Category Archives: Scripture

The Saints, Scripture, Jazz Music, & Calvinism…

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– by Br. Bonaventure Chapman, O.P.(Br. Bonaventure Chapman entered the Order of Preachers, Eastern Province, The Province of St Joseph, in 2010. He received an M.Th. in Applied Theology from Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, where he studied for the Anglican priesthood.)

“The saints are the hermeneuts of the Scriptures. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us of this in Verbum Domini: ”The interpretation of Sacred Scripture would remain incomplete were it not to include listening to those who have truly lived the word of God: namely, the saints” (VD 48).

Yet this seems difficult to swallow after reading some of the saints’ interpretations of Scripture, with their allegorical and mystical numerology. For instance, take St. Augustine’s reflections on John 6, the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes:

“By the five loaves are understood the five books of Moses; and rightly are they not wheaten but barley loaves, because they belong to the Old Testament. And you know that barley is so formed that we get at its pith with difficulty; for the pith is covered in a coating of husk, and the husk itself tenacious and closely adhering, so as to be stripped off with labor. Such is the letter of the Old Testament, invested in a covering of carnal sacraments.”

Even St. Thomas, who asserted that all allegorical interpretation must be grounded in the literal sense of Scripture, seems to partake of this perturbing pattern: “This boy had five loaves, that is, the teaching of the law: either because this teaching was contained in the five books of Moses . . . or because it was given to men absorbed in sensible things, which are made known through the five senses.” John Calvin always struck me as more reliable in reading Scripture with his plain and clear style. No numerology, no speculation, just solid exposition and practical exhortation: “Let us now sum up the meaning of the whole miracle. It has this in common with the other miracles, that Christ displayed in it his Divine power in union with beneficence, it is also a confirmation to us of that statement by which he exhorts us to seek the kingdom of God, promising that all other things shall be added to us.”

When I was a Calvinist, I thought like a Calvinst, spoke like a Calvinist, and interpreted like a Calvinist. But now as a Catholic I have put Calvinist ways aside, especially with the help of different kind of exegete: John Coltrane.

A number of us student brothers are part of a jazz band which is preparing to play for the Annual Spring Gala this weekend here at the Dominican House of Studies (shameless promotion!). Although trained in classical clarinet I prefer to play jazz, especially the dixieland variety. One reason for this is improvisation: jazz usually involves a main melody or head followed by various musicians’ “readings” of this melody in improvised solos. The soloist gets to offer his own interpretation of the piece and add his own coloring to the music before the band comes together to complete the song. To me this is where the fun, excitement, and skill resides: not just playing but creating.

Now, as any jazz aficionado knows, one cannot simply play anything in these solos; there are chord progressions as well as the theme of the song in general to guide the solo, and any good solo must respect these. But there is plenty of creative space to bring out new treasures from a time-worn piece. And the greater the musician the more creative one can be. Listen as one of the greats, John Coltrane, describes his method: “Here’s how I play: I take off from a point and I go as far as possible. But hopefully, I’ll never lose my way. I say hopefully, because what especially interests me is to discover the ways that I never suspected were possible. My phrasing isn’t a simple prolongation of my musical ideas, and I’m happy that my technique permits me to go very far in this domain, but I must add that it’s always in a very conscious manner.”

Perhaps the saints are like this, inspired troubadours of the Gospel who can stretch the meaning of the text to find new and powerful interpretations. Like the jazz soloist their freedom for interpretation is not infinite. Yet there is a creativity to their readings, grounded in a life spent soaking in God’s word, that breaks open familiar passages in unexpected ways.

And it is unfortunately true that not everyone likes jazz; some people prefer the more classical or mundane forms of music. So too some people, like myself in my Protestant days, do not like the hermeneutics of the saints. But this antipathy need not be final or irreversible; perhaps one of these nay-sayers just needs someone to listen with them and explain the beauty, power, and truth of the saints’ solos. Or as Pope Benedict XVI says: “We can point to a fundamental criterion of biblical hermeneutics: the primary setting for scriptural interpretation is the life of the Church“ (VD 29). A world of music without jazz strikes me as a pretty impoverished place. How much more disconcerting is the impoverishment of a world of scriptural interpretation without those great masters, the saints?”

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-Mark Dukes, John Coltrane Icons

n.b. John Coltrane is considered a saint only in the 5,000-member African Orthodox Church for which this icon was painted. He is not a canonized Roman Catholic saint.

Love,
Matthew

The Returning Master

“Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.  Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. 
Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.   And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants. 
Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.  You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” 
Then Peter said, “Lord, is this parable meant for us or for everyone?” 
And Jesus replied, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute (the) food allowance at the proper time?  Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so.  Truly, I say to you, he will put him in charge of all his property. 
But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk, then that servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish him severely and assign him a place with the unfaithful. 
That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will, but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. 
Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” 
-Luke 12:35-48

Proverbs, Chapter 9

Wisdom has built her house,
she has set up her seven columns;

She has prepared her meat, mixed her wine,
yes, she has spread her table.

She has sent out her maidservants; she calls
from the heights out over the city:

“Let whoever is naive turn in here;
to any who lack sense I say,

Come, eat of my food,
and drink of the wine I have mixed!

Forsake foolishness that you may live;
advance in the way of understanding.”

Whoever corrects the arrogant earns insults;
and whoever reproves the wicked incurs opprobrium.

Do not reprove the arrogant, lest they hate you;
reprove the wise, and they will love you.

Instruct the wise, and they become still wiser;
teach the just, and they advance in learning.

THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM IS HOLY FEAR OF THE LORD,
and knowledge of the Holy One and counsel of the saints is understanding.

For by me your days will be multiplied
and the years of your life increased.

If you are wise, wisdom is to your advantage;
if you are arrogant, you alone shall bear it.

Woman Folly is raucous,
utterly foolish; she knows nothing.

She sits at the door of her house
upon a seat on the city heights,

Calling to passersby
as they go on their way straight ahead:

“Let those who are naive turn in here,
to those who lack sense I say,

Stolen water is sweet,
and bread taken secretly is pleasing!”

Little do they know that the shades are there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol!

De Profundis

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Dominicans, after vespers each evening, line the hallways of their priories facing each other and sing the De Profundis (Psalm 130), remembering all the members of their order who have received their eternal reward.  Dominicans traditionally would bury their dead underneath the hallways of their priories.

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
Domine, exaudi vocem meam.
Fiant aures tuæ intendentes in vocem deprecationis meæ.
Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, Domine, quis sustinebit?
Quia apud te propitiatio est; et propter legem tuam sustinui te, Domine.
Sustinuit anima mea in verbo ejus:
Speravit anima mea in Domino.
A custodia matutina usque ad noctem, speret Israël in Domino.
Quia apud Dominum misericordia, et copiosa apud eum redemptio.
Et ipse redimet Israël ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication:
If you, O Lord, mark our iniquities,
Lord, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be revered.
I trust in the Lord;
my soul trusts in his word.
My soul waits for the Lord,
more than sentinels wait for the dawn.
More than sentinels wait for the dawn,
let Israel wait for the Lord;
For with the Lord is kindness
and with him is plenteous redemption;
And he will redeem Israel from all their iniquities.

V.         Eternal rest grant unto him/her, O Lord,
R.         And let the perpetual light shine upon him/her,
V.         From the gates of Hell,
R.         Deliver his/her soul, O Lord,
V.         May he/she rest in peace,
R.         Amen.
V.         O Lord, hear my prayer,
R.         And let my cry come unto You.

Oremus:
O God, Creator and Redeemer of all mankind,
Grant unto the souls of the departed
The remission of all their sins:
That through our prayers
They may obtain the pardon
They have always desired.

V.         Send forth Your Spirit and they shall be created,
R.         And You shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.

“For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my dissolution is at hand.
I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the Faith.
From now on a crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, just judge that He is, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for His appearance.”
-2 Timothy 4:6-8

Bonum certamen certavi,
Cursum consumavi,
Fidem servavi!

I have fought the good fight,
I have finished the race,
I have kept the Faith!

“The world is tired,
The year is old,
The faded leaves are glad to die…”
-Sara Teasdale, “November” 

Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; They will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.”  -Isaiah 35:10

Love,
Matthew