Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Creating the New Culture of Beauty - a little parish in Jasper, Georgia shows us the way

Following on from the interview with Cardinal Burke, Here is an example of how it might be done. The artistic and musical creativity of a parish shows us why liturgical and, hence, cultural renewal is likely to be a grass-roots, bottom-up process.
Who is going to patronize, ie pay for, the new works that will the Catholic culture? Will it be committees created by the Vatican? Unlikely, given the evidence of the past 50 years or so. Will it be those who fund the grand cathedrals in our large cities? Possibly, but again the evidence of the recent past is not too encouraging there (although not altogether hopeless). How about the ordinary parish church? I think probably the latter. The sheer statistics point to it. There is no reason to believe that a parish priest or parish community is going to be any less (or more) aware of Catholic cultural traditions than those of cathedrals. But given that there are more parishes than cathedrals, says it is more likely that the first green shoots of cultural recovery are going to happen at the local level. 
The obvious objection to this is money - where will parishes get the money to patronise the liturgical arts? Don't you need the sort of money that those who build cathedrals have to pay the artists well? I would say no. First, I do believe that artists ought to be paid at least the hourly rate we would pay any other artisan for his work (think of how much a plumber charges) which would ensure a decent price for a picture. But I say also that if the will is there it can pay for art. If a church can afford to keep the plumbing and its roof in good order; it can afford to pay reasonable prices for art and music. 
I have two heartening stories about ordinary parish churches having the interest to do great work. The first is the subject of this week's story and is in Jasper, Georgia. The second is a little church in Wyoming that has decided to install a full cosmati pavement in its floor, to replace the carpeting that was there previously. I will give more detail about the second on another occasion. But today Our Lady of the Mountains, Jasper, Georgia, set, as the name suggest up in the hills, the blueridge North Georgia mountains.
I have just been contacted by Fr Charles Byrd the paster who informed me that the church had commissioned and original piece of music for their Good Friday liturgy. I'll let him tell you some detail:

“On Good Friday, 18 April 2014, at the close of Communion, the St. Gregory Choir of Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jasper, Georgia, with soloist, Mr. Joseph McBrayer, and organist, Mr. Joseph D’Amico, under the direction of Mrs. Bridget Scott, performed for the first time ever The Song of Rood. Our relic of the True Cross, which the congregation had just venerated, was enthroned upon the altar. This recording documents that first performance. The parish had commissioned this music from Mr. Dallas Gambrell with the text loosely based upon a portion of Saint Caedmon’s epic poem, The Dream of the Rood, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Christian texts written in English. St. Caedmon was a 7th / 8th century herdsman, lay brother, and poet, and is considered the Father of English Sacred Song. The section we used for the anthem is that part of his longer poem that had been carved in runes on the Ruthwell Cross (or rood), a standing preaching cross, in what is today southwest Scotland.”

It was sung after the Reproaches and Communion and Fr Charles tells me, may be used for the Exaltation of the Cross. You can read more about this and hear the recording of the piece (which I like very much) on their website here.

This is the same parish that contacted me and was looking to commission four icons (they commissioned two from me in the end and I referred them to another iconographer for the other two). What was noticeable to me in undertaking these is how knowledgeable and helpful he was as a patron. He had a firm idea of what he wanted, had done all the background reading on the appearances of the two saints - Ambrose and Gregory - and was clear in his mind why he wanted new images. He was open to suggestions from me as to how we might conform to his idea. As this discussion was taking place I was reminded of John Paul II's call, in his Letter to Artists, of a 'renewed dialogue' between artists and the Church. How did JPII imagine this dialogue would play out, one wonders. I can't answer that, but my own part, I don't think this is something that is going to happen at an institutional level or at grand conferences in Rome. Rather, it will right at the grassroots, where priest and congregation talk to artist and between them they produce something that will be used regularly by those who are commissioning. The great thing about the modern age is that technology, such as the internet (with media such as this blog!), ensure that remoteness does not mean isolation. Georgia and Wyoming can speak to world as easily as Rome or Washington.

Here we have someone with a great sense of the culture and the liturgy and this is what makes it. As a general rule, for a parish to be able to achieve this is needs a consensus on what is good, artistically and musically; or at least a well placed trust on the part of those who do not know, in those who do. That is the difficult part. If priest and congregation are at odds with each other it will reduce the chances of anything being done. Choosing art or music by committee which has to reconcile widely differing views by compromise, often leads to the worst of all both worlds, not the best.

Coming back to this commission: here is the description of their adaptation of the text for modern congregations: 'Our text, a modern adaptation, takes some liberties with Caedmon’s text. We augmented the text with some verses from the Vercelli Book to give this abridged poem more clarity. The original Anglo-Saxon text would be hard for us to understand today, but one phrase in that original tongue remains in our anthem — “Krist waes on rodi,” which means “Christ was on the cross.” There are two voices in the poem, the voice of the dreamer who narrates his vision, and the voice of the Holy Rood, who recalls the heroic struggle of the Crucifixion of the Lord. We can almost think of this song as a dramatic play. The chorus speaks for Caedmon and a soloist speaks the soliloquy of the Rood.

Hear now a vision long foretold of greatest hero from of old.
Naked He embraced the rood;
He was stripped upon the wood.
So the blessed Cross did say of Him who died for us that day.
Krist waes on rodi, Krist waes on rodi, Krist waes on rodi. Gloria.
Krist waes on rodi, Krist waes on rodi, Krist waes on rodi. Gloria.'

I give you images of the paintings commissioned from me which were delivered last Christmas as well as the recording of the music commissioned. I can't comment on the pictures (being mine) and I think the music is has the qualities of goodness of form, holiness and universality that are needed in liturgical music. Regardless, here is the point: even if you don't like what Our Lady of the Mountains has done, we can see from this example that this really can be a bottom up cultural transformation. It starts with inculturation in families and parishes who demand beautiful forms in unity with the liturgy, and beautiful worship. I don't know what the liturgy at Our Lady of the Mountains is like, but I'm guessing from the images and the music I have heard, that it is not dominated by guitars and tambourines.

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