RECENTLY DISCOVERED some productions of mine from long ago. It wasn’t pretty. Seeing these early works caused depression and disappointment. At the time of creation, I thought they were wonderful—but now I’m horrified and embarrassed by them. Some might say, “Oh, people of an artistic bent are always hypercritical of their own works and dwell excessively upon their inadequacies.” While that may be true, it’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking awful. I asked myself:
“Why should I continue? I have so many faults and flaws. What possible contribution can I make?”
But I realized something important: Nobody’s perfect.
ONE OF THE MOST BRILLIANT men I know has serious character flaws. Not minor, not negligible: SERIOUS. (So serious that everyone acknowledges them.) Yet, this man is exceptionally gifted and inspiring. Or, consider Cardinal Ratzinger, who in 1972 published a theological proposal 1 manifestly ridiculous, even foolish! Yet, he turned out to be an outstanding, brave, and truly magnificent Pope. More importantly, he’s a saintly man. 2
What I’m talking about probably explains why some of the greatest pianists recorded so little. They were keenly aware of every flaw. Indeed, “live” recordings made without their knowledge often surpass their attempts in the studio. Josef Hofmann went to his grave unaware that his fans had secretly recorded some of his performances. Consider Hofmann’s recording of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade in 1938. Or, consider Glenn Gould’s 1959 “live” recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (even more wonderful than his 1955 studio version). Or, consider the Horowitz/Barbirolli 1941 “live” version of Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto. I could go on, but you get the point. Moreover, sometimes the “best” are not the best. I recently paid good money to obtain a special recording of Renaissance polyphony by the choir at Westminster Cathedral. On three separate occasions, I tried to listen to this CD, but ended up tossing it in the garbage. The balance was wrong, the boys’ tone overly harsh, and the musical phrasing lacked sensitivity. Are “sins” of my early productions, then, unforgivable? Perhaps not.
IN THE END, EACH OF US must make a choice. We can do something, or we can refuse to do anything because we’re too critical. It’s easy to do nothing. It’s easy to sit back and list all the deficiencies in our efforts. Some people wait their entire lives to publish anything—because they can’t look past their faults—and die without having made any contribution. What will the Lord say to them? My parents tried to teach us what’s right. Perhaps they didn’t get everything just right. Perhaps they made errors—they’re not omniscient. But they tried.
In 1948, Msgr. Ronald Knox published a book called The Mass In Slow Motion. This was a collection of sermons he’d given to school girls, explaining the Mass. It’s pure gold:
* * PDF Download: Knox’s Mass In Slow Motion (once there, scroll down)
Knox has given us a good example, because he published something very personal for our spiritual benefit. He was probably tempted to ask, “What’s the use of publishing sermons I gave to school girls?” You won’t regret reading this phenomenal book. Here’s an excerpt:
I rather like a lot of Collects. It’s nice to have lots of different subjects of conversation when you are going to talk to God. When people ask us to say a prayer for some particular intention, our first reaction is perhaps to think it a nuisance. But surely we ought to regard each intention as a new excuse for claiming God’s attention, like a child who thinks it fun to be sent on a message to his father, because it’s so splendid to be allowed, for once, to interrupt him in his study. So with these obscurer saints, these much-thumbed imperatas; an excellent opportunity for making our conversation with God last longer.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Zur Frage nach der Unauflöslichkeit der Ehe: Bemerkungen zum dogmengeschichtlichen Befund und zu seiner gegenwärtigen Bedeutung (1972).
2 By the way, his 2005 Stations of the Cross are excellent.