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Issue 8-10

Chasing Sublimity:
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 finesse.

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!

To 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.

So 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 audience.

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 sublime.”

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 life!”

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.

We 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 people.

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.)

I 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.

What 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?

Karen Mains


Everything is in the planning stage here at Hungry Souls.

•  We’re planning for the December Advent Retreat of Silence.

•  We’re putting together a training manual for Retreat of Silence Leaders, hoping to offer a regular schedule of 3-Day Retreats of Silence for 2010.

•  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:

•  Karen is also building a writer-mentoring program, which will be offered on the Karen Mains Web site:

•  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 for ministry information.


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Karen Mains

Karen Mains

"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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