Sunday, December 9, 2012


Unlike many, I first came to know of Dave Brubeck precisely because of his religious work (and thus came to an appreciation of jazz) when I read an article in America magazine several years ago.  I've always loved St. Thomas Aquinas' chant, Pange Lingua Gloriosi, so mention of Brubeck's, "Pange Lingua Meditations" (1983), really caught my attention; later on, it was his Mass, "To Hope!  A Celebration" (1980).  I've been listening to both quite a bit in the last few days...

   Second Sunday of Advent   C 

Dave Brubeck died last Wednesday,
one day shy of his ninety-second birthday.
Most people are remembering him as a modern jazz legend;
far fewer people realize he was an adult convert to the Catholic faith.

Dave Brubeck’s father was a cattle rancher;
his mother gave piano lessons.
His original intention was to follow in dad’s footsteps, not mom’s.
He grew up in a nominally Protestant home,
but Dave was never baptized and religion wasn’t discussed.
His only contact with the Catholic Church as a child
was when a friend—an altar boy—invited him to Mass;
he wasn’t much impressed.
What Dave witnessed as a soldier in World War II
and learned as a liberal arts major in college
got him thinking about religion.
At a time when much of the world was asking, “Is God dead?”
he started thinking, “Something should be done musically
to strengthen man’s knowledge of God.”

Dave was asked in the late 1970’s—
following the revisions of Vatican II—
to compose music for the texts of the Catholic Mass in English.
Reluctant to take the job,
he brushed it off for nearly two years;
since he wasn’t Catholic, he didn’t feel qualified.
After his Mass premiered—to much acclaim—
a priest came up to him and said,
“I loved your Mass, Dave…but you left out the Our Father.”
“What’s the Our Father?” Brubeck replied.  “I’m not a Catholic.”
The priest explained the prayer and it’s importance.
“Well, nobody told me to write it,” he answered, “so I didn't write it.
I'm finished with the Mass,
and going with my family to the Caribbean.”
But on the second night of his vacation, Dave had a dream:
it was the music—orchestra and chorus—for the Our Father.
“I wrote down as much as I could,” he said. 
“And after that dream, I decided I would become a Catholic.”
Although his wife and children didn’t understand it,
Dave Brubeck was baptized in 1980 at the age of 60.
“I joined the Catholic Church,” he would say,
“because I felt, somebody's trying to tell me something.”

What is it that draws people to Christ and to his Church?

                                                                                                               For some folks, it’s a search for truth.
                                                                                                               Take—for instance—John the Baptist 
                                                                                                               and his call to repentance.
Like prophets in any age,
John’s attempt to straighten what is crooked 
and level what is rough
is unvarnished truth-telling.
Informing people of their need for conversion,
that they ought to turn their lives around—
John’s mission still alive in the Church today—
isn’t exactly pretty…but it draws a crowd:
some people merely curious, 
but many eager to hear more.
Even when the answers
to our questions aren’t easy,
the truth has enduring appeal.

For other folks, 
it’s goodness that attracts them.
Saint Paul prays for the Philippians
that “the [God] who began a good work in you
will bring it to completion.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a more
potent, orderly, and genuinely compassionate
charitable organization in the world
than the Catholic Church.
For two millennia, 
we’ve continued to do good—
better yet, we’ve continued to allow God
to accomplish good through us—
because Christ gave us a new commandment:
“Love one another as I love you.” (Jn 13:34)
                                                                                                               Many come to believe 
                                                                                                               because they want to be part of that goodness.

Truth attracts; goodness attracts; and so does beauty.
For centuries, the Church was a leading patron of the arts.
Many of the masterpieces of Western culture—
in painting and sculpture, architecture and music—
were not only inspired, but paid for, by the Catholic Church.
As much as preaching and teaching,
as much as generous works of mercy,
the advancement of beauty was viewed as a vital part
of the Church’s mission.

But not so much anymore.
Oh, it happens with truth and goodness, too;
we’re often satisfied with what’s merely useful or nice.
But I think it’s even more prevalent with beauty these days:
how quick we are to settle for what’s simply cute or fashionable.
We hear the same arguments in the Church 
as in school budget talks:
“The arts are luxuries.
They’re not only non-essential; they’re expensive.”
Such comments bring to mind the gospel question,
“Why all this waste?  
Couldn’t the money be given to the poor?” (Mt 26: 8-9)
Of course, we must recall
that it was Judas who first raised that question…

And so the fundamental place of beauty in our Catholic faith
has been largely neglected of late.

The prophet Baruch points us in a very different direction.
Writing to a people far removed from their native soil—
kept apart from the majesty of the Promised Land,
its holy city and magnificent Temple—
Baruch foresees a day when the Lord will bring them back:
when the desert of their dispersion
will be transformed into a flourishing forest.
“Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever!”
God’s people will again be at home in beauty.

If it’s the Church’s mission to teach the truth that comes from God;
and if it belongs to the Church to be good as God is good,
then oughtn’t the Church also reflect God’s all-surpassing beauty?
Shouldn’t the splendor of the Lord’s glory shine through us?
That’s why—my friends—our churches
shouldn’t look like other buildings,
but have spires and stained glass
and decorations for feasts and seasons.
That’s why chalices are made of silver or gold,
and why priests wear elegant vestments when offering Mass.
That why the music for the liturgy shouldn’t sound
like what’s playing on our radios and iPods.
In shape, color, and form,
in harmony of proportion and sound,
we are to bring before every human sense
a glimpse of a beauty that is not of this world.

Maybe even more than truth and goodness,
real beauty attracts.
Did it not once invade the dreams of a modern jazz pianist?
Beauty’s a part of the new evangelization
that we must take care not to neglect.  
(cf. Synod on the New Evangelization, prop. 20)
We expect our Church’s teaching to be true.
We expect our Church’s actions to be good.
(And when they fall short of these expectations,
it’s a scandal—and rightly so.)
Should we not also expect our Church—
especially in its worship of God—
to be truly and undeniably beautiful?

It’s been said that the world
will be saved by beauty.  (cf. F. Dostoyevsky)
Many would say that’s an exaggeration…
…but I bet Dave Brubeck isn’t one of them.

In studying a work of art,
one learns much about the artist who fashioned it.
In what we say and do, in what we sing and play,
in what we design and create,
may the Author of all beauty be revealed—
then all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (cf. Wis 13:3-5; Is 2:31; CCC 2500 ff.)

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