Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Theology listens to Barber's Adagio for Strings

I am thinking tonight about Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, trying to comprehend its power. Its melancholy suits it perfectly to provide evocative background in film, and indeed this is frequently where I hear it. Why does the piece resonate so deeply?

It seems to convey simultaneous sadness and beauty, rooted in the experience of something that can’t be let go but can’t be kept, something that harms us to know and hold because its loss is unpreventable. This is a quintessential human experience. The highest moment, the most tender embrace, the deepest love, the newest unfolding—each of these, by definition,  is expected without realization and if experienced soon lost. The candle of infinity always flickers out.

Yet for all this, we can’t resist the pull and call of this deep connection, whether it’s love, feeling, beauty—their combination in procreation or vocation—or some other basic need.

Theology holds that this deep yearning is a call of the divine, which is not necessarily to say ‘God.’ But, forsaking caution, let us name this call ‘God,’ and with it invite the realization that our lives are fragmented and momentary—brief and wondrous. That also suggests ‘God’ does not solve this dilemma for us, but is rather a melancholic way of stating its invitation to and claim upon us.

The temptation is surrender to inurement and willful distraction, a refusal to experience possibility as a means of preventing the sting of loss. The tragedy of this approach is that it ensures a deeper loss, since it denies the possibility of gain. It forsakes life itself.

The Adagio for Strings is a hearing, a prayer of gain and its loss, of the sad beauty of life. 

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