NE OF BLESSED COLUMBA Marmion’s numerous epistolary disciples was a Benedictine monk named Dom Pius de Hemptienne, a selection of whose writings were published in 1935. They make for fascinating reading for all sorts of reasons. The prayers and meditations of Dom Pius are magnificent, if sometimes highly intricate and stylized.
Anyway, I was struck by a passage that Dom Pius cites from the Memoirs of his grandmother, reputedly a saintly woman:
During the Easter holidays of 1864, fearing lest the light music so fashionable then, should be harmful to my dear children, I asked them to limit themselves in the future to music of a style fitted to elevate their souls, as religious music does, instead of such as softens and enervates them. To dear M. this was a real trial. She loved music, and could not make up her mind to part with a number of operatic pieces which I regretted having ever allowed her to play. She protested, and, for the first time was unwilling to do as I wished. I was heart-broken at giving her so much pain, and would gladly have endured far more myself to spare her; but I felt it my duty to insist, and nothing could dissuade me. In a few hours the dear child had calmed down, and she said no more about it. I comforted her as well as I could by undertaking to pay for the lodging of a poor girl whom M. visited and was interested in. This offer on my part made her quite happy again. (A Disciple of Dom Marmion, Dom Pius de Hemptinne: Letters and Spiritual Writings, trans. Benedictines of Teignmouth [London: Sands & Co., 1935], 5.)
The author of the biographical sketch goes on to comment: “It was in this way [that] the supernatural joy of a good deed obliterated the sensuous charms of worldly music in a young girl of eighteen” (ibid).
This is an amazing passage to analyze. We see a mother who bitterly regrets having allowed her daughter to play at the piano an operatic aria―light and frivolous music, no doubt, but hardly disordered, at least as far as music goes. (Note, too, the talent taken for granted―it is no easy feat to play the accompaniment to an aria.) What sensitivity of soul must this generation of Christians have had! They could perceive how the frivolity and superficial sensuality of worldly music would, over time, weaken or undermine the moral fibre of a young person, how it would confuse their moral compass.
And what is the daughter’s reaction? A girl of eighteen was unwilling for the first time to do what her mother asked her to do. The beauty of obedience shines here, but also the immense power of music over the soul. Music works from within, pulling one’s character to itself, and shaping the soul until one feels pleasure only in its embrace and sharp pain in being severed from it. Music alone was the veiled enemy that broke into the girl’s gate and began to sap her wonted deference to the will of her parent. This, and more, can music do, and in a way that is scarcely noticed by its votaries―which is why so much of the devastation of the Catholic Church and her public worship can be squarely blamed on the absolutely inappropriate and sometimes sacrilegious music that has invaded the sanctuary.
Returning to the scenario: the daughter’s mother offers to do a work of charity for a poor friend of hers, and the trauma yields to joy. This vignette offers us a window into a different time, when parent-child relations were healthier, when souls were far more sensitive to the ethical power of music, when a kind of “aesthetic asceticism” was practiced for the sake of virtue, and when works of charity for the poor were a cause of sincere joy on the part of youth. We might consider whether all of this goes together somehow, like a package deal.
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