The girl in all these pictures is my oldest daughter, Sophie, soon to be fifteen. She dances at a school in suburban Pittsburgh, and this weekend the school performed the ballet, "Beauty and the Beast." Sophie was in the corps and danced several technically difficult parts.
Ballet seems to be filled with contradictions: the delicacy of each gesture and the raw athleticism required to pull it off; the absolute precision and the tremendous abandon that infuses each movement with life; the unity of the dancers who seem to breathe as one and the sense of fierce backstage competition that threatens to destroy any chance at harmony.
I still remember how astonished I was, the day Sophie was born, to recognize that my body had done something so elemental and miraculous. Now, looking at my children, I am awestruck when I think of their bodies, and how they began in my body.
When I first started taking my children to ballet lessons, I had no idea that all four of them would fall in love with some form of dance. The idea was to give them a little exercise and exposure to the arts. We tried many other things, as well, but nothing else has piqued their enthusiasm the way that dance does.
Sometimes it seems so frustrating to have to go about in a body, trapped in time. The older I get, the less sense I can make of the Incarnation. Why, when Christ could have remained forever in unspoiled eternity, would he consent to the confining restrictions of time and physicality? Watching my daughters dance, I can think about their developing mastery in two different ways -- it is both a glimpse, a tiny taste, of the freedom of eternity, and it is a sign of the gift that living in a body can be.
Ballet, like every other discipline, inspires a dancer to strive for improvement. For this reason, it is a parable of the religious life, in which we are all pilgrims. It also contains spiritual and emotional pitfalls, temptations, and pain. Sooner or later, every ballerina has to ask herself the question, "Why do I dance?" Finding an adequate reason to continue to endure exhausting rehearsals, humiliating mistakes, injured feet, and uncooperative dance partners becomes a most pressing need. What is fascinating to me is that most of the motives for dancing are not, at least consciously, centered on totality and one's relationship to all of reality. Many young dancers, including the very talented ones, press on out of vanity, or jealousy, or inertia. Many persevere for the pleasure that dancing gives them.
Something happens to all the dance students when they work with particular teachers, though. They come alive, they seem impelled to leap higher, hold their hands with more grace. These particular instructors are present, giving their whole attention to their pupils. They work cheerfully, giving extra time to small details -- sewing costumes until late at night, opening the studio for extra practices, so that the dancers can shine, painting backdrops, giving up weekends to watch their students perform. This behavior resembles the sacrifice that Christianity calls us to, but these teachers are not necessarily Christians, and their crabby counterparts are not necessarily not Christians.
How can it be that some persons, without following Christ in any conscious way, live with more intensity and attention than others, who are up to their ears in devotions and other religious practices? When I ask them why they are so dedicated to their students, they answer with assurance: "Love." And it is clear from the evidence, that they do indeed love their students. Where does this love come from and how do they keep its flame alive?
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Dumbstruck by the Mystery
...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."