Lifting the World up by Beauty

Contemplation through beauty

It was a day of beauty. It was my husband’s birthday. It was the day of the Benedict XVI Institute’s Annual Lenten Prayer Service presided by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone at Mission Dolores Basilica. It was the day of Philomena Iorn’s first solo concert held at the Mistlin Art Gallery in Modesto.

Prayer services take all different shapes. This one set a choir of twenty singers, called Band of Voices, to one side of the church. Frank La Rocca, the composer in residence, arranged the program, alternating between a Renaissance piece and a modern composition, commissioned by the Institute last year, using the same text.

During a Q&A time at the reception following the prayer service, La Rocca explained that there are qualities of Renaissance and modern music that align and work well together. This allowed the composers, La Rocca, Daniel Knaggs, Mark Nowakowski, and Jeffrey Quick, to deepen and explore their expression of that spiritual text. Nowakowski later explained the challenge of this task because “you have to humble yourself before the text.”

The music was spellbinding.

Without electronic amplification, the Band of Voices led by Alfred Calabrese expanded and contracted, filling the Basilica without accompaniment, moving our hearts with the physicality of music that it is only possible with the human voice or the organ. I often held back tears.

Most moving to me was “Ad Te levavi oculi meus” based on Psalm 123 composed by Nowakowski. “What makes it sound so hopeful?” I asked my husband. I perceived through the music this sense of the darkness, and yet, lifting one’s eyes to the light, through the ashes or through the fog.

“It’s very Polish,” he answered simply.

Speaking with Nowakowski I asked him about this. There is something about the years, the generations of oppression faced by a people. He inherits this cultural blood through the stories, though he grew up in Chicago. But it lives in the personal experience as well, when we meet with suffering. Heritage gives a musical language to it, even if one nation seeks to wipe out the heritage of another. Only with great difficulty could it touch the music. How do you outlaw a note? You cannot outlaw hope.

Mission Dolores Basilica

This was my first experience at the basilica. The grandeur of the church old church moved us with awe as ducked into the side doorway from the rain. It was built in 1918.

“Imagine,” I said to my daughter, “they finished this building at the end of World War I. Imagine the devastation and grief people felt at that time.” The church is dedicated the Mother of Sorrows, not running from grief or avoiding it, but knowing there is a place for grief in the church, in religion. We do not have to hide our tears.

We saw the cemetery on the mission grounds.

The ancient garden and its ancient stones, mark those who have died. It took our breath away as the rain fell softly against the leaves, the drops gathering together and dripping down the vegetation. Silence shielded the enclosure like a fog. It was a sanctuary from the rough world outside the garden walls.

We rushed back inside the basilica as the service began.

Contemplation through nature

On the drive home our windows were animated with splashes of bright yellow wildflowers against the green rolling hills, some pockets filled with bursts of orange California poppies. All were illuminated, as if they produced their own light, against the gray skies. Closer to the valley we call home, the skies opened and clouds created their own land formations, showing us just how vast it all is.

We were home for just one hour before leaving again. The children burst into the backyard and made for the trampoline. The little ones rode scooters and tricycles knowing their time outdoors was diminished in this day of the arts. They laughed and shouted and acted in all the ways children were meant to do.

Philomena and Friends

The hour passed. My husband left to play earthy Celtic music at a corned beef and cabbage dinner. The children and I drove to Modesto to see a young soprano perform heartbreaking ballads from Scotland and the British Isles. Over 100 people packed into the art gallery to hear her, illustrating the power and importance of community to create and support beauty.

She sang with Abner Arias, tenor, and Michael Balerite, baritone. Iorns, Arias and Balerite students in Opera Modesto’s Summer Opera Institute. The concert took place through Modesto Unplugged, an organization focused on supporting live music in Modesto. Their vocal quality and stage presence was only enhanced by the sincerity and earnestness that comes whenever youth commit themselves to a project. Iorns told us of her Scottish grandmother’s homesickness and the day her sons brought  musicians to her home to perform “Danny Boy.” Iorns dedicated that song to her. “You were magnificent,” my daughter told her and I agreed. While we ought to evaluate a performance objectively, it is impossible not to think of these young people, already so accomplished, and how far they’ll go.

I thought back to my brief conversation with the Archbishop as I thanked him for all he does with the Benedict XVI Institute. Humbly, he said,

“We’re just trying to lift the world up with beauty.”

With the darkness, drudgery, isolation and confusion of this world, that sounds like something we all need.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

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