Involuntary Blood: Another Kind of Good Friday Experiment
Updated: Jul 7
Whiter Shade of Pale is a tonal depressive, exquisite in its invitation to nostalgic sadness. Though Procol Harum are not the celebrated Yes or Moody Blues, the beautiful Bach-like melodies of Whiter Shade of Pale are unequivocally part of the cultural canon. Its simple, a young man is deeply lamenting the fact that his girl left him. Keith Reid (1946-2023), the lyricist for the band, said the phrase “whiter shade of pale” approached him and he knew it was the next song he would write. For poets and artists, these prompts from other worlds are where the music starts, the muse enters the picture and brushes up against one, then vanishes. Robert Hunter, Grateful Dead lyricist, says the same thing, he calls it “courting the muse.” And, according to Hunter, “reason does little to explicate the muse.” Whiter shade of pale in the song refers to the woman's face who is about to break up with her boyfriend, at first her face was just ghostly, then a whiter shade of pale as she explains why it is over for them. The muse does no such explaining, the muse appears then recedes, at least that's how I think it happens. To my mind, theses subtle drafts of linguistic charms that enter the mind are somewhat akin to the Holy Spirit. But I think parsing that mystery out is too much for my fragile mind right now. Though certainly, in the venerable Christian tradition, we are taught to “test the spirits,” for the daimon of Aristotle's eudaimonia, may not be well; it may well be kakodaimonia, a tricky, trickster spirit, or worse, an evil one. Thoughts that appear to us in this way, words strung together that enter from the music of songs, or the muse herself, are colorless and odorless powers, the senses of which, we need to learn. In the same way, those of us who, as the creed states, “believe in the Holy Spirit,” ought to endure meditation and prayer long enough to know something of the healing work of the Holy Spirit. At any rate, there is no sense in some of these words strung together---whiter- shade- of -pale--- until the artist plays around with them a bit, seduces back and rubs the utensil on the blank page.
Whiter Shade of Pale showed up in the movies, notably in the Big Chill and then again in Martin Scorcese's segment in New York Stories. In these cases, the song seems to call out from the cultural canon, to bring up its feeling, a momentary medium in the media of film. All because Keith Reid heard a “whiter shade of pale” and followed it down the road into the song of the same name. We know the Big Chill, and Martin Scorcese is a household name, but Keith Reid is my plumber, I would know that name from Adam S. Rib.
Most of us would not recognize the name Charles Wesley, either. If we had a church history course (and 03 % of the population has) we might know of his brother John Wesley, founder of Methodism. If John Wesley was the organizing brain of the Methodist movement, Charles was its pumping musical heart. In the American cultural canon, Charles Wesley provides the soundtrack to two of the most iconic scenes expressed in American television and film, Charles M. Schulz's Charlie Brown Christmas Special (1965) and Frank Capra's Its a Wonderful Life (1947). In both, the protagonist who fails and suffers anguish is, in the end, surrounded by the love and support of friends. Charlie Brown rescues the saddest little tree to provide the community's Christmas tree only to find that he has been found sorely lacking, shunned and held in contempt by his much more efficient and ornate Christmas celebrators. Through Charlie Brown's weakness of attempt at celebrating, his friends come around to redeem the wounded tree via a team effort, making the tree gleam with new life. When Charlie Brown arrives to check on his tree his friends break out in Charles Wesley's “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” We are invited to listen, to hearken to the scene of redemption and join in, “peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” In Capra's Its a Wonderful Life, George Bailey, friend of all, wakes from the horror of seeing his town and those he loves in a world where he had never been born. His consideration of suicide is thrown off course as he races back to his home, only to find all those he has helped coming together as one to restore him to himself; George! As his community pulls together to right George's ostensible financial misappropriation, his daughter pounds out Wesley's hymn on the piano and all join in, bawling...”Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies.”
Charles Wesley is said to have written over 7,000 poems in his lifetime. His muse, however, was what Christians have forever called the Word of God, holy writ. He would read scripture, and through his own meditation and prayer, would then compose lyrics. Interested in such a process, I completed my graduate work trying to understand the complex of thinking and poetry, singing and the sign that is called the Eucharist. My conversion to Catholicism was due, at least one measure, to Charles Wesley's lyrical poetry. Particularly, one-hundred and sixty six “Hymns on the Lord's Supper;” volume three of the Wesley brothers thirteen volumes of poetical works published in 1869 by the Wesleyan Methodist conference office in London, sold at 66 Pater Noster Row, to be exact. Charles Wesley followed the Spirit in an attempt to capture, among many, many other texts and realities, the four Gospels, select Psalms, and the Trinity in lyrical rendering. In my dissertation I was interested in how the sign that is Eucharistic ritual is likened to what captures the imagination as we sing. It was all about those two words, sign and sing, what realities those words represent, and how those realities interact in time. For Charles Wesley, the hymn's purpose is just as Capra and Schulz render it, to unify disparate people and emotions in a shared and objective reality, like love and redemption. And that is one of the dimensions of the Eucharist, a ritual-action, the meaning of which, can hardly be contained.
What may amount to a difference between the muse and what Christopher Pramuk has curated for us as Hagia Sophia (holy wisdom) is that Sophia reaches out, connecting us “to a privileged meeting place for the encounter with God, the one God of all peoples.” Hagia Sophia draws together, the muse draws out the artist's creativity. There is a lot of muse in Sophia and I would like to think a taste of holiness in the muse, but we should not become obsessed with trying to measure these things, of course.
So taken was I with the Wesleyan Eucharistic corpus, I naively thought in 2004 or so, that the United Methodist Church was about to undergo a Eucharistic revival, culminating in healing the politico-theological tears the denomination has left un-mended for the better part of two hundred years, at least in the United States. To reclaim Charles Wesley's hymnic corpus, the body of songs about that unifying ritual called the Lord's Supper, I thought, was sure to get the church on course for powerful action, culminating in evangelistic outreach. But methinks that the DNA of Methodism is rife with nationalism, since John Wesley was under the assumption that British Protestantism was the best way to actualize the kingdom of God. His heart may have been strangely warmed, but his mind remained convinced that the political aspirations of both Ireland and the colonies were wrong. Late twentieth century United Methodists became entranced not by the warm hearted Gospel message of unity, but rather by the cold hearted pursuit of conflict to preserve one side or the other of the political binary liberal/conservative. For me, that Methodist obsession with national politics was at once emotionally draining and intellectually boring. Today, as friends and family members vote on remaining or breaking off, as they come to the close of a fifty year argument ending in fissure and separation; as I talk with my father, who dedicated his life to being United as a Methodist, as I listen to my United Methodist colleagues hold in their tense bodies the stress of years of nasty infighting, my face at first just ghostly, turns a whiter shade of pale. The blood rushes out of my face in grief. The tone of the time is depressive, full of nostalgic sadness, at least for me.
It is a Catholic tone too. Catholicism's sadness is rooted in its own cultural sickness, one which syncs together generations of clergy sexual abuse and a hierarchy just now wriggling out of the tight grip of denial. It has resulted in defensiveness and a doubling down, in certain circles, on protecting any “brand” that spelled Catholics are right. Yet for thousands of other priests and lay folk (and I consider myself in this bunch) it is an opportunity to renew the essence of what it means to be a Catholic person. First, a person! Not a worker, robot, dilettante hipster a conservative or a liberal. No, a person is a mystery; a mystery the sense of which involves a comfort with the very ambiguity inevitably found in the search itself. The person is discovered in the search for God. And the road goes on forever. A person! One who encounters oneself and others in a third space carved out by the Spirit, sometimes the muse, or some combination of the two? I just don't know. I do know that the Spirit of Jesus has carved out a space for this work of searching, the work of persons, the work of the people, in his command, “do this in memory of me.” And so Catholics continue to work hard getting into that space by celebrating daily the Eucharist, what Charles Wesley called the Lord's Supper. The Eucharist calls us to become ourselves, a real presence, if you will, of our authentic selves.
I met the talented and jovial person, one Mike Malthaner, when he was the artistic director at McDowell High School, where our children happily performed under his masterful direction. He has an ease of style, a patient way that promotes the development of intelligence and goodness. When our kids graduated, I thanked him for being that role model for them. Mike is a person who has been a teacher, a playwright, a director, a performer as well as the minister of music at Sacred Heart parish in Erie, PA. He and his wife Jean are humble leaders at Sacred Heart who empower others to become themselves. When my younger son was waiting to pick up his brother in the back of the theater one day, Jean called him forward and told him to get on stage, they had a vacancy in a dance number. He did, and ended up in two more plays his senior year. So much for identifying as some aloof jock.
Mike improvises between liturgical actions throughout the Mass, evoking a participatory aura around it all. He is one of those rare individuals who reads music but does not need to. He hears the tunes in his head and then actualizes them on the spot; there it is, the decibels filling the air as natural as rhyme and reason. I knew he could look over some of the Wesleyan Eucharistic lyrics and make them come alive, and he has done just that. Hark! The herald angels sing, no past tense in liturgical time mind you. Because of Mike, I knew Charles Wesley was about to come and visit for a while.
And so he appeared, on Good Friday 2023 when the Sacred Heart choir sang Charles Wesley's Jesu, Dear Redeeming Lord, during the veneration of the Holy Cross. The Good Friday veneration is a most solemn, and highly emotional procession. Instead of going up to receive bread on our lips, those gathered arise to kiss the wood of the crucifix, to touch the suffering servant in His last moments of breath (no past tense in liturgical time). Say you are visiting the Good Friday service with a friend and have never been to a Catholic church, let alone a Good Friday service. You experience the procession; the singing, kneeling and kissing, even if it seems rather strange, any semblance of the tragic sense of life would be amplified, and you would come away with the gravity of human experience, I would think. Wesley's lyrics invite us to that present moment of veneration, the rubrics read: Silence: All will come forward to Venerate the Cross.
Choir will sing: “Jesu, dear, redeeming Lord...
Jesu, Dear Redeeming Lord
Magnify Thy Dying Word
In Thy Ordinance Appear,
Come and Meet Thy Followers Here
After the veneration of the Holy Cross, the congregation receives communion.
There is one day a year when Catholics do not celebrate the Eucharist; that is Good Friday, communion is served with hosts that were consecrated the day before, on Holy Thursday. The vacancy of the full celebration is due to a mass participation in a fast, an absence, not a presence. And in that we become aware of our indigence, our need, our hunger for goodness, truth and beauty, and our human frailty, which, try as we might, can never make redemption happen on our own terms.
Turning a whiter shade of pale, like blushing, is an involuntary action. We have no control, these happen instantaneously, some might say instinctively. We who are our bodies, and, in a certain sense that is all we are; we (our bodies) reflex these immediate responses to both dismay and spontaneous love, or being exposed in the presence of one we admire. The blood leaves or enters more quickly. We can't control the body and the blood----it leaves the face in response to that which is mortifying, and flows into our complexion when in love; the mind and will have no power here.
It seems an apt analogy to the unity evinced by singing and ritual action, like that of the Eucharist. The mind certainly has no power over the Eucharist, the real presence in the body and the blood. And the will, while important to get us to singing or ritual action, have no sway over our emotional response to Grace and Truth. Despite the pharmaceutical industries attempts, you cannot invent Grace. And despite the various tyrannies that impinge upon our existence (media, journalism, propaganda) you cannot invent the Truth either. In varying degrees, Grace and Truth enliven our sense of life's gravity and the lightness of being, both----we live in loss and fullness simultaneously. And that is Good Friday in a nutshell, kissing a cross in adoring love, fasting and hungering for a presence now out of reach.
The day Mike Malthaner and the Sacred Heart choir brought Methodism's lyrical poet into the Catholic “celebration of the Lord's Passion,” was for me a day of mystical unity. Thomas Merton has written that, “When we unite with others in liturgical prayer, we put aside our sentiments of the moment in order to unite with the thoughts and desires of the community, expressed in liturgical prayers.”
Each Good Friday, Catholics pray the general intercessions. Prayer, done sincerely, can be a depth experience, but it can also be a creative experiment in trust; holding others and ourselves in hope. So, the general intercessions that Good Friday: For the Catholic church (give her peace) for Pope Francis (keep him safe), for those searching for Truth but do not believe in God (that the light of the Holy Spirit may show them salvation), for those in public office (direct their minds and hearts for the true peace and freedom of all people), for the Jewish people to whom the Lord our God spoke first (that they advance in love and in faithfulness to God's covenant), for those in war zones (that God's merciful love may change the hearts of evil doers).
Merton continues, “These then become our own sentiments and raise us above our individual level, to the level of the mystical Christ, praying in the liturgy.”
I added a few of my own that day, drawn by creativity and a thirst for unity: For my United Methodist brothers and sisters, “That in the turmoil and trouble of division and tears, that we join anew the gifts of lyrical unity and creativity in the rejuvenating waters the Holy Spirit.”
And, I continue to pray for our Catholic church, “That our God and Lord may open wide the ears of laity, priests and bishops to unlock the gates of Grace to restore the sacramental presence of mercy in our parishes and neighborhoods.”
Out of our control, may the body and the blood come alive again; may our bodies and our blood reflect the gravity and levity of this human adventure. And for all our faithful departed mentioned here who have made this adventure more rich in tone and temperature: Thomas Merton, JS Bach, Keith Reid, Robert Hunter, Charles Wesley, Charles Schulz, Frank Capra; may they continue to experiment even as they rest in peace, replenished in Hagia Sophia and the enticements of the muse, wherever she may be found.
Rendering of Charles Wesley 1707-1788, brother is rendered a bit "flushed"
Robert Hunter, “Courting the Muse” Lecture at Naropa University https://www.reddit.com/r/gratefuldead/comments/prcpnz/courting_the_muse_robert_hunter_lecture_at_naropa/ Christopher Pramuk, Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2009), 209. We know one of those “words” is Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing... Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1960),87.