Magnum Mysterium (Great Mystery)

For your convenience I have provided an interlinear translation of the text below.  Please enjoy this acceptably dignified and sensitive performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, as Paul Salamunovich directs them on Morten Lauridsen’s well-known setting:


O magnum mysterium,

Great mystery

et admirabile sacramentum,

And sacrament wondrous

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,

That animals would see the newborn Lord

jacentem in praesepio.

Lain low in a manger.

Beata virgo, cujus viscera

O blessed virgin, whose womb

meruerunt portare

Became worthy to carry

Dominum Christum.

Christ the Lord.




Note: some overeager grammarians and Catholic theologians may take umbrage over the fact that I have translated meruerunt as an ingressive.  To all such people I offer my most humble and sincere apologies for this liberty.

Sucking the Blood out of a Mosquito

I considered titling this post ‘On Surrealism’, but ‘Sucking the Blood out of a Mosquito’ sounded less stodgy, so I went with that.  Sorry if it grosses you out a little.  Anyway, here it is:

It was one of the primary goals of the surrealist movement to astonish its audience.  I believe the surrealists have succeeded wonderfully in that regard, but I am not sure to what end.  In terms of the impact, there is little difference between a hare getting a tortoisecut and an apple crawling out of a worm—both are surreal and astonishing, but neither one communicates to us a particular truth or wonder.  It seems that in trying desperately to liberate his expressive palette, the surrealist has actually restricted it and very nearly reduced it to utter meaninglessness.  Instead of reconciling fantasy with reality, he has rejected reality altogether, turning inward to the more vivid but even less satisfying world his of imagination.

Salvador Dalí (1904 – 1989) was a Spanish surrealist painter, and at times, a devout Catholic.  He is probably most famous for painting this:

The Persistence of Memory

Perhaps, considering how iconoclastic a movement he followed, it might astonish us that Dalí was ever a Catholic.  But I think this only reflects how greatly our modern society tends to misunderstand what it means to be Christian.  Unlike Surrealism, Christianity is an ideology with no preference for either novelty or convention.  The Surrealist movement has existed entirely for the sake of revolution—take away the radicalism and the astonishment dies.  But Christianity makes no comment on either the radical or the obvious, and if it harbours any implicit affiliation with tradition, it is that religious tradition exists for the sake of Christianity and not the other way around.  However, while the novelty of Surrealism then poses no incompatibility in itself, there still seems to be a conflict between the Surrealist movement as it originally began and Christianity.  That conflict is the alleged rejection of reason.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, there really is no such thing as illogical thought.  One can believe in the irrational but not experience it.  And this belief is what fuels conventional surrealist art, while also providing its greatest shortcoming.  What I find so uninteresting about an apple crawling out of a worm is not the situation itself, but its implied context.  Surrealism cannot help but take place in a world with no rules, a world with no limitations or conflicts.  But these adversities are the very things that make earthly life interesting in the first place, and to exclude them from an imitation of nature is to overlook the most beautiful thing on this side of eternity: the resolution of dissonance.  Good art doesn’t astonish merely for the sake of astonishment; instead it imitates nature, and that is astonishing in itself.  Perhaps making that kind of art might entail hares getting tortoisecuts or sucking the blood out of mosquitos, but at the same time, every incongruity ought to be rationally explained, and that will make it all the more beautiful.

Sometimes as Christians we can forget how astonishing the world really is.  We too might think that the only recourse from the dull vexation of this revolving planet under the sun is some kind of escape.  But in actuality, we need no compensation for the truth.  There is in fact nothing more astonishing than the most fundamental reality of our lives:

Dalí's painting of the Passion of Christ.
Dalí’s painting of the Passion of Christ.


There is nothing illogical about God’s creation, but everything about it is astonishing.  For we could not imagine something more beautiful or surreal than what Our Saviour has done for us in reality.  And what is the purpose of art or even of fantasy if not to reinvigorate once again our astonishment with that truth?

Incidentally, Dalí was also fascinated with rhinoceroses.

Miserere mei, Deus

This is very beautiful.  If you are able to find fifteen minutes of quiet today, I would recommend following along in the text as you listen.  Here it is:

source: youtube

The text is from the Vulgate, Psalm L, Psalm 51 in most English Bibles:

Miserere mei, Deus

Have mercy on me, O God

Secundum magnam misericordiam tuam

According to your great compassion

Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum

And according to the multitude of your mercy.

Dele iniquitatem meam

Remove my iniquity.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea

Wash me entirely from my iniquities,

Et a peccato meo munda me

And clean me from my sin,

Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco

For I am familiar with my iniquities

Et peccatum meum contra me est semper

And my sin is always in opposition of me.

Tibi soli peccavi

I have sinned against you alone,

Et malum coram te feci

And in my heart I have done evil before you,

Ut iustificeris in sermonibus tuis

So that you were justified in your words

Et vincas cum iudicaris

And vindicated with justice.

Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum

Behold, for I have been born in iniquities,

Et in peccatis concepit me mater mea

And in sin my mother conceived me.

Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti incerta

Behold, for you delight in the truth.

Incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi

You have shown me the hidden and secrete parts of your wisdom.

Asparges me hysopo et mundabor

May you purify me with hyssop and I shall be clean;

Lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor

You shall wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam

Grant that I hear joy,

Et exultabunt ossa humiliata

And my humble bones will exult.

Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis

Turn your face from my sins

Et omnes iniquitates meas dele

And remove all my iniquities.

Cor mundum crea in me Deus

Create in me a cleansed heart, O God,

Et spiritum rectum in meis visceribus innova

And renew your righteous spirit in my guts.

Ne proicias me a facie tua

Do not turn me from your face,

Et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me

And take not your holy spirit from me.

Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui

Give me again the joy of your salvation,

Et spiritu principali confirma me

And strengthen me with your high spirit.

Docebo iniquos vias tuas

I will teach sinners your ways

Et impii ad te convertentur

And the impious shall be turned toward you.

Libera me de sanguinibus Deus

Free me from blood, O God,

Deus salutis meae

God of my salvation.

Exultabit lingua mea iustitiam tuam

My tongue shall exult in your justice.

Domine labia mea aperies

O Lord, you shall open my lips,

Et os meum adnuntiabit laudem tuam

And my mouth shall declare your praise.

Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium dedissem utique

Since if you had wanted a sacrifice, I would have given it,

Holocaustis non delectaberis

But you will not be delighted with offerings.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus

The sacrifice before God is a contrite spirit.

Cor contritum et humiliatum

A contrite and humble heart,

Deus non spernet

God will not despise this.

Benigne fac Domine in bona voluntate tua Sion

Act benevolently before the Lord, O Zion, for he is good,

Et aedificentur muri Hierusalem

And the walls shall be built around Jerusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium iustitiae

Then you shall accept a sacrifice of justice,

Oblationes et holocausta

Offerings and sacrifices.

Tunc inponent super altare tuum vitulos.

Then they shall place bulls on your alter.

Gooey Philosophy

In Ecclesiastes 12:12, Solomon noted the vanity of excessive bookishness.  Just for giggles, let’s quote the passage from the Vulgate:

faciendi plures libros nullus finis frequensque meditatio carnis adflictio est

“There is no end to the making of many books, and contemplation is often an affliction of flesh.”

In case you’re wondering, yes, quoting from the Vulgate is quite frankly something that I do for giggles.

Often when I’m writing philosophy or music, I find it the most interesting to make the matter as complicated and involved as possible.  Philosophy is always more fun when it involves enough distinctions and qualifications to make your head spin, and music is more engaging when it’s intricate and difficult.  Moreover, I believe complexity is in fact something to be desired.  Reality is very complicated, so it only makes sense that the human quest for truth and beauty be equally involved.

However, I also recognise that there is something very off-putting about ‘gooey philosophy’, and for that matter, ‘gooey music’.  When things get really convoluted, philosophy beings to seem less plausible and music less beautiful.  I think that one of the most crucial observations to have gone unnoticed by 20th century composers is that once you have the goo, you’re only halfway finished with your work.  What ought to ensue is an elaborate process of simplification and polishing.  It’s all fine and dandy to do strange and barbaric things while at the piano with no one listening, but when there is an audience involved, all such wild inventions must be translated into a civilized form of rhetoric.

Simple, not Minimalist

lucem at quoque noctem plus vel enim amo.

Upon moving into my residence hall here at the university last week, I encountered a bit of difficulty.  It seemed my plans were too complicated for the room.  The microwave plug didn’t fit into the power strip and this meant that the whole apparatus I had formed—with the printer on top of the microwave and the microwave on top of the refrigerator—had to be relocated to a place in the room that would better accommodate for all the electrical connections.  I had, from the start, opposed my bringing of so many appliances to school, but my parents insisted that I do so in order to make the place more comfortable and ‘home-like’.

After trying out a few different arrangements of the room, each one feeling more cramped than the last, I settled on stuffing all the appliances except the refrigerator into a small storage space in the upper part of the wardrobe and moving the furniture into the least confining arrangement possible.  When I was all done with this, I felt quite remarkably liberated; suddenly the little space, which had seemed very much to resemble a prison only moments ago, transformed itself into a rather pleasant study and dormitory.  Now I have a big beautiful desk basking in natural sunlight beside the window where I can lay out my orchestra scores to work (see figure 1).

I told my mum how I felt about this when I rang her up that evening.  She and I both agreed that if I felt more comfortable without all the clutter, I didn’t need to use it, seeing as comfort was the original purpose of the supplies.  As I write this, all of the mentioned supplies, along with several other items, are sitting in that storage place, waiting patiently to be brought home.  The new order of my room is by no means minimalistic—aside from the refrigerator I mentioned, I also have here a good number of my books and my unicycle—but it is simple.  That’s the beauty of it.

On the same day that I made these arrangements, I was thinking about economic styles of music, art, and writing.  Among the many examples of the aesthetic I had in mind were a couple of scenes in Shakespeare, that popped into my head, as well as the opening line of Milton’s famous epic, which reads:  “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree”.  Part of the brilliance of this line is how simply it conveys something so large and complicated.  Instead of droning on and on pedantically to lay out the details of a theological framework for the ‘fall of man’, Milton leans into the lexical and philosophical associations already built into the English language—perhaps placed their directly by the hand of God himself—in order to discuss not only the hamartiology of an ‘original sin’ or ‘total depravity’, nor the soteriology of ‘salvation’, but the entire human understanding of all the associated ideas, dreamings, and truths that have been passed down via the Indo-European language from before the time of the Romans to the present, now to be contained in the single English word ‘fruit’.

You may have already sensed this by now if you read this blog often, but I am, quite frankly, all about complexity.  I make nearly every form of art or study that I engage in as complicated as I possibly can.  But the reason things ought to be so complex, in my mind, is because that’s the only way they can become simple.  One of the greatest transformations that western languages have undergone over time is simplification.  Dead languages often have very complicated grammars, and it is through these original complex systems that modern languages have come to posses the power they hold today in their much simpler forms.  We might also note, however, the way this complexity supported something simpler even in the ancient languages themselves.  If this post were written in Ancient Greek or Latin, you would probably be finished reading it by now (assuming you were as fluent in one of those languages as you are in English).   Indeed, you would have probably finished reading a good while ago; the reason for this is that the more complicated grammars allowed for more economic communication—simpler sentences had more complicated meanings than in modern English.

I am not here by proposing that ‘less is more’.  That’s ridiculous!  Less is less.  But somehow the God of the universe has been able to communicate to humanity everything they need to know in order to be self-conscious and self-willing creatures, and if so much is possible, then is it not our duty, as artists, thinkers, and human beings, to at least try, by virtue of that very possibility, to stuff the entire human experience into something portable and sharable?

The beauty of fractals is that no matter how much or how little of their detail you can make out, they look similar and appear the same.