The Myth of Genius

This is a subject that has haunted me over the last few months. Many of us look at the music of great composers like Bach, Mozart or Beethoven and the scores of books written by the likes of Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo. Man has achieved so much, but most of us don’t. Why? Most of us would say that we lack talent or inspiration.

There is a false letter going about attributed to Mozart, saying that he had his entire works in his head and that it sufficed to write it all down effortlessly. Have you any idea how much work there is just in copying out a few bars of music, even in short score? Modern computer music programmes make the copying easier, more editable, but the music has to exist in the first place. In reality, like writing a book, it takes an idea and long planning, and then the meat is laboriously put onto the skeleton. The themes have to be sketched out, subjects and counter subjects, the form of the piece. Prior to all that, the composer has to have a solid knowledge of harmony and counterpoint, as the writer must be able to write in his own language correctly and according to the laws of grammar and spelling. Mozart related that the process was laborious, trying everything out on a keyboard. I proceed in the same way, deciding what I want to do, planning it and working it all out.

I am not naturally a hard worker, so I have paid for it in my life. I have not achieved what I could have achieved, and no doubt there will be the laws of karma to suffer. Perhaps the Lord will grant me a few more years. Much of my time has been taken up with sterile religious polemics, but the experience was a necessary part of my life. From the time when I ceased to live by the Church, I had to earn my living in different ways. I recovered old church organs in England and installed them where someone was willing to pay me for the job. I was seen as some kind of genius, but not a bit of it. You just have to have a level of training in organ building, and then go about it with method and concentration. You keep at it until the job is done, and then you have the satisfaction of doing the opening recital or hearing a better organist do it. Since then, I have become a writer.

When I was a little boy, I had an essay to write each weekend, just a page and a half of a schoolboy’s exercise book. It would be a story from my imagination or a description of a family day out, just a couple of hundred words. How difficult it was to get me down to the job! Any excuse would do. Now I translate technical and industrial documents of ten thousand words in two or three days, admittedly with professional translating tools, and I have to meet the customer’s deadline. If the job doesn’t get done, I will lose the customer. The choice is mine, doing this kind of work, or working in some crappy job for a boss who does the motivating – and not always very pleasantly. Self motivation…

I know a film with a Monsignor in Rome during the war working at the Holy Office. A priest asked him, “How do you get through it all”. The gritty Irish prelate answered, “I used to work on a farm. You start early and you stay late“. My own work is just like that. You have to put the hours in!

The trick in life is deciding what we are and why we’re here. We can’t do everything in life. Advancing age is also a limitation. OK for now, but in twenty years time I might get arthritis in my hands or go blind – or simply die. Then what? Get on with things whilst we still can! There must be a sense of urgency. What are we good at and what interests us? What characterises our world view? What kind of people, either historical or in our own time, most inspire us? We need time alone for our work, and with other people to recharge the batteries of our “vocation”.

As a musician, I have always been blessed with the gift of good sight reading. I can take a score, if it does not require too much in the way of keyboard technique, and play the piece. My technique is limited, because I ceased to work at it from a certain stage, and the result will be full of bum notes and errors of notes and rhythm. It’s the same with singing. I have sung in choirs for decades, but real singing involves the use of the diaphragm and stomach muscles to give power and support to the voice together with the use of the sinuses and head to produce the characteristic voice quality of each person. It takes practice, and the days go by between one lesson and the next… If no work is done, no progress is made. With composition, I have only written short pieces for SATB voices, but it all goes flat when I neglect to work. I resolved to work on fugue writing from about this time last year, and I have done too little.

I haver had to learn the hard way and with regrets that I am doing in my fifties what I should have done in my twenties: write books, compose significant pieces of music, learn to sail a boat and work with the sea. I read pieces in the blogosphere about those who regret the state of the liturgy in the “mainstream” Churches, often beautifully written pieces, but from a tormented soul who allows his life to slip away as I have done.

Anything worthwhile comes with perseverance and concentration, just hard work. The trick is knowing what we want to do in life and what we can do, what is within our reach. A seminarian vainly aspires to be the Pope or the Archbishop-Primate, but hard work and dedication will get him to the priesthood. There are the thousands of mistakes to correct and the steps back for the number of steps forward. Fragments often have to be abandoned because the motivation is gone, but they should be kept all the same and used when the weather is fair again. We have to learn to fail in order to succeed. Never regret experience of life – O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem. O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!

To create, we need to be nurtured in the culture of those who have created before us. There are whole libraries of books to read, music to play on our instruments or to sing, recorded music and live concerts to listen to. One early lesson to me was to take a distance from religious polemics and the conflicts that plague us by working at our contribution to human culture and art.

I am very lucky that I have a publisher who wants me to write something for them. I won’t say anything about it yet, but it is a great privilege for me and a challenge to work constantly and conscientiously at the task until the job is done. Blogging is easy. The pieces are very short and need little in the way of preparation and planning.

I also have a Veni Sancte Spiritus to write for next month. It will be a simple alternation between the plain chant and faux-bourdon verses. Still, it’s got to be done. Yes, we do need a certain amount of talent and training in the job. We learn to write English at school, and I had plenty of classes in musical form, harmony and counterpoint. The essential is a sense of vocation and dedication, and this brings the motivation for the effort and suffering. We often doubt the value of what we do, but we must go forwards. Put the mediocre stuff aside, store it for a better day, and get on with what’s white-hot and going.

There are no short cuts, no magic or blinding revelations, at least not for me. I have my moments of “writer’s block” which are really sins of sloth and acedia. The beached ship has to use the tide, currents and the sheer effort of the crew to get free. We have just to pull our fingers out and get on with it, just as when I was writing those two hundred words each Sunday with all the motivating effort coming from my despairing parents!

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A Meditation for Holy Week

I found a quote from Monsignor Alfred Gilbey (1901-1998). It follows on very nicely from my reflection about ecclesiastical bureaucracy and middle management. Many of us find ourselves in a situation of conflict, namely believing in an ideal (Catholic tradition) and finding that the reality does not correspond. We either adjust to correspond with the reality or we venture out into “eccentric-dom” and live with our cognitive dissonance. Alternatively we can give up and adopt Gnosticism or Materialism as our philosophy of life. Perhaps these are things for the generality of Lent and not just for Holy Week, where the focus is the battle between death and life, between human wickedness and the Redemption.

I wrote a comment on a blog:

I think we can make a difference by quiet study and getting on with life and the things we do liturgically in chapel. Everything positive we do makes a difference, especially by “escaping the Matrix” and being ourselves. We can write, compose music, promote dinghy cruising (as I do), whatever floats your boat – everything we dedicate ourselves to.

We won’t feel that we have made any difference, and most of us will die in obscurity, and most of us will be forgotten within 50 years of our deaths. Something will remain if we meant it for the common good or some little contribution to our world. Vivaldi was forgotten and his music was only discovered in Venice in the 20th century. We don’t matter. The little we can leave to posterity does, and it won’t matter very much to us.

I can only suggest that degree of detachment, and you will better be able to focus the positive you have in you. I think the old priests you mentioned would have said as much.

Detachment is something age brings us. My own life as a priest is laden with compromises, and they can be difficult to live with. There are few options, and they become narrower as time goes by. Monsignor Gilbey’s quote was written in response to the fashionable attitudes in the RC Church and the Church of England consisting of believing that we are called to put the world right without first attending to the Kingdom within. It can equally apply to traditionalists and those who bewail the conflicts they experience.

“………. so much of our modern Christianity gives the impression that what we are here for is to put the world right. To make a true contribution to putting the world right, we must first establish the kingdom of God in our own hearts. This primary duty is ours all the time and any effect we have outside ourselves will be either an overflow, a consequence or an instrument of that. The primary province for each of us is not the Third World but our own hearts…… Each of us has a combination of gifts and handicaps and tasks to perform which is true of no one else at all. Each man’s vocation is unique and peculiar to himself and he achieves sanctity by trying to fulfil it. It is something solely between himself and Almighty God……. One analogy—not often seen nowadays—is that of people making a tapestry sitting on a row of stools, working on the canvas from behind, each of them trying to carry out perfectly the bit of design that is in the space allotted to him. Only confusion ensues if any of them think that the man five stools down is not getting on very fast and goes to help him, to the neglect of his own work. If he has done his own patch, well and good. For that is what he is there to do. If each man does his piece perfectly, when they all go round to the other side the whole design comes to life. But if any of them thinks he can improve or change the pattern he has been given, or thinks he should neglect it to help someone else, he causes nothing but confusion”.

We each have our own job to do.

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La Nausée

existenceI left the Church of England 34 years ago for my badly-advised swim over the bit of river that flows through Martigny and Riddes in French-speaking Switerland. Ony five years later did I actually go to that country, but no longer having anything to do with the Society of St Pius X and further to the north-east in Fribourg.

Had I remained and been anything other than an organist and choirmaster, I might have been sitting through the most boring meetings human beings can devise in their little games of power and influence. Looking out of the window on a rainy day, one might have seen drops falling from a leaf on a tree again and again as the speaker drones on and on about nothing. Indeed, I picked my title for today from a book of Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist.

Just this morning, a kind soul gave me a heads-up on an article on clergy recruitment in the Church of England – I know just the vicar for my parish church. Pity he’s fictional. The article quotes The Spectator:

For cheap laughs you should look at the situations vacant column of the Church Times — pages of jobs for Anglican clergy. The language, with its dreary emphasis on compliance and its neglect of individualism, may help to explain why the Church of England has become the Labour party at prayer.

Number one word in these adverts is ‘team’. Applicants need to be ‘team players’. Other hot words: ‘passionate’, ‘change’, ‘management’ and ‘skills’. A couple of weeks ago the Diocese of Lichfield needed a ‘team rector’ near Tamworth — ‘a visionary, imaginative and inspirational team leader, passionate for evangelism and discipleship, with experience of managing change and able to enjoy modern styles of worship’. ‘Managing’ change may be a euphemism for ‘enforcing’ it.

The Diocese of Oxford, plainly feeling the Cross to be insufficient, illustrated its job ads with a multicoloured baby-bricks corporate logo saying ‘Living Faith’. The subtext might as well be, ‘Don’t come here if you are looking for grown-up worship.’ Oxford was looking for a rural mission dean — ‘an effective communicator who understands the complexities of envisioning traditional structures’. After reading that several times I still haven’t a clue what it means. Meanwhile, Chelmsford’s archdeacon was seeking a priest-in-charge for the Southend area — ‘a strong collaborative and compassionate leader who can grow mission and outreach’. The use of ‘grow’ as a transitive verb for anything other than fruit and veg always worries me. The Southend job will include ‘nurturing and discipling all in the church for every member ministry’. You may wonder if the Archdeacon of Chelmsford is an ‘effective communicator’. Is English even his first language?

The article goes on, by way of contrast, to describe the kind of priest who ministered to souls during the war and the situation of extreme adversity.

In France, we call this kind of stuff langue de bois, wooden tongue. I came across quite a lot of this pseudo-intellectualism in the RC Church in France. My old “pastoral theology” courses at Fribourg with Fr Marc Donzé consisted of the same kind of language. No one can understand it. The very concept of language is distorted. To me and many others, this kind of behaviour indicates a struggle for power and influence by very insecure and inadequate persons hiding behind words and organisations. It is the very definition of bureaucracy. In the Church, it is cancerous.

Perhaps this is something we can reflect on this Holy Week, as we consider human wickedness in general. I belong to an organised Church and am on the Bishop’s Council of Advice. We have ordinary routine things to discuss like money and who does what. Mercifully, those things only take the time that is really necessary. Beyond that, it becomes more human and spontaneous between people who know and trust each other. What a blessing! The smallness of our Church keeps us simple and teaches us humility.

We can all make efforts with language and the use of words, expressing ourselves transparently and in a way that people can understand us. Above all, we need to use our time for work and play, or for time together in family intimacy or friendliness with people we know. Manual work is very useful, as it is to contemplative monks. You need both prayer and work – ora et labora. It’s strange how both those Latin words contain ora!

It is truly tragic to see the Churches and churches we knew and loved, which were a part of our lives, have lost their salty taste and are only good to be discarded, abandoned and forgotten. Materialism also gets to the end of its tether and the future becomes uncertain. We face the spectre of faith without reason or experience.

May our little Churches continue in their witness and prophetic ministry!

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Blogging has cooled down somewhat, as for most Christian bloggers. We have our lives of liturgy and personal prayer. There is also a lot of work to prepare for our distinguished visitor next week with his passion for dinghy cruising.

I seem to have the right routine for Holy Week. Everything will be done in the usual simplicity. Sarum Maundy Thursday is a Passiontide Mass, and only a bishop sings the Gloria because it is the Chrism Mass. I make only one concession – using bright red vestments. Good Friday will see the Easter Sepulchre being set up for the third host of Maundy Thursday and the crucifix that has been venerated on that day. The “gloomy” time will be short, because the Easter Vigil will be on Saturday morning because of the AGM of the sailing club in the evening and Roger’s talk. Already on Good Friday night, the chapel will be going into Easter mood with the veils removed and the Paschal Candle in place. The fire, which will burn in full daylight, will be in a cast iron pot and will be lit with a blowlamp (blowlampus liturgicus).

Translating work has also piled up and has to be done if I want to be paid for it at the end of April.

The boat is being gradually prepared for the Semaine du Golfe. I will be living aboard for nearly a week from 10th to 16th May, beaching or mooring twice a day, at lunch time and for the night. I have just bought an ultra-compact self-inflating mattress and I still need a cheap child’s rubber dinghy to use as a tender to get ashore and back to the anchored boat. There will be so many boats that mooring to a pontoon or drying out on the beach might be difficult.

I always find Holy Week a hard time. We feel the anguish of Christ’s Passion and death, the tensions between the disciples of Christ and the perverse spirits working for his downfall between the establishment of the Temple and the occupying Romans. The biggest mystery is Judas, and the most painful. Those days are long and laborious, quite apart from all the practical things to do in the chapel. Often, tempers fray easily, and this was especially the case in seminary, often provoked by some dispute over a liturgical detail.

I use Sarum, so there are no 1950’s reforms or bits and pieces here and there. Many things have to be omitted like the Maundy, the reconciliation of penitents cast out of church on Ash Wednesday (we have none here) and the baptismal water on Holy Saturday. I do the best I can.

Let us pray for each other from our respective places of worship and our homes. The light will be that much brighter for the dark tunnel and our compassion with Christ’s sufferings.

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Good Parenting

Better than having them skateboarding in the streets or getting killed motorcycling!


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Rev Dr Peter Mullen

I have just discovered this witty and humorous blog by Rev Dr Peter Mullen – All Things Considered.

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Hold up, sir John…

A few times, recently, some have thought it insulting to me to address me as “Mr Chadwick” so as to refuse recognition of my status as a cleric or a priest. Sometimes I would just be called Chadwick like when I was a schoolboy, Mister or Sir being reserved to schoolmasters and not even the house or school Monitors (prefects in some establishments).

It is a difficult one, knowing whether to treat me as a gentleman or a cleric – or both. Ecclesiastical titles have changed over the centuries and differently in various countries. In pre-Reformation England, a priest would be called Sir Forename, as in this famous quote from Reformation polemics:

When the bell once rings … they forsake their seats and run from altar to altar, from sacring to sacring, peeping here and touting there, and gazing at that thing which the pilled-pate priests holdeth up in his hands. And if the priest be weak in his arms, and heave not up high enough, the rude people … will cry out to the priest: “Hold up, sir John, hold up; heave it a little higher”. And one will say to another: “Stoop down, thou fellow afore, that I may see my Maker: for I cannot be merry except I see my lord God once in a day”. (Becon, The Displaying of the Popish Mass, fol. 270; Becon, A Comparison, fols 359-360).

A correspondent wrote to me today:

I always think that addressing a secular priest as mister is so classy because it’s so Anglican.

Indeed, this is standard Anglican practice, though Father has been increasingly imported from Roman Catholic practice. When I was a boy at home, my parents, middle-of-the-road Anglicans, would also refer to a clergyman as Mr Surname. This is the custom. We in the ACC have adopted widespread Anglo-Catholic usage and use Father. I generally invite people to address me as Father Anthony, unless they are intimate friends or family. It is for their sake, not mine. Friends just use my Christian name, and I don’t bat an eyelid.

Calling someone by their surname implies a position of authority over them, as at school or in the army. That is quite rude when the person calling me Chadwick (or the same to anyone else) has no authority over me.

Comparison with other countries is interesting. The French Monsieur l’Abbé comes from the days of the abbés commendataires in the seventeenth century, when the benefice of an abbot could be held by any cleric, even if not a monk. Then came the custom of calling all clerics by that title unless they were a curé of a parish, a canon, prelate or bishop. The priests of Saint Sulpice, community and seminary founded by Monsieur Olier, were simply called Monsieur Surname. When I was in seminary some of us used Monsieur instead of Monsieur l’Abbé as an old-fashioned affectation, a mark of distinction. It is simply the old usage in France. In common use, it is equivalent to the English Sir or Mister. In our days, the title is used for all men, including those of modest families.

In Italy, the title of a cleric is Don, as in Don Camillo. It comes from the Latin Dominus. In Portuguese usage, it is Dom, like in the Benedictine Orders. In German, the title is Hochwürden Herr (Pfarrer for a parish priest). Vocatively, a German priest is called Pater. Eastern Orthodox priests are called Vater.

Properly speaking, the title Father is that of a religious or monastic priest, and only come into use for the secular clergy in the nineteenth century.

So, if certain polemicists on the internet think they insult me by not calling me Father, they can save their breath. It is only for their good that I suggest their using an ecclesiastical title. I once remember a vagante bishop here in France showing me a letter from a dicastery in Rome calling his S. Exc. Monseigneur, and using that as evidence that he (or his “validity”) was in some way recognised by Rome. I later asked a Roman official about this. It is simply a courtesy, a matter of protocol, using the same title as the person used when he wrote to the dicastery in question. That is all, a simple courtesy.

It doesn’t cost us anything to use a clerical title when addressing someone. It doesn’t mean that we agree with him or what he believes, or whether or not he is truly a priest according to my Church’s discipline and criteria. It is just a mark of respect.

I’m a bit of a rough diamond myself, something of an anarchist and rather informal in my ways. At the same time, I was brought up and educated to be a gentleman, and I try to continue in this way as much as possible. An old-fashioned seminary has the same quality in this way as an English college. It isn’t always easy with those who are insulting in their manner. Life is a learning curve and there is always room for progress and growth.

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