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Report 1988: Yes, Zig Has Written About our Bavaria Trip!

By Zig and Georgia from Kentucky, Spring 2010

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Page 11 of 30: Sunday May 23 - Pentecost in Salzburg

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beautiful Salzburg

We woke up early. I get ready quickly in the morning and decided to head over to the Cathedral for the 8:30 Mass while Georgia took her time getting ready. I wasn’t planning on receiving communion at this Mass but wanted to see the church before the crowd arrived at 10am. At that service there was to be a Haydn high Mass with the organ Mozart played on, a full orchestra, chorus, and soloists. I expected that there would be a crowd. For this earlier service there were maybe 100-150 people. But the interior of the Cathedral was so huge we rattled around like B-Bs in a box car.

About halfway through the first reading one fairly well dressed young man in a brown coat, nice hat, and a neatly trimmed beard strolled down the center aisle looking around as though he were a tourist. He carried one of those large beer bottles they sell in Salzburg. Every few steps he would stop and take a healthy pull on it, then stroll on. Eventually he reached the altar, where he stood, swaying slightly and staring at the Priest reading the gospel. I was close enough that I could hear him mutter under his breath. It was very disquieting, and all eyes of course were riveted on him.

The well-dressed young man cradled the huge bottle of beer in the crook of his arm like an amber-colored baby, and no baby ever received more solicitous attention from its devoted parent. I don’t believe there was any homily at all. The young man staggered over to the first pew and sat down heavily. The collection was taken up, and I noticed that the usher pointedly did not ask him for a donation. That seemed to be a mistake. The poor should not be automatically discounted though I’m not really sure that this young man was poor - at least in any monetary sense. His clothes looked expensive, and his beard was neatly trimmed. His poverty seemed to be of a different sort.

It reminded me of the early church when the doorman, or porter, was an instituted office, like an acolyte. The church then, as now, was often the object of scorn and abuse and the porter was there to keep people out who meant the church harm. If you were not recognized as a member you had to be accompanied by a sponsor. Otherwise you were not admitted. I wondered if this man would have a sponsor.

He got up during the Eucharistic prayer and started wandering around the church. Sometimes I just know that I am going to have to do something I really don’t want to do. I keep hoping that circumstances will intervene but they never do. This was one of those times. And the impulse seemed particularly ridiculous: he was drunk; I spoke no German; and the message I had for him that God had created him to be so much more than a drunk would be completely unintelligible.

But wouldn’t you know it, he walked right through the pew behind me at the very moment the priest invited us to “offer each other some sign of peace.” Sigh. Sometimes God’s instructions are really not very subtle. People say they don’t know what God wants them to do. I’ve not really found that to be a problem in my case. My problem has always been having the nerve to do what I know he wants me to do. We all want to be called to some large important purpose - curing cancer, producing world peace - something like that. But I keep being given such small tasks, like offering the sign of peace to a drunken young man obviously both attracted to, and repulsed by the Church. His longing for transcendence was palpable to me.

I got up and walked over to where he was looking at an amazing painting hung on one of the cathedral pillars at the end of my pew. He was bleary eyed and staring; rocking slightly to keep his balance. I touched his shoulder and he turned his head very slowly to keep from falling down. I had my hand outstretched and said “Peace.” I don’t even know the German word for “peace.” He stared at my hand without comprehension. He sort of leaned back against the pillar, still cradling his liquid baby against his chest. His breath was terrible, so terrible in fact that it momentarily disconcerted me. But I kept my hand outstretched. “Peace,” I repeated. He smiled the most beatific smile I’ve ever seen outside a Fra Angelico painting, and took my hand. “Peace,” he said. He was quite short, perhaps 5’ 8” or so, and very thin. I’m sure he would have been extraordinarily handsome if sober. His hand was tiny, like a child’s hand really, and I did feel peace.

And then began the “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi; miserere nobis” Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world; have mercy on us. Then we make the heart-breakingly beautiful admission: “I am not worthy to receive you; only say the word and I shall be healed,” and shuffled forward. I saw him get in line and I wondered what would happen when he reached the priest. But he disappeared. There’s just no other word for it. One moment I saw him and the next moment he was gone. I can’t help it, I instantly thought of the angels that God sends from time to time as his personal messenger and I got chill bumps. I wish I could say that he stayed disappeared like the child who asked St Christopher for a ride on his back across the swollen river, but my “child” reappeared in a few moments off to the side silently scanning the proceedings and swaying drunkenly.

I lost track of him completely after Mass as I hurried to gather Georgia before the concert that was to take place at 10am. People were already picking out the choice seats for Hayden’s Oratorio. When we returned about 20 minutes before Mass the nave was already half full, and people were just streaming in. We found good seats just in front of one of the main pillars. The Archbishop of Salzburg, who is also a cardinal, would preside. In the procession he was preceded by one of the city officials carrying the mace of office and dressed in formal medieval garb. He was attended by two young con-celebrating priests, a gray-bearded deacon carrying the gospel, and five grown instituted acolytes, one of whom seemed to be a large dwarf.

Things went fine through the introduction. The music was stunning and echoed and re-echoed in that vast sound chamber. The archbishop had a resonant voice, even though he was obviously suffering from a cold. The deacon spoke in a rich and powerful baritone and led the archbishop skillfully through the choreography with subtle nods and hand gestures. He was obviously also the Master of Ceremonies.

And then my drunk returned, this time with reinforcements. A tall young man, dressed all in black, leaned insolently against the pillar behind me, while my drunk led a terribly thin and sickly young companion down to the altar rail muttering soto voce during the readings. One of the acolytes hurried down and spoke sharply to him. A whispered argument broke out, and the acolyte hurried away to secure his own reinforcements from the sacristy. A worried-looking, slightly puffy usher appeared in a security uniform. He looked none-too-happy about confronting a fit young drunk with a large brown beer bottle right in the center aisle - not ten feet from the altar rail - but he did his duty and the argument became slightly more forceful. More muttering than whispering, but no pushing or hitting. Somehow the usher ended up with the beer bottle and carried it to the sacristy. Without his mace of office, my drunk seemed to lose confidence and wandered stage left to where his very sickly friend seemed embarrassed by the entire drama. Perhaps “farce” is a better word. Though all during these petty squabbles over beer bottles and precedence the music of Haydn soared like an angel.

I saw these two leave as the homily began. “That’s that,” I thought, but I’d forgotten the man in black - a wild-haired young drunk lounging against the pillar. He began a counter point of “hmmphs,” and “pffts,” and muttered retorts to the archbishop’s homiletic points. People all around us shushed the young man. Others turned to glare. This, of course, just excited and emboldened him, and his asides aimed at his detractors just got louder and louder. I was afraid that the puffy usher was going to be called again. This young man, however, didn’t seem to be carrying any bottle providing a power source that could be easily unplugged. He obviously had an internal combustion engine.

Then the homily ended and the credo began. That amazing statement of faith written in the year 325 at the council of Nicea. And glorious Haydn put it all to music. It soared and swelled and the multitude of disappointments and anger and jealousy and shortcomings melted away. I heard the young man mutter a few more times but it was hopeless. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” the poet says. I don’t know whether or not his breast was soothed, but the muttering certainly died down. Music this glorious just swept up all our mutterings and whimperings and sighs and wove them into a tapestry of faith: God made us, and loves us so much that he sent his only Son to redeem us when we nearly destroyed ourselves with that self-inflicted wound called “sin.”

As the last echoes of the music died out and I saw that the angry young men had gone, the rest of us knelt and prayed to become more like that God who humbled himself to be born of woman, made his living as a carpenter, and hung out with angry young men in bars. I wish I could have overheard the conversations they had.

After Mass we went to the cathedral museum. At the top of the stairs we were immediately struck by two glories: an enormous piece of stained glass, probably from the 15th or 16th century and a painting by Hieronymous Bosch: The Temptation of St Anthony. I didn’t know what to look at first! The Bosch wasn’t even protected by glass. You could see each tiny brush stroke. No photographs allowed of the painting so I tried to commit it all to memory. The demons hatching from rotten eggs, the half animal-half mechanical bird/fish. And there in the center was Anthony fixed solid and stable before an altar, surrounded by a fabulous fantastic landscape threatening to erupt into a nightmare.

The museum was also exhibiting a huge collection of amulets with an extended discussion of how devotional material can lapse into superstition. Very interesting. The crucial thing seems to be focusing on the “power” you are hoping for in the physical object hung around your neck. I guess the difference between their situation and ours is the reliance on blind, verifiable tests that either support or refute medical hypotheses. Such tests pretty conclusively undercut the medicinal properties of armadillo tails hung around your neck.

As we were crossing from one side of the museum to the other through the balcony, where Mozart’s organ was located, a soprano began singing “Panis Angelicum” (another Mass had begun after the concert). What a joy it must be to sing in such a space! I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to write music specifically for such a space and for such a organ.

We ate a lunch of sausage at the fountain hoping for another 15-minute bell concert. Not on Sunday, I guess. So we walked up to Stift Nonnberg convent (where Maria von Trapp was going to be a nun) and looked out over the south side of Salzburg. It looked as large as the northern “old city.” Who knew it was even there?

Came back down the never-ending flights of stairs, crossed over the river on a footbridge, and walked up the never-ending flights of stairs to visit the Franciscan Monastery and churches over there. The monastery was a bust. They wouldn’t let us in to look around, but we got plenty of exercise. And there were fascinating cemeteries with skulls everywhere, some of the graffiti artists seem to be just as interested in these memento mori. The Loretto church was quiet and peaceful with a lovely vesper service going on. I can see why so many people want to get out of the bustle and just relax there.

Back at the room we got ready for the opera. The only tickets we could afford were up in the nose-bleed section and they cost us €40 each (about $50 a piece). With each flight of stairs an usher would look at our tickets and say, “yes again,” and up we would go. Finally, when we ran out of stairs and lightheaded from the altitude a pretty little usher motioned for us to tip-toe single file out onto a gang plank with chairs. They laughingly called it a balcony.

Then Riccardo Muti made his way briskly through the orchestra, briefly acknowledged the applause, and launched into “Betulia Liberata,” written when Mozart was just 15 years old. It is the story of Judith giving Holofernes a very close shave (if you know what I mean) and thus lifting the siege of Betulia and liberating the Jews who would otherwise have been enslaved.

The most famous part of the opera is the recitative that takes place between Osias, the leader of the Jews, who argues that they should wait for this God to rescue them with a miracle, and Achior, Prince of the Ammonites who admires the God of the Hebrews but can’t see a reason to give up his traditional gods. Their discussion waxes philosophical and they try to prove that in a world of causes there has to be one un-caused cause that everyone acknowledges as God. And if there are any gods, there must be only one of them - creator of all the created things - and without any imperfections.

Mozart didn’t write the libretto, but did condense the speeches and eliminated all but the essential line of the argument. A wonderful elderly lady named Mrs. Sommerfield, who was staying at the same guest house as we were, told me with tears in her eyes that his were the finest sentences ever written in German. But more about that conversation later.

In the performance itself, though the music was glorious the wordiness made the whole opera seem kind of “preachy” to me. The high point, of course, is Holofernes losing his head over Judith, and we didn’t even get to see that. We only heard it talked about. I’m not surprised it’s not performed often.

But still, there are issues that haunt me: “Fear is lack of faith in divine mercy.” And the women plead that it is better to surrender immediately and hope for mercy from Holofernes, than endure the siege and hope for deliverance from God. Is that true? Osiras tries to find a compromise: “We’ll give God five days to work a miracle.” Judith, our heroine, reams out both positions: One shows a lack of faith and the other shows arrogance, putting God to the test. It’s better to pray and listen for God’s instructions than follow either horn of the dilemma. I think I could hear where Mozart’s heart was in the matter. I’m not sure where my heart is in the matter.

After the opera we stopped for delicious ginger ale and French fries with a schnitzel sandwich at a little food kiosk in the square. Yum Yum. Crash!

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