Trying To Have It Both Ways

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Trying to Have It Both Ways

Hymn and Psalm: “A Simple Song,” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, Performed By Alan Titus (1971), encountered 1972

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Sharm el Sheikh, by Ran Eliran (1967), encountered 1972[1]

See it here | Lyrics here

             When I was a young adult, religious faith came easily to me. I might have tired of the nuns who’d taken me through eighth grade, but that didn’t keep their certainty from having proved both contagious and durable. Many of my contemporaries had experienced the clerical corruption you hear so much about (the Vatican Bank-pedophilia-love-of-luxury side of things), and I guess I’d seen a little, but most of the nuns and priests who’d brought me along had been extraordinarily good people, and, deservedly, they’d made a great impression. I was no fool for trusting in them or what they told me. And if that were not enough, I had the example of my mother’s more literary and sophisticated faith to bolster me.[2]

As a result, at the time I got married, I had shed little of the committed, intellectual Catholicism in which I had been raised. I’d stopped going to confession,[3] and obviously my sex life was not in accordance with the official Catholic line, but I remained a true believer, or at least one with an asterisk for matters related to sex.

Affirming Them Both

This posed quite a problem when I found myself married to a Jewish woman who took her own religion seriously. (Our union was concelebrated by a priest and a rabbi.)[4] This led me to try to find ways to affirm both of our traditions, together if possible.

Part of it was a joint project of me and my wife, both of us bookworms, to read up and educate ourselves on the intersections between our faiths, for instance common history, both biblical and recent. It also expressed itself musically.

A prime case of the latter was my interest in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, a theater piece based on and inspired by the Catholic Mass. Fittingly, I was introduced to the original recording by a Catholic priest, in fact the priest who had officiated at our marriage. I knew the records; I’d taped the priest’s version. I think I also knew the PBS version that aired in 1973.[5] This is a work I’ve written a lot about since, but it intrigues me how different are the things I found interesting about it in 1972 or 1973 and the things that interest me about it today.

For those who don’t know it (and my own writings are a decent introduction to it), the work follows (for the most part) the sequence of the Catholic Mass, but on that path follows the Mass’s Celebrant as he and his flock move from a simple, secure confidence in God through a crisis of faith, a dark night of the soul, and thence into an uneasy return to something like faith at the very end. To me, at that point, it was the initial confidence that interested me the most.

The Simplest of All Things?

This confidence is expressed strikingly at the outset by the first entrance of the Celebrant. As the piece begins, a jangling, atonal, modernistic Kyrie is pouring out of the sound system. The Celebrant strides into the light and dispels the annoying music by strumming a single loud G chord on a guitar, and then launches into A Simple Song.

Sing God a simple song 
Lauda, Laudē … 
Make it up as you go along 
Lauda, Laudē … 

Shortly thereafter, the Celebrant is quoting from one of the most serene of the Psalms, No. 121:

For the Lord is my shade, 
Is the shade upon my right hand 
And the sun shall not smite me by day
Nor the moon by night

            Actually, however unmitigated by doubt are the words the Celebrant sings, and however directly lyrical those words may be, the music is anything but simple (just try to pick it out on the piano and you’ll see what I mean), a mixture of Eastern and Western scales in keys that are constantly changing. It is a measure of Bernstein’s artistry that this still seems simple.

But to me at the time that song was the heart of it.  As the Celebrant’s faith gradually broke down over the course of the piece, the proceedings seemed more and more conventional and even hackneyed.  The two points where I was completely back on board were the equally confident Word of the Lord segment, and the echoes of A Simple Song at the very end.  I just couldn’t buy into the existential angst that fuels most of the rest of the piece to one degree or another.

Today, it’s reversed.  In recent years, as later Theme Songs pieces will reveal, I’ve had my own dark nights of the soul, and I’ve come to appreciate how well Bernstein conveys what the process feels like. It’s the happy talk parts I so closely identified with then that sound superficial to me now.  (“God is the simplest of all [things]”? Not bloody likely.)

But hearkening back to what I liked about it then, I think I also saw in Bernstein someone Jewish who saw in Catholic ritual and faith something entirely complementary to his own spirituality, as I saw it in his Judaism.

Folk Mass Man

Music was becoming more important to my religious life then in any event. I had joined the Newman community[6] at Hopkins, and shortly found myself (without the benefit of any training worthy the name)[7] leading the music at Sunday Mass, standing up on a platform at the front of a classroom, armed only with a chromatic harmonica. To my great good fortune, I was assisted in that effort by a number of talented undergrads and grads with enormously more developed instrumental skills. But it meant that I was constantly listening for music that might work for our Mass.

About which a word. This was the era of so-called folk Masses.[8] That label covered a multitude of things which differed from congregation to congregation. At Hopkins Newman in that era, the folk Mass canon allowed in a lot of pure pop like the Beatles’ Nowhere Man and Simon & Garfunkle’s Sounds of Silence, songs which lacked a specific religious referent, but which raised questions to which we were trying to come up with answers that honored our religious perspectives. It went nicely with the sermons by our pastor, Father Phil, a man with a remarkable facility for drawing moral and theological lessons from the latest movies.

Our congregation used an improvised hymnal of our own devising, of which I hope all copies have since vanished. I hope that because it was reissued while I was there, and I made a couple of anonymous contributions to the new edition. Each song was a rendering into English and a religious context of songs I’d heard on a compilation album belonging, I think, to my in-laws called Jerusalem of Gold.[9] Let’s just say that, when it comes to literary callings, mine, if I have one, is as an essayist, not as a lyricist.


But for present purposes, it really matters not whether I was a budding Alexander Pope or on the contrary, a budding Colley Cibber.[10] The point is that I was listening to and drawing inspiration from an album of Hebrew songs. And not just any songs, but specifically songs in an album inspired by the Six-Day War, the war that tripled Israel’s land mass and gave a tremendous shot in the arm to the morale of all of my in-laws and their connections. One of the songs that spoke most to me was Sharm el Sheikh, by Ran Eliran, an evocation of the port down at the bottom of the Sinai captured from Egypt in 1967.

The chorus goes (in transliterated Hebrew)

At Sharm a-sheikh,
chazarnu elaich
shenitat belibeinu,
libeinu tamid

(and in translation)

You’re Sharam A Sheikh,
we’ve returned to you once again
You are in our hearts,
always in our hearts

            The rest of the lyrics are a poetic evocation of the town (reportedly largely a fishing village) together with a strong message that the singer and his people belong there. In other words, given the events that are implied, it is a message that Israel’s being in Sharm el Sheikh was a reversion to something right and natural.

Not Quite Our Own

I turned this stirring music into a song about – some Christian doctrine or other, let’s just leave it at that. When I listen to Ran Eliran’s song today, the music continues to stir me, more now that I have a better idea what the Hebrew lyrics portend than I did then. They have to do with feeling one has returned to a place that is right and appropriate (dare I say, in the Catholic phrase, meet and fitting?) for one.

That is what I was trying to feel about a marriage with one foot in a faith that was not my own. I think Eliran got closer to really feeling it, though, given the subsequent history of the town (restored to Egypt in 1982), one cannot help wondering. Perhaps a lot of us sing loudly of feelings that are not quite our own, assert kinships and allegiances we do not exactly feel, try to feel familiar and comfortable in places where we are not thoroughly welcomed.

[1]. This cover for Jerusalem of Gold may or may not be the current cover of the album I’m trying to describe. See Note 9 below.

[2]. I wish I had spoken more with my mother about the origins of her faith. My best guess, piecing together various clues, was that she came to it, not in the course of her own Catholic schooling, but in her late 20s and early 30s. She had turned her back on the Church and affiliated with the Unitarians in college, and married my father, a secularized Jew who had embraced a not-exactly theistic Quakerism, and then her marriage to him had crumbled once, flickered back to life, and then crumbled again. I think her belief dated to that second marital collapse.

One can draw various conclusions about the emotional forces that might have made her particularly receptive to a reconversion at that point in her life, but I have to say I’m skeptical that it was by any means all about her heart. England, where this happened to her, was home to some of the smartest Christians then teaching and writing, including G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and especially C.S. Lewis, and she read deeply of their writings. I think that she was deeply influenced as well by some Dominicans whom she fell in with. I, who came in the midst of this, was baptized by a Dominican, one Fr. Hugh Halton. My mother was as certain as any nun I encountered, and a good deal better read than most. In later life, unfortunately, her mind may have gotten slack and maudlin, but it was nothing of the kind in her 30s.

[3]. A ghastly priest by the name of Fr. Macek had driven me away from the confessional for all time when he spluttered, in response to some comment I’d made about faith, “Why, that’s existentialism!” To be sure, Sartre was exactly where I’d gotten whatever idea I was trying out, but my attitude was: So What? I never came back.

I wish I could brag that my abandonment of the confessional was purely a matter of not wanting to waste my budding philosophical sophistication on ignoramuses who dealt only in labels. But in truth, it surely also had a lot, maybe more, to do with disagreements about sex. What healthy adolescent is going to put up with being told the things he most desires and enjoys are sinful?

[4]. Rabbis willing to concelebrate or even to officiate at the marriage of a Jew to a non-Jew were hard to find. While acknowledging that those who discouraged mixed marriage often acted from some benevolent motives, I bitterly resented being told, implicitly, that simply by virtue of my faith, I was unworthy of my wife’s hand and/or such a threat to sectarian survival that I should be resisted in this way. Having been born white, male, and middle-class, I may not have encountered much in the way of second-class citizenship before, and I predictably hated it.

[5]. I do not remember this fact, but apparently the 1973 PBS version was not the original Kennedy Center production with Alan Titus as the Celebrant, but rather a Vienna production; so, at least, say posters commenting on a YouTube clip of what may have been the 1973 PBS version or the 10th Anniversary Kennedy Center PBS version. I’m not sure that I knew the 1973 PBS version, because my wife and I did not own a television in those years, and I’m not sure where I would have seen it. Still, I have this sense I knew it.

[6]. Named after John Henry, Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), Newman Centers are Catholic congregations on secular college and university campuses in the United States

[7]. I’d sung in the St. Thomas grade school choir, where I’d learned one critical skill: how to hear the difference between singing on-key and singing off-key. When I got to the Hopkins Newman Center, I think I spent a year being schooled in the basics of song-leading by a guitar-playing senior named Jeff. But obviously it’s a lot easier to lead the congregation with a guitar (which, besides being a rhythm instrument, gives you the ability to sing as you play) than it is with a harmonica.

[8]. An interesting take on where we are with the development through and past folk Masses as of this writing can be found here.

[9]. This may or may not be part of later popular album called Jerusalem of Gold which obviously contains more than a single LP’s worth of material; I note that one of the commenters on the Amazon site says she remembered listening to it as a child around 1967. The album I recall was a single LP and I’m almost certain the cover was in the light blue and white Israeli colors, not those darker ones on the 2004 album which appears from the comment to be a reissue. Perhaps there was a Volume II I did not know about at the time.

[10]. Cibber was the plodding poet who was butt of Pope’s great satire, The Duniad (in the 1743 version, anyhow).

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for graphic elements

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