September 24th – Steve Jungkeit – with audio
Texts: Psalm 121; Matthew 16: 13-20
A Song of Ascent
What Plato is to philosophy, what the Sistine chapel is to painting, what Shakespeare is to drama, what Tolstoy is to the novel, what the Beatles and Dylan are to rock and roll, Mozart’s Don Giovanni is to opera. It belongs to the immortals. It belongs in the pantheon of the best that has been written or composed or thought in human life. Goethe wrote to his friend Schiller that it was a singular achievement, never to be repeated in the history of opera. The composer Charles Gounod spoke of Don Giovanni as “that unequalled and immortal masterpiece,” and he let it be known that the opera had, for him, thrown open the gates of heaven. For Pierre Jouve, the French poet and novelist, Mozart’s opera “ascended to the highest plane of revealed truth, the threshold of the world beyond.”
Theological writers have joined that chorus of praise over the years. Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians in the 20th century, listened to Mozart every day before beginning to write volumes of theology. Of Mozart, Barth wrote: “(He) created music for which ‘beautiful’ is an inadequate expression; music which is not entertainment, nor pleasure, nor edification, but flesh and blood.” Don Giovanni stood at the summit of Mozart’s creative output. But it was Soren Kierkegaard, nearly a hundred years before Barth, who wrote the most impassioned and rapturous praise for Mozart in general, and for Don Giovanni in particular. “Immortal Mozart,” he writes. “You to whom I owe everything—to whom I owe that I lost my mind, that my soul was astounded, that I was terrified at the core of my being—you to whom I owe that I did not go through life without encountering something that could shake me.” Kierkegaard went on to devote more than a hundred pages of writing to Don Giovanni in his philosophical and theological masterpiece, Either/Or. Those pages rank as one of the most powerful pieces of music criticism ever written. They stand as one of the most important theological treatises of modernity.
It’s our great good fortune that Salt Marsh Opera is starting a run of performances of Don Giovanni in the next several weeks. And it’s our great good fortune to welcome Adelmo Guidarelli to our service this morning, and to be able to hear a small fragment of the opera in our worship. You could do well to meditate on Don Giovanni in this particular moment of American, and indeed, world history. You could do well to meditate on all that Kierkegaard writes about the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure in his reflections on the opera. But more than that, you could do well to think about such things on a Sunday given over to questions of stewardship, which is to say, to questions about what it is we actually value and love as human beings. My wager this morning is that Don Giovanni is the perfect entryway into questions of eros and desire, love and meaning, God and life.
But first, a brief word about the opera itself. It is, of course, a retelling of the legend of Don Juan, drawn from source material dating from the early 17th century. The Don is a wealthy aristocrat, wholly devoted to the pursuit of erotic pleasure. His life is centered around seduction and erotic conquest. Early in the opera, in the piece we heard earlier, Giovanni’s servant Leporello enumerates Giovanni’s conquests. “This is the catalogue,” Leporello sings: “640 women and girls in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but in Spain 1003.” Yikes. The plot itself centers around a murder that takes place as Giovanni is attempting to seduce a young woman. When her father appears, Giovanni kills him with a sword, and then escapes into the night, in search of further adventures in seduction. Shortly after that, he seeks to disrupt the wedding of a young couple in the countryside, attempting to lure the soon to be bride into his embrace. But even as Giovanni pursues his conquests, those he has hurt unite to stop him from creating further damage. It is, finally, the ghost of the murdered man who intervenes, appearing at a banquet feast to drag an unrepentant Giovanni into the fires of hell.
In truth, however, it’s not the plot or the libretto that has proven fascinating over the years. It’s the music, combined with the spectacle of a man wholly immersed in the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure that has captivated audiences, critics, and philosophers. And here, Kierkegaard becomes especially insightful. For Kierkegaard, Giovanni isn’t simply a rake or a libertine who deserves to be punished, though he is most certainly both of those things. Giovanni is, rather, a failed existential hero, on a doomed quest in pursuit of the absolute. He becomes a symbol of the person wishing to be consumed by immediacy, wishing to be immersed in the eternal present, wishing to become lost in a moment of ecstatic rapture. For Kierkegaard, Giovanni isn’t merely a figure of vanity or sexual addiction. He becomes a figure for the person wishing to become totally and fully immersed in an experience of beauty. It could be the beauty of another body, or of a piece of music, it could be the beauty of a painting, or a piece of architecture – it could be immersion within anything that heightens human awareness and desire. What makes Mozart so thrilling to Kierkegaard is that he created a fully immersive piece of music that demonstrates that truth, creating an aesthetic experience for the listener and viewer that mirrors the aesthetic immersion of Giovanni. To submit to the opera is to yield to that experience of sublime beauty.
For most people today, it’s not opera that produces such an experience, though it might be if more people bought tickets to Salt Marsh. To judge by the style section of The New York Times, these days ecstatic experience is often sought in travel, or a fussy meal, or an article of clothing or jewelry. If you’ve ever scrolled through someone’s Instagram account, you’ve likely encountered a version of Giovanni’s quest in the pictures of meals or clothing or exotic destinations or drinks or beautiful bodies or urban splendor, all of it testifying to that desire Giovanni represents, which isn’t finally for sex, but for immediacy, for ecstasy, for an eternal present. To read the style section of the Times, to scroll through Instagram, suggests a Giovannian quest for immersion in an aesthetic experience is alive and well for many of us today.
That quest for beauty and fulfillment is a noble one, up to a point. For Kierkegaard, Giovanni becomes a demonic figure only because his quest turns in upon itself. What begins as something inherently good becomes an experience of consumption and waste, where beautiful experiences are simply tallied up, and then discarded. Instead of opening to a greater, or a wider sense of communion, Giovanni’s quest collapses into the fleeting pursuit of the interesting, the titillating, the thrilling. Giovanni’s greatest fear isn’t death, but boredom. The threat of punishment or retribution is far less compelling than the threat of the dull or uninteresting. Giovanni thus becomes an inverted saint, a distorted apostle, a disfigured prophet who fails so completely only because his quest was itself so nearly divine.
What I find compelling about Don Giovanni, and about Kierkegaard’s analysis of him, is how contemporary Giovanni feels, how close he remains, even 230 years later. He is, in a way, the ultimate representation of the individual in the throes of consumer capitalism. Giovanni ultimately becomes a man without weight, without substance, without depth. His only special quality is a greater or lesser discrimination of what he wishes to enjoy. His life’s theme is a simple one: carpe diem, seize the day, enjoy oneself. But he is unreflective, uncomplicated, unattached to anything or anyone beyond himself. He knows nothing of struggle. He confronts nothing of substance within himself or the world around him. He knows nothing of the weight of decision, of having to stake one’s life on a truth or a reality greater than himself or his own vanity or his quest for personal fulfillment. We can all probably supply the names of those who conform best to that description. I’ll leave it to you to supply your own. But what makes Giovanni so captivating for me is less the way he resembles other people, but rather how he resembles a dimension of every human being, latent within some, manifest within others. What makes him captivating is how we can recognize portions of ourselves within his tragic quest. I know I do. There is a little of Don Giovanni living in my soul, just as there is, perhaps, a little of Don Giovanni living in you. But I think there’s something more within us as well.
And here I think religion becomes helpful. We do long for beauty. We do wish to experience ecstasy. We do yearn for immersive and total experiences in which time stops, if just for a moment. We are shaped by a desire for rapture and transport. But absent some sort of attachment or commitment to something outside of ourselves, to something greater than ourselves, we become little Giovannis, tossed about by every wind, chasing this or that teasing fancy. In so doing, we become insubstantial. That’s why Kierkegaard describes an ever steeper ascent into beauty, where a desire for the aesthetic eventually gives way to a desire for the ethical, and where a desire for the ethical eventually gives way to a desire for the transcendent, which we dare to name God. To become fully human, to become fully alive, on this account, requires each of us to say yes to something bigger than we are, to commit to something larger than the pursuit of this or that pleasure. To become fully alive, we’re asked to root ourselves in the concrete particularities of this or that relationship, this or that vocation, this or that struggle. To become fully human and fully alive is to have to work at something, to invest yourself in something, to attach your energies to something worthy of your attachment. For Kierkegaard, and for many others far wiser than me, to become fully human and alive is to exist on a ladder of ascent, where we’re little by little invited out of ourselves, out of our individualistic pursuits and pleasures, and into a greater and wider experience of the world. To become fully human and alive is to encounter ourselves not simply as pleasure centers in search of aesthetic adventures, but to encounter ourselves as dependent – dependent upon the kindness of strangers, dependent upon the relationships that sustain us, dependent upon meaningful work and activities to keep us grounded, dependent upon the institutions and traditions that form us, dependent upon art and culture to articulate our depths, dependent upon the natural world for air and shelter and water, dependent upon faith, upon God, to nourish our spirits. To become fully human and alive is to experience oneself in a state not of independence, but of interdependence. At its best, the experience of beauty leads us to form greater and deeper bonds of attachment and affection that make us interdependent.
I’ve entitled this sermon after a series of Psalms that begins with Psalm 120 and continues up to Psalm 134. They’re called the Songs of Ascent. They’re poems that were recited or sung as pilgrims traveled up to Jerusalem during holy days – if you’ve ever traveled to Jerusalem with us on one of our Tree of Life trips, you know that on the way to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, the road takes a sharp incline, for Jerusalem is built upon high ground. “I lift up mine eyes to the hills,” Psalm 121 begins, and we can imagine ancient travelers reciting those words as they made their way through the hills that lead toward Jerusalem. I think we need songs of ascent, of the sort the Psalmists celebrated, but also of the sort that Kierkegaard outlined in his philosophy. In this era that seems to celebrate the Don Giovannis of the world, where humans are simply bundles of appetites, where individuality is prized above all else, where isolation and loneliness seem to be of pandemic proportion, where cynicism about public service or about institutions of any kind is all too easy to succumb to – in such an era, I’m interested in visions that allow us to ascend toward something larger than our appetites. We need it in our political leaders. We need it among civic organizations at all levels. We need it in our universities, in our high schools and middle schools and elementary schools. We need it in businesses and corporations, and God only knows that we need it in our religious institutions. I’m amazed sometimes at the way religion has been privatized, so that Christianity becomes a matter of me and Jesus and nothing else. That’s one more way of turning us all into little Don Giovannis, absorbed in a private experience of bliss. That’s not the Christianity I believe in, or belong to. I believe in a gospel that leads us in a song of ascent, moving us toward ever greater and wider visions of God and of the world than ourselves alone.
That’s why I continue to believe in this thing called church. And it’s why I continue to believe not only in some abstract vision of a thing called church, but in the particularity of this community, of our community here in Old Lyme. It’s why I believe the work we do around here matters in a very real way. The work we do with refugees and immigrants, the relationships we build with our Muslim neighbors, these things matter, because they remind us of the beauty of our interdependence with one another. The food we serve in the food pantry and at the New London soup kitchen, these things matter, because they remind us of the beauty of our interdependence with one another. The journeys we make to Palestine or to Haiti or to Green Grass matter, because they remind us of the beauty of our interdependence with one another. The prayers that we pray and the songs that we sing matter, because they remind us of that beautiful truth, that we are dependent upon realities that far exceed our comprehension. And the money we give, the money we give, matters. That too is an expression of beauty, a demonstration that we are not our own, that we exist in ever widening spheres of connection and grace, of love and support. This church, this community, is a reminder in a world of Giovannis that there exist dimensions of beauty and of life that call us to ascend beyond ourselves, into a wider world of connection and interdependence. I don’t know that we do it perfectly. I don’t know that we always even do it well. But I believe that’s a vision worth dedicating yourself to. I believe this is a place worth being a part of, worth giving yourself to.
When you receive your pledge card in the mail, I invite you to sit with it for a little bit. I invite you to reflect upon what it is that calls you out of yourself, what it is that leads you in a song of ascent, what it is that helps you to become more connected and interdependent, more gracious and whole, more fully alive and fully human within the world. And I invite you to consider giving some of your time or your money to whatever that something is. I hope you have such places in your life. And I hope our church is among them. If it is, consider giving generously. If it’s not, then I invite you to come and find me, and share how we can do better. Because this is a song of ascent that I wish to keep learning, a vision that I wish to keep perfecting, lest we all become little Giovannis in the world. We don’t need any more of those right now. And so I think it’s worth it to make this ascent together.
Oh, and one last thing: when Don Giovanni takes the stage in another couple of weeks, go see it. Absorb yourself in the performance of one of the wonders of human expression and creativity. Enjoy it in all its splendor. May it help to shape your own song of ascent through the world. Amen.
 Quotes in the following two paragraphs taken from Naugle, David, “Søren Kierkegaard’s Interpretation of Mozart’s Opera Don Giovanni : An Appraisal and Theological Response,” http://www3.dbu.edu/naugle/pdf/kierkegaard_dongiovanni.pdf