Intermonastic rumble!

From the Foreword of Holy Transfiguration Monastery’s The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (p. xxxiii), following a lengthy pair of quotations of Saint Isaac, in which he says, “The man who follows Christ in solitary mourning is greater than he who praises Christ amid the congregations of men” (Hom. 64), the editor writes:

How far have we that are monastics departed from this understanding in these latter days, and become self-called teachers, writers, missionaries, charismatics, etc. One beholds in the Western part of the world monastics attending movies and writing reviews ‘for the edification of the faithful’, bishops and monastics teaching full time in secular institutions as monk-scholars in imitation of the Latin scholastic tradition. Elsewhere we read of cantatas played in deserts and abodes of prayer. We are told, ‘We must learn again what beauty is. We must learn to be carried on the thunder of a fugure, to be engulfed in the madness of Lear, to be consumed with the sanity of Quixote. We need to be refreshed by the health and charity of Dickens, illumined by the clarity and perception of Hugo, ballasted by the sober gravity and sidelong wit of Johnson, touched by the fire of Donne, soothed by Chaucer’s flowering springtime.’ And this from monastic lips.

Through the wonders of the internet, behold the article from which the ‘objectionable’ quotation was drawn: “Literature, Culture and the Western Soul” by the Sisters of St. Xenia Skete, originally published in slightly different form as “Forming the Soul” in The Orthodox Word 19(1983).1-2.

The two perspectives are interesting, but I in no way find myself even the least amenable to supporting a perspective that rejects beauty. I’m siding with the nuns, ‘to be carried on the thunder of a fugure, to be engulfed in the madness of Lear, to be consumed with the sanity of Quixote. We need to be refreshed by the health and charity of Dickens, illumined by the clarity and perception of Hugo, ballasted by the sober gravity and sidelong wit of Johnson, touched by the fire of Donne, soothed by Chaucer’s flowering springtime.’


Allegory, in some sense, belongs not to medieval man but to man, or even to mind, in general. It is of the very nature of thought and language to represent what is immaterial in picturable terms. What is good or happy has always been high like the heavens and bright like the sun. Evil and misery were deep and dark from the first. Pain is black in Homer, and goodness is a middle point for Alfred no less than for Aristotle. To ask how these married pairs of sensibles and insensibles first came together would be great folly; the real question is how they ever came apart, and to answer that question is beyond the province of the mere historian.

C. S. Lewis The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, 44.

Philip Glass: Akhnaten

Open are the double doors of the horizon
Unlocked are its bolts
Clouds darken the sky
The stars rain down
The constellations stagger
The bones of the hell hounds tremble
The porters are silent
When they see this king
Dawning as a soul

Such are the first words (from the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts) spoken by the Scribe in the prelude of the Philip Glass opera Akhnaten. The setting for the immediately following Act I Scene 1 is the funeral of Amenhotep III, which contains two rousing pieces sung in ancient Egyptian. The opera includes a number of other pieces in Egyptian, as well as one in Akkadian (a section from Amarna Letter EA 288), and a few verses in Hebrew from Psalm 104, which naturally follow the end of the English translation of The Hymn to the Aten. Though many may find much of Glass’ work repetitious, it is much less so in this work than in others. In any case, the novelty of the ancient languages is just too much to pass up! In addition, the performance and recording are exquisite. I hadn’t listened to this in a long time before today, and had forgotten how enjoyable it is. It’s a two CD piece, with (at least in my old CBS Masterworks edition) a 93 page booklet with the credits, introduction, libretto and translations in German and French, performed by the Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Akhnaten was the third work in Glass’ Trilogy: Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagraha (1980; depicting the life of Gandhi, with Sanskrit libretto), and Akhnaten (1984; it seems the boxed Masterworks edition is out of print; I don’t know what that Sony one is like).

Those of you teaching or learning Egyptian, Akkadian, or Hebrew could no doubt use parts of Akhnaten for counting some “ancient meets modern” classroom coup, I would think. The rest of us can just plain enjoy it!

Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh

I’ve just been to the new de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to see the soon-closing exhibit Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh. The exhibit closes here 5 February, moving to The Met in New York (21 March-9 July) and finally the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth (27 August-10 December 2006). Rather than a strict focus on Hatshepsut, the artifacts included in the exhibit date to the early Eighteenth Dynasty in general, down into the sole reign of Thutmose III, with a majority of non-royal items. There were some huge statues, at least twice life-size, included, but the vast majority of items were small, and therefore difficult to enjoy or even to see due to the crush of the crowd (never go to the museum on the weekend!). The catalog is quite fine, and nearly a steal at under $30 for the softcover (only $35 for the hardcover), which you can, for now, purchase online here (in the past, Fine Art Museums of San Francisco website links to such have been temporary, so I don’t expect this link to be valid for too much longer). In any case, if you have a chance to see the exhibit in SF, New York, or Fort Worth, it’s well worth the effort if you can avoid the crush. There are items in the catalog that I didn’t see at all in the museum due to the number of people in the way. I’ll probably make a morning visit during the week, which I had intended to do last week, but it was too busy a week. Note to all potential patrons of any museum: when you want to know the least crowded time to go, ask a docent sometime, and then go only at their recommended times. Again: never go to a major museum on the weekend if you actually intend on having a remotely pleasant visit. I should’ve known better. Still, I did have a very nice rainy day’s walk through Golden Gate Park, which is almost always nice.

Since the de Young just reopened in November (the original museum was severely damaged in the 1989 earthquake, closed in 2000, torn down, and this new museum constructed), part of the interest for me today was in seeing the new museum, as I was rather fond of the old building, never having thought it so ugly as some say it was. Well, it’s different, of course, and will take some getting used to, like any new building. I don’t think the new tower is ever going to grow on me, as it resembles too strongly an air traffic control tower. The exterior of the museum is sheathed in beaten copper, which, now that it’s taking on a patina, is actually quite nice (by all accounts it was quite ugly when new and shiny). The landscaping is still in progress, and as it was raining today with just a little too much wind as I was leaving, a stroll through the sculpture garden was not on my list, but it looks like a nice thing for more pleasant weather. Unfortunately, across the way from the de Young, the California Academy of Sciences is now closed and being reconstructed, with a re-opening date of “late 2008,” so there’s going to be construction going on for a while right there.

Anyhow, if you have a chance, see the Hatshepsut exhibit. It’s well worth your time, just for the indescribable serenity of line and form that Egyptian art possesses and the calm that this distinctively beautiful tradition of art instills.