March 2009

Faith in Music

March 31, 2009 11:44

I had a Sunday afternoon symphony to attend earlier this month and decided to go up to San Francisco in the morning to taste-test a few Catholic Masses. The multi-Mass business is not something I make a habit of doing. I’m a lifelong Catholic, but not much of a practicing one anymore outside the major holidays. But I needed detail for my newest writing project, a novel about a spiritually bankrupt woman, a Catholic whose teenaged daughter’s charismatic religious experiences soon affect the family and church community, divided over how to interpret them.

In spite of years of waning belief in Catholic dogma, I have always felt welcome and comfortable inside a Catholic church. It’s kind of like Costco; once you join the club, you’re welcome at any location around the world. The first church I visited that day was Église Notre Dame des Victoires, located next to the French consulate, tucked between Union Square and Chinatown. The Mass was entirely in French, reminiscent of my Peace Corps days in French-speaking Africa, where I taught at a Catholic mission and attended weekly Mass. The San Francisco church was small but pretty, elegant, very European-feeling, making me feel far removed from my everyday world. I liked that; I liked the foreignness, even when I didn’t understand everything that was being said.

The vague disorientation lingered into the second Mass, despite the fact that this one was in English. St. Dominic’s, in Lower Pacific Heights, is a gorgeous Gothic-style church that sits on an entire city block, a city landmark with its flying buttresses and grey stone grandeur. This is a very important church for me—it’s where some scenes in my novel take place. I always give my characters a “real” house and setting so I can know where they might shop, take coffees, dine out. I love to seek out and pass “their” home, and yet, at the same time, gazing at it always makes me feel sad. I can be so close, pressed right up to these characters’ lives, but I can’t get inside.

This, I realize, is not unlike how I feel about my childhood faith.

St. Dominic’s 11:30am service is Solemn Mass. It’s the full shebang: an entourage of priests and altar boys, robed choir singing in Latin, booming organ, smoking incense, suspended lighting drawing the eyes upward, toward the stained glass, the high ceilings. It was pageantry and Catholic ritual at its finest. It was undeniably beautiful. How strange, then, that it should make me feel so ambivalent, so ungrounded.

From my corner spot I observed the others as they received communion and returned to their seats. I envied them their serenity, the faith and assurance I could see shining in their eyes. It’s been so long since I felt that way. If I could go back to that place of absolute belief in my religion, I would. But I can’t; my vision of humanity, of the human condition, has grown too broad. At the thought, a spasm of childish rage shoots through me. Why is it that faith for some people is something they try on in youth and it grows with them, whereas for others, we outgrow that childhood faith, that dogma, and are forced to set out to redefine our spirituality, outside organized religion’s parameters?

I stayed long after Mass ended, trying to focus on the beauty of the church, the ambiance, trying to drum positive thoughts into my head, dully wondering if this meant I needed to come back and try again to “earn back” my sense of belonging within the Church. When parishioners began to gather for the next Mass, I packed up my notebook, my bag, and headed out. It had begun to rain, a steady grey drizzle. I felt the same way inside.

I looked at my watch. I’d lingered too long; Anne-Sophie Mutter was playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony in less than an hour. Driving across town, the minutes ticked ever closer to two o’clock. Parking was a bear, I was stressed, angry with myself, weighed down with the heaviness I’d just experienced. I made it to Davies Hall with only minutes to spare, hurrying to my seat, tense, crabby, damp from the rain. I managed to unwind during the first piece, a short Prokofiev selection that was melodic and pleasing without being gripping. Then came the Mendelssohn.


Everything inside me that had been trying, analyzing, fretting, obsessing now simply let go. Everything that had been locked in now released. It was like coming in from the cold when you’ve been cold for so long you’ve almost gotten used to it and had made peace with its discomfort.

This, not the church, was where my spirituality found me.

And with it, a big life lesson. You can seek out spirituality all you want, trying to force a fit for any number of reasons. But in the end, it’s the spirituality that finds you.

I didn’t cry through the first and second movements so much as leak tears, like those irrigation hoses that release water drop by drop onto thirsty soil. Each drop seemed to relieve the pressure inside me, stabilize me. This coming-home feeling. This “now I can stop trying” feeling. This deep, profound gratitude to Brahms, to Anne-Sophie Mutter. She has surely played that concerto hundreds of times, but I could feel her respect for the piece, her thoughtfulness, particularly in the way the cadenza seeming to rise and fall naturally, like a breath. I myself have heard the concerto a hundred times and yet somehow, that afternoon, its freshness and inspiration caught me by surprise.

What a relief—indeed, a privilege—to seek out spirituality on a Sunday and find it. Just not where I’d assumed it should be.

Silly me. Of course, the music. Always, the music.


© 2009 Terez Rose


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