Sunday, December 25, 2011

The True Story of The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyala, a Musical Christmas Play for Children (Monday, December 01, 2003)

When I was a youth in St. Peter's School, we had a number of memorable Christmas pageants. For example, when I was in seventh grade, we performed a charming musical entitled The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola which was based on the book of a similar name and implied authorship.

For this pageant in the winter of 1991, we were fortunate to have the composer on hand to direct and choreograph. His partner who had written the libretto was hospitalized with a case of motorcycle accident at the time, which sometimes caused our director stress. They were both in their mid twenties, and had written the play shortly before. It's hard to say whether the play was intended for children initially, but I'd say it came off well. Some minor alterations were made to the text; for example, in the song "Oh, What A Night," which is the story of the birth of Jesus, as related by a young boy who worked at the inn in Bethlehem where said Jesus was born. Specifically, a verse detailing his thoughts on witnessing the Virgin Mary's water breaking as she entered labor was excised.

To be frank, there were a lot of fairly "blood and thunder" tunes and themes throughout the play - after all, we were Catholics, and Catholicism is not a "fucking-around" kind of religion. I don't wish to offend any Protestant readers, but your religions are kind of half-assed and you guys nancy around when you could be really hardcore and screwed-up. Anyway, like I said, we were Catholics, so the play was completely terrifying.

One song that stands out as an example of "raw terror" on the wacky Catholic model is the great "Souls In Hell." To quote its lyrics briefly, "Down a fearsome, flaming chasm / Walls of roasting ectoplasm / Pain and torment racked me as a / Mighty blast impelled each spasm. ... A group of spirits in their misery / Wishing they could change their history / Taunting those who would soon join them / Reeling others in their mystery. ... [refrain] Souls in hell, I hear them crying / Out to me, in my bed lying / Please dear God, don't leave me frying / At the hour of my dying." Although this may not immediately seem like the most festive of holiday songs, we still had a lot of fun bellowing out the chorus, and it was generally a very fast, upbeat number. (Note that I use "upbeat" in a strictly musical sense.) The song does give you a good idea of the kind of thoughts that spun through Saint Ignatius' head, and the part about not being able to sleep because of the constant wailing of damned souls will be familiar to any Catholic.

I explained that this play was performed by children aged 5 to 13, right?

Anyway, the plot of the play, as I recall it, ran about thusly: a young woman, troubled in her life, goes to a retreat, where the spiritual exercises mentioned in the title and developed by Loyola are practiced. It opens with a tune including the groovy lyrics "Prayerful participation / Builds a strong spiritual nation / Meditation, medication / Physic for our restoration" and many others in a similar vein. The choreography accompanying this involved a lot of vigorous calisthenics, to provide a physical symbol of the kind of work that goes into exercising the soul. The song also explains the importance of bending yourself to God's will as soon as possible.

So, anyway, the girl arrives, and is given an overview of the camp. Then, to her surprise, she finds that her boyfriend has followed her to the retreat. She's sort of like, "Wow, man. I kind of wanted to get away from you for a little while, but this is also very sweet of you. But a question that we must resolve by the end of this narrative is whether you can come to understand my commitment to my God." And he's all like, "Whoa, these spiritual exercises are intriguing but really, really weird."

Then there are a few musical numbers explaining some of the themes explored by Loyola in his book, including the aforementioned "Souls In Hell" and "Oh What A Night." We also hear from some of the counselors about what brought them to serve in God's laic ministry at the camp. One of their songs opens "My eyes see the reds sing the blues all the time ... [a bunch of stuff I can't remember because I was not a huge pothead when I was eleven years old and the song did not totally make sense to me even though I liked it] ... but nothing sticks in my head ... [more lacunae in my memory - boy, I'm just like the guy in the song vis-a-vis things not sticking in my head] ... If feeling so, so good is a crime / Then arrest me till I am dead." Like I said, a lot of groovy stuff in this play.

Another song details the Fall, that is to say, Adam and Eve's unfortunate missteps in the Garden of Eden in regards to fruit. More progress is made in the young couple's relationship, although I forget what exactly happened at the end. It was good news, no matter what; they had both gotten stronger souls. The big closing number dealt with the Assumption, the Virgin Mary's ascension into Heaven, where she currently works administrating the saints. That's a very slow ballad, concerning the overwhelming love she feels for humanity as she surveys them from above. The song implies that Mary's Assumption involved her literally traveling vertically up from the surface of the Earth. That may sound odd to you - like, you might ask, "Don't most modern Christians, with the exception of some stray Fundamentalists, take ideas like Heaven's location being somewhere several dozens of miles above Earth as being symbolic?" The answer is no. Over the course of my Catholic grade school education, I had the luxury of being taught by a good many nuns, who were all quite old and insane, and they taught us a lot of important truths, like "Heaven is up there," "Let the Communion host dissolve on your tongue; if you bite it, Jesus will start bleeding in your mouth," and "You need to use 'Magenta' every time you color because it's my favorite color."

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