The National Catholic Review
Robert P. Imbelli

One finds in theological circles frequent appeal to the “sacramental imagination” as a distinguishing trait of Catholicism. Like all truths when unimaginatively intoned, it quickly becomes platitudinous. The Rev. M. Owen Lee’s finely crafted and deeply moving memoir never invokes the phrase. Yet his book is redolent with an imagination that is comprehensively catholic and profoundly sacramental. A Book of Hours explores human imagination’s heights and depths.

Father Lee, a Basilian priest, is professor emeritus of classics at the University of Toronto. He is also a nationally known expert on opera, who has been featured for many years as a guest on the Opera Quiz portion of the weekly broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Both these passions, for the literature of Greece and Rome and the operas of Wagner and Verdi, enter seamlessly into this memoir of a year spent teaching American students in Rome in the mid-1970’s.

And teaching is clearly Father Lee’s third passion. Poetry, opera, teaching—each deeply affective and affecting; each embodying an aspiration, an eros to communicate, to enter into communion. But they do so, of course, with a particularly acute awareness of time’s relentless rhythm and, ultimately, of human mortality. Each, in its way, bears close to its heart some intimation of the poignant, untranslatable sorrow of Virgil: Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt—which the poet C. Day Lewis renders: “tears in the nature of things; hearts touched by human transience.”

Lee is clearly a master teacher whose joy is to stimulate and liberate his students. His book offers wonderful, deeply pondered readings of the Iliad and the Aeneid: the fury of battle and the pathos of loss. One senses deep fondness for Horace and his odes, which hymn the commonplaces of feast and friendship, field and hearth: all the more prized, because ever fleeting. The poetry of the ancients comes tinged with the sadness of incompletion. And Horace’s defiant hope—non omnis moriar: “I shall not wholly die”—seems barely distinguishable from despair.

During the year, Lee breaks from the intensity of teaching by spending long idyllic weekends traveling by train to cities in Germany and Austria, Switzerland and Northern Italy to catch performances of operas familiar and less known. He recalls people met along the way, as well as at the opera, who leave an indelible impression, a store of memories he has treasured over the course of years.

The operas themselves sing in myriad keys and tongues of perennial and inexhaustible themes: love and betrayal, grief and plea for reconciliation. Otello and Desdemona, Tristan and Isolde, whatever their differences of race and language, are close kin: brothers and sisters of one blood. The soaring strains of Verdi and Wagner lift the hearer to heights of ecstasy, offering dim presentiments of a purer realm, only to fall prey to the ambiguity of a Liebestod, a love-death fueled by an eros yet unredeemed.

The ambiguity of ecstasy resounds like a leitmotif through Lee’s memoir. The eros that is the source of our most sublime creations also propels our most destructive hatreds. Lee sees the tension almost unbearably recapitulated in the Germany of his ancestors, and his beloved Wagner uniquely embodies the ambivalence. Evenings of enchantment at the opera vie with heart-rending reflections on the nightmare horrors of Dachau and Dresden, Götterdämmerung’s realization.

As if these ponderings were not sufficiently weighty for a person of rare artistic sensibility and moral integrity, an even more personal issue emerges for Lee in the course of the year. Midway through life, bound by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the priest feels constrained with new force. He begins a series of fervent aesthetic and intellectual exchanges with a particular student. The issue of fatherhood and family renounced in priesthood engages the author with devastating impact. How can promise be fulfilled without progeny? Suddenly poetry and opera seem to sing only of failure and the loss of what we yearn for and cherish most.

The resolution of Father Lee’s conflict is the spiritual heart of his book of hours. As ever, it is mediated by the wisdom of others, a costly wisdom gained through suffering. It can be lived only laboriously. Liberation comes through surrender to the One whose self-giving love transforms our eros with all its grandeur and misery.

“Sacramental imagination” is no facile phrase; it is realized at great price. For it entails metaphor’s metamorphosis, the transformation of hints and signs into sacrament. Human image-making must pass through the purifying, paschal fire, from which alone true eucharistic communion can arise. As T. S. Eliot insists: “The only hope, or else despair/ Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—/ To be redeemed from fire by fire.”

Owen Lee’s Book of Hours sings, ultimately, of God’s sacramental imagination. He chants a sacrificial liturgy for all seasons.

 

The Rev. Robert Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, teaches theology at Boston College.