Monday, 30 March 2009

From the sublime to the ridiculous: virtue and vice

I shall caution my readers that the heading to this entry does not imply that sublime or ridiculous are adjectives to be taken as modifiers of 'virtue' and 'vice'. :) It is true that my frozen brain will not be at its best till a spring thaw, but I know I'm on the verge of writing of some quite sublime concepts with ridiculous examples. Consider it the legacy of Franciscan jesters for the past seven centuries. The threads I'm ravelling here were prompted by a presentation I attended yesterday (by a theologian whom I regard highly overall, I must add) which dealt with Thomas Aquinas' treatment of virtue, vice, and that grey area in between where most of us dwell. It's a great topic - I love how Thomas is so totally positive about creation and humanity in particular, and stresses the goodness inherent in us and our natural inclination to turn towards Perfect Love however much we may fall short of this. (For Thomas, even grave wickedness is a failure to fulfil a potential for sanctity.) However, as I shall get to a little later, the illustrations were idiotic. I remembered how my father, no theologian but sometimes an apt observer of human nature, used to speak of "book learning, but not the ways of the world," or of "the smarter you make them, the dumber they get." Of course, I know to whom he usually was referring (maybe it's obvious), so it is heartening if concurrently discouraging when I observe that there are those with far more intelligence and learning than I who are capable of being 'dumber' (in Sam's sense) than I am at my worst.

Permit me to present a 'prelude' of loose associations. A dear friend of mine, now deceased, was a priest, friar, and moral theologian. He had been a professor of that subject, and had much experience with confession and retreat work as well as with the theoretical. I remember mentioning to him once that refraining from doing wrong (or doing what is 'right') when one is only thinking of natural consequences hardly was a practise of virtue. "Of course it isn't," he replied, but, after a very deep West of Ireland sigh (half sigh, half hum), he muttered, "The only thing that can separate anyone from sanctifying grace is mortal sin - so you try to keep them from doing it any way you can!"

I, of course, have no notion of what it is to be a confessor - Tom used to tell me that he thought his Purgatory would be to have to hear endless confessions of (his expression, not mine!) "Irish women who eat the candles off the altar, because they tell you everything except what they need to and about everyone's sins but their own." I can remain smug in the theoretical - far from holy, I'll admit with candour if regret, but very comfortable with the writings of the holy. Indeed, we are children of God - and children we often are, not only in some lovely concept of adoption but in our very immature ways of approaching sin and virtue. We do this, or don't do that, because we might get caught - or it might have consequences (other than the spiritual... we don't think of those consequences unless we're recovering from grave sins of our own that we've ignored and justified, which leave us - no, not bound for hell! but - so debilitated that we can barely see the great grace that is healing us afterwards.)

Most of us, in childhood (when we were far from being able to grasp, for example, that lying is injustice, or that stealing shows no respect for others' possessions - things along those lines), were given an idea of 'sin' based on 'obedience.' I'm an anarchist at heart, and obedience is not something I normally ponder - unless I'm considering adherence to the wisdom of the ages, tested for millennia, and, of course, recorded and expounded upon by great saints (or consensus at ecumenical councils and such, where considering centuries of tradition compensates for the lack of holiness of participants) who conveniently are long dead and therefore not likely to give me orders any time soon. Obedience, to rules, authority and so forth, is probably the only way a small child can become acquainted with right and wrong - they do not have an inkling of virtue, and, even though they are just as inclined to sin as the rest of us, they don't have the use of reason and will yet which would make them full fledged sinners. It's a beginning - but it can only take us so far. Not doing something because one will be kept after school or smacked may at least keep one from wrong doing (...when it doesn't make one adept at not being caught or, far worse, managing to place the blame on the innocent), but it contains no concept of virtue.

Yet there is an 'obedience' I esteem (...if from afar.) The root audire means 'to listen.' That's not a bad idea when one cherishes the relationship with God and his Mystical Body (us) - the more because the God who 'saw that it was good' said "let there be..." light, water, humanity. Whatever the Israelites borrowed from Canaan or Persia, Yahweh was distinguished from the local gods. He spoke - revealed himself, let us be in his image - letting that image be immanent representation of his own transcendent nature, long before the Incarnation made this image perfect.

Thomas stressed grasping God as the ultimate good - and our will, choosing, loving. Love cannot be based on "do as I say or you are in big trouble." (My own view of most authority, I must add - I'm a total cynic in the area, because we usually need to bow to authority, in adulthood, merely for the sake of a roof over our heads. Such an approach to God is tragic.) Thomas also saw us as constantly longing for that union with God.

In a nutshell - the truly virtuous have grown in their love of God to a point where, for example, their sense of charity and justice is so finely tuned that, even if they make mistakes as much as the rest, they will not violate those virtues. Most of us fall into an in-between area, where we may do 'right' often enough, but it isn't so instilled in our nature. As for vice - those hardened in sin to that point are going against their entire created nature. Despite any amount of grace, they are totally self absorbed, relishing their own power, enjoying the pain of those whom they control.

Now, back to yesterday's presentation. The idea of the 'virtuous, continent, (pause for giggles) incontinent, and vicious' was illustrated by... that the vicious would eat an ice cream sundae even knowing it was bad, without caring, and the virtuous would not even have the inclination. Considering the degree of learning on the part of the speaker, this has to rank with one of the dumbest examples on the planet!

I've long wanted to be the first Franciscan woman canonised as a doctor - maybe I'll qualify because I don't eat sweets. But, sadly, I'm afraid the reasons I do not have nothing to do with virtue. (Whether one eats ice cream, incidentally, has nothing whatever to do with sin or virtue.) One reason is morally neutral. There's something odd in my system where certain foods, sweets among them, greatly stimulate my appetite and cause cravings. I don't abstain because of my sanctity, but because I don't need the physical distress and obsession with hunger which would result. My other reason is not exactly sinful but certainly is a distraction to my prayer and other Christian practise much of the time. I've battled a weight problem since the age of 8, am extremely concerned about my appearance (there - I was humble enough to admit that it isn't health that prompts this - I've never been a light year within being a beauty, but I don't want to be poster girl for the 'obesity epidemic'), and refrain from all sweets just as I would from, let us say, sexually explicit books or films... I don't want to start what I can't finish (or what I indeed can finish but only with huge regret, and I assure you I could easily finish at least five ice cream sundaes once I got started.) I always have to be wary of the sin of idolatry - because I often am distracted, to a point of obsession at times, by worshipping at the altar of weight loss rather than that of the true God.

As long as I'm on this 'ice cream' thing (and I'm sure it was no coincidence that such a silly illustration, which has no relation at all to Thomas' treatment of any stage of temperance, was delivered by a very thin man who rather resembles a carved statue of some ancient, bearded ascetic with a dour expression), I'll add one little word about classic views of gluttony. (Surprise - eating is not evil!) Most treatments of gluttony, including Thomas', dealt with drunkenness. (No unkindness to alcoholics is intended here- the nature of that illness was not known until very recently.) The horror of gluttony (being dead drunk) was that it deprived one of reason and will. One could commit horrid acts (Thomas speaks of incest, rape, and murder in an example), which never would have happened had one not been drunk.

Gluttony, like any 'capital sin,' could be a serious matter if it meant negligence of responsibilities, focussing entirely on the pleasures of the table and not love for God or neighbour, cruelty to those who harvest the food because one values the table more than the labourer. But it does not consist in eating an ice cream - or in not living according to whatever 'new food pyramid' is fashionable at the moment. If those on Internet forums to discuss food (those focussed on 'health' can be the most obsessive) spent one tenth of the time they do there on prayer or good works, I think the only things wrong with this planet (except perhaps global warming... in which this past winter has increased my disbelief...) would, as usual, be the doings of the truly vicious.

So - my benediction for today. May all of us so strive for the love of which Thomas spoke, and so rejoice in the goodness by which and for which we were created, and be so thankful for all of creation that we are thankful in our use of any part of it, that the worst of vices is someone enjoying a sundae... (And I certainly hope that, unless ice cream affects you in some adverse fashion, as it does me, that you have a healthy helping of it daily throughout the Easter season. Fasts are worthwhile only when they are accompanied by feasts.)

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not be a busybody!

The link in the title to this post is to an entry in another blog, which bears the apt title of "Today's Nonsense." Apparently there is a government initiative to develop a corps of busybodies to aggravate everyone, including strangers, in all public places. Heavens, I can only imagine how many people will jump at the chance to feel important and meddle (though it is a volunteer assignment.) As an aside, though I rather like the blog to which I linked, the title of the blog itself, "Comfort Eater's Diet," which I assume is ironic, in itself would inspire many a busybody to badger anyone whom they assume meets the popular stereotype of the pathetic neurotic 'turning to comfort foods.'

In my experience, busybodies come in every variety - every level of intelligence or education, every class and background - and their common ground is in both a highly excessive estimation of their own wisdom and importance, and their assumption that everyone else not only is their inferior but is eagerly awaiting their wisdom. Of course, anyone who is genuinely trying to help others can make mistakes, be imprudent, or be considered as (sigh... I hate trendy talk and I intend this to be said with lifted eyebrows...) 'violating boundaries' today, but there is a key difference between the isolated errors of those genuinely seeking to be loving and busybodies. Busybodies are playing ego games, seeking superiority and not even seeing the implicit condescension.

Lord knows I've met my share of the breed, and members of that set are the most exasperating people on earth. I can think of a few who were 'outstanding' - one whom I knew who criticised everyone's speech, appearance, tastes, whatever, with the clear attitude that she (and her mother) were the only people on earth who knew the right way to do things, and that their mission was to instruct the pathetic masses (anyone other than themselves.) Another, who thought herself to be the ultimate intellectual, could not go without nagging for half an hour, and would phone people multiple times each day to tell them to do things to which they'd already given a 'no,' or go on at length to advise them against doing things they never had considered doing in the first place.

Sometimes, approaches such as these would have been comical had they not been so irritating. When I was a young musician, I remember another member of a theatre company, Carol, who had the most... excessive self-esteem of probably anyone I have ever known (and this in a field where egos and desires for attention are hardly a rarity. Carol was a secretary by profession, but had some background in music, and I don't doubt she'd have approached Tebaldi with criticisms and suggestions, always beginning with her trademark, "we have to get together...", which invariably preceded a statement of what the other was doing wrong and how she had the solution.)

Carol thought of herself as the ultimate glamour girl - where she actually verged on the pathetic. Though it was the late 1970s when Carol began including me in her 'we have to get together' ( chance of that, fusspot...), she still had her hair, make-up and the like in styles, outdated for at least a decade, which so obviously were intended to copy Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra that it was hilarious. Carol regularly approached plain Janes (everyone except herself - particularly since this wasn't an era when too many women were still trying to look like Cleopatra) with "I've been looking at you, and I've decided..." (This was followed by what she thought one should do in the way of hair, make-up and the like.) I did have the good taste not to tell her that I had no desire to look as if I'd been made up by the undertaker (Carol would put on lipstick as she entered a room, then put on another layer above that two minutes later... one guy commented that anyone who kissed her must have thought he was snogging with a candle...). Yet, when she 'decided' that I should 'go back to my (horrid) natural hair colour to look younger' (this though neither one of us was within decades of when anyone would have that aim or concern), I'll admit that I responded that I had 'decided' that she should mind her own business - and I modified 'business' with an adjective too vulgar to use on the Internet, which is normally out of character for me.

I wore about a size 16 at the time, which naturally meant that every woman who wanted applause for being any smaller than I am was 'concerned about my health,' recommending black clothing, girdles, Weight Watchers, and so forth... though how wearing black or a girdle benefits health is beyond me. Carol was easily a size 24, so I would say that the chances that anyone saw her as a glamour girl and hoped to imitate her were slender.

Nonetheless, for all that busybodies irritate me to an extent that even heretics, those with arch conservative politics, and other people far on the other end of the circle from me do, I shall concede that certain religious teachings indeed could push those who, deep down, genuinely want to be loving into busybody mode. It was not a matter of doctrine, but of exhortation - the devout who attended retreats, heard or read conferences about practising charity in little things, were trained as greeters in churches, became involved with group programmes, whatever, were exposed to far too great an emphasis on example.

I remember a lovely couple I knew, in my age group, who were very involved with all sorts of 'marriage enrichment' programmes (natural family planning, marriage preparation, retreats for couples). It took a while for me to discover that, in their preparation for this work, they'd been encouraged to find reasons to bring these things up all of the time. Until then, though I was quite fond of them, I wondered if they might not just have badges made that said "Ask us about our perfect marriage," just to save time. Breastfeeding was not yet a universal obligation then, and there was some RC organisation that gave it a religious flavour, and I could set my clock by the female member of the couple... at any parish gathering, wait till the room was full, count out five minutes, and it was time for her to start pulling up her top...

One girl who attended the same college with me, again a very good sort, was involved in campus ministry programmes. If, let us say, a retreat was approaching, she hounded others to attend. Let someone say "I will be away that weekend," and she'd be 'on their case' with "is that the only reason?" She'd pester those who were attending if their siblings or friends were not. I'm sure she either thought these gatherings would be beneficial or wanted to rake up the biggest total to show what an organiser she was - but she just could not accept a 'no'!

Those from Catholic traditions (in which I do not only include the Roman variety) normally did not see themselves as having an obligation to push others to become Christians - there is no concept of 'baptised or damned.' I would say, at least since the Counter-Reformation and more since the French revolution, the emphasis (again, with stress on 'example') was on getting Catholics who weren't practising to become involved in the Church. This is a fine aim, of course, but one thing that the devout seldom can grasp is that (1) some people just aren't interested in church-going and (2) those who came from homes where their parents set the most avid 'examples' often are more than happy to be free of this.

One mega-busybody, whom I had not seen in years, contacted me some months ago. (The worst feature of the Internet is that one will hear from whichever figure from the past one wishes to hear from least.) Apparently she does not read most of the blog, which I hardly would consider dismal, but focussed on that, in one post (which was actually primarily about an author!), I'd referenced my convent days as an illustration. This, supposedly, was 'destroying all the good in me.' So, at risk of hearing from this pest again, I shall (gasp!) present a 'convent example' because I see it as illustrating how the idea of example can get out of hand.

Francis had placed a provision in the rule that, in any case of discord between the friars, they should 'immediately and humbly ask pardon of the other.' In our particular congregation, that had been more formalised. It was customary, if another started or involved one in a row, and later made an apology, to respond with "and I am sorry that I provoked you."

This, in a setting where all understand the custom, and the underlying humility and charity it is supposed to demonstrate (...even when the actual feelings may be smug and self-righteous...), is not intended to be unhealthy, even if it probably is. There are no implications of "I deserve to have you mistreat me - I think I am worth no better - I am to blame for what you did" or anything of the sort. Anyway, both people involved in the argument would have had to accuse themselves to the superior, and the verdict was highly unlikely to be 'not guilty' for either. (I once was penanced to three days of silence - probably the most appropriate penance in the Order's 700 year history.)

Unfortunately, when we are 'raised' with such customs and may grudgingly admit they can be useful, we can forget that there are characters on this earth who would not be edified by the example of humility and charity we're hoping we are presenting. (It was a big year for edification... I doubt we even realised the implicit condescension in our having to 'edify' our parents when we wrote them or they visited, as if the good and dedicated people who'd raised us needed their daughters' help to rescue them from their failings.) :) I well remember when one of the less pleasant people with whom I dealt, and whom I had in no way wronged, felt I'd offended her. Most fortunately, one of the friars (the one who told a man en route to rehab that, if he returned before his treatment was complete, said friar would 'break his fucking legs'... the treatment was successful) intercepted the message I nearly sent. "I am sorry I provoked you," if directed to the individual I mentioned, would only have been taken as further proof of weakness and a capacity for manipulation.

Admittedly, there are other times when we must have seemed a prissy little crop of snobs. (I was more intelligent and educated than the others - which is not saying much - so I came across as a cheeky and proud snob, which at the time was perfectly true.) Our community had retained most of the 'old ways' in an era when many congregations were modernising (is that a word?), some becoming quite secular. I suppose that the lowered eyes and demeanour as if we were sterile and feared someone would touch and contaminate us were taught to us in order that we not glance up and see modern touches that would be appealing. But, of course, that was never disclosed. No, our manner was supposed to demonstrate that we were 'recollected,' and therefore provide edification for these 'wicked' modern nuns who turned up at inter-community functions.

Forgive us - anyone who'd act 'edifying,' or concentrate on 'setting a good example,' to her own mother and father is temporarily beyond hope. ;) We also were too insular to realise that, had anyone actually stopped to consider how we lived, it would have been seen as pathetic (all the money she could make... she could still catch a man...) rather than edifying. But, fortunately, no one is likely to be looking to another for example in any case.

My own rule: Be there if someone really wants to share a confidence, though it is unlikely one can really do anything other than listen. (Often, just having a caring, non judgemental ear is a great blessing. The person who shares pain will be glad not to have her head bitten off with 'you're feeling sorry for yourself!,' or a smug response from a busybody who 'doesn't let things bother her,' even if her constant meddling makes it plain that everyone and everything indeed does bother her.) Always stop to think, for at least a day or two if not till eternity, of whether you do want to help another or just want to convince yourself you are superior. Never forget that fear can cripple us - we may tear apart, for example, the person who had a job loss or bankruptcy because we dearly want to believe it could not happen to us. If one believes one is 'concerned about health,' one must ponder very seriously if this is not just an excuse for an ego game. Don't only let one's own yeas be yea and nays be nay - accept that others have a right to both responses.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Those Seven Last Words...

In case this was not obvious, there are very few topics, whether related to scriptures or general theology, about which I would not enjoy writing (or preaching, were the pulpit available to me.) Perhaps the only one at which I would flinch (and, even then, only if I had to speak about all of them in succession) would be the Seven Last Words of Jesus on the cross. With Holy Week approaching, I have some sympathy for clergy here and there who may be presenting this from 12-3 on Good Friday.

As usual during Lent, I've been using Raymond Brown's "Death of the Messiah" (and various Tom Wright works) for lectio. Brown's massive work, with its detailed analyses and references to commentaries old and new, is fascinating indeed - but, as far as the seven last words are concerned, the illustration of how many odd points of view (don't get me started on Anselm...) have become attached to them is amazing.

I know I'm saying the grass is green, but preparing an integrated meditation on the words (as opposed to their exceptional potential for use in musical settings) is a task only slightly less complex than parting the Red Sea. Of course, the various 'words' are from different gospels, with very different theological points and specific settings. Yet what more than the Passion of Christ has been a taking off point for meditations in the past? (That is an observation, not a criticism, since I often meditate on that myself... even if I always manage to then get a few days ahead... then forty, the fifty... never mind where I end up, since it's the last thing we all mention in the creed...)

What prayer, for example, could be more beautiful than "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do"? (Anyone who emails me to speak of how Christian concepts of forgiveness keep anyone from dealing with grief will get 40 years in purgatory - and don't think I'm not connected. Please recall both who uttered these words and where he was at the time.) Yet the patristic era had many pondering just who was forgiven, whether the punishment implicit in 'let his blood be on us and our children' made forgiveness at odds with the justice, whether the prayer of Jesus meant that Jerusalem, which had to be wiped out for being his place of execution, had a 'stay' for 70 years instead of getting it at once. Today, of course, there undoubtedly would be some hearer (of the "if there is a problem here, I caused it" school) who would protest "but forgiveness means we judged someone!" (On a level more personal than scholarly, I'll whisper that I think Jesus just may have meant all of us... but I'll not expound lest I get into a missive on how we never fully realise the implications of what we do.)

"Mother, behold thy Son..." This is a magnificent depiction of how, in Johannine theology which is always concerned with the eschatological, the presence of Jesus' mother and the beloved disciple are beyond the concerns of this world. Sadly, treatments of this one have gone from everything such as whether John lived nearby to recruiting speeches for sodalities.

The last word which could have the most powerful treatment of all (and even has pastoral potential...) is "Why have You forsaken me?" Oh, is this a tricky one! (Anselm related this to the divine wrath being satisfied... get me another gin, even if it is Lent.) To have Jesus really mean this is a bit too human. I suppose he not only has to be strictly quoting a psalm (and have all onlookers recall the ending of said psalm), but has to be referring to Israel (as the psalm is) and not to himself.

Recently, a priest of my acquaintance (perhaps as nice a man as one could hope to meet, and a dedicated vicar - but the worst preacher on the planet) was going on and on, not able to stick to any topic, because he kept saying "but I can't say that, because I now know (this)..." It took me a moment to realise just what this new development was - he'd always preached dreadfully (he's the same one who, months ago, spoke of how he hoped Martha was resting in heaven while Mary flipped hamburgers), but not being able to finish a sentence because he was diverted by new knowledge was hardly long-standing. I then recognised some of the diversions and their clear source - he'd over-dosed on Raymond E. Brown! (I personally would like to see Brown canonised as a doctor of the Church - but one cannot read his lengthy works unless one takes one's time.)

This is a rambling post... about a rambling topic I never would care to tackle. So, I ask a blessing on any of you who are preparing talks on the Seven Last Words!

Friday, 20 March 2009

Do this in memory of me

Christianity is very simple. All it requires is a memory and a vision; and, if you can get them, some bread, and wine, and water. - Kenneth Leech

Simplicity is hardly my strong point - yet my honest nature prompts me to further comment that the bread, wine, water, vision, and memory are perhaps the only universal factors which have united the Christian Church since its earliest days. (Well, all right ... I can develop an idea of the Church's going back to Adam... but let us save that for another day.) Looking back to a 'golden age' is a favourite pastime of everyone in every era, yet such have never existed.

I am not likely to call the Last Supper an actual celebration of the Eucharist - there can be no anamnesis of what has not yet happened. :) But I provide this 'annual reflection,' which I normally reserve for Holy Week, right now because I'm a bit lacking in mobility as I recover from a burn... My regulars will recognise the sentiments, but blogging for all of these years taught me what I already knew from being a student for a century - original ideas are rare, and I think Einstein was the last to have one. :)

One wonders what the apostles were like. (I am also a peasant, yet the intellectual snob in me turns up her nose at the thought of their not being able to grasp the simplest parables and that most of them smelled of fish...) When I was reading Luke yesterday, I had to smile, seeing how, right to the end, the apostles were tossing about the idea of who would have the highest place in the kingdom. Ah, yes, arguments about authority...

It is all too easy, particularly if one not only watches the scriptural epics and reads the 'Lives of Christ' of another time, and has been exposed to the 'see how these Christians love one another' myth, to picture twelve intense young men, in great awe at having been first to see the ritual which would sustain the Church until the parousia. Actually, what was present at the Last Supper was a prototype of another sort. :) I am sure that at least one traditionalist was frowning that Jesus had changed the form for the Pesach meal with all this "cup of my blood" business. Those who were either simple or highly observant would question why the Passover was anticipated a day early. (Well, at least, in that day, they were spared the irate vegetarian's protests about the lamb, and no one offered the cup would have irately commented, "But wine is a drug!") Judas was on verge of betraying the Master. I would imagine that Matthew was still sensitive about why Judas held the purse, considering all of his own experience as a tax collector. The disciples were conflicted about who would be the kingpins (I suppose when the Messiah toppled Roman rule.) "The Rock," who had learnt insufficient humility from that sad incident of attempting to walk on water, was making bold promises he'd soon find were beyond him. The lot of them would scatter in fear before the night was out.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Church.

Still, whenever I heard the words of consecration at the Eucharist, it moves me to think that the perpetual memorial has endured for two millenia. For all the conflict, persecution, quarrels, heresy, whatever, which the early Church faced, that bread, wine, and water was the catholic element - and these rituals of common worship kept the Church from crumbling when many a reform movement of the time would die out quickly enough. Jerusalem would fall - the Word would spread to Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Gaul, etc., with Christians being the odd ones who conformed neither to Jewish nor pagan society.

All that was common, then or now, was worship - praise and thanksgiving - water, bread, and wine - the memory and vision, and the scriptures. We shall never accept that, of course. :) Till the end, I'm sure that those of us who are avid believers will think that some ideal of unity and love will prevail. Yes, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow... but not everyone will be happy and grateful at that gesture. :)

Lord, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness, comes from you, through your Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord, by the working of the Holy Spirit. From age to age, you gather a people to yourself, so that from East to West a perfect offering may be made to the glory of your name...

Monday, 9 March 2009

Quavering a bit because I felt like a minim

...and it temporarily made me crotchety. I'm sure my readers will excuse a string of three terrible puns, but I'm amazed that this is an occasion where it took me two full days to begin to laugh at myself, as I shall explain.

Unlike some others I have known (who were upset at reaching the age of thirty or even twenty - where I wasn't at all troubled by forty or fifty), I am not bothered by ageing - except in realising, with some genuine sorrow, that I've reached the point where I have forgotten more than I know. There could be a play I studied in depth, and I'd have to think twice before I even remembered the characters. I've forgotten my foreign languages to a point where I doubt I could say more than good morning in anything except English - and I might not even manage that until I had a double espresso. Of course, I can refresh my memory on many subjects, but those which I once knew to such an extent that their practise was nearly intuitive sadly have fled.

Last Saturday, I happily had been invited to a "Bach party," where various people who either sang or played instruments gathered to perform cantatas. (I realise that this is not everyone's idea of a good time - but how could I resist a chance to meet others who think it is indeed?) Now, anyone with a Master's in musicology hardly would be any stranger to Bach (who, indeed, is one of my favourite composers), and I actually recall conducting some of the cantatas a lifetime ago.

I haven't performed in years. Though I have no deficiencies in training (and know my voice wasn't 5% of what it once was), I'd forgotten how one loses a knack one hasn't used in ages. For example, when I was performing I could have 'jumped in' with sight reading Bach - one isn't even aware of that one is counting and so forth, because it's a part of one's every day life.

Well, we performed cantatas 1 and 4. The few instrumentalists there (a few oboe players, some violinists, a bass player, and two French horns) did such parts as they could, but there wasn't anything approaching a full ensemble. (One of the oboe players did the viola part, since there were no violas and he alone was comfortable with reading that odd clef.) I certainly am no stranger to Bach, but, after all these years, I hadn't really thought about how his vocal parts (typically for him in anything) are all contrapuntal, syncopated, fast in parts and so forth. With its being so many years, I just couldn't sight read that fast. I might have done better had there been a keyboard accompaniment, but of course what the instrumentalists played bore no relation to what we sang.

One other participant was a very confident type - she, with me and two other ladies, one of whom had to leave early, was 'the soprano section,' but she kept joining in with the altos or even tenor part (we had only one tenor and one bass) whenever the sopranos had free measures. At one point, I believe I made a mistake, and she started wildly waving at me - which I naturally found quite embarrassing. Overall, I felt I looked like a total fool - it probably seemed I didn't even know how to read music.

I tried a joint effort at the soprano solo. It was full of semi quavers at the slowest (and of course the instrumental part had no relation to the melody), and, though despite my lack of practise it was not beyond my vocal range, it flew all over creation, and I just couldn't keep up. In fact, I'll candidly admit that, even when I was performing, I would have had to practise such a solo for some time to 'get it right.' I'm a spinto, and fluttering around is not easy for a voice with a dark timbre - how I'd have loved to show off a bit back when I could...

I'm not suggesting that feeling like a well worn fool is the exclusive domain of musicians - it applies to just about all of us who, however well versed we are in a subject, have not had the opportunity to practise the art over many years. I'm surprised that it took me so long to see the humour!

I well remember when I was a student. I knew people who were extremely talented, but others (in fact, those more likely to star in local companies!) who had confidence which often far outweighed their abilities. It occurs to me that, the more one does learn, the more one realises one knows little - but those who really don't know very much (the proverbial big fish in little ponds being a prime example) can hold their heads high seeing themselves as authorities.

There were others there who didn't sound any better than I did, so why I was so timid probably has to do with, first, knowing I was very good once upon a time and not wishing to be pathetic and, perhaps more so, being all too aware of just how much I have forgotten. The astute among you may have noticed that I cannot even remember in which 'odd clef' the viola plays... and this though I used to play the viola (terribly, I'll admit) in the string ensemble. (There are many things one must do when one studies music at university level...) I cannot even remember which instruments 'don't sound in C,' or how one must transpose orchestral scores - though I did it many times in orchestration assignments. In a way, I envy those who realise, only when they are playing French horn and something sounds strange, that they have the score for the wrong instrument (not unusual if there are few instruments and two horns, so one is 'faking' a totally different instrument just to fill in.) I genuinely envy anyone who could play a viola part on an oboe and not even blush when, at one point, he forgot he was using 'that odd clef' and sounded a bit like Ravi Shankar in a renaissance ensemble.

...I hope I have the chance to attend again... But I'll be forgiven for hoping it's a piece I know through and through... as I once did Bach cantatas. :)