Lorca and the Monk
“Be goodly therefore: dress ye all in fine apparel; eat rich foods and drink sweet wines and wines that foam! Also, take your fill of love as ye will, when, where, and with whom ye will! But always unto me.”
—The Book of the Law
This painting is about an incident that occurred in 1917 between the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and a monk at the Benedictine monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos. In his biography of Lorca, Ian Gibson describes the poet’s visit to the abbey –
“Among the various bizarre personages living in the abbey was a monk who had entered the order in middle age to atone, it was hinted darkly, for a particularly disordered life. One afternoon, tired of the Gregorian chant for which the monastery is renowned, Federico climbed up to the organ and began to play the opening bars of the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Hardly had he begun when the monk in question burst in, ‘Don’t stop! Don’t stop!’ he begged. But Lorca could only remember a little more, and the instrument fell silent. The monk, as if in a trance, was staring into the far distance with eyes that expressed, wrote the poet, ‘all the bitterness of a spirit which had just awakened out of a fictitious dream’. Later, once he had regained his calm, the unfortunate man explained all: he had been a passionate lover of music, and, fearing that such an attachment was having a deleterious effect on his spiritual life, had decided to renounce it forever. And where better than at Silos, with its Spartan plainsong, to escape from the allure of the goddess? But now this young musician from Granada had unwittingly reminded him of all that he had renounced!”
Lorca at this time had already concluded that the monastic life represented the rejection of God’s gifts of life and pleasure. He was at the beginning of a lifelong struggle with the Church which was often misunderstood as a rejection of the Church. Lorca was, at heart, a Catholic poet – his relationship with the faith was ambiguous, but never scornful. On the side of the frame of this painting I have inscribed the words of one of his poems:
ENCUENTRO ENCOUNTER Ni tu ni yo estamos Neither you nor I are en disposicion ready de encontrarnos. to find one another. Tu...por lo que ya sabes. You....for reasons you know. Yo la he querido tanto! I loved her so much! Sigue esa veredita. Follow that narrow path. En las manos In my hands tengo los agujeros I’ve got holes de los clavos. from the nails. No ves como me estoy Can’t you see how desangrando? I’m bleeding to death? No mires nunca atras, Never glance back, vete despacio continue on slowly Y reza como yo and pray the way I do, a San Cayetano, to San Cayetano, que ni tu ni yo estamos for neither you nor I are en disposicion ready de encontrarnos. to find one another.
Lorca never stopped grappling with his understanding of Christianity. The struggle of the other man in this painting is a different one: the sudden loss of faith. The monk in question has experienced a life-changing revelation – a moment as profound as any on the road to Damascus. In religious art, the Damascus theme is repeated in a thousand varieties – the sudden vision of “the Light” – the overwhelming presence of God, the Annunciation, the Angel staying the hand of Abraham, the moment when doubt vanishes and the path becomes clear. In Scripture, God is rarely quiet. He has a comment about everything. In life, however, which is more common — the divine revelation, or the loss of faith? How often are desperate prayers answered with silence? Does any grieving person ever receive an answer to their “Why?” There is a dizzy feeling that most people will know at some point – emerging from a dark funeral parlor into a bright sunny day and seeing how the world goes about its business, unconcerned. The earth still turns on its axis, clouds drift, birds sing, and one person’s loss seems to mean nothing. Does this prove a Divine plan, or does it prove Chaos?
The monk in this painting built his faith on a common mistake – his life was “disordered” and he was very attached to music and sensual pleasure – therefore he must sever his attachment to the sensual world in order to atone. What he doesn’t seem to consider is that there is nothing inherently wrong with earthly pleasure. There is nothing evil in sex, but it is a powerful force, and a person who is predatory or cruel in nature is likely to have a very destructive sexuality. There is nothing innately wicked in drunkenness, but a person who has a secret cache of hatred and bitterness in his heart would be wise to exorcize those demons before risking the truth serum of alcohol. There is certainly nothing evil in music. This monk’s problems likely lay in his own selfish heart, and rather than change his heart, he renounced the world’s gifts and shut himself up in a monastery, believing that in abandoning earthly attachments, he gained virtue. And now he has to start all over again...
1Quoted from “Federico Garcia Lorca – A Life” by Ian Gibson, copyright 1997 Random House
2The Spanish word for “nails” is closely related to the Latin root “clavis” – this ties in with the ideas of “keys” that lie behind much of my work. ( This is explained later on in Part 3)
3From “Poem of the Deep Song – Poema del Cante Jondo” by Federico Garcia Lorca, translated by Carl Bauer, copyright 1931, 1987 by City Lights Books
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