Handel's "Messiah," the "Didache," Architecture and Visual Art

An Interdiciplinary Life

Over the past few years, the Department of Catholic Studies has sponsored a December visit to Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis for a performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” For several of these excursions, I prepared the group beforehand by talking about some of the elements of Handel’s compositional techniques that might enrich their experience of the music. Perhaps it’s because I’m a composer myself that I think I understand “connaturally” (as Aquinas would say) some of Handel’s strategies in setting the scriptural anthology that forms “Messiah’s” libretto. Hundreds of years separate the two of us and the sonic opportunities available to me are vastly expanded in comparison with those available to Handel, yet I feel a real kinship with this German soundsmith.

These insights struck me as I thought about how my personal creative endeavors and academic research mesh with my role as a professor of Catholic Studies. Although I hold a doctorate in liturgical studies, my interests are not confined to that fascinating field. My undergraduate background in English, combined with my study of the biblical languages in preparation for ordination and modern European languages during my doctoral studies, has made me attentive to the power of language to express truth, evoke emotion and delight the heart.

This explains why I rejoice in the interdisciplinary character of Catholic Studies and feel that I have found an intellectual and creative home in the department. I try to teach my courses as explorations in the humanities, showing connections between developments in thought, natural and social sciences, and history with parallel expressions in literature and the fine and performing arts. For example, in my course, Paths and Practices of Catholic Spirituality, my students and I work to discover how Christian revelation and grace encounter the trajectories of the human spirit in forging creative individual and communal behaviors in various cultural settings and eras. Thus, we can hold together the prayers marking Christian table fellowship in the “Didache” with the hymns of the “Odes of Solomon,” the art in the cubiculum of the Veiled Lady in the catacomb of Priscilla with the visionary texts of the “Shepherd” of Hermas, all as expressions of Catholic Christian faith in the post-apostolic period. Exploring these different artworks situates me in the centuries-long Catholic tradition, stimulates my emotions as I discover resonances between past spiritual experience and my own, and seizes me with unexpected delight.

This may help to explain why I’m also involved in such activities as offering a class on the architecture of Assumption Church in downtown St. Paul, offering a senior citizens’ course on the great mysteries in visual art, writing an article on American Catholic hymnody since the mid-19th century and working on a revision of the U.S. bishops’ document on preach- ing, “Fulfilled in Your Hearing.” What might strike others as scattered or incoherent in my creative and academic life, I actually find deeply Catholic: With childlike wonder and some intellectual sophistication, I get to play in the fields of the Lord.

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