15 February 2011

Life in Sonata Form, On Hermits, Horaria, and the Freedom of Limits

During the podcast I did for A Nun's Life recently, Sister Maxine noted that the way my day was divided, especially knowing I was a violinist, sounded a bit like movements in music. I agreed it did seem a bit like a sonata form, and I have had some time to think about this aspect of my horarium. Probably some of the impulse to do that was provided by a question Sister Julie asked about the structure of my day, my schedule or horarium, and what it provided besides the discipline per se. As I recall (for I have not yet had the courage to listen to the podcast!) my answer had something to do with not functioning well without the structure. But, of course, this is only a piece of the answer --- the tiny (and negative) tip of the real and far more positive truth. It was Sister Maxine's comment about movements that has helped me come to a bit greater clarity more generally on what my horarium as horarium provides --- and what such limits more generally really make possible.

Sonata Form and Creative Freedom

Generally (and very simplistically) sonata form is a classical form of music in three movements. The first movement (exposition) is dedicated to the basic themes of the rest of the piece. There is variation, exposition in various related keys, etc, but this is the movement where the basic musical thematic and harmonic material is presented. The second movement is also known as the development. Here the composer develops or explores the music laid out in the exposition. The material remains tied to the exposition but the exploration can be far ranging both thematically and harmonically and one may not be able to easily hear the relation of this material to that of the exposition. Sometimes it is a rhythmic motif that carries through in a recognizable way (think of the first four notes of Beethoven's fifth symphony. The "dot dot dot dash" rhythm is one basis of the development.) The third movement is one of recapitulation and it is here that the thematic and harmonic explorations, the tensions and conflicts which developed during the development movement, etc, are resolved.

There are all kind of limits and requirements intrinsic to the form but what remains true is that this form allows for tremendous freedom in exploring the thematic and harmonic possibilities of what may, by themselves, be very simple themes or motifs. At the same time it is not a question of "anything goes". There is coherence and consistency, not only because of the external structure per se, but because this structure allows for the space and time in which the original themes may be explored and developed musically while constraining the composer to do so in a way which maintains thematic and harmonic integrity as well as in a way which allows listeners to hear and appreciate that this is precisely what she is doing. We do not all have the skills, imagination, or vocation to compose and explore thematic material (music) in this way, but we can share in the experience because of the way a composer exercises these things. The constraints of sonata-allegro form, for instance, serve the freedom of the musician. They define limits in ways which challenge the imagination, require substantial musical knowledge and skill, and generally guide the composer to explore the limits of her own capabilities.

Horarium and Human Freedom

So too does the horarium of the hermit allow the hermit to explore the limits of her own capabilities. And this is the key to understanding the positive and more substantial truth of the reason I need a horarium. It is entirely true that I don't function well, and that my life goes off the rails pretty quickly without one. But what is also the case is that without the space and time its constraints provide, I fail to live my life. While I may do many things during the hours of days I am not following a horarium, I may well not actually be living the life I am called and covenanted to live. Doing things (even pious things!) and filling space with these is not necessarily the same as living one's life.

As I have noted before, a schedule is one piece of the constraints which create the "laboratory" -- or perhaps, better, the studio -- in which my life is composed, and especially, where God is given the space and time to work with and within me in special ways with my conscious cooperation. As we all know, it is possible to fill our lives with all kinds of activities. Much of the time they may well be significant activities which serve others, but even then, they may not be part of the life we are called or covenanted to live.

In a related way, then, the schedule reminds me of and calls me back to the priorities which mark my life. In a negative sense it reminds me, for instance, that I am not an apostolic religious, but also that I am not free to do whatever I want whenever I want. More positively it reminds me that if my life is to be the magnificat God wills it to be, the essential themes, rhythms, and harmonies that are fundamental to it must form a regular part of things. More specifically, my "sonata-form schedule" works because it allows a dedicated period from 4:00am to 12:00 noon or 1:00 pm for the very basic elements of a prayerful life. This is the foundational part of everything else that happens during a day. In the afternoons I "develop," or perhaps better, allow God to develop these fundamental elements during the activities of everyday life, work with clients, errands, study, occasional time with friends, etc, and in the evenings, there is a conscious return to the fundamental themes again with journaling, quiet prayer, a brief lectio, and Compline.

When "life" intervenes: a parishioner who needs to talk, illness, a doctor's appointment, an errand which requires depending on another for transportation when it is convenient for them, and so forth, the horarium allows me to interrupt or postpone the present "movement" and do what is genuinely needed. However, it also allows me to step back into the day at another point and move forward from there. More, it reminds me I must do this if I am not to altogether lose myself and the composition God seeks me to become. The horarium anchors all I do; it embodies values and activities which are the source of life for me, and continually summons me back to myself and to these sources. At the same time it allows flexibility precisely because it serves authenticity, charity, and those other values which are part of life in fullness. Once again, the horarium serves and promotes authentic freedom --- and that is all about helping empower me to be the person I am called to be.