The Way of BeautyCatholic Education IV: Grace under Pressure

Catholic education is pedagogy of values and principles that prompt our students to aim high for excellence.  It also prepares them for inevitable setbacks that come to all of us. Hardships and even tragedies always surprise, they bewilder, and seem undeserved, especially when they befall children. 

Where Grace under Pressure Abounds  

Grace under pressure can form part of this week's lessons of inspiring narratives. The attacks on Sept. 11th, 2001 saw police, firefighters, and first responders help thousands escape death even while thousands were perishing in horrific manner.  

Today is the feast of St. Peter Claver (16th-17th c), the Spanish Jesuit missionary who befriended slaves and became their patron.  He is the patron of the Republic of Columbia and of African-Americans.

As of this week, Pope Francis has urged the European Church and the Vatican itself to take in desperate migrant families in preparation for the Year of Mercy. 

Grace under pressure.

Ludwig vanBeethoven 

By all predictions, Beethoven should have grown into a bitter and even destructive misanthrope. Instead he is a universal and shining example of courage.

Born in 1770 into a lower-class dysfunctional German family with an alcoholic and abusive father and a sickly mother, his future held little promise. As the oldest of three boys, he supported the family by working at musical odd jobs.  Having been deprived of even a basic education, he never learned to spell or write legibly. 

Deafness Shatters a Promising Public Career 

A remarkable pianist, Beethoven began to attract the Viennese aristocracy.  At twenty-nine, he was winning their respect and was on the road to success.  What more could he want?  The year 1801 however marked the onslaught of deafness, and its inexorable progress accelerated a profound inner struggle. The years from 1815 to his death in 1827 were spent in virtual isolation.  He communicated by scribbling on notepads.  Deafness, a symbol of universal loneliness, became his constant companion.  

The Five Stages of Loss

In her book, On Death and Dying, the Swiss physician, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, identifies five stages of loss experienced by terminally-ill cancer patients:  denial and isolation, anger and rage, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Amazingly, these stages are found among Beethoven's 400 personal letters, written more than a century before Kübler-Ross' publication in 1960. 

In 1801, writing to his physician-friend, Franz Wegeler, Beethoven expresses the five stages in one long letter: "For the last three years, my hearing has become weaker and weaker, and for almost two years, I have ceased to attend any social function just because I find it impossible to say to people, 'I am deaf.' I beg you not to say anything about my condition to anyone:  I am only telling you this as a secret.  Heaven alone knows what is to become of me.  Already I have cursed my Creator and my existence.  . . . I will bid defiance to my fate . . . .  We must wait and see whether my hearing can be restored.  O how happy should I be now if I had perfect hearing.  Sad resignation to which I am forced to have recourse!  I will seize fate by the throat!" 

To his pupil, Countess Josephine Deym:  A private grief has robbed me of my usual intense energy. . . . For a long period, a certain event made me despair of ever achieving any happiness during my life on this earth, but now things are no longer so bad.  I have won your heart. (Isolation, depression and bargaining, joy through suffering).  

To a personal friend, Countess Anna Marie Erdödy: "We finite beings who are the embodiment of an infinite spirit, are born to suffer both pain and joy; and one might almost say that the best of us obtain joy through suffering."  

To the Archduke Rudolph of Austria, Beethoven is more candid:  "Notwithstanding my healthy appearance, I have, all this time, been really ill and suffering from a nervous breakdown. (Depression) 

More in The Way of Beauty

On March 14th, 1827, Beethoven wrote his last letter to Ignaz Moscheles, pianist, conductor, and composer. In it, Beethoven's struggle to cope with his deafness is integrated with resignation and acceptance:  "On the 27th of February, I underwent the 4th operation and there are visible symptoms that I shall have to suffer a fifth.  What does it tend to, and what will become of me if it continues for some time longer?  A hard lot, indeed, has fallen on me!  However, I submit to the will of fate and only pray to God so to ordain it in His will that I may be protected from want as long as I have to endure death in life.  This will give me strength to bear my lot, however terrible it may be, with humble submission to the will of the Most High.   . . . I remain with greatest respect ever, 

Your friend, 

L. van Beethoven."

Beethoven died from a liver disease on March 26th, 1827.  His burial took place at St. Stephan's Cathedral in Vienna where his "Miserere," written in 1812 for All Souls' Day, was performed.  Thousands attended his funeral. 

Female Companionship

If men of genius delight in warm and lasting friendships with women of superior minds and culture, Beethoven was no exception to this rule.  Yet he never married.  His deafness, his unattractive, pock-pitted face, his uncouthness, careless attire, and the rigid class distinction, dashed his hopes of ever marrying. The fascinating narrative of Beethoven's "immortal Beloved" is a story for another time.

Beethoven's Spiritual Development through Suffering  

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Beethoven spared no human effort to restore his hearing. Though cursing his fate, he relied on Providence for inner strength to cope with his cruel hardship. His creative process was the result of intense inner conflict and of great powers of concentration. It was his personality and indomitable will that drove him to speak, and with his great gift of music, forever changed the course of music history.

The Beethoven of the Fifth Symphony (1807-08) achieves meaning in life despite suffering.  Suffering is an enemy to be defied.  The famous first movement in C Minor pounds out 'I will overcome,' but the final C Major movement, the key of victory, proclaims 'I have overcome!'   The worst was yet to come.

The Mature Beethoven: the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, String Quartet, Op. 135

Beethoven's last period (1815-27) is marked not only by isolation but by intense creativity as well. Some scholars refer to this last period as mystical.  If the Fifth Symphony (Op 67) finds meaning in life despite suffering, the Ninth Symphony (Op 125) discovers meaning through suffering.  Suffering becomes enlightenment.  

In the final movement, "To Joy," Beethoven unites himself with the universal human family, children of a heavenly Father.  The refrain of the text, written by Frederick Schiller reads:  Alle menschen werden Bruder wo dein sanfter Flügel weit, (All men shall be brothers under your protective wing). Shouts of freu/Freude/Freunde, joy and friendship convey his inner joy.  The phrase, mit Gott (with God), climbs to the heights in a vision of God.  

At the conclusion of the premier, the audience stood to give Beethoven a rousing ovation.  Though he had kept the rhythm going throughout with an assistant at his side, his back was to the audience.  He couldn't hear the thunderous applause.  The leading soprano stepped down, led him to the edge of the stage where he could see for himself. The tears in his eyes said it all!

Missa Solemnis

The Missa Solemnis (Op 123) is a work of intense subjectivity in which Beethoven proclaims the meaning of the Mass texts.  He pours himself out in the word Credo.    In his apartment, in order to feel the rhythm of the first text-word, the totally deaf composer repeatedly stomped his feet to the rhythm of Cre-do, Cre-do, Cre-do, Cre-do represented here by long and short lines  (______  __, ______  __,  ______  __, ______  __ ).  His furious landlady could not have imagined that the pounding above her declared this man's protestation of naked faith in God:  I believe, I believe. Another touching anecdote. Grace  under pressure.

Beethoven's Final Composition: the String Quartet, Number 27, Op. 135

On October 30, 1826, Beethoven writes to his publisher, Maurice Schlesinger: "Here, my dear friend, is my last quartet.  Indeed, it has given me much trouble, for I could not bring myself to compose the last movement.  In the end, I decided to compose it.  And that is the reason why I have written the motto:  Der schwer gefasste Entschluss! [The decision taken with difficulty.]. 

At the end of his life, Beethoven expressed his state of soul when composing his last string quartet.  He wrestles with two themes, a question-'must it be/did it have to be,' and a response-'it must be/it had to be.' [Muss es sein? and Es muss sein!].  

What was it that had to be?  Beethoven's living death recalls the response of the risen Jesus to the two disciples at Emmaus, "Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer before entering into his glory" (Lk 24:26)?  

The question is composed in such a way as to grate on the ear and to sound ugly.  In fact, it screams with pain.  The response has a rhythmic lilt to it.   It skips. 

In the middle section, Beethoven inserts conflict between question and response.  'Must it be/did it have to be' locks horns with 'It must be/it had to be.'  Death threatens to vanquish life.  

In the end, the response reappears with determination and vigor. The throbbing heart rejoices with Beethoven. Es muss sein! skips all the way to the finale of the final movement of his final composition.  In the end, Beethoven is transported to the pinnacle of glory.  

Beethoven and the Comic Strip "Peanuts"

Beethoven's life has provided raw material for cartoonists.  In the comic strip, "Peanuts," Lucy presses Schroeder, "I'm looking for the answer to life." He shouts back, "Beethoven, clear and simple! Do you understand? Beethoven!" 

The cartoon "Dr. Helmholtz" is convinced that "there is more truth in a single Beethoven string quartet than in an entire encyclopedia of philosophy!"  In 1977, a recording of the fifth movement of the string quartet, Opus 130, with its deeply expressive sounds, was rocketed into outer space with the two unmanned Voyager probes.


Beethoven's Catholicism expresses itself in one man's view of universally-held beliefs: the inalienable dignity of men and women, their filial devotion to God's Providence, acceptance, and even joy in the face of suffering, and finally, inner peace. When the first sounds of the new millennium began to ring out in the Far East and across the continents, it was Beethoven's ode "To Joy" that pealed majestically to a world in need of hope, but not of this world. 

It's the age-old wonder-grace under pressure. 

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