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Acting and Appearances

SCTV’s Bobby Bitman used to say, “As a comic, in all seriousness”.  Perhaps I should say, “As an actor, in all sincerity …” because, of course, acting is the opposite of sincerity in the same way that comedy is the opposite of seriousness.

But that’s not really true.  Good acting is authentic or sincere at a very basic level.  Within the framework of the Secondary Reality or Sub-creation of the drama, good acting must be true.  An actor is pretending, and he does not “become” the character in any real sense, except within the confines of the story.  And, as any actor will tell you, the nuances of a character don’t fall into place until you “get it”, until you get in character, until you act the part from the inside-out.  Until then, it’s very difficult in rehearsal to approach a character from the outside-in.  Sometimes the outside trappings of a role – accents or posture or even costumes and make-up – will help an actor adopt that role, but what they help with is the “internalization” of the role.  Real acting happens when you identify with the character.  Once that happens, all of the character’s quirks and nuances make sense.  An odd line or motivation or moment that frustrated you in rehearsal may fit into place and make complete sense once you “get in character” and find the key, the truth from which the character operates, the inner reality that makes all of the character’s actions a coherent whole.

Elsewhere I’ve written how this is an analogy for living the Christian Faith.  But it’s really an analogy for more than just that.

Behind what we do is who we are.  Behind our lines is our character.  Behind the character is the actor who acts the part.  But in many ways we lose sight of this.

Most people live on the level of appearances.  The essence that the appearances signify, the hidden truth that motivates what we do, the reality behind the bluff, the truth behind the show – we are uncomfortable with this.  We prefer the doxa, the conventional, the external, the outward to the inward.  Even in our faith.  Perhaps especially in our faith.

We are almost never reminded that Christ brings ontological change.  The way from baptism to resurrection is a way of the cross, a death and rebirth.  But we don’t want that.  We’d rather fake it with bad hymns and all the trappings that help us keep our faith safely on the surface.  We may not crucify Jesus, but we don’t go with Him when he says, “Come, follow me” because we are afraid of what we may find.  We are afraid of the cross and the reality it brings.  We’d prefer to be bad actors, phoning in our parts and cashing the check.  And so the last thing we do is imitate Christ at the basic level of our every day existence.  Anything but that.  Anything but being honest when it’s not advantageous to be, being chaste even when every sex act on earth is a mouse click away, being conscientious when it’s easier to slack off.

And yet acting this role from the inside-out is the great drama of our lives.

Manfred Honeck and Bruckner’s Eighth

It is fitting that a day in late April, 2017, marked by alternating sunshine and thunderstorms should see Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony in C Minor.  From the first shimmering notes to the final crescendo, it was a triumph.  The setting for this performance was the basilica of the Benedictine monastery of Saint Vincent Archabbey, outside Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  The superb acoustics of the archabbey’s church, completed in 1905, confirmed Honeck’s choice of this sacred venue for conducting the Symphony’s performance of Bruckner’s Eighth.

More so than in his other symphonies, Bruckner’s deep Catholic faith emerges in his Eighth.  Like Bruckner, Honeck is Austrian and a devout Catholic.  In June, 2008, National Catholic Register and in February, 2010, The New York Times ran features on Honeck and his faith.  The New York Times filled nearly an entire page about Honeck, in large part marveling that he prays right before conducting a concert and that any of the orchestra’s musicians who want to pray may join him.  In May, 2010, Saint Vincent College, operated by the Benedictine monks of Saint Vincent Archabbey, recognized Honeck’s commitment to faith and culture by conferring upon him an honorary doctorate.

According to notes that Honeck wrote for the Symphony’s April, 2017, program booklet, he has been familiar with Bruckner’s Eighth for more than thirty years.  As a young musician playing viola with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, he performed it both in Vienna and at Carnegie Hall, each time under the baton of the legendary Herbert von Karajan.  Karajan (1908-1989) had first conducted Bruckner’s Eighth in 1941 in Berlin, and his final performance of it, in November, 1988, with the Vienna Philharmonic, is available on CD from Deutsche Grammophon.

In his program notes for the April, 2017, performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Honeck recalled Karajan’s ability to summon forth from the orchestra a sound that was “imperial and pure.”  Honeck wrote that Karajan asked for “the softest pianissimos and the most powerful, loudest fortes.”  Honeck’s conducting follows that tradition, and the Pittsburgh Symphony responds, performing it, as he says, “in the right style, in the right way.”  Their fortes soared to fill every arch and vaulted ceiling of the Romanesque basilica at Saint Vincent, and their pianissimos were as gentle as a breath.

Honeck wrote that Bruckner’s Eighth is “a monumental piece” similar to “a natural phenomenon.”  Unlike Bruckner’s other symphonies, this one uses a harp, and despite its numerous fortes, cymbals occur only once.  For all the lush harmony of the strings and the glorious emphasis of the brass, it is the tympani, like an athletic heartbeat, bringing the Eighth most to life.  Afterwards the timpanist, Mike Kemp, appearing exhilarated and exhausted, told me that the Eighth “is a divine journey.”

Bruckner himself said “my Eighth is a mystery,” meaning that it has a mystical element.  Mystics can be caricatured as levitating oddities, but mystics are human, their spiritual lives, like anyone else’s, occurring alongside everyday life.  As Honeck observed, in Bruckner’s Eighth “we have every facet of human life and emotion.”  Some composers of the Romantic period show us within themselves; Bruckner, notably in his Eighth, shows us ourselves and beyond.

Bruckner, a bachelor of simple tastes and reticent disposition, seemed to many of his contemporaries just another rural man with a crew cut and a bow tie; sympathetic critics now see a musical genius of profound religious insight.  Bruckner’s musical vision saw the larger pattern connecting life’s daily details.  While a passerby might see the various carvings around a medieval cathedral, Bruckner saw that at base it forms a cross.

As with all Bruckner’s symphonies, except his Ninth, left unfinished at his death, the Eighth has four movements, ranging in length from sixteen to twenty-five minutes.  Despite spanning an hour and twenty minutes, the time by no means drags.  Bruckner, as Honeck wrote, “is the master of beating waves of sound over a long period.”  Honeck added, “And if you allow yourself into these waves and these sounds, you will never feel it to be long.”

At a few points in the first and third movements especially, Bruckner seems to transport us right to the edge of the Cloud of Unknowing, only to bring us crashing back to Earth.  That return to ground level gallops in most surprisingly with the beginning of the fourth movement.  Bruckner said it was to be “solemn, not fast,” and its martial quality refers to a ceremonial meeting in September, 1884, of the Austrian Emperor, the Russian Tsar, and the German Kaiser.  A major event at the time, its significance is now all but lost to history.  What Bruckner commemorated serves to remind the listener of the ideal, going back before the days of Charlemagne, that Christian kings ought to lead their people towards the heavenly court of the King of Kings.

Some critics and musicologists call Bruckner’s Eighth “the Apocalyptic,” although Bruckner never used that term to describe it.  Still, the symphony’s organ-like registration, its fugues and counterpoints evoke the Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse, where different images occur to convey the same message:  seven angels, seven trumpets, seven seals.  Then, amidst lightning and hail, in the heavenly Temple appears the Ark of the Covenant; then we are shown a woman clothed with the sun and with the moon at her feet:  different ways to reveal the Virgin Mary in Heaven.  With its moments of sunbeams dappling through expansive alpine thundering, the light and the dark necessarily going together, Bruckner’s Eighth gives us glimpses into Heaven.

Like another great Catholic artist, J. R. R. Tolkien, Bruckner revised and re-wrote his compositions.  He began his Eighth in 1884 and revised it in 1887 and again in 1890.  Standard works of reference encourage the interpretation that Bruckner’s almost compulsive revising derived from insecurity about his work.  More likely, those repeated re-workings show an active mind driven to get it just right.

In 1892 the Vienna Philharmonic gave Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony its premiere.  Bruckner lived another four years, dying at home in Vienna at age seventy-two.  In 1957, his Eighth, slowly entering the repertoire, was first performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony.  In 2017 at Saint Vincent, Manfred Honeck’s masterful and intimate command of the 1890 revision roused some nine hundred people to offer a standing ovation lasting close to ten minutes.

Porn, Facebook and Human Nature

Yesterday Rod Dreher posted an article on pornography on his site.  He begins it with this …

Whenever I go to a Christian college to speak, I talk to professors, staffers, and campus ministers about what they’re seeing among the students. Two things always come up: 1) far too many of their students know next to nothing about the Christian faith, and 2) pornography is a massive problem.

At one Christian college I visited over the past few months, a professor said, “For the first time, I’m starting to see it becoming a problem for my female students, not just the male ones.” A campus minister who works with young undergraduates headed for professional ministry told me that every single one of the men he mentors has a porn addiction.

Every. Single. One.

He goes on to illustrate how porn has become a problem among elementary school students (including girls in the fourth grade), whose parents have been stupid enough to give them smart phones.

As distressing as this is, the problem is not just masturbation in front of a computer screen.  The problem is that pornography and lust itself (not just sexual desire, but lust) objectifies other people.  Men seem to be wired in such a way that we are more likely to see sex as an experience disconnected from love, marriage or babies – or from humanity, in a sense – than women are.  This is why the gay male culture is so horrific when it comes to promiscuity and brutality.

But we are dealing with a technology that was unimaginable a generation ago.  When I was a kid, pornography was hard to come by.  Now it’s ubiquitous.  All varieties of sexual activities are right there in your pocket and can be accessed within mere seconds, even for Christian men who try to avoid the temptation (and don’t fool yourself, the addiction is universal, including among devout Christian guys, or as Rod says, “Every.  Single.  One.”)  It’s as if we’re all walking around with a handy supply of heroin that we can rely on for an intense high when we’re down or lonely, mad or tired, horny or simply bored.

And, again, it’s not the sin of the flesh that is so harmful.  As serious sins go, sins of the flesh are the least harmful, as Christian culture has always recognized.  What’s harmful is the spiritual side of this sin.

And the spiritual side of it comes down to this: ABUSE.  We can’t just follow our lusts and be happy.  The more we indulge them, the more we think of other people as mere tools and the more we feel contempt for them.  I’ve experienced this attitude even in Devout Catholic young women, who have probably never viewed pornography, but who are nevertheless steeped in the throwaway culture, a culture that sees not only sex but intimacy and friendship and even basic social interaction as self-serving and cut off from a real encounter with the Other.

This is one of the things that makes Facebook so horrible.  There’s a kind of endless posturing, making a show of your beliefs and ridiculing others in the process.  My wife uses Facebook for sharing pictures and keeping up with her friends, but my Facebook friends engage in debates – except they’re not debates: they’re tirades or polemics or shouting matches, the object of which is to prove you are righteous and that you are justified in viewing the Other with contempt.  Without that final dismissal of the value of the Other, there’s no payoff, no “money shot”.  Polemic Facebook posts are posturing at best, “rage porn” at worst.

This is why technology is not neutral.  And we are not neutral, either.  We tend toward sin, and must be raised to goodness through grace and hard work.  Given good environments, we can be edified and educated and cultivated toward virtue and happiness.  Given bad environments, we will become abusive – to ourselves and to one another.  We all have this potential.  We can go either way.

Dreher and the people he quotes are right.  Pornography and the entire attitude that accompanies it (including the Rage Porn of Facebook) is the most serious problem in our society today.  And yet I have never heard a homiliy on it.  Ever.  The greatest spiritual threat in the world is simply ignored at the parish level.

The opposite of love is use.  And mere use always become abuse.  And we live in a culture of abuse.

The Rohr of the Crowd

Recently a friend of mine asked me what I thought of Fr. Richard Rohr, and I dismissed him with some sort of comment such as, “Oh, Rohr’s books are tea table twaddle.”

And, according to Dan Burke, there are, apparently, concerns about Rohr’s orthodoxy.

But, while researching something else on the internet, I came upon a link to Fr. Rohr’s book Immortal Diamond: The Search for our True Self.  And I read, with a good deal of interest, an interview with Fr. Rohr (pasted below, with my comments in boldface), as well as perhaps the BEST AMAZON BOOK REVIEW EVER …

I wonder why it was so hard to folloe.
What folloes below is the interview with Rohr.  Note that it’s C. G. Jung warmed over, but it’s the best of Jung, which is saying something.  Again, my comments follow (I mean, folloe) each of Rohr’s in bracketed boldface.

Q&A with Robert Rohr, author of Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self

Richard Rohr
Q. What do you mean by False Self and True Self? 
A. When I use the term False Self, I mean that it is the self we manufacture and adopt to find our identity in the world—our jobs, our occupations, our religion, our culture, our sources of status. False doesn’t mean that it’s bad; it simply means that it’s external, passing, that it changes. Everyone has a False Self—you need it to function in the world. True Self is who you are objectively in God. Most religious and spiritual traditions would call it the soul, although it is also mysteriously more than that. You do not create True Self by your own personality or choices or, or experiences. It’s nothing that you manufacture or do. It’s your innermost, essential being.
[Rohr is describing what Jung called the persona.  Other modern writers use the term “false self” instead of persona, so that they can set up a distinction between “false self” and “true self”, instead of Jung’s dichotomy of persona and Self.  The problem with Jung is that the Self is “autonomous”, or, in effect, deified.  The Self is God, or at lest the Inner God, speaking with a voice that must be obeyed so that the soul may achieve “individuation”, which, for Jung and his followers, simply means “self-indulgence”.  But Rohr seems to be on to something that Jung hit upon but did not take seriously enough.  
I would say Rohr is presenting the “false self” (the persona) as doxa, and the journey to the self-known-by-God (the “true self”) as a journey toward a reality that is not of our own making.  The potential for abuse, of course, is evident.  One may call “my wife and kids” the obligation of the “false self” and “sleeping with my mistress” the way to the “true self”.  
But, with the guidelines of the Church and the voice of conscience, perhaps this pitfall can be avoided … though Rohr does not stress this.]
Q. How do the concepts of True Self and False Self relate to the questions you explored in Falling Upward
A. In my book Falling Upward, I try to talk about the journey, the transitioning from the first half of life, the necessary suffering in the middle of life, and the liberation of the second half of life. In talking about True Self/False Self in Immortal Diamond, I’m trying to actually explain what it is we’re finding in the second half of life–our True Self. If you don’t find or recover your True Self, you remain in the first half of life forever, as many people do. They think they are their occupation, their family, their culture, their religion; without the falling apart of what Thomas Merton called our “private salvation project,” without that falling there is no upward. In Immortal Diamond I’m calling the upward the True Self and I’m trying to explain what the True Self is.
[Again, this is from Jung, who wrote about the stages of life and about the middle of life as being a crisis period that offered great opportunity for attaining spiritual growth.  Though the phrase “attaining spiritual growth” in our society usually means, “I’m finally doing what I always wanted to do, but was too decent to do before now.”  However, if we take Rohr’s insights in the proper light, what he seems to be saying is we need a crisis, a cross, a passion, to topple our house of cards, to undo our Unreality.  Perhaps both Jung and Rohr could avoid the pitfall of mere self-indulgence if, indeed, the “true self” is that part of us that is most visible to God’s penetrating glance and most needful of God, what I have elsewhere called the Vulnerable Thing.  That part of us is not our salvation, for it can be as selfish as any other part of our character: but it is the part of us that approaches Our Lord as a child, with simplicity, innocence and earnestness, all cynical worldliness stripped away.  If it takes a mid life crisis to get to that, then Rohr is on to something.]
Q. Why is finding True Self so important to the spiritual journey? 
A. In many ways this quest for the True Self is the foundational issue. Your True Self is the only part of you that really has access to the big questions, things like love, suffering, death, God. Your False Self just entertains itself. But once you make contact with your True Self, there’s a natural correspondence between who you are and who God is. Let me put it this way. When you discover your True Self, it’s very easy to recognize the presence of God. When you’re living out of your False Self, you tend to be more attracted to externals–external beliefs, external rituals–but you are never really touched at any deep level because it’s not really YOU that’s making contact. It’s your temperament, your personality, your culture, all of which are okay, but your True Self is that part of you that already knows God, already loves God at some unconscious level. When you can connect with your True Self, the whole spiritual life opens up.
[This is really good stuff.  He’s talking about the difference between living at the level of doxa vs. living at the level of sophia: philodoxy vs. philosophy, divertissement vs. periagoge, Unreality vs. reality.  Again, it’s very easy to say, “Now that I’m living with my gay lover I’m in touch with my true self and my whole spiritual life has opened up!”  But that’s simply a self-serving parody of the reality Rohr is describing; that’s indulging the false self, not turning the true self toward God.  But do we have the courage to tell ourselves that?  Or will we simply use the gifts of psychology to continue to play games and to continue to justify sin?]
Q. What is the connection between finding True Self and facing death? 
A. The phrase “you must die before you die” in one form or another is found in most of the world religions. Jesus would say, “Unless the grain of wheat die it remains just a single grain.” This means that this concocted False Self, this manufactured identity that is who we all think we are, has to go. That’s what the language of being “born again” really means. It’s not some kind of magical transaction that takes place between you and God, but the death of the passing self, the one you have created for yourself. That’s what has to die. Until that False Self dies you don’t really know who you are. Once you let go of your passing self, as St. Francis said, “The second death can do you no harm.” In other words, once you have experienced the little losses and failings or falling upwards, you know at a deep level that you’ve been there before and none of it is going to kill you. You’ve already learned how to die. If you don’t learn how to die early, ahead of time, you spend your life avoiding all failure, humiliation, loss, and you’re not ready for the last death. Your True Self, your soul knows spiritual things, and knows God. So if you don’t awaken it, you really don’t know God. You can be religious, but you don’t encounter God at any depth. It’s just spinning the necessary prayer wheels, whatever your tradition tells you is the appropriate prayer wheel. It isn’t really transformative religion.
[Of course, being born again can be both an ontological change wrought by baptism and also a symbol for the death-to-false-self and rebirth-to-God (and therefore to true-self): it can be both.  As with everything in Scripture, it can be both literally and symbolically true at the same time.  And, if I’ve learned anything from my Devout Catholic friends, it’s that “transformative religion” is the very last thing most of them want.  What most of us want is a more powerful false self, not the pain and sacrifice required to act from the true self.  And so, as insightful as all this is, if it’s not coupled with the humility, the basic humility, of our need for a savior, the recognition that we will turn all good gifts to the bad without God’s help – including the great good gift of psychological insight – then it’s a tool that’s ripe for abuse.]
Q. How can we make contact with our True Self? 
A. It is hard work to remain in contact with your True Self. That’s why daily prayer is important. Somehow we have to reestablish our foundational ground over and over because we lose it every day. I surely do. I get caught up in letters, emails, what people want of me, what I need to be, the little dance I have to do today for this person or that person. It may be necessary, but if you are living in that world, that revolving hall of mirrors, you so get enchanted with these reflections of what everybody thinks you are or wants you to be that you forget or you never discover who you really are before you did anything right or anything wrong, before you had your name, your reputation, your education, your family, your culture. That’s how we get caught up in what some call our “survival dance.” Finding True Self is about finding your sacred dance, who you are forever and who you always will be. That’s the self that can go to Heaven, if you want to put it that way, because it’s already in Heaven. It’s already there. So you’re returning home.
[I agree with this – with the caveat that heaven is not our heaven.  If we think we make heaven, we end up creating hell on earth.  If we find heaven, both the “Kingdom of God that is within you / among you” and the Kingdom of God that only fully comes outside of time and the world, we find it.  We don’t make it.  It’s objective, like truth itself; and getting there is a gift, a grace.  It’s real, like God.  It’s not a construct.  This is, in fact, implicit in everything Rohr says.  If the false self is false, it’s because we’ve concocted it to suit our needs; it’s made by us.  The true self is discovered by us.  It’s true because it’s there, it’s objective.  It’s a fact, as is God, who is the source of all facts and who is Himself the truest self.]
Q. Where did the title, Immortal Diamond, come from? 
A. The metaphor immortal diamond came from a poem by the Jesuit Englishman, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The last lines of this beautiful poem say, “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and/ This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,/ Is immortal diamond.” When I first wanted to clarify this notion of True Self/False Self, I immediately said that’s going to be the, the metaphor. I think it names what I’m talking about, something that’s strong, true, clear, but hidden within us.

[What’s good about all of this is very good indeed.  What’s bad about it is what’s left unsaid.]


So there you have it.  Hope this was not too hard to folloe.

Death Comes for the War Poets

I am very excited to share details of the theatre production of my verse drama, Death Comes for the War Poets, which will open at the Sheen Center in New York City on June 9. I hope that those who live near NYC, or are looking for an excuse to visit Manhattan, will buy a ticket to see a performance of this dramatic presentation of the life and conversion of Siegfried Sassoon. Here are the details: