Classical Sunday: de Victoria’s Last Works

Come with us on a journey to the time of St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross.

The Tallis Scholars: Requiem Officium Defunctorum

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) should undoubtedly be considered the most significant Spanish composer of his time.  He exclusively devoted his life and creative energies to the Catholic Church, and became one of the leading musical figures of the Counter-Reformation.’

In all of his music, the texts are in Latin and drawn from the Roman Catholic Liturgy.

Read more in the description of the above video on YouTube.

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Voices

How will you measure up?

‘Now the Niggle case,’ said a Voice, a severe voice, more severe than the doctor’s.
‘What was the matter with him?’ said a Second Voice, a voice that you might have called gentle, though it was not soft – it was a voice of authority, and sounded at once hopeful and sad. ‘What was the matter with Niggle?  His heart was in the right place.’
‘Yes, but it did not function properly,’ said the First Voice.  ‘And his head was no screwed on tight enough: he hardly ever thought at all.  Look at the time he wasted, not even amusing himself!  He never got ready for his journey.  He was moderately well off, and yet he arrived here almost destitute, and had to be put in the paupers’ wing.  A bad case, I’m afraid.  I think he should stay some time yet.’
‘It would not do him any harm, perhaps,’ said the Second Voice.  ‘But, of course, he is only a little man.  He was never meant to be anything very much; and he was never very strong.  Let us look at the Records.  Yes.  There are some favorable points, you know.’
‘Perhaps,’ said the First Voice; ‘but very few that will really bear examination. (…)  It is your task, of course, to put the best interpretation on the facts.  Sometimes they will bear it.  What do you propose?’
‘I think it is a case for a little gentle treatment now,’ said the Second Voice.
Niggle thought that he had never heard anything so generous as that Voice.  It made Gentle Treatment sound like a load of rich gifts, and a summons to a King’s feast.  Then suddenly Niggle felt ashamed.  To hear that he was considered a case for Gentle Treatment overwhelmed him, and made him blush in the dark. (…)  Niggle hid his blushes in the rough blanket.
There was a silence.  (…)
‘Well, I agree,’ Niggle heard the First Voice say in the distance.  ‘Let him go on to the next stage.  Tomorrow, if you like.’

~ J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle

 

leaf tree

Illustrations by Alan Lee

Our Own Dear John Ronald: The New Normal

Bread rather than jam.

At any rate, Niggle got no pleasure out of life, not what he had been used to call pleasure.  He was certainly not amused.  But it could not be denied that he began to have a feeling of – well satisfaction: bread rather than jam.  He could take up a task the moment one bell rang, and lay it aside promptly the moment the next one went, all tidy and ready to be continued at the right time.  He got through quite a lot in a day, now; he finished small things off neatly.  He had no ‘time of his own’ (except alone in his bed-cell), and yet he was becoming master of his time; he began to know just what he could do with it.  There was no sense of rush.  He was quieter inside now, and at resting time he could really rest.

~J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle

leaf tree

The above quote finds Niggle in Purgatory.  He has been there for some time already, and now, after getting over all his ‘I wish I had’-s and ‘I should have’-s and ‘I should not have’-s, after worrying enough about things he could not change anymore, he begins to concern himself with the tasks he has been given in this new place where he now resides, the Workhouse.

It is a passage that deserves a bit of pondering, besides the obvious connection with Tolkien’s own much-discussed issue of keeping deadlines and getting distracted by too many things.  If you will, just take the first three sentences and think about them, particularly in connection with what’s going on in the world right now and how life has changed, quite possibly for good.  In every situation, there is also an opportunity.  One can learn much from Niggle.

At any rate, Niggle got no pleasure out of life, not what he had been used to call pleasure.  He was certainly not amused.  But it could not be denied that he began to have a feeling of – well satisfaction: bread rather than jam.

Illustrations by Alan Lee

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Undone

‘There is plenty of material here: canvas, wood, waterproof paint.’ – ‘My picture!’ exclaimed Niggle.

‘There now!’ said the Inspector.  ‘You’ll have to go; but it’s a bad way to start on your journey, leaving your jobs undone.  Still, we can at least make some use of this canvas now.’

‘Oh dear!’ said poor Niggle, beginning to weep.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien

When you go, how will the jobs be taken care of that you did not finish?  For Niggle, his beloved tree ends up in bits and pieces as shingles for his neighbor’s leaky roof.

Although for Tolkien unfinished jobs were also quite a literal problem, learning from Niggle’s experience is useful for spiritual jobs, if you will, as well.  Focus helps.  There are things to tackle.  It’s a bad way to start on your journey, leaving your jobs undone.

leaf tree

Poesie: Jeffers’ To an Old Square Piano

Tor is a term for a craggy outcrop or lookout.

To an Old Square Piano

(Purchased from the caretaker of an estate in Monterey)

Whose fingers wore your ivory keys
So thin – as tempest and tide flow
some pearly shell, the castaway
of indefatigable seas
on a low shingle far away –
You will not tell, we cannot know.

Only, we know that you are come,
Full of strange ghosts melodious
The old years forget the echoes of,
From the ancient house into our home;
And you will sing of old-world love,
And of ours too, and live with us.

Sweet sounds will feed you here: our woods
are vocal with the seawind’s breath;
Nor want they wing-born choristers,
Nor the ocean’s organ interludes.
– Be true beneath her hands, even hers
Who is more to me than life or death.

~ Robinson Jeffers (1887 – 1962)

robinson jeffers

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Finished With

Are you all packed and ready?

‘But I can’t…’ Niggle said no more, for at that moment another man came in.  Very much like the Inspector he was, almost his double: tall, dressed all in black.
‘Come along!’ he said.  ‘I am the Driver.’
Niggle stumbled down from the ladder.  His fever seemed to have come on again, and his head was swimming; he felt cold all over.
‘Driver?  Driver?’ he chattered.  ‘Driver of what?’
‘You, and your carriage,’ said the man.  ‘The carriage was ordered long ago.  It has come at last.  It’s waiting.  You start today on your journey, you know.’
(…)
‘Oh dear!’ said poor Niggle, beginning to weep.  ‘And [my tree is] not even finished!’
‘Not finished!’ said the Driver.  ‘Well, it’s finished with, as far as you’re concerned, at any rate.  Come along!’
Niggle went, quite quietly.  The Driver gave him no time to pack, saying that he ought to have done that before, and they would miss the train; so all Niggle could do was grab a little bag in the hall.  He found that it contained only a paint box and a small book of his own sketches; neither food nor clothes.  They caught the train all right.  Niggle was feeling very tired and sleepy; he was hardly aware of what was going on when they bundled him into his compartment.  He did not care much: he had forgotten where he was supposed to be going, or what he was going for.  The train ran almost at once into a dark tunnel.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle.

leaf tree

Death might be a scary thought, or at least uncomfortable, or maybe distasteful for you, like it is for Niggle, but think or feel what you may, there it is:  We all will go one day, sooner or later, and preparation is required.  It is hard to die well if you die unprepared.

In Tolkien’s Silmarillion, he describes death as having been a gift to man, but with time it became ever harder for man to appreciate it.  An everlasting What-We-Know-Already appears preferable to the New-We-Know-Nothing-About.  Maybe a change of attitude towards life and death is in order.  It seems such a pity to reject a gift that offers a way out of the ever-spinning Wheel of Fortune.  But it is not to be had without effort, without preparation.

 

Illustrations by Alan Lee

 

Poesie: Frost’s Birches

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Birches

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

~ Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

birches

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Too Kindhearted

‘He climbed the ladder, and began to paint. He had just begun to get into it again, when there came a knock on the door.’

[Niggle] was kindhearted, in a way.  You know the sort of kind heart: it made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything; and even when he did anything, it did not prevent him from grumbling, losing his temper and swearing (mostly to himself).  All the same, it did land him in a good many odd jobs for his neighbor, Mr Parish, a man with a lame leg.  Occasionally he even helped other people from further off, if they came and asked him to. (…)

He could not get rid of his kind heart.  ‘I wish I was more strong-minded’ he sometimes said to himself, meaning that he wished other people’s troubles did not make him feel uncomfortable.  (…) He tried to harden his heart; but it was not a success.  There were many things that he had not the face to say NO to, whether he thought them duties or not; and there were some things he was compelled to do, whatever he thought.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle

leaf tree

Too kindhearted.  I am sure it is a situation and sentiment we all know; doing something for others even though we had other things planned; being interrupted in what we were doing to go and help others; the feeling we are never going to get around to doing what we wanted to do or finishing what we wanted to finish and still not being able to say no when someone asks for help.

Maybe it’s time to listen to the kind heart rather than complaining about it.  Instead of begrudging others the time we are giving them, let’s help with a joyful heart.  Instead of grumbling while helping, let’s enjoy what we are doing while we’re doing it.  Instead of being disturbed about being interrupted, let’s concentrate on the task at hand and do our best.  We will get done what we were meant to get done.  Incidentally, it will make helping all the more enjoyable.  Remember Mary Poppins?  ‘Just a spoonful of sugar…’

I guess in the modern vernacular one would say: ‘Own it’.

Own your kind heart.  It’s yours.  Use it well.

 

Illustrations by Alan Lee

 

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Lent with Niggle

If you are looking for something to read in a meditative way during the next 40 days, try Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’.

There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make.  He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it.  He knew he would have to start sometime, but he did not hurry with his preparations.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle

Of the short fiction J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and published, Leaf by Niggle is probably the most fitting for the upcoming time of Lent, if you are inclined towards such things.  Of all times of the year, this is when we consider this life and that which is to come.  Leaf by Niggle is undoubtedly autobiographical as well as an allegory, as can be seen right from the start.  In good Tolkien-ian manner, Leaf by Niggle begins by relating this, that is, his own story to the larger historical ‘cauldron of stories’.

Allegorical meaning is signaled at once by the first sentence: ‘There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make.’  The reason for his journey is never explained, nor how he knows that he has to make one.  But there should be no doubt as to what this means.  The Old English poem ‘Bede’s Death-Song’ begins, in its original Northumbrian dialect, ‘Fore thaem neidfaerae’, ‘(Be)fore the need-fare’.  A ‘need-fare’, or ‘need-faring’, is a compulsory journey, a journey you have to take, and that journey, Bede declares, begins on one’s ‘deothdaege’ or ‘death-day’.  So the long journey the ‘little man’ Niggle has to make – which all men have to make – is death.  The image is at once ‘as old as the hills’, completely temporary, and totally familiar.  This is the easiest of the equations in the extended allegory.

~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

leaf tree

Illustrations by Alan Lee

Herbal Household Remedies: Comfort

The Stoics knew: Being bothered is unhealthy.

Reading about Sebastian Kneipp with his cold showers and cold wading exercises probably made some of you, esteemed readers, shiver.  And rightly so:  Shivering is part of the benefit!  So today, I would like to elaborate on this a little, more precisely on (dis-)comfort, and your comfort zone.

Before you turn away bored or disgusted:  I am not talking about comfort zone in contrast to ‘where the magic/money/success/life’ is, as in, everything that’s worth achieving lies outside of your comfort zone.  Surely you have heard enough about all that.  I am talking about your tolerance for physical discomfort, particularly with regards to temperature and surfaces.

The Stoics already knew:  If you subject yourself to discomfort every once in a while, voluntarily, your tolerance for this discomfort will increase and your comfort zone will grow, in other words, you won’t be bothered by discomfort so easily.  Too much comfort makes us soft and unhealthy; a bit of discomfort makes us more resilient: a good thing.

Concerning cold water, Kneipp operated on a similar principle.  If you learn to endure and even enjoy cold temperatures for short periods of time, your personal comfort zone with regards to temperature will expand.  The result:  The cold will not bother you as much anymore.  After all, if we lived with nature and did not try to avoid the outside at all costs, we would experience a lot of different temperatures and be used to them all to a degree.  Living in an evenly ‘climatized’ environment and avoiding nature as much as possible has very little to do with how we were designed to live and is, hence, unhealthy.

Another example that points in the same direction concerns how we sit and sleep.  If your bed as well as all your furniture is soft and deep, you will quickly become much like the Princess on the Pea:  Every little discomfort will bother you.  Sitting on hard chairs, preferably the kind without back or arm rests, throwing out your couch in favor of furniture that does not encourage slouching, and sleeping on a hard bed or on the floor every once in a while, especially when you do not have to, will improve your posture, strengthen your muscles and increase your tolerance for physically uncomfortable situations.  Feeling comfortable leads to peace of mind (and good breathing!).  It pays to broaden your physical comfort zone.

The Stoics valued above all their peace of mind, their inner tranquility.  Being bothered by such trivia as uncomfortable chairs or a cold breeze was among the first things that needed to be overcome if a joyful mindset in all situations was the goal.  They knew what they were doing.

talb on stoicism

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