Befriending Dante: A Reflection on Readership

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Although I have always been bookish in about every sense of the word, I went through a “rebellious” phase in high school when my AP Literature class was required to read Dante’s Inferno. I was adamantly against it and now, as I reread it for the fourth or fifth time, I can explain away this opposition as perhaps being the fault of a poor translation. Possibly, it also had something to do with the fact that it Inferno not meant to be read in isolation; that popular engagement with Dante’s Divine Comedy begins and ends with hell may be telling of some morbid modern imagination or revealing of a concerning preference for darkness rather than light. Whatever the case, though, I scoffed at Dante without giving him a fair chance and declared that the whole of Inferno was not much more than a fanfiction in which he cast himself as the star. 

Although more nuanced now—having had the privilege of reading the Commedia under the Virgil-like guidance of a world-leading Dante scholar—my basic impression of Dante remains about the same. Laughing into my well-marked copy, I recall my first encounter with Inferno. Such an adorable young hypocrite I was! I belittled this great father of poets and—to think!—without Dante, my beloved Eliot would not have written!

As I mocked Dante for putting himself in a poem peopled with his favorite fictional and real-life heroes and villains, I was at the same time doing the same thing on a much humbler scale. You see, my first real attempt at a novel centers around a girl who is suspiciously similar to myself and who engages vividly in conversation with her favorite book characters: Scarlett O’Hara and Sherlock Holmes being among their eclectic ranks. As I wrote this long-since abandoned draft, I had to address the question which I now realize also occupied Dante: Why am I so compelled to document my own development in the context of people I know not only in life but through literature? 

Reading Dante’s Divine Comedy again, I’ve come up with a few hypotheses as to why this may be: First of all, loneliness. It’s no secret that we introverts often prefer the company of a good book and likely Dante was similar. He was, however, also an exile, reading and writing apart from the home he loved. His Commedia was not only a product of his imagination but of his isolation. In reading and writing, we enter a community no longer bound by time and space. Just as Virgil is able to leap from history to lead Dante on a narrative journey, people from history, myth, and fantasy hasten to meet us in the pages of books. If we are willing, we can still talk to them as though they are flesh and blood, though we must summon them with paper and ink.

Our loneliness finds relief in the company of books, even those of our own making. By engaging imaginatively with the characters I loved most, my novel draft allowed me to get to know them more intimately and to incorporate them into my own little imaginative circle. Through reading and writing, my sense of community expanded vertically throughout time and horizontally across cultures, worlds, and even dimensions. Similarly, Dante incorporates a diverse cast of characters to regain community, to situate himself solidly within his own Italian cultural and historical context, as well as to establish himself in the continuation of a poetic-philosophical tradition.

My second hypothesis is a continuation of this idea. As relational creatures, we come to know ourselves through our knowledge of and interaction with others. A prominent theological emphasis of Dante’s Commedia is that the truest self-knowledge is attained not through stubborn individuality, but in the mutual humility of community and faith. Through his conversations with various people along his journey, Dante becomes more self-aware, ultimately coming to perceive the Triune God as the divine epitome of self-love and self-knowledge. In growing in relation to others and maturing in his consideration of God, Dante himself is remade.

Similarly, readers often piece themselves together through books, stitching words and stories into patchwork personalities. My outlook on life is lovelier thanks to Anne Shirley, my wit sharper thanks to Elizabeth Bennet, and I like to think I’ve gained some gumption from Scarlett. Reading is an act of self-reflection, considering ourselves in comparison to the characters and writers we most admire. Best of all, the books—and, of course, the Book—which disclose something of our own Author lead us to a greater knowledge of our identity as human beings made in the Image of God.

Finally, it seems that reading (and in turn writing about what we read) serves as moral formation, shaping our desires and decisions. Dante encounters many sinners in hell who, through their own devices, get exactly what they wanted. They loved stories that reflected their own flawed desires and pursued these to the bitter end, continuing to desire those same lowly things in death so that these desires fittingly become their chosen punishments. This is a negative example of bad readership. Using books to reinforce or justify vice is a discredit to discernment, that incredible gift of intelligence.

In Purgatory, however, tales and pictures of virtue are presented, spurring penitent souls to better love and pursue all that is good and true and beautiful. Many good books feature fallen characters; in fact, there would be no narrative conflict were all characters and situations wholly good and perfect. However, if we read like the redeemed souls Dante encounters, we will learn from the good and the bad in books. Through discerning readership, we can engage the whole breadth and depth of human experience without leaving our nooks, honing our ambitions and hopes without the inconvenience of real-life consequences. The more excellence we glean from books, the more attuned to truth and goodness our minds and hearts will become. 

Rereading Dante now is supremely fitting. I know that I am not alone in being perhaps more lonely, more confused, and more in need of direction than ever. Dante, rather than providing an escape, has become a way of engaging my own isolation, wandering, and hope in faith and relationship. He has become a very dear literary friend—albeit a chatty one who I often wish would stop talking politics.

When Dante is lost and fearful in the first canto of Inferno, his favorite poet-philosopher appears to restore him to community and truth, and, through these, to himself. In the same way, rereading our own beloved authors might restore us to ourselves, just as talking to a close friend might bring us back to our senses. Engaging authors and characters-turned-companions provides company in loneliness, conviction amidst chaos, and, ultimately, a reminder of not only who we are but—if the books are good and true enough—who we are meant to be. 

I return now to the notes I took only a few weeks ago when I once more met Dante at the gates of Hell: Through literature, we form productive relationships with those who thought and imagined before us, as well as those who continue to think and imagine beside us. If we, like Dante, engage in humble and eager readership, perhaps we will—unlike my AP reading list—transcend beyond the filthy babbling of Hell and look toward the radiance of Heaven. Dante may begin his epic in pride, placing himself alongside the best poets and thinkers of history, but, throughout the Divine Comedy, he allows their wise words—and, indeed, their failings—to instruct as well as inspire him, to help him develop not merely as a poet-turned-protagonist but as a human being on the journey of virtue and faith.

This, my dearest reader, is the essence of readership itself: to develop together as human beings toward the best and truest communication, community, and—when readership couples with faith—communion. 

Two Poems for St. Andrew’s

When I moved to St. Andrew’s, Scotland to pursue my master’s degree, I was convinced that I would love that little town of stone and sea with my whole being. I was sure that falling in love with its historic ruins, its adorable streets, and its rain-purified air would be simple. Yet I found myself struggling to feel that the town loved me in return; I felt that it was too old and beautiful and historic to care much about insignificant little me and so I composed this lament in the darkness of its second winter:

Under your fast-burning, crystallised veil
I was convinced for a moment
That I was—
I am
—the only one you’ve ever loved.
But you sucked premature kisses
From my chapped lips
In cold plumes which vanished all-too-fast.
Ah. So you’ve been loved before.
All who came before and beside me
Have felt the same,
And you have been too-oft beloved
To love me alone
Unique.

And yet, one morning, the voice of the sea called me to the crumbling altar of the cathedral and forced me to my knees. In an instant, I fell into a long-sought love. In a sudden sunburst, St. Andrew’s sang its love to me in the dawning of a longed-for spring:

I followed a gentle roaring east
And, warmed by the first true morn in months,
I slowed my walk from its rushing stride
To the timid tread of a spring-time bride.

For this one moment,
Wind-rocked and still,
I felt the touch of an unseen warmth
And the strengthening sun
Burned bright my veil away…
And an untied shoelace brought me low
And made me a muddy homage pay.

 

Half Cadence

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Performing in the beautiful St. Salvator’s Chapel, St. Andrew’s

An audio recording of this article is available here:

As an accompanist, one of my favorite things to do when a rehearsal needs some comic relief is to begin a cadence but stop before the final chord. Hearing a dominant chord ringing without resolution drives my fellow musicians insane. I revel in this small rebellion.

Usually, though, I cannot handle the aural discomfort either, and I surrender to the tonic chord. Especially with the added suspense of the unresolved preparatory chord, it is lovely when every tone settles at last into consonance. It’s like a period at the end of a sentence, a bow on top of a present, a fitting simile at the conclusion of a quippy blog post.

Unfortunately, a lot of times life is like an unresolved cadence. The more entrenched in adult life I become, the more complicated the world seems. As an aspiring poet, I allowed myself to lament this in verse. However, I am also a pragmatic soul who recognizes that, while angsty poetry can be beautiful, existential crises can only go on for so long and don’t generally make things better. Eventually, we simply must lay aside our journals and return to our work and relationships, no matter how uncertain we may feel.

Several times before, I have drawn on the two constants in my life—faith and music—to make sense of my situation, and this is perhaps why an unresolved cadence became such a striking idea. Musical analogy often makes clear to me what otherwise seems overwhelmingly complex. Well, right now, I am living in an unresolved cadence.

I cannot rush ahead to the resolution as, this time, I am not the one in control of the keys. Still, as dissonance strains toward resolution, I, too, must move forward in anticipation. Although many things are uncertain, I can sound out possibilities as I continue to work, pray, and hope toward my next steps.

I remember, too, the reality that there will always be tensions and unfinished cadences. Indeed, all of life—and especially the Christian life—is lived in the rest between chords and in the expectation of a final, perfect, triumphant cadence. For now, I suppose, just realizing that I am in a time of not-yet resolved tension is enough to sustain me.

Now, how about some poetry?

I rest in preparation of the final chord,
In the echo of a tonic held within—
Unresolved, hearing not what I strain toward,
Riding inverted waves again, again, again. . .

I rest in the plague of an unsung Amen,
A half-writ chorale lacking its last word.
Unsure of the tune, I struggle through the hymn,
Hoping against harmony for a radiant risen third.

I rest in a cadence not yet concluded,
Awaiting consonance beyond my skill,
Unhearing, all my practiced art denuded,
Trusting deafly to my own Composer’s will.

I rest in accented anticipation:
Untempered dissonance awaiting revelation.

Which Question are You? On the Art of Asking

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It’s no accident that one of Instagram’s most popular features enables followers to ask questions of each other. Everyone loves being asked about themselves, not necessarily out of pride, but because, as human beings made for community, we naturally feel most supported when others express an active interest in our lives. Practicing the art of asking—in addition to truly active and empathetic listening—may become a powerful way to develop this interpersonal curiosity through conversation.

What. When. Where. How. Why. Who.

It seems that there are two key groups of questions, the first being the details: what, when, and where.

And the second group being the development: how, who, and why.

I have been trying to ask more questions in general, but it recently occurred to me that it’s not always about asking more questions or even about asking better questions, but about asking the right kinds of questions.

I feel best known, for instance, when people ask what I am working on, what I like to do in my free time, what I hope for in the next year. And I feel most valued when people seem genuinely interested and appreciative of what I do. Likewise, I tend to ask people what they are working on and am more prone to ask about people’s projects and careers than their feelings, though I am doing my best to grow in this area.

Similarly, I also tend to ask when and where because, being a planner and something of a perfectionist, I like to know what to expect and how to best be prepared. As a result, I often ask people where they like to study and when I can expect to see them again; for me, these questions are about forming a solid plan to facilitate future meetings and foster companionship.

Rather than simply recognizing my preferred questions and forcing other people to cater to my personality, though, I hope to use this realization to better engage with others in dialogue and relationship. Recognizing that someone I love is more of a “who/why” questioner will help me ask better questions about his/her relationships, motivators, and goals, ultimately deepening our communication and understanding.

Again, this is not a comprehensive theory by any means, nor will I create a catchy quiz to help you all sort out new identities based on the 5 Ws and 1 H (there are too many competing numbers and letter combinations out there already anyway). I do think, though, that the following may prove helpful to those of you who, like me, find yourself struggling to know what to say—or better, what to ask.

Questions and Tendencies:

What: From my personal experience, people who ask what-based questions tend to be focused, task-oriented, and pragmatic. They want the facts and checklists and step-by-step plans for success. However, these people are likely to also be highly-conceptual, potentially more interested in understanding theories and projects than relationships or emotions. To encourage these individuals, consider asking about their current pet projects, and offering positive comments about their work.

Where/When: I’ve grouped these together as they are both centered on planning and preparation. Again, from my experience, these askers are often regimented individuals who value foresight and preparation. Alternately, these individuals may be prone to worry; asking about time and place may be a way of creating a less-anxious future. Continually asking where or when-based questions may be a way of easing the stress of scheduling, securing quality time in relationships, and/or voicing expectations.

Who: I love people who ask who-based questions because they inspire me in their care for others. These askers are likely very caring and relational, even asking about the friends of friends of friends in an effort to get to know someone through their social circle. They will likely want others to show the same care for their community and appreciate it when others check in on their loved ones as well. These individuals thrive on questions that foster deeper companionship and a broader sense of community.

How: There are two types of “how” questions: emotional and technical. Those who ask “How are you?” and follow up with specific inquiries about a person’s wellbeing are demonstrating a more emotionally-aware version of how-based questions. More akin to when/where/what askers are those who ask “How?” in order to gain practical insight into the method by which something is accomplished. Both versions, however, can evidence an intrinsic curiosity and desire for deeper knowledge which I admire. (Interestingly, “knowledge” itself carries a similar dual nature as we can know about a person or thing, or genuinely seek to know a person or thing.) Askers of both types will appreciate reciprocated curiosity and active listening.

Why: More than once, I’ve been frustrated by someone daring to ask me “Why?” because this question cuts to the heart of the others. Those who are careless with it may come across as cynics, while those who never ask it may lack discernment. Those who ask why-based questions often are value-driven, desiring to act in accordance with their well-considered ideals. Asking why-based questions of another person can either express interest in or challenge their fundamental motivations, so it must be approached with sensitivity. However, this may render “Why?” the most telling question of all, and those who ask it tactfully may learn a great deal about others and themselves.

So, what do you think of this idea? Or, maybe, who do you think of when reading this? Or, where/when do you see this being applicable in your life? How do you think this little thought-project may be helpful?

For once, the “Why?” of the matter is simple. Why write or read or share this article? Why consider the different ways in which we ask questions?

Why? Because, I hope, we desire to be better equipped to communicate effectively, care personally, and connect meaningfully, and asking the right kind of questions might just be a good way to start. We might practice leaning into the questions that we naturally ask well—with good questions leading to more, deeper questions—as well as broaden our curiosity to encompass the full range of asking.

Rejoicing in Repetition

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“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:13

My current favorite song—“Shape of Love” by Passenger—keeps popping up in my Spotify playlists and I never skip it. Its opening chords make me smile no matter how many times it has played today already. Similarly, as I said in a previous post, I eat the same breakfast every day and have not yet grown entirely tired of porridge.

Often I run the same trail, and my legs rejoice at cresting its hill, no matter how many times I have done it before. Likewise, I have been known to pick a favorite café and show up every day in pursuit of a honey oat latte. (If you are ever in Gilbert, AZ, do visit Mythical Coffee, or Enchanted Coffee Bar in La Mirada, CA.)

And yet, while there are these things which I seem never to tire of, I am perpetually restless in my devotional life. From flipping open my Bible at random to reading straight through without really taking in its words, I am guilty of every single sin of inattention. For a theology student, this is an area of weakness, but for a Christian, this is critical. It should be deeply concerning to any Christian who grows bored in his or her engagement with the Word since it is that very Word which promises eternity. Yet, even knowing this, I never fail to fall behind in those “read through the Bible in a year” plans, and my hodgepodge hoping-the-right-passage-will-fall-open-in-my-lap plan is even less effective at holding my focus.

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

– 1 Thessalonians 2:13

For two summers as an undergraduate student, I did a study abroad trip in Cambridge, England, and was required to read the books of Ephesians and Colossians, respectively, every day for three weeks. This immersion method sounded tedious at first, but after only a few days, my natural craving for regularity kicked in and I found myself delighting in the Scriptures in a way I had been missing for years. Soon, I was memorizing passages without meaning to, finding new insights with each reading, and even discovering the value of comparing various translations and reading the books themselves in different orders.

Recently, however, I went through another Scriptural-drought. In bored surrender, I decided that I would just reread 1 Thessalonians every day, as well as pray my way through the great Puritan Prayer Book, The Valley of Vision. And, while the repetition at first seemed as bland as having my morning porridge without heaping spoonfuls of honey, I am slowly realizing the truth of the Psalms:

“How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.”

-Psalm 119:103-104

Not only am I finding that I crave the sweet familiarity of the Word with each new day, but I am also rediscovering its nourishment. Each rereading, beyond merely bringing delight, grants new understanding which then develops into practical application, just as the Psalm proclaims.

Savoring a tenth rereading of Thessalonians this morning, I wondered why more believers do not practice this method and, indeed, why I was so initially resistant. I am now reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s words:

“Children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged . . . grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

– Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland”

We are told by Christ that we must become like the little children to inherit the kingdom of heaven (Luke 18:17). Perhaps we must repossess that childlike love for repetition without boredom in order to truly inherit the Word as well. Indeed, Chesterton attributes this virtue of children—to delight in apparent monotony—to their “fierce and free” spirit. Even and especially as grown-up Christians, however—as little children adopted by God through Christ Jesus—we ought to live in this Spirit of such ferocity and freedom, such strength and grace.

Indeed, this is the maturity of believers, that we experience afresh the joy and confidence of children, all while growing deeper and truer in our faith and understanding. We cannot grow in these without Scripture, and so, just as the sun insists on rising each day, we must steadfastly return to our morning routines—our daily porridge and honey lattes—and to our regular re-immersion in the Word, one book, over-and-over, at a time, all the while learning to pray:

“Form my heart according to the Word,
according to the image of thy Son,
So shall Christ the Word, and his Word,
be my strength and comfort.”

The Valley of Vision, “Christ the Word”

 

Question and Answer: Anticipating Christ in the Book of Job

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In rereading the Book of Job, I once more find it both wonderful and troubling. Job is, at its core, a terrifying book: a man is selected for the worst trials imaginable (loss of family, livelihood, and health) not because he is wicked but, indeed, because he is faithful.

The Book of Job is, in this sense, a 40-chapter refutation of “prosperity preaching.” However unfair this seems, it reveals the justice of God; as supreme in goodness and the Creator of all, even apparently righteous men are unworthy of His favor. In recognizing this, Job reveals the true source of his righteousness as his faith in a Redeemer and Mediator.

Before declaring this faith, though, Job first presents a case in his own defense. It is important to note that, while Job does question God, he never curses Him. To engage authentically in prayer and lamentation is a marvelous privilege of God’s people and, throughout, Job seeks to “speak to the Almighty” and to “argue [his] case with God.” (13:3). While God does respond to Job’s cries, the ultimate answer to his charges and the resolution of his suffering is ultimately found in the Incarnation of Christ. If Job is an agonizing question regarding God’s justice, Jesus is the final answer proving God’s grace. 

In the ninth chapter, Job laments that due to God’s infinite perfection and power, not even the righteous can justly stand before Him and, in the tenth chapter, Job asks the following of God:

“Does it seem good to you to oppress
to despise the work of your hands
and favor the designs of the wicked?
Have you eyes of flesh?
Do you see as man sees?
Are your days as the days of man,
or your years as a man’s years,
that you seek out my iniquity
and search for my sin,
although you know that I am not guilty,
and there is none to deliver out of your hand?
Your hands fashioned and made me,
and now you have destroyed me altogether.”

– Job 10:3-8

Job asks what anyone would in such a situation: How can you—You who are immortal, and all-powerful—understand what it is to be human? To suffer? To submit to the will of another? And yet, while God does not directly answer these questions in this book, He responds conclusively in His Word become Flesh: the Incarnation of Christ.

Job continues on to describe the care with which God brought him into being, which seems contradictory to his current suffering:

“You clothed me with skin and flesh,
and knit me together with bones and sinews.
You have granted me life and steadfast love,
and your care has preserved my spirit.”

– Job 10:11-13

This parallels Psalm 139, in which David writes of the Lord’s constant care from the moment of his conception and both Job and David declare this a mystery “too wonderful” to truly comprehend, although both also question God in lamentation. These descriptions of God’s personal care for His creations also foreshadow the incarnation, in which Christ—the fullness of God knit together with human flesh—is miraculously conceived of the Virgin Mary. Like Job and David and every other human being, Jesus is clothed in skin, flesh, and bones. When Job asks, then, whether God has “eyes of flesh,” the initial answer is that God, as the creator of flesh, has proper authority over it. However, Job’s question foreshadows and is fulfilled in the Son of God made flesh: human eyes born of divine sight. 

Job does not stop there, though, but further qualifies his question, asking whether God’s time is as that of man. This, too, receives the answer of the Creator, who reminds Job that He created the days of man and holds them under His proper power. Again, the Psalms provide further insight:

“For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.”

-Psalm 90:4

In short, then, the eternal God is beyond the temporality to which mankind is subject. However, the Incarnation serves again as the consolation and answer to this cry. Christ’s life on earth marks the intersection not only of divinity and humanity but of eternity and temporality. Luke writes in the second chapter of his account that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” In this, we find that the Gospels not only proclaim Christ’s birth but mark his growth according to normal human physicality and aging. In being born, Christ consents to live according to human time, including its mundanity, growth, suffering, and—ultimately—its end.

Continuing to contemplate death, Job laments in the fifteenth chapter, “If a man dies, shall he live again?” Now, this appears to be a rhetorical question and its answer is obvious to Job; nobody who dies lives again. And yet, a completely opposite answer is also obvious to those of us living today: Jesus Christ, who suffered, died, was buried, and yet rose again on the third day. More so, Christ’s followers are promised future resurrection as well. Although Job is caught in a seemingly hopeless situation and has not yet been provided the full answer to his suffering—the Incarnation of Christ—he yet anticipates this resolution by faith:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shal see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!”

– Job 19:25-27

Job knows and hopes in a Redeemer who has yet to be born on earth and yet is the Word that spoke from the beginning. Job, crying and questioning from the depths of his suffering, yet looks toward the redemption and resurrection that will ultimately be realized in Christ.

When God speaks in the later chapters, He responds in questions that parallel those posited by Job. When Job asks how God can empathize with man, God demands that Job rightly express what it is to be God.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—
surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

-Job 38:4-7

Of course, in the face of such enormous questions of authority, Job can do nothing but declare God’s supremity as Creator and his own lowliness as creature. However, Job looks in hope toward a “witness in heaven” who “testifies for [him] on hight.” (16:19). Again, we find glimmers of anticipation, of hope in an intercessor who will speak for both man and God. We find then, that both Job’s questions of God and God’s questions of Job are answered and fulfilled definitively in Christ the Mediator.

Even these apparently rhetorical questions find their solution in the person of Jesus Christ. Only Christ, the Son of God, can answer that He was not only there with God in the beginning, but He was the Word that sang the stars into being. Indeed, He is the Morning Star and Cornerstone Himself, the Mediator through whom all that is made was made. Christ can truthfully answer that He not only took on flesh and endured the hardships of time and suffering but that He was and is and will ever be, for He is One with the Creator.

“But he knows the way I take;
when he has tried me,
I shall come out as gold.”

– Job 23:10

A Lesson in Time

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I posed for this picture without really putting much thought into the words on the wall. Right now, I am where I want to be: at home, writing in my favorite spot with snickerdoodles in the oven. At the same time, though, I am still caught in the in-between. This weekend, I will visit a dear person and place in California. Two days later, I’ll return home to Arizona for a day. Then, I’ll turn right back around and fly to the UK for another semester. I am everywhere and nowhere, yet the words “You are right where you are supposed to be” ring true in my ears. 

“How can this discontent in-between be where I am supposed to be?” I wondered (not for the first time) as I sat down at the piano this evening. I struck the opening chords of Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60, and let muscle memory take over. As I played this familiar piece, I found myself struggling as always with timing; despite grueling hours with a metronome, I still slow down in the bits I really love and skim over the more treacherous passages.

My life (as is so often the case) parallels my musical practice. Before returning to the United States for Christmas, I remember praying that my month at home would feel at least as long as my grueling month of final papers and exams. I hoped so desperately that the unpleasant days before my departure would speed by and that my equal time at home would somehow slow down. Yet, predictably, my final month of the semester felt like an eternity and now—although I feel like I’ve barely touched down—I am preparing to leave once more. Try as I might, I cannot alter time.

Similarly, a superficial manipulation of speed does not improve the music I produce. While it might allow me to linger in lovely passages and rush through nasty technical bits, my inability to keep time destroys the beauty of balance. In his Barcarolle, Chopin writes gorgeous lines that my hasty fingers destroy in their race to the finish. He also includes glorious melodies that my romantic soul savors in excess. Unchecked, I easily make a lopsided, sentimental mess of one of the greatest works of piano literature.

The mantra that “music is in the silence between the notes” is attributed to Mozart, Debussy, and Miles Davis. While its origins might be murky, the quote itself—much like the literal writing on the wall in my photograph—rings true. Without the proper placement of sound and silence, there can only randomness and noise. Music, then, is made by ordering these contrasting elements within time.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
– Ecclesiastes 3:1

Music, like earthly life, is a temporal art. Both are worked out and made beautiful in time. Although I grew to despise the metronome that revealed my faulty counting, it taught me to work through difficult passages and to not cling to smooth phrases beyond their allotted pages. Whether playing an exquisite harmony or a grating dissonance, I was right where I needed to be within the piece and in time. Only by realizing that time is the basis for musical movement and beauty could I begin to submit to the metronome, the composer’s writing, and—ultimately—to the proper engagement of sound and silence, dissonance and harmony, ease and struggle.

In the same way, though I resent the travel schedule that hastens my departure from home, I am thankful, for it is one of the beams that measure my days. In the dissonance of not only being in my early twenties but also moving between continents, I too-often fear that I am not where I am supposed to be. However, while the place may not always be ideal, the timing is perfect.

“O LORD, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!”
– Psalm 39:4 (ESV)

As in a well-composed piece of music, I may struggle with technique or indulge in romanticism, but I cannot skip ahead or return to before. Instead, the order and beauty of the music depend upon recognizing that the present is always moving yet always where it is meant to be in time. In this musical, mysterious way, I am always exactly where I am supposed to be.