness, come before Him with joyful songs”

*

“And how can harmony exist if hell exists too? I want forgiveness, I want to embrace everyone, I want an end to suffering. And if the suffering of children is required to make up the total suffering necessary to attain the truth, then I say here and now that no truth is worth such a price. And above all, I don’t want the mother to embrace the torturer whose dogs tore her son apart! […] Tell me honestly, [Alyosha], I challenge you–answer me: imagine that you are charged with building the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but that in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck of creation, that same child beating her breast with her little fists, and imagine that this edifice has to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under those conditions?” (Ivan in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov).

Omnis terra, jubilate, omnis terra, laudate, Omnis terra, jubilate Deo! (Adapted from Psalm 100, LatinVulgate)

(from Dan Forrest’s Jubilate Deo, see one performance below)

“But come to me, O Lord, descend from mighty heavens, behold your own creation: some flesh and bones together, ravished by pains and sorrows, by passions and desires… Betrayed, abandoned… by death surrounded and far away from childhood. No place to rest my heart, no arms I can respond to…”

“Can you give up your sorrow for My joy?”

Immigrant on this earth

A few years ago, we were moving from one town to another in the US. We were a young family with a 10 years old child. That Sunday, we were driving home from church. It was our last Sunday in that town. We had found in the community of St. Alexis in Lafayette a home far from home. I think it was mainly because our priest’s mode of being was the embrace. We were embraced and accepted for who we were.

I noticed my son was sad, sitting silently in the back seat. “I wonder,” he said, “how it will feel when we come back here. Now, it is home, but it will no longer feel like home.”

My heart was aching, but I tried to be a good father and give him some comfort. “It will still be our home, just like Romania is our home and the place we’re going will be our home.” My son didn’t say anything for a minute, but then, in a quiet voice: “In fact, we only have one home, and that is in Heaven.”

This is my temporary home,

It’s not where I belong

This song by Carrie Underwood has the same idea. We are immigrants on this earth. We come into a country that does not belong to us, and we are supposed to return.

Some may say that immigrants do not have responsibility because they do not “belong” to the country they live in. “Windows and rooms that I’m passing through,” as the song says. But the condition of immigrant cannot be understood unless we also see that immigrants still have to fulfill another call, that of shepherds. This is my temporary home, but it has been offered to me as a gift, a gift which I am called to return in Thanksgiving. Father Alexander Schmemann says,

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God […]. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

It is the condition of a traveler, to take that which he receives and offer it back in an all-embracing eucharist.

But there are so many situations in which we are immigrants. We travel to other people’s souls, and we are immigrants in their hearts. In a way, we belong to them, just like a good Dostoevsky book, that dwells into your heart and germinates ideas and even new characters. In a different way, we already have a home. This allows us to never be owned, but it also says that we do not own other people’s souls either. We only come and visit. And they come to us. Love taking place in a freedom in which we are fully connected, but we never possess one another.

In fact, the condition of immigrant on earth is living on a cross: as shepherds of that which has been gifted to us (the horizontal one) and as beings who are in love and yearn eternally for the home where we know we’d return.

I’m not afraid because I know

This is my temporary home

P.S. Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s Idiot is an immigrant. He is Russian, but he comes from outside of Russia. In a sense, he is a foreigner. But, just like Christ, he is a foreigner who returns to his own people with a better understanding than their own understanding of Orthodoxy. He is an immigrant, an “idiot” perhaps in the sense that he does not speak the “language” of high society people, but an immigrant who knows better than all the others who they really are—promises of divine beings. Myshkin, like Christ, comes from the outside (from Switzerland), but also from the inside (he is a Russian). And, just like Christ, he acts and disappears in anonymity. Does that make his life meaningless?

Moments in life with Lady Gaga

On the road again, on a bus… A beautiful, sunny day. Three people around me are sleeping. The only one awake is an older man, unmoved, his eyes looking into an absent horizon. And music.

So when I’m all choked up

But I can’t find the words

Every time we say goodbye

Baby, it hurts…

The man is the age of my dad; he just said goodbye to his son, most likely a graduate student. When his father got on the bus, the young man took his phone out of his pocket. “So soon?” I thought. Most likely, though, a coping mechanism: the young man had tears in his eyes.

When the sun goes down

And the band won’t play

I’ll always remember us this way.

Sunny today, but who knows how many storms around me. Does the band still play in the heart of the man who just left his son? He places his jacket on the seat next to him and looks straight ahead, unmoved.

Every time we say goodbye

Baby, it hurts…

I am going to a conference. He’s going home. Both of us have left a “home.”

But all I really know

You’re where I wanna go

The part of me that’s you will never die

Sunny today. Perhaps a storm tomorrow. But let us take our umbrellas and go through it. For truly, The part of me that’s you will never die.

The old man in the choir

 

A beautiful catholic cathedral and the Bradley Community Chorus.

Dixit Dominus Domino meo, sede a dextris meis.

I turn right to my wife and whisper to her: “Do you see the old man?”

He is in the first row of the choir. He stands apart, but not because of his age. Surrounded primarily by young students, but also members of the community, he is the most alive of them all. His movements do not seem to be appropriate for a choir performance. In all of his entrances, his torso moves forward; he slides his head together with his shoulders at a change of mode in the song, and he accentuates the “hammers” on the drum with his entire body; all his “amen” plunge from his mouth straight to the core of the earth, to make it sound.

Beatus vir qui timer Dominum: in mandatis ejus volet nimis.

He emanates a feeling of total freedom; presence in the moment. It is the freedom given by the thought that I may die tomorrow–a thought that makes me more alive than anything else. This is not because death may be feared or desired, but rather because of its certainty. And so life is now, not tomorrow, not in the day after tomorrow, but now, in this very moment in which I hear a child cry amidst the sounds of the choir; it is in every second I live. I turn to my wife next to me; she is incredibly beautiful. She will be so even without teeth, even in the decrepitude of old age, because now, in this moment, I live, and she lives in me. People say that we are born and that we die alone, but now, in this moment, we are together for eternity and nothing can separate us. An old man in a choir brought us together.

Laudate, pueri, Dominum; laudate nomen Domini.

“Only when we are so old, only… we are aware of the beauty of life” (Alice Herz-Sommer, Holocaust survivor).

 

Magnificat, anima mea Dominum; et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.

The old man raises his torso once again. He sings from a freedom in which any day becomes a good day to die because you are already alive. I have no idea whether he could sing into a professional choir, but I know the universe is singing in him today.

 

John Locke’s secondary qualities and the synergy between God and humans

IMG_2254.JPG

 

There’s something profoundly spiritual in John Locke’s idea that secondary qualities do not belong to things themselves, but they are created in us during our interactions with the world. There is no color, no taste, no smell, no sound in the world that God created if there is no being that perceives them. Just think about it: God’s world has no music without us; it only has sound-waves. God’s world does not have the beautiful colors of the fall without someone to perceive them. Everything in which we rejoice sensorily is there only because we are also there. There’s no beauty in God’s creation without our contribution to it. Perhaps just one other way in  which we are co-creators of the beauty of our world. The world that is made for us to rejoice in it and offer it back in thanksgiving. And we do so in the awe experienced before the mighty gift we have received: to accomplish God’s world in our beholding of it, in synergy with God.

Perhaps one other way in which we are pregnant with the Beautiful.

 

Moments of life with Neil Diamond

IMG_1198.JPG

I have the feeling I forgot something in the hotel room. And I am bothered by the fact that I couldn’t check in for my flight. “We could not reserve seats for all passengers. You need to check in at the airport.” Bummer! I need to get to the airport fast, to solve the problem, so a little bit of stress takes a hold of me.

“Good morning!” The driver of the shuttle is in his 70s, the age of my dad. I’m not good enough with accents to realize which part of the US he is from, but there’s something warm in the song of his voice. “Sunday morning!” he says. “Easy drive today, we’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

“Did I really forget something in the hotel room?”

There are no other passengers in the shuttle. We make a U-turn, and the driver starts a CD. And my life changes:

Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing
But then I know it’s growing strong

His voice is really warm, and he sings along the CD. There’s a force pulling me, too, and I can no longer hold it. Two strangers singing together in an airport shuttle:

Hands, touching hands
Reaching out, touching me, touching you

I forget that I forgot something in the hotel room:

Sweet Caroline
Good times never seemed so good

“Do you like singing?” I ask him. “Oh, yeah! I used to run the corporate parties. I did the 45 minutes Elvis routine. I had a ball doing that.” He had some problems a few years ago with his vocal chord, and he had to stop.

Sweet Caroline
Good times never seemed so good

I don’t know his name. He probably knows mine from the ticket. Still, it’s brother’s love.

It’s love, Brother Love say
Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show
Pack up the babies
And grab the old ladies
And everyone goes
‘Cause everyone knows
Brother Love’s show

We arrived at the airport, and I haven’t checked the time once. “A good day sir!” he says. “It’s Sunday.”

I forgot my phone charger in the hotel room.

Let’s fly! It’s a good day to die.

 

Music and Constellations

 

Photo by Tim Lester.

 

There is something about being in a group of people that attempt to make music together. I experience this every week, for two hours. I recently joined Peoria International Choir. Men and women of different ages and from various corners of the world just get together and sing. Some come straight from work, others from whatever problems their lives bring to them. But for those two hours they all focus on something: music.

There are moments when I do not sing, and so I have time to watch their faces. It is just incredible, really, to see a person disappear and be fully present at the same time. Sure, it is still John or Mary, carrying their own problems, but it is also the alto, the soprano, the tenor… And on top of it all, a human being singing with others. At times I think that those two hours of music represent an escape from life, from its busy-ness; in fact, the whole experience is a going toward life, or a recovering of it. Somehow it feels as if we are expressing our humanity by losing ourselves into that which comes out of our being together. People together for and in music (I would say “intru muzica,” in Romanian).

We look different: some with European background, some Asian, others North American, still others South American. We speak different languages at home. But there, for two hours, we speak the same language, music, even if it also has words–English, German, or some other language. It is a beautiful constellation, I would say, and, being so, it reminds me always of how far away I am from participating into its beauty. For none of them can shine to their highest level if I do not offer my witness to music. None of them can fully experience beauty if I do not bring my little light with me.

I once heard that an orchestra is only as good as its weakest member. I think this is wrong. This choir, at least, is much better than its weakest member: me. But there is one more aspect: its goodness and its potentiality for goodness face me with my responsibility. Not a moral responsibility; it is rather a call: “see how beautiful I can be; don’t you love my beauty; don’t you want to witness for it?”

I have not practiced much for the choir, and this can be seen in my “performance.” I always find other “responsibilities” that take priority. But this is because I do not focus on its beauty. Every Tuesday night, when its beauty shines upon me, I wonder about how I could have chosen to do other things instead of practicing. And, while I promise myself it won’t happen again, I then fall again into obliviousness and the busy-ness of life, and a new Tuesday comes without having done much for the choir. It is truly humbling to see all these wonderful people singing around you, welcoming you, bringing forward the song even if you don’t do much for it. And then Masako, our conductor, God bless her heart, suffering from the absence of the music she knows you are capable of providing. Am I not there for them as well?

Peoria International Choir is indeed a beautiful thing, regardless of its weakest member. Go watch them if you have the occasion. As for me, here I am again, thinking about music instead of practicing. To practice!

The Conductor

FullSizeRender (28).jpg

I have known him for six years. For four of them, I was in his presence every Thursday night, from 7:00 to 9:00 pm. My son was playing violin in the regional orchestra he was conducting. I used to bring my work with me during their practice, and I was grading papers, preparing for lectures, or simply reading. But almost always it was difficult to focus on what I had to do. The conductor was telling stories in which the repertoire became a character, so I was leaving my papers aside so that I could listen fascinated to those tales. But even more than that: he was giving children life lessons without lecturing them. He was inspiring them, and I often felt that I needed to be reminded of that inspiration as well.

It’s always impressive to see musicians coming together in an orchestra, relying on each other, and disappearing as individuals (but gaining personhood) so that beauty can take birth in their midst. It is even more impressive to see this in an orchestra with young children. How can one show them that the world is not about them, but rather about the beauty that they can create by cooperating with another? How can one tell children who are in the process of finding themselves by creating distances with others that a genuine way  of discovery is to lose yourself in the beauty that is already prepared for you in music?

I think one kind of person can do that: someone who lives his life in giving oneself to beauty.

It is a strange phenomenon: beauty is there, awaits for you, but it comes truly to life only when you forget your desires and live for it in coming together with another.

Today, I saw the conductor’s last concert with this organization, Central Illinois Youth Symphony. For their last piece, many of his former students joined the current orchestra, and I could not stop thinking that this was an image of the beautifying of the world. In the many lives that he has touched, the conductor contributed to the goodness of these children’s souls, a goodness that now can spread in the world. A conductor: a human who gives oneself to others so that they have the strength to give themselves to what has already been prepared for them: music, the beauty of the world.

Thank you, maestro!

"There was no other choice"

Eugenia and Gheorghe Hasu. Photo from Ioana Hasu’s collection, used with permission.

Let me tell you a story. After fighting as a soldier for his own country, a young man returns home. There is nothing special about him; he did what was required of him, like many others who lived through or died in WWII. He was wounded and decorated–again, like many others. When he comes back home, he wants to establish a family, so he goes from village to village thinking that he may fall in love. And he does. One of his friends recounts, “he chose as wife a 16 years old girl, small, who just entered the traditional winter meetings. She was happy, so happy that she forgot to cry when the wedding chariot took her to his place.”

It is a love story: the two young people build together a life, they have a first child, and the young wife expects a second one. But this is when history strikes. The story takes place in Romania, after WWII. Romanians, just like the majority of East-Europeans, were beginning to experience another calamity: the communist persecution.

But this story is not about persecution; it is about this man who, with an expecting young wife and with a toddler, runs away from home and hides in the mountains when the Securitate, the communist secret police in Romania, is looking for him. He was one of the wealthier people of his village, which back then meant that you had some land or some craft that allowed you to have your own workshop, and he had been labeled an “enemy of the people.” But the point is that he runs from home, leaving his wife behind while knowing what that meant for her and her young child: beatings, arrests, and loss of any chance to have a secure life (the Securitate could throw you into a dungeon without any warrant and without any trial; in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many were even shot with a bullet in the back of the neck because they did not give up their land).

A young man runs away to hide for his life, leaving behind his pregnant wife and his child.

“A coward,” some of my students said when they heard this story. How can you leave your wife behind? Stay home, go to prison, even die if this is required of you, but do not give up your responsibility for your family.

One could defend this man in many ways. For example, one may say that there was no other solution. Even if he stayed at home, his family was still the family of a “bandit,” as these people were labeled by the communists. It was still a family of “an enemy of the people,” and this meant that his wife would still not be accepted for work, his children would still not be accepted in universities. At least he could fight if he went into the mountains, do something to get rid of the persecutors–and he was, indeed, part of the anticommunist resistance movement.

But this is not an explanation, I think. Indeed, he had no choice, but not because other choices were not better. There was no other choice because there is no choice. Choice had nothing to do with the results of his actions. He had no choice because the man who loved the young woman who was “so happy, so happy that she forgot to cry” when she got married, that man would have died in the absence of freedom. And he would no longer have been a person, but an individual, an object like any other, a “brick,” as Fr. Calciu says, in the mighty construction that communism wanted to realize in Romania. That man, Gheorghe Hasu, did not leave his wife for a value that was higher than his love for her. It is in this love for her that he acted the way he did. For love has no purpose. Love has no end. Love is not for something that comes after it, a life with children and grandchildren. Love is its own child. And to this love both of them were faithful. Which does not mean that they were faithful to something else other than them, but rather to “Eugenia and Gheorghe together.”

*

I wondered how I could explain to my students what happened with the people who fought against communism in the anti-communist resistance. One day, as I often do, I was listening to country music. And I fell upon this song, Carrie Underwood’s Just a Dream. Please do watch it here.

Before this particular performance, a young woman speaks of her deceased husband. He was a soldier, and he died in the war. He died for his own country. His wife could receive the honor that he deserved; she could cry about his loss openly; she would be respected by her peers; she would not have to hide everything that would remind of him; her children would not be persecuted and called their entire lives the “children of a bandit.” And nobody would say that her husband left her behind when she was young and she had a toddler.

Gheorghe Hasu did the same thing. He fought for his country, which means his family, his wife and his children. But his country had already been stolen.

*

Before his arrest, Gheorghe sent his wife a short verbal message through a currier: “Tell her to forgive me. And to raise the children as God will help her.”

This request for forgiveness does not need a response. It is only the expression of being with the other.

*
A fragment from the will of the partisans: 
What brought us here was the love for this people, a love free from any petty thing. We learned to see our people, as any other people in the world, through the eyes of love. You exist as long as you love; and you raise up according to the degree in which you sacrifice yourself for this love.
We do not admire our people; we do not try to understand it and study it according to some principle invented by human minds. We love it as it is. We love it as the child loves his parents. And we would never exchange it with any other one, not even in thinking, as no mother in this world would exchange her child. Our minds and hearts never experienced dreams and thought to emigrate in some happy countries. We want to remain here as partakers of the pains and joys of this people, of its destiny, and we want to melt our fate in the wave of its fate.
*

Gheorghe Hasu was caught by the Securitate after being betrayed; he was then tried and executed.

In a recent interview, Eugenia Hasu said, “he was a good husband, he loved me; I had no problems with him.”

Reaching ultimate harmony: The Concert

There is a lot of confusion at the beginning of The Concert. People yell, play music loudly and poorly at weddings, or get fake passports and visas right under the nose of the police. It is the craziness of a post-communist society. The movie takes place in Russia, some years after the fall of communism. It begins with a janitor, Andrei Filipov. Many years ago, he used to be the conductor for the orchestra where he now cleans the place: the renown Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. The maestro’s career was destroyed by the communist regime when he was labeled an “enemy of the people.” The syntagm was applied to all real and imaginary enemies of the government, and it usually resulted in public disgrace or even deportation to the Gulag, as it happened to Filipov’s friends. Now, 30 years after the KGB stopped the performance of his Tchaikovsky’s Concert for Violin and Orchestra, he grasps an opportunity to enlist his former musicians in order to impersonate the real Bolshoi orchestra and go to Paris for a concert. But all these people do not look like musicians. Old, living in clearly poor regions of the city, taking their instruments from dark corners, from under the table where they sell vegetables, or from obscure rooms where they record the sound for porn movies, they seem to come out of a forgotten world. In fact, they themselves were forgotten. They are people without a name, the “enemies of the people.”

It is the portrayal of a society that came out of communism, with broken people, who have lost their connections with others and with themselves. When the KGB destroyed the careers of the musicians from Andrei Filipov’s orchestra, the possibility to create music also stopped. Music is no longer heard, although many of the musicians still have an instrument and are still able to play beautiful notes. But all of these sounds seem to be only the appearance of a far, far away dream.

I will avoid giving details about the plot, so that I wouldn’t ruin it for those who may want to watch the movie, but I will refer to one scene. Sasha, Filipov’s friend, whose life was also destroyed by the communists, asks Anne-Marie Jacquet, the desired soloist, to come back and play for them. Filipov had specifically asked for her, and the movie lets us see that this is connected with the past, with something that took place 30 years ago, when the KGB interrupted his concert and broke the lives of so many people. “Just play violin, please,” Sasha says. Nothing more is required; don’t heal anyone; do not think about duties; just play violin. Just live; do not turn your back from us; do not refuse music. “Come play the concert.”

Anne-Marie, who had sensed Filipov’s sickness, refuses. “A concert  is not a psychotherapy session.” She cannot cure him. In fact, he had asked too much of her, Anne-Marie believes–to become a ghost, the copy of Lea, the soloist with whom, 30 years ago, Filipov wanted to reach “ultimate harmony” in playing Tchaikovsky. And she refuses to give in to the same madness.

But Sasha had not asked for her responsibility. He had asked her to live: just play violin. Don’t say “yes” to brokenness and separation; do not refuse the possibility of music to come through you. And this call was one of despair; Sasha and Andrei need music, but they are no longer able to make it themselves. They are too broken. Perhaps if they can just hear it again, something may happen. Perhaps even Anne-Marie can be cured. “What if at the end of the concert, you’d find your parents?”

Sasha has spoken too much. Or maybe too little. “Music sometimes helps us grow,” he says. “Gives us answers. We are scared, scared before playing music. Scared of truth.”

Anne-Marie continues to be confused and demands clarity. And here are some of the most beautiful words from the movie: “Nothing is ever clear. I, a poor idiot, messed up my life. You ask for words, but words are traitors. Words are dirty. Only music’s still beautiful. But music’s prisoner in us. Music… refuses to come out of us. Why?… Sorry to bother you…”

“Words are dirty.” But how can this be? Aren’t the words alive? Don’t they contain life and also connect us with others over generations? They do; but in a broken human being, one that has been separated from life, one that has fallen into disgrace and lost himself in drunkenness, the words are no longer pure; they are tainted, just like all of us are tainted, by the dirtiness of this world. Only music is pure, Sasha says. Only music can give us answers. But music is buried inside of us, and needs to come out in order to be expressed. It’s just that, broken as we are, we no longer find the power to do it. We need someone else; we need love. It is our working together which can bring music out of us.

Anne-Marie suffers as well. She has never met her parents, and this brings her pain. Anne-Marie is not a hero. She is just a normal human being, like each one of us; but she is the person, the one person missing in the constellation that this broken orchestra is. And the well-being of each of the members cannot be reached in the absence of one of the stars. They need her; but she also needs them, even without knowing. If they all return to go for a concert, they do not do it for a principle, for an idea (as the communists do). They do it in the name of a person: “for Lea,” the one musician whose life was also broken 30 years ago. For Lea, regardless of where she is, can also be healed.

Harmony itself is not a notion, but life. Harmony is a notion as it is proposed by communism; a perverted idea, in which workers of all countries unite; against what? Against those who are not like them and even against each other. But ultimate harmony is just that: playing violin. Not refusing the music; and especially not refusing the music with another. A broken orchestra can heal when someone who can still play fills their brokenness with her music–her presence.