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I must sit inside my open-air house, be sifted by silence, and listen. I will return later.

Use of the old revitalizes the new, a truism exemplified in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G Major (1900). Like his peers, he discovered collections of centuries-old German folklore and reworked significant ones for voice and orchestra. One of those collections was Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1805) collated by the Romantic authors, Achim von Arim and Clemens Bretano.

From this classic, Mahler selected the poem, Child’s Vision of Heaven/Das himmilsche Lebe. He incorporatedits four verses, by intervals, within the fourth movement of his Fourth Symphony. The soprano’s lilting playfulness always brought smiles to audiences and referenced similar patterns in preceding movements: The result was an hour of music that intrigued psyches and enlarged humdrum worlds.

This always has been my experience with Mahler’s Fourth, both in symphony halls and YouTube. Yet my unfamiliarity with the German language prompted me to look up Das himmilsche Lebe and imagine that rustic world of past ages when Christianity was shared.

The poem reflects the simple, unadorned faith, simplicity, and joy of children, just in from the fields, gathered around the itinerant storyteller beneath the sprawling oak.

Critical to their sense of heaven is the heavenly vegetable patch: good greens of every sort, good apples, good pears, and good grapes…The abundance of fish, fowls, lambs, and wine suggests the satisfaction of full bellies, accompanied by bread that Saint Martha and the angels make. Overseeing this harmony are other saints Peter, John, Luke, and the martyr Ursula, reputed from Cologne, Germany. In that world, whenever it was, such listeners thrived until the arrival of the next storyteller.

In the poem, Das himmilsche Lebe, all is indeed very well. Mahler’s arrangement for soprano provides inexplicable joy to the score—Such is the Kingdom of heaven. 

Today’s observance of Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Instead of Christians receiving ashes traced upon their foreheads in the sign of the cross, the priest will sprinkle ashes on their heads while admonishing those gathered, Remember, that thou art dust and into dust shalt thou return. Since I’m moving ever closer to that dust, I wonder how the austerities of Lent originated. During my long life, significant changes occurred in 1963, with the publication of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Even lesser austerities are practiced today.

Research reveals that in 321 AD, the Council of Nicaea promulgated the practice of Lent for the universal Church. And St. Jerome (d. 420) and the church historian Socrates (d. 433) also assumed the apostolic institution of the forty days of fasting before the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

Further research into this question over ensuing centuries, however, reflects conflicts: the length of the fast, whether to fast on Saturdays and Sundays, amounts of food, when to eat, what to eat, where to fast—culminating in councils and official decrees filling libraries.

Such reveal the woeful grasp of the instinctual world of our humanness and of Jesus’s Kingdom living—found in the Eight Beatitudes, as well as in the Twelve Steps. Practicing any of them deflates egos and promotes humility and obedience of heart, antidotes for the Covid-19 scourge and for so much more. Such flowerings do occur, even during Lent, itself derived from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, meaning “Spring.” So no need to give up anything, instead, receive graced direction. It’s always there…

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