Music for an Intense Lent

Are you a Christian? Are you a Catholic? Stop settling for weak Lents. Make your Lent intense with these choral and chant tracks (or with these movies). Listen with the volume nice and high, and you’ll see what I mean:

This first track is a choral piece I discovered a few years ago, and its ability to creep is unequaled. For the majority of the piece, the choir is only singing one word: crucifixus… crucifixus… crucifixus… (The Crucified… Crucified… Crucified…) and the effect is stunning.

This next track is also a choral piece on the Crucifixion, by Antonio Lotti from the 17th Century. This piece is from his larger work on the Nicene Creed, but it stands alone incredibly well as a meditation on Christ’s crucifixion.

Here is Parce Domine, a chant of longing for God’s mercy, recalling the complete and profound repentance of Nineveh at the [reluctant] preaching of Jonah from the Old Testament. Lyrics, both Latin and English here, and an updated version here that is worth your ears, and don’t miss this polyphonic version!

The Dies Irae is not specifically a Lenten chant, but for funerals and for All Souls’ Day. Yet, it seems mighty appropriate, reminding us that death and judgment is our destiny, but our death can be transformed to eternal life if we surrender our life to Christ. Don’t miss this neat little documentary on this timeless piece, which has appeared in many famed movies to date! The epic lyrics here.

This last piece is the Gregorian chant of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa (The Standing Mother of Sorrows), the scene when Mary suffered and stood before Jesus nailed on the cross. The Latin/English lyrics can be found here, and a video with the proper notation is here, but presented is my favorite chanted rendition:

So there you have them, three of my favorite tracks for contemplating what Lent is meant to be. I hope these help, and maybe become your faves, too.

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I Love La La Land

942e8cfb6448873d60ac9821b77b44e5La La Land got me as soon as its trailer came out the past summer. It’s not the usual fare that I like to chew on and sift for Catholic Christian insights, but it is what I love to enjoy: a well-made film with great score and music. Yet, here are a few highlights it made me think of (no spoilers):

——1) I smiled during much of the musical. It was so happy (except for the sad parts, of course). It reminded me of a particular philosopher’s (Peter Kreeft, to be exact) speculation on the after-life. Paraphrased quote goes:

The language we speak in Heaven is music.

And I agree wholeheartedly. Song is super expressive, universal, personal and social, and every time we sing, it comes out new. Even the angels sing for eternity. St. Thomas Aquinas lays bold claims that music is the highest and most spiritually-tuned of all arts, and St. Augustine says:

He who sings well prays twice [as much].

Meaning that when we sing our prayers well, the prayer becomes worth double! (Which is why the Church always prefers Gregorian Chant [or similar] in her liturgies). And this leads me to my own speculation that when God said “Let there be light…” He did not just say it–He sung it. God sang creation into being, into reality. God sings us into existence. This makes sense to me because if we, who are His children, love music so much… then how much more does God Himself, since He created music and our ability and capacity to recognize it, appreciate, love, and create it. Answer: infinitely more.

And think about this: music is just highly organized noise. The order of the sounds is what makes a song, and nobody teaches us how to recognize a song as different from a pandemonium of noise: we’re just created with this capability to hear it, conceived ready to love it.

——2) Speaking of our creation: God did not make us to sit an offices and push papers. He did not make us so that we can stand on assembly lines, or wait in waiting rooms, or slave over tiresome toil. God made us to sing! To dance and to play! To live lives of music! The world was meant to be our playground and dance floor, but our sins (i.e., Original Sin) made us forfeit it all. So watching musicals like La La Land remind me that we who make it to Heaven will find an incredible musical experience waiting for us. An eternity of play and dance, enjoying what God meant us to be and to do: exploring His creation, meeting His creatures, and wandering His infinite creativity and love.movies_imgs_431478241912

——3) As for dance, the numbers in the film remind me of what a truly great dance between a man and a woman should do. Quoting myself from Just Too Beautiful:

A woman’s beauty and a man’s beauty are not the same, not equal, not interchangeable.

A woman is as different as she can be from a man – and still be 100% human. A man is as different as he can be from a woman – and still be 100% human.

Anyone who believes a man can become a woman must also believe that the night sky can become the stars, that the frame can become the painting, the page can become the story, the dress can become the body.

But no matter how similar the two – it is impossible for one to become the other, because the one is meant for the other, and the other for the one…

Because when man holds woman – he supports the stars, he protects and presents the painting, he carries the tale, he embraces the beautiful body. He gets to hold beauty, gets to be with beauty. He gets to care for beauty. He gets to love her.

la-la-land-movie-soundtrack——4) Finally, the prolonged car horn in the musical tells me something. The first time we see and hear Sebastian honk the car horn, it’s out of his hatred for Mia. He is disgusted with her and insults her.

But later, as they learn to love each other, the car horn becomes a sign of love. In fact, each time we hear the horn again, the love is at a higher level, until it becomes an even sacrificial love to care for the other person even if the “feeling of love” is absent (meaning only a pure love based on selfless concern remains).

And that wraps up by first impressions of LLL. I’ll probably be savoring this musical again and will update if I see more depth in the film. But I leave you with a bonus:

——Bonus) Might be a stretch, but Sebastian’s name originates from St. Sebastian, a Roman martyr who competed in life as an athlete and died when he refused to abandon his love for Jesus. Kind of reminds me of how Sebastian in the musical competed and refused to abandon his dreams and Mia’s, also. He urged Mia to not give up and not give in, and they encouraged each other when the other started stumbling. This is exactly how fellow Christians should encourage each other! Never give up faith, hope and love. Never give in to sin. Always reach for the dream of Heaven.

The Girl and God

A young man falls in love with a young woman. How he is still an atheist makes no sense. She is beautiful… even the mere complexion of her skin wracks my thoughts — never mind her entire person! How it doesn’t make a believer out of him confuses me just the more…

I would tell him:

Look into her eyes and tell me they just got their color and shape because of 7,000,000+ years of human evolution. Tell me her voice is just noise vibrating from vocal cords in her throat, and that her words communicate thoughts that are merely electrical charges passing from one neuron to the next.

Tell me her hair is just like the next woman’s — the next great ape’s — and that her laughter is just some strange development not much different from hyena calls. Sit down, share honeyed tea with her and overlook how her lips kiss the porcelain — it’s nothing but the animal need to satisfy thirst. In fact, it’s all just an animal need and an animal reaction. If she was struck dead by one of many cancers, or fatally stabbed through the blood-brain barrier, just go and find another female human to perpetuate the species. She was weak, sick, and too stupid to protect herself anyways… it would’ve been bad to have her pass her genes onto the next generation.

BlackSesameKem

[Black Sesame Ice Cream: an Asian Delight]

Why bother memorizing her phone number, email address, birth date, last name, middle name, first name, saint name, favorite color, song or ice cream flavor? All of those things are random and meaningless. Her phone number is only a jumble of digits mixed by the telephone service company database server. Her email may be just the same thing as her phone number – only it was her brain instead that jumbled the mix of digits and letters. Her ancestors jumbled the letters for her names. And what’s a saint got to do with anything? Colors are merely wavelengths of invisible photons. One color is as special as the next: yellow, canary, saffron, gold, and urine color. Songs are just assortments of organized noise. If you listened to all the explosions, crashes, hushes and thunder in the universe, you would have by now heard all the frequencies audible to your ears. Anything else was already heard before in the mix… somewhere. Ice cream flavor — if nothing discussed above matters, then ice cream matters even less. What does that have anything to do with some female human that’s going to die one day and be replaced by an evolved and improved female human?

Unless… unless you love her like I do. Unless you see signs of God through her person – and by person I mean everything that is hers. Can you not realize that no chance process set her fingers so that they fit so warmly into yours? No toss up tuned her voice so that you can hear music call your name from even across busy streets. There’s no way she wasn’t thought up and nurtured by Love. Something – someone so beautiful and precious to you could never be merely a thing rolled out by an expanding universe of matter… she could only be a holy miracle.

 

 

– “To love someone means to be the only one to see a miracle that is invisible to others.”

-François Mauriac

First written and posted by Evan Pham on: April 28, 2011

Everybody Learn Heavenese!

Someone once challenged me that the English language cannot express everything — that it’s limited… like all languages are.

True.

That’s why we won’t be speaking English in Heaven (sorry British-accent lovers!).

But think about the reason why we have to learn languages in the first place… it’s because we’re not endowed with linguistic abilities at birth, at least not like we’re endowed with —

Before I finish that thought, think about this: you’re listening to a song in a language you have no idea how to use. The song seeps into you, and you start sleeping with the song on, driving with it on, dancing with it, and after a day or so… you start singing it in the shower, then wherever. Yes — it’s stuck in your head. EVEN THOUGH you don’t know the language. And even if you did, maybe there’s that one part where you’re not sure what they’re singing, and you make up words of your own.

Has that ever happened?

Happens to me all the time, especially since I semi-speak Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Mandarin (keyword: semi-speak). There’s always that line I’m not sure about, and I just blah and sing on – sing on… even those Latin words at Mass, even if my voice is an ear-ache, the song must be sung!

That’s it then: MUSIC. We’re endowed with musical abilities like no other creative essence. I can’t cite the sources, but I’ve heard so many times about the ways music and song effect life. Babies who can hardly speak can tell when a note skips in a song they’ve never heard before. Most animals in some veterinarian care are soothed by song and music – and interestingly, the harp is the second most potent instrument to soothe animals. The first is our human voice.

Our human voice is a powerful force, especially when we use it in Gregorian Chant. Research has shown that the chant of the Church has a healing and energetic effect on our physique. Prolonged exposure to the rhythms and prayers (especially when you chant them yourself) have been shown to cause monks to be alert, healthy, and happy — even if they sleep only two hours a day, never eat meat, and work hard labor! Check out this page for more.

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Music. Can’t see it, but it makes you see. A character in my first novel regains her sight partly from when she hears powerfully moving music. But you don’t have to be blind to see what music does for your eyes. It makes memories come back. The imagination tries to fit the tune with an event — a soundtrack. And what’s with soundtracks anyway? Watch a film in mute and how long will you stay awake for? Drive across the country without a CD or the radio and what’ll happen?

You can even feel music. The vibrations in the air wrap around you – tingles and tickles. Sometimes it beats on your heart and you wonder if it’s safe.

Then the music picks you up. Your fingers tap and snap, arms flail, shoulders hop, head whips, and your legs… and feet – they’re not just for transit after all. Suddenly you are a dancer — like when you were three and your mom or dad let you stand on their feet and held your hands up so you could waltz and tango.

But it’s just noise! ORGANIZED NOISE (keyword: organized)! And it’s an organization that babies are born able to recognize. So… if we’re born able to, then even a deaf baby can — even though they may never get the chance. But they can. That is key… that they can. Because organization means something caused it [noise] to be organized – something intelligent and creative… an ORGANIZER. Even a thunderstorm sings a song, but its song is less composed than a bird’s, and its is less composed than ours, and ours is less composed than…

And Music is what we speak in Heaven. Finally, we get our own soundtracks when we share our dramatic life story with others. We get to dozy-doe with billions of buddies, sing a musical with friends we never thought we’d see again, karaoke with the original artists themselves, and be as expressive as God made music to be. Why? Because everything about Heaven makes us more human than we are now. We are more ourselves then than we can ever be now.

Hope to see you there one day…

[Inspired by Dr. Peter Kreeft’s quote]
[FYI: ever wonder who set up the modern form of written music as we know it today? (It’s Guido D’Arezzo, a Benedictine monk)

[Psst, this is an edited re-post of a piece I wrote in Dec. 2009.]