Ecstasy on the Run
We have just returned from our annual trek to the Shakespeare
Festival in Stratford, Ontario. This is our 38th year of choosing to
drive the nine hours north in order to expose ourselves to inevitable
moments of enchantments, moments which we can’t always predict, over
which we have no control, but that always overcome us in the theatrical
environment that is Stratford.
In 38 years of attendance (early on, we went up twice a summer), we have never been disappointed, and that’s saying a lot.
The Festival wisely mixes classical theatre (this year we saw MacBeth—the Scottish play—and Julius Caesar) with musicals (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and West Side Story) and other dramatic offerings (Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters).
I suppose it was during Cyrano,
with the superb stage actor Colm Feore taking the lead, directed by his
wife Donna Feore, and using a translation by Anthony Burgess (the
author of A Clockwork Orange)
that I began to think of sublimity. The author Rostand, of course, was
French, and when this play was produced in Paris at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin,
on the night of December 28, 1897, it swiftly took the world by storm.
Clayton Hamilton, who has written the “Introduction” in my husband’s
copy of the play states, “No other play in history, before or since,
has ever attained a popular success so instantaneous and so enormous.
Though I was only sixteen years old at the time, I can still remember
clearly the noise of that first news—heard all around the rolling
globe—that a young Frenchman, only twenty-nine years of age, whose
name, outside of Paris, nobody had ever heard before, had written the
most entrancing and contagious play that had ever yet been shown at any
time on any stage.”
In the Stratford play, because of its
Canadian audience and because Colm Feore is fluently bilingual (“Truly,
a national treasure!”, our bed-and-breakfast hostess informed us),
large portions of the script were in French. Since I love the sound of
the French language—even when I don’t understand it—and because I am
very familiar with the play, I am sure I was levitating about three
inches off my seat in a kind of heightened ecstasy at the pure
overwhelming beauty of it all. The elegantly choreographed swordfights.
The bravado of Cyrano. The lost love. The surrogate wooing with poetry
and passion. The sacrifice for another’s happiness. The humor and
I kept hearing myself think, Oh, joy! I can’t believe I get to hear those lines again:
Love, I love beyond/ Breath, beyond reason, beyond love’s own power/
Of loving! Your name is like a golden bell/ Hung in my heart; and when
I think of you,/ I tremble, and the bell swings and rings—/ Roxane!
Roxane! … along my veins, Roxane! …
be sure, at our breakfast discussion the next morning, one of the
theologians at our table made the point that the French interjects had
interrupted his concentration and made him feel as though he couldn’t
keep up with the meaning of the piece. Our hostess, who had been an
English teacher before retiring with her engineer husband to Stratford
(where they have been coming each summer since 1966) and buying this
bed-and-breakfast, which they named Breaking Bread,
offered a suggestion that perhaps my friend, the theologian, was like
her husband. When something puzzled him in his reading, she explained, he would stop
and figure it out. She, however, when faced with something puzzling
would press on, trusting that the meaning would come.
with this in mind, that not all people find sublimity in the same
moments, I struggled to define what was so sublime to me about this
Stratford’s 2009 Cyrano. The
sublimity was in the fact that everything had come together—the gifted
actors with the right director on the magnificent thrust stage of the
Festival Theatre highlighting the French language at appropriate points
in a magnificent English translation with a (mostly) appreciative
Mae-Wan Ho writes about attending Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute
for the first time: “The electrifying moment came when the Queen of the
Night launched into her aria. I sat bolt-upright on the edge of the
seat and must have held my breath for the entire duration. My heart
ached and tears welled up in my eyes. Her voice rang through me
everywhere as though I had dematerialized into an exquisitely sensitive
ethereal being that filled the auditorium. There was intense
excitement, but also something supremely joyful and serene. No words
can capture that charged moment but that I was in the presence of the
Nor are these moments only relegated to the arts.
One of the younger actresses, Sara Topham, whom we have enjoyed in a
variety of roles—Laura in The Glass Menagerie, Rosalind in As You Like It, this year as Gwendolyn Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest,
etc.—articulated to us in a small “meet-the-actors” session the
experience of her father, a scientist. He had been studying a page of
mathematics, and the numbers on the page seemed to take him nowhere.
Suddenly, daylight broke through the window above his desk and fell on
his open book. The numbers danced on the page, rearranged themselves,
and there was deep and understandable meaning. “My father,” said Ms.
Topham, “has been looking for that experience to happen again all his
Sublimity happens for me when all the circumstances
come together—a child, for instance, fresh from the bath, with sunlight
dancing on its smooth skin, a fresh towel and love and laughter.
Suddenly, we think, Oh, this is so beautiful! What have I done to deserve this loveliness?
Light breaks through the snowy grey of a morning over the Colorado
mountains. When you are having breakfast with a dear friend. A song hummed by a happy housewife floats out of the kitchen
as she prepares cornmeal muffins. A son runs with his dog to catch a
Frisbee, then tosses it again, and his body is so young and athletic and
the pet so adoring. And we think, Oh, thank God, to think that I have lived to observe, to be in this moment.
know we have reached a sublime event when we don’t want to be anywhere
else at any other time absorbed in any other activity with any other
We can’t contrive sublimity, we can only
receive it; we can only catch ecstasy on the run. Sara Topham talked to
us about the theatre moments when this comes. The acting craft has been
honed, the hard work has been done in rehearsals, the actors are ready,
the audience is hushed in expectancy. “Then suddenly, suddenly—” her
expressive eyes grew wide, her voice hushed—“the white dove descends.”
What a fitting description for the sublime—“the white dove descends.” (Whisper that to your own soul.)
know for me that sublimity makes itself known when I am in moments of
great beauty. Nor do I have the mental energy right now to Christianize
all the above except to remind myself that in the Eastern Orthodox
Church, God is Beauty. So I suppose sublimity with its accompanying
breathtaking ecstasy can be known in the collaborate brilliance of a
hard-working theatre company—perhaps this is the only way any of them
really experience God. “White dove descending” leans pretty close. I
suppose sublimity can be known as a team of surgeons and supporting
medicos salvage a life on the operating table, or when a butterfly
flitters to drink at the summer phlox. I suppose sublimity can be known
when the numbers rearrange themselves on the page or when the house is
finally clean and unusually quiet. When the first snow wraps a shawl
around the earth and a log falls into the ashes of the fireplace and we
nap in the contentment of warmth and shelter.
It is all beautiful to me; it is all of God.
haunts me, however, is the thought that there may be some people
incapable of recognizing these moments, people who never think, Thank God that I am here in this place at this time with these people.
Do we all have this capacity? Is it an acquired recognition? Is there a
capability in the brain that can be stretched and exercised?
Yes, that is Love—that wind
Of terrible and jealous beauty, blowing
Over me—that dark fire, that music …
Love seeketh not his own! Dear, you may take
My happiness to make you happier,
Even though you never know I gave it to you—
Only let me hear sometimes, all alone,
The distant laughter of your joy! …
How can we live in Heaven if we cannot live in heaven’s moments here on Earth?
Everything is in the planning stage here at Hungry Souls.
• We’re planning for the December Advent Retreat of Silence.
putting together a training manual for Retreat of Silence Leaders,
hoping to offer a regular schedule of 3-Day Retreats of Silence for
• The first African-made bags are in the
house, and another 320 are waiting to be shipped from Africa (so far
we’ve used “missionary mules”!)
We are making plans to sell 5000 bags in pre-Christmas sales!
The first DVD is ready and the Global Bag Project Web site will be up this month.
• Karen Mains is beginning to blog as part of the science of identity-building on the Internet. Her blog is: blog.karenmains.com.
• Karen is also building a writer-mentoring program, which will be offered on the Karen Mains Web site: www.KarenMains.com.
• We are gathering research material on Listening Groups in preparation to begin writing.
The Hungry Souls Web site is now current, and we have the staff in place to keep it up-to-date. Check www.HungrySouls.org for ministry information.
The Soulish Food e-mails are
posted biweekly on the Hungry Souls Web
site. Newcomers can look that over and decide if they want to
register on the Web site to receive the biweekly newsletter. You might
want to recommend this to friends also. They can go to www.HungrySouls.org.
"What a fitting description
for the sublime—
'the white dove descends.'
(Whisper that to
your own soul.)"
Cyrano de Bergerac
By Edmond Rostand
"Introduction" by Clayton Hamilton:
"No other play in history, before or since, has ever attained a popular
success so instantaneous and so enormous. Though I was only sixteen
years old at the time, I can still remember clearly the noise of that
first news—heard all around the rolling globe—that a young Frenchman,
only twenty-nine years of age, whose name, outside of Paris, nobody had
ever heard before, had written the most entrancing and contagious play
that had ever yet been shown at any time on any stage."
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