Monday, May 28, 2007

The Mother of God

On Kitsch and Sentimentality

My mother isn't the most religious person out there; so when she wept and begged us to pray for her during a painful ordeal in December of 2002, I knew it was serious. My father had been in the hospital for three days already when the incident happened,
confined due to a heart problem (he weighed some 220 pounds back then, and exercised too vigorously). I remember having a rather intense argument with her some hours before, which resulted in an uneasy quiet between us. It was unusually cold, too, for a December evening-- the temperature seemed to be three degrees lower than what it had been yesterday. There was not much to do, so I contented myself with watching television.

Munching hungrily on my Cheetos, and watching bad horror movies with delectable gusto, my problems seemed to slip away. My sister was there, too, who by then was only eight years old. I was playing with her; she had brought with her this small, stuffed polar bear named Robbie and dressed him up in a large yellow tee shirt. In the midst of it all, I saw the maid frantically rushing for the car keys and phoning the driver (my parents are always busy, so we had a driver) to come immediately. Upstairs, I heard some sobs and screams. When the dust settled, if partially, the maid told us that my mother was suffering from a very severe case of hyper acidity, and had to be brought to the hospital as soon as possible.

My sister, being the closest among us to her, wept inconsolably. I don't usually cry, but somehow, I shed some tears as well. With my father in the hospital and now my mother as well, who would take care of us? If worse comes to worst, what would become of us? I had the sinking feeling that both of them would be marred for life by these events. Worse, I felt a tug in my gut that there was a chance both of them would die.

I found religion in 2002. Well, not exactly; I had been Catholic all my life, but it was only in that year when I began to explore its depth and multivalency and began to take it seriously. Coming from an Opus Dei run high school, the canonization of St. Josemaria Escriva was naturally a cause for celebration; we had a longer semestral break than usual to accommodate the families that would be going to Rome on pilgrimage. And there were many of them, too. As for myself, I watched the ceremony on television, and it was quite an experience, to say the least. That was my first encounter with Gregorian chant and Latin Masses and Catholic life, in general. I was in awe when the choir chanted the Missa de Angelis (back then, the Sistine Choir were my idols, haha) and I delighted myself trying to pick out as much Filipinos as I can in the massive crowd. A friend even commented that he had not seen so much fur and coat tails in a very long time.

My interest in religion was not confined to Catholicism, however. I liked reading the colorful myths of the Hindus and pondering the sages of Buddhism; most of all, I liked reading about the Jews, especially the Haggadah. But despite all of these interests, I was never much of a Marian person. Perhaps it was the influence of my Evangelical relatives that somehow turned me off to the 'Marian excesses' of the 'Roman religion'. I just had hard time reconciling all of these dogmata with the Biblical truth, or what I understood it to be in those days. But it was the 'Hail Mary' that I found myself praying the most when my mother had to be whisked away to the hospital. It was the 'Hail Mary' that I taught my sister to say to find peace and calm in that night of tribulation.

I returned to the television to calm my nerves. There was a movie about possession showing that night, and since there was nothing else worth watching, I decided to sit through it. It's good to have an antagonist to be delivered from in order for one's prayers to be heard, I said to myself. My sister was still sobbing, hugging her teddy bear and talking to an aunt on the phone. She gripped my hand tightly, and it was already sticky from wiping away her tears. I could think of nothing else to do. I couldn't drive, there was no one else at home, my sister needed company. Both my parents were in the hospital, suffering critically, and all I could think of was the story of Job, who lost everything due to the Devil's malice.

I almost turned the television off when I heard a strange voice emanating from it. I looked at it again, shaking off the first vestiges of sleep, and saw the possessed boy floating on his bed and singing Schubert's 'Ellens dritter Gesang', otherwise more popularly known as 'Ave Maria'. I never understood the Romantics; for me, their sentimentality-dripping pieces and overly melodramatic tones inspired visions of cotton candy and statues of shrouded skeletons wielding massive scythes, which aren't exactly the most consoling visions to have. Schubert did not seem too far from this generalization; indeed, my classically trained musician relatives often compared his work to a boy writing a poem about sweets and taffy. It was not a very flattering image, to say the least.

It wasn't the most theologically reassuring work as well, either. I am not going to make any pretensions and say that I understand music; ironically, despite having grown up with Brahms and Mozart all my life, I don't know how to play a single instrument. But Schubert's Ave, even to me, seemed unsure of itself; it was erratic, and seemed laden with all the troubles of the world. It was pleading, pretty, and an emotional wreck, as I once heard it described. But something about it was mysteriously calming. Perhaps it is the raw emotion evident in the work, perhaps I identified with its pleading and anxious tone. Whatever it was, I felt at peace when I heard it. Somehow, in the song reminded me of the lullabies my mother would sing me when I could not sleep, or the words of comfort she would offer me whenever I got scared. It was beautiful.

I could hear God telling me in my innermost of hearts 'Be still and know that I am.' And I could see Mary, too, dressed in blue and crowned with gold, the perpetual image I had of her as gleaned from many bad works of religious art. I somehow understood that even Faith had to be 'kitschy' at times. Bargaining with God is not exactly the most civil thought to have in mind, but this is the same God, Who can be bargained with, that was the God of the Old Testament. It was the same God, as well, Who even paid for our ransom, bargaining with Himself, in the New Testament. This is the essence of the Catholic faith, and it is all summarized effectively by one word: love. I imagine love would be boring without the romance; no greeting cards, flowers, bad poetry, even worse pick up lines ('Love is like a rosary; it is full of mysteries!'), and the occasional public display of affection. But sometimes it is necessary to dwell on the 'pretty', too; else, how can we ever understand what beauty is? Or more importantly, what Truth is?

I understand now what all of these Marian dogmata meant; for me, they all boil down to one single fact, that God loves us all in ways we can't even begin to comprehend imagining. And I understood as well why we honor Mary with flowers and triumphal processions and feast days that seem to outnumber Our Lord's; it is because Mary was, is and will always be, a Mother. Mothers are the vessels that brought us to this world, and they are the women who care for us, nurture us, fuss over us, are sometimes overprotective of us, and who will continue to do so even if we throw everything but the kitchen sink at her. That God gave us His own mother is second only to Christ's passion and death (as well as His incarnation, Ascension, descent into Hell) in giving proof of God's immeasurable love for wretched man. This, perhaps, is the ultimate kitsch in the history of the universe, and I am thankful for it everyday of my life.

It is sad to know that Franz Schubert died penniless and young ( 31 years). Although a Lutheran, his insights into the Catholic psyche, I am almost tempted not to say, sometimes trump the incomparable aesthetic of great, Catholic men such as Palestrina, Victoria, de Lassus or Allegri. Maybe it was the shivering, erratic and inconsolable sentimentality of his works. We do know, however, that he was devoted to the Blessed Virgin; and for an 'adopted' son, his love and devotion are simply, well, tear-jerking.

Bernini sculpted the following image in the last years of his life. Although belonging to another age, I am pretty sure he would have understood what Schubert was trying to say in his 'Ellens dritter Gesang'. As for myself, it has cemented a place for itself in my heart and mind, and it is such a wonderful thing to listen to.


Andrew said...

The Sistine Choir, the mighty have fallen =)

Although if the videos of John XXIII's coronation are to be believed it was already low then.

I think I know that movie, the one where the Ave Maria was sung. I think it's one of those Exorcist movies.

How are your mom and dad now? A happy ending, I hope?

Archistrategos said...

My parents are fine, thanks. Though alot of stuff (most of them bad) happened that year, oddly enough, I also have a sentimental spot for 2002. I honestly don't know why.

Haha, I know what you mean. My school chaplain once said that all Italians want nothing more to become soloists, so they'll try to kill each other in the process by singing. A bit like a singing mafia, I suppose. And he has Italian blood, too!

Andrew said...

Yup. Soloists don't make good choir members. Kinda like Melkor in the Silmarillion. He was probably a good soloist. Perhaps Satan is a good soloist too, loving the sound of his own voice. But God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit love harmony...haha. Mass for 3 voices is probably their favourite piece.

How do you find Opus Dei? Any thoughts of joining them?

I was reading a book on them by John Allen. Interesting, but I think I'm too slack to make the cut. I kinda like the fat monks who eat a lot, like Thomas Aquinas. You'll see exactly why when I complete your Favourite Saints meme. [No I did not forget... I'm just tardy =)]

Archistrategos said...

Funny you should mention Melkor-- he is my favorite character in all of Tolkien's legendarium. His name alone is coolness-- 'He Who Arises in Might'! Plus he makes Sauron look like an amateur. And he created such memorable characters like Ancalagon, Gothmog, Glaurung, Carcharoth, etc.

Opus Dei are in incredible group of people. If only they were more vocal in favor of the Tridentine Mass, many people might actually confuse them with the SSPX! They run several high schools here where most of the country's elite go to. As my brother said, the student body looks more like the entire Spanish population in Manila than anything else-- there are many mestizos and very wealthy people there. But doctrinally, they are VERY solid; we have annual Corporal Works of Mercy, Wednesday devotions, Daily Mass (their chapels are beautiful), rosary, spiritual direction, retreat, monthly solmen benediction and vigil, and yes, LATIN classes. I think it's safe to say that I found tradition through Opus Dei.

Allen's book is one of the most balanced treatises on the Work I've seen so far. And yes, they are very strict in praxis-- I have a friend who has already 'whistled' and is bound to become a numerary within this year, and I have to say, he is one of the most rigorous persons I've ever known. I'm with you, though; while I admire their spirituality very much, I am just too much of a Franciscan or a Jesuit to join them, LOL.

*(Franciscan, because I enjoy simple things and good food, and Jesuit, because I like being whisked around in Benzes, even if we don't even own onw hahaha)

Andrew said...

Haha... yup I agree. 'He who arises in might'. Wow. Total coolness. And Gothmog. Great name, that. I like Grond too, the Hammer of the Underworld. I can see it smiting Fingolfin into the ground while they thread his body into the mire of his blood. Cool... oops, being called back to the meeting. Back later.