A drop in the ocean

In the course of the last week much has been said and written about the Catholic Church’s newest saint (newest in a formal sense, as in the eyes of millions throughout the Catholic and non-Catholic world her sainthood was already a certainty at the time of her death in 1997),  Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It was perhaps predictable that news outlets looking for sensation (goodness is boring, after all) would scour the horizon for dissenting voices, for example complaining about the lack of attention to issues of basic hygiene on the part of the Missionaries of Charity or accusing Mother Teresa of using her work as a pretext for proselytizing the population of Kolkata. The critics have however thankfully been in a distinct minority compared to those for whom the diminuitive Albanian nun from Skopje in a tangible sense epitomized God’s mercy in an all-too-often merciless 20th century.

Pope Francis’s homily for Mother Teresa’s canonization, which you can read here speaks for itself and I will not attempt to add anything to it. I would however like to make some brief comments relating to her profound and mysterious spiritual life as revealed in her writings, which have perhaps not occasioned as much comment as they deserve but are arguably no less significant for our society than the visible testimony of her practical work.

Seeking the heart of God cover

Above all else, St Teresa of Calcutta’s mission cannot be properly understood without grasping the essential unity of action and contemplation in her life, a distinguishing feature that she shared with another emblematic Christian witness of the twentieth-century, Frère Roger of Taizé (1915-2005), with whom she co-authored the books Mary, Mother of Reconciliations (1988) and Prayer: Seeking the Heart of God (1992). The rootedness of her work in the eternal rather than merely temporal perspective offered by Christian contemplation effectively constitutes the difference between action and mere activism ; failure to comprehend this difference lies at the heart of the misunderstanding of the fundamental purpose of her ‘homes for the dying’ by those whose frame of reference is primarily socio-political and whose yardstick by which to measure success is quantifiable results.

While stressing the importance of the contemplative dimension, it is important to emphasize that what makes the deep insights of Mother Teresa’s contemplative writings all the more remarkable is the fact that, as was only discovered after her death, they were written not in some kind of ecstatic rapture at God’s presence but rather in a state of spiritual aridity, even ‘darkness’, that seems to have lasted for decades. For example, Jesuit priest Albert Huart recalls how in 1985 Mother Teresa spoke to him bluntly about her sense of God’s absence:

“Father, I do realize that when I open my mouth to speak to the sisters and to people about God and God’s work, it brings them light, joy and courage. But I get nothing of it. Inside it is all dark and feeling that I am totally cut off from God.” (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The revealing private writings of the Nobel Peace Prize Winner (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 306.)

Such posthumous revelations of Mother Teresa’s inner state over a period of many years naturally came as a shock, even an affront to many who now viewed her as a hypocrite or even a plain atheist. This was however clearly not the case of her spiritual directors who were able to make sense of her often distressing interior experiences by pointing out their commonality with the path followed by some of the giants of Christian spirituality such as St John of the Cross.

Mother Teresa come be my light

As Brian Kolodiejchuk, director of the Mother Teresa Center and postulator for her beatification, writes in the introduction to the landmark publication Come Be My Light, Mother Teresa’s at times terrifying spiritual dryness is only comprehensible in the light of Tradition as

‘a sharing in the Passion of Christ on the Cross – with a particular emphasis on the thirst of Jesus as the mystery of His longing for the love and salvation of every human person. Eventually she recognized her mysterious suffering as an imprint of Christ’s Passion on her soul. She was living the mystery of Calvary – the Calvary of Jesus and the Calvary of the poor.’ (ibid., 3-4)

In this interpretation of thirst through the prism of the fifth of Christ’s Seven Last Words, there is a further link between St John of the Cross, Mother Teresa and Frère Roger of Taizé, who was especially fond of Jacques Berthier’s haunting musical setting of a Spanish text of Luis Rosales (1910-1992), De noche iremos, inspired by John of the Cross’s famous ‘Song of the soul which rests in the knowledge of God through faith’ (Cantar del alma que se huelga de conocer a Dios por fe). De noche iremos concludes with the enigmatic line ‘thirst is our only light’ (sólo la sed nos alumbra): it might be said that Mother Teresa’s life was a perfect illustration of this principle, in that the burning thirst for God, experienced in the dereliction of His absence, in a paradoxical sense became the driving force for her mission.

Here it is crucial to place Mother Teresa’s aridity in a broader context: Come Be My Light reveals that her years of inner darkness only ensued after intense purported mystical experiences in the 1940s as a Loreto nun. Evidence of these is presented in the book in the form of dialogue with Christ of a type familiar to students of Christian mysticism down through the centuries running from figures such as St Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) or Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) through to more modern examples such as the Polish nun Helena Faustyna Kowalska (1905-1938), Hungarian mother and factory worker Elizabeth Kindelmann (1913-1985) or French nurse, actress and playwright Gabrielle Bossis (1874-1950). Reading such material can be a somewhat disconcerting exercise for those who are shocked at the very notion of such dialogues, whose image of Jesus is edulcorated or sentimental, or who are offended by the unfashionable notion that Christ can make sacrificial demands of those wishing to follow him, yet robust conversations such as the following are absolutely typical of Christian mystical literature. Writing to Archbishop Ferdinand Perier of Calcutta in 1947, this is how Mother Teresa reconstructs one of her supposed dialogues with Jesus during prayer and Communion:

“Wilt thou refuse? When there was a question of thy soul I did not think of Myself but gave Myself freely for thee on the Cross and now what about thee? Wilt thou refuse? I want Indian nuns victims of My love, who would be Mary and Martha, who would be so very united to Me as to radiate My love on souls. I want free nuns covered with My poverty of the Cross. – I want obedient nuns covered with My obedience on the Cross. I want full of love nuns covered with My Charity of the Cross. – Wilt thou refuse to do this for Me?”

 My own Jesus – what You ask it is beyond me – I can hardly understand half of the things You want – I am unworthy – I am sinful – I am weak. – Go Jesus and find a more worthy soul, a more generous one.

” You have become My Spouse for My love – you have come to India for Me. The thirst you had for souls brought you so far. – Are you afraid now to take one more step for your Spouse – for Me – for souls? Is your generosity grown cold? Am I a second to you? You did not die for souls – that is why you don’t care what happens to them. – Your heart was never drowned in sorrow as was My Mother’s. – We both gave our all for souls – and you? You are afraid, that you will lose your vocation – you will become a secular – you will be wanting in perseverance. No – your vocation is to love and suffer and save souls and by taking the step you will fulfill My Heart’s desire for you.” (ibid., 96-97)

What are we to make of such exchanges? Psychologists (as well as many contemporary theologians for whom this kind of bridal language and references to God’s desire for ‘victims of My love’ sit uneasily with ‘modern’ images of God) might of course be tempted to dismiss such dialogues as nothing more than interior monologues, the projection of internal conflicts – or repressed sexuality – in the language of an inherited religious vocabulary. The evidence of Mother Teresa’s unwavering lifelong response to what she perceived as God’s specific call to found what would become the Missionaries of Charity however suggests that such reductive interpretations, while undoubtedly fashionable in certain circles, are a little too convenient to do justice to the power of this material. And for many a reader, rational linguistic analysis can only take us so far when confronted by words such as those in italics. From the standpoint of faith, this is ultimately a Voice that you either recognize (cf. John 10:27) or don’t… but one which, once you do recognize it, you ignore at your peril…

With this comment on the limits of human language and interpretation, it seems appropriate to turn instead to music for two short tributes to St Teresa of Calcutta. Firstly, this miniature masterpiece of vocal imagination entitled A Drop in the Ocean by my friend Eriks Esenvalds (1977 – ) which I heard for the first time being sung to mesmerizing effect by the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge under Stephen Layton in 2011 while the highly talented young Latvian composer was in residence at the College. Written in 2006 and now a staple work for many choirs throughout the world interested in challenging but attractive contemporary repertoire, Esenvalds’ setting (here sung by the Latvian State Choir) combines the Our Father, a prayer of St Francis Assisi and some often-quoted words of Mother Teresa that have been a consolation to many on the point of succumbing to ‘compassion fatigue’ faced by the ills of the world:

‘My work is nothing but a drop in the ocean, but if I did not put that drop, the ocean would be one drop the less.’

The second tribute is the present author’s, a piece entitled Breathe in me (2013) setting a prayer to the Holy Spirit that I encountered through the Kolkata saint’s writings. Despite being frequently attributed to her, the words are actually those of St Augustine of Hippo, yet they remain intimately associated with Mother Teresa as she prayed them daily:

‘Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy. Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy. Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy’  (quoted in Mother Teresa, A Call to Mercy: Hearts to Love, Hands to Serve , edited and with a preface and an introduction by Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC (New York: Image, 2016), 187).


The Meaning of Salzburg – Kugeln, Kitsch or Kultur?

The Meaning of Salzburg – Kugeln, Kitsch or Kultur?

August 27, 2016

Well, it’s time, I guess. Time to dust off this blog after a long while away. As I write I am rolling westwards back to France through the Austrian and Swiss Alps after a brief but intense visit to what you might call ‘Classical Music HQ’, that most outrageously beautiful and thoroughly ambiguous of European cities – Salzburg in all its disconcerting glory at the back end of the 2016 Festival, where ‘culture’ is spelt not only a capital K but also capitals U, L, T, U and R. If you don’t pen something about Salzburg on a music blog, then you’re probably not going to write about anything.

In case you haven’t been, all (well, perhaps almost all) of your clichés about Salzburg have at least a grain of truth to them. The Old Town, where you are more likely to meet visitors from St Petersburg and Shanghai toting selfie-sticks than Austrians wearing Lederhosen and Dirndl, is a tourist trap to beat all tourist traps, a heady mix of shameless pseudo-Mozart-Kitsch and high-end international fashion à la Prada. If you aren’t careful, you are likely to find yourself regretting the good euros with which you were persuaded to part in order to hear sub-standard versions of Wolfgang Amadeus’s Requiem sung by well-meaning but vocally-challenged choirs from Oklahoma or operatic wannabees performing your favourite tunes from Die Zauberflöte accompanied by beatbox or didgeridoo. And yes, although I didn’t actually see anyone boarding the Sound of Music Bus, walking through Salzburg’s wonderfully narrow streets is like being in a film set.

Nonetheless, even though peeling away the layers of the city in order to find what is real is no easy matter (I was witness to an involved conversation between locals as to what constitutes the difference between an ‘original’ and an ‘authentic’ chocolate Mozartkugel), there is no denying it: Salzburg is still ravishingly beautiful. Walking on a summer evening through the Mirabell Gardens or along the banks of the Salzach river, there is a palpable sense of idyllic repose which cannot be dismissed as merely manufactured, in this place where classical music somehow improbably remains king and the bicycle is the preferred means of locomotion. Even the most anti-Romantic observer might just find it within themselves not to sneer inwardly at the over-dressed festivaleers who have come from far away to fulfill the Dream Of A Lifetime by attending Gounod’s Faust in the Grosses Festspielhaus.


Salzburg has for a long time been a combination of transcendent beauty – not least because of its peerless Alpine setting – and relentless human ambition. That didn’t begin with the creation of the Salzburg Festival, even if the careers of those all-too-flawed geniuses Richard Strauss and Herbert von Karajan (the latter labelled with laudable transparency ‘The Last Absolutist Ruler’ in the history section of the official Festival website) perhaps demonstrate that juxtaposition more famously than any other classical musicians of the twentieth century. You can already sense the ambiguous relationship between aesthetics, sprituality and power politics in the magnificent Baroque Cathedral where I had the privilege of giving an organ recital – the purpose of my visit to Salzburg – yesterday. On one hand, the sight that greets an organist climbing the steps in order to practise on the sumptuous Metzler organ in the loft at the west end of the Cathedral is somewhat overwhelming, not only on a visual level but because of the historical associations of this incomparable space. For a church musician whose whole education is based on reverence for the musical greats of past centuries, this place – like the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, San Marco in Venice or La Trinité in Paris – is hallowed ground in more than one sense. If you do not experience a feeling of spiritual elevation and a stirring of your musical blood here, then you probably need help. Walk down the steps to the Cathedral Museum on the other side of the loft, however, and the reverse side of the medal becomes troublingly apparent in the form of a display of the dazzlingly excessive liturgical trappings of the Baroque archbishop-princes who made Salzburg their fiefdom. If you don’t find yourself asking the question of what precisely this unapologetic show of clerical-political vainglory has to do with the Carpenter of Nazareth born in a stable and mercilessly executed at Jerusalem’s town dump, then you definitely need help.


It is this ambiguous relation between the Sacred and the brazenly Secular, the Church and the World, which arguably lies at the heart of Salzburg’s split personality. Start practising on the gallery organ during the daytime and you will experience this ambiguity directly, but be forewarned: you had better abandon lofty notions of communing in blessed artistic solitude with the harmony of the spheres, as the reality is that you are more likely to be surrounded by curious tourists at arm’s distance from the organ console, meaning that your wrong pedal notes stand a fair chance of appearing on YouTube even before you’ve reached your final cadence. A softly-spoken but wise cathedral musician informed me that, much to my astonishment and his chagrin, tourists are even allowed to circulate freely in the gallery during the liturgy (of which many of them naturally have no concept whatever)! I leave it up to the reader whether this deconstruction of the boundary between the sacred and the profane should be interpreted as a praiseworthy – if highly unusual – form of ‘openness to the world’ or simply an act of capitulation to the prosaic logic of market forces. All I would say is that the musician in question saw it all as the sign of a dying culture (sterbende Kultur..), although at the same time he did emphasize that, thankfully, Salzburg Cathedral is still a church. If that might seem like stating the obvious, his words gave me pause for thought as the previous day I had seen a Facebook post by the justly famed improviser David Briggs concerning his concert on another Metzler organ in the Grote Kerk in The Hague – a church which despite retaining its former name is now a museum.


A stroll through Salzburg’s Old Town with its many functioning churches serves as a welcome reminder that, for all the commercialism and the influx of Big Money of sometimes questionable provenance, a persistent undercurrent of devout, mystical Christian faith remains present in the city. In Salzburg you can still find wayside shrines in public places with figures of the crucified Christ that would be unthinkable in The Hague, and although the chocolate-box image of religious life immortalized by Julie Andrews and co. in The Sound of Music has precious little to do with reality, the fact remains that bell-drenched Salzburg still bears the profound imprint of its monastic communities. An obvious example are the Capucins on the Kapuzinerberg that dominates the bank opposite the Cathedral, where a steep but brief climb away from the boutiques of the Linzer Gasse takes you up to a world of Franciscan spirituality reminiscent of other mountain-top sanctuaries such as La Verna, where Il Poverello received the stigmata.

Salzburg aparat Oli 8 (2)So what do you play in the Salzburger Dom knowing that your audience has probably been pestered with fake-Mozart all the way to the Cathedral steps? Well, J.S. Bach, of course (while remembering Karl Barth’s famous quip that in God’s presence the angels only play Bach, but in private they play Mozart and God listens with special pleasure) and my own small tribute to the master’s O Mensch bewein’, but I decided to intersperse works of the Thomaskantor with two pieces whose purity and innocence I felt would provide a temporary antidote to the calculated schmaltz-mongering outside the walls. One was Arvo Pärt’s utterly stripped-down Pari Intervallo, both starkly penitential and yet humbly confident, accompanied by the Pauline text ‘in life or in death, we belong to the Lord’ (Romans 14:8). The other was the 2010 Diptych by the Anglo-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova (b. 1980) whose output I have only recently discovered. She has come to international attention of late (my friend John Metcalf for example programmed a hatful of her works at last year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival) thanks notably to some stunning recordings of her radiant string music displaying a genuine, unaffected melodic gift and a refreshing lack of concern for alignment with any compositional school or trying to second-guess the listener’s expectation. Basically, with each piece that I’ve heard by Dobrinka Tabakova, my impression is that she simply writes what she feels she has to write and ignores the rest (in this respect her approach for me somewhat resembles that of Gavin Bryars or the Latvia Peteris Vasks). This is music which doesn’t pretend to be anything, but simply is, without any sense of embarrassment at its own beauty. Tabakova’s organ Diptych is no exception, particularly in the highly original opening ‘Pastoral Prelude’ which demonstrates her typical and intriguing synthesis of Southeast European and British influences in transforming the organ into what she describes in the score as ‘something resembling a giant bagpipe and flute’. This is followed by a slow-moving, pan-diatonic Chorale which builds to a truly ecstatic culmination from the simplest of materials (the closest parallel that comes to my mind, though probably an unconscious one from the composer’s standpoint, is the modal writing of Jehan Alain (1911-1940) back in the 1930s which could be termed pre-minimal). Spatially rather than temporally conceived, the Chorale found in the vast nave of the Cathedral a perfect environment in which to resound.

Dobrinka Tabakova (photo: Dobrinka Com)

Dobrinka Tabakova (photo:Dobrinka Com)

Leaving the Old Town for the station this morning, my feeling was that I am still no closer than when I arrived to solving the riddle that is Salzburg and its relationship to an outside world increasingly marked by conflict and chaos. Indeed, that outside world is rapidly advancing on the sacred halls of High Culture; Salzburg has after all found itself over the last couple of years on the ‘refugee/migrant highway’ leading from Budapest and the Balkans to Munich and beyond, with the associated challenges and consequences. The question is inescapable: as the operagoers fan themselves in front of the Festspielhaus, more modest tourists contentedly munch their bruschetta in the restaurants and children play in the improvised fountains on the Old Town pavements to the accompaniment of the sounds of a ‘come-and-sing’ Mozart Lacrimosa in the Cathedral, is this ultimately all simply mindless escapism, more highbrow and yet only slightly more in touch with reality than dulling one’s intellect by chasing Pokémon-Go monsters?

Although I naturally don’t have a definitive answer, I am inclined to suggest that it largely depends whether we still have the sensitivity to treat the monuments of the past as more than simply beautiful ‘cultural artefacts’ or museum-pieces. In the case of music, can we cut through the numbing effect of attributing canonical status to ‘masterworks’ in order to recover the frequently timeless message they were originally intended both to convey and embody? If we can muster up just enough intensity to hear the Dies Irae from the Requiems of Mozart, Verdi or Dvorak, or Bach’s Erbarme dich on this level, listening according to what I referred to on this blog’s very first post as the ‘hermeneutics of danger (to use a term of theologian Johann Baptist Metz) then we might just yet perhaps find in what is left of Kultur a source of inner strength, one that goes beyond Kitsch and Kugeln and has relevance for the facing of contemporary crises. That still has meaning in the world of Brexit and Donald Trump, ISIS and the Boko Haram. But if not, if a once vital culture is reduced to an albeit consoling repetition of ‘our favourite things’ on the part of a moneyed elite (to which by comparison with the refugees from Syria and elsewhere most of us de facto belong, regardless of whether we are inside the Festspielhaus or eating ice-cream outside), then I suspect that we risk facing a re-run of what followed ‘the last Golden Days of the Thirties’, as that film puts it in its opening line.

Outside Salzburg Cathedral on my way to practise I saw a guitarist soothing the crowds with his version of Sting’s Every breath you take. The thought of the Cathedral’s Doors of Mercy reminds me to be charitable, so I won’t begrudge him or his listeners a few moments of what I might otherwise be tempted to describe as Romanticism for baby-boomers. But what would their reaction be, I wonder, if our would-be troubadour instead fired up his amplifier to some words from Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower that I for some strange reason found running through my mind as I made my way back to the Hauptbahnhof past the wandering street people, Roma and refugees?:

‘Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl. Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.’