In writing in this blog, I try to keep in mind the adage by St. Simeon, “Sit in your cell, and it will teach you everything.” I’ve been trying to discuss the intersection between the urban monastic (as a friend puts it) and academic lives.
When I first came across The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, I pooh-poohed it. It’s used superficially to describe why people don’t get anything out of prayer or other religious observances. But that’s not really what he’s talking about–he’s talking about something deeper, less understood than the light contemplation that came before it.
Beginning composers are a lot like beginning contemplatives. At first everything is golden and wonderful–pieces come easily, and it feels like one is tapped into a spring that won’t run dry. And then everything changes. It becomes an effort to do anything, and it feels as though one is slogging through note, by note.
But in that state of complete abandonment, one begins to notice different things, things far more subtle and delicate, things barely able to be described. When I began this degree, I could write pages about what I thought composing music is like and even more pages about whatever piece I was working on. Now when writing my dissertation piece, I’m barely able to say anything at all about it.
It’s similar to being in love with someone. Really in love, not just infatuated, and beyond the kind of love one has for the first few years of any serious relationship. It’s a terrifying thing to think one understands one’s partner, but a few years later realize that the whole relationship is beyond anything imaginable. I think that’s why so many people break up after five or six years–they find this darkness staring them in the face and take it for an absence of love, when in reality the potential for much greater than what they had is staring them both in the face. Likewise, I think beginning composers often quit for the same reasons–they think their creativity has dried up, when it’s really becoming a deeper part of them.
I think this mystery and darkness, the “night more lovely than the dawn,” is more feared than understood. Sure, we all have our dry times when relationships, prayer, or composing is difficult or trying. This is beyond that–it’s not just mouthing the words of the Divine Office, putting notes on paper, or making love with one’s spouse. This state is about abandonment–complete abandonment of our preconceived notions, lies, and all the little things we hold dear to with our egos, which reject that there could be anything beyond it. When this desert opens, it’s too easy to fill it with words. There are countless websites on why “good” Catholics only need verbiage from the 19th century as prayer. Couples bury themselves in anything other than the embrace of their lover, and composers hide in volumes of program notes and charts.
More than anything, when people shy away from this dark night, it’s a fear of intimacy–real intimacy, where nothing is hidden, whether it’s before one’s deity, one’s spouse, or one’s music.
“O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.
Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.
When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.
I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”(St. John of the Cross, Stanzas of the Soul, stanzas 5-8)